Strange Politics: Beyond Fifty States

Kid with Flag image from Woodsmen of the World

When I was in elementary school, I was taught the song “Fifty Nifty United States”, a song that was meant to help us memorize the names of each state in the Union. It seems so perfect, in a way – “One nation under God” made up of 50 states, each represented by a star on the flag. Fifty is a nice, round number that rolls off the tongue. It all fits together so neatly, like 50 pieces of a puzzle.



It’s also false. It turns out, there are a few things that complicate this nice, neat picture. There is much more to America than just 50 states. If you look beyond them, you will find…

 Complication 1: America’s Stateless Capital

Washington DC image from Wikipedia

I’ve previously mentioned on this blog that in America’s earliest days, our Founding Fathers quickly discovered that locating the nation’s capital in any of the states would leave the federal government vulnerable to that state’s political whims. To avoid this problem, the Constitution included a clause that allowed the government to set up a new national capital that was not located in any state. Thus was born Washington, D.C., capital of the United States, located on the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia but not a part of either.

If it’s not a part of any state, though, that begs some major questions. Who builds the roads and schools? Who writes the laws and hires the police to enforce them? Who collects the garbage, puts out fires, and decides what sorts of buildings can go where?

For a very long time, the answer was “Congress”. The U.S. Congress was both the national government AND the government of the city, meaning it literally took an act of Congress to get anything done in Washington, D.C. This was a rather inefficient way to do things, since, you know, Congress often was too busy dealing with major national problems to worry about where to locate a dog park. So, in 1973, Congress finally passed a law giving the city its own mayor and city council. Congress still keeps the right to veto anything the city government does that they don’t like, but for the most part, the city now handles most of its own affairs.

While the federal government has been well-served by its decision to have a home outside of any state’s politics, there are some disadvantages for the city’s residents. For example, not being a state means no representation in Congress. Congress is, after all, a states-only club; all these locals get is a single “Delegate” who can speak but can’t vote. If you’ve ever wondered why some Washington, D.C. licence plates say “Taxation Without Representation”…

Washington DC licence plate image from Krokodyl

…that’s a protest against this situation. The IRS treats the city as a “state” for federal tax purposes, but the people in the city don’t get a vote in the laws that set those taxes. There have been attempts to fix this problem, but seeing as the city didn’t get to vote for President either until 1961, odds are pretty good that resolving this issue will take some time.

Of course, with the 50 states and now Washington, D.C., we’ve got the United States covered, right? Not quite…

Complication 2: Palmyra Atoll

Palmyra Atoll image from NASA

This collection of tiny coral reef islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the middle of nowhere is uninhabited, except from some wildlife and a handful of scientists studying that wildlife. Yet they are just as much American soil as the ground on which I am sitting as I type this. They are a part of the “incorporated territory” of the United States, which means they are a part of the United States proper, just like the states and Washington, D.C.

How did this happen? It’s because the United States has annexed these islands three times. In 1859, a U.S. ship claimed the islands for the United States so they could harvest guano (bird or bat dung) on the islands for fertilizer. However, they found no guano, so they abandoned the islands. Later, the Kingdom of Hawaii and the United Kingdom each staked their own claims on the islands. In 1898, Hawaii became a part of the United States, and so the United States regained the islands. Then, just to make sure the British stayed away, Congress re-re-annexed the islands in 1911.

So Palmyra Atoll is a part of the United States. However, it is not a part of any state, nor is it a part of Washington, D.C.

"What exactly are we supposed to do with this?"

“What exactly are we supposed to do with this?”

This makes Palmyra Atoll the only unorganized incorporated territory of the United States. Congress has never bothered to pass a law giving the islands a government, because there is nobody there to govern. The closest thing it has to a “government” is a federal agency called the Office for Insular Affairs.

Oddity that Palmyra Atoll is, at least it completes our tour of the United States. It does not complete our tour of all the places that fly the Stars and Stripes, though…

Complication 3: Unincorporated Territories

Puerto Rico image from the New York Times

Some time ago, Puerto Rico held an election where it appeared as if they wanted to become America’s 51st state. That’s great, but it makes one wonder what exactly they are right now. I mean, Puerto Rico is a country, right? Well, not exactly.

Puerto Rico, along with Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa, are all “unincorporated territories” of the United States. This means they are not a part of the United States, but are still ruled by the United States. They are not independent countries, but not a part of what would be considered U.S. soil, either. On the other hand, you don’t need a passport to travel there, and locals from these places can freely travel and live here in the U.S. On the other-other hand, only parts of the Constitution and federal law are applied there.

This is getting confusing fast, so let’s simplify it with an analogy. Remember when the future United States was just a collection of British colonies?



In colonial days, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, and the rest were not a part of the United Kingdom, but were clearly ruled by the British. The colonists were British subjects, but not all British laws applied to them, only the ones Parliament specifically chose.

Well, the unincorporated territories are sort of like colonies. They fly the U.S. flag, depend on the U.S. military to protect them, and send a non-voting delegate to Congress just like Washington, D.C. does. However, they don’t have to pay federal income taxes to the IRS, and they don’t get to vote for the President. Just in case it wasn’t confusing enough, they also get their own Olympic teams.

The inhabitants of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are full U.S. citizens, and they have elected governments that handle their local matters under constitutions approved by Congress. This makes them organized unincorporated territories.

American Samoa also has its own elected government, but theirs was set up by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Another political oddity that makes American Samoa special is the fact that its inhabitants are not U.S. citizens – they are U.S. nationals. This strange distinction means they can travel and live in the United States just like any American, but if they want to be able to vote, they have to apply for citizenship just like any immigrant.

Why this strange distinction? I’m not sure, and I couldn’t find a proper answer in a Google search, but I do have an educated guess. Samoan society traditionally is based on the matai system, which is essentially a system of nobility. The U.S. Constitution bans the creation of any system of nobility, so maybe this peculiarity is a way to preserve the matai system? Whatever the reason, there is currently a lawsuit making the rounds in the U.S. court system seeking to end this distinction and make all American Samoans U.S. citizens.

Lastly, there are eight additional tiny islands in the middle of nowhere that are counted as unorganized unincorporated territories. Like Puerto Rico or Guam, they are not technically a part of the United States but are under U.S. control, and like Palmyra Atoll, they are tiny islands that are either uninhabited or have very tiny populations (the most populous has only 150 inhabitants), and so they have no formal government. These are: Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Atoll, Navassa Island, and Wake Island.

Got it? Good, because things are about to get even stranger.

Complication 4: Free Association

Not that kind of free association!

Not that kind of free association!

After World War II, the United States took possession of a number of islands that were once ruled by Japan. Between 1986 and 1994, the United States turned these islands into the independent nations of Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Except these countries aren’t quite as independent as you might think. Sure, they are legally fully sovereign, and are even members of the United Nations. It’s just that they depend on the U.S. military to defend them. Oh, and they also get assistance from the U.S. government in an emergency, such as a natural disaster. And the U.S. Postal Service delivers their mail. And their air traffic control towers are run by the FAA. And their college students can apply for federal grants and student loans from the U.S. government.

This is because of a treaty the United States signed with them when we granted these countries their “independence”, the Compact of Free Association. This “free association” was meant to be temporary, expiring after 15 years. However, the treaty was repeatedly extended, and almost three decades later, it is still in effect. While the treaty could theoretically be terminated at any time, there appears to be no movement to do so. After all, if one of these island countries chose to leave this arrangement, they would have to provide and pay for all these government services themselves.

If you think that turns the notion of “sovereignty” on its head, just wait until our last complication…

Complication 5: Indian reservations

I knew you'd get around to me eventually!

I knew you’d get around to me eventually!

Native Americans are not only citizens of the United States, they are also citizens of their respective tribes. These tribal groups are legally considered sovereign nations, just like foreign countries. Well, not actually like foreign countries; according to the U.S. government, they are “Domestic Dependent Nations.”

What the heck is that supposed to mean? Well, in a way, it is a recognition that unlike the states or territories, Indian societies created themselves. The tribes had sovereignty over their land before the United States even existed, and numerous Supreme Court cases have recognized this fact in their rulings.

On the other hand, the U.S. government does not consider Native Americans to be foreign nations, which would make a map of the United States look like Swiss cheese. Instead, the federal government has given itself the power to “protect” Native American groups. The specific doctrine has changed over the generations as societal attitudes have changed, but under current legal theory, Indian reservation lands are “held by the federal government in trust” to the tribes, and tribal governments have whatever powers that have not been specifically given up to the feds.

While each specific tribe or reservation is different, there are a few common generalities at play. Generally, tribes can control who can and can’t enter reservation lands, they can pass laws specific to the reservation and enforce them with their own police and courts, and they are exempt from most (but not all) state laws and regulations. They can tax people on reservation lands, handle such matters as adoptions and child custody, and even regulate the sale and use of alcohol or peyote. In fact, one Supreme Court case even found that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to tribal governments!

There are also some special privileges that come with being a registered member of an Indian nation. For example, in my own hometown of Morro Bay, the main landmark is a massive volcanic stone that is 581 feet tall. Morro Rock is home to peregrine falcon nests, and so climbing on it is prohibited – except at specific times each year, when local Chumash and Salinan worshipers climb the rock as a part of their sacred ceremonies.

So now we have the big picture. The United States of America consists of the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Palmyra Atoll. The United States also rules a number of “unincorporated territories” that are sort of like colonies, and treats three otherwise independent nations as part of the United States for certain purposes. Lastly, the Native American tribes are nations within the United States that are given many special exceptions and privileges because they are far older than any of the rest of this. Politics sure is strange in the U.S.A.

Behind the Headline: Crimea “votes to join Russia”, U.S. and EU impose sanctions

A Crimean woman casts her vote. Yesterday, Crimean authorities announced that voters had overwhelmingly chosen to leave Ukraine and join Russia. Image by Andrew Lubimov of the AP.

A Crimean woman casts her vote. Yesterday, Crimean authorities announced that voters had overwhelmingly chosen to leave Ukraine and join Russia. Image by Andrew Lubimov of the AP.

When we last left the events in the Ukraine, pro-Western revolutionaries had just taken control of the country, promising fresh elections in a few months. Just days after this startling turn of events, armed men in uniforms with no identifying insignia or markings started taking over the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Russia claimed these were merely Crimean militias, but several of these men identified themselves to reporters as Russian soldiers. Before long, Crimea’s government was replaced by one that was more pro-Russian, Russia’s military started carrying out drills near the Ukrainian border, and Russia’s parliament voted to authorize Russian president Vladimir Putin to send troops to the rest of Ukraine if he so chose. Russia’s media is calling the new government in Ukraine a “fascist coup”, and its government says they have the right to protect Russian speakers in the country from violence.

Now a new twist has been added to the crisis: a referendum in Crimea was held yesterday asking voters whether they wanted to stay a part of Ukraine or join Russia. According to the results announced last night, 96.7% of the votes cast were in favor of joining Russia, with a voter turnout of 83%. After the announcement, the Crimean government has declared the peninsula’s independence from the Ukraine and applied for annexation by Russia.

There are doubts over whether the official results are accurate, as many Crimeans had boycotted the vote. Even if the results are accurate, though, the Ukrainian government, the United States, and the European Union have all argued that the vote is illegal and violates Ukraine’s constitution. A U.S.-backed declaration condemning the vote was approved by 13 of the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council, with Russia the only country to vote against the declaration and China refusing to pick a side. Not only are the United States and European Union refusing to recognize the vote’s results, they have announced that they will freeze the assets of and ban travel by various key figures that they claim have escalated the crisis.

Ukrainians are now bracing for what Russia’s next move will be. Recent rhetoric by Vladimir Putin has blamed recent violence in eastern Ukraine on “fascist radical extremists” supported by the new government in Kiev, and some fear that this may be a pretext for a full invasion of the country. For its part, the authorities in Kiev and many outside observers claim that the violence is the fault of pro-Russian protesters and Russian ‘protest tourists’ who are being egged on by Moscow to provoke a violent response from the Ukrainian police.

It’s hard to make sense out of all of these developments, so to help understand what is going on and what is at stake, it’s time to once again go behind the headline.

Why is Crimea so important, all of a sudden?

A map of Crimea

A map of Crimea

First of all, Crimea has not suddenly become important; it has always been important. Perhaps you may remember hearing about the “Crimean War” in your history class?

Crimea has changed hands many, many times throughout its history, in large part because of its strategic location on the Black Sea. Whoever controls the peninsula’s ports is in prime position to dominate the Black Sea, and to have easy access to the Mediterranean. Crimea is also a popular tourist destination, thanks to its beautiful beaches, mountains, and historic sites.

Crimea was conquered by the Russian Empire in 1783. At the time, the majority of the population were Tatars, a Muslim ethnic group related to the Turks and Mongols. The peninsula also had centuries-old Greek, Armenian, and Bulgarian minorities. Centuries of Russian rule brought large numbers of Russians and Ukrainians to the peninsula, until eventually it was the Russians and Ukrainians who were the majority. When the Soviet Union was set up, Crimea was initially an “Autonomous Republic” within Russia.

That’s when Joseph Stalin entered the picture. Among the many, many horrific and evil acts Stalin committed during his brutal rule, he forcibly removed the entire Tatar, Greek, Bulgarian, and Armenian populations from their homes, accusing them of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II. Most of the exiles were resettled in Uzbekistan. After Stalin died, a few of these people were able to return, but the Soviet government offered them no compensation for their losses and no help with reclaiming their lost homes. Naturally, many Tatars in Crimea today have very negative opinions about Russia.

Meanwhile, after Stalin died Nikita Khrushchev took over the USSR, and in 1954 he gave Crimea to Ukraine. According to his granddaughter, Khrushchev loved Ukraine and Ukrainians, so this decision was something of a personal gesture. On the other hand, it also made a fair amount of practical sense. Ukraine is physically attached to Crimea by a small land bridge, while Russia is not. The only way to get from Russia to Crimea is over water. This means that electricity, roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure has to be built through Ukraine to reach Crimea. Besides, at the time, Russia and Ukraine were both a part of the Soviet Union, so the transfer wouldn’t have all that much of an impact on the day-to-day lives of Crimeans.

That is, until the Soviet Union broke up. When Ukraine gained its independence, it took Crimea with it. This was a huge problem for Russia, because the Soviet Navy (and Russian Imperial Navy before it) had always used Crimea as a key naval base. Eventually, an agreement was reached where Russia agreed to recognize Ukraine’s independence and its borders – including Ukrainian rule over Crimea – in return for the right to continue using Crimea as a military and naval base.

Of course, these recent events have turned all of that on its head.

Why is Russia doing this?

Vladimir Putin, president of Russia. Image from

Vladimir Putin, president of Russia. Image from

The majority of Crimea’s population is ethnically Russian, and most of those fear the new pro-Western government in Kiev. There are also many Crimeans who feel Khrushchev made a mistake when he gave Crimea to Ukraine. There is little doubt that many Crimeans genuinely support annexation by Russia.

Meanwhile, Russia may fear that the new government would revoke Russia’s rights to its Crimean naval bases. Originally, the agreement was due to expire in 2017, but that agreement was extended until 2042. However, that extension was signed by Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president who was ousted by the revolutionaries. It is possible that Russia feared the new government would demand a return to the old terms, leaving Russia without its most vital naval base in just a few years.

However, the United States and the European Union maintain that invading Crimea and holding the referendum under the watchful eye of men with guns is a blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and of the most basic principles of democracy.

Are there Crimeans and Russians who oppose these developments?

Yes. As I said before, Crimea’s Tatar minority opposes Russian annexation, and fears the consequences of a return to Russian rule. Indeed, many Russian Crimeans oppose the annexation as well, including middle-class Russians and Jews. Already, many Crimeans are moving out, fleeing to other parts of the Ukraine so they can remain Ukrainian.

In Russia, too, there are people who oppose their government’s decisions. While the majority of Russians appear to support Putin in this crisis, there were enough dissenting Russians to stage a rally in Moscow that counted tens of thousands of protesters in its number. These voices of opposition not only face harassment by police for their views, they are often attacked by their neighbors and passers-by, who call them “fascists” and “traitors”.

Are we about to see World War III, or at least another Cold War?

Cold War cartoon from Talk Android

Right now, the West’s response to the crisis has been to prop up the Ukrainian government with bailout loans, talk with Russian leaders and diplomats almost daily, and propose a very limited set of diplomatic and economic sanctions that target only Russia’s leadership. There is extreme reluctance to impose more far-reaching measures like a wholesale economic embargo blocking all trade (as the United States has done with Cuba and Iran), because of the economic interdependence between Russia and Europe.

Having said that, nobody is sure what Russia intends to do for its next move. The threat of an invasion of the rest of Ukraine to “protect Russian-speakers” worries EU members such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all of whom have large Russian minorities. These nations are also U.S. allies, so any Russian move against them would be sure to provoke an American response.

Already, the media is full of speculation that this is the beginning of a new Cold War, with a recent CNN poll finding 69% of Americans feel Russia has become a threat to the United States. Having said that, some voices are calling such talk an overreaction. This article from ABC News argues that Russia and the West are too economically dependent on each other to let things escalate that far. The article also points out that the United States and its allies have ruled out a military response to the events in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the only person who is really in control of where this crisis goes is Vladimir Putin, and so far, he isn’t telling us what his intentions are.

Non-Stop Thrills for an Afternoon Out

NonStop image from Collider

The recent news about the Russian military intervention in the Ukraine after the recent revolution there is really depressing. Maybe a trip to the local movie theater might be in order, to help forget about the world and just enjoy some fantasy escapism for a while.

Ooh, look! There’s a Liam Neeson movie in theaters right now! That’ll do the trick!

Non-Stop is an action-mystery-thriller from StudioCanal, the French film studio that apparently really, really wishes it was an American film studio, considering the movies it makes (Taken, The Last Exorcism, Contraband, Frost/Nixon, Atonement). The movie takes place on board a flight from New York to London, with Neeson as the U.S. Air Marshall assigned to the flight. At first, everything seems normal, but then a text arrives on his phone warning him that someone on the plane will die every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred to an offshore account. You know the rest… it’s a race against time to find out who the killer is as passengers start to die one-by-one.

One of the most interesting choices the filmmakers took was to make Neeson’s character, our ostensible hero, not a very likable guy. He’s an alcoholic who breaks the rules, he’s often rude and gruff, and he clearly has a dark past. This is a bold and delicate choice. If the hero is too unlikable, the audience can’t relate to him and won’t root for him. Fortunately, the filmmakers gave him a “soft side”; some very human touches that make him flawed-but-understandable, and not a monster.

Another plus is that this movie doesn’t try to depend on Neeson to carry the whole film. Rising stars Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and Lupita Nyong’o (who just won an Oscar for her role in 12 Years A Slave) play the two stewardesses who must help Neeson investigate the case, while veterans Julianne Moore (Magnolia, Crazy Stupid Love), Scoot McNairy (Argo, Monsters), Nate Parker (The Great Debaters, Red Tails) and Omar Metwally (Munich, Rendition) help to give the cast of passengers on board the human touch needed. Indeed, these characters really feel like the kind of people you’ve met on any long flight. You can completely understand what everyone is thinking from one moment to the next, as the situation gets more and more complicated.

The director, Jaume Collet-Serra, makes some really interesting but effective choices throughout the film. In the early scenes, everything is filmed through a dark filter to make it all appear hazy, showing how our Air Marshall’s drinking problem negatively affects his ability to do his job. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that watching the back-and-forth texts between detective and murderer on everyone’s phones would be a struggle for the audience, so instead the texts start showing up as graphics on the screen next to Neeson. It sounds corny, but it works, and helps to add to the tension as texts come flying in while the Marshall tries to explain the situation to his superiors at the TSA.

Well, I liked it anyway. Judge for yourself.

Well, I liked it anyway. Judge for yourself.

The film’s strength is in its tension, as each new development changes the whole situation. Its weakness, though, is in the mystery itself. Maybe I’ve just watch too many Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes mysteries, but it seemed to me that I was figuring things out faster than the Marshall was, and that he was ignoring some obvious clues at certain points. It seemed like a pretty predictable mystery with some twists that were rather disappointing. Still, the film needs credit for its effective use of action – the action beats don’t overwhelm or crowd out the other elements of the movie, as they do in some pictures. They are well-timed and carefully used to maximize the tension.

The film also has some other elements that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. There is a child-in-danger subplot that runs through the film. I thought it was well-done, and it didn’t distract from the main plot very much. However, if you just don’t like child-in-danger subplots, these parts might be hard for you to sit through.

Overall, I’d say the film works for what it is: a nice, suspenseful thriller that will keep you entertained for an afternoon. It’s not perfect, but it knows what it needs to do right and nails it.