There is a subway station at Chambers Street in lower Manhattan in New York City. For years, when you exited and got to the top of the stairs facing south, you were starring at the twin towers of the World Trade Center just two blocks away. It was an awesome sight, especially at night. And it was impossible to imagine coming up those stairs and not seeing the towers.
Yugoslavia is my parents’ country of birth. In visiting it during the 1980s, you found a physically beautiful country, religiously diverse, with attractive cities and friendly, if somewhat pessimistic, people. It was a country at peace. It would have been hard to imagine that a decade later, it would not exist, having been destroyed by a fratricidal and genocidal civil war that claimed over 100,000 lives in the heart of Europe.
My home state of Wisconsin has undergone a political revolution in the past four years. It has gone from being a “purple” swing state with a strong progressive tradition to a hard-right hotbed of reaction. A historic leader in progressive unionism, the union movement is in the final stages of being wiped out. It is a development that would have been unimaginable as recently as 10 years ago.
The “bulletin board” for the reactionary right in Wisconsin is the comments section of the online version of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The common themes are contempt – often bordering on hatred – for President Obama (“the worst president in history”), for minorities, especially black people, for government and for that most loathsome group, “liberals.”
Over the past several years, this anonymous entertainment, usually taking the form of hurling insults or quoting right-wing websites to prove something evil about Obama or liberalism, has shown a steady progression. No longer are those with a different view just political adversaries.
Nor are the poor, especially the minority poor, just undeserving. Nor is there much room for nuance or a middle ground. There is a lot of evil enemy imaging. Occasionally terms like “leeches,” “animals” and “extermination” pop up and go unchallenged.
Through it all, there is a subtext of white people as victims, being bled dry by minorities using food stamps to buy 40 ounce malt liquors and “union thugs” similarly sucking the lifeblood out of hard-working, always white, taxpayers.
There is an enormous failure of imagination here. It is a failure to see that this is more than entertainment, and that there is a clear progression and a willingness to do things to “the others” that were unimaginable 20 years ago. There is also an underlying belief in American exceptionalism, and that the far right represents all that is good in our country.
In this world, the rules that have governed others don’t apply and the “lessons of history,” to the extent that there are such lessons, are not applicable to the United States. The result is an inability to grasp the potential consequences of a whole set of policies and beliefs. A failure of imagination.
The Virgin Islands falls into the “failure of imagination” camp in different ways. It is possible to imagine futures that are better, worse or pretty much the same as the present. The last of these is pretty much a default position that doesn’t require imagination at all. Just get up in the morning and do what you did yesterday all over again.
To the observant outsider, what is striking in the Virgin Islands is the underlying pessimism about the possibilities for positive change. There is an inability to see “the upside,” to visualize healthy, peaceful communities. And, based on experience, a refusal to believe in the potential for positive change.
At the same time, there is an inability to come to grips with the potential for a very big “downside.” More than most places, the territory is vulnerable to the shattering impact of a single event or a cluster of such events. This vulnerability is directly related to high levels of violence in a tourism-based economy.
As recent events have shown, violence is no longer limited to “they’re killing each other.” It has already changed the way people live, the withering of nightlife being just one example. And violence has imposed huge, often unaccounted for, monetary costs on a territory that is already struggling financially. These are drip, drip, drip changes.
What is lurking is the dramatic violent event that sinks the tourist economy for a prolonged period of time. These are the events that, once they have occurred, trigger responses like, why didn’t we see this coming? Why didn’t we do something? But with these kinds of events, the genie is out of the bottle, and there is no way to put it back.
Imagining such a possibility should trigger a range of actions. The most immediate are to use tools and methods that produce a dramatic reduction in violence in a short period of time. We know this is doable because it has been done elsewhere in similar circumstances. Some of this is taking place but the pace, given the urgency of the situation, is far too slow.
Beyond these actions, there is a need to envision healthier and more peaceful communities and to act to achieve that vision. It is a mistake – and a failure of imagination – to believe that offenders will reoffend because of soft conditions at Golden Grove or any other prison. Or that sending them off-island, far from families, is good policy. Whatever they have done, they are Virgin Islanders, and at some point, almost all of them will return “home.”
The long-term keys to building a better future involve early intervention to reduce trauma in young people’s lives, a clear voice of community outrage in rejecting the current levels of violence, effective policing and creating a sense of hope for a better future. A tall order.
The starting point is imagining what that future might look like. Then to begin to figure out how to get there.