Facing America’s Basement

Give us your tired, Your poor, your truly huddled masses, Yearning to breathe free… James Baldwin once called this poem a cruel joke.

People are horrified, and rightly so, of our current administration’s policies. Trump and his band of Goldman Sachs alumni, Koch emissaries, racist/misogynist/transphobic/homophobic/xenophobic fearmongers, Christian fundamentalists, and profiteers stand to roll back what few gains have been made in the areas of civil rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, women’s rights, healthcare, the fight against poverty and warfare, and environmental issues.

But I’ve noticed something a bit, well, pearl-clutching about some of the objections to #45’s reign. “He’s not presidential,” or “how can Ryan be this inhumane” or other expressions of shock and dismay when a tweet or a policy gets rolled out. The anger is understandable. But the shock is not. We should continue to be angry and horrified about these things, lest we succumb to indifference. But we shouldn’t be surprised.

Now, if you’re young (I mean, really young), white, straight, able-bodied and cis-male and just joining the program, and most of your education about America’s comes from standard textbooks (they’ve gotten better since I was a kid, but still), the current gang of bandits in Washington may seem like something uncouth, unsavory, unusual. But the truth is, someone like #45 was bound to come along. Because the history of America is the history of just these kinds of policies.

THE REAL HISTORY

America’s current global economic, political and social prosperity and prominence comes from two sources: its land, and its labor. The land was stolen from First Nations by European colonists and their descendants, through a combination of bad faith treaties, economic pressure, and outright warfare and genocide. The labor was largely stolen as well —from enslaved Africans, indentured laborer, women, poor migrant workers, prisoners.

The wealth generated by the slave trade, by cash crops such as tobacco, sugar, and cotton, and by the businesses related to them (shipbuilding, molasses, financing services related to slavery, preserves, etc.) were shared between wealthy Southern and Northern elites, and provided the means for America to compete economically with the European empires. Figures for just how much wealth was generated by slaves either directly as a result of their labor, or the trade in goods and services they produced, or the industries their state of enslavement involved vary. But America’s largest concentration of millionaires prior to the Civil War was clustered around the banks of the Mississippi, in the prime cotton-growing areas.

In short, the America we know today would not have been possible without the stolen land and labor of millions of people, none of whom had anything we would recognize as basic rights. So while the Constitution of the United States is a fine document espousing noble principles, in practice this country was built on theft and greed.

There has been no serious effort to make reparations to any of these groups. Indentured servants eventually earned the end of their indenture, and some were paid for their work while indentured. The descendants of enslaved Africans, enslaved Native Americans, working women, and their latter descendants — migrant farmers, prisoners, sweatshop workers, sex workers, undocumented immigrants — have continued to suffer from unequal treatment under the law.

Efforts to correct these injustices have had a long history as well, but have been brutally repressed. The police and in some cases the military have been called upon to repress union uprisings, civil rights marches, American Indian activists, suffragettes, and their latter-day descendants. As anyone who’s been a part of recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations — or been to Standing Rock — can attest, the police have acted more like armed militarized thugs than anything resembling a civil force. We have increased our incarceration rate (we now house more prisoners than any other country) by enforcing a ridiculous and race-and-class based “war on drugs” and an undeclared war on immigrants. There are an estimated 2.3 million people in some form of incarceration, which includes 50,000 people in immigrant detention facilities.

All of #45s and his minions’ policies, proposals, and viewpoints have their historical antecedents. Mass deportation of “undesireables” —America did that, by deporting an estimated 2 million Mexicans and Americans of Mexican descent in the 1920s and 1930s, to “make way” for Americans to fill the job vacancies left behind. Suspicion of “foreign sabotage” led to the surveillance, theft, and imprisonment of roughly 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent. Like their “Mexican” counterparts, some had been living here for generations. Union organizers and anti-war activists in World War I were relabeled as “Communist Sympathizers” or were jailed under the Sedition Act of 1918 for their views. In 1932, World War I veterans who were in desperate need of early pensions that were promised them by the government in return for their service, organized one of the largest “occupations” of Washington DC in history up to that point (about 43,000). That occupation was forcibly removed by Army troops and Washington DC policemen, led by then Chief of Staff MacArthur, Major George Patton and Major Dwight Eisenhower, under orders by Hoover. At least one veteran was killed and many were injured. People with mental and physical disabilities, as well as African-Americans and poor people have been (and in some cases continue to be) legally and systemically sterilized (because you probably can’t believe that, here’s a link: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/unwanted-sterilization-and-eugenics-programs-in-the-united-states/) and/or experimented on. This is simply a small sampling of the brutal domestic policy decisions that have undercut our claims to be a democratic and just country.

OUR FOREIGN POLICY

Those policies have been matched in equal measure by our foreign economic and military policies, including (just to name a few) the 1954 CIA-backed coup by the Shah of Iran that kicked out democratically elected president Mossadegh, and started a nearly 30-year dictatorial reign. In 1973 the US backed then-general Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Argentina, leading to a two-decade long brutal regime. We’ve dropped cancer-and chemical-burn causing defoliants in Vietnam, firebombed civilian targets in Tokyo, sold cluster bombs (prohibited under international law) to our allies in Saudi Arabia (another brutal regime we back) and dropped them ourselves in Afghanistan. Richard Nixon and (future Nobel Peace Prize-winner) Henry Kissinger single-handedly (and unconstitutionally, as it turned out) expanded the Vietnam war into Cambodia and Laos by deliberately bombing civilian targets in those countries, and backing their anti-democratic leaders. We currently have Special Operations bases and teams in roughly 30 countries in Africa, and are militarizing large swaths of Kenya and Ethiopia (supposedly to defend against Somali-backed terrorists, but in reality to maintain a strategic anchor in the region).

In short, our government has rather undemocratically killed or turned into refugees many people across the globe, in the name of national security, while also suppressing resistance movements here.

THIS IS THE BASEMENT

This is our basement. This is the side of the country many people don’t like to look at, and instead box up with all the other ugly things. It doesn’t jibe with the image we present, the “America for All” that people on both sides of the political spectrum believe. Hell, I want to believe that we can live up to the words of The New Colossus, the poem written by Emma Lazarus (herself descended from Jewish German and Portuguese immigrants). But I know that only seldom have we ever as a nation lived up to that promise.

Individual people and communities across this country have shown tremendous courage and generosity; there is no shortage of imagination, daring, and compassion here. But we have to be honest about our government’s and businesses’ policies, past and present, or all that transformative potential — the possibility of creating a truly just home for ourselves and our brothers and sisters across the world — will not succeed. We have to face the monster in our basement, in all its ugliness, and defeat it at its roots.