PERHAPS THE MOST ASTONISHING aspect of School Strike For Climate Auckland’s (SSFCA) spectacular self-cancellation was the media’s lack of interest. Oh sure, they picked up the group’s news release, and made its contents known to the public, but that was it. There appeared to be a general reluctance, extending across the whole of the mainstream news media, to investigate the story in any depth. No attempt was made to flesh-out and explain what, to most New Zealanders, was a jarring and baffling item of news. The same media which had welcomed the School Strike For Climate Movement, and praised its achievements, accepted the curious demise of its largest section without serious investigation or comment.
The only explanation for such an egregious dereliction of journalistic duty is that mainstream editors and reporters were fearful of the territory into which any serious investigation of the event was bound to lead them. They would have to explain why a group of young and idealistic secondary-school students, people they had written glowing stories about, had somehow been persuaded that they, and their organisation, were racist. They would have been required to question whether the Maori and Pasifika groups into whose hands SSFCA had vouchsafed the climate fight were capable of maintaining the political momentum generated by Greta Thunberg’s global movement.
Most of all, they would have had to help ordinary New Zealanders understand the extraordinary self-abasement contained in the group’s news release:
We apologise for the hurt, burnout, and trauma. We also apologise for the further trauma caused by our slow action to take responsibility. We recognise that this apology can never be enough to make up for our actions on top of years of systemic and systematic oppression, racism, and the silencing of those who are the most affected by climate change. This apology is just one of our steps in taking accountability for our actions.
What could possibly have made these young people say such extraordinary things about themselves, and about the movement they had worked so hard to build?
Unwilling to go there, a more politically savvy mainstream news media would simply have ignored the news release. Certainly, if your intention is to let a story die, then the last place you should put it is on RNZ’s “Morning Report” or the NZ Herald’s website. That, however, is where the statement ended up – in all its woke glory. Tens-of-thousands of astonished New Zealanders heard it, or read it, and said: “What on Earth?” But, from the editors and reporters who had salved what remained of their journalistic consciences by broadcasting and publishing SSFCA’s words, no answers came – just enthusiastic endorsements of the organisation’s actions from indigenous activists.
Those astonished New Zealanders seeking an explanation for SSFCA’s actions need look no further than the American-born ideology known as “Critical Race Theory” (CRT). According to the University of California, Los Angeles, Luskin School of Public Affairs:
CRT recognises that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalisation of people of colour. CRT also rejects the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy. Legal discourse says that the law is neutral and colour-blind, however, CRT challenges this legal “truth” by examining liberalism and meritocracy as a vehicle of self-interest, power and privilege.
Now, while you might need to be a professor to write the above definition of CRT, you most certainly do not need a PhD to grasp how CRT works in practice. In a nutshell, CRT operates according to the principle: “If you’re white, you cannot be right.”
Naturally, in the United States the historical force credited with creating white privilege and white supremacy is Slavery. In New Zealand, however, the place of Slavery has been taken by Colonisation. It is not to white slavers, but white settlers, that the followers of CRT look for the root of all Aotearoa’s evils.
Leftists who object that white workers will always have more in common with brown workers than they will with a white ruling-class that oppresses all workers, get no joy from the followers of CRT. White elites may derive material benefits from their dominant position, but working-class whites derive equally important psychological benefits from their position in the racial hierarchy. According to CRT, the existence of a whole category of human-beings deemed immutably inferior to the white race, makes it easier for white workers to accept their own socio-economic subordination. At a stroke, Marxism is reduced to just another prop for white supremacy!
By stripping away all moral and practical grounds for unified struggle, CRT can only strengthen the elites’ grip on contemporary society. The abdication of SSFCA offers a textbook example of this phenomenon. The moral force of the nation’s secondary students in the fight against climate change has been significantly compromised. Doubts and resentments will spread swiftly through the SSFC Movement, making it a pretty safe bet that the turnout for any future demonstrations will be only a fraction of its former efforts. If the oil companies had set out to sabotage the domestic movement against anthropogenic global warming they could hardly have done a better job than these local adherents of CRT.
Black American progressives have themselves noted the dangerous ironies inherent in CRT. As Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora note in their recent Guardian article “Today, the self is the battlefield of politics. Blame Michel Foucault”:
Despite the ever-growing presence of this politics, its shortcomings are growing clear. “White guilt and black outrage,” as Cedric Johnson, professor of African American studies, has recently pointed out, “have limited political currency, and neither has ever been a sustainable basis for building the kind of popular and legislative majorities needed to actually contest entrenched power in any meaningful way” ….. In fact, he added, this “militant expression of racial liberalism” will “continue to defer the kind of public goods that might actually help” all those who are “routinely surveilled, harassed, arrested, convicted, incarcerated and condemned as failures”. With material stakes of politics growing ever more urgent many in the liberal centre would much prefer us to busy ourselves with loud rituals announcing our inner battles.
It would be unfair, however, to heap too much blame upon the young students at the heart of this story. One can only imagine the emotional intensity of the “struggle sessions” required to induce the activist core of SSFCA’s abject capitulation. During the infamous “Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s, the brutality of similar sessions, at the hands of Mao Zedong’s fanatical “Red Guards”, was sufficient to break Communist Party veterans of the “Long March”. What chance had an well-meaning, idealistic bunch of middle-class Auckland kids against such tactics?
We conclude, therefore, where we began. In its coverage of the SSFCA’s self-immolation, the mainstream news media touched upon none of the issues featured in this post. Why? Because, bluntly, any such investigation would be severely career-limiting for the young (or old) mainstream journalist who undertook it. This is unfortunate, because arising out of this story are a number of important questions.
Does it mean, for example, that in spite of being disadvantaged and under-resourced by colonisation, and only responsible for a small part of the local climate problem (which tends to be correlated with income, as well as population) Maori and Pasifika will also now bear the burden of solving the whole of Aotearoa-New Zealand’s climate change problem? Does it mean that Pakeha climate change activists will no longer accept historical responsibility for persuading the country’s farmers – overwhelmingly Pakeha for obvious colonial reasons – to do their bit to reduce biogenic methane and plant more trees? (Hat-tip to Dr Chris Harris.)
Don’t hold your breath for the answers. Like it or not, the precepts of CRT are now accepted as holy writ in the newsrooms of the nation. Guilty white journalists may cheer-on the Revolution as loudly as they wish, but they must not, under any circumstances, interrogate it.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 18 June 2021.