The Kermadecs and racist environmentalism

I did a bit of a tweetstorm earlier today, inspired by seeing friends embroiled in frustrating conversations like this one and the decided slant of articles like this about the proposed Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary.

My thoughts resonated with a bunch of people, so here they are in post form, but I’m going to stick up at the front something which I tweeted late in the piece: I’m just a Pākehā woman with a Twitter account and a reflexive critical analysis of political discourse. I’m not an expert in this area. I refer you to far wiser people like Morgan Godfery and the reportage of folk like Maiki Sherman at Newshub.

So. This week has been a revelation in the racist imperialism of mainstream (white) environmental organisations.

We’re not even arguing about meaningful consultation around establishing the Kermadec sanctuary, we’re talking about ZERO consultation by white politicians who assumed they knew best. National are literally in coalition with the Māori Party but didn’t even pick up the phone to give them a heads-up, probably because like every other Pākehā handwringer they just assumed they knew best about whether there’d be an issue.

That’s problem 1: Pākehā assuming they know everything about a complex historical/legal issue which gets really shallow coverage in the media and frequently is only lightly discussed in school, if ever.

Problem 2 is the (very Pākehā) environment lobby’s outrage that anyone might stand in the way of an ocean sanctuary. “Think of the planet!” they cry, which is appallingly arrogant coming from the ethnic group which has done the vast majority of screwing up the planet to start with.

But no, now we know better so let’s do things our way, it’s for the greater good after all!

This also brings in the horrible racist undertones of the Pākehā worldview being more ~sophisticated~ than Māori.

We have to take a hard look at how environmental organisations and Pākehā liberalism exploit indigenous culture. When it suits us, we happily draw on the notion of indigenous people being ~more in touch with the land~ and having a ~spiritual connection to nature~ and painting with all the goddamned colours of the wind. When it helps our agenda, we happily retweet the hashtags opposing oil pipelines and trumpet the importance of honouring the Treaty.

But scratch the surface and all the smug superiority is there. We know better; our thinking is more advanced because we care about ~the whole planet~.

It’s very easy to care about the whole planet when you’re on the team who took it by force.

The third problem I came to is broader than the current debate: it’s the hate-on Pākehā have for the idea that Māori dare to operate in a capitalist framework. Like, we came here, smashed their culture, took their land, tried to destroy their language, imposed capitalism on them, and when we offer a pittance in compensation for what they have lost, we get OUTRAGED when they set up “modern” business structures with it.

Do people have justified concerns about the decisions and operating practices of some Māori corporations? Probably. There are issues with every capitalist construct run for profit. But we treat Māori ones very differently – we treat everything Māori do differently (remember the foreshore and seabed? Remember how nobody seemed to have a problem with rich white people owning whole beaches and islands, but the idea of Māori just having the right to test ownership in court was the end of the world?)

We’ve put Māori in a catch-22: imposing Pākehā capitalism on them, but acting appalled whenever they dare use it to survive.

So this is how it goes. Pākehā make a decision to eradicate fishing rights without consulting Māori, because we know better. Then we decry them for not caring about the environment – which we stole from them and exploited for over a century – and imply they only care about money – which is a good thing if you’re in business but not if you’re brown.

And so we pat ourselves on the back for being More Enlightened About The Environment while literally confiscating land & resources from Māori again.

~

A tangent on industrialization, climate change and the environment: let’s consider how all the “first world” “developed” nations got to where they are – by pillaging and strip-mining every piece of the planet we could get our hands on – but now we’ve hoarded all the money and resources and built “sophisticated” economies, suddenly we want to scold “less developed” nations for doing exactly the same thing.

Blade Runner and The Fifth Element knew exactly what they were doing when they showed the working classes living beneath the smog layer, is what I’m saying.

When are identities political?

Morgan Godfery has a great post up at The Ruminator about the Auckland housing/Chinese surnames story. His last paragraph inspired me to start jotting down notes for this post on the bus home:

The irony here is that almost a year ago a handful of Labour MPs, Twyford included, were complaining about how their party lost the election because it was focused on identity. These same MPs are now pandering to issues of identity. Singling out ethnic Chinese, in a blatant attempt to court what David Shearer once called the white blokes’ vote, is the worst form of identity politics.

In the same way Morgan asks “When are numbers racist?” I’m going to springboard off that paragraph into another question: When are identities political?

As Morgan points out, there are no cries of “that’s just identity politics” when we’re singling out specific ethnicities for criticism. But stumble into any mainstream leftwing discussion and say “the casualisation of work disproportionately harms women” and the objections will be immediate and very loud.

The key difference, perhaps, is that one situation involves naming the other and categorising their otherness as part of a problem which needs to be fixed. One involves naming yourself and demanding that your problems be accepted as real and important.

That means identity isn’t the real problem. Self-identity is. Taking on the labels which capitalist society has forced upon us – its primary way of replicating its own values and dispossession of the majority – and saying “Yes I am, yet you will treat me with dignity anyway.” It means not being a passive object, exploited for the benefit of capital. It means demanding the right to be a subject – a person not just worthy of fair and equal treatment, but whose interests capital must serve.

This is why identity politics is a bad thing to people who have benefited from the power imbalances which fuel capitalism. When anti-feminists declare that men are “losing their rights”, they kind of have a point: increasing gender equality does mean men lose the right to abuse their wives and lose the right to automatically get custody and lose the right to get paid more for doing the same job without anyone questioning it.

Along any of the “identity” lines where capitalism fences off a group of people and says “your labour and your lives are worth less than other workers'”, rebalancing the scales will involve a relative loss of power and privilege for the group who were “fortunate” enough to be valued just that little bit more.

The irony is that those privileged groups will then complain that it’s the less-valued groups’ labour which is driving down their wages and conditions (see the far-too-common, “women’s lib caused wages to drop” argument any time the gender pay gap gets raised). We all see the sense in the old parable about the rich man, the working-class man and the unemployed man sharing a pie; the rich man eats nine slices, gives the working-class man one, and says “look out, that unemployed guy’s trying to steal your pie.” Yet we stumble when the scenario isn’t about white men at the pub; when it’s women, or migrants, or young workers who are painted as the enemy.

When we fully appreciate that sexism, racism, and xenophobia are alternate sides of the same (apparently multidimensional) coin as class oppression, we can easily accept that identity politics isn’t separate from the leftwing struggle, much less an unwelcome distraction. It’s part and parcel of the same struggle.

That’s why it’s so infuriating to be told, effectively, and persistently, to wait until after the revolution. Overthrowing racism is part of the revolution. Smashing patriarchy is part of the revolution. Disrupting the gender binary is part of the revolution.

The difficulty doesn’t lie in reconciling social justice with economic justice. It lies in the resistance of those of us, who have benefited from wealth or whiteness or maleness, against challenging the systems which benefit us. And, for those of us on the left, the resistance against acknowledging that we aren’t without sin. We aren’t cured of a lifetime of sexist or racist indoctrination just because the lightbulb of class consciousness came on at some point.

This isn’t a dig at anyone. I myself have benefited from my race, from having a gender identity and sexual orientation which are “normal”, from the kind of education that means I’m quite comfortable beginning a sentence with “I myself.” I have learned, but I’m not perfect.

In the same way an alcoholic will always be an alcoholic, and it can be downright dangerous to think you’re “cured”, people raised under patriarchal, white-supremacist capitalism will always be touched by the values of patriarchal, white-supremacist capitalism. We can’t assume we’re “cured” just because we changed the language we use to describe people we don’t like, or totally hired a woman this one time because she really was the best candidate. That way lies complacency and the absolute certainty of screwing up.

So we need to think really hard before we start pointing the finger at “other” identity groups, and we need to stop treating “identity politics” as competition to “important issues”. If there is a struggle of the oppressed against the powerful, being on the side of the oppressed is what being leftwing means to me.

QOTD: Morgan G on G Morgan and the Treaty

From Gareth Morgan and the Pākehā Pathology at Maui Street:

Thus the burden of compromise always falls to Māori – we can push only for what is compatible with their system – this makes Morgan’s idea that there is some sort of creeping political division emerging an utterly ridiculous one. Think about it from an iwi perspective. For each iwi a typical settlement represents around 1 to 5 percent of what was lost. Who, in this situation, is making the compromise? The party which agrees to concede the 95 to 99 percent of what it lost, or the party which agrees to return 1 to 4 percent of what it gained?

Go read the whole thing, it’s excellent and far better-informed that my own thoughts.

Food for thought on Shane Jones’ retirement

As a Pākehā feminist I don’t think I have a lot that’s new to add to the discussion around Shane Jones. My feelings on the topic are pretty predictable.

But fortunately there’s a big ol’ world of Kiwi bloggers out there who bring different – and importantly, Māori – perspectives to the table.Perspectives that don’t tend to get a lot of play in the mainstream discourse.

Morgan Godfery (@MorganGodfery) has posted a political obituary for Shane Jones at Maui Street:

I disagreed with much of what he said, sure, but I recognised a commanding Maori leader.

Here was a man – and I’m deliberately using gendered language, but more on that later – who understood the Maori experience and the Maori condition: our idiosyncrasies, language, literature, history, philosophies, spiritualism and our politics.

And that’s what set Jones apart. In that respect, he was above the Maori leaders of his generation.

He goes on to talk about Jones’ strengths and weaknesses, especially in the context of specifically-Māori political history and aspirations. He asks,

… I’m mourning what he represented and what appears to be, for now, a loss of meaning in Maori politics. Who carries the tohu of the likes of Carroll now? Is that political line broken? After all, Parekura has gone. Tariana is leaving. But who is coming through?

Marama Davidson (@MaramaDavidson) happily responds in a post at the Daily Blog about the prospects of new Māori political leadership:

Jones’ announcement brings us to the end of Parliament time for five high profile Māori politicians over the past year. On 29 April it will be one year since the passing of Parekura Horomia, Labour MP for Ikaroa-Rawhiti. Last year Māori Party co-leaders Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples signalled they would retire from Parliament after the 2014 elections. Two weeks ago Tau Henare National MP also declared he will be stepping down come September.

Whatever our political colours this combined exit represents nearly 70 years of Māori Parliamentary experience. There is no denying that they are political icons in the Māori world. Some commentators have noted their departure as an alarming exodus. I think it is merely a reminder for us all to support more Māori to step up.

There’s certainly a gap to fill – from this Pākehā’s perspective, Shane Jones has always been, possibly unfortunately at times, the face of the Labour Party on all things Māori. (The way our media treat Māori or any other minority group as a monolith is another huge topic to think about.) Who’s going to be the media go-to now? (If Kelvin Davis is going to carry on in this vein I definitely want to hear more from him!)

If you’ve seen any other good writing on the topic, drop a link in the comments!