Opinion – Facing Reality: A Final Thought

Frank Schneiger
Frank Schneiger

The “Facing Reality” series has had a simple basic theme. Along with other places on our endangered planet, the Virgin Islands faces a number of difficult, sometimes daunting, challenges. The series zeroed in on issues of climate change and its impacts, a changing economy, politics and governance, social conditions and education.

The series’ basic theme was a simple one: business as usual won’t work. It is the path to failure.

Writing about a place from a distance has one big advantage: the ability to see the so-called “big picture” from the outside and to make comparisons to other places. What seems to be similar? What’s different? It also has a big disadvantage, which is that it’s pretty easy to lose sight of the “little picture,” what is happening “on the ground” and how complicated things can be. Everything looks simpler from 35,000 feet, and it becomes really easy to tell people what they “should” do.

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St. John from satellite. 'Everything looks simpler from 35,000 feet.' Frank Schneiger.
St. John from satellite. ‘Everything looks simpler from 35,000 feet.’ Frank Schneiger.

Many years ago, the historian F.W. Maitland said, “We should always be aware that what now lies in the past once lay in the future.” Put another way, if we could go back 30 years, what could we – or should we – have done differently? Naturally, different people would give different answers.

We on Earth seem to have come to the end of an era, one that lasted seven decades. It now appears that the entire postwar structure that has provided peace and prosperity for those decades is coming to an end and being replaced by racial and inequality driven reaction, with enormous implications for the world. And for the Virgin Islands as a part of that world, as well as being a U.S. territory.

Even if the United States and other places had not taken a hard turn to the reactionary right, the Virgin Islands would be facing the consequences of trends and actions that have been developing over decades, long enough for everyone to get used to them as “just the way things are.”

As Tolstoy said, “There are no conditions to which a person cannot become accustomed, especially if he sees everyone around him living in the same way.”

What makes dealing with big issues particularly difficult in the Virgin Islands, as a colonial territory, is the challenge of separating what is controllable at the local level from what is uncontrollable, and the temptation of people, especially when confronted with big problems, to pretend that everything is out of their control, the so-called “shrinking violet syndrome.” The combination of “we are powerless” at the local level and a federal government that, especially in our times, truly doesn’t care what happens, e.g., see Puerto Rico, is a frightening one.

In this kind of toxic environment, the only – truly the only – correct response to this problem is to act as if those at the local level are not powerless. That we can do something.

If that basic action-focused idea is accepted, the agenda facing the territory is a daunting one. It consists of a series of flashing yellow lights, all of which have been documented over the years in the Source, and have been the heart of the “Facing Reality” series. Here are what would appear to be the core items on any agenda for change:

– Dealing with the danger of fiscal collapse and the impending pension crisis,

– Openly addressing the issues of social cohesion, inequality, inter-island hostility and unacceptable levels of violence and the need for community peace,

– Developing and implementing a plan for effectively and immediately dealing with climate change, moving toward an economy that recognizes what is coming, and avoiding the de-population of the territory,

– Improving the effectiveness, transparency and indivisibility of government, getting to a place where public officials represent the interests of the Virgin Islands as a whole rather than some narrow constituency,

– Dramatically improving the quality of education at all levels, and

– Taking steps to not only improve the quality of health care, but to move toward building healthy, peaceful and happy communities.

Place yourself in the year 2050. What was in 2018 the future is now the past. What do Virgin Islanders – and their as yet unborn children – want to look back and say? “We did what we had to do. It was very difficult for a time, but look at what we have achieved?” Or, “My God, why didn’t they do something?”

The philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” There are lots of forks in the road. Sometimes we don’t even see them. The evidence that the Virgin Islands has taken the “right” fork will be the election of leaders who are willing to face hard realities, who actually know what they are talking about, who speak truthfully to the citizens of the territory; and the willingness of those citizens, at least a majority, to think in terms of investing in a better future, even if it involves equitably shared sacrifices in the present.

Refusing to make those choices. Think of 2050, just 30 short years from now, and someone looks out over the landscape and asks, “My God, why didn’t they do something?”

Frank Schneiger was executive director of the Federal Region II Children’s Resource Center, which trained a generation of V.I. children’s services workers. He subsequently founded the St. Thomas/St. John Youth MultiService Center. In the past two decades, he has served as planning consultant for a range of Virgin Islands organizations and has been a columnist for the Virgin Islands Source. He is the author of two books, “The Arc,” under the pen name of Roberto Vincent, and “The Purge: The Future As History in the Age of Trump,” available on Amazon.

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