The Settling Of Social Scores: The poor of Paris leer at the abused body of the Princesse de Lamballe, friend of Queen Marie-Antoinette and, ironically, a passionate advocate of social reform. Jamie Whyte's comparison of the "privileged" legal status of Maori with the legal privileges of the Aristocracy of pre-revolutionary France inevitably raised the ghosts of the Revolution's aristocratic victims. In the words of the Race Relations Commissioner, Dame Susan Devoy: “Equating Maori New Zealanders to French aristocrats who were murdered because of their privilege is a grotesque and inflammatory statement.”
Maori are legally privileged in New Zealand today, just as the Aristocracy were legally privileged in pre-revolutionary France.
Jamie Whyte, Act Party Leader, 26 July 2014
REPROVED BY DAME SUSAN, condemned by the Maori Party, castigated by most of the news media, it remains to be seen whether Jamie Whyte’s equation of Maori legal “privileges” with the feudal privileges of the French aristocracy was electorally clever or stupid.
The example of Don Brash’s Orewa Speech undoubtedly looms very large before any right-wing political leader whose party is languishing in the opinion polls. The National Party leader’s notorious address to the Orewa Rotary Club, in which he promised to nullify nearly all of Maoridom’s political rehabilitation since the 1970s, saw his party’s poll ratings advance by an unprecedented 17 percentage points. It put the National Opposition back in the race – with a vengeance!
The New Zealand electorate, it seems, is one vast racist itch just waiting for a scratch. And if it remains as easily satisfied as it was ten years ago, then Whyte’s speech to the Act Party’s Hamilton conference – and all the fallout from it – should produce a statistically significant up-tick in his party’s support.
And really, what else could Jamie do? The New Zealand voter is ill-disposed toward philosophical speculation and debate. The finer points of John Locke’s defence of individual liberty and the role played by private property in its preservation, are not the stuff of all that many Pakeha conversations. The merits or otherwise of their Maori neighbours, on the other hand, remains the subject of lively speculation.
Richard Prebble understood and accepted this inconvenient truth about the New Zealand voter. He had watched good-naturedly as Roger Douglas and Derek Quigley (Act’s founders) toured the country (on millionaire Craig Heatley’s dime) preaching the pure gospel of neoliberalism to anyone who would listen. Which, as Prebble already knew, would always be far too few to secure a solid footing for Act in the new MMP parliament. He had the data, he knew what it would take to move 5 percent of his fellow Kiwis into Act’s camp – and it wasn’t John Locke.
What Jamie Whyte lacks, however, is his predecessor’s wry political cynicism. If he was to raise again the divisive issue of Maori “privilege” (at Act’s campaign manager, Richard Prebble’s insistence?) then he was determined to do so with all the panache of a swashbuckling Cambridge philosopher. Not for him the mean-spirited snarling of the hard-bitten provincial voter that Prebble translated so well. No, he would wage war on the legal privileges of Maoridom in the guise of an antipodean Robespierre.
“Maori are legally privileged in New Zealand today,” Whyte told Act’s annual conference in Hamilton, “just as the Aristocracy were legally privileged in pre-revolutionary France.”
Presumably, in making this bold comparison, our Cambridge graduate had some notion of what those aristocratic privileges included, even if many in his audience, subscribing to Henry Ford’s view that “history is bunk”, did not.
Let’s list just a few of them:
· The French Aristocracy were exempt from taxation.
· French aristocrats presided over their own seigneurial courts – i.e. they were able to try their own tenants for any beaches of the law alleged to have taken place on their own estates.
· Deceased tenant farmers of aristocratic land were prevented, under the law of mainmorte (the “dead hand”) from bequeathing the tenancy rights they enjoyed whilst living to their descendants. Upon their death the right to use the property reverted to its aristocratic owner who was then free to dispose of it as he saw fit – even at the cost of evicting the deceased tenant’s family. The aristocrat could, of course, be “persuaded” against this course of action by the tenant’s descendants paying their lord a “fine” for the right to go on farming the land.
· Aristocrats also enjoyed a range of monopolies within their domains. For example, requiring tenants to have their grain ground in the aristocrat’s mill.
· In many parts of France, a tenant wishing to get married had first to acquire his or her lord’s permission.
· The aristocrat’s prior permission was also required before a tenant farmer could vacate his tenancy – i.e. move away from the lord’s estate.
· To secure these aristocratic consents it was customary for tenants to pay yet more “fines”.
Do any of these legal privileges bear any resemblance to the supposed legal privileges enjoyed by Maori? Are Maori exempt from taxation? Do Maori preside over their own courts? Are Maori able to prevent the alienation of their tribal resources by imposing restrictions on their tenants’ ability to bequeath, sell or otherwise transfer their interest in tribal property? Do Maori enjoy monopolies over specific goods and services? Is prior permission required from Maori before a citizen is able to exercise his or her rights?
Perhaps the most questionable aspect of Whyte’s historical comparison was the aspect the Race Relations Commissioner, Dame Susan Devoy, picked up on in her statement of Wednesday, 30 July, in which she stated: “Equating Maori New Zealanders to French aristocrats who were murdered because of their privilege is a grotesque and inflammatory statement.” Quite true, because to link the French Aristocracy and the French Revolution is to conjure up images of angry crowds, clattering tumbrils, rolling drums and the sudden descent of Madame Guillotine’s blade.
The historical details surrounding the persecution of the French Aristocracy are, as is so often the case, even worse. The guillotining of condemned aristocrats in the manner so vividly described by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities certainly did take place, but at least as many more aristocrats met their deaths at the hands of the Parisian Mob. In a grotesque settling of centuries-old social scores, aristocratic families were dragged from the relative safety of the city’s overcrowded prisons and butchered in the streets. Whipped up to a frenzy by such fanatical foes of privilege as Jean-Paul Marat, the poor of Paris fell upon these defenceless men women and children and quite literally tore them to pieces.
These are dangerous precedents to play with in a country whose racial and social prejudices lie buried in such shallow graves. Politicians who make persistent, but groundless, claims that a minority of the population is enjoying legal privileges which the majority of ordinary citizens do not possess, can hardly hold themselves blameless when those same ordinary citizens turn against that minority. Or, God forbid, upon them.
As the great Russian playwright, Anton Chekov, once remarked: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 4 August 2014.