Hopeful history for Christmas


    We are coming to the end of a particularly dismaying year. Does it matter that last weekend, Christopher Luxon was nominated politician of the year by the country’s only national daily newspaper, the New Zealand Herald? A bit of a dork, he has had extraordinary mainstream media coverage (unsurprisingly as John Key is his personal Mr Miyagi).

    Meanwhile our government and global superstar politician Jacinda Ardern has mopped up Covid and we’ve emerged with the western world’s best GDP (for what that’s worth; it’s a right wing measure), beating Australia, USA and the UK.

    Her team has delivered the lowest inflation in any western country and we have come out of the last three years of pandemic with low unemployment and an economy with a lower debt record than any other in the western world.

    It’s an achievement reduced to nothing, apparently, by the Reserve Bank’s weird lever against global inflation which, whatever else, was not caused by reckless spending by the now cash-strapped masses of ordinary New Zealanders. That extraordinary trillion dollars of Covid’s hot house-market money in the hands of the already wealthy? Probably.

    Herald commentator Claire Trevett said the ‘best politician’ contest was a tough call, eventually arbitrated by the words of former Herald political editor, the late John Armstrong, who had written: “Never forget that politics boils down to power – winning it and, just as importantly, retaining it. The fascination comes in watching how politicians play the game.”

    Only a narcissistic mainstream media boardroom could find that admirable. Or fascinating.

    It’s to reduce democracy to the tedious mantras of such political enablers as Crosby Textor: verbal noise, outrageous diversions, stick-to-the-script or unanswered questions and photo ops.

    And where does this leave rank and file New Zealanders going into Christmas terrified of swingeing mortgage or rental rises to come, unaffordable food and fuel and businesses scrabbling for staff and to make good disrupted supply lines and inflated overheads?

    On Waiheke, it also means an existential threat to our ferries and the travellers, visitors and businesses we need to survive as a community. It means Christmas is distracted by a frieze of new speed limit signs and a four-fold increase in traffic noise due to the sudden rise in horn-tooting by frustrated motorists trying to catch ferries that may never come.

    Bureaucratic rule-books are another torment.

    No wonder we’re uneasy.

    But imagine that all this is a crust, a veneer; that slides daily into our heads, informs every hasty decision and settles on our beings like ash and toxic spume from a volcano.

    That underneath the thin crust of grim power and self-consequence are eight billion beings inhabiting a benevolent nature, most of whom, left to themselves, will spontaneously, naturally, perform really heroic miracles for strangers and fiercely defend home, family and country against overwhelming odds, as is happening in Ukraine.

    What if Lord of the Flies was written by a bad tempered schoolmaster in the early 1950s who barely stepped out of his own back door in real life (it was) and that the only boys actually marooned on a desert island were more Arthur Ransome and Swiss Family Robinson than the murderous thugs William Golding dreamed up?

    Either reality can be true and  Rutger Bregman’s Humankinad: A hopeful history confirms – with easy humour and a deep dive into the myths of history and new modern-day psychological research – what we instinctively knew at the beginning of the Covid pandemic.

    That despite the last 10,000 years of ‘civilisation’ skewed by Ozemandian conquerors, renaissance popes, armies, Machiavellis, Stalins and now algorithms, fake media and oligarchs, kindness is still sewn into the DNA of the species he calls Homo Puppy. Domesticated, sociable and wired to be helpful.

    Like our distant tribal ancestors in an agrarian pre-history, our winning formula at an everyday level is still friendly, co-operative, stoic and selfless in a crisis. We are also great networkers, says Bregman. And kind, as we observed so briefly before the clamour of daily news clips drowned out compassion during the Covid pandemic.

    We also retain the capacity to choose which of these two world views we feed in our own minds.

    I have read many studies on ways out of the impending doom of capitalist thinking in the face of the climate emergency, and while most have been innately hopeful, none have come close to the sweep of Bregman’s fluent remastering of our collective take on the human condition.

    Or the readability, so this book is one for the Christmas tree and the picnic basket if you want to give friends a cheerful dialog about human nature.

    From all of us at Gulf News, we wish you a richly satisfying Christmas weekend in the spirit of gratitude and optimistic beginnings. • Liz Waters

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