A Campaign Without Class.
I noticed that neither of the accused responded with a defiant "Yes, we have classes in this country." Only Ralph Nader has dared to suggest that this country is divided among the rich, the poor, and the nervous in between. This kind of talk is unpardonably rude and was enough to bar him from the televised debates.
We have learned that we mustn't talk of class divisions in this country. It upsets our political leaders. We must believe we are one family--me and Exxon, you and Microsoft, the children of the CEOs and the children of the janitors. We must believe our interests are the same.
That's why we speak of going to war "for the national interest" as if it were in all our interest.
That's why we maintain an enormous military budget for "national security" as if our nuclear weapons strengthen the security of all and not the securities of some.
That's why our culture is soaked in the idea of patriotism, which is piped into our consciousness from the first grade, where we begin every day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance: "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
I remember stumbling over that big word "indivisible"--with good reason, although I didn't know the reason, being quite politically backward at the age of six. Only later did I begin to understand that our nation, from the start, has been divided by class, race, national origin, has been beset by fierce conflicts, yes, class conflicts, all throughout our history.
The culture labors strenuously to keep that out of the history books, to maintain the idea of a monolithic, noble "us" against a shadowy but unmistakably evil "them." It starts with the story of the American Revolution, and, as the recent movie The Patriot (kindergarten history, put on screen for millions of viewers) tells us once more, we were united in glorious struggle against British rule. The mythology surrounding the Founding Fathers is based on the idea that we Americans were indeed one family, and that our founding document, the Constitution, represented all our interests, as declared proudly by the opening words of its preamble: "We, the people of the United States."
It may therefore seem surly for us to report that the American Revolution was not a war waged by a united population. The 150 years leading up to the Revolution were filled with conflict, yes, class conflict--servants and slaves against their masters, tenants against landlords, poor people in the cities rioting for food and flour against profiteering merchants, mutinies of sailors against their captains. Thus, when the Revolutionary War began, some colonists saw the war as one of liberation, but many others saw it as the substitution of one set of rulers for another. As for black slaves and Indians, there was little to choose between the British and the Americans.
This class conflict inside the Revolution came dramatically alive with mutinies in George Washington's army. In 1781, after enduring five years of war (casualties in the Revolution exceeded, in proportion to population, American casualties in World War II), more than 1,000 soldiers from Pennsylvania--mostly foreign-born, from Ireland, Scotland, Germany--mutinied at Morristown, New Jersey. They had seen their officers paid handsomely, fed and clothed well, while the privates and sergeants were fed slop, marched in rags without shoes, paid in virtually worthless Continental currency, or not paid at all for months. They were abused, beaten, whipped by their officers for the smallest breach of discipline. Their deepest grievance was that they wanted out of the war, claiming their terms of enlistment had expired, and they were kept in the army by force. They were aware that in the spring of 1780 eleven Morristown deserters were sentenced to death but at the last minute received a reprieve, except for one of them, who had forged discharges for 100 men. He was hanged.
General Washington, facing by this time 1,700 mutineers (a substantial part of his army), assembled them at Princeton, New Jersey, and decided to make concessions. Many of the rebels were allowed to leave the army, and Washington asked the governors of the various states for money to deal with the grievances of the soldiers. The Pennsylvania line quieted down.
But when another mutiny broke out in the New Jersey line, involving only a few hundred, Washington ordered harsh measures. He saw the possibility of "this dangerous spirit" spreading. Two of "the most atrocious offenders" were court-martialed on the spot and sentenced to be shot. Their fellow mutineers, some of them weeping as they did so, carried out the executions.
Howard Fast tells the story of the mutinies in his novel The Proud and the Free (Little Brown, 1950). Drawing from the classic historical account by Carl Van Doren, Mutiny in January, Fast dramatizes the class conflict inside the Revolutionary Army. One of his characters, the mutinous soldier Jack Maloney, recalls the words of Thomas Paine and the promise of freedom and says, yes, he is willing to die for that freedom, but "not for that craven Congress in Philadelphia, not for the fine Pennsylvania ladies in their silks and satins, not for the property of every dirty lord and fat patroon in New Jersey."
When the War for Independence was won, class conflict continued in the new nation. The Founding Fathers fashioned a Constitution that would enable a strong federal government to suppress any rebellion by its unruly children. The new government would serve the interests of slaveholders, merchants, manufacturers, land speculators, while offering white males with some property a degree of influence, but not dominance, in the political process.
The history of the next 200 years is a history of control of the nation by one class, as the government, solidly in the hands of the rich, gave huge gifts of the nation's resources to the railroad magnates, the industrialists, and the shipowners. Historian Charles Beard, in the first years of the Great Depression, wrote caustically about "The Myth of Rugged Individualism," noting that industrial and financial leaders were not rugged enough to make their own way in the world, and had to be subsidized, and silver-spoon-fed, by the government.
When the ruling class (I've tried to avoid that old-fashioned radical expression, but it expresses a simple, strong truth) faced resistance, as it did all through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, by slaves, working people, farmers, and especially by the indigenous people of the continent, it called upon the government to use its armies and its courts to put down the ingrates.
Political leaders have traditionally become annoyed when someone dared to suggest that we live in a class society, dominated by the moneyed interests. Thus, when Eugene V. Debs, opposing World War I, told an assembly in Ohio that "the master class has always brought a war, and the subject class has always fought the battle," this could not be tolerated. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, in the spirit of patriotic liberalism, affirmed the sentence for a unanimous Supreme Court.
Today, even the slightest suggestion that we are a nation divided by class brings angry reactions. When Gore talked ominously about "big money" (while pocketing huge amounts of it for his campaign) it was enough for Bush to become indignant. Surely he need not worry. Gore and Lieberman represent no threat to the rule of the super-rich.
A New York Times reporter, in a rare excursion into "the other America," spoke to people in Cross City, Florida, about the election and concluded: "People here look at Al Gore and George W. Bush and see two men born to the country club, men whose family histories jingle with silver spoons. They appear, to people here, just the same."
Cindy Lamb, a cashier at a Chevron filling station, and wife of a construction worker, told the reporter: "I don't think they think about people like us, and if they do care, they're not going to do anything for us. Maybe if they had ever lived in a two bedroom trailer, it would be different."
An African American woman, a manager at McDonald's, who makes slightly more than the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, said, about Bush and Gore: "I don't even pay attention to those two, and all my friends say the same. My life won't change."
The election soon will be over, and whether Gore or Bush is in the White House, the same class that has always dominated our political and economic systems in the United States will still be in power. Whoever is President, we will face the same challenge the day after the voting: how to bring together the class of have-nots--a great majority of the country--into the kind of social movement that in the past has gained some measure of justice and has made the people in charge tremble at the prospect of "class warfare."
Such a movement, responding to the great challenges of the new century, could bring democracy alive.
Howard Zinn is a columnist for The Progressive.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2000|
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