“…from every part of Europe.”

By then, the king’s authority in America had been practically demolished, and his imperial interests elsewhere were being challenged. America was on its way to securing an independent destiny, basing the case for separation upon differences rather than likenesses between the two countries. Yet, the new nation revealed a natural kinship with the old world it professed to reject – not only with England, but with numerous other countries. In his Common Sense, Thomas Paine castigated the “false, selfish, narrow, and ungenerous” notion that England was the parent, or mother country of America. “Europe, and not England,” he protested, “is the parent country of America.” The New World had for years, he added, offered asylum to the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty “from every part of Europe.” That observation was heartily endorsed just a few years later by Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, former French soldier and sometime resident of New York, in his Letters from an American Farmer. “What then is the American, this new man?” he asked in a widely quoted passage from that book. “He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

Such observations were justified. One-third of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were of non-English stock, eight being first-generation immigrants. It was in recognition of the mixed European background of so many Americans that John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson later proposed that the official seal of the United States bear the national emblems of Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, and Holland as well as of England, thus “pointing out the countries from which these States have been peopled.” (This idea was abandoned.) The list might well have been much longer. There were Jews from Eastern Europe and from Spain and Portugal (via South America), Swedes, Walloons, Swiss, and still others. Many came, as Paine stated, in search of asylum. But they also came with an intent to preserve and refresh those aspects of life in their homelands which they best remembered and most highly valued.

In the world of 1776, Europe boasted a rich civilization, alive with dynamic ideas and with flourishing arts, with promising new concepts and methods in the sciences. The rudiments of modern industry and business administration were well founded, and social reforms were being undertaken, which Europeans took with them as they colonized and traded. They had come in contact with Eastern civilizations, above all, China, and this experience added significantly to the cosmopolitan culture of the Continent. The Pacific Ocean had been explored, and Australasia discovered; the knowledge gleaned from such expeditions was accelerating an ecological revolution of universal importance. This abundance of experience and knowledge that characterized the world of 1776 was the inheritance America shared as a birthright.

From The World in 1776
by Marshall B. Davidson
Kindle Locations 237-261

* * * *

This early diversity has been an ongoing interest of mine. I noticed this passage and was reminded again of this less known side of American history.

What particularly caught my attention was that, “One-third of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were of non-English stock, eight being first-generation immigrants.” It wasn’t just that several of the colonies had non-English majorities. The non-English ethnicity was even a major part of the ancestral background of the so-called founding fathers, among others in the upper classes.

I always wonder why such amazing facts aren’t typically taught in US schools. This is the kind of thing that would make history more interesting to students. Instead, we get over-simplified and dumbed-down boring accounts of our shared past. The actual full history would be too radical for respectable public consumption.

For more details, see my previous posts:

“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”

General American and the Particulars of Our Origins

Origin of American Diversity

The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty

The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence

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From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations

I came across recent data on the increasing mortality rates for middle-aged Americans (as pointed out in a comment from a post on Social Darwinism). It’s been written about in a number of places: David Cay Johnston at Al Jazeera America, Ian Sample at The Guardian, and elsewhere. The Atlantic article by Olga Khazan included two telling graphs:

The first thing I noted was that this is precisely about my generation, the first wave hitting their 50s these past few years. The infamous Generation X was known for its social problems in youth and now here we are again, carrying our problems into middle age. It is interesting that I have yet to see anyone else observe that this is a generational phenomenon, besides a rare comment.

This trend actually began during the Boomers, as the shift for 45-54 year olds followed 1998, but it has been worsening with Generation X. Before that, there had been a steady decline for the mortality rates of the middle-aged of the GI Generation and Silent Generation, bottoming out with the first wave of the Boomer Generation. As the chart shows, it was only over this past decade, when the GenX vanguard came into this age demographic, that the rates climbed back above where it was in 1990.

With Generation X, following the post-WWII baby boom, there was obviously a decline of the birth rate which also began as a shift with the late 1950s Boomer birth cohort, although the baby bust didn’t hit a low point until the middle of GenX. This nadir was in 1975, the year I was born. My generation was the first highly aborted generation, but its a bit odd that the birth rate began its decline about a decade in advance of abortion rate increase.

This also was a time of increasing childhood poverty, even as elderly poverty was decreasing. Funding and welfare directed toward children went on the decline during this era, although it did shift back up some with the following Millennial Generation, even as childhood poverty rates remained high:

Poverty by age

I see that child poverty hit one peak in 1983, when I turned 8 years old. The last time it had been at that level was decades before. It is strange, however, that the elderly poverty rate kept on its continuing decline. This decline of poverty has been mostly focused on the GI and Silent generations, having dropped from a high level with the Lost Generation. It dropped again in the 1990s, with another low point for the first wave of Millennials, and then rose again with the Recession back to where it was when I was a kid.

At the same time, GenXers had parents with high rates of being divorced or otherwise single. This corresponded with high rates of working mothers and kids being left alone at home after school. Mine was a generation of latchkey kids, not seen since the Lost Generation. Also, the rates for childhood and youth paid labor hadn’t been this high since early 1900s when Lost Generation kids worked as newsboys and in factories and mines.

Writing about Generation X in the early 1990s, Neil Howe and William Strauss put out a book, 13th Gen, that was published in 1993 (they designated this the 13th Generation, since that is what it is in the order of Anglo-American generations). The year 1993 was around the time the last wave of GenXers were either exiting elementary school or entering high school (I graduated in 1994), depending on the endpoint given for this cohort. These authors place the last year of GenX as 1981, although some place it as late as 1984. The first wave was sometime in the early-to-mid 1960s, with an approximate two decades in between.

From that view of the early 1990s, Strauss and Howe wrote that,

“Every day, over 2,5000 American children witness the divorce or separation of their parents. Every day, 90 kids are taken from their parents’ custody and committed to foster homes. Every day, thirteen Americans age 15 to 24 commit suicide, and another sixteen are murdered. Every day, the typical 14-year-old watches 3 hours of TV and does 1 hour of homework. Every day, over 2,200 kids drop out of school. Every day, 3,610 teenagers are assaulted, 630 are robbed, and 80 are raped. Every day, over 100,000 high-school students bring guns to  school. Every day, 500 adolescents begin using illegal drugs and 1,000 begin drinking alcohol. Every day, 1,000 unwed teenage girls become mothers.

“Assessing the harsh living environment of today’s rising generation, once national commission recently concluded: “Never before has one generation of American teenagers been less healthy, less cared for, or less prepared for life than their parents were at the same age.” In the 13er cult film Heathers, one teenager put it more bluntly: “You don’t get it, do you? Society nods its head at any horror the American teenager can bring upon himself.”

“Thirteeners may or may not be a “bad” generation, but what is not debatable is that their condition is bad. Even their worst critics have to admit that whatever badness they are is a reflection of how they were raised—of what other people did to them, thought of them, and expected from them—and of what happened in the adult world throughout their childhood years.”

Strauss and Howe point out that all of this is worse for minorities (p.120):

“The young male residents of Harlem are less likely to live to age 40 than the young male residents of Bangladesh—and face a higher risk of being killed by age 25 than the risk faced by U.S. troops during a full combat tour in Vietnam.”

At Alternet, Dan Hoyle made a similar observation (The Jail Generation):

“Although juvenile poverty rates have steadily declined, the percentage of children raised in single parent homes has risen from 12% in 1970 to 28% in 1998. Although it is unclear how large a role increased prison populations play in this phenomenon, the increase has been most marked among those populations that have high incarceration rates. In 2000, only 38% of black children were being raised in two-parent homes.”

There are studies that have analyzed this. Mass incarceration has played a major role in the breakdown of families and communities. GenX was the first generation to be targeted by the drug wars and mass incarceration, and this has left some communities with most of the men either in prison or caught up in the legal system. It has been devastating, especially for poor minorities, but it has harmed the entire generation to varying degrees.

Some of the articles about the middle age mortality have blamed it on increasing drug use. There might be some truth to that. If one really wants to understand that problem, the best analysis available is Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream (see here). Still, it isn’t clear that drug use has changed all that much, even ignoring abuse of prescription drugs by earlier generations. Though drug addiction rates do vary a bit over time, they remain surprisingly stable this past half century—for anything earlier than that we don’t have accurate data.

Sure, the drug wars make everything about drugs more dangerous. Yet that is no different than how Prohibition made every aspect of alcohol riskier and more harmful. Hari, for example, explains how black markets end up making illegal substances more potent and hence more addictive. So, it is government policies that have this biggest impact on changing public behaviors across generations. Different conditions lead to different results, unsurprisingly.

Some of it is a change in attitudes, which is behind the change in government policies. Strauss and Howe make clear how the earth shifted under the feet of GenXers, just as they were learning to walk (pp. 59-61):

“Circa-1970 polls and social statistics showed a negative shift in public attitudes toward (and treatment of) children. As millions of mothers flocked into the work force, the proportion of preschoolers cared for in their own homes fell by half. For the first time, adults ranked autos ahead of children as necessary for “the good life.” The cost of raising a child, never much of an issue when Boomers were little, suddenly became a hot topic. Adults of fertile age doubled their rate of surgical sterilization. The legal abortion rate grew from next to nothing to the point where one of every three fetuses was terminated. In 1962, half of all adults believed that parents in bad marriages should stay together for the sake of the children. By 1980, less than one fifth of all adults felt that way. America’s great divorce epidemic was underway.

“Divorce. The fact of it, the calculations influencing it, the openness about it, the child’s anxiety about it, the harms from it, the guilt after it: Here lay the core symptom of Silent nurture of the 13th. America’s divorce rate doubled between 1965 and 1975, just as Atari-wave 13ers passed through middle childhood. at every age, a 13er child born in 1968 faced three times the risk of parental break-up faced by a Boomer child born in 1948. Silent parents, authors, and screenwriters addressed divorce as though it were an episodic childhood disease like the chicken pox: something you catch, get sick from, and then get over. […] provoking children of secure families on the fragility of their world. […]

“But if parents liked to stress the “positive” side of divorce, children were left staring at the dark side. according to one major survey of 1970s-era marital disruptions, only one-fifth of the children of divorce professed being happier afterward—versus four-fifths of the divorced parents. […] Of all child generations in U.S. history, 13er kids are the “onliest,” their families the smallest, their houses the emptiest after school, and their parents the most divorced. Three of five 13ers have zero or one sibling, versus less than two in five Boomers at like age. Over the span of this one generation, the proportion of children living with less than two parents increased by half, and the proportion of working mothers of preschool children doubled. fewer than half of all 13ers are now reaching age 16 in households with two once-married biological parents. One 13er in five has half-siblings. If the proliferation of half-thises and step-thats was a challenge for the greeting-card industry, it was devastating to the kids themselves.”

To continue (p. 66):

“Academic journals suddenly abounded with articles about a brand new topic: family violence. Over the 13er child era, the homicide rate for infants and children under four rose by half, the number of reported cases of child abuse jumped fourfold, and the number of vulnerable “latchkey” children fending for themselves after school more than doubled.”

This was a messed up generation, in so many ways. The data makes this clear. I recently showed, for example, how ‘slutty’ was my generation as teens. But the pivotal issue is this was the world into which GenXers were born, and it was all that my peers knew. We were told that we were a bad generation and we came to believe it, a bad generation for a bad era (pp. 87-89):

“When something goes badly wrong, a 13er’s first instinct is to blame himself. That makes some sense, given the world he inhabits. Consider how the public health risks of American teens have changed since the 1950s: Compared to teenagers a third of a century ago, 13ers face a sharply lower risk of dying from accidents or conventional diseases, but this advantage has been almost entirely offset by what elders look upon as “self-inflicted” risks. In the ’50s, the worst threats to youth were random diseases like influenza and polio that attacked good and bad kids with equal cruelty—afflictions that have been mostly conquered. Now, the worst dangers are behavioral. AIDS. Drug and alcohol abuse. Eating disorders. Homicide. And, of course, suicide. Almost by definition, “good” kids are the ones who avoid these dangers, and “bad” kids are the ones who get plastered. […] By almost any measure, the first Atari-wave 13ers, born from 1961 through 1964, mark an extreme for the sociopathology of American youth. They set the all-time U.S. youth records for drunk driving, illicit drug consumption, and suicide. They have been among the most violent, criminal, and heavily-incarcerated youth cohorts in U.S. history. Among later-born 13ers, the picture is brightening some—but not much. Many more kids than a quarter century ago continue to inflict upon themselves (and others) the most violent forms of adolescent trauma.”

Indeed, my generation was violent. After dropping mid-century, violence shot up both toward self and others. Suicides are more common among whites for some reason. But during the spike, blacks almost caught up with the white suicide rate.

Most of that increase was among the younger demographics. Why is that? Many have pointed out the rise and fall of heavy metal toxicity from pollution, especially lead additives in gasoline, although an earlier spike was related to lead in paint and farm chemicals (see here, here, here, and here):

Graph showing correlation between lead exposure and violent crime in USA

09205-scitech1-timelinegraph

I’m always surprised this kind of data isn’t brought up more often. It is clearly related.

One might expect children who had higher rates of pollution exposure and hence toxicity, which is to say poisoning, would as adults show health and behavioral problems and that this would then extend into continuing health and behavioral problems as they aged. That an increase in middle age mortality would be seen among this population is the opposite of shocking. Heavy metal toxicity really messes up the body, not just the brain, and the negative effects are lifelong.

Throw on top of this a generally worsening economy and prospects for this generation. What would one expect? Certainly not improvement in the rates of social and physical health.

I’ll end with one last passage from Strauss and Howe (pp. 98-101):

“It’s a well-known complaint that American living standards, on average, have flattened out ever since American productivity began stagnating in early 1970s. What’s less well known is how this leveling of the national average has concealed vastly unequal changes in living standards by phase-of-life, and how the interests of older Americans have been protected at the expense of young people. Consider the following core indicators of economic well-being: worker pay, total household income, household wealth, home ownership, and the likelihood of poverty. From the late 1930s to the early 1970s, all these indicators improved briskly for every age group. Since then, they have diverged markedly across different age brackets. For households headed by persons over age 65, these indicators have continued to improve as though nothing had gone wrong. For age 35 to 65, most of them have just held steady. But for households headed by persons under age 35—the age bracket 13ers have been entering ever since the 1970s—every one of these indicators has gotten worse. Some have fallen off a cliff. […]

“13ers came to realize that they bore most of the burden for the Reagan-era prosperity that so enriched their elders. They watched the drawbridge slam shut on most of the lucrative professional monopolies dominated by older age groups. They watched U.S. manufacturers respond to efficient global rivals by downsizing through attrition, letting their high-wage older work force age in place. They watched the total number of Fortune 500 jobs (cushy benefits and all) reach its historic peak in 1979—just when they first came to the job market—and then head south ever afterwards Those paths blocked, millions of 13ers wedded their future to the one economic sector in which real pay declined, fringe benefits evaporated, and investment and output per worker showed literally no growth at all: the unskilled service sector. Ronald McDonaldland

“During the Bush years, most of today’s 40 million 13ers living on their own hit their first recession. And behold: This was the only cyclical downturn ever recorded in which all the net job loss landed on the under-30 age bracket. Not on Boomer post-yuppies, not on Silent prime-of-lifers, certainly not on G.I. retirees. Subtract 13ers from the employment tally, and presto: No recession! […]

“[13ers] are beginning to ask harder questions about the policy gridlock over most of the issues vital to their economic future. Like why the college class of ’92 faces the most difficult job search of any class since the Great Depression, with nearly a third of entry-level jobs disappearing and average pay falling for those who remain. Or why the proportion of college grads taking jobs that don’t require college degree has doubled over the last decade. Or why the federal deficit keeps growing on their tab. Or why the income tax rates on billion-dollar investments are held down while FICA tax rates on the first dollar of wage income keep rising. Or why unemployment benefits are extended for households already receiving checks, but nothing is done for the most younger households can’t qualify. or why senior citizens get to clamor for yet a third layer of health insurance when one-fourth of all 13ers have no insurance at all. or why a skimpy urban youth bill, drafted in the wake of the L.A. riots, is allowed to grow into a giant Christmas tree of goodies for affluent older people. […]

“Since the early 1970s, say many economists, America has been undergoing a “quiet depression” in living standards. A bit more pointedly, columnist Robert Kuttner describes 13er as suffering from a remarkable generational disease . . . a depression of the young” which makes them feel “uniquely thirsty in a sea of affluence.” From 1929 to 1933, the bust years we call the “Great Depression,” real household income fell by 25 percent all across America. Now once again: what was the dip in age-bracket income that 13er have suffered since replacing Boomers? Twenty percent for young men? Thirty percent for young parents with children? Thirteeners get the message, even if others don’t, about a “quiet” trauma today’s older people would regard as a history-shattering catastrophe if it fell mostly on their heads.”

Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

I learned of a new author, Andrew Alexander, the same year he died. I came across him because of a book he wrote on the Cold War, America and the Imperialism of Ignorance: How America Won the War and Lost the Peace – US Foreign Policy Since 1945. I’ll add that book to my reading list for all Americans, even if Oprah doesn’t include it in her book club list.

Alexander was highly critical of Cold War policies and propaganda (and its continuing influence), having seen it as some combination of ignorance and delusion. But he was no radical activist, academic revisionist, or dogmatic ideologue trying to defend left-wing politics. Besides being a respectable editor, journalist and columnist for The Daily Mail, he was a Tory conservative (and once a Conservative candidate), Thatcher neoliberal, right-wing British patriot, and hardline anti-communist. As Simon Jenkins at the Guardian puts it, “No one could possibly call him leftwing, let alone a pacifist appeaser. He has no illusions about the evil of Stalin or Mao, any more than he has about Saddam and al-Qaida.” David Duff, in an Al Aribaya News article, states it simply when he calls Alexander “a crusty Tory of the old school.”

Alexander’s social circle included many in the British political and economic elite. He wasn’t some nobody attacking his perceived superiors in hoping to make a name for himself. His career has been well established for a long time. His is not an angry commentary from an outsider, but a set of long considered concerns directed toward his own ideological peers and associates. He makes this clear in the dedication to his book: “To my numerous friends in the Conservative Party whose relentless belief remains to this day that the Cold war arose from the aggressive ambitions of the Kremlin, thwarted by the bold response of our American friends. Their refusal to contemplate any other explanation has spurred me on in this, my survey of US foreign policy over the last sixty-five years.” His book was an offering to friends, not an attack against enemies. It was his love of country that made him take this issue so seriously, as he worried about the costs wasted and damages done.

It is interesting to read the views of someone like him. It is hard to imagine a conservative of that variety in the mainstream media of the United States. From a Guardian article more than a decade old, he offered this gem (The Soviet threat was a myth):

“One can, of course, understand why few in the west want the orthodox view overturned. If that were to happen, the whole edifice of postwar politics would crumble. Could it be that the heavy burden of postwar rearmament was unnecessary, that the transatlantic alliance actually imperilled rather than saved us? Could it be that the world teetered on the verge of annihilation because post-war western leaders, particularly in Washington, lacked imagination, intelligence and understanding? The gloomy answer is yes.”

That is a damning conclusion, especially considering it comes from a conservative. To give some perspective, here is a passage from his book’s first chapter, The Flawed Cold War Orthodoxy (Kindle Locations 137-154):

“A wider look at history shows that a strongly interventionist US foreign policy is nothing new – though the current power to intervene globally is. A century ago, an American incomprehension of the outside world was exemplified by President Woodrow Wilson, so determined to remake countries in the American image after the First World War. His mixture of benevolence and ruthlessness may be summed up in a dispute with Mexico in 1913, when he announced ‘I will teach the Latin-Americans to elect good men’ followed by bombarding the town of Vera Cruz. His gunboat diplomacy intensified such feelings of nationalism and anti-Americanism that Germany hoped to make Mexico an ally in an attack on the USA in 1917 – famously exposed in the Zimmermann telegram, decoded by London.

“In 1945, the USA dedicated itself in Wilsonian language to bringing ‘democracy and freedom’ to the countries occupied by the Soviets at the end of the Second World War. The goal was high-minded. But there was a puzzling refusal to acknowledge the Soviet claim that two invasions by Germany in twenty-seven years made the firm control of Eastern Europe essential to Russian security. Truman insisted on seeing the Soviets as the determinedly expansionist enemy of the free world almost from the day he assumed office. They were, he said, ‘planning world conquest’.2

“The United States over which he presided had emerged from the Second World War with a military and economic supremacy unparalleled in history. Of the three powers which defeated the Axis alliance, the USA was unique in ending the war wealthier than when it began. By contrast, Britain’s income was down by a third with much of its overseas assets sold to buy armaments from the USA. In the case of Russia, which had been responsible for destroying the vast bulk of Hitler’s forces, the loss of income was immeasurable. Soviet statistics, always dubious, have never provided a wholly reliable picture of national income. But the scale of the devastation, involving at least twenty-two million and possibly twenty-seven million military and civilian deaths, speaks for itself.

“There was in fact no evidence in 1945 that the Soviet Union had a sinister plan to conquer the West. The threat perceived by Truman and others was imaginary – though no less powerful for that – stoked up by years of fearing the deadly spread of Communism.”

Alexander is able to write with such authority because he has gone to the direct words of Stalin and others. Mining records that weren’t available to earlier historians and journalists, his writings on the Cold War includes many telling quotes. What becomes clear is that Stalin was simply another nationalist despot with nationalist concerns. He worried about his own power and position, and of course he took seriously his role as leader of the country he ruled. He was a Russian nationalist, not an ideological communist and Trotsky internationalist (Stalin, by the way, assassinated Trotsky). Alexander states this in no uncertain terms (Kindle Locations 195-202):

“Given the German invasions, it would not have mattered whether the government in Moscow had been Communist, Tsarist or Social Democrat. It would still have insisted on firm control of these countries through which invasion had come; and bound to regard with deep suspicion any attempts to prevent it. In any case, Moscow could never forget that it was British and French policy in the interwar years to make Eastern Europe a barrier against the Soviet Union, even to consider – crucially – allowing Hitler a free hand against Russia. Colonel, later President, de Gaulle noted that even after the start of the Second World War:

“Certain circles saw the enemy in Stalin rather than Hitler. They busied themselves with finding means of striking Russia, either by aiding Finland or bombarding Baku or landing at Istanbul, much more than in coming to grips with Hitler.”

There is an intriguing insight about Stalin and non-Russian revolutions. Alexander explains that (Kindle Locations 161-165):

“Stalin’s attitude to the so-called world proletarian revolution is essential to understanding his personal and political motivation. He was, like the despot throughout the ages, principally concerned with his own survival rather than with ideological issues. He abandoned the grand global ambition of the world proletarian revolution in 1924 when he proclaimed that, henceforth, the aim was to be ‘socialism in one country’. To believe that he remained at all times a devout ideologue is to misread his character.”

One suspects those who saw Stalin as an ideologue were maybe projecting their own dogmatic tendencies. These Western ruling elites wanted an ideological war, whether or not Stalin wished to participate. “The determination of the West to see every Soviet move as explicable in terms of the pursuit of the world proletarian revolution provides one of history’s great ironies: the West took Communist doctrine more seriously than Stalin” (Kindle Locations 180-181). These ideologues were eventually able to force the hand of the Soviets to join this game of ideological battle, as they insisted on goading the Soviet government into aggression. In discussing the “European powers’ readiness to follow the American lead,” Alexander makes the point that “ironically…” (Kindle Locations 114-121),

“the launch of the Cold War by the USA did in due course bring into existence the very danger which had been imagined. It made frantic defence measures seem sensible. Threatened by President Truman, Russia responded by a vigorous programme of rearmament and an even tighter clampdown on Eastern Europe. With the refusal of the USA to respond to peace initiatives launched by the Soviet leadership on the death of Stalin in 1953, the Kremlin fought back under the new and more assertive leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. American and Western power in general was challenged wherever it could be found. It became rational to talk of a Communist threat and of the danger of a Soviet Union with a nuclear armoury. What was inaccurate was the assumption that a new military threat had come into being when the wartime allies finally came face to face in Germany.”

I sometimes find myself talking about the Cold War. I’m on the tail end of the Cold War generations, when that era was winding down. It’s just a childhood memory to me, mostly as portrayed in the fictionalized accounts of Hollywood movies and tv shows. I sense how different older Americans often respond to Cold War history. What to me just seems like propaganda to many who are older seems tangibly real. The ideological terms of capitalism versus communism so fully define and determine their sense of reality.

I found it interesting that even the Soviets talked about defending freedom and democracy from American greed, immorality, and destructiveness. Both sides were often making similar arguments. I’ve come to the conclusion that it never was about ideology. You can see evidence of that in how easily formerly communist Russia and Maoist China have come to embrace variants of capitalism.

It seems to me that the greatest threat to the United States has always been fascism, not communism. You can also see the evidence of that in how easily this country has taken on forms of crony capitalism, corporatism, and inverted totalitarianism. But it isn’t an ideological issue, per se. It is partly just about power and in the US power has always been tied up with capitalism, not any opposing ideologies. Even the most left-wing progressivism in the US merely sought to reform capitalism and did so to protect against anything further left.

Plus, I see the cultural angle being so much more important. That is seen with Stalin. He was a Russian nationalist, first and foremost, through and through. The United States has never been an ethnically homogeneous country like any of the communist countries or, for that matter, any of the traditionally fascist countries. Diversity has been a great protection for the US against the worst forms of authoritarian takeover.

In terms of Russia and Eastern Europe, there was never much of an issue, since only a small part of America’s population comes from that part of the world. The main reason fascism was a threat in this country wasn’t even the dominance of plutocratic capitalism, but because so many Americans came from countries that became fascist. Many German-Americans, the single largest ancestry in the US, proudly marched in the streets carrying flags and banners with the swastika. The characteristics of the American people that resonated with fascism were cultural rather than ideological. Even ignoring ancestry and issues of national loyalty, this resonance included America’s populist folk religiosity, a defining feature of fascism and quite opposite of official communist ideology. The same social and political forces that brought fascism to Europe also brought the German Bund and Second Klan to America.

Yet we go on arguing about ideology. It never was about ideology. It still isn’t. So many ideological debates ring hollow. Like the Cold War, the culture wars were simply a spectacle of distraction. Most Americans agree about most things. There is no grand ideological conflict in America, although there is a class war between the economic elite and everyone else (Joe Bageant made the argument that 60-70% of Americans are actually working class, those with little economic freedom and self-determination), but a class war in raw form is still not directly an issue of ideology. There certainly isn’t any threat of communist takeover. Even Bernie Sanders is simply a moderate mainstream social democrat and not a radical dogmatic ideologue.

I doubt the ideological Cold War will end until the last person with living memory of that era has left this earth. It has been such a powerful force in ruling over our collective psyche, strangling our ability to imagine anything else. We can only hope that with historical distance its grip will loosen and its influence fade.

Liberty in Spanish Florida

I was perusing books on early America. It’s one of my favorite topics, as it involves so many issues and influences. There were many interesting books I found, of course. But one in particular grabbed my attention. It is Black Society in Spanish Florida by Jane Landers. Here is the synopsis:

The first extensive study of the African American community under colonial Spanish rule, “Black Society in Spanish Florida” provides a vital counterweight to the better-known dynamics of the Anglo slave South. Jane Landers draws on a wealth of untapped primary sources, opening a new vista on the black experience in America and enriching our understanding of the powerful links between race relations and cultural custom. Blacks under Spanish rule in Florida lived not in cotton rows or tobacco patches but in a more complex and international world that linked the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and a powerful and diverse Indian hinterland. Here the Spanish Crown afforded sanctuary to runaway slaves, making the territory a prime destination for blacks fleeing Anglo plantations, while Castilian law (grounded in Roman law) provided many avenues out of slavery, which it deemed an unnatural condition. European-African unions were common and accepted in Florida, with families of African descent developing important community connections through marriage, concubinage, and godparent choices. Assisted by the corporate nature of Spanish society, Spain’s medieval tradition of integration and assimilation, and the almost constant threat to Spanish sovereignty in Florida, multiple generations of Africans leveraged linguistic, military, diplomatic, and artisanal skills into citizenship and property rights. In this remote Spanish outpost, where they could become homesteaders, property owners, and entrepreneurs, blacks enjoyed more legal and social protection than they would again until almost two hundred years of Anglo history had passed.

One part stood out to me. It is the statement that, “Here the Spanish Crown afforded sanctuary to runaway slaves, making the territory a prime destination for blacks fleeing Anglo plantations, while Castilian law (grounded in Roman law) provided many avenues out of slavery, which it deemed an unnatural condition.”

That touches upon a key difference between English and Spanish societies. It is a difference, as pointed out, that is ancient. Spanish culture and legal traditions were more influenced by the Roman Empire. England was more mixed in its influences, but a major influence was Germanic tribes. (I’ve written about this before.)

This demonstrates the power of ideas, as something beyond mere abstractions and ideals. Ideas are rooted in entire social orders and worldviews. In Germanic tribes, to have been free meant being born into and as a member of a free society. It was your birthright. Liberty in Roman society, however, wasn’t a given right for being born and so not the automatic default state.

Thinking about it that way, it seems obvious that being born free is better. But there is a dark side to this. If you aren’t born as a free member of a free society, then your freedom is as if non-existent. In Roman and Romanized societies, even if born a slave, it wasn’t necessarily a permanent state. Many regular citizens would find themselves temporarily enslaved, which was more along the lines of indentured servitude. Even a captured prisoner of war could work their way out of slavery.

The English in adopting a Germanic view of freedom also inherited the opposite side of the coin. To be a slave was a permanent condition you were born into. Even if you were enslaved as an adult, it was assumed that there was something inferior about you and your people that allowed you to be enslaved. It was conveniently ignored, of course, that Europeans were being enslaved at the same time by non-Europeans )(e.g., Arabs).

So, in Spanish Florida, an African-American would find more hope in a society more fully based on the social norm of liberty. Simply being of African ancestry wasn’t considered a mark against your inherent moral worth and character. You’d likely still experience prejudice, but it still allowed more opportunities.

This isn’t about just the past. The Anglo-Saxon view of freedom is still being used to justify prejudice and oppression of African-Americans. Every generation of racists and racialists, bigots and supremacists comes up with new rationalizations. There are new reasons that are popular today, but it is the same basic justification of racial hierarchy. Instead of being marked by God as the descendants of Cain or whatever, the permanent underclass of minorities is assumed to have inferior genetics or culture.

Many white Americans, especially right-wingers, talk about liberty. But they don’t really believe in it. Yes, in its original form, liberty did arise out of a slave society. Yet it wasn’t one of a racial hierarchy. Being enslaved didn’t inevitably imply anything about you as an individual or your people. That is different today. No matter how an African-American may struggle to get out of poverty, they can never escape their blackness and all that it symbolizes. It is a permanent yoke around their neck.