Thursday, 24 May 2012

Hybrid Vigour: A Critique Of Bi-Culturalism

 Hybrid Vigour: New Zealand's All Black rugby team is the epitome of this country's unique blending of the indigenous and the colonial. The Maori haka, or war-challege, with which the national team opens every game is as much a part of New Zealand's evolving culture as any of the ethnic traditions inherited from the British Isles.

GROWING UP on a farm, you just can’t escape genetics. Breeding for positive inheritable traits is a fact of pastoral life and its results are observable everywhere. I can still recall my father telling me that the particular bounciness of a lamb, or a puppy, was attributable to “hybrid vigour” – the prized outcome of a breeding pair’s best genes combining to produce a more than usually intelligent, energetic, or just plain flavoursome, off-spring.

In polite circles it is considered highly distasteful to apply the language of the farmyard to human interactions. This reticence is, however, misplaced, because the mixing of genes is as important to the health of our own species as it is to any other. Indeed, the dwindling of a species’ gene pool generally presages its imminent demise. Marrying outside the tribe not only makes sense diplomatically, it’s pretty much a biological necessity.

It is one of history’s most regrettable ironies that the individuals and nations most closely associated with Eugenics (with a capital ‘E’) fundamentally misunderstood the science of genetics. Instead of welcoming what they called “miscegenation” – the blending of genetic material from the widest possible range of human sources – they anathematised it. Ethnic homogeneity was the goal: “race mixing”, they insisted, was suicidal.

If they had really been interested in where this horror of breeding outside the group might lead them they had only to study the House of Hapsburg. The aristocratic fastidiousness of the Hapsburg dynasty all too often led to cousins marrying cousins, with physiological and mental consequences as grotesque as they were tragic.

The Hapsburgs: Not a good advertisement for aristocratic breeding.

Ignorance of genetic science did not, alas, stop at the level of human individuals, it was compounded to produce the even more pernicious notion that entire human cultures possessed some kind of genetic code: a unique, supposedly hereditary, social template that must be protected from defilement by “cosmopolitan” (by which the Eugenicists usually meant Jewish) and/or “degenerate” (by which they usually meant dark-skinned) influences.

We should, however, be careful not to restrict our condemnation of this Eugenicist nonsense to Europeans alone. The notion of being a superior form of human-being, living in a superior culture which must, at all costs, be “protected” from dilution and/or debasement, is as old as China, India and Japan.

But, once again, there’s an historical counterfactual. The Normans were a highly aggressive people who seized large tracts of Europe at the point of lance and sword. They were not, however, in the least bit fastidious. They married the women they conquered, learned their languages, worshipped their gods, adopted their cuisine and customs, and borrowed promiscuously from just about every culture they encountered. The results are visible from the borders of Scotland to the toe of Italy. The people called “Normans” long ago departed History’s stage, but the cultures they invigorated (our own included) continue to thrive.

All of which is by way of prefacing my misgivings about New Zealand’s “bi-cultural” project. These boil down to one heretical question: “Have we not, for the past forty years, been pursuing (for the most laudable and honourable of reasons) a policy based on the genetic and cultural fallacies of nineteenth century “scientific racism” and twentieth century Eugenics?

Has our pursuit of bi-culturalism not invested a racialised “blood and soil” mythology with all the force of law? Are “bloodlines” not now cited in “egalitarian” New Zealand with all the pride of a Hapsburg genealogist? Have successive governments not spoken approvingly of “preserving” indigenous culture? As if this constantly evolving human matrix was actually a discrete material artefact, impervious to external influences and immune to change?

Is this really the most sensible course for a small, economically-vulnerable nation, situated inconveniently at the bottom of the world, to have set itself?

Few New Zealanders understand the absurd contingency of the cultural porousness that, arguably, made us one of the most successful multi-racial societies on the planet. Instead of driving them further apart, as happened in the United States and Australia, the unfolding of “scientific racism” in New Zealand actually drew its indigenous and colonist populations closer together. By concocting an entirely fictitious ethnological bond between Maori and Pakeha, Edward Tregear’s The Aryan Maori declared them to be kin under the skin. The already high level of intermarriage between the two peoples thus acquired the unimpeachable imprimatur of “science”.

Key Text: According to New Zealand historian, Prof. James Belich, Edward Tregear's The Aryan Maori "arguably ranks with the Treaty of Waitangi as a key text of Maori-Pakeha relations."

It was, I believe, this legacy of “kinship” which allowed New Zealand to take the lead internationally in establishing a process for redressing the worst of its colonial crimes. Our Treaty of Waitangi-based settlements process speaks eloquently of this country’s longstanding commitment to amity and fairness. It would, however, be wrong to suggest that Pakeha are entirely comfortable with the treaty settlement process. They fear that a growing number of Maori regard it as a means of unpicking History’s embroidery and starting afresh on cloth too closely worked to withstand further assault by needle and thread. To subsume the treaty settlement process in the bi-cultural project would, I believe, be a tragic mistake.

New Zealand’s cultural porousness has only increased beneath the blankets of its founding peoples, and, exactly as happened with the promiscuous Normans, the resulting biological and cultural fusions have grown steadily stronger and more complex. And it is these intricate relationships, not the “bi-cultural project” of a well-meaning political class, that is producing the “hybrid vigour” of the people recognised and appreciated around the world as “New Zealanders”.

This single evolving culture, adapting and incorporating the language and lore of both contributors to the “New Zealand Project”, needs no cossetting, no special “protection”. All it requires from the New Zealand state is the freedom to grow, along with an official affirmation that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that no part of the whole is greater than any other.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Anonymous said...

Well put. My guess is that the farm thing gave some of your opponents the expectation of another version of "an old black ram is tupping your white ewe" and many of them will read it thus through their own blinkers.

It might be worth noting that "culture" is, crudely, the evolving measures that communities create to aid themselves in getting along with the world and each other. These are mostly harmless. "Identity" really only arises from a meeting of cultures when elites from each community use it as a means of protecting their social position. How well they do so depends on how well they can dupe the rest of the community into accepting the identity.

In the end identity is a fiction and identity politics is a politics of gesture in the service of privilege. The Maori Party is living proof of this.

Peter Hooper said...

It is a form of deconstruction to use the structural positioning of one's target audience to destabilise their confidence where they know best. Your text does this nicely. A casualty of our time, aided unwittingly by postmodern perspectives, is human solidarity. Under the banner of ethnic and cultural difference privilage finds a return. That glorious number 'one' will help us through this. Social inequality, privilage, and even capitalism, ultimately will fail be cause we live in one world, not many.

Victor said...

A fine and profound post, Chris. I'm genuinely unsure as to the extent of my agreement. But you've certainly brought a considerable depth of thought to the topic.

May I add that, in reality, New Zealand is now neither bi-cultural nor monocultural but multi-cultural.

A question I've asked myself virtually every day for the last quarter century, is whether the myth and institutional paraphernalia of bi-culturalism, actually help or hinder our cohering as a multicultural democracy and a decent place to live.

I'm still unsure as to the answer. So I'm off to spread some humus on my pumpernickel.

Dean Ooi said...

I come from Malaysia, a former British colony like New Zealand. In terms of religion, culture and race, Malaysia is even more diverse. The policy of multiculturalism has not taken root despite 50-odd years of nation-building post independence. Today the country is even more disunited compared to the colonial days. Religion is one big obstacle. Islam, the official religion, demands (by law in Malaysia) conversion into the religion for anyone who marries a Muslim. A Malaysian is a political entity. It does not exist in real life.

Why should we forbid the growth and flourishing of cultures in the name of political expediency? Can't we have unity in diversity? Culture is the spontaneous result of people interacting over a long period of time. It is the building block of civilization.

Biculturalism as a policy aims to recognize the political realities of New Zealand and the legitimacy of the Maori people and culture in light of the Treaty of Waitangi. It is seminal to the process of nation-building. If at all a change is needed, it should be replaced by multiculturalism as it even better reflects the political reality. It is through acknowledging the existence and contributions of the peoples who collectively make up New Zealand that we can expect the sense of belonging and identity. Only by genuinely helping to eliminate the true cause of suffering of the people regardless of race, through moral education and acts of benevolence by example from those who call the shots can this nation become great again.

Anonymous said...

“Biculturalism as a policy aims to recognize the political realities of New Zealand and the legitimacy of the Maori people and culture in light of the Treaty of Waitangi.”

I would dispute this claim. Whether we like it or not, the basic political reality of New Zealand is European political and cultural supremacy for the foreseeable future. Maori are a politically active people, but there are simply not enough of them prepared to pay the costs to change that. Nevertheless, Maori have been treated badly, and in some cases abominably, and we’re at a place in history where people realize that something needs to be done about that. New Zealand’s biculturalism is a political reality created by its elites in the hope that the population would come around to a similar view in time. The Treaty of Waitangi is the historical event that they have selected in an act of creative historical reinterpretation to provide legitimacy for their program. The fact that the historical treaty won’t bear the weight they want it to is a continual problem for their project. This is of course not unique to New Zealand. Many societies engage in acts of retrospective prophecy for reasons of contemporary expediency. The result in our case is that solemn declarations of nationhood by our political and cultural leaders always carry with them a heavy whiff of bullshit. Having said that, a lot of us are prepared to look the other way in order to do something about the past and present injustice meted out to Maori.

The root problem for biculturalism that keeps coming back in different forms is that it is an incoherent ideal. If our society should be based upon the equality of two cultures, then from which culture does the principle regulating that equality arise? If it comes from one or the other, then it is not true biculturalism, but the supremacy of one of them. If it comes from some other source, then that takes precedence over cultural considerations, and so it is not true biculturalism. On the other hand, if (quite implausibly) the equality principle is a principle that happens to be shared between both cultures, then why does this shared principle take precedence over all those that are not shared? Even if that could be dealt with, we need some mechanism to deal with the differences. If that mechanism is to find some agreement (the social contract), then we are back in the position of having some other normative source take precedence over both cultures. The confusion about biculturalism is caused by the fact that it doesn’t make logical sense when you think about it.

Anonymous said...

Wot u all talkin about?

Teng Ooi said...

I have problems understanding you precisely. I take it to mean that you are of the view that racial and cultural equality is an improbability in New Zealand given the demographics and the political system (one man one vote). Maoris can never hope to regain complete control of New Zealand and run it the way the want as long as they are not the majority (unlike the Malays in Malaysia). This is where compromise comes in. Maoris are entitled to a great say in the crafting of the future of New Zealand simply on account of the historical reality. To deprive them a fair go is unconscionable and can be ground for strife and disharmony. The concept of biculturalism is to acknowledge this fact and provide a platform for prudent decision making. We can't force culture on people but we can design formulas that will benefit the greatest number of people on the grounds of fairness, justice and equality.

Victor said...

Dean Ooi

I don't think anyone on this thread wants to forbid "the growth and flourishing of cultures" other than their own.

The question is, though, whether we do this on the basis of equal citizenship, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity, or whether, just like in Malaysia, we consider one group of people (in our case, Maori)as "Bumiputera", with a different constitutional status to everyone else.

There are good arguments to be made on both sides of the case, as, no doubt, there are in Malaysia.

Teng Ooi said...


No. But most in this thread do not have enough clout to effect change drastically. We can only influence opinion. Maori could not speak their language and had to change their names not too long ago. You don't hear much about the Aborigines' culture in Australia or the Tibetan folklore or the Inuit or the Native Indian traditions. Culture always falls prey to political expediency and might. But we are denuding ourselves of cultural heritage and true richness in doing so and the world is poorer intrinsically as a result.

Increasingly the world is trending toward a global melting pot. No artificial borders of territory or language or culture will stop the inexorable flow of human interactions: a homecoming and reunion of kin.

In doing so there will be the inevitable home cleaning and sprucing up. We should learn from the lessons of past follies; that reality extends beyond physical perceptions, sense appeasement alone does not define happiness and that we need to look beyond personal loss and gain to arrive at the true meaning of our existence.

Ideologies and human thinking are useful. But without love and compassion and a readiness to regard everyone as brothers and sisters and nature and everything in it our co-voyagers deserving care and respect, happiness will remain the blue bird it is reputed to be: rare and impossible to find.

Dean Ooi

jh said...

The hybrid vigour analogy falls down when it comes to culture as the gene pool of the Pakeha culture gives the being much, much (and again) much more to choose from being a blend of a myriad of other cultures.

Victor said...


Firstly I'm glad that we've settled the mystery over whether you and Teng Ooi are the same person.

Secondly, I don't disagree with your major premise concerning the importance of cultural heritage.

I think Chris's point is that "Official New Zealand" has created an artificial cultural construct based on irreducible entities known as Maori and Pakeha, whereas we are, in fact, a largely porous mix.

If I understand him correctly, he seems to be saying that nurturing our heritage involves honouring this mix in all its porousness.

But, he also seems to be saying that, because it's based on realities rather than mythologies, our porousness doesn't need a whole heap of cultivating in order to grow and fructify.

Personally, I think that, along with the porous mix, we should also be conscious of its component parts.

Being, like you, an immigrant, I tend to see New Zealand as one nation, with numerous cultures and three defining traditions.

These three traditions are, to my mind, Maori, British and 'Kiwi'.
I regard them as 'defining' as without any one of these three, New Zealand would be a wholly different place.

It's impossible to imagine New Zealand without its Maori heritage. But it's equally hard to imagine it without a largely Westminster style parliament, Anglo-Saxon emotional stringency,intellectual pragmatism, meat pies, fish'n chips, the English language, bowling clubs, pipe bands or an obsession with homes and gardens.

'Kiwi' (give it another name if you wish)doesn't just come about through the merging of these two traditions. It's created by their blending over time in specific historical and geographical circumstances.

It's also a culture that's been enriched by other traditions, including your own (particularly in recent years).

I think I agree with Chris that 'Kiwi' is too real to need much in the way of artificial nurture.

But I do think the specifically Maori strand in New Zealand continues to need nurturing, both as a means of countering Maori disadvantage and because of the overwhelming, global cultural pull of the English language.

The big question remains as to whether this should involve a separate legal status of some sort for Maori. For that is what "Treaty Partnership" implies.

Dean Ooi said...

Culture evolves over extended period of time. In the past, owing to geographical distances and lack of transport facilities, culture tended to be self-contained. Colonization is one way of stirring up the cultural soup and enhance the genetic pool, even though it may seem like a terrible thing to pillage and dominate. In this regard, the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans have done a passable job worthy of praise. We need a lingua franca and English fits the role arguably well.

The past decades have made the phenomenon of global conglomeration a welcome reality. In one sense, the world belongs to all earthlings. Territory, nationhood, ethnicity, even religion and politics should play second fiddle to humanism and human values. We should transcend our animal roots and become the true lords of creation worthy of our title: bright, happy, productive creatures tending to our own and our fellow-creatures' needs and those of the animals, with love and caring.

A new culture of Kiwiland should be the natural outcome over time. But hopefully it would incorporate all existing component cultures, especially the Maori's. New Zealand's past and current efforts in respecting and promoting native and alien cultures deserve rich accolade.

But what is culture? Drinking, taking drugs, crime, sloth, too, can be termed culture. Not passing judgement on those who seem willy nilly entwined, such activities entail pains and sufferings to self, families and society. Most would choose to be free from such woes if there is a way. There is. Eventually it is human goodness based on virtue, compassion and mutual respect which will transcend time and be endorsed by everyone across culture and creed.

There is a term for this in the Confucian teachings; it is called governance based on benevolence - renzheng. If we genuinely have the heart to help everyone become happy, we should teach them to live morally and correctly by teaching them moral values and setting good examples ourselves.

All injustices and sufferings are fundamentally self-inflicted. We need to start by examining ourselves and change to become better husbands, wives, dads, moms, brothers, sisters, neighbours, mates and citizens. What results from love and human caring, respect and trust will be good culture worthy of practice and propagation. There will no need to worry whether it is mono-, bi- or multiculturalism. It is the culture for all humankind.

New Zealand is an ideal candidate to put this new concept of the utopian human living to the test. Being the first (now second) country to welcome the new day, everyday, we could teach the world the ideal way to live: love for our fellow beings, nature, plants, animals and the environment; a place happy filled with with bright people brimming with love and joy.

National, Labour, Greens, Maori, Mana... throw away your cudgels and for once join hands, cool down your heads, touch your hearts and show us how to love and care. Forget your petty polls and ridiculous ratings. Let us see you reach out to the poor and the suffering. Lead us to a better future. Beat the Americans, Europeans, Chinese, Indians and the world by showing them the human way to lead: through virtue and yielding. Just do the good and right things and the inflation, deflation, recession, development will take care of themselves.

Then we will be even prouder to call ourselves KIWI.

Te Koutuku said...

Gosh and here was me thinking a culture was alive and living and here and now.
What everyone is talking about is history isn't it?, hyped up by our media driven perspectives on how, who and where we are.
The bi-culture being talked about is 150 years old and shoved down our throats by those with a vested interest in keeping us ignorant and confused.
Sure some of our ancestors were ripped off along the way but that is something all humans have in common.
Hey mate, she'll be right, get over it and get on with it.
The reality is there is only one culture, that being the sum total of all it's parts.
Love thy neighbour, have babies with them and bring them up with open hearts and open minds.
That is the true Kiwi culture.

M said...

***defilement by “cosmopolitan” (by which the Eugenicists usually meant Jewish) and/or “degenerate” (by which they usually meant dark-skinned) influences.***

This is somewhat tangental to the point of your essay, but but I think you're unfairly maligning many eugenicists (nazis aside) from that time. As jewish academic John Glad documents in his history of eugenics:

"(The phrase “racial hygiene” was coined by Ploetz in 1895 as an alternate name for eugenics. Its use was unfortunate in that it often came to be misinterpreted as referring to individual races rather than to the human race as a whole.) The theses called for family-friendly housing; elimination of factors that might hinder members of certain male professions from having children; raising the taxes on alcohol and tobacco; legal regulation of medically required abortions; combating what was then viewed as the hereditary transmission of gonorrhea, syphilis, tuberculosis, and diseases acquired in the course of practicing a profession; mandatory exchange of health certificates certificates prior to marriage; and the awarding of prizes for literary and art works in which family life was praised. Young people were asked to be ready to sacrifice for the communal good...

Eugenicists in other countries explicitly rejected Hitler’s anti-Semitism and racism. At the International Eugenics Conference held in Edinburgh in 1939 British and American geneticists criticized the racist orientation of eugenics in Germany. That same year prominent eugenicists in the United States and England issued a statement explicitly re-jecting “race prejudices and the unscientific doctrine that good or bad genes are the monopoly of particular peoples..."

Glad's free e-book is very interesting, particularly the popularity of eugenics on both the right and the socialist left. Glad also notes that Jews played a modest but active role in the early eugen-ics movement. In 1916, Rabbi Max Reichler published an ar-ticle entitled “Jewish Eugenics,” in which he attempted to demonstrate that Jewish religious customs were eugenic in thrust."

Future Human Evolution