Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Whether Cruel or Kind...

When I teach about colonialism I am always careful to stress that you should never define colonialism primarily by manifestations of "evil" or overt expressions of racism or violence. If you do, you run the risk of blurring your critical lens and making it so that situations which are clearly colonial don't merit analysis because they aren't gory enough.

The late Joe Murphy for example pioneered a commonsensical way of not seeing Guam as a colony in this manner. When confronted with arguments about Guam's colonial status Murphy would usually make two discursive moves. First, he would argue that colonialism is a thing of the past as associated with the atrocities of Spanish priests long ago. That was colonization, it was violent, brutal and cruel, you certainly can't call what Guam experiences today colonialism if that was colonialism as well. Second, he would say that Guam benefits from the relationship with the United States and in colonial relationships the colonies don't benefit and they certainly don't benefit or get a sweeter deal than the colonizer does. He would point to the amount of money that the US Federal Government pumps into Guam through social programs such as food stamps and welfare, and said that when you look the balance of things, what do they get in return? A rock in the Pacific, where they get some bases, but little more.

Murphy's arguments were not just his own, many people have and continue to make such points. Murphy was just someone who had a large outlet for his arguments as a publisher for the PDN and a longtime columnist there as well. There are fatal flaws in these arguments, very serious flaws.The second point is dependent upon seeing things in a colonial apologetic context and accepting basic colonizing principles for determining value and what is valuable. The money that Guam gets from the US is prioritized and seen as a sort of gracious mana from heaven. When we look at what the US gets, we undervalue it in order to argue they get less and we get more. It is a dynamic designed to disrupt potential critiques, by arguing we should not complain because a great colonizer who already has so much on his hands, gives us so much and takes so very little.

Notice however that if you change this dynamic slightly, everything comes out colored differently. If we move to a patriotic context for example, suddenly those same bases and lands used for bases become our admission to the circle of American belonging. Those things that the US get from us that were so minute before, are now the basis for us claiming to be Americans and for articulating what we contribute to the greatness of the United States. Suddenly those things can be blown up large and exaggerated as massive and significant expressions of loyalty and commitment to the colonizer's ideals of democracy, liberty and security.

To the first point, it is not something only relegated to colonialism, but many concepts for identifying oppressions and injustice in general. Students in my classes tend to see that Guam can't really be a colony since things are not as bad as they used to be when Guam was a colony. This is the same way they tend to understand racism. It was so bad before, that what it is now certainly can't be the same thing, can't involve the same variables? Their whole conceptualization of racism seems predicated on only articulating it as something in the past and nothing that touches the present moment. It is the same for colonization.

Students feel compelled to see colonization and colonialism as things of the long past because of the implications of it existing today. Colonialism is something that everyone must admit to being bad. Even those who apologize for it, do so because deep down there is an unacceptable acceptance that it is wrong and that it cannot be justified. Those who seek to justify it do so because unlike the past when the story Europeans told of themselves covered the earth like veils of lies, so many other stories that counter those narratives of self-aggrandizement and self-absolution have emerged.

This way of perceiving colonization isn't just due to the work of apologists, but also the way in which anti-colonial arguments are formed. In seeking to promote one's cause, one's story, one's fight for justice and for decolonization it is natural to find those elements of your tale that are the most "juicy" or the most disgusting in order to grab people's attention and help them see the need for what you are proposing.

The need to articulate something that will break the deadlock of "debate" or "discussion" but the attempt to offer up something that will shock the conscious and make everyone understand the rightness of your cause in a way beyond words. To pierce the core of their being and dredge up feelings of horror, guilt, shame and so on, that will make them act in ways that rational talk could not.

Ultimately however, this emphasis can lead to people misunderstanding colonialism. Yes it can be brutal, yes it has been brutal at times, but like anything it can evolve and change. It does not always appear in the exact same way, with the exact same qualities. Those who too intimately associate colonialism with a particular quality such as inhuman violence, risk confusing those who are listening. If you change the color of a car is it no longer a car? The color of something, that type of characteristic should not define something, because it may lead to people understanding something based on its surface, rather than its structure. 

What they don't see is that the colonial status does not stem from the character of the treatment, but the ability to treat someone however they would like, as the relationships establishes that one is not only beneath the other, but one belongs to the other. Take for instance this quote from an Air Force Captain in the 1990's.

"...people on Guam seem to forget that they are a possession, and not an equal partner…If California says that they want to do this, it is like my wife saying that she wants to move here or there: I’ll have to respect her wish and at least discuss it with her. If Guam says they want to do this or that, it is as if this cup here [he pointed at his coffee mug] expresses a wish: the answer will be, you belong to me and I can do with you as best I please.”
Most people would read this quote and neutralize its meaning quickly through discourses on bad apples or racists and bad people not as those who perpetuate injustice, those who profit from it, but rather those who speak of it, and those who do not apologize for it.

The need to focus on the structure and not the surface is because you can miss the whole point otherwise. For example, many people who read this quote above which is featured in Roland Stade's informative book Pacific Passages, assume that its meaning or its value as something that reveals truth, deals with the unflattering parts, the disrespect he is showing. In truth, the meaning is the ownership discursive. Something that so many people when thinking about Guam's relationship to the United States do not want to admit to or integrate into how they see their relationship to the United States. The point of this is not that he is a jerk, but rather that there is a jerk who is telling you the truth about your situation. If you fixate on him being a jerk you miss the point.

In Guam, in terms of understanding colonization, it is important that we do not see it as a matter of good colonizers or bad colonizers, or good treatment equating with a lack of colonialism and bad treatment as equating with the presence of colonialism. Good or bad, what is the relationship beneath these manifestations? Is the way you are to be treated something enshrined as rights? Or is it something that exists as mere privileges? Is you being treated with respect and dignity something that is exceptional and exciting or something normal and expected?

During the period of slavery in the Americas, this was always something that needed to be kept in mind amidst a wave of American apologia. Although slaves that lived in the United States lived in better conditions than those that lived in the Spanish and Portuguese American colonies, this didn't mean that they weren't slaves. Americans tried to argue their supremacy and enlightened qualities by the way they treated their slaves better than their European colonial counterparts. They argued that their slaves were parts of their families whereas the Spanish and Portuguese treated their slaves like pack animals. The color of the treatment was different, but the relationship was not. A master in the United States could treat his slave with the worst cruelty, but if he did not, it wasn't because he didn't own slaves, but it was because such "better" treatment was evidence of why he was worthy of having slaves in the first place.

The colonizer always has choices about how they treat their colonies. They can treat them with cruelty, with brutality. They can mince their bodies up to feed their livestock and use their flesh to taste the blades of their swords. They can give us access to welfare and then they can take it away. They can treat them with cruelty, they can treat them with kindness.

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