A TOUGH GO FOR AMERICAN CONSCIENCES

It was pointed out to me that there’s a lot we don’t know about the people who came before us.

How — why — they dressed and spoke and related to each other as people in their society. We are fuzzy about a lot of cultural material and mostly, we take our best guess as to what they were thinking as they lived from one day to the next in whatever capacity they lived it.

We have no clue about how our great-grandfather confessed his love to great-grandmother. We don’t know the words they used, or their tone of voice. We don’t know if their moment of passion happened at all. We don’t know because they left no evidence for us. They spoke differently, yet surely they held the same emotions we do — and we base all our fiction on that assumption. But of course, we could be entirely wrong. It’s just guesswork.

United States Slave Trade

On the other hand, we know precisely — anyone could know this because it’s easy material to find — that the people who drew up our Constitution precisely understood how deeply wrong slavery was. They knew — fully and completely — that failing to remove this horror would cause a war. A big war.

Many expressed gratitude they would not live to see it.


They knew right from wrong.


They spent agonizing hours, weeks, months and years writing about it. Discussing it. Keeping notes about what they said and what others said. They didn’t for a minute think building a nation on slavery was “okay.” Abigail Adams, for one, didn’t want to live in the White House — not merely because it wasn’t finished, but because slaves built it. Yet without the compromise of making slaves three-fifths of a person — a person who would never vote or have anything to say about his own life — there would not have been a Constitution or a country. Getting the country to be a country was, ultimately, what mattered. Under this devil’s decision lay the future in which we are now living.


We didn’t get here by accident. It wasn’t one bad election or a few unfortunate choices. The path on which we are walking was being laid out for us before there was a United State. The issues we now face have always been there. 


For all the northern objections to slavery, it wasn’t as if there weren’t any slaves in New England or New York. Southern plantations bought slaves, but New England sea captains brought them here. The first port of call for southern slave owners were the slave markets of New York and New England. Until the Constitution when northern slavery was formally abolished, there were plenty of slaves up north, too.

About those Native Americans from whom we grabbed this land and who we slaughtered so we could keep it? Of course we knew it was wrong. Maybe not every unread slob understood it, but anyone with a modicum of education got it. We still know it, even if we have tried our best to tuck the information as far from “common knowledge” as we can. We don’t want to think about what we did to get this place — and what we are still doing.

Did our ancestors understand this?

Yes.

But you see — they wanted this country. They wanted it and they wanted it beyond any moral compunctions. If that meant slaughtering entire tribes — see Andrew Jackson for more on that — so be it. Why should “those savages” get this rich and beautiful country? They didn’t deserve it. It should be ours. To make this righteous, we made up a bunch of crap about white being better than not white, but we didn’t get that from anyone’s religion. We quite simply made it up because we needed to believe it.

So, as has happened throughout history, we did what we wanted. We took everything, killed anyone who got in our way and have more less continued to do that ever since. Was it the first or last time an invading group of foreigners stole a nation from its native inhabitants? Obviously not.


I do not buy any concept which says “we didn’t understand what we were doing.” We knew just fine. Our ancestors — your ancestors — might not have talked the way we do, but they were much better at acknowledging good and evil. 


Again: How do we know this? Let me reiterate.

They wrote about it. At great length. In documents, diaries, letters, newspapers, and books. We don’t have to guess: they told us. Whether or not great granddad Josiah proposed in flowery English to great grandma Elizabeth may be a guess, but that Josiah thought our behavior toward slaves and Natives was wrong — we do know that.

What a great job we’ve done with the place!

The reason the Trump White House can do what it is doing is because there is so much hatred in this country. All he needed to do was play to the haters and leave the windows open. We don’t know what our so-called “leaders” believe, but we know who and what they hate. I don’t care in how many other countries this same ugly scene is happening. That doesn’t justify it happening here. If the whole world needs to clean up its act? So be it.


The majority is not necessarily right.


For my entire life, I believed this country — my country — was getting better. Was becoming more of what it said it wanted to be. That we were struggling, but trying to become a moral light in the world. I’m not seeing that anymore. Not on a national level. Are there many individuals who are still fighting the good fight? Sure. But nationally, as a nation, that isn’t what I see. I cannot begin to tell you how deeply disturbing I find this.

How is your conscience doing these days? Having a bit of a rough patch?

26 thoughts on “A TOUGH GO FOR AMERICAN CONSCIENCES

  1. Obviously we can’t undo what has happened in the past.We have to live with what our ancestors did but we could do better. Centuries have gone by but as nations we still don’t know how to behave decently to others.

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  2. There were slaves in the north as in the south for a very long time. The Mennonites in PA were the first to protest it, but the developers (including the Quakers) didn’t see how they’d manage to build a world without slave labor — including the labor of (sometimes lifetime) indentured servitude. They might have weighed the evils of slavery against their own greed in the scales of their conscience, but greed seems to have a terrible power over those who have it which is why it’s one of the seven deadlies…

    BUT I think it’s really difficult for us to understand what life was like before industrialization. This doesn’t mean I think slavery was OK. I don’t and I’m sure they didn’t.

    My personal opinion is that it’s less important that once we had slaves. Every civilization has had slaves. What is important is that we stopped. Many earlier civilizations stopped having slaves only when their civilizations themselves stopped.

    There is a lot of hatred in this country. Not all of it is racism. I honestly think that we can look to that bell curve of intelligence to explain a lot of it. Most people are not very bright. Some intelligent people are evil. I think it has been this way since the beginning of humanity. A guy like Trump lifts the words from the minds of the stupid and repeats them loudly, giving voice and legitimacy to what many of these people would never have said aloud themselves. He has unshackled them from their social consciousness, erased their shame at their lowest visceral impulses. He’s made “grabbing pussy” OK; he’s made it OK to hate people with different religions and darker skin; he’s legitimized greed and made nostalgia a valid perspective for entering the future. He’s even made it OK to be a child molester.

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    • I have no problem with believing that we are suffering an epidemic of stupidity and the lack of official slavery has not made everyone exactly free, either. There’s “free” — then there’s “FREE.” But that’s another conversation. I think my point is that we are where we are not because of one awful election, but of a long road of decisions made by our forefathers and by our grandparents and by us. Many — maybe most — of them seemed valid at the time, but EVEN when they were made, no one thought they were “good” decisions. What is more, the makers of these decision absolutely KNEW these choices were going to come back and bite us. They KNEW there would be a war. There were no questions about it.

      The issue of slavery — just that, not a bunch of other issues — was THE primary issue between the states and leaders BEFORE we had a constitution, or even a revolution. There were slaves everywhere, including the North until it was finally, formally banned there. New England sea captains brought the slaves. Slave markets in Boston and Rhode Island and New York sold human beings … after which they were moved southward. In this house, you don’t get away with saying slavery was entirely a southern thing.

      Slavery and racism has always been a fundamental issue in this country. Wherever else slavery existed, it wasn’t racial. You conquered a people — or they became sold for other reasons, but it wasn’t their skin color that made the decision.

      HERE, slaves were not a conquered people. These people were slaves from the get-go. Never free, never citizens, never any option to become such. That is different. To say that racism doesn’t lay at the bottom of most of our issues is naive. It is and it was and it probably will be a bottom-line issue that may never get fixed. That people are stupid and our leaders are even more stupid doesn’t help either.

      Is IS about race. Black people (and a lot of Natives who were also enslaved, by the by) were born, lived and died as slaves. They never got to fight. We didn’t meet them in battle and take their lands. They weren’t criminals. We went to their villages, far away, stole them, and made them our chattel.

      I understand why most people — white people — don’t want to see it that way. I get it. That is one of the biggest reasons things don’t change, because white people don’t want to see racism as the massive problem it is. And don’t think Black people who don’t talk about racism feel differently, either. They feel it. They just don’t want to discuss it, at least not with you — and probably not with me, either.

      White people will continue to believe things weren’t what they were because that’s the way they want it to have been. But it’s not true and refusing to see what was ain’t fixin’ nothin.

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      • I hate being lectured about what I already know and am not disputing. My whole point is that we ALSO made choices to stop doing what we were doing. I also don’t think you can generalize about white people any more than you would generalize about black people. I don’t actually know any white people who deny things were what they were. Not a one. I know they exist, but it doesn’t describe me or anyone in my little world.

        I think the point is not what things were as much as it should be “What are we going to do about its effect on our world now? How are we going to move forward ALL of us, into something better?”

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        • Basically, I agree, but sometimes, generalizations are the only way to deal with a larger issue. Individuals differ, but sometimes, so do generalizations. None of my friends are bigots. Not REAL bigots. Just ask them and they will tell you. They aren’t members of the Nazi party or the KKK. They work with people of all colors. They are the Good Guys.

          And yet, when we lived in Roxbury — an almost entirely black neighborhood — none of them would visit us. Too dangerous. And by dangerous, they meant NOT WHITE, but of course, they never said that.

          NIce people. Intelligent, well-educated, liberal people.

          Yes, they ARE racists. They don’t think of themselves that way and would be horrified to be considered as such, but there it is. They are afraid of people of color and while they may be friendly at work, they are NOT friends really. All those authors who cannot describe a person without mentioning their skin color … but they say they are liberals. If they said so, it must be true, right?

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          • My experiences and yours have some common points, but not all. Teaching inner city community colleges and living in a high crime “mixed” neighborhood? This problem cannot be solved in one fell swoop. Ultimately each individual— black, white, brown whatever has to contend with it in his own soul. I’m embarrassed for my friend who goes out of her way to recognize the black kid running the climbing wall at the potato festival BECAUSE he’s black not because he did a great job making it easy for her retarded son to climb the wall with the other “kids” but she’s got to wake up herself just like my black student who tried to get me fired for teaching Brave New World (whitey’s literature she called it) had to wake up. She did. We’re all in this together alone.

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  3. You put it well “They KNEW right from wrong”. We all KNOW that, whether or not we care to admit it. There is in all humans (save psychopaths I suppose) an innate knowledge of right. In my opinion for what that’s worth. But as I was typing in this comment, it occurred to me that despite that, we are brought up in different cultures and what is ‘right’ in one might be wrong in another. And as you point out so well, the trends (right way of doing things) in a given culture change over time. For what reason is something I don’t know. Someone comes to power who influences the definition of what is acceptable (right) perhaps.

    How is MY conscience these days? It’s just fine. Because I still hear that little voice that tells me what is right and what is merely going with the crowd. I fancy I have common sense too. And I have had no part in the current political circus, not having voted for what’s in there and actively voted against it when I could. And I do my small part to speak out against it when I see wrong being done. The bigger question might be is anyone listening any more (not to ME but to what is right)?

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    • My big point here is that our choices as a nation included some very unfortunate (okay, evil) decisions. Were they the only possible choice at the time? Maybe. Maybe not — but we’ve been paving the road we are now walking for a few hundred years. The Civil War didn’t END the issue — it really BEGAN the issue. So here we are. I didn’t vote for these idiots, but I’m in the same soup with everyone else. My personal conscience is just fine, but my national conscience isn’t doing nearly as well.

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  4. Everyone who has the power to land grab is doing it right now, as they always have and will continue to do so. Because they can. I don’t even want to get started on this subject. It bothers me.

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