Friday, 4 September 2015

Best Flag Not Included Among The “Final Four”

The Tino Rangatiratanga Flag: It’s a flag that speaks, directly, to this country’s past, present and future. For that reason, alone, it makes the strongest case for being chosen as the present flag’s replacement. That it is also a superb design merely strengthens its claim.
THERE’S A HOUSE not far from here that flies the Tino Rangatiratanga flag. Every day, rain or shine, its flutters bravely atop its slender flagpole. A statement? Certainly. But isn’t every flag? The Tino Rangatiratanga flag stands for Maori sovereignty. It’s about the proper relationship between those who came to these islands first and those who came later. In other words, it’s a flag that speaks, directly, to this country’s past, present and future. For that reason, alone, it makes the strongest case for being chosen as the present flag’s replacement. That it is also a superb design merely strengthens its claim.
Tragically, New Zealanders will not be given the opportunity to vote for the Tino Rangatiratanga flag. The government-appointed Flag Consideration Panel has released the four “finalists” from the 40 designs it selected from the more than 10,000 submissions it received – and the Tino Rangatiratanga flag is not among them. (Hardly surprising, really, since it didn’t make the “Top-40” either!)
Even more tragically, not one of the “Final Four” comes close to the Tino Rangatiratanga flag in terms of either graphic power or cultural resonance. Though the Panel was charged with ensuring that any new flag’s design reflected the importance of the Treaty of Waitangi-inspired partnership between Maori and Pakeha, not one of the chosen flags features the red, white and black “colours” that are fundamental to Maori artistic expression. Not to worry, the Panel have carefully covered the base marked “Maori” with a flag featuring a stark black koru. Sorted.
The remaining designs all feature the Silver Fern – either on its own, or, in combination with the Southern Cross.
The problem is that a flag based on these traditional New Zealand symbols cannot help but draw attention to the country’s colonial history. If England was represented by the rose, Ireland the shamrock, Scotland the thistle, and Wales the leak, then what was New Zealand’s national “flower”? The answer turned out to be the ubiquitous silver fern. The Aussies contribution to Great Britain’s sprawling imperial garden was the wattle.
The Southern Cross, too, reflected the Northern Hemisphere origins of the Southern Hemisphere’s British colonisers. South of the Equator the stars were different. “Crux” (The Cross) just happened to be the constellation most easily identified by emigrants travelling in southern latitudes. Perversely, the “Southern Cross”, rather than representing a new beginning, ended up reminding the colonists how far they were from “home”.
The substitution of the silver fern for the Union Jack is not, therefore, a bold statement of nationhood – merely a capitulation to the embarrassment of incorporating another nation’s flag in the corner of our own.
But why be embarrassed in the first place? Everything about New Zealand, from its political institutions, to its courts, its schools, universities, and sporting codes, have been borrowed directly from the British. Yet nobody is suggesting we give up the Westminster System, the Common Law, the unrivalled cultural achievements of Britain’s artists, philosophers and scientists – let alone Rugby or Cricket! So, why quibble about keeping Britannia’s flag? What better reminder could there be of where the nation of New Zealand has its origins?
Except, of course, our nation was built on Maori foundations. For all its mock gothic architecture and borrowed parliamentary rituals, New Zealand is the deliberate creation of speculative British capital. Initially, a source of raw materials: timber, flax and gold. Later, a magnificent British farm. For the hard-bitten men who created her, New Zealand was always expected to pay her way. Its original inhabitants, and the complex culture they had created over seven centuries of occupation, were simply in the way. Those who could not be pacified by British missionaries would be dispossessed by British troops. Whatever flags they may once have flown were hauled down and forgotten.
A New Flag Flying - It may require a revolution to do it.
And we are still forgetting them – or leaving them out of the reckoning. But go to any gathering whose purpose is not to celebrate the status quo. Visit any place where the aspirations of Maori are on the agenda. Think of any future in which the needs of both the colonisers and the colonised are fairly assessed – and you will find a new flag flying.
It may require a revolution to do it, but, one day, the Tino Rangatiratanga flag will replace the Silver Fern, the Southern Cross and the Union Jack.
This essay was originally posted on the Stuff website on Thursday, 3 September 2015.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Leaving Babylon: The Effect Of A Jeremy Corbyn Victory.

Jeremy Corbyn Makes His Case: Some will argue that the events of the past 30 years, in both the UK and New Zealand, have so eroded the electoral support for democratic socialist principles and policies that any Labour manifesto based upon them is bound to fail. And yet, opinion polling in both countries shows solid majorities in favour of the public ownership and/or provision of those utilities and services considered essential to a wholesome and inclusive society.
ON 12 SEPTEMBER, the world will learn if the British Labour Party has opted to move sharply to the left. If that is the result, and, as the polls suggest, Jeremy Corbyn is decisively elected Leader of the Opposition, then the impact of the Labour membership’s decision will reverberate around the English-speaking world.
The reverberations of a Corbyn win will be especially loud here, in New Zealand. Not only because of the very strong personal links between the British and New Zealand labour parties, but also because of their very similar experiences vis-à-vis the policy aggression of their parliamentary wings, and its consequences for internal party democracy.
The year 1983 figures very prominently in the stories of both parties – and not only because that was the year Jeremy Corbyn entered the British Parliament. The British Labour Party ran for office in 1983 on a frankly socialist manifesto and were soundly defeated – receiving just 28 percent of the popular vote. This defeat prompted Labour’s critics to describe the party’s pitch to the voters as “the longest suicide note in history” – implying that an open appeal to vote for socialism was pure electoral poison.
This was certainly the lesson that the right-wing of the New Zealand Labour Party was to draw from the British Labour Party’s electoral drubbing. Labour MPs Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble argued strongly that their own party must, at all costs, avoid its British counterpart’s disastrous example. Very few New Zealanders, however, were aware that even as Douglas and Prebble were denouncing the policies of the Labour Left, they were eagerly imbibing far-right economic and social theories from selected Treasury officials.
The other factors leading to Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 victory were, naturally enough, downplayed (or not mentioned at all) by Labour’s right-wing faction. The effect of her stunning victory over Argentina in the Falklands War was conveniently ignored – as was the defection of British Labour’s leading right-wing MPs. These turncoats set up the Social Democratic Party to prevent a Labour victory, and, by forming an electoral alliance with the Liberal Party, that’s exactly what they did. Though the Conservative Party’s support fell by 700,000 votes in 1983, it was able, thanks to the vagaries of Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, to celebrate a landslide victory.
The full-scale assault on Labour’s core values, unleashed by Douglas and his faction, following the party’s 1984 general election victory, both demoralised and divided its supporters. Membership of the party shrank dramatically (from 85,000 to less than 10,000) and its outraged left-wing, frustrated at every turn in its efforts to wrest back control of the party, eventually split away to form the NewLabour Party (later the Alliance) in 1989.
Accordingly, it is possible to argue that, in the charismatic figure of the principled left-wing maverick, Jim Anderton, New Zealand has already had its Jeremy Corbyn. Certainly, Anderton played a crucial role in hauling Labour back from its “free-market” apostasy under David Lange, Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore. By the time Helen Clark (in coalition with Anderton) led Labour back to power in 1999, most of its far-right deformities had long since been lopped-off.
In Britain, however, Labour first had to endure the rise and rise of the man who, with the benefit of hindsight, might be called its “Anti-Corbyn” – Tony Blair. Rather than lead his party back to its ideological roots, Blair and his “modernisers” persuaded it to embrace what might best be called “Thatcherism-Lite”. In doing so, however, Labour effectively capitulated to an unforgiving coalition of the Left’s most effective opponents: the right-wing tabloids; the right-wing electoral spoilers in what was now calling itself the Liberal-Democrat Party; and that implacable enemy of all forces hostile to the claims of untrammelled greed – the City of London.
It is, however, a common feature of both the British and the New Zealand labour parties that, for the duration of their Babylonian captivity, by the waters of Neoliberalism, neither of their respective memberships ever forgot, or gave up hope of returning to, the Zion of democratic socialism, from which they’d been so ruthlessly uprooted.
Some will argue that the events of the past 30 years, in both the UK and New Zealand, have so eroded the electoral support for democratic socialist principles and policies that any Labour manifesto based upon them is bound to fail. And yet, opinion polling in both countries shows solid majorities in favour of the public ownership and/or provision of those utilities and services considered essential to a wholesome and inclusive society.
If Corbyn wins on 12 September, many political commentators are convinced that the reaction of left-wing voters, across the English-speaking world, will mirror the reaction of the French to their liberation by the Allies in 1944. Flags will be waved, and kisses freely exchanged, as the people welcome themselves back home.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 1 September 2015.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Woman Interrupted: Some Thoughts On The Jacinda Ardern Controversy.

All Smiles? Ardern’s political project is “a work in progress” – upon which the spotlight of public scrutiny (and the dubious boon of public acclaim) may have fallen too soon. It is simply not enough for a political leader to be in possession of high intelligence and finely-honed communication skills. A leader must also have something to say – and Ardern is still finding her voice.
EVER SINCE TAKING fourth place in the Preferred Prime Minister stakes (after John Key, Andrew Little and Winston Peters) Jacinda Ardern has been in trouble. Not serious trouble: at least, not yet; but trouble nonetheless. The NZ Herald’s DigiPol has swung the spotlight onto a work-in-progress much too soon. The political project called “Jacinda Ardern” is not yet finished, and, as we all know, it is most unwise to show fools and children unfinished things.
Which category Paul Henry and Graham Lowe fall into – child or fool? – I will leave for the reader to decide. But the upshot: Lowe’s description of Ardern as “a pretty little thing”; ignited a social media firestorm. Not far behind the Tweeters and the Facebookers came the NBR’s dynamic duo, Matthew Hooton and Rob Hosking – whose right-wing provenance only added to the shrillness of the Left’s all-too-predictable responses.
“I am sick to death of the ignorant, sexist bullshit that my friend and colleague Jacinda Ardern has had to put up with in the past few weeks”, thundered Labour’s Grant Robertson on Facebook.
Well, yes, there’s been plenty of ignorance and sexism, and loads of bullshit, spouted about Ardern – and not just in the past few weeks. When Ardern and National’s Nicki Kaye first contested the Auckland Central seat in 2011 a young Herald reporter by the name of Patrick Gower framed the political encounter as “The Battle of the Babes”. Sadly, Gower’s characterisation (as insulting to Kaye as it was to Ardern) stuck, and both politicians have been living with it ever since.
It is a measure of Ardern’s maturity as a politician that she has been able to make the “Babe” label work for her – rather than define her. In no other profession does Oscar Wilde’s bon mot: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”, carry as much weight as in politics. To be called a “Babe” may transform a woman into an object of the male gaze, but if she is committed to constructing a successful political career, then Mae West’s wry quip: “it is better to be looked over than overlooked”; makes more than a little sense.
Because, of course, Ardern brings a great deal more than a set of regular facial features to the political table. Were this not the case, it is highly doubtful that the nation’s leading businessmen (shrewd judges of character – almost by definition) would have ranked her so highly in their assessment of the Labour Opposition. Hearing Ardern speak, it is immediately obvious that one is not only listening to a person of considerable intelligence, but also to a very experienced communicator. Combined with her open and affable disposition, these are formidable political assets.
Why, then, describe Ardern’s political project as “a work in progress” – upon which the spotlight of public scrutiny (and the dubious boon of public acclaim) may have fallen too soon? Because it is simply not enough for a political leader to be in possession of high intelligence and finely-honed communication skills. A leader must also have something to say – and Ardern is still finding her voice.
She cannot be another Helen Clark. The voice Clark perfected, to such extraordinary political effect, was the product of an era in which the values and purposes of social democracy required little, if any, definition or explanation – so ingrained were they in the New Zealand character. Ardern is the product of a very different historical period. Not one of Savage’s children, like Clark, but a child of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia. Losing the insidious accents of neoliberalism is no easy matter.
This is especially so when Labour’s psephological advisers continue to insist that the rhetoric and policies of undiluted social democracy (let alone democratic socialism!) will not be well-received by an electorate fed almost exclusively on neoliberal ideas. That the electorates in Greece, Spain and Italy have violently regurgitated these ideas does not impress these political “scientists”. Nor have they been moved by the huge crowds that are turning out for Bernie Sanders in America and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.
That Ardern’s political career, to date, has been guided by such “Third Way” theorists has rendered her eloquence curiously ineffectual. One can listen to her speeches, and be impressed by the strength of their delivery, and yet, when they’re over, find it difficult to say with any certainty what they were about. Many people walk away impressed by Ardern, but nowhere near as many are inspired. Indeed, it is difficult not to agree with the NBR’s Rob Hosking when he argues that it’s not Arden’s sex appeal that matters “but the vapid, substance-free politics she has offered so far”.
That’s why the glare of the “Is She Up To Being Leader?” spotlight represents trouble for the Ardern Project. It has swung in her direction too soon. She is being assessed as a potential party leader well in advance of her settling on something more substantive to offer the news media’s relentless interrogation than a fetching physiognomy.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Monday, 31 August 2015.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Poetry For Jeremy Corbyn!

PENDANT PUBLISHING in the UK has published a free e-book of 19 poems, edited by Russell Bennetts, entitled Poets For Corbyn which celebrates the political phenomenon of Jeremy Corbyn and all the hopes he carries for the birth – or rebirth – of an authentic British Labour Party. I have reproduced here the contribution of Michael Rosen, a fellow historian, because it so succinctly captures the vacuity of Corbyn’s opponent’s arguments. The rest of the poems are available at  Enjoy.
For Jeremy Corbyn

Michael Rosen

Fresh from:
proclaiming the virtues of the
1000 year dynasty, the British monarchy;
advising us of the special qualities of a
non-elected second chamber
with its origins in Norman rule;
celebrating an economic system
that was developed and finessed
with the use of child labour around 1810;
continuing to solve international disputes
with the 10,000 year old method of
killing those you disagree with;
they tell us that socialism is outdated.

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

With A Little Help From His Friends: Who Is Andrew Little Listening To?

Say What? How ironic it would be if, just as Jeremy Corbyn is showing us how Labour politics can be made to work, Andrew Little threw in his lot with those who have, to date, only shown us how to make them fail.
WHO politicians turn to for advice tells the world a great deal about what sort of people they are. Do they go straight for the professionals? Or, do they rely on friends and family? Most importantly, do they seek guidance from people who simply reinforce their prejudices, or are they guided by those who are willing to openly challenge their deepest assumptions?
The Labour Party leader, Andrew Little, is a cautious man, and, by and large, he has opted to surround himself with cautious people. Professionally trained, himself, he expects a high degree of professionalism from his staff. As a lawyer, he has a natural  inclination towards following the rules of whatever game he is playing.
Persuading Little to take a risk is hard work – but not impossible. His decision to keep on David Cunliffe’s Chief-of-Staff, Matt McCarten, is a case in point. McCarten’s radical reputation would likely have proven too much for Little’s rivals, but his own background in the trade union movement made Little much less prone to an attack of the vapours. McCarten may talk like a revolutionary, but, as the leader of the Unite Union, he always knew when it was time to tie up the attack dogs and seal the deal.
Little was also aware of just how much he owed McCarten for his wafer-thin victory over Grant Robertson. It was, after all, McCarten who, like the Praetorian Guards of Imperial Rome, understood the supreme importance of timing in the “transition” from one Caesar to the next. It’s never enough, simply to know when the moment has come to strike down the Emperor who has failed, one must also know around whose shoulders to drape the blood-stained purple toga, and upon whose head to place the golden diadem. McCarten chose Little’s head – and Little knows it.
Little also knows that the best service McCarten can offer his leadership is to embrace fully his role as the Emperor’s Praetorian enforcer. This was, after all, the role at which he excelled when he was with the Alliance. In Jim Anderton’s fractious coalition, McCarten was the man who kept the noisy ones quiet, and the quiet ones under surveillance. Little has put McCarten’s head-kicking skills to work in the Labour Party where, by all accounts, he has picked up from where Helen Clark’s fearsome enforcer, Heather Simpson, left off seven years ago. Given the extraordinary lack of discipline in Labour’s ranks since 2008, one is tempted to observe: and not a moment too soon!
McCarten, however, will always be an ally of Little’s – not a mate. That title belongs to the man he has appointed his Political Director, Neale Jones. The two men both hail from the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) where Jones served alongside Little, before haring off to the UK and contracting himself to a number of progressive and campaigning NGOs. If London can be said to have a “beltway”, Jones clearly knew his way around it.
And therein lies a potentially very large problem. Unlike McCarten, who brings with him the whiff of cordite and a kit-bag full of class-war stories, Jones is very much the political technocrat. In this respect, he is very like his boss: dogged, well-briefed, sensitive to the rules of the game, and thoroughly unimpressed by political passion. Hence Jones’ aversion to rushing Labour into anything. After the disasters of Goff, Shearer and Cunliffe, he believes Labour priorities should, for the moment, be strictly remedial. Not until the public’s lost love for Labour has been restored will Jones be happy to let the party, its leader, and its long-suffering rank-and-file, let fly with a little live ammunition.
How, then, to explain Labour’s curious foray into the treacherous territory of ethnicity and foreign investment? Who was it who thought singling-out Chinese investors in a city where Chinese residents make up nearly 10 percent of the population was a good idea?
The man responsible for manipulating the leaked Auckland housing statistics into something Labour’s housing spokesperson, Phil Twyford, could use was Rob Salmond. Anyone looking for proof of what can happen to a political party when it allows itself to be persuaded that politics is not an art – but a science – need look no further than the relationship between Labour and Salmond.
After a few years teaching at an American university, Salmond returned to New Zealand certain he could adapt the techniques he saw employed by the Obama Campaign to New Zealand conditions. This is the “science” of politics that sends out postcards detailing the voting habits of people’s neighbours, in an attempt to psychologically dispose them towards doing the same. Somehow, Salmond persuaded the Labour Party to unleash these sorts of highly manipulative tactics on the long-suffering New Zealand voter. Sadly, as we all know, his political “science” failed to fire, and Labour’s share of the popular vote declined to its lowest point since 1922.
Salmond has recently posted a couple of articles on the Public Address Blog in which he wields his ideological agnosticism like a club against anyone who dares to argue that political parties should “stand for something”. All that matters, according to Salmond, is winning over “the middle” – a political designation, apparently, determined not by geometry, but by opinion polling! How one accomplishes this feat, without sacrificing a political party’s ideological (and hence electoral) coherence, he does not elucidate.
Salmond’s overall influence within the Leader of the Opposition’s Office is difficult to judge, but Little should think hard before again taking him into Labour’s confidence. His insistence that there is a road to electoral victory that allows a political party to bypass the ideological commitments inseparable from political conviction; that elections can be won by some sort of tricky “scientific” fix; if accepted by Little and his team, can only place New Zealand Labour in the same sorry position as the British Labour Party under Ed Miliband.
How ironic it would be if, just as Jeremy Corbyn is showing us how Labour politics can be made to work, Little threw in his lot with those who have, to date, only shown us how to make them fail.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 29 August 2015.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Of Capitalist Catastrophes And Collectivist Triumphs

Greed Meets Fear: A New York stockbroker attempts to keep pace with the vertiginous slide in the Dow Jones Index following China's "Black Monday" (24/8/15). Capitalism likes to paint itself as a force of nature, before which human-beings are individually and collectively powerless. Only when this economic fatalism is challenged by people's renewed confidence in the efficacy of collective action can capitalism's catastrophes be overcome.
ROUND AND ROUND AND ROUND it goes, and where it stops nobody knows! You might think that ordinary human-beings would have tired of Capitalism’s cyclical catastrophes by now. But our capacity to absorb these entirely man-made calamities appears to be no less impressive than our ability to cope with the genuine disasters nature sends our way. Indeed, Capitalism’s longevity is, almost certainly, attributable to its success in convincing us that it, too, is a force of Nature – something far beyond our feeble strength to influence for good or ill.
It was not always so. Eighty years ago, with the world in the clutches of another capitalist catastrophe, human-beings somewhere found the collective strength to denounce this “force of nature” falsehood. They decided that what humankind could ruin just by “letting things go” (laissez-faire) it could rebuild by replacing the “invisible hand” of the all-powerful capitalist market with their own.
The American President, Franklin Roosevelt, demonstrated the power of those all-too-visible hands in the massive public works of his “New Deal”. And the British Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, likewise demonstrated what focused political will could achieve when, in the midst of post-war austerity, the British people created their National Health Service.
Nor was New Zealand lacking in these triumphs of the people’s will. The First Labour Government’s Social Security Act of 1938 was New Zealand’s answer to the poverty and desperation of the Great Depression. Likewise its state housing programme: a massive construction effort funded by “Reserve Bank Credit”. (A capital source unrecognised by contemporary capitalist economists!)
So spectacular were the achievements of collective endeavour in the years before, during and after the Second World War, that capitalists everywhere felt obliged to pay them a grudging lip-service. This apparent conversion was, however, illusory. Whenever the parties of “private enterprise” managed to supplant the parties of collectivism, the latter’s policies were either subtly, or not so subtly, perverted. Projects designed to serve the interests of the many, always seemed to end up by disproportionately benefitting the few.
Visionary Blueprints: Ministry of Works plans for "The Auckland That Never Was".
The visionary blueprints for the development of post-war Auckland, drawn up in the mid-1940s by Ministry of Works planners, anticipated the goals of Auckland’s contemporary urban planners by 70 years. Tragically, the election of the First National Government, in 1949, put paid to this “Auckland that never was”, leaving Aucklanders with the sprawling, automobile-dependent conurbations that, today, they cannot afford to fix.
An even more comprehensive development plan, this time embracing the whole country, was brought together by William B. Sutch in the 1950s. One of New Zealand’s most creative (and controversial) public servants, Sutch recognised, very early, the urgent need for New Zealand to diversify its agricultural commodity-based economy. He argued for the sort of value-added products that distinguished the export-base of small economies like Switzerland and Denmark. This would require a much stronger national emphasis on skills acquisition and tertiary education. Only with a highly educated workforce could New Zealand produce the innovation necessary to broaden its economy. Sutch also argued for an economy that was much less import dependent. New Zealand, he said, must develop a much stronger industrial base.
In the Second Labour Government (1957-1960) led by Walter Nash, Sutch found a pair of eager listeners. The Finance Minister, Arnold Nordmeyer, and the Industry and Commerce Minister, Philip Holloway, were both convinced that Sutch’s ideas offered the only coherent path to a more prosperous, and less vulnerable, economic future for New Zealand. It is one of the great tragedies of this country’s history that the Second Labour Government did not last long enough for the change it contemplated to be undertaken and become entrenched.
As Sutch would later write: “The National Party could not have made this change because of their dependence for financial and political support on the farmers, importers, merchants and finance houses.” Plus ça change!
It’s been seven years since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 provided yet another warning of New Zealand’s economic vulnerability. Was it heeded? There’s scant evidence of it. What cannot be missed, however, is seven years of enormous investment in dairying. The export of raw commodities remains this country’s stock-in-trade.
Today, as another capitalist catastrophe looms, is it not time to heed the collective spirit of ‘38 and ‘45 and ’57? Those years when “Yes we can!” was more than a presidential slogan.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 August 2015.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Whaddarya? David Slack talks Rugby at the Ika Seafood Bar and Grill.

Whaddarya? David Slack epitomises the thinking, egalitarian, inclusive and creative half of New Zealand society that has always been so feared and despised by the hyper-masculine, woman-hating, anti-intellectual, Rugby-worshipping half. How we Kiwis have made one nation out of two such mutually hostile traditions was the subject of David's "Salon" spot at Ika Seafood Bar & Grill on Tuesday night.
ALL NEW ZEALANDERS must live with Rugby. There is no possibility of escaping, and absolutely no chance of ignoring it. Rugby, love it or hate it, has exerted, and continues to exert, a tremendous influence on the way New Zealand presents itself to the world. It has certainly left its mark on David Slack. In the “Salon” spotlight at the Ika Seafood Bar & Grill on Tuesday night (25/8/15) the professional speech-writer, author and broadcaster proved how impossible it is to discuss New Zealand’s brutal national game without, at the same time, discussing the nature of the society which supports it – and oneself.
Slack was born in Feilding, a small town in the Manawatu, that could easily have been the setting for Greg McGee’s extraordinary play about Rugby, Foreskin’s Lament. The sort of town about which these lines from the play could have been written:
“This is a team game, son, and the town is the team. It’s the town’s honour at stake when the team plays, god knows there’s not much else around here.”
The frankly fascist implications of the statement “the town is the team” need little elucidation. It was Mussolini, after all, who came up with the slogan: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
Slack’s description of his Fielding contemporaries as “knuckle-dragging sons of the soil” speaks eloquently of a young boy made to feel like an “exile” from his own country. Growing up in Fielding, Slack’s subversively divergent personal priorities (he read books!) would elicit from his peers, over and over again, the single, brute interrogatory: “Whaddarya!”
“Whaddarya!” is, literally, the last word of Foreskin’s Lament. Its electrifying effect produced by McGee’s inspired inversion of the word’s usual purpose. Instead of drawing attention to the “other’s” difference – and so confirming his or her exclusion from the team/town/nation – the word was hurled back in the audience’s face. “Whaddarya!” was McGee’s defiant challenge to a country that was already, in 1980, gearing up to welcome the Springbok ambassadors of apartheid.
1981 – and all that. The Springbok Tour cannot be avoided in any honest discussion of New Zealand Rugby (unless, of course, you are the Prime Minister). It was as if both sides, Pro- and Anti-Tour, had contrived to line up and scream “Whaddarya!” at each other for 56 days of utterly uncharacteristic political passion. For Slack, and the tens-of-thousands of others who opposed the Tour, the issue was whether or not the more open and diverse country that New Zealand was becoming would prevail, or, be smothered to death in the fascistic headlock of all those “knuckle-dragging sons of the soil” who wouldn’t have hesitated to affirm the slogan: “All within Rugby, nothing outside Rugby, nothing against Rugby.”
After 1981, it seemed that the two halves of New Zealand could never be brought back together. Rugby became a litmus test. If you were a fan, then you were morally reprehensible: a “Rugby thug” who was also, no doubt, a racist, sexist, homophobe. In the new New Zealand that was rapidly taking shape there could be no place for such people.
But, of course, there was a place for them. As the hero of Foreskin’s Lament reproves the liberal feminist character, Moira, following one of her diatribes against the piggishness of New Zealand’s Rugby culture:
“This is the heart and bowels of this country, too strong and foul and vital for reduction to bouquets, or oils, or words. If you think they’re pigs, then you’d better look closer, and get used to the smell, because their smell is your smell.”
Remove Rugby from the New Zealand equation and we no longer add up.
Slack has written a delightful history of the childhood game of “Bullrush”. In it he celebrates the “teamlessness” of the game, and the way people remember it with smiles and laughter. This, he seems to be saying, is the true essence of the Kiwi character; the way we really are before the “town” turns us into emotionally-stunted sacrifices to the mud-splattered god, whose only gospel is “kick the shit out of everything that gets in the way of winning the game”.
But that just won’t do. And, in his gloriously meandering address, Slack more-or-less conceded as much. Yes, New Zealand is about the anarchic individualism of Bullrush, but it also about the fascism of the First Fifteen. We are, if I may borrow that most overused of Rugby phrases, a game of two halves. And at some point over the past 34 years, almost unnoticed, those two halves have become one again – at least when the All Blacks are playing.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 26 August 2015.