Thursday, 4 November 2010

Still Cringing

"The trick of standing upright here": After the cringing fiasco that was 'The Hobbit Affair', it's depressingly clear that most New Zealanders have yet to master the art of living as if they were free.

WHO ARE WE NOW? What have we become? Where, exactly, is New Zealand?

I only ask because last weekend I saw people holding up placards informing me in no uncertain terms that "New Zealand IS Middle Earth".

What the placard-wavers seemed to be saying was that all those Kiwis willing to sacrifice everything to ensure Sir Peter Jackson’s production of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s tale remained in New Zealand, should consider themselves "Hobbits". While those New Zealanders with the temerity to join unions and bargain for better wages and conditions should be lumped-in with the goblin enemies of all that is good and true and wholesome in "Middle Earth".

How did it come to this? When did New Zealanders lose touch with their country’s own identity to such a degree that many now take more pride in being associated with a work of literary fantasy than their own homeland?

These are serious questions. New Zealand’s immediate future contains a daunting number of economic, social and constitutional challenges. Overcoming these challenges will test this nation’s mettle in ways not experienced since the 1930s and 40s.

The New Zealand that came through the Great Depression and the Second World War was configured very differently from the New Zealand of today.

The Labour Government of Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser, by drawing all the various sectors of New Zealand society – employers, unions, farmers, professional organisations, churches, community groups, artists – into a collective struggle for national survival, fostered a nationalistic spirit of unity and purpose which enabled our small and vulnerable population to emerge from the period stronger, more prosperous and vastly more self-assured than before.

The artists, in particular, played a vital role in creating New Zealand’s national identity. Though the bonds of empire remained strong, it was possible to discern, through the war-torn and increasingly thread-bare Union Jack, a new and independent nation slowly but unmistakably acquiring a distinctive form and shape.

This emerging New Zealand was an unequivocally Pacific nation with its own indigenous Polynesian culture (as tens-of-thousands of Kiwis serving overseas realised with a sudden pang of homesickness whenever they heard Maori music played).

The novelist, John Mulgan, had high hopes for this emerging New Zealand:

I have had visions and dreamed dreams of another New Zealand that might grow into the future on the foundations of the old. This country would have more people to share it. … [M]en who want the freedom which comes from an ordered, just community. There would be more children in the sands and sunshine, more small farms, gardens and cottages. Girls would wear bright dresses, men would talk quietly together. Few would be rich, none would be poor. They would fill the land and make it a nation.

It was the dream of the younger Labour men and women returning home from the war. The dream of Finance Minister, Arnold Nordmeyer, and Industries & Commerce Minister, Phil Holloway. The dream for which Norman Kirk died in 1974.

It is also the dream which Roger Douglas, Ruth Richardson and the whole neoliberal economic order they brought into being, have spent the last quarter-century attempting to root out of New Zealand’s collective memory.

Central to that task has been the deliberate falsification of this country’s recent history. For New Zealanders to become the ‘global citizens’ of the ‘borderless world’ that neoliberalism requires, all generators of national identity; all the mechanisms of economic sovereignty, must be dismantled.

To present this as a positive achievement, New Zealanders – especially young New Zealanders – must be persuaded to perceive their country’s recent past in darkly negative terms. Kirk’s New Zealand, the New Zealand of social equality and full-employment had to presented as, in David Lange’s witheringly dismissive phrase: "a Polish shipyard".

In place of Mulgan’s quiet, egalitarian New Zealand, neoliberalism has erected a raucous culture of rampant greed and conspicuous consumption. In neoliberal New Zealand, only losers care about losers. All that matters in the brave new world of the all-conquering free market is winning.

Sir Peter Jackson is a winner. Ipso facto, a Hollywood blockbuster located in New Zealand and directed by "Wellywood’s" Oscar-festooned maestro makes all of us winners too. Anyone attempting to block the great man’s path (like NZ Actors Equity or the CTU) must, therefore, be dismissed as, to use Paul Holmes’ ripe vocabulary – "filth".

Sixty-seven years ago, in his poem The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum Allen Curnow prophesied that: "Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year/Will learn the trick of standing upright here".

Surveying last week’s placard-waving crowd in Wellington’s Civic Square – and after watching our Prime Minister’s supine surrender to Sir Peter Jackson’s and Warner Bros.’ demands – it has become dispiritingly clear to me that "standing upright" is a trick we’ve yet to master here – in "Middle Earth".

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 2 November 2010.


Carol said...

The Hobbit affair did seem to privilege the view of NZ national identity as being represented by Jackson and Middle Earth, especially as it was reported in our MSM's wonderfully distorted view of our world.

But, in fact, I think something more significant was happening, and it's indicated in your label of the issue as The Hobbit Controversy. I think what we saw was the surfacing of new fractures in our national sense of self and politics, along with the breaking of the neoliberal consensus amongst the main political parties.

Today on RNZ Afternoons, I heard an interview with the Exhibition Manager of Auckland Museum, talking about an upcoming exhibit on the TV programme Outrageous Fortune. Associated with this will be a competition for people (regardless of their physical appearance or gender) to present themselves as "Cheryl West".

The West family was discussed in this interview, as being a representation that Kiwis generally can strongly identify. Now, this does open up questions as to the accuracy of this identification, and whether Robyn Malcolm's role in the Hobbit controversy will impact on her character's popularity. However, it does suggest to me that there is something more dynamic, conflicted and unpredictable occuring in NZ.

I think many people came away from the Hobbit controversy, less impressed by Peter Jackson than before. A large proportion of Kiwis were not impressed with the Warners'-John Key deal. It also highlighted that there is a resurgence of union action and support in the country, even while the MSM and right wing politicians have done their best to smear the unions.

So, I don't think NZ identity has solidfied as Middle Earth, but Middle Earth has become the centre of a struggle over NZ's future direction, one which may take us somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it time to move on? Although that's always been your problem as the world moves on but you continue to fight yesterdays battles.

The preconditions for a wealthy and successful country have changed trotter. Look around you in the world and see he countries like Singapore and South Korea which were once 3rd world have a higher standard of living than NZ and all you have left in you is to advocate ideas that have ultimately failed.

Anonymous said...

It's all about populist poliitcs, testing the wind, then acting. This govt is fundamentally weak, and Key may be a nice guy but he seems to lack starch. I don't get just why he is as popular as he is, because the populice usually warms to strong, fiesty leaders, and I find Key to be about puffery, marketing and asthetics. Hollow, yet sells like hot cakes. English has far more substance, yet the public are fixated on Key. Go figure!

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous @ 10:12

What a extraordinary display of ignorance, Anonymous.

The very countries you cite as models are distinguished from the failing Anglo-Saxon economies by their historical willingness to embrace high levels of state intervention in, and control of, their domestic markets.

South Korea is also distinctive for the strength and militancy of its trade union movement - a crucial factor in lifting the ordinary Korean's standard of living.

You really ought to read a little more widely, Anonymous - and I'd see someone about that knee-jerk, if I were you.

Anonymous said...

"South Korea is also distinctive for the strength and militancy of its trade union movement - a crucial factor in lifting the ordinary Korean's standard of living."

No you are wrong. South Korea's state had a plan to raise living standards that followed Japan and Taiwan's policy hence they were called development states. The state led the advance of improved standards of living NOT the unions.

I find it constantly amusing that Anglo-centric academics and commentators such as yourself constantly think they can transpose the same theories to countries with completely different histories and cultures.

Japan and Singapore never had independent strong unions yet they have living standards far above ours. Therefore the empirical evidence proves your assertion wrong.

And as for their control of domestic markets what is interesting abut these countries is that the state closed off its markets to foreign firms but encouraged intense domestic competition to produce world class companies. Of course the state intervened in certain areas such as HDTV but in the end these failed and standards were set ulimately by US companies.

But of course you would have know all this.
I won't post again since it's no fun arguing with someone in a position of weakness.

Chris Trotter said...

Very wise, Anonymous, since both your grasp of modern economic history and straightfoward English comprehension appears tenuous at best.

It is also considered inadvisable in any debate to offer your opponent's key empirical data as "proof" of your own directly contrary thesis.

Anonymous said...

....There would be more children in the sands and sunshine, more small farms, gardens and cottages. Girls would wear bright dresses, men would talk quietly together. Few would be rich, none would be poor. They would fill the land and make it a nation....

Of all the sappy quotes I've heard this one takes the biscuit. Mulgan just went west here, probably too long at the front in the hills with the Greeks.
Thanks for that Chris.

What would be a more interesting NZ would be if the men were wearing bright dresses and the girls were talking quietly. It's the same thing as unionism trying to fight human nature.


RedLogix said...

I've long thought this was really a simple thing; we keep importing our most potent cultural artifacts from the USA. Our movies, our television and largely our media styles all have their primary derivation from that one peculiar nation.

And what we tolerate on our televisions, we have to tolerate in our streets and lives 10 years later. It's not much more complicated than that.

Call it the 'cringing ape' if you like.

Anonymous said...

It's a mahi drought brought this corrosive psycheic obesity.
Since the war, ad lib phyical/emotional ice-cream; entirely sans the essential trace element of collective struggle for a higher good.

Government by swinger
by bought hysteria

Marked by seminal obscenities: multi-million salaries; food elevated to sacrament; the Helenhate frenzy; the $19.99 angle-grinder.

Canny Confusians patiently stuffing the greedy geese: and the Fox now beheads them.

Fat, headless, geese with guns.

Hillary's dead: and kicked in his grave
As Hillary hides - seeking kicks with the hicks

It's anomie territory
in the vast waste lands
and the underbrush is dry.

Headless chooks on steroids with guns.

Hillary rolls in his grave
And Hillary heads for the sticks
Seeking kicks from the hicks.

It's anomie territory
in the wasting lands.

Anonymous said...

Singapore represents one of the most striking dystopias of the modern world. To call that country an example to follow is as naive as those on the opposite side of the political spectrum who think we would economically catch up to Australia by increasing the minimum wage.

So many on the right are dazzled by Singapore's GDP growth that they see in Singapore what they want to see and not the broken nation that it is.

Anonymous said...

That anon @ 12.38, I think that was redbaiter or one of his weirdo gun toting lot.

Roger Strong said...

I have remembered this column which I read whilst on holiday. It seems to me to be an excellent example of what is wrong with the left.
Sounds marvellous but makes not even the slightest allowance for human nature. How could Mulgan have known what the world economic circumstances would be? How could he have known that greedy Maori leaders would want to own at least 'their' half of the country?
The left wants to promise paradise on earth and here is Trotter's conception of that.
Pity as well Chris that you have revert to personal denigration in your replies-shows the weeknesses in your agruement. Please leave out personalities and personal put-downs.