Sunday, 21 October 2012

Not quite what I meant...

By M&C Saatchi

I like myths. I like all aspects of storytelling in fact, but myths are my favourite because they are the most functional, pliable and compelling of all fictions. They can also be stunningly psychologically complex, while at the same time being rooted in the simplest of narratives. They permeate all aspects of culture of every human nation on earth and are often expressed in symbols and archetypal forms; there’s something so deliciously primal about a myth, something that stirs the blood, urges the gut. I have long been a somewhat haphazard student of mythology and of the structure and power of the mythic form as well as of its more recent expression and application, the silky science of marketing. That is not what this piece is about; this piece is primarily about perception and the stories we tell ourselves - those cute little personal myths - but living in a world where we are constantly bombarded with images, symbols and slogans, it is difficult to write about myths without giving marketing its due regarding our perceptions of the world, our relation to it and thus our ideas about ourselves.

Funny though, I’m writing this piece in response to an interesting phenomenon I’ve encountered living in New Zealand for the past eleven months. The phenomenon I am referring to may not truly exist, but I’ve been getting the feeling that it does and for the sake of this piece I’m going to pretend that it is real. To state it simply, New Zealand is a dream. I’m not exactly sure whose dream it is, but I know that it’s not mine. My reasons for stating this are not clear, even to me, but it is a distinct impression I’ve been getting ever since I got here. It is as if the perceptions the people here have about their country are not real, not to me anyway. It’s difficult to explain, as I said, it’s more an impression than something I can point to. The reason I wanted to write about this phenomenon is that I came across a few websites written by disgruntled immigrants to New Zealand, most of whom have since left or moved on. What I found on these sites was both intriguing and slightly disturbing. On the one hand I almost dismissed these sites at first glance because they focus almost exclusively on the negative aspects of New Zealand, from the tentative job market to the regularly occurring earthquakes to the crime. But on the other hand upon reading some of the posts submitted by contributors to the forum, I found honest and balanced perspectives and a modicum of shared experience, the most important aspect of which – and from which I would say many of the aspects of living here which we did not expect originate - was the impression that New Zealand is not what it appears to be. There is a seeming dishonesty in the way that New Zealand is marketed – and it is marketed, which I find a bit odd – to potential immigrants and visitors. There is a shiny veneer of ‘spin’ which coats the way New Zealand is apprehended. If you look at websites about New Zealand, even websites which do not overtly promote New Zealand, there seems to be a sense of relentless, almost nervous optimism about the place, an optimism which I don’t think it necessarily deserves. Many of the contributors on the anti-NZ website commented on the fact that they felt ‘duped’ by the impressions they got about NZ when doing research about living here. To be honest, I did too; when I first arrived I had the distinct impression that I had somehow been conned. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I definitely had expectations, when after I’d spent some time here I felt were not being met. I have since got over these feelings and I am happy to be here, but there is still a sense of dishonesty, a dream-like sense of unreality to daily life which I cannot seem to shake off. I think that that may be the very thing that unnerves me, the dishonesty.

In South Africa things are very corrupt, there’s a lot of poverty, inequality, and subsequently a lot of crime – and everybody knows it. We can't hide our past or the difficulties of the present, but everyone just gets on doing their thing, it’s a bit broken, a bit rickety, but life goes on. It’s very much a case of what-you-see-is-what-you-get, and I appreciate that. In the USA the bubble has burst, the American dream has pretty much shattered and America’s former position in the world has been compromised. I think it’s safe to say that the dream has in many ways come to an end for many people – and everybody knows it, acknowledges it and gets on with their lives – I respect that and I like that spirit. Pretty much every country in the world is in the poo and knows it; there is not a single country in the world that doesn’t have crime or corruption or inequality or poverty to some degree. The thing with New Zealand is that there seems on some level to be a very strong urge not to acknowledge this fact, especially publicly and specifically internationally. I don’t mean to focus on the negative, I just think that it’s a sign of good mental health to acknowledge that things are broken and not as they should be instead of pretending that everything’s ok by trying to deflect attention off home-grown issues by focusing on the social ills of other countries. There’s a sense of insecurity and a level of overcompensation about the way that many Kiwis speak about their country; always comparing themselves to Australia, always emphasizing the natural beauty over their relative vulnerability politically and economically. But this is the thing: these are not real Kiwis, these are ‘Kiwis,’ normal New Zealand-born people who have bought into the ‘dream’ - that is to say the marketing campaign, the myth - of New Zealand, citizens seemingly co-opted unawares into believing things about their country, their economic situation, their government, their position in the world that simply aren’t true. It’s ok to be provincial, it’s ok to be weird and quirky, even to a fault – I mean what else would you expect from a small island in the middle of the South Pacific thousands of miles from anywhere? As the Viennese philosopher Karl Popper said of New Zealand when he came here in 1937 to evade his increasingly volatile neighbours, ‘[New Zealand] is not quite the moon, but after the moon it is the farthest place in the world.’ I say be proud of that fact, acknowledge the limitations - and to be honest, many Kiwis do - of an isolated island with a small population, but don’t try to pretend it away, or worse, lie about it. It really is ok; all I’m saying is, be honest about it. Like this:

 - Note: This isn't the piece I intended to write, this just came out. I actually wanted to write about something more subtle, something which this piece has shown me is not yet ready to be born. There is a  second tier to the dream, a sub-veneer if you like, which I want to explore. Soon though...  

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