Tuesday, August 3, 2021

In New Zealand this week

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.  





Jade Warrior said...

Those 2000 academics all work at institutions where the principles of western science and knowledge are applied on a daily basis. Oh the irony!

Jim Rose said...

Anthropologist's have been able to show through study of recently contacted tribes that they are very knowledgeable of local herbs, Plants and animals. The reasons lie in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. The tribes that didn't pay attention to these factors didn't survive. The closest they got to experimental science would have been tasting and cooking to see if particular plants were poisonous.

There is an appendix to a Stephen Pinker book showing pages and pages of traits that are universal to all cultures according to the anthropologists right down to preferring particular colours and shapes.

Don Franks said...

I never saw one of those dawn raids, but was present at something similar. In 1973 I was visiting political friends in Auckland. One night a keen young anti apartheid activist called Joris De Bres took me on a regular action they called “Pig patrol”. At dusk, we drove to a run down old working-class pub and parked nearby. All was quiet as we got out of the car, seconds later all hell broke loose. Three police cars and a van roared up, screeched to a halt and their occupants ran into the pub, front and back doors both. There was shouting, screaming and crying heard within, several pub patrons, all of them brown, were dragged out and thrown in the van. In those days we didn’t have cell phones to record with, one of our party scribbled down notes. A cop detached himself and came angrily over to us. “Are you with civil liberties ?” The idea of Pig Patrol was to try and curb the police attacks by presenting independent witness of the events. That may have had some limited effect but didn’t stop the on going onslaught.
Now, nearly half a century on, at a special ceremony in Auckland, the New Zealand Government apologised for the dawn raids. At around the same time, Pacific nation people were in the news for another reason. In a move aimed at filling low paid farm jobs, temporary labourers from Sāmoa, Tonga and Vanuatu will be able to enter New Zealand from next month.
This news, which has "really delighted" the fruit growing industry, reminds me of a grey 1974 winter day in Lower Hutt.
I was splashing through mud, among old railway huts, looking for a Tongan worker who could speak English. The huts were being used as temporary worker accomodation. Comfortless and cold, the little sheds were home to young Tongan men for six months, while they worked at the nearby Ford Motor company.
As an assembly workers union delegate it was my duty to try and represent these workers. Few of them spoke any English, which made representation difficult. Things came to a head one night when we were working overtime. I got called across to the body shop, a young Tongan there had gashed his arm on a jig. The company medical adviser said he'd be okay to carry on with a bandage. I said no, he's got to see a doctor. Before anything else happened I called a cab, hustled the confused young guy into it and we took off to casualty. The worker's arm was stitched up and got ten days off work on ACC. After that episode I sought out an English speaking Tongan to teach me a few words of the language. Everything was loaded against these workers.After six months employment in New Zealand, they had to return home, making way for a further contingent to repeat the cycle. The company got a revolving cycle of young fit men, eager to please and ignorant of their rights. It didn't take too long for the temporary workers to learn what was what but all too soon their time was up. If they'd saved hard over the six months they had about enough to buy a cheap basic house in Tonga, to sit in unemployed, with raised expectations which could not be realised. The six month work scheme only lasted as long as it suited the bosses .When unemployment started growing in New Zealand the gate was shut tight and young Tongan workers got nothing.
I think it's appropriate for apologies to be made for the infamous dawn raids. But as long as labour power is a commodity, controled by the powerful against the powerless, there can be no justice.

Handsome B. Wonderful said...

The curriculum debate seems to be a "teach them both" moment. If you mentally replace "Matauranga Maori" with "Creationism" and "Western Science" with "the theory of evolution", the actions of these 2000 are brought into stark relief. But the letter in the Listener did not denigrate Maori knowledge; it simply stated that it is not the same thing as science, much as creationism might be a powerful myth, but irrelevant as science. How could it be otherwise? To claim that Maori knowledge is scientific knowledge, is to claim that Maori came up with the scientific method independently of the rest of the world before first contact with a globalised culture. It's simply a false claim.

Max Ritchie said...

Parts of what you report, Dn, sound terrible. But they are a separate issue. The main thing is that these young men got an opportunity to earn some real money for the first time in their lives. They filled a temporary need. It was win/win, although you make it sound like slave Labour.

Max Ritchie said...

Sorry, that should be Don.

Unknown said...

Excellent commentary Karl. I think you and your readers will find this interesting: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/acs.jpclett.1c01475

Don Franks said...

Cheers Max. I guess we all look at situations through our own lense and I admit a socialist bias. It does depend where we're seeing things from I think. One time, when he was personel manager at Fords, George Hickton said to me that if things were reversed and he was working down on the factory floor he'd be "right into taking strike actions along with the rest of you ".

Karl du Fresne said...

Ha. I led journalists out on strike not once but twice at the old Evening Post, so there may be something in what Hickton said ...

Alexandra Corbett Dekanova said...

Some reactions to the letter of the "magnificent seven" are frightening. Sociologist Melanie Mark-Shadbolt said her problem was not so much with the individuals who signed the letter (the seven professors), but the institutions that allow these people to operate in there. According to her it is a sign there are bigger issues, that people are allowed to have these views and they are fomenting away in the university and it is dangerous and it is dangerous not only for current academics but future academics (Dan Satherley report Maori scientists say slow violence of racism drives them out of universities in Newshub). What is she afraid of? What is so dangerous? That academics are and hopefully will be exposed to opinions other than their own? That they will have to search arguments to defend their opinions instead of thriving on repeating the propaganda? That they will have to use reason and logics to prove their arguments? That they might be even exposed to truth?
What she is calling for is ideologically motivated purge of universities, it is beyond the contest of ideas, it is about censorship and execution of power in the places where the freedom of speech is condicio sine qua non. And this is truly dangerous.
Alexandra Corbett Dekanova.

Hilary Taylor said...

I'm shocked at how these denouncers operate. I'm with you Alexandra. It's bullying, as you say Karl.I said earlier, these people are dangerous right-fighters. I've taken 1 or 2 to task by email and am expecting the thought Police at the door any day. Not standing by while people's reputations get smeared.

Unknown said...

Wow! thanks for that very interesting 🙏

Trev1 said...

Time to close the universities They have become a sick parody and serve no longer serve any useful purpose . I hope they go bankrupt now there are so few foreign students.

Meanwhile relocate the disciplines we actually need, medicine, engineering etc, to separate institutes.

Nevil Gibson said...

No one should be surprised that 2000 people can sign a petition within a few days on this topic. It also occurred a while back when the University of Waikato was accused of discrimination in its staffing policies. An inquiry did not fault the university's ability to make employment decisions but it did rap them over the knuckles (metaphorically speaking) to ensure there was no racial bias. The article mentioned by Anonymous about the effects of ideologies in universities under totalitarian regimes (Nazi and communist) is highly relevant to the "cancel culture.". A recent book by a retired Czech-born, University of Otago academic (Prague in My Bones, by Jindra Tichý) details the deleterious effect Marxism had on Charles University, a onetime top institution in Central Europe. Similarly, the Stasi in East Germany dictated who could work at Berlin's Humboldt University, that country's oldest.

Doug Longmire said...

This is an appalling and very worrying state of affairs.
The cancel culture is now very powerful and the extreme Marxist Left is now clearly pushing for the revolution.
A few years ago, if anybody had suggested that I could be arrested by Police in my own home for saying an "insulting" comment, I would not laughed at the ides.
I mean those thing only happen in totalitarian dictatorships, eg. Cuba, USSR, China, North Korea !!

Fast forward to 1984, sorry, 2021 and it is now upon us.

How many Kiwis really want this ?