Thursday, May 21, 2009

Apologies, Power and Justice

Ideas of restitution and reconciliation have been on my mind alot lately. One of the main reasons for this, is the possibility that the long-standing, shameful issue of War Reparations for Chamorros may soon be resolved. In January, Congresswoman Bordallo resubmitted the Guam World War II Loyalty Recognition Act (giya Guahan mafa'na'an este "War Reparations"), and it was passed by the House in February. At present its in committee in the Senate, and since the Democrats hold a clear majority now and Barack Obama was on record as a presidential candidate supporting the bill's passage, it looks like it might actually get throught his time.

Kalang ti hongge'on este. Kuantos tiempo esta maloffan desde i gera? Kuantos na manamko' esta manmatai?

The legislation was almost to this point last April, after passing through the House and even making its way onto the Senate floor. Once there however it was stalled by an objection from South Carolina Senator Jim Demint. The legislation was never considered again.

For Chamorro activists, this is one of the issues which is often used to inflame people, to try and coax them into being more critical about the United States and its treatment of Guam and influence over Guam. The War Reparations issue is something that can drive even older Chamorros, those who experienced World War II, into anti-American tirades. The war, left many many wounds, physical, cultural, mental and emotional, and the war reparations issue is taken so seriously, because it appears to provide some closure for so many things that Chamorros may have been upset about, may have truly hated the United States about, but could not. Despite the fact that they could not articulate their distrust or their anger, it still persisted, and War Reparations appears to provide one avenue in which those wounds can be healed, or those angry demons can be laid to rest. Chamorros lost their island, lost their culture, lost land, lost language because of that war, although on some of these issues Chamorros played a large role in facilitating those losses, the United States was a culprit as well. But if you cannot confront the United States on those issues, if you aren't willing to become an activist, protest to get your land back, or aggressively pursue an agenda of decolonization, War Reparations can be the perfect sort of replacement. You receive recognition, you receive some compensation. It is not what caused your trauma, it does not heal your trauma, but it is something that you can point to to help you move past it, or help you articulate the way you owned or defeated your trauma.

The War Reparations issue has been ongoing for decades now, and although there are regular moments where it looks like it will finally happen, it has yet too. From this sort of long view it might seem like reparations will never happen. But this isn't necessarily true. As I said in my first paragraph, the climate probably won't get any friendlier than it is right now, so its very possible that it will happen this time.

I've been wondering then, what will this mean for activists such as myself if we don't have this talking point anymore? I mean, the issue is still a shameful one, it took more than 60 years for this compensation to take place, and the majority of the people who deserve it, are the ones who suffered the most have all passed away. But nonetheless in the minds of most Chamorros, the issue will be done with, it will at last be put to rest. One of the key ways in which Chamorros were able to recognize and articulate the colonial difference, or the gap between them and their colonizer, which despite all the attempts to cover it up, can never simply be erased, was through War Reparations. I doubt that decolonization movements will stutter or falter too much, but a change such as this, might truly change the discursive landscape of Guam and require a lot of retooling and rethinking.

All of this was in my mind when I was attending the Indigenous Studies Engages Ethnic Studies symposium that I spoke at earlier today. There was one presentation in particular today that stuck out in my mind as I considered the War Reparations issue, it was titled "Lost between memorialising and forgetting: a reflection upon the recent trend towards apologies made by modern settler States to Indigenous peoples," and given by Mark Harris, who teaches at La Trobe University in Australia, and sometimes teaches classes in my department at UCSD. In his presentation he outlined in broad strokes official apologies that have been made in recent decades by governments and large organizations, and in particular discussed two apology gestures by the Australian government since the 1990's to Australia's aboriginal people.

The 2008 apology by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to "the stolen generation" was a huge shift in Australian national policy in terms of the rhetoric it used towards its indigenous people. Although I am not from Australia and don't know much about it other than its national cricket team and the academic works I've read on Aborigines and their relationship to the Australian state, I'm often shocked at the crass and violent relationship that Australia has to its indigenous people. In the United States and Canada, there is a liberal facade that these people are the "first" people of our nations, and so we have to treat them well or take care of them before they disappear. But in Australia, it seemed for the longest time that the relationship between between its settler society and its indigenous people was pure antagonism, with no pretense of caring for the indigenous, but almost as if Australia would be forever stuck in its frontier and wilderness outlaw phase.

I will admit then that when I watched excerpts of the apology on Youtube, I was touched by this change in tone. Achokka' esta hu tungo' na taibali este na "apology," pinacha' i korason-hu. There are even pictures of him hugging members of the stolen generation, ya kalang annok gi i mata-na na kumekekasao gui'.

But like all national apologies of this nature, to indigenous people that have been colonized, had their land taken, been the victims of genocide or had their governments overthrown, there always seems to be a poisonous intent at work. The apologetic tone, the openess, the earnestness of these gestures is a spectacle meant to infer that they are broader, grander and most justice-orientated gestures than they actually are. The image of a head of state bowing symbolically or metaphorically beneath those the state has damaged or traumatized and requesting their forgiveness is a bit deceiving. It gives the impression of something truly unique or benevolent happening, history being made, justice being done or something incredible taking place. But in general, as was seen in the Australian stolen generation apology, and in the recent decision by the Supreme Court of the US over the 1993 apology to Native Hawaiians, these apologies are more spectacle than anything else. Merely shifts at the rhetorical level to appear more benevolent or inclusive, but do not really open any route to justice.

The spectacle is meant to infer that the state or the government is willing to right a historical wrong, when in reality the apology is generally meant to close off a chapter of history, and to keep the traumatic questions and injustices of the past beyond any chance of restitution or reparation.

The profit of saying that something is over and done with, the burying of traumas, without allowing those on the other side of the trauma, the ones who carry the trauma in their hearts, in their lives, who carry it in the lives they had been forced to live without land or without language, a chance at restitution is actually quite valuable. In the case of most indigenous people the issues at stake go straight to the core of a nation's sovereignty and management, land, resources, original myths. All of these things involve violence against indigenous people, the taking of their lands, their resources, the stripping of their sovereignty and genocide. Almost all modern nations are built upon these violences and struggles for reparations involve trying to get some sort of justice for those atrocities, some of which happened hundreds of years ago, some of which happened very recently. Regardless though of when these things took place, their violence and the profit from their violence and their taking of resources all builds up until today. It all evolves and mutates into structures and networks of privilege, power and wealth.
Alot of people when the issue of reparations comes up, especially for something which took place several generations ago, they say that I wasn't there, I had nothing to do with it, why should the present moment and the people who inhabit this present moment have to suffer or pay for something they had nothing to do with? This thinking seems to be commonsensical, like duh, I don't have any slaves, no one has slaves anymore, so why should I or anyone else have to pay anything or take any blame for slavery? This point however, is completely stupid and no one should be able to seriously take this position without their brain exploding or at least start to leak and ooze contradictions.

People, families, communities, countries take full credit for the legacies or the histories that they perceive to be positive or good and progressive. In the United States for instance, people have not problems (ti mammamahlao) with taking credit for saving the world several times, promoting democracy to every corner, and always keeping the world from slipping into chaos. They do not proudly embody or celebrate their numerous sins, both big and small over the centuries. For more on this check out my 3/28/2007 post "Manifest Destiny, 300 and the Collective White American "We".'

The blessed gift of the founding fathers is my gift as an American, so is America's history of liberating and saving the world, I continue their grand legacy, I can take credit for it as an American and claim that rich and exceptional heritage. The legacies of slavery, genocide, imperialism, colonialism, those all belong to people who are dead and gone. They certainly aren't mine. Ti iyo-ku enao siha. Manmatai todu esta i manggaiisao.

In the United States for instance, there is no law that says that white is better or white people are better. But centuries of slavery and discrimination build up, and can't be overcome with the election of a black president or the celebration of the first nomination of an Asian American to the Supreme Court. An entire nation became rich off of genocide, the taking of massive amounts of land and the use of slave labor, and all Americans (of any color) today benefit from that historical fact. So as a nation, the United States and all its people do owe particular groups a chance at justice for those wrongs. But there are those who benefit in particular from that history, those for whom specific privileges or powers have emerged, and they are the ones whom resist reparations the most, because frankly its not in their best interest at all to revisit that past which has given them so much by taking from so many others.

There are two basic ways in which an apology of this sort functions.

First off, we should all come to an agreement that justice is always impossible. But that in no way means that when violent acts or oppression, aggression or colonization take place, that simply because what is lost or killed or banished can never authentically be replaced, or the clock turned back, that nothing should or can be done. Justice is all about what happens to the power or the privilege that has been built up taking that sin as its foundation.

Thus an apology can function as a gesture which closes off that foundation. An act meant to take the place of any further action. By apologizing for those things I seal myself off from any further demands, any further criticizes. I take verbal responsibility, I put up a big show of how I feel terrible, but I only do this so you can't ask for anything else. My apology is therefore a forcefield, to keep my ill-gotten gains. If you think about this from the perspective of a fighting couple, you apology for something so that it never needs to be mentioned again. You apology in order to move on, to try and keep the other person from remembering what happened or asking that you do something to make up for what has happened.

This of course naturally brings us to the second function of an apology, which is, if justice is the intent, to open up the foundation built upon that violent injustice, and to pave the way through which a process of restitution and reparations beyond simply saying "despensa yu'" or "I'm sorry." In the previous version, an apology is meant to make that foundation, to make that source of power impenetrable, to keep it from being attacked or keep it from giving anything up that it feels it owns. This type of apology though is offered to make that foundation vulnerable, to admit that something terrible happened and we must correct it somehow, even if it means we who have profited, we who have benefited from that injustice, have to give up something in the process. In the example of a relationship, this type of apology is the one which comes with presents attached. If you fight with a friend, it could mean letting him punch you and hit you to get you back for what you've done. In a partnership it could mean giving up something to show that you truly are sorry.

Obviously one is far more relevant to justice and to actually apologizing for something, or providing the means for getting past a foundational trauma, but naturally communities or privilege and governments tend to act in their selfish interest and operate based on fantasies that if you ever gave an inch, then all the natives would take their land back. But that is precisely what justice, not in the criminal justice system sense, entails. It is about giving more than you feel you can. It is about shocking your system, rocking it and leaving it open for critique or for judgement because of someone that has been wronged in your name, on your behalf, even if you weren't the one doing the slaughtering or the whipping. This is why justice is about the most debilitating form of gineftao or generosity.

Outside of the Parliament House in Canberra where Kevin Rudd gave his apology speech to the stolen generation, a memorial of thousands of lit candles which spelled "Sorry is the First Step" was placed on the lawn. But this is always the issue with "sorrys" or with apologies, is it truly meant to be the first step or is it simply meant to be the last one?

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