The promise of Mana, truth telling, and the struggle of ideas
The most potent weapon of the oppressor, is the mind of the oppressed
- Steve Biko, Cape Town 1971
Upon reading that veteran activist John Minto has declared his stand for Mana, I paused to ponder what it is exactly that excites me about this newest political party. I’ll admit, its a muted excitement – I feel cynical about the potential of any political party or player to achieve substantial or lasting measures of success for Māori and others disenfranchised in the game. Not if history is anything to go by. New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy (and I use that term loosely), has its roots in a colonial past and the British Empire from which it was imported. A system familiar to the (un)settlers that came, but completely at odds with the structures that governed Māori societies at that time (or more accurately hapū, given that the term ‘Māori’ itself is a colonial invention, but that’s a discussion for another post). The peeps I rant with conceptualise politics or any manifestation of institutional power as a game of tennis – with specific rules, umpires and so on. In order to participate Māori have had to become tennis players – playing for the most part within the rules of a foreign game and living/acting in the hope that this acquiescence would afford Māori the opportunity to thrive, or at times simply survive. And yet a lifetime of dedicated work by Māori ‘playing the game’ can some times be removed with an Orewa speech or the stroke of a legislative pen. Ultimately they are engaged in a game not of our invention, with rules that were never designed with our worldview let alone our well-being in mind. An alternative, and an increasingly unpopular path in some respects, is to insist on playing our own game – like Ki-o-Rahi, to really thrash the metaphor. To reject as illegitimate the game itself, rather than bend one’s self to the task of competing on foreign turf. If going into politics means playing the game, then to a Ki-o-Rahi advocate like myself, it can foster little hope for real change.
Cynicism explained then, if there was ever a party that might spark my political passion then Mana would be it – primarily because of the calibre of people that are willing to participate. Key figures in the Mana Party are people who’s actions to date demonstrate a commitment to truth, to being parrhesiastic (pron: pa-reez-ee-as-tic). There are several conditions that must be met in order to fulfil the definition of the term. First being parrhesiastic means being willing to tell the truth. Second telling the truth must involve risk – the person doing the telling places themself in danger, whether physical or psychological (such as being ostracised or vilified). This is because the direction of the truth telling is always upward, to those with enforceable power, not downward to those without. Thus while a Don Brash or a John Key might claim ‘truth telling’ when insisting that poverty is a result of poor choices or not enough personal responsibility, the direction is downward to those with no enforceable power and therefore not parrhesiastic (let alone true). Finally the truth teller tells the truth in the face of danger, out of a sense of duty and not as a means of personal gain.
To be parrhesiastic undoubtedly requires enormous sacrifice – it is a dedicated lifelong struggle. When it comes to the deeds of Annette Sykes, Hone Harawira, John Minto, or Sue Bradford there can be little question that these are people that call it how they see it, no matter the cost. Each has a history of political struggle, aligning themselves and their work with those they perceive to be most in need. For Annette and Hone that is Māori, specifically Māori who are most vulnerable, be they Tiriti claimants, those seeking tino rangatiratanga, people on low/no incomes or in trouble with the law and so on. John Minto and Sue Bradford similarly have histories of battling for the underdog. In so doing they have all at times been the target of widespread vilification, presented as the scary face of radical thought and action as Annette discusses here. In an act of projection (attributing to the ‘other’ one’s own disowned motives) that would do Freud proud, parrhesiastes such as these are often characterised as bitter and hate-filled. Yet having spent time around them and others like them it isn’t difficult to see that it is not hatred that fuels their fire – as intense an emotion as it is, hatred could not possibly sustain such dedication – it doesn’t have the legs. Rather what the classical Greeks saw as truthtelling motivated by a sense of duty, in these parrhesiastes, in an Annette Sykes, a Mereana Pitman or a Moana Jackson, it is a duty of care. Even abiding love – love of their people and of justice.
Can we all be parrhesiastes then? Perhaps. Or strive to. In Foucault’s exploration of the movement of the term consideration is given to how a person who is parrhesiastic may be identified. After all there are many who would purport to be truthful (even politicians). He examines testimony about the Greek philosopher Socrates, and discovers the following
there is a harmonic relation between what Socrates says and what he does, between his words (logoi) and his deeds (erga). Thus, not only is Socrates himself able to give an account of his own life, such an account is already visible in his behavior since there is not the slightest discrepancy between what he says and what he does
So the old adage ‘actions speak louder than words’ has support; a case in point is Tariana Turia’s initial words of opposition to the Foreshore and Seabed Act in 2004 and subsequent resignation from the Labour Party
It is my constituents who have put me into Parliament to be their voice … I have been an active voice for our people … I believed … that I would be able to speak on those issues that affected our people, and not be forced to have to vote against our own people. I’m not prepared to do that.
7 years on, 24 March 2011 to be exact and parliament passed The Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill (which as Moana Jackson has argued, was not different in substance from the original Act) with the full support of the Turia-led Māori Party. This despite 71 of 72 submissions from Māori collectives up and down the motu voicing strenuous opposition and a nationwide poll showing a meagre 11% of Māori in support of the Bill. Actions, not words. This is not to demonise Tariana the individual for her role in this latest raupatu, once a coalition agreement was signed with the National party following the 2008 election, she was always going to be forced to compromise on even her most deeply held convictions. Or to borrow from the best television series I’ve ever seen, HBO’s The Wire – “once you’re in the [tennis] game, you either play or get played“. Tariana’s ability to truth tell was severely curtailed as having committed to support the government’s direction, all that remained was to sell that direction to her people. Hence her 2011 insistence that lack of Māori support for the bill ar0se from being misinformed and therefore misguided mirrored Helen Clark’s 2004 claim that lack of Māori support was the result of a failure to comprehend what the bill meant. Same korero, a colonial korero (simple native), different woman. Once in coalition (playing doubles on the tennis court) their ability to be the voice of truth for their people as Tariana initially aspired, was effectively destroyed. The oppositional voice is bound through contract to become a soothing one – to wheedle and convince their constituents to be realistic in their demands of government, in the same language used by colonisers past and present.
And there’s the problem – despite widespread insistence of its superiority as a governing system; democracy and unpopular ‘truth telling’ cannot co-exist. In fact, it is a system that produces popular untruth. It should be no surprise that politicians lie, nor is it necessarily an indictment on individual moral character (although of course both may be true). If democracy puts power with the demos – the people (or the ‘appearance’ of power at least), then political success will not come from speaking parrhesiastically to those people, but rather in saying what it is they want to hear. And by they I mean those whom the system serves best – the ‘mainstream’. Democracy is the ultimate popularity contest and to steal a truism from the Matrix – when it comes to telling unpopular truths – “they will kill you not to know”. The promise of the Mana party is that given its members’ histories and the veracity of their actions to date, there is no party more equipped or able to step up to the task. To argue noisily and repeatedly for societal change in the interests of those who have been silenced or trampled.
When the Māori Party proclaimed in 2008 they needed a seat at the master’s table in order to ‘get things done’, what they traded was their voice in the misguided if well intended belief that success can only be determined on Western terms – by observable, measured outcomes. When did the struggle of ideas, the consistent cry of protest, become a futile one? Rather than voice strenuous objection to unjust acts like the Takutai Moana Bill and thereby continue the footprint of a long and cherished history of Māori protest to colonial rule; that is – stand on the sidelines and criticse the tennis match rather than chase the ball, future generations will now bear the shame of Māori participation in this latest act of crown theft. If a critical battle is as Biko asserts at the beginning of this post, a battle for colonised minds; voicing opposition to injustice is imperative. And if, as I have argued in a previous post, racism at its most potent and damaging is an ideology, a system of dominating ideas under which we all labour (if not all suffer), then surely there is no struggle more important than challenging those ideas. Engaging in such battles is not a means to a more concrete end, or some side-line activity to parliamentary action, but a worthy end in and of itself. And the greatest parrhesiastes have always known this…
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we …must speak. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
– Martin Luther King