The Not-Quite States of America, Doug Mack [Review]

Attention conservation notice: Doug Mack has written a good, short, breezy book about the territorial possessions of the United States, a topic that should help to shake conventional ideas of what the “United States” is.
(This post was originally published in February but died in the great server mistake of 2017, so I’m republishing it here.)

One of the great thrills of social science should be the constant rediscovery of the world as begging for explanation. Viewing social life as a dynamic process should prompt a constant unsettling with the superficially —a disenchantment with received wisdom and estrangement from the familiar. When we flatter ourselves, social scientists preen themselves on exactly those dimensions: interrogating this and wrestling with that.

Of course, social life being infinite, most of the time we fail at this task. Intellectual fashions provide the most obvious evidence that much of what seems to be deep engagement really arises from fads. More fundamentally, however, researchers often proceed from “stylized facts” about parts of the social world that are merely better drawn caricatures of social life than the non-specialist presents. Even if we manage to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of conventional wisdom in some particular niche, the necessity of producing a steady stream of work that engages our fellows and our blind spots about our own ignorance (compounded by the epistemic arrogance that a professional standing as an “expert” breeds).

I am at least as guilty of these tendencies as the next social scientist. There is one small region in which I am slightly less guilty than my fellows, however: I think — I hope — that I take the peculiar composite nature of the United States government a little more seriously than the average scholar of international relations. For me, the “United States” is never a unitary actor, even if its outward appearance sometimes puts such a mask over its structurally divided government. Instead, I view the country as a patchwork actor, one marked by multiple traditions of identities, governed by two major parties who alternate according to a coin flip, and divided into fifty states and territories. 

It’s the “and territories” that, as Doug Mack describes in his new book The Not-Quite States of America, people often forget. A chance encounter with ceremonial quarters honoring Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands jolts Mack into realizing that millions of people—many, although not all, American citizens—live in what can only be described as a U.S. empire. Unsettled by this estrangement from the familiar, he sets out to visit them to learn about their people and their culture to make them more comprehensible. Mack’s book is a sugar-coated challenge to the way you will think about the everyday politics of “America”– and a surprisingly sharp (if inadvertent) challenge to categories IR and comparative scholars employ to divide the world.

I should note at the outset that, even though I will talk about what Mack’s work means for my social-scientific work, Mack himself is not an academic. He is a travel writer and reporter. Consequently, readers searching for a scholarly treatise will probably do better to consult the books that Mack himself discusses. But they probably shouldn’t skip his book either: it’s not like there’s a voluminous contemporary literature that seeks to describe the peoples and communities that he describes. Moreover, being outside of conventional academic disputes and position-taking, the sundry tribalisms of scholarly life, means that Mack is, in a sense, more free to report what he sees than most scholars.

Mack’s argument is that the government and citizens of the United States rarely recognize the full extent of the peoples of the United States. Consequently, the U.S. government and the citizens who comprise it fail to recognize both their responsibilities to the many communities associated with them and the deep connections that bind them to faraway peoples of whom they know nothing—but who are, nevertheless, American. Given that the lives of millions of people subject to U.S. laws but outside the U.S. political collectivity can be transformed by momentary fits of nationalist pride or external forces, U.S. citizens who can vote need to recognize the extent of their responsibilities.

(Note how hard it is to avoid using the terms “Americans”, “U.S. citizens”, and “voters” interchangeably. Yet they are not synonyms! There are many people who are U.S. nationals but not citizens and many people who are U.S. citizens but not voters. Similarly, “the United States”, the “fifty states”, and “the federal government” are not quite synonymous, especially given that Mack’s entire book focuses precisely on how they differ and what that means.)

What kinds of responsibilities do those include? Well, for one, during the Cold War, the United States routinely treated the territories—from Vieques in Puerto Rico to Bikini, Rongelap, Enewetak, and Wotho Atolls in the Marshall Islands to practically the entire island of Guam—as useful places to drop ordnance, build military bases, run intelligence operations, and, of course, conduct nuclear tests. Residents weren’t consulted or even given much time to leave. On a much more mundane score, Saipan—a major Second World War battleground—lacks potable tap water (p. 197), and many territories’ economies rely on receiving favorable provisions in US tax laws or exploiting loopholes in immigration laws.

This extraordinary disregard for what can only be described as the American empire contrasts strongly with the rapturous public attention when these possessions were acquired (mostly after the war of 1898). As Mack writes (p. 68), “Overseas expansion was one of the central issues of the 1900 presidential campaign, a rematch of Republican William McKinley and Democrat Williams Jennings Bryan.” The public devoured information about the newly-acquired territories:

The newly acquired lands were curiosities, with a steady stream of stories in national magazines like Harper’s and the Atlantic, and numerous widely read travelogues, including Neely’s Color Photos of America’s New Possessions; Pictorial History of America’s new Possessions; The History and Conquest of the Philippines and Our Other Island Possessions; Our Island Empire; and Our New Possessions. The most popular was the two-volume Our Islands and their People…whose first edition sold four hundred thousand copies.

Mack is a canny enough reader of these works, by the way, that he correctly notes that “deep-seated racism and xenophobia … informed both sides of the expansion debate.” Even opposition to imperialism was grounded “in a belief that the ‘half-civilized’ people of these lands…were simply unfit for inclusion in the nation.” Of course, these days, such debates seem quaintly archaic—even though the empire remains! Consciously or not, 50-state America has adopted a position of “benign neglect” toward the peoples whose seizure it once celebrated.

For me, the most urgent parts of the book pertain to the fact that the United States has a foreign policy toward political communities that the rest of the world regards as domestic. My own work has traced how domestic politics shaped the expansion of the United States; in work with Dan Nexon and Meghan McConaughey, I have sought to demonstrate how governance hierarchies, properly understood, mean that the seemingly bright line between “international” and “domestic” is really an analytic convenience in certain contexts. Mack contends (pp. 251-3) that

we forget about the territories because, quite simply, they’re not states. This puts them immediately outside the collective conversation, because our concept of ourselves is that of a nation of states—that’s what’s on the flag, in the maps, in the songs, in our very name. In 1900, we talked about the territories because they had the potential to be states, but when the Insular Cases effectively shut that door, and [the territories] continued to be not-quite  states, our attention waned. The territories are neither united nor states nor part of either American continent, which makes it hard for them to assert their legitimacy as part of the United States of America. It’s understandable that so many people think of them—implicitly or explicitly—as foreign. But when you consider everything tangible in the territories—issues of basic human and political rights, issues of immigration and military readiness, issues of regional politics and our reach in the world—it’s clear that they are integral to our national story, even today.

From this, Mack concludes, “The territories are the most important domestic-policy issue Americans aren’t talking about, precisely because we don’t think of them as a domestic-policy issue at all.” I’m not sure I would go that far. Categorically, the territories both are and are not foreign and domestic. In listening to people in the territories navigate their dual identities as “Americans” and “Puerto Ricans” (or Virgin Islanders, etc), Mack notes that often the territorials (no other easy word comes to mind) want to preserve a half-in, half-out status. For instance, American Samoans “who oppose birthright citizenship argue…that it would bring the Constitution into greater power here and, as a consequence, certain long-standing cultural practices might be deemed unconstitutional,…leading to an existential threat.” (p 81) Such tensions seem to straddle the domestic-foreign sense, especially in the way that they preserve an artful ambiguity about the ultimate locus of political sovereignty.

It’s possible that political science has not dealt well with these possessions since the early twentieth century (when, as Bob Vitalis and others remind us, they formed a major part of US political scientists’ work) because they don’t fit well into any of the three major empirical subdivisions–IR, comparative, or American. But if our categories don’t fit the world, we probably need to change our categories. Mack provides yet another indictment of how academics suffer from the cardinal sin of taking things for granted.

My biggest complaint with Mack’s work is that in focusing only on the insular possessions of the United States he has neglected the much wider variation in relations between the central government and non-state dependencies. One obvious non-state is the District of Columbia. Another entire category comprises the Native American reservations (and non-reservations). Just like Puerto Rico or Guam, neither the Navajo reservation nor the national capital gets a mention in “Fifty Nifty United States”; and just like The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands or the US Virgin Islands, neither DC nor reservations can engage in full self-government.

Descriptions of life in the Pacific Island territories in particular seems to resemble descriptions of many Native American reservations quite well, from the tensions of “American” and “indigenous” culture to the ways in which brute or unthinking congressional interference can squash entire life ways of people who are governed by a collectivity in which they are not represented. (Also, the Philippines, Hawaii, and Cuba all “graduated” in different ways from US imperialism, which might have gotten slightly more attention.)

But no book can do everything, and the contributions that Mack’s travels make far outweighs this quibble. I recommend this book highly to Americans and those who study the United States.