Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Why we shouldn't censor the books we hate

[With the support of many other parents, Eileen Joy has been demanding that Auckland public library remove American evangelists Michael and Debi Pearl's book How to Train Up a Child from its shelves. Joy points out that the Pearls' book advises parents to punish their offspring by whipping them with willow branches, forcing them outside in cold weather, and denying them meals. 

Auckland's library has defended itself by pointing that it holds a single copy of the Pearl's book, that the copy was requested by a patron, and the book is classified as a religious text rather than a manual on parenting. Here's a comment I left on Giovanni Tiso's blog, where an interesting debate about censorship and libraries has begun.

Some of the people condemning How To Train Up a Child on Facebook seem to want it banned simply because it offends them. That troubles me. 

If New Zealand's libraries begin to cut books from their shelves because of campaigns by offended patrons, then I fear that they will quickly become clear felling zones. I suspect that Paul Moon's This Horrible Practice, which deals problematically with Maori cannibalism, would not last long in the Kaikohe public library, and that James Belich's revisionist histories of the Maori-Pakeha wars would be cleared efficiently from the library shelves of conservative cow towns in the Waikato. 

I can imagine opponents and proponents of Nicky Hager starting their own petitions, and some unfortunate librarian being forced to tot up signatures and make the decision least offensive to library patrons. 

I suspect that, once they knew that their book choices could be vetted and corrected by offended members of the public, librarians would return to their old practice of unhappy self-censorship. In 1929 Auckland, Wellington, and Dunedin's public libraries banned Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, despite the fact that the book had been cleared for sale in New Zealand by censors, because they feared its gross account of life and death in the trenches of World War One would upset too many patrons. Scores of other important books suffered the same sort of pre-emptive strike in the first three quarters of the twentieth century. 
Like the Cantabrians who recently demanded the removal of an offensively anti-Christian T shirt from their museum, the Aucklanders calling for the cutting of How to Train Your Child from their library on the grounds that it is offensive show a misunderstanding of the role that public cultural institutions play in free societies. 

Just as a museum does not endorse or denounce the artefacts it exhibits, but rather uses them to tell true stories about humanity and its past, so a library does not endorse or denounce the books it holds, but rather uses them to show something of the range and intensity of opinions held by the human species. Museums and libraries should be sites of debate, where both popular and unpopular ideas can be heard and judged, rather than places that reaffirm the values of a society's dominant group.

I visited a large library in South Auckland a couple of weeks ago to hear a friend give a talk on Pacific history. While I was waiting for the lecture to begin, I grazed the shelves of the library's Pacific section. Amidst Albert Wendt's novels and Adrienne Kaeppler's homages to Tongan dancers and sculptors I spotted an ugly black and white cover stamped with the words The Parihaka Cult

The book was written by Kerry Bolton, a former member of the New Zealand Fascist League and the National Front, and the author of such classics of contemporary conspiracy theory as The Holocaust Myth and The Banking Swindle. In the introduction to The Parihaka Cult, Bolton compares the movement led by Te Whiti and Tohu to Nelson Mandela's African National Congress and the American Civil Rights movement. For most people, such comparisons would imply a compliment, but for Bolton they are meant to show that Parihaka's protesters were part of an enormous, centuries-old conspiracy to defraud and demean the white race. 

I have personal as well as ideological reasons for disliking Bolton. A few years ago he complained about some references I made to him on Radio New Zealand, and a long, complicated, and well-publicised court case followed. Bolton's complaints against me were eventually dismissed, but I had to waste time and nervous energy helping Radio New Zealand defeat him. 

When I saw Bolton's defence of the Aryan race sitting in the middle of the Pacific section of a large library in South Auckland, I had a great desire to pull the book off its shelf and drop it in the nearest rubbish bin. But I didn't do this, for the same reason that I don't want Auckland libraries to rid themselves of Michael and Debi Pearl's equally grotesque book. Both texts represent part of the spectrum of opinion in our society, and both were requested by library patrons. 

Instead of fearing that our fellow Aucklanders will turn into child abusers or fascists because they encounter To Train Up a Child or The Parihaka Cult, we should have confidence in the ability of our libraries to help win arguments against child abuse and fascism. I certainly don't think that Bolton's beliefs about the inferiority of Polynesian to European culture will impress anyone who encounters Adrienne Kaeppler's meticulous and passionate studies of Tongan carving and dancing, or Albert Wendt's brilliant fusion of Albert Camus and traditional Samoan storytelling. 

I hope Auckland's libraries go on offending their public. 

Footnote: Russell Brown has pointed out that Giovanni Tiso and Eileen Joy do not rely simply on the offensiveness of How to Train up a Child when they argue against stocking the book. They note that the book advocates and describes illegal activity that has harmed people, and suggest that it should be removed from libraries on these grounds. Here's a response I've made to them in the discussion thread at Giovanni's blog:  

If a principle or precedent is set saying that books which promote and describe illegal activity that has a history of harming people shouldn't be stocked by libraries, then the door is opened for challenges to any number of volumes.

Let me give a couple of examples. 

It's not hard to imagine somebody like Colin Craig or Bob McCroskie or the Taxpayers Union issuing a demand that a new edition Mike Haskins' popular Drugs: a user's guide not be purchased by Auckland Public libraries. Haskins' book talks enthusiastically and in detail about how to manufacture and consume various drugs that have, over the years, harmed or killed considerable numbers of people. 

Sadie Plant's brilliant book Writing on Drugs does the same thing, in more elegant prose. 

It is all too easy to imagine a wave of public opinion building in support of a campaign against these books. Who would want to read them, Colin Craig et al would ask, except meth manufacturers and cannabis growers looking to upskill? And why should public money be spent promoting books that promote illegal and harmful activities?

Although I don't use any illegal drugs, unless you count strong Fijian kava, I am fascinated by the history of hallucinogens and opiates, and by their relationship with creativity in both European and Pacific societies. I've used Plant's book as a reference in some of my writing on Tongan shamanism, art and drug-taking.

I fear, though, that if the principle that a book which advocates and describes illegal and sometimes harmful activity should not sit in a public library were established, then it would be very difficult to resist a campaign against Haskins' and Plant's books. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, March 27, 2015

Slow reading, and slow tweeting

I've added a widget to the front page of this blog which shows my most recent posts to twitter, that overcongested superhighway of the internet.

I don't think that Michael Lambek has a twitter account. An anthropologist who divides his time between the London School of Economics and the University of Scarborough, Lambek has written an essay for Savage Minds to lament the decline of 'slow reading' in twenty-first century universities. Lambek argues that many of today's students are either struggling with or avoiding altogether the heavy and heady books that excited earlier generations of scholars.

Lambek explains that, in many anthropology departments, instructors have stopped prescribing classic texts of ethnography, or else have offered these works to students in measured doses. EE Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Amongst the Azande, for example, is given in an abridged paperback edition. Distracted by social media and other epiphenomena of our digital age, students apparently find it difficult to penetrate the forests left behind by scholars like Evans-Pritchard and Malinowski. They cannot do the sort of careful, reflective reading that generates ideas and helps get essays written.

Lambek blames not only social media but the 'substitution of images for text' for the decline in students' reading. He notes that many students are now more accustomed to powerpoint displays, with their reassuringly steady flow of easily identifiable images, than to purely verbal seminars and lectures. The 'traditional classroom arts' of 'listening and note-taking' are, he fears, disappearing.

When I feel the same sort of melancholy as Lambek, I try to banish it by visiting Hookland, the twitter feed run by David Southwell, a British journalist known for his interest in conspiracy theories, gangsters, and the Angry Brigade. Southland's tweets pose as despatches from a sort of alternative England, a place of restless gargoyles, blood-stained power pylons, babbling vicars, and overfriendly UFOs. Like Mortmere, the alt-England invented by boarding schoolmates Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward in the 1920s, Hookland seems simultaneously celebratory and satirical.

I was excited when I discovered Southwell's tweets, because they suggested to me that twitter could be used to create mystery, and to detain a reader's attention, rather than as a lubricant for what Michael Lambek calls 'rapid fire and simultaneous online communication'.

Southwell's tweets frequently combine a text and an image, but the relationship of these parts is not always straightforward. Where the images in a powerpoint presentation normally exist as mere illustrations of the presenter's argument, the blurred or broken photographs, scraps of old maps, and covers of imaginary books that Southwell tweets often seem to contradict, or at least qualify, the lapidarian fragments of text that accompany them. In the space between their meanings an ambiguity alien to much of the twittersphere, but familiar to anyone who understands modernist and postmodernist poetry, appears and prospers.

Sometimes Southwell takes photographs of pages of books or magazines and posts them, alongside cryptic commentaries. Devoid of their contexts, these pages become artefacts that ask to be examined and catalogued. They can only be read slowly.

Hookland is an almost hermetic twitter feed. Its author never joins the high-velocity debates that regular shake the twittersphere, and seldom even acknowledges the twenty-first century world. And yet his tweets are often reposted scores of times. I'm obviously not the only one who thinks David Southwell is inventing a new artform, and suggesting a new and more intellectually important role for social media.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, March 20, 2015

Marching on the frontier

[This post started as an e mail to genealogist and military historian Christine Liava'a, who has been very generous in helping me with my research into blackbirding.]

Dear Christine,

I wanted to apologise for leaping out of my seat and running away from your talk about the Pacific front of World War One last Tuesday at the Papatoetoe library. I hadn't been offended by the old photographs and maps you'd been powerpointing, or by your discussions of warships and digging works and influenza. I simply needed to restrain my oldest son, who had decided, against the evidence offered by his mother, that he was a blue racing car, and that the carpark outside the library was his racing track.

Before my departure I was fascinated by your photograph of the Fijian members of the King's Royal Rifles. As I looked at the earnest and very white faces of the Fijian troops, I remembered the surprise I felt as a kid, when I flicked through a book about the history of test cricket and discovered a set of photographs of the teams the West Indies sent to England in the 1920s and '30s. Instead of the ancestors of mighty Windies players of the '80s, like Viv Richards and Mike Holding, the photographs were full of tall, stern Anglo-Saxons with white ties and thin moustaches. Like cricket, war was obviously considered a white man's sport by administrators of Britain's empire.

You noted how indigenous Fijians were carefully excluded from the King's Rifles, even though many of them were keen to fight the Kaiser. When you mentioned the tests that white Fijians had to pass before they could serve, though, I wondered whether they too might have been victims of imperial prejudices. When recruiters ran measuring tape over the men's chests and checked their height, were they guided by the belief that the inhabitants of the tropical Pacific, whether black or white or somewhere in between, were all susceptible to frailties uncommon in the colder parts of the world?

Until the middle of the twentieth century, many Europeans and Australasian whites were convinced that the heat and humidity of the tropics made their inhabitants decadent and sickly. For decades, Australian politicians and planners debated how they might settle the northern part of their continent without creating a race of 'degenerate whites'. New Zealand advocates of the annexation and colonisation of societies like Fiji and Samoa insisted that Kiwis who emigrated there should be helped to take, every five years or so, a long, restorative holiday in their cool mother country, so that their bodies and souls could be rid of tropical languor, lasciviousness, and depression. After German Samoans declined to resist New Zealand's invasion of their colony, Kiwi newspapers attributed their surrender to the effects of too many years of heat and humidity.
It is certainly true that, in the cooler parts of the British Empire, volunteers for World War One were not tested as stringently as the men from Fiji. Ronald Blythe has revealed that many of the men who fought for Britain on the Western front and in Gallipoli were slight and prone to fatigue, because of the poor diets they had suffered as children and young adults in the working class and rural districts of the mother country. I wonder how many of these men would have passed the test administered to the Fijians?

It seems, though, that a dozen members of the Fijian section of the Legion of Frontiersmen avoided the testing and drilling that were the lot of the colony's regular soldiers. You noted how, in August 1914, the Frontiersmen were welcomed onto one of the ships New Zealand sent to conquer Samoa, and you powerpointed a photograph taken shortly after the 'liberation' of Apia, in which they pose with a captured German flag.

Although it was founded in 1905 by a Boer War veteran who believed that the British Empire needed a massive, disciplined, and battle-ready paramilitary force, the Legion struggled to convince generals and politicians of its usefulness. Its direct involvement in the expedition to Samoa seems, then, surprising.
Last Tuesday you joked about not understanding the purpose of the Legion. I agree that the group has seemed, for a long time, quixotic. I consider it one of a panoply of organisations - paramilitary forces, mystical orders, thwarted political parties, lobby groups - that were created early in the twentieth century to celebrate and defend the British Empire. By the beginning of the century, the empire was both mighty and imperilled. It covered more than a fifth of the world's land surface, but the ambitions of rivals like Germany and America and class and racial conflict had made its supporters uneasy. Novelists and newspaper polemicists had begun to imagine German invasions and conquests of Britain, and revolutions that replaced the Union Jack with the red flag of socialism.

British Israelites and neo-Arthurian mystics looked to the Bible and to pseudo-archaeology for reassurance that British pre-eminence was divinely ordained and permanent; the Frontiersmen believed that God's will might have to be enforced with bayonet charges.
The word 'Frontiersmen' must have resonated with New Zealanders. As Jock Phillips and James Belich have shown, Kiwis liked to contrast their improvisational, often rough lifestyles with the supposedly effete ways of Britons. The over-elaborate vocabularies and overstuffed suitcases of new arrivals from the old country were ridiculed by newspapers. Like the anxious Britons who founded the Legion of Frontiersmen, many Kiwis believed that the true spirit of the empire could be found on the edges of the British world. On the frontier of the empire, exposed to Antarctic storms and Maori raiding parties, New Zealanders had been forced to preserve the manly qualities that had been lost in metropolises like London and Manchester and Calcutta.

It seems to me that the invasion of Samoa might almost be the high point in the military history of the Legion. The thousands of Frontiersmen spread around the empire appear to have done a lot of flag-waving, marching, and saluting, but very little fighting, unless they also belonged to the regular armed forces. The Frontiersmen's role in the invasion of Samoa seems almost unparalleled in the organisation's history.

In the years between the wars the Legion seems to have stayed busy, and even to have impressed the odd observer. In an article written at the end of the 1930s for the People's Voice, the communist poet and polemicist Gordon Watson included the Legion in a list of organisations that were planning to use the coming war with Hitler as an excuse to impose a right-wing dictatorship on New Zealand.

Watson's claim might not have been as absurd as it looks. In 1930s Britain Frontiersmen were often mistaken for Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists, because of their dark uniforms, angry anti-communism, and penchant for marching. During a strike on the Vancouver waterfront in 1935, Frontiersmen as well as members of local fascist parties were recruited as special policemen and encouraged to charge at picket lines. A couple of years earlier, during the most depressed period of the Great Depression, an anti-communist and anti-democratic movement spread briefly but spectacularly from Hawkes Bay through the rest of the country. Is it a coincidence that this movement was called the New Zealand Legion?
Like the empire it wanted to defend, the Legion has declined and almost disappeared in the decades since the Second World War. You mentioned finding a few middle-aged Frontiersmen working as ushers at some public event in South Auckland; the South Taranaki Star reports that even this sort of activity is nowadays too difficult for the Legion's four elderly members in New Plymouth, who have decided to retire.

I wanted to return to 1914, though, and ask: is it possible that the Frontiersmen were allowed to seek glory in Samoa because of the intervention of New Zealand's Prime Minister? William Massey grew up in northern Ireland, a place where British had always been embattled, and as a fervent British Israelite he considered World War One a struggle for the survival of God's chosen people. The commanders of New Zealand's professional army may well have been suspicious of the Legion's part-time soldiers, but Massey would have admired the group's ideology. Might he have considered that, in the midst of a holy war, faith and patriotism would be more important than training and equipment? Perhaps a letter somewhere in Massey's archive can answer these questions.

'Ofa atu,

Monday, March 16, 2015

Taken over

A couple of seconds after this photograph was taken a wave came over Waiwera's sea wall and drenched me, much to the amusement of my brother-in-law and his kids. We'd driven to Auckland's northeast coast to meet the remnants of Cyclone Pam, which had done so much damage to Vanuatu a day earlier.

Even in a weakened state, the storm could raise winds and water disconcertingly high. It reminded me of a poem I dug out of Kendrick Smithyman's archive and published as part of a book called Private Bestiary in 2010. In Smithyman's text, heavy winds and rain make the normally murmurous Waitemata Harbour into something ‘monstrous, incalculable' and 'contemptuous’, and cause random landslides on the edge of the neat new suburbs of the North Shore. The safety that New Zealand's largest city seemed to offer the poet becomes ‘unreal’, and the suburbs are suddenly a place where humans ‘test’ their ‘limits’.


Today, roads blocked,
Four slips on Albany hill
with subsidings predicted.
Any prospect west is rained out,
More rain is headed that way.

A view of our circumstance is narrowed: this
side, unreal safety.
Down in the valley men console
in a thoroughly public bar.

Wind roves easterly, sea’s
quarter where nearest the gulf.
Beyond is Ocean, a dominion
known to be monstrous, incalculable, contemptuous
of our offering, not entirely indifferent to us.

We are a myth of our making.

Locally there’s a record of slipping.
At the crest drivers are advised
to watch for edges falling out.
Oil drums and a wooden frame -
limits of safety, with a view
denied to farmers and foresters.
We test the limits. We project.
Speaking in figures we are taken over.

[August 28th 1965]

The ‘thoroughly public bar’ mentioned in the poem is probably the Albany Hotel, which was, along with Smithyman’s beloved Puhoi Tavern, a popular watering hole for the North Shore literary community in the decades after World War Two. In his biography of Smithyman’s friend Maurice Duggan, Ian Richards reveals that Smithyman and many other writers held a whiskey-drenched wake for ARD Fairburn at the Albany Hotel in 1957. I needed a couple of whiskeys of my own after yesterday's dunking.

If the storm was disconcerting for Aucklanders, then it must have been terrifying for ni-Vanuatuans on islands like Efate and Tanna. I was very sad when I checked the website for the Vanuatu Daily Post this morning, and found that the paper hadn't been published for three days. You can help ni-Vanuatu by donating to the Red Cross.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Back to the bridge

When Paul Janman and I decided to make a documentary film about Auckland's Great South Road several years ago, I imagined that we'd hit the streets of South Auckland for a few weeks, cool our heels in the editing suite at the back of Paul's house for a few days, and emerge with a feature-length film. I was naive. Shortages of funding and time, fluctuations in enthusiasm and changes in perspective have all complicated our work.

But even if it hasn't delivered a movie, what we've taken to calling 'the Great South Road project' has permutated in some interesting and unexpected ways. Along with the cimenatographer and professional retrofuturist Ian Powell, Paul and I have contributed images of and words about the Great South Road to three art shows. Paul and Ian have lately been filming the Papakura section of the Great South Road, after being asked to contribute footage of that suburb to this year's Auckland Festival. And this week Paul and I will be taking a group of drama students from Unitec on a guided tour of Mangere Bridge, and then showing them Merata Mita's film about the epic industrial dispute that delayed the construction of that bridge in the 1970s. Sociologist Dave Bedggood will be joining us to remember the political and economic crises of the '70s, and the issues at dispute during the Mangere strike.

Paul and I got interested in Mangere's bridge last year. We had been invited to contribute to the Other Waters festival, which was intended to retrieve some of the history of the Manukau harbour and its environs. Although the Mangere Bridge was not literally on the route of the Great South Road, we decided that it had some of the same genealogy - the water it crossed had, in the nineteenth century, been a de facto border between Maori and Pakeha worlds, and in the twentieth century the neighbourhoods it had connected had boasted the same politically conscious working class culture we were trying to document in suburbs like Otahuhu and Papatoetoe.

I spent hours hacking through old newspapers, and discovered a series of events - the banning of Maori from the old Mangere Bridge in 1912, after the outbreak of smallpox in their community; the persecution, a year later, of Onehunga's municipal brass band, after its buglers and trumpeters insisted on joining the marches of the 'Red' Federation of Labour; the pursuit and arrest of opium dealers along the same bridge in the 1920s, and the raiding of Chinese homes at the southern end of the bridge by cops looking for drugs; calls in the 1930s for the conversion of the bridge into a sort of dam, the draining of the allegedly unhealthy waters of the upper Manukau harbour, and the creation of a 'garden suburb' on reclaimed land - that Paul and I discussed when we gave a guided tour of the Mangere Bridge back in November, during the Other Waters festival.

While Paul and I were walking and talking, Ian Powell crept and knelt in the shadows of the bridge's underpass, fiddling with his archaic camera; here are some stills from the film he shot. If you look carefully, you can see the author of one of New Zealand's most famous songs and some of its most memorable books of poetry tinkering with the peeriscope that Paul installed on the bridge.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

It's about China, not ISIS

Using material supplied by Nicky Hager and Edward Snowden, the Herald's David Fisher has revealed that New Zealand spies electronically on its neighbours in the South Pacific, and passes the data it has gathered to the United States.  John Key has replied to Fisher's article with bluster about terrorism and New Zealand's forthcoming military adventure in Iraq, but nations like Tonga and Fiji are not known as bases for Al Qaeda and ISIS. 
The United States is interested in the South Pacific because the region has become one of the front lines in a new Cold War. A lot of people in New Zealand and other Western nations think of the tropical Pacific as a backwater, where nothing of consequence has happened since the Second World War, but anyone who visits a place like Tonga will see that Beijing, Washington, and Canberra don’t share this view. In Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga, warships from America, Australasia and China are regular visitors, diplomats from all those countries can be found negotiating with local politicians in air-conditioned cafes, aid workers operating under different flags compete to build schools and roads, and Australian public radio and China’s English-language television station both broadcast propaganda

As China has grown in power over the past couple of decades, it has sent its diplomats, its navy, and its entrepreneurs deeper and deeper into the Pacific, a part of the world where the power of the United States and its Australasian allies was unrivalled for decades. America and its allies have found themselves competing with China for influence, resources, and bases. 
A number of right-wing pundits have claimed that that the confrontation between China and the United States does not pose any problems for New Zealand, because this country has historically been a close ally of America, and enjoys all sorts of cultural links with other American allies like Australia and Britain. If China and America come to blows then, these commentators suggest, New Zealand should side with Washington.

But New Zealand will be put in an extremely difficult situation if the Cold War between Beijing and Washington ever looks like heating up. The all-important dairy sector of our economy has over the last decade and a half become focused on China. Nearly half of our dairy exports now go to that country. In the 1950s and ’60s we were sometimes known as ‘Britain’s farm', but today we are China’s farm.
China has shown in recent years that it is prepared to punish nations that displease it economically. It has, for example, imposed ‘virtual sanctions’ on some countries whose heads of state have had face to face meetings with the Dalai Lama, by limiting the imports it takes from these countries. China also punished the Philippines, with whom it had been having a border dispute, by refusing to aid that country after it was devastated by a typhoon a couple of years ago (New Zealand tried the same tactic with Tonga last year, in the aftermath of Cyclone Ian). If the confrontation between China and the United States becomes more serious, then China is likely to punish nations it perceives as close allies of America by suspending or severely limiting trade with them. Without access to the consumers of China, New Zealand's economy would swiftly sink.
If New Zealand does not want to get caught in the middle of a clash between the United States and China, then it needs either to distance itself politically and militarily from America or else somehow find a new and massive export market.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]