I’ve been reading a lot about Israel and Palestine. It makes me think about New Zealand. It makes me notice that, if you squint a little, it is possible to see the history of New Zealand as just an earlier run of the history of Palestine under Israeli occupation. It’s not a hugely comforting thought being, as I am, the descendant of settlers who arrived in the early 1850s, but I think it is accurate.
Much of the world’s conflict since the dawn of conflict has been over resources – usually land – muddied with thick, visceral strands of ideology that enables violence. In colonial settler societies like New Zealand, Australia and Israel the resource has essentially been land. There have been little flare ups over gold and coal or the mineral resource de jour, but the essential issues that have involved armed conflict have been over land and who owns it.
In New Zealand the major wars of occupation perpetrated by the British Crown against the Maori were over land. Whether in Taranaki, or the Waikato, or the Bay of Plenty, the goal was the same: to access and control land according to what the British understood as property law. What the Maori regarded as property law was understood but disregarded and destroyed in the Native Land Courts. When it comes to property law it is the law of the person with the greater military power that comes to be the “norm” although there are many equally valid alternatives around concepts of ownership that function perfectly well.
It has been the same in Israel. The Palestinians who cling to farm lands described in deeds that used only the vernacular language of farmers to describe boundaries find themselves challenged in court by detailed topographical survey maps and lawyers and the state of Israel. All of which is legitimate and above-board if you accept one world view’s right to override another’s. If you accept one system’s judicial system over another’s. If, in short, you accept the ideology of the global colonising hegemony. New Zealand’s official understanding of property meshes perfectly well with Britain’s (of course) and America’s and Israel’s. The oppressors agree so it is “natural”. It enmeshes every possible resources in its grasp, and it can make sense of the idea of selling the land, and the minerals under it, to global corporations that are built on this system of capitalist property rights.
Does this sound like a tract from a now defunct communist website? Being able to label all of this communist would be convenient. It would be mentally easy and allow you to move on, but I am not a communist. Anybody who has studied anything of 20th century communism knows what a spectacular failure that ideal has been when translated into government. I find almost nothing to admire in communism because it does not tolerate the idea that people are different and rambunctious and difficult, and – rightly – like to criticise and change the systems that they use to organise themselves. Democracy is better than communism. Capitalism is more problematic. Capitalism and democracy very problematic indeed.
Take the arms industry. A very, very profitable business. Very, very profitable businesses employ a lot of people and make a lot of money for the national economy. I imagine that the invasion and occupation of New Zealand in the 19th century was a good little earner for the weapons manufacturers that supplied the British military. Not as good as some other campaigns like World War One, but not too bad. It really would not have been in Britain’s national interest to curb that invasion force’s need for weapons and ammunition. Similarly, it really would not be in America’s national interest to screw up the enormously lucrative arms trade with Israel which is worth tens of millions. The profits of the arms industry are not, of course, Obama’s only consideration, but it must weigh heavily on his mind. No one wants to see American GDP drop or unemployment rise on the back of an arms embargo. Well, almost no one.
Or take Jamie Whyte of the Act Party in New Zealand and Mihirangi Forbes who interviewed him on Maori Television last week. Jamie explained how he wanted one law for everyone and the end of laws that privileged one race, and Mihirangi tried to ask “whose law?”. Something that it appears that Jamie couldn’t understand. The philosophic idea that laws are human constructs that reflect cultural beliefs. As much as I wish Jamie Whyte didn’t exist he reminds me of why democracy is good; it proves, to quote myself, that “people are different and rambunctious and difficult, and – rightly – like to criticise and change the systems that they use to organise themselves”. So Jamie can state his nonsense and I can spout mine.
The difference being that I am right and he is wrong. Of course.
His views would be correct in a world with no history, or history of injustice, but only people like Jamie Whyte and myself live in the world he describes as normal. We are both over-educated, white men within a system we understand who have done alright. We differ on one point however. I think that cultural hegemony can actually disenfranchise groups in society and that government should be malleable and reflective enough to register cultural differences, while he believes everyone is the same.
You can see all of this in action if you go to Opotiki.
The British occupation of Opotiki took place because of the murder of one man. Because a Maori resistance group represented by a renegade called Kereopa acted unilaterally in response to the murder of his family by the British military and killed a priest called Carl Volkner who had been collaborating with the British war machine, the British government collectively punished the entire iwi in that region. I hope, as I write this, that the parallels to Gaza are obvious.
The recent events in Gaza began, ostensibly, because a rogue ex-Hamas group acting unilaterally killed three Israeli teens and the Israeli war machine collectively punished the Gazans. In the New Zealand case the campaign in Opotiki was paid for with the local iwi’s land. Soldiers who looted the tribe with impunity were then paid with plots of land in Opotiki while the Maori were put on a reservation. This, and I say it knowing fully what it means, was ethnic cleansing. Not on a grand scale, not with modern-day excesses, but it was certainly the expulsion of one ethnic group in favour of another. Land and economic power were unjustly stripped off one group and given to another. Once this was done, the national cultural norm was shifted. From Opotiki, and around New Zealand, one long-established norm of justice and education and power – the Maori one – was shunted aside, and then denigrated, and then outlawed.
Which is not just. The Maori of Opotiki – Whakatohea – were not backward, or resistant to the British. Hapu in that iwi raised money to purchase sailing ships so they could export the crops they had grown to Auckland. Hapu raised money to build a flour mill. The possibility of another New Zealand was right there. One where Maori and British lived side by side maintaining their cultures independently and interacting where beneficial.
It’s not that I think that the 19th century Maori ways were better. In many cases I don’t. I have no time for the undemocratic power structures, and ranks, and the slavery of captives in wars, but equally I disagree with many British practices from the 19th century, but somehow it is accepted that these evolved and got “better” whereas Maori custom is always criticised as a fossil of the 19th century that never evolved even though it did. I object to the idea that Western systems are normal and right. If you can’t shake that idea then you are obliging Maori to be second class citizens in our society. Forever. Like the Israelis with the Palestinians. Forever will one system be normal and the other system lesser.
I am grinding to the end of this post and I think it’s the right time to ask myself some questions.
Here’s one: what the f*&k do you know? One thing I detest is a lack of doubt. I detest it in the right and the left. Doubting yourself should be situation normal. I partly think that I know nothing, and I partly think that I know that anything that doesn’t deliver justice is wrong. What is justice though? I don’t actually believe in the slippery slope of everything is relative and we should therefore do nothing. It’s up to all of us as individuals to make our determination of what justice is. I actually believe that the majority of people can agree on what justice is the majority of times. This is probably my greatest weakness because it isn’t often borne out by history. History informs us that people trapped in their cultural and ideological constructs can believe that they are right as they carry out pure evil. I think this trap occurs time after time in systems that ask only one set of people in a society what they think is just. If the Jews in Germany had been asked what was just in 1942 they would have had a different story to tell than the average German citizen, and if the Jewish opinion had maintained power within the system then the Holocaust would never have happened.
Any system that loses tolerance for its detractors or victims is an unjust system. The people who advocate a two state solution to the Israel-Palestine situation find the idea of different systems within New Zealand intolerable. I’m not sure that we have the courage to understand that differences have to be fully respected and protected. A wide range of cultures and ecosystems are invaluable to the health of all that we share the planet with, and money is our own ephemeral construct that tends to homogenise. I want to live in a world that is biologically and culturally heterogeneous. I want my kids to live in that world. Not a world where global capitalism homogenises all people and all resources to maximise exploitation, and not a world where one sect’s ideology homogenises all humanities thinking and ways of being.
We can live together as brothers and sisters or we can perish together as fools.