The dispute over building the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea will never be resolved.
At the very most, the conflict might be managed, but even that will be a crapshoot.
TMT is an irreconcilable conflict involving a protest movement with a long history and with every need to continue confronting a legal system that historically has been hostile to the movement’s views of property and religion.
Court orders, construction equipment going up the mountain guided by police officers, putting up the structure, none of these will bring the conflict to a definitive end.
Thirty Meter Telescope opponents stand on the steps of UH Manoa’s Hawaii Hall in December to protest a court decision to allow the project to resume on Mauna Kea.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Think of two kinds of disputes — those that have the potential of being worked out and those that don’t.
Workable conflicts are disputes that may be serious and heated, but ultimately can be resolved, like a labor negotiation over salary, a parent and her daughter debating an allowance, or two countries negotiating nuclear disarmament.
There may be basic principles involved — the right to a decent living; a child’s right to independence and Mom’s right to some respect; and national sovereignty.
But there are ways to finesse these conflicts, with the parties focusing on elements that are concrete and divisible. Each side gives a little and takes a little, because that’s possible.
Give and take in the TMT dispute? Nada.
As far as the opponents are concerned, the telescope should not be built on Mauna Kea under any circumstances because it violates a place that’s sacred to Hawaiians. Period.
As for the state, the law is on its side, ergo bring on the builders. Period.
Although it’s unlikely that the protests will stop TMT, they will be part of the fabric of grievance, challenge and ambivalence that has characterized Native Hawaiian issues for at least 50 years.
It’s a confrontation over big principles — law, sacredness, rights, culture— and in case that’s not complicated enough, the values of science are often thrown into the mix.
There has been a lot of posturing and pretending about this from both sides. The state, including UH officials, have come up with loads of protocols, promises and procedures meant to allay those who worry about desecrating the mountain. Opponents often argue that this is insufficient.
All of this haggling about stewardship and appropriate management is really a ritual concealing how different this conflict is from settleable disputes.
The TMT opponents are an intense minority, but not just a numerical minority. The levers of official power are firmly against them. The courts have green-lighted TMT. And Gov. David Ige has firmly and publicly stated that TMT is full speed ahead.
In plain English, the state can use cops to make it happen.
It often becomes compelling for an intense minority to move into protest mode because all other more conventional political options are closed off or unsympathetic.
Considering the long and powerful history of political protest in the U.S., from union organizing to civil rights and even the anti-abortion movement, you can expect four developments about TMT protests from now on.
First, they will continue and possibly even increase.
Second, they will be unpopular with much of the public.
Third, unpopularity is to a great extent beside the point because …
Fourth, although it’s unlikely that the protests will stop TMT, they will remain significant because they will continue to be part of the fabric of grievance, challenge and ambivalence that has characterized Native Hawaiian issues for at least 50 years.
TMT is another link in the chain of protests from the land struggles in Kalama Valley to Sand Island, Waiahole and Puna Geothermal, with the fight over the federal government’s role in Hawaiian sovereignty thrown into the mix.
Controversial political issues like health care, vacation rentals, abortion and water rights are hardly ever settled definitely. They ebb and flow. They are managed, not solved.
As for TMT, the state is already thinking in terms of conflict management. It is apparent in Ige’s rhetorical and tactical struggles to find the combination of definitiveness and restraint that says TMT will go forward while at the same time emphasizing cultural respect and the right to protest.
This is not simply posturing or political BS. His tightrope walk is an essential attempt to manage, to keep this conflict from getting out of hand.
Can he bring the public along with him? Using the bully pulpit to win over hearts and minds is not the governor’s strong suit. And the behavior of protestors and law enforcement officers once resistance on the mountain begins are wild cards for sure.
The protestors face management decisions of their own, many of which will be made in the heat of the moment.
Some of these involve the initial struggle when the state-protected construction equipment moves in.
But other decisions for the protestors will be more long term, dealing with the question of “What do we do when we lose, and TMT goes forward?”
On the basis of past protest movements in Hawaii and elsewhere, we can expect all or some of the following:
Using the experience to build solidarity and increase the chances of winning on another issue another day. Tapping into the consciousness and conscience of the many people here who share a kind of benign tolerance and benign ambivalence regarding Native Hawaiian issues. All in all, continuing the struggle.
The TMT conflict is not a one-off. In fact it’s more typical than exceptional. It’s part of the historical pattern of cultural tensions that define Hawaii. At times these tensions get alleviated, at other times they get worse. But they never really go away.
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Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.