Saturday, August 06, 2011

White Mythology

Dave Davis is a name that is synonymous on Guam with racist rhetoric aimed at Chamorros. He wrote letters to the editor of the PDN for many years and somewhere along the way was given a regular column in the Marianas Variety which he calls very warmly "The Outsider Perspective." In his column he regularly attacks the Government of Guam, Chamorro culture, Chamorro activists, and people who use Federal social services. These are things that everyone on Guam regularly assaults verbally, but the difference is that most people save those conversations for when they are amongst people they know agree with them and can therefore enjoy all the pleasures of racist rhetoric without fear of someone saying "Taimanu un atotga sumangan ennao!"

But what makes Davis particularly odious for most people on Guam is that he doesn't only attack those who people usually attack, but he does also take glee in attempting to eviscerate Chamorro culture. He enjoys arguing that there is no Chamorro culture, and that if there is any Chamorro culture it's all disgusting and part of the problem on Guam and shouldn't be protected or promoted. He even goes so far as to argue that the vitality of Chamorro culture is heavily dependent on how much Federal money is floating around. That is something which might offend alot of people, but it is in some ways true. So much of life on Guam and not just for Chamorros is seen through the lens of whether or not some mystical Federal funding is available for it.

In the multicultural paradise that is Guam, where every culture is beautiful Davis is an anathema. He is one that alot of people secretly enjoy reading and following since he says things they believe, and many pine for the days when you used to be able to tell Chamorros or Micronesians to their face what you thought about them and their culture. In a multicultural world you are not supposed to say bad things about anyone's culture. Every culture is different, every culture has good or bad, but we are supposed to see the differences as horizontal and not vertical, so no one's culture is supposed to be above another, and so no one culture is supposed to be able to judge another's.

But what makes Davis even more unique and even more racist is the fact that he doesn't only challenge the multicultural framework by saying that Chamorro culture is defective today, he even goes on to argue that Chamorro culture was defective in the past! In the mind's of most Chamorro culture exists today, but it doesn't exist in it's original or best form. You celebrate Chamorro culture in some cases, but secretly feel like it is all a joke, because the real Chamorros were killed off long ago and their culture was eradicated and breeded out of them with hundreds of years of colonialism and adaptation. So it is very common, even amongst Chamorros to argue that Chamorro culture is defective or non-existent today.

But no one dares to argue that Chamorro culture, in its original form, in the state it was before it was tainted by colonialism is bad. If anything, there is something noble about it, something beautiful about it, precisely because of the fact that it doesn't exist anymore and is a relic of an older and simpler time. But Davis spares no quarter for Ancient Chamorros, arguing that their culture was stagnant and worthless, producing nothing that matters to this world or to history. He mocks the arguments that people make about Chamorro culture even back then meaning anything or being important by comparing it to other cultures who have clearly accomplished so much, by producing incredible empires and the technology that makes the current global moment possible. For example, the fact that Chamorros created latte and sakman are great feats given their historical and regional context, but when compared to others, they pale in comparison to the creation of great things such as the internet, the Constitution, the airplane and so on.

What makes Davis' rhetoric so interesting is how it represents an very old racist notion, one which no one is supposed to publicly adhere to anymore. It is something which is always out there, lurking beneath the surface, feeding into so much in life without ever being spoken of. You could call Davis a white supremacist or a Eurocentrist, but this is not racism in terms of him thinking that white people are racially better, but a more practical and rational form of racist argumentation. He considers people such as Chamorros as part of the scattered dark and exotic foreign people who never amounted to much in history, but who just sat in their huts until Europeans came and made some use of their lands or of them. The Others of Europe are seen as diffuse and atomized, but on the flipside Europe and its protege, the United States are seen as one continuous entity and spirit. It is also beneficial to see Europe in this way because then world history becomes this love letter to white people and what white people have accomplished over time. The accomplishments of hundreds of different types of white and not quite white people, from dozens of different countries, over two to three thousand years all become part of this massive white mythological bastion, "Western Civilization." The United States can therefore take credit for everything that comes from that great white story, whether it be Columbus, Socrates, the Magna Carta, George Washington, freeing slaves, fighting fascism or the internet.

This is the position from which Davis regularly writes when he is attacking Guam and Chamorros. He represents Western Civilization, the apex of which is the United States, and no one can argue that this is not the dominant ideological, political, cultural and economic force in the world today. And so when he argues that Guam is a crappy and terrible place, he isn't arguing in the most accurate or most fair terms. He is arguing pretty much the fantasy of white people and the Enlightenment against a tiny island in the Pacific which has been colonized for the past 350 years.

It is of course impossible for Guam to compare to the United States in so many ways. But this is something that people often forget, and still make comparisons anyways. For example, it is common to argue against Guam by contrasting it to what people have or what people do in larger countries such as the US or the Philippines. Guam is an island of not even 200,000, how can one compare what it has accomplished with what other places with millions have done? This is where the nationalistic pinings that are part of life on Guam end up doing it a disservice, where people place Guam in that fraternity of sovereign nations, both without it actually having that ability, but also implying that the abstract equality of nations is also supposed to somehow manifest in them having equal ability as well.

But the more important point is that what Davis uses to judge Guam negatively with doesn't exist anyways. I called Western Civilization a huge myth or fantasy and when you let the foundation of your identity get riddled with myths, it is natural for your contemporary articulations of your identity or interpretations of that foundation to be loaded with fantasies as well. That is why Davis' articles are so full of what any objective person would call fantasies about the United States. Modern myths which feel fantastic if you love the United States and identify with it, or feel that it's supremacy gives you meaning in life, but actually don't come close to being true. These are ideas which billow the egotistical hot air balloon of American exceptionalism. They are soaked in positivity and assumptions that whatever the US does must be good and that anything that is good it must be at the top of. Americans believe that they give the most in terms of foreign aid, when in per capita terms they don't, and much of their aid is military, meaning it is money so they can buy US weapons. Americans believe that they are against every bad conflict in the world, fighting to stop it, and that they are leading at the forefront of every conflict which is good and must be fought. Every nation lives under the pallor of this national virus of sinlessness and supremacy but the United States struggles, because of its power and its global reach and interests, with a particularly virulent form. So when the people of the United States believe the wet dreams of its apologists, it has global proportions.

This is why Guam is such a terrible place for Davis and why he loathes with such a passion those who advocate the island's decolonization in some form or another. Guam is a part of the United States, which regularly feels and acts like it isn't. Guam of course has every right to feel like it isn't since it is not fully incorporated and so it feeling and acting like it is outside of the American circle of belonging isn't the tantrum of a spoiled child, but rather rational thinking based on reality. But Guam is a piece of America which appears to lag behind the fantasies of it in so many ways. So that alone is enough for Davis to condemn the island as being one of the worst places in the world. But it goes even further than this, since there are those who want to take things from the United States because of historical injustices or wrongs. They want war reparations, they want their language to come back to life, they want a political status change. For someone who lives off the liquor of mythical white supremacy this is simply immoral. You have here this disgusting little island challenging the power and authority of the greatest nation in the history of the universe. It is from the perspective of someone like Davis, unfathomable and impossible. How could this little tiny dot which has never done anything attempt to argue anything in the face of the country which controls everything and which in his mind has done everything already?

This says nothing of course of the fact that the fallacies of Davis in terms of those things he supports are equal to the fallacies of those things he hates. Despite the authoritative tone of his articles he is regularly inaccurate with his descriptions of local history and culture. But that is the ideological bonus of sucking gleefully from the teat of blind nationalism, is that it comes with this extra boost of convincing yourself of every silly negative notion that you can come up with about those you want to hate.

I read Davis' column every week and always struggle with how to respond. He is usually so wrong on so many levels it is difficult to think of where a teachable moment for his pieces might begin. I was happy this week to see a response to him amongst the letters to the editor. The letter came from Bruce Karolle, a former professor at the University of Guam who wrote a book a few years back about the Guam Federation of Teacher's strike in the early 1980's. He is a regular on the editorial pages of Guam and usually writes with an interesting perspective. I'm pasting his letter below because it is worth reading, especially his statements that Davis is relying on "myths" of the US which have long been disproven by scholars, his call upon Davis to provide some evidence for what he is saying, and finally the obvious argument that Davis when talking about Guam as being horrible is simply point at problems every community has.

*****************************
The Marianas Variety
August 2, 2011

FOR several consecutive weeks, the Marianas Variety has published "The Outsider Perspective" by Dave Davis, containing his views on the “myths” of the Guamanian people; the Davis title was, “Contemporary Guam Mythology.” Antagonist Davis refers to his "Myth"(s), actually self-defined attributes about Chamorros, and he numbers them (1, 2, 3, etc.). It reminds me of other authors and protagonists who have written about American mythology and American culture.

For me, however, a serious sociologist, Vance Packard in his 1957 book “The Hidden Persuaders” (it contains a long list of bibliographical sources), takes a more professional view and publishes scientific data to prove his observations. Packard's point being that the great American myths specifically are about: rugged individualism, the self-made man, and that Americans are a Christian God's special children; all these notions about who we Americans are – are used by corporations and the media to manipulate and persuade Americans into commercial (and political) behaviors. Further, the Packard point is that through advertising and lobbying, industries and American firms can influence people by focusing on the themes contained in those myths. And, therefore, companies can sell us almost anything!

This brings us to the question: Where did Mr. Davis get his list of myths? Besides Mr. Davis' apparent contempt for people living here in Guam, just examine his mythology (#5), "modern Guam is a democratic, equal opportunity, color-blind melting-pot." Mr. Davis, name your sources.

Having read his articles for several years, there is an apparent lack of recognition that Guam – as a U.S. military base – is a virtual colony of the United States and is controlled or governed by legislation written and passed in the U.S. Congress. Most authorities and interested public figures begin their discussions about contemporary Guam with examinations of the past and the circumstances by which the United States came into control of Guam.

Mr. Davis seems – somehow – to know better. Yes, it is true that many aspects of the American political-economy apply here. Today, we receive American benefits and programs that are extended from Washington D.C., more or less automatically. Even if we want to be self-sufficient and independent, it is difficult to resist the easier path of recipient/benefactor.

Some local critics have argued it was WWII which provided the turning point in our development, and that the combined polices of the Department of Defense and Interior determined what we see here in Guam today. For example, during the 1970s, there was a movement for more nationalistic or Chamorro control. One avenue for this expression was for change in legitimate political status.

Sometime during the period of 1973-75, President Gerald Ford ordered and approved a review of Guam's political status and a study took place which supported a Commonwealth-type status along the same lines as was approved for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. This study was shelved and hidden away until a book by Howard P. Willens and Dirk A. Ballendorf appeared, “The Secret Guam Study,” in 2008.

In essence, it seems to me Mr. Davis has his view focused on very narrow and negative subjects that can be found in most communities. Professor A. Maslow identified a person's view of another person and of another environment as “cognitive dissidence.” In other words, Mr. Davis sees Guam and its people through his own cultural screen. His value system probably incorporates the so-called American myths listed above. High in his mind-set are disapprovals for government block grants which translate as social security benefits for many people here. Perhaps he thinks economic benefits are only for career U.S. diplomats, top echelon security advisors, and career officers in the U.S. military.

Bruce G. Karolle
Tamuning

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