Q&A: Muh Sacred Democracy
Hey everyone. Sorry I’ve been away for a couple of days. I made a decisive breakthrough on the next episode of Whose America?, and I’ve been obsessively reading and writing on it since the weekend.
Thanks for all of your questions in the Ask Me Anything. Considering my apparent need to answer most of your questions in essay form, it’s going to take me a little while to get through them, but get through them I will.
For now, I only have time to answer one. This was asked by Keith Campbell:
You clearly have issues with our political system and seem pretty dubious that Democracy ,or what we call Democracy anyway, will be able to survive in the long run. Is there a system that you think would work better/has worked better?
Traditional Melanesian societies (hey, you asked for it) in places like Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are organized into segmentary lineages, which is a fancy anthropologists’ way of saying they are tribal. Each segmentary lineage group traces its line back to a common male ancestor. Multiple segmentary lineages may trace a common ancestor even further back, and the society is governed by the old Arab proverb: I against my brother. My brother and I against my cousin. Me, my brother and my cousin against the world.
The landscape of Papua New Guinea is extremely forbidding - high, steep mountains covered with thick tropical rain forests - and has been an insurmountable natural barrier to political consolidation on the large island. The prospect of any single center of authority exercising power over the entire island was nonexistent in premodern times when feet were the primary means of transportation, and extreme social fragmentation continues to exist to this day. Even contact and interchange from one valley to another was a tall task, and isolated microsocieties grew up all over Papua New Guinea. Over 900 mutually incomprehensible languages are spoken on the island - one-sixth of all the world’s still-existing languages. The 500,000 or so residents of the nearby Solomon Island chain speak over 70 languages. In the Papua New Guinea highlands, most people will live their entire lives in the mountain valley of their birth. Their social world consists of their segmentary lineage group, and with the nearby lineages with whom their group is in dialogue or conflict.
These lineage groups, which may comprise a few dozen to a few thousand people, are called wantoks, a pidgin version of the English words “one talk” - people who speak the same language. Each wantok is led by a chief, a Big Man. Big Man is not an inherited office, but a position of responsibility and authority bestowed by community acclimation. If, in times of conflict, the Big Men tend to be physically-powerful warriors, in other times the position may be held by a more physically average man who has garnered great respect and trust among his people, particularly by his ability to distribute pigs, shell money or other goods to those who follow him.
Until the 1970s, Papua New Guinea was under the political control of Australia, and the Solomon Islands were under the control of Britain. When the colonizers departed, they thought to give the people a helpful shove along their path toward modernity by designing and empowering an elected multiparty parliamentary political system of government. The result, as you might have guessed, was chaos.