UNWILLING TO ENDURE the opprobrium associated with its “gulags”, the Soviet Union of the 1970s changed tack. Rather than sending dissidents to labour camps the Soviet authorities decided to redefine dissidence as a form of mental illness. Opposition to the Soviet system could now be presented as a sickness, not deserving of condemnation, but care. Opponents of the USSR no longer faced summary trial and incarceration. Instead they were to be diagnosed and hospitalised. The barbed wire fences of the labour camps rusted away, replaced by the locked doors of Soviet mental hospitals. Resisting the tyranny of the Communist Party didn’t mean you were bad – it meant you were mad.
That this grim historical detail should be recalled more than thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union is due to Ao Mai te Rā | The Anti-Racism Kaupapa a document which first saw the light of day back in August 2022 under the rubric of the Ministry of Health. Subtitled “Combatting racism in the health and disability system”, Ao Mai te Rā boldly declares:
“Eliminating all forms of racism is critical to achieving health equity and the vision of pae ora – healthy futures for all New Zealanders.”
Intentionally, or unintentionally, this statement of official health policy raises the spectre of political dissidence being redefined as a form of individual and/or social pathology. Like Covid-19, racism is being presented as a threat to the future health and wellbeing of New Zealanders. This threat must be eliminated – presumably by a process akin to inoculation.
But racism is not a sickness, it is a political belief. As such, it stands to be argued against and condemned. But, attempting to eliminate “all forms of racism” under the guise of a government health programme is sinister in the extreme.
To oppose the purposeful creation of ethnically derived distinctions is one thing; to treat the creators of such distinctions as “sick” is something else entirely. Pathologising racism instantly casts any kind of political debate about ethnicity and nationalism as illegitimate.
The Ministry of Health’s paper presents racists as the carriers of something akin to a dangerous virus. As New Zealanders have discovered over the past two years, those deemed to be carrying a dangerous virus by the Ministry can be detained and confined until they no longer test “positive”. Should racists refuse to “unite against the racism virus” by undergoing a government-mandated programme of “inoculation”, they could end up losing both their employment, and their ability to access all but the most basic services.
The experience of the public fight against Covid-19 has revealed just how injurious to social cohesion and the public peace such draconian levels of medical intervention can be. And, let’s not forget, Covid-19 was an real virus! Arming the state with equivalent powers against a metaphorical virus would unquestionably engender much greater resistance.
That the Ministry of Health anticipates such resistance is made clear in another document released under its name. Entitled Position statement and working definitions for racism and anti-racism in the health system in Aotearoa New Zealand, this document defines racism in ways that leave no ethnic groups – apart from Māori and Pasifika – in a position to assert their innocence of the charge. Pakeha, in particular, find themselves declared guilty from multiple perspectives: historically, politically, scientifically, culturally, institutionally and socially. It is a verdict in which the legal concept of mens rea (evil intent) plays no part. This is because racism can be both conscious and unconscious. Regardless of whether a Pakeha New Zealander’s closet contains a Ku Klux Klansman’s robes, or an anti-apartheid banner from 1981, they are racists – beyond all reasonable doubt.
Given that the Position Statement was not only released under the authority of the Ministry of Health, but also the Government of New Zealand, what should we make of the state’s “working definition” of racism?
Racism comprises racial prejudice and societal power and manifests in different ways. It results in the unequal distribution of power, privilege, resources and opportunity to produce outcomes that chronically favour, privilege and benefit one group over another. All forms of racism are harmful, and its effects are distinct and not felt equally.
The most important conclusion to be drawn from this definition is that there is no culture, no society, no state on the surface of the planet that would not stand condemned by its content. All societies contain racial animosities and hierarchies based on religious, political, sexual and economic power. Everywhere “privilege, resources and opportunity” are distributed arbitrarily and inequitably so as to “favour, privilege and benefit one group over another”. Equality is a moral aspiration, not an settled condition. Indeed, if one substitutes “capitalism” for “racism” in this definition, it works just as well.
What, then, is the “working definition’s” purpose? The answer, sadly, is to render any attempt by Pakeha New Zealanders to challenge the Māori- and Pasifika-centric project currently unfolding in the health sector, politically and ethically untenable. What the “working definition”, and the twelve bullet points listed below it, set out to achieve is a situation in which the only acceptable role for Pakeha politicians, bureaucrats and medical professionals, is to sit quietly and learn how they might make the fullest possible restitution to the victims of their racism.
And it’s working. So averse is the professional-managerial class of most Western states to the charge of racism that its members will accept just about anything to avoid the accusation. Critical to this posture of surrender is the essential concession that it is impossible for the victims of Western racism to themselves behave in racist ways. Of equal importance is the companion concession that any suggestion that racism can be overcome by treating all human-beings as equal in rights and dignity is itself racist.
As the Position Statement makes clear:
Race and racialisation are social and political constructs designed to categorise physical differences between people (that is, skin colour, hair texture, geographical origins, etc) and assign value and meaning to a hierarchically arranged racial grouping. These constructs originated from Europe and influenced the structure of society, racial superiority and hierarchy.
And if you balk at the almost unbelievable historical cheek of this statement. If you want to shout out “Have none of you studied anthropology!” Or point out that for centuries the majority of the world’s slaves were white. Or that there are a number of other “constructs” that “originated in Europe” – like democracy, and the quaint belief that all human-beings (in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) “are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Well, then, you can only be a carrier of the racism virus, and you should be hospitalised until you test negative.
The bleak Russian humourists of the 1970s expressed the difficulties of principled disagreement slightly differently: “Only a madman”, they declared, “would question the superiority of the Soviet system.”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 28 October 2022.