Joyce Hinnefeld


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Original Sin

I wouldn’t have described Stranger Here Below as being “about Original Sin -- whatever it is that made us awful to begin with,” as Carolyn See does in her recent Washington Post review of the novel. I’m not a subscriber to the doctrine of original sin, at least in the Calvinist sense that I’m familiar with. But lately I’m feeling like there is something about our origins as a nation (“we” being us in the U.S. here) that’s pretty, well, sinful. We’re a nation whose founding and growth required the blood and broken backs of countless people--native peoples who were already here and African slaves on our own shores, our own soldiers and soldiers and civilians all over the world through wars that have swelled our own economy.

If we have an original sin, surely it’s greed.

And I’m filled with despair to be living at a time and place where corporations thrive while working people lose their livelihoods--and then wealthy backers fuel so-called “populist” movements, like the Tea Party groups, that drive a wedge between poor and working-class whites and people of color. I thought we were done with this. Naive, I know--but didn’t we all feel a rising hope that things were going to change only two years ago?

Recently a friend posted a link on Facebook, to a blog written by a friend of hers. It was an eloquent and disturbing piece on the horrible instances of racism that appear online today (posted by Tea Party “fringe groups” maybe, but Tea Party followers nonetheless). Maybe you’ve seen some of these visuals (ropes, the Obamas’ faces transformed to look ape-like, references to feces); I’d managed to protect myself from most of them. I considered linking that blog post here, but I just can’t do it. These things are soul-crushing. Seeing them was like seeing the images in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America for the first time, back when I went to an exhibit of these photographs at the New York Historical Society in the early days of working on Stranger Here Below. With those lynching photographs, there’s the comfort of telling yourself “that was then.” But those images included in that blog post are out there, making their way around the internet, now.

And I still say it’s all rooted in greed. Writing about Reconstruction and its failures and the rise of the Jim Crow era back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, C. Vann Woodward pointed to the fact that the Jim Crow laws came in on a tide of American imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century, when Southern “leaders of the white-supremacy movement thoroughly grasped and expounded the implication of the new imperialism for their domestic policies”:

At the very time that imperialism was sweeping the country, the doctrine of racism reached a crest of acceptability and popularity among respectable scholarly and intellectual circles. At home and abroad biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians, as well as journalists and novelists, gave support to the doctrine that races were discrete entities and that the “Anglo-Saxon” or “Caucasian” was the superior of them all. It was not that Southern politicians needed any support from learned circles to sustain their own doctrines, but they found that such intellectual endorsement of their racist theories facilitated acceptance of their views and policies. (The Strange Career of Jim Crow, pages 73-74)

In other words, there were plenty of endorsements--of racism--from wealthy Northerners. After all, there was still more money to be made by justifying the ongoing exploitation of other races.

And so we’ve come to a time and place--and a political climate--in which the most profound thing a candidate has to offer is a cut in your taxes. Your immediate economic gain (well, if you’re reading this, probably not yours, but you know what I mean). In my own state of Pennsylvania, the Republican leadership of the state senate is stubbornly refusing to consider a severance tax on natural gas companies that want to blast wells into the shale lying below large portions of the state (and jeopardize the drinking water of people here, and in New York and New Jersey as well). God forbid we tax anyone. Not even Exxon Mobil. (And please don’t tell me they’ll go elsewhere to do their drilling; they’re already doing that, they want more, and they’ve got boundless resources--and boundless lobbying connections--to make it happen here.)

Two nights ago I heard environmental thinker and activist Vandana Shiva speak at Moravian College here in Bethlehem. Some of her remarks were just heartbreaking. Hunger today is “structured and permanent,” she said; of the billion people who are starving, 500 million are growers of food. Indigenous farmers are being robbed of the ability to grow their own food by what Shiva terms the “eco-imperialism” of corporate agriculture--factory farming on a global scale. We are making the most basic factors of our livelihood into commodities; we’ve done it with fuel forever, we’re doing it now with food, water, air.

And in the meantime, a powerful elite is at the helm of most of our news outlets, feeding people so-called news from the likes of people like Glenn Beck. Who has claimed to be carrying on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I couldn’t make something like this up if I tried. (Why write fiction, more than one writer has asked in recent years, when reality is so very strange?)

In the U.S., greed and the prospect of economic gain for a powerful few continue to drive a ruthless wedge between black and white. And capitalism on a global scale is raping the planet and squandering its resources, including its people.

That’s what I call Original Sin.

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