Monday, September 26, 2011

Cranky Bear Pines for the Commonwealth

[Editor's Note: It's been a long time since we've heard from my pal Cranky Bear, evidently he has been hard at work at his "novel of ideas," which he says will set the literary world alight with its insights. However, he has taken time to send me this essay, written with a quill pen and sent by carrier pigeon, and which only just reached me. As you can see, it was written first back in January, at the time of the Gabby Giffords shooting.]

Cranky Bear here, hyperactive with espresso in his veins (this machine is the best Christmas gift I could have hoped for.) I've been thinking long and hard about the horrific events in Tuscon, and in the spirit of the moment, I will tone down my normally acidic vitriol. I find that when caffeine rather than booze is my drug of choice I cuss a lot fucking less (but never give it up completely.)

I've spent two years watching the Tea Party buffoons claim the legacy of the Founders, to the point where some of them want to restrict the vote again, and crow that this country is a republic, not a democracy. (Of course, these things are not mutually exclusive, but complexity of thought has never been a teabagger attribute.) As I said in my debut post, this country has a long history of violent, racist populism. Its current practitioners like to say they are "the people," but they really mean something more to the German word "Volk" with its connotations of racial community.

Anyone with half a brain is aware of the schizoid nature of the American Revolution and its legacy. Thomas Jefferson wrote the words "all men are created equal," but he was also a slaveholder who very often proclaimed the inequality of races. Although the revolutionaries claimed to fight for freedom, they did not intend freedom for all. It was the British, not the colonists, who encouraged slaves to leave their masters and protected their freedom. (Dr. Johnson put it best at the time, "Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?") It was the British, not the colonists, who wanted to limit the slaughter of Native Americans, one reason the colonists were fighting for independence! Although modern conservatives like to claim Tocqueville as an apostle of exceptionalism, they forget his scathing critiques of America's hypocrisy in regards to the treatment of Native Americans and African Americans. These contradictions, which great people like Dr. King and others have tried to unravel, remain with us today.

If you compare the political culture and strength of mythologized nationalism of America to its wealthy peer nations, the differences are striking and alarming. For example, could you even imagine anything like the Tea Party in contemporary Canada? If a political movement in modern-day Germany used the talk radio rhetoric of insurrection, "second amendement remedies," etc., it would be anathema. Any politician spurring that movement with talk of "real Germans" or "don't retreat, reload" would become a pariah and would be kicked out of any of the four major parties (Left and Right) for saying such things. Because of their history, Germans are aware that violent rhetoric has consequences. Our history ought to teach us that lesson too, but because most of the public views our history as one long string of victories for freedom, we never will. After Vietnam there was a window of opportunity where the triumphalist narrative could have been laid low, but it passed.

This is why I now think what to most Americans is unthinkable: America would be better off if it did not achieve independence from Britain. It would have been ideal if right after Lexington and Concord the British leadership offered self-governance for America in exchange for continued loyalty to the crown. We like to think that our nation's war for independence was some kind of great blow for human liberty, making America a beacon of freedom to the world.


The American Revolution did not extend freedom, it merely formalized freedoms that already existed, and did little to challenge the racial, class, and gender inequality of colonial society. Yes, Americans got to rule themselves, but the Canadians basically managed to do the same thing after a rebellion in 1837.

I am well aware of the horrors perpetrated by the British Empire during the 19th century, but they were no worse than those committed on the American frontier. The British also happened to abolish slavery thirty years before the United States, and did it without massive bloodshed. Two court cases provide an apt comparison: those of James Somerset and Dred Scott, both enslaved men who sued for their freedom in court.

We all know what happened in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision: even though Scott had lived on free territory for much of his life, he was denied his freedom. Furthermore, the court ruled that black people simply did not have any rights vis a vis whites. Somerset's case dates all the way back to the 1770s, and his circumstances were remarkably similar. He had lived as a slave in England, and when his master tried to take him back to the Caribbean, he resisted. In Somerset's case, the court ruled that there was no precedent in English common law to uphold slavery, and all slaves in England were thus emancipated. This was in 1772, a full eighty-five years BEFORE Dred Scott. Yes, the English participated the horrific slave trade, but they did finally ban it in 1806.

We like to tell ourselves that America is a uniquely free place, but our history simply does not bear that assertion out. We have not had equal voting rights for even fifty years! (The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, for crying out loud.) We love to pride ourselves as an egalitarian society whose top echeolons represent a kind of meritocracy. Any trip to this nation's many ghettoes, barrios, Indian reservations, dying rural towns, and trailer parks ought to confirm George Carlin's immortal quip, "It's the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."

And in the midst of an economic hurricane austerity is the order of the day. The investment bankers who got us into this mess are back to giving themselves record profits, but here in Texas, where 25% of the population lacks health insurance, the sate is slashing Medicaid instead of spending a single cent of its $9.4 billion "rainy day fund." I'd say the current situation qualifies as a fucking downpour.

The reasons, of course, are blindly ideological, a belief that government is somehow inherently evil. Which brings us back to the American Revolution. The Tea Party, which is merely an echo of a long-established tradition of violent, nationalistic, Herrenvolk populism, has reinterpreted the American Revolution in its favor. The radical Right sees America as a nation where "the people" must always be ready to raise arms against "tyranny," which they interpret as any government expenditure that might somehow help out somebody else.

Like the masses who supported Andrew Jackson, who ethnically cleansed the Cherokee, they support government action when it benefits themselves or is used to slaughter brown people. These supposed libertarians support the maintenance of the biggest war machine in history and its war of choice in Iraq, they supported the warrantless wiretapping of the last administration, they voiciferously oppose closing down an illegal prison at Guantanamo Bay, but if the government tells insurance companies to abide by new regulations, that's tyranny! They claim to be against entitlements, but see no hypocrisy in drawing Social Security, Medicare, and in having gotten their boost into the American middle class via public eduation.

So I ultimately agree with James Madison, who promoted the Constitution's ability to tamper down faction and keep the ignorance of the masses in check. I just think that the Commonwealth would have been a much more effective restraining influence on the violent populism that dares to claim the mantle of freedom. Instead of our unwieldy system, with its Senatorial "holds," the ridiculous electoral college, and a legislative body where Wyoming gets the same number of representatives as California, we might have a proper Parliament, like most of the rest of the democratic world.

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