Friday, December 16, 2016

How our revolutionary history can shed light on this moment of crisis



We ignore history at our peril.

I spent several days last week in Manhattan visiting a sister who has lived there nearly 40 years or so. In the 25 years that I lived and worked in the DC area, Manhattan became part of our deep bond. We share a love of American history – the real history, not the glorified one we got from our childhood schooling. We traveled together many times – to revolutionary and Civil War battlefields, to historical sites dating back from Jamestown to Yorktown to the Appomattox Courthouse. We learned about the history of slavery and genocide in the east, and the moral and political failures of Founding Fathers, as well as their genius.

If we don’t know about these things, we are missing the context for how we have arrived at this remarkably dangerous moment in our nation.

Hamilton as Secretary of Treasury
Because of the success of the Broadway show, Hamilton, New York City has gone a bit nuts with revolutionary history and millions of people are coming to take it in. Long-neglected historical sites are being visited (like Hamilton’s house which neared disastrous deterioration before it was moved for a second time, this time to a site run by the National Park Service). Various cultural institutions are telling parts of the story through brilliantly curated exhibits, like that of the Battle of Brooklyn at the New York City Historical Society (where I learned a lot I didn’t know before about the beginning of the Revolutionary War) and at the central library where they had some original documents on display that took my breath away – like George Washington’s farewell speech to his officers written in his own hand, and next to it a draft with markings and edits by Alexander Hamilton.

Makes them real. Also makes real the cultural, economic, and political tensions and divides that have been part of this country since its founding days.


I was reminded, as I took in more of this, that the “Founding Fathers” were just people caught up in the moment, you know? mostly young men of enormous ego, ambition, and vision, with competing notions of what the revolution meant and where it was headed. Freedom from the British monarchy held them together. What freedom and governance meant after the war was the subject of fierce debate and violent upheaval, including Civil War, a tension that is still with us.

Why write this here on this website? Because I truly believe that our lack of understanding of our history is one of the reasons we are so shocked by what just happened in these elections. And we need to see this clearly if we are to appreciate fully the challenge of making "new creation" here.

Take the resurgence of white supremacy, for example. You know, it never really went away. We all know this. As a culture we have been much better at sweeping it under the rug from time to time, rather than dealing with it directly. Segregation was legal in the south, including the District of Columbia, into the 1960s. That’s in my lifetime. Selma is in my lifetime. The riots of the late 1960s with burning cities and outbursts of rage were in my lifetime. The “white flight” from my city of Milwaukee into exclusive white suburbs still goes on today. And not quite four-and-a-half years ago, just down the road from me, a member of a neo-Nazi organization entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin and shot dead six of their members.

The police violence against the Standing Rock Sioux nation and their supporters in North Dakota? That’s been part of our history since Europeans tragically arrived on the shores of Turtle Island.

Part of the revolutionary story that really struck me this time was the clash between the agrarian southern culture, which angrily resisted attempts to form and consolidate a strong federal government (we’re doing fine down here in our slaveholding plantation culture, we don’t need the north or the federal government – the origins of the “states’ rights” cause that spawned civil war and which still shapes many of our political battles), and the urban-based culture where markets and industry were beginning to flourish, fed by a Hamilton-created banking system based in debt and credit, in part to pay off war debts, but also to create the basis for an economy free of the Brits.

What did we do in the decades after that? With grandiose dreams of creating their own expansive nation, those founders of ours set about the process of taking land, of spreading out across the continent, in a history of genocide that surely ranks among the worst in human history. Death by disease, massacre, forced marches, and reservation living decimated the population of peoples living here from 50-100 million when Europeans arrived to less than a million by early last century.

Still wonder what Standing Rock was all about?


Genocide and slavery. There would be no United States of America as we know it without those two things – no “great” nation, no economic empire. It took three centuries of erasing the humanity of native populations and enslaved African people to give white people the dominant stature that they have had in this country. Like it or not, this just simply is.

What else did those founding fathers and their next generations do? Well, they savagely assaulted the land itself in search of wealth. Here’s a connection that goes way back – many of the gold mines opened and exploited during the California Gold Rush that began in 1849 are still leaching toxic waste into the environment, into creeks and wetlands. And that Dust Bowl? Now we now it was a direct result of the “40 acres and a mule” expansion into the Great Plains where new farmers and ranchers were encouraged to dig up the prairie grass with those deep roots that had held that soil in place precisely as an evolutionary adaptation to a part of the world that is naturally dry and hot and often subject to prolonged drought. Without those roots, the wind just blew the soil away.
There goes the soil! Wikipedia

To “tame the frontier” settlers cut down forests, flattened hills (like the Germans did here in Milwaukee, making it easier to bring products – like beer – to port), irrigated land to the point where aquifers are now going dry, cut railroad tracks and today’s pipelines all across the country to keep industry churning and the economy growing. Nature was a beast to be conquered and exploited for the purpose of economic gain. Factories were built and toxins spewed into the air and waters. The engine had to keep running because we built an entire way of life on this conquest of humans and nature, and we got pretty good at putting down rebellion and resistance here in this country and in our “sphere of influence” wherever in the world we declared it to be so.

But it was only the vast expansion of industrialization after World War II, a new version of economic might that grew out of that war, that made possible the creation of a middle class with strong unions that could struggle for the rights of workers, and, for just a little while in our history, new wealth was more broadly shared.

For decades now it has been clear just how temporary that was. Because we’ve gone from needing the labor of all those millions of workers to churn out stuff and profits to technology that is replacing them in a globalized version of corporate capitalism. We are in the age of technology now, computers and robots and artificial intelligence, on a planet that has been overwhelmed and left dangerously damaged and depleted by a voracious global economy that sadly followed the trajectory that we created with such savage efficiency.

At the same time, in these more recent decades our nation has become more diverse than it has ever been. Within the next couple of decades, white people will no longer have the majority here. African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians – Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus and the “Nones” (religiously unaffiliated young people) – myriad languages that we hear on our streets, in the parks and on playgrounds – surround us in a cacophony that marks the actual end of white supremacy. Many saw this coming, and I remember a couple of decades ago when reading about this demographic shift, thinking, “Oh, this is not going to go down easily.”

Let me add one more point in this lengthy post, because this election really brings it to light. Another major shift in the nation over my lifetime is the emptying out of population from rural areas as more and more people moved into cities on the two coasts and the Great Lakes industrial region. That’s where the jobs were, the education possibilities, an easier more predictable life, more culture and entertainment.
[Urban areas — defined as densely developed residential, commercial and other nonresidential areas -- now account for 80.7 percent of the U.S. population, up from 79.0 percent in 2000. Although the rural population -- the population in any areas outside of those classified as “urban” — grew by a modest amount from 2000 to 2010, it continued to decline as a percentage of the national population. - Growth in Urban Population Outpaces Rest of Nation, Census Bureau Reports]
And while that occurred, some things in our electoral system remained the same – that each state, no matter population, has two Senators in Congress, and that the electoral college has gone way out of balance with these population shifts. This is one reason why Hillary Clinton could receive nearly 3 million more popular votes and lose the college. A lot of those late vote counts came from states she had already won, and so it didn’t matter in the outcome at all. Those voters’ ballots were pretty much wasted.

We have become a deeply unbalanced polity, and the high level of political apathy that has always marked our elections as long as I’ve been on the planet means that the result we are now experiencing, which is devastating for the planet, for civil rights, for our Constitutional order, has come about through the ballots of a small minority of the population, and one that shares far less of the diversity of culture, race, ethnicity, language, and religion than in the cities and sprawling suburbs of the “blue” states.

Read the book
One last point, and then an attempt to pull some thoughts together. In the controversy that we have seen around Trump’s choice of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State, Tillerson’s deep ties with Vladimir Putin, and then Trump’s ties with Putin, it occurs to me that we are seeing a power grab over control of huge reserves of oil and gas that could reshape the balance of power in the world in very troubling ways, combined with grave threats to climate and habitats needed to keep ecosystems intact. If it feels like crisis, that’s because it is. In some ways, it’s what American robber barons and corporate bosses have always done, but now the stakes are beyond imagining if this power grab is allowed to proceed.

There is a point where a trajectory in history needs to come to a crashing halt. This American “experiment” begun long ago is one which result has now become obvious. We have to change the entire logic of the economic system; we have to change the cultural identity of the nation; we have to own up to the legacy of genocide and slavery and the resulting racism that has plagued us throughout our history; we have to begin thinking about how we change a political system that no longer works, that no longer serves, that no longer represents who we are.

This is no short-term struggle. This is generational. And yet it all feels so urgent because Mother Earth has her own logic and we are not in sync with it. It seems to me that, as we do the work we feel called to do now, whatever that is, it has become critical that we build community, that we develop strong networks of solidarity, because a lot will be breaking down as this process moves ahead. There are going to be real losses. There are going to be significant struggles. And we are going to need one another.

But while all that is going on, we can build community, new community that begins to hint at that other world we know is possible. We’re not starting from scratch. Much has already been started in that work of new creation. And despite the difficulty of the challenges before us, it really is going to be some of the most beautiful work humans have ever done. We need to believe that.

Creation out there in the cosmos comes also from chaos and destruction, necessary energies for new creation to come about. We are not exempt from that process. But seeing it, and understanding what gave rise to this moment, can also help us see what needs to be let go, what we need to shed, what the path is, and who we want to be with on the journey.

Photo: David Goldtooth

~ Margaret Swedish

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