Remaking ANZAC Day

Every year on April 25, New Zealand (and Australia but I’m talking NZ here) marks ANZAC Day, which commemorates soldiers who fell in wars great and small. Particularly it remembers the horrific slaughter at Gallipoli in World War I, which is often seen as the moment where NZ became a nation.

It is always a contested event: the nationalism and militarism of the day are obvious, and there is a fundamental ambiguity over whether the solemn ceremonies deplore the violence, or strengthen the narrative that it was necessary. But each year, attempts to complicate the mythology of ANZAC day are met with furious resistance by a populace who simply want to remember their relatives from previous generations who died doing their best in a horrid distant war, and to pray that no such horror ever comes again. The talkback radio phones ring hot decrying the insensivity of protesters.

This year, two fresh threads in this critique have emerged that seem fruitful as ways to attack the nationalist and militarist mythmaking around the day but seem to have avoided this fierce backlash.

First, the idea of explicitly expanding ANZAC Day’s commemorations to include the wars within New Zealand (commonly known as the Māori Land Wars). The idea is covered beautifully by Toby Morris’s latest Pencilsword comic strip, “Lest We Forget“.

Second, a set of guerrilla sculptures erected around Wellington showing a soldier receiving Field Punishment Number 1, a brutal punishment meted out to pacifists who refused to fight. Public opinion is generally in agreement now that this is a blemish on our past. Protest group “Peace Action Wellington”, normally being tarred and feathered at this time of year for its protest actions, is this time being written about with something approaching admiration in the daily paper, and the comment section as I write is solidly in favour of the sculptures.

Great work on both accounts. I look forward to these threads being expanded further in years to come.

Power and Periods

Those who are at the top of unequal power structures always develop a mythology to rationalise the inequality. Kings were Kings because of Divine Right, etc etc.

In the modern world of business-oriented hypercapitalism, the mythology is that of productivity. You will be rewarded in accordance with your productivity – what you contribute determines your compensation.

This is a mythology. Who determines productivity? By what metric? What opportunities are given to display productivity? What else is going on in an employment relationship besides productive labour?

Alasdair Thompson has been mocked and chastised for saying a small portion of women’s lower pay is because of menstruation-related sick days. The mockery shouldn’t obscure the fact that this has revealed how the mythology is maintained. Women across all employment are paid less; therefore, they must be less productive; therefore, reasons for their lesser productivity must be found.

Thompson should be given the boot, but more urgently, his ideology – shared in toto with our current government – should be exposed to sunlight and revealed as the mirage it is. Because even after everyone agrees that, no, menstruation does not limit productivity – well, the ideology will remain in place. It was never founded on facts, and it will shift to new ground. It isn’t menstruation, then. Well, it must be because women are more emotional and not hard-nosed enough to pursue their economic self-interest. I just invented that now.

Rationalisations are easy. Shifting an ideology is bloody hard. This is an opportunity.

Māori are confused

Duncan Garner on TV3’s morning news show Firstline just now: “Māori are confused. You’ve got Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples saying this is good legislation… and on the other hand you’ve got the last of the activist Māori saying we don’t want this.” (Starts at 4’41 into the clip, although he says “Māori are confused” at other times as well.)

Y’know, it’s good that Pākehā don’t get confused when John Key and Phil Goff say different things, or the country really would be in a pickle!

Crime Deterrence

July 2008: sports broadcaster resigns after it emerges he violently and viciously assaulted his then-partner.
April 2009: sports broadcaster pleads guilty to the charge
Jan 2010: sports broadcaster back on the air!
Jan 2011: sports broadcaster begins weekly on-air chats with the Prime Minister.

So there’s the lesson, people. If you are guilty of brutally assaulting a woman, it could be as long as TWENTY MONTHS before the Prime Minister jokingly tells you which celebrities he’d most like to have sex with. CRIME DOESN’T PAY.

Māori proverbs make it OK

Last week the government’s Welfare Working Group issued its options report, asking for submissions on various proposals for dealing with NZ’s beneficiaries. Gordon Campbell is not impressed: “Reality check: when work was available in the 2000s and job searches were being case managed, unemployment sank to record lows with fewer than 20,000 on the dole. Conclusion: when jobs are there, people work: and when they aren’t, they can’t.” (Also, Danyl at the Dim-Post has an instructive chart on the nature of the “problem”.)

Nevertheless, this manufactured Welfare Crisis now has its response. The whole exercise has the air of a political fait accompli – the decisions have already been made, so the WWG is a lengthy exercise in developing a rationale for a pre-chosen course.

However, I’m not going to talk about the options under discussion or the frustrating ideological basis of the group’s activity. I just want to point at one tiny aspect of the report that infuriated me no end.

The very first words in Reducing Long-Term Benefit Dependency: The Options, appearing before indicia and publication details, are a proverb:

“Anei tātou nā ko te po: ana tātou nā he rā ki tua”
Here we are in the night, and the day is yet to come.

When I saw this I became so furious I couldn’t go on. This reveals rather more about the paradigm of the WWG than I think they realized. Providing support to the weakest members of society is equated to the awful, painful night; a stricter regime to reduce that support and make life more difficult for beneficiaries is cast as the relief of day.

It’s just dumbfounding. I mean, even if you buy into the WWG premises (long-term benefit dependency is a major problem, our current welfare system is an unsustainable economic burden, stricter controls are necessary), it takes a particularly blinkered perspective to decide that the best metaphor for this is night passing into day.

And of course the bitter irony that this a Māori proverb, when Māori will be disproportionately affected by the measures within (not least because many Māori live in rural areas where jobs are hard to come by anyway, thanks to the vagaries of the economic system we’ve imposed on their country over the last 170 years).

Sure, it’s a minor thing, and presumably Enid Ratahi Pryor and Sharon Wilson-Davis, Māori women on the WWG, think it’s an appropriate inclusion. Perhaps I’m over-reacting. Nevertheless, I think that choices around such small details can communicate more than pages of carefully neutral policy-speak, and this specific choice and the worldview it suggests sit very wrong with me.

(More about the proverb can be found on Google Books.)


Even overseas readers will probably be aware that the Pike River Mine explosion on the West Coast of our South Island has ended badly – after five days with conditions too unsafe for rescue, another explosion has nullified the small chance that anyone in there had survived. 29 people have died.

I don’t have anything much to say about this. It’s dominating everything in NZ, not least because we’re a small country and a lot of people have ties to the region and the families. But it would feel strange not to mention it here.

On the weekend, the front pages of three out of four Sunday papers at one shop showed people praying. The prayer stories continue today. It’s out of step with the usually secular approach of our media, but I think it’s an appropriate reflection of the mood of the nation. It’s a reflective time right now, even for those who don’t pray.

Jim Liu on global consciousness

I’ve been meaning to blog this for a while. In late September, my friend, colleague and occasional mentor Jim Liu gave his Professorial lecture. I was forced to miss the event, but was able to watch the whole thing online. I recommend you do as well – it’s a great talk. It’s called Towards a Psychology of Global Consciousness, and brings together a bunch of Jim’s research interests to reach a conclusion that’s challenging, even shocking.

First, he goes through some fascinating research into how we perceive history, using a huge international survey where people in different countries listed events and people from history in order of importance. This stuff is fascinating in its own right, and Jim uses it to draw some conclusions about the basis of what he calls a global consciousness.

Then he connects this to the NZ situation, and looks at how NZ history is conceived and how Maori and Pakeha relations are complicated by our views of history. (“Historical negation” emerges as an incredibly powerful method to preserve the status quo.) But it’s also clear that Maori culture is much better suited than Pakeha culture to make sense of the collectivist/high-power-distance societies that are rapidly increasing in global power.

Finally he turns to one of those rising societies, China, and looks at the basis of societal relations in Chinese culture. Their model of benevolent authority, Jim suggests, is the way the world is going. In fact, given the failure of democracies to cope with the signal challenge of this era, climate change, perhaps a benevolent authoritarian society is the ideal way forward.

It’s an extremely challenging conclusion, and you really need to hear Jim tell the whole story before dismissing it. Fortunately, you can do exactly that, and read all his slides, right here. It’s a bit under an hour (don’t be fooled by the duration on the video, they just left the camera running in the room after everyone had gone) and worth every minute, particularly for fellow Kiwis.


Outrageous Fortune (no spoilers)

NZ’s longest-running drama Outrageous Fortune ended last night, at the close of season 6, still owning the ratings and once again becoming a global trending topic on Twitter. Phenomenon.

I wonder if the West family are now iconic fictional Kiwis who will last the ages? They must come close. They’re getting their own museum exhibit, even. They definitely have a distinctively Kiwi style, and they’ve been hugely successful here. But to last, they need to do more. They need to own a chunk of this nation’s symbolic real estate. Kiwis need to see a bit of ourselves in them, something that hasn’t been well-expressed anywhere else.

Hmm, who else is there? Definitely this guy:

Even though he existed mostly in very brief sketch comedy, this guy:

Probably this guy:

Maybe these guys? Too soon to tell?

(I know, let’s consult Wikipedia’s index of fictional New Zealanders… Hmmm. A few anime characters, a couple of misbegotten superheroes, and Madge Allsop. Er… go Kiwi?)

My instinct is that the Wests will last. What d’you reckon?

Paul Henry Again

I almost didn’t post about this, because everyone’s talking about it and surely everything I could come up with will have been covered off most thoroughly by other, wiser writers. But I decided I would anyway, to add my small gust to the storm of disapproval. And because once I’ve written about it I can stop thinking about it.

Breakfast TV panderer Paul Henry dug gleefully into the mire yesterday morning, with comments amounting to a claim that a major public figure wasn’t a proper New Zealander because he didn’t have the right colour skin or an appropriate name.

Henry has a history of provocation, and the line has always been “he says what people are thinking”. Previously he’s caused fury by ridiculing a female guest for her facial hair, calling Susan Boyle “retarded”, and saying that homosexuals are unnatural. This, however, is a whole new level of controversy, as Henry and TVNZ are belatedly realizing.

Henry has waded deep into an argument about what it means to be a New Zealander; it’s something that has been bubbling under in this country for years now, pretty much since our immigration laws relaxed in the late 80s. You see it in the fierce opposition to “special treatment” for Maori; you see it in the eyeroll-inducing campaign to nullify the census ethnicity question by writing in “New Zealander”; you see it in the rough treatment meted out to Asian immigrants. We are becoming a more diverse people, and the Pakeha majority isn’t entirely sure what it thinks about that.

But, while there is anxiety and argument, the public discourse has very clearly settled on criteria for being a New Zealander that is not about skin colour or the number of syllables in your surname. There is argument about whether a proper New Zealander is one who supports the NZ cricket team over that of their own country; about whether a proper New Zealander needs to be fluent in English; about whether a proper New Zealander can wear the hijab. There is no argument about whether you can be a New Zealander if you’re Nigerian, or Japanese, or Fijian-Indian. New Zealandness is open to everyone.

Paul Henry’s comments reveal a nasty truth: that for many people, this isn’t true. New Zealandness isn’t open to everyone. Public discourse positions New Zealandness as behavioural, and therefore egalitarian and in tune with our national mythology. Unrepresented in the public discourse is the sense of fear and resistance to a diverse New Zealand, to an increasingly multi-coloured population, to racial difference. These sentiments are not suitable for public forums, and are kept out of sight. Henry has voiced the unvoiceable, casting a shadow over the entire discussion about multicultural New Zealand. Is it really about sports team loyalty and headscarves? Or is it truthfully about skin colour?

The comeback on this will come from both sides of the political aisle, quite simply because there is no party in NZ parliament that is aligned with racism. (At the moment.) National and ACT, our right-wing voices, are both clearly supportive of diversity, and have both made significant efforts to involve ethnic communities in their activities, National with quite some success. Their views don’t allow for “special treatment” and so forth, but they are quite clear that the door is open to people of any colour with whatever funny-sounding surnames they like.

There is, however, a substantial rump of Kiwis who will nod along with Paul Henry, who will agree wholeheartedly with the initial TVNZ spin line of “Paul just says what we are all thinking”. (And I hope there’s some thunder and lightning in the corridors of TVNZ, sterilising the place of that horrid suggestion.) They are a concern. They are feeling left behind in a changing nation, and resentful of their shrinking space in the public discourse. Perhaps this furore might provide an opportunity to address them, to dig into what is driving their reflexive resistance, and find a way to communicate better about what New Zealand is becoming and how much, much more is gained than can possibly be lost. (The equivalent rump in the U.S. was captured by demagoguery to become the raging tea party movement – that couldn’t happen here, but the emotions at work are the same.)

To address this unpleasantness would take leadership. And so I turn to the real scandal here, that of our Prime Minister John Key grinning and shrugging off Henry’s comments as if they were a mildly off-colour joke. Even now Key refuses to condemn Henry. That is what makes me furious – not Henry’s comments and his smug non-apologies, which are par for the course for a media personality employed to be controversial and earning massive popularity as a result. Henry is there to say awful things. But John Key should be there to lead, to take hold of a situation and stand up for the fundamental principles of our nationhood. Instead he folded and enabled. This is not what we should expect from a Prime Minister. Aunty Helen would have torn out Henry’s beating heart and incinerated it with lasers from her eyes. (Of course, Key’s current counterpart Phil Goff has been utterly useless even in opposition.)

So I’m pleased to see at least a little bit of heat directed at Key over this. But, frankly, there should be more. Key deserves a rebuke from New Zealand, from his supporters as well as his foes. He should be held to a higher standard.

Asian People in NZ: Having a hard time

One of the strands of being really busy is finally resolved and open to public view: the Diversity Issues page on the site. This has been a long-term idea for my work at the Centre for Applied Cross-cultural Research, dating back to some attempts way back in ’04 to develop a better way to communicate about cultural diversity outside of the academic sphere.

The specific impetus was the well-received report by CACR and the Human Rights Commission, launched at the Diversity Forum last Monday, about the experience of discrimination by Asians in NZ. It’s a great report, easy to read, and worth at least a glance by every New Zealander. Here it is on Slideshare:

Of particular interest to the From the Morgue audience, I think, are parts 3.2 and 3.3, about employment access – the comments of recruitment companies (in 3.2, page 12) are shocking and the study where the same C.V. was sent out with either a Chinese name or a European name (page 14) matches it.

Overall it produces a pretty rough picture, but also the message is clear that Asians in NZ aren’t being destroyed by this consistent unfairness. They’re happy here, and happy to be here. That’s good to know, as they’re a huge demographic group in this country and growing all the time.

So I hope you’ll check out the report, and pop over to the Diversity Issues site to look around there and maybe to add a comment. Discussions online are always hard to foster so any contributions would be welcome!