Navigating tricky waters: where is the place of Melanesian ways?
Let us explain to the people that their vote is precious

The stationary cloud: aiding civilisation and barbarism in PNG

Rashmii BellRASHMII BELL

MY inclination to defend anything topical concerning Papua New Guinea might be compared to my approach when contemplating former BFFs (best friends forever).

Acknowledge issues exist, accept the friendship breakdown (for the time being) but be damned if I sit silently if ever their names are dragged through the proverbial mud.

Phil Fitzpatrick and Ed Brumby in their reflections* exercised little restraint in their assessment of the aftermath of reactions fuelled by Papua New Guinean readers and contributors  to Keith Jackson’s initial and later (thank goodness!) retracted announcement.

‘Stoic, apathetic and ripe for exploitation’,‘ self-indulgent helplessness’, ‘ talk big, promise lots but do nothing brigade in Papua New Guinea’. Woah, geez, steady on now.

I’d doubt any Papua New Guinean’s humanity if they didn’t take an inkling of offence to this talk. Characterising a group of people like that. Our group of people!

Sure, when I’ve had Papua New Guinean family and friends dish it out in not-so-endearing terms, I’m apt to react with nonchalance, even acceptance.  But when an expatriate says the same, it’s different. It’s anger-provoking because, well, the truth hurts.

Several hurtful truths were highlighted again in Gary Juffa’s impassioned article, ‘I will not go down like a coward, and I hope you won’t either’. Here the Oro Governor makes another call for the marginalised majority to take tangible action to diminish the all-pervading gross inequalities across PNG.

But whether it’s the ongoing development of PNG writers and literature, or the larger much-sought positive societal change demanded by so many people, the question remains, as asked by Paul Oates, ‘husait inap a?’

I found Chris Overland’s comment in response to ‘The apathy and ennui of the Papua New Guinean people’ the most plausible in its understanding of the stagnant reaction often observed when such a question (‘who’s up to it?’) is asked.

This reaction can perhaps be visualised as a stationary cloud precipitating nothing other than utter weariness, discontent and lack of interest throughout the nation.  A weariness overwhelming Papua New Guineans of countless generations and clearly frustrating many non- Papua New Guineans.

Led by a reference to liberal democracy, Chris’s discussion entailed a comparison between ‘civilisation’ and ‘barbarism’. He proposes that contemporary PNG has stopped short of a full transition from one to the other.

The core of his explanation is that whilst ‘civilisation’ and its formal structures urge all to adhere to a highly structured society governed by known laws, in PNG it plays second fiddle to ‘barbarism’, which rejects this preferring an anarchical and highly fragmented collection of loosely affiliated communities of interest which compete with the public good.

The strain is inevitable. It overarches our communities as people struggle to function in what purports to be democracy but which lacks the broad cultural acceptance of democratic norms. Generation after generation.

Yep! Sounds like the Papua New Guinea I know.

Governor Juffa’s plea to ‘live every moment as if it is your last and remember the faces of your children and ask yourself, where will they be tomorrow if I fail them today’ rightfully implicates every Papua New Guinean to the task-at-hand.

But the reality is we’ll need to sit this out as most of us unlearn the ingrained behaviours of apathy and ennui.

And so whilst that runs its course, perhaps (as noted by Phil and others) there is a need to increase pressure on the capable sector of society - students, academics, researchers, universities, professionals - to promote the growth of PNG writers and literature and also to facilitate nationwide pro-social change.

Education’s curse seems to be its ability to espouse in some people a highly inflated sense of worth, delusions of superiority and notions of selective pedigree based on a refined ability to regurgitate, cite, footnote and reference another’s ideas and ideologies.

But, like Chris and Phil, I’m inclined to suggest that rather than being leverage, the sanctuary of academic elitism serves only to mask fear.

Fear of what? Fear of standing out? Fear of not knowing enough? Fear of the power of government? Fear of each other? It could all of these, and then some.

I yearn for the demise of the ‘Papua New Guinean shrug of regret and the sound of feet shuffling into the distance’. This is also manifested in my Generation X counterparts and our successors (the Millennials), particularly those of us who’ve been the recipients of a high standard of education, some abroad.

We are a sad paradox, we muffled voices. The end-product of exposure to settings that required active participation if we were to thrive in an effective liberal democracy but where we failed to so participate.

Imagine the momentum we might gain if everyone just waddled down from their damn ivory towers and strove for organisation and action.

To be fair, several people have gone on to create advocacy groups, organisations and charities – activities that are all crucial and admirable.

In their own way, these people are facilitating much- needed change in PNG. Others epitomise their vocal strength in social media. And still more utilising written expression across various forms of communication.

But a definitive choice is required.  Civilisation or barbarism? Where is the marginalised majority of Papua New Guineans determined be?

The former will disintegrate the overhanging cloud. The latter will continue to ruthlessly oppress and continue to breed apathy and ennui amongst our people.

* SeePNG Attitude – let’s celebrate a fine achievement’, ‘Why don’t we roll over and go back to sleep, ‘The apathy and ennui of the Papua New Guinean people and ‘PNG Attitude & Croc Prize: an opportunity and obligation

Comments

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Rashmii Bell

Hi Phil and Ed - no offence taken. Your passion for PNG and its people is infectious:)

I find your articles and comments reflect much of my (and the circles I keep) thoughts too - as they relate to overall pro-social change, the succession plan and the Croc Prize.

If more PNGns read your articles and responded with their thoughts, that would be great in keeping the conversation going...hopefully inspiring more action.

Ed Brumby

An eloquent response, Rashmii.

I have no particular view, nor am I qualified to comment on the psyche of Papua New Guineans. The few with whom I have regular, albeit email-based contact with exhibit none of the ennui and apathy to which you and others refer.

I also suspect that the majority of Papua New Guineas who read PNG Attitude and, by definition, those who submit entries for the Crocodile Prize are, at the very least, curious and, in the case of the latter, energised and inspired.

Membership of the PNG Attitude/Crocodile ‘clan’ brings with it, I believe, the same kinds of obligations and responsibilities required of membership of the family and tribal clans that make up PNG society - where a balance of individual and collective reciprocal giving and taking ensures stability, strength, harmony and sustainability.

My disappointment with the responses from Papua New Guineans to Keith and Phil’s announcements was that none who had ‘taken’ from PNG Attitude offered to ‘give’ back to ensure its sustainability.

I certainly meant no offence with my comments. As you said yourself, the ‘truth’ sometimes hurts.

Chris Overland

I think that this is an excellent piece.

In every nation where a Western style democracy has taken root, an absolute prerequisite has been the emergence of an educated, articulate, motivated and "activist" middle class to seize control of the political process.

This has always been a fraught process because those in power always resist sharing that power, much less being held accountable for its exercise.

Right now, PNG's nascent middle class seems more concerned about its material well being than actually challenging the political status quo and thus, by default, becomes complicit in its dysfunction.

A few, like Gary Juffa, are beginning the important task of appealing directly to those who Marx and Lenin described as "the masses", explaining that their collective failure to wield their votes for the greater good is grievously damaging both their present and their future.

It is very hard for the ordinary PNG voter to understand this because it is an alien idea, not connected to their culture and traditions, where it was always "them" versus "us".

Somehow, the idea of "we, the people", has to grip Papua New Guineans, so that their elected representatives can be compelled to make urgently needed changes in the way politics works in PNG.

Lenin, Mao, Castro and their ilk decided that this change in outlook could only occur when those who understood the "objective reality" of the situation seized power by force.

In Britain and Europe, the change process started much earlier in history and was much more protracted. It also was a sometimes violent process but usually fell short of all out war.

The trick for PNG's middle class is to carry out this process quickly and largely without violence.

In my assessment this is possible but not easy.

Rashmii and those who think like her can do it provided they can galvanise enough support amongst their peers and create the required political structures.

The bad news is that, if so-called "western civilisation" is any guide, this is a never ending task, because the great and the powerful always seek ways to accumulate power at the expense of the sometimes somnolent masses.

This is why an effective democracy always needs intellectual gadflies, whether from the left or the right, always expounding their sometimes dopey ideas but, in doing so, keeping constant pressure on the political and business elites.

Complacency and ennui are lethal to true democracy: only constant scrutiny and a fear of losing power will "keep the bastards honest".

Phil Fitzpatrick

Maybe apathy is a sign of ultimate frustration. Maybe it is defeatism.

PNG is not isolated in this I think; it's just that we've been talking about it in that context. An erudite friend of mine many years ago made the comment that the average Australian fuckwit votes Liberal. There is much truth in this assertion; the Liberals hold out financial reward above all else. It is a kind of aspirational Australian cargo cult. Nowadays of course you can't tell the difference between the parties so it is a moot point.

What I think that is unique in PNG is the level of tolerance for the poor quality and corrupt nature of governance. As Francis Nii points out in today's accompanying article, the fault is not with the politicians but the people who vote for them.

However, when you consider this same apathy in terms of the promotion of literature in PNG the whole thing gets turned on its head.

There is a surge in literature in PNG. Unlike the governance, which is a bad thing, this surge is a good thing. Yet the apathy still exists. Does this mean that apathy induced by one thing seeps into everything else around it? I suspect this might be the case.

What seems to be missing in PNG is hope for the future. For the average Papua New Guinean the future looks pretty hopeless. For the corrupt few it looks decidedly rosy.

People like me and Chris and Paul and Ed are not critical because of any vindictiveness but because we really care. We are probably all as worried about what goes on in our own country and the world at large too. God knows, the future looks very bleak there too.

But what do you do about it? Certainly a bunch of geriatrics banging away in the backblocks and suburbs of Australia aren't going to be able to do much.

I think the best that can be done is to keep the conversation going.

PNG Attitude has a role in this because it is outside the country and not subject to intimidation (although that has been tried I understand).

But more so the people who read and comment on the blog have a role too.

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