I attended a Socialist Alternative branch meeting in Oakland today. At the end there is the technical business, including future topics and who is to present on them.
One was a historical dilemma that is essential to the United States: how can the American Revolution be seen as a struggle for freedom, if it was forwarded by slaveholders, who by the end had even more authority over the people they owned? Even a middle school history class tackles with that. Of course, when you bring in ideas of capital, imperialism, and white supremacy, there are more nuances to explore and consider.
Since I’m headed on a journey through western Canada tomorrow, I can’t write out in full the thought I had.
Wasn’t the American Revolution a fight both for and against imperialism? The colonists fought against British colonialism. Their victory allowed for a more complete imperialism of western Africa; both current slaves, and those to be taken from their homeland, were subject to imperial control. And because there was a 32 year gap between British abolition of slavery and US abolition, the colonies gaining independence brought decades more oppression.
Most Americans have forgotten how repressive a period World War I was. “You can’t even collect your thoughts without getting arrested for unlawful assemblage,” quipped the writer Max Eastman. “They give you ninety days for quoting the Declaration of Independence, six months for quoting the Bible.” Walter Lippmann said Woodrow Wilson’s administration had “done more to endanger fundamental American liberties than any group of men for a hundred years.”
What it comes down to is that there are two sides to any event, like a war or a terrorist attack, which rallies people together. There is union, but also violence and repression to those that are in the wrong place (or of the wrong race, or nationality) at the wrong time. Triumph over Nazi Germany and imperial Japan gets so much romanticism, but for 100,000+ Japanese-Americans who were herded into camps, they suffered because of the drive to war. Intellectuals of both liberal and conservative background have often welcomed war as an engine for social good, but as Randolph Bourne thought, “using war powers to achieve domestic reform is like using a firehose to fill a water glass”. Social solidarity in wartime comes with special symptoms: jingoism, inflexibility, and mob sanction.
1917 wasn’t just about giving the Kaiser a good licking, it was about government-led oppression against trade unionists, socialists, and anyone who opposed the war. That legacy remains with us- Edward Snowden, should he end up in US custody, would face charges under the Espionage Act of 1917, which doesn’t even allow him any kind of legal defense. Any justification, no matter how good, is irrelevant. That was the dark mentality of America at the time. You’re with us, or against us. No extenuating circumstances, no middle ground.
Changes like these are tough to gauge ahead of time. Certainly those of generations before me probably didn’t think that the entire Eastern Bloc would collapse in less than three years. Similarly, in the nine years between Massachusetts legalizing same-sex marriage and the two cases being decided 5-4, it seemed that total adoption of the policy was a generation away.
The tide may yet recede, but it appears that even though cultural bigotry towards gays and their rights continues to be strong, the legal façade is crumbling. Doesn’t matter if there’s a statutory ban or a constitutional one, those states that oppose same-sex marriage are falling to the same killer punch every time- equal protection under the law and due process, from the 14th Amendment. No state government or socially conservative groups has an answer. They’ve got numbers, they’ve got signs, they’ve got chants, they’ve got media coverage. They just don’t have one key thing.