Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Schama on New Zealand

In an article for the BBC Magazine, historian Simon Schama reacts to the proposal that New Zealand join Australia. His assessment? "It would be a sad step for a country which has used its independence to set an example for the rest of the world".

[T]he exceptional New Zealand history that needs to be preserved is human. Whatever its ethnic and social battles, New Zealand has often led the way. In 1893 it was the first country in the world to give women the vote, and it was the first to offer old-age pensions to the poor.

But it's the story of Maori and pakeha, the settlers of European origin, that - for all the pain, betrayals and suffering - still deserve to be known and celebrated as offering a different model of cultural encounter than anywhere else in the world.


Of course there have been serious problems of unequal social opportunity, of street gangs. But if there is anywhere in the post-colonial world where two cultural worlds truly live an engaged life alongside each other, it's in New Zealand.

Such stories don't come along very often. Cherish them. Chant them. Dance them.

This perfectly captures the reasons I am quietly proud of New Zealand. Other countries find misguided pride in their military conquests, their past empires, the wealth of their upper classes (a measure which always ignores the poverty and injustice that wealth is built on and sustained by). What we have to be proud of isn't war, but peace; not empire, but the end of empire; not the wealth of a few, but the equality of the many. Its not perfect - I spend hours a day posting about that - and it never will be. But on an international scale, its pretty good.

The problem is that the advocates of a merger - the usual suspects on the right and in the business community - are not interested in any of this. They have never believed in this country; they suffer universally from a massive colonial cringe which sees New Zealand as small, and therefore valueless. According to them, our natural role in the international order is not to be independent, but subservient, a "loyal ally" which needs to be taken under the wing of a more powerful protector (once the UK, then the US, and now Australia). There's more than a hint of feudalism about their view that military service must be exchanged for protection and trade deals.

But beyond that, these people see only money. They measure the worth of a society solely in terms of GDP. As a result, they are utterly blind to our real achievements, and place no value on them. Which is a shame, because as Schama points out, we have achieved something quite special here, and quite different from Australia (which is still militaristic and racist, though it shares our ideals of equality and social justice). And we shouldn't need Schama to tell us that that is something worth celebrating, protecting, and advancing.