Our Past Is Living With Us Still
Wednesday - June 25, 2008
I like to quote people. Who doesn’t? Eulogists live on other people’s words. So do commencement speakers, preachers and, yes, politicians. Even Mom and Dad had a few - usually unattributed - that they overused: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man happy, healthy and wise.” (Benjamin Franklin, if you didn’t know.)
So allow me, during a Summer lull in news political, to offer as my text for this week’s column, a quotation.
It comes from my favorite American writer of any era, William Faulkner.
Faulkner grew up in Mississippi at the beginning to the 20th Century, in a South where the Civil War and the detritus of two-and-one-half centuries of slavery, segregation and viral racism still lived.
Faulkner wrote: “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” And in brilliant novel after brilliant novel - The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, Light in August and a half dozen more - Faulkner explored the South’s historical legacy.
Last week I had lunch with a couple of old friends. The subject, of course, was politics. “What’s your take on the Akaka Bill,” asked the friend seated to my left.
With wrinkled brow, my buddy to the right - a businessman of some experience and repute - replied: “So many of us in Hawaii have made our living off the Hawaiian people: their culture, the spirit of aloha. The list is long. I think the country owes them at least the recognition that is given to American Indian tribes.”
My friend hesitated: “I worry that with any kind of sovereignty there’ll be a movement toward separatism.”
And the debate was joined - a debate that should have involved, of course, the arrival of Polynesian wayfarers in Hawaii in 600 A.D., the arrival of Europeans in 1778 with their destructive microbes and their sometimes equally destructive institutions, the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, annexation to the United States in 1900, and statehood in 1959.
For you see, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
Two weeks ago, on PBS-Hawaii’s Island Insights, I moderated a discussion on the awkwardly-titled Important Agricultural Lands bill. It made it through the legislature this session thanks to an awkwardly-handled deal struck between the House and Senate.
The House threatened to hold up passage of a bill requiring solar panels on all new housing built in the state beginning in 2010 if the Senate failed to approve the Important Agricultural Lands bill. (That, dear reader, is how democracies’ have made law since time immemorial.) So the Senate, despite misgivings, passed it, 14 to 10.
As I write, the bill sits on Gov. Linda Lingle’s desk, awaiting her signature, her veto or her allowing it to become law without her signature.
The agricultural lands bill calls for large landowners - Alexander and Baldwin, the Bishop Estate and the like - to identify 85 percent of their lands as important agricultural lands in exchange for the right to develop any 15 percent of their lands for development. The Hawaii Farm Bureau supported the bill, arguing that it was necessary to save many agricultural interests that are on the verge of going under.
The Sierra Club and various land use organizations opposed. They were concerned that the owners themselves did the deciding.
Halfway through the Island Insights hour, I found myself thinking about the history of it all. The traditional Hawaiian system of land tenure, the mid-19th Century imposition of the Great Mahele and the sugar plantations’ need for vast tracts of land resulted in a few entities holding most of Hawaii’s ag lands and directing the water for which those lands were so thirsty.
Small farming units did not develop. The family farm, as continental America knew it, didn’t exist. Thus a few, for better or for worse, would decide the future of Island agriculture. Such was the case in the 19th Century. Such is the case today.
“The past,” sayeth the scribe, “is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
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