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David Round

David Round

The myth of biculturalism


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I have been thinking about ‘culture’, my friends, and am trying to get a handle on this most important matter. Culture is jolly important. We hear a lot about Maori culture, and hear all the time that we are a ‘bicultural nation’, although this is of course disputed by those who insist that we are actually multicultural. My old chum Nicky Wagner M.P. recently proudly announced that Christchurch was home to one hundred and sixty cultures. One hundred and sixty! Think of that! Is it actually possible to have one hundred and sixty cultures in one place? We’ll think about that later. Nicky, anyway, considered this a matter for great rejoicing; I was almost surprised she had not sought recognition in the Guinness Book of Records. She did not specifically mention Somali culture, although her rejoicing did cover all one hundred and sixty, so presumably she is happy about Somali culture also. I daresay she is not thinking about clitorectomy and labial infibulation, piracy, deeply ingrained warlordism and violence, which all seem a vital part of life in that appalling part of the world. I would have thought that there is a good case for saying that even in Somalia Somali ‘culture’ is dysfunctional, but who knows, the true rejoicer in multiculturalism would presumably reply that it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry and we have to take the rough with the smooth.

I am being slightly unfair to Nicky, because all these ‘new New Zealanders’ have votes, and so politicians have to suck up to them ~ although possibly not quite as much as they actually do. And ‘culture’ ~ by which is generally meant not our, but other people’s cultures, foreign cultures ~ is a sacred cow. You fail to embrace the delightfully exotic foreigner, so much better than we are, of course, at your moral peril. And, the Somalis aside, all these cultures are interesting, especially to the sophisticated jaded palate seeking half an hour’s novel diversion ~ strange delicious foods, unusual clothes, language and customs ~ the sorts of things we pay good money to go overseas to see. It would be inhospitable and monstrous to be unkind to these strangers in our midst, especially when they’re so nice to us, as they always are ~ the shy smiles, the greetings, the courtesies we never seem to observe ourselves…

So ~ culture! Gosh yes! Important! We even have a Ministry of Culture. So ~ what is it? Well, it seems, according to the dictionaries, anyway, to have two meanings. One meaning is simply ‘the way we live’. I have made this point in the past ~ culture is the way we live ~ but it is the way we actually live. It is the language we actually speak, the food we actually eat, the places we live  in, the work we do, the games we play, the entertainments we enjoy, the clothes we wear ~ it is not just the fancy dress we put on for special days and special places, when we go to the marae or to the opera. That is part of our culture, certainly ~ we are all enriched by our ancestral inheritance, and it is a great pity that our tender concerns for Maori culture have as their concomitant the ignoring and disparaging of our own immeasurably superior ~ yes, that was the phrase I used ~ European culture. This is another point I have made before ~ that multiculturalism does not actually mean many cultures living together. In practice, all too often, what it means is the replacement of our longstanding culture by another.

But since culture is how we actually live, it follows that there simply cannot be one hundred and sixty cultures in this country. Indeed, I would stick my neck out and say that there are, arguably, not even two. Here are two New Zealanders, one of British descent and the other of mixed Maori and British descent. They both speak the same language, English. (Indeed, if it is true, as alleged, that language is the vehicle of culture, then it simply must follow, surely, as night follows day, that a person of Maori descent who cannot speak Maori cannot inhabit the culture of the Maori….) They speak the same language. They wear the same ~ European ~ clothes. They live in similar houses, eat similar foods, watch similar television programmes, have similar jobs, play similar sports, have similar interests….how are these two people of different cultures? Their culture is surely the same ~ the New Zealand culture which we simply do not recognise because it is like the air we breathe or the water that fish swim in. Certainly, they may have slightly different ancestral experiences and upbringings ~ but then, so do we all. My life, as a South Islander of long European descent, is different in some ways from that of one of Tame Iti’s simple Tuhoe tribesmen. But by the same token, my way of life is different from that of a high-flying Aucklander. Indeed, I imagine my own simple rustic lifestyle is probably closer to the Tuhoe than to the Aucklander. Are the Aucklander and I of different cultures? Well, I suppose you could say that we are. But in that case, New Zealand does not just have two cultures, Maori and pakeha, but thousands. This is becoming absurd. It would surely be more sensible and more accurate to say that New Zealand has one culture, with the inevitable variations we find within that one culture.

This is, indeed, an inevitable conclusion, because cultures arise out of their circumstances, of time and place and history. Because our land is what it is ~ its soil, its climate, its plants and animals ~ we must inevitable live in certain ways and not in others. We have to grow sheep and potatoes, not bananas and water buffalo. We have to wear warm sensible clothes. Newcomers naturally want to hold on to something of the culture they came from. That is only natural. But those scraps of the way of life in their old home is not a ‘culture’ here; it is not a growing plant, only a hot-house cutting which may be kept alive for a while, but which simply will not take root and grow naturally in this new soil. Nor, we must add, do most immigrants necessarily want to maintain their old culture here. If they wanted their own culture so much, they would probably not have left home. They came here because things are different here, and they want new different lives here. One part of them, doubtless, is homesick, and quite understandably wants to preserve some of the memories of the old homeland, and that is fine and inevitable, but that does not mean that their whole ‘culture’ is different here, or that it can survive here ~ and it most certainly does not mean that we should actively support the (impossible) maintenance of exclusivity and a refusal to integrate into the wider New Zealand culture.

Cultures are the way we live, and arise out of the time and place we inhabit. It follows, therefore, that they cannot be consciously shaped by politicians or their appointed cultural commissars. It is much more the case that they should not be shaped by those people. Just at present there is much discussion over the proper role of local government ~ should ratepayers’ money be spent promoting all sorts of vague social objectives which are, many maintain, more properly the role of central government? By the same token, some things are not properly even the role of central government. We elect our politicians, and pay for the Public Service, so that we may have schools and hospitals and state highways and armed forces. Governments have no mandate to impose their own cultural vision on us; and, indeed, looking at the calibre of our cultural bureaucrats, their own vision is the last thing that I would want.

That is one meaning of culture ~ the way we actually live ~ and by that measure, New Zealand is pretty well not two cultures, not many cultures, but only one, with the natural and inevitable variations we would expect in any society. That is the fact ~ and it is also the way it should be, for a society can only live by one culture, one agreed way of doing and thinking about things.

The second meaning of ‘culture’ is what is sometimes also spoken of as ‘high culture’ ~ the cultivation of the nobler and more beautiful, in art and literature,  music, philosophy ~ the improvement of ourselves, the seeking after reason and knowledge, truth and beauty. I leave it to you to estimate how much of that we can find anywhere in New Zealand life.  I cannot see an enormous amount. Our pursuit of culture seems too often to seek the rough, ugly and sordid. Our cultural leaders all too often seem to have as their motto the old adolescent cry of ‘Epater les bourgeois’ ~ essentially, to shock and confront the respectable. Western civilisation is tired, worn out ~ we seek our culture elsewhere, among the primitives, the adolescents, the barbarians. Rugby is all very well for a wet winter’s afternoon, but the ‘muddied oafs’, as Kipling called them, are heroes and role models. We worship the brainless but muscular. Such are always the tastes of civilisations in decline. We lose confidence in ourselves, and seek vitality elsewhere. But that is an error. We can, and must, draw on our own magnificent cultural traditions. Barbarism cannot save us, and by that token a culture of the Stone Age, whose highest achievements seem to involve no more than war dances in grass skirts with pointed sticks and indecent gestures, while doubtless worthy of our tolerance, does not have much to offer by way of advancing human life, let alone assisting in the more prosaic business of making a living in the modern world. A friend in Northland told me recently of eleven year old children at the local school, who can do splendid hakas, but who cannot even tell the time. What will be their future? What consolation will it be, in their lifelong poverty and ignorance, that they are ‘secure in their own culture’? The cry for Maori culture all too easily becomes an excuse for ignorance and sloth. Maori will not need to know how to use a computer, because they are culturally secure. They will still demand our financial support, though….

Why is New Zealand in the grip of this biculturalism? What difference will it make for our country? We are still a free country, and so people may choose to try to develop what culture they please. No-one would dispute that. But the appearance of a completely distinct Maori culture, something independent of and utterly separate from ~ and indeed hostile to ~ New Zealand culture, is a conscious and deliberate recent development. It is not based on the authority of law ~ true, several activist judges have said loose things about ‘taonga’ (‘property’) under the Treaty, suggesting that the Crown has some obligation to protect the Maori language ~ but nothing in the law justifies the erection of a completely new separate and hostile Maori identity. The biculturalism industry is fuelled not just by legitimate ancestral pride (which should certainly be respected)  but by ignoble motives ~ on the part-Maori side, by desire for power and money, which the Treaty industry is providing in abundance to a small tribal elite, while throwing cultural sops to the rest, and on the New Zealand side by a loss of faith in our own civilisation, an ignorance of our own culture and our own history and by the moral cowardice and profound inferiority complex which, alas, characterises much of what passes here for intellectual life. New Zealand’s situation, it must be added, is only part of a similar weariness and loss of self-confidence affecting most of western civilisation, and which has as its prop the philosophy of ‘post-modernism’, which maintains that there is no objective truth, that one set of standards is as good as any other, and that there are therefore no better or worse cultures.

Except ours, of course, which somehow seems exempt from this rule, and may alone be condemned while all others are acquitted.

‘Biculturalism’ is impossible, because any coherent society can and must live by agreement on basic things. Ask yourself ~ could we still have a coherent New Zealand society if some of us were to be subject to sharia law? The Ministry of Ethnic Affairs, believe it or not, has actually recommended its introduction. I imagine even our liberal friends would draw the line here and say ‘No, our culture believes in the equality of men and women, and so on, and we will tolerate no other arrangement’. I would hope that they would say that, although you never know. But to say that would be to acknowledge that multiculturalism is impossible ~ as indeed it is. There is no multiculturalism if only small picturesque differences are allowed, and not the big important differences like the oppression of women. In the same way, if those of Maori descent were to be subject to their own law, to have extra voting rights (as is happening in the form of special reserved Maori representation in local as well as national government), to hold a veto over developments they did not like (unless they were ‘compensated’, of course) and special rights over public property ~ these things are the basis of self-aggrandisement and  division, of the growth of suspicion and racial hatred and the destruction of our nation. How can we have one nation if some of us believe in ‘equality’ as a fundamental value, and others believe in the superiority of, and special rights for, their own race or religion? It is one thing to have, or to try to have, ones own culture here ~ it is quite another to use that voluntarily assumed culture as an excuse for eternal privilege, financial, political or whatever.

As I say, a society cannot be bicultural. If two cultures allegedly co-exist within it, then one will be the prevailing culture, and the other can be at best mere ornamentation and affectation. In the same way, no individual can have two cultures. One cannot live ~ which is what culture is ~ by two completely different set of rules and cultural values and attitudes. It is impossible. Certain Maori dream, obviously, of having the best of both worlds ~ of enjoying everything that the West has brought them while at the same time still somehow being authentically ‘Maori’. That cannot be done. A man cannot serve two masters. A culture is all of a piece. A human being may live this way or that way, but he cannot live both ways at once. You cannot enjoy all the comforts of the West, reading and electricity and health care and television and motor-cars and a money economy, and at the same time be culturally Maori. Your Maoriness is shallow play-acting. It is dishonest. By all means revere your ancestors and treasure certain elements of their now-extinct way of life. But in all honesty, admit that you are now different.

We have only one prevailing culture here in New Zealand ~ a culture not ‘European’, not ‘Maori’, but our own, the consequence of these peoples, and now newer ones, living and growing together in this unique place. That is as it should be. While respecting genuine inherited difference, we should be striving to meld those differences into one greater national whole. That is the only way we will survive as a nation. A house divided against itself cannot stand.