Friday, December 19, 2008

No cardigan required

One of the dissident readers of this blog has left an interesting comment under my most recent post about pseudo-history:

I thought poets were supposed to believe in the imagination? Hullo, we live in a barren boring age where there are too many facts: why do we need to make the past as boring as the present where there are no facts we can argue about!!? At least with prehistory we can let our imaginations 'run wild'. At least we can believe in visions of the past that are poetic and not the boring tracts of academics.

I am in favour of imagination not cardigan wearers.


The pseudo-historians who believe that Celts or Chinese or little green men were the first settlers of New Zealand sometimes accuse their critics of 'taking the mystery' out of the study of the past. If you listen to the likes of Martin Doutre and Kerry Bolton, then Kiwi historians, archaeologists, and museum curators are a bunch of killjoys, who want to substitute a dry, straightforward narrative of the past for the poetry and wonder of books like Ancient Celtic New Zealand and New Zealand's White Warrior Tribe.

But real history is always much more interesting than the counterfeit item which Doutre et al offer for sale. Where the works of pseudo-historians tend to rely on wild speculation and the sort of paranoid, racist rhetoric found on the far right throughout the world, the writings of trained scholars of the past are rich in detail, and are often tremendously suggestive. A very detailed historical narrative, or a quite technical write-up of an archaeological dig can throw up all sorts of intriguing questions, even as it rattles off facts and figures in dry, functional prose.

And it's not just facts but interpretations which can be a source of mystery and questioning: the basic outline of twentieth century New Zealand history, for instance, has a clarity which seventeenth century New Zealand history will never have, yet it raises just as many questions.

In a piece for Landfall last year, I discussed the debates which have raged over whether or not New Zealand came close to revolution during the Great Strike of 1913. During the strike workers and police fought gun battles on the streets of Wellington, a group of miners on the West Coast proclaimed the formation of a revolutionary government, and 'special policemen' - in reality, drunken farmers on horseback, armed with long batons - charged the picket lines that blocked access to the wharves of Auckland.

Commentators agree upon the basic facts pertaining to the violent confrontation between the 'Red' Federation of Labour and the right-wing Massey government, but they differ over whether the Federation's members were determined revolutionaries seeking to overthrow capitalism or moderates who sought only a better deal within the existing system.

Michael King always argued strenuously for the latter interpretation, insisting that the Federation's most radical leaders were born and bred overseas, and out of touch with the opinions of the average Kiwi worker. In his fine book Coal, Class and Community Len Richardson disagreed, and called 1913 a year of 'revolutionary turmoil'.

More recently, James Belich has also insisted that 1913 was a year of revolutionary convulsions. In his book Paradise Reforged, he even likened the Great Strike to the revolutions that shook Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918.

Like most scraps about the past, the debate over 1913 is of more than antiquarian interest.

The way we see our past helps determine the decisions we make about our future. If New Zealand's working class has never displayed the revolutionary qualities glimpsed in nations like Russia, Germany, and Venezuela, then local advocates of ideologies which look to workers to transform society seem to have a difficult task ahead of them.

On the other hand, if there really was a time when workers were at one with the slogans of the radical left, then one of the oldest rhetorical props of the social democratic left - the appeal to the moderate, commonsense nature of the 'average Kiwi worker' - is endangered. It is no coincidence that Michael King was a long-time member of the Labour Party, whereas Len Richardson is a long-time Marxist.

On the ninetieth anniversary of the Great Strike in 2003 the tensions between the positions represented by King and Richardson burst into the open in Auckland. When trade union leaders like Unite's Matt McCarten teamed up with police to commemorate the anniversary of the great battle between capital and labour many rank and file trade unionists were angered.

McCarten's critics felt that the brutal behaviour of the police during the strike, and the murder of Federation of Labour member Fred Evans a year earlier at Waihi, meant that a police presence at commemorations was inappropriate. More generally, they felt that trade union leaders should not be too chummy with the people who are charged with the state with protecting employers' property and - on occasion - breaking up workers' picket lines. Dissident members of Unite and other unions organised an angry picket of the commemoration. They produced a leaflet laying out their own interpretation of the events of 1913 and handed it to the union leaders and academics joining the police at the event.

Studying the past does not mean swallowing some imaginary academic orthodoxy: it means entering into a series of debates which are are still very much relevant. And, so far as I know, the cardigans are optional.

9 Comments:

Blogger maps said...

Here's another reason why the police can be considered fair-weather rather than genuine friends of trade unions - it's hard, after all, to get too chummy with people who are spying on you:

Workers may walk out over spy scandal
December 19, 2008, 2:04 pm
Maritime Union workers are considering walking off the job over the police spy scandal.

The union is one of several organisations named in emails about union actions sent by a police spy to a specialist investigation unit.

Maritime Union General Secretary Trevor Hanson says the union wants an apology and is considering seeking damages from police. He says workers will not allow their unions to be treated as criminal organisations by the State.

Mr Hanson calling for its branches to prepare for industrial action, unless they get a full apology and explanation.

3:00 pm  
Blogger Giovanni said...

"Visions of ther past that are poetic" is a very clever way of obfuscating wat the poetry is at the service of. The speculation is far from innocent, racist New Zealand needs its foundational myth and the primacy and genocide of the Celts aims to fulfil precisely that role. So whether or not it's one of those boring things - fact-based, true - matters more than just a bit.

Whether and to what extent NZ came close to a revolution in 1913 is also relevant - if not quite so necessary - for a present-day radical political project. For socialists of various hue to be able to look back and say this idea, this aspiration has a local history, is more than just a point of academic interest: it's a mandate from the past.

9:41 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A compelling instance which demonstrates just why these fanciful speculations about history matter is the Rwandan genocide of 1994 - the massacred Tutsi were thought of as "foriegn" because of racist ideas about historical origin which had been floating around since the colonial administration. (Europeans had thought that the taller Tutsi must have developed in Egypt or somewhere).

3:56 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

" Anonymous said...

A compelling instance which demonstrates just why these fanciful speculations about history matter is the Rwandan genocide of 1994 - the massacred Tutsi were thought of as "foreign" because of racist ideas about historical origin which had been floating around since the colonial administration. (Europeans had thought that the taller Tutsi must have developed in Egypt or somewhere)."

Yes. Can be - but not always... There is or are areas where fanciful speculation is harmless - as long as it is not presented as facts. I used to read (and very much enjoyed Thor Heyerdahl's books as a teenager) - nowhere does he really say that Europeans are "superior" but when I did Anthropology at Auck Uni we were banned from mentioning him at all - this was a stage one paper I did some years ago - that was perhaps wrong.

It is better to dispute these matters rationally - the trouble with the Celtic twilight people is they start to download it all as factual -

The Nobel prize winning Irish poet Yeats's "rebelled" from his father who was a socialist and thus he rebelled from atheism etc (altho perhaps atheism isn't necessarily requisite for one to be a socialist); in any case Yeats "rebelled" as a young man from his father's strong materialistic views - this was probably harmless enough and his strange theories of cycles of history etc and numerology or whatever became a part of his poetry - this provided structure and some mystery - a kind of Eliotic "objective correlative" - but Yeats also drifted into eugenics and so on.

Still his poetry is beautiful and important to our culture - poetry and literature can 'walk into' those strange rooms as most people don't take it all on board...

Nietzshe (I can never spell his name properly) was misinterpreted - in fact he fell out with Wagner because of Wagner's anti Semitism - and later his sister provided his writings to the Nazis who distorted them - but I feel we need these strange writers - (I loved reading Thus Spake Zarathrustra and also I love Wagner's music - especially the part where the Dwarf Alberich is making the Rhinemaidens forge the gold ring - I love that music in the Ring ) Neitszche, Heidegger and so on - in fact - in certain lights Marx's views can look pretty dodgy.

It is good Maps keeps us on the ball but I think most of it is pretty harmless as there are so many viewpoints on history - what we need is better information but we also need to allow the Thor Heyerdahls etc their say...

In Rawanda etc it will take a long time - people always find someone to hate some other group - it is because we are basically - perhaps even genetically - programed to be xenophobic and it is also probably a major historical cause of wars.

On a small scale even a Maori tribe would slaughter some other tribe to increase there power (increase the gene pool) etc - this probably typical of what has happened for many thousands of years...we are just not that "civilised" - we don't like too many facts! We select.

Against that - Yeats also wrote - "The heart fed on fantasy's grown brutal from the fare" and so on.


It is a complex world...

1:02 am  
Blogger Edward said...

Hi Richard,
just thought i'd let you know they do mention Thor Heyerdahl in University, at least now they do. His work came up in at least two undergraduate (2nd year) papers on NZ archaeology when we were looking at theories about migration, so i'm not sure why they would have taken such an attitude to him when you were at uni. His work was important because when one studdies a subject you need all of the background context, what theories worked what theories didn't etc. His theory has now been prooved highly unlikely by alot of researchers, most notable Roger Green's work. But it is still taught. Hope that helps :)

Scott,
Just thought i'd say I enjoyed your review and the subsequent correspondance. Its good to know there are others out there willing to take the time to fight the misinformation presented to the public as 'fact' by the likes of Doutre.

2:08 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Edward - Thanks! I liked reading Thor Heyerdahl - but even as a teenager I was skeptical of his theories.

But his Aku-Aku is still a great book!

[The one point about Jacob Bronowski I cant see is his hatred of the Easter Island statues!! I love them!]

And that is my point (that you raised in your comment) - you need to present these various theories - good and bad - I think at the time (maybe a student asked about quoting Von Danniken! he is pretty out of it - but I like him also!!) but if my memory is right Irwin had written a book about the Polynesian movement across the Pacific to NZ - years ago I wrote poem about the Maori coming but it was a bit wet But Irwin's lectures were fascinating and informative.

This is the problem with Doutre and other fascists like the Franklin Times man - they dont study much at all.

I just went out to Pukekohe tonight and we ended up nearly being apprehended by the police - the police reeks of Right Wing -
I didn't get a good experience in Franklin - I passed that Franklin Times and thought of Maps's comment about the treatment of Maori and my old Molotov Cocktail Hand itched .... as some yobbo yelled something inane out from a local pub... I ached to "gift" the Franklin Times and the Editor von Winklemann and the Yobbos.. but maybe I just saw some bad things.

But earlier today some local Polynesian (young men - degenerates) accosted my son as he was on his walk - we get bailed up by paranoid cops protecting an Ostrich farm (probably run by fascists from SA) and accosted by degenerate Maori or Polynesians - hard to know which is worse...

NZ is becoming increasingly crime ridden, paranoid, heartless, selfish, and evil.

1:37 am  
Anonymous Edward said...

l00Richard,
you're right, Irwin's model is taken as the current consensus. Haha almost fell on the floor laughing when you said "my old Molotov Cocktail Hand itched" as you passed the Franklin Times. I get incredibly frustrated with such people as the elocal editor and Doutre, but I suppose I just have to try and remember (or at least hope) that these people as well as those you mention in your last paragraphs are a minority proportion.

Anyway, guess we just have to keep fighting such intolerance as best we can.

Cheers and merry xmas,

Edward

9:35 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Edward - yes! - of course my hand has never grasped a molotov coctail - but - as the cliche says - so many are so true -

"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."

So (and when I hear such as Bush mention freedom or democracy a ghost of my hand reaches for my ghost of gun)...tedious as that price is (or can be) we pursue it... with some vague hope of some event occuring significant enough to warrant our further continuance sub speciae aeternitatis on this strange and possibly futile muckball...

Where is the Great Maps? Afoot and fleet and touring faster than the wind like Toad? Skyler and Titus in train?? What new mischief, what adventures, what revelations bringeth us Maps of Toadhall?

Edward - the best for Xmas etc thanks.

PS They were fascinating lectures Irwin gave.

9:32 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Thanks very much for your input at the Scoop Review of Books Edward and Richard (and Mathew, of course). I greatly value Edward's evident knowledge of the very technical details of sleeves-rolled-up archaeology - a region of scholarship I could never confidently enter, but which I enjoy observing from a distance!

4:57 pm  

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