Thursday, June 4, 2009

New Zealand and the US: Clearing Up Some Misperceptions

Two people who know me well sent me a story from yesterday's Washington Times, entitled New Zealand Rated Most Peaceful, US 83.

I hold dual citizenship. I lived in New Zealand for 11 years during the 70s and 80s. My daughter calls it her home. Naturally, I was interested in reading further:

"Americans pining for a peaceful existence might consider moving to New Zealand, the most peaceful nation on Earth, according to the 2009 Global Peace Index released Tuesday by an Australian-based research group that counts former President Jimmy Carter, Ted Turner and the Dalai Lama among its endorsers."

The article went on to say that the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace rated the relative tranquility of 144 nations according to 23 indicators, including gun sales, the number of homicides, the size of the military, the potential for terrorism and the number of people in jail.

I don't take much stock in this type of information, and, frankly, New Zealand's number one ranking surprised me. If you want to see a New Zealand the tourists don't see, rent one of my favorite (and most disturbing) movies of all time, "Once Were Warriors." (Check out the YouTube highlight above.)

New Zealand has a reputation as a Pacific Shangra-la existing in splendid isolation. The impression is some sort of National Park Middle Earth (I wonder where that came from?) populated by smiling white people, plus 60 gazillion sheep (is that why they're so f-ing happy?).

Actually, last time I checked, New Zealand had one of the highest rates of depression and teen suicide in the world. But the tourist industry there creates an entirely different impression. Indeed, "Once Were Warriors" played brilliantly on this. In the opening shot we see a pastoral mountain scene. Then the camera pulls back to reveal the image as an illusion: We are really looking at a billboard situated in an ethnic urban slum.

The Washington Times piece raised a very interesting animated discussion on what an ideal country should be. Some of the comments were extremely intelligent and perceptive, but a lot of it was embarrassingly stupid and jingoistic. Some examples of the latter:

"When payment comes due it is Americans who have to shed blood to protect those knuckle headed morons who think everyone in the world wants to sit in a circle with them singing campfire songs. How long would New Zealand last without the nations such as US, Britain, Australia, Japan, Canada, that rally to the 'peaceful' nation's defense?"

"So two of the indicators are gun sales & size of the military? If that's the case, then I'm proud the USA comes in at #83. I don't want to be at the top of a list like that."

"Face it folks....the Reason New Zealand & those other countries are ranked so high is the clear & obvious LACK of mexicans & blacks...sorry but sometimes the truth hurts, but somebody has got to acknowledge it."

Okay, time for the facts:

New Zealanders fought in World War I three years before the US entered that conflict. They and the Australians were used as cannon fodder and suffered more casualties per population than the other allied nations. (Check out my ANZAC Day blog piece.) New Zealanders fought in World War II two years before Pearl Harbor, in all theaters but the Russian front. Again, their sacrifice was way out of proportion to their population. New Zealanders also served with distinction in Korea and Vietnam, and currently the country has elite forces serving in Afghanistan.

Some 15 percent of the New Zealanders are indigenous Maori and 7 percent Pacific Islanders, plus a fair percentage of Asians and recent Europeans. These cultures are responsible for a vibrant and dynamic melting pot society that is the pride of nations like the US. But the downside is the type of social tensions well-known in the US.

One major difference between New Zealand and the US, as I see it, is that in New Zealand religious and "patriot" extremists are confined to the lunatic fringe. Similarly, special interests have a much more difficult time writing social, economic, and health policy. Not surprisingly, the public discourse there is far more to my liking.

The other major difference is that because New Zealand is so small (with a population of 4.3 million) it has no margin of error should things go wrong. Think Iceland. The country cannot afford to ignore obvious signals and it doesn't. The US, until recently, could and did. This creates the irony of isolated New Zealand being outward-looking and highly adaptive. The US is still learning.

Of course, as has always been the case, if the US sneezes, New Zealand (and the rest of the world) catches a cold. These days, we are all holding our breath.

Both the US and New Zealand were founded on and continue to operate on ideals that are the envy of the rest of the world. I am proud to hold citizenship in both. The US is a great country, but not for the reasons the right wing fringe here would have you believe. New Zealand is one of the best spots on earth, but not for the reasons its tourist industry would have you believe.

The bottom line is that any place that calls itself a country has to figure out what kind of society it wants to be and what kind of world it wants to live in. We don't always get the answer right, but the important thing is we are asking the right questions. God bless America, God defend New Zealand.


Evan said...

I think this survey must have got dodgy stats or didn't measure the right things. My NZ friends (I'm an Australian) don't speak of it as particularly peaceful. This doesn't mean that it isn't a beautiful place to be of course.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Evan, this previous blog post cites my reasons for my low opinion of economists:

Even if they had the right stats they would get it wrong. Crunching numbers works for measurable outcomes like profit and loss or patients who get well. "Peaceful" is way too subjective and airy-fairy.

There is much to admire about NZ. It was a great place for my daughter to grow up in, and it will be a great place for my future grandchild to grow up in. That's good enough for me.

PS: I lived in OZ for five years. Bonza crackah bewdy, mate. :)