It seems peculiar that while England, the country many New Zealanders of my parents’ generation still referred to as “Home”, undergoes the
tribulations of its self-inflicted Brexit, we too in New Zealand are instigating a divorce from Europe (and elsewhere) of our own. When I
say we, I mean specifically the current government’s Department of Internal Affairs and not the general population, who are mainly ignorant
of what is taking place in their name and for their assumed betterment.
Essentially, the Department of Internal Affairs has established a policy of cleansing our National Library shelves of books published outside New Zealand, particularly in the areas of history, politics, philosophy/religion, literature and the arts – because we know, don’t we, where most of them have come from. Ostensibly, the aim is to make space for New Zealand published books in the future. Since the planned cull is estimated at 650,000 titles, as opposed to an annual estimate of 2000 books published in New Zealand, it could be said that the Department of Internal Affairs has planned well in advance even if they do preserve, as is mooted, books from other Pacific countries. Or is this all just dull budgeting, to save on expensive floor rent in the capital, Wellington?
So far, the official response to anyone objecting to this policy has been to point out that all the texts in question will be digitised for ready perusal via electronic media. There is no evidence that this cumbersome page-by-page process was applied to the 60,000 volumes already let go to a local Lions Club charity sale – nor does anyone know the fate of these books, either sold or unsold. Quite apart from the dodgy reputation of the overseas firm rumoured to have been granted the digitisation contract, no one yet knows what charges they may make upon scholars for (thus far) putative access. The tradition of free reading on site or through relatively inexpensive interloan services has receded into the past. Blinkered specialisation, that curse of contemporary learning, can only be advanced when library research (best described as not always being sure of what you’re looking for until you’ve found it) is replaced by algorithm-driven internet surfing.
Opposition to these farcical proceedings has resulted in the formation of a protest group among authors, readers and researchers, calling themselves the Book Guardians Aotearoa. The use of the te reo Maori alternative name for the country is piquant in this instance. Given the sort of terminal post-colonial guilt wince at the core of the Department of Internal Affairs policy, there is no doubt what sort of foreign books are most likely to be at the top of their hit list. British and, to a similar degree, American publications unarguably dominate both the book market and academic study in most disciplines in New Zealand. Foreign languages, amusingly, start there but so does the kind of Western consciousness now so fashionably inimical to Department of Internal Affairs bureaucrats.
Although there is considerable and generally healthy debate about the place of indigenous traditions and learning in modern New Zealand education at all levels, most Maori scholars and teachers both respect and value their own knowledge of European culture. For many reasons, works concerning religion, politics, philosophy, history, and literature have always been of significant interest to them. Prized among texts translated into te reo Maori is the late Don Selwyn’s version of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Decades back, an earlier manifestation of pakeha Eurocringe saw the same play, which has so much to teach us all about the nature of racism and the practice of justice, subjected to protests on the grounds of its anti-Semitism by students at Victoria University in Wellington, some of whom may well be serving out careers today as employees of the Department of Internal Affairs.
Of course, once the classics go, what else is safe? There’s no longer even the evidence to support complaints about how old, white, male, and so on their progenitors were. We are also likely to lose contact, on account of this broad brush approach, with other ancestral peoples – Welsh, Irish, and Scottish, for example – whose histories were re-directed by colonisation. The relevance of the Maori viewpoint regarding these issues contrasts markedly with the white/pakeha cultural Brexit (using the term here in full awareness of its irony) being imposed apparently on their behalf.
Brexit in the UK manner appals the rest of the civilised world as a regression into nationalist insularity, ignorance and introversion. Historically and geographically we’ve already always been a bit like that in New Zealand. We need to hold on to all the external insight we can get. The great book cull not only disables us further as participants in the modern world, it is also actually against New Zealand law as set down in binding documents including the Human Rights Act and, more tellingly, the Treaty of Waitangi, which both protect freedoms of thought, speech and belief. If you are disturbed by any of this, and who wouldn’t be, you might like to find out more from the Book Guardians Aotearoa website or, indeed, contact the Minister of Internal Affairs and ask her what on earth her department is up to: Jan.Tinetti@parliament.govt.nz
Tony Beyer writes in Taranaki, New Zealand. Among his print titles, Anchor Stone (Cold Hub Press) was a finalist in the poetry category of the 2018 NZ Book Awards. More recent work has appeared internationally in Atlanta Review, Hamilton Stone Review, Landfall, London Grip, Mayhem, Molly Bloom, Mudlark, Otoliths, Tarot, and elsewhere.