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Max Harris & the virtues of being an ‘ihu-hupe’.

Max Harris & the virtues of being an ‘ihu-hupe’.

Max Harris is a good bloke who has written a book. He doesn’t need me to repeat all his other achievements for him, you can read about him here and here.  Bridget Williams Books launched the new book last week, where, quite literally, people were spilling out of the doors. That is not very typical of book launches I have been to.

The New Zealand Project is a heartfelt, wide-ranging, intelligent and idiosyncratic tour de force, whereby Max distills pearls of wisdom from interviews he conducted with at least thirty deep thinkers from across and beyond New Zealand’s political, economic, cultural and social landscape. He mixes those pearls with his own insights creating a kind of idealistic but somehow still possible agenda for making Aotearoa New Zealand a better place.

At the very heart of Max’s focus is his call for a return to values in the public sphere. As he states at p 13 of The New Zealand Project:

It is difficult to define values. I understand them to be principles that we hold dear that contribute to a life well led. A values-based politics, then, is a politics (in the activist and electoral spheres) that is motivated by values and that seeks to give effect to values through political action. It is related to, and inspired by, Māori approaches to ethics, life and collective action, which place values at the centre of behaviour and decision-making. [emphasis added]

His position is that New Zealand has abandoned a set of values that kept our society functional.  With this abandonment of positive and implicitly agreed values, New Zealand had been left, as a nation, with the cold comforts of arch-pragmatism, growing individualism and self-interest. This is not a new charge, and was expressed by Chris Trotter in 1975, somewhat prophetically over 40 years ago, at a time when there was both gloomy pessimism about NZ’s future, and a grassroots political movement to return values to politics.

Oh you who turn your faces

From the poet and the priest

You’re lost amongst the neon

Bloated by the feast

And the man who shouts the loudest

Is bound to win the strife

In one hand he’s a golden coin

The other wields a knife

[excerpt from Sons of Cain 1975]

As Trotter’s poem shows, written during the electoral run-up to the Muldoon era, the stripping away of civic values cannot be blamed solely on the rise of neoliberalism since the late 1970s. Indeed punitive pragmatism has been in the New Zealand psyche for a long time and our social welfare system, and our criminal justice system are soaked in it.

According to Max, in his modern vision, we need to once more orientate our actions and our policies according a set of commonly understood values, collected under the headings Community, Care and Creativity. In addition Max identifies Love as another value that should inform our politics, how we deal with each other and how we develop as a society.

Importantly, Max pays specific attention to Māori values; and that takes the potential of his work in a refreshing direction. (Although it has to be said, the expression of Māori values in politics is hardly new.) In Max’s view values-based politics can only make sense if they are decolonised values-based politics, with the power imbalance eradicated.

I have aimed to suggest, with humility and tentativeness (and as far as possible drawing on Māori voices such as those of Mikaere, Moana Jackson, Kim Workman, and others), that Māori values have much to offer New Zealand politics and society. Te ao Māori and tikanga Māori provide us with a model of the very idea of a values-based politics, […] . Specific Māori values like whanaungatanga, manaakitanga and auahatanga can enrich our understandings of the progressive values underpinning this book: community, care and creativity. Aroha underpins and deepens the notion of a politics of love […].

And Māori notions of kaitiakitanga can change how we understand human beings’ interaction with their environment, […]. New Zealand history should not be romanticised, and […] lessons of history should not be forgotten.

Tikanga Māori – the first law of Aotearoa – remains an important foundation and model for how politics should be done in the present.[p286]

I’m also interested in Max’s earlier statement that Māori ‘place values at the centre of behaviour and decision-making.’  Do we? I’m always a little uneasy about identifying values that we as Māori ought to uphold or should infuse our decisions with. What we value certainly can shape our actions, and our actions thereby reflect our values. However I think values emerge from what we really do. I’m less sure that statements about values alone are truly honest. I think they can be useful as a kind of confirmation, or even a kind of rallying cry. And there is something to be said about identifying values that we want to live by. But merely saying we operate according to principles of manaakitanga doesn’t make it so.

There’s another problem in my view with identifying values that are good and ‘contribute to a life well-led’. Setting values also import the risk of failure by establishing a set of standards that we will, more likely than not, fail. There is a reason why our criminal legal system, and indeed Māori legal precepts, both as codes for human behaviour, concentrate on punishing us for what we do or fail to do; it is just too difficult and intrusive to punish us for what we are and what we have failed to be. Yet arguably, identifying core values to live by sets exactly these kinds of unachievable standards. Truly, we are not worthy.

On the other hand I can see how our policy and law can be different if we seek to implement a set of values in their design. Imagine how different New Zealand law could have been if collective rangatiratanga had been a pre-eminent value of the New Zealand state instead of individual autonomy of the property owner? So a values-based constitution, or a values-based framework can have merit. We just cannot expect too much of ourselves in keeping to such values.

This foray into the matter of Māori values in politics, no matter how genuine, also inevitably raises questions about the person making the claim for such values. Here’s a good example of such a question, on Twitter, on the day Max’s book launched:

I like Max Harris & his work. I also  think we should talk abt why we listen when clever white men say things Māori have been saying for years.

It is a good question. Max’s advocacy of Māori values appears to be well received by those who like what he is doing, and his approach appears to be genuine and without arrogance. And I, for one, greatly prefer Pākehā who engage properly (and not thievingly) with Māori concepts and issues, rather than throwing their hands in the air, relegating such matters to the ‘too hard’ basket. But it is also true that Māori and Pasifika have not been particularly involved in the public discourse about his work thus far.

And it is true that Māori have been talking about values-based politics for a long time; the creation of the Mana and Māori parties are testament to that public and private debate.

So part of the problem identified by Tweeter Marianne Elliot’s question is not so much that Māori (for example) are not contributing to, or taking part in, debates about values and other issues of national importance.  They bloody well are. The problem seems more that the windows into such debates are inevitably framed by, and focused on, the doings and sayings of those in the majoritarian culture by those in the majoritarian culture. If we engage in mainstream discourse we are simply less likely to hear Māori and Pasifika voices in that discourse.

Of course here we get into familiar territory; the scarcity of Māori and Pasifika public voices in mainstream media, which is one of the very reasons we have E-Tangata, I might add, and why so much respect must go to Tapu & Gary for working so hard to create a window places places Māori and Pasifika naturally within the frame.

But Marianne’s criticism of Max also in part seems also to be about the fact that he is at the podium in the first place. It seems to me that Max is establishing himself, to some degree, as a kind of public intellectual, someone who sits outside societal institutions, offering not only a reasoned critique of those institutions but also generating ideas as to how those institutions and society as a whole can be better. This kind of figure has a long and respectable history in Western civilisation, and in New Zealand, notwithstanding our famed (and probably over-hyped) anti-intellectualism.

Speaking in regards to Māori, there is no shortage of Māori intellectual giants dotting our landscape; no lack of a Māori intellectual tradition. Dr Ranginui Walker, Moana Jackson, Donna Awatere-Huata, Dun Mihaka, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith have all provided strong voices and charismas, with identifiable intellectual positions and challenges to the mainstream, not reliant on any academic institution to provide a platform. All of these thinkers (and more besides) have provided a foundation for others to build on; their work does not end with them.

Yet it does seem relatively rare for Māori to claim such general public space simply as a matter of right and entitlement. I know plenty of extraordinary young Māori thinkers, I would struggle to think of any who would do what Max is doing just yet.  Perhaps Māori intellectualism is simply done differently.  Perhaps it requires a longer gestation period; due to more community checks and balances. It is difficult for rangatahi to stand in such a space without being called a tamaiti mōhio (know-it-all kid) or ihu hupe (snot-nose, similar to ‘wet-behind-the-ears’) by others in their communities.  Maybe Māori intellectuals also simply work differently. Perhaps they work within communities, rather than without them, naturally seeking less approval from mainstream forums. Doubtless there will be many possible answers.

In the meantime, congratulations are due to extraordinary individuals such as Max, and others as yet less feted, who are brave enough to fashion a vision, with no clear sense of whether anyone will follow. The hope is that at least some of us will. We need more, not fewer such ihu hupe.

Please note, a slightly edited version of this post was published earlier on E-Tangata.


A homeless man, an election, and a bit of Mad Max.

A homeless man, an election, and a bit of Mad Max.

A couple of weeks ago, on a Lower Hutt street, a woman and her children decided to do something kind for someone else.  They gave carefully chosen and prepared food to a homeless man. A few moments later they drove past the same area again, only to see that this man had thrown the food all over the street. She posted about the dismay she and her children felt at this apparent rejection of their kindness. The story was picked up by the New Zealand Herald and garnered much feverish comment.

The social media response fascinating to me. It was somewhat split between those who believed the man in the story to have been ungrateful, or simply insufficiently poor. Others presumed him to have been sufficiently poor, sufficiently destitute, but probably afflicted with a mental health condition that might have explained his response.

Interestingly there was also a thread of comments from people who reckoned they knew him; that they were familiar with his behaviour and with what motivates him on a day to day basis. Some who claimed such knowledge saw him as an ingrate who was rorting the system:

 I have a shop that he sits outside on a regular basis. The owner of the dairy next door gave him food which he then threw all over the ground outside my shop. He knows exactly what he was doing as he comes in to my shop and wants to borrow our pens to write his signs. His actions are completely calculated he does not eant food he only wants cash. He is completely ungrateful and very confronting.

Others with a degree of knowledge saw the same person differently:

So I’ve had food thrown at me by the same guy after I brought it for him. It’s fair to point out that since then I’ve learnt that he has severe mental health issues and is extremely picky about what he eats. I initially wanted to beat him up but after learning about him a bit I definitely wouldn’t. Apparently he’s a lovely guy.

It was interesting to me to see how knowledge about the man in the story became a kind of currency. The more we knew about him, perhaps the more we felt we could be justified in saying ‘yes, he deserves compassion’ or ‘no, he doesn’t deserve compassion’. Thus, we are entitled to judge if genuine need exists. Once we put ourselves in the position of judging the existence of need, we must inevitably find some worthy and others unworthy of help. How do we know what your needs are if you don’t show us enough good and sufficient evidence of it? The man in the story failed in this regard. Or succeeded – depending on your perspective, your values, your knowledge, your prejudices.

There is no point whatsoever in bemoaning these kinds of comments or beliefs. Quite literally, they are centuries old, and brought to New Zealand with European (mainly English) settlement. It started with the mainly (but not exclusively) Christian notion that we all have a duty to provide for the poor. Over time that duty became bureaucratized and formalized in charitable systems, and later social security systems that the religious aspect has faded from memory but the bureaucratic urge to judge deservingness has not. This belief that need must be shown before aid will be given is deeply engrained in the history and bureaucratic culture of this country. Neoliberalism only enhances this tendency, it certainly did not create it.

And why blame others for this judginess anyway when we all engage in this thought process? Think of our own experiences with those asking us for money, be they charity collectors, individuals on the street, or school fundraisers. In each case our internal decision-making processes spring from our own personal well of discretion, and are formed by our own internal values. Our private processes are pretty similar to millions of decisions being made all around the country by charity and government workers every year springing from their own official or informal discretion. Rules and regulations abound, but at the heart of government welfare and charities are individuals making judgments: help or not? Deserving or not? Right or wrong? Pay or not?

It is this drive to judge that justifies our intrusion into the lives of the people whom we would support, if only they are ‘genuine’. This drive to judge is also highly susceptible to our basest presumptions about the colour and culture of others. Māori and Pasifika are, by definition, poor and, in the minds of some, by definition, undeserving and morally and culturally suspect.

Our most sophisticated and yet intrusive manifestation of this drive is in our welfare system. It is primarily a needs-based system that eradicates differences between people. Assistance only depends on individuals showing sufficient need, and sufficient effort to meet it themselves first. Those responsible for delivering the aid are duty bound in law to investigate such claims of need.

While in criminal law there are buffers or protections put in place to protect the individual in that system from State intrusion except where criminal liability is proved, the welfare state creates the opposite effect.  In return for assistance the State has the right, increasingly so, to approve the actions, the household formations, the drug-taking behaviours, the social connections, the parental behaviours of beneficiaries. There is no buffer between the State and the person. All is justified in the pursuit of the demonstration of need.

There are a few treasured exceptions where individuals do not have to show they have reached the hallowed status of need. For example, in superannuation, need does not have to be shown, it is usually presumed once applicants reach the age of 65. As an aside, it always puzzles me how superannuitants are vocal in insisting that superannuation is not a benefit; that it is somehow quantitatively different in form and shape; that superannuation is an earned entitlement for taxes paid and lives well lived. Well. Maybe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but by law superannuation is defined as a benefit, it is administered as part of the benefit system, it is governed by the same review and appeal system, it forms part of the same item in the Crown Accounts. It is a walking and quacking benefit duck.

I am a great believer in the universality of Super, not least because for the majority of cases (not all), the State doesn’t get to hide under the bed, poke through the medicines on the bedside cabinet, and count the toothbrushes in the bathroom. I also happen to believe that universality is necessary to address child poverty in New Zealand; that children and their parents ought not have to show need; need should be presumed. Childhood, like old age is a hazardous state. We ought to take collective responsibility for it, and, in the language of Jess Berentson-Shaw, water the whole garden, not the just the bits we like better.

But even adding a universal child benefit to our existing system doesn’t change its fundamental nature. In a very real sense it doesn’t matter who the government is, it doesn’t matter how the labels on the benefits get changed around, the system remains, and the law around the use of discretion and entitlement stays largely the same. Of course, it matters in the immediate context because under National-led governments entitlements get squeezed, efficiency is valorised, and under Labour there is generally a lessening of a punitive approach and a loosening of work-testing requirements. But the primacy of need and the shape of the system (including the current Social Security Rewrite Bill before the House) remains unchallenged.

Changing the system requires a revolution in thought we are just not ready for yet. Or are we? I have blogged before about the possibility of Tūhoe creating their own welfare system, invoking a possible devolution of Crown liability for Tūhoe welfare. Gareth Morgan and The Opportunities Party are finally seeking to break the deadlock on welfare thinking with a policy proposal of a UBI (unconditional basic income) for the over 65 year olds and the families with young children. His broader thinking on this topic requires fundamental tax reform too. Revolution is not impossible. We can create a welfare system that doesn’t dehumanise real people and eradicate culture, relieves need, enables participation in our society, and doesn’t bankrupt us in the process.

There’s a scene near the beginning and at the end of Mad Max: Fury Road. If you haven’t seen it, all you need to know is that this is a movie set in a post-Apocalyptic world. There are many lovely, boganistic and physically impossible car-causes and gory deaths. The movie is bookended with the same scene. The people who hold power in the citadel of this wasteland are in control of the only source of water. In the first scene, the nasty horrible tyrant releases a massive waterfall to his enslaved people to show he is in control. A petty water-hogging god. The cataracts of fresh water engulf the teeming, filthy, and parched crowd below, who fight each other to hold up their tiny basins and buckets up to catch just the merest dribble of the flow. At the end the same waterfall is released, only this time, by the good people, the ones who have taken over the corrupt system. In both scenes the huge flow run into sand and away from those who so clearly needed it. It made me think of the difficulty of creating true change in our welfare system. Changing the people in the citadel is not enough if the mechanism of allocation remains effectively the same.

A slightly edited version of this post first appeared on E-Tangata.

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