Let’s continue on looking at the incident in which Erin Mackie wrote a letter badmouthing the predilection for New Zealanders to not worry about going around barefoot. Part 1 is here.
Here in Part 2 we find that there were some repercussions to Ms. Mackie’s ignorance.
First, I’d recommend that, if you haven’t looked at it yet, you go back and read Part 1.
Here is yet another response to Erin Mackie’s little screed, this time from another North American in New Zealand, Robin Ransom living in Auckland:
As a North American, admittedly resident in New Zealand for more than three decades, I have to say I disagree with Erin Mackie’s statement that bare feet are “unhygienic and repulsive to North Americans”. I and a number of Americans I know are not at all bothered by bare feet, except when our children choose to have them in hazardous places (like on a bike). Similarly, I also know of Kiwis that are almost as repulsed as Erin Mackie seems to be by bare feet.
But I take strong exception to the description of this innocent New Zealand custom as “backwards and uncivilised”. Though I prefer shoes, some of the most forward-thinking and civilised folk I know are just more comfortable in bare feet.
All the negative responses prompted a reply from Ms. Mackie.
It’s not a whole lot better.
I realise that my initial address of this issue sounded rather and not-quite-ironically schoolmarmish and missionary-ish, and perhaps this tone, half tongue-in-cheek, contributed to the comprehensive misunderstanding of what I said there. It is only when I read this implicit equation between the death penalty and the baring of bare feet that these more serious reflections found articulation.
Further, I admit that the issue is not simply one of hygiene but of propriety. North American friends of mine are just as astounded at the sightings of grown women in supermarkets wearing nothing but socks on their feet and of teenagers attired for a shopping trip in the mall in pyjamas and slippers. I cannot hope to understand these things, but I do think that there is a legitimate line of distinction between the institution of the death penalty and of policy against bare feet in public places.
For the record, I have lived in New Zealand by election for five years; I love it here and love the people and the society. However, this issue, I confess, brought into full relief everything I find most alienating and unassimilable about my new home.
OK, so now it is “propriety”.
Anyways, I am not impressed.
But it turns out that there were repercussions for Ms. Mackie.
Ms. Mackie was a lecturer in English literature and cultural history.
Later, she applied for a position in the English department at the University of Illinois and during the hiring process, some folks did some Googling (you can’t escape your past!) and found the letters.
From the book No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, by Cary Nelson (p. 119):
Not long ago my department was considering appointing a faculty member teaching in New Zealand to a senior position. Just before an offer would have gone out for a campus visit, someone Googled the candidate’s name and turned up a letter to a New Zealand newspaper in which the candidate had contributed to local debates about whether it was appropriate to go barefoot in public places. The letter suggested that it was uncivilized not to wear shoes and that it promoted the transmission of disease. One of my colleagues decided that it was an attack on the Maori people and thus racist and circulated a petition to that effect, demanding that the candidacy not go forward. After negotiations among potential signers of the petition, the claim was modified to say that the language in the letter was “articulated to racism and colonialism,” which fell short of a personal accusation of racism but amounted at least to a claim of intellectual limitation and fundamental insensitivity.
Even this really gets it wrong. To attribute it to the Maori also demonstrates the cultural ignorance at the University of Illinois, and the idiocy of this sort of political correctness. But yes, it does demonstrate a cultural insensitivity (and great ignorance and complacent confidence on one’s assumptions).
This off-the-rails train then proceeded to barrel right down the middle of a highway.
My own comments had no effect on those who signed the petition. Meanwhile, a colleague with some knowledge of New Zealand argued that the debate there had nothing to do with race, that the only people who went barefoot there were white hippies, and that the candidate’s letter to the editor had to be seen in that context. No one listened to him either. Six months later, in Australia, I met two faculty members who had grown up in New Zealand and were now teaching there. I asked them about the whole incident. They had no doubts. The Maori people, they informed me, would never go barefoot in public. . . . Furthermore, only one section of New Zealand had a climate suitable for going barefoot, and there, indeed, some white hippies did so. Thus, the petition amounted to a call for an expression of racial solidarity with what, under the circumstances, we might describe as an indigenous population of white hippies.
No, the problem seems to be the glorification of ignorance, from all of these academics.
Didn’t any of them care the Ms. Mackie didn’t know what the hell she was talking about? Didn’t they care that a supposed academic was unable to do the research required to find out that she was full of . . . unwarranted arrogance?
You want to know what even worse? After the book came out, Professor Mackie was interviewed about it. (She is now a Professor of English at Syracuse University.) She hadn’t known why her application to the University of Illinois had been turned down, but this is what she said:
Once directed to the book and the blog, though, she said she found the incident funny.
As an academic who writes about ethnicity, she said the debacle showed how cultural misunderstandings could occur.
But she still thinks walking around barefoot does have public health implications.
“That’s why God created flip-flops – or jandals.”
What is most disturbing is this complete failure to learn! As an academic, she’s supposed to be able to be research and find out the truth of things. And she is not supposed to be blindly passing on ignorance based upon myths and presuppositions.
When you are a university professor, you are supposed to have intellectual curiosity, and not be complacent in one’s limited worldview. That’s a good reason to have denied her the University of Illinois job, and also the Syracuse one.
You are not supposed to just sit on your butt and defend your ignorance.
This demonstrates the failure of the whole academic community, including the author of the book. Nobody ever sat down and figured that they were all spouting nonsense, from the discussion of the Maori, to attributing it to white hippies, to not understanding (or caring enough to understand) that bare feet simply are not unhygienic (as the other New Zealanders wrote in their letters).
All I can do is exhale a loud and heartfelt “sigh”.