John Oliver, Denial of Self-Determination and Equal Citizenship Rights is No Joke

Once again comedian and mock-editorialist John Oliver hilariously has performed a script brilliantly pillorying federal law and policy in the U.S. Puerto Rico. Congressional abdication of constitutional responsibility and mind-bending disarray in federal territorial law is aptly lampooned. It is true Congress allowed the abuse of public debt by the “commonwealth” regime of territorial government created under federal law to spin out of control. See Mr. Oliver’s romp, at the expense of the anachronistic neo-colonial absurdities of the current status of an island that – by historical and constitutional norms – should have become a state of the union or a nation of its own 50 years ago.

 

Oliver’s new twist on Puerto Rico’s failed client state syndrome is a sequel to last year’s equally clever satire about Puerto Rico. We had to put that earlier riotously funny rant into historical and legal perspective due to some troubling political and legal fallacies giving a dark aspect to Oliver’s lapses in veracity as to facts and logic presented to his audience. To be really compelling political humor has to have enough reality to sustain truth at the core of the satiric narrative, which last year’s outing on island politics by Oliver did not.

Instead, both Oliver and his guest Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Broadway play “Hamilton” fame, went out of their way to insist that Puerto Rico’s fiscal meltdown is too dire a humanitarian crisis to even talk about the “complicated issue” of statehood until the economy is stabilized and recovered. That is an argument for maintaining territorial status for years to come, against the freely and democratically expressed wishes of the people in a 2012 referendum. If you think denial of self-determination is a laughing matter or would like to find out what actually is going on in the Puerto Rico political status process, read about the upcoming referendum.

The 2012 vote was a more clear and definitive act of self-determination in favor of statehood than votes in several of the 32 territories that became sovereign states of the union between 1796 and 1959. Oliver and Manuel Miranda, by ignoring that fact and calling for a delay on the status debate, have perhaps unwittingly become part of the colonial elite, wanting to “help” the island residents by giving them more government, but not equality.

First and foremost, it struck us as oddly anti-democratic that they rejected statehood as a comprehensive and strategic political and economic solution even though 61% of the voters in a 2012 status vote chose statehood. By calling on the audience to defer statehood as too “complicated” to allow democratic self-determination to progress as it has in other territories, Oliver and Lin-Manuel Miranda have aligned themselves with the anti-democratic policies of the anti-statehood party in Puerto Rico.

By the very ominous and not at all amusing logic of the buoyantly sarcastic Oliver diatribe, the “complicated” Japanese occupation of the huge U.S. island territory of the Philippines would have prevented that experiment in American colonial rule to end in favor of independent nationhood in 1946, after its liberation by allied forces in World War II. At that time Puerto Rico became the last large and populous U.S. territory which, unlike the Philippines, had U.S. citizen population since 1917.

If we accept the premise of Oliver’s ideological thesis, statehood would have been too “complicated” for Louisiana during the War of 1812, the free state of Maine in 1820 during the struggle to end the British institution of slavery in America, or West Virginia during the Civil War in 1863.

The genius who mastered the story of Hamilton’s journey from the Caribbean to the heart of the American idea needs to realize that there would be no American system of constitutional federalism – in which the rights of national citizenship can be exercised only through state citizenship – if being “complicated” was used as an excuse to deny equality and liberty. Mr. Lin-Manuel Miranda needs to get as hip-hop street smart about the present and future of real people in Puerto Rico today as he has about the historical life and times of his Caribbean idol, Hamilton.

The idea that economics of fiscal mismanagement trump freedom for 3.5 million Americans is a scary anti-Hamiltonian notion, especially when Hamilton was the very guy who convinced his homeboys in the hood over at Philadelphia to risk their lives for equal citizenship, at a time when the Continental Congress was in hock to Dutch bankers, whose tactics for collecting debt were far less ambiguous than the hedge fund vultures whom Oliver demonizes. Read more about debt and statehood.

Oliver also lamely blamed the territory’s fiscal meltdown on the loss of federal tax loopholes for mainland business with undue influence in Congress, looking to exploit the territory in the name of “economic development and jobs.” However, those tax breaks were a corrupting corporate welfare scam that did not bring sustainable economic development, as demonstrated by the flight of mainland companies back home as soon as the artificial incentives ended.

That is why constitutionally temporary territorial status – including colonial rule by a Congress in which the U.S. citizens of the island do not have voting representation – is more “complicated” than the hard choice between statehood or nationhood. Being a territory is a statutory status without permanent constitutional rights.

It is the lack of equal footing for Puerto Rico as a territory to compete in the national economy on the same terms as the states of the union, as well as the lack of equal political rights to participate fully in the life in the nation through citizenship of a state, that has stunted sustainable growth and slowly strangled the political economy of the people.

So instead of begging for mercy from Wall Street and the letting the Empire strike back from Washington, take a page out of the script about how the Jedi insurgency of 1776 led to a more perfect union through statehood, instead of further enabling the less perfect union called “commonwealth” in the name of more government control of the economy. In 1776 real men and women were brave enough to die for freedom, and did not surrender to the idea that equal citizenship is too “complicated” because of the economy.

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