Monday, 3 November 2014

John Key's problem is having no problems

Prime Minister John Key today discussed with his Cabinet whether he will send troops to fight in Iraq against Islamic militants. He’ll also deliver a speech on security on Wednesday. That’s fine, but it all feels a bit too forced to be real.

Mr Key is shepherding New Zealand into 2015 as it begins a two-year seat at the United Nations Security Council. As preparation for this position, New Zealand will have to get used to more information about the world’s varied problems. After all, that’s what everyone on the Council does, isn’t it?

Even the prime minister will have to get used to the idea that he no longer governs a self-obsessed country, but a country sitting at the table of world responsibility. This will be a change of pace for the prime minister. And yet it smells a lot like New Zealand is searching for a problem to fix, like a smart bored teenager swinging its feet under a hammock at the beach.

The problem of Islamic terrorism is not our problem. But apparently the prime minster and New Zealand seem to think that it is, and it’s worth analysing why. We can start with the UN Security Council in all its glory.

The Council was built in the post-World War II era when the victorious powers of the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom were preeminent. It wasn’t long before this artificial alliance of convenience began pursuing their own goals, emasculating the Council and letting the system coagulate.

New Zealand wants to change the veto power to better suit today’s geopolitical realities. Bear in mind that no one is advocating getting rid of the veto, they only want to create a “third tier” of member states to offer the illusion of greater power but not enough to be considered a peer country with the veto nations. The status quo is more important than equality, it always has been.

Plenty is about to change for New Zealand, even if the Council never does. We’re entering a world in which people grapple with deep-seated problems they’ve struggled with for millennia.

So what message are we sending by joining the fight on one side (violence is always binary)?

What exactly is our government’s clearly articulable overarching ideology driving the decision to intervene in other people’s problems?

It’s not at all obvious that any of this is broadly understood. That’s why it’s so strange to listen to the prime minister when he talks about what New Zealand should do. What Mr Key is suggesting by using military force against the Islamic State (and I’m sure there’s plenty of nuance and subtlety) is that the answer to conflicts is in destroying the symptom rather than addressing the cause.

Killing jihadists in Iraq and Syria might feel like we’re doing something useful, and to a certain extent it is. But the glaring issue is that using military force assumes that it’s the only language these people understand. It also assumes that New Zealand knows how to speak that language when almost the entire history of the post-Cold War/post-9/11 world suggests that maybe we don’t.

It’s really hard to know what addressing the cause of Islamic radicalism looks like because the West hasn’t come up with a good answer. We were able to criticise Communism during the Cold War because that was a Western idea. It was a dumb idea of government - and an even crazier concept of history - but at least it was invented by a German writing in London. That gave us a little bit of legitimacy.

Islam has an entirely different history and to talk about its ideology is to see our words turn to dust the moment they leave the tongue. There is no common ground between us with the whole thing turning into an ‘us vs them’ tribalism. We may as well be on two different planets.

In other words, New Zealand has no language at all with which to defeat the threat of Islamic terror. But at least other Western countries have dealt with a history of serious social and political baggage which gives them a measure of experience in dealing with complex problems around the world. New Zealand has no such history.

The United Kingdom gets its name from grappling with centuries of its own problems. So does the United States. The US and UK were masters at projecting hard power (masses of men and metal) and soft power (ideas and culture) to every corner of the earth. New Zealand is the result of the conquest and control of these two consecutive superpowers.

Our institutions, culture, language, militaries, government, legislature, technology, and almost everything else – even down to the skin colour of the majority – comes from another place and another time. We think it’s ours, but it’s not.

For the kind of world-class responsibility New Zealand will have on the Council, it’s extremely important to remember just how different New Zealand truly is to rest of the world. But New Zealand doesn’t have any unique problems.

The social problems this country likes to self-flagellate about are not our own. By “not our own” I mean they were inherited, just like the country itself, from a long lineage of Western thought which arrived on the decks of ships captained by people with names like Cook and Banks. Their thoughts overflowed with old concepts like racism, slavery, liberalism, monarchy, welfare, capitalism, ambition, colonialism, classification, religion and thousands of other ideas.

Try to think of a truly systemic problem in New Zealand society that started - at its genesis - in this country. There isn’t one. Everything we ‘struggle’ with came from other people in other places.

We’ve got it so good in New Zealand that we adopt other people’s problems just to keep living. One of the only things Paul Henry said that I liked was when he started his morning TV show with the phrase, “welcome to another day in paradise”. And he was right. In fact, he’s still right. New Zealand is as close to the concept of paradise as any human culture in history has ever dreamed of living.

I’m astounded every time I hear New Zealanders say they want to travel overseas “for adventure”. Don’t they know that “adventure” is exactly what millions of people in the worst parts of the world want to escape by risking everything to come to New Zealand? Someone with $300 and a broken suitcase desperately wants to reach New Zealand, but apparently many people already in this paradise want out as soon as possible. That’s an astonishing implication of our society.

And it’s really interesting to think about. Because it suggests that humans prefer the concept of “being” to the concept of “having”. Actually getting the things we crave will never satisfy us. The only way to be satisfied is to continually yearn for the unattainable and imagine its attainment.

Like the proverbial dog chasing a car, humans want paradise but don’t know how to live when they find it, so we invent or adopt problems to keep us happy. When this mind-set is scaled up to the level of the nation state, some funny things start happening.

This country simply isn’t old enough to have forged its own identity and ideas. We haven’t had to grapple from the ground up with the evils that occur when cultures clash. Sure, plenty of people in this country think issues like racism or classism are New Zealand problems, but they aren’t. They’re European and American problems that we’ve adopted as our own because of our inherited history.  

I’m not suggesting that these problems don’t affect New Zealand. But the point is that they did not start here so they will not end here. Our problem is that we only have other people’s problems.

This is where the prime minister’s incoherent debate about fighting in Iraq converges with the inability of New Zealanders to enjoy the fortune of living in a paradise. We go out of our way to embrace other dilemmas to fill the void of having nothing to fight against because there’s clearly something so existentially frightening about living in a society that’s as close to paradise as humans have ever come.
 
Just when all the statistics suggest 2014 was the safest year in history for people - and 2015 will be even safer – the first thing we do is look for the storm clouds. Today the problem is the “rampaging” Islamic State, but don’t be surprised when the next problem appears which we’re all told to abhor and mobilise against. Child poverty, anyone? What about Chinese investment? The sky is falling.

This is not to say New Zealand shouldn’t be doing anything in the world, we certainly should. But the question we need to be asking is why we think these are problems for ours.

Listen to the way people talk about some of our problems and close your eyes. If it weren’t for the accents, you’d swear you were listening to someone from America or Britain. There’s almost no unique New Zealand quality to these issues and yet we talk like there is. It’s like we’re performing another person’s play with Kiwi characters.

Mr Key’s rush to join the coalition fighting the Islamic State militants reflects the bizarrely human frustration of living in a paradise. Bring out your problems, we trumpet. Send us your adventures. Because the alternative is devastating inactivity and the sheer boredom of living without fret or worry. And we can’t have that now, can we?

There’s never been a country in the history of the world with the opportunity to start truly afresh with every modern convenience and all the major cultural questions largely worked out. And yet, we can’t wait to burden our minds with all the old problems.  

People come to New Zealand to start new lives and leave their psychological and cultural baggage behind. Most of the original European immigrants to New Zealand thought the same way. But it looks like we want the conflict, problems and pain. We can’t stand peace, love and inactivity.

It may not say much about New Zealand, but it says volumes about humans.

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