Ted Dawe: Three simple words bedrock of a culture

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Profound Maori proverb could unify us where Treaty has not — just as revolutionary motto galvanises French.
Football violence during the UEFA Cup created ugly scenes across France and sorely tested the tournament's theme of "respect". Pictures / AP
Football violence during the UEFA Cup created ugly scenes across France and sorely tested the tournament's theme of "respect". Pictures / AP

I enjoy reading Alan Duff's occasional articles about life in France and life in New Zealand from a distance. His interactions with the French are interesting, his reflections about this country, less so. They say distance lends perspective, but it also softens the edges of things allowing personal interpretation and memory to take the place of acuity.

I have just returned from several weeks in Europe, much of the time spent in France. It was a fascinating time to visit because so many significant events were unravelling; Brexit, The UEFA cup, and the massacre in Nice.

My knowledge of the French language, culture and history is not extensive. It is founded upon what I learnt at primary school, and then added to with a series of thin overlays at high school and university. Most of what I have learnt since has come from reading newspapers. Therein lies the problem.

I remember as a child listening to a serialised version of A Tale of Two Cities, broadcast in children's hour on the national radio. When giving a morning talk at primary school I remember struggling with those words - Liberty, Fraternity, Egality(?). Especially the last one. They were the catchcry of the people, I said, as they stormed the bastille. After this there were a few years of vocab and grammar in the third and fourth forms and then memorising dates of wars and treaties for Stage 1 European History.

All of these things have come back to haunt me during the past few weeks.

The three-word refrain "Libert, galit, fraternit" appears on every mairie in even the tiniest village, it is also emblazoned across the front of the Hotel de Ville in Paris. What you don't immediately see is how it is embedded into the base structure of French culture and ideology. These three words summarise the constitution of France, and form a template for all their great achievements since the revolution.

The theme of the UEFA cup was "respect". This concept was immediately challenged by the English and Russian fans in Lille, Paris and Versailles. Vast resources were drained from French security forces in order to prevent these two groups from fighting each other and smashing anything that got in their way; it was a great relief when their teams were eliminated well before the playoffs.

Then there was Brexit. This had all the features of a marriage break-up but without the infidelity. The "exit" campaigners played to all the most suspect emotions; xenophobia, greed and selfishness. Unfortunately the "remain" supporters could come up with no viable counter arguments. When ultimately "exit" won the day, what was left was an empty crown that no one wanted. The winners stared at each other with "what the hell do we do now?" looks on their faces. It was like a piece of precious china being broken in a crowded room; a space clears around the wreckage and everyone looks accusingly at everyone else.

Finally, the massacre at Nice. The plague this time was not a sniper or bomber, it was an 18-tonne truck and a street crowded with families. What did the French make of this new legacy of carnage and grief? How tempting it must have been to do a "Turkey". Use this as a chance to introduce draconian measures.

The massacre of innocents by an assailant in an 18-tonne truck could easily have been an excuse for a draconian crackdown on foreigners. Photo / AP
The massacre of innocents by an assailant in an 18-tonne truck could easily have been an excuse for a draconian crackdown on foreigners. Photo / AP

Round up all the bad guys, re-introduce the death penalty, curfews, martial law, close the borders, expel Muslims or people who looked like Muslims. Maybe pay the Tunisian parents a visit in the middle of the night. But they didn't do any of these things. A three-day period of mourning was declared. The dead were farewelled. The investigation was begun. This protracted process will be a search for justice and explanations. Meanwhile, the nation braces itself for the next attack.

It is essential that France stands by its beliefs and remains better than the forces that attack it. Their core beliefs are simple. The don't look to God or Allah for answers, they look to those three words.

In New Zealand, we have spent most of the time since the French Revolution developing a sense of nationhood. Increasingly, the Treaty of Waitangi is becoming our ersatz constitution. As a child in school we learnt about the treaty as an event. It was a bit like our Magna Carta; the moment when everything changed here in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

In the 60 years since I first encountered the treaty, sitting at a little desk in a classroom in Tokoroa, it has grown into the document that underpins our rights and responsibilities as citizens.

Teaching it in schools is challenging; issues of semantics, translation and the intentions behind the words make the process very tricky. It is easy for it to become over-simplified or overly ambiguous. The treaty is contentious and its significance is constantly changing. However it is essential that all citizens reach an understanding of it if we are to forge our own sense of identity.

I have attended many hui over the years, up and down the country. Often, when issues are being thrashed out and the gathering becomes bogged down in a mire of intractable partisan stances a whakatauki (Proverb) is brought out to remind people of our deeper purpose. He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

What is the most important thing in the world? It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.

It is a wonderful proverb, always reminding us not to forget our humanity. It is resonant, simple, deep and indigenous. It should form the foundation stone of a better society. One founded on equality in every area. One that unites us to a common goal. I would love to see those six words on every public building, in every town and city in this country. It could be our catch-cry as we all stumble into an uncertain future.

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

Ted Dawe is head of studies at Taylor's College and author of the novel Into The River, controversially banned briefly last year.

- NZ Herald

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