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May 2015 Issue
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A confession

Photo; Mark Banham

Nationalism may be a dirty word, but national pride is expected. Every red-blooded Kiwi backs the All Blacks and the Black Caps, and to suggest otherwise is tantamount to treason… but should that be the case? By Mark Banham

Dear Out There readers, I have a confession to make. I’ve been writing this column for several years now under the guise of a normal, though somewhat philosophical Kiwi sharing his thoughts on the outdoors. But I’m afraid that’s not the case. There is a very good chance you and I differ on the most fundamental of Kiwi cultural practices:

I neither watch, nor play cricket. I don’t understand soccer and I don’t get a kick out of rugby.

If you choose to stop reading now and never return, I respect your decision. But for those of you who are still here, I applaud your open mindedness and offer you the peculiar backstory to that wee revelation.

You see, I’m British by birth, but was raised in Australia and have lived in New Zealand for a decade, so you’d think I’d be raving mad for these colonial sporting fixtures. But in practice this leg-on-three-sides-of-the-fence upbringing has meant the opposite; for me, watching any sporting event involving foreigners and a ball is an exercise in awkwardness and guilt. Whoever I cheer for, I’ll be alienating two-thirds of my friends.

Invariably it’s easier just to go do something else – climb up mountains, ski down them, kayak along rivers – anything to dodge the dreaded after-work game of cricket! All that time spent hiding out in the mountains has given me plenty of time to ponder why exactly everyone gets so excited about these things.

I think Tom Wolfe gave the best explanation of why a bunch of blokes chasing a ball around a paddock gets us so excited in his book The Right Stuff, in which he mentions the archaic concept of ‘single combat’.

‘In single combat the mightiest soldier of one army would fight the mightiest soldier of the other army as a substitute for a pitched battle between the entire forces,’ he writes. ‘Single combat was not seen as a humanitarian substitute for wholesale slaughter until late in its history. That was a Christian reinterpretation of the practice.’

More often, he says single combat was used in superstitious times to demoralise the losing side by demonstrating which side fate favoured – as was the most famous case: David versus Goliath. As the story goes, when Goliath hits the deck after receiving a deftly flung pebble between the eyes, the Philistine army was so spooked that they fled, were pursued and slaughtered… by the good guys.

Wolfe was writing about astronauts and cosmonauts, but I think the concept applies to our beloved ball bouncing sportsmen. Somewhere, deep in our tribal subconscious, we see the All Blacks and the Black Caps as slingshot wielding Davids going into battle to show which side the gods favour.

We’re incredibly lucky in New Zealand that our flavour of nationalism is a pretty benign one – we half-jokingly call Aotearoa ‘God’s Own’ and it’s okay but if you’ve ever heard someone from the Middle East talk about their homeland as ‘God’s chosen country’, it seems somehow much more chilling. Why?

I think it’s because deep down we all know there’s a paper-thin line between heart-warming national pride and Napalm launching nationalism. It’s very hard to think about our countrymen as ‘Us’ without thinking about foreigners as a somewhat inferior ‘Them’. When times are good, that’s not really a problem. But when you put a bit of pressure on those dividing lines they tend to break apart with pretty nasty consequences.

Now I always think calling my adventures ‘tramping trips’ and ‘kayaking expeditions’ is slightly misleading, sure the bulk of the time might be spent kayaking and tramping, but the big drawcard is the post-exertion endorphin high and the surge of imagination that comes with it.

Sit exhaustedly on the front step of a backcountry hut for long enough and your imagination drifts back and forth between the possible to the ridiculous so often that the line between the two begins to blur.

It’s at times like this that insane ideas like ‘What if we erased the lines on the map that tell us which rugby team to support and who to pay our taxes to?’ enter our heads.

I’d love to say it’s an original idea, but alas John Lennon beat me to it: ‘Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too. Imagine all the people. Living life in peace.’

Surely it wouldn’t work. In fact, most people are so certain it wouldn’t work that to even suggest it is considered blasphemous. We’re all taught to support and show pride in our nation from the cradle, to stand up for the national anthem (three of them in my case) and grow misty eyed at the sight of a gently fluttering flag.

But some people have. American comedian George Carlin said, “I’ve never understood national pride and I’ve never understood ethnic pride. To me pride should be reserved for something you achieve or attain on your own, not something that happens by accident of birth. Being Irish isn’t a skill… you wouldn’t say ‘I’m proud to be five-foot-eleven’.”

But people need something to identify with, something to belong to. If we tore down the flags and tore up the passports, what would people have to be proud of?

The things that really matter of course: the earth beneath their feet, the trees that are left standing and the birds in them. After all, that biosphere is what you belong to – not your nation… and not your damn football team!

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