Politics in Hawaii: Is Something Broken?
From the Bishop Estate scandal of the 1990s to today’s Act 221 and Department of Education governance, politics in Hawai‘i is plagued by a lack of transparency and accountability.
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After college I entered the Society of Jesus (also known as the Jesuits), having a few months earlier gotten what some people refer to as a “calling.” But after a year living under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, my Jesuit superiors and I agreed that my calling had been a wrong number. Poverty and chastity had been easy for me, but obedience was impossible.
Two years later, I met an attractive young woman on a city bus, Susie Worm. We got married a few months later—and although it was the best thing that ever happened to me, it didn’t change the way I looked at myself and my world. That happened when our first child was born. Everything changed. It was if I had been blind and then, suddenly, I could see.
Many people can probably tell a similar story. One of my favorites comes from the indomitable Gladys Brandt, who, before co-authoring the “Broken Trust” essay had served as principal of Kamehameha Schools and chairperson of the UH Board of Regents. Gladys told me that all the way through school, she had been a “brat,” appreciating nothing and feeling responsibility to no one. But then a day came when she was a student teacher and the regular teacher failed to show up. Gladys stepped to the front of the room. As she turned around and looked at the students, she said she almost fell to her knees when she saw all those innocent little eyes looking squarely at her, trusting her totally. Gladys resolved then and there never again to be so unworthy.
My brush with communism, a year in the Jesuits, and just watching what was going on elsewhere in the world made me appreciate Winston Churchill’s observation that democracy is the worst form of government ... except for all the others.
I became a reborn, small-d democrat—someone who feels a personal responsibility to help make our government work well enough that the world we pass on to the next generation will be at least as good as the one we inherited. For me, this means paying close attention to politics and doing my best to ensure an active marketplace of ideas.
Small-d democrats are thankful for, and value, the individuals who are willing to hold elected and appointed government positions, but we recognize that they, like the rest of us, are subject to the laws of human nature.
Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I would add that power without transparency and accountability is absolute power, and absolute power is anathema to small-d democrats.
Some people hear a story about government officials abusing power and say, “Shame on them.” Small-d democrats hear the same story and say, “Shame on us.”
But it isn’t easy to speak out. Politics will always reflect the local culture. In Hawaii, because everyone lives, works and plays in close proximity, and because of our many interlocking social networks, the local culture feels super-local.
You don’t have to live in Hawaii long before realizing that you can’t discuss any controversial issue critically without it being personal to someone. This creates a natural tendency to “go along,” “not make waves” and not “talk stink.”
I love Hawaii. I’m proud to call it home. I love that there are so many different cultures here, I wouldn’t want to change that. I see value, however, in talking about the forces that encourage or discourage civic dialogue.
It’s relatively easy for someone with my upbringing to tell others to stand up and speak out. My parents modeled that as I was growing up. Plus, I have one of the few jobs where I’m not just allowed, but also encouraged, to speak out when I see something within my area of expertise that I think is broken.
Even so, it is difficult to talk critically about issues that directly involve people I admire. For example, my outspokenness about Bishop Estate has strained my relationships with two of the most decent men I’ve ever met, Kamehameha Schools President Mike Chun and former Bishop Estate trustee Oz Stender. I regret deeply any hurt that I may have caused them.
The point is a simple one: after living in Hawaii for a while, even someone from the Mainland finds it increasingly difficult to talk critically about issues that affect people he respects.
And although I don’t admire the way justices ignored their own conflicts of interest in looking after Princess Pauahi’s trust, I still don’t like being the one to point out the damage they had done. My knees nearly buckled when then-UH President Ken Mortimer told me that a group of influential individuals—he wouldn’t tell me who—had demanded that he fire me. I’m still at UH, but this was a very unpleasant experience.
I can only imagine how much more difficult my kind of civic engagement must be for people who aren’t protected by tenure and whose cultures don’t value speaking out. Despite the difficulty, however, there are shining examples of people doing and encouraging others to do exactly that.
The late Nona Beamer, a cultural icon in the Hawaiian community whose short-but-powerful letter to the editor helped push the Bishop Estate controversy to the tipping point, wrote the following in a letter to me:
“In Hawaii we tend not to speak up, even when we know that something is wrong. Especially in the Hawaiian community, the common practice has long been to avoid confrontation at almost any cost. This approach does not serve us well in today’s world. We must learn to be good stewards of all that we have been given, and this sometimes requires that we take a stand.”