Monday, November 7, 2016
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
OUR PUSILLANIMOUS FOREBEARS
A brief bedside story or two for you to ponder this week.
As you know, in the 1930s European politicians in democratic European countries were a pusillanimous lot. Instead of forthrightly standing up to Hitler they kept appeasing him and giving him what he wanted, in the hope that all his demands would be met peacefully and there would be no repetition of the Great War. It was clear for all to see that the Hitler state was an undemocratic state, that it persecuted minorities, routinely committed gross breaches of the most basic human and civil rights and was essentially bellicose. Even as late as 1938, Britain still had a more powerful air force and navy that Germany; and France still had a larger army. But in Britain and France, weak-kneed politicians were too concerned with their nation’s comfort to do anything about this. To their great shame, the prime ministers Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier flew to Munich in 1938, and sold out Czechoslovakia, knowing full well that once he had nibbled away at the Sudetenland, Hitler would proceed to swallow the lot of that democratic country.
What a cowardly bunch!
How gross of them not to do what WE would have done in their circumstances!
They belonged to a generation that regarded trade and national prosperity as more important that human rights and more important than standing up to a totalitarian regime. Right until the Western Allies were forced into war in 1939, private British and French (and American) companies were still doing profitable deals with Nazi Germany.
As we sit and look at the familiar David Low cartoons that are reproduced in so many school history textbooks, we congratulate ourselves that we are so much more humane than this miserable, spineless bunch.
Last month Hong Kong democracy advocates came to New Zealand asking to see government ministers, simply to make clear what their situation is. They are clearly menaced by the one-party Chinese regime that wishes to limit, or withdraw, real and basic democratic rights and rescind the special status of Hong Kong. By an extraordinary coincidence neither John Key nor Bill English could see them. Neither could any government minister nor any member of the treasury benches. Gosh! They must all be really busy people not to be able make a spare half-hour.
Ah, but you see, my dears, we have many very profitable trade deals with China, so that China is now one of our major trading partners. And we now have a large ethnic Chinese population in Auckland. Let us turn a blind eye to the undemocratic one-party Chinese state’s clearly expansionist mood, as seen in what is now happening in the South China Seas. Let us turn a blind eye, especially when representatives of the one-party regime threaten retaliations should we officially receive any Chinese dissenters, no matter how respectable and democratic they may be.
I’m sorry Mr Benes, but we have to shaft you or Hitler might go berserk on us.
I’m sorry, democratic people of Hong Kong, but the Chinese government might stop buying our milk powder.
There are some fairly obvious lessons here, aren’t there?
First, high rhetoric about supporting democratic values will often be trumped by the desire for hard cash and favourable trade. Helen Clark’s government blocked from the delicate eyes of Chinese government ministers the unsavoury sight of people protesting about the Chinese colonisation of Tibet. John Key’s lot conveniently run away when faced with real Chinese democrats from Hong Kong.
Second, comment on this has absolutely nothing to do with racism or xenophobia. Remember how the Labour opposition rather ineptly drew attention to the number of (non-resident and speculating) Chinese who were buying up Auckland properties, and thus rendering most Auckland real estate unaffordable to young New Zealanders? Gamely pretending that no such situation existed, government members had great fun further pretending that Labour’s motivation was racist and anti-Chinese. There were jokes about how Labour had merely looked up Chinese names in the phone book, ho, ho, ho; and subsequently whenever Labour members have asked the government to apologise for something, some National backbencher is likely to ask Labour to apologise to the Chinese people, ho, ho, ho.
Please remember, best beloved, that the democrats from Hong Kong are also ethnic Chinese. To criticise an unjust government and its representatives is not to be racist. To claim it is, is very much like the familiar manoeuvre of the Israeli government in claiming that any criticism of Israeli government policy makes one anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish.
Third, perhaps we should be a bit humbler about the motives of people in the past. Yes, Chamberlain, Daladier and co. were weak and missed a lot of opportunities to thwart Hitler. But was their desire to avoid another war really all that base? Indeed, was it all that different from what motivates our governments now? The deliberately simplistic narrative of the 1930s, with which I began, is most often peddled by people of a left-wing persuasion who, as often as not, ignore the fact that the British and French approach to Hitler was exactly the same as that of the Soviet Union. Uncle Joe was busily cultivating Adolf from 1933 onwards, and basically won the race when the USSR and Nazi Germany went into alliance in 1939. Guilty motives all around, folks, and not just in the democratic camp.
History never exactly repeats, and all comparisons between different historical circumstances are open to criticism. I adhere to the Just War theory, part of which says that a country should never go to war when its defeat is certain. So I am certainly not saying that New Zealand should now declare war on China. But I am saying that the New Zealand (and Australian, and American) governments, in this particular matter, deserve exactly the same measure of respect as the appeasers of old.