Once Upon a Time in America

For centuries there’s been a myth at the heart of English political culture: Before the Norman Conquest and the imposition of feudalism, Anglo-Saxon England was an idyllic land governed by “the good laws of King Edward the Confessor,” where free juries protected the ancient rights of Englishmen, and everyone was as good as anyone else — and better than most. This idealized version of the ancient Anglo-Saxon Constitution, and of Magna Carta as an attempt to restore it, has been appealed to in the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and political reformist movements since. Of course it was mostly nonsense that bore little resemblance to actual history. Still, it probably had more truth to it than America’s own mythical past, as restated by Hillary Clinton.

There are many versions of the myth. In each of them, there was a just, harmonious America in the past until some villain replaced the “good laws of [fill in the blank]” with the reign of unrighteousness and tyranny. For the right wing the villain was the Federal Reserve Act, income tax and New Deal. For liberals it was Reagan and the Republicans. Clinton is typical of the latter.

In a campaign speech for the South Carolina primary, she said “We don’t need to make America great again. America never stopped being great. But we do need to make America whole again.” Further, America was “built by people who had each other’s backs. Who understood that, at our best, we all rise together.”

If England’s myth of the Anglo-Saxon Constitution was mostly bunk, this idealized picture of America’s past approaches 99 and 44/100 percent pure bunk. When did this America that was “whole,” in which we all “had each other’s backs,” ever exist? EVER? Who “had the backs” of the African slaves who died in chains working the plantations — and building the nation’s capital — and still live in disproportionate poverty under structural racism? Who had the backs of the Native population that was mostly exterminated? Or the majority of white immigrants before the Revolution who came here as transported convicts or indentured debtors — many of whom died in indentured servitude? Of the Revolutionary War soldiers who actually thought they were fighting for freedom, only to have it taken away and a native version of Imperial rule restored by a conspiracy of big landlords, Continental war bond speculators and slave plantation-owners?

Of the small farmers endlessly bled dry by taxation, usurious debt and rents, because so much of the land had been engrossed at the outset by the wealthy? Of the workers shot down like dogs, their strikes broken, by Pinkertons, cops and soldiers? Of the women who couldn’t own property, make contracts or vote on an equal basis for most of our history, and live under structural Patriarchy today? Of LGBT people whose right to live in happiness and have families is only now being legally recognized, and which until recently was actually subject to criminal prosecution in many areas?

From the very beginning, like every other class society and every state in history, America has been about the few, rich and powerful living at the expense of the many, poor and powerless. If there has ever been a “we” in the country it wasn’t some united, classless America “lifting everybody up together.” No, it was US, fighting against THEM — the same people who finance Hillary Clinton’s campaign today, the people she represents, the people she gives $200,000 speeches to.

As Howard Zinn said (“Removing America’s Blinders,” The Progressive, April 25, 2006), “Our culture demands, in its very language, that we accept a commonality of interest binding all of us to one another. We mustn’t talk about classes.” “Surely,” continued,

“in the history of lies told to the population, this is the biggest lie. In the history of secrets, withheld from the American people, this is the biggest secret:  that there are classes with different interests in this country. To ignore that — not to know that the history of our country is a history of slaveowner against slave, landlord against tenant, corporation against worker, rich against poor — is to render us helpless before all the lesser lies told to us by people in power.”

There’s never been an America — a world — where we all had each other’s backs. We can build one. But it won’t be by electing the right set of rulers. It will start with altogether throwing the state — and the capitalist and other privileged classes it represents — off our backs. It will start with realizing that everything we have, everything we need, is produced by our cooperative labor and peaceful social relationships. They need us; we don’t need them.

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