Recently I was rereading the absolutely essential A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, and again I was struck by it’s relevance to everyday life. Instead of a history of times past, the book serves as an explanation or annotation of society in the now, by showing you the real causes behind the mythology that most call American history. Combined with Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, you have a more honest picture of the essence of America- land of the free, perhaps- but be careful how you define “land” and “free”, and don’t peer too deeply into the cost of America, the Exceptional. Ours is the story of winners, losers, and the unwitting majority that didn’t realize that a battle was afoot.
West Indians knew the game was on when Columbus tied the first ropes around necks and marched the dark men into a waiting ship. Native Americans learned, sadly too slowly, to not accept the gift of blankets from the white men. Martin Luther King, Jr knew it long before a night in a Birmingham jail, and the guy cutting your hair without a wedding ring got schooled starting around fifth grade. They all knew that some people- mainly white/rich/straight males- won. And they didn’t. And since they didn’t win, they didn’t get to write the rules, nor the history books. Anthony Scalia was absolutely correct- in his narrow point- when he said that women weren’t protected under the Constitution. Neither were blacks, or Indians, gypsies or anyone who didn’t own enough to have skin in the game. It has only been the passage of time and the efforts of thousands of losers that we allow women to vote, blacks to own property, or gays to serve openly in the military. These people for all intents and purposes didn’t exist to the founding fathers, at least not as they did. They held the power, they wrote the rules, they won.
But to most in America, they didn’t really realize a battle was passing them by. They worked jobs, raised kids, watched TV at night. They assumed that everyone outside their doors were basically just like them. If you were black, or Mexican, or gay, well, they generally ignored you- because they won, and you lost. Somewhere, way back when, they won. America Exceptionalism was the undercurrent of everything they were taught and raised to understand. It’s the land of the free if you were already free to begin with, but not for all.
But America has moved demographically since they were children, and many find the notion impossible to accept. Some are birthers, living in a fairytale palace where Obama isn’t president, but rather a harbinger of the end times, sent to send capitalism and with it America to the dust bin. Others are fixated on immigration, belching out “Secure our borders!” before they waddle off to Wal Mart to buy cheap crap imported via ports that we don’t have the money to secure even if the “free market” would allow us. It’s doubtful that they could read Zinn without tossing it to the floor in disgust, and picking back up whatever twaddle Glenn Beck is hawking this week. But even the mild attempts our country has tried at evening the score alarms and repels them. Take the Tennessee Tea Party, who stated that in future textbooks, “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.” They want “kinder treatment” of the Founding Fathers, as if winning everything wasn’t kind enough. Or the Koch brothers, who, because they are rich white men who won, are succeeding in re-segregating North Carolina schools. And then there’s Mike Lee in Utah who seems to feel that somehow, there is something wrong with child labor laws.
Who knows how effective these sorts will be at turning America back into the grand old days of slaughtering Indians or cracking the whip over slaves, but I suspect we’ll see more and more attempts as the days go on. When I see Sarah Palin or some ghoul from the Pentagon co-opting Martin Luther King, Jr , I seethe, but in the end its just one more thing for them to steal for their own ends. Palin stated in her obligatory opt-ed:
“With Dr. King’s faith in God and his unwavering hope in a brighter, stronger future, let us recommit today to continuing his work for a more peaceful and just nation.”
King wasn’t talking about the same nation as Sarah Palin. He knew who won, and who lost. He knew that peace would pass America by until “We the People” meant everyone within its borders. He knew that America would never be just until the system that created injustice and applauded cruelty was destroyed. King was a great American. Sarah Palin is not. She just happens to be on the winning side.