Friday, September 22, 2006

Compare and Contrast

Remember those school exam questions that began, “compare and contrast”?

When you leave your country of birth to live in another one, “comparing and contrasting” is something you never stop doing. You notice what’s the same, what’s not, you compare and contrast and, inevitably, you draw conclusions.

This can be a really dicey thing to talk about, since you risk insulting one country or the other. As a result, many immigrants just keep their conclusions to themselves.

Still, some things have such a profound impact that it’s impossible to not throw caution to the wind and go ahead with comparisons. This has nothing to do with which country is “better”, since that’s very subjective and not necessarily very helpful or informative. Instead, it’s evaluating relative strengths and weaknesses. Conclusions, whatever they are, flow from that.

For me, there’s no greater difference between America and New Zealand than politics. I’m not talking merely about the different governmental structures, important as those are, but rather the entire political scene.

New Zealand’s governmental structure is closer to the people than Americans could ever imagine. Part of that is New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy, which encourages a connection to the people that America’s system actively discourages. Part of it, of course, is the smaller size of New Zealand.

But it’s in the operation of the government that the contrasts become more obvious. I’ve already talked a bit about current political shenanigans facing New Zealand. As seriously as New Zealand politicians apparently take everything that’s going on, it’s nothing like what American politicians do.

Here, “corruption” is supposed to be spending public election funding possibly improperly. In America, it’s using one’s position of power for enrichment, of oneself or one’s buddies. Here, the consequences of the current “corruption” would be, at worst, loss on Election Day. In America, corruption can ruin lives—or take them.

So, you could say it’s a matter of degree, opposite ends of the spectrum.

It seems to me that it’s in the operation of what I call “social politics” that the difference becomes dramatic. Social politics covers everything that affects how we live and cooperate within a society. It has to do with fairness, justice, human rights and democracy.

New Zealand’s national law forbids discrimination in many ways, including one that American national law doesn’t, and is unlikely to do: Sexual orientation discrimination is illegal in New Zealand. Similarly, New Zealand offers Civil Unions, giving same-sex couples the full rights of marriage, while American politicians attempt to ban all legal recognition of such relationships, whether it’s marriage, civil unions, or something else. Gay and lesbian people can serve openly and proudly in the New Zealand armed forces, while the American military has removed thousands and thousands of personnel since 1993, when the infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy began. New Zealand has a tiny far right Christian fundamentalist minority, but here they’re on the margins of politics, not at the centre of the ruling party of government, as in America.

No country is perfect, and that includes New Zealand. There’s always room for improvement, but here’s the thing: In New Zealand people don’t worry about a sudden far right onslaught against fundamental human and civil rights. In America, there are always battles in Congress, with the White House, in state capitals and on election ballots. That kind of multi-front war on freedom and democratic traditions is pretty much unimaginable in New Zealand.

So, on balance, my own conclusion is that the main political difference between America and New Zealand is simple: In New Zealand, it’s safer politically. Does that make New Zealand politics “better” than America’s? Compare and contrast, then draw your own conclusions. After all, that’s what democracy is all about—isn’t it?

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