Saturday, November 21, 2020

Ruminations 96: On or About the 400th Anniversary of the Mayflower Landing in What Will Become Known as Massachusetts


Pix credit HERE


It has become fashionable among settler societies--and many societies are settler societies or societies born of (often violent) migration if one goes back far enough--to reconsider their origin stories, or at least the legitimacy of their presence in the lands to which their principles or aspirations took them. Self loathing has become an artform as those in the vanguard of these rituals seek both to to loath and lead.  There is irony in this. The irony is especially acute where the principles invoked in these reconsideration narratives are born of the very principles whose embrace brought settlers to the lands that now serve as an increasingly (if only psychologically--and politically psychologically mostly) inauthentic home. And indeed those principles make it possible to indulge in self loathing with little consequence other than appearances (though in an age of gesture appearances may be ore important than substance). Of course, this suggests that the stance is only a part time affair.  Almost simultaneously with a rejection of the authenticity and legitimacy of settlement comes an embrace both of a right of current occupants to stay and of new settlers to come and leave their own mark on the place that is the object of their settlement journeys. In an age of settler self loathing, the invitation to others to augment settlement waves in contemporary migration makes it possible to indulge in gesture while increasing the magnitude of the fault, but now shared among a wider community of settlers.  These actions, too, are born of the very principles which simultaneously make that settlement so--in the language of our times--unsettling. 

Settlement is a violent act, and particularly so in the settlement, by peoples from all across the globe (and they keep coming), which displaces others who had previously settled it and produced something like a stable set of migratory migratory histories, sometimes quite violent as well. Settlement continues now within the Americas as people continue to move about, and in the process displace what was there with something else, sometimes blended, sometimes new, and sometimes, well, in the making, of North and South America. Of course, it is not clear how violent this settlement was compared to those of other eras, whose history has erased entirely the peoples displaced and the pain of settlement, displacement and absorption which is now often reduced to a historical shrug.  Humanity appears to have only a short term engagement with pain.  Yet for the children of the survivors of violent settlement undertaken over centuries --rather than in a short period of intense brutality with few survivors absorbed or exiled-- the pain can serve as a catalyst to memory and as a point against which it is possible to effective a reconstitution and perhaps a new accommodation with a culture into which they must settle but against which they must act to preserve their contemporary essence as peoples. And again, this is a process layered with irony, for it is unlikely that there are many peoples anywhere who do not bear the guilt of displacement as they moved about settling in places from which they were in turn displaced.  Distinguishing among types of settlement, of migratory movements, does not change either is violence or transforming effects; justification is the balm that is applied after, not before, the wounding. 

None of this plays well in North American politics. That is also ironic, given the essentially political nature of the normative constructs around the concepts of migration in contemporary times.  And North American narrative construction, in particular, appears incapable of the subtleties necessary to craft an accommodation that produces solidarity among peoples who have not been very nice to each other for a very very long time. And yet, the greatest of our peoples have suggested that this is not just possible but necessary. Today, however, we do not live in an era of great people.  We live, as the Chinese I Ching suggests, in the age of the taming power of the small (Hexagram 9); or as the African Ifa suggests, in an age in which the great are devoured in the city of witches (A dífá fún Ologbo Ojigolo nsawo re ilu àjé (Ôwonrínmeji No. 6).
In an age of the taming power of the small, in an age in which communities find themselves in the city of witches (àjé) whose rulers stand at the ready to devour all who are not them (and certainly not an age even remotely traveling towards any sort of divine city on a hill (Matthew 5:14)), it is sometimes difficult to remember that sometimes (not always) the line between great good and great harm is quite thin, contextual, and contingent. It is hard to imagine that the great may emerge from the small; that even the city of witches produces magic. It is harder to remember that the birth of even great principles may occur under humble and quite imperfect conditions. The Abrahamic traditions remind us that greatness is sometimes born in the homes of lowly idol makers or in a manger or in orphans. 
It is sometimes difficult to recall that its essence is as protean as the changing self constitution of communities in their violent (sometimes) interactions. This is especially so when, in the greatest of ironies, the principles that came to be extracted by acts in history are used to indict it, diminish its legitimacy, and detach it from its own history. The result produces a great dissonance--an increasing gulf between the aims of the principles and those who produced them (in this case a group of early settlers from England) whose historical sins are visited n the children now long past these original sins ("He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” Exodus 34:7) even as they (and the descendants of those wronged then) commit sins of their own.

It is with that in mind that it may be possible, if only for an instant, to appreciate an act (the ramifications of which caused great harm to some) that brought (eventually) glad tidings (Luke 1:19) to much of the world (even those who were the initial bearers of the harm brought by those who fashioned it for themselves. 

The Mayflower Compact reminds us of the values that are generally shared by this political community--the sum of an almost infinite number of the children of those wronged (and sometimes greatly) by each other and by others, which now find themselves sharing the same political space--for good or ill--and drawing on the same instruments (as distasteful as those who drafted them might seem to many). In this context, loathing--and self-loathing--becomes self defeating, especially in the construction of community within a space in which settlement from equally self-serving communities of settlers continues undiminished, and who in coming inevitably displace elements of those who came before. It is always easy to focus on the indictment of harm.  It is harder to appropriate those instruments that brought (in the beginning) oppression and harm to some even as it liberated others.  For some in the Christan community, the Cross bears that  burden and provides an example of extraordinary self overcoming--of the transformation of the sign of oppression and cruelty to that of liberation; there are many other examples. And yet those are the very instruments that provide a means for achieving solidarity--eventually. Eventually because it may be hardest to detach oppression and benefit--to depersonalize it (from a communal or volkish perspective; to let go--and embrace the divine voice in even the most historically and ironically cruel of documents--to make that document one's own, but not one's own, to make it an instrument of solidarity.

 Perhaps in that spirit, and on this day, it is possible to re-read the Mayflower Compact--warts and all--in a way that points to the great and away from the small, that departs the city of àjé and without the hunger born of the need to consume one's enemies, to see it and those around one, in the settler society that might yet overcome itself, as a document that joins rather than divides, that points the way forward even as it itself is shackled by the times in which it was made.  

The Text of the Compact, rarely read today, executed by the men of that society, follows. It was altogether a small covenant, but it was sufficient.  It provided the possibility that  a people could make themselves from  the constituent parts of others--that it was in the covenanting, the act of will and of solidarity, that something new could be created.  Certainly not in 1620--people then (and to some greater extent now) continue to be shackled by the idea that solidarity is provided by birth, condition, race, ethnicity, or other factor over which the individual has no power, but which has power over her.  And yet it is possible to wrest from that document the seed (in inadvertently planted) that is it just possible for people to will themselves into a political community of (more or less) shared values.



Text of Mayflower Compact:

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are under-written, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.

Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the eleventh of November [New Style, November 21], in the year of the reign of our sovereign lord, King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Dom. 1620.


John Carver
William Brewster
John Alden
William Mullins
John Craxton
John Howland
John Tilly
Thomas Tinker
John Turner
Digery Priest
Edmond Margeson
Richard Clark
Thomas English
John Goodman

William Bradford     
Isaac Allerton
Samuel Fuller
William White
John Billington
Steven Hopkins
Francis Cook
John Ridgdale
Francis Eaton
Thomas Williams
Peter Brown
Richard Gardiner
Edward Doten
George Soule

Edward Winslow
Miles Standish
Christopher Martin
James Chilton
Richard Warren
Edward Tilly
Thomas Rogers
Edward Fuller
Moses Fletcher
Gilbert Winslow
Richard Bitteridge
John Allerton
Edward Liester


No comments: