Terrified of being unable to cope with the world they look inward. The National Library seems to join them.
The National Librarian has told us the National Library is disposing of 600,000 books from the Overseas Published Collection to make way for a larger Māori and Pacific collection. That is, of course, absurd; there are not 600,000 Māori and Pacific books waiting to get into the library. I doubt that there are even 600; it will take centuries to fill the space. She says ‘the library’s decision to get rid of the books links in with its work on diversity and inclusion of all New Zealanders’.
It is important that a library should have such objectives, but for what sort of New Zealanders? Are they huddling down at the end of the world, ignorant and frightened of everywhere else? Or are they confident New Zealanders engaging with the world. Instructively, there is nary a hint of the latter in the National Librarian’s statement. Indeed, to suggest a library should play a major role in engaging with the world would underline the absurdity of the disposing of the Overseas Published Collection.
This Little New Zealander attitude probably arises from the remit of the Library’s host, the Department of Internal Affairs, which sees it (and National Archives) as a cultural depository with a very narrow definition of ‘culture’.
Underlying the inferiority complex of the Little New Zealanders is the terrifying vision that New Zealanders cannot engage and embrace the world, and achieve eminence at an international level. It is also not true. Most of us engage, and have always engaged, with the rest of the world. Yet there are strong pressures for retreat.
One instance is the ambitions of those promoting Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge). I have to be careful because we are told that those who have no specific expertise should not comment on it. The same must apply to those who have no expertise on science (the vast majority of experts on Mātauranga Māori as far as I can judge) so there cannot be much of a dialogue about the relationship between the two.
While respecting Mātauranga Māori, I side with Garth Cooper, one of our most internationally eminent (medical) scientists, with Māori ancestors, who has done much to promote the development of Māori scholarship (as well as our health). He cites Ross Ihaka — a Māori mathematician who co-created the R open-source programming language — with producing ‘the most important thing that’s come out of New Zealand in the last 100 years’. Cooper worried about ‘young Māori scholars that would be the next Ross Ihaka basically missing out because they were told that science was a colonising influence of no interest to them’. I am not sure I agree with his ranking of R – there have been many great innovations that have come out of New Zealand despite the timidity of Little New Zealanders – but I agree with his broad sentiment, that teaching ‘Māori kids about the colonising effects of science [may] lead to loss of opportunity’. It would be a terrible New Zealand if those of Māori descent were discouraged from engaging with the world.
And not just in science. I’ll give you two first names and let you finish the paragraph: Inia, Kiri.
Little New Zealanders don’t realise how much we have to offer the world. I offer a couple of examples where I have a little expertise.
A key work in the development of economic anthropology is Raymond Firth’s Economics of the New Zealand Māori, the first version of which was published in 1929. Firth was not Māori but had been fascinated by them since childhood and drew on their traditions and practices to introduce the notion of the gift exchange economy (first developed by the French sociologist and anthropologist, Marcel Mauss) to English anthropology.
I used Firth’s work in Not in Narrow Seas to describe the premarket economy but I became increasingly aware that these early exchange relationships persist. You can think of economic development as the transition of a society from where the transactor is more important than what is exchanged – the gift exchange economy of personal transactions – to one where what is exchanged is central and those involved are not – the commercial economy of anonymous transactions. Cognoscenti will recognise this as a development of Karl Polayni’s The Great Transformation. Were I Māori, I would be enormously proud that my ancestors’ economy was so influential on modern thinking.
My second example is Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Close analysis suggests it is a social contract; at least two of the drafters almost certainly knew of the notion. When the notion was debated at the end of the eighteenth century, David Hume pointed out that it might be good in theory but there was no practical example of a country based on a social contract. Now there is – us. Did the Māori signatories see it as the sort of social contract which Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were discussing? Almost certainly not, but the roots of their approach came from Christianity, which Māori had adopted; they talked about the Tiriti as a ‘covenant’, the Christian precursor of the social contract.
One day someone will explore this Māori foundation of the Tiriti, but they won’t be able to via the National Library if it disposes of the Overseas Published Collection which includes work related to Hume, Rousseau and the Christian theologists.
Consider Allen Curnow, who is judged to be one of the internationally outstanding poets of the second half of the twentieth century. His early poetry was strongly ‘nationalist’ but as his confidence grew he shifted to wider international themes, although his last poems show that he was never far from home.
Or go to the Wellington City Gallery, which is currently showing a major exhibition of the works of the Swedish mystic and spiritualist artist Hilma af Klint. Fortunately, the gallery is not under the wing of the Department of Internal Affairs which would, no doubt, deem such a display as an improper matter for its Little New Zealand approach. Perhaps it would applaud an exhibition across the road at the exhibition of Te Papa of paintings by New Zealander Rita Angus. Actually, it was developed by Te Papa and the London Academy of Arts. Unfortunately the overseas exhibition had to be abandoned because of Covid; it would have demonstrated this intensely local artist can hold her head up internationally – like af Klint.
As can Colin McCahon who as been bracketed with Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. (I imagine that the intention is to throw out all the books about the three, so we will never know even if the rest of the world does.) Just behind him, Ralph Hotere insisted he was an international artist who was a Māori, never a Māori artist.
Once the National Library has got rid of its Overseas Published Collection, thoughts will turn to purging the foreign holdings of the Alexander Turnbull Library, which includes one of the world’s major collections of the works of John Milton and some wonderful works by William Blake. They have said they won’t; do you trust them? The ATL’s holdings are protected by law; when told he was contemplating breaking the law, a little man pointed down from the ninth floor to Parliament’s debating chamber, saying ‘Heh, heh; We have a little room down there to change it.’
I want to live in a nation where ‘if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere’. I don’t want to live in a pitiable country dominated by introverted Little New Zealanders terrified of the great world outside.
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