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.

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