Wednesday, January 06, 2010

In Defense of Matt Rector

The other day I was at yet another meeting of a group of concerned people of Guam, who were looking to collaborate in some way to respond to or counter the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed military buildup of Guam. We were discussing how we could best get out critical information about certain sites which will be drastically affected and possibly even cut off from public access with the proposed construction the military is planning. Certain areas which are favorites of hikers, most importantly the area around Liyang Pågat, or Pågat Caves, which is also the site of some incredible, above-ground Ancient Chamorro artifacts, could be cut off from the island in order to make way for a live-fire training range for Marines. Mount Lamlam, which is not only the highest point on the island, but the site of an annual hike for those carrying crosses to the peak in honor of Catholic Easter, could be restricted as well to make way for jungle training in nearby areas.

During the course of the discussion, we began to talk about media strategies and how best to get our message out there. We talked about drafting press releases, calling up any media contacts we might have. There was some concern that the media on Guam might not take us seriously and might not give us any attention or write about our particular angle on the buildup. As a sort of half-joke, I responded to the group, that if we want to make certain that our story is covered by all media on Guam, then we’d just have to make Senator Matt Rector is a part of it. Once we do that, we’ll get more local press than we could possibly imagine.



Its been several weeks now since KUAM News broke the story that Matt Rector was convicted of a misdemeanor burglary charge more than 20 years ago in California. The Senator is still in the Legislature and the Guam Election Commission has stated that they don’t have the power to remove a sitting Senator, only the Legislature and the court system have that ability. As I’m writing this the ethics committee of the Guam Legislature is meeting with their attorney to see whether or not Rector should be removed from his committee chairmanship (in response to a complaint that he has a conflict of interest as the chairman of the labor committee and also the president of the Guam Federation of Teachers).

The attacks on Senator Rector have been relentless since the initial KUAM article, but just to put this in perspective, Rector has been on assault from pretty much all media outlets on Guam since he first took office. The Guam News Factor, pretty much tosses out any pretense of being a news organization whenever the topic of Matt Rector is broached. But even more “respectable” news outlets such as the PDN and KUAM have greatly contributed to the treating of Rector has not just another politician, but a crazed man, who will ruin the island’s economy and put us all in mortal danger by daring to strengthen labor power on Guam.

One thing that I should get out of the way early on in this post is that I will not outright reject the argument that Matt Rector should step down as Senator. There are many who are calling for this now, and while these claims sometimes irritate and frustrate me, I can’t discount them outright. Matt Rector is a public servant and therefore can and should be treated with an extra level of scrutiny. But that doesn’t mean that he or any other leader should be demonized in the press without much evidence. It is easy to tear down anyone, especially when powerful people are calling for it from within the shadows.

Part of any meaningful democracy is that people be engaged in the governing of their society, often times people mistake complaining or saying that something sucks as being engaged. It can be part of it, maybe the easiest and most basic part, but it also means having the ability to see a wider view of things, and having the ability to see how you may be participating in the very problems you are complaining against. For instance, if anyone has any inkling that Matt Rector and what he represents is a big problem on Guam, they have no sense of proportion. They aren’t seeing the larger picture, but rather using the media caricature of Rector and his case to obscure so much else on island.

You can argue that much of the reason for these negative portrayals come from Rector himself. He is blunt, he doesn’t’ play nicely with others and therefore doesn’t fit in well with Guam’s nice and gairespetu community. I should point out though, that even if you do believe this, you have to admit that when the media starts to change the speed of a tape of the person they are covering in order to make that person look more menacing and suspicious, then something more than “reporting” is going on.

Whenever a disturbing or shocking revelation occurs, like with the skeleton of Rector’s burglary charge dragged kicking and screaming out of the closet, it’s easy for people to suddenly lose their memories and pretend that they have had the knowledge of this revelation all along. The media has been pummeling Rector for so long, with so many insinuations about him, that when something comes along which appears to prove that he really is a bad person or a jerk, people act as if the stupid, superficial and petty things they felt all along were completely true.

This is one of the frustrating things about Senator Rector’s career so far. Too many people that I’ve spoken too over the past year, people who I feel are intelligent and engaged people, seem to suddenly become dumb over Rector. Since he is supposed to be a crazy, dangerous man, it’s almost as if you don’t need to take anything he says or stand for seriously, as if saying “he’s a jerk” should be accepted as a sound argument against his policies. I want to yell every time I’m involved in a conversation where someone feels they are making a well-reasoned argument against a bill or an amendment offered by Senator Rector, by calling him a name. Hoi udu, taigue hit på’go gi i comments PDN, pues put fabot na’setbe i tintanos-mu!

This is however, for good or for bad, what happens when you become notorious, or when a figure rises above a community and starts to signify more than what any single person can contain. Potentially anything good or bad can feel so true. It can feel consistent as if you’ve verified it by looking it up in God’s Hello Kitty notebook.

It’s almost as if, you have become so large in your ability to signify things, so vastly open that you become, again for better or worse, almost completely disconnected from what you are doing or what you stand for. The perception becomes far stronger than your policies.

In the case of Barack Obama last year, this worked very well, and for anyone to be elected or be popular at that level, where we are talking about hundreds of millions of people, your ability to be an open symbol has to be optimal. Obama was able to attract a huge number of moderate and independent voters, while still keeping intact his progressive Democratic base. The particularities of his policies didn’t matter, especially in terms of his progressive support, but there were enough small things, details about him, his intelligence, his charm, his blackness, his eloquence, a racially harmonious dream, which keep people believing in him, regardless of what he said or stood for.

Rector is treated on Guam in a similar, albeit negative way. Too much of the conversations that I hear about him deal with his personality or deal with small almost pathetic things, and so people never even get close to what he stand for politically and what sort of policies he is interested in. This is sadly something the media on Guam ahs absolutely supported and played in to. They have helped creating a negative fog around Rector, so that the work he is doing, or rather attempting to can never really be considered, or rather can only be considered as something foolish or as stupid as he is.

One thing that I find comforting but also frustrating about Guam is how nice our elected leaders are. People may have certain particular reasons why they hate a legislator, why they may loathe that person like a do’an on their dåggan, and so you may even vocalized your feelings and call someone a jerk. But when we really look at the people in the legislature, there really aren’t a lot of jerks. No one really sticks out as being a massive tool, or a complete racist asshole, and so on.

Because of the small size of Guam as an electorate and the nature of Guam politics, there are really no differences ideologically on Guam between Democrats and Republicans. There are no politicians on Guam who are like the current crop of Republican tea-baggers in the United States, who are pathetically divisive, and regularly racist or sexist. Everyone in Guam’s legislative body is all somnak and ga’lagitu, they are all for everything and on everybody’s side!

This is the public façade, when in truth any political leader on Guam tends to privately or quietly defend and legislative in support of their own interests. They may have cronies who they are supporting in what they do. They may have business interests, companies, land, apartment buildings, who knows what, that they don’t openly legislate on behalf of, which are the true things that drive them. They might even have some ideological pet projects that they push for and put out there. But ultimately, the niceness of the lisåyu visiting and the waving by the roadside, this appearance that they are on everyone’s side and for everyone, masks the way they tend to be for themselves.

Anytime anyone says that they are up for anything or don’t care and would be happy with anything, unless they are completely distracted in their thoughts, they have something very specific in mind that they are trying to cover up. This is true amongst your friends and its true amongst your elected leaders.

For obvious reasons Matt Rector upsets that illusion, that lovely façade. He disrupts it by not pretending to be for everything or everything. He is not on everyone’s side and argues very vocally that there are lines drawn between sectors of society, and that he will legislate and will work for certain groups in a society, and if need be, he will work against or challenge the power of others. For an island which has become accustomed to nice politics and Senators who can take bold stands on attending funerals and weddings but little else, someone like Rector is very unsettling.

Most importantly, Rector trashes the pathetic hope that most people on Guam have that wealth trickles down naturally or that if a politician seems nice, he or she is therefore looking out for you todu diha yan tulanoche, 24/7. He does this by reminding us that business people and rich people are not saints. They provide services and are an important part of society, but they should not be given any special treatment and they should not be given the moral/benevolent benefit of the doubt. In other words, we should never assume that an increase in the wealth of rich people will result in an overall increase in their altruism. Rich people, business people, the kometsiante/manakhilo’ class on Guam has far more power, influences and resources than everyone else, and it is the purpose of government to intervene in a society to sometimes support them, but other times ensure that they are paying a fair share, and that working people, poor people, middle class people are protected. I manriku represent a very narrow interest, and it is the job of government to ensure that their narrow interests do not dominate. It should be the job of government to make sure that the rules of a society do not skew its opportunities or its resources but help to balance them out.

Matt Rector is clear on his politics, far more clear than anyone else currently in the Legislature. While he recognizes that businesses big and small are an integral part of a society, government does not exist to only support and protect them, but is also tasked with sometimes protecting and supporting workers against those who employ them. This means that sometimes you shouldn’t listen to the Chamber of Commerce and what it says about what is best for Guam. It means that if you listen to the logic of the rich only, you will most likely steer an economy and a society to favor them only (or them mainly). Or if you privilege the voices of business owners in terms of how to stimulate or sustain an economy, then what you enact most likely not be universal and not benefit the greater good.

Matt Rector, like any public figure is an open target for criticism, and public investigation. So my defense of him should not be interpreted as me setting him upon a pedestal and that he should be beyond reproach.

More than one person has said to me over the past few weeks that they find most disturbing is Rector’s refusal to accept any criticism, and that he is under fire and just blames everything on the media and claims they are out to get him. One person went so far as to compare him to Sarah Palin, in that when anyone says anything bad them, they just blame the media and say the media is out to get them.

But when someone is transformed into public enemy number 1 the way Rector has, where anyone who comes out against him is constantly reported and treated as if they are some freedom fighter or courageous whistleblower, there is no way that you can say that the media treatment is fair or balanced. There is clearly more to the coverage of Rector that just reporting and so its imperative that we understand where this insistence on taking Rector down is coming from. The only way in which you could justify this sort of treatment, the need for a newspaper like the PDN to constantly retell the same facts of Matt Rector almost every single day for close to a month, and each day still act as if they are infused with the same sense of moral urgency, it must be because there is some threat to them that Rector represents. Apart from all the generic threats that people infer, there must be something specific to media outlets such as GNF, PDN and KUAM that requires that he constantly be demonized in some pretty pathetic ways.

Take for instance the complaints which have been filed against Rector by Monte Mesa and Eloy Hara. Sure, these things can be reported, they are news-worthy stories, but if for instance I filed a complaint against a Senator or several Senators saying that they have a clear conflict of interest in legislating on economic or land use issues because they employ this many people or have this much land, would it get any attention? I doubt it. The complaint filed by Eloy Hara for instance is the equivalent of me standing at the corner of ITC and yelling to people driving by that I think that Felix Camacho is a dork. It might make sense to people, but it’s not enough to convict anyone of anything anywhere (other than in your mind).

But why is there so much heat and pressure on Rector? Listen to what he has been saying over the past year and what he is saying now. According to his rhetoric he is working to move Guam’s economy to becoming one which is more worker-friendly, one which doesn’t just benefit the richest people at the top of society, but rather shares wealth by making mandatory benefits and decent wages, which can hopefully improve the economic quality of life on Guam as well as the lives of individuals. To make this happen he’s introduced a number of bills. For instance he has proposed a bill which would require all employers on Guam to provide paid sick-leave to their employees. Another would require that all companies who are vendors of the Government of Guam or receive tax breaks or benefits from the Government of Guam would have to pay a living wage to their employees. There are just two examples of very simple, but profound ways in which Rector is attempting to change Guam.

Naturally, attempts such as this threaten the power and the profits of certain entrenched interests and those entrenched interests naturally are the one’s who tend to have the most power in Guam. As a result, Rector’s economic message, which would improve the lives of the majority of people on Guam, becomes lost. What he actually stands for becomes a quiet footnote to the garish caricature that we are fed through the media.

Regardless of what happens to Matt Rector in the coming weeks or months, his message should not be lost. In terms of his politics and his policies he has acted in good faith and aggressively on behalf of the majority of people on island. Increasing wages on Guam, ensuring that workers are treated better and supporting the idea that workers should organize themselves in order to protect and promote their interests are all things which would improve Guam. They might challenge the existing authority of some, or threaten the profits of some, but for Guam in general they are real and very concrete changes that the island needs.

Even if Rector is taken down (which tends to happen to politicians on Guam who actively challenge business interests), then like in any progressive struggle it remains for the rest of us, those who are left behind para ta tahgue gui’, ya para ta hatsa gof takhilo’ i babao hustisia ta’lo!

1 comment:

Rita said...

Wow, incredibly thorough compartmentalization of all the subtle issues surrounding Rector's battle with the media. Your article has urged me to take a deeper look at all of the facts before forming an opinion. Kudos to you!

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