John Henry, et. al.

As the whatever you want to call this continues, those of us who can are accessing our back files (the “way back” in my case) on American history and the complicated and tragic legacy of race, class and gender in this country. The two big questions to be asked are: How did we get here from there?; and What happens next? Yesterday’s Jeremy Grantham article shed some interesting light from an otherwise unfamiliar (to me) perspective on the political and economic disenfranchisement of America’s working and middle classes since the 1970s.

The Grantham article triggered an email conversation between me and a college friend, an historian who specializes in late 19th Century U.S. politics. I’ve also been trying to interpret journalistic and anecdotal accounts of last Saturday’s [01/21/17] global Women’s March, specifically to parse the various strains of a movement that is being characterized by gender, but which may find (and generate) additional value as it moves forward by looking beyond that border. I’ve been writing about that last point since before the election, and will continue to refine my thoughts. Your thoughts (in the comments), of course, are appreciated.

Depiction of John Henry
Depiction of John Henry

“According to legend, John Henry‘s prowess as a steel-driver was measured in a race against a steam-powered hammer, a race he won, only to die in victory with his hammer in his hand as his heart gave out from stress.”

RG email shared with my U.S. historian classmate on 01/26/17:
“I voted for Bernie in the CT primary with the specific purpose of pushing Hillary to the left, after which I planned to (and did) vote for her in the general. Though I’ve had a healthy disdain for the Clintons since what they did to Jerry Brown in ’92, my negative feelings for them are in a completely different universe from my feelings for he whose name I will not type — lest I share his brand even in a personal email.

Anywho, since I made what I considered to be the obvious choice on Day One, and because the rancor of the campaign seemed (at the time) immaterial to reality, I did little more than read headlines and watch the debates. But after reading the postmortems following the shitpocalypse, I became more and more distressed with how HRC had run her campaign, and with how what I perceived to be some of the fundamental attitudes of some of her supporters (perhaps many of them) were going to make it difficult or even impossible to wrest power from this particular brand of the GOP.

In the broadest of strokes, much of my perception of the cultural foundation of the country was shaped by Ed Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, particularly his portrayal of how Virginia’s colonial elite cultivated racism into an effective tactic to create essentially a self-policing tension between [black and white members of the] working and lower classes. In a time when the poorest of the poor (black and white) were tilling their soil with axes because they couldn’t afford plows, there were early signs of pan-racialism. Women of that time and place were outliving “2.5” husbands, and increasing (though small) numbers of formerly indentured whites were marrying formerly enslaved blacks. That trend in Virginia was so disturbing to the elite that they enacted the first anti-miscegenation laws to combat it. I’ll probably get my numbers wrong (it’s been a long time), but these laws weren’t enacted until at least 60 or so years after the establishment of the colony.

Skip way ahead to the Dixiecrat era, and you’ve got George Wallace freely admitting that the way to placate the impoverished white man was to enable his belief that at the very least, he was superior to the black man. Again in very broad strokes, Nixon replicated Wallace’s approach via his famous Southern Strategy, and T**** replicated Nixon to a certain extent. Playing into T****’s tiny little hands were the attitudes and actions of a complex mix of “elites” — whether real or imagined both by their memberships and by those who resented and disliked them.

Now things are getting too nuanced for a quick (too late!) email. But at this point in our history, anybody who’s not at least a centi-millionaire needs to realize that s/he’s little more than a line item on the spreadsheet of the billionaire class. We also need to understand and accept that the only buffer between us and oblivion is a working class with whom we should unite.

We all know that large numbers of the people who supported T**** will be the first and hardest hit by his betrayals. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’m already sensing a readiness among the would-be elites to mock those who have been duped, instead of rallying them to fight against this crazy person. This tragic mistake could lead us to destroy each other while the billionaire class enjoys (or ignores) the dogfight.”


The Response [emphasis added; video shared by respondent]:
“60 years after colonization is about right. I can check my old lecture notes if you want the blow-by-blow. By the way…you have got to read [C. Vann] Woodward’s Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel. It will confirm, as well as fill in, your depressing thesis. Nobody but nobody remembers this, but the Colored Farmers’ Alliance had 1.5 MILLION members across the South by the late 1880s. It was in effect the first stirring of a sharecroppers’ union, and, beyond, that a poor people’s movement. Moreover the white Farmers’ Alliance recognized that and supported it. Between 1890 and 1892 it briefly seemed that they might win.

What happened? You know what happened…

  • Alabama rewrote its constitution in 1890 to disenfranchise black men. The “Alabama Plan” was adopted all over the South in the next few years. By the way, the plan disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of white sharecroppers too, but who gives a fuck about those crackers?
  • Numerous state legislatures (AL, MS, GA, probably FL) incorporated the Confederate battle flag into state flags as a (whites-only) emblem of Southern identity. For similar reasons Confederate memorials sprouted all over the South throughout the 80s and 90s.
  • Lynching peaked in 1895. No surprise, the elections of 1890 and 1892 were particularly violent, the worst since 1876 (by the way, very few people really understand how violent Reconstruction was).
  • Plessy v. Ferguson? The law Homer Plessy violated was passed in 1892.

Those aren’t coincidences. There was a concerted, successful effort to remind poor white men (that is force them to think) that they were white first, and that an unbridgeable chasm separated them from blacks. Because if that chasm ever did get bridged, there would be hell to pay. Read Woodward to get a sense of how tragic that was, not only for blacks crushed under the jackboot, and not only for the poor of both races, but for the white psyche. George Wallace was Tom Watson’s heir, and he understood every bit of that inheritance.

Today, every cappuccino-sipper who condescends to plumbers and rednecks plays into it.”


 Also see:
New York Times:
Why Succeeding Against the Odds Can Make You Sick
“In the United States, gaps in health and longevity between the wealthy and the poor are some of the greatest in the world. It seems natural to assume that jumping from one stratum to the next — being upwardly mobile — would come with gains in health. And conceivably it could work that way — like if a person won the lottery or achieved overnight fortune from writing a truly insightful tweet. But decades of research show that when resilient people work hard within a system that has not afforded them the same opportunities as others, their physical health deteriorates…. The effect has become known as John Henryism. The term was coined by a young researcher named Sherman James in the 1980s, after he met a man named John Henry Martin. Mr. Martin didn’t have any known relation to the John Henry of folk legend who beat a mechanical steam drill in a steel-driving contest, only to collapse dead from exhaustion. (It’s debated whether the original John Henry was himself an actual person with an actual nine-pound hammer that he used to drive metal stakes into Big Bend Mountain in West Virginia in the 1870s so that dynamite could be embedded in the rock and a tunnel could be built for the C.&O. Railroad, or possibly an amalgam of many former slaves who transitioned into freedom.)

New York Times:
White Americans Are Dying Younger as Drug and Alcohol Abuse Rises
“[D]rug overdoses, liver disease and suicide were the main drivers of the gloomy trends among whites in recent years, a pattern also found by other researchers…. Recent research has documented surprising increases in death rates among less educated whites. Last year, a paper by Anne Case and Angus Deaton documented rising death rates among middle-age white Americans, particularly those with no more than a high school education. Other research has found rising rates among younger whites…. The pattern had puzzled demographers, but the recent analyses have pointed to suffering and anxiety among working-class whites.

Life Expectancy Drops for White Women, Increases for Black Men
“[I]t’s the first time since the government began keeping records that white women’s life expectancy has declined, according to the report…. ‘For the age group 25 to 54, suicide went up,’ [demographer Elizabeth Arias] says. ‘ ‘Unintentional poisonings,’ which is mainly alcohol and drug poisoning, and chronic liver disease — those went up by quite a bit.’

World Socialist Web Site:
Life Expectancy Declines for White Americans
“While categorized in racial terms by the study, what is expressed in such figures is the consequences of class warfare. Other studies have shown a shocking divergence in life expectancy between poorer and wealthier Americans. The impact of decades of deindustrialization, and the social ills produced by it, is reflected in one of the most basic indicators of social well-being…. Drug overdoses, liver disease (much of it a byproduct of alcoholism and drug abuse) and suicide are the main causes of these premature deaths…. According to an analysis of health data by the Washington Post published April 10 [2016], the death rate for rural white women in their 40s has risen by 30 percent since 2000, and by nearly 50 percent since 1990…. The contradictions of American capitalism find expression not solely in the dismal indices of declining social well-being, but also in an increasingly militant, angry and politically radical mood in the working class. Vulnerable individuals may fall victim to social evils like drug abuse and suicide, but the class as a whole will seek to find a way out of the crisis on the road of struggle.

Fox News:
Life Expectancy for White Americans Declines
“Life expectancy fell for the U.S. white population in 2014…showing how increases in death rates from suicides, drug overdoses and related causes are threatening an important measure of health and prosperity.”

New Republic:
T**** Is Already Betraying the White Working Class
“Working-class Americans, including the white working-class voters who were vital to T****’s victory over Hillary Clinton, would be hammered by the policies he’s poised to implement. And they also won’t benefit from the many ways T**** is already looking out for the country’s elite citizens and corporations…. Of these, repealing the Affordable Care Act would be the most damaging. ‘Economic analyses of some of the leading plans, particularly those from House leadership and the Senate Finance Committee, all suggest that millions fewer would have coverage,’ Vox’s Sarah Kliff reported Thursday. Even a new, apparently better plan from Republican Senators Bill Cassidy and Susan Collins ‘envisions enrolling people into bare-bones catastrophic plans’ and ‘wouldn’t have the same benefit mandates the health care law currently sets,’ she wrote…. The hope is that some of these Americans—starting with those who supported President Barack Obama but didn’t back Clinton—will also change their mind about T****. They’ll realize that, as Vox put it the morning after his election, ‘Donald T****’s presidency is going to be a disaster for the white working class.’ Beyond higher consumer prices and increased healthcare costs, these Americans are likely to see little benefit from tax cuts in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s budget, while the rich would reap a windfall. T**** is even taking credit for stock market gains, though he has little do with it, and even here, blue-collar Americans without significant investments or robust retirement savings aren’t the primary beneficiaries.”


2 thoughts on “John Henry, et. al.

  1. I can’t imagine that any alliance between the “would-be elites” and those “who have been duped,” to use your terms, is in any way imminent. The Trump supporters have nothing but contempt for the Clinton supporters, referring to us a “crybabies,” “snowflakes,” and “libtards.” And those of who supported Clinton — city dwellers who are the most likely targets of the terrorism that is sure to flow from Trump’s willful provocations — harbor some serious resentment toward those who gave him the presidency. I can’t imagine any possible alliance until those who have been duped begin to to understand the reality of his betrayal. And that may take a while.


  2. We’re only eight days into this psychotic fever dream, and it’s *definitely* going to take a while for the emotional tide to turn. But there will be an opening, and when it comes we need to be ready, not surprised, bewildered and unprepared to act. As bad as the income, class and culture separation between the “1%” and the rest of us is, those same types of separations between the so-called educational, cultural and intellectual elites and those they look down upon have even more dangerous implications. Economically vulnerable T**** supporters may go through the grinder first, but the rest of us are sure to follow. Forward-thinking people from both groups need to be planning their outreach and partnerships now. No socio-political movement ever has succeeded with only one set of actors. Step One is to get our own houses in order, and since nearly 50% of white women voted for T****, I think the starting point is obvious.


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