Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Quest for Decolonization #7: Decolonial Deadlocks

Although the world could probably agree on the fact that colonial should no longer exist and be eradicated from the world, this does not mean that much of the world will lift a finger to do anything about it. The consensus over something can in a way kill the possibility of doing anything about it. It is an interesting dynamic that creates this effect. The more people agree that something should not exist, the more they tend to assert its existence as being marginal and small. Or that it contemporary emergence is irregular and unique, it does not represent much of the world save for itself. The fact that all can agree on colonialism being eradicated also creates the impression that it is beyond contestation or beyond intervention. For instance, almost everyone in the world would agree to some form of the notion that "politicians are corrupt." The commonsensical quality of this can be problematic. The larger and wider spread a notion like this is, the more difficult it can be to do anything about it, as people mistake the feelings of solidarity or similarity, the shared agreement as action, when it in truth isn't. You can find this same issue at the UN. The more people agree that colonialism should be eradicated, the more people mistake their mere agreement as somehow eradicating colonialism.

There is a general miasma with regards to this issue. There is a feeling that colonialism doesn't only belong to a previous era, but that the battle for decolonization does as well and that it was fought already a generation or two ago. This is further complicated by the fact that most of the colonies belong to countries that are the least interested in following international law, such as the United States which is the administering power, or colonizer for Guam, US Virgin Islands and American Samoa.  It is one thing to take up the banner of this fight if it looks like their is hope or possibility for change, but if you are trying to get the United States to act in the name of justice and outside of its petty and narrow national interests, you are foolishly tempting the impossible. Other colonies are trapped in conflicts between nations, where different nations claim to be the true owner of these territories and that the colonies should be returned to them.

But other than this global apathy over the plight of the colonies, these is plenty of contradiction and disagreement within the colonies themselves. They have their own deadlocks, many of which revolve around the fear of freedom, the fear of being unchained from the colonizer, the fear of what may lay ahead for them if that future was no longer determined by the laws or the example of their colonizer. People in the colonies and those tied to colonies are the only ones in the world who seem to miss the fact that being a colonies is abnormal today. The norm is to be independent. That being a colony is not some secret benefit, some way that they are able to dodge the dangers of the world by staying forever close to and hidden within the sovereign garments of their masters. Being a colony today can feel like somehow you have a shield, a circle of protection that no one else does, but at what cost? For some colonies it doesn't seem like the cost is much or matters at all. For others it is too high, too much.

In Guam I have discussed this often in terms of "the decolonial deadlock" here. The particular way that decolonization take ideological form and becomes something that must be resisted. I am pasting below my testimony from the last time I attended a UN regional seminar, 2013 in Ecuador, where I discussed the decolonial deadlock in Guam. It would be interesting to look at each of the different non-self-governing territories and their own deadlocks or ways that people there feel like decolonization is an impossible thing that must be resisted.


Statement to the Regional Seminar on the Implementation of the
Third Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism

Quito, Ecuador, May 28 – 30, 2013

Michael Lujan Bevacqua, Ph.D.
University of Guam / Independence for Guam Task Force

The world has come to a consensus that colonization was not right and should be eradicated. Whatever rhetoric countries once used to justify exploitation and expansion and their domination over other free peoples has been disproven. Although progress and development can come about through colonization it is neither the most effective or the most moral way of carrying this out.

The arc of history seems to clearly bend in one direction, from colony to decolonization. There are only 17 non-self-governing territories left in the world, and close to 200 independent nations, many of them former colonies. This truth however is not manifest in most of the remaining non-self-governing territories. In Guam for example, decolonization is something that people fear and don’t understand.

It is stuck in what I call “a decolonial deadlock.” Although there have been some efforts at the governmental level and movements amongst activists at the grassroots level, most people on Guam remain very resistant to the idea that Guam needs to be decolonized.

As a scholar whose research is invested in studying Guam’s colonial history and theorizing the possibilities for its decolonization, I have studied this deadlock in many forms, always with the intent of understanding it. It is my ultimate goal to find ways to resolve this deadlock and help people understand the need and advantages to changing our political status to something more equitable.

From 2002 – 2004 I conducted an ethnographic study with more than 100 Chamorros ages 20 – 70, to discuss their ideas and thoughts on Guam’s decolonization. The majority of these subjects were against the mere idea of decolonization, and had trouble discussing it in an objective way. Their resistance was animated by a set of strange and bewildering fantasies. These fantasies shaped their discourse in such a way that decolonization became deadly and dangerous. It was something that they felt seemed to threaten the very possibility of life on the island.

Many of the ideas they proposed were very irrational. I questioned them as to whether or not they were seriously or merely joking. Even after being given the chance to restate their opinions, they insisted that I take their comments seriously.

They argued that decolonization was impossible since it would mean erasing everything from the island save for that which people understand as being narrowly Chamorro. They saw decolonization as being ridiculous because of the way it would require the local Chamorro to take over things that the colonizer once held sway over. These Chamorros articulated the “Chamorro way” of doing things through stereotypes, as if they were seeing the world through the colonizer’s narrowing gaze.

They argued that a decolonized Guam would defend itself with “slingstones and spears” and that a Government of a decolonized Guam would govern the island by “barbequing.” In their minds a decolonized Guam there was no electricity, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, internet, education, money, but simply people living in huts as they did prior to colonization.

A second set of fantasies were based on images of societal decay and chaos that would surely result if the island was decolonized. People argued that decolonization should not be discussed or attempted since it would lead to the end of everything. The day after Guam was decolonized, the island would be invaded by North Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos and a variety of other non-white ethnicities. The island would become addicted to drugs. The government would collapse into unbridled corruption. There would be riots, looting, total chaos. Everyone would starve.

There may be some element of truth or concern in each fantasy, but that doesn’t account the irrational forms they take. These responses make perfect sense however if you consider the Chamorro to be in a colonial context, and the ways in which they may have come to accept colonial caricatures of themselves.

These caricatures are derived from the premise that the colonized needs the colonizer, and cannot survive or advance without them. Chamorros fill the discursive space with their own local versions of societal upheaval, breakdown or impossibility. But ultimately these fantasies come from the colonial fiction that in order for life to function in a colony, the colonizer must be in charge. If you remove him, everything will fall apart.

The clearest indication that Chamorros have a very limited understanding of decolonization is the fact that these conversations about it immediately moved towards decolonization equaling independence. In truth, decolonization means a change in political status to something that is equitable or fair based on the desires of the native people. It can manifest in many forms, it is not only independence.

But Chamorros responded to the topic of decolonization in an “interpassive” way. Interpassivity is a psychoanalytical term in which you discuss something in such a way in order to prevent any discussion about it from taking place. They responded with interpretations of decolonization that are so ridiculous, it is meant to completely shut down discussion and not let any further consideration take place. Decolonization in any form, even in terms of integration with the colonizer is something to be resisted within the decolonial deadlock, because it challenges the sovereignty and control of the colonizer. So long as the colonizer is in charge, all is supposed to be well, everything will function and advance. But if you challenge that authority, even in order to become one with it, you disrupt your existence.

The representations of the UN in this decolonial deadlock range from non-existent to a devious interloper. One end of the spectrum makes the other possible. Because the UN has little to no presence on the island, the gap is filled almost seamlessly with negative fantasies such as the ones that Chamorros feel towards decolonization.

The UN is not seen as an impartial mediator or guide, but as something that challenges the authority of the United States, infringing on its sovereignty. They see it as interfering with the control that people trapped in the decolonial deadlock feel is essential to the order in their lives. They also create fantasies that absolve the United State of any culpability in the continuing colonizing of Guam. They blame the UN for not decolonizing the island, and they blame the inefficient and incompetent UN for not taking this process seriously. This is where the decolonial deadlock achieves its circular and continually reproducing status.

Those who fantasize that the UN is holding Guam back from decolonizing, thus argue that it should really by the US who decolonizes Guam. Thus reinforcing the idea that even in terms of self-determination, something that shouldn’t belong to any colonizer, people on Guam feel that it should be the colonizer who determines the destiny of Chamorros. This is truly regrettable since the US is on record saying they do not support decolonization for Guam. Due to its strategic importance and the bases the US possesses there, they have no interest in decolonizing the island. As a non-self-governing territory Guam suits their needs perfectly.

The UN can play a critical role in resolving the decolonial deadlock and bringing about a change in consciousness in Guam. But it cannot so long as it remains absent and the administering power remains either opposed to any change or disengaged from any discussions on the matter.

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