Teaching illusion

by frog

On this day when Don Brash tries to revive his ugly Maori-baiting, I thought it might be valuable to revisit his original Orewa speech. It’s a speech that was so successful in boosting National’s popularity that the party still has a link to it from its front page more than 18 months after it was delivered.

It’s also a speech that did more to damage our social cohesion and race relations than any other in many years, more dangerous than any of Winston Peters’ anti-Asian mutterings because this was a man who could be our Prime Minister.

When the speech was delivered, many progressive-minded New Zealanders felt very uneasy about it, but couldn’t quite describe why. Late last year, I read an article in Political Science, the journal of Victoria University’s politics programme, which described very eloquently the discontent felt by almost all such Kiwis at Brash’s bigotry.

Written by political psychologist Jon Johansson (who David Farrar has had several swipes at recently), the article described Brash’s speech as a case of “teaching illusion” thus:

Phantom enemies or out-groups are externalised as impediments to achieving a harmonious or better society. Appeals are made to deep-seated prejudices; scapegoats are identified and held responsible for slow progress. The majority is pitted against minority groups, or perhaps social cleavages are exploited to create a new majority – usually by exploiting a perceived grievance or by making a coded appeal to ignorance or worse, to prejudice and hatred…

By pitting one group against another for political gain there is an implicit recognition and calculation by the political leader that their self-interest will be served. Costs are disregarded and consequences ignored because the driving motivation is invariably one of desperation.

Johansson compares the Orewa speech to other ugly events on our political history, specifically:

Muldoon’s ‘Dancing Cossacks’ advertising campaign in 1975. This campaign, in which the National Party portrayed its opponents in the unions and the Labour Party as communists and evoked images of Polynesians committing crimes, costing New Zealanders jobs, and being ‘dole bludgers’, is a straightforward case in which stereotypes were used to distort reality and stigmatise minority groups for political gain. Winston Peters, leader of the New Zealand First Party, is another who routinely singles out groups for exclusion from his vision of a cohesive New Zealand society. He stereotypes Asian drivers, third-world immigrants and litigious Maori and blames them for eroding the fabric of what makes this country unique and strong. In early 1996, in a speech delivered in Howick, Peters railed against increased Asian immigration, exploiting New Zealanders’ insecurities so successfully that his party rose more than 20 points in the opinion polls over a three-month period.

Johansson criticises Brash trenchantly for not being knowledgeable about his subject matter. Brash was, by his own admission, ignorant of New Zealand history. Writes Johansson:

More revealing was Brash’s admission to Wong that he had read neither Claudia Orange’s The Treaty of Waitangi nor Jamie Belich’s various works on New Zealand history (despite Belich being selectively quoted in the Orewa speech). Brash also disclosed that he had only ever read the English version of the Treaty, which he said he had studied closely. An essay by historian Bill Oliver, which Brash admitted he had also not read before his speech, provided the intellectual underpinning for his claim that the Treaty had been ‘wrenched’ out of its context. Oliver, when interviewed by Wong, made it clear that he could not see ‘any connection between my arguments put forward in that essay and the policies put forward by Don Brash’…. A contemporary Maori leader … told me that what struck him most about the Orewa speech was its lack of intellectual rigor when compared to Bill English’s equivalent speech. Brash provides a simplistic and assimilationist view of our history: racial harmony emerged, despite fault on both sides, and it is only now being undone by Maori who have been encouraged by successive governments to adopt a ‘grievance mentality’… The National Party leader’s understanding of our nation’s history is parsimonious at best. He, like most New Zealanders, has not read the historical treatments that are widely acknowledged as most authoritative. That, naturally, is his choice. Unlike most New Zealanders, however, he has offered himself as someone who could lead our nation.

Johansson also marks Brash down for presenting such a profoundly negative view of Maori:

No adaptive, uplifting or educative speech about race, anywhere, at any time, has ever included discussion about blood purity. Indeed, those speeches that do are of a qualitatively different type altogether, remembered for the disastrous consequences that invariably flow from them. Additionally, if subjective self-definition by people of Maori ancestry is thought so injurious, Brash does not suggest alternative criteria … Negative attributions directed towards aspects of Maori behaviour outnumber any positive or unifying statements by a 3:1 ratio. Brash uses aggressive language such as ‘the dangerous drift towards racial separatism’, or ‘the threat which the treaty process poses to the future of our country’. He talks, almost absurdly given the disparity between Maori and Pakeha outcomes on any number of social indicators, of a New Zealand where ‘the minority has a birthright to the upper hand’… A prudent leader does not pit one group of New Zealanders against another in pursuit of partisan self-interest, especially when it is highly debatable whether the significant policy solutions offered can even be implemented… Maori were scapegoated in the Orewa speech. It was not a speech of unity. It primarily stands as a Machiavellian strategy to change a desperate political dynamic in National’s favour.

Johansson’s piece is very well researched, written and argued. It expresses in extremely reasoned terms why a man like Dr Brash doesn’t deserve to be our Prime Minister. Those many dwellers of New Zealand’s blogosphere egging Brash on in his race-baiting would do well to read this article. I’d be very interested in one of them (perhaps you, David Farrar?) offering a sensible, reasoned response to it, so that we can get a debate going.

Unfortunately, it seems we’re destined to endure another week of divisive, negative, nasty, ugly race politics at the hands of the National Party. We can only hope that our country is strong enough to survive it…

UPDATE: There is a host of interesting web reading on the subject of Brash’s “son of Orewa” speech. See, in particular: No Right Turn, Che Tibby, David Farrar responding to Dr Johansson’s article, and David Slack.

frog says

Published in Campaign | Society & Culture by frog on Mon, August 29th, 2005   

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