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Why Americans embrace nationhood but Kiwis do not

If New Zealand wants a lesson in how to foster race relations and develop a sense of nationhood it needs to look no further than New York

Rod Vaughan
Wed, 11 Jul 2018

If New Zealand wants a lesson in how to foster race relations and develop a sense of nationhood it needs to look no further than New York.

A two-week holiday there recently was an eye-opener into how so many people of vastly different ethnicities can largely co-exist harmoniously and take pride in their shared US citizenship.

Sure, it’s not all a bed of roses. But to me, this huge melting pot of eight million people, most of them immigrants or descendants of immigrants from all over the world, is a glowing example of what should be happening in our part of the globe.

Here, we are in the throes of developing a multi-cultural society, and for the most part we celebrate our growing diversity. But still the predominant immigrant groups, Maori and European, remain at loggerheads over so many issues.

For their part, Maori appear intent on achieving sovereignty, or at the very least pursuing a path of separatism, while Europeans harbour growing resentment at the seemingly never-ending demands of their blood brothers.

And, yes, Maori and Europeans are quite literally blood brothers today, their bloodlines inextricably fused after generations of inter-marriage.

Yet despite so much that binds us together, this is conveniently ignored by those intent on getting a larger slice of the economic cake, often for the most spurious of reasons.

Such are the divisions that we cannot celebrate our national day without the proceedings degenerating into rancor and sometimes violence.

It is truly a sad indictment of where we are as a nation and where we might be heading.

So why are New Yorkers, and all Americans for that matter, more willing than us to put many of their multifarious differences to one side and take pride in their joint heritage as citizens of the United States?

It’s a question that was given new meaning in President Barack Obama’s recent victory speech.

Consider this: “What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on Earth, the belief that our destiny is shared, that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, so that the freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights, and among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.”

And this: “I believe we can keep the promise of our founding, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you live. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”  

Cynics, of course, will dismiss much of this as political hyperbole, but they are wrong.

Mr Obama’s message is as relevant to New Zealand as it is for his homeland, but we seem to give it scant regard as we struggle to develop a true sense of nationhood.

To find out why this should be I turned to an American who has lived in New Zealand since 1997.

Dr Paul Buchanan is best known as a strategic analyst, but he is also an astute observer of NZ/US relations.

He says there are many issues and events which have made us evolve so differently and shape our sense of nationhood.

“I think there are historical and geopolitical factors at play in the differences in national identification between the US and New Zealand.

“The US fought a war of independence that broke ties with the mother country and removed the privileges associated with those ties.

“New Zealand remained a colony for a long time, with the country operating in a post-colonial fashion down to the point that British social hierarchies are emulated in some circles.

“In the US, the indigenous people were defeated by force of arms, dispossessed of their territory and forced to relocate on reservations.

“In New Zealand, the indigenous population was not conquered by force and negotiated a settlement that granted them specific and often privileged rights and entitlements into the future.

“As a very large country, the US has been able to assimilate large numbers of immigrants operating under a strong foundational myth that the US is the land of opportunity and freedom.

“But in New Zealand non-English immigration and assimilation has been a more recent phenomenon and there is no unifying national myth that encourages rapid identification as a Kiwi.”

Dr Buchanan says the issue of foundational or national myths is very important in terms of developing a sense of nationhood.

“Children are raised to revere the US flag, to the point that there are laws outlawing flag desecration and defining the proper ways with which to handle the national symbol.

“Kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day in school and are taught from early age that the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution are the world's pre-eminent political documents and charter.

“Much social pressure is placed on showing allegiance to the flag, to the point that flags are everywhere, not just during patriotic holidays but in everyday life.

“This constant inculcation and reaffirmation in words and in symbolic practice of American exceptionalism reinforces the general belief that the US is a special place, to which there is added a strong religious component for about a third of the population (who see the US as God's chosen place)."

Dr Buchanan says the US military is another strong bond uniting many Americans.

“The US is a highly militaristic nation that is semi-permanently at war or engaged in foreign conflicts to protect its global interests.

“The US military is an avenue of upward mobility for working-class people and ethnic minorities, where the meritocratic promotion system and the strong ideological focus of the armed forces reaffirms the commonality of interest and belief that makes US citizens 'American'.

“So there are a combination of factors that help bind shallow and deep nationalism into a coherent sense of national identity.

“This is more than flag on the shoulder or bumper sticker patriotism.

“It is a sincere belief that there is no better place than the US to be in terms of government or in material opportunity and however mistaken that belief may be, it is nearly universally shared.”

On the other hand, Dr Buchanan says New Zealand is not a strategically important country and is located in a remote part of the world.

“It has no historical or contemporary enemies and is physically insulated from foreign-based threats to national security.

“It has a long history of stability but also a long history of cultural difference between European descendants, Maori and other Pacifika cultures.

“This combination gives the population the 'luxury' of focusing on internal differences rather than common external concerns.

“Moreover, there is no unifying foundational myth to which all can subscribe to.

“Maori believe in their historical memory of the foundation of Aotearoa, Pakeha think of the early settlers and the Chinese and Polynesians have their versions of the foundational moment.”

Dr Buchanan also points to the New Zealand educational system, which he says does not promote a unified national vision, but reinforces cultural differences in the teaching of history and social studies.

“There is no reification of New Zealand exceptionalism or even of the national flag. Instead, the black flag with silver fern associated with a sports team is the most commonly followed national symbol.

“If anything, there is a downplaying of historically unifying events and forces in favour of cultural difference and diversity, which makes very difficult the construction and promulgation of a common national myth, even if it does recognise that diversity has its own benefits and rewards.”

Ironically, Dr Buchanan says New Zealanders living abroad are often the only ones to exhibit a common sense of identity.

“For some reason – be it homesickness, nostalgia or distance – New Zealanders appear to find their common identity outside of the mother country rather than within it.

“Certainly, other nationalities also cluster and reaffirm their ties to the homeland when travelling or living abroad.

“But the contrast is stark in the case of Kiwis precisely because there is no strong sense of national identity binding them when at home.

“In other words, Kiwis discover their 'national' identity while on OEs.”

Dr Buchanan says it remains to be seen how long Americans will retain their sense of “Americaness”, given the rapid demographic shifts and ideological differences now gripping that nation.

“In New Zealand it does not yet matter that the internal focus on difference rather than commonality remains the dominant trait.

“That’s because the elite system benefits from a culture that sees differences between racial, ethnic and religious groups rather than differences between classes as being the most important to address.

“And that may be the key to New Zealand's stability.

“People prefer to not think in class terms but rather in non-class, cultural or ethnic terms, thereby allowing for the largely unfettered development of capitalism as the primary social construct and market logics as the dominant ideology shared by elite, middle-class and working-class people alike, regardless of ethnic, religious or cultural persuasion.”

So, at long last some encouraging news about where we might be headed as a nation.

And perhaps somewhere along the way we might come to the conclusion that embracing our “New Zealandness”, be it at home or abroad, is no bad thing.

Rod Vaughan
Wed, 11 Jul 2018
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Why Americans embrace nationhood but Kiwis do not