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Wednesday, October 5, 2022
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How Things Change

What is the connection between Leo Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina and a young man shot dead on the Pearson Gardens basketball court? There is a line in Anna Karenina that will immediately illuminate the answer: “There are no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him.” Virgin Islanders are becoming accustomed to young men being killed, and the normalness, rather than the shock, is leading to an acceptance of these events as a part of every day life.
The territory is hardly alone in this respect. On the mainland, anything less than a mass slaughter is now buried on the inside pages of the newspaper or disappears after being “breaking news” on cable television. After a while they begin to blend together. Was the young man shot on the Hospital Grounds or on the basketball court? Oh my goodness, it was really two separate killings. It’s getting hard to keep track. At some point, it becomes a kind of background noise.
This kind of thing represents real change, but it is change that takes place at such a slow pace that it is hard to confront it. Here is another example of this kind of change. In New York City in the 1970’s, less than 40 years ago, 200,000 vehicles per day entered the central district of Manhattan. Today that number is over one million, on streets originally laid out for horse-drawn vehicles. It is a nightmare, but a nightmare that people have adjusted to day-by-day, and, as Tolstoy said, the situation seems to be accepted by everyone, their primary responses being useless horn-blowing. A comparable slow but steady growth has produced St. Thomas’ traffic mess.
If these traffic increases had taken place in a single day, you can bet that something substantial and dramatic would have happened. People would not have tolerated the enormous inconvenience.
For Virgin Islanders old enough to remember back 30 or 40 years, can you imagine what the reaction would have been if suddenly there were 25 murders before the first four months of the year had passed? It certainly would not have been silent acceptance.
The local newspaper in Milwaukee did an analysis of the human and financial costs of shootings, both fatal and non-fatal. Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods have violence rates that are among the highest in the country. The results of the analysis stunned even the most knowledgeable people. Families shattered, lives ruined and staggering legal, incarceration and medical costs. The message was: whatever you think the costs of these events are, they are way higher than that. The same is almost certainly true in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Beyond these measurable costs, there are hidden and more insidious ones. The biggest is the loss of trust in one another. There is a recent book titled "The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better." The United States is now the most unequal society in the developed world, and the territory largely mirrors the mainland’s inequality. What the authors show is that there is a direct link between inequality and high levels of mistrust, as well as a whole range of other social evils, such as violence. So, in addition to being the most unequal society, the United States has also become the most mistrustful. Look at our politics and attitudes toward government, and, more important, toward one another. It is likely that the territory also mirrors the mainland in this unhappy category. The recent Mafoliegate business and much of the Diageo controversy are just two small examples.
Very little of this was true 30 years ago, which means that a whole generation has grown into adulthood with very different – and much worse – experiences of what is normal than those of older people. Because we only have one childhood, all childhoods are normal to the person experiencing them.
We shouldn’t mistake dealing with this reality for nostalgia for the long-lost “good old days.” Nor, however, should we deceive ourselves into thinking that nothing has changed, that it is just better reporting or greater awareness. Something fundamental has changed. And it is continuing to change in a bad direction. And, as Tolstoy said, we, and especially younger people, are becoming accustomed to a new and bad reality.
Beyond mistrust, getting used to violence and other social evils feeds a sense of pessimism that starts to affect everything from work to conversations with one another. When we think about what motivates and energizes people, in most cases, it is not money, or pats on the back or the anger that seems to be everywhere. It is a sense that we can move forward and that things can improve. The firm belief that progress is possible.
The need to believe in the future was the subtext of Delegate Christensen’s op-ed in the April 28 Source. Contrary to what the Tea Party and its followers think, outrage and being against are light work. They answer no questions and solve no problems.
The best starting point for breaking out of acceptance of our current violent condition is to define an alternate and better future. Not some soft and fuzzy “morning in America” future, but a picture of V.I. society that looks different from what everyone has become used to. At that point, rather than blaming and complaining about what is, the focus becomes solving the problems that stand in the way of achieving that better future.
Who can do this? The reality is that acceptance of the status quo is probably at such high levels that starting a mass movement is not possible at this point. And this is not about a march for community peace or a race against violence. It is a long process, not an event. The base is almost certainly a small group of committed people who are willing to invest time and think through the most effective path to change and to convincing their fellow Virgin Islanders that history was not inevitable, and neither is a bleak future of violence and discord.

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