The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty

As the Heartland, what is in the heart of America? What was planted here? What has grown? What has come to fruition?

The Midwest is Middle America. Without a middle, there is no whole. The periphery, America’s coasts and borders, receives all the attention like the sweet juicy flesh surrounding the seed, but it is the seed that is the purpose of the fruit. Out of the seed grows what was in the seed to grow. The seed grows upward where the fruit is to be had, but the roots surrounding what was the seed holds it all in place. The center, like the roots, must hold for if it doesn’t nothing will remain to be held; a weakly rooted tree will topple. The center is what is at the core, the middle that defines the whole, the circumference measured outward from that point of reference, that point of stability.

In America, the middle has always been the Midlands and the former Middle Colonies, the Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest that extends into the interior. It is the cultural middling point where cultures meet, clash, merge, and even out. It is the linguistic middle of Standard American English. It is the median and mean center of the United States population.

Right now, the Emerald Ash Borer is slowly making its way across the Midwest. A couple of years ago it finally made it to Iowa and all the Ash trees I see in this Iowa town may soon be gone. The Norse World Tree Yggdrasil is considered to have been an Ash tree, out of which the first man was formed and the sugary sap from which was made the Mead of Inspiration. The Ash tree has long been rooted in Western society. It is a hardwood tree and so has been highly prized, including for use in shipbuilding. Consider how many immigrants came to America afloat upon ships built out of Ash wood. Yet now we are watching possibly a mass extinction of Ash trees, not just a single variety of Ash trees but all Ash trees.

How does the Emerald Ash Borer kill a tree? It does so by cutting off the flow of nutrients from roots to the crown. Where did this pest come from? It is an invasive species from Eastern Russia and Asia.

It is thought that the Emerald Ash Borer was brought to America along with a shipment of parts. This is one of those inevitable unintended results of globalization. The entire United States is itself an unintended result of globalization. The Atlantic colonies were part of the first major era of globalization. Many of the earliest colonies, especially Virginia and New Netherland, were simply intended as capitalist investments and not to develop into full-fledged societies, much less an independent united country. One of the earliest unintended consequences back then was slavery. Another unintended consequence was multiculturalism.

Many Americans today worry about the consequences of mass immigration, even though multiple waves of mass immigration have occurred every century since the colonies were founded. America is mass migration. It is the heart and soul of this crazy experiment.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
(New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, inscribed on a plaque at the feet of the Statue of Liberty)

In these words is the only moral justification to be found for our having become an empire or what in doublespeak is these days called a global superpower. Call it what you will, but the US acts like an empire: colonial territories such as Hawaii and Philippines; regularly starting wars of aggression along with regularly invading and occupying countries; military bases in countries all over the world and naval presence in international waters all over the world; et cetera. The US is the greatest empire the world has ever seen.

(See the following: Manifesting America by Mark Rifkin, The Dominion of War by Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, A Turn to Empire by Jennifer Pitts, and Among the Powers of the Earth by Eliga H. Gould)

I’m personally not in favor of my country being an empire (I say ‘my’ with some reservation for a subject doesn’t possess but is possessed by an empire, yet I must take some responsibility for it as I’m a direct beneficiary of its power). Nonetheless, if the metaphorical ‘we’ are going to be imperialists, we at least ought to stick to our moral justifications for doing so. We are an immigrant nation. This is our role in the world. Other countries accept us as big brother because every country has immigrants and descendants living in America. This is seen as everyone’s country. This is why the citizens of other countries mourned with US citizens after the 9/11 attack, and indeed the people who died in that attack were of diverse nationalities and citizenship. Without this moral justification for our empire-building, we are simply yet another big bully. Too many Americans want the benefits of being an empire with none of the responsibilities.

Multiculturalism is the tap root of the Tree of Liberty, whether for good or ill. In the 18th century, South Carolina had a African majority and Pennsylvania had a German majority. Further back in the 17th century, New Netherland had a Dutch majority, New Sweden a Swedish majority, the Spanish territories such as Florida with a Spanish majority and the French territories with a French majority. Even after being taken over by the British, New Netherland/New York still had a large Dutch population. Also, today much of the former Spanish territories that became the United States have continuously maintained a hispanic majority. Of course, the Native American territories had their native majority and once were the majority of the entire continent. These are the roots of the United States. This region of North America has never had a majority population that was of English descent.

One of the conflicts colonists had with the British government was over the rights of Englishmen. I wonder if the reason the British government was so uncertain about the colonies was the fact that there were so many colonists who weren’t Englishmen. I could understand as the ethnocentric ruling elite of an empire that they were wary of equally offering the rights of Englishmen to people who weren’t Englishmen. Those are the kinds of problems that come from empire-building. Nonetheless, the ruling elite in the colonies were also mostly Englishmen. So, they took quite seriously their supposed rights as Englishmen and took offense at their being denied.

Still, I wonder if it ever occurred to the mostly English-descended founding fathers, as they convened congress in Philadelphia, that they were surrounded by fellow colonists who weren’t Englishmen. Even back then, Pennsylvania was the Keystone. The Middle Colonies in general were what held together British Power on this side of the pond. This is why, during the French and Indian War, the British government spent so much money and effort defending the Middle Colonies. It is maybe understandable that those up in New England didn’t appreciate why they were paying higher taxes for the defense of the colonies when their region was never the focal point of that defense. Those New Englanders couldn’t appreciate that the defense of the Middle Colonies was the defense of all the colonies. They also couldn’t appreciate what it felt like to be in the Middle Colonies which had been the target of foreign empires.

Those in the Middle Colonies fully appreciated this which is why they were so reluctant to revolt. Plus, the Middle Colonies were filled with non-Englishmen who had no history with the British government and monarchy, no history of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. Even the Englishmen of the Middle Colonies who did have such history nonetheless had a very different view of it. I speak of the Quakers who had in some ways been given the greatest freedom for self-governance. The Monarchy was at times a better friend to the Quakers than their fellow colonial elites ever had been. There was well-founded fears of despotic power arising after the defeat of the British military, and quite prescient considering what this country has become.

It is interesting how this colonial region of multiculturalism was also the region with some of the strongest advocates for British loyalty and political moderation. It was the keystone not just for political and military reasons but also for cultural reasons. The Quakers as well believed in the rights of Englishmen. However, the Quakers were different in their understanding of English constitutionalism. They saw their rights directly rooted in the British constitution. They believed in popular sovereignty and that reform must be sought through the constitutional process. Englishmen didn’t lack a constitution and so didn’t need to create one. They simply needed to improve the very constitution that had given them the rights of Englishmen in the first place. (It is sadly ironic that this is precisely what is now claimed of the US constitution that violently replaced the British constitution. Americans prize their constitution and speak of the democratic process of creating amendments. Yet the US constitution was created by a process no more democratic than the process that created the British constitution.)

The Middle Colonies were the swing colonies for the issue of revolution just as today the Midwestern states are the swing states for presidential elections. It is partly because this has always been where the mass of the population has been centered. The reason it is centered here is because the Mid-Atlantic is where most immigrants arrived and the Midwest is where most immigrants settled. This wasn’t accidental but quite intentional. They were multicultural havens right from the start. To the North and to the South, the other colonial governments were more wary about letting just anyone to settle in their area or even merely to dock their ship full of immigrant strangers. In the Middle Colonies, especially Pennsylvania, a more tolerant attitude prevailed. This is the source of the Midwestern moderate sensibility.

During the revolutionary era, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and Delaware embodied this the most clearly. He was born of parents of multi-generational Quaker descent. He married a woman of multi-generational Quaker descent. He lived among Quakers and associated with Quakers. However, he came to believe in wars of defense which the Quakers didn’t support and so he wasn’t a Quaker. This single point aside, his worldview was thoroughly Quaker. But even in this point of disagreement, his taking a moderate support of war only in cases of defense was very fitting for the Quaker attitude of moderation. Dickinson was in this way semi-pacifist. He believed violence should be avoided at all costs when possible. His understanding of defense was very narrow and strict.

Dickinson was a principled man. Oddly, as a reform-minded moderate, he was a key player in helping to make the revolution possible. He was the most popular pamphleteer until Thomas Paine (the latter also having had Quaker values instilled in him by his father). Without what Dickinson helped start and what Paine helped finish, the American Revolution may never have gotten very far, quite likely not succeeding at all. These Quaker-descended righteous men (with, at least in the case of Paine, Quaker-taught plain speech) knew how to articulate a collective vision of freedom that unified what was otherwise just a bunch of disparate gripes about government. Many have misunderstand Paine as a mere revolutionary. Paine also sought moderation in his own way, but he sought a moderation of power that would benefit the commoner rather the established elite. To the established elite, this didn’t seem moderate at all. For example, Paine was a deist which he saw as a middleground position where the divine was envisioned as a moderating force between morally unrooted radical atheism/secularism and authoritarian theocratic tendencies such as established churches. Both Dickinson and Paine sought moderation while remaining principled. Neither changed with the times, but the world around them shifted over their lifetimes. They found themselves criticized and forgotten by those less moderate and less principled.

My point is to show the power of this vision of moderation. Like Quaker pacifism and tolerance, it need not be a position of weakness for it holds the potential of immense strength, both strength of conviction and strength of influence. Not all moderates are neutral and passive. The greatest wisdom of moderation, however, is easily forgotten even by moderates. When moderation loses its moral center, it merely becomes a defense of the status quo. The center is what holds, but what is being maintained and for what purpose?

The proponents of moderateness are what hold this diverse country together. An empire wouldn’t be possible without them. That is the rub. Modern empire-building has necessitated this kind of conservative-minded liberalism, the latter thus becoming complicit with the former. Why not give Hawaii back to the Hawaiians, the Philippines back to the Filipinos, former Northern Mexico back to the Mexicans, and at least some of the former Indian territories back to the Native Americans? Why did we as a country expend so much blood in keeping the country together during the Civil War? Why do we want to be a great power on the earth? Why not just be free and independent communities that govern themselves as they see fit?

I love the Midwest for its moderation. I truly believe the Midlands has helped keep this country together, for whatever that is worth (I often do think there is worth in this, certainly Dickinson and Paine did). Still, the dark side of this bothers me. I see it in a status quo mentality. The attitude of tolerance only goes so far and often is only advocated when it is convenient and easy, when no sacrifices are required. This is the rot in the Tree of Liberty.

Thomas Jefferson is famous for having said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.” Jefferson proved to be less consistently principled than the likes of Dickinson and Paine, but still his words resonate as I don’t doubt that he believed them when he wrote them. What has often been on my mind lately is how the American Revolution was ideologically and politically lost by the principled reformers like Dickinson and the principled revolutionaries like Paine. Accordingly, it could be said that the American Revolution went too far and not far enough. Those who took the reigns of power were the very ones least interested in any liberty besides their own. It is strange how radical a moderate like Dickinson can sound compared to what came to pass.

I’ve never been sure about revolution, specifically violent revolution. It is hard to say that Canada is worse off for embracing slow reform instead of bloody insurrection. Canada has a more multicultural society than even the US. Plus, Canada has fewer of the problems found in the US: high poverty, high wealth inequality, low social mobility, etc. The American Revolution seems to have created a very divided country and made the Civil War inevitable. The British, instead, offered freedom to many slaves right after the revolution and many of them settled in free communities in Canada. I sometimes wonder if Canada is offering a better American Dream than America.

Is there something worth saving by moderation in America? Can we regain the moderate vision of John Dickinson? Or can we finally follow to completion the freedom-loving vision of Paine? If we are so incapable of worthwhile non-violent reform, what makes some people think that yet again more violence will solve our problems? How many more revolutions and civil wars do we need? What is this deformed tree of ‘liberty’ that has grown out of conflict? Should we hope to water it once again or just let it die from its own rot? What would we plant in its place? Or are there other seeds already planted that don’t need blood to grow?

“From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country–not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society–cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.”
~ Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

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6 Responses

  1. […] was recently wondering about the root and rot of the tree of liberty. America is a crazy experiment and these are crazy times. I’m not sure if to embrace the […]

  2. […] The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty […]

  3. The 2nd to last paragraph is something i wonder about everyday. By world metrics it looks that we failed at what we set out to do. It seems the countries we have inspired did a better job at are own vision.

    Much like Canada can owe its existence to us. Us leaving convinced the British to take a more hands off approach and let the colonies govern for themselves. Much like the keystone state people didn’t want to be independent per say. They just wanted their rights respected.

    I still find us independence quite an oddity in and of itself. Plus the times that followed even odder. We never really broke our ties with are colonial masters but, have become their greatest friend. But, isn’t that what we wanted?

    But, i guess the end question. How are we to solve the problems and return to the ideals of old, even if they are unrealistic in ways? We can at least try. Nothing is perfect but, more can be achieved.

    • David Hackett Fischer has several good books about Britain and American culture, politics and immigration patterns. One that might interest you compares the difference of two separate British-originated countries.

      Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United State
      by David Hackett Fischer

      New Zealand is more similar to Canada. The British were coming to better understand the importance of fairness when many British immigrants were settling New Zealand. It is good that at least the British learned from the mistakes they made with the American colonies. Now, if Americans could only learn from our own mistakes.

      • I’ll have to read that book. Working on reading the anarchist faq right now. I ran across that and realized that i know nothing about it other than preconceived notions.

        I did hear about the culture is more ‘fair’ in New Zealand. I Know some American expats complain about this “Tall poppy syndrome,” i don’t understand their frustration. I don’t see how making people fairer is bad. They also have some of the lowest income disparity, and income adjusted HDI is higher while our HDI is higher when inequality is not accounted for which is complete opposite of the us. Not that we are much worse.

        I tend to notice government that seem to have better representation systems of the people have less income inequality. This is the big difference i could see between Australia, New Zealand, and say Canada which has winner takes all, and the former has forms of proportional representation. It would be interesting to examine that along with parliamentary systems, and presidential system ( nearly everyone except ours has resulted in failure )

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