Shane Te Pou: We can’t be smug over US woes


The talkback call that brought down John Banks would have barely raised an eyebrow 20 years ago. Tim Bickerstaff — remember him?

Let’s review the tape: On January 21, responding to a caller named Richard, who complained he didn’t want his kids learning about “Stone Age” Māori culture, Banks leaned right into the racist. “Your children need to get used to their Stone Age culture,” Banks told Richard, “because if their Stone Age culture doesn’t change, these people will come through your bathroom window”.

Outrageous as they seem from the standpoint of 2021, the sentiments expressed here — that a moribund Māori culture is irrelevant to contemporary New Zealand, and as long as we insist on adhering to such outdated cultural norms, Māori will remain mired in poverty, crime and violence — are far from unfamiliar to anyone who lived through the 80s and 90s. Back then, I couldn’t go to a pub or a friend’s BBQ without encountering such arguments.

And, boy, if I got a dollar every time some Pakeha fella lectured me about the Moriori, I could have retired by the end of the century.

How have Banks’ words gone from more or less commonplace to fire-able in a matter of two decades?

Banks’ defenders put it down to “wokeness” and “cancel culture”, the all-purpose buzzwords of the modern-day reactionary set.

But there’s a better and simpler explanation. Having lived through a renaissance in Māori language and culture, and witnessed the progress and possibility unleashed by successive Treaty settlements, the vast majority of Kiwis now consider views such as those espoused by Banks to be destructive and wrong. (Does he have the right to express them? Sure. Is he entitled to a radio show on which to air them? Don’t make me laugh).

What they call “cancel culture” is a really just a form of democratic hygiene, a means to keep our public discourse free of fringe conspiracies, toxic disinformation and hate speech. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, which he coincidentally wrote during his tenure at the University of Canterbury during World War II, philosopher Karl Popper put it most elegantly: “If we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them”.

Trump’s second impeachment trial, and the events that precipitated it, played out Popper’s hypothesis in real-time. After all, what was the January 6 insurrection if not “the onslaught of the intolerant” — an inevitable outcome of years of priming through hateful rhetoric fuelled by lies, bigotry and wild conspiracies.

US democracy remains in peril as long as the Republican Party continues to give MAGA ideology the cover of mainstream legitimacy. Based on the decision of all but seven Republican Senators to exonerate Trump for his role on January 6, however, that’s precisely what they plan to do.

Their GOP colleagues in the House of Representatives sent the same message by backing Marjorie Taylor-Greene — a former QAnon fan who contends that school shootings were ‘false flag’ operations and that the California wildfires were ignited by a Jewish Space Laser.

Republicans didn’t always choose this path. In the 1960s, the party ejected the racist, conspiratorial John Birch Society from their ranks. When the neo-Nazi David Duke ran for Louisiana Governor in 1991, then-President George H.W. Bush assailed Duke’s “long record, an ugly record of racism and of bigotry” and said, “it is inconceivable that someone [with those views] can reasonably aspire to a leadership role in a free society”.

Duke lost that race, but has re-emerged lately as an enthusiastic backer of Trump’s, telling white voters in 2016: “Voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage”.

Beyond just repeatedly failing to repudiate Duke, Trump actively courts white nationalists, QAnon activists and avowedly violent militia groups. As the House impeachment managers pointed out during last week’s trial, his call for the Proud Boys during the first presidential debate to “stand back and stand by” was embraced overnight by the group as its official slogan.

Republican friends tell me the vote to convict would have been 85-15 were it held in secret. Any student of totalitarianism will sense a familiar pattern here. So terrified of their radicalised base and its ascendant figurehead, formerly mainstream politicians convince themselves to tolerate a bit of fascism if it means holding on to power — often in the futile hope it’s a tiger they can somehow tame.

Here, the fringe has yet to invade the mainstream, but there’s no room for complacency. We saw in the US that a politics of grievance that exploits fear and distrust, one that untethers itself from any obligation to the truth, can rapidly metastasise into something far darker. Once unleashed, this strain of populism is impossible to contain.

It will take both of our major parties to guard against it, whatever the short-term sugar-high that comes with dabbling in grievance.

Not all signs are good on that front. When National MP Simon Bridges, for example, leapt to the defence of conversion therapy — in effect, the psychological torture of LGBT kids — it sent a chill down my spine.

Fighting the urge to exploit issues like these will be the defining challenge for National over the next term. For the long-term health of our democracy, to avoid America’s fate, my fervent hope is that they do.

Shane Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a company director at Mega Ltd, a commentator and blogger and a former Labour Party activist.

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