Wednesday, May 01, 2019

The Not-Quite States of America by Doug Mack

Whether or not the USA is an imperial power is a contentious question: it depends on your politics, your definition of "imperial," and probably who the President is at the moment. But the question of whether the US is an actual empire -- you know, with extra-territorial possessions that it conquered in wars and that are not incorporated into the country itself -- should be simpler, right?

And the answer is...Yes, actually.

Doug Mack explores that surprising answer in his recent book The Not-Quite States of America, a travelogue of all of the places that are attached to the USA but not actually part of it in the pure sense. He visited the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico, all of which are full of people subject to the laws and taxes of the US and none of which actually have any representation in making those laws and taxes. [1]

Hey, I seem to remember that was a really big deal in some war the US fought. Guess it's less important when we're applying it to others.

My snark aside, the territories [2] are interesting places with quirky relationships to the USA, and all of them are conquered territory, either from the turn of the 20th century or from WWII -- which, clearly, is the cause of those quirky, complicated relationships. (Big powers tend to want to hold onto things they've acquired: that's how they became, and stay, big powers.) And they tend to raise those big questions, about what it means to be an American, and who qualifies. Most of the folks in all of these territories have skin darker than one end of the US political spectrum prefers, for example, and so, even if they consider themselves Americans (and they don't, always, entirely, consistently), would tend to be excluded by those contentious gents in the bright red caps for that reason.

Mack avoids those kind of questions, possibly for reasons of timing: Not-Quite States was published in 2017, and it's not entirely clear when the journeys he chronicles here actually took place. (Travel writing takes a lot of time and money -- I didn't see any indication that these pieces first appeared as individual articles, though they certainly could have, and that's usually my assumption with a travel book like this.) Instead, he's doing the core travel-writer thing: go to this place to talk to the people there, see the sights, wander around, and try to understand it as best he can in a short period of time.

Each of those places is distinct and individual, but their concerns rhyme -- they all have those deep questions about whether they want to stay in their current relationship with the USA, get closer, or break away entirely. The details are different: the don't have the same options, for one thing. And they're all poorer than the US average, more likely to join the military, and a few other similarities.

Mack is a pleasant tour guide through these territories: he does focus the book on himself and his quest to understand the territories, but he's standing in for the reader in that. (No one will read Not-Quite States unless they do care about learning about these quirky US possessions and want to think about how they relate to the larger polity.) He made what seem to be good contacts in all of these places, had some intriguing conversations, learned some interesting things, and wrote about them all in a graceful way. Not-Quite States does what a travel book should do, and does it well; I enjoyed reading it.

[1] And, in many cases, it's even more complicated than that: courts have ruled that some laws don't apply to the territories at all, and Congress can rule all of them pretty much by fiat if it really wanted to.

[2] Puerto Rico and the NMI are officially Commonwealths, which, again, is a more complicated way of defining essentially the same thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment