Friday, December 31, 2010

The BSA changes its mind about Bolton


The Broadcasting Standards Authority seems to have a habit of delivering its decisions at very inconvenient times. Last year, a couple of days before Christmas, the BSA announced that it was upholding the complaint that Kerry Bolton, New Zealand's longest-serving and highest-profile neo-Nazi, had made against yours truly. Now it has chosen to reverse its decision on the brink of the New Year, when most of the country is at the beach or at the barbeque.

Back in the middle of 2009, during a discussion about Holocaust denial and other types of pseudo-history on Radio New Zealand's Ideas programme, I called Bolton a veteran and still-active Holocaust denier, and also cited him as the creator of the myth that an ancient race of white people settled New Zealand long before Maori. Bolton complained that my statements were inaccurate, and the BSA responded with an extraordinarily turgid report which refused to 'take an opinion' on whether Bolton was a Holocaust denier but concluded that the evidence I had provided for the claim was 'scant'.

In the best spirit of pseudo-scholarship, Bolton had deleted a number of webpages I had cited as evidence for his Holocaust denial before the BSA could get to them. There was still plentiful evidence of Bolton's Holocaust denial available to the researcher - self-published books like The Holocaust Myth, for instance, and rants about the charms of Adolf Hitler, the merits of concentration camps, and the supposed control of postwar Germany by Jews in letters to The Listener and other publications - but the journalists who sit on the BSA failed to do any legwork. Their judgment was a Christmas gift to anti-semites, and was gleefully reproduced on neo-Nazi websites around the world.

The BSA's decision to side with Bolton was condemned by political commentators like Chris Trotter, by Jewish community leaders, and by academic experts on anti-semitism and neo-Nazism like Waikato University's Dov Bing. Radio New Zealand made the unprecedented step of appealing the BSA's verdict to the High Court, which ruled in August that the BSA had an obligation to consider whether or not Kerry Bolton is a Holocaust denier before it ruled in his favour. The BSA was ordered to reconsider Bolton's case, and in its new judgment the media watchdog has chosen not to uphold Bolton's complaint.

The text which accompanies the BSA's new decision is just as full of turtuous legalese as its predecessor, but it does manage to acknowledge that I was offering an 'expert opinion', rather than promoting some unspecified agenda, when I spoke to Radio New Zealand, and it notes that my claims about Bolton have been supported by three different academics who have made close readings of texts which the man has produced over the years.

An article in today's Otago Daily Times reports some of the evidence for 'Dr' Bolton's Holocaust denial, and claims that 'the BSA said that through his own writings' Bolton 'was shown to be a Holocaust denier'. Talking to the Otago Daily Times, Bolton has accused me of dealing in 'lies', and presented himself as someone who is agnostic about the Holocaust. 'I simply don't know' he says, 'to what extent it happened'. Bolton's comments make him look rather idiotic, because the Holocaust is not a subject on which any sane person can be seriously agnostic. The murder of millions of Jews by Nazi Germany during World War Two is one of the best-documented events of the twentieth century. The testimony of hundreds of thousands of people, both Gentile and Jew, vast collections of documents, and the remains of death camps like Auschwitz and Belsen all provide irrefutable proof of the events Bolton has spent his life denying. With his own words, Bolton has confirmed the accuracy of the arguments I made against him a year and a half ago, and the wisdom of the BSA's decision to reverse the unfortunate judgment it made last year.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

I, Davros

I'm not a big fan of the twenty-first century Doctor Who - the Doctors seem too young and too trendy, and the special effects which swirl and bang around them are too slickly expensive - but as a kid I was keen on the show, and particularly keen on the many series which featured Tom Baker. One of Baker's most famous missions saw him travelling back a few millenia to confront Davros, the founder of those alternately ridiculous, alternately terrifying contraptions known as daleks.

Davros was a disabled humanoid who used robot technology to help him get around the house, and around the galaxy; one day he hit upon the idea of taking his technology a step further, by creating a species of robots purified of human frailties like flesh and emotion, and in due course the insanely logical daleks were born. In the final scene of The Genesis of the Daleks, the founder of the new species discovers his mistake too late; about to be executed - or, rather, EX-TER-MER-NA-TED - for some petty offense to rationality, Davros begs one of his creations for mercy. 'I AM NOT PROGRAMMED TO SHOW MER-CY' the dalek screeches in reply, as it fires a laser beam at the unfortunate transhumanist.

At one point in 'The Poverty of Theory', his sometimes-brilliant, sometimes-infuriating one hundred and ninety-nine page polemic against hyper-theoreticism and intellectual arrogance on the left, EP Thompson compares his bete noire, the austere Parisian philosopher Louis Althusser, to a dalek. Thompson believes that Althusser's texts, with their clunky theoretical categories and their insistence that inhuman 'structures', not human actions, drive forward history, have the same robotic quality as Davros' creations.

I suspect that a few readers of The Standard, the very popular blog run by a group of moderately left-wing trade unionists, might consider me something of a dalek, on the basis of my recent post The Politics of Hysteria. After The Standard reproduced my post, which argues that parts of the left have swapped analysis for cheap emotion, and have consequently ended up sounding like Oprah Winfrey or Sarah Palin, commenters queued up to denounce me as an uptight pedant who needs to get in touch with his feelings. Here are a couple of not-unrepresentative quotes from the comments thread at The Standard:

Time for a return to a politics with compassion, feeling, emotion, sympathy and solidarity. Reason and logic are here to serve our humanity, not the other way around...The cerebral Left is too disconnected from most peoples’ lives...

We should start with what’s most important – we have a great country...Then apply “compassion, feeling, emotion, sympathy and solidarity...

The left should know better. It should be more human...


If I'm not quite a fully-functional dalek, then I'm clearly, in the eyes of a few of the commenters at The Standard, a latter-day Davros, who has foolishly convinced himself of the merits of steely robotic thought over good old-fashioned human emotion.

In some ways, the comments at The Standard are understandable. It might have seemed like my post was arguing that everyone on the left, whatever their life situation and cultural and intellectual predilections, should have to set aside three evenings a week for the study of each of the three volumes of Marx's Capital, and that geeky blogs like Reading the Maps should become a prescribed text for trade union education classes.

Anybody who wants to can become an intellectual - all it takes is books, discussion, and a slightly sad social life - but it's neither possible nor desirable for everybody on the left to become an expert about every subject under the sun. I enjoy learning about and discussing the finer details of subjects like intra-left polemics in the '70s, the politics of Kendrick Smithyman's poetry, and the question of whether or not Tonga can be considered a capitalist country, which makes me a left-wing geek, but I steer well clear, for reasons of temperament and training, of numerous other subjects which are debated, often rather more urgently, on the left.

I rely, for example, on people like my mate Mike Beggs to keep me informed about the travails of the global banking system, and about the question of how well the back pages of Capital can explain the current global recession and the financial crisis which precipitated that recession. Economics was always a subject which filled me with fear at school, but Mike is a man who can consume tables of economic data as easily as I consume mine and cheese pies. Mike can crank out a recondite essay on the question of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, but he's also able to write lucid summaries of his research for chumps like me to read on a website or in a magazine. Research is only useful if it can be understood and disseminated, and the left, and society in general, has always relied upon the ability of at least some of its geeks to popularise their work.

In recent decades the likes of Stephen Hawking and Oliver Sacks have become famous for their popularisations of natural science, but there have always been fine popularisers of left-wing research in the human sciences. In the twenty-first century the philosopher Bertell Ollman has written wonderfully about the dialectical method, showing that it is not mystical hocus pocus but instead a very practical way of grasping the world, David Harvey has made geography, which had a reputation as a fusty subject, into a brand-new way of analysing and critiquing capitalist globalisation, and sociologist Michael Lebowitz has emerged as a commentator capable of assimilating and explaining the detailed dramas of Venezuela's ongoing revolution. Ollman, Harvey, and Lebowitz all have audiences, but they lack the fame of left-wing popularisers of previous generations, like Bertrand Russell or Jean-Paul Sartre or even Noam Chomsky. Too much of the left, it seems to me, has lost its appetite for the intellectual side of politics.

I haven't wanted to argue that everyone on the left should become a super-geek, and spend his or her days in a library far from the barricades, scribbling notes about this subject and that. What I've wanted to suggest is that the left has traditionally had a culture in which scholarship and ideas are valued, and that this culture of research and reasoned debate should not be lost.

It would be foolish to deny that emotion has an important place in politics. The chants and speeches at any half-decent demonstration are rightly emotional. But there’s also a place for analysis – and analysis doesn’t always benefit from emotion. Theory in general, and clunky-sounding concepts like ‘mode of production’ in particular, may seem like a bit of a bore, but they enable us to move out of our immediate circumstances and to survey both the society we live in and the history which produced that society. Emotion gives us a close-up view of the world, but theory offer us a view from the air, and the latter is essential for map-making.

Whether you agree with me or not, don't be shy to go and dip your oar into the discussion at The Standard. There are some exchanges on the social structure of Polynesian societies mixed up with all the talk about emotion and analysis, and some of my statements about various modes of production in pre-contact and nineteenth century Maori society might need to be qualified or completely overturned by some of the learned folk who regularly comment here...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Dreaming about dendroglyphs

[The verses reproduced below are the successor to last year's Christmas poem, and to Kendrick Smithyman's rather more worthy effort in 2008.

One summer in the late seventies Bruce Hayward tramped methodically over virtually every acre of West Auckland's Waitakere Ranges, discovering and recording archaeological phenomena like cave shelters, middens, burnt-out Victorian farmhouses, burst kauri dams, World War Two Home Guard trails, and an artifical grotto built to house a statuette of the Virgin Mary. Somewhere in the mass of notes which accompanied his maps and grid references, Hayward stated that he had, despite 'extensive searches', failed to locate dendroglyphs on any of the Waitakeres' millions of trees.

Hayward's lack of success should not have come as a surprise. The Chatham Islands are famous for the dendroglyphs created by their tchakat henu, the Moriori, but few tree carvings have been located in other parts of New Zealand. A dendroglyph is supposed to have existed near Patea a century ago, and a few examples persist on the shores of Lake Pencarrow, near the bleak south head of Wellington harbour, but trees in other places seem to have been untouched by carvers. In his wonderful study of the Moriori carvings, Rhys Richards suggests that there is a qualitative difference between the dendroglyphs of the Chathams and the rarer, cruder examples in Te Ika a Maui, and suggests that the latter are hardly worth acknowledging.

Despite Bruce Hayward's fruitless search out west, and the paucity of dendroglyphs in the North Island as a whole, I often feel compelled to inspect the trunks of the karaka trees I encounter in the bush, in case they exhibit the fluidly beautiful markings found on their counterparts on the Chathams. I'll disrupt a relaxed Sunday afternoon walk with friends by excusing myself from the track, charging off through underfoliage to a distant circle of karaka, and flitting breathlessly from tree to tree. I'll return to the track to report the failure of my mission, and to take an extended ribbing.

I think the dendroglyphs of the Chathams fascinate me for the same reason as archaic Maori carvings like the famous Kaitaia lintelpiece displayed at the Auckland museum. With their relative lack of ostentation, their lack of classical Maori motifs like the hei tiki, and their use of ancient motifs like the hocker pose, the tree carvings very obviously hark back to the pan-Eastern Polynesian culture which existed fifteen hundred years ago in places as far apart as the Cooks, the Austral Islands, Pitcairn, and Rapa Nui. Perhaps they hark back even further, to the Polynesian 'homeland region' which included Tonga and Samoa.

Rhys Richards argues that the Moriori people lacked suitable materials with which to build proper meeting houses, and instead used the trunks of kopi (that is, karaka) trees as pou on which to carve ancestors, culture heroes and deities. Looking at these images, Moriori were transported deep into the Polynesian past. Is it too romantic, or too presumptuous, to say that, looking at reproductions of the same extraordinary images today, we too can be transported imaginatively?

I spent Christmas with family, in a house in the foothills of the Waitakeres, close to the secret jungle warfare training base where Kendrick Smithyman spent some unhappy weeks in 1943 and '44. An intermittently noisy creek ran close to the house, along the bottom of a steep ridge; I managed to get away from the turkey and the booze long enough make an expedition across the water, into a zone which combined scruffily regenerating native bush with plantations of doomed pine. I didn't find any dendroglyphs, but I did spot a midden not far from the creek, and I did later have the archaeologically-incorrect dream which this poem describes.

The poem's references to 'unadvertised Gods' might seem melodramatic, but during my two visits to Tonga this year I was struck by the lack of sympathy which many people there seem to feel towards pre-Christian Polynesian religion and mythology. Sites and artefacts associated with the 'old Gods' are often not considered important, and are sometimes even considered as worthy of destruction or desecration. An ancient statue of Hiku'leo, one of the most important deities of pre-Christian Tonga and a relative of the Maori goddess Hine-nui-te-po, sits on a patch of linoleum beside the men's toilets in the arrivals section of the country's international airport. A plaque beside the statue informs visitors that icons like it were destroyed in large numbers by Tupou I, the revered founder of modern Tonga. Pre-Christian religion goes wholly unacknowledged in the Tongan National Museum at Nuku'alofa. Is it possible that only a few palangi archaeologists and historians today feel reverence for the once-mighty Hiku'leo?]

Walking to the Dendroglyphs on Christmas Eve
(a dream)


1

Jehovah is tired
of advertising himself.
He bounces in the backseat
between fluffy dice,
trickles down candles,
glistens in crypts,
services virgins
and mystics
like a bored stud bull.

Let's give him a break
today. Let's leave the kid
in peace.

2

We step off the track
and head uphill,
wrongfooting manuka
and stunted pine.
Condoms and beer cans
dangle from branches
like festive decorations.
Split pipi shells stare blindly
from terraced mud.

3

On the ridgetop karaka
have made a circle
as methodically as druids', as witches'
stones. A bottle has broken and spread itself
like a picnic blanket.

4

We come closer. We see how
the trunks have been cut.
The cuts are called Tangirau, Te Whiro,
Hiku'leo: Gods that don't often
advertise, at least not on this
empirical island.

5

We stand and watch, as shadows
link the cuts, fill
the gaps, between elbow
and jaw, spear
and star, long-handled club
and proudly symbolic
bird. You trace a wingspan, hear
a morepork call,
as the light turns grey with age.

6

At the end of the ridge,
in a carolling farmhouse,
Jehovah is being born,
but this is the grove
of unadvertised Gods,
the place where they went hunting
star and owl,
the place where they come hunting
us.
Somebody has written
WESTSIDE 4 EVA
beside Hiku'leo's sharp-winged prey.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Six quick notes on Tonga's stolen election

[I've only just heard the depressing news from Tonga, a place which seemed full of confidence just a few weeks ago. These quick notes are meant to stimulate a bit of debate, rather than to make some sort of definitive statement on what appears to be a very complicated and fluid situation...]

1. The election after the election

In the general election held in Tonga on the 25th of November seven out of every ten voters gave their support to the Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands led by 'Akilisi Pohiva. The democrats won twelve of the seventeen seats up for election by universal suffrage, and excited journalists called Pohiva a 'Prime Minister in waiting'.

Now, nearly a month after Tonga's election, Pohiva and his party have been sidelined, and a man elected by a few dozen voters has been annointed as the new Prime Minister of Tonga. Lord Tu'ivakano is one of nine members of Tonga's parliament elected by the country's tiny class of nobles. In the weeks after the general election, Tu'ivakano has gathered the support of the other noble members of parliament, and of most or all of the five popularly-elected members who do not belong to Pohiva's party. When parliament met earlier this week to elect a Prime Minister, Tu'ivakano defeated Pohiva by fourteen votes to twelve.

2. Outmanoeuvred by nobles

Tu'ivakano's election as Prime Minister makes a mockery of the election held on November the 25th. That election was supposed to set the seal on a process of reform which began late in 2006, shortly after the coronation of King Tupou V. The aged father of the new King had for decades resisted demands that Tonga's monarchy relinquish its near-absolute power and allow a government of elected commoners to rule in its place. Tupou IV's obstinacy had frustrated many Tongans, and in November 2006 a pro-democracy protest march in the country's capital Nuku'alofa turned into a riot which destroyed seventy percent of the city's business district and killed six people. Martial law was declared, and Australian and New Zealand security forces were flown in to patrol the ruins of the central city. After the chaos which greeted his accession to power, Tupou V unexpectedly identified himself as a proponent of democratic reform. The new King initiated a byzantine process of reviews and debates which led to a number of changes to Tonga's consitution. These changes allowed for the majority of members of parliament to be popularly elected, and for the country's Prime Minister to be elected by parliament, not selected by the King.

The campaign which preceded the election on November the 25th was marked by excitement and optimism on the part of the pro-democracy majority of the Tongan population. Candidates campaigned noisily, cruising the streets in trucks and utes rigged up with PA systems, and holding mass meetings in churches and halls. Tongans turned out in huge numbers at polling stations on the 25th, and the revelation that 'Akilisi Pohiva's pro-democracy party had won a big majority of votes and a large number of seats prompted widespread celebrations that evening.

Pohiva himself seemed initially to believe that his party's high vote had brought him to power. In interviews with international media in late November he presented the creation of a government as a formality, and signalled his intention to take the post of Prime Minister.

But Tonga's nobles quickly began to reach out to independent popularly-elected members of parliament, offering them government ministries, as well as more informal bribes. A number of the independents came from Vava'u, Tonga's second largest island group, and the nobles were able to play on the rivalries that have long existed between Vava'u and Tongatapu, the country's most populous island and the base for Pohiva's party. The nobles also attempted to sway the members of parliament for the Democratic Party, and the secret nature of the ballot for Prime Minister may have allowed one or more members elected on Pohiva's ticket to betray their supporters and their leader.

Lord Tu'ivakano has called his election as Prime Minister a 'victory' for 'Tongan tradition', and a rebuke to the 'party politics' of Pohiva. The reality, though, is that Tonga's nobles have acted as an unofficial party, and have undermined the wishes of a large majority of Tongan voters. It is hardly surprising that local political commentators like Malaki Koalatangi have criticised the election of Tu'ivakano, and warned that frustrated Tongans might once again resort to rioting.

3. In the shadow of Tupou I

The struggle between nobles and democrats over recent weeks has its roots in Tonga's peculiar history and sociology. Before the arrival of Europeans, Tonga was a centralised, high organised society, where a feudal class ruled over a mass of small farmers. After a period of civil war in the early nineteenth century, King Tupou I reunited and reorganised the country. Thanks largely to his efforts, Tonga was the only Polynesian society to avoid coming under the control of a colonial power in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Tupou I tried to strike a balance between traditional Tongan ways of life and the demands of Christian and other newly-imported ideas. Worried by the fate of the Waikato Maori, who lost almost all their territory to invading European colonists, he made sure that the constitution he framed for Tonga banned the alienation of land. Inspired partly by Tsar Alexander II, he emancipated Tonga's serfs, and guaranteed them security of tenure on the small plots of land they farmed. Although Tupou's constitution decreed that all of Tonga was ultimately owned by the monarch, it also ensured that any Tongan man could request eight acres of land to work when he came of age, and that he had the right to pass access to this land on to his eldest son. The feudal lords who had enjoyed power of life and death over the small farmers were converted into state-subsidised nobles, and were charged with responsibility for the distribution of land to small farmers.

The system Tupou I created allowed Tongans to hold on to its economic and political sovereignty, and gave small farmers a better life without breaking the power of the old feudal class. Tupou I's system also for a long time prevented the growth of capitalism in Tonga, because it made both the investment of foreign capital and the accumulation of capital by Tongans very difficult.

In recent decades, though, capitalism has spread through Tonga, and the system Tupou I created has begun to break down. Encouraged by Western governments, King Tupou IV invested large amounts of capital on infrastructure like roads and ports, and called on Tongans to grow crops for export as well as for subsistence purposes. Since the 1960s, a series of 'miracle crops', from bananas to vanilla to squash, have fetched high prices abroad for short periods, and spread the cash economy into remote islands.

As the population has grown and the number of allotments available to new farmers has shrunk, nobles have been able to take increasingly large cash bribes in exchange for distributing land to the 'right' party. They have invested some of the income provided by these bribes in businesses. Nobles, and the royal family in particular, have also benefitted from the monopoly businesses that the Tongan state has protected and funded, like Royal Tongan Airlines and the country's satellite and telecommunications companies. Led by the royal family, Tonga's nobility has converted itself from a feudal into a capitalist class.

At the same time, a Tongan working class has emerged, as the sons and daughters of farmers have taken up jobs in state owned enterprises or in nobles' businesses. A protracted strike by public sector workers in 2005 signalled the arrival of a strong Tongan trade union movement.

The growth of capitalism in Tonga has placed pressure on Tupou I's system. Both export farmers and business owners expend huge amounts of energy struggling to get access to land using an inefficient distributive system administered by a blatantly corrupt nobility. The small size of the country's farms makes economies of scale impossible, and limits possible export markets, and the hold of the nobles on the business sector frustrates innovation. Large numbers of Tongans have gone abroad to work, and seventy percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product comes from the remittances these young men and women send home. The latter-day colonialists who staff bodies like the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank have used Tonga's problems as an excuse to urge an end to the ban on land sales and the removal other obstacles to foreign investment in the country.

4. When integrity is not enough

'Akilisi Pohiva's Democratic Party draws its support from the many Tongans who feel excluded from the mainstream of their country's economic and political life. Pohiva's party has longstanding links with the trade unions and with small export farmers, but it also includes many budding entrepeneurs from outside the noble class, like the high-profile travel agent and MP Semisi Sika. The party's ideology has often described as 'left-leaning', or even 'left-wing', but it might more usefully be compared to the anti-materialist, morally-charged politics of nineteenth century 'Old Liberals' like the Briton William Gladstone. Pohiva believes that a 'culture of corruption' allegedly created by the nobles is responsible for virtually all of the ills of Tongan society, and that if the nobles can be prised from the controls of the state and the economy then all other Tongans will be able to unite, to purify their conduct, and to develop their society with unprecedented ease. Without corruption in the way, the economy would supposedly boom. In the interviews he gave with the media after his apparent victory last month, Pohiva talked almost obsessively about the need to complete the clean-out of nobles from Tonga's parliament and to open the books of government ministries notorious for corruption.

In the last fortnight before the election of Tu'ivakano as Prime Minister, Pohiva took to calling for a 'Cabinet of national unity' which could enjoy the support of all twenty-six members of parliament. Pohiva would lead such a government, which would offer ministries to nobles who were prepared to put Tonga's 'national interest' first and avoid their old debased ways. Pohiva's call for a broad-based government was a tactical manoeuvre necessitated by his weakening position, but it was not inconsistent with his belief that Tonga's salvation lies in the elimination of corruption.

Pohiva is a man of great integrity, who has exposed numerous cases of government corruption over the last two decades and been jailed twice for his troubles. Pohiva's personal popularity had a great deal to do with the huge number of votes his party won last month. But Pohiva and the other leaders of the Democratic Party have consistently failed to recognise the structural nature of the problems Tonga faces, and the absurdity of the notion that the Tongan nobility will voluntarily surrender its hold on political power.

As an isolated, underdeveloped society with few natural resources and a constitution which makes foreign investment and capital accumulation difficult, Tonga lacks the preconditions for the sort of capitalist economic boom Pohiva desires. Lacking a large domestic market or many steady export markets, the country's capitalists can only make good money when the state acts to give them a domestic monopoly on some product or service, or when it awards them access to land and other resources at bargain basement rates. The corruption and parasitism of the nobles is not an aberration caused by moral decay, but an expression of the limitations of capitalism in Tonga.

The nobles cannot revert to being a feudal class, as they were as recently as fifty years ago. They can only survive as capitalists, and given the nature of Tongan society they can only pursue capitalism if they control the state. They cannot, then, contemplate relinquishing power to Pohiva's party. (Nor, for that matter, can the nobles proceed too far with the sort of liberalisation of the Tongan economy being demanded by the likes of the IMF. The IMF, after all, wants to take the state out of the Tongan economy, in accordance with neo-liberal doctrine.) 5. The strange role of Tupou V

The reforms which led to the election of November the 25th occurred not because of the righteousness of the arguments Pohiva has been making for decades, or the ferocity of the rioting of 2006, but because of the personality of King Tupou V. The monarch is an eccentric, unworldly man who is far happier in the restaurants and museums of Europe than he is anywhere in the South Pacific. He has described himself as a 'captive' of Tonga's political system, and has expressed his desire to 'free' himself by giving up most of his powers.

Tupou V's support for reform has upset many more worldly nobles, who recognise that their future depends upon keeping commoners away from the levers of political power. During the lead-up to last month's election, Tupou V acted to foil a number of anti-democratic manoeuvres by the nobles. He refused, for instance, to allow his designated successor, Crown Prince Topouto'a Lavaka, to put his name forward for election to one of the parliamentary seats reserved for nobles. Tupou V understood that the Crown Prince would have won a seat, and that there would have been tremendous pressure on commoner as well as noble members of parliament to elect him as Prime Minister. After he had stymied the Crown Prince's candidacy, Tupou V called on Tonga's elite to accept that, under a democratic system, the country's Prime Minister ought to be a commoner, rather than a noble. But Tupou V's surprising support for democracy was ultimately no match for the brutal realism of the rest of his class. 6. What's next?

If Tongans respond to Lord Tu'ivakano's illegitimate government with a new uprising, then the leaders of the pro-democracy camp will have some fateful decisions to make. 'Akilisi Pohiva was imprisoned after the rioting of November 2006, but he has always denounced violence in the pursuit of political ends. Will he abandon what may seem like an increasingly utopian stance? Under Tonga's constitution, Tupou V has personal control over Tonga's five hundred man army. Will he deploy them to protect Lord Tu'ivakano's regime, or to try somehow to rescue the reform process he set in motion late in 2006?

Monday, December 20, 2010

The politics of hysteria


In the twenty-first century we are continually being urged to register and express our emotions. The days of the stiff upper lip and suffering in silence have well and truly gone, as unctuous TV talk show hosts and 'self-help' books scream at us to 'grow emotionally' by blubbering our deepest secrets and confessing our most recalcitrant feelings to our partners, to our friends, and
to perfect strangers.

It might be argued that, for all their intellectual vapidity and relentless avarice, Oprah Winfrey and Marla Cilley are healthier guides to human behaviour than, say, Colonel Blimp or Billy Graham. But even if today's fashion for silly self-expression beats the ethos of self-denial and emotional repression which was once promoted and enforced in Western societies, it can nevertheless be argued that our new obsession with our emotions, and our corresponding lack of interest in less subjective ways of experiencing the world, has had a serious impact on the quality of our political discourse.

Today, anyone who is interested in the peculiar, almost arcane practices of historical, sociological, and political analysis - interested in the gathering of data on societies and their different aspects, the discovery of faultlines and connections between classes and other interest groups, the understanding of the relations between the industrial and commercial 'base' of a society and the ideas and cultural practices which constitute its 'superstructure', and so on - has to swim into a strong and cold current. Today the media and mainstream political parties routinely take sociological concepts and categories which were moulded and refined by generations of scholarship and debate and redefine them in wholly subjective, frequently hysterical terms.

The tendency has become most extreme in the United States, where concepts as weighty as 'fascism', 'socialism' and 'ruling class' have been appropriated and impoverished in the harangues of politicians like Sarah Palin and broadcasters like Bill O'Reilly. The right of the Republican Party has had no hesitation in branding Barack Obama both a fascist and a socialist, and in describing the Democratic Party's liberal fringe as the 'ruling class' of America. Terms like 'socialism' and 'fascism' have become mere conduits for the expression of anger, the equivalent of the rows of bloated exclamation marks used in kids' comic books or the tiny grumpy face emoticons which can be left beside an online sentence. For Palin's followers in the Tea Party, Obama is a fascist and a socialist because he is a really bad leader, and because fascism and socialism are both, you know, really bad things.

In America and elsewhere, the left is often no less subjective than the right. The moronic attempts of Palin and other right-wingers to cast Obama as a latter-day Stalin or Hitler, or as a combination of the two, had a precedent in the 'BUSHITLER' signs and slogans deployed by some of the less rational members of the movement against the invasion of Iraq and other parts of Bush's War of Terror.

A reader of this blog who was born in New Zealand but lives in the United States recently made some interesting comments about the incoherently subjective way that our own nascent 'Tea Party' movement uses political and sociological concepts. 'M' noted that:

I've found there to be an increase in what I can only call 'right wing' politics by the likes of Coastal Coalition and the New Zealand Centre for Political Research.

I seem to hear a lot about the Maori 'aristocracy' lately. Perhaps this is a common term back home now, but it's rather new to me...

The thing is, I find the term to be at odds with what little I know about aristocracy in general...I just don't see the whole property and wealth accumulation thing being concentrated into the hands of a priviledged class of nobles who have the backing of some ruling monarch. From what I can tell, tribal society seems to be more of a collectivist redistribution model...

In short, I just don't think that the 'aristocracy' label fits...


The Coastal Coalition and the innocent-sounding New Zealand Centre for Political Research represent that faction of New Zealand's right which has never accepted either the Treaty of Waitangi and associated notions of biculturalism or liberal social reforms like the legalisation of abortion and the Human Rights Act. Muriel Newman, the boss of the kooky NZCPR, specialises in the same nostalgia for the emotional repression and official monoculturalism of the 1950s that Sarah Palin sells in the United States. Like Palin, though, Newman and her local supporters express their desire for a return to this idealised and austere past in rhetoric which belongs to the Age of Oprah. Concepts and categories are handled in an emotional rather than analytic way, and emotive soundbites are preferred to anything resembling linear argument.

M refers to the way that Newman and John Ansell, the Wellington advertising man who fronts the Coastal Coalition's campaign against Maori rights to the seabed and foreshore, like to present themselves as the enemies of a 'Maori aristocracy' represented by the business arms of iwi like Kai Tahu and Ngati Porou. In a blog post he made back in August, Ansell warned that New Zealand would become a 'tribal aristocracy like Tonga' if iwi businesses were able to run commercial operations on the country's coasts.

The notion of a 'tribal aristocracy' has no more intellectual content than the Tea Party's definition of Obama as a 'fascist socialist'. A 'tribal aristocracy' is a contradiction in terms: an aristocracy is formed in a feudal society, and to create a feudal society it is necessary to break the bonds of the tribe. In a tribal society, people are linked to one another by genealogy, and a subsistence economy characterised by some level of communal land ownership and shared labour is normal. Feudalism is based around the exploitation of a class of serfs by a landowning class which has become culturally and genealogically distant from them.

In his classic book The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms Patrick Vinton Kirch shows that pre-contact Polynesian societies could be organised in very different ways. Some, like Tonga and Hawaii, were very hierarchical, and could be considered post-tribal and at least proto-feudal, whilst a few, like Pukapuka and Rekohu, were extremely egalitarian, and had economies based on small-scale subsistence farming or on hunter gathering. Most Polynesian societies fell somewhere between these extremes.

Some Maori iwi were very egalitarian, especially those in the south of the South Island, whilst others, particularly those in the far north, were larger and more hierarchical. Kirch calculates, though, that the largest political unit in pre-contact Maori society only had 3-5,000 members. Maori had nothing to compare with the quasi-feudal systems which had evolved in Tonga and Hawaii. There was rank in Maori society, and there was also, on a relatively small scale, slavery, but there was no class of nobles exploiting serfs.

The King Movement created in the 1850s might seem like a good place to find avaricious aristocrats, but it was essentially an attempt to modernise Maori society from within, in response to the threat posed by land-hungry Pakeha. The economy which operated in the lands controlled by the King Movement combined production for export with communal land ownership and labour, and can thus be considered a sort of fusion of capitalism and a pre-contact subsistence mode of production. Kings Potatau and Tawhiao may have been the leaders of a de facto Maori state, but their political pre-eminence did not translate into economic domination of their subjects.

The business ventures which have been created by iwi in recent decades, often on the basis of cash and land given to them as part of Treaty settlements, cannot be understood with references to feudalism. They are, for better or worse, fledgling capitalist enterprises, relatively small players in a New Zealand economy dominated by foreign-based companies. Why can't John Ansell recognise this rather obvious fact, rather than resort to such ungainly formulations as 'tribal aristocracy'? The answer, of course, is that Ansell is in the habit of using concepts according to the emotional charge he receives from them, rather than according to their relation to reality. He is an admirer of capitalism, and he is disinclined to want to extend a concept with a positive emotional charge to organisations he clearly despises. Ansell would rather deploy the terms 'tribal' and 'aristocracy', which create negative emotional charges. A recent discussion at the increasingly demented indymedia website showed Ansell's dismal approach to political discussion has parallels on the left of twenty-first century New Zealand politics. After wandering into the rambling, often bizarre comments thread under an indymedia post about the Pike River tragedy, I got involved in a series of arguments about the nature of capitalism with several members of New Zealand's activist community.

Sarah Watson, whose opinions have already been the subject of one post to this blog, had decided, in the wake of the death of twenty-nine miners at Pike River, that 'capitalism IS mining'. This seemed to me, and still seems to me, a rather strange formulation. I find it hard to believe that the ancient Britons who built Stonehenge, the Tongans who mined the massive stones that became the langi of their old capital Mu'a, and the Maori who mined the coal reefs at Taupiri well before the arrival of Europeans were all capitalists. But none of these objections can matter for Sarah Watson, because her definition of capitalism is based not on history and sociology, but on her feelings. She was, like most New Zealanders, upset and angry about the Pike River disaster, and for her 'capitalism' is a sort of swear word she uses when she is upset and angry.

The tendency to equate anything bad with 'capitalism' and anything good with 'anti-capitalism' is one of the banes of the twenty-first century left, in New Zealand and elsewhere. Visitors to indymedia can sometimes observe Matt McCarten being characterised as an anti-capitalist, just because he does good things like occupying unused houses and speaking up for low-income workers. In reality, McCarten is, according to his own testimony, an old-fashioned left-wing social democrat, who favours regulating and managing capitalism to make it fairer. It ought to be possible to praise McCarten's good deeds without misrepresenting his politics.

More conservative trade union leaders like Andrew Little are condemned at indymedia as 'capitalists' when they refuse to call for strikes, or decline to launch the sort of hard-hitting protest campaigns McCarten's union has become associated with. I don't know Little personally, but I'm fairly certain he doesn't have a large share portfolio or own a factory or two. He's a highly-paid bureaucrat with rather centrist political views, not a member of the Business Roundtable.

It seems to me that, whether they know it or not, some of the self-styled radicals at indymedia and similar sites share their intellectual method with Sarah Palin and Oprah Winfrey.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ted Jenner's waterborne monsters

I have to apologise for not responding to e mails and for not making a comment on this blog for several days - I've been suffering from what is either the flu or else an obscure, and possibly exotic, bacterial infection. I blame this man for my woes:

As well as being a writer whose work inhabits the strange borderlands between prose and poetry, Ted Jenner is perhaps New Zealand's foremost scholar of the fragmetary textual remains of the pre-Socratic philosophers. Jenner is particularly fond of Heraclitus, author of the famous formulation 'one does not step twice into the same river', and Thales, the philosopher who believed that all material objects were ultimately composed of water; it is perhaps not surprising, then, that he has an intense, undiscriminating love of creeks, rivers, estuaries, ponds, lagoons, swamps and other bodies of water.

Ted has never met a waterway he didn't want to bathe in twice, so when we came upon a modestly-sized creek in the lower Kaipara in the middle of a boozy afternoon last Sunday he didn't hesitate. When I mentioned that a taniwha was reputed to live under a waterfall a little way upstream, Ted insisted that I help him search for it. He explained that, like the sprites which the ancient Greeks imagined into even their humblest streams, taniwha are 'harmless, not really proprietory' creatures, which would never think of attacking well-intentioned visitors like us. After a few splashes, we found ourselves in a pool which had been shallowed by a month of dry weather, underneath a waterfall that burbled with all the ferocity of one of the weed-clogged fountains in the Auckland Domain. As we slopped and sloshed back downstream, cracking open a couple more bottles of the exquisitely sour homebrew Brett Cross had made using the manuka-heavy recipe Captain Cook devised during his second visit to New Zealand, Ted began to repeat some of his favourite stories about the maladies he has seen unlucky swimmers and bathers suffer over the years. Ted has no fear of taniwha, but he does have an anxious reverence for the various snakes, lizards, bugs and bacterial potions which can make the water a dangerous place in Malawi, the country where he spent many years earning a living as a lecturer in Classics. Last year I published a poem which was based on one of Ted's dubious yet terrifying anecdotes about the waterborne hazards of Malawi:

The Worm (for Ted Jenner)

I feel stupid, cooking a feast like this, even after fasting for a week. A whole chook, caked in gravy thick as farmyard mud. Cobs of corn the size of forearms. Potatoes as big as fists. Perhaps I should set a place for another diner?

I pissed the worm out of Lake Malawi. I remember stumbling out of my tent and down a clay bank, then aiming the yellow stream into dark water beside a big rippling moon. ‘It was at the embryonic stage, then’ the specialist explained, scratching his second chin. Small enough to shimmy up a jet of piss, all the way into my bladder, my stomach. ‘It’s a little bigger now.’ Agreed. The thing looked like an extra intestine. I pushed back the X-ray and retched into an imaginary bucket beside the door. ‘You needed to see. It’s feeding off you. There’s only one way - ’. I retched again.

I fill my plate, sit down, open my mouth. Perhaps I should say grace? What harm would it do? Dear Lord, I thank thee, I think to myself. Not quite right. Dear Lord, we thank thee. I can feel it now, uncoiling, loosening its grip on the lower intestines. Smelling the hot chook, the gravy, the buttered cobs, remembering the taste of food after seven days’ famine, sliding through my stomach, into my oesophagus. For what we are about to receive. Filling my throat, pushing greedily between my jawbones, filling my mouth, sliding over my trembling tongue toward the table and its mountainous plate. Suddenly I close my mouth, and cough, and retch. In a second the worm recoils, sliding backwards down my throat and through my empty stomach, until it sits still again in my intestines, an indigestible meal.

I stop retching, and part my lips again, but before the worm can respond my right hand begins to move by itself, picking up a fork and shovelling a potato into my mouth.


Lying in an accident and emergency room, feeling a doctor sticking damp, pointed things into my ears and hearing him ask me 'Have you been swimming in any creeks lately, drinking creekwater perhaps?', I thought of Ted Jenner's story about the worm. Perhaps the tale had more truth to it than I had wanted to believe? The worm Ted described had reputedly emerged from Lake Malawi, in the middle of faraway Africa, but what was to stop its genus migrating, in this age of global warming and porous borders, to New Zealand's subtropical north? Would I be instructed to go home, to cook a sumptuous meal, and to open my mouth and wait for the worm to emerge?

Happily, I feel much better today, and I've been assured by people who seem like reputable medical professionals that the worm-monster of Lake Malawi owes more to the singularly strange imagination of Ted Jenner than it does to biology. The results from the blood test haven't come back yet, but my body has probably been hosting the 'flu, rather than anything more exotic. All the same, I might think twice before taking a swim with Ted Jenner again.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Paranoia in Dargy, as Noel's mates complain of 'moles'


[Note: as Timespanner has pointed out, the editorial which this post discusses was produced by John McDonald, editor of a publication called Dargaville On-line, and not by Dargaville News, as the post claimed. My apologies for this misunderstanding, which was aided by the fact that McDonald's editorial defends the Dargaville News, by the way that it appears on a site where Dargaville News articles are often reproduced, and by the fact that it is not credited to McDonald. I think the points in my post stand, even if some of them should have been aimed directly at the editor of Dargaville On-line.]

I've spent most of the past few weeks in Tonga and in that curious region known as Smithyland, so I've only just spotted a statement which appeared last month in response to criticisms this blog had made of the Dargaville News.

I made a post to this blog on the 11th of November to criticise an article which Dargaville News journalist Rose Stirling had just published about the long-time pseudo-historian and anti-Maori activist Noel Hilliam. Stirling's article presented Hilliam as a distinguished scholar of New Zealand's past, and announced that he was about to publish a book which would include evidence that ancient Greeks, and not the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori, were the first settlers of New Zealand. Stirling explained that Hilliam was 'speaking out' about his incredible discoveries because he was tired of the 'politically correct crap' which supposedly impedes the study of New Zealand's past.

As I noted in my response to Stirling's article, Noel Hilliam is an untrained crank with connections to extreme right-wing organisations who has been peddling all sorts of fanciful claims about New Zealand's past for decades. Hilliam may now have decided that Greeks got to New Zealand first, but he has previously awarded that honour to Incas, Celts, and a New Age cult whose members claim to be the descendants of extra-terrestrials. Hilliam's habit of breaking into and looting Maori burial caves in the north Kaipara has been condemned by Te Uri o Hau, the tangata whenua of the region. Back in 2007 Hilliam's unsubstantiated claim to have discovered a Nazi submarine off the Northland coast made him into a figure of ridicule, and earlier this year he made a fool of himself by falsely claiming to have received the prestigous Senior New Zealander of the Year Award.

My post argued that Rose Stirling's article showed a lack of basic journalistic ethics. Stirling wrongly presented Hilliam as some sort of authority on history, and she made no effort to balance wild stories about ancient Greeks arriving on these shores with the opinion of one of the many qualified, widely-published archaeologists or historians who have studied New Zealand's distant history.

Rose Stirling left a comment on this blog in reply to my criticism of her article. She argued that she was simply being 'open-minded' when she talked to Hilliam, and that it was unfair to criticise her article for a lack of background research and balance. I responded to Stirling's defence of her article with a blog post which argued that an open mind and an empty mind were two different things.

A large number of comments were made under my criticisms of Rose Stirling and Dargaville News. A few of these comments were anonymous, but most were signed. Almost all of the comments were hostile to Stirling and her employer, and many of them came from people with a professional interest in New Zealand history and its public presentation.
On the 19th of last month, in response to the discussions on this blog, the Dargaville website carried a rather paranoid statement called 'Now Lets [sic] Be Fair!'. The statement's author begins by placing a spelling mistake in his title, and then proceeds, in a series of often ungrammatical sentences, to repeat the claim that Noel Hilliam is a 'widely-acknowledged' scholar. Apparently the anonymous polemicist has not grasped the fact that scholars earn prestige through training, careful research, and publication in peer-reviewed journals, and not through making outlandish claims about the discovery of Nazi subs and lost white tribes to the trashier parts of the media. Hilliam is 'widely-acknowledged' as a crank, not as an historian.

The statement goes on to assert that the idea that Maori were not 'the original human beings' to settle New Zealand is intensely controversial, and engages the minds of 'academics, researchers, historians, and even politicians'.

The reality, of course, is that it has been eighty years, at least, since any trained scholar believed that the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori might not have been the first permanent settlers of New Zealand. Back in the 1920s HD Skinner demolished the myth that the Moriori were remnants of a group of a Melanesian people who settled these islands before the ancestors of the Maori; ever since that time, scholarly debate has focused on matters like which part of East Polynesia the ancestors of the Maori came from, and when they arrived.

Even before Skinner's intervention in the '20s, no academically-trained scholar ever asserted that Europeans settled New Zealand in prehistoric times. As this blog and other sites have explained at some length, the notion that a large, technologically sophisticated white civilisation existed here thousands of years ago was invented in the 1980s by the neo-Nazi political activist Kerry Bolton, and has been developed by Martin Doutre, Hilliam, and several other self-proclaimed experts who share many of Bolton's political beliefs. Bolton and co believe that proof of an ancient white civilisation in New Zealand would make Pakeha the 'tangata whenua' of this country, and allow for the scrapping of the Treaty of Waitangi and related pieces of legislation.
There is, in short, no real debate, either in academia or in mainstream politics, about whether the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori were the first settlers of this country. If the claim that white people built a civilisation in New Zealand thousands of years ago arouses strong opinions from serious scholars of the past and from Maori, this is because the claim is so absurd, and is so obviously being deployed in the service of a very unpleasant political agenda.

After its unpromising beginning, the statement on the Dargaville website goes steadily downhill. The editorialist talks darkly of a group of 'moles' with a 'passionate hatred' of Noel Hilliam, and about the damage they have done to a series of publications which ran articles about Hilliam. Instead of writing sober letters to the editors of journals they want to criticise, these 'moles' gather in an evil corner of the internet known as Reading the Maps, where they show their essential cowardice by posting anonymous smears about decent folks like Noel Hilliam and Rose Stirling.

I find all these claims very strange indeed. I wrote my criticism of Rose Stirling's article as an open letter, placed my name at the bottom of it, and e mailed it to Dargaville News. I reproduced the letter and my subsequent reply to Rose on this site, but Reading the Maps is hardly an anonymous, shady locale: the name of its author is easy to find, and it was, the last time I checked, one of the twenty most popular non-commercial blogs in New Zealand. Most of the people who made substantial criticisms of Rose Stirling and the Dargaville News in the comment boxes of this blog used their own names, and at least one of them, the Dargavillean archaeologist Edward Ashby, also e mailed his comments directly to the News. It seems to me that the critics of this website lapse into paranoia when they present its denizens as anonymous, devious types.

The claim that a series of publications have been victimised because they gave space to Noel Hilliam's peculiar views also seems to me to be rather strange. Back in March a publication called Dargaville On-line ran a story which congratulated local boy Noel Hilliam on winning the Senior New Zealander of the Year award. After this blog was tipped off and a few enquiries were made, it emerged that Hilliam had not won the Senior New Zealander of the Year award after all, but had instead lied to the editor of Dargaville On-line. After the intervention of the bemused organisers of the award, Dargaville On-line decided to withdraw its article, and to explain that it had been misled by Hilliam.

How, I wonder, can the sad little episode around the Senior New Zealander of the Year award be blamed on sinister 'moles' motivated by a 'hatred' of Noel Hilliam? Surely this episode was the fault of Hilliam and of the publication which was foolish enough to repeat his claims, not the fault of the people who exposed his deception?

Just as Dargaville On-line was wrong to take Hilliam's claims at face value back in March, so Dargaville News blundered when it repeated his fantasies last month. Like the editor of Dargaville On-line, Rose Stirling failed to her job as a journalist when she uncritically broadcast Hilliam's fantasies.

With its mispelt title, frequently ungrammatical sentences, sweeping ignorance about New Zealand history, and preference for paranoid conspiracy theory over serious argument, the statement placed on the Dargaville website further undermines the credibility of Dargavillean journalism.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Over the air and in front of the Board

I'll be popping up on Radio New Zealand at half past two this Sunday afternoon to talk to Justin Gregory about Private Bestiary, the collection of long-lost Kendrick Smithyman poems I recently published with Titus Books. In case you're at church or at the beach or at the pub on Sunday, my chat with Justin will be archived on this page (scroll down) in downloadable form after it has been broadcast.

If you've come to this website after hearing me droning over the airwaves, do stay a while and look about. You can find links to some of our many Smithyman-related posts and discussions here. You can buy copies of Private Bestiary from the University Bookshops chain, from Unity Books in Auckland and Wellington, from Parsons Books in Auckland, and via the Titus Books page. If you're not getting any satisfaction from these various institutions, then flick me an e mail at shamresearch@yahoo.co.nz and I'll see you right.

The last time Radio New Zealand interviewed me, the station wound up in the High Court, as it sought successfully to defend itself against the slings and arrows of the anti-semite I exposed on air and an incompetent Broadcasting Standards Authority. I don't think my latest appearance is likely to cause the same level of fuss: I spend most of the ten minute interview, which was recorded back on Tuesday, talking about Kendrick Smithyman's unhappy experiences in World War Two, his pioneering attempts to establish a dialogue between Pakeha and Maori culture, and the enormous, pedantically chaotic collection of papers he left to posterity.

I doubt whether Smithyman would mind, though, if his latest posthumous publication did create a minor scandal or two. Smithyman was a gently mischevious man, who believed that controversy could sometimes be a valuable commodity.

Speaking at a memorial reading held for Smithyman at the beginning of 1996, Michael King remembered quoting his late friend's poem 'The Last Moriori' in an article on Moriori history he had written for a Sunday newspaper in the mid-'80s. The well-known Chatham Islands farmer and politician Tommy Solomon has traditionally been considered the last full-blooded Moriori, but King's article pointed out that Sir Peter Buck had located a full-blooded Moriori who had been taken from his Chathams homeland as a child, and who was alive and well in the northern Kaipara for some years after Solomon's death in 1933.

Smithyman spent his first few years in the little northern Kaipara milling town of Te Kopuru, and once had a glimpse of the 'last Moriori' in nearby Dargaville. His poem, which is full of brilliant but disturbing and perhaps morally dubious images, remembered that experience, and when King published parts of it in the national media the Solomon family was less than impressed. The Solomons were leading lights in the 'Moriori renaissance' which was gathering pace on the Chathams in the 1980s, and they were unhappy at what they perceived as Smithyman's challenge to the mana of their ancestor Tommy.

For a while, the Solomons suspended relations with Michael King, and his plans to write a book about Moriori history seemed doomed. Luckily, King and the Solomons patched things up, and King went on to publish his eloquent, politically influential Moriori: a People Rediscovered at the end of the '80s.

At the 1996 memorial evening for Smithyman, King remembered how the poet had been excited, rather than perturbed, by the controversy which 'The Last Moriori' had created. "Kendrick took the reaction of the Solomons as a sign that poetry still had the ability to unsettle and provoke" King noted.
In the spirit of unsettling and provoking, I want to post one of the most caustic poems in Private Bestiary, along with the note which I wrote to accompany it. Has a better poem ever been written about either the idiocies of military hierarchy or the agonies of haemorrhoids? (Alright, I admit: not many poets besides Smithyman have applied their talents to the subject of haemorrhoids. But doesn't that fact just underline yet again old Kendrick's originality?)

INSPECTING

People don't believe I had to stand on my head
to get out of the Air Force.
The Medical Board was two doctors.
One checked
records. (What was my record?) One did
the donkey work, nothing exotic
about me.

You had haemorrhids. Indeed I had.
And surgery? Agreed."I suppose
we'd better take a look. Drop trousers, please.
Bend further...ah. Dear goodness me"
my head touching flooboards,
blood rushing
"that's very neat, that's very neat indeed.
Oh Charles, do look at this."
Charles thought it was very neat. My word, you don't see
work like that every day. Who did?
Me, still upsidedown, telling them
"Major Someone, at Papakura Camp"
he did them, Army, Air Force, Navy too
for all I knew. If you had piles
he was the man to take them to. He was The Man.
They'd heard of him, they truly liked his style.
They looked their last, Charles said I might unfold,
went back to signing things.

How it all returns, like an old film.
I didn't tell how Major Someone
examining prior to
smiled, only a little reassuringly.
Remarked, "Believe me,this is one time I can say
the doctor knows exactly how you feel",
sat himself at his desk so very tenderly.

[Note to 'Inspecting']

Kendrick Smithyman was perversely proud of the rather inglorious ‘war wound’ he acquired during his military service. In his 1988 poem ‘Confessions of a New Zealand Opium Eater’ he describes the bad case of haemorrhoids he suffered in the Air Force, as well as the uncomfortable way he initially sought to treat his malady:

"Try this," they said,
an ointment. Ung, opio et gallae, something
like that. You did it with a mirror,
getting it in place or nearly
in the ablutions block late night or early morning,
squinting, octopus-wise, when audience
was least. There was more to it
than met the eye. Learn quickly, not to cough,
especially, not to sneeze.
Remember, clean the glass before you leave.


If ‘Inspecting’ is any guide, then opium-laced ointment did not cure Smithyman’s complaint, and an operation was required. Papakura Military Camp was a facility hurriedly improvised in 1940 to house newly-mobilised troops, and used to host American servicemen later in the war, by which time it had acquired a permanent look, with large barrack halls, well-kept training and drill grounds, a mess hall, and a medical clinic. Papakura would eventually become the headquarters of New Zealand’s Special Air Service.

Smithyman may have spent some time at Papakura very early in his military career, but it is likely that any encounter with ‘Major Someone’ came much later. Smithyman did not escape from the Air Force until November 1945, several months after the end of World War Two. In his 1985 piece ‘Discharging’, which was published for the first time in the Collected Poems, Smithyman gives a picture of his liberation from the military that is somewhat different to the one offered in ‘Inspecting’:

A jar to piddle in, a compact cardboard box.
That was for crapping into just in case
you carried hookworm or the like
prohibited imports. Produce, or else.
It didn’t pay to trade with blokes in strife...

I gave the Air Force my small crate of shit.
They won out on the deal. They gave me
what I thought was my discharge,
found later wasn’t so,
only another posting, to Reserve Class C.
My little cardboard box not good for much,
scraped out, used up, might yet be used again.


In the same poem, Smithyman claimed that he felt at risk of being called back into the army to serve in one of New Zealand’s new military adventures, in occupied Japan, or in Korea, or, a little later, in Malaya. The absurdity of the ‘inspection’ Smithyman claims he endured from two doctors of the Medical Board certainly reflects the absurdity of the whole military machine which swallowed the young poet for almost five years, and which perhaps threatened to take him again in the years afterwards. But is the story told in ‘Inspecting’ literally true, or apocryphal?

‘Inspecting’ is undated, but the poem’s casual tone and anecdotal quality suggests it was written in the later stages of Smithyman’s career. Like many of the nostalgaic texts Smithyman composed in the final two decades of his career, the poem looks, on the surface, almost artless. Certainly, the careful arrangements of syllables and sounds found in many of Smithyman’s earlier poems are absent from ‘Inspecting’. Smithyman’s continuing concern with form is shown, though, in the subtle variations in the length of the poem’s lines, and in Smithyman’s clever use of enjambment.

In the poem’s long second stanza, Smithyman describes his ordeal in front of the ‘Board’, as he waits with his head ‘touching floorboards’ while the doctors admire the ‘very neat’ work ‘Major Someone’ did on his piles. The stanza’s sixth line is very short, consisting only of the words ‘blood rushing’; by suddenly, violently disrupting the rhythm of his poem with this short line, Smithyman evokes the discomfort and anxiety he felt, as he stood on his head, or imagined standing on his head, for a pair of pompous doctors...

[You can read more about Smithyman's response to military bureaucracy here.]

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Have taggers joined the conspiracy?

The Bombay Hills rise only a few hundred metres, but they figure prominently in the consciousness of New Zealanders. For Auckland chauvinists and Auckland-haters alike, the Hills represent the southern border of New Zealand's largest city, and the beginning of that amorphous yet fiercely parochial region known as 'the Heartland'. My father, who has long been an egregious Auckland chauvinist, despite or because of the fact that his property sits almost at the foot of the northern side of the Bombays, likes to describe the hills as 'our wall against the barbarians'. Whenever Skyler and I stop by my parents' place on one of our journeys south, my father gestures towards the low slopes in the distance, with their lumpy lifestyle blocks, heavily mortgaged faux-mansions, and fragments of fenced-off bush, and urges us to be "careful" on "the other side".

Just north of the petrol station and Autobahn cafe which mark the highest point in the southern motorway's gentle ascent of the Bombays, several volcanic rocks of varying sizes sit near the traffic, protected by a bank and by one of those fences of gnarled and lichenized wood which still subdivide much of New Zealand's countryside.

In the Bombay Hills and in the nearby Drury Hills volcanic rocks are a less than remarkable sight. Several local volcanoes shot rocks into the air for tens of thousands of years, before being decommissioned by erosion. There must have been quite a fireworks display for the Haast eagle and the huia to behold.

Today the hills on Auckland's southern border are frequently raided by amateur landscape gardeners. I remember being forced to help my father haul a few of them into the boot and back seat of our car, and then to unload them again at the bottom of our yard, where they were supposed to provide some companionship to a few struggling shrubs. Few of the motorists who pass the rocks near the Bombay Hills service station would give the objects a second look. They are not even particularly large, by local standards.

For a pseudo-scholar who has been an occasional subject of this blog, though, the handful of rocks on the wrong side of that scruffy fence are the 'Bombay Obelisk', the southernmost component of an incredibly intricate network of monuments established millenia ago by a lost civilisation of superhuman white people. In his self-published book Ancient Celtic New Zealand and at the website of the same name, self-proclaimed 'astro-archaeologist' Martin Doutre provides numerous rather inscrutable diagrams in an effort to show how a series of sets of stones at various Auckland locations, from Silverdale in the north to Maungawhau and One Tree Hill on the isthmus to the Bombays in the south, were all part of the network, which has itself has parrallels in other regions of the country. According to Doutre, the ancient super-Celts used the 'Bombay Obelisk' and similar constructions to make astronomical observations and to survey their lands. (Not all of the piles of stones on our hills are the remains of observatories, though: according to Doutre, some of them are the ruins of ancient storehouses raised by the super-Celts.)
On one of the many strange pages of his website, Doutre explains that it was an 'English antiquarian' named Stuart Mason who first noticed the significance of the 'obelisk'. Doutre assures us that the obelisk has since been solemnly inspected and 'tested' by the extravagantly-bearded 'engineer/Druid' Barry Taylor.

In an admirably patient examination of Doutre's 'astro-archaeology' published on the New Zealand Skeptics website, David Riddell finds no evidence that the 'observatories' discussed so excitedly in Ancient Celtic New Zealand are any more than chance collections of stones. Riddell is puzzled by the 'geomancer's mile', the unit of measurement which Doutre uses to connect the sites he has 'discovered' across Auckland and New Zealand:

...how well recognised is this unit, the Geomancer's mile? A quick Google search turned up precisely two pages which use the term -- both of them on the Celtic New Zealand site. Yahoo! did slightly better, locating another site, www.gnostics.com, which uses the term...

Besides finding Doutre's surveying skills wanting and his mathematics kooky, Riddell is struck by certain basic implausibilities in the tale of ancient Celtic New Zealand:

Perhaps the biggest problem with the Celtic New Zealand scenario is that so much alleged evidence for it is tied up with the supposed surveying network. Apart from this, the "pre-Celts" seem to have left little trace of themselves. It's as if our entire civilisation had vanished and left nothing but trig stations, survey pegs, the Linz offices, and a few astronomical observatories. If there really had been a vibrant, mathematically sophisticated population living here for 4000 years, there would be more evidence of their former presence. And would they have been so easily vanquished by a few boatloads of Maori?

Unable to find any empirical basis for Doutre's claims, Riddell suggests that they might have their origins in politics rather than in scholarship:

The Celtic New Zealand home page asserts: "Politics and the agenda's [sic] of racial groupings have no place here. We simply wish to uncover the truth as it relates to the distant past and in doing so know better the land which is our home in the present." Yet the first four items on their Articles page are links to the Treaty of Waitangi site, to an item on an alternative early draft of the Treaty, an account of "Waitangi Tribunal and Government terrorism against a NZ farming family" -- the Titfords of Maunganui Bluff, and a link to the One New Zealand Foundation website. There most definitely does appear to be an agenda here...

Regular readers of this blog will know that Riddell's fears about Doutre's political agenda are not misplaced. Along with his friends and fellow pseudo-historians Noel Hilliam and Kerry Bolton, Doutre has had a range of associations with the racist far right of New Zealand politics. He has had a particularly close association with the One New Zealand Foundation, the Northland-based outfit which campaigns for scrapping of the Treaty of Waitangi and an end to state funding for the Maori language. Doutre believes that if his version of New Zealand history were accepted as fact, then political 'reforms' like these would have to be implemented.

Doutre also looks forward to the 'return' of taonga like the famous carvings in the Maori court of the Auckland War Memorial Museum to whites. He believes that ancient Celts, not Maori, invented the hei tiki and built great waka. For reasons which are not hard to understand, Doutre's views are highly unpopular with Maori.

Like his hero the neo-Nazi pseudo-historian David Irving, Doutre claims to be the victim of a campaign by a sinister global conspiracy to distort the past and destroy historical evidence. In some of the more feverish messages he has left on the internet, Doutre has talked of a conspiracy encompassing Kiwi academics, 'radical' Maori, the Department of Conversation, and the United Nations, and complained that teams of ruthless men have been roaming the Kiwi countryside blowing up sites and objects associated with his ancient super-Celts.

Last year Doutre managed to con the New Zealand Herald into reporting his opposition to the destruction of a couple of boulders at Silverdale which were supposedly part of Auckland's network of ancient observatories. Apparently the transport bureaucrats who were pushing a new stretch of motorway through the spot where the boulders sat were part of the anti-Celtic conspiracy.

Now it seems that taggers have joined the campaign against Doutre and the ancient white tangata whenua of New Zealand. When Skyler and I were venturing over the Bombays into the realm of the barbarians last weekend we noticed that the poor old 'Bombay Obelisk' has been covered in graffiti. I'm not sure whether I approve of the tagging of Doutre's beloved rocks. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I prefer graffiti which says something - graffiti which calls on the government to resign, or calls the police the world's biggest gang, or memorialises Tupac Shakur or Ian Curtis - to the self-referentiality of tagging. I am rather amused, though, by the idea of Martin Doutre raging against another attack on a sacred relic of the ancient super-Celts, and I look forward to seeing him trying to work a couple of teenagers with spray cans into his claims about a global anti-white conspiracy.

Footnote: in case anyone claims that Doutre and the other anti-Maori pseudo-scholars have become so ridiculous that they are now ipso facto politically irrelevant, I should note their apparent links to the Coastal Coalition, an outfit which has been attracting the odd news headline lately, and the endorsement of their views by Muriel Newman, the Coastal Coalition spokesperson, former ACT MP, and wannabe antipodean Sarah Palin.

Monday, December 06, 2010

A miner problem

In the late eighties and the nineties the left and the labour movement were greatly damaged by the success of neo-liberalism around the world. As Reagan, Thatcher, and their many disciples sold off state assets, deregulated markets, and passed anti-union legislation, many of the traditions and institutions associated with the left were either damaged or destroyed. In New Zealand, for instance, dozens of trade unions ceased to exist, and the trade union movement as a whole more than halved in size.

There are some very negative legacies of the damage the left and the labour movement took in the 1990s. As Chris Trotter noted in a recent article, a generation has grown up with little understanding of left-wing history, and little grasp of the importance of the concept of class. Sometimes ignorance about these things can be found on the inside of the twenty-first century left.

A discussion thread under a post placed on indymedia to show solidarity with the victims of the Pike River mining disaster has shown off the ignorance of some of the site's most frequent and enthusiastic commenters. Instead of showing solidarity with the families and union of the miners, too many commenters have used the indymedia thread to call for the closure of New Zealand's coal mines, and thus for the sacking of hundreds or even thousands of workers.

Whilst I can understand that there are thoughtful arguments which can be made against a number of mining operations - my late friend the Reverend Leicester Kyle was a West Coaster and a prominent campaigner, in words and in deeds, against the Happy Valley Mine - it is surely a pretty basic left-wing principle that workers, and not outsiders, whether they be corporate suits or government bureaucrats or internet commenters, should be the ones making important decisions the futures of about worksites and communities.

To demand the closure of a mine - and some people at indymedia are demanding the closure of all mines! - is to demand the sacking of large numbers of workers and the devastation of a community. To make this demand from the outside, and in a thread under a post which is supposed to show solidarity with miners and their families, is grossly insensitive at best.

In New Zealand, miners have gone from being a minority which was revered by the left and feared by the right to being a group sentimentalised and pitied by the right and demonised by people on the left who have lost touch with concepts of class. During the revolutionary Great Strike of 1913 and in the Depression era the miners were the backbone of the labour movement, and the bourgeoisie was terrified by them. Novelist and historian David Ballantyne observed that after the Queen Street riot of 1932 rumours that the Huntly miners had formed a Red Army and were about to attack Auckland spread quickly through the city, panicking bosses and exciting militant workers. In 1942 wildcat strikes by coal miners in the Waikato brought down the wartime coalition government and forced the nationalisation of many of the country's coal mines. It's hard to imagine the halcyon days of the first half of the twentieth century now, when coal miners are a tiny, economically peripheral minority of the workforce.

For some years, Greenpeace has been campaigning for the closure of the country's coal mines, despite the views of the Engineers Union and of the wider trade union movement. According to Greenpeace, mining is a dirty business, and the miners who have built communities and cultures in isolated parts of the country like the West Coast need to find something more useful to do with themselves. The Green Party has frequently supported Greenpeace's campaign, though it confines itself officially to opposing the establishment of any new coal mines.

The sort of vituperation which is nowadays visited upon miners by organisations like Greenpeace has an unpleasant precedent. As the late ecologist Geoff Park noted, in the first half of the twentieth century Maori were often protrayed, by land-hungry Pakeha and by sections of the environmental movement, as a dirty, irresponsible people living in isolated, unsustainable communities - a people who needed to be dragged, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the enlightened modern world. Like the bourgeois environmentalists of today, the right used ecological arguments to justify breaking up Maori communities. Both the Urewera National Park and the famous park on Little Barrier Island were created by the forcible removal of Maori communities from 'pristine' landscapes they were supposedly despoiling.

Sara Watson, the most vociferous of the anti-mining commenters at indymedia, has called for 'legislative action' by the National-Act government to shut down every single mine in New Zealand. Watson claims that mining never existed before the advent of capitalism, and that the end of mining will hasten the end of capitalism. Apparently Watson thinks that the people who built Stonehenge were capitalists, as well as the Tongans who mined the massive stones that became the langi of their ancient capital Mu'a, not to mention the Maori who mined the coal reefs of the Waikato well before the arrival of Europeans in this country. Watson thinks that West Coasters should abandon the culture they have built around mining, and instead 'go rasta'.

Watson describes herself as a 'grassroots activist' and condemns those who query her strange understanding of capitalism as 'middle class wankers'. For Watson and her supporters (are they pseudonyms?) in the indymedia thread, anyone who tries to understand capitalism using theoretical categories is an enemy of the working class. Workers, apparently, need only 'passion' when they are making decisions about what stance to take on an issue. The miners' union and the trade union movement as a whole may oppose closing down New Zealand's mines, but Sara Watson knows better.

Sara Watson may well be an eccentric individual, or a right-wing wind-up merchant, or both, but I think her combination of legitimate anger at the Pike River Disaster and confident ignorance of the history and most basic principles of the left and the labour movement are a sign of what may be coming in nations like New Zealand in the next few years. With capitalism in serious trouble, unemployment and the cost of living rising, and the environment suffering, there are more and more issues for passionate young New Zealanders to get angry about. Without any idea about how to think about and organise against capitalism, though, people like Sara are easily reduced to counterproductive foaming at the mouth on the internet.

Here's a message I left on the discussion thread at indymedia:

Sara and several other people in this thread have argued that left-wing theory, and Marxist theory in particular, are alien and irrelevant to workers. Marxist analyses of capitalism are supposedly 'upper middle-class', and come from the university, not the real world. Workers don't need theory, we are told - they just need 'passion'.

We often hear this kind of ridicule of Marxism and other types of left-wing theory, but usually it comes from the right. Talkback radio hosts and right-wing bloggers often present workers as untheoretical folks with no interest in the sayings of out-of-touch left-wing intellectuals.

In reality, it was the workers' movement which was incubus and home of Marxism and other radical theoretical explanations of capitalism for nearly a century. Radical theory only really made it into the university in this country in the '70s, but it was alive and well in worksites, including coal mines, much earlier than that.

In Coal, Class, and Community, his classic history of miners' unionism in New Zealand, Len Richardson describes the study groups which proliferated on New Zealand's coalfields after World War One:

By 1917 the study groups were found on most coalfields and were especially strong at Blackball, Millerton, and Rewanui... [their members] pored over Mary E Marcy's Shop Talks on Economics and Karl Marx's Value, Price and Profit. The more dedicated wrestled with [Marx's book] Capital...[pgs 178-179]

Obviously the coalminers didn't think Marxist theory was 'upper-middle-class' and irrelevant. Why did these workers, who had to toil such long hours just to earn a living, use some of their precious spare time to study concepts like modes of production and surplus value? Len Richardson argues that they felt they needed theory to get a handle on the complicated world in which they were living. They needed to grasp their place in the scheme of international capitalism, and to interpret the strategies of employers and governments.

Richardson goes on to show how the miners in the Grey Valley used their theoretical training to win their 'less theoretically-inclined workmates' over to their plans for strike action against the bosses. Many workers in the Valley thought that their lot was improving, because their wages had risen after World War One. In reality, inflation meant that the miners were getting poorer. Richardson notes that the members of the study groups were able to use their training to explain this phenomenon:

With increasing skill, and by applying what they called the 'Marxian method', the members of the study groups put their case in terms that won increasing approval. They explained the difference between nominal and real wages...they explained that whereas real living costs had risen by more than forty percent since the war, earnings had risen, on average, by roughly half this amount...To end this drift in the cost of living, the Marxists called for 'a speedy increase in wages'; to bring this about they pressed for an immediate coal strike. The clamour for action in the Grey Valley could not be long ignored by the national executive... [pg 179]

This is only one example of hundreds which could be given to show that Kiwi workers who had never been to university, let alone been 'upper-middle-class', have studied Marxist theory seriously and applied it inside their unions. Besides the mines, the railways were a centre of Marxist theory - the old Otahuhu Railway Worskhops were so filled with study groups that in the 1960s and '70s they were were nicknamed 'the working class university of New Zealand'.

I'm not suggesting that we should all be reading what the Grey Valley miners were reading in 1918. Times change, and so do ideas. Some Marxist ideas are very valuable today - others are not so valuable, or at least need to be developed so that they become more valuable. Other intellectual traditions within the left besides Marxism deserve study.

The point I'm making is that it's a falsification of history to say that Marxism, and left-wing political theory in general, are something alien to workers, in this country or elsewhere. The notion that workers are uninterested in absorbing and discussing demanding political theory, and are just content to act on the basis of their immediate experiences and their passions, is a patronising myth created by the right. Some of the most well-read and intellectually acute people I have ever met are blue collar workers who never went near a university but have been through the same process of study as the Grey Valley miners. We need theory because our instincts and our immediate experiences don't always give us a complete view of the world. The world is a complex place, and if we don't balance our instincts and immediate impressions by stepping back from day-to-day reality and doing some theoretical analysis, then we can come to wrong conclusions. Sara's comments in this thread are an example of how such wrong conclusions can be drawn. She correctly sees that mining can be dangerous and environmentally damaging, but then jumps to the conclusion that the solution to the problems created by mining in a capitalist society is the passing of a law to close down coal mines. Such a law would throw large numbers of workers on the scrapheap and weaken our union movement, and it wouldn't do anything to stop capitalism.

If Sara's method of appealing to capitalist governments to pass laws to ban industries that have destructive side-effects were taken to its logical conclusion, would any of us end up with jobs? Roads in Auckland are very dangerous, because of capitalism's failure to invest in public transport: should we react to the road toll by banning businesses that use the road, like courier and trucking companies? Gambling creates serious problems in our society, because of the way people use it to deal with unhappiness and poverty - should we ban casinos, and thus shut down the biggest worksite in central Auckland? Alcohol leads to huge problems in New Zealand, as people seek to escape from negative experiences and situations - should we ban pubs and liquor shops? Where do we stop?

If we use theory to step back and look at the bigger picture, then we can see that mines, booze, roads, and so on are not evil in and of themselves, but have negative side-effects because of the way they function under capitalism. The way to deal with their side-effects is to change the way we organise our society.

One way we can ameliorate some of the worst side-effects of capitalism, like industrial fatalities, is to give workers more power over their worksites. Len Richardson's book shows very clearly that mining accidents spiked when unions were weak, and miners had less control over their conditions. As soon as they could get away with it, bosses shirked on safety. Only strong unions, the oversight of conditions by pit committees run by workers, and the threat of strike action on health and safety grounds kept employers in line.

In the last week a number of former miners' leaders have pointed out that the mines were safer when they were in government hands, and unions had a larger role in safety inspections. Media commentators have begun to attack the lack of involvement of union representatives in the investigation into the Pike River tragedy. A backlash may be building against the marginalisation of miners in New Zealand. To call for the closure of coal mines in these circumstances is both quixotic and offensive. The answer to industrial fatalities at Pike River and in other parts of the economy is to give greater power to workers, not to demand that the government sacks workers.