This Land is WHOSE Land??

July 2, 2019, protest at Senator Feinstein’s office at Post and Montgomery.

For a nation whose vaunted freedom was secured at the point where mass human bondage met genocidal expansion, what we are experiencing today is like a series of afterimages—the past-present that is these United States.
—Nikhil Pal Singh, Race and America’s Long War, p. 122

The 1924 Immigration Act, then, had an explosive effect. On the one hand, the limits it placed on the numbers of European and Asian migrants who could enter the United States reinforced Mexico’s importance as a source of cheap labor for the United States’ expanding economy. On the other hand, it created an agency—the U.S. Border Patrol—that institutionalized a virulent form of nativism and concentrated its animus on Mexican migrants.
—Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, p. 124-125

I live on stolen land, and you do too. Here in San Francisco we all live on unceded Ohlone territory. After the Spaniards came along with Catholicism and cows, the local folks were mostly wiped out by overwork and disease. But not everyone died, and descendants have emerged in the past decades. California’s First Peoples are working hard to undo the ignorance and cultivated amnesia that repeats the false tale of their complete genocide.

After Mexico gained its independence, the lands that the Spanish crown had allocated to the Missions to hold in trust for the “neophytes” (the new colonists that they hoped to make out of the Indians they brought into their Inquisition-shaped world), were usurped by the Californios. Bernal, De Haro, Noe, Vallejo, Peralta and many others were soon lords of tens of thousands of acres of prime California real estate. But their paradise didn’t last long. The United States provoked a war in 1846 and used it to seize the northern third of Mexico, and within a couple of decades all the original Mexican ranchos had been squatted and stolen, often with legal sanction by U.S. courts.

It’s remarkable how much this blatant and venal theft at the origins of American California is left out of the narratives taught children in schools. But then on second thought, it’s not really so surprising. Early historians of California (and before that, historians of the United States) held strange, race-based ideas that escaped historical analysis. In one of the books I’ll be discussing here, Greg Grandin’s excellent The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, he makes this point:

If the study of history is the study of change, these early historians of the United States were decidedly ahistorical. Their germs were something like the physicists’ Big Bang, sudden and pristine. When the Puritans landed, “their institutions were already perfected,” George Bancroft, among the country’s most influential historians prior to Turner, wrote. Woodrow Wilson, who studied with Turner under Adams at Johns Hopkins, argued in 1899 that early Christian settlers “were inventing nothing”; ideas that would later result in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were already fully formed upon their arrival in the New World. Americans, Wilson said, were “simply letting their race habits and instincts”–as developed in Europe–”have natural play.” (p. 114)

Writing in Race and America’s Long War, Nikhil Pal Singh delves deeper into the psychology of settler colonies like the United States. He reveals the very structure of thought that makes it so difficult to hold any self-awareness of the barbarism that accompanied the founding of the nation.

… in the United States, (and other settler colonies), invasion, occupation, and territorial dispossession constitute not a singular event but a structure of reasoning, feeling, even imagination… one that demands fealty and that orients attitudes toward the present and future. (p. 24-25) … The military tradition conferred by the Indian wars included practices of “extirpative war” that observed no distinction between combatants and civilians, combined with the adoption of forms of exemplary, extravagant violence said to have been learned from the savages themselves, such as scalping. Settler frameworks, in turn, consciously blurred the lines between war and policing, investing ordinary citizens with an expansive police power. (p. 26)

Dyke March on 18th Street, June 29, 2019

At the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the United States continues to flaunt its military but it is an increasingly empty and ineffective demonstration of pointless violence. Bombing multiple countries regularly, having torn up the Middle East and left whole swaths in smoking ruins, and maintaining military and spy installations in well over 100 countries around the world, you’d be hard pressed to explain why the so-called indispensable nation, the “most powerful country in the history of the world,” has such a hard time getting its way these days. The protracted decline of U.S. power is staring us in the face, but politicians go on blithely proclaiming the unique goodness of the American project as though it were 1949 or even 1962 (not that it was any good then either!).

Constant rituals glorifying the military amidst crumbling infrastructure and stark social decomposition, incessantly claiming “we’re #1,” requires a great deal of ignorance and self-delusion. Digging deeper into the complicated past lets us trace a quite different arc than the syrupy self-congratulations that passes for history. It turns out that the United States has been on the wrong side far more often than not in its bloodthirsty, racist efforts to dominate the world. The roots of this despicable orientation are not hard to find in the very founding of the country, and have been advanced by awful, mean-spirited, politicians and their wealthy sponsors again and again.

Colin Galloway’s fascinating book The Indian World of George Washington provides a nuanced and detailed look at the land-hungry speculator who became the first president of the United States. It’s strange to realize that the first four years of his presidency, 1789-1793, were characterized by an active “foreign policy” that mostly involved days- and weeks-long visits from dozens of visiting dignitaries from the cultures of the southern United States, i.e. Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws, and others. Washington knew he had to make peace with these militarily powerful civilizations that occupied most of today’s deep South, because his priority at the time was to wrest control of the Ohio River valley from the Shawnee and their many allies. It also required him to continue an ongoing peace with the Iroquois confederation. His goal was to avoid facing a wider alliance of indigenous peoples who together at the time could have blocked the expansion of the United States westward (and by so doing, made Washington’s investments in thousands of unceded acres in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio worthless). Galloway is a fantastic historian of Indian North America, with many other books covering the Plains Indians, the Shawnee, and others. He recounts the ill-fated first U.S. military expedition led by General Arthur St. Clair that was wiped out by a broad alliance of Indian tribes in 1792 not far from today’s Pittsburgh. In this book he unpacks the fraught relationships that Washington and his allies made and broke both before and after the Revolutionary War with various tribes of eastern North America. It helps makes sense of the longer trajectory of genocidal violence that the U.S. pursued consistently through the following century—a history that looks so bad that few have been willing to give it the central importance in national history that it deserves.

Continue reading This Land is WHOSE Land??

Ice and Oil

I’m standing on Pulpit Rock, a granite outcropping over Lysefjord a couple of hours from Stavanger, Norway… the power of ice carved this fjord long ago…
Greenland from the plane ride home….. ice in Greenland is melting faster than ever recorded…

It’s been nearly a half a year since I’ve blogged! The time between posts has grown longer and longer largely because it’s mostly self-serving to publish here. I can say anything I want, I have maybe 1000 readers (probably much less after such a long hiatus), give or take a few score. I am glad for feedback when I get it, but it has become exceedingly rare.

I took a trip to Norway at the end of April with Adriana, to root her on in her appearance for the Mexican National Curling team at their first-ever appearance in the Curling World Championships in Stavanger, a town that is the home of Norway’s oil industry. Stunning fjords carved by ancient glaciers characterize the coastal areas of Norway, which is as far north as the middle of Alaska. Already in late April the sun was setting slowly long after 9:30 pm. I visited the oil museum in Stavanger. I ate a minke whale steak while in Bergen, a town that honors its role as the northernmost Hanseatic League town in the 1500s, when salted cod was its greatest export. The photos accompanying this post are mostly from the trip to Norway.

The Mexican Curling mixed doubles team achieved many firsts. Adriana scored the first-ever point in Mexican Curling history! and her rock assured the first-ever 3-ender for Mexico against Norway! (they didn’t win any of their matches, regrettably)

I, like many people, have fallen into a kind of trance these past months, frozen in the face of the inexorable march of bad news, watching our world descend from its everyday horrors into a spectacular form of barbarism. It’s not like we didn’t know that Obama was “more of the same” following the madness of the Bush-Cheney years, which in turn were a (notable) worsening of the already horrible Clinton era, which itself was a full capitulation to the logic of neoliberalism that the Reagan regime had launched on the foundations laid by Jimmy Carter’s pusillanimous four years to wrap up the 1970s, all of which put an end to the legacies of the half-century New Deal. The New Deal was never so great anyway, in spite of some my friends’ enthusiasm for it and its recent reinvention in a Green cloak. Based on the bedrock of private property and the private accumulation of capital, and ultimately the guarantee of prosperity by a globe-spanning militarism, both nature and humanity took a terrible beating during the slow dance called the Cold War that spanned the New Deal era. But it was by shaking off the “constraints” imposed by the wealth-spreading deals of European social democracy and the U.S. New Deal that the globe began its final descent into what is now an irreversible and catastrophic decline in terms of habitability for life as we’ve known it.

Not only has wealth concentrated at rates not seen since the end of the 19th century, but its necessary complement, extreme poverty, has also grown by leaps and bounds. The streets of San Francisco have seen a 17% increase in homelessness just in the past year, and that’s after a persistent population of 8,000-10,000 living on the streets and in cars since the early 1980s. Other cities like Los Angeles and New York report similarly entrenched populations living at the edge of survival amidst our much-touted prosperity. In the vast middle of the country, people work multiple low-wage jobs to make ends meet, often only managing due to ever-growing debts. Student loans have topped $1 trillion and WILL NEVER BE PAID. Opioid addiction, alcoholism, and general despair are rampant. One in five California children live in desperate poverty according to a recent radio program I heard, the worst in the country.

Everyone knows the emperor has no clothes, whether it’s the blatant venality of Trump and his minions, or the overarching fakery of the modern economy whose self-referential numbers all proclaim wild success even when so many are suffering a steady decline in quality of living. All the factors that produced the near-collapse in 2008 are still in place, worse than ever, with incalculable amounts of debt-derived money pushing along a fictional illusion of well-being. The concentration of capital in finance and land, and the extortionary inflated rents and home prices that funnel so much social wealth into the coffers of the criminal syndicates who built this house of cards, is as fragile as an old rickety chair, and as likely to shatter as fine crystal. The much-touted success of Google and Facebook is entirely dependent on advertising, a parasitical and worthless activity that can and will suddenly crumble when the chickens of climate and financial insanity come home to roost.

Stavanger is the home of Norway’s oil industry, based in the North Sea. This is a photo of the Oil Museum there, and inside is a well-designed, informative history of Norway’s oil… starting in the late 1960s when North Sea oil was discovered, to today when the country is extremely wealthy thanks to decades of successful exploitation of the fossil fuels that have brought the planet to the brink.
A scale model of the technologies invented to exploit deep sea oil and gas deposits
The pipeline map showing all the gas and oil lines running from the deep sea to the northern European countries that depend on it.
Another scale model of a deep sea platform from the Museum in Stavanger
A photo of the actual cement platform sunk in the deep sea.
The Ten Commandments of Norwegian Oil!!
An small-ish oil platform in for service along the interior coast of Norway, seen from our ferry ride to Bergen.
The drill bits that go through the bottom of the sea.

History is pounding on the doors in the form of decades of combustion and carbon emissions—the burning of millennia of organic wastes turned into carbon-rich oil, coal, and forests. Had we begun to slow—and ultimately stop—our dependence on fossil fuels in the brief sweater-wearing winter of Carter’s presidency, much of today’s record-breaking heat (guaranteed now to be superceded by far worse when the burning 1980s, 90s, and 2000s reach their full impact in the decades soon to come) could have been averted. Hell, we might have stabilized a new world order that actually promoted the flourishing of human cultures, natural systems, and generalized abundance! Oh yeah, that was NEVER on the agenda!

Continue reading Ice and Oil

Exiting the Cul-de-Sac

The view from my back window in September… I’m just back from a long week in Guadalajara….

While reading and writing history I never stop thinking about radical social change. And I am continually frustrated with my own isolation, which arises from my critical dissatisfaction with what passes for the Left, whether of the social-democratic or the anarchistic varieties not to mention the older hardline M-L versions which I never embraced even when they were riding a bit higher in the late 1970s. Whether through self-imposed ideological leanings, or through a genuine absence of a dynamic political culture where the debates I think are vital are unfolding, I often feel like I’m stuck in a cul-de-sac—either one that is the dominant culture of extreme right-wing insanity, or the smaller one that is the circular firing squad on the Left.

…at exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics, and literature alike.

—Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement (University of Chicago: 2016) p. 80

The key to radical social change?…

…gig work is part of the individualizing of economic life and financial responsibility. Every man, woman, and child is implored to take personal control of work, retirement, insurance, education, and so forth. Alas, greater responsibility means greater risk of failure. The Gig Economy is the antithesis of collective responsibility and class solidarity.

—Richard Walker, Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area (PM Press: 2018), p. 116

I’m one of those people who have spent my entire adult life, approximately 40+ years now, thinking and scheming about revolution. During a recent Shaping San Francisco Public Talk we had a decent discussion on the revolutionary upheavals of 1968-70, necessarily a bit brief given the format. Preparing for it I read George Katsiaficas’s book The Global Imagination of 1968, which actually concludes that in terms of the U.S., the year 1970 came much closer to the kind of social break that we might call a revolution. In his book he invokes the concept of the “Eros Effect,” which I believe originated with Herbert Marcuse. This is the name he gives to the powerful feeling of connectedness that emerges in times of social conflict and upheaval.

Trying to come to grips with the despair that is always available these days, and remembering that however awful it is (and it is), we do have collective possibilities that feel dormant but could awaken much faster than we can imagine. Remember how quickly the Arab Spring and its doppelgangers in Spain, the U.S., Turkey, Brazil, Korea, and elsewhere spread, amplifying the eros effect across the planet in a matter of months. The people who took those public squares, who occupied those public spaces, who used the internet to augment the face-to-face networks that are the real foundation of radical change, are mostly still alive and well. The forces of repression have destroyed most of those hopeful manifestations from 2011, but the knowledge of how to do it, the people who did it, and the imaginations that know it’s still possible, are all intact. Better still, the dead-ends encountered last time have been pondered, and presumably new tactics will emerge to overcome obstacles, whether self-inflicted or state-imposed, next time.

Between 1968 and 2011, during my lifetime, both the old and new left fractured and shrank to a meaningless set of grouplets, though the cultural revolt that burst forth during the florescent ’60s and ’70s, prominently among women and the LGBT community, continues to fight for hegemony against the resurgent Right. But formal political organizations and ideologies, Democrats and Republicans, Socialists and Conservatives, have withered and are barely a shell of the public arenas of social conflict they once were.

In other words, the public sphere, where politics is performed, has been largely emptied of content in terms of the exercise of power: as with fiction, it has become a forum for secular testimony, a baring-of-the-soul in the world-as-church. Politics as thus practiced is primarily an exercise in personal expressiveness… [As Guy Debord declared:] “The spectacle is by definition immune from human activity, inaccessible to any projected review or correction. It is the opposite of dialogue. Wherever representation takes on an independent existence, the spectacle reestablishes its rule.”

—Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement (University of Chicago: 2016) p. 131

Continue reading Exiting the Cul-de-Sac