14 May 2007

The View from Jamestowne

The big news from the Fourth Reich this past week has been the 400th anniversary of the Jamestowne settlement, which as I noted in my last entry was the first successful English colony in the Americas. Elizabeth II herself was in the U.S.A. this past week to help with festivities, and as a result, Bush had to go and get a crash course on how to behave in civilised society.

As might be expected, Bush used the occasion of his recent visit to Jamestowne to talk about how the 400th anniversary celebrations represent a chance to "honour the beginnings of our democracy" and "to renew our commitment to help others around the world realise the great blessings of liberty." (Reuters News via Yahoo!)

As I noted in my last entry, the English settlement at Jamestowne, and the subsequent establishment of the Commonwealth of Virginia are anything but examples of liberty and democracy. On the contrary, they represent the worst of America, and are the prototype of the dark side of the moral dichotomy that Anglo-America has been from the start. Jamestowne and Virginia owe their survival and subsequent prosperity to the cultivation of a highly addictive weed, nicotiania, and this cultivation in turn could not have succeeded without the institution of slavery. The English settlers initially relied primarily on white indentured servants from Britain to provide labour to the colony, although the first black slaves, imported from Portuguese Angola, arrived not long after the colony was founded. The reason for the preference was simple -- whites were cheaper. Over the course of the 17th century, as increased slaving brought prices down, the economic dynamics changed, and from the middle of the century, Virginia's aristocracy began favouring imported black labour, and set about changing the colony's legal framework to suit their greed. In 1662 an unprecedented law was passed -- from then on, all children born to slave women were to be considered slaves. Slavery had previously existed in Europe, Asia and Africa for millenia -- Persia, Rome, Turkey and other empires had previously supported their economies by using the labour of captives, POWs and others, but never had any society made the condition of slavery hereditary. In 1667, laws which made it illegal to keep Christians as slaves were abolished in Virginia and in 1669, it was made legal for a slave owner to kill a slave as his personal property. Again, there been numerous other slave owning societies, but rarely were masters given the legal right to kill a slave, nor was it ever previously common for economic status to be explicitly and legally associated with skin colour. It has been often noted that the "democratic" Greeks owned slaves, but there was no ethnic difference between patrician, plebeian and slave in Greek society.

By the end of the century, black persons in Virginia were presumed to be slaves, and freed slaves were obliged to leave the Commonwealth. Even in other slave-labour dependent European colonies -- Spanish Cuba, French Guadeloupe, Dutch Suriname and British Antigua -- manumission was common and free blacks were an accepted part of society. Not so in proto-Fascist Virginia. According to the historian Edmund Morgan (author of American Slavery, American Freedom) Virginia whites began actively promoting racist ideology as a means to dividing black slave labourers from the white rural proletariat (otherwise known as "white trash"), which might have otherwise been natural allies in class struggle.



A century later, the whole racist house of cards was threatened by developments in England. On 22 June 1772, the Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, ruling at the court at Westminster Hall, rendered judgement in a case involving a slave, James Somerset, who had been bought by one Charles Stewart in Virginia in 1749, and had subsequently followed in his service to Massachusetts, and then to London in 1769. Somerset, knowing that Stewart's visit in London was to be temporary, took the opportunity to escape, and in September 1771, disappeared from his master's service. Somerset was recaptured by slave catchers and placed in chains on a ship-- the Ann and Mary -- bound for the Caribbean and a life of labour in the cane fields. However, a witness to the seizure managed to secure a writ of habeus corpus, and the subsequent civil case revolved around whether or not a person could legally be considered property in the "free air" of England. Fortunately for Somerset, Mansfield's judgement was that "the exercise of the power of a master over his slave must be supported by the Laws of particular Countries; but no foreigner can in England claim such a right over a man." The consequence of this ruling was that regardless of his or her legal status in their master's home country, any slave was thenceforth considered to be legally free the instant they set foot on English soil.

Subsequently, opponents of slavery in Britain's American colonies sought to have the ruling applied to British America -- as well as England -- and the racist-capitalists of Georgia, the Carolinas, and above all, Virginia, knew that if they were successful, the party was over for them. Therefore, a handful of them, led by slave owners such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, Arthur Middleton and John Rutledge, joined with northern abolitionists John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and others in revolting against British rule, under the strict understanding with their northern compatriots that their rights as slave-owners were to be preserved under the new, independent government. Without the support of the Virginians, the enterprise was doomed to failure, and the country founded on this compromise was ever since fundamentally flawed.

This pact with devil is the source of the contradictions in American society that continue to today. The first manifestation of this fissure was the American Civil War, which resulted in the deaths of millions and legal eradication of slavery. During the subsequent Reconstruction period, when the southern United States was under military occupation, the southerners found more subtle ways to continue their racist domination, most notably through the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. To this day, a number of southern American states officially fly the flag of the Confederacy, the moral equivalent of, for example, allowing Bavaria to continue to use the Nazi swastika flag as a state symbol. Despite losing the war, the Virginians have managed to cling to their privileges; until recently forcing blacks into legal second class status through segregation. The Norfolk and Western Rail yard near Alexandria, in northern Virginia, was the spot where for decades Negroes travelling by rail from north to south had to move from integrated to segregated carriages. The The Civil Rights Movement has been no more successful than the Civil War in shaking the white trash grip on power and society. Recently, a Virginia candidate for the United States Senate only narrowly lost an election despite being caught on videotape using a blatantly racist slur to refer to a dark-skinned American of South Asian ethnicity. To the millions of Virginians who voted for him anyway, there was nothing wrong with this, as this sort of knee-jerk racism is what passes for thinking with this crowd. When John Ashcroft needed a bunch of racist, red-neck, inbred, sibling-fucking, xenophobic, white-trash crackers to serve as a jury in his show trial of the "American Taliban," John Walker Lindh (a trial he could have staged in any state in the U.S.A. as he claimed universal jurisdiction), he unhesitatingly chose Virginia as the most dependably racist jury pool, one that undoubtedly would have found Lindh's choice of religion reason enough to send him to prison. And of course, most recently, this warped and corrupt society produced Seung-Hui Cho, the gunman who carried out the Virginia Tech massacre. Despite the fact that Virginia Tech is nestled in the most violent, racist, red-neck corner of this violent, racist, red-neck state, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh lost no time in declaring the source of the problem to be "liberalism."

So ramble on all you want from the podium in Jamestowne, George, about liberty, democracy and all that, but the fact is that the Jamestowne colony and its legacy, the Commonwealth of Virginia, is a society based on violence, racism and exploitation, and is the first economy to be based on narco-terrorism. It is the origin of the problem America has faced throughout its history. The United States was meant to be a product of the Age of the Enlightenment, a liberal, egalitarian democracy founded on the principles of reason and intellect, and freed from the burdens of race, class and birth. Instead, it has been repeatedly co-opted by proponents of some of the lowest and most despicable social theories ever to be inflicted upon humanity. The proponents of this philosophy have been been repeatedly crushed -- legally, morally and militarily -- in the American Civil War, in World War II, and in the Civil Rights movement, yet they still keep coming back like a bad case of acne, most recently in the form of "Neo-Cons" and "Red States". Final victory will no doubt one day be achieved, but no doubt the battle will make even the mass carnage of the Civil War and the Second World War look relatively modest in comparison.


G.
Mexico City
13 May 2007

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good to see you are using your time productively Greg. : ) Neill

Nomadicity said...

And good to see you put your penis down for a minute, Neill, so that you could leave a pithy comment. I shall order another tequila and meditate on your core competencies.