For example, governments can’t free the people, they can’t educate a people, and they can’t even win a war.
Freedom, Education, and winning wars are all much more the results of the efforts of peoples.
Government during the 19th. century
was the principal mover behind two major initiatives to improve the lives of millions of Americans, one, that of creating a free public school system for all children, grades K through 12, and two, that of freeing some 3.5 million enslaved African Americans living in the South and border states (at that time there were also some 500,000 African Americans living “free” throughout the country having been freed by and large by the private actions of their owners).
Anyway, not unreasonably, we might now ask, how successful were these two government initiatives? In regard to the schools, successful, in that everyone is now entitled to free schooling, schooling having even become a kind of rite of passage for everyone on the way to becoming an adult.
The initiative to do away with slavery was no less successful. President Thomas Jefferson on March 3, 1807 signed a bill “to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, although in spite of this the complete suppression of the slave trade to America (begun in 1619 when slaves were first brought to Jamestown, Virginia to aid in the production of tobacco) only ended with the beginning of the Civil War in 1861.
But again we might ask, how successful, really, were these two initiatives? Were children in fact being educated, being led out of a natural ignorance, by spending 12 years in public school classrooms? And then, how free in fact were the African Americans at the time of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, and how free are they today?
Are the children leaving the schools well supplied with the skills and knowledge, the know-how they will need to do well in life? And are the former slaves, now free and well equipped with the means to make use of their new freedoms, with, for example, just as much free and equal access to living and work opportunities as everyone else? When the questions are asked in this way many feel now that both initiatives have failed.
Why is that? Why have these government initiatives not been fruitful? In fact, why do so many government initiatives come to little or nothing? The United States successfully crushed the Axis powers in WWII. But the United States has probably never adequately educated the majority of its students in the schools (as shown by a constant stream of evidence, reporting, and testimony from the many thousands of witnesses to the failures of classroom learning).
Nor have the former slaves really been freed, although the chains now are for the most part the crumbling walls of the high risers and other structures in the cities where so many of them have been, as it were, once again if not imprisoned, but lacking other opportunities forced to live. And to this failure also there have been and are myriad witnesses. See for example the recent testimony of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the earlier letter of James Baldwin to his nephew in my earlier Blog post.
Is it that the U.S. is successful in war, but not in educating or freeing its peoples? There have been no end of Acts of Congress and of decisions of the Supreme Court, (not the least of these being the 13th. 14th. and 15th. amendments to the Constitution, the 1954 court decision, Brown vs. the Board of Education, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964).
Similarly there have been no end of school reforms mostly government initiated and supported, including most recently the No Child Left Behind Act and Common Core curriculum supported by both Federal and State governments. But the people have shown little profit from having faithfully attended the public schools, and the African Americans have profited relatively little from their emancipation, when one thinks of what might have been.
But no, we’re not even all that successful in our wars. We’ve fought hundreds of them. Quick try to find a time when we weren’t at war. We’re at war today, and we’re losing some of these. Or at lest we’re not winning. We’ve recently lost two big ones, in Vietnam and in Iraq.
Wouldn’t you think our record up until now, in schooling our people, in freeing our disadvantaged and dispossessed, and, yes, in war, would have made us humble, more ready to listen to other points of view than just our own. But no, it hasn’t, and we go on devising new social programs, new school reforms, and yes, new wars (those who would take us into a war with Iran for example). We don’t seem to learn from our greatest mistakes.
We’ve experienced colossal failures. When are we going to do things differently? Probably most Americans, unlike myself, look at what I’ve been calling failures as successes. Why, after all didn’t we stop the slave trade and free the slaves? Didn’t we provide free public education for everyone? And didn’t we go to war, say in Vietnam and in Iraq, to save the people for liberal democracy, our way of life, which would be better, we thought not without good reason, for them too? In other words our intentions were good, and, as I’ll also concede, right. But do good intentions make something a success?
You probably used to make as I did (you may still do so) New Year’s resolutions? Didn’t you think you were really doing something? Well decisions to go to war, to free the slaves, to educate the children, are all like New Year’s resolutions. They mean little by themselves. As a new math curriculum means little by itself. There has to be follow-up, a lot of follow-up in order for the initiatives to be successful. The Khan Academy math program is a good example of constant follow-up.
Just as we say the devil is in the details, so is the success of a government program all in the follow-up. And if there’s little or no follow-up, as is so often the case, the program will never go anywhere. Lawmakers go to Washington, pass a measure, congratulate themselves, and then go home to eat barbecue with their constituents. Passing the measure, say the No Child Left Behind Act, is only the first and easiest step.
In regard to freeing our slaves, what was the follow-up, say to the 13th amendment that did just that? And to the 14th. that among other things provided equal protection of the laws of the land to everyone, or to the 15th. that prohibited the states from denying the right to vote to anyone?
But what, however, was the real follow-up to all three, what prevented even highly admired and substantial amendments to the Constitution from bringing about that freedom? Well it was Jim Crow, not a measure of the government, but a grassroots measure from the Southern whites which for 100 years or more following the South’s defeat in the war protected the white power structure of the South from what seemed to them to be the encroachment on white privileges by the newly freed Blacks.
What could our government have been possibly thinking, doing, when it was clear that although the North had won the war, the most expensive of all our wars in regard to some 600 thousand lives lost, the South, in the “person” of Jim Crow, then proceeded, by placing severe restrictions on the movements of the newly freed Blacks, to once again take away their newly found freedoms.
Jim Crow became a second this time nearly 100 year enslavement of a people consisting of former slaves and the government did little or nothing about it during all this time, perhaps believing that its winning the war and its passage of admirable resolutions were enough?
All of this kind of makes me wonder what is, where is the power of government? Real power in respect to freeing and educating a people seems not to lie in the government, but in the people. Do I even have to say that?
The people of the South responded to the loss of the war with their own Jim Crow, giving them power once again. Now the other people of the South, the African Americans, are responding to the oppression of Jim Crow, first by their own civil disobedience and now and more and more by their own forms of civil rights movements, one of which, #Black Lives Matter, just earlier today I encountered for the first time…. (By the way, Jim Crow of the South seems now to have found a second life in some of our police departments in the North, and what is the government doing about this, where is the follow-up here?)
I’d like to go on with this subject. There is so much more to say. But for the moment let me end with this nice lithograph, expressing hope of what might be, or what could have been if only…
(Lithograph, color. 1863)