Friday, November 28, 2008

God hath thereby cleared our title to this place . . .

"But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection."
So wrote the city-on-a-hill proto-American demigod John Winthrop nearly four hundred years ago. This pox was the white gift for which the native peoples of the northern Americas could offer thanks.

Title was of no small concern to John Winthrop. He was an early exponent of the view that the colonists could seize land because the native people had failed to mix their labor with it. (Though it did help when God stepped in to obliterate huge percentages of the indigenous population, thus reducing the possibility of resistance).

The European legalism is still at work today, explicitly in some eminent domain cases, and abroad particularly in Israeli seizures of Palestinian land (in the variant form that "there are no Palestinian people" and they weren't "here" anyway). But it is also tacit in the arguments for allowing the vastly wealthy to keep their gains free of taxation. By dint of superior intellect and labor, the wealthy have earned vast compensation. Since We the People are occasionally skeptical, further arguments are adduced: for example, that we all benefit, albeit indirectly, by the benefit of the few at the top of the food chain.

This latter argument also has historical precedent. In the medieval home of a nobleman, the scullion (the male equivalent of a scullery maid, women not typically being allowed to do such work eight hundred years ago) would get the leftovers after the nobles had eaten. Trickle down theory. No doubt it is a practice that goes back tens of thousands of years.

All of which gives new meaning to the line "When will we ever learn?"


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