Saturday, October 04, 2008

Dealing With the "Real"

Last week I gave six talks, at the Mina'tres na Konfrensian Chamorro in Saipan and in different classes at the University of Guam. I hiniyong este na afagao yu' gi este na simana.

Before I lost my voice though, I was speaking about thesis topics and writing for different audiences and picking a topic which will benefit the communities you are tied to in one class. Throughout my discussion I brought up my own work on decolonization, and also used events taking place on Guam such as the impending military buildup to illustrate my points. One of the students didn't like my points or where I was coming from.

He explained himself as attending UOG a decade ago, and emerging from some classes, fired up, angry wanting to change the island, wondering why we cling to this colonial relationship with America, when they have mistreated us and the Micronesians around us so poorly. Achokka' ta guaiya i Amerikanu siha, yanggen un atan i estorian i islas Micronesia, annok na ti parehu i sinienten i Amerikanu put Hita. Guaha na ma fa'taotao hit, lao guaha nai lokkue' annai ma fa'ga'ga' hit, or even worse, ma fa'lansa hit, or in other words, they treat us like a weapon, kulang manotdot hit gi i punton i lansan-niha. Ayu i kumekeilek-na i sinangan "tip of the spear."

But as time passed, as he left college, got a job, he matured, he softened up his positions and he began to see things the way they really are. He began to realize that there is no point in fighting the system or changing the system, but that the important work is the smaller stuff you do within it. So my discussion of political status to him was pointless and stupid, a waste of time and something which didn't matter. There is no better system, no better way of doing things and so talking about it was taibali.

Throughout my talk he continually interrupted me and insisted on shifting the discussion to what he thought and try to tell me how I was wrong or how I was naive. Towards the end of the class it was obvious that other students were frustrated with the amount of space he was taking up.

Amongst all of this student's comments the one that struck me the most was when he tried to argue that what he was doing as a public school teacher was "real" work compared to what I was talking about or what I care about, and furthermore he tried to articulate what "real" people think or care about, what they want and what they are capable of.
He said, I'm doing real work in the real world, teaching kids social studies. My immediate response was a chuckling, yes, that's nice, I live in the real world too, I do real work too, I'm not sure I know what any of those things you are saying mean.

Naturally he brushed this aside and continued on. The invoking of i minagahet na cho'cho' was designed to give him credibility for his following remarks, which were all a picture of how "real" people on Guam exist. He continued saying that no one cares about anything you are saying, these are not issues that people care about, so what is the point of any of this? People just want to watch tv, eat food, relax, live their lives, none of this matters to them. What is the point?

This was not the first time I'd heard this sort of remark, in fact for those who are trying to bring issues of political status or decolonization into Guam's everyday discourse, you hear it all the time. These are matters only intellectuals, people in ivory towers, floating above the world of real problems care about. People with privilege talk about these things, the people who actually build things and make things happen could care less.

This isn't relegated to shutting down decolonization discussions or maintaining the decolonial deadlock. I heard this all throughout my grad school life too. I wrote in 2006 a post called "Are You Living in the Abstract World?" In Ethnic Studies, because of its progressive, activist roots as a discipline is always struggling to deal with its relationship to the "real world" far more than any other academic field. There is always an uncomfortable and uneasy dance that has to take place around any instance of privilege, abstraction or disconnect from the streets or the community you are serving. If often seems like Ethnic Studies takes on this stress as a proxy for all other disciplines, because few other students or departments seem to care about those they are writing about, or their relationship to power, privilege and the grass roots.

In other words, I've come very accustomed to these conversations, ya bei sangani hao, kalan esta o'sun yu' put Siha.

What made it different things time, was that I articulated my response to this particular student in a different way than I usually do, and one which helped the rest of the students present think through their own position as potential academics, who will bear various levels of responsibilities as people with higher education degrees, professors, people with a wider breadth of knowledge, professionals and so on, and thus be in important positions to help their communities with their voice, social capital and knowledge.

I didn't say this to the students, but what I had wanted to tell them immediately after I was confronted with the invocation of this student's real world street cred, was that: whenever anyone starts to invoke that proximity to the real world or to real people, you should always na'paranaihon maisa hao. You should always take a moment and pause and consider carefully what they are about to say, what sort of view on reality, what sort of version of it they are about to assert as the real thing. And if you are interested as I am in taking advantage of what we in Ethnic Studies call "teaching moments" then you won't respond with the counter to their opinion, but you will instead reveal the structure of the reality they are working to create with their assertion of realness.

Umaburido hao? Siempre an hu eksplikayi hao mas put este na hemplo, nina'laklaru.

So for instance, when this student was arguing a very common sense, very pragmatic argument, that you'll hear from pundits and people all the time, namely that people don't care about "big things" but instead care about "bread and butter" or "kitchen table" things only, my response wasn't to say the opposite. I didn't argue that "fafatta ilu-mu! Everybody and their pare' cares about these issues, they are the number one concerns according to every single poll Ron McNinch has ever done!"

I didn't relinquish the importance of what I was saying, but I also didn't fall into a for or against trap, but instead took the opportunity to reveal why the structure of what this student was saying was both bad and wrong.
I said, that these ideas are important, and maybe they aren't what people spend their every waking moment worrying about, but the fact that they don't think about it has no relation to whether or not it affects their lives. The colonial status of Guam affects everything on Guam, everything. It is my job and it should be the jobs of all academics or people who have the privilege of spending time reading everything they can, writing papers or teaching minds to help people connect the dots.

I added that the privilege that we get as academics or people who get to ask these sorts of questions and investigate problems and seek answers far beyond what those in government or in the media get to (or want to), means that we have the paradox of serving the community, but not necessarily serving them what they want. One task of academics is truth, but truth as we all have felt and all know, is often the enemy of desire or expectations.

The "real" people of this student's world, the people he was arguing that we really knew, that he really understood, were not much to speak of. In fact, this student seemed to actually have a really really low opinion of "real" people. For him they didn't seem capable of much, in fact were far less than humans and much more like animals. All they wanted was to eat and be entertained and had no aspirations beyond that. They didn't seem to care about the world around them, and didn't seem to both care or know how to affect that world. I told this student, that although this perspective on "real" people may feel real, its pretty useless, pointless and gives an almost pathetic authenticity to those "real" people. They are the "real" ones, who are so real they couldn't understand anything dealing with the economy, war, political status, but are perfect when it comes to anything dealing with chewing food or changing channels.

The idea that "real" people don't care or don't understand or can't do anything about the world around them is stupid, because as we should all know, regular people have plenty of ideas about why the world is the way it as, and usually have several answers to how things can be changed or fixed. The ideas that they have however might not be very nuanced or even useful for improving their positions, but this doesn't mean that they have no idea whats going on around them or don't care. In fact most narratives that people use to explain the world around them are framed around assigning blame for why things suck or why things are getting worse.

For instance on Guam, I told the class the most basic ways that this happens is that, Chamorros blame Filipinos. Filipinos blame Chamorros. Everyone blames the Micronesians. Alot of ideas that people have about the world, and who's fault it is that things are bad are racist, they assign the kachang i tano' to this group, and they infuse that belief with personal or shared stories of betrayal, disrespect, dislike, irreducible difference and so on. Aside from the obvious problems with these arguments, is that any significance or connection that they might have to the problems of the world, or in seeking solutions is weakened and watered down, because one thing which racism always does is make those who generally have less power or are simply just another segment of the population, seem to be suddenly all-powerful!

In the United States we can see this in the way that undocumented workers are blamed for so many of the countries problems. They exist as a signifier which ties everything from low wages, crappy jobs, poor American productivity and quality, Spanish language stations, shows and signage, jobs going overseas together and the largely marginalized migrant or undocumented worker is like a faceless Latino Illuminati group that is responsible for all. In the minds of those who subscribe and gain positive identity from that racial fantasy, the undocumented worker has so much control, so much power, the American worker, the American corporation is helpless before their might! The ability for these people to affect or change the system is stunted since what they see as the cause of all these problems is undocumented workers, and so the universe of other possible factors get swept off the kitchen table.

I told this student that since we are all already or going to be educated people, who have written or will write thesises or dissertations, papers, articles, public lectures, etc. it is up to us to replace these sorts of explanations or narratives that tie people to the world, with something which is more productive, more useful. Just because "real" people feel a certain way doesn't mean that its true, just as when I say something have argue I have facts or research to back it up, it doesn't automatically make it true, just because I have my own metrics for establishing the "realness" of what I say. It is our job to do the best that we can to push into our classrooms and into the community, better answers which derive from clear and well-thought out processes.

So, when I argue against the military buildup and call for decolonization and change of Guam's political status, my reasoning for this is not, "because I hate the United States." Its because when I look at Guam's history and present, I see the current relationship with the United States as one of the largest factors that holds the island back, that keeps it from seeking to develop itself in more sustainable ways, that prevents it from trying to take better care of itself or improve itself. My final thought to the student was that although people may not care or seem to care, it is because the dots have not been connected. Political status is something everyone may feel, the island is America one second, the tip of its spear the next, and a foreign country the next, but they don't see this as having any impact on their lives other than possibly the island being disrespected or not being recognized properly. They do not connect it to the economy, the government, the environment, the media, education and everything else.

When you do provide the history, when you do provide an image of the island, its place in the world where political status is at its center, people do begin to care, people do begin to see the impact in their lives. At least this is the hope and something that animates me and keeps me going despite the negative feedback and resistance I encounter. I wouldn't be writing this blog post if otherwise.

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Returning to the "real" world argument one last time, I hear that so often used against me, first in terms of not really being down with the struggles of real people, and second as not really being a Chamorro because of the way I talk or think, and I frankly both of these points are stupid to me. Whenever anyone does this, its important to confront them, to transgress their assumptions and hopefully reveal the structure of their stupidity. For instance, anybody who says that real Chamorros speak poorly, incoherently and are not articulate (which I have heard so many people imply or say outright) should be corrected, since they are very much holding us back with that attitude.

2 comments:

Mariano Muna said...

You know, I completely agree with you, these issues are very important and in fact Ngai'an u matto gi Guahan para iyoku summer vacation todu i ga'chong hu yan i primu hu estaba chachagi siha para kuento gi fino Chamorro. Ya u hasso na gof maolek este Chamorro Renaissance peru lokkue i cant help but think that even though the youth are taken with your ideas, and lord knows i am taken too, i still believe that you and the many other revolutionists of Guam are taking this whole thing too quickly. I strongly feel that if Chamorros become too taken with the revolutionary seeds that you are planting, we will end up in a situation that will only worsen the conditions of the islands. I mean honestly, you speak of breaking the ties that bind, but are we really ready? Do we even have a plan? If the government were to establish a Chamorro state at this very moment, will we be okay? Will we know what to do, who will be president, how we will organize ourselves? With the way things are going already, i hate to say this but a Chamorro State is NOWHERE IN SIGHT. This is my opinion and maybe you arent speaking of an immediate change, but i know that your opponents are thinking in the back of their minds that You are too extreme and the change you propose is too abrupt. And this student who opposes you makes sense a little when he tells you that in the end of the day... no one cares, the future is too unsure for everyone on Guam that even though you sweep them up for an hour or two and even though everyone is dancing and speaking Chamorro, everyone is too concerned about what they will be eating tonight. You can plant these seeds of revolution but i would be absolutely frightened if the some of the things you campaign for such as self determination would come to fruition so early on in this Cultural Renaissance because we REALLY are not ready at all for that kind of change.

Michael Lujan Bevacqua said...

Si Yu'us Ma'ase para iyo-mu comment. Bai hu na'i hao didide' para un hassuyi. Sa' achokka' sina hu siente i fuetsa gi i sinangan-mu, ti kababales ha' tribiha i tiningo'-mu. Ti hu kekesangan na lachi hao, lao malago bai hu na'lakabales i hinassosso-mu gi este na impottante na asunto.

I think if you'll look at all instances of fundamental political status change or revolutions there has never been a moment where a population was ever "ready." It is not one of those things that you can ever plan for completely ahead of time.

This might not seem like much of a point, but its always a good place to start. I mean, should formerly colonized places throughout the world go back to being colonized today, because neo-colonialism hasn't been the dream they hoped? Is so called "good" government better than self-government? I hope you'll say no, and if you do then you have to have more of an open mind when thinking about political status change, decolonization, and not just about where we are going, but what is going on today.

People don't seem to care, but whether or not people care about something has nothing to do with whether or not it affects there lives. That was my ultimate point. And so I will keep trying to connect the dots for people, keep trying to get them to shift their perspective alittle to the point where they see things just a little differently, where a political status change isn't only something we should dream about in the distant future, but is something we actually need and should be planning for now.

Everyone on Guam laments and complains about the island's lack of self-sufficiency or sustainability, and says that decolonization is impossible because we will always need the United States, its military, its money to survive. This view feels so real to so many people, but doesn't hold up with against history.

One of the primary reasons that Guam has become such a "dependency" is because that has always been what the United States intended. After World War II this was explicit, planning documents from both the US Navy and the Federal Government make clear that Guam is to be given money, it is to be developed, since our presence there is so important. But it is never to be given enough that it should ever be able to survive on its own. Should never be given enough to it should be able to pursue its own agenda or its own destiny.

So that is why we have the world we have today, we get plenty of handouts, plenty of little drops of Federal money, but nothing that we can ever really count on, and nothing that we can ever use to become self-sufficient. I happen to think that’s screwed up. You may think that its part of our lot, the best we can do, but I think its something that we should be working on changing.

And the reason why is because these issues aren’t “abstract” and have nothing to do with whether people have food on their plate, but have everything to do with everything in our lives. If you’d like to continue this discussion I can give you plenty of examples, from education to the economy to the government. Its all about connecting the dots, and the two biggest obstacles to this are, 1. the belief that Guam can’t do it on their own. 2. and because it obviously needs the US to do it for it, then the US is never really thought of as the problem, just the solution to everything. When these two ideas are in place, you can show people all the facts in the world and they will create very elaborate illusions to keep from recognizing it. The student I mentioned in class is a case in point, despite the fact that his idea of “real” people basically said they were animals and not very smart ones at that, he clung to it, because it allowed him to ignore what I was saying since those were the people he was defending and speaking for, and even if in his mind they are as dumb as ifit, they are still the real ones.

I agree with you though that the cultural excitement we see in Chamorros isn’t enough to effect any real change. At the Chamorro conference last week I spoke about this, and I do to anyone who will listen as well. The next big step we take as a people is finding ways to transform that excitement over necklaces, tattoos, t-shirts, chanting, dancing, and turn it into political action, turn it into a love and a concern for improving Guam, for showing in the world what Chamorro ideas about governance, development, environmental protection, social, economic and political improvement are. At the level of artifacts and other objects of culture it is exciting and it’s something that we should hold onto, because a generation or two ago, every Chamorro and their parents were rushing to find ways to whiten themselves.

I think part of your resistance also has to do with your uncertainty over what would happen next if decolonization took place. Part of the problem is that no one person, me or you will decide those things. I have plenty of ideas and plans, I tell them to people all the time and people usually continue to tell me I don’t have a plan, I don’t have any ideas. Part of this emphasis on what the plans are is simply an excuse to not want to hear anything about this. I wrote an entire master’s thesis on why and how people do this. It is sad, because you can have plenty of plans in front of you, and people just ignore it and keep saying what they’re saying just to try to neutralize that status change, to push it away and make it seem impossible and as if it could never happen.

Part of the reason that people do this, without even knowing anything or listening to anything is because although it might appear that they are in a discussion with you and hearing your ideas, the future that they are imagining is one based on what they think alone. Decolonization is at its most basic level is just a change in Guam’s political status. There are other levels that I am interested in, but most people assume that when they hear decolonization it means “independence.” I am personally for independence as the next stage for Chamorros on Guam, but I am mainly interested in people rejecting the colonial present and pushing for something which is better for our island and our people.

But people don’t really think about what would happen, they instead think of it in a certain way to simply keep it from happening. In my research I find people who say that if the US leaves they will take electricity with them, air cons with them, education with them, indoor plumbing with them. These are educated, articulate Chamorros who because they are afraid and not willing to even consider the idea of changing Guam’s political status, create these insane fantasies about objects from the island disappearing. Its all very dumb, but its all very real, people actually say these things. That if Guam becomes independent, there’ll be no internet on the island, there’ll be no cars. IT MAKES NO SENSE, would they send in the national guard to take all of our stuff? Would it just disappear like in Harry Potter? A flick of a wand and all “modern” things go? Or would the island just cease to exist once American flags are all taken away?

I can tell you most everything that would happen if Guam decolonized in the most basic sense and became either a Freely Associated State, an independent country or a state of the United States. I have researched it in other contexts, I know how the Federal government would or would not approach it, how things worked with the other Micronesian Islands. It can’t all be figured out ahead of time, that’s not the way the real world works, and part of what we can plan and decide depends on how the US reacts.

None of it is actually very scary, none of it is that dangerous, in fact the most chilling thing that could happen is if the US decided to disrupt Guam and incite violence like it did in Palau, should Guam choose a status that is not in line with US national interests. Doesn’t that just instill a lot of patriotism in all of us? That the scariest thing about decolonization is what the colonizer will do to us if we don’t play ball? To say this again its not a scary or horrifying process, but people infuse it with that fear to try and push it away, to keep up from becoming a normal or regular thing to discuss.

Despensa, sa’ gof annakko’ este na comment-hu. Ti hu hasngon muna’taiguihi, lao annok ginnen iyo-ku blog na ga’tumuge’ yu’. If you’d like to continue this discussion and hear more about this, I would be more than willing to share my ideas, my plans, the way I see things with you. Also, I’m providing the link before to another post on my blog, an interview I gave on reunification in the Marianas, its not specifically about the topic of your comment, it does address some of the issues you brought up, or the questions that you have. Here’s the link:

http://minagahet.blogspot.com/2008/09/do-you-support-reunification-of.html

Si Yu’us Ma’ase ta’lo para iyo-mu comment. Ya despensa put i binila’ i ineppe’-ku.

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