Friday, November 20, 2015

We don't know how lucky we are

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 18.)
I spent much of the weekend mowing lawns and raking up leaves and other garden debris that had accumulated while my wife and I were on holiday in the United States. The only thing disturbing the peace – that is, once I’d turned the mower off – was the barking of a neighbour’s dog.
Meanwhile, a world away, the residents of Paris were locked indoors, reluctant to venture outside for fear of another terrorist attack. There could hardly have been a more striking reminder of how blessed we are, living in this remote and serene corner of the globe.

We can only hope that people who migrate to New Zealand value and respect the fact that ours is a liberal, humane, inclusive and relatively safe society, and that they commit themselves to helping keep it that way. After all, it’s presumably a key reason why they come here.
Not that we can afford to be smug. We are part of a connected, global society and it’s impossible not to share the anguish and anxiety that the people of France are going through right now. Neither can we disconnect ourselves from international efforts to confront and conquer the menace that is Islamist terrorism.

The Islamic State is a uniquely challenging adversary, especially given that its followers appear to have no fear of death – in fact, embrace the prospect of martyrdom. But the fight against them is our fight too.
The Islamist assault on liberal democratic values – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, women’s equality, the rights of minorities generally – is a threat to us all. We can’t pretend it’s not our concern simply because it hasn’t (yet) directly affected us.

Recent events have sharpened my awareness of other things besides our comfortable isolation in the southwest Pacific. Four weeks in the US reminded me once again how insignificant we are in world affairs.
I heard New Zealand mentioned once in the news media. That was when I was listening to National Public Radio late at night and heard a BBC news bulletin that referred briefly to the pending Rugby World Cup final between the All Blacks and Australia.

Small reminders of home intruded on us in unexpected, random ways. In Boston’s North Side, my wife spied a delivery man wheeling a trolley laden with Yealands Estate wine from Marlborough.
In the same city, I heard Weather With You by Crowded House being played as the background to a radio weather forecast. And twice in public places we heard Lorde’s hit song Royals – once in a Subway outlet in the small town of Tejon, in California’s Central Valley, and again in the same state when we were eating halibut and chips on the deck of a seaside cafĂ© at Morro Bay (a charming spot, by the way).

People have asked me whether the RWC got any coverage in the US media. Fat chance. Rugby may be the fastest-growing sport in America (albeit off a very low base), but the media were interested only in American football, basketball and baseball.
Even universal sports such as golf and tennis rated barely a mention amid the swathes of coverage devoted to domestic sport, including college (i.e. university) football, which has a huge following. In most of the bars we drank in, massive TV screens were permanently tuned to sports channels showing the three popular codes.

(I love American bars all the same. I like the way people sit at the bar and strike up conversations with their neighbours. And American beer is superb. Thanks to the craft beer revolution, the days when the only options were ghastly mass-produced beers such as Miller and Budweiser – the beers they serve in Hell – are now but a grim memory.)
Americans are equally parochial when it comes to general news. Only the most sensational international events, such as the explosion that brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, elbowed their way into news bulletins. Mostly it was wall-to-wall coverage of the race for the presidency, with endless commentary and analysis of the main contenders.

I was reminded of a comment I heard years ago from a New Zealand educationist who had lived for several years in the US. Many Americans had no interest in the outside world, he said, because America was their world. 
This view is supported by passport statistics. As recently as 1989, only 3 per cent of Americans held passports, although the number has increased greatly over the past 20 years (it’s now closer to 40 per cent, compared to roughly 75 per cent for New Zealanders).

New Zealanders are certainly far more aware than Americans of the outside world. We have to be, because we’re at its mercy in a way bigger, more powerful countries are not.
Our isolation makes us compulsive travellers, hungry for experience of other places. Yet our concerns are often just as parochial as those of the Americans.

After four weeks away, my wife and I returned to a country that was still agonising over the same issue that dominated political debate when we left: the incarceration of people who are technically New Zealand citizens (although they regard themselves as Australians, in many cases having been brought up there) in what Peter Dunne rightly labelled concentration camps.
Australia’s treatment of New Zealand detainees is a disgrace, to be sure, and provides further proof that the supposed Anzac bond is a fallacy. It also demonstrates that by comparison with ours, Australia's penal and judicial processes are harsh and vindictive. They learned well from their former colonial masters.

But to put things in perspective, on a scale of one to 10 Australia's treatment of detainees is a two, or at most a three, compared with what the French were subjected to last weekend.

No comments: