The Atlantic on New Zealand

An article in The Atlantic Magazine talks about why NZ is better than the US:

THE PULITZER PRIZE–WINNING scholar David Hackett Fischer—whose books include Historians’ Fallacies and one of the most creative and innovative books on American history in the past quarter century, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America—declares that his new work is the first historical examination of the idea of fairness, and of its social and political ramifications. I haven’t been able to pin that down. Nevertheless, this comparison of the United States with is a pioneering, illuminating, and at times startling book, which you’d think those given to diagnosing and expatiating about the nature and future direction of American society would jump to read. But because it’s lengthy (656 pages) and complex, and delves into such recondite matters as settlement patterns in colonial America, the history of New Zealand’s feminist movements, and the evolution of the Lib-Lab coalition, this book won’t be column fodder for the punditocracy.

Ambitious and observant, widely (if at times sloppily) researched, Fairness and Freedom is a work of frequently profound historical and social analysis. Its purpose is neither programmatic nor polemical. Still, its main value for American readers may be its unintentional skewering of our self-congratulatory tendencies. Our democratic values, rule of law, and tolerance are a model to the world—or so Democratic and Republican politicians’ rhetoric and even our political scientists’ pronouncements would have it. But those who speak today of America as “the last best hope of Earth” or as “the indispensable nation” seem narcissistically unaware that Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand developed and fought for those same civic virtues independently of, and in some ways in opposition to, America.

New Zealand—where during the Second World War the Austrian emigré Karl Popper wrote his enormously influential The Open Society and Its Enemies, an excoriation of historicist totalitarianism and a defense of liberal democracy—is a particularly successful polity and society. In some ways its achievements seem all the greater when compared with those of the United States. In 2010, its unemployment rate was nearly half of ours. Our economic inequality is the highest of any developed country’s; New Zealand’s hovers much lower on the list. New Zealand ranks first in Transparency International’s global survey of government honesty; the United States ranks 22nd—just ahead of Uruguay! And comparable divergences, Fischer shows, are found “in trends and measures of political partisanship, legislative stalemate, judicial dysfunction, infrastructure decay, home foreclosures, family distress, drug consumption, and social violence.” Fischer’s rich cultural analysis leaves little doubt that New Zealand’s achievements are largely rooted in its “highly developed vernacular ideas of fairness,” a complex set of values that Kiwis prize and pursue earnestly. The result: by virtually every measure, New Zealand has a more just and decent society than ours—while resorting far less readily to legalistic and legislative remedies.

Americans tend to disdain, say, effete northern-European countries, with their generous social-welfare provisions and histories of neutrality and defeatism. But Fischer’s astute examination of Kiwis’ esteemed tradition of skill and courage on the battlefield—epitomized by their beloved Second World War heroes Bernard Freyburg, Howard Kippenberger, Humphrey Dyer, and Charles Upham (“combat officers who led from the front, brave beyond imagining, loyal to a fault … close to their men and very careful with their lives”)—won’t allow the scoffers to dismiss New Zealand. (Surprisingly, Fischer doesn’t discuss the New Zealander Keith Park, the RAF’s brilliant key operational commander during the Battle of Britain. As “the only man who could have lost the war in a day, or even an afternoon,” in the words of Air Vice Marshall Johnnie Johnson, Park is a military figure of nothing less than world-historical importance.) Characterized by initiative and aggressiveness combined with a chivalric ethos, a respect for the intellect, and an impatience with rank and hierarchy, New Zealand’s martial virtues have imbued Kiwis’ sense of fairness and decency with muscularity—a quiet courage and a puckish, manly large-spiritedness.

Fischer’s purpose in writing what is almost certainly the most detailed and sophisticated dissection of New Zealand society ever aimed at an American readership is decidedly not, however, to fashion a paean to Kiwis. That society appealingly (at least from my perspective) marries two complementary traits that Americans wrongly believe to be antithetical: it is both deeply conservative and fiercely egalitarian. The result, as the American journalist John Gunther (not quoted by Fischer) observed in 1972, is a cooperative society of “wholesome lives” in which “democracy is carried to the ultimate”—but a society marked by a somewhat “low-burning ambition.” For better and worse, Americans will never emulate New Zealanders. But as we enter the Pacific Century, New Zealand and its more energetic antipodean cousin will be playing an ever more vital economic, cultural, and political role. Rather than continue pontificating about “America’s larger purpose in the world” (to quote our president’s messianic invocation), we’d perhaps be better off shutting up and trying to learn something from other peoples. This book is an excellent place to start.

I quoted the whole article, because the writing is so good, I didn’t want to paraphrase it.

Comments (37)

Login to comment or vote

Add a Comment

%d bloggers like this: