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SocietyApril 26, 2020

Good news, bad omens: Thinking about New Zealand identity in strange times

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‘I feel like it means something to be a New Zealander in these circumstances, that it means something that we’re all trapped here together, self-isolating at the end of the world.’

On the third Saturday of the lockdown we saw the naked bus driver. We were standing by the road chatting to our neighbour, observing the already normalised state-mandated distance of two metres when the yellow and black Go Wellington bus rumbled by, completely empty except for the naked middle-aged man driving it. His face was grim and set dead-ahead, and he had stone-coloured flesh that shuddered with the vibrations of the engine.

We struggled to process this apparition. “Did you see him? Was he… ?” We did and he was, but we couldn’t quite believe it. “Maybe he wasn’t naked?” I suggested. “Maybe he had shorts on?”

“He didn’t have shorts on,” my wife said, speaking in a flat, factual voice. She was closest to the road, thus closest to the bus.

“His bus had ‘Not In Service’ displayed on the front,” I said. “So he wasn’t interacting with customers. I guess…” I trailed off. The buses kept running through the lockdown, even though they were always empty. And this was obviously pointless and a waste of energy and money but I also found it reassuring: as if the world we left behind was still functioning smoothly, just waiting for us to rejoin it. The naked bus driver exposed my naivete. The world had changed in dark and unpredictable ways.

I am a fan of the lockdown. Not for political reasons, or because I am indifferent to the terrible economic cost. It’s just that I’m terrified of catching the virus and dying of respiratory failure alone on the floor of a make-shift ICU in a school gym.

I hate the lockdown too, of course: the boredom, the anxiety; the endless housework. A few days after we saw the naked bus driver the prime minister announced we’d move to “level three”, in another week’s time. We spent that evening lost in lavish fantasies about what we’d do with our new freedom. We could drive to the beach in late autumn! And buy potting soil online! Could we get barista-made coffee? Or take our recycling to the tip? Or were those indulgences reserved for an even lower alert level? A future reward from Jacinda for continued social distancing and decreasing infection rates.

There have been good things about the lockdown. My daughter and I have played SadieBall every day, a version of two-person football with fluid and improvised rules in which it is impossible for me to win. “Today the loser is the winner,” she explained to me patiently when I somehow scored more points than her. We’ve never really played disorganised sport before. We tried kicking a ball around when she was five and nobody enjoyed the experience. But the boredom of the lockdown drove us into the already tall weeds of the playing field at a nearby school, which felt like a backdrop from Children of Men, and the game designed itself.

SadieBall was enormous fun until I kicked our ball beneath the shade of a large tree brooding over a corner of the field. “There’s wasps over there,” my daughter warned as I approached the tree. I ignored her, because she’s always yelling about wasps and running away from bees. It wasn’t until I ducked under the branches and began to reach for the ball that I realised I’d heard a faint humming as I approached, and now, in the gloom beneath the low canopy, the humming was incredibly loud. The motion that I thought was sunlight through the leaves was actually thousands of wasps, drowsily swarming over the rotten wood at the base of the tree, right where the ball lay. I gave an unfatherly scream and reversed backwards, stumbling away from the wasps’ nest. We emailed the school about the infestation. I plan to buy a new ball at level three.

I am suspicious of happiness. At the time it seems like moments of joy with loved ones is the most important thing in the world. But whenever Google prompts me with photos of days at the beach, or a picnic with friends, I usually find I’ve forgotten anything that happened more than a few years ago. How meaningful can happiness be if it’s so easy to forget? This happiness that passes through our lives feels nice, but it is the strange and frightening things that endure and build meaning. The naked bus driver. The time we were all stuck in the house during the lockdown. The wasps’ nest and the lost ball.

We’re all going to be stuck together for longer than six weeks, and I’ve been wondering what that means for us as a nation. New Zealand has never had a strong national identity. Our intellectuals mostly defined us in terms of contempt (“a passionless people”, “a nation of fretful sleepers”). For the rest of us there is a random assortment of things to be proud of, depending on taste: the All Blacks, Kate Shepherd, Milford Sound, Edmund Hillary, our anthem in te reo, the first half of Peter Jackson’s film career, something to do with Gallipoli. Lorde. Our national character was that we didn’t really have one. For most of my life we’ve been a quiet little place that most young New Zealanders who were adventurous and ambitious got the fuck away from. Some of them came back, usually because they had kids. Most did not.

Now though, through a happy combination of remoteness, good governance and dumb luck, it looks like we’re going to be the safest country in the world in the midst of a global catastrophe. And I feel like it means something to be a New Zealander in these circumstances, that it means something that we’re all trapped here together, self-isolating at the end of the world.

The idea of the nation state and a national character are intellectually unfashionable ideas, and have been for decades. To those on the right we needed to minimise the state to be better integrated with global markets; to thinkers on the left, borders and the state were artefacts of colonialism and white supremacy; centrists were increasingly attracted to global government by transnational bureaucracies (run, naturally, by them); our tech and new-media overlords prefer to partition us all up into niche demographics at war with each other, because that’s the most effective way to sell digital ads. And yet here we all are, in lockdown together with closed borders and the nation state as the defining feature in our economy and our lives, and a grave economic crisis looming before us. It makes me wonder who we all are and what we believe in, which was a question I never really cared about before all this.

I’m not saying we should “have a conversation” about these things. People who say that always seem to mean they’ll talk while everyone else listens. I don’t know what our national character or values look like. I suspect they’re finer than many of our finest thinkers think they are, and I know that the country that emerges from the lockdown will be considerably poorer than the one that entered it, and that there will be further hardship, and that we’re more likely to make sacrifices for one another if we’re more certain of what we have in common, and what values we share. I’m not naive enough to think everyone else should simply adopt my values. But this time of crisis and change and strange omens – the lockdown, the virus, the naked bus driver, his stern face staring bleakly into a future only he could see – feels like a good time to think about who we are and the kind of people and country that we might want to be.

Keep going!