Friday, June 28, 2013

Playing with Colonial Fire

The Commission on Decolonization hasn't met for quite a while, but we finally met earlier this week.

Our last meeting was in January and although we tried to meet several times, we could never get enough members to be present in order to establish a quorum. Although the Commission started off strongly two years ago it hasn't been very effectively in the past year.

The Governor hasn't been to many meetings lately and is frequently off island when we meet. The members of the Legislature who are part of the Commission often commit to attending meetings but are stuck in session when the meeting time actually arrives. Part of the problem with the issue of decolonization is that while it is something that every politician has to take seriously, it is also something that no one is quite sure how to take seriously or how to at least appear to be taking it seriously.

When it comes to the list of "important" things for leaders to discuss and take positions on, things tend to be very simple and easy. Schools are good. More books for schools = maolek. More schools for kids = maolek. Improving teacher performance = maolek. Promise that everything will cost less if you are in power = sen maolek. Find the limited amount of things that everyone feels collectively negatively about and hate on that and promise to stop that, limit that, punish that, while being mindlessly positive of everything that people profess to caring about. For most things there is a simple, vague formula for how you can appear to be serious even if you are not.

Political status and decolonization is a bit more tricky. There isn't any simple way of dealing with it, because the potential ideological reach involved goes deeper and further and can implicate too many things that people may not want to really address. There is this potential in any conversation about any topic, but with political status the issue is more volatile. Every topic in politics is like a wound that has scabbed over. If you pick at it too much eventually you will start to reveal ugly, possibly infected truths about it. But this is the case only if you dig deeply and pick at it. For political status it is like a raw, exposed nerve. Even the slightest mention, the slightest breeze upon it can feel like a deadly and mortal wound. It is something that in its most banal forms touches on topics that are taboo and people would rather not think about.

If you think too hard about education you will arrive at difficult truths and paradoxical points where you realize there may not be any real solutions or real answers. These are moments that people quietly back away from when they reach them and most structure of discourse keep these aspects of the topic from ever coming up. You are meant to focus on things that can be complained about, without too much potential critical backlash. To talk endlessly about things that won't really take you anywhere. Take for example the ways in which people can talk about textbooks for schools without knowing much about textbooks for schools. Take for example the way people complain about leaders while living in representative democracies? There are circuits, established sayings and ways of speaking that people use to constantly talk about something, while in truth going nowhere and not touching on any major issues involved in what they are actually talking about.

On Guam public discourse has yet to reach this point over political status. Your average person is still afraid to really think about it or engage in it, and your average politician knows they have to say something about it when asked, but isn't quite sure how they cant use it to their advantage. No matter how you discuss political status, you always bump up against issues like militarism, the colonial difference, histories of discrimination and exploitation. Even if they are not mentioned explicitly, these issues are there like phantoms karabaos in the room. You end up dealing with historical artifacts that do not point in the direction of the status quo. Even if they can be used to reinforce the prevailing ideas, they are too potent and risky and so they are better if not mentioned or dealt with at all.

The easiest way in which you can make use of political status in political rhetoric is through the use of Statehood and the idea that the long and windy road that Guam has taken being colonized by the United States, was just some tough times that we had to go through in order to reach the point of being full Americans and fully included. You deal with the problems of the past or of the present as things that just have to be gotten past and dealt with and then the colonial issue will be totally resolved. Even the most negative and disgusting aspects of your colonization can be integrated into this idea, because they just becomes markers of how truly bad things were in the past, but thankfully life is nothing like that now. 

When you take this position on political status everything becomes a matter of faith and so even patriotism, something that shouldn't be possible in a colonial context, becomes second nature. All you have to do for the issue to be resolved is to keep hoping and believing in the United States. It doesn't matter that the colonial experience should make it very difficult to take this position, since every colony exists because of a lack of morality, ethics or principle on behalf of the colonizer. The fact that you live in a colony should give you a blatant form of everyday evidence that having faith in the colonizer is the last thing you should do.

The problem is that even if taking this tactic is the safest way to talk about political status, it is still safer to not bring it up as well. The problem with this patriotic position is that any of the traumatic moments of exclusion, exploitation or displacement that you have neutralized can still flare to problematizing life at any moment. If the person accepts your position on political status no problems may take place. But if they don't, you don't have a very defensible position. Every historical site of trauma and colonial exclusion is a moment you have to account for. But the more you try to account for them and the more you engage in them, the more you appear to be devaluing and denigrating the island and its people. Everything from landtaking, to language eradication, to lack of voting rights, to the security clearance, is like a slap and a door slammed in the face. The question is, how can someone take a position like this, when the colonizer has made things very clearly that it doesn't really want us to be included and really only wants our land and little more.

These things stick out in so many ways, that all the friendly, state-like rhetoric does not truly neutralize them. They await, always beneath the surface, lurking and looking for ways to pierce the fantasies we create to pretend that things are much less colonial than they truly are.

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