Friday, November 18, 2016

New Zealand: a bolthole for disillusioned liberals?

(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.  


Barry said...

Another thing we NZers see about NZ is it is the most racist country in the world - for example the separate, race-based, "Maori" electoral roll. That's official, government, separatist racism.

John said...

Just because Dawkins says people should consider moving to New Zealand if they don't like the new political environment in UK/USA, doesn't mean he's questioning the validity of the election result.

Karl du Fresne said...

My point is that he's attacking people ("anti-intellectual voters") for having the audacity to support someone he doesn't approve of. He's a bigot.

John said...

And Trump? Would you concede he is too?

Karl du Fresne said...

Judged by his campaign, yes.

Max Ritchie said...

Judge Ginsburg welcome? Crikey, she's 83 - or will she bring her health insurance? But on the substance of your article, of course you are right: the arrogance of these people is staggering. And the dishonesty. For example Lt Gen Flynn is painted as some of wild-eyed fascist when he's actually a hard-working, dedicated, educated intelligence professional. Ditto Gen Mattis ("The Mad Monk"), a possible Def Sec, who is a deeply intellectual scholar, as well as a Marine. As a "grunt" I can testify that while not all Marines are intellectuals, lots of them are (well, some). But then there are one or two journalists who don't fit that description either.

Gordon Anderson said...

Not really "ordinary people exercising their right to choose who will govern them." Personally I would be somewhat annoyed if my government got elected by a minority but gained office due to a dubious electoral system. Indeed I used to be annoyed here when Labour lost (twice I think) in spite of having a majority of the popular vote.
Can't stand Key but at least he and his hanger-on parties got a genuine majority. Even Trump might be considered to have a 'democratic majority' if you compare it to the Tories in the UK who got a percentage somewhere in the mid thirties.
Of course all the stuff about 'ordinary people' coming out of somewhere to change the world is garbage as the Rebublican vote barely changed and Clinton had a clear popular majority - any world-changing Trump does will be because a large number of people didn't get off their butts for whatever reasons.

paul scott said...

Dawkins gives a clear indication of Oxford type elitism in his nearly unreadable autobiography " An appetite for wonder "
After Brexit he famously announced that the result was unsatisfactory and that the referendum should be run again.. He even suggested best out of three.
His recent stroke had not dome much for his brain.

He is an elitist of the worst sort, arrogant, pompous and precious. To hear him in a lecture hall was a little frightening, He is aggressively anti Christian and hysterically atheist.
Am not a Christian, but so far so bad.

We don't need him, the fascist progressives, or any of the fruitcake Californian pyjama night candle vigil, the ‘ we hate not our President Trumps ‘, in New Zealand.
Mr. Karl may be interested that in a foreign Country for most of the year I had a total MSM news black out.
I could not get English newspapers or understand the TV.
It was a blessing.
If I transgress against Society here, a true punishment would be having to listen to Radio Prague New Zealand.
Please Judge no, put me in irons and out to the work camps, but not Radio NZ.

New Zealand will surely follow to some extent what has happened in Britain, Australia, and U.S.A.
There is a growing sense of Nationhood which the progressive corporate politic [ Swamp ] does not approve of.
Here as in Australia the rebellion will be against a pansy liberal progressive Government in drag as centre right.
We are going to have a selective and cautious policy to Immigration whether the Nanny Government likes it or not.
And we are going to have our democracy back from a trader who deals out the back with the sick RMA, Council elections and other Maori privileges.
The 2017 election will see Immigration as the spearhead, and democracy as the iron fist.