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We Are The People

Posted by Skeptigator on July 7, 2008

I just finished the book, We Are The People: Voices from the other side of American history. This book is a compilation of essays, excerpts, letters and oral histories as told by ordinary and extraordinary people. Have you ever wanted to hear first hand what it’s like to try and live on minimum wage, be a slave in America, organize a miner’s union in the 1920’s, be a hunted American Indian, work in an abortion clinic or hear what it’s like to be an American living in Palestine (let alone being a Palestinian). This is your book if even a fraction of these sound interesting.

The book organizes itself into 8 topics or sections with about 5-8 articles per section, they are:

  • Native Americans
  • Slavery
  • Peace
  • Women
  • Labor
  • Civil Rights
  • Poverty
  • Civil Liberties

These are stories told usually by people who actually lived or were living during many important times in our American history but their stories are not often told or heard anymore. They are certainly not taught in our history classes and are certainly not well known within the general American public.

Native Americans

With 9 articles this section covers a number of issues regarding America’s history with Native Americans. You can find a transcript of Chief Sharitarish’s speech to President Monroe in 1822, an 1850 law “for the government and protection of Indians” which essentially guaranteed nothing but slavery, the congressional testimony of John S. Smith regarding the Sand Creek Massacre of 450 Cheyenne (mostly women and children, in case you were wondering), and perhaps the most moving was the excerpt of Luther Standing Bear’s Land of the Spotted Eagle in which he retells being shipped off to an “Indian School“.

Slavery

With as much as slavery is covered in American History classes you would think the story would have been told and that a section such as this would simply be a rehashing of the same old stories. You would be wrong and so was I. The first article as an excerpt from The Life of Olaudah Equiano an African boy who was kidnapped from his village by other African villagers where he was bought, sold and traded into slavery within Africa until he was finally sold to Europeans and made the infamous “Middle Passage” to America, from the article,

O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would mean should do unto you? Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice? Are the dearest friends and relations, now rendered more dear by their separation from their kindred, still to be parted from each other, and thus prevented from cheering the gloom of slavery with the small comfort of being together and mingling their sufferings and sorrows? Why are parents to lose their children, brothers their sisters, or husbands their wives? Surely this is a new refinement in cruelty, which, while it has no advantage to atone for it, thus aggravates distress, and adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery.

In addition, are fugitive slave narratives, Frederick Douglass’ July 4th, 1852 speech in Rochester, New York and an excerpt from Booker T. Washington‘s Up From Slavery

Peace

Did you know that conscientious objectors were required as late as the Civil War to either “[furnish] a substitute [to go in your place] or payment of commutation money”? And that some of the pioneers in this field such as the Quaker Cyrus Pringle helped to break down this system.  You will also find Mark Twain’s diatribe against the Spanish-American War, My Country Right or Wrong. An interesting (and almost prophetic) article is the Feb. 12th, 2003 speech by Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) in the run-up to Bush Jr’s War in Iraq. But perhaps one of the two most moving articles is a series of emails by American Rachel Corrie to her mother. Rachel Corrie was a volunteer in the Gaza Strip, Palestine. Her emails tell of an almost impossible situation that the Palestinians have to live in as bulldozers and Israeli police push the borders of Israel out to make way for more settlers. Rachel Corrie, 23,  was crushed to death by bulldozers on March 16th, 2003 while attempting to stop more Palestinian homes from being destroyed. The modern Jews act an awful lot like the Jews of antiquity, but then again they are Chosen People so who am I to argue.

Women

The section on women contains essays and speeches from some of the big hitters in the women’s rights movement, Sarah Grimke, Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan and Sallie Tisdale. Sally Tisdale’s essay, We Do Abortions Here, is the second of the two most moving articles of this book. Her essay details her life in an abortion clinic. She talks of the different kinds of women who come in to have abortions, so many with all the options in the world and so many without any but this one. So many women who she knows will be devastated the rest of their lives for the choice they are making and others who should be putting more thought into their choice especially after the 4th, 5th or 7th abortion. She is astounded at the almost total lack of education women have about their bodies, pregnancy and most critically birth control.

Labor

This was a tough chapter for me. I’ve always had this love/hate relationship with unions. I realize my problem with unions is the modern versions vs. the absolute critical role they played in providing fair wages and safe working conditions. Minimum wage laws, 40-hour work weeks and paid vacation and sick time are all benefits even rights that we enjoy today because of the blood, sweat and tears of many union organizers. You’ll find essays on the lack of commentary on social class in American classrooms, oral histories compiled by Studs Terkel, the Dearborn Massacre in which police shot and killed a young immigrant among others shot and wounded marching on the Ford plant in Dearborn, MI. The author Barbara Ehrenreich tries to live on minimum wage and Katherine Mieszkowski tells the story, Can My Mommy Have Her Paycheck, of Hewlett-Packard’s shift to a temporary work force and the impact that has on wages, benefits and getting your paycheck.

Civil Rights

Each of the articles retell the story of the struggle of black people for Civil Rights in America. Langston Hughes starts off with an essay decrying the shift in middle-class Black America to act white and why black artists try to “do” white art.  He starts his article with the following,

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet – not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.”

His essay then focuses more or less on this theme. I’m not sure I agree with his characterization of the young poets comment. How about,

… the young Negro poet said to me once, “I want to be a poet – not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want my poetry to be evaluated, rejected or accepted based on it’s beauty, not on the color of my skin”.

My interpretation requires one step to the heart of the matter whereas Lanston Hughes has to go through three steps to get to his interpretation. It just seems like a bit of stretch. But then again he’s Langston Hughes and I’m not 😉

Many of the articles are from some prominent civil rights figures, such as, Bayard Rustin and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Others are told from the perspective of just ordinary folk, coming of age in the 50’s and 60’s and their experiences as they watched a nation change around them.

Poverty

This section has more oral histories compiled by Studs Terkel during the Great Depression and the lives that people led just to feed themselves and how they had to live. John Steinbeck, author of Grapes of Wrath, offers his commentary on migrant workers during the Great Depression and James Agee follows the stories of three sharecroppers during the 1940’s. Barbara Ehrenreich is back with another excerpt from Nickel and Dimed and James Newfield tells us How the Other Half Still Lives both offer commentary on the current state of poverty in America.

Civil Liberties

This is section is bit more eclectic and includes transcripts of testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee and Margaret Chase Smith’s Declaration of Conscience a response to the growing power of Joseph McCarthy. The final three essays speak to more recent efforts by the global justice movement, the current Bush administration’s outrageous moves to remove our constitutionally-protected rights and the current State of our rights in a post 9/11, Patriot Act Union.

There is so much I have not covered in this book but it is well worth the read. If anything it gives you a different perspective and offers a different voice on American history.

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The Golden Age of FreeThought

Posted by Skeptigator on June 8, 2008

In my continuing series on the history of freethought and secularism in America I would like to spend a little time focusing on the “Golden Age of FreeThought”. It’s called by the author of Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby, the Golden Age for good reason. During the period following the Civil War it was perhaps the most open period in American history to disagree with religious authority and even mock the more irrational aspects of religion. This openness wasn’t nearly as utopian as it may sound.

Unbelief during the Civil War

Perhaps the most telling comments about the status of secular thought during the 19th century comes from the following passage of Susan Jacoby’s book,

Today’s Christian conservatives frequently use the slogan “let’s put God back into the Constitution,” thereby implying that “secular humanists” have managed to overturn what was originally intended to be a marriage of church and state. Nineteenth-century clerics knew better and were honest about their desire to reverse what they regarded as the founders’ erroneous decision to separate church and state.

The late nineteenth-century was merely a foreshadowing of the kinds of vitriol that would be poured out on our elected leaders in recent decades. “In God We Trust” was first engraved onto our currency during the end of the Civil War and was soon made the butt of a number of jokes, such as “In gold we trust” during the debates surrounding the removal of U.S. currency from the gold standard.

Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most devout Christians ever to be elected president, attempted in 1907 to dispense with the motto precisely because of the sacrilegious puns. He succeeded only in arousing a storm of criticism from ministers who had previously been among his strongest supporters. Roosevelt, who had dubbed Paine a “filthy little atheist,” was himself called an infidel for his attempt to remove God from American money.”

Ah, the irony is overwhelming.

The Great Agnostic

Much as Thomas Paine was perhaps the most reviled infidel of his time, Robert Green Ingersoll was much admired and called the Great Agnostic. Ingersoll wrote many pamphlets during his time (c. 1870-1899), including the Gods and Other Lectures and Some mistakes of Moses.

Unlike today, the American people often went to see speakers give lectures. In fact, you could make quite a living going on the lecture circuit. Ingersoll was an extremely popular speaker with many connections to the Republican party of the day. In many of his talks he did not pull any punches in his ridicule of religious belief and social issues such as slavery and women’s rights.

From the Gods and other lectures, after quoting Deuteronomy chapter 20 from the Old Testament detailing the slaughter of men and the… uh… acquisition of the women,

Is it possible for man to conceive of anything more perfectly infamous? Can you believe that such directions were given by any being except an infinite fiend? Remember that the army receiving these instructions was one of invasion. Peace was offered upon condition that the people submitting should be the slaves of the invader; but if any should have the courage to defend their homes, to fight for the love of wife and child, then the word was to spare none – not even the prattling, dimpled babe.

And we are called upon to worship such a god; to get upon our knees and tell him that he is good, that he is merciful, that he is just, that he is love.

The book, called the bible, is filled with passages equally horrible, unjust and atrocious. This is the book to be read in schools in order to make our children loving, kind and gentle! This is the book to be recognized in our Constitution as the source of all authority and justice!

Reading Ingersoll is like reading Dawkins or particularly Hitchens. In fact, I dare say The God Delusion and god is not great are modern day versions of the very lectures that Ingersoll was so famously recognized for and the Four Horseman are so roundly criticized for.

FreeThought Activism

I don’t want to make it sound like the late-nineteenth century was a free and unfettered time to be a freethinker. In fact, the roots of what would ultimately become the “red scare” and much of the McCarthy-ist persecution was beginning to take root at this time particularly during the turn of the century. I will wait to delve into those issues with the next post, FreeThought in the 20th Century.

Among perhaps one of the most astounding things of the mid to late-1800’s was the prevalence of Freethought literature, newspapers and pamphlet printing organizations. Throughout the 1800’s FreeThought periodicals began popping up everywhere, the most famous of the bunch would be D.M. and Mary Bennett’s Truth Seeker. Some of the other periodicals were the Boston Investigator, the Blue Grass Blade, the Free-Thought Ideal and Free-Thought Vindicator, and my personal favorite the Lucifer, the Light-Bearer. Of course, like all “movements” they are rarely centralized and cooridinated as evidenced by the Iconoclast of Austin, Texas run by William Cowper Brann, a strident racist who was ultimately shot in the back by an enraged Baptist. The diversity of thought among those who wore the FreeThought banner was loosely held together by the almost universal opposition to organized religion and their support for a clear separation of church and state.

During this time period the roots of feminism were planted beginning with attempts to gain women the right to vote and the dissemination of information regarding contraception. There are so many famous figures from the women’s rights movement who came to fame during this time period, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Ernestine L. Rose.

There are so many things that happened during this time period that I have only barely scratched the surface. I only glossed over Ingersoll’s life and almost the entirety of the women’s suffrage movement and spoke nothing about the emancipation of the slaves and Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs. I guess you’ll just have to read the book 😉

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