Argue

Enjoyed the New Zealand Argument thing last Thursday – RB was a great communicator (much as you’d expect), and the Lange footage was pretty hilarious. Funny that the whole nuclear fear thing sounds so eighties now, but it’s sobering to think that despite the fact that the escalation of Cold War nuclear arsenals has slowed (halted? noone really talks about it anymore) – which was a basic goal of the nuclear disarmament movement – the ground has shifted to proliferation and the world hasn’t gotten any safer.

The panel discussion on New Zealand identity was quite good, but I thought it could’ve benefited from a little more focus and/or maybe more a little audience questioning. As it turned out, the intergenerational dimension was probably the most interesting aspect – Jim Traue is a forthright old skool left winger. A ‘bolshy’ character, you might say. Actually I don’t think that much of his Pakeha Whakapapa/Ancestors of the Mind piece, it’s little more than a roll call of western thinkers and NZ literary figures. In other words, the intellectual heritage (or ‘baggage’ as he termed it on the night, by way of deliberate understatement for effect) of many (educated) NZers – Maori and Pakeha.

I Am Not A Maori, but – I don’t think that meaningfully relates to the idea of whakapapa. The point Traue makes about literate cultures (and it’s a bit of a no-brainer) is that they ‘store’ their knowledge in books, and as individuals growing up in such cultures, we are exposed to and (mostly unconsciously) absorb everything from Plato on. That is, contemporary western culture is in part the cumulative product of all the thinking and arguing and writing and publishing that has gone before it, and we all benefit from this. And that’s perfectly true. But that knowledge has nothing to do with bloodlinks, genealogy, or a connection to the land, which, it seems to me, are all key aspects of the whakapapa. So, Traue is not really describing Pakeha whakapapa – possibly ‘Pakehatanga’ might be a better term, if you really wanted to appropriate a Maori concept… But that’s just the problem – there’s absolutely no need to appropriate a Maori concept for this – there are already perfectly good concepts/terms for this in English – one of which is ‘intellectual history, another – the one Traue uses – is the ‘inheritance of the written and printed words of our culture’. Actually, ‘Pakehatanga’ isn’t an appropriate term. The point and the power of free, literate cultures is that knowledge is open to anyone who cares to access it. So, in New Zealand, the work of Plato, Sargeson et al are just as accessible to Maori as to Pakeha.

The piece comes off as weirdly defensive and insecure – like an over-reaction to having been told by a Maori that Pakeha have no culture. I’m not sure if I’d even feel moved to respond to someone who said anything so stupid – but I think Traue’s piece misses the mark. I think it’s probably fair to say that in the cultural deprivation/redevelopment stakes, Maori have had a far harder time of it over the last century and a half than Pakeha – what with depopulation, urbanisation, suppression of langauage etc etc, it was touch and go there for a while… Kinda makes the Quest For National Identity of Traue’s NZ lit heavyweights look like pissy navel-gazing.

Maybe it’s a generational thing – I’ve never for a minute felt like as a Pakeha had no ‘culture’. That’s partly cos culture is very very loose term these days, and partly cos I grew up in the eighties, by which time Pakeha had already been patting themselves on the back about their distinctive identity for a couple of decades or more – ironically, largely thanks to Traue and his generation. By the 1980s we even had our own distinct ‘culture’ of underground rock music, for Christ’s sake. Speaking of which, my new green minipod has been shuffling between Aaliyah and The Dead C’s ‘Harsh Seventies Reality’ all day – surprisingly good combo.

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