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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Challenge...

I'm reading part of a book for an 18th-century British Political History class.  It's flabbergasting how much of the American system of politics was based on England's.  Douglas Hay's Albion's Fatal Tree chapter on "Property, authority, and the Criminal Law" tells about how capital crimes increased in the eighteenth century... yet, executions did not.  You could be hanged for theft, etc.  Yet, you rarely were.  In other words, the threat of death became a deterrent for crime... if you were rich.

Still, the poorer classes paid the price.  You see, the wealthy, the gentry class, the noblemen of the British realm, the men to whom all plebeians owed deference, seldom faced death.  And, they knew it.  A pardon usually awaited them rather than a noose.

Tenant farmers, of course, weren't necessarily hanged, but they were always more in danger of it and they were made aware of the danger often.  The basic idea was to "remind" them of their position in society, to reinforce their allegiance to the king.

British protected their property.  And, the ideas developed by John Locke and Thomas Hobbes were taken to extremes.  "Once property had been officially deified, it became the measure of all things," including life and death.  "Human life was weighed in the scales of wealth and status."

Eventually, Britain reformed this barbaric capitalistic system based upon fear.  However, that did not occur until the 19th century, after a remote group of Englishmen had taken these ideas to their extremes and expanded on them.  The interesting part is that what distinguished a poor farmer type from a gentleman was land... property.  America had vast quantities of land and almost every settler on this continent could obtain it.  

What happens when a system of justice that depends upon capital crimes and pardoning of the rich meets a land with no poor folk (amongst the white-colored folk, anyway)?  Well, they are most all seen as gentry, in stark irony with Britain.  And, that difference, among others, led them to separate from their country of origin... as propertied "gentlemen" of a different ideology.  So, "We the people" really did not include ALL the people. There were many people in the shadows.

Furthermore, the class differential that separated the gentry from those at the end of their virtual rope remained in the ideology.  It led to things like "Jim Crow" and the "Trail of Tears."  The ideas of property deification certainly remained and formed the basis of the American capitalistic system.  We even changed the definition of "to capitalize" from that of our English parents, certainly aware of changing ideologies during the British reform.  

Our society today is based upon the older system, still with deference owed to our betters.  You see, the founding fathers saw themselves as the "better" class, as opposed to those without property. 

Thomas Jefferson became a singular opposing voice in that arena, espousing the cause of the yeoman farmer (who still had property...).  But, most people eschewed "mob rule," an idea also gained from our British forebears.  Note that the land-owning yeoman farmer was included in the "mob" by most.  Americans tended to elevate their ideas of the poorer class.  Jefferson was denounced by most politicians who generally followed the Federalist path and instituted the Constitution.  This document protects the gentry, the higher class.  However, it made little provision for the poor, the "mob," most notably in the area of slavery, or property - the ownership of human beings.  The best part of that document was that it wasn't explicit about it... we could modify that meaning later.  Jefferson, of course, was no angel.  He never gave up ownership of other human beings.  Still, he foresaw that any such government would be as oppressive as a king. In many ways, that government does still retain the class distinctions that were innately British.

We have to remember that we are the "mob" while the gentry, the upper crust of America, was who our economic system was designed to favor.  Former slaves are now citizens of our "mob" society, like Native Americans, Hispanics, and many other groups that someone deemed it necessary to delineate by race, or creed, or color. 

So, you see that British ideas were not as far away as we usually thought.  Slavery stemmed from 18th-century British ideology and became uniquely American. Still, it's roots developed from the British... before they reformed their views of property and justice.  America's reform had to cost 600,000 lives and came decades later.  Perhaps we were hard-headed?  We still are.

When I watch commercials on TV or receive expensive fliers in the mail or hear preposterous advertisements on the radio, I think about this.  I question a society that puts property above human life, a society that demands money for health care and such.  I question a society that elevates ignorance and denounces intelligence, seeks the almighty dollar without reservation.  Are we trying to avoid a harsh truth?  I think so.  The dumber we stay, the more money that we will part with and the less trouble we will cause.  It's a simple formula.  

We still show deference to the rich, even though they would laugh as we hang in the noose.  We still elect them to office because of the crazy notion that the poor just don't have the education or brains to lead.  We allow rich corporations to behave like individuals, taking the same rights as us and making us grovel for a living, removing our rights to fair labor practices.  Most of us aspire to emulate the rich... we dream of dollars.

No, the British aren't perfect.  But, they are more enlightened than us about certain things.  African-Americans, Native Americans, etc still remain farther down the class hierarchy than the rich white folk at the top of the ladder.  America, more than most, still has these problems.  

Hopefully, this 18th-century British comparison will open some eyes, perhaps divert those eyes from the flashy BS on television that continually trains us to be dollar-loving, culture-shocked automatons.  I hope that the mind will begin to work for itself rather than for a barely livable wage from some rich corporation, slaves to a system that disregards our diversity.  

A wonderful philosophy comes to mind about infinite diversity... a philosophy of not simply accepting differences, but rejoicing in those differences, even religious ideas.  I appreciate you and you, me.  Thinking like that would nullify much of these desires for dollars, individual "property."  There would be less "me" and more "us."  But that would involve trust... maybe I'm unrealistic.  Maybe we can't be better than the sum of our parts.  Many people tell me this.  Still, they offer no solutions.

I'm an eternal optimist, though.  I think we can learn to think and create a better world, catch up with the rest of the planet.  That's my challenge...