Pondering national breakdown on Disautel Pass
Will the U.S. fragment into pieces? Would that be a bad thing?
With this reflective essay The Raven begins an exploration of widening divisions and increasing social and geographical fragmentation in the U.S., at a time when prospects for a national break-up are as real as at any time since the Civil War. Some are calling this the New Civil War, and a turbulent 2020s seems in store. Over coming posts, I will be reviewing a number of new books on the topic, and offering my own analysis of how progressives can navigate these times and build a better society. Make sure you sign up for the email list to stay posted, and subscribe if you can.
In 2019, a few days after the summer solstice, I went to visit some native people I know on the Colville Reservation in the Okanogan Highlands of Northeast Washington state, now home to 12 native tribes that used to inhabit much of the region. It was a place familiar to me. I covered the reservation as a county beat reporter four decades earlier. While there, in this native place that is in the United States of America, but somehow beyond it, I went up on a mountain pass to muse on my dark forebodings about the national future, about whether there will be a United States at all.
Disautel Pass sits 3,252 feet above sea level on Washington Highway 155 between Grand Coulee Dam and the Okanogan Valley. While much of the land to the south is high desert in the rain shadow of the Cascade Range, this is evergreen forest highlands with enough elevation to catch clouds blowing from the Pacific. Reaching the pass, I turned to the right down a rutted dirt road fit for a four-wheeler. I nervously steered my little Toyota up and down the deeply grooved path, until I found what felt like a fitting spot about a mile in.
Getting out of my car I walked up a bit on a nearby incline into the open forest you typically find east of the Cascades, in contrast with the dense temperate rainforests of the westside. It was a Northwest kind of early summer day, a mix of sun and clouds, neither too hot nor too cool. A pleasant median. I found a rock on which to perch among the Doug firs and Ponderosa pines which framed the small valley, and began to pen notes in my journal.
Immediately, on this little sliver of land left to some of the original victims of the U.S. Empire, I was moved to ponder the wickedness of this nation born of war and conquest. Of technological brutality and its relentless pursuit of power over all. And how our ways were coming back to bite us.
I had this feeling at the pit of my gut for some years, that the United States was approaching some sort of national break-up. The divisions among people were growing too great, with chasms growing between cities and rural areas, between regions, between economic classes, between traditionalist and modern cultures, between ethnicities and skin colors. The vague sense of it started to well up in the latter years of the Obama Administration. The election of Trump brought it into sharp focus, and everything since only served to intensify it. By the day I went up on Disautel Summit, the sense was immediate, palpable. Something wicked this way was coming.
THE OBAMA PARADOX
I saw much of it rooted in the Obama paradox. When Trump was elected, Obama is said to have mused on whether he was elected 20 years too early, before racial hatred abated enough for a significant portion of the U.S. people to accept a Black man in the White House. As it was, the success of a Black man triggered a reaction with deep cultural roots in U.S. racism. In the lynching era, Blacks were often brutally killed simply because they became too successful and “uppity.” Prosperous Black farmers who owned their own land. Shopkeepers who competed with white merchants. Hiding success became a survival strategy. It still happens. I have heard successful Black professionals complain about being pulled over by cops because they were driving expensive cars.
Obviously, a Black president was too much for a wide swathe of the population, many of whom subscribed to the birtherism that Trump rode to political prominence. Obama’s paradox was that it would have been difficult for any Black person not espousing Obama’s centrism to gain the establishment consensus needed to be nominated, and allay white fears sufficiently to be elected. Yet that same centrism forestalled Obama from undertaking the progressive changes that would have dampened the predictable racist reaction.
Indeed, Obama continued to promote the free trade policies that undermined the white working class, and the imperial permawars that sent so many from that class overseas on rotation after rotation, while draining resources that could have gone into rebuilding infrastructure and other programs that would have restored working class incomes. Obama’s policies favored coastal technology, financial and entertainment aristocracies, from providing virtually free money to banks, to pushing trade policies aimed at protecting intellectual property rights, leaving the “flyover people” behind. Certainly racism played a huge role in the loss, notably in rustbelt states. But when the pie is shrinking as it did for all except top income groups under Obama, it intensifies ethnic and class competition and brings latent racism to the surface.
In Obama’s latter years, I sensed the cultural canyon growing wide between the places where wealth is growing, living in one of its prime examples, Seattle, and the hinterland “out there” beyond the metropolitan boundaries, the vast lands between the coasts, where low-paid service jobs are what remains after the factories closed. The sea of red surrounding the blue archipelago depicted in the November 2016 vote maps was the visual expression of what I had been intuiting. A map corrected for population would still show blue continents separated by wide red oceans.
By early summer 2019, an election coming in the next year, the chasm seemed unbridgeable. I sat on that rock at Disautel Pass in this native place, part of America yet in some psychic and spiritual sense beyond it, and pondered how a national break-up might manifest. And whether that would be the worst thing that could happen.
CONQUERING THE CONTINENTAL EMPIRE
The U.S. Empire today is global, in a way no other empire ever has been, not even its British precursor, with hundreds of military bases across the world, and world-spanning corporations whose tendrils penetrate every aspect of the global economy. The global empire was founded upon the vast bulk of the continental empire, its resources and technologies by the 1890s creating a coast-to-coast market already generating concentrations of wealth and corporate power unlike anything the world had ever seen. Always engaged in global trading routes, isolationist mythologies notwithstanding, the U.S. broke its continental bounds with the Spanish-American War in 1898, and its power has spread to all continents since. It is hard to name a country which the U.S. has not warred upon, covertly couped or financially manipulated with its monumental economic and military power.
The continental empire that was the platform for global empire was secured in wars against the native peoples from Jamestown’s struggles with the Powhatan beginning in 1610, just three years after settlement, to the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. Some conflicts such as the Apache War simmered as late as 1924. The Colville Reservation itself contains the legacy of one of the last Indian wars in the Northwest.
The Chief Joseph Band of the Nez Perce did not want to abandon its traditional lands in the Wallowa Mountains of Northeast Oregon, then being overrun with settlers and miners. Instead of being forced onto a reservation in Northern Idaho, the band in 1877 fled across 1,200 miles of some of the most rugged country in the U.S. in present day Idaho and Montana, repeatedly besting 2,000 U.S. Cavalry in many engagements. Their intention was to flee into the more friendly land of Canada, but they were caught just south of the border. Joseph, who was a peace chief, made one of the most elegant and famed surrender statements of all time when he said, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
General Oliver O. Howard promised Joseph that his people could go to the Idaho reservation. Another of the innumerable lies the white conquerors told the Indians. Instead a people accustomed to verdant mountains were deported to the dried up lands of Oklahoma, where a great many died of disease and heartbreak. Joseph continued to plead for return. Admired by many for the tribe’s valiant fight, Joseph was able to visit D.C and make his case with President Rutherford Hayes in 1879. They finally won the right of return in 1885. Yet the whites surrounding the Nez Perce Reservation would not allow them to stay. So the Chief Joseph Band became the 12th tribe on the Colville Reservation.
Chief Joseph died in 1904, and is buried in the cemetery at Nespelem on the reservation. I had visited the cemetery in earlier years and peered from beyond the fence at the white obelisk in the center marking his grave. As a white man I did not feel I could go in alone. The native people I was going to visit in 2019 had escorted me into the cemetery the year before so I could stand by that stone and honor Joseph’s memory and spirit. They guided me to not trample on other graves, which I certainly would have done if I had gone in alone, and I am sure other white people do. In 2019 I wanted to see them again to give further thanks.
I would find them later. But for now, I was sitting on that rock at Disautel jotting down thoughts of empire and fate.
QUIGLEY’S UNIVERSAL DICTATORSHIP
My mind wandered back nearly half a century to a history professor I had at Georgetown University, Carroll Quigley. A student at the Edmund Walsh School of International Affairs, I was required to take Quigley’s Development of Civilization class. Quigley had a reputation as a global historian on the order of a Toynbee. He wandered into strange areas, belief in mental telepathy, a prediction that the major east coast cities would turn Spanish-speaking, only partly realized in Miami (and ironically in smaller Pennsylvania cities such as the one in which I grew up).
Pieces of Quigley still stick with me, among them his historical analysis of how civilizations move from birth to decay. A mixing of cultures gestates a new civilization, which begins to expand. But the process plays out, resulting in an age of conflict, culminating in “Universal Dictatorship”– I vividly recall seeing those words written on a large pad resting on an easel on the stage at Gaston Hall where Quigley lectured – which inevitably decays and then is invaded by new forces. Those words caught me. Universal Dictatorship seemed a harsh outcome. He seemed to know it as well. In his foundational work of historical theory, The Evolution of Civilizations, he softened it to “Universal Empire.” As a student, I had the benefit of unvarnished Quigley.
But I was not born to be an imperial bureaucrat, so I bagged out of classes the second semester, going to demonstrations and doing psychedelics in the jarring setting of DC at the height of the Vietnam protests. Timothy Leary advised one should pay attention to dosage, mindset and setting. He might have advised not tripping in a dorm catty-corner from where Latin American cops were being trained in torture techniques at the International Police Academy.
My concluding act was to be part of the largest mass civil disobedience arrest in U.S. history, one of the over 12,000 rounded up in the 1971 Mayday protests which shut DC down for a week. My constitutional rights were violated on Constitution Avenue in front of the Justice Department the second day of the protests, a fact proven by a late release of the Nixon tapes. I owe Tricky Dick for the $2,500 check I received 10 years later as a plaintiff in one of the ACLU lawsuits brought against the government actions.
A year later, returning to school to study journalism at a California community college, None Dare Call It Conspiracy, a piece of John Birch Society literature, arrived on my college newspaper editorial page editor desk. It alleged the existence of a global insider conspiracy. And to my surprise, there was Carroll Quigley! His writings were cited as prime evidence, supposedly confessing to its existence in his magnum opus history of the 20th century, Tragedy and Hope.
Quigley had dismissed such ravings as a “radical Right fairy tale,” adding, “This myth, like all fables, does have a modicum of truth. There does exist, and has existed for a generation, an international Anglophile network . . . which we may identify as the Round Table groups . . . I have no aversion to it or to most of its aims and have, for much of my life, been close to it and many of its instruments.” (p. 950) Quigley details power networks stretching from Britain to the U.S. dating to the late 19th century involving financial and political powers including what he described as the “American branch,” otherwise known as the “Eastern Establishment.” Keystones of the international network were the Morgan financial interests, the Rhodes Trust, and Oxford. Chatham House in the U.K. and the Council on Foreign Relations in the U.S. were public manifestations.
Wrote Quigley, “The chief aims of this elaborate, semi-secret organization were largely commendable, to coordinate the international activities and outlooks of the English-speaking world into one . . .” while keeping the peace and guiding the development of what came to be known as the Third World. (p. 954)
Quigley seemed to be describing his Universal Dictatorship, benign in his eyes, but nonetheless an Anglo-dominated global order. Years later, I would find that an earlier student of Quigley’s was Bill Clinton, who took his course in 1965 before he went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. In his 1992 Democratic nomination acceptance speech, Clinton named Quigley as an important influence.
The pattern of seeking a universal global order was clear through the 20th Century. Sitting on that rock, I mused on how the corporate powers of the U.S. played a key role in re-arming Nazi Germany during the 1930s. It involved corporations including Standard Oil (aka Exxon), General Motors, Ford and IBM, and financiers such as Averill Harriman and Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of the two presidents that bear his name. Preparing Germany for a war against the Soviet Union that would waste both the Nazis and the Bolsheviks, leaving the U.S. in the catbird seat. As it finally did.
I thought of how even the clever Brits were snookered by FDR, who systemically undermined the British Empire by financially indebting it through Lend-Lease, basically inheriting the substance of its bankrupt empire through superior economic heft.
Then, how the drive for global hegemony did not cease with the Soviet collapse, but indeed amped up under Clinton, penetrating even into the boundaries of the old USSR. Clinton’s imperial drive was no doubt guided by his old professor’s historical analysis.
WOULD BREAKING UP BE SO BAD?
On Disautel Pass, I mused on how the U.S. Empire’s ceaseless drive for power and dominance seemed to know no limits, from conquering the native peoples of this continent to establishing hegemony over all continents. If this nation broke up into 13 or 14 small countries, would it be so bad for the world? Nobody thought the Soviet Union would break up so fast either.
Did I see a break-up and breakdown of this nation rising from its monumental moral bankruptcy, its pursuit of power as the supreme goal and god? Seeing the increasing division of U.S. people, driven by the divide-and-conquer strategies of the ruling classes in their contests with each other, I had seen some form of national breakdown coming for years.
I thought about how as a nation we exhibit the endless appetite of hungry ghosts unable to rest. About a national wickedness that would crash an entire planet’s natural systems to gain more money and power through control and use of fossil fuels, fundamental to the U.S. empire’s financial, political and military potency. The U.S. stands as the greatest obstacle to moving beyond these fuels, whose waste products are heating the planet into an entirely new geological era in which civilization, even humanity itself, might not survive.
Would the break-up of such a nation be such a bad thing? Cracking into pieces the immense bulk of a continental empire leveraged by its oligarchic establishments to build a world empire?
If we do not take the peaceful way out, respond as a unified nation to the challenges that face us with appropriate actions at the appropriate scale, politically, economically and environmentally, then it must be chaos which stops the U.S. Our own systems must break down of their own corruptions and the divisions they create. Seeking Quigley’s Universal Dictatorship, to put all the world under the U.S. thumb, will exhaust our resources and cause the chaos that will destroy the U.S. order, both internally and internationally. We have already gone a long way in that direction.
My musings concluded, I eased down the hill to my car. On the way, I picked up a seed cone to take home, to recall the fact that even as older ways are dying, new seeds are sprouting. Endings are painful, but they are beginnings too.
As I reached the road and trod toward my car, a colossal roar came up from behind. Suddenly a black form appeared directly overhead, the wings, tail and fuselage of an U.S. Navy F-18 Hornet screeching no more than a thousand feet above, visible for a few seconds before it passed the tree line, practicing over the highlands, so similar to regions of the permawar such as the mountains of Afghanistan.
Along with the appropriate string of expletives, I exploded with waves of ironic laughter. The conqueror’s essential expression of might, his airpower, was thundering across an Indian reservation. Its very outrageousness was the image of what I had just written. A kind of a trickster thing. As if to say, they may fly their instruments of power across the skies. But what good will their powers do them if the ground beneath collapses into chaos?
Later I headed to Omak Lake, an elongated body of water on the reservation stretching seven miles between tan-colored mountains topped with stands of Ponderosa pine, some, watered by draws, growing down to the lake. About halfway along the length of the lake, I parked and walked down the lightly treed slope to a panoramic viewpoint. Looking down toward the lake, I spotted three black birds circling each other near a tall tree by the lake. Ravens! I was excited at the sight of these magnificent avians. Common on the reservation, in Seattle I mostly see their crow relatives.
I began talking to them. Greeting them. Still circling around each other on air currents rising from the lake, curious, they flew closer. Finally one flew about six feet over my head, coming up from behind, flying east, its curled beak and jagged wing feathers clearly showing. Another flyover, much more graceful than that nasty military jet, to my mind signifying a power of nature much greater.
I continue my exploration here, how we are already experiencing a soft national break-up.
If the United States did implode, what is to stop other nations and empires from extending their own programs of exploitation, from burning the same oil? Russia is certainly encouraging the violent breakup of the U.S.A., and China doesn't hide its strong imperial ambitions. I'm not arguing for keeping the empire we have, I'm only pointing out that the opiate of empire is a much larger problem than the United States. In politics, the larger coalition always wins, and the same is almost always true in war. If we are to meet the challenges before us, we must build a strong coalition, and it must be a spiritual calling as much as a political one.
Well written. This seems a shared vision for many.