Thursday, December 29, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 13

The Socialist Challenge

"I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched, and dishonored from pirate raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria, South Africa, and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies."~ Mark Twain, circa 1900

"In the face of the facts that modern man lives more wretchedly than the cave-man, and that his producing power is a thousand times greater than that of the cave-man, no other conclusion is possible than that the capitalist class has mismanaged .. . criminally and selfishly mismanaged." and "Let us not destroy those wonderful machines that produce efficiently and cheaply. Let us control them. Let us profit by their efficiency and cheapness. Let us run them for ourselves. That, gentlemen, is socialism..." ~ Jack London, 1906

Some theorize reasonably that having a few owners streamlining large businesses such as railroads and oil companies makes sense and allows things to run smoothly, for wages to be high and normalized, and for everything to be efficient, but as we see today and was evident at the turn of the century, "True, the very big businesses were not hurt [by recession], but profits after 1907 were not as high as capitalists wanted, industry was not expanding as fast as it might, and industrialists began to look for ways to cut costs." Safety measures and labor wages are two quick fixes to the cost-cutting demands, at least in the short run. Labor became standardized and mechanized as well, so more people, the poor and uneducated, women and children, could work at all hours in drudgery for lower wages. Many people got sick because of the poor light and air quality, and some died in fires caused by hazardous conditions.

A garment factory worker around this time was interviewed and said, "In these disease-breeding holes we, the youngsters together with the men and women toiled from seventy and eighty hours a week! Saturdays and Sundays included!... A sign would go up on Saturday afternoon: 'If you don't come in on Sunday, you need not come in on Monday.' ... Children's dreams of a day off shattered. We wept, for after all, we were only children."

"In the year 1904, 27,000 workers were killed on the job, in manufacturing, transport, and agriculture. In one year, 50,000 accidents took place in New York factories alone. Hat and cap makers were getting respiratory diseases, quarrymen were inhaling deadly chemicals, lithographic printers were getting arsenic poisoning."

"According to a report of the Commission on Industrial Relations, in 1914, 35,000 workers were killed in industrial accidents and 700,000 injured. That year the income of forty-four families making $1 million or more equaled the total income of 100,000 families earning $500 a year."

Howard Zinn tells some great stories about the history of unions at this time. Women and African Americans asserted their rights, with mixed success. I recommend you go to the book chapter and read them yourselves.

It is also interesting to see how there were different types of unions. You had conservative unions, which remind me of the Human Rights Campaign. They try/tried to promote equality and improvement in socieity, but they worked with the system one step at a time. Other unions didn't stop at just giving rights to white men but sought to dismantle the whole system and free women and blacks.

Conservatives at the time fought against socialism overtly, but Progressives met them halfway and enacted new rules and laws that alleviated some of the problems working people were fighting against but that ultimately gave more control to businessmen, pushing the government and big business further into bed together. As one Socialist at the time put it, "progressives would work for reforms, but Socialists must make only 'impossible demands,' which would reveal the limitations of the reformers."

The lengths taken to get even these small reforms were great. Working men, women, and children who decided to strike when faced with unhealthy, inhuman conditions were met by the police, the National Guard, hired private detective agencies, and they were often beaten or killed. Preachers and peaceful protestors were also silenced by any means necessary. The rights to free speech and assembly were suspended at times when martial law was declared. We haven't seen too much of that kind of escalation during the Occupy Wall Street movements, but I've known people who were arrested for peacefully protesting, and I am proud of them.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 12

Notes on "The Empire and the People"
  • From the beginning of our nation, the U.S. has been very imperialist, and one can argue that many different reasons or factors went into it:
  • 'natural' lust and aggression? Anglo-Saxon barbarism? military expansion?
  • Several years before his election to the presidency, William McKinley said: "We want a foreign market for our surplus products." Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana in early 1897 declared: "American factories are making more than the American people can use; American soil is producing more than they can consume. Fate has written our policy for us; the trade of the world must and shall be ours."
  • (Looks like we've now caught up with that problem of not consuming enough, eh?)
  • Teddy Roosevelt claimed that as a white and masterful race, we pretty much should be controlling more and more of the world, and we expanded into Hawaii, tried to get into Cuba, and much of the Caribbean and Pacific in general.
  • Winston Churchill was also a racist dick in his disapproval and fear of a negro-run Haiti.
  • Several years after the Cuban war, the chief of the Bureau of Foreign Commerce of the Department of Commerce wrote about that period: "The Spanish-American War was but an incident of a general movement of expansion which had its roots in the changed environment of an industrial capacity far beyond our domestic powers of consumption. It was seen to be necessary for us not only to find foreign purchasers for our goods, but to provide the means of making access to foreign markets easy, economical and safe." 
  • Labor unions, on the other hand, were against this. When the Maine exploded and the press went crazy, the unions claimed that many more of their numbers died tragically but that the "carnival of carnage that takes place every day, month and year in the realm of industry, the thousands of useful lives that are annually sacrificed to the Moloch of greed, the blood tribute paid by labor to capitalism, brings forth no shout for vengeance and reparation."
  • In the Spanish American War, we pretty much ignored the independence of Cuba and strong-armed them to sign an agreement saying we could come over and bug them anytime we wanted. 
  • The U.S continued to expand in the Pacific. McKinley said he didn't really want the Philippines at first, but eventually God told him that they couldn't give it back to Europe or leave it to its own barbaric self, so they/we had to take the Philippines to "educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died."
  • Really, though, we needed to take the Philippines to steal their natural resources and to have another port on the way to China, where the hundreds of thousands of people there would be the 'natural' buyers of our surpluses. Not to mention they were just Orientals, a different, lesser caliber of people than Americans or Europeans. Many tens of thousands of Americans and Filipinos died in the ensuing conflicts.
  • Black men in the U.S. were conflicted between fighting for the cause in order to better their shaky station in the States and abstaining from fighting because they could not advance in the military and because they were quite obviously killing brown people abroad. Black soldiers fighting for the interests of white capitalism were denied service at drugstores and other places of business. They were segregated in some ways but expected to fight just like whites in others.
  • Through imperialism in the Caribbean and the Pacific, the country saw once again that whites with money catered to their own interests and used blacks and poor workingmen white to do their dirty work.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 11

"Robber Barons and Rebels" or, in this author's words, The Man vs. The People

Zinn's first paragraph: "In the year 1877, the signals were given for the rest of the century: the blacks would be put back; the strikes of white workers would not be tolerated; the industrial and political elites of North and South would take hold of the country and organize the greatest march of economic growth in human history. They would do it with the aid of, and at the expense of, black labor, white labor, Chinese labor, European immigrant labor, female labor, rewarding them differently by race, sex, national origin, and social class, in such a way as to create separate levels of oppression-a skillful terracing to stabilize the pyramid of wealth."

Zinn goes on to share many examples of how inventions, great ideas, conglomerations, and dangerous, near-slave labor fueled the wild economic growth that happened in the U.S. after the Civil War. Steel, railroads, oil, meat-packing, cigarettes - all were made faster, cheaper, bigger. The poor workers died in droves while the Rockefellers and the Carnegies made millions.

"And so it went, in industry after industry-shrewd, efficient businessmen building empires, choking out competition, maintaining high prices, keeping wages low, using government subsidies. These industries were the first beneficiaries of the "welfare state." By the turn of the century, American Telephone and telegraph had a monopoly of the nation's telephone system, International Harvester made 85 percent of all farm machinery, and in every other industry resources became concentrated, controlled. The banks had interests in so many of these monopolies as to create an interlocking network of powerful corporation directors, each of whom sat on the boards of many other corporations. According to a Senate report of the early twentieth century, Morgan at his peak sat on the board of forty-eight corporations; Rockefeller, thirty-seven corporations."

"Meanwhile," Zinn argues, "the government of the United States was behaving almost exactly as Karl Marx described a capitalist state: pretending neutrality to maintain order, but serving the interests of the rich. Not that the rich agreed among themselves; they had disputes over policies. But the purpose of the state was to settle upper-class disputes peacefully, control lower-class rebellion, and adopt policies that would further the long-range stability of the system."

It didn't matter who was in office, either. Zinn argues that the oligarchy prevailed whether a Democrat or a Republican was elected. Both parties catered to - and still cater to - big business interests.

Zinn talks about how systematic support for the oligarchy was, from the mid-1700s when the U.S. was being founded through today.

"Control in modern times requires more than force, more than law. It requires that a population dangerously concentrated in cities and factories, whose lives are filled with cause for rebellion, be taught that all is right as it is. And so, the schools, the churches, the popular literature taught that to be rich was a sign of superiority, to be poor a sign of personal failure, and that the only way upward for a poor person was to climb into the ranks of the rich by extraordinary effort and extraordinary luck."

Zinn writes about the millionnaires turned philanthropists who created universities in their own names. He writes about how these universities created the educated people who would support the capitalistic system. He goes on to talk about the state of primary education. "It was important that these people learn obedience to authority," writes Zinn. A journalist of the 1890s described it: "'The unkindly spirit of the teacher is strikingly apparent; the pupils, being completely subjugated to her will, are silent and motionless, the spiritual atmosphere of the classroom is damp and chilly.'" I agree with this, but as a would-be educator and a college addict, it stings a little.

...The internet ate a paragraph or two, but basically Zinn spends pages and pages describing very well in this chapter specific strikes in different industries, different rebellions and trends. Then he synthesizes it: "The year 1893 saw the biggest economic crisis in the country's history. After several decades of wild industrial growth, financial manipulation, uncontrolled speculation and profiteering, it all collapsed: 642 banks failed and 16,000 businesses closed down. Out of the labor force of 15 million, 3 million were unemployed. No state government voted relief, but mass demonstrations all over the country forced city governments to set up soup kitchens and give people work on streets or parks." And people continue to face worse working conditions. They sometimes rose up and were put back down again, by economic and sometimes lethal military force.

And then yesterday I sat with the rhetoric of this for several hours: "'I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization. The time has come to regenerate society-we are on the eve of a universal change,'" a quotation from Eugene Debs. After reading so many accounts of people working more and more hours at harder, dangerous jobs for less and less money, and then being told that an eight hour day would leave them more time to drink and be lazy, it's hard not to be a bit socialistic.

How to fix this? One idea was that westward expansion (killing Native Americans in the process) would give everybody their own land and their would be fewer labor disputes. This didn't happen, though. Populations in cities kept growing as immigrants came to escape fortuneless lands on the other side of the Atlantic. In the west and south, farmers wound up selling their land to monopolists because the market drove the price of their goods down and they couldn't pay for overhead. Technology made a lot of things easier and cheaper but drove labor into the ground. In places as conservative as Texas, though, Populism was born, and unions and meetings of pseudo-socialists thrived. They developed cooperatives and bought needed goods in bulk together to keep prices low. They organized and tried to demand fair compensation. They set up insurance companies to defend against price gouging and the whims of the corporations.

Many populist groups tried to overcome segregation, citing that black and white laborers were facing the same problems and should work together to fight The Man and solve those problems. In some cases, this worked. The government and the oligarchy, though (in addition to existing racism, of course), found ways to inspire infighting. Blacks and whites often did different types of work. When whites couldn't afford to keep their farms, the seizing landowners would evict poor whites and get even poorer blacks in as laborers. This is one example of the kind of tension that continued.

There were labor movements in the cities and populist movements in rural areas and in the south. "According to Lawrence Goodwyn, if the labor movement had been able to do in the cities what the Populists did in the rural areas, 'to create among urban workers a culture of cooperation, self-respect, and economic analysis,' there might have been a great movement for change in the United States." My argument is that in the cities it was harder for people to get to that culture of cooperation because people were so crowded and in all ways removed from the sources of their basic needs (food which came from miles away on a train, for example). 

Populism lost, though. Corporations heavily backed the Republican presidential candidate and William McKinley won at the turn of the century. His nationalistic speech upon his inauguration freaks me out more than a little: "... this year is going to be a year of patriotism and devotion to country. I am glad to know that the people in every part of the country mean to be devoted to one flag, the glorious Stars and Stripes; that the people of this country mean to maintain the financial honor of the country as sacredly as they maintain the honor of the flag."

And just what does that mean? How does it resonate with the political climate and messages today? What are we fighting for? What is the American dream?

Next: more about empire (presumably foreign policy as opposed to domestic strife)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 10

This chapter is titled "The Other Civil War," and it looks from the first paragraphs to be a war between the elite, land-owning class and the renters.
  • "If you permit unprincipled and ambitious men to monopolize the soil, they will become masters of the country in the certain order of cause and effect," said Ainge Devyr, an Irishman turned United Statesian who had seen the same problem between owners and renters happen on both sides of the Atlantic.
  •  "One of the most hated elements of the lease gave the landlord the right to the timber on all the farms," a truth in New York in the 1800s. Reminds me a bit of the land rights versus mineral rights in Texas (with regards to fracking, lately). 
  • As usual, Zinn sees the pattern and summarizes it well: When the disparity between rich and poor is huge, *they* just grow the middle class. The rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, but there's a buffer. Or: "The farmers had fought, been crushed by the law, their struggle diverted into voting, and the system stabilized by enlarging the class of small landowners, leaving the basic structure of rich and poor intact. It was a common sequence in American history."
  • Remember, back then, only those who owned land could vote.  
  • Man, this is a good chapter, worth reading. Quotations like: "The two-party system came into its own in this time. To give people a choice between two different parties and allow them, in a period of rebellion, to choose the slightly more democratic one was an ingenious mode of control," although Zinn says this evolved more out of necessity than some evil genius.
  •  In the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, the poor moved from rural areas to the cities, but tenements were crowded and there was no (socialist) infrastructure of water, sewers, trash collection, etc. However, at the same time, the middle class grew. "This was the advance guard of a growing class of white-collar workers and professionals in America who would be wooed enough and paid enough to consider themselves members of the bourgeois class, and to give support to that class in times of crisis." They would vote in ways that supported the existing system. 
  • I am reminded throughout this chapter of how in the United States today, both political parties support the rich oligarchy. The Right screams independence and small government but continue to give money and power to corporations. The Left (the Left in power, anyway) do the same thing, with Obama caving to special interests and continuing to empower Wall Street in the name of nominal growth without improving the quality of life for average or impoverished United States of Americans.
  • "In an economic system not rationally planned for human need, but developing fitfully, chaotically out of the profit motive, there seemed to be no way to avoid recurrent booms and slumps." This is as true of today as it was in 1837 and 1853.
I think one of the biggest problem faced by civilization in general is that people cannot, do not, or will not see the consequences of our actions. We do not see that the styrofoam to-go boxes hasten climate change, that letting the government balloon military spending means we're paying for the production of missiles, not the distribution of clean drinking water infrastructure. It's been happening for a long time. Industrialization sure made things easier and more pleasant for those like me on the upper end of society. I've never had to work in a factory. I've only a few times had to spend weeks on end in the same one-room space as my family, but never longer and without a toilet and running water. The earth has limited resources. It's always been a struggle for who controls the resources and who benefits the most from them, always on the backs of the unlucky and the weak. *rant rant rant*

Back in the day, we didn't have guns. People killed each other with their bare hands. Then they developed weapons, clubs and knives, which removed them a little bit from their victims. Then it was bows and arrows, guns, more powerful guns with higher ranges, cannons, bombs, missiles, nukes, chemical and biological weapons. Each time we remove ourselves; each time we engage in derivative violence, disconnected from those we affect. Sure, these derivations have happened parallel to achievements in sanitation, agriculture, etc., but at what cost? The survival of the fittest? How does morality fit in with the Darwinism? Does it need to?
  • "In this favored land of law and liberty, the road to advancement is open to all.... Every American knows that or ought to know that he has no better friend than the laws and that he needs no artificial combination for his protection," said one judge in the mid-1800s after imposing fines on some people who were desperate to escape their situations and looted the home of the local mayor. Am I really that radical now to refuse to take the judge seriously, to invoke instead the truth I see in Jensen's Premise Four?
  • From a handbill circulated throughout one city: "They have established the precedent that workingmen have no right to regulate the price of labor, or, in other words, the rich are the only judges of the wants of the poor man."
  • Nail on the head: "Class-consciousness was overwhelmed during the Civil War, both North and South, by military and political unity in the crisis of war. That unity was weaned by rhetoric and enforced by arms. It was a war proclaimed as a war for liberty, but working people would be attacked by soldiers if they dared to strike, Indians would be massacred in Colorado by the U.S. army, and those daring to criticize Lincoln's policies would be put in jail without trial-perhaps thirty thousand political prisoners."
  • Lincoln, meanwhile, used the distraction of the Civil War to pass into law pro-business and anti-people legislation (Zinn).
  • Zinn supports Jensen's Premise Four pretty clearly: "In premodern times, the maldistribution of wealth was accomplished by simple force. In modern times, exploitation is disguised-it is accomplished by law, which has the look of neutrality and fairness. By the time of the Civil War, modernization was well under way in the United States."
  • Boom and bust: "The crisis was built into a system which was chaotic in its nature, in which only the very rich were secure. It was a system of periodic crisis-1837, 1857, 1873 (and later: 1893, 1907, 1919, 1929)-that wiped out small businesses and brought cold, hunger, and death to working people while the fortunes of the Astors, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Morgans, kept growing through war and peace, crisis and recovery. During the 1873 crisis, Carnegie was capturing the steel market, Rockefeller was wiping out his competitors in oil."
  • People from many different types of trades formed unions and went on strike against their employers. This chapter talks about many of them but a summary of the railroad industry in particular is: "When the great railroad strikes of 1877 were over, a hundred people were dead, a thousand people had gone to jail, 100,000 workers had gone on strike, and the strikes had roused into action countless unemployed in the cities. More than half the freight on the nation's 75,000 miles of track had stopped running at the height of the strikes." In some cases, unions prevailed, but in others, the government called in the military or pitted immigrants against each other to keep business booming.
  • Zinn ends the chapter: "In 1877, the same year blacks learned they did not have enough strength to make real the promise of equality in the Civil War, working people learned they were not united enough, not powerful enough, to defeat the combination of private capital and government power. But there was more to come."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Too Long

It's been too long, but I just opened up the next chapter of Zinn's History. It's a very slow day at work because our money-making machine is down. Before I get to Zinn, though, I wanted to share my narcissistic reflections on the season, on myself, on my interactions with people. Conversations I've had with men and women lately have led me to this perfect storm of self:

First Draft

Fall is the season
when men fall in love with me
that's when I wear what I love,
three-quarter length shirts that accent my shoulders,
jackets and cardigans with pockets.
That's when I become most alive, most
myself, aware
of the turning of the seasons.
Nature's lurch toward slumber,
adorned with burnt umber. My
body becomes alive, weather cool enough
to stroll in, to slim down,
the equinox my equilibrium
My balance happens when the earth tilts in
such a way that shadows
walk with me in late afternoons,
mornings are crisp and full of possibility,
noons invite ecstatic walks and song.
Autumn is when school starts, and
whether I'm a student in a classroom
or just mimic the course rhythms internal, I
love to learn this time of year,
before winter slumbers, which require
the intimacy that happens after the fall
ing in love, the snuggles under covers,
long conversations in the long nights.
Autumn is before the settling down.
It is the time of change, when all
doors are open.

Thursday, June 30, 2011


The essay below started out as an off-the-brain blogpost at my other blog. Then I thought that I would submit it to the powers that be at my church and see if they'd be willing to publish it in our monthly newsletter. There was contention about that, but the head honchos gave me the green light. I tried shortening it, and though that failed, I did, with the help of friends (especially Will), make the language a bit more neutral and the logic a bit more clear. It's still not perfect, but here it is:

Gasland, a documentary screened by the Brazos Valley Progressives on Sunday, June 12th at 2pm in the UUCBV sanctuary, explores hydraulic fracturing, "fracking," a procedure used to extract natural gas from the ground, often from beneath the water table. This fracking poses many problems. Some argue about the real and projected economic effects (positive and negative) of fracking, while others use the controversy surrounding fracking as a platform to rail about the United States’s insatiable appetite for energy. Gasland does something different. Its focus is on health and safety.

Gasland details the process of fracking, specifically documenting how fracking destroys the surrounding wells, making the tap water on which some people rely catch fire. The water is full of poisonous fracking chemicals which sicken and even kill people. Countless stories - on television, in newspapers, on the Internet, in documentaries like Gasland - tell the same tale. Poisonous drinking water, sediment in water reservoirs, and flammable water are just a few of the many problems people face as a result of fracking. The problem is local, too. In Fort Worth, Texas, air and water are polluted by poisonous hydrofracking fluids.

Citizens complain to local law enforcement and the media, but most find that fracking is currently supported by the legal system. On the federal level, for example, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 expressly excludes companies engaging in natural gas drilling and production from meeting requirements in the Safe Drinking Water Act. This law allows profit-driven companies to drill for natural gas with fewer regulations, even at the expense of human (and nonhuman) life. Presently, not a single state so much as requires gas companies to disclose the list of materials used in the fracturing process.

When citizens complain, often their only legal recourse is to hire a lawyer. The companies demand that the citizens prove their water has been contaminated, and on the rare occasion that the companies do eventually partially compensate these citizens, companies often require citizens to sign nondisclosure agreements so as to keep the problem quiet and contained.

The fact remains that to many people, money trumps life. Many believe that humans, and especially U.S. citizens, were given by God the right to destroy people's lives and livelihoods in order to cheaply acquire fuel. Here's a direct quote from Elizabeth Ames Jones, Chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission: "it is morally wrong to deprive Americans the benefit of their God-given natural energy resources because a few special interest Grimm Brothers insist on perpetuating fairy tales.” I encourage you to watch Gasland and do your own research.

What can we do? If a company on your land or the land around you is going to be extracting or processing natural gas, experts strongly suggest you have your water source tested as soon as possible in order to get a baseline reading. That way, if your water is contaminated as a result of fracking, you'll be able to date the contamination and have stronger evidence for your case.

But this doesn’t solve the problem. Even those of use not directly affected can inform friends and neighbors. With enough people, an effective grassroots campaign can convince legislators to bring industry leaders to task. We must claim our right to know what is being put into our water.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 9

"The United States government's support of slavery was based on an overpowering practicality." So begins the ninth chapter of Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States. Slavery was convenient. Ending the system would be difficult for a lot of people who profited from the status quo. The Zinn quotation immediately begs the question of what other morally reprehensible things the U.S. is involved in and complacent about simply because they are overwhelmingly practical. I bet you could come up with a few.

My man Derrick Jensen would have a field day with the "1932 edition of a best-selling textbook by two northern liberal historians [,which] saw slavery as perhaps the Negro's 'necessary transition to civilization.'"

It wasn't just about subjugating members of a different-looking race, either, though I am in no way belittling that rampant American practice. Instead, Zinn offers added nuance: "The slaveholders ... suspected that non-slaveholders would encourage slave disobedience and even rebellion, not so much out of sympathy for the blacks as out of hatred for the rich planters and resentment of their own poverty. White men sometimes were linked to slave insurrectionary plots, and each such incident rekindled fears," Zinn quotes Eugene Genovese, an American scholar popular in the 1960s and one of the first to read widely through a Marxist lens. In other words, class warfare among whites may have played a role. It is said that people with ultimate power have nothing to fear except losing that power, so many of them focus all their efforts on maintaining control, even to the point of paranoia (and, of course, immorality).

The meat of this chapter is a history of the end of slavery and some of the beginning of Reconstruction. Below is a timeline I compiled from the text, followed by a few quotations that floored me (there are more in the chapter, which is a really good one) and then a summary of political life after the war.
  • 1802 - Report is made to the governer of Virginia about a plot of three whites conspiring to help black slaves
  • 1808 - Importing slaves to the U.S. becomes illegal
  • 1822 - Denmark Vesey, a free black man, conspires to burn Charleston, SC but is captured and hanged; the trial publication was "ordered destroyed" soon after because it was deemed "too dangerous for slaves to see"
  • 1831 - Nat Turner Rebellion in Virginia
  • 1838 - Frederick Douglass escapes to the North
  • 1841 - slaves being illegally transported on the ship Creole mutinied and went to the West Indies, from where the British refused to extradite (most of) them 
  • 1849 - Congressman Lincoln recommends a resolution to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, accompanying it with a section requiring local authorities to arrest and return fugitive slaves coming into DC
  • 1850 - Fugitive Slave Act is passed 
  • 1853 - Sojourner Truth, a black woman, speaks at the 4th national Woman's Rights Convention
  • 1857 - U.S. Supreme Court declares that the slave Dred Scott could not sue for his freedom because he was property and not a person
  • 1859 - John Brown is executed by the State of Virginia 
  • 1861 - Lincoln's first Presidential Inaugural Address includes: "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."
  • 1863 - Emancipation Proclamation, about which "London Spectator wrote concisely: 'The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.'" 
  • June, 1864 - Congress passes a law granting equal pay to Negro soldiers (presumably those fighting for the Union army)
  • March, 1865 - President Davis of the Confederacy signs Negro Soldier Law, "authorizing the enlistment of slaves as soldiers, to be freed by consent of their owners and their state governments. But before it had any significant effect, the war was over."
  • December, 1865 - Thirteenth Amendment passed and adopted
  • 1875 - Civil Rights Act outlaws discrimination against blacks using public facilities
  • 1877 - the very close Presidential election reaches a Compromise; US is in a huge economic depression and those in power let the South revert to more racist measures, "assur[ing] the dominant whites political autonomy and non-intervention in matters of race policy and promised them a share in the blessings of the new economic order" (Zinn quoting Woodward)
  • 1883 - the Civil Rights Act of 1875 is nullified by the Supreme Court, which says: "Individual invasion of individual rights is not the subject-matter of the [Fourteenth] amendment." Of important note, "A remarkable dissent was written by Supreme Court Justice John Harlan, himself a former slaveowner in Kentucky, who said there was Constitutional justification for banning private discrimination. He noted that the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned slavery, applied to individual plantation owners, not just the state. He then argued that discrimination was a badge of slavery and similarly outlawable. He pointed also to the first clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, saying that anyone born in the United States was a citizen, and to the clause in Article 4, Section 2, saying 'the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States.'" 
  • 1896 - Plessy v. Ferguson - the Court rules that a railroad can segregate black and white if the segregated facilities are equal
 Quotable Quotes:
  • "It was not color, but crime, not God, but man, that afforded the true explanation of the existence of slavery." ~ Frederick Douglass
  • "Dear Sir: ... I have not meant to leave any one in doubt. .. . My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because it helps to save this Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. . .. I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty, and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men, everywhere, could be free. Yours. A. Lincoln." ~ from a letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, in 1862
After the war, things were very murky for freed slaves. How they lived depended on where they lived, how the (white) people around them felt, whether they had access to land, etc. Racism ran rampant in the North and the South, as it continues today.

"Ex-slave Thomas Hall told the Federal Writers' Project: 'Lincoln got the praise for freeing us, but did he do it? He gave us freedom without giving us any chance to live to ourselves and we still had to depend on the southern white man for work, food, and clothing, and he held us out of necessity and want in a state of servitude but little better than slavery.'"

On the other hand, blacks began to vote, to hold property, to start their own churches, and to otherwise enjoy independence of thought and deed. President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination, did all he could to stop this progress, but the 14th, 15th, and subsequent Amendments were eventually passed. Over 150 years later, there is still a ways to go.

"As black children went to school, they were encouraged by teachers, black and white, to express themselves freely, sometimes in catechism style. The records of a school in Louisville, Kentucky:
TEACHER: Now children, you don't think white people are any better than you because they have straight hair and white faces?
STUDENTS: No, sir.
TEACHER: No, they are no better, but they are different, they possess great power, they formed this great government, they control this vast country. . . . Now what makes them different from you?
TEACHER: Yes, but what enabled them to obtain it? How did they get money?
STUDENTS: Got it off us, stole it off we all! 

Zinn summarizes the big picture in a compelling way: "The American government had set out to fight the slave states in 1861, not to end slavery, but to retain the enormous national territory and market and resources. Yet, victory required a crusade, and the momentum of that crusade brought new forces into national politics: more blacks determined to make their freedom mean something; more whites-whether Freedman's Bureau officials, or teachers in the Sea Islands, or "carpetbaggers" with various mixtures of humanitarianism and personal ambition-concerned with racial equality. There was also the powerful interest of the Republican party in maintaining control over the national government, with the prospect of southern black votes to accomplish this. Northern businessmen, seeing Republican policies as beneficial to them, went along for a while."

Power changed hands, and to maintain its power, "[t]he southern white oligarchy used its economic power to organize the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups. Northern politicians began to weigh the advantage of the political support of impoverished blacks-maintained in voting and office only by force-against the more stable situation of a South returned to white supremacy, accepting Republican dominance and business legislation. It was only a matter of time before blacks would be reduced once again to conditions not far from slavery."

As posited in the beginning of the chapter, indeed, it was amoral power lust and not [only] racism that drove the rich and powerful: "The importance of the new capitalism in overturning what black power existed in the postwar South is affirmed by Horace Mann Bond's study of Alabama Reconstruction, which shows, after 1868, 'a struggle between different financiers.'" Yes, racism was a factor but "accumulations of capital, and the men who controlled them, were as unaffected by attitudinal prejudices as it is possible to be. Without sentiment, without emotion, those who sought profit from an exploitation of Alabama's natural resources turned other men's prejudices and attitudes to their own account, and did so with skill and a ruthless acumen." In the South, blacks were brutalized, and in the North, they were an extremely cheap and marginalized, dehumanized source of labor. Racism only helped make this subjugation easier to institutionalize, to hegemonize, to swallow.

Blacks in the United States have endured a history of cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity. Their history and struggles cannot and should not be belittled, besmirched, or forgotten. That said, blacks were not the only ones re-enslaved during Reconstruction. Even after emancipation, the same tactics of subjugation and dehumanization were used to rebuild U.S. "civilization" after the war. I'll end with the last three paragraphs of Zinn's chapter, much of it from W.E.B. Dubois:

"Du Bois saw this new capitalism as part of a process of exploitation and bribery taking place in all the 'civilized' countries of the world:

"'Home labor in cultured lands, appeased and misled by a ballot whose power the dictatorship of vast capital strictly curtailed, was bribed by high wage and political office to unite in an exploitation of white, yellow, brown and black labor, in lesser lands...'"

It's no hyperbole - Zinn is right to ask, "Was Du Bois right-that in that growth of American capitalism, before and after the Civil War, whites as well as blacks were in some sense becoming slaves?"

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 8

Chapter Eight is titled, "We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God." I'm afraid the sarcasm there has put me in quite a mood.

The beginning of the chapter, at least, talks about U.S. expansion westward through the Louisiana Territory, down to Texas (where the once-agreed-upon border of the Nueces River was trampled for the more-south-by-100+miles Rio Grande), west to the Pacific Ocean with California.

Indeed, one of the D.C. news papers of the time (1845) published this:

"Let the great measure of annexation be accomplished, and with it the questions of boundary and claims. For who can arrest the torrent that will pour onward to the West? The road to California will be open to us. Who will stay the march of our western people?"

Who, indeed? Not the Indians or the Mexicans, displaced, bought off, or slaughtered. 1845 was also the year that Manifest Destiny showed up in a newspaper. It has been embraced since as the idea of our god-given right to rule not just the country but to trash the planet as well.

Colonel Hitchcock wrote of the ensuing Mexican-American War, "I have said from the first that the United States are the aggressors. . . . We have not one particle of right to be here. ... It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses, for, whatever becomes of this army, there is no doubt of a war between the United States and Mexico."

And Congress had no trouble funding the war. Let me quote Zinn at length and see if you see the same similarities between the Whigs and the Democrats in regards to western expansion then as I see with the Democrats and Republicans in regards to [insert your favorite cause here: the "War on Terror," immigration policy, health care reform, drilling for oil, etc.].

"The Whig party was presumably against the war in Mexico, but it was not against expansion. The Whigs wanted California, but preferred to do it without war. As Schroeder puts it, 'theirs was a commercially oriented expansionism designed to secure frontage on the Pacific without recourse to war.' Also, they were not so powerfully against the military action that they would stop it by denying men and money for the operation. They did not want to risk the accusation that they were putting American soldiers in peril by depriving them of the materials necessary to fight. The result was that Whigs joined Democrats in voting overwhelmingly for the war resolution, 174 to 14. The opposition was a small group of strongly antislavery Whigs, or 'a little knot of ultraists,' as one Massachusetts Congressman who voted for the war measure put it"

I'd like to think of myself as one of the ultraists, though I certainly profit (in the very short run) from cheap oil and low taxes.

Perhaps I'm taking it too far, but the way Zinn paints Lincoln at the time reminds me a bit of Obama during the Bush years as well: "Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was not yet in Congress when the war began, but after his election in 1846 he had occasion to vote and speak on the war. His 'spot resolutions' became famous-he challenged Polk to specify the exact spot where American blood was shed 'on the American soil.' But he would not try to end the war by stopping funds for men and supplies."

Newspapers across the country and even Walt Whitman praised westward expansion, in the name of increasing commerce and growth, of gaining beautiful lands of opportunity, in the name of racism, of ethnical and moral superiority. I quote again:

"The American Review talked of Mexicans yielding to 'a superior population, insensibly oozing into her territories, changing her customs, and out-living, out-trading, exterminating her weaker blood. . . .' The New York Herald was saying, by 1847: 'The universal Yankee nation can regenerate and disenthrall the people of Mexico in a few years; and we believe it is a part of our destiny to civilize that beautiful country.'"

Some people disagreed, loudly, with the war, including Henry David Thoreau. So did many Quakers and a few Baptist ministers. They did so for wide and various reasons, including, sometimes, stopping the spread of slavery. The Unitarians were against the war, but one of their most prominent ministers at the time, Theodore Parker, was at the same time for both westward expansion and denigrating those "wretched people," the Mexicans.

There were "purer" opposers to the war, too. I must share this Frederick Douglass quote: "'the present disgraceful, cruel, and iniquitous war with our sister republic. Mexico seems a doomed victim to Anglo Saxon cupidity and love of dominion.'"

Most of the accounts of public opinion about the war, Zinn notes, are from the newspapers of the time. Zinn writes briefly about the (timeless) question of whether the media records public opinion or shapes and creates it.

Zinn then talks at length about the horrors of war. The poor are conscripted and subjected to awful conditions, not to mention death and dismemberment. I read Zinn's words but didn't think much of them, until I was reminded what we should not forget - what all of you know - that war is fought on the backs of the poor and the working class for the profits, coffers, and creature comforts of the rich and politically empowered (same thing).

As "we" fought to claim and tame Mexico, we also expanded west to California, where one naval officer spoke to the Native Americans there: "[Y]ou have nothing to fear from us, if you do what is right. . . . if you are faithful to your new rulers. .. . We come to prepare this magnificent region for the use of other men, for the population of the world demands more room, and here is room enough for many millions, who will hereafter occupy and rill the soil. But, in admitting others, we shall not displace you, if you act properly.. .. You can easily learn, but you are indolent. I hope you will alter your habits, and be industrious and frugal, and give up all the low vices which you practice; but if you are lazy and dissipated, you must, before many years, become extinct. We shall watch over you, and give you true liberty; but beware of sedition, lawlessness, and all other crimes, for the army which shields can assuredly punish, and it will reach you in your most retired hiding places"

Meanwhile, U.S. troops in Mexico kept moving further south. Accounts became more gruesome, with rape and indiscriminate killing of civilians becoming the norm. Body parts of men, horses, and mules piled up in pools of blood and foam. Morale was dwindling. One soldier said of General Scott, the man in charge of the campaign, "He had originated it [the war] in error and caused it to be fought, with inadequate forces, for an object that had no existence."

Finally, the war ended. Americans and Mexicans were dead, mangled, and/or impoverished. The U.S. border had been expanded.

Well, the war hasn't ended. The U.S. continues to "defend" borders that were "won" by bloodshed and other atrocities, crimes against humanity. Anyone who thinks we're too soft on immigration should read this chapter and really reflect on how we got this land.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 7

This chapter talks about the history of how the United States (nearly) destroyed the Native Americans, or American Indians, in the continental United States. Through murder, coercion, bribery, slavery, brutality, lies, and the rule of the almighty Law, the new Americans systematically and "legitimately" (props to Will for that gem) eradicated a group of peoples and their sovereign way(s) of life. Why? To cheaply and quickly promote "civilization." Zinn uses direct quotations and facts to support his thesis. I pulled particularly striking quotations from the chapter and pasted them here. I also added commentary where I felt compelled to do so.
  • "In 1820, 120,000 Indians lived east of the Mississippi. By 1844, fewer than 30,000 were left. Most of them had been forced to migrate westward. But the word "force" cannot convey what happened."
  • "In the Revolutionary War, almost every important Indian nation fought on the side of the British. The British signed for peace and went home; the Indians were already home, and so they continued fighting the Americans on the frontier, in a set of desperate holding operations."
  • At one time, Washington's "Secretary of War, Henry Knox, said: 'The Indians being the prior occupants, possess the right of the soil.' His Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, said in 1791 that where Indians lived within state boundaries they should not be interfered with, and that the government should remove white settlers who tried to encroach on them." Seems reasonable, no? 
  • And then the population grew. Jefferson and others changed their tune. "Jefferson's talk of 'agriculture . . . manufactures . . . civilization' is crucial. Indian removal was necessary for the opening of the vast American lands to agriculture, to commerce, to markets, to money, to the development of the modern capitalist economy." Obviously things to which free whites are divinely entitled. "Land was indispensable for all this, and after the Revolution, huge sections of land were bought up by rich speculators, including George Washington and Patrick Henry. In North Carolina, rich tracts of land belonging to the Chickasaw Indians were put on sale, although the Chickasaws were among the few Indian tribes fighting on the side of the Revolution, and a treaty had been signed with them guaranteeing their land."
  • Andrew Jackson was a total asshole. He was a "war hero" in the War of 1812 and then systematically dismantled the American Indians' ways of life (in addition to cold-bloodedly murdering them): "Jackson's 1814 treaty with the Creeks started something new and important. It granted Indians individual ownership of land, thus splitting Indian from Indian, breaking up communal landholding, bribing some with land, leaving others out-introducing the competition and conniving that marked the spirit of Western capitalism. It fitted well the old Jeffersonian idea of how to handle the Indians, by bringing them into 'civilization.'" Jackson said quite clearly that in making treaties he appealed to the Indians' fear and avarice. Effective.
  • Look up Lewis Cass, Jackson's Secretary of War and governor of Michigan, while you're at it. In addition to other belittling and arrogant quotations, Zinn shares these words by Cass: "A barbarous people, depending for subsistence upon the scanty and precarious supplies furnished by the chase, cannot live in contact with a civilized community." See, we had to kill them off in the name of progress, which is clearly superior to human life.
  • The colonists liked to play with rhetoric as much as anyone else, but the native peoples were not so submissive: "Not all the Indians responded to the white officials' common designation of them as 'children' and the President as 'father.' It was reported that when Tecumseh met with William Henry Harrison, Indian fighter and future President, the interpreter said: 'Your father requests you to take a chair.' Tecumseh replied: 'My father! The sun is my father, and the earth is my mother; I will repose upon her bosom.'" 
  • Jackson and other used force and coercion, but Zinn also talks about how they used the rule of law. When violence was not enough, those whites in power fell back, saying things like "It's the Law of the land; it's not our fault; we must simply abide by it" as though laws were not made by men in power for their own purposes, as though political laws superseded the laws of humanity. 
  • Some Indians fled, some fought and perished, and some, like a portion of the Cherokees, tried to assimilate in order to survive. They, too, were ultimately eliminated. "The Cherokees even started to emulate the slave society around them: they owned more than a thousand slaves. They were beginning; to resemble that civilization the white men spoke about, making what Van Every calls 'a stupendous effort' to win the good will of Americans. They even welcomed missionaries and Christianity. None of this made them more desirable than the land they lived on."
  • The Seminoles in Florida fought for eight long years, nearly exhausting the Americans (1500 died and $20 million was spent), but they were overwhelmed in the end.
  • President Martin van Buren: also a major asshole.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


The following is from Alvin Toffler's 1970 book, Future Shock:

"There is something morally repellent about one group seeking to gratify itself psychologically, pursuing novel and rarified pleasures, while the majority of mankind lives in wretchedness or starvation. The techno-societies could defer the arrival of experientialism [Toffler's guess at the type of job economy that will follow the service-heavy industry, which followed manufacturing; and which exists today not as Toffler would have envisioned it but in our TV, gaming, vacation, dining, drug, and other experiences], could maintain a more conventional economy for a time by maximizing traditional production, shifting resources to environmental quality control, and then launching absolutely massive anti-poverty and foreign aid programs.

"By creaming off 'excess' productivity and, in effect, giving it away, the factories can be kept running, the agricultural surpluses used up, and the society can continue to focus on the satisfaction of material wants. A fifty-year campaign to erase hunger from the world, for example, would not only make excellent moral sense, but would buy the techno-socieites badly needed time for an easier transition to the economy of the future.

"Such a pause might give us time to contemplate the philosophical and psychological impact of experiential production. If consumers can no longer distinguish clearly between the real and the simulated, if whole stretches of one's life may be comercially programmed, we enter into a set of psycho-economic problems of breathtaking complexity. These problems challenge our most fundamental beliefs, not merely about democracy or economics, but about the very nature of rationality and sanity" (208).

I'm not so sure about ramping up production for its own sake at the expense of doing things sustainably, but I can see Toffler's larger point. Change happens. Faster and faster all the time. Toffler and others would argue that growth happens, or should happen. I'm just not so sure we're growing in the right direction. Economic growth, for example, is an unsustainable machine that feeds on itself, on the backs of the poor, and on the coffers of our limited and quickly dwindling resources. I don't see how any of that can be disputed at this point.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 6

This chapter is about sexism and the oppression of women. What strikes me first and most deeply is the litany of accounts of women transported from Africa as slaves or from Europe as indentured servants and enduring things like giving birth to a child while chained to a dead body the overseer didn't make time to remove.

Similiarly to (although more severely than) today, women who had children out of wedlock were prosecuted while the men who conceived the children were untouched by the law.

On the flip side, "The father's position in the family was expressed in The Spectator, an influential periodical in America and England: 'Nothing is more gratifying to the mind of man than power or dominion; and ... as I am the father of a family ... I am perpetually taken up in giving out orders, in prescribing duties, in hearing parties, in administering justice, and in distributing rewards and punishments.... In short, sir, I look upon my family as a patriarchal sovereignty in which I am myself both king and priest.'"

Obviously, not all women submitted to subjugation so easily. Many women rebelled in the limited ways they could. Zinn recounts the story of Anne Hutchinson, who claimed that people could interpret the Bible for themselves and became a dynamic preacher on that and other subjects. She was, of course, put on trial for heresy and challenging the authority of men, and she was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Then, "[d]uring the Revolution [...], the necessities of war brought women out into public affairs. Women formed patriotic groups, carried out anti-British actions, wrote articles for independence. They were active in the campaign against the British tea tax, which made tea prices intolerably high. They organized Daughters of Liberty groups, boycotting British goods, urging women to make their own clothes and buy only American-made things."

A few interesting notes:
  • the women we tend to hear about today are the genteel, beautiful, upper-class, gracious wives of wealthy men; the lower-class activists are belittled, rewritten as prostitutes (some of them were, but many were not), or completely ignored
  • Abigail Adams wrote her husband a letter explicitly asking him to include rights for women, arguing (among other things): "Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could." I don't know if I agree with this, but it tickles me.
  • Thomas Paine called for equal rights for women.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft was awesome. I had never heard of her until now.
  • The 1800s saw many primers and how-tos for women on being docile, virtuous, pious, meek pushovers.
  • But many women, tired of being houseslaves or spinsters, spoke out. In 1819, Emma Willard said "Reason and religion teach us that we too are primary existences ... not the satellites of men."
Women's civil rights specifically are discussed in this chapter. But why did The Powers That Be find such a rigid class and caste structure necessary? For JLC in particular: "The new ideology [of women being domestic, subservient, teaching their multiple children the virtues of individuality, patriotism, and religion] worked; it helped to produce the stability needed by a growing economy."

Feminist Margaret Fuller made explicit the similarities between women and slaves. Indeed, many women were very active in antislavery protest and outreach. "What woman needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded. . . ." This is true for all human beings, no?

Zinn also touches on Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Dorothea Dix, Frances Wright, Sojourner Truth, and many other feminists and general human rights activists. I recommend reading this chapter for the quotations by these wonderful women.

The chapter ends with a quotation by Sojourner Truth on what it means to be a woman and a human being. The power struggle continued and continued, and Zinn segues into the next chapter with these closing words:

"In the midst of these movements, there exploded, with the force of government and the authority of money, a quest for more land, an urge for national expansion."

More more more. Growth unlimited.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 5

You say you want a revolution? Well, the truth is that not everybody did.

1. Not everyone in the colonies was for a revolution.
2. Frankly, a lot of people didn't care. They had enough to worry about.
3. Many people were more annoyed with the Revolution's army than with teh British.
4. Blacks, American Indians, and poor whites were particularly nonplussed. The elite usually recognized this and avoided conscripting them into service, figuring their penchant for dissent would be more trouble than it was worth.
5. On the other hand, enlistment did become a viable option for poor, white "unrespectable" folks who wanted to get ahead. They knew that they could move up in the ranks if their COs died.
6. At other times, the poor fought on behalf of the rich, often against their will. The rich prospered in this way because the proles had a common enemy (the British) that was not them.
7. Even if soldiers didn't believe in the cause, John Shy postulated: "'The mechanism of their political conversion was the militia.'" Zinn added, "What looks like the democratization of the military forces in modern times shows up as something different: a way of forcing large numbers of reluctant people to associate themselves with the national cause, and by the end of the process believe in it."
8. After the war, the disparity between rich and poor continued, as did inflation. Still ramped up with revolution, many poor and middling people revolted against the rich in order to get or afford to get food.
9. The upper class, "finding itself possessed of enormous wealth [in land they confiscated that once belonged to Loyalists], could create the richest ruling class in history, and still have enough for the middle classes to act as a buffer between the rich and the dispossessed."
10. With the British off their backs, the new Americans could now expand westward, pushing off the imperialism of the crown and expanding into their manifest destiny, killing off American Indians that lived in their way.
11. I believe that the Constitution is "the work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support."
12. Let's repeat the theme so far: "The Constitution, then, illustrates the complexity of the American system: that it serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this base of support are buffers against the blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites. They enable the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law-all made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity."
13. In this chapter, Zinn pretty convincingly deconstructs the myths of American liberty and justice for all. Those with money and power want to keep and increase their money and power, and the only way to do so is on the backs of the poor. The middle class serves as a series of pawns between the groups. That is all for now.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 4

This post will be very frenetic and full of tangents. All are sincere. None are edited. Pull and tease out what interests and run with it. Interact with me and/or with others. Maybe later I'll read this, whittle it down, and create more comprehensive, subject-specific posts and pieces. But for now, let's plunge right in. I'll quote Zinn's first two paragraphs of this chapter, because they're scathing and true:

"Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.

"When we look at the American Revolution this way, it was a work of genius, and the Founding Fathers deserve the awed tribute they have received over the centuries. They created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations of leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command."

War: the same now as then:
"The war had brought glory for the generals, death to the privates, wealth for the merchants, unemployment for the poor."

Politics before the Revolutionary War were complicated. Rich whites wanted England and its taxes off their backs, but they in turn wanted to subjugate and squeeze money out of the poor. It was up to the colonial wealthy and elite to convince the poor that the British and not the rich new Americans were the enemy. The rhetoric focused on liberty, but only if it kept those without money or property (and thus voting rights) in line.

Zinn describes the way the Sons of Liberty, for example, a group of elite landowners and merchants, tried to protest and oppose the British through quiet, tranquil, more lawful means. Those with less to lose were much less concerned with the sanctity of private property. It reminds me of the differences among activist groups in GLBT history, for example. Or any groups fighting against oppression, really. Some groups try to work within the system, keeping whatever ground they have while pushing paper to make incremental changes. Other activists are more radical and attempt to take down the system, seeing the inherent corruption in the ways hierarchies are organized and systematically supported. I'm obviously of the opinion that there is something fundamentally wrong with these hierarchical, oppressive systems in which people think that their own creature comforts are intrinsically more valuable than literally the lives of the people they subjugate. I still live relatively complacently in my place of privilege(s), so my preaching here only has so much value, but I try to educate (myself and others) here to encourage a zeitgeist and real change.

I've been thinking a lot in different venues lately about how to educate, how to talk to people, when and how to engage people about and against oppression on all levels. First, you have to educate yourself. You have to meet people where they are, love them, and work in the ways that you can. Sometimes people are not ready to talk. They will spew hatred and the best you can do is walk away. But that's a story for another blog. I am reminded these past few minutes of some really excellent Rage Against the Machine lyrics:

Who controls the past now controls the future
Who controls the present now controls the past
Who controls the past now controls the future
Who controls the present now?

So I guess I'm pressed to think about different ways to be an activist. I've focused on education, getting the word out. Making myself a better speaker. Putting myself out there. Using my capital resources to take care of myself and give to others. Reducing consumption, sequestering carbon, not having children.

... Other notes from Zinn:

An oft-quoted line from Thomas Paine, but here the entire sentence is included:
"Society in every state is a blessing, but Government even in its best state is but a necessary evil." 
People, especially current Republicans, like to focus on the second part of that sentence, but they don't seem to understand its relationship to the first part. First, I am not sure that society as we have it today is a blessing. Community is a good thing, sure, but a civilization in which the comforts of the rich depend on the blood of the poor is not just. Self-government, then, would do well to make us aware of this. Government should not exist to create new false hierarchies but to encourage discourse and education, to check and balance how we interact with the natural world, and to help provide what is best for all.

Anyway, Zinn describes Paine's background and political leanings pretty well, something I think is important if one chooses to quote him and now. Context, as always, is important.Common Sense. By the end, though, Zinn says scathingly that Paine eventually "lent himself perfectly to the myth of the Revolution - that it was on behalf of a united people."

Here's a piece of history I didn't remember. The British, for various reasons, told the colonies in the Proclamation of 1763 that they could not settle west of the Appalachians. Partly, I'm sure, they wanted to maintain control of the colonies, and keeping them smaller geographically was one of the best ways to effect that. Another part of me says good on them, stopping the butchering of the Native Americans, even if for selfish reasons.

At the end of Chapter 4, Zinn accurately analyzes some of the rhetoric of "our" "Founding Fathers" in such documents as the Declaration of Independence. I encourage you to read it if you are so inclined, but I will not touch on it here, as rhetoric is something I think about and employ every day. Zinn again damns John Locke for his use of rhetoric in supporting a system of barons controlling everything and any poor children over the age of three being pressed into labor (or at least formal education to break their wills and inure them to work for the rich).

And so, while England's poor protested about low wages and hard working conditions while the price of staples like bread continued to rise [sound like any Middle Eastern uprisings, anyone?], the rich colonists of the budding United States wrote grand declarations and gave speeches to inspire the people to revolt against England... and then forced them into conscription, being sure to pay off middle- and lower-class people so they wouldn't actually have to do the dirty work of fighting.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 3

(Nathaniel) Bacon's Rebellion
- Bacon was anti-Indian and
- anti-aristocracy
In fact, he sounds kind of Tea Party-ish to me the way Zinn describes him.

Many poor whites in the colonies supported him because he opposed the unfair price setting and trade rules Mother England imposed on tobacco, for example. As we see so often in history, the people at the top were making too much too unfairly on the backs of the poor.

Many of these were the same poor whites had been imprisoned in England for their poverty (which came, often, from having their land seized by those in power) and signed up for indenturehood to maybe get ahead in the New World. Their conditions on the trip across the Atlantic were better than those of slaves from Africa, but, for example, "[t]he sloop Sea-Flower, leaving Belfast in 1741, was at sea sixteen weeks, and when it arrived in Boston, forty-six of its 106 passengers were dead of starvation, six of them eaten by the survivors. On another trip, thirty-two children died of hunger and disease and were thrown into the ocean." It just wasn't cost-effective for the people who funded the voyages to keep these potential indentured servants alive. Once they reached the colonies, these servants were often raped and beaten and were certainly prevented from voting, marrying or having sex without the permission of their masters, and organizing.

To again quote Zinn at length (from Chapter 3, which pages I do not know):
"More than half the colonists who came to the North American shores in the colonial period came as servants. They were mostly English in the seventeenth century, Irish and German in the eighteenth century. More and more, slaves replaced them, as they ran away to freedom or finished their time, but as late as 1755, white servants made up 10 percent of the population of Maryland.

"What happened to these servants after they became free? There are cheerful accounts in which they rise to prosperity, becoming landowners and important figures. But Abbot Smith, after a careful study, concludes that colonial society 'was not democratic and certainly not equalitarian; it was dominated by men who had money enough to make others work for them.'"

The class system solidified in those colonial years as John Locke encouraged a "feudal-type aristocracy, in which eight barons would own 40 percent of the colony's land, and only a baron could be governor." Zinn shares numerous examples of the differences among the classes and how the gap between the rich and the poor grew. "The colonies, it seems, were societies of contending classes-a fact obscured by the emphasis, in traditional histories, on the external struggle against England, the unity of colonists in the Revolution. The country therefore was not 'born free' but born slave and free, servant and master, tenant and landlord, poor and rich."

As usual, the rich kept their wealth in some pretty clever ways:
1. Divide and conquer your enemies.
2. Pit your enemies against each other. You keep them busy and they dwindle each other's numbers.

In another file somewhere, I am compiling a list of ways to subjugate people.

I think a point Zinn made in Chapter 2 which I noted in my last blogpost bears repeating: "Racism [in the mid-1700s in the colonies] was becoming more and more practical. Edmund Morgan, on the basis of his careful study of slavery in Virginia, sees racism not as 'natural' to black-white difference, but something coming out of class scorn, a realistic device for control." Indeed, the "answer to the problem [of blacks and poor whites uniting against their oppressors], obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous black slaves by a screen of racial contempt."

Allow me to pull out something in a slightly different context, if only because it reminds me so much of the Republican rhetoric I hear today:
"Middle-class Americans might be invited to join a new elite by attacks against the corruption of the established rich. The New Yorker Cadwallader Golden, in his Address to the Freeholders in 1747, attacked the wealthy as tax dodgers unconcerned with the welfare of others (although he himself was wealthy) and spoke for the honesty and dependability of 'the midling rank of mankind' in whom citizens could best trust 'our liberty & Property.' This was to become a critically important rhetorical device for the rule of the few, who would speak to the many of 'our' liberty, 'our' property, 'our' country." Indeed, the middle class is seen as the salt of the earth, to be governed today by a republic of elected representatives who supposedly look out for the best interests of *real* Americans. It's the middle class being ruled by the upper classes. Democrats do it and Republicans do it, although the political game now is to pretend that they're everyday, next-door kind of people. The oligarchy rules, though, by appeasing the middle class as well as they have to and shitting on the poor and easily marginalized, which today includes people who look "funny," sound funny, act funny, or love funny. Pick your -ism; we've got oppression for all.

Zinn ends Chapter 3 in a way that sends chills up my spine:
"Those upper classes, to rule, needed to make concessions to the middle class, without damage to their own wealth or power, at the expense of slaves, Indians, and poor whites. This bought loyalty. And to bind that loyalty with something more powerful even than material advantage, the ruling group found, in the 1760s and 1770s, a wonderfully useful device. That device was the language of liberty and equality, which could unite just enough whites to fight a Revolution against England, without ending either slavery or inequality."

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 2


1. Colonists from Europe to the future U.S. in the early 1600s practiced cannibalism when it was necessary. At the same time, members of the leisure class of England were loath to work and would much rather indenture and enslave people (especially blacks and native Americans) to work for them. Working in the colonies was hard, so whites tried multiple methods to subdue other people to work for them. This is not true of all whites, obviously, but it was enough to create institutionally supported crimes against humanity.

2. These sins stem from hubris: "If you were a colonist, you knew that your technology was superior to the Indians'. You knew that you were civilized, and they were savages... But your superior technology had proved insufficient to extract anything. The Indians, keeping to themselves, laughed at your superior methods and lived from the land more abundantly and with less labor than you did... And when your own people started deserting in order to live with them, it was too much... So you killed the Indians, tortured them, burned their villages, burned their cornfields. It proved your superiority, in spite of your failures. And you gave similar treatment to any of your own people who succumbed to their savage ways of life." ~ from Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom

3. Zinn talks about the African culture(s) whites plucked slaves from, how they were advanced and beautiful but certainly far from perfect (they had wars, human sacrifice, a caste system, and even a form of slavery, too). The point is that their way of life was not inherently inferior to the European model. Their sense of community, to Zinn anyway, was remarkable.

4. To quote Zinn at length: "African slavery is hardly to be praised. But it was far different from plantation or mining slavery in the Americas, which was lifelong, morally crippling, destructive of family ties, without hope of any future. African slavery lacked two elements that made American slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred, with that relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was slave. In fact, it was because they came from a settled culture, of tribal customs and family ties, of communal life and traditional ritual, that African blacks found themselves especially helpless when removed from this."

5. In case you've forgotten how awful the transportation conditions were, please read about it in this chapter.

6. Zinn suggests that segregation had to be legally enforced because slaves and servants were fraternizing: blacks, natives, mulattos, and whites all being *gasp* friendly and intimate was too much for those in power. It's reminiscent to me, as many things are, of Jensen's Premises, specifically #4. People in power will do what is necessary to enforce the hierarchies that economically benefit them the most, even when it's inhuman(e) to do so.... And then, wow, a dozen paragraphs after I wrote that, I read Zinn's spin on it: "It was an intricate and powerful system of control that the slaveowners developed to maintain their labor supply and their way of life, a system both subtle and crude, involving every device that social orders employ for keeping power and wealth where it is."

7. Zinn wrote in his first chapter that he's trying to retell history from a different perspective but not to make us feel impotent shame and rage (my words, not his). His "where do we go from here" point from this second chapter seems to be: "that the elements of this web [of racism] are historical, not 'natural.' This does not mean that they are easily disentangled, dismantled. It means only that there is a possibility for something else, under historical conditions not yet realized. And one of these conditions would be the elimination of that class exploitation which has made poor whites desperate for small gifts of status, and has prevented that unity of black and white necessary for joint rebellion and reconstruction." It was true then and it sounds pretty darn true now as U.S. politicians frame their arguments in ways to either pit rich against poor or middle class against middle class, all while the powerfully somewhat rich seek to keep and expand their power. Class warfare continues. Racial warfare is easier, as "Americans" can point at red and brown and black people and blame them for occupying space "we" think is ours by divine right.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 1

On Wednesday I finally started reading Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." As I've done with past books, I'd like to (at least start) go(ing) through it chapter by chapter.

Chapter 1 starts by talking about Christopher Columbus's "discovering" America from a different perspective. He quotes Columbus's own journals, including exerpts like:

"With fifty men we could subjugate them all [the Arawak people, Haitian natives, now extinct] and make them do whatever we want."

Yay slaves, yay manifest destiny. And then,

"Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves [to Spain] that can be wold."

Yay genocide, cruelty, power and corruption!

Zinn certainly points these things out, but this is not a story about Columbus, per se. Instead, in his own words,

"My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims."

The point I took most clearly is about "the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress." Is progress really worth that much? Sure, all our ancestors have done it. We all continue to be complicit in it. Some would argue that, to a certain extent, anyway, it's part of human nature. To some extent, as well, animals do it. But I don't think animals exploit others and gleefully butcher others the way humans do when we have the power and the feeling of God on our side to do so. Killing others so we can steal their resources to build bigger and better (and more derivative) structures doesn't seem right to me.

But it's not just the strong oppressing the weak, although we do plenty of that, and Zinn is the first to recognize that. The Aztecs massacred by later Spaniards, after all, performed ritual sacrifices to kill their own. Zinn has a thing or five thousand to teach me: "Still, understanding the complexities, this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest. I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don't want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: 'The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don't listen to it, you will never know what justice is.'"

I think there's a difference, though. The very system of capitalism, which requires growth to function, relies fundamentally on finding new sources of capital - land or water or minerals - acquiring them by force or funds, and exploiting the hell out of them.

At the end of Zinn's first chapter, he describes the histories and cultural attributes of many American Indian tribes and nations. Life wasn't perfect, but scholar John Collier and others think it just might have been sustainable:

"John Collier, an American scholar who lived among Indians in the 1920s and 1930s in the American Southwest, said of their spirit: 'Could we make it our own, there would be an eternally inexhaustible earth and a forever lasting peace.'"

Zinn ends the chapter thusly:
"Perhaps there is some romantic mythology in that. But the evidence from European travelers in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, put together recently by an American specialist on Indian life, William Brandon, is overwhelmingly supportive of much of that 'myth.' Even allowing for the imperfection of myths, it is enough to make us question, for that time and ours, the excuse of progress in the annihilation of races, and the telling of history from the standpoint of the conquerors and leaders of Western civilization.

This is going to be a good book.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Peak Everything, p. 18

So, let's look at it this way.

2000 calories per day > 600 calories per day but
3500 calores per day is not better than 2000 calories (or 1500 calories) per day

shelter, potable water, and a little electricity are better than not having these things BUT
a 5000 square foot home for 3 people is not better than a 1500 square foot home

Everything has limits, and limits are good. Growth in terms of energy consumption and physical production Is Limited. Is Finite. Recognize!

Or, in Heinberg's words:

"Addressing the economic, social, and political problems ensuing from the various looming peaks is no mere palliative and will require enormous collective effort. If it is to be successful, that effort must be coordinated, presumably by government, and enlist people by educating and motivating them in numbers and at a speed that has not been seen since World War II. Part of that motivation must come from a positive vision of a future worth striving toward. People will need to believe in an eventual reward for what will amount to many years of hard sacrifice. The reality is that we are approaching a time of  economic contraction. Consumptive appetites that have been stoked for decades by ubiquitous advertising messages promising “more, faster, and bigger” will now have to be reined in. People will not willingly accept the new message of “less, slower, and smaller,” unless they have new goals toward which to aspire. They must feel that their efforts will lead to a better world, with tangible improvements in life for themselves and their families. The massive public education campaigns that will be required must be credible, and will therefore be vastly more successful if they give people a sense of investment and involvement in formulating those goals. There is a much-abused word that describes the necessary process—democracy."

What now? It's not a matter of damning and shaming people about how wrong, wrong, wrong our way of life is, although we do need to recognize and admit our excesses and our sins. But this isn't sufficient. We have to create something better, a positive alternative, not just opposing a negative one. This is wrapped up intimately in ideas of binaries, but I can't go there right now. It's all connected.

Peak Everything - A Very Short Note

The stock market is not a measure of the real economy, and GDP is not a measure of real happiness.

Guess what.... I'm reading another book (or introduction to one). Here's a quotation from it:

"Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita is easily measured and shows a mostly upward trend for the world as a whole over the past two centuries. But it takes into account only a narrow set of data—the market value of all final goods and services produced within a country in a given period of time. Growth in GDP is used to tell us that we should be feeling better about ourselves and our world —but it leaves out a wide range of other factors, including damage to the environment, wars, crime and imprisonment rates, and trends in education (like whether more or fewer people graduate from high school or college, and the quality of the education received)" (page 17 of the Introduction to Peak Everything).