By Steven Johnson
Dec. 9, 2016
I learned fairly recently, from reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, that my own ancestors, the Scots-Irish, were Scottish peasants who, after being violently uprooted from their own lands and land-based communal ways, became rootless “foot soldiers of empire,” helping to conquer others’ lands, in Ireland and North America.
And I wondered, why didn’t we ever hear about the earliest part of this story growing up? Why were all the stories about Columbus, the Pilgrims, George Washington, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett…? Why did “history” – not the academic subject, but the story we were taught to live in and celebrate – focus entirely on settler-colonizers, and not on peoples who were uprooted from their own lands, including my own ancestors, who have been kept nameless to me, abiding in a fog of historical oblivion?
Two things dawned on me. First, to advance the aims of the empire and its ruling elites, the heroes in the story that people are induced to tell must be those who furthered conquest and exploitation, in order to justify continued conquest and exploitation. The conquered, on the other hand, must be denied historical personality. Their story must be effectively erased from social memory, because, otherwise, it would expose the illegitimacy of the social order that keeps the elites in their privileged position. We might then rediscover the possibility of truly INHABITING places – tenderly caring for and regenerating the bioregion that sustains us, and living in balance. Such a discovery would deeply threaten the global capitalist empire, because it directly contradicts that world order’s rootless exploit-and-move-on approach to land and resources that concentrates “wealth” (but not true well-being) in elites at the top.
Second, the dispossession of peasants in Europe, centuries ago, is a gaping, untreated wound that continues to affect my kin and me, and “white people” in general, in all sorts of ways of which we are not aware. The pathologies have been, and continue to be, transmitted from generation to generation. And the erasure of this primordial cataclysm, from the origins story we were raised to consider our own, only gives it more power over us. We walk, we act, we destroy, influenced by the pain of wounds that we do not recognize as such, that have no name, that come from nobody knows where. We have no true home, but fail to recognize or name that problem, because we’ve long forgotten what it even means to live at home – that is to say, to live in mutually beneficial relationships with our human and nonhuman neighbors in the web of life, on a land base.
Since the dispossession of our ancestors, over our centuries-long career as rootless conquerors, my fellow “white people” and I have accumulated wealth derived from the robbery of lands and the labor-power of slaves. This wealth has gone disproportionately to just a few of us – capitalists at the top. The rest of us, over most of this time, lived in conditions that, notwithstanding our relative privilege, still qualified, objectively, as misery. But, through systemic racism, we were bribed with just enough social and economic privilege, relative to and over others, to keep us from uniting with the more severely oppressed classes and peoples to overthrow the unjust system, and redistribute land and other productive resources equitably to all.
More recently, since the dawn of the age of cheap fossil fuels, and especially since the post-World War II economic boom, our racially privileged access to education, and managerial and professional careers, combined with the U.S.’s post-war position as the principal power towards which global imperialist wealth transfers flow, have greatly increased whites’ advantage over others, and given us unprecedented material affluence. This has made us walk with our chests out, as Malcolm X observed. We feel like we are gods walking the earth. And we insist that we are entitled to this, greatly underestimating the role that robbery and exploitation have played, and greatly exaggerating the role of our own ingenuity and effort, in building our wealth.
As humans are generally prone to do, we assume that how things have been since our own childhood to the present day is how things will, or should, always be, not realizing how ephemeral and fragile the conditions of this brief historical moment really are. We have partaken of forbidden fruit. In our folly, we took a devil’s promise at his word that we would be as gods. But our fall is near, because our unbalanced, exploitative, and unjust ways – the true nature of which is obscured by the false stories we tell ourselves about “progress” – are destroying the very fabric of life without which human communities cannot be sustained. Conditions we imagined would be eternal are really a bubble, and it has popped. We have dropped out of that bubble into a free fall, without even knowing it, while dragging the whole world with us. And the cushion of privilege that we hold beneath us will not be remotely enough to soften the crash.
My fellow white settlers and I must reach into the fog, bring into conscious awareness the lost history that set us on destructive paths, and treat the wound that was inflicted on us. And we must recognize the mistakes that our ancestors and we have made since then, make reparations for the wounds that were thereby inflicted on others, work together with others to establish equitable access to land and other productive resources for all, and decisively break the pattern of robbery and exploitation that is destroying ecosystems and keeping people in misery. We won’t likely accomplish any of these goals unless we pursue them all. They are the essential, intertwined tasks that are upon us.
As the fabric of life is daily torn to shreds, at ever-accelerating rates, we haven’t a moment to lose.