I listened to the speech by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the Davos World Economic Forum. He predictably spoke of the need for a massive aid programme to rebuild the country. But then he mentioned, almost in passing – a slip of the tongue moment – Israel as the model of a nation which is surrounded by enemies and which therefore needs to be massively armed and supported by the West. At that point an alarm bell rang. Is this what is in store for Ukraine, that it becomes the Israel of Europe, including having an ethnic minority composed of ‘the enemy’ and conflict over spiritual homes? Is it proposed that Russian oil and gas supplies are unlocked via regime change and further dissolution which results in a patchwork of Middle Eastern style oligarchies sycophantically attached to the West. Is it that Putin has made Nasser’s mistake of reacting to Western provocation and then losing?
The alarm bell continued to ring stridently as the above narrative assumed a chilling logic.
The government has this algorithm called real me. It constitutes one’s entry key to a number of services: passports, IRD etc. It can even be used by banks. The terminology is unfortunate, making physical presence, whakapapa etc. secondary and unreal. It must have been dreamt up by someone with psychotic tendencies.
Recently I received a no-reply email stating that my real me needed to be updated – an interesting concept – and a dreadful battle with the algorithm began. Filling my name, address, date of birth etc was not a problem but the algorithm wanted a photo which it judged satisfactory. You can try and do it via the algorithm, following the advice of someone called Sarah. She smiled nicely, but then cut me off after a couple of failed attempts. Your times up, Buddy, or words to that effect. Go to a photo shop. But the next morning the algorithm had forgiven me and allowed a further attempt. I even got a photo accepted but then had to follow a video exercise of Sarah nodding, shaking her head and opening her eyes wide. Somehow I failed – perhaps I nodded when I should have shaked and once again I was banished. Sarah was still smiling however.
When I had to renew my passport I’d had a photo shop in town take what had been a satisfactory photo which I could then upload, so I went to see Stewart and had a photo taken, but then realized I didn’t know how to upload it. I rang up real me and after waiting 45 minutes spoke to a real person who was puzzled by my question and went off for five minutes to try and find the answer. Alas, there wasn’t one. Only the AA could take a photo of the real me and upload it to the algorithm. Why? I asked. No one knows.
The next day I went into the AA shop only to find that the young woman there couldn’t take such a photo because she hadn’t been trained to do so and the person who had was off work sick. I’d have to drive to Hokitika. The theater receptionist who used to work for them whispered to me, The training only takes five minutes. At that stage I understandably flew into a rage and have been wondering why the state creates a psychotic framework? Who in the state does it and why?
On the subject of real me, let me take a detour into the realm of the tangata whenua where an interesting debate is taking place. To be Māori requires whakapapa. That’s a simple equation. Act Party leader, David Seymour has whakapapa so is a real Māori , but suddenly Willie Jackson is saying Seymour is not a real Māori because he hasn’t Māori values. That seems to be a tricky concept. Aryan but also a believer in the Reich in order to be German in the 1930s? Even trickier when National suggest the right of 3 days in hospital for a post birth mother, and a Māori woman spokesperson for Labour won’t sign up to what would seem valid in terms of whanaungatanga.
Tired of the sticky swamp of post modernism I read a biography of Tolstoy and come to his middle-age spiritual crisis when he battled to reconcile faith and reason. I’m not a stranger to the debate personally, having always envied those with faith, but found reason intrusive enough to make faith impossible. And then Tolstoy’s rendering down of the gospels… Of course virgin births and raptures are nonsense, but what is left that reason can accommodate? Here are Tolstoy’s ‘commandments’.
Don’t be angry – more generally, resolve any psycho analytic shit.
Don’t be lustful, or entrepreneurial or imperializing – that whole energy field.
Don’t get tangled up with commitments to authorities that will determine your future behaviour or choices. For example, don’t join the army because it might mean you end up having to kill people. It is an anti state sentiment.
And then ‘the turn the other cheek of non violence’ and ‘the love the enemy’ of pacificism.
Tolstoy had of course no experience of bourgeois liberalism and capitalist technological development, nor of the proletarian attempts to use the state for the advancement of the working class: welfare state, free health and education, workers rights etc. His grappling with social justice issues was then problematic. Gandhi was similar in this regard. Yet there was a moral imperative and energy that was phenomenal. Real me, in comparison, is pathetic.
As I ponder the proposed changes to the Green Party constitution, I wonder whether Pākehā civil society in Aotearoa isn’t bemusing itself with the notion of tiriti partnership as a cultural change at every level, from the local gardening club up. Whereas, in fact, the partnership is primarily a constitutional issue, a partnership relation between iwi and Crown in need of rigorous negotiation, and Māori understand that. The Matike Mai project led by the late Moana Jackson is the most ambitious conceiving of possible models that partnership might take. Unfortunately it seems to have been placed in the too hard basket and instead localised cultural tinkering seems to be the name of the game.
The Greens, who are predominantly a Pākehā organisation operating within the parliamentary system as it stands – an unsatisfactory improvisation as far as tino rangatiratanga is concerned – are currently planning to place a Māori-focused organisational layer on top of the current membership-based, local- cum-regional structure which votes in national facilitators for policy development, campaign mounting, fund raising, list forming and so on. And then there is the caucus of MPs. The plan is a little like placing a marae committee, including the creation of kaumātua, on top of this Pākehā structure, and suggesting that this signifies a tiriti partnership.
Within the Greens, as in the trade unions, there is every reason for tangata whenua members to caucus (as Greens or union members), and to choose culturally appropriate meeting procedures, as long as the wider constitution is respected. It is also appropriate that the wider organisational structure is culturally ‘comfortable’. But what does that mean? That the meetings of a secular organisation begin and end with the asking for God’s blessing? And of course, this cultural comfort applies to women, lesbians, gays, people with disability etc. And do I hear, class?
And then there is the question of language. There is a current argument for a greater visibility of te reo. There was a similar call in the 1980s until Māori realised it was a waste of resources to service Pākehā for whom learning te reo was becoming fashionable, like French for the Victorians. I have an argument against the facile use of any language. Of course one learns some phrases to get by while visiting, but each language has a complex past that a non-native speaker can’t possibly comprehend. My late friend, Malcolm Yockney (Ngāti Rongomaiwahine), was a skilled linguist, studied Māori for many years, watched every Waka Huia programme, yet also recognised he could never be a native speaker with a vocabulary of local references, nuances and metaphors.
Does greater visibility mean there should be a translator at every union meeting or negotiation, at every Green branch meeting? That every document should be bilingual? And then there is the growing use of metaphor; with waka and paddlers currently popular. Should we also be able to draw on the prophetic poems of William Blake, or the writings of Virginia Woolf – there would be useful imagery. It both becomes more interesting but also potentially chaotic and perhaps slightly bizarre when the ultimate goal is constitutional change necessarily couched in legalese.
Perhaps there is the need for the anarchist whakataukī: we can either think of ourselves as all the same and therefore equal, or we can think of ourselves as all completely different and therefore equal. Identity becomes a circular journey, which returns me to the original point, that Māori sovereignty is a constitutional issue between tangata whenua and the crown, rather than a local cultural issue.
All my adult life, the task has been to find a gap in the system, a place which the system hasn’t got to yet, or, for a moment, disappeared from, a place where the hegemony is weak. This has been true for housing and work. If you’re not playing the promotional, career game, if you’re not mainstream because of political belief or artistic inclination, then that’s the way to survive. (Unless of course, there’s been an earthquake creating quite a lot of gaps.)
For a few years in the early seventies there was a considerable gap: the National Film Unit was an organisation that had lost its original purpose so was open to something different, television hadn’t settled into commercial mode and was still exploring a citizenship role, the mainstream theatre was uncertain so experimental theatre flourished, rents were cheap and jobs readily available. But then the gap began to close: television became commercially driven, the Film Unit dissolved and the mainstream theatre got its act together. The economy worsened and things tightened.
But there was a feature film industry that had to invent itself – that was a gap that needed to be filled. Hollywood eventually invaded.
There was a marginal community in Holloway Road which provided free housing and the chance to explore political system, bicultural theatre and community.
Market forces eventually arrived in ‘the gully’ and community based art, community development and Petone provided the next gap, a gap that widened as neo liberalism tore society apart. That gap in turn closed as the government and the corporates tidied up the mess and introduced a philanthropic model of control.
Blackball on the West Coast then provided a space – irrelevant, nostalgic, but cheap housing and a new praxis could occur. Now, that gap is closing as market forces in housing arrive and the visitor industry impacts. With the past becoming a branding exercise funded via government schemes. I become aware of how much local government and the NGO sector bonds itself opportunistically to government programmes. Covid has taken this to the level of a command economy with capitalism as the pretence. The old USSR used to have communism as the pretence.
Where is the next gap? The graveyard could of course suffice, but meanwhile, there is a redundant and irrelevant heritage site bearing the story of a revolutionary teacher who activated the most unlikely of communities.
Interestingly, the model of working has become the co-operative. In the past the theatre group has been dominant, which is, I suppose, a sort of co-op. I’m stepping aside from the charitable trust model. I think we all should. It is broken.
As I write this I wonder how many people actually have a similar experience of survival.
They live out the back of Greymouth on a lifestyle block – rough, broken country which has been milled, gold mined, pine forested, milled again, a few paddocks, some gorse and blackberry, some native forest regrowing… There’s a mix of housing in the area. People often start with a house bus or caravan and long drop, add a container, a shed, a pole house, solar panels… On some blocks there are proper houses. There’s a creek and a pond, frogs and goats, deer and pigs, kereru and hawks. He runs his own business at the property and has built a workshop. It’s the best building on the land. They live in an old bus but there are pole shed living quarters on the way. A mate in need is parked up in another bus; otherwise he’d be homeless. They live frugally.
He gets enough work and pays his taxes. The newspaper doesn’t bother them, nor the television, the cellphone works up at the bus and they avoid the council. They’ve converted an old washing machine into a generator that keeps the batteries topped up in winter. She gardens, tends to the land and to grandchildren who often come and stay in order to have a break from some convoluted family situations. The river’s a bit wild at the moment and causing some erosion and they need to do some stop bank work but that would involve resource consent. They’re anti 1080 and anti-vax and live/have a notion of freedom which would be hard to pin down, except that they probably don’t like the state. The state, in turn, is a difficult concept once you get past customs, the military and the police. Some would see it as the bureaucracy, each branch of which has its own trajectory: health, education, welfare, DOC, DIA, MBIE… they all have their rules and regulations, whereas these people just want to get on with life. That concept can, in turn, be difficult if you break a leg or need a stent put in or a tumour removed or get too old to work…and there’s the road to be maintained and the supply chain for the business. It gets messy quite quickly. But at least there’s space here and some distance, a sense that on their own land they can set the rules, or forget about rules. The 1080 and anti-vax reaction is a reaction to, on the one hand, their land being occasionally ‘bombed’ and on the other, their bodies ‘invaded’ – by the bureaucracies. All the scientific arguments in the world won’t remove that feeling.
A colleague criticizes their individualistic outlook. They have no solidarity with their fellow citizens and have reverted to a form of extended family subsistence. Developing world people want out of the extended family entrapment. They want the freedom that state provision brings: when you’re unemployed you get a benefit rather than being reliant on family; children can go to school and have choices; when you retire there’s the pension rather than being beholden to family; when you’re sick there’s health care – and so on. These people want it both ways. We all want it both ways, I respond. Empires come and go, and this one is obviously decaying, and always we return to that most stable of human institutions, the extended family. And isn’t whanaunatanga a current virtue? They pay their taxes and he is a fire service volunteer. If there were a civil disaster I think they’d be pretty useful.
And then there’s the quagmire of the parliament occupation, which is lasting longer than expected. The mainstream media, after the initial hit job, are trying to comprehend; the citizens of the capital are outraged – this is an invasion of untouchables; the PM grieves for the children involved; the police complain that there don’t seem to be any leaders or organisers to negotiate with (but that was considered a virtue in the Occupy Wall St movement); an academic is pilloried for suggesting that someone go and talk with them; a local tells me with a sigh that her sister is taking them scones and there is obviously a lot of invisible support… Above all, what do they want? It seems that some of them have lost their jobs and are unlikely to be able to get another one as long as the vaccine mandate remains. This is bigger than not being able to go into a café, so anger is understandable.
And it is a muddled situation. How long will the mandate last? Hasn’t it already done its job in persuading the majority to get vaccinated? So when will it be lifted? One day. Just have to get through the next few weeks? Months? Depends on the modelling. This is all about statistics? The team of five million a bell graph? Images swirl. Eight hundred cases? They locked down Auckland over four cases. But that was before the vaccine. And the second. And the booster. The booster might become mandatory. What? Well, when we look into the percentage effectiveness… and there’re always the vulnerable, they’re the bottom line. Regulations produce absurdity…There’s a shortage of nurses but some already working here can’t get a permit to stay. Farmers have been saying for months it is obvious they can isolate needed staff from overseas on their farms. If you’re vaccinated you might not get symptoms and therefore you’re more dangerous because you don’t know. But how do you know? Get tested. But they don’t want people without symptoms requesting a test. We won’t change our mind again about opening up. Really? Ten days isolation will do. How about seven? Maybe, if the supply chain’s threatened. Places of interest? I don’t read about them anymore. I’m over it. It’s all a game and I can’t be bothered playing it. But there could be twenty thousand cases. The contact tracing system will go crazy. People will do their own tracing. We’ve got this app. Why didn’t you have it from the beginning? Wearing masks all day is bringing back acne for twenty year olds. Remember the cabinet minister losing his job for going on a bike ride? The parliamentary lawn is going to be a mess and Trevor Mallard remains a bogan. Protests are always confusing. Look at ’81: communists, Methodists, feminists, lesbians, tino rangatiratanga advocates, gangs, Muldoon, Gleneagles, apartheid, rugby union, rugby supporters, cities, regions, police brutality… Don’t you dare compare this with that. You need to take the Trump influence seriously, Steve Bannon is hovering over God’s Own, there are chalk drawings of nooses…they’re not wearing masks, this could be a super spreader… NZ First have appeared out of the woodwork… They’re full of conspiracy theories…But the local minister believes in people being possessed by demons and he is a progressive voice on Council…And what about belief in the virgin birth?…Scoop have received a manifesto which is not official – We have come together and we are in agreement that the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act and all the orders and mandates made under that legislation must be revoked immediately… Really, you expect us to take that seriously? We give up our freedom for the greater good. Jacinda’s learned to frown and smile at the same time, an essential skill for a Prime Minister. And a parent of difficult teenagers.
A neighbour comments, Labour’s dug itself a bloody great hole. Who can I vote for next election? I probably won’t vote. I suspect that could well be the result of letting epidemiologists and bureaucrats (I know a few and they’re not the sharpest knives in the drawer) run the country: that feeling of invasion…all the scientific arguments in the world won’t remove the feeling.
All the sevens seventy seven, as the bingo callers chant and the old ladies mark their cards. Does God or Fate or the Malevolent First Cause have a card? At some stage all your numbers have come up? Jackpot! The ads for retirement villages multiply. All of them look like hell to me. The television screen’s full of 1950s happiness and achievement. Young people fly through the air on skis or do four 360 degree turns on their skates. Houses are reinvented , meals are endlessly cooked, cars promise fruition, pizzas arrive and the game continues. Covid’s become a jab, a mask and passes checked, with some bitching about mandates. Jacinda smiles through issues with a serious frown. Old people are punished for being trapped in Aussie and pregnant women are cursed on social media: Stay away bitch, I hope your baby dies.
Let me outta here.
Still, the white butterflies are busy, the blackberries are ripe, tomatoes plentiful, and there are marrows galore. Tuhana has his first swing and six teeth burst through the gums. Language begins to form as squeals and groans, but already he is complex enough. I enjoy the daily walk to the pond, to see the changes in this very ordinary patch of bush and paddock, the vines that grow, the gorse that falls down after heavy rain, the ever changing path of the creek, the pond level that mysteriously rises and falls, the changes in the bird life, the hares that tease the dogs, the changes in the path of the sun, the weka families that appear and disappear. It is my rough Walden. I find camping spots by the creek that then disappear after a flood, the oldest beech tree’s sturdy trunk plots a hundred or more years. I pick up a small smooth stone as a keep sake and the dog swims for a stick then tears at it in act of savagery which hurts no one. Before I climb back up the hill.
Fairburn wrote in Dominion:
O lovely time when bliss was taken
as the bird takes nectar from the flower
Happy the sunlit hour, the frost and the heat
Hearts poised at a star’s height
moved in a cloudless world
like gulls above islands.
As we rehearsed and performed a classic in the old miners bathhouse in the space of 7 days, it has once again been an amazing week, a ritual week, breaking the bonds of the ordinary and entering a new land.
I will retain the image of people purposefully wandering down the road from the village to enter the ritual space. In a world without presence, where presence is frowned upon as a danger, where the screen is, instead, ‘safe’, this was a great relief, to suckle at the breast of theatre; and the play was written two and a half thousand years ago.
Antigone was the play that enticed me into theatre when I saw a girls’ high school production as a sixteen year old. Here was intense political debate, commitment, emotion and tragedy, taking place on the stage of a school hall in the middle of 1950s Palmerston North’s inarticulate puritanism, where people talked mainly of the weather and complained about potholes in the footpath, the cowboy film at the Regent on a Saturday night the space of ‘dreaming’.
It was in an instant conversion. Performance could change the world.
Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog is one of those films best not to think about too much. Instead, enjoy the craft, the photography and the performances. Middle class story telling is based on mystery and skeletons in the closet – and the skeletons can be, as Freud discovered, in the closet of the mind.
The genre for this strange revenge story is the cowboy film, that cultural fantasy of the American settler. In reality, cowboys were ranch hands who rode horses to round up the cattle wandering over vast areas without fences and then drive them to rail heads to be shipped to the burgeoning meat industry. Influenced by the Vaquero of Mexico, they assumed a work dress and the tools of the trade – chaps, boots, hats, lariats etc. plus a machismo. It was often lonely and underpaid work. Via Hollywood, this morphed into the romance of the warrior figure sorting out frontier towns lacking law and order, morphing further into imagined conflict with Native Americans, who, in reality, fought mainly with the army – as in most colonial ventures.
But here the genre is used to tell an Abel and Cain type story: a nasty brother out of love with life(for unknown reasons), a plump brother who is a bit of a sap (for unknown reasons), a widow with a gay, anorexic son, an abundance of ranch hands who form a sort of inarticulate but homophobic chorus, a hint of spirituality hence the old testament title, an unlikely looking mansion built in McKenzie country, some tanalised fence posts straight from Wright Stephenson, shots of Oamaru with digital enhancement, shots of lonely Model T Fords on country roads, a good deal of sexual tension, a feminist sympathy, a general weariness with life, an unlikely denouement and a wonder as to what this has been about other than the skilled creating of mystery, the mystery that Brecht insisted on abolishing. What are the economics? How’d this family get hold of the land? Do the ranch hands need a union? Where’ve they come from? Who’s making the dosh?
And of course the cowboy disappeared with the advent of the barbed wire fence. Nasty stuff, barbed wire, as bad as the entanglements of the bourgeoisie, as the working class had found fighting in the trenches of an absurd world war.