Recent and ongoing events on Kauai and throughout the state — even on the Mainland — should underscore how important to public discourse it is to stop speaking in code and begin talking about what we’re really talking about.
A key reminder of this was the criticism heaped upon President Obama — an African-American man, after all — for using the word “nigger,” appropriately, in an interview. News media have traditionally shied away from using this word — sweetening it by referring to the “n-word”— out of concern for offending unnecessarily.
The downside, though, is that it avoids more constant reminders of how ugly that word is and how much hate it expresses. So, in addition to celebrating the president’s U.S. Supreme Court vindication on the Affordable Care Act, let us also congratulate him for using the actual word, so none of us forget it.
Which brings us back to Hawaii.
On two important issues of public discourse and public discord, we fallen into speaking in code and have, thus, avoided confronting critical issues head-on.
The first is the agonizing controversy over development of a new telescope on Mauna Kea on Hawaii Island. While there is little question of the scientific value of this facility, there is a great deal of question about the suitability of the project within the context of preservation of Native Hawaiian culture.
But the hue and cry over Mauna Kea is not, really, about a telescope. It’s about a process in which the telescope and the perceived integrity of the mountain have come to be surrogates for the real issue: Hawaiian sovereignty and the perception that Hawaii is occupied territory that should be surrendered to the descendants of its original inhabitants.
This debate is one that should be brought to a conclusion in the open and not placed behind the smokescreen of a disagreement over the Thirty Meter Telescope.
In some ways, the discussion of Hawaiian sovereignty has been further obfuscated by depicting it as equivalent to the controversial history of U.S. relations with Native American tribes, the forming of reservations and ostensibly sovereign Indian nations. That issue has few similarities to Hawaii’s situation.
Between about 1890 and 1914 (or 1934, depending on how you assign historic timeline entries), the United States engaged in a lamentable series of interventions, seizing and holding territories of independent nations — both in whole and in part. It is a sorry litany that includes Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, Cuba, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, all of which were occupied by U.S. military forces for terms of between a few years and several decades before domestic political considerations drove the U.S. to abandon them.
But in two cases, Puerto Rico (taken in 1898 as part of the Cuban struggle) and part of Mexico, the U.S. annexations have remained in place for substantially more than 100 years and show few signs of ever being reversed. Puerto Rico, if it can fix its financial problems, might still become the 51st state. But the dilemma of Mexico is even more entrenched. Dating to 1848, and reinvigorated between 1914 and 1918, parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada could be described with historical accuracy as still being Mexico. This issue arises periodically and many Latinos in California insist on referring to their state as “occupied Mexico.”
It is little different from the way many Native Hawaiians perceive the political situation here. The problem in both cases is that, although the original takeovers may have been politically bankrupt military exercises by an expansionist young country, going back in history after the passage of more than a century is likely impossible. So the question becomes how respect for the conquered cultures can be maintained or recreated.
That brings us to Mauna Kea. The telescope has become such an overwhelming symbol , with the sense of Hawaii being occupied territory that should be unilaterally liberated, that speaking in code about Mauna Kea stands in the way of talking about the real issue. But the bitterness about the original U.S. takeover — not that this bitterness isn’t justified — has prevented the breadth of participation in a true solution.
This surrogate problem is also a core component of the controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which varies from island to island. But in all locales other than Kauai, code talk has taken over in which “pesticides” have come to be cover language for the true underlying controversy, which is about GMOs and the philosophical bases for this particular form of agriculture.
On Kauai, we’ve deluded ourselves even more. Because the disputed Bill 2491 was amended, wisely, by the County Council to focus almost exclusively on the pesticide controversy, there are people on our island who apparently actually believe that this is all about pesticides. It’s not, and to the extent to which Kauai has allowed itself to be sidetracked into a sometimes comical controversy about pesticide regulation, our interests would be far better served by keeping this debate about what it’s really about: GMOs.
On both issues — sovereignty and GMOs — no resolutions are possible unless or until we acknowledge what we’re really talking about and start to have the debate in earnest. Let’s try it. It might work.
Allan Parachini is a resident of Kilauea.