Appealing To The Past: Action Zealandia, like so many of the organisations springing up on the far-Right, across what they call the “Anglosphere”, is born out of the profound confusion over what a man is supposed to be in the twenty-first century and, more importantly, what he is supposed to do.
THE STATUE OF ZEALANDIA, her upraised hand blessing the good people of Palmerston, North Otago, has always fascinated me. As far as I know she is the only one of her kind in the whole country. Like the UK’s “Britannia” and the USA’s “Columbia”, Zealandia is the personification of New Zealand. Not Aotearoa, of course, Maoridom would require a very different sort of representative: one quite unlikely to be got up in Zealandia’s Ancient Greek chiton for a start! The classical outfit is, however, entirely appropriate for someone intended to represent Pakeha New Zealand’s firm attachment to the iconography of European culture.
Zealandia never really caught on – at least not in the way Britannia and Columbia caught on. The First Labour Government conscripted her to serve in the Dominion’s centennial celebrations. In the Government’s poster of 1939-40 she’s sporting fewer draperies than Palmerston’s Zealandia, but there’s no disputing the fact that it’s the same girl.
About the only place you’re likely to encounter Zealandia these days is standing opposite the Maori warrior on New Zealand’s coat-of-arms. According to legend, the National Party Cabinet Minister, “Gentleman Jack” Marshall, instructed the Department of Internal Affairs to model the 1950s update of New Zealand personified on the American actress, Grace Kelly. (What that says about us, I’m not entirely sure, but it sure says something!)
Something is also being said by the anonymous band of young Pakeha males who have appropriated both the name and the iconography of Zealandia for the purposes of promoting a radical and far from respectable variant of New Zealand nationalism. “Action Zealandia” has been branded “white supremacist” by alarmed and aggrieved university students, after posters and stickers promoting the extreme nationalist “movement” began appearing on walls and notice-boards around the University of Auckland. That alarm turned to outrage when the Vice Chancellor of the University, Professor Stuart McCutcheon, citing the Bill of Rights Act, refused to declare Action Zealandia persona non grata on campus.
Putting to one side the debate over whether Action Zealandia should be accorded the right to freedom of expression, “banning” the organisation from campus would constitute a regrettable lost opportunity to bring some academic scrutiny to bear on the organisation and its allegedly growing membership.
One of the many peculiarities of Action Zealandia is its determination to foster “strong men” who are “physically fit independent thinkers”. Fair enough, the cult of masculine physical fitness has long been a staple of the far-Right’s ideological diet. If, however, women are to be excluded from the membership of Action Zealandia (what would the lady in the chiton say!) its antagonism towards “sexual deviancy” strikes me as a little counter-intuitive. After all, restricting the organisation’s membership to physically fit young men, seems a rather testing strategy for combatting the “vice” of homosexuality and other “negative influences”.
As Hannibal Lecter so astutely observes in The Silence of the Lambs:
“[H]ow do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? … . . No, we begin by coveting what we see every day.”
Action Zealandia, like so many of the organisations springing up on the far-Right, across what they call the “Anglosphere”, is born out of the profound confusion over what a man is supposed to be in the twenty-first century and, more importantly, what he is supposed to do.
In the nineteenth century, when Zealandia was born, it was so much easier. Everywhere a “white” man looked he saw reflected the institutional manifestations of his unchallenged power. In the family; in business; in the arts and sciences; in the church; in the state – men were the masters. Masculinity was the measure of all the things that mattered. To be anything other than a “strong man” was unacceptable. To be weak; to be vulnerable; to question in any way the unchanging verities of Caucasian manhood; made you something less. It made you female; it made you black; it made you queer; it took you out of the running. And if you were a white, heterosexual male – that was just fine.
But it isn’t fine any more. There are many more figures in our reflections now. Masculinity is no longer the measure of all things. Truth is, it never was. Even in the days of empire, the Goddess was always served.
Even when men called her Zealandia.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 October 2019.