Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Thin Veneer

Nothing can get a conversation going faster and perhaps more controversially than to ask the meaning of civilization. One thing that travel does, is it awakens our awareness to this mysterious, all pervasive term. While in New Orleans, we visited the National World War II Museum and left speechless at the causes and effects of one of the greatest events in "civilized" world history. The number of US soldiers killed in the recent Iraq war from 2003-2012 numbers 4,486. This doesn't count civilian deaths, and at this point research becomes hugely crowded with statistics, many of which are contradictory and confusing. Looking at the whole package though, we see a broad range of between 110,000 and a million. Big nasty spread, eh?  When we look at the estimated total number of casualties from WWII we get some perspective:
60-80,000,000 which makes that war the deadliest in terms of the number of total dead, but not in terms of deaths relative to the world population. To get a sense of how much a million, is here is a symbolic representation. Multiply this by 60-80-100, and try to keep from sucking in a deep breath. About 55 million people die every year in the world currently. Relative to human population, though, the death rate has been much worse. The first plague that hit Europe in the 8th century reduced the population by about 50%, and the second, called the "Black Death" pandemic in the 14th century, reduced the population of Europe by approximately 100,000,000 -- that's just about half. Let's not leave Asia out of this, we're on a roll here. China experienced a reduction from 123 million to around 65 million due to the Mongol invasion and the pesky plague. There is so much more, but why the statistics? you ask; and what's the "veneer?" We're getting to that.

The tyrants in recent history -- Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini primarily -- created a world view and vision of civilization on the moving target of circumstance, and need for power. They created  faux adversaries and a philosophy of civilization girded by extreme nationalism and the perpetration of fear. Volumes have been written on this subject but my primary interest here is that perception and interpretation of civilization can never be usurped by special interests, and must always be challenged and tested in the crucible of history. At the time of WWII, many Americans had no interest in participating in a major war, remembering the losses and destruction of WWI, and still reeling from the Great Depression. With Germany, Japan, and Italy exploiting our lack of desire and with our sister country, England, crying for assistance, we were pulled into this conflict kicking and dragging our feet. If this had not happened, however, "civilization" as we know it would be strikingly different.

As w drive north on 61 and pass numbers of large, picturesque plantations, my thoughts turn to what made all this possible. The labor to keep up such large and spacious operations came primarily from African slaves imported originally by John Law, the French minister of finance in 1717, into southern Louisiana and Mississippi. Tobacco was the primary crop and transitioned into cotton. Plantation owners often ruled their properties in absentia, leaving the-day-to day activities up to managers that were often heavy-handed and cruel. At that time there were few options available to slaves: grin and bear it, manumission (freedom bestowed by owner: this was not just benevolence, but a means of insuring compliance if you worked hard), and escape. Research into the underground railroad is a fascinating story of daring escapes. Our "civilization's" views of slavery became a hot point in America's and other countries' quest for the clarification of democracy, and quite frankly the need to justify the continual question of how we could send our unfree and second-class citizens to fight in our wars to save freedom!

Our route north mirrors that of southern African Americans in their quest to find a better future. There was a significant  free-black bias toward cities and their economic and social opportunities. The northern cities' siren call of industry and economic opportunity was a powerful pull and thus began a continuous drain of about 6,000,000 blacks toward a better future. The Great Depression accelerated this process and cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and New York City were major hubs of emigration. Now, this migration wasn't just a pull, but also a push thanks to "Jim Crow" laws. (It is believed that the origin of this phrase comes from "Jump Jim Crow," a song-and-dance caricature performed by a white actor, Thomas D. Rice, in blackface, in 1832, to satirize Andrew Jackson's populist policies. Jackson was a slave holder and a strong believer is state's rights and a diminished role in central government...sound familiar? Let's not go down the rabbit hole here and begin the discussion of how our young country was in conflict about extending slavery to the western territories.) Jim Crow was all about "separate but equal," and not surprisingly, blacks felt unwelcome in a land in which they were technically "free." If you are reading this with a look of incredulity in comparing today's mindset to that of just the recent past, much has changed. But has it? The veneer of civilization is thin and beneath lies a recent redness.

The great migration north brought with it the soul of civilization -- music, the blues, remembering the stories, heartbreaks, and troubles of a people seeking civilization and the opportunity to be free. We are living that story as we travel in their footsteps.

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