OBSCURE NATIVE RITUALS….Chris Bertram points

OBSCURE NATIVE RITUALS….Chris Bertram points us to Kenan Malik’s blog, where he is upset over this news report from New Zealand:

Work on a section of the new highway between Mercer and Long Swamp, dubbed the “Waikato Expressway”, has been put on hold after local Maori said they believe there is a taniwha in the way. Local Maori claim the taniwha – or guardian spirit – is lurking somewhere in swampland near Meremere.

….Transit New Zealand will not be interviewed but says it issued the stopwork order out of respect for Maori culture. A meeting is scheduled between roading authorities and local Maori to decide what happens next.

Kenan is appalled by this:

To take seriously Maori beliefs about the taniwha, and to view respect for such beliefs as the basis of Maori rights, is to suggest that Maoris possess rights, not by virtue of being rational political actors, but as a consequence of holding irrational cultural beliefs. It is to resurrect a Romantic, ‘Noble Savage’ view of Maoris and to assess their rights on a different basis from which we assess other peoples’ rights.

But compare these “irrational cultural beliefs” to this quote from the Chicago Tribune about a pair of cemeteries that are on the grounds of O’Hare Airport. The churches were moved away years ago, so why are they still there?

Said John Carr, acting airport manager: “It is a very costly thing to move cemeteries.” The legal complications of moving bodies are formidable, Maynard Marks, secretary of the Cemetery Association of Greater Chicago, agreed.

“If the state has to move one body to route a highway, it will reroute the highway,” he said.

As Kieran Healy pointed out in a hilarious post a few days ago, it is all too easy to ignore the fact that our own rituals and beliefs are every bit as stylized and irrational as anyone’s, something that anthropologists frequently have good natured fun with. Would Kenan have felt the same way if a local Christian group had protested the highway because its route took it through a cemetery?

It’s often the case that the true root of these kinds of disputes is a belief by a non-majority group that they are not being taken seriously. This has certainly been the case in Hawaii, where scientists have built telescopes on Mauna Kea with wild abandon for the past decade and simply dismissed out of hand native concerns about desecration of temples. Eventually protesters got their attention, but the problem probably could have been avoided entirely by simply treating their requests with respect from the start.

My guess is that Transit New Zealand has learned this lesson. Certainly governments are not obliged to automatically defer to religious belief ? quite the contrary ? but by taking the Maori religion as seriously as we take Christianity, the situation will probably be defused fairly quickly and an adequate compromise reached. And it will be done not by treating the Maori as noble savages, but simply by treating them as equals.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation