One is about as likely to find a political activist at All Souls College, Oxford, as to find a trade unionist at Eton. Nonetheless, Max Harris, Rhodes Scholar and Examination Fellow at All Souls, is such a person. After I listened to Max deliver a lecture in the Cambridge Law Faculty on legal activism, he kindly agreed to be interviewed.
Max is one of many talented New Zealanders living in the United Kingdom. He was a law clerk to New Zealand’s Chief Justice, passed the notoriously difficult exam to enter All Souls as an Examination Fellow and has been predicted as a future cabinet minister in the New Zealand Herald. While he has clearly eaten healthily from the bourgeoise buffet, Max is no establishment lap dog. Among other things, he is one of the organisers of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford and set up Justspeak– a criminal justice project in New Zealand and has written a number of articles for the New Statesman.
From the reputable list of his anti-establishment trouble making, I first asked him about the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Noting that recent protests over Rhodes’s continuing presence in prominent locations began in South Africa, he distilled the thrust of the Oxford arm of that campaign. First, symbols matter. Who a community exalts through statues reflects that community’s ethos, and contrary to the objection that people should turn a blind eye to statues, as symbols they really do have modern force. So it is, Max argues, with Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes’s representation in stone reflects the lack of meaningful discussion modern Britain has about its imperial past. Of particular relevance to Oxford, Rhodes’s pride of place seems perverse in a university with a ‘Eurocentric’ curriculum, underrepresentation of minority students and academics, and in some instances, patent racism. Max recounts a potent story of a black friend of his being refused entry by an Oxford college, unless he was accompanied by an academic. The racism became clear when Max was allowed to enter on his own.
Max’s arguments about underrepresentation and persistent racism are likely to elicit widespread agreement. More contentious, however, is the method used by Max and his colleagues. In my capacity as the Devil’s Advocate, I asked Max whether it is ‘better to confront than to bury history?’. Unsurprisingly, he rejects the allegation that removing the statue amounts to burying the past. On the contrary, he refers to the fact that social media discussion about racial equality and related issues has noticeably spiked since the Rhodes Must Fall campaign began. This illustrates, he says, that trying to remove the statue has engendered dialogue about the wrongs of the past and their lineage in the present. Far from the campaign seeking to bury the past, they have drawn everyone’s attention to it.
Interestingly, Max clarifies that the campaign is not about removing and discarding the statue, but simply wants it moved to a nearby museum. If one wished to be pedantic, it might therefore be appropriate to change the #RhodesMustFall tag to #RhodesMustBeRelocatedToASuitablyPlacedMuseum. Pedantry aside, Max gives a coherent and very persuasive case for removing the statue. Nevertheless, I am reminded of how my parents taught me to remove weeds in the garden. Always better to remove the roots than to trim the leaves. After all, leafless weeds are still weeds. It certainly seems doubtful that racism’s roots will be damaged by cutting Rhodes from the Oxford skyline.
Moving on from Mr Rhodes we turn to another of Max’s causes, prison reform. Since I had assiduously undertaken (largely Google-based) research, I began by asking Max to justify the contention expressed in the title of his recent essay, “Escaping Prison: Why Abolishing Prisons is the Imperative of Our Generation”. Western prisons, he argued, failed to fulfill many, if not all of their purported functions. For instance, the victims of crime are often retraumatised by the trial process, sentencing and parole hearings. As regards the nature of prisons, Max echoes an increasingly large number of people in alleging that they are essentially inhumane institutions. The clear ethnic disparities in the prison population, resulting racism, the lack of opportunity for physical and mental exercise and the psychologically hostile environment all undermine the idea that they are the appropriate place for the punished. Since most criminals are either significantly mentally unwell or have themselves suffered greatly at the hands of others, or both, housing them in a cell and only giving them occasional psychological counselling and support seems a poor way to pursue the aim of reintegrating them into society. Moreover, it is wholly unfair.
Finding myself in almost wholesale agreement with what Max has to say, we move on to another contentious topic, legal activism. As he had said in his lecture the previous day, Max firmly believes that judges and lawyers need to recognise law’s inherently political and social nature. That should involve, he said, that law is taught in a socially conscious manner. Rather than a legal problem involve persons ‘A, B and C’, it should involve ‘Anna, a 44 year old single mother, Betty, an ill and unwary pensioner, and Carol, a deeply Catholic mother of seven’. Not only should law schools require students to engage with the uniqueness of every person, but judges should not be timid in articulating the political principles informing their decisions. That they currently do not is in Max’s view partially a product of the judiciary’s consisting of white, male, commercial barristers, often from affluent and insular backgrounds, and often insensitive to the lives of those whom their decisions will affect.
Interestingly, Max expresses his tentative support for ‘strong’ judicial review – where (like in the US) judges can strike down legislation if it is inconsistent with, say, a Bill of Rights, a Constitution, or a Human Rights Act. Concerned that such an ability would simply enable white, male, affluent, conservative judges to have the final say on major political questions, I suggest to Max that this might not be the best way to achieve a more progressive politics – especially if England or New Zealand conjure up their own versions of Justice Antonin Scalia. Nonetheless, Max replies that providing a minimum level of protection for people is best achieved through a set of rights, enforceable in court and inviolable by any parliament. The Australian and Canadian models are indications of the benefits of justiciable rights, he says, and the US is, as with so many other things, an extreme case.
Our time reaching its end, I ask Max about his future plans. He is currently writing a book on New Zealand politics and co-editing a book on the Rhodes Must Fall campaign and the occasional article for the New Statesman. The striking originality of his focus on feelings in politics is one of the many reasons why one ought to visit the podcast Max jointly produces, read his articles and in time, buy his books. He is an extremely nice and interesting chap and someone whom people, especially New Zealanders, should watch out for in future.