The Thirty Meter Telescope’s proponents are in a crash and yearn mode because they are fighting today’s struggle with yesterday’s assumptions.
TMT supporters don’t understand that their great hope, conventional politics, can’t cope with TMT.
It’s time for them to take their blinkers off and get real about which choices are possible and which are not.
And it’s time for the rest of us to do the same, which means to stop believing in the likelihood of rescue and start believing in the likelihood of two starker choices, forcing the protestors off the mountain or giving in to their demands.
A lone demonstrator holds a Hawaiian flag near the summit of Mauna Kea.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Overall, conventional politics — a term, by the way, often used to differentiate from protest– depends on the ability to control passion. If your side has lost, accept it because the process was fair.
It’s a quiet sort of politics. Citizens are generally informed but not particularly politically active, a sort of semi-informed quietude. There is some link between the interests of the citizenry and the actions of the politicians they choose—political accountability. But it’s generally not a hot link.
Conventional politics involves a fairly predictable political process, regular channels and procedures to follow. Remember that stuff you were supposed to learn about how a bill becomes a law or separation of powers?
Finally, there is a legal system that makes definitive choices when there are conflicts that the standard political process cannot solve. The ultimate arbiter.
But here’s the problem: political protest is designed explicitly to disrupt conventional politics because every-day political life isn’t working in the eyes of some really passionate people who care about their position with far more intensity than the majority cares about its own—and is willing to stop the process.
When does a reasonably democratic government protect or defer to a minority and when does it take action against it? Here’s the answer that about 250 years of American history and hundreds of pages of political theory give: “It depends.”
But one thing is common. In protest situations it’s typical that people who are not protesting have a hard time giving up on the idea that it really shouldn’t depend at all –that things can and should get settled through by-the-book, conventionally political ways.
We’ve all heard this regarding TMT—“the Rule of Law,” “the will of the majority.” Powerful symbols, hard to let go.
Hard, but it’s time.
The by now ritualized song and dance about pros and cons and public opinion shows how divorced from reality the proponents have become.
Proponents fundamentally misunderstand the present state of TMT public opinion. They act as if their task is to mobilize public opinion, that there is still a lot of convincing that needs to go on.
This convincing-the-public stuff is so last year. That may have been the job in, say, telescope efforts 2010-18, but that’s no longer the situation now. Mobilizing the public has become irrelevant.
Note to pro-telescope politicians. You had public opinion on your side. There was a rough consensus that building TMT was okay, and that the legal rulings against the opponents should bring things to a close.
But the supposed link between public opinion and leadership is permanently kaput because leadership wasn’t able to leverage it.
Policy makers whom the public assumed would take actions consistent with this agreement typically have done nothing, or in the governor’s case, folded then dithered. Or they have chosen to support the protests, sometimes to the surprise of many, including the governor.
Suspend your skepticism for a second and suppose that active public TMT supporters like the governor, UH’s president, and ex-governor George Ariyoshi were such silver-tongued devils that 80% of the public decided they wanted TMT built. How would that get the protestors off the mountain?
Former Gov. George Ariyoshi in a pro-TMT advertisement.
It wouldn’t, right? The protestors are stronger and more organized than ever. They occupy a location so strategic that it is easy to keep the telescope from going forward. And, in case you haven’t figured this out for yourself, they are not going anywhere.
As Governor Ige’s silver tongue devil avatar, Harry Kim, found out last week, if a plan involves building TMT, it is a no-go.
As for a moratorium, it is the state, which can’t fend off the Canary Islands forever, not the protectors, who have time constraints.
All this means that passion and starkness, not the potential of “working things out,” rule. Which brings us to the two most likely choices.
One of course is to use force to remove the protestors. The other is to decide not to construct the telescope in Hawaii.
Obviously, both are controversial and politically unconventional. But there you have it.
We need to quit being misled by the assumptions of conventional politics that the Tooth Fairy of the Political Process is going to spread her conventional fairy dust.
Don’t tell your children or grandchildren, but the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist.
It’s time increasingly to focus your imagination on the two stark choices–coercion or deferring to the protestors’ demands.
I’m not being facile, and I understand how hard it is to come to grips with this.
But all the rest of the posturing and optimism is a diversion from reality. Right, another myth about how politics works is just what we need.
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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.