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"Aloha spirit" and the cultural politics of sentiment as national belonging

Keiko Ohnuma



Preprint, submitted to The Contemporary Pacific

I. Introduction

“Aloha Spirit required here,” reads a sign on the door of the Friendly Market in downtown Kaunakakai, an old-time grocery store on the island of Moloka‘i. “If you can’t share it today please visit us some other time.” The folksy kitchen-plaque humor reflects so perfectly the ambiance of this most laid-back of Hawaiian islands that tourists, I imagine, are supposed to chuckle. Only a cynical mainlander like me, for whom the enchantment of the islands has long since faded, would snicker that the Friendly Market on “The Friendly Island” is expressing the very opposite of what “aloha spirit” is understood to mean.

Back home in Honolulu, I am made acutely aware every day of my want of aloha – a quality I once tried cluelessly to emulate by speaking softly and smiling a lot – as I sit honking my horn on a 15-mile commute to work that often takes nearly an hour in the congested, poorly planned gridlock that is the Aloha State. “Live Aloha,” reads the ubiquitous bumper sticker on the minivan in front of me – a reminder that what makes Honolulu appear civilized to outsiders is this willingness to accept patiently and silently the many daily irritations that come with rapid, uneven development, crumbling infrastructure, a third world economy, and an entrenched political regime hell-bent on luring more tourists, industry, hotels, and military installations – all in the interest of exemplifying that gracious social lubricant that has been called Hawai‘i’s “gift to the world” (Trask 1962).

The “Live Aloha” bumper sticker, part of a campaign by a citizens group in 1994 to reawaken “a sense of community” in Hawai‘i, still is often sought out in letters to the editor of Honolulu’s two daily newspapers. The group of community activists advocated “12 Acts of Aloha” in response to the feeling of many in Hawai‘i that “we have lost something, a part of us yearns for the good old days.” Their list begins, “Respect your elders and children,” and advises: “Return your shopping cart.” “Plant something.” “Create smiles.” These acts, it is said, “are intended to directly respond to our day-to-day problems and sources of irritation,” make people feel better, and thus begin to change society (Alm et al 1994).

Such greeting-card solutions to Hawai‘i’s growing social tensions might call for a chuckle, if aloha were not the panacea habitually prescribed for every source of irritation in Hawai‘i, up to the highest institutional levels. In 1986 the Hawai‘i Legislature debated, and the governor eventually signed into law, an “Aloha Spirit bill,” which advises that lawmakers and state employees “may contemplate and reside in the life force and give consideration to the Aloha Spirit,” which it defines as that “coordination of mind and heart” that “brings each person to the self.” All three branches of government, it says, “must think and emote good feelings to others.”

This kind of dewy-eyed sentimentality tends to elicit a tender indulgence on the part of hard-boiled observers from elsewhere, who find it a refreshing change from the places they are escaping to relax and rejuvenate in Hawai‘i. The Guardian of London defined “aloha spirit” cheekily as “hello, welcome and everything warm and squidgy” (Tran 1996). For long-time Hawai‘i residents, however, aloha is no joke. Not only does it point, as we shall see, toward the things closest to people’s hearts – family, church, nation – it does so in a way that is understood to be uniquely Hawaiian, to “belong” to Hawai‘i as so few things outside the realm of fad and fashion do. While aloha has been synonymous with the islands for so long now that few people bother anymore with its myriad definitions – George Kanahele, who promulgated the “aloha spirit” for three decades through corporate training programs, says one study counted 123 of them (Kanahele 1986, 469) – this very taken-for-grantedness serves often to evoke closure where one would expect to see debate and dissent: in cases of conflict. Reference to the private world of emotion tends to foreclose analysis and channel resistance to exploration; but while terms such as “love” or “compassion” similarly defy definition through an efflorescence of excessive meaning, I propose that the signification of aloha eludes us rather because it has served to obscure a history of traumatic meanings, all carrying political investments that remain hidden beneath the seemingly transparent universality of such private sentiments as love and kindness. As such, “aloha spirit” continues to serve as both social lubricant and glue, sticking people together while deflecting attention from the problems of proximity.

As a synecdoche for The Aloha State, “aloha spirit” bridges the gaps in the story of who we are and how we got here – immigrant, native, tourist, or recent transplant – by taking refuge in love, which finds a way through or across difference rather than against it. In this way, “aloha spirit” works to bind a cultural and political entity whose membership is contested. Unresolved historical contests run beneath the surface, however, driving an economy of lack that keeps aloha in motion. I learned only months later, for example, that the Friendly Market posted its sign requiring “aloha spirit” of all who enter because of conflicts in recent years involving “attitude” by growing numbers of mainlanders moving to an island that until recently was predominantly ethnic Hawaiian (Monson 2005). On Moloka‘i today, “aloha spirit” speaks a code that would not be understood by tourists in Waikiki. It is in the interest of tracing such hidden histories that I undertake this genealogy of aloha, as one analyzes dreams – in the hope of divesting the figure of its traumatic power.

II. Origins: The emergence of aloha

Word meanings change over time, of course, taking on inflections that reflect shifting values in the culture in which they operate. The term aloha, according to a number of Hawaiian sources, did not have its current prominence in pre-contact Hawai‘i (Kanahele 1968a; Ahlo 1996, 11). Michele Nalani Ahlo reports that older Hawaiians she interviewed for her 1996 master’s thesis on the “Aloha Spirit Past and Present” told her the word was not used much by previous generations (105). For example, a 90-year-old Hawaiian man told her: “the word aloha was not… used in the olden days during my time. No, it’s a slang. It’s used mostly when one day, uh, missionaries came, you know” (65). Another rural man, 79, asks her, “How come dat word aloha came?” and concludes it was tourists who started to use it, in a different way than Hawaiians. “So we gotta show um what da meaning,” he tells her. “Aloha means love; come togeda…. Yeah, a greeting. Because everybody is together” (66). Kanahele reports, in perhaps the only treatise on the subject, that while the root word is found throughout Polynesia to mean love, compassion, sympathy, or kindness (aroha in Maori, alofa in Samoan, aroha in Tahitian, etc.), its early recorded uses in Hawai‘i emphasized “love of kin,” including ancestors (1986, 470). This same aloha appears in expressions that describe the welcome that should be extended to strangers (ibid., 477). Kanahele concludes, however, that while some Hawaiians today believe aloha to be the most important of all ancient Hawaiian values, historical evidence indicates otherwise: “[W]hen we look at the total value system as it related to religious, economic, technological, philosophical, aesthetic, or political behavior, and examine the varied attitudes, motives, standards, emotions, and other factors that shaped the thoughts and actions of Hawaiians of old [before 1778], we see many values at work…. Aloha is only one of those values, among many, although an important one (ibid., 479).” Humanistic ideals, he notes elsewhere, “did not operate in a highly undemocratic, feudalistic society with a rigid system of taboos”; it was only with Christian conversion that Hawaiians began to invest the term aloha with a new centrality (1968a). Aloha plays a similarly secondary role in the canonical contemporary account of post-contact history written by a Native Hawaiian, Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa’s Native Land and Foreign Desires, which describes a number of metaphors central to understanding the ordering of ancient Hawaiian society. Aloha is mentioned only in passing.

It is early Western explorers to Hawai‘i who first seize on the term aloha to describe their complicated admiration of Hawaiians as the “ideal natives” – the noble savage who represents Europe’s deep, relinquished past, as reported and repeated in the work of writers such as Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Somerset Maugham, and Mark Twain. Generations of Europeans who waxed effusive on what they called Polynesian hospitality not only tended to discover in the islands what they came to expect, they unthinkingly projected intentionality in terms of their own culture. A revisionist Western history of the Pacific has since proposed that the decision to extend the traditional “welcome” to Europeans was not so much a spontaneous outpouring, as a product of experimentation and careful strategy on the part of islanders confronting a situation far outside the norm (Campbell 2003). Europeans likewise viewed the Polynesian system of reciprocity with food, land, and other resources through the lens of Christian virtue; gift-giving and sharing do not appear to have had similar moral ramifications among islanders themselves, but served instead as economic institutions requiring careful private accounting (Kanahele 1986, 377). All these aspects of the European projected ideal – its Rousseauan desire for a prelapsarian Other intimately connected with, but wholly separate from, the modern Christian – found expression in the term aloha, describing an encounter that has been called “soft primitivism” (Desmond 1999, 11, 56).

Christian missionaries arriving in the early 1800s thus found a useful hybrid concept in aloha as they set about “converting” local, pagan deities into a single Christian God (Kanahele 1986), and a hierarchically ordered society based on clearly delineated reciprocal obligations to Enlightenment-era discourses about the individual soul as determined by its moral choices. Arjun Appadurai notes that it is with the New Testament that “for the first time in Western history, a major normative claim was made about the separability of act and actor, intention and action, ‘inner states’ and ‘outer forms,’” leading to “a complicated repertoire of discourses about the ‘individual,’ the ‘self,’ and ‘personality’” (1990, 92). Somerset Maugham could thus project onto Hawaiians this characterization from his first encounter in 1916: “I came to know the handsome, affable, smiling Hawaiian, with his contagious good cheer and sunny disposition and his innate sense of dignity and pride. I had to agree with what writers had said of him” (Menard 1966). Given Europe’s role in constructing Hawai‘i through narrative and imagery, Kanahele concludes that the concept “we feel or perceive as aloha today is the product of evolution, even the child of the marriage of an ancient, traditional Polynesian concept with its Christian counterpart” (1986, 482).

Christian influence thus contributes an important trajectory of meaning to “aloha spirit,” which is deployed by the missionaries to bridge the considerable lacuna between two models of community: the Western, which upholds the supremacy of the individual, and the Hawaiian, in which religion is not a set of beliefs separate from civic society, but part of the very structure of social organization. Aloha thus evolves from “love of kin” to “brotherly love” (agape), which Kanahele says “cancels out” the former covenant of reciprocity, but which I would argue persists in the ways aloha is deployed today. One wonders indeed about the origins of the contemporary slogan Aloha ke akua, “God is love,” given that, according to Kanahele, the cosmological Hawaiian hierarchy was more likely to elicit in the commoner “fear, awe, respect, loyalty, obedience” than the emotion we call love (1986, 478).

However incompatible the pagan and Christian cosmologies, the missionaries succeeded in quickly converting a number of influential Hawaiian monarchs – most importantly Queen Ka‘ahumanu, who toured the countryside in the late 1820s ordering temples destroyed and churches built over them to replace the old gods with the Christian Jehovah after orchestrating an end to the elemental kapu (taboo) system (Kame‘eleihiwa 1992, 68, 74, 154). The principal attraction of Christianity at the start was the palapala, “learning to read and write” – for it was the missionaries who introduced Hawaiians to a written language. “Once the Ali‘i Nui [chiefs] had approved it, learning the palapala became a national pastime,” so that royalty and commoners alike thronged the mission schools long before they felt any interest in the church sermons (ibid. 142). Benedict Anderson has traced the birth of nationalism and nationhood to the development of print capitalism, and I would argue that it was, more than Christianity itself, the advent of a written language and the flowering of a Hawaiian-language press beginning in the 1830s that filled the void left by the abandonment of the kapu system. With the decline of ancient ways of life and their “interlinked certainties” around organic community and religious hierarchies, print capitalism filled the need for “a new way of linking fraternity, power and time meaningfully together” (Anderson 1991, 36). The printed word leads growing numbers of people to think about themselves in profoundly new ways – as connected to other readers of the same language, forming “in their secular, particular, visible invisibility, the embryo of the nationally imagined community” (ibid. 44). To quote Timothy Brennan paraphrasing Georg Lukacs, with the breakdown of authoritarian hierarchies and the disintegration of organic community in antiquity, “When the bourgeois individual became the dominant myth, the external became the internal, the worldly became the textual” (1990, 54).

Some Hawaiians have maintained that until this point, islanders had no notion of belonging to a particular nation, race, ethnicity, or people, because Hawai‘i was cut off even from other Pacific islands for hundreds of years, until the 18th-century European explorations (Campbell 2003, 65). “The concept of nationality was completely alien to my people,” wrote Samuel Crowningburg-Amalu, a quixotic Honolulu Advertiser columnist and descendant of Hawaiian royalty who contributed humorous philosophical commentary during the Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the 1970s. “Not until other races and other nationalities came to these shores did the people of these Islands evolve the concept of being a Hawaiian people…. There were only the Ali‘i [chiefs] who were heaven born and the Maka‘ainana [commoners] who were born of Earth. No other” (Crowningburg-Amalu 1974).

If the printed word can be said to have seeded the idea of nationhood and “Hawaiian-ness” among Hawaiians, that will form an important proprietary connection to aloha and the discourse that forms around it with the arrival of immigrants and other settlers in the decades that follow.



III. Statehood, Christianity and the loss of aloha

For the 40 years before Hawai‘i became a state in 1959, the index for Honolulu’s two daily newspapers contains no such subject as “aloha spirit,” showing that aloha, if written about, was not yet imagined to comprise its own subject. After about 1962, by contrast, “aloha spirit” becomes a burning topic of public debate, spawning scores of newspaper reports every year about initiatives, declarations, public and private forums, and the ubiquitous letters to the editor from tourists who did, or did not, experience aloha on their visit – a genre unique to Hawaii that seems to owe its existence to the fact that aloha is indeed a newspaper subject category. This preoccupation continued through the 1970s, slowing only in the 1980s. After about 1995, public discussion about the aloha spirit takes a commemorative tone, in marked contrast to the palpable anguish and urgency of the early years.

What is immediately notable about this newspaper archive is that “aloha spirit” is always treated in the context of a question or concern about loss: Is the aloha spirit lost? Is it dying? What is it, does it exist? One is also struck by the relative openness of public debate in the 1960s and ’70s on what are now considered delicate subjects – a sign of the times, perhaps, but which also suggests that the terms of aloha were still in play, before positions had hardened and political investments had been made.

Hawai‘i became the 50th U.S. state in 1959, and the sudden need to construct a discourse around aloha in the early 1960s reflects anxieties about how different groups might stand to gain or lose with the change in Hawai‘i’s status. Community hopes and dreams, political goals, and historical traumas come to bear on such moments of transition, bringing to the surface internal conflicts that may have been overlooked or hidden. At the same time, there arises within Hawai‘i a new self-consciousness about being seen as part of, but different from, the union – an awareness made explicit with the steady influx of curious tourists brought by newly affordable jet travel.

It is the tourism industry, in fact, that launches the first public warnings about a loss of aloha, “branding” it as Hawai‘i’s competitive edge against other beach resorts worldwide. Aloha spirit is “that extra warmth that conveys a personal interest in satisfying the customer’s needs,” according to a University of Hawai‘i tourism professor who conducts a survey in 1962 to measure the growing impersonality of store clerks (HA 6 Sept 1962). In the public at large, by contrast, reports on “aloha spirit” evoke something else. As a way of life that is said to be lost or dying, residents associate it instead with “the good old days,” before the accelerated arrival of modern influences that are perceived as causing a decline in friendliness. This meaning, which encompasses myriad aspects of island life in “small-kid time” (depending on the speaker, anytime before 1970), resonates strongly to this day, no matter what investments are made in other meanings. It is under this heading that aloha spirit – still connected to “love of kin” through an emphasis on rural life in the extended family – takes on a bewildering plethora of connotations related to the Christian values of love, kindness, generosity, trust, etc., in forms unique to Hawai‘i, such as “seeing a friend off at 3:00 a.m.,” “the smell of kalua pig” (from the Aloha is… coloring book [Kanahele 1976]), or the “Hawaiian practice of setting political campaign posters not on sticks, but in the hands of human campaigners who establish eye contact with commuters passing by on the way home” (Mathews 1986)!

In a speech given at statehood, Hawai‘i’s kahu (shepherd), the Rev. Abraham Akaka, who led the missionary Kawaiaha‘o Church for three decades, attempts firmly to establish aloha in strictly Christian terms, emphasizing again the missionary parallel between Polynesian “love of kin” and brotherly love, or the Golden Rule: “Aloha seeks to do good to a person, with no conditions attached… A person who has the spirit of aloha loves even when the love is not returned. And such is the love of God. … Today, one of the deepest needs of mankind is the need to feel a sense of kinship one with another. Truly all mankind belongs together, for from the very beginning all mankind has been called into being, nourished, watched over by the love of God, who is aloha…. The real Golden Rule is aloha. This is the way of life we must affirm (Joesting 1979).”

The Rev. Akaka draws a clear, uncomplicated lineage between ancient ways of life and the present situation of statehood in an example of what Eric Hobsbawm calls the invention of tradition. According to Hobsbawm, claiming a link to “a suitable historic past” helps call forth certain values or norms that have “the sanction of precedent, social continuity and natural law as expressed in history,” especially when great social changes weaken or invalidate the social patterns for which “old” traditions had been designed – as in the case with “love of kin,” which cannot extend the family large enough to encompass mass tourism (1983, 2, 4-5). The missionaries’ conversion of pagan gods to the Christian God “invented” a tradition; subsequently, the discourse of aloha is reiterated and institutionalized by the Rev. Akaka in the moniker ultimately adopted for Hawai‘i, “The Aloha State.”

The Rev. Akaka lays the foundation for yet another inflection of meaning on aloha in the decade that follows his statehood speech. In many ways the first architect of the Hawaiian renaissance, he begins to address Hawaiians’ myriad social problems – poverty, crime, poor health, breakdown of the family – through a program of “Hawaiian uplift” aimed at restoring a sense of “identity” (HSB 25 April 1963; Akaka 1970). This calls for an explicit departure from tradition, shifting emphasis from one’s assigned position within a kinship structure to “identity” – Christian individualism and a focus on the internal soul. With this move, the Rev. Akaka blazes a new trail for aloha, translating an internal, psychological orientation to a political identity, an operation that continues to underwrite the significance of, and hide the investments in, “aloha spirit” today.

IV. Competing alohas: From tourist commodity to state ideology

The Christian lineage of aloha, important symbolically since statehood, was nearly drowned out in the decades that followed by the powerful twin interests of state government and the explosive growth in state-sponsored tourism. It is the commodified aloha that most people know best – emblazoned across the landscape of Waikīkī, lining the route from the airport in the bus driver’s distorted “a-lo-o-o-o-o-ha!” and stamped across every retail welcome mat. Concerns about disappearing aloha had no sooner opened the public conversation before business, civic, and government groups stepped in to protect the state’s cash crop from the increasingly stormy weather of bad attitude. Over the next few decades, as tourism ballooned 23-fold from 296,000 visitors in 1960 to nearly 7 million in 1990 (State of Hawai‘i 2004), the Hawai‘i Visitors Bureau kept pace with pedagogical projects designed to ensure that workers and residents would do their part to deliver on Hawai‘i’s “destination image” (Desmond 13).

“You’ve got to give it that extra pizzazz,” a class of airport workers was told in a 1976 state tourism seminar. “We really are a fragile business, and that’s where all of you come in. Aloha spirit is our most valuable visitor attraction” (Harpham 1976). As a fetishized commodity, aloha does not yet manage to obscure capitalism’s dependence on workers enjoined to show their patriotism by underwriting the state’s top export – with lingering implications for the kinship community of old. The message is repeated in public-service ads in 1982, again sponsored by the state-funded tourism bureau, which reminds residents: “Aloha. The more we give, the more we’ve got” (Catterall 1982) – a self-evident “we” that the head of the Hotel Workers Union unmasks by saying it would be better if “tourist industry executives practice the aloha spirit with their employees instead of promoting [it] in an advertising campaign” (ibid.).

While the tourism bureau (now known as the Hawai‘i Visitors & Convention Bureau) calls itself a “truly public-private partnership” that serves a range of commercial and governmental interests, the state of Hawai‘i has always shown a clear interest in promoting tourism and the commercial aspects of aloha; as early as 1900, a state tourism agency concluded that aloha was a crucial element of selling Hawai‘i as a commodity (qtd in Kanahele 1986, 487). Noel Kent concludes in his economic history of modern Hawai‘i: “The ‘New Hawaii’ economic model was based from its beginnings on the utter primacy of tourism, since outside investors would only direct their funds to this profitable sector, while government capital resources had to be focused on infrastructural activities aimed at attracting these same investors” (1993, 125).

But it is not just as an economic engine that “aloha spirit” becomes interesting to the emerging state of Hawai‘i after 1960. With the “Democratic revolution” of 1954, the offspring of immigrant plantation workers – primarily Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, and Portuguese – realized a long evolution toward a working-class coalition that took control of the territorial legislature from the haole (Caucasian) sugar plantation elite. This Democratic coalition – which still holds political power in Hawai‘i today – consciously undertook the promotion of both tourism and statehood to underwrite its political project, one that has elevated the older Asian immigrant groups both socially and economically through myriad relationships between business and government that generate the conventional complaint about corruption in Hawai‘i. Jocelyn Linnekin summarizes: “Though historically debatable, the notion that Hawaiian society had overcome ethnic divisiveness became a dominant public ideology during the territorial period…. As a public ideology in and about Hawai‘i, aloha became particularly salient after World War II. The rise of mass tourism and lobbying for statehood were more-or-less concurrent movements in the 1950s, and the idea of interethnic harmony was advantageous for both. As the descendants of immigrants moved off the plantations, local people too came to share this sanguine vision of Hawai‘i as a unique place, and aloha became the normative ideal for civil behavior” (1997, 227).

In other words, debate about the loss of aloha spirit could be turned not only toward founding Hawai‘i as a specifically Christian state (with Calvinist implications for the moral value of work), but equally in service of a political ideology that claimed to transcend ethnic difference under a national flag marked Democratic, local, and working class (Wilson 2000, 75). The tourism industry, which originally fixated on aloha as that “extra something” of hospitality that distinguished Hawai‘i from competing resorts, quickly realized that what Americans actually noticed as special about Hawai‘i was its multiracial population co-existing in apparent harmony. Promoters of statehood and state interests seized on the equation of aloha with multiculturalism (or “melting pot,” as it was called then) with evangelical fervor, declaring it Hawai‘i’s gift to the world. Beginning with a state commission in 1973, efforts to institutionalize this name-brand difference culminated with the “Aloha Spirit” wording added to the state constitution in 1986. Such a visibly successful recipe for melting-pot integration, brought to the world courtesy of America, land of immigrants, presented a striking advertisement for Hawai‘i itself as the ideal American citizen. “Hawaii stands as a symbol of what America could be,” according to the top education official in 1962 (HSB 18 May 1962).

At the same time, aloha as commodity continues to excite in white America the fascination with the Other that began with Europeans in the 1800s. This is the aloha that tourists experience as the “almost, but not quite” of native hospitality, a distance that keeps them coming back for the experience of pleasurably negotiating the gap of racial difference (Desmond 1999, 140) – “a nonthreatening, alluring encounter with paradisical exoticism” that is “primitive (but delightfully so)” (ibid., 4, 7). Selling Hawai‘i as neither black nor Asian but rather belonging to Europe’s deep past corresponded politically to “assertions of nationalism – how and in what ways Hawai‘i … was just the same as the rest of the United States, and how and in what ways it was different” (ibid., 7, 56). Aloha as a claim to racial tolerance also tied in to a larger discourse about America’s commitment to democracy and racial equality, especially with the growth of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s, a point to which I will return.

In all of these inflections, “aloha spirit” as a state ideology effectively serves to contain or dissipate political resistance, as Linnekin points out (1997, 228). The commonsense commandment to love one’s neighbor inhibits calling attention to the ways that certain ethnic groups in Hawai‘i have fared much better than others. Indeed, melting-pot aloha was the dominant ideology for so many years in Hawai‘i that it wasn’t until the 1980s that Hawaiian activists, political analysts, and sociologists started to quantify the huge gaps becoming apparent between the status of the early Asian immigrants – some subgroups of which now have higher average incomes than whites – and Native Hawaiians, Filipinos, and Pacific Islanders. By camouflaging such differences under the banner of multicultural harmony, and partitioning political discourse according to moral mandates to “show aloha,” aloha discourse has served to stoke the sale of Hawai‘i as a commodity destination while detracting attention from the lopsided economic model at its foundation: foreign capital courted for high-return land speculation, whose profits are funneled to political insiders in exchange for publicly funded infrastructure and easing barriers to development (Kent 1993).

V. A ‘local’ nation as a structure of feeling

The melting-pot myth has been discredited in recent decades as failing to acknowledge the inequitable root causes of island ethnic diversity – armed takeover of the indigenous population and an exploitive contract labor system (Okamura 1998; Edles 2004, 40) – and has given way since the late 1990s to a more critical understanding of what is known in Hawai‘i as “local” identity. “Local,” an outgrowth of that postwar immigrant labor coalition that defeated the haole elite, became a popular identity for native-born residents in the 1960s and ’70s to express their resistance to growing outsider (especially mainland Caucasian) influence. Markers of “local” belonging are still celebrated in the popular press, such as Hawai‘i pidgin English and customs such as removing shoes indoors, the omnipresent multiethnic potluck, and greeting visitors with leis.

From another perspective, “local” as an assertion of multiculturalism also formed in reaction to the growing Hawaiian sovereignty movement of the 1970s, which barred non-natives from identifying as “Hawaiian” (Trask 2000). Localism, it is often asserted now, is basically a competing nationalist movement that uses a discourse of pride and rights to occlude how Asian immigrant settlers, specifically, have profited from the colonial enterprise under the cover of anti-haole sentiment (ibid). “Arguing that Asians, too, have a nation in Hawai‘i, the ‘local’ identity tag blurs the history of Hawai‘i’s only indigenous people while staking a settler claim,” writes Hawaiian activist Haunani-Kay Trask. She elaborates:

Calling themelves “local,” the children of Asian settlers …. claim Hawai‘i as their own, denying indigenous history, their long collaboration in our continued dispossession, and the benefits therefrom.

Part of this denial is the substitution of the term “local” for “immigrant,” which is, itself, a particularly celebrated American gloss for “settler.”… Hawai‘i, like the continent, is naturalized as but another telling illustration of the uniqueness of America’s “nation of immigrants.”… Exploitative plantation conditions thus underpin a master narrative of hard work and the endlessly celebrated triumph over anti-Asian racism. …

For our Native people, Asian success proves to be but the latest elaboration of foreign hegemony (ibid., 2).

The discourse of aloha contributes to the “local” project by subsuming ethnic difference under the banner of aloha spirit. A skillful example is found in a 1993 celebration of Hawai‘i multiculturalism as “a remarkable experiment in human cooperation and cultural interaction … imbued with the Polynesian spirit of aloha” by “local” apologists Glen Grant and Dennis M. Ogawa (1993, 138). The authors hold that aloha kanaka – “the love of one’s fellow human beings” as exemplified by the Hawaiian monarchy – curtailed prejudice and interracial violence among immigrant groups, so that all folded into a “pidgin culture” that formed “the basis for a powerful self-perception of islanders that they are uniquely multicultural in their lifestyles” (ibid., 149). Grant and Ogawa cleverly evoke “points of commonality” between the children of immigrants and Native Hawaiians – specifically, rural life in the extended family, which “transcended specific ethnic groups” (ibid., 150). Aloha as emblematic of the “good old days” centered around the extended family in “small-kid time” taught all of Hawai‘i’s children the hegemonic aloha values of “reliance on group interdependency, reciprocal obligations, an open attitude toward sharing, and a reluctance to engage in self-promotion or aggression” (ibid.). The rubric of “love” greases this semantic slide by naturalizing the link between family and nation: Idioms of kinship and home both “denote something to which one is naturally tied” (Anderson 1991, 143), so that “nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love,” as seen in the many sentimental products of nationalism that manifest as patriotic kitsch (ibid., 141).

What is notable about Grant and Ogawa’s proposal – along with others by the “children of Asian settlers” – is an emotional cadence barely contained within the language of scholarly objectivity. Its tone can range from conciliatory to abject, and at critical moments threatens to displace the text from the argument to how the authors really feel. I will return later to this appeal to feelings that occurs around aloha. For now I would simply point out that for Asian “locals,” evocations of aloha seem to displace a certain gap in political identity – in contemporary psychological jargon, guilt or shame (Isaki 1996) – which for many years disturbed the surface of these calls for aloha with an overweening eagerness to champion its cause and stamp the nation-state with its brand. Personally speaking, for a Japanese-American from the mainland, such easy ownership of a communal egalitarian principle has always resonated with me as part of the disorienting Hawai‘i experience of being identified as belonging to a large insider “we” – comparable to how Caucasians raised in Hawaii report feeling on the mainland. To my ears, aloha as pronounced by Asian “locals” carries a tone of nostalgia, conjuring a time of innocence – a culture-wide “small-kid time” before World War II, when Asian immigrants were enjoined to demonstrate their patriotism through acts of renouncing the homeland (as encouraged of Japanese-American internees) and modeling the dominant capitalist paradigm as evidence of their rehabilitation (Kent 1993, 130). I would link this formulation to what is called in subaltern politics “fetishization of the wound.” In Wendy Brown’s terms, the wound – in this case, renunciation of past identity – “comes to stand for identity itself” as something that just is, outside of history, cut off from a history of injury and substituted by the sign of pain as spectacle (qtd in Ahmed 2004, 32). Under the discourse of aloha, these fetishized sacrifices of nisei and other “locals” – symbolized most ubiquitously in the heroism of the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II and the iconic loss of Sen. Daniel Inouye’s right arm – undergoes conversion as a repeatable individual act of “choosing” love, a salve that promises “safety, comfort, caring and coming to terms that can underwrite experiences that would otherwise be traumatic” (qtd in Isaki 2006). Here again, aloha serves to smooth over an otherwise traumatic transition from the past, re-enacting identification with the injured community in a more politically astute way – as a manifestation of personal autonomy.

To delve further into the compensations of aloha for “local” identity, even the contrite settler’s aloha that confesses to being “as guilty” as the haoles still can lay claim to one end or the other of what I would call the Hawaiian/haole semiotics of desire. For, when it comes to the mythic realms of aloha between the white European and his “soft primitive,” the Oriental has always been excluded. Desmond’s study of the construction of Hawai‘i as a tourist destination finds the islands personified as a welcoming hula girl who is hapa haole – half white, half Polynesian, “literally embodying the fantasy of the nativizing trope, melding the two bodies into one” (1999, 8). Imada writes of the “imagined intimacy” between Hawai‘i and Americans fostered by mainland hula shows, in which live bodies delivered a powerful message of Hawai‘i and the United States as “inseparable and dependent on each other,” with Hawai‘i as “a better version” of America (ibid., 135), while usefully cleansing Asians from America’s Pacific territory. Although the haole oligarchy in Hawai‘i required Asian labor, “they expressed an intense fear of being outnumbered by Asians. The alleged influence of ‘Orientals’ in the territory damaged Hawai‘i’s chances for statehood and Americanization in the 1930s” (ibid., 137). While Hawaiians were considered by haoles as “their” ideal natives, Asian immigrants were pictured as coolies “unable to assimilate and prone to socially dangerous habits such as opium smoking and cockfighting,” which were “seen as threatening to the fragile moral capacity of the Native Hawaiians” (Merry 2003, 215). Unable to be pictured alongside the object of the desiring European gaze, the tens of thousands of mostly male immigrants working the plantations in the early part of the century “were rendered all but invisible” in tourist promotions (Desmond 1999, 58). The Chinese had long been declared undesirable by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, while the Japanese, comprising nearly a third of the islands’ population, posed the constant “Yellow Peril” associated with their military ambitions in the Pacific. “All in all, Hawaiians, especially Native Hawaiian women, emerge in these mental maps of imperialist designs as erotic/exotic, nonthreatening, nonblack, non-Asiatic, civilizable, desirable natives…. In contrast, the Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Portuguese populations were invisible because they could not be represented as desirable, at least not in terms of the emergent U.S. nationalist discourse that had to encompass Hawai‘i as part of itself” (ibid.).

The image of the hated Oriental, desexualized and undesirable (to whites) – “practically all of small stature, slight physique, yellow or brown color and, in the case of the Japanese … flat features, protruding teeth and short legs” (qtd in Imada 2004, 137) – permeates Asian immigrant calls for aloha that paradigmatically (by association with “local”) invite a shared mistrust and disgust of the outsider, read here as white. Okamura points to that strain in “local” culture and identity that expresses “resistance and opposition to external forces of development and change that are perceived as threatening the quality of life in the islands that have marginalized Hawaii’s people” (1998, 273). If nothing else, aloha soothes the new marginality of upwardly mobile “locals” vis--vis the growing corps of mainlanders whose cosmopolitanism manifests as easy navigation of different social environments – an oft-feared source of shame for “locals” who contemplate leaving Hawai‘i (Wooden 1995, 34, 45; Farrell 1982, 351). If markers of belonging in America or to a cosmopolitan international culture fail to be achieved, the “local” can take refuge in the uniqueness of aloha – “the essence of local integrity and authenticity … which alone is his” (Farrell 1982, 351), and can be legitimated only by other locals (Wooden 1995, 110).

VI. Aloha ‘āina: Reclaiming the territory of aloha

“Local” and Western claims to aloha clearly pose problems for the Hawaiian nationalist movement that takes shape in the 1970s. As a Hawaiian word rooted in Polynesian ways of life, aloha belongs first and foremost to Hawaiians, who are uniquely situated to determine its applications. Yet “aloha spirit” has been constructed to work against Hawaiian interests in multiple ways: (1) by subsuming the incommensurate political claims of immigrant-settlers and indigenous people under the umbrella of Christian equality; (2) by containing any political resistance that would foreground such claims; (3) by continuing to invite the exploitation of land and other resources by the tourism industry; and (4) by substituting feel-good intentions and avowals for material remediation of colonial exploitation. As early as 1962, the Msgr. Charles A. Kekumano – no friend of the Hawaiian nationalist movement – criticized the tourism industry by saying, “Too many around us have spoken glibly about the lovable Hawaiians and about the ‘aloha spirit,’ but these same people have done nothing to improve our lot” (HA 10 Oct 1962).

It can be no coincidence that the contest to define aloha heightens in step with Native Hawaiian efforts to “take back” what was stolen – specifically land, and by extension culture – beginning in the 1970s. An aloha taken back and revitalized for a restored Hawaiian nation must be divested of meanings that open rifts in the fabric of Hawaiian nationalism, such as citing aloha to explain why land was “given away” or rights were not asserted; the Rev. Akaka proposed as part of his “Hawaiian uplift” campaign: “The old way of Aloha was to give away everything – even 90 percent of our life, and then to give away about 80 per cent of our living space. There obviously is something wrong with that kind of Aloha. The new Aloha will need to be according to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ: Love yourself as you love your neighbor. … We must add the quality of rational foresight to our Aloha, so that we will have a vital and important place in the future of our homeland…” (Akaka 1970). Further complicating aloha would be any reference to the Hawaiian monarchs’ decision to “abandon the violent path of [the war god] Kū” in favor of Christian pacifism, a “turning point for the Hawaiian nation” (Kame‘eleihiwa 1992, 153). Invoking aloha at such moments might serve to assert historical agency on the part of Hawaiian forebears, but at the price of further sacrificing the trope as a symbol of Hawaiian strength.

The Hawaiian nationalist movement of the 1970s chooses instead to inflect the origins of aloha in a completely different direction, resurrecting the phrase aloha ‘āina from the anti-annexation movement of 1898. Aloha ‘āina – literally, “love of the land,” a coinage dating to the 1893 formation of the Hui Hawai‘i Aloha ‘Āina to protest the overthrow of the Hawaiian government (Silva 2004, 130) – has usually been translated “patriotic,” as in “Hawaiian Patriotic League,” which obscures the genealogical, cosmological understanding of the “nation-land” in Hawaiian (ibid., 11). Kame‘eleihiwa traces aloha ‘āina to the traditional Hawaiian reciprocal duty to love, honor, and serve one’s ancestors – in this case, the earth from whence the people spring – so that the latter might sustain the people. In this sense, “patriotism” – or more properly, nationalism – expresses in Hawaiian a duty to care for the land, mālama ‘āina or aloha ‘āina, if it is to sustain the people (1992, 25). The idiom serves to draw a clear distinction from claims of immigrant settlers asserting a “local nation,” tying aloha to a genealogical, cosmological relationship to the land as the proper basis for territorial rights. Aloha ‘āina works to “take back” aloha from a relationship with the land based on capitalist exploitation and alienation; it renames the nation as land – Hawai‘i nei, the material basis for culture – rather than as place (in the metaphorical imaginary).

In practice, this translates to reclaiming a land base to perpetuate the Hawaiian culture. Starting with the Homerule Movement and a group called ALOHA (Aboriginal Lands of Hawaiian Ancestry), the Hawaiian nationalist movement takes shape around the 14-year campaign to take back from the U.S. Navy the small island of Kaho‘olawe, used as a bombing range since World War II. Amid academic debate over whether this volcano southwest of Maui was indeed considered sacred “traditionally,” as Hawaiians claimed, Haunani-Kay Trask asserted the right precisely for Hawaiians to determine what belongs to their culture (Tobin 1994, 116). As she pointed out, a restored Hawaiian nation depends on the right to self-determined standards for ethnicity, as Hawaiians have no genetic reserves outside Hawai‘i as well as a high rate of out-migration and intermarriage.

Complications arise, however, in representing such standards of authenticity by way of a decolonized aloha, for the term’s history contains within it competing markers of nationhood. Rey Chow writes of the postcolonial debate about “the struggle between the dominant and subdominant within ‘native’ culture itself”: “To argue for the autonomy of a historiography by the “natives” themselves, so that the past that has been usurped from them can become available and accessible once again in the ‘native’ language, we would need at the same time to acknowledge (1) the impurity of that ‘past’ and (2) the vicissitudes of the ‘native’ language, which is also impure and multiple because it is in constant practical use….” (1998, 153).

As one of the few Hawaiian words in the English-language dictionary, aloha draws attention to the “impure and multiple” elements in Hawaiian identity itself, interrupted only recently by nationalism and cultural revival. Christianity, for example, can hardly be spoken of anymore as a foreign imposition on an “authentic” Hawaiian culture. Hawaiian gatherings often open with a Christian blessing, while kumu hula and other Hawaiian spiritual practitioners frequently profess strong Christian faith (Viotti 2001; Adamski 1997). The figure of the “good Christian” who also supports Native self-determination dates to the 19th century, with David Malo and Joseph Nāwahī, “the living promise of the Calvinist mission and an exemplar of that mission’s contradictions” (qtd in Silva 2004, 139). For Native Christians, conversion plays a central role in the story of how their people have assimilated change, and aloha as “brotherly love” has perhaps the widest resonance in the public at large.

Likewise, Hawai‘i’s identity as what Michel Picard calls a “touristic culture” (1997) – where tourism has played a vital, formative cultural role – persists in the integral part played by touristic demand in the revival of such Hawaiian practices as hula and surfing (Desmond 1999, 99-130). In the early 1930s the Mossman family, for example, mounted entrepreneurial extravaganzas in Waikīkī to satisfy tourists’ thirst for “authentic” native performances such as hula dancing, poi pounding, and watching boys climb coconut trees at their reconstructed Hawaiian village (Imada 2004, 119) – but they also intended this forum as a means to resurrect disappearing cultural practices and to educate fellow Hawaiians (ibid., 121). Imada concludes that tourism development was largely responsible for the modern revival of hula (ibid., 123), and that tourism and cultural activism did not pose contradictions for many Hawaiians in the entertainment business (ibid., 124). Tourism, like Christianity, has had a formative influence on contemporary Hawaiian culture, one that persists in the Hawaiian cultural gloss on aloha today.

The tension inherent in such contradictions surfaces when Hawaiians are heard to claim that asserting political claims undercuts “Hawaiian-ness.” In an early version of this argument, “Mrs. Rocha, a Hawaiiana expert,” accused activists of the 1970s of being “coconuts” – brown on the outside and white on the inside – saying confrontation and activism “are not characteristic of true Hawaiians” (Woo 1973). There is also the argument that Hawaiian culture owes its survival to a strategy of assimilation, and that drawing ethnic distinctions is a hazardous foreign import. Crowningburg-Amalu reports that his grandmother, “an aristocrat in whose veins flowed the most ancient and royal bloodlines of Hawaii,” opposed the Hawaiian Homestead Act because “Once the Hawaiian people accepted American citizenship, it became imperative if they were to survive for them to throw themselves into the midst of the American way of life…. Any other course would lead the Hawaiian people to death and to oblivion” (1974). He goes on to regret that the chiefly class has been out of touch with the people for centuries, and is no longer fit to lead. Yet, I heard a contemporary version of this residual, assimilatory aloha at a March 2006 meeting called by the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association (an outgrowth of Kanahele’s work) on the impact of tourism on Native Hawaiians. A 73-year-old woman who had lived in the Hawaiian community of Waimanalō for four decades expressed discomfort with the idea of restricting “culture” to Native Hawaiians. As a Hawaiian, she said, she had no problem with others “belonging” who had made sacrifices and commitments in Hawai‘i, and added that she was not sure perpetuating a discrete culture was a priority for cultural survival. I was struck by her articulation of what seemed to be an older gloss on “culture,” in which aloha represents a strategy of assimilating newcomers into an ongoing, living process, rather than conceiving of culture as something to be revived and protected. Her reaction drew attention to the rift between current demands for recognition and redress, and older inflections that emphasize erasing difference and “sharing” with all.

One response to such dilemmas within the Hawaiian community is to distill from aloha the idea of Polynesian reciprocity as misapprehended in the West. This is the strategy used in Kame‘eleihiwa’s text, which finds that “Hawaiian generosity and aloha do persist, but at a distinct disadvantage in the capitalist system,” because such metaphors did not cross the cultural divide to Western models. “[T]he Hawaiian Ali‘i and maka‘āinana alike were undermined by their own sense of aloha. The foreigner did not understand that aloha must be a two-way street” (1992, 317). We might call such a narrative “aloha overwhelmed,” and it is a common response to the felt loss of integration. Hawaiians interviewed by Ahlo attributed the breakdown of aloha spirit to an influx of outsiders (1996, 40), because “if you supposedly share this with everybody that walks in front of you, you’re spreading it too thin” (ibid., 84). The social panacea of aloha is here recuperated as bruised but intact, without having to disaffirm nativist claims or enact a shaming personal attack that would be out of keeping with the spirit of aloha. Another common response to uncomfortable contradictions, especially among older Hawaiians, is to say that talking about aloha detracts from living it (HSB 17 Oct 1969; Kanahele 1986, 469) – which takes refuge in a time before Hawaiian ways of life were remarked upon, labeled, and exploited by outsiders.

Above all, such solutions point to the growing facticity of aloha: It does not so much mean anymore as operate as an agent of relationship, serving as the sign of a bridge between past and present that can span gaps in understanding through a strategy of deflection, like a mirror. “Aloha spirit” means what you want it to mean; it expresses an intention to reflect your projected desire back from the other as an ideal image of yourself.

VII. A community of sentimental politics

I have already mentioned the “Live Aloha” campaign from 1994. The product of a series of public meetings that concluded that driving with courtesy, returning your shopping cart, and other personal actions would counteract a growing sense of powerlessness in public life, it demonstrates how aloha has become the vehicle in Hawai‘i for a phenomenon described by Lauren Berlant, among others, as a retreat from the political to the domain of “personal acts and identities performed in the intimate domains of the quotidian” (1997, 4). In the case of social conservatives, this retreat manifests as recourse to the moral certainties of the church; on the liberal side, it is by way of a New Age psycho-spiritual paradigm that continuity is claimed with an authentic American tradition that defends against capitalist modernity (which I would trace to the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau). Both of these positions tend to be couched under the rubric of “love.” Isaki paraphrases Berlant: “In American political culture today, love is … a social ligament between fantastic signs of intimacy that are terrorized into privacy. That is, it offers the hyperbole of its promise as cause for relinquishing a public life. The promise to defend love’s normative privative forms is exchanged for a public that forfeits political community as yet another concession to a mood of diminished expectations” (2006).

In Hawai‘i, “aloha spirit” serves as the operative vehicle for this retreat from political life. For example, the “Live Aloha” campaign’s private “Acts of Aloha” deflect attention from questioning how hegemonic ideologies such as aloha itself might contribute to “the crippling sense of powerlessness, the all-too-pervasive attitude in this state that our individual acts do not matter” (Alm et al. 1994). Similarly, two recent books that purport to teach aloha wrap together a mish-mash of past meanings under the privatizing project of New Age healing and what Frank Furedi calls therapy culture, in which “management of emotions involves intervening in areas hitherto regarded as private” (2004, 50).

The Lessons of Aloha: Stories of the Human Spirit by Hawaiian musician and social activist “Brother Noland” Conjugacion is a coffee table book that through its descriptive/prescriptive gloss on a state ideology participates in the political project of nation-building. Brother Noland has collected several dozen stories by prominent or socially active Hawai‘i residents who narrate, in the first person and with pidgin inflections intact, stories of hardship overcome or bad decisions forestalled through an internal orientation that reflects “their passion for life” (Brother Noland 2005, xi). “What’s this book all about? Mostly, it’s about how each of us might live Aloha to the fullest. Aloha is always there, of course, nestled deep within our inner spirit. Our challenge is to bring it to the surface. The magic of Aloha happens when your best and highest expression can flow naturally and honestly. It might be as simple as the look in your eyes, or as deep as the gift of unconditional love. Aloha can be acquired, discovered, learned, earned, given, shared and passed along – and that’s the idea behind The Lessons of Aloha, a survival tool for the 21st century … saimin for the soul” (ibid., xiv).

Like the Chicken Soup for the Soul franchise to which it refers (one of whose hundreds of titles is Chicken Soup from the Soul of Hawai‘i: Stories of Aloha to Create Paradise Wherever You Are, 2003), Brother Noland’s collection operates on the idea that one’s ability to be moved by reading stories about others’ experiences and expressions of love is itself an act of aloha. This is because feeling demonstrates that deep inner quality of aloha being moved to the surface, which can then be manifested publicly (according to the text) by “phrases like ‘Thank you,’ ‘Forgive me,’ ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘We can work it out’.… It weaves itself into the next step, which is questioning our actions: Did I ask permission? Am I being too nosy? Am I imposing?” (ibid., 2). The signs of aloha collected in the stories do not so much demonstrate a philosophy as enact what could be summed up by our British cynic as “hello, welcome and everything warm and squidgy”: We learn that aloha is finding the answers to life “deep within”; it’s not compromising your values, and not taking life for granted; it’s valuing your friends, and finding humor in everything (ibid., 7, 15, 23, 27, 30). Most of the stories, though, are just heartwarming like the Chicken Soup stories, serving to realize the modern understanding of emotion as constructing our individual uniqueness through “access to some kind of inner truth about the self” (Abu-Lughod and Lutz 1990, 6).

The same tone runs through the gift-type volume A Little Book of Aloha: Spirit of Healing from 2003. Renata Provenzano interviewed Hawaiian healers “as to how the spirit of aloha is in fact the key to Hawaiian well-being” (2003, 10). Here, too, aloha is an internal orientation: “It’s an inner knowledge, by birth, to be loving and genuine in all interactions” (ibid., 14); it is kindness, honesty, empathy, and a willingness to love (ibid.). It begins with the self: “The answer is when you look inside yourself – do you feel good about yourself, are you secure of who you are…?” (ibid., 21) This orientation is described by Furedi as part of a growing tendency in the West to construct identity on the basis not only of emotion, but of emotional deficit (“low self-esteem”) as a “version of the self … marked by powerlessness and vulnerability” (2004, 144). Like Berlant, Furedi associates the current preoccupation with monitoring individual emotions to a loss of faith in politics, and a concomitant erosion of private life (ibid., 40, 48). As the public sphere is reduced to the intimate, domestic, and emotional, what becomes important in public life is “gestures of being down to earth, warm and emotional rather than the quality of ideas, strategic thought or leadership” (ibid., 60).

These tendencies find a perfect vehicle in aloha spirit, which currently gathers under a new formulation: Where one stands in relationship to belonging in Hawai‘i is negotiated through feeling – through one’s passion or sorrow over injustice, one’s willingness to enact public confessions and undertake a redemptive path that fulfills the new terms of citizenship. That is to say, it is a matter of choice. As citizenship in the capitalist state increasingly becomes equated with consumption, and identity with a marketing niche, belonging is understood to issue from choosing specific beliefs, acts, and behaviors performed to substantiate any claim to political legitimacy. Hence the imperative, in Hawai‘i, of “showing aloha” as the basis for “local” membership, for example; in recent decades, such cultural criteria increasingly are used to validate one’s allegiance to the “local,” rather than historical or racial standards (Leong 1997; Wooden 1995). For “the vast majority” of students at the University of Hawai‘i surveyed by Laura Desfor Edles in 2001, “being ‘local’ is above all about having the ‘aloha spirit,’ and haoles who live in Hawai‘i can learn to practice this too” (2004, 59). Under the socially leveling category of the New Age, aloha spirit succeeds in accommodating dominant, archaic, and residual meanings. An all-purpose marker of difference, the synecdoche for Hawai‘i represents the victory of maintaining an ideal image, but at the expense of history.

VIII. The problem with love: Idealization of loss

There is a triumph to the idea of “choosing” love in an era when personal behaviors and choices resonate politically. “Aloha spirit” represents the victory of nationalist difference over cultural imperialism – emotion and fellow feeling over the cold, hard objectivist claims of Western knowledge – even in Christian formulations like Brother Noland’s: “I always ask myself, ‘What would Jesus do?’ I now also ask myself, ‘How can I use my aloha to make this work?’” (2005, 4). In a cultural environment that militates against either self-aggrandizement or shaming as part of the aloha code, “living aloha” subtly reaps the rewards of publicly performing virtue. As such, it also requires the contrasting presence of others who fail that ideal.

Sara Ahmed (2004) cites Freud’s theory of how love bonds groups in relation to a shared ideal to explore its application to phenomena such as the abstract love of nation. Briefly, when the earliest emotional tie – identification – is frustrated, the subject develops a secondary form of love based not on being but having: in the case of a boy, being the father through having the mother. Idealizing the loved object allows the subject to be through a fusion with what it has. So by determining who one would like to be, one also limits the field of whom one would like to have. This economy of the self, which orients the subject toward some and away from others, helps to construct a group through identification with the same ego-ideal – the nation, for example.

Moreover, as it is the initial loss of the loved object that is compensated through taking on the qualities of that object (introjection), love works through an economy of loss. The failure to be “loved back” or to realize the ideal actually increases investment in that ideal by making felt the pain of its loss. That is why, in the case nationalism, we see patriotism strengthened when the nation fails to deliver on its promise for the good life (Ahmed 2004, 131). So it is also with aloha spirit, which one loves “out of hope and with nostalgia for how it could have been” rather than to recognize that love’s promise has not been realized (ibid.). This also explains why love narratives must continually threaten the loss of the loved object – to make felt the injury that would follow if that object were given up.

The same economy works in the case of multiculturalism. Here the external threat is defined by requiring that all the different others “refuse to keep their difference to themselves, but instead give it back to the nation, through speaking a common language and mixing with others” (ibid., 134). In other words, they must “show aloha” and fit in, contribute to island potlucks, “talk story” and not stand aloof, in order to join the fold (and construct the identity) of the “local.” We can see how aloha might be central to constructing the state as a multicultural ideal: Love becomes the shared characteristic that is put in the place of the ego-ideal. “It is now ‘having’ the right emotion that allows one to pass into the community…. It is ‘love,’ rather than history, culture or ethnicity that binds the multicultural nation together’” (ibid., 135).

Notice that this setup still requires that certain others be perceived as a threat, while disguising behind a discourse of loving everyone the requirement to perform aloha. “In such a narrative, ‘others’ … in their perceived failure to love difference, function as ‘a breach’ in the ideal image of the nation. Their failure to love becomes the explanation for the failure of multiculturalism to deliver the national ideal” (ibid., 139). This explains why aloha must be constructed under the constant threat of disappearance, despite its surface claims of being bountiful right under the surface. Whether it evokes love of kin, hospitality, reciprocity, or multicultural tolerance, aloha as a vulnerable, precious difference that can be “given” to the world or “shared” with others relies on others who are not part of the fold to be brought in, in order to define the nation and its citizens through these very acts of aloha.

Another way of looking at it is to say that projecting onto others the negation that sustains the ideal maintains the illusion of self-containment, a certain form of subjectivity. Jennifer Harding and Deidre Pribram argue that emotion, as an expression of hegemony, not only makes felt the circulation of power but also thereby constructs the subject, and is thus critical to establishing social relations and constructing discursive and institutional formations (2004, 879). Indeed, the state’s involvement in dictating the terms of citizenship already declares subjectivity as something fit to be imposed. “It represents skepticism toward the ability of people to act as responsible citizens, without the support of professionals who know best what is in their interest” (Furedi 2004, 158). As a discourse about inclusion and the choice to belong by activating one’s inner goodness, the discourse of aloha spirit hides investments in the nation’s need to exclude, in the state’s jurisdiction over subjectivity, and in the presumed need for both to govern sentiment.

IX. Looking through the eyes of aloha: A history of introjection

We cannot know precisely what aloha meant before it was written down, and it is not germane anyway to this genealogy, which is about the construction of a discourse. “Aloha spirit” entered the vernacular as the product of an idealized Western gaze on the native, and it has retained through all its inflections this mirrored identity – an ideal constructed through desire. Jack London wrote that “the love of the Islands, like the love of a woman, just happens. One cannot determine in advance to love a particular woman, nor can one determine to love Hawai‘i…. With Hawai‘i it seems always to be love at first sight. Those for whom the Islands were made, or who were made for the Islands, are swept off their feet in the first moments of meeting, embrace, and are embraced” (1970, 387).

More than anything, London longed to earn the title kama‘aina – “one who belongs” – an epithet that can be bestowed only by those who do belong, on the basis of “the heart and the spirit” (ibid., 401). This aloha, John Eperjesi notes, “projects a difference, and distance, no matter how warm and gracious, between the insider and the outsider, and we know which side the Londons wanted to be on” (2005, 112). Aloha has never lost this distancing effect: Eperjesi senses in the Londons’ love for Hawai‘i what Jacques Lacan calls specular jubilation, “the process by which a subject comes to recognize itself through the projection of wholeness onto the other, thus introjecting lack, incompleteness, or inadequacy” (ibid., 116). To the degree that Hawai‘i – as state, as nation – has been constructed through a history of introjection, the specter of loss and insufficiency will continue to haunt evocations of aloha as a likeness that surrounds all meanings. For “aloha spirit,” strictly speaking, can never be claimed for oneself; like London’s take on kama‘aina, it can be aspired to, and articulated in performance, but it is confirmed only through applause. Aloha thus works to deflect eternally onto others the terms of inclusion.

For these reasons, “aloha spirit” probably cannot cross the divide between competing political interests while continuing to serve any of them, for it necessarily belongs to all and none – as Kanahele often pointed out (e.g. 1986, 468) – making a “community of spirit” the authority. In the case of Hawaiian nationalism especially, a differentiation that cuts dangerously close to a history of hybrid forms steeped in projected and introjected desire will likely be rejected wholesale in order to further its projects. Kame‘eleihiwa suggests as much when she aligns aloha with the peaceful path of Lono, which Hawaiians “still know in our hearts,” adding “It is Kū whom we have forgotten; the Akua of war, confrontation, political power, and debate…. It is the Calvinists who taught us to reject Kū and all that he symbolized” (1992, 324). An aloha that constructs the social and political self through feeling, especially, is detrimental to the Hawaiian nationalist project, which must make its goals of differentiation increasingly explicit, even at the cost of refusing aloha. As Okamura points out, the state ideology of aloha spirit (multiculturalism) is basically a conservative position that masquerades as liberal, arguing “for stability and continuation of the status quo rather than for substantial change in the current structure of race and ethnic relations” (1998, 283). As Hawaiians deploy the term toward the cause of sovereignty and cultural revival, and away from more inclusive meanings, aloha discourse must respond with increasingly diffuse applications decoupled from the political. Where aloha once spoke of the organic relationship between religion and society, it now calls attention to a gap that it cannot bridge, between personal and political self-determination.

X. Trivializing the politics of affect: Toward a sentimental radicalism

Lest my analysis come across as being altogether too negative (an oft-heard criticism that carries its own hidden agenda), I will point out that an ideology of love is undoubtedly preferable to what we see ascendant in America today, an ideology of fear. “Aloha spirit” has survived dilutions of meaning precisely because it has worked – to sell Hawai‘i and its people as a destination while preventing interracial conflict, incendiary nationalisms, or violent uprising against tyrannical state control. The discourse of aloha manages to discourage dissent partly because it also restrains expressions of hegemony, requiring that they take the form of “soft chains.” Most people in Hawai‘i will freely profess such “local” sentiments as “Lucky you live Hawaii” or “Maui no ka oi” (“Maui – it’s the best”); it is outsiders who are likely to express discomfort or rage at the hidden agendas in the discourse of power that are smoothed over under such slogans. One reason for this is an understanding among people who plan to remain in Hawai‘i for practical or sentimental reasons – especially those for whom there can never be any other real home – that “locals,” Hawaiians, and transplanted mainlanders all must find a way to make public life bearable. That is a fact of life on an island, real or metaphorical, and there is some evidence that cultures more isolated than most today acknowledged what Teresa Brennan calls the transmission of affect – the idea that angry feelings or beliefs could be contagious and endanger the well-being of the community (2004, 117); Kanahele concludes as much in his research into the origins of aloha in ancient sayings (1986, 474). Such beliefs most likely played some role in Hawaiian institutions like ho‘oponopono mediation and the cult of aloha itself.

Moreover, despite attempts by reactionary or opportunistic elements to exploit aloha throughout its history, the trope still is held in high esteem worldwide, which opens a space for creative rewriting. I would echo Berlant in saying that the reason for critiquing affirmative emotions such as compassion and empathy is not to destroy or invalidate them, “but to see how it has worked that forms of progress also and at the same time support destructive practices of social antagonism. Social optimism has costs when its conventional images involve enforcing normative projects of orderliness or truth” (2004, 5). Instead of the “fantastical optimism central to the sentimental narrative,” Berlant suggests a “sentimental radicalism” that speaks the “powerful language of rageful truth-telling” (qtd in Woodward 2004, 72). Similarly, Ahmed (citing Kaja Silverman) draws a distinction between love and idealization, which restricts the ideal to certain subjects (2004). In the case of American patriotism in the Bush era, for example, identification with the ideal nation is held over and against all other notions of personhood, especially the adversarial view of the nation as the site of struggle amid unequal material conditions (Berlant 1997, 27).

In the case of aloha, I would draw a further distinction between prescriptive and descriptive deployments. As a value assigned by others and that reflects their idealization, “aloha spirit” belongs to the one who speaks, so its subtexts belong also to the speaker as a more or less conscious intention. Since the action of aloha is to bind some people and not others under an invisible “we,” advocacy for “aloha spirit” is always politically suspect, as it hides such investments behind the premise that everyone always already belongs. Moreover, as a reflexive identity, “aloha spirit” is passive and requires nothing; it is acknowledgement after the fact. Like love, it hopes for reciprocity but does not require it. As a learned response to discomfort or outrage, “aloha spirit” deflects attention from the site of trauma toward reforming internal feelings about it. Rather than get angry about economic inequality, government corruption, or social injustice, we are encouraged to realign subjectivity in order to fit on the inside of the good nation, where problems are not seen because our eyes are directed toward the vision of paradise, past or promised. Above all, aloha values comfort and equilibrium; it cannot incite or sustain revolutionary change – as the legacy of aloha ‘āina has shown. In the end, “aloha spirit,” an empty signifier promising a new nation, fulfills as do other commodities – soothing injury with layers of hope and myth that are the product itself.