Archive for the ‘American history’ Category

Some Thoughts on American Terror

December 4th, 2015

Reading Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent anecdotal history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, one of the things that is falling into place for me has to do with gun violence and gun control in America.  I want to avoid oversimplification and reductionism, but it seems to me that in order to understand the peculiar nature of gun violence in America you have to understand the history.  And I think there is more to understand than what the Second Amendment meant to the Founding Fathers, or the role of hunting and home defense in colonial and frontier society.

One huge thing gets overlooked when we talk about American gun culture. For about a hundred years after the Civil War, an entire section of our country was ruled by terrorism.  It was a peculiarly American form of public/private partnership. The entire American South was governed by private terrorism in league with government terrorism.  This is not hyperbole.  It is a plain statement of fact.  Black people were oppressed through a public-private collaboration in terrorism.  Whites were kept in line by the same means.  Until you absorb the meaning of that, you can’t begin to understand the meaning of guns in our culture.

Let me pause on this a moment. President Obama recently memorably observed, with regard to the seemingly endless series of almost daily mass murders by firearm that occur in the United States, it doesn’t happen in other places. Well, in fact it does, but not in very many places. Not very many places share a similar, recent history of such severe repression of such a large proportion of the population over such a large extent of the nation’s territory by such a seamless partnership of governmental and private terrorism. One thinks of South Africa during apartheid. Nicaragua, in the death squad era. Usually government reserves for itself a monopoly of violence. In the Jim Crow South, that was not the case.

This means that such technical gun control measures as limits on magazine capacity, banning of private ownership of military style weaponry, and universal background checks – all of which seem like commonsensical, good ideas to me – are somewhat beside the point. It is a form of swimming against the current.  The NRA, I am sad to say, is partly right.  Guns only kill people when people use them for that.  But the NRA’s take on this is a lie, because the NRA wants you to think that people act as isolated individuals.  The lone crazed gunman or the vicious outlaw, what can you do about that?  But that’s not the whole story.  People are social beings.  We live in a society in which, for broad swathes of its members, guns are an ancient and accepted tool of social control.  There’s a reason many Americans tend to think you can solve a political or social problem by shooting at it.  They’re not crazy.  It’s a strategy that worked for them for a hundred years or more.  And of course the poison spreads.  You don’t have to be a lineal descendant of Nathaniel Bedford Forrest to be infected.  I am fairly sure that the first-generation son of Pakistani immigrants who perpetrated today’s San Bernardino mass murders will be found to have well acculturated himself to this. The Southern model of terrorism will have found many students, even unwitting ones.

The Jim Crow terroristic state arose after the South was rid of Reconstruction and Southern whites once again seized exclusive control of the apparatus of government.  The nongovernmental terrorists, such as the KKK, were ready and waiting for this.  Since federal power had destroyed the ability of southern government to re-enslave blacks, and private actors did not have the power to accomplish re-enslavement without at least the acquiescence of the state, it was necessary to form a private/public partnership to exert totalitarian control over blacks and to suppress white dissent.  For the period of Jim Crow, government terrorism and terrorism by private groups were mutually permeable phenomena, linked and in service to the same cause. This worked at least until the 1960s, when the machinery of government began to be pried loose once again from the hands of the white supremacists, and the private arm of the Southern terrorist machine was driven underground.  But cultures do not change as quickly as laws.

The private actors in the public/private terrorist state had lost their investment in government.  The government was no longer theirs. Through the experience of their own collaborative efforts, they knew what government can be turned to, and they had reason to fear that it would be turned on them. Since the line between official and non-official terrorism had been, in their experience, so indistinct, they had little or no conception of government as an entity apart and separate from the classes that controlled it. That is the root of the otherwise difficult to explain meme that “gun control means the feds are going to take our guns away; we are the bulwark against tyrrany.”  It seems laughable when the gun interest claims that private gun ownership is a counterweight to overwheening government power.  We rightly scoff and say tell that to the marines.  No sane person thinks that an unorganized mob of gun owners is going to be able to combat the U.S. armed forces.  It wasn’t even true in the age of Jefferson and Madison, as Daniel Shays learned to his chagrin, let alone today. But that is not the point.  The point is that the terrorist state’s private partners, having lost control of the state, are thrown back upon their own devices.  Their society, evolved in a pervasively terrorist regime, had little experience of a government of laws, a government relatively free of corruption, a government grounded in civil liberties.  These are all meaningless abstractions to them.  What has meaning to them is the knock on the door in the middle of the night, because that was their society’s reality for so long. Now the government is no longer theirs, who knows when that knock might come. All that remains to them is their guns; and if their government could be taken away, why not this other source of power? What will they be left with, then?

In sum, in order to reduce gun violence in America we must first directly confront and somehow heal the effects of our nation’s history of massive terrorist totalitarian control over large sections of its people and territory.  We must rid our culture of the complex of notions that legitimate the use of firearms in private hands as a means of social control.  Such an understanding in itself won’t do the trick, because American gun violence has many causes.  It is necessary, but not sufficient. But it will go far.  Unfortunately, this complex of notions is deeply ingrained, having ruled so large a part of our country for so long and having been renounced by the organs of power only fifty years or so ago, and that renunciation having been rather less than thorough and sincere, as so many police shootings of black men demonstrate.  It’s a long road to go.

It occurs to me that one way to get at this would be to take seriously the call for reparations to black Americans for the oppression they suffered under slavery and continue to suffer in its aftermath. The point would not be to “make them whole” in the sense of legal damages – what could? – but to engage the entire society in an open and concrete debate about how we got to where we are. It would be a much more concrete, down to earth matter than a mere airy “discussion about race.” Even relatively token compensation is, after all, compensation. Such a discussion, aimed at the intersection of justice and history, would serve a function equivalent to that of the “truth and reconciliation” initiatives that often follow a transition out of dictatorship. We have had our unacknowledged transition out of a terrorist totalitarianism. I am afraid that until we make some real effort to acknowledge what that meant and what it now means, we will continue to murder each other because among its legacies is this: that murder is the way that much of our society learned to govern itself.

land of chickenshits

April 18th, 2013

Some thoughts on the U.S. Senate’s failure to do anything about gun violence today, in the face of a filibuster.  The following came tumbling out of me in a comment on  Facebook, and I thought it worth repeating here:

As any thinking and feeling person must be, I am appalled by the intellectually threadbare, morally barren, opportunistically craven attitudes that give the gun lobby its political ascendancy. I’m not convinced that the gun control measures currently under discussion will actually do much to provide relief from gun violence, but if they could save even one life, they would be worth it. Against that, however, is counterbalanced the vast fearfulness that has made a lie of the claim of this country to be “the land of the free and the home of the brave” for longer than such a claim has been made. Fear of god, fear of indians, fear of black people, fear of brown people, fear of yellow people, fear of white people, fear of irish, fear of germans, fear of jews, fear of catholics, fear of communists, fear of working people, fear of government, fear of women, fear of men, fear of children, fear of adolescents, fear of illlness, fear of death, fear ultimately and most deeply of each other, whoever we are. Fear of losing their guns, which for so many of our fellow citizens are the fetish items that they use to hold these other fears at bay. We’ll know this is truly the land of the free and the home of the brave when that changes. It doesn’t really have all that much to do with filibusters.

Lincoln

December 4th, 2012

Here, in no particular order, are some thoughts I had after watching Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln last night.  It assumes you’ve seen the movie or have some idea what it’s about.  Warning: there may be some spoilers here.  My son disclaimed interest in seeing this movie, saying he already knows how it turns out.  But there are many surprises along the way…

Shabbiness.  This is not a clean and sparkly costume drama like Anna Karenina.  They’re going for gritty period authenticity here, not fairyland.  Lincoln visits Grant’s field HQ, a nice white house in the country with a pillared porch, and there’s mud all over everything.  The rooms in the Capitol and the White House are smoky and dingy. No vacuumed wall-to-wall synthetic carpet, no gleaming linoleum, no sterile cubbies.  No sterile anything.  At a hospital, they dispose of amputated limbs by trundling them in a wooden wheelbarrow covered with a dirty sheet to dump them in a shallow pit out back.  The wheelbarrow drips puddles of blood all along the way you wouldn’t want to step in.  At the movie’s closing scene, Lincoln’s second inauguration, he is surrounded by a crowd of people standing in front of the Capitol, listening.  They all look unkempt, their clothes ill fitting and probably not too clean.  Nobody looks too well washed.  The rich and powerful don’t look a whole lot better dressed than the hoi polloi.  No orange tans and pink scrubbed faces and sleek suits like you see nowadays – not on the floor of the House of Representatives, not in the President’s offices, nowhere.  Almost the only exception is Rep. Atkins, the dapper floor manager in the fight for the Thirteenth Amendment on the House floor.  He stands out for his dapperness, meaning his cheeks look scrubbed, his clothes reasonably well tailored and well fitting.  This was a time when there was no shampoo as we know it – getting your hair really clean was next to impossible.  Lincoln’s hair takes on an almost independent life, practically deserves its own place in the credits.

Unadventurous old-fashioned film-making and story-telling.  Straightforward narrative, for the most part in simple chronological order, from a single detached point of view, the omniscient observer.  Not much fancy camera work or framing of scenes.  Score reasonably restrained, but still – at times obtrusively – constantly commenting, telling us what to feel.  Sense after about half way through that a LOT of scenes are set pieces for Lincoln’s oratory, for him to expound his agonized or eloquent or homey or whatever thoughts while other characters sit around and listen with varying degrees of appreciation.  From these standard, hoary Hollywood materials, Spielberg has fashioned a masterpiece. There’s life in the old girl yet!  Movie rides on the intelligence of the screenplay, the quality of the acting, and the scrupulous craftsmanship of the director.

Moral complexity.  The movie has been criticized for the way that blacks are mostly in the background.  I don’t think these criticisms are justified.  The movie’s very first scene is an ugly, hand-to-hand melee in which black soldiers fighting on the Union side gradually overcome and kill all of their Confederate adversaries.  Men are stuck with bayonets, strangled, held under water, stomped on the head into the mud.  The next scene is an interview between Lincoln and some of the victors/survivors.  A black soldier takes him to task for not going far enough in the cause of racial equality.  It is almost the only scene in which Lincoln seems ill at ease and inadequate to the task; a magnificent framing device, at once powerful and subtle.   For the rest of the movie, blacks are mostly in the background of the film’s action, because, with regard to the actual events depicted, that’s where they were.  Much later, Lincoln rides through a battlefield, picking his way through heaps of dead, grotesque piles of corpses from a battle that he knows did not need to take place except that he –Lincoln – has made ending slavery a priority over ending the war.  At the end of the movie, when we hear him speak those amazing words from the Second Inaugural Address about requiting with blood for every stroke of the lash from the bondsman’s two hundred years of toil, we know what personal pain those words carried for him, and it elevates them from the realm of mere oratory, however magnificent, to a cri de coeur.  Meanwhile, Lincoln struggles against his eldest surviving son’s desire to join the army, allowing him to do so at last but making sure he has a relatively safe job, and knowing that another father’s son may die for that decision.  And at the same time Lincoln is fighting to preserve the Republic, which in his mind stands for preserving democracy and the rule of law, he plays fast and loose with the Constitution and engages in the flimsiest forms of legal pettifoggery to bamboozle Congress into ending slavery.  If he is a hero, it is not because he was pure as Galahad.  Far from it.

Representative Thaddeus Stevens, the great abolitionist from Pennsylvania, sleeping with his  housekeeper.  I will admit to a small frisson of unmerited pride in my chosen home state when I learned that Mr. Stevens was born in Vermont, although he represented a Pennsylvania district in the House.  After the antislavery amendment is passed, and the day of celebration is over, Stevens goes to bed.  The camera pans across his creaky old body releasing itself into the mattress, to his bedmate, a black woman.  It’s played a little for shock effect, and for the effect of adding to Stevens’ heroism.  Whereas Lincoln, asked by his wife’s maid what he thinks will happen after the war when all blacks are free, says we’ll have to learn how to get along, which makes him seem a man thoroughly of his time,  by contrast Stevens’ loving interracial relationship makes him seem a man way way ahead of his time.  But even he keeps it a secret so as not to create scandal; and it inevitably echoes of less laudable sexual relationships between powerful white men and the domestic help.

Level of personal vituperation in politics.  Our latter-day politicians are virtuosos of euphemism, innuendo, dog-whistles, code-words; but these guys reveled in name-calling.  They indulge exuberantly in verbal mud-wrestling.  There’s a scene where Stevens, goaded almost beyond his limited endurance, borders on the scatological in describing in detail the lower orders of life to which he claims his contemptible interlocutor belongs, ending by observing that the fellow should be smashed underfoot.  It would be even funnier if we hadn’t seen somebody doing just that in the movie’s opening sequence.  There are many such examples of high fluency and verbal inventiveness used as assault weapons.  Part of that is probably just the playwright, Tony Kushner, having fun with language.  Some of the glee with which Thaddeus Stevens describes an opponent on the floor of the House to his face as disgusting slime is probably due to the fact that it’s Tommy Lee Jones who is playing him.  But it’s also true to the times. It was a period when educated people deployed spoken language with more potency and sophistication and in some ways – despite our freedom with fuck and shit and so on – with less inhibition than we do now.  Anyway, those who decry the lack of civility in modern political discourse should take note.

Lincoln outsized compared to the other characters, literally and figuratively.  In every dimension, physical, spiritual, intellectual, psychological, he is simply larger.  Only the volcanic Thaddeus Stevens comes close.  Of all the many vividly drawn characters in the movie, Lincoln’s wife Mary alone is depicted as fully in the round as he, a woman of surprising resilience and combative intelligence, but even she is a much smaller personality.  This is partly a function of the film’s focus – it’s entitled Lincoln after all – and partly a (probably) accurate vision of what it is like to be around a truly great man.  Great means big.  He dwarfs us.  So when a room full of ego-driven, aggressive, powerful men falls silent while he spins out one of his befuddling parables, it’s psychologically plausible.  It’s not that he sucks all the oxygen out of the room the way a histrionic narcissist does, it’s that when he takes action there’s simply nothing else to watch.  Sometimes they rebel – Sec. of War Stanton fulminates I can’t stand another one of your stories and hustles away – but the rest stay and listen.  There’s an elephant in the room, and it’s him.

Lincoln’s weariness.  His gait like an exhausted plow horse plodding home after a long long day in the field. The visible effort he puts into bending and unbending that long body standing up or sitting down.  The default mode of his face – brooding exhaustion.  The horrible personal cost of being him.  He gets more stooped and hunch-shouldered as things go on, as if he is literally being dragged down by the weight of his burdens and also by the continuing need to meet his fellow beings on their level.

Lincoln’s mode of thought – narrative, analogy, metaphor.  Oh, he’s capable of powerful legal and political logic. His explanation of why the Emancipation Proclamation was not enough to do the job of ending slavery and might be legally wrong, coupled with his explanation of why the Thirteenth Amendment has to be passed through Congress now now now before the war’s end, is an almost breathtaking exhibition.  This is a guy who Thinks Things Through.  Somebody once said of the great jazz pianist Art Tatum that he was almost impossible to play with in a duet because nobody else could think that fast.  One gets the idea Lincoln was like that, as a lawyer and politician.  But: his default mode of thinking is essentially via image and metaphor; dare I say it, poetic.  Nearly every time he is called upon to make a considered response to something, whether it is a question, a situation, an interpersonal problem, the first place his mind goes is to a story, an example, a concrete reality.  It is this ability to find a bridge of resonance between one set of circumstances and another, and thus between one person or group of people and another, that is his most characteristic mode of thought.

Not just an exercise in antiquarianism.  Given our very recent history, it is jarring at first to have the party of civil rights be the Republicans, and even more jarring that the Radical Republicans are the most progressive ones, while the Democrats are the party of white racial solidarity.  But then people of my generation may remember that it was in fact more or less this way well into our childhoods, until Nixon struck his deal with the devil in 1972 and Reps and Dems switched places.  But what kept striking me over and over is how we still are repeating the same essential conversation over and over, that everything in American politics either harkens back to race or is fundamentally about race, and that all the basic attitudes we encounter today are pretty much the same as those expressed in the debate on the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.  Instead of talking about slavery, we’re talking about affirmative action and voter suppression and discrimination and minority rights and immigration and so on.  But the things we (I mean mostly white people) are saying about these subjects, although couched in radically different language, are mostly things that might have been said 147 years ago.  But there is a difference.  In the debate on the Thirteenth Amendment, the Democrats tried to force Thaddeus Stevens to say what he in fact believed, that the point of ending slavery was to promote equality of the races.  Such a bald, radical statement might have scuttled the project.  So he swallowed hard and pretended that he was only interested in equality before the law.  To the extent that he would not have to mount such a pretense today, that is the measure of our progress.

True Stories of Inspiring American Leadership

July 28th, 2011

Wounded Knee is part of our family’s history.  Leonard’s great-grandfather, the first Crow Dog, had been one of the leaders of the Ghost Dancers.  He and his group had held on in the icy ravines of the Badlands all winter, but when the soldiers came in force to kill all the Ghost Dancers he had surrendered his band to avoid having his people killed.  Old accounts describe how Crow Dog simply sat down between the rows of soldiers on one side, and the Indians on the other, all ready and eager to start shooting.  He had covered himself with a blanket and was just sitting there.  Nobody knew what to make of it.  The leaders on both sides were so puzzled that they just did not get around to opening fire.  They went to Crow Dog, lifted the blanket, and asked him what he meant to do.  He told them that sitting there with the blanket over him was the only thing he could think of to make all the hotheads, white and red, curious enough to forget fighting.  Then he persuaded his people to lay down their arms.  Thus he saved his people just a few miles away from where Big Foot and his band were massacred.

Mary Crow Dog, Lakota Woman (Grove Weidenfeld 1990).  This story bears a striking resemblance to a well-attested incident in the life of Sitting Bull.  There are differences.  In Sitting Bull’s case, the soldiers already were shooting, and Sitting Bull was accompanied between the lines by a small group of followers.  Sitting Bull sat down and in an unhurried

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In the spirit of White Bull

March 19th, 2011

A story I read last month in Thomas Powers’ wonderful history, The Killing of Crazy Horse, has been vibrating in my mind ever since.  The book is characterized by exhaustive research, adherence to ascertainable fact, scrupulous refusal to romanticize or demonize anybody, globally comprehensive perspective, beautiful sense of proportion, and willingness to offer humane and reasonable interpretation but only with a dignified sense of restraint.  It is the best attempt I have read to depict the tangled relations among Indians and whites on the frontier during the period of the Sioux wars of the 1870s.  Powers does justice (in all meanings of the phrase) to people on both sides and the many people in between.   It is history written as if history were about human beings in all their multi-dimensionality.

The story that has stuck with me so vividly has to do with a battle that occurred in August, 1872, near the Yellowstone River.  About five hundred U.S. soldiers and civilians were camped on the north bank, in territory from which whites were excluded by the Treaty of 1868.  Coincidentally, a

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