Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Commitment to Citizenship

On Friday, May 21, the evening moon was a faint crescent low in the western sky. By Monday, May 24 it was a cheshire cat smile. There's a floral smell on the air--ylang ylang? The Flame Trees are not hinting now--they are screaming their brilliant oranges and reds and the island appears to be in flames. It's still dry and there are actual fires at times--one Friday night behind Price Costco; another more recently in Chalan Kiya with choking smoke blanketing the highways. And it's mango season. Tons of mangoes-ripening so quickly they're going to waste.


The discussions in the community, the rally, the comments on the Variety, and William H. Stewart's recent editorials in the Tribune have been mushing around in my brain. When I read Bill's first editorial part, I thought he might be headed where I have been going in my thinking. He's doing a great job and setting out important facts to consider in understanding the situation.

Bill Stewart's column is excellent reading.
Part 1,
Part 2,
Part 3,
Part 4,

Part 5 will likely be in Friday's edition.
Part 5

From part 1:
Now almost a quarter century after citizenship was bestowed upon qualified islanders by presidential order it should be kept in mind that at that time some people of the Northern Marianas, unlike other nationalities seeking U.S. citizenship, were not required to possess comprehensive knowledge of American history or appreciation of the principles of democracy as most Americans perceive them to be. Most foreigners seeking U.S. citizenship must study a variety of subjects related to American history, pass an examination, and swear an oath of allegiance. This was not required of the people of the Northern Marianas.


...It is probably safe to state that some people of the Northern Marianas did not clearly understand what they voted to support when the plebiscite was held in June 1975 to accept a negotiated Covenant with the United States. Certainly they were aware of some of the tangible benefits that would flow from the U. S. Treasury such as better health care, social security, educational assistance, etc.

However, there was probably little knowledge or appreciation of the extent of the full ramifications of an association with the American judicial system and the federal bureaucracy with its myriad of laws and regulatory agencies administering everything from environmental protection to occupational health and safety in the work place.

This is the take-off point for my thinking lately. When I first came to Saipan, I remember one Chamorro woman saying to me that now that she had electricity and a refrigerator, the Americans could leave. Her point of view at that time was that America was only supposed to be in the CNMI to provide support, but not for any other purpose. America was the great big free store, where you could go for what you wanted, and then leave when you got it. The NMI's relationship with the US has been colored by this type of perception.

Americans for the most part understand that citizenship is both a benefit and a commitment. In the states, there are populist movements against the federal government because it is huge and monolithic and reaches into private lives. These movements, however, are usually fringe efforts--like the unabomber and the cult movement of the extreme fundamentalist latter day saints. The current challenge by Arizona to the US on the immigration issue is also a bit of a fringe movement--although it is an entire state government, it is only one state of 50. (And note that Arizona's efforts cannot be seen as an indigenous rights movement, however. It's more like an Aryan brotherhood movement, like the Nazis. Stop and interrogate any brown person. It has gone so far as to outlaw ethnic studies, including studies of Native American cultures--the very people who are indigenous to the region.) Most American communities/states, large businesses, and a vast array of citizens have spoken against the Arizona laws. The commitment to the US Constitution and the core American value of equality is part of the bedrock of America--at times very imperfectly practiced, but still the goal.

The NMI population chose to become US citizens, too. Our local population has had no problem with some of the commitments of this citizenship. For example, CNMI young men register for the military and join voluntarily in great numbers proportionate to the population.

But our local population has not always embraced American values. It is confusing to understand these values, because the NMI negotiated for some important exceptions. We have an exception to American constitutional protections for trial by jury (although we have jury trials, we draw the line in a different place as to when the "right" is triggered). We have an exception regarding ownership of land. (Article XII limits long-term interests to US citizens of NMI descent only). We have an exception to the fundamental "one man, one vote" rule. (Our Senate is apportioned like the US Senate, but we only have 3 islands, and 2 have very small populations, so we have a guaranteed rule by the minority).

If these exceptions can exist within the American system, is it any wonder our local population does not embrace other values, values they would want an exception for as well. The most significant of these is equality. The local population wants to be top dog in the CNMI. They want to hold on to their hegemony. This is "their" place and as indigenous, they want not only "local government" but local government that secures to them the goods and benefits they want and denies to other people in the community those same things.

They want to have a foreign workforce legally present for decades; a labor force that can be paid extremely low wages; and one that can be permanently excluded from all political rights.

The CNMI Governor wants to have complete control over who is prosecuted, who is let out of jail, who is searched, who is free from search. He does not want federal law enforcement DEA to act on an indictment of a local police officer; he doesn't want federal officials to search incoming passengers; he wants to be told ahead of time when federal officials will arrest his driver. And it isn't only this governor. Before him, for example, our local governors didn't want the US auditing expenditures and taxes.

And what is misunderstood is how these actions, these goals violate American values.

When the CNMI opted for the Covenant, they opted not only for the benefits of association with the US but for the commitments to citizenship as well. And this is the rub. There is tension between the local way of thinking and of doing things and the American values embedded in our Constitution.

When our local population reached out to grab the brass ring of American citizenship, they may not have realized that it was only available with the entire package of commitments. The continuing undercurrent of discontent and malicious (and usually false) accusations against the US government all come back to that first decision. By choosing US citizenship, by choosing to have the US be sovereign (as is specifically stated in the Covenant), by accepting the application of much of the US Constitution and the process for legislation by US Congress over the CNMI, the local population here set its course. And now it is beginning to see that the course is not entirely or even mostly within their control. The CNMI is on board the US ship; it may be able to arrange its room however it wants, but the ship is going in the direction that the US decides.

I feel for those in the local community who find this scary and alarming. They don't want equality. They didn't realize what equality would mean. They didn't realize when they voted in the plebiscite that equality would mean the possibility existed of other "non-locals" out-voting them in their elections. They weren't prepared for the change. And now they don't accept the change.

They want to protect and favor their own population. They weren't prepared for the US to enforce laws against high-ranking locals; they rankle at the US enforcing its laws at all.

They think of what they have negotiated away--some of their island land; all of the submerged lands; control over so much. And they take the benefits for granted, an entitlement now. So all they can do is keep asking for more at the same time they complain about the federal government stepping on their rights.

There is a lesson in this for the foreign workers.

When I went to the rally in support of long-term status for the foreign workers here, I was disgusted with some of the things that happened. No one in the massive crowd sang the US national anthem except for the few US citizens. None of the wannabes bothered, perhaps didn't know the words, and didn't particularly show respect.

These foreign workers want to be granted status and some want to stay in the CNMI. Yet the CNMI national anthem performance was a sorry thing. I found it extremely offensive that the organizers did not provide the right music to the students who sang the CNMI national anthem (the version they provided had changing tempos and the students didn't know what to do); the organizers didn't know how or when to stop the music (and cut it off in mid point); and then the emcee was so ignorant he didn't realize that the Carolinian verse had already been sung (he said something like and now we'll have the Carolinian anthem). In fact the emcee was so ignorant he didn't realize that there is no "Carolinian anthem"--there is only one CNMI national anthem and it has verses in both Chamorro and Carolinian.

If our foreign workers want to be US citizens, they, too must come to realize that this is a commitment and not just a benefit. The foreign workers should start a dialogue with our local population so they don't also make the same mistakes and later regret it.

Because becoming a US citizen requires that you stop being a citizen of another place. (Edit: yes, I know about dual citizenship...) You can practice your religion freely. You can speak your language, but you will also have to learn English properly. You can eat your ethnic foods and wear your ethnic clothes. You can even hold to some of your ethnic beliefs and pride. But you will be expected to also adopt and practice some core American values.

For our foreign workers, you need to know that sexism will have to end. The male prerogative is allowed in the home, but not the workplace. Free-wheeling enterprise is restricted by a myriad of laws-from business licensing to tax filing to employment laws, etc. There are rules and laws about almost everything.

And you must also understand that your children will be more American than you are, and in a few generations they will hardly (if at all) identify with your country of origin and ethnicity.


Anonymous said...

Wow. There is a lot in this post. I think you are correct.

People who immigrate to the US go through often painful assimilation, so often they value their citizenship all the more. If you simply "cut a deal," that may not be the case. Put crudely, you didn't earn it, so you don't appreciate it.

And from what you say, they may not really understand it either.

Anonymous said...

interesting take on it all.

i think much needed dialog is finally beginning. there is no wrong or right. just need to learn from all of this. we need to keep record of it. we need to make sure that similar mistakes are not made on all of the various fronts.

chime in here if you get a chance. i'm curious what your take would be:

The Saipan Blogger said...

This is very, very good.

Saipan Writer said...

Thanks for the feedback, anons. Angelo, thanks for the compliment. Coming from you, it means a lot.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate this post. It is very unbiased, something hard to find nowadays, on this island or abroad.
I'm a Chamorro, born and raised on what I still think is a wonderful island, regardless of all the obvious corruption in both the government and the private sector. If I may offer a bit of "history" as to what some locals may feel towards Americans and guest workers.
Since I can remember and to this day, many locals feel that Americans-that either come to Saipan to work for a few years, or for those that choose to stay longer- view the locals as stupid, ignorant, pick an adjective. Because of this, many, if not most locals, see Americans as always trying to take advantage of the locals. Not to say that there aren't many Americans who truly love the CNMI and love the whole idea of being Chamorro, but as has been my experience since I've moved back, the former is typically true, unfortunately. Hence, there is this hidden resentment towards America and what locals feel America, and in essence Americans, keep trying to do to strip Chamorros of their rights.
Change is not something the CNMI deals very well with. There is an overarching sentiment of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Chamorros don't want to be the minority in their own lands. And a feeling that they are not wrong to feel, in my opinion at least. They don't want to be another Hawaii or Guam.

Anonymous said...

A very good views for all to learn. I was there with my family and my 2 kids in grade school. Honestly, I am so proud hearing them singing the US and Chamorro National Anthem. May this be a good lesson to all of us CGW, that start to learn singing these National Anthem. As we are embracing the american values and call this island HOME. Then the best way to show it is by learning the US and Chamorro National Anthem. Ask our kids to teach us.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:37, if locals are receiving money from federal tax payers (mainlanders) but not paying federal taxes themselves, how can they say that "Americans" are taking advantage of them? And it's telling that you refer to mainlanders as Americans, as if to say that Chamorros are not. If you are a US citizen, you are an American too.

Saipan Writer said...

Thanks, anons 10:37 and 11:18.

It's nice you find this discussion balanced. Just for the record, I don't pretend to be unbiased.

I am American.
I love the CNMI and its people.
I support long-term status for the foreign workers.

These three aspects come into conflict even in my internal thinking. I am likely to be inconsistent at times.

When I write my best, I think it's about balance and rational thought and heart.

Isa said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Saipan Writer said...


Captain said...

Very well said and good points.
In regards to your comment about the "fridge"
Years ago in Tinian, when my friend (ex US military main-lander) that had married a local girl in the mainland and came to the island for the first time after the wife finished college, was hired by CUC to try and do something to improve the power.
At that time there was no charge for power on Tinian
Many people thought it was not fair for them to have to pay for power and water services.
They were very vocal about their opposition to paying.
If this person was not married to a "connected" family, there probably would have been very bad consequences.
Hind site it was very comical talking about it nowadays, especially with the costs uncured now.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:25, ask any Chamorro what they are. The answer you'll get is Chamorro, never American. There is a disconnect between between the two. Though Chamorros possess a US passport, I've never heard a Chamorro refer to him/herself as an American. Like it or not, it's true. And from the 10+ years I spent in the States, trust me, they didn't seem too sad that I didn't refer to myself as an American. Now, that, like it or not, is true as well.
And as for the CNMI receiving federal dollars and not paying taxes, for as long as I can remember, we never did, I'm assuming it's in the covenant but I really couldn't tell you.
And everything is a quid pro quo with the US government; hence them using up two-thirds of Tinian for military training/testing/or whatever else they use the land for-on top of whatever they use FDM for as well.
All I was simply saying is that locals have typically not had good experiences with Americans, white people if you prefer for me to label them that way. And it is because of those experiences that locals always expected the worst.

Saipan Writer said...

Anon 9:48,
It must have been different at some point, wasn't it? Otherwise, the CNMI would never have sought a political union with the US.

The Saipan Blogger said...

Ask any American what they are and they'll likely answer, Jewish, Irish, Italian, Haitian, Puerto Rican and so on. Or they might just simply say they are white or black.

Any Chamorro people not having good experiences with White people? Are you crazy?

Is there a single person living on Saipan who hasn't had a white teacher or doctor?

Anonymous said...

What Angelo said. Americans are not monolithic; we come from all over the world. There are Africans, Asian people, Latinos all over the United States who fight tooth and nail to get to call themselves "Americans." That doesn't mean they aren't proud to be from where they're from, but they're also proud of that passport, those rights in the Bill of Rights, and OUR American values.

If (some) indigenous people have a hard time understanding that they are Americans too, then they are shutting themselves out, not being shut out by others.

It's your country too, guys.

Anonymous said...

This is just a simple talks one afternoon at home. My eldest 9 yr. old son asked me and his dad "why him and his brother are Filipino American while us their parents are not?" I told him that they were born here and became US citizen by birth. Then he continue and asked again" How can you become a US citizen like us and what can we do to make you a US citizen" So I told him that he can petition us when he is already adult. In my heart, I know my kids are proud to be a citizen of the United States and one day they also want us to become like them. My son can even asked the other way around like how can they be a Filipino citizen like us. My kids are proud to be Americans that's why they want us their parents to be like them too.

Michael said...

The old saying, "Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it" was never more true than in connection with the desire of the people of the Northern Marianas for a close and permanent political relationship with the United States.

I'm not being judgmental here. I was here then, and in fact intimately involved in the process. (I represented a local politician who unsuccessfully attempted to stop the referendum on the Covenant on the ground that the United States had failed to fulfil its mandate to provide adequate political education as to its consequences.)

People voted with their pocketbooks. The big blue passport with the eagle on it was the key to the freedom to travel to the US, to good jobs, to better health case and education. There weren't enough "other people" around at the time to constitute a consideration, and as SaipanWriter so well points out, very few people really thought either about the obligations of the CNMI as a part of the American body politic, or how our political and social values would mesh with those for which our new country stood.

With the exception of the land issue, our negotiators didn't see the adverse consequences coming. Perhaps they should have; but in fairness to them, no one could reasonably have foreseen that short-sighted, incompetent and venial local government would eventually bring the federal roof down upon our collective heads.

So in the end, we got what we wished for. Our chickens have come home to roost. Like it or not, we did it to ourselves.

The purpose of this rant is not to express an opinion as to what rights our guest workers should have, although I happen to share the opinions of most of those who have written here. It is just to say that the deal is done. Let's get used to it.

And if we want to avoid more of the same, let's think long and hard about how we govern ourselves.

Saipan Writer said...

Thanks, Mike, for the perspective. Just curious-who was the politican wanting to slow things down and get more political education? (and is he still as smart?)

dekada lawyer said...

Is there somewhere on the net where one can quickly access the record of the debate in Washington, DC, on whether or not for Congress to approve the Covenant?

While I think you make many thoughtful, even trenchant, points here, I do not think American political values played such a small role in gaining overwhelming approval of the Covenant as your post may be read as suggesting. There was a gentleman from Tinian, a member of the MPSC, who delivered a compelling, eloquent, powerful and passionate speech on why the people of the Mariana Islands wanted to join the U.S. political family.

"Americans who don't think they are Americans" is how one local political aspirant described to me a portion of his recent experience going door to door seeking public office. On the other hand, I was here during the debate for and against the Covenant. I was a first person witness at the grass roots level.

It cannot accurately be said that the people were ignorant of the content or meaning of the Covenant or that principles of the American democratic republic were foreign and incomprehensible to the inhabitants of the NMI at that time. Although economic interests were certainly paramount, the debate was hot and focused on the very controversies that you identify -- sovereignty, application of federal laws, extent of self-government, the balance between competing values and aspirations -- and the people of the NMI made their decision, by a 78.8% margin, knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily.

The present governor was a vigorous opponent of the Covenant at the time of the plebiscite. The CNMI Covenant Party would be better characterized as the anti-Covenant party. When the political "leadership" the people receive is of this character, confusion, misconception, and misunderstanding of fundamental political values is the natural result.

Intellectual integrity and coherent focus on the happiness and safety of the people ("the people" not "citizens") is essential to the health of the body politic. In this case, it is also to be noted that "citizens" means "U.S. citizens" and those who would accept the benefits of U.S. citizenship must also accept the "burdens" (which I might be more inclined to call "privileges"), one of which is equality and access to the polls.

With regard to access to the franchise, the situation faced by long-term alien residents in the CNMI today is not unlike that of Negros in much of the American south (and parts of the North as well) prior to 1964. Moreover, it is an utter misconception for indigenes to think that they themselves vote as a block or that aliens becoming new voters would vote as a block against them. That is not the way democracy works in practice and reality, and only xenophobia can foster, sustain, or explain such a flawed and dysfunctional minsdset.

I agree with your "lessons for the foreign workers as well." The organizers were trying to take a new direction and stumbled, much like elementary school students in a talent show. It was an important beginning, though.

dekada lawyer said...

Chamorro Anon is correct about all too many statesiders who come here having a view of indigenes as "stupid, ignorant, pick an adjective." This was especially true during TT times.

What I notice, however, about those statesiders is that they also fail to stand up for what is right and oppose what is wrong -- and often pander to the worst tendencies in the local population. These are the same people who are seeking only their own advantage and comfort, and will say and do almost anything they misguidedly assume will further their selfish ends.

This sort of thing only produces the same sort of dysfunctional result as "yes" people in business and government. Building a better future requires people with the courage and responsibility to be forthright and to the point always.

dekada lawyer said...

Some "locals" -- like Carmen Gaskins and Froilan Tenorio -- got their citizenship the hard way, by naturalization. They certainly do call themselves "American" as well as Chamorro.

Some full-blooded Chamorro and Carolinian U.S. citizens -- for example, Lupe Manglona -- do not qualify as NMI-descent, cannot own land in fee simple.

I cannot help but be reminded of the whole thing about "half-bloods" in the Harry Potter books.

I do think it is important that we not use the term "American" to distinguish non-indigenes from the rest of the citizen population. Are my children, born on Saipan, of Palauan and Filipino ancestry besides Caucasian, "American" or not in this formulation?

I prefer "statesider" to make this distinction (although that does not solve the problem of my children). "Mainlander" would exclude Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands, perhaps even Alaska.

On the other hand, part of the problem here is people making too many distinctions among people.

Michael said...

Proving the adage that even a stopped clock is right twice a day, the politician I represented is not only still around, but one of the most vocal and vigorous opponents of improved status for non-citizens. He is indeed smart, in the same sense that Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy were smart. He is a former Speaker of the House of Representatives. On the other hand, he is also a convicted felon. Do I need to give you more clues?

I have no indication of his motives back then, and of course I couldn't divulge them if I did. I would be surprised, however, if he were motivated by something other than what was in it for him.

I want to add that I appreciated Steve's thoughtful posts. I disagree with him on one point, however: while "the debate was hot and focused on the very controversies that [I]
identif[ied] -- sovereignty, application of federal laws, extent of self-government, the balance between competing values and aspirations", this aspect of the debate was between political leaders, not the great majority. They were concerned with jobs, security, and stability. They voted with their wallets. There's nothing wrong with that, but to say that the average man or woman on the street had a full and complete understanding of the consequences is, to my mind, a little idealistic.

Saipan Writer said...

Mike and Steve, thank you so much for the insights.

Steve, I love this bit: "The CNMI Covenant Party would be better characterized as the anti-Covenant party. When the political "leadership" the people receive is of this character, confusion, misconception, and misunderstanding of fundamental political values is the natural result."

I think this will be the starting point for my next riff.