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).