Wednesday, October 31, 2012

For Whom the Tolls Bell

The conservative echo chamber on Guam isn’t very large but it is very persistent. Guam doesn’t really have a Fox News that can pound into our heads everyday a consistent, hateful terrifying public ideology. Some Chamorros say that K57 News and talk radio plays that role, but this isn’t really true. K57 has the interesting role of being fairly liberal in a national context, but fairly conservative in a local context. K57, like most media on Guam is pretty inconsistent in its messaging. 

Even though there is no mecca for this conservative echo chamber it still exists. This network exists through the collection of certain events, figures and signifiers. Over time this collection gains strength and loses strength. These signifiers can at certain moments achieve a potent and undeniable aura, and other times bleed insignificance.

This collection doesn’t exist for the same reason that conservative networks exist in the states. In Guam what pumps life into this network, what makes it feel necessary for some on island is the need to defend the United States against local threats. It is an ideological force for American apologists and for proponents of prevailing colonizing ideas. It is a network that supports pro-colonial ideas. This is something that a lot of people haven’t heard lately, since excusing colonial ideas has long since gone out of fashion, but in the colonies that exist up until today, you can make a pretty good living doing it.

When I say pro-colonial I mean pro-colonial. This network feeds vibrancy into various ideas of the local being crappy, corrupting, inadequate, impossible, inauthentic and a whole slew of negative things. All of this goes into illustrating that the colonial, or anything that is perceived as stemming from the colonizer and his presence beams with life and vitality. The local is argued to be so shoddy and limited and problematic, that the colonial appears to be near perfect by comparison. These ideological positions apologize in sometimes the most grotesque ways for the historical and continuing hypocrisies of their chosen nation. For example, in pre-World War II Guam, how did the US Navy justify the forcing of Americanizing rhetoric on freedom and democracy down the throats of Chamorros while allowing no such thing to exist on Guam for them? If you understand the idea that the colonizer is close to nothing and has close to nothing, then you can justify the stupidest and most racist things.

The dynamic is sustained through the acceptance of a clear and manifest negativity and lack in the local. Because the local is so lacking, things that might normally be considered unacceptable can be accepted. This is the way in which the exceptionality that enabled the colonizing to initially take place is sustained. This sort of sin washing can take place at any level and is not something that only those who are racially similar to the colonizer can participate in. Despite the objective fact that the Spanish committed terrible atrocities when they first came to colonize and force their way of life onto the Chamorro people, people still constantly apologize for them. Even the arguments that try to claim that the Spanish were simply defending themselves don’t hold much weight since the Spanish were the aggressors and morally they don’t have the right to self-defense since they are the ones causing all the violence. You have a moral right to defend yourself, but not them. You can’t even argue morally that there was a greater good at stake here or that God had wanted the Spanish to colonize and victimize them, since no one is supposed to be forced to accept Christianity. Even in that universe of meaning you could almost say that the entire endeavor should be wasted since everything is forced. God, according to his gift of free will and loving acceptance should not accept any of the souls of Chamorros from that point and ever since. To do so would go against what supposedly makes the universe work.

Returning to this pro-colonial conservative ideological network, let’s take a look at some of the objects that sometimes give it life.

In my English class recently we discussed parts of the life of Angel Santos, former Maga’lahi of Nasion Chamoru, former Guam Senator and the most famous champion of human rights and decolonization from Guam. Today Angel Santos is considered by most on Guam to be a hero, although this wasn’t always the case. In the early days of his activism, especially at the helm of Nasion Chamoru, Santos became a symbol for so much negativity on Guam. Him and other activists were called communists, heathens, idiots, radicals, racists, criminals and almost any other negative name because of their assertion of Chamorro rights. His notoriety reached its peak when he and several others leapt a military fence at Tiyan Naval Air Station. When they were arrested Santos spat in the face of an MP.

For years Chamorro activism was defined by this moment. People connected speaking out in the name of justice, protesting injustices with this behavior. There is some evidence that spitting was considered to be one of the highest forms of disrespect in Ancient times and so there may have been some residual effects of this since many Chamorros articulated their hatred or loathing for Santos and Nasion through this event. The fact that a military fence and military issues were involved didn’t help either since for generations after World War II, the community in Guam scarcely tolerated any criticism of the US military. Most protests during the Vietnam War era according to legend were pro-war protests, with people arguing that people needed to fight more and the US needed to bomb more and be more aggressive.

The act by Santos challenged so many of the negative and limited perceptions that people have about indigenous people in general and Chamorros in particular. In the minds of most, indigenous people are understood to be static and defined primarily through their ability to signify tragedy and sadness. This means that they don’t do anything, they are not expected to do anything, and it is surreal when they try to do anything. They are instead like signs that exist to be interpreted by others by have no meaning in and of themselves. The infamous Native American who sees an landscape of trash and waste and sheds a tear is a perfect example of this. The expectation of Native peoples by modern peoples is that they will either remain static and authentic or that they will fade away and cease to exist. It is shocking and jarring when the natives actually assert their rights, demand their sovereignty or do other things that require you see them as figures of agency or momentum and possessing an essence which is not solely mean to flicker out over time, but can actually burn brighter and become hotter.

When Santos and others jumped that fence it was just one key symbolic moment amongst many where Chamorros had decided to stop being the native background upon which the colonial present and presence is painted. They instead asserted the right to participate in the present. They asserted the value of Chamorro history, culture, language. They asserted that this island belonged to the Chamorro people long before the US ever existed and long before it was ever stolen by the Spanish, the Japanese or the Americans. Nasion Chamoru were not the first to do this, but they were the pinnacle, the most in-your-face, blatant manifestation of an vibrant, assertive Chamorro spirit that they symbolize this the most in recent memory.

This was unsettling to so many on Guam of all ethnicities, Chamorros included who long accepted that in time none of these things would matter anymore. In time the Chamorro life of the land would just fade away and dissipate.

For years after when people wanted to articulate the problems of the island this event helped to sustain all sorts of negative ideas about Chamorros. It along with other images, ideas or sinthomes as they are called in psychoanalysis helped to create the conservative pro-colonial mantra that the Chamorro is the cause of all the breakdown on Guam, and that the Chamorro is what gets in the way of Guam being properly American and the Chamorro corrupts everything.

It became something that gave vitality to a certain worldview and way of viewing Guam. It allowed a lot of people with varying ideas about who is bad on the island, what sort of ideologies are morally corrupt and bankrupt. It fed into the conservative notion on Guam that Chamorros are the source of most of the problems. This is an ideology that is slowing being changed to reflect a similar sort of corrupting status for Micronesians.

It is a way you use those events, those signifiers, to bring together an argument that asserts that a certain group of people are responsible for the ills of a society. It goes beyond simply stating that these people are bad, since all people are good and bad, but goes into asserting a naturalness to their malfeasance. There may be connections that are made to their culture, as if their culture helps encourage these corrupting qualities or that their lack of culture leads to their downfall.

The most upfront and unapologetic version that I have seen of this came from a 2001 letter to the editor of The Pacific Daily News by someone named Albert K. Gibbs. The letter titled “Improving island starts with family” marks the Chamorro and its extended family, with its tentacles in so many aspects of life on Guam, as being the source of all Guam’s problems. It is written in a no-nonsense style that is typical of people who are using a discourse on corruption in order to develop their own momentary authority. With the nuance of a karabao, Gibbs deftly lumbers from government employees to potholes to delinquent dads in his attempt to provide a descriptive painting of the deplorable state of affairs in Guam. Yet, at the same time, he is also offering a plan, a prescriptive emphasis on what to do about this assemblage of corruption, which retroactively determines the Chamorro family as the source of said corruption, because of Gibb’s naming it as the site through which we need to intervene:
For the Guam Power Authority employees, don’t flinch when your mother asks, “How could you turn off your aunt’s power?” The correct response is to inform her that her power was terminated due to an unpaid balance…If you are angry that you are buying your 10th new tire because of the potholes, tell your brother to pay his registration fees and the multiple traffic violations he has amassed. Can’t make ends meet because your child-support is late? Go to your in-laws house, and he’ll be there, cleaning his brand new truck beneath the mango tree.

This scene of the web of Chamorro relations as being things that take resources from the island and foul all things public doesn’t require a specific incident like the fence jump by Angel Santos. It is instead a scene whose elements can also be replaced and filled with new content, but whose message is always meant to be one of Chamorros sucking the life out of Guam and causing problems. It is a nefarious sort of idea since it turns one of the things that Chamorros do like to publicly prize, their extended clan networks, into something that destroys the island.

More recently as the debate over the military buildup and Guam’s response to it has gone through a cycle of heating up and cooling down, there is a regular amount of drama over who is to blame locally for the buildup not happening. Although almost all of the blame for the buildup not happening as people dreamed lies elsewhere, within a colonial universe this can never be the case. The problem must always be local, since the local is always problematic. The colonial, so distant, so far away, appears to be perfect and ordered, it could never be at fault.

Thus we see a game taking place where people try to pin the blame for the delays and the failure of the buildup locally. This has become mixed together with the election season and led to people in the media calling for bums to be thrown out of the Legislature, in particular the “Fab 5.” These five Democratic Senators were known several years ago for making public statements critical of the military buildup and Guam’s relationship to the United States. They made these statements to the media, to public meetings and in some cases to the military and other Federal officials themselves.

While it is easy to transform most of these Senators via conservative pro-colonial ideology, as they are Chamorro and therefore fit easily within the racial imaginary mentioned earlier. One Senator Judith Guthertz doesn’t fit as she is not Chamorro.  For the rest of them they can all be felt through the specter of Angel Santos, and that they can be seen as corrupt or bad for Guam in the same way Chamorros who soak up welfare and don’t have to wait in line at DMV cause their pare’ or cousin works behind the counter. For her to be joined to this network of negativity it requires an extra signifier an extra event to mark her as being just as potentially crazy as the rest of us.

As Lee Webber and Dave Davis never grow tire of mentioning, Guthertz is remembered by some primarily through a bill that she proposed whereby toll booths would be set up outside of US military facilities on Guam in order to collect monies to pay war reparations for Chamorros. This was proposed in reaction to yet another failure in the US Congress to get war reparations passed. The bill was never meant to be serious but was something that the Senator introduced in order to get the conversation started on how to kick start this important issue.

The funny thing when I read about this bill was that Chamorro and demilitarization activists in Guam have joked for years about doing just this sort of thing. They find the fence offensive in how it sets up life on Guam as being consistently asymmetrical. Someone in the military can go off base and on base. The same doesn’t hold true for someone with no military privileges. Someone in the military can enjoy the best of both worlds. A civilian can’t. This is part of the reason why Pagat became such a significant issues in the military buildup debate. So many people on Guam have felt the pain of not being able to go to beautiful recreational sites or ancestral lands because of there being a line or a fence or a gatehouse in between.

Naturally for someone like myself it was an interesting approach to forcing into public debate a whole host of things they would rather take for granted and not discuss regarding Guam’s relationship to the US and to the US military. But most people did not see it this way and Guthertz quickly withdrew the bill before too many people thought of her as a radical military and American hating local.

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Toll-booth bill was protest to Senate
2:00 PM, Oct. 22, 2012

Thanks, Lee Webber, for inviting a serious and truthful discussion about the "toll-booth" bill which I briefly introduced and withdrew back in 2009. The former publisher of this newspaper and his mostly anonymous followers have tried to spin this three-year-old protest ever since to claim that I am anti-military and, despite years of evidence to the contrary, opposed to the Guam military buildup.
What was my protest actually about? It sure wasn't about the military buildup. In fact, it was an attempt to get Washington to do its duty to our manamko' and finally approve war reparations for the Guam survivors of the brutal occupation of the island by the imperial government of Japan during World War II. Once again, Washington didn't listen, but I'm not apologizing for trying to bring justice to Guam's war victims and survivors.

Shame on Webber, who has been distorting this for political gain ever since!

It's too bad our manamko' don't have a guaranteed slot on the PDN opinion pages to make their case for war reparations, over and over again, but I've done my best to do it for them.

In 2009, Delegate Madeleine Bordallo had taken the war reparations issue the furthest it had ever gotten in Congress. It was passed by the House and only required insertion into the Senate version of the military budget. At the last moment, Sen. John McCain blocked that insertion. This was after he had promised the people of Guam during his 2008 presidential campaign to support the World War II Loyalty Recognition Act.

I introduced the bill because I was upset by McCain's action, like many others in Guam, and felt betrayed and wanted to bring attention to this miscarriage of justice to Guam's World War II victims and survivors that has gone on for decades. I introduced Bill 253, which called for toll booths to be erected on roads going into and outward of the military bases on Guam to raise money for the reparations that McCain and the Senate didn't want to pay and to pass these funds to our greatest generation, the survivors of the brutal Japanese occupation of Guam.

I introduced the toll-booth bill to be a conversation starter, and to make a strong statement, but not as something that would ever become law. In fact, the bill was withdrawn almost immediately after introduction, on Oct. 12, 2009.

It was based on historical actions, to remind Washington about other possibilities. The bill received a great deal of attention, and reinforced the fact that those on our side of the fence are Americans, too. Again, no apologies.

Webber is simply misrepresenting my action for political purposes. I think that many others will clearly understand my motivation and look beyond the blitz of big buck, full-page ads and the constant repetition of Webber's political attacks in his column as the election approaches.

Judith P. Guthertz, DPA, is a senator in the 31st Guam Legislature and is running for re-election.

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