Tariana Turia: A Model of Values-Based Politics in Action

The last week has seen widespread news coverage of the Whanganui River Claims Settlement Bill – and, in particular, the Bill’s granting of legal personality to the Whanganui River.

Ongoing global coverage of the undoubtedly innovative settlement should not perpetuate the myth that the New Zealand government has an overwhelmingly positive record on indigenous rights.  New Zealand has, for decades, incarcerated Māori at a rate – 704 per 100,000 – that exceeds the US imprisonment rate (698 per 100,000), to take just one example of institutional racism that persists in the country.

But I do not want to offer an assessment of the Bill or settlement here.  As a Pākehā (white or European-background New Zealander), I am not best placed to make that assessment: the voices of the Whanganui iwi (or tribe) must be centred in any such assessment.

Instead, I want to draw attention to a principled activist and politician who – as part of numerous campaigning movements and community activities – deserves significant credit for contributing to the settlement: Tariana Turia.

For those outside of New Zealand, unfamiliar with Tariana Turia, she is perhaps best known for crossing the floor to vote against her own Labour Party’s Foreshore and Seabed Bill in 2003, an egregious piece of legislation that extinguished Māori customary rights to the foreshore and seabed.  She resigned from the Labour Party, helped to organise significant opposition to the Bill, and set up the Māori Party – a party that currently holds two seats in the New Zealand Parliament.  As co-leader of the Māori Party and as a Minister from 2008 to 2014, she helped to repeal the Foreshore and Seabed Act and developed the landmark Whānau Ora programme, which involved family- and community-led involvement in social policy, consistent with tikanga Māori ( Māori values).

But Turia was involved with numerous campaigns and community activities prior to her time in Parliament, including in setting up the Whanganui Iwi Law Centre and the Te Awa Youth Trust, amongst many other initiatives.

She was also heavily involved with a 79-day occupation of Pākaitore (Moutoua Gardens) in Whanganui in 1995, designed in part to restore the mana of the Whanganui iwi.

The story of the occupation is told in Helen Leahy’s beautiful 2015 book, Crossing the Floor: The Story of Tariana Turia, which combines Leahy’s writing with Turia’s own words (and the words of others).  The occupation was a powerful stand against the ‘fiscal envelope’ announcement by the then-National Government that no more than NZD $1 billion would be spent on ‘redress’ for historical injustices.  The episode is all the more fascinating for followers of the #RhodesMustFall movement in South Africa (and the later movement in Oxford), since – like #RhodesMustFall – it began with protests over a statute: the statue of 1890s Prime Minister John Ballance (known for his anti-Māori views).  The statue had been decapitated and covered in red paint.  Like the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town (but unlike the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford)), the statue of Ballance was relocated in 2001, when an agreement established the land as a historic reserve.

Two other points about Turia emerge out of Leahy’s book.

First, she was a values-driven politician, who embodied a politics of care – and love.  Her speeches are studded with references to the tikanga Māori values that drove her.  Turia notes in the book: “I think of myself as having really strong values and beliefs, and I don’t care what we’re talking about; I only think about those things. … And I try to listen really carefully to the people, so that everything I say and do is essentially coming from them, from the people.” More specifically, the values of love and care recur throughout her career.  The word ‘love’ appears multiple times in her brilliant valedictory speech.  At the end of her parliamentary political career, she said: “I have one thing that counts and that is my heart.  It burns in my soul.  It aches in my flesh and it ignites my nerve.  That is my love for the people.”

Second, Turia was intensely committed to conversations about decolonisation – conversations that had been started by activists that preceded her, and that are ongoing. She speaks in the book about how hui (meetings) in opposition to the Foreshore and Seabed Bill reaffirmed the imperative of colonisation: “The basic premise of decolonisation is that tangata whenua have been adversely affected by tauiwi values, processes and institutions.  It is aimed at rediscovered and restoring tangata whenua philosophies of life.  The layers of colonisation have been all-pervasive, resulting in loss of land, language and resources; the theft of ideas; and the denigration of indigenous spirituality.” She adds: “‘Decol’, then, is about a process to reclaim tangata whenua values as a basis for life today.  It is not about a return to the past, and acting in traditional ways.  Rather, it is about a recovering of those values which have been life-enhancing in the past and pressing them into service in meaningful ways today.” Turia was also persistent in highlighting the realities of institutional racism, and provoked debates in her discussion of Post-Colonial Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Many other lessons could be drawn from Turia’s life by those who are closer to her; the Leahy book is merely one window onto her career.  But as praise is heaped upon Aotearoa New Zealand in the aftermath of the Whanganui settlement, and as many social challenges remain, we might bear in mind Turia’s example of a values-driven politics of care and love – and not lose sight of the need for ongoing conversations about decolonisation.  For, as Turia herself said: “There is a desperate need for us to get this relationship right.  No nations that are divided against themselves can stand.”

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A Radical Politics of Love

This is the text of a talk I gave at Open School East, London, on Thursday 4 August 2016.


I wanted to start by thanking my friend, the lovely human being and fellow New Zealander Emil Dryburgh, for inviting me to speak, and thanking all of you for being here.  From all the impressions I’ve gotten so far, Open School East seems like a place full of exciting possibilities, founded on values that encourage generative work and creative, speculative endeavours.  I feel privileged to be able to speak here.  I also want to acknowledge Philip McKibbin, a New Zealand writer with whom I first wrote about the politics of love; Philip’s not here, but his thinking has informed mine, on love and other topics.

My talk will have four parts.  First, I’ll explore what love is.  Second, I’ll sketch out some of love’s possibilities in politics.  Third, I’ll explain the significance of a politics of love.  Fourth, I’ll raise and address certain worries people have had – and might have – with a politics of love.

  1. What love is

“Nothing is mysterious.  No human relation.  Except love.”  Those are the words of American writer Susan Sontag.  And love’s mysteriousness creates a challenge as we set out to understand what love is, as a first step towards grasping a politics of love.

I’ve wondered whether, when we are discussing some concepts, defining those concepts is not only impossible but unhelpful: definition (at least in the analytic method) involves splitting an idea into constituent parts, exchanging one word for a set of other words.  It might be that defining a concept in this way – for at least some concepts, perhaps concepts like kindness – breaks down that concept into smaller parts, losing a sense of the whole of that concept, and replacing one word with a set of inferior inadequate descriptors.  Some concepts, in other words, might be not reducible to definition.

Is love like this? Is it impossible and unhelpful to try to define it, because we end up only reducing its meaning, finding other words that do not quite capture what it is?

Another question I want to leave slightly open, while expressing a tentative preference for one kind of answer, is whether – if it possible to define love – there are different types of love expressed in different spheres or merely one type of love that manifests in different ways in various spheres.  In other words, is there a single vision of love that we can plug into the realm of the political and the personal, or is the love we experience in personal realms in some significant way different from love as it applies politically? We might call this the contrast between a ‘pluralist account’ of love and a ‘monist account’.  Michael Hardt, the American literary theorist (who has probably done more than any thinker alive today to develop our understanding of love in politics), has raised this point, asking whether we might divide love into eros (romantic love) and agape (a more all-encompassing, perhaps thinner sense of goodwill directed outwards), amongst other possible categories.  Some aspects of how we speak about love – the fact that we have this special phrase “in love”, for example – might suggest that it is important to draw this distinction.  But I am suspicious of relying too much on everyday language usage as a tool for understanding concepts, and at any rate the fact that there is one word for love that carries across contexts might be given as evidence of the monist approach (if we were to take an everyday language perspective).  I want to probe, at least for now and in this talk, whether there is one general understanding of love, which can be plugged into various realms, including the realm of the political.  I want to do this because adopting this approach retains some of the greatest promise and potential in the idea of the politics of love, as I hope will become clear as I make my way through this talk.

I will leave open these lines of flight about the (im)possibility of defining love and the best approach to defining love – but for now, I’ll offer a working monist definition, to ground and focus the discussion that follows.

I want to build this monist definition of love up by extracting helpful parts of the accounts of love given by Harry Frankfurt, Simone Weil, and James Baldwin, and reflecting on the gaps or problems with each account.

The American philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in a book called The Reasons of Love, says that love comprises five elements: “a disinterested concern for the wellbeing or flourishing” of the object of love, “conscientious attention”, an “ineluctably personal” concern, “an identification with the beloved”, and “constraints upon the will”.  What is useful about this list is that it highlights that love needs an object, a beloved, and underscores that love is specifically directed – personally – at this object.  However, the list has two limitations.  First, it offers a somewhat cold explanation of what love is – love as “a disinterested concern”, love as “conscientious” attention – that misses something of love’s intensity.  Secondly, it conflates what love is, and what love requires.  In my view, at least, attention, concern, identification are actions that follow from love; they are not what love is.  The same can be said about “constraints upon the will”.  Having our own autonomy restricted is not what love is; this is a consequence of love.

French philosopher and theologian Simone Weil’s approach to love is an improvement on Frankfurt’s.  For Weil, love is “intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention”.  This pithy line has many attractions.  Love is connected to generosity.  It is “pure” or “gratuitous” or “disinterested” in the sense in which it is (at least largely) removed from self-interest.  The reference to love’s intensity captures something of love’s richness and depth.  However, I wonder whether Weil has over-described the content of love, and aimed to be so precise with her account of love as to leave too narrow a view of what love is.  Having these five adjectives – “intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous” – unduly restricts the scope of love.  And my sense is that defining love as “attention” is too minimal.  Love requires activity, and not merely having regard or taking notice of a person or object.

American writer James Baldwin offers a different perspective on love, in some ways addressing the flaws in Frankfurt and Weil’s definitions.  In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin describes love as “a state of grace”, “a tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth”.  Talk of love as a “state of grace” underscores rightly that love is, more than the mere act of attention, a demeanour or disposition towards something or someone else.  But then, in filling in the detail of that demeanour or disposition, my concern is that Baldwin is too demanding in his definition love.  Does love require as much as a sense of “quest and daring and growth”? Must it be “tough and universal”?

What is needed, then, in constructing a definition of love – based on these accounts – is an approach to love that: does not reduce love to less than its whole; can apply to different realms; can grasp love’s intensity or depth; does not conflate what love is and what love require; is not unduly narrow or overly demanding; and that highlights how love is set apart from self-interest and amounts to a demeanour or disposition, as well as a set of activities.

I’d like to think my suggested definition meets these criteria.  For me, love is a deep sense of warmth directed towards another.  The word ‘warmth’ might be thought to be a bit indeterminate or ambiguous.  But I think it captures what Baldwin is reaching for when seeing love as a “state of grace”: namely, that love is a kind of mood or disposition.  ‘Warmth’ hints at how love emanates outwards from someone.  The words ‘deep’ and ‘directed’ express that love must be more than superficial and has a tailored, personal dimension.  Attention, affection, attachment, and listening might be particular manifestations of ‘warmth’.  Note that there is no constraint on who might be the objects of love, and I do not believe love is inevitably particularistic.  This definition also underscores that love is associated with relationships, goodwill, and activity.

I should add that in considering this definition I have rejected the approaches of others to love.  The philosopher Slavoj Zizek, whose work I greatly admire in other respects, has said in Astra Taylor’s movie Zizek! in characteristically iconoclastic style that love is a “violent act”, an act that involves “pick[ing] something out”, creating a “cosmic imbalance”.  Zizek here appears to assume that love must be partial and closed in its orientation, an assumption that I reject.  But we might usefully bear this concern in mind, and return to it when we consider objections to the politics of love.  Freud also argued that love of humanity was merely repressed libidinal love.  I do not share this view.

I should also add that there are major areas of study and insight that I have not considered in building this definition.  I have not assessed, in any depth, what biology offers to our understanding of love – or what can be gleaned from poetry, literature, music, or art.  I’m grateful to anyone who might supplement my approach to love, drawing on these perspectives.  I’d be particularly interested in what art can offer to this definition.

The final preliminary point to make is that it should be clear how this definition of love differentiates it from empathy or compassion.  It might be wondered whether it is preferable to talk about a politics of empathy or a politics of compassion.  The preceding discussion explains why it would be a wrong to go down this route: a politics of empathy or a politics of compassion is simply not the same as a politics of love.  Love is more active than empathy, more intense than compassion; love is distinct, and cannot be reduced to these other emotions.

  1. Love’s Possibilities in Politics

With these preliminaries out of the way – and with a stable definition of love as a “deep sense of warmth directed towards an another” – we can turn to love in politics.

As mentioned in the blurb for this talk, references to love abound in contemporary activism, and increasingly in mainstream electoral politics.  In the last fortnight, The New Yorker published a piece entitled ‘The Power of Love in Politics’, and noted that “love is in the air” in “contemporary political rhetoric”.  The trend hints at the appeal of a love-centred politics, but it may also limit how we might imagine the potential for a politics of love.  It also usefully presents a range of ways that a politics of love might be deployed or manifested.

In this section of the talk, I want to use these contemporary references and the past perspectives of those who have connected love to politics in order to construct a matrix of love’s possibilities in politics.

At this point it is worth making crystal-clear that whilst ‘the politics of love’ is (I think) a relatively new phrase, and may have a tinge of fresh idealism and utopian thinking, I am by no means the first to reflect on love’s role in politics.  Particularly rich resources on love in politics can be found in religious traditions (in particular, Christianity and Islam), indigenous traditions (especially thinking in the Maori world, that is the world of New Zealand’s indigenous people, with which I’m most familiar), liberation and decolonization movements, the civil rights movements in the United States, Left activist thinking from the 1960s, so-called continental philosophy, queer theory, affect theory, feminism, liberal political theory, and socialist thought.  Amongst the most prominent figures in this context are bell hooks, Che Guevara, and Martha Nussbaum.  I will aim to draw on some of these streams of thought in what follows.

On one side of the matrix of love’s possibilities in politics, we can map the various forms love could take in politics – and this assists us in determining what the ‘politics of love’ is, and in particular what the ambiguous ‘of’ refers to in the phrase ‘the politics of love’.  (One thing I should also clarify is that I will not talk at all about politics within romantic relationships, or the politics of romance; my apologies to anyone who attended this talk believing that I’d address that topic.  I believe there’s a pretty poorly reviewed 2011 romantic drama with the title The Politics of Love which could offer more on that topic.)

Here I suggest four plausible forms of connection that love might have to politics, though these are by no means exhaustive.

First, we might understand love to be a motivating force in politics.  A politics of love might mean, according to this view, that politics is motivated by love – whether it is practised by activists, politicians, or others. This would place emphasis on the fact that in political action, we should not be driven by reasons of self-interest, power, or prestige, but should rather be driven by a sense of deep warmth directed towards other participants in politics.

This form might draw on how Augustine (the fourth century Christian theologian) conceives of love more generally.  For Augustine, love should be a motivating force in life.  In his Sermon on the First Epistle of John, he says, “Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good.”

A second, subtly distinct form claims that a politics of love requires political action to express love.  Rather than focus on intention, this view holds that in the actions taken by activists or politicians, politics should express love.  It draws on the idea of expressivism, developed by political and legal philosophers Elizabeth Anderson and Richard Pildes: the idea that law and policy can express some ideals or values to the public.  On this form, specific motivations of political actors matter less; what matters more is what their actions express to observers.  One figure who has come close to this perspective is US President Jimmy Carter, who when campaigning to be President, called for the government to “radiate love”.  (I want to acknowledge that this form is not without its difficulties, and how exactly action is interpreted – so that we can say that it expresses an ideal like love – has not been completely clarified in the expressivist literature.)

Thirdly, love could be seen as the end-goal of politics, or at least an end-goal of politics.  Rather than love being the motivator for political activity, or being the ideal that is expressed through political action, this form sees love as the ultimate destination of the political journey. It might appeal to those who believe politics should have a telos, and less to those who think politics does not need or does not have an end-goal of this kind.  It also raises squarely the question, ‘love for whom’ and ‘for how many’? – a question to which we will return shortly.  It is not far from the paradigm that understands love to be the foundation of politics, a version of which was adopted by Australian judge and LGBT rights campaigner Michael Kirby, when he argued that love is the foundation of human rights.  Martin Luther King Jr. also articulated an analogous love-based worldview in a 1958 letter about nonviolence, ‘An Experiment with Love’.  There he wrote:

“At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.”

Fourth, and somewhat in contrast to these three other forms, we might see love as a virtue exercised by those involved with politics.  A virtue ethics form understands politics not in terms of end-goals or foundations, but rather as a set of virtues that ought to be embodied and practiced by actors within a particular forum or setting.  According to this paradigm, politicians, activists, and others should do what they can to ensure that they are – as far as possible – directing a deep sense of warmth to others in politics.  This is not quite the same as the position that love should be a virtue we all exercise in our daily lives, a position supported by Russian author Leo Tolstoy – though there is some overlap.

It is helpful as a heuristic to distinguish these four forms, and to make clear that an adherent of a ‘politics of love’ might cleave more closely to just one of these four forms (or other forms not listed here).  But my preference is for a politics of love that includes all four forms: love as a motivator for politics, love as an ideal expressed by political action and policy, love as an end-point for politics, and love as a virtue practiced by those doing politics.  The main risk of this preference is incoherence, since each form reflects a slightly different and perhaps cross-cutting worldview.  But I do not think it is inevitable that adopting all four forms becomes incoherent, and I believe this all-encompassing preference is likely to amplify the power of love as a guiding ideal for politics (where politics is any dispute over the allocation of power).

On one side of our matrix, then (the ‘rows’ of the matrix), we have different ways that love find its way into politics.  Across the columns of the matrix, we can also classify the different possible depths or registers for that politics of love, once the idea of love has infused politics to some extent.  I will discuss three possibilities here: a ‘superficial’ or ‘cynical’ register, a ‘minimalist’ politics of love, and a ‘radical’ politics of love.

There is less of categorical distinction between these three registers, and we might better understand them as lying on a spectrum or sliding scale.

The ‘superficial’ or ‘cynical’ register deploys love in a thin or under-developed way, perhaps to win people over or to gain electoral capital.  Hillary Clinton said in June 2016: “we need more love and kindness in America.”  This passing reference might be an example of the ‘superficial’ or ‘cynical’ register at work.

The ‘minimalist’ register also involves a less developed concept of love, but involves different interpretations of love being articulated, based on the starting point that a love-based politics is important.  In the same way that we currently see different interpretations of freedom and equality being threaded out of contemporary politics, with some common acceptance that freedom and equality are important (positive and negative freedom, equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome), this register allows for various conclusions to be reached based on a shared premise.  Philosopher Cornel West, who in his broader work has a more radical politics of love, may be said to have drawn on this minimalist register in a recent contribution to a Democratic National Convention discussion on Israel and Palestine.

A radical politics of love suggests that we should not merely leave ‘love’ open to multiple interpretations, but rather that love in politics requires structural, transformative change.  The word ‘radical’ means to ‘get at the root’, and a radical politics of love is committed to securing the preconditions of love as well as love itself.  Consistent with the logic of radical politics, a radical politics of love also pays attention to the distribution of love – who is loved, and who is left out of love – and seeks the broadest possible distribution of love, while recognizing historical patterns in how certain groups have been deprived of love.  The work of Cleve Barlow, a Maori thinker, is instructive here.  Barlow says, of ‘aroha’, a concept with close similarities to love:

“Ko te tangata e mea ana he aroha tōna, ka taea e ia te kite, te atawhai te iwi whānui ahakoa iti, ahakoa rahi.

A person who claims to possess the gift of aroha demonstrates this love by sharing it with all people and without discrimination.”

Che Guevara’s 1965 letter to Carlos Quijano, ‘Socialism and Man’ might also be see as giving expression to a radical politics of love.  Guevara wrote: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

Guevara also says “We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity is transformed into actual deeds”, which raises the question: what would a radical politics of love look like in practice? A radical politics of love demands recognition of our interdependence in a community – which, to me, requires robust welfare supports, hospitality to refugees, proper recognition of domestic work and support for families – as well as the dismantling of institutions (such as prisons, perhaps) that undermine individuals’ need for love.

My preference of these possible registers, as you might have guessed, is for a radical politics of love.  In the next section of the talk, I outline the significance of the politics of love – for the role of emotion in politics, connecting politics to everyday life, for building a unifying politics, and for developing an anti-selfish worldview – and a radical politics of love best maximizes how a politics of love might be significant.

One point that is left unresolved by this relatively detailed matrix is: who are the objects of a politics of love? Is it just a country’s nationals – citizens – or all people within a political community, or some other group? In my view, love is inherently other-regarding, and this impulse to consider the other justifies an ever-expanding “circle of concern” (in Martha Nussbaum’s words) that means that a politics of love must be focused on all people within a political community, and not merely co-nationals or citizens.  In other words, the meaning of love itself – in my view – requires that a politics of love be as all-encompassing as inclusive as possible.  It would be inconsistent with a politics of love to narrow unduly the scope of that politics.  But I accept that there is a hint of circularity in this formulation, and that there may be room for disagreement on this point.  A further part of the matrix (and I am not familiar enough with matrices to know what to call this!) remains to be supplemented in future, in order to specify the objects of the politics of love.

  1. The Significance of the Politics of Love 

The politics of love may have different attractions – and different limitations – to different people.  One of the major attractions, in my mind, is that it (re)opens a space for emotion in politics.  Especially amongst some Anglo-American political theorists, it has come to be thought that political ideas, like freedom and justice, must be shorn of emotion if they are to be invoked in politics.  Emotion has been viewed as an inappropriate, even dangerous, force in politics.  But conventional political ideas like freedom and justice might be usefully reconceptualised as emotions, or feelings.  I’ve found Nina Simone to be the best exponent of this view, in the following clip.  Simone says freedom is “just a feeling”, and interestingly compares it to love, reminding us (perhaps) that politics need not be separated from a visceral, affective dimension.  A politics of love prizes open that space further, since love itself is often considered a feeling or emotion.  If incorporated more fully into politics, a politics of love could remind us (as my friend Marek Sullivan has said) that the question in politics is not whether to accept emotions as a basis for argument, but which emotions we should inculcate and which we should reject.  This is an especially important point for progressives to recognize, as Jonathan Freedland has noted.  Freedland (much of whose writing I disagree with) wrote last week in The Guardian that progressives need not only new policy but also “a new way to say it”.  “If the political brain is an emotional brain, as the evidence has long suggested it is, then progressives need to start speaking fluent emotion.” progressives need new policy and “a new way to say it”.  “If the political brain is an emotional brain, as the evidence has long suggested it is, then progressives need to start speaking fluent emotion.”

As well, a politics of love creates the germ for a politics that connects directly to people’s everyday lives.  David Harvey in a recent Jacobin interview on neoliberalism has talked about the lack of a “politics of daily life”, and the appeal of a politics grounded in cities for this reason.  Love also shares this appeal.  Love is an experience that most people identify with, sometimes because of its absence in their lives and in other times because of its presence in their lives.  Though some people may associate love with pain, most can understand the attraction of love in its realized form.  At a time when voter turnouts are declining in many countries (in part) because of a sense that mainstream politics is disconnected from people’s everyday lives, an introduction of a politics of love into activism as well as electoral politics could help to re-engage people in the world of the political.

Third, a politics of love could be if not universal, then genuinely unifying.  References to love cannot be simply lifted out of their particular contexts and flattened.  Moreover, different thinkers have meant different things by love, let alone by a politics of love, as I have already suggested.  Nevertheless it is meaningful that a love-centred politics has been touched on within religious traditions, indigenous traditions, LGBTQ movements, the civil rights movement, and socialist streams of thought.  This is no Eurocentric tradition, either, with rich resources on the politics of love being found in Latin American writing (including the work of Che Guevara), Asian political writing (such as Gandhi’s work), and African and Pacific work.

Fourth, a politics of love offers the promise of an anti-selfish politics that is sorely needed on the Left: a politics of other people.  Neoliberalism has succeeded since the 1970s because it has built a worldview with an interlocking logic that has included a pro-selfish vision of human nature, an anti-public view of society, and an anti-State vision of government.  A truly emancipatory alternative to neoliberalism’s hegemony requires, in my view, an anti-selfish, pro-public, pro-State vision.  The politics of love could form part of that alternative paradigm, what Ronan Harrington has called the Fourth Way beyond the Third Way.  Charles Eisenstein in his writing has said that the value of a compassion-oriented worldview is that “it is to enact politics from a different place”.  The same might be said of a politics of love.  Iris Murdoch has also offered a glimpse of love’s potential to drive an anti-selfish politics when writing, in her beautiful essay ‘The Sublime and the Good’: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” (In that same essay, interestingly, Murdoch argued that “the essence of art is love.”)

I also have a hunch that a politics of love might have particular resonance and relevance for contemporary developments on the Left.  We have seen in recent years the rise of hyper-rationalistic movements such as New Atheism and effective altruism, as well as vicious calling-out strategies amongst the online Left.  My sense is that a politics of love might also inject a necessary values base into these hyper-rationalistic movements, and a deepened sense of care into the online Left – but I do not want to say anything more than this, since my views on these subjects are far more tentative and these developments are in constant motion.

  1. Objections

In closing, I want to defend a politics of love (and a radical politics of love in particular) against some common and likely objections.  These are not the only objections that might be directed towards a politics of love; nor might they be the most persuasive objections in your mind.  I’d welcome objections on top of the ones that I mention here.

The first objection (or cluster of objections) involves whether love is distorted when introduced into politics.  Hannah Arendt once wrote in The Human Condition that: “… love, in distinction from friendship, is killed, or rather extinguished, the moment it is displayed in public.  Because of its inherent worldlessness, love can only become false and perverted when it is used for political purposes such as the change or salvation of the world.” Read in context, it is difficult to know whether Arendt is merely making a descriptive judgment here – that in practice, love has been extinguished when it has been used for political purposes – as opposed to a normative claim about how love should be used.  But I do not share her concern that love must inevitably become “false and perverted” when used in politics.  Of course, we should take care to identify insincere uses of love – what might fall within the cynical or superficial register – but this does not mean that more sincere invocations of love are impossible.  A secondary, related claim is that a politics of love renders love so dispersed as to drain love of its vitality.  Sara Ahmed talks of the danger of a love-centred politics becoming a “humanist fantasy”.  Francois Juillien, the French philosopher, says a politics of intimacy “takes us out of the banality of the theme of love”.  (My thanks to Dan Kelly for this reference.) It is true that incantations about love trumping hate can sound empty.  But to me this simply highlights the need to give love, and a love-centred politics, content – and I think the best way of doing this is by developing a radical politics of love.

Secondly, relatedly, it is sometimes said that love is susceptible to manipulation and abuse in politics, and could become a dangerous concept.  In a letter to James Baldwin, Hannah Arendt expressed a version of this point, saying “Hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive; you can afford them only in the private and, as a people, only so long as you are not free.” It is true that love of country – the kind of love Martha Nussbaum discusses in her book, Political Emotions – can be easily mobilized into a form of exclusive, xenophobic nationalism.  But this is not consistent with the radical politics of love I have discussed.  I accept, too, that if it were accepted that love has to be particularistic, a politics of love could appear to be threatening – a way to upsize particularistic judgments.  However, I’ve argued that a politics of love can become untethered from such judgments.  Once a politics of love is seen as less exclusive, I think the power of this criticism withers away.

Thirdly: is a politics of love compatible with anger? Isn’t anger a necessary part of politics (especially a politics comfortable with emotion), and does a politics of love crowd out such anger? Philosopher Amia Srinivasan has argued trenchantly about the importance of anger in politics.  Srinivasan has said “anger is often a reasonable response to an unreasonable world”.  And activists, including online, have repeatedly pointed out how criticism of anger can be coded in sexist and racist ways.  The question is: does a call for deep warmth to be directed, even radically, towards an ever-expanding circle of people preclude anger? The excellent Salvage magazine’s May 2016 editorial hints at this when noting: “We at Salvage have long felt that Corbyn’s efforts toward a ‘kinder politics’ lean too heavily on the prefigurative, and that there is a case for targeted brutality.  In the absence of such a strategy within the Labour party, it is the extra-parliamentary Left which must excoriate these lost and sulking Blairite sheep, and let them know their perfidy is not unnoticed.” The suggestion is that Corbyn’s kinder politics (akin to a politics of love) prevents brutality, which sometimes might be necessary.  We might also think that there is evidence of love precluding anger in the work of Leo Tolstoy and Martin Luther King, Jr.: both used a starting point of love to reach the conclusion that nonviolence was required.

I think this objection has considerable force.  My view is that anger, and agonism (or open conflict), are essential parts of healthy political debate.  But I think there is a way that anger can coexist with a radical politics of love.  A radical politics of love recognises people’s need for love and the deprivation of love.  In my view, such a politics can also sit comfortably with reasonable responses to a deprivation of love.  It can sit comfortably with anger in response to austerity, for example (which might be viewed as a failure of love), or in response to racism.  I don’t think this objection is fatal.

Lastly, a common refrain that I have heard (especially, interestingly, from individuals trained as economists) is: how would love be operationalised in policy? And more specifically, how would love be balanced against other policy goals, such as efficiency? Would it be possible to ‘trade-off’ love and other interests? This sounds like a problem for the politics of love.  How, after all, can ‘love’ be put on a scale and weighed against, say £100,000 in savings? Potent as this sounds, I think the point is a bit of red-herring.  Any political ideal – whether it is freedom, equality, or justice – is not easily translatable into the policy language of trade-offs.  But that is not the role of these ideals.  These ideals are benchmarks for policy conclusions, cross-checks for the defensibility of political choices.  They may not resolve tricky trade-offs, but they hang over all political calculations – and that, in some ways, is far more important.


To conclude, if you have drifted away while I became mired in building a conceptual matrix, I hope you can take the following what I have said.  It is possible to define love.  An attractive definition of love is deep warmth directed towards another.  Love can be connected to politics in different ways.  It can be a motivator for politicians, the ideal expressed by politics, the end-point of politics, or a virtue we demand from political actors.  A politics of love can also be expressed superficially, in a minimalist way, or in a more radical fashion.  A politics of love can also, I think, maintain the integrity of love, be safeguarded from manipulation, coexist with anger, and inform trade-offs.

Love may remain mysterious, as Susan Sontag told us.  Perhaps it is “just a feeling”, in those moving words of Nina Simone.  But if it is a mysterious feeling, it is a mysterious feeling with powerful potential to change how we understand the political.

I hope, at the very least, I have persuaded you that it is an idea worth considering for anyone who wants to build a politics that is more imaginative, more transformative, and ultimately more human.  Thank you very much for listening.


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From the Cradle – Eliza Prestidge Oldfield

Part 1: How Much Money do Middle Income Families Have?

Having children is a truly terrible financial decision. My son is 16 months old and already we’re down nearly a hundred grand in lost income and childcare costs. (Ouch, I really wish I hadn’t paused to figure that out! Maybe I’ll focus on hypothetical families for the rest of this piece.)

Let’s take a look at Family One: a mum and a dad in their late 20s or early 30s, and a baby, six months old. Let’s say mum is on unpaid maternity leave – the paid period lasts only four months – so they’re on one income. Imagine it’s a good income: a middle-class income, well above the median full-time wage, and high enough that the family is not eligible for any government assistance, say around $75,000. OK, now imagine they rent a middling-ish house in a major city, and imagine this young dad is still paying off his student loan and is also paying 3% of his salary into KiwiSaver (I’ve assumed 3% KiwiSaver throughout except where otherwise mentioned, given the high participation rates created by the opt-out scheme).

Here’s how it breaks down: if this family is paying about $400 a week in rent, which doesn’t go far in the cities, they will have a disposable income equivalent to a retired couple who own their own home but have no income other than the Government-funded superannuation  – around $570 a week. So if they’re paying any more than $400 in rent, they will have less after-housing income than many superannuitants (in the latest census, 77% of those aged 70-74 owned their own home).

Let’s consider Family Two. The parents are both working, with two preschoolers in childcare. One parent works part-time – let’s say 25 hours – and the other parent works a 40 hour week. Both have outstanding student debt, but both earn a decent wage: $29 an hour, just over double the minimum wage. Their income after deductions is $1340 a week, so it looks like they’re doing fine. But they pay $350 in childcare (assuming one child is over three and eligible for the 20 hours funded childcare) and $425 in mortgage repayments, taking their disposable income down to $565 a week – less than the married super rate of $576. Their income is too high to get Working for Families (New Zealand’s means-tested system of tax credits and financial support for low and middle income families) or the accommodation supplement or the additional means-tested childcare subsidy.

Is it a problem that many young families are no better off than retirees? Either the numbers speak to you or they don’t. I suspect that many New Zealanders over a certain age would read these hypothetical case studies and scratch their heads and pull out pocket calculators. Wait, really? Housing and childcare and student loan repayments cost how much?!

Perhaps others would shrug and think “well, they’re still doing fine though”, or “kids are expensive, that’s not news”. Yep, they’re still doing fine; but yep, kids are expensive. I wanted to start with middle income couples who tick all the boxes. Well paid. Educated. Two parents. Nothing that a right-wing commentator could point to as a failing of personal responsibility. It’s easy to show that things are bad for a single parent on a benefit, but looking at middle-income families it becomes clear that the problem of financial strain on young families is endemic and can’t be attributed to the life decisions of the families in question. It is a result of external factors. The biggest factor is the costs associated with having children. Families with small children have to either reduce their total working hours so that they can look after the kids, or pay for childcare, or some mixture of the two. Effectively this means that, for many families, money will be tightest when their children are preschoolers, and then things will get better (especially if student debt is also a factor and is paid off during this period). Some families will be able to ride this out. Others will be thrust into poverty.

From the perspective of a middle class family, the gap between the end of paid parental leave and the start of universal early childcare subsidies is annoying and plain stupid. Speaking personally as one half of a couple with a combined four degrees and bucket-loads of earning potential, I would much rather pay tax at a higher rate for the rest of my life if only we could have longer paid parental leave and better childcare funding. It’s a no-brainer. Paid parental leave, Working for Families and 20 hours funded early childcare are all relatively recent policies introduced to try and address the need for additional income while children were young. But they don’t go far enough. Paid parental leave lasts for 16 weeks, and will be extended to 18 weeks next April. The 20 hours funded early childcare starts when children turn three. In between there’s a fairly long stretch of reduced income for even relatively well-off families.

Part 2: Working for Families and Social Responsibility for Some

Means-tested benefits (Working for Families, the accommodation supplement, and the means-tested childcare subsidy) make an enormous difference in obliterating the income gap between middle and lower income families, especially where middle income parents are paying off student debt. Let’s add a third hypothetical family into the mix: Family Three. Like Family Two above, they have two preschoolers and housing costs of $425 a week but this time it’s rent not mortgage. The parents work the same hours, 65 combined. But unlike Family Two, these parents earn low incomes, and they do not have student loans. In fact, they have no training at all, and they each earn a couple of dollars over minimum wage – $18 an hour. Their weekly income before tax and transfers is $1170. They get an accommodation supplement of $18 per week, and they get $112 from Working for Families, and $180 in means-tested childcare assistance. After tax and transfers this family has $1243 a week, or $468 after childcare and housing. Two points leap out: first, $468 is not much for all expenses other than housing and childcare for a family of four (especially given power costs in winter); second, this family had seven hundred dollars less per week than family two to start with, but after tax and transfers it’s one hundred dollars less.

The government has chosen to drastically reduce the gap between middle and low income wage and salary earners through direct cash transfers because they are very concerned about another gap: the gap between benefits and paid work. Benefits can only go so low before they’re not enough to survive on, especially given high housing costs, so if you want to ensure a big gap between benefits and low-paid work (a questionable goal) the cash top-ups become necessary. When the Beehive says that getting families into work is the best way to get out of poverty, this is the secret ingredient: giving families in low paid work significant income assistance. I don’t want to knock these transfers, because they provide financial security for families and I’m glad my taxes are used for that purpose. I do however want to note that if families in fulltime low paid work are being given money from the government because otherwise they would be in poverty, it suggests that families who are out of work should also be given more money from the government to address poverty.

The main thing to remember about Working for Families is that it is absolutely not a universal child benefit. It is income tested and the full credits are only provided to families who work a minimum number of hours. This in effect subsidizes the stay-at-home carer or single income earner model for two-parent families on lower incomes. The calculations can be complex, figuring out whether it is worth it to seek extra hours from a second income earner, given the abatement rates and the enormity of childcare costs. For many families, bizarrely, it will be financially better to remain on one income. In short, childcare is very expensive and yet these costs are not taken into account in determining eligibility for Working for Families or the accommodation supplement. Childcare isn’t tax deductible either.

This has implications for wealth inequality. For a family in which either income earner taken separately would earn above the threshold, the lack of tax deductibility or universal funding for childcare is an annoyance that can be absorbed with a view to long term financial benefits of building two careers. And of course on a higher income childcare is a smaller proportion. Long term, returning to work when my son was 11 months old means that we will be in a far better financial position than if I’d remained out of the paid workforce (also, sidenote: I was chomping at the bit to get back to my extremely interesting and fulfilling job). We’re paying two sets of KiwiSaver contributions, and we’ll be able to buy a house sooner, and we’re developing two careers.  If one of us got sick, the other would be able to carry the family’s finances. For low income families who are in a pattern of one income earner and one caregiver for extended periods, there is an added level of financial precariousness. This might not matter so much if there were decent policies in place to facilitate the re-entry of caregivers into the workforce once children started school, but this is not the case. Instead, carers who are out of the workforce for several years will often find themselves starting again at entry level positions.

Working for Families also blatantly subsidises two-parent families, to the immense detriment of sole parents, who are the most likely demographic to live in poverty. The in-work tax credit component of Working for Families is payable to two-parent families who work a combined total of 30 hours a week or more, or to sole parent families who work 20 hours a week or more (that’s right, more than half the number of hours a two-parent family must work even though there’s only one person available to do the childcare). If you’re a stay at home parent with a partner who works 35 hours a week, you get the full working for families payment. If you leave your partner, your income and standards of living will be massively reduced.

Housing costs are a particular issue for sole parent beneficiaries and other families on very low incomes. The accommodation supplement is paid at a higher rate to people living in properties with higher rents, which drives up prices across the board, leaving the poorest no choice but the absolute dregs of a rental market that is infamous for cold, damp properties and insecure tenure. Of all age groups, the people most likely to live in inadequate housing are children under five. The accommodation supplement was intended to help those on lower incomes afford a place to live, but it is a quintessential example of a policy that throws money in the general direction of a problem without regard to the root causes, and without consideration of unintended consequences. Eligibility for the accommodation supplement is contingent on having minimal cash assets, providing a disincentive for lower income families to save and therefore worsening the division between those who will one day own houses and those who will reach retirement and still be renting. Finally, because the accommodation supplement has high abatement rates, it exacerbates the already high marginal tax rates created by Working for Families and the abatement of benefit income.

Part 3: Security and the Real Meaning of Independence

Right-wing politicians and commentators have claimed the language of independence. An independent person is apparently the best kind of person, and independence is conceptualised as needing no-one, doing his or her own thing, not mooching off the state, financially buttressed by savings alone.

Except that we are all born completely dependent. And we remain that way for years. We need our parents, our whānau, our communities. And when a child is very small, it is effectively impossible for one person to both earn money and do the day-to-day care (which is why the criticism “don’t have kids unless you can afford them” is so incoherent). Anyone who has ever spent significant time caring for children can be in no doubt that this is challenging work, rewarding work, and an essential contribution to society. But when parents do it, it’s not paid. In two-parent families, a leading option is for one person to earn money while the other person looks after the new little person. Without wishing to erase the experience of same-sex couples and stay at home fathers, it remains true that many, many, many adult women experience a time of financial dependence on their male partners, usually coinciding with the time that their children are youngest.

My husband is of an age to have been born to a second-wave feminist mother. He sees the money as “our” money (and I manage it); and he sees a lack of paid parental leave as a “family” issue not a women’s issue. As he puts it, of course he would support a policy that would give us more money when we need it. Of course he reckons it’s bullshit that we had to rely on his income alone while I stayed home with our son after the end of New Zealand’s paltry paid parental leave. That’s great for me, but feminism should not be about the enlightenment of individual men: it needs to be about changing the whole of society. All long-term relationships require interdependence, and periods where one might rely on the other, and a pooling of resources in the face of life’s twists and turns. Having a baby is poorly accounted for in this supposedly neutral scheme. Either we see it as a period where the family as a whole is poorer, or we see it as a time where the stay at home parent is financially dependant on the employed parent. In most cases, this is a woman dependent on a man, at precisely the time her child is youngest and most in need of attentive round-the-clock care. This can be seen as a feminist issue, the modern day equivalent of a time when married women were unable to own property. But my husband is right too: of course it is a family issue as well – if, for example, he became sick and unable to work, I would have to increase my hours and we would have to pay childcare from one income. By operating on the principle that dependence on a partner is not really dependence, many women are left vulnerable and many families are left financially precarious.

The funny thing is that predictable, guaranteed, regular income from the government can be used to support real independence: that is, individual self-determination. This is what we do for over-65s. My grandparents’ independence is only possible because of the money they receive each fortnight by virtue of their age.

The guiding principle of this is security. That’s why we have a universal pension – because we value security. Security is not having to worry about your financial situation, present or future.  Not having to expend energy thinking about how much money you are saving for retirement. Not having to budget with exacting precision to get through the unpaid portion of parental leave. Having a prospect of buying a house without yoking yourself to decades of sky-high mortgage repayments. Being able to spend money on things that make life nice, like an occasional holiday, not just necessities. Being able to get a higher education without amassing so much debt that you’ll be paying it off for decades to come.

Financial security enables autonomy. If we believe that it’s a good thing for people to have the ability to control the direction of their own lives, then we need to care about financial security. From the perspective of many (on the right and left of mainstream politics, in liberal and even in more radical circles), individual autonomy is significant. What is a life without scope to make it your own? Yet without an assurance of financial security, we are stuck. Some places are considerably worse to be stuck in than others – the woman stuck in an abusive relationship because a benefit is not enough to give her kids a warm house and food on the table is in a dire position; much worse than the young family stuck in cold rental accommodation for just a few more years until the children are in school and childcare costs aren’t eating up so much money. The 60 year old stuck on a sickness benefit and forced to sell his house because he can’t afford the rates is in a much worse position than the 60 year old stuck in a job he doesn’t much like because he needs it to pay off the rest of the mortgage before his retirement. Those of us who remain financially secure without government assistance can afford to be generous. We should be called upon, morally, to provide more to people who are really truly stuck in awful circumstances and unable to escape because of finances. Compassion has an abiding importance in politics.

However, there is also a claim for greater wealth distribution based on self-interest. From the financial vantage point of myself and my husband, we are standing on the edge of a squelchy swamp and can see a clear meadow across the other side. For the next few years, assuming we have more children, our finances will be a bit bogged down. But across the other side, once the youngest is three and the early childcare subsidy kicks in, we will have decades of dual-income financial hay-making. Even people like us who stand one day to gain enormously from New Zealand’s extremely low taxes on high income earners may actually prefer to sacrifice this gain for a bit more social spending at a different stage of life.

Part 4: A Social Contract for Young and Old

Politicians and commentators from the right often dismiss worries about inequality provided there is social mobility. David Farrar for example says things like “I believe social mobility is the more important thing to measure than income inequality. Of course a 16 year old school leaver earns a lot less than a 45 year old executive.” Social mobility is thus perceived in terms of people moving up the ladder, but it is a relative measure and so it goes both ways. A lack of support for families with young children can create the sort of mobility that no-one should endorse: temporary poverty when children are preschoolers. I started this piece with a comparison between young families and retired couples. Without social assistance for superannuitants, we could have another form of negative income mobility, the elderly could live in poverty. I’m glad to live in a country that wouldn’t stand for this. And I’m puzzled that we put up with child poverty, and set things up so that even relatively well-off couples with small children may find themselves struggling to make ends meet, or making really difficult compromises.

The comparison with retirees is not meant to suggest that they had things easier back in their day by the way, or that they are undeserving of social support. My grandmother received a universal family benefit. On the other hand, she grew up in a tenement during a war. My father never had to take out a student loan; on the other hand, he left home at 16 and had no parental support while he was at uni.  It’s not about what they had then versus what I have now; the point is simply that if we can support people in retirement, we can support people when their children are small. New Zealand is richer now than we were when my parents were my age in the late 80s, and we can afford higher standards of living across the board.

So far I haven’t mentioned the impact of taxes on incomes of young families. It deserves a mention if for no other reasons that to preemptively answer anything Jordan Williams or other right-wing commentators might say.  The problem isn’t that middle income earners with kids pay too much tax in absolute terms. It’s that we pay too much tax relative to the total tax take, which is itself too low to support the social spending needed to pay for the policies that would help us – most notably, an extension of paid parental leave and an extension of early childcare subsidies. A principled and comprehensive capital gains tax is part of the picture, as is a tax on higher incomes. It’s ludicrous that a young doctor or engineer or lawyer on $70,000 with a student loan pays out 30% of their income as deductions (excluding KiwiSaver!), while that same person ten years down the track earning $150,000 and having paid off the student debt will pay only 27% effective tax. If retaining a universal pension is a financial strain on the government books and reduces the amount available for other spending, and a large proportion of the people receiving superannuation are asset-rich but cash poor, an obvious tool is the reintroduction of an estate duty (or inheritance tax). This is a debate we need to have.

Retirees do relatively well in New Zealand not only because of the pension, but because of their high rates of home ownership. This protects them from the effects of rising housing costs. In contrast, people who are just getting started in adult life have no choice but to rent while we save a house deposit, and in many areas of the country rents are high, and rental property standards are low, and tenancies are insecure, while the prospect of buying in the cities is a distant dream for anyone on a low-to-moderate income. It’s ludicrous that my husband and I pay tax on the interest earned from our home-deposit savings in the bank, while capital gains on properties go tax-free.

So if you’re reading this and you’re a baby boomer and you’re banking on the government pension to fund a comfortable enough retirement, you need to be aware of the situation that’s going on right now for young people, especially those of us with children. We’re working long hours and paying phenomenally high housing costs (whether rent or mortgage), and we’re the future of the tax base. Us and our children. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you care about the long term sustainability of superannuation, you need to care about the extent to which the social contract is supporting the people whose taxes are going to pay for it when you need it. I don’t say this to pit generation against generation, or from a point of antagonism. Quite the opposite. Those of us who are facing a stage of life where we need extra support need to recognise each other and work together.

Magnanimity, no matter how pure hearted, is not a sustainable basis for a social welfare state. The only sustainable basis is mutual interdependence – stemming from the knowledge that we are in the same boat. We need to pull together. Are you with us?

This is a guest post by Eliza Prestidge Oldfield.  Eliza also writes at http://tea-plus-oranges.tumblr.com.

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Alternative Measures of Progress – and Making Our Measures Meaningful

These are the notes prepared for a talk that I gave at the Cambridge Union on Saturday 23 May, as part of the Global Scholars Symposium 2015.  I spoke alongside Nic Marks and Rob Wiblin in a panel discussion on the topic “Alternative Measures of Progress”.

I want to speak about how the challenge of our time is not finding the perfect measure of progress; it’s finding the right mindset for approaching progress – and making our measures meaningful.

I want to start by asking you all two questions, and I want you to be honest. The first question is this: how many of you know the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of your home country? The second is: how many of you know how the GDP per capita of your home country has changed over the last five years?

The topic of this session is “Alternative Measures of Progress”, and – although there are other measures of progress aside from GDP – I want initially to focus on GDP, because I think it’s the standard measure of progress in economists’ minds. It’s the benchmark against which we can judge alternatives.

Economists can speak of GDP in quite rarefied or abstract terms.  But I think it’s important to understand how GDP is actually relevant to our day-to-day life.  GDP is important in three main ways:

  • First, GDP per capita (the total GDP divided by the number of people in a population) is used as a rough measure of national income or wealth. You see this in atlases, or in The Economist. You don’t often see this figure quoted in everyday conversation, or in newspapers.
  • Secondly, GDP growth is used as a sign of whether an economy is in good health. Just before the election in this country, growth was much lower than expected between January and March at 0.3%. These growth figures, calculated by national statistical agencies, are quoted a lot more by politicians and newspapers.
  • Thirdly, declines in GDP can result in recessions. A recession is a technical term that means two quarters in a row of negative economic growth. As you know, when a recession is announced, this is generally major news, and as a signal about likely job losses, business confidence, and the health of an economy.

Often when there’s a wave of criticism of ideas or institutions, we can tend to inflate the power of those ideas or institutions. My first message, then, is: we need to get into perspective the power that GDP has. It does have considerable influence over economists, journalists, and politicians. But it is used in quite specific and confined ways. We’re not always aware of information about GDP. We all have our own proxies for progress – signals that we use to decide whether our country or community is progressing. So GDP may have less power than we think.

Nevertheless, because GDP has considerable power, we should be critical about how it is worked out and used. To me, there are three ways of criticizing GDP:

  1. We can say that if it’s progress we want to measure, GDP isn’t a very good proxy for progress. This is the standard criticism of GDP, and I think it carries a lot of weight. GDP is a measure of the financial value of goods and services produced in a country over a year. It’s therefore really a measure of economic activity. It’s not necessarily a measure of growth, though there’s a link between economic activity and growth. It doesn’t capture environmental destruction; and it ignores the shadow economy, and domestic labour. In short: GDP doesn’t represent what we understand progress to be.
  1. The second thing we could say, and I think this argument isn’t made so much, is that GDP is manipulated to serve political agendas. In particular, what I have in mind here is the fact that in recent years, austerity economic policy – which just means a policy of cutting government spending to “tighten our belts” or “live within our means” – has been justified because of the recession that the UK went into in 2008-2009. I think this is a special form of economics, recessionary economics, which uses the fact of a recession to shrink the size of a government because of an ideological belief that small government is better. I accept, of course, that recessions might require a shift in government policy. But what I am saying is that a recession has become something like an economic state of emergency, which gives a government a license to do what it wants to restore order. And at the root of this recessionary response is GDP.
  1. There’s a third way I think we should criticise GDP, which is to question the idea of progress more broadly. We could say that the concept of progress implies a linear improvement across history, when really human beings have cycled through progress and regress, going forward and going backwards; we could say that the urge for progress has resulted in disregard for the environment and in increasing materialism; and we could say that progress often means progress for some individuals and groups, and not others – or progress for some species and not others. I’d accept the force of some of these points (which have been made more eloquently than me by Frankfurt School philosophers like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse), but I’d want to hold onto a more limited idea of progress. I don’t believe that history is a story of ever-improving human welfare. I do think, however, that we should be striving to make our world better than it is today. If progress just means this – striving for betterment, aiming at an improved society – then I think we don’t have to abandon it altogether.

What does all this mean, though, for alternatives? Some of you might say that you knew all this already – Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, amongst others, have written a long report about the limitations of GDP, and I think the weaknesses of GDP even appear now in standard economics textbooks. I want to close with some comments about how we approach progress in a world where we don’t focus so much on GDP – and here I might differ from Nic and Rob a little bit.

The main point I want to make is that I think the challenge is not to perfect our measures, but to make our measures meaningful. What do I mean by that? I think we’ll always have measures of progress that are traded and tossed back-and-forth by people from different sides of the political spectrum. Just think about all the measures we have at the moment: apart from GDP, we have debt, unemployment rates, inflation rates, inequality rates (as measured through the Gini coefficient), export numbers, wage rates; also, away from narrow economic measures, we have carbon emissions, imprisonment rates, crime rates, voting rates, educational results, and many more. I doubt that we’ll ever have a single authoritative measure of progress. And I don’t think we necessarily need to give up entirely on GDP. The challenge, instead, I think, is to understand the measures we have, to recognize the pros and cons of those measures, and to justify why some measures are more important than others.

To do that we need values. We need to explain, for example, why inequality is harmful, and why we should care about the Gini coefficient – and that involves talking about the value of community. We need to argue for why climate change is the most important policy problem of our time, and why we should be looking at carbon emissions – and that involves talking about values like environmental protection and the interests of future generations. And we need to show, in my opinion, that high imprisonment rates are a sign of a society that isn’t progressing, which involves talking openly about forgiveness, or kindness, or love as values. When we refer to these measures, we also need to be clear about what they mean, so that they’re not just another number quoted in the media. And we should acknowledge that there might be some proxies for progress that aren’t well-represented in any measure – and which we shouldn’t try to measure. I tried to sit down and think about values matter to me, and I came up with the following: freedom, equality, community, identity, dignity, security, responsibility, inclusiveness, creativity, and integrity. If you have some time, try to jot down some values for yourself.

To ensure that we’re consistent in the values that we’re invoking, we need ideology, I think. Ideology, to me, is just a pattern of values and a story about where we should be going as a society. It’s not very fashionable to say that we need ideology – most people think that ideology is divisive, and that we should be focusing on what works – but I think both values and ideology can help us to decide as societies what measures are meaningful.

This is an important task for our time. In most modern constitutions, we have shared standards that relate to rights in the political and social sphere. We’ve agreed that we need to look out for where rights – like freedom of expression, or the right to a fair trial – are being respected or undermined. But these constitutions don’t refer to the economy. They don’t usually articulate standards for an economy that is progressing. That’s the debate we need to be having. I am not seeing we should put the measures that matter to us in a constitution, and allow judges to strike down laws or acts inconsistent with these measures. But we need to build a kind of constitution for the modern economy. Each country needs to decide for itself what measures matter. Having that debate wouldn’t be complete progress. But it would be a limited form of progress. And it would allows us to be more thoughtful, more careful, and maybe more caring. That, I think, would be a progress we could all rally around.

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The Politics of Love – Max Harris and Philip McKibbin

Around the world, progressive-minded people are struggling to articulate an end-goal for politics. The Right, in most places, remains committed to the tight logic of neoliberalism (and its ideals of private property, liberty, and efficiency). The Left, meanwhile, has failed to respond. There are some who still have faith in a Marxist vision of the total collapse of capitalism; others in the radical tradition hold onto religious prophecies. But for the rest of us, the direction our political journey should take has become unclear. We do not know where we are going. At the same time, there is a growing disdain of politics generally, especially amongst young people. Politicians don’t look like us, they don’t behave like we do, and their ideas don’t connect to our needs. There is deep doubt, in other words, about whether politics is the right vehicle for collective struggle – even if we could settle on the destination of our journey.

And when we look to the work of academics and writers, we see end-goals and ideals that fail to inspire confidence. The grand ideas of political philosophy are often rarefied. Human dignity, for example, is an attractive concept, but it requires considerable intellectual work to connect it to the realities of everyday life. And thinktanks are invariably too close to the political sphere to contribute anything imaginative or truly original.

We like to think we are exceptional in Aotearoa New Zealand, but the politics of this country is not exempt from these trends. The Left has not voiced a shared vision for a better society – other than referring, in passing, to values like ‘decency’ and ‘fairness’. And there is alienation from politics here, too: around 1 million people stayed at home on Election Day in 2014, a lot of them younger people. The proliferation of political parties on the Left suggests the need for a more unified narrative. And here, as elsewhere, writers and universities – the engines of ideas in our society – have failed to produce that narrative to fill the gap in public debate.

It would be a mistake to think, though, that we, as New Zealanders, are incapable of addressing these problems. We have a history of progressive politics that has positively influenced the trajectory of world history. The narratives we tell our children – involving women’s suffrage, indigenous rights, our anti-nuclear stance, and homosexual law reform –provide examples not only to ourselves, but for people everywhere.

So what is to be done? We think the answer lies, at least partially, in articulating a values-based politics. More specifically, we think the answer can be found in the values of everyday life. Some of these values, like kindness, have been relegated to the private domain – for what is, in our view, no good reason. Perhaps it is thought that these values are too virtuous to be respected consistently and in public by our politicians. Whatever the case, we believe these are values that we can rally around. Bringing politics closer to our lived values will ensure we are less alienated from politicians; it may also help to humanise the ideas that are developed by political philosophers and thinktanks. In this article, we sketch a politics of love, in the spirit of finding a politics grounded in everyday values. Love itself might be understood as a value, but we think it can also be understood as a way of determining what is valuable. We view it as underlying other everyday values that could be part of a new political vision.

We are not the first people to suggest that love might helpfully inform politics. In her book All About Love, bell hooks writes, “All the great social movements for freedom and justice in our society have promoted a love ethic. […] Were a love ethic informing all public policy in cities and towns, individuals would come together and map out programmes that would affect the good of everyone…” Jimmy Carter, the spiritually-minded and ethically-grounded US President, talked of the need for a “government filled with love”. And Vaclav Havel, the musician and playwright who led the fight to free Czechoslovakia from Soviet rule in 1989, said that a government must “radiate love”. This is not an exhaustive list of references to love in politics, either. Martin Luther King, Jr. focused on the idea in his speeches, Hone Harawira encouraged the New Zealand government to pass a bill providing free school lunches as a “show of love”, and many others (including the group Heart Politics in Aotearoa New Zealand) have invoked love in similar ways.

What did these thinkers, writers, activists, and politicians mean by ‘love’, and how might we understand the concept? bell hooks chooses to understand love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”. Love, for us, is a sentiment of enduring warmth towards a person or people, which shows a deep concern for them. It can be expressed in different ways – for example, through words or in actions. It is closely connected to kindness, generosity, and commitment. The Māori concept of aroha, which is best understood in its cultural context, enriches our understanding of love by articulating something a little wider, a little deeper. In his book Tikanga Whakaaro, Cleve Barlow writes that aroha is a creative force which emanates from the gods.

He aha te aroha? Ko te aroha he tikanga whakaaro nui; ka aroha tētahi tangata ki tētahi tangata, ki tōna iwi, whenua hoki, ki ngā kīrehe, ki ngā manu, ki ngā ika, ki ngā mea katoa e tupu ake ana i te whenua. Ka aroha te tangata ki tētahi atu, ahakoa he aha tōna āhua i roto i ōna pikitanga ake, i roto anō i ōna heketanga iho, i roto i ōna hari, i roto i ōna pōuri, i roto i āna mahi pai me āna mahi hē.

(What is aroha? Aroha in a person is an all-encompassing quality of goodness, expressed by love for people, land, birds and animals, fish, and all living things. A person who has aroha for another expresses genuine concern towards them and acts with their welfare in mind, no matter what their state of health or wealth.)

Barlow emphasises the actively inclusive quality of love:

Ko te tangata e mea ana he aroha tōna, ka taea e ia te kite, te atawhai te iwi whānui ahakoa iti, ahakoa rahi.

(A person who claims to possess the gift of aroha demonstrates this love by sharing it with all people and without discrimination.)

We think that these understandings can inform our thinking and guide us in love. We would encourage everyone to reflect further on how love can be understood and interpreted, so that together we can work for the good of all people. Aroha mai, aroha atu.

If these understandings tell us something about what love is, what might a politics of love look like? We think love encourages us all to care about politics. If love involves a concern for people, then a politics of love will move this world to a better place for everyone. We can, of course, attempt to make our world a better place in lots of ways, by building character, for example, or by improving our relationships. But when we reflect on the many ways in which politics affects our well-being, it becomes clear that to love – to express a sentiment of enduring warmth towards a person or people – is, in part, to care about politics. This point can be brought out negatively: if we fail to resist racism or sexism, issues that are largely political, we cannot be said to be loving, we cannot be said to care about people. If we are committed to changing the structure of our society, politics must be part of the project; and if politics is going to do the work of love, it will be because we as individuals care enough to ensure that it does.

In such a politics, love would be woven through all of our policy. Embracing a politics of love would change how we justify policy, as well as how we talk about it. For example, welfare and benefits might be understood not in terms of encouraging re-entry into the work force (an economic justification), but rather as an expression of commitment towards certain individuals and groups in society that require support. And a politics of love would rule out ‘beneficiary-bashing’ language, which does not, and cannot, evince love for those who receive benefits. As another example, refugee policy might be reconceived as a way of showing warmth to persecuted individuals, in the same way that hospitality can be seen as an expression of love for outsiders. The politics of love could change how policy is delivered, and how the state is seen by those affected by policy.

Love could also prompt substantive rethinking in certain areas. Guided by love, policy-makers may choose to abandon certain policies, and to pursue others more vigorously. This will have to be debated – and we do not want to pre-empt the outcome of those debates here. But to illustrate our point, a politics of love might spark a renewed focus on rehabilitation in prisons, as an expression of the principle that warmth should be shown to all individuals, even those who have made mistakes, and of our understanding that individuals are never wholly responsible for their situations. A politics of love might also lead to the apportioning of more funding to community activities and support – such as counselling helplines and sports clubs – since these institutions help to build bonds of love among those who share a community. The aim, in this new politics, would be to achieve the preconditions of love within a community, as well as to express love itself.

Love requires that we recognise the importance of all people, and a politics of love would encourage us to ensure that this recognition informs every political decision that we make – in deciding whether to vote, and who to vote for; in running for office, or deciding whether to support those who are; in helping to make policy, or deciding how to respond to it… We should also be aware that a lot of actions that do not seem political have a political dimension. Engaging in politics is a broader enterprise than we might think: who we are friends with, how we talk to others, how we operate in the so-called ‘private domain’ of the home – all of this is political, as feminists have long maintained. A politics of love would have love run through all of these decisions and interactions. It could, then, be an ethical framework as well as a political approach.

Also integral to a politics of love is collectivity. A love ethic, in bell hooks’ terms, brings people together – and reminds us of the value of relationships and collective endeavour. In Aotearoa New Zealand, te ao Māori gives us special insight into collectivity and how it might be understood: with its emphasis on collective well-being, it encourages us all to adopt a progressive understanding of politics, focused on enhancing the well-being of us all. We, collectively, are responsible for the world we share, and a focus on the strengths of collectives might help us make political decisions that better balance the needs of individuals, and that respond appropriately to the natural world on which we are so dependent.

It is likely that disagreements will arise as to how such an abstract term like ‘love’ is to be interpreted for, and applied to, politics. But the importance of love is something we should all be able to agree on. Are we advocating a politics of unconditional love, a politics where love can never be withdrawn? To this question, our answer is an unwavering ‘yes’. We believe the state owes love to all of its citizens by virtue of our being people, and by virtue of the relationship between the state and its people. The state may express love in stronger or weaker ways, but love itself must never be abandoned, and we should not be drawn into debates about whether love might be withheld, or withdrawn, from some individuals (such as prisoners). Others may say, as a further objection, that love is too soft – too airy-fairy, too waffly – for the hard discussions that need to be had in politics. We reject this claim, too. It is true that politics is not easy, and that (re-)introducing love into the political arena will not resolve or dissolve all disputes. But it is precisely because politics is messy and difficult that we need motivating ideals – like love – that can keep us focused on what matters in potentially divisive debates.

One of the special things about values is that they are able to inform complex decision-making processes while maintaining their integrity, or purity, as values. In contrast to more prescriptive approaches, values can inspire action without compromising their capacity to provide us with different solutions in different situations. And there are numerous values that we encounter in everyday life that could also be translated into politics. These include (but are by no means limited to) compassion, responsibility, forgiveness, and honesty. We suggest that these can be understood in relation to, and interpreted through, love – but as these are complex issues, we will have to explore these values elsewhere.

The politics of love that we have sketched demonstrates that everyday values can provide a wellspring of resources for a new vision of politics. This is a view of politics that is more grounded, and at the same more imaginative, than other narratives circulating today. We are suggesting that the direction our politics should take need not be based on some theory produced through detached reflection, or taken from some distant political movement. Maybe we have been living with it all along. Maybe it has been all around us, waiting. Maybe in politics as in life – to end with the words of a song – all you need is love.

The authors wish to thank Simon Waigth and Lana Doyle for their helpful comments on a draft of this article.

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New Zealand’s Literacy Gap: A Call to Action for Student Teachers (Guest Post by Renée Gerlich)

… no school system can claim to be just which is organised in such a way as to favour children who have been socialised in one, rather than another part of the social structure of the community that nourishes them. Wherever a school system is simply an extension of the homes of an urban middle class, or of a dominant culture, or both, it is inevitable that the children from those homes will be in the best position to profit from it.

– John Watson, ex-director of New Zealand Centre of Educational Research, 1965.

This piece is about the racism that is embedded in New Zealand’s education system and ultimately produces our nationwide ‘literacy gap’. The gap sees a disproportionate number of Maori and Pasifika underachieve and fall increasingly far behind their white counterparts as their education progresses in New Zealand schools. While poverty is an all-important factor here, this essay argues that education is failing to play its role in providing a route out of the poverty trap for Maori and Pasifika in particular, where social interventions fail or are lacking.

In New Zealand, providing this opportunity for socio-economic mobility would require teachers to be well trained in promoting and providing literacy skills specifically to those Maori and Pasifika children most affected by neocolonialism. This essay encourages student teachers to begin to take a strong position on the literacy gap, to demand training that will enable them to close the gap in their own classrooms, and to protest heartily where education faculties are failing to provide adequate training.


Last year, only one third of Māori and Pasifika Year 13 students gained university entrance – down from half in 2013. Entrance has been made harder, according to Universities New Zealand executive director Chris Whelan, in response to reports that 22% of Māori and Pasifika students and 11% of European students are dropping out of university after their first year. One ironic consequence will be that fewer Māori and Pasifika will be able to train as teachers, become doctors and professors of education, and influence the very system that is neglecting to provide the social, economic and educational conditions for their success.

With trademark arrogance, education minister Hekia Parata states that the increased difficulty is in the interests of the very students who are being filtered out of higher education or forced to pay for a foundation studies year. Claiming no responsibility as minister for the exclusion of such a high proportion of Māori and Pasifika from higher education, Parata merely explains that “It is not in the interests of any students to begin their university studies without the skills or experience necessary to succeed.” More difficult assessments amount to a purported ‘clarification’ of university requirements.

Whose responsibility is it, if not the government’s, to ensure that Māori and Pasifika gain the skills necessary to succeed? Statistics have repeatedly revealed systemic Māori and Pasifika exclusion from equal educational opportunities since the settler period. These statistics should be raising alarm with Parata, alerting her to the racism inherent in a system it is her job to improve with policy. They are not cause for her to advocate that more Māori and Pasifika heed the message that they are simply not university material.

Neocolonialism – the ongoing, active privileging by those in power of white, middle class interests at the expense of those of Pasifika and tangata whenua – dictates that 1 in 3 Māori children grow up in poverty. Our education system has proven time and time again that it is not only insufficiently responsive but that it also exacerbates this disadvantage. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 report notes a correlation between educational achievement and socio-economic status that is marked in New Zealand in comparison with other countries. The average reading scores of five-year olds in decile 1 schools are almost half those of their peers in decile 7-10 schools. Māori and Pasifika students have long suffered from our wholesale refusal to address the root causes of this problem.

A warning to this year’s student teachers: you are being trained to perpetuate a racist education system, so prepare to speak out. The principal theory of literacy acquisition informing policy and teacher education in New Zealand, called ‘whole language’ theory, is derived from the learning experiences of white, middle-class children. This theory gained traction and was institutionalised contemporaneously with neoliberalism, in the 1970s and 80s. Universities, given their statutory role as society’s critic and conscience, should now be fiercely critiquing it – following the near lone voices of Massey’s Bill Tunmer and James Chapman.

Whole language theory posits that children do not need to learn language (even a highly complex language like English) through explicit teaching, but simply through exposure to text. Its principal text in New Zealand is John Smith and Warwick Elley’s 1997 Learning to Read in New Zealand, which states that:

Children are assumed to acquire their word attack skills incidentally, while reading and rereading favourite books, repetitive texts, poems and songs. The majority of New Zealand teachers lean more towards this position … arguing that reading and writing are best acquired ‘naturally’ in the same way we learn to speak and listen.

The problem with this theory is the same as the problem with free market ideas of an ‘invisible hand’ being a suitable determinant of who can flourish in the market. Ultimately, it is those with pre-existing capital (in this case, educational skills) who prevail, and overwhelmingly due to colonialism, those people are white. Highlighting the flaws in the logic of this year, New Zealand Centre of Educational Research reports have shown that the primary indicator of educational achievement in New Zealand is not individual effort, but the educational levels of a child’s mother.

As stated, one third of Māori children live in poverty in New Zealand. Of course, Māori mothers are thus overall, by extension and by virtue of racist historical processes, generally less endowed with educational capital accumulated in white institutions than their white counterparts. What’s more, children growing up in conditions of poverty are said to experience 3 million fewer verbal utterances per year than their wealthier peers. This greatly affects literacy development. Most Pakeha children generally enter school equipped with bigger oral vocabularies, more phonetic awareness and a greater capacity to rhyme and recognize syllables, more knowledge of written letters, and more confidence and motivation in using language. The sad fact is that the system continues to prove itself incapable and unwilling to assist students who do not enter school with this capital. Those children do not only stay behind, but fall increasingly far behind until now they meet a minister who tells them they’re better off as labourers or in the service industry. 

Clearly, we need to rethink our basic position on literacy. Rather than insisting literacy is acquired incidentally, when we know that it is developed through previously gained educational capital, we need to be asking how literacy is or can be acquired by children who have small vocabularies, little phonetic awareness or letter knowledge, low motivation and confidence.

There is a precedent for this kind of approach both in New Zealand and abroad. Between the 1930s and 60s, the work of Clarence Beeby, Gordon Tovey, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Apirana Ngata, Alan Simpson, Elwyn Richardson, and Cliff Whiting is worth investigating for its deep, authentic and effective consideration of English literacy acquisition and Māori and Pasifika learning needs. In the U.S., literacy expert Louisa Moats is a powerful advocate for the incorporation of ‘code-based’ instruction for students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

It is high time both those administering our neocolonial public education system were held to account, and that the true causes of Māori and Pasifika underachievement were addressed. I want to encourage today’s student teachers to determinedly and vociferously demand teacher training that will help them contribute to the closing of New Zealand’s literacy gap.

Yes, education faculties employ the use of te reo and tikanga Māori to fulfil bicultural requirements, but this is nowhere near sufficient when what is clearly and urgently needed is a total reconceptualisation of literacy teaching that accommodates Māori and Pasifika literacy learning needs. I urge this year’s students to do these two things.

First, examine current gestures toward ‘biculturalism’ critically by asking whether the skills offered will truly equip new teachers to close the literacy gap in their classrooms.

Second, challenge yourselves about where and when your commitment to children’s learning and education’s social role begins. Many students perceive it as beginning on their first day, wielding a whiteboard marker and a wad of worksheets. This is similar to the belief that the responsibilities of parenthood begin the day a child is born – something all pregnant women know not to be true. The raising of children is a collective responsibility met through the insistence on personal, family and social conditions that are healthy for children.

It is similar with education: It is not only through direct classroom contact with you as a teacher that the lives, opportunities and learning of your students are profoundly affected. Educational conditions are shaped by the global political economy and its vested interests; by the tasks and priorities that are assigned to public education by those in power. Since the 1980s neoliberal reforms, it has been the New Zealand Treasury and not our Ministry of Education that has determined the role education is to play in our society, or rather our economy. Successive ministers have translated this assigned role into policy and monitoring systems. From this policy, the Teachers Council creates criteria for the teacher education programmes administered by education faculty management. Many lecturers deliver these programmes with a reluctant ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ or even ‘tow the party line’ attitude that is not good enough and must be challenged.

Teacher education is a crucial pivot point within this overall mechanism. It is the place where the rubber hits the road in education, where theory begins its transfer into practice. It represents a rather electrifying equation: teacher education is where a distilled system of power and policy meets a cohort of student teachers who represent an infinite quantity of future classroom time. Teacher education is where two diametrically opposed motivations meet: the institution’s contractual obligation to fulfil its state-funded role of ensuring compliance, and students’ social responsibility to think critically and independently in the interest of social justice. Students have a social responsibility to critique institutional practice that fails to address social needs. Students of education must begin demanding that education faculties develop sound and robust policies that support the literacy education of Māori and Pasifika and that can withstand political change. A committed teacher will not wait until their first day in a classroom to demand educational conditions that are just, in the same way that a committed parent would not wait until a baby is born to begin taking care of her living conditions. Just educational conditions, such as the mainstream capacity to help Māori and Pasifika children who grow up in poverty become literate, must be demanded from the moment teachers commit themselves to or enter the sector.

Students studying to become teachers can make their demands known by their independent selection of reading materials and topics for discussion; by critiquing courses in a way that demands recognition, including through doing so publicly; by walking out of lectures that are tokenistic or encourage uncritical complicity with the status quo; by organising discussions about the university’s role in education; and by staging protests, including through the use of the university’s own assessment programmes and examination schedule. There are precedents for this.

Currently education faculties use familiar and modest amounts of tikanga and te reo Māori to address the issue of racial inequality in education. This material is important and has found its way into the curriculum through Apirana Ngata’s legacy. Ironically, as a staunch advocate of sound and effective English literacy instruction for Māori and Māori socio-economic mobility, Ngata would turn in his grave knowing his work was being diluted and implemented as a substitute rather than a complement to quality literacy education for Māori. What Māori and Pasifika students require of our education faculties is nothing short of a complete reconceptualisation of how teachers are to be trained in literacy education.

Teacher training is an absolutely crucial component in the clockwork of our education system. The training that teachers receive to inform their careers is not to be dismissed as a negligible quantity of time, as just a year, or three, for a piece of paper – because it is not. It is some of the most significant, socially formative and incalculably precious time there is.

Student teachers: speak up and make it known, loud and clear, that you demand your university’s support to gain the knowledge and skills you need to close the literacy gap in your classroom. Speak up and make it known hat you refuse to passively perpetuate a racist system, while both social inequality and their status as tangata whenua dictate that Māori and Pasifika students are required in our tertiary institutions and in our highest positions of influence now more than ever.

For those who are not student teachers: send these reflections on. Encourage those you know who are in teacher training to reflect on these issues, and to critically evaluate their training programmes in relation to New Zealand’s literacy gap. Encourage student teachers you know to inform themselves on the gap, and hold education faculties to account when they are clearly not providing the training Māori and Pasifika students need from New Zealand’s teachers today.

Renée Gerlich is a writer based in Wellington, New Zealand. She has a postgraduate diploma in teaching from Victoria University.

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The Uselessness of Civility – Guest Post by Difficult Lemon

A lot of people I like and respect have been sharing Jon Ronson’s article from the New York Times about internet ‘shaming’, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”. This has bothered me a lot because I fucking hated that article. HATED it. Seeing him going around peddling the same line of reasoning on various TV shows has made me feel the need to try and articulate what I hated so much about it, about how little it spoke to my experience of the internet and the way power and marginalization operate online.

But this isn’t just about Ronson. It is about a whole bunch of people who seem deeply hurt by ‘mean activists on Twitter’: Jonathan Chait, Patrick Gower in New Zealand, and many other journalists who complain about a ‘Twitterati’ that ‘abuses’ them. Their complaints to me sound much more like, how dare these NOBODIES criticize me? I have never had to deal with this before; how dare they speak to me in anything other than the deferential tone I believe I deserve? Excluded from this are of course genuine threats of violence and harassment – these threats are the real threat to freedom of speech on Twitter, and a lot of female voices are lost because they simply can’t take it anymore. But this is not what has gotten Ronson and Chait outraged. Instead they have added a pseudo-intellectual line of attack to a range of people who want to shut down the voices of Twitter activists.

I don’t find Ronson, Chait or anyone else I mentioned particularly interesting. I rarely read what they write. I have discovered the views of people I find fascinating and intellectually challenging mainly through the internet. My list includes Lauren Chief Elk, Mikki Kendall, @so_treu, @_surlymermaid, @moscaddie, http://www.renegademothering.com/, http://bellejar.ca/ – but it is not limited to these. What most members of my list have in common is that they are regularly scolded for ‘taking it too far’, for ‘not being civil’, by people who operate inside mainstream institutions, be they journalism or academia.

Most activists who make the most change are not polite. They don’t defer to the norm of the room; they actively disrupt it in ways which are uncomfortable. The internet and especially Twitter has democratised who can do this – in no previous time could someone like Lauren Chief Elk level her justified anger at Eve Ensler (writer of The Vagina Monologues), for example, and actually spread it enough for Eve Ensler to feel obliged to respond. Social media allows for the harmful actions of the privileged, which usually are left unchallenged because of the power these people hold socially, to be aggressively interrogated. This I believe is profoundly shocking to privileged people.

This kind of Twitter activism has also led to huge victories, all of which Ronson and co do not mention when they try and frame it as a social evil. The Ferguson protests were not covered by national or international media until intense twitter commentary forced them to. If it were not for Antonio French you may never have heard of Ferguson. The subsequent attention and institutional reaction was forced by social media. A juror would have profited on her role in letting off Trayvon Martin’s killer, if Twitter hadn’t found out about it and got the company to shut down the deal. In New Zealand, Twitter has been used to shift our conversation on rape culture – grown men attacking young girls on their radio show to boost ratings has led to real consequences. In short, Twitter has democratized which issues get covered in mainstream media. It holds people accountable who are not accustomed to it. At times, individuals can be targeted seemingly at random – Justine Sacco said the kind of racist joke many white people say every day. She said it under her own name as a PR person for a company she named in her Twitter bio. She faced far more consequences for that than most white people ever will, and the randomness and seeming disproportion of that I understand seems unfair to those who automatically identify with Justine.

But I identify more with those who have heard thousands of Justines in their life and just can’t take it another minute. The reaction isn’t really about her – it is for all those other Justines who will now think twice before they make racist comments. John Tamihere being forced off air in New Zealand sends a warning to all the other shock jocks. It says to them: just maybe, there will be a consequence of peddling misogyny for a living. Performative activism does have a place in educating people. Being detached and unemotional about marginalisation is a privilege. Online activism – I don’t diminish it by calling it ‘shaming’ – can be impolite and spoken in discordant tones at times, but ultimately it represents a major kind of resistance which cannot exist offline.

Difficult Lemon is a guest contributor to The Aotearoa Project, an ex-tweeter, and expert eye-roller with an interest in politics.

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He Iwi Kotahi Tātou – Guest Post by Philip McKibbin

Me mihi atu ahau ki ōku hoa ako me ōku hoa mahi.

Ko tēnei kōrero mā ngā tāngata katoa.

This article is for everyone.

There is only one way to address the problems that afflict us. That way is love. It can be difficult, though, to imagine love as something more than that which a family shows to a child, that which so many of us seek in romantic partnerships, or that which some of us believe we will find in God – and yet, we must. As bell hooks tells us, there is only one love, and it has the potential to transform our world …

Love is a way of relating. We can relate to different things: to ourselves, to other people, and to the natural environment. Togetherness, then, is an extension of love with other people. Friendships help us to appreciate this: these relationships – which are loving – are freely chosen, and they endure because they allow us to both be ourselves and be together. Love leads us to togetherness; and in togetherness, we learn how to love.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, this way of love is not achieving expression. Our lack of togetherness is evident in our inequalities, especially those between Pākehā and Māori. The idea that, because ‘we’re all New Zealanders’, we have achieved equality is false: it ignores Pākehā privilege and fails to account for disadvantage. The crises that confront Māori in education, health, and justice are not only Māori problems; nor are they only Pākehā problems. They are our problems, and when we understand them as such, they affect us all.

These problems are symptoms of our lack of togetherness, but they are not the only ones: interpersonal racism, on the part of both Pākehā and Māori, taints our thinking and poisons our relationships. The lack of trust between us – be it an unreasoning response to misrepresentation, or a weary wariness resulting from oppression – prevents us from seeing the potential benefits in working together to generate solutions to our problems.

As Hone Heke signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi, William Hobson – trying to say, ‘we are now one people’ – said to him, ‘He iwi tahi tātou.’ Heke corrected his grammar: ‘He iwi kotahi tātou,’ he said.* We can think about this story in a number of ways. We might remember the haste with which The Treaty of Waitangi was prepared, or think about the incompetence of those who drafted it. It is tempting, indeed, to read into this story all of the problems that have plagued us, as a people and as peoples, since 1840.

I think about the story differently. I choose to imagine both Heke and Hobson as well-intentioned, and as engaged in a joint project. As a Pākehā learner of te reo Māori, I sympathise with Hobson. I know – as do my hoa ako – that it takes courage to speak in a language different to the one you are most used to. Perhaps Heke knew that, too? Well, he could have responded to Hobson’s suggestion that we are one people by saying, ‘No, we aren’t!’ Instead, he strengthened the sentiment.

What is very clear is that Heke knew togetherness cannot be based on exploitation – that he understood this is evident in what he did, and did, and then did again to that flagpole in Kororāreka, cutting it down in acts of protest against the Crown. Togetherness is not a one-sided thing. Whether it involves people or peoples, it acknowledges our plurality, our mutuality. It also involves a commitment to equality: the opposite of equality is oppression, and as bell hooks says, when we choose to love we move against oppression.

We cannot ignore the racism – interpersonal, institutional, and internalised – under which Māori continue to suffer. And if we really are committed to overcoming it, we must understand it as it is: a weight, which we will only lift by pulling together. It is only by working with Pākehā that Māori will overcome racism; and by working with Māori to overcome racism, Pākehā will finally be deserving of the right to live in this country.

What should we do? We must all seek understanding, which we will gain by being together. We must then challenge ourselves with that understanding – and if we find fault in the way we think or feel, try our hardest to right it. And we should form friendships, because in friendship we will find the strength we need to transform ourselves and our world…

When we look on it alone, the way of love seems difficult – but because we will be walking it with friends, we will know how to respond to the challenges we encounter. As individuals, we must start on that path. We should invite other people to walk with us, and welcome them when they do. As we walk, more and more people will join our hīkoi.

And then – then, when we are all journeying together – we will explore our Universe, drawing on the strengths of our many cultural heritages, navigating new ways of being that benefit all of us as equals and that will continue to benefit our descendants…

Togetherness requires trust, and trust takes courage. Unfortunately, trust is something we lack here in Aotearoa New Zealand – but whether we are Māori or Pākehā, or Māori and Pākehā, or strong in our other ways, courage is something we have plenty of.

And we can always choose to love.

* This story is related by Papaarangi Reid in “Te Pupuri i te Ao o te Tangata Whenua.” (In Health and Society in Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Davis, Peter and Kevin Dew, 51-62. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1999.)

This guest post was contributed by Philip McKibbin, a freelance writer living in Auckland, New ZealandYou can find more of his writing at http://www.philip-mckibbin.com/.

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So It Seems: Of Hearts and Hospitals

It’s almost pitch black, at about 10.30pm on a Thursday night, in the middle of nowhere somewhere between New York and Baltimore. I walk out across the petrol station while the bus takes a rest break, and the cicadas aren’t just humming – they’re screeching. I look around. It’s desolate and dark.

I’m meant to be in New York, coming to the end of an internship with the office of Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme – a dream job. Instead I’m on a Megabus heading to Baltimore, on my way to Johns Hopkins Hospital, about to see the doctor responsible for discovering a rare condition called Loeys-Dietz Syndrome and an expert in heart surgery.

How did I get here? And how did it come to this?


Eight months ago, in December 2013–January 2014, I attended the wedding of my friend, Akif, in Pakistan. It was a unique experience, made even more memorable by the fact that for 10 days, 15 friends of Akif’s were largely confined to an apartment in Karachi because of the security situation in the city. The apartment was in the Defence quarter, located opposite an ostentatious shopping mall. A McDonald’s had its grand opening while we stayed there – but the apartment was otherwise surrounded by an expanse of desert-like terrain, with the shadowy shapes of Karachi’s skyline only barely visible in the distance.

We all went a little crazy in that apartment, biding our time until wedding events in the evening. There were rich conversations: on New Zealand politics and law, on the books we had (I was mocked for having a copy of E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, which was read aloud and ridiculed), on the future. But even with the best company, most people get fidgety after that much time in an enclosed space. And we were no different. We were driven to activities that would’ve bordered on the wacky to anyone watching from the outside: building towers of bottles on glass tables, and narrating shadow puppet shows before we went to sleep at night – three per bed, with a hessian sack in place of bedding for one of us.

On one of these days, with the fan whirring in the background, the only doctor in our group, Andrew, turned towards me from across the room. He looked at me – as I stretched – and, joking in part, mentioned that in some ways I looked like a person with an unusual disorder called Marfan Syndrome. He asked me whether I could do certain things – like whether my thumb poked out if I clenched it under my fingers in a fist-like move – and made some comments about my limbs and my chest. “You should get it checked out next time you go to the doctor,” he said – or words to that effect.

Marfan Syndrome is a genetic connective tissue disorder. It tends to arise in people who are tall, who have long limbs, spidery fingers, and slightly odd-shaped chests – though the symptoms and diagnostic testing require much more than this. If undetected, it can lead to sudden heart problems.

At the time that I heard about Marfan’s, I laughed off this comment. My friend Andrew was only half-serious. And my quick Googling revealed body shapes that, while resembling mine, looked much more unusual than my own.

In hindsight, I’m extremely grateful to Andrew for making this off-hand remark. In some ways, it was in that apartment in the Defence quarter of Karachi, that all of this began.


Earlier this year, as part of my Master’s degree at the University of Oxford, all students were asked to organise an internship, a “summer project”, to round off our studies of public policy. After some brainstorming, I decided that my ideal position would be with Helen Clark, the head of the UN’s Development Programme and former Prime Minister of New Zealand – a progressive leader who I’ve long looked up to. With the support of the Blavatnik School of Government, I managed to arrange this internship in New York for two months from late June until late August 2014.

Fast forward to early August – and I’m having the time of my life. I’m working with intelligent, friendly people, passionate about making a difference in the world in a rigorous way, and at scale. Topics at work span public health (in particular, HIV/AIDS), climate change, poverty reduction, and how organisations can best anticipate the future (“strategic foresight”). And on the weekends I’m roaming coffee shops and independent bookstores – Double Dutch Espresso, McNally Jackson’s, 9th Street Espresso, the Housingworks Bookstore – and finally coming to love a city I’ve always wanted to like but never fully wrapped my head around.

On one Monday, though, as I’m emerging out of a subway in East Village after a particularly busy week – and on my way to Bluestockings, another independent bookstore with a strong activist and feminist bent – I feel a fleeting but sharp chest pain that gives me pause. I’ve become quite an anxious person in recent years, so my mind leaps to the worst case scenario. I slow down, take a break, and decide to buy some water. I walk on for a while, but the pain returns, briefly. I text my Mum, back in New Zealand – a nurse, and a wonderful person who knows my anxiety as well as she knows about addressing pain. She calls, asking me whether I have been eating and drinking and sleeping well (a fair question given my occasional neglect of these things), and tells me to stay in touch. Inside Bluestockings, the bookstore, I can’t really concentrate. I feel weak and a bit faint in the New York heat. I remember sitting on a bench outside the bookstore for at least a few minutes, and then gradually getting to my feet to take small steps towards the subway home.

At home, my kind flatmate (“room-mate”), Mike, a medical student doing a period of practical training in New York, agrees to have a chat about how I’ve been feeling. He listens to my heart and mentions that everything seems and sounds relatively normal – noting, I think, that the issue could be to do with my aorta, but commenting that at 26, any problems would be unusual. “Keep tabs on it, though,” he says – and if any pains recur, I should let him know, he tells me. In the preceding few months, Marfan Syndrome had come to my mind several times (during occasional chest pains in Oxford), and it returned to my thoughts again. Had Mike heard of it, I ask, and what did he think? He laughs, surprised that this unusual disorder would come to mind. He expresses skepticism, but also looks equivocal. He can’t be sure, but it’s certainly an unusual syndrome.

Then, on Sunday – unfortunately the day after Mike moved out of the apartment – I blacked out. The night before I’d read a tragic story in the New Zealand Herald about a young New Zealander who died suddenly in Sydney of a rare connective tissue disorder. He looked tall and slim, and I couldn’t help think of Marfan Syndrome. I woke up worrying, and after a bit of an Internet review, which I tried to filter for more reputable sources, I found myself even more concerned. What if I had the syndrome, and I was about to be suddenly struck down by it? I read somewhere that severe episodes must be caught within a couple of weeks if they are to be managed (and sometimes they can have more immediate, catastrophic effects), and I felt like my pains had been occurring for the last week or so. Whether because of anxiety or something else, I found myself getting blurred vision as I sat on the side of my bed. This was the worst I could have feared, I thought; but at the same time I tried to stay calm.

Some water might bring some relief, I thought – it was what my Mum had always recommended. I got up and took a few paces down the hallway towards the kitchen, but at some point I realised I wasn’t going to get there. I turned back towards my bedroom, and next came a few moments that I won’t ever be able to piece together. I was fortunate to slightly nudge my head on the floor – presumably after my legs buckled from under me, or perhaps after I fell backwards – at a force not strong enough to cause any damage, but distinct enough to bring me back to consciousness. I stared back into my bedroom, startled and a bit bemused, and it took me a few seconds to realize that I had fainted or somehow lost consciousness. “I think I just fainted,” I said to my room-mate, Matt, who kindly grabbed me some water before he had to race out the door. Mothers and others must think alike: water is the remedy for most ailments.

I still thought that going to the hospital would be an overreaction – a lot of people faint, for a lot of reasons, right? – and in the back of my mind was a worry about the cost of hospitalization in the US. But when I sat down and felt a numbness in parts of my body (my foot and my arm), and began losing vision again in my left eye, I thought that the situation was probably serious enough to start making inquiries about medical options.

What followed – between that moment and getting to the hospital – was pretty farcical, and wouldn’t happen in a country with public healthcare. I was very lucky to have emergency health insurance, provided by the Blavatnik School of Government where I was studying. I decided I should call them to check that they would cover my hospital visit, but I realised that I couldn’t call them off my US cell phone. I added Skype credit – technology has done wonders for me, at different stages of this story – and called my UK insurers. I was told that they would call me back in a few minutes, and that they recognized that it was an emergency; after 20 minutes I called them, only to be told by a friendly-sounding man that the insurance would cover my hospitalization, and that they would now find a hospital with which they had cover and call me back shortly. I waited, I think, for another 40 minutes, all the while sitting at my bed and playing out scenarios in my head. I decided to play some music by the New Zealander Liam Finn to calm me down – I had seen him play an outrageously good live show in New York only a fortnight previously; Liam Finn, like technology, would be a helpful companion in the coming days. His song, ‘Second Chance’, was ringing through my head:

You stand around your haunted home

Those demons won’t leave you alone

Don’t forget me when you grow old

Remember! Remember! Remember!

I looked at my clock. Almost an hour had passed. I decided to call the insurers again, and a lovely man named Kevin told me that I should go to Mt Sinai Hospital, and that I shouldn’t worry about being covered.

In another moment that was as comical as it was farcical, I realised that the mobile data on my phone plan in the US had not been working, though I had paid for it. I suddenly thought that I should see if this could be fixed – if I was about to go into hospital, I’d need a way to speak to people, and perhaps I could get hold of them on Skype.

“Hi, uh, I have a bit of a medical situation,” I stammered – my Kiwi tendency towards understatement probably coming through here – as I leapt into a taxi I’d hailed down.

An upbeat, male call-centre voice replied: “What is the problem with your phone, sir?”

“Ah, yeah, I don’t have Internet though I’ve paid for it. But I really need Internet: I’m about to go into hospital and need it to get hold of people.”

In words that I am not making up, and which show up the ills of a society that prioritises rule-based bureaucratic interaction over human dialogue, the man responded: “So, let me summarise: you have a problem with Internet on your phone …”

If I hadn’t been so worried, I would have laughed. As it was, I let out a small smile. Unfortunately, my Internet couldn’t be fixed during the course of that taxi ride. But I was too focused on the hospital to really care. Moments later, I checked myself into the emergency ward of Mt Sinai Hospital, New York.


I had been expecting to wait for some time, but I was impressed with the speed at which I was moved into a bed in the Emergency Department. I was given some preliminary interviews, told I would be getting various scans done, and fitted out with a gown. (I later discovered that I had put the gown on the wrong way round, with openings – usually exposing the back – that revealed my chest. I got some funny looks, but as anyone who has spent time with me knows, there was hardly much of a muscular spectacle to behold there.)

The first day in hospital flew by. I had curtains around my bed and I lay back, relaxed, looking out into the main central medical desk in the department – a positioning that gave me the curious feeling of being an audience member peeping at actors preparing to go onstage. It was especially curious being able to hear, occasionally, the doctors discussing my case, on the phone or with each other: “Uh, yeah. We have a 26 year-old male, who’s had a syncopal episode, with marfanoid habitus …”

That day was full of slightly absurd episodes – or maybe I was just on the look-out for absurdity to keep myself calm. There was the rap-battling, freestyling male-and-female nurse duo, who were constantly sniping at each other – with my highlight being the male nurse’s line, “If I was a donut/You’d wanna glaze me.” There was the drunk man brought in – whose severe alcoholism, to be sure, was no laughing matter – who croaked out for a urine bottle, only to use it, put it down next to his bed with no lid on it, and then swat it over, spilling the contents all across the floor in front of me (where it stayed for a good 10–15 minutes, painting the floor yellow). There was the CT-scan room, a room that I thought would be full of sterility and technology – but that was brought alive by the sound of loud hip-hop music when I was taken in on a stretcher. (“They always have the best music in here,” deadpanned the staff member tasked with pushing my stretcher.) I also couldn’t shy away from hearing the rectum examination that had to be done on the man with whom I was sharing my right curtain; I’m sure this procedure was much worse for him, since it had to be done essentially in public, with only curtains shielding him from the other patients. Welcome to the Hospital.

Those anecdotes may imply that I made light of the experience. I didn’t. I felt comfortable talking to people within the hospital – the nurses and doctors were very warm, partly I suppose because it was not so common for someone as young as me to come in. But when I made contact with the outside world – when I called my friends Alaister and Mitch, and when my parents made contact by calling the hospital – I found myself slightly choking up. It was only in talking to people not in the hospital, and in hearing their reactions to what had happened and what was happening, that I started to realize the seriousness of the situation.

And some important news came towards the end of the day, around the time my friend Mitch visited: one of the scans revealed that I had an enlarged aorta, or aortic aneurysm. And the doctors were all seriously considering the possibility that I had Marfan Syndrome, with all of them being impressed that I had a friend that pointed out the possibility to me. The fact that the enlarged aorta was being investigated alongside Marfan Syndrome was significant: if I had Marfan’s, the enlarged aorta would be considerably be more problematic, as the connective tissue disorder at the heart of Marfan’s would make it more likely that the aorta might tear (through a “dissection”), with potentially deadly consequences. The doctors began to talk about surgery, with one even using the term “life-threatening” to describe my position, a term that stayed with me. They said that I would definitely have to stay overnight as they considered options.


I was moved the next day to an observation room with three other patients. There was still a chance that I would have to go into surgery. A friend (and my girlfriend’s brother), Paul, took time out of work to chat and to bring me a phone charger and some headphones. I also struck up conversation with a lovely older woman, Gladys Brodsky, who was dealing with the effects of heart surgery. On my second day, she invited me over to her side of the room to share a hospital lunch.

Gladys was a Jewish artist who had spent her life in Woodstock. She was grey and frail, but with a certain elegance that remained even as she faced up to the vulnerability of being in a hospital. In her own way, she was charming: she spoke about Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and others living in Woodstock; Israel and Palestine; and her past days as a women’s rights activist. “If all men were injected with oestrogen at age 13, and took on a few female characteristics,” she mused at one point, “I think the world would be a lot different.”

She spoke lovingly about her father (“a socialist, not a communist”), who used to hold learning evenings every Tuesday with members of the community on political topics (“only the men”, she noted, when I asked if women went too). “He was a genius,” she said wistfully. I told her that I sometimes felt similarly about my own father, and this sparked a further discussion about whether our conception of “genius” is gendered – we both concluded it probably was, and that our mothers were probably geniuses, too. We touched on bigotry, as well – and Gladys spoke eloquently about how racism lies “deep in the bones” of the United States.

For the first time in my life, I thought about the beauty of good conversation, and how much I enjoyed it. In the listening and learning that exist in a conversational dialogue, in the symmetry two or more people can find when each shares a part of themselves, in the spontaneity that can gush out when two people are truly comfortable – there is something special.

In between this conversation and the visits of other wonderful friends (my old flat-mate Alaister, who shared partying stories to keep me upbeat, and my dependable friend Mitch, who would visit me on three consecutive evenings after long days at his law firm job), there was sobering medical news. There was further talk about surgery, which my mother (calling from New Zealand) cautioned against going into suddenly, and the doctors wanted to continue with further testing. They told me that MRA imaging was going to be done next, to try to resolve discrepancies in the measurements of my enlarged aorta.

Perhaps in an effort to steel myself against these sombre updates, or to find some semblance of support as I tried to maintain mental strength, I began to build some rapport or warmth with the staff at Mt Sinai. Dr. Weiss always left me feeling buoyant, clasping my hand after delivering updates. A friendly young transporter inquired about why I was in hospital, and when I mentioned that the doctors were interested in Marfan Syndrome, he made me feel better by referring to a young basketballer, Isaiah Austin, who was drafted into the NBA only to have his career cut short by the condition. The story is a sad one, but thinking of myself as potentially in the same category as an NBA basketballer made me feel just a little more chirpy, especially since my sports-playing history is a tale of great aspiration and enthusiasm coupled with limited achievement.

The staff with whom I felt some tension were financial representatives, who visited on several occasions, and called my cell phone (at one point while I was talking to a doctor) to try to get me to sign a payment form. If signed, the form committed me to paying all costs not covered by insurance. The staff pursuing my signature were friendly individuals. And it was not surprising to me to be told about these forms during my stay. But I couldn’t help but be slightly sickened by this constant reminder of the links between money and access to emergency treatment in the US. I was determined not to sign the form, so I asked on several occasions for more time to consider my position, and eventually the representatives must have given up on me, or forgotten about it. A form remained unsigned on the side of my bed when I was discharged – a small, maybe meek, symbol of my opposition to the forces of finance driving healthcare.


Before I was discharged I spent two nights in a smaller room that I shared with a middle-aged man, Joe, who was about to get heart surgery. I didn’t see much of Joe, a slightly taciturn but seemingly kind guy who was a doctor himself, since a curtain remained drawn between our beds. But I heard a lot about him: you cannot avoid learning about other people through overhearing conversations in hospital rooms like that one. One of the first things I heard was a panicked scene when I woke at 5.55am on Wednesday morning to hear, five minutes before his surgery, Joe apparently losing consciousness. His wife shouted, “Joe! Joe!” and cried for help, with monitors beeping loudly in the background in a manner most people will be familiar with from television and movies. Joe recovered, fortunately, but his surgery was delayed, and the incident was a sharp reminder to me of what heart surgery (which was being discussed in relation to my condition) might entail.

It was around this time that I also learned – through overhearing Joe’s family’s comments, and some Googling on my phone – that a patient was being tested at Mt Sinai for the Ebola virus. This didn’t do anything to reduce my anxiety. I started wondering (as anyone might, I think) whether I could have come into contact with the man on my first day in the emergency ward, or indirectly through my visits to reception desks and shops down the corridor. But I soon realised that this kind of speculation wasn’t all that rational, or helpful.

My own medical position appeared to be stable – apart from several moments of brief chest pain, which may have been the result of anxiety – and the doctors were closing in on a diagnosis. After a gentle older cardiologist, Dr. Halperin, spotted a strange double flap at the back of my throat, called a bifid uvula, the medical teams started to favour not Marfan Syndrome but a slightly more aggressive and newly discovered syndrome called Loeys-Dietz Syndrome. Loeys-Dietz is another connective tissue disorder, which often manifests through long limbs and spidery fingers, but also involves certain specific symptoms – a bifid uvula, flat feet (which I have), and aortic enlargement. Doctors are keener to operate on those with Loeys-Dietz Syndrome when the aorta is less enlarged than with Marfan Syndrome (for Marfan the threshold for surgery is a 5cm diameter in the US, I was told whereas the American threshold is 4.5cm for Loeys-Dietz), since the danger of a tear is greater. This made the accurate measurement of my aortic enlargement all the more important: my first measurement had come back at 4.9cm on the CT scan, whereas my second measurement on my echo had been 4.1cm.

To clarify the measurements, I had to do MRA imaging of both my brain and my heart. Getting an MRA done is a strange experience, as anyone who has had one will know. You lie on a slab, with your chest or head fixed in place, and you enter a large dome. Odd sounds are emitted periodically, which reminded me of the robot voices on the Daft Punk song, Technologic. And the technician issues various instructions over a loudspeaker-like instrument, including “breathe!” and “breathe normally!”. To avoid becoming too anxious about it, I again played Liam Finn’s “Second Chance” in my head. The rippling synthesizer sounds and scratching guitar tune kept me calm, and I tried to write out the words in my mind: “Sew the seeds/Sew the seeds to life/By packing up to make it right.” I thought also of the people that had made the previous days bearable – my family and girlfriend, who were constantly in contact; my visiting friends; and the virtual visits I received on Skype from people in the UK and New Zealand (including a wonderful group Skype call with the friends with whom I’d organized a conference in Oxford, the Global Scholars Symposium).

Following a long wait (and a viewing of Robert Reich’s documentary, Inequality for All), the MRA results came back: showing an enlargement of 4.5cm – right on the threshold of surgery. To my surprise, the doctors were confident about discharging me. I asked them to hold off on letting me go so quickly, partly because my girlfriend Julia and Mum were now on their way to be beside me, and partly because I had earlier been told that if I had Loeys-Dietz, I may need surgery at this level of enlargement. After some further discussions, visits, and receiving some lovely flowers from friends Anna and James in London, my discharge recommendation was confirmed – and I was encouraged by the very thorough Dr. Kontorovich to get genetic testing, since a Loeys-Dietz diagnosis could only be clarified with this genetic information.

Leaving the hospital was in some ways a sad experience. I took off the electrodes that had been stuck to my chest (leaving me with paintball-like shapes imprinted all over my chest), exchanged my hospital gown for the t-shirt I’d worn when I first came in, and got myself out of the bed I’d been in for days. As I walked out, I said goodbye to Joe. “I feel like I’ve gotten to know you quite well,” I said, “even though we haven’t talked much.” He smiled. “Goodbye, Max.” And I wrote notes on scraps of paper to the doctors and nurses who had been so supportive. My Hospital experience was over, for now.


My Mum and girlfriend, Julia (as well as a family friend, Lora), soon arrived in New York. It was wonderful to be surrounded by people, after long periods of solitude in the hospital – and having them close, as I slept or walked or read, gave me a sense of security, especially as my mind wandered to whether I could suffer a sudden fatal dissection (something that is a possibility, albeit a small one, given my aortic size and possible underlying condition). It was uplifting to get unexpected messages of support, and beautiful gifts to make me feel better: more flowers from Louis, a care package from Ronan, a book on Ambedkar from Eesvan.

Being out of the hospital and back at work has also been tough, however. In the hospital, I felt relatively healthy, comparing myself to elderly and self-evidently very ill individuals all around me. But outside in New York, I see myself alongside apparently healthy and active people. I’m ashamed to admit it, but if I’m honest, I find myself feeling an occasional flash of jealousy when I watch others and assume (perhaps wrongly in some cases) that they have no health issues to worry about. More importantly, I have started to process the information that I received in hospital. I have wondered about the minute differences between a 4.5 and 5.0 aortic enlargement. And I have thought about how a Loeys-Dietz diagnosis might alter my future career plans and life – since, if confirmed, it would require care and monitoring and may have implications for having children.


I got back on the Megabus on that desolate Thursday over two weeks after the initial fainting episode, which ended up taking me to Baltimore, where an Oxford friend, Steph, generously let me stay the night at her place to allow me to see Dr. Dietz (one half of the team that discovered Loeys-Dietz Syndrome) and a surgeon specialist, Dr. Cameron. In Baltimore, I was told by Dr. Dietz at Johns Hopkins Hospital that it was pretty likely that I had Loeys-Dietz Syndrome, and I finalized plans for genetic testing. Dr. Dietz, a kind and attentive man, emphasised that if properly managed and operated on, individuals with Loeys-Dietz still lead long, successful lives (into their sixties and seventies), and he clarified some information that had made me worried earlier. One statistic that had scared me was that those with Loeys-Dietz have an average life expectancy of 26.1 years – my exact age in August 2014, at the time of writing – but Dr. Dietz emphasised that this was a figure drawn from early cases of Loeys-Dietz; he had now seen a far broader spectrum of cases, which would change the statistic significantly. I had medication confirmed, and talked about surgery with the world expert, Dr. Cameron, who discussed options in the US, the UK, and New Zealand.

I’m now waiting on the results of my genetic testing, finishing my internship, and preparing myself for the thought of surgery or management of my medical condition – whether I have Loeys-Dietz or not, the enlarged aorta will require careful attention. One significant challenge to grapple with is the constant anxiety I have felt that a dissection could be imminent. Is that numbness in my foot a product of bad circulation, traceable back to my heart? What about that neck pain – didn’t Charles De Gaulle have neck pain (as I have read) just before he died, possibly of a connective tissue disorder? And is that chest ache something problematic, or just my anxiety? These questions – rational and irrational – regularly intrude into my thinking, and I am trying to learn to let them pass. But at this point I cannot deny that they are at once distracting, unsettling, and sometimes terrifying.

I feel, alongside that anxiety, a great sense of gratitude and good fortune. What would I have done without the emergency health insurance provided by my place of study? Would I know all this if I hadn’t fainted that Sunday morning (something that the doctors still can’t explain, and which Dr. Cameron called “my guardian angel”)? Would I have even gone into hospital had Andrew not mentioned Marfan Syndrome in that apartment in Karachi eight months ago? Even more fundamentally, how would things be different had Dr. Dietz not developed our collective understanding of Loeys-Dietz Syndrome? Whilst the information I’ve recorded here has not been easy to process and induces anxiety, I feel much better knowing about risks to my health and being in a position to consider future precautions that I might take. I am lucky also to be in a financially privileged position – generous support from my parents has helped me to cover certain costs of follow-up treatment – which, I know, cannot be said for everyone, and which in our world (and, in particular, in the unjust world of US healthcare) makes a difference.

I’m trying right now, with gratitude and still some anxiety, to start to think about the future again. My sense of time was compressed in hospital – I could think only of the forthcoming hours. And I am still focused only on the day ahead. I have learned, I think, the true meaning of that hackneyed phrase, “one day at a time”. But as my confidence builds, I hope that I will be able to think more imaginatively about the arc of a life in front of me – a thought that has always given me excitement and happiness.


So hearing about Marfan in Pakistan; blacking-out and Skyping the UK; if I was a donut/you’d wanna glaze me; Gladys Brodsky and the NBA’s Isaiah Austin; doing CTs and MRAs; hearing about Ebola in the background and Loeys-Dietz in the foreground; through Baltimore and Megabuses – that’s how I’ve got here, to where I am now.

“So it seems”, as that Liam Finn song goes. “So it seems tonight”, as I sit here in the evening Sunday light, three weeks on from going into Mt Sinai Hospital, New York.


Update, in December 2014:

Last month, I had heart surgery in Oxford to remove the aortic aneurysm mentioned above.  I’ve thought quite a lot about whether to share this piece of writing.  I’m not usually one for baring all on social media.  But I want to share this so that I am able to be more open about this syndrome that is now a part of who I am – and because I hope the writing might be of some small use to anyone going through anything remotely similar.  I also want to share this to show that in a year that has been a happy one for me, there have been hard times, too.  So often we focus on successes and strengths, but not on our vulnerabilities.

For those that might be interested: the surgery went really well, all doctors have said my long-term prospects are good, and I’m looking forward to getting back to life as normal.  I’m grateful for the amazing medical support that I’ve received, and for my family and friends, especially Julia.  I’m lucky to have had such care and such love.

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What Will the Future of Social Democracy Look Like?

In the last twenty or thirty years, there have been many efforts to try to rejuvenate social democracy: that is, left-progressive politics and activism as embodied in parties such as the New Zealand Labour Party and the United Kingdom Labour Party. Social democracy has long had its pillars: support for social services (especially universal healthcare, primary and secondary education, and state housing), a commitment to justice in the workplace, and advocacy of progressive values (such as equality, security, dignity, and responsibility). But in recent decades there has been an attempt to work out how social democracy might be regenerated, in light of changing social conditions and in response to fluctuating electoral fortunes.

One approach to rejuvenation was to keep the ends of social democracy, but to change the means: this was the approach of Rogernomics in New Zealand, and to a lesser extent of New Labour in the UK under Tony Blair. In New Zealand in the 1980s and the United Kingdom in the 1990s social democratic parties kept a commitment to good education and sound healthcare as end-goals – but they became more open to alternative ways of delivering education and healthcare, for example through the partial privatisation of the National Health Service in the UK. The focus was on not ideology, but on “what works”, in Tony Blair’s mantra. The problem with this approach to rejuvenation is that in changing the mode of delivery of social services, social democratic parties often ended up ignoring progressive values – such as equality and dignity – which were trampled on in the delivery of such services, and in the outcomes achieved.

Another approach to approach has been to alter the social democratic position on what might be called borderline issues, on which progressives may not have always had such a settled position. The UK Labour Party, and the NZ Labour Party briefly under David Cunliffe, have experimented with adopting a more restrictive approach to immigration, for example; and the NZ Labour Party under Helen Clark and the UK Labour Party under Tony Blair took a harder line on crime. Some would say, of course, that immigration and crime are not borderline issues for progressives – and that progressive values such as equality and dignity point away from the restrictive, punitive policies that social democratic parties have at times adopted. However, regardless of this point, what is clear is that this has been a tactic tried by progressive political parties – and is one that has also contradicted progressive values like dignity and equality (although some may disagree with this conclusion).

One further nascent approach to rejuvenation, which has emerged only in the last couple of years, has been to champion technology as the catalyst of next-generation social democratic policy. Some have claimed that on social democratic pillars, such as education and healthcare, technology can revolutionise outcomes and produce new ideas. Progressive education theorists have claimed that ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCs) and technology in classrooms may be the way that primary and secondary education are strengthened in the twenty-first century. And healthcare specialists have become excited about using Skype and video-links to guarantee quicker doctors’ consultations and to enhance the ability of people in rural areas to access healthcare. This approach, though, too, has proven a disappointment in the search for real rejuvenation on the Left. Questions have been asked about how the quality of education and healthcare might be compromised through the use of technology, and it is not clear that technology offers any real step-change in the policies and principles needed for a successful twenty-first century social democratic tradition.

So if the answer lies not in changing the means of delivering social services, or in switching the social democratic position on borderline issues, or in embracing technology, what does the next wave of social democracy look like? At a time when social democratic policy might seem as if it is stagnating, and failing to build on the successes of the past, what will energise progressive political parties and take them in a new direction?

At times it is helpful, in trying to think forward, to look backwards. In particular, it is useful to reflect on the founding thinkers of the social democratic tradition that we have inherited today. Their work may not provide specific solutions to the present-day predicaments of social democracy; but they may show us at least how we ought to go about developing the next wave of social democratic thinking.

I outline here some suggestions that arise indirectly from just one of these founding thinkers: R.H. Tawney. His work has come to the fore again with the publication of a recent biography of him by Lawrence Goldman, The Life of R.H. Tawney: Socialism and History (Bloomsbury, 2013).

Tawney was a public intellectual working primarily in the first part of the twentieth century in the United Kingdom. He helped to set up the Workers’ Educational Association (which I discuss further below), worked on the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry and another inquiry into agriculture in China, and wrote a number of rhetorically powerful books, including Equality and The Acquisitive Society. He was also well-connected to members of the Labour Party that would take power in 1945 as well as other leading progressive thinkers: he was well-known to Clement Attlee, later Prime Minister, and was married to Jeanette Beveridge, brother of William Beveridge, author of the Beveridge Report – which is often thought of as crucial to the establishment of the British welfare state. In between all of this, Tawney fought – and was wounded in – the First World War; spent some time as a diplomat in the United States in the Second World War; and maintained academic positions at the University of Oxford teaching social and economic history.

Tawney’s life and work gives us three possible pointers about the future of social democracy today. First, Tawney worked tirelessly to forge new and creative connections with unions and working people. As mentioned, he set up in 1903 the Workers’ Educational Association, a partnership between universities, trade unions, and working people. This Association organized for emerging academics to teach tutorial classes to interested workers, often in the workers’ homes around the UK, on subjects such as political history, economic theory and local government (see p. 64 of Goldman’s book). Tawney taught the classes with enthusiasm and humanity, and himself learned about the British working-class from his teaching at the same time as the students in the class were able to draw on his knowledge of history, politics, and economics. He sought an ideal where education was supplied not by “churches, philanthropic institutions, and a group of benevolent officials at Whitehall”, but rather “by the people for the people” (p. 80). And it is apparent that the Workers’ Educational Association created a sense of collective consciousness and solidarity that paved the way for social democratic policy successes in the 1940s and later. The wider point to be taken from this is that the future of social democracy today will depend on new coalitions being built across progressive actors – and in particular, attempts being made to rethink and renew the relationships between unions and others.

Secondly, Tawney spent a considerable part of his life theorizing and thinking deeply about the place of education in society – and he, according to Goldman’s biography, helped to ensure that good primary and secondary education were key planks of Labour Party policy in the years following 1945. He famously wrote Secondary Education for All in 1922, which became Labour’s education policy and set out a programme for educational policy change. “The case being made,” writes Goldman, “depended on both the economic benefits to society and the enrichment of individuals that would flow from more and better education” (p. 204). And Tawney was practical, too, in focusing on the need for building and upgrading school accommodation, and the school-leaving age. When the 1929 Labour Government of Ramsay MacDonald failed to take forward Tawney’s recommendation, he continued to make the same arguments, with a 1934 pamphlet (The School Leaving Age and Juvenile Unemployment), and this led to the 1944 Education Act as well as later changes to the British educational system. The message to be taken from this narrative is that social democratic planks and principles require deep thought and ongoing advocacy. We now take free primary and secondary education for granted as core aspects of progressive policy (and indeed, most conservative political parties around the world support free primary and secondary education, too). But these policies are only accepted because of the hard work put into making the case for them by people like R.H. Tawney. The planks and principles that will form part of social democracy in the twenty-first century – whether those relate to an approach to prisons and criminal justice, or a new approach to citizenship, or something else – will also require hard work and deep thought.

Thirdly, Tawney was very strong in tying politics back to ethics, and this was central to his method as a thinker. He was a Christian as well as a social democrat, and his religious commitments meant that values were never far from how he justified his policy prescriptions. The industrial problem – the way that working people were treated – was, for Tawney, “a moral problem” (p. 170). Social issues were not just about the distribution of income and wealth; they were about “the moral justice of … [our] social system” (p. 170). And social justice, for him, was about not “efficiency and mechanism” but rather “morality and individual regeneration” (p. 171). This does not mean that a social democracy of the future has to be Christian. What Tawney’s thinking reveals is that social democracy in the future may be stronger if it is tethered to a firm ethical base. If social democratic values can be crystallised with clarity, in other words, it may be easier for policy-makers and politicians to develop concrete ideas as outgrowths of these values. These values may provide an ethical and intellectual reserve for those working and campaigning on the Left to draw from. Perhaps, then, work should begin on truly clarifying these values, new and old – a “politics of love”, perhaps, to suggest just one idea – as a way to generate policies for the next wave of social democracy.

These are just a few pointers, from merely one historical social democratic thinker. And much more work remains to be done to develop even these ideas from Tawney – about coalitions across progressive actors (especially involving unions), theorizing policy planks, and finding a more ethical politics. But what is clear from this brief analysis is that if we all want real rejuvenation in social democracy, we need to go beyond the false promise of deregulation, or punitive populism, and technology. We need to develop planks and principles and policies – and that may require reflecting on the past first in order to find a social democracy fit for the twenty-first century.

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