Should it be 'Wanganui' or 'Whanganui'? This was the crucial question that was taxing the minds of politicians, media commentators and talkback callers for most of this week.
What was so irritating about this issue was that, despite the torrent of words, the real issues that underscored the debate got ignored.
This debate largely allowed the Maori elite, represented by the likes of the Maori Party and media commentators like John Tamihere and Willie Jackson and activists like Ken Mair, to portray themselves as the true voices of Maori, seeking to 'liberate' their people from yet another symbol of white oppression.
It was predictable that middle class white liberals all wheeled in behind the Maori elite - the very same Maori elite that have attacked, over time, trade unions, the welfare state and the environmental movement - among other groups. These are the same liberals who think of themselves as 'left wing' or 'progressive' while still supporting the neoliberal Labour Party. The lack of real critical thinking was sorely apparent. Just the mention of anything Maori and white liberals start wringing their hands in guilt.
My three readers will know that I am impressed by the work of Professor Elizabeth Rata from the University of Auckland.
Her research has identified what is essentially a new Maori capitalism. Professor Rata refers to this as a 'neotribal capitalist regime of accumulation.' Writes Professor Rata:
Under neotribal capitalism, this access to what paltry resources have been returned to Maori is effectively exclusively controlled by the new tribal capitalist elite. Even if ownership of resources is nominally owned by the whole tribe (the corporate tribe, and not an individual, is the legal owner), and even if iwi members have a shareholding in the business, the undemocratic nature of neotribal capitalist business ensures that working class iwi do not have any real say in the corporate iwi head office.
It was the fourth Labour Government that began the process of co-opting the newly-emerging Maori elite into the capitalist structure and the official policy of biculturalism has resulted in a dramatic expansion of opportunities for middle class professional Maori, in the state apparatus, education system, health and the media.
These are the very same Maori, the John Tamihere's and Tariana Turia's, who have been campaigning on the basis of what is commonly referred to as cultural nationalism - an emphasis on Maori culture and identity.
But the focus on Maori culture has been at the cost of any real struggle for real economic and social change. Indeed the cultural nationalism of the Maori Party actively discourages any struggle for real change and implicitly reinforces the status quo.
This destructive emphasis on Maori identity and culture is of no threat at all to New Zealand capitalism which has easily absorbed it into the political system.
In 2007 Bryce Edwards, a Political Science lecturer at the University of Otago, observed:
New Zealand has now had 20 years of politically-correct state biculturalism. What has it achieved? Far from resolving the social crisis confronting Maori, the process has helped widen the social gulf between rich and poor. State-organised 'bi-culturalism' and the Waitangi settlements process has created a small but relatively wealthy and influential Maori elite which boasts assets worth $NZ25 billion. At the same time, Maori workers, like the rest of the working class, have suffered the consequences of two decades of economic restructuring that have produced especially high levels of unemployment and poverty and gutted public welfare, education and health services. After two decades of official biculturalism Maori deprivation remains as entrenched as ever. Unemployment among Maori is officially 10 percent, twice the national average, while Maori continue to figure disproportionately in every social statistic relating to low household income, poor health, low levels of education and high levels of crime.
Its a pity that the mainstream media didn't go to someone like Professor Rata or Dr Edwards to put the Wanganui debate into some kind of context. I guess they thought that the largely emotional and less than coherent views of Michael Laws, the Wanganui mayor, would make a 'better' spectacle on television.
Then again, left wing viewpoints get shut out of most debates so its just par for the course.
But the media's dishonesty allows the wealthy and conservative Maori elite to present themselves as 'liberators' when they are nothing of the sort. It lets the likes of John Tamihere, strongly anti-left wing and hostile to the welfare state, to portray themselves as authentic representatives for all Maori. It's a con job.
But its worse than that.
By reducing the struggle for equality to just a fight against prejudice, the fight is reduced to a fight against institutions and individuals and not the system that perpetuates that oppression. It suggests- wrongly -that the fundamental cause of Maori inequality and racism against Maori can be reduced to a clash of cultures.
The danger with this of course, is that Pakeha and Pakeha culture becomes the enemy and not the system itself. Is it little wonder then someone like Michael Laws can whip up resentment among the white working class who feel they are under attack?
But the strategy of cultural nationalism has been adopted by the wealthy and upwardly mobile Maori elite because it allows them to present Maori as one homogenous group with the same interests and concerns. But what has the Maori woman signing up on the dole in South Auckland got in common with millionaire Willie Jackson? Nothing.
Her interests, and the interests of the ordinary Maori, lie in forging an alliance with the white working class against the system that exploits both ordinary Maori and Pakeha.
The cultural nationalism of the Maori elite has not only done nothing to improve the economic position of ordinary Maori, it leaves them trapped in a political cul-de-sac. Meanwhile the Maori elite continue to line their pockets while, at the same time, continuing to support the neoliberal economic policies of government.