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Are we there yet? by Danny Butt
“Feeling, to me, for most people, has to do with emotion. This other feeling that I’m talking about does not have to do with emotion. It’s… instinctive. You know, like a pig knows when it’s going to storm or a dog knows when there’s going to be an earthquake; it’s instinctive, and then we reach to it, and so this feeling I’m talking about is that kind of instinct. It doesn’t have to do with emotion.”
(Pua Kanahele, 15 January 1997, quoted by Manulani Aluli Meyer in “Our Own Liberation: Reflections on Hawaiian Epistemology”)
In August 1971, Richard Nixon declared that the international currency measure—the US dollar—could 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.
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 I’m probably best trained for, so I have to keep trying to find ways to sabotage it, which is tiring and inefficient.
The first album I bought was Michael Jackson’s Thriller, though I couldn’t aspire to be Michael because I was a white guy in a white-ass town. But—and this could be a generational marker—I didn’t 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 didn’t require me to be like him, or to be anything. I could be whoever I wanted, and that’s all I wanted.
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 don’t even get to own our own stereotype.
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 generation’s 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 needn’t worry about the consequences.
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 didn’t enter that calculation until much later; I only noticed the lack of East and Southeast Asians at the time.
I don’t feel qualified to express a wish-list for my adopted nation, but Pakeha trying to tell me I don’t understand something about New Zealand because I wasn’t born here still gets my back up. I’m 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. We’re all part of the colonial family.
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 can’t 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 didn’t 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 one’s own world in a new way.
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, we’re set up for disappointment (and for scapegoating others) when events don’t 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 I’ve 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?