…From On Corruption in America, for current events – which are not unrelated.
In the face of what went down on January 6, I, like many, found myself at a loss for words. “So much to process!” went a text exchange with a friend. “So many layers!”
Yet, a violent assault on Washington, DC was to be expected. Why were so many – myself included – so taken aback? What are we missing?
Now we are drowning in words. With apologies for adding more, here’s to a time-
out also from the endlessly repeated tropes, to take up a few perspectives that I have not seen much in media commentary.
1) Just because a person’s behavior is abhorrent does not mean he or she has no legitimate grievances.
This is an insight I gained in Afghanistan, and tried to communicate in my last book, Thieves of State. What I discovered was this: driving a small but sadistically bloody ideological extremist movement, which committed violence against police officers and government buildings, not to mention civilians, was not so much religion, or bigotry, or an Islamic culture-versus-the-West identity divide. It was indignation at an offensively and abusively corrupt political economy.
How does this insight apply to the storming of the Capitol?
The people who perpetrated that shocking and abhorrent act largely come from the fringes of communities that have suffered repeated intergenerational trauma over the past hundred and fifty plus years, perpetrated by a corrupt political economy. This reality is unfamiliar to many city-dwellers. I certainly wasn’t aware of it until I began reading the work of the great Kentucky-born farmer and thinker-poet, Wendell Berry, among others. (See for example, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.) Research for On Corruption in America filled in more historical detail.
Vastly over-simplifying, the events went something like this.
In the early and mid-19th century, homesteaders set out across the Appalachian Mountains and onto the expanse of the Great Plains. Isolated and on unfamiliar ground, they served as the shock troops committing genocide against Native peoples on behalf of the nation. This is strong language. But it’s hard to read events otherwise. Who lived that gruesome conflict through reciprocal acts of terror? Who benefitted?
To commit an unspeakable crime marks the perpetrator.
By dint of back-breaking labor, these families hewed out a place for themselves on wild land, built houses and raised barns with the help of relatives and neighbors, buried their elders in the family plot in a copse on a hill, and treasured the rocking chair, or carved scrollwork on a lintel, or the pie recipe those elders left behind. In our self-image of America’s body politic, they were the backbone.
But within decades, if not from the very start, absentee landlords were homing in on their
now productive acres. One unscrupulous early speculator was none other than George Washington. (See, for instance, The Age of Federalism, by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, p. 36.) By the mid-19th century, many of our “independent family farmers” were hardly better than indentured servants.
What with sales money from the fall harvest running low, and taxes and school and other expenses, cash was short for the large yearly purchase of agricultural inputs each spring, so families would mortgage their future crop to the local merchant – on his terms. They shouldered the risk, he got the return in a few months’ time. Soon he’d dictate what they had to grow to qualify for the loan in kind he was extending (usually cash crops, like cotton or tobacco, not food the family could eat), and tell them what color cloth he’d let them have for this year’s dresses for their daughters.
The objective was to keep the families in debt, so as eventually to foreclose on their land. Thousands found themselves tenant farmers on fields their grandfathers had cleared. The demand for productivity and the introduction of chemical fertilizers forced them into practices that would leave the earth sterile in a few decades. They’d have to move on to work some other patch. Leaving behind their grandfathers’ carved lintels.
How can those losses be measured?
There is no question that black people, emerging scarred and disoriented from enslavement, had the appalling worst of this appalling system. But that fact does not negate the suffering of their formerly free white neighbors. Many, of both races, were forced to the cities, to the man-dwarfing mines and steel mills and factories that were churning out America’s industrial production at the cost of barbaric working conditions.
In the 1930s the Dust Bowl swept part of this region, driving yet more farmers off their desiccated land, often into the jaws of starvation. Meanwhile, an unregulated speculative frenzy driven by many of the same Gilded Age magnates had plunged the country into the Great Depression.
In the wake of World War II, for reasons I explore in On Corruption, a brief era of expanding rights and citizens’ protections opened. By dint of strikes and other types of determined protest, better pay and working conditions were wrested from company-owners, the super-rich of the day.
But one of the costs of the shared prosperity of the period from about 1945-1985 was industrialized agriculture. City-dwellers got cheaper and more convenient and varied food. But the few former frontier farmers who were left on the prairies, the erstwhile backbone of the American body politic, were told to “get big or get out.” Another round of indentured servitude followed, as families who couldn’t bring themselves to get out signed contracts with Tysons or Perdue. (See Zephyr Teachout’s Break ‘Em Up )
Another cost was the irreparable fouling of the landscapes, waterways, and neighborhoods where the factories were located. In return for the luxury of a living wage, kids got asthma, parents died young of liver cancer, soil stank, water caught fire, whole species of our non-human neighbors were extirpated.
Then came globalization in the 1990s, and the factory jobs that had, for a generation or two, afforded an honorable living disappeared. The victims, those thrown out of work and deprived yet again of their very identities, were further insulted: reviled on all sides as bigoted, ignorant and mired in the past.
The great British myth-sayer, Martin Shaw tells us again and again: What you exile will grow hostile to you. (See, instance, Courting the Wild Twin, p. 28.) America exiled them, repeatedly, and they grew hostile.
As in Afghanistan and northern Nigeria, the form their hostility took was deceptive. It came clothed in ideological terms that camouflaged – and denatured – its underlying grievance against a system rigged to favor the rich. The hostility came storming down like the ogres of the most chilling myths: ugly, dangerous, and impossible for any society to tolerate. To repeat my one-sentence summary of Thieves, victims of systemic corruption react by going to extremes. And extremes are ugly.
What I am asking you to do here is hold two apparently contradictory truths in mind. First, the acts perpetrated on Jan. 6 (among others) and the ideas professed by the perpetrators are abhorrent. Second, many of those perpetrators are animated by a personal and group history of repeated trauma and erasure.
A growing number of Americans, fortunately, recognize analogous realities when it comes to those who commit other loathsome crimes, such as murder or incest or the sale of life-threatening narcotics. Inner-city perpetrators, often just the latest generation subjected to their own banishment at the hands of our society, who may suffer the torture of a wrecked family or addiction or other personal tragedies, have committed unspeakable crimes, for which they must be held accountable. And they are also the victims of unspeakable wrongs.
Can we think about productive ways to apply such a dual understanding to the marauders who descended on the U.S. Capitol? Can we address the systemic wrongs that have injured them?
2) The beneficiaries of the rigged system invented and continue to deliberately enflame white supremacy to stay in power, in order to stay rich.
One of the few “compensations” – and a diabolical one – held out to the white rural Americans who were being exploited and dispossessed was white supremacy. Though they could not “eat prestige” they were thrown the meatless bone of social superiority. That so many leaped for it is to their eternal shame, and our national damnation. But it is important to understand that these people were not reaping the material benefits of white privilege. Some self-satisfaction, the opportunity to indulge in theft and sadism, or to take out their rage on even weaker scapegoats with impunity, certainly. But no real social or economic advancement.
For those who enjoy the fruits of the rigged system, however, this implacable American identity divide is gravy. It ensures a vast underclass whose meager resources can be plundered -- in the form of low wages, extortionate mortgages and other loans, fines, or restitution for criminal conviction. It provides the Republican segment of those elites with a power base of mostly white, rural voters, who overlook economic policies that further impoverish them in return for support on identity issues, such as white supremacy. And it ensures that the only force capable of bringing these kleptocratic elites to heel – that is, a cross-cutting coalition of their victims – will remain splintered and impotent.
3) Republican members of Congress, who benefitted from and stoked these sentiments discarded this constituency yet again.
The parade of U.S representatives who, during the second impeachment proceedings decried the January 6 violence and called for the rioters – and no one else -- to be investigated and prosecuted are contemptible. They threw their own constituents, whose views they enflamed and cynically exploited for electoral purposes, under the bus.
4) Repercussions matter.
These members of Congress have largely escaped the chorus of calls for accountability, with the exception of some corporate funders that have belatedly backed away from them. Those moves are not negligible. They demonstrate that in a world where money is speech, it is critical that citizens know who is doing the talking, so they can apply pressure on the speaker/donors to conform to this country's basic stated values. Cynical or self-interested though companies' motivations may be, the private sector is playing an important role here. Let's applaud it and hold them to it over time.
Obviously, the extremists who trashed the U.S. Capitol and public safety officials entrusted with keeping the building safe who are found to be guilty of poor planning if not worse, should face repercussions. Some people need to go to jail.
Democrats in Congress, though, do not seem especially interested in subjecting their peers to internal discipline. Nor has William Barr or Gregory Craig or Rudy Giuliani been disbarred for violating the standards of ethics governing the practice of law. Only a handful of doctors’ medical licenses have been revoked for overprescribing opioids.
Judgement, in my experience, is most effective when meted out by an offender’s own community. Why are these bodies so reluctant to shoulder that basic responsibility? What does it mean for this country’s ability to improve?
As for President Trump, repercussions are crucial. In his charmed life, he has never had to suffer for his repeated wrongdoing.
Having initially favored impeachment, however, I now waver. I find myself wondering: wouldn’t a censure vote have garnered more Republicans? Would that approach have provided Republican members who were genuinely dismayed more purchase to pressure their fellows? In the process could they have begun the serious work of hashing out what Republicanism stands for and what it won’t stand for? Wouldn’t that, overall, have been better for the country than even the stain of an unprecedented second impeachment?
Instead of exposing ten isolated men and women of principle to insults and threats, a censure vote might have engendered that one force capable of reining in a would-be alpha dominator: a cross-cutting consensus of our national community.