Friday, July 05, 2013

Resisting history

The Labour Party's plan to set a quota of female members for its parliamentary caucus has caused predictable glee on various right-wing blogs, where it is being seen, by bloggers and commenters alike, as a symptom of 'politically correct madness', and as further evidence of the left's contempt for democracy.

But commentators on the left, like the contributors to the Labour-aligned group blog The Standard, are not at all embarrassed by the party's so-called 'man ban'. They think a quota of female MPs would make New Zealand more rather than less democratic.

Underneath this and many other disagreements between the political left and right lie two profoundly different conceptions of human nature and of history. For the neo-liberal right, society is an aggregation of free, rational individuals who have more or less the same opportunities to live happy and successful lives. History is nothing but the sum of the decisions that these free and rational individuals make.

For the left, though, history has traditionally been seen as a determinant of human choices, as well as the outcome of those choices. The ways we think about and act in the world are determined partly by the languages and ideas and prejudices and myths which our parents and communities transmit innocently to us, and by the social and economic conditions into which we are born and in which we live. The past is not an open field over which we rush about as autonomous individuals, making our rational choices and accepting the consequences, but a forest through which we must hack a path.

Many Westerners raised in the era of neo-liberal capitalism react with disbelief, or outrage, or both, when the notion of the human being as a discrete, rational unit of history is challenged. They have grown up with television advertisements and economics teachers telling them that they are wholly responsible for their own fates, and beholden to no one. They are the authors, not the subjects, of history.
These members of the neo-liberal generation often experience a kind of existential terror when they are confronted with the fact that their words, ideas, and prejudices have origins in the past, amongst the despised generations of dead human beings, and that their economic ambitions depend for their fulfilment not only on talent and hard work but on the vacillations of stock exchanges and on changes in the organic composition of capital.

The hysteria which sometimes greets attempts to talk about and overcome the colonial and misogynistic heritage of a society like New Zealand has to be understood, then, as a symptom of shock. It is the hysteria of a generation indoctrinated in right-wing individualism struggling with the very notion of history.

Maikolo Horowitz, the American-Tongan sociologist and novelist, found a clever way of making recalcitrant students contemplate the crucial roles history plays in their lives.

When he taught a group of white American students about the history of slavery in their country, Horowitz was soon greeted with protests. His students didn't doubt that injustices were done to African Americans by their ancestors, but didn't see why these injustices were relevant to the world of the twenty-first century. Why, they wanted to know, did African Americans need affirmative action? Why should there be quotas for black university students?  And why, for that matter, did American Indians demand the return of land that was stolen from their ancestors generations ago?

Maikolo surprised his interlocutors by appearing to agree with them. "You're right", he said, after letting them finish their protests. "The past is irrelevant. History starts today. Nobody should get anything for free by citing the past. And I'm happy to announce that, from this day on, you'll all be obliged to pay a special charge. There's a chap in the United Kingdom who owns a patent on the English language. You'll have to pay him to use it. That's only fair, right?"

During his years at the 'Atenisi Institute in Nuku'alofa, Maikolo had seen hundreds of talented young Pacific Islanders struggling to learn to express themselves in English. Their eloquence in their native tongue counted for little, when English was a virtual prerequisite for a decent job or for postgraduate study abroad. History - the history of British and American imperialism, in particular - had given Maikolo's white American students an immense advantage over their Tongan rivals when they sought jobs and scholarships, but this advantage was all too often invisible to the Americans.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

I think the real story here is how hard the caucus has come down against the proposal of its own membership, adopting all of the right wing talking points in the process. Did you happen to catch Josie Pagani's interview on Radio Live? It was especially instructive.

1:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sean plunket sexist prick

5:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


9:11 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes, this goes back at least to the "busing" that the Kennedy's enforced in the 60s. Black students were given special attention and it worked to redress (to some extent) the huge imbalance.

The US native Indians like many other indigenous peoples have suffered terribly. One thing about Marlon Brando one can commend is that he went to jail protesting for the rights of US Indians.

It is wrong that we undervalue Maori and other languages and cultures.

It is good that we are seeing more women in key places in power and this move could well help.

This is very good on the nature of history (of course this is part of a long time philosophic issue that goes back at least to the time of Luther and the concept of "free will" - in fact it may go back further into history): interesting the way history is a part of us.

We are making history even as we breathe. We are or seem to have individual choice, (but in reality) most of us "get lucky" or not. Of course there is place for "positivity" but we are limited.

You always have interesting - if sometimes (only sometimes!) - flawed comments. Mostly ReadngTheMaps is very informative and always gives me cause to re-examine my own prejudices and rusty ideas.

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