Friday, January 31, 2014

Burning the gods: a letter to Visesio Siasau

Malie Sio,
it was exciting to meet you again recently, in the cottage at the edge of Hamilton that has served as your headquarters-in-exile this summer, and to watch you unwrap, tenderly but also gleefully, the new gods, with their erect penises and sharply pointed breasts, that you have cast and carved over these past few months, using the industrial materials and technology that are so scarce and expensive in Tonga.
As you talked about cooking the gods, along with a steak-sized Tongan bible, on a barbeque fitted to the pulpit of a church, and about building a bonfire of gods and broken crucifixes, I worried again about the clause in Tonga’s constitution forbidding blasphemy against the Christian faith. I remembered the complaints by some conservative Tongans, including members of your own family, after you showed sculptures of a crucified Tangaloa, and tapa portraying a Jesus branded with a dollar sign.
Of course, your art is not blasphemous. As you explained, while I admired the deities you had lain out on the table, you seek not to denigrate Tongan Christianity, but rather to put it on the same level – the same ontological level, the same epistemological level – as the country’s older, obscurer religious traditions. When you crucify Tangaloa, or throw Bibles onto the sort of bonfire that consumed so many pagan statues during the religious wars of the nineteenth century, you are demanding that we look evenly at the whole three thousand years of Tongan history, instead of dichotomising that history into ‘Christian’ and ‘pre-Christian’ periods.
The historiography of the Free Wesleyan Church is like a house with only two rooms, one damp and cramped and dimly-lit and malodorous, and the other bright and high-ceilinged and air conditioned. The door between the room called the Age of Darkness and the room called the Age of Enlightenment was fashioned, of course, by Taufa’ahau and his earnest advisor, the Reverend John Thomas. They were the architects of the Free Wesleyan Church and the modern Tongan monarchy, and it is not surprising that the publication of Thomas’ History of Tonga last year in Nuku’alofa was hailed by the church and the royal family alike.

Copies of Thomas’ tome flew out the door of the Friendly Islands Bookshop, but I wondered how any Tongans bought the book out of a sense of religious and political obligation, rather than out of genuine curiosity. I wonder, as well, whether Thomas would appreciate the way that many scholars, Tongan and palangi alike, will inevitably read his text.

The title of Thomas’ book is, of course, absurd: after a short account of Tongan creation myths and geography, he devotes himself almost entirely to an alternately pious and splenetic narrative of his work as a missionary in the 1820s and ‘30s, when Taufa’ahau was fighting and besting pagans and Papists. For Thomas, the ‘20s and ‘30s are the doorway between the Age of Darkness and the Age of Enlightenment, and Taufa’ahau is the man holding open the door.
And yet a paradox afflicts the writings of other nineteenth century missionaries like Thomas. These men devoted their lives to the destruction of the teeming gods and spirits of the pagan Pacific, and their letters and diaries and memoirs celebrate this long work of extermination. Today, though, historians and anthropologists and ethnobotanists value the  missionaries because of the information they left behind about the societies and creeds they helped destroy.
As you know, Thomas’ book is full of scornful yet informative descriptions of the old, pagan Tongan culture that dominated Western Polynesia for hundreds of years, and raised stone monuments to its kings and queens at the sacred city of Mu’a. We skip the pages the reverend devoted to glories of John Wesley and the exposition of Christian doctrine, and linger instead over a description of the wooden goddess who presided over a godhouse in Mu’a, or an account of a visit to the persistently pagan village of Pe’a, where tapa makers refused Thomas’ demand that they cease their pounding on the Sabbath.

Thomas wrote to justify his cause, but the text he produced has ended up betraying his cause. He may have helped Taufa’ahau destroy important parts of Tonga’s pre-Christian culture, but his History of Tonga helps us to recover some of that culture.
We spent a lot of time last year talking about the theory, advanced so controversially by Niel Gunson and his disciples, that ancient Tongan religion was shamanic, and that the Tu’i Tonga who fascinated Captain Cook was a sort of shaman-king. We drove around Tongatapu, looking amongst coconut groves for the scorched foundations of the godhouses where priests drank green kava, shook with terror or delight, and channelled the voices of the dead and immortal. We used Thomas’ book, with its almost lascivious accounts of the mutilation of goddesses, the burning of godhouses, and the running of pigs through sacred groves and enclosures, to guide us.  
But I wanted to talk about a couple of other books I encountered last year, books which help me to understand your art.

I remember us poring over a copy of Sadie Plant’s Writing on Drugs, as we drank a few cups of our favourite narcotic. Plant’s discussions of shamanism endeared her book to us, because we were looking for some general account of the history of shamanism and its relation to drug taking.
Since I returned to the land of fast internet connections and libraries I’ve been reading some of the reviews and discussions that Plant’s book prompted. I’ve been amused to note how many potheads and acid freaks – the type of people who turn the solemn ceremonies of shamanic cultures into a dissipated, enervated lifestyle – have sought out Writing on Drugs, hoping for tips about peyote cultivation or analyses of Grateful Dead lyrics, and found instead a dense collage of quotations from Coleridge, De Quincey, Benjamin, Michaux, and other tough-minded investigators of mind-altering substances.
As one piqued stoner complained, Plant often seems more interested in literary highs – in the dreamy lift of De Quincey’s endless sentences, or the hallucinatory flares of Michaux’s metaphors – than in chemical pleasures.
What I thought most provocative about Plant's book, and most relevant to your own art, was her claim that imagery and rituals associated with shamanism lie behind many features of contemporary popular culture. Do you remember the way that she insists that Santa Claus is a stand-in for a spirit summouned by Siberian shamans? Why else, Plant asks, would he dress in red and white, the colours of the agaric mushroom, and drive reindeer, animals associated with the spirits of the dead, through the sky, and bring gifts from a faraway magical realm?
If scholars like Gunson and Plant are correct, and places as distant as Tonga, Siberia, and Africa once practiced the same shamanic religion, then questions about the origins and dispersal of that religion must be asked. In his fascinating but ultimately whimsical essay ‘Understanding Traditional Polynesian History’, Gunson seems, disappointingly, to answer questions about the widespread nature of shamanism by disinterring the doctrine of hyper-diffusionism.

Claiming that Hinduism and Polynesian religions have deep similarities, Gunson suggests that Malay traders who bowed to Shiva and Vishnu introduced Vedic cosmology to the Pacific. It’s curious how they didn’t also introduce their language and material culture. As critics of Thor Heyerdahl showed decades ago, hyper-diffusionism is a busted flush. Ideas and rituals and technological discoveries don’t occur in one, blessed locale and then spread miraculously around the globe. Innovation occurs everywhere, and most cultures develop in situ.
I want to mention David Lewis-Williams' book The Mind in the Cave because it offers another, and much more credible, explanation for the apparent similarities between the ancient religions of distant parts of the world. Lewis is an art historian who has spent decades stooped in the caves, grottoes, and canyons of southern Africa, studying the paintings the San people made there hundreds or thousands of years ago. The Mind in the Cave compares these African images to the much more famous paintings found in Neolithic European galleries like Lascaux, and argues that both are the products of a shamanic religion.

Drawing on the labours of archaeologists and ethnographers, Lewis-Williams suggests that the ancient inhabitants of Europe and Africa drugged or danced themselves into trances and went on journeys through hallucinated land and seascapes. Turning abruptly to neuroscience, he claims that the architecture of the human brain means that we will all experience roughly similar visions, should we choose to dance ourselves to exhaustion around a campfire or swallow magic mushrooms. The cavemen of both Europe and Africa imagined flying over water, watching their limbs expand vastly, and wandering with spirit-versions of beasts familiar to them, like the deer or the gnu. According to Lewis-Williams, they left descriptions of their visions on those cave walls.
Lewis-Williams' arguments have attracted a lot of attention, and have even been the subject of a documentary film that was playing for a while on Sky TV’s Discovery channel. It seems to me that, whether or not he is correct, he does at least offer an explanation for the alleged ubiquity of shamanic religion in ancient times that does not rely on implausible theories of cultural contact and influence across vast distances. I’d like to see a scholar explore Lewis-Williams' ideas by comparing the visionary journeys recorded in Tongan songs and legends – the journey of Lo’au, that Odysseus of Polynesia, to the roaring water at the end of the world, for instance – with the imagery on the cave walls of Europe and Africa.
As you know, the claim that ancient Tongan culture was shamanic is unpopular with many Tongan scholars. I think there is good reason for this hostility: the notion that Tonga’s traditional religion was similar to those found in many different parts of the world troubles the presuppositions of two important schools of Tongan historiography. On the one hand, it contradicts conservative Christian historians like Sione Latukefu, who assume that it was Christianity in general, and the Thomas-Taufa’ahau double act in particular, that brought Tonga out of darkness and isolation and gave it a global culture.
On the other hand, the shamanism thesis upsets aggressively localist scholars like Linita Manu’atu, who consider that Christianity and modernity destroyed a very idiosyncratic Tongan culture, and want to reconstruct that ‘pure’ pre-contact culture.

Niel Gunson’s arguments have not been broadcast to the general Tongan population, but if they were I think they would be greeted with a mixture of incredulity and anger.
What would we find, though, if we followed Sadie Plant’s sly example, and looked for remnants of a shamanic religion in the culture of contemporary, supposedly Christian Tonga? I have sat in Tongan churches and seen worshippers shake, and writhe, and speak in voices that are not their own: were these performances inspired by the American Pentecostal evangelists whose rituals are broadcast on Tongan television, or do they owe something to the paroxysms of possessed priests in ancient godhouses?

What of the widespread Tongan belief that illness, whether mental or physical, is caused by malign or mischievous spirits, and the flourishing trade of folk healers, who use massages and canes to try to force unwanted visitors from the bodies of the ill? What about the ui ui tevolo craze, which sees young people in the villages operating homemade ouja boards at night, in an effort to summoun the spirits of ancestors?
If your art, with its implicit claim that Tonga’s Christian and pre-Christian cultures should be treated as equals, causes anger, then that anger might come from a recognition that, in the twenty-first century, the place of Christianity in Tongan society is not so simple and not so secure as John Thomas would have liked.


Monday, January 27, 2014

From Hoxha to Bainimarama

I am old enough to remember the Communist Party of New Zealand claiming that in the socialist paradise of Albania every single person, bar a handful of Trotskyists and CIA agents, not only supported but loved supreme leader Enver Hoxha. Back in the late '80s the Communist Party’s paper The People’s Voice liked to juxtapose photographs of picket lines outside timber yards in Tokoroa with portraits of Hoxha’s rock-like face and excited accounts of life in his Balkan nation, where crime, unemployment, and other social ills were allegedly unknown.

Years after the disintegration of the Hoxhaite regime, I chatted with a Kiwi who had travelled to the socialist paradise of Albania and lauded it in print, and asked him how he could have drawn such mistaken conclusions about the place. He explained that he had talked with scores of Albanians, and that they had all praised the regime that ruled them. What he hadn’t realised, of course, is that his interlocutors had no option but to echo the party line, if they wanted to keep their jobs and their liberty.

I thought about the deluded supporters of Enver Hoxha when I read a recent guest post at Kiwiblog, the popular website of National Party insider David Farrar. Under the title ‘A first hand but different view of Fiji’, Farrar reproduced the opinions of Deane Jessup, an ‘enterprise communications specialist’ who recently took a holiday in Fiji.

After two weeks of ‘deep honest conversations’ with Fijians ‘from all walks of life’, including an elderly man who gave him a class in weaving and a taxi driver or two, Jessup has concluded that the regime of Frank Bainimarama, which has been condemned by all of Fiji’s political parties for censoring, detaining, and sometimes torturing its opponents, is a ‘revolutionary’ force for good, and should be supported by all New Zealanders.

Fiji’s trade union movement and its Labour Party have complained about declining social services and standards of living under Bainimarama’s dictatorship, but Jessup insists that ‘health and hospitals are ten times better’ than they were before Bainimarama, and that the education system has been similarly transformed. Roads and bridges are being built ‘everywhere’, and the economy is ‘bustling’.

Jessup claims that every Fijian he talked with, without exception, supported Bainimarama. He concedes that Bainimarama has some high-profile critics, like the leaders of the Labour Party and the Methodist church, but contends that these dissidents are ‘racist’, ‘corrupt’, and ‘nepotistic’, and shouldn’t be taken seriously as representatives of Fijian opinion. Both Fijian political parties and human rights watchdogs have condemned the constitution Bainimarama recently forced on Fiji, warning that its curbs on freedom of assembly and expression mean that the election scheduled for later this year cannot be genuinely democratic. Jessup, though, knows better. He predicts that the election will be free and fair, and that ‘everyone’ in Fiji will vote for Bainimarama. Not even Enver Hoxha was quite as popular as Bainimarama seems to be.

Jessup isn’t so tasteless as to discuss explicitly the detention without trial and torture of Bainimarama’s enemies and the censoring of his critics in the media and the academy. He accepts that unspecified ‘bad things’ happen in Fiji, but notes that these mysterious ‘bad things’ also happen elsewhere too, and thus shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

Deane Jessup’s love letter to Bainimarama contrasts interestingly with the impressions of Fiji that Dr Maikolo Horowitz of the ‘Atenisi Institute offered on this blog last year. After visiting Fiji on behalf of an American radio news network and holding extensive discussions with human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, and politicians, including Mahendra Chaudhry, the leader of the Labour Party, Horowitz concluded that Bainimarama had constructed an efficient and frightening dictatorship, and that he was not likely to surrender power anytime soon. Horowitz witnessed a peaceful demonstration against Bainimarama’s constitution being broken up with tear gas and long batons; he heard stories of Labour activists being beating beaten and jailed; he experienced the ferocious opposition of the Methodist church to Bainimarama; and he noted that Bainimarama’s constitution makes free and fair elections impossible.

Deane Jessup’s sheer lack of guile suggests to me that he isn’t writing propaganda for Fiji’s dictator out of some sort of vested interest. He probably did talk to a few Fijians during his recent holiday in the sun, and probably did find them all singing the praises of Bainimarama. But that sort of political unanimity ought to have troubled rather than excited Jessup.  

In his interview with me, Maikolo Horowitz noted that many of the Fijian journalists and civil servants who helped him acquire information and make contacts were very worried about their security, and insisted on meeting him privately. Suva was, Horowitz reported, a tense, troubled city, whose people were continually looking over their shoulders. When they encounter visitors to their country who lack Horowitz’s credentials and discretion, dissident Fijians would surely be very likely to keep their real opinion of Bainimarama secret. Like the Kiwi communist who visited the Albania of Enver Hoxha, Deane Jessup has failed to take into account the chilling effect that dictatorship has on free speech.

Footnote: A Lesson from Tonga

Deane Jessup’s clumsy apology for dictatorship in Fiji is not, in itself, remarkable – clumsy apologies for all sorts of unpleasant things are easy to find on the internet. The decision of a highly visible supporter of the National Party and an intimate of John Key to publish Jessup, though, deserves to be pondered.

It is possible that David Farrar’s decision to give Jessup space on his blog is simply a reflection of the lack of seriousness with which so many New Zeaanders regard the tropical Pacific. Instead of drawing on some of the rich body of informed research produced by Pacific experts like Maikolo Horowitz to help him think about Fiji, Farrar may have lazily turned to a mate who spent a week or so on a beach recently and talked to a few taxi drivers. 

It is worth noting, though, that Cameron Slater, another high-profile blogger with close connections to the National Party, has also been publishing apologies for Bainimarama’s regime lately.  

Slater’s posts reflect a current of opinion on the Australasian right.  For almost a decade now, Australian and New Zealand governments have opposed Bainimarama, sought to exclude him from regional fora, and imposed a series of sanctions on Fiji. There are some on the right who believe that such a stance has become counterproductive. They point out that Fiji has responded to sanctions by strengthening relations with China, and worry that Australian and New Zealand business will be squeezed out of the Fijian archipelago by Chinese firms. For these advocates of a change of policy toward Fiji, the constitution written by Bainimarama and the election he has scheduled for this year offer excuses for the normalisation of diplomatic and economic ties.

But the recent history of Tonga should be a warning about the consequences of supporting the sort of undemocratic constitution Bainimarama has foisted on Fiji.  

In 2005 and 2006 the Tongan people revolted against their monarchy and nobility with strikes, mass marches, and a riot that destroyed much of downtown Nuku’alofa and prompted the deployment of Australian and New Zealand troops and police in the capital.
Realising that it had to offer some concessions to its opponents, the Tongan elite negotiated a constitution that, like Bainimarama’s document, blended apparently democratic with blatantly anti-democratic clauses. The constitution allowed for the election of a majority of seats in parliament by popular vote – but it reserved a third of seats for nobles. Eager to hold onto its influence with the Tongan elite and convinced that stability was better than ‘pure’ democracy, the New Zealand government ignored the flaws in the constitution.  

When Tonga held elections in 2010, New Zealand proclaimed that the country had made a transition from authoritarianism to democracy. The aftermath of the election showed up the fatuity of this boast. Seventy per cent of Tongans voted for the Democratic Party, but the constitution’s gerrymandering meant that nobles were able to form a government.  

The nobles’ illegitimate government has been a disaster for both the Tongan people, who have had to put up with more of the corruption and incompetence they voted so heavily against, and for New Zealand’s government, which has watched the nobles steer closer and closer to China and evict a Kiwi company from their air space.  

As Tonga looks forward to a new general election, the New Zealand government and its Canberra ally have belatedly and cynically sided with the country’s Democratic Party. But it is far from clear how the opposition can gain power in this year’s vote, given the gerrymandering built into the constitution. If the democrats again win a huge majority of the vote and again are denied government, then a return to the violent unrest of 2006 is hardly unlikely. Some supporters of the Democratic Party talk openly of civil war.  

The constitution Bainimarama has given to Fiji provides for multi-party elections, in an apparent concession to democracy – but it also makes it very difficult for parties to register themselves and limits their opportunities to demonstrate and propagandise. As the recent history of Tonga shows, people who are blocked from exercising their democratic rights will find other ways to express themselves. Bainimarama’s constitution guarantees a violent future for Fiji.

 [Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chris Finlayson's battle with language

Attorney General and Minister of Treaty Negotiations Chris Finlayson has sent his staff a set of rules to follow when they write his speeches, press releases, and letters to constituents. The directive bans Finlayson's employees from using a slew of words, and warns against the evils of split infinitives and Oxford commas. 

With its trenchant tone and interest in the minutiae of language, Finlayson's guide to the English language might seem reminiscent of HW Fowler's famous Modern English Usage, which was first published in 1906, at a time when mass literacy was still a work in progress in the West.
Fowler is nowadays often considered a fusty pedant, but his book was, and perhaps remains, an innovative, polemical document.  Like Ezra Pound and other the modernist poets who would soon found the Imagist movement, Fowler broke with the late nineteenth century fashion for verbal luxuriance by advocating clarity and concision. Instead of the elaborate word-paintings of sunsets and moonlit nights favoured by late Victorian versifiers like Swinburne, Pound demanded precise and suggestive imagery; with the same briskness, Fowler urged journalists and politicians to speak concretely rather than in what he called ‘abstractese’.
Far from being a pedant, Fowler refused to turn his arguments about language into rules. Modern English Usage contains a long and famous passage on split infinitives that offered some sensible advice:
We maintain, however, that a real split infinitive, though not desirable in itself, is preferable to either of two things, to real ambiguity, and to patent artificiality…We will split infinitives sooner than be ambiguous or artificial; more than that, we will freely admit that sufficient recasting will get rid of any split infinitive without involving either of those faults, and yet reserve to ourselves the right of deciding in each case whether recasting is worthwhile.
Fowler knew language was a vast and unstable element. To try to control it with a set of general rules would be like trying to fence an ocean.
There is an interesting contrast between HW Fowler’s aversion to dogma and Chris Finlayson’s attempts to make hard and fast rules for his staff. Finlayson’s dogmatism reflects an attitude toward language that has become ubiquitous in contemporary Western societies.
In an interview with Radio New Zealand, the Attorney General explained that he considers it a duty to communicate as ‘clearly’ as he can with his constituents. Language works best, he suggested, when it is at its clearest. Finlayson conceives of language as a sort of essentially neutral communication device, like a cellphone or e mail account, through which information can be delivered from one individual to another. He has a thought, and the thought is transmitted to a constituent in a letter or speech or press release. The clearer the language he uses, the greater the chance that his thought will be apprehended.
Finlayson’s attitude to language can be related to his politics. As an admirer and advocate of free market capitalism, he considers human society nothing more than the sum total of the actions of an aggregate of free and rational individuals. Just as these free and rational individuals are wholly responsible for their beliefs and choices, so they are entirely responsible for the meanings of the language they use. If there is any ambiguity in a piece of language, then this is the result of some individual’s failure to stop splitting infinitives, or breaking some other rule.
What Finlayson and his co-thinkers on the right miss is the irreducibly social and historical nature of language. A word, like other living thing, is the product of a long and intricate history, and remains susceptible to evolution. Because the words we speak and write were used before us by other men and women, and continue to be used in a variety of contexts, we can never control all of their meanings. When we are confronted with some of the various meanings a word can have, we are called upon to make a choice about which meanings we want to use, and which we want to ignore. These choices are unavoidably ideological.
It is interesting to consider the history and meanings of one of the words that Chris Finlayson has forbidden his employees from using. ‘Community’ has Latin and French ancestors, but it had entered the English language by the late Middle Ages, when it was sometimes spelt commonty, and when it could refer to an economic, regional, or religious organisation – to a trade guild or a village or a cluster of monks. In the aftermath of England’s revolution, ‘community’ seems to have acquired, on some tongues at least, a class consciousness: it could stand for the ‘common people’, and implicitly contrast them with the aristocrats who still dominated institutions like parliament. The men and women who built England’s trade union movement in the nineteenth century often used the word in their orations and writings.
By the twentieth century, at least, cultural conservatives were using the word 'community' to describe a traditional society they believed was menaced by sinister forces. The famously grumpy literary scholar FR Leavis lamented the passing of the ‘organic community’ of rural, preindustrial Britain; in New Zealand, self-described morals campaigner Patricia Bartlett founded the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards to keep abominations like Clockwork Orange and Deep Throat off cinema and television screens.
 But ‘community’ could also be used much more coolly, to describe any collection of individuals or larger social entities. The European Economic Community is the deliberately anodyne, uncontroversial name that Brussels bureaucrats chose for the superstate they began building in 1957.
Whether we understand community in terms of class, culture, geography or some other factor will depend upon the context in which we are encountering or deploying the word, and the way in which we see the world. The meaning of a word like ‘community’ can never be, and should never be, entirely clear.
Geoffrey Hill would be unimpressed by Chis Finlayson’s battle with language.

Although he was elected chair of poetry at Oxford University in 2010, was given a gong at the end of last year, and is now grudgingly described in the mass media as ‘England’s greatest living poet’, the octogenarian Hill remains notorious with many reviewers and readers because of the obscurity and difficulty of his books. In Hill’s poems English words which had seemed friendly and familiar become strange, formidable things, as they recover the various and often opposed meanings they have held during the protracted and bloody history of Albion and its empire.

In interviews Hill has warned about the efforts of politicians and the mass media to clarify and commodify language, and thereby repress history and limit political argument. The poet has insisted that, far from being elitist, difficult writing is radically democratic:
[T]yranny requires simplification…one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.
In his poem ‘On Reading Crowds and Power’, Hill found different words to make the same point:
But hear this: that which is difficult
preserves democracy; you pay respect
to the intelligence of the citizen.
Basics are not condescension. Some
tyrants are great patrons. Let us observe
this and pass on. Certain directives
parody at your own risk. hear this: that which is difficult
preserves democracy; you pay respect
to the intelligence of the citizen.
Basics are not condescension. Some
tyrants make great patrons. Let us observe
this and pass on. Certain directives
parody at your own risk. Tread lightly
with personal dignity and public image.
Safeguard the image of the common man. But hear this: that which is difficult
preserves democracy; you pay respect
to the intelligence of the citizen.
Basics are not condescension. Some
tyrants make great patrons. Let us observe
this and pass on. Certain directives
parody at your own risk. Tread lightly
with personal dignity and public image.
Safeguard the image of the common man. But hear this: that which is difficult
preserves democracy; you pay respect
to the intelligence of the citizen.
Basics are not condescension. Some
tyrants make great patrons. Let us observe
this and pass on. Certain directives
parody at your own risk. Tread lightly
with personal dignity and public image.
Safeguard the image of the common man.

Geoffrey Hill is lucky he doesn’t have to write for Chris Finlayson.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Monday, January 20, 2014

Letting down the family

The Labour and Mana parties are rightly criticising New Zealand’s government for not offering more assistance to Tonga in the aftermath of Cyclone Ian, which has levelled hundreds of buildings and displaced two and a half thousand people in the Ha’apai archipelago. The National government initially offered a pathetic fifty thousand dollars to help the victims of Cyclone Ian, and has since increased its assistance to half a million dollars.

National’s stinginess is related to the struggle it has been conducting against Tonga’s government for the last year. Along with its allies in Canberra and Washington, the New Zealand government has been alarmed by the warm relations Tonga has lately established with China. Much of Tonga’s substantial foreign debt is now owned by China, and Chinese now dominate business in the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa.
Last year Tonga’s government attempted the de facto nationalisation of the country’s domestic air service, by forcing out the New Zealand-owned company that had run local flights and introducing its own service using Chinese-made planes and Chinese pilots. New Zealand’s government responded by questioning the safety of the Chinese planes, advising Kiwis against using them, and threatening to cut aid to the country in half. The mean-spirited response to Cyclone Ian is another attempt to punish the Tongan government for its alliance with China.
The miserable response of John Key and co to Tonga’s plight contrasts markedly with the way that Tongans reacted to a recent disaster in New Zealand. 
A few weeks after the earthquake that partly demolished their city in September 2009, the people of Christchurch received an unexpected gift: a cheque for eight hundred and thirty-three pa’anga – that is, about six hundred thousand New Zealand dollars – raised by the people of Tonga.
Tonga is one of the poorer nations of the South Pacific – a Tongan manual labourer can expect to earn two pa’anga an hour, and many Tongan houses are no larger and no more robust than the average New Zealand garage – but when the sufferings of Christchurch were discussed at church meetings and at school assemblies, donation boxes quickly filled with cash. On a per capita basis, Tongans donated far more to the relief fund for Christchurch’s earthquake victims than New Zealanders. Their generosity might seem all the more surprising, given that Christchurch is located a long way from tropical Polynesia, and boasts only a small community of expatriate Tongans.
The Tongan response to Christchurch’s tragedy has to be understood in relation to Tongan notions of family.
The extended family, or kainga, is a crucial part of Tongan society, and membership of such a family implies both giving and receiving goods and services. Even if he lives in the city, and lacks the time or the desire to maintain his own farm, a Tongan is obliged to help his siblings and cousins work their plantations, and entitled to a share of their harvests. If a Tongan earns a wage or a salary, then members of the extended family will likely take a cut. If a Tongan runs a store, then siblings, uncles and aunts, and cousins will enjoy generous discounts there.
The intricate system of obligation and exchange that dominates life in Tonga extends beyond the kainga and influences relations between nobles and commoners. Tongans who live on land administered by nobles may, for example, be obliged to attend the wedding of that noble’s child or grandchild, and to bring along pigs and tapa cloths as offerings, and to dance and sing in celebration.
The word fatonia, or duty, is often used to describe the quasi-feudal relations that Tonga’s nobility sometimes still imposes on commoners. Within the kainga, though, fatonia plays a more positive role. It can see more powerful and wealthy family members providing for poorer and weaker cousins. Fatonia demands that widows and orphans be adopted and fed by the kainga. Despite its poverty and its lack of a welfare state, Tonga is not a place where the poor die of hunger and homelessness.
My wife and I got a lesson in the kainga system when we settled in the Nuku’alofa suburb of Halano last February. Soon after we’d moved into a sweltering house in the shadow of the local Mormon church, neighbours began visiting with bags of taro, bananas and fish. After I went on television to talk about the classes I was offering at the ‘Atenisi Institute, former students of the school also began to visit with gifts. When we accepted the bananas and the fish, relations were established. Soon I was tutoring neighbourhood children in English and in history, and my partner was offering bags of food – bananas and taro bought from the Nuku’alofa market, not pulled from a plantation – to friends.
The generous response to Christchurch’s misfortune reflected Tongans’ belief that they enjoy a family relationship with New Zealanders. Decades of emigration have created sizeable Tongan communities in several New Zealand cities, and turned certain parts of Auckland – Walmsley Road, for instance, which runs between mangrove swamps and churches to connect Otahuhu with Mangere – into virtual Tongan colonies. Most Tongans have friends and family members living in New Zealand, many of whom regularly send money home.
The sense of a close, reciprocal relationship between Tonga and its giant southern neighbour is often expressed when sport is discussed. During last year’s Rugby League World Cup, I was repeatedly told that the Kiwis were ‘really’ a Tongan team, because they boasted several Tongan-born players. As I liked to point out in response, though, the team Tonga sent to the World Cup included several players who had been born and raised in New Zealand, and had never visited the land of their ancestors.  
Now that Cyclone Ian has rampaged through the Ha’apai archipelago, rendering seventy percent of houses on some islands uninhabitable, Tongans are understandably keen to see the generosity they showed to Christchurch reciprocated. John Key’s government is letting them down.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Breaking stones

At the Paris Salon of 1850 Gustave Courbet annoyed the bourgeois patrons of high art by exhibiting The Stonebreakers, a portrait of two men building a road. Where more conventional artists made rural workers into mere subsidiary details of their landscape paintings - shepherds became as small and tame and picturesque as the sheep they tended, and cart drivers were mere decorations for pleasantly winding country trails - Courbet gave his road-builders a size and centrality normally reserved for mythological heroes or kings. Their struggle against the obstinacy of stone dominated his painting, vanquishing almost all of the landscape in which they worked.

It is hard to look at a reproduction of The Stonebreakers - the original was destroyed by the Nazis - without remembering that Courbet would become one of the most prominent supporters of the Paris Commune, and that he would, after the destruction of the Commune, be put on trial for his politics by the same French bourgeoisie that had sneered at his paintings.

In a piece published at the online Kiwi arts journal EyeContact, I liken a recent exhibition by the Tongan-New Zealand artist John Vea to the provocative painting Courbet delivered to the Paris Salon in 1850. Vea's show Homage to the Hoi Polloi attempted to describe and interpret the experiences of migrant Pacific labourers in New Zealand. You can read my review of Homage to the Hoi Polloi here.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A big, big digger

I had hoped that, after returning from Tonga to a land of fast and reliable internet connections, I'd be able to usher in 2014 with a torrent of blog posts, as I caught up with and critiqued the learned bloggers and tweeters - Giovanni Tiso, Jack Ross, Louis Proyect, and the rest of them - whose work I had been unable to access often in 2013.

 But my wife has spent most of the last week in hospital with gallstones, and I've found myself, as a solo parent - albeit a solo parent generously assisted by family and friends - spending my time watching Dora the Explorer, repairing broken-down matchbox cars, and taking part in backbreaking blueberry hunting expeditions, rather than in disagreeing with obscure and erudite bloggers.

Cerian was admitted to hospital in some pain - we called an ambulance, which delighted Aneirin with its light show - but has been almost luxuriously comfortable (thanks, by the way, to the friends and rellies who've visited or sent facebook greetings) for days, and has been thoroughly enjoying my struggles as a solo Dad.

The clip reproduced at the top of this post is one of a number that I sometimes show to Aneirin when he tires of playing with the toy cars, trucks, spitfires, and tanks I hoarded as a child. I must admit that the performance of the anonymous driver of the big, big yellow digger - a performance that Aneirin punctuates, delightfully, with cries of "Careful don't fall! Bump your head! Big ow!" - is very impressive. I can't think of many contemporary artists or athletes who could match his display of grunt and delicacy, as he climbs, like some one-armed crab, all the way onto a train carriage.

Over the last week I have at least managed to cobble together, in between truck racing, digger-ogling, and nappy changing, an essay about a remarkable exhibition called Homage to the Hoi Polloi, which the young Tongan-New Zealand artist John Vea brought to the Papakura Art Gallery late last year.

I only encountered Vea's show by mistake: shortly after we'd arrived home from Tonga Cerian decided to pop into the Papakura branch of Countdown for groceries, and I sidled across the road to the suburb's gallery, thinking that it might just contain a canvas or two by one of the great Kiwi artists I'd been missing in the Friendly Islands. Instead of Woollaston's weather charts or Clairmont's hallucinations, though, I found Vea using sculptures, video, and performance art to examine the experiences of the Pacific migrants labourers who have, since the establishment of the Recognised Seasonal Employment scheme in 2007, been coming to New Zealand in their thousands to sweat in the glasshouses of Franklin and shiver on the apricot orchards of central Otago.
John sent me this photo, which was taken during a performance held to mark the opening of Homage to the Hoi Polloi. Dressed as construction workers, or as the Pacific Islands crims who have so haunted the imaginations of paranoid palangi Kiwis like Jenny Shipley, he and his mates walked the streets of Papakura, leaving the strange plaster objects the artist calls 'urban taros' in their wake.

I'll post a link to my piece on Vea when it sees the light of day. In the meantime, enjoy the big, big digger.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Doppelgangers and important dates

In the nearly two years since Aneirin appeared in the world, my mother has sometimes chastised me for giving the boy a ‘strange’ name. But I’m unrepentant: for me, the fact that Aneirin is, outside of Wales, an unusual label only makes it more appealing. As someone who has to share his name with legions of other inhabitants of the planet, including a famous ice skater and an appallingly suave jazz saxophonist, I have an affection for strange monikers.
At school I was regularly one of two or three Scotts in a class – sometimes teachers dealt with the confusion by referring to giving us numbers, or referring to us as Scott Major and Scott Minor depending on our relative sizes – and when I was an undergraduate at the University of Auckland back in the ‘90s I was alarmed to learn there was another Scott Hamilton stalking the campus. I envy my wife, who has been able to go through life with an exotic Welsh name of her own.
Now my too-common surname appears to have caused some problems for Alison Webster, a scholar at Glasgow University. At the top of a generous review of my book on EP Thompson for the journal The European Legacy, Webster tells her readers that the tome was published by Princeton University Press, when in fact Manchester University Press was responsible. A quick google reveals that another Scott Hamilton – was he the chap who was sharing the University of Auckland’s grimy cafeterias with me back in the ‘90s? – published a book called Ezra Pound and the Symbolist Inheritance with Princeton University Press. Either Webster or the subeditor at The European Legacy must have gotten us confused.
If I have to be confused with another scholar named Scott Hamilton, then I don’t mind being mixed up with a scholar of one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. At least my Princeton doppelganger doesn’t write about business management or gout.
Webster’s is one of a series of reviews my book garnered in 2013, a year that saw the twentieth anniversary of EP Thompson’s death and the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Making of the English Working Class, his most famous book. The Making’s birthday has been marked by several gatherings, including a conference organised by the Study of Capitalism group at Harvard University that attracted scholars from around the world, and by a tribute at the Guardian. Rather more alarmingly, senior members of the British Labour Party are suddenly citing Thompson as an inspiration. My book has benefited from the increase in interest in EP Thompson’s extraordinary body of work.

Unfortunately, some of the most interesting and helpful reviews of my tome (this piece by Daniel Williams for the venerable journal History, for example) are hidden behind the sort of firewalls that I denounced in a recent post as excusive and often racist. Thompson, who  spent seventeen years running night classes in literature and history in Yorkshire mining towns, and who believed absolutely, throughout his life, in the necessity of the free circulation of knowledge, would not have been impressed.
I'll have more to say about firewalls soon.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Season's greetings to bacteria and viruses

This new years' poem by WH Auden appeals to me, because I got a stomach bug for Christmas, a present that my intestines are still gleefully unwrapping...
New Year Greetings    
On this day tradition allots
        to taking stock of our lives, 
my greetings to all of you, Yeasts,
        Bacteria, Viruses,
    Aerobics and Anaerobics:
        A Very Happy New Year
    to all for whom my ectoderm
        is as Middle-Earth to me.

    For creatures your size I offer
        a free choice of habitat,
    so settle yourselves in the zone
        that suits you best, in the pools
    of my pores or the tropical
        forests of arm-pit and crotch,
    in the deserts of my fore-arms,
        or the cool woods of my scalp.

    Build colonies: I will supply
        adequate warmth and moisture,
    the sebum and lipids you need,
        on condition you never
    do me annoy with your presence,
        but behave as good guests should,
    not rioting into acne
        or athlete's-foot or a boil.

    Does my inner weather affect
        the surfaces where you live?
    Do unpredictable changes
        record my rocketing plunge
    from fairs when the mind is in tift
        and relevant thoughts occur
    to fouls when nothing will happen
        and no one calls and it rains.

    I should like to think that I make
        a not impossible world,
    but an Eden it cannot be:
        my games, my purposive acts,
    may turn to catastrophes there.
        If you were religious folk,
    how would your dramas justify
        unmerited suffering?

    By what myths would your priests account
        for the hurricanes that come
    twice every twenty-four hours,
        each time I dress or undress,
    when, clinging to keratin rafts,
        whole cities are swept away
    to perish in space, or the Flood
        that scalds to death when I bathe?

    Then, sooner or later, will dawn
        a Day of Apocalypse,
    when my mantle suddenly turns
        too cold, too rancid, for you,
    appetising to predators
        of a fiercer sort, and I
    am stripped of excuse and nimbus,
        a Past, subject to Judgement.