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Speech Simon Upton - National Identity

Rt Hon Simon Upton
Massey University

Albany Campus Graduation Ceremony

2.30pm, 12 May 2000

I would like to make a few observations about what it is that gives rise to a sense of national identity - and whether there are things in our past that are likely to provide a constant source of renewal and common cause.

Nations can come into being as a result of war, treaty-making, settlement, colonisation, or any number of lesser political acts. The circumstances are not always edifying. There are to this day scores of political boundaries that reflect the accidental drawing of lines by bureaucrats who were probably thinking about lunch or their next promotion at the time the fate of thousands or even millions of souls was being determined..

But it seems that nations that have the ability to re-create themselves and project their culture have often faced a gut-wrenching and traumatic ordeal in which the very survival of their people is at stake. It may be a period of civil war, it may be an invasion. It is often associated with an event that, in retrospect, is seen as an incandescent moment of nation building.

If we were to go out as cultural geologists in search of the iridium-impregnated signs of the impact crater, we would be looking for constitutional activism, a flowering of literary and artistic creativity and possibly a pronounced demographic pulse.

Let me illustrate with a few well known examples. To go right back to the beginnings of our political civilisation, look at Fifth Century Athens. The repulse of the Persian invasion in 479 BC is followed by a miraculous explosion of mind and identity. We have Aeschylus a veteran of that war wilfully entwining in the Oresteia Greek myth with Athenian destiny. It is, if you like, the Ring Cycle of the Age by the Wagner of Attic drama. He is followed by a galaxy of dramatists, poets, builders and sculptors. There is radical constitutional development - Athenian democracy, the election of judges, officials and generals. Payment for jury service - all manner of experiments in public life. The Delian League is formed - the NATO of the Aegean Sea. Trade soars.

Take England in the late sixteenth century. Following almost a century of civil war in the fifteenth century, and the best part of half a century wrestling with the issue of religious self determination, it falls to Elizabethan England to settle the religious and political contours of the nation. The repulse of the Armada in 1588 was just one event in a long, drawn-out engagement with Spain. But its symbolic significance is huge and in its wake comes new constitutional pressure in Parliament and the Courts, the settlements in America, and in literature Spenser, Shakespeare and a host of others.

Take Russia in 1812. The repulse of Napoleon is a searing national event. The burning of a great capital in Moscow has no precedent in European warfare. Borodino is an unbelievable field of slaughter with 74,000 killed. In its wake there is a ferment of (frequently repressed) political and intellectual radicalism, and a re-connection with the vernacular tongue and religion. The events are celebrated at a cosmic level a generation later by Tolstoy in War and Peace. It is a work that could only have been written by the son of a country that had stood on the brink (as she was to do again at Stalingrad in 1941). America looks back to two great conflicts that defined its national identity. First the War of Independence - a hard won affair at a time when the population of the 13 colonies was no larger than New Zealand's today. There follows the astonishing earnestness and civic-mindedness that accompanies the building of a new constitutionalism; there is Jefferson, then enlightened polymath of the era; there is the huge population explosion into the interior and westwards. Most crucially there is the creation of a wholly new sense of economic individualism. And then, in the 1860s the Civil War and the ending of slavery. Even today Americans find it hard to come to terms with the fact that at Gettysburg they killed as many of each other in three days as they lost in the entire Vietnam conflict.

And lest this sound like a catalogue of imperial powers, think of Ireland. The failed coup d'etat of 1916 is the source of modern Irish consciousness leading as it did to partition, independence and neutrality. And in W B Yeats poem Easter 1916 there is once again the metamorphosis of political anguish into literary immortality. The Celtic Twilight became a Gaelic Dawn.

What has all this to do with New Zealand's nascent sense of national identity? Do we ferret around in the history books looking for that awe-full moment of realisation in which our national consciousness is rooted? Or do we, at the other extreme, pronounce ourselves world citizens in a globalising community in which boundaries are increasingly irrelevant?

It is far too early to come to the latter conclusion - particularly for the people of a distant, island nation. There is a geographical inevitability about the separateness of this nation however prosaic that observation may be. But we come on the scene too lately and too pragmatically to define ourselves in the more traditional way?

It depends, I suppose, on your cultural roots. Many European New Zealanders would be inclined to nominate Gallipoli as the place and moment of nation building. And we have heard much lately about the Anzac spirit and the resonance it still carries 85 years on. There is no question that Gallipoli played a crucial part in attenuating the imperial umbilical cord that had up until then attached us firmly to Britain. But it is questionable whether it was an event in which our national destiny was in the balance. It was an imperial intervention in a European civil war on the other side of the world.

In the second world war our sovereign independence was at risk. But we were not directly involved in the great naval engagement in the Coral Sea that effectively stopped the Japanese advance. Indeed, the proximity of that event and our total reliance on America for deliverance shaped a security dependency on her that lasted 40 years.

In truth, there is no incandescent moment of challenge and irrevocable commitment on the part of Pakeha New Zealand. The modern state reflects a gradual, often reluctant, disentangling (and sometimes enforced estrangement) from our colonial parent.

How different things are for Maori. In the short space of a few decades in the nineteenth century, the Maori tribes went from being in undisputed possession of a seemingly separate universe to a colonised and trampled minority alienated from much of their land, reduced in numbers by disease and marginalized by a colonising people. The settlers laid waste much of the physical and visual landscape and introduced a potent blend of Christianity and Science that destroyed the spiritual cosmos of Aotearoa. The Maori renaissance we witness today is a testament to the resilience of a people who went to the edge of the abyss before coming back

But even then, I wonder, can these moments of moral grandeur for Maori be the indelible material with which national epics are made? Quite apart from the fact that they were not moments of national solidarity, so much of the reassertion of Maori rights has been fought out in judicial and legislative institutions that started as instruments of the colonial settlers but evolved a complicity with the colonised.

So is there a point in our short joint histories that is the ineradicable touchstone of national identity? There will be those who are tempted to nominate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. It certainly ushered in an era of relative stability after the musket wars and provided the legal pretext for an increasing wave of British settlers. But there was no incandescent moment of newly realised identity, no uniquely indigenous response in arts and letters, no constitutional activism that bound together two peoples in a new embrace.

Indeed, the opposite happened as the settler majority resorted to war and legal pre-emption to secure its ascendancy. In a country where it is still possible for people to claim - as graffiti declarations still do from many walls around the country - that "the Treaty is a fraud", it is unlikely that the Treaty will be the emotional locus of nationhood.

Does this mean, then, that we are without a galvanising experience in which our national life and identity has been forged? If we look for the events that have traditionally provided these sorts of reference points, I think we will look in vain. The two peoples that set about the enterprise we call New Zealand today did so as part of a global process of colonisation and we are still working our way out of that. It is a process of muddling through and getting on with life while leaving much that is unresolved.

I don't say that critically - if there is no easily available solution, or the time is not right, it may be better not to attempt to engineer artificially a new modus vivendi. That which is unresolved remains open to future resolution.

We may hope that in our rapidly globalising and interdependent world, the idea of winning one's identity in the midst of horrific conflict is a thing of the past (although that would be a complacent conclusion looking at the instability of the world since 1989). But it is entirely possible that the life and death issues of the next century which are sufficiently local to galvanise an entire people may be a little different and I'm thinking of the risk of ecological catastrophe and irreversible change in the world as we've known it.

This is not the time to engage in another bout of millennial doomcasting (although climatic change, ozone depletion, the collapse of ocean fish stocks and plenty of other unintended consequences of modernity should give us cause reflect). But the physical consequences of our occupancy of these islands does provide New Zealanders with a common cause that is unique and could, in my view, come to be seen as the most potent point of common identity between Maori and European.

Very simply, these were the last islands of any size on the planet to be reached by human beings. We are, in geological and anthropological terms, both extremely late arrivals. Before Polynesians arrived here there were only birds living in the vestigial temperate forests of Gondwanaland. Maori date their arrival through oral history. Contemporary science fixes the clock through dating the pulse of extinctions that accompanied their arrival.

Unlike almost anywhere else on earth ours is a land, and a landscape, that has not co-evolved with humans. Go to Africa, South Asia, China or the Mediterranean and you will see landscapes in which nothing primordial has survived. The imprint of humanity is inescapable. Whereas here, in New Zealand, we are literally surrounded by the vestiges of Eden.

Last spring I walked onto the beach at Papatowai in the Catlins on New Zealand's most southern and easterly coast and contemplated just such a remnant. Across the estuary from where I stood a regenerating rimu forest, some 150 years old, held the foreshore . Rising above it were a few gnarled old podocarps - sentinels of an earlier era. From the soft alluvial river bank opposite, a constant stream of moa bones is exposed by estuarine erosion. This was one of the earliest sites of human landfall in the South Island.

On my side of the river, the bush was older, less disturbed. Pushing just a few metres into the undergrowth we came immediately upon three ancient trees, a rimu, a matai and a totara -the last, a simply massive specimen a thousand years old or more my guide suggested. It was a transcendental moment standing face to face with a living object that had stood guard on this site long before the first waka appeared. And so it is in many fragmentary corners of New Zealand. There are probably trees still living that moa grazed before their rapid despatch at the hands of humans.

And so it has been ever since. We have, in 700 - 800 short years, completely 'terraformed' this corner of our planet. A youthful (and unstable) geological landscape and an ancient biota had somehow remained intact but vulnerable. The land had no defences save isolation. First Maori, then European invaders wreaked havoc. We live amidst the ruins. It is true to say here - in a way that cannot be said anywhere else - that, in one sense, humans do not belong here. We are interlopers from another geological age and we have set in train a pattern of extinctions and ecological upheaval that cannot be reversed.

Neither Maori nor European settlers knew how to live with the strange land they had encountered. The technologies of exploitation they deployed were very different; the scale of their ecological footprints very different. But in the innocence - and the ignorance - of their respective encounters, some 500-600 years apart, they came face to face with something unique that continues to trouble us all to this day.

Could it be that our shared national identity might, for the first time in history, be rooted in a crusade to save from annihilation, not a people or a culture, but a fragment of the biosphere. The land we live in gnaws away at us, as we gnaw away at it. I know of no New Zealanders who are indifferent about the landscapes, the seascapes and skyscapes that dominate our lives.

The tenacity and resourcefulness with which we wrestle with the forces we have unleashed, could determine our national identity. If we let the slide continue we remain (from a geological standpoint) just another colony of itinerant human grazers whose appetites and motivations have - since the last Ice Age - caused such profound change in planetary rhythms. But if we turn the tide, we could forge an identity built on a coming to terms with our land that would be an act of human imagination without precedent.

This is a far cry from the imperatives that have driven many of you to this point in your lives. But as you scatter into the global marketplace you might care to mull over why it is that you keep insisting that you're a New Zealander - and what you mean by that.


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