12/16/2009

Welcome to Nauru

Okay, this is great. Well, no, actually it's not. It's not at all good for the people of Nauru, but it is a hell of an archetype of colonial and post-colonial modernism. This is literally a story of our age, and it's totally true.

It reads like a classic SF plot, an amalgam of Herbert, Dick, Asimov, etc, incorporating all the cultural-critique sci-fi into one big recipe, kind of like soggy nachos, or some sort of over-supplemented chex mix. It's just so perfect that it's like a modern political economy action figure, with all the play sets and vehicles. It's the post-modern blogger's upside-down airplane stamp. It's a truth that is a fable that is real that is a bedtime story.

It's perfect tragedy. It's a story so hopeless negative, that we might cling to it like a live saver in the middle of the pacific ocean. It's the sort of story colored by sadness, that wins countless awards, and receives standing ovations and tears of joy from the people who never had to feel such pain outside of a story.

It's history. It's current events. It's the future of people we will never know, and the future of all of us.

All right, let me stop trying to tell you what it is, and just let me tell it to you. And remember, this is not based on a true story, but actually is a true story. (All stories are better with Wikipedia links, right?)

BEHOLD, THE LEGEND OF NAURU.

Once upon a time (a time that is the ever-present now), there was an island in the Pacific called Nauru. It was/is a small island, of only 8 square miles. It was the smallest sovereign island nation. Let me tell you how it came to be that way.

Sometime in the murky ocean of prehistory, Micronesian and Polynesian people inhabited the island. These happy-go-lucky islanders joined the unstoppable march of history in 1798, when British whalers happened upon the island. You may remember whaling as the original failed energy model; ships sailed the seas looking for these large mammalian oil sacks, spiking them, and then bringing them home to light up the industrial revolution. It was the first time we fucked that old problem of energy up good. Now there are hardly any whales, and we've moved on to fucking up other things.

Whaling, coincidentally enough, kind of fucked up the people of Nauru too. The whalers traded the islanders firearms and alcohol for food. Then, with the firearms, and probably both with and without the alcohol, there was a ten-year Tribal War from 1878 to 1888. Imagine a ten-year war on an 8 square mile island. Can you? Well, the population of the island was reduced from 1400 to 900 during that time.

Luckily, kind of, Nauru was annexed by Germany in 1888. Then they got Christianity, which at least was better than ten years of tribal war across 8 square miles of ocean isolated land. Things were pretty much Christian for the next 10-15 years.

Then they had some more bad luck. Phosphate was discovered on the island, which was used to produce explosives and fertilizer back in other places where they had more room to farm and blow up stuff. The phosphate got there because birds had been stopping to expel waste on the island for thousands of years. So these Europeans with land to farm and explode created industrial colonization companies that no doubt scared away most of the birds, first under contract with the Germans from 1906, and then under the British after 1914, when the island was captured by Australia, precipitated by a period of time during which the Europeans were busy blowing stuff up back home at a much faster rate than usual. Imagine the times back then--wars engulfing trenches in flames and poison on the other side of the world, and meanwhile some industrious folks were sailing around the Pacific, capturing little rocks with valuable stuff on it, all the while feeling totally connected to that war somewhere else. They were globalized! Colonialism is crazy!

230 islanders died of influenza in 1921. Fucked by Globalization!

And then, another of these crazy wars happened in and around 1940. The Germans came back and blew up a lot stuff on the island, and then the Japanese came in 1942 and took all the Nauruans away to work for them for free on other islands. The Japanese also brought airplanes, which the Americans promptly came and blew up in 1943, but then left the island alone for the rest of the war because, after all, it was pretty small. The 737 Nauruans who survived their forced business trip came back in 1946 with the British, and everybody tried to get back to work.

In 1968 colonialism was becoming post-colonialism, and Nauru totally became independent. They are lucky they became sovereign when they did, because it is a lot harder now than in 1968. In 1970, the Nauru Phosphate Corporation was formed, so the islanders could strip mine their own island. They spoke mostly English now, though they still have their own native language they continue to use for non-business purposes. Taking over their own island was a good idea, because then they could colonize themselves. In the early 80s Nauru had the highest per capita income in the world.

But there was something about bubbles brewing in the south pacific...

In the mid-80s, it became clear that the island was actually only 8 square miles large, and that the phosphate actually was going to run out. So, they sued the Australians for environmental degradation. After all, they had mined it first, and for way longer, and the environment was, after all, totally fucked. The post-colonizers paid out of court.

But the islanders had to find some other way of making money, because their only resource was gone. Like most other people in the world who have happened into money, they decided to invest. Like most other people in the world who invest, they fucked it up and lost a lot of it.

From a high of 1,300 mil. AUS $ in 1991, the Trust shrank to 138 mil in 2002. They lost their money in the usual ways: bad investment in real estate, bad loans to sports teams, hotels that weren't as profitable as they were supposed to be, and even a musical (YES REALLY A FUCKING MUSICAL) that closed after one night. Their airline, Air Nauru, had its only 737 repossessed in 2005, when other airlines around the world were also fucked. Until 2006, when they got their airplane back, the only way to get to and from the island was by ship. Nauru does not have a seaport, though.

Like true failed investors, they returned to basics. "What," they might have thought, "does Nauru have that other countries don't have?" The answer, it seems, is nothing. "Well, in that case," continues the potential argument, "what does Nauru have that every other country also has?"

The answer, is sovereignty.

When you have honest-to-goodness land, no matter how little, and a seat in the UN, you are somebody. And so, Nauru has managed to get money from those looking to buy a little sovereignty. Starting in the 90s, Nauru opened itself up as a tax haven, by offering passports to foreigners in exchange for a fee. This brought in the usual money laundering crowd, and of course, their money. In those heady days, you could start your own bank for 25K, "no questions asked." In 2001, Nauru agreed to be the "Ellis Island" for immigrants seeking asylum in Australia, (part of the so-called, if you can fucking believe it, the "Pacific Solution" [!!!]) and operated the Nauru Detention Centre in exchange for foreign aid. Between 2002 and 2005, there was a bidding war between Taiwan and China to decide with whom the little island of Nauru would establish diplomatic relations. In 2007, when Australia closed the detention centre, the Nauruan government estimated 10% of the population would be adversely affected by the job losses. Things looked grim. But just recently, reports suggest Nauru has received $50M US for becoming the fourth country to officially recognize the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia. It's unclear exactly who paid, but it looks like Sovereignty (TM) is back on the menu.

Sovereignty, which is this smallest of island nations defining trait, and the last lingering effect of colonialism, seems to be the main source of promise for this oval in the ocean. Today, the unemployment rate on Nauru is 90%; and of those 10% who work, 95% are employed by the government. From 1798 until 2009, the story of history has just been one long red carpet for Nauru, leading to one place. Post-colonial countryhood. Nationalism really is the only game in town.

So the moral, dear friends? Well, as tiny Nauru said:

"God bless Nations, Every One!"


Okay. Serious time.

I don't mean to make light of Nauru's ongoing troubles. But there is something about the troubles of an isolated nation most people have probably never heard of somehow resonating so perfectly with the troubles of the entire globe. By reading the story of this little world-corner's microcosm, as it blossoms into a full-blown paradigm of post-colonial woe, those who have never been and will no doubt never go to Nauru, and probably never meet anybody from Nauru, nor met anyone who has ever been or ever will go to Nauru, might just feel a tinge of what one might call, "entertainment". As if we were listening to a tragic story. Because what is a fictional story if not a fully believable world that resonates with our own, that we will never be able to experience other than through the story? This island's problems are no less real than any of the other problems of millions of people we will never hear about. And yet, when we hear the story of this island, it is like we are hearing our own problems read back to us. We polluted our natural spaces with violence, disease, and chaos, and exported war to import natural resources, until we couldn't anymore because they were all gone. Then we turned right back around and funded more wars, to keep that economic heart pumping, to keep forcing blood back into our mouth, to get what sustenance we could. We made a few good investments with our ill-gotten gains, and squandered a lot more on bad investments. And lately, it is all looking like it's going to come crashing down. So what do we do? Build a system that works? No, we turn around and sell what's left of our independence for a few more bucks, like a long-gone junkie. Beg, borrow, and steal, as the saying goes.

It's not as if Nationhood ought to mean more; it's not as if it wasn't already a prostituted use of a society's self-worth; it's not as if selling it off for what you can to feed yourself is any less noble than any other last, lacking spasm of economic juice left to dry out in the spinal cord of our species' cultural body.

It's that after all is said and done, and you've cut the last tree and burnt the last oil, Nationhood is all you have left. The golden ideal is the last thing to sell, because it never was real. After you sell the bricks to your house and the land underneath it, all you have left is the ideal: the cross-stitched "God Bless This House" sampler without a wall to hang it on. After you sell your furniture and clothes, and use up your strength and resolve, all you have left is what your body might mean to someone else. We clearly don't care that prostitutes sell sex--we turn around and buy sex by the ton on the TV. If we could buy sex from a vending machine, we fucking would (any day now). What we look down on is being in the position when you don't have anything left to support your body but the body it's built on. You can't make anything; you can't build anything. When you're truly at the bottom, and when you're truly fucked, the only thing left is to take the last iconic symbol of human existence, which for the prostitute is our culture's ideal of fully exchangeable sex, and take it out to the street and sell a fuck for whatever you can get.

Unfortunately, there is no redemption here. No heart of gold to be laid bare once the body is stripped naked. Nauru is trapped by the rock that once was its chemical mine, and now is the rock it has to make interest payments to buy the jet to fly home to. No matter how degraded the prostitute may be, s/he still has to close the same eyes of the same body to get to sleep every night. Ideals are the basis on which the transaction is accomplished. The end of history may very well such an inversion--when the ideals of history become its bent, tarnished tool. The spear of destiny is the cane we'll use to hobble into our graves. There will be nothing left to tell, except the same story over again.

Actually, there is one step lower. It's when you take what's left out to sell, and there's nobody out there willing to buy.

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