Tuesday, 26 July 2011


“I wouldn’t feel comfortable… like all Pakehas would be happy with their daughter coming home with a Maori boy? The answer is they wouldn’t.”

What struck me about this statement when it was first made was the patriarchal prejudice that who might impregnate your daughter is more important than who your son might impregnate. Who your son marries may be a different matter of course.

But I was more interested in the fact that Hone Harawira’s statement and the ‘white M-F’ers’ quote, (written in a private email and published without his knowledge or consent) were widely cited on public fora as a counterbalance to racial remarks made by several white commentators.

Harawira may have meant what he said or he may have been winding people up by recycling a common Pakeha prejudice. Whatever his intention, it resulted in him being accused of being racist and, to the simplistically, and to the ideologically minded, ‘Maori racism’ cancels out ‘white racism’.

We humans are intensely social animals with very distinctive faces and an extraordinary ability to recognise subtle difference in facial and body gestures. We devote a large amount of our brain to deciphering and storing visual information about other humans.

In the course of our social evolution we have developed such widely differing cultures that the members of those cultures can find it hard to understand each other and not just in terms of speech.

But, you only have to look at the babies and very small children of all cultures and classes – to see the indicators of a common heritage. Tiny tots are never racist or snobs. That’s acquired; learned for the most part from their parents.

Recognition and wariness of difference or a preference for those who are the same as you, does not necessarily mean you are racist.

Racism is commonly defined as prejudice or unfair discrimination based on race. For that definition to mean anything there has to be an underlying acceptance of the idea that there are distinct ‘human races’, the members of which possess definable attributes and characteristics.

This is the basis of the broad, quasi-scientific categories of Australoid, Caucasoid, Mongoloid and Negroid. There is a complex debate about the extent to which there may be definable ‘racial’ differences but racism is not about any actual differences, it is about relative superiority and inferiority.

The origins of racism lie in the misappropriation of Darwin’s ideas about evolution to create a ‘scientific’ basis for the superiority of the ‘white skinned’ peoples of the world – and the English speaking white peoples in particular.

If humans evolved from ape-like ancestors any humans who, because of the shape of their skull or colour of their skin were closer to the ape, were not as highly evolved.

These ideas, which reached their peak at the height of Britain’s imperial expansion, proved to be useful in legitimating colonialism and assuaging guilt over slavery.

The horrors of the early African slave trade had not required an ideological mask largely because the lives of the ordinary European sailors, labourers and paupers were not so far removed from those of the slaves, ie they experienced a lesser degree of exploitation and brutality and had only nominal freedom.

But science and the rise of an educated middle class demanded a more sophisticated justification for such a brutal economic exploitation and for the processes involved in annexing other people’s countries.

The answer lay in the twin hierarchies of race and social class helped along by notions of male supremacy.

Colonisation brought the benefits of white (superior) civilization to the dark (inferior) races; industrial capitalism brought benefits to the labouring classes.

Thus a natural curiosity about or wariness of those who don’t look or act the same as us, morphed into beliefs about ‘racial’ superiority and inferiority that were used to justify brutal economic exploitation, enslavement and genocide – and still are.

That brutality in turn was justified as being the result of ‘human nature’.

But this didn’t and doesn’t happen simply because of human nature. It’s as much human nature to be inclusive, cooperative and compassionate, as it is to be exclusive, uncaring and harshly competitive.

Racism as an ideology serves a definite function; it divides – and to divide is to conquer and rule.

I get very concerned about the overuse of the term ‘racism’ – because the application of it to any and all prejudiced views or conduct risks emptying it of all political meaning.

The fact is, we all discriminate; every waking moment we make choices about how to act that are based on perceptions of difference. We also all prejudge, ie we arrive at conclusions based on incomplete or biased evidence – very often what someone in a position of authority has told us is true.

Sometimes those processes of discrimination and prejudgement result in outcomes that are good ones for us and not harmful to others; but sometimes they result in unjust attitudes and conduct towards others.

There are those for whom it is advantageous that people take decisions based on biased or incomplete information. A most potent element of this ideological strategy is the creation and promulgation of negative stereotypes based on exaggerated difference and the counterposing of those against equally exaggerated positive stereotypes.

If those stereotypes gain added legitimacy through an appeal to religion or science or by tapping into real concerns and fears, their ability to increase prejudice and to foment division is enhanced.

The fact that many societies place a social premium on lighter toned skin is often cited as evidence that colour prejudice is both universal and ‘natural’. But the origin of this isn‘t ‘racism’ but social class.

The labouring classes or castes had weathered skin. Only those who had others to labour for them could keep the soft paler clean skins they were born with. Thus a paler, soft skin on the face and hands was the most potent symbol of privilege, marking out the owner of it as a person who does not have to labour.

The Chinese fetish of tiny bound feet had a parallel in the Victorian fetish of tiny corseted waists. Exaggerated fashions such as sleeves that hang down over the hands, extremely high heels, very long fingernails were (and are) social markers sending out the message that this is a person who does not labour – either at all, or at least, not by hand.

The seeds of social Darwinism’s racial hierarchy fell on very fertile soil.

Martin Van Beynen (Press, Oct 16) argued that Paul Henry was not being racist because he did not overtly promote the superiority of one race over another.

But, as a current affairs presenter, Henry’s personal prejudices are combined with a considerable power to influence public opinion. That combination of race-based prejudice and the power to influence others took his statements into the realms of racism.

The same applies to Tony Veitch’s statement about Serena Williams, to Paul Holmes’ labelling of the UN General Secretary as a ‘cheeky darky’, and to Michael Laws’ steady stream of prejudice. We all know that the ‘feral underclass’ is code for brown people.

Racism needs to be viewed as the combination of negative prejudices based on skin colour or social or cultural attributes, and unfairly discriminatory acts that gain legitimacy through the exercise of social, political, economic or military power.

That was, and largely remains, a European phenomenon but it is not inherent to Europeans. I have no doubt that the ruling class in China, in its pursuit of the wealth of Africa, has no greater regard for the African people than the Englishmen who grew rich on the slave trade.

This is where Hone Harawira needs to be careful. He may have very good reasons, historical and contemporary, personal and cultural, for feeling antipathy to white New Zealanders. But the moment he generalises the conduct and characteristics of some white New Zealanders to all white New Zealanders and uses his political power to add weight to his words, he enters that arena where personal prejudice becomes racism.

However his power to influence is arguably way less than that of the white majority.

To understand why the words ‘nigger’ or ‘black Mfer’ in the mouth of a white person has more ‘power’ than the words ‘ honky’ or ‘white MFers” in the mouth of a black or brown person, you only need to look at which continent is still being pillaged, what peoples are still at the bottom the world’s hierarchy of power and privilege.

In the vicious, divisive and cruel hierarchy of colour, white still trumps everything, yellow trumps brown – and yes, brown trumps black.

Africa – the cradle of human kind, whose peoples’ forced labour laid the foundations of industrial capitalism and the Europeans’ world dominance, is the richest continent with the poorest people.

And that’s the context in which remarks like Henry’s and co have to be put.

Bin Laden

Katherine Gillard (Press Friday May 6th) called Osama bin Laden a murderous coward and cited the initial reports of him having hidden behind a woman. As any good spin doctor knows, even if proven to be incorrect subsequently, this is the image most people will retain – the man who sent young men to die for his cause, using one his wives as a human shield.

I don’t really care that bin Laden was assassinated by an American hit squad. I don’t care about any men of violence - especially those who stay safe in their places of worship or their corporate HQs or seats of government and send young men and women out to die.

The differences between the men who control the biggest military force in the world and men like bin Laden are a matter of ideology and degree. Each would have us believe they are defending all that is good and true and each are at great pains to hide the essential truth - their own calculating self-interest.

Contrary to spin doctrine, fanatics don't all pray in mosques nor are all those who pray in mosques, fanatics. Most who pray in mosques are decent people who want nothing more than to bring their children up in peace and prosperity - and there are many who pray in churches who ignore the important elements of Jesus' teaching.

When it suits, they take up the intellectually and morally undemanding ‘eye for an eye’ credo, replacing gentle Jesus meek and mild with the Old Testament God – fear-inducing, misogynistic, capricious, blood thirsty and above all, vengeful.

And, when people choose to believe they are made in that image, there are no limits to their hatred of difference and capacity for cruelty, violence and vindictiveness.

The poll on Telecom’s Xtra website on May 7th asked if bin Laden should have been caught and brought to trial. The responses - written in the typical schlock Xtra style were : ‘Yes – everyone’s entitled to a fair trial; ‘No – killers shouldn’t have rights’; and ‘Not sure”.

At the time of writing this, 70% of respondents had replied ‘No – killers shouldn’t have rights’.

Now, it has to be said that the Yahoo!Xtra website poll can be depended upon for producing a hefty majority on the politically Right side of most issues - which, from my perspective, is usually the wrong side.

Often the poll outcome is influenced by the way both questions and responses are phrased as well as the way the site presents its stories, which it gives prominence to, how it headlines them and which it allows comment on. But it must also be, in part, a reflection of the people who subscribe to Xtra. And a disturbing number seem to be full of rage and hatred. This is confirmed by the calibre and content of the comments on some stories.

A suggestion that Hone Harawira be gagged by ‘shoving a grenade down his throat’ is not atypical. Xtra fuels this nonsense with headlines such as ‘Hone opens his big mouth again.’ This headline was a link to a blog – usually full of trite nonsense or the voices of unreason.

“So-called justice system, lunatics running the asylum, low-life, mockery, mamby-pamby (sic) criminal lovers, bunch of academics and bureaucrats, spineless politicians, liberal ideology, politically correct nonsense, do-gooders, politically correct sham.

No prizes for guessing which sensible guardian of law and order wrote a rant containing all the above. It was of course that flag bearer of the Right, Garth McVicar, self-annointed champion of law and order and disciple of Sheriff Jo Arpaio.

The belief that killers – or even all criminals - shouldn’t have rights is worrying; the point of a trial is to establish guilt or innocence beyond reasonable doubt and to determine an appropriate punishment. Dispense with that and we are no better than those our governments gun down in the name of freedom. Even Nazi mass murderers were brought to trial.

But let’s face it – the belief isn’t really that killers per se shouldn’t have rights – it’s just certain killers. The questions of which people deserve summary execution, and who decides and who carries out the executions are ignored because the way through such difficult questions simply cannot be found with a zealot’s moral compass.

His execution may have saved the Obama presidency but that has been at the cost of making bin Laden a martyr and fuelling fanaticism. It paves the way to war.

The USA storms around the world launching military actions in other sovereign states and kidnapping the citizens of other countries – all in defence of democracy. It is of course acting in the defence of the US industrial-military complex and international finance capital. Any spin-off benefits to some of the world’s peoples are incidental and could be withdrawn at any time. Try voting in the wrong sort of government and a lot of us could easily slip from being the privileged recipients of fringe benefits to being hapless victims of collateral damage.

However much it protests after the fact that it was done in the name of freedom and democracy, every illegal action by a state undermines its credibility. It corrupts and erodes the very things it is supposed to protect.

Because we may never know what bin Laden’s crimes actually were, the spin doctors on both sides can now have a field day whipping up different forms of jingoism with those old tried and true fervour-raising agents – mindless patriotism and its boon companions, fear and hatred of others. I repeat that I don’t care bin Laden died a violent death and I feel the same about all men who unleash destruction on innocents from a distance and call it collateral damage - but the current hypocrisy and triumphalism are sickening.

Those who are busy whooping should be aware that a moral high ground constructed by spin doctors is about as stable as the ground beneath Christchurch and no place to build a future.