Michael King’s obituaries

A reflection on Michael King’s obituaries

The shocking death of Michael King and his wife marks the passing of a crucial figure from New Zealand’s public life. His work represented a turning point in Pakeha history and media, beginning an acknowledgement of Maori culture that was long overdue. His stature has been recognised in many moving obituaries, the latest by Tim Watkin in The Listener (April 10). However, I am concerned that Watkin’s piece – like many others – glosses over significant issues in King’s work and its ongoing relevance. More particularly, I am concerned at the way King’s obituraries are being used to devalue contemporary historical and cultural work.

Watkins states that King was “the man who knew us the best”. The “us” he’s referring to are a predominantly Pakeha group who believe in the basic principles of National cultural identity – the same New Zealanders the National Party mean when they say “We are all New Zealanders”. What Watkins doesn’t elaborate on are the two main character traits of Pakeha New Zealand that King’s work also represents: anti-intellectualism and a troubled relationship with Maori. These are of course particularly present features in New Zealand political life right now, and at a time where there is a great deal being written on King’s legacy, I think it’s worth considering how these characteristics are being reinscribed.

The most important question around King’s work is his relationship with the profession of the historian. Much is made of King’s “turning his back on the academy” in order to write for a “general audience”. The argument is that academics are in their own little world, and by remaining outside the University system King remained untainted by the plague of terrible, jargon-infested prose that the academy produces. Like most “common-sense” arguments, there is some truth in this, even if it overlooks the significant amount of clear and elegant writing that does get produced in the academy. But I think it makes more sense to see King’s position as turning away not from “bad writing”, but from the professional discussion among historians about how to write history. It’s King’s refusal to engage with that discussion that is the reason for his success as a “historian of the people”, rather than the relative “quality” of his writing compared to the academic sector. King’s significant work began as a journalist, and in the end he chose to be a journalist rather than a historian, in that he didn’t update his historical methodology so as not to complicate his relationship with “the people”.

Watkins notes King’s enterprising spirit, and I think this holds a key to much of his “history for the people”. King’s history fits our “nation of shopkeepers”. If contemporary history is about specialisation, collaboration, and understanding the limits of one’s role, King runs the biggest general store on the block. You can get everything, as long as you like his product lines. Like the general store, the “historian of the people” approach is increasingly embattled, squeezed from above by the transnational book trade who write bigger and flasher general histories of the World, squeezed from below by a new generation for whom specialisation, global connectedness and methodological innovation are the watchwords. King’s history was the store you grew up with, the familiar smells, the shopkeeper who knew your name, the place that you didn’t find yourself going to as often as the economy diversified because the big stores were cheaper and the specialists had a better range. Like the small-business owner, King never had much time for evaluating his methods, because there was always too much to do.

There is sadness for me in King’s decision to turn his back on the academic discipline he trained in, because at the time he faced his biggest challenge from Maoridom over cultural imperialism, the academy was dealing with precisely the issues of how to negotiate these cultural relationships. The humanities, taking on board insights from the social sciences, began the dialogue around cultural power that would fundamentally question, complicate and reinvigorate the basis of telling stories about culture. Prompted by the feminist and anti-racist movements, History realised that there was more than one side to any story, and that the historian’s task of finding “the facts” required the integration of as many sides of the story as possible. The job of history changed from forcefully stating resolved uncertainties about how things were, to developing our sensitivity to the many factors influencing chains of events. History became more filled with questions than answers. Or more precisely, history uses the past to answer our own questions, here and now, leading to a greater level of *reflexivity* about what questions we ask of history. Whose interests do these questions serve? How much do they reflect our own interests at the expense of others? Contrary to popular belief, this so-called “political correctness” hasn’t stopped Pakeha academics writing Maori history (and in Judith Binney’s exemplary case, even popular ones), but it does mean accepting that in the colonial context “history” has meanings which are incommensurate across different peoples.

The mass media, by definition, must try and claim a general audience and shared meanings. As a journalist by trade, King always assumed that Pakeha and Maori worlds were commensurable, which is why I think his death resonates so deeply among Pakeha journalists right now. At a time of deep racial fragmentation, King’s history offered the hope for the Pakeha media that maybe, deep down, we could all be New Zealanders without subscribing to the National Party line. “Maybe by writing for the New Zealand Herald I am reaching New Zealand. Perhaps the emergence of Maori TV doesn’t mean that Maori think TVNZ is just Pakeha TV”.

King’s love affair with Maori culture followed a classic pre-feminist logic. The male worshipped the object of his affections but was ultimately unable to come to terms with her independence when it was asserted. For King, as for Reed, Sinclair, Oliver, and Belich and other Pakeha historians of “New Zealand”, the lead actor is European culture, with Maori in a supporting role. Authoritative sources are those that have been validated by Pakeha, whereas Maori sources are “information” that helps illuminate the story. Even at his death, it was mostly Pakeha historians who spoke of his “support among Maori” (of course, many Maori do support him, but it’s the suppression of the dissenting views I am concerned with here).

King’s Penguin History of New Zealand – a book so supportive of the established order that even Don Brash could endorse it – eventually becomes an unfortunate summary of King’s move from pathbreaker to cultural conservative. Except that it wasn’t really King who moved, but New Zealand moved while King, removed from the global discussions around the craft of history that could have nourished him, stood still. It says something to me that in the printed discussions about the historical tradition King’s “short history” sought to update, Ranganui Walker’s Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou – Struggle Without End was never mentioned, despite that work being a brilliant, highly readable and scholarly account of New Zealand’s history from a Maori perspective. Walker’s work was published by Penguin in 1990, but has never been given its due by New Zealand’s Pakeha cultural pundits.

For me, the most relevant anecdote from King’s various obituaries was his knowledge of te reo Maori, which he learnt at a time when it was “pretty radical”, but which eventually “became a bit rusty”. This rustiness occurred during a time of Maori language’s rapid expansion, among Pakeha as well as Maori. It’s a poignant marker of a failed romance with someone of another tongue, and a reminder that it was perhaps the romance rather than the culture that was of most importance to King.

My fondness for Michael King will be as the journalist who brought the stories of Te Puea Herangi and Whina Cooper to Pakeha New Zealand, or the TV production of Tangata Whenua. It was work like this that paved the way for Pakeha like myself to become aware of an indigenous culture that had been radically suppressed through colonialism. It’s an awareness which fundamentally shifted my life for the better. But it’s difficult bring my same fondness to the memory of Michael King, historian of New Zealand. My reading of indigenous cultural struggles is that they have been demands to share in setting the agenda for history, rather than just being subject to it. To be recognised and conversed with on their own terms, rather than those of colonial culture. When it came to summing up New Zealand, King wasn’t quite prepared to have that discussion.

My concern here is not to bury King for his failures, which would be offensive, and in any case I have nothing to gain from it. No doubt some will think this piece insensitive anyway. But while we remember the man and his tremendous contribution, we shouldn’t hold him up as a figure who could have charted the way through the current tensions between Maori and Pakeha. For Pakeha, a baseline for that process will be accepting Maori knowledge as equal to our own, and as more relevant for models for living here than European or North American ideologies. It will require increasing our knowledge of te reo and tikanga Maori. It will require coming to terms with painful histories that were not of our own choosing. It will require not always trying to be let off the hook. It will require not waiting for a Pakeha historian to tell us the “right answer” for Maori-Pakeha relations.

There are Pakeha out there right now who I see doing the required work. Most of them are under 40. Some of them are “academics”, some are community workers, some are hip-hop artists. The ten year-old Pakeha kid who has a repertoire of waiata kori they practice in front of their baffled grandparents. These are the people who will guide us through the future even while we remember those who have passed.

Danny Butt
April 5, 2004

One thought on “Michael King’s obituaries”

  1. Kia ora ano,

    He korero tino kaha.

    Reminds me of the whakatauki “Kaua e whakaarohia te mahinga otira te otinga”. Utopia is always a posibility, rarely a reality.

    He tino koi ou whakaaro.

    Mauri ora.

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