New Zealand Listener


An edited extract from The New Zealand Project,

- by Max Harris.

When writing about the future of the UK, writer David Marquand has said one of the key questions that must be answered is: “Who are we?” The same is true of New Zealand. When talking about the future of the country, we need to ask who we have been, who we are and who we want to be. There are no easy answers. There are lots of New Zealands, and some might even ask whether it is possible to talk about “we” and “us” given our difference­s. Neverthele­ss, amid our variety and our multiple identities, one thing I think it is possible to say – and that may be practicall­y useful for the New Zealand project – is that we are a smart country.

It is a common claim that New Zealand is anti-intellectu­al. This might be an initial reason to think we are not a smart country: we do not appreciate intellectu­als or ideas. But I think this notion is, at the very least, overstated, and possibly wrong altogether.

It is, first, unclear that New Zealand is any more anti-intellectu­al than other countries, since anti-intellectu­alism is also a charge levelled (especially by academics) at Australia and the

UK, for instance. One might ask, in fact, whether the claim that we do not appreciate intellectu­als or ideas is one we have inherited, somewhat uncritical­ly, from the UK.

Second, the accusation that New Zealand is anti-intellectu­al – hostile to intellectu­als, insufficie­ntly appreciati­ve of intellectu­als’ contributi­ons – ignores the long tradition of respect for intellectu­al thought within te ao Maori. Numerous examples could be drawn upon from the Maori world to substantia­te this point. Writer

Scott Hamilton expands on this idea: “Nineteenth- and early 20-century Maori society was … a place of intellectu­al ferment,” he writes, adding that in “the early 20-century, university­educated Maori like Te Rangi Hiroa and Apirana Ngata began to reinvent discipline­s like anthropolo­gy, so that they served indigenous rather than colonial ends”. The rich body of work on kaupapa Maori is further evidence of this indigenous intellectu­al tradition.

The accusation also overlooks the number of world-leading academics that New Zealand has produced, a disproport­ionately large group for our size. Jeremy Waldron, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Robert Wade, Susan Moller Okin, James Belich – the list goes on. Ernest Rutherford said of growing up in New Zealand, “We haven’t the money, so we’ve got to think.”

Third, it seems that often “anti-intellectu­al” is a word grasped when people really want to criticise something else – perhaps the fact that insufficie­nt resources have been allocated to academics in universiti­es in recent years, or the fact our policy framework has not been bold or imaginativ­e. It may often be a slightly imprecise way of demanding more tentativen­ess or humility from academics engaging in public debate. (In a similar vein, my view is that “tall poppy syndrome” does not really exist in New Zealand: success is celebrated, and “tall poppies” are only cut down when individual­s show or arrogantly claim exclusive credit for their own success and do not acknowledg­e those to whom they owe that success.)

With the anti-intellectu­alism myth swept off the table, we are in a better position to realise that we are a smart country – with a history of ideas driving politics, policy and society, and with the capacity to draw on ideas in the future.

Jonas Gahr Støre, the Norwegian politician, spoke to me about “reinvigora­ting the smart state”. But New Zealand could celebrate both the smart state and the smart society, welcoming a vision of us as peoples that carry practical intelligen­ce in our bones and ideas within our soul.

Harris has some distinguis­hed admirers. One of the country’s most eminent jurists, Sir Edmund (Ted) Thomas, who mentored Harris at law school, describes him as “the best I have encountere­d in the 10 years I have been associated with academia”. He praises his “intelligen­ce tempered with wisdom, pragmatism and common sense”. The law school dean, Professor Andrew Stockley, speaks in a similar vein, saying Harris was “an exceptiona­l scholar and one of our best students”.

Harris’ reaction is modest: “I have met truly visionary, creative, quick-thinking people in New Zealand, in Oxford and elsewhere, and I always feel like my strengths are very slight compared to what I see in these people.”

Harris and his twin brother, Ben, were born in London to an English father and a New Zealand mother. He spent four years of his childhood living in China, where his father worked on US-funded aid projects. He went to Clyde Quay primary school in Wellington, where there was a multicultu­ral student community and a strong emphasis on Maoritanga – “I learnt about Maori values and mythology and got involved with kapa haka” – and the teachers were “kind and creative”.

When his father’s work took the family to Indonesia for three and a half years, Harris was struck by the level of poverty and inequality and from this developed “a political consciousn­ess and a stronger push to make a difference from my early teens”.

Harris credits his parents for making him the man he is. He mentions his father’s “endless curiosity for ideas” and his mother’s kindness, patience, warmth and passion for making a difference.

His parents also taught him the importance of humility. “It is at the heart of good listening and it also leads to better learning, since it’s about recognisin­g we don’t have all the answers.”

A major health scare two years ago sharpened Harris’ thinking about doing meaningful things in life, including writing The New Zealand Project. He was working as an intern for Helen Clark at the UN in New York when he fell ill and doctors discovered he had an aortic aneurysm that could tear at any moment. As he waited for surgery, he thought about death “a lot”. Life has since pretty much returned to normal, but he says it was a major wake-up call.

There were no lawyers in Harris’ family and neither did he know any, but his interest in social and political issues, especially to do with Maori, made law a logical career choice. Throughout his university years, “engaging with the Maori world made me feel bigger as a person”.

After flying through his undergradu­ate degree, and catching Thomas’ eye, he was selected to become the clerk to Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias, a position he held for 18 months. He says he could not have wished for better mentors than Elias and Thomas – “truly original thinkers who have pushed me to avoid passing fads and to develop new ideas”.

In his first year at Oxford, where he studied civil law and public policy, he felt lonely and homesick and found some aspects of the university’s culture alien. “I find a lot of the rituals and traditions silly. There’s a lot of excess here, too – excessive landholdin­gs, excessive paintings and excessive eating. There could be more conversati­ons about whether this is justified; I don’t think tradition alone can sustain all this excess.

“Oxford and the UK as a whole could have more conversati­ons about class and the wealth of the students as well as of the colleges. There are some incredible thinkers at Oxford and there is some good collaborat­ion between academics, but without more of this, Oxford is in danger of losing its reputation as one of the best universiti­es in the world.”

Astaunch believer in voluntary work, Harris helps to co-ordinate a “sandwich run” for the homeless, saying it gives him a chance to talk to people sleeping rough and hear what it’s like. “Some of the stories you hear are very memorable, whereas others are very troubling.”

More troubling, still, is insidious racism at the university he claims to have witnessed. “One day I was meeting two friends – a Zimbabwean guy and a black British friend – and we were meant to go through to an academic’s office for a meeting. When I arrived at the main college, though, they were both still waiting downstairs at the porters’ lodge, which was quite unusual. They were told the academic had to come down to get them, even though they had university ID cards.”

To test whether bias was at work, he tried entering the building with his ID, and was waved through. “This was a situation where I directly saw different treatment on the basis of skin colour, and on the basis of race.”

To bring this to public attention, he has joined the Oxford Rhodes

Must Fall campaign, which wants the statue of Victorian imperialis­t and colonist Cecil Rhodes removed from

Oriel College. “Oxford needs to have more conversati­ons about its links to colonisati­on, about the UK’s colonial past and about the remaining signs of colonisati­on all around. The selection of the Rhodes statue as a focal point of the campaign was a great strategic choice, which has given people a practical hook to understand more-complex issues of institutio­nal racism.”

The recipient of a Rhodes Scholarshi­p and all the benefits that bestows, Harris accepts that he is laying himself open to accusation­s of hypocrisy by taking such a stand, “but with a bit of reflection, most people can agree that there is no inconsiste­ncy or hypocrisy”.

“The campaign is about ensuring that those receiving and administer­ing the scholarshi­p help it to achieve as much good as possible – and that requires being honest about the scholarshi­p’s origins. I also think those receiving the scholarshi­p have a duty to address the wrongs of colonisati­on, so it would be more morally problemati­c to take the scholarshi­p support and do nothing about Rhodes or the broader issues of colonisati­on.”

Harris says he was aware of some of Rhodes’ shortcomin­gs when he applied for the scholarshi­p, but had no knowledge of the colonist’s support of proto-apartheid legislatio­n or the specifics of military massacres he helped to co-ordinate.

Despite his concerns about the Oxford culture, Harris says he is grateful for the way in which the institutio­n, especially

All Souls, has opened his eyes to a diverse range of ideas, issues and people. “By being here, I’ve been able to explore ideas that otherwise would have forever just been half-formed thoughts and I’ve been able to develop my skills in analysing and expressing those ideas.

“But it has also made me more determined to challenge entrenched privilege and it’s made me aware of the limits of Eurocentri­c thinking. It’s a place I’m happy to stay in for now, but I want to come home before too long. I want to contribute to strengthen­ing

New Zealanders’ commitment to care, creativity and community. I am also interested in whether love could be made a bigger feature of our politics and collective ways of thinking.”

“I am interested in whether love could be made a bigger feature of our politics.”

 ??  ?? Rhodes Scholar Harris has joined the campaign to have Cecil Rhodes’ statue, far right, removed from Oriel College.
Rhodes Scholar Harris has joined the campaign to have Cecil Rhodes’ statue, far right, removed from Oriel College.
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