Thursday, February 02, 2012

Restricting Liberation

The concept of Liberation is something so intimate to Guam, but the way it is intimate here is so skewed that I find it so tragic sometimes. Liberation in the non-religious sense comes in the past few centuries of human thought and human events. As humans begin to see themselves as possessing things which are either God-given or exist apart from the direct machinations of a grand deity, they see themselves as having other abilities save for those that come from God's design. For example, if you believe strongly that God has an order for everything, or that everything should be left up to him or her, than why do you attempt to improve yourself or change your lot in life? If you are born poor, should you stay poor? If you are born rich, shouldn't you stay rich? Religion generally stands in the way of changing the world because even if the world appears to be wrong or unfair, there is a world behind the world we cannot perceive or appreciate, and therefore it is best that we leave those things up to God.

At least in Europe over the past few centuries, this starts to get challenged. It is an ironic challenge naturally. Europeans travel the world and conquer and subjugate people on a truly global scale. They exploit their lands, enslave them and destroy so much. But as they do this, as what happens in all colonial exchanges, is that by subduing and destroying another, you start to perceive yourself as more powerful. They see themselves as even being able to break their religious bonds. "Liberation" is a concept that emerges in a new form at this time. As men have some reason, as human beings have the ability to not just accept the world, but also to understand it and change it, they have the ability to determine their own future. Men should not be captives to their religion, and people should not be slaves to their kings. The Enlightenment was driven by an idea that men can liberate themselves from ignorance and can create worlds which are aligned with the way men should live.

European men argued this, but did their best to ensure that as few others as possible were allowed to embody this. That is why for example when non-male, non-European groups would emerge to take up the cause of the Enlightenment they would be shut out and shut down. Women's groups in France during their revolution were condemned for daring to suggest that Enlightenment principles somehow meant that women should have the same rights as men. The slave rebellion in Haiti that eventually created the first black republic did not condemn the Enlightenment, but rather claimed to be a result of it. Men really could be free and equal. But was Haiti welcomed into the emerging brotherhood of Enlightened nations? No, it was oppressed and exploited for two centuries since regardless of what the Enlightenment in theory said, in practice darker bodies are always meant to suffer and serve lighter bodies.

Regardless of this contradiction, liberation is ultimately an act of "self-determination." It is an act whereby a community or a person removes themselves from something and set out a brand new path. It is something to be proud of. Even if the circumstances that follow are not ideal and not the promised paradise they might have been, there is still some pride, some foundational emotion in what you or your people did to break free.

Guam, in the way in which liberation is generally understood here, does not fit this description. Guam was a colony of the US before World War  II, it was taken by Japan during World War II, and then the US returned in 1944 to take it back. The occupation by the Japanese was brutal and while you could call the American return a liberation from Japanese violence, to call it a liberation is difficult. When the US liberated France in World War II, it meant that the occupiers were kicked out and the people restored to power. In Guam this did not happen. It was a colony before the war and it remained a colony after the war. Could you call it then a liberation? Does a return to colonial power really count as a liberation?

But a deeper level to this is the ways in which Guam sees liberation as something that someone else did for it. As I mentioned liberation is generally equated with ideas of being "self-determined" but how do you respond when someone else "liberates" you? Does that mean that they are the ones who accumulate all the aura of being self-determined or being proud and powerful? If so, what does that leave you, the liberated with? The dependency? The inadequacy? The need to be saved? This is the nature of how liberation has evolved in Guam since World War II. It has been configured as an annual celebration of the greatness of the United States, and their ability to liberate things big and small.

If you have ever wondered why Guam, while being a colony is so resistant to talking about life after colonialism, this restriction notion of liberation is part of that. Colonialism ending on Guam could be independence, but it could also mean statehood. But, it is intriguing how people in Guam in general don't want anything other than the subordinate, unequal status that Guam has today. When offered the chance to either be equal with the US through independence or become a full member of the US through statehood, they reject both and cling to the status quo. You could argue that independence is too radical because Guam is already so American that if could never live without the US, but then why is it that people don't want statehood either? Why is it that people on Guam live in quiet fear of becoming part of the country they worship and see as their liberator?

This is the problem with liberation. If it is something you do yourself it empowers you. If it is something that another does for you, it creates the potential for you to be forever in their debt. The problem today is that World War II and Guam's liberation from the Japanese has become to central to Guam, its identity and its history, that the basic relationship mapped out by that experience, as one with all the power to save, the other the weakness to be saved, continues to be hegemonic. Even if you love the United States, your attachment to it is not defined by something shared or something that equalizes, but rather it is defined by something that establishes one of you as being territory to be claimed and re-claimed and the other, the powerful force that has the authority to do so. The way you are connected to the US is that you were something they exercised power over, something liberated by it and so even the aspect of self-determination that would make you see past this subordination, and see yourself as something capable or deserving of being equal, eludes your grasp.

Given the rhetoric of Governor Eddie Calvo last year, I wonder if we are seeing a shift in the way liberation is understood on Guam. After liberation being for decades this concept in which Guam eagerly and joyously celebrated its subordination and dependency, the Governor last year in his statement to the United Nations declared that "self-determination = liberation." The context the Governor presented this in means that Guam finally decolonizing and being allowed to vote on its next political status will also complete the mission that Marines started in 1944 when they hit Guam's beaches in order to dislodge the Japanese entrenched here. To call the US return in 1944 a liberation is hollow despite the annual fanfare. If the US truly meant to liberate Guam, then Guam would not be stuck in the political limbo it has been in since the war. His argument, as I've written about before is meant to place "self-determination" in a context which is both faithful to the idea that people on Guam should have this chance, but also finds root in an American explanation for decolonization. You could argue that since America decolonized and threw off the burden of their colonizer long ago, Guam should have that same right. But this argument remains abstract for most people. What has much more substance to the average person on Guam today is the idea that decolonization was something started by the US in 1944, and it is just something that we await for them to help us finish.

As I am explaining this, I should note that I do not necessarily agree with everything I am stating. The idea that decolonization in Guam stems from the US, even in this sort of twisting of rhetoric is unfortunate and inaccurate. It may be something you might want to tactically admit to or say since it makes people both on Guam and in the US feel better, since the idea of Guam choosing its political future is not as transgressive. So while this approach of the Governor is not the most radical thing, there is room in there for some radical maneuvering. "Self-determination = Liberation" can also be interpreted outside of the US. It can also be interpreted as a self-liberation, decolonization as an act, or a choice that Guam takes on its own, to decide for itself. So while the changing nature of liberation on the one hand appears to be acceptable since it is always being engulfed by the US, there are also ways that it escapes. 

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