Sunday, August 30, 2009

The virtues of irrelevance

I've been meaning to thank Chris Trotter for a review he gave this blog on National Radio. Speaking on Jim Mora's programme The Panel on Friday the 20th of August, Trotter described Reading the Maps as 'erudite, entertaining, and beautifully written' and called it one of the 'rare gems' that compensate for the 'gross egotism' and 'appalling abuse' which are found in many parts of the blogosphere.

I do appreciate Trotter's kind words, but I'm not entirely sure I agree with the context in which they were delivered. Trotter had been talking about the way that some of the best sites in the blogosphere are undeservedly unpopular. 'Clearly very few people visit some of them', he said, 'if comments are anything to go by'. When it comes to culture, I'm no sort of populist - I'll always prefer The Clean to Crowded House, and TS Eliot to AE Housman - and I'd certainly agree with Chris that the numbers of visitors and comments a blog attracts are not an indicator of that site's value. I'm not comfortable, though, with the dichotomy Trotter's comments seem to set up between trashy but popular blogs and worthy but largely unread 'highbrow' blogs.

Reading the Maps has enjoyed a reasonable readership for years, and was placed at number twenty-three in a recent national blogging 'chart', ahead of many sites that dwell on topics rather less esoteric than the obscure parts of New Zealand history, the avant-garde edge of Kiwi literature, the dilemmas of Marxist theory, and the problems of land reform in the Third World. Some of the comments threads on this blog have very long tails that continue to twitch and thrash long after the blog post which prompted them have been consigned to the archive section of the site.

Some of the most energetic left-wing blogs in New Zealand - The Standard and No Right Turn are two good examples - seem determined to be relentlessly 'relevant' and 'accessible'. Often, the posts on these blogs read like articles from the mainstream media cut, pasted, and adorned with a few querulous pieces of marginalia. In certain parts of the world, blogs like No Right Turn might be a necessary, even vital part of the arsenal of the left. In countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nepal - countries where struggle between classes is intense and the most simple political questions turn into questions about how society should be structured and run - reading the daily paper must be a very exciting experience.

Twenty-first century New Zealand, though, is a remarkably stable place where few differences exist between the major politically parties, and where large questions about the organisation of society are almost never raised in mainstream political discourse. The sound and fury which is generated around 'burning' (non-)issues only serves to disguise the lack of substantial political discussion. The pointless and pointlessly nasty 'debate' about 'smacking' is a perfect example of this phenomenon: while Kiwis argue over whether or not they should be allowed to spank their kids on the bottom, New Zealand troops are helping to enforce the law in Bamiyan, a province of Afghanistan where husbands are now allowed to rape and starve their wives, and where a man who rapes a woman is able to 'atone' for his sins by marrying the victim. The legislation which brings sharia law into effect in Bamiyan was recently passed by the Karzai government, which both John Key and Phil Goff see as a bastion of democracy worthy of Western support. If we were a country with a politically engaged populace, Bamiyan would dominate the front pages of our papers.

In a becalmed society like twenty-first century New Zealand, the relentless pursuit of relevance can lead to relentless triviality. How many of the posts on a blog like No Right Turn will be worth reading in a week's time, let alone ten years' time? Will the smacking 'debate' or the food labelling 'debate' be remembered in the way that we remember the arguments over sporting contact with apartheid, or the ideological clashes that were the backdrop to the lockout of '51?

I doubt whether the modest popularity of Reading the Maps reflects the popularity of my own rather eccentric views on politics, history, and aesthetics. Even some of my best friends shake their head at my opinions. If sites like Reading the Maps attract surprising numbers of visitors, it is because they talk about subjects which don't fit neatly into the soundbites and headlines of the mainstream media. Subjects like the Land Wars of the nineteenth century or EP Thompson's studies of class struggle in industrialising societies might seem obscure, but they can sometimes help us to discover perspectives broader than the ones we find in the paper or on the telly.

It's notable that the most popular left-wing blog in Britain, Lenin's Tomb, is run by an unashamedly intellectual supporter of a small, rather 'irrelevant' far left group, and combines acidic commentaries on Western foreign policy - commentaries which refuse to make themselves 'relevant' by suggesting ways to 'reform' institutions like the UN and NATO - with discussions of such esoteric subjects as the place of dialectics in Marx's thought, the meaning of Italian Futurism, and the film criticism of Slavoj Zizek. Perhaps the runaway success of the colourful, intellectually adventurous Lenin's Tomb holds a lesson for some of the dull, determinedly relevant denizens of the left wing of New Zealand's blogopshere.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Against space and time: the CROSTOPI Manifesto


Issued by the Committee for the Reconstruction of Space and Time on Pig Island (CROSTOPI)

The problems of the anti-traveller

He could not avoid travelling. He sat down in his study and leaned forward in his chair, so that most of his body lay between the four legs of his desk, the beast of burden that would carry his unpublished monograph, the various drafts, the half dozen appendices, on its bent mahogany back for the rest of its days and nights. The piled papers looked like half-finished construction plans for office blocks, he thought, as he leaned forward further, tugged at the curtain, and squinted out the window. The world was a hill and two clouds. He leaned back, and dug the heels of his slippers into the carpet, dug them in hard, so that the creaking of the villa’s uneven floorboards woke the dog that lay like a lumpy old rug beside the fireplace on the western edge of the room. He could not avoid travelling. The world continued to roll at his feet, under his feet, under the overburdened desk, under the Alaska-shaped stain in the carpet that the dog had risen to expose: the earth was carrying him forwards, or perhaps backwards, at a rate of exactly

The discovery of Space and Time, 1857

Karl Marx’s whole body shivers, but his right hand moves calmly, as he hunches, wrapped in a blanket as black and dirty as his beard, over a swaying pool of light, at the city end of his study. The lamp shakes; the whole house shakes, in the third storm of the winter. Marx has not slept properly for a week: he has to keep the right hand moving, he has to get it all down, the whole history that has backed up behind the crisis, like traffic behind an overturned wagon on Tavistock Place. The first great crisis of capitalism – the first and final crisis, perhaps. Marx has moved, in a matter of sentences, from primitive communism, the prehistoric hunter gatherer bands of the humid steppe, to the origins of feudalism, to the transition to the present, precarious system. He can move backwards as quickly as forwards in time. His enemies do not have the same luxury! In the morning, if he can find the change, he will walk to the corner of his street, and buy a copy of The Times, and turn to the business section, and read about the latest bankruptcies, and chuckle at the bourgeois pundits’ explanations for the crisis of overproduction that has left units of special police guarding warehouses of rotting grain and corn.

Marx sits up suddenly in the lamplight. He can feel the world advancing steadily in his direction, across the deserts and market squares and steppes, through winding mine shafts and mill canals, aboard locomotives and steamships and ferries. The annihilation of space by time, he writes, is one of the characteristics of the present age. The world is the London dockyards, plus the reading room of the British Museum. The world is brazil nuts and bananas. The world is a monograph on Gold Coast Religious Beliefs, and a paperback edition of Dante. The world is feather boa hats, absinthe, pig iron, coal slag.

The ouroboros is wasting its time

Marx explained that, like the ouroboros, capitalism could only survive by continually consuming itself. The fixed capital – railway lines, furnaces, dockyards, laboratories – which makes profit possible will eventually become an obstacle to profit, as its features become outmoded, or are replicated more efficiently elsewhere. Capitalism builds spaces, and establishes time-flows, suitable to its needs, and then finds that it must destroy these spaces, interrupt these time flows, as its needs change. The modern becomes archaic. Engineers move out, and preservationists move in. A power station becomes an art gallery. Bohemians squat in old workers’ cottages. A wrecker’s ball swings into a room, ignoring the volumes of Dostoyevsky on the rickety homemade shelf.

The movement of space

Geographer David Harvey has developed Marx’s insights into the changes in space and time created by capitalism. Harvey emphasises that under capitalism space is not so much ‘annihilated’ by time as transformed in a variety of ways. Space is not a static, neutral category: space is in motion, as much as time, space brims at the edges of our maps, or recedes from our theodolite-eyes, depending on its relation to time, and to human behaviour. Harvey uses the term ‘spatio-temporality’ to express the way in which changes in time and in space affect each other. Harvey calls for an ‘anti-capitalist notion of spatio-temporality’ to be added to the arsenal of socialist politics in the twenty-first century. Space and time must be reorganised, along with politics and the economy.

Seasons in flight

Instead of the rhythms of the seasons that dominated agricultural society, capitalist society established a rhythm based around the nine to five working day and the working week. Leisure time and work time alternated. The worker, rose, excreted, showered, breakfasted, commuted, worked, lunched, worked, commuted, ate dinner, fucked, read Hegel or watched television, slept. These were the seasons of Hull, Bruges, Detroit, Otahuhu. With the deindustrialisation of the West and the rise of new, intrusive technology, the old seasons are being eroded. Work creeps into leisure time. She began to consult her blackberry in the adverts, she listened to the answer phone unload itself while she fucked her husband, or read Hegel.

The conquest of time

Say that it is July the 11th, 1863, in Auckland, which is still the capital of the discontinuous, incomplete nation of New Zealand. In Auckland, a town of landless settlers reduced to buying food exported north by the Maori tribes they would like to dispossess, the time is measured by the hour, the minute, the second. The invasion of the Waikato Kingdom will begin at six o’clock, on the morning of the twelfth of July, as General Cameron’s army crosses the Mangatawhiri Stream. The protests of friendly natives and confused clergymen are irrelevant: the time has been decided, the signal has been sent, the ironclads on the Waikato River have aimed their cannons at Maori fortifications. And yet the passage of the order from Auckland to General Cameron’s camp at Pokeno, on the northern side of the Mangatawhiri, is compromised, as a horseman bearing the message bogs down in a swamp near Drury, after having to leave a stretch of the Great South Road made dangerous by Maori guerillas, who have been launching ambushes and burning roadside cottages for months.

The Maori struggle against Cameron’s advance to the border of the Waikato Kingdom has been a struggle against the imposition of a certain spatio-temporality. The Great South Road must be destroyed, because it destroys distance. The Pakeha troops must be made to move at the speed of a horse over rough country, or a waka upstream.

The hazards of map reading

Every map has its point of departure in pedagogy. No map is neutral. Medieval maps showed Jerusalem at the centre of the world. The first Maori map showed Hokianga as the centre of the world. The map on the wall of your primary school classroom showed Africa as far smaller than it really is, and put New Zealand at the bottom of the world, when it could just as easily have sat at the top. Introduced Aliens

Cambridge, Morrinsville, Hamilton - the very names of the towns built in the heartland of the vanquished Waikato Kingdom were determinedly alien, were defiantly familiar, for the soldier-settlers and property speculators who established them. The straight lines of the new land blocks, the willows and oaks planted where kahikatea had stood, the well-trimmed hawthorn hedges that stood like lines of troops along the frontier with the King Country, where the Maori rebels still lurked – these were ways of affirming a new culture, a new spatio-temporality. An old culture, an old spatio-temporality. Adventures in an Official District History

I stare back at the theodolite, its steady cyclops eye. The surveyor would stand, the surveyor stands, behind the subtle instrument, which he aimed, which he aims, into the middle distance, which has hitherto been nothing but gross, uncharted space, which was, is, space of another order, a land subject to mana whenua, not the Country Records Office, a land awarded to those who use it, those whose placenta are buried under the puriri trees by the sandspit, in the long grass behind the wall of andesite, halfway up Karioi. A land with no bounds was given shape and order, a land of subtle distinctions is replaced by the straight lines of fences and hedges, the tidy stone walls built by young men from Devon and Northumbria, the puriri timber fences thrown up over scum-green wetlands drained like wounds, imposing an order which was a prerequisite for economic development, the low ragged walls which attracted the sunlight, until each lump of scoria was hot to touch, until the kumara swelled through the gravel layer of the plot, without the theodolite and the surveyor’s careful work this colony would still be waste, the history of New Zealand would scarcely



Botany and zoology as warfare

Sit in the Auckland Domain, beside the foaming pond where ducks and geese struggle for stale bread, across the road from the banks of colour-coordinated flowers. Next to the bench where you mooch in your trenchcoat, an anaemic Bohemian amongst the flocks of holidaying children and snap-happy tourists, is a small, dirty plaque commemorating the construction of this pond and the nearby gardens by the Auckland Acclimatisation Society, which marshalled its army – its gorse bushes and willow saplings, its blue ducks and Jersey cows – in the Domain, on the eve of the invasion of the Waikato Kingdom. It was these forms of life which would continue the work of the solider, in the decades after the conquest of the Waikato, by occupying and subduing native ecosystems, until the only autochthonous creature in parts of the Hauraki Plains was the eel, which hid deep in the mud of the canals which had drained its old swamp home.

Like Queens Redoubt, the square of raised earth which sheltered Cameron’s army on the evening before it crossed the Mangatawhiri, the Auckland Domain deserves to be classified as an historic military site.

Horology as warfare

The temperature-compensated, mercury-regulated longclock was built in 1869 by AG Bartlett, one of Auckland's first horologists, and is displayed in the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Bartlett's clock recorded the times in London, Wellington, and Auckland with an accuracy unprecedented in the 1860s. The train and the factory required the precise keeping of time, and not only horologists but the new industrial working class had to adjust.

The caption to Bartlett's clock describes it as evidence of the growing establishment of a public time infrastructure in New Zealand. Bartlett's clock was made six years after the invasion of the Waikato, at a time when the vast amounts of land confiscated from Tainui and other iwi were being made available to British-born capitalists. Along with the musket and the theodolite, Bartlett's clock is a charmingly old-fashioned symbol of globalisation.
Into the acid bath

Since it was firmly established by the aftermath of the invasion and conquest of Maori nations in the nineteenth century, New Zealand has gone through several significant spatio-temporal reorderings. After the end of the wars railways were pushed into the hinterlands of both islands, and the market gardening and subsistence economies established by the Maori and by plebian settlers were supplanted by large-scale sheep and dairy operations geared to the demand from markets in Britain.

The expansion of industry after World War Two brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants, most of them Maori, to the city, and for a time New Zealand began to imagine and present itself as an advanced industrial nation, like Sweden or Belgium. Muldoon’s ‘Think Big’ schemes represented the zenith of this tendency, but they became mired in debt, and a section of the capitalist class organised the deindustrialisation and thoroughgoing globalisation of the economy in the second half of the eighties and the early nineties. As Roger Douglas talked of putting the economy through an ‘acid bath’, in the hope that something ‘meaner and leaner’ would emerge, factories were closed, railways were rolled up, and whole towns were closed down.

When the economy eventually rebounded, it did so on the back of agricultural exports and tourism. Both the exporters and the tourism operators had rebranded New Zealand as a ‘clean green paradise’: a virginal land of lakes, forests, and snow-capped mountains. Particularly delectable areas of the country have been cordoned off, cleansed of humans, and described by tourism brochures as ‘unspoilt wilderness’.

Like the Victorian industrialists who expelled crofters from the ‘scenic reserves’ they set up to salve consciences disturbed by the pollution of the Tyne and the Thames, the New Zealand tourism industry cannot imagine the healthy, non-alienated interaction of humans and nature. Wherever there are humans, damage must be done. Small farms must be closed on Stewart Island, where they have operated for generations, or the attempts to rebrand the island as a ‘wilderness’ will fail. Maori must be prevented from harvesting birds and other traditional foods from national parks, for fear that they will ‘spoil’ the forests there.

Artists and writers whose work seems to threaten the new ‘national brand’ are condemned. When he exhibited a photograph of a dead cow lying beside a country road in the nineties, Peter Peryer was called unpatriotic, because of the fear that the image might damage the image of New Zealand’s dairy industry. National Minister John Banks went so far as to call for the repression of the image.
Industrialised wilderness and purified histories

The ‘wildernesses’ established in various corners of New Zealand offer a simulacrum of timelessness to tourists, who arrive by the bus full to wander in eerie goblin forests or stand on majestic mountaintops. But the wilderness is run on industrial time: to walk the Milford Track, one must book a series of huts months in advance, and specify when one’s journey will begin and end. Mountain guides carry cellphones, and charter helicopters to bring down customers who overestimate their reserves of strength.

When human history and culture is allowed to intrude into the ‘clean, green New Zealand’ it must take a sanitised form. Maori culture is exhibited to tourists in a deliberately archaic form, in certain ‘traditional’ areas like Rotorua; scrubbed-up ‘pioneer villages’ are allowed to adorn the old goldfields of central Otago.

Quarantined Zones

Areas of New Zealand which contradict the requirements of the new national ‘brand’ are effectively quarantined: they do not feature on the maps tourists are given, little money is provided to maintain their infrastructure, and their residents are encouraged to move to other, more desirable zones. Time flows through the urban nerve centres of New Zealand into the farms and ‘wildernesses’ at a steady rate, but it falters in the ‘quarantined zones’. Roads turn to potholed gravel there, and cellphones fall silent.

Marx describes the way that capitalism maintains a ‘reserve army of labour’, which can be called up for service if the demand for goods increases, and which in the meantime helps keep the demand for labour, and thus the bargaining power of workers, relatively low.

Capitalism keeps space as well as labour in reserve. Turn off State Highway One at Te Kuiti, climb into the country around Ohura, and admire the eroded hillsides ablaze with gorse. If the demand for dairy products from China redoubles, these hills could yet carry cattle for a few years, until the boom is over. If the price of oil rises very sharply, then the coal that lies under the hills may be worth extracting. If the new prison in the lower Waikato overflows, then this area’s isolation and terrain may be turned to good purpose. In the meantime, the hills and the ancient cottages and corrugated shacks which cling to them persist, as invisible as a shell company. A List

of ‘quarantined’ areas: the old coal and hydro towns of the King Country, whose residents have refused to move out (in a TV programme dedicated to the woes of this area, economist Gareth Morgan lost his temper and bellowed ‘Mangakino should no longer exist! There is no reason for the place!’, giving voice to a common sentiment in Wellington); the ‘Tuhoe Country’ between Whakatane and Wairoa, whose residents’ denial of the authority of the New Zealand state, refusal to dance in grass skirts for tourists, and desire to clear fell parts of the Urewera National Park terrifies the custodians of ‘brand New Zealand’; the rugged ‘Limestone Country’ between Port Waikato and Raglan, where Maori and Pakeha small hold farmers have resisted the encroachment of the tourism industry and factory farming, and have integrated their families and cultures; the ‘Takimoana Republic’ near the East Cape, where dissident Ngati Porou have attempted to secede from New Zealand; the Whangape and Herekino districts of the far north; the upper Hokianga...
The museum of times and spaces

For a small boy in the 1980s, everything about the Auckland War Memorial Museum - its cold marble walls, its long echoing halls, its interlocking rooms cluttered with dimly-lit exhibits, the half-legible scripts and impossibly long Latin names on the captions under the exhibits - created a sense of displacement. Wandering through the innumerable rooms of the cave, the boy began to understand that there were other worlds - worlds that existed in the past, over the sea, on the other side of my city - radically different to the one he inhabited. The languid gaze of a God's carved head, rescued from a swamp in Northland a century ago; the still bodies of Anzacs on Gallipoli beach; the dry blood on a special policeman's long baton; the fierce grimace of a New Guinea mask: all of these were invitations into new worlds.

A museum’s subversive quality comes from the sense of otherness it induces, and from the traces of different spatio-temporal arrangements it preserves. The commercialisation of museums has gone hand in hand with a faux-populism which has sought to destroy this otherness, and to close the portals to other times and spaces. The dim rooms of the old museum must be replaced with the garish lighting and wide open spaces of the casino, and the artefacts must be mediated by jokey, vernacular captions, or else hidden away and replaced by ‘interactive learning features’ like computer games. Take the Time Warp, and find out you have a lot in common with your ancestors. What would you do if you were Napoleon? Find out why dinosaurs are cool.

A map is a type of museum. As a boy he loved to flip through his grandfather’s old school atlas, to run his hands over the ink-red expanses of the British Empire, to gaze at Africa and wonder at the fragments of liberty (green was the colour of liberty, of recognised independent nations, as distinct from colonies) called Liberia and Abyssinia, fragments almost lost amidst the sprawl of contending European Empires. There were smudged areas, where authorities overlapped (Tangiers, an international city; New Hebrides, a British-French condominium), and there countries which he knew no longer existed (the Kingdom of Siam; Tibet, a British protectorate). Portals.

Against dogmatism

It is not a matter of valourising ‘slow’ time and ‘empty’ space, against the fast time and cluttered landscapes of capitalism, but of supporting spatio-temporal arrangements which favour communities – real communities, not the imagined community of the ‘New Zealand brand’. To support the people of the King Country coast, who demand cellphone coverage so that they can call for an ambulance if they roll their cars on their narrow steep roads, and not be left to die. To support the people of Ngunguru when they campaign against the building of a new, exclusive housing development, complete with a grid of roads, a cellphone tower, and wireless internet coverage, on a peninsula whose open spaces they revere.

A Modest Proposal

We propose mapping the real flows of time and space through the entity variously known as New Zealand, Aotearoa, and Pig Island. We want to create maps which eschew the false objectivity of official cartography in favour of the proliferating realities of personal and collective fantasy. We will map islands, reefs, estuaries, mountain bogs, heresies, tramways, coal shafts, the trajectories of migratory birds and bacilli, the production rates of poets, the death rate of statisticians. It is time for the map to find its proper place in the arsenal of New Zealand artists and poets.


He loved unfolding the map, loved the way the peninsula extended itself into the squares of empty blue, loved the brushstrokes of pale gray that laid sandbars on the harbour’s shallow bottom, loved the thin mercury-red lines that denoted altitude, the way the knots of terrain between them turned from dark to light green to white, as they closed in on the black triangle that spelt summit. He never wanted to fold the map up again: he was always afraid of turning the sea upside down, of letting it pour over all that land, until it brimmed around the mountains, so that the mountains became mere hills.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The transformation of Marcus Lush

It was hard to live in Auckland in the late nineties and early noughties without regularly encountering Marcus Lush.

If you wandered into High Street's Unity Books on a Friday night, wondering whether the manager had bowed to the inevitable and discounted the unsold stacks of the most recent Times Literary Supplement yet, you might well find a boozed-up Marcus Lush enjoying a loud but rather one-sided bit of 'banter' with an unsmiling staff member. If you joined the rush for the toilets of the doomed Mandalay club during Paul Kelly's rendition of Hot Chocolate's soppy pop classic 'It Started With A Kiss', you might be confronted with a mock-serious Lush castigating the grand old man of Australian music as 'Aussie's answer to Brazier' whilst leaning into the urinal. If you sat by the window at Gloria's cafe on Anzac Avenue late on a Saturday morning you might be rewarded with the sight of an eeriely silent, red-eyed Marcus Lush gingerly shambling his way down the pavement towards the city.

Some TV celebs seem to adopt different personas in their offscreen and onscreen lives. I lived opposite Richard Long for a while, in a student flat which was a continual minor irritation to the rest of a well-heeled Mt Eden street, and I was always struck by how miserable and timid the legendary newsreader seemed, whenever I encountered him walking his pudgy labrador to the circle of long grass at the end of the road where the creature liked to defecate. The avuncular, ever-smiling celeb could barely manage to look up and fashion a half-grin on his grey, unshaven face.

Marcus Lush, though, seemed to have the same personality on and offscreen. Whether he was fronting Bizarro or hanging about in Unity Books, he came across as exactly the sort of smartarse, unshockably sophisticated JAFA that had earned our city the contempt of the rest of New Zealand. As an interviewer, Lush sought out quirky, and sometimes downright strange subjects - guinea pig shows were a speciality - and then subjected them to the sort of deadpan mockery that Jeremy Wells has since perfected.

A few years ago Lush disappeared from the TV screens of New Zealand, and from the gutters and bookshops of High Street. When advertisements announced that he was reemerging as the presenter of a documentary called Off the Rails I feared the worst. I was pleasantly surprised, though, when Lush's new vehicle turned out to be a ruminative journey along mostly disused rail lines through some of New Zealand's most unfashionable backblocks. Lush was off the sauce, and the brash, interminably clever suit of the late nineties had been replaced by a self-deprecating, slightly melancholic scruff. Lush's profiles of embattled country towns like Ohai and Otira were characterised reverence, rather than ridicule, and revealed the ways of life which are lost along with jobs when coal mines and railway workshops close. When he interviewed the elderly women who had worked at the Temuka pottery in the middle of last century, or chatted with the bloke who digs near rusty lines for railway memorabilia, Lush seemed more like an oral historian drawing out half-forgotten facts than a slick TV celeb.

Lush was not afraid to let a few of his own opinions fly in Off the Rails, and they surprised both his erstwhile supporters and detractors. As he rode an aged bicycle over the rail trail through central Otago, Lush castigated the commercialism that the tourist industry had brought to a number of New Zealand towns including, most notoriously, Queenstown, that millionaires' playground filled with American accents. On the West Coast, Lush took a stand for the mining industry, remembering the role it had played in developing and sustaining isolated communities.

What had caused Marcus Lush's transformation? The man's new TV series lets us hazard an answer. South is intended as a celebration of the region which spreads out around Bluff, the town Lush has made his home for the past few years. In the first episode of South, Lush took to the seas below New Zealand's most southerly port, and visited Stewart Island, where the Department of Conservation is the major landowner.

In last night's episode of South, Lush struck westwards, and found himself in the old sawmilling town of Tuatapere on New Years' Eve. After wandering down to the town's only pub at ten o'clock and finding it inhabited by half a dozen drowsy pensioners, Lush stepped outside, did his own early countdown to the New Year alone on the pavement, and went back to his motel to get an early night. Lush needed the shuteye, because he was off early in the morning to Tuatapere's New Year's Sports Day, which was dominated by epic woodchopping duels between beer-bellied, barrel-chested men. Without a trace of irony, Lush lauded Tuatapere and its sportsmen. For this former JAFA, the deep south represents a repository of practices and values which have been lost in some of the more allegedly sophisticated parts of New Zealand. Lush has become an internal emigre.

Of course, it is not new for urban New Zealanders to give up their old lives and beliefs and head for the sticks. During the sixties and seventies, for instance, many Aucklanders gave up the 'rat race' for communes in the Coromandel, the Hokianga, and even the West Coast of the South Island. But these hairy young men and women were drawn to the backblocks not by the culture of small town sports days, but by the dream of creating islands of an 'alternative', decidedly non-traditional culture on cheap land. Although they took up residence in some of the most isolated parts of New Zealand, they drew their ideas and imagery from metropolitan centres like London and San Francisco. They often clashed with the conservative rural communities which already existed in the backblocks.

In the sixties and seventies, the rural 'heartland' still set the cultural pattern for New Zealand society as a whole. Farmers were idealised, and the country town was seen as the bastion of 'Kiwi values' like hard work, emotional reserve, and a sort of faux-egalitarianism that was hard to differentiate from philistinism and conformity. The globalisation of the economy in the eighties and early nineties, the gutting of many country towns, and the steady drift of people away from regions like Northland, the King Country, the West Coast, and Southland have reversed the situation. When urban Kiwis think about the countryside of their country today in positive terms, they tend to imagine the pristine forests and snowcapped mountains of tourism adverts, not the shearers of Te Kuiti.

Marcus Lush has come to identify with a culture that once seemed hegemonic, but which now appears marginalised and vulnerable. Will his identification, and his internal migration, be imitated by other urban New Zealanders dissatisfied with their lives? The popularity of Off the Rails and South suggests an answer.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Should Paul Moon tell The Truth about Maori activism?

It's probably fair to say that the New Zealand Truth has seen better days. Back in the seventies and eighties, long before the advent of internet porn and Fox News, the Truth was the tabloid equivalent of Penthouse magazine: a bestselling publication that no respectable person would admit to buying. Every week, the paper served up a helping of gore and porn designed to excite and disgust a very conservative society. One especially popular issue of the paper had its front page adorned with the timeless headline 'Headless Body Found in Topless Restaurant'.

When it wasn't titillating its readers, the Truth was terrifying them, with stories of the communist threat to the New Zealand way of life or the secret, Libyan-funded Maori army training in the backblocks of the North Island. At the end of the eighties, the Truth began a slow decline, and by the time Jock Anderson was installed as editor a couple of years ago the paper was little more than a place for the sex industry to advertise. Anderson, who wrote for the Truth back in its salad days, has attempted to restore some of the paper's former glory by running a series of articles on New Zealand race relations that can only be described as provocative.

After the police arrests of the 'Urewera 14' in late 2007, the Truth rediscovered its old 'the Maoris are coming to murder us in our beds' meme with a vengeance, running articles which claimed that Tame Iti was a servant of both Osama bin Laden and Hugo Chavez. The paper has also run a number of bizarre articles about Maori history, which appear to be designed to discredit iwi which are seeking recompense through the glacial 'Treaty process' for the loss of their land and other consequences of colonisation.

At about the time it was revealing Tame Iti's 'connections', the Truth ran a cover article about a supposed Moriori claim to the lands of the Waikato. The paper claimed that a 'Moriori King' - in the photo the paper provided he looked more like an alcoholic vagrant than a monarch - was about to make a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal for the return of the land owned by the Waikato people, on the grounds that the Moriori were the 'original owners' of that land. The article was an obvious attempt to appeal to the still-widespread belief that the Moriori were the first inhabitants of all of New Zealand, and not a group of early Maori who settled the Chatham Islands and developed a unique culture there in isolation. No 'Moriori King' has made a claim for the 'return' of the Waikato, but that won't have bothered the Truth. Tabloid newspapers have the memory of goldfish.

The August 13th issue of the Truth carried yet another shocking story about the danger that Maori radicalism poses to ordinary Kiwis. The cover of the issue features a photo of a protester waving a Tuhoe flag, and the headline 'Maori v Maori'. According to Jock Anderson's 'exclusive' article on page three, 'wild-eyed manic Maoris are gearing up for violent confrontations with Maori leaders and other New Zealanders'. Anderson claims that a civil war is beginning within Maoridom, as iwi split into factions over the best way to divide the proceeds of Treaty settlements. Anderson lists a series of recent incidents which supposedly support his argument, but most of them, like 'threats to camp outside John Key's home' and 'refusal by Maori to recognise courts and the judicial system' concern Maori conflict with the New Zealand state, not with other Maori.

Undeterred by his failure to make the case for a coming brown-on-brown bloodbath, Anderson wheels out his prize witness - 'historian and controversial author' Paul Moon:

Moon says that the protest movement which rose in the 1970s is now very different...

"Some people, such as Tuhoe, have legitimate grievances over settlement proceeds. But in other cases the basis for action is pretty flimsy"
[Moon says].

According to Moon the effects on Maori of the economic crisis, growing hardship and unemployment, coupled with dissatisfaction over lack of grassroots benefit from Treaty settlements, are turning Maori against Maori.

"The ordinary Maori in the street hasn't seen a cent from settlements", says Moon, who says there is now a gradual realisation among Maori that tribal trust boards are the target of protest action - not the Crown or government. He says there is a risk people who protest for less than good reasons can harm others who have achieved a lot.

Moon's comments appear to refer to a number of recent cases where hapu or small groups of hapu have rejected settlements made by the iwi to which they belong, and tried to sabotage those settlements with legal cases and protests. In a few extreme cases, dissident groups have attempted to secede from their iwi and open negotiations with the Crown on their own.

In the East Cape region of the North Island, for instance, a handful of Ngati Porou hapu rejected the decision by the leadership of their tribe to support the seabed and foreshore legislation introduced by Labour. They have become so alienated from the conservative but powerful leadership of Ngati Porou that they have announced their withdrawal from the iwi, and also from New Zealand itself.

The 'government of Takimoana', which claims to control a strip of coast just south of the East Cape, has announced that it intends to hold its own negotiations with the government of New Zealand, and to pursue its own course of economic development. The hapu which support the new 'state' have taken to claiming that they were never a part of Ngati Porou, and that they are therefore not bound by the decision of the tribe's elders to sign the Treaty of Waitangi and become New Zealand citizens in 1840. Understandably, there has been considerable tension between the leaders of the Takimoana 'government' and the leadership of Ngati Porou.

Other, less spectacular examples of the fracturing of iwi can be found in the Auckland region, where the former Ngati Whatua hapu of Te Taou now insists on negotiating with the government as a separate iwi, and in the Bay of Islands, where a Nga Puhi hapu has laid a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal for the ownership of the land around Te Tii marae - land which is normally considered to come under the mana whenua of the whole iwi.
It seems to me that Moon's explanation for the splintering of iwi is too simplistic, and that his attitude toward the dissident groups is too harsh. The phenomenon of secessionist hapu has to be seen as a consequence of the successes as well as the failures of the Maori renaissance and the Treaty process which has both co-opted and extended that renaissance.

It seems easy for some commentators to recite the failures of the Treaty process - the fact that major iwi like Tuhoe and Nga Puhi are still nowhere near reaching settlements, the corporatisation of some iwi which have received settlements, the fear and loathing that the process has caused amongst some non-Maori - but harder for them to remember successes, like the return of stolen land at places like Bastion Point, the establishment of Maori as an official language of New Zealand and the flourishing of the kohanga reo movement, and the funds that have been channelled towards the health and education of iwi members, rather than into the business schemes of a brown capitalist class. The inadequacies of some iwi leaderships have encouraged secessionist rebels, but so, surely, has the confidence which has been gained as a result of the victories won during the Maori renaissance.

The splits that have produced groups like Te Taou and the Takimoana 'government' can be considered symptoms of dynamism, as much as fragmentation. The scholarship of Angela Ballara and others has shown us that Maori society in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries - the period immediately before the defeats in the Land Wars and the cantonment of the remnants of the defeated tribes on undesirable land far from the cities - was highly dynamic, with hapu intersecting with each other in complex ways as alliances were formed and dissolved. In the early days of resistance to colonisation, Maori showed a related form of social innovation, as they formed inter-iwi organisations like the King movement.

Even the rebels at Takimoana may have some sort of historical precedent: they quote Te Kooti at the beginning of their founding document, and they can perhaps be considered successors to the 'hauhau' faction of Ngati Porou, which in the 1860s rose up in protest at the loyalty the tribe's conservative leaders showed towards the Pakeha government that was waging war on the Waikato Kingdom. (Of course, unlike the Ngati Porou hauhau of the 1860s, and despite what Jock Anderson would like to imagine, the rebels of Takimoana have no interest in taking up arms).

Moon is also surely wrong when he claims that the new conflicts within Maoridom do not relate to the New Zealand state, and to the policies of the people who control that state. The hapu of Takimoana have explicitly challenged the authority of the New Zealand state, as a result of their deep dissatisfaction with the seabed and foreshore legislation. Te Taou have differentiated themselves from Ngati Whatua partly because they want to negotiate directly with the New Zealand state.

The wisdom of Moon's decision to chat with Jock Anderson can be considered separately from the pros and cons of his analysis of contemporary Maori politics. Moon is a prolific contributor of opinion articles to papers like the New Zealand Herald, and he has become a go-to man for many editors wanting a quick quote about some aspect of New Zealand history or contemporary race relations. Moon's last book was deeply problematic - I've discussed some of its arguments here - and he has nothing resembling the intellectual reputation of senior scholars of New Zealand history like Judith Binney and Miles Fairburn, yet he has become perhaps the best-known living New Zealand historian.

Moon's evident hunger for media space is not necessarily a bad thing: too many academics shy away from an engagement with the sort of public issues he has debated vociferously in our big papers. Moon's recent letter to the Herald condemning the Celtic New Zealand circle as conspiracy theorists and pseudo-historians shows that he is also prepared to use the mass media to make a stand for responsible scholarship and rational discussion of the past.

It is hard to avoid the feeling, though, that Moon erred in talking to the Truth, a paper which has always preferred irrational condemnation to rational discussion. Although Moon's comments to Jock Anderson are neither irrational nor inflammatory, Anderson has placed them in a context where they are liable to be misinterpreted. Moon should have known better.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A fine pair

Book launches are important to all publishers, but they are crucial to small publishers. When a book has what marketing experts like to term 'limited to negligible commercial potential', and when it may even have difficulty penetrating the largest and most philistine bookshops, it essential to throw a well-attended, boozy party and shift a few units while the punters are tipsy.

Ever since he established Titus back in 2005, Brett Cross has refused to send a book out into the cold commercial world on its own. Cross likes to launch two or three titles at a time, which makes for long functions filled with speeches, readings, signings, and musical interludes.

There is an art to choosing which books to launch together. Books which are too similar in subject or manner may seem to diminish each other; works which are completely dissimilar, or which appeal to very different readerships, may make for confused, fragmented launches. Cross, though, has always been able to juxtapose books to the mutual benefit of their authors, by playing on subtle similarities or interesting differences.

The last Titus launch began as a study in contrasts, as Brett juxtaposed Romantic David Lyndon-Brown's lyric poetry with fussy classicist Ted Jenner's lapidarian texts. Lyndon-Brown and Jenner had never met before the launch of their books at a crowded Fordes Bar, yet their work revealed fascinating similarities alongside obvious differences of experience and temperament. It was fascinating to observe the way that, for all their differences, both men drew a large part of their inspiration from Greek culture: Ted has been at work for decades translating pre-Socratic philosophers and obscure Hellenic poets, while Lyndon-Brown's lyrical but carefully composed and structured poems are influenced by the exiled Greek modernist, Constantine Cavafy.

On September the 25th - yes, it'll be a Friday night - Titus is taking over Fordes Bar to launching a couple of books which resonate with one another in intriguing ways. Richard Von Sturmer's On the Eve of Never Departing is a collection of prose pieces which describe his childhood in West Auckland in the seventies, the sense of alienation that led to his involvement in the punk scene and in left-wing protest movements, his travels in the deserts of China and America, and his long experience as a practitioner of and advocate for Zen Buddhism. On the Eve of Never Departing is a sort of spiritual autobiography with few precedents in New Zealand literature; readers acquainted with Von Sturmer's earlier books, though, will recognise its lucid prose and its unrelenting attentiveness. (I will be sailing through hot water if I don't mention here that the very fine cover of Von Sturmer's new tome reproduced at the top of this post was designed by Skyler. Direct your praise for her to the comments box.)

Partly because of the variety of genres within which he has worked - after his beginnings as the songwriter who produced the post-punk anthem 'There Is No Depression in New Zealand' he has produced screen writing, texts for the theatre, prose poems, haiku, and Buddhist devotional writing - Von Sturmer has not yet quite won the critical recognition he deserves. He has attracted enthusiastic reviews - Gregory O'Brien memorably described his last book, Suchness, as a work of 'hallucinatory clarity' - but the extent of his literary achievement, and the strangeness and variety of the life behind that achievement, have not been widely appreciated. The autobiographical focus and generous length of On the Eve of Never Departing may help win Von Sturmer a reputation as one of the most remarkable Kiwi writers of his generation.

Rogelia Guedea has no lack of renown in his native land of Mexico, but he is almost unknown in New Zealand, the country he has made his home. For most of this decade, Guedea has lectured at the University of Otago whilst writing Spanish-language poetry which was been widely disseminated and highly praised in Mexico and several other Latin American countries. Guedea's status was underlined when he won the poetry section of Mexico's premier book awards last year. Titus Books has the honour of publishing Guedea's first English-language book, a collection of prose poems called Free Fall. Despite the differences in their cultural and intellectual backgrounds, Von Sturmer and Guedea are writers with a great deal in common. Guedea's enthusiasm for the prose poem is shared by Von Sturmer, whose legendary eighties work We Xerox Your Zebras was one of the very first book-length examples of the form to appear in New Zealand. Both Von Sturmer and Guedea are fascinated by the minutae of everyday life, and by the way that the most insignificantly quotidian details can suddenly seem to take on a mythic quality. It is not hard to imagine Von Sturmer writing 'Round Trip Ride', a poem which was published in the most recent issue of brief, and which will be republished next month in Free Fall:

I have arrived home after a bicycle trip with my son. Like every afternoon, we rode through the old cobblestone streets of the neighbourhood, here and there greeting the trees, the gardens, the dogs, and the children we met on the way...While my being can't resist the temptation to think about the future, household debts, lost friends, my work commitments, things I have to do tomorrow, his is poured completely into the landscape he is discovering at every turn. It's curious to see how our movements, so different, so distant, come together for a second on the same path, and how in a moment of carelessness the soul of my son is confused with mine as if fate didn't want to deny me the unrepeatable opportunity of living twice.

I certainly won't be missing the unrepeatable opportunity of seeing Richard Von Sturmer's On the Eve of Never Departing and Rogelio Guedea's Free Fall being launched next month at Fordes.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Swimming into the current

After being playtested on this blog a couple of weeks ago, my review of Jen Crawford's new chapbook Napoleon Swings has appeared at the Scoop Review of Books. The review discusses Debbie Gerbich, who committed suicide after her link to a police sex scandal was revealed, and lays into Stephen Cook, the former assistant editor of the Herald on Sunday, who sent two aggressive messages to Gerbich after she complained about the way his paper had treated her.

I ought to have qualified, at least slightly, the condemnations of journalists and journalism that ring out in the review by noting that, despite the intellectual decline of most mainstream newspapers, let alone television and radio news networks, a few people in the media are still attempting to practise something resembling principled investigative journalism.

One of the journalists swimming against the cold and muddy current is Jeremy Rose, who combines editorship of the Scoop Review of Books with work for National Radio's Mediawatch, a programme which attempts, on a small budget and in a pitifully inappropriate Sunday morning time slot, to hold New Zealand journalism to some rudimentary standards of balance and truth. Over the last fortnight Mediawatch has considered Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett's decision to reveal the financial details of two solo mothers who had the temerity to criticise her, and the media coverage of the Key government's decision to send more New Zealand troops to reinforce the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. You can listen to and download both shows here.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The last King of Scotland?

Skyler and I returned from Samoa on one of Air New Zealand's 'bus service' flights, which stop at a series of islands between Los Angeles and Auckland for an hour or two, during which time the marvellously functional 737 is able to disgorge old and swallow new luggage and passengers.

I was sitting in the small airport terminal at Nuku'alofa, wondering if all of Tonga looked like the strip of mangy coconut trees and spongy grass on the other side of the tarmac, when a magnificent martial tune burst out just behind the terminal. I jumped up and joined the crowd of tourists at a small window, and watched as a marching band began to perform on the tarmac. Just as I thought I recognised 'It's A Long Way to Tipperary', several dozen men bearing the cleanest guns I have ever seen came marching into the din. Sweating in a uniform whose frilly bits recalled both the brilliance of tropical birdlife and the absurdity of Victorian pomp, they performed several complicated manoeuvres on the dirty concrete, and then stood patiently to attention.

Soon a shining Rolls Royce was driving past the brass band and the statue-still soldiery; as the car passed out of sight, I heard the American student behind me hiss 'It's the King. That's sooo cool. I got pictures of him.' I myself wasn't so lucky: I got photos of the King's toy soldiers, and of the sweaty brass band pounding away, but I never got a glimpse, much less a photograph, of King George Tupou V, the head of the Tongan state.

After the excitement of His Majesty's appearance had died down, I wandered over to the makeshift bar at the other end of the terminal, and made a futile attempt to buy a Royal Tongan Beer (its slogan 'first beer drunk in the world, every day' might be contested by the keen homebrewers of the Chatham Islands, which sit marginally closer than Tonga to the International Date Line) with Samoan currency. As I was lamenting the lack of economic integration in the Pacific and sipping the glass of lukewarm water the barman had given me out of pity, I noticed images of a rusty ship listing in rough water on the TV above the bar. Skyler and I had travelled on a vessel that looked very similar, a few days earlier, when we'd gotten up at four o'clock and driven our hire car onto the ferry that links Samoa's two main islands. Although the waters of the Apolima strait were calm, the ferry had shaken too often for comfort, and on the return voyage in the late afternoon we had found ourselves giving up our seats in the passengers' compartment for green-faced children, and then shifting our feet uncomfortably, as each lurch of the ship sent another rivulet of vomit down the aisle where we stood.

Unlike the clapped-out Japanese-built ferry that connects Upolu and Savai'i, the clapped-out Japanese ferry on the TV screen above the bar had plied the long stretch of open ocean that separates Tongan's southern and northern archipelagos. The ferry had sunk in a storm; scores of people were missing, presumed drowned. Suddenly the King George's dramatic appearance made sense to me: he was flying hurriedly to the northern part of his nation, where he would comfort the relatives of the victims of this tragedy, and lead a full and thorough enquiry into the disaster.

It seems I was mistaken, and the King was preparing to depart for an extended holiday in Scotland, where he will receive the salute at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The marching band and the toy soldiers were saying goodbye.

The King's decision to leave his country in the aftermath of its worst disaster in modern times has been condemned by Tongan democracy activists and by papalagi papers and bloggers. Michael Laws, the mayor of Wanganui and expert on race relations, has taken the opportunity to renew his longstanding condemnation of the Tongan royals. When George's father died a couple of years ago Laws described the man as 'a bloated, brown slug', called the whole family 'morbidly obese parasites', and refused to fly the Tongan flag at half-mast. Now, Laws says, King George is making his father 'look like a philanthropist'.

It is not only that many papalagi see King George as an overgrown child who treats the symbols of the Tongan monarchy as toys. The very notion of a monarchy, complete with royal palaces, a crown, and a private military guard, seems absurd, in a Third World country with a population of a little over one hundred thousand. How can King George take himself seriously, and how can so many of his subjects treat him with deference, despite the best efforts of democracy activists, and the occasional riot on the streets of Nuku'alofa? Like Michael Laws, a number of bloggers have treated the monarchy as a symptom of the supposed immaturity of the Tongan mind. For their part, defenders of the monarchy have characterised King George's jaunt to Scotland as an important political event, and insisted that the man's critics are motivated by racism.

The real history of Tonga's monarchy is more complex than either its detractors or its more rigid supporters will admit. In Tonga and in other Polynesian societies like Samoa and Niue, it was European visitors - missionaries, traders, and would-be settlers - who demanded the creation of a monarchy and a centralised state, instead of the patchwork of semi-autonomous societies they found in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Europeans wanted to negotiate the purchase of land, trade goods, and souls, and they wanted to do with this with a single authority, not dozens of tribal leaders.

Taufa'ahau, the first King of Tonga, was a regional leader who extended his powers until he controlled all of the three island groups where Tongans lived. Taufa'ahau had excellent diplomatic skills, and he also had access to modern weapons before his rivals. We can perhaps imagine him as a combination of Hongi Hika, the legendary Nga Puhi warlord who used a trip to Britain to get hold of muskets ahead of his rivals and wage devastating war on them, and Wiremu Tamihana, the great Tainui politician who created the King Movement in the middle of the nineteenth century through a series of complex negotiations. Taufa'ahau emphasised his status by appropriating key symbols of European monarchs. He wore a crown, established a marching band, and commanded a force of silly-looking soldiers. He even took the name King George. The European traders and God botherers who had initially supported Taufa'ahau eventually recognised him as an obstacle to their ambitions.

Taufa'ahau's combination of weaponry and diplomatic nous made his Kingdom powerful enough to see off the attentions of would-be colonists in the late nineteenth century, and to maintain its independence, albeit in a 'Friendship Treaty' with Britain, in the twentieth century. Samoa, which was never unified under a King, was divided by two colonial powers at the end of the nineteenth century, while Niue fell under the complete control of New Zealand early in the twentieth century.

When they looked at the apartheid-like systems the Samoans and Niueans languished under for much of the first half of the twentieth century, the Tongans were understandably thankful for the centralised state that Taufa'ahau had developed - a state that was symbolised, for them, by the pomp and peculiarity of the monarchy. Because the British guaranteed their independence, ensuring that German, Kiwi, Japanese and American expansionists were no threat, the Tongans also developed an affection for Blighty that Kenyans or Indians could never imagine.

Looked at in historical perspective, the survival of Tonga's monarchy and the Anglophilia of some of its population are hardly inexplicable. The country seems on course to become a constitutional monarchy, as a result of a compromise between democratic reformers and hardline monarchists in the aftermath of the riots that levelled parts of Nuku'alofa in 2006. The clownish King George has promised to relinquish most of his powers when a parliament is elected democratically next year, but it is unlikely that Tongans will give up their affection for a monarchy which has come to symbolise their national independence.

Monday, August 10, 2009

SIS spies threaten academic freedom

Skyler: I work with Jane at The University of Auckland and I am the VP of the Auckland branch of the Tertiary Education Union (TEU). It is very disturbing to hear about Jane's experience with the Privacy Commission and the SIS. It is vital to any democracy to have academic freedom and for academics to be able to comment on and criticise government policies that fall within their own field of expertise. In a press release today our TEU president Tom Ryan has called for a commission of inquiry into the SIS.

"On the basis of what we have read this morning, we believe New Zealand needs a commission of inquiry into the SIS. Existing legal protections for academic freedom clearly are inadequate,” said Dr Ryan.

I hope New Zealanders will support Jane and the principle of academic freedom and call for a commission of inquiry into the SIS.

Media Release: Jane Kelsey
Sunday August 9 2009

Privacy Commission fails to stem SIS attack on academic dissent

The Privacy Commission has made itself complicit in the surveillance of lawful dissent by the Security Intelligence Service, with chilling implications for academic freedom and critical debate, a university law Professor warns.

“Both agencies have clearly over-stepped any reasonable interpretation of the ‘national security’ grounds for refusing to disclose documents, opening them to legal challenge. That is under active consideration”, said Dr Jane Kelsey, a Professor of Law at the University of Auckland.

“My experience since applying for my SIS file last November reveals two things: there is still no accountability for SIS actions in gathering intelligence on lawful dissent; and the SIS is apparently targeting academic critics of failed free market policies at a time when debate is needed most.”

“The SIS initially refused to confirm or deny whether they held any information on me, claiming that answering that question was itself likely to prejudice national security. They later conceded a file existed, when they realized there were references to me in three pages of the file released on Keith Locke MP.”

“When I complained to the Privacy Commission, they upheld the SIS position. This is utter nonsense. Documents released to other people include information on me and contain innocuous documents similar to those that must appear on my file. None of these could conceivably threaten national security.”

“When the SIS got new powers in the 1990s I warned that they would be used against critics of the free market policies and free trade agreements. This has now proved true.”

“This isn’t about me”, says Professor Kelsey. “The chilling effect of this kind of ‘intelligence’ is likely to intimidate young academics, students and public intellectuals from contributing to critical debate about the discredited ‘neoliberal orthodoxy’. Who wants to be spied on for doing their job?”

“The new culture of openness under SIS director Warren Tucker may have begun with good intentions, but it has now become a sham,” Kelsey said.


The grounds cited by the SIS and Privacy Commission to withhold the file:

The SIS initially refused to confirm or deny whether it held any information on me, claiming disclosing that fact was likely to prejudice national security. The Privacy Commission notes that it would likely have supported that position, had the SIS not discovered that it had released to Keith Locke three pages that referred to me and thereby revealed that I had a file.

Subsequently, the Privacy Commission upheld the decision of the SIS not to release any further documents from my file, because ‘there is a real or substantial risk that the release of the information would disclose knowledge about NZSIS’ operations or capabilities or modus operandi and to do so would have the effect of a prejudice to the endeavours of NZSIS’.

A number of other people engaged in similar activities to my own have been told the dates of the first and last entries, and how many pages or folders there are in their file. This information on my file is being withheld because its release could, in itself, expose or prejudice the reason the information is being withheld. That suggests there is something unique about the size or format of the information in my file.

Elsewhere in our lengthy correspondence the Privacy Commission said the information held may not be sensitive, but the strategies for collecting it may be.

Further, SIS interest in an individual will vary over time and context, suggesting that surveillance focused on certain activities or events.

The Privacy Commission volunteered that it would have endorsed withholding the information by the SIS on another ground, being ‘maintenance of the law, in this case the Service’s ability to ensure the security of New Zealand was not compromised or breached’. It is a reasonable inference from the Privacy Commission’s correspondence that the ‘maintenance of the law’ is code for protecting SIS surveillance techniques and activities.

Information revealed in other people’s files that cannot be considered a threat to national security or disclosing particular modus operandi:

A review of material released to other people reveals five innocuous documents that are presumably also on my file, given the SIS meticulous system of cross-referencing:

- November 1981 ‘MOST’ legal aid workshop run by Jane Kelsey for people arrested in Auckland during the Springbok tour.

- a (wrong) note that Keith Locke was accompanied on a visit to the Philippines in 1988 by two people, one possibly being Jane Kelsey who was the leader of an Asian Human Rights Centre (sic) investigation in 1988.

- a transcript of a Checkpoint item on the Asian Development Bank meeting in Auckland in 1996, where Jane Kelsey is extensively quoted in the capacity of ‘the NZ liaison person for some 30 overseas non-Government organizations concerned about Asian Development Bank policies’.

- an article from
Political Review that names Jane Kelsey, Law Faculty, Auckland University as the contact point for information on the APEC Forum and Parallel Programme for the Asian Development Bank meeting.

- an advertisement for a Global Peace and Justice Auckland public forum where Jane Kelsey would speak on ‘Privatisation and Globalisation’.

Other people’s files are said to contain media clippings, although these have generally not been included in documents released because they are publicly available. It is obvious that media articles must also be on my file. Given that they are already in the public domain, releasing them or at least acknowledging they are on the file cannot be ‘likely to prejudice national security’.

Initially, where the SIS was not prepared to release actual documents to people, they provided a summary of the subject matter and reference to the person that was contained in each document. These documents record people’s attendance at various activities, such as Waitangi protests in the 1980s, meetings related to the Springbok tour, Philippines Solidarity and APEC organizing meetings. Other files that have been released include fuller documentation of who attended various political meetings. The SIS stopped providing this information as requests for files increased. Again, it is clear that this kind of information was not considered ‘likely to prejudice national security’ when it was released to others who have engaged in similar activities to me.

SIS activity

The SIS has been especially interested in activities that challenge its own powers. Many people’s files contain a list of people and organizations who made submissions on an amendment to SIS legislation in 1999. I have regularly made submissions on SIS and security legislation in my academic capacity.

Another document notes that Jane Kelsey, associate professor of law at Auckland University spoke to a public meeting in Christchurch on recent expansion of SIS powers, in the context of the SIS break-in to Aziz Choudry’s home in 1996.

The release of neither document can be ‘likely to prejudice national security’.

Academic freedom

The SIS has a long history of spying on academics. The file of economist Wolfgang Rosenberg dates back 50 years, and includes comments he made in the common room and his applications for academic jobs. Recent files of several other academics focus on lawful activities undertaken in the course of their employment as academics, such as giving lectures, participating in conferences and convening meetings on university campuses. Various Students Association groups and activities have also been monitored.

The Education Act confers statutory protection on academic freedom, defined as the ‘freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions’, and a responsibility to act as ‘critic and conscience’ of society. Moreover, there is an obligation on all government agencies to preserve and enhance academic freedom.

The potential chilling effect of the SIS maintaining files on academics fulfilling their employment and statutory responsibilities extends beyond the individuals concerned to their engagement with students in lectures or undertaking research, academic colleagues, research funding, advisory work and consultancy. It also sends a message that they may be spied on for simply doing their job.

Critics of economic policies

In the 1996 the SIS powers were amended by defining security to include ‘New Zealand’s economic wellbeing’:

"Security means
the making of a contribution to New Zealand's international well-being or economic well-being; and the protection of New Zealand from acts of espionage, sabotage, terrorism, and subversion, whether or not it is directed from or intended to be committed within New Zealand."

Many people, including myself, warned that they would be used against critics of the free market policies and free trade agreements. It became clear from the
Choudry case, when Aziz Choudry successfully sued the SIS over the break in to his house during the APEC Finance Ministers’ meeting in Christchurch in 1996, that the SIS was already using interception warrants to monitor APEC protests at least from September 1995.

It also became clear at that time that the SIS held a Personal File on me. As an initiator and spokesperson for the APEC Monitoring Group, it is certain that my activities regarding APEC were being monitored and highly likely my communications were also intercepted, especially during the APEC Leaders meeting in Auckland in 1999.

After extensive submissions from many people, including myself, the Act was amended in 1999 to apply to
‘the identification of foreign capabilities, intentions, or activities within or relating to New Zealand that impact on New Zealand's international well-being or economic well-being’.

Various files contain documents that relate to different aspects of neoliberal economic negotiations, organizations and meetings, such as opposition to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), the Asian Development Bank and APEC meetings in Auckland, and a public meeting of Global Peace and Justice Auckland on globalisation. It seems obvious that the SIS has invoked the ‘economic wellbeing’ definition of ‘security’ on numerous occasions, before and after 1999, in ways that far exceed its powers.

As a prominent academic critic of these and similar neoliberal initiatives, I must assume that the SIS has been monitoring my lawful criticism of global free market policies and treaties, possibly through the periodic use of interception warrants. It also once again raises the question of why such information can be released to others, but would its release to me become ‘likely to prejudice national security’?

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Who needs the beach?

A number of friends have told Skyler and me how bewildered they are that we didn't spend time on the beach during our recent stay in Samoa. We immersed our bodies in streams and in a hotel pool, but apparently these experiences don't count as 'real' swims, because they weren't preceded and followed by hours spent lounging on golden sand in the sun, or in the shade of a coconut tree. 'You didn't go to the beach - what did you do over there?' one friend asked us.

There is a widespread belief in New Zealand that the only reason to venture to an island in the South Pacific is to 'escape to the beach'. Nations like Fiji and the Cook Islands have built substantial tourism industries around their many excellent beaches; Samoa, a latecomer to the tourist game, is trying to attract some of the Kiwis and Aussies who used to visit Fiji by distinguishing its shambolic but good-natured democracy from Fiji's military dictatorship.

It remains to be seen whether this marketing strategy will be successful - ethical beach bums may be disappointed by the relative paucity of golden sand on the rocky shores of Upolu and Savai'i islands - but some of the less desirable elements of what economists like to call a 'tourism industry infrastructure' have already fallen into place. The southern outskirts of the Samoan capital Apia, for instance, now feature a series of chic, abominably expensive restaurants with names like Scalinis and Giordanos - places which serve no purpose except to reassure holidaying residents of St Heliers and Ponsonby that they are not, in fact, holidaying in the Third World. After a hard day sunbathing, there's nothing like a stylish Italian meal concocted by an imported chef. Ostentatiously exclusive beach resorts have appeared on the northwestern coast of Upolu, close to the airport, and on the eastern coast of Savai'i.

It's true that the islands of the Pacific have some very desirable beaches, but so does France, and nobody who visits that country and neglects to lie in the sun on the Riviera coast is regarded as an oddball when he returns from his holiday. Why do Kiwi travellers like to learn about the histories and cultures of European nations, but not about the histories and cultures of Pacific nations? Why do we insist on reducing societies like Samoa and Fiji to a collection of beaches adorned with picturesque natives?

It seems to me that New Zealanders have still not shaken off the idea that societies like Samoa are essentially non-historical. When we think about the history of a European nation like France or Britain, we think of a succession of eras, and the development and modification of cultures; when we think about the past of a society like Samoa or Fiji, we think of a single, essential culture which contact with the 'outside' world can only serve to corrode. We will therefore consent to view the performance of a 'traditional' dance and song - often a confection of cliches dreamed up by a papalagi resort owner - as we relax with martinis after a day on the beach, but we flinch from learning about the modern history and contemporary cultures of the island on which we are holidaying.

The narrow focus of the Pacific tourism industry has at least two significant effects. In small, tourism-dependant states like Fiji, it leads to wildly uneven development, as regions blessed with pleasant beaches and proximity to international airports - the zone between Nadi and Suva on the main Fijian island of Viti Levu, for instance - attract the lion's share of investment in roads and other infrastructure, and less desirable regions miss out.

In New Zealand and, I suspect, Australia, the obsession with lying on beaches means that people can visit nations like Fiji again and again without gaining any sort of understanding about the history and social dynamics of the places. I remember going to a dinner which turned into an argument about Fiji, and about the military government of Frank Banimarama. One of the dinner guests slammed Bainimarama as an anti-Indian racist, and said that he should be 'wiped out', along with Sitiveni Rabuka, George Speight and others involved in earlier Fijian coups. Another guest strong disagreed with this, and claimed that the indigenous people of Fiji needed their rights protected by a special form of government, because they were still struggling to adjust to the changes contact with the West had brought.

The other dinner guests lined up with one or another of the two people who had started to argue, but what no one seemed to realise is that Frank Bainimarama has nothing at all to do with Fijian chauvinists like Rabuka and Speight, and that he has justified his coup and his government by presenting himself as the defender of the rights of Fiji's Indian minority. All of the people sitting around the table had been to Fiji, and many of them had visited the country since Bainimarama's coup, yet none had the most basic understanding of the political situation there. They had all spent their time in Fiji lying on the beach.

I'm not sure whether either my mocking friends or the tourism operators will notice, but I'm going to sketch out three possible alternatives to a beach-bound holiday on Samoa in a series of posts to this blog over the next few days. There are certainly other tours which could be devised - the ones I'll be offering reflect my particular enthusiasms, rather than the limitations of Samoa.

Let's begin with the Samoan Freedom Struggle Tour


At the beginning of the twentieth century Samoa was divided between Germany and America. The Germans got the two largest islands, Upolu and Savai'i, while the Americans took the small eastern island of Tutuila, which has an excellent harbour. In 1914 New Zealand troops arrived in Apia, and seized control of Germany's colony on behalf of the British Empire and the Allied powers which were confronting the Kaiser on the battlefields of Europe. The German administration of Samoa had been conducted by paternalistic but relatively competent intellectuals: New Zealand preferred to hand the job of governing the islands over to a succession of deeply racist and utterly incompetent military men, small town mayors, and high country sheep farmers.

Samoan opposition to New Zealand rule hardened after Kiwi bureaucrats allowed a boat carrying the Spanish flu into the colony in 1918, and then stood by and watched, refusing offers of medical assistance from America, as the disease killed 22% of the inhabitants of Upolu and Savai'i. New Zealand attempts to 'beautify' and 'rationalise' villages by tearing up hibiscus hedges and trees and placing fale in tidy rows further angered Samoans. By the mid-1920s, an opposition movement called 'the Mau' had coalesced around a young and handsome nobleman called Tamasese and a wealthy, stupendously fat half-caste trader named Olaf Nelson. Samoans refused to pay taxes to the New Zealand authorities and refused to work in plantations, bringing the economy to a standstill. They established an alternative government and an alternative police force, and held regular protest processions. The colonial authorities exiled and jailed Mau leaders, but they could neither break the movement nor provoke it to violence.

At the end of 1929, in a display of frustration and panic, New Zealand police aimed a machine gun into a Mau demonstration in central Apia, killing Tamasese and eight others. In the aftermath of this massacre Mau activists fled Apia and hid in the deep valleys and mountainous forests of Upolu; a force of marines was despatched from New Zealand on the HMS Dunedin to hunt for them. The New Zealand forces marched backwards and forwards across Upolu, raiding villages, smashing up fale, and taking women and elderly men away for questioning. A few low-level activists were captured, and a small boy was shot in the back and killed, but the leaders of the Mau remained elusive, even when a Tiger Moth biplane flew over Upolu trying to spot them in the forest. In New Zealand, criticism of the repression of the Mau movement grew, with Labour Party leader Harry Holland asking angry questions in parliament.

As the sick bay of the HMS Dunedin filled up with men felled by malaria and dengue fever, a fresh detachment of troops began to train at a base in Paraparaumu in preparation for deployment to the troublesome colony. Lacking any alternative, the Ward government intended to use a civilian vessel to transport the men to Apia, but this plans was foiled when the Seaman's Union announced that its members would refuse to work any such ship. Partly because of the union's stand, the reinforcements from Paraparaumu never made it to Samoa. In 1935 Labour came to power in New Zealand, anti-Mau laws were scrapped, and Olaf Nelson was allowed to return from exile. In 1962, Samoa finally became independent.

A Few Directions

On your way from the airport to Apia, stop at the village of Lepea, which was the home of Olaf Nelson and a major centre of the Mau movement. In the middle of the village, on the left hand side of the road, you'll see a large monument to Tamasese, who was brought, dying, to Lepea after being machine gunned by the police on the date Samoans remember as 'Black Saturday'. Tamasese died surrounded by his family and supporters, and his last words are recorded on the monument. Their English translation is:

My blood has been spilt for Samoa. I am proud to give it. Do not dream of avenging it, as it was spilt in peace. If I die, peace must be maintained at any price.

Look across the road and you'll see the old centre of Lepea, which was subjected to one of the New Zealand authorities' 'beautification' campaigns in the early 1920s. The straight rows of fales, lack of gardens and trees, and 'English village green' all reflect the obsession of the imperialists with Anglicising the Samoan way of life.

Carry on down the road, to the next village of Vaimoso, which is nowadays a suburb of Apia. Vaimoso was the place where Tamasese was living in 1924, when he refused an order to destroy a hibiscus hedge near his house. This event marked the beginning of his confrontation with Samoa's rulers. On the left hand side of the road in the middle of Vaimoso you can see the remains of the bandstand which was the centre of the alternative government the Mau established in the late '20s. This was the place where villages brought supplies of food and unofficial 'tax' payments, in defiance of the New Zealand authorities; it was also the locus of the large unofficial police force which the Mau established as an alternative to New Zealand law. Most of the bandstand was destroyed by a cyclone in 2004, but the numerous hibiscus hedges that grow around Vaimoso are more durable memorials to the spirit of the Mau.

When you make it to the centre of Apia, drive down Beach Road until you reach the old police station, where New Zealanders fired their machine gun at a massive Mau demonstration on Saturday, December the 28th, 1929. Tamasese was hit after he rushed to the front of the demonstration and shouted at the police to stop the shooting. Further down Beach Road, just past Aggie Grey's hotel, is the bridge over the Vaisigano Stream, where demonstrators massed before the fateful rally.

Take a drive through Upolu's interior to Safata Bay on the south coast of the island, where New Zealand forces sometimes based themselves during the hunt for the Mau. From the isolated villages around the bay, police and marines slogged into the jungle-covered mountains where the Mau hid.

Take a ferry to Savai'i, and on the way you'll notice Apolima, the tip of an ancient volcano that sits in the strait between Samoa's two main islands, surrounded by strong currents. The Mau leaders Faumauina and Afamasaga and were banished here in 1927. They quickly converted all of the island's one hundred residents to the Mau.

Faumauina is an interesting character: as a young man, he was a supporter of New Zealand, and he was even picked to be the leader of the Fetu (the word means 'Star'), a paramilitary youth group which was established to offer support to the colonial authorities and to spread 'civilised, British' values amongst Samoans. Later, though, he turned against the colonists, to the extent that he became the leader of the Mau after the killing of Tamasese.

Drive around Savai'i to the village of Asau, at the northwestern edge of the island. This is the place where Tamasese was banished, after he refused orders to destroy his hibiscus hedge in 1924. In traditional Samoan society, banishment from one's village was the worst punishment short of death, but it could only be imposed after proper deliberations by a village fono (council). New Zealand administrators infuriated Samoans when they appropriated the punishment, and began to inflict it arbitrarily on noblemen like Tamasese. After Tamasese returned from Savai'i, piloting an outrigger canoe, he was sent to Mt Eden Prison in Auckland.

When you get back to Apia, drive out on the Mulinuu peninsula, at the western end of the city's harbour, and take a look at Samoa's parliament, as well as the Pulenuu fale, which is the building where MPs meet members of village fono to negotiate the coordination of central and village government. The highly decentralised nature of Samoan government, and the continued administration of swathes of land by fono, are reflections of the ideology of the Mau movement, which insisted that 'fa'a Samoa' - the 'Samoan way' - offered a framework for national development superior to the 'modernisation' programmes drawn up by New Zealand colonists.

My sources for this potted history are Michael J Field's Mau: Samoa's Struggle for Freedom (Polynesian Press, 1991) and Malama Meleisa's The Making of Modern Samoa (University of the South Pacific, 1987). Both books are well worth reading, even if you're not contemplating a trip to Samoa.

You might, of course, come across the odd nice beach during your travels to these sites associated with the Samoan independence struggle...