Virgin Islands: The View from Far Away
I have a friend who has solutions to most of the world’s problems. The further away the problem, the simpler his solution is. And it always involves what some group or country “should do.” But, as Mark Twain once said, “For every problem there is a solution that is simple, obvious and wrong.”
The “Manager’s Journal" has studiously avoided telling Virgin Islanders, or anyone else for that matter, “what they should do.” Instead, the approach has been: “here is what seems to be the problem, and here is what has worked in dealing with similar problems elsewhere.” Nobody likes “outsiders” telling them what to do, a simple truth that has eluded American foreign-policy makers for a long time. And reality “on the ground” is always a lot more complicated than it seems from a distance.
A theme in a number of columns during 2009 has been that the territory is “out of sync” with the mainland United States. And that being out of sync is not necessarily a bad thing for the territory. Looking back over the past year, there is another theme, an area in which V.I. and mainland society and politics are actually “in sync.” And this one is bad for both.
Whatever the area, popular culture being one of the few exceptions, both the Virgin Islands and the mainland United States have become rigid and resistant to change. The results are stagnation, an erosion in the quality of life and a loss of confidence in the ability of government or any other institution to address important problems.
The sources of this rigidity are different but connected to one another. On the mainland, it is largely the result of 40 years of right-wing reactionary politics, largely designed to discredit government as a vehicle for social and economic change. In the Virgin Islands, it has been decades of left-wing reactionary politics, largely race-based and designed to lock in benefits to narrowly defined groups while keeping others out.
On the mainland, the reactionary movement is rooted in the White South, the old Confederacy, and has captured the Republican Party. In the territory, it is rooted on St. Croix. In both instances, anger, resentment and feelings of victimization are the fuels driving the movement and its vehicles.
On the mainland, the reactionary right, to discredit government and justify extreme income inequality, has made the business leader a kind of religious icon. The centerpiece of this effort has been the creation of the cult of the CEO, an all-seeing genius who earns every nickel of his or her extraordinary compensation, whatever the company’s results. Among the Virgin Islands’ reactionary left, the business person, especially the “outsider,” is a suspect rather than an icon, most likely a predator seeking to rip off local people.
Both the reactionary right and the reactionary left are grounded in identity politics. On the mainland, reaction is a white movement, rooted in America’s long and inglorious history of racism. In the territory, and again particularly on St. Croix, it is grounded in the dead-end politics of the Black Power movement.
Here, though, is where these two reactionary movements really diverge. By being anti-business and anti-white, the V.I. reactionary movement is self-limiting. By contrast, reaction on the mainland is fully integrated with corporate power. The first year of the Obama Administration has shown the extent to which concentrated power—especially that of Wall Street, the health insurance, pharmaceuticals and communications industries—dominate American life, whatever the will of “the people.” As the song says, “Money makes the world go ‘round.”
In a small place without the support of corporate or individual wealth, all that the reactionary left can do is derail and delay things and advocate for lost (but sometimes legitimate) causes such as reparations. In this respect, its behavior is similar to that of the Republican Party. Be against everything because the other guys are for it. Wreck it because it’s wreckable.
And don’t just be against it on the merits. Paint those who are for it as slimeballs, liars, moral degenerates and traitors. If you are in favor of health care reform or the Cruzan Rum deal, you must want to send grandma to the Death Panel or destroy the economy of St. Croix.
On the mainland, any proposal to provide job security or increase wages is denounced as “socialism” or a sellout to the corrupt unions. In the Virgin Islands, anyone suggesting that workers should actually work is a union buster or some kind of racist fascist. It doesn’t take a genius to see that these are two sides of the same coin. The purpose is always the same: to prevent change or to roll back progress that has already been made.
In the United States, 40 years of reactionary politics have done extraordinary damage. America’s income inequality is now so extreme that our social profile matches only three other countries on earth: Russia, Brazil and Mexico. Each of the four has a thin layer of ultra-wealthy families, an increasingly precarious middle class and entrenched poverty. The productive economy has been hollowed out. Corporate control of government is at levels unseen in nearly a century. Society and our economy have been increasingly militarized. And the ability of government to address any of our pressing problems has been cast into doubt.
In the Virgin Islands, the reactionary left has played a less dramatic role. It has contributed to stagnation and decline by blocking change, poisoning the political discourse and making “outsiders” feel as unwelcome as possible. The recent Constitutional Convention showcased all of these negative qualities.
It would be nice to start the New Year on a cheery note. After all, both the territory and the United States have seen progressive and thoughtful leaders elected to office, a clear sign that the politics of reaction have overreached. These are positive signs. But there is also a reality that has always accompanied reactionary movements, even after they have been rejected by a majority of the people. That reality was summed up by Alfred North Whitehead in 1927 when he stated that “the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.” A worthy goal for the New Year will be to avoid as much of this damage as possible (and maybe even lose weight and get in shape in the process.)
Dec. 31, 2009