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Barack Obama and the Summer of Aloha

Message Burt Alpert

Barack Obama

and the


- Burt "Daz"- Alpert, Kapa'au, HI, 5/1/08

"So much of what he is he credits Hawaii for,"- Maya Soetoro-Ng says about her half-brother Barack Obama, in an interview with Hawaii Island Journal [3/8/08] "Something was born in him in the years he was here growing up . . . the civility to walk through worlds; to get along with a myriad of people."-

Perhaps more than anything else, the good-natured forbearance with which Obama deflects the character assaults that are leveled against him has endeared him to millions of Americans - most especially the youth, who long for relief from the authoritarian opportunism that for so long has dominated politics. People want an honest human being to represent them in government, one who they feel moves from the heart rather than in a thirst for power.

Tapping into this desire, Obama has released a flood of hopeful sentiment not seen for many years in American culture. Barack's formative years in Hawaii, Maya Soetoro-Ng aptly points out, were integral in shaping the kind of man to whom people are responding. "A strength - a grace - but also a suppleness,"- so evident in the bearing of her half-brother, she goes on to say, ". . . was born in these islands."-

Those of us who through birth or acculturation are familiar with Hawaiian life and customs can readily appreciate the validity of Soetoro-Ng's assertion. Hawaii welcomes visitors with signs and greetings of "Aloha!"- introducing them to a spirit of friendliness and regard to which they are likely unaccustomed in the hurried, impersonal lives that so many of them lead elsewhere.

At the core of Hawaiian values, aloha can be translated with a variety of meanings. "Affection, compassion, mercy, sympathy, kindness and grace,"- are prominent among them, Mary Kawena Pukui tells us in her Hawaiian Dictionary, and of course, "love,"- a word with which aloha is quite mysteriously cognate, as it is with Russian "luba"- and German "liebe"-.

Prompted perhaps by the easeful climate and available plenty with which the Hawaiian isles are endowed, "aloha"- at heart implies a quality of acceptance, in both people and place, an appreciation of things being what they are. Outsiders may be puzzled to learn that "aloha"- is employed as well both as a salutation of greeting, and a benediction for departure. Whether coming or going, one's choice is accepted with grace and affection.

It's similarly been suggested that the root sense of the western cognates - luba, liebe, love, and so on, is "let/leave/allow,"- implying that truly to love is to release control, with all one's heart and mind, to accept. "Let it be,"- John Lennon famously sang, in a call that bridged the gap between Asian philosophy and Western enlightenment. Freshly emerged in mid-Pacific waters, the Hawaiian Islands have been blessed by absorbing the wisdom of both.

Helpful as they may be in fathoming the spirit of a people in general, and the inner nature of Barack Obama in particular, semantics quite naturally takes second place to political realities. And here, in the events leading up to his candidacy, the role of Hawaiian aloha in revealing who Obama is, and what he represents, is best understood. For dramatically impelling as it may be, Obama's emergence is the third, and in a way, the culminating event in a sequence of prominent actions through which the desire for peace, honesty and humanity most compellingly have found a voice. In the spirit of all that aloha signifies, two major events leading up to Obama's startlingly sudden impact, also revolved around Hawaiians.

May 11, 2004, a crowded hearing room. Grey-clad congressmen and senators with sombre faces are listening to the testimony of Gen. Antonio Taguba. The general has been assigned the task of investigating the alleged abuses by U.S. servicemen and contractors at the Abu Guraib prison in Baghdad. Slight of build, with pale brown skin, his chest covered with the usual ribbons of service and valor, the general is delivering his report. His face gently creased by a smile, in a voice free of fanfare or clamor, honest and forthright, Taguba is totally at ease in response to the questions that are being posed.

A spray of sunshine in the measured gloom of the hearing room, the general's testimony breaks open the case. Appalled by the revelations, not only America, but the whole world is shocked into a definitive awareness of the horror in a war that many thought should never have been undertaken. Filmed for all to see, Taguba's testimony becomes a turning-point in the general consciousness through which U.S. involvement in Iraq is viewed. As never before, the issue of peace is now emotionally charged. Taguba is a Filipino Hawaiian.

With Gen. Taguba's testimony, the immorality of American action in Iraq had been publicly acknowledged. Then on June 22, 2006, for the first time it is openly resisted. "When you have leaders that are unaccountable,"- U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada declares, "who have already deceived people about something as serious as war, and are willing to do it again, you have to ask yourself, "-where do you stand?'"- In a case whose final outcome is yet to be determined, for refusing to be deployed to Iraq, Watada was brought before a court martial. As with the testimony of Gen. Taguba, all America took notice. The spirit of resistance to a spiritless situation acquired an impelling immediacy in the national consciousness. Not long thereafter a majority of Americans turned against the war in Iraq. Watada is a Japanese Hawaiian.

Regarded in hindsight, the virtually instant popularity of Senator Obama's candidacy for president has the quality of an inevitability that had been initiated with the testimony of Gen. Tugaba and the refusal of Lt. Watada. Following one upon the heels of the other, a Filipino Hawaiian, a Japanese Hawaiian and an African Hawaiian propelled American awareness from outrage to refusal and on into a demand for change with a hopefulness that, many of us would say, had not been experienced in 40 years. Accidental or not, coincidence or serendipity, the impetus that each of these three pivotal figures have imparted to the recent history of America can readily be traced to a shared heritage in the qualities of aloha.

That three different ethnicities should have been instrumental in prompting so enormous a change in American consciousness can hardly come as surprise to Hawaiians. Home to a far greater population of ethnically mixed marriages than any other of the 50 states, with a touch of humor, more than a little pride, and a sidewise glance at their eclectic tastes in food, Hawaiians enjoy referring to themselves as a "mixed plate."- Through it all, whatever the ethnicity, runs the aloha.

For whatever reason, geopolitical or other, the aloha that Polynesian adventurers brought with them when first settling Hawaii around 1700 years ago, has survived successive waves of conquest and immigration, infusing each new overlay of populace with its spirit of love and acceptance. Largely brought in to work sugar cane, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Caucasians joined the Samoans, Tahitians, Marquesans and countless other ethnic groups in assimilating and perpetuating the aloha. That this should have happened is consistent with the very essence of aloha, reverberant as it is with a spirit of belonging that's common to all humanity.

Peoples everywhere have their own versions of human spirituality, with communal belonging and caring, in all places and throughout time, at its heart. As a doctrine of universal acceptance, Hawaiian "aloha"- resonates with Hebraic "rachmones"- - universal empathy, and with the Zulu "ubuntu"- - universal harmony so often cited by Bishop Tutu. The sentiment of affectionate caring is reflected as well both in Christian and Buddhist compassion. Nowhere however, it seems, has it found more fertile ground than on the volcanic soils of Hawaii. Now, in the candidacy of Obama the spirit of aloha appears to be poised on the brink of engendering a major transition in American awareness.

The long view in the history of our species suggests that the Summer of Love, 1966-67, initiated a change in human thinking far more profound and far-reaching than anything in the 5000 years of hierarchical corporate mindset that preceded it. Arriving in San Francisco with freedom in their hearts and flowers in their hair, children of the Levitown generation introduced Flower Power as a viable alternative to authoritarian control. Raining flowers upon the helmets and guns of the police who were assigned to keep them in check, they stripped the corporate domination of society down to a bare bones fossil, mindlessly presiding over a consciousness that no longer has much use for it.

For the forty years since, many of us have been waiting for the next transformation. Feeling in our hearts that a change had to come, doing what we could in the meantime, standing by for four grey and often dismal decades, knowing that again, as once before in the Summer of Love, change would be initiated in the enthusiasm of youth.

Delivered in all the hues of rainbow optimism, with the multi-colored sons of Hawaii at its vortex, the transformation may at last be here. Through cheers and laughter, in song and dance, across the internet, on hold for 40 years since the Summer of Love, a common awareness, virtually by the minute, is blessing the land with the grace of fresh aliveness. In crowded halls, out in the streets, through the airwaves, you can hear it in the boisterous ardor of young voices, reclaiming a heritage of peace, honesty and justice. Win, lose or draw, the candidacy of Barack Obama has released a celebration of creative spirit that promises once again to transform our lives. America, and probably the world, will never be the same.

Welcome to the Summer of Aloha!

____________________________________________________________ tel 808-889-5733

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B.S., CCNY, physiological psychology, 1947. Columbia U. Grad. School Poli-Science, 1948. U.S.Navy 1944-1946. Machinist, 1949-1957. Social Worker, SF Dept.Soc.Serv., 1959-1980. Instructor, Berkeley Free U., 1966, Antioch College West, 1975. (more...)
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