K. R. Howe on Democracy and "Tradition"

When the new Pacific island nation-states gained their constitutional independence, mainly in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a heady optimism. Independence had come peacefully and cooperatively. There had been no revolutions, no bloody wars of national liberation. Independence was given, sometimes virtually imposed, rather than taken. Power shifted readily from colonial administrators to existing indigenous political elites. The independence constitutions of the new nation-states were largely informed by Western democratic institutions and values.

But in more recent times, the optimism has diminished. Along with growing economic problems for most Pacific nation-states, there are now very considerable tensions between notions of Western liberal constitutional democracy and some indigenous political values and traditions. The Fiji coups of 1987 were a major wake-up call for historians and others who still viewed the Pacific islands as pleasant, romantic, peaceful locations. These coups, in the name of protecting the rights of indigenous Fijians, caused great consternation to those commentators deeply committed to the commonly held dual ideals of democracy and indigenous rights. In this case, they could not hold both at once.

While the Fiji coups were rather extreme examples in the Pacific context, the underlying tensions between constructs of indigenous “tradition” and “the West,” and the politics of Pacific culture, are lively and serious issues in modern scholarship.

“Tradition” is constantly reinvented in all human societies. In Oceania, indigenous tradition has long been constructed by Westerners. It is also constructed from within island societies, often as a necessary anticolonial response and as a basis for an assertion of identity. This identity tends to be expressed more in cultural terms–a cultural nationalism–since political nationalism is often a problematic concept in islands where nation-state boundaries have been arbitrarily imposed, where even concepts of a political nation might have no indigenous precedents, and where so many citizens live outside their state.

Sometimes this process of asserting cultural identity is also used for particular internal purposes that might be regarded as less than noble, such as by some current political elites to maintain their own positions in the face of growing demands by some of their citizens for a more democratic sharing of influence and resources. Traditional indigenous values of status and even “class”–for example, differences between “commoners” and “nobles”–are not always compatible with notions of democracy.

Historians dealing with these matters often feel the need to tread very warily and not give offense. Criticism can so readily lead to accusations of racism. For historians there is the temptation to suspend the critical facility and to appeal to cultural relativism, a situation ethics based on notions of what is loosely referred to as “the Pacific way.” Thus, for example, certain practices involving matters of ethnicity, class, or gender or of social, government, and business policy that would be condemned elsewhere in the world are sometimes quietly condoned. As an example, the near-absolute monarchy in Tonga seldom receives the condemnation from crusading democrats that such monarchy might receive if it were elsewhere in the world. In the case of Tonga, it is more likely to be regarded as a “quaint” and beneficent system. Meanwhile, the reification of indigenous tradition, by both insiders and outsiders, has contributed to post-colonial stereotyping. As Stephanie Lawson comments:

The construction of the dichotomy between “traditional” and “Western” that has been so roundly condemned in anticolonial literature has now been inverted in a form which pervades the rhetoric of those who denounced it in the first place. This unquestioningly produces the same false essentialism which has seduced past generations of scholars into believing that there are determinate characteristics of Western and non-Western “minds.”

And the dichotomy is so obviously simplistic anyway. Some of the most “Western” of notions have become thoroughly entrenched within and often central to “tradition,” most obviously Christianity. A fundamental problem with academic discussions about Pacific cultural politics is that moral judgments can too readily belie the enormous complexity of issues. The idea of authorative history is no longer acceptable, yet to offer the opposite, the idea of history as an infinitely relative “multivocality,” may in the long run be equally unhelpful. Both strategies are just as inclined to create cardboard cut-outs of their respective selves and others.

SOURCE: Nature, Culture, and History: The “Knowing” of Oceania, by K. R. Howe (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2000), pp. 72-74

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