We Are What We Read

Having largely cut corporate media from my information diet (more on the food analogy below), I’ve had time to read more books. Recently: for review, at Scoop Review of Books, Barbara Brookes’ epic A History of Women in New Zealand, Paul Moon’s Ka Ngaro Te Reo: Māori language under siege in the 19th Century (plus Why English? Confronting the Hydra, a rather depressing collection about the global dominance of English); in The Listener, Susan Faludi’s memoir about her parent, In the Darkroom; and, a few months ago, some first novels for The New York Times. I’m working on reading, and hopefully writing about, The Struggle for Māori Fishing Rights, by Brian Bargh (Huia), and I just got my hands on Vincent O’Malley’s The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000 (Bridget Williams Books).

bwb8126_the-great-war-for-new-zealand_lrVincent foreshadowed this book in his 2014 collection Beyond the Imperial Frontier: The contest for colonial New Zealand, in which he had a chapter on the Waikato wars that included some of his new research. (My review is here. Yeah, sorry for all the self-linking, but if I don’t do it, no one will.) I don’t remember hearing a whole lot about that book back then (I might have missed it), but this new one seems to be attracting a lot more attention. Thankfully.

There’s definitely a growing momentum for more (any? some?) recognition of the wars fought on this land, particularly since 2014, which was when we really got to see clearly how much media and government attention was lavished on foreign wars (well, mostly the Gallipoli battle) compared with those fought here. It was 100 years since the former, and 150 years since several major battles of the latter. (I researched and wrote about that pretty extensively back then.)

Not for review (by me!), I’m up to volume two of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six (yes six) volume memoir, My Struggle. I can’t really explain why (so far) I love this book (does it count as “a book”?) But I’m thinking about it. Meanwhile, am a bit stuck at around the one-third mark in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Actually, there are quite a few books I’m stuck in the middle of… And, no, I have never been able to finish Infinite Jest.

But still moving along is another epic on the state of the bloody media, in the form of a collection titled Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand, put out by Freerange Press (who do some very cool stuff). Which brings me to the media and food.

We Are What We Eat, uh Read

We need to start treating the “news” more like we (try to) treat food: Eat healthy, stay away from junk. It’s up to us to get these people to stop pumping out sugary crap (aka clickbait etc. etc.) by not “consuming” it. I haven’t taken this so far as to come up with particular news diet fads (what would be the news equivalent of Atkins, or mediterranean, or high-protein, or low fat diets?). But we all know crap when we see/taste it, and I suspect we all know we should be avoiding it.

I’m actually not a food dieter, so it took a bit of trial end error to work out how to change my news eating habits. My findings: Start out with a fast of at least a day and up to a week. That means no mainstream corporate news/junk food at all. Not even headlines. I predict not only will you feel less depressed and annoyed, you will actually be better informed. (I know, it sounds counterintuitive, but don’t forget, you won’t be under the misapprehension that the most important issue facing humanity/Aotearoa NZ society is All Black sex.) After the fasting period, slowly introduce the healthy stuff – longform, serious, non-clickbait content that has some substance to it, and books. And, yes, if you relapse and find yourself clicking on that sugary shit, you must atone by consuming something serious. And, yes, you should feel guilty, as guilty as if you’d scarfed down a giant bottle of fizzy drink. (If you fall off the wagon, another quick fast should get you back on track.)

I think you’ll find that almost nothing of what our for-profit media are pumping out is stuff you need to know. Which brings me to a premature conclusion from having not quite finished Don’t Dream It’s Over: People, it already is over. Time to put them out of their misery, because as with sugar, they’re doing us way more harm than good.


Journalism, Memory & Forgetting

This is ‘a version’ of a paper I gave at the 2014 Journalism, Media and Democracy (JMAD) Centre conference, Media, War and Memory.  The talk/paper was/is titled
The Past is Not a Foreign Country: Why Journalists Should Write a Better ‘Second Draft of History’ and looks at how we allocate (or mis-allocate) memory around our colonial history, particularly with respect to contemporary reporting on Treaty of Waitangi issues. Excuse the philosophical style type etc. rambling at the top. If you want the journalism/empirical stuff, just go down to the section headed “Journalism and History”.

In this paper I’m going to look at memory and collective memory first from a philosophical perspective – this is to make the case that the business of personal and collective memory lie at the heart of our existence both as individuals, and as citizens who, in theory, want to have an identity, a place where we belong. Put another way, memory and remembering are viscerally existential matters.

Next, I look at how journalists help or hinder in forming that collective memory – in this particular case, I do that by investigating a year’s worth of reporting on Treaty settlement issues.

(The black and white photos throughout of various commemorative/battle sides in Aotearoa New Zealand are from architect Geordie Shaw’s amazing and beautiful M Arch thesis, titled The Lost, Erased, Unseen, and Forgotten: Translating into Architecture the New Zealand Wars, which you can read online right here, and you should.)


Tapuaharuru RedoubtWhat is memory? The answer to that question depends on who is asking it: The neuro-scientist. The teacher. The historian. The gerontologist. For the philosopher – in particular the phenomenologist – consciousness and memory are effectively one and the same thing. Without remembering, without memories – that is, consciousness over time – I don’t know who or what I am because I don’t know where I came from, what I’ve done, where I’ve been, what I’ve thought, whom I’ve loved and loathed.

Because of the way consciousness and time and memory overlap, one can actually make the much stronger claim: it’s not just that without memory (consciousness of time) that I don’t know who or what I am, I may not even know that I am – I may not even “be”.

In a phenomenological sense — indeed in an existential sense — an “I” or “me” that only exists for an instant is no “I” at all.

Perhaps the first in the Western tradition to seriously investigate memory was St. Augustine — the 4th century theologian and philosopher – which he did in his book Confessions:

In the vast hall of my memory…sky land and sea are available to me together with all the sensations I have been able to experience in them, except for those which I have forgotten.

There also I meet myself and recall what I am, what I have done, and when and where and how I was affected when I did it.

But it’s not just that my past introduces me to my present self. it is also the source of my future self. Here’s Augustine again:

Out of the same abundance in store, I combine with past events images of various things, whether experienced directly, or believed on the basis of what I have experienced; and on this basis I reason about future actions and events and hopes.

Te PorereSo here I am – me, and my continuous past, my memories. There’s obviously still something missing, and that is the world I emerge into. It was the phenomenologists, among others, who really began to challenge the possibility of an isolated individual consciousness – a la Descartes’ res cogitans (thinking thing) – or at least the possibility that such an individual could make any sense to us as beings-in-the world.

A key player in this shift, and which lay at the core of the phenomenological school of thought, was Heidegger and his re-conception of the person as Da-sein, literally being-there, but it’s usually left un-translated because it is philosophically untranslatable. (Anyone writing anything about Heidegger must acknowledge his links to Naziism. The question of how his philosophy should be considered in that light is important, and I certainly don’t have an answer. There’s a good recent piece about this in the Oct. 9, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books by Peter E. Gordon.)

Continue reading

Our History: Pukehinahina, War, 150 Years

Today was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gate Pa/Pukehinahina. It was an unexpected and unprecedented rout by the Māori, whose intricate pa withstood a daylong bombardment and whose warriors then repelled a British assault party.

The commemorations today were remarkable — indescribable really. The extent to which we prefer to remember foreign wars than those fought here bugs the hell out of me. I did some research for a Werewolf article on that very issue, titled Lest We Remember, and found that while about $25 million in government money is being spent commemorating and memorialising foreign wars, particularly WW I and its centennary, about $250,000 has gone toward the 150th anniversaries of the wars that led to the land confiscations that led to … you know … And here we are in Tauranga Moana, where I live, 150 years later — to the very year — seeing legislation about to be introduced to give effect to Treaty of Waitangi settlements aimed at righting the wrongs that have their origins in these very battles. Kinda relevant to our lives, society, future, identity, wouldn’t you think? Oh well. ANZAC stuff got wall-to-wall coverage — “NZ Wars”, not so much, though local media has made a pretty decent effort. (I was on RNZ on this issue, btw…Kim Hill’s show to be precise.)

These are some good links with great photos:

The official Battle of Gate Pa site
Tauranga Libraries’ great kete
Looking Down the Barrel of History (about Te Ranga) from VUW History Dept
The Battle of Gate Pa FB page



Delusions of Grandeur

I started writing something about gun violence in the U.S. back in July, just after Aurora. It was going to be a BOP Times column...and I kept working on the piece over the months, then Sandy Hook happened. And I got let go from the paper. But still, I was fiddling around with the piece. I thought about making it my first post as a regular contributor at the feminist blog The Hand Mirror but somehow it didn’t seem to fit — and I have some other stuff in the hopper. So … it’s here, just because:

Delusions of Grandeur

The Sandy Hook shooting in the U.S. last month brought Columbine back to me. The “Batman” massacre in Aurora, Colorado, did too. I was a staff editor at The Denver Post when Colorado came under fire from its own residents. Actually, I was sitting in a philosophy class (studying by day, working by night) when the buzz started. “Something’s going on.” Sounds of people running along corridors. Loud talking. “What’s happened?” As always, nothing was clear at first, but I raced into work and, didn’t leave for days – OK that’s not literally true, it just felt that way.  That was the 20th of April, 1999, when teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School. Then themselves.

Photo by Taber Andrew Bain. Creative Commons licensed.

Photo by Taber Andrew Bain. Creative Commons licensed.

The Denver Post keeps a special archive of its Columbine coverage on the Internet, and, after the Aurora shooting, I found myself looking back through those pages. Change just a few of the key details, and most of the headlines written back then could also have been written on 20 July 2012 or 14 December: “Bloodbath leaves 15 dead, 28 hurt” (the correct toll came a few days later), “Colorado, world mourn deaths at Columbine High”,  “A diary of devastation”, “Survivors and families likely to feel both euphoria and guilt”. And so it goes on…and on…and on.

And then this one: “Gun control battle looms”. There was a lot of excited talk after Columbine and after Sandy Hook that something would be done, this time was different, this time the nation was shocked enough. (Not so much after Aurora. The U.S. was in election mode, and neither of the candidates wanted to go near gun control.)

At the same time, and perhaps perversely to some of us, the Batman shootings and Sandy Hook prompted a rise in gun buying. The inside of U.S. movie theatres and primary schools, it seems, are now places where you need to be armed. Would you like some ammo with that popcorn? Sally, don’t forget your Kevlar backpack.

Continue reading

Beware, the Sequel

So, I wrote a column on the Beware Americans Bearing … Well, Anything for my BOP Times Saturday spot. It’s another one that didn’t seem to make it online, so here’s the pdf version

Beware Americans Bearing … Well, Anything

There are lots of reasons for New Zealand to keep a very wide berth of anything and everything to do with the American Military – like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, the ‘War on Terror’, etc. etc. But of course we somehow can’t help ourselves in desperately wanting to play with the Big Boys. That’s the message that comes through very powerfully in Nicky Hager’s 2011 book, Other People’s Warswhich meticulously chronicles how our military, over and over again, subverted the instructions of the Government in an effort to suck up to the Americans and British. Not that the politicians come out of it so well either. 

So, here we are again. Being courted by the U.S. for some military build-up in the Pacific. I rather like how the Washington Post reports that U.S. Defence Secretary Panetta, just back from an Asia-Pacific swing, “assured his hosts that U.S. plans to add troops, ships and a new missile defense site in the region are not meant to threaten China”. Troops, ships and missile defense sites? Threatening? Whatever makes you think that?

I tend to think the Americans are hunting around for an adversary more appropriate to an annual defence spend of $NZ 800 billion than the Taliban. Otherwise, in times of “austerity”, how can you justify it? On the other hand, have they ever needed to justify it?

If there’s one thing I heard recently that I consider the best evidence for keeping clear of the Americans, it was an interview with NYT reporter Kurt Eichenwald about his new book “500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars”

It was on Democracy Now! and the full transcript is here. But I’ll just attach the really scary bit (Nermeen Shaikh is the interviewer):

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the most interesting accounts in your book is of President Bush trying to persuade—then-President Bush trying to persuade French President Jacques Chirac to support U.S. military action in Iraq. You write that Bush said to Chirac, quote, “Jacques, you and I share a common faith. You’re Roman Catholic, I’m Methodist, but we are both Christians committed to the teachings of the Bible. We share one common Lord.” Bush goes on to say, quote, “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase His people’s enemies before a new age begins,” end-quote. Can you elaborate on that exchange? [emphasis added]

KURT EICHENWALD: That was a very interesting day when I heard that. This was a phone call—at that point, Chirac had been expressing a great deal of doubt about the intelligence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. His doubts obviously were well placed. And Bush was trying to get a unified—you know, unified effort behind getting a resolution from the U.N. and then for military action. And Chirac was not being particularly cooperative, for the very reason he didn’t trust the intelligence. And so there’s this phone call, and Bush is, you know, giving many reasons why France should become part of a—why Chirac should be joining in. And he’s not having a lot of success. And suddenly you shift into this religious conversation.

And Chirac’s response to this was, you know, he gets off the phone—and other people had been—you know, had been in on the call, and he looks at his staff and says, “Does anyone know what he was talking about?” And they—his administration, someone there reaches out to an expert on the Bible in Switzerland, and this person—because it’s like, what is Gog and Magog? And this person writes up a report for—I mean, I just say this, and it’s surreal. He writes a report for the French president explaining these biblical terms that were cited by the president of the United States in this national security conversation. And Gog and Magog are two—are from two the books of the Bible, one the Book of Ezekiel and one the Book of Revelation. And it is central elements in, you know, the apocalyptic—you know, the Armageddon concept. And so, Chirac’s response when he reads this is, “I’m dealing with a fanatic, and I’m not going to make, you know, national security decisions for France based on someone—you know, the president’s interpretation of the Bible.”