29 January 2015
As the world commemorated the 70th anniversary this week of the liberation of Auschwitz death camp, the Beehive’s flag fluttered at half-mast in tribute to the late King of Saudi Arabia, where women have no rights, beheadings are frequent and journalists and bloggers are whipped. A northern Maori leader warned that burqas would not be welcome at Waitangi celebrations next week and Winston Peters made his first racist statement of 2015.
The incongruent juxtaposition of these events is stunning. While Auschwitz stands forever shamefully head and shoulders above all other symbols of human intolerance and brutality, and while all memorial services in New Zealand and around the world were right to proclaim we must never let such events happen again, the above examples show we still have a long way to go in the tolerance stakes.
Yet the lessons of history are obvious. Take South Africa, for example. Our “bridge building” approach of the 1950s-70s did not work in changing the attitudes of the apartheid regime, and if anything reinforced its intransigence. It took the isolation and sporting and economic boycotts of the 1980s to free Nelson Mandela and usher in the development of the rainbow nation we know today.
Similarly with repressive states like Saudi Arabia. Lowering flags to commemorate the late King, or sending an incredibly high-powered delegation like President Obama has to pay homage to the new monarch merely reinforce the form and structure of the regime and its repressive practices. And, in their own way, incidents like banning burqas or racist statements by shallow politicians reinforce the prejudice that discrimination is more or less acceptable, provided your target is unpopular to start with, and you do not go too far.
Now one might have expected the loftily titled “state of the nation” speeches by our two major political leaders to have made at least some passing comment about these matters. But, not unexpectedly, both were silent in favour of the mundane. One was a speech about housing, the other a trip down memory lane. Neither had the gravitas or substance to justify the “state of the nation” title.
The grief and emotion that has accompanied the Auschwitz events reinforces the reality that human beings are more than just mechanistic, uncaring robots. Attitudes, feelings and what we quaintly call values are the true and important shapers of our destinies. Maybe that was the point behind Eleanor Catton’s forthright comments in India. While not agreeing with the particular sentiments she expressed – although she had every right to do so, without abuse – I have some sympathy with her underlying message that nation states ought to stand for something, and are more than just collections of people all furiously getting on with their own lives, like bees in a hive.
Yet our indifference to the incongruent events around us suggests that is exactly what we are doing. And perhaps, more seriously, that no-one really cares too much. It may well be an expression of the complacency the long hot summer is inducing, or a very successful political management strategy. Either way, it cannot last.