Neal Milner: Beware Of Public Officials Wielding Pristine Ceremonial Shovels - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

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.

“This feels like a Christmas present,” Honolulu’s mayor Rick Blangiardi said two days before Christmas at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new affordable housing development in Moiliili

The mayor’s reference to a holiday that’s part religious, part commercial, and part secular is a good way to understand the role of groundbreaking ceremonies.  

What’s their function? What do they do?

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The first thing they do is change. Groundbreaking ceremonies are symbolic but the symbols and the meaning of these symbols change over time.  

They are now less explicitly religious though there still is a kind of prayerfulness about them. 

And by that I don’t mean traditional chants or blessings.

So, with the Christmas reference, the mayor was making clear that the groundbreaking ceremony was about something good. But what kind of good, and why the ceremony?

The best way to understand what groundbreaking has become is seeing it through the eyes of a big-time ceremony supplies provider,  

But before we do that, we need to see just how symbolic and ritualistic Hawaii’s groundbreaking ceremonies are.

Like religious ceremonies groundbreaking celebrations are full of rituals. They have costumes (office wear, sometimes hard hats), ornaments and artifacts (pristine ceremonial shovels not meant for digging), and ritualistic poses (smiling, crouching, dabbing at the dirt rather than digging at it). 

Ceremonial Supplies is a business that supplies the commodities needed to make this happen. It describes its offerings this way: 

Groundbreaking shovels for traditional ceremonies in Hawaii … From many styles of shovels to hard hats, red carpet, stanchions and rope, and many more items.”  

Groundbreaking ceremonies are traditional, architectural rituals that in ancient times were meant to consecrate the ground upon which construction would take place,” the company says.  

Ceremonial Supplies sees itself as reviving these rituals, making them “as close to the ancient traditions of this architectural ritual as we can have these days”.

This is “an indication that traditions of our ancient cultures, are finding their way into our modern world.” 

Sure, Ceremonial Supplies is doing some economic boosterism here. You might even find this insensitive and tawdry, something like a commercial luau — cultural appropriation.  

But whether you like it or hate it, Ceremonial Supplies’ description of groundbreaking is an accurate miniature of the way cultural change generally happens here.

What the Ceremonial Supplies description doesn’t understand is that consecration and statements of faith are no longer about preserving the sacred in the old sense. That part of the traditional is gone.

Now faith comes from the secular side, and the main goal isn’t preservation or consecration. It’s change.  

And now the prayerfulness doesn’t come from spiritual leaders. It comes from public officials, though they would be the last to call what they say at groundbreaking prayers.

Here is what this process of secular prayerfulness looks like.

Political officials and others who are at the center of these developments give confident, optimistic speeches about their project’s future. They make that future seem assured.  

That confidence is part of their job. But deep down, the optimism process is hard because it conceals how much of the project’s success is beyond their control.

Beware of the rail. Beware of the stadium. Beware of every dream for affordable housing that’s never been met.

I once interviewed a minister who taught exorcism at a Bible college. His biggest challenge, he said, was to keep those eager students from exaggerating Satan’s power and presence and consequently losing their own sense of control.

He wanted them to believe in the devil’s evil but not be overwhelmed by it. He wanted them to avoid the despair and loss of the ability to lead their flock that would happen if they put too much emphasis on the dark side.

He said, “I tell them, ‘God has a vote, Satan has a vote, and you have the deciding vote.’”    

Speakers at groundbreakings are like these Bible students. They are there to talk about the bright side but know about the dark side where things go wrong and out of control. 

I don’t have to tell you that in Hawaii, for good reasons, when it comes to building and development, people are conditioned to assume that darkness will win out and the mission at hand will fail.

Groundbreaking ceremonies have become venues, then, for public officials to convince others — and probably themselves— that these officials are the decisive vote in keeping the right outcomes from becoming the wrong outcomes.

Think of their speeches as secular statements of faith that beseech us to believe that good things will happen when they are supposed to happen. Amen.

A groundbreaking ceremony is a ritual with ancient origins, intended to bestow good fortune on the endeavor. PBS Hawaii

“Today is just the beginning,” Paul Lam, the principal developer of the Moiliili project said at that groundbreaking.  “This is essential to solving the housing crisis.”

It feels like a Christmas present but only if everything turns out right. Implicit here is the message; “Trust us to get things right.” 

That trust is not easily earned. Not in Hawaii. Not with our track record.

And speaking of the devil, the 2011 Honolulu light rail groundbreaking ceremony was really a big deal. Hawaii’s biggest politicians were there. Instead of shovels, the participants used an o’o, a traditional Hawaiian digging stick, but the vibe was distinctly modern.

Honolulu Magazine called the whole ceremony “a publicity stunt” and a “mock groundbreaking.” But in terms of secular prayer, it was quite real.

“Hallelujah,” Mayor Peter Carlisle said. 

“This is a time to celebrate. Many people have waited so long and worked hard to finally get to this point.”

“This project will provide thousands of jobs for our local work force and relieve traffic congestion.” 

It will “pave the way,” he said, “for an exciting and better future for Oahu residents.”

Good luck with that. Say no more, right? Well, a little more.  

Rail is not a typical case. It’s a useful one because it is such a graphic reminder of how unpredictable the future can be.

So, the symbols have changed and so have the main characters, but when you come right down to it, the modern groundbreaking ceremony is still about faith — secular prayers for better things to come. It’s about getting us to renew our faith in government.

Some things are the answers to your prayers. Some prayers go unanswered.

That’s life. That’s politics. And that’s groundbreaking whether it includes traditional Hawaiian digging stick or Ceremonial Supplies’ deluxe personalized ceremonial shovel, hard hat and bow kit, available at $106.72.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

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.

Latest Comments (0)

So very TRUE, as we "Hawaii Island Veterans Memorial Inc. & EAH Housing prepare for our own ground-breaking ceremony later this month. HIVM Inc. is 25 years mature this year having been formed in 1997. Our Housing project for senior veterans & widows of veterans Hale Na Kou O Hanakahi is 92 units, however it has taken us a dozen years to begin construction. We need many, many more affordable housing units in our state. Michael Doolittle Chairman HIVM Inc.

Miguel · 8 months ago

The whole "shovel" thing can be broken down into very easy to eat pieces for the people, whom needs to have this explained to them now and then: This is a project, it may be a pet project of one of the political people there, other pol's are there because they want to show support (scratch my back, I scratch yours), everyone gets the photo op and the take home souvenir that goes to the Hawaii Self Storage locker they had to rent to store all their stuff, and everyone is happy.Trust me, making it any more than that, and particularly putting a religious bent on it, makes the cynical nature of these events even more cynical.

Kana_Hawaii · 8 months ago

It really is just a public stunt. It can't actually be a ground breaking because the ground is already broken. Can you imagine them actually trying to dig into unbroken soil?

surferx808 · 8 months ago

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