Random Political Status Thoughts on the Edge of a New Year

In less than a week, a new Governor will take power in Guam, as will a new non-voting Guam delegate and a number of new senators will be sworn in for the island's legislature. I have certain hopes for the new crop of leaders. There is great potential for them to learn lessons from the past, especially on the topic of decolonization. In recent years, the small, but significant maturation of the community on the topic, is part of the fact that for decades it has been circulating in conversations and political agendas. For a long time, rhetoric around decolonization wasn't worth much to voters, and wasn't really worth it. That is why for decades it was rare for politicians to share what their personal preference would be for Guam in terms of political status. It wasn't that they didn't have opinions or thoughts on it, but it was either something politically risky or simply taibåli. 

For the past few years, I've been interviewing Guam politicians from the previous generation. I have asked them directly what status they would prefer for Guam's future, among free association, independence and statehood. When they give me their preference, I then ask them if that is also what they believed in when they were serving the island in office. Usually they say yes. But if their preference involved greater autonomy or greater independence, meaning either free association or independence, they would argue it wasn't the right time to talk about it. That the community was different then, weren't ready for a real discussion on it, and that if you talked about Guam having greater control or even hinted at more independence, people would think you were being anti-American or unpatriotic.

Things have changed somewhat since then. Different efforts have sought to change the island's status, but minor successes. There were votes in the 1980s, failed constitutional efforts in the 1970s, failed plebiscites in the early 2000s, and mixed efforts at public education in recent years. For 15 years there was a fairly strong push for Commonwealth, which involved two Congressional hearings and years of negotiations with federal agencies. It ultimately ended however in failure in 1997.

Even if many people may not have a strong sense of the particulars in those movements, it doesn't mean that it didn't have an impact. Much of what we feel and believe about the world, isn't tied to direct memorization or direct engagement with things. It arrives in a more organic and amorphous way. We pick up ideas, we pick up perceptions about things, and sometimes we can't necessarily trace how it ends up being part of who we are, but it happens nonetheless.

One way to see this sort of sedimentation of knowledge, leading to changes in the contour of community conversation, can be found in the fact that I have a weekly column in the Pacific Daily News, Guam's largest newspaper. In the 1990s, the PDN was fairly antagonistic to Chamoru activists and discussions on decolonization. There were at different points media blackouts of certain issues or voices, even as the PDN nonetheless sensationalized certain aspects of the direct action tactics of groups like Nation Chamoru. Back then, the activist sentiment was that the media was not on their side and was fairly clearly against them and their arguments. Take for example Leo Babauta, who had a short-lived column in the Pacific Daily News, because his topics were considered to be too controversial. The conversation has changed to allow for certain topics, once taboo or unviable, to be discussed more openly.

This doesn't mean necessarily that people know more or care more. I would argue there is some of that, but there isn't a clear and obvious connection. Media is generally driven by discussion drawn from the political classes, even though its audience is supposed to be the masses. So what politicians are talking about, how they are talking about it (or not), is key in framing how the media reports and creates "news."

Up until the 1990s this was largely a discussion appreciated by a small group of activists and politicians, where every once in a while, it would surface amongst the larger community. This has shifted though, to the point where a larger segment of the island's professional class is engaged on the issue and that includes the media. This is helpful in creating space for the decolonization conversation, since less energy and effort is tied to justifying the existence of a movement, to trying to give it a layer of legitimacy. The societal gatekeepers in a way accept it as being a somewhat to very important part of the conversation already.

But a drawback to this sort of opening up of the conversation, is that it becomes easy to deploy rhetoric on it, but not necessarily know much about it or really engage in the topic. This is especially true for political leaders or would-be-political leaders. In the past this issue was taking up primarily by those who understood it or cared about it, which meant that there were few novices or few dilettantes. But as the topic becomes more pervasive, it becomes easier to speak on an issue, in support of an issue, while not necessarily being able to lead on it. 

I am hopeful for the incoming crop of leaders, but I am also realistic. I see signs that many are not well-versed or passionate on status change, despite comments they have made to the contrary. 

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