Most Everything, Actually
Why is the United States, allegedly the richest, most-advanced country on earth, so out of step with the rest of the first world? Why does a significant part of its citizens live on the streets in cars, tents or cardboard hovels? Why are prisons occupied by an unnatural preponderance of people of color? Why are its gun homicides off the chart? Why are its elections so dubious and its religions so militant and mercantile? Why is such a wide swath of the population without health care? Why is the economic inequality so grotesquely pronounced there? What gives the American behemoth the right to impose–or try to impose–its will on any sovereign nation it pleases? Why does the United States need 800-1,000 military bases around the world? Why is the country controlled by a fiendish cohort of industrialists and financiers, headed up by a lowbrow President who was actually elected? Why doesn’t somebody do something about all of these glaring anomalies? They’ve done it in the rest of the First World. What went wrong with you, America?
British author and filmmaker, Bidisha, in an article published in The Guardian (Dec. 3, 2018) with the provocative title: The Wizard of Oz is a grotesque predictor of Trump’s America, makes this curious comparison:
It’s this lurking inner wrongness, the darkness at its edges and the emptiness at its core, that speaks to me now. The US of The Wizard of Oz is not so far from the US of today. The supposedly great man living in Trump Tower – I mean Emerald City – turns out to be a con artist, a bloviating coward who relies on self-aggrandisement and empty shows of power to cow the people. The film’s chaotic momentum, in which events roll luridly from one rococo set-piece to the next, with Dorothy’s destination and the purpose of her trip moving in and out of focus, seems strangely familiar. And the central reveal about the hollowness, cynicism, opportunism, egotism and fakery of our leaders is chillingly apt.
The Proud Legacy of Christopher Columbus
Yes, there is a surreal fog surrounding the USA, 2019. Let’s try to peer into its murky origins overlaid by generations of myths and lies. We’ll start at the beginning, with Christopher Columbus. Though he never set foot on the North American mainland, he was the first colonizer to bring genocide to the Western Hemisphere. Columbus and his brothers, Bartolomeo and Diego, who ruled the island of Hispaniola (today’s Haiti and El Salvador), set in motion in 1492 a regime of mass slavery and killing of the indigenous Taino people; men, women, children and babies; and ruled over it personally until 1500. Their regime was extended to the rest of the native people of the northern Caribbean (Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Bahamas, etc.) by the Spanish administrators who followed.
According to one estimate, genocide and disease wiped out almost immediately three million of the 3.5 million Tainos – 85%. Most were already dead when smallpox arrived in 1518. Columbus took note of just two things about the Tainos: They wore gold jewelry and their most advanced weapon was the spear. He concluded: “With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
Because Columbus captured more native American slaves than he could transport to Spain in his little ships, he put them to work in mines and plantations which he, his family, and followers created throughout the Caribbean. His marauding band hunted Indians for sport and profit — beating, raping, torturing, killing, and then using the Indian bodies as food for their hunting dogs. Within four years of Columbus’ arrival on Hispaniola, his men had killed or exported one-third of the original Indian population of 300,000. Today not a trace of Taino blood is present in Haiti or El Salvador.
Most of what we know about these terrible abuses is thanks to Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, who was the New World’s first whistleblower. Las Casas immigrated to the island of Hispaniola in 1502, ten years after Columbus first arrived there, where he was allocated a piece of land and indigenous slaves to work it. After participating in slave raids and exploitation, by 1515, de las Casas realized the error of his ways, became a Dominican friar and dedicated the rest of his life to documenting and denouncing Spanish abuses in the Caribbean and Mexico. His most important book is A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies which describes the first decades of colonization of the West Indies and the atrocities committed by the colonizers against the indigenous peoples.
Americans joyously celebrate Columbus Day every year on October 12.
The Philosophical Underpinnings of the USA
- Rugged Individualism/self-interest
- Bare-Fisted Competition
- The infallible rule of market values (actually a myth/farce)
- Merciless God-Is-On-Our-Side religion
- Slavery and the long tail of racism
- Disdain for and persecution of collective solutions, anything that even remotely smacks of socialism
- The twisted American myths:
- Democracy–never happened.
- The Constitution–has become a mere smokescreen/cosmetic treatment. Politicians, bankers and billionaire speculators do largely what they please and cobble together the justifications later. Examples: Only Congress can declare war. The Patriot Acts, One and Two.
- The underdog story– It’s a grotesque mockery. The oligarchy that runs America enjoys treading on and triturating the world’s underdogs.
- Christianity without a remaining trace of humility, mercy or generosity. Jesus weeps
- Firearms make you free. They don’t. The entire rest of the world has proven that the truth is exactly the contrary. Why haven’t the Americans noticed? Because their great unlettered underclasses, inspired by expert manipulator fascists, have had their already-debilitated brains thoroughly washed.
- The trickle-down economy–It’s rigged so wealth trickles up.
- The free press–Has been manipulated or made an accomplice in so many ways that the very term free press is pure irony. It takes a lot of money to set up a newspaper or broadcasting network. So, inevitably, the media have largely become just one more of the big money interests in league with the others.
- The acid test: What if Jesus Christ, Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Charlie Chaplin came back to audit the USA? What would their verdict be? One trembles at the thought.
The Trail of Tears
(Source: EJI.org Equal Justice Initiative) In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which empowered the federal government to take Native-held land east of Mississippi and forcibly relocate indigenous people from their homes and farms in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee to “Indian territory” in what is now Oklahoma. In a mass atrocity remembered as the Trail of Tears, tens of thousands of Native Americans died or were killed after fleeing their homes in terror.
The Chiricahua Apache were exiled to Arizona, and in 1876, their settlement in Arizona was claimed by government officials, forcing Native people once again to relocate further west. Tribal leader Geronimo led many Chiricahua to Mexico and organized raids into Arizona against the white settlements occupying Chiricahua land. After years of conflict, the Chiricahua surrendered in 1885 and agreed to be detained by the United States Army for two years. Instead, many were incarcerated in prisons far from their families and homeland, held as prisoners of war without charges or trial, for 27 years.
Like the Chiricahua Apache, many Native tribes resisted terror campaigns waged by white settlers and the United States military to drive them from their land, and many thousands of indigenous people were killed or imprisoned. The displacement, violence, and deaths suffered by Native Americans is increasingly being recognized as genocide.
The Hounding of the Working Class
Before the Wagner Act (the National Labor Relations Act, NLRA) of 1935 American workers were virtually defenseless against rapacious employers. Though not perfect—agricultural, domestic, and government workers were excluded from its protections—the Wagner Act marked a before and after in American labor relations. On April 12, 1937, contrary to most expectations, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the act’s constitutionality by a 5–4 majority. This was just two months after the successful Flint sit-down strike had won a union contract at General Motors, and just weeks after U.S. Steel voluntarily recognized a steelworkers union, the court confirmed that the United States had entered a new era. The act helped a revitalized labor movement win a say over working conditions for millions of workers, a step forward in democratizing the nation.
That said, 80 years and the erosion instrumented by industrial interests have annulled the Wagner Act and virtually put an end to collective bargaining in mass-production industries. Private-sector unión membership rates today are just over six percent. In the words of Dissent Magazine:
Whereas the industrial Midwest once throbbed with demands for industrial democracy, today its depleted cities continue to bleed jobs and its hinterlands struggle with rampant opioid addiction. Flint, once home to a mobilized working class capable of taming General Motors, is today a desperately impoverished city lacking in decent jobs, whose residents continue to suffer from the aftermath of lead poisoning. Whereas sit-down strikers were protected by Governor Frank Murphy in 1937, today’s Michigan is a “right-to-work” state presided over by Governor Rick Snyder, a venture capitalist whose efforts to wrest local control away from distressed communities led directly to Flint’s poisoning.
7 thoughts on “What Went Wrong, America? 1/2”
My Italian grandfather and my uncle worked below ground in those West Virginia coal mines that you speak of. My grandfather died in a mine collapse, my uncle escaped but later died of black lung. The conditions must have been despicable. On the Irish Quinn side my grandparents lived in a company house and bought their food from the company store, just like in the song. That grandfather , Thomas , unionised the mine he worked in and it was said to have been excommunicated from the Catholic Church because they thought his efforts were communistic.
Excommunication was a badge of honor then, and still is. So, Irish and Italian. Now I understand you better.
Both families were from humble beginnings, poor immigrants and coal miners. They were also heavy drinkers, it was a hard life. My italian father and Irish mother went to Detroit to escape the poverty and met at Ford Motor Co and were married in the chapel at Greenfield Village.
The Jerry and Jean sad life continued with my dad saying he drank bcuz she was crazy and mom thinking she was crazy because he drank! A symbiotic co dependant life. But for all it’s inherent pitfalls I think it made for a colourful life!
I’m probably crazy, too. I love a gin and tonic on the terrace after the summer sun sets.
I have a visceral understanding of what you speak of so clearly and eloquently. I am a coal miners daughter from the mountains of west Virginia. My childhood is remembered in two voices – my own voice complaining about my father, and my mothers voice saying ” your father is in a deep hole underground right now, bent over, standing in cold water, picking coal so we can eat. Thank you for your life’s work.
Thank you for your inspiring message, Harriet. I’ll try to live up to it.