Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Donald Trump, Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon

January 23, 2017

During the past six or eight months, it seems as though every conversation on a general topic that I’ve engaged in has come around to the topic of Donald Trump.

Yesterday morning I led a discussion at First Universalist Church on the topic of spirituality.  It was a good discussion overall, but the conversation soon drifted to the lack of spirituality of Donald Trump and how people’s spirits were lifted by taking part in protest demonstrations against Trump.

donaldtrumpczeur4ixuaaryrYesterday evening I took part in a group that is reading and discussing Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis.  Sure enough, we soon started talking about the resemblances between Donald Trump and the Emperor Nero.

I don’t hang out with pro-Trump voters on a day-to-day basis, but my guess is that they also are talking about Trump and his opponents.

It is amazing to me how President Trump has managed to dominate public discourse, and on his own terms.

The Washington press yesterday was talking about estimates of crowd sizes.  It wasn’t talking about what Trump’s policies will be concerning the economy, the environment or foreign wars.  Still less was it talking about what we Americans ought to be doing concerning these issues.

No, the national press—as well as all my friends who get their information from network television—were reacting to Trump’s tweets and sound bites—that is, to an agenda set by Trump.   And so is most of the national press, even though in their own minds they are opposed to Trump.

I feel as if I am the target of psychological warfare, intended to induce despair and fear.

(more…)

400 years of poor white people in America

January 17, 2017

When I was a boy in western Maryland in the 1940s, I sometimes heard people say things like, “The Negroes aren’t so bad, compared to the poor white trash.”

The underlying meaning was that it was part of the nature of things for black people to be poor and marginalized, but there was something deeply wrong with white people who let themselves sink to the same status.

9whitetrash-iisenberg780670785971I just finished reading a book, WHITE TRASH: the untold 400-year history of class in America by Nancy Isenberg (2016), that tells how these attitudes go back literally to the first settlements at Plymouth Rock, Jamestown and before, and persist today.

Today’s poor rural Southern white people of today may literally be lineal descendants of the convicts, debtors, beggars, orphans, homeless vagrants and unemployed vagrants who were shipped to England’s North American colonies in the 17th century.

Many were victims of the enclosure movement, in which wealthy landowners privatized common lands formerly used by small or tenant farmers, leaving them without an obvious means of livelihood.  These displaced poor people were regarded as useless—much as workers replaced by automation are regarded by economists and corporate executives today.

The prevailing attitude then was that families were “the better sort” or “the meaner sort,” that they were “well-bred” or “ill-bred”.   Today we think of “good breeding” as applied to individual persons as meaning the person has been taught the proper way to behave.   Back then, roughneck poor people were regarded as inherently inferior.

Our American tradition is that the seeds of our nation were planted by freedom-seeking New England Puritans and adventurous Virginia Cavaliers.  This is true, but only a half-truth.    The ships that brought them to the New World also brought penniless, landless English poor people, who were regarded as surplus population.

What set the English poor white colonists apart was that they were not given land.  They were intended to be servants and field workers.  When black African slaves turned out to be more efficient and exploitable workers than indentured English servants, they lost even this role.

Even so some of the poor whites acquired property and a measure of social status.   White Trash is about the descendants of the ones that didn’t.

They fled to the western frontier of settlement.   But the wealthy and well-connected had already obtained title to most of the frontier land.  Poor whites became squatters.  They contended that clearing, improving and planting land gave them the right to have it; title-holders disagreed.  This was the source of much conflict both in the colonies and the newly-independent United States.

(more…)

Learning about (and from) the Spanish anarchists

December 29, 2016

Anarchists advocate a society based on voluntary cooperation and mutual aid.   They reject government and corporate bureaucracy and the profit motive.  They champion personal and political freedom.  I find this highly appealing.

Writers and thinkers I respect—Paul Goodman, Murray Bookchin, Noam Chomsky, James C. Scott and David Graeber—self-identify as anarchists.

spanishanarchists-bookchin-51vdq4ymscl-_sx332_bo1204203200_I’d like to believe such a philosophy is feasible.  The problem is the scarcity of examples of anarchists in power.

That’s why I recently read three books about the Spanish revolution of 1936.   The three books were Murray Bookchin’s The Spanish Anarchists: the Heroic Years, 1868-1936 and To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936, and Frank Mintz’s Anarchists and Workers Self-Management in Revolutionary Spain.

In the Spanish revolution, ordinary workers and farmers took over factories, businesses and landed estates and operated them on anarchist principles.  By one estimate, some 1.8 million Spaniards (workers and their families) participated in rural and industrial collectives.

I learned from reading these three books that anarchism can work well—provided there is a hard core of capable and strong-willed people dedicated to making it work.

(more…)

What if the Axis had won the Second World War?

December 26, 2016

.

.

Philip K. Dick is not my favorite science fiction writer, but many of my favorite science fiction movies—Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, Next and The Adjustment Bureau—were based on his ideas.

I did greatly admire and enjoy his novel, The Man in the High Castle, which gives the Dickian imagination free rein but has a more coherent plot than many of his other stories and novels.

The setting of The Man in the High Castle is a 1962 USA which has lost World War Two and been partitioned between Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire, with the Rocky Mountains serving as an unoccupied neutral zone.

There are two plots.  One involves high-level Japanese and German officials conspiring to avoid a nuclear war between the two superpowers.  The other involves ordinary Americans trying to survive in Japanese-occupied San Francisco and one of them traveling to the neutral zone in search of “the man in the high castle,” author of a novel in which the Allies won the war.

Amazon Prime has started a series based on the novel, which incorporates most of the material in the novel, but which branches out to include Nazi-occupied New York and the Reich itself.

I subscribed to Amazon Prime mainly to watch this series, and Seasons One and Two have been well worth it.

(more…)

Why the Electoral College result should stand

December 15, 2016

 The original idea of the Electoral College (Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution) was that Americans would not choose a President ourselves, but instead choose the leading citizens from our communities, and delegate the decision to them.

In that way, we supposedly would avoid self-seeking politicians and only choose individuals devoted to the public good.

This idea lasted through precisely one administration, that of George Washington.  From then on we had political parties and electors pledged to particular candidates—precisely what the Founders hoped to avoid.   This reality was reflected in the Twelfth Amendment.

Now certain opponents of Donald Trump, who claim to be followers of Alexander Hamilton, say that electors should ignore their pledges and exercise independent judgment.  This is a terrible idea.

I would be perfectly happy to delegate decision-making to someone I considered to be wise and good, but that is not what I did when I voted in the recent presidential election.   Most American voters don’t know the names of the electors they voted for.  I don’t.  If you do, you’re a rare exception.

I don’t think most Americans who voted for Donald Trump (or, for that matter, for Hillary Clinton) would be willing to see their decisions over-ridden by people they’d never heard of.   This is very different from the original idea of the Electoral College.  I think that Alexander Hamilton and the other Founders would think so, too.

(more…)

The legacy of Fidel Castro

November 26, 2016

Fidel Castro died yesterday at the age of 90.  He ruled Cuba from 1959 to 2006 and was widely admired as a brave patriot and revolutionary who defied the power of the United States.

He was indeed a patriot and a brave man, but I never believed in him or what he stood for.

Fidel Castro in 1964 (Magnum)

Fidel Castro in 1964 (Magnum Photos)

Human beings cannot flourish under any system based on giving absolute power for life to a single person or small group of people can work.  Human life is too varied and complex to be subject to the will of a tiny elite of self-selected masterminds.

A number of people asked me at different times whether giving people bread was more important than freedom of the press or voting in contested elections.  I answered that I didn’t see the connection between giving people bread and denying them the right to ask for bread.

They asked me whether a nation has a right to change its political and economic system.  I answered that they do, and they have a right to change their minds if the first change doesn’t work out.

The Communist dictatorship was established supposedly to safeguard the ideals of socialism.  That was the purpose of all the suppression and regimentation.

Now the government of Cuba, like the governments of China and Vietnam before it, is renouncing socialism and opening itself to the capitalist world market, but the dictatorship remains.

(more…)

Thanksgiving and the Pilgrim story

November 24, 2016

The story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving feast is more complicated, less sweetly sentimental and much more interesting than many might think.

LINKS

Native Intelligence: The Indians who first feasted with the English colonists were far more sophisticated than you were taught in school | But that wasn’t enough to save them by Charles C. Mann for Smithsonian magazine.

Ditch the Lovefest and Learn the Real Story of the First Thanksgiving by Glenn Garvin for Reason.

The Silver Lining of Thanksgiving Past by Ian Welsh.

Clinton actually got more votes than Trump

November 10, 2016

The votes are still being counted, but it now seems almost certain that more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than voted for Donald Trump.

The same thing happened in the 2000 election.  Al Gore received more votes nationwide than George W. Bush.  Two out of the last three Republican victories were with a minority of the votes!

Until and unless the Electoral College is abolished, this is likely to happen again, and always in favor of the Republicans.

trump-clinton1The reason is that Americans do not vote directly for President, but for members of the Electoral College, who then choose a President, and that the Electoral College is tilted in favor of small states—most of them rural states with Republican majorities.

Each state gets a number of electoral votes equal to its representation in the House of Representatives, which is apportioned according to population, plus its representation in the Senate, which is two per state.

Democrats are concentrated in cities and in large states with large cities.  Republicans are more spread out across the country, and are more over-represented in the Senate and in the Electoral College (and also in the House of Representatives, due to gerrymandering).

(more…)

David Brion Davis on the history of slavery

November 2, 2016

One of the things I’ve come to realize is the central importance of African slavery not only in the history of the United States, but of the whole New World and the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese empires.

My understanding has been greatly helped by the historian David Brion Davis.   He wrote about slavery as a moral issue—how it was justified in the first place, and how the Western world came to turn against it.

I’ve read his principal books—The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975), Slavery and Human Progress (1984), Inhuman Bondage: the Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006) and his latest book, which I finished reading last week, The Problem of Slavery in The Age of Emancipation (2014).

davisslaveryemancipationbwoakes02161391905742Slavery is a problem because in Western culture because of the heritage of the Greeks and Romans, who regarded freedom as necessary to human dignity, and because of the Christian religion, which taught that all human beings are equally children of God.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, there were two kinds of slaves—debt slaves and war captives.  Selling yourself or your children into slavery was the ultimate form of bankruptcy, and it exists in the world today.  I read somewhere that the world’s largest concentration of slaves are debt slaves in India.

Ancient armies did not have facilities for keeping prisoners of war.  Their choices for dealing with defeated enemies were to kill them (or at least kill all the adult males) or to enslave them.

When the Atlantic slave trade began, the rationalization was that the African slaves had been defeated in war in their own homelands and already forfeited their lives.

The first white opponents of Western slavery were the Quakers and other peace churches.  Since war was anti-Christian, the Quakers believed, then slavery, as the fruit of war, also was wrong.

Quakers were leaders of the anti-slavery movement in both Great Britain and the United States; many and maybe most white members of the Underground Railroad were Quakers.

Another strain of opposition to slavery came from the rationalistic thinkers of the 18th century, who opposed hereditary privilege and believed that government should should be based on recognition of human rights.

They were not as wholehearted as the Quakers.  Slaveowners such as Thomas Jefferson admitted that slavery was in theory a great evil, but insisted that the times and conditions for emancipation weren’t right.

The invention of so-called scientific racism was in part a response to qualms of people like Jefferson.  If black Africans are not as human as white Europeans, then slavery does not have to be justified.  There is no reason not to treat enslaved people as if they were livestock.

This argument did not touch the Quakers and other religious opponents of slavery because they opposed slavery on moral grounds, not scientific grounds.

Black people, both free and enslaved, meanwhile fought for their own liberation, in slave uprisings and in appeals to white people for the abolition of slavery.   Without their struggle, the majority of white people might have been able to ignore the moral issue indefinitely.

(more…)

Time for another Reconstruction?

October 14, 2016

Black people in the South were liberated during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War.   It was followed by a white backlash and the Jim Crow era, in which most of their newly won rights were taken away.

Then came the civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s, which the Rev. William J. Barber, leader of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, calls a second Reconstruction.  Another white backlash attacked the gains from that era.

wbarber-3rdreconstruction978-080708360-4Rev. Mr. Barber says it is time for a third Reconstruction.   Like the first two, he said, it requires fusion politics—blacks and whites working together for the common good.   The backlash succeeds only when they are divided.

To see what he means, take a look at the Constitution of North Carolina, originally drafted in 1868 and retaining much of its original wording.  It is a very progressive document, even by today’s standards.

It states that not all persons created equal and have the right not only to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but to  “the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor.”

It guarantees free public education as a right.  It states that beneficent provision for the poor, the unfortunate and the orphan is among the first duties of a civilized and a Christian state.   It guarantees all the rights in the U.S. Constitution and eliminates property qualifications for voting.

All these provisions are the result of Reconstruction.  North Carolina’s present Constitution was drafted at a constitutional convention immediately following the Civil War.   The 133 delegates included 15 newly enfranchised African-Americans and 18 Northern white men (so called carpetbaggers).

It was ratified by a popular vote in which 55 percent voted “yes”.   As a result, more African-Americans were elected to public office in North Carolina in the following period than at any time since.

(more…)

A giant statue of Chinese warrior hero Guan Yu

September 24, 2016

giant-war-god-statue-general-guan-yu-sculpture-china-9

This 190-foot tall, 1,450-ton [*] statue represents Guan Yu, a heroic general and warrior who lived during China’s Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD).   His famous Green Crescent Dragon Blade weighs 150 tons [*].  For comparison, the Statue of Liberty is 111 feet tall and weighs 225 tons.

Guan Yu was so fierce and righteous that he is worshiped as a god.  This statue, one of many in China, was erected last summer in the Chinese city of Jingzhou in Hubei province.  There is an even larger statue, 292 feet high, in his home town of Changping in Shanxi province.

He was a character in the famous Chinese historical novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which became the basis of many a Chinese movie and video game and is said to be one of the favorite reading of Mao Zedong.

(more…)

A graphic history of global climate change

September 14, 2016

Source: xkcd: Earth Temperature Timeline

Thoughts about the Free State of Jones

September 6, 2016

In the “Free State of Jones” movie, Newton Knight, a white Mississippi farmer who rebelled against the Confederacy, takes refuge in an inaccessible swamp and is helped by fugitive slaves.

Victoria Bynum

Victoria Bynum

Such things happened in real life.   Many fugitive slaves fled, not to the North, which many of them couldn’t reach, but to places such as the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia where their pursuers couldn’t follow.

The Seminole Indians were never defeated because they retreated deep into the Everglades where the U.S. military couldn’t follow, where they were joined by fleeing slaves.

And, yes, some of them did shelter white fugitives (fugitives for good and bad reasons).

∞∞∞

Jones County wasn’t unique as an example of white Southern unionism.  Victoria Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones, on which the movie was based, has written another book (which I haven’t read), The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies about white uprisings against the Confederacy in North Carolina, Mississippi and Texas.

I did know about Winston County, Alabama, and there were others.  The whole state of West Virginia was created out of a pro-Union section of Virginia.

Movies such as Glory remind us of the contribution of black troops to Union victory.  Loyal white Southerners also were important to Union victory,  Many of the Union’s best generals, such as George Thomas, were Southerners.

(more…)

Newton Knight and the free state of Jones

September 6, 2016

I read THE FREE STATE OF JONES: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War by Victoria Bynum after seeing the movie, “The Free State of Jones,” which I liked, in order to see how much of the movie is based on fact.

freestateofjones.bynum.amazon-fsojThe movie dramatized the true story of Newton Knight, a white Mississippi farmer led a guerrilla revolt against the Confederacy during the Civil War, and was never captured or defeated.

He took his grandfather’s slave as a lover and became the patriarch of an interracial community which continued to exist down tinto the middle of the 20th century.

Victoria Bynum’s book begins with the origins of the families who fought in the Knight Company.  In colonial times, they lived in the backwoods of the Carolinas, and opposed rich plantation owners in the political struggles of those times.

Racial lines were not drawn so strictly in those days as later, and some sons of poor white indentured servants felt they had more in common with black slaves than with slave owners..

During the American Revolution, many wealthy planters such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were rebels, and many poor backwoodsmen were Tories.

After the Revolution, many backwoodsmen migrated into the lawless frontier region that later became the states of Alabama and Mississippi.  They endured great danger, hardship and isolation, particularly the women, but rejoiced in being their own masters.

Slaveowners adopted, taught and enforced a rigid ideology of racism. to a degree previously unknown, Bynum wrote.

Anybody with “one drop” of Negro “blood” was considered black.  White men had a duty to preserve the chastity of white women, lest white “blood” be contaminated.  This was supported by a religious practice that condemned dancing, alcohol and sensuality.

No doubt the slaveowners sincerely believed in these things, but they served a function of keeping the black slaves isolated and preventing them from joining forces with whites.

But, according to Bynum, not all white people followed the accepted code.  Some enjoyed feasting, dancing and drinking, sometimes among black companions.  Some preferred charismatic, revival meetings, sometimes led by women, to the stricter and more authoritarian religion.  There were those who became lovers across the color line.

(more…)

Murray Bookchin: the social matrix of technology

August 21, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).   I’m interested in Bookchin’s work because he provides a way a deeper, broader and longer-range perspective than the false alternatives in current politics.

chapter ten – the social matrix of technology

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin debunked the idea that the level of technology determines the level of social organization.  Rather social organization itself is the most important technology.

Human beings do not have to adapt to the requirements of technology.  The machine was made for man, not man for the machine.

The Pyramids of Egypt and the great temples of Assyria and Babylonia did not depend on a high level of technology, he wrote; they were built with primitive tools.

What the great empires of ancient Egypt and the Fertile Crescent discovered was how to organize and mobilize huge numbers of people against their will, and to squeeze the maximum amount of labor out of them.   So long as they had slaves, they had no need to invent labor-saving machinery.

The same was true of the New World, Bookchin wrote.   The democratic Iroquois and the totalitarian Inca used the same types of tools.  It was their social organization that was different.

Neither did geography determine social organization.  The Inca empire and Greek democracy both arose in mountainous regions.

Rather hierarchy arose, as Bookchin noted in previous chapters, when non-productive old people reinvented themselves as priests and the young men gave their loyalty to warrior bands rather than the village clans.   This happened in many different times and settings.  It set in motion an evolution ending with supposedly sacred despots supported by priests, warriors and tax collectors.

When despotic societies arose, Bookchin wrote, organic matricentric societies had to militarize themselves or else either be conquered or driven from their lands.  What’s remarkable, he wrote, is not the spread of despotism, but how much of the world’s people remained free.

(more…)

Populists vs. liberals in American history

August 16, 2016

One of the main things I’ve learned from reading American history is that political alignments in the past were very different from what they are now, and that, prior to the New Deal, “populists” and “liberals” were rarely found in the same party.

By “populist,” I mean someone who defends the interests of the majority of the population against a ruling elite.  By “liberal,” I mean someone who takes up for downtrodden and unpopular minorities.

3080664-president-andrew-jackson--20--twenty-dollar-billAndrew Jackson, the founder of the Democratic Party, was a populist.  He gained fame as the leader of a well-regulated militia, composed of citizens with the right to keep and bear arms, who defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans and who fought for white settlers against Indians in what later became the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.

He was regarded as a champion of poor workers, farmers and frontier settlers.  In an epic struggle, he broke the stranglehold of the financial elite, as represented by the Second Bank of the United States, on the U.S. economy.   Jacksonians fought for the enfranchisement of property-less white people.

In standing up for the common people, Jackson denied any claims to superiority by reason of education and training.  He defended the spoils system—rewarding his political supporters with government jobs—on the grounds that any American citizen was capable of performing any public function.

Jackson was a slave-owner and a breaker of Indian treaties.  He killed enemies in duels.  He was responsible for the expulsion of Indians in the southeast U.S. in the Trail of Tears.   He was not a respecter of individual rights.   He was not a liberal.

This was opposed by almost all the great New England humanitarian reformers of Jackson’s time and later.  They were educated white people who tried to help African Americans, American Indians, the deaf, the blind, prison inmates and inmates of insane asylums.  Almost of all them were Whigs, and almost all their successors were Republicans.

They were liberals, but not populists.  Like Theodore Parker, the great abolitionist and opponent of the Fugitive Slave Law,  they despised illiterate Irish Catholic immigrants in his midst.  Poor Irish people had to look for help to the Jacksonian Democratic political machines.

(more…)

The influence of third-party candidates

August 6, 2016

040116-Third-Party

If you go further back in history, the other notable alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans were the Populist (or People’s) Party in 1892, Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party in 1912 and Robert (Fighting Bob) LaFollette’s Progressive Party in 1924 and Henry A. Wallace’s Progressive Party in 1948.

All of these parties except Henry Wallace’s actually carried states.  TR’s Progressives actually received more popular votes and electoral votes than incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft.

The most successful third-party and independent candidates—Theodore Roosevelt, George Wallace and Ross Perot—were celebrities before they ran.

The Populists definitely influenced the major parties.  Democrats in 1896, 1900 and 1908 nominated William Jennings Bryan, who advocated most of their reform platform.

Theodore Roosevelt was not a spoiler.   Public opinion in 1912 favored progressive reform, and Woodrow Wilson, the victor, probably would have received much of the vote that went to TR.

Henry A. Wallace, interestingly, received almost as many popular votes as Strom Thurmond.  They each got about 2.5 percent (as did Ralph Nader in 2000).   But, because Henry Wallace’s votes weren’t concentrated geographically, he didn’t receive any electoral votes (nor did Nader).

It’s noteworthy how few votes Thurmond needed to carry four states—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina.   I wonder how much was due to apathy and how much to voter suppression.   I read somewhere that in the 1928 election, the total votes cast in the former Confederate states were less than the voter turnout just in New York state.

Thurmond’s and George Wallace’s candidacies, along with Barry Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964, were part of the transition of the South from predominantly Democratic to predominantly Republican.

Ross Perot may have been a spoiler.   Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory was narrow, and I think Perot took away more votes from George H.W. Bush than from Clinton.  Perot’s emphasis on balancing the budget may have influenced Clinton, but his opposition to NAFTA most certainly did not.

(more…)

What a real US fascist movement would look like

August 3, 2016

Donald Trump is not intellectually, temperamentally or morally fit to be President of the United States.  If elected, he would do great harm to the United States and to the world.

Trump_1_21_againagainLike Hitler and Mussolini, he is contemptuous of laws, human rights or restrictions on mob violence.

But I don’t think he has a conscious goal of creating a fascist dictatorship, and, even if he did, he is not backed up by the kind of fascist movement that would make it possible.

A full-blown American fascist movement would have these characteristics:

  1.  A party line and strictly enforced party discipline.
  2.  An armed party militia.
  3.  A covert understanding with Wall Street.
  4.  A parallel structure of authority that superseded the legal governmental structure.

∞∞∞

Here’s why Donald Trump and his followers don’t fit that profile..

(more…)

Harriet Tubman, an American hero

July 24, 2016

quote-i-was-the-conductor-of-the-underground-railroad-for-eight-years-and-i-can-say-what-most-conductors-harriet-tubman-274133

The following is notes for a lay sermon at First Universalist Church of Rochester, NY, on July 24, 2016.

Before the present announcement that Harriet Tubman’s face will appear on the $20 bill, all I knew about her was that she was connected with the Underground Railroad.

I’ve since learned something about her, and come to realize that she is truly a great American – but with a different kind of greatness than that of historical figures such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, U.S. Grant or Benjamin Franklin.

It is not just that those others were white, and she was black.  It is not just that they were all men, and she was a woman.  She was poor and illiterate, and earned her living through most of her life by physical labor.  Unlike her, they were commanders and lawgivers at the pinnacle of power.  She showed the power and position are not necessary for greatness.

What did her greatness consist of?  Her greatness consisted of the willingness to risk everything for freedom – first her own freedom, and then the freedom of others.

As a young girl, born into slavery, she resisted efforts to force her to accept submission, and eventually escaped.  Then, at great personal risk, she returned to the place she had been held in bondage, and rescued others.

During the Civil War, she volunteered as a scout for the Union Army and led other enslaved people into freedom.  During the final phase of her life, she supported equal rights for both African Americans and women.

She lived according to the ethic of Jesus in a way that few people today, including Unitarian Universalists, can understand.  She had a deep faith in God, and was guided by her visions of God.  She shared everything she had with those more in want that she was, and trusted in God to provide.

(more…)

Newton Knight, an American hero

July 22, 2016

My friend Hal Bauer urged all his friends to see the movie, Free State of Jones.  I saw it, and it is as good as Hal said it is.

The movie tells the story of Newton Knight, a white farmer in southern Mississippi, who led a rebellion against the Confederacy itself.

Newton Knight

Newton Knight

Knight was 6-foot-4 with black curly hair and a full beard—“big heavyset man, quick as a cat,” as one of his friends described him.  He was a nightmarish opponent in a backwoods wrestling match, and one of the great unsung guerrilla fighters in American history.  So many men tried so hard to kill him that perhaps his most remarkable achievement was to reach old age.

“He was a Primitive Baptist who didn’t drink, didn’t cuss, doted on children and could reload and fire a double-barreled, muzzle-loading shotgun faster than anyone else around,” said [local historian Wyatt] Moulds. 

“Even as an old man, if someone rubbed him the wrong way, he’d have a knife at their throat in a heartbeat.  A lot of people will tell you that Newt was just a renegade, out for himself, but there’s good evidence that he was a man of strong principles who was against secession, against slavery and pro-Union.”

Source: Richard Grant | Smithsonian

Knight hated the 20-slave rule, which gave slave-owning families one exemption from military service for every 20 slaves they owned.  He also hated Confederate confiscations of livestock, crops and food from small farmers.

For a time, his Knight Company drove the Confederate Army out of Jones County and surrounding areas of southern Mississippi.  Contrary to the impression given by the movie title, he didn’t intend to set up Jones County as an independent nation.  He was loyal to the Union.

He didn’t only fight for independent white farmers.  He fought against slavery himself.  He defended the rights of newly-freed slaves after the Civil War.  After the triumph of the Ku Klux Klan, he retreated to his homestead where he lived with his inter-racial family.

I had no idea Newton Knight existed until I saw the movie.

(more…)

Lessons from North Dakota

July 11, 2016

A century ago, the state of North Dakota underwent a peaceful political revolution—one more radical than what Bernie Sanders attempted this year.  The benefits to the people of the state endure to this day.

North Dakota farmers were subject to the domination of banks and flour mills in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  They set mortgage interest rates and the price of wheat.  Business interests dominated North Dakota government.

But progressive reformers opened up the political process through the initiative (voters could propose laws), the referendum (voters could vote directly on laws) and the recall (unsatisfactory state legislators could be voted out before their terms ended).  More importantly, the state legislated open primary elections.

This opened up the process for the Non-Partisan League, organized by a fiery socialist named Arthur C. Townley.  Starting in 1914, he recruited 40,000 dues-paying members, mainly farmers, in a state whose population was 600,000.  The NPL then endorsed and campaigned for candidates who adopted the NPL program.

In 1916, NPL candidates effectively took over the Republican Party in the state.   NPL candidates won all statewide offices and a majority in the state Assembly; in 1918, they took over the state Senate as well.

Among their reforms were a state grain grading service so that farmers were assured a fair price, regulation of railroad shipping rates, and authorization of state-owned enterprises, including the Bank of North Dakota, the crown jewel of the NPL program, which is still going strong.

(more…)

The radicalism of the Declaration

July 4, 2016

Signing of the Declaration of Independence

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness

==In Congress: the unanimous Declaration of the 13 united States of America, July 4, 1776

These words are among the most radical statements ever written.   It denies that government is established by divine right or ancient custom, and that subjects have no choice but to obey.   It affirms that people have the right to form a government by free decision, and proceeds to do just that.

It is a philosophy that is hard for many people to accept—including, as I have found through experience, many supposedly well-educated 21st century Americans.

Our Declaration.inddI have believed in the basic ideas of the Declaration’s since I was old enough to understand them.  My interpretation of American history is that it consists of (1) a series of events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the Constitution and (2) a playing out of the consequences of those two actions.

Recently I read a book, OUR DECLARATION: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality by Danielle Allen which both reinforced and clarified my understanding of the Declaration.

What, Allen asked, does it mean to say “all men are created equal”?  Obviously people are not the same in virtue, or ability, or wealth and social standing.

As she pointed out, we are all equal in the desire to live, in the desire to live free of subjugation to someone else’s will and in the desire (this is more controversial) to define for ourselves what we need to make us happy.  If I demand these rights for myself, I have no standing to deny these rights to you.

The Declaration gives two possible sources of these rights – “the Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God.”  The first reflects the ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment; the second of radical Protestant Christianity.

All Christians believe that human beings are made in the image of God, and are in some sense descended from Adam and Eve and then from Noah.  Protestants believe that human beings can have a direct relationship to God without the need for a priesthood to serve as intermediary.  Radical Protestants such as the Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers practiced democracy in their congregations, and in town meetings.

The rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment thought in the same manner, except without the Biblical scaffolding.  They held that all human beings, regardless of their other differences, had a moral sense.   They thought people should think of government as a social contract—a mutual agreement based on mutual benefit.

The social contract was only a theory for John Locke and other 18th century philosophers.  But social contracts were made by the American colonists—first in the Mayflower Compact of the Pilgrims as they voyaged to Plymouth Rock, then of various frontier communities, and finally the Constitution of the United States.

The most radical of the Declaration’s affirmations is the right of revolution.  The United States of America is founded not on a principle of authority or national unity, but on principles of freedom and equality to which the government itself must submit or risk dissolution.

(more…)

Murray Bookchin: from saints to sellers

June 24, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin

bookchin-endquote

chapter eight – from saints to sellers

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin traced the history of peasant revolts, starting with one recorded in Egypt in 2500 BC and continuing through peasant revolts in ancient Egypt and Sumeria, helot revolts in ancient Sparta, slave revolts in ancient Rome and peasant revolts in the European Middle Ages.

Based on my reading, I can say that what he wrote was also true of peasant revolts in Russia, China and probably other civilizations as well.

He wrote that all these rebels destroyed, first of all, records of taxation, mortgages, other debt and legal records, and secondly, treasure.

The rebels deeply resented the transubstantiation of tangible wealth, such as grain, livestock, wine and cloth, into symbolic wealth, such as golden utensils, jewelry, intricate works of art and rich furnishings and palaces, which were manifestations of domination.

In the politics of ancient Rome, Bookchin wrote, commoners demanded redistribution of land, cancellation of debts and greater equality before the law.  This is not too different from what the Occupy Wall Street movement demanded.

He devoted most of the chapter to the rebels of the European Middle Ages who, unlike the rebels of ancient times, had ideals of a better society which they derived from Christianity.

These ideals included (1) the tradition of the first Christians, who were poor and owned all things in common, (2) the ideal that all human beings are equal in the sight of God, (3) the idea that God’s law is superior to human law and (4) the hope of a better and more just world in the End Times.

(more…)

Bernie Sanders 2016 and Gene McCarthy 1968

June 10, 2016

Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has the same significance as Eugene J. McCarthy‘s in 1968.

McCarthy was a moderate Democrat from Minnesota who chose to run against incumbent Lyndon Johnson on a platform of opposition to the Vietnam War.

Eugene J. McCarthy

Eugene J. McCarthy

He didn’t have an especially distinguished record, and he wasn’t the best possible candidate.  But he was the candidate who had the nerve to run while all the other war opponents held back.   He provided an outlet for all the pent-up anti-war sentiment.

He won a plurality of the votes in the New Hampshire primary, against two slates of delegates both pledged to President Johnson.   His victory emboldened Senator Robert F. Kennedy to run, and Johnson decided not to seek re-election.

Even if Kennedy had not been assassinated, he probably would not have been able to defeat the entrenched Democratic Party organization or to prevent the nomination of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.

What McCarthy and then Kennedy did do was to open the door for a peace faction which was a continuing force in the Democratic Party independent of McCarthy himself.   I think, or at least I hope, Bernie Sanders has opened the door for a Democratic Party social justice faction that will outlive the Sanders campaign.

(more…)

Murray Bookchin: the legacy of freedom

June 8, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).  

chapter seven – the legacy of freedom

Bookchin was an anarchist who believed it was possible to create a society without government or corporations, in which free people could live in peace with each other and with nature.  I’m interested in Bookchin because of the failures of state socialism and corporate neoliberalism and the unsatisfactory nature of current politics.

In the first six chapters of The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin described how hierarchy emerged from what he called the original organic society, of how tribal shamans and warrior bands became priesthoods and armies and of how the idea of abstract justice to balance the power of ancient despots.

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin wrote about how Christianity shaped the idea of freedom, and how, for many centuries, the struggle between freedom and hierarchy was fought within the framework of Christian thought.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Early Christian communities, in many ways, fit Bookchin’s anarchist ideal.   Early Christians came together voluntarily and as equals.  They not only came together for worship, but to provide for each others’ needs, since the Roman government’s functions were mainly limited to collecting taxes, suppressing disorder and waging war.

Later on the Christian church developed a hierarchy that accommodated itself to the Roman Empire, and then to feudal lords and medieval kings, and to the modern state.

The medieval Papacy was the ultimate hierarchy.  Its ideal was the Great Chain of Being—God and his angels at the peak, delegating authority to popes and kings, who empowered priests and nobles, with the common people at the bottom.  Papal power reached its peak under Pope Gregory VII, who excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, for resisting the church’s claims to power.

But, as Bookchin noted, the memory and ideal of primitive Christianity never entirely disappeared.  In time, Puritans, in the name of Christianity, beheaded their king and labeled the Pope as the Antichrist.

St. Augustine, he wrote, regarded government not merely as irrelevant, but as evil—a necessary evil, however, because people were corrupted by original sin.  The ideal, however, was a community in which people were united by the bonds of love, and that ideal never disappeared.

The ancient Greeks, Romans and most of the rest of the pagan world regarded history as cyclical, so that everything that happened would happen again.   But Christians believed that history had a direction and a goal, starting with the Garden of Eden and ending with the Second Coming of Christ, in which a better world would come into being.   That hope of a better world never disappeared.

(more…)