Speaker by Various Artists

Imagining ourselves together

by Che Tibby

There's a reasonably famous book by a guy called Hans Morgenthau that tends to be quoted within the ranks of International Relations theorists. Nine times out of ten his post WW2 book Politics Among Nations is paraphrased with the mantra "power is politics", a neat abbreviation of a single idea the book analyses. What's important to note though is that Morgenthau doesn't appear to actually say that anywhere. Instead, this concept has been footnoted down through so many theorists that it is now taken as gospel.

I mention this because many years back someone pointed out that I might in fact be the first person he knew who had taken time to sit down and actually read Morgenthau. In this regard I am being to empathise with anyone who has actually sat down and read Michael King's Being Pakeha, because there appears to be a trend toward understanding this no doubt important book without having read more than someone else's synopsis, or skimming it for the juicy bits. The most obvious example of course is Mallards recent "me indigenous too" speech, but I noticed another column in the Herald this past Sunday.

Now, I think I need to remind you all from the outset that I too grew up in Mount Maunganui, and it's for that reason I find her column a little problematic. Like Sandra, I went overseas on a student exchange when 17, and was involved in the same chapter of the exchange programme as her. I however was banished to the wilds of East Texas, which is a story for another day. Let me say though that the deep and abiding attachment to place she mentions as absent in Americans is alive and well in the forests and counties of the Deep South. Banjos haunt me to this day.

Unlike Sandra however I grew up at the other end of town, with the Mount, Mauao, a presence that loomed in the distance out the front of the house I grew up in. Far more important in my own experience of that same town was the Papamoa hills, a low range of foothills carved into terraces by Ngaiterangi before the signing of the Treaty. I was an adult before I learnt that the first of these was Maungatawa, a totem of the whale that brought Tamatea to New Zealand in the Takitimu waka.

Mauao looms large in my memory, but there was always a palpable distance between that icon and my neighbourhood that's only really understood by people who grew up in the 'bad' part of town. And it's this small difference that sets Sandra's experience away from my own. Even though I know the exact places and things of which she speaks in her column, my perception of them is subtly different in a way that is probably unimportant to an outsider, but provides a point of distinction and commonality between her and I.

So why is this important? Because the way we both imagine the exact same place is a profound influence on our own interpretation of what is a common past. There's an old saying, 'you are what you eat'. As much as our consumption shapes any of us, our past sits within us, under layer upon layer of event, impression, mood and action, giving form to whoever you are today, and guiding you toward that future person. Some things your memory keeps, some it doesn't

Regardless of this difference that makes us individuals, Sandra and I both imagine ourselves to be from the same place, and remember things that give depth to our attachment. And it's for this reason that I find this type of column problematic.

For one thing, I'm noticing that I really should read Being Pakeha. In fact, I'll head out to some second hand bookstores today. The other thing is that the numbers of adherents to this New Indigenous movement, those who subscribe to this type of thought, seems to be gathering momentum in New Zealand. And I'm becoming increasingly alert (but not alarmed) to the way in which it is influencing New Zealand nation-building.

I may have mentioned before that nation-building is a process of encouraging attachment to an imaginary identity, a nation. Completely banal things like currency, the national flag, the news people you watch, the national sport and your neighbourhood all contribute on a daily basis to your understanding of yourself as a member of some nationality.

They say this identity is 'imaginary' because it's shared in a communal imagination, with people being kiwi because they think they are. In other words, I can only be what I say I am if someone agrees with me.

Without having read it, Being Pakeha is an attempt to express the boundaries of what constitutes that national imagination. What separates my generation from those previous is that an ever greater number of individuals no longer feel and deep and abiding attachment to England as 'home', and the New Indigenous movement is trying to give expression to this mutual sense of belonging.

While I think this need to express is good, I'm finding that it is too easy for such writing to stray into platitudes and personal views on what constitutes being Kiwi. And, I'm even more concerned about the possibility of this type of idea being deployed by the unscrupulous to undermine the premises of Maori distinctiveness, i.e. the we are all immigrants argument.

This risk in this instance is that people superimpose their own experience on icons like Mauao, ignoring that history in favour of their own, thereby perpetuating the kind of colonial arrogance that got us into the pickle we now call Treaty politics. Of course, to force people like this to acknowledge and remember the Maori history of Mauao would be 'PC', so there's a bit of a Catch-22 there.

So the example I want to use to illustrate why this approach concerns me centres on immigration. I think that the New Indigenous movement has purchase in the imaginations of Kiwis because they have a particular shared idea of the nation constructed in New Zealand after 1840. Consequently, when a column like Sandra's is printed people identify both with her and her viewpoint, reaffirming what they already believe about their own attachment to place. 'We' came here and built this nation and country, all that 'we' survey is now the possession of the New Zealand nation, Kiwis.

But would this be true if Sandra was Asian?