Thursday, October 6, 2011

Did You Know that America is Becoming a Cruel(er) Nation?

Blitzer pressed on: “But Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?” Someone in the audience shouted, “Yeah!” And the crowd roared in approval.
A characteristic that these exchanges have in common is cruelty. Cruelty is a close cousin to injustice, yet it is different. Injustice and its opposite, justice—perhaps the most commonly used standards for judging the health of the body politic—are political criteria par excellence, and apply above all to systems and their institutions.
Cruelty and its opposites, kindness, compassion and decency, are more personal. They are apolitical qualities that nevertheless have political consequences. A country’s sense of decency stands outside and above its politics, checking and setting limits on abuses. An unjust society must reform its laws and institutions. A cruel society must reform itself.
There have been many signs recently that the United States has been traveling down a steepening path of cruelty. It’s hard to say why such a thing is occurring, but it seems to have to do with a steadily growing faith in force as the solution to almost any problem, whether at home or abroad.
We are the little man behind the stove. We are the miner's canary and the conscience of a nation. Double consciousness is a gift and a burden for we who are the Dark Princes and Dark Princesses of this new/old world. We who are "niggerized" understand existential terror. We are burdened by this insight; we are pained by this reality; we are empowered and made stronger for and by it.

We who are Other have a gifted insight into the nature of power and the meanness of humanity that those of the in-group, in bed with Whiteness, who embody it, swim in its ether, and breath it as lifeblood do not. Ironically, Whiteness practices cruelty with expert ease; its owner-practitioners feign ignorance and live in denial of said fact.

In the aftermath of the monster's ball that has been the Tea Party GOP's debates to this point, where they have ghoulishly cheered murder, bigotry, and death, some have experienced shock and made to feel aghast. The discovery of Rick Perry's "Niggerhead" was also greeted with surprise by some among the pundit classes and public at large. The Nation magazine picked up this thread with its essay "Cruel America."

We who are the Other are not allowed such childish notions of feigned surprise at the meanness on display by the Right, the kleptocrats, and the Tea Party GOP. As I pointed out several weeks ago, the latter is a death cult; a mean spirited and cruel politics is their Eucharist. In all, for those Others who know power and have suffered under it, we are not allowed such naive, willful, and forced innocence. The stakes for us are simply too high to entertain the myopic worldview that is Whiteness and the white racial frame.

Jonathan Schell continues his musings on cruelty with:
We might also draw a connection between these abuses and the current direction of budgetary decisions, in which, as in the readiness to deny healthcare to the dying, a pitiless will to deprive suffering people of whatever aid they may be receiving is evident.
The list of cuts, achieved or proposed, on the right-wing agenda is too long to recite, but recent examples include the astonishing obstruction of assistance to recent victims of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee unless other programs are cut; opposition to extending unemployment benefits; defeat of the Dream Act, which would give immigrant children a path to citizenship; opposition to spending for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) as well as Head Start, and so on.
It appears that no one is so unfortunate that he or she is exempt from spending cuts, while at the same time no one is so fortunate as to be ineligible for a tax cut. Budget decisions do not involve the death penalty, yet for many they are matters of life and death.
America is a cruel nation. She always has been. In many ways she remains so today. In the past America reveled in its meanness without apology, self-consciousness, or embarrassment. At present, many, the Right and conservatives especially so, are blinded by the glare of American exceptionalism and dreams of a shining city on a hill: these are natural reactions for a people who live in denial of America's decline as an empire.

As flag waivers for the American tradition they are cruel too, but conservatives and the Right are able to find ways to make themselves into victims when the meanness of their politics are placed center stage and made transparent.

The echoes of history. Here is one account of American cruelty that speaks back to Rick Perry's Niggerhead nostalgia, his sundown town halcyon dreams of youth, and the howling screams of the Tea Party GOP audience at the death of their fellow man.


Paris, Texas, Feb. 1, 1893.—Henry Smith, the negro ravisher of 4-year-old Myrtle Vance, has expiated in part his awful crime by death at the stake. Ever since the perpetration of his awful crime this city and the entire surrounding country has been in a wild frenzy of excitement. When the news came last night that he had been captured at Hope, Ark., that he had been identified by B. B. Sturgeon, James T. Hicks, and many other of the Paris searching party, the city was wild with joy over the apprehension of the brute. Hundreds of people poured into the city from the adjoining country and the word passed from lip to lip that the punishment of the fiend should fit the crime—that death by fire was the penalty Smith should pay for the most atrocious murder and terrible outrage in Texas history. Curious and sympathizing alike, they came on train and wagons, on horse, and on foot to see if the frail mind of a man could think of a way to sufficiently punish the perpetrator of so terrible a crime. Whisky shops were closed, unruly mobs were dispersed, schools were dismissed by a proclamation from the mayor, and everything was done in a business-like manner.

About 2 o’clock Friday a mass meeting was called at the courthouse and captains appointed to search for the child. She was found mangled beyond recognition, covered with leaves and brush as above mentioned. As soon as it was learned upon the recovery of the body that the crime was so atrocious the whole town turned out in the chase. The railroads put up bulletins offering free transportation to all who would join in the search. Posses went in every direction, and not a stone was left unturned. Smith was tracked to Detroit on foot, where he jumped on a freight train and left for his old home in Hempstead County, Arkansas. To this county he was tracked and yesterday captured at Clow, a flag station on the Arkansas & Louisiana railway about twenty miles north of Hope. Upon being questioned the fiend denied everything, but upon being stripped for examination his undergarments were seen to be spattered with blood and a part of his shirt was torn off. He was kept under heavy guard at Hope last night, and later on confessed the crime.

This morning he was brought through Texarkana, where 5,000 people awaited the train. . . . At that place speeches were made by prominent Paris citizens, who asked that the prisoner be not molested by Texarkana people, but that the guard be allowed to deliver him up to the outraged and indignant citizens of Paris. Along the road the train gathered strength from the various towns, the people crowded upon the platforms and tops of coaches anxious to see the lynching and the negro who was soon to be delivered to an infuriated mob.

Arriving here at 12 o’clock the train was met by a surging mass of humanity 10,000 strong. The negro was placed upon a carnival float in mockery of a king upon his throne, and, followed by an immense crowd, was escorted through the city so that all might see the most inhuman monster known in current history. The line of march was up Main street to the square, around the square down Clarksville street to Church street, thence to the open prairies about 300 yards from the Texas & Pacific depot. Here Smith was placed upon a scaffold, six feet square and ten feet high, securely bound, within the view of all beholders. Here the victim was tortured for fifty minutes by red-hot iron brands thrust against his quivering body. Commencing at the feet the brands were placed against him inch by inch until they were thrust against the face. Then, being apparently dead, kerosene was poured upon him, cottonseed hulls placed beneath him and set on fire. In less time than it takes to relate it, the tortured man was wafted beyond the grave to another fire, hotter and more terrible than the one just experienced.

Curiosity seekers have carried away already all that was left of the memorable event, even to pieces of charcoal. The cause of the crime was that Henry Vance when a deputy policeman, in the course of his duty was called to arrest Henry Smith for being drunk and disorderly. The Negro was unruly, and Vance was forced to use his club. The Negro swore vengeance, and several times assaulted Vance. In his greed for revenge, last Thursday, he grabbed up the little girl and committed the crime. The father is prostrated with grief and the mother now lies at death’s door, but she has lived to see the slayer of her innocent babe suffer the most horrible death that could be conceived.

Words to describe the awful torture inflicted upon Smith cannot be found. The Negro, for a long time after starting on the journey to Paris, did not realize his plight. At last when he was told that he must die by slow torture he begged for protection. His agony was awful. He pleaded and writhed in bodily and mental pain. Scarcely had the train reached Paris than this torture commenced. His clothes were torn off piecemeal and scattered in the crowd, people catching the shreds and putting them away as mementos. The child’s father, her brother, and two uncles then gathered about the Negro as he lay fastened to the torture platform and thrust hot irons into his quivering flesh. It was horrible—the man dying by slow torture in the midst of smoke from his own burning flesh. Every groan from the fiend, every contortion of his body was cheered by the thickly packed crowd of 10,000 persons. The mass of beings 600 yards in diameter, the scaffold being the center. After burning the feet and legs, the hot irons—plenty of fresh ones being at hand—were rolled up and down Smith’s stomach, back, and arms. Then the eyes were burned out and irons were thrust down his throat.

The men of the Vance family have wreaked vengeance, the crowd piled all kinds of combustible stuff around the scaffold, poured oil on it and set it afire. The Negro rolled and tossed out of the mass, only to be pushed back by the people nearest him. He tossed out again, and was roped and pulled back. Hundreds of people turned away, but the vast crowd still looked calmly on. People were here from every part of this section. They came from Dallas, Fort Worth, Sherman, Denison, Bonham, Texarkana, Fort Smith, Ark., and a party of fifteen came from Hempstead County, Arkansas, where he was captured. Every train that came in was loaded to its utmost capacity, and there were demands at many points for special trains to bring the people here to see the unparalleled punishment for an unparalleled crime. When the news of the burning went over the country like wildfire, at every country town anvils boomed forth the announcement.


Henri B. said...

I'm not totally surprised that this is my first time hearing this story; I am, however, ashamed that I'd never heard of it. We were always taught of nameless, faceless blacks being burned and lynched. I haven't been quite this disgusted by a past injustice since - wow - the day before yesterday when I read about George Stinney, Jr.

chaunceydevega said...

Tanya. So many stories equally horrid. Have you ever heard of what happened to Claude Neal? He was cut apart and made to eat his own genitals by the lynching party before they dismembered him further and his body parts sold.

G Newman said...

Lynchings were not sad events that affected only isolated individuals. Race terrorism is political, and it often had a dramatic demographic impact. Springfield, MO, became a sundown town in April, 1906, after Horace Duncan and Fred Coker, accused of the rape of a white woman, were taken from jail and given a double lynching from a electrified tower in the town square.

Atop the tower stood a replica of the Statue of Liberty.

The grand jury that investigated the rape a few days later decided that the woman's accusation was a falsehood.

When I described this incident to a seminar class, even the history grad student who grew up in Springfield knew nothing about it. Memory, unlike history, must be cleansed.

Kimberly Harper’s "White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909" cites the Springfield lynchings as a key incident that led to the spread of sundown towns throughout southwestern Missouri and northern Arkansas.