Monocultures of the Mind

“As we look around this glorious city [Sydney], as we see the extraordinary development, it’s hard to think that back in 1788 it was nothing but bush”

Tony Abbot, 13 Nov. 2014

“In my view New Zealand was one of the very few countries in the world that were settled peacefully,” he said.

John Key, 19 Nov. 2014

It was while I was in Japan that I discovered I was a New Zealander.

Which is odd, because at the end of my five years there I had become mostly Japanese in my outlook.  The most disturbing moment in that crossover from a New Zealand to a Japanese identity came one day in Namba Station, in Osaka.  Namba Station is a major hub in the south of Osaka city where a large number of train lines connect, and there is a hotel and underground shopping complex there.  For three of the five years that we were in Osaka it was our nearest local station, and we passed through it every day on the way to work or on our days off on the way to the shops and restaurants of Osaka city itself.  One thing you can say about large multi-level shopping, transit, hotel complexes: they have a lot of escalators.

One day Cathy and I were standing on one of the escalators in Namba Station and I noticed a weird man on the next escalator.  He was extremely pale, with very dark almost pelt-like  hair on his forearms.  He looked, to be honest, rather ill and gross.  It was only when I looked at the man’s face that I realised that I was not looking at the escalator next to me, but in the mirror tiles on the wall.  I was looking at myself.  It made me realise what the mind is capable of.  That the eyes are neutral organs delivering information that the mind translates. If the mind of the anorexic sees “fat” then fat is what it sees.  If the mind of one race sees the other as “normal” it can become dissatisfied with itself.

I came to see many things differently while I was in Japan.  Things about myself, about the world, and about New Zealand.



The day before leaving for Japan, 1998
The day before leaving for Japan, 1998

When I left New Zealand in 1998 to go and teach in Japan I had a history degree but I had never studied New Zealand history.  I had been taught no New Zealand history at school, and I had avoided it at university.  I avoided it because I thought it was boring.  Before 1998 I hadn’t given my national identity much thought.  If someone had asked me what a New Zealander was in 1998 I would have said that a New Zealander was very similar to an Australian.  It was while I was in Japan, working with a lot of Australians, that I came to the conclusion that New Zealanders and Australians are not really the same at all.  The main thing I discovered in Japan though was how hard it was for a clueless kiwi to talk about New Zealand culture.

My Japanese students always asked about New Zealand culture.  After rattling off various cultural icons of Japan they would turn to me and say the dreaded words: “what is New Zealand culture?”  I found this question hard to answer because the usual suspects – jandals, pavlova, rugby and kiwifruit – just seemed a bit lame, not to mention that they didn’t really feature in my daily life as a New Zealander.  What I ended up talking about were the Maori.  Which was actually misguided.  It falls into the trap of thinking that culture is something brown people have.  Like gender really means women, and sexuality really means gay, culture is for non-Western people, and Western people have “normal”.

The western systems of knowledge have generally been viewed as universal.  However, the dominant system is also a local culture, with its social basis in a particular culture, class and gender….  It is merely the globalised version of a very local and parochial tradition.

Vandana Shiva, Monocultures of the Mind (1993)

Thankfully I was living this cultural crisis at the happily coincidental time of having a lot of disposable income while a small golden age in New Zealand history writing was taking place.  It was in Japan that I read most of Belich’s books, and Salmond’s, and King’s (and a few others), and discovered how incredibly interesting New Zealand history really was.  One thing was clear: the history of 19th century New Zealand was a story about an extraordinary group of people living under many different names – Nga Puhi, Tuhoe and Waikato to name but a handful – and their engagement with, and responses to colonialism, and military invasion and occupation by another extraordinary set of people.  Both sets, of course, locked in that transformative historical trend we call imperialism, or colonialism, or globalisation.  The stories of New Zealand were extraordinary, and moving and powerful.  That those stories had previously been written almost entirely from one side, and that the other side featured simply as bit parts in the glorious march of Western imperialism was a tragedy.

Tragedy, of course, is the wrong word.



“We’re not a country that’s come about as a result of civil war or where there’s been a lot of fighting internally, we’re, we’re a country which peacefully came together”.

John Key, June 2008

When I first was in Japan I tended to think that normal was what I knew in New Zealand, and was critical of Japanese deviations from normal.  By the time I left Japan the opposite was true.  Normal, it turns out, is your culture.

In Japan it is hard not to notice that the Japanese take their jobs very seriously.  In Japan people working in McDonalds are  immaculately presented, crisply efficient members of a team constantly on the move cleaning, clearing, and serving.  In Japan train guards are immaculately presented, crisply efficient members of a team constantly on the move signalling, supervising and serving.  When you first arrive in Japan you might experience a few emotions at witnessing this – surprise, awe, contempt – but you definitely notice because in New Zealand this is certainly not normal.  When you come  back to New Zealand and the friendly, laid back and slightly disheveled service resumes it feels good.  Like everyone has taken a chill pill and isn’t taking anything too seriously.  And then there is the magic tipping point where you stop noticing the staff at McDonalds and the train guards in Japan and begin to notice that service in New Zealand is a little bit shit.  And that everyone is badly dressed and overweight.  The little switch in your head has clicked over, and you have a new normal.  You’re looking at yourself in those mirror tiles by the escalator.

Between 1840 and 1890 the British were involved in recreating their normal in New Zealand.  They carried this project through on the false premise that they had legitimately gained sovereignty over the whole country on 6 February, 1840.  Despite recent Waitangi Tribunal reports I hope it is not really news to most people that iwi did not sign away their power to a tiny minority of Europeans in 1840. From Heke and Kawiti’s resistance around Kororareka in the mid-1840s, into the 1880s and beyond, Maori staged resistance to this imposition of a new normal.  The resistance was military, spiritual, political and intellectual.  Thousands of people died, tens of thousands of people were dispossessed and economically ruined, and minds were wrenched into new shapes; shapes that made “Maori-ness” strange in its own home.  From the 1890s the European cultural project of writing New Zealand history began to emerge, and we can return to Vandana Shiva for clues on how the British approached this:

The disappearance of local knowledge through its interaction with the dominant western knowledge takes place at many levels, and through many steps.  First, local knowledge is made to disappear by simply not seeing it, by negating its very existence.

Vandana Shiva

Shiva may as well be writing about the mentality of Abbot and Key.  Before the First Fleet arrived there was nothing but bush at the place the British called Sydney.  In New Zealand the Land Wars didn’t happen.

Over and above rendering local knowledge invisible by declaring it non-existent or illegitimate, the dominant system also makes alternatives disappear by erasing and destroying the reality which they attempted to represent.

Vandana Shiva

 Maori probably acknowledge that settlers had a place to play and brought with them a lot of skills and a lot of capital.

John Key, 19 Nov. 2014

“Capital” of course is a way of seeing the world.  In this version of history the British brought capital to the Maori and they formed a business partnership.  Except that the Maori were left out of this business deal, and when Maori set up parallel economic ventures those ventures were destroyed by the British.  What happened in fact was the political and economic disenfranchisement of the Maori enforced by military power.  That disenfranchisement explains a slew of current statistics about Maori language, health, education and justice in 21st century New Zealand.  Statistics that are unlikely to change without a transfer of economic and political power back to iwi.

‘The rangatira who signed te Tiriti o Waitangi in February 1840 did not cede their sovereignty to Britain’, the Tribunal concluded. ‘That is, they did not cede authority to make and enforce law over their people or their territories.’

The rangatira did, however, agree ‘to share power and authority with Britain’.

‘They agreed to the Governor having authority to control British subjects in New Zealand, and thereby keep the peace and protect Māori interests’, the Tribunal said.

Waitangi Tribunal

What many rangatira imagined might happen in New Zealand in 1840 was pretty radical: two groups sharing land and power in one space.  Unfortunately for the iwi in New Zealand this is not the treaty the British empire signed.  Quixotic letters from Lord Normanby aside, the British wanted control of all of New Zealand and all who lived there.  As with all “great” powers they wanted their monoculture to flourish, and the other to be subjugated and assimilated.  While there was no genocide in New Zealand, there was certainly an attempted cultural genocide.  The idea that New Zealand was settled peacefully is ridiculous even if you ignore New Zealand’s civil war period, because there are other kinds of violence that include the actions of missionaries, land court judges and teachers  all of whom played their part in attempting to eradicate Maori culture.




“Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia, and right around the world,” he said.

Tony Abbot, 13 Oct. 2014

It is easy to forget that colonialism was an economic project at heart.  It is easy to be distracted by rhetoric, and propaganda and vignettes, but it is also easy to see the economic imperative if you look: the London Company, the East India Company, the New Zealand Company.  Perhaps people think these titles refer to companionship, but they don’t.  Each one was an investment opportunity for people with capital.  One would find its success on the commercial cash crop of tobacco, another on the incredible textiles of India, and the last on property speculation.

Modern western knowledge is a particular cultural system with a particular relationship to power.  It has, however, been projected as above and beyond culture and politics.  Its relationship with the project of economic development has been invisible; and therefore it has become a more effective legitimiser for the homogenisation of the world and the erosion of its ecological and cultural richness.

Vandana Shiva

Shiva’s focus in her writing is on biodiversity, ecosystems and farming.  She has been concerned for a long time about the eradication of local, biodiverse farming communities for the vast monocultural crops of western farming.  While her points are about ecosystems it is not hard to include humans in her descriptions.  With the imposition of a supposedly ideology free economic system on another people you in fact have an ideologically rich attack on human diversity; on all the possible ways that land can be viewed, or ways of ownership can be thought of, or religions can be framed, and languages derived.  Under the “ideology free” economics of the west the diversity of the planet and all its peoples is secondary and expendable.  Ultimately, it would seem, even the planet is expendable.

And so we have the extraordinary fact of Tony Abbot’s statement on coal, and Key’s support for mining national parks, and drilling far out to sea.  In the name of what I would call an extremist ideology.  The ideology that creating arbitrary measures of wealth for the citizens of your patch of land is more important than any other consideration.  So powerful and enduring is this normal that the victims of it can even begin to use the system’s violence against diversity on themselves.  If you spend long enough looking in the mirror tiles as you deescalate into the shopping mall you might even begin to think, as some Maori did in the early days of the 20th century, that it is right that the kids of your whanau don’t speak Maori anymore.  Or that land and sovereignty loss can be compensated for with money to be prudently invested in diverse portfolios.




On my last day in New Zealand before going to Japan my mother and I went up to the top of Mount Victoria.  It was a beautiful day, but we both felt like we were going to an execution.  Being an only child and a solo mum we were feeling our first major separation hard.  I had just had my first buzz cut and this probably contributed to the raw, penitentiary feel of the day.  Looking over my left shoulder in that photo now I can see the taniwha Whataitai, stuck in his attempted escape, and the airport built on his back that I would go to the next day to fly out of that harbour myself.

It is only very recently that I learned that Mount Victoria was called Tangi-Te-Keo.  It is only very recently that I have become aware of the diversity crushed beneath lookouts, and suburbia, and “normal”, and that ultimately we may all be crushed by that same system; that we may inflict the final violence on ourselves so divorced from our true nature we have become.  That we might call civil war peace, and coal good for humanity.

When the taniwha (Whataitai) died its spirit took the form of a bird (keo), that flew to the top of the mountain and cried farewell before departing – hence Tangi Te Keo, keo being the word for both a bird and a peak.