Benjamin Lay, an original American protester

“White people view real history like they do their browser history; it’s reset with a click of a button”. The Dollop Podcast

 

If one were unfamiliar with American history, it would be easy to think that no one ever dared protest anything prior to 2017; that we have always respected our government and all that it stands for. However, those of us educated by the American school system should know better. Even if a student strongly disliked learning, the constant lessons on our Country’s foundation could not be ignored; it takes up most of our early curriculum.

Yet, here we are. We have a president who rages whenever he sees a football player taking a knee, and American citizens ironically, protesting the protesters. Silent protests are often met with vicious opposition from people who seemed to have forgotten that American was founded by those that those willing to violently protest their government.

A brief refresher on America’s early history:

The colonists protested against the British government between 1763-1775 in many ways. Some protesters violated law. The Proclamation of 1763 prevented colonists from moving west of the Appalachian Mountains. People moved anyway. After the violent “Boston Tea Party,” (not a party at all, but a destruction of property in response to a tax act) the British government enacted a set of Coercive Acts as punishment for what they saw as a wanton display of protest. Boston Harbor was to be closed to trade until the owners of the tea chests were compensated. The 12 other colonies banded together and shipped much-needed goods and supplies to Massachusetts.

Other protests included boycotting of British goods. Many colonists believed the British were violating their rights. They believed certain tax laws were illegal because they did not have representatives in Parliament who could vote for the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts. The cry, “No taxation without representation!” could be heard across the land. Colonists began making their own clothes and refused to by British goods (it is unclear if they burned English clothing or removed branding as some are doing now). By 1774 the colonists believing enough was enough, decided to take their protests further by forming the first Continental Congress, which as many of you know, was the beginning of the break from English rule. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but lately, not so much….

There is no denying that protesting is an American value; though for some it all depends on what is being protested and who is doing the protesting. Yet, if it wasn’t for protesters we would still be waving the Union Jack at our sporting events; segregation and Jim Crow laws might still be in place; women and minorities may not yet have the right vote, and the draft may still be a nightmare for our young men. Positive changes come when people are willing to protest the status quo.

American students are taught the names of effective protesters; Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis are four that come easily to mind as people I studied in school. They all, who in one way or another, protested what they saw as an unjust system and acted against it.

American history is steeped in famous protesters; some are even venerated for their contribution to society’s improvement. Think Martin Luther King Jr. There is one name however that was almost lost to time. A name that I will bet, many have never heard. We are the poorer for it. Benjamin Lay saw slavery for what it was, an abomination to humanity, and did what he could to end it even as his ideas and methods made him an outcast.

I stumbled upon Lay’s name earlier this summer while looking for something new to read. We all know I have not posted much, but I have been reading. In fact, the next few posts will be reviews of books that either captured my attention or drew my ire.

Benjamin Lay painted by William Williams in 1750 Commissioned by Benjamin Franklin’s wife as a present to her husband

The Fearless Benjamin Lay the Quaker Dwarf who became the first revolutionary Abolitionist, by Marcus Rediker is a must read for those who understand we still have a lot to learn from history. From the book:

“On September 19, 1738, a man named Benjamin Lay strode into a Quaker meetinghouse in Burlington, New Jersey, for the biggest event of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. He wore a great coat, which hid a military uniform and a sword. Beneath his coat Lay carried a hollowed-out book with a secret compartment, into which he had tucked a tied-off animal bladder filled with bright red pokeberry juice. Because Quakers had no formal minister or church ceremony, people spoke as the spirit moved them. Lay, a Quaker himself, waited his turn.

He finally rose to address this gathering of “weighty Quakers.” Many Friends in Pennsylvania and New Jersey had grown rich on Atlantic commerce, and many bought human property. To them Lay announced in a booming voice that God Almighty respects all peoples equally, rich and poor, men and women, white and black alike. He said that slave keeping was the greatest sin in the world and asked, How can a people who profess the golden rule keep slaves? He then threw off his great coat, revealing the military garb, the book and the blade.

A murmur filled the hall as the prophet thundered his judgment: “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.” He pulled out the sword, raised the book above his head, and plunged the sword through it. People gasped as the red liquid gushed down his arm; women swooned. To the shock of all, he spattered “blood” on the slave keepers. He prophesied a dark, violent future: Quakers who failed to heed the prophet’s call must expect physical, moral and spiritual death.

The room exploded into chaos, but Lay stood quiet and still, “like a statue,” a witness remarked. Several Quakers quickly surrounded the armed soldier of God and carried him from the building. He did not resist. He had made his point”.

Lay was born on January 26, 1682 in Copford, England to a family of Quakers. His grandparents joined the movement in 1655. Little is known about Lay’s early life but it has been suggested that he received little formal education though later in life, friends like Benjamin Franklin remarked on his intellect. Lay’s radicalism seems to have stemmed from early childhood influences. Copford had its share of radical Quakers and Lay certainly would have heard and seen protest in action. His absolute hatred of slavery came from his time living in Barbados, one of the worst places for slaves as starvation and torture was routinely used as motivation.

After moving to America Lay made it his life’s mission to end slavery. This is where the book really takes shape. We watch as Lay spends almost 30 years protesting slavery. His tactics were radical and cost him dearly but he never wavered in his conviction. He saw finally saw change in his later years thanks in part to his decision to appeal to young Quakers who were also questioning slavery.

Rediker has done his homework, and is a skilled writer. Readers are given a front row seat into the life and times of Benjamin Lay. Rediker paints Lay as a complicated man, who at once seems brilliant and ahead of his time, while also being at times beyond eccentric and self-righteous. There is a lot to admire about Lay, and by the end of the book, I was sad that this man lived so long ago. I would have jumped at the chance to meet the man who against all odds questioned many of society’s norms.

Reading about Lay is a reminder that protesting the status quo takes courage and conviction.

America Fantasyland Part 1

Disneyland, the epitome of the American dream. If you believe hard enough and spend a lot of money, all of your dreams will come true.

Good god. Has it really been just over a year since Donald J Dumbass was elect president? How are you holding up? I haven’t handled it well and it shows. To quote Hamlet, “I have of late lost all my mirth”. I’ve lost the passion to blog, to read, and to some extend I’ve been far to slow to move past the last election.

Looking back to November 8th, 2016, it is clear to me now that I’ve spend the last year going through the five stages of grief. At first I denied it, (oh he’ll never take office-he looks as stunned as the rest of us), then I felt anger, to the point of rage when he was finally sworn in, and then on to a long bout of depression as I watched him make a mockery of the office of the Presidency and everything it stands for. Worse yet, watching as Congress defends his shredding of our Constitution and the principals on which is was written.

The last stage of grief, according to Elisabeth Kubler Ross, is acceptance. No, I am not there yet; I can’t bring myself to say his name and the title President in the same sentence, but I can say I am starting to accept the fact that millions of Americans voted for him. I’ve spent the last year trying to figure out why.

Like many of my fellow liberal Americas I know people who did in fact not only vote for him, but did so not out of a sense of irony or sadistic glee, but because they honestly fell for his bullshit. And not just his bullshit, but also the bullshit being flung around by social media and the sharing of said bullshit. No, seriously, how do you fall for a guy who on one hand says, “I’ll hire the smartest people” and on the other says, “I am your voice, I alone can fix it”. Fix what?? The guy filed for bankruptcy four times! How do you lose money owning a casino?? Damn, I may still be in the anger stage. Moving on.

My questions of why expanded beyond wanting to know why so many people I know and respect (and millions I don’t know) fell for his con. But not just his con; cons and hoaxes in general. Truth be told, I’ve been asking myself for quite a while now, “is America becoming dumber”? Long time followers know this is a topic I hit on once in a while. In 2014 I reviewed a book titled “Idiot America” in which I talked about the dumbing down of America. Who knew two years later millions of voters would prove me right?

I made some connections between our decline in good judgment and religious like idolization of all things connect to consumerism that seems to be paving the way for a dumber America. Whether we are talking about materialism (I’ll feel better, look better, be better, if only I had X) or how we greedily consume our news and “information” without an ounce of critical thinking. How did we become the nation whose mantra seems to now be, “It feels right, so it must be true”?

I wish I could say after careful study of our culture I came to a solid answer; that my months in hiding have given me insight to what is wrong with our country, but I have to give credit to a book I recently picked up. Kurt Andersen’s book, “Fantasyland How America Went Haywire” put a lot of things in perspective and helped me connect the dots. I can’t say it’s a great book (although I do recommend it) as Andersen does tend to veers off into weedy thinking, and expresses some personal opinions in order to make a view seem like fact. Ironically this is the very thing his book argues is wrong with America. Yet some of his simplest statements are powerful truths and should be recognized as such.

America was created by people resistant to reality checks and convinced they had special access to the truth, a place founded to enact grand fantasies. (p.72)

Andersen begins his book with the European explores who risked their lives (and reputations) for the promises of golden mountains waiting to be plundered, and the mystical Fountain of Youth. He then quickly moves to the Puritans with their idea of a religious utopia; setting the stage for a history of people who are resistant to reality checks, even as reality hits back. There were not mountains of gold, or flowing waters of eternal youth. There was no religious utopia; instead, to the Puritans utter shock, there were “pagan savages” everywhere they looked.

One would have thought that the Puritans would’ve had the good sense to go home as so many had done when it was discovered there was no easy spoils to be had, but no. They believed they could convert the savages, and when that didn’t work later generations set out to annihilate them, firmly believing it was their God given right to do so.

Andersen’s book pulls the veil off the myth of American exceptionalism and exposes the truth of how we became fantasyland. How today we’d rather listen to our gut or a conspiracist, rather than a medical doctor. How our political views are shaped by labels rather than ideas. Why being offended now allows us the “right” to protest and boycott free speech and opposing views. And so much more.

Andersen may not have gotten everything right; his bias against religion shows loud and clear and clouds some of his thinking about what is found strictly in America and what is not. Yet he gets enough right that his book is a jumping-off point for cultural self-reflection and deep discussion. So much so, that in the coming weeks it will be the focus of my posts. We will look at various stops on our journey to fantasyland. It is my hope that in time we begin to reflect on what came before and how it has shaped our understanding of who we are now and what improvements we can make so that Fantasyland doesn’t turn into Nightmareland.