Thank you Russell. There is a randomness to life, or if you prefer a divine providence, and if the Taihape library had not withdrawn "Great New Zealand Argument" from its shelves I might never have come across it. I would like to think that many others will read your book in the years to come, just as you made the effort to review and bring back to public consciousness the seminal works of previous decades.
I posted that "long comment" hoping that it might provoke a debate which would help me to develop my own thinking on the subject. However I am appreciative of the kind comments that have been offered, and have made the effort to revise and extend my dissertation off my own bat. In particular I have more fully explored more fully the concept of "identity" in the broad sense of the word.
The revised dissertation has been posted on www.republican.co.nz, where comment is welcome.
Sinclair's Onion: the misunderstanding of identity
A few months ago I was travelling by bus from Wellington to Rotorua, and when the bus made a refreshment stop at Taihape I dropped into the local public library.
There I purchased a paperback copy of "Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas about ourselves", an anthology of New Zealand essays edited by Russell Brown from the Withdrawn titles bin. Judging from its condition, I may have been the first reader of the Taihape Public Library copy of "Great New Zealand Argument". That is no reflection on the intellectual merit of Brown's anthology, or its relevance to the condition of New Zealand in the twenty-first century. Rather it is a sad confirmation of the plaint which is a common thread running through many of the essays, which is that most New Zealanders would rather not think deeply and critically about themselves *as a nation. I suggest that the explanation for that reluctance is that New Zealand does not yet exist as a nation. To the question posed by W B Sutch half a century ago - "Colony or Nation?" - the political classes have answered, implicitly but none the less emphatically, "Colony", and, if anything, New Zealand has regressed politically from the days of the mid-twentieth century when such questions could be raised seriously and when a distinctive pakeha culture appeared to be emerging out of the works of artists as disparate as Frank Sargeson, Barry Crump, Colin McCahon, Janet Frame, Douglas Lilburn, Peter Cape and Phil Garland. Pakeha culture has been overtaken by globalisation, and the pakeha search for identity has effectively been abandoned. Maori culture remains, more or less intact, as the only deeply entrenched and authentic expression of our national identity. It could also be argued that all that was best in pakeha culture came from the Maori, and perhaps on that basis we do not need to mourn the intellectual, political and economic eclipse of pakeha New Zealand.
The most crucially seminal essay in the "Great New Zealand Argument" is Bill Pearson's "Fretful Sleepers" but the one I wish to discuss here is Keith Sinclair's 1963 work "The Historian as Prophet: Equality, Inequality and Civilization" because it comes from the watershed years when Sutch's question really seemed to present us with a choice. Sinclair was one of those who wanted to answer "Nation!" but ironically the ideas that he presented in this essay foreshadowed the dramatically new direction taken by Sinclair's New Zealand Labour Party under the leadership of Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble some twenty-years later, which for the next two or three generations put paid to the hopes Sinclair had for an intellectually, politically and economically great New Zealand.
A professor of history at Auckland University, Sinclair was respected as a New Zealand nationalist and admired for his staunch opposition to the Vietnam war through the turbulent years of the nineteen-sixties, along with another Auckland University history lecturer, Dr Michael Bassett. Bassett and Sinclair, though quite different in character, were both members of the New Zealand Labour Party, and both stood for parliament on the NZLP ticket, Bassett successfully while Sinclair fell just short of taking the Mt Eden seat for Labour. For Sinclair, the failure to win Eden marked the end of his political career, but probably helped to preserve his reputation as a "left-wing nationalist" for posterity. Bassett went on to become a cabinet minister in the right-wing Lange Labour government, and later a spokesperson for the extreme right-wing ACT party.
It has become something of a general theme on this blog that the dominant right-wing liberalism of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries had its genesis in the left-wing liberalism of the nineteen-sixties. That is more clear in the New Zealand situation than elsewhere in the "developed world" because here it was the left-wing Labour Party which led the assault upon egalitarianism and the welfare state, whereas in the United States it was the right-wing republican Party under Ronald Reagan, and in the United Kingdom the right-wing conservative party of Margaret Thatcher which undertook that role. However in each case it was the left liberals who "softened up" their respective society by challenging the foundations of the old conservative order, in particular by advancing the ideas of personal freedom over social responsibility. Initially the left intended ideas of unfettered personal freedom to apply to sex, drugs and various forms of artistic expression, but inevitably and relatively swiftly it was seen that those same ideas could also be applied in the economic realm, at which point social liberalism and conomic
liberalism converged to form what became the fully fledged liberal ideology, rather than a mere set of sometimes conflicting personal and social inclinations.
So back to "The Historian as Prophet". Sinclair sets the scene "I am in the position of the detective in the first chapter of a whodunit. He is confident that a murder will be committed, but he doesn't know who will be the victim. Consequently everything is a clue to the crime. Everything and nothing". Actually Sinclair would better have written "I am in the position of the reader...". It would have made more sense put it that way, but perhaps even here he could not escape his underlying assumption that it is the professional, the intellectual, the members of elite groups who count for most in the great scheme of things. Never mind. Sinclair makes his point well enough. The "victim" was to be the infant nation which Sinclair hoped to see through to maturity, and the act of infanticide (sadly characteristic of an alienated people who have no sense of belonging) was to be perpetrated, wittingly or not, by people not too unlike Sinclair himself.
He starts with the sage observation that, writing we must remember in 1963, "we exaggerate the difference between communism and capitalist democracy". Events have proved him right. The communism of the middle years of the twentieth century rapidly devolved into capitalism, while democratic capitalist societies, such as New Zealand, with equal rapidity acquired many of the attributes of the communism which we had been taught to fear and loath - children in day care, ordinary people effectively denied the right to own their own homes or farms, systems of mass surveillance, denial of religion and a crass all-pervasive mass media propaganda machine. He decries "the way in which... truth, honour and our language.. are degraded every day by advertising". That judgement can now be extended to cover public relations people, the news media, politicians and even academics. It is worth noting however that Sinclair was assuming that a "future historian" would see things the way that he did, which is to imply that a future society would be largely freed from the evils that he perceived in twentieth century New Zealand. That implicit confidence in the intellectual and moral progress of New Zealand civilization was misplaced. If anything, society taken as a whole has significantly regressed in the years since 1963. The one point in which Sinclair has been at least partially vindicated by history is his abhorrence of the trade in tobacco. The restrictions placed on tobacco however almost seem anomalous when ranked alongside the general attitude to the social use of drugs, including alcohol, in New Zealand. If we were to go looking for a mid-twentieth century prophet of New Zealand in the twenty-first century Aldous Huxley would come closer to the mark than Keith Sinclair.
He acknowledges that "we can't ... decide what the future will be". All the talk of "nation building" from a later generation of Labour leaders is smoke and mirrors, hubris and arrogance, utterly devoid of substance. Waxing philosophical, he then writes "The Greeks thought that the future was the past.. Their word opiso .. means either "behind" or "in the future"..". A good point, yet it is curious that Sinclair chose to go to the Greek, rather than to the Maori ("i mua") to make that point. In fact, evidence suggests that had be been writing his essay a decade later, when the focus of his interests had shifted more towards the role of Maori in New Zealand society, he may well have made reference to the Maori rather than the Greek.
Sinclair then comes to one of the key planks of his thesis - the question of greatness. He acknowledges that "The founders of our state.. when they spoke of greatness they often spoke cant". That judgement would apply just as well to their political heirs.
So where does the "greatness of New Zealand lie"? Sinclair cites "two grand natal ideas", the "ideal of racial harmony" and "Edward Gibbon Wakefield's high
civilization in the colonies". The "ideal of racial harmony" remains the indispensable condition of our national integrity, but Wakefield's class-based vision of "high civilization in the colonies" is the snake in the New Zealand garden. Sinclair succumbed to the Wakefield's vision, not entirely in its original form, but retaining all the essential elements of a society presided over by a privileged intellectual, social and economic elite.
He proposes a choice between "greatness" and "happiness" and for his part comes down on the side of "greatness" and "splendour". That is understandable. The historian naturally inclines to greatness. He basks in the reflected glory of the stories he tells. What is the point of writing history if there are no great deeds to record, no great men or women to place on pedestals and no grand themes to follow?
The ordinary person, however, seeks happiness rather than greatness, and thus politicians and patricians lure the lower classes with the promise of happiness through manifestoes, constitutions or other entertainments. Sinclair was not an abject failure as a politician - he came desperately close to wresting the Eden electorate from National - but might have been more successful if his vision had been guided by the politician's concern for the happiness of the multitude rather than the historian's or the poet's quest for splendour.
The object of a nation, as of a person, should be neither greatness nor happiness, but goodness, out of which arises the possibility of both greatness and happiness, even if with sacrifice and sorrow in train. But Sinclair does not overtly consider "the good". He is rigorously secular, verging on the profligate, substituting "civilization" for religion and "the university" for the church as the institution best fitted to protect and advance good in the world. He writes "My hopes for the future would dwell on the splendour ..ideas, literature, art, knowledge, truth...I would dream of a civilization based on ..equality in educational, social and economic opportunity; in legal and political rights. civilization is the supreme end of life, the finest product of the human being...man's speech in the face of final things; his answer to death.. the first faltering steps are being taken .. in the universities.. (the growth in student numbers) will produce a large intellectual elite.. we might begin by paying high salaries to MPs and top civil servants".
It is clear enough that Sinclair's ideas reflect upon his personal position as poet, writer and university professor (and perhaps also his upon his matrimonial situation).But in a broader context they represent the elitist doctrines propagated by the Auckland University cabal which included Michael Bassett, Richard Prebble, Roger Douglas and Sinclair himself. "Equality in educational, social and economic opportunity; in legal and political rights" and "social mobility" presuppose inequality in educational, social and economic outcomes. To what end? For Sinclair "the splendour of ideas, art, knowledge, truth..". For Bassett, Prebble and Douglas, rather more prosaically, "wealth and prosperity".
Were these valid ideas? Did Sinclair have it right in 1963, and did Prebble and Douglas have it right two decades later? Has the wider spread of income which Sinclair advocated created the "splendid civilization" to which he aspired? We have gained neither Sinclair's "splendid civilization" nor Douglas and Prebble's "universal prosperity". Instead we have submerged into a banal and alien mass culture while our children live in poverty. The highly paid "top civil servants" of today are no more intellectually or morally impressive than those who constructed the modern apparatus of state in the middle of last century. The universities have become degree factories, largely abandoning the role of "critic and conscience of society". "Ideas, art, knowledge and truth" have become strangers to us, eking an existence only on the margins of society.
Sinclair was wrong. We do not have to choose between "quality" and "equality". Diversity of talents can coexist with equality of condition. To reach his promised land of splendour, Sinclair would have had to set out in the opposite direction to that which he took along with Bassett, Douglas and Prebble. Rather than focussing attention on diversity of talent and ability he needed to find the true source of national identity: the beliefs which make us "the same" as each other rather than the attributes which mark us out by degrees.
In the late nineteen eighties Sinclair wrote a book subtitled "New Zealand's Search for National Identity" which was based on the profound misconception that "national identity" was somehow synonymous with the outstanding characteristics of outstanding New Zealanders. He himself confessed in his autobiography "Half way round the harbour" that the search for identity is like peeling an onion - one strips off layer after layer seeking the heart only to find it hollow. "A Destiny Apart" is a catalogue of national characteristics, supposed or real. Each chapter a layer of Sinclair's onion, and at the end, a hollow emptiness.
Identity is not found in what we are, a supposed national type or set of characteristics, but in how we relate to each other. We possess a national identity to the extent that we recognise mutual dependence and obligation. Put more emotively, to the extent that we love one another. In loving one another, we make ourselves equal, because equality and trust are the product and condition of all familial love. Our children that we love we treat equally, regardless of their talents, characters, or ability, and from that condition of loving equality they and we derive our sense of identity as a family. It is the same with regard to nations.
In the middle of the twentieth century, after a century of ethnic wars, class conflicts and ruinous overseas military campaigns New Zealand was struggling towards identity through the reconciliation of Maori and Pakeha, rural and urban communities, 'blue' and 'white' collar workers. Then, from where we would have least expected, the Princes Street branch of the Labour Party, came a challenge which started by undermining our trust in each other, in unionists, workers, farmers, business people, public servants and politicians. Make no mistake, after the shame of the Vietnam war and the Springbok tour, and decades of feather bedding for farmers, manufacturers and public servants New Zealanders had good reason to look critically upon each other, and to search for ways to restore the trust that had been eroded over the years by the general decline in social and political morality. Instead of seeking to rectify the causes of that decline, the Princes Street Branch set out to foster general distrust with the implicit intention of extending social and economic inequality far beyond the bounds of the mid-century society.
Human beings share their largesse equally among those they love, and only among those they love. Those nations which are most equal and have the strongest sense of national identity - for example the Nordic countries or Japan - tend to be of one ethnic group, to speak their own unique language, and to have a long shared history all of which makes it easy for them to feel a familial love for their own compatriots. On the other hand ethnic and linguistic diversity, such as exists in New Zealand, will impede the development of national identity. Native born New Zealanders, taken as a whole, do not love their new immigrant populations. The German living in a mansion in Kaukapakapa, or the Jordanian milking cows on a Canterbury dairy farm for the minimum wage are valued only for the wealth which New Zealanders can extract from their labours. Otherwise, by and large, they are resented. But is it any different for the native born? I suggest not. New Zealanders have learned to see each other as mere instruments to be employed in the acquisition of wealth. That is a generalisation, which like all generalisations must be qualified, but it is true in general in terms of the prevailing ethos of New Zealand society. The foreign attachments of certain large ethnic groups present another, even greater, obstacle to the development of national identity. New Zealanders of British descent still insist that the head of state must be of their own ethnicity, drawn from the ranks of the British royal family, and many Chinese immigrants confess that their first loyalty is to China rather than New Zealand. Divided loyalties will not disappear of their own. They can only be expunged by an act of will which transcends ethnic loyalties and material ambitions: a genuine commitment to the well-being of all tangata and whenua.
The obstacles and impediments to national identity are not insurmountable. Over time they may be worn away by the trampling of many feet, provided there is a will to pass that way. But however well intentioned he may have been, Sinclair's legacy has done little to help the move towards, or resist the move away from, a national identity. Elitism, inequality and class divisions are as inimical to national identity as to "the splendour of ideas, art, knowledge, truth..", and their effective abolition is the essential precondition of a New Zealand identity.