Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Pākehā grievance industry

It is a feature of every election campaign, as well as a larger feature of social life and the culture: the lamenting of Māori privilege. The feeling, more or less palpable, more or less explicitly stated, that there are citizens upon whom the laws and our institutions look with benign eyes on account of their race. These citizens elect their own members of Parliament from a special roll; are entitled collectively to restitutions for land that never belonged to them personally; have access to special education programmes and scholarships; are consulted on a preferential basis on local government and resource management issues. And even to the extent that they can be shown to be materially disadvantaged – most notably in terms of their higher rates of incarceration and unemployment, or their poorer health – this, too, is notched perversely as form of privilege, since all of these things cost everyone’s money.

It is difficult to quantify the extent of this sentiment, in part no doubt because it changes over time, but also because it is tapped into in different ways and by different people. ACT leader Jamie Whyte is but the latest in a very long list of politicians to have done so. Like most of his predecessors, he approached Māori privilege as if he had just discovered it, or was the only person bold enough to speak the truth to this particular form of power. Whereas in fact there are few discourses that are less taboo in this country than the discourse of Māori privilege. We all know how it goes. We can almost sing it by heart, or time the exact moment in the election cycle when the music will start. Whyte’s cover version contained a new line: that the privilege of some Māori is comparable to that of the French aristocracy before the Revolution. It was his way of stamping the song, making it his own. But it made little difference.

Whyte’s performance fell flat, and so out came a second speech, lamenting how he had been wilfully, spitefully misunderstood. ‘I was warned that it is impossible to have an intelligent discussion about New Zealand’s race-based laws,’ he passively aggressed. Then he made further contributions to the civilised debate that he so craves, with gems such as this:
I am white but my daughters are not. I want them to live in a country where that is legally irrelevant. I do not want the law or the government to treat my daughters differently from any other citizens. And, although she is only 11, I think my elder daughter would be bewildered and appalled by the idea that the law would treat her differently on account of her skin colour.
Which it wouldn’t. It won’t. The African heritage of Jamie Whyte’s daughters doesn’t make them tangata whenua any more than their father’s eponymous skin colour would. This puerile and offensive act of misdirection, confusing pigmentation with ethnicity – that is to say with historical, social and cultural belonging – exposes the profound dishonesty of the underlying argument, which is barely an argument at all. What motivates Dr Whyte isn’t a coherent desire to assert the liberal principle of equality before the law, but to tap into the latent anxieties of a portion of the electorate in the hope of doing nothing more noble than converting them into votes, hence power.

The real object of the discourse, then, is not the mythical, non-existent Māori privilege, but the actual Pākehā grievance. And this grievance, while it always exists to some degree, can be cultivated, amplified, as Whyte did at the same time as he attempted to profit from it: for every new formulation of the theory of Māori privilege does its bit to perpetuate the racist fiction.

Now here’s an apparent paradox: that when Jamie Whyte and others, like Colin Craig or Winston Peters, articulate this grievance from the margins of our political discourse, they do so in terms that are generally more hedged, less extreme than when Don Brash did it as leader of one of our major parties.

Every time I go back to read the 'One Nation' speech that Brash gave at Orewa in 2004, I realise that I have contrived to forget just how vicious it is. Compared to Whyte’s ludicrous ancien regime comparison, Brash’s digs appear more cynically calculated, more lethal. In the interest of dispelling a myth of gentle savagery that no-one has put forward in modern times, he paints the picture of pre-colonisation Māori as barbarous and blood-thirsty, and implicates them in their own dispossession at the hand of the British (‘any dispassionate look at our history shows that self-interest and greed featured large on both sides’). He is much bolder than Whyte in his exculpation of living Pākehā (‘None of us had anything to do with the confiscations. There is a limit to how much any generation can apologise for the sins of its great grandparents.’), his mockery of Māori customs and spiritual beliefs (to honour which we supposedly ‘allow our environment law to be turned into an opportunistic farce’), and his insistence that the claims process must be wound up soonest (‘it is essential to put this behind all of us’) and all mentions of the Treaty expunged from legislation so that everyone, ‘and Maori in particular’, can ‘stop looking backward and start moving forward into this new century’.

If we were inclined to feel a very limited amount of sympathy for Jamie Whyte, then, we could observe how commentators wasted no time calling him a racist and picking his diatribe apart, whereas within days of Orewa a much more insidious and extremist speech had already been processed as a vehicle of sensible mainstream views, simply by virtue of who had delivered it. The staggering shift in political fortunes that followed it – National gained 17 points and overtook Labour in a single poll’s leap – can also be attributed to the sense that the map of politics and race-relations had been fundamentally redrawn, a feat that Brash alone was in a position to achieve. No-one will test the resonance of Whyte’s ideas on the streets of Auckland or Putaruru, as they did for Brash, because journalists don’t feel an obligation to reorient the national conversation around them. There is no power compelling them to.

The contrast is instructive. It tells us that the Pākehā grievance can be mobilised to great effect, by the right people and under the right circumstances. Even in its latent form, as the mere threat of a backlash, it guards against Māori developing radical ideas about sovereignty and self-determination, and against interpreting the Treaty as a living document, as opposed to a near-exhausted legal instrument.

Yet a grievance it remains, the cry of the over-privileged. We shouldn’t forget this. Should you have trouble remembering, think of Jamie Whyte: the leader of a party that is in Parliament because of a loophole in our laws and an act of charity. A party that exists because of special treatment, and to entrench economic power – which in this country is also if not primarily the fruit of colonisation.

This power was on display not two weeks ago in Act’s own gifted constituency, the electorate of Epsom, when the mere possibility of two low-decile colleges extending their catchment into the area prompted political commentator Matthew Hooton to issue a stern reminder of the $100,000-plus premium on house prices that his and other ACT-voting families pay to be guaranteed access to the country’s best public schools. ‘Any perceived threat to these zones will be met with fierce resistance,’ he thundered to the sympathetic press. ACT’s David Seymour was going to attend a public meeting scheduled for the following Sunday in order to organise this resistance, but there was no need: the Ministry of education stepped in and amended the proposed zones before the end of the consultation period. All those property investments and guaranteed futures were spared.

At its heart, the Pākehā grievance is an attempt to negate the historical and social context in which all those white fortunes were made. ‘It is essential to put this behind all of us’: only by forgetting the origins of that privilege we can teach ourselves to see it as something other than privilege, and call upholding it a kind of justice.