Monday, January 16, 2012

Fair Use

The gold rush devastated California's native population, which nose-dived into demographic decline in the face of displacement, the destruction and appropriation of natural resources, and exceptional brutality. The results were horrible: "In the quarter century between 1845 and 1870, the California Indian population had declined from approximately 150,000 (which was only half the number of Indians before white contact) to 30,000."

But it doesn't stick. Look again at yesterday's post about political reporting on South Carolina, which never wanders far from the themes of slavery, segregation, white supremacy, and the Civil War. ZOMFG the legislature raised the speed limit on state highways and the federal government won't like that and so it's FORT SUMTER all over again blaaaarrrrrggghhhhh!!!!! The state cannot assert claims of authority against federal power without the resulting news stories crowing about "state's rights" and Jim Crow. The trap is absolute. In the South, there is no other explanatory schema. The past is alive and active, full stop. A Reuters reporter begins his story on South Carolina politics with the state firing "the first shot in the Civil War."

So imagine this lede in a news story:
The state that oversaw the worst destruction of native life in American history is at it again, trying to secure $100 billion in funding for a high-speed rail line that will connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, rolling through lands once thickly populated by the Yokut and Miwok peoples.
That wouldn't make a bit of sense; though every claim is factually true -- though California's proposed high-speed rail line would, in fact, run through lands once thickly populated by the Yokut and Miwok peoples -- the elements don't connect. There's no causal relationship between the dispossession of the Yokuts and the fantasy of a $100 billion high-speed rail line through the Central Valley. And no reporter would ever think to connect the two.

But somehow the narrative conventions for South Carolina are structured around the stubborn knowledge that all stories travel through Fort Sumter. The past is uniformly and invariably causal. The state that fired the first shot of the Civil War is fighting with the federal government again! Nikki Haley's political decisions are animated by her Confederate roots, said the pundit with a straight face.

Sometimes when we talk about history, it's directly applicable: South Carolina is doing X because in the past it did Y, and the appropriations committee in the state House of Representatives obviously funded that new reservoir because of the pernicious and lingering effects of Jim Crow. Sometimes the thread breaks entirely, and California's blue state politics are never in any way informed by the state's earlier treatment of native people.

My own sense is that the unending narrative of Southern backwardness derives from a language of power. It's useful to frame South Carolina's efforts to govern itself as a harking back to Confederate principle, to discover every political claim as a desire to return to Jim Crow. It privileges the movement of power to the center. It serves the ability of a metastasizing oligarchy to capture authority and capital.

The devolution of authority to states and communities is backward. The centralization of power is progressive and fair. See how that works?

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