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Marc My Words: Ideology is no match for stupidity

Marc My Words… 13 October 2006
Political comment
Marc Alexander

Ideological intelligence is no match for natural stupidity

At a meeting of health professionals last Wednesday, two Auckland University 'experts' rattled off the predictable litany of Western cultural sins responsible for the deplorable risk factors of Maori and pacific families. All the usual suspects were trotted out: smoking, obesity, over-crowded homes, addiction, and stress.

One of these authorities, Riripeti Haretuku, actually suggested that historical grievances such as the loss of Maori land and the banning of Maori language were partly to blame. She makes the extraordinary claim that "…we have to understand who they are, understand their realities." [Press, 'History keeps Maori ill', 12/Oct/2006]

What the hell does that mean? How does something that happened a hundred years ago affect the way cigarettes give you cancer? Does learning how to speak Maori reduce your waistline or your susceptibility to diabetes? Oh, and apparently poverty was highlighted as a major contributor to these appalling outcomes. Well…except that an inconvenient longitudinal study (from the Christchurch School of Medicine) found that to be untrue. In fact the analysis concluded that the real cause was, (shock! horror!) behavior. Well, who would have thought?

While these self-styled academic apologists run around finding culpability amongst the descendants of the first four ships, why do they not also proclaim with equal enthusiasm the successes? If you want to criticize, you must be willing to praise with equivalent enthusiasm. So while these 'experts' fault Western Democracy for Maori cancer rates I want to hear them thank Western Democracy for Penicillin and every other advantage our society affords. I suggest that we allow ourselves to take a deep breath, congratulate history for providing our lives with a context from which our society has arisen and get on with the job of living well together. On second thoughts that may perhaps be overly optimistic.

The problem is that we have a politically correct growth industry finding blame for everything that happens. We find things to complain about then ascribe antecedent events to pin it on. If Maori are proportionately more likely to eat too much then it must be because non-Maori stole their heritage. It couldn't possibly be because they didn't exercise enough and eat a well balanced diet. Who can we blame for the fact that most sufferers of Alzheimer's are of European descent? How about the Roman conquest of England, the Vikings, or Celtic clan leader Eric the Beige? Who do I sue?

There is no logic here, simply a self-denigrating attempt to absolve ourselves of all responsibility. It's always easy to find some advocates willing to blame the system, culture or government. The interesting thing is that these same advocates earn their keep by the very problems they identify and, in the worst cases, end up encouraging. That's why there is a never-failing chorus calling for more money to stem the rising 'social problems'.

Why, if more money is the answer, have the troubles simply escalated? We have pumped billions of dollars into ridding us of these social problems to no avail. While individual anecdotal cases can show marked improvements as an effect of these interventions, the overall picture is bleaker than ever. I suspect this is because in most cases, despite specific and sporadic successes, there is an over-arching paradigm of learned helplessness. That is, regardless of the stated motives to ameliorate social deficits, many of these programs simply sustain bad lifestyle choices. Not only do we validate such lifestyles with government funding but we also create fertile ground for its continued growth. What you pay for, you get more of.

There are no easy answers. Real progress must start by accepting personal liability for what we individually do. If there are parts of our culture that hold us back then we have to confront that rather than validate an expedient excuse. Historical grievances may well have to be dealt with at some level but not at the expense of condemning our future generations to a treadmill of negative social outcomes.

How many Maori and Pacific Island criminals do you hear about with tertiary qualifications? Not many. It's not the answer, but a place to start. Its success will be proportional to the efforts put in by the student. Again providing the choice is one thing, getting people to make a good one relies on them. The only affirmative action that works is when the individual realizes that he or she is the author of their own life.

There will have to be changes. Maori culture cannot stagnate under the romanticism of a bygone age any more than non-Maori can resurrect a feudal lifestyle. The essence of taking control implies emergent approaches. It may at times partially contradict the traditional collectivist whanau approach but then so be it. What's needed is not the abandonment of traditional culture but the evolution of it.

Besides, it's a very public humiliation to argue that Maori need non-Maori help in order to help themselves. No-one escapes failure, disappointment or times of despair. And yes sometimes we need to ask for help. It can take great courage to admit a defeat for which we need assistance, but we should run a mile from any remedy that maintains, exacerbates, or encourages more of the same. Blaming others is easy. It ascribes responsibility away from us onto some other amorphous causation. It's convenient to blame our parents, family, work colleagues, history, society or whatever. What good does that do? They are excuses for our own laziness. How can we expect others to act according to our needs when we are unwilling to do so for ourselves?

We are each endowed with the freedom and possibility of taking the best option in any given circumstance. Some things are out of our control but we can still adjust how we respond under those circumstances.

Our lives are our responsibility. What we choose to do and how we engage our time is up to us. Sure, we aren’t all dealt the same cards in life but it is within our power to decide how to play them.


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