Tuesday 1 December 2009

What Ariel Dorfman could teach Scott Hamilton

Ariel Dorfman.

ARIEL DORFMAN has long been one of my literary and political heroes. Born in Argentina in 1942, but raised in the United States and Chile, he won an international reputation in the 1960s and 70s for his seminal investigations into popular culture and cultural imperialism. His How to Read Donald Duck and The Empire’s Old Clothes are classics of their kind.

Between 1970 and 1973, Dorfman was cultural adviser to the Marxist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, and only narrowly escaped capture (and almost certain death) at the hands of General Augusto Pinochet’s soldiers in the hours and days immediately following the US-backed coup d’etat against Allende’s Popular Unity government on September 11 1973.

In 1998 Dorfman published his autobiography Heading South, Looking North. A reflection on the fraught relationship between the North and South American continents – and how it has impinged upon his own experience as a man of both hemispheres – Dorfman’s book has much to offer the dedicated student of human affairs, and of revolutionary politics in particular.

Having been thoroughly admonished on the blog Reading the Maps for my moral failure to grasp the historical and cultural centrality of tino rangatiratanga by just such a student, I was further urged to familiarise myself with the work of Professor Jose Aylwin – coincidentally the son of one of the bourgeois Chilean politicians who'd connived in Allende’s bloody overthrow.

Aylwin Jnr. was in New Zealand recently lecturing on the expansion of indigenous peoples’ rights throughout Latin America. Scott Hamilton, my admonisher, clearly thinks Professor Aylwin has much to teach me.

Perhaps. But there was something in the tone of Scott’s critique that put me in mind of something Dorfman writes about in his autobiography.

It is easy, he says, to criticise those who do not share your revolutionary vision of the future; to expose their political vacuity and condemn their moral cowardice; but:

It was difficult, it would take years to understand that what was so exhilarating to us was menacing to those who felt excluded from our vision of paradise. We evaporated them from meaning, we imagined them away in the future, we offered them no alternative but to join us in our pilgrimage or disappear forever, and that vision fuelled, I believe, the primal fear of the men and women who opposed us … [T]he people we called momios, mummies, because they were so conservative, prehistoric, bygone, passé … [W]e ended up including in that definition millions of Chileans who … were on our side, who should have been with us on our journey to the new land and who, instead, came to fear for their safety and their future.

For a great many Pakeha the polemical writings of the Maori nationalists give rise to just such "primal fear". They too feel "evaporated from meaning" and "imagined away in the future" and it kindles within them a deep and dangerous rage at those who would ask them – "tauiwi" – to "disappear forever" from their own land.

And, with all due respect to my admonisher, it is simply facetious to compare the indigenous politics of Morales’ Bolivia with Maori/Pakeha politics in New Zealand. What fuelled the Bolivian revolution were the decades – centuries – of indifference and repression visited upon the indigenous majority by the descendants of the Spanish conquistadors.

The liberation of the Bolivian peoples represents the final triumph of democracy – not indigeneity. Without the unity forged in democratic struggle, the confidence to recognise diversity could not exist. And what is true of Bolivia is also true of Venezuela. Without the emanicipatory consciousness spawned by Chavez’s radical democratic programme, Venezuela’s indigenous minorities would never have been invited to join the revolution.

"Pluri-national" states may or may not prove to be durable artefacts of the revolutionary upheavals currently sweeping Latin America (history suggests that the drive toward the creation of unitary states is extremely difficult to reverse) but I foresee nothing but disaster if such a solution is ever seriously attempted in New Zealand.

Pakeha New Zealanders have not yet become the hollowed-out momios that Dorfman and his comrades took such delight in mocking forty years ago. New Zealand nationhood has substance.

Scott and his friends should take to heart the terrible lesson in blood and suffering that Ariel Dorfman and all the other revolutionaries who attempted to imagine the Chilean bourgeoisie out of their country’s future were forced to learn back in 1973.

We either enter paradise together – or we do not get there at all.

1 comment:

Lee said...

The comparison between Maori and indigenous Americans seems to me to be a non-starter. Maori are, and have been for a long time, tightly integrated into the political and social systems of New Zealand. I can't think of any other indigenous people that has been so politically and culturally successful in adapting to colonization (mainly because the others have been so hopeless).

In short, I am not persuaded that most problems facing Maori are ones that would in any way be solved by plurinationalism. Maori are overrepresented among the poor, the unemployed, educational failure and the prison population. These are familiar problems with familiar solutions. There is no obvious need to engage in ridiculous cultural politics to do something about it. Making sure that every person can find a decent job would be a good start.