REALITIES: Despair and Hope

A Sample Essay

2014

THINGS BEHIND OUR EYES: WHY WE CAPITULATE

I’ve been doing some very-interesting reading over the past year that helps draw back the curtain of murk over the thinking of many Americans concerning class and wealth. So far it seems to me that we are for the most part unaware of the cultural, ethnic, and experiential undercurrents that move us to tolerate and even accommodate exploitation by others.

There’s a subconscious current running beneath the way Americans have been schooled to see the world. It comes in part from the rationalizations of the eugenics movement of the late 19th century. There’s been a lot written about the eugenicists of that era and their successors, but the book that gave me the most about it is Edwin Black’s “War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race”.

Reading this book peels back the smooth layers of our culture to reveal a seething bed of racist and elitist justification for marginalizing, sterilizing, and even eradicating whole populations based on one or another of ethnicity, ‘race’, incompetence, laziness, language, incapacity, crime, and poverty. The book documents irrefutably the loyalties, commitments, and pronouncements of numerous prominent, respected, well-to-do Americans to these pseudoscientific fringes of thought. Even today we hear the same justifications, couched in innocuous-sounding terms (e.g., “the deserving poor”, “the degenerate criminal”) in public while their utterers parade these justifications proudly in the privacy and safety of their own domains (e.g., “the 47%”).

Now, as clearly shown with abundant supporting evidence, their pronouncements effectively deflect and distract from the continuing amassing and retention of wealth in their own hands, and that is exactly the way they want it. By setting the rest of the world’s peoples against one another, they stay safely out of view. It’s a sign of the effectiveness of their strategy that we carry within us, each of us, the idea that some among us are undeserving, and that quality of not being worthy seems to correlate all too well with some identifiable ‘other’ people, some unworthy target group that is thrown to us as a bone to a dog.

But that’s perhaps just the tip of the iceberg. Why would we consider ourselves undeserving or unworthy, and try to shun those qualities as we see them in others? Another penetrating book I’m reading now is “White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America”, by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh. The book lays bare the true meaning of the term ‘indenture’ as it was practiced up and down the pre-colonial American eastern reaches from the Puritans in the north to the planters in the south. It encompassed the poor and needy and criminal of England and Ireland in a dragnet that saw the indentured spirited willy-nilly as children and adults aboard ship, hauled to the New World, and put to work in servitude.

In short, indenture was not generally practiced as observing the period of work ending in the promised freedom and property for those who endured it. It was instead an endless cycle of extensions of its servitude that bound its victims just as slaves to their owners, with arrests, floggings, and further extensions of service for anyone daring to try to escape it. Call it slavery, because that’s exactly what it was.

This state of affairs endured into full colonial times, and then on into the early stages of our nation, especially in the south. As the demand for labor continued to mount, feeling increasingly grew against the use of the poor of the British Isles, so the slavers turned increasingly to other sources of labor. The capture, transport, and enslavement of Africans mounted staggeringly, and the ‘racial’ dimension of the problem became a useful distraction from its broader truth: no matter where the enslaved began their lives, the business of slavery ruled, generation to generation. It was profitable. It was easy to control psychologically and sociologically. It was enduring.

Its sociological and psychological effects on all its victims, no matter their color or place of origin, could only be devastating and enduring over all of those generations. Once a person was inured to hardship in servitude, and overpoweringly violated in one way or another for disobedience or escape, the model that person’s children witnessed formed a lifelong imprint on them as well. Even after freedom came much later, and the survivors awoke to lives of their own, within themselves they were still unfree.

I’m sure that by now, many women who are reading this essay are recognizing the patterns within themselves as well. Gender has its own powerful place in the patterns of servitude and submission.

Thanks in part to the ruling-class and serving-class mentality of our forebears, our whole society is still structured over the culturally-instilled and now-unconscious rules of dominance and submission. Call it the “bully society”; we rely on contention and win-lose behaviors in far too many of our life contexts. For example, the term “alpha male”, used originally to designate a dominant wolf in a pack of many wolves, has taken on common usage to refer to the boss person in a group. We are taught to submit to the bully even though we hear “fight back”; the underlying message whispered from within us, coming from lives and generations accustomed to being beaten down, is “but be sure to lose, or else much worse will be visited on you.”

I think that many of us have engraved deep in us these powerful currents of submissiveness and undeserving that we inherit from generations of oppression and exploitation. These influences make us willing to go into rooms with bankers, car salesmen, insurance salesmen, employers, and others presenting power, and emerge from the rooms not from fair negotiations to a deal, but from passively getting robbed. And I think this passivity is incredibly strange, considering that we could go into those places ready to leave them with no deal at all.

The reality is that we have power we can use; the puzzle is that we yield it so often and so easily. You might think that I’m connecting too many dots here. But think about it. The hardest things to see are the ones behind our eyes.

 

This essay is in a book of my essays. Get it here.

 

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