RSS Feed

Author Archives: Sparrowhawk/Kārearea

Euthanasia: in defence of the little moments of true life.

A post I wrote two years ago, that I am reposting in the wake of the End-of-Life-Choice Bill being drawn from the private members’ ballot.

The parallels between birth and death are so strong to me right now. Our family has welcomed a new baby in the last few  days. At one hospital after months of anticipation and physical changes, the pains of birth began, the people began to gather, the moment of transition came eventually at a time no one could really predict. At another hospital across town, after a couple of years of preparation and physical change, the time of transition approached, the people gathered, and no-one knew when death will finally come, we waited, and we watched. At the first hospital a new little life, helpless, sentient, feeling, begins her journey. At the other hospital our Mum, just as helpless, sentient, but not always lucid, prepared, unknowingly, to end hers.

Our mother’s life drew to its end on Monday at the Bethesda Hospital in Christchurch, and I feel so fortunate to have been with her, I and my two brothers. There has been a lot of love and care expressed in word and deed between all of us involved in this process.

In those days leading up to 9.05am Monday 18 May I spent a fair bit of time ruminating about euthanasia. Mum was in favour; she was a paid up member of End of Life Choice and supported the ideas put forward in the End of Life Choice Bill promoted by Maryan Street.  Many’s the time I remember her laying down the law to me that we were to ‘pull the plug’ if she couldn’t enjoy a smoke or a drink and had lost that venerated thing ‘quality of life’.

Well. We reached that point and then some. The person that she was would have been appalled that she still lived, but only a fraction of the life that she used to live. In her final weeks she existed in that liminal space between this world and the next, bed-bound and hand-fed, phasing in, and mainly out of consciousness as Morphine and cancer took away her lucidity.  I would have looked from the outside in, once upon a time, and shuddered at the thought of ever ‘living’ like that.

But the person that she was before her death experienced tiny, intense joys that I would never have thought possible. I gave her a sip from a straw of her favourite Chateau-de-Cardboard 6 days ago when she was having an ‘awake’ period. Her eyes brightened and her eyebrows shot up and the delight on her face was transformative, just for an instant or two. An hour or so earlier she had gazed around at all of us gathered in her little room, and the pleasure she was experiencing, as we talked and laughed around and about her, was palpable, even if she could no longer follow the twists and turns of our words. “This is so good” she said, to no-one in particular. On Sunday night, as I whispered goodbye to her she smiled, said ‘See ya kiddo!’, and winked slyly at me before I kissed her cheek and stole from the room, the last words she said to me. Even then, she was still here and living a life of worth.

Our mother could never have exercised her right to choose to end her life; her cancer-related dementia and the morphine stole her ability to choose months before. And I have to admit a relief at that. There is a scene in the book Still Alice that reminds me of our own situation. Alice, a woman living with Alzheimers, a highly successful professor and professional woman, and member of a small family, decides early on in the progression of her disease that she would kill herself when the time came, once she had lost enough of her faculties that the life she had lived was gone forever. She put some pills in a little black bottle at the back of the drawer in her bedside cabinet. With it she placed an explanatory letter (her own ‘end-of-life directive’) setting out the reasons to her future self why she needs to take the pills and end everything before it’s too late.  As the Alzheimers progresses, we, the readers, know when Alice has passed that point. The thing is, she never knows it. At one point she comes across the pills and the letter, but can’t cohere her thoughts enough to understand the content of the letter or the import of the pills. To the relief of the reader (well, me at least) she eases past that point, going on to live still a life smaller and unacceptable to her former self, but one of worth and joy to her current self.

In my view, which is only a drop in the ocean of views, my mother’s end-of-life journey and the quality of her life is no more a rational reason to retain NZ’s current position on euthanasia that criminalises those who assist others to end their lives, than Lecretia Seale’s own personal story is a reason alone to change those laws. Equal and opposing stories can always be found that support one or another position. Indeed, the euthanasia debate should never, ever be about evaluating or quantifying the relative ‘worth’ or ‘value’ of any human life and the proponents of change to our laws are very careful to adhere to that stance; for example, by emphasising that this is a debate about ‘the right to choose’ to end one’s own life. After all; whose life is it? Those who seek to retain New Zealand’s current position, that assisted euthanasia remain illegal, and a criminal offence under ss 63 and 179 of the Crimes Act 1961, may seek to argue on grounds focusing on the dangers of misapplied euthanasia, and the intrinsic (and therefore immeasurable) value of every life, thereby also avoiding quantifying a ‘worthwhile’ life.

What has confirmed my own position is not so much principles and values affixed to rights and life, although my Christian faith can’t be extricated from the mix of my opinions. Rather, it has been my growing horrified realisation of how vulnerable people like my mother are. We have control over her money; no problem. I and my brothers made the decisions about where she lived, her possessions are ours to do with what we will in practical reality irrespective of legal niceties. I have learned a lot in recent months about the real power I had over my mother’s life. What frightened me is the prospect that I should have had any power whatsoever over her death. My mother would have, without hesitation, signed any end-of-life directive to absolve medical staff of responsibility, or naming me or one of my brothers the decision-maker regarding termination in the event of her mental incapacity. In our family’s case I don’t think the ending would have been any different really, given our personalities and our mix of values and morals and faiths. I could never have carried out any such document myself. I could never have sought to end my mother’s life at any point. But that’s neither here nor there, when it comes to a law changes affecting all of us.

Most cases of euthanasia will occur with the old and terminally ill. And I have no doubt that there are many terminally ill, elderly and incapacitated patients in this country who would have agreed to their own termination but perhaps under duress from their families. Or they would have agreed with no duress whatsoever but may well continue to have moments of life worth living after competence had ended, but can no longer summon the words or thoughts to defend those little moments. And I have learned that those little moments still make a life, a little life, to be sure, but a life of real value nonetheless. Ultimately, even though we try to steer the euthanasia debate away from declarations of the worth of any one person’s life, and articulate the debate as a rights issue, (a right to life, a right to control over one’s life, a right to death..) in the day to day we who have the power to decide would have to make judgments of worth. In the implementation of decriminalisation of assisted euthanasia, will not someone, often not the dying person, have to measure the worth of a life in order to decide when to end it?

Are we really that confident in our own abilities to judge the subjective worth of the lives of others?

What some bloody awful cartoons can tell us about ourselves.

What some bloody awful cartoons can tell us about ourselves.

(Please note: an edited version of this post has been published on E-Tangata.)

I don’t get personally offended easily. I learned a while ago not to buy too much into the fever-dreams of keyboard warriors, and most of the people around me who do say outrageous things are not loathsome people, so I don’t care to waste my energy in policing them. And, I’m lucky, I think, to have avoided some of the more obvious slings and arrows of racist misfortune in my life.

Except, I haven’t. Not really. I’m a child of the urban migrations and the lost WWII generation, before that, a descendent of colonial wars, and before that, of inter-tribal musket wars, and all the upheavals and trauma, political, demographic and spiritual, in between.  I am who I am because of the collective Te Rarawa and Māori experience of intergenerational losses; including the loss of language, place and space, tribal connection, knowledge, and sheer entitlement.  As an Anglican I’m also heir to the good and the bad of church history, particularly in the North and Waikato.  Of course, I am the sum of other things as well, my Irish and German forbears and their respective histories, but those things lie lightly on me.

Just because I have a pretty peaceable nature, it would be easy to mistake someone like me on face value as someone ‘balanced’ not likely to fly off the handle, someone who isn’t too ‘PC’. Probably so, but I carry the weight of Māori history, like any other ‘descendent of a New Zealand Māori’, to use that quaint phrase of legislative definition.

And for many of us from Māori families and communities, the historical losses don’t tell the whole story, compounded as it is, by the accumulation of many little and large unintentional slights, deliberate hurts, and omissions over years of racism and bigotry that can be forgiven, but can’t be wished  or washed away; or unfelt, unseen, or unheard.

Yet we are expected in the eyes of many (not all, of course) simply to be ‘good sports’. Come on, let the mispronunciation rest, let the accusation of theft pass, let the suspicious glance lie, live down to that low expectation, let the stereotype alone, oh, grow a sense of humour and just let the past be, don’t be so easily offended. No matter how that past calcifies around us like an oddly inefficient shell: porous enough to let the hurt through, and unyielding enough to last through generations.

So, as ‘good sports’ we know the engineering students’ bastard “haka” performed annually for 25 years, ending in ’79 was just a generation-long harmless joke; the deliberate & non-deliberate butchering of Māori names on our airwaves and in our classrooms is just something to be borne, don’t make a fuss; naked selfies on a sacred maunga are just awesome T & A photo ops; artists, academics and government officials alike can, like magpies, pinch the shiny bits of the language out of dictionaries for their signs, their academic papers, their artworks without ever being able to speak a complete sentence in the language, let alone know what it means; yes, we will sit for your portrait, we will die on your canvas, your tote bag, your tea-towel, we will be the noble savage of your dreams.

Hey, it’s OK. You’re welcome.

But a small thing is never just a small thing, right?

Of course Māori can never claim a monopoly on the experience of racism and bigotry, and grievance is not a state of grace we should seek to hold on to.  But just like the violent and heavy histories, the stories we tell and retell of small (and big) moments of everyday ignorance and racism are autochthonous; formed of this soil, and of this air, and in this land of shifting light. And sometimes, just for the purpose of release, those stories must be told and retold with fresh anger each time, as Amie Berghan Paulet shows by sharing some of the words on the tip of her tongue:

Racism is when you label my people ‘dole bludgers’.

Racism is when you tell my people to just ‘get over it, the past is the past’.

Racism is when you look at the ‘statistics’ and not the truth that is hiding behind the statistics.

Racism is when discussing history you expect my people to walk towards you for healing instead of you walking towards us.

Racism is when you take naked selfies on our sacred mountains and then label us as ‘prudes’ or pass over our offence as if it’s because we don’t understand freedom to self-expression.

It’s true that Māori are asked forgo much in order to preserve the sanctity of “freedom to self-expression”.  Up to the limit of the law, of course.

Right. So, what is the limit of the law? Al Nisbet can help us there.

Do you remember, from a few years back, his cartoon caricatures of waddling Māori bludgers with their smokes and their alcohol and the glint of greed in their beady, calculating eyes? The ones with the dull, bloated children with stunted futures and dubious parentage? Remember those cartoons? Well, unsurprisingly, some of us got upset when they were published back in 2013, and Louisa Wall and South Auckland youth group Warriors of Change took The Press and Marlborough Express newspapers to court. Well, more specifically, the Human Rights Review Tribunal.

A couple of weeks ago the decision came in: according to the Tribunal the cartoons, offensive as they are, did not breach the Human Rights Act 1993.

How does this happen?

First off, where does this right to freedom of expression come from anyway? This magic notion, that is as limitless as human thought and imagination, is set out in s14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, and let’s be clear; the right is not absolute, it has limits, including limits imposed by law.

Including this bit of law: s61(1) of the Human Rights Act 1993. According to this section it is unlawful for any person to publish or distribute written matter that is threatening, abusive or insulting; and likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons on [in this case] the basis of race.

It’s not hard to find those cartoons insulting towards Māori, and the Tribunal agreed. Those cartoons could indeed go straight to the top shelf of small and large things designed to add to the weight of everyday bigotry and racism. Straight to the poolroom, even.

It’s the last requirement that’s the hardest: it’s a causation test. Words (or images, as here) cannot merely be hurtful and degrading or insulting, they actually have to be likely to cause other people to become hostile against Māori on the basis of race.

To cut a long story short, the Tribunal said no. The cartoons did not reach that threshold. Case closed. And regardless of what I’m about to say below, in the main, I agree with the result. Simply to live in this society we have to allow those around us to say horrible things we don’t like, even if those things wound us; and they do. In turn we have the same ability to insult, wound, and offend. My Facebook feed is replete with people (often brown ones) gleefully taking up the opportunity to rip into others. This is part of our jostling co-existence and the cost to our own freedom to insult and offend and express whatever we want would be too great to close down the Al Nisbets of this world, even though his work adds to our burden of racist experiences.

But I did want to call your attention to something else in the Tribunal’s judgment.

In evaluating whether Nisbet’s cartoons were likely to incite hatred, the Tribunal, as directed by the Supreme Court in an earlier case, had to turn to that marvellous legal fiction, the ‘reasonable person‘. You see, how do we know if insulting words are likely to excite others to be hostile against Māori? Well that depends on someone who has never existed; the reasonable person, a kind of paragon of circumspect behaviour that just happens to be lurking around at the time when these published images hit the public arena. This sensible and sober person would have some knowledge, so would know that the cartoons show Māori people, would have some idea of the stereotypes in play, and would know about local conditions and community. Would that reasonable person, aware of the context and circumstances surrounding the use of the words, view them as exposing Māori to hatred among other people?

But here’s the thing. The ‘reasonable person’ is not allowed, in the context of the Human Rights Act 1993, to be Māori. Not in this case, and probably not ever. The focus is not on how greatly Māori were injured, but on how likely NON-Māori were to become hostile as a result. As the Tribunal said:

In the present case the cartoons were unquestionably about a subject of public interest; they were also provocative. That Māori and Pacifika were offended and insulted is not the point. Section 61 is directed not to the effect on them, but on the effect on non-Māori and non-Pacifika and the likelihood of their being excited to hostility against Māori and Pacifika or their holding Māori and Pacifika in contempt. In our view the cartoons were insulting but fell well short of bringing Māori and Pacifika into contempt.

See, I imagine a reasonable person that can be Māori, who can emerge out of the context within which Māori live, that can appreciate the weight of history and everyday bigotry on the hearts and minds of Māori people. I imagine a reasonable Māori person that can see that, and still value freedom of expression.

But the Tribunal couldn’t really explain to me why it is that the reasonable person in this case and in our general legal system is never Māori.

Perhaps we carry too much weight, too much hurt, you see, to ever be trusted to be truly reasonable. Or truly normal and ordinary.

Just maybe the Māori reasonable person, has no sense of humour.

Casual Racism & the Phone Message of Doom

Casual Racism & the Phone Message of Doom

I remember how much like a punch in the gut it felt to hear, at the age of 16, how my then-boyfriend’s mother had said to him, “Well, dear. It is not as if we will ever let you marry a Maori.” He reported to this me with a shake of his head and a laugh, until he caught sight of my reaction. I stared at him with my mouth open, my eyes welling with tears. I had been staying at his house with he and his parents in Wellington, and it was shortly before I was due to leave. She had said this awful thing even as I was staying under their roof. To be honest there was a little bit of context to that remark, he and I had been caught the previous evening in a little bit of a compromising position (cuddling on the same bed fully clothed, with door closed, in 1986, if you MUST know) , and he had been trying to mollify her annoyance. So that was her ultimate riposte; I wasn’t marriageable material anyway, so what did it matter what he did?

Once he saw my reaction my boyfriend realised, I think, how far over the line this comment was, and how painful it had been for me to hear. Actually, funny post-script..when I did leave, he and I went to the airport, and as we waited in the terminal, there was an announcement over the speakers that there was a phone-call for me at the Air New Zealand desk. At the other end of the phone was his mother, apologising to me, and saying how she really didn’t mean what she said, and what a wonderful person I was. And while I never married her son, in the years that followed, when I would visit, she always treated me with the greatest respect, and with real (so I felt) affection. I never held any long-term resentment over the comment; I just filed it away, I guess, under ‘moments that make us figure out who we are, and who we are not.’

I was reminded of that moment when I read about the Marae employee Blake Ihimaera receiving an unwelcome telephone message, when the employee of the car company she was hiring from inadvertently failed to terminate the call, and he and his colleague had a moan about Māori people; they needed to be sent to their own island, and why the hell did they want their own prison anyway. Blake describes the moment she heard the message as being one where the bubble she had been living in burst. She had lived, up until that time in a pro-Māori world, and this moment had shattered that bubble, maybe forever. I absolutely got that, that’s how I felt. I knew, at my tender age then, that there was racism and I knew Māori had had a bad deal (didn’t quite know the details back then) but this was the first time I had really felt belittled directly for simply being who I was.

What I have learned in the intervening 30 years is that this kind of casual bigotry is endemic, but that it is only rarely a means to its own end. When my boyfriend’s mother said what she said, of course it was racist. But it was also designed to hurt him because of the rule that we had broken. I was the means to her end of belittling him and his choices, more than anything else. We say the most awful things to the people we love the most. When I listened to the conversation between the car company employees, I heard that kind of racist ‘locker room talk’ between people that quite possibly don’t know each other all that well, and are looking for ways to connect. And Blake, like me, was the means to that ignominious end.

So in that sense it’s a mistake to call this racism casual at all, there was nothing casual about it in either event. The first example was one of deliberate punishment for transgression, and the second was a deliberate social strategy (so so it seemed to me). The awful thing in that second example is really how easily  Māori people, or any people for that matter, are sacrificed to that long social process of building useful relationships. The things I have heard over my life about Chinese, Samoans, Iraquis, Somalians, Aborigines, when the speaker thinks he or she need a bit of social lubrication to get by, are pretty depressingly awful. Many such bigoted comments have been made by Māori and Pasifika, unsurprisingly. And here’s the thing: they almost always work. The raucous “FAARKthat’s funny!” laughter, the common raised eyebrows, the nod, the half shrug, the quiet ‘yeah, well…’. I have never seen anyone walk out of that kind of personal conversation, and that includes me, although I’m a lot better now at calling that kind of talk bollocks when I hear it, than I was in my 20s or 30s. I have enough social capital that I can afford to lose some of it, you see.

It’s easy enough to say, ‘well just call it out. Call all that racist behaviour out, and if you put up with it you are as bad as they are. Boycott that car company for being racist bastards.’  Yep, good call, consequences change behaviour, right?

Now let’s look at our own lives and see how honest we really are in calling bigotry out when we see it. Or are we actually quite fond of it? Is this a dirty little secret tool that we actually do keep in our kete of social interactions? Maybe lots of us don’t. I hope so. But my theory is we will sometimes put up with or promulgate outrageously untrue statements about large swathes of people we gleefully put to the sword for a moment of fellow-feeling. Or perhaps we do it to make a point, or to punish someone, or whatever our immediate social need is at the time. And social media provides us with the massive echo chamber of bigotry to play around in. This comment on Facebook summed up the problem nicely:

they should be sacked from their job not good enough that this is 2017 and we are still experiencing these racists remarks in our own country Damn white trash is all i can say

Doing it for the likes, right? in fact, 29 as at last count at 5.28pm Monday and three comments; all vociferously in favour.

Ah, basic social anthropology I guess, in group/out group, nothing new to see here. But if we are to preside over the gradual death of ‘casual’ racism in our society we can’t shame it into extinction if we don’t also eradicate our own love of casual bigotry.

So. Sport and weather it is, then…

 

 

Religion in schools…what about karakia?

I am shamelessly recycling this post from a year or so back, only cos religion in school is now back before the court

***

My eye was drawn to a catchy headline thrown to me by my Facebook feed the other week. The headline read:

Karakia could fall foul of ban on Bible teaching in state schools

Upon clicking, I discovered AUT Professor Paul Moon had asserted  that: “Banning religious practices in schools, may inevitably extend to removing karakia from schools as well”. This piece was followed up by a report on Te Karere.

My first response to these reports was a swift stab of, “Oh, no you bloody don’t!” Many, many Māori would have had their hackles raised at the mere prospect of State interference in what many consider to be primarily a cultural, rather than a religious, practice. I can’t think of a serious endeavour, or hui, in everyday Māori cultural life, where karakia don’t have some kind of presence, even if a muted one. The most irreligious of Māori will often still take part in karakia. Would kids and teachers in kura kaupapa Māori, for example, really be faced with a ban on saying karakia? I wondered.

The article I read did not identify exactly how karakia might qualify as ‘a religious practice’ or how it could be controlled or banned, let alone if , or how, such a path could even be implemented. There are a few building blocks that need to be put in place before we can agree with the Secular Education Network’s confident assertion that McClintock’s case (if it does get heard) would not result in the banning of Maori cultural practices.

First of all; just what are we allowed to do, in our public education system? Some of the answer is in s77 of the Education Act 1964:

every State primary school shall be kept open 5 days in each week for at least 4 hours each day, of which hours 2 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon shall be; and the teaching shall be entirely of a secular character.

So, our primary public education system is a secular one, and has been since the inception of free, compulsory education in 1877; separation of church and state, and all that.Except..when it may not be.

(And interestingly, secondary education need not be secular, and Boards of Trustees have discretion to allow non-discriminatory religious instruction under the Education Act 1989; arguably a hangover from the days when education was not compulsory beyond the age of 13)

s78 of the 1964 Act says that primary schools can close for short periods of time during the day:

for the purposes of religious instruction given by voluntary instructors approved by the school’s board and of religious observances conducted in a manner approved by the school’s board or for either of those purposes; and the school buildings may be used for those purposes or for either of them.

So. religious instruction and religious observation can be carried out at secular primary schools during periods of agreed closure. As an example, during lunchtimes, schools are ‘closed’ for instruction, so available for Bible classes as matters of religious instruction (teaching children what to believe, not teaching about religions). This is when the children who opt out might be set aside to read a book, or even wash dishes, or some other alternative activity.

Yes, opt out. Under s79(1) children may opt out of any such instruction, as long as their parents or guardians request this, in writing, of the school. Not opt-in, whereby parents or guardians request in writing that children ‘sign up’ for such instruction.

Ah. You see; this system also applies to religious observation, not just instruction. And that is where we have to look more closely at what karakia may, or may not, be. Because if karakia count as religious observation under s78 then schools need to ‘close’ during the day in order to facilitate such observation, and parents have to notify their schools in writing if they wish their children not to participate in karakia. And if a case such as McClintock’s succeeds in prompting law change, for example changing opt out to opt in, then religious observation would be included, and parents and guardians would need to write in for their children to be able to participate in religious observation; IF karakia can indeed be called that. To say that such a change would threaten a chilling effect on cultural practices at the very least would not , to my mind, be scaremongering. A ban would not be technically correct, but it wouldn’t have to be.

So we have to grapple with this question: what the heck are karakia anyway? There is no doubt that sometimes prayers occur in New Zealand primary schools that are Christian in nature, but that called karakia (and sometimes called īnoi). As alluded to above, we have been down this track before. Three years ago, some staff at a Christchurch primary school were unhappy about prayer being used during school hours.

Children from the Avondale primary school’s Maori bilingual unit lead pupils and staff in daily prayer, a tradition stretching back two decades in a school that is a melting pot of race and creed.

Principal Heather Bell says beginning the day this way brings a sense of grounding to the school and creates a sense of belonging.

Translated, the brief Maori prayer penned by the school’s kaiarahi reo or Maori language assistant, says: “Lord look after us, guide us with your work today, in your holy name.”

Some, perhaps many Māori will say such prayers are not, in fact, karakia at all. Ngaire McCarthy is a keen proponent of the view that karakia have been co-opted by Christianity, and that at their traditional core, karakia are in no way religious:

The traditional karakia that is used to open and close ceremonies is not a Christian prayer, it is a ritual chant, a set form of words to state or make effective a ritual activity. Karakia are recited rapidly using traditional language, symbols and structures.

The early missionaries saw Maori traditions through a Biblical framework and believed that karakia was always a prayer, so they took the word and reinterpreted it to mean Christian prayer. The word karakia then became just another tool of colonization.

If the few kaumatua (elderly Maori) who articulate the karakia, are Christian, they will continue to misrepresent our customary karakia. This puts them into direct conflict with our pre-colonization customary traditions.

According to 19th century sources; karakia were used to ensure correctness of process, to mark transitions, to ensure safety (among many other things). Te Mātāpunenga defines karakia in the following way:

Karakia. A set form of words to state, confirm or make effective the intent of a ritual activity, and the reciting of these words, thus often translated by terms such as “incantation”, “charm”, or “spell”. In modern usage the term has been extended to include Christian and other religious services (for example, a church is often referred to as a whare karakia). In traditional ritual activity strict adherence to the proper the form of the karakia was essential; hesitation, mispronunciation or omissions in its recitation could negate or reverse its intended effects and bring harm to those involved. The word is Proto-Tahitic in origin, with similar meanings in Tuamotuan, Rarotongan and Mäori.

On one view then, karakia are cultural ritual without religion, and ought to be entirely safe for use within the primary school environment. On this view culturally bastardised prayers are masquerading as karakia, and fall foul of the law.

I really question this dualistic approach to understanding karakia. For one thing, the moment any traditional karakia envisages, propitiates, or acknowledges any power or entity outside of the human experience; that karakia takes on a spiritual dimension, and it becomes a matter of definitional point-scoring in determining when matters spiritual shade into matters religious.

Further, the presumption that Māori traditionally had no religion sometimes stemmed from ethnologists and writers of the 19th and 20th centuries (a great collection of such attitudes are listed and traversed in detail in Elsdon Best’s Māori Religion and Mythology) who assumed that Māori practices lacking temples, and in most cases, reference to a supreme being, could not comprise “true religion”. This attitude smacks of a similar insistence that Māori law could not comprise “true law” because there were no courts or Parliament. The extent to which Māori religion remains in modern New Zealand, as with law, is an open and fascinating question.

The courts in New Zealand, and Canada have all had to consider what counts as ‘religion’ as Fiona Wright identified in 2007:

Australian and New Zealand courts have said that religion involves belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle as well as canons of conduct that give effect to that belief…Canadian courts have described religion as a “particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship” combined with “belief in a divine, superhuman or controlling power” [..] In essence, religion is about freely and deeply held personal convictions or beliefs connected to an individual’s spiritual faith and integrally linked to one’s self-definition and spiritual fulfilment, the practices of which allow individuals to foster a connection with the divine or with the subject or object of that spiritual faith.

So depending on your definition of religion karakia can be defined as religious observations for the purposes of the Education Act 1964.  Or depending on your definition of religion, karakia are not religious and won’t count for the purposes of the Act.

On either reading, karakia are still cultural practices. This is arguably the line skated in Te Aho Matua (the curriculum followed by Kura Kaupapa)  which ascribes a special place to karakia:

5.2 Ko te tino painga o te karakia he mea whakatau i te wairua, whakawatea i te whatumanawa me te hinengaro, whakarata i te ngakau, whakataka i ngā raru, kia ngawari ai te whakauru atu ki te mahi kua whakaritea hei mahi.

[Kura kaupapa Māori] practise karakia as a means of settling the spirit, clearing the mind and releasing tension so that concentration on the task at hand is facilitated.

But there will be times when merely ‘settling the spirit’ involves invocation of a deity or deities, and the cultural thus arguably includes the religious.

So if the McClintock case ever does get argued, and if restrictions do end up being  placed on religious instruction in primary schools, in order to protect secular education, and to uphold the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (in NZBORA, s13), Māori cultural rights (protected under s20 of the BORA) will most definitely be under threat.

And I wonder (with my tongue in my cheek..but only just) about implementation. Who will put their hand up for the job of karakia police, patrolling schools and kura, watching and listening for karakia and those code words in Māori that sound suspiciously religious (depending which official is defining ‘religion’ that day), and must face strict control, rather than those that sound merely ‘cultural’, that can be left alone. How would any kind of regulation not involve cultural interference?

After all that, I think I’m back to my old gut instinct with which I started this piece: “Oh no, you bloody don’t!”

 

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.

Andrew Little and the Māori lightbulb moment.

Andrew Little and the Māori lightbulb moment.

Just so you know…I changed my mind somewhat on the position I took in this post. For the update post see E-Tangata.

 

It was a great question from Morning Report’s Susie Ferguson to the leader of the Labour Party, Andrew Little.

Ok…the Labour vote is high in those Māori seats, but isn’t there a hunger from the voters in those seats for an electorate MP who is from a kaupapa Māori party?

It was a great question for two reasons (in my mind)..firstly, the fact that Susie knew what a kaupapa Māori party was, and was comfortable with the nomenclature. Props. Secondly, the answer to that question showed Little lacks a useful understanding of Māori thinking. It was a kind of lightbulb moment in reverse: he showed us he had no idea where the switch is, let alone the bulb, that could illuminate Māori politics for any of us.

[Little] Well, the Māori Party is not kaupapa Māori. We know that, it has conceded on every important issue affecting Māori in the last nine years.

[Ferguson]: They would probably take issue with that!

[Little] Well in the end, what it comes down to is: how do Māori have the strongest voice, not just in Parliament but in government. At the moment it comes through the Māori Party which is two MPs tacked on to the National Party that doesn’t need to listen to them on anything if it doesn’t wish to.

Oh boy. we have the Leader of the Opposition telling us what is and isn’t kaupapa Māori. I don’t really mind any Pākehā person voicing an opinion about things Māori. So the fact that Little is Pākehā doesn’t gall me. What galls me is that he has pronounced grandly upon something he doesn’t understand. As can be seen above he has given us a definition of kaupapa Māori. Extrapolating from his words above we now know that a political party can only be kaupapa Māori if it wins battles in Parliament on every important issue affecting Māori. And then he seems to contradict his own statement by saying the Māori Party provides the strongest Māori voice in Parliament (albeit from the beat up Vauxhall being towed behind the big blue bus). Way to build up your own Māori MPs, Andrew, by conceding they don’t have the strongest voice already.

I’ll leave it to others to defend the Māori Party’s own record. That is not my focus; my focus is instead Little’s apparent ignorance of Māori and Māori modes of thought and action.

So what do we now know of kaupapa Māori in the wake of the Little interview?

  1. No Māori affiliated with the National Party can ever claim to come from a base of Kaupapa Māori
  2. Kaupapa Māori can only ever be measured in terms of policy victories
  3. Kaupapa Māori can only ever be measured in the strength of the loudest voice proclaiming it.
  4. Kaupapa Māori can only be exercised in regards to issues directly affecting Māori.

On this definition, neither the Māori Party nor the Mana Party nor Sir Āpirana Ngata could ever be accused of employing kaupapa Māori.

OK, for those of you who may be unsure as to what is meant by the phrase ‘kaupapa Māori’ in the first place, here is Te Aka’s definition:

Māori approach, Māori topic, Māori customary practice, Māori institution, Māori agenda, Māori principles, Māori ideology – a philosophical doctrine, incorporating the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values of Māori society.

It’s a pretty broad set of ideas. Others have said kaupapa Māori is a way of doing things from a Māori worldview. Operating from a kaupapa Māori perspective then has nothing whatsoever to do with the battles you win or lose, but more with the way you think, act and make decisions. Kaupapa Māori can be exercised by individuals and groups, but will obviously have more impact when collectively undertaken. In fact, have a look at the Māori Party constitution if you want to get a sense of what operating from a base of kaupapa Māori can involve.

Some may have a more exclusive view than I do; maintaining that kaupapa Māori can only be employed by Māori for Māori; I would say people who are not Māori can learn to operate from a kaupapa Māori perspective. Actually, I have also known some Pākehā who probably don’t even know they view the world in a way absolutely consistent with Māori values and Māori philosophies. I wouldn’t say they operate from a kaupapa Māori bases, but they are not so very far from those of us who do. On the other hand there are also Māori who claim to operate from a kaupapa Māori base who completely undercut such claims in what they say and do.

Kaupapa Māori is not a respecter of political affiliation, I don’t ask for kaumatua’s voting record before he or she gives karanga or whaikōrero, or offers me kai.   Nor does kaupapa Māori require stridency. The quietest voice in the room may be that espousing a kaupapa Māori view, for those with the ears to listen.

Further, kaupapa Māori is not a topic. Nor does it comprise a set of finite issues. World-views tend not to be so restricted. Saying people coming from a base of kaupapa Māori may only opine on things relevant to Māori is as ridiculous as saying a French speaker may only converse in matters of relevance to France.

Little has provided a handy rallying cry for those who would seek to undermine the Labour Māori vote. I am sure his own Māori candidates, MPS and membership will not thank him for disparaging the Māori Party in this way when they find themselves having to defend a leader who has commandeered the Māori language and insulted Māori politicians and voters in such a cavalier way.

 

 

Look. 2016 is just another bloody year, OK?

Look. 2016 is just another bloody year, OK?

It’s a funny thing, our artificial division of time into discrete years. We allocate personalities and distinct colours to particular years, regardless of the fact that nothing really separates December 31 from January 1, except our fevered imaginations. We operate according to an odd supposition that we experience a given year in a way that is somehow common  with other people all around the world, despite that sheer impossibility that this could ever be true.

In our lived reality, maybe time is more like a river. As Heraclitus said you can never step in the same river twice. Once a moment in time had happened, you can never get it back (wormholes and Interstellar-type movie plots aside, of course). But we do all in our power to deny that basic proposition: even my power bill conspires to make me see time as a predictable, manageable series of chunks, by sending me handy little graphs showing tiny monthly skyscrapers of my power usage, as if this year could be compared with last year in some meaningful way.

Maybe we should blame the Gregorian calendar, that temporal bloody hamster wheel of months and days that grinds on into the future. Notwithstanding time-zone differences, most of the world experiences the same month at the same time, in addition the years are broken up by festivals, religious and secular many of which are now recognisable around the world even though they themselves might originate from different calendars; Valentine’s Day, All Saints Day, Diwali, Christmas, Easter, Hannukah, Chinese New Year, Matariki…it doesn’t really matter. We, no matter our culture, like our time in chunks, dressed up, with purpose, with character, explicable. Maybe then we can grasp it, control it, make it stay, make it mean more than it really does.

We are now in the middle of a collective, apparently worldwide phenomenon of attempted time control. We are told that 2016 is unprecedented, that we are in the middle of an orgy of death, loss and change. 2016 is the Year the Music Died. 2016 is the year of Trump and Brexit, the year the Feminist Bubble burst, to name a few monikers. One Australian site kicks off its 2016 review with a nicely understated sentence:

THIS year feels like the ugliest, cruellest, most frightening year in history.Political norms and hegemonies have disintegrated, leaving us to flounder in the uncertainty of Donald Trump, Brexit and the clash of civilisations that is radical Islam vs. the west.

Aw gummon. I can name any number of years that might jostle for that overblown title, with the benefit of historical hindsight. We don’t even have the hindsight yet, the dust hasn’t settled, the sand has not yet exited the hourglass, but the judgement had been made. A later paragraph gives readers a clue as to the author’s own rationale:

This year we suffered the Orlando nightclub attack which killed 49, suicide bombs in Istanbul which killed 45, the Bastille Day truck massacre in Nice, France, which slaughtered 77, the Brussels airport and metro attacks which claimed 35 lives and most recently the Christmas market attack in Berlin.

Seriously? “We suffered”? Actually, very few of us did, but this paragraph sweeps all of “us” up into one global homogenous lump, and ignores extraordinary suffering elsewhere. Who the hell are “we” anyway? The society of fellow creatures imagined by the author, that’s all. This article is just more evidence of a giant echo chamber; it is no reportage of an actual THING.

This is not to say that bad things have not happened, of course they have. Some things, such as Brexit, are not yet bad or good, we just don’t know WHAT they mean yet. And to very many of ‘us’, ‘We’ don’t give a tinker’s cuss. Some perspective can be good. Some relief from the echo chamber is welcome.

My kids, for example, view the year totally differently than many of the worried adults I know.  For them this has been the first year of secondary school for the 13 year old, the year of the 7 year old’s birthday sleepover, the year the 10 year old had his first Trinity exam. They talk about Trump, and they are a bit scared of the shouty orange man, but he’s not more important than DragonBallZ Xenoverse 2. He just isn’t. Nor is he nor the death of Bowie more important than the signing of the Wairoa settlement in November. Fill in the following blank with the Important Event or Moment of your choice __________.

Really all the broader 2016-angst reveals is the preconceptions of some of us about our own  lives, and probably, our own sense of helplessness and lack of control over time and mortality. Some of us really have had terrible experiences in the last 12 months, and there are genuinely scary things happening around the world, and we are part of that world. But, like all moments, consequential or otherwise, this stretch of moments will soon be lost, like tears in rain.

Old King Log, New King Stork. Trump’s lesson for Aotearoa.

Old King Log, New King Stork. Trump’s lesson for Aotearoa.

 

I remember waking up one morning last year, lying awake for a moment, feeling contented and normal. Then memory and grief kicked in; my mother was dead, and my world had changed forever.

My anaesthesia had worn off.

I had a similar moment on Thursday morning when I remembered Trump had won the US presidential elections. Of course my adult brain then took over from those primal feelings and I began to reason with myself: “don’t be so ridiculous! How bad could it really be; it is just another day; democracy has not died, and neither have you, sunshine.It’s not the end of the bloody world, toughen up. Who cares anyway? Maybe he’ll be just the kind of orange change-agent that could really cut through the smug Washington bubble…”

Oh who am I kidding. I was afraid. I’m still afraid. I’m not really afraid of Trump’s racism, sexism, narcissism or any other of his other charming personal qualities; really it is his permission-giving that is problematic. Maybe tyranny is in all of us; we just need someone to give us permission to give in to it. Social media and mainstream media is swarming with accounts of Trump-loving idiots carrying out hate-based attacks (some accounts have been made up, some not so). Those things are awful, but in a way, I don’t feel viscerally afraid about them, as many US residents now do. Maybe I am just too removed.

I am scared that our planet is screwed because a climate denier is in the White House. I’m scared that more wars will come because the significant geopolitical shifts that might happen because of the isolationist in the White House. Whatever you believe about ISIL, and the cancerous instability of the Middle East being all the fault of US foreign policy, the world is a less violent and less war-riven place than it ever has been. (Read this if you don’t believe me). Much of that has to do with trade, and the US role in geopolitics. (The UN too, but that’s another story..) As American writer and blogger Ryan Bohl puts it:

Consider how many old rivalries U.S. alliances have put to rest.  Japan and Korea are now bound under the American aegis: so too are Germany and France, Greece and Turkey, Poland and Germany, Italy and Austria, to name just a few.  While Europe was once the world’s most warlike continent, today it is the most peaceful (Ukraine notwithstanding).  That is entirely because the U.S. has secured Europe in a way that Europe never could.

 

Planet Earth is considerably safer with the United States as the dominant power precisely because it keeps vast swathes of humanity disarmed.  It isn’t so much a matter of it being the United States as the geopolitical system being dominated by a single power that has already reached the natural limits of expansion – that last part being key because a rising power that hasn’t yet learned when to stop conquering is quite dangerous.  The U.S. is out of the empire building business; its best leaders are those who tend to its network of alliances and trade deals with an eye for stability.

So that has been interesting. I had never thought of myself as a fan of US interventionism at all. It is only my fear of the forthcoming change that exposes me. Better the devil we know. Or maybe I’m just a doom-saying fraidy-cat, who needs more geo-political education. Quite true, I’m sure. And yet.

So what do we take from this new set of realities for us here in Aotearoa? Our politicians are uniformly dismayed about the rise of Trump. On the other hand, many Māori are probably happy, no doubt, that TPPA is dead.

I tweeted on Wednesday night about how happy I was to be here in NZ. It was the silver lining to my night. But.  Are we at risk of the rise of the Trump-style demagogue here? There are two main bulwarks, or defences, against it that immediately come to mind. One is our level of electoral participation. And perhaps there is a lesson in here for Māori, Pākehā and tauiwi alike. I firmly believe that Trump was not voted in by a pack of racist, sexist xenophobes. That’s just too glib. I think what happened is yet to be fully explained over the coming weeks and months, but one thing is clear: Trump became possible because 10 million Obama supporters decided not to vote at all, compared to 2008. In fact, only 56.9% of eligible voters cast a ballot at all in this US election. This compares with 77.9% of NZ registered voters turning out in NZ’s last general election in 2014. This includes 67.59% of Māori eligible voters. So, while Māori voter apathy is a real problem, perspective is interesting; US voter apathy can lead to a failed change-agent such as Obama and an ignorant strong-man like Trump come to power on the back of resentment of “the elites” and a yearning for revolution; a yearning for someone who promises what they simply cannot deliver. So what happens in our country as far as the housing crisis, growing discontent and income inequality is concerned matters from this perspective too. The danger is not just that people who are powerless and angry vote for someone like Trump; the danger is they don’t vote at all.

The second bulwark against Trump NZ is ongoing connection between our ‘elites’; our educated, liberal, politically engaged, high-income urbanites and the rest of us. I came across this article today, with Andrew Sullivan, an English writer and blogger cautioning against the wholesale jettison of the elites in a mature democracy:

The freedom in that democracy has to be experienced to be believed — with shame and privilege in particular emerging over time as anathema. But it is inherently unstable. As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.

But maybe we are already there. There are arguably growing gaps between Māori elites and the rest of us; just as there is growing mutual incomprehension between Pākehā elites and the rest of the Pākehā population.  If this trajectory continues, we too will, one day throw the baby out with the bathwater in a fit of mutual self loathing, and surrender to demagoguery.

So what to do? For one thing, depending on where we sit on the spectrum, we have to resist the temptation to heap scorn and contempt on those we perceive to be different (culturally, socio-economically, politically) from us. For another; engage with those selfsame people. Talk to the people you loathe the most. Whanaungatanga.  Our future depends on it.

Let me finish with an ancient story; one of Aesop’s fables.

According to the story, a group of frogs lived happily and peacefully in a pond. Over time, however, they became discontented with their way of life, and thought they should have a mighty king to rule over them. They called out to the great god Zeus to send them a king.

Zeus was amused by the frogs’ request, and cast a large log down into their pond, saying “Behold, your king!” At first, the frogs were terrified of the huge log, but after seeing that it did not move, they began to climb upon it. Once they realized the log would not move, they called out again to Zeus to send them a real king, one that moved.

Annoyed by the frogs, Zeus said, “Very well, here is your new king,” and sent a large stork to the pond. The stork began devouring frogs. In terror, frogs called out to Zeus to save them. Zeus refused, saying the frogs now had what they’d wanted, and had to face the consequences.

As the US is learning…be careful what you wish for. Or even – be careful of what you can’t be bothered wishing for.

[Please note: a slightly edited version of this piece has been posted on E-Tangata]

 

 

 

An attack of the guilts? Yeah, nah.

An attack of the guilts? Yeah, nah.

There has been a lot said lately about people of privilege behaving badly.  You remember; Nikolas Delegat getting a sentence of community service for seriously assaulting a female police officer; the Chiefs and Scarlett, the woman they hired at their mad Monday bash who subsequently made accusations about player behaviour that no-one appears to have backed up; and no one appears to give a damn about, hiding behind their corporate identity, (while she loses her job). Then there has been case of Losi Filipo. As is well known by now, he beat 4 people up on one drunken night, quite severely and received a conditional discharge without conviction (now under appeal). The public, including me, have been exercised over these events. One interesting theme comes up again and again and again: “what about consequences?! How are these men ever going to learn good behaviour if they face no bloody consequences?”

On a parenting 101 level this makes sense right? We have to model to our kids that if we do something wrong, we have to ‘fess up, we have to face a penalty, and we have to Make Good.

So the criminal justice system gets the usual kicking; white men from rich families, rugby players with “rugby privilege” (OK, that was new one for me) get off while brown poor men get shown the slammer and non-Rugby players have to take the real medicine.

At one level, all of this palaver seems curiously one sided to me. I do understand the privilege arguments, I also understand what other commentators have been saying about not chopping young people’s prospects off the knees (but I still cheered when Paul Henry gave Steve Tew his BEANS on breakfast telly the other morning.) The reason I think this is a kind of sterile debate is that we are expecting the criminal justice system to do what it no longer can in our modern and diverse  mainstream culture. Perhaps it never could. (Warning: lots of potboiler generalisations coming…)

We expect these young people to ‘man’ up to consequences, on the one hand, while feeding them, and ourselves, a pretty consistent diet of of guilt denial on the other. I’m choosing my words deliberately here; not “responsibility”, not “ownership” not “accepting their part”. I am talking of guilt. Old-fashioned, gut-churning, ashen-faced “what have I done??” guilt.

Actually, guilt is flipped; what we want is guilt-free. Like ice-cream, we can choose our actions and inactions in such a way as to expunge the possibility that we might just have completely betrayed someone, something, or our very selves.

Our shared (to the extent that it is) idea of modern society now eschews the very notion of ever actually feeling guilty for something we did. Done something bad or inadequate as a parent? Don’t feel guilty; that’s not constructive. Instead you “learn from your mistakes”. Done something bad an an employee? Don’t feel guilty, the employer holds too much power over you for that; don’t ‘fess, don’t tell, don’t accept, maybe file a PG.  Treated an employee badly? Well, wait till the employee files a PG then make the right noises. Had bad sex with someone you don’t even like the smell of? It’s just one of those shared human experiences that forms us: move on. Chalk it up to Experience. For goodness’ sake don’t lie awake at night feeling guilty about the devastating breach of your own standards; this is what we are supposed to do. How else are we to learn and grow?

I’m not suggesting guilt has been eradicated as a phenomenon; of course not. Instead our shared mainstream culture tells us incessantly that guilt is a Bad Thing that gets in the way of the good (read: pleasurable) life. Instead we have to be individual responsible adults, we have to manage our way out of our self inflicted crises; we have to own stuff, and then move on to other stuff. Which sounds OK, really. Except how do you own stuff when you are not encouraged to feel guilt about that ‘stuff’ in the first place? How do you have the maturity of “be responsible” for what you do when you have never perhaps been taught to be still and listen to the enormity of what you have done and the harm you have caused?

Perhaps this problem exists because we have a less clear idea of what is bad in the first place, we are less able to see lines before we have crossed them. Instead, systems are there to tell us when we have done something wrong. Systems exist upon which to displace our guilt, and our true blame. Let the systems creak into action, while we think about something, anything, else. And when it all goes terribly wrong, the system can bear the fault again. It is  perfect self-sustaining…(heh) system. There is always a process (a la Steve Tew) or a bureaucracy that can intercede to stop us from really seeing ourselves for what we really are: not denizens of liberated light at all; but flawed and sometimes bad, often good, usually mediocre creatures.

So these young men mentioned above screwed up; they are all guilty of something, but do they even know what they are guilty of? Forget the offences, or the broken guidelines, or rules. Forget the breaches of systems. Do they know what they have done? Have they been left in the silence of their thoughts or in the uncomfortable scrutiny of their heartbroken families to face the truth of who they really are? Or have they been lulled by the phone-calls of lawyers, by the obfuscation of dissemblers, by the spin doctors, by sheer and simple denial, into believing that they don’t have to face that? Guilt is so overrated, so…dys-functional.

The odd and apparently contradictory thing is, we now live in a climate whereby social shaming has become de rigeur, where we feel entitled to vilify, and hate and point out the morally blameworthy aspects of stupid and wrong things that people say and do. I’ve done it myself; and boy is it satisfying. Being right is just so self-fortifying, and helps me avoid facing those moments when I am, in fact,  egregiously wrong in some way. But social shaming has no interest in guilt. We keyboard warriors are not interested in whether our target lies awake at night mortified by his or her doings; we don’t give a damn. We crave the satisfaction of making our moral superiority known, and the delicious possibility of a craven backdown or grovelling apology by our target.We don’t give a crap about anything real. We just want some kind of surface accounting that we call ‘justice’.

I’m speaking in broad brush terms, of course, and there are many souls in our society that no doubt do understand and feel guilt for what they have done. Perhaps the young men I have mentioned do too. I don’t know, I have no more access to their internal worlds than they do mine. And guilt, not expiated and resolved can lead to terrible psychic anguish and pain. Guilt is not a ‘good’ or ‘desirable’ state; it is merely a way in which we are forced to become familiar with the good and bad within each of us; to know ourselves. And maybe, to become better. I can only hope that we all seize that opportunity if it comes to us. It just seems that knowing and seeing ourselves is the last thing our mainstream culture really wants us to do.

[This post first appeared in a slightly edited form on E-Tangata]

 

 

Holly Walker

selected writing

Local Shared Ministry Resources

"Ko tau rourou, ko taku rourou, ka makona matou": With your resources and my resources the people will live. (Maori proverb)

Aratihi : aw, government and reform in Aotearoa-New Zealand - Geoff McLay

Looking for choice morsels of currents affairs, culture, and politics to chew on. Or spit out hastily. It depends.

What's The Kaupapa?!

Make #learning #choice👍

Level 3 English 2014

Just another WordPress.com site

NZ Christian lawyers network

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” — C.S. Lewis

The Ruminator

Looking for choice morsels of currents affairs, culture, and politics to chew on. Or spit out hastily. It depends.

Random Ruminations and Ponderings

The Musings and Other Thoughts Of A Couple of Tree Huggers, One of Whom Is A Blogophile!

%d bloggers like this: