Time to abandon the 'Tall Poppy' notion

In this essay, Bevan M. demolishes the notion of 'Tall Poppy Syndrome', looks at the NZ Rich List and Most Trusted List and calls for a rethinking of the 'New Zealand identity'. Bevan argues that New Zealand does not have a 'Tall Poppy Syndrome', we just have all our priorities wrong.

It’s one of those painful clichés that we have all heard in High School, the news media, the tongues of politicians, and even from characters down at the pub. New Zealanders like to cut down ‘Tall Poppies’ and we have a severe case of ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’. The idea is that we are some sort of faulted egalitarian society where as soon as someone stands out from the crowd, we do our best to savage them and bring them back down to our level. When we seek assistance from those who rise above us financially or socially, we don’t see it as asking them to contribute to the society that made their success possible by asking them to do the job that they alone are lucky enough to have the resources to do - we are told that we are a nation of petty flowers chopping at the stems of those who have sucked the nutrients from the soil that much harder, and absorbed the rain that much more efficiently on their own accord, to grow to such exuberant heights. .

The ‘Tall Poppy’ line is quite simply an immediate gut punch to those who like to see themselves as respectable, hard working, honest, and equal minded. It’s a low blow and a way of saying ‘jealousy’ with an artistic flourish for even the most simple minded. It brings about shame and a social stigma, so is quick to shut down any discussion of anything important. .

The most disgusting facet of this complete and utter lie is the way that it has been appropriated by capitalists to further their fictitious storytelling of just how hard the elites and wealthy have it in New Zealand today (despite being one of the most economically ‘free’ countries in the world). It has been bandied about by people worried that they may have to pay more tax (or any tax in some cases) and contribute fairly to society which they see as a complete and utter bitch slap to their overwhelming individualism based success (despite having attended public schools, using public roads, using public funds etc). In July the NBR unveiled their 2013 Rich List, and when there was criticism from the FIRST Union about the very nature of the Rich List and inequality in New Zealand, the Tall Poppy brigade came out firing with all guns blazing and we got to hear the same tired clichés repeated over and over. A perfect example of this mind numbingly simple discourse came early in the comments section where one particularly bright minded individual put: .
‘But surely this is nothing more than tall-poppy envy - because the vast majority of those on the Rich List will have achieved their success through hard work, initiative and risk taking’. 
This idea and this attitude is quite simply bullshit. Aside from the disingenuous correlation between hard work and financial reward (if working hard meant that you were guaranteed to be financially successful, then McDonalds workers would be able to work about five hours a week, and investment bankers would have broken backs), the idea of using calls of jealousy and spiteful envy to shut down legitimate discussions about a very real problem that is affecting everyone in this country (the rich included) is dangerous because it strangles crucial public discourse. Who wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen as petty and jealous? It’s insulting and humiliating and we all cringe if we’re accused of jealousy. .

But the most important reason why these assertions are bullshit is that they don’t reflect the reality which is that New Zealanders don’t hate rich people or successful people at all. We love rich people, and we love famous people. We tend to put them up on pedestals in fact. Look at our Prime Minister as an example. Despite making his vast fortune in the most dubious ways possible outside of organised crime, he has not only been elected to two straight terms as the leader of our government, but has during this time been one of the most popular PM’s ever elected (typing that sentence just made me throw up in my mouth a little bit). .

How about also Sir Michael Fay (note the Sir), Gareth Morgan (who has become the news media’s gospel on economic affairs), Sam Morgan (I love Trademe like everyone else and with good reason), Sir Stephen Tindall (again, Sir), Sir Peter Jackson (we changed laws for him), Sir Bob Jones (noticing a trend here with the Knighthoods), Eric Watson (who I have to admit is pretty awesome for punching Russell Crowe in the face), and of course the king himself Graeme Hart whose staggering wealth alone is indicative of a financial system and inequality run amok. .

And these are just a few of the mega wealthy in this country that are gushed over by the electorate, the government, and the news media. We haven’t even looked at the people who are just moderately wealthy, but have the value of being famous. Take a quick peek at our ‘Most Trusted’ list (whatever that means), and you’ll see a smorgasbord of athletes, war vets, celebrity chefs, newsreaders, entertainers, and even one of the Flight of the Conchords. This is our most trusted list. In New Zealand we ‘trust’ Sir John Kirwan (another Sir?) 17 places above our highest rank public official, Dame Susan Devoy – who ironically of course got her position by being an exceptional athlete. .

What is even sadder about our attitude is that not only do we worship the ground that wealth and celebrity graces, but we claim ownership of remarkable individual feats of growth and brilliance that stand head and shoulders above what most of us will ever achieve in our lifetime. There are truly special achievements undertaken by truly special New Zealanders that should not be just recalled with folklore or dewy eyed patriotism, but with actual substantial respect, discussion, and accurate education that is not tied in to mythological perceptions of the ‘New Zealand Identity’. .

How many times have you heard someone claim that ‘we were first on Everest’? Or how often have you heard the proclamation that ‘we were the first country to give women the vote’? What about ‘we fought bravely in the World Wars’, or ‘we created Social Welfare’. In my case it has been in the hundreds if not thousands over the course of my life. .

Yet here’s the thing. None of us did any of this. Sure we can name some of the protagonists from these historical chapters, and rattle off some pre constructed story that fits our ridiculous attempt to thread together a coherent narrative that encapsulates hundreds of years and millions of people. But neither you, nor I actually went on the front line for a woman’s right to vote, and chances are most of the people that claim the suffragettes courageous actions for their own glory, would have been against them at the time. Kate Sheppard and the suffragettes at the time were considered radicals which in this particularly conservative environment is anathema to most people. .

Aside from this little tidbit which alone would turn most Kiwis off today, the suffragettes were also strongly involved in the temperance movement; i.e. prohibiting alcohol. Can you imagine how well that would go down today if a woman campaigned for women’s rights, and the abolition of alcohol? We live in an environment where kids play rugby on fields that have corner flags emblazoned with Lion Red on them, and where 117 years after women earned the right to vote, they are still paid significantly less in the workplace for doing the same work. You couldn’t stop people from shouting ‘feminazi’ or ‘dyke’ quick enough, yet they’ll happily crow about New Zealand’s ‘non-existent’ sexism so they don’t have to think about the fact that their daughters and wives are second class citizens. .

The vast, vast majority of us sure as hell never have seen the horrors of war (thankfully), we haven’t even climbed Ruapehu let alone Everest, and currently there is an almost orgasmic fever across the country to rip apart what’s left of our social safety net (which is more like a social safety string) to stop the ‘bludgers’ who are ripping us off. And this is all at the same time that large sectors of the populace are absolutely sweet with there being no capital gains tax, and the proliferation of constant tax breaks and law breaks to multinational corporations who use our resources and don’t contribute anything back to our society. .

We take the actions of individuals and movements that campaigned for progressive, positive change against the conservatives of their day, and claim it as some sort of magical kinship with this wonderful progressive haven that is New Zealand, yet none of it is true. It is all just white noise that fits the same stories that can be used by the same privately run interests, to keep doing the same thing over and over again, while the people foolishly expect different results (to coin a cliché, the very definition of insanity). It’s a bizarre situation in New Zealand where avowed conservatives will claim allegiance and unity with the ideas of individuals who were radicals of their time, while these modern conservatives are constantly on the wrong side of the argument and are permanently looking for ways to stifle progressive change. .

Perhaps most tragically of all is that aside from claiming these individual feats that were unpopular at the time for ourselves, we have come up with a particularly gross way of keeping some of these special, radical individuals forever in our collective psyche, and assuring their place in history – by sticking them on our money. Sir Ed, Sir Apirana Ngata, Kate Sheppard – the best way that apparently we can honour them is to put their faces on what we now treasure most in this country, which is the almighty dollar.

We don’t have a ‘Tall Poppy’ syndrome in New Zealand; we just have our priorities all wrong. It’s time for this unenlightened, archaic, and bullshit cliché to go the way of the Moa, and for us as a people to have some intelligent discussions about the rise of inequality in this country, and why we feel we can define ourselves by the actions of others that came long before us. It’s not jealousy, it’s not pettiness, it’s called critical thinking, and it’s pretty bloody important – I’m sure those that made positive changes for our country against the tide of the conservatism of their day would agree.


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