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Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio, Dismembering Lāhui, University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002.

Osorio’s account of the history of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, focusing particularly on the evolution of the constitutions and legal structures of the island, raises a number of rather thought-provoking issues. Essentially, he suggests that the key issue relevant to the history of the kingdom, or the lens through which we should understand that history, is one of gradual separation, or “dismemberment,” of the Hawaiian people from the traditional relationships of reciprocity they enjoyed with their leaders, through the gradual insertion of haole modes of running a government, or a state.

Whereas certain versions of the narrative of the fall of the kingdom, including that given in To Steal a Kingdom, present the Hawaiians as utterly powerless, and the haoles as single-mindedly, deviously, and selfishly engineering the kingdom’s downfall from the very beginning, Osorio presents a somewhat more nuanced view, looking at why the haoles did what they did, and why the Hawaiians went along with it. Osorio’s account also differs widely from Dougherty’s in that Osorio pays considerable attention to the Native Hawaiian perspective, informing the reader of Hawaiian attitudes, perceptions, intentions, and desires, while Dougherty’s account relates Hawaiʻi’s history exclusively through the lens of the haole perspective. In the 1820s to 1840s, we see the example of Christianity, which – among other reasons for its acceptance by the Hawaiians – seemed to provide a new set of prohibitions to replace the kapu (traditional systems of taboos) which had been abolished, and to thus, perhaps, provide a way to set right, or to make pono, the spiritual balance; many at that time are said to have seen the abolition of the kapu and of the traditional heiau rituals as having toppled the spiritual balance, thus leading to the smallpox epidemics and other difficulties faced by the people at the time. We also see the Hawaiian people, especially at that time but in later decades too, genuinely believing that some haoles were “good” haole, and that these people were genuinely bringing benefit to the kingdom through education, and through advising the chiefs as to constitutional government and capitalist economy (26).

The Nuʻuanu Valley, as seen from the Pali Lookout. Photo my own.

Osorio also explains how traditional understandings of the functioning of governance, and of the relationship between makaʻāinana (commoners), aliʻi (nobles), and mōʻī (monarch), informed Natives’ understandings and behavior in the new Western-style government of the 1840s.1 Osorio suggests that haoles, in becoming the chief royal advisor came to be seen as an equivalent to the kālaimoku, whose advice, given in secret directly to the king, traditionally superseded all other advice. Whether this was intentional, or whether the haoles even recognized or understood the association, is unclear. The aliʻi could present their suggestions, but if told this contradicted the advice of the kālaimoku, the aliʻi would then defer, without questions or challenges, as was traditional. Similarly, makaʻāinana petitions to the aliʻi were traditionally mere descriptions of conditions and expressions of desires, often in the form of requests for personal redress.

Makaʻāinana petitions to the legislature reveal considerable awareness and intelligence on the part of the common people as to what was going on in the government, how it affected them, and what policies they believed should be implemented. Once the petitions were submitted to the aliʻi for consideration, the job of the makaʻāinana representative was done; it was not his place, according to the traditional political thinking, to question or challenge the decision of the aliʻi, nor to argue for a side, nor to make a decision, but simply to present the petition and leave the decision up to the aliʻi; it was unthinkable, initially at least, for commoners to presume to go any further, to make decisions themselves, to challenge or oppose the decisions of the aliʻi. And, once these fundamental beliefs or conceptions underlying the traditional political structure of the relationship between the segments of society began to break down, and commoners were able to challenge and oppose the aliʻi, we are led to understand, the kingdom itself, as anything resembling its former political culture was essentially doomed.

Osorio’s narrative, and argument, rests largely on this notion of the gradual breakdown of the traditional political system, and of the traditional system of relationships and mutual responsibility, which left Hawaiians unable to rely upon their own nobles and kings for help, and left them at the mercy of haole desires and ways of governance. Step by step, they were alienated from understanding how their own government ran, and how they were expected to operate, or behave, as “citizens.” To many of the haole advisors, they may very well have believed they were bringing the Hawaiian people a better, more modern form of government, and indeed a freer and more democratic one. That the Hawaiian people proved unable to instantly, overnight, appreciate how to behave within this new system, was taken by many of the haoles as an indication that the Hawaiians were inherently, biologically, racially, less intelligent, or at the very least, simply not yet ready for self-rule. Seeing it spelled out here in the Hawaiian case, it becomes clear that this must have been quite similar to what happened throughout the world, giving birth to notions of the “white man’s burden,” and of the idea of colonialism as a civilizing mission – that imperial powers were there to rule the “natives” until they were ready to rule themselves – a time that never seemed to come. But, as Osorio’s account so brilliantly makes clear, it’s not that the Hawaiians were inherently less intelligent (of course), or that their minds were somehow shackled by feudal upbringings preventing them from shaking themselves free and realizing and embracing democracy. Rather, it is simply the fact – to which the haoles at that time were oblivious – that the Anglo-American system of government is a culturally particular system, that it requires thinking about things in a particular way, and articulating things in a particular way in order to engage in legal arguments. It was, simply, a different set of cultural understandings and practices, as foreign for the Hawaiians as the Hawaiian system was for the haoles. Aliʻi who were used to presenting their thoughts to the mō’ī and then leaving it to him to make his decision were not used to the idea of debates, back and forth, within a legislature, the idea of continuing to argue your position against a political opponent. And they were also not used to the concepts of “rights,” “property,” “citizenship,” and so forth which were now enshrined within their own Constitution. So they were at a serious disadvantage within their own government, a government now run based on haole ideas and ways of doing things.

Aliʻiōlani Hale, home to the legislature and other organs of government from 1873 until the overthrow. I realize now I don’t think Osorio ever makes it clear where the government was housed – his history is very much a legal history, not an architectural or urban one.

Osorio’s is a fascinating and compelling argument, and I have no reason to think it mistaken. However, if I were to level one criticism, or concern, one thing I do feel Osorio leaves unclear is how such a complex system of traditional political relationships and governance could have been so well-established, when the kingdom was only unified a few decades before the arrival of the first haoles. Back when the islands were not united, was there a mōʻī, and a kālaimoku, and a council of aliʻi who represented the interests of the konohiki and makaʻāinana of their respective ahupuaʻa in precisely this same way that Osorio is now presenting as the established, age-old, traditional system? Had Kamehameha lived 100 years earlier, I’d feel more comfortable with the assumption; had Osorio even just taken the time to address this concern, to reassure the reader that these systems were well-established, either from older times, or simply very thoroughly impressed into the popular consciousness very quickly, within these first few decades since unification, I think it would have helped. There are a number of books out there that focus more strongly on pre-unification, and unification, and while I do not know for sure what these books might cover, I wonder if they might help clarify this question.

In any case, returning to his argument, as Osorio explains, as the traditional respect for the authority of the aliʻi broke down, so too did the traditional system of reciprocal responsibility, in which aliʻi, konohiki, and makaʻāinana were responsible to one another for the productivity of the land, and responsible for one another’s well-being. In “freeing” the Hawaiians from what the haoles perceived to be “oppressive” “feudal” arrangements by establishing private property, Osorio explains, the haoles actually left the makaʻāinana (now called hoaʻāina under the kuleana system implemented after the Mahele of 1848) abandoned, and on their own, deprived of the systems which had helped ensure their welfare. The assertion by Richard Armstrong that

“If you now continue poor, needy, living in disorder in miserable huts, your lands lying waste … whose fault will it be? Whose but yours?”

rings far too true of Conservative ideologies widely espoused today, asking people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. One can easily imagine Armstrong, or his counterparts today, simply standing and scratching their heads, dumbfounded as to why these people, given “freedom,” and their own land, are not spontaneously and suddenly productive and prosperous, as Locke’s notions of the “state of perfect freedom,” and classical economics notions of incentives say they should be. Possessing a mental block against the idea that people should have support structures, and against the idea that they have been deprived of what they need for success (in the case of the hoaʻāina, being deprived of the irrigation access and rights of fishing & other gathering activities on communal land they once possessed, and given, yes, some land, but not enough land to grow enough taro), and fueled by racist ideologies which sadly persist today, these people could find no explanation for failure but to think the farmers “lazy,” or otherwise racially/bodily/mentally incapable.

What’s frightening and disheartening and disgusting is just how similar – indeed identical – much of these 19th century haole attitudes are to fundamental aspects of our own American discourse today. These same logics continue to underlie our society today, and while I suppose they must have played some role in bringing our country to the greatness it is (or was), I cannot help but see them as terribly dangerous for our future. The history of Hawaiʻi, though quite widely generally seen as peripheral, marginal, in fact bears numerous parallels to developments today, which I think makes this history a powerful warning. (In my own words, but pulled out just for emphasis:)

The people petition the government, and the government, “bought” and in the hands of corporate interests, ignores the voices of the people. The government equates prosperity and success for industry and economics with prosperity and success for “the nation,” putting corporations first, and people second.

Certainly, the situation in the United States is powerfully different from that of Hawaiʻi in important ways – one of the chief ones being the matter of self-rule. Those who espouse these dangerous ideals and threaten our way of life today are not some foreign influence, bringing some foreign way of doing things, as was the case in the Hawaiian Kingdom, but rather they are our fellow Americans, of similar ethnic, religious, and/or cultural backgrounds to many of us, espousing ideals and systems of government that, far from being foreign, are indeed some of the ideals upon which our nation was founded – the very same ideals which were foreign to Hawaiʻi, and which brought its downfall.

Sympathetic as I am for the Hawaiian people, and angry as I am, especially after reading To Steal a Kingdom, at the greedy and self-righteous haoles for what they did in Hawaiʻi, Osorio actually presents a more sympathetic picture of the haoles than Dougherty or many others do, in seeking to understand why they did what they did, and why the Hawaiians allowed it to happen as they did. Sympathetic or not, I think that such an approach is crucial towards truly understanding why horrible things happen, and being able to recognize and combat such trends when they re-emerge. If we simply see haoles – and Nazis, and Japanese militarists, and American Confederates – as “evil,” it makes it far too easy to simply relegate them to some distant corner of history, to believe that evil is always easily recognizable, and that the only reason such horrible things happened in the past was because the people of that time were too stupid to recognize it, too weak to fight it, or were simply bad people themselves. We consider ourselves smart, strong, and “good,” and so distance ourselves from, and blind ourselves to, the possibilities that such things could happen again – and the possibilities that our own beliefs and actions might be contributing to such negative trends. By contrast, if we do not simply dismiss these people as “bad people,” and instead engage with attempting to understand why people support the causes and policies that they do, and the appeal and flaws of certain ideologies, we can get a better understanding of how a country falls into the hands of fascist, Communist, militarist, or otherwise destructive forces.

Such an approach raises all kinds of questions as to how we should think about American ideals and discourses, and how we act upon them. In the wake of reading these two books by Osorio and Dougherty, and amidst discussions about Citizens United, among other related subjects, I have less sympathy than I ever had before, to be sure, for corporate interests or pure profit motives. But, if I were living in a foreign country, and most especially if I had sworn an oath of allegiance and been granted citizenship of that country, would I not, too, want to see government address my interests? Would I not, too, at the very least, want to feel that I was safe from the arbitrary will of the leaders of that country? Both on a general logical, practical, and emotional level, and in drawing upon my understanding of the United States’ foundational (Revolutionary) anti-monarchical ideologies, I can understand why an American, or a group of Americans (and Brits and Frenchmen), who grew up with certain notions about equal protection under the law, protection even from the government itself which is also constrained by the law, would fear the arbitrary will of a King and his Nobles, and would want to see a system of law put into place to protect them. Indeed, I have these fears today, in my own life, in my own experiences, in Britain and Japan. If Japanese law enforcement accuse me of something, convict me of something, something I am either innocent of, or something for which the punishment is much harsher in Japan than it would be at home, of course I would wish for extraterritoriality, or want to call my Embassy. And this is precisely what these haoles do, in 19th century Hawaiʻi. Yes, there was also a very significant element of flat-out racism, the Orientalist and “white man’s burden” kind of racism that undergirded imperialism and colonialism throughout the world in that era, and there was in many cases unbridled greed for power and wealth, and I certainly do not mean to condone or excuse those motivations whatsoever. But, I guess in summary, it should serve as an object lesson that our ideals, even those which we think among the best of our ideals, can be extremely problematic and dangerous, and how a people can become constrained, indeed doomed, by their own laws, when law is given priority over justice, or over what is right. (Though, of course, there can be many differing opinions as to what is right on any given point, and it is this which the supremacy of law is meant to protect from. But, hence the dilemma.)

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(1) Osorio uses the term “Natives,” and so I do as well, taking after his example. I appreciate the potentially problematic nature of using this term, as it is evocative of old Orientalist tropes of “the natives,” e.g. as in the phrase “the natives are restless.” As Osorio is a Native Hawaiian scholar himself, I feel it safe to follow his lead, to use the terms he uses as appropriate. Further, while it might be more precisely culturally accurate to use a term like kānaka ʻōiwi or kānaka maoli, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of granting myself permission to use those terms. It is, to be sure, something to continue to think about and wrestle with. If any of you readers are Native Hawaiian yourself, please feel free to let me know what you think. Mahalo.

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