Sunday, April 25, 2010

History and Happiness

In my Guam History class this week we’re getting to one of my favorite periods of Guam’s history, but one which my students usually don’t like hearing about. It’s the pre-war American period, from 1898-1941, where the United States controlled Guam and ran it like a Navy base, with Chamorros forced to go along for the ride. The government of Guam during this period was an autocratic Naval regime where a single man, the Naval Governor, had complete control over the island, and whatever he said, went. Most of these Naval Governors didn’t give a crap about Guam and were only here for a year or two and so didn’t do much. Lao despite that caveat, this is still a very screwed up and racist period of Guam history. One where, the racism of the United States is not some abstract thing we hear about as being conquered by Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama, but something that was literally scrubbing the tongues and policing the fields and gardens of Chamorros who are still alive today.

For those unfamiliar with this era, I like the way the wife of one such Naval Governor Evelyn Nelson referred to Guam’s political status at the time, “a dictatorship America style!” As a result of America strategic interests, the decisions of the Insular Cases and the general racism, Chamorros were deprived of any rights other than that which the US government or the US Navy gave them. As such, this was a period of, i sinangan-ña i lai-ta. His word, our law. Whatever a Naval Governor or a President or the US Congress said or passed was the law of the Chamorros, and they had no means to real means to participate in the making of that law or avenues through which they could challenge it. Things are different today, as more tokens have been created to give the impression of Guam being a full member of the United States family, but the colonial difference persists in so many ways. One of the most fundamental ways in which it persists, is that the legal precedents which allowed the US Navy to treat Chamorros in such racist ways are still the laws that govern America’s control over its colonies. According to more than a century of US-Territorial case law now, Guam is no closer than it was in 1898 or 1901 to holding any inherent rights other than that which the US gives it. This, despite the fact that Guam is not a full member of the United States.

In my class, when we discuss other traumatic periods of Guam history, such as the Chamorro-Spanish Wars, where horrible cruelty and violence led to Chamorros losing that war and being forced to become Catholics, I can tell that some of my students become uncomfortable. As they listen, they can feel beyond just the spectator view of history, which claims that history is like a movie or a TV show, acted out for your enjoyment of learning. Those students who become depressed or awkward do so because they make the connections between that period and their lives. Whether they like it or not, want to admit it or not, they and this island today is a result of that violence. We are the scars, the scabs, the life which has grown along that ragged wound. Hundreds of years may have passed since then, a trillion decisions made and thousands of lives run their course, but when this is presented to you in a history class, with everything laid bare, you know that you are directly connected to that, and with a simple twist, things in your life today could be very different.

But no one alive today was alive during that period, manmatai esta todu, and whatever feelings you might have that Chamorro suffered and were treated wrongly can be accepted as true, but also dismissed through the passage of time. We can all agree that Chamorros were treated badly and shouldn’t have been treated as such, but we can also all agree that there is nothing that we can do about it. All of those people are dead and long, we are forced to be Spanish and so there isn’t really anything we can do about that today.

But when the focus becomes the screwed up things that the United States did to Guam, and the time frame is just a few generations ago, and there are plenty of people alive who remember that time, the ragged wound of that period is harder to cover over, and is far from reaching the point where all can agree to it being over. This is not something that affected Chamorros 300 years ago and so its ripples today are supposed to be small, this is something where the ripples are massive. We can directly relate the experiences of Chamorros during that pre-war colonial period to the decisions that were made during the postwar period, at all levels. Whether it came to preventing the Chamorro language from being passed on, to how Guam’s economy should be built, to what normal names for children are supposed to be, to how our educational system is run, to what sort of government and health care system we have, to even whether we see Guam as a place capable of sustaining itself or something which needs to be hopelessly dependent on others.

People on Guam don’t consider themselves to be Spanish anymore (except for those who have Spanish parents or some Chamorro families who enjoy that heritage), but they do consider themselves to be American, and so when you are taught a huge laundry list of messed up things that the United States did to your island and the Chamorro people, you cannot help but have the stability or certainty of your identity and your belonging be pierced. Obviously hearing this list of bad things doesn’t immediately transform anyone, it doesn’t immediately turn you into some activist or radical independence seeker. If that was the case my classes wouldn’t be full of students who are put off by the subject matter, but rather animated by it.

Instead, the history complicates things. This is especially so in the colonies. It makes it just a little bit more, or a lot more difficult to keep up that pretense of denying that you do not live in a colony, or that your claim to being a part of the United States is not an exceptional one.

Now a lot of people would claim that this sort of perspective is not helpful or is regressive. They would say that I am focusing too much on the past, or the bad things that have happened in the past, and by doing so I am sacrificing the future, I am keeping us from looking forward to the possibilities that the violence, trauma or abuse of the past has made possible. According to this logic, the Spanish did indeed do horrible things to the Chamorro people, killed many and took their land and their destiny, but by doing so, gave them Catholicism and an advantage over other non-modern peoples in terms of their entrance into the modern civilized world. As for the Americans, they treated Chamorros in horrible, but less violent ways, and stole away any chance at them having sovereignty over their lands again and hijacked as well any possibility for their future. But in return, Guam became one of the most modern and economically developed colonies in the Pacific and Chamorros have most of the rights of US citizens.

Therefore there is no real value or point in looking to a violent past, since it can only cloud your vision from perceiving and maximizing the privileges and benefits you have today. It is pointless to think of America or Americans as colonizer, when the island is for all intents and purposes as American as anywhere else. As many have said to me over the years, if Guam is the model of colonialism today, then colonialism means nothing, it doesn’t exist anymore, since Guam has not apparent reason to complain about its status.

Obviously this sort of thinking is very seductive. As Leo Tolstoy supposedly once said, “Happy people have no history.” The implications of this axiom are that only those who are liberated from the violence or the baggage of feeling obligated to something or responsible for something that happened before, can truly be happy. For those who can erase that history, or be free from it, can supposedly on solely the present, enjoy their free will and determine their own future in freedom.

Most people believe that the axiom that “know your past, know your future” is the saying which defines what history is all about, but this pidasun finayi from Tolstoy reminds us about that obscene dimension of history and of every person’s or nation’s identity to their history. Is that while we may all claim to what to know it in some way or want to research it, learn from it and use it, there is always this impulse to be free from it. To not have to apologize for the racist things your parents did, or the evil things your ancestors did, or to not be stuck with a culture or a past that you feel doesn’t really belong to you.

But as I will explain to my students when we conclude the semester, the feeling of being free from your history has very little with you actually being free from it. Not knowing that history, or avoiding it and dodging it does not affect what elements of that past will determine how your life or the future itself unfolds. It is not as simple as “those who don’t know their past are doomed to repeat it,” but that still does hold some truth. What is in your past is embedded in you, it makes you possible. You can never completely disown it or ignore it, and even if you do, that has no impact on whether you will make the exact same mistakes or not.

One of the things I find most fascinating about psychoanalysis, especially in its Lacanian varieties, is that your identity forms from language and your gaining the social admission to the world of language. And so that world and the history of that world is embedded in the very language you speak. It is irrelevant whether you are aware of it or not, but it is still there. For example, a famous philosopher once recounted how while going through the desk of his father, he happened across an old note which recounted the true story of how his wife (the mother of the philosopher) had met. For this philosopher is was an astonishing revelation to read this note, because despite never knowing this story, the way in which the philosopher and his wife at the time had met, had happened in the exact same way. Obviously this could have just been a coincidence, but there are so many similar moments in all our lives, where similar bouts of serendipity or just plain curious twists of fate occur. Where the pieces of the past are attached to the words we speak and the ways we feel, how we become a subject in the world. We follow the footsteps of our elders, our parents, even if we don’t know it, and from Lacan’s perspective you do that because language is a living changing organism, in which you have some freedom, which you exist to determine, make use of and shape, but which also shapes you at the same time. The same could be said about our histories.

For example, some may claim that to consider this buildup from a historical perspective, or to consider it through the lens of some of the messed up history that I’ve mentioned so far is regressive or not worthwhile. As I said before, things are different now and so to bring out all those old racist stories is simply not acknowledging reality today, or that things have changed and things are better now. Forget what history says about this buildup, previous buildups, buildups which have happened in other places, we should not be chained by that pessimism, we should instead boldly strive forward towards the happiness of not having that history dragging us down, or complicate things unnecessarily.

For obvious reasons, I don’t subscribe to this view. I think that when we look historically at the buildup, both in Guam, but also in comparison to other similar locations such as Okinawa and Hawai’i, there are some potential positives, but also a lot of negatives to look out for. Such is the nature of history, it never neatly gives the impression of any natural or pre-determined flow. That is what ideology and power are for, to try and take the raw materials of the past and create a path to the present which either challenges or reproduces the existing socio-political relations. As I’ve already stated, knowing Guam’s history beyond its “liberation” in 1944, or the weak idea that “more military = better economy” means to complicate things quite a deal. It’s hard to endorse wholeheartedly any military buildup to Guam if you know that history of abuse and how some of its tenants are still considered to be legal and true.

It’s for that reason that, from my perspective, a healthy knowledge and understanding of history is what can empower Guam to make good decisions. Guam’s military buildup was so unquestioned and so uncriticized for so long, precisely because it was discussed in such ahistorical ways. The only history which was regularly admitted to the conversation were two points: 1. Liberation Day, and 2. The closing of Naval Air Station in the 1990’s as an example of what happens if you don’t respect the military. They leave.

If you only build your opinions or your plans on these two historical points then of course you should be uncritical of the buildup, and of course it’ll good and great for Guam.

There is also plenty of history beyond these two points which can also clue us into why the buildup might be thought of as a good thing. For example, in previous generations on Guam, an increase in the military presence has also resulted in an increase of good-paying jobs working to support the increased military presence. These civil service positions worked in tandem with the Government of Guam to create a strong middle class on island. So given that experience, one might be able to assume that this coming buildup will result in a similar boost to the economy. But this is where being critical is necessary. The military has changed its policies since those days, and so now much of those civil service jobs are privatized, contracted out and have actually become low paying jobs. They no longer have the same economic boost and they are not as stable as before. Taking those jobs can make your life just as labile as if you’re in the military. In order to keep your job, you move to where contracts or work is. But as the military admits to itself in their DEIS, the majority of the jobs produced by this increase will not go to any local person, but will be filled by foreign contract workers or by military dependents.

The point however is, as I’ve constantly reiterated to people, for and against the buildup: your opinion on the issue has almost no bearing on whether it is good or bad, and whether or not it will happen. Part of the problem that people who are for the buildup have, is that they infuse far too much latent emotion into their understanding of the buildup. They see what people feel about the buildup as being far more important than it should be. In their minds, the buildup is a like a delicate wish, an illusionary castle made from pieces of clouds which with even the slightest negative thought, can be blown to little bits. Therefore we must all be positive about it, or else it won’t happen, we will curse ourselves. It is for this reason that when I was writing my Masters in Micronesian Studies, I came up with the term emotionationalism for talking about the way people on Guam understand themselves in relation to the United States. It is far less concrete than people think it is, and so they infuse into it a mass of emotions in order to try and compensate. This buildup is one of those discursive formations in which we can clearly see that. It is not seen as something which we should analyze and consider carefully its impacts, its positives and negatives. It is instead something we are supposed to suck up and take, accept as part of our being an appendage of the US, a way we can give back for all we have been given. It is not something we are supposed to have any power over, say over, it is a gift, and rather than question it in anyway, we should just accept it and live with it.

If anything, a clear teaching of history can be valuable in that it can help break the lure of this emotionational link. It can help create the space through which we can rationally and calmly evaluate Guam’s relationship to the United States, or the goods and bads of some of its policies, such as the military buildup.

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