The proposed Barack Obama Presidential Center is more than just a library. Those leading the initiative to have the center located in Kakaako, as opposed to in Chicago or New York City, envision the library as a “convening institute,” “K-12 leadership academy,” “UH center for community organizing,” and “visitor center.” These ideas, coupled with the economic benefits usually attributed to such a project—jobs and revenue from said visitors—are fine ideas. However, when placed within the context of Hawaii’s longue durée history, the reasons to support such a project come up as short as the Kakaako shoreline’s ability will be to prevent rising sea levels from eventually inundating the center.
Around the world, Hawaii is known as the Aloha State. But aloha is more than a catch-phrase for tourists. It’s a value, passed on to us from Kanaka Maoli and their ancestors, who had their land and nation taken from them illegally by the United States. When considering the building of this Obama Center, one must ask, “How does such a place intersect with aloha, our other values here in Hawaii, and Hawaii’s own history? Whom does this center represent?”
As the Barack Obama Presidential Library in Hawaii, the center would claim to represent both Obama and Hawaii. Concerns over how the media discourse around the center and the library itself will represent or alter narratives about Hawaii are already being expressed.
To answer the above questions, a brief examination of Obama’s presidential legacy can help. During his tenure, the president has continued the global projection of the American Empire; the United States military and its many contracted affiliates still operate in Iraq and Afghanistan and began or expanded operations in Libya, Kurdistan and other places such as Africa under his administration. The U.S. operates countless military bases around the globe and is adding more without any heed, much less criticism, from the mainstream media.
Moreover, in his time as president, Obama has gained the moniker of “The Drone President” because of the violence and death in the Middle East that he has directed remotely—violence that has, on multiple occasions, resulted in the killing of innocent civilian men, women, and children.
His administration implemented the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)—a skidmark straight through the United States’ own Constitution—and, in an unprecedented fashion, appealed the result of the initially successful lawsuit against him and the NDAA by plaintiffs including Chris Hedges, Daniel Ellsberg, and Noam Chomsky. The lawsuit has triggered a “constitutional standoff” between the president and judiciary, one that “may be the most significant constitutional standoff since the Pentagon Papers case,” according to co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs, Carl Mayer.
On behalf of corporate interests, the president has pushed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). He has championed the “drill baby, drill” attitude of neoconservative America, constantly pushing the idea of energy independence through an increase in fracking and offshore drilling, rather than through truly sustainable alternate sources. The world witnessed the Deepwater Horizon spill; the corporate person at fault received a slight monetary slap on the wrist from the president instead of a more deserved life sentence. And at the Copenhagen Summit, the president did nothing to change world attitudes toward fossil fuel consumption.
In more recent events, America has witnessed the tragic consequences of the continued militarization of its municipal police forces: incessant police brutality and the use of excessive force. Obama’s actions, or lack thereof, have been so morally reprehensible that the remaining vestiges of America’s black prophetic tradition, including Cornel West, have distanced themselves from the president.
More could be added to this list but, for brevity’s sake, we shall end our review of the Obama legacy here.
Essentially, the president has expanded American Imperialism, committed foreign policy acts that violate laws of sovereignty (and some that could be considered war crimes), pandered to corporate elites, restricted Constitutional freedoms, exacerbated the effects of human-induced global warming, done nothing to reduce the threat to the world from nuclear armaments, accelerated the transformation of the police into an oppressive force—a Pretorian Guard—and contributed to the neoliberal austerity that has characterized U.S. domestic policy since at least the Ronald Reagan Administration.
All of these actions are antithetical to and in direct conflict with Hawaiian values of aloha, e malama pono and aloha ʻāina. Thus, to make Hawaii home to a Barack Obama Center sends the message that the people of Hawaii support such politics and ideologies.
This is far from the truth; no moral being could endorse such horrors. Naturally, such failures and limitations would be omitted from the library’s visitor center. This sanitization of Obama’s presidency is already apparent in the overview of the proposed center, which reads like yet another American presidential hagiography.
Returning to the idea of placing the Obama Center within the history of Hawaii, the Obama Center, then, can be viewed as part of a long battle over the control of historical narratives. In Aloha Betrayed, Noenoe K. Silva documented, in great detail, how pedagogical control and historical amnesia through the silencing of Kanaka Maoli voices against annexation led to the misconception of Hawaiians as willing subjects to the American Empire, contributing to the narratives in favor of the subsequent annexation.
Historical amnesia can have grave consequences, and the illegal annexation of Hawaii by the United States is an example of the importance of disseminating the truest histories possible and preaching morally responsible pedagogies. Building the Obama Center in Kakaako will continue the legacy of the American Empire’s illegal subjugation of Hawaii.
Opening the first chapter of Aloha Betrayed, Silva includes a quotation from one of the greatest modern American moralist intellectuals, Edward Said, that is perfectly applicable to this issue of the Obama Center being in Hawaii:
[Stories are] the method colonized people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history. The main battle in imperialism is over the land, of course; but when it came to who owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who kept it going, who won it back, and who now plans its future—these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a time, decided in narrative.
The narratives of the Obama Center, like other presidential libraries, will only contribute to the hegemonic censoring of history and the historical amnesia it engenders among the American people and other visitors. Unless Barack Obama enacts a complete reversal of his current moral path after his time as president is done, there will be little long-term value for Hawaii from this project.
When one thinks of Obama’s values and ideology, as expressed through his policy, one concludes that he is far more aligned with the University of Chicago—another university in contention to host the Obama Center—and its infamous neoconservatives, such as Leo Strauss and Paul Wolfowitz. Obama does not represent Hawaii. By hosting his library center here, the values of Hawaii will be misrepresented.
Hawaii is filled with many brilliant and beautiful people. We, the people of Hawaii, are more than capable of building the democratic spaces—“convening institute[s]” and “center[s] for community organizing”—that can foster the responsible public pedagogies necessary to bring changes to Hawaii that will better align our society, in practice, with our shared values.