Sinclair's Onion: the misunderstanding of identity
A few months ago I was travelling by bus from Wellington to Rotorua, and when the bus made a refreshment stop at Taihape I dropped into the local public library. There I purchased a paperback copy of "Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas about ourselves", an anthology of New Zealand essays edited by Russell Brown from the withdrawn titles bin. Judging from its condition, I may have been the first reader of the Taihape Public Library copy of "Great New Zealand Argument". That is no reflection on the intellectual merit of Brown's anthology, or its relevance to the condition of New Zealand in the twenty-first century. Rather it is a sad confirmation of the plaint running through many of the essays, which is that most New Zealanders would rather not think deeply and critically about themselves as a nation. I suggest that the explanation for that reluctance is that New Zealand does not yet exist as a nation. To the question posed by W B Sutch half a century ago - "Colony or Nation?" - the political classes have answered, implicitly but none the less emphatically, "Colony", and, if anything, New Zealand has regressed politically from the days of the mid-twentieth century when such questions could be raised seriously and when a distinctive pakeha culture appeared to be emerging out of the works of artists as disparate as Frank Sargeson, Barry Crump, Colin McCahon, Rita Angus, Janet Frame, Douglas Lilburn and Peter Cape. Pakeha culture has been overtaken by globalisation, and the pakeha search for identity has effectively been abandoned. Maori culture remains, more or less intact, as the only deeply entrenched and authentic expression of our national identity. It could also be argued that all that was best in pakeha culture came from the Maori, and perhaps on that basis we do not need to mourn the intellectual, political and economic eclipse of pakeha New Zealand.
The most crucially seminal essay in the "Great New Zealand Argument" is Bill Pearson's "Fretful Sleepers" but the one I wish to discuss here is Keith Sinclair's 1963 work "The Historian as Prophet: Equality, Inequality and Civilization" because it comes from the watershed years when Sutch's question really seemed to present us with a choice. Sinclair was one of those who wanted to answer "Nation!" but ironically the ideas that he presented in this essay foreshadowed the dramatically new direction taken by Sinclair's New Zealand Labour Party under the leadership of Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble some twenty-years later, which for the next two or three generations put paid to the hopes Sinclair had for an intellectually, politically and economically great New Zealand.
A professor of history at Auckland University, Sinclair was respected as a New Zealand nationalist and admired for his staunch opposition to the Vietnam war through the turbulent years of the nineteen-sixties, along with another Auckland University history lecturer, Dr Michael Bassett. Bassett and Sinclair, though quite different in character, were both members of the New Zealand Labour Party, and both stood for parliament on the NZLP ticket, Bassett successfully, while Sinclair fell just short of taking the Mt Eden seat for Labour. For Sinclair, the failure to win Eden marked the end of his political career, but probably helped to preserve his reputation as a "left-wing nationalist" for posterity. Bassett went on to become a cabinet minister in the right-wing Lange Labour government, and later a spokesperson for the extreme right-wing ACT party.
It has become something of a general theme on this blog that the dominant right-wing liberalism of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries had its genesis in the left-wing liberalism of the nineteen-sixties. That is more clear in the New Zealand situation than elsewhere in the "developed world" because here it was the left-wing Labour Party which led the assault upon egalitarianism and the welfare state, whereas in the United States it was the right-wing republican Party under Ronald Reagan, and in the United Kingdom the right-wing conservative party of Margaret Thatcher which undertook that role. However in each case it was the left liberals who "softened up" their respective society by challenging the foundations of the old conservative order, in particular by advancing the ideas of personal freedom over social responsibility. Initially the left intended ideas of unfettered personal freedom to apply to sex, drugs and various forms of artistic expression, but inevitably and relatively swiftly it was seen that those same ideas could also be applied in the economic realm, at which point social liberalism and economic liberalism converged to form what became the fully fledged liberal ideology, rather than a mere set of sometimes conflicting personal and social inclinations.
So back to "The Historian as Prophet". Sinclair sets the scene "I am in the position of the detective in the first chapter of a whodunit. He is confident that a murder will be committed, but he doesn't know who will be the victim. Consequently everything is a clue to the crime. Everything and nothing". Actually Sinclair would better have written "I am in the position of the reader...". It would have made more sense to put it that way, but perhaps even here he could not escape his underlying assumption that it is the professional, the intellectual, the members of elite groups who count for most in the great scheme of things. Never mind. Sinclair makes his point well enough. The "victim" was to be the infant nation which Sinclair hoped to see through to maturity, and the act of infanticide (sadly characteristic of an alienated people who have no sense of belonging) was to be perpetrated, wittingly or not, by people not too unlike Sinclair himself.
He starts with the sage observation that "we exaggerate the difference between communism and capitalist democracy". Events have proved him right, though not entirely right. The mid-twentieth century theory of convergence held that communism and capitalism would evolve towards a common form, each adopting the better features of the other, and while for all practical purposes there is a now a single global system of political economy, it includes not so much the best as the worst features of twentieth century capitalism and communism. Gross inequalities of power and income, absence of genuine mass involvement in politics, absence of genuine political accountability, mass state surveillance, crass all-pervasive twenty-four-hour-a-day mass propaganda machines, unashamed imperialism, denial of religion, destruction of traditional moral values, rampant secularism, the belief in material "progress" as the ultimate good, women in the workforce, children in day care and dinner at McDonalds (capitalism's equivalent to the Stalinist communal dining hall). Growing up in the mid-twentieth century, these were the grounds on which we were taught fear loath communism, but above all, we were told, communism was to be eschewed because it would destroy the "birth right" of the New Zealander to own a home or farm. We are now told, and believe, that inequality drives enterprise, life in a rented apartment life is a more civilised and convenient alternative to the stand alone house with a mortgage on a quarter acre section, women find fulfilment in employment outside the home, children are better cared for and educated in daycare, people in general are happier when freed from the shackles of religion, mass surveillance makes for a safe, secure society and McDonalds is fun. It is ideological and commercial propaganda which makes us see these things through new eyes, just as it was propaganda which made New Zealanders see things quite differently in the mid-twentieth century.
European New Zealanders were, and remain, peculiarly susceptible to the most banal forms of commercial and ideological propaganda arguably because they are a rootless people with no authentic identity of their own, and thus have nothing to put up against the invocations of the mass media and the priesthood of global culture. Sinclair decried "the way in which... truth, honour and our language.. are degraded every day by advertising". That judgement can now be extended to cover public relations people, the news media, politicians, bloggers and even academics. It is worth noting however that Sinclair was assuming that a "future historian" would see things the way that he did, which is to imply that a future society would be largely freed from the evils that he perceived in twentieth century New Zealand. That implicit confidence in the intellectual and moral progress of New Zealand civilization was misplaced. If anything, society taken as a whole has significantly regressed in the years since 1963. The one point in which Sinclair has been at least partially vindicated by history is his abhorrence of the trade in tobacco. The restrictions placed on tobacco however almost seem anomalous when ranked alongside the general attitude to the social use of drugs, including alcohol, in New Zealand. If we were to go looking for a mid-twentieth century prophet of New Zealand in the twenty-first century Aldous Huxley would come closer to the mark than Keith Sinclair.
Sinclair acknowledges that "we can't ... decide what the future will be". All the talk of "nation building" from a later generation of Labour leaders is smoke and mirrors, hubris and arrogance, devoid of substance. Becoming philosophical, he then writes "The Greeks thought that the future was the past.. Their word opiso .. means either "behind" or "in the future"..". A good point, yet it is curious that Sinclair chose to go to the Greek, rather than to the Maori ("i mua") to make that point. Had be been writing his essay a decade later, when the focus of his interests had shifted more towards the role of Maori in New Zealand society, he may well have made reference to the Maori rather than the Greek.
Dreams of grandeur: civilization and culture
Sinclair then comes to one of the key planks of his thesis - the question of "greatness" or "splendour". He acknowledges that "The founders of our state.. when they spoke of greatness they often spoke cant". That judgement would apply just as well to their political heirs.
So where does the "greatness of New Zealand lie"? Sinclair cites "two grand natal ideas", the "ideal of racial harmony" and "Edward Gibbon Wakefield's high civilization in the colonies". The ideal of "racial harmony" (as distinct from "racial diversity") remains an essential condition of our national integrity, but Wakefield's class-based vision of "high civilization in the colonies" is the snake in the New Zealand garden. Sinclair succumbed to Wakefield's vision, not entirely in its original form, but retaining all the essential elements of a society presided over by a privileged intellectual, social and economic elite.
Sinclair talks of the distinction between culture and civilization, but he fails to clearly differentiate the two, except to suggest that civilization is of a higher order than culture. "Culture" he suggests is "refinement of manners.. artistic and intellectual excellence..social complexity" whereas "civilization is the supreme end of life, the finest product of the human being". To Sinclair culture is a mere relative degree of refinement, while civilization is the end and meaning of life. These are not definitions, as they do not clearly differentiate the one from the other. They do show that Sinclair greatly admires civilization and has a lower regard for culture, but his intuitive understanding of the meaning of "culture" and "civilization" respectively are probably no different to anyone else's.
Civilization (from civitis, city) is built out of statutes, defined language and institutions of state, while culture (cultura), grows in the form of custom, demotic language, the natural relationships of family and tribe, and even methods of production ("agriculture", "silviculture" and so on). Culture is native. It is influenced by climate and terrain and necessarily has indigenous characteristics, while civilization owes nothing to the natural environment and thus can be imposed over the top of almost any culture.
Culture is absorbed. Individuals grow up in a culture and becomes more or less representative of that culture. Civilization, however, is imposed, and there is a general expectation, enforced by law, that citizens will behave in a "civilized" manner.
People can abandon a culture - most often in the name of "civilization" - but rather more commonly they may attempt to "escape" civilization and return to their cultural roots. Thus culture and civilization are in perennial conflict in New Zealand, as in in other parts of the world, such as the Middle East where the indigenous Muslim culture frequently conflicts with "global" secular civilization. There is no universal love of civilization. Sinclair may have regarded it as "the supreme end of life" but to many other New Zealanders it presents a threat to the native culture, tribal society, and the natural environment.
Sinclair retained a sentimental attachment to his native New Zealand culture, as evident when he writes or speaks of his Auckland childhood, but as is typical for intellectuals of all lands and historical epochs, he was driven to embrace civilisation as the highest good. It was imperial civilisation which allowed the boy from Pt Chevalier to work in the same intellectual realm as academics from Boston or London, and on equal terms, to travel from Auckland to Oxford or Harvard and always feel at home and among those of his own kind. Distinctive cultures may be incorporated into academic disciplines, as Maori culture has been incorporated into the New Zealand academic system, but only as an object of study in more or less strict accordance with the scientific rules of the civilization. At that point it is no longer culture in the sense of "something growing". It is cut from its roots (even if the sap is still fresh in the stem) and examined under the microscope on the laboratory bench. For Sinclair, culture was always subordinate to civilization.
The Wakefield legacy
The quest for civilization, as Sinclair observed, has also been at the heart of the colonial project in New Zealand. The commercial ambitions of the New Zealand company, the paternalism of the Church, and the controlling power of the colonial administration (that is, all three strands of British influence in New Zealand) joined in the mission to "civilize" the tangata and whenua, to build cities on the land and to draw people into the cities. For the first half-century of the colonial era, the ruling classes in New Zealand had a vision of a New Zealand civilization and empire in the South Pacific ocean. This vision, held by Prime Minister Richard Seddon and other political leaders of his time, originated in the imperial ambitions of Edward Gibbon Wakefield.
Wakefield saw himself as the founder and rightful leader of a New Zealand civilization. In the latter respect he was deluded. He did not have the power, presence or authority to found an empire. Neither for that matter did the infant colony. The dream of a New Zealand empire failed to materialize beyond a period of New Zealand rule in Niue, the Cook Islands, Western (previously German) Samoa and a strategic interest in the Kingdom of Tonga, and at the end of that period the New Zealanders abandoned their aspirations to acquire a Pacific empire in their own right. As is normally the case at the decline of empires - even one like New Zealand's which had never progressed beyond the embryonic stage - a considerable portion of the colonial populations were transported to the "home" country. Niueans, Cook Islanders and Samoans were physically incorporated into the New Zealand domestic workforce when the island territories became more or less independent. New Zealand, having overcome its delusion of imperial grandeur, then focussed on its role as a colony and subordinate member of the wider Anglo-American imperial system. Polynesian cultures were accepted, and even to a degree respected, along with a raft of other cultures and populations mostly introduced from other former British territories on the Indian sub-continent, South Africa, South East Asia, the Americas and Fiji. But none of this had anything to do with nationalism. It was, and is, an imperial phenomenon, albeit going under the name of "globalism" and it is intrinsically hostile to New Zealand nationalism.
The rubric of imperialism is "one civilization, many cultures" in which culture is subordinate to civilisation. A previous generation of New Zealanders were taught about the children of the empire, Zulu, Hottentot, Indian, Afghan, Malay and Eskimo, each with their distinctive culture, language, dress and customs and all "loyal children" of the British empire, living under the British flag, British law and British civilisation. Imperialism depends on cultural diversity which is the raison d'etre of empire. Without imperialism, the ideology of the state would revert to nationalism based on a unique and singular culture. This is in fact what transpires when empires crumble and fall. Separate cultures re-assert themselves over the common civilization. Eventually one culture - Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Gallic, Celtic, Semitic or whatever - becomes locally dominant and a nation state is formed on its basis.
The regard of New Zealand's rulers for "cultural diversity" is indicative of their sense that they are part of an Anglo-American imperial civilisation in which both culture and the state are subordinate to empire, rather than a nation in which the state serves as a vehicle of the popular culture.
The object of a nation
Sinclair proposes a choice between "greatness" and "happiness" and for his part comes down on the side of "greatness" and "splendour". That is understandable. The historian naturally inclines to greatness. He basks in the reflected glory of the stories he tells. What is the point of writing history if there are no great deeds to record, no great men or women to place on pedestals and no grand themes to follow?
The ordinary person, however, seeks happiness rather than greatness, and thus politicians and patricians lure the lower classes with the promise of happiness through manifestoes, constitutions or other entertainments. Sinclair was not an abject failure as a politician - he came desperately close to wresting the Eden electorate from National - but might have been more successful if his vision had been guided by the politician's concern for the happiness of the multitude rather than the historian's or the poet's quest for splendour.
The object of a nation, as of a person, should be neither greatness nor happiness, but goodness, out of which arises the possibility of both greatness and happiness, even if with sacrifice and sorrow in train. But Sinclair does not overtly consider "the good". He is rigorously secular, verging on the profligate, substituting "civilization" for religion and "the university" for the church as the institution best fitted to protect and advance good in the world. He writes "My hopes for the future would dwell on the splendour ..ideas, literature, art, knowledge, truth...I would dream of a civilization based on ..equality in educational, social and economic opportunity; in legal and political rights. civilization is the supreme end of life, the finest product of the human being...man's speech in the face of final things; his answer to death.. the first faltering steps are being taken .. in the universities.. (the growth in student numbers) will produce a large intellectual elite.. we might begin by paying higher salaries to MPs and top civil servants".
The legacy of the fourth Labour government
It is clear enough that Sinclair's ideas reflect upon his personal position as poet, writer and university professor (and perhaps also his upon his matrimonial situation). But in a broader context they represent the elitist doctrines propagated by the Auckland University cabal which included Michael Bassett, Richard Prebble, Roger Douglas and Sinclair himself. "Equality in educational, social and economic opportunity; in legal and political rights" and "social mobility" presuppose inequality in educational, social and economic outcomes. To what end? For Sinclair "the splendour of ideas, art, knowledge, truth..". For Bassett, Prebble and Douglas, rather more prosaically, "wealth and prosperity".
Why was it the left, liberal Labour Party of people Keith Sinclair which lead the assault upon social and economic egalitarianism in New Zealand from the nineteen-sixties through to the end of the twentieth century? Why was it the Labour Party which insituted the anti-egalitarian and overtly capitalist Accident Compensation and New Zealand Superannuation schemes, while Robert Muldoon's National Party chose the egalitarian taxpayer funded option with the National Superannuation scheme? Why did National seek to maintain a fortress economy, while Labour opened the doors wide to global trade and investment? It was because the conservatives of the National Party believed in the innate superiority of their class and race. Therefore their efforts were directed towards maintaining coherence, unity and collective interests of their own class or race. For Muldoon, who came from the lower middle class and was something of a fish out of water among the farming aristocracy of the National Party, the British race, which included the great majority of New Zealanders, outranked the importance of class. Thus it was Muldoon who fought the last-ditch battle in defence of New Zealand economic nationalism, populism and egalitarianism.
The liberal consensus
Liberals have a different psychology. Scratch a liberal, and you will find someone who may not believe that he is superior on the basis of race and class, but who does believe that he is innately, individually and personally superior, in particular intellectually superior, to the mass of humanity. Often, though not always, that belief is well-grounded. Sinclair was a case in point. This sense of personal intellectual superiority underpins the demand for "equality in educational, social and economic opportunity; in legal and political rights.." for all classes, ethnic groups and nationalities and for social mobility, meritocracy, and for a system of remuneration which rewards individual ability - particularly intellectual ability. Sinclair openly expounded these ideas. All liberals are convinced in their hearts that free markets or free love, or both, will work to their advantage. Economic and social liberalism did not necessarily go hand in hand, because those who held economic power are not necessarily more sexually attractive, and therefore it is quite possible for one individual to be a liberal in economic matters, and a conservative on social issues, or vice versa. However Sinclair was not only a prominent intellectual and a leading academic, but by all accounts a man with considerable appeal to the opposite sex, and thus a model of twenty-first century liberalism in which there is a particularly close and intricate association between sex, commerce and political power. Sex is sold in brothels and cinemas, commerce routinely employs sex to promote its goods and services (a large proportion of which have an implicit or explicit sexual purpose), while the path to political power is made easier for those who have "sex appeal", and thus the former distinction between social and economic liberalism has been all but eliminated.
Did Sinclair have it right in 1963, and did Prebble and Douglas have it right two decades later? Has the wider spread of income which Sinclair advocated created the "splendid civilization" to which he aspired? In short, has economic and social liberalism delivered the promised brave new world? The short answer is that it has not. We have gained neither Sinclair's "splendid civilization" nor Douglas and Prebble's "universal prosperity". Instead we have been submerged in a crass and alien mass culture while our children live in poverty. The highly paid "top civil servants" of today are no more intellectually or morally impressive than those who constructed the modern apparatus of state in the middle of last century. The universities have become degree factories, largely abandoning the role of "critic and conscience of society". "Ideas, art, knowledge and truth" have fallen into neglect..
Sinclair was wrong. We do not have to choose between "quality" and "equality". Diversity of talents can coexist with equality of condition. To reach his promised land of splendour, Sinclair would have had to set out in the opposite direction to that which he took along with Bassett, Douglas and Prebble. Rather than focussing attention on diversity of talent and ability he needed to find the true source of national identity: the beliefs which make us "the same" as each other rather than the attributes which mark us out by degrees.
In the late nineteen eighties Sinclair wrote a book subtitled "New Zealand's Search for National Identity" which was based on the profound misconception that "national identity" was somehow synonymous with the outstanding characteristics of outstanding New Zealanders. He himself confessed in his autobiography "Half way round the harbour" that the search for identity is like peeling an onion - one strips off layer after layer seeking the heart only to find it hollow. "A Destiny Apart" is a catalogue of national characteristics, supposed or real. Each chapter a layer of Sinclair's onion, and at the end, a hollow emptiness.
Identity is a concept which demands careful analysis - perhaps more rigorous than Sinclair was able to manage. Identity is, literally, "sameness" and also has connotations of uniqueness. It is an artifact of large and complex societies in which individuals appear in many different guises and otherwise unconnected relationships. Thus, as well as being, father, son, brother, uncle, nephew or husband a person may be a property owner, employer or employee, vendor, purchaser, patron, client, citizen, public official and so on. These various unconnected relationships belong to the same person and thus we assign an identity which comprises the sum of their relationships, guises and persona which is referred to by a personal name. Identity means that a citizen may have to account for his actions as a husband, or a public official may have to account for his conduct as a vendor. Identity informs the principle of individual integrity by which individuals are responsible for actions they undertake in any capacity or at any time of their lives, or, to put it another way, in terms of moral accountability a person is a single integral whole. Thus the idea of identity, even individual identity, carries with it the notion of moral obligation and accountability.
Similarly, families consisting of a number of individuals have an identity referred to by a family name. The identity or sameness of the family members lies not in the family name, nor in their physical characteristics or personalities (which may or may not be similar) but in the relationships, more specifically the system of obligations, which applies between husbands and wives, parents and children and so on. Without such a system of obligation family identity would have little if any social significance.
National identity is no different. We use family analogies (for example the word "native sons or daughters" alluding to birth within a given territory) to develop the concept of nationhood. But if we are to examine the concept with rigor, we see that national identity is not found in what we are, a supposed national type or set of characteristics (the equivalent of a "family likeness") or even a shared history (the equivalent of a family genealogy, or the idea of being "native born"). National identity inheres how we relate to each other and in what obligations we recognise in each other. It is that sense of moral obligation, and only that, which qualifies us to define ourselves as "New Zealander". We possess a national identity to the extent that we recognise mutual dependence and obligation. Put more emotively, to the extent that we love one another. In loving one another, we make ourselves equal, because equality and trust are the product and condition of all familial love. Our children that we love we treat equally, regardless of their talents, characters, or ability, and from that condition of loving equality they and we derive our sense of identity as a family. It is the same with regard to nations.
War and the nation
The first expression of nationalism is most commonly militaristic, deriving from revolution or a war of independence, because it is in war that mutual obligation is most clearly and unequivocally defined. The false nationalism of the "Anzac spirit", which is compromised by its imperial premises and the logically untenable assumption that New Zealand and Australian nationalism can share the same foundation, is real to the extent that it represents the notions of loyalty, sacrifice and comradeship that are the essential elements of the nationalist ethos. It was the comradeship of the front which persuaded so many New Zealand soldiers that they had become a people of and for themselves in the course of the first world war. However those New Zealanders who believe that the sacrifices and heroism Gallipoli signified the birth of the nation (or more correctly "coming of age" of the nation which was "born" at Waitangi) are mistaken. However well-intended or duplicitous as the case may be, Waitangi was the surrender of New Zealand sovereignty to British crown, and New Zealand's Gallipoli campaign was was fought in the interests of British imperial power. Therefore both Waitangi and Gallipoli are the antithesis of nationalism The reality is that our nation, still not yet come of age, was born out of the wars which were fought against Australian troops almost exactly half a century prior to the Gallipoli campaign, that is, the Waikato and Taranaki wars of the eighteen-sixties.
War in general is a suitable peg on which to hang nationalist sentiment, The particular attraction of a war fought on the other side of the world against a people of different race and culture for obscure reasons is that it does not divide us, as the New Zealand wars divided us, and continue to divide us. Why is Gallipoli preferred to France and Belgium where many more New Zealanders fought and many more died? It is because both figuratively and literally, Gallipoli is an isolated peninsula with little visible connection to the mainland of our history and therefore raises fewer questions of rationale, purpose and motivation than the battles in France or Belgium. The New Zealanders felt neither friendship nor enmity towards the Turks, there was no pre-existing connection between Turkey and New Zealand, and therefore for New Zealand colonial establishment the story of Gallipoli becomes a story conveniently lacking in context, contradiction or complication. But it will not do. To stand, the nation must understand and confront its own true history. It cannot afford to shift its gaze to the other side of the world as a convenient way of ignoring the unresolved conflicts at home and the troubled legacy of its own history. The aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes, in which the people of Canterbury have by and large been left to fend for themselves, and landlords have reaped windfall profits from the suffering of the homeless, says more about the state of New Zealand nationalism than an Anzac dawn parade.
The nation without war
Nationalism arises out of a sense of mutual obligation, which is frequently but not fundamentally, associated with conflict against foreign powers, and national identity is nothing more nor less than an awareness of that mutual obligation. The most basic form of obligation is that imposed on a people by body of law, and hence we have the concept of the nation state in which the state, as the author and instrument of law, is thought to represent the nation. But legal obligations imposed by the state are an insufficient basis on which to found a true national identity, which requires a sense of social and political obligation that transcends the formal obligations of the law. That broader and deeper national identity has its basis in history, but is not to be found simply by looking into history. It is associated with the character and attributes of a people, but is not to be found in any compendium of supposed national characteristics. (Every nation claims more or less the same set of "unique national characteristics" such as physical strength and agility, determination, courage, resourcefulness and a spirit of sturdy independence, and any vaunted characteristics which are not universal are more likely to be problematic, if not pernicious). The only characteristics which can be properly termed national characteristics are those which determine how people relate to each other. All others, including the aforementioned "physical strength and agility, determination, courage, resourcefulness and spirit of sturdy independence" are strictly personal characteristics. While we may all be New Zealanders, it is folly to suggest that we are all made in the mould of Ernest Rutherford, John Walker or Rewi Maniapoto. National identity is a matter of the relations between ourselves, that is how we related to each other in the past and, perhaps more importantly, how we relate in the present moment.
Change and diversity in the state of the nation
Identity is the answer to the Greek philosopher who, going on the mutability of things, said "No one ever enters the same river twice". Yet all know that the infant in its crib and the old woman in her rocking chair can be one and the same. The trickle in the mountains, the torrent in the gorge and the wide meandering river on the plain, the limpid stream on a summer day and the raging flood waters brown with silt after a winter storm are all the same river. The river which forces a new outlet to the sea is the self-same river that followed an older channel in the years before.
Therefore, identity does not depend on common physical attributes. In fact, the opposite is the case. The formation of identity is the mental process by which we associate different phenomena (or seemingly different entities with visibly different attributes) and deem them to be different expressions of the same entity. But the process of identification cannot be random or arbitrary. Although all rivers eventually reach the sea where they mingle before rising up into the clouds and returning to the land as rain, we do not normally say "All rivers are one", because such a statement and association would not serve us well in practical matters of navigation, irrigation or everyday life.
The implication is that neither similarity nor diversity of physical. mental or social attributes consititute a logical basis for national identity. Despite what we are told, and what many would wish to be the case, the unifying factor which makes a nation out of disparate individuals, ethnic groups, political persuasions, religious creeds is not "rights" or "freedom". It is obligation. And when obligation is abandoned, it does no good to chant "We are all one nation", or to search for ways in which we appear similar. It is not a question of similarity or diversity. A husband and wife get along better when they have interests, beliefs and personality traits in common, but similarity is not an essential condition for a marriage. Sexual distinction is also a necessary condition of the traditional marriage relationship. However neither psychological compatibility nor sexual distinction are sufficient conditions for a stable marriage, because they are not exclusive. There will be an abundance of men and women psychologically compatible with and sexually distinct from the partners in any given marriage relationship. The feature which makes a relationship exclusive, and therefore stable, is the conscious acceptance of the exclusive nature of the relationship, and, most critically, adherence to the obligations entailed by that exclusivity. Nationhood is no different. Ultimately, it depends on a system of mutual practical obligation
A new covenant?
The contemporary belief is that "commitment" defines a marriage or the relationship between a nation and its people, but "commitment", like the "passion" of the politician, has become a nebulous concept. The marriage vow however sincerely given, has no legal force, while the oath of national allegiance is only a matter of form. Native New Zealanders are deceiving themselves if they believe that any but a tiny fraction of new citizens seriously intend to give allegiance to "Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors according to law".
In reality each ethnic group in New Zealand owes allegiance to its own people, foreign sovereign or state, and, with the exception of Maori, we are speaking of foreign sovereigns, states and peoples. We have only been able to carry on in this manner for the past century and a half only because the British have been socially, economically and politically dominant in New Zealand. Allegiance to the British sovereign and to Anglo-American world power has been the rule of the state, and other affiliations - in particular to the Maori king movement, iwi, the Netherlands, Samoa, the Cook Islands and so on - have been tolerated as exceptions which do not seriously threaten the unity of the state. Today, however, British hegemony in Aotearoa is waning, a situation for which the British have no one but themselves to blame, but the end of British hegemony will have consequences for all. New Zealanders will either establish a new national covenant or face the deluge. It is that simple. They cannot continue to blunder about in a futile search for "national identity" as shelter from the coming storm.
Human beings share their largesse equally among those they love, and only among those they love. Those nations which are most equal and have the strongest sense of national identity - for example the Nordic countries or Japan - tend to be of one ethnic group, to speak their own unique language, and to have a long shared history all of which makes it easy for them to feel a familial love for their own compatriots. On the other hand ethnic and linguistic diversity, such as exists in New Zealand, will impede the development of national identity. Native born New Zealanders, taken as a whole, do not love their new immigrant populations. The German living in a mansion in Kaukapakapa, or the Jordanian milking cows on a Canterbury dairy farm for the minimum wage are valued only for the wealth which New Zealanders can extract from their labours. Otherwise, by and large, they are resented. But is it any different for the native born? New Zealanders have learned to see each other as mere instruments to be employed in the acquisition of wealth. That is a generalisation, which like all generalisations must be qualified, but it is true in general in terms of the prevailing ethos of New Zealand society. The foreign attachments of certain large ethnic groups present another, even greater, obstacle to the development of national identity. New Zealanders of British descent still insist that the head of state must be of their own ethnicity, drawn from the ranks of the British royal family, and many Chinese immigrants confess that their first loyalty is to China rather than New Zealand. Divided ethnic loyalties will not disappear of their own. They can only be expunged by an act of will which transcends ethnic loyalties and material ambitions: a genuine commitment to the well-being of all tangata and whenua.
In the middle of the twentieth century, after a century of ethnic wars, class conflicts and ruinous overseas military campaigns New Zealand was struggling towards identity through the reconciliation of Maori and Pakeha, rural and urban communities, 'blue' and 'white' collar workers. Then, from where we might have least expected, the Princes Street branch of the Labour Party, came a challenge which started by undermining our trust in each other, in unionists, workers, farmers, business people, public servants and politicians. Make no mistake, after the shame of the Vietnam war and the Springbok tour, and decades of feather bedding for farmers, manufacturers and public servants New Zealanders had good reason to look critically upon each other, and to search for ways to restore the trust that had been eroded over the years by the general decline in social and political morality. Instead of seeking to rectify the causes of that decline, the Princes Street Branch set out to foster general distrust with the implicit intention of extending social and economic inequality far beyond the bounds of the mid-century society.
The obstacles and impediments to national identity are not insurmountable.
Over time they may be worn away by the trampling of many feet, provided
there is a will to pass that way. But however well intentioned
he may have been, Sinclair's legacy has done little to help the move towards,
or resist the move away from, a national identity. Elitism,
inequality and class divisions are as inimical to national identity as
to "the splendour of ideas, art, knowledge, truth..", and their effective
abolition is the essential pre-condition of a New Zealand identity.