"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.