Are we there yet? by Danny Butt

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Feeling, to me, for most people, has to do with emotion. This other feeling that Im talking about does not have to do with emotion. Its instinctive. You know, like a pig knows when its going to storm or a dog knows when theres going to be an earthquake; its instinctive, and then we reach to it, and so this feeling Im talking about is that kind of instinct. It doesnt have to do with emotion.

(Pua Kanahele, 15 January 1997, quoted by Manulani Aluli Meyer in Our Own Liberation: Reflections on Hawaiian Epistemology)

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In August 1971, Richard Nixon declared that the international currency measurethe US dollarcould no longer be converted to gold at the US treasury. The month I was born, money literally became a fantasy, and global financial capital became a reality.

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I wish I had read more fiction and less newspapers when I was young, as it would have been more useful in developing my imagination. As it was, I learnt to write in a public discourse dominated by bullshit. That kind of writing is what Im probably best trained for, so I have to keep trying to find ways to sabotage it, which is tiring and inefficient.

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The first album I bought was Michael Jacksons Thriller, though I couldnt aspire to be Michael because I was a white guy in a white-ass town. Butand this could be a generational markerI didnt want to be Michael: he appealed because he was different to me, different to my world, but kind of acceptable as well because he sold so many records. Because he was different, he didnt require me to be like him, or to be anything. I could be whoever I wanted, and thats all I wanted.

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Generation X are regarded as a bit cynical, but you can understand why: the term Generation X turned out to have been coined by baby boomer social scientists to label their own unknown generation in the 1960s. We dont even get to own our own stereotype.

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The brief for Are We There Yet describes race relations and economics as the defining challenges of our generation, but I think feminism has had the most impact, behind the scenes. Men of my generation could deal with a previous generations activism that pushed women into the public sphere of certain civil rights, government, the corporate world, etc., but struggled to negotiate the politics of the private sphere of our own sexual relationships which inherited a mysterious compulsory heterosexuality as the default setting. My teenage friends were women who knew 630 tips for better sex via Cleo magazine, but never found men who were interested in having better sex. Everything my male friends knew about sex came from mainstream porn. Sex was to be had rather than enjoyed, a form of accumulation. Rape was seen as an unfortunate byproduct of supply and demand. I remember the actual boasts of successful sexual assaults, but I remember more the perpetrators underlying assurance that they neednt worry about the consequences.

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When I moved from Sydney to Dunedin in 1993, it took me a couple of weeks to realise exactly how it was weird: this town was full of white people. Maori didnt enter that calculation until much later; I only noticed the lack of East and Southeast Asians at the time.

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I don’t feel qualified to express a wish-list for my adopted nation, but Pakeha trying to tell me I dont understand something about New Zealand because I wasnt born here still gets my back up. Im thinking like, dude, my great-great-great-grandfather was shipped to New South Wales in 1836, and Queen Victoria made New Zealand a part of New South Wales a few years after that. Were all part of the colonial family.

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After a while hanging out in Te Ao Maori I realised that trying to learn about it was one of the greatest barriers to being in it. That made sense: I cant produce any reliable knowledge about myself, let alone other people. God knows how anthropologists do anything. I try and think inside a few concepts in Te Ao Maori: whakawhanaungatanga, manaakitanga, kaitiakitanga. These are not words I claim to understand, but they are concepts I continue to learn. They have made me aware that a few European words are not as simple as I once thought: justice; care; hospitality; forgiveness; gift.

Or maybe, it was precisely by knowing those European words that I didnt need to think about them. Perhaps a fundamental truth lying somewhere behind anthropology is that by going somewhere different, one is forced to think about ones own world in a new way.

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The main problem in Pakeha World is that we are supposed to find happiness in moving forward: Are we there yet? Probably not. Distancing ourselves from past experience, rather than staying in touch with it, were set up for disappointment (and for scapegoating others) when events dont go as we planned. But what makes us happy, as Freud knew, is the fulfilment of a prehistoric wish, a wish that existed before we were born. Indigenous peoples in most places Ive visited have sayings that deconstruct any simple direction of time or any opposition between space and time: I ka wa mamua, ka wa mahope. The future is in the past. Are we there yet?

2 COMMENTS

  1. Kia ora Marama – really glad you liked the piece, tough to follow in your footsteps in this series! I’ve loved all the other contributions, so big thanks to the editors for the invitation. Just an FYI, the image is by Stefan Furuskar.

  2. Great read Danny. I have had many of my Pakeha friends speak about a yearning they had when they were younger, of wishing that they had been born as Maori. They craved for the Te Ao Maori world that they had been a part of and denied their own Pakehaness in that process, which they later admitted is one of the most damaging things that a Pakeha can do to for the Tangata Whenua fight for self-determination.
    I welcomed their realisation that they needed to claim and be about their own Pakeha identity and heritage before they could be of any assitance to common ground kaupapa with the movement for Mana Motuhake.
    Thanks again Danny.

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