I don’t know if the Hovensa story rises to the level of a spectacle, but it does have all of the elements of a tragedy for the people of St. Croix. It is the story of what happens to a one-industry town when the industry dies or leaves. There are many such stories, but the impact on a single small island is extraordinary.
In reading about the Virgin Islands Senate’s rejection of the proposed agreement worked out by the governor, several thoughts came to mind. Actually, more than thoughts – basic principles, which apply to many such situations.
The first principle is that we should see the world the way it is, rather than as we would like it to be. The basic reality here is that corporations regularly screw the communities that have provided them with homes and workers. And if they are in a dirty business like refining, they generally leave a mess behind for someone else to clean up and pay for. Legally and politically, the deck is rigged in their favor, and it becomes more rigged year-by-year in our country. Hovensa’s behavior actually seems better than most.
The principled person can say, “This is outrageous. I won’t stand for it.” But it doesn’t matter what they say. There is a reality, and they do not have the ability to change that reality. And, in the end, outrage is light work. A commodity that is oversupplied in comparison to thoughtful action.
Which leads us to the second principle: When the choices are between bad and worse, the principled person chooses bad. The “least worst” principle. There are no “good” choices in this situation. The sociologist Max Weber made an important distinction between the ethics of conviction/ the absolute and the ethic of responsibility. He made this distinction in an essay titled Politics as a Vocation.
Virgin Islands politicians have a history of employing the politics of the absolute, and it was on full display in this vote. Rather than deal with unpleasant realities, they did two things. They changed the subject, and they denied reality, pretending that somewhere out there, a better deal was to be made. This despite all of the structural and economic realities surrounding the Hovensa refinery and industry trends.
These senators employed the ethic of the absolute and the denial of reality in a number of ways. Possibly they knew that the responsible person would be criticized for voting for a “bad” deal, even if they understood that all of the alternatives were worse. The most popular approach was then, in the face of all evidence, to pretend that there was a happy solution, and that this better solution was achievable.
Alternatively, at the other end of the absolutist scale, there was the apocalyptic view, best expressed by Sen. Hansen. In this scenario, Crucians would “live as our ancestors did….” But even she seemed to see a brighter future if the deal were rejected, seeming to equate proving that Hovensa was evil with achieving a good outcome for the people of St. Croix.
As always happens in situations in which someone chooses the bad over the worse, Gov. DeJongh was criticized because the deal would not produce a happy ending. That is the price of responsibility. It is why governing in bad times is so difficult. Opponents can always point to the bad deals that you accepted. And they will always be right, so long as you don’t consider what the achievable alternatives were. Sens. Buckley and Sanes also represented the ethic of responsibility in explaining their votes.
St. Croix’s politicians have historically been attracted to the ethic of the absolute and the tendency to see the world that they want to see rather than the one that exists. This tendency was best displayed by Sen. O’Reilly who correctly described the behavior of the corporation, but then went on to deny reality by insisting that the territorial government “show some muscularity.”
Unfortunately, the government does not have the muscles or the leverage to show that muscularity. The “muscularity” plank reinforced a longstanding pattern of standing on a nonexistent principle in rejecting a solution that would have produced half a loaf and, as a consequence, ending up with no loaf at all.
In addition to the principle of facing reality and an ethic of responsibility, there is another principle at work here. It is the negative principle of “social distance,” and it is quite surprising to find it at work in such a small place. Our federal government has become a case study in social distance. Administration officials, members of Congress and the federal judiciary make decisions without the slightest notion that they have a real impact on the lives of real people, many of them suffering the same traumas as Virgin Islanders. They believe many things that are not true because they want to believe them, but also because they are so far removed from the impact of their decisions that it is all kind of an abstraction.
These decision-makers can only feel their own pain. So when the major banks shattered millions of lives with their crooked mortgage schemes, those lives were an abstraction to these banks’ executives. But when the head of Goldman Sachs, one of their peers, was asked a pointed question by a senator, they were horrified. My God! How could they be so mean to him? Social distance at work.
In a place where senators must know a substantial percentage of their constituents, this kind of social distance is surprising. But there it was. Discussions about living like our ancestors or about imaginary naval bases. Maybe the situation is so bad that there appears to be no hope. But that is no excuse for holding out false hope. And seeking a resolution that is timely can allow the territory to begin planning what is certain to be a long and difficult economic reconstruction process.
Time is an enemy in situations like this. The longer there is ambiguity and lack of a clear path forward, the more lives and communities and society unravel. That path forward begins with resolution and a plan based on some version of the three principles of facing reality, acting responsibly and acting in the interests of ordinary Virgin Islands who are suffering the consequences of this closure and the global economic downturn.