Our guest blogger today is Richard Dutcher.
I’ve been working on this essay for a while, provoked both by the current domestic situation and some of the reactions to it. Temporal provincialism is the privileging of one time over another (usually the present over the past). Callbacks to Watergate are certainly appropriate, but to the question “Has it ever been this bad before?” the answer is “Yes.” We are in a very bad time; it is not the first. The library mural below commemorates another bad time during the build-up to the American Civil War – “Bloody Kansas.” John Brown, an extremist supporter of abolition, looms over persons real and symbolic.
In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act provided that the legal status of slavery in the future states of Kansas and Nebraska, then territories, would be decided by the citizen-settlers. Four years of violence ensued, with many people maimed and over 56 dead. A Massachusetts senator was beaten almost to death on the Senate floor by a South Carolina congressman. John Brown, who personally killed proslavery men in Kansas, began to plan the raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Our high school history books gloss over previous bad times; only the Civil War is treated in any depth. The cost of resistance and the damage done to oppressed and marginalized communities is concealed by the narrative of constant improvement and progress. I don’t deny all of that narrative – many things are better, however punctuated and unevenly distributed. But excising the costs of progress not only obscures how people make things better, but disguises the grim truth that things can always be worse. And the worse in prospect now is very bad indeed.
A short list of previous bads: Employees of the White House running guns, laundering money and supporting terrorists; whole states abandoning public education rather than integrate black students with whites; an entire ethnic group sent to concentration camps; tens of thousands of KKK marching in full drag down Pennsylvania Avenue; Colorado National Guardsmen machine-gunning a strikers’ camp full of women and children; a successful armed coup against a duly-elected North Carolina state government; the Pinkerton detective agency becoming a de facto police force and militia for industrialists; a civil war that killed, wounded, or psychically maimed 15% of the male population. And always and forever, the genocide of the First Nations, chattel slavery, and their ongoing aftermath.
American history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes: our rhymes are racism, animus against the poor, demonization of opposition, xenophobia, paranoia. Every nation has its own toxic stew of sexism, classism, anti-semitism, ethnic hatreds and grievances old and new. America’s ‘exceptional’ ingredient of racism is especially toxic, fueled in part by projection and fear: the fear of justice.
The author Steven Barnes says that the first major Hollywood film to tell the whole truth about slavery is “Django Unchained,” a revenge fantasy in which the title character rescues his wife from a slave trading/breeding plantation. As you might expect from a Quentin Tarantino film, the violence inflicted on the slavers is over the top. But as Barnes points out, the violence, cruelty and savagery endured by the slaves is historic fact – not “over the top.” Harriet Beecher Stowe was accused, by defenders of slavery, of making up most of the horrors depicted in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” So she published a book, longer than her novel, of her sources: she made up nothing. Neither did Quentin Tarantino.
“Alternate facts” were in play then, as they are now.
Sometimes both sides are doing it. In the case of Kansas, both sides were overwhelmingly white men. Racism in the US is not about what black or brown people have done; it is what white people have done to them. Classism is what the rich and their flunkies have done to the poor. Sexism is what men have done to women.
I have been long convinced that the fear and anger we see against the “other” is fundamentally a psychological projection, a terror of loss of power. We expect and fear that others will do to us what we have done to them. No evidence to the contrary stills that fear. The Civil Rights movement has not ushered in a reign of terror to revenge Jim Crow. Feminists are not murdering large numbers of men. Unions are not lynching industrialists. But “as ye sow, so shall ye reap” is imbedded deep in our psyches. Or, as Abraham Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address:
“Yet, if God wills that … until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid with another drawn with the sword, … the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”