George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords

I'm with the consensus. Best yet.

I’m with the consensus. Best yet.

For whatever reason, A Song of Ice and Fire really has its hooks in me by this point. A number of people I know who’ve read the series thus far have told me that A Storm of Swords is their favorite, and thus far I have to agree. More than anything, the book is good because Martin maintains a general inventiveness in plot and depth in character.

To return to the running thread of the discussion, my concern with Martin has been the extent to which he revises Tolkein’s influence on the genre. Right now, my concern is that the genre, nearly without exception takes a European center to its fantastic settings. Middle Earth is Europe, and the Shire is rural England. We know this. Even a Moorcock, who so thoroughly revised Tolkein’s ethical framework, maintained this European focus. His principal non-Melibonean characters were either Europeans by another name or exoticized others, sympathetic or no. In Tolkein, Sauron enlists the forces of Islam, if one scratches below the surface.

There can be no doubt that Westeros is, for the greater part, Europe. You could argue about Dorne, but the rest is there. I make this point without judgement, but with some concern. Why? Because one of the reasons I engage with literature the way I do is because literature, particularly more lowbrow forms of it, those for “entertainment’s sake” shape the way we as people see our world and the other people in it. This, and the fact that when we imagine that something is “just entertainment” we are all the less likely to be conscious as people of how what we read (or otherwise consume) affects our thinking about our world. My concern is that the thoroughly Eurocentric character of the genre can leave a reader with the impression that Europe–or the settler colonies Europeans established–is the center of the world and its history. This can transfer easily, especially in one of the settler colonies like that in which I live, to people. White people become the center of the world’s action, and their phenotypes become the norm. This type of thing has concrete, destructive consequences.

So, Martin doesn’t change this aspect of the genre. The question then becomes, how does he handle Europe? Discussions about what Europe means are very important, just like though we know Marx didn’t deal in depth, in his major works, with the non-European world, what he had to say about Europe is of enduring importance.

The colonialist line on Europe is that it took a civilizing turn away from the rest of the world when the Greeks defeated the Persians. Where others had superstitions, Europeans had philosophy. This predicated the Roman and British Empires both, and is why the English-speaking peoples gave us heavy industry.

There is a second, less discussed, and much more accurate and useful take on Europe. Rather than a Europe that breaks from the rest of the world with the Greeks, we have a Europe that breaks in the modern period. Of interest here is Carlo Ginzburg’s work, which I’ve discussed before. In essence, what we see with Ginzburg’s work is the process of church orthodoxy rooting out–physically–localized, indigenous religious practices under the guise of a struggle against witchcraft. This happens both under the context of the new Reformation and the development of modern, global, colonialist capitalism. The point here is that Europe was, as it continues to be, split unto itself.

We imagine Europeans, and, it follows, their white descendants in North America, Australia, and New Zealand, as peoples entirely culturally–genetically, to the biological racists–distinct from the indigenous peoples they displaced in their colonialist primitive accumulation. However one deals with this, though, the arrival of those Europeans who settled other peoples’ lands was the end of another, European process as much as it was the beginning of another. What a Ginzburg points to is a Europe that was as much connected to its particular, local land as any indigenous culture could be. In this view, Europe split from the rest of the world when it cut off its own roots in its own land.

All this discussion, because Martin deals with this process, in his way. Jojen Reed is the best example, at least in Storm of Swords. Bran, too, but Jojen is the one who is conscious of the processes involved. Tolkein gave us happy Hobbits living in their English countryside, but Martin gets to something more real: indigenous peoples under seige by settlers. The settlers–think the kings of Westeros, with their ideologues, the maesters–imagine that what had been there before is now entirely gone, but they’re wrong. The land still functions through people like Jojen.

Why is this important? Because one of the sustaining fictions of white supremacy is the lie, cherished as fact by explicit racists and privileged white liberals both, that “the Indians are gone.” I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that precise sentence from people who considered themselves on the left. Indigenous people are not gone, though white settlers did their damnedest. And who were those white people? Not people who were at some basic essence different from those they displaced, but people whose bond to their land had been forcibly cut, who found themselves at some level unmoored, and, as such, capable of great social violence. I return to Chief Seattle, to whom I will continue to return, again and again:

To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret.

Vine Deloria, God is Red

Read immediately.

Read immediately.

For some reason I don’t understand–maybe I’m getting old, maybe getting content, maybe both–I’ve been rereading books lately, a number at a time, for the first time in my life. I was never one to go back to something a second time. Yet at the moment I not only reread Vine Deloria‘s essential God is Red, but I scored a copy of Michael Moorcock‘s Elric stories from the library. In any event, Deloria is always worth reading and this, of all the books of his I’ve read, is the one that has had the greatest continuing impact on how I imperfectly try to live.

No summaries here, but a description: Deloria compares actually-existing North American Christianity to Native American religious practice and finds the former, not unpredictably but quite profoundly, lacking. Christianity, born in Southwest Asia under the auspices of a Palestinian god, lost, in its movement across continents and most particularly across the Atlantic, any relationship it once bore to a specific people and, more importantly, a specific land. Native practice, on the contrary, is entirely predicated on the relationship of specific people to specific land.

The breaking, in Christianity, of that fundamental relationship, means that the religion, as it actually exists, cannot fulfil any of the functions a religion must: help people live better, be happy, not damage others or our world, etc. Look, he argues, at how Christians have behaved on this land in the last 500 years, to this day. Any argument to the contrary, it seems to me, must abstract itself from historical fact and retreat into abstractions about how the religion, ideally, ought to be. If Christianity worked, as a religion, Christ wouldn’t have come to Mexico on a cannonball.

It was in God is Red, on my first read some eight years ago, that I came across Chief Seattle‘s famous speech of 1854, which Deloria quotes at length:

To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret…(173)

I cannot overstate the impact these two sentences had on my thinking over the next years. Impact, in the most profound sense, because they produced in me an impulse to ask questions about what they mean for me as a person and as a presence on this land. More critically, they pointed the direction to me through which I might deal with the questions of whiteness and settler colonialism without on the one hand white guilt and on the other an imagined objectivity. White guilt is ultimately selfish emotion, and no participant in a process can observe a process objectively. Observation itself is subjective, however comforting it might be for the white thinker to imagine otherwise. Seattle’s words, though, suggested to me that it was by approaching my ancestors in their specificity that I might find a way forward.

I practice Buddhism, and, for those who aren’t practitioners, there is a whole discourse, in North America, dealing with the question of the practice migrating–very literally–from Asia to the Americas, and what that means for the practice and for us as practitioners. The discussion takes many forms, but by and large takes place among educated, well-off white practitioners and posits an “Asian Buddhism” in contrast to a “North American Buddhism.”

Lots of problems. One, any practitioner of Asian ancestry is assumed to fall into the first group and not the second, as if a third-generation Asian-American necessarily would approach the practice in precisely the same way as her or his peasant ancestors of a century ago. There’s also the problem that the “converts” (as opposed to “ancestral practitioners”) are on the one hand assumed to be white and, on the other, assumed to be “true spiritual seekers” in opposition to the “ancestral practitioners” who are simply following, unthinkingly, the superstitions handed to them, much like the most unthinking Christian you could imagine, only in a more inscrutable and exotic kind of way. Needless to say, the entire discussion reproduces societal racism in the microcosm of the community of practitioners.

Many of the efforts to define a “North American” or “Western” Buddhism, both theoretically and in a practical approach, involve mingling Buddhist practice with various aspects of “Western” culture or civilization. Some find in Buddhist practice a complement to psychotherapy. Some, building on the popularity of martial arts or yoga, create a polyglot practice, drawing on a variety of–am I coining a term?–Asianisms, giving the practitioner a feeling of authenticity without challenging the, at best, rudimentary understanding of Asian societies we in the United States tend to have.

To Deloria: reading God is Red some years ago, and much more clearly this time around, it became clear to me that, yes, there will be and must be a particularly North American Buddhism. But, no, it will not be a Buddhism that comes from a facile mingling of disparate or even contradictory cultural practices, nor from picking and choosing elements from the “Western canon” that seem to fit the ideas one finds in the Sutras or other classic Buddhist texts. Here, think Meister Eckhart, William Blake, or Heidegger. These are all interesting writers worth reading (never put the effort into Heidegger myself, though) but a scholastic effort like this will not produce the type of results that Buddhist practice promises, and in any event, we’re talking about European, not North American writers. The sustenance of a settler colony as such is not the goal of any Buddhism I want a part of.

I could go on…

What my read of Deloria suggested to me is that the North American Buddhism we practitioners often bandy about would likely come from building a real, reciprocal relationship to the actual land upon which we practice. Land, in this understanding, isn’t inanimate. It includes all the life we find here. That means, it includes this land’s people. I do not suggest that white Buddhists should start performing sweat lodges. Anecdotally, I stayed a bit at a monastery and overheard some white practitioner talking to a much younger, fairly attractive woman about how he performed “sweat lodges,” and I had an overwhelming urge to go punch him and tell the girl to run. I should have, seriously.

Rather, I suggest that the process of coming to know the land as practitioners involves two things. First, we need to immediately stop harming the land, and that means its people, too. First, do no harm. It’s no good buying a Prius with twice the mileage of your last car if you drive the thing three times as much because you imagine it’s so green. Second, we need to come to know the land. A comment in Deloria, actually from the “The Red and the Black” chapter of Custer Died for Your Sins, suggested that Black people ought indeed to fight for their own land in North America because then they could take “two or three hundred years” to come to know it and form a relationship to it as a people. It seems to me that it will take that long, so we have no time to lose.

Next time you do your walking meditation, do it outdoors, in bare feet.

Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah

Cover of "Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles, ...

Cover of Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles, Book 2)

I suppose I should sum up right at the beginning.  Both Frank Herbert and I should have left well-enough alone: he in the writing, and me in the reading.  I had been told that none of Dune‘s sequels was cut from anything resembling the same quality of cloth, and Dune Messiah proved the point.

Famously, Miles Davis asked John Coltrane why he soloed for so long.  Coltrane responded that he didn’t know how to stop.  Miles then said, “take the horn out of your mouth.”  I side in that discussion with Coltrane, but Miles, had he been speaking with Frank Herbert, would have been right on point.  Put down the pen.  If nothing else, Dune Messiah is a cautionary tale about the dangers of continued writing after a story is over.

A few points about Dune itself.  It straddled a lot of lines politically, and this allowed some appeal.  Paul Atreides, led the Fremen, an occupied, indigenous underclass on its own planet, Arrakis, to not only power but to conquest of other planets.  Written in the 1960’s, Dune benefited from the broader historical context of the anti-imperialist struggle.  One sympathized with the Fremen, who were the good guys.  Herbert, as I noted in my first piece, focused on Paul–we might call him “Lawrence of Arrakis”–for reasons I wasn’t entirely sure of.  Was it a plot device or did Herbert see natives as historically passive?  We find out in Dune Messiah that, indeed, natives are historically passive.  No surprise here, but certainly disappointment.

The bulk of the struggle in the book, if not necessarily the plot, is Paul’s regret over his role in history.  He unleashed a Fremen jihad, leading to the deaths of billions, and can do nothing to stop it.  Poor boy gets all weepy half the time in his imperial helplessness.  We now get Herbert’s take on liberation movements: aren’t they all just bloody messes in the end?  This is how liberals justify the maintenance of a bloody, but normalized, status quo.  Oh, but if we changed things, people might get hurt.  I don’t suggest that bloodshed should be taken lightly, but this line of thought is precisely the kind of thing that Gramsci was dealing with when he looked at liberals’ role in capitalist hegemony.

Much is made, largely through the character of Alia, Paul’s sister, of the cultishness of the Fremen.  Paul detests what he takes to be their naive superstition.  One can take this position if one wants, and we can agree or disagree–I myself  have had enough experience in meditation to no longer doubt the possibility of basically any religious sentiment or experience.  The problem here is that Paul detests this superstition, or religiosity, while getting filthy rich off it.  Paul, seen through the lens of his personal morality and its revulsion at bloodshed, is sympathetic.  Seen through the lens of his class position, he is, at best, an ass.

I have been told not to bother with the other books in the series.  An AA buddy told me that, in fact, they get progressively more inane.  I accept his advice.  Let it be known though, that Herbert did, in fact, write one great novel.  That’s an achievement.

Frank Herbert, Dune

For a few years, now, I’ve been wanting to reread Frank Herbert’s Dune.  I read it on my father’s recommendation as a kid, liked it, but was curious to return to it and see what Herbert’s subtext was.  I imagined it could go a lot of different ways: the spice could represent oil, etc., in the desert, yada yada.  Also, I had an interest in rereading the Sci-fi book–this one should indeed be called, using Octavia Butler‘s preferred term, “speculative fiction“–that people said rivaled The Lord of the Rings‘ detail without, I hoped the Tory politics.  I’ll note that the following will include no quotes: having paid 50 cents for my copy at the library’s book sale, I gave my copy to someone at the local Alano Club.  I had stopped in for a cup of coffee and to finish the book, she came up and started talking to me about it and expressed an interest, so I finished it and gave it to her.  She said that she was starting to be able to read complex material in her recovery, and I thought that was very  cool.

I expected on the one hand to enjoy the book immensely, and I did.  As a yarn, it’s top-notch, though I felt like the last quarter of the book actually moved more quickly than I wanted.  Likely, this is a good sign.  That said, it sped it its end, I thought.

More of an issue to me was my worry that reading Dune would be something like watching Lawrence of Arabia: well-done, but hopelessly orientalist.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQA_ldX0VI0%5D

Lawrence raises Arabs above their racial lot equals Paul raises Fremen above their racial lot.  This was my fear, and I hope it’s not an original point to point out that my fear was somewhat confirmed, though much less offensively so than might have been.  That is to say, the Fremen, though initially faceless, mysterious presences in the wild, certainly got good, deep characterizations in the book and Herbert’s exploration of Fremen culture denoted an author who had actually studied desert peoples as peoples with culture.  That’s a big deal in a white American author, and he must get credit for that.

The Lawrence of Arabia problem is to some extent conditioned by the plot, and once one has a good plot to go with it seems like it would be a bad idea to ditch it.  The Atreides family is given the desert planet Arrakis as a fief.  The Harkonnen family screws them out of it and kills the Atreides Duke, Leto.  His wife, Jessica, and son, Paul, flee to safety among the Fremen, assumed dead.  Paul takes on the role of messiah and leads the Fremen to take over the planet.

In this yarn, the Fremen themselves–the indigenous people–are functionally, as in, there would be no other way with this plot, props.  They allow the real action, that between the foreign rulers, to proceed.  Clearly, I’d argue that this ought to be reversed: I’d like to read the book in which the Atreides and Harkonnens serve as plot devices so the Fremen can reclaim their ancestral land fully.

I thought this through a bit, trying to find a way out for Herbert.  There is a real issue when abject oppression is involved, and when big institutions like, in the novel, an empire and intergalactic economy are the agents of oppression.  This is more or less analagous to the struggle indigenous people have faced vis-a-vis international capital over the last 500 years or so.  Survival as a people is the one act of resistance people can choose, and in choosing it people have not always been successful.

I remember a comment in the eighth volume of the UNESCO History of Africa in which the author, noting the political and economic difficulties most African states have experienced in independence, pointed out that the colonists indeed forced themselved on the colonized culturally through education.  The colonists taught culture, history, literature, philosophy and the like.  Africa, in independence, has produced world-class culture, he argued.  What the colonists emphatically did not teach the colonized was administration and technical expertise: i.e., how to run things.  That they consciously omitted from the curriculum.  This applies here, in Dune.  If the Fremen literally had no access to the type of knowledge they would need to run things, someone else would need to give it to them.  This would be, in the direct context of the plot, Paul Atreides.

It’s not enough, though.  After having this line of thought, I remembered The Black Jacobins.  I assume Herbert hadn’t read it.  Rather than a Lawrence of Arabia, why not a Toussaint L’Ouverture?  That is indeed historical precedent–because sci-fi needs to be believable.  Indeed, some of the elements that might have allowed this are in the book, particularly the little-referenced urban Fremen.  Those people, in close contact with the foreigners, would have access, were it written into the story, to the type of technical knowledge referenced above.  So, too, did Toussaint have white collaborators.  The figure of Kynes, the planetary ecologist, could have as easily gone native–the book uses the term–and followed a Fremen, Stilgar most likely, rather than, as the book has it, led.

Nonetheless, I’m reading Dune Messiah now.  Without question this is good stuff, and my critique is a reflection of how engaged I was with the book.

Vine Deloria, Custer Died for Your Sins

Vine Deloria had two intended audiences: Indians and white people.  His project, throughout his whole career, was to undermine the intellectual assumptions that continue to undergird the United States’ occupation of North America.

So it is vitally important that the Indian people pick the intellectual arena as the one in which to wage war.  Past events have shown that the Indian people have always been fooled about the intentions of the white man.  Always we have discussed irrelevant issues while he has taken the land.  Never have we taken the time to examine the premises upon which he operates so that we could manipulate him as he has us.  (257)

Demolish the intellectual underpinnings of white settler colonialism.  It’s in this sense that the book’s subtitle is warranted: “An Indian Manifesto.”  As Marx well understood that action without analysis would lead nowhere in the long run, so Deloria knows that either a loss or a victory based on the intellectual assumptions or white hegemony reaffirms that hegemony in substance.  Deloria is one of those intellectuals who is not just intellectual about the world.  He writes to communicate with as large a public that he can, so that real things can happen.

He opens to communication in his prose above all by using clear, simple prose, the hardest kind to produce.  That, and, more interesting to me, through humor.  As an analogue, I went through a phase where I read a bunch of Czech literature, Jaroslav Hasek‘s The Good Solder Svejk and a ton of Karel Capek.  Hasek is to Czech literature what Pushkin is to Russian, only he not only wrote a riotously funny book, he began a tradition that was simultaneously satirical and canonical, canonical for Czech literature, that is to say.  I always understood this elevation of satire as a very correct response by a people from whom control over their own land and lives had been taken from them to their situation.

Humor is at least potentially a weapon, because it can open people who had been closed.  Gogol, in Nabokov’s understanding, leaves one’s eyes “Gogolized.”  We see the world in its comic, absurd aspect not only during a read of “The Nose” but long afterward.  Phenomenologically–not ontologically–the world has this aspect to it, as it has others, as in the Greek drama the tragic aspect.  One can view tragic art and undergo a catharsis of some sort, but if one lives viewing the world tragically it’s hard to avoid despair, which leads to stasis.  Humor of any sort leads to motion, as it frees one mentally from the stasis of despair.  One can move again.

Deloria does not make this point at all, but I wonder if he might: in white America, humor is a diversion from the world, while in Indian Country humor is a path through it.  There’s a whole chapter on the subject, returning to the book:

A favorite cartoon in Indian Country a few years back showed a flying saucer landing while an Indian watched.  The caption was “Oh, no, not again.” (148)

Throughout the book, Deloria contrast a white settler society that chases abstract ideals, be they a religion based on a Palestinian god that nobody can see and a heaven to where one wants to go that is far away from this world, to the Federal oversight of Indian Country in which policy formulation takes place in isolation from the places and people the policy affects.  As I referenced in another piece, white negotiators needed to designate an abstracted political office of chief in order to carry on negotiations:

In treating for lands, rights of way, and minerals, commissioners negotiating for the government insisted on applying foreign political concepts to the tribes they were confronting.  Used to dealing with kings, queens, and royalty, the early white men insisted on meeting the supreme political head of each tribe.  When they found none, they created one and called the man they had chosen the Chief.  (204)

Leadership in Indian Country is more a practical matter.  What works?  A leader is someone who can deliver for the people.  Historically, this may have been in hunting, and today it takes other means.  In the United States, Bush was President because he bore that title, not because he delivered for the people.  So too, with gradations, have been all Presidents.  It’s not such a good way to have leaders, when one sees it this way.  So too with religion.  Does a medicine man’s medicine work?  If so, it’s legitimate.  If not, it’s not.  It is not a question of belief, but rather of experience, quite different than that of missionary Christianity, the most characteristic form of which is the catechism, but very much like Buddhism.  I was just listening to a Dharma talk in which one of Thich Nhat Hanh‘s monks said that Thay taught that one knows one is practicing correctly because one immediately feels a sense of relief.

Deloria, in the aforementioned chapter on humor, notes, significantly:

During the 1964 elections Indians were talking in Arizona about the relative positions of the two candidates, Johnson and Goldwater.  A white man told them to forget about domestic policy and concentrate on the foreign policies of the two men.  One Indian looked at him coldly and said that from the Indian point of view it was all foreign policy. (155)

I point this out because from a United States left perspective much of what Deloria writes seems very off.  Deloria is not exactly what we in the US left, particularly the white US left, would imagine him to be.  To take an example, he finds in the form of the corporation the closest thing in United States society to a tribal form, and in it the best opportunity for Indian people to build a better life.  I was nearly in shock when I read it, of course.  This is a good example of how the white left–that is to say, me–needs to keep its mouth shut and mind open, and listen for a change.  Indeed, Deloria’s second book was called We Talk, You Listen.  My instinctive reaction was aversion, but the more I thought about the more I realized how valid Deloria’s point was, particularly after he referred back to in a number of times and contextually deepened it.  I read “corporation” and I think “surplus value.”  A corporation, strictly put, is, however, a group of people that form a legal existence as a group, rather than as individuals.  We know how problematic this can be, but just because something can be and is does not mean that it must be.  In this light, the problem in corporate capitalism is not the corporation, but the capitalism.  If I listen, I learn things.

I would note that while Deloria makes a lot of valid points in the “The Red and the Black” chapter, he was at least at this point in his career clearly unfamiliar with the history of Black people in the Americas.  He conflates the movement for integration for a movement for assimilation, and then sees in Stokely Carmichael‘s Black Power something new.  Black Power wasn’t a new idea, it was a new expression of an idea that had been a part of the Black presence in the Americas in one way or another since the beginning.  Carmichael would certainly not have claimed to be making a new argument, and it surprises me that Deloria didn’t deal with Malcolm X at all.  This I think is where it bears remember Deloria’s point that all things United States are foreign affairs to the Indian.  He wrote much more knowledgeably about white American society, with which he clearly had more direct experience.  One cannot come to any real knowledge about Black American experience through the United States white media.  Direct experience is necessary.  Deloria makes a worthwhile point, though, in the chapter, that keeps things clear:

But the understanding of the racial question does not ultimately involve understanding by either blacks or Indians.  It involves the white man himself.  He must examine his past.  He must face the problems he has created within himself and within others.  The white man must no longer project his fears and insecurities onto other groups, races, and countries.  Before the white man can relate to others he must forego the pleasure of defining them [emphasis mine]…

Surely many if not most white people would read that as an attack against them, which confirms Deloria’s point.  In fact, Deloria is deeply compassionate.  This is one of those cases where the friend is the one who directs the alcoholic to AA, rather than the one who buys her or him another drink.  For white people’s own sake, this nonsense needs to stop.

Haunani-Kay Trask, From a Native Daughter

I read The Angry Indian’s blog and listen to his amazing podcast.  In one podcast he mentioned Haunani-Kay Trask, and he listed her as part of his required reading on his site.  I found a good used copy of From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaii, and have read it in pieces, as it consists of articles, over the past year or so.  I finished it this morning.

Interestingly, I stumbled across her on some link from some blog I now can’t find just found.  A critique of the list itself, “10 More Terrible Bigots in Modern History” probably is as good a way to get to Trask’s book as any.  What this JustinJ who made the list fails to understand is that there is a concrete difference between white impulses for separatism and non-white impulses for separatism.  White separatism is the vehicle for historical and historically-conditioned violence, while non-white separatism is a response to that violence.  The Klan murders people, the Nation of Islam (let’s take the Nation in its most separatist exemplars) doesn’t.  This is fact, and any understanding of Trask depends on it.  In any event, it’s to be sure only white people who need this explained to them in any event.

Trask herself makes the point.  One article relates a conflagration following a response to a letter to the University of Hawaii‘s student newspaper by one Joey Carter, white student, decrying the term, “haole” and insisting on his own oppression as a white person in Hawaii.  Trask notes:

I informed Carter that he is a direct beneficiary, as are all white people, of a system of power in which one racially-identified group dominates and exploits another racially identified group for the benefit of the exploiting group.  In the United States, people of color do not have the power to practice racism against white people.  The same is true in Hawai’i, particularly in regard to Native Hawaiians

I don’t see how this is debatable if one wants to deal in fact.  I’ll leave it at that and get to the book.

I knew very little about Hawaii before reading Trask, though I will say I understood the colonial nature of the situation if only abstractly because I understand the colonial nature of the United States.  The subjects of the book range widely from history to commentary on coalitions in organizing.  Trask is among other things totally sensible, especially if one begins from her beginning, namely, that Hawaii is a colony forcefully taken by the United States against the wishes of Hawaiian people.  That’s the important point, I suppose.

Her work illustrates the importance of first principles in intellectual work.  One has to begin somewhere in an argument.  If one begins with the idea that Native Hawaiians lived savagely before being integrated into American democracy, then Trask is an awful racist.  If one begins from Trask’s point, she’s no racist at all but rather is responding to a historical crime.  Despite the approach of mainstream media in the United States, it’s not all just a matter of opinion to be noted without critique.  One may be right or both may be wrong.  The basic question is whether or not Trask’s starting point is correct, and it is, without a doubt.  If you have any interest in Hawaii, it behooves you to begin from that point and weigh everything else against it.  The conclusion you will come to, if you keep to logic, will support Trask.

Of particular interest to me were her comments on coalitions, because they rang very true to my own limited experiences protesting the various wars the United States is still, as of this writing, prosecuting around the world.  Her discussion of the way white people as a group behave in political groups was spot on and totally reflective of, in particular, one group I was involved in (and left) in Riverside, CA.  Generally, she favors, quoting Malcolm X, organizational separatism.  Hawaiians should form Hawaiian groups.  White people have a lot of work to do, but their work’s place is fundamentally among white people.  What do white people need to do?  Speak out against racism in their own communities when it pops up.  If every decent white person did that all the time, things would be a lot different.

She notes the exceptional white people who, over years, demonstrate themselves as real collaborators.  The key, Trask notes, is action as opposed to words.  Get to work, don’t demand to have the last word or control things, and you, white person, can be a part of the solution.  It certainly was clear to me in my brief activist tenure that there are plenty of white people who think that their part in the struggle is to say something in a meeting.  More importantly, if one, as a white person, understands that the single greatest thing one can do to dismantle racism is to shut up and work–obviously, in the right context–then damn it if one shouldn’t do it.  It’s liberating.

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