Small country syndrome

03:03, Sep 23 2013

Sometimes in New Zealand, by design of geography and population, a cultural claustrophobia can sink in.

When a story breaks large, the country divides neatly into three camps: those with it, those against it and those who don't care but are bristling with frustration because they can't escape it.

I call this "small country syndrome"; it is not a judgment to me, just an expression of a condition.

I see this situation running amok in confused yelps on social media from people who couldn't give a hoot about the America's Cup, complaining about why they should be expected to care about a competition between two sets of corporate interests, in a sport most people don't understand or usually pay any attention to.

I don't agree with them - the New Zealand team in its DIY base is quaint when placed alongside the monolithic Oracle airport - but I sympathise.

In New Zealand, around 900,000 people have tuned in each time for the America's Cup battles, a larger audience than most All Blacks tests. Another 100,000 have streamed it online each time, or thereabouts. This is about a quarter of our country, all focused on the same thing, which has extended itself into a Kafkaesque nightmare.


During the first weekend of the America's Cup in the US, the TV audience was one million people, a similar gross audience to that in New Zealand and considered a massive success on its own. (Ratings have since subsided by anywhere between 75 and 90 per cent.)

You're either with the America's Cup in New Zealand or you're extremely, extremely bored of it.

And then if we win or lose, either way the result will be glorified or bemoaned ad nauseam.

In New Zealand we dive head-first into our sporting failures. We embrace the hysteria and the depression.

In America, failure is slowly folded away and put out of sight and people choose to focus on something else. In Boston and San Francisco the fate of the Red Sox or the Giants on the baseball diamond is a major city preoccupation. I've lived through a season in each town now where both teams have stunk. As the losses mounted, each team slipped further and further back in the sports section and the column inches shrank a little more with each game.

Two or three All Blacks losses in a season and the end of rugby as we know it and the decline of an empire would be hotly debated by every scribe in town.

Across these United States, you can have several stories running parallel of equivalent importance to that of the America's Cup to New Zealanders, with the followers of one story unaware of the others.

There are pros and cons to this. It is nice to not have to stare at the thing you have no interest in on the front page of every newspaper for two months.

But alternatively, it means that everyone in America can wrap themselves too closely in their own little worlds. People don't come together with the same cohesion and unity.

If there is a downside to this small country syndrome - outside of being the person who doesn't care about the thing - it is that the factions for and against can go to war with each other. Importance gets heightened and people neglect to focus on the fact that it doesn't actually matter in the grander scheme of things.

You only have to look at the furor between pro- and anti-Lorde camps last week. Our 16-year-old pop-starlet has reached massive success internationally in a short space of time.

We are without peers as a country, in my eyes at least, for the way we can generate backlash towards dissidents of the local cultural products we're particular proud of: Lorde, Six60, Fat Freddy's Drop, Peter Jackson, etcetera, etcetera...

We get the backlash and the backlash against the backlash, and the waves of dissent wash back and forth.

In a bigger country, there's a little more context provided that these things don't matter that much. A bad review doesn't diminish Lorde's success. There's always someone for something and someone against it. There's not one thing that is liked by all people and the dissent doesn't undermine the appreciation.

Anyway, have you been struggling with small country syndrome through the America's Cup?

What is your take on this?

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