Monday 19 September 2022

The Languages Of Sovereignty And Democracy.

Leviathan: Reaching all the way back to the writings of the Sixteenth Century jurist and political philosopher, Jean Bodin, constitutional transformer Moana Jackson argues that the European concept of sovereignty is one of “the most high and perpetual power over citizens”. He would have done better to study Hobbes and Locke and their notion of the social contract – something in the nature of a partnership.

AT THE CONCLUSION of every Māori Language Week I’m always left pondering how little I know about Aotearoa-New Zealand. It is not simply a matter of being unable to speak more than a few words of te reo Māori. Not understanding, not speaking, a language makes it exceptionally difficult to grasp the cultural essence of the people who made/make it. To dramatically improve the relationship between Māori and Pakeha, it seems sensible (at least to me) for the teaching of Māori to be made mandatory in all New Zealand primary and secondary schools. Only when the whole nation has achieved a measure of fluency in Māori will the full potential of New Zealand’s bi-cultural heritage be realised.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard the Minister of Defence, and Whanau Ora, Peeni Henare, tell Newshub Nation (17/9/22) that he was strongly opposed to making the teaching of Māori mandatory in schools. Not because he feared a Pakeha backlash, but because he was convinced that if all New Zealanders became proficient in Māori, then the spiritual power of the language would be fatally diminished. He did not appear to oppose individual Pakeha learning te reo – presumably because the manner in which the knowledge was transferred would remain under Māori control.

That would certainly not be the case were the teaching of Māori to become compulsory. Not only would there need to be a huge expansion in the number of Māori language teachers, but there would, inevitably, be a standardisation of both the content and instructional methodologies of the learning process. Textbooks would have to be written and examinations set, the whole paraphernalia of pedagogy would descend upon the Māori language – just as it does upon the teaching of French, German and Mandarin. Most alarming of all, from the perspective of Māori traditionalists, more and more non-Māori would necessarily become involved in the teaching of te reo.

Unsurprisingly, Te Taura Whiri i te reo Māori, the Māori Language Commission, takes a slightly different stance on te reo to Peeni Henare’s. Their aspiration is to, eventually, have all those living in Aotearoa-New Zealand proficient in the language – a million of them by 2040!

The Commission does not, however, advocate the mandatory teaching of the Māori language. Its stated goals vis-a-vis the Ministry of Education encompass only having more children and young people learning te reo Māori; more people progressing beyond basic knowledge of te reo Māori; and more people highly proficient in te reo Māori. Indeed, Commission CEO, Ngahiwi Apanui, cautions aspiring speakers that Māori is a challenging language to learn. Even the Commission’s goal of a million te reo speakers by 2040, encompasses only the projected Māori share of New Zealand’s population. So, yes, in practical terms, the differences between the Minister and the Commission are not very great at all.

Another idea in need of revision is the claim that learning to speak another language is the fastest and most effective way of grasping the essence of its native speakers’ culture. There are very few Māori living in New Zealand who are not fluent English speakers. Accordingly, my expectation has been that the core values of the English-speaking peoples would be well understood by Māori. Even more so, I assumed, in the case of Māori academics engaged in the fraught business of “constitutional transformation”. Disturbingly, this was not the case.

Matike Mai Aotearoa is the title of the investigative exercise, commissioned by the Iwi Leaders’ Group in 2010, to identify the challenges associated with transforming the constitutional framework of Aotearoa-New Zealand. Overseen and mostly written by Moana Jackson, Matike Mai represents the activist/scholar’s last great contribution to the struggle for indigenous peoples’ rights that defined and absorbed most of his adult life. Read alongside the document it clearly inspired, the He Puapua report, Matike Mai reveals clearly the revolutionary direction in which the quest for tino rangatiratanga has now begun to travel.

It is a feature common to all documents calling for revolutionary change: to paint the motivations and practices of the ancien régime in the darkest possible hues. It is vital that the ideals and institutions of the new order offer the starkest and most favourable contrast possible with everything that came before. Even so, Jackson’s explanation of how the English-speaking peoples comprehend “sovereignty” was outrageous.

Reaching all the way back to the writings of the Sixteenth Century jurist, political philosopher, and enthusiastic witch-burner, Jean Bodin, Jackson argues that the European concept of sovereignty is one of “the most high and perpetual power over citizens”. Aware, perhaps, that citing a French demonologist might raise eyebrows when debating political ideas current at the time of the Treaty of Waitangi’s composition, Jackson modifies his absolutist definition by referencing the Westminster formulation of sovereign power as “the monarch in Parliament”.

Passed over entirely in Jackson’s discussion of sovereignty is what it took, in blood and suffering, to shift the Crown from its “most high and perpetual” throne, to the chamber in which the people’s elected representatives are “in Parliament assembled”. No mention, either, by Jackson, of the fundamental principle of our constitutional monarchy: that the monarch cannot act except upon the “advice and consent” of Parliament, and of the Cabinet appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister – who must, in turn, command a majority of Parliament’s members.

Jackson thus allows all the pomp and ceremony of the Westminster system to obscure the raw historical-political fact that, in the English-speaking Commonwealth, sovereignty resides not in the “most high and perpetual” but in living, breathing, human-beings.

Tellingly, Jackson also overlooks the fact that less than ten years prior to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Great Britain had teetered on the brink of revolution over precisely this question: Who are the people? The answer, according to the Great Reform Act of 1832, was – the better-off sections of the population. But, the answer kept changing – faster here in New Zealand that in the Motherland – right up until the full enfranchisement of adult British women in 1928.

Also missing from Jackson’s treatment of the concept of sovereignty, is the even more dramatic assertion of democratic ideals in North America and across Europe in the centuries since Jean Bodin was beseeching magistrates to show no mercy to witches. Indeed, the only serious reference to democracy in Matike Mai proves just how little Jackson regarded and/or understood the concept. In his brief discussion of Athenian Democracy, he wrongly asserts that the lower classes – “the mob” – were barred from participating in political life. Nope. What made Athens different was precisely the innovation that all free citizens (i.e. all unenslaved males born in Athens) had a role to play in the life of the state.

That democracy gets such a bad rap in Matike Mai is, however, understandable. While Māori remain a minority in their own land, majority rule will always look suspiciously like tyranny. (Should Māori ever overtake Pakeha demographically, it will be interesting to see whether democracy undergoes a swift rehabilitation!)

As things now stand, however, it is this refusal on the part of Māori to acknowledge the strength of Pakeha belief in parliamentary democracy, and in the absolute sovereignty of “The People’s House”, that will render all attempts at constitutional transformation moot – in te reo Māori – or English.

To paraphrase the anarchist Emma Goldman: “If you have the revolution, and there’s no voting, I’m not coming.”

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 19 September 2022.


Anonymous said...

EP said...

Very thought -provoking Chris - been thinking all around this He Puapua notion for some time now - that it is not at all a matter of practical or political function but of mana - I'm currently contemplating whether there is a Maori word for 'hubris' .

The Barron said...

Peeni Henare noting "the spiritual power of the language" is nothing new. Throughout Polynesia language is matauranga and therefore tapu. The sacred nature of languages is shared in many cultural groups, including the early Hebrews. This is maintained in many Biblical sects. It is a valid, cultural and historical view of te reo.

The suggestion that Moana Jackson's Matike Mai "reveals clearly the revolutionary direction in which the quest for tino rangatiratanga has now begun to travel", seems out of context of any study of Maori nationalism. We have just had the 50th anniversary of the te reo petition. None of the sentiments in that movement would be seen as 'revolutionary' today. Indeed, if we examine John Rangihau's Puao-te-ata-tu report on institutional racism, it is mainstream thinking in today's government. What has defined Maori nationalist movement has been evolution to set goals. The idea of a revolutionary direction belittles the patience that Maori have shown over generations.

Hobbes and Locke were used to justify the taking of land from indigenous communities. The very pronouncement of Australia and the NZ South Island as terra nullius is directly from those British philosophies, We should never forget Locke's role in writing the constitution of the slave colony of Carolina and his 'Theory of Slavery'. Many of the enlightenment philosopher's were primarily about empowering the newly monied classes without concern for the indigenous peoples whose wealth was plundered for their creation. Slaves, women, disabled and the workers were not always priorities.

It is not for me to put words in the mouth of a great and contemplative thinker like Moana Jackson, but I will add to the discussion of democracy. Within Hapu and wider alliances in pre-colonial Maori, and most Polynesian societies, democracy did not follow the Athenian model, but one in which the right to govern was derived from the mana tangata, the consent of the people. When this was withdrawn, then leadership was lost. The often cited example of this has been Titokowaru on the eve of battle in the 1869. It is felt he transgressed and lost the mana tangata to lead into battle. He was later to be part of Parihaka having rebuilt his personal standing as a spiritual leader. Democracy within Maori society was that of consensus democracy. It is acknowledged that personal standing was entwined with the whanau, and through descent mana tipuna enhanced the influence, but the core of decision making was that of consensus democracy.

Western democracy did not follow this model, although early Celtic and Germanic societies had similarity with the Maori model. As Chris suggests, the Athenian model was used to empower a minority of the population of Athens. Women, slaves and non-citizens made up the vast majority. It was millennia later used as the romantic basis for enfranchising the males with estates, then landed males, all males, some people of colour and women. I would recommend Caroline Elkin's "Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire [2022]'to illustrate the violent reluctance for those post-WWI 'democracies' to follow any democratic principles with people of colour which they claimed jurisdiction over.

Throughout the 1960's and through to today, we have had liberation movements within democracies to fight for rights against majoritarianism. This was the basis for women's rights, ethnic rights, sexuality and practice, gender identity, disability and religious rights. As eyes are towards London we should recall the the Succession to the Crown Act was only passed in 2013 allowing Catholics the ability to be in British royal lines. If 'democracy gets a bad rap' we should consider from whose perspective. Few of those liberation movements would have been required to fight for rights and equality if democracy could be relied on to empower minorities.

Contemplation and evolution is required in any governing system. This is not revolutionary, but necessary.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

George Orwell saw that language is power. And whoever controls the language controls the narrative and eventually the state. Neoliberals have been controlling the language in New Zealand for a long time now – starting with 'TINA'.
But back to the subject – it's instructive that in the US, those sections of the white population that are right wing and fundamentalist are engaging in activities to try to cement their position in power, because they are afraid that the US is becoming a white minority nation. And of course they feel threatened by this, even though the white minority has pretty much all the political power at the moment, and for the foreseeable future. It's at times like this, that they are at their most dangerous – like a cornered rat.
Many of my American Internet acquaintances are scared shitless about what's going to happen to them in red states that are permanently read because of gerrymandering and the like. Because not only are they liberal, but many of them are gay and some of them are trans. Some are seriously talking about arming themselves in anticipation of a knock on the door at dawn. Not a good situation to be in.

D'Esterre said...

"....if all New Zealanders became proficient in Māori, then the spiritual power of the language would be fatally diminished."

Well now. That's a new one: appealing to metaphysics in defence of language exclusivity. I thought that I'd heard everything, but obviously not. I had understood that the contemporary endeavour was language revival and survival. This doesn't seem to be consistent with that aim.

I recently heard a Maori commentator advocate against teaching of the language being mandated in schools. His reasoning was that many Maori don't speak the language, so mandating it wouldn't benefit them.

I am pakeha. I learned the language (from a native speaker) in the 1970s, when I was a young adult. At that time, there was a renewed push for language revival. I was in the health sector, working with Maori: we pakeha had been criticised by Maori for our inability to speak the language and pronounce Maori names. So I did my bit.

The kohanga reo movement came along not much later. It was intended to promote language revival, but it was the wrong strategy, and since then the language has fallen off a cliff. The rise of kohanga reo and kura kaupapa has paralleled the decline of the language.

The ineluctable rules of language apply to Maori, as to every other language. For survival, every language is dependent upon a critical mass of native speakers: people for whom the language is their first language, and their only language, for the first four years or so of their lives. If there are no longer native speakers, the language is dead. Not extinct, if it's still being used as a second language, but dead nonetheless. Kohanga reo and kura promote only bilingualism, and when a language is endangered, that's not enough.

Language is a communication tool, and depends for survival upon utility. If a language isn't any longer useful to people, it won't be used. This appears to have happened with the Maori language; it doesn't look to be reversible.