A really excellent discussion on the Green Mountain Daily reminded me that I’d written this essay a while ago when I was thinking a lot about the role of history (and listening to a lot of Utah Phillips) in peoples’ identities.
*NOTE: This essay reflects my thinking a few months ago, and my own present beliefs are likely slightly different than those expressed by the self who wrote this essay. It’s mostly me, though ;)*
*Fixed some typos and changed a bit of wording on 7/27/2009*
The Long Memory and the Philadelphia System
By Matthew Cropp
The late Wobbly folk musician U. Utah Phillips often commented that “the long memory is the most radical idea in America.” If, according to Phillips, we view history as one long stream rather than a series of independent crises, the way the world of the present appears profoundly shifts. The atrocities, movements, and swindles of the past cease to be isolated events to learn the “facts” of, and instead become integral pieces of our perception of the world we live in today. This view of our past fosters in people a sense of agency, as history becomes what is happening now rather than just what was happening then. History becomes something that people make happen, rather than something that happens to people.
However, this view of history is not embraced by modern American culture. Rather, as Phillips put it in a 2004 interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, “that long memory has been taken away from us…You haven’t got it in you schools. You’re not getting it on your television. You’re not getting it anywhere. You’re being leapfrogged from one crisis to the next…you can’t remember what happened last week, because you’re locked into this week’s crisis.”
One result of this process is that many people in our society have lost touch with the meaning of our political traditions. In today’s history classrooms, the objective lies in students’ ability to regurgitate predetermined rote facts, rather than in constructing ideas and forming insights. Thus, when our kids learn about the American government in school (a process that I experienced in the not too distant past), it becomes simply one more structure about which they must learn a list of facts. Just as this mindset applied universally alienates people from the historical process as a whole, applied specifically to our political traditions it alienates people from our government and civic institutions. It allows people to lose sight of the fact that they are structures which were created by real actors making profoundly historically impactful choices, whose intentions must be investigated and understood if we are to fully grasp the meaning of the world our ancestors built and we inhabit.
The American system (ultimately codified in the U.S. Constitution) was not crafted in a vacuum, but was profoundly influenced by the experiences and beliefs of its makers. These were worldly men who, looking to Europe, were profoundly aware of the many forms tyranny could take, and had put their lives on the line to gain independence in the Revolutionary War. It has become fashionable recently in “radical” historical circles to emphasize the conservative sides of the Revolution, including the retention of slavery, the restriction of the franchise, and the fortunes made by the founders. All these critiques are valid, but they do not negate the incredibly radical parts of the Revolution. In Emma Goldman’s early 20th century magazine Mother Earth, Voltarine de Cleyre described this radical side: “the real Revolution was a change in political institutions which should make government not a thing apart…but a serviceable agent, responsible, economical, and trustworthy (but never so much trusted as not to be continuously watched), for the transaction of such business as was the common concern, and to set the limits of the common concern at the line where one man’s liberty would encroach upon another’s.”
The founders had seen tyranny and wanted to craft a system that would preserve liberty. Not grant liberty, which they believed was inherent to the very nature of the human being, but prevent the development of tyrannical systems that would restrict peoples’ natural state of freedom. The Constitution and the American system must be interpreted with that intention in mind, and when it is, the call for Vermont’s independence transforms from a seemingly radical departure from the “American Way” into a rare gesture of deep respect to the intentions of America’s founders that have been increasingly forgotten as our people have been “leapfrogged from one crisis to the next.”
My own understanding of the intentions of the founders of the United States has been profoundly deepened by my recent chance encounter with an article entitled, “The Philadelphian system: sovereignty, arms control, and balance of power in the American states-union, circa 1787-1861”, by Daniel H. Deudney, while visiting a friend in New Haven, Connecticut. The article is as dense as its title is wordy, but after wading through it I emerged clutching a vital new concept, “negarchy”. Deudney defines negarchy as “the arrangement of institutions necessary to prevent simultaneously the emergence of hierarchy and anarchy”, and if this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. That’s because we were taught about this concept in American Government all those years ago, albeit with an incredibly important omission and a different name. It was termed “checks and balances”, and we learned of it as a horizontal division of power between the three branches of the Federal Government. Because of this, we were told, no one branch could gain supremacy over the other two, and as a result America was safe from tyranny.
Alas, that’s only half the story, according to Deudney: the intended checks and balances were not only horizontal but vertical. In addition to the tension between the branches of the Federal government, a system of tension was implemented between the Federal Government, the sovereign States, and the armed people. This network of vertically and horizontally distributed power was intended to create a system that could draw upon the whole network to defend itself from external threats, but would become horribly snarled up should any piece of it try to become internally hegemonic and tyrannical.
Deudney’s study ends appropriately in 1861; the year the Civil War began. The Civil War spelled the beginning of the end of the American experiment in negarchy as the sovereignty of the States was nullified by the Federal government through force of arms. By expropriating the States’ right the leave the Union, the Federal Government transformed the status of the State from equal to subservient to the Federal Government, and power and responsibility have been continuously flowing from State capitals to Washington ever since.
Many Americans justify their pride in our country by claiming that we have the best, freest system in the world. However, when looking at that system through the lens of the “long memory”, we must acknowledge that it has been slowly degenerating and is now far from what its founders intended. While people quarrel over whether or not the checks and balances within the Federal Government are deteriorating, they are usually blind to the very existence of the vertical checks, which have degraded to the point where any assertion of State sovereignty to counter Federal tyranny is considered either treasonous or absurd.
The degeneration of the American system is both discouraging and tragic, but for those of us with long memories, I believe working to help others to “remember” its intended role is a vital task. To do so would revive peoples’ sense of themselves as actors in the stream of history, and would bring legitimacy to the cause of utilizing Vermont’s state sovereignty as a method with which to resist our government’s economic and foreign policy shortsightedness and irrationality. A population with long memories would transform the independence movement from a fringe of the disaffected into a political and social force to be reckoned with. To accomplish this, I see a few ways forward. These tactics are by no means exhaustive, and many more can be found in the pages of the Vermont Commons.
In journalism and politics, we should endeavor to frame State/Federal relations as oppositional. When questioning candidates for State office, we should ask them what important powers the State of Vermont has and what they will do in their prospective roles as elected officials to prevent the Federal Government from encroaching upon them. If independence minded Vermonters decide to run for office, they should make the preservation and reclamation of State power from the Federal Government a cornerstone of their campaigns. At the moment people have been trained to view the relationship between the Federal Government and the States as that of master to servant; the Federal Government gives block grants to the States and the States administer them, changing their laws to conform to the various strings attached. The result is that all most people hear about is the two entities working together, and thus perceive that relationship to be the natural order of things. If an oppositional rather than cooperative relationship is regularly introduced into public discourse, the question of State versus Federal power might be reopened in many minds.
Such strategies might bring somewhat greater legitimacy to the independence platform in the short term by helping people to identify an erstwhile forgotten dynamic of the American system, but it will not, in and of itself, lay the foundation for a long-term shift in attitudes. What is needed to effect that is a wholesale revival of the Long Memory in the people of Vermont. The immediate gratification of working towards this might not be apparent for independence activists, as it will not instantly create roving bands of hard-line secessionists. Instead, it will foster individuals who can engage meaningfully with our past and see themselves as actors rather than as passive objects within the stream of history. As the number of people seeing history as a forward- rather than backward-looking process grows into a critical mass, the number of people willing to engage with the idea of secession within both the contexts past and present will expand concurrently. The task of convincing them that independence is the right answer for the present circumstances would remain, but folks with long memories would be able to listen to and consider the arguments rather than simply regurgitating the “fact” that the Civil War answered the question of secession and calling anyone who disputes that crazy. Until we can overcome the (all too common) latter mindset, the secession movement can never grow beyond a fringe because only a fringe of people are willing to honestly engage with the subject.
It’s easy to abstractly call for a revival of historical consciousness in the whole population of a State, but how might we accomplish it? Most people don’t have the time or resources to become professional historians, and those who identify as historians seem to spend far more time uncovering esoteric historical minutiae and debating amongst themselves than they do spreading an appreciation of history to the larger society. As such, people who want to see a revival of the long memory shouldn’t look for much guidance from on high in the ivory tower, but should instead begin the process of reconstructing the pasts of the institutions of their daily lives.
A brief example of what I mean can be found in my workplace, which was unionized at some point in the 1980s. Our contract came up for negotiation this year, and we realized that, as a group, we couldn’t even remember the nature of our proposals to management from when the previous contract was negotiated a mere three years ago. We did a bit of digging and talked to the old representative, and gradually got a sense for what has transpired in previous negotiations. In the process, we as a group got a feel for where the organization has been, what how it has changed over time, and what sorts of struggles have emerged again and again. As a result of this process, our perception of our union deepened, and our negotiations were re-framed from a wrangle over the conditions of the moment to one more event in a long historical continuum that has many past parallels. The difference between this mindset and the mindset which can engage with the call for independence is merely one of scale; the processes are virtually identical.
I therefore call upon all independence minded Vermonters to begin the process of reclaiming the past in their own lives. Start remembering where your work, union, church, school, and family have come from, and share that process with those with whom you share those institutions. In the short term, the benefits are great, as knowing the origins of the things in your life can profoundly deepen your understanding of both those things themselves, as well as your relationship to them. In the long term, however, the benefits are even greater. In the process of providing the opportunity for those around you to understand their history, you’ll be helping to rebuild a responsible, thoughtful citizenry who can honestly and competently engage with the deep crises facing our crumbling Republic.