If I'm asked to think of how life should be, I think of my time in La Antigua, Guatemala. In a valley with a climate of eternal spring, in a town of cobblestone streets with flowers growing from rooftops, I and scores of other backpackers happily wiled away our days studying or teaching in language schools. We drank mojitos and played dominoes with the beautiful daughters of the local oligarchy; relaxed in splendid baroque courtyards full of hanging plants in large ceramic pots; ate delicious late breakfasts of fresh beans and eggs, seasoned with green chili and served by indulgent mestizo matrons.
In the streets, local women in colourful, elaborately woven ponchos sold crafts or plump bocadillos of chicken and avocado. People were friendly and smiled a lot. On Sundays, people gathered to gossip and flirt in the plaza, as the hazy outline of Volcan de Agua hovered over the 17th-century arches. To this day it brings me pleasant memories.
But did not the whole reality of this idyll rest -- from the 16th century to the modern day -- on hierarchy, exploitation and oppression?
Beyond the pretty plazas of Antigua was a polluted capital of slums and rampant crime, a rural hinterland of peasants struggling to subsist on patches of land, rich landlords exporting cash crops on the back of exploited rural labourers. The whole country was still traumatized by a vicious, twenty-year civil war that had seen death squads rampaging through indigenous villages.
Gazing dreamily over the volcanoes from our sunny courtyards as we drank the damn fine coffee, we were inheriting the role of the Spanish colonial elite. Look into almost any critical history of Latin America, and this lot come out the villains. Whether as the first wave of a long line of outsiders tapping the continent's 'open veins'; a corrupt and decadent culture who bequeathed fatalism, supersitition and lethargy to their mestizo descendants; or simply inflexible defenders of privilege who failed to ever achieve political reform, the Spanish tend to get the blame.
And yet...has anyone devised an urban layout more harmonious, an architecture more suited for living; a religion richer in ritual, metaphor and existential comfort, a more seductive blend of music and food and romance?
Compared to Guatemala, New Zealand is an oasis of peace, equitable wealth distribution, transparent government and progressive politics. Despite a few economic hiccups in the past forty years, we're still in the world's twenty 'most developed' countries. We've always been at the forefront: land reform, the vote for women, social welfare programmes, rejection of the nuclear umbrella, civil rights for gay people. We're thirty years into an imperfect but world-leading process to compensate indigenous tribes for historical abuses.
Life should be good, right?
Instead, people are grumpy and bitter that they aren't even better off. The political issues that most excite people are tax cuts are retaining the legal right to hit their kids. There's precious little respect for the life of the intellect. The popular press has nearly scraped right though the bottom of the barrel. Our cities have nothing that is visionary and very little that is even attractive. The slums of third world cities are hardly more depressing, and certainly more colourful, than the surburban monotony of Papakura, Tawa, or Bishopdale. Social interaction is timid and superficial. We go out to bars where we can't hear, and drink until we can't speak. When we win at our favourite sport we feel only relief; when we lose we're plunged into wordless despair. An undercurrent of violence simmers uncomfortably beneath the surface of our society.
Do the most pleasant ways of organising life need to be the province of a privileged elite? Does opportunity to contemplate the volcanoes over a coffee rely on an underclass of peasants slaving in the fields? Does it take antidemocratic tyranny to make the imaginative leap beyond acquiring the next consumer good?
Does equity and progress produce only people envious of each other's imagined advantages, squabbling over their rightful share? Does successful political compromise and the rule of law just produce a nation of NIMBYs? Does beauty, charm and passion require hierarchy, oppression and supersitition? Does development equal banality?
Or could it be that it's all even more complicated than we thought; that there are good things hidden in the middle of the worst systems? That our greatest satisfactions might be our greatest illusions? That we haven't even really started to figure it out?