ADELAIDE - Those of us who went to Papua New Guinea, especially in the 30 years after World War II, were motivated by many things.
For me and many others who became kiaps or didimen or tisa or mastamak,* it was a sense of adventure combined with curiosity about what was then, and remains today, a culture quite unlike our own.
For some people, as you’d expect, it was about job progression or money. There was good money to be made if, for example, you accepted a transfer to PNG as a bank officer or employee of a similar large corporate enterprise.
A good few went because their religious beliefs imbued them with the idea of providing service to others and of spreading the word about their particular God.
One thing we all shared – consciously or not - was an unshakeable belief that we were agents of civilisation, by which we would have meant what is called ‘western civilisation’.
This very commonly used term is, in fact, somewhat slippery to define.
Whole books have been written about it, with each author having his or her particular way of understanding it.
There is agreement that it refers to European civilisations in particular, with a complex overlay of ancient Greek, Roman and Judeo-Christian ideas about the world.
Also there is no doubt that its development has been influenced by a complex interplay between a variety of socio-economic forces, especially the tension and conflict between powerful ruling elites and those whom Karl Marx called the proletariat, meaning the poor and powerless.
In 1969, when I first went to PNG, I did not understand any of this.
I had been brought up and educated within a society where the tenets of western civilisation were not only unquestioned but were taken to be self evidently true.
In that sense I, along with many others no doubt, were the perfect apostles of western civilisation, being unthinkingly committed to its propagation amongst those whom we understood to be primitive and ignorant.
Our aim was to bestow the blessings of western civilisation upon those not yet brought into its light.
Of course, there is much to recommend western civilisation. It has spawned advances in science, technology, medicine and knowledge generally that have directly led to the creation of the modern world.
The impact of our presence upon Papua New Guinea was profound.
Within only a couple of generations what had been a country composed of subsistence based, chronically disputatious, disease ridden and illiterate peoples began to take on an entirely new form.
Airstrips revolutionised access to almost all parts of the country, a road system began to develop, schools, hospitals and aid posts were built, new commercial agricultural practices were introduced, and a police force formed that, led by the kiaps, began to impose the rule of law and suppress the previously endemic tribal fighting.
In many respects, this was the picture across the world, even in those countries that suffered most under what was all too often the oppressive yoke of a European colonial regime.
Over an astonishingly short period, western civilisation appeared to become the new normal. Its influence spread from Paris to Timbuktu, London to Delhi, New York to Shanghai and, of course, from Canberra to Port Moresby.
The new nation of Papua New Guinea was born at that moment in time when western civilisation appeared to be at its height.
PNG’s constitution reflects the liberal democratic ideals and aspirations which its founders had been educated to believe represented the best possible way to organise human society.
Today, nearly half a century after that constitution was written, we live in an era when the whole notion of western civilisation is undergoing critical re-examination and, in some important respects, is being found wanting.
Critics point to the grievous inequalities, exploitation, disenfranchisement, cruelty and greed which underlie the predominant neo-liberal capitalism of today.
Also, many sins of the past including the propagation of slavery and the ruthless subjugation of lands and peoples in the name of “progress” have been brought to public attention, as well as the persistent racism that seems to infect even otherwise quite liberal societies.
None of this helps those of us who insist that, despite its faults, western civilisation represents the best possible way to organise human society.
History demonstrates that when faith in the fundamental virtues of liberal democracy is shaken, authoritarian ideas from both the left and right of the political spectrum begin to seem attractive alternatives, at least to some people.
Instead of talking about how society might further evolve to ameliorate the worst aspects of western civilisation, people begin to consider revolutionary ideas by which it might be torn down and replaced by another, entirely different way of doing things.
This has happened before, notably in the early 20th century when both fascism and communism emerged as existential threats to liberal democracy.
Fascism failed because it was based upon racist, militarist and expansionist ideas that could only lead to war.
In the ensuing conflicts with liberal democratic and communist nations the proponents of fascism all suffered the same fate, total annihilation.
Yet neo-fascism persists today, even if only amongst a tiny majority. It seems that very bad ideas die very hard, with even the pathetic remnants still capable of causing problems.
Fascism’s utter defeat ensured a brief moment of triumph for its most despised enemy, international communism.
But, in due course, communism also proved to be a dead end.
This was mostly because it failed to deliver the opportunities and lives that people seem to need and crave, especially the desire for the greatest degree of personal autonomy consistent with creating and maintaining an orderly and generally safe society.
Today, the authoritarian models of social governance in places like China, Russia and even Turkey are being touted by some people as superior to liberal democracy. They offer the illusion of certainty and control in a deeply uncertain world.
These regimes give precedence to social order and stability above individual liberty and concentrate power in the hands of very few political leaders, the foremost of whom often claim to possess special insights or knowledge that makes them exceptional rulers.
Kim Jong-Un, the ruler of North Korea, is an exemplar of this notion, while politicians like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are more subtle, albeit no less powerful.
Also, a much more strident and disruptive form of political correctness has emerged, whose most extreme proponents believe that civil disobedience, intimidation and even violence are legitimate instruments by which to force change upon society.
In their righteous certainty, they too believe that a noble end justifies authoritarian means.
This has, inevitably, provoked a backlash from those who either do not share their views or fear they represent a threat to social order and harmony.
Like the social activists they despise, the reactionary elements in society also are willing to resort to authoritarian means.
Authoritarian politicians take advantage of the doubt and fear created by these disturbances to propose or demand anti-liberal and anti-democratic means of controlling or suppressing what they declare to be illegitimate social protest and disorder.
These ideas can seem deeply attractive in troubled times, especially when events seem to be spiralling out of control. The Covid-19 pandemic has helped spread fear, confusion and doubt, exposing and compounding existing social divisions.
The political dysfunction, confusion, dissent and mendacity that we are now witnessing in many of the world’s democracies, especially in the USA, has strengthened the hands of those people who offer clear, simple and mostly entirely wrong solutions to very difficult and complex problems.
The truth is that western civilisation remains what it has always been, a work in progress.
The struggle to create a perfect society has been with us for thousands of years.
Empires have risen and fallen regularly as their belief in their own perfection and invincibility has been exposed as deficient by the harsh reality of new ideas, technologies and ambition.
Human progress has routinely been punctuated by moments of both triumph and catastrophe, with long periods where all hope of creating a better, fairer, kinder and more peaceful world seemed an impossibility.
Despite all this, we have collectively continued to strive to overcome the worst in ourselves as a species and try to create a better world.
I would argue that what we call western civilisation, with all its faults and failings, still represents the most likely path towards creating a better world than any other system on offer today.
In particular, I would point to how western civilisation has proven to be highly adaptable in the face of demands for change, with its power elites able and grudgingly willing to change the status quo in order to preserve social order in the face of legitimate popular dissent.
This is perhaps its greatest strength as a system, although it must be acknowledged that the change process is rarely linear or easy.
Also, the various authoritarian regimes we see today can only exist because of western civilisation, not despite it. After all, they are derivatives and beneficiaries of western civilisation.
They need all of its technology, knowledge and ideas to create the dystopian societies that they falsely claim are superior to liberal democracy.
The great weakness of these pretenders is that they lack western civilisation’s capacity for social and political adaption.
This is because of their insistence that people conform to prescribed ways of thinking. Such conformity invariably leads to a fatal intellectual rigidity and sclerotic political command structure because dissent cannot be tolerated.
Such command and control societies perpetrate a massive intellectual fraud and call it truth.
History tells us the truth about authoritarianism: it is always pernicious, it is always destructive and it always fails.
We must not be deceived that the social convulsions in the USA, and elsewhere, we are witnessing represent the end of western civilisation.
What we are seeing, and experiencing, is in fact western civilisation in action.
It is following the historic, well trodden path of uproar, confusion, anger, folly and conflict that, sadly, it seems humans must always tread to create a better world.
PNG was enabled to make an enormous leap forward thanks to the ideas, technologies and systems western civilisation introduced by its imperfect apostles, including me.
Now, like the rest of us, it must endure the convulsions and uncertainties that always accompany the journey towards a better world.
* kiaps, didimen, tisa, mastamak = district officials, agriculture officers, teachers, surveyors