Editorial – Issue 41

Happy New Millennium

By the time this issue appears, a new government will have been elected; most New Zealanders will have begun to recover from the humiliations of the World Cup; a much smaller number (we suspect) will be looking forward to the deciding America’s Cup duels; and the new millennium will be less than 30 sleeps away.

It is the last of these that we will be most focussed on. One reason is a very practical one: the world as we know it (the electronically controlled world, that is) might – if not come to an end – then suffer an immense hiccup. Another reason is that we have been conditioned to focus on the new millennium by the all-too-often commercially sponsored cheerleaders. But we human beings do also like to make sense of the remorseless and undisciplined passage of time by putting markers on it – birthdays, wedding anniversaries, centenaries – and in our ephemeral scheme of things there’s no doubt that ticking off another thousand years does have a certain satisfaction to it.

Never mind that only a proportion of humankind recognises 1 January 2000 as the beginning of a new millennium, if that particular marker means nothing else it does encourage us New Zealanders to take stock of where we’ve come from and to consider where we might be going. That is why New Zealand Books invited eight New Zealand writers, prominent and knowledgeable in their various fields, to contribute to a special supplement of essays reflecting on the new millennium.

Of course, each essayist comes to his or her individual conclusions, but it is difficult not to sense a rather downbeat, resigned mood in some of the writing. With the exception of the technological and sporting spheres, it is not exactly a Brave New World that we are being ushered into. Instead it’s a Timid Weary World, and we enter it chastened, even punchdrunk, and with modest aspirations.

Paul Morris, arguing that on the global level “religion is currently out and spirituality in”, asks whether there is such a thing as “a distinctively New Zealand spirituality”. His answer is that, if it exists, it is not so much in the churches as in “a theology of the land”, and that “just as Maori slowly came to this land as place and spirit, so Pakeha can too.”

Mark Williams contrasts Katherine Mansfield’s resolute refusal to underwrite late 19th-century “romantic stereotypes of natural wonders, scenic beauties and exotic Maori” with the current New Zealand Tourist Board’s all too enthusiastic campaign to promote precisely these same stereotypes almost a century later; and he wonders how far we have actually come in developing our own identity and culture.

Diane Prince, addressing Treaty issues from a Maori perspective, reaffirms the nature of the problems that face a minority indigenous people, still struggling to maintain their rights, their resources and their language.

Colin James tracks the disillusion that has set in about human perfectibility since the last fin de siècle. What the future holds for us in political and economic terms is a “muddling through” that acknowledges social fragmentation and plurality but also its limitations. If that spares us the hideous 20th-century experiments in social engineering (both from the Left and the Right), it may be no bad thing; but is it enough to tackle the huge problems the world faces?

It will not, for example, go far towards resolving the problems of inequality. As Sandra Coney notes in her essay, most of the gains thought to have been achieved by women since the 1970s have in fact yielded to sharper economic divisions between women, and to women being worked harder than ever.

And don’t necessarily look to the late 20th-century pseudo-solutions such as “globalisation” and “the information age” to be of much help. They are there primarily to serve a rampant commercialism that is not very much interested in poverty, race or gender, except insofar as they can be harnessed into revenue-generating sources.

Yet lest anyone believe that we are entering a new Dark Age and that perhaps it’s not such a bad bet after all to think eschatologically, there are grounds at least for remaining benevolently curious – even if not optimistic – about what awaits us in the next millennium. As Chris Laidlaw delights in showing us, New Zealand is heading inexorably into multiculturalism, and nowhere is this more obvious than on the rugby field. And, as Mark Broatch explains, whatever reservations we may have about the advances in communications, the World Wide Web is in its virtual way creating new communities out of a socially fragmenting world.

Finally, the good news is that the death of literature is still by no means imminent. Certainly, literature is in danger of being marketed into triviality, and it will become available in electronic forms that mere page-turners might find difficult to stomach. But, according to Kate Camp, Gen X, for all its alleged self-centredness, is concerned with the enduring human dilemmas that for the foreseeable future will need to be expressed in book form.

If that is the case then New Zealand Books itself can look forward to a continued raison d’être as it wishes its readers a Happy New Millennium.

Bill Sewell & Harry Ricketts

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