Liberty, the Eternal Demand of Reactionary Privilege

The revolutionary generation’s problem was not in its conception of universal rights, as expressed in the declaration, but rather its inability to honor them.

“British writers, fellow inheritors of the Enlightenment, agreed. “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” inquired England’s Samuel Johnson, a former schoolteacher and creator of A Dictionary of the English Language, the masterpiece that today still commands such encomiums as “a portrait of the language of the day in all its majesty, beauty, and marvelous confusion.” Johnson asked this question in 1775 in the context of his disapproval of American pretensions to independence, a position he spelled out piquantly in his Taxation No Tyranny, where he flummoxed American colonists by calling them selfish, ungrateful children—“these lords of themselves, these kings of Me, these demigods of independence.”14 John Lind, a British government writer equally eager to unmask American hypocrisy, put it as strongly: “It is their boast that they have taken up arms in support of these their own self-evident truths—that all men are created equal, that all men are endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If so, why were they complaining to the world “of the offer of freedom held out to these wretched beings [by the British], of the offer of reinstating them in that equality which, in this very paper, is declared to be the gift of God to all; in those unalienable rights with which, in this very paper, God is declared to have endowed all mankind?”15

Notes:

  • 14. Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 89-90; Samuel Johnson, Political Writings, ed. Donald J. Greene (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), 454; last quote from David Waldstreicher, Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 212.
  • 15. John Lind, An Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress (London, 1776), 107, quoted in Wills, Inventing America, 73.

Harriet Tubman: Voice-Hearing Visionary

Origin of Harriet Tubman in the Persistence of the Bicameral Mind

The movie ‘Harriet’ came out this year, amidst pandemic and protest. The portrayal of Harriet Tubman’s life and her strange abilities reminds one of Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, as written about in what is now a classic work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Some background will help and so let’s look at the biographical details of what is known. This famous Underground Railroad conductor was born Araminta Harriet Ross in the early 1820s and, when younger, she was known as ‘Minty’. Her parents were religious, as she would later become. She might also have been exposed to the various church affiliations of her master’s extended family.

These influences were diverse, writes James A. McGowan and William C. Kashatus in their book Harriet Tubman: A Biography (pp. 11-12): “As a child, Minty had been told Bible stories by her mother, and she was occasionally forced to attend the services held by Dr. Anthony Thompson, Jr., who was a licensed Methodist minister. But Minty and her parents might also have been influenced by Episcopal, Baptist, and Catholic teachings since the Pattisons, Thompsons, and Brodesses initially belonged to Anglican and Episcopal churches in Dorchester County before they became Methodists. In addition, some of the white Tubmans and Rosses were originally Catholic. Accordingly, Minty’s religious beliefs might have been a composite of several different Christian traditions that were adapted to the evangelical emphasis on spiritual freedom.”

Tubman’s mixed religious background was also noted by Kate C. Larson: “The “creolization” of this family more accurately reflects the blending of cultures from West Africa, Northern Europe, and local Indian peoples in the Chesapeake. As historian Mechal Sobel put it, this was a “world they made together.” By the time Tubman was born, first generation Africans were visible presences in Dorchester County […] Tubman and her family integrated a number of religious practices and beliefs into their daily lives, including Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, and even Quaker teachings, all religious denominations supported by local white masters and their neighbors who were intimately involved with Tubman’s family. Many slaves were required to attend the churches of their owners and temporary masters. Tubman’s religiosity, however, was a deeply personal spiritual experience, rooted in evangelical Christian teachings and familial traditions” (Harriet Ross Tubman).

Other scholars likewise agree, such as Robert Gudmestad: “Like many enslaved people, her belief system fused Christian and African beliefs” (Faith made Harriet Tubman fearless as she rescued slaves). This syncretism was made simpler for the commonalities traditional African religion had with Christianity or particular sects of Christianity: worship of one God who was supreme, relating to God as a helpful friend who could be heard and talked with (a commonality with Quakerism), belief in an eternal soul and an afterlife, rites and initiations involving immersion in water, etc. Early generations of slaves were often kept out of the churches and so this allowed folk religion to take on a life of its own with a slow merging of traditions, such as how African rhythms of mourning were incorporated into Gospel music.

Furthermore, religious fervor was at a peak in the early 1800s and it was part of the world Tubman’s parents lived in and that Tubman was born into. “Both races attended the massive camp meetings so Rit and Ben experienced these sporadic evangelical upsurges”, wrote Margaret Washington (Let The Circle Be Unbroken: The World Of Araminta (“Minty”) Ross Or The Making Of Harriet Tubman). “She grew up during the Second Great Awakening,” Gudmestad explained, “which was a Protestant religious revival in the United States. Preachers took the gospel of evangelical Christianity from place to place, and church membership flourished. Christians at this time believed that they needed to reform America in order to usher in Christ’s second coming. Some during that restless period believed it was the End Times, as it was easier to imagine the world coming to an end than to imagine it to become something else.

This would have been personally felt by Tubman. “A number of black female preachers,” Gudmestad goes on to say, “preached the message of revival and sanctification on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Jarena Lee was the first authorized female preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is not clear if Tubman attended any of Lee’s camp meetings, but she was inspired by the evangelist. She came to understand that women could hold religious authority.” The religious fervor was part of a growing political fervor, as the country moved toward Civil War. For blacks, Moses leading his people to freedom inspired more than faith and hope toward the afterlife.

Around the time of Tubman’s birth, there was the failed 1822 revolt planned by Denmark Vesey in South Carolina. Later in 1831, Nat Turner led his rebellion in nearby Virginia and that would’ve been an exciting event for enslaved blacks, especially a lonely young slave girl who at the time was being kept separate from her family and mercilessly whipped. Then throughout her teens and into her early twenties, there were numerous other uprisings: 1835–1838 Black Seminole Slave Rebellion, 1839 Amistad seizure, 1841 Creole case, 1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation. The Creole case was the most successful slave revolt in United States history. Such tremendous events, one might imagine, could shape a young impressionable mind.

* * *

Harriet Tubman’s Ethno-Cultural Ancestry and Family Inheritance

Someone like Tubman didn’t come out of nowhere. “I am quite willing to acknowledge that she was almost an anomaly among her people,” wrote her early biographer Sarah Bradford, “and so far I can judge they all seem to be particularly intelligent, upright and religious people, and to have a strong feeling of family affection” (Harriet: The Moses of Her People). She earned her strong spirit honestly, from the black culture around here and as modeled by her parents. The spiritual inclinations, as with with knowledge of nature, came from her father: “As a clairvoyant, Minty believed that she inherited this second sense from her father, Ben. […] Listening to Ben’s stories, predictions and sharing his faith convinced Minty that an omniscient force protected her” (Margaret Washington, Let The Circle Be Unbroken: The World Of Araminta (“Minty”) Ross Or The Making Of Harriet Tubman). But it was her mother, in particular, who showed what it meant to be a fiercely protective woman when it came to family. When Tubman returned to free her family, including her elderly parents, she was acting on the values she was raised with:

“Rit struggled to keep her family together as slavery threatened to tear it apart. Edward Brodess sold three of her daughters (Linah, Mariah Ritty, and Soph), separating them from the family forever.[10] When a trader from Georgia approached Brodess about buying Rit’s youngest son, Moses, she hid him for a month, aided by other enslaved people and freedmen in the community.[11] At one point she confronted her owner about the sale.[12] Finally, Brodess and “the Georgia man” came toward the slave quarters to seize the child, where Rit told them, “You are after my son; but the first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open.”[12] Brodess backed away and abandoned the sale.[13] Tubman’s biographers agree that stories told about this event within the family influenced her belief in the possibilities of resistance.[13][14] (Harriet Tubman, Wikipedia)

Whatever the cause, a strong moral sense developed in Tubman. Around the age of twelve or fifteen, there was an incident where she refused to help an overseer catch and tie up a runaway slave. Instead, she stood in front of the door and blocked his way. He threw an iron weight after the escapee, but it came up short when it hit her in the head, knocking her unconscious. She later said that it “broke my skull” and, though her master wanted to send her back to work, it took her a long time to recover. “The teenager remained in a coma for weeks,” writes M.W. Taylor, “lying on a bed of rags in the corner of her family’s windowless wooden cabin. Not until the following spring was she able to get up and walk unaided” (Harriet Tubman: Antislavery Activist, p. 16). Kate C. Larson says that, “It took months for her mother to nurse her back to health” (Harriet Ross Tubman).

Ever after, she had seizures and trance-like states (“spells”, “sleeping fits”, or “a sort of stupor or lethargy at times”), premonitions and prophetic visions (“vivid dreams”), and out-of-body and other shamanic-like experiences — possibly caused by temporal lobe epilepsy, narcolepsy, cataplexy, or hypersomnia. She claimed to have heard the voice of God that guided and protected her, that He “spoke directly to my soul”. She “prayed all the time” and “was always talking to the Lord”“When I went to the horse trough to wash my face, and took up the water n my hands, I said, ‘Oh Lord, wash me, make me clean.’ When I took up the towel to wipe my face and hands, I cried, ‘Oh Lord, for Jesus’ sake, wipe away all my sins!’ ” (Sarah H. Bradford, Harriet, p. 11).

“During these hallucinatory states,” writes Gordon S. Johnson Jr., “she would also hear voices, screams, music, and rushing water, and feel as though her skin was on fire, while still aware of what was going on around her. The attacks could occur suddenly, without warning, even in the middle of a conversation. She would wake up and pick up the conversation where it left off a half hour later. In addition, Tubman would have terrible headaches, and would become more religious after the injury” (Harriet Tubman Suffered a TBI Early In Life).

While recuperating, she prayed for her master’s soul, that he might be saved and become a Christian. Her master’s behavior didn’t improve. In her stupor, no amount of whipping would arouse her. So he tried to sell her, but no one wanted to buy an injured and incapacitated slave, even though prior to the accident she had been hardworking and was able to do the work of a full-grown man. She didn’t want to be sold and separated from her family. One day she prayed that, if her master couldn’t be saved, the Lord should kill him and take him away. Shortly later, he did die and, with overwhelming guilt, she felt her prayer had been the cause.

Tubman’s experiences may have been shaped by African traditions, as there were many first generation slaves around. She would have been close to her immediate and extended family living in the area, as described by Professor Larson: “Harriet Tubman’s grandmother, Modesty, lived on Pattison’s property for an undetermined number of years after Rit left with Mary and moved to the Thompson plantation. Though the Thompson plantation sat about 6 miles to the west of the Pattison plantation and their neighbors along the Little Blackwater River near the bridge, their interactions were likely frequent and essential to maintaining social, political, and economic wellbeing” (Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument: Historic Resource Study).

An important familial link, as discussed above, was their shared religious inheritance. “Methodism was one source of strength, blending smoothly with cultural and religious traditions that survived the middle passage from Africa,” wrote Professor Larson. “First generation Africans, like her grandmother Modesty, embodied a living African connection and memory for the Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Tubman’s religious fervor and trust in God to protect and guide her evolved from a fusion of these traditions.” Tubman remained close to family living on nearby plantations, such as being hired out to do logging work with her father and quite likely hearing the same sermons, maybe sometimes clandestinely meeting in the “hidden church” of informal religious gatherings.

Her first biographer, Fanklin Sanborn, said that she was “one degree removed from the wolds of Africa, her grandfather being an imported African of a chieftan family” and that, as “the grand-daughter of a slave imported from Africa,” she “has not a drop of white blood in her veins” (“The Late Araminta Davis: Better Known as ‘Moses’ or ‘Harriet Tubman’.” Franklin B. Sanborn Papers. Box 1, Folder 5. Box 1, Folder 5, American Antiquarian Society). The latter claim of her being pure African ancestry has been disputed and was contradicted by other accounts, but at least part of her family was of recent African ancestry as was common in that era, making her a second generation American in at least one line. With a living memory of the Old World, Tubman’s maternal grandmother Modesty Green would have been treated as what is called a griot, an elder who is a teacher, healer, and counselor; a keeper of knowledge, wisdom, and customs. She would have remembered the old world and had learned much about how to live in the new one, helping to shape the creole culture into which Tubman was born.

Modesty might have come from the Ashanti tribe of West Africa, specifically Ghana. She was sold as a slave sometime before 1785, the year Tubman’s mother Rittia (Rit, Ritty) Green was born. The Ashanti ethnicity was common in the region, writes Ann Malaspina: “During the eighteenth century, more than one million slaves were bought by British, Danish, and Dutch slave traders and shipped to the Americas from the Ashanti Empire on West Africa’s Gold Coast, a rich trading region. Many Ashanti slaves were sold to buyers in Maryland” (Harriet Tubman, p. 10). The Ashanti had a proud reputation and the ethnic culture made its presence known, such as the “Asante proverbs that Harriet picked up as a young girl (“Don’t test the depth of a river with both feet”)” (Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman). Along with the Ashante, blacks of Igbo descent were numerous in the Tidewater region of Maryland and Virginia (Igbo Americans, Wikipedia). These cultures, along with the Kongo people, were known to be proud and loyal. Also, West Africa had a tradition of respect for women — as property owners and leaders, and sometimes as warriors.

It’s the reason the Tidewater plantation owners preferred them as slaves. The preference in the Deep South was different because down there plantations were large commercial operations with typically absentee owners, an aristocracy that spent most of its time in Charleston, England, or elsewhere. Tidewater slaveholders had smaller plantations and were less prosperous. This meant they and their families lived close to slaves and, in some cases, would have worked with them. These Tidewater aristocrats were more likely to use the paternalistic rhetoric that identified slaves as part of the extended family, as often was literally the case from generations of close relations with many of the plantation owner’s mulatto children, grandchildren, cousins, etc running around. Cultures like the Ashanti and Igbo, in being strongly devoted to their families and communities, could be manipulated to keep slaves from running away. The downside to this communal solidarity is that these ethnic groups were known to be disobedient and cause a lot of trouble, including some of the greatest slave rebellions

Tubman is an exemplar of this Tidewater black culture. According to her own statements recorded by Frank C. Drake: “the old mammies to whom she told [her] dreams were wont to nod knowingly and say, ‘I reckon youse one o’ dem ‘Shantees’, chile.’ For they knew the tradition of the unconquerable Ashantee blood, which in a slave made him a thorn in the side of the planter or cane grower whose property he became, so that few of that race were in bondage” (“The Moses of Her People. Amazing Life work of Harriet Tubman,” New York Herald, New York, Sept. 22, 1907). The claim about her grandmother was confirmed by a piece from the year before Tubman’s death, written by Ann Fitzhugh Miller (granddaughter of Tubman’s friend Gerrit Smith), in reporting that Tubman believed her maternal grandmother had been “brought in a slave ship from Africa” (“Harriet Tubman,” American Review, August 1912, p. 420).

Professor Kate C. Larson concludes that, “It has been generally assumed at least one if not more of Tubman’s grandparents came directly from Africa” (Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument: Historic Resource Study). This is the reason for speculating about a more direct African influence or, at the very least, it shows how important an African identity was to Tubman’s sense of faith and spirituality. “Like many enslaved people, her belief system fused Christian and African beliefs,” Robert Gudmestad suggests. “Her belief that there was no separation between the physical and spiritual worlds was a direct result of African religious practices. Tubman literally believed that she moved between a physical existence and a spiritual experience where she sometimes flew over the land.”

* * *

Harriet Tubman’s Special Relationship with God and Archaic Authorization

Whatever was the original source and true nature of Harriet Tubman’s abilities, they did serve her well in freeing slaves and saved her from her pursuers. She always trusted her voices and visions, and would change her course of action in an instant, such as the time God told her to not continue down a road and so, without hesitation, she led her fellow fugitives across the rushing waters of an icy stream, but the “several stout men” in her care “refused to follow til they saw her safe on the other side”. Sarah Bradford goes on to say that, “The strange part of the story we found to be, that the masters of these men had put up the previous day, at the railroad station near where she left, an advertisement for them, offering a large reward for their apprehension; but they made a safe exit” (p. 45). Commenting on this incident, McGowan and Kashatus notes, “Similar instances occurred on her rescue missions whenever Harriet was forced to make an important decision” (Harriet Tubman: A Biography, p. 62).

This divine guidance probably made her behavior erratic and unpredictable, always one step ahead (or one step to the side) of the slave-catchers — maybe not unlike the Trickster stories she likely heard growing up, as part of the folklore tradition in African-American communities or possibly picked up from Native Americans who still lived in the area. Maybe there is a reason both Trickster stories and voice-hearing are often found in oral cultures. The Trickster, as an archetype similar to salvific figures, exists between the divine and human — Jesus often played the role of Trickster. Looking more closely at this mentality might also tell us something about the bicameral mind.

Her visions and voice-hearing was also a comfort and assurance to her; and, as some suggested, this gave her “command over others’ minds” (Edna Cheney, “Moses”, The Freedmen’s Record, p. 35) — that is to say, when around her, people paid attention and did what they were told. She had the power of charisma and persuasion, and failing that she had a gun that she was not afraid to use too good effect. She heard God’s voice in conviction and so she spoke with conviction. One was wise to not doubt her and, when leading slaves to freedom, she did not tolerate anyone challenging her authority. But it was in moments of solitude that she most strongly felt the divine. Based on interviews with Tubman in 1865, Edna Cheney conveyed it in the following way:

“When going on these journeys she often lay alone in the forests all night. Her whole soul was filled with awe of the mysterious Unseen Presence, which thrilled her with such depths of emotion, that all other care and fear vanished. Then she seemed to speak with her Maker “as a man talketh with his friend;” her child-like petitions had direct answers, and beautiful visions lifted her up above all doubt and anxiety into serene trust and faith. No man can be a hero without this faith in some form; the sense that he walks not in his own strength, but leaning on an almighty arm. Call it fate, destiny, what you will, Moses of old, Moses of to-day, believed it to be Almight God” (p. 36).

Friends and co-conspirators described Tubman as having lacked the gnawing anxiety and doubt that, according to Julian Jaynes, has marked egoic consciousness since the collapse of Bronze Age civilization. “Great fears were entertained for her safety,” according to William Still, an African American abolitionist who personally knew her, “but she seemed wholly devoid of personal fear. The idea of being captured by slave-hunters or slave-holders, seemed never to enter her mind.” That kind of absolute courage and conviction, based on trust of voices and visions, is not common in the modern mind. Her example inspired and impressed many.

Thomas Garrett, a close confidante, said that, “I never met with any person, of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul. She has frequently told me that she talked with God, and he talked with her every day of her life, and she has declared to me that she felt no more fear of being arrested by her former master, or any other person, when in his immediate neighborhood, than she did in the State of New York, or Canada, for she said she never ventured only where God sent her, and her faith in a Supreme Power truly was great” (letter, 1868). As an aside, there is an interesting detail about her relationship with God — it was told by Samuel Hopkins Adams, grandson of Tubman’s friend and benefactor Samuel Miles Hopkins (brother of Tubman’s biographer Sarah Bradford): “Her relations with the Deity were personal, even intimate, though respectful on her part. He always addressed her as Araminta, which was her christened name” (“Slave in the Family”, Grandfather Stories, pp. 277-278; quoted by Jean M. Humez on p. 355 of Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories).

In summarizing her faith, Milton C. Sernett concluded that, “Tubman did not distinguish between seer and saint. She seems to have believed that her trust in the Lord enabled her to meet all of life’s exigencies with a confident foreknowledge of how things would turn out, a habit others found impressive, or uncanny, as the case may be” (Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History, p. 145). That is it. This supreme confidence did not come from herself. At one moment of uncertainty, she was faced with making a decision. “The Lord told me to do this. I said, ‘Oh Lord, I can’t—don’t ask me—take somebody else.” God then spoke to her: “It’s you I want, Harriet Tubman” (Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom).

Anyone familiar with Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind would perk up at this discussion of voice-hearing, specifically of commanding voices with the undeniable and infallible power of archaic authorization. Besides this, he spoke of three other necessary components to the general bicameral paradigm, as much relevant today as it was during the Bronze Age (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, p. 324):

  • “The collective cognitive imperative, or belief system, a culturally agreed-on expectancy or prescription which defines the particular form of a phenomenon and the roles to be acted out within that form”
  • “an induction or formally ritualized procedure whose function is the narrowing of consciousness by focusing attention on a small range of preoccupations”
  • “the trance itself, a response to both the preceding, characterized by a lessening of consciousness or its loss, the diminishing of the analog or its loss, resulting in a role that is accepted, tolerated, or encouraged by the group”

Collective cognitive imperative is central what we are exploring here. Tubman grew up in a culture where such spiritual, paranormal, and shamanic experiences were still part of a living tradition, including traces of traditional African religion. She lacked doubt about this greater reality because almost everyone around her shared this sense of faith. As social creatures, such shared culture has a powerful effect upon the human mind. But at that point in early modernity when Tubman grew up, most of American society had lost the practices of induction and hence the ability to enter trances.

The Evangelical church, however, has long promoted trance experiences and trained people how to talk to God and listen for his voice (still does, in some cases: Tanya Luhrmann, When God Talks Back). Because of her brain condition, Tubman didn’t necessarily require induction, although her ritual of constant prayer probably helped. She went into trance apparently without having to try, one might say against her will. There is also another important contributing factor. Voice-hearing has historically been most common among non-literate, especially preliterate, societies — that is because the written word alters the human mind, as argued by many besides Jaynes: Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, etc. Such illiteracy would describe the American slave population since it was against the law for them to read and write.

* * *

Harriet Tubman’s Illiteracy and Storytelling Talent

This state of illiteracy included Tubman. During the Civil War, she spoke of a desire to become literate so as to “write her own life” (Cheney, p. 38), but there is no evidence she ever learned to write. “The blow to the head of Tubman received at about thirteen may have been the root cause of her illiteracy. According to Cheney’s sketch, “The trouble in her head prevents her from applying closely to a book” “ (Milton C. Sernett, Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History, p. 105). She remained her whole life fully immersed in an oral mindset. This was demonstrated by her heavy use of figurative language with concrete imagery, as when describing a Civil War battle — recorded by visiting historian Albert Bushnell Hart:

“And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped” (Slavery and Abolition, p. 209). Also, consider how she spoke of her personal experiences: “She loves to describe her visions, which are very real to her; but she must tell them word for word as they lie in her untutored mind, with endless repetitions and details, she cannot condensed them, whatever be your haste. She has great dramatic power; the scene rises before you as she saw it, and her voice and language change with her different actors” (Cheney, pp. 36-37).

Elaborating on her storytelling talent, Jean M. Humez writes: “One of Earl Conrad’s informants who as a child had known Tubman in her old age reported: “there never was any variation in the stories she told, whether to me or to any other” (Tatlock, 1939a). It is characteristic of the folklore performer trained in an oral culture to tell a story in precisely the right way each time. This is because the story itself is often regarded as a form of knowledge that will educate the young and be passed down through the generations. The storyteller must not weaken the story’s integrity with a poor performance” (Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, p. 135).

This was also heard in how Tubman drew upon the down-to-earth style of old school religion: “Instead of the classical Greek “tricks of oratory” to which the college-educated Higginson refers, Tubman drew upon homelier sources of eloquence, such as scriptures she would have heard preached in the South. She frequently employed a teaching technique made familiar in the New Testament Gospels—the “parable’ or narrative metaphor—to make her lessons persuasive and memorable” (Jean M. Humez, Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, p. 135). She knew of Jesus’ message through oral tellings by preachers and that was fitting since Jesus too effectively taught in the spoken word.

She was masterful. Even before a crowd of respectable whites, such as at abolitionist meetings, she could captivate an audience and move them to great emotion. Having witnessed a performance of Tubman’s oft-repeated story of former slave Joe’s arrival in Canada along with a rendition of the song he sang in joyous praise, Charlotte Forten recorded the impact it had on those present: “How exciting it was to hear her tell the story. And to hear the very scraps of jubilant hymns that he sang. She said the ladies crowded around them, and some laughed and some cried. My own eyes were full I listened to her” (Charlotte Forten, journal entry, Saturday, January 31, 1862).

All of these ways of speaking are typical of those born in oral societies. As such, her illiteracy might have been key. “She is a rare instance,” as told in The Freedmen’s Record, “in the midst of high civilization and intellectual culture, of a being of great native powers, working powerfully, and to beneficient ends, entirely unaided by school or books” (Cheney, p. 34). Maybe the two factors are closely linked. Even in the ancient world, some of the most famous and respected oracles were given by the uneducated and illiterate, often women. Tubman did have the oracular about her, as she occasionally prophesied outcomes and coming events.

We mainly know of Tubman through the stories she told and retold of herself and her achievements, surely having been important in gaining support and raising funds in those early years when she needed provisions to make her trips to the South. She came from a storytelling tradition and, obviously, she knew how to entertain and persuade, to make real the plight of the still enslaved and the dangers it took to gain their freedom. She drew in her audience, as if they were there with bloodhounds tracking them, with their lives hanging in the balance of a single wrong decision or unfortunate turn of events.

One of her greatest talents was weaving song into her stories, but that was also part of oral culture. The slave’s life was filled with song, from morning to night. They sung in church and while at work, at births and burials. These songs were often stories, many of them taken from or inspired by the religion that was so much a part of their daily experience. Song itself was a form of language: “Tubman used spirituals to signal her arrival or as a secret code to tell of her plans. She also used spirituals to reassure those she was leading of their safety and to lift their spirits during the long journey to freedom” (M.W. Taylor, Harriet Tubman: Antislavery Activist, p. 18). She also used the song of birds and owls to communicate, something she may have learned from the African or Native American tradition.

Song defined Tubman, as much as did her spirituality. “Religious songs,” Jean M. Humez explains, “embellished Tubman’s oral storytelling performances and were frequently central plot elements in her most popular Underground Railroad stories. There was the story of teasing the thick-witted “master” the night before her escape by using a familiar Methodist song, “I’m Bound for the Promised Land,” to communicate to her family her intention to run away. Singing was also integral to her much-told story about coded communication with fugitives she had hidden in the woods. “Go Down, Moses” meant “stay hidden,” while a “Methodist air,” “Hail, oh hail, ye happy spirits,” meant “all clear” (Bradford, 1869)” (Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, p. 136).

Humez goes on to say that, “Though she was able to capture and reproduce the lyrics for her readers, Bradford was evidently bewildered by Tubman’s musical performances in much the same way Cheney was by her spiritual testimony: “The air sung to these words was so wild, so full of plaintive minor strains, and unexpected quavers, that I would defy any white person to learn it, and often as I heard it, it was to me a constant surprise” (Bradford, 1886, 35-36).” Her performances used a full range expression, including through her movement. She would wave her arms and clap her hands, sway and stamp her feet, dance and gesture — according to the details of what she spoke and rhythm of what she sang (Humez, p. 137). Orality is an embodied way of communicating.

* * *

Harriet Tubman’s Voice-Hearing and the Power of Oral Culture

Tubman may have been more talented and charismatic than most, but one suspects that such a commanding presence of speech and rhetorical persuasion would have been far more common among the enslaved who were raised in an oral culture where language was one of the few sources of power in defense against those who wielded physical violence and political force — such as the necessary ability for survival to use language that was coded and veiled, symbolic and metaphorical, whether in conversation or song, in order to communicate without stating something directly for fear of being overheard.

Her display of orality would have impressed many whites simply because literacy and the literary mind by that point had become the norm among the well-off white abolitionists who came to hear her. Generations had passed since orality had been prevalent in mainstream American society, especially among the emerging liberal class. The traditional culture of the ancien regime had been eroding since the colonial era. There is a power in oral cultures that the modern mind has forgotten, but there were those like Tubman who carried the last traces of oral culture into the 20th century before she finally died in her early 90s in 1913.

The bewilderment of whites, slave-catchers and abolitionists alike, by Tubman’s prowess makes one think of another example of the power of oral culture. The Mongol hordes, as they were perceived, acted in a way that was incomprehensible to the literate ruling elite of European feudalism. Genghis Khan established a mnemonic system used among his illiterate cavalry that allowed messages to be spread quickly and accurately. As all Mongols rode horses and carried all food with them, they were able to act collectively like a swarm and so could easily shift strategy in the middle of a battle. Oral culture had less rigid hierarchy. It was also highly religious and based in a shamanic tradition not unlike that of Africa. Genghis Khan regularly prayed to God, fasting for days until getting a clear message before he would leave on a military campaign. In similar fashion, Thomas Garrett said of Tubman: “She is a firm believer in spiritual manifestations […] she never goes on her missions of mercy without his (God’s) consent” (letter to Eliza Wigham, Dec. 27, 1856).

One imagines that, as with that Mongol leader, Tubman was so successful for the reason she wielded archaic authorization. That was the underlying force of personality and persuasion that made her way of speaking and acting so compelling, for the voice of God spoke through her. It was a much greater way of being in the world, a porous self that extended much further and that could reach into the heart and minds of others, apparently not limited to humans. Her “contemporaries noted that Tubman had a strange power over all animals—another indication of psychic ability—and insisted that she never feared the bloodhounds who dogged her trail when she became and Underground Railroad agent” (James A. McGowan & William C. Kashatus, Harriet Tubman: A Biography, pp. 10-11). Psychic ability or simply a rare example of a well-functioning bicameral mind in the modern era.

Some people did perceive her as being psychic or otherwise having an uncanny perception, an ability to know things it seems she shouldn’t be able to know. It depends on one’s psychological interpretation and theological persuasion. Her compatriot Thomas Garrett was also strongly religious in his commitment to abolitionism. “In fact,” states McGowan and Kashatus, “Garrett compared Harriet’s psychic ability to hear “the voice of God as spoken direct to her soul” to the Quakers’ concept of an Inner Light, or a divine presence in each human being that allows them to do God’s will on earth. Because of their common emphasis on a mystical experience and a shared religious perspective, Tubman and the Quakers developed a mutual trust” (Harriet Tubman: A Biography, p. 62). A particular incident helps explain Garret’s appraisal, from the same book (pp. 59-60):

“One late afternoon in mid-October 1856, Harriet arrived in Wilmington, Delaware, in need of funding for a rescue mission to the Eastern Shore. She went immediately to the office of Thomas Garrett, a white Quaker station master who also operated a hardware business in the town. “God sent me to you, Thomas,” said Harriet, dismissing the formality of a simple greeting. “He tells me you have money for me.” Amused by the request, Garrett jokingly asked: “Has God ever deceived thee?” “No,” she snapped. “I have always been liberal with thee, Harriet, and wish to be of assistance,” said the Quaker station master, stringing her along. “But I am not rich and cannot afford to give thee much.” Undeterred by the response, Harriet shot back: “God told me you’ve got money for me, and God never fools me!” Realizing that she was getting upset, Garrett cut to the chase: “Well, then, how much does thee need?” After reflecting a moment, Tubman said, “About 23 dollars.”

“The elderly Quaker shook his head in disbelief. Harriet’s request was almost exactly the amount he had received from an antislavery society in Scotland for her specific use. He went to his cash box, retrieved the donation, and handed it to his visitor. Smiling at her benefactor, Tubman took the cash, turned abruptly and marched out of the office. Astonished by the incident, Garrett later confided to another abolitionist that “there was something remarkable” about Harriet. “Whether it [was] clairvoyance or the divine impression on her mind, I cannot tell,” he admitted. “But I am certain she has a guide within herself other than the written word, for she never had any education.”1 By most accounts, Tubman’s behavior can be described as selfrighteous, if not extremely presumptuous. But she viewed herself as being chosen by God for the special duty of a liberator. In fact, she admitted that she “felt like Moses,” the Old Testament prophet, because “the Lord told me to go down South and bring up my brothers and sisters.” When she expressed doubt about her abilities and suggested that the Lord “take somebody else,” He replied: “It’s you I want, Harriet Tubman.”2 With such a divine commission, Tubman was confident that her visions and actions—no matter how rude by 19th–century society’s standards—were condoned by the Almighty. Thomas Garrett understood that.”

There is no doubt she had an instinctive understanding that was built on an impressive awareness, a keen presence of mind — call it psychic or bicameral. With our rigid egoic boundaries and schizoid mentality, we inhabitants of this modern hyper-individualistic world have much to learn about the deeper realms of the bundled mind, of the multiplicity of self. We have made ourselves alien to our own human and animal nature, and we are the lesser for it. The post-bicameral loss of not only God’s voice but of a more expansive way of being is still felt in a nostalgic longing that continues to rule over us, ever leading to backlashes of the reactionary mind. Even with possible brain damage, Tubman was no where near as mentally crippled as we are with our prized ego-consciousness that shuts out all other voices and presences.

In the Western world, it would be hard to find such a fine specimen of visionary voice-hearing. Harriet Tubman had a genius about her, both genius in the modern sense of brilliance and genius in the ancient sense of a guiding spirit. If she were around today, she would likely be medicated and institutionalized or maybe imprisoned, as a threat to sane and civil society (Bruce Levine, “Sublime Madness”: Anarchists, Psychiatric Survivors, Emma Goldman & Harriet Tubman). Yet there are still other societies, including developed countries, in the world where this is not the case.

Tanya Luhrmann, as inspired by Julian Jaynes, went into anthropology where she researches voice-hearing (her work on evangelicalism is briefly noted above). One study she did compared the experience of voice-hearers in the Ghana and the United States (Differences in voice-hearing experiences of people with psychosis in the U.S.A., India and Ghana: interview-based study). Unlike here in this country, those voice-hearer’s in certain non-Western culture are not treated as mentally ill and, unsurprisingly, neither do they experience cruel and persecutory voices — quite the opposite in being kind, affirming, and helpful as was the case with Tubman.

“In the case of voice hearing, culture may also play a role in helping people cope.  One study conducted by Luhrmann, the anthropologist, found that compared to their American counterparts, voice-hearing people diagnosed with schizophrenia in more collectivist cultures were more likely to perceive their voices as helpful and friendly, sometimes even resembling members of their friends and family. She adds that people who meet criteria for schizophrenia in India have better outcomes than their U.S. counterparts. She suspects this is because of “the negative salience” a diagnosis of schizophrenia holds in the U.S., as well as the greater rates of homelessness among people with schizophrenia in America” (Joseph Frankel, Psychics Who Hear Voices Could Be On to Something).

One suspects that the Ashanti and related African cultures that helped shape black traditions in Tubman’s Maryland are basically the same as the culture still existing in Ghana to this day. After all, the Ashanti Empire that began in the early colonial era, 1701, continued its rule well into the twentieth century, 1957. If it’s true that her grandmother Modesty was Ashanti, that would go a long way in explaining the cultural background to Tubman’s voice-hearing. It’s been speculated her father was the child of two Africans and it was directly from him that she claimed to have inherited her peculiar talents. It’s possible that elements of the bicameral mind survived later in those West African societies and from there was carried across the Middle Passage.

* * *

The Friendship and Freedom of the Living God

It’s important to think about the bicameral mind by looking at real world examples of voice-hearing. It might teach us something about what it means to be in relationship with a living God — a living world, a living experience of the greater mind, the bundled self (no matter one’s beliefs). Many Christians talk about such things, but few take it seriously, much less experience it or seek it out. That was what drew the Quakers to Tubman and others like her influenced by the African tradition of a living God. It wasn’t only a commonality of politics, in fighting for abolitionism and such. Rather, the politics was an expression of that particular kind of spiritual and epistemological experience.

To personally know God — or, if you prefer, to directly know concrete, lived reality — without the intervention of either priest or text or the equivalent can create immense power through authorization. It is an ability to act with confidence, rather than bowing down to external authority of hierarchical institutions, be it church clergy or plantation aristocracy. But it also avoids the other extreme, that of getting lost in the abstractions of the egoic consciousness that drain psychic reserves and make human will impotent. As Harriet Tubman proved, this other way of being can be a source of empowerment and liberation.

What made this possible is not only that she was illiterate but unchurched as well. In their own way, Quakers traditionally maintained a practice of being unchurched, in avoiding certain formal church institutions such as eschewing the ministerial profession. Slaves, on the other hand, were often forced to be unchurched in not being allowed to participate in formal religion. This would have helped maintain traditional African spiritual practice and experience. Interestingly, as J.E. Kennedy reports, one set of data found that “belief in the paranormal was positively related to religious faith but negatively related to religious participation” (The Polarization of Psi Beliefs; as discussed in NDE: Spirituality vs Religiosity). It’s ironic that formal religion (organized, institutionalized) and literacy, specifically in a text-based religion, have the powerful effect of disconnecting people from experience of God. Yet experience of God can break the spell of that mind virus.

The other thing is that, like African religion, the Quaker emphasis was on the communal. This might not seem obvious, in how Quakers believed in the individual’s relationship to God. That is where Tubman’s example is helpful. She too had an individual relationship to God, but her identity was also tied closely to kinship, community, and ancestry. We need to think more carefully about what is meant when we speak of individuality. One can gain one’s own private liberty by freeing oneself from shackled enslavement, that is to say changing one’s status from owned by another to owned by oneself (i.e., owned by the ego-self, in some ways an even more harsh taskmaster). Freedom, however, is something else entirely. The etymology of ‘freedom’ is the same as ‘friend’. To be free is to be among friends, to be a member of a free society — one is reminded that, to Quakers and West Africans alike, there was an inclination to relate to God as a friend. Considering this simple but profound understanding, it wasn’t enough for Tubman to escape her oppressive bondage, if she left behind everyone she loved.

Often she repeated her moral claim for either liberty or death, as if they were of equivalent value; whereas freedom is about life and the essence of life is shared, as freedom is always about connection and relationship, about solidarity and belonging. She couldn’t be free alone and, under the will of something greater than her, she returned South to free her kith and kin. The year Harriet Tubman first sought freedom, 1849, was the same year of the birth of Emma Lazarus, a poet who would write some of the most well known words on slavery and oppression, including the simple statement that, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” About a century later, this was rephrased by Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement when he said, “No one is free until we are all free.” One could trace this insight back to the ancient world, as when Jesus spoke that, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” That is freedom.

A living God lives among a living generation of people, a living community. “For where two or three gather in my name,” as Jesus also taught, “there am I with them.” Quakers had a tradition of living constitutionalism, something now associated with liberalism but originally having its origins in a profound sense of the divine (Where Liberty and Freedom Converge). To the Quaker worldview, a constitution is a living agreement and expression of the Divine, a covenant between God a specific people; related to why Quakers denied natural law that would usurp the authorization of this divine presence. A constitution is not a piece of paper nor the words upon it. Nor can a constitution be imposed upon other people outside of that community of souls. So, neither slaves nor following generations are beholden to a constitution enacted by someone else. This was why Thomas Jefferson assumed later Americans would forever seek out new constitutions to express their democratic voice as a people. But those who understood this the best were Quakers; or those, like Thomas Paine, who were early on influenced by the Quaker faith.

Consider John Dickinson who was raised as a Quaker and, after inheriting slaves, freed them. He is the author of the first draft of America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, which was inspired by Quaker constitutionalism. The Articles of Confederation was a living document, in that it’s only power was the authority of every state agreeing to it with total consensus and no change being allowed to be made to it without further consensus. The second constitution, simply known as the United States Constitution and unconstitutionally established according to the first constitution (The Vague and Ambiguous US Constitution), was designed to be a dead letter and it has become famous for enshrining the institution of slavery. Rather than expressing a message of freedom, it was a new system of centralized power and authority. The deity invoked under this oppression is a dead god, a god of death. No one hears the voice of this false god, this demiurge.

Such a false idol can make no moral claim over a free people. As such, a free people assert their freedom by the simplest act of walking away, as did Harriet Tubman by following the water gourd pointing to the North Star, and as she repeated many times in guiding her people to what to them was the Promised Land. What guided her was the living voice of the living God. They had their own divine covenant that took precedence over any paper scribbled upon by a human hand.

* * *

Harriet Tubman, an Unsung Naturalist, Used Owl Calls as a Signal on the Underground Railroad
by Allison Keys, Audubon Magazine

“It was in those timber fields where she learned the skills necessary to be a successful conductor on the Underground Railroad,” Crenshaw explains, “including how to read the landscape, how to be comfortable in the woods, how to navigate and use the sounds that were natural in Dorchester County at the time.”

Underground Railroad Secret Codes
from Harriet Tubman Historical Society

Supporters of the Underground Railroad used words railroad conductors employed everyday to create their own code as secret language in order to help slaves escape. Railroad language was chosen because the railroad was an emerging form of transportation and its communication language was not widespread. Code words would be used in letters to “agents” so that if they were intercepted they could not be caught. Underground Railroad code was also used in songs sung by slaves to communicate among each other without their masters being aware.

Myths & Facts About Harriet Tubman
from National Park Service

Tubman sang two songs while operating her rescue missions. Both are listed in Sarah Bradford’s biography Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman: “Go Down Moses,” and, “Bound For the Promised Land.” Tubman said she changed the tempo of the songs to indicate whether it was safe to come out or not.

Songs of the Underground Railroad
from Harriet Tubman Historical Society

Songs were used in everyday life by African slaves. Singing was tradition brought from Africa by the first slaves; sometimes their songs are called spirituals. Singing served many purposes such as providing repetitive rhythm for repetitive manual work, inspiration and motivation. Singing was also use to express their values and solidarity with each other and during celebrations. Songs were used as tools to remember and communicate since the majority of slaves could not read.

Harriet Tubman and other slaves used songs as a strategy to communicate with slaves in their struggle for freedom. Coded songs contained words giving directions on how to escape also known as signal songs or where to meet known as map songs.

Songs used Biblical references and analogies of Biblical people, places and stories, comparing them to their own history of slavery. For example, “being bound for the land of Canaan” for a white person could mean ready to die and go to heaven; but to a slave it meant ready to go to Canada.

Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman
by Sarah Hopkins Bradford
pp. 25-27

After nightfall, the sound of a hymn sung at a distance comes upon the ears of the concealed and famished fugitives in the woods, and they know that their deliverer is at hand. They listen eagerly for the words she sings, for by them they are to be warned of danger, or informed of safety. Nearer and nearer comes the unseen singer, and the words are wafted to their ears:

Hail, oh hail ye happy spirits,
Death no more shall make you fear,
No grief nor sorrow, pain nor anger (anguish)
Shall no more distress you there.

Around him are ten thousan’ angels,
Always ready to ‘bey comman’.
Dey are always hobring round you,
Till you reach the hebbenly lan’.

Jesus, Jesus will go wid you;
He will lead you to his throne;
He who died has gone before you,
Trod de wine-press all alone.

He whose thunders shake creation;
He who bids the planets roll;
He who rides upon the temple, (tempest)
An’ his scepter sways de whole.

Dark and thorny is de desert,
Through de pilgrim makes his ways,
Yet beyon’ dis vale of sorrow,
Lies de fiel’s of endless days.

I give these words exactly as Harriet sang them to me to a sweet and simple Methodist air. “De first time I go by singing dis hymn, dey don’t come out to me,” she said, “till I listen if de coast is clar; den when I go back and sing it again, dey come out. But if I sing:

Moses go down in Egypt,
Till ole Pharo’ let me go;
Hadn’t been for Adam’s fall,
Shouldn’t hab to died at all,

den dey don’t come out, for dere’s danger in de way.”

Let The Circle Be Unbroken: The World Of Araminta (“Minty”) Ross Or The Making Of Harriet Tubman
by Margaret Washington

I. Building Communities
C. It Takes a Village to Raise a Child.

Enslaved African Americans came from a heritage that embraced concepts of solidarity in a descending order from the larger ethnic group, to the communal village, to the extended family to the nuclear family. Individualism (as opposed to individuality) was considered selfish and antithetical to the broader interests of a unit. Whether societies were matrilineal or patrilineal, nearly all were patriarchal (power rested with men). Nonetheless, the glue that bound the communal circle was the woman, considered the life giving force, the bearer of culture, essence of aesthetic beauty and key to a community’s longevity. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters etc. had oversight of children until puberty, when male and female rites of passage prepared them separately for their gendered communal roles. West African women were spiritually strong, morally respected, valued for their economic propensity, important in governance and in some cultures (Ashanti, Kongo, Ibo) powerful warriors. However devalued and exploited in America, Modesty, Rit and Minty exemplified how enslaved women resisted a sense of futility or fatalism and refashioned African attributes of beauty, dignity, self-worth and ethics. Enslaved women combed the waterways, forests and woods to obtain roots, herbs, leaves, sap, barks and other medicinal products for healing, amulets and even conjuration. Rit certainly used such remedies to nurse Minty back to health after extreme exhaustion, illnesses, beatings and her near fatal blow on the head. Rit learned these remedies and poultices from her mother Modesty and Harriet Tubman used them on the Underground Railroad. Their example reveals the significance of women to the community and that despite the assaults on the black family; it remained an institution, which even separation could not sever. […]

II ANCHORING THE SPIRIT
A. The Hidden Church: An African-Christian Synthesis.

If community was the base of African and African American life and culture, spirituality was the superstructure. Certainly enslaved people ultimately embraced Christianity. But for generations Southern whites feared exposing blacks to Christianity. The Bible’s Old Testament militant nationalism and New Testament’s spiritual  egalitarianism were not lost on African Americans, a few of whom were literate and the majority of whom felt that baptism was one kind of freedom.

Like most enslaved children, young Minty grew up outside of a church. However, since Ben Ross’s owner Anthony Thompson Sr., was a practicing Methodist, Minty’s family heard Christian sermons. But Edward Brodess was not devout and when he separated the Ross family, little Minty was hired out and did not receive white religious benevolence. But a tradition of black religion and spirituality existed independent of whites. In African culture, sacred worship embedded every aspect of life (rites of passage, marriage, funerals, child birth, etc.). Divine reverence was not confined to a building, a single ceremony or a specific day of the week. Spirituality was pervasive, expressive, emotional and evocative. Although the religious culture developed in America had African roots, the ravages of bondage created more social-spiritual convergences. In Minty’s world, spirituality was wrapped in temporal concerns affecting the individual, the family and the community. Worship was praising, praying, lamenting, hoping and drawing strength from each other. Long before Minty’s birth, Africans in America had created a “hidden church” where enslaved people gathered clandestinely (the woods, in cabins, in boats, in white people’s kitchens and even in the fields). In the hidden church they recounted religious and secular experiences; gave testimonies and created a space were women such as Rit could express the pain of having children sold or of trying to bring Minty back to life after her head was bashed in. In the hidden church, enslaved people created subversive songs, prayed for spiritual salvation, heavenly retribution and freedom.

Africans traveling the Maafa brought an ethos that merged the sacred and secular worlds. Enslaved African Americans embraced Christianity but also selectively adapted it to previous traditions and to their historical circumstances. Above all, they rejected incongruous white teachings meant to relegate blacks to perpetual slavery. Rather than being converted to Christianity as taught by whites, enslaved people converted Christianity to their own needs. Moreover, some significant African and Christian traditions had noteworthy commonalities.

Africans, like Christians believed in one God (Nzambi among the Bantu, Onyame among the Akan-Ashanti for example) who was the apex of all existence just as humanity was the center of earthly life. While gendered concepts of the African Supreme Being varied, like Jehovah, Africans’ God was revered, all-powerful and approachable. However, unlike Jehovah, the African Supreme Being was not feared, jealous nor wrathful. Other spirits exist in the African pantheon, like saints in Catholicism. But there was only one God. Hence, when whites spoke of a Supreme God, Africans understood. Harriet Tubman’s God was an all-powerful friend. According to Thomas Garrett, her close friend and a beloved Quaker Underground Railroad Conductor, Harriet spoke to God every day of her life. “I never knew anyone so confident of her faith,” said Garrett. (Letter in Bradford)

Africans, like Christians, believed in a soul, sometimes called the “heart” or “voice.” The soul was responsible for human behavior in life and was one’s spiritual existence after death. Some ethnicities had complicated concepts of the soul; others simply recognized the soul as the “little me in the big me” which lived on. Africans believed in honoring this life after death, especially as part of the kinship spiritual connection (ancestor reverence), which brought protection to the living. The curse of the dead was much dreaded in Africa and in America. Hence the importance of burial and funeral rites throughout the Diaspora, even today. A woman such as Harriet Tubman who embraced Christianity, also blended a spiritual syncretism that constructed a concept of the soul around moral ethics and faith imparted through the word of God, “as spoken to her soul” according to her friend Garrett. “She is a firm believer in spiritual manifestations . . . she never goes on her missions of mercy without his (God’s) consent.” (Garrett to Eliza Wigham, in McGowan, 135)

Water was a life giving force in African culture and the spirit world was under water. Throughout the African Diaspora, water represented divine transformations—birth, death, baptism and rebirth. For many enslaved people, accepting Christianity carried implications reminiscent of older traditions that surpassed what whites intended. In African cultures, an initiate received a “sacred bath” following a special protracted rite of passage symbolizing acceptance and integration into the community. Similarly, with Christianity enslaved people sought salvation through isolation, prayer, meditation, and communication with God through visions and signs from the natural environment. Baptism by total immersion represented final acceptance into the “ark of safety.” Although Methodists baptized by sprinkling, enslaved people insisted on going “down under” the water. They also equated spiritual transformation with secular change. Such thinking was Christian because the New Testament upheld spiritual egalitarianism. It was also African: One traveled briefly into the watery world of the ancestors as an uncivil “little spirit of the bush” full of individualistic anti-communal tendencies. One emerged from the water as a citizen of the community able to partake of all rights and privileges. The change was both divine and temporal; it was fervent, overwhelming and thoroughgoing. Canals, marshes, swamps and rivers surrounded African descended people on the Eastern Shore. Here they labored as slaves. Here they were baptized and hence constantly reminded of water’s spiritual and liberating significance.

Minty’s Christian conversion experience probably happened while working for the Stewarts in Caroline County. Whether because of that experience or her blow on the head, Minty insisted she spoke to God, had trances and saw visions that foretold future events. As a clairvoyant, Minty believed that she inherited this second sense from her father, Ben. Africans and African Americans believed that a clairvoyant person was born with a “caul” or “veil,” a portion of the birth membrane that remained on the head. They were seers and visionaries who communicated with the supernatural world and were under a special spiritual dispensation. Visions sometimes came while Minty worked, were accompanied by music and articulated in a different language. Minty also claimed exceptional power. When Edward Brodess sent slave traders to Ben’s cabin to inspect Minty, she prayed for God to cleanse Brodess’s heart and make him a good man or kill him. Brodess’ death convinced Minty that she had “prayed him to death.”1 Since his death put her in eminent danger of sale, Minty knew it was a sign from God to flee.

Northerners called Ben “a full-blooded Negro.” His parents were probably African born and told him the old Maafa adage that he passed on to Minty: some Africans could fly. Indeed, captured Ibo people committed suicide believing that their spirits flew back to Africa.2 Similarly, as Minty envisioned her escape, “She used to dream of flying over fiefs and towns, and rivers and mountings, looking down upon them ‘like a bird.'” When it appeared as if her strength would give out and she could not cross the river, “there would be ladies all dressed in white over there, and they would put our their arms and pull me across.” Listening to Ben’s stories, predictions and sharing his faith convinced Minty that an omniscient force protected her. In visions, she became a disembodied spirit observing earthly and heavenly scenes. Harriet Tubman told friends that God “called” her to activism against her wishes. She begged God to “get someone else” but to no avail. Since God called her, she depended on God to guide her away from danger.

Whiteness is Absence, is Loss and Death

Whiteness is an odd thing. It is one of those social constructs that falls apart under any significant degree of scrutiny. Yet few of us pale-skinned descendants of Europeans know how to not think of ourselves as white, as the enculturation of white identity is so deeply embedded within our collective psyche and throughout all of society around us. Such racial ideology frames and shapes everything else, ever lurking in the background even when not acknowledged.

It’s become a symbolic proxy for so much else. Racial differences and divides have become our way of talking about class, economic oppression, housing segregation, capitalist realism, the prison state, and on and on. It’s related to how talk of inequality of wealth so often hides the deeper inequalities of power, privilege, resources, and opportunities; of pollution, lead toxicity, underfunded schools, and loss of green spaces; et cetera.

The thing is white politics of identity and victimhood doesn’t really even benefit most whites. It is a cheap salve and band-aid placed over a wound that cut to the bone and left nerves raw. Whiteness is a sad compensation for all that was lost: ethnic culture, regional identity, close communities, extended kinship, rooted sense of place, the commons, and so much else. No wonder so many whites are on edge, a sense of free-floating anxiety about their place in the world.

The takeover of whiteness has happened slow enough for most people not to notice while being rapid enough to cause a radical transformation of society and civilization. Prior to the world war era, most people didn’t identify with a race or even with a nationality. The sense of self was defined by local experience, relationships, and commitments. That previous world barely lingers in living memory, but is quickly fading.

Most American whites became urbanized a little over a century ago. Even then, much of the rural experience held on in small towns and ethnic enclaves. The Boomer and Silent generations were the last to have a significant number of people to experience those disappearing traces of traditional culture, however faint they were already becoming. With the generations following, the loss is becoming so complete as to become collective amnesia.

My father is a young Silent and, even though his parents came from different parts of the country, he spent most of his early life in a single small town. He wasn’t surrounded by kin beyond his immediate family, but he did have the comfort of being surrounded by a community of people who themselves were surrounded by a web of extended families. That small town has since been decimated and no longer functions as a healthy community, instead having fallen into poverty and decay.

My mother, a first wave Boomer, had a much stronger experience of those old ties. She was born and raised a short distance from where generations of her family had lived. She spent her entire childhood and youth in a single house, in never having moved until college, with extended family all around her, a grandmother and uncle next door along with other uncles, aunts, and cousins in the neighborhood. Her siblings and cousins were her main playmates.

Her ancestors began coming to this sub-region of Kentuckiana (Central-Eastern Kentucky and Southern Indiana) shortly after the American Revolution. The first line of the family came in 1790 to fight Indians. Soon after, other lines of her family showed up in the area. As a young girl, she regularly visited a village where her family lived in the 1800s and where her grandfather had been born, a village that had been turned into a state park with historical re-enactors. Her childhood was filled with elders telling stories about her Kentuckiana ancestral homeland.

This older identity was beginning to erode with industrialization, but some of her family still remains in that area. Some of my father’s family also remains in the small town he left. So, both have hometowns to return to where family will greet and welcome them, including family reunions, but this inheritance isn’t likely to last much longer. My parents never gave my brothers and I the same chance to experience such deep-rooted belonging of family, community, and place.

By the time I graduated from high school, we had lived in four different states in multiple regions of the country. And after graduation, I wandered around between various states before finally settling down. Now the next generation is on the scene. I have two nieces and a nephew living somewhat nearby, if not as close as with my mother’s extended family. This new generation of young kids are all Generation Z or whatever one wants to call them.

If asked, I’m not sure most in the younger generations would have a strong sense of identity with either family or place. In my upbringing, I gained some vague semblance of being ‘Midwestern’, but with mass media so ruling the modern mind now I’m not sure that even such amorphous regional identities retain much hold over the public imagination. What’s replaced the local and trans-local are even more broadly generalized identities of being white, along with being American or Westerner, but such identities don’t speak to the concrete details of lived experience.

Then that brings us to what it means to not be white. That is how we often think of it, since white is the dominant and hence the supposedly defining racial identity. But maybe that is the wrong way around. Instead, it makes more sense that whiteness is defined as not being black, as it is always the other that defines us (the reason we should be careful about the people we choose to ‘other’ as minority or untouchable, as foreigner or outsider, as opposition or enemy). Germans and Italians, Catholics and Jews assimilated into general whiteness. Even Hispanics and Asians are being assimilated. Everyone can assimilate into whiteness, everyone that is except blacks.

Unlike whiteness, being black is a much more specific and localized identity. In America, it is defined by descending from West African ancestors who were enslaved as part of the colonial project of the British Empire with a population that was concentrated in the Deep South where a particular ethno-regional culture was formed and to some degree maintained as a segregated sub-culture among blacks that moved north and west but with most of the black population remaining in or returning to the Deep South.

Another difference is that the majority of American blacks were urbanized rather late, not until the 1960s to 1970s as compared to the ubanization of the white majority several generations earlier. The black population, even in being segregated in inner cities, maintained larger social connections than have most whites. That segregation had many downsides in being built on racist practices of sundown towns, redlining, and exclusion from government benefits that gave so many whites an advantage in moving into the suburban middle class. Yet it had the side benefit of maintaining black communities and black culture as something distinct from the rest of society, and this allowed a certain way of social relating that had been lost to the average white person. As Stephen Steinberg wrote:

“More important, feminist scholars forced us to reassess single parenting. In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison , the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented , “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.””

Blacks weren’t allowed to assimilate to the larger society and so had to stick to their own communities, opposite of many other ethnic populations that were encouraged and sometimes forced to assimilate (e.g., German-Americans during world war era). To be black is always to have the stigma of the Deep South and all it stands for. Most whites had their past erased, but blacks aren’t ever allowed to escape the past. And for whites the erasure happened twice over — once before in Europe and once again in the post-colonial order.

The indigenous cultures and religions of Europe were genocidally wiped out over the past two millennia and replaced with foreign systems of rule and worship, primarily of the Roman Empire and the Christianity with the Catholic Church playing a key role, although in England it was the Romanized Normans that created the monarchy and aristocracy that replaced traditional British society. American blacks can look back to West Africa where traditional cultures remain to a large degree, but American whites can’t look back to Europe for traditional cultures are missing. The erasure and amnesia of whiteness is nearly absolute.

This is the reason whites are forced to define themselves against what they are not — they aren’t black, as they aren’t ‘savages’ or ‘primitives’. They inherited the Roman ‘civilization’ as an overlay of all that was destroyed and lost which means they aren’t even ‘indigenous’. So, they’ve become part of some amorphous and monolithic Westernization, upon which WEIRD bias is founded. This WEIRD, this Wetiko disease as victimization cycle is a scar of trauma upon trauma, so many layers thick that the contours of what came before is obliterated. All that is left is whiteness as an empty signifier, an absence and a void, but that throbbing wound reminds us who are called white that we too once had our own traditional and indigenous cultures, that we too were once people of a particular land, of ancient languages and lifeways long since forgotten.

* * *

“What have you given up?” – Zen priest Greg Snyder on growing up Pennsylvanian Dutch, assimilation, intimacy, and power
interview by Eleanor Hancock

The main thing that was different about growing up in a Pennsylvania Dutch (PD) community, in central Pennsylvania, is that my default identity wasn’t white. I didn’t know people without Germanic surnames – Snyder or Rehmeyer or Schroeder. That area of Pennsylvania was said to be, at the time, the least ethnically diverse place in the U.S.; virtually everyone was Pennsylvania Dutch. We were in the social position of being treated as white — but as a kid that wasn’t our first way of talking about ourselves. […]

In Pennsylvania I was a shy boy; I was afraid. We moved around a lot, to new places, and felt alone. But I also had a sense of “we.” So much of that “we” had to do with the land. It wasn’t an abstract we, like “we’re all American.” I am suspicious of that identity and wonder how many folks really walk around with a deep, gratifying visceral identity as an American. Maybe they do. I guess I am just suspicious of identities that seem to have more to do with power than connection. […]

When I go back to central Pennsylvania and I see that particular landscape, it feels like me. I am that land. I am the people who till the earth on that land. I know that shale; shale is right on top of slate. I used to make chalkboards with my brother, cutting into that ground. It’s sad: in one or two more generations, I think the people I am of will be gone, as an identifiable ethnicity in the U.S. Maybe the Amish will survive, but already assimilated Pennsylvania Dutch are shifting from calling themselves Pennsylvania Dutch to referring to themselves as being descended from Pennsylvania Dutch. Capitalism and whiteness are really good at wiping out ethnic support systems for poor white people.

In Undoing Racism workshops [for white folks], at Brooklyn Zen Center, we have participants state their ethnicity. How connected they are to their ethnicity depends on how far back it got included in the white camp. Italians and Greeks are clear: “I’m Italian; I’m Greek.” They know who they are. While those of English or Welsh background don’t really have any idea who they are; it’s hazy. So they say “I’m just white suburban.” As someone with a Germanic heritage (which has also been wiped away in the U.S.), what I cherish is that I grew up with a sense of a people. The saddest thing for white people, and something they need to look closely into, is what’s missing. What’s missing when you let whiteness characterize you? What have you given up? […]

There were lots of things like this, that were experienced as an ethnic community. Having a sense of a people, where you live together and do things together — an identity — I think that’s a loss. Of course food is the last thing to go with eroding ethnicity, so fastnachts and Pennsylvania Dutch food are still popular. But I remember having a sense of the year’s progression in relationship to the cycles of the harvest and community religious celebration. When I left Pennsylvania, that was lost.

When an ethnicity falls away for the sake of whiteness, we trade intimacy of connection for positions of power. If you understand yourself as an individual without a people, the only thing protecting you is your social location. We have to interrogate that deeply. What would it be like to be a people that is not rooted in power? […]

As a kid in farm country, when you ran out of something you went to your neighbor and asked for it. If you started working in your yard, your neighbor showed up to help you. When my aunt Henrietta got cancer, pies and other food just kept showing up. Here in New York City, I’d never ask my neighbor for anything. In middle-class white circles, asking your neighbor for something can be seen as a sign of shame or weakness: “Why haven’t you figured this out?”

Roots Deeper than Whiteness
by David Dean

In order to weaken their resistance to enclosure and prepare them for a forced exodus to towns and cities as the exploited labor force that this new economy required, the communal, earth-based, and celebratory cultural identity of the English peasantry was attacked. In The World Turned Upside Down, English historian Christopher Hill describes the attempted brainwashing of this population to believe in the primacy of work and the devilish nature of rest and festivity.

“Protestant preachers in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century undertook a cultural revolution, an exercise in indoctrination, on a hitherto unprecedented scale… to create the social conditions which discouraged idleness. This meant opposing observance of saints’ days, and the traditional village festivals and sports, and sexual irresponsibility… it took generations for those attitudes to be internalized. ‘It is the violent only that are successful,’ wrote the gentle Richard Sibbes: ‘they take it [salvation] by force’.”

Notions of the isolated nuclear family and women’s inherent inferiority were also emphasized. If a wife could be subjected to life as the sole sustainer of her family in the home then her husband could be expended of all his energy in the factory. Women, too, were associated with the devil. Federici names the witch-hunts as a tool of this cultural revolution and the movement to take away the commons. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women were tortured and killed throughout Europe. The century between 1550 and 1650 was both the height of the enclosures and of this genocide in England. Particularly autonomous women were in the greatest danger of persecution. Herbalists and traditional healers, widows and the unmarried, and outspoken community leaders were regularly targeted. Mass government-run propaganda campaigns led peasants to fear one another, effectively dividing and weakening them against the threat of enclosure.

Relentless protest and insurrection, most notably the Midlands Revolt of 1607, was not enough to prevent the eventual outcome. Historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker illustrate the “colossal dimensions of the expropriation of the peasantry” in The Many-Headed Hydra:

“By the end of the sixteenth century there were twelve times as many propertyless people as there had been a hundred years earlier. In the seventeenth century alone almost a quarter of the land in England was enclosed. Aerial photography and excavations have located more than a thousand deserted villages and hamlets…”

Communities were traumatized and splintered. The fortunate worked in urban textile mills under grueling conditions, weaving into fabric wool shorn from sheep that grazed their ancestral lands. Most were not so lucky and lived on city streets as beggars at a time when loitering and petty theft were punished with physical mutilation, years of incarceration, or death.

Even with this mixture of urban poverty, hyper-criminalization, and merchant campaigns to encourage the poor to go to overseas colonies as indentured servants, only some willingly left their home country. The Virginia Company, a corporation with investors and executives intent on profiting from the theft of labor and foreign land, began collaborating with the English government to develop a solution to the problems of unemployment and vagrancy. Homeless and incarcerated women, men, and even children, began to be rounded up and put on ships headed to the plantation colony of Virginia to be bought and traded by wealthy British royalists. According to Linebaugh and Rediker, of the nearly 75,000 English indentured servants brought to British colonies in the seventeenth century most were taken against their will. In The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter commented that in this era these captive voyagers would be “lucky to outlive their terms of service.” However at this point in history, they still did not call themselves “white.”

They crossed the ocean with their traditional way of life shattered, clinging to meaningful communal identity only in memory. They arrived to the colony of Virginia through the early and mid-1600s where, according to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, fifty wealthy families held almost all of the land. They worked on tobacco plantations for periods of seven to fourteen years with indentured and enslaved Africans and some indigenous people, two other populations recently torn from their cultures and communities.

At this time forms of racism did exist. Scholar Cedric Robinson tells about the existence of various forms of race-like hierarchy within European societies for centuries. In early colonial Virginia the presence of racism was evidenced by the initial genocidal attacks on indigenous nations, some disproportionately harsh sentencing toward people of color in colonial courts, and the fact that even though chattel slavery had not yet been fully institutionalized, some African and Native people were already spending their entire lives in bondage.

However historians Jacqueline Battalora and Edmund Morgan note that the historical evidence still is clear that all three of these laboring groups in Virginia shared a more similar position in society and stronger relationships with each other than they soon would. It was common for them to socialize and inhabit in the same quarters. They often intermarried and built families together. They toiled in fields side by side and were degraded and beaten by the same wealthy masters.

Many had lived on some form of “commons” earlier in their own lives and some sought to live in this way again. The Many-Headed Hydra includes the following striking examples. In the early years of the Jamestown settlement one in seven Englishmen fled to live within the more egalitarian Tsenacomoco or Powhatan Confederacy, inspiring the Virginia Company to enact a decree called Laws Divine, Moral, and Marshall threatening execution for desertion in order “to keep English settlers and Native Americans apart.”

The Vast and Beautiful World of Indigenous Europe
by Lyla June Johnston

I have come to believe that if we do not wholly love our ancestors, then we do not truly know who they are. For instance, I get very offended when people call Native Americans “good-for-nothing drunks.” Because by saying this, people don’t take into account the centuries of attempted genocide, rape and drugging of Native American people. They don’t see the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. And now, I am offended when people call European descendants “privileged good-for-nothing pilgrims.” Because by saying this, people do not take into account the thousands of years that European peoples were raped, tortured and enslaved. They do not understand the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. They do not understand that even though we have free will and the ability to choose how we live our life, it is very hard to overcome inter-generational trauma. What happens in our formative years and what our parents teach us at that time can be very hard to reverse.

They estimate that 8-9 million European women were burned alive, drowned alive, dismembered alive, beaten, raped and otherwise tortured as so-called, “witches.” It is obvious to me now that these women were not witches, but were the Medicine People of Old Europe. They were the women who understood the herbal medicines, the ones who prayed with stones, the ones who passed on sacred chants, the ones who whispered to me that night in the hoghan. This all-out warfare on Indigenous European women, not only harmed them, but had a profound effect on the men who loved them. Their husbands, sons and brothers. Nothing makes a man go mad like watching the women of his family get burned alive. If the men respond to this hatred with hatred, the hatred is passed on. And who can blame them? While peace and love is the correct response to hatred, it is not the easy response by any means.

The Indigenous Cultures of Europe also sustained forced assimilation by the Roman Empire and other hegemonic forces. In fact, it was only a few decades ago that any Welsh child caught speaking Welsh in school would have a block of wood tied to their neck. The words “WN” were there-inscribed, standing for “welsh not.” This kind of public humiliation will sound very familiar to any Native Americans reading this who attended U.S. Government boarding schools.

Moreover, our indigenous European ancestors faced horrific epidemics of biblical proportions. In the 1300s, two-thirds of Indigenous Europeans were wiped from the face of the earth. The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, ravaged entire villages with massive lymph sores that filled with puss until they burst open. Sound familiar?

The parallels between the genocide of Indigenous Europeans and Native Americans are astounding. It boggles my mind that more people don’t see how we are the same people, who have undergone the same spiritual assault. The only difference between the Red Story and the White Story is we are in different stages of the process of spiritual warfare. Native Americans are only recently becoming something they are not. They are only recently starting to succumb to the temptations of drugs, alcohol, gambling, self-destruction and the destruction of others. Just as some Native American people have been contorted and twisted by so many centuries of abuse, so too were those survivors of the European genocide. Both are completely forgivable in my eyes.

The Lost People
by Thom Hartmann

Imagine if this — the dream and best effort of the White conquerors from Europe — was fulfilled. Imagine if there was not even one single Native American alive in the entire world who could speak a single sentence in Cree or Ojibwa or Apache or Lakota. Imagine if every Native American alive today, when thinking back to his or her ancestors and past, could only imagine a black-and-white world where people were mute and their ceremonies were mysterious and probably useless and primitive, having no meaning…and if they did have meaning, it didn’t matter anyway because it was now lost. A total forgetting of the past — all the ways and languages and memories and stories — destroyed by the people who had conquered your people. Every bit of your culture was burned in the fire of this conquest, and all was lost. All of your people knew the history of Greece and Rome and England, but nothing of the Cherokee or Dene or Iroquois people.

Can you imagine what a disaster that would be? How empty and alone and frightened you and your people would feel? How easily they could be turned into slaves and robots by the dominators? How disconnected they would feel from the Earth and from each other? And how this disconnection could lead them to accept obscene behavior like wars and personal violence and the fouling of waters and air and soil as “normal”? Perhaps they would even celebrate this fouling in the name of “progress,” because they would have no memory of the Old Ways, no realization of the meaning or consequences of these actions.

Imagine if your people were no longer a people, no longer nations and tribes and clans, but only frightened individuals of a different race than their conquerors, speaking only the language of their conquerors, sharing only the memories of their conquerors, and living only to serve the richest of those conquerors.

This is an almost unimaginable picture. The worse fate that could befall any people. The most horrific crime humans can commit against other humans.

And this is what happened a few thousand years ago to my people, to the Whites of Europe, who for 70,000 years prior to that had lived tribally just as your elders did.

It was done first by the Celts, who conquered and consolidated most of the tribal people of Europe 3000 years ago. It was then done more thoroughly by Julius Caesar of the pre-Christian Romans 2000 years ago. And it was absolutely finished by the iron-fisted “Christian” Romans 1000 years ago as their new Church sought out and destroyed all the ancient places, banned the old rituals, and tortured and murdered people who practiced the ancient European tribal religions. They even converted all alphabets to the Roman alphabet, and forced European people to change their holy days, calendars, and even the date (the year 1 or “beginning of time”) to one that marked the beginning of the Roman Christian Empire’s history.

This massive and thorough stripping of their identity and ancient ways — this “great forgetting,” as the Australian Aborigines refer to it — is why my people often behave as if they are “insane.” It is why they are disrespectful of our Mother the Earth and the life on Her. It is why so many of my people want to be like you and your people, to the point of dressing in buckskin and carrying medicine pouches and building sweat lodges from California to Maine to Germany. It is why we have hundreds of “odd” religions and paths, and why so many of my people flit from Hinduism to Buddhism to Paganism like a butterfly going from flower to flower: they have no roots, no tribe, no elders, no path of their own. All were systematically destroyed by the Celts, the Romans, and then the Roman Catholics. Whites in America and Europe — and Blacks who were brought to America as slaves and have since lost their ancient ways and languages — are a people bereft. They are alone and isolated from their ancient clans and tribes. Broken apart from the Earth, they are unable to reclaim their ancient languages, practices, and medicine…because these are gone, totally destroyed, even to the last traces. […]

For over a thousand years, the soldiers and inquisitors of the Holy Roman Catholic Church spread across Europe and destroyed the native people’s sacred sites, forbade them to practice their religions, and hunted down and killed those who spoke the Old Languages or practiced the healing or ancient arts.

Stones with written histories on them were smashed to dust.

Ancient temples and libraries were torn down or set afire, and Roman churches were built atop them.

The few elders who tried to preserve the Old Ways were called “witches” and “pagans” and “heathens,” and imprisoned, tortured, hung, beheaded, impaled, or burned alive. Their sacred groves of trees were burned, and if their children went into the forest to pray they were arrested and executed. God was taken from the natural world and put into the box of a church, and Nature was no longer regarded as sacred but, instead, as evil and dangerous, something to be subdued and dominated.

For a thousand years — continuously — the conquerors of the Roman Official (Catholic) Church did this to the tribal people of Europe.

As a result, today not a single European remembers the Old Ways or can speak the Ancient Languages. Not a single elder is left who knows of sacred sites, healing plants, or how to pronounce the names of his ancestors’ gods. None remember the time — which the archeological record indicates was probably at least twenty thousand years long, and perhaps as much as seventy thousand years long — when tribes lived peacefully and harmoniously in much of what we now call Europe. None remember the ways of the tribes, their ceremonies, their rituals of courtship, marriage, birth, death, healing, bringing rain, speaking to the plants and animals and stones of our Mother the Earth.

Not one single person alive still carries this knowledge. All is lost but a few words, the dates and names of some holidays, and a few simple concepts that have been stripped of their original context.

For example, my father’s parents came here from Norway during World War I. They spoke Norwegian, but it was not the true language of their ancestors. That language was written with a different alphabet, which is referred to today as Runic; nobody alive remembers how to pronounce the runes, or their original meanings. Adolf Hitler adopted one of the ancient Norwegian runes — what is believed to be the symbol of lightning and the god of lightning — for his most elite troops. The double lightning-bolts looked like an SS, so they were called the SS, but it was really a rune. So lost are the old ways of my grandmother’s people that even the Nazis felt free to steal and reinvent them in any way they pleased.

When we track it back, it seems likely that it all began — the entire worldwide 5000-year-long orgy of genocide and cultural destruction — in a part of the Middle East known then as Ur and now called Iraq. It started with a man named Gilgamesh, or one of his ancestors, in an area now called Baghdad.

The first conquers — the first people to rise up and discard the Great Law — were not the “White men” of Europe. They were, instead, the people of the region where the Middle East meets northern Africa. (Which is why this area is referred to as the “Cradle of [our] Civilization.”) Their direct descendant is not the Pope or the Queen of England or King of Spain, but a man named Saddam Hussein.

Democratic Realism

We are defined by our opposition, in many ways. And a society is determined by the frame of opposition, the boundaries of allowable thought — such as right and left (or equivalent frame). This is how power has operated in the United States. In recent generations, this frame of the “political spectrum” has intentionally been kept extremely narrow. Sadly, it is precisely the supposed political left that has kept pushing right, such as the Clinton Democrats supporting the military-industrial complex, corporate deregulation, racist tough-on-crime laws, privatization of prisons, etc; not to mention supposed radical leftists like Noam Chomsky acting as sheepdogs for the one-party corporatist state.

In the past, right-wing reactionaries have often been successful by controlling the terms of debate, from co-opting language and redefining it (consider how libertarianism originated as part of the left-wing workers movement and how human biodiversity was conceived as a criticism of race realism) to the CIA in the Cold War funding moderate leftists (postmodernists, Soviet critics, etc) as part of a strategy to drown out radical leftists. This is how the most devious propaganda works, not primarily or entirely by silencing enemies of the state — although that happens as well — but through social control by means of thought control and public perception management. One might note that such propaganda has been implemented no matter which faction of plutocracy, Democrat or Republican, was in power.

This is how authoritarians create an oppressive society while hiding much of its overt violence behind a system of rhetoric. That is while the corporate media assists in not fully reporting on all of the poor and brown people killed abroad and imprisoned at home. Plus, there is systematic suppression of public awareness, public knowledge, and public debate about how immense is the slow violence of lead toxicity, poverty, inequality, segregation, disenfranchisement, etc). The propagandistic framing of thought control cripples the public mind and so paralyzes the body politic.

As such, any freedom-lover would not hope for an authoritarian left-wing to replace the present authoritarian right-wing. But we must become more savvy about authoritarianism. We Americans and other populations around the world have to become sophisticated in our intellectual defenses against rhetoric and propaganda. And we have to develop a counter-strategy to regain control of public fora in order to protect and ensure genuine public debate defined by a genuinely democratic public as an informed, engaged, and empowered citizenry. This would require a program of public education to teach what is authoritarianism, specifically how it operates and takes over societies, and also what relationship it has to the reactionary mind.

Before we get to that point, we need to free our minds from how the enforcement of authoritarian rhetoric becomes internalized as an ideological realism that is experienced as apathetic cynicism, as helpless and hopeless fatalism. So, let’s have a thought experiment and not limit ourselves to what the powers that be claim is possible. We could imagine a society where the right-wing and conservative opposition is represented by some combination of social democrats, progressives, bourgeois liberals, communitarians, and such. This far right and no further! There might be influential thought leaders acting as gatekeepers who would guard the ideological boundaries or else public shaming to maintain social norms in order keep out fascists, imperialists, and other outright authoritarians — ideological positions that would be considered immoral, dangerous, and taboo in respectable society.

Meanwhile, democratic socialists, municipal socialists, community organizers, environmentalists, civil rights advocates, and reformist groups would hold the position of moderate centrism. And on the other side of the equation, powerful social, economic and political forces of anarcho-syndicalism, radical liberationism, international labor movements, etc would constantly push the Overton window further and further to the the far left. This would allow the potential for center-left alliances to form strong political blocs.

This must require a strong culture of trust and a well developed system of democracy, not only democracy in politics but also in economics and as a holistic worldview that would be felt and practiced in everyday life. Democracy could never be part of the public debate for it would have to be the entire frame of public debate. Democracy is about the demos, the people, the public. Public debate, by definition, is and can only be democratic debate. Anything and everything could be tolerated, as long as it isn’t anti-democratic, which is why authoritarianism would be excluded by default. The public must develop a gut-level sense of what it means to live not only in a democratic society but as part of a democratic culture.

That would create immense breathing room for genuine, meaningful, and effective public debate that would be supported by a populist-driven political will with majority opinion situated to the left of what goes for the ‘left’ in the present ideological hegemony of the United States. That is our fantasy world, if not exactly a utopian vision. We could imagine many scenarios much more revolutionary and inspiring, but what we describe wouldn’t be a bad start. At the very least, it would be a more interesting and less depressing society to live in.

Rather than a political left always weakened and on the defense, often oppressed and brutalized and almost always demoralized, it would be an entire culture that had taken the broad ‘left’ as the full spectrum of ideological possibilities to be considered. As the revolutionary era led to the social construction of a post-feudal liberalism and conservatism, a 21st century revolution of the mind would imagine into existence a post-neo-feudal democratic left and democratic right. Democracy would be taken as an unquestioned and unquestionable given, based on the assumption of it representing the best of all possible worlds. In place of capitalist realism and fascist realism or even communist realism, we would have democratic realism.

* * *

This post was inspired by a strong left-wing critique of the failures of social democracy in Western countries (see below). The author, Stephen Gowans, is a foreign policy analyst with several books in print. In his recent article, he argued that social democracy has been, in practice, fundamentally conservative in how capitalist societies and their political systems are designed or shaped by elites and so serve elite interests. We don’t know what to think of Gowans’ own political proclivities of old school leftism, but he makes a good point that we find compelling.

The bogeymen of communists, both in the Soviet Union and in the West, kept capitalist power in line and so curtailed fascism and other authoritarian tendencies. If not for the ideological threat of the Soviets as a global superpower, there likely would have been no leverage for radical leftists in the West to force political and economic elites to comply with the reforms they demanded. Similarly, it was the Soviet attack on the American oppression of blacks that gave the civil rights movement the ability to influence an otherwise unsympathetic government ruled by rich whites who benefited from their continued oppression.

Social democrats often are given the credit for these reforms, but the actual social and political force came from radical left-wingers. This is not unlike why Teddy Roosevelt openly argued that conservative and pro-capitalist progressives should listen to the grievances of socialists and communists so as to co-opt them. In offering their own solutions, such leaders on the political right could steal the thunder of left-wing rhetoric and moral force. So, Roosevelt could throw out some significant reforms to reign in big biz at home while simultaneously promoting am American imperialism that defended and expanded the interests of big biz abroad. He only offered any reforms at all because left-wingers were a real threat that needed to be neutralized.

So, once the external pressure of a threatening geopolitical opponent was gone, those very same elites could safely reverse the reforms they had previously been forced to allow, in fear of the alternative of a left-wing uprising. The object of their fear was eliminated and so the elites could once again show their true face of authoritarianism. What we added to this line of thought was, if social democrats have acted like conservatives under these conditions, then we should more accurately treat them as an ideology on the political right. In that case, what follows from this is then how to define the political center and political left.

Here is another thought, to extend the speculation about how our enemies shape us and hence the importance of carefully picking our enemies, which then defines our frame of reference. We are in another period of geopolitical contest that already is or is quickly becoming a second cold war, but this time the perceived enemy or rather enemies are no longer on the political left. What the ruling elites in the West offer up as a scapegoat for our anxieties are now all far right, if in a rather mixed up fasnion: Islamic Jihadists, Iranian theocrats, Russian oligarchs, Chinese fascists, and a North Korean dictator. In response to these right-wing threats, the Western authoritarians have pushed further right. This is different than in the past when, in facing down left-wing threats, the powerful interests of the time felt they had to relent in letting themselves be pulled left.

Apparently, according to this established dynamic of ideological forces, to make real our crazy fantasy of ideological realignment toward the political left what we need is a new left-wing bogeyman outside of the Western sphere, as a supposed threat to Western civilization. Better yet, make the perceived opposing left-wing ideology non-democratic or anti-democratic so that by being in knee-jerk opposition to it mainstream media and political figures in the West would be forced to be polarized in the other direction by adopting democratic rhetoric and democratic reforms. Sheer genius!

Social Democracy, Soviet Socialism and the Bottom 99 Percent
(text below is from link)

Many left-leaning US citizens are envious of countries that have strong social democratic parties, but their envy is based mainly on romantic illusions, not reality. Western Europe and Canada may be represented by mass parties at the Socialist International, but the subtitle of Lipset and Marks’ book, Why Socialism Failed in the United States, is just as applicable to these places as it is to the United States. For socialism—in the sense of a gradual accumulation of reforms secured through parliamentary means eventually leading to a radical transformation of capitalist society–not only failed in the United States, it failed too in the regions of the world that have long had a strong social democratic presence. Even a bourgeois socialism, a project to reform (though not transcend) capitalism, has failed.

This essay explores the reasons for this failure by examining three pressures that shape the agendas of social democratic parties (by which I mean parties that go by the name Socialist, Social Democrat, Labour, NDP, and so on.) These are pressures to:

• Broaden the party’s appeal.
• Avoid going to war with capital.
• Keep the media onside.

These pressures are an unavoidable part of contesting elections within capitalist democracies, and apply as strongly to parties dominated by business interests as they do to parties that claim to represent the interests of the working class, labour, or these days, ‘average’ people or ‘working families’. The behaviour and agenda of any party that is trapped within the skein of capitalist democracy and places great emphasis on electoral success—as social democratic parties do–is necessarily structured and constrained by the capitalist context. As such, while social democratic parties may self-consciously aim to represent the bottom 99 percent of society, they serve–whether intending to or not—the top one percent.

So how is it, then, that egalitarian reforms have been developed in capitalist democracies if not through the efforts of social democratic parties? It’s true that social democrats pose as the champions of these programs, and it’s also true that conservatives are understood to be their enemies, yet conservatives have played a significant role in pioneering them, and social democrats, as much as right-wing parties, have been at the forefront of efforts to weaken and dismantle them. Contrary to the mythology of social democratic parties, the architects of what measures exist in capitalist democracies for economic security and social welfare haven’t been social democrats uniquely or even principally, but often conservatives seeking to calm working class stirrings and secure the allegiance to capitalism of the bottom 99 percent of society against the counter-example (when it existed) of the Soviet Union. […]

Egalitarian reforms, however, have been achieved over the years in Western capitalist societies, despite these obstacles, and this reality would seem to call my argument into question. Yet the number and nature of the reforms have fallen short of the original ambitions of social democracy, and in recent decades, have been abridged, weakened and sometimes cancelled altogether, often by social democratic governments themselves. […]

The point, however, isn’t to explore the reasons for the Soviet Union’s demise, but to show that while it existed, the USSR provided a successful counter-example to capitalism. The ideological struggle of the capitalist democracies against the Soviet Union entailed the provision of robust social welfare programs and the translation of productivity gains into a monotonically rising standard of living. Once the ideological struggle came to an end with the closing of the Cold War, it was no longer necessary to impart these advantages to the working classes of North America, Western Europe and Japan. Despite rising productivity, growth in household incomes was capped, and social welfare measures were systematically scaled back.

Social democracy did nothing to reverse or arrest these trends. It was irrelevant. When strong social welfare measures and rising incomes were needed by the top one percent to undercut working class restlessness and the Soviet Union’s counter-example, these advantages were conferred on the bottom 99 percent by both social democratic and conservative governments. When these sops were no longer needed, both conservative and social democratic governments enacted measures to take them back. […]

Since capitalist forces would use the high-profile and visible platform of their mass media to vilify and discredit any party that openly espoused socialism or strongly promoted uncompromisingly progressive policies, social democratic parties willingly accept the capitalist straitjacket, embracing middle-of-the-road, pro-capitalist policies, while shunting their vestigial socialist ambitions to the side or abandoning them altogether. They planted themselves firmly on the left boundary of the possible, the possible being defined by conservative forces.

Conclusion

When social democratic parties espoused socialism as an objective, even if a very distant one, the socialism they espoused was to be achieved with the permission of capital on capital’s terms–an obvious impossibility. It is perhaps in recognizing this impossibility that most social democratic parties long ago abandoned socialism, if not in their formal programs, then certainly in their deeds. That social democratic parties should have shifted from democratic socialist ambitions to the acceptance of capitalism and the championing of reforms within it, and then finally to the dismantling of the reforms, is an inevitable outcome of the pressures cited above.

But the outcome is ultimately traceable to what history surely reveals to be a bankrupt strategy: trying to arrive at socialism, or at least, at a set of robust measures congenial to the interests of the bottom 99 percent, within the hostile framework of a system that is dominated by the top one percent. The best that has been accomplished, and its accomplishment cannot be attributed to social democratic parliamentary activism, is a set of revocable reforms that were conceded under the threat, even if unlikely, of revolution and in response to capitalism’s need to compete ideologically with the Soviet Union. These reforms are today being revoked, by conservative and social democratic governments alike. The reality is that social democracy, which had set out to reform capitalism on behalf of the bottom 99 percent, was reformed by it, and acts now to keep the top one percent happy in return for every now and then championing mild ameliorative measures that conservative forces would concede anyway under pressure.

Conserving America’s Radical and Revoltuionary Vision

What does it mean to be a ‘conservative’ in a country like the United States? What does it mean to conserve? What is it we might conserve? America was founded on protest, on riot, revolt and rebellion, some of it peaceful but much of it not peaceful in the slightest. Besides the American Revolution, there was the War of Regulation, Shays’ Rebellion, and much else, such as the later Coal Wars, Battle of Athens, and on and on. Americans have never ended their confrontational demands of freedom, even as we speak with yet another protest challenging abuse of power.

The classical liberalism that both liberals and conservatives often claim was given fullest expression in the American tradition from the words of Thomas Paine, the most radically left-wing of the founders. He is the only one of the main founders to directly demand a democratic government, not to mention he was a deist heretic and worst still advocated for what was the equivalent of a universal basic income with his citizens’ dividend. It was Paine who named this country, “the United States of America,” and the closest we’ve come to his radical vision was the Progressive New Deal.

Also, Paine had an honorary citizenship from France and called himself a citizen of the world. Then again, some of the other founders also had honorary citizenships of France and called themselves citizens of the world. Many in that generation had radical aspirations of global revolution, far beyond mere nation-building. Some of them hoped America would be an inspiration to further revolt. In fact, many rebellions were inspired. That legacy, if nothing else, has been conserved in the memory of humanity. That makes sense as it was Paine who argued that America never was an ethno-nationalistic project, since even when he wrote his revolutionary tracts the majority in several colonies were not English and not even British. America was to represent a new multiculturalism based on universal human rights.

Ignoring Paine’s religious hereticism and that of Jefferson, Franklin, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Young… which is a lot hereticism to ignore… even if we proclaim Christianity as the one true faith of American society, which of the over 4,6000 sects of Christianity in the United States get credit and privilege? And if we are to genuinely conserve Jesus teachings and example, we’d have to be as radical as he was in challenging accumulated wealth and challenging claims of authority, including the rule-obsessed and literal-minded fundamentalism of religious authority as Jesus did with the Pharisees and Sadducees. That would mean we’d have to treat far better the least among us, including the sick, homeless, prostitutes, etc. Instead of an elite, it would be the meek who would inherit the earth, those who are poor and trampled upon, those who are most child-like.

One might add that Jesus himself was a heretic, in a long tradition of Jewish heretics. There has always been a strong heretical impulse that splintered the Christian tradition, right from the beginning. This is maybe because Jesus never set to found a religion and so left no official organization, doctrine of beliefs, set of rules, methods of practice, etc. So, if Christianity is a product of heresy, blossomed in a diversity of heresy right from the start and maintained that heretical tendency ever since, then what does it mean to conserve Jesus’ ministry that opposed conserving what came before? Can one conserve heresy and the heretical mindset that motivated it?

We’d even have to take note of how Jesus paid zero respect to family values and follow his lead in his having told someone about their father to let the dead bury the dead and at another time declared that he came to turn family against each other. Jesus preached a universal love and compassion that extended far beyond kinship, far beyond all social identities such as race, ethnicity and nationalism. Anyway, if we are to ignore Jesus, which family values would we conserve? The nuclear family is a modern invention that is as unconservative as can be according to historical standards of family values. The notion of family used to be connected to a complex traditional culture of community and commons, but such a culture has no place in modern American society.

As for traditionalism as the heart of conservatism, the most traditional societies in America, those with the greatest claims on an established tradition are the Native Americans, some of which inspired the division of power that was adopted into the US constitution. In their existing as separate legal nations, they remind us of the federalism this country was based upon. Yet we still don’t honor the legal and constitutional promises made to them. If we want to be reminded of what conserving the traditional could mean, we’d need to relearn traditionalism from the few remaining American people who haven’t yet fully destroyed their traditional cultures, haven’t yet entirely sacrificed their ancient identities in worship of Mammon.

On the most basic level of all, let’s consider the main enemy of conserving traditionalism against change. It is capitalist realism that eliminates and replaces all that is traditional while devouring the world we’ve inherited. Instead of conservation of the environment, instead of caretaking for God’s Creation, instead of being morally responsible to future generations, we sacrifice the common good and leave nothing to be inherited as we inherited what was left to us. Is nothing sacred? What about the most conservative impulse of all, the precautionary principle that would lead us to not be so careless and wasteful, so morally indifferent and psycopathically destructive.

There is a further way in which modern American conservatism finds itself in a tricky relationship with traditionalism. Prior to the rise of reactionary conservatism in post-revolutionary era, the ancien regime was based on a sense in which social realities laid claim upon the individual. Everyone was defined by kinship, community, and the commons; by an entire network of relationships, obligations, and commitments; and a profound sense of place that rooted one in a shared social reality.

Modern American conservatism is a far different beast, in its being intertwined with capitalist realism. Instead of what claims the individual, it is about what the individual claims. The individual is defined by what they own, what or who they control, including subordinates below them in the capitalist order such as employees. Most of use never think about how strange that is, how unusual, how extremely different from most of the historical past. This is also the sense of modern ethno-nationalism. There is the demand to claim a country as an identity with mapped boundaries. In the pre-modern world, especially the ancient world, sociopolitical boundaries were much more blurred, overlapping, and shifting. People could be claimed by multiple social identities, depending on the context as identity was inseparable from particular relationships. There weren’t the abstract identities that moderns cling to.

If we seek to conserve what has claimed humanity for most of existence, we must forego our modern claims of identity that seek to force themselves onto the world and so reshape that world. To conserve would mean to some degree return to a sense of being claimed by the other, by the world. It would mean asking what we owe, who we are responsible to. An attempt to return to such a worldview would be a radical act. That is where we find ourselves now, having to choose either the reactionary or the radical. And the radical potentially takes more seriously and treats with more respect the traditional.

Other than unjust privilege, cruel oppression and rigid hierarchy, what is actually conserved by so-called ‘conservatism’ in American society? What can conservatism possibly mean other than convenient rationalization for whatever rhetoric is useful to the powerful at any given moment? But maybe conservatism could be more than that, if we were to take seriously the value of conserving what is of value. Imagine for a moment that American conservatism actually meant something other than defending a fantasy of power and instead was a guiding moral vision. Imagine if conservatives actually fought to conserve what mattered most.

Now that would be truly radical, maybe even revolutionary — radical as going to the root, revolutionary as a cyclical return. Let us return to the roots of the greatest of social, moral and political visions of American society, the founding vision that inspired more than any other. That would be worth conserving. In that case, we radicals could be conservatives. Maybe the only way to be meaningfully conservative now is to be radical enough to deeply consider the claims made upon us by the demands of conserving. The reactionary can mouth empty words, but traditionalism is forever lost to the reactionary mind. They are opposites. We radicals should make the case for conservatism.

* * *

8/12/20 – An additional thought:

“It is an ancient custom to resist tyranny… And our history goes on further to say, that when another of their Majesties the Kings of England tried to infringe upon those rights, the people armed, and told him that if he did not give them the privileges of Englishmen, they would compel him by the point of the sword… Would you not rather govern a country of spirited men, than cowards?”

These are William Davidson’s words at his 1820 trial for attempted assassination of the violently authoritarian Prime Minister and his cabinet that would end in his public execution. Basically, it’s a more wordy way of saying, Liberty or Death!

Harriet Tubman was well known for espousing such thoughts when asked about the possibility of being caught for she would likely have been tortured to death. Davidson ended his speech with the simple statement that, “I can die but once in this world.” Tubman also made that same argument. It’s an ancient sentiment, once cherished by diverse groups, from Stoics to eary Christians.

Indeed, resistance toward tyranny is an ancient custom. In the Anglo-American tradition, it goes back to the English Civil War and the Peasants’ Revolt, among other historical examples. It is a worthy tradition upon which the United States was founded and upon which generations of Americans have drawn inspiration in hundreds of revolts and protests over the centuries.

We are a rebellious people not to be oppressed easily, so one would like to believe. Let us remember, celebrate and honor our ancient customs, along with keeping the memory alive of those who fought to bring us the rights and freedoms we now prize and enjoy, even as they are constantly threatened by ever new authoritarian rulers.

Linguistic Similarities of Scottish, Dutch, and Afrikaans

Why do some people from South Africa sound almost Scottish? Not quite but almost. My parents attend a Presbyterian church in the United States and the minister is from South Africa. His last name is Dutch. Does the Dutch influence create a Scottish-like accent? As an example, here is a video of a sermon by Danie de Beer, my parents’ minister:

I was wondering about other influences. Supposedly, my Scottish ancestry originally was Dutch. And there were many historical connections between Scotland and Netherlands. There were both Dutch and Scottish immigrants to South Africa. I noticed another question that partly covered this, at least the Scottish aspect: Are there Scots or people of Scottish descent living in South Africa?

The best answer to that other question was by Ruth Dryer. She notes the significant Scottish ancestry among white South Africans. In the past, as with other immigrant countries, there were ethnic enclaves where immigrants were concentrated. But the Scots were mixed throughout the general population. She argues that the immigration of Scots is ongoing: “Generally speaking, Scots to this day tend to drift into the Afrikaans community rather than the English.”

Here is the main part of her answer: “Mark here: Many; some are founders of great Afrikaner families. Numbers of Scots got employment in the Netherlands, as mercenaries in the Scottish regiments of Maurice of Orange. Others (many, provided they were not Catholic, could make shift to understand Dutch – Lowland Scots is pretty close already – & they were qualified artisans) joined the Dutch East India Company, & these became part of the mobile population of the Dutch Mercantile Empire, including the Cape Settlement.” Dryer also answered my question. “There two points of congruence in the Scots dialect of English & Afrikaans,” she wrote and continued:

“The first is that the Old Anglian once spoken in North England comes from a blend of the same closely related dialects in North-Western Europe that contributed to the foundation of the Afrikaners – & Afrikaans – some 1 000 years later. An Afrikaner reading Quirk & Wren’s ‘Old English Grammar’ finds it spooky how similar the language is, apart from the very old grammar. When Tolkien (of the LOR) was taken to the British Midlands, at the age of 4 from Bloemfontein, South Africa, it sounded to him that he’d come home. I have heard a Brit, a bloke from the Old West Country in South England, josh that actually Afrikaans is actually Dutch spoken with a Scottish accent – or – Scottish spoken with a Dutch accent. We in South Africa can spot the difference between a Scottish & an Afrikaans accent pretty soon. Mind you, we find a Scottish accent pretty easy to imitate.

“The other point of congruence is that Lord Charles Somerset, one of our British Governors, tried to anglicise the Afrikaners, & sent us Scottish Presbyterian ministers to replace the Dutch Reformed ones from the Netherlands (who were not keen to come, anyway). They had a FORMIDABLE influence on Afrikaners, & Afrikaans. The Scottish pastors came to teach, as dominees, & that is now the Afrikaans term of address to a pastor – ‘Dominee’. Here is a short list of respected Afrikaans families Murray, Barnard, Cambell, Turner (they used to be O’Neill, or Lamont – ask a Scot), McAlpine, among others.”

The influx of Scottish Presbyterian ministers to South Africa seems like a potential significant line of influence, considering the position of respect and authority minsters hold in a community and considering how central is religion to culture. I had also independently come across some info on this when I did a web search immediately after posing my question, but I didn’t know enough about the history of it. The first part of Dryer’s above answer, in some ways, interests me more.

I know the history of Northwestern Europeans settling in Britain. And I’m familiar with the specific ancestries that mostly ended up in particular regions, such as the Norse in the British Midlands. There was also the immigration of Flemish to Scotland, from 1100 to 1700 (Alexander Fleming, Scotland Has Been Going Dutch Since 1066) as part of their alliance with the conquering Normans, something I pointed out to Scott Hill and was commented on by Kenneth Marikos. This included Flemish aristocracy and monarchy. Further immigration to Scotland was caused by Catholic persecution. All of this has resulted in almost one-in-three Scottish having Flemish ancestry.

This is relevant to the question at hand, as Alexander Fleming noted: “The imprint of the Flemish has also been felt in many other ways, for example the absorption of Flemish words into the Scottish vocabulary. The Scots word ‘scone’, for instance, was derived from the Flemish ‘schoon’.” In general, there was a fair amount of movement of populations in both directions over a long period of time. This included some Scots that went to Netherlands, as did many Puritans before returning to England. And the Scots and Scots-Irish took in plenty of refugees from Europe. such as the French Huguenots who were in northwestern France that was originally part of Flanders.

I assume this could have had a major impact on the populations involved. I’m not an expert in European linguistic history, though. It seems unlikely that these large and continuous flows of people between these places would have left no permanent mark. People tend to carry elements of the culture and language of their ancestry, even when they assimilate to a new society. The fact that, long before the Flemish came along, the original Scots came from Northwestern Europe does seem significant. I’ve studied in enough detail the immigration patterns and regional cultures in Britain and the United States to know how these kinds of influences persist over centuries upon centuries.

By the way, Dryer wasn’t the only one to mention the Scottish Presbyterian ministers. “So for three quarters of a century, then after, Afrikaans South Africans had Scottish Presbyterian Dominies serving them,” commented Michael Baker in his own answer. “This has echoes in the words, the accents & the legal system. Many think that South African trained lawyers cannot practise outside South Africa – but, surprise surprise, they can swiftly be admitted in Scotland, which also has a variant of Roman-Dutch law.”

About the specific issue of language itself, there were some great responses to my question. Scott Hill simply states that, “I suspect what you’re hearing is the guttural G pronunciation and the rolled R pronunciation. The Afrikaans G sounds similar to a throaty CH sound that you’d hear in Scotland, such as “Loch”.” But Michael Koeberg gives an extremely detailed answer that explains the specific similarities, from vowel clipping to rolling effect, and concludes that, “Therefore, the similarity that you perceive does indeed have a good basis with the similarities between Scottish English, Dutch, and Afrikaans have with each other in their respective phonology.” It turns out there is a good reason to hear a similarity.

Wasn’t that a fascinating lesson on language, culture, and history?

Anglo-American Union and the Ties of Blood

Along with moral panics in American culture since the colonial era, there has been the ever recurring existential crisis about our collective identity. This has often taken the form of the pseudo-ethnic culture of WASPs (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants), the racial identity that preceded the Caucasian mythology of a general whiteness. This has overlapped with class issues, such as with the large number of poor ethnic Americans in this multicultural society. Benjamin Franklin, for example, complained about the German majority in Pennsylvania with many having refused to even learn the English language which forced the local government to publish official documents and notices in multiple languages.

The anxiety about what it meant to be ‘American’ fed into revolutionary fervor and demands for independence. It could be seen as part of the revolution of the mind that John Adams described in a letter to Thomas Jefferson. In not being accorded the full rights of Englishmen, the colonists embraced their American identity as a point of distinction and pride. In confronting this identity crisis, Thomas Paine as a working class Englishman went straight to the heart of culture and ethnicity by pointing out the inconvenient fact that many of the colonies consisted of non-English majorities, largely of German ancestry but African as well. There was no melting pot and the ethnic populations resisted assimilation, as did even African-Americans to the degree they were able. One suspects the English monarchy and aristocracy by way of the actions of Parliament secretly agreed with this argument, as they treated the colonists as second class citizens.

About the disease of moral panic, there was a particularly virulent strain of fear-mongering that began in the late 1800s and continued into the early decades of the following century — exacerbated by worsening concerns involving nostalgia, culture wars, media, diet, and health. It appeared as a political force with the Populist movement that was set ablaze with the proliferation of publications advocating liberal thought and progressive reforms, sometimes mired in racism and eugenics but at other times confronting these misguided inclinations. One such publication was the Midland Monthly Magazine, the personal project of Johnson Brigham, born in New York and later moved to Iowa where he would become the State Librarian (see Prabook and Carnegie Libraries In Iowa Project). Brigham’s magazine, available from 1893 to 1898, gave voice to local Iowan writers at a time when the state was still young — statehood was gained a half century before in 1846 and Chief Black Hawk surrendered the decade prior in 1832, still within living memory.

As with Americans in general, Iowans were seeking to invent their own identity. Consider what kind of state Iowa was, but also consider its cultural origins. The Lower Midwest, as argued by David Hackett Fischer and Colin Woodard, is a cultural extension of the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania that was part of the Mid-Atlantic region which included New York. In the colonial era, the Mid-Atlantic was the greatest concentration of diversity and Pennsylvania was specifically overflowing with Germans. Quakers established a multicultural tolerance that, combined with the laissez-faire of New York City, helped create the American Melting Pot that came to define the Midwest. Early cities in Iowa boomed with immigrants, in some cases with as much ethnic and religious diversity as the big cities like Chicago.

In Des Moines where Brigham lived, only 7% of residents identify as of English ancestry, according to the 2000 census (Statistical Atlas). I mention this in relation to one of the authors, E. W. Skinner, who was published in the Midland Monthly Magazine. Skinner lived in Sioux City that also is at 7% English ancestry (Statistical Atlas). Both cities have many Germans, but also a mix of other non-English ancestry. For example, “In the 1870s, Sioux City became both a staging point for Dakota-bound Norwegians, and a destination in itself” (Cherilyn Ann Walley, The Welsh in Iowa). This set a pattern for welcoming later immigrants. During the Second World War, German POWs felt so at home on the farms of Iowans with German ancestry that many of them decided to stay after the war. Places like Sioux City maintain a reputation of being welcoming, ranking at 96 in diversity among small cities in the United States and having the highest rate in the state of students from immigrant families. Although a majority white state, Iowa has always contained a wide array of ancestries and very little of it English nor more generally British.

After that discursive interlude, let’s get to the point. Brigham was quite liberal such as supporting suffragists. His advocacy for libraries brought him into the sphere of Andrew Carnegie, another progressive if not nearly as socially liberal. At the dedication of a Carnegie library built at Cornell College, Brigham as the State Librarian gave the address (Science Journal, Vol. XXII, No. 561, September 29, 1905, ed. by John Michels). This is amusing in relation to Skinner, also somewhere on the political left (e.g., “After Christianity, What?”, H. L. Green’s The Free Thought Magazine, March, 1895, from Vol. XIII). When Brigham was still putting out his magazine, he published a specific article by Skinner in 1896, titled “Anglo-American Union: Not Warranted by Ties of Blood”. It was a specific response to an 1893 opinion piece by Carnegie — giving large sums of money away tends to give someone the entitled sense that their opinion is of higher value. But Skinner called bullshit on Carnegie’s Anglocentric bigotry and, interestingly, he used a criticism similar to that of Paine’s, the criticism that largely justified the existence of a United States in the first place.

Inspired by the hope of the Great Rapproachement, Carnegie advocated a return to the protective and highly profitable embrace of the British Empire (with its vast military-protected trade networks, numerous port cities, abundance of natural resources, cheap foreign labor, and large numbers of prospective consumers/customers), if his aspirations were to Americanize the imperial project; he told W. T. Stead that, “We are heading straight to the Re-United States” (The Americanization of the World, 1901). He didn’t limit his dreams to a union of the United States and Britain, along with all of the other former British colonies. He wanted a racial unification of ethno-nationalism across these countries where Anglo-Saxons would be the master race ruling the world with a peace through power, a Pax Anglo-Saxony. This was motivated by Carnegie’s belief that the British and Americans were genetically and culturally the same people, based on the false assumption that most of American ancestry originated in Britain.

Yet it’s not clear that even acknowledging the largest segment of American ancestry, German, would have changed his views as that also could easily be incorporated into his views of racial supremacism. As with other early philanthropic robber barons, Carnegie was a major financial supporter of the eugenics programs in both the United States and Nazi Germany (William A. Schambra, Philanthropy’s Original Sin; & Edwin Black, North Carolina’s reparation for the dark past of American eugenics). To think of this British ancestry in terms of Anglo-Saxons, after all, is to ground it in the broader Germanic ethno-cultural history. Philip K. Dick, with German ancestry of his own, compellingly imagined how easy it would’ve been for Americans to have culturally assimilated to German society if the Nazis had won the war and come to rule much of North America. As Americans introduced eugenics ideology to the Germany, the Nazis looked admiringly to the American example of Jim Crow. All of this was part of Carnegie’s personal vision.

The debate over (Anglo-)American cultural uniqueness and autonomy would erupt again with the Cold War, which at its heart was a culture war. The ruling elite by way of the intelligence agencies sought to promote America as an empire in its own right, an empire that would become a global superpower with geopolitical and economic dominance. But first an American culture had to be established and that is why the intelligence agencies promoted American Studies in universities and paid American artists and writers, specifically in promoting a certain kind of modernism (Early Cold War Liberalism). During the world war era, multiculturalism and the immigrant experience had been suppressed through the force of law, violence and internment camps. Except for a few select countries, there were severe restrictions on immigrants even from most of Europe, as part of the eugenics agenda. This carried over into a cultural homogoneity during the Cold War. With Anglo-American hegemony, the United States and United Kingdom mended their centuries-old division and became even stronger allies, in fulfillment of the WASP imperial dream of Whiggish progress, but now it was America that was in the lead position.

* * *

Race, Utopia, Perpetual Peace: Andrew Carnegie’s Dreamworld
by Duncan Bell

Hubris, Thy Name Is Anglo-American Elite
by Bionic Mosquito

The Land of the Future: British Accounts of the USA at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century
by David Seed

“Anglo-American Union: Not Warranted by Ties of Blood”
by E. W. Skinner
Midland Monthly Magazine: Volume 5, January 1, 1896
edited by Johnson Brigham
pp. 80-

The subject of an Anglo-American union, which was introduced by Mr. Andrew Carnegie in the North American Review, for June, 1893, and continued by Sir George Clarke, Mr. Arthur Silva White, Captain Mahan and Lord Beresford, in later numbers, has been discussed on the assumption that the people of the United States are very largely of English blood. Mr. Carnegie, as his first proposition, says, “The American remains three-fourths purely British,” and then follows the suggestion that the mixture of the other fourth is substantially all German, and that all three, German, American and Briton, are Teutonic. If this reasoning is correct, why should not all Teutonic people be em braced in the union? Or would it not be quite as natural for England to unite with her ancient mother as to expect the United States to cross seas to unite with hers?

Mr. Carnegie further says: “The amount of blood, other than Anglo-Saxon and German, which has entered into the American, is almost too trifling to deserve notice.” If he would claim all western and northern Europe as composed of Anglo-Saxon and German people he is not far wrong, for all of these have contributed liberally to make up this composite nation. There were substantial Scandinavian settlements on the Lower Delaware and Connecticut rivers at an early day, almost as early as the settlement of the Puritans at Plymouth, or the Hollanders at New Amsterdam. Colonies of French, German and Swiss Protestants were located in North Carolina, and New Berne was founded by the latter. The South Atlantic and Gulf States were originally settled by French and Spaniards.

France laid claim to all the country west of the Alleghanies and French settlements were scattered throughout the whole of the great central valley of the continent. Green Bay and the Fox River, in Wisconsin, were occupied by the French soon after Marquette made his first trip of discovery to the Mississippi. Eastern and northern Michigan were first settled by French. The French took possession of the Mississippi and many of its tributaries, established cities and settlements from its mouth to its source. As early as 1700 they had a town, Cahokia, on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, near the present site of East St. Louis, which is said to have had as many inhabitants, at that time, as Quebec. The French, when expelled from Acadia, moved in a body to their brethren on the Mississippi. Everywhere throughout this great central region we find descendants of the early pioneers. If the historian would ignore their presence, the geographer cannot, for their ubiquity is attested by names they have given to cities, counties and streams all over the country, from the Alleghanies westward.

We have meager statistics as to the number of people in the United States or their place of origin, at the time of the Revolution, and the early census enumerations did not undertake to classify. All were Americans. We know, however, that New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware were settled by Hollanders and Germans, and that their descendants were nearly, if not quite, as numerous as were the English, at the time of the separation. Had Mr. Carnegie investigated the personnel of the business men surrounding his Pittsburgh home, he would have found that the majority of those controlling the manufacturing and mining industries, as well as the railroads of Pennsylvania, were descendants of the Dutch pioneers. The only colonies that were pure English were those of New England, east of the Connecticut River, and Virginia. England, as she conquered new territory, did not drive out the occupying people, but she introduced her vigorous language. The United States has wisely pursued the same policy. In many sections, however, the adoption of the language has been slow. Within forty years, sections of Pennsylvania had to import teachers if they wished English taught in their schools. To within a few years Louisiana has printed her laws in French as well as English. In New Mexico there was strong opposition to inserting in the act of ad mission as a state, by the last Congress, a clause requiring English to be taught in the public schools.

At the time of the separation it is evident that there was no ascendency of English blood in the then United States. After the acquisition of that portion called “The Louisiana Purchase,” which added so many French, and later, the acquisition of Texas and the territory from Mexico (embracing California, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Colorado and Idaho), populated by Spanish, it left those of English blood largely in the minority. And, since we have become an independent nation, the immigration from other countries has been largely in excess of that from England. There have nearly as many come to us from the Scandinavian countries alone as from England. England’s colonies have offered inviting fields for her surplus population. Other countries, not having such outlets of their own, have given us liberally of their enterprising sons.

By the census of 1890 it is shown that 20,676,046, or thirty-three per cent of the whole population of the United States, were of foreign parentage – that is, per sons born in foreign countries, with their children. Children born to the second and later generations would be classed as natives. Of those of foreign parentage there was but 9.37 per cent from England. From the Scandinavian countries, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, the percent age is 7.49, or more than seven-ninths as many as from England. Of French and French Canadians there was 3.75 per cent, or more than one-third as many as from England. Ireland furnished us 24 per cent, while Germany’s proportion was 33.39 per cent. Austro-Hungary, Italy and Russia each gave small percent ages by this census, but the immigration from these countries has largely increased since 1890.

In 188o the whole number of persons of foreign parentage was Io,892, or 5, the total population being 50, 155,783. The percentage shown by this census, of the nationalities of the foreign born population, does not materially differ from that shown by the census of 1890.

In 1870 the foreign born population was 5,567,292, of which England furnished 550,688, or one-tenth.

From the statistics given it may be safely inferred that more than fifty per cent of the population of this country has come to us from abroad, or has descended from those who have come, since the Revolution. Making a liberal allowance for those of English blood, who have come from Canada and other provinces, there is not over one-seventh of this added population English.

It will, then, be seen that the people of the United States, or America as we are called abroad, is not composed of pure English stock. It is safe to estimate that not thirty per cent of the blood of Americans is English. In fact, I think that outside of New England not one family in one hundred is of unmixed English blood, and into New England there has been, during recent years, a heavy immigration of Canadian French to the manufacturing towns, while Scandinavians have begun to occupy the deserted farms, notably in Massachusetts.

Mr. Carnegie says that the American, in many respects, resembles the Scotch man more than the English. There is no doubt that the infusion of Norse blood into the American has brought him to resemble the Scotch, who are largely of Scandinavian origin. Matthew Arnold noted the difference in the appearance of the two peoples. In his first visit to this country he wrote of us: “The American  Philistine, however, is certainly far more different from his English brothers than I had before supposed.” All travelers note this difference. An American in London is known at sight by every bootblack, while in America an English man can no more conceal his identity than can the bewhiskered Russian. With the Scandinavian it is different. A young man from the cities of Sweden or Nor way has but to change his clothing and learn to speak our language and he be comes an American, through and through. In looks, in actions, he cannot be detected from one to the manor born.

It is not strange that Mr. Carnegie, reclining within the shadow of the craigs of his native Scotia, should “look for ward” with fond hope to a union of his native land with the country of his adoption. His natal instinct binds him with reverence to the land of his birth, while admiration for the land where his years of active manhood were passed would prompt such a desire. Here, by energy and foresight, he wrought a name and acquired a fortune, which enables him to recline with ease and to dispense with a liberal hand from an ample store, in aid of worthy objects. What more natural than to overlook all obstacles to a union, which would be fraught with such pleasurable emotions?

In his desire for the union he fails to read aright “the writing between the lines” in the credentials to, and the resolutions and petitions passed by, the Continental Congress. There was a desire for liberty and separation, widespread and general, throughout the Colonies. Had his ancestors passed through that struggle, he would have felt that some thing deeper than the asking for a few concessions animated the members of that convention and the people whom they represented. But they were willing to wait, were willing to petition for that which they knew would not be granted. By a conservative, conciliatory course, they cemented more firmly all classes at home. By this course they won many friends among the Liberals in England, and appealed more strongly to the sympathies of other nations. Had England, at that time, yielded to the petitions, the separation might have been delayed, but that it would, eventually, have come, there is little doubt.

The obstacles to a union with England are insurmountable, were it even desirable. The argument for the union, on the ground of unity of race, hangs by a very slender thread. There is but one bond, and that is one language. Great Britain is too great and too powerful to become a component part of another nation. If she could become the con trolling spirit, the governing hand, then would she consent to the union, or an absorption.

Mr. White* speaks of a possible dissolution of the British empire and says “the welfare of the United States is bound up with the maintenance of the British Empire” [*North American Review, April, 1894]. Great Britain is not going to dissolve, nor will her power be materially curtailed for centuries. She is the newest nation of Europe, with the latest commingling of races, and, by the trend of natural causes, should be the last to decay. And America is large enough, strong enough to take care of herself. She does not need, as suggested by Mr. White, the assistance of the powerful British navy to protect her commerce or cause her just edicts to be respected throughout the world. For four decades her internal development has absorbed the greater part of the attention and energy of her people. The bulk of her products, both of field and factory, has been required at home. When the surplus, to any great extent, exceeds the home demand, she will find ways and means to increase her commerce. She will not “be satisfied to take a back seat , in the councils of the world.” Neither will she be required to do so.

It is not best, were it practicable, that there should be such a union. Great Britain will accomplish her proper destiny. The United States has a work to do which she can better do alone than by uniting her destiny with any other nation. True, as Mr. Carnegie says, “The combined fleets would sweep the seas.” But this is not what we want. It is not what the world needs. America’s ambition is not, and should not be, to help to strike terror. Her mission is and should be, “On earth peace, good will toward men.” Her territory is from ocean to ocean. From her Atlantic seaboard she should send cheer and succor to the hungry and needy of Europe. From her Pacific shore she should extend to China and Japan, and the islands of the sea, her friendly offices. To all asking aid, she should be ready to send that which would cheer, but never that which would destroy.

Sir George Clarke* alludes to the spontaneous assistance rendered by the United States flag-ship in restoring order at Alexandria [*North American Review, March, 1894]. Also, of the generous cheers of the American seamen at Samoa, when H. M. S. Calliope reached a place of safety. He cites these instances as showing the comity of the two peoples. These were not differing instances from what Americans would have accorded to those of any nation. America does not confine her sympathy or assistance to those who speak her language. The cause of humanity warms the breast of all true men towards all peoples, no matter of what tongue or clime.

We now have enough territory. We need no more land. We have much to do to build up and develop that which we have. To educate, to assimilate the multitudes that come to us, is no small undertaking, but we feel competent to its accomplishment. By the proper mingling of the various races, like the blending of different ores in a furnace, a better product results.

Adam Ferguson, an Edinburgh professor of the last century, begins one of his lectures with these words: “No nation is so unfortunate as to think itself inferior to the rest of mankind; few are even willing to put up with the claim of equality.” We, of America, in this respect, do not vary the rule. An unwillingness “to put up with the claim of equality” is inherited by us. Our ancestors brought this inheritance with them across the Atlantic, planted it in good soil on this side and it has had a healthy growth.

Then the second wave of infections hit…

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The 1918 Flu did not begin as an obvious pandemic and public health catastrophe. When the first cases appeared, experts and officials realized it was worse than the common flu, but it still seemed relatively mild and manageable. Beyond some closings in specific places, few took it seriously.

Besides, some were loudly vocal in their opposition to what they perceived as overreaction in trying to control the viral outbreak. And most leaders wanted to keep the economy going and the keep the factories open, if only for the war effort. A few more deaths of workers was deemed acceptable as sacrifices for the national good, the health of the economy, and whatever other reasons were given.

This allowed infections to spread around the world during the early period. And in spreading, it allowed this influenza virus to further mutate and quickly take hold across the global population. This set the stage for what was to follow when the next flu season came around later that year.

Then the second wave of infections hit with a new strain that was far more deadly. It is that second wave that we now remember as the greatest pandemic of the 20th century. Many millions of Americans died and, at that point, it was too late to have attempted to get it under control. The spread of the infection had to burn its way through the population.

Does the first part of that sound familiar? We now await the second wave of COVID-19 infections. No one knows what will happen. Going by testing data, it appears that only a small portion of the the United States population has been infected so far. One difference to the 1918 Flu is that governments this time around did put control measures into place, but that has only temporarily halted the spread while the virus goes partly dormant with warmer weather.

We will find out what happens this next fall and going into winter. The pandemic might fizzle out with only a few hundred thousands of Americans dead from COVID-19. Or as the leadership pushes to reopen the economy and larger society with few systematic and coordinated protective measures put into place, we might see a repeat of history with millions of American lives sacrificed. It’s a gamble.

* * *

There is nothing wrong with making an informed calculation about public health, but it’s not clear this is what has motivated the present reopening. Few politicians have been transparent about their decision-making and the data it’s based upon. And fewer still, not even in the media’s supposed role of holding officials accountable, are talking about the long term scenario we are facing, a possibility even of a pandemic that lingers for years.

Instead, those in power and influence are acting as if the pandemic is coming to an end, not merely passing through a momentary reprieve. The public is not being prepared, psychologically or practically, for another period of infectious spread. Yet it’s certain that plenty of people in the leadership know about the high probability of an even worse return of the pandemic later this year, but obviously they don’t want the public to know about it or worry about it.

If preparations are being made for what might come, it is being done covertly. That is understandable, in that they might want to avoid further politicization of the situation. And no doubt any officials who spoke of the pandemic not only continuing but getting worse would find themselves a target of the Trump administration and many other powerful interests, a not comfortable or safe position to be in.

The problem is this is yet more paternalistic authoritarianism in shutting down democratic process and public debate. Decisions are being made for us and we are being kept ignorant. We are being treated as children not to be trusted with full knowledge and adult responsibilities, children to be taken care of and told what to do. So, like good worker-citizens, we should return to our proper place within the capitalist hierarchy and, as Bush Jr told us after the 9/11 attack, our patriotic duty is to get back to shopping.

The appearance of normalcy is what has been deemed most important. The status quo is dependent on it, as is the power and profit of those who have most benefited from this entrenched system of neoliberalism. But viruses don’t concern themselves with political priorities, economic demands, and ideological rationalizations. We will never return to normal and this will become ever more apparent as we enter this era of crisis after crisis, no matter what does or does not happen as we move toward the end of the year.

None of this is being discussed, not how this pandemic is probably related to climate change and environmental destruction, not how this pandemic was exacerbated by generations of a public health crisis, not to mention a public trust crisis. Simply put, we’ve been in a crisis for a long time and, pandemic or not, the state of crisis will remain unresolved. Besides, even if this pandemic dwindles away in a less than dramatic fashion, it’s almost guaranteed that we will be facing other pandemics in the near future as the conditions are ripe for the spread of disease, similar to the spread of invasive species we’re also experiencing worldwide.

This is not a time to let down our guard. Then again, those well-informed have known this for decades. So, why do we keep finding ourselves surprised and unprepared when each new crisis appears on the horizon?

* * *

Much of this has to do with our public imagination, what we are collectively capable of thinking about and envisioning. This COVID-19 situation does not fit our perception of how a pandemic is supposed to look. When we have a pandemic in mind, most of us look back to something like the Black Death where so many people died that there weren’t enough people left to keep up with burying the dead.

It doesn’t occur to us that even some of the worst pandemics could begin so unimpressively, as was the case with the 1918 Flu. And since we have no living memory of a pandemic in the Western world, we have no basis to consider even what this pandemic might mean even as we’re in the middle of it. All the average person knows is that governments are reopening their economies and, intentionally or not, that sends a signal that all is well again.

Since there aren’t dead bodies piled in the streets, maybe most people assume that either the pandemic is over or there never really was a pandemic in the first place. The thought that the worst might be yet to come is simply not in public awareness, as it’s not a part of public debate, much less public messaging from officials and experts. And plenty of those seeking to shape the public imagination are happy to keep the public ignorant, so as to suppress fear and anxiety and panic.

Yet public imagination has permanently been impacted by these events. Most Americans still are reluctant about the economy reopening, not supporting the idea of being forced back to work when there is still a chance that they can be infected and die or that they might endanger the lives of loved ones. As increasing number of politicians take measures that indicate everything is winding down and returning to normal, a sense of caution and concern remains in the air. More people than ever are wearing masks, for example.

Despite lacking accurate historical knowledge of other pandemics, maybe on an unconscious level the public does sense that we are far from being in the clear, that the world still is not yet safe. Suppressed though it is, the public imagination is also being informed by the lack of public trust specifically in those trying to manipulate and manage public perception. Whether or not they could consciously articulate it, much of the population likely has a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

* * *

This brings us back to the precautionary principle. We are entering an era of crises. There is no doubt that governments are preparing for disasters, but the kind of preparation governments tend to make have to do with hurricanes, wars, and such. It seems apparent that the United States government had almost no serious preparation for a pandemic.

A slow-burning pandemic like this simply doesn’t fit into the political imaginary. The weakness of the precautionary principle is that it’s dependent on our ability to imagine possibilities. We need experts who are educated and trained to imagine what others find impossible to imagine, so as to prepare for what otherwise would be unpredictable.

In general, hyperobjects that pose slow violence don’t inspire collective action. They are too hard for most people to comprehend. Examples of this are invisible things like lead toxicity and climate change. We can’t see them happening, can’t see what they are doing to us and the world around us. So, we have no emotional and visceral response to their threat.

Related to COVID-19, another example is that of the chronic diseases that are comorbidities of infectious diseases. These are also referred to as the diseases of civilization, as they appear with the rise of civilization and worsen with the development of civilization, from agriculture to industrialization. How health declines across generations was scientifically studied in the early 1900s by Weston A. Price and Francis M. Pottenger Jr, although observations were made in the century or two prior.

The earlier 1918 flu became a pandemic because of changing conditions. This included the mass urbanization and industrialization that was changing lifestyles and diets, such as creating crowded conditions and malnutrition. Just hitting adulthood was the first generation that was majority urbanites. In the early 1900s, European immigrants were already noticing that American children looked chubbier, an early sign of metabolic disease, although obesity wouldn’t be considered a public health crisis until the 1950s.

The 1918 flu may never have become a pandemic if not for the worsening health in the Western world. The same might be true now for COVID-19. Such conditions of public health could be the decisive factors for which infectious diseases become pandemics.

As a precaution, the best preparation possible for any and all crises is to improve public health. Even preparing for war requires a public healthy enough to serve as soldiers, a problem Western countries faced a century or so ago when much of the population couldn’t serve in the military because of malnutrition and maldevelopment. Obesity has become a problem in the military now.

A pandemic doesn’t come out of nowhere. The conditions for it develop over long periods of time, sometimes over generations. Such conditions might determine if infectious diseases remain a minor concern or run rampant across a population. Other conditions that unleash infectious diseases have to do with environmental destruction that stresses the health of both humans and wild animals.

The precautionary principle suggests we should expect the worst and expect the unexpected. It also suggest we shouldn’t push our luck.

* * *

Relevant articles:

Three potential futures for Covid-19: recurring small outbreaks, a monster wave, or a persistent crisis
by Sharon Begley

Coronavirus may last 2 years, study warns- and its second wave could be worse
by Dennis Wagner

Why a Mayo Clinic expert has concerns about second wave of COVID-19
by DeeDee Stiepan

Harvard epidemiologist: Beware COVID-19’s second wave this fall
by Len Strazewski

Why a Second Wave of Covid-19 Is Already a Worry
by John Lauerman

What If Covid-19 and Flu Both Flare Up This Fall?
by Robert Roy Britt

How will we know whether the coronavirus will come back stronger in the winter?
by Amina Khan

As States Rush to Reopen, Scientists Fear a Coronavirus Comeback
by Donald G. McNeil Jr.

A second wave of COVID-19 is probable, if history tells us anything
by Ashley Wadhwani

‘The 1918 Spanish flu’s second wave was even more devastating’: WHO advises caution to avoid ‘immediate second peak’
by Quentin Fottrell

What a Second Wave of Coronavirus in the Fall Could Look Like
by Heather Grey

Second more deadly wave of coronavirus expected ‘to hit Europe this winter’
by Anne Gulland

Aftershock: If coronavirus swells in a second wave later this year, will the nation be ready?
by Dennis Wagner

Flu and coronavirus will launch dual ‘assault’ on America next winter if we don’t prepare now, CDC chief warns
by Brandon Specktor

CDC director warns second wave of coronavirus is likely to be even more devastating
by Lena H. Sun

COVID-19 Update: US Second Wave May Happen in Fall and Winter; Here’s How to Stop it, Says Fauci
by Jamie P.

Dr. Anthony Fauci on How America Can Avoid a Second Wave of the Coronavirus
by Soo Kim

For historical perspective, see the Twitter feed by John Zahorick:

100 YEAR OLD NEWS is like new news.
October 7, 1918
“Daily influenza reports ordered”
“All churches, fraternal orders, and clubs were requested to remain closed on Sunday.”
“SALOON MEN PROTEST AGAINST CLOSING ORDER”

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October 11, 1918
“Severe Embargo on Schools, Theaters, Churches and All Public Gatherings, Effective Tonight”
“A number of speakers to voice a protest against the closing order as being more drastic than the emergency demands”

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December 17, 1918
“SPANISH INFLUENZA MORE DEADLY THAN WAR”
“More deaths have resulted in a little more than a month from this disease than through our whole 18 months participation in the battles of WW I”

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July 30, 1919
“Congress Urged to Pass Flu Bill”
“The epidemic found the nation unprepared”
“470,000 deaths in America last year, 50,000 this Spring”
“Economic loss in ran into the billions”

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Political Super-Predators

Let’s travel back to the wondrous age of the early 1990s. The Cold War had ended and the culture wars replaced it. It was the End of History and this entailed a sense of anxiety, even moral panic. Change was in the air. One of the changes was seen in the 1970s and even more in the 1980s. A decade after that, it felt like a crisis. There had been a wave of violent crime. That led to a number of crime bills being proposed in the 1990s, although by that point the violence was on the decline, not that anyone was paying attention to such minor details.

We now know it was the result of a twenty-year lag of lead toxicity rates from the rise of post-war mass industrialization and car culture. Basically, lead fucks up brain development of the young. This results in stunted IQ combined with problems of impulse control and aggressive behavior. But the lag time comes from the results not being fully seen until the brain-damaged children reach adulthood. None of this was understood at the time, though. There was simply a sense that something had gone terribly wrong and something must be done about it.

Listen to the fear-mongering of Joe Biden from back in 1993 in his talking about criminal ‘predators’ and realize that Republicans sounded far worse at the time. It was an era of ruthless scapegoating. And reactionary authoritarianism had become bipartisan. Maybe the lead toxicity was impairing the brain functioning of old people too. Such cruel, ignorant words do sound a bit aggressive and lacking in impulse control. Here is Biden ranting:

“We have predators on our streets that society has in fact, in part because of its neglect, created…they are beyond the pale many of those people, beyond the pale. And it’s a sad commentary on society. We have no choice but to take them out of society….a cadre of young people, tens of thousands of them, born out of wedlock, without parents, without supervision, without any structure, without any conscience developing because they literally … because they literally have not been socialized, they literally have not had an opportunity….we should focus on them now….if we don’t, they will, or a portion of them, will become the predators 15 years from now.”

It was far from limited to Biden. Ignoring Republicans, other Democrats were talking this way. Bill Clinton gained power through racist dog whistles, such as his giving a public speech about the racist crime bill with black convicts chained up behind him and a Confederate/Klan memorial in the background. Even more famously, Hillary Clinton as first lady was just as dehumanizing and demonizing as Biden:

“But we also have to have an organized effort against gangs. Just as in a previous generation we had an organized effort against the mob. We need to take these people on. They are often connected to big drug cartels, they are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators — no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first, we have to bring them to heel.”

So, who were they talking about? In early 1990s, I was in high school. That label of predators or superpredators was describing my peers, Generation X. Many people may have forgotten that time or else are too young to have any memory of it. Millennials and Zoomers might be shocked by the kind of language used about the youth back then.

They think they have it bad these days because old people make accusations that they are poor because of eating avocado toast and that smartphones have made them socially stunted. That’s nothing. Back in the day, old people thought my generation was the spawn of the Devil, ridden with soulless sociopaths. Watch some of the movies from that era. Children and youth were commonly portrayed as not only violent criminals but also as monsters, demonically possessed, and other dark fantasies.

Those old white people, Biden a Silent and Clinton a Boomer, were not only yelling at kids to get off of their lawn but to get out of their society and locked away in prisons. That is exactly what followed. It was mass incarceration that targeted the young. The United States prison population was already the largest in the world and it then grew larger still. The schools went into lockdown with security guards and metal detectors. No tolerance policies were put into place and the school-to-prison pipeline was established. Young people were enemy number one.

Here we are still ruled by these hateful neocons, cranky old white people who have become even older and crankier. They won’t just go away and die. Hillary was the last Democratic nominee for presidential candidate. And now it’s creepy Uncle Joe. Of course, Clinton lost to Donald Trump, yet another hateful neocon and cranky old white person, not to mention an old family friend of the Clintons. In that same era during a rape case, Trump pushed for the death penalty of the Central Park Five, the young minorities who turned out have been innocent.

In projecting their own sociopathy, these heartless assholes attacked others as being threatening social deviants. In the decades since that time, these narcissistic authoritarians have done far more damage to our society than all the incarcerated poor and minorities combined. If we wanted to improve the world, I have an opinion about which super-predators should be locked up. Instead, we are discussing which one of these corrupt plutocrats is the lesser evil to be put into the ultimate position of power, president of the United States. So many decades after history supposedly ended, that dark era of history still haunts us.

Will Present ‘Radicalism’ Become the Future’s Moderate Centrism?

According to the media and parties owned by the plutocracy, moderately liberal GenXers like us are radicals. Yet, going by public opinion seen in polls, we ” sit squarely in the center along all these dimensions; the perfect middle child tucked into the interior of the American range of opinion and demographics” (David Dunning, At this rate, Gen X might never get to be president of the United States of America). The younger generations are even further to the left, but politics hasn’t yet caught up and won’t for a while longer, maybe not until the next decade or so.

Once enough of the long-lived Silents and Boomers exit the sphere of power and their reactionary views go with them, Millennials and Zoomers will become ever more influential, even dominant. Then maybe the many moderately and mildly liberal GenXers could be the new standard-bearers of ‘conservatism’. The divide would not be between right and left but between liberalism and progressivism, the left and further left. But it would also become a generational culture war. The large generation of Boomers, although aging rapidly, are far from being down and out.

If the younger generations prevail through sheer numbers as their percentage of the voting public rises, anything to the right of GenX-style liberalism will be right-wing extremism. And what goes for conservatism now might become a fringe view represented by impotent third parties. As we sometimes wonder, the Democrats could become the new conservative party with the Republicans returning to their progressive roots of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt (heck, even Nixon was more progressive than the present Clinton Democrats).

The change might already have been signaled by Donald Trump winning the election with campaign rhetoric that was economically far more progressive than that of Hillary Clinton (Old School Progressivism), even if that rhetoric was empty. Ironically, the DNC, in blocking their own progressives, still lost to the progressive vision, albeit distorted by populist anger and fear. This hasn’t stopped young Democrats from their ongoing push leftward, as ever more geriatric oligarchs are ousted from power by more youthful voices demanding left-wing policies like universal healthcare that are wildly popular.

I wouldn’t mind living in a world where a demand for core liberal rights and freedoms is considered the non-negotiable starting point, not a luxury that we might get around to sometime in the future, the bait-and-switch that the old Democrats have been playing since the New Deal ended. Admittedly, I never felt like a radical in my valuing basic human decency and my egalitarian sense of fairness and justice. It would be refreshing to live in a functioning social democracy. What a pleasant dream and I want to pause a moment just to savor it…

But all of that said, my GenX cynicism is quick to offer a warning. As with Trump, earlier right-wing reactionaries such as Adolf Hitler have used progressive rhetoric to seize power and enforce authoritarianism. As we enter an age of crisis and catastrophes, there will be many opportunities for a right-wing takeover. And when an oppressive ruling elite gains control of the police and military, it is irrelevant what most people believe and value. This youthful movement of hope could be shattered in an instant. Then again, progressivism historically has always been messy.

Still, it definitely is interesting times. No one is likely to capture the future but through progressivism. Right-wingers now have no option but to hold up their own ethno-nationalist brand of progressivism, to make America great again. This is seen with the youngest Republicans who, on some issues, are more liberal-minded than the oldest Democrats, in supporting certain policies pretty far to the left. Even if the right-wing authoritarians take over, they won’t be the neoliberals, neocons, and theocons that have caused so many problems in recent times. The right-wing will be forced to redefine itself entirely to stay relevant.

Progressivism will almost certainly be victorious in the coming decades. The question is what kind of progressivism and to what end. Progressivism has had a mixed past going back to the Whiggish history of colonial imperialism. Never doubt that reactionaries can be brilliant in co-opting anything, even the radical left-wing dreams of the young. On the other hand, we shouldn’t forget we are a country founded on a revolutionary fight against oppression. With both parties ailing, something else is on the horizon (A New Major Party). I’ll hold onto my sense of hope for as long as I can.

—–

The Coming Generation War
by Niall Ferguson and Eyck Freymann

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is often described as a radical, but the data show that her views are close to the median for her generation. The Millennials and Generation Z—that is, Americans aged 18 to 38—are generations to whom little has been given, and of whom much is expected. Young Americans are burdened by student loans and credit-card debt. They face stagnant real wages and few opportunities to build a nest egg. Millennials’ early working lives were blighted by the financial crisis and the sluggish growth that followed. In later life, absent major changes in fiscal policy, they seem unlikely to enjoy the same kind of entitlements enjoyed by current retirees.

Under different circumstances, the under-39s might conceivably have been attracted to the entitlement-cutting ideas of the Republican Tea Party (especially if those ideas had been sincere). Instead, we have witnessed a shift to the political left by young voters on nearly every policy issue, economic and cultural alike.

As a liberal graduate student and a conservative professor, we rarely see eye to eye on politics. Yet we agree that the generation war is the best frame for understanding the ways that the Democratic and Republican parties are diverging. The Democrats are rapidly becoming the party of the young, specifically the Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z (born after 1996). The Republicans are leaning ever more heavily on retirees, particularly the Silent Generation (born before 1945). In the middle are the Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980), who are slowly inching leftward, and the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), who are slowly inching to the right.

This generation-based party realignment has profound implications for the future of American politics. The generational transition will not dramatically change the median voter in the 2020 election—or even in 2024, if turnout among young voters stays close to the historical average. Yet both parties are already feeling its effects, as the dominant age cohort in each party recognizes its newfound power to choose candidates and set the policy agenda. Drawing on opinion polls and financial data, and extrapolating historical trends, we think that young voters’ rendezvous with destiny will come in the mid to late 2020s. […]

If Roosevelt was right, and demographics are destiny, then the Democrats are going to inherit a windfall. Ten years from now, if current population trends hold, Gen Z and Millennials together will make up a majority of the American voting-age population. Twenty years from now, by 2039, they will represent 62 percent of all eligible voters.

If the Democrats can organize these two generations into a political bloc, the consequences could be profound. Key liberal policy priorities—universal Medicare, student-loan forgiveness, immigration reform, and even some version of the Green New Deal—would stand a decent chance of becoming law. In the interim, states that are currently deep red could turn blue. A self-identifying democratic socialist could win the presidency. […]

It is therefore unsurprising that large majorities of young voters support economic policies that Ocasio-Cortez describes as “socialist.” According to a Harvard poll, 66 percent of Gen Z supports single-payer health care. Sixty-three percent supports making public colleges and universities tuition-free. The same share supports Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal to create a federal jobs guarantee. Many Gen Z voters are not yet in the workforce, but 47 percent support a “militant and powerful labor movement.” Millennial support for these policies is lower, but only slightly.

Younger voters are also far left of center on most other economic and social policies. They are particularly opposed to the Trump administration’s handling of immigration. Americans 35 and older are nearly evenly divided on the issue of President Trump’s border wall. Among voters under 35, this is not even a question. Nearly 80 percent oppose the wall. […]

When the question is posed as an abstraction, most Gen Zers don’t trust the federal government either. But they favor big-government economic policies regardless because they believe that government is the only protection workers have against concentrated corporate power.

Philosophically, many Gen Zers and Millennials believe that government’s proper role should be as a force for social good. Among voting-age members of Gen Z, seven in 10 believe that the government “should do more to solve problems” and that it “has a responsibility to guarantee health care to all.”

Young voters are also far more willing than their elders to point to other countries as proof that the U.S. government isn’t measuring up. Gen Z voters are twice as likely to say that “there are other countries better than the U.S.” than that “America is the best country in the world.” As Ocasio-Cortez puts it: “My policies most closely resemble what we see in the U.K., in Norway, in Finland, in Sweden.” […]

Even young Republicans have been caught up in this philosophical leftward drift. Gen Z Republicans are four times as likely as Silent Generation Republicans to believe that government should do more to solve problems. And only 60 percent of Gen Z Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance, while his approval among all Republicans hovers around 90 percent.

In short, Ocasio-Cortez is neither an aberration nor a radical. She is close to the political center of America’s younger generations. […]

However, on most other issues, the demographic trend lines are clear: By the mid 2020s, if a preponderance of young voters support an issue, the Democratic Party will probably have no choice but to make it central to the platform. Today, 43 percent of self-identified Democrats are either Gen Zers or Millennials. By 2024, by our calculations, this figure might rise to 50 percent. If the Democrats are not already the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they will be soon. […]

In the 2020s, the Silent Generation will fade from the scene. This will happen at precisely the same time that history suggests younger, more left-wing voters will start to vote at higher rates. To attract more Boomers, and some Gen X men, the GOP may paint the Democrats as radical socialists and do all it can to fan the flames of the culture war. To avoid splintering along generational lines, Democrats will likely redouble their focus on health care, a rare issue that unites the party across all age groups.

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* Progressives on the political right often don’t like to be labeled progressives. Instead, they call themselves populists. But there is a Republican leadership now pushing conservative progressivism and it couldn’t be called anything else. Their actions will most likely, at least in the short term, be co-opted by the corporatocrats and inverted totalitarians. Still, it shows a change is in the air.

This was seen earlier with Steve Bannon’s economic nationalism, a pillar of old school progressivism. And indeed the rhetoric was used by Trump to gain power and ultimately used to undermine this ideological vision. Nonetheless, many of Trump’s supporters took his lies seriously and so, even if unintentionally, Trump has altered the political terrain in preparing the soil for progressive policies.

This lends further support to leftist progressives. Alliances will begin to form across party lines, as it did during the earlier Progressive Era. The corporate media and corporatist politicians don’t like to talk about how progressive policies are wildly popular across the political spectrum. The controlling interests of the bipartisan hegemony, of course, will resist this ideological shift.

The New Populist Right Imagines a Post-Pandemic America
How a new conservative thought collective is responding to the pandemic.
by Matt Stoller (text below is from linked article and a comment)

Though I’m a Democrat, the people most interested in these ideas are on the right. In late February, Senator Marco Rubio’s staff invited me to a debate over industrial policy. The question was basically, how do we handle China and its control over technology and manufacturing capacity? At the time, I noted what has now become conventional wisdom, which is that “our hospitals are critically under-sourced for things like respirators and masks, as well as chemical inputs for drugs, most of which are made in China.” But I’m just one voice of many that Rubio-world has consulted, because it’s a problem that he’s been musing over for some time.

Since 2016, the Republicans, long a party supportive of free trade with China, began changing their relationship to both China and big finance. Trump is a protectionist who loves tariffs and closing down borders. But behind him, there is a notable new thought collective of populists who pay attention to China, which includes figures like White House advisor Peter Navarro, Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, Senators Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, and Tom Cotton, American Compass founder Oren Cass, Rising anchor Saagar Enjeti and United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. The shift is not party-wide by any means, but it is substantial enough to massively influence policy.

This new populist thought collective includes some of the first major political figures to really get the impact of the Coronavirus, and it also includes some of the more assertive influencers of the policy debate. There is a deep streak of raw nationalism here, with Tom Cotton almost seeking great power conflict and acting reflexively hostile to multilateral institutions. But the nationalist rhetoric and jingoism of Trump can obscure a more sophisticated recognition by some people in this new populist world that the core dynamic of the China-US relationship isn’t two nation-states opposed to one another, it is an authoritarian government in China that is deeply aligned with Wall Street, against the public in both nations.

One way Rubio has tried to deal with Chinese control in the American economy is through industrial policy, meaning the explicit shaping of industrial enterprises by state financing and control. One of Rubio’s initial goals was to meet the security threat from Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant that is threatening to take over the global communications apparatus. But he’s also gone more broadly into manufacturing in general, and small business, which is a more Brandeis-style frame.

Regardless, the intellectual ferment on the right is real, and fascinating. The first fruits of this philosophical discourse is the massive SBA Paycheck Protection Program, which is a $349 billion lending program to small business negotiated with Democratic Senators. So far, the program excludes private equity-controlled corporations, and though that may change, such legislative design implies genuine skepticism of the role of high finance. That’s a significant shift from traditional Republican orthodoxy.

Joe Loiacono commented:

Matt – I’m a very strong Trump-supporting conservative and until recently saw absolutely no common ground with progressives on any subject. However, recently I have. And I agree we might be the Populist Republicans (vs Establishment.) The common ground is Anti-Trust, which is really an umbrella that in addition to monopoly prevention extends into Federal Reserve shenanigans, deficit spending and protection of small businesses.

Together we could make some very quick and impactful steps starting with the Federal Reserve. I have found common ground with hte like of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders I would never have admitted. See the letter they wrote (still unanswered I believe) to the Federal Reserve with salient questions with respect to the Repocalypse and the hidden bailout of large banks. Big thanks to Bernie for being one Democrat to oppose TARP and to create things like the Sunshine Act. It would be yeoman’s work to identify the Senators and Reps that got the waiver for the Sunshine regulation in the CARES Act. Believe me, Populist Republicans would have none of it it they started pulling back the curtain.