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Criticism of your country

Hello or Ola if you’re from Brazil (seriously I seem to be getting a lot of site traffic from Brazil)

There’s been a bit of hoopla in the last few days in New Zealand because the author Eleanor Catton said a bunch of negative stuff about New Zealand in general and the government in particular, and some people think that you apparently don’t say negative stuff about your home country if you’re internationally successful.

Some of the criticism I get, other parts are just ridiculous, mind you some of what she said in the first place I think is true others less so.  All of who said what is here. For the record I agree with her about the politians, not so much about the tall poppy thing and can see her point about how we do try and own individual success collectively (yep all 4.4 million of us helped make Lord of the Rings).  The tall poppy thing I think is in New Zealand we have a particular mould that we want our successes to fit – the quiet, humble achiever who takes success in their stride and doesn’t make a big deal of themselves, basically if you’re successful in New Zealand we want to act like Sir Edmund Hilary. I’ve often thought that if Mohammed Ali came from New Zealand he’d be remembered as ‘that great boxer who nobody liked’ or ‘The great boxer who moved to another country’ because anyone who went around saying they were the greatest in New Zealand just wouldn’t get any support.

But this whole thing got me thinking about the whole idea criticising your country.  Clearly no country is perfect, no country has absolutely everything figured out and also people like different things – even just for a visit, I mean an online friend of mine loved Turin in Italy, I thought it felt like walking into someone else’s hangover (I really do need to post about my travels last year don’t I?)

Effectively your home country is an accident of birth, so in some ways being proud of your home country is a bit like being proud of your hair colour or the socio economic bracket of your parents – it has nothing to do with you or your accomplishments and if you don’t like it you can change it.

I can’t really speak about how other countries feel about criticism but  I think the real issue with people criticising New Zealand is that we’re very aware that we are a tiny little island at the bottom of the world with less people than Sydney.  It happens any time something negative happens to tourists in New Zealand, we start wringing our hands and saying ‘what will people think of us’. So a back packer has their car with all their stuff stolen we freak out and think ‘oh no! They’ll go away thinking New Zealand is awful’ and people give them money and free accommodation and back packs and all sorts and while admittedly this is partly because kiwi’s are generous, it’s also partly so they’ll go away saying how wonderful we all are.

But this situation isn’t a foreigner who had bad experience it’s a kiwi making a comment about the people who are running the country at the moment, people who aren’t very supportive of the arts, people who do like to cosy up to big business and even if it was just her opinion (which of course many will argue it is) well so what? Since when was criticising the government anything other than a right, New Zealand is a democracy after all.  I think if she’d been talking to a New Zealand audience her comments would barely made a blip, but as it was to an international everyone loses perspective.  She was talking about her experience as a man-booker prize winning author from New Zealand, something that exactly one other person (who has agreed with some comments and disagreed with others)

Some criticism I’ve heard of New Zealand (it’s expensive, it’s hard to get around, people are outwardly friendly and welcoming but a little hard to get to know) I think are valid, some of the criticism (mostly that we’re parochial and behind the rest of the world) I think are unfair.  Sure everyone hates it when people move to a country and do nothing but complain, I know when I lived in London I was very careful only to complain about the rubbish banking system (which was the only thing that I really didn’t like about living there.)

Perhaps she could have been a bit more diplomatic, mixed some of the good in with bad, I don’t know.  I’ll get back to you when I’ve won a major literary prize. I would be interested in how other countries  view their high profile citizens criticising the country – does your country go nuts in this situation or just shrug and say ‘ah well, they’re entitled to their opinion’?

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