(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, November 16.)
I see Richard Dawkins, celebrated scientist, atheist and author of The God Delusion, is talking up New Zealand as a possible bolthole for disillusioned liberal refugees from the northern hemisphere.
Dawkins thinks our little country suddenly looks very attractive following Britain’s exit from the European Union and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election.
He suggests New Zealand should seize the opportunity to lure great scientific and artistic minds from America and Britain – “talented, creative people desperate to escape the redneck bigotry of their home countries”.
I’m not entirely sure we should be flattered by Dawkins’ attention. He’s the personification of what is pretentiously termed a “public intellectual” – a towering figure to whom we lesser beings are supposed to look for enlightenment and moral guidance.
But I note that his intellect doesn’t stop him from resorting to simplistic, undergraduate name-calling. What he calls “redneck bigotry”, others would call democracy: ordinary people exercising their right to choose who will govern them.
Most of us accept the outcome of democratic votes even if we don’t always like it. But when voters make choices that people like Dawkins don’t approve of, their arrogance and intolerance is exposed for all to see.
He’s angry that “anti-intellectual voters” should have been allowed to wreak “catastrophe” in the world’s two largest English-speaking democracies. The unmistakeable sub-text here is that in the ideal political system, voting rights would be restricted to the right-thinking intellectual elite. People like Dawkins, in other words.
But never mind – he finds hope of redemption in our remote corner of the Pacific.
Dawkins regards New Zealand as a “deeply civilised” country that cares about the future of the planet, and suggests we should promote ourselves as the Athens of the modern world. Cue visions of a glorious, golden new realm where Trump would become just a nightmarish memory.
We’re on other people’s radar screens too. US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg told the New York Times in July that she couldn’t contemplate America under a President Trump, adding with a rueful smile: “Now it’s time for us to move to New Zealand”.
The actor Billy Crystal is another who visualises New Zealand as a potential sanctuary. Asked for his reaction to Trump’s success on the campaign trail back in April, Crystal said he might consider buying a “nice little ranch” here.
Of course they would be welcome, but it all suggests a rather idealised vision of New Zealand – one far removed from the reality of a country blighted by some of the same social and economic ills, albeit on a lesser scale, that afflict America and Britain.
Still, the attention of such luminaries reminds us that we inhabit a very desirable little haven, safely distanced from the world’s pressure points and weeping sores.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Dawkins’ glowing assessment of New Zealand is that it conflicts sharply with the image we have of ourselves.
Day after day the media bombard us with gloomy reminders of all the things we imagine are wrong in God’s Own Country. The picture is of a nation permanently mired in crisis.
There’s a housing crisis and an inequality crisis. The health sector is struggling to cope, our rivers are shamefully polluted and our major cities need huge infrastructural investment.
Our prisons are bulging and we’re not doing anything meaningful to arrest climate change. Our native birds are in danger of extinction. The Maori language is dying and there’s a booze outlet on every corner. Children are going to school hungry and there’s an epidemic of morbid obesity.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Listen to Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report any day and you’re likely to hear a litany of grievances from agenda-pushers and interest groups clamouring for government action (which invariably means money) to ease their grievances.
If you’re easily taken in by alarmist propaganda (and many Morning Report listeners are, judging by the anxious emails they send in to the programme), you could easily get the impression that New Zealand is a country perpetually teetering on the brink of collapse.
It’s both ironic and amusing that it should take an anti-establishment figure like Dawkins, who's generally regarded as a hero of the Left because of his fierce denunciation of religion, to put things in perspective by reminding us how blessed we seem in the eyes of others.
His sunny assessment is sharply at odds with that of the glass-half-empty New Zealand Left, but it lines up with other views. Only two weeks ago New Zealand topped the Legatum Institute’s worldwide prosperity index, which takes into account not only economic factors but also education, health, personal freedom and the environment.
We scored especially highly for the strength of our society - a rating that could only have been enhanced by the way communities reacted to this week's earthquakes.
Sure, there’s always a plethora of things we could be doing a lot better. But we have one of the world’s most stable democracies and we enjoy freedoms and a standard of living that much of the world’s population can only dream of.
We are a civilised, liberal and tolerant society. Dawkins got that bit right – although, speaking personally, I’m not sure our tolerance should extend to pompous, condescending intellectuals who don’t bother to conceal their disdain for people who disagree with them.