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Remembrance of Past Fourths

Frederick Douglass (The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro, 1852) likens American Independence to the liberation of the Israelites from the bondage they endured under the Egyptians.  Speaking to a white audience in Rochester, N.Y., he declared, “This to you, as what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day.” But what does the Fourth means to those who experienced the full fury of Southern California’s Thomas Fire? On Wednesday last week, the local Independence Day parade along Ojai’s main street included a float celebrating fire survivors (#lovespreadsfasterthanfire) followed by another flatbed truck from which were tethered something like one hundred red helium-filled balloons, representing the homes destroyed in the small Upper Ojai community. Although I did not appear on the float, nor watch the parade, I did cast my mind back to my great deliverance, and to the signs and wonders of the Fourth.

That would be the Fourth of December 2017, when the secondary source of the Thomas Fire began barely two hundred yards above my house and the fire-storm raced through the chaparral of Upper Ojai. Those on the float may have been survivors, like me, of that night or the many days and nights when the fire swept uncontained towards the Pacific and ran north beyond Santa Barbara, but we all, by now, must understand that our liberation was into a world changed forever by global warming. The emancipation celebrated in our national holiday (which has partially spread even unto the oppressed peoples whom Douglas championed) cannot free us from the meteorological terrors that modernity has unleashed.

Last week, new fires in Yolo and Napa counties had the Los Angeles Times declaring a year-round fire regime in California as ‘the new normal’. NBC reported,

“A massive wildfire burning in rural Northern California has exploded in size, torching at least 72,500 acres, and forced additional evacuations in Yolo and Napa counties. The fast-moving County Fire burning northwest of Sacramento grew dramatically by Tuesday morning, largely burning out of control in rugged terrain with a few cattle and horse ranches and sending smoke and ash as far south as San Francisco”.

By week’s end it approached 90,000 acres with 30% containment. Cal-Fire has responded in force.

Meanwhile, the Federal Government is obviously powerless to prevent extreme weather events, but by disavowing the scientific reality of global warming the Trump administration has fully abrogated its responsibility to its citizens to protect them (to the extent possible) from the harm carbon emissions are wreaking across the planet. This is entirely consistent with their apparent goal of dis-empowering the government and privileging of non-state actors such as individual oligarchs, oligarchical families (such as Trump’s own), stateless corporations and dubiously qualified bureaucrats practiced only in destroying the machinery of government and offering up public lands to the depredations of the 1%.

Fire is the most dramatic manifestation of our enslavement to worsening environmental conditions: we live now in a country governed by those willful in their determination to exacerbate them. The heat wave that careened across the Midwest and the Northeast of the United States left at least 36 dead in Canada and has now moved into the western US where it will terrorize us both as a vaporous, stealthy killer and as an active accomplice in the ten fires currently burning in California. Those seeking respite at the beaches face the fury of Hurricane Fabio, freshly arrived from Mexico (unhindered by ICE) which is churning up the surf and creating monstrous riptides.

As Douglass noted, each July Fourth marks the beginning of another year of national life, and inevitably spurs reflection upon the state of the Republic. Some fifteen years after the Declaration of Independence, George Washington was elected president. He was the richest man in the America of his time and thus trusted by his fellow plutocrats to safeguard the lands wrested from the English king for their pleasure and profit. Although the American people belatedly banished slavery (but not its shadowy twin of racial discrimination) we have yet to emerge from almost a quarter millennium of oligarchy. True-to-type, modern-day presidents are distinguished not by their levels of incompetence, venality, corruption, lubriciousness, turpitude or the narrowness of their vision, but by the assiduousness with which they pander to the financial interests which support their elections. They are united in purpose by the sourcing of their campaign funds, a process supercharged by the Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision. No big news here.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders did not eliminate the influence of money in politics, but he revolutionized the way it can be raised by going directly to his potential voters rather than to self-interested corporations and super PACs. Suddenly, just in time for the Fourth of July celebrations, the promise of Bernie was made manifest in the congressional primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The system is run by access to money, but if you democratize its collection (as Sanders did) then its influence is less destructive – the people have an opportunity to prevail against oligarchy. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is part of a new generation emerging from the brotherhood and sisterhood formed in devotion to Bernie. Come fall, she can expect to be installed as the new Representative of New York’s 14th. Congressional District which covers parts of Queens and the Bronx. She thus appears to have revived an entirely moribund democratic process. Others will doubtless follow in a concerted attempt to apply resuscitation to the body politic. Can we now bask in the hope (however premature) that we may finally emerge from the tyranny of overbearing wealth?

There is little prospect of remediation for California’s swarm of globally warmed conflagrations. Yet, by week’s end, there was more good news. The man who reportedly persuaded Trump to abandon the Paris Climate Accords finally caved under the pressure of escalating reports of his petty corruption and resigned his position as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Scott Pruitt was driven, as the agency’s chief administrator, to emasculate its role in protecting the environment, citizen’s health and most egregiously, limiting industry’s emissions of greenhouse gases. He was effective in his nihilistic agenda and was ironically undone by his pathetic penny-ante conniving and cheap pick-pocketing of the public purse. Pruitt favored the cheapest, most brutal and toxic extraction and transportation of coal, oil, gas and minerals from devastated public and private lands; he thought nothing of oil-workers’ or miners’ health nor the world down wind of their evil industries. In this he diligently served the interests of the oligarchy at the expense of the people.

One hundred and sixty-six years ago, Douglass did not despair of his country despite its glaring injustices. He wrote, in words of some encouragement to those who tremble at the condition of the Republic, circa 2018,

“Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of man…Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe”.

This week of July Fourth, as California continues to burn, Douglass’ belief that hope may exist “…under the dark clouds which lower across the horizon” is manifested in the nomination of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the forced resignation of Scott Pruitt. Like Douglass, I do not despair of this country. He wrote, “There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.”  Today, we may work towards the downfall of oligarchy and its capitalist drive to enrich the few to the detriment of the environment and all its teeming species. In California, we wait now for some relief from global warming – the chain that shackles us to an environment of never-ending patchwork conflagrations. We wait too, for a champion of the vast and visionary eloquence of Frederick Douglass.

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John Davis is an architect living in southern California. He blogs at Urban Wildland

December 13, 2018
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