Monday, April 28, 2008

Tribalism and Treaty

Bruce Sheppard, the quinessential provocateur, has wondered publicly about the relevance of Te Tiriti in 2008. I've added a little comment, but Bruce has touched on the edge of an issue that's interested me for quite some time.

Is the political support currently behind the re-tribalisation of Maori, a Good Thang?

If you look at Ngai Tahu, who want to be capitalists, why yes. Probably.

If you look at Tuhoe Nation, who want to ride their horses back into a Glorious Misty-Mountain Past and get a little cash from training camps on the side, why no. Probably.

What do finer minds than mine say?

There's the Latin American notion of "let us have our Middle Ages in peace" (from The General and his Labyrinth - Marquez). This simply draws a comparison with the long, bloody and traumatic transformations in our English Middle Ages:
- the Reformation (c 1520),
- the dissolution of the monasteries (c 1538),
- the re-Catholicisation of Bloody Mary (c 1553),
- the Shakespearian age of Elizabeth I (c1599) (Shakespeare, a secret Catholic, hankered after the old days: 'bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang', referred to the monasteries),
- the chaos of the Cavaliers vs Roundheads in the English Civil War (c 1642)
- the Glorious Revolution (1688) which finally settled the principle of Parliamentary control

This 200-year saga, in retrospect, was needed to make the decisive break from a 'world lit only by fire', innocent of the germ theory of disease, and in thrall to a corrupt but totalitarian Catholic Church, to the Age of Reason.

Why, in this reading, should Maori and their (and it was ours, too) default setting of small, non-urban tribes, need any shorter time? Because one of the lessons of history is that humans need to be severely jolted to move even one millimetre away from 'traditional ways', however they are defined.

The contrary view: that tribalism is a pernicious cul-de-sac, would have it that, as the Greeks figured out early on, an essential feature of society is the deliberate lack of political power able to be held by groupings such as clans, tribes, mafias, and other self-defining sub-sets. A good read here is Roger Sandall (Culture Cult): the quote which got my attention is

"The dynastic feuding of ‘tyrants’ had brought Athens to the point of ruin. It had to be stopped. Cleisthenes’ solution was to firmly suppress a citizen’s political identification with family and neighborhood, with mafia bosses and clan chiefs. He sliced the country into 150 electoral districts called ‘demes’, and it was from these—and no longer from clans and families—that the citizens of Athenian democracy were obliged in future to take their second names. This applied to the haughtiest aristocrat and the humblest plowman alike.

... a number of historical parallels between the ancient and modern worlds and the continuing clash of East and West. But nothing is more revealing than the determination of Cleisthenes to stamp out despots and despotism by severing the connection between clan power and political representation. This was in 507 BC. Today, 2,500 years later, throughout most of the Middle East and conspicuously so in Iraq, they still haven’t got the point."

And neither, in this view, have the neo-tribalists.

Which brings us back to the muddled present. It is quite clear that Maori lore and tradition (the bits that would widely be classed as Baby, not Bathwater, at any rate) is quite inadequate to assist in most of the physical features of our modern life. Maori were non -urbanised, and this fact alone means that there is nothing that Tradition can say about the daily lives of 95% of us.

OTOH, the mental or spritual aspects of our modern life are, shall we say, somewhat arid. Part of the collateral damage of the Age of Reason was that the notion of Gods or other spiritual manifestations was comprehensively demolished.

Yet the human mind seems to have evolved to require something larger than itself to look up to. Gaia doesn't quite fit the bill, the Christian God is fairly much dead if not buried, Mohammed is a violent, woman-fearing hick - Deliverance in the Desert, so to speak - and Buddha has been killed by someone he met on the road.

So perhaps this spiritual void is a place to start from.

But not as tribes, as individuals.

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