Sunday, April 29, 2012

Kopbla Amerika #2: Chamorro Patriotism

One issue that every young Chamorro activist has to deal with, is the same issue that so many on Guam struggle with; their relationship to the United States. Guam's relationship to the US in general is ambiguous, it may be considered very American one moment, but then barely American the next. People from their may be the epitome of Americanness one moment, and then foreigners the next. This is not really an issue of active racism, but just a result of the basic relationship between a territory and its colonizer. Such is the nature of all fundamentally unequal power relationships. When one is supposed to be over another, there is a wide gray area where both benevolence and tyranny and be found. If we recall the era of slavery in the US for example, you could treat your slaves like garbage or you could treat them like members of your family. Either way was allowed. There was no rule that said you have to be especially cruel or that you have to torture or maim them, but there was also no rule that said you have to be very nice and polite to them and consult them about anything dealing with them. Such is the nature of any relationship where one is supposed to be over another. Being nice doesn't change the relationship and neither does being mean. Both of them are possible reactions, and so many times people on Guam make the easy mistake of assuming that because the US is nice to Guam, that means the island can't be a colony.

The absence of that image of the US landing troops in Guam to beat people into submission makes it difficult for people to articulate change in terms of decolonization. It is difficult for many to look at Guam and its relationship to the US today and discern what is so wrong about it. Part of the reason that this is so difficult is because of the way Chamorros have already developed a patriotic relationship to the United States. If we were speaking of the era before World War II, when Chamorros looked up to the US, but didn't worship it or believe themselves to be part of it, patriotism was kind of a joke. It was something that those at the top of Chamorro society used to pretend they were American or get close to the Naval Government, but most Chamorros would laugh at you and mock you if you said you were an American. There was a variety of labels that Chamorros in the past would use

Today that is very different. Guam is a part of the US, and while objectively you should question whether or not it is advisable for people in the colonies to be patriotic to their colonizer, in Guam that patriotism is understood to be the norm. It is very commonsensical in fact. Some people may refer to World War II or I Tiempon Chapones in order to explain why this is so. Others may just refer to the need to be loyal to the US since we need them to survive and prosper. Others may say that they have US passports and so therefore they are supposed to be patriotic. We eat and breathe American media and consumerism, popular culture and so much else, patriotism is something that we should obviously have.

The problem with this is the relationship between patriotism and nationalism. You could call them the same thing, intimately related, or even argue that they are two very distinct things. One of the things that feelings such as these are meant to do is not only give you a way of articulating your love for your nation or your country, but also giving you the means of ignoring or excusing things you don't want to know or think about with regards to your country or nation. Nationalism is a bulletproof vest for you and the country you are patriotic towards. It is meant to deflect ideological bullets aimed at your country, from enemies internal and external, but also meant to protect yourself. The bullet proof vest isn't only supposed to keep you from getting hurt, but more importantly it is meant to keep you from voting differently in that daily plebiscite that Renan describes.

Nationalism is also a self-insulated and self-serving thing. On a daily and hourly basis it keeps you from reevaluating your relationship to the country that claims you, your land, your life, the lives of your children, your rights and so on. Renan states that each of us wake up in the morning and basically vote to remain part of the nation that we belong to. Nationalism is the PR for that re-election. Each day there are always enough things to make any sane person want to burn their nation to the ground. There are enough travesties, enough sins, enough apathy, enough historical trauma, that you could argue any nation would be better off not existing. Even a country like the US that is supposed to be the greatest in the world has a long list of things that you could use to argue pretty effectively that it is really the worst country in the world. Nationalism is meant to help tip the scales towards not perceiving those negative aspects or making excuses for them.

The words of George Bush the First always haunt me when I think of this dynamic. He stated very forcefully, that he would never apologize for the United States, ever. It didn't matter what the facts were, he would just never apologize for it. Such is the purest, most distilled form of nationalism, is that ability to be able to say with a straight face, that no matter what the facts are, my country is still the best and beyond reproach.

You may already know where I'm heading with this. If you are the normative citizen of a nation than regardless of the list of negative things, it is still probably in your best interest to be as patriotic as possible. Even if you are a minor subject, such as a non-white person or even a woman, it might still be a good idea to be patriotic towards your nation. But what about if you come from a colony? Even if you are white, even if you are a man, you are still discriminated against, you are still considered to be different and still considered to be a possession and not an equal partner. The rationale for patriotism is less weighty when you come from the territories or the colonies, and so that is what makes patriotism so much more dangerous.

If you come from the colonies, than much of the aura of greatness of your colonizer shouldn't enamor you. If it touches with its warm and fuzzy glow and makes you feel so special and nice, it isn't because that aura is meant for you, but it is because you are fortunate enough to allowed around its emanations.The greatest that is meant to be the evidence for your "average" American to unconsciously justify their patriotism doesn't prove as much for you in the colonies. Those gifts, that greatness is something that isn't made for you, it just trickles down to you.

Patriotism is something you should be cautious of because of the way it can blind you to the nature of your relationship and how it can end up limiting your possibility identifications and neutralize those which are critical, anti-colonial or decolonial. Patriotism does just make you overlook some minute details, but it can make you imagine yourself and where you come from to exist in a completely different universe. The positive feelings you have towards your colonizer can make it feel as if the circle of belonging is complete, and since you proudly wave the flag of your colonizer, you must be on the inside of the circle and not on the outside! I've referred to this many times over the years as "emotionationalism," whereby you use emotions to overcome the colonial gap, the colonial difference.

I remember when I was doing research for my Masters in Micronesian Studies at UOG. I spent alot of time going through newspapers from the 1960s and 1970s on Guam in order to get a sense of postwar Guam and how Americanization as a process took place in Guam. This is a period of time where throughout much of the US there was lots of discontent and protest directed towards the Vietnam War and alot of energy directed towards changing culture and promoting things such as peace and love. Although Guam was aggressively seeking to Americanize itself, it did not seem to want to do some in this liberal sense. In terms of protests on Guam during that era, there were several. The majority of these demonstrations were directed at supporting the war and proving that Guam supported the military more than anyone else. When LBJ visited Guam he was met by a small protest. It consisted of a single person holding a sign demanding that he "Bomb Hanoi" or further escalate the war.

The problem with patriotism in Guam is that it can transform potential problems that should be fixed into things that the people on Guam heroically endure as Americans. This is why the awakening of activists can always be so difficult on Guam. While some may see Guam's situation as something to be fixed, how prepared are they to challenge the right of America to control Guam, or how prepared are they to articulate that Guam should have an existence that the US cannot absolutely control? There is always the potential for being called anti-American or appearing to be anti-American. So many people will refuse to accept your actions or advocacy as being decolonial and instead see them as being anti-American. Part of what limits speech is the unwillingness of people who have the critique, to accept the label of being unpatriotic.

The article below was published on the Kopbla Amerika website, and was written through a collaboration between myself and a young writer who back then was known as "Tasin Taichina" or "ocean without limits." He was a high school student who had become irritated at the way Guam was discussed in his history class, and also being Chamorro, the way his family talked about the island as well. What he read didn't quite match up to the way he understood the meaning of "colony" or even "unincorporated territory." I first met Tasin Taichina on a message board where he had lots of questions about issues of colonization and activism. We worked on writing the piece below titled simply "Chamorro Patriotism."

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Guam has been traditionally one of the most patriotic parts of America, and there are several reasons for that. One is the histo/colonial one which places frantic Chamorro patriotism in the reciprocal context of a favor being repaid for the Chamorro liberation during World War II. Another lies in pragmatic economic reasons, in that the military was, for decades after World War II, the largest employer on the island, as well as the source of the most cash inflow. Lastly, the fact that the military provides Guam value in two senses, first as its sole source of global recognition other than tourism, and its sole source of national recognition in the imagined American circle of belonging.
            Therefore, Guam has been traditionally for whatever reason known as a patriotic place, and that is no different today, although things are shifting slightly. For the past 10 years or more, depending on who you ask, Guam has been dealing with a shrinking economy or in dire financial straits. Since September 11th, the economy has been absolutely terrible, with tourism to the island (which is now the #1 industry) dropping to catastrophic levels. The military which has been in a way phased out of the primary economic throne on Guam, has slowly returned into the island’s consciousness as our way out of these tough times. With a poor global economy it seems, no one has money on Guam except for the United States military. Slowly things are de-evolving back into that old colonial mindset, as we need to welcome and support our military, for their construction contracts bring jobs and bring income to our island.
            Following September 11th, Chamorros as well as everyone else on Guam eagerly participated in the disposable patriotism associated with a nation coming together. The increase in military spending was seen by many on Guam as an unfortunate benefit for the island’s economy. But, the patriotism didn’t last in any meaningful form, because despite the media and social pressure to support the nation, the fact of the matter was that the September 11th attack and the American and international response to it, destroyed Guam’s tourist industry. That combined with that fact that while the US Congress was appropriating money to help stimulate the national economy, Guam was left out of the majority of those programs, helped to create a strange contradiction for the people of Guam, as the media and the collective latent nationalism were calling for them to be as patriotic as possible (and therefore not to dissent, differ or critique) and the harsh reality of a colony insanely attached economically to its Master yet constantly ignored.
            This terrible borderland of identity and belonging was best exemplified by the local reaction to the possibility of Al-Qaeda prisoners being incarcerated and tried in Guam. Right after the 9/11 attack, the island was unified in doing our part for the country, chipping in for the national effort, however the tune quickly changed, and the patriotism dispersed when it was announced that the Al-Qaeda may be coming to Guam (for incarceration and trial). Suddenly Guam could be put on the map for international terrorists seeking vengeance. The promise of an economic infusion was not enough to overcome the fear that this participation in the nation could bring terrible things to Guam.
            Guam truly is a buffer zone, or a transition point between East and West, and it has been that way since the Spanish held Guam. Guam has been vitally important to the US strategic interests in Asia, especially as a deterrent to any overt  action. In the current situation with North Korea, Guam is the key to it all. When the North Korean prime minister makes a statement about retaliation if the US attacks or interferes, planes are sent to Guam. Troops are mobilized and so on. During the Vietnam War, especially in the early 1970’s, Guam was the launch pad for the massive bombings in Cambodia and Vietnam, and giant trucks laden with bombs and missiles became just part of the island’s daily routine. When Nixon claimed that the war was over, that there would be no more bombing in Vietnam or no bombing in Cambodia, people on Guam knew differently, for you could still see those missiles being moved from the Navy Yard in the South, to the Air Force base in the North, and onto the planes lifting off daily.
            But things have changed. In peace times, military increases have traditionally been times of celebration on Guam, however now perceptions are shifting. In times of war, military increases give the world notice of Guam’s existence, but in a frightening context, as US military installation. In an interview for a documentary about Guam and its identity issues from 1944 to the present day, a local scholar was asked what he would want to say to the people of America. Others in early interviews had all made a statement hoping to creative recognition in the average American, that "we are here!" But this local scholar said that, maybe he, and maybe we don't want the US to know we're here. A statement with many possible meanings and implications, it no doubt touches on the fear of being publicized as a ripe, juicy US military target, but also on the uncertain identity politics and possible and confusing moral implications of a love of militarism.
            Wishing to be closer to the US has been an integral part of Chamorro identity thanks to the finest hegemony money can buy, and 9/11 gave Chamorros the perfect opportunity to believe even more so in our problematic proximity. By standing proud to be Americans, Chamorros completed this part of the equation, making themselves firmly American (even if no one else in the world cared), however a new colonial conflict was created as patriotism with America, loyalty and so on put Guam into grave danger from the so-called “axis of evil,” and Filipino militants in Mindanao, and also required unconscious approval of the fact that US military action was destroying the local economy, by adversely affecting world tourism (this was especially true, when the US started their terrorist intervention in Iraq).
            It is for this reason that the Chamorro response to the increased military presence, the attacks in the Middle East, and the current calls for patriotism have been tepid, confused and lukewarm at best. Anti-war rallies have been non-existent, but then again so have pro-troops and pro-war rallies.
            The current situation on Guam is a terrible one. The calls from the colonial master for unity in these trying times are difficult to dismiss, critique or overcome. From the national media, we passively seem to be no different than your average Joe Blow Gringo which is why it is so tempting to just grab the flag and defer all dissent. But by grabbing that flag you are also condoning the US ignorance of Guam as anything other than a rock crawling with military personnel, and that the US policies which damage our island by wiping out world tourism, or even economic restrictions which treat Guam as a foreign country.
            The question which needs to be asked daily in this context of (at)tempted belonging is, when someone calls for us to rally together as a people! Ask; are we even the same people? Our overlapping histories say that we aren’t. The ties that bind us are all publicly or privately colonial, our US passports and our centering of ourselves (self-centering) within your shores, your institutions, your values, and sometimes even your very dreams.
            With all this confusion it is difficult to find a Chamorro response in any compact or simple form. Theirs is apathy all about, and that is the most visible residual effect. But in all colonial relationships the push and pull away from and to the Centre is at play on Guam. The economic advantages of being a key cog in American strategic planning interests and the fact that we are US citizens, always pushes the Chamorro closer to the US, however the history of the island, as well as the willingness of the US to forget about Guam when we are in trouble, but willingness to remember it when they need to invade or bomb another country, will always be pushing us away from the US at the same time.

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