Tuesday, July 26, 2005

I've been gone from the blog site for over two years now, but now I am back. In the interim, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have slogged on, and the military establishment has kept telling us how far they have come in democratizing these countries, and the bombers have kept blowing themselves and innocent people up, and our boys in the field have had to rely more and more on tactics that not only denigrate their beliefs, they alienate the conquered peoples and make them hate us. Virulent anti-Americanism still exists in Europe and other parts of the world. And the economy is settling down from its upheavals, but shows no relief for the millions like myself who were dependent on jobs with good living wages. That is the bigger picture.

The smaller picture is that I am still trying to figure out a way of living my life and working in a way that has meaning and can sustain me economically. I have moved to Florida, where for the first time, I have come face to face with wonderful Americans that do not believe what I believe. I have met the "red and blue state" dichotomy and it has left me breathless, and not in a good way. And I have seen how a few core beliefs can, if carried to their logical (or illogical) conclusions, rend a people asunder.

Having been brought up and educated in the Northeast (Boston), I realize I have been molded by my experience. I am a Democrat, and a Liberal; in fact, I admire the Social Democratic political systems of the Scandinavian Nations very much. And here in the American South, I am surrounded by lovely people that are Republicans and Conservatives. These are people that not so long ago I considered unfathomable and uninteligible to me. I just did not know where they were coming from. Yet getting to know them has shown me that they are loving, intelligent, and educated, just like me, and that they deserve as much respect as I do.

So I started reading history. In the North, the Pilgrims came to America as relatively self-sufficient beings, running away from religious persecution. In the South, the King gave huge land grants to a select few to parse out to indentured farmers and have them pay taxes. In order to work the large plantations, the plantation owners imported (brutally and unmercifully, with the help of African slave traders) slaves from Africa, and also killed over 80% of the Native Americans and subjugated or banished to reservations the rest. This was "the way it was done" they said.

But Queen Isabella of Spain outlawed slavery back in the fifthteenth century (1492 - it took over four centuries for the rest of the world to start to catch up!). So not everyone thought it was the right way to go. Of course, illegal slavery was still rampant in Spanish realms, and treatment of indigenous peoples was horrendous, but in Spanish colonies many peasants worked the land for big landowners (the Portuguese continued in their slavery trade much longer, witness Brazil) . In southern North America, slavery was the lifeblood of the economy. Without it, the landowners could not work the land or make a profit.

This problem existed in America since before the Revolution. All of our founding fathers came face to face with the dilemma and could not resolve it. The father of our country, George Washington, freed his slaves after he died, but could not muster the gravitas to pass a law while in office (he and his successors were fully aware they would lose an election if they did, and that the South would seceed if they abolished slavery). Jefferson wanted to free his slaves upon passing away, but died bankrupt, so he could not. Only a few were freed, including the family of Sally Hemmings, his mistress, who bore him several children. And while I hold unlimited admiration for that generation of men, I cannot but begrudge the fact that Jefferson was adamant about building a university in the South, to counter waht he termed "Northern teachings"!

Even back then, there existed an idealogical rift between North and South... and by not integrating all of society back then, its consequences are felt today, in conversations like the one I had with a friend, who posited that "state's rights" had nothing to do with slavery. Of course, that is exactly why the southern states asked for and received states rights, because they knew the norhtern states were abolitionists, and they could not function economically without the slaves. They just muddied the discussion by giving themselves broad rights in order to cloak the real reason, which was slavery.

And so it took a bloody, brutal war, to get to the ethical conclusion (that we cannot treat another human being as a slave). And for over two centuries the descendants of those slaves have fought for ever bit of equality and dignity against forces that are as adamant today (in the minds of some), as they were back then. And sons of the South have kept fighting for their beliefs, be they vestiges of ill-conceived ethics, as the war between the states rages on between red and blue states today. A little disfunction here, people!! Back then it was slavery. Now it has transmogrified into the religious right!

And I have not missed the irony that Republicans (read eighteenth century Northerners) were the party of the people, the party of the poor, and the Democrats (read eighteenth century Southeners) were the landowners two centuries ago. Somewhere in the mists of time, the roles were reversed and today the Democrat (North) and the Republican (South) party stand for virtually the opposite of what they stood for two hundred years ago (geographically and demographically!).

Can we, as a country, continue to exist with this deep rift within our population? Is education the only thing that will raise us up from this quagmire? Is it not fascinating how one action (the decision to base the economy on slave labor), taken so many years ago, magnified through time and economic necessity, battered by a civil war, still lives on in the hearts and minds of our people, albeit now couched in time-honored traditions and backward religious terms? Can you believe we are still fighting the (evolution) science vs. creationism debate yet again?