Saturday, November 01, 2008

Finakpo' DNC: Ideology, Tokenism, Amnesia and the Insular Empire

Last month I was fortunate enough to be in Denver, Colorado to witness the nomination of Senator Barack Obama for President of the United States of America by the Democratic Party. My presence there was part of a program called the "State Blogger Corps" whereby a grassroots blog from each state and territory of the United States would not just be allowed to attend the Democratic National Convention, but also be given full media access and even a seat on the floor of the convention with your state or territory's delegation. Through my blog "No Rest for the Awake" I covered the convention from the perspective of Chamorro, Guam and US territorial issues. I ended up writing several dozen posts and even had a few other people write guest posts. To this day I am still backposting notes, interviews, funny stories, cute/crazy moments with delegates, bloggers, media people, security and elected officials.

In hopes of puting a clear conclusion on this great experience, and with the national election coming up in just a few days, I wrote up some concluding thoughts about what I learned at the convention. This conclusion isn't meant to encompass all that I learned while I was there, a lot of that can be found in the posts, but just a few things that occured to me when I was looking back at what I saw and experienced.

I'll also be typing up a link list of all the posts that I wrote while I was in Denver and be uploading it tomorrow. I also sent out a few weeks ago, the lastest issue of Minagahet, "From a Footnote...To the DNC," which also deals with my posts from the DNC.

What I Learned from the DNC #1:
Democrats vs. Republicans

For the territories the differences between Democrats and Republicans can be negligible and often boils down to simple politeness or rudeness. If Guam was to seek to become the 51st or 52nd state of the United States, then you would find the foundations of both parties be the same “NO!” but the rhetoric lain atop that foundation very different. One friendly, nicer, more willing to listen, open to nuance, while the other a clear, direct rebuke, like “You are not Americans!”

Depending on your perspective this could be something or nothing. It could mean that engaging at the level of national American politics is either pointless or important, or some mixture of the two.

For me, it creates the appearance of a far better possibility of working with Democrats instead of Republicans, and this “appearance” while arguably small and minor, is not without its usefulness. It was under the Democrats in the early 1990’s that the non-voting delegates to the United States first received their “symbolic” votes in the House. It was under the Republicans that they were taken away. Democrats gave them back in 2006 and the Republicans have sworn to take them away when they regain the House majority.

While this power is symbolic and doesn’t overcome in any real way the general indifference and powerlessness of the territories at the Federal level, it does afford them some marginal powers, which can be wielded in important ways. For instance, the non-voting delegates under these symbolic rules can now again serve as chairs of subcommittees.

But this “appearance” of help or possibility like all things, becomes a reality through the use of these small forms of power and not the trust or hope in the benevolence of the Federales.

What I Learned from the DNC #2
The spirit of the two main American political parties right now are very distinct. Both claim to represent the future of the United States, be the proper, capable, just heirs to this august responsibility. You achieve this feat, this Master Signification by accomplishing the proto-ideological gesture, the naming of who is responsible for the problems of the world.
Life is inconsistent, unfair, violent, confusing and ideology is the glue that holds it together in a meaningful way by assigning the blame for its problems to certain figures, groups, events. People or groups attain power not by the solving of problems or the resolving of conflicts, but by being the ones who name those responsible.

For the Democrats their task is easy and obvious. Everything is Bush’s fault. It is the fault of those who have been in power for the past six to eight years.
For the Republicans, their blame has been less obvious, less focused and much more difficult to gain ideological traction. They have at different points blamed Barack Obama, the Democrats, “Washington as usual” and the media. Their tactics are often feeble and laughable, and have only gained some national consistency through their base and racism and ignorance amongst some independent voters. (Not the conflicting arguments about the lack of power, experience of Barack Obama, and therefore he cannot lead, but somehow we can also blame him for huge massive problems like the financial crisis, and energy crisis, which the McCain campaign has tried to do)
So in this way, both are the same, but past this point is where they are different. First, the big tent, grassroots, social welfare platforms or ideology of the Democrats actually do attempt to provide relief to the many ills that Americans feel. The blaming of the Republicans for all of America’s problems is thus followed up with, yes often generic plans and appeals, to elevate the majority of Americans.

Republicans, at least not at this point seem to move much beyond the blame. In recent weeks it has become increasingly clear that they don’t have anything to offer the American people, save for attacks on Barack Obama and more empty accusations towards “Washington.”And the problem is that this sort of strategy can work. Obama and Democrats regularly appeal to the “better angels of human/American nature.” It is a collective call, that the little we all give can potentially mean everything to someone less fortunate. And those who believe this may gain some individual pride or personal gratification, but the impact stretches far beyond the “altruistic” ego boost.
For Republicans, they are aimed sharply at individuals through their policy, but while rhetorically alone invoking collective identities. As such they feed into the most basic desires for self-protection and selfishness. They appeal not to a collective American, but simply a collection of individuals.For those obsessed with themselves, plans to fix their problems are secondary, what is craved is that tiny piece which will complete their identities, will provide them security in their world view, and that is who is to blame for their problems. The knowledge of knowing who is wrong and who is bad, who they must hate and be against is more than enough.

What I Learned from the DNC #3:
Ocean of Excited Amnesia
To the world outside of the convention the purpose of this massive complicated event is to be a show of force, an articulation of their purpose and destiny to lead the country. Inside the convention, on the one hand, the purpose might seem to be about excitement and “revving up the base.” The convention is where the party gets “fired up and ready to go.”

But during my time in Denver, talking to Hillary Clinton supporters, and also interacting with the Guam delegation, the other purpose of the convention, on the other hand appears to be the creation of a mass outbreak of amnesia.
The media coverage leading up to Clinton’s speech was obsessed with whether or not the party could “heal,” whether or not the factions could come together for the good of their party. This coverage was naturally irritating because it always seemed to overstate party divisions and also simplify the majority of American women to become beings who will follow only women. (This was revived for several weeks after the pick of Sarah Palin). But as ridiculous as it was, it nonetheless made clear an idea that haunted me the entire time I was at the DNC, especially when interacting with those from Guam in Denver or from the other territories. And that was the role of amnesia in the making of a successful convention.
The convention is all about the subsuming of the individual interests of different delegates and states, to become a temporary political movement or coalition. Although all may be Democrats, they come from states or territories with different stakes in the future, the direction of the country. Some want ethanol, some want offshore drilling, some want decolonization.
Just as the excitement of the week washed away much resistance from Hillary supporters, who were caught up in the excitement and fervor, this is supposed to be the experience of all delegates and states.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the case of those with the most “unique” interests, who became the least self-interested of all present. Those I spoke to from Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa were all, by far, the most excited to be there, who shouted the loudest and held their American flags the highest. The reason given was always that we are the smallest, come from the furthest away, we are the most fortunate and luckiest to be here. But these unique factors make them the most susceptible to this collective amnesia, even if they should be the most resistant for so many reasons.
What I Learned from the DNC #4:
The Insular Empire
My time at the convention was incredibly frustrating, but it was made easier by the fact that the territories stick together, at least as far as they are aware of each other.
I received no access to the DNC, the Democratic officials, or the Obama campaign, despite numerous promises and attempts through multiple channels, and many promises that I would get something. The only elected officials who I was provided access to, or were gracious enough to provide me with time for interviews were from the US territories.
What I Learned from the DNC #5:
The presence of Guam and other territories at the DNC is a form of tokenism, it is not a gesture of respect or recognition based on necessity or power, but a gesture made to exude the benevolence and grandness of the one making the gesture. In times past the presence or inclusion of certain ethnic groups could be construed as tokenism, empty gestures to include you, which do not recognize you as having any power or standing.
Nowadays, especially in this election where “white” people are showing continued quiet, but nonetheless present resistance to voting for a black man, the patchwork of ethnic groups that make up the Democratic party have to be respected and have to be recognized. With Asian American, Native American, Latino American and African American populations playing key roles in whether swing states go blue or red, and whether Democrats can win certain close races. Their presence isn’t tokenistic, they are crucial and they have thus to be recognized as such, and have a place to negotiate or demand and not be dismissed out of hand.

Guam’s position isn’t such. Guam may have been lucky this year with its prime position on the convention floor (which illicited complaints from numerous “states” who had to endure the travesty of sitting behind a “territory”). But its place on the convention floor is all to show the greatness of American, to provide another example of the big tent of Democrats.

Is there anything wrong with this? For most people, no, because what matters most is the inclusion, the fact that they get a foot or a toe in the door. It was a similar situation in May when Guam participated in the Democratic primary. Although all issues of political status and decolonization were brushed up against at this time, the issues were almost completely ignored at the expense of celebrating the glorious toe that Guam got have in the door of American belonging.

Is this toe in the door, this minute often patronizing form of inclusion useless? No absolutely not, but it is very easy to make sure it is.

Tokens from power can be used for your interests, for your particular, radical, subversive gain, in inventive and creative ways, so long as you give up and reject the lure of gracious gratitude and thankful inclusion. A token is valuable so long as you aren’t enamored with the “excitement” of “just” being there.

Being inside “the house” having that small shred of power can be useful, but only if you use it for yourself and often against the “master.” This works only if you are unwilling to reinforce that idea of power’s greatness or love for you. If you use your position not to celebrate your presence or forget the ways you are still excluded, then you can make known the structure of your exclusion, or your oppression and you can change it.
For instance, so many people from the territories, in particular Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands that I spoke to, said that their eventual hope in terms of political status for their islands’ was full integration, statehood. If that is your desire, then why not use your tokenistic inclusion to push for that desire, to try to make it happen? Celebrating your meager inclusion won’t bring it any closer to coming true, so why not put down the flags for a moment and actually confront the United States with your desire, and see what happens next? Even though in the case of Guam, I don’t support statehood, I still think that you should use whatever tokens Guam gets in order to push for whatever vision you have for a better political status for the island. The way I see it, even an expression of greater inclusion, and a push to make it happen, can help reveal the structure of Guam’s status, its relationship to the United States, colonialism and the limits of American benevolence and the falsity of the façade of Guam’s inclusion.


Liz said...

"Guam’s position isn’t such. Guam may have been lucky this year with its prime position on the convention floor (which illicited complaints from numerous “states” who had to endure the travesty of sitting behind a “territory”). But its place on the convention floor is all to show the greatness of American, to provide another example of the big tent of Democrats".

I don't know that I actually agree with your analysis, Micheal. Mostly because I believe that most Americans could care less about Guam, Guam's attendance, or the issues that impact citizens of Guam. I really think that the bleeding heart liberals who assigned Guam its position on the floor were operating out of white guilt; a need to feel benevolent. Not out of the need to look diverse. They have Barack Obama to do that for them.
Love the blog and loved that you got to go to Denver. Disappointments aside, you witnessed an important piece of American history.

Michael Lujan Bevacqua said...

Sorry I never responded to this comment earlier. Its true that you might be right, that this is an issue of white guilt, but the things which you feel weaken you, or you do which make you look vulnerable or put you in a bad light can all be twisted to make you look powerful and benevolent.

There might appear to be less of a need for Democratic to be multicultural or have that big tent since Obama was in charge and now he's been elected, but in truth its more important than ever. Republicans lost largely because their white power party ideology only works in certain areas, that's why they've chosen Michel Steele and are actively pushing Bobby Jindal to the front of any open microphone. The Democrats by now withdrawing the token gestures that we've become accustomed to might be in danger of backsliding and losing the patchwork coalition that pushed them to victory last November.

I also agree that the Democrats don't necessarily care anything about Guam, but that doesn't mean that Guam and its people cannot be used to make that spectacle of benevolence, fatherly care for the lesser brown people.


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