Someone sent me a copy of the open letter signed by 2000 academics and assorted hangers-on attacking the seven University of Auckland professors who wrote to The Listener challenging the idea that Matauranga Maori – traditional Maori knowledge – should be treated as worthy of equal status with Western science.
The open letter is an academic gang-up on a grand scale. It cannot be interpreted as anything other than a determined attempt to deter dissenters.
It’s depressing and disheartening, but it should serve as a call to arms to anyone who values intellectual freedom and free speech. No one should be in any doubt that these fundamental values of a liberal, open democracy are at risk in the institutions where they should be most honoured and celebrated.
A large proportion of the signatories to the open letter appear to be academic also-rans from third-rate establishments. The numbers have been padded out with dozens of ring-ins from overseas. Predictably, many of the local names will be recognised as belonging to people with a history of attaching themselves to whatever fashionable leftist cause happens to be passing.
Disappointingly, the list also includes a few prominent figures who one might have hoped would hold out against invitations to sign, not only in defence of intellectual freedom but also for the reason that the open letter looks like bullying (which it is). Emeritus Professor Paul Spoonley is there, for example, as is Dr Colin Tukuitonga.
I’m not going to get into the debate about the relative merits of Western science and Matauranga Maori, (a) because other people are far better qualified to do that, and more importantly (b) because it’s immaterial. The real issue here is the right to engage in free and open debate on a matter of public interest – namely, how New Zealand children are to be taught about science, which is at the heart of the seven heretics’ concern – without being howled down.
That howling down has one object in mind: to enforce orthodoxy. The sheer weight of numbers shows how all-pervasive that orthodoxy is, and how intolerant of disagreement. I wonder how many signatories felt under pressure to sign because they were concerned about their career prospects.
I also fear for university staff who refuse to toe the approved ideological line and courageously insist on their right to hold and express their own informed opinions. It can’t be easy for them.
Now here’s the thing: all 2000 of those signatories enjoy the benefits of an academic environment that came about through freedom of thought and the right to challenge accepted beliefs. They are now betraying that heritage and denying it to others.
I recently read someone suggesting that the period from the 1960s on, when the conservative establishment was under assault from a wave of free thinking and open debate, was actually a temporary aberration, and we’re now regressing to a society in which censorious bullies are in control and non-conformists feel threatened and intimidated.
Sadly, I think the theory may be right. The people who signed the open letter are the new establishment, and they’re as intolerant of challenges to their authority as the old one was.
■ Morning Report this morning began an item about the dawn raids apology with Elton John’s line, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word”.
Actually, it’s not. Not when you’re Jacinda Ardern and the events you’re apologising for happened so far in the past that they don’t reflect unfavourably on you. Neither is saying sorry difficult when your message is targeted at an audience whose votes you want in 2023.
Yes, from the vantage point of 2021, the dawn raids look bad. This is an example of presentism, when we judge historic events according to contemporary values and expectations. In the circumstances, a formal government apology makes good political theatre.
For what it’s worth, I think it’s true that Polynesian overstayers were cynically made scapegoats for a downturn in the economy which meant they were no longer useful as low-cost factory fodder. But we can see this with more clarity now than we could then. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
It’s also true that early-morning police raids were a tactic associated with totalitarian states and that they would not have been used against middle-class white homes because that would have been considered intolerable.
But is it permissible to raise a couple of teensy-weensy mitigating factors? One is that the police pounced at 6am not out of gratuitous insensitivity or cruelty, but because that’s when they knew they would find people at home. They do the same with criminals; always have done.
Another is that the overstayers were here illegally, even if they’d been originally invited by the government because we needed their labour. And a third is that although Pasifika overstayers were targeted while those from countries such as Britain and the US were not, that may have been because there were far more of them.
I’m not saying the raids were something we should be proud of; merely that to portray them as a gratuitously callous act of racism may be a bit over-simplistic.