Monday, November 13, 2017

Garrett's latest target

Did you know that the indigenous peoples of the Pacific are prisoners of a violent and tribalist mindset, that all Tongans and Samoans hate each other, and that almost any Tongan is liable to go berserk after imbibing even a modest amount of alcohol?

I didn't either, until I'd read the opinion piece that David Garrett, ex-MP and convicted identity thief and bar room brawler, published last week at Kiwiblog, the site that seems to have become an antipodean version of Breitbart. Garrett had been upset by the rowdy celebrations of Tongans after one of their recent World Cup rugby league wins, and by post-match scraps between a few Friendly Islanders and Samoans.

The discussion thread under Garrett's piece is filled with fusty stereotypes and with jibes against Pacific Islanders in general, and Tongans in particular. I made a few comments there, in an effort to correct Garrett's erroneous claims about Tongan history, about his eccentric understanding of historical research, and about his failure to understand the causes of what I call modern Tongan exceptionalism.

Garrett also has some interesting views on Muslims, Indians, and gays.

I'm pleased that the man's various personality flaws and his addiction to booze got him booted from parliament before he had completed his first term.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The late First Cat

Aneirin and I are sorry to hear about the demise of Jacinda Ardern's cat Paddles. Aneirin had been fascinated to learn last week about Paddles' recent rise to the position of First Cat. He was a little sceptical, though, about whether 'the really big cats, the ones in the zoo' would recognise Ardern's little tabby as their ruler. Now that Paddles has passed on, Aneirin is wondering whether there will be an election to decide on a new First Cat. He's pondered whether our grumpy black tortoiseshell Smudge could be a candidate in such a contest.
Aneirin followed the recent general election closely - he saw the various parties' billboards on his way to and from school, and also noticed ads in the media. He decided that he supported The Opportunities Party after seeing a photograph of Gareth Morgan and a few of his chums on a motorbike. But then Cerian, who knows how to influence young minds, informed Aneirin that Morgan wanted to wipe out New Zealand's cats. Aneirin was mortified. He turned his back on the 'Motorbike Party', and became an enthusiastic backer of the 'Red Team'. 
Indeed, when he came into the polling station with me on election day Aneirin raised the returning officers' eyebrows by shouting 'Come on Dad, vote for the Red Team!' He even followed me into the voting booth, in an effort to influence my choice. I have a feeling that we won't be voting on the next First Cat, and even if we were I wouldn't want Smudge exposed to the stresses of electoral politics.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Shuffling cards

There's been a lot of public interest in and debate about the New Zealand Wars lately, with a commemorative day being held for the first time, a series of public discussions involving Vincent O'Malley, the author of a massive and authoritative history of the Waikato War, and some interesting arguments about whether monuments raised after the wars should be demolished or amended. 

Image maker Paul Janman has been documenting many of these events, and has also been finding time to help me edit Ghost South Road, the war-haunted book of images and texts that will appear next year. Where O'Malley's book is a mighty narrative, Ghost South Road veers backwards and forwards through time, and features frequent character and costume changes. Paul and I recently exchanged e mails about the book's (lack of) structure. 

In his reply to my e mail Paul mentions a recent turbulent protest-meeting beside the Otahuhu memorial to Marmaduke Nixon, a man blamed by historians for human rights abuses during the invasion of the Waikato. I'll be posting Paul's account of that meeting soon. 

Hi Paul,

I have been following the New Zealand Wars commemorations and the debates over monuments to the wars. Although I support the work that Vincent O'Malley and other revisionist, anti-imperial historians and activists are doing, I think there is the danger of replacing one teleological timeline of events, events that must be rote learnt by schoolkids and journalists, with another. 

The people and events in Ghost South Road are generally there because they have excited me: because they have somehow enlarged my sense of what is possible in New Zealand. But perhaps this is a privilege I have, this feeling of astonishment. If I lived in a mouldy rented flat down the road from a farm that was confiscated from my great-great-grandfather after the Waikato War then I might have a different, less aesthetic, attitude to the past. 

Nevertheless, I am trying to ask the question: how can we encounter, communicate, the feelings of surprise and wonder that history can cause? How can we make people feel excited as well as saddened by the past? How can we reconcile the necessity of remembering the dark parts of history with the possibility that the past might also contain sources of nourishment, of reinvigoration?

There was a tradition, in Britain and in certain other European countries like Germany, of historians keeping loose cards, on which they wrote notes about discrete events, people, organisations. The cards could be shuffled, read in different orders. Beatrice Webb wrote about the 'games with reality' that she and her scholar-husband Sidney would play, as they sat with their boxes of cards by the fireplace in the evening. When the Webbs wrote their research up, though, the games were replaced by neat linear narratives.  

Nowadays historians file their notes on computers: I suppose they'd need a programme or an app to simulate the old card shuffling. Keith Thomas, author of Religion and the Decline of Magic, is famous as the last historian to keep loose notes. He says he files slips of paper in various envelopes, depending on their theme, and begins an essay or chapter when an envelope has begun to bulge and spill its contents onto the floor of his study. 
Perhaps what we need, as well as the linear counter-history that Vincent O'Malley and others are so ably providing, is a sort of card shuffling history: a history in which different events and people continually appear, and in which the marginal people - the pushers of wheelbarrows, the Lawrence Beavises - and the apparently minor events - the theft and wrecking of one of the first motorcars to reach Auckland by a group of servant-boys - can suddenly appear alongside more apparently significant personages and doings, and can, through their unexpected presence, perhaps suggest new perspectives, new possibilities. That all sounds terribly waffly, doesn't it? 

I don't have much sympathy for his long-winded theorising, but I do like Gilles Deleuze's  advocacy of nomadism: his advocacy of an instability of opinions as a way of life, his warning of the dangers of arriving at dogmatic views on this or that subject. Perhaps a sort of nomadism of history is required, so that we feel excited rather than oppressed by the past. But I'm still groping in the dark, as you can tell...

Thanks for these views Scott. I am myself working in this sort of way. Using an app called Scrivener, I am creating a range of index cards that I return to and rearrange. The talk at the Nixon monument was an outcome of this way of thinking and it was interesting to test it out on an audience - both good and bad results. I think it's worth remembering that shuffling type literary technologies are best I think, when they are driven by a tested kaupapa. 

Take the I Ching for example - it is free associative but its power also resides in the accretion of thousands of years of experimentation and scholarship that is distilled into 64 archetypes. So yes, the results can be exciting and enlivening for history but it can also turn off an audience that doesn't know where you're coming from, or perceives privilege in the inevitable genealogy of your ideas. 

And yes, I think there is a danger in privilege manifesting itself in aestheticism. This is why the privileged historical poet still needs the inclusion of a suppressed community to temper his excitement by exposing him to their own immediate interests. In O'Malley, you've seen how an individual commitment and effort has played off an audience and galvanised a movement. More to say but I've got to get back to my marking!

PJ