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Paul Theroux on Hawaii's 50th Anniversary
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When I started studying Barack Obama’s life, I was struck by how remarkably few famous Hawaiians there are. Most of those ambitious few tend to be people born there who got out early and you’d never guess they were from Hawaii, like Obama or Bette Midler. Otherwise, famous people living in Hawaii tend to be retirees or, say, closeted country singers. Even Wilt Chamberlain got tired of being a legendary tourist attraction for female vacationers and left.

In general, Hawaii, which absorbed a disproportionate amount of America’s attention from December 7, 1941 through the Hawaii 5-0 / Magnum PI era, has largely dropped off the national radar screen. (That’s been a help for Obama, since a lack of public familiarity with Hawaii has helped him spin various narratives about himself for different audiences, stories that would strike people more familiar with Hawaii as implausible.)

You might think that a few financial or software companies would be based in Hawaii — the ethnic backgrounds of Hawaiians aren’t all that different from Silicon Valley’s (with lots of New England Protestants and northeast Asians) — but I’m not aware of many success stories.

Similarly, Hawaii is lacking in intellectual life. As America’s most successful example of diversity (although not the kind of diversity that we normally mean when we say diversity), it’s striking that it’s so lacking in intellectual stimulation. Is it merely the Lotus Eater weather? Or does diversity itself require a lack of debate and controversy?

That all leaves a problem for Hawaii on its 50th birthday as a state since who is going to write about it? The best writer I could think of who lives in Hawaii is travel essayist Paul Theroux (The Great Railway Bazaar), but Theroux is as big a misanthrope as his ex-mentor and current enemy V.S. Naipaul.

So, sure enough the NYT gets T heroux to write about Hawaii. Theroux can be entertaining As Alice Roosevelt used to say, “If you don’t have anything good to say about anyone, come sit next to me:”

Other plantation lands have become bungaloid subdivisions or luxury housing or golf courses. Some children of the plantation workers have become doctors and lawyers, or construction workers and caddies. And an immense number have become politicians — each island has its own local government — which may account for its reputation for political buffoonery and philistinism. Public intellectuals do not exist; public debate is rare, except on issues that transgress religious dogma. Hawaii is noted for its multitude of contentious God-botherers. One hundred sixty-three years ago, Melville remarked on this in “Typee.” Yet “tipsy from salvation’s bottle” (to borrow Dylan Thomas’s words), they stick to specific topics (same-sex marriage a notable example). No one else pontificates. It is regarded as bad form for anyone in Hawaii to generalize in print, as I am shamefully doing now.

Individuality is not prized; the family — the ’ohana — is the important social unit. But this Polynesian ideal of the family group, or the clan, extends to other communities. It is as though living on the limited terra firma of an island inspires people to form incurious metaphorical islands, like the Elks and the other exclusive clubs of the past. Even today, the University of Hawaii is an island that has almost no presence in the wider community. And each church, each valley, each ethnic group, each neighborhood is insular — not only the upscale enclaves like Kahala or Koko Head, but the more modest ones too. On leeward Oahu, the community of Waianae is like a remote and somewhat menacing island. [I drove up one of those isolated valleys in 1981 with my parents and remember the distinctly non-aloha looks we got from the local dope farmers.]

Each of the actual islands has a distinct identity — a person from Kauai would insist that he or she is quite unlike someone from Maui and could recite a lengthy genealogy to prove it. …

The most circumscribed islanders are the Hawaiians, numerous because of the one-drop rule (though by this dubious measure, I am a member of the Menominee nation and the whole of Wisconsin is my ancestral land). People who, before statehood, regarded themselves as of Portuguese or Chinese or Filipino descent identified themselves as Hawaiian in the later 1960s and ’70s, when sovereignty became an issue and their drop of blood gave them access. [They’re still waiting for their tribal casinos.]

The Hawaiian language as a medium of instruction hardly existed 20 years ago, but now it is fairly common, and there has been a substantial increase in Hawaiian speakers [If you want to compete economically in the global marketplace, there’s nothing like learning Hawaiian.] But there are 40 or more contending Hawaiian sovereignty groups, from the strictest kanaka maoli (original people), who worship traditional gods like Pele, the goddess of fire (and volcanoes), to the Hawaiian hymn singers in the multitude of Christian churches, to the Hawaiian Mormons …

And, like many who believe they are poorly governed, people in Hawaii have an abiding hatred of regulation. …

Some of this seems either dysfunctional or annoying, and yet there are compensations. All my life I have thought, Give me sunshine. Hawaii has the balmiest weather in the world, and its balance of wind and water gives it perfect feng shui. No beach is private: all of the shoreline must be accessible to the casual beachgoer or fisherman or opihi-picker. And since people’s faults are often their virtues when looked at a different way, the aversion to self-promotion is often a welcome humility; the lack of confrontation or hustle is a rare thing in a hyperactive world. Islanders are instinctively territorial, but bound by rules, so privacy matters and so does politeness and good will.

I have this sense that Hawaii represents a Best Case Scenario for the future of humanity: pleasant but boring and static.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Well, Hawaii is pretty small. How would its numbers of famous people compare with similarly sized states, as opposed to with California or Texas?

  2. They never should have made Hawaii a state.

  3. "I have this sense that Hawaii represents a Best Case Scenario for the future of humanity: pleasant but boring and static."

    Isn't this the goal of our neoliberal democratic-capitalist overclass elites? Creating this on a global scale with free movement of labor, people, goods, capital, etc.

  4. After we get Puerto Rico unhorsed, we can start in on Hawaii.

  5. "I have this sense that Hawaii represents a Best Case Scenario for the future of humanity: pleasant but boring and static."
    slight problem, violence and ethnic polarization is accelerating worse than California – they are seeking legal ethnic separatism… the inevitable result of die-virsity

  6. Obligatory bump for the greatest TV theme song ever [covered by the Ventures here].

    And kudos to Carole Burnette for appearing in the best ever episode of Magnum, PI.

  7. Well, Hawaii is pretty small. How would its numbers of famous people compare with similarly sized states, as opposed to with California or Texas?

    Vermont is twice smaller and has lots of famous people.

    Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, Dakotas, Alaska and Wyoming all have population smaller than Hawaii.

  8. The Hawaiians I've met have been very "laid back." AKA, they have a low conscientious rating. Consequently, they don't accomplish much, are loose with money, monogamous but unrestrained, etc. I wouldn't trust them with much, though their state is pleasant.

  9. Your closing quote does have a rather Brave New World feel to it, dunnit?

  10. I have this sense that Hawaii represents a Best Case Scenario for the future of humanity

    Yeah, maybe if "humanity" included almost no blacks or Muslims.

    In the real world, the countries with the top 50 or so birthrates in the world are all African and/or Islamic.

  11. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    A little off-topic, but have you guys seen the picture of Stanley Armour Dunham welcoming Barack Hussein Obama Sr, fresh off the boat in Hawaii?

    Combined with Steve's observation in re: the "statutory rape" of Stanley Armour's daughter, that is one heckuva creepy spectacle.

    And then when you factor in Stanley Armour's weird friendship with Frank Marshall Davis, it's enough to make you wonder whether something very, very strange was transpiring with those folks.

  12. General Shinseki the head of the Joints Chiefs of Staff was another famous Hawaiian who left.
    I think Hawaii's lack of drive is probably a function of its weather and its isolation. A friend of mine's stepfather was Japanese from Hawaii and worked cutting cane. During World War II he got drafted and became an intelligence officer in the army. He ended up in Minneapolis and ended up as a executive VP at a large regional bank there. His younger brother, who stayed in Hawaii, got into construction for a while but then finally ended up living off money his older brother sent him

  13. Steve,
    I'd like to start a reverse racist group. Anyone with a drop of white blood is a white person.

  14. Pat Boyle [AKA "Albertosaurus"] says: • Website

    Consider Occam. Hawaii is simply an island of dummys. I was always struck by how stupid the natives were. I imagine that Haiti is much the same – not that I'm likely to vacation there.

    My ex-wife was a tech recruiter who won a trip to Hawaii. I went along. When we were leaving she remarked that there probably wasn't a single IBM 360 systems programmer on the island.

    Without infusions of talent from the mainland they simply wouldn't be able to sustain a modern civilization.

    This has happened in Rodesia and South Africa too. The whites in Hawaii imported Portugese, then Japanese, and then South East Asians to work in the fields. The Japanese made lousy field workers. They went to the cities and took over the government. The native Hawaians themselves are dumb as boards.

    This is such a clear case of racial consequents that I'm surprised that I have to point it out to you.

  15. Shinseki was a McClellanist hack. Even a stopped watch is right twice a day.

  16. I am quite sympathetic to the Hawiians recovering their language. Why not?

    Of course, the place shouldn't be part of the US.

    Then again, I suspect California is below average in accomplished people in things other than sports and entertainment.

  17. There is quite a bit of anti-white sentiment in Hawaii.

  18. It is astonishing to me how much Obama looks like Malcolm X. Maybe Stanley Anne was a black radical groupie and got pregnant by him and then got Obama Sr. to marry her as a favor to legitimize the birth.

  19. "…pleasant but boring and static."

    Kind of like a certain elite felt about your Kwa, Sailer.

  20. Population: 1,288,198 (2008 est.)

    With such a small population, I'm not sure you have a case.

  21. "It is astonishing to me how much Obama looks like Malcolm X."

    More like Frank Marshall Davis. He also looks like Stanley Ann and Stanley Armour. No resemblance to the Kenyan, but then people (whites) aren't used to looking for family resemblances among blacks and mulattos. Any feature that departs from negroid type is simply attributed to white ancestry.

  22. There is quite a bit of anti-white sentiment in Hawaii.

    And probably a bit less anti-everything-else sentiment. Don't the Hawaiians have that MAO Pacific Islander thing going on? Some violent folks inhabiting that region.

  23. In Sowell's "Ethnic America", he notes that the Chinese economic advance in Hawaii was not as great as on the mainland despite there being less hostility towards them.

    Could it be that in Hawaii, Asians weren't coerced into the economic niche's that in later generations allowed them to exploit their talents to their fullest extent?

  24. There is racial hatred all over Hawaii. Just go outside the tourist zones to see how Hawaiians really feel about White people.

  25. I visited Hawaii for vacations several times in the 80s, and I stopped into the local office of the Fed agency I worked for. I asked the supervisor why there were constant job openings for investigators and attorney in the Honolulu office. he said that people from the states came over for the tropical paradise, then they discovered that decaying shacks cost $300K to buy, and that if they had kids [white] they had to pay a fortune for private schools, since white kids get beaten up constantly in public schools.

  26. Hawaii is simply an island of dummys. I was always struck by how stupid the natives were. I imagine that Haiti is much the same – not that I'm likely to vacation there.

    I go along reading this board, thinking, yeah that makes sense, that's really smart, etc, and it has an enormous impact on my world view. Then every once in a while I read a thread or comment about which I have some specific knowledge or experience with and I disagree with the writer. Sometimes this makes me question the blog's premises. This is one of those postings. It is one of the more naive I have ever read on this site.

    I am a haole who grew up in Hawaii, so I know a thing or two about it. I am certainly not uniformly or even primarily positive about the place, and would never want to live there again for a variety of reasons. With that said, I have to defend it a bit.

    First of all, the state is probably something like 70% haole, Japanese and Chinese, and Korean (and associated mixes). By the main premise of this site, this alone should make it intellectually superior to a large number of other states. I can assure you that it is not Haiti.

    Some of the other groups, well, maybe they aren't exactly high achievers, but that's everywhere. I've known quite a few intelligent and skilled Philipinos here and there, and I'm also not convinced the Hawaiians are intrinsically unintelligent. Most of them are mixed ancestry with Portugese and Chinese, anyway.

    Their seafaring exploits and the complex society they developed with stone-age physical constraints (I like J. Diamond's treatment on this, if not so much else in G,G&S) seem to be at least as much of an achievement as anything stone-age Britons ever did before the Romans civilized them.

    Without infusions of talent from the mainland they simply wouldn't be able to sustain a modern civilization.

    This has happened in Rodesia and South Africa too.

    Silly comparison. This was occurring in Hawaii 120-150 years ago. Hawaii is not southern Africa. I've been there too, and it is obviously very much a work in progress.

    The Japanese made lousy field workers.

    Source? I've never heard this, and it makes no sense. They were brought from agricultural prefectures in Japan and Okinawa. It's not like they were Tokyo shopkeepers who couldn't adapt to the life. The Japanese I knew there were smart enough, but also quite tough and spirited in sports and the like. Not at all soft, and clearly had a bit of the Asian equivalent of redneck in them.

    It is a generally unsophisticated place, and the public education system is poor. But I think this is due to its physical and cultural isolation, as well as a general non-materialism among those born and raised there. Achievement is not always considered a priority over family, friends and place.

    The latter is generally very healthy and we would all be much better off if our society were a little bit more like Hawaii and a little bit less like Wall Street.

    And another thing, I actually learned to program on an old IBM 360 there, so I suspect the ex was wrong about that.

    I could go on, but I'll leave it at that…

  27. I suppose I could make one obvious statement about Hawaii, but since I must be the only heterosexual male here (or else that comment would have been made earlier) I will refrain.

  28. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The MMA fighters from Hawaii are such douchebags, to use the phraseology of kids today, that it makes me not want to go there very much. Small non white island(s) with lots of white tourists – I know how that goes (cough*Natalie Hollowat*cough). They're as xenophobic as you can find and at least one Hawaiian has confided to me they're straight anti-white. Goofs. Jerks, whose act wouldn't last ten seconds on the mainland. Actually the MMA fighters from Hawaii aren't even Hawaiian – BJ Penn is Korean/white, I don't know what Kendall Grove is – looks Indian. Brandon Wolff is Polynesian, yet because they are non-white they identify as Hawaiians, without any Hawaiian blood. Browns versus whites is what it is.

    I'm very unimpressed with Hawaiians. And what's the deal with their fetish for California? Ever been to the California casino in Vegas? It's all Hawaiians.Anyway, it's time the Hawaiians got called on their surliness and unfriendliness and their racism. Glad you did this post.

  29. "I was struck by how remarkably few famous Hawaiians there are."

    Liz Damon?

  30. People work their asses off on their startups hoping to get rich and be able to retire in a place like Hawaii. When you already own a home in Hawaii, what's the point?

  31. Theroux must be willfully blind to the hatred of haoles in Hawaii. Otherwise he couldn't stand to live there.

  32. "Theroux must be willfully blind to the hatred of haoles in Hawaii."

    Theroux's a world-class Naipaul-level hater of people, so the more others shun him, the happier he is.

    He wrote a travel book about riding trains in China but it was a nightmare for him. China was full of people! He finally visited Tibet and was much happier: it's mostly empty.

  33. "They're as xenophobic as you can find and at least one Hawaiian has confided to me they're straight anti-white."

    What's wrong with xenophobia?

    • Replies: @tbraton
    While I agree with Phenry's criticism  insofar as Iraq is concerned, I differ with him (and you) with regard to Afghanistan.   What Obama did was to greatly increase our troop presence in Afghanistan (well beyond the "two brigades" he pledged during the 2008 campaign).  That seems like a curious way of trying"to wind down the wars he inherited from Bush II."  As a result, we are going to have twice as many troops in Afghanistan at the end of Obama's term than we had at the beginning.  And, with his speech to the nation from Kabul two weeks ago, we apparently will have some troop presence there until 2024, 23 years after 9/11 and 15 years after Obama was elected President.  That's a helluva way to wind down the war, which we should have declared "won" back in 2002, after we had succeeded in chasing out Al Qaeda and the Taliban.     
  34. it makes no sense. They were brought from agricultural prefectures in Japan and Okinawa.
    I think he was saying their kids didn't grow up to be cowboys. More vertical freedom in U.S., etc.

  35. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I even hate the word "people".

    For about the past year or so, there has been an irritating trend of saying "white people" and "black people" instead of the old way of just saying "whites" and "blacks", as if to incessantly remind us that we are all people.

    This must have started with bleeding hearts and do-gooders, so naturally I am against it.

  36. Whiskey [AKA "Testing99"] says:

    Beat Up Haole Day is a state phenomena. Those smart avoid being in public that day, though school kids get the worst of it.

    There's plenty of "known" Hawaiians, though they tend to be from Kempo Karate, Hawaii's native martial art. Such as Hawaii native (and Mormon) founder Ed Parker.

    The historic and ongoing level of violence in Hawaii suggests that the multicultural paradise is more akin to Marseilles than Seattle. Given that Marseilles is also the birthplace of a variety of French martial arts including savate.

  37. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Like been there… done that, I'm suprised by the sudden drop in the level of discussion in this post. It's well below the usual standards.

    The exception is usally the comment on iSteve that has nothing intelligent to say and/or has no insight/experience to offer. The uninformed ignorance in some comments here is depressing.

    For example, the Japanese were terrible field workers? The problem with the Japanese were that they were much smarter than most of their white overseers like the Portuguese. They kept trying to organize labor and also quickly left the plantation for economic opportunities in the cities and the mainland to escape the surf-like working conditions.

    The Koreans were imported to break the Japanese attempts to organize labor. They were largely from cities and, although made poorer plantation labor, they were desirable because the deep mutual hatred of the Japanese they brought with them which kept the Japanese off balance and reduced their dominance somewhat. Korean immigration never achieved the levels plantation owners wanted due to Japan's defeat of Russia and subsequent takeover of Korea where they outlawed further Korean immigration (along with Korean names, language, traditions).

    One of the reasons whites in general are disliked in Hawaii is because the descendents of the New England missionaries who became the economic elite cabal in Hawaii were, to borrow an Obamanism, your typical evil white folk. They used the US military to outright steal most of the land in Hawaii for five powerful plantation (missionary) families. They tried to create a permanent surfdom to keep their imported labor bound to the plantation by reducing wages and increasing work (but those wiley asians were just too deviously frugal). They intentionally recruited specific races, heavily segregated living and job title by race and pit them against each other to divide and control: Native vs Chinese vs Japanese vs Korean vs Philipino vs Puerto Rican vs Portuguese vs German etc. Even as late as 1959, mixed relatives had to pay an extra 10% to buy in new neighborhood designated "white".

    Still, there is more to dislike in the white elites for even the white nationalist. Although they would only hire whites for the top positions and used them as a societal buffer, the elites were happy to sell out whites for a buck. They repeatedly and intentionally violated increasingly restrictive US immigration law to import cheaper and harder working asian plantation labor. They commonly colluded among themselves to mislead Washington and even went so far as to plan subverting local fed officials to keep Washington in the dark and maintain profits.

    To the original question, the salubrious weather is the root cause of indolent mediocrity in Hawaii. This Punahou Alumni list shows that Hawaii is not just producing slackers – its just the slackers or the "sacrific career for family" ones tend to stay in Shangrila.

  38. One famous Hawaiian success story is in Steve's old field of marketing: Guy Kawasaki. Of course, he made his name in Cupertino rather than Honolulu, and he may market himself as much as anything else. But his books are fun to read.

    The biggest tech name to come from the islands is Steve Case, a fifth-generation white Hawaiian. He founded AOL. Now there's 'pleasant, boring and static' for you! (Charles Murray said Steve was the smartest person still using it.) Case lives in McLean, Va., of all places. I thought only corporations lived there.

    Come to think of it, I started a 'business' or two in Hawaii myself. Living in Waianae at age six, I tried selling homemade 'art' to passing motorists. (Shades of little Ruthie in One Big Happy.) I also made a Heathkit radio transmitter with my dad (he wouldn't let me solder), and was horrified to learn a classmate had heard us make fools of ourselves over the air.

    There it is– another case of Hawaiian peer pressure squelching the ambitious.

  39. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Have any of you ever been to a tropical island? You spend a week lounging on the beach, snorkeling, drinking, etc. and it's pretty easy to start thinking "man, to hell with accomplishing anything with my life! I just wanna stay here!"

    I think it has to do with aquatic ape theory. A beach in the tropics is just the most natural and appealing environment for humans, and thus not conducive to unnatural things like intellectual, technological, and economic achievement.

  40. I once asked some active duty military types what they thought of Hawaii as a duty station. They were unanimously critical: it is boring (after a few months), expensive and the Hawaiians don't like Haoles.

  41. "Anonymous said…

    Like been there… done that, I'm suprised by the sudden drop in the level of discussion in this post. It's well below the usual standards.

    ……The uninformed ignorance in some comments here is depressing."

    Funny, I always thought that spelling the word "serfdom", as "surfdom" – as you do – is itself a signifier of ignorance.

  42. Beat Up Haole Day is a state phenomena. Those smart avoid being in public that day, though school kids get the worst of it.

    You've taken something that's a bit true, a bit urban legend, "Kill Haole Day", and are trying to say that every haole in the state is best advised to stay home on that day?

    Sure, haoles get harassed in the public schools, and soldiers get into fights with locals at bars, etc., but it's not a mass societal phenomenon like you describe.

    I've been away for a long time, but my sense is that over the past 20 years, locals have moved to the mainland (California & Vegas) for jobs, and more haoles have moved in. I think the media/internet revolution has integrated the state more with the mainland (for example, 30 years ago they had to fly video tape for network TV in, so shows were delayed a week). And a lot of intermarriage has taken place. This all sort of forces normal interaction and cultural integration and people realize that they don't automatically hate each other so much.

    So the dislike for haoles is usually more subtle than violence, and it's often aimed more at mainland attitudes than just at skin color. A bit of coolness and mellow goes a long way toward good relations.

    As noted, I've been gone a long time, so I'd be interested in hearing others' more contemporary opinions. I could be way off base.

    As sort of an interesting parallel viewpoint, my brother and I both independently noticed that Asians we knew there viewed the mainland as a cauldron of racism, with a klansman waiting around every corner waiting to bludgeon them. Obviously, this always struck us as very strange.

  43. "They tried to create a permanent surfdom…"

    That definitely sounds like the Hawaii I know.

  44. "haole"?



    Steve said:

    >[Theroux] visited Tibet and was much happier: it's mostly empty.<

    Well, it's true that fewer people = fewer problems.

    • Replies: @daddysteve
    You think you're going to print your way to Liberal Heaven?
    , @postall
    What is dying slowly but surely throughout Europe and the
    U.S. is the welfare state.
    , @Anonymous
     No no, the dying breed would be well-heeled liberals.  Christian conservatives are the ones having the babies.  Enjoy your old age in the Theocratic States of America ;)
    , @Sur Veilled
     What exactly is right about Obama's domestic policy except to soulless children like you who seem to have accidentally stumbled into TAC from Mother Jones and the Atlantic?  It is you and your aborted children who are the dying breed. 
    You forget that government power, once accumulated, is virtually never relinquished peacefully.  So, when the next so-called "conservative" is elected, he'll have all the power you were grateful for Obama to grab. 
    Lib/Con, Rep/Dem... You stinking rubes who follow along in that game just never learn. 
  45. Finally got it! "Haole" means "honkey."

    One learns something new every day.

  46. I dont think Hawaii and PR can be lumped together.

    Just sheer population numbers, Hawaii and its diverse people could in theory be assimilated by a white majority. Not really the case with PR.

  47. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    think about this, maybe, just maybe, we in hawaii are just happy with the way our lives are and feel no need to compete or to be someone famous as we are at peace with what we have and who we are. i am sad to hear so many have had a bad experience in hawaii. my apologies. hawaii like anywhere in the world have our share of bad people, we all could do without that. everyone should follow their heart and do what they feel is right for them and not expect others to live up to their expectation. you are only truely successful when you do what make you happy.

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