Last month an email came inviting me to jot down a few words for a newspaper feature called “100 Reasons to Be A Kiwi”. I assumed the email was intended for a celebrity and had been misaddressed.
Then came a phone call, close to deadline — and a deadline of my own, which precluded response.
Here’s what I might have said: “To flap my wings.”
There are two ways to read my (non-)flight of fancy.
One is that I could flap my wings all I liked but I would stay fixed to the ground. Kiwis don’t fly. They also don’t like daylight and fight a lot. Rum sort of bird.
The second interpretation is that I will fly anyway, dammit. Shift the analogy from the physiological to the psychological and you get New Zealanders who refuse to be constrained by smallness and mediocrity.
Both New Zealands are real. Nothing is possible in this stifling village. And everything is possible because there are no heavy traditions to stop you and probably no one else has done it before you.
You can choose to be flightless and tetchy like our symbol-bird or choose to defy nature and gravity and be winged.
So here are seven options for ways to think about 2007 when you have shaken the drips off 2006.
First, the weather — actually the climate. Cold, wet, grey, depressing — but supposed by scientists to be warming.
The flightless option is to fix on the cost of doing anything about climate change, deny carbon and methane are building up in the atmosphere and pray that food miles and similar campaigns will go away.
The winged option is to reckon there are opportunities (whether the globe is actually warming or not) and go for them — and show up an earthbound government if it won’t flap its wings.
One opportunity is to convince the precious middle classes in rich countries that this is the pre-eminent climate-friendly country and make a market killing. A second is to stake out a leading scientific position on methane emissions which we could sell to Russia and Canada to mitigate the huge emissions when melting Arctic snow exposes the earth.
Second, the terror countries — where millions of innocents yearly are bullied, impoverished and killed by despots, jihadists, rebel armies and common murderers.
The flightless option: congratulate ourselves that we advanced peoples have grown out of civil mayhem and leave them to stew.
The winged option: accept the “responsibility to protect” such distant peoples from their vicious rulers and vicious opponents and accept the cost of a much bigger army that goes with that responsibility.
Third, the South Pacific — mostly poorly governed, mostly grindingly poor.
The flightless option: periodically send in troops and otherwise put up the shutters.
The winged option: tell ourselves the blunt fact that we are a Pacific people, that the Pacific is in our blood, that some island countries get it right and the others can be nurtured with decades-long patience and goodwill. And tell the government to double its miserly aid budget.
Fourth, the mayhem at home — fraud, drugs, rapes and murders.
The flightless option: lock the crims up and throw away the key, at vast expense.
The winged option: practise the three Rs — retribution, restitution and rehabilitation — and, at vast expense, make a real effort to recover the human from inside the criminal shell.
Fifth, conspiracy — those webs of dastardly evildoers.
The flightless option: hang on every word, true or false, of the fantasists of extreme right and left, and believe the worst of people, their motives and their actions, real or imagined, and magnify your moral superiority into haloed satisfaction. They might turn out surprisingly bad.
The winged option: let facts speak for themselves and respect inconvenient facts, be generous of spirit, not judgmental and believe the best of people, their motives and their actions until proved mistaken. They might turn out surprisingly good.
Sixth, the Treaty of Waitangi — artefact of history and living founding document.
The flightless option: complain that it gets in the way of business and the good life and agitate to abolish it — and, for good measure, the Maori seats.
The winged option: debate how to incorporate it and respect it and so move beyond division and separation to a new way of gathering our nation together.
Seventh: the future.
The flightless option: the future is old. So pour scarce resources into eking out a year or two more of life for the aged, not least in expectation the same will be done for you in your turn; and on no account move up the age of retirement, even though life expectancy grows two months a year.
The winged option: the future is young. So pour scarce resources into science, to find the ideas to lift the earning capacity of our specialty industries, and into education, especially pre-primary education, to ensure all kids get a real chance at life.
The bad news for 2007 is that most Kiwis are flightless. The good news is that some are winged. Time to join ’em.