Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Military Buildup Bubble: or, I'm Looking Through You...

The DEIS comment period created the impression of a significant amount of people being against the buildup or changing their opinion on the buildup, or being more engaged about it. Since the period ended, much of that feeling of things moving or shifting has changed or evaporated. The comment period did after all provide the perfect space, a window of time and a series of public events where a new image of the island could be forged.

Since that time however, I've heard regular complaints from all sectors of society, that the feel of things moving or changing, or as I've written on this blog, of the buildup "breaking down," was not real, was all just media manipulations and spectacles of dissent. That public opinion on the buildup has always been taihinasso positive, and overwhelmingly supportive. That although the surface of public opinion may have changed from November of last year to February of this year, this is the work of a small minority of people, who staged protests and other pointless actions but didn't really reach the island at large. These points are finally tied together by the notion that the majority of people on Guam always have and still continue to support the planned buildup.

Although this characterization is accurate, the shifting of public focus and discussion was something undertaken by a small but vocal group of individuals (and by this I don't mean We Are Guahan alone, but they were the biggest visible part of it), it’s actually a really stupid point. You can't argue that nothing really changed or happened based on the fact that only a small group of people were engaged on this issue, since that is the nature of all public debates. Furthermore, the fact that the majority of Guam's people didn't take to the streets to oppose the buildup isn't evidence that you can use to claim that nothing happened. The fact that the media coverage changed on the buildup, and the fact that politicians also changed as well are both key points in understanding what took place and what sort of effects the DEIS comment period had on "public opinion."

Now you can argue, as one UOG student did to me the other day, that both of these shifts aren't the "whole island," and that they don't necessarily affect what the rest of the island, or in the speak of people who don't know what they are talking about say it, "real people" think. The student brought this up to complain about how the actions of We Are Guahan didn’t represent what people on Guam really felt and they were clouding the issue and clouding public discourse by appearing to have more impact than they really did.

My response to this student was that he was being very over simplistic. If you think that changes at the level of government and media don't affect the rest of the society, then you are either not paying attention or just being silly. A change in the rhetoric of a governor, or a change in the coverage of a particular activist group doesn't have any predetermined affect, it could have no effect, a large effect, only some could be positively affected, while others are negatively. The media and the government are two of the most frequently maligned ideological nodes within a society, usually because they are two of the most powerful.

The media is the key source of information for a society. People can mistrust it, they can complain about it, but what they hear on the radio, what they glance at in the paper or see on TV all has ways of embedding information and ideas in our minds. Any idea that people who don't consume the "media" are somehow more informed because they don't get the "spin" or the "bias" is stupid. Media is part of the organism of any modern society, you can get your information from many sources, but most people get it from some outlet which exists to communicate to people who might not know, things about the world.

The Government has a similar sort of power. People may loathe their own government and see it as being taibali and horribly inefficient. They may not trust it in the same way and complain that it is full of gagu employees and greedy politicians, but that doesn’t necessarily affect the power that it and its elements have in shaping a society. Even if people might say that they don't trust their government or respect it at all, that spoken discourse, has very little connection to what impact or influence a government has in their lives. For instance you may not trust the Government of Guam very much, but if it passes a law requiring you to do something, then there is a much greater chance that you will comply with it, then if I myself pass a law requiring you to do the same thing. There are a mass of discursive formations and consolidations of perceived power which make this work, but the point is that even if I paid someone to enforce my rules (and created a police force of my own), there would be very little chance that people would willingly obey my order.

So if you admit to some very real shifts taking place at these two points in Guam society, then it is foolish to claim that the rest of the island remained exactly the same. One of the problems with the idea of there being any "real people" in a society is that takes out of your analysis the idea that any society is an organism and that every potential sector holds the potential to change, to mean something different, to feel something different and be affected by others. You imagine a group, a type or a class of people who are not affecting do not change the way others might and therefore hold the key to unlocking the larger society they are a part of. You give a particular group, by default this power of holding that truth, which no group is even close to having.

Just because the "real people," whether they be the grassroots or working people or whichever image of some subaltern class you'd like to invoke, might not believe in Felix Camacho or claim to never read the Pacific Daily News, doesn't mean that they aren't tied to Camacho and the power of the Governor's office or the Government in General in a huge number of ways.

Part of the argument that Guam didn't really change during the DEIS comment period, or that all the changes were just superficial (remember that vocal maladjusted minority?), is also implicit in the "real people" argument. Both miss the point that a society is not solely run by tahdong or "deep" things. That the deep things of a society, those things which are so embedded, as in the personal, true feelings of people, or the parts of society which are supposed to carry the true feeling or true desires of that society are only part of the equation. So for instance, a good poll or survey is supposed to ask people about their deep thoughts, the things that beneath all the balabola and all the dinagi, they are really feeling and caring about. Its a method meant to pierce all the superficial nonsense and get to the core of what is a society, the hearts and thoughts of its people.

The problem as I said is that this is only half of what you need. The deep thoughts of people do not exist in and of themselves, they existing as part of a relationship with all those superficial things, and as such they are not timeless, not set in stone and change on a whim. Even the way that people talk about public issues or concerns changes more so based on what they perceive to be around them, rather than what they feel is their true thoughts.

It is for this reason that I often tell people that the secret to changing opinion or ideology in a society has very little to do with imparting a critical consciousness, or sowing seeds which will produce people who are just like you, and you think and act like you do. In this mindset, you are trying to access that deep part of each person, their core, i korason-ñiha, and help them change at that level. If they don't agree with you, then you have to change their mind, give them a similar consciousness as your own. Most people say that this won't happen because you simply can't reach everybody. Or logistically, there are just not enough days in a year to go out and talk to every freakin person on Guam. But a further problem with this is that it mistakes the way in which the majority of people in a society change, and that is, it is not a part of some magic, inspirational moment, but it happens, usually without them realizing it.

Most people will change their minds and change what they say is that core essence with them on a daily basis, and never account for it as any real change. They will shift as the winds shift. They will shift their depth based on the changes to the surface around them. What they might consider impossible one day, will be inevitable the next. What was unthinkable at one moment for a person becomes commonplace the next. Someone who says they will follow some inane public law, unconsciously ends up complying somewhere along the line.

As the landscape changes, they change as well. Sometimes not much, but a multitude of small changes can create a very significant tidal shift.

If you’ve ever wondered why so many social justice activists are fans of Marx even if they aren’t Marxists or communists? Its because the whole notion of social justice comes from Marx and his social theories. While there is a clear element of consciousness and the interiority of people in Marx’s thought, it is also clear that what gives people consciousness has very little to do with what is inside of them, but is rather what is around them. Prior to Marx, the agency required to change things, to change a society or to change the conditions of existence was something only select classes, usually those at the top could make use of. But what Marx’s intervention establishes is that the type of consciousness required to revolutionize something or to change things is not only reserved for those born into the right families, or those who have a particular education. It is in fact something which can be obtained by the world around you. It is something that can come to you, by how you live and what sort of world you live in. So that’s why in Marx’s philosophy, even those at the bottom or those who we might assume have no power or can have very little effect, are actually those who hold the potential to change everything.

That was a strange little tangent, but still I hope a useful one. The point of this entire post however is that, when taking stock of a community and when trying to gauge something such as whether or not ideas or feelings about the buildup have changed, you have to look at things, the way we look at Chamorro pop music, as deep shallow. That people’s identities are that combination of what they claim is deep inside them and what is always swirling around them, that they draw from to build what they say is deep inside them.

So that’s why, I would argue that things have definitely changed in the past few months, and in my opinion for the better. This doesn’t mean that things won’t regress, they very much can. If the DOD can come up with $50 million for the port like Congresswoman Bordallo said they would, it would be the first step in getting Guam back to being more positive and welcoming about the buildup. Guam’s relationship to its colonizer is one fraught with problems, but like any not so healthy relationship of this kind, while one partner may feel like they aren’t being respected or treated properly all the time, so long as the other appears to make an effort, makes some sort of symbolic gesture of recognition, then everything can quickly become golden again.

But, as it is now, what the activism of the DEIS period accomplished, it that it put Guam into a less blindly supportive position, and therefore a much stronger position. I used the term blind in the previous sentence because that is how Guam was treating this buildup for so long, and unfortunately is likely to again. Those who supported the buildup, made no gestures towards undertaking a real plan for how Guam would benefit from the buildup, simply asserting that it’ll be great and any problems can simply be dealt with. Almost completely moronic public opinion polls and surveys which indicated that the majority of the people support the buildup were bandied about to silence those who were asking questions and making very real critiques. I have to laugh when I think back to how often the PDN would plug into its articles a line about how a Chamber of Commerce survey had indicated that anywhere between 70-80% of island residents support the buildup. When trying to understand the scope and the size of the buildup, its potential negative impacts or the problems it represents, what does any of that have to do with how many people want it to happen? Is it supposed to be some ridiculous argument that the negative impacts would be okay since people want it anyway, no matter what happens?

This is one of the problems with those sorts of claims to the truth of a community, is that even as much as it reveals and purports to create a truth for you, that truth can easily blind you. The fact that “most” people might support a US military buildup in Guam might mean something in terms of how politicians should act if they would like to get elected, but it has almost no relevance to whether or not the military buildup is good for Guam. But since 2005, the idea that Guam supports the military or supports the buildup has led to this sort of haze, which has paralyzed some and stimulated others. It has led to that feeling of inevitability which leads people to not analyze or understand what is going to happen, but instead to just let it happen.

This brings me back to what I started this post with, my frustration with those who I’ve overheard speaking about the fact that the DEIS comment period may not have changed much, or didn’t amount to much because the voices of dissent didn’t represent the whole island, or the real people, or whatever udu na variation you’d like to chose from. It’s frustrating, because I have to wonder what these people are imagining or thinking of when they make these claims. Was the DEIS comment period a storm that had to be weathered and so rather than listen to anything or hear any critical voices, we should celebrate that the people of Guam successfully hid in caves until the storm was over? Were the activists or people who spoke out during that period, or were the criticism that emerged or gained traction such evil temptations which had to be resisted?

Rather than gloat over some perceived imperviousness that the people of Guam have to thinking about the issues their island is confronting, the focus should be on what sorts of ideas and important information did come out during that comment period. Things felt different during that period because frankly they were, there was more information disseminated about the military buildup during those three months than the previous three years. Those three months felt different because things were changing, the stupid commonsensical notions that people usually have about “more military = more money/better everything” were definitely and rightfully challenged. The buildup was no longer that golden ticket that real estate agents, JGPO representatives and Governors of Guam had promised it would be. It had instead become closer to what it should be. Something which has some positives and some negatives. Something which could improve some things on Guam, and something which could destroy and damage some things as well.

Just as the real estate market bubble on Guam was burst recently, that idealized military buildup bubble had to be burst as well. After all, if you’re trying to plan for your future and make decisions about it, the less illusions you have, the better.

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