Is this any way to run a banana republic?
banana republic -- noun, usually disparaging. any of the small countries in the tropics, especially in the Western Hemisphere, whose economies are largely dependent on fruit exports, tourism and foreign investors.
Both sides of the Hawaii Superferry issue surprisingly agree on some important points. Most important is that the conflict and dissent stem from larger issues than the ferry venture itself. It has become a touchstone, or more aptly the last straw, bringing out central issues regarding who we are as an island society. Some of these issues, such as neighbor island attitudes towards Oahu, have not been aired in such a public way in modern times, if at all. The coming of the ferry struck a chord that has resonated so loudly it has brought together many disparate groups in protest and has left everyone else thunderstruck.
Whatever people on the neighbor islands think about the ferry, there is general agreement that the state government and many other Oahu-based forces are insensitive to their needs, values and quality of life.
This tone deafness, concern with image over substance, was recently expressed by Mike Fitzgerald, head of Enterprise Honolulu, "We're presenting ourselves as a place that can't mind our own affairs -- that we're incompetent and that we don't know what we're doing."
It's more than just our image; the collective identity and vision of the future lie at the core of this conflict.
The fact is we can't mind our own affairs and we are incompetent; often our judgment is skewed by our dependency one way or another on external powers and the values they represent. In the economic sense we are dependent in that virtually all of our banks, major retailers, media, air transportation, hotels, shipping and utilities are owned and controlled by outside interests. But federal authorities have also found us incompetent and unable to mind our own affairs in regard to education, public health, public housing, and our ability to run our own penal system, repeatedly during the last 15 years.
Our government and power structure is so inured to external control that when the U.S. Maritime Administration demanded we abrogate our own laws in order for the Superferry to attain federal loan guarantees, they accepted the demands and strenuously defended them. They still are.
This is "the last straw" of indifference and insensitivity by our government, and by extension the people of Oahu, that has brought all this emotion out of the closet.
Ultimately, this airing of public grief can only be a good thing and perhaps a turning point. As valuable an asset as the Superferry may or may not turn out to be, it has broadened the dialogue on important issues in Hawaii such as self sufficiency, sovereignty, managing our resources, and pursuing our collective destiny as an island society.
Of the islands affected, Kauai has the weakest, least diverse economy. Yet the prospect of a daily super-sized boatload of visitors is not viewed as an opportunity, but as a tax on infrastructure, lifestyle and a threat to the environment. If nothing else, this situation begs the question: What are acceptable long-term alternatives that will preserve the way of life, the identity of the community?
We tend to take our assets for granted, especially intangible assets, even though they are at the core of our prosperity and well being. While outside business interests will factor the preservation of intangible assets into their for-profit equations, we can't depend on them to hold our best interests to heart in their pursuit of short-term wealth. It is up to us to define and preserve the qualities of our society that we value in the broad sense of what we call "our way of life."
In this way the ferry has made more relevant to the general population the same central issues as Native Hawaiian aspirations for sovereignty. It has always been a tenet that there is a place for non-Hawaiians in sovereignty models for the future. But that place has always been vague. The dramatic narrative of the ferry has shown that many of the most valid cultural claims of native Hawaiians are very similar to those that non-native groups are embracing in defense of their communities from the ferry. As one Hawaiian activist commented to the press, "The protesters at Nawiliwili were there to protect the concerns of the kanaka. It wasn't just brown skin anymore."
To our chagrin on Oahu, we've seen ourselves cast as the hordes who will inundate and overwhelm other islands. It gives us much to think about and perhaps it has opened a door for the general population to consider and participate in sovereignty issues. As an island state we all have many of the same aspirations and vulnerabilities as the native Hawaiian culture.
Chief among those is managing our finite resources. American-style commercialism and many American laws have a continental character. Steady and continual growth is intrinsic to the continental and global economic equation. Compared to our small isolated islands, the resources, variety of options, and opportunities there are almost infinite. Our ecosystems are tiny and fragile in comparison to the robust environment of continents. We are Americans, but we are not North Americans, the distinction is not trivial.
Small island societies are not a good fit with the 21st-century reality of economies of scale and many aspects of industrialism. Traditionally, island societies have operated on a stable state basis, not using resources faster than they can be replenished. Currently there just isn't a viable role for us in the global macro-economic model. If we don't write one for ourselves we will tend to stay in the default role of a dependent economic colony; artificially propped up as our resources are depleted.
The protection of our tiny microcosm has been a main element of the opposition's challenge to the ferry's operations. Clearly, we must find alternative solutions that will work in our small proscribed environment. Stopping the ferry doesn't solve anything beyond the perceived problem of the ferry itself.
We live in a world that defines wealth in monetary terms. Because the 14,000 whales that inhabit our waters are not a commodity, corporations only see them as a public relations issue and their protection in terms of cost vs. benefit. In truth, Hawaii's economy is not too different from the whales; we cannot grow to a significant scale in the global economic equation and our isolation doesn't allow for the synergy that smaller states on continents enjoy.
Our primary defense lies in the perpetuation of our intangible assets. These include our unique biodiversity, cultural diversity, rural lifestyle on the neighbor islands and the very nature of our finite resources as a rich model for global environmental and social issues. Only by preserving them and nurturing them do we have something valuable within the global context that will enable us to sustain ourselves. This is an area where Hawaii can exert leadership for small island states.
On one hand there is nothing new here, but for all the symposiums, studies and initiatives, little seems to take root. To a large extent the ideas are continental; they don't resonate and soon a new study is begun. The chords struck by the ferry should not be ignored lest they come back to haunt us. It has impelled many to voice concerns previously muted and made us all stand up and listen. We should make the most of this opportunity.
Steven Rosenthal is a composer, musician and artist. He lives in Honolulu.