Friday, 14 January 2011

"This Mighty Scourge" - Reflections On The Tucson Shootings

As American As Apple Pie: Political violence is the inevitable consequence of so many Americans' refusal to accept the social and economic implications of political equality.

POLITICAL VIOLENCE is as American as apple pie. It has always been and remains the weapon of first resort in a nation dedicated to the proposition that "all men are created equal". By what other means could "the blessings of liberty", and the "general welfare" of the American people have been so consistently denied? Without political violence the United States, as we know it today, could not exist.

The tragedy in Tucson, Arizona, which left six people dead, and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life, is by no means extraordinary. Such attacks occur whenever Americans attempt to use the political rights guaranteed in their Constitution to secure the economic and social rights so clearly implied by expressions like "a more perfect union" and "the general welfare". Concepts upon which the Founding Fathers preferred to remain uncharacteristically silent.

Silence was, of course, the price which the more radical American revolutionaries had to pay to secure any sort of union. Because the institution of slavery, which underpinned the new nation’s economy, cast a fatal veto over any further constitutional elaboration of the sentiments contained in the Declaration of Independence. It was this – the institutionalised violence of human trafficking and forced labour – that cursed the infant United States in its cradle.

The American Right cannot, however, acknowledge this fundamental historical truth without endorsing the liberal school of constitutional interpretation they have so vehemently sworn to oppose.

It’s why the Republican Party-dominated House of Representatives began its first sitting by reading the Constitution into the Congressional Record. Not the original Constitution, mind you, which states, in Article I Section 2:

"Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States … according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons … three fifths of all other Persons."

Those "other persons" were, of course, the African slaves - reckoned by America’s founders to be only 60 percent human.

Such wilful historical blindness is necessary to avoid the one, great, inescapable conclusion of US history: that the American Republic was only preserved by subordinating the oppressive letter of the Constitution to its egalitarian and democratic spirit.

Abraham Lincoln understood this. It’s why he spoke, at Gettysburg, of America experiencing "a new birth of freedom". Had he lived, the world may have learned much earlier what government "of the people, by the people, for the people" actually looks like.

But the South didn’t want to know. Steeped in the violence of slavery and the perverted social relations it spawned, the defeated Confederacy struck back through the trigger-finger of John Wilkes Booth.

Though it had been defeated on the battlefield, it was the South’s twisted version of freedom that ultimately prevailed. The same witches brew which had poisoned the first 70 years of American history was, with only minimal changes, permitted to contaminate the rest. Overweening corporate and financial power may have supplanted the "sovereign" power of the states, but the iron injunction against federal (i.e. democratic) interference endured.

In today’s America, the historic promises of the Constitution remain as elusive as ever. The victory of Barack Obama, far from closing the book on the Civil War, merely reveals the extent to which the Union’s victory over the Confederacy has been compromised. Behind the hopeful painted scenery of 21st Century America’s political stage stride the same dark forces that stalked the corridors of the Ford Theatre that fateful night in April 1865.

Speaking to the American people on the evening of Gabrielle Giffords’ attempted assassination, President Obama stood at a podium placed squarely beneath a portrait of a brooding Abraham Lincoln. His appeal, like Lincoln’s was to America’s "better angels". But I wonder whether, in his heart, President Obama did not recall the grim prophecy of his predecessor’s second inaugural address:

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’."

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 January 2011.


Madison said...

As an American I'm afraid I must comment on this post. While I find it a very good look at the ugly compromises needed to knit together a nation that started with more people than NZ has now I find it has almost nothing to do with the shooting. The racial tensions compromises and total failures that you've mentioned are indeed an ugly history but this shooting was nothing to do with race.

While political violence of this sort is completey deplorable I find it a huge stretch to link this to the slavery and discrimination issues of the past.

And to include more unfriendly notes, Lincoln allowed slavery to continue in the Union during the Civil war as a way of courting more states to remain. A historical fact that shows even in that horrible conflict slavery was only one of many major issues contested.

And finally, being from the south I must say I am glad that the north won. I can also say that due to enforced busing I went to more integrated schools than most of my University friends from the North.

Peter Malcouronne said...

Brilliant, Trotsky.

Madison said...

Just to further add clarification to that post, it would be more relevant to link this shooting to presidential assasinations of McKinley and Garfield. Or to links to the Weathermen, Black Panthers, Pro-Life activists bombing abortion clinics and shooting doctors or even the Oklahoma bombing. Just last year a staffer for a Republican candidate named Ron Paul was caught stomping on the head of a protestor. I would also hazard the Branch Davidians being killed or the Freeman Militia type movements to oppose the US government have more association to this horrible act than racism does.

Possibly a serious look at how the last decade or so has seen the country who famously worked to create the middle of the road bland politician now has political commentary dominated by war-like rhetoric and violence-inducing statements rather than anything even remotely approaching reasoned debate.

Racism is a massive blight and it can dominate issues but it doesn't need to gain power and influence on a subject like this. It's alreayd pervasive and horrible enough.

Chris Trotter said...

I'm afraid you've missed the point of the posting, Madison.

My argument is that the American Revolution was compromised at its very birth by the issue of slavery - which (and this is the crucial point) prevented the social and economic implications of formal political equality from being elaborated.

State sovereignty was the politico-legal argument the slave states put forward to keep the Federal Government from attempting to give formal equality practical application. In doing so they established the theme of hostility to any government that attempted to do more than provide legal cover for economic exploitation and the rigid social hierarchies that flow from it.

Lincoln understood that the American Revolution could only be completed when the institution of slavery was abolished. Making it happen entailed the most deadly political violence ever experienced by Americans.

The freeing of the slaves did not, however, lead to a progressive elaboration of human equality, because the rapid industrialisation of the United States meant that body slavery was almost immediately supplanted by wage slavery. The bloody history of American trade unionism bears witness to the lengths to which the United States employing class was willing to go to prevent the redistribution of wealth and power required to give meaningful effect to political equality.

As was the case with the slave states, the big corporations understood that their mortal enemy was progressive federalism - which is why they have expended so many of their resources in fostering the idea that "big government" is not only ineffective but evil.

It is in this sense that I make the claim that the old Confederacy's idea of freedom - "leave me alone" - has won out over the revolutionary demand for "a more perfect union" in which "the blessings of liberty" are underpinned by a national committment to "the general welfare".

Anonymous said...

It is worth pointing out here that Abraham Lincoln, as I understand it, never intended equality for blacks.

It was his intention that they all head back to Africa.

Madison said...

State sovereignty was an argument put forward and long fought for before the Civil War. It was not a slave-keeping argument, it was a founding tenet of the country through the first aborted attempt with the Articles of Confederation. The idea of "leave me alone" as freedom was a major factor in much of the founding of the country as was the suspicion of centralized power. Hence the President of the US is designed to be more a figurehead than an active power player.

The fight to keep people as wage slaves came from the north as well. With the south having so much ready labor they were taxed and regulated into desolation after the war in order to allow the north to get a large head start on industrialization.

And a long standing argument is that it is not remotely possible to get a realistic look at past goals and standards by measuring them with our current ideals. The idea of 'all men created equal' was written and designed by slave owners. The more perfect union was just that, more perfect than the existing ones they knew of. "All men" at the time was the same as it meant in much else of the world; land owning white males. Women and slaves (of both colors) were not even considered. Those maturations of the ideal of equality were to come later.

As this was an early experiment it has done well to survive the changes through the past two centuries and remain relatively strong and relevant. It is also rude for me not to acknowledge that many countries gaining independence since then have learned from that experience and have refined and improved upon what was attempted there as the US learned from it's predecessors. I include NZ as a place that learned from the US experience and has worked to improve upon that goal and making it realistic. For one thing NZ was never near so stupid as to allow slavery to flourish.

Shirleyboy said...

Tremendous post Chris- your prose is insightful and measured. Madison needs to read it again. Much of America's great fiction oscillates around these tensions.

Anonymous said...

Women and slaves (of both colors) were not even considered

Agreed. Sub-human. Till very recently.

Till led by Godzone, dare we say. Which is why any tilt Stateside for political guidance is utterly ludicrous.

It's the obese buffoon on the world stage - with a history of bullying.

And a present of failure. and Palin.

Lovely people
Massive resources
Fatally contaminated
By political addiction
To material greed
About to be humbled
And forced to mature
By its elder civilisations
It won't fight.

There's a beautiful new world just around the corner for our mokos. It's anomie territory and history's on a wicked tangent: prepare to ride the wave or be swamped.


Victor said...

"I include NZ as a place that learned from the US experience and has worked to improve upon that goal and making it realistic. For one thing NZ was never near so stupid as to allow slavery to flourish."

New Zealand was a British colony. Chattel slavery was abolished in the British Empire seven years before the signing the Treaty of Waitangi whilst the Slave Trade had been banned nearly thirty years earlier still. Who knows how the colonists would have behaved without those obvious legal barriers?

Victor said...

It seems to me that the Second Amendment to the US Constitution is the aspect of that august document most relevant to the massacre in Tuscon.

The assumed right of citizens to bear arms is based on the wholly false, pre-Darwinian notion of the individual being logically and/or historically prior to society (a key ingredient of 'Enlightenment' contractualism).

It ignores the fact that, like all our fellow simians, we live in packs....always have done and always will do, whatever Locke, Jefferson or Paine thought about the matter.

As Edmund Burke long ago pointed out, 'rights' are social contrivances, created and granted by pre-existing societies.

It is abject folly for any society to create a right that so easily promotes murder, anarchy, mob rule, organised crime or (as in the 1860s) secessionist rebellion.

And all of this would remain true, even if the United States had wholly overcome its heritage of slavery and racism, which, of course, it has yet to do.

Loz said...

Jefferson did a wonderful job in aspousing a modern philosophy of Democracy but he was on the fringes of common thought in the 1770s.

Federalist Paper 10 (possibly the most influential paper in the adoption of the constitution) clearly outlines opposition to democracy as was the common beliefs of Hamilton, Paine and nearly all of the property holding Continental Congress. The fear at the time of the revolution was that democracy would challenge the rights of property ownership itself.

The Congress was was never initiated to create a democratic revolution. The initial activity of the congress was petitioning the monarchy for redress while the original Articles of Confederation dont mention democracy or universality but guarantee sovereignty, freedom, and independent soveregnty of states.

Virtually everything that suggests the American Revolution was a democractic revolution is based on the few words within the introduction of the Declaration of Independence & nothing more.

In the same vein, I just don't accept that Lincoln fought over concepts of freedom, democracy or upholding the constitution either.

Federalism prevents democracy as it (in theory) supports the equality of states, not people and in that process adds a hurdle against the will of the people. The irony is that Lincoln believed in the preservation of the union more that constitution or the concept of self-determination that democracy is dependent.

I actually agree with Mill, Hamilton and other Framers that federalism (by design) acts as a balwark and itself restricts the leveling ability of democratic government instead of promising equality.

Incidentally, Australia has had similar inability to enact leveling (or meddle with economics) as a result of its federalism, not policies of slavery.

Victor said...


You are no doubt correct in identifying the preservation of the Union as Lincoln's key motive in prosecuting the Civil War.

However, the alternative of allowing the Confederacy to depart in peace (and servitude) didn't really exist, as there were large swathes of disputed soil (e.g. Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky as well as some of the western Territories) where slave and free-soilers would anyhow have needed to fight it out. Besides, it was the South that effectively declared war on the North by firing on Fort Sumter

Prior to 1863, Lincoln was not an all-out Abolitionist. There is no doubt, however, that he hated slavery and was opposed over many years to the expansion of slave-owning westwards. His reputed antipathy to the institution was a key factor in persuading the southern states to secede.

One of the Southerners' fears was that the new President would, over time, alter the favourable balance they enjoyed in the Supreme Court, thus facilitating judicial decisions contrary to the slave-owners' interests.

Lincoln himself frequently said that the war had 'in some sense' been about slavery.

None of this means, of course, that Lincoln believed in racial equality. Nor does it mean that Afro-Americans would have enjoyed a better fate after 1865, had Lincoln survived.

If anything, the opposite is likely to have been true, as Lincoln would probably have sought to modify the zeal of the Reconstructionists within his own party, in the interests of reconciliation with the South.

However, counter-factual history is a dangerous game and Lincoln an extra-ordinary man. So there's no saying for sure.

maps said...

'For one thing NZ was never near so stupid as to allow slavery to flourish'

Obviously large-scale American-style slavery never existed here, but what about the role of New Zealanders and New Zealand ports in the Pacific slave trade of the 1860s? A New Zealand captain operating from a New Zealand port blackbirded half the people of the island of 'Ata, sent them to speedy deaths in Peru, and then returned to New Zealand, where his activities were common knowledge, without being molested. That doesn't suggest a great popular indignation at the notion of slavery to me.

The blind eye which was turned - for economic reasons? - to slavery on the Chathams for twenty-two years after the signing of the Treaty is also worth remembering.

WAKE UP said...

Sarah Palin uses the phrase “blood libel” and all hell breaks loose in the mainstream media, but since day one, the Teflon-coated President Obama has been getting away with referring to his political opposition as “enemies”, using rhetoric like “If they bring a knife to the fight we bring a gun”, and allowing his Attorney-General Eric Holder to say “America is a nation of cowards”, without criticism. Now he says, disingenuously, “Out of this tragedy, we can come together”.
Far from being a unifier, Obama is the most calculatingly divisive President America has ever elected. As they say, a fish rots from the head down.

As for the "slavery" canard: Slavery was endemic and institutionalised in the cultures of Africa (and other non-Western countries) before we got involved. After a relatively brief participation, we not only got out, we have since done more than anyone else to both atone for and correct the injustices of slavery. But it's STILL endemic in the cultures of Africa and other non-Western nations. Draw your own conclusions.