Monday, February 22, 2010

First Tragedy, Then Farce

Hegel once said that every great thing, whether it be a person, event or thing, will appear not just once, but twice.

Karl Marx later added on to this notion, that every potentially revolution moment or figure, must emerge and then be exorcised, by agreeing with Hegel’s thesis, but augmenting it as follows:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

As Guam winds down to the end of the second term of Felix Camacho as governor, this philosophical notion has for some reason been heavily on my mind. In the United States last year, when George W. Bush was officially no longer the President of the United States, it signified the end of an era, since for close to an entire decade, the great ship of the American state, had him at its helm. You would have to be a fool not to look back at such a length of time, and either blur things to where they weren’t as bad as they seemed at the times, or add things up, take stock and grind your teeth angrily as you realize that they were actually, when all totaled up, far worse than you thought at the time.
As I type this, campaigns to replace Felix Camacho are gearing up (or have been geared up for a while), and they help highlight the fact that we are nearing the end of our own era of political governance on Guam. I for one, never voted for Felix Camacho, and never had much faith in him as a leader. (Ga’o-ku i na dos biaha na inikak as Guiya).
After his first gubernatorial victory in 2002, I did some research into campaigning and politics on Guam, since I was considering writing about that election for my master’s thesis in Micronesian Studies. Thankfully I changed my topic to something completely different, but my notes are still around somewhere, whether in some random corner of my laptop or my mind. I interviewed many members of Camacho’s inner circle (at that time), and frankly was not impressed. It was clear to me then, that Camacho was an empty suit. Someone very similar to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush when they were elected. They give off not an aura of capability or intelligence, but a pleasing sort of emptiness, or in another way, a comforting cluelessness. All of these three political figures are not people that you would ever feel are smarter than you, and as such you can root for them in ways, you couldn’t for someone you felt was your equal or your better.
In the case of Ronald Reagan, watching him govern and wrestle with facts and reality was like watching your grandfather wrestle with email or attempt to understand the E! network. You know he can’t really do it, but you are cheering him on (and quietly chuckling) at every step of the way. In the case of Bush, watching him be President and struggle with words and sentences, was like watching one of those inspirational sports dramas, where an entire school or team bands together to tutor and help one of their beloved friends pass a test or pass a class, so that he can join them on the field for Friday’s game. That was Bush’s true power, he said it clearly in one of his many creative misstatements, when he said that people “misunderestimate him.”
For Camacho, he is the same. He is not stupid like Bush, he is not old like Reagan, but there is an air of cluelessness and more importantly harmlessness in him. When you see Camacho, it’s so difficult to find an immediate way in which you could be threatened by him, or that he could be better than you. He didn’t do much before he became governor (at least not anything unique or different from others of similar elite social or economic class), and he doesn’t talk in fancy ways, or speak with a heavy accent, or appear to represent anything in particular, and so that’s the perfect, harmless person that most people want in charge of them. As I’ve written about before on this blog, when Underwood ran against Camacho in 2002 and 2006, he had this working against him. Underwood represents so many threats to people. He makes people feel stupid, he makes them feel less Chamorro, he makes them feel angry because he’s supposed to racist or a Chamorro supremacist. In contrast to Camacho, Robert Underwood seems like Angel Santos of the early 1990’s, or Howard Hemsing of today.

Before continuing, I should note that when I say all this, I am speaking about perceptions, not the way that Camacho really is. I don’t know Felix Camacho personally, and I’ve met him briefly a couple of times and so perhaps to those who do know him he is a genius and the most well-informed, policy wonk of a political leader this island has ever known. But all this is actually irrelevant to what I’m saying, because no one really votes for a leader based on what’s inside. Since, none of us are Felix Camacho or Robert Underwood’s spleen, liver or gofes, we don’t know what’s inside him. Even our claims to what is truly in them are all snippets or scraps of discourse that circles around them and sometime appear to be consistent, sometimes contradictory.

One of the key scraps of discursive material that made Felix Camacho, who he is today, meaning the current Governor of Guam, was the legacy that he inherited from his father. And it is from here that we have the first historical emergence, that which Marx would have called “tragic.”
Carlos G. Camacho, the father of Felix Camacho had the honor of being Guam’s first elected governor in 1970. He was not re-elected however four years later, when he lost to Ricardo Bordallo. When I was considering doing a master’s thesis on Guam politics, I did some research into Carlos Camacho to see his impact on Guam and what his legacy was in peoples’ memories. In my mind, since Camacho was the first elected governor, and since his time wasn’t too long ago, there might be a permanence to his legacy.
I interviewed a number of people who were of his peer group, who were in government service before or after his time. I also interviewed those who were of age when Camacho was in power, to see what their memories of that era were, and what they felt Camacho had accomplished. I did not find anywhere near as much as I hope I would. Newspapers from the time, gave me plenty of details, but when I would interview people about it, to try and determine what sort of living legacy Camacho still held, the word that regularly came to my mind was tragic.
Camacho was most well known for traveling to Vietnam to visit with Chamorro troops there. He was also known for trying to reverse the brain drain that Guam had been experiencing steadily since 1950. Chamorros had been leaving the island in huge numbers for education or through military service, and weren’t returning to the island. Camacho, actively made efforts to seek out educated and qualified Chamorros to return to the island to work in the government or fill critical private sectors positions. Camacho was also known for being governor when the first post-Organic Act protest of the US military presence on Guam took place; when Chamorro rights activists, members of the Guam legislature and local environmentalists all worked together to prevent the US Navy from building an ammunition wharf at Sella Bay.
There were other things as well which we could include in Camacho’s legacy. But strangely enough the thing which I hear most about Carlos Camacho, was that he was someone who drank too much. He was someone who couldn’t really handle the job, and relied on alcohol to deal with the strain and thus let others (such as his Lt. Governor Kurt Moylan) run the government. This wasn’t something which random people claimed, but something which I heard from those who worked for him or with him in the Government of Guam. It was something even one of my aunties who worked in his office admitted to. In the recollections of most all of those I interviewed, it was this loss of promise that made Camacho such a tragic, na’triste na figure. He had this great honor and privilege, but did not and could not use it effectively. He could not bring himself up to the task, even although he was the first elected governor, could not sustain himself to be re-elected in 1974.
I’m aware of some of the problems with what I’ve said so far. These ways of remembering Camacho are common with many leaders. This is similar to the way in which President Clinton is remembered for giving an intern (despensa yu’) “a privileged place on his staff,” or that Carl Gutierrez is remembered for being corrupt. But, this sort of informal remembering of Camacho is crucial since he should be remembered in the same way other famous or historic firsts are remembered. He was supposed to represent, the maturation of the Chamorro people, their first chance at some semblance of self-government and democracy since the Spanish-Chamorro Wars. Regardless of whether your take on recent Guam history is a progressive one, fueled by acts and thoughts of Chamorros resistance to colonialism, or a assimilationist one, where Chamorros are simply subjects whose unfolding of their spirit is from a non-American one to a real American one, Camacho’s election represented a huge step on that journey. For Camacho not to be remembered in a way resembling that status is, as I’ve said several times already, tragic, a clear and haunting failure.
Felix Camacho is, right now, poised on being the farcical ghost to his father’s historic figure. I will give Camacho some credit for things which he has improved in his almost eight years of office, but one thing in which he most likely felt for four years would be his greatest work, is on the verge of being his biggest and most dangerous blunder. The military buildup, was something which I’m sure Camacho felt was a divine blessing on the plate from which people would later pick at to imagine his legacy. It would bring some economic stability and some improvement to Guam, infuse the island with a wide array of new Federal funds. The island would usher in a golden age of prosperity, and he would get credit for it. By simply allowing the buildup, and doing far more praying, wishing and hoping than anything else, he would still be the one who would be remembered for steering Guam in this direction.

The past three months, during which we saw public opinion and reporting of the buildup shift very dramatically, the security of that positive legacy is very much in jeopardy. Camacho, who was just a year ago, the one who the island would honor as the Governor who brought Uncle Sam and his 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force back to Guam, might now be remembered as the guy who let the US screw up the island even worse than it already is. Although most people on Guam do see the health and stability of the island through American interventions, through Federal salape’ infusions or through increasing this form of American presence, the DEIS public comment period did put a very different face on this particular instance of very radical militaristic Americanization. It cast it in such a new and critical light, that Camacho went from being someone who was leading by allowing this to happen, to someone who was daring to let this catastrophe happen to Guam, without even speaking out about it!
I’m simply speculating here. As I said earlier, I don’t know what is in Camacho’s head. But if I had to guess what has been going through his mind these past few weeks, I would guess that the feeling of being that farce of history, that sad and laughable addendum to his father’s tragic stamp on Guam’s history, might have been weighing on him. I doubt that he was thinking about this in the terms I am using, but after serving as Governor for seven years, with less than 12 months left to go, he is no longer governing to get elected, he is governing to be remembered, and so even if these questions wouldn’t have daunted him before, they surely must be now.

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