Reckoning with the Imperial We

A review of Doug Mack’s The Not-Quite State of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA (W. W. Norton, 2017).

By Kelsey Atherton

Before I can talk about Doug Mack’s travelogue-cum-history of America’s colonies, “The Not-Quite States of America,” I’m going to take a quick detour to talk about the Red Sox. As a baseball-ambivalent westerner, growing up I knew vaguely that the Sox were good in like the 1910s, hadn’t won a World Series in a long time, and then were good again, winning a bunch of them. But I didn’t really understand what that meant as lifetimes of lived experience, generations of crushing disappointment between triumphs. To make sure I could grasp the significance, my Massachusetts born-and-raised spouse sat me down with “Still We Believe,” a 2004 movie documenting the Sox’s 2003 season. By sheer coincidence, 2003 was the 86th and final year of an 86-year-long World Series drought, and so by luck director Paul Doyle Jr. managed to capture the last moment of a certain mood, a certain era, a certain generations-long status quo that would, within a year, change radically.

It was this sense of accidental prescience that kept striking me as I read “Not-Quite States.” The book was first published in 2017 (through Twitter, Mack sent me an early copy of the paperback, which released last month), and the travels documented took place in the few years before publication. Mack is by trade a travel writer, and so his work reads as an over-the-shoulder look of who he met, what he saw, and the big questions he was thinking about during the travels. The impetus for the trip is charmingly mundane: Mack and his wife Maren mused over some minted quarters for the territories, like the earlier ones for the States, and from there Mack decided to go in search of the asterixed part of America. That he did so right before Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico is cosmic coincidence. Here we have tourist testament and travelogue, aimed to get the passively curious stateside reader interested in the fates of the territories, and suddenly too we have the territories thrust into the national conversation in a way the territories haven’t been for a generation, and possibly haven’t been since they were first acquired in a fit of imperial pique.

The history of the territories or, more accurately, the histories of the territories, are to my untrained eye ably-handled by the author. As Mack searches for an understanding of the American Life outside of the states, he delves into the big questions that brought the United States to formally acquire a handful of islands. An ideology of Manifest Destiny, the seapower dreams of Alfred Thayer Mahan, a heightened moment of high-stakes imperial frenzy combined with the definitive case of yellow journalism, as well as the familiar strains of national security and great-power competition, all combined to wrest control of imperial possession from one distant ruler to another. This was mostly done through force-of-arms, though the U.S. Virgin Islands were acquired for an amount of money that in 2017 could purchase 4.8 F-35s ($25 million in 1916 dollars, $460 million today). (There is also a brief digression into the mid-19th century American project of capturing uninhabited rocks loaded with Guano; the first great American Overseas Project was a quest for fertilizer and we could probably call it the Birdshit Imperium, but now I’m digressing).

Fundamental to the territories are questions of self-rule and union, which were shaped through an explicitly racist understanding of the world into law through the Insular Cases—the Supreme Court rulings that allow for the territories to be governed as colonies, rather than extending the full dignity and protections of the Constitution (as well as statehood) to the people living there. Mack ends the book optimistically, citing lines from a Kennedy opinion about the Constitution following the flag to Guantanamo Bay, even for non-citizens. Should the political questions of the territories become legal questions, the Court could get a chance to revisit and reshape over a century of explicitly colonial rule. Would the court, in its present form or following a second Trump appointment, chose to do so? That’s an open question, and Mack, writing in Slate in October 2017, offered a – sadly – more skeptical take.

The question is one that the United States may have to answer in a time of acute crisis. When Mack traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), and Puerto Rico, the crises were slow-burn. Economic disruption – from lost tax breaks, the Great Recession, or any number of late capitalism/modern colonialist moves – played out as thousands of individual disasters. Government bankruptcy through weird debt moves and vulture-capitalist bondholders is a situation possible and exacerbated by colonial status, but it mostly captures headlines in business sections. And even rising sea levels, caused and aggravated by human-driven climate change, is again a slow-burn. Likely fast enough to drown an island in a century, yet incremental enough that the sinking of the Marianas feels confined to the science and environmental press. When it came to the big questions of governance and survival, things were not well before 2017.

Then came the hurricanes.

Is the devastation of the storm enough to rouse the Trump administration to action? Much to the anger and continued suffering of people in Puerto Rico and the USVI, it is not, but that doesn’t mean the question should be seen as an ignorable one for the future. As Mack repeatedly notes, the status of the territories often falls in the gap between foreign policy and domestic policy, and these colonies, these not-quite-states are easy to ignore in the best of times. It is only through great tragedy, compounded by grave neglect, that this long-running unsettled status quo is subject to change.

In an epilogue on “The Future of Empire,” Mack offers his own thoughts on how to change that status quo, on what a more just settlement would look like, though he’s clear that it’s the very anti-democratic nature of the Insular Cases that make it hard for these five outliers within the States to tackle their own problems. Added to that is the complication that degrees of sovereignty vary between the territories, and beyond that, none of the territories have a voting member in Congress, the body that has final say over the territories. As fellow citizens (in the case of Puerto Rico, USVI, CNMI, and Guam) or in solidarity with fellow nationals (as in American Samoa), what we can do from afar is listen to those locals, and use our electorally significant voices to amplify theirs.

“The Not-Quite States of America” is not, by design, a political project. Yet its subject matter, the parts of the nation defined by a peculiar relationship to the rest of the country, means it cannot avoid wrestling with the project of empire. And that’s a question worth wrestling with, as the United States bitterly plunges into fresh battles over the personhood of immigrants, over the use of force abroad and at home, and over just what voices get to count, and what voices get curtailed, in the domestic political process. If the states are laboratories of democracy, then the territories are our laboratories of empire. The territories are where we can observe new forms of repression or hypercapitalism or benign neglect that will later manifest stateside as shiny new policies seemingly pulled from the aether.

Answering the political question of the territories is something that Congress can likely table indefinitely. It shouldn’t. And if the reaction to the Trump era is a call for more, greater, and freer democratic participation as a safeguard against the regressive impulses of an electoral minority gerrymandered into power, then we have an obligation to extend that same participatory democracy, those same rights and meaningful representation, to everyone living in the territories. It does democracy no good to impose a unilateral decision on the territories. We should at least make the effort to make sure their voices are heard, their cries for help answered, and their fates self-determined.

Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

2 thoughts on “Reckoning with the Imperial We

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