Portia’s Lament: Western greed and the death of the indigenous cultures of West Papua

Portia’s Lament: Western greed and the death of the indigenous cultures of West Papua Australia, Indonesia, News, Pacific, Timor-Leste, USA, West Papua
May 19, 2012

Prologue: A Word from Wordsworth

There he would stand
In the still covert of some [lonesome?] rock,
Or gaze upon the moon until its light
Fell like a strain of music on his soul
And seemed to sink into his very heart.

Why is it we feel
So little for each other, but for this,
That we with nature have no sympathy,
Or with such things as we have no power to hold
Articulate language?

And never for each other shall we feel
As we may feel, till we have sympathy
With nature in her forms inanimate,
With objects such as have no power to hold
Articulate language. In all forms of things
There is a mind

Of unknown modes of being which on earth,
Or in the heavens, or in the heavens and earth
Exist by mighty combinations, bound
Together by a link, and with a soul
Which makes all one.
— William Wordsworth, Fragments from the Alfoxden Notebook

Portia’s Lament

What do Portia and the indigenous peoples of West Papua have in common?

In short, nothing; that is, nothing on a material level, but they do have much in common on a metaphysical level.

Portia laments her inability to act according to her own volition, saying:

O me, the word choose! I may neither choose who I would nor
refuse who I dislike, so is the will of a living daughter curbed by
the will of a dead father.

— Merchant of Venice I.2

The extent of male dominance in Venetian society is evidenced by the high degree of authority that Portia’s father continues to hold over her life even after he is dead. Choosing a spouse is one of the most life-altering decisions a person can make, but Portia has no say in the matter. Instead, she must entrust her destiny to a system of boxes and riddles:

If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels
had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces.

— Merchant of Venice I.2

For the most part, she is a willing societal minion, but only when dressed as a woman, however these words make it clear that if Portia were going to give her kingdom for a horse it would not be the wished for kind that beggars may ride. In her case, of course, it is her hand that is at issue, and her suitor must choose the right casket in order to win it. How would we characterise what is going on in the mind of a young swain come from afar, standing before the three chests, one containing gold, another silver, the third lead? He must choose one of them in what Nerissa calls a lottery for the lady.

Interestingly, once Portia slips into male garb, her behaviour is amazingly different.

The audience sees not a restricted, powerless Portia, agonizing over the possible misfortunes of being wed to ill-complexioned braggarts, but a confident, even cunning Portia. Disguised as a male lawyer, Portia becomes an entirely new character, intelligent and well versed in the law, about which the reader is previously unaware that she knows anything. In the courtroom, the tables are turned and gender roles are reversed. No longer is Portia under the thumb of the men who exercise control over her; rather, she is now in a position of authority over men.

More than anyone else present, she holds a great deal of power in the trial, the power to manipulate the law as she sees fit. The fates of both Antonio and Shylock are in her hands and as it turns out, she has the power to save Antonio and to condemn Shylock, which she does cleverly, leading Shylock into a trap and shifting the blame from Antonio’s side to his.

Perhaps ‘the masks we wear‘ would have been a better title of this post, but masks are only part of the problem confronting Portia and the people of West Papua.

Clearly Portia, by donning the mask of male authority, is enabled to exercise authority and power that would be denied her as a woman living in 15th Century Venetian society.

Indeed, she exercises this power with such erudition that she manages to have Shylock condemned in circumstances that would make even a corrupt Canberra beaurocrate blush. But, and it’s a big but, though empowered behind her mask of male authority, Portia in the end becomes a hypocrite. She remains a willing societal minion, bound and guided by all the prejudice inherent in 15th Century Venetian society.

Her experiences as a woman, where she was denied choice and freedom, are unable to survive her donning of the mask of male authority.

The problem confronting the indigenous peoples of West Papua is the same problem that confronted Shylock at the hands of Portia.

Western society, like Portia, has donned the mask of moral and ethical authority. Like Portia, the West feels empowered behind its mask of moral and ethical authority, but remains a willing societal minion, bound and guided by all the prejudice inherent in its cultural roots. Like Shakespeare’s Shylock, the real losers in this arrangement are the indigenous Shylocks of the planet, especially, those living across the Torres Strait from the biggest hypocrite of them all – Australia!

In donning the mask of moral and ethical authority the West has forgotten that:

Of unknown modes of being which on earth,
Or in the heavens, or in the heavens and earth
Exist by mighty combinations, bound
Together by a link, and with a soul
Which makes all one.
— William Wordsworth, Fragments from the Alfoxden Notebook

That is a big thing to forget. Planet Earth is not the sole dominion of the white race, or the yellow race of the black race, it is the home of all the “modes of being” which inhabit the Earth, “bound together by a link, and with a soul which makes all one.” In destroying any part of the link, we, in reality, destroy our own souls.

Three boxes – A lottery for the lady of truth

Humanity is ever learning, and yet never seems to arrive at the truth. Perhaps humanity is looking in the wrong place for its truth.

Truth, after all, is more than a mere demonstration of logic, though Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas may beg differ on this point. When humanity equates truth with what ‘works’ or with ‘what makes sense’, humanity may be finding a pragmatic, logical explanation of truth; but if truth can be defined as an explanation of the meaning of life, surely logic alone is unequal to such as task. Once in a moment of reverie, Goethe phrased the idea thus:

I will tell you something, by which you may abide during your future life. There is in nature an accessible and an inaccessible. Be careful to distinguish between the two; be circumspect, and proceed with reverence[1]

By accessible and inaccessible, Goethe did not mean that that which could be known and that which had to be doubted. By the inaccessible, he meant only a different category of knowledge, not amenable to the same standards of human judgement. While Goethe pointed out that we could not use the same tools, and thus had to doubt our knowledge of the inaccessible, he went on to insist:

…there is no permanence in doubt; it incites the mind to closer inquiry and experiment – from which, if rightly managed, certainty proceeds; and in this alone can man find thorough satisfaction.[2]

Put another way, if humanity would reach the inaccessible, humanity must first doubt the tools of this world, observation and logic, are in themselves capable of such a discovery. From that doubt, and the resultant meditation upon the limitations of human knowledge, an understanding of the inaccessible can in fact emerge. When humanity evades the moral obligation of achieving convictions and goals as a guide to life, the individuals who make up humanity are failing to become complete individuals, that is, individuals capable of meaningful existence.

Worse yet, even after the individuals who make up society have decided upon acceptable standards for the conduct of a truly human existence, it seems necessary that the truth must be re-won over and over again, since error is endlessly preached among us.

The error of ignorance – Western greed and the death of indigenous culture in West Papua

Australia has respected “Indonesia’s rights to exercise territorial authority” since the 1969 “Act of No Choice” when the Indonesian army selected a small number of Papuan “representatives” and had them “vote” for incorporation into Indonesia at gunpoint — a process dubbed the “Act of Free Choice” by the UN but the “Act of No Choice” by Papuans.

Driving Australia’s decision to respect “Indonesia’s rights to exercise territorial authority” is the fact that Australian corporations have extensive mining interests in West Papua including a stake in the giant Freeport mine at Grasberg, the world’s largest gold mine and third largest copper mine. Freeport’s environmental damage to the country and indigenous Papuan communities is such that Norway’s national pension fund has divested from mine operators Freeport-McMoRan and Rio Tinto.

The devastation wrought by mining and other resource extraction industries (such as logging) has driven Papuan resistance, while the brutal Indonesian military occupation has facilitated the mining companies’ continued operation.

Australian governments of both major parties have supported the occupation. The federal Labor government supports the “autonomy” process promoted by Indonesian governments since the end of military rule in Indonesia in 1998. This process rules out a referendum on independence and divides the territory into two provinces against the wishes of Papuans.

Former Australian foreign minister Stephen Smith said in January 2009:

“We regard conditions in Papua and West Papua as being very important. We believe that the current Indonesian government, with its view of greater autonomy for both those provinces, is the correct and appropriate way to go.”

Greater autonomy is nothing more than Indonesia donning the mask respectability. The Indonesian Government has no intention of granting the Papuan’s anything beyond genocide, a genocide Australia is complicit in. The significance of West Papua to the Indonesian, United States and world economies is best measured by the effects the recent strike at the giant Freeport Grasberg mining complex, which is is one of the world’s largest single producers of both copper and gold, and contains the largest recoverable reserves of copper and the largest single gold reserve in the world.

The strike had a huge impact on Freeport Indonesia’s operation. It is reported that the company has lost 3 million pounds (1,361 metric tons) of copper and 5,000 ounces of gold a day because of the strike, the Phoenix-based company said on September 21, 2011. The strike has also affected the Indonesian government’s revenue. It is reported that it lost about US$8.2 million dollars a day in taxes, revenue and dividends over the period of the strike.

Of more concern Aljazeera has recently reported that Freeport has illegally paid individual Indonesian soldiers and policemen to secure the Grasberg complex and its staff. A report by Global Witness revealed that an additional $10 million had been paid directly to individual military and police commanders between 1998 and 2004. This included $247,000 between May 2001 and March 2003 to General Mahidin Simbolon, former chief of staff in the Bali-based Udayana regional command, which included East Timor, who was responsible for the 1999 East Timor massacre and monthly payments throughout 2003 to the police Mobile Brigade that is known for numerous serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, and arbitrary detention.

The truth is that everyone benefits from the exploitation of West Papua’s natural resources except the West Papuan’s themselves!

Greed is what drives this exploitation, an exploitation that if allowed to run unchecked can only result in the total genocide of West Papua’s indigenous cultures and a break in the link “which makes all one”.

Some of us dream of a better and brighter future for the rightful owners of West Papua’s resources. Our dreams might be forlorn, but if every one of us, or at least most of us, hell even some of us would do chose the correct box each day – the box of truth, that is – our dreams might yet transform reality.

Lives of men who dream are not lives to tell, are they?…What is there to say about an artist or poet ever?…My life is what I long for, and love and regret, and desire, and no one knows on earth
— Edward Burne-Jones

This post was originally posted on Blak and Black.

[1] Johann Eckermann, Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann, E.P Dutton & Co. Inc., 1930.

[2] Ibid


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