Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The 'H-bomb' and the tyrany of comparison

A few years ago, I watched a 'documentary' (I'm using the term loosely - I think it was 60 mins or something) on a plane between LA and New York. It was about the problems educated women have attracting men. (I assume it focussed on straight women...) I was irate, feeling very much the target of yet another subtle message which was conditioning me, as a young woman (yes, this was a few years ago), not only to value a male partner over education but to recognise that I had to pick between the two.

At some point in the story, they interviewed two women who were graduate students at Harvard who struggled to find men (as a grad student at Cornell I could feel their pain), and they had a phrase: 'the H-bomb.'

"You know," said one of them, "if we drop the word 'Harvard' into a sentence, suddenly men are intimidated, and don't want anything to do with us." No matter what connection they had up to that point, it's all over when they let the 'H' word into the room.

The H-bomb has, for some reason, stayed with me all these years... I suppose I found the doc itself quite problematic, but have felt a bit of a victim of what it describes on some level, even as I refuse to accept that I should have such low expectations of men. Oh, or of myself.

There's another H-bomb that goes off in my life sometimes: another gamechanger.


Every few years, it seems, a Maori person is heard using the term 'holocaust' to describe the actions of the Crown during the colonial period (which generally is understood to last from 1840s or 1860 until today) and suddenly people start freaking out. "How dare you compare those policies to the extermination of the Jewish people in Europe!!??" they cry, outraged that anyone would make such a daring leap between 'here' and 'there.' 

Holocaust, of course, isn't a term which relates only to the Nazi genocidal programmes in the early twentieth century. It's a term of much longer, and broader, application which has quietly accumulated specific meaning over the years between 'then' and 'now.'

A holocaust is the systematic wiping out of a people: deliberate erasure physically, socially, culturally and - we cannot help but add - spiritually. Holocausts are related to genocide: they're widely applied and gruesomely administered. Deeply violent. Perhaps, if you believe in such things, evil.

The problem with the H-bomb - and it's been dropped again in Aotearoa, during a radio discussion about the Treaty, on Waitangi Day this year - is that it causes people to freeze. To forget everything they might have known about a people, and to forget all the possibilities of a future together, in order to make a singular assumption about that people. The upshot, of course, is that they 'don't want anything to do with us.'

Is this a reason to stop using the word?

Well, what advice would you have given the women in the documentary? 'Don't say Harvard.' 'Just say you're students and imply you're undergrads.' 'Don't let on that you're in grad school at all.' Of course not! It's not Harvard that's the problem - and the truth will come out one day anyway.

Truth has a way of doing that, and this is the truth in my own country. The history in Aotearoa New Zealand is shameful, violent and ongoing. I recently bought a house on my own tribal land which was alienated from my people less that a century ago: it's like being told that your stolen jewelry is at a pawn shop, and if you want it back you have to pay for it up front. As a Maori person, I have a lower life expectancy than a non-Maori person even though I live a comfortable middle class life. We are literally killed off: faster, younger, with less access to medical treatment. Violent deaths through armed combat during the 1860s-80s wars, and subtle deaths now that Crown violence has been quietly edged into systems which feel, on the outside, quite different from the wars of the later nineteenth century, but which have the same effects. The same cumulative effects.

This is why it's called a holocaust. Because we have been, and continue to be, targetted for early death by the Crown. Our resources have been, and continue to be, targetted for specific removal and Crown acquisition.

The problem, of course, is the tyrany of comparison. Because NZ's history doesn't look exactly like the extermination in Europe (oh, or the test drive of the technology in Namibia earlier last century, but people who are concerned about the H-bomb tend not to know about that) we are made to believe that this is not a holocaust. Not so bad. Actually, considering other places, quite good. What are these Maoris complaining about anyway??

Oh, the histories we remember and the histories we forget. If only we could remember them all! If only they didn't have to line up on a starting block and be made to run against each other! If only one awful chapter of history wasn't forced to compete with another, in order to see which is the most awful of them all!

We find ourselves at the limits of language when we describe these events: holocaust is an important word, because other words (oppression, murder) fail to describe the horror we feel bound to remember. It applies to the situation in Europe during WWII, for sure, but what other words do we have to describe the machinations of the Crown in, say, Taranaki over the past 150 years?

More questions. Why are some people in NZ more likely to know the complexities of the tragedies in Europe than anything at all about the tragedies in their own country? Which histories are denied, and which histories are we willing to defend against those who deny them? Why must all genocides, all tragedies, all holocausts, dance maniacally on a stage alongside one another, kicking up heels and leaping about, proving the depth of their individual situation is unable to be compared - it's incomparable! - to the others? Who judges these morbid events? How do we protect ourselves from being turned into infomercials starring our very own disadvantage, our very own brokenness, our very own truth, in a way which hopelessly but doggedly attempts to compete with the other versions of the same thing that are already more familiar? How do we refuse to answer the questions posed by the people filling in the Great Comparative Spreadsheet, knowing our table will be differently configured to theirs, but also knowing that the size of the table is not the point anyway?

And these are not the only questions. How do we maintain our healthy grief-laden mourning respect for other dead, when we also wish to mourn our own? How do we articulate our desire to grieve and to heal, when the words we have available to us have been snatched away? Why are Maori histories ignored until we drop the 'H-bomb' at which time they come sharply into focus - and yet not seen at all?

Decribing the holocaust in Taranaki does not belittle the concentration camps, the gold stars, the impossible removal of people from homes and families. Global history is not a freak show, in which we can only remain entertained when the things we are shown are more and more appalling. The problem isn't the H-bomb itself: not the word, or its use.

The problem is that there was a holocaust in Aotearoa New Zealand. And the reaction to the H-bomb is one of the most pernicious effects of the holocaust itself.  

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