An end to cultural thumb-sucking, Gordon McLauchlan

Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas About Ourselves
ed Russell Brown
Activity Press, $29.95,
ISBN 95826340X

For decades after 1930, a year seldom passed without a book or long magazine article by a New Zealander or a visiting scholar examining New Zealand’s psyche, and sometimes picking through its entrails in search of the future. I know about this because I have many of them in my library and I once took part in the ritual. Looking back through some of these social commentaries in the Great New Zealand Argument (GNZA) is a painful reminder of our country’s pimpled adolescence (almost all of them were by men). Eventually their tedium was reflected in slumping sales. Not only have writers grown up but readers have too. Austin Mitchell’s second take on the country in 2001, Pavlova Paradise Revisited, was a wraith-like reincarnation of the genre and, I hope, the last.

So what is the great New Zealand argument? It was and is about a nation in search of identity. The discussion began in the 19th century, as Brown notes in his introduction, quoting the common early criticism of New Zealand that we were “uninspired men with no traditions and no theories”, and “frequently devoid of theory”. The verdicts of both the French social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville and the famous Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb were similar: pragmatic people with no ability to intellectualise a national vision, no theoretical underpinning for the quite remarkable political experiments that were so successful.

A couple of years ago, I thought again of these consistent criticisms when I was in the United States with more than 30 writers from around the world. George W Bush and Tony Blair were building up their case – which even then appeared spurious – to invade Iraq. We were discussing this as a group when an Argentinean waved his arm and said, “Why aren’t the intellectuals speaking up?” Many of the others nodded. The Englishman and I looked at each other, and I said, “Where I come from, calling someone an intellectual is to faintly insult him.”

The Argentinean was an extraordinary man, a professor of mathematics who was one of his country’s most popular novelists and short story writers. Many of the other writers were perplexed that developed nations could put down their “intellectuals”, a word that rolled proudly off their tongues. I tried to explain that it wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing if you had confidence in the long-term common sense of ordinary people, as most New Zealanders did. A life of the mind was important as an attempt to achieve self-knowledge, perhaps even wisdom, but a high level of formal education and a quick intelligence didn’t necessarily achieve that.

Later, I thought of something the urbane, Austrian-born English Jew George Steiner once wrote: “this land [England] is blessed with a powerful mediocrity of mind. It has saved you from communism and it has saved you from fascism. In the end you don’t care enough about ideas to suffer their consequences.” This hilarious remark carries much truth, and I believe it is even more true of New Zealand than of England. The brilliant philosophers, creators of theories and tidy ideologies, and their brothers in arms, the theologians, more commonly came from France, Russia and Germany, and they have millions of graves to prove it. The US involvement in Iraq was driven by so-called intellectuals in the face of common sense. New Zealand’s approach has tended to be to fix perceived problems without making up covering theories.

In a nutshell, our social history after 1840 was conditioned by extreme isolation, the relatively brief conflict with Maori before they retired to the country, and the homogeneity of the early European settlers, predominantly from the lower middle class or respectable working class of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The extreme isolation set up a yearning among Pakeha for the glories of a distant Mother, and retarded our emergence from childhood until the beginning of the end of cultural thumb-sucking in the 1930s. You can sense the need to define an identity through literature in the first of these GNZA essays, written by Robin Hyde in China on the eve of WWII.

After that war we knew at last that we were indisputably different from the Poms. Who were we then? The isolation, homogeneity and the pioneering ethos of pulling together imposed the cringing conformity – what Bill Pearson in “Fretful Sleepers” (the third GNZA essay) calls “the almighty norm”. In a small country of small towns within a Puritan tradition, individuals were always entirely visible, and ashamed of themselves as Puritans always are.

Those of us who lived through the 1940s and 1950s can tell you how much we were oppressed by a national ennui imposed by the need to be the same as everyone else. Here we were – bored adolescents in an adolescent country. The only real contact with the world was through the movies, exciting, droll and full of romance and implied sex. I guess that somewhat excuses “Fretful Sleepers” for being such a dirge. It was written by Pearson, a communist and a homosexual, after he had gone to London, not long after the bitter 1951 waterfront dispute.

Now let me be fair here. “Fretful Sleepers” was widely admired in its time, and I was enormously impressed by it when I read it in the early 1970s. I quoted bits from it in The Passionless People and extolled its insights to many people. I read it this time with increasing embarrassment for both Pearson and myself. It is a relentlessly loud wail without a single slash of wit, snarl of irony or glimmer of humour. Everyone cops it. Anti-intellectuals are excoriated for not honouring intellectuals and intellectuals are criticised for being forced into the corner of intellectual snobbery. I winced repeatedly as I went on, page after page.

One reason “Fretful Sleepers” is now so passé is that Pearson speaks to us across the cultural chasm of the 50s, 60s and 70s. In the past 50 years, New Zealand and New Zealanders have been transformed from an introverted, monocultural society by diverse immigration, the Maori renaissance, and feminism, by travel and an openness to the world, and by the understanding that we were far from the most buttoned-down society in the world at that time. Many of the ugliest, most disconcerting sins Pearson attributes as special to Kiwis were not only ours but Schadenfreude in its various guises.

I wonder why we didn’t notice at the time that if the Germans had the definitive word for the condition, it couldn’t be singularly ours. Almost every “Fretfulfoible is part of the overall human condition, with manifestations around the world that were, and still are, usually in more virulent forms than here. He was right about our petty intolerances but it escaped our notice that while we were petty most of the world was violently intolerant.

So in offering us “Fretful Sleepers” to read here and now, Brown has effectively demolished it from any modern argument. Indeed, we can dismiss the first five essays of GNZA as having little relevance to any argument we may be having with ourselves today. They seem quaint, nothing more than that.

David Lange’s Oxford Union speech – here in print for the first time, claims Brown – informs us on an important single issue and J E Traue’s “Ancestors of the Mind: A Pakeha Whakapapa” will embolden Pakeha and remind Maori what they too owe to cultures that have expanded their lives. But by far the most important essay in GNZA, the one that burns into the contemporary mind with its relevance, is “Race You There” by Tze Ming Mok, which was first published in Landfall in 2004, and is republished here with a 2005 postscript.

It is everything “Fretful Sleepers” is not – feisty, funny, fast-moving, deeply personal. It is an affirmation that petty intolerances remain and reliable evidence that the second generation, the children of people who came in from the outside, can see us much more clearly than we can see ourselves. She is, Brown points out, one of the 20 per cent of Chinese Aucklanders who were born in this country and are among those who pose the big question now: we may know who we are but what are we to become? She says:

We [a multi-ethnic group, in 2004] were thinking about whose turn it would be next: Who was going to be racked up for the political bash at the coming election? We were asking how we were going to spend the rest of our lives with each other when political parties were seeking to divide us.


A question that, sadly, didn’t need much prescience.

The night after reading Mok’s essay I went to dinner in Mission Bay where ethnic diversity teems on a Saturday night. The maître d’ at the Italian restaurant was an extrovert Maori, the staff Italian and at one table a Chinese family had their pasta plates in the centre, sharing in the Chinese way. At another, sat a handsome, relaxed Middle Eastern group of two families telling stories and frequently hooting with laughter while their three Kiwi kids frolicked around the footpath outside. Would I swap this for the old ennui? No. Would I swap Winston Peters for more people like Mok? Happily.


Gordon McLauchlan’s Great Tales from New Zealand History will be published by Penguin in November. 


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