Cultural representations, identity and “come home” policy

This week I have a question more than a view to peddle or a conviction to push. And the question is this: does anyone out there know of research into the relationship between a nation’s self-presentations, its peoples’ sense of identity, and policy on national diasporas?

Let me explain a little more. I’m a New Zealander and one who, to some extent, shares a trait common among Kiwis that’s called the “cultural cringe”. While New Zealanders can seem painfully eager to promote their country as the greatest little country on Earth, it’s often (a) in the hope that the outsider will agree with them and thus confer an outsider’s imprimatur on that view and (b) with an underlying sense that it’s not really true. We seem simultaneously to believe that we can do anything, yet anything we produce is second rate and that “quality” is a primarily a European (sometimes Japanese) trait; and that even quality judgements are only credible if delivered by an outsider, not an insider.

Thus we simultaneously believe that Kiwi music is “awesome” but listen mainly to British, American and Aussie music. We drinks lots of New Zealand wine yet simultaneously believe that European wine is better. We create “World Class New Zealand” awards yet simultaneously give more column inches to a visiting rent-an-expert than home-grown ones. Not only do we think a Harvard degree is automatically superior to an Auckland one; but that a week long residential course at Harvard is superior to an Auckland PhD. Lemme tellya, I’ve met some pretty flaky Harvard graduates, even Harvard PhDs.

This plays out in the media too. New Zealand artistic and cultural expression has had some sublime moments, moments that are not reducible to an Oscar or two for some overly-violent Tolkien remakes. And yet, isn’t it interesting that the country’s cultural output is best known overseas for things like Lord of the Rings – books written in Britain by a Brit born in South Africa. Where are the indigenous stories? I could point to a view – the extraordinary Once Were Warriors, Kerri Hume’s The Bone People…but my knowledge of British and American art and culture is better.

This also plays out in the propensity for New Zealanders to travel for opportunities. I realise that there are many, many reasons why people migrate, and how hard the migrant experience can be. But I’ve become somewhat fascinated by the fact that, in my case, the transition first to Australia and then to the UK was relatively easy because so many of my cultural reference points were from those countries, especially Britain.

The music I grew up with and loved was all British. I had a (slightly garbled) grasp of British politics because I knew the lyrics to “Stand down Margaret“, but I also got many of the more quotidien cultural references of Billy Bragg, Dr Who and the British Museum. I was a Tolkien fanatic, a reader of Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope. More importantly, I was not a reader of the New Zealand canon – Maurice Gee, Kerri Hulme, Frank Sargeson (although I adored poet Sam Hunt) – because they were purveyors of a rural New Zealand iconography that meant nothing to me, the product of an urban, professional class with cosmopolitan aspirations.

But then neither does New Zealand help itself much in this regard. The arts are poorly funded; there is little local content on television and radio (beyond the easily-churned out reality genre). So much of the nation’s iconography remains firmly European despite the appropriation of Maori motifs by the Pakeha majority.

I suspect many New Zealanders of my generation have similar feelings – caught between two worlds, where we feel some allegiance to our homeland yet so many of our cultural reference points are from elsewhere.

That’s the context. What I’m now interested in is the New Zealand government’s now long-standing “Kiwi Come Home” campaign. The debate is usually conducted — as in this article — in terms of economic incentives – wage rates, employment opportunities, the cost of living – counterposed to values like family connections, lifestyle and so on.

But what about the cultural side? Is a government right to ignore it, or does the fact that New Zealand pays so little attention to artistic and cultural values mean that its “values” appeal will fail to convince people to come back? Do the economic issues really matter so much, or do they only matter more in a context in which other values are not taken seriously?

Hence the question. Is anyone aware of research out there that explores these kinds of issues? I’m looking for stuff on the links between national cultural expression, a sense of identity, and the attitudes of diasporas, or even some elements of that. Any tips gratefully received.

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