Monday, November 07, 2016

Mensahi Ginen i Gehilo' #19: Just Like Tantalus

Tantalizing Democratic Experiments
by Michael Lujan Bevacqua
Guam Sunday Post
November 6, 2016

Gof kinenne’ yu’ nu este na botasion, ko’lo’lo’ña i botasion gi sanlagu. Hu såsangan este, achokka’ esta hu gof komprende na mas ki taibali este na botasion nu hita guini giya Guahan, sa’ tåya’ botu-ta gi botasion para i presidente.

I have been obsessively following the election for President of the United States for more than a year, and this is something that sometimes surprises people. The drama of it is both repellent and compelling. I cannot turn away from this event that seems to move both in frustrating slow motion, but also at a frenetic Mad Max-like pace, careening at frightening speed toward a possible dystopia.

As a local decolonization activist, or someone who is actively advocating for a change in our political status, my obsessing over the U.S. presidential election can seem contradictory. As a distant American colony on the edge of the Western Pacific, we don’t get to participate in this election (except through a straw poll) and the lone representative that we elect to send to Congress is a non-voting member. But these contradictions are actually what draw me into the drama, as they offer important reflective possibilities in following an election that we can’t participate in, but potentially determines the basic course of our island for the next four to eight years.

An important first step in conceiving decolonization is to be able to understand what must change about the present. How the status quo may constrict us in certain fundamental ways; how it may represent, in both obvious and more insidious forms, types of injustices and inequality. This can be difficult, because on the surface Guam’s number one industry seems to be not tourism or the U.S. military presence, but rather fantasizing that it is simply a browner, more humid faraway fragment of the United States. A great deal of mental energy goes into how we indoctrinate ourselves, in both formal and informal ways, to see ourselves just like any other part of the U.S. Maybe we endure a little bit more colonialism than you average corner of California, but nonetheless, we’re Where America’s Day Begins!

This façade feels real to your average person on Guam, but it carries little truth. Taiminagahet ayu na siniente. This is why the election is such an important time for rethinking our relationship to the U.S. and to the world. As the circle of American belonging stretches from sea to shining sea, with the aura of hundreds of millions being included in the exercise of American democracy, our particular portion of the tåsi doesn’t count. This is what makes each presidential election a trove teeming with possibilities for engaging people in discussions of political status.

As part of our premiere industry of wishful American belonging, we eagerly import platitudes on American exceptionalism and awesomeness. We throw them out like candy at Liberation Day parades and flags on Memorial Day. We patriotically profess the greatness of a nation that routinely doesn’t include us in its self-concept. We say it represents this or represents that, when those things haven’t been allowed to exist in Guam since Old Glory was first raised here in 1898.

At the start of America’s own democratic experiment, Benjamin Franklin said, “A great Empire, like a great Cake, is most easily diminished at the Edges.”

In the abstract it can be easy to pretend these platitudes are real. But in reality, the closer times moves towards actual exercises of American democracy, the more we see its limitations and its contradictions – especially those that form our current comfortable, yet nonetheless colonial, position.
Earlier this year Voice of America, a U.S. government-funded multimedia news source and its official external broadcasting institution, covered this in an insightful article titled, “US Presidential Election Ends at Conventions for Territorial Citizens.” It featured the voices of Republican and Democratic delegates from Guam who were attending their party conventions. In it, the delegates, such as our own Speaker of the Guam Legislature Judith Won Pat, lamented how this is their lone real role in this grand exercise of American democracy – to help nominate candidates. Some expressed gratitude for being included, while others said it makes them feel like they are second-class citizens, or not really part of the U.S. Even these forms of participation are problematic, as they don’t represent any fundamental tie to the U.S., just something allowed by the preference of political parties. Even having delegate and convention votes smacks of the ephemeral and shallow nature of our connection to the U.S. We’re not granted a fundamental right to partake in this process, we’re simply allowed to, like a plus-one to a wedding; a conditional invitation to someone else’s party.

This is that important point of reflection that drives my fascination with the presidential election. Rather that continue to be dazzled by the platitudes of American greatness, this is the moment when we should sahuma minagahet, inhale the tough truths that are appearing all around us.

Every four years, we get reminders not of how strong our connection is to the U.S., but rather how tenuous it is, how undemocratic it is. And there are stirrings within our community as to whether or not we should seek something more, either within the U.S. or without. As one elderly Chamorro once told me, “Nina’i hao gi as Yu’os i chetnot-mu para un espiha i amot-mu.”

Looking to the future, our relationship to the U.S. and its democracy has been a Micronesian version of the Greek legend of Tantalus, something that always seems just out of our reach and can never truly be ours. After more than a century of colonial thirst, maybe it is time to pursue a grand governmental experiment of our own?

Dr. Bevacqua is committed to the decolonization of Guam and the revitalization of the Chamorro language. He is currently working on a Chamorro translation of the Shakespearean play “Othello.”

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