A NZ Identity Crisis?

Some time ago a veteran journalist interviewed me about “foundational myths” and why the US and NZ were different in that regard (by “veteran” I mean a journalist who does research on stories and has some background in the fields pertinent to them, which are then used to write in-depth reports). Although I am not an expert on foundational myths, he had seen something that I had written back then and, having just returned from a trip to the US, his interest in the subject was piqued so he decided to give me a call. We did a compare/contrast exercise that he wrote up for a conservative news outlet.

I was reminded of that exercise by recent events involving ACT Party challenges to the Treaty and the Waitangi Tribunal settlement process. It occurred to me that not only does the Treaty (te Tiriti) serve as a foundational charter for NZ, it is also from whence NZ’s foundational myth comes from. This is not a criticism, just a personal observation, and there clearly is much more to a foundational myth than a grounding in a political contract between indigenous peoples and colonialists. I believe that foundational myths, especially those that are subject to different interpretations, are important for national unification and self-identity because the very differences in “reads” offer a broader canvas upon which to paint a picture of a nation’s collective identity. These myths do not have to be completely true or factually based–after all, they are myths–but are justified and considered worthwhile because they serve the larger purpose of speaking to a polity’s common aspirations, collective history and shared ideals.

As a child I was socialised in contexts that included the foundational myths of Argentina and the US. Both were originally crafted by dominant groups that among other things justified the status quo that they benefitted from, and to which over time other groups were assimilated in whole or in part (if at all). Both myths were symbolised in national anthems replete with words of heroism and sacrifice. Both glorified the constitutions to which pledges of allegiance were sworn (yes, even as kids!). Both myths were perpetrated by dominant groups whose positions of power were born out of conquest. The myths became a type of indelible water mark on my psyche even though, as I grew older, I came to see them for what they were: ideological devices designed to promote a unification narrative rather than objectively present actual historical events (for example, in both Argentina and the US. the “conquest of the West” is celebrated as part of their respective foundational myths even though the treatment of indigenous peoples in both was often barbaric and therefore whitewashed in most instances until very recently).

New Zealand has a different historical trajectory because the Treaty is a different type of foundational charter that is closer to a pure social contract between very distinct groups rather than a compact between relatively homogenous elites. Hence the Treaty creates the basis for a different type of foundational myth, one that is arguably closer to the historical truth than those of Argentina and the US. For one thing, it is not born of conquest. Consequently it is different in that it is not one coherent story imposed by dominant group interpretation, but instead includes several (often competing or opposing) takes on a common starting point (including events leading up to it) and its subsequent legacy. Over time the myth behind the Treaty has slowly seeped into the popular as well as the political collective conscience, creating a cultural amalgam that is considered the essence of what it is to be “kiwi,” be it Pakeha or Maori, Pacifika or Asian in genealogy. This has happened over generations of ethnic engagement and intermixing and is a process that is far from complete. Of course people retain their ancestral identities, some more so than others, but the inexorable march of time forges an intergenerational progression towards a common yet flexible identity in which the foundational myth embodied in the Treaty is seen as the “grand unifier” of a heterogenous assortment of distinct ethnographic groups who share a specifically common Antipodian history. The myth is malleable and subject to interpretation by various parties, but its core unifying properties are very much like those of other countries.

It is that unity that David Seymour’s racist attacks on the Treaty are aimed at. Foreign influenced and funded by well-monied rightwing outlets with international reach, Seymour’s is a type of white supremacist revanchism designed to roll back social gains made by traditionally subordinate groups under the guise of promoting “individualism” and freedom of choice. But what it really is, is an attempt to reassert white capitalist cultural, economic, political and social supremacy on everyone else, and to do that it must destroy NZ’s foundational myth by attacking and dismantling the Treaty using the argument that rather than a cooptation device designed to secure intergenerational social peace, it has created a race-based hierarchy in which Maori are granted privileges unavailable to everyone else. It is an odious project at its core, odious because it is hateful in intent and therefore hate-worthy as an approach to social issues.

Seymour is aided in his project by political opportunists in National and NZ First who cater to what used to be the fringes of NZ society–anti-vaccination groups, conspiracy theorists and, most central of all, racists. He is abetted by a clickbait-focused media that, unlike the veteran that interviewed me, ignores or chooses not to explore the deeper background behind the ACT Party manoeuvres, including its funding and logistical ties to various rightwing astroturf organisations. Between them, what should be a subject of alarm–a frontal assault on the foundational charter and the myths that have been ideologically constructed upon it–have become mainstreamed as merely critical reappraisals of rights and responsibilities emanating from the Treaty and the tribunal settlement process.

That is disingenuous in the extreme. The Waitangi Tribunal settlement process is of itself a critical appraisal of rights and responsibilities conferred by the Treaty as well as the modes of redress for past injustices committed. And as mentioned, it is a cooptation mechanism designed to secure and reproduce social peace along lines promoted by the NZ foundational myth.

In his repugnant actions, Seymour and his acolytes are not only attacking the foundational charter and the foundational myth that is its ideological superstructure. They are questioning what it is to be a New Zealander. For them, the preferred Kiwi identity is white capitalist supremacist, rugby-playing and agrarian in its foundations (this, despite taking money from non-European business interests). Others may opt for social democratic indigenous reassertion and still others may prefer the cultural amalgam that I mentioned earlier. As it turns out, this questioning of Kiwi identity may be a good thing because, if a referendum is held and the proposal to review the Treaty is resoundingly rejected, it could serve to marginalise the likes of Seymour and his band of racist pimply-faced incels (even if they have some political cover via ACT’s party vote and its female representatives, and are provided platforms and money by influential patrons). ACT’s heart is dark, and that darkness needs to be exposed.

So perhaps there is some good in undergoing the exercise of questioning what constitutes a “NZ identity” or what it means to be a “kiwi.” On the other hand, if the assault on te Tiriti continues it could fracture the consensus on NZ’s foundational charter and its surrounding foundational myth and thereby open the door to a crisis of identity when it comes to defining what it means to be a child of the land of the long white cloud.

That would not be good, and yet that is what is exactly what Seymour and company are pushing for. Or as Hillary Clinton said when referring to the MAGA Morons, he and his crew are truly deplorable.

26 thoughts on “A NZ Identity Crisis?

  1. One has to question Seymore’s motivation for His antics. I often wonder whether it’s simply that He’s a narcissist, utterly ideologically driven and is therefore smitten with populist politics. I described Him on another blog as a dangerous little runt. No better than a Duterte, a Bolsenaro and a few others. In this new era of the narciccist and the populist, He and his acolytes should be called out at every opportunity. Unfortunately, we don’t have the comedic ridicule we once had (McFail and Gadsby for example) that once served to keep oversized egos in check.
    One reply to my post elsewhere was along the lines of “If you can’t say anything nice, keep your trap shut”. No doubt (like that dangerous little runt) it was from a gorgeous creature willing to dish it out, but who screams victimhood when challenged.
    While your account of Seymore is on the mark, I’m not sure we should be letting the retail politician and his Boss (who’s well and truly gone down the rabbit hole – probably for reasons of legacy worship), and the CEO of soap suds (who’ll flip in any direction depending on the prevailing wind) off the hook.
    Comedic ridicule is probably the best way to keep an oppressed public active and willing to fight back

  2. Perhaps a little off topic but I can’t help stating there seems to be a striking resemblance between Seymour and MAD magazine character
    Alfred E Neuman!

  3. Edward:

    Yes, I have been saying that for a while now. The goofy grin and dim-witted eyes make for the comparison, although Seymour is certainly not dim-witted. He is just a nasty piece of work, whereas Alfred was good at heart.

  4. Well Alfred E was pre the era of the narcissist, populist and oversized ego. Egos many times larger than is necessary to maintain a little self-esteem while still in possession of at least a little humility.
    Even Rimmer had a little humility.

  5. Paul:

    I generally agree with your assessment and prescription but let’s be clear: Seymour is hell-bent on imposing white capitalist rule (which he has benefitted from but never contributed to as a real owner of productive assets. He is just a puppet and needs to be seen as such (since if his patrons are outed then the house of cards will fall). But again, where is the self-reaffirming corporate media?). Seymour thinks that he can do it without a civil war since his supremist imposition will be done by legal means. Little does the runt know what righteous beasts he will unleash.

    The question again is which way will they majority fall when it comes to the myth of what it means to be a “Kiwi.”

  6. Someone with a brain should really look at the right of non-citizens to vote in New Zealand; an academic, a journalist… someone; probably not a politician. New Zealand is quite the international outlier in this regard. It will eventually come back to bite the populace. Imagine a scenario where Māori rights are eroded, for example, and eventually it is revealed that these erosions made it over the line on the back of a sizeable proportion of voters who were not citizens. It could be incendiary, to say the least. Someone really needs to head that off at the pass.

  7. Your piece above seems to have coincided with this in-depth discussion on the daily blog.

    You and some of your other readers will undoubtedly know about this already, but I post it here for anyone else like myself who is fairly uninformed about these rightwing political things.
    Personally I think Seymour (we call him ‘Seeless’ in our household, comparitively innocuous I know but its an easy way to keep him in his place – you’ve got to do this with these guys) has a peculiar expression – kind of guileless, and intentionally so; but bordering on gormless; – I suspect he may not actually believe what he espouses – it may all be purely political, a way of keeping his party going, points of difference and all that, appealing to another sector of the voting public ….
    Incidentally ‘Lux Flakes’ is an old brand of soap flakes, long used in NZ. Only recently rebranded in line with one of the more modern brands …..

    Cheers, and thanks always for the thought-provoking post.
    It made me quite depressed actually.

    No wonder I garden lol

  8. Excellent analysis as always. I don’t know about the “pimply, incel” touch, maybe you’ve uncovered another layer.

  9. Black Swan:

    I understand your concerns but I also benefitted from being able to vote as a NZ permanent resident before I obtained NZ citizenship. Think of permanent resident voters as people with skin in the game: they work and contribute to society in various ways, pay taxes, add to the intellectual stock, etc. This can and to my mind should allow them the right to vote. Again, only permanent resident non-citizens can vote, and they have to earn that status in various ways (I remember spending time at Immigration during my first year in NZ doing the paperwork for PR status even though I came to NZ with a “skilled” job offer in hand). Beyond that, it seems to me that it takes a generation or two for immigrant families to embrace a Kiwi identity. In other words, Mom and Pop may come from the old country and hold allegiance to it, but their kids and grandkids born in NZ are “Kiwified” by their socialisation (assuming that they do not suffer major psychological damage from racism or xenophobia). For Maori the key is large voter turnout and effective use of the MMP system in order to maximize their voice beyond their demographic numbers, as seen in the vote last year.

  10. Barbara:

    I was going to go with “sweaty palmed onaists” but felt that the image of teenaged Ann Rand fanbois was more appropriate. If you look at Seymour’s inner circle that is what you find even if he tries to disguise that core in South African and other female window dressing.

  11. Over the past 2-3 weeks I have found my concern growing that Seymour will garner enough support from his backers in order to secure a referendum, no matter what Luxon says. I personally think Seymour is a clever little snake and has extremely powerful backers (note the recent visit by Lord Hannan, with whom David Seymour had dinner). This has become more apparent in the days leading up to Waitangi and more recently in his response to Luxon’s statement that the Treaty referendum will not go ahead. I don’t at all believe it is “dead in the water”. Especially now that we have the benefit of knowing his longstanding connection the Atlas Network and that organisation’s role in Brexit & the No vote for The Voice Referendum in Oz. That’s exactly what we can expect to see here, no doubt ably helped along by Hobson’s Pledge & the likes of Julian Batchelor. Hope I’m wrong, but I can see that looming very clearly on the horizon, especially as Seymour has already organised a Treaty Principles campaign: https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/508579/act-launches-treaty-principles-bill-information-campaign

    Like others here, every time I see Seymour’s face, I think of Alfred E Neuman and now I can also superimpose an image over Simeon Brown’s physog. We’re going to need an awful lot of humour to tide us over a very dark period in the coming months.

  12. I do not know who he fraternises with.
    In fact, we, the general public, know little about him. Why is that?
    This is probably going in the wrong direction for this column, but Isn’t it appropriate that we know a little bit about the personal lives of our politicians? It speaks to their credentials.

    Btw and speaking of cultural identity, I would say most pakeha kiwis of my generation at least are of English stock, and we orient towards Englishness, and English writing and culture. Even today I find much of the American culture foreign, and their accent so harsh in many circumstances that I cannot listen to it.
    Of course there are exceptions ;-)

    Kind regards.

  13. To Barbara;

    I agree we need to know more about our politicians and what motivates them. I think it behoves us all to look behind the image that any politician presents to us, nowadays especially. I don’t think many in the media served us terribly well in that regard prior to the election. It is because I became very interested in the antivax/anti-mandate “freedom” movement that my interest in the machinations of those seeking to undermine the Treaty led me to certain academics who have studied the Atlas Network and how they have operated. I think we’re all playing catch up – media included. Bravely, Mihi Forbes asked Seymour about his association with Atlas and got a complete lie in response. That’s the way it’s going to go – any questioning of Atlas Network and their involvement in Ao/NZ politics will be met with “It’s just a conspiracy theory!” as we’ve already witnessed at least 2 politicians claim just last week. We really need to be aware of this in the next few months & weeks. I think the spin & misinformation we’ll be encountering will be ramped up significantly.

    Anyway, my garden has been getting a lot more attention recently as an antidote – and a very good one it is too, I agree!

  14. Yes it was a revelation to me that Simeon Brown is a very, very ardent Christian. I wouldn’t have known this or even suspected it but for a very good, recent article in the Herald outlining his views on a number of issues. He seems to be trying to back away from these and painting himself and Luxon as some how middle of the road which they certainly are not.

  15. Seymour is intellectually dishonest in his arguments concerning New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements.

    The underlying issue is present-day values held by many Kiwis aren’t found in The Treaty of Waitangi. Governing “for the people” and people of all races to receive equal treatment under the law and equal opportunities didn’t exist in the 1840 British Empire.

    Letting a fringe minority unpick our parliamentary democracy in favour of a “partnership” between Māori and the crown would be ruinous. The people impacted by that shift would have no human or citizenship-ship-based rights.

    Moreover, a shift towards a new New Zealand constitution would solve the abovementioned issue. But the people opposing democracy wouldn’t accept that approach either.

  16. I do agree with you Di, about your growing concern (above).
    It seems daily there are new stories which would counteract the soft reassurances of our PM. The latest is some new research posted on the RNZ website, the results of which are rather surprising :


    particularly the result showing Maori are in favour of a referendum.
    Also younger people. (Maybe this suggests they need to know more of our country’s history?)
    And then there is the likes of old Nat hacks like Peter Dunne writing to justify the new Nat policies – the Treaty Bill, and the repealing of the Smokefree legislation – on newsroom. Some of this is just pure semantics.

    But it feels like there is going to be a slow creep towards this referendum.
    And it seems to me to be just like Brexit: a weak PM who believed it would never happen; a small but vocal minor party who had far more sway than they deserved; and some hidden influences from parties unknown (but which we have since learned about) …
    Cameron resigned of course. Luxon may live to regret this also.

  17. PS I find myself beginning to fact check some of these sources, like Research New Zealand (above).
    Recently I picked up our local free rag at the library, which included a liftout on the Treaty. I took it, thinking I might refresh my memory, my knowledge – only to discover it was published by Muriel Newman and her cronies, NZCPR. I was suspicious when I saw the translator’s name. I binned it (recycling). This was an insert that no doubt was included in all the free, local newspapers about the country within that particular parent newspaper company’s stable. But anyone could have read it, the way it was set out, thinking it was some kind of offical, govt publication based on fact.
    The truth is, like a lot of NZers, I do not have time to check the validity or otherwise of what I am reading. I rely on the integrity and intelligence of the news outlets I visit – that they publish stuff that is accurate, true and credible.
    It can be a bit of a minefield.

    PS my brother read Mad Magazine. But I could never understand it!
    Though I loved his cowboy comics lol

  18. I heard the interview with Emanuel Kalafatelis on Sunday and was gobsmacked about the result, Barbara. But I’ve been thinking about it since and reckon social media has probably had a huge influence – especially as there will already been machinations on those platforms by those with vested interests. And we know how successful that sort of messaging can be vis a vis Brexit & misinformation during the pandemic.

    The sad thing, I think, is that perhaps many of those people who want it (including those Maori who say they do) perhaps don’t really understand the Treaty & its history. It’s easy to see how people can be seduced down the rabbit hole by clever tactics.

    Your comment about a weak PM is spot on, too. In some of my less positive moments, shall we say, when I’ve been thinking about this coalition government and how things could pan out, I’ve even imagined a nightmare scenario where David Seymour is PM! A nightmare indeed. And lots of people will remember Muriel Newman & her husband’s publication How To Live On The Smell Of An Oily Rag and their serialised columns in local newspapers on the subject so they may not be aware of her other associations, unfortunately, when they read the insert on the Treaty.

    PS: I loved Mad magazine when I was growing up – especially Alfred E Neuman. I still remember one particular cartoon that makes me laugh when I think of it. There was a razor called The Spoiler (touted to leave a man’s skin as smooth as a baby’s bum) and it was to do with an advertisement about that but with Alfred E Neuman’s face in place of the very suave male model, with a huge slice of his face ruined by The Spoiler. Sounds gross but still makes me laugh. :)

  19. Pingback: Philosophy and Polarisation – No Minister

  20. Di :

    I have imagined who might be next PM too – logically it would be someone from the Nats of course, but I don’t blame you for having nightmares :-)
    I had to look the oily rag people up, never heard of them! (Have I been down a rabbithole lol all these years ….). But I am of the Whole Earth generation (as in Whole Earth Catalogues, communes, going back to the land – though I never so did myself) – this frugality is all old hat to me, and something my parents practiced too, as a matter of course. And passed on.
    The Treaty insert was so seductive – it had Sir Apirana Ngata’s famous image (from the banknote, interestingly enough) all over the 1st page. I did not look at it too closely I’ll admit when I discovered the true source of it.
    And quite frankly, I cannot equate the oily rag image with the NZCPR and Newman.
    How does that work.

    Kind regards.

  21. Barbara,

    You may want to take a look at the pingback link above because my old “pal” Tom Hunter has mentioned your name in vain. you know you are doing right when you get under his skin.

  22. lol thanks Pablo. Well, we all get tarred with the same brush don’t we.
    Yes, its true I binned it without a further look – but it was all too clever. And in fact Newman was not credited as the translator (has Mr Hunter read the insert himself, I wonder?) it was someone I’d never heard of.
    And if there is one thing I have gleaned about the Treaty, it is that parts are open to interpretation – correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand the Waitangi Tribunal was set up in part to interpret the Treaty as it related to each tribe’s particular grievance ?

    Oh I’m just a gardener at heart, not a politico. Just call me ‘Clancy’.

    But I do care about our country :-)

  23. What is often wilfully forgotten or dismissed is the aspect of Treaty jurisprudence that sought to control or moderate the more lawless elements of the English settlers’ behaviour. Not for Seymour this pernickety little aspect.

  24. It is a long time since I read Claudia Orange’s little book on the Treaty, having been distracted by child-raising and simply making a living in NZ’s biggest city. But one thing, and it relates to the original post above, is that I have never changed my spots. From the moment I could vote I knew who I was : it was Labour, or later, Labour + the Greens. I cannot understand the ‘floating voter’ and feel sorry for them (a close relative is one – who now tells me she regrets her vote – so soon!) – it suggests they do not know who they are, deep down. To vote Left is to be broadly speaking a socialist, it is an ethical consideration I believe – the right is all about economics (money) and individualism at the expense of the wider, greater good. Mr Hunter will be p—-d off that his paper pamphlet (which must’ve cost a bomb) has not had the desired effect – not in this household at least. No wonder the Librarian gave me a funny look when I asked if I could take it (it wasn’t clear if it was a freebie). And he should consult before quoting me. I might sue him lol.
    But the subtlety in layout & content etc of the publication highlights to me the dubiousness of their cause, and the lengths these people will go to to undermine a very free and advancing society in NZ.
    The Waitangi Tribunal, the Settlements, have gone a long way in redressing so much that was unequal in NZ … and creating the more egalitarian, multi-cultural society we have today. My immediate family, my son and partner, have benefitted from the settlement Ngai Tahu, as one example, received and invested. My partner, as a superannuitant, receives a small annual annuity from them – not means tested (the same relative who regretted her vote, and whom I love dearly, had the temerity to say it wasn’t enough!). But it is for all their kaumatua, irrespective. My son was able to apply for financial help when his business was affected by covid lockdowns. When his children were born they received the little flax kete for newborns (wahakura), and a gift of greenstone. They are 4th and 5th generation Ngai Tahu respectively. But their whakapapa is clear.

    How dare the Right question this beneficial history.
    Perhaps if they want to discuss the Treaty, they should approach Maori for the korero, ‘the conversation’. But they do not even have the balls for that (Seymour not showing at Ratana, nor Ngaruawaahia). Instead we have this old and outworn model whereby pakeha are calling the shots, ‘pakeha-top-down’. Seymour does not deserve his Ngapuhi whakapapa (of course that seems merely a convenience – if he related more to it, he would not be doing this, in this particular way). He should be ashamed of his racism. This whole Treaty Bill is an absolute disgrace.

    The UK was divided by Brexit. I always thought the vote was so close they should have had another one (another referendum).
    And so this country will be divided – but the outcome of it is not so clear at the moment.

    Kind regards.

  25. From all the way back, above :

    “So perhaps there is some good in undergoing the exercise of questioning what constitutes a “NZ identity” or what it means to be a “kiwi.” On the other hand, if the assault on te Tiriti continues it could fracture the consensus on NZ’s foundational charter and its surrounding foundational myth and thereby open the door to a crisis of identity when it comes to defining what it means to be a child of the land of the long white cloud.”

    So true.

    May the Force be with you :-)
    In other words, the “Will-to-Good”.

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