Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Why social cohesion should be the key issue in 2023

I’ve thought for some time that social cohesion will be a key election issue – perhaps the key election issue – next year. If it isn’t, it should be.

This belief may simply reflect my own anxieties, but it gained some weight this week when Victoria University politics lecturer Bryce Edwards reported a survey that showed mounting concern among New Zealanders about social division.

Even during the 1981 Springbok tour, generally regarded as a high-water mark of polarisation in New Zealand, the country wasn’t split in the way it is now.

On that occasion there was a clean, sharp fault line over a single issue. After the Springboks went home, things slowly settled down. It even became permissible to enjoy watching rugby again. And of course the battle over apartheid eventually became a distant memory after the transfer of power from whites to blacks in South Africa.

But in 2022, there are multiple social cracks spreading in all directions, and no promise that the fractures will heal.

Where Bryce Edwards and the respondents to the survey he reports may be wrong, I suspect, is in identifying inequalities of wealth and housing as the key factors “tearing the country apart”, in Edwards’ words. I think there’s much more to it than that.

Certainly those glaring economic disparities exist and are growing more obvious. They are in large part a long-term consequence of the country’s economic restructuring during the 1980s.

I was one of the many who broadly supported those changes, some of which were essential and long overdue, but there’s no denying they fundamentally re-arranged New Zealand’s social furniture in ways that I don’t think were foreseen. What we thought of then as an unavoidable but temporary social dislocation ended up becoming structurally embedded.

New Zealand pre-Rogernomics could fairly claim to be an egalitarian society. No one could pretend that’s still true. Extremes of wealth and poverty become more marked with every year.

Almost as disturbingly, a status-conscious, consumerist culture celebrates conspicuous, ostentatious displays of wealth – in everything from clothes to food, cars and houses – in a way that was unthinkable 50 years ago. I find it hard to reconcile this new New Zealand with the country I grew up in.

But economic inequality is only one contributor to the worrying decline in social cohesion that Edwards wrote about this week. At least equally insidious, although far harder to measure, is the pernicious effect of identity politics.

This encourages us to think of ourselves not as a community with shared interests, values and aspirations but as a collection of minority groups with disparate and often conflicting goals.

Identity politics promotes a neo-Marxist view of society as inherently divided between the privileged – for which read white and male – and a plethora of aggrieved groups struggling against oppression and disadvantage. These include women (even though they make up half of Parliament and occupy the country’s three most powerful positions), Maori, immigrant communities, religious minorities, people with disabilities or illnesses (including some that are avoidable, such as obesity) and those asserting non-mainstream sexual identities.  

We are told these perceived disadvantages are the result of structural imbalances of power that can be remedied only by a radical reconstruction of society. It’s effectively a zero-sum game in which power must be transferred from those who are perceived as having it to those who feel excluded. This creates conditions in which society runs the risk of going to war with itself.

Even traditional liberal democratic values that most of us thought were unassailable are under attack. These include freedom of speech, which the proponents of identity politics condemn as a tool of oppression and an instrument of hate against vulnerable minorities, and the principle that no group of citizens should enjoy greater rights than any other.

These trends have been evident for years but have greatly accelerated under the Labour Party government, the more so since Labour was given power to govern alone in 2020. The government itself is a symbol of the ascendancy of identity politics, with a powerful Maori caucus that functions as a virtual government within a government.  

Identity politics originated in the Marxist social science faculties of universities but has penetrated all corners of the community. No sector is immune to its reach.

Its spread has been greatly assisted – albeit accidentally – by events such as the Christchurch mosque atrocities, which activists unashamedly exploited as an opportunity to promote the canard that New Zealand is a haven for hateful white supremacists, and the Covid-19 pandemic. The latter event, although initially conducive to a message of national unity, exposed a yawning divide between those in authority and those whom the political establishment viewed, to use Hillary Clinton’s infamous term, as deplorables.

A striking feature of many of the loudest voices promoting identity politics and rebuking New Zealanders for their supposed failings is that their accents identify them as arrivals from other countries. For saying this I will be labelled as a xenophobe, but I welcome the fact that New Zealand is now home to multiple ethnicities. Multiculturalism has greatly enriched and enlivened our society.

What I resent is the disproportionate influence wielded in New Zealand affairs by vociferous, highly assertive relative newcomers – in academia, the bureaucracy and politics – who see New Zealand as a perfect ideological blank space on which they can leave their imprint. I suspect they can’t believe their luck in stumbling on a country with a population that’s either too passive, too naive or simply too distracted by other things – jobs, mortgages, sport, bringing up kids – to realise their country is being messed with. We have always been suckers for articulate, confident voices from overseas; it’s part of our national inferiority complex.

The news media’s role in all this upheaval should not be underestimated. Social division has been promoted and magnified, deliberately or otherwise, by media outlets that relentlessly focus on issues that highlight perceived differences and supposed inequities.

The mainstream news media formerly served as an important agent of social cohesion by providing a public space in which issues could be civilly explored and debated. They have largely abandoned that role in favour of one where they constantly promote ideological agendas and hector readers, viewers and listeners with their own radical, unmandated vision of what New Zealand should be like.

In the process they have alienated much of their core audience, betrayed their trust and driven them to online channels that serve only to accentuate, and in some cases exploit, the deepening stress fractures in New Zealand society.

The result is that what was previously a unified and, by world standards, generally contented country is now a sour, rancorous babel of competing voices. Distrust, fear, resentment and sullen anger have displaced the broad consensus that sustained New Zealand for decades regardless of which political party was in power. Where all this could lead is impossible to say and frightening to contemplate.




R Singers said...

You do Marx a disservice. He was fundamentally interested in economic issues. There is nothing Marist or Neo-Marxist about identarian politics. It doesn't consider the economy or how people will earn a livelihood. It assumes that they can consume endlessly.

Trev1 said...

An excellent commentary. This is a society in deep trouble with declining literacy and numeracy alongside rampant youth crime that will condemn it to Third World status in 20 years or less. The Royal Commission into the Christchurch shootings recommended banning free speech to enhance social cohesion - go figure. Now we have a government energetically promoting racial separatism and race-based privilege. The Three/ Five Waters bill will endow one ethnic group with unbounded control of all water in New Zealand. The implications of that are beyond enormous.

Identity politics are a curse, as you say - a zero sum game, but they dominate in today's New Zealand. The most nakedly divisive act of this government however has to have been the vaccine mandates (disclaimer, I am fully vaxxed). Ardern knew she was "creating two classes of people, yep yep", causing many to lose their jobs, forced to live as pariahs for refusing to take a "vaccine" that did not stop transmission of the virus. The media's targeting and smearing of "anti-vaxxers" at the government's behest has been utterly disgusting and beyond redemption.

We have been led up a blind alley where there is no hope and no future. We clearly need a change of government if we are to begin rebuilding after all the damage that has been done. Our emphasis must be on equipping future generations with the skills to thrive in a continually changing world. Ideology must be pushed aside. I look at Singapore and I wonder how we fell so far behind, so rapidly? We need competent leadership whose first priority is the interests of New Zealanders, not globalist institutions or fads. Perhaps there are politicians out there who possess these abilities; I certainly hope so or we are lost.

Gordon Brown said...

Excellent summary.

I enjoy Bryce Edwards, but he remains a dedicated Leftist who is simply annoyed materialist concerns have been eclipsed by non-material, virtue signalling on the Left. Like most on the Left, he refuses to see it is Leftist theories, and Leftist university administrators and academics, who birthed and stood by as identity politics infected our institutions. Same goes for Martyn Bradbury.

I also think Karl underestimates the influence of local actors. Critical Race Theory - a nonsense US academic theory - has been adopted en masse by local Maori activists (and their "Pakeha allies") as a tool to reek revenge and division.

What NZ needs is a co-ordinated, cultural institutional response to attack the rubbish at the bottom of the ideas and praxis of identity politics. The US has FAIR and individuals like Matt Walsh and Christopher Rufo leading the fight back. NZ has the Free Speech Union and Act - both useful but hopelessly insufficient.

Such an institution could start by starkly highlighting how America-imported ideas are radically making over institutions in damaging ways. Instead, the only narrative is that overseas "Far Right" are dividing NZ through misinformation peddling.

It is a national gaslighting suffered upon the passivity of New Zealanders. Whilst not naturally Right-Wing or conservative, I've come to realise this thought-virus of identity politics and critical justice theories won't be defeated by appeals to the centre and compromise. National (under Luxon) simply don't have the committment or inclination to fight this and if you think a NAT/ACT coalition will be much better, you are dreaming.

We have to push back hard and uncompromising - I dont mean an appeal to Trump/Orban nationalism - but more like De Santis. Firm, committed, uncompromising defence of Western values and race equality (not equity). I never wanted this cultural war (I don't even see it as a war - its the far-Left who instigated a crazy attack we are simply responding to) but we won't win anything by quietly complaining that it's just not cricket, wot.

R Singers said...

To Trev1's point, if Ardern was any kind of Marxist she would have recognised what happened outside her office window was a "class struggle". It was deeply disturbing to see those that operate under the Labour brand refer to the proletariat as filth.

Gary Peters said...

Any pushback will be monitored and crushed by the media.

Any real change in attitude will need to come from an educated and neutral source allowing like minds to get support from each other. That used to be the media, now it will be social media and independent blogs.

Brendan McNeill said...


You have correctly identified the existential angst many New Zealanders are experiencing in these times. Identity politics is a symptom, as is critical race theory, neo-marxism and the like.

What we have lost is the foundational meta-narrative that once bound us together as a nation regardless of ethnicity. We are no longer simply a ‘post Christian’ nation, but in the process we have become a post liberal nation. We imagined incorrectly, that we could abandon the animating faith of Western civilisation and still retain our social cohesion, our generous assumptions, and our liberal democracy. We ceased to value the transcendent, and failed to understand the cultural pre-requisites for the liberties we took for granted.

It’s not that we lived in a past ‘golden age’ there were problems of course. I’m delighted that my daughters and granddaughters have opportunities that were denied women in previous generations, but in the space of 60 years we have moved from a relational society to one animated by materialistic scientism. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the ‘covid crisis’ where our formerly expressed human rights were subordinated by the opinions of scientific and medical ‘experts’ and given expression by Government fiat.

There is no political answer to this problem.

It turns out that faith, individual virtue and functional families provide the foundation upon which Western civil society is built and maintained. It’s out of that environment we get statesmen and women rather than politicians. Nation builders rather than consumers.

We are not without hope, but we need to engage in some honest soul searching if we are to turn around our current cultural trajectory.

JeffW said...

Indeed, the issue of our times. Our society needs a complete overhaul. If this cannot be achieved, Australia is our only hope. Glad my kids are overseas. JeffW

Anonymous said...

Beautifully said, totally accurate.

Madame Blavatsky said...

"At least equally insidious, although far harder to measure, is the pernicious effect of identity politics.This encourages us to think of ourselves not as a community with shared interests, values and aspirations but as a collection of minority groups with disparate and often conflicting goals."

"I welcome the fact that New Zealand is now home to multiple ethnicities. Multiculturalism has greatly enriched and enlivened our society."

These statements seem to fundamentally conflict with one another. The first is an accurate description of the effects of identity politics, whereas the second seems to attempt to negate the first admission by displaying progressive credentials and ideological acquiescence lest the mob come after you for crimes against progressive dogma. What is the evidence that we have been "enriched" or "enlivened" by demographic change over the last 20 years in particular? Sure, we can get a kebab or a curry much more easily, but I don't see what other benefits have accrued to "native" New Zealanders through the introduction of miscellaneous third world cultures. New Zealand became an advanced and prosperous nation in only about 150 years with practically no significant ethnic or racial "diversity."

Of course, multiculturalism and the attendant fundamental demographic changes, and changes to the social fabric that come with it, are certainly not the only problem leading us towards the impending and accelerating dissolution of a once coherent and functional society, but it is a very large aspect of it. The nation is its people, so the state of the nation will be determined by the people in it. Any intelligent person with enough foresight and knowledge of human nature is fully justified in holding what are valid concerns about the outcome.

While opponents of the multicultural project are painted as being "racist bigots" the empirical evidence supports concerns over multiculturalism, which, by, definition, involves the cleaving of society into a disunited mishmash of disparate groups with competing interests. "Multiculturalism" entails coming to the country and maintaining and sustaining one's native cultural practices, with no requirement at all to assimilate to the host culture (no doubt such an expectation would be dismissed as "racist). If I go to live in Japan, I would fully expect that the Japanese would anticipate that I would conform to Japanese culture, not try to impose my own or to maintain any cultural practices that may clash with the local culture.

Anyone who knows history, or who is aware of the social decline and ethnic tensions that is occurring now and has already occurred in both Europe and North America as a result of unasked for and largely unwanted forced cohabitation, knows that multiculturalism has always been and will always be a disaster wherever it manifests, and the more so the greater the extent of incompatible admixture. In a largely homogenous culture, cultural or ethnic clashes are absent, because the differences that inevitably lead to conflict are absent.

Tinman said...

Karl, I agree with your point and conclusion but until honesty about where this descent began is accepted nothing can or will be done to repair it.

The starting point was, as you point out, in 1981 but not as you describe it.

In 1981 there was an internal struggle about how New Zealand could influence apartheid.

The majority of adults, as proved in the later election, held that showing South Africa a better way would be more effective than isolating the country (in sport, commerce with SA remained free and easy).

A minority, including most of the media, disagreed but instead of arguing their point decided en-masse to lie about the situation by describing the majority as pro-apartheid.

The lies continued and the media became emboldened, ensuring that every report about 1981, most created well after the event, was completely one-sided and dishonest.

Schoolteachers, never the thinking types and almost always socialist leaning, continued the lies by passing them on to the next generation.

Over the years since the media have expanded their dishonest attempts to control the narrative until we get to where we are now.

I doubt there is a way out of this mess but a good start would be for recently enlightened members of the media to start using their influence to ensure the truth is regularly put to the people of New Zealand.

Starting, of course, with the truth of 1981.

Phil Blackwell

Michael S said...

Hi Karl,
Your article resonates completely. Sadly this situation in Australia (where I live) is exactly the same. Identity politics drives a perpetual division into society. Australia is fracturing just like NZ, UK, USA, Canada. Society was once tolerant, cohesive, beautiful and relaxed. You could agree to disagree. Nobody even questioned "freedom of speech" because it is/was a birthright. Sadly, I have friends who are totally oblivious to what is happening to broader society. A few of my friends embrace this toxic identity politics. So many people love the victimhood mentality, the grievance culture. They are even ignorant of the 'cancel culture' that affects anyone with a traditional worldview. This cannot end well - for NZ, Australia, UK, USA, Canada - or western Europe. Our tolerant societies are too quick to lay blame at ourselves. Unfortunately too many citizens fail to APPRECIATE the BLESSINGS they have inherited from previous generations. Citizens ignore the immortal words of Martin Luther King - "not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character". I am white. My ancestors lost everything in World War 2. Their village in Europe was razed to the ground - wiped off the map. The fled for their lives and had to start all over again in a new country. Yes, white people have also been on the receiving end of racism and hatred. We shouldn't be looking for historical grievances, rather, appreciate the beautiful countries that we live in. Modern generations have little perspective.

Hiko said...

Wow Karl You have nailed it with this posting I could not agree more and have nothing to add to this gem

Karl du Fresne said...

Madame Blavatsky (whoever you are),

You don’t deserve to have your comment published, given that you challenge me directly without having either the courtesy or the courage to identify yourself. However I’m running it because I want to clarify a couple of points.

First, there is no contradiction between the two statements you cite. It is perfectly possible to have a settled multicultural society free of the curse of identity politics. The perfect example is the US, which became the dynamic nation it is by opening its doors to virtually all comers. No “disunited mishmash” there, to use your term. The same is true, though to a lesser extent, of Australia (I say to a lesser extent because for decades, that country’s governments observed a White Australia policy).

Most immigrants of whatever ethnic origin have demonstrated over time that they are happy to respect the values, traditions and institutions of their host societies. Indeed most are grateful to have escaped poverty, corruption, tyranny and lack of opportunity in the countries they left behind. It’s only in recent years that multiculturalism has been given a bad name by small, activist cliques that arouse resentment by seeking to exploit their minority status for political advantage.

Second, your comments suggest that you yearn for a pure, uncontaminated Anglo-Saxon society – a comforting haven for people your own language and colour. Perhaps that’s why you hide behind a pseudonym.

Apart from anything else, there’s a moral dimension to multiculturalism. If we’re fortunate enough to live in a stable, prosperous country that has room for more people (and which many economists say can only benefit from the skills and energy of new arrivals from other societies), why would we want to shut the doors to newcomers? Why shouldn’t we share our blessings rather than pull up the drawbridge? The key to successful immigration is in managing it carefully so that social equilibrium is maintained.

Finally, you’ve got a hell of a nerve implying that I’m trying to curry favour by displaying “progressive credentials” lest the mob come after me. That’s rich coming from someone who’s too scared to put his name to his opinions. If I was worried about the mob coming after me, I wouldn’t write this blog.

Now bugger off. Consider yourself cancelled until you’ve mustered the guts to identify yourself.

Gary Peters said...

Karl, I went overseas in 1979 and returned around 1981. The change in New Zealand over those 2 years was dramatic and in my opinion it was driven to a large degree by immigration and what an improvement. Coming from a very cosmopolitan London I welcomed those changes and I still do.

I have had many dealings with people of all races, here and overseas plus many ethnic groups and out of all of those it is the local group here in New Zealand that has provided the most challenges. Even then it is a tiny, repeat tiny minority that are creating that disharmony ably encouraged by our current government and aprt from a few gaining a few extra bucks I cannot see the reason for destabilising what was once an awesome country to be from.

What a dull unimaginative world it would be if we were all the same.

Tom Hunter said...

Posted a link and further (grim) thoughts at No Minister, Hoping for social cohesion