Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

The United States a Down-Under View: Scott Thomson Considers the Roots of and Rationales for Popular New Zealand Perceptions of the United States

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

The United States a Down-Under View: Scott Thomson Considers the Roots of and Rationales for Popular New Zealand Perceptions of the United States

Article excerpt

Popular perceptions of America may be simplistic. They are often paradoxical. Others better qualified than me can assess how significant they might be in shaping the political will that drives our foreign policy. In this article I will focus on five contradictions I most frequently encounter.

The first relates to whether Americans are family or strangers. Born into the English-speaking family, settler New Zealanders also had strong affinity with the United States of America. We both shared pioneer/ colonial ethos and direct links from the earliest times. American sealers and whalers had already crossed the wide Pacific. Trade followed them and gold seekers came a little later. Like the founders of America, many New Zealand pioneers had left the United Kingdom with varying degrees of disgust. Irish Catholics shared a particular solidarity, and they were not the only ones who had relatives in North America, or even lived there themselves before sailing on to New Zealand.

Pioneering went forward in parallel. Buffalo Bill, Uncle Tom's Cabin and the writings of Mark Twain were found in many New Zealand homes. Then came gramophones and movies. America was excitingly different, bur certainly family.

It took the Japanese advance of 1942--and the deployment of thousands of American servicemen to New Zealand--to demonstrate how different we were. American accents and uniforms, free spending, courteous manners and coffee contrasted with drab and provincial war-time New Zealand. A few irritated locals with their ignorance of New Zealand's sacrifices in the British war effort or with southern slurs on Maori and their own black comrades. Nobody pretends that Kiwis serving overseas liked the idea of virile Marines mixing with girlfriends and wives. The Americans, too, had legitimate gripes, such as damage and pilfering of stores handled by New Zealand workers.

Generally the contact was friendly, but wartime contact began to demythologise the relationship. Brothers? Film Stars? Supermen? For a while we swung along more or less in step with the Belle of New York--'of course you can never be like us, but be as like us as you're able to be.'

Gradually we came to see America as a 'cousin; a child of a British Empire, but also heir to other DNA--African, German, Italian, Spanish, Jewish. Like them, we later gained Dutch and Asian elements in our national persona, but we also recognised our own distinctive Polynesian culture. A part of them does resonate strongly with a part of us. But how can they be family when they don't play rugby or cricket?

Noticeable tension

Down the years I have noticed a tension among New Zealanders originating from their empathy or lack of it towards things American. I have felt this between RNZAF men who served in Europe or the Pacific, between devotees of Merseyside or Country music, and between traditional and charismatic churches. It is something stronger than preference, but a shade less than prejudice.

I also notice this same unease between Americans. I recall a sports administrator lamenting that his great American car race had been taken over by 'Foreigners, Hispanics and Weirdos.' The 'weirdos' seemed to me to have conspicuously conventional folksy family values--the sons and grandsons of established US sporting dynasties. But something had slipped. Something no longer chimed with that American's vision of his America. Friends may sometimes feel strangers--even among themselves.

Technical contradiction

America is surely the land of technology. Yet its apparent superiority seems contradicted by an inferiority complex: the world's largest one-day sports crowd was seeing something perceived as 'un-American': at Indianapolis in 19941 saw 90 per cent of race engines badged Ford or Chevrolet even though every single one was designed and built in Britain. When that situation switched to almost 100 per cent Japanese engines, the fans' loyalties swung still further away to 'Stock Cars', where the American Dream must reign by definition--big US V8s only. …

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