Talking in Tonga
There's nothing like a week or so in Tonga to expose the shortcomings of an Auckland spring. The temperature dropped twenty degrees as we flew the two thousand kilometres from Tongatapu to Auckland on Wednesday night.
We had travelled to the Friendly Islands with a couple of friends and a gaggle of children. Tonga is a good place to bring kids: as soon as you sit down in a cafe or restaurant or bus, or even pause in the street, a local volunteers to nurse your baby, or to play with your toddler. At Nuku'alofa's Friends Cafe, the place of first resort for expat and tourist palangis who can't shake their craving for flat whites and lattes, a waitress took our order and then our baby, and disappeared for a disconcertingly long time into a back room from which high-pitched giggles seeped. "She's sharing the baby with her friends" a fellow palangi explained to me. "You have to be careful - sometimes these women will disappear for days with your kids!"
While Aneirin was being passed from bosom to bosom last week, I visited the 'Atenisi Institute, the historic, struggling school on the waterlogged western fringes of Nuku'alofa. I invaded two lectures by Michael Horowitz, the former student of Marcuse and New Left activist who has taught in Tonga for most of the last decade.
Talking to Horowitz's sociology class, I brandished a copy of Karl Marx's 1881 letter to the Russian socialist Vera Zasulich, which makes the argument that Russia could leap straight from feudalism to a sort of agrarian socialism, without having to pass through a 'stage' of development that involved the enclosure of communal lands, the raising of thousands of stinking factories, and the proletarianisation of peasants. I suggested that Horowitz's students might be able to find slight parallels between the elderly Marx's vision and the compromise between capitalism and traditional economics that Tonga's first modern ruler Taufa'ahau established in the second half of the nineteenth century. As Michael bit both his lips, I argued that, instead of taking the advice of the IMF and abandoning legacies of Taufa'ahau like the state ownership of all land, Tongans might experiment with forms of development based upon their own traditional ways of life.
When I finally paused for breath, Horowitz criticised my argument as 'romantic', and challenged me to explain how Tongans can improve their living standards without large-scale investment from foreign capitalists. I cited, as an example of an historically grounded, Tongan-controlled development project, the eco-tourism business run on 'Eua Island by my mate Taki Hausia; Michael replied that what Tonga needed was not low-impact, low-priced eco-lodges, but the mass tourism that has made Hawaii a relatively wealthy society. "Hawaii gets six million visitors a year" he pointed out. "You don't get those numbers with eco-tourism."
Horowitz and I had fought ourselves to a bloody draw by the time a bell rang, and students filed outside for a short break. A second round in our battle began when Horowitz invited me to sit in on the class he teaches on Plato. I have never read The Laws, a dialogue which has a reputation for dullness, but Horowitz had given the text to his students, and was able to point them in the direction of numerous intriguing passages on subjects like land reform, taxes, and democracy.
After Michael had praised Plato as an enemy of mindless consumerism, mob law, and sophism, I felt obliged to relay the arguments of my friend Ted Jenner, who is both one of New Zealand's leading classicists and an inveterate critic of Plato. Didn't Plato want to throw poets out of ideal society? Ted asked in my voice. Wasn't Mussolini reading Plato when he was captured by Italian partisans? Didn't Hastings Banda, the long-time dictator of Malawi, the country where Ted spent many years teaching, use Plato's Republic as his model?
It was true, Horowitz admitted, that Plato had an authoritarian side, but who could observe the follies of humanity and not want to regulate the behaviour of our species? How could anyone believe in extreme liberty after seeing the damage done by liberalised financial markets in 2008? Who could observe the grassroots of the Republican Party and have absolute faith in democracy?
Michael didn't seem too upset by my disruption of his lectures. "'Atenisi is a persecuted and poor institution" he told me later. "About all it has to offer its students is freedom of discussion. You don't find that in many Tongan schools. A lot of them are afraid of admitting that there are differing views about a subject. There's a reason why our school was the birthplace of Tonga's modern pro-democracy movement."
That evening, as a storm descended on Tongatapu, I headed back down the potholed road to 'Atenisi to deliver a public lecture. A radio advert and a poster stuck to the window of Friends Cafe had claimed that I would be talking about 'Oceania', which seemed a rather daunting subject. As rain blew in through a glassless window and coconut trees thumped about outside in the dark, I showed my audience copies of the Oceania-themed issued of the New Zealand literary journal brief, which appeared back in May and includes a lot of Tongan material, and Atuanui Press' edition of 'Atenisi founder Futa Helu's essays about Tongan poetry. I suggested that these volumes, along with Paul Janman's enthusiastically received film Tongan Ark, which tells the story of Helu and 'Atenisi, point toward a new interest in Tongan thought and culture amongst Kiwis.
I argued that Tongan intellectuals have enthused people like myself and Paul Janman because they seem to offer answers to a couple of problems that have troubled New Zealand artists and thinkers for decades. Ever since the 1930s and '40s, when writers like Allen Curnow and Charles Brasch and painters like Colin McCahon helped invent modern New Zealand art, we have had a tendency to see our society as new and lonely, floating uncertainly in cold seas at the bottom of the world. The vision of New Zealand as a 'far-pitched perilous place', to quote RAK Mason, has been challenged, for decades now, by a rather shallowly internationalist rhetoric, which urges us to act as though we are part of some sort of global village - a 'village' that looks suspiciously like the great cities of the northern hemisphere. In the twenty-first century, many young Kiwi artists and intellectuals seem preoccupied with pretending that they live in New York City or Berlin. But neither the old insularist nationalism of Curnow and Holcroft nor the hip pseudo-internationalism of today really does justice to New Zealand's peculiar position in the world.
I suggested that Kiwis can break out of the dichotomy between nationalism and internationalism by turning to the Tongan intellectual Epeli Hau'ofa, who held that the peoples of the Pacific Ocean were for millenia mobile and relatively integrated, and became isolated and radically differentiated because of the rigid political and taxonomic borders established by colonists and ethnographers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In his famous 1993 essay 'Our Sea of Islands' Hau'ofa argued that the great economic migrations of Tongans and other Pacific peoples to the cities of Australasia and America in the late twentieth century were reenactments of the epic vaka journeys of the pre-colonial era. The endless highway of Oceania was reopening.
Hau'ofa suggested that New Zealand might in certain circumstances be considered part of the ancient and reawakening region of Oceania, and I argued that it would be healthier for Pakeha artists and intellectuals to think of themselves as part of the same space as societies like Tonga than to cling to either the old myth of isolation or a facile northern hemisphere identity.
If Epeli Hau'ofa can help New Zealanders deal with one false dichotomy, then Futa Helu can help them dispose of another. The great Pakeha artists and writers of the middle decades of the twentieth century had pushed Maori to the margins of their work. The very notion of New Zealand as a young, empty, isolated country mocked the history of Maori. The Maori renaissance which began in the 1970s and '80s has reversed the old marginalisation, but it has also led, inadvertantly, to the growth of an unhelpful dichotomy. Out of either sulkiness or a misplaced fear of criticism, too many Pakeha have avoided engaging with Polynesian art and thought. Maori and Pakeha cultures are too often seen as almost wholly incommensurable.
With his call for the fusion of the best elements of European and Polynesian culture and his expert knowledge of Greek philosophy and Italian opera as well as Tongan poetry and dance, Futa Helu offers an implicit challenge to the dichotomising of Pakeha and Maori experience.
It's no wonder that Helu and Hau'ofa, and the younger generation of intellectuals trained at 'Atenisi, are intriguing and exciting some Kiwis tired of the false dichotomies of their society.
After I had argued that the innovations of both Hau'ofa and Helu were rooted in Tonga's nineteenth century history, which saw it avoiding colonisation by a white nation, audience members kicked off an interesting discussion. Sisi'uno Langi-Helu, who divides her time between Australia and the school that her father founded, described her experiences teaching song and dance to children of the Tongan diaspora. A lot of Aussie Tongans had lost aspects of their culture, she said, but now wanted to reclaim it, because they realised that it gave them a good foundation in the globalised world of the twenty-first century.
I suggested that Tonga's extraordinary educational achievements - despite its poverty the country has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, as well as the world's highest rate of PhD graduates - stemmed from the strength of its indigenous culture, which was never marginalised by colonialism, but an audience member who lived close to 'Atenisi was more cautious, saying that many Tongans suffered from feelings of inferiority when they contemplated larger, wealthier countries.
Kik Velt, a Dutch-Tongan astronomer and mathematician who has taught at 'Atenisi for decades and who runs Nuku'alofa's most popular internet cafe, claimed that "when a weak culture meets a stronger culture, the stronger culture tends to prevail". Velt has studied and published on Tongan song and dance, but he feels that the culture which created these forms may not be able to persist in the face of twenty-first century capitalism. But an American who had come to Tonga as a Peace Corps volunteer and then stayed on, selling shoes at Nuku'alofa's market to make ends meet, spoke fervently about the superiority of Tonga over his old homeland.
The pessimism of 'Atenisians like Kik Velt perhaps reflects the problems of the institution they serve. 'Atenisi has a proud history as the seedbed of Tonga's pro-democracy movement and the training ground of a generation of distinguished intellectuals, but the death of Futa Helu, the decline of the Tongan economy, and continued government hostility have brought troubled times for the institution. Rolls are low; buildings sag and splinter. For 'Atenisi's staff, students, and alumni, the huge and enthusiastic audiences that Tongan Ark has attracted and the publication of the Oceania issue of brief and of Futa Helu's new book offer some much-needed recognition and encouragement.
Footnote: the photo near the top of this post shows Bessie from 'Eua Island rather than a staff member from Friends Cafe holding Aneirin. I couldn't find any shots of the Friends crowd...
[Posted by Maps/Scott]