Two approaches to New Zealand history

As the Springboks' bus arrives outside the Southern Cross Hotel in 1981 a policeman restrains a...
As the Springboks' bus arrives outside the Southern Cross Hotel in 1981 a policeman restrains a protester by the throat. Many feel civil unrest during the Springbok tour made a lasting contribution to our national identity, but Paul Moon disagrees. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
At first glance, the two latest contributions to this country's history - the Sustainable Future Institute publication Nation Dates and Paul Moon's New Zealand in the Twentieth Century - seem to stand in stark contrast, with the former very much the lightweight, in size if not in scholarship. But looks can be deceiving.

SFI staffers McGuinness and White have produced an easy-to-use reference book whose main component is a timeline of what the authors see as significant dates in New Zealand's development from 1770, when James Cook first mapped these islands and annexed them as one nation, to the present.

NATION DTAES<br><b>Wendy McGuinness and Miriam White</b><br><i>SFI Publishing</i>
NATION DTAES<br><b>Wendy McGuinness and Miriam White</b><br><i>SFI Publishing</i>
Their choices are thought-provoking, with what seems at first glance to be trivial having greater importance when one devotes further consideration to them: for example, the introduction of possums (1837) and gorse (brought in as a hedge plant in 1838 and declared a weed in 1900). While political events predictably predominate, others occasion surprise, such as the first successful negotiation of the eight-hour working day as early as 1840 (do remember that on Monday).

Adding to its claims to be a handy reference work, the book offers lists of our heads of state, governors and Governors-General, political leaders and parties, royal commissions and more, all in fewer than 200 small pages.

By contrast, Moon, a history professor at something called "the Faculty of Maori Development at AUT University" (which apart from being dittographical suggests encompassing limits), offers a much larger format book. It runs to nearly 700 pages with 10 chapters, each covering a decade of the 20th century. Compared with an unpretentious work like Nation Dates, it is an atrocious example of how not to write history.

In his introduction, Moon trumpets his intention that the book makes no "overarching claims about the nature of New Zealand and New Zealanders" but readers expecting this to mean a neutral approach to our history will be sadly disappointed. Time and again, Moon dips his pen in an inkwell of spite, snide adjectives and vicious asides, leaving one in no doubt as to the writer's arch-conservatism and pro-Maori approach to history (ever the noble warrior struggling against the oppression of the rapacious Pakeha).

The result is an alarmingly twisted view of the 20th century. Why, one wonders, is it necessary to trash Goldie's work as the product of a publicity-seeking, profiteering racist guilty of absurd cultural abuse?

NEW ZEALAND IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY<br>The Nation, The People<br><b>Paul Moon</b><br><i>HarperCollins</i>
NEW ZEALAND IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY<br>The Nation, The People<br><b>Paul Moon</b><br><i>HarperCollins</i>
His art was important in its context, both in the 1900s and later, and a professional historian should be able to analyse its contemporary significance as well as its century-long aftereffects.

The chapter on the 1960s provides interesting examples of how to write history and how to take the easier route of social comment. Moon properly presents the Wahine tragedy in neutral language that stands out simply because of its absence from much of the rest of the book, but then he tackles the Lloyd Geering controversy. He simply ignores the significance of Prof Geering's position as principal of the Presbyterian Church's Theological Hall (an institution Moon errantly refers to as "Knox College") and dismisses the whole event as being the result of academic vanity on Geering's part while lambasting him for daring to challenge the "compelling rebuff" published by Edward Blaiklock.

Moon's conservatism becomes overwhelming in his chapter on the 1980s, where he disdainfully dismisses events that a less-biased observer might see as playing a significant part in New Zealand's national development. The riot-riven Springbok tour is rated an event of little if any lasting significance; David Lange's leadership of the country's emerging anti-nuclear radicalism is trivialised, with Lange accused of turning foreign policy into light entertainment; and homosexual law reform, a major turning point in the country's growing dis-ease with discrimination in any form, is dismissed as unnecessary, because the laws were not being enforced.

Moon is right when he says his book makes no overarching claims because it is totally devoid of any analysis of how, decade upon decade, the face of New Zealand had changed and, by the end of the 20th century, had changed out of all recognition. Painting each decade with the clinging lacquer of prejudice and then placing it on solitary display in a glass case does nothing but replicate the outdated museums about which Moon is so scornful (Te Papa, of course is a different matter - "the pantheon of New Zealand nationhood" and visiting it "a pilgrimage of national veneration").

Our divisions of time may be an artificial construct but it seems inane to set out the events of 10 separate decades as though they had no connection, no interwoven themes, no sense of teleological development.

How did a nation progress from the Boer War frenzy of the opening decade to the pro-peace stance of the last decades of the century?

What were the signposts on this journey?

Did the journey end before the calendar turned to a new century or was it still shaping the nation's face?

Moon, alas, is not the man to answer such questions. He prefers gently viewing the "national memory" through his own peculiarly distorted vision to anything as robust as the search for national identity. At the end of the day, McGuinness and White's slim timeline offers far greater historical weight than Moon's slight pretence of reviewing a critical century.

Geoffrey Vine is a Dunedin journalist and Presbyterian minister.


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