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Karl du Fresne: My reply to Shelley (whoever she is)

I received the following comment last month from someone identified only as Shelley. (We can’t be sure Shelley is female, because we can’t know anything about people who shelter behind pseudonyms. However for the sake of convenience I will assume she is a woman and therefore use the appropriate pronoun. The woke “they” will never be used on this blog to refer to a single person.)

Shelley’s comment was written in response to my post Pssst ... don't mention the iwi and ran as follows:

It really is hilarious each time I read or hear ideas such as yours that 50/50 co-governance with Iwi is simply the worst thing since Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye teamed up… stop it, nothing could ever be worse than that. Your blog is as polarising as a fart in an elevator, scattering people to each far flung corner and then out the door. And so predictable. Talking about the elephant in the room - that Māori may ask for more, massa? Please, sir, I want some more? Oooh aaah! Gosh, sorry bout it but the elephant in the room is dead! Māori are rockstars of our little country. Pākehā who don’t want to be Tangata Tiriti are like old beans on a bean rack - they will shrivel up and fall off, while all the young shoots thrive! The racist assertions spouted here are as old and worn out as Chris Luxon’s bic razor. This blog and the blogger are passé - like yesterday’s shrimp cocktail. Fear mongering about Māori is a yawn. There is nothing new in this space. Find somebody else to pick on [phrase deleted here because it smears someone not in a position to defend herself]. Cos we’re not gonna take it anymore. Ngā mihi ki a koutou. PS: I love mixed metaphor. Shelley.

I’m breaking my own rule by publishing a comment that directly attacks me anonymously, but I’m doing so for several reasons. One is that it illustrates what we’re up against in trying to argue rationally with people who resort to crude, simplistic caricatures and indulge in ad hominem arguments.

Another is that by running it, I deny Shelley the satisfaction of saying “See, this racist blogger shut me down because he doesn’t like what I’m saying”.

While Shelley has no right to be published here, since she breaks the rules of this blog by directly attacking me without identifying herself, I decided to publish her comment because I believe in free speech, and because she expresses opinions that some other people almost certainly share. Even people who hide behind pseudonyms have a right to free speech, although the rest of us are equally entitled to take no notice of them.

But I have another reason for publishing her rant, which is that it gives me an opportunity to put one or two things straight.

She makes assumptions about me that play to her perception of me as a racist bigot. It suits her to do that because then she can dismiss anything I write as racist bigotry. But the truth is more complex and nuanced than that. The first political issue I ever got stirred up about was the brutal denial of civil rights to blacks in the American South during the early 1960s. I was about 12 then and my feelings about human rights have never changed. Ah, I can hear Shelley say. It’s safe to support the rights of racial minorities thousands of miles away where they don’t represent a threat to me personally, but it’s a different story here on our home turf, right? Well, no. All races are entitled to freedom, dignity, safety and a say in their own future, and no racial group has the right to subjugate another. That applies universally. Now, that word “racist”. I believe a racist is someone who thinks certain races are inherently superior to others and therefore entitled to rights not available to supposedly “inferior” races. That’s a meaning we can all agree on. But the moment you stretch the definition beyond that, the word can mean anything the user wants it to mean. In the contemporary New Zealand context, that means it can be applied to anyone who disagrees with you – for example, on issues such as 50-50 co-governance with iwi. But the people who throw the term “racist” around don’t realise that they have stripped the word of its potency. “Racist” should be the most offensive epithet imaginable, placing the accused person on a par with Adolf Hitler or the Ku Klux Klan. But the word is so overused as to have become meaningless, so Shelley’s wasting her breath there. On a more personal level, there’s a lot about Maori culture that I respect and admire – for example, its emphasis on a communal rather than an individual ethos, from which I think we can all learn. I marvel (as the British army probably did in the 19th century) at the courage and resourcefulness of a warrior society defending its land against interlopers and I share the widely felt reverence for the generations of Maori soldiers who served with such distinction in our own armed forces. I am stirred by kapa haka and revere our many great Maori musicians. New Zealand’s bicultural heritage is a unique part of our national makeup that we should all be proud of (and I think most of us are. When the Springboks narrowly defeated a Maori side at Napier in 1921, a South African reporter was appalled that the predominantly Pakeha crowd cheered for “coloured men” playing against their fellow whites). On the down side, we should all be concerned at high rates of Maori imprisonment, illness, sub-standard housing and low educational attainment. These not only hurt Maori but diminish the country as a whole. Some activists talk as if such outcomes are the results of deliberate, structural racism that suits the interests of the dominant group, but I have yet to hear anyone explain how anyone, including the supposedly privileged class, benefits when such a significant segment of the population is struggling. It's in everyone's interests for Maori to do better; the question is how that might be achieved. Ostentatious virtue signalling, such as the use of te reo by broadcasters and journalists, won't do it. Nor is it likely to be achieved by transferring power from democratic institutions to an unelected tribal elite that hasn't historically shown much concern for urban Maori with no iwi affiliations. Turning to the contentious issue of our history, I support in principle its inclusion as a compulsory school subject, but with the important proviso that the curriculum isn’t ideologically loaded. Pupils should be given a warts-and-all view that doesn’t whitewash (pun not intended) either Maori or Pakeha. I think all New Zealanders should know more about the country’s pre-European history. There was another New Zealand (Aotearoa, if you prefer) that existed before the arrival of the Europeans; one that was still technically in the stone age but was strikingly advanced and sophisticated for all that. We know far too little about it – or indeed about how the first voyagers got here, which is a remarkable story in itself. Speaking of “Aotearoa”, let’s have a referendum. That’s more honest than having the name insinuated into the language at the behest of a cultural elite too arrogant to put it to the test knowing there’s a very good chance it would be defeated. What can be more fundamental to a country’s identity than the name by which it’s known? Those who resist the idea of a referendum, preferring to impose the name without any mandate, are subverting democracy. (For the record, and not for the first time, I’m okay with Aotearoa just as long as the majority endorse it.) In teaching New Zealand history, we need to be honest about the circumstances in which Maori lost so much of their land, and we need to acknowledge that they were often the victims of rampant settler greed. (Two instances I’m personally familiar with, because I’ve written about them, are Lakes Wairarapa and Horowhenua, both shamefully and deceitfully taken from their rightful owners and subsequently subjected to shocking environmental degradation.) But we also need to acknowledge that Maori were sometimes betrayed by tribal leaders who sold their land from under them. We also need to acknowledge that pre-European Maori society was violent and cruel. Territory was taken by conquest and no mercy was shown to the losers, who were slaughtered, enslaved and cannibalised. Rekohu (the Moriori name for the Chathams) comes to mind. We need to teach that, too. Perhaps we could do a deal whereby if part-Maori activists stop promoting grievances about the negative effects of colonisation, which are undeniable but balanced by some rather significant (but commonly overlooked) benefits, those of us who are Pakeha will avoid mentioning the terrible things Maori did to each other before the Europeans arrived. We can agree that white supremacy was common - in fact the norm - in an earlier time when Europeans believed implicitly in the superiority of a culture that dominated the world. Do white supremacists exist still? Probably, although I don’t know any personally and I don’t believe they’re anything more than a tiny, pathetic minority whose attitudes appal most New Zealanders. Of far more consequence are the millions of New Zealanders who happily work, play sport and engage socially (which includes having sex) with people of Maori descent, and have done so for generations. The terrible danger is that this history of mutual goodwill will be undermined and may even eventually unravel as a result of the wedge being driven between the two main racial groups by activists who insist we are inherently different and that our rights and interests are in competition. We also need to acknowledge that there was a high degree of historical goodwill toward Maori on the part of many colonial officials, from James Cook onwards. Little known fact: 10 sailors from the Adventure, sister ship to Cook’s Resolution, were gruesomely killed and eaten in the Marlborough Sounds in 1773, but Cook resisted the urging of his crew to exact revenge (and ironically, incurred disrespect from local Maori for not invoking his right to utu). And not a million miles from there, Governor Fitzroy took the side of the Ngati Toa after the so-called Wairau Affray of 1842 in which 22 whites were killed. Fitzroy was firmly of the view that the settlers provoked the incident by claiming land to which they were not entitled. It’s hard to imagine that happening in other colonial societies where brutal reprisals would have been a more likely outcome. We should acknowledge that Maori were encouraged to engage in the political system. Maori men were allowed to vote from as early as 1853 and got their own electorates in 1867. (I know comparisons don’t always get us far, but Australian Aborigines weren’t able to vote until 1962). By the early 20th century New Zealand had a Maori acting prime minister, Sir James Carroll. Australia didn’t even get its first Aboriginal MP until the 1970s. Will these facts be taught in the new history curriculum? We need to acknowledge that there have been instances of shameful racism, such as the well-documented case of a distinguished Maori doctor (although it would have been just as disgraceful if he’d been a bulldozer driver) who was denied service in the lounge bar of the Papakura Hotel in 1959. But racism can cut both ways. A Pakeha friend of mine who stopped for a drink at a Hawke’s Bay country pub in 1969 was told in no uncertain terms that it was a Maori pub and he’d be safer if he went elsewhere. But these are exceptions. There is a unique record of co-operation, harmony and goodwill between the two main racial groups. That’s manifested in the history of inter-marriage which today ensures that every person who identifies as Maori must also own up to some European blood, which means their supposed oppressors included their own white forebears. I’ve yet to see anyone reconcile those awkward truths. If we’re to move forward as a society we need to acknowledge that all our forebears did bad things in the distant past and then put them behind us. We have too much in common to risk fracturing a society that the rest of the world has long seen as exemplary. Where we run into trouble is where the Maori activist agenda collides with democracy. Democracy isn’t a white supremacist invention imposed to keep minority groups firmly under the heel of their oppressor. On the contrary, it's a system whereby every citizen’s vote – Maori, Pakeha, Pasifika, Chinese, Indian, whatever – carries the same weight. I believe absolutely in democracy because ultimately, everyone benefits from it and everyone has a say. It is the basis of every free and fair society in the world, and those who undermine it need to think very carefully about what form of government might replace it. I can’t think of any that would appeal to me – certainly not one that grants special rights, privileges and entitlements on the basis of ancestry. We have a name for that: feudalism. We were smart enough to abandon it several centuries ago. To finish, I am Tangata Tiriti and proud to be so. Like all Pakeha New Zealanders I’m here by right of the Treaty, a point often overlooked by Treaty activists who talk as if it grants rights only to Maori. My forebears came here in the 1870s and 1890s and New Zealand, therefore, is my turangawaewae. The thing is, we’re all beneficiaries of the Treaty and we need to think very long and hard before unravelling the many threads that bind us.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at

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