Sunday, November 09, 2008

Nation of Firsts

In my Guam History classes last week I gave my students the lyrics to a number of different Chamorro songs, each of which said something important about post-war Guam. The songs were An Gumupu Si Paluma by Johnny Sablan, Binenu by J.D. Crutch, Green Revolution by Johnny Sablan and lastly Guam USA by K.C. Leon Guerrero.

For An Gumupu Si Paluma, I talked about changes from pre-war to post-war Guam, the disappearance of the Chamorro language, Chamorro birds, the Chamoritta style of singing, and so on, and how Johnny Sablan's song ends with a powerful call for Chamorros to come together and stop these changes, to reverse them. For Binenu, I talked about the shifting public perspectives on the US military presence on Guam and in the minds of Chamorros. How those who returned from Vietnam, died, alive, addicted to drugs, suffering from diseases or nightmares and mental trauma, all helped shift the view of the military on Guam, tarnishing the clean, white liberating image that it gained from World War II, and how the activism that we see today on Guam, and the discontent which lies in all of us about Guam's historical and contemporary treatment by the US military and its members is able to find public expression through experiences of Vietnam, and the work of Vietnam veterans or local activists who came to public consciousness during that era.

For Guam USA, my argument to my students was simple. This song is all of our lives. This song is all about the exciting, ridiculous, schizophrenic existence that all of us on Guam feel, where we stand, sit and wait at the tense and ever-fickle intersection of the marrying of "Guam" and "USA." As I regularly write on this blog, Guam is sometimes "Guam USA," but other times it is simply "Guam." This sort of back and forth, this sort of vicious circle of recognition and lack of recognition is the fundamental experience of colonialism in a world where colonialism is supposedly gone. This is the blueprint for it.

Guam is included in the United States in some ways, excluded in others. And this is not a simple matter of eventual full inclusion, but rather this sort of always inside and outside existence has long been formalized by the United States most prominently through the Insular Cases, which basically laid the foundation for friendly American colonialism. Guam from this perspective has no rights or authority save for that which the United States Federal Government allows it to have. The relationship is not supposed to be equal, but even when it appears to be equal, it is meant to display this benevolence, that Guam is not an equal partner, but rather the United States is such a great master for allowing its bastard colony to be given this token recognition.

So, naturally a song such as Guam USA is frustrating to me, because its vibrant lyrics and rock style provide yet another representative of Guam and the United States being tied together in an equal, exciting, patriotic way. The lyrics of the song, as I wrote two years ago, both reinforce this idea and also defeat this intention.

As I lectured to my classes about this song I wrote on the board "Guam USA" and then as I would provide different examples to students about the ways in which we all privilege either "Guam" or the "USA" when we talk, plan, argue, debate, remember, etc, I would either circle or highlight one or the other. At the end of each discussion, which always resulted in most students confused, some enraged (at American colonialism), a few concerned, and the rest all startled, I would position myself and where I was coming from in setting up the discussion.

I would say, that as an activist, as a person who wants to see Guam improved and take better care of itself I am interested in this, and would circle Guam, this is what matters to me, I would reiterate, and then I would tap the chalk on the "USA" and say, this doesn't mean much to me, this isn't what I care about Guam, and then proceed to cross the "USA" out.

I could see on the several students faces, shock, disbelief, as if I had just burned an American flag by crossing out the "USA" of "Guam USA." Obviously for all of these freshmen at the University of Guam, whether they ever really thought about it or not, the USA was an integral part of both Guam and them, to casually cross it out like that or attempt to get rid of it, I'm sure brought up in all sorts of strange and unwelcome feelings that they would want to quickly wash away as soon as they left class.

Obviously, for anyone who is a regular or even casual reader of this blog, issues of Guam's political status and American colonialism are always on my mind. And last week, despite all the exciting news that was pouring into my inbox, my voicemail box or even just my brain through the media and news, these things were still there with me.

History was made last week, and not just with Sachin Tendulkar becoming the first cricket player to reach 40 test centuries (stupid cricket joke, despensa yu'). But also with the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. I am feeling alot more detached to this taking place, for a variety of reasons, some of which have to do with no longer being in a "state" of the United States, but instead one of its colonies, definitely does put a damper in the celebration of America's grand democracy, others with my becoming even more busy lately with teaching and dissertation writing.

But part of my distance all has to do with the self-congratulating nature of the celebration. Obama's election so far has helped usher in several days of non-stop self-aggrandizing media and everyday discourse in the United States, on the history being made, the potential changes that are taking place in the United States, and all the exuberant "firstness" that this election means. I knew all of this would take place, and I knew that it would be frustrating, but that doesn't make it any easier to put up with.

The "first" discourse and its relationship to history is particularly aggravating. It is such a pathetic discourse, one which is so potent and powerful precisely because it provide an overwhelming aura or appearance of change, with very little actual change or transgression taking place. I have long heard Republicans use that argument that Bush appointed the "first" person of this ethnicity to this position in the Federal government and that therefore shows his and his party's commitment to minority rights or concerns. I know Democrats make the same case, these sorts of tokenistic gestures are designed to elicit that sort of loyalty or provide cheap evidence of your integration, inclusion or necessity to the party or the nation. This is unfortunately the way in which most people in the United States (and in most contexts actually) understand oppression, marginalization and the easiest, most simplistic means of resolving or dealing with it. The reason of course, is that as one or two get through, you find the system itself that long kept them out or that has now just let them rise up, not explicitly challenged, and in fact the system itself can become reinvigorated with the ascension of what was once their prey and anathema. As the system itself can now take credit for the progress that has taken place.

Barack Obama is America's first black president, he is also the first president to be born in Hawai'i and his wife will be the first black first lady. I'm sure there's more.

I like Obama, I've long liked him, because of his pragmatism, his occasional truth speaking and his cool skills with the basketball. I wanted him to win for so many reasons, some very personal, others more Ethnic Studies related, and some just dealing with nagging and interesting questions of what would things be like if a black man was President? So many people in the past few days have spoken up and said that they never imagined that something like this could happen in their lives. I can admit to being one of them too. But as I saw Obama rise up from 2004 to today, there was always a flicker of hope with him, that he could actually do it. And it wouldn't be so much that he was responsible for getting elected, but that his organization, combined with the mood of the United States would make it happen.

So in this sense, I wanted Obama to win, much in the same way that I know Jon Stewart wanted a Democrat to win this time around. Because he wanted to see what Fox News would do to itself, contradict, rip itself to shred, go insane, in trying to flip its entire philosophy to accommodate a new Executive, a new Commander in Chief. Fox News in the Bush years had helped build a firm discursive wall around the President, siding with him on so many issues, and did not articulate them as being tied to the President itself or his personality, but went even further in tying them to a particular strong Executive vision of the United States. Fox News buying into Karl Rove's permanent majority mentality, has now cornered themselves in terms of what they will do next, how they will re-balance themselves. For instance, now that it'll be Joe Biden in charge and not Dick Cheney, will Fox News now suddenly see all the power-grabbing and accumulating that Cheney did as evil because a Democrat is in charge or will there be some continuity? I'm sure you don't have to think too hard about this, ideologues have no problem dealing with shifting sands, so long as their ideological vision is rock solid.

I look forward to America twisting itself in and out in trying to deal with a black President. There will be blood, yes, he will have good days and bad days, some days when everyone seems against him and others when they all seem to be on his side. But, the actual of election of Obama means nothing, but where we go from here, what we can do with this "emergence" is what matters. All in terms of making use of this opening, which can be seen in terms of progressive politics, but also in terms of making inroads in American race thinking.

This is similar to the way I intellectually enjoy making my students squirm and uncomfortable when I thrust upon them a history they either don't want to know or don't know, but one which is incredibly relevant to their lives and even their casual desire to need to not know anything about their island's colonial status.

But, does all this excitement and history making, mean that I am ready or willing to erase and re-write the "USA" next to Guam, without any crosses or strikes through it? Does this mean that I'm eager or happy to connect Guam in new and exciting ways to the soon to be christened Obamanation?

Hell no! I am still someone for whom the "Guam" alone is what matters. America in my mind is something on Guam which holds the island back. It provides money yes, it provides assistance in some ways, but the catch is always so strong, its always help meant to keep the island dependent. The "USA" in "Guam USA" is always a trap, something with a colonial stench to it, something to keep Guam as the "tip of the spear," to provide some small token of recognition or help in order to keep it as that fantastic power projection point.

Since I've talked a little about firsts in this post, I'll tell you what it would take for me to "give America" another chance, or rethink the crossing out of the "USA." It would take, frankly a much more radical first. I'm not impressed or eager for any other election or political firsts such as the first "gay president" or the first "Asian American president."

I'm waiting for the day when I can celebrate and witness, a first such as the first American colony to be decolonized. Or the first Native American tribe that was truly given sovereignty. Or the first day of life for a newly sovereign Native Hawaiian kingdom, republic or people. I would give America another chance, or rethink my critique of it, the day that something like this happens. The day that the United States actually is interested in the self-determination of indigenous peoples or is actually interested in fairness, justice, democracy and not just when it is convenient or strategically useful.

Is Barack Obama a step in this direction? Probably not, but you never know and that's the point of this election. There is an very tangible openess that exists out there. The United States will undergo a transition period, where it will be forced to confront certain things, rethink things about itself, its history. The discourse on "firstness" and history goes a long way in taking the transformative possibility out of those confrontations and realizations, which is why I can only allow myself a small bit of hope.

But as someone who comes from one of the world's last official colonies, which is facing a military buildup over the next few years, which promises to wreck the island in the nicest and most polite ways possible, it feels good to allow myself some.

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