Thursday, January 14, 2016


January 14, 1916                        LIBERTY IN OREGON

          Armed militia taking over a Federal facility--really? Are they serious?

          I suspect they are. Serious and stupid at the same time. But it's not as if it's new. Portions of the United States are always looking for ways to separate themeselves from the Federal Gov't., most famously in the Civil War, and somehow it's always in the name of liberty, or freedom, or get out of my backyard. I know the impulse from writing about the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in the 1790s, shortly after there first was a United States under the Constitution. Farmers there were growing corn and converting it to whiskey in order to have a product that was much cheaper and easier to ship west down the rivers to New Orleans than it was to harvest the corn and ship it east to markets in the cities there. Corn in bulk is a lot more expensive to ship anywhere on farm wagons and with multiple mules than corn condensed into whiskey, for which there's always a demand. The tax on spirits, which was levied at the source, was one of the very first taxes the Fed. government enacted, and western Pennsylvania farmers responded with an armed rebellion. It didn't come to an end until George Washington himself called up the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York militias and sent them into the Pittsburgh area, himself leading the way. It took about fifteen minutes, once Washington's army came close, for the rebellion to disappear.

          So it has always been in the U. S. We're free, right? Doesn't that mean that we can do whatever we want? If we're living here, isn't this basically our land? Why should there be Federal land at all? Benedict Anderson called nations "imagined communities." Most of us don't live in eastern Oregon, can't personally know these people, the local communities they belong to are alien to us, who live in totally other communities with different styles of life and differing experiences and different relationships to our physical environments. So what makes us one "nation"? Where do our true allegiances belong? In Europe the allegiances center on their long histories, their differing languages, their defining literatures, their relative homogeneity. We have the one language, though with different accents, but most everything else seems unreal. How many of us can imagine having common ground with a cattle rancher? In effect, that's what being a nation on some level requires. Just that level of imagination, albeit in the abstract. We have to commit to the same idea of the nation, the same image in our mind of what it means, and those images, as our politics so plainly reveal, are not the same.

          I've written about these matters before in this blog, and I'll no doubt do it again. As the populace gets further removed from its original Enlightenment principles--who asks James Madison any more what the liberty of a citizen actually means?--as more and more people come here or are born here, as the diversity in the world and all the conflicts it generates grow more and more intense, the centrifuge that is our "nation" will only speed up, and what holds us together--I'm still trying to figure out exactly what that is--will come to seem more remote. We have had these regional differences from the start. As Obama's brilliant presidency reveals, the racism hasn't gone away. The military supposedly represents the nation at its best, but in fact we treat them like shit. As differences escalate and harden, people grow more selfish. Compromise vanishes. Mutual understanding is not to be found.

          I've quoted Benjamin Franklin before, too. Let me repeat. As he emerged for the last time from the hall in Philadelphia where the Constitution was written, a woman asked him what sort of government they had conceived. And he famously said, "A republic, ma'am. If you can keep it."

          If you can keep it. It must be kept, that is, from inside the hearts and mind of a people dedicated to the task. As the President said in his final State of the Union address the other night, it's a hard task. It takes dedication, and, most of all, it takes service.

          But as a study at Princeton concluded recently, we have already lost it. We do not live, it claimed, in either a republic or a democracy any more. We live in an oligarchy.