We are heading for a new American revolution. Like it or not, it is the inevitable consequence of the Bush administration's vigilant effort to produce the most extensive destruction of our constitutional guarantees and system of checks and balances in the nation's history. This situation is without precedent, and because of that the country is in the awkward position of bewilderment and inertia. A cursory look at the news or blogs on any given day brings one to the ugly and astonishing realization we're on the verge of catastrophe.
I considered calling this entry "How to clean a toilet," for obvious reasons. For decades the republican party has allowed itself to be hijacked by extremists obsessed with changing our form of government from a democracy to an absolutist dictatorship. Historically, this is nothing new, and I won't theorize about the motives beyond expressing my personal opinion that it's the product of people's tendency to find it easier to be cowardly and uneducated than courageous, educated and thoughtful. In recent centuries, this unitary or plenary model is ill-fated among enlightened nations.
Understanding how we got here and how we get out of this ridiculous mess requires looking back in time. This is complicated by the way history is ethereal to begin with, and the way we are taught history as young people is seriously hindered by poor documentation, shoddy textbooks and underpaid instructors with little interest in the material, their jobs and their students. Recording history is highly political as well as subjective to the authors, and you wind up with foregone conclusions that fall far short of telling a revealing story. That's a damn shame, because the story of the development of the United States is interesting--and since Bush became president, I've come to understand how important it is to know how and why our country developed like it did socially, economically and politically.
Some 9-12,000 years ago, after the last mini-ice age, people from the Mongolian region of Asia walked across the land bridge to Alaska and inhabited the full length of the western hemisphere continent. They were relatively undisturbed until roughly 2,000 BC, when the western hemisphere became a thing of interest to people in the eastern hemisphere who arrived by water. People generally failed to make progress in settling this new world for a number of reasons. But some were assimilated into the native society, and when the Clovis spear point was introduced from the east into hunting in the west, native societies were radically changed from mainly-partially nomadic to agrarian.
The European nations, mainly Spain, France and England, made claims of land in North America, but they failed to establish viable communities and their activities were limited mostly to exploration. The land surrounding waterways was dense forest. It was inhabited by natives averse to their presence, and they weren't finding the gold and silver they'd hoped to discover. It was a different story in Central America, where after the 15th century the Spaniards overran the Mayan culture once they learned gold and silver could be mined.
That brings us to the 1600s where most of our American history education begins. That education ignores the interesting fact Europeans established a prosperous trading port at St. Augustine, FL which dates to the 1400s. What I learned before the American Revolution was a lot of fluff: names and dates of a handful of outrages perpetrated by the British like the Boston Massacre and Stamp Act in the 15 years before fighting broke out in 1774. There's so much more to the story than that, and it matters today!
People came to the new world to escape religious persecution, but more important, they wanted to escape the old caste system and statified society which wouldn't let them rise according to their initiative and ability. History doesn't talk much about that. History also ignores the fact that during this period France and England in particular continued to send exploratory teams into eastern Canada and the northeast coast of the lower 48, this part of the world being the "new big thing" of the time. Meanwhile, people intent on settling were carving communities out of dense, hardwood forest with axes, saws and mules--hard, slow work.
The American Revolution was NOT caused by just the handful of transgressions you were forced to memorize: it happened because 9 generations of Americans were being needled, taunted and threatened by soldiers and foreign governments who saw them as disloyal splitters and people beyond their control. Loyalty to the crown is a hard concept to understand today; that is, unless you're a republican. The old world wanted a piece of the action. All this time there was talk of taxation and even invasion, and these very busy people felt quite detached from such notions by time and space. The fear of being overrun and displaced, then, was something passed on from generation to generation, and has become a part of our cultural conscience. It's very important to understand that, because our leaders have exploited that fear to rally the country to war ever since.
And, like today, that fear is far more myth than reality. The crowned heads of Europe just wanted unearned income, and didn't seriously entertain the idea of spending vast fortunes to occupy the new world. But, they were willing to send enough military force across to engage the settlers in isolated skirmishes; to harass them by forcing the quartering of soldiers; charging people with phony crimes and extraditing them to foreign prisons (sound familiar?); in effect, terrorizing them. I think you get the idea.
The colonists looked at this as an annoying nuisance for over a century. They rationalized Europe would lose interest. They engaged in diplomacy. They didn't have an organized military, considered it nonsense and had no dreams of war. But Europe, and England in particular, wouldn't leave it alone, especially as the colonies began producing commodities for trade. Necessity gave birth to the individual citizen as soldier, and the individual is still the last line of defense in America.
By 1760 it was clear England would continue to tax and badger the colonies and send its soldiers. America received financial support from France to put together a small army and began to engage the British. The Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, followed by the Constitution. England didn't make the commitment to occupy the new country, but the fighting continued sporadically until after the War of 1812 ended.
We learned some significant things from this. Of course, your history lessons let you down, again. Career historians will argue with me about what is of primary and secondary importance. I say it's primarily important that we saw that forces of oppression will not be satisfied until blood is spilled. True then, and just as true now. We learned the contributions of individuals are as significant as that of groups of individuals. We learned, or should have learned, there is no need to wait to engage forces of oppression--unless, of course, as a society we're resigned to living under oppression. Finally, for all the things the Declaration and Constitution do, these documents do something very unique. They describe the United States as an island of freedom in the world, and describe the path away from repression, limits on freedom and despotism.
Today, this country ignores that last part and doesn't want to talk about it. George W. Bush may say the Constitution is just a piece of paper, but the provisions its authors made for dealing with people like him who would circumvent its protections and balances will grind him up.
(update from Lukery, part one here, part two here, part three here)