The History of Now

Photo credit: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Have been reading in the news reports and headlines of “rioting” and “looting” and “crimes” and “thugs”. Just tonight the NYT headline read “As chaos spreads, Trumps vows to end it now.” But you know, I think it is really just misplaced modifiers, or dishonest storytelling, or more likely, fraud.

Chaos?

Consider, the actual history of America reads like a criminal rap sheet, a tortuous catalog of crimes running from Plymouth Rock to Donald Trump – a criminality very likely unmatched for its breadth and depth in the history of nations. It sought to sweep aside an entire continent of its many and diverse native cultures and peoples, and corralled by force the survivors of this genocide onto cast off reservation lands. This genocide was celebrated as ‘manifest destiny’ by America’s white population with an entire genre of books and movies mythologizing the perpetrators of genocide as heroes to be worshipped.

At the same time America forced millions of dark complexioned men, women, and children into brutal enslavement, and for two and a half centuries coerced their forced labor without compensation and for the exclusive profit of their white enslavers. The nation’s economic take-off and territorial growth was the direct result of this calculated plan of mass enslavement. Many of the nation’s boasted “Founding Fathers” were themselves slave owners and wrote a Constitution that prolonged the enslavement of human beings and protected the legal right of enslavement for future generations of white slave owners. America was one of the last western nations to formally abolish the legal enslavement of men, women, and children, many years and even decades after other leading nations did so, and then only AFTER the most destructive war in its long history of wars – a civil war full of war crimes that saw Americans slaughtering 700,000 of their fellow Americans on America’s soil – before seeing slavery abolished. After that enormous bloodletting, Abraham Lincoln, himself the victim of a violent assassination, said such destruction could only be possibly justifiable if the nation experienced a ‘new birth of freedom.’ The nation did NOT choose that course but instead legally enforced 100 years of racial caste called Jim Crow, and carried out a bloody and barbarous campaign of racial terrorism called lynching, directed at the descendants of those who had been enslaved. Thousands of acts of terrorism perpetrated by whites went unpunished by any laws and were celebrated as a patriotic birthright, unlamented by whites. The direct purpose of this terror campaign was to ensure the permanent subservience of the one race to the other under a code of humiliating and demeaning racial prejudice and segregation. Histories were rewritten and invented to justify this arrangement, statues to slave owning soldiers were erected in the name of ‘heritage,’ and the most popular motion picture in America’s history, Gone With the Wind, romanticized it. In the meantime, generations of school children, including children of the subjugated racial caste, were required to swear allegiance to a country in the name of ‘liberty and justice for all.’ Jim Crow, when finally repealed as legal statute, was replaced by a ‘War on Drugs’  led by a militarized police that resulted in the mass incarceration of black men, giving America the largest prison population in the world.

As a nation of immigrants, this immigrant-hating nation has for the entirety of its history routinely discriminated against its own immigrant peoples, beginning with the Puritans almost 400 years ago, the supposed exemplars of ‘religious freedom,’ who persecuted and hung Quakers and burned ‘witches.’ To survive withering hostility, despised immigrant populations chose assimilation and often joined the next generation’s drumbeat of anti-immigrant hatred directed at new classes of immigrants. In this way, a pitiless cycle of nativist scorn and discriminatory laws was projected from Anglo against German, German against Irish, Irish against Chinese, Irish and Anglo against Jewish and Italian, Anglo against German (again), and all of these assimilated groups against Filipinos, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and, infamously, Japanese, going so far as to mass incarcerate them during World War II. More recently the crowded list has made room for anyone from Muslim countries. A few months ago a Federal Court ruled in favor of Donald Trump’s immigrant ban against people from African countries (and, for some reason, Kyrgyzstan). Trump, it’s worth noting, is himself the grandson of a German immigrant to America.

And yeah, so it seems the headline writers got it wrong. All the crimes have already and repeatedly been committed – a fact that James Baldwin explained almost 60 years ago:

“The American Negro has a great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling; that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in piece.”

We want a new world. We need a new story.

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