#WeStandWithMaunaKea, Anti-Colonialism, and the Limits of Academic Liberalism

“This is reason enough, from an anti-colonial point of view, to oppose the TMT regardless of arguments about science and the sacred.”

I stand with Mauna Kea.

Which is to say I stand against the building of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea for (allegedly) scientific research.

Mauna Kea is the mountain on the Big Island managed by the University of Hawai`i and sacred to Hawaiians. Controversy over the proposed telescope is now returning to a boil after the highest court in Hawai`i cleared the way, over the objections of broad sections of Hawaiians, for the resumption of halted construction.

I’m not Hawaiian, and nor am I an astronomer, but as a professor at the University of Hawai`i I too have a stake in this controversy, and as a student of the tenacious hold of colonialism with its associated mythology of a hierarchy of peoples I might even have a particular perspective to offer in debates within the university and outside.

  1. Mauna Kea and Anti-Colonialism

From an anti-colonial point of view the sacredness or otherwise of Mauna Kea, the scientific value or otherwise of the telescope, are beside the point. To be clear, I am not saying science and the sacred are irrelevant, only that it is possible to make an anti-colonial argument against the TMT without either an appeal to the sacred or a dismissal of science. (Of course, it is also possible to make the argument that there is plenty of serious knowledge about the natural world in indigenous epistemologies, whether you want to call it science or not.)

Colonialism hierarchizes groups of people, often by hierarchizing knowledge-systems:  This knowledge-system (the notion that Mauna Kea is sacred) is superstitious and primitive compared to this other knowledge-system (the scientific assertion of the value of Mauna Kea as the site for an astronomical telescope). The arguments of the proponents of the TMT for the universal value of scientific knowledge—that the TMT will help uncover objective truths about the cosmos likely to benefit all human beings—cannot but be understood within the context of such a hierarchization.

Why? Because a little reflection suggests objective truths are not exempt from a moral and political calculus, that things that are objectively true can at the same time be at the heart of morally and politically reprehensible actions. Splitting atoms objectively releases great energy but it may be morally and politically reprehensible to pursue technologies based on it.

In contrast, anti-colonialism asks with regard to Mauna Kea: what is the moral and political calculus of a comparative assertion of science over native epistemologies? And, can whatever objective scientific value that emerges out of the TMT project outweigh the consequences of this moral and political calculus?

Consider: the scientific community would undoubtedly—if it came to it—exempt many religious sites around the world (the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, the Kaaba in Mecca, the Shiva temple in Benares) from desecration in the name of science. Why does Mauna Kea not deserve such exemption? Could it have something to do with the colonialist hierarchization of peoples through the hierarchization of their knowledge systems?

  1. The Limits of Academic Liberalism

Since the University of Hawai`i is the custodian of the land on which the TMT is to be established, the university administration is at the heart of the controversy. Unfortunately, the administration seems to be blissfully untutored —irony for an institution dedicated to knowledge?—of the true complexities of the controversy. Consider the recent emails from the university president. The emails do not mention the TMT project or Mauna Kea but suggest an approach to controversy and issues like the TMT that, frankly, cannot stand up to scrutiny. Here’s an excerpt from one email, which begins with a quotation from an internal document:

“‘All human beings are entitled to the respect of their culture and who they are. We know absolutely that people of different cultures, backgrounds and beliefs can not only peacefully coexist but synergistically thrive together. As the UH motto tells us: Ma luna ae o na lahui a pau ke ola ke kanaka. Above all nations is humanity.’… We do not all need to agree on every issue before us. But we can and must live together peacefully and extend human dignity to all.”

I will leave it to scholars of Hawaiian to weigh in on whether respect for all cultures is a persuasive interpretation of “Above all nations is humanity;” but, surely, the gist of the email is, at best, liberalism at its most naïve? A German Nazi, a British imperialist, a South African ideologue of apartheid, an Indian proponent of Brahminical caste-ism—each claimed at one time (and in some cases does still) a cultural justification for their odious views. Surely, it cannot be the case that they all are entitled to the respect of their culture, then, now or ever?

Simply put, the liberal exhortation to respect all cultures has always been intellectually incoherent, and yet liberalism has routinely made this exhortation. The right question again is: why? And the answer can only be that liberalism does so usually in the interest of buttressing the de facto reality on the ground, that is, the status quo of power arrangements. For example, to liberally assert equal respect for all cultures in Jim Crow America is to leave the ground reality of Jim Crow in place. Such a liberalism cannot be a guide to difficult and thorny issues, including that of the TMT.

To assert equal respect for all cultures in the context of the TMT is to leave the de facto pro-TMT ground reality, and the colonial hierarchization of peoples and knowledges that accompanies it, in place. This is reason enough, from an anti-colonial point of view, to oppose the TMT regardless of arguments about science and the sacred.



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