Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is the Pope a Marxist?

Some conservative Catholics are upset about a partly positive appraisal of the thought of Karl Marx that the philospher Georg Sans published recently in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano. According to Sans, a devout Catholic who teaches at the Vatican's own Gregorian University, Marx was correct to see that capitalism causes 'social alienation' by allowing 'the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few'. Sans goes on to suggest that Marx cannot be held responsible for the depredations of some of the twentieth century dictators who ruled in his name.

In a response to Sans' text, The Times wonders whether Marx might be about to become the latest intellectual to be rehabilitated by the Vatican:

With reassessments such as [Sans'] it may be wondered which formerly unacceptable figure could be next. Last year the Vatican erected a statue of Galileo as a way of saying sorry for trying the astronomer in 1633 for his observation that the Earth moved around the Sun; in February a leading official declared Darwin’s theory of evolution compatible with the Christian faith, and in July L’Osservatore praised Oscar Wilde, the gay playwright, as “a man who behind a mask of amorality asked himself what was just and what was mistaken”.

Some of the right-wing Catholics who grew up saying prayers for the downfall of communism have had difficulty assimilating Sans' arguments, and have suggested that his article does not in any way reflect the opinions of the Pope. For their part, many left-wing Catholics have responded enthusiastically to Sans' words, hoping that they presage a greater tolerance for progressive trends within the church like liberation theology.

It seems to me that both the conservatives and the left-wingers have misunderstood the reasons for the appearance of Sans' article. The notion that the article sneaked under the radar of censors seems unlikely, given Joseph Ratzinger's reputation for tightly controlling discussion within the official and semi-official organs of his church. It was Ratzinger's zealous pursuit of heresy amongst Catholic intellectuals that earned him the nickname 'God's Rottweiler' during the reign of Pope John Paul the second.

The idea that Ratzinger has suddenly become a supporter of some sort of clerical socialism seems even more unlikely, given his history of defrocking priests who get too involved in worldly matters like strikes and anti-war demonstrations.

The explanation for the appearance of Sans' article may lie in an extraordinary but little-noticed Encyclical which the Pope issued in 2007 called Spe Salvi, or In Hope We Were Saved. Spe Salvi includes a long and surprisingly sophisticated assessment not only of the thought of Marx, but of the whole history of Western thought since the Enlightenment.

According to Ratzinger, Marxism is an extreme example of a wider tendency, visible in the West since the beginning of the Enlightenment, to cast aside the notion that man is a limited being who must be guided by God, and to seek to improve human life through the creation of new technology and the refinement of social organisation. This 'humanist' tendency finds expression in the philosophy of Descartes and Voltaire and the science of Galileo, as well as in the ideas of Marx. By putting humanity at the centre of the universe, and forgetting that what is valuable in humanity comes from God, secularists, rationalists, Marxists, and believers in the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market all set themselves up for disaster. The failures of twentieth century Stalinist regimes flow from Marx's thinking, but they also flow from the hubris of the Enlightenment.

It is useful to contrast Ratzinger's view of these subjects with the interpretation that dominated conservative thinking during the Cold War era. In both its sophisticated version, which was advanced by philosophers like Karl Popper, and its simplistic version, which appealed to tub thumpers like Reagan and Ratzinger's predecessor in the Vatican, this interpretation contrasts the unhealthy tradition of Marxism with the healthy Western traditions of democracy, capitalism, and science. Marxism is a mockery of the Enlightenment, not a logical outcome of the Enlightenment.

It is worth noting that Spe Salvi does not lack a few kind words for Marx. Ratzinger praises Marx's 'great intentions', and also notes his 'acute' understanding of nineteenth century European society. Given that Marx's intentions were always to get rid of capitalism, and given that his commentaries on nineteenth century Europe were full of condemnations of the rapacity of capitalism and imperialism, Ratzinger's words of praise represent quite a departure from conservative orthodoxy. Cold Warriors like Pope John Paul the second tended to depict Marx as a thoroughly evil individual, with a warped understanding of reality.

If we read Georg Sans' article properly, we can see that the interpretation of Marx it advances is very similar to that in Spe Salvi. Sans qualifies his praise for Marx with criticisms of the man's 'materialist' view of the world, which allows no place for the spirit, and warns of an over-confidence in the ability of man and science to solve worldly problems.

It seems, then, that the Vatican has already made a reassessment of Marx, but that the results of this reassessment are more mysterious than either the right or the left of the Catholic church, let alone the media, will allow. How can we explain the peculiar interpretations that Ratzinger has advanced of Marx, and of the Western intellectual tradition since the Enlightenment? If they are not indebted either to left-wing Catholicism or Cold Warrior ideology, where do they come from?

It seems to me that Ratzinger's interpretation of modern Western thought owes a great deal to Martin Heidegger, the controversial German philosopher who cut his teeth as a Catholic critic of modernity before turning against the church, falling in and out of love with Nazism, and retreating, in the last decades of his long life, into a sort of quietism.

Like a lot of conservative, rural Germans, Heidegger was forced into a defensive political posture by the turbulence of early twentieth century Europe and the threat of socialist revolution; unlike his fellow reactionaries, Heidegger traced the chaos around him far back into the intellectual history of his continent. Heidegger believed that the problems of the modern world were rooted in a 'technological' mode of thinking which had gathered strength during the Enlightenment. This type of thinking put humanity at the centre of the universe, and treated nature as a mere 'standing reserve' available for human use. Humans themselves were analysed by 'technological' thinkers like Descartes and Freud as self-contained individuals, when in fact human existence and human consciousness only make sense when they are considered in the context of community, history, and nature. Heidegger explained all of the warring ideologies of the twentieth century - Marxism, social democracy, liberal capitalism, and (after he had recovered from his infatuation with Hitler) fascism - as mere symptoms of the underlying tendency of human beings to think in a 'technological' way.

Heidegger believed that technological thinking stemmed from a 'forgetfulness of being'; in his later work, especially, he tried to practice a meditative thinking, influenced by the arts rather than the sciences, in an effort to recover some of what had been lost. Heidegger's concept of 'being' is deliberately, sometimes infuriatingly, mysterious, and many of his critics have argued that it is simply a substitute for the God that he formally abandoned when he left the Catholic church in his early twenties. It seems to me that, if the word 'God' were exchanged for the word 'being', then parts of Ratzinger's 2007 Enyclical could have been written by Heidegger. And it is not only in the passages of Spe Salvi that discuss Marx and modern Western thought that we find possible echoes of Heidegger. When he turns from worldly matters to consider the afterlife that awaits faithful Catholics, Ratzinger uses language and imagery which distinguish him from many contemporary religious thinkers:

To continue living for ever — endlessly — appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable...

In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown “thing” is the true “hope”...

To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality — this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time — the before and after — no longer exists.


Ratzinger's words fly in the face of the tendency of many Christian leaders to describe the afterlife they promise to their followers in decidedly worldly terms. Billy Graham provided a particularly crass example of this tendency when he imagined heaven as a 'place where we cruise along streets paved with gold in our cadillacs'. Even if some of them would cringe at Graham's appeal to materialism, many Christians in the West would share his vision of heaven as a perfected version of the world we know today, not an essentially unimaginable place outside the confines or protections of temporality where we lose not only our worldly desire but our very selves.

Ratzinger's understanding (or deliberate refusal of an understanding) of the afterlife looks back to the tradition of negative theology established in the early centuries of the church by the likes of Pseudo-Dionysus, and developed in the Middle Ages by mystics like the anonymous English author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Negative theology opposes attempts to 'prove' God through reason and argument, and considers the idea that God can even be described in human language and imagery as sacrilegious. As the lecherous but brilliant professor of negative theology who is the anti-hero of John Updike's novel Roger's Version asks, why believe in a God you can understand?

Along with the theologian Karl Barth, Martin Heidegger has been the great modern scholar of negative theology, and it is easy to imagine Ratzinger's description of the ineffability of the afterlife coming from one of Heidegger's more gnomic texts. Ratzinger's insistence on the centrality of death to human existence, and on the worthlessness of life without death, might also remind us Heidegger's famous early work Being and Time, which argued that the humans who ignored the inevitability of their deaths live inauthentic lives.

Despite the obscurity of his prose and the diabolical political positions he adopted in the 1930s, Heidegger exercised an immense influence over twentieth century European thought, and a sophisticated intellectual like Ratzinger would have encountered texts like Being in Time early in his career.

If Ratzinger has adopted some key Heideggerian ideas, what does this tell us about him? It cannot be denied that Heidegger identified some very negative qualities in the modern world. He was a ferocious critic of the special type of alienation that is part of life in many urbanised nations, he despised the shallowness of consumer culture in capitalist nations, and he was horrified by the damage done to the environment by industrial technology. But Heidegger's wholesale rejection of modernity meant that he was unable to suggest any way of ameliorating the ills that he diagnosed, and he retreated into a quietism that was only punctuated by his brief but horrific flirtation with Nazism. In his last interview, given to the German newspaper Die Spiegel in 1966, Heidegger refused to support any political system, insisting that 'only the coming of a God can save us'.

There is a similar hopelessness implicit in Ratzinger's 2007 Encyclical. Human attempts to improve and transform the world are doomed to failure, because what is valuable in humans comes from God, yet God is, as some of the more metaphysical passages of the Encyclical show, a fundamentally 'unknown thing'. Ratzinger has neither faith in human progress, nor the sort of crass belief in an easily accessible, manipulable God that made the likes of Billy Graham or even Pope John Paul the second such popular figures amongst Western audiences keen for quick-fix theology. Like Heidegger's last interview, Spe Salvi has a sort of bleak integrity, but it should not enthuse either the left or the right wings of the Catholic church.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The return of Mark Young

Most New Zealanders would recognise one of the characters in this photo. James K Baxter only wore a beard in the last few years of his life, when his dissatisfaction with bourgeois New Zealand society had led him to subordinate his poetry to religious and political activism, but the media tends reproduce the late photographs which make him look like a cross between Rasputin and a hippy whenever it discusses any aspect of his life and work.

Not everyone was impressed by Baxter's physical transformation in the late '60s. In his entertaining autobiography, Keith Sinclair remembers being disturbed by the passage in The Jerusalem Sonnets where Baxter praised the lice which had taken up residence in his burgeoning beard. Sinclair was used to greeting his old friend with a hug whenever they encountered one another, but after The Jerusalem Sonnets he decided that a handshake was more appropriate.

The poets posing with Baxter in this photo don't appear to suffer from Sinclair's hangups. At the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies David Mitchell and Mark Young - Mitchell is the one with the tie - regularly shared the stage with Baxter at poetry readings, and presumably shared a smoke or two with the great man off-stage.

Mitchell and Young were members of a new literary generation which seemed, in both its lifestyle and its writing, to embody a release from the conformity and formality that Baxter had identified with post-war New Zealand society in polemics like his poem-sequence Pig Island Letters. Young had grown up in the isolated West Coast town of Hokitika, writing poems of unnerving originality, before migrating to Auckland and meeting Mitchell, who was already firmly ensconced in the makeshift Bohemia of the city's crumbling inner suburbs. Both men celebrated the counterculture of the late sixties in their work, and took stands against New Zealand's involvement in the Vietnam War.

At the time of Baxter's premature death in 1972, Mitchell and Young were sucessful young poets, popular with pub audiences, with the readers of the little magazines thrown up by the counterculture, and with the older, more conservative generation that still controlled journals like Landfall. Mitchell's debut volume Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby had sold thousands of copies, and his live performances had led to offers of movie roles. Young was only slightly less prominent. Both men could have been expected to play a leading role in New Zealand literature for decades, and yet both soon disappeared from the literary scene.

Despite or because of the success of Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby, Mitchell refused to publish another book. His live appearances became sporadic and eccentric, and literary journals stopped receiving his work. By the time I was taking an undergraduate interest in the Auckland literary scene in the mid-90s, Mitchell had become a sort of ghost - a stooped figure glimpsed at the edge of poetry readings, running a shaking hand through a shock of white hair. Once, at a reading held at the Shakespeare Tavern, I saw Mitchell turn up and volunteer to perform. After being introduced to the audience with much fanfare - the MC had, like most of those present, read one of the dogeared copies of the long out of print Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby which floated through Auckland's secondhand bookshops - the legendary poet rummaged around in the ripped pockets of his duffel coat for at least a minute, produced a tattered blank page of paper and, with a look of satisfaction, held the page aloft in a shaking hand. We applauded uneasily, and Mitchell left the stage.

The other man in the photograph fell into an obscurity more complete than that of David Mitchell. By the mid-seventies Mark Young had become addicted to drugs, and had emigrated to Australia. For a decade he read nothing, and for another decade he wrote nothing. In the late nineties, after being contacted by scholars enthusiastic about his early work and after discovering the literary potential of the internet, Young resumed his career. Young's resurrection is documented in Pelican Dreaming, the extensive selection of his poems which I have just surveyed at the Scoop Review of Books.

The hundreds of poems Young has written over the last decade are anything but echoes of the work he produced to such acclaim in his youth. Unlike the many 'sixties survivors' who seem happy to trade on nostalgia, Young has developed his art, so that his poems can deal with twenty-first century subjects like digital technology and the 'War on Terror' in a manner that is wholly credible.

As well as celebrating the return of Mark Young, my review at Scoop notes the arrival of the first chapbook of poems from Ross Brighton, a bold but lyrical experimenter from Christchurch.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Instead of whipped cream

In a post prompted by the ongoing controversy over allegations of institutional racism at Dargaville museum, Jack Ross admits to being 'instinctively drawn' to 'books of pseudo-history', even though he knows these books are the repositories of 'ridiculously unlikely theories propounded by ignoramuses'. Jack is referring not to the explicitly racist books of ideologues like Martin Doutre and Kerry Bolton, but to more whimsical works which posit links between ancient Polynesia and 'lost continents' like Atlantis and Lemuria. What, Jack wonders, is the source of the fascination which pseudo-history exerts? Why do the tomes of Erik von Daniken, Thor Heyerdahl, and Gavin Menzies outsell the books of real historians and archaeologists?

It seems to me that the infatuation with pseudo-history - and I refer here to the interest in the subject of ordinary, relatively sane people, not of fanatics like Doutre and Bolton - is related to a wider problem in the way that contemporary Western societies relate to the past. In a lecture I gave earlier this year, I argued that we encounter the past authentically when we 'meet it halfway', by bringing our own contemporary questions and needs to it, while at the same preserving a sense of its otherness and distance. Just as we need to find a balance between listening and speaking whenever we talk with a friend, so that we avoid either dominating or withdrawing from the conversation, so we need to find a balance between the present and the past whenever we study history. The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer called this precarious, precious balance 'a fusion of horizons'; the English historian EP Thompson, who wasn't given to such extravagant continetal phraseology, referred to it as 'a sense of engagement with the sources'.

The inhabitants of modern capitalist societies seem to struggle to find ways of attaining the balance which Thompson found so easily. Instead of engaging with history as an equal, we either assimilate it entirely to the present, or else prostrate ourselves before its otherness, and refuse to relate it to our contemporary situation. I've just been half-watching the latest instalment of the TV series called The Tudors , which turns the smelly, pot-bellied, misogynistic tyrant Henry VIII into a handsome, impeccably-dressed, misunderstood hero capable of melting the hearts of twenty-first century teenage girls.

Perhaps in reaction to the crass attribution of contemporary traits and fashions to the past, Western societies produce a stream of books, movies and television programmes which reverence history in a thoroughly antiquarian manner. In the lecture I gave earlier this year, I fingered Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ as an example of this genre. By making his actors speak a dead language and attempting to tell the story of Christ's last few hours in as 'objective' a fashion as possible, Gibson produced a movie of impressive coldness, with little to say about the dilemmas and anxieties of Christians living in the twenty-first century. Of course, for Gibson and for others on the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum, this lack of relevance is precisely the film's point: the modern world is evil, and so any depiction of sanctity must remain untainted by it. As Pope Benedict likes to say, the Catholic church can be contemporary by being anti-contemporary.

Mel Gibson's religion is an acquired taste, but the longing to escape from the present into the past is evidenced in many other contemporary cultural artefacts. Antiques Roadshow, which my old supervisor Ian Carter described with his usual wit as 'the world's first reality TV show for middle class people', is one secular example of the longing for escape.

Gadamer and Thompson were able to recognise that the historical method - and, perhaps, the method of all of the arts and human sciences - requires a mixture of subjectivity and objectivity. Immersion in facts is important, but so is the ability to make imaginative leaps over the gaps which will always separate the facts which the historical record bequeathes to us. The Making of the English Working Class, Das Kapital, Redemption Songs and the other great works of history are the products of a deep familiarity with the facts of the past, but they are also visionary masterpieces.

In the famous section of The Making of the English Class that deals with the Luddite rebellion, Thompson handles a variety of historical documents - the reports of spies, statements taken by magistrates, the hysterical texts of the popular press - with admirable delicacy, but he also makes a series of speculations that demand to be justified on aesthetic as well as historiographical grounds. Thompson's insistence that the Luddites were a rational, forward-thinking group of workers who utilised sabotage as a tactic, and not a violent gang of reactionaries inevitably scandalised conservative historians, but it has become an orthodoxy in many quarters, and it has influenced the interpretation of contemporary movements against the harmful uses of technology.

The triumph of Thompson's interpretation has something to do with his fidelity to the historical record, but it also has something to do with the volcanic imaginative power of The Making of the English Working Class. Like so many other judgements in the book - the condemnation of early Methodist fervour as a form of 'psychic masturbation', the insistence that the productive gains of industrialisation do not excuse the miseries the process created for real human beings - Thompson's interpretation of Luddism seems truthful in the way that great works of art are truthful.

In works of pseudo-history like the ones that Jack Ross' post considers, the 'subjective' element necessary to successful scholarship - the element of speculation and personal obsession - has been working in isolation from the 'objective' element which is equally necessary. Speculation does not proceed from facts, but instead of facts. The desire to validate presuppositions becomes wish-fulfilment.

Pseudo-history is, then, an extreme form of the desire to put the past at the service of present fashions and obsessions. And, because it is so rooted in the needs of the people who create it, and so tangentially connected to the real past, pseudo-history dates extremely quickly. Von Daniken's visions of ancient astronauts look today like nothing so much as a bizarre projection of the excitement of the early space age back into prehistory. Thor Heyerdahl's hyper-diffusionist fantasies about an ancient white seafaring people erecting statues on Rapa Nui can now be seen as the vulgar expression of Norwegian chauvinism they always were.

I can't agree with Jack Ross when he says that he enjoys consuming the tests of pseudo-historians. For me, the experience is a little like eating whipped cream. The rich taste of fantasy soon becomes cloying, because it is so devoid of substance and variation. Eventually it becomes sickening.

Skyler needs the computer now for her geneaological research - I'm not sure if I have the courage to classify that pursuit as a form of antiquarianism - so I'll finish this post, but when I get the time I'd like to present a list of real-life mysteries about the prehistory of Aotearoa and the Pacific which are as deliciously strange as the imaginings of the pseudo-historians, and which don't end up leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A small victory at Dargaville museum?


Here's the text of an e mail I received yesterday from Dargaville museum, along with my reply to it.

Dear Dr Hamilton

Thank you for your interest and consideration.

Our organization is run by volunteers, without whose help we would not be able to operate. We are not in the fortunate position to be able to employ professionals. We are not experts but do endeavour to be as accurate as we can and visits from a person such as yourself and the informed comments you make are appreciated. However we were disappointed that you did not approach the Museum manager for her verification of the volunteer's expressed opinions prior to posting your views on the internet.

The Pouto carving has been in the Museum's collection for 13 years and we had inherited the information with it from a previous administration.

Our Te Uri O Hau representative on the Museum Committee had already raised similar concerns as yours, pointing out that there was no empirical evidence to support the text.

The issue of labeling, provenance and display was to be discussed by the committee but was held in abeyance, due to several important prior commitments of the Te Uri O Hau representative. This matter will be on the agenda for the next meeting where your informed comments, which supports that of the Te Uri O Hau representative, will be taken into consideration as well as those of the Iwi on whose territory the item was found. We will address the issues raised in you e-mail.

Mr. Noel Hilliam was a past President and curator of the Museum. He is no longer involved in the running of, nor is he a spokesperson for the Museum. At no time has he been banned from the Museum or interfered in its "correspondence".

Mr. Hilliam's beliefs, opinions and theories on New Zealand pre-history are his own and are not endorsed in any way by the Museum's current administration.

In the meantime we have removed the information panel from the exhibit. We propose to seek guidance from National Services Te Paerangi Te Papa on the appropriate person or institution to seek provenance on the carving.

Regards
Pene McKenzie
Secretary


Kia ora Pene,

I congratulate Dargaville museum on its decision to remove the pou found at Pouto from display.

Whilst artefacts held at museums, especially artefacts as beautiful and rare as the pou, should be accessible to the public, they must be displayed appropriately, and accompanied by responsible interpretation. Your museum's display and interpretation of the pou were nothing short of an insult to Maori, and to all New Zealanders interested in the truth about their country's history. I hope that the museum will take the opportunity to apologise to Te Uri o Hau, who had to wait far too long for you to end the desecration of an object found within the boundaries of their rohe. It seems to me that, if it were not for the public criticism you have received over the last week from outsiders, Te Uri o Hau would still be waiting for its voice to be heard.

You attempt to excuse the desecration of the pou by pointing out that the museum does not employ 'professionals' and 'experts'. This excuse seems to me only to underline a basic problem with Dargaville museum's attitude to Maori culture and history. The museum offers a small display of pre-contact and nineteenth century Maori artefacts in the last room that visitors pass through, as they make their way through the building, but its many other spaces, which deal with subjects as different as farming, gum digging, shipwrecks, and sports, are almost completely devoid of Maori content.

It is as if you believe that Maori culture and history ended with colonisation, and that Maori culture and history therefore don't need to be understood by volunteers, and can be left to the occasional 'expert' to interpret (as Noel Hilliam's 'interpretation' of the pou has hopefully shown you, not every self-proclaimed expert is to be trusted). The 'us and them' attitude toward Maori that I experienced when I talked to one of your staff only reinforces my belief that your museum does not consider Maori history and culture as integral parts of most of the stories it tells.

The attitude of your museum reminds me of the approach that many books of local history written by amateur Pakeha researchers take to the past. All too often, such histories open with a brief chapter on life in a district before the arrival of Pakeha, and then forget about Maori and plunge in to stories about pioneer families, great sporting events, the impact of foreign wars, and so on.

The approach that I have been describing does a disservice to Pakeha, as well as Maori. In regions like the Kaipara, Pakeha culture and society have been shaped by constant interaction with the tangata whenua. Sometimes this interaction has been difficult, even violent; at other times it has been friendly and enriching. By excluding Maori from so much of the story it tells, your museum gives its visitors a one-sided version of the history of the Kaipara.

I'd like to offer a couple of examples of the one-sidedness I am complaining about. Your museum offers artefacts and interpretations in an attempt to describe the lives of some of the Pakeha pioneers in the Kaipara region. While the material you display and interpret is interesting, it lacks context, because it is not accompanied by a discussion of the role that Maori played in hosting Pakeha pioneers.

After suffering heavy losses at the hands of Nga Puhi warlord Hongi Hika's musket-armed forces in 1825, Te Uri o Hau were keen to attract Pakeha missionaries and settlers, because they believed that the Pakeha might ensure a supply of muskets and a measure of protection. A Methodist mission was established in the north Kaipara in 1836, and the farmers who began to arrive a decade or so afterwards were treated with generosity by Te Uri o Hau. The iwi did not join in the wars that broke out between Pakeha and Maori in other parts of the country in the 1860s. When a group of Waikato prisoners who had escaped from Kawau Island in 1865 travelled into the rohe of Te Uri o Hau and urged the locals to join them in a new war, their request was respectfully declined.

As more and more settlers arrived and land was taken in dodgy deals, many Te Uri o Hau came to feel that their goodwill had been betrayed. Nevertheless, the iwi played an important role in the success of the early Pakeha settlers of the Kaipara. The story of the settlers cannot be properly told without reference to the Maori who hosted them.

One of the most interesting parts of your museum attempts to tell the story of the Dalmatians who came to New Zealand in the first decades of the twentieth century. Although your presentation of the Dalmatians' story is full of artefacts and anecdotes, it suffers from a lack of attention to the rich history of interaction between the new arrivals from southern Europe and the tangata whenua of Aotearoa.

Like Maori in the early twentieth century, the Dalmatian immigrants comprised an impoverished minority which was prevented from participating in many parts of the economy. Because of a lack of alternatives, both Maori and Dalmatians were drawn to the hard and unglamorous work of gum digging in remote areas of Northland. Isolated from the rest of New Zealand society by poverty and racism, members of the two groups were soon forging friendships and intermarrying. In her book Tarara: the cultural politics of Croat and Maori identity in New Zealand Senka Bozik-Vrbancic celebrates the unique coming-together of southern European and Maori cultures in northern New Zealand. With its one-sided approach to history, though, your museum ignores the story of Dalmatian-Maori interaction. I am not asking the unpaid volunteer staff of your museum to become 'experts', in the sense that those trained at universities in fields like archaeology or biology or history are, within their particlar fields, experts. Even those 'experts' with university training in a particular field of inquiry will often require assistance when they deal with adjacent fields of inquiry. In the world of modern scholarship, no one can hope to be an expert on everything.

It would be unreasonable to expect your staff to be authorities on the finer points of historical interpretation or radiocarbon dating. It is, however, very reasonable to expect them to see Maori culture and history as living, dynamic things, not as remote, arcane subjects suitable only for the inquiries of 'experts'. The Maori story is inextricable from all the stories your museum tells. If your staff had even a basic interest in and appreciation of Maori culture and history then they would never have tolerated the obscene display and interpretation of the Pouto pou.

Sincerely
Scott Hamilton

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The abandoned heaven

Almost exactly five years ago, Hamish Dewe drove me to the Hokianga in a disintegrating car he had brought for a few hundred dollars immediately after getting off a flight from Beijing.

Hamish's years in China had begun with a semi-respectable job which saw him inflicting the pearls of English literature - Shakespeare, Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and, because the teacher had a good deal of input into the curriculum, Wyndham Lewis - on the recalcitrant students of a provincial university, and then devolved into a series of train, bus, and truck journeys into ever more remote areas of the country, journeys which were interspersed with gigs at English language schools staffed by permanently hungover Western slackers who liked to let students broaden their vocabularies by playing endless games of scrabble.

Hamish had turned up without warning in his clapped-out car and ordered me into the navigator's seat, which was brimming with the freshly-dogeared books he had bought, or at least acquired, in a bid to catch up with the recent course of New Zealand literature. Hamish does not so much read books as absorb them into his bloodstream. He likes to demonstrate his mastery of a novel by unsympathetically mimicking the traits of its minor characters; he often gives his opinion of a volume of poems by reciting its lines in more or less sarcastic tones.

Hamish told me that he travelled across China with copies of Ezra Pound's epic poem The Cantos and Wyndham Lewis' equally fat satirical novel The Apes of God; the book's heavy covers had come in handy when he had kipped down on the benches of parks or railway stations and needed somewhere to rest his head. I wondered if the texts between the covers had somehow managed to seep into Hamish's sleeping head through some process resembling osmosis, because he seemed to be able to recite endless passages of Pound's allusive, multilingual verse and Lewis' turgid prose from memory as we travelled northwest, past the little towns at the foot of the Byrnderwyns and into the flat country south of Dargaville.

On the top of the pile of Hamish's recently-acquired books was a cover divided into blocks of black, white, and orange. On the cover's block of white, under the title Atua Wera, was a drawing of a creature with the body of a lizard, a long, sharp tail, and wings that looked like billowing sails. The placenames Hokianga, Pakanae, Waimamauku, and Wairoa had been scribbled underneath the strange creature by John Webster, the Hokianga trader who had drawn it in 1855after attending secret religious meetings. For Hamish and his yawning navigator, the list represented an itinerary: we were going north, to visit some of the locations of Kendrick Smithyman's posthumously-published epic poem about the religious movement founded by the nineteenth century tohunga and rebel Papahurihia.

By October 2004, Atua Wera had been in print for eight years, Smithyman had been dead for nearly nine years, and both the poet and his longest poem were beginning to get the serious critical attention they deserved. Somewhere underneath Hamish's copy of Atua Wera was a copy of the special issue that the literary journal brief had recently devoted to Smithyman.
brief editor Jack Ross had filled Smithymania with academic essays, memoirs from family and friends, interviews, photographs, and dirty limericks. Somebody had given Hamish a copy of Smithymania, and he had set about reading it with his usual ruthlessness.

Hamish was steering us around a slight bend in Highway 12 and reciting a passage from the Pisan Cantos when he suddenly slammed his foot on the brake, so that our vehicle almost collided with an upturned concrete trough half-hidden in the long grass beside the road. 'That's it, the church! That's the church on the cover!' he shouted, digging around in the pile of volumes at my feet. When Hamish extracted his copy of Smithymania, and gestured through the cloud of lime-dust in front of our windscreen, I understood: the small church on the building's cover sat a few hundred yards from us, surrounded by weedy paddocks and a grove of totara.

Like most of the other images in Smithymania, the cover photo was the work of Michael Dean, a young man who had travelled around the north in the late '90s snapping scenes for his friend Jack Ross, who was trying to persuade Creative New Zealand to fund a book of images and text called Kendrick Smithyman's Northland. Funding had not been forthcoming, and Dean's photos had lain unseen until Jack had excavated them for Smithymania. As Hamish and I walked down a gravel road to the little church, we argued about the role the building might have played in Smithyman's life and writing. With its lack of external adornment, small size, and high very steep roof, the church looked Anglican. Smithyman had spent the first decade of his life in Te Kopuru, an old timber milling town just south of Dargaville, and about half an hour from Ruawai.

Perhaps, I suggested, the Smithyman family had sometimes attended this church? Impossible, Hamish snapped: Smithyman's father had been a wharfie who was a member of the 'Red' Federation of Labour and supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World during the revolutionary years before the First World War, and later a staunch Labour Party man. He was a socialist with no interest in the opium of the people. It is true, I conceded, that I couldn't think of any Smithyman poems about attending church as a child. Perhaps the poet visited and wrote about the church as an adult? Smithyman's always-intense apprehension of history was often heightened by the mildewed churches of his native Northland. Were we walking in the old boy's footsteps? Hamish was constructing a condemnation of Anglicanism, and of the 'nation of shopkeepers' that gave the faith its start, when we eased open a flaking red door and took a couple of steps forward, expecting to find the normal, cosy Anglican interior, with its large varnished cross, its pulpit painted with familiar Bible scenes by the local youth group, and a black and white portrait of the Queen hung in a corner by an embarrassed pastor. Instead, we found ourselves standing on a dirty floor, amidst scattered and broken benches, staring at a rising sun and a series of five-pointed stars cupped in crescent moons. We were looking at a painted map of the universe constructed by Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, the farmer from the Whanganui district who became the mangai - that is, the mouthpiece - of God in November 1918, after two whales beached themselves at the bottom of his property and an angel descended from heaven to talk with him.

Hamish and I turned on our heels, following the orbit of the heavenly bodies around the walls of the little church, and squinting at the strange words painted beneath them. Arepa. Alpha. Omeka. Omega. Wairua Tapu. Sacred Spirit. Anahera Pono. Faithful angels.

In an essay he collected in his 2008 Auckland University Press volume Waimarino County and Other Excursions, Martin Edmond described the experience of entering a Ratana temple at Raetihi, down the road from his childhood home of Ohakune:

Inside was a little piece of heaven. The same segmented five-pointed star inside the cusp of the crescent moon was carved into the pew ends. Each segment of the star has its own colour: blue for the Father, white for the Son, red for the Holy Ghost; purple for the Angels and gold for the Mangai, T. W. Ratana. Everything in the church was painted, even the altar, which was strewn with flowers.

The first and largest Ratana temple was completed in 1928, in the village that grew on the farm of the movement's founder. With its Romanesque style and the crescent moon and star on top of each of its pillars, Te Temepera Tapu o Iha (the Holy Temple of Jehovah) became the prototype for temples in Raetihi and a series of other towns and villages where the poor and politically marginalised Maori who adopted Ratana's faith lived. Almost uniquely, the little Ratana temple near Ruawai was established in the shell of an earlier, European house of worship. In her new book on Maori architecture, Deidre Brown argues that the Ratana appropriation of a European Catholic style is an example of whakanoa, the ancient practice of denigrating the mana of opponents. In pre-contact times, iwi had sometimes stolen the waka of rivals and violated the mana and tapu of these craft by transferring their carvings to buildings that stored food. In a somewhat similar way, Brown argues, Ratana and his builders sought to undermine the cultural authority and appropriate the mana of European Christianity by adopting the Romanesque style. Despite its location, the temple Hamish and I visited does not seem to have figured in Kendrick Smithyman's writing. It may have been the photographer Robin Morrison, not Smithyman, who inspired Michael Dean to pause beside the little building. Dying of cancer, the popular and prolific Morrison made a final visit to Northland in 1992, and returned with a series of images of graves, angels, and churches which were published posthumously in a book titled A Journey. One of the less spectacular images in Morrison's book shows the temple near Ruawai framed by mist, dark totara and an overcast sky. Like much of the work in A Journey, the photograph suggests a connection to place, and a sense of permanence that is deeply poignant, given Morrison's circumstances in 1992.

In Michael Dean's photograph, the temple near Ruawai is brightly lit, and surrounded by long, dry grass. Although it is superficially different from Morrison's wintry image, Dean's photo communicates a similar sense of solidity and belonging. He has shot the temple from a low angle and at a distance, making it look like the structure grows naturally out of the landscape, and obscuring mildewed panels and other signs of neglect and decay. A few months after he encountered the Ratana temple, Hamish Dewe returned suddenly to China. Hamish's departure came as something of a surprise to many of his friends, because the depravity of Chinese capitalism and the hideousness of Chinese cities had been favourite topics of conversation for him during his stay in New Zealand. Instead of the lengthy, excited epistles that most travellers to exotic places send home to their friends, Hamish delivered a series of laconic, caustic poems to the editors of brief documenting his latest travels. In a poem which was published in a 2005 issue of brief, a memory of New Zealand rubbed against a report from China:

Arepa. Omeka.

Knocking, wait for no answer,
for no answer’s coming.

The windows are broken, burnt
out cars are dumped in the field
a horse once grazed.
Lace curtains at the
verandah wave in the breeze.
Inhabitants? None. The church,
Ratana, shows hoof-prints in
its sodden field.

Without holding hands, we pass
through the hospital, which smells
of herbs and urine, comforting,
out to the street. Liu Wu’s consumption
has passed. The one-kuai bus
takes us down to the station,
and we’re gone.


I'm not sure if Hamish has ever seen Robin Morrison's photograph of the Ratana temple, and I don't know what he thought about Michael Dean's image, but I can't help thinking of 'Arepa. Omeka.' as a rebuke to the two men's vision of the little building near Ruawai. At the beginning of his poem, Hamish knocks on the door of the abandoned building, aware of the absurdity of his gesture. Like the non-believer in Philip Larkin's famous poem 'Churchgoing', who removes his bicycle clips in 'awkward reverence' when he enters the house of God, Hamish wants to make a gesture of respect, however quixotic.

When, in his second stanza, Hamish notes not only 'burnt/out cars' but also signs of a departed horse, he is not engaging in description for the sake of description. In the 1920s and '30s, at least, the Ratana Church was in many respects a modernising institution, and some of its language and symbols were influenced by the United States, a society which was then widely seen as the locus of modernity. The leader of the organisation was called the President, and the automobile was an important symbol of the church. Ratana travelled the country in new-fangled cars decorated with placards bearing his message, and the church sometimes used a picture of a ladder rising out of a Ford convertible toward heaven to dramatise its message that salvation was possible through embracing the world of the twentieth century.

In many rural Maori communities, the horse was until quite recently the main method of transporation. In certain remote and rugged districts, like the East Cape and the north Hokianga, the horse is still commonly used to get to school or to the shops. The ruined cars and departed horse in Hamish's poem represent the abandonment of the temple near Ruawai by both the Ratana faithful and traditional Maori society. If we interpret them with Christian and Ratana theology in mind, the 'hoof-prints' close to the church suggest that evil forces now inhabit the building.

In the last stanza of his poem Hamish brusquely transports us to a Chinese hospital, a place which is full of people, yet which seems just as bleak and lonely as the abandoned temple. Hamish and his partner do not show affection as they move through the hospital, and their concern for the person they have visited - is she a friend, or a mere acquaintance? - seems perfunctory. Like the abandoned temple, the hospital in China is a place to pass through and leave behind. The cosmic title of the poem suggests that Hamish is universalising his message by making the temple and the hospital into metaphors for all human existence. A week and a half ago, after another Smithyman-inspired trip to the Hokianga, I revisited the Ruawai temple, with Skyler, Muzzlehatch, and Eel in tow. A flock of sheep surrounded the building, methodically chewing the damp grass. On the other side of the flaking red door we found mud splattered over stars and moons and sacred words. Muzzlehatch, who was a builder before he was a publisher, inspected the panels of the temple, and declared a number of them to be rotten through.

Returning to the car to retrieve something, Skyler noticed a man with long toned legs and very tight red stubbies herding cattle across the road from the temple. His name was Lockwood Smith, and he owned the huge granary - two lung-shaped iron containers filled with sileage - that dominated the low hill just south of the temple, and seemed to mock the beleagured wooden building with its size and robustness. What happened to the congregation which must once have prayed and sung in the little building outside Ruawai? It is at least possible that some of the faithful were lured into the sort of apostasy which afflicts every successful religious organisation. In 1941 a returned solider named Te Akai Rapana broke with the Ratana Church in protest at its alliance with the Labour Party and its excessive openess to Pakeha culture. The Absolute Established Maori Church - it became known, inevitably, as the Rapana Church - banned its members from drinking, gambling, watching movies, and reading 'undesirable books', and suggested that they live communally in the countryside, away from the influence of the Pakeha. At first the church was based in Te Tii, near Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, where its members ran a mill, but later Rapana led the faithful south to Tinopai, a long peninsula which begins a few kilometres south of Ruawai.

Tinopai would surely have seemed a fine place for a utopian community - the isthmus has its own balmy microclimate, which makes the growing of exotic fruits like olives possible, and the village at its far end sits beside one of the best fishing spots on the Kaipara Harbour. Te Akai Rapana and some of his followers got work on a foresty scheme which was covering some of the peninsula's less desirable land in pines, and they soon raised a meeting house on the outskirts of Tinopai village. Did they win some of the Ruawai congregation to their cause?

There are many examples of Maori comunities allowing religious buildings to decay, because the faith that these buildings represent is no longer strong, or has been transferred to another creed. In his classic study of the Hokianga community of Waima Valley, Patrick Hohepa describes how an historic meeting house was allowed to rot, because the extended family which had used it had embraced the Seventh Day Adventist faith, and erected a new house they judged to be more compatible with that faith.

It is not only Maori communities which are content to live beside the residues of abandoned faith: on a trip to Britain in 2005 I noticed scores of Methodist chapels that had been built in the West Country during the lifetime of John Wesley, only to be eventually converted to thoroughly worldly purposes. In the small Cornish town of Bodmin, somebody had knocked two walls out of an old chapel and converted it into a service station. In the eastern counties of Suffolk and Norfolk a group of concerned - and, it seemed, overwhelmingly non-believing - citizens had formed an organisation designed to protect the round-towered, flint-walled churches that descendants of the Vikings had built in the centuries before the English Reformation.

Perhaps the Round Tower Society is a quixotic, sentimental organisation, and perhaps I am sentimental for feeling sad about the state of the Ratana temple at Ruawai. Perhaps Hamish Dewe's poem, with its images of disorder and transience, is more honest, or at least less sentimental, than the photos of Robin Morrison and Michael Dean. What, after all, is the purpose of a religious building which is no longer inhabited by the souls of the faithful?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Remembering Martyn Sanderson


I am surprised as well as saddened to hear of the sudden death of the poet, playwright, actor, scriptwriter, and film director Martyn Sanderson. Although he was in his eighth decade, Sanderson was still producing and acting in plays and writing poems.

Sanderson built his career at a time when the New Zealand movie industry was in its infancy, and when the barriers that separated film from literature and the rest of the arts were perhaps more permeable than they are today. Like his friend and sometime collaborator Bruno Lawrence, Sanderson moved easily between the stage, the screen, and the page. Sanderson was best-known for his acting roles in films like Ned Kelly, where he had to put up with Mick Jagger, An Angel at My Table, where he did a fine job of playing Frank Sargeson, and The Lost Tribe, a dodgy attempt to transplant Indiana Jones to Fiordland, but the publication of the splendidly-titled Like Smoke in a Wheelbarrow in 2006 reminded us that he was also a serious poet.

Sanderson himself was perhaps most proud of directing Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree, the feature-length adaption of Albert Wendt's novella about a young Samoan noble who rebels against tradition and his family. Sanderson discusses the movie in this interview, which I had the pleasure of including in the 33rd issue of the literary journal brief back in 2006.

Although I never met Martyn, I did correspond with him as I prepared the interview for publication. His wry, self-deprecating humour is perhaps shown in this e mail, which was written in response to a question I'd asked about the debt that The Lost Tribe seemed to owe to Peter Weir's famous movie The Last Wave:

Re: brief interviewsMonday, 3 October, 2005 2:26 PM
From: "M Sanderson"
To: "Scott Hamilton"

Hi Scott

I haven't seen The Lost Tribe for years. I don't expect it would hold up terribly well. (I had a great time driving a fishing boat around Milford Sound, though.)

I scarcely remember The Last Wave, certainly not in any detail, but that's an interesting association. I recall that it was regarded as something of an affirmation of Aboriginal culture: I wouldn't say the same of The Lost Tribe's Maori references.

Cheers,
Martyn


The Lost Tribe may not 'hold up well', but a lot of Martyn's other work certainly does.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Letters to Dargy

[I have just sent this message to the Dargaville museum at darg.museum@xtra.co.nz...]

Kia ora,

I e mailed you several days ago to express my concerns about your museum's presentation of New Zealand prehistory.

I objected, in particular, to your claims that a pou found on the Pouto peninsula in the early '90s was created by a pre-Maori 'Waitaha' civilisation. As my first e mail explained, the unanimous opinion of scholars of New Zealand's past is that the Waitaha was a South Island Maori tribe which was assimilated centuries ago into first the Ngati Mamoe and then the Kai Tahu peoples. The claim that the Waitaha established a massive, technologically advanced civilisation on New Zealand thousands of years before the coming of the ancestors of the Maori is put forward only by a New Age cult led by Barry Brailsford, a once-respected archaeologist whose turn towards mysticism and pseudo-history has been widely condemned by New Zealand's scholarly community.

I know that a number of people have e mailed Dargaville with complaints similar to mine in recent days. I hope that you consider these letters carefully. As well as the Kai Tahu descendant outraged at the misrepresentation of his ancestors, you have heard from the archaeologist annoyed at the denigration of his profession, a novelist upset by your inability to tell fact from fiction, and a number of other eloquent, distinctive voices.

I am still waiting for a reply from your institution. I recognise, of course, that the issues I and others have raised are serious, and may require serious consideration by the people responsible for the policies and practices of Dargaville museum. Nevertheless, I would have expected to have received some acknowledgement of my complaint by now. It is normal practice for institutions that serve the public to acknowledge a complaint soon after they receive it, and to say whether or not the complaint will be considered. As far as I know, no one else who has complained to you in recent days has received a reply, either.

While they wait for you to acknowledge their communciations, some of the critics of Dargaville museum have initiated a public discussion of your promotion of the Waitaha myth and your mistreatment of the Pouto pou. I published my first e mail to the museum on the Reading the Maps blog, and a number of readers of the site have posted the texts of their own e mails to the museum in the comments box underneath my blog post. The New Zealand Archaeological Association has placed a link to the published e mails on its website, so that its members can find out about the controversy. In the last couple of days, over five hundred people have viewed the post about Dargaville museum at Reading the Maps. Dargaville museum is mistaken if it thinks that it can avoid negative publicity by ignoring critical e mails.

I would like to add two supplementary points to the complaint I sent you at the beginning of the week. Over the past twenty-four hours I have received some information about the background of Patrick Ruka, the 'Waitaha kaumatua' who took part, according to the caption in your museum, in a ceremony to welcome the Pouto pou into your permanent collection in 1996.

As I suspected, Patrick, who also goes by the names Mac and Maki, is part of the New Age 'Nation of Waitaha' cult established by Barry Brailsford at the beginning of the nineties. Visiting the Nation of Waitaha's facebook page, I notice that the group claims to have lived in Egypt more than four thousand years ago, and to have reached New Zealand after travelling through the Middle East, Siberia, the Aleutian Islands, the Americas, and the Eastern Pacific.

In a 1997 interview, Ruka claimed to have supernatural powers, and suggested that he could trace his whakapapa back half a million years. I was especially surprised by the second claim, because I had been under the impression that the modern human species had been in existence for no longer than two hundred thousand years. Elsewhere in Ruka's interview, though, I learnt that the Waitaha originally voyaged to earth from a distant planet. In the caption accompanying the Pouto pou, your museum boasts that it is the only place in New Zealand where a Waitaha artefact is publically displayed. Perhaps you are also the only institution in the country to display the artefact of an extraterrestrial culture? I also wanted to make a comment about Noel Hilliam, the man who is, according to the staff member I spoke to on Sunday, responsible for the presentation and interpretation of the Pouto pou. Since I e mailed you at the beginning of the week I have learned that Hilliam - a man who has no training in archaeology, history, or any related discipline - is closely associated with, if not a member of, the One New Zealand Foundation, a right-wing, anti-Maori political party based in Northland, and the Celtic New Zealand circle, a group of conspiracy theorists and pseudo-historians run by a man named Martin Doutre.

Along with the philosopher Matthew Dentith, the archaeologist Edward Ashby, and the distinguised Kai Tahu writer Keri Hulme, I took part last year in a protracted debate with Martin Doutre at the online journal the Scoop Review of Books. In the course of this confrontation, which is preserved in the archive of the Scoop Review of Books, Doutre admitted to being a Holocaust denier, expressed admiration for the neo-Nazi historian David Irving, and claimed that the 9/11 attacks on the United States were an 'inside job', not the work of Osama bin Laden.

The Celtic New Zealand website which Doutre maintains is full of praise for Noel Hilliam. I thought that this passage, which is accompanied on the site by a photo of a pile of bones and skulls, was especially interesting:

[This photo shows] a new cache of bones found in the Kaipara District. The skeletons are being studied by Noel Hilliam, former Curator of the Dargaville Maritime Museum, and his team of researchers...[this is] one of many photos taken by Noel Hilliam of the very small stature people that he and a group of experts are secretly studying. Noel's attempts to undertake proper scientific investigation in behalf of the New Zealand public are being thwarted and blockaded by the PC establishment.

If what Doutre is saying in the quoted passage is correct, then his friend Noel Hilliam has been removing human remains from sites in the Kaipara region without the permission of the state or of the iwi which have mana whenua over the region. The New Zealand Historic Places Act of 1993 prohibits the unauthorised disturbance of grave sites, and provides for the punishment of grave looting by large fines or terms of imprisonment. Noel Hilliam may come to regret allowing the Celtic New Zealand website to boast about his 'secret' expeditions to Kaipara burial caves.

Noel Hilliam's lack of academic training, associations with outfits like the One New Zealand Foundation and the Celtic New Zealand circle, and apparent desecration of Maori burial sites make him totally unsuited to work with taonga like the Pouto pou.

I believe that the information I have provided about the bizarre claims of the Ruka whanau and the 'Nation of Waitaha' and the unsavoury associations and activities of Noel Hilliam reinforces the case that I and others have made against your promotion of the Waitaha myth and your mistreatment of the Pouto pou. I hope that you will acknowledge the complaints you have received from me and from other concerned parties in the very near future.

Sincerely
Scott Hamilton

Monday, October 12, 2009

Pseudo-history at Dargy museum


[Along with a number of other masochists, including the regular contributors to this blog Edward Ashby and Matthew Dentith, I've been involved for the last year or so in monitoring the activities of the pseudo-historians who argue, for reasons that are more political than scholarly, that New Zealand was first settled by ancient Celts, or South Americans, or Chinese, or 'Waitaha' - by anyone, it seems, but Maori.

Up until now, the pseudo-historians have been discovered lurking in trashy giveaway papers like the Franklin E Local, or on badly-designed websites that tend to disappear when they're subjected to scholarly scrutiny. Yesterday, though, I was dismayed to discover that pseudo-history has gained a foothold in one of New Zealand's larger provincial museums.

What follows is the text of an e mail I've just sent to the director of Dargaville museum: if you feel moved to send your own complaint, you can reach her at darg.museum@xtra.co.nz]

I am e mailing you because I visited Dargaville museum yesterday, and was perturbed by your institution's treatment of New Zealand prehistory.

My concerns focus on the presentation and interpretation of the large pou which forms the centrepiece of your room of prehistoric artefacts. Because I am going to take issue with many of the claims it makes, I will quote the caption which accompanies the pou in full:

Pouto Ki Rongomaraeroa

This ancient 2.7 metre pou carved with stone implements from kauri was discovered in sand dunes near Pouto Point after a storm in December 1991. It is thought to have been the right hand entrance of a Waitaha village known as Matuinga.

The carving, called Pouto Ki Rongomaraeroa, is the only one of its kind to be restored and put on display in a public place.

It is different in type and design to Maori carvings, reinforcing the theory that the Waitaha had different origins and a longer history in New Zealand than Maori. The Waitaha lived in settlements around much of New Zealand's coast.

The carving was found by Dargaville woman Maxine Stringer, and after specialised preservation by Auckland University it was returned and installed in the Museum during a dawn ceremony led by Waitaha kaumatua (elder) Patrick Ruka in December 1996

A storm in 1950 uncovered the remains of a Waitaha village the carving probably belonged to, but sand covered the site again before excavation could take place.


The caption I have quoted gives the impression that there is an intellectually credible theory which holds that a people called Waitaha inhabited New Zealand before Maori and still live here today. I don't think I would be exaggerating if I said that there is not a single scholar of New Zealand's prehistory who would endorse such a 'theory'.

When historians, archaeologists, museum curators, and experts on whakapapa talk about Waitaha, they are referring to the iwi which originally inhabited the South Island. The Waitaha were a Maori tribe, not a non-Maori people. Their control of the South Island was ended by the arrival of first the Ngati Mamoe and then the Kai Tahu tribes. First the Ngati Mamoe absorbed Waitaha through conquest and intermarriage, and then Kai Tahu absorbed Ngati Mamoe through the same process.

Although some Waitaha stories, songs, and sacred places were incorporated into Kai Tahu culture, the group had long since ceased to exist as a distinct entity by the time Europeans arived in the South Island in the late eighteenth century. The 1994 Treaty settlement between Kai Tahu and the Crown affirmed that, because they had taken over the land, absorbed the people they had found there, and lived in possession of the land for hundreds of years, Kai Tahu were the tangata whenua of the territory that was originally inhabited by Waitaha.

Your museum's claim that Waitaha were a pre-Maori people who lived all around New Zealand seems to derive from a series of very eccentric books published by a man named Barry Brailsford. In the 1980s Brailsford enjoyed a reputation as a serious researcher into New Zealand prehistory, but at the beginning of the 1990s he began to make a series of very strange claims about the existence of a hitherto-unknown 'nation of Waitaha'.

According to Brailsford, this 'nation' had been established in New Zealand thousands of years ago by a technologically advanced people with supernatural powers who had journeyed across the ocean from South America to these islands. The people of Waitaha supposedly built pyramids, huge stone statues, and stone roads in their new home, but they were pacifists, and were eventually conquered by the ancestors of the Maori. Brailsford claimed that he was given his 'information' on the 'nation of Waitaha' from a handful of survivors of the nation, but critics like Kai Tahu leader and historian Tipene O'Regan have pointed out that most of these 'Waitahans' were actually Pakeha.

Brailsford's 'theory' of a Waitaha 'nation' has been treated with disdain by serious scholars of New Zealand's past. Brailsford's critics have pointed out that it is very unlikely that a large, technologically advanced civilisation existed in New Zealand thousands of years ago.

The importation of rats and large-scale fires are almost always corollaries of the human settlement of virgin islands, yet analysis of pollen spores shows that our forests were largely undisturbed by man-made fire until less than a thousand years ago, and analysis of ancient seeds suggest that rats did not reach our shores until about the same time. No human remains or artefacts have been found close to, let alone below, the layer of ash left by the last eruption of Taupo eighteen hundred years ago. The huge ancient cemeteries, buried roads, and massive ruined stone structures we would expect to find if the Waitaha theory were true have never turned up. Michael King summed up the attitude of scholars and Maori when he wrote in his Penguin History of New Zealand that 'not a skerrick of evidence' exists to support the theory of a pre-Maori Waitaha nation.

I have been unable to find any information about the 'Waitaha kaumatua' Patrick Ruku mentioned in the caption in your museum. I assume, though, that he is one of the handful of people who have identified with Barry Brailsford's mystical ideas about New Zealand pre-history. The caption in Dargaville museum claims that the pou found on Pouto peninsula is 'different in type and design' to Maori carvings. This is a very odd assertion, because both the function of the artefact and the motifs carved onto it are immediately recognisable as Maori. Anyone who visits a large collection of Maori carvings - the collection in the Auckland War Memorial Museum's Maori Court, for instance - will notice many large carvings which were intended to stand either as gateways to important spaces - marae, cultivations, or burial grounds - or as markers denoting boundaries of one sort or another.

The spiral motif carved on the pou is ubiquitous in Maori art. The relative simplicity of the carving may indicate that the pou belongs to the early period of Maori culture and art, before the more intricate carving style made famous by meeting houses like the Auckland museum's Hotunui evolved. Many examples of early Maori carving have been found in Northland - the Kaitaia lintelpiece, which is the oldest known Maori artefact, is a good example. There is no reason to treat the pou at Dargaville museum as the product of a non-Maori culture.

The reference to the University of Auckland in your caption implies that the institution is in some way associated with and supportive of claims about a 'Waitaha' civilisation. The pou may have undergone some work in the conservation lab at the university's anthropology department, which is open to outsiders, but I am certain that none of the staff or students at the department would want to be associated with the claims you are making about New Zealand prehistory.

I was saddened not only by your interpretation but by your presentation of the pou found at Pouto. It is normal for museums to display pou in an upright position. Pou were intended to stand upright, and museum visitors have a better chance of understanding the function and meaning of an object if it is displayed in the way its makers intended. There are cultural as well as educational reasons for displaying pou upright: because of the mana that the objects had, many Maori find it offensive to see them prostrate. Instead of displaying the Pouto pou in a manner that is educationally and culturally appropriate, Dargaville museum has chosen to lay the object in a container that resembles a glass-topped coffin.

After seeing the pou and the caption accompanying it, I talked with a member of the Dargaville museum staff. When I asked her how the museum could justify its claim about a pre-Maori Waitaha people, she told me, very firmly, that archaeologists had uncovered 'pre-Maori' settlements during digs 'down on Pouto peninsula'. Compared to the rest of Northland, Pouto peninsula has received fairly intensive archaeological investigation, but none of the site surveys and excavations conducted in the region has ever uncovered signs of a pre-Maori civilisation.

When I asked the staff member whether she was aware the scholarly community rejected the idea of a pre-Maori people, she replied 'Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?' She explained that Maori communities and the archaeologists and historians who work with them have a 'vested interest' in suppressing information about a pre-Maori people. When I asked her whether the Dargaville museum had consulted the Ngati Whatua subtribe Te Uri o Hau, who are the tangata whenua of the Dargaville area, about the Pouto pou, the staff member replied that 'the Maoris[sic] aren't interested'.

When I examined the rack of books offered for sale near the entrance to your museum, I was unable to find a single text by a trained historian or archaeologist. I did, however, find two books by Gary Cook, a self-styled expert on 'mystic realms' and 'alternative history' who wanders the backblocks of New Zealand searching for ley lines and 'energy sites'. It goes without saying that Cook's work is not normally found in museum bookshops. In the space where visitors can watch 'educational' DVDs, I found a copy of a 'documentary' called Who Was Here Before Us? in which Cook, Brailsford and a series of other pseudo-scholars expound their strange ideas.

Dargaville museum is a beautifully situated institution with some fine objects in its permanent collection. It has the potential to play an important role in educating New Zealanders about their past. At present, though, the museum is engaged in misrepresenting a large part of our nation's past by promoting the absurd Waitaha myth, peddling works of pseudo-scholarship, and answering visitors' questions with misinformation. I believe that the museum should rectify these faults by forging relationships with scholars experts in New Zealand's pre-history, and with the tangata whenua of the Dargaville area. Museums have a responsibility to represent the past accurately, and under the Treaty of Waitangi they also have a responsibility to work in partnership with Maori when they store and display taonga like the Pouto pou.

I will be sending copies of this e mail to individuals and groups who may be affected by and interested in the misrepresentations at Dargaville museum.

Sincerely
Scott Hamilton

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

To the zoo, at night

The repressively complacent character of post-war New Zealand society helped to create a series of hermetic teenage male countercultures. Unable to identify with the rugby players, bushmen and shearers who were supposed to represent the essence of New Zealand manhood, and tired of the milk bars and movie theatres that were supposed to absorb their leisure time, minorities of young men defined themselves by their strangeness and gravitated towards spaces on the fringes of the tight little communities their parents and grandparents had constructed.

In his memoir Years Ago Today, the late Alan Brunton recalls some of the tangential but closely-knit tribes that the quiescence of 1960s Auckland created, and the places in which these tribes congregated. One tribe, which had its origins on the freshly-laid bitumen of Mt Roskill, announced itself by ritually sacrificing a sheep beside the nineteenth century cemetery of Grafton Gully. Other tribes found stomping grounds in derelict forts, tunnel complexes, and abandoned asylums: in spaces and structures which hinted at a world more exotic and chaotic than tidy welfare state suburbs like Mt Roskill.

In the mid-'70s a group of young men from Auckland's western suburbs became fascinated with the zoo which lay at the end of their neighbourhood amidst scoria stone walls and elaborate gardens. Students at Westlake Boys High, they shared a love of loud music and a hatred for the mixture of rugby and evangelical Christianity which dominated life at their school. In opposition to the officially- endorsed rituals of the first fifteen and the Crusaders Club, the young dissidents established their own, clandestine, bonding exercise: on quiet nights in the warmer months of the year, they scaled the walls of the zoo, and visited its monkeys, lions, and other inmates.

In daylight the zoo was the sort of environment that the tribe detested, a place where sentimentality and safety ruled. Children and camera-happy tourists gawped as elephants rolled in the dust for peanuts and big cats wearily patrolled the tiny wildernesses of their enclosures. In the evening, though, the zoo was transformed: emptied of its crowds and lit only by the moon, the place invited adventure and fantasy.

In the first section of his new book On the Eve of Never Departing, one of the Westlake High School rebels recalls a visit to the zoo which was full of both terror and wonder. Richard von Sturmer read the passage at the launch of his book last month at Fordes Bar, and a recording of his performance has been placed online here.

Although the recording was made on a cellphone sitting on a table in a far corner of Fordes Bar, it captures von Sturmer's voice clearly. The clinking glasses, lowered chatting voices, and scraping chairs which usually form an accompaniment to an author's reading are absent. The silence you hear around Richard's voice is the sound of a transported audience.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Ken Wilber, pseudo-philosopher

For thousands of people in North America, and a surprising number of people in the Antipodes, the great philosopher of our age is Ken Wilber. This fact may surprise many philosophers, because Wilber has never studied philosophy at a university, never published a paper in a refereed academic journal, never had a book accepted by an academic publisher, never had a book reviewed in an important non-academic intellectual forum, like the New York Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement, and never held a teaching post in a Philosophy Department.

In the twenty-first century, though, the opinions of what some commenters at this blog sneeringly call 'the intellectual elite' tend often to conflict with popular opinion. Despite his lack of training in Mandarin, the self-proclaimed Sinologist Gavin Menzies enjoys better sales and a higher public profile than any of the myriad scholars who contest his claims that fifteenth century Chinese mariners discovered Antarctica and New Zealand and kick-started the Italian Renaissance. New Agers who believe that Einsteinian physics allows us to walk on water and mould reality to our will had a box office hit with What the Bleep do we Know?, despite being condemned as charlatans by real scientists like Richard Dawkins and Simon Singh. In the United States, where Wilber grew up, studied chemistry and biology at undergraduate level, and eventually founded his Integral Movement, only a minority of adults are persuaded by the theories of evolution and plate tectonics.

After growing up in Oklahoma, abandoning a degree in medicine at North Carolina's Duke University, going to the East and sitting at the feet of a series of holy men, and hanging about in the New Age 'scene' on America's West Coast in the 1970s, Wilber began publishing books which promised to bring together 'spirituality and science' in a 'theory of everything'. By 1987 Wilber had gathered enough of a following to found the Integral Institute in Boulder, Colorado and begin to conduct expensive courses there.

According to Wilber, both individuals and societies can be understood in relation to a grand schema of 'stages' of 'consciousness'. Wilber's schema begins with a stage marked by 'archaic consciousness' and culminates in stages of 'pluralist' and 'integral' consciousness. Each of these stages incorporates the best parts of the last, and humans who have reached the latter stages tend to be happier and live more useful lives than those who have gotten 'stuck' on the earlier stages. Indeed, the world's conflicts derive from the fact that many people are stuck at a particular stage of consciousness, which Wilber calls the 'mythic stage'. When they reach a 'higher', 'pluralist' stage of consciousness, humans are able to integrate the different worldviews they encounter, instead of responding to differences of opinion with aggression. According to Wilber, most of the small percentage of humans who have reached the pluralist consciousness live in the 'advanced' Western societies.

The rhetoric of pluralism that Wilber uses is common in New Age thought, and also makes appearances in contemporary political discourse. Leaders of New Zealand's Green Party, for instance, are fond of claiming that their organisation is 'beyond left and right' and that it forsakes the 'politics of conflict'. Few self-proclaimed pluralists are actually willing to tolerate every opinion that they encounter. Anybody who tried to do so would find it impossible to think and act coherently, because it is impossible to advocate one point of view without taking all sorts of negative positions on other points of view. The Greens, for instance, cannot advocate 'clean' forms of power generation without opposing coal mining and nuclear reactors.

The 'pluralists' may claim to adopt a tolerant attitude toward all competing points of view, but they actually use a set of criteria - a sort of meta-worldview - to distinguish between desirable and undesirable opinions. Typically, they justify this meta-worldview by claiming that it embodies a sort of 'ultimate' or 'objective' truth, and is thus beyond contestation. The Greens, for instance, tend to explain their opposition to nuclear power and GE food on the grounds that such things go 'against the interests of the planet', and can thus never be justified. In this very old-fashioned argument, 'the planet' - or 'the ecopshere', or 'gaia' - stands in for God as the ultimate arbiter of what is right and wrong. Left and right alike must submit to its dictates.

Wilber's 'pluralism' rests on a similarly absolutist foundation. He claims that the stages of consciousness that humans and human societies can pass through are part of a system which encompasses the entire universe. Everything in the universe, from the atom 'upward', wants to be part of 'something more than itself'. There is a sort of force which makes one thing want to be incorporated into something 'higher' - that makes an atom 'want' to be part of a molecule, a tree 'want' to be part of a forest, and so on.

Wilber uses the terms 'holon' and 'holarchy' to try to explain these ideas. A holon is a single unit, and a holarchy is a collection of units. Holons 'want' to be part of a 'holarchy'. The universe is a sort of conglomeration of holarchies - a super-holarchy. Everything fits together, because every holon 'wants' it to. We should all therefore 'naturally' want to move to a higher stage of consciousness. If we do not, then we are ignorant of our true nature, and of the true nature of the universe. Ideas and modes of behaviour which belong to 'lower stages' of consciousness should be jettisoned, or at least 'transcended', in the interest of movement 'upwards'. Philosophy is one of the most academicised fields of intellectual endeavour. Plato and his disciples stand at the very beginning of the tradition of the Western university. Historically, many very significant philosophers have worked outside universities but, for the last hundred and twenty years at least, philosophy has by and large taken place within an academic context: students have trained for years in the discipline, have shown their credentials by publishing in journals refereed by their peers, and - if they are intent on being professional philosophers, and are good enough, and (perhaps) intellectually fashionable enough - won teaching positions at universities.

Of course, it might be argued that academia is not the be-all and end-all of intellectual life, and that good work can be done outside the Ivory Tower. It is true that there has been a handful of modern philosophers - Jean-Paul Sartre is a notable example - who have done fine work outside the academy. But these thinkers have generally won recognition inside the academy, as the professionals have scrambled to keep up with them.

By contrast, Wilber has never succeeded in getting a book published by an academic press, and his name is not cited by contributors to refereed journals. On some of the sites run by the man's fans, this failure is explained by the existence of a sort of 'academic conspiracy' against Wilber. According to this view, Wilber's genius goes unappreciated by a narrow-minded, monolithic philosophical 'establishment' which controls the universities and peer-reviewed journals.

Similar complaints, of course, are heard from other marginalised intellectual currents, like Creationist 'scientists' and believers in the sort of 'alternate' histories which have Celts or Chinese landing on New Zealand before Maori. The complaints of Wilber's followers do not seem any more compelling than those of the Creationists or the alternate history crowd.

Academia is not a place of rigorously enforced orthodoxies - instead, it is riven by factions and controversy. One only has to pick up an academic journal to see the extent to which scholars disagree with one another. In the age of 'publish or perish' and cut-throat competition for non-tenured jobs, academics have more reason than ever to contest. Today, any young, job-hungry academic would leap at the chance to embrace and promote a theory that ran counter to the direction of his or her discipline - if that theory were credible.

It is true that JFK 'University', a small, private institution in California, does offer a course in 'Integral Studies', but this course does not appear to be connected to or endorsed by any academic philosophy department. It looks rather like the sort of dubious course of studies which can be created at private 'universities' by religious groups intent on appearing intellectually respectable. It is, after all, possible to 'study' Creationism at various American 'universities'.

The source for the oft-repeated suggestion that Wilber is an acclaimed philosopher is probably Wilber himself. The man's books, which appear to either be self-published or to come from New Age presses, tend systematically to misrepresent his status in the philosophical community. For instance, the back cover of the 1995 volume Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality claims that 'Ken Wilber is one of the most widely read and influential philosophers of our time'.

If Wilber is not part of contemporary philosophical discourse, where does he get his ideas from? Wilber seems to derive some of his ideas and much of his terminology - his talks of 'holons' and a 'holarchy', for instance - from Arthur Koestler, a man who was never a philosopher, and indeed never claimed to be. After suffering at the hands of Stalinists in the Spanish Civil War, Koestler won a reputation for his novels and his journalism, which warned of the dangers of authoritarian politics. As he got older, though, Koestler developed some very strange beliefs, which led to the gradual evaporation of his reputation. After taking large amounts of LSD, Koestler became obsessed with the occult. He wrote about ghosts and spent a lot of time holding glorified seances.

Koestler also developed some inexplicable ideas about history. One of the strangest of the many strange books he wrote in his old age was The Thirteenth Tribe, which claims that the Jewish people of Europe come from Central Asia, not the Middle East. The Thirteenth Tribe was ridiculed by serious reviewers, but it was a huge hit with anti-semites, because it seemed to suggest that the Jews of Europe had no right to emigrate to the Middle East in the twentieth century. The anti-semitic conspiracy theorists at New Zealand's Uncensored magazine ran an article endorsing Koestler's book earlier this year.

It is not only Koestler's ideas which have been condemned in the court of intellectual opinion. When he found he was dying of cancer in 1983, Koestler forced his wife to commit suicide with him. In the last fifteen years scholars have discovered that this sadistic act was no aberration. David Cesarani, who wrote an acclaimed biography on Koestler, discovered that his subject had beaten and raped a series of women.

Wilber lifts his talk of holons and a holarchy from Koestler's 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine, which presented the 'discoveries' he arrived at in his drug-induced 'research' into the occult. This text was never taken seriously, and nowadays is read only as an insight into its author's disturbed psychology. Wilber and his followers seem to be the only people who appreciate Koestler's 'genius'.

Another of the key influences on Wilber's thinking is Adi Da, a 'spiritual seeker' who proclaimed himself a living God at the beginning of the 1970s and founded a dystopian community on a small Fijian island. When Adi Da died last year his followers gathered about his body, waiting for a resurrection, but after lying for days in the tropical heat Da began to smell. Wilber was a friend of Adi Da for some time, and although he came to disagree with some of the man's more crazed antics, he has repeatedly referred to Da as a 'great spiritual thinker'. In a text called 'The Case of Adi Da', which is reproduced on his own official website, Wilber describes Da's rambling, egomaniacal, often incomprehensible book The Dawn Horse Testament as 'one of the very greatest spiritual treatises, comparable in scope and depth to any of the truly classic religious texts'. Adi Da's work in general is 'an extraordinary source of material', Wilber maintains.

Wilber wants to distance himself from Adi Da the man, whilst holding on to Adi Da's writing. This manoeuvre is clearly impossible, because all of Adi Da's writing is about one subject - Adi Da. Again and again in his texts, Adi Da insists on his own divinity, and demands that the rest of humanity - whom he charmingly describes in one text as 'the five billion slugs' - submit itself to him.

Wilber's continuing defence of Adi Da's deranged texts has caused some of his followers embarrassment, but it is not hard to understand, because Da is part of the essential background to Wilber's work. If Wilber takes his cosmic vocabulary from Koestler, then he takes a key part of his method from Adi Da.

Like Adi Da, Wilber purports to be what we can call a mystical-syncretic thinker - that is, he purports to take previous thinkers and 'extend' them by showing that their thought illuminated only a part of a 'wider truth'. Adi Da would get his disciples to read works from many different religious traditions, and then proclaim that all of these traditions were valid, as long as it was recognised that they illuminated only parts of an 'absolute truth' - a truth embodied in Adi Da.

Wilber uses a similar manoeuvre, though he isn't, of course, as crass as Adi Da. In his texts, Wilber examines an endless series of conflicts, all of which consist of two 'partial' truths which need to be 'reconciled' by being considered in the light of the 'ultimate reality' which Integral Thought - ie, Ken Wilber - can alone describe.

I have read a number of Wilber's texts carefully, and I cannot avoid concluding that they prove conclusively that the man is, at least as far as he discusses subjects with which I am familiar, an intellectual fraud. Looking through Wilber’s attempts at philosophy, I find no evidence that he understands even the sort of basic philosophical concepts that undergraduates majoring in the subject learn. I certainly can't see that he has a grasp of key debates in philosophy over the past hundred years.

Admittedly, I haven't read everything, or even most of the things, that Wilber has published. Like so many people who don't bother with peer review and don't get reviewed except in fringe publications staffed with their own followers, the man seems to be able to publish about an extraordinary number of subjects at an extraordinary rate. I don't have the expertise to assess Wilber's writing on mathematics, on developmental psychology, on pharmacology, and on a dozen other subjects, though I do note, after doing some searches, that Wilber doesn't seem to be any more esteemed by scholars in these fields than he is by scholars in philosophy. I can, however, make a reasonable stab at assessing Wilber's writing about two related fields that I have studied in some detail - historiography and the philosophy of history.

In a rambling text called 'Who Ate Captain Cook?', Wilber discusses, or rather purports to discuss, the key controversies of contemporary historiography and philosophy of history. Before we consider Wilber's text, it is important for us to be clear about what historiography and the philosophy of history are. Historiography refers to the arguments that historians have about interpretations of past events - we might speak of the historiography of the Second World War, for instance, to describe the disputes about what caused the war, whether Hitler could ever have won the war, whether America would have joined the war if it were not for the attack on Pearl Harbour, and so on. The philosophy of history sits at a higher level of abstraction than historiography -it discusses the basic presuppositions and methods of history, rather than specific pieces of history. A philosopher of history might consider, for instance, whether history might ever become become a science, with the sort of strict laws that the natural sciences use, or whether the discipline has more affinities with the arts.

Wilber's text claims that contemporary historians are divided into two camps, one of which is 'postmodern' and one of which is 'modernist'. According to Wilber, postmodernists think that Western civilisation is evil, and that facts do not exist, while the modernists believe that Western civilisation is good, and that facts exist without interpretation. Wilber claims that the historiography about the meaning of the death of Captain Cook shows that both of these viewpoints contain some truth, but need to be – of course - 'transcended' using the higher truth that Wilber's Integral truth can provide.

Wilber’s text is filled with blunders, but this post is long enough already, and the cricket is about to begin, so I’ll focus on one particular passage. Here is Wilber elaborating on the difference he sees between the two ‘sides’ of debates in contemporary historiography and the philosophy of history:

It’s the fight between facts and interpretations; or between 'scientific historiography' and 'hermeneutic historiography'; or between modernism and postmodernism; or between orange and green; or between the Right-Hand and the Left-Hand approaches. It all boils down to this: On the one hand (i.e., the Right Hand), we have the modern, orange, scientific meme, which believes that fundamentally there are only empirical facts in the world ('The world is sum total of facts,' as the logical positivists would put it), and thus there is one, true, universal, empirical account of history that tells things the way 'they really were.' On the other hand (i.e., the Left Hand), we have the postmodern, green, pluralist meme, which believes that there are 'no facts, only interpretations.

Anybody who knows anything about trends in historiography and the philosophy of history over the past fifty years will know that Wilber is talking nonsense here. Historians, let alone philosophers of history, have not argued that facts exist free of interpretation for many decades - possibly the last high-profile book which argued this line was Geoffrey Elton's The Practice of History, which was published in the mid-60s and was widely ridiculed as out of date even then.

Elton, who was a rather stuffy scholar of the Tudor period of England's past, claimed that historians should look through a range of 'facts' dispassionately and then arrive at an 'interpretation' of these facts. The flaw in his argument is that facts never arrive 'naked' to the scholar - they are always embedded in a context. Consider, for instance, the fact that Britain declared war on Germany on the 3rd of September 1939. We cannot even begin to process this fact without also knowing a whole series of other facts - we have to know that Britain and Germany were both sovereign states, we have to know what a declaration of war is, we have to know what war itself is, and so on.

We never come at a fact innocently, but always within some framework of interpretations. This does not, in the opinions of most philosophers of history, mean that we are trapped in a single dogmatic framework. We are free to adopt different frameworks, or working hypotheses, as historians often call them, as we sift through evidence. But we cannot buy into any naive ideas of being free of background of assumptions when we study the past.

Wilber is also talking nonsense when he claims that 'postmodernists' deny the existence of facts. No historian or philosopher of history would do such a thing. What a minority of historians and philosophers of history do claim is that the framework within which we view facts is very strongly governed by our cultural background and assumptions, and that it therefore hard to get free from. If it is taken to an extreme, this view can involve a sort of cultural relativism, where someone asserts that, say, Cook could never possibly, with the best will in the world, understand the Hawaiians, and never grasp some basic facts about their society, because he was trapped in a worldview given to him by his culture.

Cultural relativism does not, then, involve denying that facts exist, as Wilber seems to claims it does - rather, it involves the denial that humans can grasp certain facts about societies very different from their own. There is a huge difference between the two positions. When philosophers talk about knowledge-claims -about human attempts to know things - then they are doing epistemology. When philosophers talk about what exists - about what has being - then they are discussing ontology. If two philosophers argue about whether cultural relativism is a defensible position or not then they are involved in an epistemological argument. Wilber, though, thinks that the philosophers of history who argue about cultural relativism are somehow engaged in ontological argument. He doesn't seem able to distinguish between two of the most basic types of philosophical enquiry.

I have laboured this point because I want to emphasise Wilber's lack of understanding of even the simplest elements of philosophy, let alone historiography. Although Wilber claims to be the key philosopher of our time, and to have the solution to the problems that divide philosophers, he seems to me to have less grasp of the subject than the average undergraduate. And it's easy to understand why someone with such a basic understanding of philosophy as Wilber could fall for the scribblings of Adi Da and Arthur Koestler.

Like Gavin Menzies and What the Bleep do we Know? and the conspiracy theorists of Uncensored, Ken Wilber is a symptom of the breach which has opened up in the West between serious scholarship and popular opinion. This breach has complex origins - to understand it properly, we would have to consider the decay of public education, the rise of the internet, which allows for the speedy replication and dissemination of error and fantasy, the lack of genuine political debate in societies where the left and the labour movement have been in decline, and many other factors - but its effects, which I'll discuss in a future post, are straightforwardly negative.