How does the fragile concept of a nation persist in a people’s collective psyche? Does it have to be real in every person’s mind? That is to say, does everyone have to buy into something like “America” for “America” to endure?
As many historians (and philosophers [and laymen]) have noticed, when people become aware of their oppression and sense an opportunity to rebel against it, we can expect revolution. That doesn’t mean conditions will change in favor of everyone, but that a new group of people will emerge into power, likely to repeat hierarchy in some form; like their predecessors, the new elite will express their personal advantage as a universal boon, e.g. “the will of the people.” (Oh hello, hegemony.)
Bacon’s Rebellion, which serves Zinn as the anchor of Ch. 3, was enacted with the “hopes of levelling.” In other words, Bacon was Ra’s al Ghul. The League of Shadows’ role was to serve civilization with a healthy does of chaos, eradicating whatever form the virus of Power was taking to make way for a new representative. As Selina Kyle whispers to Bruce Wayne, “how did you think you could live so large for so long and leave so little for the rest of us?” Batman, ever the dutiful plutocrat, eventually converts the impoverished Catwoman to his cause, “saves” Gotham and restores it to its status quo, i.e. returning everyone to their “rightful” place in Gotham’s social order. Batman isn’t a hero, he’s an ignorant coward serving traditions he’s never had to question; Batman isn’t a symbol of hope, he’s a beacon of white privilege.
But enough about Batman and Bacon. What struck me about this chapter was America’s early racial design, which didn’t come without resistance (whether it was anti-aristocrat, anti-Indian, anti-black). Early America was a time of paranoia and fear…on the part of those desperate to establish their power. Which made it necessary for these people to establish laws, language, and mores that normalized their power, as well as everyone else’s necessary obedience to their existing ranks. Enter John Winthrop: “in all times some must be rich, some poore, some highe and eminent in power and dignitie; others meane and in subjection.” This statement has peremptory logic…in a world where people have learned to accept it as peremptorily logical. In other words, truth only makes sense in a world where that particular truth is taught, internalized, and perpetuated as sensible. There is no “natural” law or order that dictates man be hierarchical. Appealing to other forms of life and their patterns and creating a biological argument is certainly compelling, but it’s also a convenient way to preserve a bias that benefits a select few. If we all buy into a negative interpretation of humanity, then of course we need civilization to give our better halves the chance to thrive. What if we need civilization only for the sake of civilization? For the sake of market culture?
Just look at what “progress” means. This book is an indictment against our easy celebration of American progress; it’s come at great costs. In fact, it’s come exclusively through great costs. Not just materially. Bodily. Human flesh has been grist for the mill. As Zinn notes about early American growth (and it’s only continued to get worse): “the upper class was getting most of the benefits and monopolized political power.” Before we know it, we’re all caught up in the machine, and by the time we think to rage against it, we might not even understand where to direct our rage. We can’t identify the real disease, and so we settle for attacking its symptoms. Masking the symptoms does nothing to the disease; i.e. the hierarchy continues, lives be damned.
And now for a few startling parallels to the 2016 election and our current political climate: “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.” What’s changed?
Or this: “The electorate was urged to vote out of office ‘people in Exalted Stations’ who scorned ‘those they call the Vulgar, the Mob, the herd of Mechanicks…a Riotous Tumultuous Assembly of Foreign Seamen, Servants, Negroes, and Other Persons of Mean and Vile Condition.” Deplorables, anyone?
Or this: “Better to make war on the Indian, gain the support of the white, divert possible class conflict by turning poor whites against Indians for the security of the elite.” This division never really went away, and Trump leveraged it to his Presidency. All he had to do was replace Indian with any and/or all “Others.” He did this perfectly.
Or this: “there developed a white middle class of small planters, independent farmers, city artisans, who, given small rewards for joining forces with merchants and planters, would be a solid buffer against black slaves, frontier Indians, and very poor whites.” This is the legacy I’ve inherited, that of being a solid buffer. By sticking to my inner circle, focusing on my ambitions, my dignity, my things (which I deserve and have a right to), I become the ideal buffer between the absurdly powerful and the absurdly disenfranchised. To truly serve my fellow man, I’d have to sacrifice everything…myself at the top of that list. Because “myself” only makes sense in the context of a world where my disenfranchised brothers and sisters suffer. Am I worth their suffering?
And finally, this: “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.” I invite you to wonder: how has your loyalty been bought? How have concessions (bribes, really) been made to you to secure your loyalty to the upper classes, to keep them rich and powerful? Look at what you need in your life to feel happy and respected. Anything grounded in material advantage represents your loyalty to a system that betrays so many. Do you ever say, “I’m happy as long as I have…” and then follow it with some thing? Why not make your happiness contingent on the health, safety, and love of other human beings (who are the true cost of your consumer contentment)?
Well, because it’s easier to pursue happiness. And it’s legislated, so it can’t be wrong. It’s my patriotic duty. My ethical responsibility. My birthright.
My, oh my…how did I become so possessive and entitled? What a solid buffer I make…