Land of the Wrong White Clowns

Anger, apathy and anti-intellectualism in New Zealand

Eleanor Catton is right. The public reaction to her critical remarks about New Zealand (taken out of context, of course) demonstrates exactly what she’s talking about. It’s not even ironic. It’s dismal and oblivious in its predictability.

She’s been accused of being a ‘traitor’, slammed for ‘ripping off the taxpayer’, and generally judged as an ungrateful ‘hua’. (Note that the accidental symbolism of this word goes deeper than most people realise, given that ‘hua’ is derived from an insult to do with boiling and eating someone’s head, the head being tapu in Māori culture and the centre of the mind and intellect in Western culture.)

That her comments sparked such a vitriolic response is strongly suggestive of an inferiority complex wound up in an intense desire to avoid recognising the reality of neoliberal capitalism.

The only reason why this story reached mainstream attention was because Catton accidentally (on purpose?) set off the red telephones into media outlets with the urgent news: New Zealand was mentioned in an overseas publication!

They’re talking about us!

The mere existence of this phenomenon provides direct insight into New Zealand’s ongoing struggle against anti-intellectualism without even needing to delve into classics like Bill Pearson’s Fretful Sleepers or Gordon Mclauchlan’s Passionless People.

I could argue that the tide is turning. That we know things are better than they’ve ever been. That there is an emerging critical culture. The fact that The Luminaries sold over 100,000 copies locally shows that things are not as dire as we might think. But there’s no point in me writing about that. Other people are doing a better job than I can of expressing that point of view.

The things I have to say concern the psycho-social formation of nationalism itself.


What! You dare to speak so? Why, this class of old men, if irritated, becomes as terrible as a swarm of wasps. They carry below their loins the sharpest of stings, with which to prick their foes; they shout and leap and their stings burn like so many sparks.


Have no fear! If I can find stones to throw into this nest of jurymen-wasps, I shall soon have them cleared off.

Calling a public intellectual a ‘traitor’ is the sort of thing you’d expect to hear on Fox News. It shows that the National Party’s two-track attack machine is still rolling along a straight line with little or nothing to prevent it from poisoning the public discourse.

John Key, the reasonable, chatty, thoughtful leader — a bloke you want to crack open a beer with — mentions the word ‘respect’ several times and says he’s ‘disappointed’. This is respectful on a personal level, but it’s also code for ‘let the stooges do the dirty work’, and sure enough, they are doing it.

The common sense conclusion is the vile refrain: ‘If you don’t love it, leave’.

Not a good role model.

The self-serving vitriol of these wrong white clowns drowns out the most interesting implications of what Catton was really talking about. The fundamental problem here is that New Zealand doesn’t invest enough in growing strong and stable institutions to nurture and develop its next generation of leaders, thinkers and creators.

Such pettiness and lack of subtlety is perhaps a hallmark of New Zealand politics. After Muldoon and the elderly conservative business community wrecked the economy in the late 1970s, New Zealand has been in a state of permanent revolution with monetarist and managerialist dogma driving core institutions to be continuously reformed and restructured. The role of the state today is no longer about constitutional democracy. It’s a semi-permeable membrane with a steady flow of taxpayer funding supporting corporate social welfare. Now that the cult of neoliberalism is collapsing in on itself and re-emerging as a ruthless, uninformed pragmatism, New Zealand’s political and business leaders are almost completely unmoored from any attachment to theory or ideology, with no motivation other than profit and no vision other than ‘business as usual’.

The prevailing position is one of utter cynicism, because it’s glaringly obvious that ‘business as usual’ isn’t going anywhere.

Peaceful, clean green settlement: Paradise Squandered, Mike Joy (2014)

Because of New Zealand’s small size — and because we don’t have people like Rupert Murdoch or the Koch brothers who call our country home — what we get is a backyard style of crony capitalism. A government ingratiated with concrete construction companies, road-transport conglomerates, petroleum empires and the prison industrial complex. A government pandering to old world business leaders who are disinterested in economic models beyond milking cows, cutting down trees and digging up minerals. A government that — ironically but deliberately — corrupts the free market system by doing things like spending more on privatisation than the public equivalent and handing out loans directly to a company formerly owned by one of its leading ministers.

There’s no room for arts and culture in this assemblage of mediocrity.

The Prime Minister has marked Catton as speaking on behalf of the Green Party and stepping outside her station as a writer to comment on politics. My perspective is that that she is speaking as an artist about what she sees, what she has experienced. And I know what she is talking about.

In the early 2000s, I had the extraordinary opportunity of working as a design technologist on the prototype user interface for Te Ara, the official government sponsored encyclopedia of New Zealand. I naively — and perhaps vainly — hoped that the launch of Te Ara would provoke intelligent criticism and debate about cultural nationalism and the role of the government in promoting New Zealand history. If there was any controversy, I assumed it would stem from the explicit bicultural architecture of the encyclopedia, which might have implied that English and Māori were the only legitimate components of New Zealand’s identity. Or perhaps there might be criticism of government funded history and the potential for bias.

The actual controversy turned out to be somewhat different. The project was ridiculed and attacked by libertarian bloggers and bellicose ACT MPs as a waste of taxpayers money. The sense of pride I felt at having been involved in bringing this treasure trove of social history to a new generation of school kids was tempered by the conniption of these right wing ideologues. For the first time, I realised I was no longer an angry young anarchist, no longer an outsider. I had enemies now, even if they didn’t know who I was. I was part of a hated Wellington elite, complicit in squandering precious tax dollars on frivolous crypto-socialist pet projects.

This is what happens over and over again in New Zealand. Genuinely deep, dark and interesting debates are kicked aside by venal and petty squabbling that only serves to divide and subjugate the intellectual and creative class.

Venal and petty.

It’s authoritarian and illiberal to imply that by accepting government funding, one forfeits the right to criticise the government. Criticising the government is everyone’s right. Or at least, it should be.

Those defending the Taxpayer’s Union stunt fall back on the canard of free speech — claiming that they’re doing the same thing as Catton and are entitled to criticise her, just as Catton is entitled to criticise the government. This is not a fair comparison at all. There is a huge difference between voicing an opinion and running a branded press release factory that targets and attacks critics of the government with orchestrated timing.

The same problems might be present in every country. The difference here is that New Zealand is so small. Everyone knows each other. Everyone comments on each other’s business. You can’t escape politics because everything you say and do can and will be politicised in some way. As Muldoon infamously cackled in a mid-70s TV interview: ‘New Zealand is the most intimate democracy in the world.’ This lack of separation is a disaster for writers, public intellectuals, scientists and independent critics in a range of different fields. Honesty is stifled by interlocking circles of groupthink where insiders are rewarded for reinforcing aspects of corporate-friendly collective identity and outsiders are punished for questioning it.

As a consequence, New Zealand has failed to develop cultural institutions with strong roots that can withstand political pressures. The sort of institutions that would nurture a respect for social criticism and learning from mistakes. The sort of organisations that would provide stable career paths and prospects for a broad and diverse community of world-leading intellectuals, artists and writers.

Despite what internet evangelists want to believe, the explosion of blogging and social media usage in New Zealand hasn’t made these circles more transparent and open, nor made social criticism and literature more accessible. Instead, what’s happened is an emergence of virtual media cliques cross-cutting the traditional political cliques, communicating via coded language and memes about the existence of a magical Tyler Durden-like ‘weatherman’ amongst lesser local mysteries, while masking terrible, severe, disturbing failures within the system.

Wellington is the world capital of the subtweet. It’s in nobody’s personal interest to reveal what’s really going on.

Over the past few years, I’ve run into a number of ex-pat Kiwis from all walks of life, and have heard the same story many times over. In Berlin, they described themselves as ‘cultural outcasts’ and ‘sexual refugees’. In London, they spoke acrimoniously about New Zealand’s low wage economy, lack of opportunities for career growth and exorbitant levels of student loan debt. Here in Australia, they’re not always so articulate and forthright, but they’re often far more purposeful and permanent.

What’s more interesting is how few of these people have lost their accents and how fascinated they still are with what New Zealand is and what it means.

It seems that being a New Zealander is a malady, a kind of madness which many sufferers come to learn cannot be cured.

I’m always fascinated at the variety of fashions and forms that dislocated people choose to represent their cultural identity. It seems to stress a remarkable divergence in what we really mean when we refer to culture. Are we talking about the cluster of imaginative communication and symbols around which a unified social group coalesces? Or the fulfilment of nationalist ideals at the nexus of ethnicity and regional history?

It’s not easy to disentangle the various distinct strands of culture that intersect with our daily lives. New Zealanders bear the encumbrance of colonialism and the incongruity of being a remote island nation in the South Pacific maintaining a Western, Red-White-Blue, British, or Anglo-Scots identity, depending on who’s talking about it. All of these classifications seem accurate enough, but none can fully encompass the foundation of what New Zealand is and the buried question of Aotearoa, a potential Republic or an independent South Island state.

Most people don’t like confusion and complexity. They want to see patterns. One of the more common ways to dodge difficult, contradictory thoughts about nationalism is to use figurative description and personification. In this way, New Zealand and Australia become young countries: vibrant, youthful, teenage and immature.

Many Kiwis want to believe in a recent renaissance, moving beyond the stultifying colonial identity that emerged in the 20th century, and there is a certain degree of truth to this. The dirty little secret that is that the renaissance was in part funded and facilitated by the 5th Labour Government’s program of cultural nationalism in the early 2000s. Te Ara was a small part of this. More significantly for the artists, writers and musicians of my generation, was an attitude of respect and goodwill engendered towards cultural production across the state services at the time. See for example, the PACE program.

Another way of looking at this is that during the 1980s, an entire generation of children grew up being bombarded with contradictory messages about the economy and their national identity. Many of you will remember the ‘Buy NZ Made’ campaign and the floundering death throes of the New Zealand manufacturing industry which was eventually almost swept away by a tsunami of parallel imports and free trade agreements with China.

You might disagree with my perspective but you can’t say I’m ill-informed.

I was born in Australia and moved to New Zealand as a small child while Muldoon was still in power. That arbitrary birth certificate caused me to be bullied and beaten up at primary school because ‘I wasn’t a real New Zealander’. Being so desperate to prove their identity, those kids intuitively understood how fragile and unstable New Zealand really was.

The spiritual and cultural emptiness facilitated by the neoliberal reforms and globalisation has given rise to a property hungry middle class with no concept of turangawaewae, no interest in shaping and sustaining the long term future of the country or curating its heritage.

A burning desire to fill that void may have been part of the reason why the generation of kids growing up under Rogernomics — my generation — eventually lurched so suddenly towards cultural nationalism. I do not know for sure. This is mostly speculation.

As I remember it, the criticism of Te Ara coincided with the dissipation and eventual collapse of the burgeoning official sentiment that New Zealand arts and culture really mattered. That ‘hope for a generation’. The cultural hegemony of the 5th Labour Government began to falter as the streams of vociferous right wing bile directed at the evils of ‘Helengrad’ coalesced into a much louder and more unified public voice, helped along with attack strategies designed by Crosby|Textor. Don Brash’s round two at Orewa bellyflopped, but the damage was already done. Labour soon shifted into a wholly cynical and reactionary mode.

Bruce Jesson uncovered something of fundamental significance to New Zealand’s identity when he described it as being a ‘hollow society’. What he meant was that New Zealand’s institutions did not develop organically over time, but were deliberately installed by the British with very little long term planning or attention to detail. Once upon a time when Aotearoa was ruled by the New South Wales colony, many of the Pākehā settlers were speaking Māori in their day to day lives. The New Zealand State was founded chaotically and abruptly through violence and property theft which severed any connection to a possibility of a distinct Pacific identity emerging. The result was a forced mindset of being British that wasn’t shaken off until at least the 1970s. This may explain why New Zealand went off on such a wild political tangent in the 1980s. The money men tore down the awkward staid society and left nothing in its place.

Gazing into the future of American influence on New Zealand culture: Leapaway Girl, Ian Scott (1969)

New Zealanders are hungry. The famous natural landscape is not enough to lift us from our spiritual poverty. We crave connection to the rest of humanity, to the greater history that we still don’t feel a part of. We want to be known. To be influential and important. Our greatest fear is that there’s nothing particularly special about New Zealand. We are intensely concerned that we might be little more than a kaleidoscopic figment of British colonial imagination — a quarter acre social ecology based on industrial farming capitalism.

I think this is partly why New Zealanders have tried to coerce Eleanor Catton into being a cultural ambassador. Because her second novel was so extraordinary, so globally recognised, we have a pressing, subliminal desire to claim her as our own and attach her work to this shabby, poorly made identity in the hope that it might help complete us. That it might provide social proof that we’re winners rather than losers.

It’s not surprising then, that certain people are seriously offended when Catton questions this desire, and quite rightly asks why people want to make her success be a product of New Zealand rather than her own independent creative effort.

The guardians of nationalism do not have a monopoly on being inspired by these islands. This may or may not be what the average Kiwi thinks, but it’s certainly how Catton was portrayed in some media previously, as a ‘national interest’ story. The same media who are now backflipping to portray her as a person with a chip on her shoulder who has always been treated soundly and reasonably as an individual.

I believe that there is something significant, deep, unique and powerful about Aotearoa, and I believe that modern New Zealand society has disregarded, buried, ignored and suppressed it. That’s why there’s such angst about New Zealand identity. That’s why people are so desperate for heroes, so willing to put their critical faculties aside when it comes to celebrating nationalistic triumphs.

Witness the spectacle of Kiwi bogans who have completely given up on New Zealand economically, yet still drive around the Gold Coast in big black V8s plastered with the cultural detritus of Kiwiana, their arms seared with the obvious tattoos that I surely don’t need to go into detail describing if you’ve already read this far. New Zealand is a nation where millions of people are encouraged to care more about a trademarked corporate rugby brand than having a genuine ethnic and cultural identity.

You only have to look at how it’s still controversial for the Māori language to be a compulsory subject in schools to see this repressed awareness leaking out into everyday life. It’s a difficult subject to deal with. Te Reo might be the very last thing tangata whenua have that’s fully their own and it would be tragic for this treasure to be given over to the tameless mainstream to bastardise and butcher. At the same time, there’s an urgent need to reinforce and retain the foundational oral culture and ensure that it sustains its vitality in a disconnected and atomized era of internet text communication. Once more people in New Zealand develop the ability not just to speak, but to think in Māori, they may discover how well suited the language is for expressing the emotional resonance of life on these islands.

But is this perspective ever what’s talked about? No. The common sense view is to question what the ‘point’ of learning Māori is and whether it will be useful in business.

Soon, most of the world will be able to speak English and Chinese but only New Zealanders will be able to speak Māori. If you refuse to see the benefits of this, you’re basically implying that you’d rather have the future of New Zealand be as a neglected tacked-on state of Australia, a holiday theme park for wealthy Chinese or a bolthole for decadent resource gobbling global elites. Regardless of whether that makes you uncomfortable, it’s not hypothetical. It’s already happening.

The Pāhekā men of the mid-20th century mindset who currently run the shop do not seem particularly bothered by what’s happening in the world. They’re not interested in change. They don’t believe in the same kind of society that many artists and writers do. They are happy with a little authoritarian rule, as long as it grants them financial security.

Strutting his stuff.

This is the logical conclusion of these neoliberal decades. It’s the reason why I’m not wholly sure New Zealand can survive or continue much longer in its present state of apathy towards itself.

Turning this around requires new institutions. It requires resurrecting the role of the university as the critical voice and conscience of society. It requires a drive for arts funding and a living wage for unemployed youth.

These changes are not impossible but they are becoming increasingly difficult to imagine — let alone enact — at the so-called ‘end of history’, where a male-dominated disaster mythology is monopolising our vision of the future.

I am not cynical. I am hopeful. What’s the worst that could possibly happen?

When the oil runs dry and the lights go out and the eftpos machines fail, and the cargo ships stop delivering cheap plastic goods, New Zealand society will collapse faster than the mammon worshippers can comprehend. Precious energy and resources will be squandered by hopeless managerialists trying to restore the systems of a failed state and a failed financial system. Without the loyalty of police or military, their attempts to regain power will be futile. Eventually, they will be executed by bandits and vigilantes.

Millions of malnourished, chronically abused dairy cows will die and be left to rot in the fields of a poisoned landscape. Without access to their life support system of hospitals, doctors, and pharmacies, the remaining humans will be ravaged by easily preventible diseases.

Meanwhile, the rimu trees will continue to mast on remote forested islands, and in bowls and tracks beneath their branches, the last lonely kakapo will slowly continue breeding — a legacy of the small group of New Zealanders who really did care.

Mark Rickerby is a writer, programmer and designer based in Sydney.