Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hone versus Brash: good argument, bad analogy

Since I complained last week about the attempts of some right-wingers to compare Hone Harawira's newly-formed Mana Party to the Khmer Rouge, I've been accused by some of those same right-wingers as being a one-eyed leftist, who is only interested in inappropriate historical analogies when these analogies are made by people at the other end of the political spectrum.

When it comes to pseudohistory and pseudoscholarship, I've always tried to be an equal opportunity offender - I managed to wind up a few Greens with my criticism of Jeanette Fitzsimons' Trooferism, and one of Hone's staffers got pretty grumpy about my objections to his use of nineteenth century pseudo-science last year - but I might as well acknowledge, yet again, that the left as well as the right can be guilty of making crude connections between different political ideas, and between different historical situations.

I'm in many ways a supporter of Hone Harawira and his new party, but I think that Hone's recent comparison of Don Brash with Adolf Hitler was as lazy as the comparisons of the Mana Party and Pol Pot on Kiwiblog. During a televised debate with Brash , Harawira told the Act leader that 'When you target Maori, it's very much like Hitler targetting the Jews'.

The debate between Hone and Brash laid bare the very different interpretations of New Zealand history held by the two men. Hone used the debate to argue that the Treaty of Waitangi was intended to guarantee the national self-determination of Maori, and to establish a partnership between Maori and Pakeha. Hone believes that, by waging war on Maori, confiscating large areas of Maori land, and suppressing Maori culture, Pakeha governments have ignored the words about partnership in the Treaty. He wants to establish a bicultural and binational state in New Zealand to turn the Treaty's promise of partnership into reality.

During his debate with Hone, Brash repeatedly insisted that the Treaty was 'not about partnership'. Brash regards the third article of the English version of the Treaty, with its talk about 'Natives of New Zealand' having 'Rights and Privileges of British Subjects', as proof that the document was intended to cede Maori sovereignty to the British Crown, and later to Pakeha governments, and not to establish a partnership between Maori and Pakeha nations.

Brash's interpretation of the Treaty is problematic. He reduces the meaning of the entire document to a single sentence which the vast majority of its Maori signatories would have been unable to read. The Maori version of the Treaty promised the chiefs who signed it 'te tino rangatiratanga', or sovereignty over their lands.

Armed with his reductive and tendentious interpretation of the Treaty, Brash leaps over the entire messy history of New Zealand - the wars of the nineteenth century, the confiscations and repression of Maori culture which followed them, and the long struggle by Maori for justice in the twentieth century - and claims that Maori have no right to think of themselves today as a distinct people, and to demand their own political institutions.

Hone's exasperation at Brash's tendentious reading of the Treaty of Waitangi and refusal to consider the real history of New Zealand is understandable, but his comparison of the Act leader to Hitler can only do the Mana Party harm. Hone's analogy is not only hyperbolic - Brash, for all his sins, is not about to open any concentration camps - but fundamentally inaccurate.

Jews were part of the mainstream of German life in the early twentieth century, but Hitler used rhetoric and later enacted laws which made them into a dangerous 'other' which had to be isolated and ultimately destroyed. Hitler took a socially assimilated cultural minority and pushed them out of German life.

Unlike Germany's Jews, Maori are a national minority, with a history of asserting their national rights and creating their own political institutions. Brash denies the right of Maori to maintain their separate national identity and their separate national institutions. He cynically invokes universalism and democracy when he says that institutions like Maori seats are incompatible with 'equal rights' for other New Zealanders.

Where Hitler hated and wanted to reverse the integration of Jews into German life, Brash, like virtually all mainstream Pakeha politicians fifty or sixty years ago, wants to forcibly assimilate Maori, by making them abandon their own institutions for ones created and dominated by Pakeha. Brash promotes racism, but he does so under the guise of universalism.

In this respect Brash should be compared not to Hitler but to politicians like Pauline Hanson in Australia, who attacks state funding for institutions which represent Aborigines, and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who criticises Israel's Arab minority for asserting its own national identity and creating its own national political institutions.

It is no coincidence that, like Hanson and Lieberman, Brash is hostile to discussion of the colonial history of his country, and the wars of conquest, enclosures, and attempts at forced assimilation which were such features of this history. If he were to acknowledge the colonialist origins of New Zealand, then Brash would have to acknowledge that the state and other leading institutions of present-day New Zealand are not as neutral and just as he claims, but rather the creations of a coloniser nation.

Hone made a just argument against Brash, but chose a bad analogy to illustrate his argument. Just as the right does real political debate a disservice when it tries to conflate the Mana Party with the Khmer Rouge, so Hone damages the cause of the left when he tries to present Act's leader as a neo-Nazi.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Well bald

When I was in my mid-twenties I sported a spectacularly bedraggled Afro, and laughed at relatives who warned me that I was doomed by biology to early baldness. A few years later an ominous expanse of bare scalp had emerged from under the long matted curls; I began to resort to variations on the legendary combover, and later to a variety of headpieces. My hair has departed at an accelerating rate as my thirties have worn on, but I have always been able to convince myself that I am not quite, well, you know, bald. (When you don't spend a lot of time - hell, when you don't spend any time - in front of a mirror grooming yourself, then you can engage in such self-delusions more easily.)

Looking at the newly-uploaded video of the conversation I had with Bill Direen for the New Zealand Cultural Icons series, though, I have to admit the brutal truth: I am well bald. Iconic Bill's thick brown locks only serve to emphasise my nakedness (Bill is a decade and a half older than me, but I have speculated before that, like his good friend Lemmy Kilmister, he might have been made immune to the normal attritions of time by a rigorously hedonistic rock 'n roll lifestyle). My chat with Bill was recorded last October, and has been uploaded as the thirtieth instalment in the series produced by Devonport's Art Depot. Bill had wandered down the road to the Depot, which is blessed with its own film studio, from the Michael King Centre on the side of Mount Victoria/Takarunga, where he was serving a six month spell as writer in residence. I had already thrown Bill a few foul balls at September's Going West Literary Festival in Titirangi, where Ted Jenner and I had spent an hour on stage with him exploring his biography and obsessions.

The Art Depot conversation started sensibly enough, with Bill answering questions about the pagan folk songs and Catholic rituals which were part of his upbringing in working class Christchurch, but then moved into a series of debates about the place of Latin in southern hemisphere schools and the literary qualities of punk music. Either tiring of or warming to my provocations, Bill suddenly donned a funny pair of glasses, announced that he had assumed my identity, and began demanding that I answer questions about "Bill Direen's next move" and "Bill's greatest secret". My replies were inevitably rather fanciful. For reasons which I can't quite understand, the folks at the Depot chose not to upload that part of the interview.

Last weekend Peter Simpson's Holloway Press published the diary which Bill kept during his stint at the Michael King Centre; I'll be reviewing this extraordinary text soon.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chatting at the hate show

In George Orwell's terrific, terrifically flawed, permanently misunderstood novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the happy citizens of dystopia take part with troubling enthusiasm in a daily ritual called the Two Minutes Hate. Assembling in rundown halls hung with posters of the ubiquitous yet elusive dictator Orwell names Big Brother, men and women scream, wave their fists, and burst into tears of excited hatred as they watch a film clip denouncing Goldstein, a character Orwell seems to have modelled on Leon Trotsky.

The Two Minutes Hate is not an expression of political thought, but rather a way of precluding political thought and discussion. By working their way into an animal rage against Goldstein, and by extension against any opponent of the regime of Big Brother, the participants in the Two Minutes Hate forget the miseries of their lives, and forget the possibility that their lives might be different.

Many readers believe the gritty satire of Nineteen Eighty-Four is aimed only at Stalin's Soviet Union. As a number of scholars have noted, though, the novel lashes out at American capitalism and British social democracy as well as at Stalinism. The elitism of the dystopian regime, which divides itself into an 'inner' and 'outer' party, and which forbids members of either group to associate with the 'proles' who make up the vast majority of the population, expresses Orwell's alarm at the distance which had opened up, by the middle of the '40s, between the leaders of Britain's Labour Party and ordinary workers. The porn books which Orwell's heroine helps mass produce for the politically apathetic 'proles' are a swipe at the new popular culture, with its gangster films and potboiler novels and smutty comics, which had emerged in America early in the twentieth century and spread to other capitalist nations like Britain.

The Two Minutes Hate is certainly supposed to remind us of the show trials and the hysterical propaganda which were such features of Stalinist society. There is no reason to assume, though, that Orwell didn't think the ghastly ritual he described couldn't find parallels beyond the Soviet Union. Had he lived into the 1950s, and been able to observe the phenomenon of McCarthyism, with its the endless 'public hearings' at which citizens were ritually denounced in the most vituperative language for holding the wrong set of political beliefs, the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four may well have been reminded of the Two Minutes Hate. In America and elsewhere, large parts of the right have never fallen out of love with McCarthy's creed and methods, and there is something a little McCarthyist about the way that right-wing members of the Kiwi blogosphere have reacted to the formation of Hone Harawira's Mana Party.

At the ever-popular Kiwiblog, for example, longtime National Party activist David Farrar has made a series of short posts which seem designed as invitations to the ritual denunciation and demonisation of Harawira and other Mana leaders like John Minto and Matt McCarten. Rather than construct some sort of argument, however foreshortened and partial, against the Mana Party's policy programme, Farrar has preferred to cast the first of what have quickly become hundreds of rhetorical stones against Mana's Goldsteins. Here's the complete text of a post Farrar made last week:

With John [Minto], a committed Marxist, looming to be a candidate, and with all the Mana Party policies focused on non-Maori issues such as promoting compulsory union membership, I wonder whether the party would be more accurately named the Marxist Party.

Once they register and publish a party list, it will be interesting to see what proportion of their top candidates are Marxists (or Maoists).

During a recent debate about the role of intellectuals in New Zealand politics, I argued that the right, in New Zealand as much asin America, has turned the word 'Marxist' into a sort of catch-call term of abuse, and lost even the most basic idea of who Marx was and what he thought. I think that the outpourings at Kiwiblog in response to the formation of the Mana Party bear out my argument.

I'm sure I had something better and more intellectually stimulating to do, like cleaning the toilet or listening to Lady Gaga's new single, but I got involved in one of the recent 'discussions' of Marxism and the Mana Party at Kiwiblog. Reproduced below is an edited but not inaccurate record of my strange journey through one of the site's long and tangled comments threads. The bolded names represent the various commenters...


The endlessly superficial threads about Marxism here puzzle me. For all their references to Marxism the folks at Kiwiblog never seem to cite, let alone discuss, a text by Marx, or a Marxist concept. For them, Marxism and socialism seem to have become nothing more than swear words...


After decades of real life after uni, I’ve decided that none of the political philosophers explain society sufficiently enough to make it useful as anything more than background. So I just these days and have for decades, look at what actual people and countries and economies actually in fact do and I have models that have been synthesised from all sorts of sources which help me to predict and understand behaviours. This is called thinking.

Seriously Scott, if you want to discuss the in’s and out’s of the Marxist dialectic here, on a thread about commies, whether or not they are also marxists, I’m not sure you’re barking up the right tree.


Reid, I don’t see how you can so easily contrast empirical studies and model-building with Marx's method of working. Marx was nothing if not a gatherer and a synthesiser of data – he had an incredible capacity for empirical work, and he produced one model after another in an attempt to get a handle on his world, often throwing out or radically modifying models as he went along.

The curious thing is that none of those who preach the evils of Marxism here ever discuss any of his texts or models. How do you feel about, say, Marx’s claim that the course of history is overdetermined by material, ie economic and technological forces? What about Marx's claim that capitalism is subject to inevitable crises of overproduction? What about Marx's invention of the concept called the Asiatic mode of production, which was supposed to explain the 'failure' of India and China to develop capitalism? It’s theories like these (and I certainly don’t agree with all of Marx’s theories) which need to be knocked down, if anti-Marxism is to be anything more than hot air…


Scott if you really think Marxism is a practical solution then how come the rest of the 8.2 billion or so don’t think so? How come capitalism rules? I’ll tell you why. It’s cause capitalism is a superb self-adjusting distribution and price-setting mechanism...So if you can give us a Marxist model that is all of the things that capitalism is and none of the things that Communism is, then pray tell. But if not, then get with the program, cause the capitalist world is up and running and you might as well deal with that fact and live accordingly. It’s not so bad.


Your words of praise for capitalism sound remarkably like the first section of The Communist Manifesto, Reid. Marx was one of the first thinkers to try to get to grips with capitalism, and especially in the first decade or so of his career we find him praising capitalism as often as he damns it. Christopher Hitchens has parted company with his old socialist friends, praised George Bush and the American Republican Party, and proclaimed his support for the US invasion of Iraq, but he still calls himself a Marxist, because he holds to the ebullient view of capitalism put forward by the young Marx.

Fortunately, there are other Marxes - many other Marxes - besides the young man bewitched by the power of capitalism. The elderly Marx is depressed at the damage done by capitalism in the colonial world, and decides that pre-capitalist peoples like the Russian peasants and the Iroquois Indians might be a better bet for revolution than the Western working class.

And the elderly Marx’s belief that capitalism doesn’t so much gloriously transform older modes of production but instead lives parastically off them could be mentioned in the context of your claim that all 8.2 billion of the world’s people live in capitalist societies. I’d guess that at least a quarter of those people live in societies where pre-capitalist modes of production dominates, at least outside the large cities and their cash economies. Most of the nations of the Pacific still have strong pre-capitalist modes of production involving subsistence or semi-subsistence farming, collective ownership of land, and non-monetary exchanges of goods.

Even in the heart of the capitalist world, cities like Detroit and Baltimore are decaying, and pre-capitalist economic practices like barter and subsistence living are reappearing. I’m not sure if I’d agree, then, that the vision of capitalism as an unstoppable revolutionary force which Marx laid out in the Manifesto in 1848 holds true today. I don't think it held true even in the nineteenth century.


Marx's central pillar, the labour theory of value...fails because it doesn’t acknowledge that value is subjective and that while a worker may labour to produce something that doesn’t give the product value...the desire of the end consumer does that.Indeed its possible to mix labour with resources and actually destroy value.I could take paint and fresh canvas and create my own masterpiece to sell but people may reject it and not want to buy it.I am left with useless canvas and am poorer for the effort.


I don’t see the labour theory of value as Marx’s 'central pillar', but it’s worth noting that the theory doesn’t assert that all labour creates value. You can perform labour without creating value; not all created things are commodities. Nor does Marx say that labour is the source of all wealth: to do that would be to deny the role of the environment, for instance.


Essentially what I’m saying Scott is, who cares?

Fact is, capitalism is the only proven operating system. Nothing else features. I’m not saying it doesn’t stink. I’m saying that like democracy in the political arena, capitalism is just better than all the rest, in the economics arena. I mean it seriously stinks. Everyone knows that. Duh. But it’s still the best of the available alternatives.


Reid, you’ve got every right not to care about what Marx wrote – as long as you don’t want to argue that Marx’s ideas are invalid, old hat, discredited, evil, or whatever. The moment you and others here make claims like these, then it’s reasonable to ask you to back them up with some substantive critiques of Marx’s texts and theories.

Even if you were correct, and capitalism really was the only economic-social system which existed in the world, that wouldn’t count as an argument for the automatic irrelevance of Marx, because the vast majority of Marx’s texts are studies of capitalism.

You and others here seem to think Marx spent all his time talking about the glorious socialist future. In fact, he was extremely reluctant ever to describe what socialism would look like in any detail. When he did offer suggestions they involved real-life models he had studied – the Paris Commune, for example. Marx wrote obsessively about capitalism – its prehistory, its growth, its various forms, its depredations – and so the relative dominance of capitalism in today’s world if anything only makes his work more topical.

Marx’s writings on rural development in Russia and India are of great interest to scholars of agrarian societies undergoing capitalist development today. His view of capitalism as a system guaranteed to go through regular crises has attracted the interest of many commentators in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008. Those who say Marx has nothing to offer have to contend with, amongst other things, the continuing use of his work to analyse capitalism.


Scott I’ve never said I don’t care about what he wrote, I’m saying and have been for some time that in the context of 2011, so what. If you want it put crudely but please steel yourself cause sometimes lefties get the wrong idea: So. Fucking. What?

I mean it. You have had two great experiments in Russia and China and both failed miserably and you may not put that down to Marxism yourself but surely if it was going to work someone somewhere in the 50+ years those states were in full flight, some scholar somewhere would have decoded the key…Meanwhile, back in 2011…


If I understand you rightly Reid your argument is ‘I’m not interested in reading Marx’s texts and leaning about his ideas, in fact the prospect bores me, but I know that Marx’s texts and ideas are worthless because of Stalin and Mao’.

Given that 95% of Marx’s texts are concerned with nineteenth century Europe and the parts of the world Europe was colonising, and that they contain not a single extended blueprint for how a future socialist society should look, let alone a blueprint which corresponds to what Stalin and Mao created, I can’t agree with you.

The fact that Stalin supressed many of Marx’s works and killed off David Ryazanov, the great achivist who had tried to produce scholarly editions of those works, only makes your argument stranger.

Rich Prick

Scott, sorry, emperical studies don’t count much for all of the souls that are now bodies in graves. That is Marxism in its application, and we have recent decades as proof. That is all, please take your thesis elsewhere. we are more concerned with living Marxism and where it might take us in the form of the Mana Party.


So Pol Pot’s killing fields and Stalin’s gulags automatically invalidate every argument Marx was making a century earlier during his studies of capitalism? Let’s take Marx’s theory, which he arrived at after a study of the economic crisis of 1857-58, that capitalism is prone to recurrent crises of overproduction, because of the way investors pour capital into briefly profitable sections of the economy and eventually create a glut. This theory has been debated for one hundred and fifty years, and the financial crisis of 2008 seems to have brought it into favour in some quarters. Are you seriously suggesting that the theory of recurrent crises brought on by overproduction can be dismissed as false because of what Pol Pot did in the 1970s? Why? Do you really think there’s a causal connection between Marx’s argument about overproduction and the graves at Tuol Seng?

Rich Prick

“So Pol Pot’s killing fields and Stalin’s gulags automatically invalidate every argument Marx was making a century earlier during his studies of capitalism?”

Yip, pretty much, when added to Stalin’s, Mao’s and every other crack-pot Marxist’s toll on humanity. Lets see where the Mana Party goes with the theme.


‘Yip, pretty much’

How? I’m genuinely curious as to how you think Pol Pot’s crimes invalidate a theory Marx produced to describe the behaviour of economic systems in the West. Do you really think that anyone who accepts the theory of periodic crises of overproduction is in danger of wanting to herd his fellow citizens out of the cities and work them to death amongst paddy fields and clogged canals?

Rich Prick

Oh for fucks sake, when did Marxism/Socialism/Communism/Maoism ever cause “over-production”? Well, I think it did once, it was in left footed shoes in Moscow circa 1980 – but not reported was the shortage in right-footed shoes.


We’re twelve or so comments in and, James’ comment about the labour theory of value apart, I’m still waiting for a concrete piece of criticism to be aimed at one of Marx’s texts or theories!

Rich Prick thinks that if we accept any of Marx’s theories as correct we set ourselves in the footsteps of Pol Pot. It’s a short step, apparently, from arguing that capitalism is periodically prone to crises of overproduction to digging mass graves.

Let’s apply Rich Prick’s dubious logic consistently, though. In The Communist Manifesto Marx argues that capitalism acts progressively, when it spreads over non-capitalist parts of the earth. He salutes the colonisation of parts of the non-European world because he believes capitalism is an improvement on what existed before (Marx subsequently changed his mind, but his paean for capitalism in the Manifesto remains one of the most famous things he wrote).

Now, could I assume that the likes of Rich Prick and Reid would agree with the Marx of the Manifesto that capitalism is a progressive force, and that colonisation had progressive results in the non-European world? Certainly such views are not rare on the right.

Following Rich Prick’s logic, though, agreeing with Marx’s theory puts him in the camp of Pol Pot and Stalin. After all, all of Marx’s ideas, no matter what their ostensible content, are actually, according to Rich Prick, anticipations and glorifications of the killing fields and the gulag…

Rich Prick

Scott, wot?? you are serriously fucked up. Go to bed, there may even be a little bit of warmth left in Marx’s body for you to cuddle.

Rich Prick

“Marx’s ideas, even relatively obscure economic arguments about overproduction, lead, according to RP, to the killing fields and the gulag…”

Tell it to all the dead. Wanker.

Kiwi in America

My father is a history professor and I grew up with insufferable academic bores and you show all the signs of being one. Apart from being isolated from the real world in the ivory tower, Marxist academics display a unique level of disconnect from the real world as was painfully evident from your rambling discourses on Marx.

99% of people couldn’t give a toss about the theory of Marx – all they know is what it looks like when applied in the real world. They see group think, brainwashing, absence of real democracy, suspension of freedoms, summary imprisonments and executions, no freedom to speak/write/broadcast/protest anything other than the party line...

Capitalist owners of capital risk their savings to start the companies that pay the taxes and hire the workers who also pay the taxes to fund the universities so wankers like you can sit in your office and spout your communist crap.

Are you guys ever going to get round to talking about one of Marx’s texts or theories? So many of you have spent so many words, and yet, apart from James, who discussed the labour theory of value, we still have not seen anyone explain why they disagree with a single one of Marx’s arguments.

I should make it clear that I'm not suggesting that it's necessarily wrong to look at Marx’s life and writings in the light of the regimes that eventually used his name, and to ask whether there was there something in his work that left it vulnerable to misuse. The British historian EP Thompson made a fascinating argument when he said that Marx’s thinking is too cold and quantitative and economics-obsessed, and that it lacks imaginative and aesthetic qualities. Thompson felt that Marx could have taken a different turn by embracing the ideas of his near-contemporary William Morris, the poet, painter, and designer who was calling for a revolution in the arts and in the human spirit, as well as in the economy. Thompson felt that Morris could have loosened Marx up.

I'm not, then, against trying to relate Marx's ideas to subsequent history. I just don’t think shouting ‘Pol Pot!’ at the top of your lungs quite cuts it as a criticism of the theory of the tendency to crises of overproduction.

Robert Black

Oh just fuck off you pious wanker, we hate Marxism round here and you are clearly a script-bot, so just fuck off to a place that might suit you, like North Korea. I bet you have a beard and take the bus everywhere too, and smell bad.

Kiwi in America

You still don’t get it – no one cares about the minutiae of Marx’s theories – except the radicals that infest the English and Wimin’s Studies departments at universities. We’re more concerned about the horrific real world application of Marxism – something you seem to be blithely unconcerned about.

Black with a Vengeance


current score : Scott 7 World 0

Kiwi in America

No Black its actually

The REAL world 7 Scott 0

Black with a Vengeance


Maybe so k.i.a, but here in VIRTUAL Kiwiblogistan, you’re all getting pwned.

Black with a Vengeance

The main point is that none here, apart from Scott, seems to know enough about Marx to be able to criticize him or his theories with any validity. And that David Farrar is looking to scare the dumbass redneck fraternity with the old ‘reds under the bed’ myth, some ‘asian invasion’ Maoists and dancing Maori cossacks pissing on the graves of the illustrious european Kiwi forefathers capitalist utopia, hiding behind the Mana party.

*yawn*…not much of a bedtime story but hey, it keeps the faithful barking til all hours and provides a nice wee distraction for team blue getting their arses kicked on their dismal track record with the economy and blaming everything on the past Labour government.


I have to confess that I’m not too worried about the horrific real-world effect of the theory of recurrent crises of overproduction on its advocates, Kiwi in America. I haven’t noticed the scholars who use that theory or one of Marx’s other hundreds of theories looking longingly from their ivory towers at the distant countryside and dreaming of driving us all there at the point of a kalashnikov to work on giant ineptly-planned hydraulic schemes.

It’s clear that the Marx-knockers here don’t feel that they have to read the man’s works and construct criticisms of his theories. It’s enough for them to point out societies like Pol Pot’s Angkar and Stalin’s Soviet Union and say ‘look – that’s what you support if you find one single correct proposition in Marx!’ Apparently everything Marx wrote is connected, in some way which no one can explain, to the career of Pol Pot. And anyone who proposes even moderately left-wing policies – the construction of a public health care system in the US, for instance, or the scrapping of GST down here – can be accused of heading off down that slippery slope to Pol Pot.

Kiwi in America is obviously quite satisfied with this sort of anti-Marxist/anti-leftist routine, and he thinks ’99%’ of the public like it too. But a look at the way that the radical right have campaigned in America against Obama’s health care programme suggests that the old ‘This is what created Pol Pot! Walk away slowly’ rhetoric might have worn a bit thin. The constant claims by the Tea Party and Palin that Obama is a dangerous socialist and that Obamacare would lead to totalitarianism just aren’t accepted by the majority of Americans. In fact such warnings have become a joke. There are echoes of the way the Brtish public rejected Winston Churchill’s hysterical claims that a welfare state and nationalisation of key industries would bring gulags and secret police to Britain and voted Labour into office in 1945.

It’s pretty obvious that the attempts of the hard right to redbait Obama have been unsuccessful. Kiwi in America tries the same sort of tactic here when he accuses anyone who says something positive about Marx’s analyses of capitalism of being a secret Pol Potist, and when he tries to link John Minto, whose politics can probably best be described as those of a classical social democrat, of the sort which dominated the Labour Party in its early years, to Stalin. It really is silly stuff, and I don’t see why it’ll work any better against Minto than it did against Obama.

Pete George

Scott, to me Karl Marx is a bit of an historical curiosity, the world has changed a huge amount in the last 150 years. We can learn a bit from what people have written in the past, but we benefit more by focussing on modern realities.


I agree with you, Pete, about the danger of erecting idols and letting them become covered in dust. But I wonder whether you’d argue that, say, Plato or Saint Augustine or Machiavelli or Kant are old hat now, just because they lived in previous eras? Isn’t there a quality in great thinkers which protects them, to some extent at least, from the attrition of time?

Some of Marx’s theories were outdated and were being abandoned or substantially modified even in his lifetime; others, though, seem still relevant, if not necessarily entirely correct. When my mate Mike Beggs gave a course designed to outline Marx’s theory that capitalism inevitably suffers from cyclic economic crises back in 2008, just before the global financial crash, he found to his surprise that there were several stockbrokers in his audience! Perhaps they were able to use a bit of Marxian foresight to avoid the disaster about to hit their profession. It’s hard to remember now, I know, but there were media pundits and even politicians like Gordon Brown who were talking, in the years before the crash, about the end of the boom-bust cycle that has always afflicted capitalism. These people were predicting a permanent upswing in house prices and other key commodities. Marx was wiser than them.

And there’s also the question of Marx’s historical materialist method, as opposed to the theories he developed with that method. The view that societies have a material (eg economic and technological) ‘base’ and a cultural and ideological superstructure (think of religious ideas, politicial ideologies, and so on) and the claim that the base tends to influence the superstructure more than vice versa has become mainstream in the social sciences. It’s probably become common sense to many folks.

Pete George

Plato or Saint Augustine or Machiavelli or Kant are old hat too. You can learn something from anyone historical, but they had no idea about contemporary social and political issues in New Zealand, and that’s what’s most important to most of us here now.


But you can’t just look at a problem and get an answer to it pop into your head, Pete. There’s no interpretation inherent in any piece of social phenomena: we have to bring our interpretations with us. We need tools to work the rough ground of fact, and some of the thinkers I mentioned created tools which are still pretty sharp. Some Maori scholars have examined the problem of Maori sovereignty and biculturalism in New Zealand using dusty old Kant. Marx inspired some of the most influential scholars of New Zealand society, like Bruce Jesson, Dave Bedggood, Dick Scott, and Len Richardson.

Scott (2)

Regarding Marxism and Scott Hamilton’s passionate defence I actually think that Marxism is very much alive and well and being applied in real-world situations. Although the economic side of Marxism is only being applied in a very few countries now the social side of Marxism is bigger than ever. The thesis that there is an oppressor and an oppressed, the idea of struggle and liberation has been used successfully by the gay rights movement, the Maori separatist movement and the women’s liberation movement. All of these movements claim an oppressor — in these cases the oppressors are in order — heterosexual men, white men and all men in general. And all of those movements claim an oppressed — homosexual men and women, black men and women, all women.

Marxism has been a force for violence and revolution for many years. Now it is used to destroy our institutions and particularly to destroy our Judaeo-Christian morality. I actually think Marxism is from the devil. That’s just me being theological — but that’s what I actually think. I think Karl Marx was an agent of Satan as was Lenin as was Stalin as was Pol Pot as was Chairman Mao. I think feminism is seriously misguided as is gay rights. As is our Maori separatist
movements. But they all have borrowed heavily from Marxist theory.


‘I think Karl Marx was an agent of Satan’

Oh dear. First everyone who thought Marx had something interesting to say about capitalism was a secret admirer of Pol Pot; now they’re part of some Satanic cult. I did once spot a website which argued that Marx was a Satanist because, as a young man, he had made a few fragmentary and indifferent attempts to rewrite Goethe’s verse play Faust. I’m not sure if that literary endeavour quite counts as evidence for an unusual attraction to Satanism, because every young German intellectual of Marx's era seems to have tried at one point or another to write like Goethe! Faust and the devil lurk in thousands of unpublished poems and half-finished verse plays.

If Scott wants some fresh material, though, he could have a look at the way that the structure of The Communist Manifesto, which is still (unfortunately, from my perspective, given the jejune praise for capitalism and colonialism in its first section) Marx’s most famous text, takes its formal structure from Faust. Each section of the Manifesto corresponds to a section of Faust. Suspicious? I must sniff the pages in case they reek of sulphur…

I’m not too sure whether Marx, who was a bit of a sexist old devil – he fathered but failed to acknowledge an illegitimate son, and said in a late text that he valued weakness in a woman – would be too happy at being made the flagbearer for women’s lib. If Scott broke with the Kiwiblog approach to left studies and actually read a few things by Marx and his followers, he’d see that there has been the odd blue over the years between feminists and Marxists of one stripe or another. Marx was preoccupied with exploitation, not oppression, and attempts to claim that the oppression of minorities are as important as the exploitation of the working class have tended to rile many – though certainly not all – Marxists over the years (they don't rile me). There are still hard-fought debates about this subject erupting at places like Chris Trotter’s blog.

But who needs to take the trouble read Marx and his many and varied successors when one can sniff about for sulphur, or shout ‘Pol Pot!’?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Straight outta Manchester

An amiable courier agent just knocked on my door and handed me six copies of The Crisis of Theory: EP Thompson, the New Left, and Postwar British Politics, the hardcover volume published recently by Manchester University Press. Looking down the cover of one of the strange tomes, I noticed that the author had the same name as me.

The arrival of this, my third book, brings to a close an inglorious era which began all the way back in the middle of 2002, when I began to pursue some ill-focused research into the British historian, politician, indifferent poet, and cricketer EP Thompson, with the intention of one day writing a PhD thesis. The thesis was taken off my hands in April 2008, and I was eventually encouraged to turn it into a book.

The hardest part of the whole process seems, in retrospect, to have been the compiling of an index. The task brought back memories of a rainy childhood afternoon spent weeping in frustration over a jigsaw puzzle. I didn't get an index off to Manchester until around about last Christmas, which is why the release date for the book was knocked back a bit.

The saddest part of the process came last February, when EP's widow Dorothy died at the age of eighty-seven. As I explained at the time, Dorothy and I had exchanged scores of e mails about the book, and had perhaps almost come to think of ourselves as co-authors.

Now that The Crisis of Theory has arrived, I face a problem. When I was in the my early twenties, I had only two real ambitions: I wanted to publish a book of poetry which was favourably reviewed in Landfall, New Zealand's venerable literary journal, and I wanted to publish a scholarly book with a prestigious academic press (I never really wanted to become an academic: the notion of giving the same stage one lecture for thirty or forty years and regularly marking hundreds of essays on topics like 'Symbolism in the Lord of Flies' or 'Is Structure or Agency More Important in Driving Social Change?' seemed far too redolent of that rainy jigsaw puzzle afternoon...)

I never seriously expected to achieve either of my goals - at the time I conceived them, I was about halfway through an epic five year Bachelor of Arts degree, and my poems were being returned, sometimes without comment, from a variety of magazines - but I got the Landfall review back in 2007, and now I have the scholarly book. What else is there, now, to do in life? How can I fill in those empty endless hours? Will I have to get a hobby, like bowls or pig hunting, or start watching TV, or - horror of horrors! - get a proper job? All of a sudden I'm wondering whether I should have dragged that index-compiling out just a little bit longer...

Many of the chapters of the new book appeared in draft form on this blog: the drafts can be found via this page. You can read the curious story of the making of the cover of The Crisis of Theory here.

Some of you will find yourselves, perhaps to your alarm, on my acknowledgments page (click to read it):

Friday, May 20, 2011

Aftershocks and insults in Christchurch

Yesterday I gave a guest lecture on (anti-)travel writing at the splendidly compact Albany campus of Massey University. After having a very inconclusive discussion with students on the relative merits of Tokoroa and Las Vegas as subjects for travel writing, I played a slide show which presented passages from the Manifesto of the Committee for the Reconstruction of Space and Time on Pig Island and my 2009 essay on Mutukaroa/Hamlins Hill alongside images of Karl Marx, JG Ballard, giant snakes, and everyday life in Tonga and Ohura. The psychedelic, sample-heavy shuffle of The Orb's early nineties album Pommie Fritz served as a sort of soundtrack.

I'm not sure if the slide show made perfect sense, but one of the passages it quoted has a new and sad resonance for me, in the light of some recent events in Christchurch. The beginning of the CROSTOPI Manifesto considers, using terms from the celebrated geographer David Harvey, the way that capitalism has to destroy in order to try to create. Objects which are no longer profitable must be obliterated, even if they serve the interests of individuals or communities:

Capitalism builds spaces, and establishes time-flows, suitable to its needs, and then finds that it must destroy these spaces, interrupt these time flows, as its needs change. The modern becomes archaic. Engineers move out, and preservationists move in. A power station becomes an art gallery. Bohemians squat in old workers’ cottages. A wrecker’s ball swings into a room, ignoring the volumes of Dostoyevsky on the rickety homemade shelf.

A couple of weeks ago Mick Elborado, a long-time member of New Zealand's alternative music scene and a former keyboardist for The Terminals, The Axemen and Bill Direen's backing band The Builders, was arrested while trying to salvage objects from his Christchurch home, which had been slated for demolition in the aftermath of February's earthquake. As this blog noted, Mick was listed missing and feared dead for several days after the February quake. Like so many survivors of the disaster, he has been trying to restore some normality to his life in the months since February. For Mick, normality means listening to, writing, and playing music. Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd has called Mick's thousands of rare records one of the largest and most important music collections in this country. The adventurous, allusive music Mick has contributed to a series of legendary bands shows that he has made good use, over the years, of the audio taonga he kept at his home.

In the weeks after the February the 21st quake Mick was apparently given no proper notification that his home had been deemed unsafe and scheduled for demolition. The house was on the wrong side of one of the 'emergency cordons' thrown up after the quake, and Mick was unable to visit it without breaking the law. After turning up after a tip-off a couple of weeks ago and seeing a digger about to go into action, Mick ran into his house and attempted to salvage his music collection and other important possessions. Instead of turning off the digger and discussing the situation with Mick, the police decided to throw him in prison.

In an appearance at Christchurch District Court last week, Mick, whose legal name is David Theobald, entered a not guilty plea to a charge of breaching an emergency cordon, and told the judge that the demolition of his home has left him with 'no past and no future'. 'I'm very angry, and I'll be angry for the rest of my life' he said, before turning his back on the court. Mick has been remanded in custody.

In the aftermath of the earthquake which hit Christchurch in September I praised the role that both government workers and state-directed volunteers played in cleaning up the city and helping victims. I thought then, and still think now, that natural disasters like earthquakes are times when massive and decisive state action is needed, and when right-wing ideas about individualism and 'freedom' from government are shown up as nonsense. Unfortunately, the superb short-term responses to the September and also the February earthquake by grassroots state employees have been overshadowed, as weeks and months have passed, by the manoeuvres of the National government, which is more interested in making Christchurch profitable again than in helping the city's ordinary residents recover from their tragedy. National gave the job of reconstructing Christchurch to Gerry Brownlee, a man better known for throwing protesters down staircases than for working sensitively with victimised communities. Brownlee has been given nearly dictatorial powers over post-quake Christchurch, and he has exercised these powers with ill-concealed glee, ordering the flattening of home after home, banning archaeologists from doing vital work on the grounds that such work would hold back the pace of economic recovery, and disregarding planning regulations that take into account places sacred to the Kai Tahu tangata whenua of the city. Brownlee has been happy to chat with Christchurch's business elite, but he has shied away from confrontations with ordinary citizens. Mick Elborado is only one of the victims of his authoritarianism.

Back in February I noted how some particularly demented conspiracy theorists were calling Christchurch's earthquake a man-made phenomenon. Claims about a gigantic American-Israeli 'earthquake machine' targeting the city were idiotic and offensive, but we can legitimately talk about a series of artificial, unnecessary aftershocks being inflicted on Christchurch in the weeks and months since the February earthquake, as homes are demolished and their former inhabitants insulted. For Mick Elborado, the recent loss of his home and his treasured possessions was even more devastating than February's quake. I am pleased to hear that Mick has been receiving the support of his many friends within New Zealand's music and arts community.

Footnote: Christchurch's quakes darken the latest issue of Ka Mate Ka Ora, the academic journal dedicated to the study of New Zealand poetry and poetics. Ka Mate Ka Ora #10 opens with Emma Neale's tribute to Rhys Brookbanks, the young poet and journalist who died in the Canterbury Television building on February the 21st. I had the privilege of meeting Brookbanks for an hour, back in 2007; Neale knew him for years, first as his teacher and later as his friend.

Ka Mate Ka Ora #10 also includes my essay 'Earthquake Country', which was written in the aftermath of the September quake and discusses a Hubert Witheford poem about natural disaster and social revolution. (A rough draft of the text appeared on this blog last year, and prompted some interesting comments from Richard Taylor.)

Footnote (2): Mick has been released.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Majestic Huntly, on a rainy Sunday, before and after closing time

Alright, I'm a crummy photographer. But how can Paul Scott and so many other members of the Aucklintelligenstia continue to sneer at the little coal town on the Waikato, when the mixture of chimneysmoke, diesel fumes, and toi toi spores can give the evening light such sutble modulations, as it glances off the muddy river? Beats me. How did the sneerers lose their sense of the exotic? Would they also sneer at Coleridge's Xanadu?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The white headhunters

The repatriation of a Maori head from a French museum has made the news this week, and prompted a few negative comments on the internet. At the New Zealand Conservative blog, for instance, the return of the head has been slated as an exercise in hypocrisy, because it involves a denial of the barbaric nature of Maori culture, as well as a denial of the enlightened culture of the people who colonised Aotearoa:

Another disembodied head is coming home and will be accorded due all honor and ceremony, honor and ceremony the erstwhile owner was not accorded in life. Who was he? Well maybe the boffins at Te Papa will be able to ascertain that, probably not.
Was he an important man whose head was taken as a trophy by some neighboring tribe? Or was he some unfortunate slave tattooed then killed so his head could be traded for whiskey, blankets and muskets?

Whatever the truth - even if discovered, the true blackness of the world that the head's owner inhabited will not be discussed nor the truth that it was Europeans for all their sins that put an end to the horrors of that were an everyday reality of that unfortunate man's existence.

Nobody seems to know how the mummified and tattooed head found its way into a museum in Rouen, the town in Normandy with the cathedral that so obsessed Monet, but the details of the trade in heads in nineteenth century New Zealand are clear. Warriors of many iwi had a longstanding tradition of desecrating the bodies of their enemies - the famous Nga Puhi warlord Hongi Hika, for instance, liked to rip out the eyes of rangatira he killed in battle - and many of them also liked to keep the heads of defeated enemies as trophies. In traditional Maori society, though, the heads of enemies were never tattooed. A tattoo was a sign of mana, and the heads of enemies were preserved so as to be deprived of all mana.

In the early nineteenth century the acquisition of muskets, first by Nga Puhi and later by other iwi, changed the nature of Maori warfare and the structure of Maori society. Iwi were suddenly fighting large-scale battles and, if they were successful in these battles, taking vast numbers of slaves. Warfare and slavery had existed in pre-contact Maori society, but they had tended to be relatively small-scale, because in a subsistence economy there was little economic incentive for the capture of swathes of territory and huge numbers of enemies.

In the nineteenth century, though, iwi were suddenly part of a cash economy, and needed to acquire muskets and other goods from Europeans in large numbers. Slaves were put to work growing potatoes and other cash crops on captured land, so that guns could be bought and conquests defended. Women were traded with sealers and whalers for guns and cash. And the heads of some unlucky slaves were soon being tattooed, beheaded, mummified, and sold to European collectors, ethnographers, and biologists. Ironically enough, the sale of tattooed heads helped to destroy the practice of male tattooing in many iwi: the moko had once been a status symbol, but it came to be associated with slaves, and many young men of high rank no longer desired it.

Despite what certain bloggers might say, the trade in tattooed heads can't easily be associated with the whole of Maori culture and history. Like large-scale warfare and mass slavery, the head trade was a feature of Maori society for a few decades in the early nineteenth century, when that society was being violently transformed by contact with European technology and a cash economy. Given how it was a response to European demand, we could use the head trade to condemn Pakeha as easily as Maori culture.

The complicated historical context for the trade in Maori heads has been discussed by a number of scholars - Michael King, for instance, deals with it in his introduction to Moko, the famous collection of photographs of tattooed Maori women by Marti Friedlander. What is less often discussed amongst historians, let alone the general public, is the way in which Europeans participated in the 'headhunting' culture of the Melanesian part of the Pacific during the nineteenth century.

The preservation and display of the heads of defeated enemies was a traditional feature of many Melanesian societies. Leaders gained prestige as they accumulated mummified heads, and some were prepared to acquire heads through trade as well as battle.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Europeans began to visit the island groups they named the New Hebrides and the Solomons in search of sandalwood, which was valued for its fragrance and the oil it produced, tortoise shells, which were popular curios in Europe, and labourers, who were needed to help establish sugar and cotton plantations in Queensland and Fiji. Some islanders willingly traded sandalwood and tortoise shells with European ships, and volunteered to work as indentured labourers in the white man's plantations; other refused, and found themselves robbed and kidnapped at the point of a gun. The term 'blackbirding' was soon being used to describe the depopulation of Pacific islands.

In the 1860s the American Civil War put the cotton farms of that country's southern states out of business, and led settler-farmers in Queensland and Fiji to try to pick up the slack. Huge profits were made as the farmers, many of whom had emigrated from the Confederate states and brought their white supremacist beliefs with them, used thousands of blackbirded islanders to work on their plantations for little or no return.

Eventually Polynesia as well as Melanesia was targetted by blackbirders: in 1862 and 1863 twenty-two different islands were raided by ships determined to supply wealthy Peruvians with domestic servants and plantation workers. Easter Island lost two-thirds of its population to the blackbirders and the diseases they brought. (I've blogged about my visits to Tonga's wonderful 'Eua Island, which was a haven for some of the survivors of blackbirding.)

New Zealand was continuously and intimately involved in both the blackbirding trade and the theft of natural resources from Pacific islanders. 'Bully' Hayes, the most notorious of all the blackbirders, was born in America but frequently used New Zealand as his base of operations. Hayes boasted openly of his 'adventures' cruising the tropics seizing slaves and raping women and girls, but he was never molested by New Zealand authorities, even after he sailed out of Lyttleton in 1869 and kidnapped one hundred and fifty Niueans to sell to cotton farmers on Fiji.

Many New Zealand captains and crewmen joined in the pillaging of the Pacific. In December 1869 the British consul in Fiji made a list of eighteen vessels involved in the local blackbirding trade; ten of them were owned and crewed by Kiwis. As more and more ships began to raid Melanesia, and sandalwood, tortoise shells and slaves became scarcer, Europeans discovered a macabre new way to acquire the goods they craved. They began to remove and preserve the heads of islanders, and to trade these heads with chiefs who could supply tortoise shells or sandalwood or large numbers of slaves. Melanesians began to differentiate between 'catch catch ships', which seized workers for the plantations in Queensland and Fiji, and the 'kill kill ships' which came headhunting.

By the late 1860s the Anglican Melanesian Mission had launched a campaign against European depredations in Melanesia, and the letters and journals of Coley Patteson, the head of the Mission and the first Bishop of Melanesia, are filled with accounts of the raids of both 'catch catch' and 'kill kill' ships. In a message written late in 1870 Patteson relayed news of a 'kill kill' raid which two of his own staff had witnessed on one of the Florida (nowadays Nggela) Islands group in the Solomons. Five of Patteson's Melanesian converts had taken a canoe out to a vessel named the Water Lily, intending to trade with its crew. At first the ship's crew had appeared friendly, but soon one of them had leapt into the canoe, capsizing it, and others had begun beating the islanders with oars. One islander escaped, but not before he had seen his four friends beheaded with tomahawks. Their heads were taken aboard the Water Lily; their bodies were thrown to the sharks.

In 1870 the British government made a belated and ineffectual move against blackbirding, by sending the HMS Basilisk to the Pacific to investigate the trade. The Basilisk's captain was John Moresby, the navigator whose name was given to what is now the capital of Papua New Guinea. Calling at the Melanesian Mission headquarters on Norfolk Island, where many natives of the Solomons and the New Hebrides were being trained as priests, Moresby was greeted with stories of atrocities committed by white headhunters. In the account of his journey published a few years later, Moresby remembered that:

One lad from the Solomon group told me, with truth in his face, that he had seen his own brother's head cut off by white men belonging to a schooner that ran down his canoe...Another...had seen five islanders beheaded by the crew of a brig...The heads of the murdered men were doubtless to be used in bartering for slaves or sandalwood, with chiefs who rate their greatness by the number of skulls they possess. It is difficult to believe such atrocities were common - but the evidence compels belief.

The bloggers at New Zealand Conservative would have us believe that the trade in heads was a symptom of the barbarism of the indigenous people of the Pacific, and that it disappeared after the intervention of the more civilised peoples of Europe, but this view is based upon ideology, not upon the complexities of the historical record. In New Zealand the demand of European markets led to the tattooing and sale of heads; in the Florida Islands and other parts of Melanesia, white headhunters removed, preserved and traded the heads of natives, many of whom were Christians. A minority of whites, like Coley Patteson, joined the many Melanesians who fought blackbirding and the trade in heads; a minority of indigenes supported the practice. As I've noted before on this blog, it is always foolish to try to make history into a morality play, especially when the role of hero or villain in the play is assigned to something as diverse and discontinuous as a culture or people.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Remembering Rhys Brookbanks

Bill Direen has sent me a link to an obituary for the writer Rhys Brookbanks, who was trapped in the rubble of the Canterbury Television building on the 22nd of February. I didn't spot the obituary when it was published, and was doubly shocked to read it this morning, because the Christchurch earthquake had drifted to the back of my mind.

Rhys interviewed me when I visited Dunedin back in September 2007 to do a reading and to promote my book of poems To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps. We met in the cafe of the Otago Museum and talked for an hour or so about Doctor Who, the war in Iraq, the comparative merits of Auckland and Dunedin pubs, and - occasionally - poetry.

Rhys was a poet, but his literary enthusiasms differed from mine in several respects. I regarded live poetry with suspicion, believing that it could lead its practitioners to rely on charisma and cheap rhetorical effects; Rhys, on the other hand, regularly read his work in Dunedin's pubs and cafes. Rhys thought that in the twenty-first century poetry was in danger of being seen as fusty and irrelevant; I thought that poetry could only be relevant if it kept its distance from the culture of the twenty-four hour news cycle and from the frenzied discourses of texting and twitter. I named Kendrick Smithyman as my favourite New Zealand poet; Rhys declared that Smithyman's texts were pointlessly obscure, and said that he much preferred veteran performance poet David Eggleton's quickfire polemics.

Out of the chaos of our conversation Rhys produced a very readable piece for the Otago student magazine Critic. In his article, which bore the brilliant title 'Doctor Who, Jim Morrison, and Verbal Wankery', Rhys gave my book a generous summary, but didn't capitulate to my opinions about poetry. He noted my admiration for Kendrick Smithyman, for instance, but had a poke at Smithyman's alleged over-reliance on 'long words and abstract ideas'. I admired Rhys' ability to engage with my work and enthusiasms without losing sight of his own opinions. I wouldn't have been capable of such subtlety when I was twenty-two: in fact, I don't know if I can find such subtlety even now!

At the end of our chat I gave Rhys my details, and invited him to have a few beers whenever he made it up to Auckland. It's terribly sad to think that he won't have that opportunity now.

Footnote: You can read the distinguished Canterbury poet David Howard's elegy for Rhys Brookbanks here.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Nine postcards from the Great Bay of Hei

The Aldermen From the road that went north past Tairua, over hills covered in adolescent radiata, the Aldermen could now and then be seen on the northeastern horizon: twenty jagged fragments that together barely comprised a square kilometre of earth. Now, further up the Coromandel coast at Hahei, I look southeast and find that the islets, skerries and rock stacks of the group have been fused, so that they look like the western edge of a single large island. It is easy to imagine a large plain, complete with colour-coded fields and tidy villages, beginning behind the rock wall in the distance.

When the Endeavour sailed down the Bay of Plenty toward Te Whanganui-A-Hei -the Great Bay of Hei - in November 1769, Joseph Banks told his captain that the cultivations and 'towns' they observed must be part of the domain of the 'King' of some great southern continent. James Cook was sceptical, but nonetheless remarked on the size and apparent prosperity of the settlements he was sailing past.

On November the third the Endeavour sailed beyond the western end of the Bay of Plenty, and passed close to the islands Cook named the Court of Aldermen, after the assemblies of learned and frequently aged gentlemen which pondered minor legal cases in the towns and villages of the old country. To the surprise of the Endeavour's crew, a few dug-out canoes emerged from the maze of perpendicular rocks and approached their mighty ship. The waka were small and unadorned, and their owners were almost naked; nevertheless, Banks recorded, these 'few despicable gentry sang their song of defiance and promised us heartily as the most respectable of their countrymen that they would kill us all'. The Endeavour soon sailed off, leaving the Aldermen to the enormous condescension of history.

Over the past couple of decades scholars have lavished attention on the synthetic region they call 'remote island Polynesia': they have camped for weeks in the windy fragile forests of Henderson Island, a remote outlier of super-remote Pitcairn Island, and ventured past icebergs to the Auckland Islands, hundreds of kilometres south of Fouveaux Strait, and braved ten foot waves to crash land dinghies on the ledge-like beach of 'Ata, the reefless island that sits in the vast tract of ocean separating New Zealand from Tonga. The cataloguing and analysis of remote sites has been seen as the logical next step in Polynesian archaeology, now that digs have been executed and culture sequences established in large and important islands. But island groups like the Aldermen, which are neither close-at-hand nor remote, have sometimes ignored by scholars. Perhaps they constitute a new sort of archaeological frontier.

In 1972 the University of Auckland Field Club attempted a preliminary archaeological survey of the Aldermen. Although club members spent ten days in the group they were confined to a single islet, Ruamahua-Iti. Twenty-seven years later, Graham Ussler expanded on the work of the Field Club when he passed fourteen days on Ruamahua-Iti and its western neighbour, Hongiora. In the report on his expedition, Ussler says that he spent most of his time on the islets studying 'tuatara population dynamics', but that he continually came across human artefacts and ancient habitation sites during his lizard-hunting. On Hongiora Ussler found a three metre high 'rock retaining wall'; on Ruamahua-Iti he scrambled over terraces and around kumara pits. Ussler found 'rounded, smooth stones' beside streams, and adzes on eroding ridges. Noting that the 'pre-European history of the Aldermen is poorly documented', Ussler lamented the damage that burrowing petrels were doing to earthworks on Ruamahua-Iti and Hongiora.

Bracken At the northern end of Hahei Beach a series of signs advertise the walking track that goes further north along the coast to the famous Cathedral Cove. As we drove in yesterday I spotted a party of tourists - elongated, albino-blonde Scandinavians, and bulbous Americans, whose beltbags seemed to have grown naturally out of the folds of their bellies - getting ready to set out down the coast. From a distance, their preparations bore an odd resemblance to religious ritual: a guide stood at the head of the group, reading solemnly from a copy of Lonely Planet as bulky as a Bible; one of the Scandinavians smeared sunscreen on her bony shoulders in two quick motions, so that it looked like she was crossing herself. Te Pare Point Historic Reserve can easily be reached from the southern end of Hahei Beach, but few tourists follow its trails to the ancient Ngati Hei fortresses of Hereheretaura and Hahei. From the beach the terraces of each pa can be seen clearly, but hip-high grass and cultivations of gorse mean that the earthworks are hard to examine up close. When I find a kumara pit near the summit of Hahei pa I nearly whoop in delight. At the bottom of the pit bracken puts out its tough tendrils.

Bracken poses both taxonomic and political difficulties for botanists: the species, which is technically a fern but has much more in common with various hardy shrubs, is undeniably indigenous, and has pushed its way into most Kiwi ecosystems, but its success has come at the expense of other natives. Maori ate the roots of bracken, and discovered that the plant grew prolifically on land disfigured by fire. They routinely used fire to clear forests and thereby cultivate bracken. Archaeologists are perhaps more fond of bracken than botanists. Like taro, the plant can be considered a 'living fossil', a legacy and record of ancient human occupation.


My niece Isabel stands on the beach. Isabel is nearly one, which means that she can stand long enough to wriggle her toes in the sand, and has hair long enough for the wind to blow about. While the adults labour to defend a sandcastle from the weather, scooping out moat walls that erode instantly, and patting down the pillars and archways of a tower that the wind wants to crumble, Isabel stands and stares out to sea, past the fanged cave mouths of Goat Island, towards a mass of low cloud on the horizon.

I take a break from the abstract sculpture I am making from driftwood and seaweed on the far side of the moat, and walk through the wind to the little girl. She is speaking - to herself, or to some one or thing I cannnot see? - in a voice as beautiful and incomprehensible and repetitive as the waves which break near her feet. Isabel's father has noticed her using the word 'gook', which he takes to be not an old-fashioned piece of racist abuse but a fusion of 'look' and 'good'. The rest of her vocabulary is a mystery. If we could understand her words would we find that they were shaped into phrases, clauses, sentences? Could we analyse her syntax, write a guide to her grammar?

We drive down the coast to Whangamata, where an old friend of Skyler's is staying with her baby daughter in a bach. Isabel and Arabella crawl toward each other over a worn sand-coloured carpet, then sit back on their heels and exchange giggles and grunts and whispers. Each nods her head occasionally, as if to reiterate a point. I decide that that all infants share a language, a sort of secret, infinitely flexible Esperanto, which they use to complain and gloat and plot under the noses of adults.

Coromandel Coast In the decades after World War Two primitive technology and prohibitive fares meant that international air travel was the preserve of wealthy Kiwis. During the same period, cars became affordable for many Kiwi families. Soon oil companies and a fledgling tourism industry were urging New Zealanders to take to the open road and explore their own country. Dozens of guidebooks were produced, in an attempt to direct the traffic that issued from cities and towns on long weekends and at the end of December. The 1973 Shell Guide to New Zealand, which was written by Maurice Shadbolt and illustrated - the word 'illustrated' scarcely seems appropriate - by Colin McCahon and Doris Lusk stands as perhaps the finest example of the commercially-motivated travel literature of the postwar decades.

Shadbolt's guide, with its novelistic accounts of New Zealand history and its subversive recommendation of Parihaka and Ratana Pa to holidaymakers, was published at about the time that Air New Zealand began to offer relatively cheap flights to Australia, and to Pacific Island destinations ike Rarotonga and Fiji. Soon Kiwis would be going abroad in large numbers, and the local tourism industry would be focusing its propaganda on Britons and Americans and Japanese who had arrived on new-fangled 747s. I lie on Hahei Beach drinking a Lion Brown and reading Coromandel Coast, the book husband and wife team Eugene and Valerie Grayland published in 1965 in an effort to make the peninsula a 'Mecca for tourists and holidaymakers'. The car journey from Auckland to the Coromandel would nowadays be seen as an absurdly mundane subject for a travel writer, but the Graylands are able, at the dawn of the golden age of the motor car, to see it as a small adventure:

Off to Coromandel tomorrow. It was a Saturday night and we had planned it all to the last detail. Go to bed early was the scheme...Once out on the road, our enthusiasm of the night before began to return, and enjoyment of the morning made us wonder why we didn't rise early more often. The number of cars on the motorway, some with caravans or boat trailers, showed us we were not the only people going places...

Unfortunately, the Graylands lacked Maurice Shadbolt's understanding of New Zealand history, not to mention his aversion to cliche. Their book sometimes seems less a guide to the Coromandel than a list of the lazy assumptions of middle class urban Pakeha in the 1960s. For the Graylands, beaches are always 'glorious' and locals are always 'friendly'. Anecdotes from Pakeha publicans or farmers are cited solemnly as historical fact; 'Maoris' are always 'said' to have lived here or there and done this or that, but are never actually confronted and asked about themselves. When the Graylands find some bones - are they even human bones? - on the sandhills at Jackson's Bay they decide - simply to give their narrative a certain exotic 'colour', perhaps? - that they have the remains of an ancient 'cannibal feast' on their hands.

Unlike nearby Whitianga, which has since the 1960s metastasised into an outpost of Auckland's North Shore, or of Australia's Gold Coast, Hahei has not changed unrecognisably since the Graylands visited. But the village's lack of condominiums, marinas, and five-star restaurants does not signify a commitment to egalitarianism. Locals have resisted changes to zoning regulations and proposals for large-scale developments out of a well-founded belief that the small size and traditional appearance of their settlement boosts, in the long run, the value of its sections. Today Hahei, with its carefully maintained impersonation of a postwar Kiwi bach community, is one of the most expensively exclusive places on the whole of the Coromandel. Hahei's holiday camp, which was once a low-key, low-tech example of the egalitarian culture of postwar welfare state New Zealand, has in recent years undergone a 'makeover', so that it is now divided into a series of zones which correspond with the socioeconomic divisions that are a feature of any healthy capitalist society. On the swampy land furthest from the beach there is provision for proletarian campers and caravaners; further east, at the foot of a set of sandhills which block a view of the sea, modestly respectable cabins are available to holidaymakers prepared to pay a little more. A handful of new villas ride the crests of the dunes, offering exclusive views to those willing and able to pay even more. I'm staying in a villa, of course.

Whitianga Rock On the eleventh of November 1769, the Endeavour anchored near the place where the Whitianga River flows into Te Whanganui-A-Hei. Joseph Banks admired the pa site on the south head of the river, reckoning that 'the best engineer in Europe' could not have chosen a better place 'for a small number of men to defend themselves against a greater'. The site was 'strong by nature' and 'made more so by art'.

Banks noticed, though, that the people who had built this impressive pa, as well as the forts down the coast at Hahei, seemed poor, compared to their compatriots in the Bay of Plenty. Their houses and canoes lacked carvings; their clothes lacked feathers. When Cook and friends came ashore and climbed the pa now commonly known as Whitianga Rock the locals explained that another iwi raided Te Whanganui-a-Hei regularly, stealing their harvests and burning their villages. As a small and relatively isolated tribe, Ngati Hei could only survive by retreating to their forts and waiting out the raiders.

In 1818 or 1820 - different dates are given by different historians - attackers from the north almost destroyed Ngati Hei. Armed with muskets, Hongi Hika's Nga Puhi fighters were able to overrun the ancient redoubts and drive Ngati Hei to the forest margins of their coastal rohe. The iwi has never completely recovered from the attack: even today, it has a population of only four hundred. Skyler and I climb Whitianga Rock. With their hundreds of pipi and mussel shells, the middens eroding slowly down each side the ridge we tread look from a distance like strange drifts of snow. The ridge gets narrower, and we notice smooth round holes in its stone: Ngati Hei sunk palisades here, centuries ago. On our right we have a view across the heads to the city of Whitianga; on our left a dead man's trail scrambles down through scrub and over scree to Back Bay, on the south side of the river. The Pakeha millers and traders who took most of the Whitianga area from a depleted Ngati Hei dismantled the walls of this fort, and used the stones to build a kauri boom which still stretches into Back Bay.

Painterly abstraction While waiting for a ferry across the mouth of the Whitianga I take photos of the hull of an old dinghy someone has leant against a cliff. With its abstract swirl of blue, green and silver stains, the hull looks like a canvas by Pat Hanly or Toss Woollaston. Ralph Hotere's greatest work, the 'installation' known as Black Phoenix , was a burnt-out fishing boat left in an art gallery. What if I dragged this dinghy into one of the white rooms of Auckland's dealer galleries and leaned it against a wall?

A group of Japanese women are watching me with the reflexive curiousity of tourists; I wonder whether, if I click away long enough, they might decide that this dinghy must be a notable artefact, something given a sentence or two - a sentence or two which they unaccountably missed - in Lonely Planet, something worth thirty seconds and a photograph.

I find an orange crumbling implement lying near the dinghy, and wander over to show it to Isabel's father, who is dangling his legs off Whitianga's antique stone wharf.
"Check out this thing. Doesn't it look like an octopus turned to iron?"
"Not iron. Rust."
"The tentacles that spread from the base - don't you think it looks like an octopus? That's the head, here are the tentacles - "
"It's a sand anchor."
"An anchor? Surely it's too insubstantial to be an anchor?"
"It's not an anchor now. It's rust now. It used to be an anchor."
"But what was it anchoring - a lilo? It's so small - "
"A sand anchor's used when a dinghy or some small boat gets pulled up onto a beach. The spiky end goes in the sand so that the boat doesn't get pulled out when the tide comes in."
"I see. Sorry."
"You're not going to take a photo, are you?"
The Churner Whitianga Museum occupies the shell of a dairy factory built in 1911 over the site of Hukihuki, a palisaded urupa which was established in the sixteenth century and used until the middle of the nineteenth century. Rae Katene is about to retire from her job on the front desk, but her enthusiasm for the museum she has served for many years is not about to decline. "I'll stay involved as a volunteer - I love this place" she tells me, as I write my name in the Visitors Book.

I tell Rae about the only Ngati Hei artefact I have seen: a hollow-eyed, gape-mouthed face carved into a lump of pumice, found on Slipper Island, and displayed at the Waikato museum in Hamilton. Rae grimaces. "I don't like that museum. It's a black museum." I explain that the small rooms, dark walls, spare lighting, and minimal furnishings of the Tainui section of the Waikato museum had seemed to me to give the artefacts displayed there a mysterious power, a power unattainable in the bright open environments of more fashionable institutions like Te Papa.
"Oh, I don't like Te Papa either. They came up here and tried to tell us what to do."

"Are there Ngati Hei artefacts on display here?"
"No. We consulted with the iwi for three or four years and held a space for them, but in the end they decided they couldn't display their taonga on the site of an old burial ground. They are still negotiating their Treaty settlement: when it comes through they may set up their own museum."
"Is it true that Hei himself is buried here?"
"No. Who told you that?"
"A book - a couple called the Graylands - "
"The Graylands are - how can I put this? - not always reliable. Ngati Hei are descended from Kupe and Hei. Kupe came here from Hawaiiki, which many locals take to be the island of Raiatea in French Polynesia. There is a stream which flows into the bay at the northern end of Buffalo Beach, at the edge of town - it's called Taputapuatea, after a temple on Raiatea. The name is ancient. The name is a link. Hei might be buried on a sacred spot at the end of the Coromandel peninsula. But I must show you our butter churner. It's made of kauri. I spent years fighting to keep it here - it was left behind, you see, when the dairy factory closed. Some people wanted to get rid of it - they didn't think it was historic. They didn't think it was remote enough, in time." Rae walks me to the butter churner, which dominates the museum's main room. "No other museum in the world has a kauri wood butter churner displayed in situ" she says proudly. Sitting still and empty, the churner seems somehow out of place in its old home. With its capsule-like shape and its cosy central cavity, the churner looks strangely like one of the Apollo spacecraft which were fired into orbit and later crashed into the sea, in the decades before the advent of the space shuttle. The corner of the room which had been reserved for Ngati Hei is filled with a collection of Melanesian masks and spears: a treat, in a small regional museum. Rae tells me that one of the institution's most popular displays is its model moa. A sign left near the creature's plastic feet urges visitors to SAVE OUR MOA - leave the Emu feathers on the bird!

Buffalo Beach Road I buy a map of Whitianga from the town's Visitor Information Centre, then set out along Buffalo Beach Road in search of Taputapuatea Stream. Buffalo Beach, which runs north from the Whitianga estuary, gets its name from a British merchant navy vessel which ran aground on its sands in 1840. At least one of the two victims of the wreck was buried behind the palisades of Hukihuki.

Whitianga's first hospital stands abandoned on Buffalo Beach Road; its ornate kauri pillars seem sadly incongruous, amidst the steel and glass and concrete of the mansions and luxury apartments which dominate today's waterfront. The hospital is a monument to an egalitarian regional culture which has been eroded by gentrification. It opened in 1898 - long decades before the establishment of a comprehensive welfare state in New Zealand - but it operated according to principles that John A Lee would have recognised. The people of Whitianga paid for the building themselves, and forked out two shillings and sixpence a year in returned for guaranteed free treatment if they fell ill or suffered injury. A few hundred metres past the old hospital I find water emerging from the earth through a rusty iron weir. Is this the venerable and revered Taputapuatea? When, I wonder, did Kupe's stream get redirected underground? How can its demotion from a stream to a drain be reconciled with its name and history? A little further down Buffalo Beach Road, though, I discover that what I saw was only a tributary, and that the main body of Taputapuatea still flows unmolested to the sea. A bridge raises the road above the stream; a sign on the bridge publishes the ancient name.

Huts Walking back from Buffalo Beach towards the ferry landing, I notice a series of huts made from driftwood and seaweed. When he landed close to this spot one evening in November 1769, Cook encountered a group of Maori lying in rough huts. The male members of the group slept with patu and taiaha by their sides, and women and children slept behind them. The group was made up of outsiders, who had come to Te Whanganui-A-Hei to gather bracken roots and shellfish; they feared attack by locals, who might mistake them for raiders. The huts in front of me are tall and narrow; each might shelter a single adult. Standing safely above the high tide mark, they seem to mock the glass and steel buildings on the other side of Buffalo Beach Road.