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.

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