Wednesday, November 25, 2015         


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Life lessons from Gov.-elect's thesis

By Richard Borreca


The year 1974 was a very good year for Gov.-elect Neil Abercrombie. He made good on longtime quests both political and academic.

It was 36 years ago that Abercrombie won his first election, a seat in the state House. And in December that year, he completed his thesis for a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Hawaii.

For the moment, Abercrombie is our gubernatorial "Big Man on Campus."

Former Gov. John A. Burns briefly attended the University of Hawaii. Former Gov. John Waihee graduated from the university law school.

Our other governors -- William Quinn, George Ariyoshi, Ben Cayetano and Linda Lingle -- are all mainland educated. So for the one with the most time in the Manoa trenches, you have to look to Abercrombie.

The 72-year-old Democrat came to Hawaii in 1959 after having earned an undergraduate degree from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.

He earned a master's degree in 1964 from UH and then the 1974 doctorate after writing his thesis, "Mumford, Mailer and Machines: Staking a claim for man."

Abercrombie's 230-page effort is available for perusal at UH's Hamilton Library. In his introduction, Abercrombie described the thesis' theme as "the conquest of self versus the conquest of nature."

It is not for those without a serious political, academic and literary bent.

"The paper depends basically upon a perception of continuity between authority in which the perversion of science is seen as the result of a shift from understanding to assaulting nature. Its ultimate aim will be to illuminate the role of the scholar and artist as an active agent in the drama of our time," Abercrombie wrote.

Deane Neubauer, the founding dean of the UH college of social sciences, was on Abercrombie's dissertation committee and had high praise for it.

He remains impressed with the academic quality of the future governor as Abercrombie examined Lewis Mumford, historian and philosopher, and Norman Mailer, the author and social commentator.

"He (Abercrombie) was captivated (as many of us were) by the fact that both were 'literate' persons, that is, fully capable of translating the complexities of social life into a literate form that would allow the images and 'understandings' embedded within their writing to spring anew in others," Neubauer said in an interview last week.

"As we would say decades later: They both 'got it' and I think even in those early days, when Neil was seen in his anti-war protester persona, he felt as if he 'got it' and was looking for mentors to model.

"Not to be forgotten is that Neil is a very good writer himself, and throughout his adult life saw Mailer as an intellectual model of part of his own consciousness," said Neubauer.

Abercrombie himself went on to become a personal friend of Mailer and was one of only a handful to speak at his funeral in 2007.

In the conclusion of his paper, Abercrombie discusses the "shift from understanding to assaulting nature" and gives some advice that even governors could heed:

"The truth and the will to believe become synonymous -- even the capacity to lie is lost ... Worse still, lies become acceptable currency. The will to power replaces the will to life."

Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Reach him at


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