Monday, April 06, 2020

What lockdown?

One New Zealand airport has been unaffected by coronavirus. Its liquid runway is busy with thousands of vehicles: they arrive & leave untroubled by passport officers, health officials. I've written about this airport for EyeContact.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Another plague

I've written for The Spinoff about the way Maori were quarantined & starved during the smallpox lockdown of 1913.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Human, all too human

Covid19 & anti-semitism are both dangerous viruses: one damages the lungs, the other the mind. I found this graffiti in Glen Eden's toilets yesterday.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Light reading

I wonder whether someone in the Beehive's coronavirus crisis team is reading these tomes tonight. They were commissioned after World War 2, & describe, in almost overwhelming detail, the radical bureaucratic & economic improvisations the Labour government made to deal with a global crisis.

Romantic leftists are fascinated by the years 1913 & 1951, with their strikes & streetfighting, but it was arguably in the '40s, under the dour leadership of Peter Fraser, that modern NZ moved the furthest left. War forced Fraser to intervene in every part of the economy.

The Fraser government appropriated large parts of the private sector & dedicated them to the war effort, put strict controls of capital movements, banned many luxuries of the rich, & let many unions run de facto closed shops.

I suspect that when she announces emergency measures to protect the economy from coronavirus in a couple of days, PM Ardern will dip into Fraser's box of tricks.

Fraser was a pragmatist; he took radical measures because of the demands of war & because of protest at home. As Japan advanced south a vast grassroots movement called Awake NZ demanded the total mobilisation of the economy. The Home Guard was a largely spontaneous phenomenon, as rural Kiwis banded together to discuss guerrilla war against a Japanese invasion.

Workers had potential power during the war, because of the nation's labour shortage. Wildcat strikes forced the nationalisation of the mines.

Not all of the interventions of the Fraser government were necessarily socially useful. Fraser commandeered virtually the entire building sector, as he constructed forts & bunkers along NZ's coast. By the time the war ended, NZ had a serious housing shortage.

And there was a dark side to the popular pressure for radical measures during World War Two. Some of the same grassroots groups urging the appropriation of wealth & capital demanded severe measures against aliens & conscientious objectors. Fraser often acceded. Thanks to the NZ Electronic Text Centre, you can read Taylor's book about the Home Front and Baker's study of the war economy online.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

On Henderson

On Monday we blew a tyre on the southern motorway. With the determined grip one might use for a senile relative or a recalcitrant child, my wife turned our decelerating vehicle onto a shelf beside the median strip. I thought suddenly of the indigenes of Henderson Island.

I surveyed our new home. The island had a maximum height of two and a half feet feet. Gravel fringed its coral-coloured concrete spine. Traffic roared like the ocean on both coasts. In the distance I could see the Rainbows End rollercoaster; it resembled the reconstructed fossil of a diplodocus.

The people of Henderson - we do not know their name for themselves, or their motu - lived for centuries in caves beside the sea, waiting for canoes from Pitcairn, Mangareva, the Marquesas. The canoes stopped coming. The islanders, who lacked timber to build their own vaka, died.

Our new island home seemed as remote as Henderson. My wife called the AA, the cops, posted on facebook. But no one stopped for us; none of the thousands of passers by even looked up from the steering wheels of their vaka. The hiss and blur of the traffic-waves became a rebuke.

When buses & trucks passed, our beached vaka shook. I thought about the caves of Henderson, which resemble mouths mutely screaming. Loneliness only exists in the midst of other people.

I had never been so happy to see a cop. He closed the road, steered us to a safe anchorage, beside a berm, a bank. Like Melville returning to land after months on the barren sea, I could see every blade of grass about me.

Return of the silver bees

As the drought went on, the elderly couple talked about their water tank using the slightly hushed tones and technical vocabulary they usually reserved for medical matters. The tank was almost empty, like a leaky heart valve; its water was cloudy as cataracts. Then the sky grunted. They hobbled towards a window. Drops clung to the pane like a flock of miraculous silver bees.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Limestone cowboys

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The giant hunters' lineage

Last week Radio New Zealand exposed a group digging illegally & dangerously for the bones of a mythical race of ancient white giants in the Limestone Country west of Huntly. Since then, many commentators have decided that the diggers must be insane victims of the conspiracy culture that thrives in our internet era. The view of the giant hunters as modern & anomalous is understandable, but it is badly mistaken.
As strange as it might sound, the group digging for ancient bones near Huntly are part of a mainstream tradition in Western thought & scholarship. A century ago nearly every scholar of New Zealand history held some of the assumptions of today's giant hunters. They believed in higher & lower races, thought human progress came through cultural diffusion, as the higher races spread across the globe and conquered lower races, & researched by ransacking Maori wahi tapu & traditions.
If we look, for example, at Percy Smith & Elsdon Best's massively influential theory of the Moriori as the original people of New Zealand, & if we look at the way they gathered for evidence for that theory, then we can find obvious precedents for the work of today's pseudo-historians.
Smith & Best believed that a primitive & cannibalistic Melanesian race called the Moriori arrived in New Zealand, before being displaced by the more advanced Maori, who were in turn, of course, colonised by Pakeha. Their theory implied racial hierarchies & development by diffusion & conquest.
Like today's pseudo-historians, Smith & Best appropriated fragments of Maori oral history, & used these to justify their ideas about history. Their claim that the stories about an ancient North island iwi called Maruiwi concerned Moriori was as incoherent as the giant hunters' claim that the patupaiarehe featured in Maori tales were ancient Pakeha.
Smith & Best were far more sophisticated than today's pseudo-historians, & they did not, so far as I'm aware, desecrate ancient sites. But many cruder scholars of their era did. Andreas Reischek, for example, looted burial caves across Te Ika a Maui.
New Zealand was no exception in the early 20th century. Across the west, race-based scholarship ruled. In Nazi Germany this scholarship was perfected. Reischek & Smith would have loved to be members of the Ahnennerbe, the army of archaeologists, folklorists, & linguists that Himmler despatched to places like Tibet & Sweden in search of evidence of the glorious history of the Aryan race.
There are parallels between the expeditions Himmler organised & some of the grand scholarly research projects in New Zealand & the Pacific. The Bayard Dominick expeditions to the Pacific in the '20s, for example, were sponsored by a US broker who suspected that an 'advanced', non-Polynesian people had been responsible for the stone monuments found on islands like Tonga & Rapa Nui.
Over the last five decades or so New Zealand archaeologists have done a superb job of professionalising & decolonising their discipline. There is no prospect, today, that they would be duped by white supremacist giant hunters. But the same can't be said for other disciplines.
Last year the New York Times ran a long, well-researched, & very disturbing article about the way one of the world's top academic laboratories has been using DNA obtained from bones acquired at ancient Pacific archaeological sites.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus' essay focused on a high-profile 'discovery' that scientists made while examining bones from Teouma, the oldest burial site on Vanuatu. According to the lab run by the acclaimed US geneticist David Reich, these bones belonged only to the Lapita ancestors of today's Polynesians.
On the basis of their DNA 'result' from Teouma, Reich decided that a more advanced Lapita people must have settled Vanuatu, then spread their culture to less advanced Melanesians.
But Lewis-Kraus revealed that the Teouma interpretation was based on equivocal results taken from tests on only a few of the bones in the cemetery. Lewis-Kraus slammed David Reich for the racialist, 19th century argument he and his lab built on such a thin foundation of fact.
David Reich & the team at his lab are not racist crackpots, but for various reasons, which Smith describes, they've deployed the same methods & drawn the same sort of conclusion as people like Percy Smith & today's giant-hunters in New Zealand.
The racialist scholarship of the 19th & early 20th century was disastrous for Maori. It led to the desecration of wahi tapu & to negative stereotypes. It was also subtly assimilated by some Maori scholars. Ngata, Buck & Haare Hongi all absorbed some racialist ideas from Pakeha.
More recently the scholarship of Reich & his lab has had deleterious effects in Vanuatu. It has perpetuated the notion that the nation's Melanesian majority is somehow culturally backward, & it has obscured the way Lapita-Polynesian & Melanesian peoples interacted & blended.
When we treat the contemporary white supremacist pseudo-archaeologists as crazy outliers, we stop ourselves from thinking about our own intellectual history, & miss the ways that racialist ideas are still seeping into some research on the Pacific.