Upton-on-line Diaspora Edition - 11th Feb. 2004

Published: Thu 11 Mar 2004 01:09 PM
Diaspora Edition
11th February 2004
In this issue
After a sustained dose of Michael King, upton-on-line renews his call for a reappraisal of the way history is taught in New Zealand; and a note on whether France's system of Appellations Controllées is a blow for quality, tradition and ecological sanctity or just a restrictive trade practice made mysterious.
Dates versus debates
Among Santa Claus' flotsam and jetsam this Christmas, upton-on-line's 10 year old received an all-too-destructible combination lock. Before its sudden and catastrophic dismemberment, its owner had to choose a three figure code. There was little delay - 732. Any French child knows that this is the year Charles Martel stopped the Islamic hordes at Poitiers. It's one of a handful of key dates that are hammered into the nascent identities of little republicans born to be heirs to French greatness. When upton-on-line asked a French acquaintance to guess what three figure combination young upton-in-the-pipeline had chosen, he volunteered 732 without a moment's hesitation. Apparently, they never forget it.
Young Geoffrey started a couple of years back with pre-history, then Celtic Gaul followed by the Roman epoch. This academic year has seen steady progress through the collapse of Rome, onwards (and in French eyes unquestionably upwards) via Merovingians, Carolinians and Capetians to the end of the first millennium and the Norman conquest of Europe's western isle. Not every monarch is memorised at this stage but a selection of the more illustrious ( Clovis and Charlemagne) or memorable ( Pepin the Brief, Charles the Bald and Louis the Stammerer) are used as scaffolding for the emerging national epic.
Contrast this with the way history is (or more accurately is not) taught in New Zealand. As upton-on-line was moved to comment at last year's 'Knowledge Wave' conference,
"The social studies curriculum, containing as it does the only compulsory brush with history prescribes no minimum that every New Zealand child will encounter that puts him or her in touch with their national roots and their national story. There is a broad outline of the range of material they should encounter. But which elements will be encountered, how they will be dealt with and how they are stitched together is left to the ingenuity and tastes of hard-working teachers who are assumed to be incredibly resourceful and, implicitly, hugely well-read themselves.
"An exploration of some of the teaching units that have been developed reveals a toothsome smorgasbord with plenty of New Zealand content (how boats, trains, cars and planes have changed New Zealand communities, the 1918 ‘flu epidemic, Tangata Whenua as early innovators) plus a smattering of off-shore histories (the ancient Egyptians seem to have a good advocate somewhere).
"But the pedagogical aim, developing citizens who can participate responsibly in society, lies elsewhere. The fact is that children can leave school without any comprehensive knowledge of the basic narrative of our nation. The ‘elements’ are nowhere stitched together – it’s like one of those re-arrangeable pieces of art and you don’t even have to use all the bits."
France doesn't leave the acquisition of its national story to chance. Needless to say, such stories are not without contention. Upton-on-line has found French understanding of the truly bi-cultural fluency of the Angevins monarchs who ruled England and half of France more than sketchy. Never mind that Henry V of Agincourt fame was legitimately the inheritor of the French Crown. He was English. On the other hand, the fact that the conquering Normans were in fact Vikings who happened to stop off for a few generations on the channel coast before dispatching King Harold doesn't stop them being French. But it's all part of a fabric on which is hung the progressive development of language, literature, science and politics. Young French children don't have a smorgasbord; they get the full menu.
The King Penguin
All of this was fermenting in upton-on-line's mind as he launched 2004 with a spate of New Zealand history - or, more accurately, a spate of Michael King with some Angela Ballara thrown in for good measure. King's Penguin History of New Zealand will no doubt have occupied many a sleeping bag and bach bunk this last summer. It is the work of one of New Zealand's most popular and respected historians. And it has the cardinal virtue of being written in a flawlessly accessible style. Its popularity is thoroughly deserved. Every generation needs an up-to-date 'short' history. And with the Belichean volcano only recently in eruption, there is more than one historical lava field to choose from.
Upton-on-line especially liked King's geological, ecological and anthropological opening. New Zealand is, physically and ecologically, such a land apart and human settlement so incredibly recent that this seems an inescapable part of the national story (even if the Haast Eagle knew nothing of Homo sapiens let alone the German subspecies that bestowed its name on the posthumously described species). King describes Maori and European as arriving in the last 300ths of a second (if we view the break-up of Gondwanaland as having commenced an hour earlier) and, following Crosby, ruminates on the similarity of human impact whether of the Polynesian or Anglo-Celtic variety. It was precisely this reality that led upton-on-line to say, on farewelling Parliament three years ago:
"We have, in 700 - 800 short years, completely 'terraformed' this corner of our planet. A youthful (and unstable) geological landscape and an ancient biota had somehow remained intact but vulnerable. The land had no defences save isolation. First Maori, then European invaders wreaked havoc. From this point of view, the question of who arrived here ‘first’ becomes meaningless. We arrived within a split second of one another and we live amidst the ruins. It is true to say here – in a way that cannot be said anywhere else – that, in one sense, humans do not belong here. We are interlopers from another geological age and we have set in train a pattern of extinctions and ecological upheaval that cannot be reversed.
"Neither Maori nor European settlers knew how to live with the strange land they had encountered. The technologies of exploitation they deployed were very different; the scale of their ecological footprints very different. But in the innocence – and the ignorance - of their respective encounters, some 500-600 years apart, they came face to face with something unique that continues to trouble us all to this day.
"Could it be that our shared national identity might, for the first time in history, be rooted in a crusade to save from annihilation, not a people or a culture, but a fragment of the biosphere. The land we live in gnaws away at us, as we gnaw away at it. I know of no New Zealanders who are indifferent about the landscapes, the seascapes and skyscapes that dominate our lives.
"The way we wrestle with the forces we have unleashed, could determine our national identity. If we let the slide continue we remain just another colony of itinerant human grazers whose appetites and motivations have – since the last Ice Age – caused such profound changes to the planet. But if we turn the tide, we could forge an identity built on a coming to terms with our land that would be an act of human imagination without precedent."
What more could one wish for? Well quite a bit actually. It's not a question of what King covers - it's what he doesn't. In the twelve crisp chapters spanning a little over 150 pages that follow the ecological backdrop, King deals with settlement. The arrival and settlement of Maori is neatly and summarily dealt with, King judging that on the eve of Maori isolation being 'perforated', "life would have been as culturally rich and as physically pleasant as anywhere else on Earth in comparably neolithic times". But the Europeans who appear one morning from the mists come fully fledged with beliefs, technologies, customs and political understandings that, it is assumed, will be fully familiar to readers. Their story is picked up in the dying years of the eighteenth century and told almost exclusively through antipodean eyes.
In his closing 'posthistory' King informs us of "a growing conviction among Pakeha that their culture, like that of Maori, is no longer the same as the cultures of origin from which it sprang - that it has become, in fact, a second indigenous culture..." King takes it for granted that the Anglo-Celtic diaspora is completely comprehensible. His only interest is in its transmutation. It is an heroic assumption.
This, to upton-on-line's mind, is the fast disappearing link in the capacity of New Zealanders to explain their country and its institutions to themselves. While long overdue but truly welcome progress has been made in making Maori comprehensible to a Pakeha population that had long ignored them, the large Anglo-Celtic fraction of the population seems oblivious to the fact that its ability to explain itself to Maori, to the world at large and even to itself is in headlong decline. It is just not enough to pick over the entrails of colonisation and de-colonisation. There is a European historical and cultural backdrop that pre-dates New Zealand which cannot be conveniently adopted as some base-line 'given'.
None of this is a criticism of King's history. Authors and publishers have to draw lines somewhere. But The Penguin History of New Zealand is very much an extension of the author of Being Pakeha Now, King's recently updated autobiography. And it is in this (most attractive and often courageous) work that King talks of Pakeha culture as something that was "transformed by interaction, history and experience into something whose proportions and combinations bore only a distant relationship to the original ingredients." This seems an extreme interpretation. Has physical distance generated such cultural attenuation despite all the electronic instantaneity of cultural exchange not to mention burgeoning foreign travel?
James Belich in Paradise Reforged shrewdly notes that one of the problems of contemporary historical scholarship is "a persistent reluctance to accept the realities of recolonisation and a tendency to focus instead on the more independent natural history we would like to have happened." Certainly, King belongs to a significant band of New Zealand academics who have self-consciously asserted a national independence. But are we any better off accepting Belich's diagnosis? Here he is in the closing pages of Paradise Reforged:
"In culture, recolonisation has left us with an acute case of the tall-poppy syndrome and a flawed capacity for self-assessment. It is almost as though we still expect that the really tall poppies should be in London, and that London will handle our cultural quality control ...The failure to recognise recolonisation's rise and fall has also left many New Zealanders insecure. They are uncertain about their capacity to manage change, to reject the bad and accept the good, or even tell the difference between them. They are uneasy about burgeoning pluralism, partly because no-one has explained to them that it was the old homogeneity and conformism that was artificial, and not the new 'coming-out'of difference. They are uncomfortable about their identity, unsure about whether they are Pakeha, New Zealanders or Europeans, about how the three fit into each other, and about what they actually mean."
Upton-on-line wonders how many Pakeha readers feel defined by either of these views; robustly indigenous with only a distant relationship to some north west European roots or disoriented by the lingering legacy of an exploded colonial past? If he had to choose between King's constructivism and Belich's revisionism, upton-on-line finds a great deal more humanity and compassion in the former. But neither provides an adequate way forward since both seem intent on resolutely scouring only the last 200 odd years of Pakeha experience in Aotearoa-New Zealand for sources of national understanding.
Going back to roots
To upton-on-line's way of thinking, New Zealanders should stop assuming cultural and historical fluency with the more distant past and take it up as a serious input into understanding the rucksack of hopes and pathologies we lug into the future. That means systematically exposing young New Zealanders to a much longer historical canvas than one that starts sometime in the early nineteenth century. Advances in anthropology, archaeology, palaeo-climatology and ecology give us a wealth that is new and important to say about the radiation of people across the globe since the end of the last Ice Age. The extraordinary achievements of the Polynesian navigators and how New Zealand came to be settled should be understood by everyone. Similarly, the development of Maori settlement is accessible both through Maori and historical sources.
On the Anglo-Celtic front, rather than lamenting an interest in British history as being part of some cultural cringe, it might be worth taking a deep breath and asking what elements of the pre-settlement history of these people can shed valuable light on current debates and institutions. How can we understand the mental furniture of the nineteenth century arrivals (and, if King is right, their 'distant relationship' with their descendants) if we don't understand some of the following:
+ the development of the English language as a result of the progressive colonisation and conquest of the British Isles (after all it was English speakers who arrived in greatest numbers from Europe);
+ the influence of the classical world on the imagination of Europeans from the fourteenth century through to (and beyond) the renaissance (after all, the educated elite who oversaw the exploration of the world named its plants in Latin and were acutely conscious of measuring their achievements in relationship to the 'ancients');
+ the influence of Christianity in European civilisation, the great schism of the reformation and what that meant for political and individual rights (after all, the Anglican and Roman Catholics - both great sources of evangelism - carried their respective world views and frictions into the newly Christianised country);
+ the history of European global exploration from the fifteenth century onwards and the decisive advances of the scientific (and subsequent industrial) revolution (after all, James Cook wasn't just sight-seeing: he was on a mission financed by the Royal Society which had precise scientific goals in mind);
+ the development of representative government and its relationship with the Crown (after all, something called the Crown signed the Treaty at a time when nothing approaching universal franchise was in sight);
+ the broad outlines of the British Empire from its early expansion in North America and Asia through to its eventual demise in the wake of the second world war (after all, it did have something to do with which northern hemisphere polity laid claim to Aotearoa).
One could go on. None of this has anything to do with some recolonial hankering for past glories. It is simply about acknowledging that New Zealand's intellectual, cultural and institutional history on the Pakeha side didn't start with settlement here. Upton-on-line, along with many fellow New Zealanders, is part of the Anglo-Celtic diaspora of the 19th century. As such, he cannot help but bring to bear on contemporary debates the impact of that cultural inheritance, however patchily he may understand it. Pakeha New Zealanders had better decide whether it's adequate to understand themselves in the context of the narrow canvas of 200 odd years of nation-building; or whether it mightn't be time to relax a bit, embrace deeper, older roots and stop treating them as a colonial atavism in need of exorcism.
A brief note on Taua
Testament to the contemporary productivity of New Zealand history writing is Angela Ballara's Taua (Penguin 2003). Upton-on-line will spare readers another book review. But this cool, careful evaluation of the so-called 'Musket Wars' seems to upton-on-line a must read for those interested in educating themselves on the fluid pre-Treaty years. Ballara's essential thesis is that while muskets may have changed Maori warfare qualitatively, the clashes that very early European settlers observed were conducted largely on traditional terms. In her words "[w]ars and migrations were endemic to Maori society because they were its mechanisms for dissolving disputes and clashes between descent groups." It is then intriguing to read her dispassionate account of the gathering social and cultural impact of European values:
"...the new ideas, concepts and institutions which were creeping insidiously and sequentially into Maori use were leading to an end to war. They were undermining the need for the extremes of tapu, weakening the compulsion to seek utu, and presenting gentler and therefore increasingly popular, alternatives to what had been a harsh system."
If that was one cultural legacy of early settlement, it can only underline the sense of betrayal that must have been experienced when settler culture turned resorted to its own brand of violence in the land wars. Ballara carries off the whole thing with a forensic care and a sense of scholarly detachment that is admirable. Just the sort of thing our elected representatives will make a beeline for in seeking to further their understanding of early C19th New Zealand.
Talk to the Animals
If photos in the major French dailies were anything to go by these last ten days, visitors could be forgiven for thinking that France had given animals the vote. Scarcely a day has passed without a photo of some French notable posing with a cuddly farm creature. It has been the annual Salon d'Agriculture in Paris, a large jamboree which can best be explained to New Zealanders as a cross between the Royal Easter Show and a party political conference. Whereas innocent New Zealand bumpkins just stare at prize bulls and jars of bottled carrots, sophisticated French leaders stare at prize bulls and jars of appellation controllée carrots and pronounce on the soul of France and the essence of French identity.
The media seem dutifully to accept that for a week or more each year, readers need to see their leaders in close communion with the soil (or at least what passes for it in the sparkling exhibition centre at the Porte de Versailles just beside the orbital motorway in deepest urban Paris). A cynic might be tempted to read some significance into the animals various leaders choose for their photo ops. President Chirac chose a very pretty little calf this year. M. Raffarin, as befits his ample and provincial status chose a very large, somnolent and French looking bull. And Paris' popular gay socialist Mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, chose a very perky looking goat. Even Bernadette Chirac, the President's wife and a candidate in the regional elections was at it down country in her cantonal stronghold cuddling a piglet and opining that "pigs are the animals that most closely resemble humans". Is there some deep point here? The reality is probably more mundane. With at least 10 political parties plus all sorts of regional and national functionaries, newspapers need to provide some variety for readers so they vary the breed of animal.
All of this is very drole. But if the animals scrubbed up uncomplainingly, their owners have been feeling distinctly grumpy. French agriculture has never looked worse despite all those pats from the political elite. In fact, the more politicians show solidarity and sympathise with the peasantry, the worse it seems to get. Prices have never been lower, the Americans have slapped a ban on imports of foie gras, the bees are being killed by insecticides, Spanish pork is flooding into the country and - to cap it all - the French are drinking less wine because of anti-drink driving laws and, horror of horrors, consumer tastes are switching in favour of quality at the expense of quantity! The only point on which everyone seems agreed is the need for more government support. Woe betide any politician who thinks he can snuggle up to a goat or a pig without offering some pork as well!
Putting a label on the problem
With all this grumping down on the farm, fresh attention has been focused on one of France's distinctive contributions to the world of labelling and quality assurance - the system of Appellations d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) that was started back in 1935. Overseen by an official commission (the INAO), there are now 600 products under an AOC label covering some 140,000 of the 650,000 farms in France. Wine is the oldest established product to be 'AOC-ed' and not surprisingly has the largest percentage of its production covered - some 55% of output. This is believed to be close to the limit of what can realistically be described as meeting more demanding specifications. But there's plenty of room for growth in other lines of business.
As befits any uniquely French institution, there is an elegant philosophical rationale which links labels to specific products grown in specific places: "If I am what I eat but I don't know what I'm eating, I no longer know who I am." This fearsomely metaphysical formulation chimes well with what INAO detects to be a widespread loss of consumer confidence in the anonymity and mass production of the industrialised foodchain. The AOC system enables farmers to detach themselves from a production system in which they have become powerless pawns and link up with counter-cultural consumers who are interested not just in price but quality and traceability.
If that was all there was to it, the AOC system would itself be standardisable and globalisable as well. But the AOC system doesn't stop there. It places prime importance on linking quality with the specific land to which the AOC is attached. Starting with the land, INAO spends as much time as it takes - sometimes up to a decade - working with producers to characterise the unique characteristics of the site and the production methods. These then become one-off, inimitable conditions that no-one else can copy. The AOC is effectively owned by its registered producers. The product can be neither de-localised nor made the subject of a public float. It's a tightly held business! As the director of INAO, Philippe Maugin observed recently in an interview with Le Monde (24th February) -
"The green Puy lentille or roquefort are collectively owned property that cannot be expatriated unlike mass-production labels that can represent themselves as being the same while out-sourcing their production to Asia or Africa in search of lower prices."
Demanding production requirements and higher input costs are rewarded with higher market returns and correspondingly higher property values. In the face of agriculture's woes, the AOC movement seems to be not only a defensive bulwark for some on the land but also in tune with consumer sentiment. A recent survey of consumer views reported in Le Figaro (28-29 February) revealed that 63% of the French consider that they eat less well today than they did in the past. Blame for this didn't seem to be attributed in any large measure to the farmers themselves (which no doubt explains the continued healthy turn-out of politicians at the Salon d'Agriculture). Rather, the blame was lumped heavily onto the big agri-business and supermarket operators. Not for the first time a poll has shown that many of the people pushing trolleys past the cornucopean aisles of contemporary hypermarchés and buying more food at cheaper prices than ever before are, deep down, unhappy about their plight. The same poll identified environmental values as the most important values to be secured in the agricultural production process (89% of all those surveyed) closely followed by animal well-being and a fair income for producers!
Shrewd marketing or a protectionist plot?
For New World producers the AOC system, linked as it is to specific geographic locations, is easily dismissed as a road block to any attempts to liberalise trade. Attempts to take back under protected status place names that have been long used to describe products made around the world are always going to ignite irreconcilable passions. Upton-on-line confesses to having sympathies in both directions.
As for the AOC system itself, it is not devoid of subsidy. The Institute that runs the system receives €14 million a year from French taxpayers and operates under statute. But in the scheme of the CAP subsidies this is a drop in the ocean. In truth, as French producers acknowledge, to try to bring total French agricultural output under an AOC label would be self-defeating since it is the uniqueness and specificity of the requirements that provide the added value. The real threat to world trade comes from the huge volumes of subsidised product churned out by large agri-business units that would never qualify for AOC status. Dismantling those subsidies should be no threat to AOC producers if their niche is as secure as public opinion at least in Europe would suggest it is. (Of course, it's another question whether the movement could survive without that €14 million subsidy).
Needless to say, the AOC's supporters are keen to deny that France is going it alone here. They point to countries as various as China, Vietnam, Morocco, Bolivia, Brazil and a raft of francophone West African states seeking advice on how to set up AOC systems. Off-shore cynics would no doubt conclude that this is a nice way of seeding protectionist sentiments around the world. But it's a game everybody can play at. And as long as the standards are truly exacting, it would seem that tightly focused geographic appellations are scarcely going to dent world supply and demand.
Which raises the question of whether New Zealand producers in some key product areas shouldn't at least inform themselves of the purchasing proclivities of rich, worried consumers in decadent old Europe. Even if no-one cares in Australia and North America, Europe remains a wealthy market whose consumers can afford to be fussy. If the much wider use of appellations was the price the world had to pay for the removal of protectionist barriers from the unlabelled commodity trade, would the world be worse off? As is usually the case in most debates surrounding trade policy, there are no first best options on the table to play with.
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