Friday, January 14, 2011

Against the Buildup

In a post last year titled "The Buildup Bubble or I'm Looking Through You" I discussed an exchange I had with a student last semester where they challenged the idea that Guam had changed over the past year on the military buildup issue. Here is an excerpt from my post below:
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.
After teaching classes during the intersession I noticed how different my students were on the public issue then when I first started teaching at UOG in 2008 and 2009. That was one thing which made me want to revisit the previous post and this issue.

The FEIS was released the ROD was signed and so now more than a year after the whole DEIS process began, it is interesting to look back and take stock of what did change and what are evidence we can see around us of that change. The buildup remains an omnipresent issue, something everyone has somewhere in their mind, but it is not discussed in the same ways it was before. The euphoria in the media and from certain sectors of society has faded significantly and certain ways of talking about the buildup have become codified. The DEIS period helped to embed in the concept of the buildup, its status as a sort of master-signifier, something which stitched together so many disparate threads of discourse, alot of critical notions. By critical notions I mean ideas which were once errant and random, which were seen as not unrealistic, unpatriotic, silly or the kind of talk which might burst the illusionary bubbles of economic prosperity that some in the media, government and civil society were blowing. The DEIS period opened up the concept of the buildup, it laid bare its mechanics and as a result, when it was sown up, when the FEIS and ROD were released and signed and the concept was declared fit for duty. But the damage had been done, when the commenting process and the actually reading of the DEIS had basically chumunagat, or slit open the belly of the buildup, it could not be sown up again without consequences and so many of the critiques, the symbols of resistance to the buildup, the strands of discourse that incited anger, ambivalence, distrust over it were shoved in with the tilipas.

The concept of the buildup today is not the way it was conceived in 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006 or 2005. You could argue that the public was always ambivalent over the buildup, divided over how it would improve things but also upset and damage things, but almost all sides of the debate could agree that the public perception was mainly positive. The media coverage was overwhelmingly positive, flawed but still relevant opinion polls were the same. Government officials were positive, with a dash of somber-I-am-a-leader-look-at-how-I-furrow-my-brow-when-I-talk-about-how-concerned-I-am-about-the-buildup. As I've written about before, this support for the buildup was built on knowing practically nothing about what the buildup would entail. One of the reasons why I say that the polling on the buildup was flawed is because it missed the level of knowledge of people about the buildup. When the first polls were done they always gauged whether or not people supported the buildup, long before it was even clear what was meant by the term itself!

I was reminded of how pointless the polls for newspapers such as the PDN often are. They ask people to grade the performance of the government on a topic, and usually most people who vote have no actual knowledge about the government's performance on said topic. Instead they draw their opinions from random personal experiences, things they hear and the perceived tendencies in the discursive web. They may be inclined to follow the patterns they see or may want to assert an oppositional identity and work against the flow. But ultimately a poll such as that means little, has little substance because it cannot make that crucial connection between opinion or support for something and how much is known about it.

Today, I would argue, and when I say this, it is based solely on my analysis of media coverage and my interactions with people, I have done no polls to support this, that knowledge of the buildup has increased and that is one of the main reasons why the public has become more measured and the issue is no longer dealt with in such laudatory tones.

Support was high so long as the world of discourse that gave the building meaning and shape was dominated by things which had nothing to do with the buildup. So long as people conceived the buildup through sinthomes such as "more military = more money" or "more America = more better everything" or "militarization is the way Guam gets to be American" and that, like most colonial tropes, led to plenty of support, because people felt the build through feelings of wanting to be more American or feeling that. The buildup was interpreted primarily as one of many tests of Guam's readiness to serve America, to be part of America, to get to enjoy America. And in those terms, of course Guam, in all its colonial amnesia naturally enthusiastically shouted hunggan! Biba!

Once the buildup became something tangible, once it was actually determined what it was supposed to be, meaning that it wasn't just the golden ticket so many businesspeople promised it would be, but would actually have material effects, some of which were negative, things changed. Once it became attached to certain places, certain things. Once it was no longer that floating, no-strings-attached, extra-special stuff from the liberator which so many on Guam pine for, but became places such as Pagat, or became 71 acres of coral, or was felt and given meaning through the possibility of extra time in traffic. longer waits at GMH and increases in crime.

It was interesting how the personalization of the buildup, the way that people used to connect to the sheer nothingness of the buildup in positive ways, using its emptiness to imagine pretty much whatever they want, has become negative as well. In the beginning, the buildup was going to good for everybody, everyone, from the lowliest employee at a hotel to the owner of a major corporation all thought there would be something big for them as part of the buildup. They made the connection to whatever they personally might have wanted or felt, such as better wages, new businesses, new franchises, more federal money, more respect from the rest of America or more customers and infused it into the buildup. But now those positives are joined by a host of negatives, as people perceive the buildup as causing Guam to lose things, or things to not be fixed or improved, but actually get worse and fall apart even more. And this has its own personal dimensions. People loathe the buildup because of losing lands, losing access, more people, more traffic, loss of community, etc. Interestingly enough, both sides of equation can have little connection to reality. For example, the issue of Pagat and the possible loss of public access there has brought many people into the discussion who never would have joined it before. But their change of attitude or creation of a new critical opinion on the issue isn't necessarily accurate. Just because it is something which I agree with or am happy to exist, it doesn't mean it's true and so many of the people who are upset about Pagat don't really know what the situation is, but are simply responding to perceptions or the way things shift and push and pull in the world of discourse on Guam.

It is funny when I think back to my argument with that student. He wasn't really paying attention to what was going on, but simply sticking to an ideological argument. If he was paying attention he would have noticed clear differences. If I had mentioned to my students 4 years ago that I wanted to take the class to Pagat, most people would have asked what that is or why they had to go? As of today when I mention taking my students to Pagat most of them are happy to go and often cite incorrect information as to why they want to now go. They say that they want to go now since it will be closed anyday, sometimes they even ask if we still can go since they associate the signing of the ROD with the closing of Pagat. It was funny because, the student in question was in a class which I took to Pagat and so he could have seen with his own eyes the changes in his peers. What has taken place is not a turning of the tide, a complete shifting of it. To say that the island is now against the buildup seriously overstates people's opposition or their critiques. But there are far more critiques and negative interpretations of the buildup than ever before, and even more importantly, there is the feeling that people have turned their opinions on the buildup. Which is one of those paradoxical things in the study of ideology, which has a way of performing the things it is meant to represent. The belief that people are now against the buildup leads to far more people feeling they too are against the buildup.

I am grateful to have been around this past year and to see these changes, to write about them and to live on an island that exhibits them.

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