Crumbling System: With the steady decline of organised religion, organised labour and organised sport, New Zealand's most crucial generators of social cohesion have largely ceased to function. As a result, New Zealanders no longer tend to define themselves by the things that draw them together, but by the things that drive them apart.
THE INTERNAL MIGRATION of Maori from the countryside to the cities changed New Zealand society forever. For decades, this country’s race relations regime had operated on the cynical proposition that so long as Maori could be kept “out of sight”, they could also be kept “out of mind”. Such complacency could not, however, survive the constantly rising demand for labour that grew out of the extended post-war economic boom. The needs of the construction and manufacturing sectors were such that tens-of-thousands of mostly young Maori were lured away from their rural communities and into New Zealand’s rapidly growing urban centres.
The late Dr Ranginui Walker wrote often of the massive cultural dislocation which this rapid shift from rural to urban occasioned. That it did not produce (at least, not immediately) the dramatic social pathologies evident in other countries experiencing similar internal migrations (Italy, for example) has been attributed to the strength of three intersecting institutions: the churches; the trade unions; and the sports clubs; all of which swiftly sank deep and binding roots into the new city-based Maori communities.
The powerfully integrative effect of these three mass institutions (augmented by specifically Maori organisations like the Maori Women’s Welfare League and the Maori Wardens) made New Zealand’s experience of massive and rapid internal migration comparatively painless. It also contributed hugely to that most enduring of Pakeha myths: “New Zealand has the best race relations in the world.”
With the benefit of hindsight, however, it has become clear how important the churches, unions, and sports clubs were to the lives of ALL New Zealanders – Pakeha as well as Maori. Since the 1970s, their relentless decline has not only reduced dramatically the opportunities for the two cultures to come together in pursuit of common interests, but also, in the space where common beliefs and aspirations once flourished, a vacuum has been created into which a host of very different, and often divisive, ideas has migrated.
It was the churches that went first – and with them the common Christian narrative that had allowed New Zealanders to view their social and economic problems through a single ethical lens. In Pakeha culture, the morally amorphous secularism which rushed in to fill the vacuum offered multiple opportunities for non-religious belief systems to take root and flourish. Some of these, like “New Age” spirituality, were harmless. Others, like Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism”, and the New Left’s “Identity Politics”, would prove dangerously corrosive of social cohesion.
In Maori communities, the vacuum created by the Christian churches’ declining persuasiveness was quickly filled by a revival of traditional indigenous beliefs and practices. Overarching and mobilising this “Maori Renaissance” was the much broader and politically-charged narrative of tino rangatiratanga – Maori Sovereignty.
The triumph of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 90s only speeded-up the disintegration of New Zealand society. The collapse of trade union strength which followed the passage of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991 led directly to the elimination of penalty pay-rates. With them went the institution that had made so many of New Zealand’s sports clubs viable – the common Kiwi Weekend. For Kiwi sportsmen and women, the imperative very quickly became: commercialise or die.
With the traditional generators of social solidarity no longer humming, cast adrift New Zealanders retreated to that most fundamental identity marker: ethnicity. Maori had got there first and had a ten year start, at least, in developing the rhetoric of difference. But, as the extraordinary response to Don Brash’s in/famous “Orewa Speech” made clear, Pakeha racial chauvinism is not all that difficult to conjure-up. Both here and in America, more and more disenchanted whites are tuning-in to the unrelenting tinnitus of the tribe.
In the latest edition of The Atlantic , journalist Peter Beinart writes: “Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organised religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasising morality and religion and emphasising race and nation.”
What does it say about the cultural malaise in which Western civilisation currently appears to be gripped, that the ideological radicals of the Left have, since the late-1970s, and with growing fervour, also been emphasising those aspects of human existence over which the individual exercises the least personal control: race, gender, sexuality?
Bereft of the mass institutions that once drew them together, New Zealanders are increasingly defining themselves by the things that drive them apart.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 April 2017.