Kelly Naru (and others) display ignorance of our PNG law
I Believe

Messing with the world – why do we do it?

The elders meet (Janes Oceania)PHIL FITZPATRICK

WHEN I first returned from Papua New Guinea in 1974 I got a job with the South Australian Museum working with Aboriginal people in the remote Pitjantjatjara lands.

The Museum made the mistaken assumption that if I had worked in Papua New Guinea I was ideally suited to work with Aboriginal groups.

I must admit that I believed the same thing until I got on the ground out in the desert. I had obviously brought back from Papua New Guinea that attitude of ‘colonial superiority’ that Rashmii Bell alluded to in a recent PNG Attitude article.

The two peoples couldn't have been further apart. In terms of polarity I gauged myself and the Papua New Guineans at one end of a long line and the Aborigines at the other end.

I worked with tribalised men who still actively retained all of their traditions and were practising them. They were a coherent group that felt at one with their environment and I enjoyed working with them. But they were a threatened species.

Within a generation they were mostly all gone and their traditions with them. What replaced it was horrifying and was very similar to what Chris Overland described in Alice Springs. A people without a cause or a soul.

Over the years I've watched bucket loads of money being pumped into Aboriginal communities to no avail. I’ve watched some of the old men desperately try to bring back the old ways but the younger generation wouldn't have a bar of it.

The government was taking desert nomads whose sole material wealth consisted of a few spears and a woomera [spear thrower] and putting them into prefabricated houses and they wondered why they burnt holes in the floor and smashed the windows to let the warm desert air inside.

We in the west seem to have developed this attitude that everything can be solved with money. Throw enough of the stuff at a problem and it will fix itself.

This has been the most significant element in how Australia deals with its indigenous people. They don't seem to realise that they don't necessarily want our money, they want something else from us.

What that is cannot easily be put into words. As Paul Oates says, “I suspect what all people want is an identity they feel happy with”.

In all my years working with Aboriginal people I've never understood what makes them work and I doubt whether anyone else does, themselves included now.

But Aborigines ain't Papua New Guineans, far from it.

Rashmii's other comment about Australia and Papua New Guinea having become despondent in their relationship also struck me as being very true but our relationship with our own indigenous people has probably never even existed.

One of the things that I learned from my experience working with Aboriginal people is that if you destroy, intentionally or otherwise, a society's culture you will inevitably destroy that society.

This has pretty much completely happened in most Aboriginal societies but an element of the same thing also happened in Papua New Guinea.

In my own country of Eire the old Celtic culture was severely damaged by British invasion. That, I think, provided a large part of the resistance to British rule. A revival of sorts has occurred in Eire since independence in 1921 but a lot was lost and a lot had to be re-created in a form that may not be consistent with the original.

The irony of all this cultural destruction by colonialism is that it wasn't really necessary. Ireland would have done quite well without the British and, no doubt, Papua New Guinea would be a different place if the German, British and Australian annexations hadn't taken place.

The only sin of all those colonised places prior to their colonisation is that they presented themselves to greedy westerners as eminently exploitable. If those invading entities hadn't been like they were they would have left those places happily alone.

When you say that, people trot out the old argument that if it hadn't been Australia in Papua New Guinea it would have been someone else who took over and they might not have been so sanguine.

That has some relevance I suppose but Australia really took over for geopolitical and strategic reasons with a little bit of gold fever and a likely source of cheap labour in mind. Altruism was the last thing on their minds.

When you look at modern day Papua New Guinea you can see the full blown effects of colonisation in the towns and urban areas but out in the sticks there is something resembling the old pre-colonial Papua New Guinea, sadly without its broader cultural base.

That part of Papua New Guinea is the real Papua New Guinea and it is well worth saving. The other, in places like Port Moresby, is a dysfunctional hybrid mess.

I know which Papua New Guinea I prefer.


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Bernard Corden

Hi Rashimii,
I can remember the lyrics from a song by Guy Clark, a US Texan folk singer......." Survival's never graceful when the changes come too fast"

Paul Oates

There seems to be a basic tenet of the human genome that, once most people become powerful in some way, they unconsciously disconnect with those who are less powerful.

Perhaps this is nature's way of subliminally protecting the human psyche from emotional or data overload.

In the services, officers are always warned about 'fraternizing' with their troops as when it comes to ordering a person to take very dangerous activity, the common soldier might not obey orders.

Similarity, if there is too much interaction and therefore friendships developing, the officer might hesitate to order a soldier to in effect die in order to save the battle and possibly the war. It is understood that Caesar cried for his dead soldiers albeit after he had won the battle.

The ancient Greeks believed that the Macedonian Phalanx, at that time (2,500 years ago, the equivalent of modern concept of the Nazi Blitzkrieg, operated better when the older men with longer spears at the rear of the formation took lovers in the front ranks of those carrying shorter spears. It was said by the Romans, that the Greeks actually thought this encouraged loyalty in battle?

The essence of today's problems with political leaders is that after a person is elected, most tend to unconsciously disconnect with those who elected them, at least until the next election.

The Europeans copied the Ancient Egyptians etc. who believed that by creating a semi divine royal family a genetically pure line of rulers wouldn't be swayed by earthly temptations but instead give non corrupted rule.

Guess what? History shows this to be a total fallacy. Most PNG villagers sorted that concept out millennia ago and it has only returned with so called modern 'development'.

Now we have the current situation where some people who have been lucky or cunning enough to make great wealth now look around for a new challenge to keep themselves occupied.

There is apparently no real idea or ideals driving these wealthy people to create a better life for others. That's just a pipe dream to be sprouted in the political hyperbole from these people to try to delude voters to vote for them again.

The motivation to help others and practice self denial in order to do so appears to to diminish as if it were indelibly tied to the law of diminishing returns. i.e. 'The more wealth and power a person acquires, the less they think about others'.

It appears that most ordinary people simply give up and join the crowd. It's just far easier to do so. Therein lies the problem. Only those with either enough conviction or motivation end up leading those who are just not prepared or able to compete.

We then end up with the best governments (or leaders) money can buy.

Clearly Lord Gort had the right idea when he was quoted as saying "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are usually bad men."

The Roman law that required a man (sometimes a slave) to hold the laurel wreath above the head of the victorious leader being awarded a 'Triumph' but also to whisper in his ear, 'Remember, thou art a man!'. Goodness knows what happened to that slave afterwards? History doesn't record his fate.

Still, looking on the bright side, this blog has over the last 10 years promoted and encouraged brilliant and insightful contributions from PNG readers and writers.

That fact in itself is a remarkable achievement that should really be officially recognised and not dismissed lightly.

Philip Fitzpatrick

That's a nice comment Chris but by far the greater load and originality have been carried by Keith. I'm just a hanger-on who attached his wagon to the train.

Rashmii Bell

Incredible discussion going on here.

I need to take notes to later explore the points made here but I've already read up to (and where I've stopped) Phil's last comment ' It's not the Australian colonists to blame - it's the Papua New Guinean colonists'. I tend to agree.

A few nights ago, I watched the film adaptation of Bryce Courtney's 'The Power of One' and I was quite struck by one of the lines: ' History takes too long, but it is unkind to those who try to rush it'.

Chris Overland

I think that Bernard is right to say that the standard of contributions on this site is generally good and, sometimes, really quite outstanding.

In particular, there are some quite exceptional Papua New Guineans who contribute their observations, thoughts and talents who would not, I think, get much of a look in through more "mainstream" sites.

This happens thanks to the prodigious efforts of Keith Jackson and Phil Fitzpatrick, in particular, to encourage and foster PNG talent.

A casual trawl through the range of articles, poems and comments to be found on this site provides a rich source of excellent creative writing and thinking emanating from PNG.

The Papua New Guinean contributors are the true "value add" to PNG Attitude, much more so than the idle musing of geriatrics like me.

So, we should all hail Keith and Phil, whose devotion of time, energy and drive to PNG Attitude has enabled it to develop into an important source of observation, commentary and debate on contemporary PNG.

Bernard Corden

I know this is essentially a PNG site but the quality of discussions on here is exceptional and several contributors should consider entering The Spectator Australia 2016 Thawley prize.

It involves writing an essay (1000-2000 words)on what you think Australia will be like in 10 years time and it offers a prize of $5000.It is open to residents of any country.

It would be fabulous if a PNG author turned the tables and won. Further details are available via:

Kapa Ben Mangere

I would like to subscribe to these discussions. I am interested.

Well, go right ahead and get involved Kapa - KJ

Paul Oates

Hey Phil, did you ever see the film 'Lord of War'. It really sums the situation you are talking about very succinctly.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I guess if you never go out of your front gate you tend to think of your yard as the best in the street.

As PJ O'Rourke said, we should give war a chance. Among other things it is a great employer. All the grunts sent to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan were recruited in the shopping malls from poor white trash and African Americans. The poor make excellent cannon fodder while you are busy making a buck contracting to the US military.

I often wonder when I see newsreel footage of troops in Syria et. al. blazing away into thin air with their AK47s and M16s in the hope of hitting something where they get so many bullets. The economics must be staggering. A bullet for one of those things is worth about 50 cents. Someone is making a lot of money out of them.

But none of those grunts really learn any geography. They get flown into a big camp with the self-same McDonalds doing the catering. If they manage to survive they go home knowing zilch about where they've been.

I've encountered Yanks in the camps on the LNG project. They fly in to Moresby and get locked in the Airways until they are flown up to the camp. There they sit behind the security fence and talk about all the guns they own.

Paul Oates

I rather like Bernard's aphorism that war is nature's way of teaching Americans geography. It has a ring of truth about it.

To visit the USA is to see the vast gap between the 'haves' and the 'have not'. Outside a McDonalds in a large city were people begging for $2 to buy a 'sandwich'.

Near a Navajo reservation were native Americans outside the service station and cafe telling people they were hungry and wanted something to eat.

As we sat in a New York cafe we watched a couple of huge African Americans devour two huge 'burger and fries with huge sodas. A skinny African American then appeared with holes in his clothes and sneakers and rifled through the garbage bin next to them.

He finally found a discarded Coca-Cola bottle with about an inch of drink left in it and downed that before moving on. The two eaters just kept feeding their faces all the time without even a look at the bloke who was apparently destitute.

The basic wage is only half what it is in Australia and yet the US is supposedly the richest nation on earth.

The internal conflicts going on in the US reveal a nation that is not really united unless it can be convinced through it's own propaganda that 'they are the greatest'. Vietnam smacked them in the teeth and they still haven't learnt any lessons from it.

When we visited 'Ground Zero' I asked a tour guide in New York what have they learnt from the World Trade Centre disaster. Her only reply was: "Never trust a terrorist!"

The US culture seems to promote the concept that they are right about everything and yet movies and books keep coming out proving they aren't.

The current Mid East debacle only seems to get worse rather than better and if it's not the original stupidity of the British and French carve up of the old Ottoman Empire it's the US and others all trying to get the best position and influence to get at the oil controlled by basically feudalistic rulers.

Humanity's historical solution to this sort of mess is an all out war. I sincerely hope that doesn't happen but all the portends are already there.

Chris Overland

Thanks to Bernard for the link to the article by Theodore Dalrymple about Custine's prescient observations about Russia and those of Alexis De Tocqueville about America.

Their views about the psychological impact upon individuals of prevailing socio-political forces accord with my own and are consistent with those expressed In Phil's most recent comments.

In a nutshell then, we seem to agree that the socio-political and cultural environment created by a given society's power elites tends to mould public opinion and thinking into patterns that reinforce (or, at least, do not diminish) the authority and influence of those elites.

An extreme example of this is North Korea, where almost the entire state is devoted to propagating the concept of "Jus" which, loosely speaking, means total "self reliance". Associated with this is a paranoid suspicion of any and all external influences which, in turn, requires maintaining the entire country on a permanent war footing.

In PNG, the power elites have largely succeeded in securing implicit public support for their plundering of the public purse by the simple expedient of distributing part of the plunder to their most important supporters.

This has the dual effect of muting public criticism by "stuffing their mouths with gold" and making those who do benefit from their largesse complicit in the whole process.

This is a time honoured tradition in virtually all cultures and history is replete with examples of its effect.

So, for example, when the pirate Francis Drake returned from circumnavigating the world, Elizabeth 1st went down to the docks to personally knight him.

She did so less in recognition of his genuinely remarkable achievement as a navigator than the fact that he presented her with a share of the proceeds of his plundering of Spanish commerce that equated to an entire year's royal income.

Thus did Drake the pirate become Sir Francis, Vice Admiral of the Fleet and a respected member of England's ruling elite.

In a more modern context, there are hugely wealthy individual Americans who both can and do accumulate vast resources for the express purpose of exerting influence over who is elected to Congress, the Senate or as President.

Also, the US Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are constitutionally entitled to use their resources in the same way because, so the court opined, corporations are legally defined as "natural persons" and so have the same rights as any other citizen.

This illustrates the extent to which the US power elite can and does maintain its power and influence, especially in the Republican Party, although the evidence is that the great American public is slowly waking up to the massive and self serving con job perpetrated by the so-called neo-conservatives (actually, neo-liberals) who dominate the economic policy setting process.

Peter O'Neill has used the traditional power elite tactics to quite brilliant effect. He is truly the master of PNG politics right now. His political enemies seem unable to find any way to counter this tactic unless they are willing to resort to doing the same thing.

We are entering into a very dark period in democratic politics across the globe as neo-liberalism's many failings become increasingly apparent and the previous consensus that largely unfettered globalised capitalism is both necessary and desirable begins to disintegrate.

Whether we can collectively escape what I think of as a socio-economic "death spiral" without resort to revolution and war is an open question right now.

Philip Fitzpatrick

What your explanation suggests to me Chris is a literal manifestation of Marx’s theory of cultural hegemony where the ruling class, in this case American capitalists, dictate and dominate the beliefs and values of American society as a whole i.e. their world view is the accepted norm and justifies the social, political and economic status quo.

That is, the capitalist view is the dominant ideology over what would otherwise be a diverse culture. It is then sold as a natural cultural norm that supposedly benefits all.

Of course, this is not true, ask any African American or Hispanic, they know it is an artificial social construct specifically designed not to benefit them but to exploit them.

But as you suggest, the Americans believe their ruling ideology is true and like true entrepreneurs are hell bent on exporting and proselytise it like fundamentalist Christians. Hence we are stuck with a McDonalds on every corner and a media that apes everything American.

Marx predicted that when people had had a gutful of capitalism they would revolt and form communistic societies. This hasn’t happened (yet) of course. But it does start me wondering about PNG.

Ostensibly there was a collection of largely communist societies over which capitalism was imposed – a sort of reverse of what Marx envisaged. I’m not sure the replacement of feudalism by capitalism in Europe was similar.

In any event we now have in PNG a ruling elite of capitalists trying desperately to impose their ideology over the rest of the country which is largely not buying it and appears to be gearing up for some sort of revolution.

Not that I think such a revolution will occur, Papua New Guineans are unlikely to be able to organise something like that. They're a bit like Australians, too laid back to bother.

Someone else, maybe Martyn Namorong, pointed out that the ruling elite in PNG are the new colonialists. That is dead right. When you listen to the apologists for Peter O’Neill’s outrages they sound just like American capitalists.

But it does give us in Australia an easy retort to accusations that our colonial adventure in PNG is the cause of all the country’s present woes.

It’s not the Australian colonists who are to blame – it’s the Papua New Guinean colonists!

Bernard Corden

Hi Chris and Phil,

That is a pretty good and succinct description Chris. I have also found the following article by Theodore Dalrymple from the City Journal, which makes interesting reading:

Chris Overland

Phil has asked a question that deserves an answer, albeit a very tentative one.

I am not as well read about the USA as I'd like to be but I would claim a modest familiarity with the main elements of its history.

That said, it is my understanding there are at least three key drivers of American thinking about its place in the world.

Firstly, Americans cherish the right of the individual to pursue life, liberty and happiness largely unhampered by anyone else, especially the government. Implicit in this idea is the notion that each person is the architect of his or her own life.

Secondly, Americans almost uncritically seek ways to acquire wealth (and, more recently, fame) both as a proxy measure of human worth and because great wealth confers great autonomy. Thus entrepreneurship and business success is valued and admired above almost everything else.

Not for nothing did one US President say that "the business of America is business".

Thirdly, the idea of American "exceptionalism" which underpins so much political thinking and rhetoric in the USA, starts from the premise that the USA is the perfect model for human society. It naturally follows that many, perhaps most, Americans sincerely believe that it has a moral obligation to spread its particular version of democracy to the rest of the world.

Thus we have many examples of what might be called American cultural imperialism, where the soft power of the USA has spread its influence all over the world. This is greatly resented by many countries yet they all seem unable to resist the lure of things like jeans, rock and roll, Hollywood movies, hamburgers and so forth.

Paradoxically, the USA has a long history of overt anti-imperialism, so logical consistency is not always present in some of its foreign policy positions.

This is not new: the Romans deplored human sacrifice amongst peoples whom they regarded as barbarians, yet indulged with undisguised enthusiasm in organised blood sports involving humans being killed.

So, to cut a long story short, the USA is a strange mixture of radical idealism and largely unfettered capitalism. There is a significant measure of religious fervour in the mix as well.

Australia is a starkly different society in many ways. Our odd mixture of almost radical egalitarianism (and related inbuilt suspicion of elites, self described or otherwise), instinctive anti-authoritarianism (we know a wanker when we see one!), and tendency towards self deprecation, are strikingly different to the USA.

I am not sure if that answers your question, but it might help put some context around how and why the USA behaves as it does. It might even help explain Donald Trump.

Bernard Corden

Hi Phil and Chris,

This site is fabulous and during the past week it has had me thumbing through Bobbitt's Shield Of Achilles and Tocqueville's Democracy in America (Chapter 18 - Honor in the United States and in Democratic Societies). Maybe these two books can provide some answers. I will keep you posted.

Philip Fitzpatrick

You and Chris are widely read Bernard, maybe you can provide an answer that satisfactorily explains American imperialism.

British imperialism is easy to understand, they were into exploitation and plunder but what are the Yanks after?

If you believe the pundits they went into Iraq and Afghanistan for the oil but why did they go into all those other places where there was nothing of real value to be had? Are they on some sort of power-ego trip? Is it their religious fundamentalism that says anyone not Christian is an enemy? Isn't that why they went into South America?

Are they just like Highlanders and just like fighting? Isn't that Pilger's estimation?

Maybe that's where Australia picked up its colonial zeal. First for British influenced gold and then for American influenced god and glory? After all, we've always been a nation of followers.

Philip Fitzpatrick

As PJ O'Rourke says Bernard, America has two choices in its presidential nominees, the worst possible and the second worst possible.

I think Michelle Obama will make a good president in 2025, or even 2021.

Bernard Corden

Many thanks Chris,

Despite all his bluster and bravado, I believe if Trump is elected, the US will retreat within itself and the games will begin.

Chris Overland

Thanks Bernard.

I read the abbreviated speech by John Pilger. I agree with some of his analysis but much of it is, to my mind at least, entirely fanciful.

The USA has made many egregious mistakes over the years and some of its foreign policy decisions have brought much suffering and grief around the globe.

I agree that it also is a very violent society, obsessed with guns and almost irrationally committed to individual liberty and rights to the virtual exclusion of what we in Australia regard as community rights.

That said, its record as an aggressor nation pales into insignificance to the 40 million or so slaughtered by Stalin or the 70 million who were killed while Mao Zedong ruled in China.

Vladimir Putin, a former colonel in the KGB, is an heir to the autocratic and paranoid tradition of Russia reaching back into the mists of time. Similarly, the current regime in China increasingly looks, speaks and behaves like the old Imperial regime that Mao and his colleagues ostensibly swept away.

Pilger's world view is a highly contestable one and, while I agree with him on some issues, he draws far too long a bow about the supposedly perfidious Americans.

Right now, with all its faults, the USA represents the best available means of resisting the rising tide of authoritarianism across much of the world.

PNG, with the emergence of its strongman led government, is a mere shadow of what may yet fully emerge in Russia, China, Turkey and many other countries as well.

God help us all if the USA decides to retreat within itself as it did after World War 1, for this will surely embolden authoritarians and ultra nationalists every where.

Bernard Corden

Hi Chris,

The following link gives access to an edited version of recent address given by John Pilger at the University of Sydney in March 2016:

There is also another interesting New Matilda article by John Pilger:

I know it's Pilger and despite Auberon Waugh's inherent distrust of anything he writes, they are worth reading.

I actually have an old copy of The Spectator, which John Pilger signed for me following a lecture he gave at the Inn on the Park in Sydney back in 2001.

Chris Overland

The colonial impulse is as old as humanity.

In every era, on every continent, one or more national groups have demonstrated that this is a very human tendency.

So, the Hittites dominated the Middle East and North Africa for time, then the Egyptians, then the Persians, then the Romans, then the Ottomans, then a gaggle of European powers and so on.

The much maligned USA succeeded the British as "world policeman" and, mostly, uses its soft power to exert its political influence.

That it has sometimes used its vast military power ineptly is undeniable. Sometimes, though, it has only been America's power that has prevented other ambitious and decidedly less scrupulous nations from pursuing their own colonial agenda.

The US is not to blame for the current world's ills.

We humans do not require American help to stuff up our collective lives through a combination of the lust for power, greed and ideological or religious madness, because we are naturally good at it.

European colonial expansion from around 1600 onwards was mostly due to the above mentioned motivations being combined with a willingness and ability to harness burgeoning intellectual and technological power to achieve colonial objectives.

In this situation, PNG was never going to be able to remain some sort of human Jurassic Park. For good or for ill, the European juggernaut rolled over the world, bringing "civilization" with it.

That European civilization was a distinctly mixed blessing is painfully obvious, just as was Greek civilization, Roman civilization, Manchu civilization and those that preceded them.

If, by some mischance, we humans nuke ourselves back to the Stone Age, then the whole cycle will resume once again.

History's lesson is that this is human nature. Quite how we can change this I do not know.

Bernard Corden

Another satirical observation from PJ O'Rourke was that wherever there is conflict in the world, you can rely on the United States to intervene six months late and bomb the crap out of the neighbouring country.

A colleague, Norman Monshall, who spent several years in PNG, sent me an email stating that war is nature's way of teaching Americans geography.

Bernard Corden

Hi Phil,

The US with its militaristic and plutocratic culture and rule based regimes bears much of the responsibility. It was the great dissenting philosopher, William Hazlitt, who said rules and models destroy art and genius.

I often ask people to name me ten classical European artists and the names roll of the tongue. I then ask them to do the same with American artists. Some ignorant malapert may mention Andy Warhol but that's as far as they get.

One hand clapping by Anthony Burgess, which takes a satirical look at the Americanisation of UK culture is worth a read and my favourite is USA by John Dos Passos.

Throwing money at a problem is a nostrum and we need only look at sub Saharan Africa to prove that hypothesis.

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