Letters – Issue 42


The blinding light of the mind

In your December 1999 issue, Peter Munz critiques Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith. This review was so negative that I’m afraid it might deter people from reading the original work. This would be a shame because it is an important book, and one that every thinking New Zealander should read.

Your reviewer follows the intellectual line first drawn by Karl Popper, a line now known to result in a particular form of closure that can be no less pernicious for being seemingly open and unperceived. Despite the germinal nature of Popper’s arguments, they have long since ceased to be a complete account of their subject. And Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s book is a very good place to start to understand why.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith is a trained social scientist. As such she explicitly acknowledges the significance of the rationalistic way of thinking your reviewer recommends. She is also Maori, however, and as such she is well placed not only to describe some of rationalism’s less-than-emancipatory consequences, but also to explore the ways in which the light of the mind, when used as an end in itself, blinds as well as illuminates. Smith believes that there are ways of knowing prioritised by Maori that can and should be used to complement rationalism and to transcend the limits that rationalism sets. This point has its own potentially emancipatory implications, and in dismissing these out of hand your reviewer seems to have provided a copy-book case of the kind of imperialism Smith so rightly abhors.

Ralph Pettman
Professor of International Relations
Victoria University of Wellington


A genuine visionary

It was sad and infuriating to have Colin James spoil an otherwise sensible article, “From Visionaries to Pygmies” (December 1999), by his reference to Bill Sutch as “economist, intellectual, public servant and acquitted spy”. This conveys that he really was a spy, even though the prosecution case at his trial was so weak that it simply failed to establish even a case to answer. What has happened to the presumption of innocence? What has happened to journalistic fairness?

Nobody who really knew Bill Sutch, as Colin James obviously did not, could believe in the charge of spying laid against him. Robert Muldoon ostensibly believed it, but he would, wouldn’t he?

The most that can be alleged is that Bill met a couple of times with a member of the Soviet Embassy, who was a KGB agent, and gave him a few bits of information or opinion. The agent was the spy; Bill Sutch was unwittingly making himself definable as an informant. For the KGB, any scrap of information (weather reports, even) might add to building a bigger picture; and it was a standard tactic to lead people into talking about harmless things so as to draw them into disclosing really damaging stuff. Nothing indicates it got that far.

Bill told my mother once that the man had induced him to believe he was thinking about defecting; and Bill lamented that his own vanity had led him to being deceived. This sounds like the man I knew.

It can also be said of Colin James’s article that it gives insufficient attention to the power exerted by commercial interest groups. True, he would not have had room to say everything; but it is relevant here that retaining relatively full employment for urban people had depended (and the reduction of current unemployment does depend) upon developing the manufacturing of consumer goods within this country, and that this has been disastrously sabotaged by importing interests, supported by the farmers’ lobby.

The 1957-60 Labour Government, with a vigorous contribution by Bill Sutch as Secretary of Industries and Commerce, set out to establish local industries, such as the Nelson cotton mill. Lamentably, this conflicted with the interests of a senior member of the National Party executive, so that in 1960-61, after National came to power, the cotton mill was killed off. Other industries have since been wrecked by asset-strippers, or by those who acquired them and saw greater profits for themselves in importing than in local production.

The “Think Big” projects of Muldoon and Birch two decades later were a belated yet noble recognition of the value of this policy, but shafted by faulty choices and subsequent sell-offs. The new centre-left government will once again be trying to establish local economic development, to provide employment. It will have a hard fight against vested interests.

Colin James laments the passing of visionaries; but it would be fair to give proper credit to Bill Sutch, who was a genuine visionary, a big man in many ways, and a patriot (too brave to always be as discreet as he should have been), instead of parroting the smears against him from self-interested pygmies.

J C Ross
Palmerston North


While I found Colin James’s piece thoughtful and stimulating as always, I must take exception to his description of Bill Sutch as an “acquitted spy”. Either Sutch was a spy in terms of the law or he was not. The fact of his acquittal tells us which of the two he was. I have sometimes noticed a tendency on the part of some sections of the authorities and their journalist camp-followers to speak of Sutch as if the case against him was sound but that somehow or other he managed to wriggle out of it and escape conviction. I would not have put Colin James in the camp of those who hold to this view, and I trust, therefore, that his statement is a slip of the pen.

Tony Simpson


The cross-fertilisation of cultures

I have enjoyed reading the Millennium Essays (December 1999), with one exception. Looking towards the next century, it appears to me that all possible cultural and spiritual resources are going to be needed if basic human values are to withstand the increasing onslaught of technology and commercial globalisation that looks to be inevitable.

What is needed culturally to this end is commonality not division; cultures open to each other, cross-fertilising. In New Zealand, in particular, I feel that Pakeha culture is very much in need of infusion from Maori culture if it is not to be sucked into mass mechanisation. I also believe it could now be regarded as open to such infusion. But cultural interchange of this sort will have limited possibility so long as Maori people are preoccupied with nursing their victim status, as is the writer of the essay, “Silencing the People”. If such an attitude persists, I predict that not only will Maori culture not make the contribution it could to world culture but also that Maori culture itself will go into rapid decline.

Ken Bragan

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