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Max Harris and the politics of love

Max Harris. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Getting young people into polling booths will take education, a lower voting age and a new type of politics, says academic hotshot Max Harris.

They call it the hardest examination in the world. Writer Hilaire Belloc, historian Hugh Trevor-Roper and British Labour PM Harold Wilson all flunked it. The list of those who passed includes TE Lawrence in 1919, Lord Curzon (the Viceroy of India) in 1883 and distinguished jurist Lord Wilberforce (descendant of the famous abolitionist William).

Add to that list New Zealander Max Harris, who was just 26 when he was elected (as they say in Oxford) an Examination Fellow at All Souls College. In the academic world, that’s akin to winning several gold medals at the Olympics. A maximum of two awards are made each year, from the several dozen brave enough to apply. Candidates are provided with a choice of three questions on which to write (recent example: “Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?); half a dozen finalists face an oral grilling by 50 or so dons for half an hour.

At stake is a seven-year fellowship, with room and board and a $30,000 stipend, in which they study what they like, without obligation by way of research or examination.

Oxford’s All Souls College. Photo/Getty Images

Wellington-raised Harris, a graduate of Auckland law school who went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, has spent much of his time since his election in November 2014 writing a book outlining his vision for his homeland. The New Zealand Project lays out his ideas on foreign policy, criminal justice, race relations, the environment, constitutional change and the economy.

He hopes the book, which will be launched here next week, will promote a wider and deeper debate, particularly among young people, who, he says, “feel alienated from politics”.

“People think politicians squabble too much rather than working together and that politics doesn’t deal enough with the long term. A lot of people don’t actually have a stake in the community and don’t feel invested in politics and so don’t feel that voting is worth their time.”

Harris’ views are a timely election-year snapshot of how some young, well-educated New Zealanders would like to see their country take its place in the world. We need, he says, to “widen the window of what gets debated and what is politically possible. We need new ideas on issues such as mass incarceration, insecure work and housing.”

He argues that we need to develop “an alternative economic narrative … about the role of the State in the economy”. The resignation of John Key as prime minister is an opportunity for New Zealanders “to reset, and to rethink our values and vision”.

Harris. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

The Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election, which Harris calls “nostalgic calls to return to a glorified past”, emboldened some to express racist views, but “at the same time, in some circles, discourse about race and colonialism is becoming more sophisticated”.

Political parties need to decide how to deal with these trends and young people need to be engaged in the election process, he says: civics education and a lowered voting age would be important steps.

The Brexit campaign won, Harris says, by persuading people that the loss of power was because of the European Union, but the real roots lie in the economic reforms of the 1980s. It was also “a product of deep-seated racism and xenophobia in British society – a cause and product of colonialism that the UK still hasn’t reckoned with. To me, this also shows the need for a new politics, and a new way of doing political debate. The idea of a politics of love, which I talk about in the book, is one attempt to ground that new politics.”

It would be natural to assume that Harris is laying the groundwork for a career in politics, but he says he is not. He wants only to encourage others, including young people, to speak up about politics, which for too long has been about people “who are white, male and wear glasses”.

Harris has some distinguished admirers. One of the country’s most eminent jurists, Sir Edmund (Ted) Thomas, who mentored Harris at law school, describes him as “the best I have encountered in the 10 years I have been associated with academia”. He praises his “intelligence tempered with wisdom, pragmatism and common sense”. The law school dean, Professor Andrew Stockley, speaks in a similar vein, saying Harris was “an exceptional scholar and one of our best students”.

Harris’ reaction is modest: “I have met truly visionary, creative, quick-thinking people in New Zealand, in Oxford and elsewhere, and I always feel like my strengths are very slight compared to what I see in these people.”

Harris and his twin brother, Ben, were born in London to an English father and a New Zealand mother. He spent four years of his childhood living in China, where his father worked on US-funded aid projects. He went to Clyde Quay primary school in Wellington, where there was a multicultural student community and a strong emphasis on Maoritanga – “I learnt about Maori values and mythology and got involved with kapa haka” – and the teachers were “kind and creative”.

Rhodes Scholar Harris has joined the campaign to have  Cecil Rhodes’ statue removed from Oriel College. Photo/Getty Images

When his father’s work took the family to Indonesia for three and a half years, Harris was struck by the level of poverty and inequality and from this developed “a political consciousness and a stronger push to make a difference from my early teens”.

Harris credits his parents for making him the man he is. He mentions his father’s “endless curiosity for ideas” and his mother’s kindness, patience, warmth and passion for making a difference. His parents also taught him the importance of humility. “It is at the heart of good listening and it also leads to better learning, since it’s about recognising we don’t have all the answers.”

A major health scare two years ago sharpened Harris’ thinking about doing meaningful things in life, including writing The New Zealand Project. He was working as an intern for Helen Clark at the UN in New York when he fell ill and doctors discovered he had an aortic aneurysm that could tear at any moment. As he waited for surgery, he thought about death “a lot”. Life has since pretty much returned to normal, but he says it was a major wake-up call.

There were no lawyers in Harris’ family and neither did he know any, but his interest in social and political issues, especially to do with Maori, made law a logical career choice. Throughout his university years, “engaging with the Maori world made me feel bigger as a person”.

After flying through his undergraduate degree, and catching Thomas’ eye, he was selected to become the clerk to Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias, a position he held for 18 months. He says he could not have wished for better mentors than Elias and Thomas – “truly original thinkers who have pushed me to avoid passing fads and to develop new ideas”.

In his first year at Oxford, where he studied civil law and public policy, he felt lonely and homesick and found some aspects of the university’s culture alien. “I find a lot of the rituals and traditions silly. There’s a lot of excess here, too – excessive landholdings, excessive paintings and excessive eating. There could be more conversations about whether this is justified; I don’t think tradition alone can sustain all this excess.

“Oxford and the UK as a whole could have more conversations about class and the wealth of the students as well as of the colleges. There are some incredible thinkers at Oxford and there is some good collaboration between academics, but without more of this, Oxford is in danger of losing its reputation as one of the best universities in the world.”

A staunch believer in voluntary work, Harris helps to co-ordinate a “sandwich run” for the homeless, saying it gives him a chance to talk to people sleeping rough and hear what it’s like. “Some of the stories you hear are very memorable, whereas others are very troubling.”

More troubling, still, is insidious racism at the university he claims to have witnessed. “One day I was meeting two friends – a Zimbabwean guy and a black British friend – and we were meant to go through to an academic’s office for a meeting. When I arrived at the main college, though, they were both still waiting downstairs at the porters’ lodge, which was quite unusual. They were told the academic had to come down to get them, even though they had university ID cards.”

Rhodes statue. Photo/Getty Images

To test whether bias was at work, he tried entering the building with his ID, and was waved through. “This was a situation where I directly saw different treatment on the basis of skin colour, and on the basis of race.”

To bring this to public attention, he has joined the Oxford Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which wants the statue of Victorian imperialist and colonist Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College. “Oxford needs to have more conversations about its links to colonisation, about the UK’s colonial past and about the remaining signs of colonisation all around. The selection of the Rhodes statue as a focal point of the campaign was a great strategic choice, which has given people a practical hook to understand more-complex issues of institutional racism.”

The recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship and all the benefits that bestows, Harris accepts that he is laying himself open to accusations of hypocrisy by taking such a stand, “but with a bit of reflection, most people can agree that there is no inconsistency or hypocrisy”.

“The campaign is about ensuring that those receiving and administering the scholarship help it to achieve as much good as possible – and that requires being honest about the scholarship’s origins. I also think those receiving the scholarship have a duty to address the wrongs of colonisation, so it would be more morally problematic to take the scholarship support and do nothing about Rhodes or the broader issues of colonisation.”

Harris says he was aware of some of Rhodes’ shortcomings when he applied for the scholarship, but had no knowledge of the colonist’s support of proto-apartheid legislation or the specifics of military massacres he helped to co-ordinate.

Despite his concerns about the Oxford culture, Harris says he is grateful for the way in which the institution, especially All Souls, has opened his eyes to a diverse range of ideas, issues and people. “By being here, I’ve been able to explore ideas that otherwise would have forever just been half-formed thoughts and I’ve been able to develop my skills in analysing and expressing those ideas.

“But it has also made me more determined to challenge entrenched privilege and it’s made me aware of the limits of Eurocentric thinking. It’s a place I’m happy to stay in for now, but I want to come home before too long. I want to contribute to strengthening New Zealanders’ commitment to care, creativity and community. I am also interested in whether love could be made a bigger feature of our politics and collective ways of thinking.”

Max Harris will launch his book at the Festival of Colour in Wanaka on April 8 and appear at the Auckland Writers Festival on May 19.

This article was first published in the April 8, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.