Today the United States government used the cover of the Coronavirus pandemic to pass a “stimulus package” so regressive it’s going to make the Wall Street Bailout of 2008 look like the New Deal. Corporate America is going to get trillions of dollars in our tax money. You and I are going to get a measly $1000 bucks, which is also going to be taxed. Even worse, ruling class ghouls like Donald Trump, Lloyd Blankfein and Jerry Falwell Jr. are calling for people to go back to work by Easter, even if it means millions of deaths. Falwell even reopened Liberty University in Virginia, a glorified fundamentalist Bible school nobody would ever mistake for Harvard or Columbia, but an institution with a campus and a student body the size of Ohio State or the University of Texas.
We do not need to go into the streets to rebel. All we have to do is continue what is in effect a “general strike” imposed by the Coronavirus. Nobody should risk their lives and go back to work to help the millionaires and billionaires who own stock. Rather, we should refuse to pay our bills, refuse to pay rent, refuse to pay taxes, and above all refuse to pay medical bills. Most of us are terrified. Very few of us have the savings to live through the Coronavirus without a paycheck. In order for the ongoing general strike to work, it’s going to require solidarity. If everybody refuses to pay for a Coronavirus test, the health care industry and the government won’t have the power to ruin anybody’s credit. If everybody refuses to pay their mortgages and property taxes, the local sheriff will be powerless to evict us all. On the other hand, the more people who decide to act on the bourgeois ideology we’ve all been force fed since childhood, to act as individuals instead of a united people, the more power we give the ruling class currently trying to rip us off.
I grew up in Roselle, a rather obscure little suburb in northern New Jersey that came very close to being destroyed by the financial crisis of 2008. It has produced only two people you might have heard of. The first is Rosey (Rosey is for Roosevelt) Grier, an NFL defensive tackle who become something of a curiosity in the 1960s when he took up knitting. At 6’5″ and 250 pounds nobody was going to question his masculinity. Grier was also a liberal activist, a supporter of Robert Kennedy who witnessed his assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in 1968. When Grier, who’s now an evangelical Christian and a Republican returned Abraham Clark High School in Roselle to speak to his old football, I made a crude, adolescent joke about how “bodyguard for Robert Kennedy was probably not something you wanted to put on your resume.” Grier remarked that he had been guarding Ethel, not Robert Kennedy, but that he considered it an accomplishment that he managed to dive on top of Sirhan Sirhan and prevent him from being lynched. Had Sirhan Sirhan been murdered by outraged bystanders the truth about the assassination would have been buried with him forever. As far as I know, Sirhan Sirhan has never given any indication that he shot Robert Kennedy for anything other than his support for Israel, but unlike Lee Harvey Oswald, he’s still very much alive.
The other person from Roselle, New Jersey you might have heard of is Abraham Clark the namesake of my old high-school and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Clark, who was the William Kunstler of colonial New Jersey, a radical lawyer who specialized in defending the poor, would have probably felt very much at home in today’s New Jersey, but I can’t help but think he’d be disappointed. While the United States abolished slavery in 1865, the class system is far more rigid than it was in 1776, when there was plenty of land and opportunity, when something resembling a “meritocracy” did in fact exist. In 2020, the United is an oligarchy, a government of the wealthy (and their stooges), by the wealthy, and above all for the wealthy. Above all, we’ve become doormats. Whatever the rich tell us to believe, we believe. Whenever they ask for a bailout, we give it to them. If they want to us kill a few hundred thousand people in Iraq, we willingly send our sons and our daughters, and our blessings, halfway around the world to prove that “freedom isn’t free.” If anybody objects, we say “America love it or leave it. Support our mass murderers or get out.” Americans have stockpiled more weapons than any people in history. Yet the odds of a violent revolution against the American government, those “Second Amendment Solutions” I’m always hearing about, are pretty remote.
Yet I grew in a house built on the property, which was divided and subdivided in the 19th Century, of a man who signed the Declaration of Independence. I often wonder what we lack that Americans in 1776 didn’t. What allowed them to overthrow the tyranny we so passively accept. I’ve decided that it’s two things.
The first is a “sense of limits.” If you read the letters of the British or Hessian officers who unsuccessfully tried to put down the American Revolution, one thing keeps recurring. None of them could quite figure out why exactly the colonials were rebelling against King George. To the typical British or German army officer, let alone a poor Irish or Hessian conscript, the farmland of New Jersey and Long Island seemed lavishly rich. The colonials who rebelled against the British in 1776 were not the starving French peasants of 1789. They were prosperous farmers and merchants, well off men who could have easily paid their taxes to the British Crown. Americans in 1776 did not rebel because they were starving. They rebelled because their “rights as Englishmen” were being violated. King George III, who hardly ranks as one of history’s greatest tyrants, overstepped those “inalienable rights to which the laws of nature and of nature’s god entitle them.” Unlike the Jacobins who organized the French Revolutionary Terror of 1793, the men who organized the American Revolution weren’t revolutionaries dreaming of a new world order. They were conservatives defending boundaries their sovereign back in London had overstepped, a natural order that no self-respecting Englishman would allow any government to violate.
The second thing Americans in 1776 had that we have lost is a sense of civic duty, of something larger than ourselves and our families. Some of the signatories of the Declaration were traditional Christians. Some were agnostics. Some were deists. But what they all had in common, and what they had in common with their more radical French brethren 15 years later, was the idea of a larger community, a nation. Yes, Americans today are often loudly patriotic, but their patriotism usually stops where their property begins. Every one of those Senators how voted “yes” on the Wall Street bailout today wears a flag pin. Most of them don’t care if their fellow Americans die. Abraham Clark, by contrast, put his country, not only above his wealth, but of his bloodline. Putting your signature on the Declaration of Independence back in 1776 in northern New Jersey was a dangerous proposition. The British occupied New York City all through the late 1770s and early 1780s. John Witherspoon was safely off in Princeton, but had the British wanted to arrest Abraham Clark, try him for treason, and string him in lower Manhattan there wouldn’t have been much the Continental Army could have done about it. The British did in fact capture two of Clark’s sons, both of whom were officers in the Continental Army, and sent them to the prison ships, the Abu Ghraib of the day, in New York Harbor. All Clark had to do to secure their release was to recant his signature on the Declaration. Clark was a bourgeois lawyer, but like an old Roman, he also put his country above his family.
Two of Clark’s sons were officers in the Continental Army. He refused to speak of them in Congress, even when they both were captured, tortured, and beaten. However, there was one instance when Clark did bring them up and that was when one of his sons was put on the prison ship, Jersey, notorious for its brutality. Captain Clark was thrown in a dungeon and given no food except that which was shoved through a keyhole. Congress was appalled and made a case to the British and his conditions were improved. The British offered Abraham Clark the lives of his sons if he would only recant his signing and support of the Declaration of Independence; he refused.