Hawaii’s isolation hurts us in ways you probably never consider.

I don’t mean geographic isolation, although, like you, each of my days is a little darker because Trader Joe’s will never come here. Ever.

I mean two types of isolation. Hawaii shares one, which is media-driven, with the rest of the country. That type looks for political love in all the wrong places.

The other is more particular to Hawaii. It is about our ethnocentric feeling that this place is unique in ways it’s not.

Members of the Hokulea crew always knew they’d be returning to the island at the end of their around-the-world sail. Other former residents may never consider coming back. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The first leads to a stunted, and overly pessimistic view of politics. In contrast, the one more particular to Hawaii makes us overly optimistic about our civic vitality.

James and Deborah Fallows highlight this in their new book “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.”

They spent parts of 2012 through 2016 almost entirely in “flyover towns” away from those coastal cities that get so much attention.

All of these places were trying to recover from severe economic or social shocks that often involved the loss of key industries, demoralization and high unemployment.

The Isolation Hawaii Shares With Other Places

Our visions of what is happening in national politics are biased because, thanks to the media, the focus is too restricted.

“What we found in most of these places was a certain kind of public and civic life that was consistent with what we’d seen across the country … and at odds with what “politics” had come to mean in national coverage. “

People in these places get things done: developing new school curriculums for immigrants, establishing museums, rebuilding downtowns, building collaborative programs between companies and community colleges that create jobs, bringing in new industries, and getting hometown people to stay and people who have left to come back.

People of different political persuasions work together. And, get this! They hardly think about national politics.

“As things turned out, all but one of the states we visited during this initial period, north and south, ended up going for Donald Trump in 2016,” the Fallows wrote. “But when we visited, none of them displayed anything like the seething fury described by the media during that campaign.”

Why the peace and productivity compared to national-level politics? Let’s consider two important reasons.

One is the minimization of ideology.

Take immigration and Dodge City, Kansas, a brightly scarlet town in one of the reddest states in the U.S.

Dodge City was at one time almost all white. Now its population is almost 50 percent Hispanic. Immigrants from other countries have also moved there to take slaughterhouse jobs that no one else wanted.

“Build a wall” does not come up. As one town leader whose family came from Mexico put it, ”It’s not the story we are seeing here in Dodge City at all.”

That’s not because the Dodge City town fathers and mothers have suddenly become limo liberals offering lessons about micro-aggression. Rather, city leaders, understanding that the future of their town depends on absorbing immigrants and even encouraging more immigration, have developed extensive education programs geared to immigrants.

The Isolation Particular To Hawaii

The isolation more specific to Hawaii is about a common conceit that Hawaii is unique in its appeal to get folks who grew up here to return.

It’s a belief that the appeal of aina and ohana, or what the Fallows call “local patriotism,” is exceptionally strong: “We all wanted to make our way back here. It would be an easier place to start our families and live the lives we wanted.”

It’s easy to imagine Punahou School’s new president, Mike Latham, a Punahou graduate who is giving up a high level position at Grinnell (Iowa) College to return, saying just that.

But in fact the person making that statement is talking about why he decided to move back to his hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, and start a microbrewery.

Duluth is in northeastern Minnesota near Bob Dylan’s hometown, which he left for good quickly as possible. Hey, but that’s Bob.

The desire to return home, combined with the desire not to leave in the first place, is a common primary driver of civic vitality in such non-aina places as Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Columbus, Ohio, and Fresno, California.

Fresno has my favorite “local patriotism” slogan: “We are unapologetically Fresno.”

My general impression is that Hawaii has far less local patriotism and hometown-return power than people here think.

But that judgment is slightly unfair, or, more accurately, it’s insufficiently informed.

Here is why, and it gets us to the limits of the book’s approach.

Hawaii’s Vitality

The Fallows appropriately describe their explanations as ”shorthand.” They highlight important things you probably didn’t know and de-emphasize others.

They don’t deny the importance of broader, fundamental forces like race, polarization and inequality that contextualize politics and profoundly affect people’s choices.

What the authors show, though, is that even within the context set by those forces, it’s possible to get important things done within the cracks. And so much our own political lives takes place in these cracks.

A woman barely making it is not interested in the macro research showing that inequality is widening from birth to death. Her real concern is whether her mayor and city big shots can convince an entrepreneur to re-purpose a closed factory.

If you can’t imagine why people who grew up in Duluth want to stay or return there, well, you need to work on your imagination.

OK, but let’s be fair to Hawaii. There is one fundamental that gets lost in the Fallow’s shorthand but is enormously important in Hawaii. That is affordability.

Sioux Fall, Duluth, and Fresno are vital. And they are also inexpensive.

Punahou’s new president may have felt the strong lure of aina and ohana. But he is also, I’m sure, getting a handsome salary. Plus — yes! — free housing, a beautiful home on campus.

To understand Hawaii, it is always about the pull of roots butting up against the cost of establishing them.

Local patriotism versus local real estate.

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to news@civilbeat.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.

About the Author