Thursday, August 19, 2010

John Ansell and the power of bad ideas

I am occasionally asked why I bother to debate some of the more eccentric contributors to the comments boxes of this blog. 'Why do you waste time arguing with that guy?' friends will enquire. 'Nobody takes such ridiculous ideas seriously.'

Unfortunately, as the history of doctrines as different as phrenology, Lysenkoism, and neo-liberalism shows, there is no necessary correlation between an idea's reasonableness and its influence. Bad ideas can be popular and powerful ideas. The recent activities of John Ansell, who surely counts as one of more eccentric contributors to debates on this blog, highlight the undeserved influence bad thinking can have.

I hadn't heard of Ansell until he turned up at this blog a fortnight ago to take part in a discussion underneath a post I had made on Hone Harawira. To give him his due, Ansell was prepared to respond pleasantly to the points of debaters who disagreed with him. But the views Ansell expressed were anything but pleasant. Ansell looks with horror on the Maori renaissance of the past thirty years, and regards the key achievements of that renaissance, like recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi, state support for Maori culture and language, and the return of some land and resources stolen from iwi, as mortal dangers to the people of New Zealand.

Ansell's interpretation of recent New Zealand history is rooted in his conviction that there is something perverse and dangerous about Kiwis who identify as Maori and talk of Maori rights.

During the discussion at this blog, Ansell argued that, because contemporary Maori are not 'pure-blooded' - ie, because they generally have at least some non-Maori ancestry - they are Maori only by personal choice. Maori culture is, Ansell suggested, effectively a 'religion', like Catholicism or Islam. Maori culture can, in fact, be likened to a backward-looking, particularly irrational religion, because, according to Ansell, it is incompatible with most of the innovations of the modern world, like sophisticated technology and notions of individual human rights. Just as the state should not be in the business of recognising and funding Wahhabi Islam and theocratic Catholicism, so it should not be in the business or providing any funding to the Maori 'religion'. State funding for perversities like te reo is no better than state funding for madrasses, or for the Latin mass.

What Ansell has done, whether he fully realises it or not, is rework and weave together a number of motifs developed by Kiwi bigots over the past century and a half. He invokes the scientific racism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when he claims that the only really authentic Maori were the 'pure-blooded' types who signed the Treaty back in 1840. He reworks the assimilationist ideology which was such a part of Pakeha state policy for so long when he claims that the descendants of the 'real' Maori who signed the Treaty have become honorary whites, because they have been absorbed into New Zealand's capitalist economy and use modern technology.

And Ansell draws on the sort of paranoia that fuelled anti-Fenianism, anti-Asian racism, and the Tohunga Suppression Act when he presents contemporary Maori culture as the product of a perverse and irrational desire to reject the modern world. For Ansell, Maori culture and notions of Maori rights are symptoms of a neurosis.

It is worrying that Ansell is not simply a deluded individual, but a man with some degree of influence over an organisation of some size. He is in the news this week as the designer of a series of billboards for the Coastal Coalition, an organisation set up recently to campaign against National's decision to repeal Labour's 2004 Seabed and Foreshore legislation.

By taking us back to the era before Labour's controversial law, National has recognised that Maori have some customary rights over the coastline, and has allowed the extent and meaning of these rights to be tested in court. To Ansell and the thousands of angry Pakeha who have pledged support for the Coastal Coalition, these small concessions to the Maori Party somehow equal a catastrophe. Commenting at Kiwiblog yesterday, a member of the Coastal Coalition expressed the apocalyptically racist thinking that seems to drive the group:

This country is now irrevocably fucked as a western democracy...This asshole treasonous bastard John Key and his quisling party is planning to RELINQUISH THE COUNTRY’S OWNERSHIP OF ITS OWN BEACHES AND FORESHORE!!! This will inevitably open up claims and counter-claims indefinitely about what can or cannot be done with this vital strategic asset which, up until now, has been owned by all New Zealanders in the name of the ‘Crown’...please note that soon the main primary escape route for Kiwis, Australia, will be closed so either get out while you can or stand up and fight.

One only has to look at the billboards Ansell has designed for the Coastal Coalition to see the influence of the worldview he holds. The boards treat 'iwi' not as Maori descent groups, but as sinister cabals plotting to do ordinary New Zealanders out of their rights. Such a bizarre understanding of the term 'iwi' is only possible if one defines Maori identity as the product of a perverse and dangerous personal choice, rather than as a product of whakapapa and culture.

One of Ansell's billboards takes a feather cloak, an item regarded as a taonga by virtually all iwi, no matter what their geographic location, history, and traditional political loyalties, and makes it into a strongly negative symbol. Ansell can only make this appalling error because he labours under the delusion that Maori are, without exception, converts to a 'religion' which opposes and threatens all that is good in contemporary New Zealand society.

Apparently there is a shortage of Maori members of the Coastal Coalition. I imagine that lefties would feel pretty lonely there too, but that hasn't stopped Chris Trotter from pledging his support for the group.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The CC is founded and led by Muriel Newman, arch Maori and beneficiary-basher.

Their blueprint for racial divison exposed:

9:15 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS John Ansell is also an Act man.
He joined when Key made National too 'moderate'

9:16 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'In one ad he has a cute picture of the Prime Minister wearing a Maori cloak with a sovereignty flag flying in the background.

Of course the implication is that he has moved too far along this particular pathway and that we should be cautious of his pro-Maori sympathies because, on the other side of the billboard, it is implied that rights to access the beach are now under question.

In the 1850s, when New Zealand was a very new colony, a similar image emerged.

It was during the very first election campaign for the Otago Provincial Council and one candidate had reportedly encouraged Maori to enrol to vote, to the point that they numbered about a quarter of the electorate.

It was decided that this candidate had inappropriate sympathies to the Maori race and the local newspaper, owned by an opposition candidate, published a cartoon of his foe. The cartoon showed the candidate wearing a Maori cloak and handing out gifts to Maori, implying that he was selling himself for votes.

It seems inevitable that such an image would be floating around in the early days of patriarchal colonialism. But to see the same image, trying to portray the same prejudicial nastiness, in the opening years of the twentieth century is just sad.'

Right on Tahu Potiki

9:18 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1:11 pm  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

Once again, Scott, you have been a little loose with the truth.

I have NOT come out in support of the Coastal Coalition (I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Coastal Coalition).

What I HAVE done is respond to a challenge by "Lew" at Kiwipolitico to denounce the Coastal Coalition and Mr Ansell.

This I have resolutely refused to do on the grounds that it would be an act of appalling hypocrisy.

I will not denounce them because I share their belief that the F&S Act is a good piece of legislation which should remain in place.

As a scholar of no mean ability, you are well aware of the distinction that is being made here. To say that I have come out "in support" of the Coastal Coalition is, therefore, a quite conscious act of political deception.

It would seem that you, too, Scott, are willing to engage in exactly the same kinds of ends/means moral trade-offs you so vigorously condemn in others.

1:51 pm  
Blogger Samuel said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:09 pm  
Blogger Samuel said...

"To say that I have come out "in support" of the Coastal Coalition is, therefore, a quite conscious act of political deception."

I for one was a bit confused after seeing your writing approvingly linked on the Coastal Coalition website and hosted at Muriel Newman's NZCPR ( as an argument in support of their stance.

Perhaps some might see this and your blog post as a sign of officially 'coming out in support' when all you're doing is quietly agreeing and lending your words to the campaign (I presume they asked you before hosting the piece...).

2:12 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Well, I provided a link to your statement so people could judge for themselves, Chris.

I think that you should condemn the Coastal Coalition because, even if its programme includes opposition to the repeal of the 2004 legislation you support, both its wider agenda and its methodology are incompatible with the politics of the left.

The official administrator of the Coalition is Muriel Newman, and much of the strategising for the group seems to have been done in the discussion fora of the notorious website Newman runs, a place where Celtic New Zealand oddballs, National Front activists like Sid Wilson, 9/11 Troofers like Clare Swinney, theocratic fundy Christians, and members of what is politely called the 'socially conservative' wing of the Act Party rub shoulders. The website of the Coalition is a wing of Newman's sewer.

Newman et al have a long history of Maori-bashing, and they are cynically using the seabed and foreshore issue to perpetuate this history. The image of Key in a feather cloak is clearly meant to appeal to generalised prejudice against Maori, and the statements that the likes of Ansell have been making in recent days reflect the same intent. (Consider, for instance, Ansell's recent claim that Chris Finlayson is 'pro-Maori'. For anyone who isn't a racist, what on earth can be wrong with being pro-Maori? Ansell's failure to qualify the noun Maori with an adjective like 'radical' or 'elite' is very telling.)

Here's an analogy: I helped, in a small way, to organise and run many meetings and protests against the invasion of Iraq in 2002-2003.

I worked with all sorts of people to do this, but along with my fellow anti-war activists I blackballed the racists and anti-semites who sometimes attempted to exploit the issue of American and Israeli aggression in the Middle East to further their agenda. Even though they might superficially agree with the anti-war movement, neo-Nazis like Kerry Bolton and anti-semitic 9/11 Troofers like the Uncensored magazine crowd had a political history and wider agenda which made them unacceptable. People with equally unpleasant views are heavily involved with the Coastal Coalition. They deserve condemnation.

2:22 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has Chris Trotter allowed one of his articles to be published on the CC website?
If so how is he not supporting them?

2:39 pm  
Anonymous ScottY said...

Chris, I've read your blog post on this issue and, while I think it's obvious you're not "pledging" support for the Coastal Coalition in a formal way, it's also abundantly clear that you support what the campaign is trying to achieve. You have not raised any concern about the divisive nature of the billboards, so one can only conclude that you approve of them.

You have made no attempt to distance yourself from the tinfoil-hattery of the CC, and some of the extravagantly loony/racist contributions made by a few of its members over the years.

If you continue to refuse to distance yourself from this group then it's inevitable some people will start to think you share Ansell's and Newman's views on race.

2:45 pm  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

To Anonymous:

As a columnist, I am constantly approached by people seeking permission to re-print my work. I always say "Yes." It implies only that I am happy to have my writing become part of the wider political debate.

This fetish for declaring guilt by association is, to say the least, a little worrying on what I've always regarded as a progressive blog.

2:55 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Muriel Newman's use of Chris' article on her barking mad website isn't actually the first time she's tried to suggest he supports her agenda. She cited Chris in this recent article for every anthropologist's favourite local magazine, the Franklin E Local:

Newman's aticle for the E Local is filled with so many layers of strangeness that I'll leave it for someone more intrepid than me, like Matthew Dentith or Edward, to fisk. Here's one particularly mystifying passage, though:

'Archaeologists agree that humans first settled in New Zealand well over 1,000 years before the main Maori migration, which is estimated to have arrived around 1200 AD. Their evidence is based on the exhaustive forensic examination of historic plant and animal remains. They believe that the settlement of New Zealand was most likely a continuous process, a view that is certainly consistent with early settler journal accounts (from the proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand) which indicate that not only did Moriori precede Maori, but that when they arrived in the Chatham Islands, “they found the country in the possession of aboriginal natives called Hiti”- inhabitants of the “Flint age”, who used not stone, but “chips of obsidian as cutting implements.” There is also strong evidence of an early presence of people of Celtic and Chinese ancestry as well as Greek, French, Portuguese, Spanish and others - in addition to settlers of Polynesian descent.
In other words, according to archaeological records, New Zealand’s history is one of continual settlement. In the early days these settlers arrived by sea. Now they come by air. New Zealand has no bona fide indigenous peoples.'

2:58 pm  
Blogger maps said...

That's a pretty laissez-faire attitude, Chris. Would you let, say, Uncensored, the Auckland-based anti-semitic conspiracy theory journal which rips off articles by the likes of Fisk and Pilger and places them between screeds by neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers to try to gain some spurious credibility, use your work?

Last year I wrote a post about the Pope's philosophical beliefs, and playfully gave it the title 'Is the Pope a Marxist?' I was bewildered and unamused when a group of bigots cited the piece on their website, as 'evidence' that the support of the American Catholic church's support for Obama's healthcare bill was part of a Marxist conspiracy! I don't think that websites and other publications of the extreme conspiratorial right have anything to do with political debate.

3:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Climate Scientology is a movement designed to spread lies about the climate and cause mass-panic in order to tax the West and fulfil an international socialist agenda.'

- John Ansell on March 30 at kiwiblog. He's an expert on all sorts of subjects, y'know.

3:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And sexist, too! What a combo!

What is Key doing?

He’s running the country for the benefit of those former Labour-voting urban females he wooed across the divide to give him his comfortable majority. (Oh and the Greens he reckons he can convert next time.)

These people demand he favour former socialists, Mother Earth and Maori at the expense of National and ACT voters, humanity in general, and non-Maori.

Kiwiblog March 22

4:23 pm  
Anonymous Keri H said...

John Ansell is also a supporter of "Sensing Murder" 'psychics' (why he called me a 'conservative' on that thread, I have a no idea - I am a total sceptic.) And deeply pro climatechange-sceptics.

In some minds, these stances put him into 'nutcase' status - & most especially when he pairs up with Muriel Newman - hellooo Muriel! Found *any* evidence of Chinese settlement here YET?

6:24 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Keri I'm a strong skeptic of that TV program but I enjoyed watching it!!

Know it is probably rubbish but kind of wish it was possible!!

(I mean - I think it is - but I am very dubious of them on Snsg. M.

7:44 pm  
Anonymous Keri H said...

Kia ora Richard - I really enjoy watching "Judge John Deed" - but I know it's a drama!

So, in a much less well-written sense, *
is "Sensing Murder,"

* Dont let's even mention the crass, stupid, blargh characters in "SM" (the "pyschics") and the awful predatory & ghoulish use of real-life people, families, & their pain.

8:18 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Keri - kia ora

I don't watch sensing murder now but I did at one stage.

I watch father Ted ad Black Books and that is it for me!

Cheers, don't let Ansell and Trotter get you down.

Not everyone is bigotted or anti Maori.

Maori have been really badly treated here in NZ - what the Pakeha have done here is close to genocide -Trotter knows it - he is on the Right - he should come clean on that. He should stop this bullshitting around about how he is a liberal or a goody - achh!

His mate Ansell is like Goebbels.
Insidious and clever propagandist.

10:44 pm  
Anonymous david winter said...

Newman's aticle for the E Local is filled with so many layers of strangeness that I'll leave it for someone more intrepid than me...

Well, I got as far as the second sentence. But as is usually the case, it takes ten times as long to put the crazy in context as it does to bring the crazy

2:25 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Your article was excellent, David!
I'd love to read an account of your time on the Cooks doing fieldwork - flying an hour to a new island and finding a new culture there, that sort of thing...

4:33 pm  
Anonymous david winter said...

Hey maps,

Thanks ;)

I'd like to write a bit more our time in the Cooks, definitely on the list but when the list starts with "write your thesis" everything else gets left behind.

I also learnt some parts of culture are truly global. One night on Mangaia (pop < 1000, 180 km from Rarotonga) we came from the field and drove past the boys playing touch in front of the church. One kid of about 12 was taking a conversion with a perfect imitation of Johnie Wilkinson's squat-style kick ;)

4:39 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

"Newman's aticle for the E Local is filled with so many layers of strangeness that I'll leave it for someone more intrepid than me, like Matthew Dentith or Edward, to fisk. Here's one particularly mystifying passage, though..."

I had seen this before. Firstly, Newman wouldn't know what archaeologists have to say, seen as she never listens to them or reads their work. Secondly, she doesn't even seem to know what archaeological evidence is, rather defering to conjecture, folk stories, and early ethnographic work instead.

Also "Their evidence is based on the exhaustive forensic examination..." demonstrates not only a lack of understanding of archaeological evidence, but of 'forensics' as well - I did not know that archaeologists carried out examinations relating to the criminal justice system or law in general when they do archaeology.

Add to this the statement that: “they found the country in the possession of aboriginal natives called Hiti”- inhabitants of the “Flint age”, who used not stone, but “chips of obsidian as cutting implements.”
I hate to break it to Newman but Obsidian isn't really flint (I've never even heard of the 'flint age', though I wasn't born in 1908 I suppose) but is in fact a type of stone, or, more accurately, volcanic glass formed as igneous rock. She must get her knowledge of geology the same place she gets her knowledge of archaeology.

All of this pseudo mumbo jumbo just so she can sneak in a sentance to the effect of Maori not being indigenous. Sigh.

Sorry about the tangent, I couldn't resist. If Newman is involved, Maps is right, it is even more reason to think the coalition is run by unsavory bigots and a wider senate of the ignorant.

9:28 pm  

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