Dull, Philistine and Conforming: How Have We Changed over the Years?

Listener: 1 January, 2005.

Keywords: Political Economy & History; Lietrature and culture

Returning after graduate studies at Oxford and war service in Europe, M K (Michael Kennedy) Joseph thought the New Zealand of the late 1940s and 1950s was dull, philistine and conforming. He famously expressed his reservations in “Secular Litany”, which begins:

That we may never lack two Sundays in a week
One to rest and one to play
That we may worship in the liturgical drone
Of race-commentator and the radio raconteur
That we may avoid distinction and exception
Worship the mean, cultivate the mediocre
Live in a state house, raise forcibly educated children
Receive family benefits, and standard wages and a pension
A rest in peace in a state crematorium
Saint All Black
Saint Monday Raceday
Saint Stabilisation
Pray for us

The poem describes a very different New Zealand from today, for it is littered with antiquated images, now only worshipped by small, and often dying, minorities. Later, the poem asks various Saint Holidays to defend us “from all foreigners with their unintelligible cooking” and even from “barbecues”. No doubt, Joseph would rail against today’s takeaway foods, but he would revel in our restaurants, while the plainest New Zealand cook uses foreign ingredients. The only remaining national icon in the poem is the All Blacks. So, what is the connection between today’s New Zealander and that of a 50 years ago, when three-quarters of us weren’t born?

The issue of cultural commonalty over time is outside the economics discipline, but it becomes important when we talk about the “New Zealand values” that underpin economic behaviour and policy. The reforms of the 1980s and 1990s failed in part because they required us to change our values. It was no accident that the reformers relied on foreign advisers who were out of sympathy with, and ignorant of, New Zealand values.

Rob Muldoon saw himself as defending them. But even his differed from the poem’s. Although as a politician he would have been anxious “when the bottles are empty/and the keg runs sour” (and as Minister of Finance even more anxious about the lost excise duty), he drank wine. And surely a sometime star of The Rocky Horror Show would not have wished to be defended from “kermesse [fairs and bazaars] and carnival, high day and festival”.

Joseph’s parody was not so extreme that the real situation was unrecognisable, for the poem was popular in the decade after it was written. There remains an undertone that resonates today. Joseph was irritated by a dominant culture that was intolerant of alternatives and dissent.

We may be more tolerant today, and accept “distinction and exception” (although, in intellectual affairs, we largely continue to “worship the mean, cultivate the mediocre”). Some of that tolerance comes from the market. I may like cabernet sauvignon; you sauvignon blanc, or Speights, or Southern Comfort – or orange juice. The market supplies our individual needs and although we may josh one another about their respective merits, we accept the different tastes. Public sector delivery offers less choice, which is why some – but not all – economic liberalisation of the 1980s was beneficial.

But not everything can be delivered effectively by the market. How do we establish laws that recognise the differences between the Maori and Pakeha melting pot of other ethnic groups; Christians and Muslims; religionists and secularists; men and women; straights and gays; town and country; moral traditionalists and moral liberals, social conservatives and social progressives? “One law for all” is both an absolute requirement of a well-functioning society, and a temptation for majoritarian repression. So, how do we recognise and celebrate our diversity in public policy?

We have faced this tension time and again over the past 50 years. Somehow we have to find a balance between judicial comprehensiveness and judicial tolerance, avoiding casting people into moulds to which they don’t belong. If we can’t, we lose the social cohesiveness and creativity on which our economic – and, more important, our nation’s – future depends.

And yet at the personal level we can be remarkably tolerant. A homosexual I know says, “Some of my best friends are happily married Christian couples.”