Enlightening New Zealand: an Open Letter to Philip Catton
like thousands of other New Zealanders, I encountered you for the first time one morning in January, when you appeared on Radio Live to counter host Sean Plunket's criticisms of your daughter. I admired your calm and cogent response to Plunket's claim that Eleanor Catton's criticisms of the National government made her a traitor to New Zealand. I admired your criticisms of Plunket's overbearing and obfuscatory manner, and nodded in agreement when you called for Kiwis to discuss ideas and issues in a more serious and respectful way.
Now, in an essay for The Pantograph Punch, you have again emphasised the value of 'many-sided public criticism and debate'. There is much in your essay that I agree with. I think you are right to convict John Key, as well as Sean Plunket, of a failure to engage respectfully with critics; I think you are right to say that politicians and media personalities who lack respect for their interlocutors suffer, at bottom, from a lack of self-respect and intellectual confidence.
I disagree, though, with the historical narrative that takes up part of your essay. In the spirit of respectful dialogue, I want to argue that you misunderstand the impact of Enlightenment thinking on New Zealand, and that you misunderstand the reasons for the growth of democratic values and institutions here.
About halfway through your essay you look away from contemporary New Zealand to eighteenth century Europe, and begin an extended tribute to the Enlightenment.
You argue that the Enlightenment 'founded the modern ideas and institutions of democracy'. You characterise the movement as an overdue response to the ignorance and violence of churches and kings. Repulsed by witch-hunting clerics and warmongering kings, cliques of European intellectuals gathered in salons and cafes. These intellectuals thought freely, and spoke freely, and promoted free thought and free speech as ideals. As their example spread through Western societies, a 'democratisation of thought began', and old, reactionary establishments were 'gradually shrunken and dissipated'. Kings became 'servants of the people', and clerics lost some of their moral authority.
Until the Enlightenment, you insist, human beings existed in a 'condition of self-imposed immaturity'. The habit of free thinking and the idea of democracy were alien to them. With the help of Enlightenment intellectuals, some humans have been able to 'awake' from their dogmatic slumbers. In the twenty-first century, though, too many people still languish in an ancient state of immaturity.
You argue that the Enlightenment occurred before New Zealand existed as a nation, and suggest that the 'courageous intellection' found in the cafes of Europe had no parallel here. Nevertheless, you concede, New Zealand has sometimes 'set quite a fine example' of 'democracy'. Presumably you believe that Enlightenment ideas found their way to this country in the nineteenth century, and helped produce the universal suffrage and relative freedom of speech that have become features of our society.
Of course, not all scholars of intellectual history share your enthusiasm for the Enlightenment. It is seventy years since Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer published The Dialectic of Enlightenment, a book that linked the Enlightenment passions for taxonomy and logic with the panoptic states built by Stalin and Hitler. And it is nearly forty years since Edward Said published Orientalism, a polemic that showed how many of the Enlightenment's greatest thinkers, from Voltaire to David Hume to Immanuel Kant, believed in the cultural and biological superiority of European peoples over other human beings.
Said argued that Enlightenment intellectuals showed an enormous contempt for the rest of humanity, when they condemned the world's cultural traditions as compendia of superstitions and blunders, and declared themselves the first humans to think reasonably and freely. Although most Enlightenment intellectuals believed in the ability of Europeans to awake from superstition and learn reason, many of them doubted that non-Europeans had the same chance. At worst, dark-skinned people were congenitally irrational; at best, they would have to be schooled in reason by Europeans.
Said and other scholars have suggested that Enlightenment thinking was very useful for Europe's great powers, as they colonised the rest of the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Land grabs in Africa or Asia or the Pacific could be presented as attempts to bring the light of European reason to benighted corners of the world.
If we examine New Zealand's colonial history, it is easy for us to find evidence for Edward Said's dark vision of the Enlightenment.
Alfred Domett was one of the bridges between Enlightenment Europe and colonial New Zealand. Domett was Premier of this country in 1862 and 1863, and held several other important government posts. An atheist, a freethinker, and an advocate of modern science, Domett had befriended Robert Browning and other important British intellectuals before emigrating to New Zealand. Even as he pursued a political career in his new country, he published poems in fashionable British magazines, and polemicised for the Enlightenment in letters to his friends in the old country.
The Enlightenment belief that traditional cultures are irrational and useless informs much of the legislation that politicians like Alfred Domett gave New Zealand in the nineteenth century. After defeating their enemies in battle, the colonists abolished traditional Maori political structures, land ownership systems, and legal arrangements, and replaced them with ostensibly more rational and efficient institutions made in Europe. After New Zealand acquired a tropical empire the same process was repeated in Samoa, Niue and the Cook Islands.
While men like Alfred Domett were starting wars and stealing land in the name of reason and civilisation, some of the indigenous people of New Zealand were building this country's first democratic institutions. At the end of the 1850s the Ngati Haua chief Wiremu Tamihana brought scores of hapu and iwi together to form the Kingitanga, or Maori King movement.
At Peria, the village he had founded near Matamata, Tamihana created an assembly house where the future of the King movement could be debated. Tamihana also helped found a newspaper where Kingites could share information and ideas. At the time Tamihana was creating these institutions, no Maori had the right to vote for the parliament of colonial New Zealand, and few Maori voices were allowed into Pakeha newspapers.
After the invasion and conquest of the Waikato and the death of Tamihana the Kingite parliament was reestablished, and named Te Kauhanganui. Its work continues.
Wiremu Tamihana can be called one of the fathers of New Zealand democracy, but his thinking and practice were inspired not by Descartes or Voltaire. When he created a parliament for the Kingitanga, Tamihana adapted one of the most important rituals in Maori culture. The powhiri involves a complex dialogue, as the tangata whenua of a marae welcome and then exchange speeches with their manuhiri, or guests. Tamihana recognised that, with its two-sided structure, the powhiri could be made into a forum in which information is shared and debates are waged.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century trade unionists and their left-wing political allies struggled with employees and the colonial state for the right to recruit and rally members, and for the right to publish propaganda. They had to defy the Sedition Act, which was used to send the owners of books and pamphlets by Marx and Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg to jail, as well as local government bylaws that often forbade protest marches and public meetings. In certain periods of intense industrial conflict - during the Maritime strike of 1891, the Great Strike of 1913, and the Waterfront Lockout of 1951 - virtually all pro-union propaganda was forbidden, as soldiers and police confiscated printers and imprisoned union leaders. Only after many decades of agitation did the workers' movement win the right to publish and rally freely.
Like Wiremu Tamihana and the Kingites who built Te Kauhanganui, the radical workers' movement owed little to the Enlightenment intellectuals you credit with founding democracy. Its members took their ideas from the overseas socialist movement, and from local left-wing intellectuals like RAK Mason and Elsie Locke.
I have been talking very negatively about the Enlightenment. I should admit that the movement's members produced good as well as bad ideas, that they were capable of courage as well as bigotry, and that their thought could be used for righteous as well as evil ends. David Hume may have considered persons with dark skin subhuman, but his lonely atheism demands respect. It is hard to imagine the French revolution occurring without the help of Voltaire, and EP Thompson has shown how the rebellious plebians of nineteenth century England were sometimes inspired by local representatives of the Enlightenment like William Godwin. In New Zealand and many other colonial societies, though, the Enlightenment has cast a shadow.
It might seem like I have made a great deal of what was, after all, only one section of your essay. But I think that it is important to recognise the contradictory and often ugly nature of the Enlightenment, and to remember how democracy and liberty were established and expanded in New Zealand.
If we understand how fine rhetoric about reason and civilisation can be deployed in the service of conquest and plunder, then we have a better chance of making sense of the events of the twenty-first century. The disastrous Western adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, have been justified with Enlightenment-style talk about the bringing of human rights and freedom to benighted parts of the globe. Alfred Domett would have appreciated Bush and Blair's apologies for war.
And New Zealanders are more likely to cherish and defend their civil liberties if they understand that these taonga were won, over many decades, from a hostile and often violent state. Our democratic rights were not made in the salons and coffee houses of Europe and imported by British colonists: they are the legacy of New Zealanders like Wiremu Tamihana.