What is an Empire?

I noticed a book about empires, their history and what defines them:

The Rule of Empires:
Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall
By Timothy Parsons

It looks interesting. I did some websearching and here is what I found:

http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/rezensionen/2011-3-147

“His range is ambitious and impressive, from Roman Britain and eighth-century Spain to Europe in the 1940s, but his message is consistent: that empire as a phenomenon is always and everywhere about subjugation and exploitation. It would be a tough proposition to come away from The Rule of Empire thinking that imperialism was ever a good or beneficial practice. That might not be news to professional historians (though there are certainly practitioners who readily come to the defense of this or that empire), but in the public political context the case against empire has been rather more muted. Parsons offers a refreshing, engaging and cogently argued counterweight to the more usual neo-conservative reckoning of empire’s alleged benefits. As Parsons notes if one looks at empire from the perspective of those subjected to it, their profit-and-loss balance sheet approach to the topic falls away. Seen from the vantage point of the colonised, Parsons sees empire as, quite simply, “intolerable” (p. 18).”

http://reason.com/archives/2011/07/15/temptations-of-empire

“Parsons studies seven empires, searching for the features they have in common. His selections seem designed to illustrate the point that the conquerors become the conquered and vice versa. Britain was once a remote outpost of the Roman Empire, but many centuries later Britain’s might would far eclipse that of its former masters, covering a quarter of the world’s people and lands as far-flung as India and Kenya. The Umayyad Muslims controlled parts of Spain for more than 700 years, but once Spain was united as a Christian kingdom its rulers wasted little time in seizing a South American empire from the Incas. Napoleon led the French to dominate continental Europe, including the former Roman heartland of Italy, which the French treated as a backwater inhabited by savages. They were repaid in kind when the Nazi empire stormed across France in 1940, shocking and embarrassing an ostensibly formidable imperial power.

Parsons argues that empires, contrary to popular opinion, are extremely vulnerable to conquest. Invaders can turn established rulers’ subjects against them and, once in power, expropriate the centralized administrative systems already in use. When a small number of Spanish conquistadors under Francisco Pizarro attacked the Incan Empire ruled by Atawallpa, they took advantage of the civil strife that had begun after the death of Atawallpa’s father. Pizarro and his men were assisted by numerous Incans who sought a better life after Atawallpa’s tyrannical rule, including several of his brothers, who hoped to claim the throne. “In effect,” Parsons writes, “the conquistadors enlisted New World peoples in their own subjugation.” Firmly ensconced in power, the Spanish used Incan roads and detailed censuses to exploit populations long accustomed to imperial rule.

Parsons contrasts this gaping hole in the seemingly impenetrable armor of empire with the resilience of stateless societies. For example, the Nandi, an East African people who live in what is now Kenya, spent a decade successfully fighting off far more heavily armed British imperialists at a time when England was at the height of its power. Parsons does not mention them, but the Mapuche Indians illustrate the point even more dramatically: They resisted both the Incan Empire and the conquistadors, maintaining a large degree of independence well into the 19th century without any centralized political authority.”

http://www.crescenticit.com/2011/08/deep-seated-bias-mars-otherwise-useful-study-on-the-failure-of-empires-2986-articles.html

However, Parsons also exposes certain biases to his subject material when he descends in the murky territory of which cases constitute “pure empire” and which do not. He characterizes the Soviet Union as an “old-style empire in denial,” noting that the USSR practiced brutal and direct authoritarian rule over its domestic population and the Eastern European blocs. However, the United States is “a hegemonic global power that its friends and enemies frequently mistook for an empire” (p.429). That is, the United States is a power that uses “imperial methods” that need reforming but is in its essence a progressive, democratic state.

 “Many historians of the Americas would debate that claim. The US may not have openly acknowledged its empire, but the fact that it has over 800 military bases over the globe impels one to call a spade a spade. Parsons also ignores the import of the Monroe Doctrine, in which President James Monroe declared Latin America a US stomping ground and warned European powers to back off. This indicates a preference for the official narrative of US power even as he sympathizes with the “unfortunate” sufferings of the Latin Americans, African Americans, and other ethnic groups (including the Iraqis).

 “He makes similar leaps of faith for the British empire: one of the starkest historical examples of greed is characterized as an empire by accident that came about after the British Crown nobly set out to deal with its unruly adventurers like Robert Clive. In the chapter on British rule over India, he writes about British “liberalism, utilitarianism, the advances of the early industrial revolution, free trade, and English justice… protected Indians from the kind of abuses” that Mesoamericans suffered under Spain. In other words, the British empire was somehow “better” and “more humane” than Spanish empire, ignoring the mass famines and desperation on the subcontinent caused by British policies. His sympathy for Anglo-American power fits with his marked tendency to apologize for contemporary US excesses.

http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66456/charles-s-maier/empire-without-end

Many leaders of the American Revolution welcomed the idea that their new nation would grow up to be an empire. To them, the concept was compatible with a republic; it meant size and benign influence. David Ramsay, South Carolina’s delegate to the Continental Congress, wrote as early as 1778 that the grandeur of the American continent provided the basis for a realm that would make “the Macedonian, the Roman, and the British sink into insignificance.” George Washington thought of the new country as a “rising” or an “infant” empire. Thomas Jefferson, who secured the vast Mississippi and Missouri valley corridors, famously envisaged an “empire of liberty.” But whose liberty? The idea of empire as conquest or subjugation was curiously absent from this postindependence reverie. Cheered by the euphemism of “manifest destiny” deep into the nineteenth century, Americans of European origin continued to enjoy the incredible lightness of empire.

Subsequent observers would contend that the process of building and managing an empire is often violent, unfettered by concerns about law and equality. Empire, as Joseph Conrad wrote and American anti-imperialists came to acknowledge, had a heart of darkness. As Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, the authors of the massive comparative study Empires in World History, argue, “Terror was the hidden face of empire.” And it has not always been so hidden, either.

“The word “imperium” originally signified the authority delegated by the Senate of the Roman Republic to exercise command over the republic’s own citizens and subdue others. It came to be applied to Rome’s new territories throughout Italy and then beyond, even before Augustus founded the Principate, the first formal phase of the Roman Empire proper. More recently, in the United States, the growth of presidential power has periodically awakened concerns about what the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., termed “the imperial presidency,” that is, the growth of executive authority at the expense of legislative supervision and public dissent…”

http://erb.kingdomnow.org/featured-the-rule-of-empires-by-timothy-parsons-vol-3-26/

It is impossible to read this book without seeing the parallels to the American role in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the book has a long conclusion in which Parsons contrasts the perspective of the American architects of the war in Iraq with that of the Iraqis. One is quoted thus: “They came to liberate us. Liberate us from what? … We have our own traditions, morals and customs.” Parsons argues that one cannot dismiss the role of contemporary plunder in the form of Iraqi oil revenue, assumed to eventually pay for the costs of the invasion, occupation, and rebuilding of Iraq. “As with the new imperialism, Bush officials masked the inherent self-interest of Operation Iraqi Freedom with humanitarian rhetoric … arguing that the United States had a moral obligation to spread free markets, human rights, and democracy. The inevitability of civilian casualties was largely absent from this legitimizing rhetoric.””

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Revolutionary Class War: Paine & Washington

There is an interesting incident during the revolutionary era (see links below for more detailed discussion). In Philadelphia, certain politicians and financiers were accused of profiteering and even treason. Paine was at the center of this, but he wasn’t alone in this fight. It was one of the incidents that made it clear how much the Revolutionary War was also a class war.

Besides the profiteering trials, the revolutionary era and the era immediately following was filled with conflicts between those who fought for the new country and those who wanted to rule over it. For example, consider some of the ‘rebellions’ following the Revolutionary War. While many of the elites profited from the war, many of the soldiers lost their property, their patriotic sacrifices having meant nothing to those who valued only profit and power.

Although having been close allies with Paine in ensuring the army survived, Washington found himself on the opposite side of Paine when it came to this class war. The side of Washington’s friends and associates (Silas Deane, Gouverneur Morris, etc) also happened to be the wrong side for some of these elites turned out to not be trustworthy people of high moral standards. I don’t know that Washington ever directly defended these corrupt aristocrats, but it nonetheless drove a wedge in between his relationship with Paine.

It appears Washington’s identity as an elite was greater than his identity as a revolutionary defender of liberty. In the end, Washington was more of a typical politician in seeking compromise and political advancement whereas Paine was more of a typical revolutionary in refusing compromise and never abandoning the radical impulse. As I understand it, Washington never fully or publicly acknowledged Paine after this time (such as not acknowledging Paine’s dedicating Rights of Man to Washington), despite how closely they had worked together, and despite how much Paine had helped him and respected him.

Paine didn’t initially blame Washington, but like other elites Washington seemingly held a grudge against Paine. It took Paine to end up abandoned in a French prison awaiting the guillotine to realize Washington’s true allegiance.

The accusations of that time have been debated ever since. In some cases, though, documents were later revealed to show Paine was right. America was built on war profiteering and it continues to this day with no-bid contracts being given to companies with political connections.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2007/02/01/our-founding-war-profiteers/

“A majority of Congress wasn’t bothered by the Deane’s and Morris’s corruption (many of whom engaged in similar practices themselves), but they were particularly annoyed that Paine had revealed the secret arrangements with the French. Paine was dismissed from his post as Secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs for this supposed indiscretion. (Even though England probably new about it anyway.) In the end, of course, an interim compromise was reached and America paid part of the bill. Congress took no action on the allegations against Deane. The affair was dropped form the public press and Deane went to Europe, never to return, dying in poverty.

“Paine, back in private life, continued to attack Robert and his friend Geuvenor (his name) Morris who were continuing to profit from the Revolutionary War. Inflation was rampant, but the war profiteers were seemingly immune, further outraging Paine. The unpaid French debt demanded by Beaumarchais and Deane floated around in the back rooms of Congress for several decades, and in 1839 Congress mysteriously voted to give the heirs of Silas Deane $39,000. It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that historians would uncover documents in British archives which showed that Deane had been an English loyalist all along-a war profiteer AND a traitor. Paine was finally vindicated, but the war profiteers had long since taken the money and run.”

http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc11037/m2/1/high_res_d/thesis.pdf

“What had started out as debate over the conduct and role of an American Commissioner to France had become a struggle between radicals and conservatives in Pennsylvania. Wealthy merchants and professional aristocrats there had been organizing to overthrow the state’s 1777 Constitution, which, according to them, committed the cardinal sin of allowing the common people a voice in their government.77 The radical wing in this contest was comprised of small farmers and mechanics, whom Paine supported. He saw himself as a sentry doing his duty to protect the ideals of classical republicanism and defend the American cause. In a series of articles sent to press Paine defended the 1777 Pennsylvania Constitution and attacked those who sought to deprive the people of their democratic rights.78 Following the state elections in 1779, the Constitutionalists – those whom Paine defended – won a resounding victory and, as a reward for his part in arousing popular support for the Constitution, the new Assembly appointed Paine its Clerk. This new position not only gave him a new job, but also a chance to befriend many influential and powerful leaders in the Pennsylvania Assembly and the opportunity to influence legislation. The Silas Deane Affair, however, brought out many powerful enemies that would resurface later in Paine’s life. Throughout this ordeal, Paine received no support from his ally George Washington. Because of Deane’s involvement in the supplying of the army, Washington understood the ramifications of the controversy and his correspondence shows that he was actually well informed on the situation.

“It is true that Washington and Deane were friends before the war and in its early years. Washington, in fact, had supported Deane’s commissioning to travel to France and continued to support Deane until July 1778. After Deane’s correspondence was revealed, however, Washington remarked “I wish never to hear or see anything more of so infamous a character.”79 As Deane’s world was falling apart he appealed to Washington and John Jay for help, but was met with silence.80 One would think that the General would have, at this point, acknowledged Paine’s positive and constructive involvement in exposing a war profiteer and traitor to the cause. And yet, Washington neither wrote to nor mentioned Paine in his correspondence concerning the controversy. Perhaps it was Paine’s attacks on the wealthy elites of Pennsylvania that turned Washington off to Paine. He was after all a wealthy, conservative, elite himself and had worked hard to be considered in that mode. Washington had only known Paine as a propagandist that defended the same things he believed in – independence, high morale, supplying the army, the American war effort – and it is entirely possible that Washington was off put by Paine’s successful and populistic attempts to sway public opinion in a direction that ran counter to Washington’s own sentiments.”

Freedom and Fate in Western Thought

I’ve observed a constellation of ideas that has been a part of Western thinking for a long time, but became most influential beginning with the Enlightenment.

It has to do with notions of freedom and determinism (specifically in terms of materialism and mechanism, environmentalism and communitarianism/socialism) along with heretical views about God and Nature, specifically such views as deism and pantheism/panentheism. It, of course, involves criticisms of biblical literalism and the rise of modern biblical studies in general, the Enlightenment idea being that faith and revelation doesn’t trump reason.

An early origin of this constellation has to do with the Stoics. They dealt with the problems of human fate. It was from the Stoics that the early Christians inherited natural law.

Freewill was a major issue for Christian theologians in those first several centuries. Augustine was heavily impacted by his experience as a Manichaean, and through this he introduced elements of Manichaeism into Catholicism. He particularly struggled with evil and freewill. This led him to a compromised position of Original Sin and the necessity of the Church as a proxy to enforce God’s will and hence enforce social order.

Later on, the Reformation era was a major factor in setting the stage for the Enlightenment. Take Erasmus as an example. He helped form modern biblical criticism and the humanistic tradition. He also was involved with a famous debate with Luther about freewill.

My focus on these ideas, however, isn’t as directly related to religion. The specific constellation of ideas can be seen in Hobbes’ writings, but more clearly takes form with Spinoza and Locke (the latter two born in the same year).

Spinoza and Locke represent the two sides of the Enlightenment, radical and moderate. Locke isn’t part of my main focus at the moment, although he forms an obvious context for most people in thinking about the development of the Western tradition. Instead, the more radical Spinoza has been on my mind. This constellation of ideas can be seen in the entire Enlightenment tradition and represents a core element, but it is most clearly manifest in the radical Enlightenment with its tendency toward deism.

In light of Spinoza, Hobbes has come to my attention. Hobbes is a precursor to the moderate Enlightenment, but he does share at least one thing in common with Spinoza. Both were determinists.

Hobbes saw human nature as dangerous. So, he put forth a secularized version of the Leviathan/Commonwealth where government takes on the role once held by the Church. 

Spinoza, however, saw human nature as having the individual capacity for moral good. So, he saw a kind of freedom to be had in knowledge and self-awareness. Certainly, Spinoza was the first advocate of the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and democracy. Spinoza was also an early materialist which was related to his views of mechanism and determinism.

About a century later, Paine came on the scene. Paine was indebted to Spinoza, at least in his later work but probably in his earlier work as well (Spinoza’s influence on English deism was well established by the time Paine was born; the influence on Paine probably being a combination of direct and indirect as Spinoza’s influence was wide-ranging across all of the Western world, including influence on Locke). Paine’s radicalism, maybe more than any other single factor, inspired the entire revolutionary era from Europe to North America.

Many early American radical thinkers had notions of America’s destiny. Paine saw it as being a revolutionary fire that would spread across the world and so a destiny not limited or owned by just Americans. Others have seen this destiny differently such as an American Manifest Destiny. Either way, it forms the background to the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and freedom.

Lincoln was inspired by Paine. Also, Lincoln was involved in a social circle that included many radicals: spiritualists, communitarians, free-soilers, abolitionists, feminists, left-wing revolutionaries, etc. Lincoln developed a more determinist view of humanity and history which he at least partly got from Robert Dale Owen, the son of the famous socialist. It was because of Lincoln’s determinism that he thought that slavery was fated to end.  Lincoln believed in natural law which closely relates to the deist Nature’s God which is the divine imminent in the world and in each person, hence all are equal (Lincoln was aware of Jefferson’s deism and his original draft of the Declaration of Independence that declared all people equal, no matter their religion, race or gender).

If freedom is part of natural law, then it is destined to be. God isn’t arbitrary. God’s will is the law of this world, i.e., natural law. As such, all of the world chafes at the reigns of oppression for, from this view, it is unnatural and unsustainable.

During Lincoln’s life, Marxism and socialism were having great impact. Many of the left-wing revolutionaries in Europe had immigrated to America, some even joining Lincoln’s administration or the leadership of the Union army. More of Marx’s writings had been published in a Republican newspaper than anywhere else in the world and that newspaper was regularly read by Lincoln. Marx was another thinker who was influenced by Spinoza, and some Marxists today have attempted to rehabilitate Marxism by way of Spinoza.

Socialism is closely related to environmentalism for the environment includes both the social environment and the natural environment. This also brings us to the whole deep ecology angle which relates to the Nature’s God of the deists and so goes back to Spinoza. The original influence on deep ecology came from a philosophical pessimist, Peter Wessel Zapffe.

There is the common idea of the environment influencing or determining human behavior, an idea that was implicit if often submerged in the Enlightenment project. Different theorists go in diverse directions about this environmental influence, but it has becoming increasingly central to the ideas most clearly formulated by the first Enlightenment thinkers.

Ideas about freedom have a close history with ideas about fate.

This reminds me, as many things do, of the Trickster archetype. There is the liminal space between seemingly polar concepts. They are secretly connected and can’t be divided for it goes beyond mere philosophy.

This is moreso about human nature than about any particular ideology. This constellation of ideas can lead to many ideologies. What makes me wonder is the factor that causes these ideas to constellate in the fist place. What is their affinity?

In the Trickster archetype, there are issues of egalitarianism in terms of bringing the high down low and there are issues of charisma that offers a vision of egalitarianism and empowerment. Thinkers such as Paine and Lincoln certainly weren’t lacking in charisma.

I’m not sure what all this adds up to. Just some thoughts rolling around my head.

Hominids To Humans

Neanderthals offer a mirror to our humanity in a way not even chimpanzees or bonobos can do. Also, being so distant in time, they are ripe for projection, thus uncovering our beliefs about what it means to be human and to not be human.

Neanderthals represent an alternative pathway of hominid development. The early evolution of both species demonstrates many similarities, and no one knows why they respectively evolved the way they did, although there is always endless speculation.

This makes for interesting reading as we learn more about neanderthals. New discoveries always elicit media attention and public discussion. People are quick to interpret the new data and pass judgment upon it.

This has become particularly interesting with the analysis of human and neanderthal genetics.  I’m not sure about other populations, but Europeans have something like around 4% neanderthal genetics. So, neanderthals didn’t die out. They simply merged with homo sapiens (like some other hominids in other regions of the world with similar fates interbreeding with homo sapiens).

The only pure breed humans left on the planet live in small isolated populations in certain regions of Africa. People of European descent aren’t exactly or entirely homo sapiens. We are hybrids, although technically still categorized as homo sapiens.

The first thing I read years ago that really caught my attention was the fact that neanderthals were still living in Europe when early agricultural societies had been developing there. This means that, when origins of modern European culture and religion was first forming, neanderthals were living in the same general region as humans. Considering the genetic mixing, the nearness at times was quite close.

Neanderthals were even living in the Levant when homo sapiens were leaving Africa… which is supposedly how neanderthal genetics ended up being spread throughout human populations all over the world. But this goes beyond genetics. For around 60 thousand years, the two species co-existed in the Levant. They lived the same lifestyle and used the same stone technology. Later neanderthals in Europe even adopted some of the new innovations by homo sapiens. Also, both species had the potential capacity for speech (by way of similar brain and physiological structures), although no one knows if either species had yet developed speech as we know it.

The earliest homo sapiens looked and acted like us in many ways, and yet their lifestyle wasn’t all that different from neanderthals. Social and technological development remained mostly unchanging across the species for a long period of time. There was nothing particularly special about homo sapiens during this early period. At some point, however, homo sapiens began to diverge, but no one knows exactly how or why this divergence happened. Homo sapiens kept developing new technologies and lifestyles while neanderthals went extinct as a separate species.

Some claim it was climate changes that made life too difficult for neanderthals. But that doesn’t explain why neanderthals were able to co-exist in the same regions as homo sapiens when these changes occurred. And it doesn’t explain why neanderthals didn’t just migrate northward.

More interestingly, why did the hybrids of the two species have the best survival rates outside of Africa. Apparently, homo sapiens without neanderthal genetics were unable to survive outside of Africa beyond that early period. Is that true? If so, what survival value did neanderthal genetics give homo sapiens and can that explain the sudden social transformation? If not, was it a mere accident that some homo sapiens and some neanderthals had children together and that those children had descendants that spread to every region and continent?

All of this fascinates me because it is a revolutionary way of thinking about humanity. It challenges many deep-seated beliefs. I’ve noticed that even high quality scholarly books on human evolution often ignore the evidence about interbreeding. It will take a while for people to come to terms with this challenging data.

Instinct For Pride

Of all the emotions, pride perplexes me the most.

People are proud of all kinds of things, apparently nothing can escape it. People feel proud of their inborn talents, their looks, their perceived race, their ethnicity, their nationality, their family and kin, their ancestry, their religions, their jobs, their houses, their cars, the nice outfit they bought recently, and on and on. Some people feel proud for just being human, instead of some other animal… or else just proud for existing, as if surviving rather than dying is a great accomplishment of personal merit.

Pride is such a natural and simple emotion. No one has to learn how to be proud. 

A kid draws a picture, builds a tower of blocks, climbs a tree, or whatever. The unselfconscious response of the kid is to be proud and the kid will beam with a confidence in his or her greatness… which will then make the kid’s parents proud as well, and so it is a whole lovefest of pride.

Even when kids are away from adults, pride is a driving force in peer behavior. Oh, the things a kid will do to gain social standing in a group or to prove themselves to prospective friends.

There is nothing inherently wrong about any of this. I don’t even intend personal criticism. I just find it an odd attribute of human behavior.

Most things people have pride of have little to do with choices they’ve made. People are born smart or beautiful. People are born into good families or good communities. People are born lucky with the right circumstances and opportunities. People simply do whatever it is in them to do.

There is nothing particularly amazing about any of this, yet all of civilization would probably collapse without pride for it seems at the center of what motivates people. Shame is the opposite and necessary corollary of pride. People avoid shame like the plague for it is social death and sometimes leads to physical death via suicide (or else, in honor societies, via homicide). Pride and shame make the world go round.

American Borg: On Assimilation & Family

Because of genealogical research, I’ve been neglecting my blog and so I thought I should put some of my recent thoughts down.

* * * *

The research and discussions with the parental units has kept my mind focused on family history and American culture. In a recent blog post, I discussed my family in terms of the similarities and differences of Appalachia and Midlands, specifically the Appalachia of Kentucky and Southern Indiana compared with the Midlands Midwest of Iowa (the latter being the location from which I write, the home of my childhood and the place I will always consider home).

My present contemplations have continued to revolve around this nexus, but there is an additional context: multiculturalism versus assimilation.

In exploring this context, I’ll use family as a beginning point and from there explore culture. This post is a very personal contemplation and so the personal will be my touchstone in analyzing what to me feels like challenging issues about identity and relationships. In sharing my thoughts about my own family, in speaking publicly about the personal, I wish to tread lightly.

* * * *

My mom’s family is largely pioneer stock.

She is proud of this, but I feel mixed… not exactly pride or shame. I don’t know what my dominant feeling is about the matter. There is some general sadness there related to a sad history of violence tinged with both empathetic understanding and righteous judgment along with my typical intellectual curiosity. I’m the product of this pioneer lineage, whether or not I like it. It has contributed to who I am and helped form how I see the world. The pioneers sought freedom and opportunity, even as they denied these to others, and I can’t deny that I have benefited from their sacrifices.

The early frontier was a fascinating time and place. Being a pioneer often meant, to varying degrees, some combination of being: courageous adventurer and desperate survivor, traumatized victim and hard-hearted victimizer, self-educated multiculturalist and ignorant racist, freedom seeker and genocidal oppressor, indian friend and indian killer, land developer and land thief, community builder and self-serving individualist, hardworking producer and agent of destruction, optimistic dreamer and cynical realist, etc. No single pioneer was necessarily all those things, but collectively that is what defined the pioneer experience and shaped frontier society.

My ancestry on that side includes those involved in the military from the era of British colonialism to the Revolutionary War, from the earliest Indian wars to the Civil War. As soon as America was a country, many lines of my family were venturing into Indian territory, either as pioneers or Indian fighters. I even discovered one ancestor who was born in Indian territory before the United States gained independence. At that time, according to British law and Indian treaties, it was illegal for my family to be in Indian territory. So, I descend from the original illegal immigrants and anchor babies.

* * * *

One thing that caught my attention was how many of my ancestors were clustered around or near the Cumberland Gap.

The Cumberland Gap is approximately the place where meets the borders of the states of Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky; also near northwestern North Carolina where other lines of my family resided. This location was an easy access point for pioneers traveling to the frontier and also for Native Americans to attack white settlers. This is where Daniel Boone entered Kentucky and where he blazed the Wilderness Road, by following the trails used by Native Americans. Some of my family would have been associates of Boone or else moved in the same social circles, considering the first pioneers into Indian country were small in number.

In this context, I would note that many of my maternal-side ancestors were non-English ethnic immigrants, in fact some of the earliest immigrants among non-English as well as the English. They included those from violent borderlands such as Alsace, Palatines, and Ulster (interestingly, one of my ancestors had various records that alternately identified his place of origin as Germany, France, and Alsace; a bit of research clarified the fact that Alsace was part of France at the time and many generations had passed since it was previously a part of Germany, but was is most interesting is that on his own census records he had identified as German; other research showed that the people of Alsace spoke a German dialect and so apparently they were culturally German even as they were French citizens). A motivating factor for these borderlanders coming to America was to escape violence and oppression, but they sometimes found the English colonies to be violent and oppressive as well, at least to non-English ethnics. They escaped religious persecution of state-sanctioned religions in Europe and yet in America they found that most of the colonies also had state-sanctioned religions along with other forms of legalized oppression and prejudice. So, they escaped to ethnic communities or else, like my family, escaped to the frontier where they once again found themselves living on a violent borderland.

Intentionally or not, they made their new home in a place much like the homeland they left behind. Conflict and war, instability and poverty… this was their lot in life. These German, French and Scots-Irish border people helped form the culture of the border regions of Midlands and Appalachia. They were always at the border of the frontier as it slowly moved Westward. And they were on the border between the North and South when the Civil War broke out. They were in that contested zone where the soul of America was fought over.

(As a side note, I can’t help but be reminded of Derrick Jensen’s analysis of Western and American culture and history. Jensen shows how easy and how typical it is for victims to become victimizers, and most of the examples he uses are from America, especially early America. The colonists spread violence and oppression to the new world, the pioneers spread violence and oppression westward across the continent, and now the American military empire spreads violence and oppression all over the world. The victimization cycle seems to never end.)

* * * *

To get back to family history, my mom’s family came through Appalachia and spent many generations there. Only a generation before my mom, the family was still living in Southern Indiana which is right on the edge of Appalachia and culturally indistinct from Kentucky.

Even though my mom grew up in the more Midlands Northern Indiana, she learned to speak with that Appalachian-style dialect that is common in Southern Indiana (‘bush’ is spoken as ‘boosh’, ‘cushion’ as ‘cooshion’, ‘fish’ as ‘feesh’, etc). Even so, my mom identifies more with the midwestern culture of the Midlands. It apparently bothers her when people tell her she sounds ‘Southern’; she has mentioned at least two examples of this happening and apparently this is what led her to ask me to ‘correct’ her when she ‘mispronounces’ words.

(As an interesting piece of trivia, the North and the South weren’t as distinct of regions prior to the Civil War. I’ve read that it was only after the Civil War that, for example, a distinct Southern dialect formed and became a widely shared sense of cultural identity. Southerners simultaneously resisted assimilation to ‘American’ culture while assimilating to a newly created sense of ‘Southern’ culture, of which Appalachian culture somewhat merged with. This probably explains why some Northerners have mistaken my mom’s Hoosier dialect as being ‘Southern’.)

I personally am fond of dialects, ethnic and regional. It’s not an issue of supporting the liberal ideology of multiculturalism. I just think dialects are interesting. Dialects signify a person’s background and make people unique. As such, I’m perfectly fine with my mom’s Hoosier pronunciation of words. If she said ‘boosh’ or ‘feesh’ in public, I wouldn’t be embarassed. In fact, I wouldn’t give it much thought. I find her dialect charming which is why I got in the habit of repeating her Hoosier pronunciations when she spoke that way, but not with any intentions of mocking her; nonetheless, by doing this I guess I’m partly to blame for making my mom self-conscious.

So, what is undesirable in my mom’s mind about being perceived as ‘Southern’?

Maybe it bothers her because, having a career as a speech pathologist, she spent most of her life teaching kids to speak proper Standard American English (i.e., Midwestern dialect). By the way, as a social conservative this really bothers her in that it was her job to enforce linguistic assimilation in public schools, yet it was against the law for her to correct the pronunciation of African-American students for their dialect was deemed part of their culture and so legally protected; of course, white kids with dialects receive no legal protection of their linguistic culture.

I also wonder if it bothers her from another perspective. She is a fairly typical American conservative who is obsessed with cultural assimilation, judging people such as hispanics for what she perceives as a refusal to assimilate to WASP culture; and hence this refusal is taken as a direct attack on WASP culture, i.e., everything that made America great. To not speak Standard American English means to not have fully assimilated to Standard American Culture. To speak with a dialect is to be outside the mainstream and hence an outsider, to be excluded and potentially isolated, to be different and ‘other’; a fate worse than death in the minds of many conservatives. Even though proud to be of pioneer heritage, she apparently isn’t proud of this part of her heritage, despite the fact that her family probably has spoken this way for centuries.

There is another aspect to consider in my mom’s personal experience. She came to realize how much of a Northerner and Midwesterner she is when our family moved to South Carolina. She lived there for two decades and she never adapted to that regional culture. It was alien to her in so many ways: class-based, cliquish, plantation mentality, etc. That is everything her family isn’t. Her family is primarily Appalachian in culture which has sensitized my mom to both Southern and Northern cultures… for to be Appalachian means to be not fully one or the other, rather somewhere in between. Appalachians have a more egalitarian working class culture similar to the Midwest, but the Midwest is part of the North and Appalachians don’t feel a part of Northern culture.

On the other hand, my mom’s conflict with Southern culture is probably related to why her ancestors in Kentucky and Indiana sided with the North during the Civil War, although that war-time alliance was an imperfect and at times grudging. The two competing mainstream cultures in America are the cultures that dominated during the Civil War, neither of those cultures precisely fitting the Appalachian sensibility. That said, Appalachian culture did eventually become more aligned with Southern culture after the Civil War. My mom’s family is thus divided between Southern-leaning Appalachia and Northern-leaning Midwest, straddling the cultural borderlands. I think my mom has somewhat internalized this North/South conflict.

* * * *

Before going on, let me make one thing very clear.

I don’t wish to judge my mom, just as I feel reluctant to judge my pioneer ancestors. I don’t know her motivations. I don’t know what events may have shaped her early life experiences of being a Hoosier and being and American. I know even less about my pioneer ancestors. 

We are all products of our times. None of us can know how future generations will judge us. In this light, I don’t think my mother is wrong for wanting to assimilate to mainstream culture. We all make choices that seem best to us. Besides, speaking of familial ancestors, my dad’s mom supposedly often said that “Everyone is doing the best that they can for where they are at”. Hokey as that sounds, it is a basic truth that resonates with me. Also, it summarizes an element of my own liberal-mindedness, something I indirectly inherited from paternal grandmother as she was a West Coast liberal and introduced my parents to the Unity Church (along with other liberal forms of religion and spirituality).

In writing this post, I refer to my mom for the simple reason that she is the closest to an example of Hoosier/Appalachian culture that I know of in such intimate detail, an example I’ve given much thought to. Having never lived there, my mom is the main access I have to that regional culture. 

On a related note, I’d like to add one other point. In regards to my interest in human nature and culture, I must give most of the credit to my mom. It was during the many discussions I’ve had with her over the years that my understanding slowly formed. Many of the insights and observations I speak of either originated from my mom or came out of our ongoing dialogues. So, along with giving me access to her own family’s cultural background, she has helped shape my own way of thinking about culture.

I hope that I speak about my mother with empathy, not with judgment… and I hope that this intent is expressed well. As always, my foremost desire is to understand.

* * * *

Assimilation seems like a peculiar thing to my mind.

I grew up speaking Standard American English because I was initially raised in the Midlands Midwest (specifically Iowa which is right at the center of the region where this non-dialect dialect is spoken), but I never consciously decided to assimilate. I simply spoke as I heard my peers speaking.

I even unintentionally assimilated a bit to the South when I lived there during my teen years, picking up a bit of my redneck bestfriend’s Southern dialect (I sometimes forget which pronunciations of words are Southern and which are Northern or rather Midwestern); for a few years after returning to Iowa, strangers could still detect something not quite Midwestern about my Midwestern dialect, but alas since that time I’ve lost the feel for the Southern dialect and can no longer speak that way.

This is how most assimilation occurs. Few Americans ever intentionally assimilated, something conservatives don’t appreciate. It’s just that distinctly separate ethnic cultures over time begin to fade as cultures mix and as the living memory of the old homeland disappears from families. Assimilation as we know it now is a very recent invention that arose in response to two world wars and the homogenizing impact of mass media, not to mention early twentieth century laws that were designed to eliminate independent ethnic cultures. It’s true that many early ethnics chose to assimilate… they did so usually out of fear of violence and oppression, but few ever chose to do so freely.

The following is my liberal-minded multicultural view (as a member of the liberal-minded multicultural GenX who grew up in a liberal-minded multicultural era of high immigration rates, who went to liberal-minded multicultural desegregated public schools, who grew up in liberal-minded multicultural college towns, and who was raised in the liberal-minded multicultural Unity Church).

To praise assimilation is to praise one of the ugliest and most destructive features of our society, although I realize that isn’t the way my mom would see it; but as I see it, forced assimilation as practiced for most of American history is essentially cultural genocide. If you can’t physically destroy a people, you can destroy them as a distinct people by killing the very soul of their collective identity. Soul death can be just as brutal as mass killing. When a people forget who they are, part of them remains dead. The living memory is gone forever, impossible to ressurrect.

Thusly, we all become zombies of mass culture, repeating what the mainstream media tells us, not knowing what has been lost in the process. This is historical amnesia and it plagues the American population, undermining any possibility of democracy for it allows all the same mistakes to repeat again and again and again. All the alternative possibilites that diverse cultures present are eliminated and only one choice remains… and, sadly, we call it ‘freedom’. The freedom of one culture to dominate is by definition the unfreedom, the oppression of all other cultures. This all hinges on force and the conservative mind rarely sees the violence and oppression behind that which they praise; if anything they feel those seeking freedom are oppressing whites for how dare anyone try to define their own sense of freedom.

Sadly, too often one person’s freedom is another person’s oppression.

* * * *

On a more personal level, I was trying to probe the reasons behind my mom’s strong desire to assimilate (or, putting it in Borg terms, to be assimilated).

From my perspective, this is an acceptance of the oppressive force of a monolithic culture, a force that is backed by real threat of power and punishment. Also, this seems to be an act of the oppressed identifying with the oppressor, thus joining in and justifying the culture of oppression. It’s not that assimilation when freely chosen is necessarily bad; it’s just that it rarely is freely chosen.

However, none of this captures the everyday experience of my mom or others like her.

For my mom, assimilation is a purely good thing, the highest ideal of the American Dream: to be normal, to be accepted as part of the group, specifically to be part of a great nation, to share in that greatness by proxy. When my mom was a kid, to speak the dialect she spoke meant being lower class which in turn meant being socially inferior, i.e, a hick.

Appalachian people, rightly or wrongly, have always been associated with poverty, ignorance, and cultural backwardness. The English prejudice against non-English ethnics still remains. To be Appalachian, or more generally of the Scots-Irish culture, means to be a hillbilly or a redneck. Appalachian culture has gained some respect in recent years through folk art and music, but Appalachia continues to be a stigmatized region and it continues to be poor.

Appalachians have resisted assimilation to the ‘Yankee’ norm of American society. They are a proud people and yet simultaneously this is a sore point. To assimilate or not is a choice that every new generation is faced with. To not assimilate can come with great costs,  both for individuals and communites that exist outside of the mainstream norm. This is a cost that Appalachia has suffered with because of its proud refusal. This refusal is how Appalachians came to think of themselves as ‘Southerners’ after the Civil War, even in states like Kentucky that fought for the North. Many parts of Appalachia have been left behind in the dust of industrialization, factories and jobs moving elsewhere as the Appalachian people and their culture remained.

* * * *

As others have pointed out, America is less of a melting pot and more of a stew pot.

Most of my ancestry on my mom’s side seems to be German which is fitting since most of the ancestry of America is German as well, or to put it another way more Americans are of German ancestry than the ancestry of any other ethnicity. So, if America is a stew pot, the English may be seasoning but the Germans and other ethnics are the meat and potatoes. Heck, the most American of cities, New York City, was originally the New Netherlands colony; and the Germanic Dutch culture is what made New York City so distinctly ‘American’.

Maybe more than any other group of ‘white’ Americans, German-Americans have often resisted assimilation, even early on. They formed their own communities, not unusually out of fear such as in response to the nativist Know-Nothing movement (which made them wary of the early Republican Party because the Know-Nothings largely merged with the Republicans). They created organizations to maintain their culture and to take care of their own such as the Turner movement. They maintained churches and schools that taught in the German language, including public schools in German majority cities; the German language survived as a publicly spoken language in America through the first half of the twentieth century.

Also, German immigrants founded many utopian religious communities that fiercely defended their own culture and way of life. The German Harmonists, who were admired by many early Americans for their economic success, founded various socialist communities, including one in early Southern Indiana near where my family lived (a town, by the way, that was later made into a secular socialist utopian experiment by a Scotsman who was, along with his sons, very influential in 19th century American politics, including being an influence on the thinking of Abraham Lincoln). The American Amish and Mennonites have survived the onslaught of assimilation and to this day maintain their independent communities; the Amish still speak German and still refer to outsiders as ‘English’.

* * * *

Interestingly, it was on the frontier where a truly American identity first began to form that was fully distinct from the English cultures of the British colonies. On the frontier, there was a particular variety of assimilation but not as we think of it now. It was simply a multicultural place, sometimes cultures clashing and sometimes merging. No authority was forcing assimilation on the frontier. Different ethnicities intermingled and intermarried more or less freely, sometimes even across the divide between settlers and natives.

That said, even amidst such multicultural complexity, it was probably more common for ethnics to stick to their own kind; this was often true for my ancestors. Along with being multcultural, the frontier was multilingual as families maintained their homeland languages for generations. This forced pioneers to be more knowledgeable of diverse languages than Americans today.

The Native Americans themselves, specifically the Shawnee in the Ohio Territory (which included Kentucky and Indiana), also contributed to this American style of cultural mixing and haphazard assimilation. Daniel Boone, like many early pioneers, was adopted into a Native American family and he maintained friendly relations with them for the rest of his life. In Appalachia, for natives and pioneers alike, what mattered was kinship for no one could survive for long on their own. Such kinship, however, didn’t necessitate sharing the same blood or even sharing the same cultural lifestyle. Even when Boone went back to living among whites, he was forever considered Shawnee by the Shawnee.

* * * *

This incipient American identity, instead of protecting racial and cultural purity, led to the creation of the American mutt.

This probably explains why Appalachia remains the place where most people don’t know their ancestry, instead simply identifying as ‘American’ when asked. This is also the region where resides the melungeon population, AKA “the sweet blend” — a mixture of European, African, and Native American ancestry. Considering my family’s frontier past, I’m sure I have a broad mix of genetics hidden behind my Germanic appearance.

All Europeans and European descendants, most especially white Americans, are quite genetically and culturally mixed — between Neanderthal interbreeding, Mongol hordes, Arab invaders, Roman legions, and various influences from the Mediterranean and Black seas, including a significant amount of African genetics mixed in (most likely from the Roman legions). Racial purity is a joke. Even cultural purity is mostly a cultural creation, a cultural fiction formed and promoted by the governments of evolving nation-states, especially during the era of European wars and revolutions that led many people to immigrate to America. Historically, Europeans didn’t consider themselves a single white race and for good reason as genetics proves. And Europeans certainly didn’t consider themselves a single culture, especially considering most of the European wars were at least partly motivated by cultural differences, often in the guise of religious differences. Even the peoples of the British Isles were culturally divided and genetically diverse, including within England.

‘Whiteness’ as a race or as a culture is a nebulous concept, certainly not a scientific category. Many, if not most, of the African slaves in America had white fathers, grandfathers, great grandfathers, and on and on. After generations of such hanky-panky, many blacks were genetically and culturally more European than African, many even were as white or nearly as white as their masters. In one famous case, a slave took his master to court by arguing he couldn’t be a slave since he wasn’t black and indeed his skin was white, his hair was blonde, and his eyes were blue. Blackness and whiteness were cultural perceptions. Not unusually, someone was defined as being black because they were a slave and their enslavement was justified because they were perceived as black. American blacks today are extremely light skinned when compared to African populations. I remember seeing Obama standing in the middle of a crowd of Africans and I swear to God that he looked like a white guy. In the past, if a person of a ‘black’ family could pass as white, they would do so; and after a few generations no one even remembered there was black in the family (“a nigger in the woodpile”). Most white Americans have varying degrees of non-European genetics, in particular either African or Native American, but it is also unsurprising to find Asian or Polynesian genetics, not to mention Arab and Mongol.

At an earlier point in American history, even non-English European immigrants were considered to be questionable when it came to whiteness. The Irish, for example, were referred by the English as “white niggers”. Many Irish and Welsh along with other European ethnics such as Italians, Spanish, and Greeks have darker skin and curlier hair; and such populations do have significant amounts of Arab Moor genetics, Western African genetics, and/or North African genetics. To this day, most Americans don’t consider hispanics as ‘white’, despite their relatively light skin and despite their ancestors being from Europe.

* * * *

It is beyond silly the fear some whites have about the demise of their own racial demographic.

To be honest, all distinct genetic lines are endangered in that genetics are continually mixing to ever increasing degrees all over the world. Within the near future, in historical terms, there probably won’t be any ‘whites’ or ‘blacks’ left anywhere in the world. There will one day be a world population that has come to an approximate averaging out of skin color (along with kind of hair and facial features), but even then diversity will remain. Besides, someone who has white skin might not have a majority of European genetics and someone of black skin might not have a majority of African genetics, the genetics for skin pigmentation being unrelated to all other genetics. Skin color doesn’t bestow a specific culture upon a person when they are born.

Many Americans of African and Hispanic descent have begun to identify as ‘white’ or, like the mixed-breed Appalachians, simply identify as ‘American’. There is no way to distinguish between a light-skinned colored person and a dark skinned white person. If you call yourself white and others perceive you as white, then you are white. The definition and perception of white may change, but whiteness as a relative category is unlikely to go away in the immediate future.

As an interesting example, most people would never suspect that Martin Sheen is of hispanic ancestry. His birth name is Ramon Estevez, his having changed his name because of the racial prejudice even within supposed ‘liberal’ acting world, at least within the acting world of his early career. An even more interesting example is Louis C.K. who in his tv role is the archetypal American middle class white guy. Louis is both hispanic and Mexican. His first language is spanish and he retains Mexican citizenship. What is the difference between being a hypothetical ‘white’ person and simply being perceived as such?

White supremacists and isolationists (e.g., David Duke) along with more moderate WASP culture warriors (e.g., Patrick Buchannan and Charles Murray) are in a real pickle. They talk about white culture which they conflate, along with white skin, with conservative politics, especially fundamentalist Christianity; yet blacks and hispanics form the majority when it comes to being socially conservative and Christian. Hispanics, of course, traditionally are Catholic which is a questionable form of Christianity to the WASP mind, only slightly less questionable than Mormonism. It’s not just about who gets to define whiteness but also who gets to define conservatism and Christianity.

Hispanics are the most threatening of them all because they have their own competing version of ‘white’ culture, especially considering much of present United States was part of the Spanish Empire and remains to this day hispanic majority. What the WASPs don’t want to admit is that there is more than one white culture; not all whites are Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Hispanics, like many others of non-English European ancestry, have the arrogance to be both Catholic and hardworking, such work ethic supposedly being the sole provenance of WASP culture. On top of that, hispanics have the arrogance of being the original European-descended North Americans by way of having European ancestry that has been in America longer than non-hispanics. No white conservative wants to admit that the red-blooded American cowboy culture comes from the hispanics and that the independence of George W. Bush’s Texas was fought for by hispanics (and still to this day has a population that is majority hispanic and majority spanish-speaking).

All of this makes it hard for the bigoted social conservatives to continually justify their bigotry, and this puts the non-bigoted social conservatives in a tough spot as well in their desire to differentiate themselves from the bigots. In response, social conservatives are forced to decide what they care more about; and so they often are willing to accept the questionable Christians, the Catholics and Mormons, into their in-group just as long as they can maintain their fear and/or hatred of dark-skinned people and foreign-borns; others will be more accepting of dark-skinned people, especially relatively lighter-skinned hispanics, if it helps them gain support in attacking immigrants; still others will accept legal immigrants if it means that illegal immigrants can be scapegoated. The one thing none of them can accept is that America has always been and always will be multicultural.

* * * *

Obviously, not all those who praise assimilation are overtly prejudiced, most probably aren’t (the mild forms of racialism having mostly replaced the rabid forms of racism). My mom isn’t racist and isn’t strongly xenophobic in any sense. Like many conservatives, she simply fears the world she knew in childhood is slipping away.

What conservatives don’t understand is that the world of their childhood was just a single moment in the long history of North America and a moment that not all Americans perceived in the same way. Their 1950s vision of the American Dream was to others an American Nightmare, the period from Reconstruction to the early Cold War Era consisting of the most pervasive and systematic social oppression in American history (last of the Indian Wars and the final subjugation of the remaining free tribes, Native American boarding schools that violently forced assimilation, the rise of the KKK, propaganda films such as ‘The Birth of a Nation’, racially-motivated terrorism such as lynchings and church bombings, Jim Crow laws, political disenfranchisement of minorities and ethnics, overtly racist nativism, anti-Germanic oppression, Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps, anti-communist witch-hunts, Hollywood blacklisting, union-busting, unconstitutional imprisonment of activists and organizers, violently brutal crackdowns on protests, business elites aligning with fascist states worldwide, the Business Plot, the growth of the military-industrial complex, military attacks on and oppression of innocent people such as the Filipinos, military aggression against Mexicans seeking freedom and democracy, the rise of an American version of militarized imperialism with colonial-like ambitions, the coming to power of oppressive and anti-intellectual fundamentalism, patriarchal anti-feminism, growth of both big government and big business along with the corporatist alliance between them, etc). To put it simply, assimilation in most cases was far from willing and even further from what we would deem moral by today’s standards. A single American culture was a violent and bloody creation.

To the degree that America is a melting pot, the melting took centuries. It slowly and imperceptibly happened many generations after the first immigrants came. If assimilation is to be promoted in a positive way without oppression, then it must be chosen freely and so the free choice must be given to maintain cultures as well. Assimilation happens naturally to some extent because it’s part of human nature, but it works both ways. It’s not just that the non-English assimilated to the English culture. History shows that Americans of English descent also assimilated non-English cultures. In this sense, it is a melting pot. There is no way to melt multiple cultures together while one of those cultures remains unmelted in the mix. A cultural melting pot is the complete opposite of cultural purity and therefore the complete opposite of the survival of separate cultures, WASP or otherwise.

* * * *

The further problem for conservatives is how white culture is conflated with English culture.

Even beyond the problem non-English white cultures challenging English white culture, there is still the problem in that there is no single English culture and no single consensus among English cultures (even in England, not all the English could be defined as WASP; there are very old conflicts between native pagan Britons, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and Norman Catholics). Which white culture are American whites supposed to be defending? 

In terms of English culture, there are the various peoples of Yankeedom, Midlands, New Netherlands, Tidewater, and Deep South (not to mention the utopian Georgia colony that initially was entirely separate from the slave culture of the South Carolina and Virginia); although Midlands was largely taken over by Germanic culture, New Netherlands had an original Netherlands culture with only a later overlay of English culture, and the Deep South had a culture that was English filtered through the slave culture of Barbados; plus, there were seperate ethnic communities in all of the colonies that helped define the development of the later states. These English cultures were widely diverse and the people in them didn’t fully trust or like the people in the other English cultures.

Furthermore, there was the many non-English cultures, white and non-white: of all the colonial borderlands such as in South Carolina backcountry, rural Virginia, Appalachia and the interior Midlands; of large sections of North Carolina; of New Jersey, Florida, New Orleans, the Southwest, and the West Coast; plus the Native American societies that were organizing on levels to compete with the colonies and in some cases forming new shared communities with ethnics and freed blacks. It was in contradistinction to the English cultures that the non-English peoples worked to create a distinctly American identity separate from Britain. It must be remembered that the American Revolution fomented from the largely ethnic working class, especially in the multicultural Midlands, before it was taken up by the British colonial elites. To be American in those early days specifically meant not being English or at least not identifying with the British Empire. The oppression of the British Empire wasn’t just political but also cultural. Many Americans, especially the ethnic and non-white majority, were seeking a new cultural identity, not just a new politics. Even blacks were active participants in this revolutionary era, not just waiting for British colonial elites to determine their fate.

If not for the vast differences between English cultures along with the differences of the ethnic cultures of the growing majority, the Civil War would never have happened. With social conservatives defining their preferred vision of ‘whiteness’, whose English or European culture gets to rule over all the rest?

* * * *

Anyway, what exactly is this supposed superiority of the white culture?

Research shows that racial prejudice against minorities is still rampant in all parts of our society; for example, blacks are punished more harshly than whites for the exact same crimes; and as another example, people are more likely to buy a product online if it is held by a lighter-skinned hand than if it is held by a darker-skinned hand. So, is this ‘superiority’ simply the social and political power whites have to force their culture onto everyone else and to punish or disadvantage anyone perceived as different? Even after the seeming decline of centuries of European colonialism, Western countries are still militaristically enforcing their wills upon non-white nations.

When a culture or society, a people or nation is judged inferior and dysfunctional, what does that mean and how did they get that way? It was white culture — through genocide, slavery, colonialism, and war — that destroyed, weakened or crippled so many other cultures… and this continues to this day, even if the means and methods have changed slightly. Whites have to take a major proportion of responsibility for the problems they have caused or contributed to… such as with the populations of blacks, hispanics, and various indigenous peoples.

Before complaining about all the ‘illegal’ immigrants from Mexico (a people who have an older claim to much of present US), we should stop continually causing all the problems in Mexico: the American Drug War creates dangerous black markets and cartels, the underregulated gun market in America leads to a flow of guns into Mexico thus arming criminals, gangs and cartels, NAFTA causes poverty and unemployment in Mexico such as among farmers, and a long history of American political and corporate intervention in Mexico has promoted fascism while undermining democracy. If we hadn’t been systematically fucking over their country for so long, most Mexicans probably would be perfectly happy to stay in Mexico.

Americans cause problems onto other people and then project the blame onto the same people. It is a sociopathic mentality. It’s time conservative Christians started paying attention to the log in their own eyes.

Let me pose the question of moral responsibility in stark terms:
Is the dysfunctional society the one that is victimized or the one that victimizes?

I would argue the latter. Authors such as Derrick Jensen and Noam Chomsky make good arguments in this regard. Besides, the conservative claim of white superiority is particularly questionable in America. The bastion of conservative whiteness is the rural South, the most conservative and the most white region in America and the very region that has the most violent population with all of the worst problems of American society: poverty, unemployment, welfare, low IQ, high school dropouts, teen pregnancy, STDs, divorce, low infancy birth weight, high infancy mortality rate, high adult mortality rate, obesity, diabetes, etc. Furthermore, this region of conservative whiteness is one of the biggest economic drains on the economy and on the federal government since red states on average receive more federal money than they pay in taxes, thus blue states paying for the problems of conservative whiteness.

That seems like damning evidence… or at least very inconvenient information.

* * * *

I feel divided on a very personal level. This goes beyond ideological arguments and analysis of data. The fundamental issues must be subjectively assessed, felt out, contemplated.

Like my mom, I’m a part of this same society and I’m a product of this same history. Whatever problems and failings exist, we all are complicit. I don’t judge my mom or any individual person… or at least I don’t want to make such judgments, non-judgment being the standard I try to hold myself to. I also don’t want to judge white conservatives as a whole… which would be just as prejudiced as racism against minorities. If there is guilt, it is collective. It has come to be this way through generations and centuries, the actions of individuals and groups adding up to a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. It’s a slippery thing to grasp, mind-bogglingly immense and complex. Even as I try to discern, I hope to avoid unnecessary and unhelpful judgment as much as possible.

Whether we choose it or not, we are all assimilated to this society. That is how modern civilization functions. There is no escape from the repurcusions and the responsibilities entailed. Even the pioneers couldn’t escape the failings of western civilization even as they sought reprieve in the wilderness. Instead, they brought their problems with them and re-created the conflicts of their own ancestors. They brought the Old World to the New World. This different land allowed a new mix of factors, but the basic social pattern remained.

I focused on my mom’s desire to assimilate. Yet I’m not sure I’m all that different. The desire to belong, to fit in is a normal human desire, compulsion even. Assimilation is even worse for someone like me who grew up with Standard American English and the Standard American Culture that goes with it. The reason it is worse is that it is more invisible. My mom couldn’t avoid the fact that her way of speaking wasn’t ‘normal’. I never consciously assimilated. Instead, I was born into assimilation. My ancestors spoke like my mother for untold number of generations, but I never spoke that way. With my brothers and I, assimilation has finally been completed in my mom’s family line. We can now officially call ourselves “Real Americans” ( © 1776 Founding Fathers).

* * * *

With my concluding thoughts, let me share one last example.

On our trip down to Southern Indiana, my parents and I were discussing the culture and economy of the region, specifically such factors as: high rates of poverty, low rates of education, etc. My mom complained, and my dad concurred, that it is unfair to make comparisons between a place like Southern Indiana and a place like Iowa, the latter not having the same kind of problems. It might not be fair, but it is the reality of the situation.

Poverty and, more importantly, economic inequality correlate to so many other problems. This correlation is found in states around the US and countries around the world. This correlation points to a truth that is uncomfortable to conservatives in particular and uncomfortable to most Americans in general. We could argue about the meaning of this correlation, argue about the direction of causality, even argue if there is any direct causal connection at all or else both being results of some other cause. What can’t be argued about is the correlated data itself which comes from diverse sources and has been corroborated with much research.

My mom takes offense at the idea that her home state could be judged according to this data. This seems undeserving to her. However, I don’t see it as an issue of judging, per se. Besides, it is my mom who seemingly has made a judgment. I certainly never judged the Hoosier dialect as abnormal or unacceptable, but apparently my mom has. I don’t know why she has made this judgment. I can’t claim to truly understand. I just can’t help but notice it. I wouldn’t argue this necessarily implies a sense of shame on my mom’s part, shame being such a strong word, although it is true that her father suffered from an inferiority complex because of his social status. Shame or not, this desire to leave behind the outward forms of her ancestral culture does seem to give hint to something hidden behind her claims of pride about her pioneer heritage and her more general pride of being an ‘American’. There is some kind of cognitive dissonance at play here.

I feel frustrated by mom’s response and at the same time I understand, sympathize even. I can be just as defensive about Midwestern culture which is so often dismissed by those living on the coasts who perceive states like Iowa as flyover country. I suppose I also have some pride in being American with such a long family history going back to those early pioneers, especially when I think about certain early Americans who envisioned a different possibility than what has come to be.

Anyway, my opinions about my mom’s feelings and values aren’t important in and of themselves. The only relevance of this interpersonal conflict of views is that it is representative of larger issues in American society. This conflict is writ large while also being played out in the psyche of every American. It seems obvious to me that my mom is conflicted about her American identity and for damn sure I’m conflicted about all kinds of things, American and otherwise. This country is at its core a contradiction — simultaneously founded on liberty and slavery, on multiculturalism and cultural chauvinism. To be an American is to be conflicted.

Radical & Moderate Enlightenments: Revolution & Reaction, Science & Religion

Biblical historicism and anthropogenic global warming, these are two of the most important issues. They clearly portray the two sides of religion and science, belief vs fact.

I don’t want to get complicated with this post as it would be easy to do so, or at least I don’t want to waste the space explaining the detailed background (something I’ve done many times already). Trying to explain the history, demographics, and psychology behind it all is complex. For my present purposes, I simply want to use these examples to show a trend.

* * * *

I’ve observed many trends in recent years. The trends in biblical studies and climatology interest me because they are so symbolic. Their symbolism allows for a deeper trend to be seen, a trend that I perceive as including or causally related to these many diverse trends.

Over the years, I’ve become aware of how the general public has become increasingly supportive of liberal views, especially what in the past had been considered liberal or even radically leftwing: drug legalization or decriminalization, health care reform with public option or single payer, better government regulation, decreasing inequality, etc.  Oddly, the majority of Americans support these liberal positions even as they label themselves as ‘conservatives’.

So, liberalism has become the new conservatism, by which I mean it is the new public opinion status quo and it is the conservative inclination to defend the status quo. As the old guard of reactionary conservatives dies off and as the younger moderate conservatives come to defend the former liberalism (specifically 20th century liberalism), this will free up the liberal-minded to take on new liberal positions which will be partly defined by the direction in which the leftwing leads.

Nonetheless, the shift isn’t clear. It’s not about liberals defeating conservatives. What is going on is more profound. The very notions of liberalism and conservatism are shifting.

No one can know where to the shift will ultimately lead. If anything, the shift is best understood in terms of something like Spiral Dynamics. Liberals defend science and conservatives defend religion, but not necessarily for intrinsic reasons. Rather, it’s the historical circumstance that puts these two political movements in defense of these two social institutions.

* * * *

Two events got me thinking. First, I was having one of my standard debates about climatology science with a conservative. Second, I was looking at biblical studies books from these past few years. The first is irrelevant other than giving my thinking context for the second.

The book that really got me thinking is a book I haven’t even read, but I did read several very in-depth Amazon.com reviews and the author is someone I’m very familiar with through his other work. The book in question is Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth and the author is Bart D. Ehrman. Even some of the reviewers who agreed with the author’s conclusion didn’t agree with his way of defending it, instead some even thought he had fallen into the traps of apologetics that Ehrman had previously criticized.

Most interestingly, some reviewers noted that it seemed Ehrman was on the defense. This is a new event in biblical studies. Belief in a historical Jesus has been the academic consensus, given that most biblical studies academics are believers and those who aren’t believers are typically former believers. Biblical studies is the only academic field that is so dependent on belief, as both a starting and ending point. The field itself and many if not most academics in it began with apologetics, Ehrman included.

Another academic that began with apologetics is Robert M. Price. Like Ehrman, Price went from believing apologist to non-believing scholar, the apologetics having led to the academic study which in turn led to doubt. The difference between Ehrman and Price is that the former couldn’t let go of the last remnant of biblical literalism (i.e., belief in a historical Jesus) and the latter could let it go. Price, although often a fence-sitter holding no allegiance to a single theory, has gone even further in recent years. He once held to the historical position until he looked at the mythicist position in detail, but Ehrman apparently has refused to look at it in detail and prefers to protect his beliefs by dismissing out of hand anything that would challenge it. The irony in this is immense considering Ehrman is one of the most well known enemies of apologetics.

Anyway, none of that is my concern here. All that interested me is how it has become clear that the table has turned. Mythicists are no longer on the defense and instead historicists are. The arguments and criticisms presented by mythicists has become an insurmountable challenge, as demonstrated by the increasing number of mythicist scholars – besides Robert M. Price, there is: G.A. Wells, Alvar Ellegard, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, D.M. Murdock, etc. Add to this the Gnosticism scholars and the disagreement with academic consensus keeps growing.

* * * *

Consensus is an interesting thing in academia.

As I pointed out, biblical studies is the only academic field so fully dominated by believers. The contrast with climatology is immense. Conservatives agree with the biblical studies consensus despite the lack of evidence and conservatives disagree with the climatology consensus despite the surplus of evidence. Their criticisms of science are inconsistent and self-serving. They aren’t being anti-intellectual out of principle (as Richard Hofstadter pointed out, no one is ever anti-intellectual about all issues). Conservatives simply realize that in certain cases the facts contradict their beliefs and so they pragmatically prioritize the latter, even as giving lip-service to the former.

Belief and fact are two very different worldviews. We have lived in a world, despite all the changes, that has remained held in check by ancient beliefs. However, we are finally coming to a point when those ancient beliefs are being challenged.

This is tremendous. Even many non-believers have been unwilling or undesirous of challenging the belief in a historical Jesus. Almost everyone wants a historical Jesus, just as long as it is their preferred version – for example: God born in human form to save mankind, travelling philosopher, enlightened wisdom teacher, failed apocalyptic preacher, political revolutionary, etc. To challenge this belief is to challenge a core assumption of all western civilization.

* * * *

There is one historical detail I will add as my concluding thought. I add it partly for the simple reason that it comes from another book I’m reading: Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 by Jonathan Israel. As I said, I want to avoid the complexity to the extent I can, but I feel compelled to give a brief view of it.

There was no single Enlightenment (the reason for why there is no single classical liberalism, i.e., liberalism prior to the 20th century; also, why there still is no single liberalism; and, furthermore, why there is no single conservatism). Radical Enlightenment, according to Israel, began in the 17th century with Spinoza; and the proponents of the Radical Enlightenment (such as Paine) led to the reformist progressive liberals and paved the way for socialism. The moderate Enlightenment was a reaction to the radical Enlightenment and led to what Corey Robin calls ‘reactionary conservatism’.

I bring this up to clarify a point. We all are children of the Enlightenment, liberals and conservatives alike. This relates to Hofstadter’s observation that no one is absolutely and consistently anti-intellectual, at least not any modern post-Enlightenment person. The point that is clarified by Israel’s book is that the moderate Enlightenment proponents were wary of reason even as they respected it. They wanted the positive results of reason, but they also wanted to make sure reason was subjugated to religious belief, to hierarchical authority, and to social order. They didn’t want to destroy the aristocracy, just re-create it so that it would be less oppressive and more meritocratic. Both sides argued for reason, although one side argued more radically.

As such, we are still fighting the battle between the radial Enlightenment and the moderate Enlightenment. Should faith be subjugated to reason? Or should reason be subjugated to faith? Should we follow reason as far as it will go? Or should we withhold reason when it gets too close to what we deem fundamental?

For the first time in American history, the radical Enlightenment may be getting a foothold in public opinion and hence in mainstream society. Religion has never been weaker and science has never been stronger.

* * * *

If my observations are correct, this will be an earth-shaking shift and American society will never be the same again. Most people don’t notice the changes, not even most experts in their respective fields. That is the nature of such changes. They go below the radar for they can’t be understood within the present context. It’s a paradigm shift. The ideas planted centuries ago may be finally coming to fruition or at least experiencing a major growth spurt.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the proposed shift will make those on the left happy. It’s not to say that it will make anyone happy. We will all be challenged by it. The precise results can’t be predicted.