Te Radar in the Pacific: new journey, same old stereotypes
I think that the theoretical writings of Helu, Gager et al are something more than exercises in self-indulgence. As Kant showed more than two centuries ago, humans see the world through the prisms made by the ideas they hold. If we hold simplistic and outdated ideas about the Pacific, then no amount of fresh information about the region - no amount photographs or reports or travel - will help us to understand it better. We will remain prisoners of our preconceptions. Just as a pair of glasses needs to be replaced when its lenses have worn out, so a set of ideas needs to be junked when it badly distorts our understanding of the world.
The latest product from Kiwi comedian-cum-documentary maker Te Radar shows the quixotry of trying to get a new view of the world through old and blurry ideological lenses. In the promotional clip for Radar Across the Pacific, a television series which will portray his travels through Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, and Kiribati, Te Radar points out that the nations of the tropical Pacific are New Zealand's 'neighbours', but that many Kiwis nevertheless know little about them. Te Radar intends his jaunt through the tropics as a journey of discovery, for himself and for his palangi audience.
Te Radar has made a niche for himself as New Zealand's cuddly, politically correct comedian, the man who generally refrains from toilet and bedroom humour, and who would never think of making his audience laugh with nasty ethnic stereotypes. Te Radar's television documentaries have been as well-meaning as his comedy. In Off the Radar he 'went bush' on a plot of land north of Auckland, in an effort to become self-sufficient; with Hidden in the Numbers he made an heroic attempt to popularise the work of Statistics New Zealand.
But Te Radar's good intentions couldn't stop the first installment of his series relying on the same racial stereotypes which sustain products like An Idiot Abroad.
Te Radar's journey through Fiji made him aware, again and again, of the size and political power of that nation's military. Te Radar repeatedly observed that Fiji has experienced several military coups in recent decades, and that its current leader is a military man. He noted the Fijian army's involvement in counterinsurgency and 'peacekeeping' campaigns in places like Iraq and Sinai, and visited a village which had lost sons on foreign battlefields.
But Te Radar's revelations about the size and far-flung deployment of Fiji's military raised a couple of difficult questions. Why, anyone watching his documentary would have wanted to ask, does a poor country with less than a million people keep thousands of men in uniform? And what interest does Fiji have in sending so many men so regularly to distant battlefields?
Instead of offering intellectually serious answers to the questions he had raised, Te Radar fell back on hoary ethnic stereotypes. He explained that Fiji had a large military because native Fijians were a warrior people who saw fighting as an essential part of their culture. The vision of indigenous Fijians as ferocious, inveterate warriors has its roots in the writings of nineteenth century European explorers, missionaries, and colonists, and was popularised in the twentieth century by pulp novels and sensationalist films.
Perhaps aware of the dubious lineage of his talk about native warrior traditions, Te Radar offered an additional explanation for the importance of Fiji's armed forces. Talking to a villager who had lost a relative on a foreign battlefield, he suggested that Fijians might be popular peacekeepers because they had 'such friendly smiles'. With this cringeworthy line Te Radar invoked the stereotype of indigenous Fijians as a simple, happy people, blissed out by kava and the tropical sun.
Te Radar is not the first person to mix up the two main stereotypical depictions of Fijians. In Fiji and elsewhere in the Pacific, palangi depictions of indigenous people have revolved around cliches of noble and ignoble savages. Missionaries and colonists often switched between the two stereotypes, depending on their moods and needs. Both stereotypes remain embedded in the consciousness of many palangi, even in the twenty-first century.
If Te Radar had been able to cast aside his stereotypes and examine the history and sociology of Fiji, he would have discovered that, far from being some simple expression of the indigenous soul, the size of the Fijian military is the product of decisions made by the imperialist powers who dominated the country in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In 1874, after a violent campaign by settlers who had organised a branch of the Ku Klux Klan, Fiji's King Cakobau was forced to ask Britain to annex his country. The British were interested in growing sugar in Fiji, but reluctant to spend large sums of money on the needs of its native population. They placed native Fijians under the control of handpicked chiefs, forbade them from visiting towns like Suva or entering a range of occupations, and imported large numbers of Indians to work in the sugar industry. Fiji was soon divided into a burgeoning capitalist society and a stagnant indigenous ghetto. Realising that the most restive native Fijians needed to be given some way of improving their lot, the British decided to give the colony an army recruited from native villages. The army became larger and larger, as more and more young men clamoured to join it and escape from their narrow lives.
The Fijian army's continual deployments in distant troublespots have reinforced both its autonomy and its politicisation. The deployments give the military income, and make it less reliant on funding from Fijian governments. They also allow give some Fijian soldiers the sense that they are playing an important role in world events, and reinforce their contemptuous attitude towards civilian politicians and civil servants in Suva.
The first episode of Radar Across the Pacific failed because Te Radar's laudable curiosity about the Pacific collided with his allegiance to hoary stereotypes about the region. To understand a place we need not only information, but a set of background ideas about that place which avoid simplification and prejudice. Te Radar should have read Epeli Hau'ofa or Futa Helu before he packed his bags and took off for the tropics.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]