Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Anzac – Silver Fern – Security Council Trifecta: Prospects for NZ nationalism in 2015

Our Anzac day has always been a fairly muted and low key version. Compared to Australian version it is nowhere near such a big deal here. But at the same time it has definitely gone under a resurgence of popularity recently. With the centenary in 2015, it will be a big deal – lots of media attention etc etc. At the same time later in the year there will be a flag change referendum. And at the same time NZ has spent millions, and won a place on the UN security council. The spin is we are able to contribute a “unique and independent voice” to the council.

All of these three things will have little or no effect on the day to day material conditions of life in NZ. Almost certainly, NZ will not make any real difference at the UN, and will just support whatever the US wants to do, with maybe a bit of token opposition on minor points. The flag is just a symbol, and the hot air of debate it generates will surely obscure more important issues and debates. Anzac day will involve very little genuine critical historical reflection on our past, it will be a sentimentalised spectacle of soft patriotism.

Even if these points are true and worth pointing out and arguing for, I think it would be mistaken to focus solely on these sorts of critical arguments. Even if it's a dreary and somewhat distasteful task, I think we need to do our best to actually examine and understand the nature and content of 21st century New Zealand nationalism.

A few more or less obvious points:

  • John Key's favourite is the silver fern. The resonance here is sport, not politics. The values are paramount: team spirit, pride and fair play.

  • The rhetoric of NZ speaking with a “unique and independent voice” will be supported by lots of moralistic speeches about human rights, etc etc, while at the same time doing nothing significant to challenge US imperialism

  • The “debate” with the RSA about retaining the old flag because of loyalty and the fact that NZ soldiers died under this flag will be won by John Key and something like the silver fern. I could be wrong about this, but I will be surprised if we vote to retain a flag with the union jack on it. This sort of 'debate' will really help to depoliticise Anzac day even more.

  • There's quite a big difference between the 'loyalty to empire' nationalism of 1914 and the 'Team New Zealand' feel good nationalism of 2014. Again fairly obviously, we now have a “unique and independent voice” which speaks for the US instead of the UK. Another difference is that between the 'bad guys' of 1914 versus 2014. Nationalism in 1914 was all about defence: the evil Germans were set to invade and conquer, rape and murder babies and so on. Nationalism in 2014 is portrayed as more of a humanitarian “internationalism”, we are urged to send troops overseas to combat an enemy which poses no danger to our country or our allies. There is a fairly concerted media campaign to convince us otherwise (evil terrorists plotting inside our own borders), so this sort of righteous humanitarian internationalism isn't the only narrative game being played, but it is arguably the trump card which politicians such as John Key will play: he presents the argument mainly in terms of “not giving in to ISIS”, and projects an image of resolute moral courage in the face of terrible evil. We are not defending ourselves from an evil invader, but rather valiantly defending the rights of people in other countries from terroristic Islamism.

  • There is something quite deceptively boring and innocuous about the New Zealand version of nationalism. I remember studying NZ history at high school, where I was certainly not alone in considering it the most boring topic we studied. We also studied the 'theme' of national identity in English, when we looked at New Zealand writers. Again I was terribly bored by all of this, and like most of my friends was way more interested in studying things like Nazi Germany. I'd be willing to bet money that things haven't changed too much in this regard: Nazi Germany, and the evils of fascism, are way more meaty and interesting than the lukewarm, humdrum banalities of 'New Zealand's evolving sense of national identity'. I'm fairly certain that the evolution of New Zealand's national identity will continue to be really boring, lukewarm and mild mannered. Anzac day will not be about death, war and sacrifice so much as about respectful remembrance and shared values. We will replace the union jack with some version of the silver fern, and our sense of 'fair play' in sport will inform the content of the speeches made by our representative at the UN security council. Whatever the details actually are, there will be few if any surprises next year, at least as far as these issues are concerned.

Some questions:

  1. How can this soft nationalism be effectively challenged? I feel quite pessimistic about this question. We can strive as leftists to “speak truth to power”: we can provide counter narratives against the Anzac mythos and talk about Te Puea, or the conscientious objectors, or working class resistance to conscription and so on. We can rant and rave about the evils of US imperialism, the false bogeyman of terrorism and so on. The problem seems to be that this sort of conscious / rational / critical approach actually misses its target. Nationalist ideology works more at the level of emotion, instinct and more or less primitive gut reactions than it does at the level of considered debate. This isn't to say that debate and discussion will not happen, this is just to claim that it really won't matter too much what gets discussed. The boredom and lukewarm flavour of the Anzac / Silver Fern / 'unique and independent voice' trifecta will provide a powerful sedative effect upon most people in New Zealand.

  1. There is another kind of 'internationalism' which I find a lot more appealing: the socialist kind. This kind of internationalism can (at least in principle) completely undercut and undermine the various forms of nationalism which have led to war throughout the twentieth century. My question is what are the prospects for socialist internationalism in the 21st century? They look fairly bleak at the moment, but are there reasons for hope? One thing which occurs to me is fact that there are a whole lot of contradictions and inconsistencies within the imperialist system at the moment.( For example, the issues surrounding the Kurds and Kobani in Syria). So it really shouldn't be too hard to challenge John Key's moralistic version of 'internationalism'. Is it possible to not only challenge these sorts of views but also propose a different paradigm? If so, how we would do that?

  1. What I said above about NZ history and national identity being boring isn't actually true. People such as Te Puea, Ormond E Burton, Archibald Baxter and Robin Hyde are really fascinating. New Zealand history is complex and multi-layered, and as a people we are way more interesting and contradictory than the banal silver fern symbol suggests. Given these facts, is the picture I have painted above too pessimistic and bleak?

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