New Zealand society is considered to be a very anti-intellectual. Certainly nowadays there is little public discussion of ideology, ideas, and political theory. Such things tend to be ghettoised in the universities where academics are often – for various reasons – disconnected from public life. Such issues relating to the state of NZ intellectualism are discussed in a new book edited by Laurence Simmons, entitled Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand (2007, Auckland: AUP). This blog post is the first of a number that will highlight and reflect on the ideas raised by the contributors to this book, starting with the late Michael King, who in this book offers some controversial opinions about NZ universities, ethnicity, and the idea of pakeha culture being an indigenous one. [Read more below]
Unlike many of New Zealand’s modern public intellectuals, Michael King – who died in 2004 – was not really an academic, but a freelance historian. Before writing over 30 books, he actually worked as a journalist. King reports in Speaking Truth to Power that his decision not to go into academia was partially based on his desire to concentrate on research and writing – as opposed to teaching – and because he felt motivated to connect with New Zealand society and history rather than the more scholarly, non-public intellectualism of the university:
in the mid- to late 1960s, when I was at university and when I left it, there was very little engagement between the university and the wider community, particularly for my own subject, history (p.180).
King also ‘felt there was something wrong about university teachers drawing salaries from the tax-payer but giving very little back apart from teaching to those people who were able to go to university’ (p.180). In this way, King is bringing up the significant issues of how an academic might be able to transcend the varsity campus and be a ‘public’ intellectual working for the common good rather than just a career.
King is most interesting when he gets onto issues of ethnicity and culture in New Zealand. He puts forward the contentious notion that pakeha culture is an indigenous culture in New Zealand:
A second indigenous culture, yes. I believe that now. I mean, when did Maori culture become indigenous? We can’t say with any certainty, but I would think it was probably only one or two generations after East Polynesian settlement of New Zealand, at the point when people stopped looking over their shoulders and talking about home and started concentrated on being of this place, then they became indigenous; and I would say Pakeha culture has now been here long enough to do the same. I feel that I am part of indigenous New Zealand culture… And I have some degree of hackle-raising when anybody, particularly anybody Maori, tells me that I’m not indigenous. I mean it’s a fair question to ask, but I would vigorously defend the fact that that’s how I see it. It’s not threatening Maori, and it’s not saying Maori aren’t indigenous, it’s saying we have two indigenous cultures. Incidentally, there’s now a nice precedent for that in the Waitangi Tribunal report on the Chatham Islands, which says that the Chatham Islands have two indigenous cultures, Moriori and Maori. It’s just that Moriori are the first indigenous people and Maori the second indigenous people, and turning that model around to New Zealand now would say that Maori and Pakeha retain the same relationship to one another (pp.187-188).
King also disputes notions of Maori necessarily having a stronger relationship with ‘the land’ than other ethnicities. He argues that during the nineteenth century, pakeha men ‘worked on the land with other men, like forestry camps, public work camps, things of that sort. That was where land became part of the whole mix of New Zealand male culture, as did mateship and several other sorts of things’ (p.189). He goes onto to challenge the liberal-spiritual argument about ethnicity and land: ‘I got particularly disturbed one night when I heard Doug Graham say on television, trying to explain Waitangi Tribunal settlements, that, as he said, Maori have much stronger spiritual feelings for mountains, lakes and rivers than non-Maori, and I think that was absolutely wrong. Certainly that element is there inherent in Maori culture, but it’s also inherent in quite a significant segment of the Pakeha culture’ (pp.189-190).
Obviously Maori and Pakeha culture overlaps a great deal and positively influences the other. The examples that King gives of Maori culture influencing pakeha culture include funeral rituals, whereby ‘there is a huge loosening up of New Zealand funerals, which are becoming much more like tangi than the old Christian funerals’ and linguistic changes whereby there are an ‘increasing number of words which no longer need to be translated in brackets, like whanau, and taonga, and waka’ (pp.190-191). King rejects the notion that ‘Maori and Pakeha culture are hermetically sealed off from each other, when they never have been and they certainly aren’t now’ (p.191).
Although King is probably generally seen as being part of the liberal intellectual ‘establishment’, it’s obvious that King is actually quite critical of much of the race relations regime in this country. He even raises the fact that ‘there’s now some discomfort in the historical community about the way the Waitangi Tribunal has been operating, but because most historians approve of the raison d’etre, they don’t want to then stand up in public and start criticising its operation’ (p.183).
And unlike many of the liberal intellectual milieu that approves of the ruling race relations ideologies of our time, King is particularly keen on public debate about these matters rather than the ‘we know best’ approach that is too often put forward on issues of ethnicity. For example, when asked in the book whether there needs to be more public debate about ethnic issues, King replies:
Oh, absolutely. What I’ve been upset about is that people have been trying to shut that debate down. A group of historians wrote a letter to Te Papa, partly about this question [of live lizards being kept out of Te Papa due to ‘Maori cosmology’] and partly about how they handled the Moriori exhibit. There was a suggestion that matauranga Maori is knowledge presented in a self-serving sort of way, not a disinterested sort of way, and that’s certainly a way that many academics view it, and that’s not an unfair analysis (p.192).
King is seemingly fairly libertarian about public debate:
One of the things I’m very much imbued with, and always have been from my university days, is John Stuart Mill’s idea that all ideas are contestable, they have to be out in the public arena and they have to be talked about, and if you try to shut down debates on things for politically correct reasons, you’re not only doing something that invalid intellectually, you’re also creating tremendous potential social and political problems (p.193).
As to explaining New Zealand’s pragmatic, anti-intellectualism, King suggests that this is possibly best illustrated by the history of the labour movement. He puts forward the argument that intellectual ideas about changing society where tried out on the labour movement, but New Zealand workers have always opted for small improvements on radical change:
before the First World War, Labour leaders flooded into New Zealand from Australia, from the United States, and from England… All these people flooded into New Zealand to introduce New Zealand workers to the idea of the revolution: capitalism had finished, they wanted to debate the idea that there was a better model…. What these guys eventually discovered, from between about 1910 and 1916, was that New Zealanders on the whole, and certainly New Zealand workers, weren’t the least bit interested in ideology. They didn’t want to overthrow capitalism, all they wanted to do was to make capitalism work better for them. So all these people eventually just became hard-nosed politicians, and most of them finished up in the first Labour Government. The point is that even then, whereas in other parts of the world ideas were exciting for their own sake and they were parts of public discourse, that proved to be spectacularly not the case in New Zealand. New Zealanders at all levels proved themselves to be pragmatists, and only interested in reorganising society in very specific ways that would give them immediate benefits, and the ideologues really had no role here (pp.176-177).