The Not-Quite States of America, By Doug Mack, Norton, 2017
No one who lives or has ever lived in a U.S. territory is going to quibble with author’s premise, stated early in the book:
“[F]or the average resident of the states, the territories are all but forgotten. They’re extant but inconsequential vestiges from another era whose ongoing existence is a cultural curiosity, like Tab soda or professional mini golf. They flicker into our consciousness here and there—an offbeat news story, a friend’s tropical island vacation photos, a passing reference in the fine print of a governmental form—and for a moment we think, Oh right… we have territories. Then, as quickly, they disappear from our minds once more.”
As revealed in this survey by the Minneapolis-based Mack, the U.S. territories and their subsequent fade from the American mind began with what is hard to describe as anything but imperial ambitions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though Americans have been very reluctant to describe the territory they acquired as colonies. Coaling stations to serve a steam powered navy, were part of this as well as the desire to tap resources on remote oceanic islands—guano mines for fertilizer come to mind. Events during subsequent world wars and after also contributed to the current territorial lineup. It’s hard to recall for many who have spent little time learning American history that this expansion was once very politically popular.
Mack told Pacific Island Times in an interview via Skype that there are few contemporary accounts of the U.S. territories, which he said persuaded first his agent and then his publisher that the book was needed.
While many cite the vast distance between the U.S. mainland, Guam, the CNMI and Micronesia to justify their ignorance of these places, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are very close in the jet age, yet mentally very far away, based on the reaction to recent hurricanes hitting there by political figures such as President Trump who seemed initially ill-informed about their American connection and the obligation to treat them on the same footing as Texas and Florida following a disaster.
Mack was enchanted by the cultural differences he found in places that are at once profoundly American and utterly unique: “When I first arrived in Charlotte Amalie, Saint Thomas—the territory’s capital and commercial center, with 18,500 residents—my disorientation was so profound that I could feel my gray matter pulsing. All those mixed messages, from my phone to the street names to the American cars driving British-style, on the left.” And that’s before he visited a rum bar in a V.I. rain forest, where patrons amuse themselves by feeding cans of beer to thirsty pigs.
And of course the V.I., like all the other U.S. territories has the fingerprints of all the other past colonial powers, in its case, Denmark, but other colonists of these various places came from Spain, Britain, the Netherlands and Germany among others.
This applies of course to Puerto Rico, which is routinely ignored by all but those outsiders who have an inside track to enrich themselves, mostly at the expense of Puerto Ricans. There’s simply more to know about the place than many bother to learn or are taught in school. “There are also middle class suburbs and they have more Walgreen’s per capita in Puerto Rico than any other place in the world,” Mack noticed.
As the profile of the territories faded, particularly after the end of World War II, the U.S. Congress used its power over the territories to experiment, granting various tax breaks to favored investors and other special treatment, that resulted in such things as an eventually very controversial garment industry in the CNMI. During his visit to Saipan, Mack got a good look at the collapsing remnants of that particular experiment.
His time spent on Guam was truly eclectic, starting off with a few days at the San Vitores tourist district, which fortuitously coincided with the Guam Visitors Bureau BBQ Block Party. He says he would like to come back for a second helping. He also toured various sights on island from World War II memorials and monuments to Tumon shooting galleries with a couple of local bikers.
He visited Yokoi’s Cave in Talofofo, once a very simple attraction featuring a water fall and the ‘cave’ in which the former Japanese soldier spent nearly 30 years hiding, emerging only to forage for food during the day. In Mack’s telling, this attraction has become much like the kind of ersatz roadside museum found in the states, complete with bumper cars and spinning tea cups. And of course, there is the X-rated Love Land, featuring somewhat exotic/erotic sculptures. You have to wonder what Sergeant Yokoi would have made of that!
Of course there are other Not-quite U.S. Territories which Mack did not visit. On paper and by Constitution, Palau is an independent Republic, but in many ways it is culturally almost a territory of the U.S. and contributes many recruits to the American military. He did visit the Marshalls, since he had college friends from there. The nuclear testing of the 1950s and 60s and the present-day Kwajelein Island missile base have left plenty of American marks there.
In general, Mack would like to see a revival of mainstream American knowledge of the territories, but he’s not holding his breath.
“It was interesting to see the reaction here in the states when North Korea was threatening Guam back in August. There were a lot of news articles just simply stating, ‘by the way, Guam exists, Guam is part of the USA. Here’s why North Korea would think of this,’” Mack said.
“We need to talk about the territories again,” Mack urges his readers. “We need to start listening to them, too. The people of these far-off islands are not ‘foreign aliens.’ They are us.”