Open Letter to University of Hawai`i President Lassner on the Thirty Meter Telescope and the Email from “UH Leadership”

Dear President Lassner:

I write to protest both the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea and the recent letter from “UH Leadership.”

On the first issue of the construction of the TMT:

I am sure you have seen news regarding the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ call to halt the construction. I consider myself a non-Hawaiian ally of those opposed to the construction. The desecration of a site of such great spiritual and cultural significance to Hawaiians seems to me an unacceptable price to pay for the pursuit of scientific knowledge of uncertain value. I am sure many will dispute that the value is uncertain and also claim that only scientists can make an estimation of scientific value. I differ. Science is nothing if not a social enterprise, judged by its effects on society in general.

Accordingly, for me, the question on the TMT remains: why this site? and why now? Would we allow the building of a telescope on Mt. Kailash (the alleged abode of Shiva)? How about digging under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the pursuit of scientific discoveries? If we would do neither, then why Mauna Kea? Here’s the simple truth: the callous disregard for widespread Hawaiian opinion on Mauna Kea has a basis not in science (no scientist would offer to blow up the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem for scientific gains) but an arrogant and racist attitude that has already caused incalculable harm to the Hawaiian islands.

Just to be clear: I write as an atheist and as someone who has a profound respect for science done the right way. It is far past time for scientists to recalibrate their goals away from resource gobbling billion dollar projects aimed at finding answers that will make little difference to the everyday lives of people, and more particularly in this case Hawaiians. In most cases such projects are covert subsidies to the construction lobby and to “big science.” How refreshing it would be if UH chose to be an example in this regard rather than revealing itself to be a neoliberal colonial institution!

On the second issue regarding a letter signed by “UH Leadership”:

I can only hope that you were ill-advised in this regard. “UH Leadership” is not an entity I am able to find in any of the organizational charts for the university. Does “UH Leadership” mean just you? Or does it include the Board of Regents? How about officers in the upper administration? Which officers?

A letter to the UH community, especially one calling for aloha and respectful engagement, should clearly identify authorship. With a letter such as this, one would wish for the kind of transparency that goes with the aloha and respect the letter itself urges. A letter does not inspire confidence when signed in such a vague manner. This is especially so given the draconian administrative rules targeting the Mauna Kea protectors “UH leadership” has put in place. If the intention of the letter is to suggest that the “UH leadership” is above the fray, I must respectfully submit that that is not the case. By its actions, the “UH leadership”—whatever that might be—is clearly in the process of enabling the side—the corporate interests?—that wants to see the TMT built.

I suppose—one can only hope—it is still not too late to remedy matters. You have often professed a respect for Hawaiian values. This is the time to make that respect clearly manifest. I urge you to stop the construction of the TMT. No doubt, there are multiple players involved, inside and outside the university, but you have a unique position as the President of the university to make things happen. I urge you to take steps.

Thank you for reading. I look forward to hearing from you.


S. Shankar


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

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.