Inouye and Obama are Hawaii
Yes, you can play class politics in Hawaii. You can also juggle knives or bungee jump. The question is, why would you?
Before the Feb. 19 Hawaii presidential caucus, Hawaii Sen. Dan Inouye took a gratuitous, easy shot at Sen. Barack Obama, noting that Obama went to Punahou "and that is not a school for the impoverished."
"I don't hold it against anyone who is a Punahou grad," Inouye said in a Honolulu Advertiser article. It sounded a bit like Mark Anthony calling Brutus "an honorable man."
"Shame on Danny for trying to pull that stunt," Obama said in reaction in several television interviews.
A cascade of irate letters soon convinced Inouye that a retreat was in order and he apologized to Obama and Punahou.
The flap allows us to peek into the complex world of Hawaii ethnic and class political warfare. On one hand you could say that unlike the mainland, where young black men are in danger in certain neighborhoods, in Honolulu young men who advertise too loudly that they are attending Punahou might be asking for a fat lip.
Hawaii's politics can be simple, the motto of the now extinct native Hawaiian political party, the Home Rule Party, was "Nana i ka ili"-- look to the skin.
Inouye, 83, himself grew to political power at a time when the class war of rich Republican land owners and Democratic unionized workers forged the views of local politics.
"Its roots lie in this class divide, but it is actually richer than a class war. This was part of Dan Inouye's own social upbringing. It is about a group moving up against the ruling class with a deep feeling of being oppressed," said Ira Rohter, University of Hawaii political scientist.
Rohter also wryly suggests that "If Hillary Clinton grew up in Hawaii, I am sure she would have gone to Punahou."
Before Obama's primary win in Wisconsin, his demographics might have been closer to the perceived Punahou class. White wine and Mercedes SUVs. Since then Obama is showing a more populist appeal.
Waikiki entertainers have long joked to tourists that we here in Hawaii are not black, brown or white -- "We are beige."
In many ways Obama today has that to teach the mainland with his campaign. His own family and its experiences are like a United Nations subcommittee meeting with groups from Indonesia, Kansas, Kenya and Honolulu. Hawaii's acceptance and experience in working in a community with no dominant majority gets its people past the "Hate the Man" stage and into the chance for cooperation.
That appreciation and encouragement of inclusiveness and our knowledge of Hawaii's past is the strength of Hawaii and the reason why we can understand both Obama and Inouye.