Saturday, May 24, 2014

Clash of Comments


I attended the SEIS Public Comment Hearings at both Okkodo High School and Father Duenas Memorial School. As someone who was there during the last DEIS Comment priod meetings and wrote about it quite a bit on my blog and later in this column, it was interesting to see the public debate over militarization in Guam be shaped this time in a war of words, ideas, fears and dreams emerging from the clashing comments.

Most public debates happen through the dusting off of faded and often outdated pieces of information in peoples’ heads. Your perception of how some important issues of public substance is determined by random snippets of information you have heard, read, been told, want to believe, are afraid to admit to and so on. In each society there are always a list of things that everyone is expect to know something about, and be expected to take some position on, even if that position is that you don’t care about it or that everything sucks about it. The military buildup is one of those things. It is something that people feel compelled to have opinions about, even if they profess to have no opinion about it. But as people enter into that debate and assert their position, the question always remains, what do they actually know about it? How much have they actually thought about it? What information do they have? Where are their ideas coming from?

For example, the opinions that most people have about the buildup come with so little actual knowledge that it can be bewildering to listen to. They imagine the buildup through large structural things, which may feel true, but may actually be completely inaccurate.

As I have written about before in this column, the cleanliness of base communities becomes the everyday evidence for people to assert that the military is a good environmental steward. Things are so trashy and disorganized offbase, when you go on base, you imagine through the nice lawns, the nice playgrounds, the clean roadsides that there must be something superior about this place. They must know how to take care of things, the evidence is right there clear, clean, green and bushcut as day. For most people it is easy to move from this form of everyday evidence to then making political points about the military as being cleaner, better. The question however is, where does this sort of political point fit in with an objective analysis of what military bases do to environments? In truth, the cleanliness of the surface hides terrible contamination. US military bases around the world are hardly clean or green or safe, but truly damage the environment and those who live on and near bases.

This is why attending hearings like this can be so important and help people achieve a greater understanding of the issue. At a public hearing, you will hear all the things you might expect to hear, the various sides of an argument. One of the differences though is that you may end up hearing parts of the debate that would be left out of a PDN or PNC story. You might end up noticing something for yourself that doesn’t make it through the telephone alaihai as Chamorros say. Your typical news story will reduce the public debate over something to two or three sides, and will create an ideological conflict between those two. At a public hearing, you will see that and far more, as more potential ways of talking about the military buildup are put forth and as the speakers each one by one testify, you may notice things to be far more nuanced and contradictory than you first imagined.

 For instance, if you were to divide a room of speakers into pro-buildup and anti-buildup factions, what assumptions would you make about them? What assumptions would you make about their background? What assumptions would you make about the types of arguments they would use to convince them of their beliefs? What types of evidence would they use? It is with questions like this, where the buildup debate can take on very surprising, but enlightening dimensions.

For most people the buildup discussions is divided between its hunggan and ahe’ parties based on things that are concrete (money, jobs, security) and things that are abstract (past wrongs, preservation of culture and environment). Those who support the buildup are armed with the things that will improve Guam today, keep is safe and prosperous. Those who do not support the buildup offer nothing but dreams for the future and angry memories from the past. If this is how you see the buildup debate, then you would have seen a very different dynamic at the public hearings.

Although it is easily forgotten, these public hearings are meant to be centered around the SEIS document, which outlines the plans that the Department of Defense has and the potential impacts they will have. You are meant to provide feedback on what is contained there.

At Monday’s public hearing in Mangilao, a host of pro-buildup speakers stood before the microphone talking about the buildup as being good for Guam because of the jobs the increased revenues for the island, as something that would keep Guam safe, as something that a patriotic community would support. Not one that I can recall made any reference to the SEIS that featured a section on how DOD sees that potential economic gains. Not a single one cited the statistics and studies of DOD in their arguing for the buildup. There was not a lot of evidence in their arguments, in fact for a side of the debate that is supposed to concrete, there was very little substance to why the buildup should be supported.

Those who took a position that was against or critical of the buildup were more likely to cite the studies of the SEIS itself. Several senators and several young activists all included portions of the SEIS in their comments, and in contrast to the vague promises of the pro-buildup side, the SEIS indicated that the economic gains for Guam would be minimal in the long run and that, just as with the last proposed buildup, Guam would struggle to accommodate the increased strain on public services with the population influx.

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