1840 and all that

We must be the only country in the world where the overwhelming emotion towards our national day is a vague sense of embarrassment.

Most New Zealanders, if we stop to consider Waitangi Day at all (other than as a day off work and a chance to head to the beach and make the most of the last of the summer) don’t seem to know whether we should be celebrating the birth of our nation, or mourning (or maybe repenting) the injustices of the last 168 years.

Depending on your point of view, the Treaty is either a source of pride (it was the first time ever that the British actually treated a native people as equals who should be negotiated with), a source of shame (mis-translations meant that not everyone knew what they were signing, and many parts of the Treaty were never honoured anyway), or a source of annoyance (cue my stepfather’s brother, with his racism and rants about “&^%$ Maori keep demanding more and more, how many more final settlements are there going to be?”). To some it’s a vital document that should inform all our lives, to others it’s a dusty piece of history that has no relevance today.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that so many New Zealanders, unsure whether they’re supposed to be celebrating or commiserating, decide to just ignore the whole thing and treat it as just another day off work. Or is it more than embarrassed confusion that makes so many of us ignore Waitangi Day? Does it say something about our national character?

Wondering about the Liberty Bell after a suggestion that our American road trip might detour through Philadelphia, Wikipedia led me to an article about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and I was struck with the difference between how Americans think about their founding document, and we think about ours. Perhaps the Declaration of Independence means different things to different people in the same way the Treaty does (do Native Americans celebrate the Fourth of July?), but the overall impression is that it’s something Americans are deeply proud of, and they aren’t afraid to say so. And it struck me that perhaps that illustrates a basic difference between America and New Zealand.

Americans (with apologies to my American friends for the crass overgeneralisation) are brashly overconfident as a nation, and the same supreme confidence that leads the USA to take such an aggressive stance in its foreign policy makes the Fourth of July a day of unquestioned celebration and pride. New Zealanders, only confident on the sports field, feel embarrassed to even acknowledge that Waitangi Day is our national day, and wouldn’t think of going round waving the flag or singing the National Anthem.

And then of course there’s the UK, so calmly self-assured in their antiquity that they don’t even *have* a national day…

I’m not saying that any of these attitudes are better or worse, just different. And I’m not suggesting we should change the way Waitangi Day is marked. The differences just struck me as interesting, and worth thinking about today.

Happy 168th birthday anyway, New Zealand. And many happy returns.

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