Tuesday, July 30, 2013

RAMSI and the politics of fantasy

Back in 1989 a schoolmate of mine showed me some copies of  Tribune, the newspaper of New Zealand’s Socialist Unity Party. The SUP had for decades been convinced of the infallibility of the leadership of the Soviet Union, and the pages of Tribune were full of recycled press releases from the Kremlin and large airbrushed photographs of crumbling Soviet leaders like Brezhnev and Andropov.
By 1989, though, the Soviet bloc was in crisis, and Tribune was obliged to report events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the election of a Solidarity government in Poland. I remember one article which sat uneasily beneath a photograph of a crowd of Germans tearing down the wall. According to Tribune, the crowd’s exuberant vandalism was not a sign of opposition to the ultra-Stalinist East German government, but rather a ‘part of the process’ of ‘building socialism’. The SUP was incapable of dealing with a reality that contradicted its sanguine rhetoric. The party didn’t survive much longer than East Germany.
I thought about the confusions of the SUP when I read the latest issue of Islands Business, the monthly news magazine published in Fiji. Every issue of Islands Business ends with a column called Letter from RAMSI, in which the Australasian leaders of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands rave about their achievements. In this month’s letter Nicholas Coppel, the Special Coordinator of RAMSI, sets out to celebrate the tenth anniversary of RAMSI’s deployment to the Solomons.
Coppel correctly notes that the Solomons was a chaotic and violent place in 2003. The government had virtually closed down, and armed militia were fighting for control of the capital island of Guadalcanal. Coppel boasts that RAMSI’s troops, cops, and administrators have re-established ‘law and order’ in the Solomons, rebuilt the local police force, and given the country ‘functioning government systems’. He enthuses over the Solomons’ economy, which is supposedly booming, and says that RAMSI can be ‘very proud’ of what it has given the country.
Coppel scrupulously avoids any discussion of the multiple crises that have beset RAMSI over the past decade. He has nothing to say about the riot that levelled large parts of downtown Honiara in 2006, RAMSI's habit of raiding the offices of Solomons politicans opposed to its policies, like former Prime Minister Mansseh Sogavare, and the steady resistance to RAMSI on the island of Malaita.
Unfortunately for Nicholas Coppel, the latest Islands Business also contains an article by Alfred Sasako called ’35 Years on, where is Solomons heading?’ Sasako notes that the Solomons has just marked three and a half decades of independence, but he doesn’t feel in a celebratory mood. The Solomons, he insists, is ‘a nation in rapid decline’. Sasako offers a series of anecdotes which together demonstrate the sorry state of the government and economy of the Solomons. He shows that the RAMSI-trained Solomons police force is more interested in providing security for Malaysian logging companies than investigating crime; that cops from the Prime Minister Gordon Lilo’s Personal Protection Unit supervised a very public burglary on the island of Malaita; that Cabinet Ministers rarely enter their offices, and many senior public servants only turn up to work to collect their pay; and that Lilo’s regime has taken three hundred million dollars from the public purse and distributed it amongst members of parliament.
Sasako does not share Nicholas Coppel’s enthusiasm about the performance of RAMSI in the Solomons. ‘There is no appreciable sign’, he says, that the efforts of the last ten years have moved the country anywhere ‘except downwards’.
Just as that photograph of Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall mocked Tribune’s endorsement of the East German regime, so Alfred Sasako’s pungent contribution to Islands Business refutes Nicholas Coppel’s claims for the success of RAMSI.
Unfortunately, not all media outlets have been prepared to acknowledge the critics of RAMSI. Last week Australia’s state radio station marked the tenth anniversary of RAMSI by interviewing Coppel and replaying a long and fantastic speech by Lilo. No hint of the Solomons’ problems was given.
To understand why RAMSI has been unable to create a functioning state, we need to examine the sociology and history of the Solomons. Like other parts of Melanesia, the Solomons traditionally consisted of small scale societies. The kingdoms and empires which emerged in Polynesian and Micronesian societies like Tonga and Yap had no parallels on islands like Malaita and Guadalcanal, where language and topography tended to divide rather than unite people.

Marshall Sahlins and other scholars have shown how the small communities of Melanesia would be brought together temporarily by ‘big men’ skilled in oratory and war. Through his bravery and eloquence, a ‘big man’ might unite a dozen or so villages so that they could wage a war or throw a feast. But the unity that the big men achieved was always precarious.

Despite their different languages and religions, though, Solomon Islanders were united by an adherence to kastom, a set of traditional practices that provided forums where individuals and groups could air complaints and settle disputes.
Britain took control of the Solomons late in the nineteenth century, but was very reluctant to spend money there. Missionaries were encouraged to do the work of colonial authorities by running schools and health clinics, and institutions – a national university, for instance - that might link the colony’s different islands were never created. On the island of Malaita resistance to colonialism was continuous, and a dynamic nationalist movement called Maasina Rule emerged after World War Two. Led by the Kwaio, a central Malaitan people who had rejected the Christian faith and killed tax collectors, Maasina Rule demanded the substitution of kastom for the rules and practices of the British. On other islands, though, a nationalist consciousness generally failed to develop.
When Britain left the Solomons in 1978 it bequeathed the country a set of state institutions that were incompatible with its culture. A Westminster-style parliament, which relies on the existence of national political parties divided ideologically, had little relevance to the Solomons, where identity is largely local. A hyper-centralised government on Guadalcanal was always likely to fail the needs of distant islands which valued their autonomy. The courts and jails of a British-style legal system were alien to kastom.
Like the Australians in nearby Papua and New Guinea, the British colonialists provided the conditions for the growth not of Western-style capitalism but of a caste of ‘political big men’, who use state institutions to enrich themselves and reward their supporters. Gordon Lilo is simply the latest of these modern big men.
By the late 1990s the Solomons state was factionalised and badly indebted. The response of Australia, New Zealand and the International Monetary Fund was to impose a neo-liberal ‘adjustment programme’ on the country. State spending was cut, and large numbers of public servants were sacked. Neo-liberalism simply accelerated the collapse of the state, and in 2003 the neo-colonialists of Australasia decided that direct intervention was necessary to stabilise the Solomons. But RAMSI has rebuilt the doomed state that the British gave to the Solomons in 1978. There is the same irrelevant national parliament, the same absurdly centralised government, and the same substitution of Western justice for kastom. As Alfred Sasako shows, the state RAMSI rebuilt has already begun to collapse.
The latest issue of Islands Business doesn’t only discuss the problems of the Solomons. The cover of the issue features Moana Carcasses Kalosil, the Prime Minister of Vanuatu. Kalosil is a member of Vanuatu’s relatively small Green Party, but he leads a stable coalition government. In an interview with Islands Business, Kalosil criticises the excesses of Western capitalism and celebrates Pacific methods of decision-making. In some ways, Kalosil can be seen as a successor to Walter Lini, the legendary leader of Vanuatu’s independence struggle and the country’s first Prime Minister. Calling himself a ‘Melanesian socialist’, Lini tried to reconcile a modern state with traditional practices like kastom. Vanuatu is not a paradise, but it has never experienced the violent chaos that has become a symbol of the Solomons.  
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


My Dad says that nothing ever happens in Tonga. He's wrong. In the week since we got back here, the little island of Tongatapu has seen three major art exhibitions, an historic publishing event, a visit by two top film producers scouting locations for a multi-million dollar shoot, and, less happily, a riot that left seventy locals in holding cells and another sixty in hospital. In between all these events, which I'll report on in later posts, I've been trying to drum up business for the 'Atenisi Institute. as the second semester begins. Here's the brochure we're putting around.

Why You Should Study at ‘Atenisi  

A History of Success

In the fifty years since it was founded by the legendary Futa Helu, ‘Atenisi has trained thousands of successful Tongans. Around the world, ‘Atenisi graduates can be found working as academics, scientists, journalists, doctors, and lawyers. Here in Tonga there are many ‘Atenisi graduates in parliament, and others are busy teaching, running businesses, editing newspapers, and making art. ‘Atenisi’s performing arts group has toured the world, and a film about ‘Atenisi called Tongan Ark is currently a hit at international film festivals. Young men and women who enrol at ‘Atenisi are following in the footsteps of generations of dynamic Tongans.
A Critical Attitude

‘Atenisi’s success over the decades is partly the result of our philosophy. Where some other Tongan schools tell their students what to think, we teach our students how to think. Inspired by the ancient Greeks, who invented democracy and philosophy, we make our classrooms into places of criticism and debate. Our students lean to develop their own opinions, and to turn those opinions into the quality academic work that results in jobs and scholarships.
A Top Team

‘Atenisi has always attracted quality staff. In 2013 our team has been joined by Dr ‘Opeti Taliai, an anthropologist who has taught at two prestigious New Zealand universities, by Dr Scott Hamilton, a sociologist who recently published a book with Manchester University Press, one of the world’s most respected academic imprints, and by Dr Andrew Alcorn, who took his degree at Wellington’s Victoria University and is an expert on both the theoretical and practical sides of architecture. Between them, the eight teachers currently employed by ‘Atenisi have fifteen degrees in a dozen different subjects.
A Bridge to Overseas Study

‘Atenisi is a bridge to the big world outside Tonga. Academics, artists, and students from overseas have always visited our school to teach or do research, and many of our graduates go on to study overseas. ‘Atenisi offers the ideal preparation for study at a university overseas.
A Balanced Approach

Although it is international in outlook, ‘Atenisi has a firm base in Tongan culture. Students are encouraged to take classes in Tongan music and dance with Sisi’uno Langi-Helu. Along with her siblings Atolomake and ‘Iliasa, Sisi’uno is a guardian and teacher of some of Tonga’s oldest and most beautiful dances, songs, and stories. Students are also encouraged to join our school’s performing arts troupe. By engaging in vigorous exercise as well as study, students balance the mental and physical sides of their lives.
‘Atenisi – Critical for Success.
Semester Two 2013 Courses

Linguistics and Philosophy, Dr ‘Opeti Taliai 

Ancient History and Culture of Tonga, Dr ‘Opeti Taliai 

Political Anthropology, Dr ‘Opeti Taliai 

Studying Sociology through Film, Dr Scott Hamilton 

Advanced Research Project, Dr Scott Hamilton 

Sustainable Architecture, Dr Andrew Alcorn

Community Tongan Dance, Sisi‘uno Langi-Helu 

Tongan Dance, Oratory and Poetry, Sisi‘uno Langi-Helu 

Spanish Language for Beginners, Atolomake Helu 

Tongan Language for Beginners, Lose Miller-Helu 

Tongan Language for Advanced Learners, Lose Miller-Helu 

Theoretical Physics, Firitia Velt 

Economics, Dr Michael Horowitz 

Psychology, Dr Michael Horowitz 

Asian Philosophy, Dr Michael Horowitz 

French Language for Beginners, by a teacher to be supplied by the Alliance Francais Centre

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A poem for Cory Monteith

To excavate the future
swing the shovel
above your head.
The air will thicken
into teak-coloured earth
and lie tidily,
in easily dated layers,
waiting for the dirt brush
and the scales
of an archaeologist.

Time can only be buried
by time. I roll
out of the hotel bed,
feel the cold shrink my cock
through two layers of jeans,
and walk across the room
through tonnes of tight-packed

Out the window
a few stars shine greenly,
like glow worms.
A stone has put out
the streetlight's eye.
My hand shakes the pills
like rosary beads
or dice.

I am not here
but elsewhere.
A brush cleans my forehead
like a lover
or nurse. Scissors
undress me. My skull balances
on a scale. Leave me
in the future,
in the air.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why is Papakura's movie theatre promoting racist myths?

I'm old enough to remember seeing films like Ghostbusters and Karate Kid at the cinema on Papakura's main street. I sat in the dark, chewing slightly stale K Bars, and pumped my arm in triumph when the Karate Kid knocked out his brutish enemy, or when Bill Murray and his comrades defeated the Giant Marshmallow man.

Like its counterparts in so many suburbs, the Papakura cinema closed in the late 1980s, but the opening of the council-subsidised Hawkins Theatre a few years later enabled a new generation of kids to enjoy candy and silly movies. The Hawkins Theatre has provided treats for adults as well as kids, by showing quality flicks that have often been shunned by the dollar-driven movie megaplexes of the twenty-first century.

Recently I visited Papakura and picked up a copy of the booklet which advertises upcoming events at the Hawkins Theatre. The booklet gave prominence to Kon Tiki, a big budget, feature-length movie about Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian adventurer who travelled from Peru to the Tuamotu Islands in 1947 on a small raft.

Heyerdahl believed that the ancestors of the Polynesians had emigrated into the Pacific from South America, and his 1947 adventure was intended to publicise his version of history. The Western media was impressed by Heyerdahl's long and dangerous journey on the Kon Tiki, and the book he wrote about it became a bestseller in Europe and in America.

But Heyerdahl's heroics did not persuade archaeologists and historians to change their views about the origins of the Polynesians. In reviews of Heyerdahl's writings, experts pointed out that the words, pottery, tools, religion, and art of Polynesia supported the traditional view that the Pacific was settled from the west, rather than from South America. Polynesian languages have much in common with the tongues of Melanesia and parts of southeast Asia, and nothing in common with the languages of South America. The beautiful pottery that has been excavated on many Polynesian islands features motifs that also turn up thousands of miles to the west, in New Caledonia and on the islands off Papua New Guinea. The canoes that float off islands like the Tuamotus have nothing in common with the clumsy raft Heyerdahl rode from Peru, but owe a great deal to the magnificent wangga ndrua of Fiji.

In recent decades DNA testing has provided definitive proof of Heyerdahl's wrongheadedness. Numerous tests of Polynesians and indigenous Americans have failed to find any significant genetic connection between the two peoples. Like linguists and archaeologists before them, geneticists have looked west for the origins of the Polynesians.
Despite all the evidence arrayed against him, Thor Heyerdahl never abandoned his claims about the South American origins of the Polynesians.

Heyerdahl was unable to accept reality because of his prejudices against Polynesians. He repeatedly claimed that the Polynesians lacked the cultural sophistication to travel over great stretches of water, or to create some of the monuments that are found on their islands. He believed that the ancestors of the Polynesians were brought from South America to the Pacific by a lighter-skinned, more sophisticated people who had earlier created the stone monuments that stand at Macchu Piccu in the Peruvian Andes. Heyerdahl wrote at length about Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, because he believed that the island's famous stone heads were made by this mysterious ancient people. The dark-skinned Polynesians of Rapa Nui were, he thought, incapable of creating such large and impressive works.

Heyerdahl's vision of an ancient civilisation of white supermen might seem peculiar to us today, but it had many advocates in the early decades of the twentieth century. In Heyerdahl's native Norway and in other northern Europe countries, especially Germany, many people believed that they were descendants of an ancient 'Aryan race' that had ruled large parts of the globe before retreating to the west. In Germany, leading Nazis like Heinrich Himmler loudly promoted the notion of an ancient white super-civilisation; in Norway, local fascist groups and the Nobel-winning novelist Knut Hamsun espoused the same idea.
Heyerdahl died in 2002, but his views still have a few advocates. The Mormon church, which has always claimed that Polynesians are descended from indigenous Americans, and that indigenous Americans are themselves the descendants of one of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel, is understandably keen on Heyerdahl's books. And the government of Chile, which seized Rapa Nui in 1888 and continues to rule the island, despite increasingly militant protests, has tried to use Heyerdahl to attract tourists and foreign investors to their Polynesian colony.

I don't object to a movie about Thor Heyerdahl being shown at the Hawkins Theatre. A movie is not a research paper or a scholarly monograph. I could enjoy watching a recreation of Heyerdahl's raft journey across the Pacific without accepting his weird ideas, just as I can enjoy watching a film like District 9 without believing in UFOs.
What I want to query is not the decision by Hawkins Theatre to show Kon Tiki, but the radically misleading claims that the theatre has included in its publicity for the film. In the theatre's Events Guide for Autumn and Winter 2013 Heyerdahl is falsely described as an anthropologist, and his version of Pacific history is preferred to the truth. The Events Guide claims that Heyerdahl was able to 'prove' that 'people from South America settled in Polynesia'. When the Guide asserts that 'it was believed at the time' of Heyerdahl's 1947 voyage that 'people from Asia' settled Polynesia, the clear implication is that Heyerdahl's adventures on the Kon Tiki converted the scholarly community to his ideas.

Papakura is a multicultural community with a large Polynesian population. The Hawkins Theatre does Polynesians and palangi alike a disservice when it ignores the most basic facts of Pacific history, and promotes in their place a racist fantasy concocted a century ago in northern Europe.

Footnote: there are links to some of my previous scraps with pseudo-historians here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Bringing it all back home: No'o Fakataha's Tongan adventure

In his copiously illustrated book In Search of Paradise, Graham Lay discusses the succession of northern hemisphere artists and writers, from Melville to Gauguin to Jack London, who have visited the  Pacific Islands in search of inspiration.

Now a group of painters, sculptors, photographers, and performance artists are about to put a new spin on the palangi tradition Lay described. The members of the No'o Fakataha arts collective may be based in the chilly latitudes of New Zealand, but they have their roots in Tonga, and next week they will be visiting the island of Tongatapu to show off their work. The painters, sculptors, tapa makers, photographers, and performance artists of No'o Fakataha will be installing some of their work at Nuku'alofa's 'Atenisi Institute, giving talks and workshops for interested locals, and hanging out around kava bowls.

I've illustrated this 'Atenisi Institute press release with some (clumsy) photographs I took at the extraordinary exhibition No'o Fakataha mounted last year in Mangere. Tomorrow I'll post profiles of the individual members of this remarkable collective.

'Atenisi gets set to celebrate Tongan-New Zealand art
Press Release by the 'Atenisi Institute 
Next week the 'Atenisi Institute will be the proud host of No'o Fakataha, a group of New Zealand-based Tongan artists. No'o Fakataha includes painters, sculptors, photographers, tapa makers, and performance artists. Some of its members, like the veteran sculptor Filpe Tohi, are well-known figures in the art world, while others are just beginning their careers.

No'o Fakataha members held an exciting exhibition at the Mangere East Art Centre last year, and they are visiting Tonga next week to show off their work and to take inspiration from the landscape and people of their ancestral homeland. Artworks by members of No'o Fakataha will be shown at the 'Atenisi Institute, and artists will be give talks and workshops at the Institute.
Dr Scott Hamilton, the Associate Dean of the 'Atenisi Institute, saw No'o Fakataha's show at Mangere last year. "I was greatly impressed by both the quality and the variety of the work on display" Hamilton says. 
Hamilton says that the No'o Fakataha artists were likely to create debate on Tongatapu, where modern art is rarely put on display.
"The performance artist Kalisolaite 'Uhila has created a lot of controversy in New Zealand because of his unusual methods and the difficult subjects his work addresses" Hamilton says. "At Mangere he pretended to cook himself in an umu. Recently in Wellington he lived in a shipping crate for days, in a tribute to his uncle, who stowed away on a boat to New Zealand back in the 1970s. He has also lived on the street in dirty clothes to make a point about homeless and racism."

Hamilton says that the young sculptor Visesio Siasau is another No'o Fakataha artist who is likely to fascinate and excite Tongatapu audiences. "Visesio uses modern materials like Perspex in his sculptures" says Hamilton, "but he honours the ancient Gods of Tonga by mixing them with Christian images and motifs. At his first exhibition Visesio showed Tangaloa being crucified; at the show in Mangere last year he put Tangaloa alongside the Virgin Mary and Christ."
The acclaimed film-maker Paul Janman is a big fan of No'o Fakataha. Janman is a former teacher at 'Atenisi who made a movie about the institution called Tongan Ark, which has played at film festivals around the world and was recently screened on Sky TV's Rialto channel. "No'o Fakataha is part of an explosion of creativity by Tongans living in Auckland" Janman says. "These artists have one foot in ancient Polynesian society and another in the contemporary West. Because of that they have a perspective palangi artists often lack."
Dr 'Opeti Taliai, the Dean of the 'Atenisi Institute, said that his institution was delighted to be hosting the No'o Fakataha group. "We had a very successful visit last semester by Murray Edmond, the New Zealand playwright, poet, and academic" Taliai says, "and we aim to build on that by hosting No'o Fakataha. Ever since it was founded by Futa Helu fifty years ago 'Atenisi has tried to be a bridge between Tonga and the rest of the world. We have a long tradition of welcoming artists and intellectuals. I look forward to sitting around the kava bowl with the members of No'o Fakataha".  

For more details phone 'Atenisi Director Sisi'uno Helu on 7747277 or e mail Scott Hamilton at shamresearch@yahoo.co.nz

Monday, July 08, 2013

Identity, politics and education: a friendly argument with Opeti

[The Labour Party's plan to achieve a gender balance in its parliamentary caucus may have attracted gibes from right-wing bloggers and newspaper columnists, but it has also kicked off a thoughtful discussion on the left about the proper place of gender, race, and sexual orientation in politics. In the past I've had a number of debates with left-wing commentators, most notably Chris Trotter, about whether or not the left should support Maori struggles for self-determination. Last January I had an interesting discussion about the same subject with 'Opeti Taliai, my boss at the 'Atenisi Institute. I've reproduced my exchanges with 'Opeti here, because I think they underline the fact that an issue like Tino Rangatiratanga can look very different in Tonga, a nation which never experienced colonisation, than they do on a marae in the Waikato or Tuhoe Country.]

Hi Opeti,

I did want to query the passage in the statement of 'Atenisi's principles which said that the institution rejected all study programmes based on race, gender, and sexual orientation (that isn't an exact quote, I know, but I'm sure you'll recognise the passage to which I'm referring). I understand and admire 'Atenisi's tradition of opposition to various forms of extreme cultural relativism, and its insistence on the importance of cross-cultural exchange. Futa Helu's vision of a school that taught Italian opera and Greek philosophy as well as Polynesian dance and poetry is inspiring in its democratic internationalism.  
I think it ought to be possible, though, to oppose cultural relativism without attacking study programmes based around race and gender. As it stands, the statement of 'Atenisi's values seems to imply a rejection of, for instance, the Maori Studies Departments which exist at many Kiwi universities. I think that the establishment of these departments in the 1970s, which came after long years of lobbying and protest by Maori, was a step forward for New Zealand education, because it brought a long-oppressed people in from the cold, and gave them a seat at the academic table. After being kept out of universities for a century, Maoritanga became acceptable subject matter for students. 

I don't think that the academics who have worked in Maori Studies departments have by any means all been cultural relativists. A number of them have been Marxists, and thus advocates of an ideology which has deep roots in Europe! It was the marginalisation of Maori by Pakeha New Zealand, not the cultural relativism of Maori educators, which necessitated the establishment of separate Maori Studies departments.  

And I think the same general argument can be made about Women's Studies and Queer Studies departments. These institutions have grown up because of the long-time exclusion of sections of the population from the academy.  

Surely the statement of 'Atenisi's values could include an affirmation of universalism and a rejection of cultural relativism without implicitly attacking Maori, Women's and Queer Studies programmes? It seems to me that, as it stands, the statement could do 'Atenisi needless damage amongst good scholars who belong to these departments and are potential allies of ours. 

Malo Scott, 

When we start any discussion from a particular topic like colonialism then like you are doing here you put the whole situation in a dualistic structure which is directly contradictory with ‘Atenisi philosophy of education as strictly criticism for its own sake. Criticism, I must remind, is basically one learning from another’s lack hence both parties at the same time experience real development to the benefit of all. Hegel and his true followers demonstrate well this collapse of dualism. At ‘Atenisi, we welcome any thoughts and at the same time open all thoughts to criticism. 

Regarding ‘Atenisi’s principles relating to race, gender, and sexual orientation, ‘Atenisi’s philosophy of seeing things as they are must be protected from the understandable tendency to personalise things. To discourage this kind of movement in ‘Atenisi is to keep ‘Atenisi’s profile as an independent academic institution of learning clear and unique. In other words, this is my own hunch, Futa was concerned that his school should not become a unit in some kind of political separatist movement. ‘Atenisi, though it speaks strongly about politics, but, is strictly independent from an academic point of view... 

Hi Opeti, 

I'm all for interdisciplinary studies - I don't identify, really, with any one discipline! - but we have to remember the context in which Maori Studies Departments emerged. The institutions weren't founded by decadent postmodernists, but by a generation of young Maori who came to university in the '60s and '70s and discovered that their culture and worldview were completely absent from the curriculum, and that many academics were hostile to them. The situation at museums was similarly bad: the only Maori employed in these storehouses of Maori treasures were cleaners. Maori needed to create a foothold in institutions like universities and museums, which is why groups like Nga Tamatoa took to the streets to demand Maori Studies departments and creation of Maori Director positions at museums.

There's an analogy here with Maori seats in parliament and on some local councils. Most Maori support these seats, and belong to the electoral roll which votes for them, because they feel, with a good deal of justice, that the Pakeha majority around them is uninterested in hearing their concerns, and will never vote for a Maori candidate who puts forward Maori perspectives. There has been a campaign to establish Maori seats on the Waikato District Council for the past few years. Supporters of this campaign point out that Maori constitute about a fifth of the population of the Waikato District, and that not once, in the whole history of the District, has a Maori candidate been elected to the council. As someone who grew up inside rural Pakeha society, I know why Maori don't get elected in the Waikato 

In an ideal world we wouldn't need Maori Studies Departments, or Maori seats. In the real world, though, both institutions have been vital in improving tertiary education and politics in New Zealand. I think that Maori Studies Departments and the Maori-only positions at museums have changed the institutions in which they exist, by allowing Maori perspectives to leak out into the wider institution. To take one example: nobody today would dream of arguing, as the University of Auckland did until the late '70s, that there was no such thing as Maori art, and that Art History students therefore shouldn't engage with Maori culture. 

By correcting the anti-Maori bias of universities and museums which had been founded by white colonists, Maori Studies scholars actually made the New Zealand education system more objective, and less culturally relativist. They added to rather than detracted from the pluralism of the universities.  

Futa Helu was lucky to grow up in a society which hadn't been colonised, where the indigenous language was in an unassailable position, and where faka Tonga was strong (perhaps it was too strong at times!). It would probably have been hard for him to understand the historical context for the emergence of Maori Studies in a colonised society like New Zealand. 

 Malo Scott, 

You’re right in your view of Futa coming from and speaking from a society which hadn’t been colonised and, likewise, I’m with the Maori people (not all I must say) here in their fighting against colonisation. In the anthropology course I am offering this semester we (the students and I) will learn together about the history of anthropology’s use by colonialists to establish themselves in the Pacific for political economic purposes. I guess the difference is that the Maori movement seems to promote the establishment of a system that would operate based, first and foremost, on its own cultural identity, and likewise wants other cultural groups to retain theirs while recognising the cultural and political status of the tangata fenua.  

‘Atenisi, from the beginning, has already been a tangata fonua and has had the responsibility to act and operate independently, sifting the best out of the two cultures, Western and Tongan, in a Heraclitean simultaneous exchange. Maori people are just starting their  fight for independence whereas Tonga has done it and must hold onto independence. This is where my vision lies.

Could you finalise your papers and outlines for our handbook.


[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Friday, July 05, 2013

Resisting history

The Labour Party's plan to set a quota of female members for its parliamentary caucus has caused predictable glee on various right-wing blogs, where it is being seen, by bloggers and commenters alike, as a symptom of 'politically correct madness', and as further evidence of the left's contempt for democracy.

But commentators on the left, like the contributors to the Labour-aligned group blog The Standard, are not at all embarrassed by the party's so-called 'man ban'. They think a quota of female MPs would make New Zealand more rather than less democratic.

Underneath this and many other disagreements between the political left and right lie two profoundly different conceptions of human nature and of history. For the neo-liberal right, society is an aggregation of free, rational individuals who have more or less the same opportunities to live happy and successful lives. History is nothing but the sum of the decisions that these free and rational individuals make.

For the left, though, history has traditionally been seen as a determinant of human choices, as well as the outcome of those choices. The ways we think about and act in the world are determined partly by the languages and ideas and prejudices and myths which our parents and communities transmit innocently to us, and by the social and economic conditions into which we are born and in which we live. The past is not an open field over which we rush about as autonomous individuals, making our rational choices and accepting the consequences, but a forest through which we must hack a path.

Many Westerners raised in the era of neo-liberal capitalism react with disbelief, or outrage, or both, when the notion of the human being as a discrete, rational unit of history is challenged. They have grown up with television advertisements and economics teachers telling them that they are wholly responsible for their own fates, and beholden to no one. They are the authors, not the subjects, of history.
These members of the neo-liberal generation often experience a kind of existential terror when they are confronted with the fact that their words, ideas, and prejudices have origins in the past, amongst the despised generations of dead human beings, and that their economic ambitions depend for their fulfilment not only on talent and hard work but on the vacillations of stock exchanges and on changes in the organic composition of capital.

The hysteria which sometimes greets attempts to talk about and overcome the colonial and misogynistic heritage of a society like New Zealand has to be understood, then, as a symptom of shock. It is the hysteria of a generation indoctrinated in right-wing individualism struggling with the very notion of history.

Maikolo Horowitz, the American-Tongan sociologist and novelist, found a clever way of making recalcitrant students contemplate the crucial roles history plays in their lives.

When he taught a group of white American students about the history of slavery in their country, Horowitz was soon greeted with protests. His students didn't doubt that injustices were done to African Americans by their ancestors, but didn't see why these injustices were relevant to the world of the twenty-first century. Why, they wanted to know, did African Americans need affirmative action? Why should there be quotas for black university students?  And why, for that matter, did American Indians demand the return of land that was stolen from their ancestors generations ago?

Maikolo surprised his interlocutors by appearing to agree with them. "You're right", he said, after letting them finish their protests. "The past is irrelevant. History starts today. Nobody should get anything for free by citing the past. And I'm happy to announce that, from this day on, you'll all be obliged to pay a special charge. There's a chap in the United Kingdom who owns a patent on the English language. You'll have to pay him to use it. That's only fair, right?"

During his years at the 'Atenisi Institute in Nuku'alofa, Maikolo had seen hundreds of talented young Pacific Islanders struggling to learn to express themselves in English. Their eloquence in their native tongue counted for little, when English was a virtual prerequisite for a decent job or for postgraduate study abroad. History - the history of British and American imperialism, in particular - had given Maikolo's white American students an immense advantage over their Tongan rivals when they sought jobs and scholarships, but this advantage was all too often invisible to the Americans.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Edward Snowden and the barbarians

Over the last week, as I've knocked about some of my old haunts on holiday, I've had a number of Kiwis - friends and relatives and more casual acquaintances, all of them thoughtful, self-consciously civilised people - commiserate with me over the barbarism of my adopted homeland of Tonga. "Isn't it terrible how the king there controls everything?" one friend asked. "Do you ever worry about being eaten?" a relative inquired, not entirely in jest. I have seen eyes glazing over, as I try to explain that Tonga had a modern, democratic constitution ensuring free access to land by the year 1875, and that it was antipodeans, not tropical Polynesians, who were still sailing slave ships across the Pacific and  making alliances with headhunters a mere century and a half ago.

Every so often an event arrives which highlights, in neon flashing lights, the hypocrisy inherent in the claims of Western nations like New Zealand to embody civilised values. The invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were two such events; the current persecution of American whistleblower Edward Snowden is another.

After revealing that his government was spying illegally on its own citizens and on much of the rest of world, Snowden has been convicted of treason and espionage in the Western mass media, and harried from one country to another, as government after government proves itself too cowardly to offer him sanctuary. It is hard to read about Snowden's travails without thinking of the pursuit of Leon Trotsky from one nation to another in the 1930s, as European governments frightened by his message made life impossible for him. Trotsky eventually found a haven in Latin America, and the same continent may come to Snowden's rescue today.

I'm pleased that Snowden hasn't turned up in New Zealand, because this country's role as a footsoldier for American imperialism in Afghanistan, Sinai and the Pacific and its absurd persecution of the absurd Kim Dotcom suggest he would not get a friendly reception.

Here's a piece I wrote a couple of years ago about the hypocrisy of the civilised West in the face of barbarism. I left it out of my last book of poems because it seemed too self-righteous and cliched, but I'm posting it now as an utterly ineffectual show of solidarity with Edward Snowden.

The Barbarians

Barbarism can never triumph over civilisation: 
barbarians are inferior to civilised men and women.
The conquerors cannot be barbarians, then,
despite their high fires of books
and the wire round the transit camps.
We must be the barbarians.

It is true that we resemble civilised men and women,
relaxing on the sidewalk of a potholed street,
warming our spare hands on chipped cups of tea,
enjoying our lunchbreak, enjoying the break in the rain,
sharing our rations of cigarettes, our rations of gossip.

Each of us remembers the day the guns grew hoarse,
the day the whole town had to stand to attention,
the day Olaf forgot to close his shop,
refused to stand outside, on the dirty kerb,
while the conquerors called their roll,
the day that Olaf got dragged out of his bakery,
away from his half-kneaded sculptures –
his half-finished masterpieces,
the busts of loaves and croissants arranged on steel trays –
the day Olaf’s knees hit the kerb together
and the fists went into his mouth like bread.

Each of us remembers Olaf in a different way.
One of us scribbles poems –
witty satires, and tub-thumping polemics -
and publishes them in his drawer.

One of us keeps his grandfather’s pistol in a shoebox,
under the bed in the spare room upstairs.
One of us turns tadpoles into frogs,
in the bathtub he is forbidden to fill.
One of us drafts orders for new consignments of boots.
One of us supervises a thesis on Nietszche.

We lean forward in our chairs
and watch a train push out of the barricaded station,
past the emptied zoo, toward the city wall.
We note the pine windows but wave anyway.

Perhaps Olaf is crouching in the third carriage,
in the warm crowded dark,
pushing his fat face against the wood.
Perhaps he is a squinting through a crack in the pine,
through a sliver his big fists made.

If Olaf glimpsed us for a second
we would look like cheerful, civilised men and women,
relaxing on the sidewalk of a potholed street,
warming our spare hands on chipped cups of tea,
enjoying our lunchbreak, enjoying the break in the rain,
sharing our rations of cigarettes, our rations of gossip,
our rations of happiness,
knowing that his train will not stop again here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]