Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Act of Decolonization #3: The Grassroots

Today's act of decolonization is simple and inspired by the recent election season, vote for a grassroots candidate.

If you look at the breakdown of the most recent legislature in Guam, none of the candidates which could be considered "grassroots" were elected and there were several of them running. Although the term "grassroots" could have a number of meanings, when I am using it here, I am either referring to those with little to no money for a campaign, yet nonetheless run, those who are often too radical to be considered as viable candidates, and those who are considered to be outside of the political/governmental/economic networks on Guam. When I say "outside" I don't mean someone who has never worked for GovGuam, never owned a business and never spoken to another human being before in his or her life, but rather someone who is not under the wing of political leaders, or have either a commercial or political (governmental) network set in place to either get them elected or get them the necessary name recognition.

Directors of very visible government agencies were elected, as were people who are very much part of the power structure in Guam, not just as a recipient or beneficiary, but as a mover and shaker lokkue. Several years ago a cadre of Democratic Senators under the wing of Carl Guitterez were elected (and the majority of them thrown out in the next election), yet those who came out full force for I Semnak this time had no chance whatsoever. The reasoning being this contrast has to do many of that Democratic group being hardly grassroots, but comprised of several GovGuam directors and Carl Guitterez's lawyer. Furthermore, there were whispers that the only reasons that this group was elected at all was part of a deal that I Semnak made with Camacho's camp.

This time however, a number of hardcore Somnak supporters were not elected, but precisely because they are too radical to be considered as "real" candidates, not really part of the power structure (to either get votes or or have name recognition) just did not have very much money.

While we can attribute the fact that none of these people won to very practical concerns about them not having the name recognition, them not having the resources or the ground crew, the fact that no grassroots candidate was elected is indicative of the changing political climate on Guam. The elections on Guam are a mixture of local and national politics. We elect our senators at-large, along with the Governor, creating the impression of a national political level, despite the fact that Guam is small enough for all politics to feel local.

I have written about some aspects of what I will touch on before, most specifically my discussion of Felix Camacho as "empty and untalented," and that being one of the reasons why he was first elected Governor in 2002. In this most recent election, we saw Guam's voter turnout drop slightly in terms of both total number of registered voters, people who actually voted. This drop in voter turnout is hardly a surprise however, since that tends to be the course for modern democracies.

Although there are a number of ways that we can conceive of society politically, for my purposes today lets simplify it to a distinction between antagonism and agonism. When the political world is structured through antagonism, then we have relatively defined camps or groups, which define itself against each other, and compete and attack each other. After World War II politics on Guam could be described as this, with two parties, one (the Popular later the Democrats) larger than the other (Territorial later the Republicans) which for the most part divided up the island's population between them and instead of focusing their efforts on snatching up the any remaining loose voters, would instead focus their efforts on defaming and sasangan baba against the rival party. In this sense, the efforts of parties were primarily defense or conservation of consciousness. Work hard to keep the party energized and motivated and eager to defeat the other side. Conversion or recruitment was generally not part of the picture, instead you would win by maintaining the unity of your side and through gestures proving that your side was bigger and more likely to win.

Within an antagonistic political framework things get very bitter, very rough and very negative. Your rival party is in a sense your enemy and therefore worth obliterating.

Under agonism however, competition and rivalry is understood as regulated. The opposing party is not really your enemy, since there is a principle which transcends your antagonism, blunting it and making it frankly, less antagonistic. Rather then see yourselves as politically being fundamentally different, you think of yourselves as being fundamentally the same. We all know the principles that produce agonism, they are considered to be politically untouchable. Positions or truths/false truths which all parties accept as the basis for being able to speak and not being rejected from political discourse as a radical or malcontent.

Just before the election last week, John Kerry was accused of violating these sacred cows when he made his infamous (but now perhaps forgotten (fuera di Si Sean Hannity) statement about our brave troops getting "stuck in Iraq." The Republican rapid/rabid responses were naturally that Kerry had defiled a point which dictates the limits of political struggles, debate and fighting, meaning he had spoken ill of "the troops." Although Democrats and Republicans may fight like cats and dogs, they are always to remain unified standing behind those in uniform.

One could of course argue, that in politics in the United States, Republicans under the Delay/Gingrich style of adversarial rhetoric treat Democrats as the enemy which must be banished and vanquished, while Democrats basically seem to accept that everybody is on the same side and therefore don't demonize or destroy their opponents. It's interesting to consider how much press was generated the past few weeks over the prospect of a partisan Pelosi style dominating the Democratic party, and whether or not a similar amount of fear of tyranny was produced when either Delay or Gingrich took over. (Is this difference of antagonistic and agonistic therefore structural?) (this also connects to the tactic this past election where the Republicans would concentrate primarily on getting out their base, and not trying to court new voters)

What happens under agonism is what we see today in both Guam and the United States where the majority of the people who can vote, don't belong to either of the "viable" political parties and in the case of the United States tend not to vote. If the political is governed by antagonism, political control is the prize of the battle and so lines are drawn and the ideal state is to be on one side of those lines, never struck straddling them. In agonism however, the majority of people intentionally stand atrside those lines, refusing to choose sides, not seeing the importance or value in doing so, and actually building their identity primarily on a distance from both politics and the political.

So who becomes the hero, or the main event of politics in a modern democracy? As seen in this too insightful comic by Tom Tomorrow, it is the undecided voter who holds the fate of politics in the United States in his or her decision, yet whose identity is built on not knowing anything about politics.



As I just said, the identities of these undecided voters are dependent upon a distance from politics and politicians. On Guam for example, undecided voters generations ago were mainly those outside of the Chamorro clan networks, so Filipinos, apa'ka siha and Micronesians. As Guam has changed, both in composition and then just population, more and more people, and many Chamorros now occupy this "outside" of politics in Guam. One way that we can see this is in the discourse on hard-working private sector workers and management vs. gagu yan taisetbe na GovGuam worker. Against the GovGuam worker who is lazy, useless, gets everything from doing nothing but being a member of a particular Chamorro family (and being part of "politics" in Guam), the low wage worker, the small business owner and the elite Guam Chamber of Commerce business man all form their identities as industrious, masculine and hardworking by virtue of their being outside this blessed political safety net. If these people knew politics and were somehow part of politics on Guam, this independence, this identity becomes threatened.

Political action and struggle when this is existence of the majority of any population is pretty poor. I found a funny example of this on the first episode of the second season of Chappelle Show. Dave Chappelle opens his show while smoking a cigarette, something which was recently made illegal indoors in New York City. Chappelle decides to smoke during his monologue to show how he is fighting back, and then shows a sketch about how this sort of "fighting" is in his family's history.

Here's the breakdown of the sketch:

2004
New York City (in response to the anti-smoking laws)
Damn, Bloomberg is f**king up...

1978
Washington D.C. (in response to the gas crisis)
Man, Carter is f**king up....

1945
Chicago (in response to the US dropping atomic bombs on Japan)
Damn, Truman is f**king up...

1863 (in response to slavery)
South Carolina
Young slave:Man, Lincoln is f**king up!
Old Slave: Son! White folks in general are f**king up, sshhh, they coming...

1695

Africa (in response to competition between chiefs)
man, the chief is f**king up, hey yal its a boat with some white people on it, you all wait here, I'm gonna see what they want...

Two weeks later
Atlantic Ocean
man, I f**ked up!


In Guam for instance, the prototypical form of political critique and action is basically corruption discourse, or the recognition of the fact that "politicians" are corrupt. In the hilarious Chappelle Show sketch, we see the equation of political action and resistance with merely noticing that politicians are corrupt. The miracle quality of the undecided voter breaking the chains of their own passivity and defying all expectations and braving the streets of the political world to vote, is sort of mirrored in these statements. There is supposed to be this very poignant heroic quality in saying the obvious that someone in power is "f**king up."

The process of selecting candidates in this framework is why grassroots candidates are nearly impossibly to elect in Guam today. A generation ago, the majority of people on Guam would have some sort of family, clan or party obligation to vote for particular candidates, or at least some concrete measure which they would feel they had to resist. The operations of the government were much closer to the voting public, for a number of reasons, but at the very minimum, you would be able to derive knowledge of the government in both positive and negative terms because there was a clear relationship between those in power, those working to get into power or even just those working in government.

The distancing of the public from politics on Guam, combined with both new media technologies and the heavy reliance of political campaigns nowadays means not simply that presence in the media will dictate who people will vote for, but that particularly simple ways that people appear regularly in the media will dictate how people vote.

Take for instance, this other Tom Tomorrow comic, made right after the 2004 Presidential election:



The undecided voter's final lines are very telling of the limits of his politics. For this voter, it is the appearance of John Kerry as "french" a soundbyte he heard somewhere along the way, and then the nail in the coffin "and stuff" to seal the deal on the inability of the undecided voter to make a decision. The reduction of both the political process and his own participation in the process to mere "stuff" indicates the insurmountable ambivalence, the sheer inability to commit for fear that I will become implicated in the thing I loathe and distance myself from to produce myself.

So, the resistance therefore boils down to this compromise, as an undecided voter who possesses this nervous identity, what can I know about politics, what can I say about politics, which doesn't make me political.

Although much complaining about political campaigning and fina'baba' takes promises as the things which entices voters, it is truly appearances, since appearances require basically no engagement whatsoever. Let's take for instance the difference between Sedfrey Linsangan's signs and Ray Tenorio's signs. Both make promises in their signs. Sedfrey's huge clip-art dependent signs make promises to increase jobs, fix the economy and provide funds for certain things such as education and so on. Ray Tenorio's infamous signs look like either prayer cards or playing cards, with his head dominating most of the space, and any words (most notably "no empty promises, just hard work" necessary but marginal.

While both signs, because of the very form cannot provide much in the way of content, they are nonetheless distinguishable because of how concrete they are in these promises. Both are empty, but while Sedfrey's attaches itself to very real objects (which are nontheless very abstract, such as education, economy, etc.), Tenorio's is reduced to an almost sublime appearance. It reaches the point which is ideal for an undecided voter who is looking for the appearance of reason.

As I wrote several days ago, I am to the core a cultural nationalist. This means that I go throughout life constantly searching for ways that Guam and Chamorros are better than our colonizer. This gesture is one of the most basic in the work of decolonization, and the defining and realizing a better world.

Most cultural nationalists will engage with this rhetoric in fairly obvious ways, accepting the divisions that the colonizer places upon the colonized, and then showing how, in the world that we have been given by them, we are far better than they are! In the films Cry Freedom and Swades, but also the text The Nations and Its Fragments by Partha Chatterjee we see this assertion through the sphere of family. That although the colonizer may have suceeded in so many ways of life and achieved great progress, he has not touched or he has lost the cultural, the political and the family. I could engage with the reasons why I agree with this and also vehemently disagree with this, but will instead just say that I am always looking for "unexpected" ways that we on Guam are better than our "mother country."

As Guam becomes a modern democracy, it is important that we do not go the route of the United States and descend into democratic apathy with no real political choices and no political will. That is why for those wishing to do the work of decolonizing in their daily lives, please during the next election(s), vote for one of the candidates who appears to be radically outside the mainstream. Vote for someone whom you may find too complicated, too unknown, too new, too old, too ugly. Vote for someone in such a way that the lure of proper or likeable appearance breaks down and you engage with something concrete beyond simple personal preference. Although nowadays, the actions of Angel Santos are sort of at least publicly stomached and accepted by the majority of people on Guam. But when he ran for senator and won, it was not because he was a part of the power structure on Guam, or because he was gefsaga', but rather because a significant amount of Chamorros and other ethnic groups on Guam actually felt his message, and so a commitment to human rights beyond the racist rhetoric which was used to neutralize him.

The other day my ex girlfriend told me about how her parents were speaking of Angel Santos. Her parents are not Chamorro, but immigrants to Guam, meaning they are part of the population on Guam who tend to think of Angel Santos and people like him as racist and evil, yet when they spoke of Santos, they did so with a sort of admiration for him as a defender of his people, someone who did not back down or play politics and someone who definitely felt like a common man. As Guam becomes more and more of a detatched modern democracy, meaning that people are finding more and more creative and useless ways to stay outside of politics or political action, it is vital not just in terms of making democracy work in Guam, but in terms of decolonizing the island, that we seek more concrete ways of connecting people to politics on Guam, beyond simply voting, beyond simply saying politicians are corrupt.

Grassroots candidates are those who, in a way, offer such connections. Their messages are often rough, not the most marketable, not as polished as the more dominant candidates, but in doing so they provide us ways of linking ourselves, our knowledge, our beliefs, our identities to the political world, which can help us break the distance which we depend on, and therefore truly help change our island, help determine its future.

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