Friday, January 15, 2016

So long, sugar. What's next, A&B?



After work this week, I was heading east on the Hana Highway in that dreadful line of vehicles that forms outside of Paia. To my right were the charred remains and broken glass from a car that had been abandoned, later set on fire and eventually towed away. Beyond that, I took a good, long look at the field off the road shoulder. So long, sugar.

Cane fields start at the western lip of Maliko Gulch and don't stop until you hit Kihei. Cane surrounds our airport and stops right at the new industrial park around Dairy Road. It hugs the West Maui Mountains next to Waikapu as if it were a green, grassy flood.

This huge swath of land is all that's left of the historic crop that changed these islands. Alexander & Baldwin announced last week that this was the last harvest for Maui, which means the last commercial harvest for sugar in all of Hawaii. In 2017, sugar will be gone like that old, burnt-out car on the side of the road.

The end of the sugar era is in sight. Some celebrate. Opponents of cane burning are happy to see the blazing fires, columns of smoke and periodic rain of ash falling into yards, swimming pools and cars come to an end.

Others are somber. There are around 660 cane workers looking for jobs. On top of that, locals have taken the sugar era's end particularly hard. It's hard for many to imagine Hawaii without sugar.

Public school kids have to learn about the sugar industry in history class. We learn about its beginnings on Kauai in the 1830s and how it grew into a major economic engine in the kingdom. Its influence was so great that many of the businessmen behind the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom were heavily invested in the sugar industry.

Sugar demanded amazing feats of engineering to get the water from East Maui and the north shore through gulches and mountains and onto the arid isthmus to water the crops.

There was some social engineering too. Companies recruited workers from Asia, the Americas and Europe. The color of your skin and your national origin determined how much the company was willing to pay you.

You lived in camps and usually ran up a big debt with the company store, making it hard to save enough to start on your own. You were forced to somehow get along with your neighbors, who also came from some other part of the world. It became the foundation of local culture.

When I was a history student, we learned that for decades our economy, politics and society were dominated by sugar barons and corporations. These companies fought tough battles against their workers and the right to organize and lost. The plantations were organized and the companies started collective bargaining with workers. By the time Hawaii entered the union in 1959, the companies made their peace with labor.

Perhaps it is time for sugar to leave the islands. Sugar has been slowly declining for most of the second half of the 20th century. Maybe it was only a matter of time. So what will take its place?

Nobody really knows, but some envision a dystopian future full of swirling dust bowls and a plunging economy. A&B wants diversified agriculture, but that has left many scratching their heads. What does that look like? What kind of crops will that be? Is this shibai, just talk?

The cane fire opponents now have a new fear: The green fields will be replaced by tract homes and development.

Going back to my commute home, when I finally got through Paia's plantation-era buildings that now house high-end boutique stores and organic foods and crossed over Maliko Gulch, I was in Haiku. There used to be pineapple fields on the other side of Maliko, but they've been gone for years now and nothing has replaced them. The only thing in the fallow fields are long, tall patches of grass, wild trees and a Realtor's sign advertising residential housing lots for sale. Is that what's in store?

One thing is certain: Sugar may be a thing of the past, but the companies are still around.

The late musician Joe Strummer said that the future is unwritten. Well put, but it doesn't feel like regular folks will be doing the writing. The days of social, economic and political dominance by big landowners and companies aren't numbered like the cane fields. Just what will happen to the land doesn't seem to be up to us. We will have to wait and see what A&B wants to do.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Crackdown on the Right to have Radical Ideas

Mark Oyama graduated from Iolani, that prestigious and posh private school in Honolulu, then earned his bachelor’s degree at the highly-competitive and world-renown California Institute of Technology. He studied mathematics there. He came back to Hawaii and earned a master’s degree in physics. When he finished that he enrolled at the University of Hawaii’s teacher certification program.
This program is the only one available in the islands. It is designed to train Hawaii’s teachers. In one of his classes on educational psychology, Oyama was assigned to write an essay after watching a video called “Growing Up Online.”
In an essay, he wrote that “Personally, I think that online child predation should be legal, and (he) find(s) it ridiculous that one could be arrested for comments they make online.” He went on to write that there should be no age of consent.
That statement caused a stir in the program and he was called to talk to one of his educational professors. He told the professor that in his own personal view, there was nothing wrong with a consensual sexual relationship between a minor student and an adult teacher. He added, of course, that he understood that that is not the law and he would obey it and report such conduct if he saw it. He—like ancient Greeks apparently—just thought that there was nothing wrong with that kind of relationship. His professors were of a very different opinion.
School officials also had problems with Oyama’s viewpoints on students with disabilities. In another course, Oyama wrote that in his view, that some students with disabilities should not be included in the classroom and that students with learning disabilities may be “fakers.” He wrote that some disabilities weren’t disabilities at all and were “rather the crude opinions of psychologists and psychiatrists.”
His professors in the teaching certificate program were far from impressed. When Oyama applied for further education toward the teaching certificate, he was denied. Although the University told him the denial was based on multiple factors, it centered on his views toward students with disabilities and his views on sexual relations with minors. These views were “not in alignment” with teaching standards.
Ultimately, Oyama sued the University on the grounds that the denial of the certificate violated his freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment in the United States Constitution. The lower court disagreed and ruled in favor of the University. Oyama appealed to the federal court of appeals in the Ninth Circuit.
This week the federal appeals court issued its opinion this week and essentially held that the denying Oyama’s application based in large part on a classroom discussion and essays he wrote did not violate his First Amendment rights. The appellate court was of the view that Oyama’s opinions showed that he did not “absorb” the necessary teaching standards and indicated that he was not likely to comply with those standards.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened in Hawaii. The case reminds me of a very old proceeding that occurred in Honolulu during the tumultuous territorial days.
John Reinecke was a linguist and scholar at the University of Hawaii—the same institution that threw out Oyama. And just like Oyama he held opinions and viewpoints that were controversial and unpopular in his day.
Reinecke was very outspoken about the labor movement. He believed strongly in the power of unions and the worker’s right to organize. He associated himself with activists and progressives of his time. Although these views today are far from earth-shattering and are even guaranteed in our State Constitution, Reinecke held these views in the late 1940s—when politicians and businessmen, particularly executives for large sugar companies, were afraid of Communist bogeymen.
The territorial Department of Instruction took action against him and his wife for holding these views. Reinecke’s position on collective bargaining, civil liberties, and social democracy could be a cover for Communist tendencies at the height of the Red Scare. A very public hearing was held and the department concluded that even though his opinions had nothing to do with his academic discipline and teaching, it was too treacherous and could lead to the indoctrination of young minds. He lost his teaching job and dismissed in 1948.
Decades later long after the hysteria against a perceived threat from socialism had passed, he was reinstated and his name was cleared. The Department of Education made a public apology.

Ironically (and schizophrenically), we are now living in a time where an institution of higher learning recognizes and condemns what it did to the Reineckes, but vigorously defends its actions against Oyama in federal court. As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.