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Marc My Words: Why Waitangi?

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Marc My Words.

By Marc Alexander MP

Why Waitangi?

Sometimes politics end up like provincial squabbles for booty between tribes. Whether or not it seems pertinent, we are constantly banging our heads against the Treaty of Waitangi in a landslide of legislation. It's like having a perennial headache. We continually debate phantom principles whose applications lie beyond our grasp, not knowing how to apply them other than as ephemeral concepts that we fail to nail down in language that we can all understand. We make assumptions and do not ask the obvious (and impertinent) question: why not put the Treaty in a museum along with all our other cultural bits and pieces and observe it for what it is - an interesting piece of historical archaeology. What is so damn sacred about the document that it must haunt us from beyond its place in our past, from a historical context that is no longer relevant?

Some, with their politically correct moistened eyes, reverentially refer to the frayed Treaty as a 'foundation document' as though it was more than an agreement between a collection of tribes and earnest bearded colonialists. The veneration accorded to it is out of place in a modern world. It strikes me that the Treaty of Waitangi debate is the crucible from which a new tribalism has emerged. The question is, why is this?

The Treaty of Waitangi gravy train is ostensibly a response in addressing the inequalities of today that have allegedly sprung from a series of unequal and unfair events that happened over a hundred years ago. In the debate few question the logical implausibility of a historical cause to a modern effect. It is not certain that a connection can be made between our present capitalist - democratic social order and the traditional collectivist tribal relations of Maori as they intersected with the highly undemocratic colonial culture of our past. I suspect that the current clusters of revisionists are putting their brains on hold to arbitrarily attach historical causes to today's realities.

How can we place any relevance to the goings on of a century ago to the present circumstances of Maori? Do we really want to believe that higher prison rates, obesity and diabetes are the result of past colonial practices? Or are personal bad choices leaving their imprint on consequences? If it is valid to refer to the past as a contributing cause then there can be no logical barrier to restricting its application to Maori alone. European non-Maori descendants (who are overwhelmingly white and middle-class) could just as easily attribute their penchant for pornography, white collar crime and pokie machine addictions to their unfortunate historical background. Stereotypes are easy to manufacture but that does not make them true. At some point the credibility of these antecedent causes must give way to individual responsibility for the choices we make.

What is conveniently forgotten is that it was not Western culture that migrated here and destroyed Maori traditional life; 'democracy' has destroyed both. For example, feudal society in Western Europe was ravaged and eventually obliterated through the imperatives of democracy. Rather than romanticise Maori tribal communities, or serf and lord relationships in the Western tradition, democracy swept them all away. This development must be seen as a global phenomenon. Distinctive characteristics of democracy lie in its destruction of group (tribal) rights and hierarchical (feudal) inequalities in favour of individualism.

The push for globalisation is a natural consequence of the increasing democratisation of the economy (and its political expression). Just as every force has an equal and opposing force, with the destabilisation of the centre of modernity away from Europe (for example, the dismantling of national boundaries as in the European Union), and the United States, there has been a corresponding worldwide search for localised cultural groupings for individuals to build identity. It is in this context that we can understand the rise of eco-fundamentalism, religious fundamentalism and Maori revivalism.

In a sense they, along with other social groupings, have replaced the past genealogical and community cultural identifiers. For better or worse, we live in a world of great mobility. Families that lived for generations within a few miles radius are rare. My own example is no longer exceptional: I was born in Japan where I spent my first nine years. I then lived in Australia, attended school and University in New Zealand, gained extra qualifications in France over two years, went on to live for many years in the North America, then some years in Australia and Tonga, - and I am nevertheless a loyal New Zealand citizen. How we identify our selves is no longer through genealogy but by the choice we make to experience our identity in a certain way. For example, Tariana Turia - the leader of the fledgling Maori Party - has chosen to identify with Maori rather than with her father's native American identity.

The establishment of a biological basis on which to assert cultural difference with consequential privilege negates the very essence of democracy. It is a return to superstition and the isolation and demarcation of one group claiming superior rights over others. No twisting of logic into a pretzel will resolve the contradictory conundrum that to elevate one group of individuals (by virtue of their shared DNA) over another can ever lead to equality and liberty for all.

This brings us back to the unwarranted sanctification of Maori tribalism today. What is occurring, and has become increasingly beyond questioning, is that somehow the righting of past wrongs can accommodate the problematic circumstances of today. This new tribalism runs counter to fundamental democratic principles. It is an ideology based on beliefs of biologically acquired cultural identity tied to genealogy, and expressed through cultural forms of language and customs. There is an implicit denial that people 'acquire' their ethnic and cultural groups through socialisation and the development of membership identity.

The problem is, there is no genetic difference between Maori or any other. We are all members of a universal human race. How we express our humanity is largely a product of our interaction with contemporary conditions. These are imbued with current cultural dynamics, and given depth by the history that created them. The rise of tribalism, if it succeeds, will be at the expense of equality and liberty. It will usher in a new Dark Age where the rule of law will bow to the vagaries of superstition.

It is now 2005 - we should be above and beyond all that.

Marc Alexander MP. United Future NZ.
12 August 2005


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