Monday, November 28, 2011

Missing photos and misinterpreted ruins

Yesterday's launch of Bronwyn Lloyd's book of stories The Second Location and my book of poems Feeding the Gods went well, with old and new friends alike turning up to Ponsonby's Objectspace Gallery to devour the food Bronwyn and her sister had baked, drink the booze Creative New Zealand had stumped up for, listen to a thoughtful Michelle Leggott talk about the relationship between scholarship and creative writing, and watch Paul Janman and I play our own adaption of Jack Ross' literary adaption of the grand old game of monopoly.

As I struggle to shake off today's hangover, though, I can't lay my virtual hands on any photos from the launch. I lost Skyler's camera last September, after I got too close to the edge of the reef on 'Eua Island, and got knocked for six by a wave. I noticed various handheld devices flashing and beeping away yesterday, as I moved my thimble counter over the monopoly board version of the South Pacific that Paul and I had constructed, but I can't find any photos of yesterday's action in the blogosphere or on facebook today.

I have occasionally presented myself as a grumpy technosceptic and a foe of innovations like facebook, but I have to admit that the absence of authenticating images of yesterday's event fills me with an almost existential unease. Was it Richard Nixon or Marshall McLuhlan who said, back in the 1960s, that an event which wasn't reported on television didn't really happen? Perhaps today we could modify that quote, and say that a literary event which hasn't been preserved in the chaotic canons of facebook and the blogosphere never really happened?

Since I haven't got any authenticating photos to offer, I thought I'd post one of the shorter poems in my new book (I posted one of the longer poems here). The poem was written after I visited Muriwai Beach near the end of last year to inspect a ruined building which I suspected might have been built as a coastal observation post during World War Two, when many Aucklanders feared that Japanese forces might use their lonely West Coast as a 'back door' into New Zealand's largest city. The Home Guard certainly set tank traps on some of the roads that lead to the West Coast, and also cut paths through the bush down to possible Japanese landing points, but a look at Ramparts on the Sea, Peter Cooke's two-volume study of the history of New Zealand's coastal defences, suggests that beaches like Muriwai were never given the pillbox observation posts and the gun emplacements which are still such features of Auckland's eastern shoreline. If a Kiwi pillbox isn't in Cooke's book, then it probably never existed. Because I was preoccupied with military history during my trip to Muriwai the whole environment took on a strangely martial air, and prompted this rather paranoid poem.


A telescope, on a half-painted
deck - a telescope aimed over
Maori Bay, over gannets
that circle low, awaiting
permission to land
on that flat rock,
their aircraft carrier.
A telescope aimed
to blow up these details.

A taua of middle-aged Poms,
camped on an eroded
midden, between the bunker
and the beach - a taua armed
with chilly bins: with Tetley's,
Boddingtons, Victoria Bitter.

One of the Poms lies
apart from the rest,
on a bed of crushed lupins
and loose sand, and aims
an invisible rifle high
above his head.
Silently he shoots down
the monotonous flocks.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Paavo on psephology

In view of the authoritarian side our Prime Minister has been showing in recent weeks, I'd better not break the law which forbids election day propagandising.

I can't resist quoting, though, one of the many fine short poems - poems which are at once gnomic and aphoristic - that the Finnish* modernist Paavo Haavikko produced during his career in the second half of the twentieth century:

I vote for Spring, Autumn gets elected, Winter forms the cabinet.

I think about Haavikko's poem every time I vote.

*In case you're wondering, I don't know Finnish: on the page, the language looks to me almost as full of strange spellings and syntactic thickets as Basque, or Rotuman. I rely for my knowledge of Haavikko on the Finnish-American translator-poet Anselm Hollo. Back in 2008 I included Hollo's translation of Haavikko's The Winter Palace in my list of the twenty great long poems of the twentieth century.

[Posted by Scott/Maps]

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Winston takes Deng Xiaoping for a drive

It was one of those prepared phrases, those would-be soundbites, which politicians like to squeeze into televised debates in the last precious moments before the moderator shuts them down, and turns the audience's attention to another election candidate. The phrase didn't win even a flutter of applause from Television New Zealand's studio audience, and it was ignored by the other participants in the Minor Leaders Debate, but it deserves at least some discussion, because it tells us a great deal about the politics of one of the most influential figures in this year's election.

"I don't care whether the doctor is black or white or brindle", Winston Peters had said, leaning over his lectern and attempting to hold the gaze of a wavering television camera, "as long as that doctor, male or female, can fix me".

Peters used this curious formulation during an argument with other party leaders over the problems of Maori in contemporary New Zealand. After condemning the 'separatism' which the Maori seats in parliament and Maori-language schools supposedly foster, Peters had argued that lack of educational and economic opportunity, not racial prejudice, was to blame for Maori problems. By junking kohanga reo and other 'separatist' educational facilities and creating more jobs, a New Zealand First government would, Peters suggested, make sure more young Maori moved out of poverty and into the middle classes. The slogan about black or white doctors was apparently supposed to underline Peters' argument that the route to achievement was the same for all young New Zealanders, regardless of their ethnicity.

Peters' slogan appears to have been cribbed from Deng Xiaoping, the effete, guttural-voiced dwarf who fought alongside Mao during China's Revolutionary War, was persecuted for his insufficient revolutionary fervour during the Cultural Revolution, and finally became effective leader of his country after the Great Helmsman's death in 1976.

In the 1980s Deng opened the Chinese economy to market forces and foreign investment, while at the same time machine-gunning students and workers who had the temerity to demonstrate for freedom of speech and free elections.

Attempting to justify his departure from Maoist economic orthodoxy, Deng coined the slogan 'It does not matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice'. That phrase may have been less resonant than 'All power grows from the barrel of a gun' or 'A revolution is not a dinner party', but it became the cornerstone of 'Socialism with Chinese Characteristics', which replaced Maoism as the official doctrine of China in the '80s (for some peculiar reason, the term 'Dengism' has never caught on, although it is sometimes used in a derogatory way by hardline Maoists opposed to China's new paradigm).

I'm not sure what Winston Peters' supporters would think of him quoting a Chinese communist. As a young National MP in the 1980s during the chilly last years of the Cold War, Peters was fond of 'reds under the beds' rhetoric. In 1986 he bemused parliament and the media by claiming that the Mikhail Lermontov, the Russian cruise ship which ran aground and sunk in the Marlborough Sounds, had been on a secret KGB mission.

In the mid-'90s, after parting ways with National, Peters firmed up support for his fledgling New Zealand First Party by running a scare campaign against Asian immigration to this country, speaking in RSA clubs and Housie Halls up and down the country about the dubious loyalties and criminal tendencies of slanty-eyed Kiwis. Although Peters' Asian-bashing has become less pronounced over the years, it is still a part of the arsenal of New Zealand First. In the lead-up to the 2008 election New Zealand First Deputy Leader Peter Brown warned of 'a flood' of Asians arriving in this country, and at the beginning of this week Grey Power, an organisation with close connections to Peters and his party, asked the Auckland City Council to consider whether Asian immigration to New Zealand's largest city should be curbed.

But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Peters has found a slogan in a strange place. The man's speeches and interviews have always been collages drawn from the most diverse and contradictory sources.

Peters can take inspiration from high as well as low culture. In a speech he gave to a mass meeting of Grey Power in 1992, when he was courting expulsion from the National Party by opposing its plans to cut the old-age pension, Peters quoted Dylan Thomas' famous elegy for his father, urging his audience to "Rage, rage against the dying of the light".

A decade later, when he was under fire for his Asian-bashing campaign, Peters discussed some of the linguistic and DNA research which had established that what we now know as mainland China was the ultimate ancestral homeland of the Austronesian peoples. Peters pointed out that he was a Maori, and that Maori are a Polynesian and therefore Austronesian people. How then, he asked, with mock bewilderment, could anyone accuse him of racist attitudes towards Chinese people? Clearly he was himself Chinese! Peters didn't mention that the Austronesians left the land now known as China more than eight thousand years ago, long before the emergence of Chinese culture.

Peters can bowlderize high-falutin' literature and breaking research in the human sciences, but he's also happy to work a dodgy joke or two into his performances. He's fond of saying that, because he has both Maori and Scottish heritage, he has the advantage both of a natural suntan and an understanding of the importance of fiscal restraint. In the early '90s he caused controversy by telling a joke about a Jewish man who knelt in his synagogue and prayed for a winning Lotto ticket. As nervous laughter spread through his audience, Peters described how the walls of the synagogue began to shake, and God's thunderous voice delivered the message "Give me a break, Jew, buy a ticket". This joke was so good that Peters apparently retold it in 2005.

A lot of political commentators have described Peters as an outdated figure, an old man who cannot hope to maintain his political career in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Arguably, though, Peters' contempt for logic and conventional political categories and his chaotically entertaining style of exposition make him a very contemporary figure.

The British sociologist Gregor McLennan has talked about how, with the end of the Cold War, the decline in class struggle in most Western countries, and the dumbing down of popular culture and the media, many politicians have ceased to identify themselves with the left or the right of the political spectrum, and instead embraced a 'vehicular' approach to ideology. According to McLennan, politicians like Tony Blair have became adept at adopting an idea, 'driving' it to a particular political destination, and then abandoning it.

In New Zealand, Winston Peters has been a pioneer of vehicular politics. During his nearly four decades in the political game he has reinvented himself again and again, 'driving' one set of ideas and slogans after another. The right-wing Peters of the 1980s was replaced, in the early '90s, by the social democratic Peters, who defended pensioners against the neo-liberal policies of the Bolger-Shipley government, and who had come to see the value of Maori seats. Peters took a turn to the right when he joined the Bolger government in 1996, and rediscovered his distaste for Maori 'separatism' at the end of the decade, after falling out with the New Zealand First members who had won the Maori seats off Labour. Peters moved left again when he joined Labour in government in 2005, and he has even appropriated some of the slogans of the Occupy Wall Street movement in recent weeks, in an attempt to play to the mood of disgust with the financial sector which he detects in his audiences.

As this blog has noted, Peters is not without his youthful supporters. It can be argued that, with his preference for resonant soundbites over extended argument, and his disdain for hoary notions of left and right, Peters is well-placed to appeal to a generation raised on twitter and on claims that the old ideological battles of the twentieth century are dead. Winston may be driving for some time to come.

[Posted by Scott/Maps]

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fascism, elections, and poetry

A week ago I posted an 'Election Statement' from Titus Books, which advertised the launch, on the day after New Zealand goes to the polls, of my book of poems Feeding the Gods, and Bronwyn Lloyd's book of short stories The Second Location.

Titus' statement did not underestimate the importance of New Zealand's upcoming general election, nor of politics in general, but it argued that poetry and stories ought to have as much importance in our society as the more perishable literature produced by candidates and media pundits in the lead-up to polling day. At one point in its missive, Titus quoted the great and controversial twentieth century poet Ezra Pound's dictum that 'Literature is news that stays news'.

Farrell, a regular reader of this blog and an occasional commenter here, wondered whether Titus was wise to quote Pound:

Both books sound good. I hope to be [at the launch]. I winced though at seeing the foaming-at-the-mouth murderously-racist-fascist Pound being quoted in a plea for literature to be considered more important than elections. However much one can defend poems by fascists, as Richard [Taylor] so eloquently does, (but not poems like Yeats' notorious marching song for the Irish fascists), it is disappointing that Titus should be so blind to the world outside literary stylistic concerns as to quote Pound in a piece about elections. One could make the same point and draw inspiration not from the poisonous Pound but from the harmless Proust who lamented the fact that we don't get Shakespeare's plays delivered at our doorsteps everyday and keep the gossip and petty-crime for dusty volumes on the top shelf?

Ezra Pound has provoked controversy almost every time he has popped up at this blog. To his most earnest supporters, Pound is a man who almost single-handedly revolutionised poetry in the early twentieth century, modernising and dynamising its language, opening it to the influence of non-European cultures, and proving that it could compete, in length and in seriousness, with the modern novel. To his detractors, Pound is a talented writer who threw away his promise when he embraced the doctrine of fascism in the early '30s, and who discredited himself definitively by making hundreds of violently anti-semitic radio broadcasts from Italy during World War Two.

For many people, myself included, Pound is an awkward, painful figure, an object both of admiration and disgust. Back in June I posted about my conflicted feelings towards Pound, and about my arguments with Ted Jenner, a former New Zealand correspondent for Paidemua, the journal of Ezra Pound studies. Like Farrell, I find it difficult to enjoy Pound's epic poem The Cantos, where passages of undeniable beauty give way, with a suddenness that can be dizzying and nauseating, to rants about the evils of usurious Jews.

And yet I can't help feeling some affection for Pound: I owe, after all, some of the techniques which I use in my poems, and which I enjoy in the poems of my peers, to the innovations he made, in the face of the derision of the literary establishment and the contempt of mainstream society, a century ago. How can any modern poet completely disown Pound, without going back to writing like AE Housman or Tennyson?
Ted Jenner had little sympathy for my anxieties over Pound. In a comment he left under the post I made in June, he accused me of bringing politics too close to art:

Your comments on Pound betray the the bias of a doctrinaire socialist who cannot force himself to recognise that good poetry might be written by someone who expressed (yes, virulently at times) sympathy with causes such as Fascism and Anti-Semitism. And yet having known you for three years now, I do not believe you are of a doctrinaire nature. You do, however, evince blind spots in the case of two poets whose politics I abhor but whose poetry I admire, namely EP and Leigh Davis.

It seems to me that there is something a little doctrinaire about Ted's insistence, in this statement, that discussions about poetry, and by extension all of the arts, should be kept insulated from arguments about politics.

I remember talking with Ted about the 1981 Springbok Tour of New Zealand, which prompted him to take to the streets with tens of thousands of other New Zealanders, and which eventually cost him a tooth. Ted lamented the way that Kiwi rugby fans completely disregarded the political system of South Africa, and believed that they could host a South African rugby team without giving aid and comfort to apartheid. "If Nazi Germany were still around in 1981 had a rugby team, I think many New Zealand rugby fans would want to host that team", he complained.

If it is irrational to keep sport and politics rigidly separated, isn't the 'art for art's sake' line that Ted uses to protect Pound from his detractors also quixotic? Pound himself saw The Cantos not as some abstract, self-referring work, but as an attempt to intervene in the world, and to affect the course of history. Shouldn't we take his intentions seriously?

I talked with Brett Cross, the boss of Titus Books, yesterday about Farrell's comments. Brett didn't necessarily disagree with much of what Farrell had said, but he suggested that it would be a mistake to associate Pound completely with fascism. Brett pointed out that Pound's most influential work was done in the first decades of the twentieth century, before the demented odes to Mussolini and the denunciations of Jews. He suggested that Pound's notorious wartime radio broadcasts were the product partly of mental illness, and he argued that, in the late work he did after being released from an American psychiatric hospital and returning to Italy, Pound showed remorse for his anti-semitism.

It is certainly true that the sparely beautiful last pages of The Cantos contain phrases - 'my errors and wrecks lie about me' and 'I cannot make it cohere' are two famous examples - which suggest that Pound had realised the awfulness of the politics he had embraced in the 1930s and '40s. But there are also photos of the elderly Pound giving stiff-armed salutes.

It seems to me that we should not try to resolve the case of Pound, either by using his fascism to dismiss all his work or by rehabilitating him using a rhetoric of art for art's sake. He should remain an awkward, painful character, an example of the way that art can neither be reduced to politics nor removed from the influence of politics.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Friday, November 18, 2011

Labour, neo-liberalism, and a blueberry smoothie: a chat with Carmel

A number of commentators have seen the burgeoning 'Tea Cup Gate' scandal as a symptom of a growing estrangement between politicians and voters.

As recently as the 1970s, New Zealand's major political parties had enormous memberships and vibrant internal lives, and general elections were dominated by rallies and debates in local halls. Any politician who made it to parliament was used to fronting up to large local party meetings, and to arguing for his or her policy programme in rowdy public meetings.

In the last few decades, though, party memberships have declined drastically, and politicians have become more accustomed to confronting television cameras than querulous constituents. Election campaigns have become meticulously managed affairs, where party leaders kiss babies and pose with handpicked supporters, and obsessively avoid dissent and debate. Politics has turned from a pastime of the masses to an elite sport, and both the public and the media have been made into spectators.

Now the apparently accidental recording of a conversation between John Key and John Banks offers journalists and voters an opportunity to penetrate the carefully constructed facade of contemporary politics, and to get an insight into how election campaigns are really run, and how politicians really think. Bryce Edwards has argued that the infamous 'tea cup tape' promises to give the media and the public some relief from an over-managed election campaign:

The media’s relationship with politicians is extremely problematic in New Zealand...The political class is so extremely well resourced, the media is at a huge disadvantage in covering the politicians. Parties in Parliament have access to Parliamentary Service and Ministerial Services funding of many the Prime Ministers’ Office there are about 25 communications staff...As a result, the public rarely gets to see what goes on behind the scenes in politics. We are fed a constant stream of scripted campaigning...

I was thinking about Edwards' argument yesterday, after I had an unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable encounter with one of Labour's high-profile election candidates.

Skyler* and I had been having a coffee at the fledgling cafe in the community centre of the West Auckland suburb of Ranui, when I decided to take a look at the pile of withdrawn books in the little library which lodges in the same building. After nabbing a dogeared tome by the great Michael Moorcock for a dollar, I headed back to the cafe to finish my flat white and found Labour list MP and Waitakere electorate candidate Carmel Sepuloni ensconced at my table, talking with Skyler.

Carmel, who had parked a car emblazoned with campaign slogans beside the cafe, was initially very friendly, asking me about myself and about my voting intentions. When I went beyond pleasantries, though, and began to ask some questions about Labour's policies and election strategy, she quickly became defensive. Although Carmel talked with me for five or so minutes, she asked me not to repeat some of the things she said. This request seemed to me very odd: we were talking, after all, about the details of a general election campaign, not about some sensational murder trial or international spy ring.

Carmel eventually got rid of me, after telling me repeatedly that she wasn't really in the mood for politics, and that she had only come to the cafe in Ranui to get a blueberry smoothie. As I wandered away from the cafe, though, I noticed her happily chatting with another patron, and posing for a photo with him.

It seemed to me that Carmel Sepuloni was keen to perform the sort of superficial campaigning rituals which politicians have become accustomed to in New Zealand - to shake hands, pose for pictures, kiss babies, sign autographs, and so on - but very unwilling to engage in any sort of sustained discussion about ideas. And although she reluctantly spent a few minutes discussing ideas with me, Carmel seemed to expect that such a discussion should, as a matter of course, be kept private.

Both Carmel's lack of interest in serious political discussion and her insistence that an ordinary political discussion with one of her constituents should be kept private seem to me to reflect the culture that has developed in the last few decades in New Zealand politics. Sepuloni may be campaigning for a more progressive set of policies than John Key or John Banks, but she seems to share their passion for politics as theatre, and their hostility to real political argument.

I wrote down my conversation with Carmel shortly after I left the cafe in Ranui. The discussion is not likely to trouble the headline writers, but I think it nevertheless touches on some interesting issues - issues which have taken up space on this blog over recent weeks and months.

A chat with Carmel Sepuloni

SH: I suppose it's going to be a close out here in Waitakere?

CS: Yes. There a lot of people who still haven't made up their minds. We are working hard to get the votes out.

SH: Paula Bennett has this image as a staunch Westie chick, doesn't she? The fact that she sits around the Cabinet table with the representatives of the country's wealthiest one per cent, and takes orders from the richest man in parliament, doesn't really seem to have affected that image -

CS: It's just an image, like John Key's image as a nice average guy. But Labour is beating National on policy, people agree with us on policy, and we think Labour can form the next government.

SH: Are you worried about what might happen next year if Labour is elected, and faces a Greek-style economic crisis, along with pressure from international and local business interests to implement neo-liberal austerity measures, of the kind Greece and Spain and Italy are implementing right now? Could we go back to 1984?

CS: I'm much more worried about what National will do if they get in.

SH: I'm not saying we shouldn't be worried about National! But I notice that in Greece and also in Spain it is Labour-style social democratic parties which are doing the work of the International Monetary Fund and local capitalists, overseeing big cuts in government spending, laying off state workers, cutting pensions, cutting union rights -

CS: I don't know about that. I'm focused on my community here in West Auckland, and on my party.

SH: But there's a local precedent, isn't there? In the 1980s it was the Lange-Douglas government that brought neo-liberalism to New Zealand. They did what National could never have done, because they had the support of the unions and the poor. National could never have gotten away with Rogernomics.

CS: Labour is a different party today. And I am focused on the here and now. We need to beat Paula Bennett. I haven't got time to get into arguments about history.

SH: I don't think it's an antiquarian debate. I think it's a real danger. From the statements I've seen you making I think you're on the left of the Labour Party. I think you identify with the social democratic tradition, and want to defend the welfare state and union rights and to redistribute wealth downwards -

CS: Of course. And that's why I am trying to get the vote out against Paula Bennett.

SH: Aren't you worried, though, about some of the more right-wing people in your caucus, people who might be future leaders, people who don't share your vision?

CS: I have no idea who you're talking about.

SH: Shane Jones, David Cunliffe -

CS: Cunliffe? You think Cunliffe is right-wing? I wouldn't say that at all. I'd put him on the left of the party. Shane Jones - I wouldn't call him right-wing. I'd say Shane's a centrist. Shane is in the middle of the party. Someone who is on the right, I'd say, is David Parker. Don't quote me on this, please, or I'll deny it. But David Parker is on the right of the party, very much so. But please don't repeat that. Labour has changed since the 1980s. It's not the same party. I know that - I know my party.

[This comment by Carmel particularly interested me: I blogged a couple of weeks ago about how troubling I find some of the talking points that Parker is using over in the Epsom electorate, where he seems to be trying to place himself to the right of John Banks...]

SH: You're not worried at all about a replay of Rogernomics?

CS: I am focused on winning in Waitakere. I don't want to get into this sort of argument with you. We lost last time by only six hundred votes. We're still enrolling people here now. Last time we only lost because we didn't the vote out -

SH: In 2005 it was the big ballot boxes from South and West Auckland which got Labour home in a tight race and kept Brash out. Do you think that the fact that people didn't turn out in such numbers in the South and the West in 2008 indicates that Labour didn't do enough for those areas in its last term? I mean, the party shacked up with the right, with New Zealand First and United Future, instead of looking to its left -

CS: I don't agree with that. I think it was moral issues that kept voters away, especially in the Pasifika community. We didn't have a proper conversation with them on issues like Civil Unions, Section 59...a lot of them misunderstood Section 59, and thought we were interfering in their families. They wondered "What's happened to our party?"

SH: I can see what you mean. But didn't cultural issues like those come to the fore because Labour did nothing ambitious to remodel the economy - Labour had nine years to reverse the damage that neo-liberalism did to our country in the '80s and '90s, but it did nothing radical -

CS: That's not true. Labour did a huge amount. There was Kiwibank, Kiwisaver, Working for Families -

SH: But nothing structural. Those were just surface measures. Labour didn't even reverse the 1991 cuts in benefits, which are acknowledged as the leading cause of the increase in poverty in this country -

CS: Nothing structural? What about the renationalisation of New Zealand Rail and Air New Zealand?

SH: The renationalisation of Air New Zealand was done in the interests of business. Workers were laid off by the hundred ater the renationalisation and Ralph Norris, the head of the Business Roundtable, was put in charge of the company. Nationalisation is not automatically progressive -

CS: I don't think you know what you're talking about. I think Labour did a lot. I think it's a real shame that there are people like you who attack other people on the left instead of National.

SH: I don't want to sound sectarian. I accept there are big differences between Labour and National. One is a party supported by the poor, the other is the party of the rich. One advocates neo-liberalism, the other advocates social democracy -

CS: And that's why I'm focused on beating Bennett. It will send a great signal if she is defeated.

SH: I agree. I'd like to see her out of parliament. But if Labour is to avoid being captured by the right, and forced to push through a neo-liberal agenda, as a response to the international economic crisis -

CS: That's not going to happen. And I've already told you I'm not interested in discussing that stuff -

SH: Labour needs allies. The left-wing people in Labour need allies. I support the Mana Party, which is fighting these elections on a left-wing platform - tax cuts for the poor and raises for the rich, renationalisation of key assets, solidarity with trade unions and with the Occupy movement - and I think that Labour should be allying itself with Mana, against the right. Instead, though, Labour has branded Mana an 'extremist' party and tried to destroy it.

CS: That's not true. I've never said that.

SH: Phil Goff has repeatedly stated that Labour will not work with Mana, before or after the election, because it is an extremist party. And Labour poured huge resources into trying to kill off the Mana Party by beating Hone Harawira in the Te Tai Tokerau by-election. At the same time as Labour refuses to work with Mana, though, it is courting New Zealand First, a party led by a bigot, a party of the right -

CS: I've never criticised Mana. I didn't campaign against Hone. Others may have, but I didn't. Labour is a team. You might disagree with your leader, but you don't attack him in public. That's discipline.

SH: I'm pleased you didn't campaign against Hone. I think Labour should have welcomed him as an ally. Did you argue in caucus against the decision to call Mana extremist? Were there a few people who disagreed with the strategy of calling Mana extremist?

CS: I'm not prepared to say that. I don't want to talk about this. You know, I just came here for a smoothie, I didn't want a big political debate. I don't want to change your mind. You're entiled to your own opinions. But I think it's a shame there are people like you who are always attacking the left and refusing to work with Labour.

SH: I don't think I'm attacking the left. I'm advocating that the left unites against National. Phil Goff might need Hone's support on confidence and supply to form a government. I don't know why he wants to brand Mana as extremist and rule out dealing with the party - especially when he's open to dealing with Winston Peters! Surely Mana and people like Hone and Sue Bradford and John Minto have more in common with the founding principles of the Labour Party than Winston Peters?

CS: Labour has to deal with the people in parliament. It has to use the hand it is dealt.

SH: I appreciate that. But Labour has a history of looking to its right, and trying to wipe out parties on its left. It chose Peters as a coalition partner over the Greens in 2005. And back in 2002 it ran a big campaign against Laila Harre out here in the West, making sure she lost, and that the Alliance disappeared from parliament. Labour threw away a left-wing partner.

CS: I'm very pleased Laila lost, because we got Lyn Pillay instead. And Lyn Pillay was a great MP for the West. It sounds like you wanted National to form a government in 2002 and 2005. Are you friends with that Matt guy, what's his name? The union guy? Matt...

SH: Matt McCarten of Unite? I don't know him.

CS: That's the one. He wanted Laila Harre to win. He said we should have helped the Alliance. There is this real problem on the left of people attacking other people on the same side. It's a shame you don't want to help me beat Paula Bennett. But I don't want to waste my time arguing with you. I only came to this cafe for a smoothie - if you'll excuse me I'd like to drink it.

SH: It is a nice-looking smoothie.

CS: It's a blueberry smoothie. I love them. I feel like a kid when I drink them...

SH: Thanks for talking with me anyway.

*Skyler might well have something to say about this post. She is an active supporter of Carmel Sepuloni and disagrees with many of my criticisms of the contemporary Labour Party.

[Posted by Scott/Maps]

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Why 'Tea Cup Gate' is not trivial

It is easy to feel sorry for Bryce Edwards, the University of Otago political scientist who has given himself the task of summarising each day of the election campaign on his blog.

As Edwards must be all too aware, the Northern Hemisphere is currently the scene of extraordinary political turmoil and ideological debate, as an economic crisis shakes Europe and America and pro-democracy protests surge through the Arab world. Instead of getting to apply himself to these sorts of profound events, Edwards is forced to write, day after day, about the cup of tea which John Key took with John Banks in an Epsom cafe, and the suppressed recording of the conversation which the two men shared. It's no wonder that Edwards is complaining, in an opinion piece published in today's New Zealand Herald, that our election has become a 'circus', where personalities are more important than policy, and trivial disputes obscure the very serious economic situation New Zealand faces.

The Leader of the Opposition seems to share Edwards' impatience with the controversy now being dubbed 'Tea Cup Gate'. Phil Goff has ridiculed John Key's complaint to the police over the recording of his talk with Banks, and has called for Key to allow the release of the recording. But Goff seems to want to shift debate away from the infamous conversation, and back towards issues like National's plans to sell off shares in state-owned companies.

Edwards and Goff might be a little too quick, though, to dismiss the significance of the controversy over the chat Key and Banks had last week. Even before Key met with Banks, there had been widespread criticism of National's attempts to keep its ailing Act Party ally in parliament by getting an Act MP reelected in Epsom. National voters chafed at instructions to vote for Banks, and supporters of other parties complained about an abuse of the MMP system.

It is hardly unusual, in the era of MMP, for major parties to instruct their supporters to vote tactically, so as to ensure that a favourable minor party gets returned to parliament. What has upset many Kiwis is not National's advocacy of tactical voting, but its attempts to preserve the Act Party, and the suggestion that its support for Act is linked to a secret policy agenda.

For many New Zealanders, the Act Party symbolises the radically right-wing policies which were introduced to New Zealand by the Lange-Douglas Labour government in 1984 and continued by the Bolger-Richardson government which took power in 1990. During the late '80s and early '90s unemployment in New Zealand quadrupled, as scores of state assets were sold at bargain-basement prices, financial markets were deregulated and the dollar was floated, banks and post offices were shut down around the country, and new laws made unions into an endangered species.

The arrival of neo-liberalism in New Zealand came as a near-complete surprise. Labour had fought its 1984 election campaign on a traditional social democratic platform, promising to tackle problems like unemployment and to strengthen unions.

In 1990 New Zealanders elected the National Party, which had cynically promised to reverse some of the worst policies of the Lange-Douglas period. When National actually deepened and elaborated Labour's policies, voters turned to a post-Douglas Labour Party, and to the new Alliance Party.

In the 1993 election Labour and the Alliance won far more votes than National, but the First Past the Post system kept them out of power. In 1996 voters turned to Winston Peters' New Zealand First Party, which had campaigned against right-wing policies like the sale of state assets, only to be disappointed when Peters decided to throw his weight behind National and keep the party in power.

National was finally removed from office in 1999, when Labour won a solid victory by emphasising that it would not return to the policies of the late '80s and early '90s.

National soon discovered that it could not defeat Labour by advocating a return to radical right-wing policies. The Act Party had been formed by men and women nostalgaic for the Lange-Douglas era, but it attracted very little support from voters, and had to rely on populist non-economic causes like crime and Maori-bashing to keep a handful of seats in parliament. In the 2002 election National was routed after advocating a return to the '90s, and it only managed to rebuild support in 2005 by focusing on the seabed and foreshore issue and on Pakeha fears about the supposed 'privileges' Maori were enjoying under Labour.

The global financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recession have reinforced the long-standing opposition to neo-liberalism amongst New Zealanders. A generation too young to remember the dole queues and rusting factories of the '80s and '90s has seen the world economy brought to its knees by financial markets 'freed' from government regulation.

National only returned to power in 2008 because John Key made a conscious and concerted effort to rebrand the party as a force for moderate rather than radical change. Realising that there was a consensus amongst voters against a return to the policies of the '90s, Key took over the centre ground which Helen Clark had earlier made her own. The fact that Key's caucus was full of retreads from the bad old days of Bolger and Richardson seemed to elude voters.

During National's first term in government Key has projected an affable and moderate image. He has described himself as a political centrist, told low-income voters that he understands their problems, and kept a studied distance from the Act Party. By doing these things, Key has reassured New Zealanders who have traumatic memories of the way the governments elected in 1984 and 1990 betrayed their supporters and took an extremist course.

Now, though, Key has damaged his standing with the moderate majority of New Zealand voters by associating himself with Act, the political symbol of the bad old days, and by appearing to behave in the same duplicitous ways as the governments of the late '80s and early '90s.

By working to get Act back into parliament, when more than 99% of voters appear to reject the party, Key has suggested that a radical right-wing ideology lurks beneath his moderate image. And by trying to suppress the details of the conversation he had with John Banks in that Epsom cafe, Key has given the impression that, like Roger Douglas in 1984 and Jim Bolger in 1990, he has a secret agenda, an agenda which contrasts markedly with the policies he is selling to voters on the hustings.

Despite appearances, then, 'Tea Cup Gate' is much more than a dispute between the media and a politician about privacy and etiquette. If many voters are preoccupied with Key's mysterious conversation with his Act ally it is not because they are diverted from the issues by personalities or media hype, but because Key has reminded them of a disturbed and disturbing period in their country's history. Tea Cup Gate may not compare with the political controversies which are destabilising the Northern Hemisphere, but for many Kiwis it is not a trivial affair.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Remembering Peter Roebuck

News sites are reporting that the veteran cricket broadcaster and writer Peter Roebuck has killed himself in a South African hotel.

Roebuck captained the Somerset county team in the 1980s, but he was always better at writing and talking than at batting. Well before the end of his playing career he was supplying lucid, allusive articles about the game that he loved to a range of newspapers and magazines.

I remember a piece Roebuck wrote about my boyhood idol, the great West Indian batsman Viv Richards, for an Aussie publication in the mid-'80s. Richards was famous for his super-confident on-field manner and his violent batsmanship - two of his nicknames were 'the Master Blaster' and 'Smokin' Joe' - and cricket commentators and journalists tended to present him as a fearful cliche.

Roebuck, though, gave his readers a lesson in history and politics, by connecting Richards' on-field persona and batting style to the colonisation and decolonisation of the West Indies. Roebuck noted Richards' support for national liberation movements in Africa, his almost uncontrollable hatred of apartheid, his flaunting of Rastafarian symbols, and his violent clashes with racist white cricketers. After reading Roebuck's article - and I had to read it more than once - I knew that I would never think about the game of cricket in the same way again. (The fact that Roebuck's article was written shortly before his very public falling out with Richards, who had played with him for years at Somerset, only made it seem more poignant to me.)

Peter Roebuck was perhaps one of the last representatives of a tradition of literate, ruminative cricket writing and commentary, a tradition which began in nineteenth and early twentieth century England, and which was continued by the likes of Jim Swanton, John Arlott, and New Zealand's own DJ Cameron. Because of its drawn-out and frequently languid nature, a cricket game invites its observers into digressive thinking, in a way that a football match or an athletics meet do not. Cricket writers and commentators have traditionally had to be much more than mere reporters, because they have had to fill the spaces between balls, overs, and dramatic incidents with their words. Whether he was working in the commentary box or at his typewriter, Roebuck was, like Swanton and Arlott before him, able to enrich and explain the games he witnessed by telling stories, sketching portraits of players and officials, cracking wry jokes, and ruminating on subjects that sometimes seemed distant from the world of cricket. In texts like his article on Viv Richards and in the best passages of his radio commentary, Roebuck was able to turn an eccentric and complicated sport into a sort of telescope through which both history and the present could be viewed clearly and in detail.

With his vast vocabulary, digressive style, and taste for literary and historical allusion, Roebuck often seemed out of place in the era of modern sports journalism. After the 'Packer revolution' of the 1970s made televised cricket into big business, the importance of radio commentary to the sport began to decline. With its visual nature, its endless and frequently pointless 'action replays', its inane charts and graphs, and its commercial breaks between overs, televised cricket requires far less literary interpolation from its commentary teams than radio. Where radio commentators of previous cricket eras were famous for their lucidity, today's television commentators are often celebrated for their buffoonery and incoherence. In Australia, for instance, telly commentators like Tony Greig and Bill Lawry have become famous for their silly catchphrases, their struggles to pronounce the names of foreign players properly, and their on-air stoushes with each other.

The advent of internet cricket commentary has also eroded the tradition which Peter Roebuck represented. Websites like nowadays provide ball by ball commentary on every international cricket match, but this commentary lacks the old digressive richness of radio.

I can't help but associate symbolically Peter Roebuck's passing and the recent decision of the Radio Sport network to abandon ball by ball coverage of first class provincial cricket in this country. Radio Sport's decision has drawn complaints from many Kiwis accustomed to listening Otago or Canterbury take on Northern Districts or Auckland as they paint the house or fire up the barbecue or sit on their deckchair in the heat of January. For hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders, the crackly sound of a cricket commentary from the Basin Reserve or Pukekura Park is as much a part of summer as the hissing of cicadas, or the sizzling of a barby.

Speaking on National Radio last Saturday, Jeff Wilson wondered what Radio Sport listeners were getting so upset about. The station would still provide updates on games every twenty minutes or so, he explained. Surely, given the slow-moving nature of cricket, this is all that is necessary?

Like many elite sportspeople, Wilson has little understanding of the leisurely, ruminative pleasures that cricket can provide. Because he was always focused, during his career as an All Black and a Black Cap, on winning, and on winning as efficiently as he could, Wilson has come to think in a completely instrumental way about sport. He judges a game by how it ends. For many old-fashioned cricket followers, though, the result of a game is less important than the way it is played and observed. An update every twenty minutes can never substitute for the flow of discussion and reflection which good radio commentators provide.

In an era where employers, the education system, and new forms of technology are all demanding that we live at a faster pace, and think in more instrumental ways, traditional ways of playing and following cricket have become anachronistic. That is part of the reason why so many people are keen to hold on to them.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Friday, November 11, 2011

An election statement from Titus Books

[Let's face it - the latest election campaign here in New Zealand has been a rather dull affair. Capitalism may be in crisis in Europe, and the Arab world may be convulsed by popular uprisings, but down here in God's Own Country debate on the hustings has revolved around the rival personalities of John Key and Phil Goff. The National government has sought, throughout this election season, to distract attention from weighty economic and philosophical issues, and its strategy appears to have succeeded.

I suspect that there is a relationship between the gravity of the economic and political issues facing the north and the trivialities which currently preoccupy us in the South Pacific. Perhaps New Zealanders are so grateful that their country has not yet suffered the economic fate of the Greeks and Italians that they are happy to luxuriate in a whimsical and trivial political discourse.

Given the rather uninspiring nature of the election campaigning, I hope that even hardened political junkies won't mind me posting a press release from Titus Books which tries to put the poll on the 26th of November into perspective.]

On the 27th of November Vote for Literature!

A Statement by Titus Books

On Saturday the 26th of this month New Zealanders will go to the polls to elect a new government.

Informed, thoughtful voting is a necessary part of life in a democratic society, and the upcoming election has rightly generated thousands of pieces of writing - manifestos issued by parties, leaflets left in letterboxes by candidates, blogs set up by party propagandists, letters to newspapers by irate or delighted prospective voters, and analyses by trained and untrained political scientists.

But the mass of writing our election has created will have a short life span. From the morning of the 27th of November onwards it will be of interest only to political historians and paper recyclers. As the old saying goes, in politics even a week is a long time.

The great modernist poet Ezra Pound said that literature was news that stayed news, because it dealt with problems and questions that were rooted deep in humans and in societies. Since 2005 Titus Books has been publishing poetry, short stories, novels, and essays. The writing we publish rarely wins large audiences, but it doesn't go out of date either.

Publishing books is unfashionable in the twenty-first century. We at Titus have often been told by media pundits and self-styled technology gurus that the book is dead, or at least dying, because it is incompatible with the digital age, when people supposedly think visually rather than verbally, and when everyone is allegedly too busy checking their cellphone or e mail to do the sort of deep, exploratory, creative reading that great writers like Blake and Joyce and Peake have traditionally demanded.

We at Titus Books disagree with the cliches of the anti-literature crowd. We think that literature is as important to a healthy society as polling booths or public hospitals or vaccinations against tuberculosis. Election leaflets and billboards may tell citizens what to think, but poetry and literary prose remind them how to think, and how to feel. By taking us away from the buzz and blare of twenty-first century media and technology, literature helps reconnect us with our deepest convictions and emotions, and reminds us of the treasure houses of human history and culture.

We invite Aucklanders to vote for literature on Sunday the 27th of November, by attending the launch of two new Titus Books, Scott Hamilton's Feeding the Gods and Bronwyn Lloyd's The Second Location. Scott Hamilton is a widely published social scientist, and has a long history as a political commentator and activist. In Feeding the Gods, his Creative New Zealand-funded second volume of poetry, Hamilton draws on his involvement in a number of political and cultural controversies, like the ultimately successful battle to remove the Vanda 'the vandal' Vitali from her position as Director of Auckland museum, the movement against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq last decade, campaigns against the desecration of Maori sacred sites and history, and the battle against this country's Holocaust deniers. Hamilton also writes about more personal subjects, like the suicides of a number of his schoolmates at South Auckland's Rosehill College in the 1990s, his travels through the backblocks of New Zealand, the Outback of Australia, and Western Polynesia, and the bizarre dreams which are a side effect of the prescription drugs he must take for a chronic injury.

Hamilton's poems may deal with many topical issues, but they do not feature easy judgements or political sloganeering. Hamilton is preoccupied by history and by geography, and many of his poems create an eccentric perspective on contemporary problems by dissolving the boundaries between the past and the present, the near and the far. In Feeding the Gods historical figures like Hongi Hika and Karl Marx wander contemporary Australasia, the Outback fills with water, Ulysses cruises the South Pacific, and Maoist guerrillas quote postmodern poetry.

Bronwyn Lloyd is known for her careful reconstructions of the lives of Kiwi painter Rita Angus and composer Douglas Lilburn, and for the beautiful art books she produced for Pania Press. The short stories in Lloyd's The Second Location have the insights into the subtleties of human relationships which made her scholarship valuable, and the attention to detail which distinguished her work for Pania. Under Loyd's intense but not unsympathetic gaze, even small events like a civil servant's filing error or a visit to the beach become filled with significance. Bronwyn Lloyd's work shows us that the lives we live in our homes and in our minds can be far more dramatic than anything we see on television, and that the daily choices we make as friends and as family members can be as fateful as the doings of politicians or corporate executives.

In their different ways, Hamilton's and Lloyd's books show the continuing vitality of literature in the second decade of the twenty-first century. They are, in Ezra Pound's words, news that stays news. Titus Books is proud to ask you to vote for literature on the 27th of November.

Feeding the Gods and The Second Location will be launched at Objectspace Gallery, 6 Ponsonby Road, from three o'clock onwards on Sunday the 27th of November. There'll be beer, wine and plenty of home-baked food, plus a range of Titus titles to sample.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Politics and poetry: a tip from Richard

A semi-sympathetic reviewer described the great Kiwi poet Kendrick Smithyman as 'widely and sometimes bizarrely read'. The same phrase could be awarded to Richard Taylor, the bookdealer, poet and psychogeographic explorer of Panmure. Richard lives amidst the rubble made by thousands of books, and seems as keen to read treatises on chess games played a century ago, studies of Antarctic history, and elaborately incoherent exercises in conspiracy theory as he is to consume poetry and novels. In the late '90s Richard laboured on The Infinite Poem, which was made up almost entirely of quotes from hundreds of different texts.

Richard occasionally supplies his friends with reading tips, but they tend to involve volumes which have been out of print for a formidably long time, and which can apparently only be acquired through the offices of a certain Panmure bookdealer.

Recently, though, Richard sent me a plug for a new and - I hope - more easily accessible book. I've reproduced his message, and added a few hyperlinks:

I am reading and enjoying a book called American Poets in the 21st Century, edited by Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell.

All of the writers in the book are interesting in different ways, but Mark Nowak would intrigue you the most, I think. Nowak seems to have really got to grips with a dialectical method of writing poetry, and the result is something political.

Nowak takes some of the postmodern, abstract method of the Language poets, and elements of something more traditional. He quotes from working class history, discusses factory closures, the hardships of the unemployed and so on, then comments on the etymology of the words he uses in a manner reminiscent of some of the Language poets. In his poems postmodernism has found a 'use': it works with 'realism' in an interesting way, allowing political statement yet getting around the problem of 'lecturing' and the danger of transparent or sentimental poetry. Nowak sees economic theory and political 'philosophy' and the statements of right wing (or left wing) politicians and theorists as stuff which is analysable as poetry.

Nowak is an active trade unionist, so he doesn't write from a vacuum.

Some of the other writers in Rankine and Sewell's collection are worth your while. There's a black sound poet who comes out of the hip hop scene called Tracy Morris. She won Poetry Slams at the Nuyorican, a working class New York cafe, in the early 1990s, at around the time I was in the city.

The Nuyorican is, or was, a forum of sorts: there were Europeans, Afro-Americans, Hispanics and other ethnic groups represented there, and different approaches to poetry were also featured. There was some 'conflict' between the more serious Language poets like Bernadette Mayer and the Lower East Side 'school', which was made up of more direct, lyrical poets.

Perhaps to some extent there is now a kind of merging between these different approaches to poetry, as if a dialectic is working, thesis and antithesis leading to a synthesis...

I recently read your book on Thompson, with its chapter about the quest for a poetry which was political but not crudely propagandistic. Perhaps Mark Nowak has the kind of 'mix' that Thompson was seeking.

And perhaps not only Thompson was seeking to blend politics with poetry. Was it in your book that I read about Marx basing The Communist Manifesto on Faust? And about Marx jumping up in London pubs and drunkenly shouting, in German of course, long passages from Goethe's play? Ha!

[Posted by Maps]

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Russell's Red Letter Day

This blog tries hard to be fatuous and hypocritical, but it's not often we succeed egregiously enough to attract the attention of Russell Fletcher, aka Redbaiter, the blogging scourge of fatuous and hypocritical lefties.

A couple of months ago Russell found the time to visit this blog and denounce my defence of the Prime Ministers' Awards for Literary Achievement. According to Russell, the Prime Ministers' Awards, which see thirty thousand dollars being given every year to two or three outstanding Kiwi scribblers, are a prime example of 'jackbooted communist thugs abusing and corrupting democracy'. By handing some filthy lucre to James Belich, Peter Bland, and Fiona Kidman, John Key had shown that he had 'the same mentality as the UK rioters', and had helped to 'drag our society to its lowest point in history'.

I wasn't particularly surprised by the level of vituperation Redbaiter brought to this blog. Redbaiter is infamous in the Kiwi blogosphere for his attacks on not only the left but large parts of the right. At his own blog and in the comments threads at other sites, Redbaiter has described even conservative National Ministers like Judith 'Crusher' Collins as 'cultural Marxists', and characterised this country as a 'communist police state'. Anybody who dares to disagree with Redbaiter's judgments is inevitably diagnosed as a 'sick liberal', an 'Islamocommunist thug', or a 'leftard'.

As I said a couple of months ago, I don't believe that Redbaiter is using the Kiwi blogosphere and its thousand comments threads to fight some heroic battle with Tourette's Syndrome: I think his manner is quite deliberate.

Redbaiter wants to preclude polite discussion with the rhetorical equivalent of thermonuclear strikes on his opponents. His pre-emptive strikes tend to prompt either dazed silence or return volleys of verbal abuse, and abuse seems to fortify Redbaiter in his belief that everyone to the left of Enoch Powell is a grimly conspiratorial minion of darkness, rather than a human being who disagrees with him about certain political issues.

Redbaiter's curious online behaviour reminds me a little of some of the stories about Jackson Pollock's attempts to woo women in New York bars back in the '40s. Apparently Pollock would, after making a mess of himself by consuming copious amounts of liquor, sidle over to a woman in the corner of a bar and say something along the lines of "You got nice tits - wanna screw?" It's easy to guess the response this invitation got.

Pollock's mates got sick of his drunken mock-macho nonsense, and secretly hired an escort to hang about the bar he frequented. After Pollock had gotten drunk enough to confront her with his usual crude come-on, she answered "Sure - let's go" and grabbed her coat. Pollock fainted. The point is that, for folks like Pollock and Redbaiter, acceptance is somehow more terrifying than angry or annoyed rejection.

Taking inspiration from Jackson Pollock's friends, I made Redbaiter an offer, a couple of months ago, after reading the denunciations of state funding for the arts he left here:

As an inveterate defender of 'Western civilisation', Redbaiter, you should be honoured to have taxes go towards the maintenance of the intellectual tradition Socrates founded, amongst other intellectual traditions. And don't think that the guardians of civilisation are ungrateful. A publisher and a film maker have applications for state funding for projects involving me in the works at the moment: if the projects are approved I'll dedicate the book and the film to you...

Although Creative New Zealand isn't keen on shelling out for a movie about the Great South Road at the moment, Titus Books did recently manage to cadge some money off them for my second volume of poetry (here's a review of the first). Feeding the Gods will be launched, complete with illustrations by the late great Kendrick Smithyman, on the 27th of this month, at Objectspace Gallery in Ponsonby, alongside a collection of Bronwyn Lloyd's stories called The Second Location.

The question is: will the scourge of the Kiwi blogosphere honour me by attending the launch of the book which I have dedicated to him? I hope he makes the 27th a Red Letter Day.

[Posted by Maps]

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Labour's history lesson

Like Chris Trotter I enjoyed the election broadcast the Labour Party made on TV One last Monday night, and found the contrast with National's broadcast fascinating.

While Labour offered up an historical 'long view' of the present, using photos and newsreel footage disinterred from the archives, and then introduced a series of its members of parliament, each of whom seemed intended to represent some segment of New Zealand's diverse population, National's broadcast marooned John Key without his fellow MPs in what looked like a corporate conference room.

In an era where a twenty-four hour news cycle and social media like twitter and facebook sometimes seem to have created the political equivalents of amnesia and aphasia amongst wide segments of the population, Labour's insistence on the significance of the past to the problems of the present was welcome.

Labour offered viewers a rough timeline of the last century of New Zealand history, which took in events like the World Wars, the Great Depression, the post-war boom and its dissipation in the '70s and early '80s, and the trauma of Rogernomics. The party argued that, throughout the last century, thoughtful state intervention in the economy, and in society in general, had been vital to social progress. The Labour Party was presented as the means by which the New Zealand working class had taken hold of the machinery of the state and reformed society. Using their party, the workers had founded the welfare state, built state houses, created fair industrial practices, and ended discrimination against minorities. In the 1980s Labour temporarily slipped from the control of the Kiwi majority, and became the party of neo-liberalism, but that was, we were assured, an aberration.

National was presented throughout the broadcast as the party of the wealthy elite, with policies that sow class war and racial discord.

Some National supporters have criticised Labour's broadcast for making a tidy partisan narrative out of the complexity of the past. Like the Conservatives trying to interfere with the teaching of history in Britain at the moment, these folks seem not to understand that every historical narrative highlights certain events, and downplays or ignores others. History can never be a neutral procession of facts.

Accepting that there are different narratives which can be made out of the same past does not mean falling into some sort of crude historical relativism, of the sort associated with certain postmodernist thinkers. We can compare and evaluate different accounts of the past by asking which of these stories has the most explanatory power. We can ask, especially, whether the interpretation which the narrative is supposed to demonstrate fits with the events that make up the narrative.

This blog has at times discussed the ramblings of Kerry Bolton, New Zealand's most prolific neo-Nazi. Bolton's texts generally discuss the same events as those of more conventional historians, but they embed these events in a very particular and very peculiar narrative. Bolton believes, for instance, that when Roger Douglas and David Lange brought neo-liberalism to this country in the 1980s they were acting at the behest of a cabal of Jewish communists and Jewish bankers.

Bolton's story about the 1980s is not taken seriously because it is so clearly out of tune with the facts it seeks to explain. There weren't many commies in the Backbone Club, after all. Bolton is an extreme case, but he illustrates how we can assess a narrative by examining how well it explains the facts it contains.

How sucessful, then, was the history lesson Labour offered in its election broadcast?

I want to suggest that a number of the events in Labour's narrative actually contradicted the party's claim to be the historical agent of the Kiwi working class and of social progress.

Labour's broadcast began by talking about the formation of the party in 1916, and showing a photo from one of its early meetings. Explaining that Labour grew out of the struggles for better working conditions and wages in early modern New Zealand, the broadcast introduced a photo taken during the bloody Waihi Strike of 1912. This image, which was used on the cover of The Red and the Gold, Stanley Roche's book about the strike, shows workers protesting the death of Fred Evans, the miner who was shot in a Waihi union hall by a gang of drunken cops and scabs. The Waihi Strike was run by the 'Red' Federation of Labour, an organisation which used slogans like 'For the abolition of wage labour' and 'To the world's workers the world's wealth'. Inspired by the Industrial Workers of the World, which was enjoying its heyday in North America in the years before World War One, the 'Red Feds' refused to become involved in parliamentary politics, planning instead to seize power and overthrow capitalism with a general strike. In the 'Great Strike' of 1913 the Red Feds confronted the right-wing government of William Massey, fighting gunbattles in the streets of Wellington and setting up revolutionary councils in several West Coast towns. Cossey eventually defeated the Red Feds by deploying thousands of armed farmers on horseback, and the power of the union movement was much reduced.

The men and women who founded the Labour Party in 1916 were making a conscious effort to chart a new direction for the union movement and for the left. Where the Red Feds had talked of smashing capitalism, the new party talked of regulating and reforming the system. Fair wages and not the abolition of the wage system were to be the new aim. Where the Red Feds had eschewed 'ordinary' politics, Labour made parliamentary elections its focus.

Labour quickly became the dominant force on the left and inside the union movement, but the tradition inaugurated by the 'Red Feds' did not disappear from this country in 1916. A number of organisations, most notably the Communist Party, reaffirmed the revolutionary tradition of the Red Feds in the inter-war years. The Red Feds' example influenced militant post-war unionists like Jock Barnes, the leader of the watersiders during their epic 1951 confrontation with the New Zealand state. In the 1970s and '80s a new generation of radical leftists founded organisations with names like the Socialist Action League and the Workers Communist League, and played a major role in the union movement and in protests over issues like war and racism. Today many members of the left-wing faction in the Mana Party identify with the radical politics of the Red Feds and their various successors.

The Red Feds and their progeny create certain problems for Labour's propagandists. Last Monday's election broadcast tried to present Labour as the sole political representatives of the Kiwi working class, but the Federation of Labour was a mass organisation which espoused a politics very different from the social democratic ideology of Labour. And, although it has been nowhere near as popular as social democracy since 1916, the tradition represented by the Red Feds has persisted in a variety of organisations.

Last Monday's broadcast tried to deal with the Red Feds by making them part of the prehistory of the Labour Party, and this sort of interpretation might be supported by certain historians. Michael King, for instance, argued in his Penguin History of New Zealand and elsewhere that the revolutionary turmoil of the pre-war years was something exceptional in our national history, and that the Labour Party which emerged from the ashes of the Red Feds was, with its moderate ideas and constitutional methods, much more representative of the New Zealand working class than its revolutionary predecessor. King suggested that the leaders of the workers' movement had to be defeated, and to learn from their defeats, before they could found a durable and successful political organisation. The minority which still held to the politics of the Red Feds was rendered irrelevant. But the revolutionary tradition in the New Zealand left was not absent from Labour's election broadcast, even after that broadcast had moved its focus forward from the turbulent first decades of the twentieth century. Even if the revolutionaries were never acknowledged by the broadcast's voiceover, they could again and again be seen, on picket lines and in protest marches.

Labour's broadcast repeatedly referred to campaigns against injustice in New Zealand, and sought to associate Labour with these campaigns. Often, though, it was the members of the tradition represented by the Red Feds who were in the vanguard of the struggles that Labour wanted to claim as its own.

Labour's broadcast discussed the Great Waterfront Lockout of 1951, and expressed sympathy with the locked out wharfies who had their civil rights annulled by Sid Holland's National government. In 1951, though, Labour refused to throw its weight behind the embattled wharfies, who turned instead for support to the Communist Party.

Labour's broadcast went on to discuss the massive anti-Springbok protests of 1981, but it gave no hint that groups to Labour's left, like the Socialist Action League and Nga Tamatoa, played vital roles in running these protests.

During a discussion of the deeply unpopular National governments of the '90s, Labour's broadcast showed footage of the eviction of pensioner Len Parker from his state house in Balmoral. Supported by the State House Action Coalition (SHAC), Parker had barricaded himself in his home in protest at the charging of market rents for state tenants. Hundreds of people turned up to try to protect Parker, and to protest his eventual removal by heavily armed police. Despite repeated requests, though, Labour refused to throw its weight behind Parker's cause. Parker himself was a member of the Socialist Workers Organisation, and many of the activists in SHAC were linked either to the Alliance Party or to small Marxist groups like the SWO or Workers Power.

Labour wants to present itself as the sole political representative of the workers' movement and the sole agent of progressive politics in New Zealand, but when it attempted to tell the story of progressive politics over the past century on Monday night its claims to exclusivity began to unravel.

The voiceover in Monday night's broadcast may have avoided mentioning men like Jock Barnes and Len Parker and organisations like the Communist Party and the Red Feds, but the events the broadcast described and the images it provided hinted at a story more complicated and more interesting than the one Labour wanted to tell.

[Posted by Maps]