1 June 2009
Most New Zealand politicians approach the "honours system" with circumspection. Or, to be blunt, they beat around the bush. Labour Party leader Helen Clark abolished knighthoods because they were reminiscent of an English class society which New Zealanders had chosen to leave behind them. National Party leader John Key reinstated knighthoods for the same reason. Curiously, or perhaps not, the "Republican Movement of Aotearoa" has declared itself to be "ambivalent" on the issue of knighthoods, in accordance with its overall principle that any move towards republican status should involve the least possible change to the political and socio-economic structures put in place by the imperial regime.
But while there are differences and indifferences of opinion over titular knighthoods, the political classes are in general agreement that some form of honours system is a good thing. Even the criticisms of knighthood are so weak ("quaint", "old-fashioned", "medieval") as to hardly constitute criticism at all.
And there is a complete absence of analysis of the role that the honours system plays in the overall system of social control. That role is a subtle but insidious one. It feeds off the natural human tendency to admire and respect those who have achieved feats of strength or endurance, those who have created things of great beauty or utility, and those have put the common good before material self-interest.
The reality is that people like the late and universally admired (Sir) Edmund Hillary and Dame Whina Cooper did more for the honours system than the system did for them. Hillary would be, and was, no less respected as plain Ed Hillary than he was as "Sir Edmund". But his knighthood gave the sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, the opportunity to bask in his reflected glory. And it gave the Prime Minister of the time, Keith Holyoake, the opportunity to further develop his racist assumption that Hillary's conquest of Everest was a "triumph of the British race", in complete denial of the role played by Tenzing Norgay, and in denial of Hillary's own more inclusive regard for other races.
And indeed the reputation of every worthy person who accepts a state honour (and they are to be counted in the hundreds, if not thousands) becames hostage to the state. When we praise an individual, our listeners not unnaturally assume that we have something in common with that individual, some shared values without which we would see nothing to praise. In this way when the state honours people for their courage, strength, generosity, creativity, or sacrifice, we, the people, unconsciously believe that those who control the state must themselves be courageous, strong, generous, creative and self-sacrificing, or at the very least, that they must genuinely respect such characteristics in others. When we hear someone commending Mother Teresa we may believe, and not unreasonably, that they must share her values of humility, piety, service, and self-sacrifice. For that reason, many a scoundrel can be heard singing the praises of Mother Teresa.
And when we ourselves receive some praise, we cannot help but think that the one who praises us must be a soul mate who sees what we see, feels what we feel, and is motivated by the same concerns as ourselves. Therefore we tend to think kindly of them, and are reluctant to find fault. This is how the honours system works. The respect which the population at large feels for the recipient of honours is transferred to the persons of state who conferred that honour, and the recipient himself becomes "honour-bound" to treat the state with deference.
If this was all there was to the New Zealand honours system it would be bad enough. But there is worse. Military forces have long recognised that the best way to cover up an atrocity is to give medals for valour to those responsible. Thus the US military's first response to the My Lai massacre was to give commendations for bravery to the troops who carried out the massacre. In the same way, mass misappropriation of public assets under the Lange-Douglas government was followed up with the allocation of knighthoods to the principal offenders, including (Sir) Roger Douglas and (Sir) Michael Fay.
Titular honours, such as knighthoods are particularly odious because, by virtue of having to refer to a knight as "Sir Roger" or "Sir Michael" every polite citizen and journalist is more or less obliged to endorse the regime's corrupt judgement on the actions of people like Douglas and Fay. But any honours system, whether titular or otherwise, carries with it the same moral hazard. Honours tend, and are intended, to cement in a particular judgement about an individual's character or achievements. As such they are either unnecessary or dangerous to a fair, honest and objective judgement of history.
In short the honours system is a way of rewarding villains and coopting saints in the interests of the regime. There would be no place for it in a moral society. And in fact not all New Zealanders are taken in by the system. (Sir) Douglas Graham has complained that New Zealand tradesmen will always charge double when billing a titled client. While that may be a morally dubious position for a tradesman to adopt, it still signifies that there is a healthy egalitarian contempt for the honours system among ordinary New Zealanders - and even among a few of those who have been honoured.
Most of those honoured implicitly acknowledge this strong sense of egalitarianism by insisting, with the same questionable sincerity as lottery winners, that they "still only want to be known as Jack" to their friends, that the honour "will make no difference" to how they live their lives and (rather less like lottery winners) that the honour is only accepted "on behalf of all those others who have contributed" to their success. Some ingenously claim that the title is only to be used to obtain "foreign recognition" or "professional recognition" which will be of benefit to New Zealand as a whole. The reality is that most of those who accept honours have simply succumbed to personal vanity. Alistair Taylor, who published a tome titled "Honoured by the Queen", which listed all the New Zealand recipients of state honours, half-jokingly remarked that nothing could be profitable than a book which appealed to the vanity of New Zealand's ruling classes.
The New Zealand honours system, with or without titles, has no redeeming features. There are many great and good New Zealanders, but they do not need to be paraded on the catwalk of the regime, and they should not allow themselves to turned into social icons. Nor should they allow themselves to be put in the position where they may be associated with those who have despoiled their country, sullies its reputation, and corrupted its society. They are human beings who may be stronger, braver, more enterprising, creative or industrious than their fellows and that should be the end of it.
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