Migration, taps and growing pains

I keep promising to review Anat Shenker-Osorio’s book Don’t Buy It. I’m getting there, I promise. My copy is almost more Post-It Note than paper at the moment.

But there’s a chapter in which she discusses different ways to frame talking about the economy and the country, and one example cropped up almost word-for-word in New Zealand politics yesterday, so I thought I’d give a sneak preview:

Little says Labour would cap migration

Labour leader Andrew Little says ethnic restaurants should be employing New Zealand Indians and Chinese chefs instead of bringing in staff from overseas.

“At times when our economy is creaking, we need to be able to turn down the tap a bit,” Mr Little said.

“Immigration is positive for any country. But there are times also when our country’s going through some growing pains … and it is right to say ‘let’s just turn the tap down a bit’.”

It’s interesting to think about how Andrew Little is using language. What’s the subtext? People who migrate to New Zealand are a flow of water, a natural thing, but a bad thing if too much of it happens, you end up with extra Chinese and Indian chefs all over the floor. And we’re at risk of that happening, apparently, because we’re “creaking” under the pressure of all this water.

The “growing pains” phrase grabbed my attention, because it’s one Shenker-Osorio specifically addresses (not that I can find the relevant quote in amongst the forest of Post-Its):

Once we’re primed to understand the economy as most aptly akin to a body, periods of good and bad health are natural and therefore expected. Moreover, we know most conditions a body experiences go away unaided. So by applying body language, we’re telling audiences to expect that periods of prosperity and recession are normal and emphatically don’t require government intervention.

This is kind of bad news for a party whose foundational principles are all about the ability of the government to intervene, to stop ordinary people getting smashed under the wheels of capitalism.

I don’t think New Zealand is undergoing “growing pains”. I think we have a government focused on  short-term business profits, neglecting the important social services which keep people happy and healthy, and stripping back the rights which keep people healthy, safe, and unexploited at work. There’s nothing natural about that, and it’s clearly not going away by itself if the Opposition stops scratching it.

Beyond the narrative metaphor-building nerdery, though, there are two more tiny problems with this rhetoric,.

The first is that it’s racist dogwhistling gutter trash.

The second is even if that doesn’t bother you, there are no votes in racist dogwhistling gutter trash as long as Winston Peters breathes.


After drafting this, Labour put out a response to the general commentary. There’s a whole other post’s worth of stuff to say, but it’s late, I’m tired, and all I can say is this: there’s a reason people find it entirely plausible that Labour would engage in race-baiting rhetoric. And it’s not the media’s fault.

Good old-fashioned Kiwi values

[Content warning: contains links to and quotes from violent and anti-Muslim hate speech.]

David Farrar has some … interesting ideas about how to tighten up immigration policy in the wake of the Sydney “siege”.

I think countries such as Australia, and NZ, need to have much more stringent immigration criteria – I don’t mean banning people on the basis of their religion, but asking prospective migrants a detailed set of questions to ascertain if they hold extreme views, and would be happy living in a secular country.

When pushed on exactly how this process would work:

His ideas are obviously silly flamebait designed to feed the residents of his “cleaned up” comments section who enjoy saying things like “I hope that when they shoot the hostage takers they bury them wrapped in a pig skin and fill the hole in with dead dogs and pig shit” and literally threatening to shoot people who downvote their comments.

But he does highlight some interesting aspects of the “values” discussion.

People love to talk about values, left and right. It’s a call to a shared set of ideals which we’re assured are What Built Our Great Community. It’s a signal to display our solidarity against whatever external forces or threats the person talking about them is trying to warn us about.

It’s also a bit of a load of crap.

Take a look at one of the so-called values which David Farrar assures us “95%” of New Zealanders would ascribe to:

The progressive response is an instinctive “lolwut?” followed by joking (wishing) we could apply that “get in line or go home” approach to people we’re stuck with, like Colin Craig or Bob McCoskrie. A more academic response might note that:

… or critique the idea of getting extremists to tick a box saying “I promise I am not an extremist” only works in towns called Christmas.

But I suggest that we take David Farrar at his word and acknowledge that he has a tiny point: the vast majority of people probably would say “yes, I agree men and women should be equal under the law”.

Case closed, right? Voila, values.

Except it’s really, really vague, and that’s the whole point of this kind of values talk. It’s actually totally meaningless; like Bella Swan, it’s an empty vessel for the readers and viewers to pour their own assumptions into.

Anyone will agree with a bland proposition like that. It’s what comes after that divides us.

“I agree men and women should be equal under the law – that’s why we must stop women’s scholarships to university!”

“I agree men and women should be equal under the law – so we should cut funding to women’s organisations like Rape Crisis!”

“I agree men and women should be equal under the law – but we have to remember men and women are very different!”

And there are people out there who honestly do believe that they support “equality” between men and women. It’s just the kind of equality which involves keeping up the sexist traditions of the past which rob women of any real power or agency.

The key thing is this: talk of “values” is the domain of religious zealots and warmongers. The pretence that us “normal” people (white, English-speaking, heterosexual cis men) are united in a “normal” worldview (capitalist, individual, xenophobic) is pushed by the powerful to reinforce their power. In the wake of events like Sydney it’s used to push even more draconian, illiberal laws which only generate more conflict.

David Farrar can dress it up as a reasonable, moderate, proportionate response as much as he likes, but look to his commenters: there’s the true face of “Kiwi values”.