Friday, January 28, 2011

Unfinished monkey business

If I haven't posted to this blog since Monday it's because I've been making a nuisance of myself over at Kiwipolitico, where a fascinating debate on the relationship (or, sometimes, non-relationship) between intellectuals and politics has been fizzing away all week.

After asking readers of Kiwipolitico to name some of New Zealand's (relatively) young left-wing thinkers, Pablo has turned his attention to the other side of the political divide, and enquired tentatively as to the identities of New Zealand 'non-geriatric right-wing thinkers'.

My contributions to the debate at Kiwipolitico have been typed in indecent haste, in breaks from more important tasks like reading The Island of Doctor Moreau in our shady backyard and trying forlornly to begin a grant application. I've reproduced some of my comments here, in tidied-up form, in case they promote further discussion, or even some interesting vituperation from readers with simian-themed names.

Where are our intellectuals?

Many of the commenters at Kiwipolitico have lamented the absence of a strong intellectual tradition on either the left or the right side of New Zealand politics. A commenter with the unfortunate name of Monkey Boy has been particularly damning, complaining that the term 'New Zealand left thinker' is a 'three-tier oxymoron'.

But ideas don't fall from the sky, and it's unfair to discuss New Zealand intellectual life without making a few allowances for the concrete circumstances created by our history and sociology. There are good reasons why this country has never been a hotbed of very sophisticated thought on either the left or the right of the political spectrum.

Most of the world’s radical intelligentsias have arisen in unevenly developed societies struggling to modernise. In nineteenth century France and Russia the ruling classes needed to train a layer of intellectuals to oversee industrialisation and the construction of the sort of modern state, with an efficient bureaucracy and a universal education system, that would drag peasant populations into a capitalist future. Intellectuals in these countries were acutely conscious of their separation from other strata of the population, and of the special role assigned to them. Inevitably, a lot of them ‘went rogue’, refused the places reserved for them in a new-fangled bureaucracy, and took upon themselves the role of critics and consciences of their societies. The intellectual, with his or her place outside the established social order, had both the ability and the responsibility to remake that order. The novels of Tolstoy and Zola and the political programmes of the Bolsheviks and the Narodniks are the product of an acute, sometimes paternalistic sense of social responsibility.

The same pattern was seen later in the Third World, as young intellectuals taken from their colonial or semi-colonial homelands to the universities of the great colonial powers rebelled against the ideology of their trainers. Most of the leaders of the African and Asian anti-colonial struggles were radicalised in Europe.

Great conservative intellectuals have generally been produced in societies haunted by the spectres of social instability and radical change. Durkheim arose in response to Marx, and in response to the revolutionary upheavals Marx celebrated; Heidegger at first developed his thought as part of a movement of self-renewal within the Catholic church, a movement which saw conservative-minded priests and philosophers looking for new, more credible ways of justifying traditions which were under threat.

As the first country to industrialise and modernise, Britain never needed a specialised intelligentsia of the French or Russian sort, and it has never faced the spectre of class war in the way that many European nations have. The British did, however, soak up a lot of exiles from parts of Europe that suffered upheaval in the twentieth century. Perry Anderson has pointed out that most of Britain’s leading twentieth century intellectuals – Namier, Wittgenstein, Popper, Lakatos – were conservative ‘white emigres’ fleeing the chaos in their own countries.

Like Britain, New Zealand has an advanced capitalist economy and has had a history of relative social stability; unlike Britain, we have never been home to many intellectual refugees from the turmoil of the twentieth century (we did, of course, get a few: Popper, for example, arrived and stayed for a while during World War Two, and Peter Munz arrived a few years later and stayed forever). Is it entirely surprising that our society hasn’t produced large dynamic intellectual movements of either a radical or a conservative bent?

Monkeys and Marxism

Monkey Boy and a chap with the more sensible name of Barry interrupted the discussion at Kiwipolitico with extended denunciations of 'Marxism' and 'socialism', and made me think about the strange paradox which besets right-wing uses of those words in the New Zealand blogosphere. If someone had some sort of search engine which could trawl New Zealand blogs for mentions of the words ‘Marxism’ and ‘socialism’, then I’m sure the results would show that these words made their appearances, far more often than not, in the discussion fora of right-wing sites like Kiwiblog.

I’ve looked at a few of the long, winding, vituperative ‘General Discussion’ threads at Kiwiblog, and marvelled at how obsessed the commenters there are with ‘Marxism’.

For all their references to Marxism, though, the folks at Kiwiblog and similar sites never seem once to cite, let alone discuss, a text by Marx, or a Marxist concept. For them, Marxism and socialism seem to have become vague swear words, to be aimed at anyone who advocates a more intricately tiered tax system, or a raise in the minimum wage, or an independent foreign policy, or some general belief in ‘equality’, whatever that means. (Over at Kiwipolitico, Barry was very keen to refute the allegedly Marxist idea that humans are naturally nice people who naturally desire absolute equality. Barry several times asserted that such a doctrine has nothing to do with how 'humans tick'. Here’s a hint, Barry: if you’re looking for a theory of a ‘basic human nature’ in Marx, you’re looking in the wrong place. Marx and Marxists are not interested in arguing that humans are ‘basically’ good or evil or intrinsically fond of equality or inequality. Marx explicitly denies there is such a thing as human nature: for him, the idea is an abomination, a hangover from the days before Darwin destroyed the notion that creatures had static, ahistorical ‘essences’ given to them by some creator.)

There’s never any mention, from obsessively anti-Marxist right-wingers like Barry, of the basics of Marx’s intellectual system – his materialist view of history and of historical change, his dialectical method of analysis, his concept of modes of production, his use of the base-superstructure metaphor to try to capture the relationship between the different parts of society, his theories of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall and the tendency towards crises of overproduction, and so on. I don’t expect right-wingers necessarily to agree that Marx’s intellectual creations are useful for the analysis of society and history, but I do think that if they are going to spend so much energy deploring Marxism then they might want to find out a little bit about what Marxism actually is.

It’s easy to get the impression, reading some of the more paranoid comments at sites like Kiwiblog, that Marxists control large parts of New Zealand society, especially the trade unions, the state sector of the economy, and the education system. The reality, of course, is that Marxist ideas have no hold at all on the mainstream of our society. They are upheld by only a tiny number of people, and sometimes the way they are upheld is uselessly dogmatic. The influence Marxism did enjoy thirty years ago in the trade unions is only a memory now.

The only people in New Zealand who at present do seem to have a discernable attraction to Marxist ideas are postgraduate students in the social sciences and humanities. A noticeable minority of students in this area seem to become enthusiastic about Marx’s method and his concepts as they undertake their research.

If the paranoiacs at Kiwiblog are to be believed, these young people are attracted to Marx because they’ve been brainwashed by their teachers, and because they want to ‘fit in’ to a Marxist public sector. In reality, of course, an interest in Marx is usually an encumbrance, rather than a benefit, for any postgraduate researcher. Marxism is not fashionable amongst Heads of Departments, and Marxist concepts are not likely to smiled upon by job interviewers in the public sector.

A sophisticated interest in Marx does not even give students much credibility with New Zealand’s miniscule Marxist political groups: many of these groups are decades or more out of touch with the research produced by Marxist scholars, and all are more interested in selling badly-produced papers and organising poorly-attended meetings than in exploring the finer points of research and theory.

The reason why postgraduate research students continue to be drawn towards Marxist ideas has nothing to do self-interest, or even, in many cases, with political belief. They are drawn towards Marxist ideas because those ideas, despite their incomplete and sometimes contradictory nature, offer exciting ways of understanding society and history. For all its flaws, and in spite of its continual need of refinement and revision, Marxism as a mode of analysis is vastly superior to anything offered by postmodernism, with its theoretical fuzz and inability to see the big picture and long duree, or classical liberalism, with its futile focus on a non-existent rational individual consumer as the unit of analysis, or the halfway house of Keynesian/social democratic/Third Way thinking about society, with its politically-motivated evasions and equivocations. Marxism is such a powerful way of analysing society and history that it has been coopted and abused by people with belief-systems Marx himself would have abhorred. We all know about the way that Stalinists captured and distorted Marx’s ideas, turning them into a closed, rigid, inhuman system, but what is less known is that the more thoughtful parts of the right have been pillaging Marxist ideas for many decades.

Marxist ideas were used in a distorted form by hawkish intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens and Norm Geras, journalists like Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitz and even by the British government minister John Denham to justify the invasion of Iraq. Seizing on Marx’s ill-advised early enthusiasm for the invasion of nations like China and India by capitalist Britain, and ignoring his later belief that capitalism was not a progressive and inevitable stage in the development of human societies, the pro-war ‘left’ threw its lot in with the American neoconservatives around George Bush.

In the late nineties and early noughties, when Western economies were surging and politicians and business analysts were proclaiming the end of the boom-bust cycle, influential economists like Meghnad Desai emulated the method of Hitchens et al by reaching for Marx’s early enthusiasm for capitalism and globalisation, stripping this enthusiasm of its nuance, and claiming that Marx would have accepted the invincibility and righteousness of capitalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century. (As the venerable Eric Hobsbawm noted in a recent interview, the pendulum is now swinging the other way: with the global economy in trouble, scholars and commentators are turning their attention to parts of Marx's oeuvre which discuss capitalism's chaotic nature, and its tendency to produce sudden crises).

I won’t hold my breath, but the day that the right-wingers of the New Zealand blogosphere actually make the effort to find out what Marx thought will be a great step in their intellectual evolution. It will also make their arguments a lot more interesting.

Making a silk purse out of a sow's arse

I've been bemused by the way that, asked to name a few outstanding Kiwi right-wing intellectuals in a pre-geriatric condition, many commenters at Kiwipolitico have recited a list of media commentators and National Party activists. Several commenters named David Farrar, the genial proprietor of the madhouse which is Kiwiblog and a strategist and pollster for the Nats, as a right-wing intellectual.

David Farrar might be a clever chap who works hard for his chosen political team, but to call him an intellectual is surely a little like calling Dan Brown a great novelist. How many of the people who have been nominated as right-wing intellectuals at Kiwipolitico have undertaken and published research, or coined a theoretical concept?

It was amusing to see the way that Cathy Odgers, a corporate lawyer based in Hong Kong and the author of a tediously splenetic blog, popped up at Kiwipolitico to complain about being included in a list of right-wing intellectuals. It’s fair to say that Odgers was unimpressed by the discussion at Kiwipolitico:

Oh for heaven’s sake what a wank fest. Everyone on the right is too busy working in the private sector……I know a foreign concept to the left who have all day to sit and masturbate over academia. Being named on a list of right wing intellectuals is an insult to the very definition of what the right is about. To me those sorts are the ones who have failed.

Odgers’ words speak volumes about the anti-intellectualism and philistinism of the contemporary New Zealand right. Let’s not try to make a silk purse out a sow’s arse.

It’s interesting to look across the Tasman at the gaggle of right-wing intellectuals who publish the journal Quadrant, and to contrast their work to the productions of the likes of David Farrar and Cathy Odgers. I have no sympathy at all for the conclusions of the work of Quadrant writers like Keith Windschuttle, but at least that work is based upon original research, rather than the latest party press release, and filled with arguments, however tendentious, rather than with sound bites and slogans.

The Australian Spectator is another publication which combines some intellectual weight with right-wing politics, and there is the odd ‘independent’ right-wing intellectual – the outstanding example is Robert Manne, who resigned from his position as Quadrant’s editor over the magazine’s soft line on the Helen Demidenko hoax and later wrote a superb book about Demidenko’s trivialisation of the Holocaust – also at work across the Tasman. The contrast with New Zealand is clear.

Dennis Dutton: a Kiwi neocon?

If we’d been asked to nominate contemporary right-wing Kiwi intellectuals, rather than folks who are alive and aged under sixty, then I’d have thought that Dennis Dutton, CK Stead and Leigh Davis would have been worth mentions. The recently-deceased Dutton, who had some connections with the Quadrant crowd, was probably the closest thing New Zealand had to a neoconservative. He had the peculiar mixture of fervent universalism and fervent imperialism which was such a feature of neoconservatism. Like Hitchens, Wolfowitz and the rest, Dutton thought that all humans were equal, and that all deserved to live in the good society, which was a US-style free market bourgeois democracy. In order to hasten the final triumph of capitalism and the happy ‘end of history’ that Francis Fukuyama had proclaimed, the neo-cons believed that warfare against ‘backward’ regimes and cultures was necessary. ‘Swamps’ like the Middle East needed to be ‘drained’.

The opinion pieces Dutton produced in favour of Kiwi involvement in the great wars to liberate Afghanistan and Iraq were extraordinarily crass, but they were consistent with his well-publicised activities as the founder of the Skeptics Society, as well as his broadsides against the supposed backwardness of Maori culture. Dutton saw himself as a crusader for the Enlightenment.

When the crusade turned to custard in the Middle East, Dutton withdrew from overt political propaganda and produced a strange but – commercially, at least – hugely successful book which argued that art was fundamentally the same in every human society, and had arisen in the first place because it helped early humans adapt to and survive in their environments.

Dutton’s book put him on the US talk show circle, where he rubbed shoulders with faded celebrities like John Cleese and relentlessly plugged himself, but it bemused art critics and curators, because it seemed to be hopelessly speculative and to have no real relevance to the ways in which people actually view and use art in individual human societies. I think it can be argued that Dutton’s book was actually a weird attempt to restate the universalism and rationalism which was such a feature of his thinking, and which drove him to support Bush’s wars. He wanted to show that art was rational, and that it was rooted in universal human traits, like a desire to adapt to and master the environment. In a sense Dutton’s book took the argument about universalism and economic utilitarianism from the twenty-first century, where it was manifestly collapsing, and relocated it in the distant past.

I think Dutton is over-rated as a thinker, but that he is nevertheless in a different league from David Farrar and the other hacks being named as right-wing intellectuals at Kiwipolitico.

Miles Fairburn and conservatism

If we wanted to talk about studiously apolitical scholars who produce work which might be used to support many right-wing positions, then I think the Canterbury University historian Miles Fairburn would deserve discussion.

Fairburn doesn’t have the media profile of a Michael King or a James Belich, but his reputation inside academia is vast, both in New Zealand and abroad. His early, polemical work The Ideal Society and Its Enemies examined Pakeha New Zealand in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and argued that it was one of the most individualistic societies ever to exist anywhere on the earth. Pakeha Kiwis were, Fairburn argues, determined to establish their own self-sufficient livelihoods and lives in the country they had conquered, even if the price of their desire was poverty and loneliness. Fairburn's book challenged generations of arguments by Fabian and liberal historians and commentators by showing that, historically, Pakeha were not a cosy little group determined to build a just society free of the iniquities of the mother country. Nearly out of Heart and Hope, Fairburn’s monumental microhistorical study of the diary of a fin de siecle agricultural labourer in the Wairarapa, showed how stubbornly some of the poorest New Zealand workers refused to rebel against capitalism, even as the system drove them to homelessness and the edge of starvation. Thanks to Fairburn’s example, many historians now look for signs of individualism and conservatism, rather collectivism and radicalism, in New Zealand history.

It is by no means clear, though, that Fairburn's work necessarily offers support to a right-wing political agenda. There is, after all, a difference between stating a fact and celebrating that fact. If the left in New Zealand were more tooled-up theoretically and less insular then it would seize on Fairburn’s work and mine it for insights which could be incorporated into a new account of our nineteenth and early twentieth century history. But doing this would mean abandoning cosy old myths about a collectivist, anti-elitist colonial culture.

The proper place of obsession

Over at her Letters from Wetville blog, Sandra has responded to the discussions at Reading the Maps and at Kiwipolitico by posing a question:

How any of us define 'political' and 'intellectual' are in themselves powerful tools. Are those definitions up for discussion, or are we to content ourselves with bickering about versions of pure leftism (as if) and the naughtiness of the proletariat who are watching tele and eating chips instead of remodelling society into a collective utopia?

Sandra was reacting to Jack Ross’s comment box claim that blogs are often not taken seriously because they are perceived as ‘subjective and trivial’. I don’t think that Jack was complaining about ‘subjective and trivial’ material appearing on blogs, but instead arguing about the widespread perception that this sort of material is valueless.

It seems to me that Sandra, like Jack, is querying the dichotomy which is often presumed to exist between, on the one hand, personal inclination or obsession and, on the other hand, notions of what is intellectually or politically 'right' or 'important'. I agree with her that it is wrong to accept such a dichotomy.

JG Ballard said that the best advice he could give anyone, in any field, was to follow their obsessions. Don De Lillo seemed, to me at least, to echo this point when he argued that writers don't write for the good of society, but because they feel compelled to write. Writing is, De Lillo suggested, tied up with the desire to sustain an identity.

I think that if we try to think or write about what we consider is 'objectively' important, rather than following our deeper impulses, then we are in danger of producing dull, sanctimonious work. It is work which flows from our obsessions which tends to be, in the long run, both aesthetically and politically valuable. We don't value Wells for his dully instructive later political works, but for The War of the Worlds and The Island of Doctor Moreau, books which tell us much about the dark sides of capitalism and imperialism even as they excite us with their imaginative daring . We esteem Gulliver's Travels as a work of fantasy, not a petty-minded satire of obscure figures from a bygone era. Intellectuals and writers should never be constrained, then, by worries about what is ‘esoteric’ and what is ‘accessible’, and by what might be politically useful or useless.

Footnote: since we've been talking about the power or otherwise of blogging, and of the internet in general, it's worth noting the move this evening by Hosni Mubarak to take the whole of Egypt offline. The dictator's decision, which is apparently unprecedented anywhere in the world, seems to be a response to the use of the internet to organise the protests which are threatening to bring down his regime. Long live the Egyptian revolution!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Have our intellectuals gone to the blogs?

Over at the Kiwipolitico blog Pablo has asked his readers to draw up a 'short list' of 'young New Zealand intellectuals who represent the future of progressive thought in New Zealand'. I'm flattered to see that several of the contributors to the discussion thread underneath Pablo's article have included me in their short lists (let's face it: as an increasingly bald, rather pot-bellied chap in his mid-thirties, I have to be delighted to be placed under any heading which includes the adjective 'young').

Pablo and a number of the commenters at Kiwipolitico seem to believe that young left-wing intellectuals are a little thin on the ground in New Zealand, but I'm not sure if this is quite the case. I don't think there is any shortage of clever young people with left-wing opinions in New Zealand: the problem, as far as I can tell, is that it is hard for these young people to relate their scholarly research and their theorising to the world of quotidian politics.

New Zealand has never been a centre of world revolution, but in our benighted era the lack of a strong labour movement, the absence of a coherent left-wing presence in parliament, and the near-total lack of interesting thinking on the right all help make Kiwi politics a particularly dour and philistine affair.

Students and young autodidacts may do all sorts of interesting research, and develop all sorts of interesting concepts, but the possibilities for applying their work in the real world are few. If they get jobs as analysts in the trade unions or for parties like Labour or the Greens they inevitably have to trim their sails and become glorified publicists, producing extended press releases rather than original thinking. They may gravitate towards the groupuscules of the far left, but these outfits are continually struggling simply to put out skinny newspapers and hold regular branch meetings, and so cannot possibly give much time to serious intellectual work. The journals dedicated to the refinement of Marxist theory and the impassioned arguments about the ideas of heavy-duty philosophers like Althusser and Gramsci which characterised the Kiwi far left in the '70s, when groups like the Socialist Action League had many hundreds of members, seem almost unimaginable today.

It does seem as though a lot of Kiwi left-wing intellectuals have to choose, to quote WB Yeats, between 'the life and the work'. Either they beaver away at their research, producing texts which are admired by their peers but are nonetheless too sophisticated and too 'unrealistic' to have much political impact, or else they sacrifice the intellectual stuff and go into propaganda.

Back when I was hanging around the Sociology Department at the University of Auckland I used to associate the bald choice that left-wing intellectuals face in New Zealand with two senior members of staff.

Ian Carter, who was given the unfortunate task of supervising my PhD, and later prolonged his sufferings by helping me to turn it into a book, had moved amongst the British left-wing intelligentsia during the glory days of the 1970s, rubbing shoulders with giants like EP Thompson and Raphael Samuel, and - perhaps less gloriously, in retrospect - working on a text called The Red Paper on Scotland with the young Gordon Brown. Ian had come to New Zealand as, in his own words, a "refugee from Thatcherism", and had eventually withdrawn from most political activity. Instead of marching down the street or selling papers outside factory gates, he had produced a series of wonderful books which analyse the history of various features of Western culture - the novel, radio broadcasting, and even model railways - in relation to the development of capitalism. Ian's books are a pleasure to read, and have a lot to teach us, but they are not the sort of works which are going to get crowds onto the barricades.

Dave Bedggood was a long-term member of the Sociology Department who had made a very different choice to that of Ian. He had produced one acclaimed and influential scholarly study of New Zealand society in the late '70s, but had not really delivered anything approaching a sequel. After the early '80s, when he became heavily involved involved in New Zealand's Trotskyist movement, Dave had prioritised the difficult and time-consuming business of political agitation and party-building over scholarly work. Dave can look back with pride on his involvement in many great political struggles, from the 1981 Springbok Tour to the anti-war movement of the early noughties, and he can justly claim to have influenced a generation of activists on the far left. I can't help wondering, though, what fine books, what masterpieces of scholarship and theory, Dave might he have written, if he had forsaken political activism in favour of intellectual work. (In fairness, I should note that Dave has in recent years published a magisterial essay on the history of Auckland and its relation to the history of New Zealand, and an important, courageous study of youth suicide. These two texts are amongst the very best things he has ever produced, and show that he still has a lot to say.)

I don't think either Ian or Dave can be faulted for the choices they made. I have the greatest respect for both men. What is sad is that it is so hard for left-wing intellectuals in New Zealand to avoiding choosing between activism and scholarship, between 'the life' and 'the work'.

Perhaps I'm being romantic, but I think that thoughtful yet accessible blogs like Kiwipolitico can play a role in reconnecting the left, and perhaps even the wider public, with scholarship and intellectual debate, by swimming against the tide of philistinism and cynicism which characterises contemporary Kiwi politics, and contemporary Kiwi society in general. With their minimal overheads, potentially wide dissemination, and provision for democratic interaction and debate, blogs may be able to fill some of the gap left by the disappearance of the well-resourced, wide-circulation left-wing papers and journals of the past.

It is interesting to note that some of the most influential young intellectuals on the British left are known primarily as bloggers. Richard Seymour, who runs the avowedly Marxist and very popular blog Lenin's Tomb, Laurie Penny, a leader of the recent massive student protests who blogs for the New Statesman, and Owen Hatherley, who politicises subjects like modernist architecture and the music of Pulp on his wonderfully-titled site Nasty Brutalist and Short, all seem to be acting as intermediaries between the world of theory and the world of left-wing and trade union activism. These bloggers popularise and extend previously-obscure ideas and provoke debates. Their articles for 'offline' journals and their books often start life as blog posts, and therefore benefit from the input of blog readers. I see a possible local parallel to the likes of Seymour and Hatherley in the work of bloggers like Matthew Dentith, the University of Auckland PhD student in philosophy who has become a high-profile, indefatigable debunker of conspiracy theories and other forms of irrationalism; Mike Beggs, the Aussie-based Kiwi who popularises Marxist crisis theory, explaining why it is relevant to our day and age; Tim Bowron and Daphne Lawless, two Marxists who are, bless their souls, as interested in literature as in political economy; Giovanni Tiso, who brings a special knowledge of Mediterranean intellectual history to his meditations on New Zealand society; Bryce Edwards, who somehow manages to combine a full-time academic job with a prolific blog; and the group of very young but very clever Canterbury University students who have set up the site Kea and Cattle.

Is it possible that the new breed of blogging intellectuals might help to restore communications between the realm of scholarship and the realm of action, and thereby improve the quality of both the intellectual and the political life of this country?

Footnote: one of the commenters at Kiwipolitico has complained that 'almost all' of the young left-wing intellectuals and bloggers being discussed there 'fit into the middle class professional (and particularly academic) category'. I think there is a tendency, amongst both the general public and New Zealand's mainstream left and right, to assume that the terms 'intellectual' and 'academic' always overlap. They do not. An intellectual is someone with a passion for ideas and research and an interest in connecting his or her own ideas and research to society and social problems.

As Richard Taylor has often noted at this blog, in the 1960s and '70s many of New Zealand's most influential left-wing intellectuals were the product of the 'working class university' of this country's railway workshops and its union movement. The tradition of working class autodidacticism which Richard celebrates was badly damaged by the deindustrialisation of New Zealand in the '80s and '90s, but there is no reason why it cannot revive in a different form in the future, especially with the new tools for research and communication provided by the internet.

The increasing commercialisation of the university in the twenty-first century, and the need of academics to publish more and more specialised research at a faster and faster rate in a proliferating number of little-read journals, means that there are arguably fewer active intellectuals than ever inside the so-called 'Ivory Tower'.

Some of the left-wing bloggers and writers I mentioned, like Richard Seymour, have PhDs, and some of them publish work through academic presses, but few of them actually have full-time academic jobs. At least some of them seem to see such jobs, with their huge workloads and restricted foci, as inimical to genuine intellectual work. This attitude reminds me of EP Thompson's decision to quit, after a few short years, the prestigious job that had been created especially for him at a British university. Thompson explained his decision with the words 'I can't get any research done here'...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Tea Party: fascism, or therapy?

Jared Loughner's bloody attack on Gabrielle Giffords and a random group of her constituents in Tucson has understandably prompted a great deal of comment from both the left and the right of the blogosphere.

Over at The Standard, which probably nowadays counts as New Zealand's most popular left-wing website, a couple of bloggers and scores of commenters have argued that Loughner's shooting spree presages an explosion of violence from America's far right. The Standard's line on the Tucson shootings is not particularly original. Many left-wing websites in America have warned that the right wing of the Republican Party, and the Tea Party movement in particular, represent the beginnings of a mass fascist movement which may well attempt to seize political power by force of arms.

There are certainly actions by leading members of the Tea Party movement which can be invoked to support the sort of analysis put forward by The Standard. Sarah Palin's decision to put gun sights around portraits of Giffords and some of her other political enemies has been justifiably criticised in the aftermath of the Tucson massacre, and Tea Party favourite Sharron Angle's talk of finding 'second amendment remedies' to America's problems has also become infamous. There are hundreds of blogs, some of them quite popular, which couple support for the Tea Party with calls for violence against Obama's 'communist' government.

It seems to me, though, that commentators who present the Tea Party as some sort of nearly-unstoppable movement, motivated by a sharply-drawn ideology and ready to launch a civil war in America, are giving Sarah Palin and her friends far too much credit. The Tea Party is in reality a fragmentary, chaotic, and ideologically very confused response to the continuing decline of America as an economic and geopolitical power. The Tea Party is filled with people who want to escape from reality, not change reality.

As I noted last year, the very incoherence of the Tea Party's rhetoric - its frequent condemnations of Obama as a 'fascist communist, or a 'Muslim Nazi', and even a 'corporate-loving socialist' - point to its essential lack of seriousness. The Tea Party supposedly demands massive cuts to government spending, but neither its leaders nor its rank and file membership have been able to specify in much detail which areas of spending they want to cut. Elderly Tea Partiers rail against Obama's healthcare legislation as an evil plot against America, but are aghast at the suggestion that their own state-funded Medicare programme ought to be abolished. Sarah Palin poses as a champion of ultra-small government, but as governor of Alaska she was happy to keep that state's most profitable asset in public hands, and to continue the almost Keynesian economic policies of her predecessors. The reaction of the Tea Partiers to the criticism they have received in the aftermath of the Tucson attack shows the hollowness of the aggressive rhetoric that sometimes appears in their speeches and on their blogs. If they were serious about pursuing a 'second amendment' remedy to Obama's government, the Tea Partiers would surely have offered some sort of tactical support to Loughner, or at least have accompanied condemnations of his killing of bystanders in Tucson with a justification for his attack on Giffords.

The fact is, though, that even the most overexcited Tea Party activists and bloggers - the sort of people who call for Obama's trial and execution, or for his deporation to Kenya, or for a 'Second American revolution' against his policies - have reacted with horror to the suggestion that they might have anything to do with, or any sympathy for, Loughner's spree. Palin's complaint that she has been subjected to a 'blood libel' by the liberal sections of America's media perfectly sums up the outraged self-pity of the keyboard and megaphone warriors of the American right.

The recent statements of one of Sarah Palin's staunchest Kiwi fans can be used to demonstrate the essential unseriousness of the movement she leads. In recent years, a Tauranga resident named Russell Fletcher, who uses the nom de plume 'Redbaiter' for political activities, has gained notoreity for the frequency and intemperance of his polemics against 'liberal fascists' and 'creeping communism' on popular centre-right websites like David Farrar's Kiwiblog.

Fletcher, who considers even John Key and Judith Collins 'cultural Marxists', has long denounced the timidity of most right-wing blogs, and recently established his own rival to them, which he calls, appropriately enough, True Blue NZ. A gun and the slogan 'Don't run - you'll only die tired' grace the upper right hand corner of the home page of Fletcher's site.

Egged on by a gaggle of Tea Party visitors and by one or two local fundamentalist Christians, 'Redbaiter' has repeatedly cast his eye beyond New Zealand and endorsed the notion of a violent struggle against Obama's 'communist' regime, while at the same time talking about Sarah Palin in almost desperately passionate terms. In a post made shortly before the Tucson shootings Fletcher really let rip:

There has been a bit of talk around about a civil war...I think its long overdue. These poisonous communist bastards are out to destroy the US from the inside. They have been tolerated too long. Its time to defend the Constitution, or abandon the Constitution. The choice is that simple, and there really is no choice. The Constitution must be defended, and therefore its time to recognize the Democrat Party and their supporters as traitors and fifth columnists and take whatever action is necessary to restore the correct degree of respect for the Constitution and the freedoms it protects. I’m not in the US these days, but anytime you guys over there feel like really starting something, just let me know. I’ll be there with bells on...

I’m well aware the Republican Party has its fair share of anti-Constitution traitors too. It too is basically a vehicle for the imposition of cultural Marxism. That is essentially what the Tea Party is all about. Countering that Marxist influence in the Republican Party and everywhere else.

We might reasonably assume, on the basis of this and many similar statements on his site, that Fletcher approves, at least in principle, of violent attacks on senior political allies of Obama like Gabrielle Giffords. In the aftermath of the Tucson attack, though, Fletcher began to protest indignantly that he was a man of peace, that Sarah Palin was being unfairly associated with bellicosity, and that leftists were the real advocates and exponents of political violence.

It would be unfair to accuse Russell Fletcher of hypocrisy, or even of chutzpah. Like the rest of the other armchair warriors who characterise Obama as some sort of cross between Hitler and Stalin and issue ever-shriller calls to arms, he is engaged in a sort of therapy, not in politics. And, for all his sabre-rattling and his calls for a war against the left, Fletcher suffers from an ideological incoherence as great as that of Palin and the rest of the stateside Tea Partiers. On the homepage of his website, beside the gun and the slogan which threatens leftists with death, is a quote from that lifelong socialist George Orwell.

To get a real sense of the meaning of the Tea Party movement we ought to drop the comparisons with Hitler's Stormtroopers or Mosely's Blackshirts, and instead consider the deep similarities which connect Palin and her fans to their supposed opponents on the liberal side of American politics.

It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that Sarah Palin and Barack Obama and their respective sets of supporters have much in common. Palin and Obama are certainly, in many respects, very different people. Obama is a cosmopolitan intellectual who likes nothing better than to slip into the White House's extensive library; Palin is a backwoods ignoramus who didn't have a passport until 2007, and who was famously unable to name a newspaper during a 2008 interview. The grassroots movement which gathered around Obama in 2007 and 2008 drew its members from America's big cities and universities; the Tea Party movement Palin leads is strongest in rural and small town America.

But there are interesting similarities between Obama and Palin. Both were obscure figures who became, in a very short time, objects of veneration for sections of the American population; both won their support not with nuanced political arguments but with essentially apolitical rhetoric about national crisis and national salvation; and both continue to avoid any detailed discussion of the real problems which face their country. Neither Palin nor Obama is ever likely to make the crisis of profitability of American manufacturing, the export of jobs to Asia, the long-term fall in the average American wage, the rise of China and India as world powers, and America's loosening grip on regions like the Middle East and South America into the subject of a speech. Instead, they both like to appeal, in their different ways, to a mystical American national 'soul', and to a mythical American history. Both are heirs to a very American tradition of political evangelism.

And both Obama and Palin owe their success to a popular desire to evade rather than confront the problems that America faces. With the end of the Cold War twenty years ago, the wilting of the radical section of the US labour movement, and the decline of a left-wing intelligentsia which once appeared so dynamic, the space in which American capitalism used to be critically analysed has largely disappeared. There is a sad irony at work here. In the 1960s and '70s, when American capitalism was still in rude health, campuses and the streets were full of radical political scientists, economists, and sociologists ready to diagnose the ills of the system, and prescribe alternatives to it; today, when capitalism is obviously failing tens of millions Americans, as factories close, whole suburbs are abandoned in cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and Flint, and Chinese and Indian investors snap up properties at mortgagee sales, there is an almost total absence of serious discussion of the travails of the nation's hegemonic mode of production. In the absence of such discussion, confused and frightened citizens turn towards the rhetoric of messianic figures like Obama and Palin. Politics becomes therapy. The aggressive political talk of the Tea Party is comparable to the fire and brimstone rhetoric of the fundamentalist churches many of its members favour. Just as a happy clappy congregation's love for God is heightened by the contemplation of the Devil and his domain, so the Tea Party's celebrations of an idealised America are intensified by a contemplation of another, fallen America - a hellish America of welfare queens and drug dealers and flagburning protesters and perverted college teachers and corrupt trade unionists. Because of his skin colour, his geographical and sociological support bases, and his air of intellectual arrogance, Obama has come to symbolise this 'other' America for many Tea Partiers. For Obama's hardcore supporters, who are just as prone to hysteria as the Tea Partiers, Palin has become, especially in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, a sort of rival devil, the leader of an America where Klansmen stand before burning crosses and Darwin is banned from schools and gun nuts shoot at anything that comes within a hundred metres of their fortified homes.

EP Thompson liked to talk about the way that, faced with the economic crises and challenges to British economic and political power created by the French Revolution and later by the Napoleonic Wars, both rich and poor Britons took refuge in hysteria. While the upper classes raged against the perfidy of a handful of 'Jacobite' intellectuals who supported the French revolution, and furiously appealed to a non-existent 'national spirit', the poor escaped from their plight into the new creed of Methodism, which rejected calls for social justice and political reform in favour of hysterical but vague appeals to moral renewal.

In his masterpiece The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson argued that the 'psychic masturbation' represented by Methodism and similar escapes from reality helped explain the failure of British society to reform or revolutionise itself in the nineteenth century. It seems to me that both the Tea Party and its opponents on America's liberal left are practising forms of 'psychic masturbation', rather than engaging with and suggesting solutions for the very serious problems which are behind America's decline as a world power. By buying into the rhetoric of Obama's supporters, blogs like The Standard obscure the real nature of the Tea Party and, by extension, the real situation of American society in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How not to find a hill fort on 'Eua Island

[We've been back from Tonga for more than a month, but I've only just gotten round to excavating my luggage and writing up these notes, which were supposed to describe a triumph of amateur archaeology. You can read a report from my earlier trip to 'Eua here.]


We crossed from Tongatapu today. After leaving an hour or so late, as Tongan tradition dictates, the little ferry-boat dipped and edged through a series of channels in the reef, or reefs, that protect Nuku’alofa from the open ocean. I shared a handrail on the unsteady front deck with a queasy-looking billy goat and a sprightly medical student from New Jersey named Dan. The goat maintained a truculent silence while Dan told me, in that controlled rush of words peculiar to Americans, how much he preferred the Pacific Ocean, with its thousand variations on blue, to the permanently grey tones of the Atlantic seaboard. Half a dozen islands are distributed across the reef at roughly equal distances from each other, and at a roughly equal distance from the teak wood spires of Nuku’alofa’s waterfront. As we listed and churned out of reef complex and into the Tongatapu Channel, the water changed from a light to a very dark shade of blue, like the sky near the end of a clear summer day. Dan leaned a long way over the handrail, as flying fish flashed from the big waves like reflected sunbeams. I was trying to get a photo of the horizon, where the island of ‘Eua was, I believed, about to surface, when the front of the ferry reared and dropped, and I found myself kneeling in a puddle of foam, staring into the billy goat’s unamused eyes. It seemed time to retreat to a calmer, more populous part of the ferry.

Knowing how predictably I become seasick, Skyler had saved me a seat beside one of the sliding windows in the covered part of the ship. Like half a dozen other passengers, I soon had my knees on my seat and my neck out my window. As I looked up and down the row of miserable faces hanging over the heaving blue water, I couldn’t help but think of condemned men waiting for the fall of guillotines. I burped, and then belched, and then spat involuntarily, but I was determined not to be the first condemned man to vomit. Let it be a Tongan, not a palangi who has already made himself conspicuous with his bald sunburnt head, and his soggy clothes, and his notebook and camera. Hold on! Hold on another minute! My thoughts were interrupted when a middle-aged Tongan in a particularly lurid Hawaiian T short made a long, deep noise in the back of his throat, then pulled his head and shoulders back slightly, then jerked a long way forward, so that he seemed momentarily like he might be about to fall out of his window, then barked a great load of green liquid down into the Tongatapu Channel. As if on cue, the rest of us began to empty our stomachs.

Afterward, I rested my head on the window sill. My empty stomach felt vast, my hands and legs shook, and sweat kept my T shirt sodden. “Look at the horizon. Keep your eye on the line of the horizon” Skyler whispered. I did as I was told, willing ‘Eua to rise out of the east. I willed the light blue haze of the island’s highland to distinguish itself from the dark blue haze of the sea, willed the cliffs on the northeast coast into declaring themselves, willed the villages and plantations of the lowland into confirming their existence. I squinted, trying to make out individual coconut trees, trying to sight the coral bell tower of the Free Wesleyan Church in the port village of ‘Ohonua. Every detail obliterated a little more distance, and promised the relief of dry land. Taki was waiting for us on the seawall that also serves as 'Ohonua's wharf and public carpark. He threw our bags onto the back of his ute with a flick of one of his massive forearms. Spike Milligan said that the best cure for seasickness is a lie-down under a tree, but I found sliding about on the back of Taki's ute, as the vehicle moved repetitively from pothole to ungravelled road-edge, to be almost as efficacious. By the time we arrived at the Hideaway, the little hostel Taki runs a few kilometres south of 'Ohonua, I was ready to eat two pieces of fried chicken, a mango the size and colour of a rockmelon, and a bottle of Maka beer.

Taki spent a decade in the urban outback of western Sydney's, mixing concrete amid the ruins of building sites, before coming home to 'Eua to set up a different sort of business. His operation was called the Hideaway Resort, until a group of irritated American guests, who had apparently been expecting a swimming pool, a gymnasium, and a nightclub, queried the description. After doing some quick research in a dictionary and on the internet Taki happily dropped the word Resort. His is a determinedly small-scale, informal operation, which employs only locals, and offers its guests activities like guided tramps in the 'Euan highlands and weaving and kava sessions in the island's villages.

The Hideaway consists of a dozen cabins arranged on a low ridge fifty metres or so from the narrow finging reef that protects 'Eua from the Pacific. The cabins are complemented by a kitchen-house, and by a rooved but unwalled communal space over which plastic chairs and tables are scattered. A path of crushed coral descends from the edge of this space through regenerating coastal forest to the reef's mutilated statues and roughly-scooped basins. Edward Gifford's 1929 book Tongan Society contains the only published information on 'Eua's forts. Gifford's volume is relentlessly descriptive and unashamedly untechnical, in the style of an amateur local history or an explorer's journal. Gifford's research was sponsored by Hawaii's Bishop Museum, and he does seem to have done a lot of listening as travelled about the two hundred or so islands of the Kingdom of Tonga. Quoting from scores of legends and songs, he tells his readers about subjects as obscurely fascinating as the traditional place of albinos in Tongan society, the consumption of rats by Tongan children, and the proper way of manufacturing a wizard's staff in the Ha'apai Islands.

In the course of a rambling discussion of ‘Feuds in Eua Island’, Gifford describes five forts which were constructed here. Loma was built in the south of the island, on a piece of flat land; like Teeveka, which stood further north, it was prompted by the civil wars which weakened Tongan society in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Gifford names three older forts, including a site named after the 'Euan warrior Tuutaki. According to the story Gifford relays, Tuutaki established his fort at the edge of a sheer cliff in 'Eua's highland; the site gave him views of the entire island, but it also made him vulnerable to the perfidy of his wife, who one day attempted to push him to his death. Tuutaki and his wife wrestled on the earthworks of their home, before both going over the edge of the cliff. She died conventionally enough on some distant rocks; he had the misfortune to be impaled through the anus on a coconut palm.

Taki knows all about the story Gifford tells. "I was named after Tuutaki" he explained, as he handed me another Maka. "It wasn't all bad, his death. A bunch of Fijian warriors were approaching in their canoe, when they saw Tuutaki sitting on his palm, with this fierce expression on his face. They thought he was still alive, and they were so scared that they turned around and went home!" Gifford gives only a vague location for Tuutaki's fort; I ask Taki if he knows the spot. "We didn't realise exactly where it was until a group of people came here a few years ago. They were crossing the Pacific, looking for possible World Heritage sites. They spotted Tuutaki immediately, beside one of our four wheel drive tracks. After they'd pointed the fort out it was obvious - there are terraces and other earthworks on the western side of the ridge that runs along the top of the highland, and there's a sheer drop to the east. A pretty impregnable position. I'll get Sifa to take you guys up there in the four-wheel drive."

I don’t pretend to be an archaeologist, but I want to photograph the old fort, so that friends like Edward Ashby can concoct some tentative interpretations of the site. Edward is trying to decide where to work on his PhD in archaeology, and I’ve been lobbying vigorously on ‘Eua’s behalf.

I am astounded by the ability of archaeologists to take the most fragmentary or despoiled objects - shells from an eroded midden, a split digging stick, a shard from a cooking pot smashed millenia ago - and make epic and technical narratives out of them. I become immoderately excited when I read Patrick Vinton Kirch, whose book The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms is perhaps the greatest epic of modern Pacific archaeology, arguing for the abolition of the distinction between history and prehistory, because the lack of written sources which used to doom an era to prehistory can nowadays be compensated for by patient excavation and interpretation. The strata of the earth have become enormous books. Sometimes excavation is unnecessary: reading Simon Best's marvellously-titled 1993 essay 'At the Halls of the Mountain Kings' I'm impressed by how much he has learned about the hill forts of Sava'i, Upolu and Fiji without ever apparently picking up a spade. Wandering over earthworks with his surveying gear, making notes on the angles of ditches and the elevation of crumbling stone walls, Best is able to reach an extraordinary number of conclusions about the sociology and ideology of the fort-builders. Large elevated platforms remember kings or high chiefs, and complicated ceremonies where tribute was given and ancestors sated. Walls recall wars. History has been written on the landscape.

Is it not a pity that 'Eua's hill forts seem to have gone unstudied by archaeologists? Tonga was a very important part of the ancient Pacific, a maritime chiefdom - some of us, of course, prefer the more evocative but less accurate word 'empire' - which raided and traded with places as distant as Malaita in the northwest, the Cooks in the east, and - it now seems, if some petroglyphs excavated by a recent storm on the Ha'apai island of Foa are to believed - Hawa'ii in the far northeast. The empire's capital may have been at Tongatapu, but the flat, fertile terrain and high population of that island mean that many of its archaeological sites have been effaced by the plough and the bulldozer. There have of course been successful digs for Lapita pottery - Skyler and I spotted a few fragments, frail yet precise white lines on an invincibly hard orange ground, under glass in a corner of one of the vast, gloomy, almost empty Japanese-built fale of the Tongan National Centre on the southern edge of Nuku'alofa - but most of the island's forts have vanished. Indigenous 'Euans are culturally and genealogically almost indistinguishable from the people of Tongatapu: what secrets might their forts tell, on behalf of Tongatapu, and therefore on behalf of the whole Tongan empire and, perhaps, on behalf of the whole of Polynesia?

22.11 (late)

'Eua lies only twenty kilometres from the southeastern corner of Tongatapu, the flagship of the fleet of islands that comprised the Tongan Empire, and which nowadays make up the Kingdom of Tonga, and yet it feels like a distant outlier. 'Eua is more than a third of the size of Tongatapu, but it has only about a twentieth of that island's population. 'Eua lacks more than a few hundred metres of paved road, and its grass airstrip is too short and - I suspect - too bumpy for any craft much larger than a DC 10. Tourists are counted in the dozens rather than in the hundreds or thousands. The island's ferries are so small that goods are very expensive to import. It costs five hundred dollars, for instance, to bring a car across the Tongatapu Channel. 'Eua has been neglected by modern scholars, as well as by tourists and transport planners. The island's rainforest is the largest in Tonga, but it has hardly been explored by botanists. The thousands of caves and sinkholes have yet to interest speleologists, and, as I keep complaining, archaeologists have been similarly unmotivated by the island's earthworks and ruins.

But palangi were not always so uninterested in this island. I've been sitting in our cabin reading a series of documents - captains' logbooks, sailors' memoirs, and the occasional fusty monograph by a gentleman scholar - which report on 'Eua in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. Sated, langurous mosquitoes and huge tawny moths fly into the bare bulb that hangs above my head, so that it sways slightly and flickers, like the flame of a candle.

I detect a sense of bewilderment, and perhaps also frustration, in both the rough prose of the seamen and the awkwardly abstract sentences of the men of learning who followed them. For sailor and for scholar, 'Eua seems to have been a strangely recalcitrant place, a source of contradiction and mystery.

When he visited 'Ea-oo-we' in the Resolution in 1773, James Cook disagreed with his crew about some of the island's most basic characteristics. Astronomer William Wales, whose chirpy diary acts as a sort of counterpoint to Cook's often solemn prose, was moderately impressed with 'Euan women, praising their 'regular and soft features' but describing them as 'rather too fat to be considered beauties anywhere but in Holland'. Wales needed no qualifications, though, when he considered the 'Euan landscape. The island was 'wholly laid out in Plantations' which contained 'some of the richest Productions of Nature', he wrote. Cook's journal insisted, though, that only a small portion of the island was under cultivation. Where Wales saw fields of taro and yam and coconuts, Cook saw rainforest. How could the captain and the astronomer have differed over such an apparently straightforward matter?

Cook left 'Eua after a couple of days because he couldn't find fresh water, yet the island is one of the few parts of Tonga blessed with streams. One of these streams emerges from the highland and flows into the sea at 'Ohonua, a short walk from the spot where Cook and his crew landed in 1773. How could such a resource have gone unnoticed by the thirsty Britons?

In the 1920s J Edward Hoffmeister composed a long report on the geology of 'Eua for Bishop Museum. Hoffmeister spends the first chapter of his tract attempting to divide the island into 'physiographic provinces'. He begins sensibly, by proposing a couple of provinces which correspond with the lowland of 'Eua's western coast and its central highland, but he soon becomes preoccupied by the gross weight of data he has collected during his time on the island. As Hoffmeister looks over his notes and observes new ridges, ravines, and depressions, 'Eua's 'physiographic provinces' proliferate. Even when describing very modest spaces, like the 'province' that is the island's 'central valley', Hoffmeister adds an anxious qualification to each of his assertions, so that the area under discussion seems to grow steadily in size:

Most of the valley bottom is covered in dense brush and trees. Here and there, however, open, grass-covered spots appear. Its surface is in general rather flat or slightly undulating except for the steep-sided ravine, about 60 feet deep, made by the stream, which runs parallel to the ridge in a northward direction before it turns westward towards 'Ohonua...

Is there, I wonder, something about this island which is inimical to accurate measurement and description, some peculiar self-protective quality that keeps palangi explorers and taxonomists at bay? 23.11

We headed up into the highland today. When we visited 'Eua last January, Taki's tour operator, a quiet, pious man named Sifa, drove us to the base of the highland, and left us beside a track. Because it rained last week and the tracks have turned to mud, Taki insisted we let Sifa drive us all the way into the hills today. 'Eua is a four-wheel driver's dream: even its roads seem like off-road tracks, and the tracks that ascend the highland turn brusquely onto cliff-faces and through small streams. Yet it sometimes seemed harder travelling into the highland in an SUV than it had on foot. Branches and vines lunged at our vehicle from the track's narrowing edges, thumping and scratching at our doors and windows and crashing onto and off the bonnet, so that I began to imagine that we were accelerating through the middle of an enraged and fearless mob. Occasionally the forest fell away for a moment, and unexpectedly bright sunlight played in the network of cracks that covered a corner of Sifa's windscreen like a spider's web.
Weeds and later small shrubs began to appear in the middle of the road, on the strip of green that the tyres of SUVs and Land Rovers never touch. The crucifix which hung from the dashboard shook wildly, but Sifa looked half-asleep, as he twisted the steering wheel this way and that, and eased the gears up and down. When the track levelled out he parked abruptly in a pool of mud and gestured towards a deep blue tear in the green of the forest.

Skyler had been sitting in the back of the SUV with two young Swedish men. One of them had introduced himself as a horse trader; the other explained that he made his money playing poker on the internet. Back at the Hideaway, both had had the bemused, vaguely worried look of peasant extras in a Bergman film, but they soon proved themselves fearless, running to the brink of the two hundred foot cliff which marks the end of 'Eua's highland, and crawling with Sifa over the edge, down into a limestone indent called Rats Cave. Skyler and I declined to join them, explaining disingenuously that we wanted to use all our time to photograph the view of 'Eua's uninhabited, rainforested eastern lowland.
"Fifteen minutes to the fort" Sifa told me, after he and the Swedes had crawled up from their grotto and we'd all climbed back into the SUV. Only a couple of minutes down the increasingly rutted, increasingly muddy track, though, the vehicle sunk to a silent halt. Sifa restarted the engine and worked at his gears; we accelerated downwards, deeper into mud. Along with the Swedes, who seemed to be enjoying themselves, I abandoned my seat and pushed the SUV backwards a few metres, to a piece of cleared ground where Sifa could execute a fifteen or sixteen point turn.

Back at the Hideaway, Taki was disappointed to hear I didn't visit the fort raised by his namesake; he says that he intends to head up that way tomorrow, to do some work on the track, and that he'll show me the site himself.


On our first night at the Hideaway, Skyler and I enjoyed lying awake listening to the surf at the end of the path of crushed coral. The sound of the waves testing the sea wall is somehow at once ferocious and cosy, wild and reassuring. Perhaps it is the metronomic regularity of the surf, or the incontrovertible fact of the fifty foot wide reef, which removes some of the menace from the water's roar. A couple of nights ago, though, we woke up and heard surf on the cabin's roof, as well as on the distant reef wall. After a few seconds we realised we were listening to rain, and that a tsunami was not about to bring the cabin down. I put on some clothes, and wandered out to the communal area near the Hideaway cookhouse. Taki was still up, lighting a cigarette and talking Tongan politics with a Japanese couple. "Just a storm" he said, half-turning in my direction. "Apparently there's a cyclone building out past the Tongan trench somewhere. Phones are down. Radio's down. Internet's down." "The internet's always down" I pointed out. "Well, we only worry about these storms after a couple of days. Want a beer?"

It has now been raining for a couple of days, and both the 'Eua highland to our east and the Tongatapu Channel on the other side of the reef have become vague, conjectural things, obscured by layers of humid mist. The rain is falling so hard that I can't even hear the surf on the reef anymore. When I lean on the rough railing which runs outside our row of cabins I feel like I'm leaning on the bow-rail of a ship: a small ship, which has lost its engine, and has started to drift through thick oceanic fog. The ferries which service 'Eua are tied up at Queen Salote wahrf in Nuku'alofa, and flights into the airport have been cancelled. The Swedes have missed their planes out of Tonga, because they haven't been able to get back across the channel to the big airport at Fua'motu. The phones are still down, so that they can't even book new journeys.

In the communal dining area guests have been trying to keep their morale up, playing games of poker and five hundred for handfuls of shells, drinking bottles of Maka, and arguing in a good-natured, haphazard way. I'm habitually grumpy about Western visitors to the Pacific, but I must admit to being impressed by the clientele Taki has attracted to the Hideaway. Besides the two Swedes and Dan, the economics graduate turned medical student from Springsteen country, we have an Aussie oil rig worker with an interest in Middle East politics; his girlfriend, who has spent most of her holiday reading Boethius' The Consolations of Philosophy; an Aussie student working as an intern at Tonga's Ministry of Land; the Japanese couple Taki was talking to the other night, who are over here for a couple of years teaching Tongan schoolkids how to use abacuses; a Lufthansa pilot and Austrian air hostess who have visited every nation on earth, except Nauru, Afghanistan, and "certain equatorial African states"; and Taki's stepfather, a quiet, decorous man who will, if he is in the right mood, talk about his ancestors in the Fakaongo, the group of dissidents exiled to Fiji in the late 1880s for opposing King Tupou I's plan to split Tonga's hegemonic Wesleyan church from its British parent body.

This afternoon has seen a series of boozy arguments about geopolitics in the dining area. The oilman brought out his copy of the memoirs of Christopher Hitchens and began to talk about the Middle East, being careful to differentiate his views from those of George Bush's favourite ex-Marxist. The Lufthansa pilot fretted about the 'hysteria' that post-9/11 laws and procedures had brought to his industry, but then lowered his stock by criticising Germany's Turkish population for its refusal to 'assimilate'. When discussion turned to China's charm offensive in the Pacific Taki felt obliged to express his distrust of the government in Beijing. "We just don't know them" he said, pulling another beer from the fridge. "They're not like the Kiwis and the Aussies. We don't play sport with them. They're just money."

I abstained from the political discussion after discovering that Dan had a passion for large and difficult modernist and postmodernist novels. We talked about Faulkner, Bolanos, De Lillo, and Pynchon, before he revealed that his "favourite novel of all time" is the late David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, a two thousand page vision of twenty-third America which comes complete with two hundred pages of footnotes. "The footnotes are essential" Dan warned me, after I'd promised to read the book. "They explain how tennis becomes our national game, and how Canada conquers the United States." I've heard Wallace condemned as the ultimate postmodernist novelist, and heard the charge that nobody besides PhD students in English Departments had read Infinite Jest. Dan, though, reads for love, not grades. "A friend of mine wanted to go to Pomona Collge, just to study under Wallace" he said, "but Wallace committed suicide before he could get there."

It's not only palangi I've been talking to: I made it out through the rain yesterday to do an interview with one of the oldest and wisest men on 'Eua, a leader of the group of Niuafo'ou who were evacuated from their island in Tonga's far north after a massive eruption in 1946 and who later established themselves here. He and his family invited Skyler and me to a service at the Catholic church in the Niuafo'ou village of Angaha. Papist rituals have always puzzled me, and they were doubly incomprehensible wrapped up in the Tongan language and Niuafo'ou tradition. With the rain still falling, I think that I will have to abandon all attempts to reach Tuutaki, or any of 'Eua's other hill forts.


I am finishing these notes on the boat back to Tongatapu. Because we left before dawn, and yet after the last vestiges of the storm, the sea is calm, and I have been able to forsake a window seat without fear. Yesterday, as the storm began to lose interest in 'Eua, I decided to take a walk down the western coast of the island. I was wandering along the reef, stepping between and around the deep pools, complete with fish as bright and delicate and skittish as butterflies, that survive in coral gashes and craters even at low tide. A few kids from Tufuvei, an indigenous 'Euan village five minutes' bike ride from the Hideaway, were jumping into a channel that cut thirty or forty feet into the reef, bringing the blue-black water of the ocean close to the sand of an empty beach. Half a dozen men stood on a raised rock tablet above the channel, swinging machetes longer than their forearms, as they lopped coconuts off palms that extended at improbable angles from a small cliff at one end of the beach. One of the harvesters chatted with me as he worked, explaining that he'd lived for thirteen years in South Auckland, up the road from my old school. Heads piled up at his feet; one of them rolled into the channel, where a group of giggling boys competed for it. I carried on down the reef, enjoying the thinning drizzle as though it were sunshine. Around a bend in the coast, near a set of coral pillars that resembled fossilised tree stumps, a chunk of beachrock sat in the middle of a rectangular, smooth-sided depression. The sight reminded me of the beachrock quarry I'd seen on Fa'fa, the reef island near Nuku'alofa where Skyler and I stopped briefly during our first visit to Tonga, and which we passed again on the ferry to 'Eua. As I mentioned earlier in these notes, that quarry supplied stone for the monumental tombs - Tongans call them langi - built for Kings and their families at the country's ancient capital of Mu'a. With their tiered layers of rectangular, carefully dressed beachrock, the langi of Mu'a are spectacular enough to remind some visitors to Tonga of the jungle pyramids of the Mayans.
Tongatapu lacks good building materials, so the beachrock which is found on many other Tongan islands was imported by the tomb-builders at Mu'a. Some of the rock may have travelled further: a Tongan story holds that some of the largest stones were harvested in 'Uvea, far to Tongatapu's west. The story claims that the 'Uvean blocks were moved by magic, but the stone wharf at Mu'a, and the moat which enabled small boats to carry stones from a spot near the wharf to burial sites further inland, suggest more conventional methods.

Tongans still take rock from their beaches - it is used on paths, and in seawalls - but quarriers nowadays leave different marks: they hammer at the rock and collect fragments, where their ancestors dug into it with stone tools and prised out whole slabs, leaving deep, smooth basins. Does the photograph I have attached to these notes show an old quarry on 'Eua's southwestern coast? Did some of the famous stones which stand at Mu'a come from this island? I'll be delighted if I have been able to come away from 'Eua with a photo of at least one archaeological site!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

In flux, as usual

In retrospect, it was probably always a bit unrealistic for Bill Direen to imagine that the Michael King fellowship he won last year would bring him six months of calm and seclusion in the little book-lined villa on the side of Devonport's Mount Victoria which houses the King Centre.

Bill may have had plans to write a new novel, and to at long last finish reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, but his status as a living legend of Kiwi culture and his absence from his homeland for long periods over the past decade and a half made it inevitable that, even before he unpacked his bags in Devonport, the offers and requests would begin coming in. Music fans wanted to see Direen reform his backing band The Bilders and play some of the back catalogue he created in the 1980s and '90s for labels like South Indies and Flying Nun. Creative writing students intrigued by Bill's apocalyptic yet recalcitrant novels and short stories were eager to get his advice, whenever he popped over to the office at the University of Auckland which is one of the perks of the King fellowship. Europhiles wanted to know about Bill's experiences living in Germany and France over the last fifteen years. The Depot Arts Centre wanted to interview Bill as part of its 'New Zealand Cultural Icons' series, and the organisers of the Going West festival were keen for his presence at their shindig. All sorts of people wanted to contribute material to Percutio, the multilingual journal Bill publishes and distributes in both Europe and New Zealand. Old and new friends wanted to chat over a beer or two.

Bill has had a more hectic six months than he counted on, but he has still managed to produce a very respectable quantity of writing, and his relentless generosity has not gone unnoticed. Bill will be marking the end of Auckland sojourn with a gig next Wednesday night at the Wine Cellar, that collection of softly-lit rooms beneath Karangahape Road. Bill gave a fine acoustic performance at the Wine Cellar a couple of years ago, but next Wednesday he will be assisted by some of the musos who graced The Bilders back in the 1980s; this old crew replaces the youngsters who helped Bill record his 2008 album Chrysanthemum Storm.

Like The Bilders, the Kiwi literary journal brief seems always to be in a state of Heraclitean flux. Since the austere, splenetic Alan Loney launched brief back in the mid-90s, the publication has had more than half a dozen editors, who have guided it in a number of different directions. Despite or - more likely - because of its complicated history and the political battles which have sometimes broken out between past and present editors and their supporters, brief has established itself as part of the antipodean literary landscape, and is even respectable enough to get Creative New Zealand funding nowadays. brief's forty-first issue, which was put together by Richard von Sturmer, will be launched at six o'clock next Wednesday at the Auckland Zen Centre on 16 Church Street in Onehunga. I'll be coming to the launch to read an excerpt (a short excerpt, I promise) from 'An Annotated Guide to Mungo National Park', a piece which first turned up on this blog, but which reappears, after a spellcheck, in brief 41, and then heading up later in the evening to see Bill and his old cronies play at the Wine Cellar.

I was reminded of the longevity of brief when I discovered an old newspaper cutting in a box the other day. Back in 2004 the Sunday Star-Times ran a feature article on literary editors which featured a chat with Jack Ross, who had taken over responsibility for brief and was busy enraging Alan Loney by opening the journal up to a wider range of contributors and linking it to political issues like the cruelly prolonged stay of the Algerian asylum-seeker Ahmed Zaoui in Mt Eden prison. [click to enlarge]

Jack has a vast personal library - last year he set up a website with the name A Gentle Madness to catalogue its fifteen thousand volumes - and the photographer for Sunday Star-Times asked him to pose in front of one of his bookcases. I remember Jack telling me that he had realised, when the photo appeared in print, that he had been standing in front of shelves which housed books which were, in his words, 'a little bit dodgy'. I've squinted at the photo, but I can't make out many of the titles on the spines of Jack's books: can anybody help identify them?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Smithyman and the art of war

My mate Hamish Dewe had an odd and ultimately disappointing experience at Onehunga's Hard to Find Bookshop last weekend. Hamish was climbing the old staircase of the rambling shop, heading for the poetry section he periodically pillages, when he heard someone approach the sales desk at the bottom of the stairs and make an unusual request. Hamish stopped and turned around. "It was a young guy" he remembered. "He was asking the chap who worked behind the desk if the copy of Atua Wera he had ordered a week ago had come into the shop yet. At the mention of the words Atua Wera I became immoderately excited."

Atua Wera is the name of the epic poem about religion, war, sex and botany in nineteenth and twentieth century Northland which Kendrick Smithyman spent decades of his life researching and writing. The poem has many characters and many settings, but its key presence is Papahurihia, the Hokianga prophet who in the first half of the nineteenth century fused the new Christian teachings of the missionaries with traditional Maori religious beliefs and practices, creating a sort of prototype for the movements led by later prophets like Te Kooti and Wiremu Ratana. Papahurihia was not afraid to put his ideas into practice: during the 'Northern War' of the 1840s he acted as tohunga to Hone Heke, the leader of the army which confronted British and kupapa in a series of battles in the Bay of Islands and in the country between the Bay and the Hokianga. One of the better-known sections of Atua Wera describes how Heke fortified and defended a meeting house and pa under Papahurihia's supervision:

When they were in the pa by Omapere lake
Papahurihia made them build a council house
which by prayers and powers he would protect
notably from cannon fire.
Eight chiefs sat in the house consulting.
A cannon ball sailed right through it,
smashing muskets which were piled together.
"Someone" — this is what is told, Papahurihia
said — "has smoked his pipe in here.
Gods get annoyed when men don't know how to behave."
They built another council house.
Papahurihia promised his prayers and powers to protect it.
A shell blew the roof off.
"Someone took cooked food into the house,
maybe not in his hand, perhaps he was still chewing
when he went to the council meeting.
Some men don't know how to behave properly."
They didn't do any more building.

William Gass described James Joyce's epic dream-novel Finnegan's Wake as 'a great lump of darkness'; Atua Wera is much more like a great lump of kauri gum dug out of a swamp somewhere in the backblocks of Northland, a lump of hard amber filled with minutely detailed, perfectly preserved curiousities: strange insects, and shards from antique bullets, and pollen spores recording ancient explosions, and fragments of moa cooking stones. It is a work which can be examined again and again.

Smithyman was still tinkering with some of the nearly three hundred sections of Atua Wera in the last months of his life, and the book was not published until 1996, the year after his death. Atua Wera bemused some reviewers, and it has never gained a large audience. Despite being New Zealand's only epic poem of any quality, it is still much less known amongst the local reading public than Homer's Odyssey, or Paradise Lost, or even Ezra Pound's Cantos.

Smithyman's epic has, however, gained a small group of devotees over the years. Shane Cotton has used Atua Wera as a source for some of the massive paintings in which he recreates events and reconsiders themes from Nga Puhi and Northland history; the prolific art and literary critic Gregory O'Brien has written a prize-winning essay about the poem; and the historian Mark Derby has used treated Smithyman's text as an aid to his own research into Northland's past.

Hamish Dewe is one of the devotees of Atua Wera, and at the Hard to Find Bookshop last Sunday he was delighted to think that he might be about to discover a fellow fan of such a remarkable and under-appreciated book. "I had been thinking how impressive it was to see someone from the younger generation so keen to read Smithy's book that he'd put down an order for it" Hamish told me. "I sometimes have a dim view of the youth of the digital age - they so seldom seem to read books! - but I was prepared to be surprised." Hamish was soon disappointed, though: after the shop assistant asked her customer to repeat the name of the book he'd ordered, Hamish realised that he was waiting on The Art of War, not Atua Wera.

"It was Sun Tzu, not Smithyman!" Hamish raged. "Sun Tzu's book is the opposite of Smithyman's: The Art of War is a series of transparent axioms, a simplistic, propagandistic work, like Mao's Little Red Book, not a book for the imagination. The Art of War is a tidy ornamental garden in front of an official monument; Atua Wera is a wild, partially unexplored forest! What is wrong with today's book-buyers?"

I thought Hamish might be cheered to know that at least one person has recently joined the Atua Wera fan club. Jono, an archaeologist who comments regularly on this blog, has been bushcrashing through Atua Wera for the last few months: he's found the book both enjoyable and instructive. Hamish might be particularly interested to know that Jono has been doing an archaeological investigation of Ruapekapeka, one of the great musket pa Hone Heke's allies created during the Northern War, and that he has found Atua Wera very useful in understanding Heke's campaign. Perhaps Smithyman can rival Sun Tzu as a companion to military history?

Jono left a couple of comments here recently about his reading of Atua Wera; I've reproduced them, and added hyperlinks to different parts of the online edition of Smithyman's epic, so that you can see what some of the fuss is about:

[Last November] I gave a paper at the New Zealand Archaeological Association conference in Westport based on thoughts about Ruapekapeka which have bubbled around inside my head for several years. The abstract follows, but doesn't say much:

"Accounts of the battle of Ruapekapeka Pa have tended to focus on the size and innovation of the fortification, in contrast to typical (or classic) Maori defensive works and approaches to warfare. In her 2003 book
Taua, Angella Ballara followed the threads of Maori warfare from the mid to late prehistoric period into the early historic period and the co-called Musket Wars and described a continuity in Maori approaches to warfare, adapted to the use of muskets but by no means characterised by them. This paper identifies elements of continuity in the battle of Ruapekapeka of 1845-46 (which takes place shortly after Ballara concludes her study). It uses archaeological and historical sources to suggest an evolution rather than a revolution in Maori warfare, and that for the combatants, adaptation to fit the new circumstances went both ways"

Since then it has been fascinating to go through Smithyman's
Atua Wera, slowly, time and toddler allowing, and follow the historical threads he weaves together (I assume Fred Manning is the main source for the parts dealing with the northern war and the role of Papahurihia/Atua Wera/Te Nakahi). Especially as I hadn't previously given much thought to the adaptation of non-material cultural elements which might have been play during the war.

It seems strange to me that in my reasonably extensive reading about the northern war I havent yet come across anything which canvasses the depth of involvement of Maori prophetic/millenial religious thought. Heke's involvement with Atua Wera/Papahurihua/Te Ngakahi is fascinating given his apparantly honest (albeit troubled) Christian faith and deep and personal relationship with Henry Williams.

Its interesting to note the flag flying at Ruapekapeka as described by Cyprian Bridge featured the star and crescent moon (on a field of red and white), that prominent motif of Maori millenialism and independence.

I can say with some confidence that Jono is not the only person who's been enjoying Smithyman over the summer: the first print run of Private Bestiary, the selection of the man's previously-unpublished work I edited for Titus Books, had sold out before Christmas, after being issued in mid-November. There's a new run coming from the printers soon; I apologise to anyone who's waiting on a copy.