Puerto Rico is suffering. Like a lot. 3.4 million Americans have been without power for 5 days and the prospect of getting the electric grid up and running seems to be distant. 90% of the distribution system may have been destroyed. 91% of cellphone sites are also out of service, according to the FCC.
Despite this crisis, I’ve been hearing more about whether football players will stand or kneel during a game. Judging from the emotional energy spent online during the past couple of days, the manner in which sports professionals choose to observe the national anthem and conduct their protest is more alarming than the prospect of 3.4 million Americans facing a humanitarian crisis. Hell, I’m guilty of knowing and talking more about Kaepernick than what’s going on in San Juan which is, by the way, the only Puerto Rican city I can name without looking at a map.
I think this is a combination of the bike shedding effect and a sense that Puerto Rico isn’t *really* American. The “bike shed effect” is based on a metaphor used to describe Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. I actually like the term “bike shed effect” here better because I don’t want to dismiss the concerns of Kaepernick or those who oppose him as “trivial.”
He provides the example of a fictional committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant spending the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important and a far more difficult and complex task.
The flag thing is relatively easy to have an opinion about. If you only know the broad strokes — the flag is good & you should stand and honor it OR racism is a problem in America and peaceful protest is a core part of our democracy — you know enough to have an opinion on the issue and get into an emotionally invigorating fight with someone about it. There are lots of people with more nuanced opinions and understanding of the details, but those aren’t necessary to get in the game.
Puerto Rico, by contrast, what a mess. It’s all so big and hopeless, far beyond our poor power to add or detract. And, besides, lots of bad stuff happens in the world. We can’t be concerned about all of it. Maybe if they were Americans . . .
Well, maybe they’re technically Americans, but Puerto Rico doesn’t really seem like part of our country. Part of it certainly has to do with race. They’re mostly people of color, and we have this concept of Americans being mostly white. But it’s certainly not just race. What the hell is an “unincorporated territory of the United States,” anyway? It seems to be a concept invented by the Supreme Court in the case of Downes v. Bidwell which loosely translated amounts to having your cake and eating it too.
“While in an international sense Porto Rico (sic) was not a foreign country, since it was subject to the sovereignty of and was owned by the United States, it was foreign to the United States in a domestic sense, because the island has not been incorporated into the United States, but was merely appurtenant thereto as a possession.”
An unincorporated territory is a territory as to which, when acquired by the United States, no clear intention was expressed that it would eventually be incorporated into the Union as a State. Consequently, we’ve possessed Puerto Rico for 119 years without either making them a State or letting them go their own way. They don’t have a Representative in Congress or Senators in the Senate. (If they did, there would probably be more and swifter federal action on the crisis taking place there.) So, it’s not terribly surprising that citizens of the 50 states don’t have a clear idea what to make of Puerto Rico.
I’m no expert in Puerto Rican history, but just as a crash course, here you go: The U.S. took possession of Puerto Rico in 1898 after the Spanish American War. That war saw us fighting Spain, supposedly because of provocations on their part in Cuba — but probably because they were growing weak and we were growing strong. Spain didn’t have any business having an empire in our backyard. And, anyway, all of the other cool kids were getting empires. So, we had our splendid little war, defeated Spain, freed Cuba, and took over the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico for good measure. Puerto Ricans have officially been U.S. citizens for a century (having been granted citizenship in 1917). While they have some local autonomy, “ultimate governance of the island is retained by both the U.S. Congress and President.”
Consequently, they are Americans but not Americans. And, while they struggle with the crisis caused by Hurricane Maria, including conditions that we would find intolerable elsewhere in America, we are fairly indifferent to the plight of our fellow citizens. At least when compared to our concern for whether athletes stand or kneel during a pregame ceremony.