Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Maori Language Week

By Nandor Tanczos

You can't force people to learn to speak Maori. Actually, you can't force people to do very much at all in the long run, which is why the PR techniques pioneered by Dr Goebbels remain such a popular means of social control.

No, Maori speaking will become more widespread in this country for the same reason that most immigrants learn to speak English: you can't be a fully functioning citizen of this country until you can speak the languages of the land.

You can get by of course, as did those old aunties I knew as a child, who had come out from Europe at an advanced age and who struggled to say more than the basics in English. Many of them spoke multiple European languages but that didn't help much in New Zealand in the 1980's so they stayed within their ethnic enclave, lived long and happy lives and never understood the country they now lived in.

What separated them, and I think most Pakeha, from the unashamedly monolingual and the proudly ignorant that I occasionally come across these days is that they understood it as a weakness. They would have changed it if they could.

I think that a growing number of people feel that about Te Reo today. It is embarrassing for both Maori and Pakeha to go on to a marae, to hear the kuia open the ceremony and lay down the kaupapa of the day with their karanga, to hear the kaumatua follow the women with whai korero, to hear the hapu stand and sing ancient chants in support, full of history and whakapapa and wisdom, and to not understand a word of it.

It is embarrassing to sit stony-faced as the assembly roars with laughter over the banter and the barbed jokes. It is discomforting to stand and mouth words to songs you don't know as the people around you fill the air with rising harmonies and deep booming notes. It is most of all disturbing to realise the extent of ones own cultural ignorance and incompetence.

For most of us that realisation of ignorance leads to a desire to learn more so as to understand more. For some others it creates a defensiveness and a retreat back to the comfort zone. Perhaps that is why some people continue to determinedly call Taranaki mountain 'Mt Egmont', continue to butcher simple Maori phrases or seek to make a virtue (and political capital) out of their refusal to spell place names correctly.

It's just the frightened child inside them, feeling lost in a complex world. Nevertheless the fact that many of us are less able than a toddler when entering a Maori environment is not really our fault.

Luckily Maori people tend to be extraordinarily forgiving of even quite serious unintended offences. They know that our education system does little, by and large, to prepare New Zealanders for the social reality of living in Aotearoa today, where the ability to walk confidently in both worlds will increasingly determine our ability to participate and succeed.

Most of us, I think, welcome this new reality. We live in Aotearoa, in Polynesia, and we reflect that in our food, our lifestyles, our attitudes and in the maorified English that we increasingly speak.

What is also clear is that, as with many other indigenous cultures around the world, the Maori worldview has something of great importance to offer a human population increasingly alienated from the natural world of which we are a part.

This is not to romanticise or wish away the many problems that Maori society faces, but simply to recognise that Maori people, after killing off the moa and irreparably changing the New Zealand environment, learned over time to live in balance with the natural ecosystems of this land and much of that knowledge remains. Pakeha culture has not yet done so, and has much to learn from tangata whenua in this regard.

Maori Language Week is a good time to acknowledge this, to do a stocktake of the state of the language and for people to pick up a few more words and phrases to bring into their lives. Hopefully it will also renew that desire in a few more of us to become true bicultural citizens.

(from Monkeywrenching)

Monday, July 19, 2010

What are universities for?

Right now we need sociologists more than we need scientists. We need philosophers more than we need forex traders. We need activists far more than we need accountants. There has probably never been a more important time in human history than now to stop and have a good think about where we are going, as we begin to reach the environmental limits of our planet. How predictable, then, that our government should this year launch a renewed attack on universities, and in particular on those disciplines that might help us to do so.

Reflective thinking has, of course, rarely been encouraged by governments or the corporations whose interests they serve. Universities are fine as long as they are churning out lawyers, accountants and managers, grist for the mill, but philosophy and the humanities have long been viewed with suspicion. So when Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce indicates that he wants to make a university degree nothing more than a glorified trade certificate he is simply articulating the logical outcome of decades of tertiary education policies from both Labour and National.

University student bodies were centres of dissent during the heady ‘70s when many of our senior MPs were cutting their political teeth. The children of western affluence had begun to question the point of it all, to ask fundamental questions about what makes 'the good life'. Was material accumulation all there was? How many people would we sacrifice to maintain it?

Interestingly, a number of studies suggest that it was around this time or slightly earlier that economic growth in the west stopped correlating with increased well-being. Those hippies were on to something. For whatever reason though, and there were many, that momentum came to a halt. Politicians ever since have wanted to make sure it doesn't happen again.

The student loan scheme radically changed New Zealand universities. After 1990 students and policy makers alike increasingly viewed tertiary education as essentially vocational, simply in order to justify the graduate debt that accompanied it. The result has been a burgeoning of the business and law schools while humanities have been in decline. Clearly this isn't happening fast enough for the current minister, who now suggests that tertiary funding be linked to employment outcomes. This was a bad idea when it was applied to Youth Training Schemes (YTS) in the 1990's. It's an even worse idea applied to universities, polytechs and waananga today.

The most unconvincing element of all this was the minister's explanation.

"This will send a strong signal to students about which qualifications and which institutions offer the best career prospects - and that's what tertiary education has got to be all about," he said.

The second part of that statement is almost certainly his actual opinion, but to suggest that cutting funding to philosophy is the best way to let students know that they will earn better money from an LLB is just insulting.

Students are well aware of their career prospects, that's why most of them are getting a tertiary education in the first place. Let's be frank - this is about the minister wanting to influence what kinds of things get taught, despite his bald denials.

Which brings us back to the question of what is the point of a tertiary education anyway? Of course we need vocational training we need skilled doctors, teachers, electricians and plumbers. But we also need philosophers, historians, critical thinkers and questioners and to my mind we need them more urgently.

Humans have become extraordinarily good at doing all kinds of things, but we seem to have stopped asking why we bother. The fundamental economic rationalism that informs this government, that sees education and culture and the conservation estate for that matter - as valuable only insofar as they serve the economy, is a profoundly depressing philosophy. That it is out of step with the thinking of most New Zealanders should make the minister pause.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Climategate - no one looks good

No one comes out of the “climategate” email saga looking good. Not the political hopefuls who jumped on the band wagon. Not the sceptic bloggers who allowed their conspiratorial paranoia to get the better of them. Not the climate change sceptic movement generally, whose more extreme members perpetrated a far more vicious kind of bullying and intellectual fraud than they accused their opponents of. Not the scientists at the centre of the saga, who acted to hide data and frustrate those they saw as 'outsiders'. Certainly not the journalist who, in a show of age and banality, appended the tired suffix “gate” to the damn thing.

The third independent review of the emails leaked from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, like the Oxburgh Report and the UK House of Common Science and Technology Committee Report before it, has largely cleared Phil Jones and the other scientists there. It found that their honesty and rigour as scientists was not in doubt. It found no evidence of any behaviours that would undermine the assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). What it did find, though, was a lack of openness and an unhelpful and defensive approach to requests for information.

The more serious accusations, such as that researchers cherry picked and manipulated data to achieve the results they wanted, were rejected. The famous 'hockey stick' graph, which shows relatively flat global temperatures for the past thousand or so years and then a spike beginning in the 20th century, was called into question by an email which spoke of using a “trick” to “hide the decline”. This was not a decline in actual global temperatures but in a proxy measure (tree ring data) from the 1960's on. From that time tree ring measures cease to follow actual recorded temperatures and there is a suggestion that pollution is the cause. The report looked at this matter and concluded that the “trick” (of adding in the real temperatures) was used in the sense of 'neat technique' to combine proxy and actual temperature measurements. While the original paper that developed the graph, and the IPCC use of it, had extensively discussed the uncertainties around it and the problem of the divergence of tree ring and actual temperature measurements, the report was critical of its use without these cautions in a World Metereological Organisation report.

Those who had hoped and expected to see the entire edifice of global warming theory come tumbling down as a result of these emails will be in shock. This was probably their best hope of swinging the public debate and it failed. They will be looking for something that makes sense of this result and no doubt some will choose to blame an ever widening conspiracy. The idea that it may be because the evidence actually points to climate change being real is for some people unthinkable. Human history is littered with the corpses of those that would rather die than give up their beliefs.

My hope, though, is that we are able to do something more profound with this moment than lapse back into our respective camps and either gloat or glare. The majority of people are not actually signed up members of any camp in this debate. There is growing concern about climate change because the majority view of scientists seems to be that it is occurring, as a result of human activity, and it carries huge risk for us all. That view has been unaffected by these email leaks, and in fact may become more explicit as scientists respond to the lies and intimidation of some extremists revealed by this saga. But there is also growing concern about what looks like a loss of objectivity among some researchers. The defensiveness and obstructionism among CRU scientists that the emails reveal is unacceptable. If anything, they feed the concern that some scientists are trying to hide something.

One of the failings of the green movement has been in not understanding that people can question the science and indeed the politics of climate change without being anti-science or a cypher for the oil industry. Perfectly reasonable people have perfectly reasonable questions about it and treating them as the enemy is not helpful. Indeed if this saga shows anything, it is the need to depolarise the debate. It may be that the insular tribalism shown by the CRU was a direct response to the aggressive and personal attacks upon them, but it was an unhelpful approach. You don't fight fire with fire, but with water. The challenge for us all, to echo the report, is to find ways to have good public debate that allows the scientific to be discussed, in all its uncertainties, so that people have a better understanding about what we know and what we do not. That problem is, of course, not limited to this issue.

Part of that discussion needs to also be about how we deal with climate change. The National Party made a good start last year with its public consultations but then seems to have ignored them. In my view part of the cynicism about climate change science is driven by the blatant attempt by big business to snatch atmospheric property rights. For example the New Zealand Emission Trading Scheme seems unlikely to do anything to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions since consumers, taxpayers and foresters (bizarrely) are being forced to subside our biggest emitting industries. Its easy to see why some think the whole thing is a scam.

The other issue that the saga highlights is the growing tension between social media and privatised science. All through the western world we have seen a relative disinvestment by governments into science and research and therefore the increasing importance of privately funded science, joint venture research and an emphasis on the commercialisation of research by public institutions. As a result we have seen the growth of interest in, and jurisprudence around, intellectual property rights. How this affects the openness and verification of scientific research is an important discussion. I recall questioning New Zealand's own ESR some years ago about what research they were relying on when they made claims about the efficacy of drug testing in the work place (they were in the process of introducing it into New Zealand on a large scale) to be told that the research was commercially sensitive and therefore not open to scrutiny.

All this is in contradiction to the dynamics of the internet, where everyone expects access to everything and the right to comment on it. While this can open the floodgates to the distasteful, the distorted and the dishonest it can also harness the power of people in the same way that distributed virtual supercomputers harness masses of home PCs . It may be an uncomfortable notion to those who are used to beavering away in a corner of a university with little scrutiny except from their peers but in a world where the myth of value-free and outcome-neutral science and technology is dissolving away, it offers an important opportunity bring some democratic oversight to bear on science. In drawing the importance of this to the attention of scientists, climategate has indeed been a gamechanger.

Rhythms of Life

Death is the ultimate yard stick. If there is anything that can measure the value of our brief personal existence, it is when we fold back into the totality. Death is the supreme perspective and although its lessons are unwelcome and painful we all have to learn them sooner or later.

I've been getting a lot of lessons from death recently, although I'm not sure I'm actually any wiser. The most recent was at the funeral of Jan Abel – my good friend's mother, herself a friend I should say. I listened to the service, to the memorials and recollections and they made a vivid impression on my mind. She was a strong, courageous and spirited woman, an adventurer who, in her youth, had ridden a white horse across the Sahara. Yet I imagined that even in her final moments those days had felt to her like yesterday, just as my own misspent youth feels to me today.

The generations, it struck me, come in waves both rapid and relentless. The rolling rhythms of life that see us change from babes, to children, to young adults full of life and trouble, to pillars of our families, then to wise old heads and death go so quickly that we barely have time to figure out the game before its over. Those waves began long before we got here and will continue long after we have passed away and it is those waves, not the water itself, that defines the human experience. We may drive cars instead of walk and we may play playstation instead of cards but the things that matter the most remain unchanged, making a mockery of our egos and our status.

Does anything remain of us after we die? We can speculate on whether the soul lives on or simply dissolves back into the energy of the universe but to argue about it is pointless. We will all know soon enough. We can build religions around our hopes and desires in an attempt to find a solution to death, but there is no solution, there is only acceptance.

We do know that we live on in a sense, in the memories of the living and in the coiled strands of DNA carried by our descendants. When I listened to the eulogies for Jan and the memories that people cherished it was clear that they were about who she was, not what she had. They spoke of the love she showed to others – not just her family and friends but through her work with the Child Poverty Action Group. Her love lives on in those touched by it, a much preferable form of immortality to cryonics

I don't imagine that Jan had many regrets about her life. She made mistakes, as we all do, and had done what she could to repair the damage. She was blessed to see her granddaughter born, to see the new wave begin its rise and rush towards the shore. I imagine that as she looked back upon her life, with death at her shoulder, she was pretty content.

Not all people are, of course. Perhaps the famous mid life crisis comes from suddenly being confronted with the lessons of death, as we begin to bury our parents and friends. In the East this time of life is traditionally associated with taking up a spiritual practise. In the west, where aging and death is often seen as an enemy to be vanquished rather than a part of life to be accepted, it more often takes the form of an attempt to flee death's approach. Men in particular are reknowned for trying to rejuvenate the plum tree by cutting off all the branches, but death cannot be outrun. Death is not a competitor, but a counsellor.

(from my Waikato Times column 9/7/10)