Monday, July 25, 2016

The Nuku'alofa triangle

[I recently spent a few days in Tonga, in the hope that the kingdom's sunshine would help remedy a bad flare-up of my ancient nerve injury. The sunshine cure didn't come, but I did at least have the chance to catch up with a few friends in Nuku'alofa, city of kava-addicted artists. Here's a report I put on facebook.]

When I think about intellectual and artistic innovation in Nuku'alofa, I imagine a triangle laid over the city. One corner of the triangle is in Sopu, on the swampy western fringe of Nuku'alofa, where the 'Atenisi Institute has its campus; another is in Fanga, close to the central business district, where the actors, painters, and dancers of the On the Spot collective plot and exhibit in a renovated cottage; the third corner of the triangle is in Haveluloto, in the northeast edge of the city, where the members of the Seleka Club drink kava, draw, and paint in their wildly decorated lagoonside hut.
Yesterday I visited each corner of the Nuku'alofa triangle. At 'Atenisi I saw the new shelving that had just arrived from Victoria University, shelving which will help complete the refurbishment of the institute's two-storey library; at On the Spot's headquarters I found Ebonie Fifita and her friends at work on their laptops, planning their contribution to Tonga's upcoming Mahina festival.
Ebonie took me into the yard behind On the Spot's cottage, told me about the play her group had performed recently in Guam during the Pacific Arts Festival, and pointed to the stretch of rough earth where she wants to raise a great fale that will contain art studios and space for visitors. 
Late in the evening I found Tevita Latu, the founder and leader of the Seleka Club, relaxing on a couch in his kava house after a day spent building a stage in downtown Nuku'alofa. Tevita and young members of the Seleka Club undertake all sorts of mundane jobs, as they raise money for art materials and exhibitions and trips abroad. 
As some young club members snored on nearby couches, Tevita told me about the residency he and his fellow Selekarian Taniela Petelo have next month in Wellington. He showed me some leftover paintings from the club's recent exhibition, but explained that 36 of the 43 works that had been exhibited had sold.
As I went from 'Atenisi to On the Spot to Seleka, I felt the energy humming through Nuku'alofa's creative triangle.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Tiny island, big history

Apocalypse, exile, survival, return, rebellion: Niuafo'ou is a tiny island, but its modern history has the scope and drama of an epic. Garth Rogers and Wendy Pond's classic book The Fire Has Jumped combines interviews with Niuafo'ouans who were forced by Tongan colonial administrators to leave their island when it exploded in 1946 and later struggled for the right to return with a selection of texts by Kitione Mamata, a songwriter who protested slyly against the marginalisation and impoverishment of the islanders. Uing archaeology and oral history, Pond and Rogers also show that the Niuafo'ouans had a unique, non-Tongic language and culture, and enjoyed centuries of political independence that were intermittently interrupted and finally ended by Tongan conquest. 

The Fire Has Jumped was published a quarter of a century ago, and has been out of print for many years. Luckily, this masterpiece of democratic scholarship has now turned up online
Pond and Rogers both wrote massive academic studies of Niuafo'ou and its neighbour Niuatoputapu which have been placed on the internet by Victoria University and the University of Auckland respectively. If that were not enough reason to be excited, the remarkable Japanese linguist Tsukamato Akihisa's study of the Niuafo'ouan language has also been uploaded to the internet by the librarians of the Australian National University.  
When I talked with Akihisa in Nuku'alofa in 2013, he told me that only a few elderly people on Niuafo'ou spoke the pure version of the island's language, though many more spoke a Niuan-Tongan pidgin. Like Maori, the language had been neglected for many years by hostile governments, and mocked by non-speakers. I've recently met a number of Niuafo'ouan Aucklanders trying to relearn their homeland's language and recover its history, and it is exciting to see so much research into the island going online, and thus becoming much more widely available.

I wrote a little about the thousands of Niuafo'ouans still living in exile in the far south of Tonga here

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, July 14, 2016

David Icke's Kiwi fans - and their political friends

David Icke has been getting some well-deserved mockery in the New Zealand Herald. Icke, who will be giving a lecture in Auckland on August the 6th, insists that humanity has been enslaved by an extraterrestrial reptilian species whose members disguise themselves as famous and powerful humans like the Queen Elizabeth II and George W Bush.

Icke's conspiracy theories demonise groups of humans as well reptiles. He believes that an international network of Jews plots against the interests of humanity, and blames Jews for both World War One and the Bolshevik revolution.

In an article published last weekend the Herald's Catherine Gaffaney described David Icke's long career as a conspiracy theorist and eschatologist. She remembered how he claimed, almost twenty years ago, that New Zealand would soon sink beneath the seas because of a series of natural disasters, and noted his insistence that he is the son of God. In another article published by the Herald, Rohan Smith mentioned Icke's belief that the moon is a gigantic alien space station. Smith suggested that Icke gets 'laughed out of most places he visits', because of the obviously ludicrous nature of his ideas.

But not everyone in New Zealand finds David Icke laughable. The Franklin E Local, a giveaway magazine based in the rural region just south of Auckland, recently ran a long and respectful interview with the man. The Franklin E Local is published in Pukekohe, but its website makes it widely accessible, and its articles about race relations and supposed cover-ups of New Zealand history have won it a cult following amongst right-wing activists in many parts of the country.

The E Local's editor Myklejon Winckel believes that a large and technologically sophisticated white civilisation existed thousands of years ago in New Zealand, before being overrun and destroyed by Polynesian ancestors of the Maori. According to Winckel, evidence of this ancient civilisation is being assiduously suppressed by an alliance of politically correct academics, Maori radicals, and corrupt politicians.

Back in 2008 I published an open letter to Myklejon Winckel and the Franklin E Local, in which I argued that the two creators and proponents of the theory of an ancient white civilisation in New Zealand, Martin Doutre and Kerry Bolton, were white supremacists and Holocaust deniers who lacked any training in the study of the past. Martin Doutre had been a regular contributor to Franklin E Local, and he conveniently turned up in the comments thread under my open letter to deny the Holocaust and show how little he knew about the history of New Zealand. I have not been the only person to draw attention to Franklin E Local's exercises in racist conspiracy theory: Maori activist Justin Taua and philosopher Matthew Dentith have both criticised the magazine.

In 2013 Alan Titford, a friend of Martin Doutre and a loud proponent of the 'whites were here first' fantasy, was convicted of rape and politically-motivated arson and sent to prison for twenty-four years. Maori Television's Native Affairs programme subsequently ran an investigation into Titford, and his links with E Local and a network of anti-Maori conspiracy theorists. The E Local refused to accept that Titford was a rapist and an arsonist, suggesting that he was the victim of a conspiracy designed to silence critics of Maoridom.
In recent years Franklin E Local has continued to run articles about the white civilisation that supposedly existed in ancient New Zealand, and has complemented this conspiracy theory with other fantastic claims. The magazine has argued, for example, that the major governments of the world have contact with extraterrestrial civilisations, and that aliens are living secretly in the Vatican.

In her interview with David Icke, Franklin E Local's Julie Halligan avoids any mention of shapeshifting reptilians, but dwells on 9/11. Icke tells Halligan that the 'official story' about 9/11 'makes no sense whatsoever'. He suggests that the American government and Jews, aka Israel, were behind the attacks of that day. The same forces were, he claims, behind other terrorist outrages, like the massacre in Paris late last year.

Icke is not the only conspiracy theorist to feature in the recent Franklin E Local. As well as her interview, Julie Halligan has contributed a review of Kerry Bolton's book The Banking Swindle to the issue. For decades, Bolton has been a high-profile member of Australasia's neo-Nazi movement. In the 1970s he was a member of the country's Nazi Party, in the 1980s he founded and led the whites-only Church of Odin, and more recently he was a senior member of the avowedly racist National Front. Bolton writes regularly for the US-based neo-Nazi web magazine Countercurrents, where he recycles conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the world's economy and media.
Halligan's review of The Banking Swindle makes no mention of Bolton's politics, but lauds his book as an insight into the 'secret cabal' that supposedly decides how and why money flows around the world. Halligan explains that John F Kennedy was one of the victims of this evil cabal: he was assassinated, she and Bolton believe, because he dared to try to free the American economy from the cabal's control.

By praising a paranoic like David Icke and an unashamed neo-Nazi like Kerry Bolton, the Franklin E Local has surely reached new depths of irrationality and bigotry. Because of its criticisms of Maori activism, E Local has won some support amongst conservative Pakeha New Zealanders. Anti-Treaty campaigner John Ansell has praised and written for the magazine; Don Brash has given it opinion pieces. If they continue their associations with the E Local, then Ansell and Brash should have no illusions about what they are aligning themselves with.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A reading for my cubmaster

When I was an eight year cub old I went on an expedition to the edge of the Hunua Ranges. With my fellow cubs I slept in an old barracks house, and explored the dank winter bush with my torch. One night a cubmaster patrolling the barracks caught me reading one of my Biggles books - actually, it was one of my father's Biggles' books - and gave me a solemn lecture about the dangers of text. Reading under the blankets would ruin my eyes, he explained, and I needed the batteries in my torch for the bush and for caves. And why was I thinking about books at all? Hadn't I come to the ranges to find adventure outdoors? I should be sleeping, and dreaming about tomorrow's mudlark.

I wish I had been able to bring a copy of John Carey's The Unexpected Professor on that long-ago cub camp. Carey is a semi-retired scholar of English literature, and his autobiography describes his progress from a lower middle class childhood through a grammar school to Oxford, where he was often treated as a second-class scholar, and his subsequent attempts to subvert the class prejudices of England's hoariest universities.

After reading Carey's story, I understand some of the rage that fills his most controversial book, The Intellectuals and the Masses, which has the subtitle Pride and Prejudice Amongst the Literary Intelligentsia and argues that great innovators of early twentieth century British literature like TS Eliot and HG Wells were motivated by distrust or hatred of a newly educated working class.

Carey's autobiography ends with a wonderful chapter in defence of reading. I would have liked to have shown that vigilant and bibliophobic cubmaster Carey's words.

So, in the end, why read?

There are as many answers to that question as readers. My answer is that reading opens your mind to alternative ways of thinking and feeling. Read Richard Dawkins and you think and feel one way about religion. Read George Herbert and you think and feel another. Book-burners try to destroy ideas that differ from their own. Reading does the opposite. It encourages doubt.

Reading punctures pomp...Remember Melville in Moby Dick, 'O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease'.

Reading is contemptuous of luxury. Remember George Eliot writing about Rosamon Vincy in Middlemarch: 'in poor Rosamond's mind there was not room enough for luxuries to look small in'. 

Reading makes you see that ordinary things are not ordinary. Remember Keats: 'The setting sun will always set me to rights, or if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.'

...Reading is vast, like the sea, but you can dip into it anywhere and be refreshed. Reading takes you into other minds and makes them part of your own. Reading releases you from yourself. Reading is freedom. Now read on.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, July 08, 2016

A quick note on Chilcot and New Zealand

John Chilcot summed up his Proustian report into the Iraq disaster in a few terse and acidic sentences, as he found Tony Blair guilty of using dodgy intelligence to justify a war of choice. It is easy to forget now that an influential coterie of centre-left journalists, intellectuals, and political activists supported the invasion of Iraq, providing Blair and Bush with a progressive gloss for their neo-imperialism. 

Back in 2004, when I was an earnest graduate student, I wrote an overlong academic paper about the pro-war left, or the 'decent left', as they often preferred to call themselves.Despite the fiasco in Iraq, the veterans of the pro-war left remain a force inside the British Labour Party and the British media, and have been enthusiastic participants in the attempted coup against Jeremy Corbyn. 

Here in New Zealand some of the people trying to drag Labour to the right are very close to the pro-war left. Josie Pagani has been a serial critic of Labour in recent years, accusing the party's leaders of being excessively left-wing and insufficiently appreciative of Tony Blair. Pagani is a friend of John McTernan, a former advisor to Blair and one of the last unrepentant supporters of the Iraq war. 

Pagani and McTernan are united by the view that Western capitalism is fundamentally progressive, and that the left needs to support the broad thrust of Western foreign and economic policies whilst seeking to influence the implementation of those policies. They think that military interventions in the Middle East and trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement can be made into good things if only the left influences them for the better. Iraq shows what a dangerous argument that is. The left-wingers who supported Blair and Bush's war were like mice clinging to the backs of a demented stampeding bull.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Ben Bohane's wars

Over at EyeContact I've continued my series about Pacific Islands art with a review of Ben Bohane's book The Black Islands. Bohane is an Australian-born photojournalist who lives in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, and has spent twenty-two years touring the battlefields and kava bowls of Melanesia, a region that extends, in his estimation, all the way from East Timor to Fiji, and includes swathes of continental Australia as well as thousands of islands.

The imminent release of the Chilcot report has focused the world's attention on imperialist military adventures in the Middle East, but Ben Bohane's images reminds me of the conflicts that have glowed for years, and in some cases decades, in the Pacific.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Gove's Shakespearean turn

When he was David Cameron's Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove talked about the need to put Shakespeare on the tongues of twenty-first century Britons.

Now Gove has achieved that aim, by acting the part of Brutus in the Conservative Party's increasingly bloody post-Brexit ructions. Britain's newspapers and social media have been both appalled and entertained by Gove's imperfectly timed knifing of Boris Johnson, the buffoonish populist who has suddenly been recast as a tragic Caesar.

Left-wingers already lamenting the vote for a Brexit have found Gove's bid for control of Blighty both inevitable and surreal. For the increasingly harried and morose Corbynite journalist Owen Jones, Gove's leadership bid was 'proof that we are all now living in a hellish dystopia'.

Gove's spell as boss of British education made him a hate figure for the left and for teachers' unions. The case against semi-privatised 'Free Schools' Gove established during his reign was made compellingly by this issue of the London Review of Books. Kiwi opponents of the Key government's experiment with charter schools will recognise the arguments against Gove's creations.

I thought that Gove's attempts to change the ways history was taught in British schools were as worrisome as his flirtations with privatisation. Back in 2010, shortly after the election of the Tories, I explained why I thought the man's ideas about the past were both incoherent and potentially very popular.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]