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New New Zealand

(Commentary, June 1987)

The backsiding of Dennis Conner

From a distance it looked as if the harbor breakwater at Fremantle was covered with moving derrières, and a closer view confirmed this was so. Not a face was visible: just waving backsides.

There was no reason to panic, however, and the news cameraman proceeded to shoot this spectacle with commendable sangfroid. More knowledgeable than the rest of us, he quickly recognized the scene for what it was—a Polynesian insult called whakapohane which was being staged by a crowd of New New Zealanders. He also observed that they had kept their trousers on, kindly sparing us the full-undress whakapohane, a much more severe ordeal.

The object of their posterior disdain was the American, Dennis Conner, whose yacht Stars and Stripes had already beaten them three times in the America’s Cup trials, and was about to beat them once more. For this reason they had lined the shore to give him the sort of send-off which any normal man would find discouraging. Not only Mr. Conner, however, but the rest of mankind as well, must have been surprised and disappointed that this is how the New New Zealanders wish to be remembered by the civilized world. They turn their backs upon it. They wave their backsides at it.

Not so long ago the citizens of this small nation were perfectly happy climbing mountains or playing rugby football. And those who showed more ambition were on the whole generously treated. The more bookish Old New Zealanders, who went to England or America for study, found themselves accepted fairly painlessly into the world of learning, where, after only a few years, some of them were able to pass as civilized, even in mixed company.

But you have only to set this sort of thing down in cold print to recognize it as a fading memory of times gone by. New New Zealanders have a single enthusiasm: politics. And the aggressive passions once harmlessly released on football fields now drive them to bawl “Yankee Go Home,” or pelt Her Britannic Majesty with eggs, or bare their tattooed buttocks at the Pope.

Who are these awful people? What do they look like? What makes them tick?

Three New New Zealanders

Exhibit 1. Grinning hugely, and with glistening buttery cheeks, Miss Joy Gribben appears to embody the happier results of a dairy surplus. And if the hand tugging the bottom of her T-shirt to make its slogan more readable suggests something less demure, this is appropriate too, for Joy is a member of the Harry Holland Brigade, and is off to Nicaragua in the morning. With twelve others, “each of whom has raised $4,000 for the expedition,” and two documentary film-makers, she is going to pick coffee by day and sing Sandinista campfire songs by night.

Exhibit 2. Miss Ripeka Evans, aged thirty-one is the newly appointed Cultural and Planning Assistant to the Director-General of Television New Zealand. Aside from being Maori her credentials are unclear. As a student she dropped out of university in her fourth year and went off to Cuba. Lately her energies have been mainly devoted “to forcing issues of racism, sexism, and peace.”

An officer of the Maori Economic Development Commission, Miss Evans holds strong views on the need for “an economic base” for “Maoridom.” What she seems to mean by this is a large budget allocation. This year, a reporter tells us admiringly, “she and her team extracted $12.5 million,” while in an eighteen-month period “nearly $30 million [were] placed directly under Maori control.” From street marching and demonstrations to a New Class appointment disposing of millions in public funds, the institutionalization of Miss Evans has followed a well-worn path.

Exhibit 3, Miss Marilyn Waring, until recently a National Party MP (the National Party being the New Zealand conservative party), writes a “Letter to My Sisters” column in the Listener. Bridling at an American suggestion that there might be something Utopian in New Zealand’s view of the world, she tells America that “in the light of the bombing of Libya, failed Titan, Cruise, and Challenger launchings, and the meltdown at Chernobyl, it seems strange that the New Zealand model isn’t perceived as a common-sense model for the planet. Accidents, debris, iodide tablets, pregnant women and children confined indoors; radioactive air, banned food, dumped milk, vegetables, and meat; poisoned water, alerts, fallout, and fear, all seem to be trying to tell us something.”

Be that as it may, Miss Waring’s inventory certainly tells us something about the state of mind of a characteristic New New Zealander. Every evil is really the same evil. And virtually all evil comes from the U.S.A.

Unsafe levels of high-mindedness

Now what we have here are some remarkably busy bodies and improving minds. Indeed, if social self-righteousness could be bottled, or canned, or baled, New Zealand exports might easily lead the world. But then it has always been a bit like this in a country where the radioactive intensity of public high-mindedness far exceeds safe levels.

In earlier times much of this zeal was channelled into missionary activity. During that long era in which the less enlightened parts of the globe were hospitable to evangelism, New Zealand missionaries were busy almost everywhere. Sometimes they achieved distinction, as Garfield Todd did in Rhodesia. Sometimes they achieved mere notoriety, as two Assembly of God missionaries, tried recently in Malaysia for offensively criticizing Islam, have done.

But the breed itself has been ubiquitous. Scratch a peace-loving New Zealand liberator of the oppressed and you will find that Dad or Granddad was a preacher. Scratch the current New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange, and you will find he is a lay preacher himself (in the Methodist Church).

The religious tradition, however, explains only about half of New Zealand’s historic need to sermonize and instruct. For over fifty years, scores of admiring visitors have told the nation’s citizens that they were the custodians of a unique social laboratory in which enlightened experiments were taking place; that the marvels of the welfare state engineered in this laboratory were among the political wonders of the modern world; and that New Zealand’s racial integration of whites and Maoris was exemplary.

Need one add that this sort of thing goes to the head? Or that eulogism of this order (now pouring in from anti-nuclearists around the world) is what underpins Miss Waring’s confident belief that New Zealand is “a common-sense model for the planet,” a polity less favored nations should gratefully emulate?

A New Zealander did not need to actually visit the U.S. in order to understand America’s racial problems. He grasped them intuitively, and felt able to lecture visiting Yanks on what they should obviously do. More important still was his familiarity with all questions of peace and war: war, he knew, usually originated in America. Moreover, this sure grasp of international relations had come without his ever reading any serious book about the Soviet Union —without his even wanting to. (Indeed, I suspect that if all the copies sold in New Zealand of Michael Voslesensky’s recent book Nomenklatura were laid end to end they might, or they might not, just reach from one side to the other of an average Lubyanka cell.) When the typical New Zealand intellectual beheld the USSR it was with a kind of resigned regret. But no more than that. From the sources available to him (left-wing British papers like the New Statesman and the Guardian) it was perfectly clear that the West was directly or indirectly responsible for whatever might have gone wrong in post-revolutionary Russia; while for most other global evils one might safely assume the U.S. was to blame.

There was only one blemish in this otherwise satisfactory picture. Despite the self-evident strength of New Zealand’s claim to moral leadership, the nation had never been invited to play a part on the world stage commensurate with its self-esteem. Its well-educated representatives were everywhere, swelling the ranks of the international bureaucracy in Geneva and Paris, sitting on committees in New York. Yet they had little to show for it. They remained a glorified servant class. Real power seemed beyond their grasp. New Zealand appeared too remote to be a convenient venue for anything; too prosperous credibly to represent the poor; and obviously much too white and Anglo-Saxon to understand the rest of mankind.

Then, in the last few years, another source of anxiety appeared. Old certitudes were badly shaken as the Great Truths of Welfarism had to contend with Even Greater Truths. It was discovered that government benefits should bear at least a sketchy relation to government revenue. In an ironic way. New Zealand remains a “laboratory,” but by far the most diverting experiment to be seen today is the spectacle of the ruling Labor party’s Finance Minister, Roger Douglas, deregulating everything in sight. As for race relations, perhaps the less said the better— though one is obliged to note that piratical lumpen-Polynesian gangs, affecting dreadlocks and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, have somewhat dimmed the shining fantasies of yesteryear.

Missionaries without a mission

Among the aware, the compassionate, and the concerned, these circumstances produced acute frustration. World events plainly called for the expression of bold and forthright views, but New Zealand had begun to resemble a missionary without a mission, or a preacher who had lost his faith.

Its intelligentsia remained in a state of high ethical tumescence—if only out of habit. Yet this was an uncomfortable condition when domestic policies lay in ruins, and the intellectuals really had nothing very clear to say. It will be appreciated, therefore, that when anti-nuclear Pacific Pacifism came along, providing a novel principle around which to build a new identity, and a platform from which to address the world, relief was general. Many saw it as a religion whose time had come.

For what could be more appealing than peace—unless it was peace in a nuclear-free zone? The words and slogans guaranteed success. Here was an issue on which New Zealand would be listened to abroad, which would lead to regional influence, and even power. Globally, an expanding zone of South Pacific Pacifism would appeal to the Left as the strategic counterpart of an ex­panding Soviet military presence in the Caribbean. The first would project neutralism. The second would project military power. Both could incapacitate the American enemy in different ways.

For those who wished to raise Pan-Pacific consciousness the new movement also meant a chance to form a Pacific People’s Anti-Nuclear Action Committee and to proclaim regional ethnic solidarity as an urgent goal. And there was another twist to the ethnic angle, too. War, weapons, and Westernization would be opposed in order to preserve, not just the region, but something altogether more shrouded in mystique and pregnant with political possibilities—the cultures of the region. Out on its fringes. Pacific Pacifism would also embrace a paler Polynesian form of negritude.

Regional and cultural purity

As the ethnic implications of Pacific Pacifism were sinking in, a broad reorientation of New Zealand attitudes was taking place. Western culture was put on the defensive, while a rather synthetic Polynesian culture became much admired.

All in all this is hardly surprising. Doctrines which make a lot out of keeping a region pure and inviolate lend themselves to the notion of cultural purity as well. And whose cultures were the purest original cultures of the region—whose but those of the Pacific aborigines? Hitherto, New Zealanders had regarded themselves as Europeans, not Maori, in culture and allegiance.

But that was in Old New Zealand. Today’s New New Zealanders are not so sure. True, Maoris are less than 10 percent of the population. But the politics of ethnicity have nothing to do with statistics. They have to do with vast, shapeless grievances, with collective amour propre, with exploiting every opportunity for moral intimidation, and with throwing one’s weight around.

Above all they have to do with authenticity—and who but indigenes can qualify for that? Henceforth, therefore, historical Polynesia would be the test of the authentic. White settlement was to be seen as an aberration; white rule, a misfortune for which New Zealanders of British origin should pay. Corrective steps would have to be taken. Maori traditions would be revived at public expense.

The Maori language would be taught in the public schools. It seems to be felt that if the 90-percent white population agrees to these innovations, a quasi-Polynesian identity for New New Zealand, within the expanding realm of Pacific Pacifism, will be more secure. But what exactly is a Polynesian identity? Writes Keith Sinclair in A History of New Zealand:

“Debate and war were the great excitements of the Maori public; and the greater of these was war. There was no finer way of acquiring mana than by seeking it, if not yet in the cannon’s mouth, at least in the most dangerous position at the front of a phalanx. The Maoris were a military people. There can have been few peoples in the world who took a greater delight in fighting and in stories of bloody deeds and heroism.”

On the merits of cooked cadavers

After the battle, the feast. A good fight provided abundant meat, and the Maori warrior, relaxing after a hard day in the field, was never happier than when thoughtfully gnawing on a human ham, or judiciously weighing the merits of cooked cadavers. This golden age of gourmet anthropophagy was remembered with interest and affection until quite recently.

Only thirty years ago I was driving a car across New Zealand’s Hauraki Plains when my two passengers fell into a bantering argument as to which tribe, his or hers, had eaten more of the other during their repeated 19th-century wars. As we passed one grassy battlefield after another the conjectural tally of victims rose higher and higher. At last it was amicably agreed that the tribe which had scored the more would also have suffered severely from indigestion.

“Man for war, and woman for the warrior’s delight: all else is foolishness.” So sang Nietzsche a century ago, and anyone can see that these lines were borrowed from the song of some Maori chief. They accurately express the ethos of a redoubtable people. But if this is so, how can you possibly adapt “traditional Maori culture” to the needs of the pacifistic white middle classes of New New Zealand today?

The answer is simple: by a transvaluation of all values which quite denatures the original thing. The male and the warlike must be feminized; the ugly must be aestheticized; and the rank order of fighting chiefs, commoners, slaves, and cannibalized victims must be turned into a blandly smiling egalitarianism. What you get at the end of the day is a cultural huddle of benign, tea-drinking, Polynesian women, weaving Rugs for Peace, eating buttered scones, accompanied by a media outpouring of enthusiastic critical gush.

I can’t vouch for the scones. But much else in this picture is suggested by last year’s Karanga Karanga exhibition, as reported in the Listener, where one Maori women’s collective “made a work concerned with what world leaders are giving us in the name of peace,” while “a papier-maché sculpture within a firebox as a symbol of hope . . . represented the feelings of Hinemoa Hilliard and Wendy Howe about nuclear war and its effects.”

Another group, described as “weaving matriarchs,” was praised for “helping Maori women to value the fibres in our own cultural garden, a place which breathes the joy of a natural, finite, yet limitless world of tradition, independence, and creative weaving.” Elsewhere, at the Fisher Gallery, “Forty Maori women exhibited work with much energy, creating spiritual vibrations which touched the thousands of visitors who made contact with the works, or simply looked with reverence.”

A utopian community of artists

Some 9,000 visitors felt the “spiritual vibrations” of this show, most of them, no doubt, the more sensitive members of New New Zealand’s New Class. Sociology does not tell us the exact point at which it is prudent for a commercial bourgeoisie of small traders and manufacturers to stop all productive activity and devote itself to art.

This is a pity, since in New New Zealand the move was almost certainly premature. The country positively swarms with artists, soi-disant artists, daubers and splashers, wood carvers and potters, and people weaving rugs of such bulk and texture that walking upon them is like crossing a plowed field. Entire hills of honest clay are relentlessly turned into ceramic sculpture, curiously shaped and glazed. And in parts of the Coromandel Peninsula no glen or gully is safe.

Of course the attitude of the potters toward their brothers in the hole-digging business, the gold miners, is one of boundless contempt. At the township of Coromandel, violent demonstrations by clay-be-spattered craftspeople—the invited television crews hovering close by —have now pretty well killed off the prospect of an economic revival of gold mining in this impoverished area.

Of all Utopias, a community of artists—and especially a community of anarchistic, pacifistic artists—must be the least likely to succeed. Yet Utopias of this sort are an important element in the mental make-up of New New Zealanders today. Throughout the country one is beckoned by hundreds of countercultural health centers, organic farms, and places for communal meditation. One may choose between having a rebirth at Re-birthing Wellington and being psycho-synthesized at the Psychosynthesis Center. One may lunch at Calico Pie Wholefoods in Palmerston North, seek reassurance at the Human Potential Consulting Service in Wellington, or take a more radical course of therapy at the  Selftransformation Center. Things have gone so far that Califomia must surely be in danger of eclipse.

Yet it would be a mistake to see this as a break with the past. In the first place, because it is largely the families of yesterday’s nonconformist Protestant sects which provide recruits for today’s nonconformist medical and/or meditation centers. In the second place, be­cause of the vigorous tradition of colonial bohemianism. There should be nothing surprising about the latter. Literary and artistic bohemia stands at a self-consciously far remove from modernity, science, and industrial technique. But so does much of New Zealand, and that is why many settlers travelled from England in the 19th century right around the world to its savage shores.

The place and a romantic anti-modern temperament were well-matched. Also to be borne in mind are those characteristics of colonial society which bohemia, to its manifest advantage, sharply set itself against: the narrow world of the orthodox intellectuals (teachers and preachers), and the constraining ethos of the exiguous professional class. In contrast to these, bohemia—noisy, drunken, colorful, wordy, defiant—had considerable romantic appeal: an appeal which in New Zealand was all the stronger for a touch of nostalgie de la boue Polynésienne.

Post-colonial Bohemia

The prevailing scheme of anti-industrial values meant that the pressure on students to drift into the more barren academic areas was strong. Bohemianized academics increased that pressure. Free higher education produced large numbers of demi-educated dabblers in art, anthropology, education, or social work, who emerged from their courses with little to show except an abiding scorn for washing behind the ears.

Looking around at the social benefits provided by a generous government, and calculating the additional advantages of the benign climate, the beaches, and the surf, many found the attractions of welfare bohemianism irresistible.

The pickings were good, whatever your class or station—though little in the long history of blind goodwill can equal the continuing comedy of welfare idealism as it impinges on Maori life. Years ago, the announcement that the government would pay you simply for having children struck the average rural-dwelling Maori as odd. But having a healthy sense of self-interest, he soon learned to fill out the necessary forms, to modify them judiciously in ways which inflated his family size, and to collect as large a benefit as possible. The pakeha (white man) was a puzzle, but since he also had more money than sense, the wisest course was to take whatever was offered and lie low.

Much the same enterprising playing of the welfare game has been highly profitable for Maori motorcycle gangs in recent years, though their most spectacular exploits may now be past:

The New Zealand Prime Minister, Mr. Lange, has put a stop to a social-welfare racket which has seen hundreds of thousands of dollars handed over to bikie gangs in a failed bid to get them out of crime. Over the last few weeks New Zealanders have been bombarded with amazing reports of gangs receiving huge sums from a government work scheme for apparently doing very little.

The most outrageous disclosure came ten days ago, when it was revealed that a fence built by the Black Power gang in Christchurch last year at a cost of $45,175 could have been completed by a regular private contractor for $665. According to a confidential police report leaked to the media, another gang in nearby Timaru bought a vehicle with a $6,560 government grant and used it to “commit various offenses.”

Meanwhile in Dunedin, the Maori Affairs Department paid for new jacket patches for members of the local Mongrel Mob. . . The report, prepared in an attempt to find out where the bike gangs were getting their money, said that since April 1985, $800,000 worth of contracts had been awarded to gangs in Christchurch  alone. Another $656,000 was handed out in dole and sickness benefits. [Sydney Morning Herald, February 3, 1987]

Would a conservative government and the return of the National party make much difference? Probably not. The middle classes and their political leadership are in disarray. Perhaps it was merely personal eccentricity, yet it seems typical of the general confusion that during 1986 the ex-leader of the National party, Sir Robert Muldoon, appeared on stage in a production of The Rocky Horror Show.

It was said to be just a joke—a one-week guest appearance only. But one couldn’t help wondering why. Other prime ministers have lost their jobs without either seeking or accepting work like this. Of course with Miss Waring in one’s own party wailing on about nuclear Armageddon day and night it must all have been something of a strain. Had a mental tendon snapped?

Nuke-free mum-to-be

At Whitianga Harbor sunlight and shadow played on a choppy sea, under a rising wind. Clouds were racing north. Small boats battled their way into the first blasts of a southerly wind, heading for home. Here in the changing windswept colors of late afternoon was New Zealand at its pictorially dramatic best—”last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart,” Kipling had written—with Captain Cook’s landfall, a sandy sheltered cove, only yards away.

And lying not many miles beyond that, last July, stretched out on a bed in the seclusion of a comfortable resort, was a person whom it pleased one local paper to call a “nuke-flee mum to be,” freshly arrived, all atremble, from Germany. “Trixie Hoffman flew to New Zealand almost two months ago, shortly after the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster … ‘I want to be sure my baby will have food that is not dirty from the Chernobyl fall-out,’ she said.” A dairy company, eager to get in on the act, had given her 40 kg. of their products, and Mrs. Hoffman, whose husband was arriving from Germany in a day or so, said she could hardly believe the company’s generosity.

This nuke-free mum is only one of many. And the migratory wave she represents has brought New Zealand back, full circle, to the place it held in the European consciousness fully a century ago. In large part reacting against 19th-century industrialism, English settlers were drawn by the prospect of a pleasant pastoral alternative to soot in the eye, sweated labor, and dark satanic mills. Now the country is once more seen as a refuge, its remoteness an asset beyond price. Indeed, in the minds of millions of Greens throughout Europe and America, the nearest thing to being on another planet is to be still on planet Earth and in New Zealand. “Far out!” they cry—and they’re right.

Posted in Civilization, For the Record, Notes.

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