I was going through some of my old file on my laptop and stumbled across this. I wrote it for a small zine called Salty Zine published out of the Women's Studies Department at UC Riverside a few years ago. This notion of "resisting democracy" later played a huge role in getting through my master's thesis in Ethnic Studies. I just thought I'd share it here.
"Resisting Democracy in Guam"
Michael Lujan Bevacqua
University of California, San Diego, Ethnic Studies
If you believe the hype of American imperialism, something called freedom is on the march, and “democracy” is being spread across the world’s oil rich nations. Democracy is invoked like a blessed universal, something which can traverse any borders and bring the light of civilization with it. Equality! Fraternity! Justice for all! How could anyone who hasn’t committed mass genocide be against it?
Paradoxically, because of this overwhelmingly positive imagining of democracy, so many terrible things can be done in its name. “The hand that gives, rules,” says a Bantu proverb, describing perfectly the hidden side of “democratic” dispersals. There is no doubt that President Bush would refer to US nation-building in Iraq as a “gift” to the Iraqi people, thereby excusing his illegal war on democratizing grounds. But far from an innocent act, Bush’s war was an intervention designed to dictate and map out the future of Iraq, based on American strategic desires. “Democracy,” was the means through which the country could be invaded and then confined within certain political and ideological limits.
Iraq is a violent example, but more subtle processes can be found across the world, as nations such as the US create neo-colonial empires. This leads me to my island of Guam. A strategic US military colony since 1898, it was given “democracy” in 1950 with the establishment of a local representative government, fashioned after the American model. Since that time however public discussions in Guam have bemoaned how this blessed gift is constantly being threatened, and not by terrorists or Diebold voting machines, but by the culture of the island’s indigenous inhabitants, the Chamorros.
Throughout Guam’s new media and Internet presence, the incapacity of Chamorros to fulfill the promises of American democracy can be found. As one poster on Chamorro.com
cynically posted, “saying democratic Chamorros is like saying democratic Talibans.” Even Guam’s politicians join in the attack on culture, as one noted in the 2002 elections, “only when we can learn to let go of our traditions that hold us back, from getting the American dream of democracy and capitalism, then we can move forward.” To be more specific, Chamorro culture is articulated as a corrupting influence in Guam, keeping the island from being properly democratic. Practitioners of the culture are spitting in the face of American politics by focusing on family networks and relationships first, and the island’s polity second. In this context, Chamorro culture is equated with nepotism, illegal political favors and government waste.
Why is American democracy seen as the uncontested ideal that must be lived up to, and culture sacrificed to achieve? Why is Chamorro culture relegated to a kink which must be ironed out? In analyzing these attacks, we can see American power being maintained through the defense of “democracy.”
Since 1898, the US has desired to control Guam’s strategic space. All the island’s governments since then have fulfilled this task. According to one Governor of Guam, despite the democratic smell of the Guam’s current government, with three branches, a system of checks and balances, etc, it does not provide more autonomy for Chamorros or for Guam, it instead enhances the colonial authority of the US, by trapping Guam within a particular form and culture of government, namely an American one. This democratic gift came filled with American symbols and principles, and exists not as a testament to anything Chamorro, but instead to the greatness of America. The colonizing of Guam therefore continues, but in more subtle ways, as Guam’s continuing existence is dictated by explicit political and ideological connections to the US.
As the US military shifts its troops from Europe to Asia, Guam’s value as a strategic outpost continues to grow. The American character of Guam’s government will ensure that Guam remains intimately linked to the US. Certain issues, such as decolonization or more autonomy for Guam will never be seriously considered, because of the invisible hegemonies the establishment of American democracy has instilled. The island will therefore remain “democratically” linked to the US, as a forward military base and a footnote to its empire.
Those who attack Chamorro culture as something intensely corrupting are defending this control. Convinced of American ideological dominance through education, the media or public discourse, they see Chamorro culture as something which must be neutralized. Why? Because Chamorro culture offers alternative common sense notions about how society should function and where everyone’s place is within it. American liberal democracy is maintained by the great/noble lie of “everyone being equal” within the polity and therefore no one should be judged on their individual merits. This idea has a way of masking and excusing social inequalities, by saying that those who are less equal, have only themselves and their abilities to blame.
When people on Guam attack Chamorro culture as being a rampant source of political favors for family members, they are attacking the cultural proposition that maybe it is more important to serve the needs of your family, than some mythical idea of a political collective. It recommends something that contests the imagined community that liberal democracy requires in order to exist. Chamorro culture asserts a different form of social collectivity, between people and between people and the world around them, which conflicts with American political culture. It recommends living through inafa’maolek, or reciprocal interdependence, through which tangible links amongst community members, families, clans or groups should be made, as opposed to imaginary ones.
In these lessons in how to exist we find small ways in which American ideological dominance is complicated, but more importantly small sites of resistance. This is what Subcomandante Marcos is addressing when he says that resistance can be found in our cultures, our arts. In that which the First World disregards as “culture” or threats to modernization, we can find important ideas for how our futures should be. Arundhati Roy has said that the “American way of life is simply not sustainable,” and this is particularly true on an island, where balance equals survival. In many ways, cultures like that of the Chamorros learned to deal with their environment and social relationships better than what exists in today’s world addicted to capitalism and militarism. And it is important that we recognize the possibility of a better past in order to make possible a better future. This can be done by critiquing the ways that seemingly benevolent ideas such as democracy are employed to further colonize indigenous cultures, thereby helping us to avoid futures dictated by imperial or neo-colonial powers, but instead reflect the hopes, dreams and traditions of peoples such as the Chamorros.