John Ansell and the power of bad ideas
Unfortunately, as the history of doctrines as different as phrenology, Lysenkoism, and neo-liberalism shows, there is no necessary correlation between an idea's reasonableness and its influence. Bad ideas can be popular and powerful ideas. The recent activities of John Ansell, who surely counts as one of more eccentric contributors to debates on this blog, highlight the undeserved influence bad thinking can have.
I hadn't heard of Ansell until he turned up at this blog a fortnight ago to take part in a discussion underneath a post I had made on Hone Harawira. To give him his due, Ansell was prepared to respond pleasantly to the points of debaters who disagreed with him. But the views Ansell expressed were anything but pleasant. Ansell looks with horror on the Maori renaissance of the past thirty years, and regards the key achievements of that renaissance, like recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi, state support for Maori culture and language, and the return of some land and resources stolen from iwi, as mortal dangers to the people of New Zealand.
Ansell's interpretation of recent New Zealand history is rooted in his conviction that there is something perverse and dangerous about Kiwis who identify as Maori and talk of Maori rights.
During the discussion at this blog, Ansell argued that, because contemporary Maori are not 'pure-blooded' - ie, because they generally have at least some non-Maori ancestry - they are Maori only by personal choice. Maori culture is, Ansell suggested, effectively a 'religion', like Catholicism or Islam. Maori culture can, in fact, be likened to a backward-looking, particularly irrational religion, because, according to Ansell, it is incompatible with most of the innovations of the modern world, like sophisticated technology and notions of individual human rights. Just as the state should not be in the business of recognising and funding Wahhabi Islam and theocratic Catholicism, so it should not be in the business or providing any funding to the Maori 'religion'. State funding for perversities like te reo is no better than state funding for madrasses, or for the Latin mass.
What Ansell has done, whether he fully realises it or not, is rework and weave together a number of motifs developed by Kiwi bigots over the past century and a half. He invokes the scientific racism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when he claims that the only really authentic Maori were the 'pure-blooded' types who signed the Treaty back in 1840. He reworks the assimilationist ideology which was such a part of Pakeha state policy for so long when he claims that the descendants of the 'real' Maori who signed the Treaty have become honorary whites, because they have been absorbed into New Zealand's capitalist economy and use modern technology.
And Ansell draws on the sort of paranoia that fuelled anti-Fenianism, anti-Asian racism, and the Tohunga Suppression Act when he presents contemporary Maori culture as the product of a perverse and irrational desire to reject the modern world. For Ansell, Maori culture and notions of Maori rights are symptoms of a neurosis.
It is worrying that Ansell is not simply a deluded individual, but a man with some degree of influence over an organisation of some size. He is in the news this week as the designer of a series of billboards for the Coastal Coalition, an organisation set up recently to campaign against National's decision to repeal Labour's 2004 Seabed and Foreshore legislation.
By taking us back to the era before Labour's controversial law, National has recognised that Maori have some customary rights over the coastline, and has allowed the extent and meaning of these rights to be tested in court. To Ansell and the thousands of angry Pakeha who have pledged support for the Coastal Coalition, these small concessions to the Maori Party somehow equal a catastrophe. Commenting at Kiwiblog yesterday, a member of the Coastal Coalition expressed the apocalyptically racist thinking that seems to drive the group:
This country is now irrevocably fucked as a western democracy...This asshole treasonous bastard John Key and his quisling party is planning to RELINQUISH THE COUNTRY’S OWNERSHIP OF ITS OWN BEACHES AND FORESHORE!!! This will inevitably open up claims and counter-claims indefinitely about what can or cannot be done with this vital strategic asset which, up until now, has been owned by all New Zealanders in the name of the ‘Crown’...please note that soon the main primary escape route for Kiwis, Australia, will be closed so either get out while you can or stand up and fight.
One only has to look at the billboards Ansell has designed for the Coastal Coalition to see the influence of the worldview he holds. The boards treat 'iwi' not as Maori descent groups, but as sinister cabals plotting to do ordinary New Zealanders out of their rights. Such a bizarre understanding of the term 'iwi' is only possible if one defines Maori identity as the product of a perverse and dangerous personal choice, rather than as a product of whakapapa and culture.
One of Ansell's billboards takes a feather cloak, an item regarded as a taonga by virtually all iwi, no matter what their geographic location, history, and traditional political loyalties, and makes it into a strongly negative symbol. Ansell can only make this appalling error because he labours under the delusion that Maori are, without exception, converts to a 'religion' which opposes and threatens all that is good in contemporary New Zealand society.
Apparently there is a shortage of Maori members of the Coastal Coalition. I imagine that lefties would feel pretty lonely there too, but that hasn't stopped Chris Trotter from pledging his support for the group.