A sizeable minority of New Zealanders are ‘annoyed’ or even ‘repulsed’ by the apparent proliferation of shop signs in ‘foreign’ languages. So, what could be a reason or explanation behind this sense of anguish felt over a few shop signs written in Chinese and other ‘foreign’ scripts? This phenomenon of anxiety, and even pathological hatred, felt towards the ‘other’ is not unique to this country, and is in fact part of a global rise of xenophobic, nativist and nationalistic responses to ‘globalization’. However, perhaps unique to this country, such views are currently being promoted by the left in alliance with Maori nationalists, rather than by a populist right. And alongside this leftwing promotion of anti-foreigner politics, we are seeing a transformation of tino rangatiratanga ideology, where a synthesis is occurring of Maori nationalism and traditional pakeha/white nationalism. In this guest blog, John Moore explains why racist and nationalist views continue to have resonance in modern Aotearoa and argues that the left must unambiguously reject such irrational reactions to a rapidly changing world.
To understand the increase of racist reactions to the visible increase of non-pakeha and non-Maori culture in New Zealand, one needs to contextualise this response in light of the historic construction of the ‘New Zealand’ identity. This country was established as a settler state, where an ideology of white/Anglo-chauvinism was fostered by the state and acted as a dominant hegemony for the European population. Alongside this promotion of European supremacy, was a dominant view that non-white settlement be viewed with both suspicion and active discrimination on the part of the state. Despite Asian settlement in New Zealand being a fact for almost as long as European settlement, people of Asian descent have generally been viewed as an ‘other’, ‘not one of us’, and as a group to be both feared and at times strongly despised - see my post on Leftwing xenophobia in New Zealand.
A new nationalist consensus
The liberalisation of the New Zealand state, post the conservative Muldoon period, led to a peculiar synthesis of social liberalism, as exposed by the former leaders of the 60s and 70s new social movements, with economic neoliberalism. Therefore, a paradigm shift occurred during the 1980s, with the election of the Fourth Labour Government, which saw an explicit rejection of assimilationist and integration-centred policies, and the adoption of an ideology of bi-culturalism. The promotion of bi-culturalism was part of an attempt to placate increasing numbers of Maori attracted to radical tino rangatiratanga politics and to forge a post-1968 form of ‘progressive’ nationalism. This new ideological framework did help to facilitate the rise of a new Maori capitalist class and to incorporate educated Maori professionals into the state apparatus. However, although this policy of bi-culturalism was both a reaction to and rejection of white racism in New Zealand, it was framed within a new nationalist discourse which sill allowed for a continuation of a dichotomy of ‘us and them’. That is, this new nationalist framework acted to elevate both white pakeha and Maori ethnicities as being the central cultural foundation points for a sense of New Zealand nationhood. This is represented most strongly in a shift from almost exclusive promotion of English by the state, to a limited but significant promotion of Maori as the indigenous and co-national language of Aotearoa.
Aotearoa is not for ‘others’
It is not totally surprising that one of the prominent leaders of the ’Aotearoa is not for sale’ movement has recently endorsed disquiet over ‘foreign’ signs on shop frontages. In a casual Facebook comment, Mana co-leader Annette Sykes recently showed her displeasure at having to see signage in a language she didn’t understand:
If Māori is the indigeneous language of this country and official... then shouldn't translations beside all non English scripts be offered in both English and Maori?
I certainly would like to know what products these shops are selling in my whenua...
Sykes then further justified her reaction by saying, ‘Maori like English is an official language. This is not xenophobia at all but a matter of respect for this nations first language’.
Sykes is a tino rangatiratanga activist and Mana leader, whose politics are currently defined by both a Maori nationalist and bi-culturalist worldview. Her views reflect those of both Maori and pakeha who see New Zealand as centrally a nation of white settlers and the indigenous population. They argue that both state and private institutions should be governed on the basis of a partnership between pakeha and Maori, or more specifically the ‘pakeha’ state and ‘pakeha’ corporations in combination with Maori tribes or iwi. This ethnic-centred ideology acts to obscure the important division of class in society as well as to implicitly at least promote other ethnic groups and foreigners as an ‘other’.
Maori nationalists embrace pakeha chauvinism
A number of events indicate that tino rangatiratanga politics is undergoing some form of transformation where key Maori activists, who feel disfranchised or alienated from the Treaty settlements process, are aligning themselves with a form pakeha-nationalism. This incorporation of pakeha/Kiwi nationalist discourses into a Maori nationalist ideology comes from a desire by certain Maori leaders to present a united front against various state policies and to attract disgruntled Maori to the radical tino rangatiratanga side. The ‘Aotearoa is not for sale’ hikoi was an example of this new synthesis of Maori and Kiwi nationalism, where opposition to the sale of state assets was presented as centrally a reaction against the possibly of foreign ownership. The prominence of tino rangatiratanga flags, banners, and the fact that Mana activist led the march, indicates that Maori nationalists such as Sykes now frame their politics within a general Maori/pakeha nationalist framework. This new form of Maori nationalist politics reacts against the ‘dangers’ of foreign ownership as well as against non-Maori/non-pakeha ‘others’ in our midst. Sykes reaction to ‘foreign’ signage will not be unique amongst tino rangatiratanga activist, and is in fact a reflective of a history of xenophobia and racism coming from this political current.
Beyond the politics of exclusion
The reported survey showing growing hostility towards non-pakeha/non-Maori groups is not an anomaly, but part of an increase of a form of racism in New Zealand. In these times of economic instability and rapid globalisation, we will see a range of responses to people’s sense of disquiet. Therefore, responses to say globalization, privatization and New Zealanders changing place in the world can be framed in various ways - that is, such responses can be filtered through various ideological frameworks including ones that are nationalistic, racist, ethnic-centred, or progressive.
It is both peculiar and disturbing that a group of prominent Maori nationalists in combination with leftwing leaders are promoting a form of xenophobic politics. Progressives, and those fighting for Maori rights, in Aotearoa are failing to engage in universalist and progressive politics and are instead dabbling in the politics of the populist right. However, a struggle for Maori rights and empowerment does not have to be framed within a nationalist and obscurantist ideology. For example, the struggle for the right of all Maori to be educated in the language of their choice, and for the state to be forced to spend millions more on the promotion of te reo Maori, can logically be combined with support for language rights of other groups. Rather than demonising those who choice at times to use non-English and non-Maori languages in Aotearoa, and acting to whip up paranoia against a ‘foreign’ takeover, maybe radical activists could spend more time promoting the old adage that our main enemy in at home, that is our main opponent is our own 1%. Or to quote from blogger Giovanni Tiso, the current promotion of nationalist politics by the New Zealand left and Maori nationalists is ‘painfully out of step with the radicalisation of left-wing oppositions elsewhere in the West and with the magnitude of the economic and social problems facing the country.'