Sometimes A Tweet Can Convey As Much Information As a PhD Thesis: Garth McVicar's tweet offers a perfect illustration of the ideological obstacles blocking the path to the rational public conversation Sir Peter Gluckman is hoping to initiate on crime and punishment and the disproportionate incarceration of young Maori men.
SIR PETER GLUCKMAN has pleaded with his fellow New Zealanders for a more rational conversation about crime and punishment. Good luck with that Sir Peter.
New Zealand came into being at the behest of the New Zealand Company’s titled investors and the Foreign and Colonial Office’s high-minded bureaucrats. It was paid for out of the lands and resources expropriated from the indigenous population. Or, to put it even more bluntly: New Zealand was built on the ruins of tribal economies and at the expense of Maori culture generally.
That this country’s prisons are full of young Maori males is, therefore, an entirely predictable consequence of colonisation. What’s more: from the point of view of the Pakeha legatees of all that nineteenth and twentieth century expropriation; it is an entirely necessary one.
Colonisation is about much more than simply transplanting the culture of the metropolitan power geographically. Long before the first wave of settlers sets sail, the colonising power is required to furnish them with an unassailable justification for doing so.
Ordinary, decent people are reluctant to steal the property of other ordinary, decent people. But only convince your settlers that the indigenous inhabitants of their new home are heathen cannibals: primitive savages in desperate need of the blessings of civilisation; and all the subsequent thievery required of a successful colonisation effort can be presented to posterity as evidence of settler beneficence.
Racism is not the unfortunate by-product of the colonisation process: just one of those things that happen when two very different cultures come into contact with one another. No, racism is absolutely integral to the colonial project: its usefulness extending far beyond the initial phases of conquest and pacification.
The legitimacy of the New Zealand colonial state rests upon its foundation myth. The uplifting story of how of the Treaty of Waitangi drew the indigenous tribes of New Zealand peacefully within the compass of Great Britain’s beneficent civilisation.
Implicit in that myth, however, is the unspoken contention that the Maori needed Britain’s civilising influence. Without the efforts of the missionaries; without the spread of literacy and all the useful knowledge that accompanied it; Maori existence would have remained, to use Thomas Hobbes’ pithy definition of the State of Nature: “nasty, brutish and short”. That, in brief, is what Pakeha New Zealand has been encouraged to believe for nearly 200 years.
Within this overtly racist construction of the Maori-Pakeha relationship, the justification for the Land Wars takes on a profoundly defamatory aspect. In essence, the argument advanced in defence of these military campaigns is that they were forced upon the colonial government by the wilful reversion, by a number of “rebel” tribes, to the primitive superstitions and unspeakable savageries of the Maori past.
Without the help of “friendly Maoris” (not to mention the intervention of 12,000 imperial British troops) the infant New Zealand nation would have perished. But, by overcoming this last, desperate gasp of Maori barbarism, the colony was able to move forward and embrace its destiny as the “social laboratory of the world”.
Here, then, is the deeply embedded racist explanation for the gross over-representation of Maori in New Zealand prisons. Consciously, or unconsciously, when the eyes of Pakeha authority-figures fall upon young Maori men they see people who are dangerous; potential rebels; ready to “revert”. And, when young Maori men see this version of themselves reflected in the eyes of teachers, social workers, police officers, prosecutors, judges and corrections staff, that is precisely what far too many of them become.
That more than half of the 9,000 prisoners incarcerated in New Zealand prisons are Maori tells us all we need to know about what Pakeha New Zealand needs from its indigenous population.
Many Pakeha see Maori culture crowding-in on them like the primeval bush that once crowded-in around their settler ancestors’ farmsteads. An alarming number of them would be hugely relieved to see it cut down, broken up and ploughed under. How else to explain the huge majorities racked up in local government referenda against the prospect of including even one dedicated Maori seat at the council table?
Since the 1970s, the New Zealand state has steadily distanced itself from the entrenched anti-Maori prejudices of its Pakeha citizens. Clearly in evidence across this country’s political class is an ongoing effort to move beyond the racist rationalisations of its colonial predecessors. Sir Peter Gluckman’s attempt to wrench the crime and punishment debate out of the clutches of the Pakeha Right is another push in the same direction.
It remains to be seen whether the effects of colonisation – so evident in the behaviour of both Maori and Pakeha – are responsive to the well-meaning ministrations of social scientists. If New Zealand’s story is not about British civilisation triumphant and Maori barbarism overcome, then what story should we be telling ourselves?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 April 2018.