How “Town Hell” reminds me of the Industrial Revolution

There are a couple ways to understand the “Town Hell” meetings–not really meetings but the equivalents of torch-bearing mobs whipped into hysterics by mainstream politicians in the faction that has been displaced from power.

First, I remember a number of stunts including at least one attempt to arrest a Bush administration official for crimes against humanity and protests against the invasion of Iraq that blocked San Francisco intersections. We on the left have been angry too for reasons that are both different from and similar to those menacing politicians who support even a pathetic attempt at health care reform.

These differences and similarities reflect the culture wars that have recently most visibly divided this country since George W. Bush stole the election in 2000, but which I think historians could trace to about the time of the Industrial Revolution. Yes, the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution in the latter half of the 19th Century nearly coincides with a number of other developments in the United States. The Confederacy had lost the Civil War, African-Americans had been freed, the men among them had even been given the vote, and white bitterness was so palpable that the fact that middle and upper class white women were exercising greater control over their fertility, in combination of a wave of immigration consisting largely of darker-skinned, non-English speaking Catholics, led to cries of “race suicide.” It was a time for lynchings. “Race suicide” was code for white fear that they would be outnumbered politically, that they would lose their privileges in a heavily segregated, bigoted society.

Evangelical Protestants had been in North America since colonization but it was about the time of the Industrial Revolution that massive revivals began. Sex became an issue in this country like it never had been before as a more mobile population began to concentrate in cities. Men met women, women got pregnant, men moved on, and women bore the consequences. Ironically, this fed a backlash that sought to reinforce patriarchal control over women’s bodies. White women existed primarily to preserve the race; they were not to sleep with whomever they chose and they were absolutely to produce as many offspring as possible.

That the “culture war” in this country is rooted both in racism and in sexism is no surprise, at least to those on the left. And that is the difference from protests against the Bush administration. Intellectually, we on the left can argue that the war on Iraq is illegal and that the abrogation of civil liberties undermines the very values the “war on terror” putatively seeks to defend. We can accept that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. We can see that the health care package emerging from Congress will do nothing that budding fascists claim it will do.

I am deeply skeptical that this country will resist the rise of fascism. We have been at war nearly our entire history to assert the privilege of wealthy white men to dominate and exploit everyone else. That includes the war and genocide on American Indians, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and a series of lesser known actions in between so pervasive that there are fewer than twenty years in the United States chronology in which its military has not been engaged somewhere, somehow.

Residents of the United States overwhelmingly respond with patriotic fervor whenever their leaders want war and with apathy whenever the action is not so grand. A part of the U.S. foundational mythology is “American exceptionalism,” that the god of Abraham has blessed this country with a right to intervene wherever and whenever to impose “capitalist democracy.” And it is not to avoid sending young men and women into harm’s way, but rather to challenge this myth that is to “betray our troops.”

I was raised in this mythology. Though I have been on the left my entire life, it is only within the last few years that I have come to recognize the evil in the soul of this nation. And even having come to this understanding, I have been complicit in this evil to the extent that I have failed to do everything in my power to stop it. I have understood that Barack Obama was not the great progressive hope but a mainstream Democrat, an enabler of Bush crimes, what Malcolm X called a “house negro.” But even his election is intolerable to a faction among politicians and among the public whose only answer is “no,” who will manipulate his race to advance a conservative agenda even beyond the horror of the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush years.

I do not wish to remain among such people.