decolonization / politiku

Decolonization and Dreading Democracy

When I used to teach English Composition at UOG, I would have a series of debates in each of my classes about pertinent local or national issues. While my students expected debates about gun violence, abortion or appropriate drinking or smoking ages, I would have them debate stuff like decolonization, Star Trek v. Star Wars and war reparations for Chamorros who suffered Japanese occupation during World War II. My favorite of these debates was when they would be divided into two groups and have to debate the merits of a little known bill introduced by then and still Senator Frank Aguon on issues of representation and democracy.

Bill 276-30 (LS) was introduced on November 5, 209 and was titled “An act relative to empowering the people of Guam in expanding democracy and direct representation in I Liheslatura Guahan by way of placing a proposal before the voters of Guam to adjust the number of Senators to twenty-one (21), and providing for Legislative budgetary restrictions therein” made an interesting argument. It stated that from the 1st to the 26th Guam Legislature, the people of Guam had a close connection to their leaders. The reduction to 15 hindered this relationship. With the military buildup happening (at that point) Guam’s population would go up even more and so this intimacy would be weakened even further. This bill proposed that the Legislature go back to the way it was initially intended in the Organic Act, as having 21 seats. A referendum would be held to determine if the people would want this increase or not.

The most obvious criticism of this, the idea “that more Senators means more money for the Legislature” was preemptively countered in the bill itself. The bill proposed that if the Legislature increased to 21 seats, the budget itself would not change and each office would just get less money. A sacrifice for more representation.

This bill never came close to becoming a law. Few took it seriously within the Legislature or outside of it. They saw it as a stunt resolution. Something to improve and increase democracy, but in a way that people didn’t feel was necessary. My students usually respond to this debate in a similarly negative way, “15 don’t do anything now, why would we want 21 not doing anything?” Even though Guam is a small place, it can feel very large for certain things and so my students sometimes feel the only relationship they have to their leaders is seeing them waving by the roadside or looking solemn at a rosary.

Students who argue for the bill make the case that more democracy is always better. To have less people in the Legislature makes it easier for a smaller group of people to control the mechanisms of power. Having a larger Legislature also means that not only are there more people to vote for, but that more types of candidates have a chance to be elected. Nowadays it is difficult for a grass roots candidate who doesn’t have much money or much name recognition to get into the Legislature. How could someone with no money but just some good ideas and a commitment to their community make it past someone who can invest tens of thousands of dollars?

The reason I have my students hold this debate is because of the way you can see your own (sometimes unconscious) feelings for your community through it. When people talk or complain they often forget that as you are speaking about something else, you are also speaking about yourself. Even if you are complaining about the government and how inept and corrupt it is, you are at the same time talking about your own relationship to democracy and your government. Guam’s national pastime used to be politics, but now I like to say it is complaining about politics. What does it say about people whose primary involvement in their democracy is to bemoan it?

One of the ways that you can understand the strength of a community is through a discussion like this. If you want to know what those around you think about Guam hold this debate and you might be surprised or even horrified. Most of what we say each day is part of creating our publicly acceptable façade. We don’t say certain things to draw negative attention to ourselves; we refrain from saying others because of the fear of reappraisals. But we allow certain things to escape when offered a space or a conversation where it feels acceptable to share such things. In a debate like this people in their arguments against more leaders or more democracy they are basing much of what they say on the unconscious idea that Guam is lazy, corrupt, can’t be trusted to take care of itself, (except maybe in terms of BBQ).

But for those who take up this debate and fall onto the side of supporting more democracy, they have an optimistic relationship to Guam. They don’t see more leaders as simply more corruption, they see more leaders as more potential solutions to problems. They see more leaders as more of their neighbors or their friends. They may not trust unconditionally, but they do believe that Guam isn’t just a terrible place, but that its people can be trusted.

This issue has tremendous relevance to decolonization and the possibility of Guam becoming an independent country. So long as any discussion of this type is dominated by ideas that it would be a waste of time, which is predicated on the bedrock notion that we can’t trust ourselves or that our leaders are just a waste of votes or money, decolonization and in particular independence will seem far far away. It will seem impossible and feel inadvisable, because it would mean a greater unleashing of local democratic or governmental potential. But as we move towards greater education on this issue, and empower the island to believe in itself more, you would hear this conversation shift slightly to dramatically, as people start to feel choked by that colonial inferiority, and more able to imagine the possibilities a more sovereign future might hold.

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