". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Friday, August 12, 2011

Mob Action

Last night el V and I discussed some ideas that have been emerging through this intensive dig-into U.S. history, which unavoidably hinges before and aft on the U.S. era of Independence. We have been deeply fascinated by the lead up to the declaration of independence.  We ask, "Who decided?  Why?"  The Southern colonies and the New England colonies worked in rare concert to declare independence.  "Who were those southerners and who were those New Englanders, and what benefits did they expect to get out of political independence from England? Up until right about the time of the Battle of Lexington and Paul Revere's Ride, the inhabitants of the lower 13 North American colonies were not calling themselves Americans; they still referred to themselves as English.

The history of the mobs in colonial Boston is enlightening. The established puritan family classes prohibited the theater in Boston, unlike Philadelphia or New York, so the streets were the people's theater and the mobs were the acting company.  There's are many reasons the Boston Tea Partiers donned costumes, and this was one of them.  The more one reads of these matters the more difficult it is ri ignore that -- yes, really -- the contemporary Tea Party has far more in common with the Boston Tea Party than we might like to think.

Franklin's political life began in Boston at his brother's newspaper.  His brother opposed Samuel Sewell about innoculation for smallpox and went to war with him about it, challenging his authority, in his newspaper.  He made his apprentice, younger brother Benjamin, sign his name to the articles.  Benjamin realized that his future prosperity was jacked by what his brother, as his employer, had ordered him to do.  The old puritan ruling families' power might not be what it was, but they still ruled.  So he ran away from his indenture, to a place where he didn't have a reputation as against the powers in charge.

By the years leading up to the declaration of independence the young Benjamin was a wealthy and very influential personage, with a media empire entirely in his control, in constant contact with the powerful elite north and south via his post as the colonial Postmaster General.  Among those we can certainly count as his friends and colleagues are the people who sat in the various 'liberty cells' of Boston, in which no one sat in more than one with few exceptions -- one of which was Paul Revere.  The cell 'runners' included those who could call out the Boston mobs.

What is very hard for most of us to comprehend about mobs is that mob actions have different purposes. They can be spontaneous,expressions of justified protest over the price and availability of necessities and other injustices. They can be opportunistic violence in the void of law and order. They can be called out by those run the mobs for a variety of purposes. What is particularly hard for us after years of being taught by entertainments that there is good-bad, yes-no, either-or -- mobs can be all these things at the same time, or can begin as one thing and turn into another.

The one thing we do know certainly is that the action of the mobs, particularly in New England, most particularly in Boston, were fundamental to the time we could declare independence. In every mob situation (I'm thinking at the moment in particular of the ransacking of wealthy merchant and lieutenant governor Thomas Hutchinson's mansion in 1765 in Boston that galvanized the American separatist movement), there are those who perform the violence, and there are those who interpret it. Those who control the interpretative narrative are the ones who benefit from mob actions. Benjamin Franklin, with his media empire, control of the mail and his personal abilities (persuasive writing skills, brilliant mind, etc.) was a first responser and primary interpreter of the mob actions;his was the narrative that was disseminated throughout the colonies, north and south, and even abroad

With cynical gloom I'm watching the process going on at the moment concerning the mob action in England. Those whose interpretation becomes the narrative are the ones who have the power.

Gauging the political beneficiaries of suffering is a crass business. But the pattern is clear: riots tend to bolster the right. Margaret Thatcher won elections after Brixton and Tottenham burned in the 1980s. American cities and university campuses were laid waste in the late 1960s; Richard Nixon was duly elected and re-elected. Chaos in French banlieues in 2005 seemed to work in favour of Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election 18 months later. This week’s riots in Britain might be expected to play out favourably for any Tory prime minister. But the current one is unusually well-placed to benefit.

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