In praise of Kiwi-dom

Hillary Clinton wisely observed that New Zealand punches well above its weight in the international arena.  She’s not the first to say this, and I doubt she’ll be the last.  And she couldn’t have been more right.

I think for most people in the US, the concept of New Zealand is rather fuzzy.  Before moving here, I always assumed that New Zealand was a stone’s throw from Australia.  And while Australia is New Zealand’s closest “big” neighbor, Antarctica is in the same block.

Where in the world is New Zealand?

That's New Zealand. The long speck at the left, bottom

To put this into perspective, Australia is approximately 1,826 miles away from New Zealand, which is roughly the flying distance between Savannah and Las Vegas (give or take a few miles).  Antarctica is approximately 3,000 miles away from New Zealand, which is a bit more (by 200 miles) than the flying distance between Key West and Seattle. Fiji and Tonga are both closer to New Zealand, at 1,615 and 1,483 miles away, respectively.

These sound like huge distances, and they are.  But when you’re on a small island at the bottom of the South Pacific, you’ll take your neighbors where you can find them.

But let’s take a moment and talk about size.  The size of New Zealand (a composite of all of the islands making up the country) is comparative to the state of Colorado. New Zealand’s population (approximately 4.36 million) is a bit more than the population of Kentucky and a bit less that the population of Louisiana.  For comparison purposes, the population of Colorado is approximately 4.95 million.   (2010 US Census).

So.  We have a country at the bottom of the world, roughly the size of Colorado, and with only 4.36 million people, which sits in the shadow of its much larger neighbor, Australia.  What could New Zealand possibly offer on the international stage?  A lot.

Here’s what I’ve learned about Kiwis.

Kiwis are brave and willing as:

ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) memorial

In the Gallipoli campaign of World War I, 2,721 New Zealand soldiers were killed and 4,852 were seriously wounded.  Just taking into account those who died, that represented approximately one percent of New Zealand’s population at the time.

Consider that figure in US numbers. America’s current population is approximately 312 million.  Losing one percent of the US population in a single military campaign would equate to roughly 3.12 million people.  This would be like losing the entire population of Iowa and her visitors. 

That is an especially sobering thought when you consider that the Kiws and the Turks who fought against each other in the Gallipoli campaign were considered expendable pawns in a far more deadly game.

Kiwis have a long, distinguished history of performing well in conflict.  Consider the 28th Maori Battalion in World War II.  Among other successes, it was responsible for almost completely destroying a German panzer grenadier battalion in March 1943.

After 9/11,New Zealand was one of the first nations to offer its assistance.  It still is.

While New Zealand is small, and even the Kiwis joke about the Navy consisting of single dinghy, never underestimate the ingenuity and tenaciousness of a New Zealander.

Kiwis are ingenious as:

And speaking of ingenuity, the phrase “Kiwi ingenuity” doesn’t just refer to things held together by string and tape.  Here’s just a sample of the things Kiwis did first:

  • They split the atom.   Kiwi, scientist and Nobel Prize winner Baron Ernest Rutherford was the first in the world to split the atom in 1919.
  • They invented the eggbeater, spiral hair pin, and the first burglar-proof window.  All three are courtesy of Ernest Godward, who was British born, but emigrated to New Zealand in his teens.
  • Jet boats, water sprinklers, advanced air compressors, and a thingy that smooths ice on ice ponds.  All of these were courtesy of Sir William Hamilton.
  • Jogging.  Yes, jogging is a Kiwi invention thought up by Arthur Lydiard.

You also have Kiwis to thank for items like disposable hypodermic syringes; spreadable butter; tranquilizer guns; referee whistles; and air-tight lids.  And of course, New Zealand is the birthplace of the Bungy.

 Kiwis are egalitarian as:

While egalitarianism permeates most structures in New Zealand, what I’m really referring to is the fact that New Zealand completely ignores its size and thumbs its nose at the strictures of hierarchy, whether at work, or in government.

Consider that the US wanted to dock the USS Buchanan (a ship that may or may not have been nuclear powered and/or carrying nuclear weapons—the US would neither confirm nor deny) at a New Zealand port. New Zealand said no.  Why?  Because New Zealand had declared itself a nuclear-free zone (in part, in response to the request to dock) and wasn’t interested in budging on that.

The US responded by suspending its ANZUS alliance obligations to New Zealand.

According to Wikipedia (you know, the font of all knowledge), “New Zealand’s three decade anti-nuclear campaign is the only successful movement of its type in the world which resulted in the nation’s nuclear-free zone status being enshrined in legislation.”

I think there was a healthy consideration of, “Who was New Zealand to tell the US that they couldn’t park their boat in New Zealand”?    Who was New Zealand?  She was herself.  That’s pretty darn cool, when you think about it.

nuclear-free protestors in NZ. (Image courtesy of NZhistory.net)

But beyond a little nation saying “no” to a big nation, since moving to New Zealand, I’ve seen strikes, protests, sit-ins, rallies, marches, and other forms of political expression about everything from caged chickens, to worker’s rights, to the price of milk.

What is most incredible to me is that, as an American, I am bemused by this.  That’s extraordinarily sad, really.  When I think about why I’m bemused, it’s because if I were at home, I probably wouldn’t bother with making protest fliers or marching on Parliament.  Perhaps I’ve become too jaded and apathetic about the “little guy’s” voice being anything more than a whisper against the din of political self-interest.

Either way, New Zealand is refreshing in its egalitarian zeal.  I find myself protective of that earnestness, that true belief that every voice matters; every vote counts.

That extends to personal issues as well. New Zealand recognizes same sex marriage and civil unions.  All people—gay, straight, transgendered, whatever—are afforded a level of dignity and normalcy that I can’t say I’ve seen in other places.

And finally (and some would say most importantly), I close with the fact that New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote.  In 1893, no less.

That, to quote a good friend, is ‘Choice, bro.’