To Thirty Meter Telescope supporters:

I’m not telling you to agree with the protesters. I’m telling you that you need to get real.

You’ll be much better off if you quit focusing your anger on them and grasp who your real enemies are.

The actual culprits, the ones screwing over your faith and expectations, are Hawaii’s political leaders at all levels who falsely claimed to have the resources, skills, commitment and understanding needed to deal with the TMT.

They’ve hung your expectations out to dry with clueless, unrealistic planning and a deceptive consensus that turned out to be shallow, passive and blowin’ in the wind.

They wrapped all this up in vacuous talk of respect and reconciliation that is hopelessly optimistic and deflects from the real issue, which of course is whether the TMT gets built.

I want to analyze your pro-telescope views because you deserve respect. There is also another reason.

You are victims of shallow politics and pantomime planning — an incompetence often disguised by claims of niceness, ohana or local values — that typifies Hawaii policy making. That harms all of us.

Is there still strong support for the TMT?  On the surface.

Civil Beat’s recent poll showed that support is statistically strong, and, as a pollster described it, “one of the few issues that we have come across where there aren’t really any political divides.”

Sorry, but so what? Support is simply an expressed opinion. There is no evidence that political leaders have the political will or acumen needed to mobilize this opinion.

TMT Demonstrators walk up Mauna Kea Access Road with flag in foreground.
TMT protesters walk up Mauna Kea Access Road during the first days of the protests. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Good luck getting action from leaders whose rallying cry is either:

“Give extension a chance.”


“Whoops, I changed my mind.”

Commenting on my recent TMT column, a telescope supporter calling himself “Islanderguy” got to the heart of the matter by raising two key questions.

The first involves law. “Let me get this straight. The rule of law means nothing in Hawaii?”

The rule of law can get people to do stuff in two ways. One is that law can force them.

The other way the rule of law works is by convincing rather than coercion. The idea of the rule of law is so powerful that justifying your views — “the law is on our side” —  in those terms can carry a big, if voluntary, wallop.

The state has chosen not to use force against the protesters. There were good reasons. But the way the governor stumbled about this made him look weak and less committed to the TMT.

Not long after the protest began, Ige issued an emergency order, which in effect raised the ante by turning the coerciveness screws a little.

Immediately all sorts of public officials piled on the governor, accusing him of being cruel and disrespectful.

Ige backed down, and the last hint that the state would use coercion disappeared.

Add the magically appearing two-year extension, and coercive power seems off the table from now until we can fly to the moon and play among the stars.

The odd — and suspicious — thing is how fast talks of coercion were displaced by other ways of talking about the law.

You don’t have to be Ruth Bader Ginsberg to figure out what “no telescope. It’s sacred land” means.

One was Native rights. Of course this has always been a basis of the protesters’ position. They have been telling everyone this since the telescope was first proposed.

You don’t have to be Ruth Bader Ginsberg to figure out what “no telescope. It’s sacred land” means.

But it had to be very surprising for the telescope’s supporters — it certainly surprised the hell out of me — how politicians, including our congressperson representing the Big Island, her opponent in the next election and the lieutenant governor, who had been a longtime Big Island state senator, gained sudden insight into the dominance of Native Hawaiian rights and turned on the governor for his insensitivity.

Instead of law, the discussion became about respect. Politicians fell all over themselves about the importance of respect — respecting the Hawaiian culture, respecting the protesters’ demands.

Of course, cultural respect is important. But respect became an end in itself, as if the real issue was not about building the telescope. It’s like if you are respectful enough to those culturally immersed Native Hawaiians, they will like you enough to give up their claims.

Patronizing to Hawaiians, no? Plus it isn’t working.

If you don’t successfully use some combination of the coercive and discursive power of law, you got nothing.

Which is what the state’s got.

Islanderguy’s second question: “Why is it this small fringe group who knows how to work the media, with their own view of Mauna Kea, get to override the vast majority of people here in Hawaii who want the TMT?”

Well, one answer is that both constitutionally and traditionally the majority does not always rule. Also, “fringe groups” have been responsible for bringing about some of the most important changes in American history.

But more to Islanderguy’s point, the protesters have been able to do this:

— Because they are better organized, more politically astute and more committed to their position than the state’s political leaders.

— Because the public wrongly took for granted that its general support for the TMT actually meant something.

— Because the protesters have the easier job. Time, which often works against political protests, is in this case on their side. The TMT has deadline pressure while the protesters have plenty of ways to stay as long as it takes.

— And here is the biggest “because” of all: because this is another example of Hawaii governments’ chronic inability to handle big projects and big issues.

All of us, including those on opposite sides of the TMT, are victims who should share cynicism and doubt as the next important projects — prisons, a new stadium, climate mitigation, housing, and that old standby, rail — stumble and bumble down the road.

Congratulations, TMT’s rickety movers and shaky shakers. You’ve found a way to reach a public consensus after all.

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