“Saying sorry won’t get a new wall-to-wall,” the Barry Humphreys character Edna Everage once famously said, complaining about a guest who had spilt wine on the carpet.
And that was the killer for Ella Henry. Saying sorry didn’t remove the stain. The Human Rights Commission could not credibly have carried her after her hot-headed letter to a policeman wrongly alleging racism. Presuming racism in others without direct evidence is itself a form of racism.
But there is a deeper issue in this affair — the issue of victimhood.
In her explanation Henry said she estimated she had been at half a dozen incidents where Maori and polynesian drivers had been stopped for no apparent reason. “If you don’t know why, you think the worst.”
Some past research into the justice system has shown that, other things being equal, Maori have been more likely than non-Maori to be charged with an offence, if charged more likely to be convicted and if convicted more likely to go to prison.
In short, Maori as a race are victims — of, in the past, colonial rapine and plunder, which stripped them of their culture and their economy, and, in the present, for as long as the endemic demoralisation that resulted persists.
And here is the conundrum. The beneficiaries of past wrongs bear obvious responsibility for redress and assistance. But this alone won’t put Maori on an economic and social par with the majority. Helping confirmed victims risks turning them into dependents, which keeps them victims.
Maori must first hard-headedly determine not to be victims.
In this the trailblazers like Henry carry a back-breaking dual burden. Having struggled to transcend their own victimhood by taking power, at least over their own lives and destinies, they are then charged, as role models, with lighting to others the way out of victimhood.
This looks straightforward when viewed from an armchair in a middle-class suburb, secure in good schooling and gifted with positive expectations from early childhood onward.
It is a high hurdle for anyone from a low-income background where people habitually see themselves as at the bottom of the heap, not wanted as part of the national and international economy and society — and pass that perception on to their children.
For all that Henry has impressively achieved, reaching an official position in which she could do something about others’ victimhood, her letter and explanation were those of a victim.
Victimhood does not just afflict Maori.
Many women who live in comfortable middle-class houses in comfortable middle-class suburbs with comfortable incomes and even a comforting public profile nevertheless see themselves as victims, oppressed by the patriarchy. Some male academics have a similar mentality. There are more than a few confirmed victims in the Labour and Alliance parties.
But Maori are more visible. So Henry’s challenge was huge and her lapse eminently understandable and, at a simple human level, excusable. To carry the burden she had acquired requires far broader shoulders than most of us have who now judge her.
But, all that said, it was a lapse that failed not just the standards of complacent liberal democracy, but, worse, her people.
And that is the difference between the flawed but outward-looking Tau Henare (“Henry”, transliterated into Maori) and the feisty but inward-looking Tariana Turia.
What Turia complains about is real and if the white majority ignores the disadvantages and damage she talks of, the majority will pay a price. But Turia’s speeches are suffused with anger. It is not surprising they beget anger in return.
Still, Turia has done much that is positive among her people. So have many angry, victim-Maori.
That is part of the reason so many Maori now demand control over government programmes for Maori and claim the right to reassert customary practices in, for example, fishing. It is to rebuild self-worth out of reach of well-meaning but ultimately victimising paternalism.
How can the majority help? By supporting Maori who, in doing those things, seek to transcend victimhood and turn outwards as full members of the national and international community. And by not indulging unreconstructed victims.
That is the deep reason why Henry had to go.