Michael Moore's Christmas Letter: Half Right and Half Very Wrong
Michael Moore, in his December 24 Christmas letter "Celebrating the Prince of Peace in the Land of Guns" (copied below) notes that people in countries other than the United States "simply don't kill each other at the rate that we do" and asks "Why is that? ... Who are we?" His answer is that we are a violent people in a nation founded on genocide and built on the backs of slaves, that we killed 600,000 of ourselves in a Civil War, that "we rape and beat and kill our women at a staggering rate," and that we let our own citizens die from lack of health insurance.
Moore says that there are three things about the United States that account for such high levels of violence: 1) poverty (Moore points out that middle class people don't break into homes to steal TVs), 2) fear of blacks (Moore says whites buy guns out of fear of poor black people), and 3) an "every man for himself ethos" (Moore says, "Clearly, we are no longer our brother's and sister's keeper. You get sick and can't afford the operation? Not my problem. The bank has foreclosed on your home? Not my problem. Can't afford to go to college? Not my problem.")
Moore is half right and half very wrong. He's right in saying that the history of slavery and genocide against native Americans is an important factor shaping America today. He's right in saying that the brutalization of women is terribly wrong. He's right in saying that poverty is an important factor in explaining some violence and that it partly explains why better off people buy guns. And he's right is saying that an "every man for himself ethos" is a big part of the problem.
But Moore is very wrong in framing these problems in a way that hides the conflict of values that rages inside the United States in connection with these problems. For example, a robust majority of Americans have been telling opinion pollsters that they want everybody to have health insurance as a right, and that they want a single-payer (Medicare for all) health plan, and that they would even willingly pay higher taxes to make it so (pollsters don't explain that the tax increase would be less than the preimum reduction.) When given an opportunity to vote on this, Americans vote for a single payer health plan. There are some Americans who value "every man for himself" but there are many more who value concern for one another. Instead of sending out a Christmas letter blaming the entire American population for having an "every man for himself ethos" Moore should be helping the Americans who value concern for one another to know that they are in fact the majority even though the opposing minority currently calls the shots. Moore should be asking how come the "every man for himself" minority is in power? Moore should be asking how can we remove them from power.
But Moore refuses to do this. Instead he hides the reality from us--the reality that the problem is that good people with good values are large in number but not in control of America, that a numerically small elite with values that most Americans hate is in control. Moore insists on using the pronoun, "We," to describe Americans as having a single set of values. Why does he not use the more appropriate "They" to describe the Americans with rotten values and reserve the pronoun "We" to describe the Americans with good values? Does he not think such Americans exist? To whom does he think he is sending his letters?
Moore refers to slavery and the genocide of native Americans in the past as a way of using events about which people have no personal experience to get people to accept a version of reality that America's ruling elite have been teaching school children for many years. It is, again, a version of reality in which there is only a single all-encompassing homogeneous "We" for Americans of European descent. But this "We" is a lie. Most of the Europeans in the New World were virtually slaves, indentured for so many years and treated so brutally that many did not survive their period of indenture. The punishment for making an escape attempt was to add years to the period of indenture. Outright chattel slavery emerged when a law was passed that allowed this punishment to extend the period of indenture for the entire life of the indentured servant. Many of the Europeans "went native" and blended into the native American population, often resisting "rescue." As Ward Churchill writes:
Slavery, our elite rulers want us to believe, was about white masters owning black slaves, period. How many Americans are familiar with poor whites in the South during the Civil War fighting the racist slaveowners, alongside of black slaves, to end slavery?
On March 8, 1864 Captain A.F. Ramsey of the Confederacy's 3rd Mississippi Regiment wrote to Major J.C. Denis, the regional provost marshal about an attack on a Confederate installation in New Augusta, Mississippi. Of the attackers, Ramsey wrote, "They stated they were in regular communication with the Yankees, were fighting for the Union, and would have peace or hell by August. They told the negros they were free."
The attackers were natives of Mississippi, not Yankees. They were whites--the sort of whites that were called "poor white trash" by the "better" folk of the Confederacy. They came from Jones County and nearby counties of rural Mississippi, where they were small "yeoman" farmers who owned no slaves and were proud of that fact. They farmed small plots of land, and as fugitives who had been conscripted into and then deserted from the Confederate Army, they hid in the swamps around their farms.
Sally Jenkins, a journalist, and John Stauffer, chair and professor of the History of American Civilization at Harvard University wrote a book about these anti-Confederacy whites of Mississippi. Their book is titled "The State of Jones" because Jones County, Mississippi, virtually seceded from the Confederacy during the Civil War. This book tells about an important aspect of race relations in American history that is unknown by most Americans. Here are some things I learned from it.
In their attack on the Confederate installation, these "poor white trash"
Confederate Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk wrote to President Jefferson Davis that the Jones Countians were "in open rebellion, defiant at the outset, proclaiming themselves 'Southern Yankees,' and resolved to resist by force of arms all efforts to capture them." Polk "ordered elements from two of the most battle-hardened regiments in the whole of the Confederacy army, the 'Bloody' 6th Mississippi and the intensely loyal 20th Mississippi, to conduct an expansive sweep of the lower Mississippi, combing the several counties between the Pearl and Tombigbee rivers for deserters." They arrested about 500 men in seven counties.
Here's one way the yeoman farmer "guerillas," led by Newton Knight, fought back against Polk's "rebel" troops:
At this time slaves who were able to do so left the plantations and headed for Union positions. By the end of 1863 about 50,000 former slaves were serving in the Union Army. One slave woman named Rachel, who was owned by relatives of Newton Knight, remained with her owner.
During the fighting, Newton was unable to stay with his wife and family on their farm, and he and Rachel became, in effect, a married couple who later raised children and had grandchildren together.
General Polk's determined effort to capture Newton's men failed. "All the Confederate cavalry, artillery, and crack infantry regiments had done was give him temporary pause. Nor had they solved the larger problem of desertion in the ranks: only 20 percent of the five thousand active deserters in Mississippi had been caught and returned to duty."
Non-slave-owning "poor white trash" deserted from the Confederate army in large numbers for four main reasons. They hated being treated like dirt by the slave-owning officers. They hated the Confederate government for allowing men who owned twenty or more slaves to remain at home with their families while poorer men were conscripted. They hated the Confederate government for sending agents to attack their wives--robbing them of food and the means to keep themselves and their children alive while their husbands were away. And they were unwilling to risk their lives to defend the institution of slavery. In fact, they believed in equality of all human beings. Newton Knight and his followers were Baptists who "practiced foot washing, lay preaching, and egalitarian worship in unadorned buildings. The central tenet of their faith was that all humans were equal in God's eyes and infused with God's spirit. 'God is no respecter of persons' was one of their favorite passages from the Bible. Another was: 'Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.'"
The "poor white trash" of Mississippi formed an alliance with the slaves against the Confederate slave-owning elite. As Jenkins and Stauffer write: "Also, every day more blacks liberated from plantations came into the swamps to join the struggle."
The poor whites of Mississippi who fought the Confederacy alongside slaves did so because of working class values that they shared with slaves. The fact that poor whites may have believed some racist lies about blacks that constituted the dominant ideas of the day is not nearly as important or significant as the fact that their working class values led them to ally with slaves to fight the racist ruling class. Racism came from the upper class, and anti-racism came from the working class--black and white--in Mississippi during the Civil War.
Knowing about this history of class struggle in Mississippi during the Civil War makes it easier to understand how, in the 1930s throughout the South, black and white tenant farmers united in the Southern Tenant Farmers Union against the large landowners and the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws, and waged successful strikes for better conditions.
Michael Moore is so blind to the reality of the actual conflict of values inside the United States that he sees no better hope than to rely on sweet-talking politicians like Barack Obama, whom he urged us all to vote for last November. Moore asks us to act as if the only choice we have--given that Americans are all such bad people--is to vote for the "lesser evil" politician, even though he or she unequivacally serves the ruling elite--the billionaire class in which is concentrated the most extreme selfishness and greed, the class of Americans who use the most extreme violence to defend the most obscene inequality.
Michae Moore needs to open his eyes and see that there is a war going on inside the United States, a war about what values will shape our society. Moore should take a side in that war; he should address his letters to "Us" and talk about how we can defeat "Them". He should stop helping "Them" demoralize "Us" with lies about how we are all a bunch of bad people with bad "every man for himself" values and a history of enslaving blacks and committing genocide against native Americans. This "We are the enemy" crap has been fed to us for generations, going back to the famous Walt Kelly Pogo cartoon declaration: "We have met the enemy and he is us."
The ruling class of the United States knows that in order to remain in power it only has to ensure that Americans fail to build a successful revolutionary movement. It isn't necessary to make Americans like their rulers. It is only necessary to make Americans feel so hopeless, about the possibility of making a revolution for a better world, that they will accept, however grudgingly, the rule of the elite. What better way to make Americans feel hopeless than to persuade them that they are virtually all bad people who, even if they were in control, would make society just as bad as it is today? Spreading this lie while deploring how bad Americans are, as Moore does, only helps the ruling class make the lie more credible. It's time we rejected Moore's "We are the enemy" lie and started Thinking about Revolution.
* My friend, Carol Bradford, a descendant of Governor William Bradford who has studied this history, writes: "First of all, those early comers from England to Plymouth were not called Puritans. Puritans were the Bay Colony which came later on. Bradford and his Mayflower crew have always been called Pilgrims. Secondly, the attack upon the Pequots was not engineered by Bradford and his crew. But they did ready their muskets. However, they never joined in on attacking the Pequots. Much wrong stuff has surfaced against Governor William Bradford. Bradford and the newcomers made a pact for peace with the Indians that lasted for 50 years. It was later on that younger generations were different."
Celebrating the Prince of Peace in the Land of Guns ...a letter from Michael Moore
Monday, December 24th, 2012
After watching the deranged, delusional National Rifle Association press conference on Friday, it was clear that the Mayan prophecy had come true. Except the only world that was ending was the NRA's. Their bullying power to set gun policy in this country is over. The nation is repulsed by the massacre in Connecticut, and the signs are everywhere: a basketball coach at a post-game press conference; the Republican Joe Scarborough; a pawn shop owner in Florida; a gun buy-back program in New Jersey; a singing contest show on TV, and the conservative gun-owning judge who sentenced Jared Loughner.
So here's my little bit of holiday cheer for you:
These gun massacres aren't going to end any time soon.
I'm sorry to say this. But deep down we both know it's true. That doesn't mean we shouldn't keep pushing forward – after all, the momentum is on our side. I know all of us – including me – would love to see the president and Congress enact stronger gun laws. We need a ban on automatic AND semiautomatic weapons and magazine clips that hold more than 7 bullets. We need better background checks and more mental health services. We need to regulate the ammo, too.
But, friends, I would like to propose that while all of the above will certainly reduce gun deaths (ask Mayor Bloomberg – it is virtually impossible to buy a handgun in New York City and the result is the number of murders per year has gone from 2,200 to under 400), it won't really bring about an end to these mass slayings and it will not address the core problem we have. Connecticut had one of the strongest gun laws in the country. That did nothing to prevent the murders of 20 small children on December 14th.
In fact, let's be clear about Newtown: the killer had no criminal record so he would never have shown up on a background check. All of the guns he used were legally purchased. None fit the legal description of an "assault" weapon. The killer seemed to have mental problems and his mother had him seek help, but that was worthless. As for security measures, the Sandy Hook school was locked down and buttoned up BEFORE the killer showed up that morning. Drills had been held for just such an incident. A lot of good that did.
And here's the dirty little fact none of us liberals want to discuss: The killer only ceased his slaughter when he saw that cops were swarming onto the school grounds – i.e, the men with the guns. When he saw the guns a-coming, he stopped the bloodshed and killed himself. Guns on police officers prevented another 20 or 40 or 100 deaths from happening. Guns sometimes work. (Then again, there was an armed deputy sheriff at Columbine High School the day of that massacre and he couldn't/didn't stop it.)
I am sorry to offer this reality check on our much-needed march toward a bunch of well-intended, necessary – but ultimately, mostly cosmetic – changes to our gun laws. The sad facts are these: Other countries that have guns (like Canada, which has 7 million guns – mostly hunting guns – in their 12 million households) have a low murder rate. Kids in Japan watch the same violent movies and kids in Australia play the same violent video games (Grand Theft Auto was created by a British company; the UK had 58 gun murders last year in a nation of 63 million people). They simply don't kill each other at the rate that we do. Why is that? THAT is the question we should be exploring while we are banning and restricting guns: Who are we?
I'd like to try to answer that question.
We are a country whose leaders officially sanction and carry out acts of violence as a means to often an immoral end. We invade countries who didn't attack us. We're currently using drones in a half-dozen countries, often killing civilians.
This probably shouldn't come as a surprise to us as we are a nation founded on genocide and built on the backs of slaves. We slaughtered 600,000 of each other in a civil war. We "tamed the Wild West with a six-shooter," and we rape and beat and kill our women without mercy and at a staggering rate: every three hours a women is murdered in the USA (half the time by an ex or a current); every three minutes a woman is raped in the USA; and every 15 seconds a woman is beaten in the USA.
We belong to an illustrious group of nations that still have the death penalty (North Korea, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran). We think nothing of letting tens of thousands of our own citizens die each year because they are uninsured and thus don't see a doctor until it's too late.
Why do we do this? One theory is simply "because we can." There is a level of arrogance in the otherwise friendly American spirit, conning ourselves into believing there's something exceptional about us that separates us from all those "other" countries (there are indeed many good things about us; the same could also be said of Belgium, New Zealand, France, Germany, etc.). We think we're #1 in everything when the truth is our students are 17th in science and 25th in math, and we're 35th in life expectancy. We believe we have the greatest democracy but we have the lowest voting turnout of any western democracy. We're biggest and the bestest at everything and we demand and take what we want.
And sometimes we have to be violent m*****f*****s to get it. But if one of us goes off-message and shows the utterly psychotic nature and brutal results of violence in a Newtown or an Aurora or a Virginia Tech, then we get all "sad" and "our hearts go out to the families" and presidents promise to take "meaningful action." Well, maybe this president means it this time. He'd better. An angry mob of millions is not going to let this drop.
While we are discussing and demanding what to do, may I respectfully ask that we stop and take a look at what I believe are the three extenuating factors that may answer the question of why we Americans have more violence than most anyone else:
1. POVERTY. If there's one thing that separates us from the rest of the developed world, it's this. 50 million of our people live in poverty. One in five Americans goes hungry at some point during the year. The majority of those who aren't poor are living from paycheck to paycheck. There's no doubt this creates more crime. Middle class jobs prevent crime and violence. (If you don't believe that, ask yourself this: If your neighbor has a job and is making $50,000/year, what are the chances he's going to break into your home, shoot you and take your TV? Nil.)
2. FEAR/RACISM. We're an awfully fearful country considering that, unlike most nations, we've never been invaded. (No, 1812 wasn't an invasion. We started it.) Why on earth would we need 300 million guns in our homes? I get why the Russians might be a little spooked (over 20 million of them died in World War II). But what's our excuse? Worried that the Indians from the casino may go on the warpath? Concerned that the Canadians seem to be amassing too many Tim Horton's donut shops on both sides of the border?
No. It's because too many white people are afraid of black people. Period. The vast majority of the guns in the U.S. are sold to white people who live in the suburbs or the country. When we fantasize about being mugged or home invaded, what's the image of the perpetrator in our heads? Is it the freckled-face kid from down the street – or is it someone who is, if not black, at least poor?
I think it would be worth it to a) do our best to eradicate poverty and re-create the middle class we used to have, and b) stop promoting the image of the black man as the boogeyman out to hurt you. Calm down, white people, and put away your guns.
3. THE "ME" SOCIETY. I think it's the every-man-for-himself ethos of this country that has put us in this mess and I believe it's been our undoing. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! You're not my problem! This is mine!
Clearly, we are no longer our brother's and sister's keeper. You get sick and can't afford the operation? Not my problem. The bank has foreclosed on your home? Not my problem. Can't afford to go to college? Not my problem.
And yet, it all sooner or later becomes our problem, doesn't it? Take away too many safety nets and everyone starts to feel the impact. Do you want to live in that kind of society, one where you will then have a legitimate reason to be in fear? I don't.
I'm not saying it's perfect anywhere else, but I have noticed, in my travels, that other civilized countries see a national benefit to taking care of each other. Free medical care, free or low-cost college, mental health help. And I wonder – why can't we do that? I think it's because in many other countries people see each other not as separate and alone but rather together, on the path of life, with each person existing as an integral part of the whole. And you help them when they're in need, not punish them because they've had some misfortune or bad break. I have to believe one of the reasons gun murders in other countries are so rare is because there's less of the lone wolf mentality amongst their citizens. Most are raised with a sense of connection, if not outright solidarity. And that makes it harder to kill one another.
Well, there's some food for thought as we head home for the holidays. Don't forget to say hi to your conservative brother-in-law for me. Even he will tell you that, if you can't nail a deer in three shots – and claim you need a clip of 30 rounds – you're not a hunter my friend, and you have no business owning a gun.
Have a wonderful Christmas or a beautiful December 25th!
This article may be copied and posted on other websites. Please include all hyperlinks.