Wednesday, 17 August 2016

An open letter regarding the Elsie Locke Award and 'Anzac Heroes'

My grandmother, Elsie Locke, was a highly regarded author of children's books. Although I'm proud that her name is associated with several different awards for children's fiction, I am angry and offended by the fact that her name is now associated with an abysmal book called 'Anzac Heroes'. This is a copy of my letter to the three judges of the New Zealand Book Awards (Children's Non Fiction section):

Dear Fiona Mackie, Kathy Aloniu and Melinda Szymanik:

I am writing to you to express my deep distress and concern regarding your choice of the recent winner of the Elsie Locke Award for Children’s Non Fiction. I believe that my grandmother, were she alive today, would be deeply shocked and offended by the selection of Maria Gill’s ‘Anzac Heroes: 30 Courageous Anzacs from WWI and WWII’. Elsie Locke fought hard for the causes of peace and social justice, and this struggle necessarily involved a considered opposition to war propaganda and war glorification. Maria Gill’s book is a textbook example of ‘Anzackery’, the sentimentalised and militarised version of Anzac remembrance which currently dominates the school system and the mainstream media.

I struggle to find a suitable analogy for the contrast between the book and my memory of Elsie Locke. “Chalk and cheese” metaphors do not begin to describe the intellectual and spiritual dissimilarity between the two. Imagine a parallel universe in which Winston Peters had some connection with children’s literature and had his name bestowed on the award instead of Elsie Locke. Consider the inappropriateness of this Winston Peters Award being given to a book about, say, ‘Chinese Heroes: 30 courageous immigrant stories’. Multiply that inappropriateness by a factor of one hundred or so, and you will have some sense of the contrast and contradiction your recent decision has created.

Elsie Locke did not write very much about Anzac day. I’m not sure if she ever attended an Anzac service, but I vividly recall the fact that as a child my mother prevented me attending Anzac dawn parades because she thought them ethically and politically compromised by a more or less pronounced attachment to pro-war sentiments and ideas. This attitude makes perfect sense when you consider the influence her mother Elsie had upon her:

‘In the aftermath of the First World War, April 25 was a day of deep mourning, when no one would have dreamed of suggesting to grieving families that their men had died for no good reason. As time went on, the emphasis on the sacrifices they had made was increasingly linked with the glorification of war itself and the idea that boys growing up must be prepared to do the same again. The Returned Soldier’s Association, later the Returned Services’ Association, held the premier place in the ceremonies. Fighting for one’s country was regularly emphasised as a virtue in itself, with no questions raised about why the men were called upon to fight, or whether their sacrifice was necessary.’

That’s a quote from Chapter 40 (‘Anzac Days’) of Elsie Locke’s book ‘Peace People: A History of Peace Activities in New Zealand’. The rest of the chapter is about how anti – Vietnam war protestors mobilised against the reactionary imperialist sentiments of Anzac day to further the causes of peace and social justice.

Although schoolboy tales of Daring and Heroic soldiers were not the kind of stories my grandmother indulged in, she was an insightful commentator on the effects of war and the way that it can change people’s minds about politics and society. Here’s another quote from Chapter 13 (‘The Aftermath of War’):

‘But there were many counter-currents flowing. The peace settlement of 1919, the Treaty of Versailles, was a shock and a revelation to many humane people who had sincerely expected some kind of a better world. The terms imposed on a beaten Germany were so vengeful, onerous and humiliating that the ‘war to end war’ was exposed as a hollow slogan. Germany could never be expected to remain permanently disarmed and saddled with the war guilt. Retaliation was sure to follow. This vindictive settlement was a key factor in the conversion to pacifism of O.E. (Ormond) Burton, a twice decorated returned soldier and the author of the official history of the Auckland regiment. He was not the only one who felt betrayed and cheated, and who now probed into the politics behind the fighting.’

Had Elsie Locke ever written a book about New Zealand war veterans, it would very likely have included Ormond E Burton. She would likely have quoted passages from his book The Silent Division, which vividly portrays the horrendous and inhuman reality of the trenches of WWI. Had she written the book for a younger audience she would have had the highest respect for the natural inquisitiveness of children. Why was New Zealand involved in such a far away war? Did everyone support the war? What effect did it have on women and children? What happened to the soldiers when they got home? Why were we fighting the Germans? Who benefitted from the war?

It is exactly these sorts of pertinent and critical questions which are completely and utterly lacking from Maria Gill’s book ‘Anzac Heroes’. Rather than looking at WWI and WWII in a broad social and historical context, Gill takes the perspective of military history. What’s important is battles, and in particular Heroes. Each Anzac Hero gets a full two page colour spread. They pose heroically with guns or binoculars or stethoscopes. We learn about all the medals they received, and detailed timelines tell us about the battles they fought. There are maps showing the details of military manoeuvres, historical photos showing scenes from the trenches (without a speck of blood) and a glossary at the end of the book with entries like ‘adversary’, ‘flak’, ‘booby trap’ and ‘garrison duty’. There is a cartoonish and commercial quality to the presentation. It is easy to imagine a very similar looking book describing ‘Star Wars’ heroes, with detailed diagrams of the Death Star and hyper-real pictures of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo posing next to their spaceships.

Buried at the end of the book in the ‘Medics’ section is a table of casualties, accompanied by a small amount of text which describes some of the horrific injuries suffered by the soldiers. This token recognition is massively outweighed by the dominant tone of the book: it’s about Brave Soldiers and exciting War Stories. ‘Anzac Heroes’ is a 21st century Boys Own adventure, a history lesson for 12 year old boys who want to continue playing with toy soldiers with all of their illusions intact. History is reduced to the violent acts of men in uniform, and the violence itself is cloaked behind a sentimental narrative of bravery and sacrifice. Let’s recall those words of my grandmother once again: ‘Fighting for one’s country was regularly emphasised as a virtue in itself, with no questions raised about why the men were called upon to fight, or whether their sacrifice was necessary.’ This book clearly exemplifies this attitude exactly: it glorifies the bravery and character of the people who fought without any sort of critical thinking about why they fought. This reverential and sentimental approach towards our history is noxious. It not only fails to engage in any sort of critical thinking about war, it effectively encourages a moral prohibition on such critical questions being posed. Respect for bravery and sacrifice prevent us even considering the difficult questions around the impact of violence, war and politics.

There are many other criticisms and comments I could make about ‘Anzac Heroes’, but it is probably more worthwhile to simply point out the review I wrote on my blog:  Heroic Hogwash

I would also encourage you to read Carolyn Holbrook’s speech to the UNSW History Teacher’s Summer School, which discusses the question of how Anzac history should be taught in Australia. It begins with these words:

“Tonight I want to make an argument about how the history of the First World War should be taught to Australian school children. I agree with Stuart that we need to teach our children about the Australian experience of World War One within a broader, international setting. But I think we should go further. I believe that we need to educate our children, and indeed broader society, about the fact that Anzac commemoration itself has a history. That the ‘spirit of Anzac’ did not descend in its present form on 25 April 1915. That it has been a dynamic and fascinating phenomenon. And, in its changing forms over the course of a century, the Anzac legend has held a mirror to Australian society.”

I have spoken to other members of my family who also feel that the award is offensive and inappropriate. It has been pointed out that Elsie deeply respected the values of autonomy and free speech. So it would be appropriate and honourable for us as a family to not interfere or prejudice your decisions as judges of the award, to avoid any form of what might be judged to be censorship. Freedom of speech goes both ways however, and I will be exercising my right to express my critical opinion on this book loudly and publicly.

Yours Sincerely,

Tim Leadbeater (grandson of Elsie Locke)

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Heroic Hogwash

German planes bombed Reg’s ship and he made a lucky escape from the wrecked boat. When he arrived in Crete, he had only the clothes he wore and nothing else. After thousands of enemy paratroopers parachuted into Crete, Reg’s battalion was meant to replace 20th Battalion, which had counterattacked Maleme airfield, but arrived too late to succeed. They withdrew to the new frontline at Souda Bay, nicknamed 42nd Street. When a raiding party of 400 Germans stumbled into sight, the Anzacs called out a battle cry, firing as they ran, thrusting their bayonets at the enemy. The German fighters fled for their lives.

“They were highly trained Germans, but they got such a shock at our din and the way we ran that they forgot they were supermen, and ran … the whole 400 of them.”

This is a quote from page 68 of Maria Gill’s “Anzac Heroes”, and it gives you an idea how exciting this book is to read. ‘Reg’ is Reginald Saunders and there is a really realistic picture of him in uniform holding a massive machine gun over his shoulder, the same image is on the cover. We can scan the page and very easily tell exactly what medals he was awarded for his bravery. The coloured medal icons are listed in the helpful “medals” section at the back of the book. We can also tell very easily which of the five aspects of History Reginald took part in: the little tank icon means ‘Army’. (The other four aspects are Air Force, Intelligence, Medic and Navy). A helpful kangaroo icon tells us that he is Australian. Sometimes when reading ‘Anzac Heroes’ it’s a bit confusing which hero belongs to which war, WW1 or WW2. After all, the Germans were the Baddies in both wars. I figured out though that Reginald belongs to WW2, as page 68 belongs to the second half of the book. There’s a really cool map with lots of arrows on it half way through the book to show that we are moving from WW1 to WW2. There’s a boring timeline too with lots of dates and facts about which battle was which, but I preferred to skip this part and just focus on the really cool war stories.

Some really racist and sexist books about war focus just on heroic white men. Anzac Heroes doesn’t do this, it has several brown heroes (both Aboriginal and Maori) and several women. The women aren’t quite as cool as the men because they only get to be nurses or spies. The Aboriginal and Maori soldiers are really cool though, they were really brave and sometimes scared the Germans by doing Hakas and war dances. Actually, even though there were lots of racist people back in the old days, war was really good for Maori and Aboriginal soldiers. Soldiers like Reginald Saunders got lots of awards and like it says on page 69 the RSL even set up a scholarship in his name for Aboriginal people. Another example is the Maori soldier Lt Col Sir Peter Buck who proved how awesome he was in Gallipoli and then got to be second in command of the Maori Battallion and then became a famous anthropologist.

The best things I liked about ‘Anzac Heroes’ were the pictures and the really realistic war stories and how heroic the soldiers were. You get to learn all about different types of medals and lots of different battles. There are also some very helpful and in-depth sections at the back which talk about things like The Military, The Medics and a Glossary. So you can look up funny words like ‘gangrenous’, ‘panzer’ and ‘flak’. There’s even a section which explains in depth why the Anzac heroes had to fight against the Germans:

At the beginning of the 20th Century, New Zealand and Australia were part of the British Empire as self-governing Dominions. When Britain went to war, they committed themselves to defending Empire. Politicians worried that the war would spread to their shores and wanted to support the Empire’s effort to prevent that from happening.

So I think that the moral or the message of the book is that Anzac Heroes needed to fight the Germans so that they didn’t land in Australia or New Zealand and take over our countries. If it wasn’t for the brave and daring fights that they got into, we’d all probably be speaking German now and doing Nazi salutes.

But really the best thing about Anzac Heroes that stood out for me and would make me recommend it to my friends and family was the fact that it wasn’t even about politics or history it was about character and bravery. Like it says in the introduction:

“While reading about each hero you will discover what built their character, what helped and hindered them during the war, and what happened to them afterwards – if they made it home.”

So in conclusion I think Anzac Heroes is a really good book which belongs on the bookshelf of every New Zealand and Australian home. It’s got lots and lots of important facts about heaps of battles from WW1 and WW2 and also some really realistic pictures. It has a personal touch which means it isn’t boring to read and also it is very moving and emotional because of the sacrifices made by the Anzac soldiers. Lest We Forget.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

The Price of War

The recent publication of the Defence White paper, with its announcement of an extra $20 billion to be spent on the military over the next fifteen years, has not raised a huge amount of controversy. With the exception of a small number of critical commentators, the reception of this massive funding increase has been on the whole fairly positive. None of the major political parties have come out against the major thrust of the paper. Phil Goff, the Labour Defence spokesman, has criticised the paper for its lack of specifics, but clearly supports the idea that our military forces need much more money. Ron Mark from New Zealand First complains that $20 billion is not enough, and worries about the military effectiveness of the spending decisions to be made. No one questions the received wisdom: New Zealand spends a pittance on its military forces, they are well over due for some extra funding.

The statistic that gets trotted out repeatedly is the (supposed) fact that New Zealand spends just 1% of its GDP on defence. Compared to other countries this is very small. Our nearest neighbour and ally Australia spends closer to 2%, the United States spends around 3.5%. As an ally and trading partner, New Zealand should ‘pull its weight’ and share a proportional military burden. Putting to one side the important and controversial question of whether New Zealand should ally itself with these or other much bigger international players, is it true that we spend just 1% of our GDP on defence?  Is this the most appropriate way to measure our military spending?

The claim is almost true for the past decade. Following an international trend beginning at the end of the cold war, New Zealand decreased its military spending over the course of the 1990s. Whereas the United States drastically increased its military spending in the wake of 9/11, New Zealand’s spending (as a % of GDP) decreased gradually to a level of around 1.1 – 1.3% of GDP, where it has floated steadily since around 2005. Two points need to be made about this statistic. First, it doesn’t mean that New Zealand has been spending roughly the same amount of money each year on defence. As the economy grows, even tiny looking percentages grow proportionally. In 2012 for example, New Zealand spent 1.2% of its GDP on defence, just under $2.586 billion dollars. In 2015 it spent the same 1.2%, which was then worth $2.956 billion. That’s an increase of $370 million. Inflation accounts for some of this, but we are looking at huge increases over and above basic inflation rates year by year nevertheless. Secondly, tiny looking increases in percentage figures are huge when they are taken from gigantic sums such as national GDP figures. According to Statistics New Zealand, New Zealand’s GDP for the 2015 year was $245 billion. One percent of this sum is $2.45 billion. Each 0.1% increase is worth $245 million. It is not pedantic or obsessive to look closely at these apparently minor differences, these hundreds of millions of dollars would have a massive impact in any area of New Zealand’s small economy.

The claim that New Zealand spends just 1% of its GDP is absolutely false for the year 2016. According to the official budget statistics, New Zealand will spend a total of $3,695,573,000 on defence in 2016. This figure does not contain any of the $20 billion mentioned in the white paper, so the true total will be much higher. Even if we ignore the extra $20 billion, this amount works out to 1.46% of GDP. Not too far behind Australia’s figure for 2015, 1.92% of its GDP. If we try to take the extra $20 billion over fifteen years into account, we get a much bigger figure. No details about when and exactly what the $20 billion will be used for have been released, so we don’t know how much, if any, will actually be spent in 2016. Although assumptions can be dangerous, if past history is anything to go by the safest assumption to make here would be that the planned $20 billion will in reality blow out to a much larger sum. I’ll make the conservative assumption that it doesn’t, and also that it will be evenly spread out over the fifteen years. That results in an additional $1.333 billion for 2016, bringing the grand total military expenditure to over $5 billion. As a percentage of GDP, that is 1.99%.

Should we focus on military spending as a proportion of GDP? Although this statistic is useful when you are comparing different countries with each other, it does not help us understand the impact military spending has on our domestic economy. A much more relevant statistic for this purpose would be military spending as a proportion of total government expenditure. Five billion dollars is a chunky 5.59% of total government expenditure. Comparing this to what we spend on health and education, the impact of preparing for war is very apparent: defence spending is almost one third of the entire health budget, and just under a half of the entire education budget.

Now that we have a sense of the scale and impact of the massively increased military budget, we can turn to the question of why it has been so drastically increased. The Defence white paper itself lists a number of ‘strategic challenges’ for New Zealand in the years ahead up to 2040:

  •          The rising sophistication, range and number of actors operating within New      Zealand's EEZ, Southern Ocean and South Pacific
  •          The increasing likelihood of a terrorist attack in New Zealand since 2010
  •          A more rapid evolution and spread of cyber attacks than anticipated
  •          Heightened tensions in the East and South China Seas
  •          Increases in military spending across South East Asia
  •          Intensifying turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa
  •          Degraded relations between Russia and the West

There are two types of justifications used by the legions of media commentators who heartily approve of New Zealand’s increased military budget. The first is a liberal- humanitarian green tinted justification, which emphasises local responsibilities in the Pacific region. We need bigger and better planes for disaster relief, better boats to defend against illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean. In a recent Stuff article, Stacey Kirk writes about the need for New Zealand’s Defence Force to “target sights closer to home”. The picture just below the headline shows a group of Adelie penguins on an iceberg in Antarctica, with the caption “If it's not scientific research and conservation, then New Zealand has to play a part in looking out for these little guys”.

The second approach emphasises the dangers facing New Zealand in the international arena, and the need to protect ourselves from a wide range of threats. In a recent interview  with Paul Henry, a visibly excited and somewhat swivel-eyed Patrick Gower declares that “New Zealand has a new enemy”. China has developed a 100,000 strong army of cyber soldiers, who regularly attempt to hack the computers of the New Zealand government. To play its part in the “global war games” New Zealand must spend a “small fortune” on something called “cryptographic infrastructure”. Neither Paul Henry nor Patrick Gower know what this is exactly, but speculate that it is “some kind of software”.

A more sober and serious example of this right wing imperialism can be found in Nevil Gibson’s recent piece for NBR, in which he downplays the importance of cute penguins and tropical tornadoes, and emphasises instead the dangerous and violent world of 21st century power politics: “the White Paper outlines the new dangers that have emerged since 2010 – China’s expansion into the East and South China Seas, increased military spending in Southeast Asia, ‘degraded’ relations between Russia and the West; and, of course, the threat of terrorism (still rated as low-risk) and “intensifying turmoil” in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Gibson’s article also contains this very insightful sentence: “This will be welcomed by New Zealand’s allies, such as Australia and the US, who may detect a stronger commitment to defending this country’s wider interests than just the immediate maritime environment.”

Underneath all of the spin, this is the most significant and convincing reason for New Zealand’s increased military budget. Cute penguins, illegal fishing, tropical cyclones and even Gower’s army of Chinese cyber warriors provide comfortable and predictable click-bait for the superficial observer of New Zealand’s military spending. The real reason has to do with the New Zealand state’s relationship to its much bigger imperial partners, Australia and the United States. The crucial and complex question of how these historical loyalties relate to the overall geo-political situation, in particular the question of how New Zealand has an ambiguous and contradictory stance regarding China, I will put to one side and refer to Gordon Campbell’s excellent recent article.

Returning instead to those percentage-of-GDP statistics discussed above, there is something apparently quite magical about that 2% of GDP figure New Zealand is now so incredibly close to. Australia’s recent Defence white paper also heralded a massive increase to its military spending, on a scale far more vast and lethal. Nuclear submarines, drones, helicopters, satellites, planes and a list of other new military items will be purchased by the Australian military in the coming years. These billions of dollars of increased spending are partly the result of intense and vigorous lobbying by people such as Tony Abbott, who pushed for a 2% of GDP target for military spending. Although consistently higher, Australia’s military spending has been hovering around 1.7 – 1.9% of GDP since the mid 1990s. The same considerations I outlined above apply even more so to Australia, as its economy is more than seven times the size of New Zealand’s, the effect of small percentage increases will be even more massive. Interestingly, Australia has actually de-coupled its projected military budget from any constraint to do with a % of GDP target. This is to ensure against the possibility that Australia’s economy might shrink, and with it the 2% of GDP military allowance. As Ben Eltham observes in a recent New Matilda article, “the White Paper sets out a concrete timeline of spending, committing to the budget no matter the external economic circumstances.

The 2% of GDP target is also a political hot potato for the European countries in the NATO coalition. Only five of NATO’s 28 countries spend more than 2% of their GDP on military expenses: United States, Britain, Poland, Estonia and Greece. In 2006 all of the NATO countries agreed to a 2% target, with the United States pushing the hardest for member countries to increase their military spending. In more recent years, especially since the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine, pressure from the US has increased. Obama has been particularly vocal on this issue, which has managed to strain even the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump all agree with Obama on this issue, and urge NATO countries to spend more money on their military forces.

This pressure to spend more and more money on 'defence' is part of a broad international pattern of increasing military expenditure. Although there is no explicit publicly announced pressure on New Zealand to meet a 2% of GDP target, with Australia striving for and surpassing that goal, and the US putting pressure on European countries to meet that same goal, it is easy to imagine New Zealand political leaders worrying about what Obama thinks of their military contribution. When the government of the day is one which clearly could not care less about things like the housing crisis, refugees or paid parental leave, and slavishly fails to depart from its allegiance to US imperial interests and entanglements, it is not surprising that New Zealand is following the crowd in spending more money on its military. 

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Best of Anzac day 2016

I have been meaning to write here for some time, but for various reasons it just hasn't happened. Top of my list is to write about the year 1916 - the year of the first Anzac day commemoration, and also the year conscription was introduced. It's a dark and shameful year in New Zealand's history, in which the rhetoric of sacrifice is the driving force behind the move to introduce compulsory military service. Was the first Anzac day commemoration a significant part of this lead up to the introduction of conscription? How did people opposed to New Zealand's involvement in the imperialist slaughter deal with the emotionally charged atmosphere of the time? Hopefully I will have the time soon to do justice to these questions.

In lieu of anything original, here are my Anzac picks of 2016:

The best and most prominent act of counter propaganda was without doubt the fantastic Archibald Baxter - field punishment - "guerilla installations" dotted around Wellington. What makes this even better is the Stuff article and the accompanying video, unusually positive for this time of year:

Peace Action Wellington may or not be responsible for this, but they have some really good pictures of the Archie mannequins:

Renee Gerlich takes on the grotesque spectacle of Peter Jackson's 'Scale of our War' exhibition at Te Papa, and does a fine job of cutting it down to size. I was somewhat depressed when I visited Wellington recently and saw for myself the massive ques of people lining up to see this exhibition. If only they could all be directed to this:

Not only does Te Papa seek to re-sell the “grand adventure” story all over again, but to bond us to it, have us identify with it. Through the uniforms you can don, the questions you are invited to answer, the poppies you can leave heartfelt messages on – but also through its insistence on speaking in the first person plural. It’s the scale of “our” war. “We” were in Egypt when they told “us” that “we’d” be invading Gallipoli. “The Turks had sided with the Germans in the war, and we were itching to take them on… that’s where the action was.” That text is not even quoted from a letter or a journal. That’s just Te Papa speaking – as your quintessentially Kiwi, male war hero “mate”.

Read the full blog here:

Over the ditch where the Anzackery is even more hyped and pumped by gazillions of state dollars, not everyone is buying the same old story. Historian and aboriginal activist Gary Foley contrasts the attention paid to Anzac day with the denial of Australia's own colonial history:

I posted last year about Scott McIntyre, the sports reporter who was fired from his job after a series of 'offensive' tweets about Anzac day. McIntyre referred to several historical episodes which are typically ignored by Anzac commentators: the so called 'battle of the Wazza', the Surafend massacre, the raping of Japanese women by Anzac soldiers and our complicity with the mass murder of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It is not hard to imagine the immense pressure someone in McIntyre's position must have come under after this episode, so I am very impressed to see that he has not succumbed and continues to offend people blinded by Anzac nonsense:

Finally, this youtube video of a debate between Australian academics is really worth a look. I think it might be from a year or two ago, but I only discovered it today thanks to the sharing miracles of facebook. The moot is the proposition "Anzac day is more puff than substance", and the first speaker (Jeff Sparrow) absolutely nails it. He starts about seven minutes into the clip, and doesn't talk too long:

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Archibald Baxter vs. the TPPA

There’s a real sense of optimism and excitement after the massive protests against the TPPA signing in Auckland recently. I’ve taken part in several anti TPPA protests myself, and it’s been great to see the movement building strength and momentum. The standout feature of these protests has been their vociferous and disruptive militancy: roads are blocked, arms are linked and dildos get thrown. There is at the same time a debate going on about the appropriateness of various tactics used, with a great deal of anxiety around the issue of ‘violence’. I’m firmly on side with the rude disrupters on this issue, and it’s fairly easy to draw a line connecting these dots: fences broken and rugby fields occupied in 1981, nuclear ships and subs challenged by fleets of boats and canoes in 1985, motorways blocked by TPPA protestors 2016. All of these non violent protest actions are the embodiment of principled passion, they are ‘rude’ in-your-face gestures intended to wake people up.

When it comes to Anzac day, these sorts of confrontational protest gestures don’t always work. The most recent high profile Anzac protest was in 2007, where Valerie Morse and others burnt a New Zealand flag during the dawn service. Morse and others instantly became the subject of righteous and indignant outrage, and although the protest was brave and principled, it did not have the desired effect.

With these thoughts in mind I was pleasantly surprised to read about an anti-TPPA protest action in Te Papa museum, in which Renee Gerlich and Pala Molisa draped a massive banner over the “Gallipoli: The Scale of our War” exhibit. The words now read “Our Imperial War”, and were accompanied by a picture of Archibald Baxter – ‘We Will Not Cease – TPPA No Way!’. With the streets of Auckland blockaded on the same day, and dildos being thrown just a couple of days later, this creative and provocative protest didn’t get much coverage. One News picked it up, and fairly predictably packaged the story using the tweeted outrage of a talkback radio host: “Extremely Disrespectful TPP protestors target Anzac Exhibition”. Someone told Cameron Slater about it, and (again fairly predictably) the slimy bowels of the Whaleoil comments section spat threats and abuse against Gerlich.

I spoke to Renee on the phone a few days ago, and she told me about how she had planned and carried out the protest action together with fellow activist Pala Molisa. The cost and logistics were quite challenging – the banner they draped over the exhibition title measured 8m by 8m, and needed to be carefully crammed into a tramping backpack. Pala and two signwriters constructed the scaffold and did the painting (with some assistance from a trusty OHP projector), check out these photos to get an idea of the Scale of This Protest:

Renee was surprised by the immediate response: embarrassed and decidedly non-angry security guards escorted her away from the scene, no charges were laid. She also made the point that by using Te Papa as the site of her protest, she was being faithful to what public museums should be – places where dialogue about the past can occur, as opposed to the monolithic sentimentalism of Peter Jackson’s Gallipoli.

From Pala and Renee's press release:

The designer of the art intervention, Renee Gerlich, states, “The standard line in our commemorations is that New Zealand soldiers fought and died to defend democracy for future generations. The 4th of February TPPA signing is fundamentally anti-democratic, and in breach of both the treaty and human rights law.”

“The TPPA has been made behind closed doors and favours the interests of corporations over the public. The TPPA flies in the face of democratic culture.”

Dr Pala Molisa states, “The signing of the TPPA today punctuates a long series of corporate-driven policy changes that systematically undermine all our foundational democratic institutions.”

Gerlich concludes, “So it gives the lie to this ‘democracy’ line. It is unacceptable for our government and social institutions to be glorifying the deaths of thousands of soldiers for a cause they are at the same time prepared to completely undermine.

This action questions whether our soldiers actually died for democracy. We believe they were unjustly forced into an imperial war. We also believe that this imperialism continues, and that the TPPA is an example of its current form. This is the reality that our social institutions, like Te Papa should be encouraging public dialogue about, rather than exhibiting nationalistic propaganda, which undermines the truth about our glorious dead.”

I’m impressed by the connections this action makes between the militaristic imperialism of WW1 and the economic imperialism of the TPPA. Finance capital, transnational corporations, nation states and power politics: books and academic theses can and have been written on these topics, just as the TPPA has already generated an intricate and sophisticated discourse about its economic and political implications. The image of Archibald Baxter cuts through the obtuseness of economics and history: a working class farmer who says No to great Powers, someone who will not cease from mental fight. As a protest icon Baxter was very significant during the Vietnam war era, so why not draw on his legacy now in 2016?


Just how rigorous and solid is the link between imperialism in 1914 and the TPPA? There’s a very good article by Christian Fuchs which argues for the relevance of Lenin’s concept of imperialism in today’s world. Key terms include ‘finance capital’ and ‘nation states’: Critical Globalization Studies: An Empirical and Theoretical Analysis of the New Imperialism

There’s also a very convincing portrait of the economic background to New Zealand’s involvement in the TPPA: Jane Kelsey’s FIRE Economy. F stands for finance capital …

Renee and Pala also made use of the spirit of the Anzacs in another protest action on Buckle Street by Massey:

The speech bubbles read "If we died for democracy then why is New Zealand now being sold?". Threatened with arrest by the police for the use of Disrespectful Stickers, this protest didn't last too long but still deserves recognition.

Pala Molisa is a committed anti TPPA activist who also writes a blog, check out his speech at a recent TPPA rally here:

Friday, 6 November 2015

The Origins of Archibald Baxter’s Pacifism - part one

Over the past couple of months I have been working on an article provisionally titled 'The Origins of Archibald Baxter's Pacifism'. It's going to cover the period between the Boer war (1899 - 1902) and 1916 (conscription), with a focus on the young Archibald Baxter and the Otago region. There will be three main sections:

  • 1899 - 1902: Alfred Richard Barclay and the Boer war
  • Keir Hardie's visit to New Zealand in 1908
  • Compulsory Military Training and the Passive Resister's Union (1912) 

I’m hoping to have this article up to a publishable standard by early next year, but until then here is a draft version of the first part on A R Barclay and the Boer war. This is just a blog, so I can theoretically say anything I want, but with this sort of thing I strive for factual accuracy. If anyone reading this can spot a mistake, or would like to make any comment at all, please leave a comment or email me.       

The Origins of Archibald Baxter’s Pacifism

PART ONE: Alfred Richard Barclay and the Boer war

Archibald Baxter’s We Will Not Cease is rightly famous as an incredibly powerful pacifist statement. Of the fourteen conscientious objectors who were forced on board the troopship Waitemata in 1917 and taken to the trenches, Baxter is the only one who wrote a memoir. Out of the thousands of New Zealanders who resisted the pressures of the hegemonic pro – war forces in the years between 1914 and 1918, Baxter was one of a small handful who actually experienced the horrors and brutality of the trenches in Europe.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Anzac Day and the Politics of Forgetting

This is the full text of a speech I gave recently for the International Socialist Organisation in Wellington and Dunedin. For a shorter version of the speech, go to the ISO website:

This year New Zealand and Australia commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign. One hundred years ago thousands of Allied troops invaded what was then the Ottoman Empire on April 25th 1915. The ensuing eight month battle was a grim and bloody affair fought within a tiny section of the Mediterranean coastline. Casualties were heavy on both sides, with the number of Turkish / Arab deaths being by far the highest. It was the first major battle the newly christened 'Anzac' soldiers had been involved in, and the large number of deaths had a profound impact upon the people of New Zealand and Australia. The following years of battle took an even heavier toll, but this first shock assumed a sort of mythic status, and now the date of April 25th is the focus of WW1 commemoration in New Zealand and Australia.