Salman Rushdie (Age, 10 June 2000) has shown us how to cut through all the political dross and painful dilemmas of the situation in Fiji by offering a clear-cut policy for the future. Fiji can either go down the racist road of Idi Amin and ‘ethnically cleanse’ all of its ‘migrants’ or it can open up its social structure to its Indian population and allow them to buy land and be full citizens in a democratic society. As Rushdie explains, ‘[m]igrant peoples do not remain visitors forever. In the end, their new land owns them as once their old land did, and they have a right to own it in their turn’.
This view of the situation in Fiji, with variations, is widely held. While further legitimated by the shock effect of George Speight and his militarised gang, the view largely stands in its own right. It is predominantly democratic common sense, shared not only by Alexander Downer but most sectors of the political spectrum. Who would want to be racist on these questions, let alone anti-democratic?
The solution is so obvious one wonders how any other view could stand up. But first pause a little and consider some counter examples. In Xinjiang Province, China, five Turkic Ulghurs – native to the region – were recently executed. They were campaigning for autonomy, or some form of independence, from the now majority Han population. Is it so obvious to claim that the Han ‘migrant peoples do not remain visitors forever. In the end, their new land owns them as once their old land did, and they have a right to own it in their turn’? To put it differently, what if certain cultural backgrounds allow whole peoples on average to adapt more quickly to modernising settings? Does this mean they should be able to simply dominate the pre-existing cultures of this or that region? The counter-examples can be multiplied many times over.
Do the white farmers in Zimbabwe simply have the right to buy and control the land because of their special history? Do the Melanesian inhabitants of West Papua simply have to stand back and see their land possessed by Indonesian powers and Javanese transmigrants? Can white Australians simply brush aside the special claims of Aboriginal people to land, not to mention their broader cultural claims, simply because they have a democratic majority? Of course these are different examples with different histories. Yet they are all related to one or another type of colonialism or imperialist domination. Each example can be shown to carry degrees of innocence by both parties. But the question that Rushdie shows no capacity whatsoever to take on board is whether indigenous cultures should have special rights, especially to the land, which would cut across popular notions of democracy that only recognise citizens as individuals.
In an important sense this question of migration and cultural rights is as old as human society. Migration of populations and domination by introduced cultures is one of the tragedies of human history. Yet to speak of tragedy is to imply reluctant acceptance. This is quite inappropriate, for the situation which now overwhelms the countries of the Pacific is of another order, one that carries a cultural challenge of a new kind and a strategic challenge for Australia as well as the region generally.
It is commonplace to note that the political upheavals in Fiji and the Solomons reflect particular histories and the interests of individuals and special groups. But at least one commentator has noted that they are also framed by general conditions which we all know in one form or another. These are the forces of globalisation which generate surplus populations and related economic crises for all the societies of the region, not to mention the world. The common view of globalisation which tends to see it simply in economic terms is part of the problem here. For it is the culture of globalisation which makes its mark simultaneously with its economy, the two being essentially inseparable.
The impacts of migrations over millennia and more recent migrations associated with globalisation do have some similarities. But the differences are nevertheless what count. The point is that globalisation culturally imposes practices which select those peoples who can relatively easily enter its abstract techniques and distanced forms of interchange. It promotes the mobility of populations in an order of magnitude hardly comparable with the past, while destroying the infrastructure of long-standing cultures and their modes of economy. And crucially it works against those cultures of indigenous peoples who represent the possibility of another future, one more based in relations structured around the physical presence of others. For these cultures, relation with the land is one of the ways in which they give expression to the significance of place. And place promotes the valuing of others as beings-in-place, as beings who are known in the flesh and blood rather than through connections made possible by media. They have a radically different structure.
The recent tragedy of young Chinese illegal immigrants dying in a truck in England after a trek across the whole Asian and European continent is a symbol of what globalisation means for large segments of populations in the era of global culture. A decade ago Los Angeles was the symbolic ‘centre’ of this process of sucking in populations to work as culturally and economically poverty-stricken half-citizens. Now vast cosmopolitan complexes emerge all around the world as ‘centres’ drawing in surplus populations from anywhere and treating them as flotsam, placed nowhere. It is a process which supports a simplistic and degenerate notion of multi-culturalism, and as well as a superficial notion of ‘democracy’. Its other side is the desperation of indigenous cultures. An offshoot from this is the opportunistic thuggery of George Speight and his militarised units.
It is true that immigrant populations do not remain immigrants forever, but the degree of respect between cultures is a central issue of how they may coexist over time. In today’s world, respect cannot be separated from an empathic understanding of the different capacities and values of peoples formed in different settings and an insight into how some may be disadvantaged by what for the moment passes for development. And these orientations need to be further tempered by a realisation that the present form of global culture is unsustainable in its insatiable appetite for the destruction of all social relations which value the face-to-face presence of others. We might then be in a situation of greater social realism.
Just how such respect is to be embedded in the relations between cultures and within state constitutions is of course a very difficult matter. But it will be far less difficult if the principle is accepted as a practical commitment. All cultures should have the right to a decent existence. And, to inject a small degree of self-interest into the argument, it is also worth remembering that global culture, given its present unsustainable trajectory, becomes progessively dependent on the very cultures it destroys. It cannot solve its own cultural problems without drawing upon the ‘wisdom’ inherent in the structures of indigenous cultures which give a proper significance to the face-to-face. Opportunism no doubt can always rear its head, but in today’s world reliance on a glib concept of ‘democracy’ to ‘solve’ the crisis in Fiji is one of the forms of opportunism. Rather than being an alternative to Speight, it is part of the conditions which call him into being. Salman Rushdie, like all of us, needs to face this contradiction.