December 18, 2003

Is there a difference between Lord Elgin & the Taleban?

Posted at 12:49 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

The British during the eighteenth & nineteenth centuries portrayed themselves as explorers – but in some cases the end results of their actions was little different to those caused by the Taleban in todays era.

New Zealand Herald

Brian Rudman: Curly one for Santa … something nice about the mayor

Please, I need your help. At Heart of the City’s pre-Christmas bash the other night, Mayor John Banks dashed up to me, grasped my hand and asked me to do one thing for him.

Your wish, said I, is my command. What did he have in mind?

“Brian, please write something positive about the Mayor before Christmas.”

Now I’m always up for a challenge, but with less than a week to solve this brain teaser, I’m starting to panic. Send me your suggestions by Friday, 30 words or less. Best entry wins a copy of the John Banks biography – or not, if you prefer. (See contact addresses below.)

Talking of wins, Mr Banks’ old National Party parliamentary colleague Murray McCully has been having great sport with Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres over his “Bamiyan Buddha” speech a year ago.

Full of the overblown outrage that only parliamentarians and ham actors can turn on, Mr McCully reckoned the commissioner’s views “deeply offensive” and “calculated to excite hostility against or bring into contempt a group of New Zealanders (ie many non-Maori New Zealanders like myself) on the basis of their ethnic or national origins”.

As such, he tried to lay a complaint against Mr de Bres for breaching his own act, but Human Rights Chief Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan declared, on legal advice, that she and her staff had immunity from such complaints.

This week, the High Court found in Mr McCully’s favour.

Well, whoopdee-doo. I’m sure there was excitement in National Party locker rooms at this victory over political correctness. And with little else to celebrate over recent years, no doubt the temptation is to prolong the fun through the commission’s various mediation and hearings procedures.

But what will that achieve?

That the rest of us had long forgotten the speech rather demolishes Mr McCully’s original claim.

He wants Mr de Bres sacked or disciplined or whatever because his words were likely to excite racial hostility. But by now we know that no racial hostility was raised by the speech. Except, perhaps, by some of his critics who couldn’t resist alluding to Mr de Bres’ Dutch descent.

I would have thought Mr McCully, as one of the more liberal-minded MPs, would have approved of this demonstration of free speech.

If you read the speech, it was far from a call for people unknown to start hating what Mr McCully calls “non-Maori New Zealanders like myself”. It was more a sermon, based on a text of the day.

Mr de Bres was speaking at a dawn ceremony to greet the United Nations day for cultural heritage, a day set aside by the United Nations following the previous year’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taleban in Afghanistan.

That act, said Mr de Bres, was “an appalling example of people of one culture wielding their power to destroy a site that was special to people of another”.

Like a preaching vicar or a struggling editorial writer, he then did a quick leap to the here and now, reminding listeners that while shaking our heads in incomprehension at the destruction of the Buddhas, we should recall “the sorry litany of cultural vandalism” that occurred during the colonisation of New Zealand.

The link with the Taleban was perhaps novel, but what he says about colonisation is pretty old hat. And who would disagree that the impact between the colonising and indigenous cultures was nearly fatal to the latter everywhere it occurred?

You have only to tour the grand museums of London to see that the Taleban were late players in the destruction of other cultural monuments. Is it racist to point out how British “explorers” at the same time were looting the world, hacking the Elgin Marbles off the Parthenon in Athens, for example?

Mr de Bres concluded his speech by noting how New Zealanders had given up destroying the natural environment and were now passionate in its protection. Perhaps the day of cultural heritage was a good time to consider transferring some of this passion into the protection of Maori cultural heritage as well.

It was the stuff of free debate, the sort of ideas a democratic society needs to blossom.

Mr McCully has had his little victory. He should give up while he’s ahead.

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