“Guam is a Dirty Word”
Michael Lujan Bevacqua
When I wrote my dissertation in Ethnic Studies I ran into several methodological problems. The chief among them was how to write about Guam’s colonial status in a world where countries pretend it doesn’t exist anymore? How do you write about it when most people on Guam don’t want to admit to it and neither does the United States? As a result most of the discourse that is produced about Guam doesn’t admit to its colonial truths and pretends it doesn’t exist. For me this doesn’t mean that Guam’s status is any less colonial, but it means that because of the nature of the world today, the evidence of Guam’s colonial status is never formal, it has to be found in other ways.
Joe Murphy used to joke that Guam was a “dirty word” or a “four letter word,” and in one sense he was right. Guam today is something that is obscene, in the same way as other small places beset by militarism and colonialism. The Marshall Islands, Diego Garcia, Okinawa, Guam, all of them have histories and contemporary realities that you could call obscene in the sense that they don’t fit in with the narrative of how just and right the world, and the United States are supposed to be. But they are also obscene in the sense that people don’t know how to bring them into polite conversations and would rather they remain invisible, or worse yet visible in only a narrow way.
These places can all be talked about in terms of their strategic importance. They all have US bases from which the US conducts, training, testing and projects force. For people in the United States and around the world, that is primarily what these locations are, islands with bases. These are the “formal” aspects of their existence. Media and governments accept these things and report them without much criticism. Even military officials have no problem talking about these islands in these ways.
If you were to only pay attention to these formal aspects however, you would miss most of the history of these places. You would miss the ways in which the strategic value of these islands is built upon discrimination, displacement and other terrible sins of the past. You would miss the obscene ways that the legacy of these sins still persists in these islands, in some ways more terrifying than others.
These obscene histories hold the truth of these islands, but they are much more difficult to find. The speech and the discourse of governments and militaries are designed to prevent those histories from being heard or being mentioned. In order to see the truth you cannot pay attention to what is formal in their presentation, but what is obscene, what you were not supposed to pay attention to. What was organic and unexpected and deviated from the usual script of focusing on the strategic importance of these islands and avoiding any mention of their unjust histories and realities. For example, you may listen to an entire speech from an Admiral or read the entire proceedings for a hearing in Congress, but you may find little truth there. The truth may come in the form of an off hand remark, a joke or something else, even a laugh.
In 1994, during a press conference organized by the Christian Science Monitor News Service to cover an upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, two of Bill Clinton’s advisors were asked a simple question about Guam. As APEC was designed to be not a cooperative of nations but of economies, a reporter from Gannet, which owns the Pacific Daily News, asked whether or not it was possible for Guam to join this organization. As Ronald Stade notes in his book Pacific Passages: World Culture and Local Politics in Guam, “the response to the question was a round of laughter.” The reporter attempted to explain his question, noting that other “colonies” such as Hong Kong were allowed to join, and Guam’s economy and its population either exceeds or is equal to a number of APEC’s existing members. Clinton’s advisers responded with more smiles, giggles and laughter. After gaining their composure their final “formal” answer was, “I guess I could say that the negotiations have not gotten to that point.”
If you wanted to understand Guam and its political status in terms of this incident, paying attention to the formal would have gotten you nowhere. You would have a press conference filled with statements about economic cooperation, and you would be left in the dark as to whether or not Guam is included in this framework. Once the question of whether or not Guam was included was asked, the response was laughter and a vague statement that no one had brought the issue up yet. The laughter is key in understanding Guam’s status, not the actual statements made.
Keep this in mind for example when you read about the recent scandal over the “plurality” vote for the non-voting delegate. I’ll most likely be writing about that next week.