Where to?

by Jordan Green

Señor, señor, can you tell me where we’re headin’? Lincoln County Road or Armageddon? Seems like I been down this way before. Is there any truth in that, señor? — Bob Dylan

Whatever happened to the occupy movement?

Only six months ago, we were questioning whether the movement would wreak havoc on the corporatedominated, accommodationist Democratic Party or force it to find its backbone similar to how the tea party has pushed the GOP to define its values.

Maybe the other shoe will drop in Charlotte in September, but actually, quite a bit has been happening with occupy in the North Carolina Piedmont. Occupy Greensboro decamped last year, but working groups on foreclosures, energy and other topics are active. Four hundred people showed up for the screening of the occupy-produced movie Let’s Lose Our House at the Carousel Theatre on March 14. “The Rachel Maddow Show” recently highlighted both Occupy Greensboro and Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen, who is suing the banks to address forged signatures on loan documents.

Occupy Winston-Salem fought the city to a draw on the matter of open-air gatherings, and continues to demonstrate frequently in response to corporate layoffs and tax breaks. A cursory glance at the websites of the two Triad cities’ occupy groups also reveals active participation in a host of leftist causes, including efforts to obtain justice for Trayvon Martin, activism to highlight Winston-Salem resident Uriel Alberto’s defiance of immigration law and opposition to the marriage amendment.

Meanwhile, social conservatives demonstrated in front of the federal building in Winston-Salem against the Obama administration’s policy on contraception coverage by faith-based groups — part of a nationwide wave of actions. On the campaign trail, Republican candidates and voters in candidates in Forsyth County continue to express outrage at the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against praying in Jesus’ name before local government public meetings, applaud the county commission for voting to allow concealed weapons in parks and urge their elected representatives to crack down on illegal immigration.

The Forsyth County Commission passed a resolution on Monday evening endorsing state legislation to require voters to present ID before exercising their franchise. The voter ID bill was passed by both houses last year, but vetoed by Gov. Bev Perdue. The votes of county commissions across the state are thought to serve as a kind of a straw poll to give the General Assembly a sense of the people’s will and whether they should revisit the issue.

And the commissioners and their constituents from Forsyth County sent a message to the General Assembly that was loud and clear: They are divided and polarized. The commission voted 4 to 3 to approve the motion, with Republican Dave Plyler crossing party lines to join Democrats Walter Marshall and Everette Witherspoon in dissent.

Black citizens told the commissioners that the voter ID proposal reeks of poll taxes and literacy taxes that were used for decades to prevent blacks and poor people from voting in the South.

“I think we’ve reached the time in our history when I don’t walk around telling you that I’m a European-American,” said Bill Whiteheart, the Republican commissioner who introduced the resolution. “We have African-American, Native American and Mexican Americans. Let’s get real: We’re Americans. Period. And it’s about time we started acting like we’re Americans.”

All of these currents roiling the political scene are very American. The citizens and elected leaders who give voice to their convictions are speaking from narratives in our history involving equality, nationalism, class struggle and social values. But the competing interests of democracy have not always aligned neatly. It seems that the divisions tearing this country apart are building towards a monumental confrontation. But how it will be resolved and what realignment will emerge in the aftermath is a matter for fools to predict.

Amidst the crush of current events — I feel hopelessly behind on the latest developments in the Trayvon Martin case, the marriage amendment and the contraception contretemps, to name a few — I’ve retreated to history. Stealing away fugitive hours, I finally completed all 796 pages of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, Sean Wilentz’s masterful account, first published in 2005. I’ve renewed it at least twice from the Greensboro Public Library since I first checked it out in November, and I dread to find out what kind of fine I’ve racked up.

Whatever it is, it will be well worth it. I’m looking for clues about where we’re headed, which is, after all, the point of studying history. At the very least, I have a more mature understanding of from whence we’ve come.

The occupy and tea party movements both echo back to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 in which western Pennsylvania counties distant from the centers of political power violently resisted an inequitable tax on a commodity that Wilentz describes as “a barter medium as well as an item for sale in cash-poor regions.” The occupy movement, with its protest of crushing student debt and working groups devising ways to restructure banks to make them account able to the people, has an obvious forerunner in the Relief Party, which took control of the Kentucky legislature amidst a financial panic of 1819 that ruined small farmers, merchants and manufacturers. The Relief Party passed laws abolishing debtors prisons, extending the amount of time debtors could repay debts and replaced the state bank with one empowered to issue massive amounts of inflationary money, Wilentz writes. The courts intervened on the side of the creditors, who naturally objected to reform, and the reformers responded by attempting to establish a new court system.

These historical portents illuminate only the economic fault lines cutting across our presentday society. For insight on the rest, you’ll have to study the Great Awakening, the anti-Masons, the temperance movement and other moral reform currents, abolitionism, nativism, Irish immigration, Free Soilers and — my favorite — the Know-Nothings.