New Zealand P.M. Jacinda Ardern speaks at Harvard

May 28, 2022 • 12:30 pm

Here’s New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Adern speaking at this year’s Harvard commencement, and don’t really know what to make of her talk. It clearly shows her rhetorical abilities and humor: she’s a remarkably unpretentious person for a politician, and very likable. And her government, and New Zealand in general, have done many good things. She runs a country I love. But that country, and Ardern herself, is succumbing to wokeness. It gives me a lot of cognitive dissonance.

To me her message seems a bit confusing, if not distressing, and I can’t help but be a bit petulant about some of her statements.

She begins with what is the New Zealand equivalent of a “land acknowledgment”, speaking in Māori, a language that nobody in the audience understands. Well, so be it.  What bothers me more is that her message in English is explicitly against tribalism, and yet her very government is fostering tribalism, at least in terms of science.  By that I mean that that government is trying to maintain two forms of science as coequal: modern science and the form of indigenous “ways of knowing”, Mātauranga Māori (MM). They aren’t coequal and shouldn’t be taught as such in the classroom, which is what the Ardern government is trying to do. Further, they are trying to put criticism of MM as off limits, so that indigenous science, unlike “real” science, becomes insulated from criticism. And we all know (e.g. Lysenko) what happens when politics renders criticism of science out of bounds.

It’s through that lens that I view Ardern’s talk, which overall isn’t bad. But she notes that the foundations of a strong democracy include “trust in institutions, experts, and government,” which can be “built up over decades but torn down in mere years”. In fact, her government is fostering distrust in “experts” when they’re modern scientists, and are tearing down the foundations of science that, in New Zealand, are already eroding compared to similar countries.  When she remarks that a blind faith in democracy “ ignores what happens when, regardless of how long your democracy has been tried and tested, facts are turned into fiction and fiction turned into fact,” I think of how MM, a lot of which is fictional, is being turned into fact in the classroom, while modern science is largely dismissed as “colonialist.”

Finally, I also find it a bit ironic when she claims “that a strong democracy relies on debate and dialogue, and even the oldest regimes can seek to control these forums, and the youngest can seek to liberate them,” when her regime is in fact stifling any dialogue about science. It’s nearly impossible to get anything critical of “indigenous ways of knowing” published in New Zealand, and if you do, you might get fired. Believe me, I have the emails to prove it: messages from timorous Kiwis afraid to speak up. On some issues, “debate and dialogue” is impossible. Remember the debate between MM and science promised us by Auckland University vice Chancellor Dawn Dishwater. It hasn’t happened, and I doubt it will.

The last and longest bit of her talk is, curiously, on social media. Here’s her words as transcribed by the Harvard Crimson:

Ardern laid part of the blame for misinformation on social media platforms, the companies that run them, and the algorithms that create internet echo chambers.

“I’m not here to argue that social media is good, nor bad,” she said. “It’s a tool. And as with anything, it’s the rules of the game and the way we engage with it that matter. That means recognizing the role they play in constantly curating and shaping the online environments that we’re in — that algorithmic processes make choices and decisions for us, what we see and where we are directed, and that at best this means user experience is personalized and at worst it means it can be radicalized.”

Ardern noted the 2019 murder of 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The shootings were livestreamed on social media. Investigators found that the killer had been radicalized online.

“The time has come for social media companies and other online providers to recognize their power and to act on it,” said Ardern, whose government passed restrictions on semiautomatic firearms and high-capacity magazines after the killings. [Those laws, by the way, were great.] Ardern pointed out that individuals also bear responsibility. How we use technology is an individual decision, she said, as is how we interact with those with whom we disagree.

To me this is the usual cry against “hate speech”; and “hate speech” in her country is construed far more widely than just anti-Islamic sentiments on social media. It’s the same kind of “hate speech” that led to complaints against those asserting that MM was equivalent to modern science, and against those who argue that morbid obesity is unhealthy. When she says, “I’m not here to argue that social media is good, nor bad,” I think she’s being disingenuous, playing to both sides. What she’s really saying is that social media is bad if it adheres to the kind of speech permitted by America’s First Amendment. She is calling for some unspecified brand of social-media censorship. Private companies have the right to censor, of course, but my own view is that they shouldn’t unless the censorship involves speech not defended by the First Amendment (calls for immediate, predictable, and incipient violence, etc.)

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Ardern. I was and remain a big fan, but I think the creeping wokeness of the woman, and the fear of many Kiwis to speak out, may eventually be her undoing.  Well, listen for yourself.

14 thoughts on “New Zealand P.M. Jacinda Ardern speaks at Harvard

  1. I didn’t detect the creeping “wokeness” that you did. How much responsibility does social media bear? I am not certain I know enough but those algorithms she mentions appear remarkably successful in fulfilling their intentions. Maybe we’ve entered an era where speech (language) needs to be considered in a different way than previously. Our capacity for language will likely be our (human’s) downfall and if free will doesn’t exist then maybe the ideal of free speech will be a casualty of our sad times.

  2. As I’ve lived most of my life in NZ, I know at a gut level that the Prime Minister ( who is usually referred to by her first name by NZers in casual conversation ) typifies the metropolitan White with postcolonial guilt. Namely, she can see the world is physically multi-ethnic and largely multicultural, but she cannot cognitively acknowledge it. ( Pacific Islanders are lumped as ‘honorary Maori’ in speeches about socio-economic deprivation and other indices.) That is why her Harvard speech didn’t give any indication NZ is populated by anyone other than Whites and Maori.

    This article has a revealing quote from an Auckland paediatrician, Renee Liang, which is located near the bottom, just above the last photograph :
    “Even in Jacinda Ardern’s speeches about the arts, she’ll often mention support for Maori and Pasifika, which is obviously very important, but nothing at all about Asians’. And this comes from a local Chinese whose Facebook page shows she is a political supporter of the NZ Labour Party.

    So it isn’t any accident the Prime Minister is an MP in Auckland, a city which is 28+% Asian, 16% Pacific Islander, and 11% Maori [ where Auckland artist Peter ‘3.125% Maori’ Robinson is counted as a ‘Maori’ for census purposes ], and made herself Minister for the Arts for her first 3 year term, but NEVER made any public speech during her 3 years as arts minister that acknowledged any recognition of Asian artistic cultures! At least, not an equal footing to Maori and Pacific Island arts as worthy of government support.

    She did recognise Christchurch Muslims when they were shot and killed– the marketing puff ‘Christchurch call’ was based on the bodies of dead NZ Muslims. Even so, no NZ arts festival has prominently featured any major arts show that features Muslim performing artists of some description, though Australia has had several. The Prime Minister, despite photos of her hugging Muslim women, never used her position to promote Muslim arts or culture — only their status as local victims of terrorism.

    Right now I am supported by the Human Rights Commission, in suing the cultural funding wing of Auckland Council, and two major Auckland performing arts festivals, for their institutionalised discrimination against Asian and Middle East cultures. ( 30% of Auckland Council’s $ comes from its Asians such as me, and this is mainly used to promote Maori language and culture. ) I am using the above quote by Dr Liang to show the fish rots from the head down.

  3. I don’t think you’re being too hard. You need a lot of chutzpah to publicly fret about declining trust in experts and institutions, while actively discrediting experts and academic and government institutions by promoting something like MM as coequal with science. The same goes for lamenting people and regimes stifling the debate necessary to democracy, while her fellow travelers actively stamp out debate through the power of her country’s Royal Society, blacklisting and publicly “investigating” and lambasting fellows for having the temerity to ask for reasonable debate or to express any opinion not already rubber-stamped by them.

    Man, Yiddish gave us so many great words. It’s chutzpah!

  4. Like fired associate professor Frances Widdowson, you are being churlish in dissecting Ms Ardern’s commencement address to reveal deeper, more sinister meaning. Charmingly, indispensably churlish in a world where there is much to be churlish about.

    Keep the heat on.

  5. Much of what we call wokeism is another form of the insistence on binary (and nothing but
    binary) categories that has long been characteristic of the pop-Left. In NZ, they insist that the only
    categories are Maori and white; thus all other categories are overlooked, and mixed categories
    must be assigned to one or the other (like the Maori artist with his 3.125%). The treaty of Waitangi
    provides a historical reference and pretext for this reductive scheme, no doubt why it has become so
    pervasive in the land of the long white cloud.

    We have similar binaries. Long ago, the young things who dominated the movement against the Vietnam War were unable to comprehend how anyone could be against the war but not adore Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh. Contemporary examples include the way mixed race individuals (like President Obama) are invariably described as “Black”; the way Islam is re-defined as a racial category (without which Linda Sarsour would be “just another white girl”); and Oberlin VP Ben Jones’ thoughtful Email account of Gibson’s bakery (“F**k ’em,’ “). The psychological root of these binaries is presumably the primal one revealed in VP Jones’ Email: us and not us, Strangely, though, pop-Leftists also often insist that in the one case where there actually is a clear, inarguable, biological binary, in that one case they dream up an imaginary “spectrum”. Go figure.

  6. Take the Treaty of Waitangi and think the US 2nd Amendment, both vague unintentional or not, and open to bias.
    This comment of white guilt is also open and says nothing of people’s sense of fairness, a deep trait long instilled in human behaviour and not even unique to humans.
    Ramish claims that Maori and people’s of the pacific have favour over all others. This may have elements of truth but it is embedded with a long and recent history. Look up the Dawn Raids in Auckland in the case of the Pacific Islanders to see what happened to them, if you think favouritism over others has always been present.
    We LIVE in the South Pacific and have ties to more than just being geographical.
    NO country is perfect and sorting out art funding and hugging victims of a terrorist act is somehow aligned to funding which until recent times and still is, scorned by some kiwis and immigrants (a Russian colleague I know just doesn’t get it) they see it as a waste of resources.
    Ardern worries me after the fine effort over one calamity after another but we will see how unwoke the next lot of politicians are.
    There are other parties coming into play that are more science-friendly.

    1. Hi,
      When I listened to parts of what Ardern has recently said in the USA, and elsewhere when NZ Whites airily claim ‘we are a ‘Pacific’ nation’, it’s a bit like hearing Mormons go on about family values… or hearing a Scientologist praise L Ron Hubbard. Sigh.

      In the few days since Albanese was elected Aussie PM, I have noted him on ABC news state several times how Australia ‘is a multicultural nation’, and ‘an Asia-Pacific’ nation etc. How many times did Ardern in her Harvard speech, on Colbert etc, explicitly state NZ is multicultural or part of the Asia-Pacific? I heard zero.

      Australia is more embedded in the Pacific than is NZ, which is closer to Antarctica.
      On page 42 here :
      note how 1% of the NZ population in 1881 were ethnic Chinese. [ In that census, the total number of NZ residents who came from Samoa, Tonga, and the Cook Islands were less than 20 people.]
      Therefore, Chinese were the third functioning self-contained society resident in NZ, after Whites and Maori, predating ‘Pacific societies’ by generations.
      So I wonder where this sense of ‘Kiwi fairness’ has gone, when the Prime Minister and almost all NZ ‘liberals’ cannot admit NZ has been an Asia-Pacific nation for over 140 years.

      And as for the typical NZ mention of ‘arts funding is a waste of resources’, the point is that if over 30% of Auckland’s tax take comes from Asians, we want our taxes spent on our arts and cultures, and not spent on White NZ postcolonial guilt and its cultural teachers’ pets.

  7. Perhaps I’m being too hard on Ardern.

    Nowhere near hard enough. I would describe her as a shallow, disingenuous, incompetent spin doctor compared to the Labour PM from 2000 to 2008 and previous member for her Mount Albert seat, Helen Clark, who was manifestly competent and intelligent, whether or not you agreed with her politics.

    On the topics raised by Jerry and other commentators here, as someone who spent half his career in Auckland schools where the majority of students were neither Maori nor European, if the focus of missives from the Department of Education was any guide, I think Ramesh is right about the invisibility of Asians and, to a less extent, Pacific Islanders, but this is not a recent blindness for which Jacinda Ardern can be solely blamed.

    On hate speech, the PM was asked by usually supportive reporters if some statements likely to be reported as hate speech were in fact hate speech, but she was unable to answer.

    Tribalism (plus indigenisation as a magic bullet) is not just something being introduced into science by this government, but also into education, health, local body representation and the management of water. Much of this was hidden from the public in the last election. Challenged on a bill introducing race-based, unequal voting in Rotorua’s local government, her response was, “We are more sophisticated than that [ie, equal individual suffrage], surely, than to take such a simplistic view.”

    A gun control law penalising legal NZ gun owners was passed as a knee jerk response to the Christchurch massacre though the massacre was perpetrated by a lone Australian exploiting shoddy police enforcement of the regulations to arm himself. Gangs said they would not hand in their guns; on the same day Ardern was speaking in the US, there were an unprecedented seven shooting incidents in Auckland, probably gang related.

  8. I’m often suspicious of JA because she appears on a heck of a lot of US media for a politician from NZ. Maybe that’s just Canadian of me but it just seems odd for a politician to tour around and appear on late shows and give addresses at other universities not in your own country. I’m sure Canadians would complain about PMs who do that. Indeed I know we gave a Liberal leader a hard time for leaving Canada to become a professor at Harvard. He lost the election and returned to Harvard.

    1. I look at a country’s leader as somewhat like a company’s CEO. It’s an outward-facing job. I obviously don’t know JA’s goals but I imagine they were at least partly in order to give NZ some visibility and good feeling. To use a popular term these days, it’s NZ exercising its soft power. I don’t suppose it has much hard power. Looking at it from an outside perspective, it also demonstrates to the world how a well-run democracy works. Notwithstanding their “war on science” documented on these pages.

      1. Yeah and I see a PM as exactly not like a CEO. He’s the leader of the country. His duty is the welfare of the people of the country. The job isn’t to go around and spend time on shows. It’s to govern. It’s boring. It shouldn’t be an exercise is self promotion.

      2. Having only watched half the Stephen Colbert interview and read only a few snippets from JA’s Harvard speech (that was all I could stomach), two things come to mind:

        1. The capacity of people and in particular, politicians, to be knowingly dishonest. Ardern knows that the gun violence in NZ is currently the worst in many years, if not since the Maori Wars. I didn’t hear one issue that she claimed credit for that was actually true. She is less than honest about any of her policies (Three Waters, Maori Health Authority, failure at combatting climate change, etc, etc) but is certainly great at making it seem as though she is competent, kind and caring. There is however, a reason that one of her nicknames is Jaspinda – most of her pronouncements are just that, spin.

        2. The ongoing capacity of an audience to believe the utterances of a politician without resorting to the simple task of fact checking said utterances. It would be such a simple exercise in this age to google her claims and learn a completely different side to them. I think this speaks to our ability to be impressed by someone who sounds good without looking at any evidence beyond the facade of a seemingly earnest, bright young woman who projects herself as a great leader. Facts that might surprise you might include her failure to reduce child poverty, cure a lack of housing, just some of her promises, along with her funding during Covid of media, contingent on their support of Maori issues, (see Public Interest Journalism Fun) has meant that the media is perceived as biased and the public now has an extremely low level of trust in the media as it turns out much of the public in NZ can tell if someone isn’t telling the truth; the government’s attempts in a city called Rotorua, to give Maori (30% of the population) 50% of voting power (since declared anti constitutional), her kowtowing to Xi, etc etc etc.

        1. I don’t expect JA to air her country’s dirty laundry, assuming there is any, with either the president of another country or a talk show host and their audiences. As to whether the buyback was a success, it appears the story is complicated: This article makes the point that the gun buyback was always going to take some time to be effective. Their new laws make it easier to gather up the guns from criminals but it doesn’t happen overnight. Gun nuts are fond of saying that “if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” like that would be an obviously bad thing. Instead, it just makes it easier to identify the outlaws and take their guns.

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