Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Reading the bones

A study released this week has found that the so-called 'hobbit' skeleton discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2004 did indeed belong to a distinct and hitherto unknown species of human, and not to a group of Homo Sapiens afflicted by dwarfism and a brain disorder, as some cynics had claimed.

The posthumous recognition of Homo Florosiensis counts as good news, not only because it makes the world and its history more fascinating, but also because it will help to destroy the myth that human evolution has proceeded in a gradual and orderly manner, with one species giving way to another until something resembling perfection is reached with Homo Sapiens. I've argued that this model of evolution has been applied, often by self-proclaimed Marxists, to the study of the history of Homo Sapiens, with disastrous results. And if you think the Marx-quoting teleologists are a thing of the past, take a look at a couple of the comments under this recent post at Dave Osler's blog.

The Bloody Pursuit of Perfection

I’ve just read an article in the Guardian entitled ‘The Bloody Pursuit of Perfection’.

It’s hard for me to think of a time in my life, at least since the age of about eight, when I wasn’t conscious of my body. I never felt at ease with it and even when I was a healthy size and weight I was always dissecting it and thinking, “I wish my thighs were a bit slimmer or my arms more toned.” This is the experience of many women (if not all women in western societies). It seems that from childhood girls are taught to feel unhappy with their bodies and they try to search for “perfection”, but is that ever achievable or even desirable? I love people to be unique and it’s the quirks and imperfections which we can become most fond of.

The Guardian article pointed out that:

Liposuction is booming - and the vast majority of patients are women. What makes them submit to such a violent procedure - especially when it removes only a few pounds of fat?

They do it to try and achieve so called “perfection”. As a surgeon said in the Guardian article:

“If, after dieting and exercise, you haven't achieved what you wanted, and you have some stubborn areas of fat, then you would be a good candidate for liposuction." The maximum amount of fat it is possible to lose from a specific area would be 2-2.5 kg, he adds.

Ironically I’ve spent a lot of my working life around the fashion and media industries. My personal experience can back up the research (and common sense) that tells us that these industries have a lot to answer for in encouraging poor body image among women (especially the young).

So, for instance, late last year, the Mail on Sunday's You magazine ran a survey in which women were asked to assess which part of their body they liked least out of their breasts, thighs, face/neck, bottom, tummy, upper arms, and legs. (The tummy, that long-time foe, romped home with 45.2%.)…

This tendency to pick ourselves apart, put each part of our bodies under the microscope, has been encouraged by celebrity magazines. As a culture, there is plenty of evidence that our body obsessions are making us less and less healthy, with both obesity and eating disorders at an all-time high. And still, in the midst of these two extremes, we remain obsessed with the idea that the human body is perfectible.

Do all cultures seek an ideal of femininity? Why do we as females conform and allow these trends to exist?

In advertising we see that any "imperfections" in the images are airbrushed out. Blemishes, scars, and slight bulges of fat are all erased. What is it in our society that makes us want to rub out imperfections and difference? This sad situation alienates people, and those who may already suffer from low self esteem can be affected so badly that they develop eating disorders and depression.

Maia at Capitalism bad: tree pretty has an interesting piece on body image and hating your body. It seems to me that New Zealand as a society finds it particularly hard to tolerate people who don't fit the mould. Is this one of the reasons why we suffer from one of the world's worst youth suicide rates? Feelings about body are closely related to a woman's sense of self; the body is perceived as acceptable or unacceptable, providing a foundation for self-concept women trying to look their best, it is also a struggle for control, acceptance and success.

I don’t think that we should keep saying it’s ok to be fat when we aren’t happy with it ourselves. I don't buy into what some feminists say that we have to be happy with being fat and by continually saying we are happy with our bodies we will somehow suddenly accept our bodies. I can say I am not happy with my body. I am happy with who I am as a person. I'm not searching for "perfection" in my body just health, so I will continue to loose some weight but I don't have a desire to be skinny or "perfect". I would also like to see women being seen as people and not judged by the way they look.

It is unhealthy to be obese. This is a fact and I don't think we should be afraid to acknowledge that. But, I still disagree with the way that our society makes people feel about themselves and their bodies. What I think we should talk about is the obsession with looking for “perfection” and objectifying and dissecting our bodies. And, I'm worried about women feeling depressed when they can’t live up to an unrealistic body image projected by our society. I’m angry at a media that makes women feel so bad and that motivates them to put their bodies through barbaric surgery so that they can look like Barbie dolls!

We need to shift our society away from the obsession with the material, external, individualised, capitalist model. We need to find ways to make people feel accepted for who they are and connected to their community and wider society. We need to look to more holistic models of being and less dissected and alienated ways of living.

I'm no expert on this topic. I just read an article, got angry at yet more evidence of the insanity of cosmetic surgery and our materialistic society and wrote a blog post about it! Would like to hear other people's ideas on body image + our society + feminism....



1. Jacob Oram sleeps with the light on - not because he's scared of the dark, but because the dark is scared of him.

2. Jacob Oram counted to infinity twice.
3. When Jacob Oram goes to the gym, the machines he exercises on get fitter.
4. The only time Jacob Oram has ever made a mistake was the time he thought he was wrong about something.

5. Superman goes to bed in Jacob Oram pyjamas.
(Shamelessly lifted off an ode to a certain Aussie player on Sport radio, but what the hell: if you've seen the last three Black Caps games you'll know what I'm talking about...)

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Gotan Project Live (2006-11-17)

The Gotan Project are coming to NZ for Womad ( get a taste of them live on this clip.

Doble Filo - "Distorcionada Personalidad" from La Fabri-K

Music video from Cuban Hip-Hop group Doble Filo from the film "La Fabri-K: The Cuban Hip-Hop Factory" screened in 2005 at the International Latino Film Festival - San Francisco Bay Area.

Skyler: I'm working unsocialable hours at the moment (all night!) and am amusing myself by finding music on YouTube :-) Hope you enjoy it!

The Carnival's in Town

My post on Aporo, Te Ua Haumene and Maori resistance to colonisation is part of the latest Carnival of Socialism being hosted by Britain's Stroppyblog. The theme of this carnival is 'The Politics of Liberation', and Stroppy has brought together material on the Celebrity Big Brother controversy, the sex lives of female bloggers (Muzzlehatch is off!), the difficulties of working as a disabilities officer amongst British students, and much more.

I recommend a post called 'The Five Hundred Year Siege' by musician and activist David Rovis, who works with Navajo Indians fighting to protect their ancestral lands from exploitation by giant mining companies. Rovis reminds us that what we condemn in Iraq has been going on for a very long time in remote parts of the United States:

Until 1974, the Black Mesa area was the home of one of the last remaining intact communities of 20,000 or so people living traditionally, speaking mainly Navajo, living as sheep herders, in community, as they had for centuries. But then Peabody decided they wanted to expand their mine and people like Senator John McCain wanted to do their best to make sure this could happen. This meant moving 20,000 people off their land, some at a time, by making their lives impossible if they tried to stay...

The government is just barely too tactful to forcibly remove thousands of Indians from their land in the modern era, so they have employed various other methods. Very much along the lines of the sanctions imposed on Iraq during the 1990’s. Starve them into submission. Make their lives unliveable. Take away their water. Make sure they have to drive dozens of miles down unmaintained roads in order to get water for their sheep. Impound their sheep and make them pay to get them back. Fine them for making repairs on the roofs of their hogans. Fine them for collecting firewood.

Most ultimately moved. Many were sent to live on land that was made radioactive by the Church Rock uranium spill. Their sheep died from drinking the water, and many of the people died soon thereafter. After losing their community, living increasingly isolated lives made miserable by constant harassment by the authorities, some 17 families still refuse to leave their dusty land...

As in Palestine or Colombia, the mostly white supporters are able to be useful largely just because they’re white. The corrupt tribal authorities know who butters their bread, just as Israel or the government of Colombia do. Just being there and being white doesn’t stop the general trends, but it can effectively prevent the authorities from harassing the grandmothers for another day. Also, the fundamental racism of the reservation system is such that the tribal authorities are not allowed to arrest non-native people – the most they can do is escort them off of the reservation.

Read it all here.

It is good to see a left blog looking at wider issues, ones that don't get as much attention as they deserve. Stroppyblog has put together a thoughtful Carnival of Socialism - the post that I found most interesting and at the same time disturbing (for the amount of pain and suffering humans can inflict on each other and the political situation created in Iraq - in which we in the west, and especially the American and British governments, are complicit in) is the link to the Iraqi LGBT website. The situation in Iraq for gay and lesbian Iraqis is getting worse with reports of serious human rights violations and killings. Peter Tatchell, a gay and human rights activist, wrote about the sexual cleansing occuring in Iraq for the New Humanist, you can read his full article here

Some personal stories of victims in Iraq:

'Fourteen-year-old Ahmed Khalil was accused of corrupting the community because he had sex with men. According to his Baghdad neighbour, in April 2006 four men in police uniforms arrived at Ahmed’s house in a four-wheel-drive police pick-up truck. They wore the distinctive facemasks of the Badr militia. The neighbour saw the police drag Ahmed out of the house and shoot him at point-blank range, pumping two bullets into his head and several more bullets into the rest of his body.

Wathiq, aged 29, a gay architect, was kidnapped in Baghdad last March. Soon afterwards, the Badr militia sent his parents death threats, accusing them of allowing their son to lead a gay life and demanding a £11,000 ransom. The parents paid the money, thinking it would save Wathiq’s life. But he was found dead a few days later, with his body mutilated and his head cut off.

Wissam Auda was a member of Iraq’s Olympic tennis team. His dream was to play in the Wimbledon championship in London this year. He had been receiving death threats from religious fanatics on account of his homosexuality. On 25 May 2006, his vehicle was ambushed by fundamentalist militias in the al-Saidiya district of Baghdad. Wissam, together with his coach Hussein Ahmed Rashid and teammate Nasser Ali Hatem, were all summarily executed in the street. Their crime? Wissam’s homosexuality was probably what drew him to the attention of the militia’s, but his official crime was: wearing shorts. An Iraqi National Guard checkpoint was about 100m from the site of the ambush, but the soldiers did nothing, according to eye-witnesses.

The father of 23-year-old Baghdad arts student, Karzan, has been told by militias that his son has been sentenced to death for being gay. If his father refuses to hand over Karzan for execution, the militia has threatened to kill the family one by one. This has already happened to Bashar, 34, an actor. Because his parents refuse to reveal his hiding place, the Badr militia murdered two of his family members in retribution.

Nyaz is a 28-year old dentist who lives in Baghdad. She is terrified that her lesbian relationship will be discovered, and that both she and her partner will be killed. They have stopped seeing each other. It is too dangerous. To make matters worse, Nyaz is being forced by the fundamentalist Mahdi militia to marry an older, senior Mullah with close ties the Mahdi leader, Muqtada al-Sadr. If she does not agree to the marriage, or tries to run away, Nyaz and her family will be targeted for ‘honour killing’ by Sadr’s men. '

Doug Ireland , ( 'a longtime radical political journalist and media critic, who considers himself a purveyor of what the great I.F. Stone (at whose feet Doug sat as a lad) called "investigative opinion." Even those with whom Doug has profound disagreements respect him--like Christopher Hitchens, who wrote (in the May, 2004 Vanity Fair) that Doug "is one of the country’s toughest and brightest radical columnists."'), has more articles and comment on his blog on the situation for LGBT in Iraq:

'Life for gay and lesbian citizens in war-torn Iraq has become grave and is getting worse every day. While President Bush hails a new, “democratic” society, thousands of civilians are dying in a low-level civil war—and gays are being targeted just for being gay. The Badr Corps—the military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI for short), the country’s most powerful Shiite political group—has launched a campaign of “sexual cleansing,” marshaling death squads to exterminate homosexuality.'
.... read more here

Monday, January 29, 2007

Chairman Mao style at Shangri La

This photo was snapped at the edge of the carpark outside the Pt Chevalier outpost of Discount Liquor, where you can buy a six pack of Southern Draught for five dollars. If anyone knows of cheaper booze in Auckland, can they please help me out in the comments box?

I'd be almost as keen to know what 'Chairman Mao style' means, when applied to cooking. The location of the Shangri La restaurant is yet another mystery. I checked behind the sign and found nothing but rusty fence wire, loose gravel, and the turbid flow of rush hour Great North Road traffic. Perhaps the restaurant is supposed to exist only in the world of our imagination, like its namesake?

'Broken and unbroken people'

On Saturday I posted about the tragedy the Bedggood family has just experienced; yesterday I plugged Richard Taylor's forthcoming book of poems. I thought it'd be appropriate, then, to post this poem by Richard about a tragedy in his family. Richard's son Victor lost an eye after a confronation with the police in Ponsonby; charges laid against Victor after the incident were later thrown out of court by a judge who apologised to the Taylor family.

'The Policeman Still Has Two' is part of Richard's ongoing Eyelight blog project, which mixes visual art with verse and prose, and it's also featured in the forthcoming (if the printers at Massey ever get their act together) 'War' issue of brief (check out a sneak preview here). I admire the way that Richard's poem simplifies its vocabulary and sentence construction to communicate the child-like disorientation and incomprehension we often feel in the aftermath of a tragic event.

The Policeman Still Has Two

In the place of Justice, at the Court.
I sit among dark, strange, beings.
Policemen, unmenacing, brush past.
Lean lawyers, men in suits, chat
With savages. Street girls smoke
And laugh. A fat, sad man is fined.
A transvestite titters. Black jackets suits ties.
Broken and unbroken people.

The Judge hardly glances
At a boy, nervily shifting in the dock;
He has only one eye. What does it see?

A dark woman, as elegant
As a queen, sobs from an interview room:
I hear: “Both of you have, the...guilt/
The grief...” Or was it "burden"? A lady in
uniform walks past. I wait.

My son has one eye.

Lawyers from behind their ties, explain.

My son has one eye. .

The dark night has gone.

The men who
have been destroyed by those they destroy
Are kept for wicked Ogres
In their sneering woo wah wooh wah
Waspy cars. They club the broken hits
Of our land to bloody lumps,
In their daily night bashings. Like
weeders in a jungle, they are ten feet tall
And they are green
And they spit death blue
And their great, bulging, blindingly
Yellow eyes burn merciless and blind.

My boy has one eye. One!
The other one was burst…

He had run outside and cried
That a big in him had died.
The eye, infinitely aware, was all life long
In its marvellous/ Billion step creation/ Billion step making.

After vast time unfolding
It shone in a baby’s face: it grew to manhood.
A policeman, a dutiful policemen, burst it with a baton.
The eye was as beautiful as every eye. My boy, my green
And gentle boy — has only one eye.

Two two two — one two one two one two — blue green blue green
Blue blue blue... Cops, courts, people, batons, judges.

Batons - love, hate - eyes eyes eyes. Victor cried for help -
They smashed away his eye. Why?

All I know is a ten foot two-eyed Ogre burst his eye.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Richard's trees

The other day Muzzlehatch, who is one the of the proprietors of Titus Books, sent me three proposed covers for Richard Taylor's volume of poems Conversation with a Stone, and asked me to give an opinion on which was the best. He might as well have asked a blind man to judge to a beauty contest, or a baseball player to assess the New Zealand cricket team's performance [apologies for egregious dig at John Bracewell - ed]. Muzzlehatch is one of the several AWOL contributors to this blog, so I thought I'd spite him by putting the images here and asking for the judgment of you, the people.

All three cover designs come from the cunning Ellen Portch, and show macrocarpa trees growing on the side of Mt Wellington, one of Auckland's fifty or so extinct volcanoes. Mt Wellington's southern slopes back onto the working class suburb of Panmure, which Richard Taylor has called home for most of his life.

The macrocarpa is often simply called 'the farm tree', because when dairy and sheep farms were established by Pakeha up and down the country at the end of the nineteenth century it was planted extensively as a windbreak. That wasn't always a good idea: the tree is native to California, and because it grows too quickly in the wetter conditions of New Zealand it sometimes lacks what engineers call 'structural soundness' when a gale comes calling. When I was a boy I remember a row of ten massive macrocarpa trees on the edge of my parents' farm; today only three survive. The morning after a storm toppled one of the monsters the whole neighbourhood would turn up with chainsaws to restore the flow of traffic and stock up on firewood.

The young Kendrick Smithyman wrote this poem in 1957, when macrocarpas were still being widely used as windbreaks:


Torn sea, if only as the wind makes.
The winds come. Before long they go.
These are bergs that will be blocks –
The winds have risen, saying No
To our clutch and stay; to our comfort,
Once more No. A small dismay is brought
Home fast, flagged down by a mad saw.
Death smells of wood. At five, your day quakes.

What sound will dazed waves beat in their blown
Jaded caves, but briefly here? We’ll to
These woods no more; your trees resign
To charring indignity. Let fires row
Back through breakers of day’s ragged fall
Only to ash – Troy was, Mai Dun, all
Yesterday was, think, to one line descends.
Not quite. Yet what your fondness was, is mown.

(In case you were wondering, 'Mai Dun, also known as Maiden Castle, near Dorchester in England is a large earth mound with three concentric ramparts, originally an ancient Celtic settlement; in 43 AD, the hill fort was invaded by the Romans'. Thanks Margaret and Peter.)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

For Dave and Janet

Act vice-President and inveterate redbaiter Trevor Loudon recently used his blog to reveal the true reason for the existence of socialists. According to Trevor, we are victims of a mental illness which makes us crave power - as 'damaged people' we 'want to change the world to make ourselves fit in'.

Prejudice usually comes wrapped in ignorance. Few Islamophobes have ever chatted with a Muslim, and not many racists have stepped onto a marae. Trevor's words make it clear that he hasn't met many socialists. Far from from grasping at privilege and power, most socialists sacrifice time and money for beliefs that will, in New Zealand especially, do little to help them acquire political power or advance their careers.

I wish Trevor had come to one of the barbeques that the Anti Imperialist Coalition (AIC), the Auckland anti-war outfit I was involved in between the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, used to organise on a semi-regular basis. Every society throws up its own distinctive social forms of expression that can be used as the building blocks of a new, socialist order. In 1905 and 1917 Russia had its soviets; the Paris Commune took over the local authority of that ancient city and transformed it; today in Venezuela Communal Councils are being built out of organisations set up to improve life in the country's shantytowns.

Laugh if you like, but I reckon that the barbeque should be one of the building blocks of socialism in New Zealand. AIC barbeques were bastions of comradeship and free discussion. Had Trevor attended one, he would have found representatives of many of the innumerable tribes of the left - Trotskyites, anarchists, Maoists, greenies, Christian socialists, Islamolefties, even one or two social democrats - sharing beer and sausages and discussing everything from the prospects for impeaching George Bush to the dismal performance of the Black Caps (some things never change). Those power-hungry zealots with building plans for that gulag at Waiorou in their pockets must have gone to the Act party in the next suburb.

The reality is that socialists are motivated by things a good deal more mundane than a desire for world domination. We don't like living in a world where thirty thousand kids die of poverty every day, but the number of billionaires grows by a thousand a year. We don't think it's fair that a society lady in Remuera can buy plastic surgery for her poodle when the taxi driver in the next suburb has been waiting two years for a hip op. We don't understand why the workplaces where we spend a good chunk of our waking hours shouldn’t be run democratically, when our government is always telling us how bad this or that dictatorship on the other side of the world is.

Dave and Janet Bedggood make excellent examples of the real-life socialists that Trevor Loudon has so far avoided meeting. For more than thirty years, they have both been mainstays of the union movement and the activist left in Auckland and New Zealand. They have marched against both the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and a few in between; they stood with the protesters defending Bastion Point from Muldoon's troops, and joined the seabed and foreshore hikoi in 2004. Their politics have led them to reject both wealth and glittering careers. Had they wanted to, both could have entered local or central government a long time ago, as their old colleagues Bruce Jesson and Matt Robson did after moving carefully to the right. Dave, who has taught in the sociology department of the University of Auckland for three decades, could have joined the Princes St branch of the Labour Party, that traditional conveyor belt from university to parliament, and be sitting in Cabinet now alongside that former sociologist and reformed socialist Steve Maharey.

Both could have climbed a lot higher up the greasy poles of academia, had politics not intervened. In 1980 Dave published Rich and Poor in New Zealand, which scandalised and excited historians and sociologists up and down the country. Today the book is still a part of reading lists at several universities; its only rival as a hostile but scholarly study of capitalism in New Zealand is Bryan Roper's 2005 volume Prosperity for All? Rich and Poor could have been the foundation for a glittering academic career and a stack of thick books. Dave did not neglect his duties at the university - on the contrary, he became a favourite teacher for generations of bright young students eager to learn about Marxist analysis and the real history of their country - but he chose to focus an important part of his energies outside the academy, in the left, the unions, and the international Trotskyist movement.

Dave and Janet's generosity has extended well beyond career choices. Over the years they have given many thousands of dollars to worthy causes, activist organisations, and comrades in need. The beautiful home they built with their own hands in the Titirangi bush has sometimes resembled a drop-in centre for Auckland's activist community. They have never ceased to offer advice and encouragement to activists throughout the left and union movement, even when they disagreed with important parts of these comrades' analysis or strategy.

Trevor Loudon's silly little blog post did manage one accurate observation. Loudon was right when he alleged that the activist left does attract more than its fair share of the 'mentally ill': of people tormented or bewildered by a world that can be a very cruel place indeed. Some of the most vulnerable people in our society gravitate toward the activist left, and not organisations like the Act Party, because they are accepted and understood by us, rather than rejected and ridiculed. Instead of blaming the mentally ill for their plight, we recognise that they are in an important sense the victims of a society that is itself profoundly sick. Instead of marginalising them we treat them as comrades who must play a full part in decision-making and organising. It is hardly surprising that mentally ill people prefer our company to that of the right.

Dave and Janet's third son Bruno was one of those people tormented by the cruelties of the world he was forced to live in. I never met Bruno, who killed himself last Wednesday, but Dave's tribute to him on Indymedia makes me wish I had. Anyone who is eclectic enough to be passionate about Chaucer and Doctor Who gets the thumbs up from me, and Bruno's extraordinary linguistic talents, which contrasted so starkly with the monolingualism of most Kiwis, myself included, could have put smiles on the faces of my publishers at Titus Books, who are always complaining about a lack of good translators.

It is characteristic that Dave and Janet have chosen to make Bruno's suicide public. Many of us would respond to such a tragedy by literally and figuratively lowering our blinds and locking our doors, but by finding the courage to share some of his story with us Bruno's parents have helped others to think and talk about a subject that is too often considered taboo. The greatest tragedy of their lives has been the occasion for yet another display of humanity.

I'm sure I speak for many people when I thank Dave and Janet for all they have given me over the years, and wish them strength in negotiating this terrible time in their lives.

After a Death, by Tomas Transtromer (translation by Robert Bly)

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet trail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat
but often the shadow looks more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armour of black dragon scales.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Idealism and ideology

As domestic support for the adventure in Iraq continues to collapse, a number of America's pro-war bloggers have quietly ignored Bush's inept State of the Union address and instead focused on a blog post by Mark Daily, a Lieutenant in the US army who was killed a couple of weeks ago in the city of Mosul. Daily's post, which was made when he was preparing to leave for Iraq, attempts to explain why he volunteered to fight in an unpopular war:

Much has been said about America's intentions in overthrowing Saddam Hussein and seeking to establish a new state based upon political representation and individual rights. Many have framed the paradigm through which they view the conflict around one-word explanations such as "oil" or "terrorism," favoring the one which best serves their political persuasion. I did the same thing, and anyone who knew me before I joined knows that I am quite aware and at times sympathetic to the arguments against the war in Iraq...

I joined the fight because it occurred to me that many modern day "humanists" who claim to possess a genuine concern for human beings throughout the world are in fact quite content to allow their fellow "global citizens" to suffer under the most hideous state apparatuses and conditions. Their excuses used to be my excuses...

My fellow "humanists" and I would relish contently in our self righteous declaration of opposition against all military campaigns against dictatorships, congratulating one another for refusing to taint that aforementioned fragile moral ecosystem that many still cradle with all the revolutionary tenacity of the members of Rage Against the Machine and Greenday. Others would point to America's historical support of Saddam Hussein, sighting it as hypocritical that we would now vilify him as a thug and a tyrant. Upon explaining that we did so to ward off the fiercely Islamist Iran, which was correctly identified as the greater threat at the time, eyes are rolled and hypocrisy is declared...

Maybe the reality of politics makes all political action inherently crude and immoral. Or maybe it is these adventures in philosophical masturbation that prevent people from ever taking any kind of effective action against men like Saddam Hussein. One thing is for certain, as disagreeable or as confusing as my decision to enter the fray may be, consider what peace vigils against genocide have accomplished lately.

The tragedy of Mark Daily is that, like a number of people who should have known better, he thought that the US government and armed forces could be a force for human rights and democracy. There were young idealistic men who signed up to fight in Vietnam for the same reason - one of them is portrayed in Oliver Stone's movie 'Platoon'. The promotion of democracy was claimed as the goal of the Vietnam War, of Reagan's proxy wars in Central America, and of numerous other episodes in the history of American and other imperialisms.

Perhaps Mark Daily never encountered those principled left-wing critics of the war who argued that the most right-wing administration in US history, which had a record of attacking unions and minorities at home and was stuffed full of veterans of the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan regimes that sponsored death squads in the name of democracy in Latin America, could never be trusted to bring a better life to Iraqis.

If the left and the workers' movement were stronger in the US, and able to act as more of a pole of attraction for idealistic young people, then perhaps Mark Daily would have become an activist for an organisation like US Labor Against the War, which organises solidarity with and aid to Iraqi trade unionists, and thus turns idealism into something constructive. Perhaps he would be taking the new statement from the AFL-CIO calling for withdrawal from Iraq into his workplace, instead of dying pointlessly amidst a humiliated and hostile population.

On the other hand, Daily's apologies for Reagan's proxy war against Iran read disturbingly like an exercise in the moral nihilism we have come to associate with both the Kissingerian and neo-con factions of the US elite. Perhaps he was an ideologue who was never going to find out about the reality of the war in Iraq the easy way. The remarks in the comments box under Daily's post make for upsetting reading now. The brainless jingoism of the 'God bless our troops' brigade of keyboard warriors is sad; the messages from people who appear to be friends or family members are even sadder.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The good war?

As a debate on this blog a few weeks back showed, the Asia-Pacific theatre of World War Two remains a tricky subject to navigate, more than sixty years after the defeat of Japan. Even Kiwis who would never see anything progressive in the fiasco at Gallipoli or the drawn-out agonies of Vietnam and Iraq tend to regard the war against Japan as a just and necessary crusade against an expansionist fascist power that threatened the liberty of the peoples of Asia and the Pacific. It's possible to question this view of the war, without either demonising ordinary Anzac troops or prettifying the Japanese Empire.

I've written here and here about the dangers of simplifying the complex set of interlocking conflicts that comprised World War Two. Airy blog posts are no substitutes, though, for fair dinkum empirical research, which is why this new piece by Aussie scholar and activist Tom O'Lincoln is so important. O'Lincoln, who has already written some detailed and unforgiving studies of more recent Australasian military operations in the Asia-Pacific region, sets out to demolish a few myths about the Second World War:

After Pearl Harbor, Prime Minister John Curtin declared: “we are at war with Japan … because our vital interests are imperiled and because the rights of free people in the whole Pacific are assailed.” But how many Asians were free?

“We have ruled here for 300 years with the whip and the club”, remarked the Dutch Governor of Java, Bonifacius de Jonge, in 1935; and they did not intend to stop. In fact few Asian were free, and notwithstanding Curtin’s rhetoric the Australian military wasn’t fighting to liberate them.

O'Lincoln points out that Australia's army actually behaved rather like its Axis foes, when it invaded neutral East Timor:

since we hear so many rightly scathing references to the Axis powers invading neutral countries, consider the fact that Australian and Dutch troops entered – invaded – East Timor in violation of Portuguese neutrality. The Portuguese Governor sent a telegram of protest to the Australian Prime Minister calling it “aggression absolutely contrary to the principles of law”.

Not that I care about the diplomatic position of Portuguese colonialists. The point is that the Japanese, for reasons to do with Portugal’s role in Europe, were keen to keep East Timor out of the war as well. It was Australian and Dutch imperialists who brought the horrors of war to this colony.

In East Timor and in Indonesia, the Australians and British sided with Portugese, Dutch, and even Japanese imperialists, against native peoples who had suffered centuries of colonisation:

Australians asked Portuguese officials [in East Timor] to stay in their posts to “maintain order among the natives”. A diary kept by Australian troops recorded: “The private local war, Portuguese versus native, still goes on in its bloodthirsty way, and provides some humour for sub units. One of our patrols near Mape, out hunting the Jap, encountered a Portuguese patrol out hunting some natives. They exchanged compliments and went their various ways.”

...By 1944 the allies knew they would win the war. Their objective now, in Anthony Eden’s words, was to re-impose “white-man authority” in Asia...In 1945 the terms of the general armistice didn’t disarm Japanese troops; on the contrary, they instructed them to keep their arms and maintain law and order. In practice, European colonialists returned to power against the wishes of local people, with the help of Japanese bayonets.

In Indonesia, where the Dutch were initially unable to assert much of a presence, British and Japanese units fought together against Sukarno’s republican forces around Bandung.

I'd like to paste O'Lincoln's article up on the lamp posts of every main street in New Zealand this Anzac day. You can check out a collection of the man's writings here.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Wanted: a rubber raft

Here's a quote from Mark Richard Siegel's book Pynchon: Creative Paranoia in Gravity's Rainbow:

'The critic's role is not to restrict the varied responses of readers...My first aim in writing this study of Gravity's Rainbow is to open the floodgates of meaning for the reader, while at the same time offering a rubber raft to prevent him [or her, presumably] from being overwhelmed and swept away'.

Siegel is talking about literary criticism, but the point holds for history, sociology, political analysis, my PhD thesis on EP Thompson - you name it...

I only wish I could find my rubber raft...

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Muriwai Escapades

My digital camera has been out of action since Christmas. It's been handy on our trips around the country to have a mobile phone that takes pictures. Here are some of Maps and the sunset from our recent trip to Muriwai.

We walk and talk, picking up objects
We link with the past, exploring
The fragility of permanence:

The stories of lives in a piece of flotsam
A gannet's quill to write midwinter rain

...from Riemke Ensing's poem Muriwai

Monday, January 22, 2007


Last week I blogged about Te Ua Haumene and the Pai Marire religion he founded in the 1860s to fuse Christian millenarianism with militant anti-colonial politics. Pai Marire adherants, or Hauhaus as they were commonly known to Pakeha, rejected the church as a site of worship, preferring to circle a niu erected in the open air. In her 2002 book Wiremu Tamihana: Rangatira, Evelyn Stokes describes the new type of worship:

A feature of the Pai Marire ritual was the karakia around the niu, a large post or flagpole. Participants were led by a priest and circled the niu with rights arms upraised. The niu was the vehicle by which the Holy Spirit would descend to the worshippers below...Usually the people carried flags of distinctive designs associated with Pai Marire.

Yesterday, using a paper Stokes published in 1980, Skyler and I managed to locate the niu of the ancient kainga (village) of Kuranui, in the southeast foothills of the Kaimai Ranges. In pre-European times Kuranui was the site of a house of learning, and the slopes that rise to its east show the remains of the earthworks of several pa (forts). After the eruption of war in the Waikato and the western Bay of Plenty in 1863 and 1864, Kuranui became a place of refuge for Maori rebels against the authority of the colonial government and its British troops. Protected by the rugged, roadless ranges, the inhabitants established cultivations and built a weir in a nearby stream to power a small flour mill.

The niu, which is called Motai, after the Ngati Raukawa subtribe which has traditionally occupied the area around Kuranui, was erected in 1865, in a ceremony attended by Wiremu Tamihana (William Thompson), the Maori statesman who had laid the foundations of the King Movement in the 1850s and fought for the movement during the Waikato War. By 1865 the people of the Waikato had been defeated and pushed into exile in the King Country area of the central North Island, but armed resistance to colonisation was not at an end. In 1867 a small-scale 'bush war' was fought in the Kaimai Ranges between followers of Pai Marire and 'loyal' Maori from the Rotorua region led by the Pakeha General Gilbert Mair. A number of rebel villages were torched during this conflict, but Kuranui escaped damage, and in 1870 it hosted the most famous Maori rebel of them all, Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki. Te Kooti and his band of guerrilla fighters were on the run from Gilbert Mair, and keen to get new supplies of ammunition from supporters in the towns on either side of the Kaimais. During his short stay in Kuranui Te Kooti is supposed to have flown his fifty-foot- long flag Te Wetu (the whip) from Motai. The banner, which got its name from the noise it made in a stiff breeze, would be captured a month later when Mair caught up with Te Kooti's force near Rotorua. (Te Kooti was luckier than Te Wepu - he was never captured by Mair, and died on an island in Ohiwa Harbour in 1893, ten years after receiving a pardon from the government in Wellington.)

The last inhabitant of Kuranui died in 1968; the land the village stood on is still in Maori hands, but is leased to a local sheep farmer. Protected from stock by an electric fence, the niu pole is surrounded by a ruined house, a few old huts, and a mixture of exotic and native trees:

Motai is fourteen metres high, and features at its base a carved rupe (native wood pigeon). The hauhaus of the Waikato and Kaimai regions believed the rupe to be the personal atua (God) of Te Ua (in Taranaki, the birthplace of Pai Marire, it is the ruru (owl) which is associated with Te Ua).

A special place, which we visited in a spirit of respect. Thanks to Skyler for taking these photos with her cellphone.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Crossing the Frontier

Here's a short excerpt from a long and winding PhD chapter I've just written, with a bit of an introduction to put it in context:

The second half of the 1970s was a difficult time for EP Thompson. Although still a staunch critic of Britain's political and economic elite, he became increasingly alienated from large parts of the country's left. He saw the British trade union movement and the Bennite left of the Labour Party as dominated by an anti-intellectual and amoral economism, that put the squeezing of temporary wage rises from an economy in crisis above any sort of longer-term political vision. Thompson felt that the young Marxists in Britain's universities were cut off from ordinary working class people, being more interested in abstract theorising and rhetorical support for revolutions in faraway countries. For their part, feminists were guilty of an 'identity politics' that was only fostering divisions amongst ordinary people.

Worst of all, the left was oblivious to the growth of a sinister 'secret state' that was steadily eroding civil liberties and possibly planning to remove the Labour Party from office by illegitimate means (recent revelations have suggested that Thompson's suspicions were not without foundation).

When he travelled to India at the end of 1976, Thompson got first-hand experience of life in a dictatorship. Using draconian 'emergency' powers, Indira Gandhi's police force was arresting some of the students that Thompson lectured to and some of the political comrades he met. Thompson himself was soon being tailed by plainclothes police, despite the fact that we was a semi-official guest of the Indian government (I'll post more about this extraordinary chapter in Thompson's life another time). When he came back to Britain Thompson found that some old comrades, like senior Labour Party politician Michael Foot, were public supporters of the Gandhi government. Social democrats like Foot seemed as indifferent to tyranny as the Stalinists Thompson had long excoriated. Thompson's gloom about the left was reinforced when his friend Malcolm Caldwell was murdered, probably by Vietnamese agents, during a trip to Cambodia in 1978.

Thompson's frustrations burst forth in 'The Poverty of Theory', a long and angry essay written at the beginning of 1978 and published later that year. Picking (rather unfairly) on the French philosopher and long-time Communist Party member Louis Althusser as an exemplar of 'Stalinism in theory', 'The Poverty of Theory' argues that the old unified Marxist tradition has been sundered, and that it is impossible for 'libertarian communists' like Thompson to share any causes with the sort of 'comrades' who might support, in their theory or their practice, the sort of regimes that killed Malcolm Caldwell and persecuted Thompson's Indian students.

In December 1979, 'The Poverty of Theory' was the subject of a debate at St Paul's church in Oxford that quickly became legendary. In front of a packed audience, Thompson confronted interlocutors like Stuart Hall and Raphael Samuel, accusing them of being obsessed with academic theory and indifferent to the growth of a police state in Britain and the threat of nuclear war. Thompson concluded by saying he would not have time to take part in similar debates in the future, because he wanted to give all his attention to opposing the deployment of Cruise Missiles in Europe.

‘The Poverty of Theory’ is an unusual work in the EP Thompson canon. Preoccupied with the rarefied worlds of philosophy of history and Marxology, and full of abstract, rather difficult language, the essay contrasts with Thompson’s famous exercises in social history and political polemic. Thompson himself seemed discomforted by the text: in the foreword to The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays he apologised for its ‘abstraction’, and promised a companion volume, as a sort of amelioration:

In the second volume, which may be published next year, I will bring together directly-political writings from the last twenty years, and will write a more thorough account of the political context and practical initiatives of the first New Left. This may afford some correction to a certain abstraction and lack of realist texture in the present collection…

But Reasoning never appeared. As we have seen in earlier chapters, Thompson’s thought had reached a political and intellectual breaking point by the end of the 1970s, and after the ‘bad vibes’ of the tumultuous St Paul’s debate in December 1979 he was disinclined to engage in sustained polemic with the Marxist left again. In the first years of the 1980s Thompson devoted almost all of his energy to Europe’s reviving anti-nuclear movement. By the time he stepped back from that struggle his health was breaking down, and a series of half-finished historical and literary projects beckoned.

Without the second, illustrative volume Thompson promised, ‘The Poverty of Theory’ has remained an enigmatic text in the Thompson oeuvre, a work which cannot be readily connected to the famous histories and straightforwardly political works.

Thompson’s essay inspired furious debate in print, and in the freezing hall of St Paul’s. Even today the text inspires fervent admirers and equally fervent detractors. But if they have disagreed passionately about the arguments of ‘The Poverty of Theory’, commentators have tended to agree, albeit tacitly, on certain matters relating to the text’s place in Thompson’s career and oeuvre. One point of agreement has been expressed well by Eric Hobsbawm:

[Thompson] suspended the remarkable studies of eighteenth-century society begun after The Making [of the English Working Class]…to plunge into years of a theoretical struggle against the influence of a French Marxist, the late Louis Althusser…

Commentators have generally shared Hobsbawm’s view that Thompson set aside his historical work and took a fairly lengthy ‘detour’ to research and write ‘The Poverty of Theory’. Hobsbawm laments Thompson’s detour; others, like Bryan D Palmer and John Saville, have regarded it as necessary and valuable. Few commentators, though, doubt that Thompson did indeed ‘suspend’ his historical work during the period in which he produced ‘The Poverty of Theory’.

It is a little-known fact that EP Thompson did not put his historical research on hold to write ‘The Poverty of Theory’. As we have seen, Thompson did spend three weeks at the beginning of 1978 solely focused on writing up the text. Through much of 1976 and 1977, though, he researched ‘The Poverty of Theory’ at the same time as he pursued major investigations into the background to William Blake’s thought and poetry, and into the circumstances surrounding the death of Frank Thompson in Bulgaria in the middle of 1944. Besides countless hours in research libraries, the Blake project involved journeys to Kent to meet a retired fruit farmer called Philip Noakes, who was the last living member of the Muggletonian sect. Intensive research into the fate of Frank Thompson led Edward all the way to te backblocks Bulgaria in the summer of 1979.

Both research projects bore fruit: in 1978 Thompson gave three lectures on Blake and Muggletonianism at the University of Toronto, and in 1981 he delivered three lectures on Frank Thompson at Stanford University. Thompson always intended to publish both sets of lectures, but first the peace movement and then ill health interfered with his plans. The work on Blake would be published as a slim book called Witness Against the Beast in 1993, the year of Thompson’s death; four years later, the lectures on Frank would see the light of day as an even slimmer book called Beyond the Frontier. The Toronto lectures on Blake were reworked in 1988 and 1989, when Thompson was a visiting scholar at the University of Manchester, but the lectures on Frank have come down to us barely altered.

The time it took the two sets of lectures to reach print no doubt helps to explain why so few people know that Thompson was engaged in historical research at the end of the 1970s. It must be acknowledged, too, that Witness Against the Beast and Beyond the Frontier have not achieved the renown that belongs to Thompson ‘classics’ like the Making of the English Working Class. The Blake study was respectfully reviewed in English literary studies circles, but failed to attract significant cross-disciplinary and non-academic audiences. Beyond the Frontier was lightly reviewed, and has been fairly called ‘Thompson’s least-known work’.

The neglect of Witness Against the Beast and Beyond the Frontier is lamentable. Entertaining and informative in their own right, these books open a door on Thompson’s practice as a historian in the period when he researched, penned, and defended his famous treatise on the philosophy of history. The two books, and the best of Thompson’s subsequent historical and political writings, can be considered a sort of de facto ‘companion’ to ‘The Poverty of Theory’, because they concretise the theoretical points made in that work.

Beyond the Frontier exemplifies the style and attitudes of the ‘late’ EP Thompson. In 103 pages of taut, understated prose Thompson probes the circumstances surrounding his brother’s untimely death, sifting through sources with a caution borne of an awareness of the duplicity and myth-making inherent in all the official accounts of World War Two and its complicated subplot in the Balkans.

The basic narrative of the last weeks of Frank Thompson’s life is not in dispute in Beyond the Frontier. Frank, a brilliant classical scholar and linguist and the hub of a circle of Oxford undergraduates that also included Iris Murdoch and Michael Foot, had volunteered for service against his parents’ wishes shortly after the outbreak of World War Two. In a poem called 'To Madonna Bolshevichka', Frank explained his feelings to Murdoch:

Sure, lady, I know the party line is better.
I know what Marx would have said. I know you're right.
When this is over we'll fight for the things that matter.
Somehow, today, I simply want to fight.
That's heresy? Okay. But I'm past caring.
There's blood in my eyes, and mist and hate.
I know the things we're fighting now and loathe them.
Now's not the time you say. But I can't wait.

After serving as an Intelligence Officer in North Africa and Sicily, he parachuted into south Serbia in January 1944 with the mission of liaising with Yugoslav partisans and aiding the fledgling Bulgarian partisan movement, which had been sheltering in parts of Serbia liberated from the Nazis.

In May Thompson entered Bulgaria with a small group of partisans which he hoped would be the nucleus of an anti-fascist army capable of changing the government in Sofia. After being quickly identified and attacked by local fascist forces loyal to the Bulgarian government the partisans were forced to undertake an epic and ultimately futile march into the interior of the country in search of allies. Thompson was taken prisoner on May the 21st, and executed on June the 5th, after torture and a show trial had failed to make him cooperate with his captors. Frank died singing 'The Internationale' and giving the clenched fist salute of the Popular Front to the fascist firing squad.

The speedy identification of the partisans after they crossed the Bulgarian frontier and the decision of the fascists to execute a uniformed British officer have given rise to rumours that Frank Thompson and his comrades were betrayed, but there has been no consensus about who the culprit might have been. In Beyond the Frontier EP Thompson is unable to find definitive proof of an act of betrayal, but he shows that both the Soviet and British governments had reasons to wish that Frank Thompson’s mission failed.

It is instructive to compare Beyond the Frontier with the conclusion the young EP Thompson wrote to There is a Spirit in Europe, the collection of his brother’s writing he edited for publication by Victor Gollancz in 1947. In the heady aftermath of the war, Frank was acclaimed in Bulgaria as a communist hero, and in Britain as a martyr of the struggle for democracy against fascism. A train station in Bulgaria was named after him, at the same time as Beyond the Frontier received an admiring review in the Times Literary Supplement.

Frank Thompson was one of the heroes of what his brother liked to call the ‘voluntarist decade’ that lasted from the eruption of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 to the first beginning of the Cold War. The ‘voluntarist decade’ was a time when the will of millions of men and women seemed to be turning history on a new hinge, as the forces of democracy and communism – the relationship between the two words did not yet seem problematic, to either the left or a large part of the right –sought to defeat the menace of fascism, and open up a path for a new post-war world. Considering Beyond the Frontier in the London Review of Books, Arnold Rattenbury was old enough to remember that:

after the war Frank became for many of us an emblem of anti-fascist heroism - a glorious simplicity where much was soon to become murky.

The title of Frank Thompson’s posthumous books comes from a letter he wrote to his family on Christmas day, 1943:

My Christmas message to you is one of greater hope than I have ever had in my life before. There is a spirit abroad in Europe which is finer and braver than anything that tired continent has known for centuries, and which cannot be withstood…It is the confident will of whole peoples, who have known the utmost humiliation and suffering and who have triumphed over it, to build their own life once and for all…There is a marvelous opportunity before us, and all that is required from Britain, America and the USSR is imagination, help, and sympathy.

Considering these words three and a half decades later, Frank’s younger brother is filled with sadness:

Nothing now reads as a sicker epitaph for the second world war than that. It was a young man’s illusion, cancelled utterly within a few years by the oncoming Cold War.

In her introduction to Frank Thompson’s Selected Poems Dorothy Thompson unhappily charts the vicissitudes of Frank’s reputation since the end of the ‘voluntarist decade’, noting how in Bulgaria the war hero soon became an agent of Anglo-American imperialism, before being ritually rehabilitated, and then castigated as a stooge of the Soviet Union in the new, anti-communist generation of Bulgarians that emerged in the 1990s. Edward did not live to record the latest turn in his brother’s posthumous fate, but Beyond the Frontier does treat the preceding vicissitudes in a manner that is both sad and sardonic.

It is not only the Bulgarian government and its pet historians who are charged with multiple distortions of Frank Thompson’s memory in Beyond the Frontier. EP Thompson’s research has made him aware that, even in 1944, there were figures within the Churchill government and its War Office who saw Frank as a communist subversive, not a brave young man determined to fight fascism, and who would prefer to see his mission in Bulgaria fail rather than contemplate a communist-dominated government in Sofia. Beyond the Frontier shows that the bureaucrats in the Kremlin also acted with abominable cynicism, pressuring the Yugoslav communists to proceed with ill-advised operations across the border with Bulgaria out of selfish Soviet concerns. It seems that both the principal players in the Balkans theatre of the war were determined to pursue courses of action inimical to Frank Thompson’s principled anti-fascism:

There were the strongest reasons of state - of both states - why the British mission and its leader, Frank Thompson, in particular were seen to be expendable.

Where There is a Spirit in Europe showed Frank Thompson as a hero of a global anti-fascist struggle, a man honoured in both East and West, Beyond the Frontier presents him as an isolated, tragic figure, a victim of the sinister machinations from both sides of an already-descending Iron Curtain. The Frank Thompson of Beyond the Frontier is still a hero, but he is a hero who works on the margins of history, against near-insuperable odds, rather than in the vanguard of a historical juggernaut. The political voluntarism reflected in Frank’s commitment and sacrifice is still celebrated, but its power to change history is not exaggerated. In the eyes of the late EP Thompson, human agency is no match for states and their war machines.

The style of Beyond the Frontier also marks the distance its author had travelled by the late 1970s. Thompson’s contribution to There is a Spirit in Europe is almost rhapsodic, a hymn to heroic sacrifice and a glorious future; the author of Beyond the Frontier is restrained, preferring irony to rhapsody, and suspicious of generalising too far from the historical details he has laid his hands on. For Thompson, not only political but historiographical certainties have evaporated:

‘Facts’ can still be codes and myths, one must already know a great deal to be able to sift evidence from romance; and what one may, most helpfully, gain from oral evidence is most often the marginal, the contingent, the ‘colour‘ of an event. Historians must still depend most heavily on written evidence, not because it has any special truth, but because it is most likely to contemporaneous with the event.

Beyond the Frontier is full of references to ‘anti-historians’ – sinister figures who have impeded EP Thompson and other scholars by pre-emptively ‘weeding’ documents from archives in the name of ‘national security’ and feeding false leads to investigators. One of these ‘anti-historians’ is a high-ranking officer in the Bulgarian army, who ‘offers’ Edward and Dorothy Thompson a ride in his large black Volga car and a line in dissimulation; another is a faceless MI5 hack who has torn pages out of War Office records.

It is tempting to believe that Thompson sees these ‘anti-historians’ as the real-life cousins of the theoretical anti-historians he inveighed against in ‘The Poverty of Theory’ at about the same time as he was writing Beyond the Frontier. The view that Beyond the Frontier is a sort of corollary to ‘The Poverty of Theory’ is bolstered by a passage on its very first page:

I am not so much concerned with historical epistemology – with what is ‘fact’, what is interpretation – as with more humdrum questions: the activities of anti-historians, how sensitive evidence is destroyed or screened, how myths originate, how historical anecdote may simply be a code for ideology, how the reasons of state are eternally at war with historical knowledge. I’m concerned with these humdrum questions…

Those were anyting but humdrum questions in 1978, and they remain vitally important today.

Advertising break

A slimmed-down version of my piece on Tom Wintringham has been published in the latest issue of the Weekly Worker. With a readership of around 13,000, the Weekly Worker is reputedly the most popular paper of the British far left; for my money, it is also the most entertaining and informative.

The Weekly Worker is published by a relatively small group whose aim is to regroup British socialists into a new party which is both unashamedly anti-capitalist and stringently democratic. I don't agree with all of their ideas, and like Southpaw Punch I have a problem with the continued use of language and symbolism tarnished by Stalinism, but I do like the way the Weekly Worker eschews the 'party line' and dumbed down agitprop beloved of too many leftist rags in favour of mutiple perspectives, detailed analysis , often from important scholars like Boris Kagarlitsky, Hillel Ticktin, or Michael Leibowitz, and robust debate. The paper's letters page can be considered a sort of ongoing experiment in the possibility of comradely debate.

If you want to explore the hundreds of back issues of the Weekly Worker, a good place to start is the paper's thematic archive.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Banned in China?

As China has become an ever more important power in recent years there has been a lot of discussion about how to classify the country's political and economic system, and in particular about whether or not the government in Beijing can be considered Marxist, in any meaningful sense of the word.

This piece of news from the beleagured Marxist Internet Archive ought to help us frame an answer.

About Titus

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Before Parihaka

Like most boys of my generation, I was an ardent militarist. A steady diet of Battle Picture Weekly comics and Saturday afternoon repeats of World War Two black and whites fed my obsession, and birthdays brought new additions to my arsenal of plastic rifles, bows and arrows, boomerangs, and jungle knives. It's no surprise, then, that on visits to the Auckland Museum I gravitated towards the third floor, where the World Wars were commemorated in a series of huge rooms full of sacred objects: dented German helmets, rusty rifles, a jerry-built wireless with a wax operator, and a spitfire kept like a caged bird behind steel railings. The rooms were connected by a Hall of Remembrance, where flags of long-extinct nations hung listlessly from marble walls covered in the names of dead soldiers.

At the end of the hall, in what might have been a converted storeroom, a number of less sacred relics - a weatherbeaten chest, a musket with a strange bird carved on its shoulder, a Maori Bible - sat in glass cabinets too big for them. The room was lit as dimly as a cave, so that I had to squint to read the captions under the artifacts, the maps and pictures on the wall, and even the sign beside the door that said NEW ZEALAND WARS.

The wars commemorated by this room made no sense to me: here the Maori soldiers who had turned up occasionally in Battle Picture Weekly, doing war dances in the desert beside the wreckage of Rommel's tanks, were fighting against the side carrying the Union Jack. Worse, the two sides were fighting in ridiculous places, places like Rangiriri, the gas station on highway one where we'd stop for pies on the way to Rotorua, and Russell, a beach where I'd gone snorkelling while my brother lay in a nearby motel with mumps. There were no smoking Panzers or shell holes in Rangiriri or Russell.

There was one exhibit in the converted storeroom that did interest me. Placed between Te Kooti's chest and somebody else's Bible, it was a black and white drawing no larger than a postcard. A black pillar adorned with an upturned crescent moon and two pyramids rose out of a river; beside them, a large round sun had sprouted a human hand. The hand was waving - to say hello, or to warn the viewer away? Another hand could be seen below the sun, part of a forest of images that the drawing's small size made difficult to see in the dim light (looking at the drawing now, in clear light and with a head full of interpretative frameworks, I don't see the same images). I kneeled and squinted and read the caption at the bottom of the glass cabinet:

Reproduction of a drawing by Aporo, a Hauhau mystic, showing fantastic machinery and supernatural beings. As time went on Maori looked to supernatural forces to deliver them from the nightmare that the wars had created.

Who was Aporo? What was a Hauhau? That night, in the quarter hour between the end of Dukes of Hazard and bedtime, I took the Australasia volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia down from the lounge room bookshelf.

Hauhau, pronounced how-how, Maori religious sect opposed to colonisation, whose members believed they were magically protected from bullets. Hauhaus claimed that their gospel was spoken to them by the severed head of a British soldier. Their name came from the chant they used as they advanced into battle.

There was no entry for anyone called Aporo, and I didn't know where else to look. Every time we had a school trip to the museum, though, to look at an exhibition on New Zealand Native Birds or The Life of the Seashore or The Way Your Grandparents Lived, I would wait until my teacher's back was turned, and then steal away, up the echoing marble stairs and down the Hall of Remembrance, to the cave where Aporo's drawing waited in its cracked glass cabinet.

Years after finishing school, I encountered Aporo again, in section 211 of Atua Wera, Kendrick Smithyman's last, longest, and most baffling poem:

Gilbert Mair shot Rota Waitapu in a cave
under a waterfall near Whakamarama,
inland from Tauranga, 1867.
Rota, known as Aporo, was Hauhau.
From his body Mair took a packet,
nineteen sketches,
Aporo's dreams.

Smithyman describes some of the drawings:

One dream: points of compass as cross.
To the left, Man (Moses?) holds a staff (with leaves?).
Up that staff climbs (or is the staff climbing into?)
a serpent?

Another dream:
Left margin, a hill turned so the hilltop is to
the centre of the drawing...

Bottom margin, a hill.
From the hilltop
Man's head protrudes; this is the head of
the body of the land?
This is the body which is
tenanted by lizard-like creature. It has
perhaps four sets of legs. The extreme tail curls
round Man's head. Man looks up,
to, diagonal, rising from left low to high right,
another lizard-like creature with four pairs
of legs, a fifth pair more arms than legs.
One pair of eyes, but the head, heavily blacked,
is in double (beaked?) profile.
No question about it being a monster.

By now I knew where to look for more details about Aporo's death: I'd been using James Cowan's two volume history of The New Zealand Wars to explore battle sites in the Franklin County and lower Waikato areas. Written in the 1920s in a flowery, rather fin de siecle prose style, and punctuated with sincere but patronising references to the 'decline of the noble Maori race', Cowan's magnum opus frequently blurs the boundary between scholarship and obsession. Cowan's narrative of the guerrilla fighting that accompanied the building of the Great South Road through south Auckland had led me to a windy churchyard on a hill near Pukekohe, where a party had Maori had staged a disastrous attack on a small group of well-armed settlers one hundred and forty years before. The Maori had failed to kill a single defender of the little Presbyterian church, but they had left a dent in one of the gravestones in the yard. Cowan provides a map showing the location of the church, a map of the churchyard showing the location of the stone, and a map of the stone itself, showing the location of the shallow indentation a musket shell had left.

Cowan's narrative of Aporo's death is as detailed as one might expect:

In the early part of 1867 the tribe called Piri-Rakau (“Cling to the Forest”), descended from ancient aboriginal clans, came into conflict with the Government forces in a series of sharp skirmishes along the northern edge of the bush-covered tableland in rear of Tauranga Harbour. These Piri-Rakau, assisted by parties of men from other districts, were all Hauhaus...

In the middle of February a strong expedition was organized at Tauranga to attack Te Irihanga and Whakamarama again. On this occasion the force was composed almost entirely of Arawa natives commanded by Major William Mair and his brother Gilbert. Captain H. L. Skeet's company of volunteer engineers, a fine body of young surveyors, all well accustomed to bushwork formed part of the column, and several companies of the 1st Waikato Militia acted as supports...

The retreating enemy were pursued through the belt of forest, about a quarter of a mile in length, separating Irihanga from the eastern end of the Whakamarama village and fields...Their resistance was broken by Harete te Whanarere, one of a famous fighting family of Ngati-Pikiao, from Rotoiti. On the side of the track, where the huge, densely foliaged trees make a twilight gloom, he pluckily grappled the foremost of the antagonists, a big Hauhau, whom he threw to the ground. The two warriors were engaged in a desperate struggle when another Hauhau dashed out from his cover, and, placing the muzzle of his Tower musket against Harete's body, fired and smashed both the hip-joints. (Though terribly wounded, Harete survived for some years.) Hemana then dashed up and killed the man who had shot Harete. Several of the Piri-Rakau were wounded in the tree-to-tree fighting here. It was typical bush warfare for a few minutes. Only the black heads of the combatants were to be seen now and again, and the muzzle of a gun showing for an instant, followed by a puff of smoke, then an instant dash for another tree. The Hauhaus presently broke and fell back on their main body at the Whakamarama village.

Just after the Piri-Rakau had retreated from the scene of this skirmish midway through the belt of bush Ensign Mair noticed a trail of blood leading down to a deep gorge on the left, or east, in the direction of Poripori. There was a faint track here through the forest to Poripori, which the Piri-Rakau had marked by breaking and doubling over the fronds of the fern called tu-taumata (Lomaria discolor), which are silvery-white underneath. When doubled over, the white under-surface of the fern showed conspicuously against the dark green of the ferns, moss, and tree-trunks around it. Mair observed that these white fronds were splashed with blood; and, diverging from the route followed by the others, he scouted down to the creek in the gorge. Hot on the trail, he followed the blood-marks to a cave, over the mouth of which a little waterfall came down. A shot rang out from the cave, narrowly missing him. Mair rushed in and encountered a wounded Maori kneeling behind the rocks in the gloom, and shot the man dead just as he was levelling his long single-barrel gun for another shot. Taking the dead warrior's gun and whakakai pendant of tangiwai greenstone as trophies, Mair hurried back to the scene of the fight. He found by inquiry afterwards that the man he had shot, a big tattooed warrior, was a Piri-Rakau named Rota, one of the leading men of the turbulent tribe.

Disappointingly, though, Cowan showed no interest in Aporo's drawings. I looked through university library catalogues and on the internet for reproductions of the originals, which are housed in the Special Collections of the Turnbull library in Wellington, and eventually tracked some down in the appendix to an occasional paper written by Waikato University's Evelyn Stokes. Stokes' paper, which is probably held in no more than half a dozen libraries around the country, was published by a photocopier in 1980. Even blurred around the edges on cheap smelly paper, though, Aporo's vision is astonishing. Like some Maori Blake, he mixes the visionary and the everyday, high drama and low comedy, thunderous denunciation and sly humour. His style is at once childlike and sophisticated: forsaking the abstract, highly formalised tradition associated with Maori meeting house art and carving, he appropriates the realism of European sketchers and cartoonists. Some of the drawings were given gnomic, ominous captions:

In my darkness and distress I slept and I dreamed I saw this sign, the form of a red cloud in the sky, a flock of small birds and a large one in their midst, all gathering around the great cloud where they settled with their large friend. Then I awoke.

The break with tradition in Aporo's drawings reminds us of the paintings in the meeting houses Te Kooti's Ringatu movement built in the 1870s and '80s. The Ringatu paintings were regarded as an embarrassment by the patronising Pakeha who founded the Maori School of Art in Rotorua in the 1920s, and for decades ordered their charges to turn out pastiches of pre-contact carvings to sell to tourists. The genius of Ringatu painting was only recognised by Pakeha art historians in 1993, when Roger Neish published his monumental study Painted Histories. Why do Aporo's drawings still await such acclaim? Part of the answer to this question lies in the worldview they express so powerfully.

Aporo was a follower of Te Ua Haumene, who was a prophet from the Ngati Ruanui tribe of Taranaki. Taken prisoner as a child and raised as a slave in the Tainui stronghold of Kawhia, Te Ua occupied only a lowly place in Ngati Ruanui society after returning home. In 1862, though, he experienced a series of visions in which the archangel Gabriel visited him and explained that he was the anointed prophet of God, and that the last days of the world were at hand.
Te Ua's visions came amidst a crisis in Ngati Ruanui society. A British-owned ship called The Worsley had run aground off the coast of their territory, on the wrong side of the aukati or boundary beyond which Europeans were not allowed to venture. As the tribe debated whether or not to punish the survivors of the wreck, Te Ua found himself torn between his hostility to colonialism and his Christian belief in non-violence. The tension between the two was resolved by Gabriel, who offered a new route to peace:

This is a word for the ministers, for Whiteley, Scott and Brown, for every minister living in the island. Let them go back to the other side of the sea in Goodness and Peace, go back to Goodness and Peace, because peaceable God has told me twice that his people, Forgetful, Standing Naked, in the Island of Two Halves will be restored, even to that which was given to Abraham, for this is Israel.

Those words and the rest of Gabriel’s message were recorded by Te Ua in the beautiful, sometimes baffling texts he called ‘Ua Gospel’ and 'Ua Rongopai'. Some passages in the texts read like a strange sort of poetry:

For which is [God’s] aspect on Taranaki mountain? Which is it? White? Black? It is as the whiteness of paper, when it is written on by Hemi Kaka[hi] Tohu and te Ao Katoa. And, which is his aspect while the natural man is sleeping? Calm and shining. That is the Ace of Spades, Maori Woman. She is Gleaming Night.
But you are saying, I am drunk. To me, whose food is the spirits I consume? The natural man must eat. Man will err; thus Natural Man shall eat in fitting moderation.

Some of the words of Te Ua’s gospels were reputed to have been channeled from Gabriel through the mouth of Captain Thomas Lloyd, who had been beheaded after leading six soldiers into Ngati Ruanui territory on a crop-destroying mission. Lloyd's head was allegedly carried across the North Island to the western Bay of Plenty, the home of Aporo's tribe, so that Te Ua’s message might be heard.

By the middle of 1863 Te Ua's religion, which had become known as Pai Marire (the good and the peaceful), had gained converts across much of the North Island. Eschewing traditional churches, the faithful erected niu poles modelled on the mast that Ngati Ruanui had salvaged from the wreck of The Worsley. They would circle the pole, reciting prayers and chanting. The doctrine of Pai Marire was syncretic and flexible, mixing Maori nationalism and Christian apocalypticism, and its founder soon lost control over its adherants. A year after Te Ua died of tuberculosis in 1864, his creed became a byword amongst Europeans for brutality and barbarism. At Opotiki, in the eastern Bay of Plenty, followers of Pai Marire fell upon the local missionary, who was suspected of spying for the government, in the church that he had built. Carl Volkner's eyes were ripped out of his head, and his blood was drunk from a communion cup. Writing one hundred and thirty years after the slaying of Volkner, L Head reflected that:

This was the single event which defined the character of Te Ua and his faith for 100 years. The death outraged the values of Pakeha, to whom the mission culture was a necessary sign of their own meaning in a silent land…As a prophet, Te Ua preached deliverance, whose corollary was the destruction of the unrighteousness. In this sphere of the spirit, pacifism is an irrelevant concept.

The violence of the 'Hauhaus' only seems an inexplicable explosion of barbarism when it is lifted out of its historical context. Kereopa Te Rau, the ringleader of the group that killed Volkner, had lost his wife and daughter when British troops burnt a church full of cowering civilians to the ground at Rangiaowhia, in the last days of the Waikato War. Marx might have been discussing Volkner's killers when he wrote about the Indian Mutiny a few years earlier:

The outrages committed by the revolted Sepoys in India are indeed appalling, hideous, ineffable — such as one is prepared to meet – only in wars of insurrection, of nationalities, of races, and above all of religion…

However infamous the conduct of the Sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-settled rule.

It is instructive to compare the posthumous fates of Te Ua and a later Taranaki prophet, Te Whiti. Today most New Zealanders know the story of Parihaka, the nation that Te Whiti and his followers founded in south Taranaki on pacifist and communitarian principles. Using 'the miracle of collective labour', Parihaka's inhabitants established extensive and rich cultivations; their capital prospered, and boasted electricity and street lamps before the Pakeha capital of Wellington. In 1881, though, an armed party sent from Wellington entered Parihaka and supressed Te Whiti's separatist movement. The inhabitants of the area waged a campaign of civil disobedience in an ultimately fruitless attempt to prevent the theft of much of their land by colonists.

Since the publication of Dick Scott's Ask that Mountain, Te Whiti has been an icon for liberal Pakeha. A recent book called Parihaka: the Art of Passive Resistancecollected scores of images and texts that paid homage. Te Whiti's pacifist teachings and the community he founded are commemorated in a Peace Festival held every year at the small settlement that remains at Parihaka.

The differences between the teachings of Te Whiti and Te Ua can partly be explained by the different historical contexts in which the two prophets operated. Te Ua founded Pai Marire at a time when European control of Aotearoa was still more an assertion than a reality, and an independent Maori nation stretched from the outskirts of Auckland well into Taranaki. Te Whiti, by contrast, came to prominence in the aftermath of the New Zealand Wars, when the hegemony of the government in Wellington over virtually all of Aotearoa was unquestioned. Parihaka was squeezed between expanding Pakeha settlements, and was always doomed to incorporation into New Zealand. Te Whiti's pacifism may have been noble, but it was probably also a necessity. The option of armed struggle was no longer open, and with most Maori living in remote rural areas there was little prospect of striking up a workable alliance with progressive parts of Pakeha society.

Te Whiti's liberal followers, though, convert necessity into a dogma, and assimilate the brutal termination of the nation of Parihaka into a cosy myth of New Zealand nationhood. Here is an excerpt from the publicity for the Parihaka International Peace Festival:

The authorities responded to Te Whiti and Tohu by ransacking Parihaka and arresting many of the residents. However, the incredible publicity generated by the non-violent movement shattered the propaganda purporting the indigenous Maori people to be ‘heathen savages’ and started a turn around in recognition of Maori rights and the development of a just and peaceful nation.

One hundred and twenty-six years after the destruction of Parihaka, the 'just and peaceful nation' of New Zealand routinely uses Maori troops and police to occupy modern-day Parihakas - the Solomons, East Timor, Afghanistan, Tonga - in the interests of the world's leading imperialist power, which is nowadays the United States rather than Britain. In the Solomons, our troops and cops have helped provide the muscle for a neo-colonial administration that has made one of its priorities the destruction of laws that protect indigenous ownership of land. In Afghanistan, the forces of our 'just and peaceful nation' are helping destroy the main crop of the indigenous people, just as the force Wellington sent to Taranaki in 1881 destroyed the cultivations that sustained Parihaka.

Pakeha liberals like to compare Te Whiti to Mahatma Gandhi, and the comparison is in some ways apt. In Richard Attenborough's absurd 1982 biopic Gandhi is cast as a saintly figure who won independence for India with passive resistance and prayer. The real, messy history of the Indian struggle against imperialism, with its armed revolts, massacres of British civilians, wartime alliance with Japan, and communist-led strikes is effortlessly ignored by Attenborough. In much the same way, Pakeha liberals focus on Te Whiti, who was a heroic but relatively minor figure in the struggle against colonisation, at the expense of those like Tawhiao, Te Kooti, and Titokowaru who used armed struggle against the British and the settlers.

Aporo and Te Ua are not as easily celebrated by liberalism as Gandhi or Te Whiti. Aporo's Book of Dreams and Te Ua's gospels are complex, confrontational works that fuse apocalyptic religious visions with nationalist politics, and exhibit an anger and pain very different from the beatific quietism associated nowadays with Te Whiti. It is time that the Pakeha who have celebrated Te Whiti and Parihaka also recognised the extraordinary legacies of these two earlier opponents of imperialism.

Footnote: some of Aporo's drawings are now online here.

For Te Ua's texts with an English translation and commentary, see 'The gospel of Te Ua Haumene', Journal of the Polynesian Society 101:11, 7-44, Polynesian Society, 1992

Monday, January 15, 2007

Urgent Action: Tibetans Still Detained in Aftermath of Nangpa Pass Shooting!

'On September 30th Chinese border troops opened fire at a caravan of seventy-three Tibetans fleeing to Nepal through Nangpa Pass. Kelsang Namtso, a seventeen year-old nun from Nagchu prefecture, was killed and twenty year-old Kunsang Namgyal is also feared dead. The Chinese government's perpetration of human rights abuses in Tibet was exposed to the global community at a time when China is trying so hard to show a respectable face to the world. Despite all the media attention and foreign diplomatic pressure, thirty-two Tibetans from the group, including fourteen children, are reported to have been detained by the border patrol. Chinese officials have yet to release information about of the detainees' whereabouts or well-being. SFT is stepping up the campaign for their release and demanding an immediate end to the attacks by Chinese border patrol on Tibetan refugees. Please join this effort now by sending the urgent appeal here.

For more information on the shootings see the wikipedia entry


In his enormous, almost forgotten book Rethink, British futurologist - does the word itself not sound old-fashioned, today? - Gordon Rattray Taylor divided human beings into two types, based partly on the sort of landscape to which they felt most attracted. Taylor's 'romantic' type was moved by wildness and motion; his 'classicist' prefered peace and order. I always think of Taylor's dichotomy when I look at a map of the narrow peninsula that is Auckland. The peninsula's densely-populated East Coast boasts golden sands, orderly processions of Norfolk pines, and waters calmed by the Waitemata Harbour's complex network of islands, isthmuses, and sandbars. This is the idyllic coast celebrated in Bruce Mason's famous play 'The End of the Golden Weather', and in ARD Fairburn's 'The Cave':

We climbed down, and crossed over the sand,
and there were islands floating in the wind-whipped blue,
and clouds and islands trembling in your eyes,
and every footstep and every glance
was a fatality felt and unspoken, our way
rigid and glorious as the sun’s path,
unbroken as the genealogy of man.

Auckland's West Coast cannot even be glimpsed from the east: the eye travels thirty kilometres, across mortgaged suburbs, extinct volcanoes, and horticulutral sections, only to be frustrated by the rain forest and steel antennae of the Waitakere Ranges, the remnants of massive volcanic eruptions thirty million years ago. Until the 1930s, when unlucky prisoners were forced to pave the route known as Scenic Drive, the Coast was reachable only by a very tired horse and a mud-stained buggy. Even today, Scenic Drive and its outliers do their best to slow the movement of surfers and fishermen, wrapping themselves round pillars of rock and stands of remnant kauri so that journeys of a few kilometres can last half an afternoon. It is appropriate that such a spectacular place as the West Coast should be approached with a slowness and caution that perhaps approximate reverence.

Last night, at about eight o'clock, Skyler and I found ourselves on the edge of Muriwai, the last and longest of the western beaches, after a slow drive over gravel and fallen pohutakawa blossoms. The sun was low in the sky, and a tired-looking lifeguard was busy trying to persuade half a dozen teenage surfers out of the darkening walls of water that broke as far as the eye could travel.

As the last of the surfers disappeared into a combie van that shook with the sound of The Doobie Brothers, Skyler climbed over a massive black dune that was slowly collapsing onto the fairway of the Muriwai Golf Club. The earthworks of an ancient Maori pa snaked along the edge of the fairway, before being tidied into a bunker and the low ridge that cupped a tiny green. Beyond the green, at the bottom of another precarious dune, stood the ruins of a concrete blockhouse, twelve feet by eight feet, with two holes punched in the seaward wall for the rifles of the Home Guard. An apple tree had grown in the guardsmen's crouch space, but couldn't get up the mettle to reach through the blasted roof. After pushing dunes away with a rusty forklift mounted on a local farmer's tractor, the part-time soldiers of the Guard would have taken turns waiting here, smoking roll your owns and squinting through binoculars for a sight of a Jap submarine or float plane.

'Good place for a doobie...' I hear Skyler say.

Kendrick Smithyman waited here, or somewhere near here, too.

Muriwai 1957

Where does the ocean begin?

Not here, where the stakes of the wrecked pier can barely stagger out thirty feet, and the rising tide capsizes a dinghy called Mabel.

The ocean begins on page 112, where Kendrick Smithyman stuffs toheroa into the pockets of his shirt and shorts, watching the ranger’s buggy disappear over a dune.

It is eleven-thirty a.m., the sixth of May, 1957, and Ken is drunk. He has just begun to compose the first line of a poem, about the ocean, and about toheroa, or perhaps he has just finished the line. Either way, it doesn’t really matter.

What matters is the thick dry husk of a sea monster, a sea weed (Latin name lapis lazuli, 6 ft x 4ft) lying under beheaded lupins on the smooth edge of a dune.

What matters is the rot-blue colouring of the side of the monster, the side that faces away from the waves, towards Ken.

What matters are the eleven black-backed gulls, turning and turning in a widening gyre, or distributed randomly across the dunes, above the sea, and on pieces of driftwood riding the swell.

What matters is going to bed in a Muriwai bach and waking up under the keel, in a poem or a dream, at 3 a.m., when the bones of the drowned coldly associate.

Ken winces, and turns, remembering the corugated blues and oranges of the gumdigger’s shack, remembering the bombed-out blockhouse, the bright blind eyes of sunflowers staring through collapsed rooves.

For a long time he could not understand the impenetrable hardness of external objects, the way they seemed to flee from the eye into corners and crannies, like the deer Hamish frightened with his warning shot.

Now he knows the truth: to move or otherwise alter any single object, or to refrain from doing so, is to change the history of the entire world.

Now he does not dare to move, to stand still.

It is eleven-thirty a.m., the sixth of May, 1957.