Saturday, December 11, 2010

Manifest Destiny: A Pilgrim’s Perspective


When I think of Bigotry in America I think of 1979 and of my friend, Bob, who firmly believed that mixing food and whiskey was a waste of both.
We were working for a fish-buying company located on the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula, about 100 miles north of Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark ended their westward march through the Native Nations. I was a twenty-something dockhand, Vietnam War vintage. Bob was in his mid-fifties. World War Two vintage. All of us lived in a makeshift seasonal settlement located on the beach right behind a corrugated metal icehouse--me in my hippie van, Bob and his wife in a travel trailer. The office Bob worked in was an old converted refrigerator truck parked on blocks at the end of the dock.
The beach, as well as our own picturesque existence, was within a small Reservation belonging to the Quileute Nation, and sat adjacent to Olympic National Park, whose rugged, unpopulated coastline was as wild and clean—at that time--as the American Frontier I imagined my ancestors have known for hundreds of years. I liked Bob in part because he reminded me of who I thought they were. He had the essential elements of a genuinely rustic character with the sophisticated edge to at least have thoughtful opinions about whiskey, He wasn't getting rich, or even trying to. He was there because he wanted to be, just like me, and in that way we were related. I felt lucky, and I guess he felt it, too.
1979 was a watershed year for non-native fishermen. Indigenous salmon populations were starting their inevitable decline due to dams and overharvesting. Worse for fishermen of Northern European descent, with whom our fish dock mostly worked, a recent U.S. District Court decision had given half of the yearly allowable salmon harvest to tribal members in belated acknowledgement of treaty rights. The Boldt Decision (after Judge George Boldt who made the ruling), effectively docked non-native boats in the harbor for more and more days of an already limited season. When they could go out they didn't catch as much as they used to because there weren't as many fish. So their debts mounted up like memories, and some began to go out of business. A good few of them were looking for someone to blame.
One afternoon, Bob and I were sitting in the sun sipping whiskey. It was a “closed-season” day, so we had time on our hands, which meant we weren’t making any money. But it was one of those rare, radiantly blue Olympic-coast summer days, the kind you aim your life towards in the hopes of hitting as many of them as you can, and as we watched a tribal member motor his hand-carved cedar canoe out to check his gill net near the river mouth across from us I was feeling pretty smug. Bob must have been feeling equally smug, so smug that he decided to let fly with a comment that was transcendental for me, because I never knew til then that I could live through history, touch my pioneer ancestors on the back of the neck and ask them “What the hell?”
"These Indians should just feel lucky we didn’t decide to exterminate them," he announced, as though we weren't sitting smack dab in the middle of someone else's reservation, which we were, on whose permission we depended for our jobs, which was the case. "That's how it usually works.”
He took a sip from his tumbler. “ They're a bunch of ingrates is what they are,” he concluded, then he asked if I agreed with him. I don’t recall my response, but I’m sure I was evasive because I always was, in those days, with guys like Bob.
One year later Ronald Reagan became our 40th President. Reagan ran a purposeful campaign on a platform of glorifying a couple hundred years of Bob's Nits-Make-Lice philosophy and the whiskey that went with it. Being forewarned, I said an audible 'uh-oh' to that, and still wonder if anyone is really listening, because I was right. Not because I was an uppity progressive (a hippy in those days) but simply because I was there in the hinterlands to watch it happen. Reagan, for you young pups who have been systematically beat over the head since birth with revisionist corporate history, began his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., 9 miles away from where the bodies of 3 civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner—were found only 16 years earlier. He literally preached “states rights” to the television camaras, of the inviolability of “private property”, intentionally using the the very same rhetoric that precipitated our Civil War when those two phrases were synonymous with Slavery. All the racists in the South got it, and he never let up in his calculated political ploy to suck up white, working-class voters who were feeling unappreciated and put upon, and who were looking for someone to lead them in their blaming. And remember this, children, if you don't remember anything else--it worked. Eight years later, when the brains behind the Reagan presidency—George H.W. Bush, ran for the White House and the first premeditated Corporate assault on reason of our high-rolling age—the million-dollar "Attack Ad"-- hit the barroom television sets, that first "Attack Ad" was the overtly racist ‘Willie Horton’ one that corporate America decided to cut its diamond studded fangs with, and all the Bobs in America were watching, and understanding.
Like so many other European-Americans, I have inherited family attitudes threading back through all this nation’s epic events—including all wars—and not all of them good and wholesome. My great-grandfather, whom I didn't know, "fought injuns" along the Overland Trail for the Union. His son, whom I did know "voted for Eisenhower cuz Lincoln won the war", and my family, like many others and despite all the contradictions, somehow passed on a living history of the significance of what a brief point in our history we now label our Founding was trying, and failing even then, to guard against. Bigotry, according to documents written on the outer edge of the European Age of Enlightenment we call our Constitution and Declaration of Independence, always trumps self-interest in a rigged game, with the church usually acting as the dealer. Demagoguery their sleight-of-hand of choice and we constantly have to be on guard against it. This has variously been called empathy or the common good, short of that it’s measured in biological terms. But it’s significant enough for considering within the course of human events, when, left to their own devices, our governing elites never fail to profess amnesia about what the hell this country was founded on. Those documents, for instance, were as much about repudiating the Church as a governing institution as they were about anything, and “Christian Nation” be damned for the damnable lie that it is. 
We are living in watershed times. Reagan is only one example of how, when our leaders are allowed by us to nurture bigotry while pulling cards from their self-interested sleeves, the house (in the colonial days the Monarchists and the Church—in these days the Corporatists and the "Religious" Right) always win.
The modern patriot/militia movement, from the Oklahoma City bombing to our current and unfortunate Tea Party spectacle, steeped in nativism and its younger brother Nationalism, with perverse interpretations of the Bible and the Constitution with distinct racist underpinnings to justify a horrendously-xenophobic message, was born in those angry 80s, and has been nurtured from the very beginning by those same Corporatist house dealers who wear Church robes for the rubes with whom they need to pull off the ruse. And, listen closely children: in the saddest of ironies, they dominate our local and national governments to this day. Why we let this happen I’m not sure. But I do know that this is the history I witnessed, not because I’m an old hippy (which I am) but only because I exist--in my rural community as well as in my country. It’s simply demonstrable that people have let their bigotry get in the way of their common sense, and although it's never been sustainable by any stretch in the long run, it has worked like a Chinese assembly line cranking out plastic crap, and it's a much scarier world because of that much-exploited fact.
Oh Bob, I think of you much these days, as I watch us being led over the cliff of a war that may never end, by those stripping our freedoms off us whole cloth while grandly speaking of the day coming soon when the world will be patterned after the American Model.
As for this veteran and descendent of Pilgrims, I’d say that Manifest Destiny has found its final angle of repose when leaders who are elected on platforms of polarization speak openly of 'usable nuclear weapons'. Nits make lice, indeed.
So here it is, Bob, wherever you are or your soul is. You're right: mixing food and whiskey IS a bad idea. And you're wrong in letting your bigotry get in the way of your common sense, simply because you’re aiming yourself at your own construction of Hell, and you're dragging all the rest of us down there to that fiction with you.
That's how it usually works. But if you just want company, I'll still buy you a drink. Let's talk.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

On Emerson, Thoreau, Mark Twain and Modern Progressivism

Thoreau and Emerson had a discussion in May of 1846 about the Mexican War--our first war in the European sense of the word that set us on the course we still track today. Conquest of nation-states and the inevitable Imperialism that follows.  Emerson counseled his friend that we can supersede the transgressions of a well-meaning State by the Muse. Thoreau wasn't so sure that the State was so well-meaning or that the Muse alone would be enough to supersede it. But he tried both the Muse and "other means" to our everlasting benefit. Civil Disobedience, in the American sense, has always been his child, in large part because he raised it to the level of Literature. "Other means" requires the Muse to be lasting and effective, and vice versa. How would anyone know what the hell you were talking about otherwise, let alone emulate what you're trying to do?
The problem with Progressives today, I think, is that we let other people--Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers, Sun Myung Moon--tell our stories, and those other people do not mean us well. We don't plug our "Muse" into our political discourse very much, and that's a big mistake. Mark Twain didn't make that mistake, and he was among the first American Writers to use the new-fangled typewriter. Why do we children of Twain, Emerson and Thoreau make that mistake now with our new-fangled computers?
For all their faults, Murdoch, the Kochs and Moon understand that people are story-based critters, like it or not, and I think we progressives should like it. By definition, people make many important social (read: political) decisions based largely on who's the best storyteller. It’s in our nature, and Corporate Media is a classic example of how Nature abhors a vacuum. We’ve collectively created a cultural ‘narrative’ vacuum by allowing ourselves to be so easily entertained by—Corporate Media! And Nature hates that. She’ll allow the same garbage responsible for the vacuum (Corporate Media!) to be sucked in and to rattle around until it ruins our cognative motors before she’ll let that sad state of affairs stand. Consider: Rupert Murdoch (Fox News) is from Australia and lives in China. Sun Myung Moon (The Washington Times, UPI) is from Korea. The Koch Brothers, of course, are from the sheikdom of Texas. All four are so obscenely rich they (apparently) believe they own America because they paid for it, and we collectively let them define who among us are “real Americans”?! C'mon!
Although it helps to strive toward the goal, progressives don't have to be great writers. We simply have to acknowledge that we have the better stories and we’re sitting on our best ones. Our truest ones. Rupert Murdoch has better versions of American Liberalism and Progressivism for us than the real ones told by real Americans? Us? We shouldn't put up with that. Why do we?

Like any historic attempt, we need to find our Voice. Significant action will come only after our contemporary political muse matures, which it hasn't yet. And by the way if history's still a guide--and I hope it still is--when that political muse matures it generally becomes the baseline for much of Western Civilization’s meaningful and therefore lasting literature.  
This blog merely represents my call to elevate our critical modern discussions out of Fox-news-landia back to where intelligent Americans can find their feet and fight back, either with the Muse, by other means, or both. It’s not up to some politician to change the narrative. That’s up to us. So by definition we still have as good a chance as we ever had. Don't lose hope. It’s always been this way. At least in literate societies.
In other words, like Emerson advised and Thoreau partially agreed with: stories matter, and may the best Muse win.