Monthly Archives: September 2007

Children’s difficult questions

I have been reading the Little House books to my daughters. They are fascinated by the accounts of life “in the olden days”, and especially by the experiences of the children in the books.

In the last few days, we have finished Little House on the Prairie. The last few chapters of the book deal with the Ingalls’ encounter with Native Americans, and in particular, with the family’s experience of listening to an “Indian jamboree”, hearing the war cries night after night, and wondering if the Indians would leave their camps, and kill or drive out the white settlers. Ma is terrified, and in the books, her terror, and Pa’s fear, is conveyed to the children, who likewise can’t sleep, and spend their days in incredible tension.

It seems however, that these accounts must be largely reconstructions, rather than recollections. Although Little House on the Prairie portrays Laura as being around age six, in reality, she was about three. In addition, it’s clear that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder, edited her mother’s books heavily, and the books are best described as a collaboration between the two women, rather than a factual account of what really happened in 1869 and 1870. So what we have is a story written in the early 1930s, based on research conducted then, the recollections an elderly woman about what had happened when she was just a few years old, and family stories.

The account vividly portrays the growing terror of the Ingalls family. My daughters were led to the natural conclusion – that the Indians were bad people.

“No,” I said. “They weren’t. They were angry, because the white settlers had come in and taken their land away from them.”

So we were led into a discussion of why the white settlers might have wanted the land, and why they might have assumed that they could take it, and why the Native Americans might have felt that the only thing they could do was try to drive the settlers away.

That was all easy enough to handle. After all, America is thousands of kilometres away, and it all happened over a century ago. It was easy enough for the children to see that it was not a simple question of “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”, but that a terrible injustice had been done to Native Americans. And I could have left it there. But seeing that the moment was right, I pressed on, and talked about how white people had done exactly the same thing in New Zealand – come in, and taken the land from Maori people, by fair (to them) means and foul.

I found it enormously hard to help my children to walk the tightrope between seeing that white people had committed injustices, but not feeling as though “we”, meaning my children, personally, had actually done nothing wrong. How can six and eight year old children possibly be held personally responsible for something that was done between 100 and 150 years ago? Nevertheless, as they grow older, and when they start to participate in our political society, as adults, they will need to start thinking about what happened in the past, and the extent to which they personally have participated in, and benefited from, the continuing ramifications of past events.

These are incredibly hard issues to deal with, partly because separating past injustice from present culpability is a difficult task in any case, and partly because adults in our society don’t have settled views about the issues in any case. I think that the birds and bees talk(s) will be a doddle in comparison.

Friday Feminist – Mary Wollstonecraft (2)

My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone. I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists–I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them, that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.

Dismissing then those pretty feminine phrases, which the men condescendingly use to soften our slavish dependence, and despising that weak elegancy of mind, exquisite sensibility, and sweet docility of manners, supposed to be the sexual characteristics of the weaker vessel, I wish to show that elegance is inferior to virtue, that the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex; and that secondary views should be brought to this simple touchstone.

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792

Republicanism (1)

People have been talking about New Zealand becoming a republic, here, here, here, and here.

I think New Zealand should become a republic, for all sorts of reasons, but especially because I think that the account of freedom that lies at the heart of republicanism is compelling.

In standard liberal theory (think of the liberalism of John Stuart Mill), freedom is construed as freedom from interference. You are free to the extent that nobody interferes with you. However in republican political theory, freedom is freedom from domination.

Think about a slave with a kindly master. The slave gets to live where she likes, eat what she likes, do whatever work she likes, just because the master happens to be kindly. Under the standard liberal accounts of freedom, this slave would be free, because she was not subject to interference.

The master however, can at any time reassert his power. If he so wishes, he can tell the slave where to live, what to eat, what work to do. He is even able to physically assault the slave, and she has no recourse against him. So in order to keep him happy, to avoid incurring his displeasure and losing the chance to direct her own life, she must keep a weather eye out for him, ingratiate herself with him, make sure that she doesn’t offend him, kowtow, and doff her cap. Even though he does not interfere with her choices, he nevertheless dominates her, and she constrains her choices because of that domination. She cannot stand tall, and look him in the eye. Under the republican account of freedom, this slave is not free.

I find this account of freedom compelling, because it taps into a sense of standing. A free person is one with standing, one who can treat with the powerful, can act without fear of unjust retribution, can take her place in the community. It is a highly social sense of freedom – a free person is one who enjoys standing within social setting. In Philip Pettit’s phrase (see below), it is the freedom of the hearth, not the freedom of the heath. And it is an institutional sense of freedom. In the liberal account of freedom, the slave with the kindly master is free, but that is just a contingent state of affairs. It is just because the world happens to be that way, rather than because anything guarantees that the slave is free. However the republican account of freedom looks at the relationships between people, and the institutional structures that guarantee freedom. So a person is not accounted free just because of a happy coincidence; she is only free if the world is organised in such a way that she is necessarily free.

It’s this understanding of freedom that underpins my commitment to republicanism, and to New Zealand becoming a republic. Even though in practice we are not required to bow our heads before the monarch, in theory we must. That seems absurd, especially when that monarch lives on the other side of the world. But worse than that, we have no say in who our monarch is. We have no choice about the next king or queen: we must simply accept whoever the House of Windsor gives to us. Ridiculous.

Being a free people entails being able to choose our rulers, and being able to get rid of them if we don’t like them. For all practical purposes we are already a republic, but that last little bit of subservience remains. Someone else chooses our ultimate ruler, and we can’t stand tall, and look her in the eye.

In the past, when I lectured in Political Theory, I found that my female students, and my Maori students, “got” republicanism, from the inside. That’s not to say that many of my male students didn’t find it fascinating and compelling too. Nevertheless, something in the republican account of freedom gave female and Maori students an “Aha!” moment of recognition.

More on that another time.


I worked on republican political theory as part of my doctoral work. I picked up republican theory in its late 20th / early 21st century form, and applied it to the issues of how we can devise institutions that allow multiculturalism to flourish. The version of republicanism that I worked with was that developed by Professor Philip Pettit, especially in his book, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Oxford University Press, 1997. Professor Pettit supervised my thesis at the Australian National University. In writing this post, I have drawn on my doctoral thesis, and on Philip’s work. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an entry on republicanism.

Peace and quiet

I will arise, and go now, and go to Taranaki
And a small cabin dwell in there, of pine and fibro made

No. Just doesn’t quite work.

I am however, going to Taranaki for a few days. My parents have been squandering my inheritance, as they ought to do, and they have bought themselves a back country bush block. That’s a farm block with a lot of forest on it, for non-Kiwi readers. It has a bit of grazing land, which is leased to a neighbouring farmer, but most of the block is bush (forest), and regenerating bush. There are various conservation covenants in place, and Mum and Dad are trapping and poisoning the pests (possums, stoats, weasels). There doesn’t seem to be any deer on the place, and the goats are kept under control by the leaseholder. So the native bush is thriving, and with it, the native birds.

There’s a building on the property: Mum calls it a bach and Dad calls it a lodge. The latter is perhaps an exaggeration – there are three small bedrooms, with bunk beds, a kitchen and living room, and basic bathroom facilities. They cook on the wood-fired coal range, which also heats the hot water cylinder. Water comes from rain water tanks: if the tanks run dry – not particularly likely in Taranaki – then it’s a matter of getting water brought in by tanker.

There is nothing to be heard save the birds, and the livestock. There are no streetlights, or indeed lights of any sort, so the stars are brilliant. Lovely.

My three little city girls love going there. They are especially looking forward to seeing the spring lambs, although there’s a good chance that the lambs will be docked while we are there. That should shatter a few of their illusions.


There is no electricity. There is no telephone. There is no mobile phone coverage at the house. There is one hill over the other side of the valley that you can climb up to get high enough to make a cell phone call, but only if you face in the right direction, and hold your tongue in a certain position.

So it is extraordinarily quiet and peaceful. And that’s why it makes me think of The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by W. B. Yeats.

I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the mourning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

I will enjoy my few days of peace and quiet. Expect to hear from me again on about Thursday.

WE are his own people

TV One News has led with a story about Nia Yin Xue, who is on the run in the United States, after allegedly killing his wife, and abandoning his daughter at a Melbourne train station. It seems that people in Chinatown in LA are refusing to help him. TV One News says that “even his own people are rejecting him.”

WE are his own people. He is a New Zealand citizen. As far as I know, one New Zealand citizen is as good as any other New Zealand citizen. Since when have some New Zealand citizens been more equal than other New Zealand citizens?

Domestic violence is OUR problem. It is not something that happens over there, to other people. It happens to us, within out communities, and we need to own the problem.

Grow up, TV One News.