Sunday, March 27, 2011

Guam is a Colony

Guam is a colony. Anyone who says otherwise simply doesn't want to confront the truth.

One of the mistakes that people often conveniently make when discussing the veracity of Guam's contemporary colonial status is making the assumption that in order to call something colonial, it must be the worst and most horrible thing in the world. Make no mistake, Guam is a colony and it is an unjust and immoral fact, but it is not the worst place in the world because of it. But interestingly enough so many people attempt to argue that Guam isn't a colony, just because it it's political status today isn't that bad. They argue that because it's better than before or because it's not as bad as forms of colonialism from time's past, you can't call it a colony.

Part of the problem with this is the simplicity through which people are arguing for something. Simplicity and plain-spokenness is one of the easiest ways to appear to be speaking the truth or speaking of something in both a profoundly important and real sense, while also making your argument appear to be obviously, commonsensically true. So many who argue Guam isn't a colony will say to look at other places which have decolonized and how horrible and disgusting they are, and you shouldn't call Guam a colony because it's better to be a pathetic footnote to the United States, then your own sad sovereign basket case of a story. Others will argue that because Guam has so many privileges and is such a great place that it can't be called a colony. While these sorts of things could be evidence for making an argument about what sort of colony Guam is, or what its experience of colonialism is, they have no effect on saying that Guam is not a colony.

For many years, editor and columnist for the Pacific Daily News Joe Murphy pioneered this way of speaking about Guam's political status. It was a way of not really addressing the issue, while asserting that you were summing up the entire issue in such a commonsensical and clearly obvious way because of how plainly you were speaking about it. Alot of times this happens through references to what "the people" or "most people" think or want. Whenever you use this sort of phrase, it is a way of trying to root what you are saying in something real or true. The folks, the populace, the real people, or the majority of the people, or the people that actually matter and not some troublesome minority feel this and therefore it must be true.

I find this rhetorical tactic interesting. You are shrouding your lack of analysis through the aura of people believing or feeling something. It is similar to the way in which people argue very wrongly that the buildup will be good for Guam because for a long time so many people seemed to support it. The idea that alot of people think something is good is still very far away from something actually being good. It could be an indicator that something is good or it could just be an indicator of what people think or feel and nothing more. It could be more an indication of how stupid and detached from reality people are just as much as how in tune with it they are.

Defining colonialism is not about whether or not people like their situation or whether or not it is the worst or the best situation, it is instead a simple matter of stating what level of self-determination or sovereignty self-government a community has. It is a category which indicates that a community, a polity exists in a fundamentally unequal relationship with another. Where one community holds a gross amount of power over another and there is an absence of any formal and uncoerced acceptance of that situation that is colonialism. It doesn't have to be brutal or nasty, it can be banal and naturalized, and in fact that it is precisely what every colonizer wants, to hold excessive power over a place from which their restrictions or limitations pale in comparison. To have a place where your control which does not make any rational or moral sense over the land or the people there is justified.

One of the main ways in which you can perceive Guam's colonial status today is through the Insular Cases and much Federal-Territorial case law which has developed over the years. The initial decisions of the Insular Cases which argued that the territories of the United States have no inherent rights other than that which the US Congress gives them continue to be the law of the land for the US as of today. The Insular Cases has an interesting way of expressing the most basic way of perceiving colonialism. The Insular Cases do not argue that the people of the territories should be treated well, and neither do they argue that the people in the territories should be treated like crap. What they fundamentally argue is that it is not up to the people of the territories what happens to them, but the Federal Government of the United States. It is the choice of the Federales what they want to do. If they want to treat the people of the territories like they are regular garden-variety Americans, they can do that. If they want to segregate them or treat them differently they can. One of the things which makes this muddier now is the fact that people who are from the territories with the exception of American Samoa are US citizens, and so there remains an unresolved issue of whether or not this absolute authority extends to both the land and the people or only the land.

What we do know is that in terms of fixing Guam's colonial status, meaning the island finally undergoing a process of decolonization, Presidents and Cabinets and Congresses for decades have been very clear in how they would "allow" this to happen. That although territories are not fully within the circle of American political belonging, this exceptionalism is not supposed to afford them any extra rights, not even in terms of their decolonizing. This is where we can see colonialism in the way it usually appears in Guam's case, as a stupid joke. Guam is allowed to decolonize so long as it always remains within the authority over the colonizer, it is not allowed to decolonize in anyway which extends beyond what the colonizer wants or is willing to allow. This is of course hypocritical, immoral, wrong and all of those things and in the case of Guam all of the nice things or great feelings of Americaness that people feel do nothing to affect this simple fact. Guam is a colony and it will remain so until this is changed, and making excuses that colonialism doesn't exist or is somehow the best thing for Guam doesn't do much except implicitly articulate that Guam is one of those unique places in the world which should not have any control over its future.

It is interesting how the arguments against a place such as Guam being decolonized are built upon a quiet and unspeakable assumption that huge swaths of the world would be better off colonized and that it was a mistake for them to be decolonized. When I say unspeakable it is something which so many people feel (in both the former colonized and colonizing world), but thankfully has come to the point where it cannot really be spoken of since the arc of the moral universe has been bent to the point where it can be universally accepted as being wrong. The world is still gray on whether or not colonialism was right, since even those who have suffered feel like their identities or their existence is impossible without the violent disruptions of colonialism, but all can agree that it should not exist anymore. A contemporary colony such as Guam, while being in the periphery of the current world order, nevertheless feels the full weight of the center of this imperialist nostalgia. I find it interesting that when the topic of decolonization is proposed or discussed in Guam, even amongst so-called learned and intelligent people, it is still nearly difficult for a learned or intelligent conversation to take place. The weight of that unspoken belief that the world was better when it was colonized and that when people were under the heavy or imperceptible thumb of another things were more prosperous and more stable it inundates life in Guam even if people don't know it or feel it. The spectre of third world chaos and of not having access to the dreams the colonizer has long dangled before the widening eyes of those it has colonized feel more strongly than ever.

When people refuse to talk about decolonization or demonize it, they feel this pressure and therefore make their arguments (or lack thereof) as if they are doing the public good. Decolonization is a dangerous proposition which can only lead to Guam no longer being a Third World colony of a First World country, but simply a Third World country. The subordination and the rank dependency is a necessarily evil in order to keep Guam from joining the league of disastrous economies and tragic societies that is the formerly colonized and eternally developing world. But as I said earlier, even if many people believe this, you cannot really say it out loud. It is a thinking based on racism, not reality. It doesn't matter what pathetic little tokens you can point to which colonization brought to this society or that. Colonies were hardly as rich, as secure or as nice as people remember them to be, on both ends of the spectrum. They were and are always in some way sites of racism, imperialism and exploitation.

In the case of Guam's colonization, if the United States came to Guam in 1898 and set forth a proposal to the Chamorro people that they were going to colonize their island, deprive them of any rights for 50 years, attempt to dismantle their language and culture and then later transform their island into what they hope to eternally be their tip of the spear in the Pacific, it is safe to say that very few Chamorros, if they were given the choice, would have taken the offer. This is why you can rarely, openly argue in favor of colonialism, even if so much of the rhetoric about it as a system is that it is ultimately good for the people who are oppressed by it. It is, on its surface so commonsensically wrong, and so that is why it becomes so difficult to even find a way to nicely articulate it, which doesn't sound like you are saying that non-white people should forever be shackled to white countries in order to civilize and take care of them. Guam suffers from the fact that you can make that argument proactive, presumptively, and can argue in favor of colonization, without mentioning it, but by only invoking the specter of savage and hopeless decolonization in order to prop it up.

Even if you love the United States and want Guam's relationship with it to be permanent you still cannot deny that Guam is a colony, and in the long run it does Guam no good to think otherwise. Those who deny the clearly obvious nature of Guam's colonial status are doing the dirty work of those who would want to argue that the world was better off when the majority of it was colonies run by colonizers. They may not make this argument clearly, but they draw from the same well of racial logic.

The impetus for this post came from the letter to the editor of the Marianas Variety below written by Ed Benavente, former Maga'lahi of the group Nasion Chamoru and also former director of the Decolonization Commission for the Government of Guam. The letter was written in response to several columns by UOG professor Ron McNinch who has a piece every Thursday in the paper.
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On Guam as a colony .
Friday, 18 March 2011 03:40
Letter to the Editor
Marianas Variety

I found Dr. Ron McNinch’s recent column, “Politics and Status” quite interesting. (Marianas Variety Guam March 10, 2011.)

I just find it amusing that he would use one issue, although significant, to be the wake- up call for our leaders to realize we’ve been ignored for a long time.

The political reality is that Washington historically has always ignored grievances expressed by our political leaders, since the early 1900s.

Dr. McNinch argues that Guam is not really a colony. Like his predecessors of the same affinity, he paints a rosy picture that Guam is pretty much self-governing.

I initially thought perhaps the professor didn’t understand the concepts of colonization, non-self-governing territories, full self-government, de-colonization and self-determination in the context of international definition and application. However, his credentials at the University speak for themselves.

His “bottom line simple approach” in resolving our problems with the federal government gives the impression that achieving a new political status is pretty much petty and for the moment.

I thought the professor had a profound approach for the administering power to finally comply with treaties so our people can finally have the opportunity to exercise their right to self-determination.

But this was not the case.

Instead, like others before him, he tends to ridicule and put the blame on our self-defeating government and cowardly local leaders.

Moreover, McNinch suggests perhaps we should move toward an organic-act constitution, (the old “cart before the horse” which literally means “let’s forget about political status and settle for a constitution”). He then concludes by asserting that independence and free association are not very good status options.

Wow! That leaves statehood as the only option, as opposed to the three choices in the Treaty. He defends this assertion by saying that with the exception of Singapore all other nations have become “Third World.”

I couldn’t believe these suggestions were coming from a learned individual who teaches in Guam’s highest institution of learning. What does this all mean? Does it mean that independence is only good for some nations and not for others? Are nations who choose independence not entitled to evolve? How and who measures what constitutes “Third World?”

Would Belau or the Republic of the Philippines, for example, fall under his definition of Third World? Or are the people who hold this mindset just making these absurd assertions to maintain the status- quo?

Could it be that the political science professor is not aware of the Treaty signed and ratified by the United States back in December, 1946?

Is McNinch aware that the Treaty of 46’ requires the United States Mission to the United Nations to submit reports annually to the Secretary General and other entities within the United Nations regarding Chamoru political, social and economic development?

If we were truly self-governing why would the administering power continue to report to the UN on Guam’s political development? He said it himself, that when he writes, it is in his nature to agitate some people. I welcome any intellectual discourse on the subject of self-determination, but reject any notion that “all is good” in a colony.

A detractor to the process of de-colonization and someone who advocates perpetual hegemony of a people is no different than a slave master who opposes the emancipation of blacks.

I truly feel that these political experts should stop coming up with unrealistic solutions. There is a system already in place that was conceived by the United States and 50 other nations back in 1946. Over a hundred nations within the United Nations have gone through this process. There are only 16 Territories remaining that have yet to de-colonized, Guam being one of them.

Eddie L.G. Benavente
Mangilao

1 comment:

Tamagosan said...

Yes, yes and more yes. Well-said as usual. A great deal of the unspoken nature of colonialism stems for pure ignorance, which is always oh-so-convenient for the colonizers...

As for romanticizing "colonial days" (as if those days are not still upon us, and if not politically, then economically), I saw a lot of that during my years in France, that great colonizer and great romaticizer! People forget that it was only romantic for some, always the powerful minority. Those gray areas are just so stubbornly painful to remember.

I find the best way to come to terms with all of this is to read literature from France's former colonies. A voice is a powerful thing!

Ah, I'll stop rambling on since you've said everything so well, but merci encore !

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