Un­der­stand­able, but not ex­cus­able

The Tribune (NZ) - - CONVERSATIONS - JONATHON HOWE, RE­GIONAL ED­I­TOR

The rev­e­la­tion that for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Wil­liam Fer­gu­son Massey made racist re­marks about Chi­nese peo­ple, while also es­pous­ing white su­prem­a­cist views, has sparked an in­trigu­ing de­bate about how we view his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, es­pe­cially those whose in­dis­cre­tions were aligned to the main­stream think­ing of the time.

Cor­re­spon­dence from Massey, which was un­earthed by Massey Univer­sity aca­demic Steve Elers, in­cludes a num­ber of ab­hor­rent state­ments such as: ‘‘Na­ture in­tended New Zealand to be a white man’s coun­try, and it must be kept as such’’ and ’’I am not a lover or ad­mirer of the Chi­nese race.’’

Elers has called for a dis­cus­sion about a pos­si­ble name change for Massey’s epony­mous univer­sity, which has cam­puses in Palmer­ston North, Welling­ton and Auck­land.

Univer­sity man­age­ment has so far sought to dis­tance it­self from the de­bate, an un­der­stand­able stance given its lead­ing po­si­tion in the in­ter­na­tional stu­dent field and its strong ties to China and other Asian na­tions.

As Elers him­self quite rightly ad­mits, the Massey Univer­sity of to­day is a di­verse, mul­ti­cul­tural and ac­cept­ing in­sti­tu­tion, which is in stark com­par­i­son to the views held by the for­mer prime min­is­ter.

The pub­lic re­ac­tion to Massey’s words seem­ingly re­veals lit­tle ap­petite for a name change, with many peo­ple say­ing it is un­fair to judge him for hold­ing views that were, sadly, quite preva­lent in New Zealand dur­ing his life­time.

Prime min­is­ter be­tween 1912 and 1925, ‘‘Farmer Bill’’, as he was col­lo­qui­ally known, was a controversial and di­vi­sive fig­ure even in his day.

He was known to be a shrewd politi­cian who guided the coun­try through World War I, but some will also re­mem­ber him for the spe­cial con­sta­bles, branded Massey’s cos­sacks, he used to vi­o­lently re­gain con­trol of the wharves dur­ing the 1913 wa­ter­front dis­pute.

His­tor­i­cal con­text is rel­e­vant, as it pro­vides some un­der­stand­ing of the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial cli­mates that may have fos­tered such think­ing.

Were his words re­flec­tive of widely-held sen­ti­ments of the time? Yes.

Does this make them ex­cus­able? Cer­tainly not.

There can be no deny­ing that Massey’s state­ments were racist, and, given their em­phatic and fre­quent na­ture, it would be easy to ar­gue the man him­self was a racist.

Whether or not Massey’s legacy should be com­pletely tar­nished will come down to the sub­jec­tive view­points of New Zealan­ders, but the his­tory books most cer­tainly need to re­flect that a man who led our coun­try and whose name adorns schools, parks and a sub­urb held such rep­re­hen­si­ble opin­ions.

HAVE YOUR SAY

The Feild­ing-Ran­gi­tikei Herald wel­comes let­ters. They should not ex­ceed 250 words and must carry a gen­uine name, home ad­dress and day­time phone num­ber. Let­ters may be edited, abridged or omit­ted with­out ex­pla­na­tion. They can be emailed to feild­ing.herald@msl.co.nz or posted to PO Box 3, Palmer­ston North.

WAR­WICK SMITH

A por­trait of Wil­liam Massey hangs at Massey Univer­sity.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.