In praise of patriots

Published: Wed 2 Jun 2010 01:08 PM
In praise of patriotsby Paul Smith
A newspaper, a book and a radio current affairs programme – one week last month they all seemed to carry the same message. But it was on radio during a debate on the outsourcing of the work of building trains by Kiwi Rail, that I heard a word so singular, it stopped me in my tracks. A trade unionist withstood the small arms fire from interviewer Sean Plunket as he defended his opposition to the Kiwi Rail move.
Defending the rights and the skills of his Kiwi workforce, he described himself as a patriot. A patriot - what a rare and precious word. Ever since the Market began its creep into almost every aspect of out lives, commerce and government policies have legitimised the opposite, a kind of trader treason. Market mentality has literally sold working lives, our institutions and our land - all the things the pioneers with their quest for social justice fought for over the past century. And why? Because it will look good on some corporate’s bottom line.
In the otherworldly years after 1984 I freelanced briefly for an international finance company which boasted a Foreign Desk. This intrigued me because generally newspapers had these, not accountants. When I asked what it did, a senior partner happily told me that it actively identified and facilitated the sale of New Zealand assets for a commission. That’s about as far from patriotism as one can get.
So what do dictionaries define as a patriot? One who loves his country and maintains its interests. Webster’s goes further and defines the word as one who zealously supports and defends its interests.
Here’s what Webster’s has to say about the opposite of patriot, traitor: One who violates his allegiance and betrays his country…. But those definitions no longer seem to exist in the same way in a world dominated by financial values. It’s as if that which sells is good – end of story. The problem is when their values not just influence, but dominate social policy. Evidence that it has, comes from this year’s budget as the New Zealand Herald reported:
A Budget that delivers thousands a week in tax cuts to the super rich and a few dollars to those on the minimum wage will leave the gap between rich and poor ‘about the same’ Finance Minister Bill English said yesterday…
If politics were medicine and this gap was a wound in the body of society, then Bill has had a look and pretty much left things as they are – no better, no worse. Sorry Minister, but a Budget that gives so much to the rich and so little to the less affluent will increase the gap. And just as surely it will bring its well documented social problems – higher levels of crime, shorter life expectancies and a divided society.
The transfer of wealth upwards is a fact, and in the United States, now almost a tradition. The same day I read the Herald a friend lent me a book called The Value of Nothing.
In it, author Raj Patel, a former Fellow at Yale and Berkeley Universities, describes how United States corporations pay less than a quarter of all federal income tax (“with flesh and blood people paying the remaining 76%”). He (and the Herald) cite a 2006 story from the New York Times about US Billionaire Warren Buffett.
Buffett discovered that he paid a far smaller percentage of his income in taxes than the secretaries and clerks in his office. He told the New York Times: “There’s class warfare alright – but it’s my class, the rich class that’s making war, and we’re winning.” That’s not just smug, it’s crass - and quite possibly, wrong.
Take this international survey cited by Patel. In it, 63% of people thought that their governments were run in the service of ‘big interests’, as opposed to the 30% who thought governments served the will of the people. ‘In almost every country, those polled wanted their governments to behave in ways that were more responsive to the people’ he wrote.
Patel cites another international survey of 29,000 people undertaken by the BBC. It revealed that two out of three respondents said there was a need to transform the international and domestic economic systems.
There was no better concrete evidence of this earlier this year than the street battles Greeks fought in Athens over proposed austerity measures. Here, it’s possible to see incipient outrage at government’s moves which treat the country and some of its publicly owned institutions as commodities.
When the Government began its folksy talk about selling off part of Kiwibank to ‘mom and dad investors’ it provoked protests. And those may represent a minor uprising once the protest movement begins against drilling by a Brazilian oil company off the East Coast. And that too will be nothing compared to the numbers who have already taken to the streets to protest against mining conservation land. The select committee considering the moves now has to hear no less than 37,000 submissions on the issue.
What does all this represent? Patriotism.
Paul Smith is a journalist and author and founder of

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