The least interesting interviews in Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand (edited by Laurence Simmons, 2007, Auckland: AUP) are with the liberal rather than the leftwing participants. But it’s still worth pointing out that in their interviews James Belich says NZ and Australia didn’t actually become nations until 1901, Marilyn Waring claims to have nothing good to say about academic management, and Ranginui Walker defends biculturalism. [Read more below]
Historian James Belich is a good example of an academic intellectual who has strove to take his research beyond academia – especially with his books and television series on The New Zealand Wars. In his interview in Speaking Truth to Power, Belich explains the difficulty of making that cross over, especially because ‘there’s pressure to communicate merely in slogans’ (p.197). He says that ‘television and intellectualism are uneasy partners… for a book like The New Zealand Wars you have 150,000 words, for a television script you have 30,000 words’ (p.197). Nonetheless he’s ‘committed to the attempt at wide communication beyond the academic norm, so I’m prepared to use the mass media, but only to convey an academically reputable opinion, and sometimes quite a complex opinion’ (p.198). To translate complex ideas and facts requires very good communication, and in this sense, Belich is highly critical of the writing abilities of the academic community: ‘indeed that’s an endemic problem in New Zealand scholarship and international scholarship. Probably the majority of academics cannot write, cannot write well, and that’s shocking. It’s almost as though there’s a contempt for clear prose’ (p.201).
Probably Belich’s most interesting statement in his interview concerns NZ nationhood, and his belief that historians have retrospectively invented the idea that New Zealand existed as a nation long before it actually did:
what I’ve found in my writing on New Zealand general history was that really neither Australia nor New Zealand existed as nations before 1901, when there was no such thing as Australia. There was a Tasman world in which the seven British colonies of Australasia interacted on a basis of rough parity. New Zealand was one of the big three – it wasn’t little brother then, you know. So, in a sense, Australian and New Zealand historians have retrospectively invented separate pasts for the nineteenth century to suit the purposes of the twentieth century (p.196).
Ex-parliamentarian and now Professor in Public Policy, Marilyn Waring says that ‘within Parliament there was no outlet for that intellectualism’ (p.165). The intellectuality of the media, too, are written off by her because, ‘Most broadcasting and media, with its monolithic ownership structures, is patently sensationalist without content’ (p.169). She also has little faith in the ability of the internet to enrich our intellectual lives. She says the internet is glib. Waring also points out the very real problem that many students are overly reliant on the internet and are yet to develop an appropriate critical filter through which to sort the good from the bad and to recognise the bias of material:
they don’t have the discerning powers to work out what the ideology of the material they’re reading really is, and they’re just being taken in all the time. I have younger undergraduate students who wouldn’t have the wit or initiative to make a phone call inquiry, go to a public meeting, or even read a book! If it’s not on the web it’s not in their orbit (p.169).
Waring is particularly outspoken about the management of her workplace. She says that universities have
become output driven just when everybody else has moved to outcomes. Universities are the most over-governed, over-managed, incompetently administered, multi-million-dollar businesses in New Zealand…. I’ve sat on the University Council, for my sins, for eight years, and I have nothing good to say about academic management (p.173).
The modern funding mechanisms of academic research also receives a strong analysis:
the Marsden Fund, but there are also projects funded by them that are just tediously boring – yet another labour survey – and pretty driven by central government agency agendas anyway. The issues that are high on the agendas of public intellectuals will not be supported by central government…. So the other problem is, that every now and then there’s a mind that could have been a public intellectual that just gets siphoned off into the boring and the tedious, because that’s where the funds are, and that’s what the universities care about (p.173).
Retired Professor of Maori Studies at the University of Auckland, Ranganui Walker spends a decent part of his interview defending the concept of biculturalism – which is a term that he claims to have originated:
I was the one who started using the term biculturalism in the 1970s, to counter the ideology of monoculturalism, and it worked: biculturalism is now thoroughly accepted as part of the discourse around who we are as a nation. The opponents of the ideology of biculturalism were always saying “we’re multicultural”. And, of course, the counter to this is that the Chinese who come here have no right to have their language taught here in the country, because their language is safe in China – similarly with all other immigrants (p.239).
The defence of biculturalism seemingly relies on it as a strategy for the protection of language and culture, rather than as a constitutional or political tool – or even as a mechanism for addressing ethnic inequality. Yet Walker also asserts that the way that such inequality can be overcome is by separatist and cultural institutions that are outside the control of the state: ‘So the gaps are structural, and the conclusion I come to is that Maoris have to close the gaps themselves, which they are attempting to do through kohanga, kura kaupapa, wananga; and the power structure is saying “hey, hold the lid down”’ (p.236).