Politics & Policy

Bad History, Bad Law

Proponents of the Akaka bill have a twisted sense of history.

It’s long been said that Hawaii is the crown jewel of multiculturalism, a place where, throughout its history, the races have coexisted peacefully. A place where a shared sense of purpose and unity has fused people from all over the world into a single entity. A place of such boundless optimism that the state has legally defined the Aloha Spirit as the call to “emote good feelings to others.”

#ad#How times change: Hawaii no longer celebrates statehood day, because it might be too divisive; T-shirts emblazoned with “The native are restless” are selling briskly; and a 2005 court decision barring a race-exclusive admissions policy at a private school was met by 20,000 protesters. It doesn’t seem that many good feelings are being emoted these days–at least, not by the crowd pushing for a new native government with special privileges and rights for those with the proper genealogy.

S. 147, “The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act,” was first introduced in the Senate by Hawaii Democrat Daniel Akaka in 1999, and, after a long wait backstage, it is expected to hit the floor in the first week of June. The bill will carve out a new entity in Hawaii that will conduct sovereign-to-sovereign relations with the United States, much as Native American tribes do today. But no one is exactly sure what the new government will look like, because the Akaka bill leaves all the details up in the air. Even the definition of “native Hawaiian” is to be determined at a later date: one drop of blood, two drops, who knows.

Bad history inevitably makes bad law, and the Akaka bill is a case in point. When it is opened up for debate, proponents will cite three findings of “fact”: that the United States, in violation of national and international law, overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893; that the Hawaiian people have never ceded the right to govern themselves; and that, as Senator Akaka put it back in 1993, the “deprivation of Hawaiian sovereignty, which began a century ago, has had devastating effects on the health, culture, and social conditions of native Hawaiians.” There’s nothing quite like misplaced charges of racism and imperialism to move a piece of legislation. But alas, few if any of these allegations are true, at least according to most standard historical sources, including Ralph S. Kuykendall’s definitive work on Hawaiian history. Before the demagoguery commences on the Senate floor, it’s advisable to examine the relevant allegations.

The tortured genesis of the Akaka bill has its origins in the 1993 Apology Resolution, in which Congress enshrined into law the above claims. (The Senate vote for the resolution was only 65–34, far short of the unanimity one might expect to see in a serious apology.) Though Senator Akaka explicitly stated on the floor that the bill was only what it was purported to be–an apology–it has nonetheless become a rallying cry for proponents of the Akaka bill: Congress has verified the native-government contingent’s version of events. Congress, clearly, is not infallible.

The most common trope in the medley is that the United States was complicit in the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. The revolution that toppled the queen, however, was strictly an internal affair, a fight between those who wanted to strengthen the monarchy, and those who wanted a more democratic government. The misperception arises from the U.S. minister’s involvement: But he acted outside his authority and was subsequently relieved of his duty by the president, as was the military commander who brought troops ashore to safeguard American property. (These troops did not engage in hostilities, were not prominent, and were ordered to remain neutral.) President Grover Cleveland later intimated that he thought the queen should be restored, but alas, he had no sway over the independent, fully autonomous, internationally recognized Republic of Hawaii.

Considering this, the claim that Hawaiians have never explicitly given up their sovereignty is fool’s gold: There never was sovereignty to give up, at least not in any sense which could conceivably justify the recompense demanded by the Akaka bill. A monarchy ruled the country until 1893, and then, after an internal battle, an independent government came into being, which was recognized by all nations as legitimate. The new Hawaiian government pushed for annexation, and finally became a U.S. territory in 1900. Annexation brought with it full suffrage, which marked a first for native Hawaiians, who commanded an absolute voting majority for the next 20 years, and a plurality for 10 years after that. Over the next half century, Hawaii pushed for statehood, with natives often leading the charge. (The nephew of Queen Lilioukalani, the overthrown monarch, introduced into Congress the first Hawaiian-statehood bill in 1919.) Finally, in 1959, Congress extended an invitation of statehood. An astounding 99 percent of eligible voters turned out for the state plebiscite, and 94 percent voted for statehood. The sovereignty debate should have ended right there.

But it didn’t. A small but vocal minority has risen during the last 30 years and propagated the myth that native Hawaiians have suffered immensely from the forceful end of the monarchy, and that Hawaiian culture has been destroyed–exact details seem to end there. Insofar as the “culture” is defined merely by a monarch, this may be true. But as defined in any other way, Hawaiian culture has evolved not in opposition to U.S. values, but alongside them. What defined Hawaii throughout the 19th century was its openness to evolution and a concomitant resistance to xenophobia. King Kamehameha I had foreigners as top advisers in the early 1800s, after he had established, by force, the Kingdom of Hawaii. King Kamehameha II ended cultural taboos preventing men and women from eating together; he also abolished the worship of idols by fiat. Kamehameha III introduced a written constitution, which was for all Hawaiians, regardless of race. The kingdom was a crossroads of Pacific trade, and Hawaiian culture developed against an international mise en scène. (At various times, individual groups of migrant workers–Chinese, Japanese–outnumbered native Hawaiians.)

In other words, throughout Hawaii’s history, it has been Hawaiians themselves who have cast aside antiquated traditions in favor of Western ideas and advancements on all fronts–economic, technological, civic. There never was a “native” government to speak of, and the collapse of the monarchy in 1893 did not lead to violence or oppression; it led to property rights, universal suffrage, and democracy. The history of Hawaii is not one of victimization, but one of enlightenment, of old traditions merging with new ones, without the civil strife that often accompanies such change. It is the melting pot personified–or, at least, it used to be.

For proponents of the Akaka bill, history as an abstract concept is not intended to enlighten or illuminate; it is instead a blunt instrument, a tool used to bludgeon opponents into enacting poorly conceived legislation. Somehow, this bowdlerized history has managed to escape scrutiny, to the point where it rationalizes overthrowing the fundamental premise that all Americans, regardless of race, religion, or politics, are bound together in a common destiny. If the Akaka bill passes, the bastardization of history will be one of its more pronounced casualties.

–Alston B. Ramsay is an associate editor of National Review.

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