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Stateside: So Last Century

Stateside with Rosalea Barker

So Last Century

You might say it’s all very well for me to sit here thousands of miles away and pontificate on the value of Waitangi Day, but it is such a vital part of my identity that when people ask me about the country of my birth, the Treaty of Waitangi is the first thing I tell them about.

Thereafter, I stumble. Why is it that Maori is an official language of Aotearoa/New Zealand but, despite the best efforts of all concerned, it is spoken by so few? It’s because people see it as having no weight, worth or influence, and when somebody asserts that it does – by saying only Maori-speaking media should be allowed on a marae, for instance – it challenges the idea that the language’s only value is as raw material for the tourist industry.

Identity – personal and cultural – is so bound up with feelings of worth that it is intrinsically a highly charged issue. While mulling over the news from the past couple of days, I got to thinking that future histories of the twentieth century will call it the Cipher Age. Not because of the mathematical or code-related meaning of the word, but because of its other meaning related to the status of people.

Here in the States, the meaning of “cipher” in that context is “one that has no weight, worth or influence” and the synonym is “nonentity”. A quick example of the century’s downward trajectory from identity to nonentity is telecommunications. When the telephone was first in use, people shared lines and switchboard operators knew them by name. Just you try and even get to speak to a live person if you use the telephone today to, say, report a fault on your line.

I particularly like that Merriam-Webster dictionary definition because it doesn’t include the word “value”. You are valuable to the phone company because you’re the raw material from which they fashion profits. But you’re valuable only as a nonentity. They don’t want to pay someone to listen to your concerns, which arise from your individual circumstances, your identity.

No. You might have a impersonal monetary value, but you have no personal weight, worth or influence. The whole thrust of the twentieth century was the perfecting of this cipher effect. If you doubt me, just consider that the most profitable shows on television are those that give identity to those who are seeking to rise above nonentity: reality TV, “Idol”, talk shows where “real people” talk about their problems, court TV.

It’s all too easy to take advantage of the cipher effect by appealing to some group of people who feel they’ve been hard done by and are not getting their fair share, or that others are getting more than their fair share. Political operatives on all sides of any question do that all the time, and have no interest whatsoever in ever letting people think that they DO have their fair share, any more than advertisers have any interest whatsoever in ever letting people think that they want for nothing.

The Treaty has two legs, and it exercises them. That’s all.


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