On not relying on truthiness, Brian Easton 

A Conversation With My Country
Alan Duff
Penguin Random House, $39.00,
ISBN 9780143773269

In 1990, a comet brightened the New Zealand literary scene and society with the publication of Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors, for it involved both an extraordinary literary style and a powerful story. 

It was welcomed in the very first issue of New Zealand Review Of Books Pukapuka Aotearoa by the late Bruce Stewart, a playwright, ex-prisoner and founder of the Tapu Te Ranga Marae, important to Wellington down and outs. He opened his review: 

At last a Maori writer has managed to hang out all the dirty Maori washing with some kind of dignity and at the same time place the blame where it belongs. No other Maori writer has achieved this to the same degree – small loads of dirty washing yes, but not the front fence covered in rags and holey underwear. Most of the Maori writers have been careful not to hang it out in case the Pakehas would see it and use it against them. In the backyard – amongst themselves, it’s family and it’s okay.

This reader was struck by the novel’s vigorous and innovative writing, but it also told a troubling story about New Zealand’s underclass and the horrific lives they can lead. I cannot recall that my focus was particularly on the Māori dimension of the narrative. Yes, that the characters were Māori was an integral part of the story. But I knew that while Māori were more likely to be members of the underclass, there were probably more Pākehā in total.

According to Duff in A Conversation With My Country, a collection of essays around a common theme, many Māori, unlike Stewart, objected to the novel, because they thought it would be taken to portray all Māori. The thought never occurred to me, because I already knew that there were more Māori who were not in the underclass. One may be surprised at the reaction. The late Rosie Scott’s Glory Days, published two years earlier, is about the Pākehā underclass. One did not assume that it characterised all Pākehā; I even gave a copy to one of its (admittedly literate) members to help her understand her situation. Clearly, the Māori middle class were much more sensitive.

Having been battered by his critics, Duff goes on to argue that Māori have done a lot better since the book’s publication, claiming that Māori are the “most well-adjusted, self-asserted indigenous race in human history”. He says that he would not write Once Were Warriors again, because Māori culture has progressed far beyond Jake “The Muss”; I would be more cautious. I plead no-contest to claims about being in the front of human history; they are difficult to define and defend, and usually extravagant. But the dysfunctional underclass is still with us, although today they are more involved with drugs than liquor. Moreover, to present Māori as if Jake were typical in 1990 ignores the majority at the time. Certainly, most were at the lower end of the social scale, but membership of the underclass was not predominant. 

Duff is right that there has been some movement up the scale over the years, but this has been more incremental than he presents it, partly because he makes the past worse than it was. As an example – there are many – Duff writes that All Black selection was once racist. But “in the last 30 years more enlightened attitudes have opened the door for more Māori”. In fact, the All Black team which finally beat the Springboks 63 years ago contained five Māori, more than double their population weight. (Its captain, Bob Duff (no relation), was preceded by a Māori, Pat Vincent.) The protests which objected to excluding Māori from the tours to South Africa, beginning in 1949, reflected a growing recognition that Māori were being normally selected and should have gone. 

The problem we all face understanding late 20th-century Māori history is that the vast majority of Māori in the early 20th century lived in rural localities. After WWII, they first trickled and then streamed into the cities. They were poorly prepared for the challenges of urban living. Some, like Jake, sank; others flourished; most adapted. Duff is right that we should celebrate this adaptation and the success that has gone with it, but not uncritically, for the Jakes and Beths are still there. 

The book discusses two ways the adaptation has evolved. Duff is proud of his books-in-homes programme. Allow me a caution. His evidence for the programme’s success is the number of distributed books, but there seems to be no systematic assessment of whether, or how much, books have changed lives. I have been in a middle-class Pākehā home with an entire wall of a filled bookcase, the occupier saying he had not read any of them. My mother, a high-school librarian, suggests a different solution. They named the school library after her when she retired, not just for the way she had built up its resources, but because she had helped so many of the school’s students to get into the habit of reading. Duff tells a similar story of his father; it was not so much that his home had books, but that he had a lifelong conversation with Gowan. The mentoring by parents, teachers, librarians, even neighbours, is probably more important than the artefacts themselves (although, of course, they are needed). 

I also caution about Duff’s second enthusiasm – education. Undoubtedly, the discipline of schooling – attendance, classroom cooperation, literacy and numeracy and the like – is usually important for later success in life. But it could be argued that, in a key respect, the New Zealand education system is failing us. The poor quality of public discussion and the uncritical popularity of some commentators suggest that our students leave school unable to handle a complicated debate. Do they have any sense of the treachery of “truthiness”, the belief that if something conforms to one’s views it must be true. We bemoan the phenomenon overseas, especially as it gives Donald Trump, and others, their popular base. The difference here is only one of degree.

To give a slightly complicated example which Duff addresses: he argues that blaming colonisation and racism for the problems of Māori is a major roadblock to further progress. Such political correctness prevents proper discussion; in order to move forward, it is necessary to ditch labels that make Māori victims and non-Māori oppressors. I agree. Too often, terms like “colonisation” and “racism” – there are others – are a signal that the speaker has stopped thinking and does not understand the issues he or she is talking about. Labels become a block to progress not a pathway. 

Duff has dislikes. We need to be subtler than his views on gangs. Undoubtedly, some gangs, and some parts of others, are involved in crime and drugs and behaviour as heinous as Jake’s community. But are they all like that? Rather than starting off condemning them, we first need to know more. My hypothesis is that they are a social form arising from adapting to urbanisation, that we see only the prominent failures and not the quiet successes. We rely on truthiness. 

Duff’s remarks on the welfare system are even more troubling. There are two broad views. Duff’s is that it encourages social delinquency and that the welfare recipients should get off their bums and look after themselves rather than relying on the state. The other is that a market economy inevitably fails to provide an adequate standard of living for all, especially for those doing valuable social activities outside the market, such as child-rearing, or those who lack the capabilities to earn adequate market incomes – the sick, invalids and the retired. The welfare system is a way of modifying market outcomes to address this failure. Both accounts are, to some extent, correct, but applying the first diagnosis to those suffering the second condition is futile and corruptive (although it is terribly popular with the political right). What is needed is to address the second group, get that right and then address the residual; there are probably fewer bludgers than the Right thinks. 

While writing this review, but after the book went to press, the (latest) row in regard to Oranga Tamariki blew up. I know little about the facts of the originating case which involves a disputed uplifting of a newly born child from a Māori mother. There has been public outrage, and some Māori are organising themselves against the ministry, including objecting to its Māori name. 

Recall its original English name was “Ministry for Vulnerable Children”, the adjective indicating that the agency was fundamentally dysfunctional in conception. The name was changed to “Ministry for Children” although, as far as one can judge, nothing else has been done to address the underlying dysfunction. The ministry’s Māori name, “Oranga Tamariki”, was not changed, and has no overtone of vulnerability. It means “wellbeing of children”, an even better title than “Ministry of Children”. 

It is true that the majority of children in state care are categorised as Māori – looks like the prison population, does it not? – but that was not true at the previous peak in 2008. What has happened belongs to another public discussion, which the Māori protest may be triggering. My point is a simpler one. Once more we have given primacy to the Māori dimension of a phenomenon involving widespread failure and dysfunction. I would regret losing the name “Oranga Tamariki” for a functioning Ministry of Children, although one appreciates Māori frustration with equating this perfectly appropriate term with “vulnerability”. 

I doubt that I would have written the last few paragraphs without the stimulation of Duff’s A Conversation With New Zealand. Many readers may dismiss the book because of its errors, its misunderstandings and its political conservatism – their truthiness against his. Instead, they should take up his invitation to engage with a viewpoint which may have its limitations, but is offering a conversation about one of the acutest issues facing Aotearoa New Zealand.

Brian Easton’s Heke Tangata: Māori In Markets And Cities was published by Oratia Media last year and reviewed in NZRB Summer 2018. His Not In Narrow Seas, a political-economic history of New Zealand, will be published by Victoria University Press next year.  

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Posted in Māori, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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