Club Politique by Che Tibby

Metics Nine

To recap, this series about metics centres on the now thoroughly rehashed idea of national identity.

In a nutshell, my journey started with the question of what it means to try and 'fit in' to a nation? How do we measure our nationality and what it means to us, the odd-assortment of individuals and groups that contribute to New Zealand and environs on a daily basis?

This process almost inevitably leads along a path towards questions of power. Who gets to call the shots about who is, and who is not, and genuine New Zealander? Over the past few 'Metics' blogs I've tried to argue that it's most often citizens of the country who determine membership. The catch in this equation though has proven to way in which this contest for membership is so random.

An email received in the past couple of weeks is fairly instructive.

In response to my suggestion that New Zealand seems to have advanced from the bad old days of assimilating 'the Māoris', a reader wrote an email (and yes, it does happen. Not all blog response happens between alternately slightly estranged and deranged commentors). This email questioned my suggestion, and claimed the example of the seabed and foreshore legislation as an example of a 'pom' telling Māori what they could and couldn't have.

The 'pom' in question is Dr. Michael Cullen.

Now, from reading Cullen's biography he was born in London, and I know his family emigrated to New Zealand when he was aged 10. So technically Cullen is indeed a pom. But, this leaves us with the question, when does a person start to assume the identity of the place they've spent the greater part of their lives?

Within the framework I've been discussing, the emailer's intention was to deny Cullen 'belonging' to New Zealand. The interesting thing is that I've seen this particular emailer claim 'New Zealander', 'Māori' and 'Pākehā' identity at varying times on the interweb, but we'll let that one slip just for the moment. All those identities aren't 'pom' though, which is important.

Again, my main argument has been that identity is never set in concrete. It in fact waxes and wanes, and takes on all kinds of forms, depending on what people want it to represent for them, or what they want to appear to be. Consequently, to the emailer, Cullen is in reality a pom. Dr. Cullen on the other hand, probably considers himself a New Zealander. I dunno.

"So why is this important?" I hear you ask.

It's important because there are ways in which we can all be denied belonging to an identity we all take for granted. And that denial can be used to prevent us all from claiming the right to participate in our democracy.

What the emailer in question was saying is that Cullen had no right to make legislation here in New Zealand because, being a pom, he did not belong. Cullen, after having served 24 years in parliament, was not a 'real' New Zealander. Doesn't that perplex you just a little bit?

It perplexes me. As an example from my own life, I can trace ancestors on both my mother's and father's sides to the signing of the Treaty. You'd think that pretty much establishes my credentials. But no. Because of a quirk of fate, I was born in Sydney, and took up residence some seven months later. Consequently I am frequently labelled 'an Aussie'...

Should I ever be denied the right to speak publicly as 'a New Zealander' because of that quirk, I would be a little peeved.

And there's an ancient word for the odd 'within and not within' status that foreign birth grants people like myself and the good doctor. You guessed it, the word is a metic. Well, technically, metic means 'a partially enfranchised citizen of a Hellenic polis', but try saying that one very fast after a few single malts.

Now, if it makes things a little difficult for me and Dr. Cullen, where does it leave Tze Ming? Or Keith? Or Russell, who I hear was born in a leaky sloop outside the Economic Exclusion Zone. It's rumoured he came bearing a typewriter and telephone, in preparation for the coming of the 'the sacred glowing word-picture information gatelaneway'.

In a way, we could all be metics, only sharing enough ties to the remainder of the nation to maintain an at times tenuous claim to belonging. Each and every one of us threatened with denial of the right to speak to, or on behalf of, the greater whole.

But naturally it's never that simple.