My Fellow Americans Ignore Me

The statistics don’t lie, there is only one reader in Poland who continues to click on this blahg occasionally.  I’m not grousing, mind you, we Americans pretty much ignore each other as a matter of national pride.  USA!  USA!

If I have learned one thing from this program I’m trying to launch, the one in which I put all the eggs I will ever have in one basket and balance it at the end of a long, brittle stick held by an extended, shaky arm, it is not to be so damned sensitive.  Sure it’s nice to have feedback, to feel  some appreciation from time to time, but here’s what I’ve realized:  the work is the same, whether it is commented on or not.  Also this: I am the final judge of whether I have succeeded in a given work or not.  I am the expert on my progress or lack of same.

“Oh, you are talking to yourself, trying to be brave,” you will say.  Absolutely right, but there’s more.   I am not dashing face-first into a wall, I am not collecting cobras like the little girl in India who gets bitten by one of her “best friends”

I am no longer pissed off all the time about friends who can’t bother to lend a few seconds of moral support, even as a tic seems to force me to check the stats on this new blahg several times a day and mutter to myself “some American bastards messed up my perfect downstepping ziggurat on August 5.”  I know it was Americans because of the map.  And I know, pretty much, which Americans those probably are, since only five or six have been sent the secret link to this blahg.

But, who am I fooling?  I know why Americans ignore me, and I would ignore myself too, if it was within my power.  I don’t dream the American dream, for one thing.  A friend and I were discussing that dream the other day.  On its face a dream of “freedom” (like what was on the march in Iraq a few years ago when so many lost their lives) but it is, more precisely, the dream of being rich, of having enough money to buy whatever you want and also, with that money, the ability to tell everyone to go fuck themselves.  As dreams go it may seem a tad materialistic, maybe a little shallow, but who am I to judge a dream as big as the American Dream?

Sure, it’s easy to take potshots at a nation that used the phrase “Manifest Destiny” to commit a deliberate genocide against the people who occupied the territories it was God’s Will Americans could own and exploit.  Easy too to condemn practices carried on for more than a century, under the “inalienable truth” that “all men are created equal” (and for 150 years before that banner was raised).  

The practices of our Peculiar Institution left the once fertile soil of the American south stripped of nutrients and the soul of America stained with the kidnap, murder, subjugation and rape of millions kept in chattel slavery.  You could say that the Divine retribution Jefferson feared, even as financial considerations made it impossible for him to manumit the hundreds of chattel slaves he owned (his sole wealth, after all), is still being visited on America for the way it built its collective wealth on the exploitation of slaves.

Generations later you can see the descendants of these slaves, hardly grateful at all, most of them, for the freedom they have enjoyed since being freed in 1865, and more particularly, since the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 guaranteed these freedoms once again.  Including the freedom to once again seek redress in a federal court, after a ninety year hiatus, if you or your family is lynched by a non-governmental outfit like the Ku Klux Klan.

I know I go on about this all the time, and I’m aware how tedious it is.  I really should take the hundreds of hours of research I did in Law School and write a concise version of that paper “The Day of Blacks as the Special Favorites of the Law is at an End”.   That was the conclusion of the Supreme Court when it decided the unintentionally aptly-named Slaughterhouse cases in 1873.  The reasoning was quintessentially American.

The slaveholding states of the former Confederacy, who, until their secession, held their slaves under inalienable Constitutional right, were devastated by the Civil War.  There was nothing civil about the Civil War, as we all know.  The infrastructure of the South was destroyed, roads, bridges, levees, crops, cities, everything.  In order to qualify for Federal funds to rebuild, the defeated rebel states were forced to ratify the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

I don’t know much about the other amendments, except that the First allows me to write the word “fuck” here if I fucking feel like it, and the Second guarantees the right of private American citizens to have as many guns as they like, including assault weapons designed for spraying up to 100 bullets a minute, and as much ammo as they can afford.

But I know a lot about the 13th, 14th and 15th.  The 13th ends slavery and involuntary servitude.  Under the 13th amendment the only way the state can put you on a chain gang is if you’ve been convicted of a crime.  Private actors may or may not be subject to this restriction, but that would be fought in the courts for more than a century and is still in dispute, hinging as it does on the precise meanings of “involuntary” and “servitude”.

The 14th Amendment is a big one, it guarantees that the rights of U.S. citizenship shall not be denied or abridged by the states.  Since the angry radical Republicans in Congress who drafted and forced these Amendments down the throat of the defeated South knew lawyers and judges down there would look for loopholes, they created an enabling act as part of the Amendment.  Congress can, and did, pass any law necessary to enforce these federally guaranteed rights. 

The 15th Amendment is really not worth talking about.  It guaranteed to Negro men, whatever their previous condition of servitude, the right to vote.  Treated as a bit of dark humor from the beginning, it would wait a century for any sort of enforcement.

But the 14th Amendment was a big one, it created the Department of Justice, for one thing, and the never repealed laws passed under its enabling act virtually shut down the Ku Klux Klan for a short time.  It allowed, for a time, the election of numerous black representatives, seemed to guarantee that the former Confederacy could not continue to exploit its former slaves or, for instance, pass Black Codes that made it a crime, punishable by a lifetime of indentured servitude, to be unemployed.

The 14th Amendment protected freedom until the Slaughterhouse decision and a few others, (like the little known Cruikshank case holding that States had exclusive jurisdiction over adjudicating murder cases, even cases of organized, racially motivated mass murder), made the scope of the 14th Amendment and the law of the land crystal clear.

The Slaughterhouse cases were brought by white businessmen, slaughterers and butchers,  protesting the monopoly the State of Louisiana had granted to other white businessmen.  Their lawyers styled Louisiana’s restraint of free trade as imposing a kind of “involuntary servitude” and sought the protection of the 13th and 14th Amendments.  I don’t remember the dull procedural details, you will forgive me.

But I remember well the holdings and influential dicta of the case.  The Court said, first of all, everybody knows the 14th Amendment was passed to help Negroes, not white businessmen who were never slaves, so you slaughterers are a cynical bunch trying to invoke it.   And, second of all, the rights of Federal citizenship protected by the 14th Amendment are three:  the right to freely migrate from state to state, the right to use navigable interstate waterways and another, equally essential right, that slips my mind now.  Everything else, said the Court, is the province of the individual states as far as granting or taking away rights, inalienable or otherwise.  Law of the land for almost a hundred years after that.  In layman’s terms the Court said: “I’ve got your 14th amendment right here, bitch”.

The Court also took pains to make it clear, less than a decade after the bloody Civil War ended, that the day of former slaves “as the special favorites of the law” was at an end.  “And how!” as my idealistic grandma Yetta would have said.

Oh dear, my fact checker, Google, informs me that I am incorrect.  That last bit was not uttered by the Court until the so-called Civil Rights Cases decided ten years later, by which time former slaves had, arguably, enjoyed their freedom for almost two full decades.  Here’s what the Court wrote:

When a man has emerged from slavery, and, by the aid of beneficent legislation, has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights as a citizen or a man are to be protected in the ordinary modes by which other men’s rights are protected. There were thousands of free colored people in this country before the abolition of slavery, enjoying all the essential rights of life, liberty and property the same as white citizens, yet no one at that time thought that it was any invasion of his personal status as a freeman because he was not admitted to all the privileges enjoyed by white citizens, or because he was subjected to discriminations in the enjoyment of accommodations in inns, public conveyances and places of amusement. Mere discriminations on account of race or color were not regarded as badges of slavery. If, since that time, the enjoyment of equal rights in all these respects has become established by constitutional enactment, it is not by force of the Thirteenth Amendment (which merely abolishes slavery), but by force of the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. blah blah blah.

I confess, I have no idea why it doesn’t come under the 14th Amendment (Slaughterhouse notwithstanding), as it would come to be almost a century later.  Oh, of course, Slaughterhouse ruled that the 14th Amendment covered virtually no rights a white man was bound to respect.

Anyway, I leave you, Polish guy, with the last part of a review of Manning Marable’s biography of my brother Malcolm X, clipped and sent to my attention by a friend  I sent the link to.  It has some bearing on the earlier part of this exercise in tedium, where I was on about the American Dream.

The real tension exists in one simple fact: Malcolm’s story is one of the great human stories, but it is not one of the great American stories. This is not Horatio Alger, Benjamin Franklin, or even John Galt. His success as a human being is not measured in terms of wealth or prestige. It is measured in moral terms. His was not a life to be evaluated within the basic assumptions of mass capitalism. He cannot be reduced to a postage stamp or a children’s book. In his final days, Malcolm recognized that this is a worldwide struggle of the people versus mass capitalism, which was out of control in 1965 and now out-Orwells Orwell. This marked him for death in our society. It also made him one of the great figures of world history.  If we ever figure out why this is true, we might have a chance at social transformation – a reinvention, as Manning Marable puts it.

full review here:

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