A Wave of Gangrene and Gunfire

The Fifth Convulsion: The Structure of American History, by Charles Potts, Hand to Mouth Press, Walla Walla, WA

That we are in the throes of an existential crisis is no longer news. An endless supply of podcasts and books are at your disposal. But none of these assessments has been delivered by a polymath counterculture poet, with an accent of prophecy submerged in, and sometimes showing through, the learned, rational surface. Enter Charles Potts, known in word-of-mouth literary circles as a poet. A man of many parts, Potts has on occasion defected to the precinct of prose, most notably in his formidable How the South Finally Won the Civil War: and Controls the Political Future of the United States (1995), which in 2022 stands as a prophecy fulfilled.

Another major work, Across the North Pacific (2002), poems in the main, hones in on language and its effect on culture, concentrating on Chinese and Japanese. (He spent time in China and a year in Japan “studying the language to correlate it with Japanese behavior and apply what I knew about language to behavior.”) The final line of a short poem in ANP is, well, prophetic:

We will surrender to the Chinese in Spanish.

(from “I Chinga Su Madré”).

Which brings us to Potts’ latest foray into prose, a potent pocket-sized book clocking in at under 25K words and issued under his Hand to Mouth imprint. (An earlier imprint, Litmus, published a skinny collectible by a fellow Charles, surnamed Bukowski, just before Black Sparrow Press bankrolled Buk’s early retirement from the post office.)

Potts’ investigations run deep and wide, and are followed by an extensive bibliography. The book’s argument identifies a pattern of one “convulsion” approximately every 80 years and has us in an early stage of the current iteration; each convulsion, he says, is inevitable due to the way our government was set up and how it functions. Further, the “fulcrum” of each convulsion has been war.

The first convulsion centered around King Philip’s War (1675–76), which saw colonists across New England join forces to bring the Narragansett to heel. (The Puritans dubbed the tribe’s chief King Philip, their frame of reference being monarchy.) God botherers all, the colonists meant business. King Philip’s head was “placed on a spike and displayed at Plymouth colony for two decades.” (history.com) Potts concludes that King Philip’s War “initiated the development of an independent American identity.” He then pinpoints the war as the Ur-moment when we first claimed the status of national victimhood: after all, the Narragansett were trying to “thwart our expansion” even as the “British rulers [attempted] to control it.”

Potts next singles out Marbury v. Madison, through which the Supreme Court announced its ability to declare laws unconstitutional—a power accorded that body nowhere in the document it interprets. As well, he savages the Senate as “an undemocratic gesture to the smaller states. In a vain effort to forestall the tyranny of the majority, the framers installed the tyranny of the minority.” (Currently, fifty Democratic senators represent forty-one million more Americans than do the fifty Republicans.)

Throughout, Potts amplifies his critique of our Constitution and government. Specifically, he hammers away at the near impossibility of enacting constitutional amendments and the “unnecessary bicameral, and consequently hamstrung legislative process.” In essence, the poison pill that is the filibuster has replaced minority rights with minority rule. Not one to mince words, Potts pronounces the Senate “stuck in the throat of American society and chok[ing] it to death. . . [It] needs to be abolished.”

Potts has a seemingly panoptic grasp of events and their causes and consequences. All of which he conveys with urgency. The chapters covering individual convulsions are chock-full of historical incident, legal precedent and legislation.

The Revolutionary War convulsion led to nationhood and the takeover of most of the continent south of the Canadian border, down to and including swatches of Mexico. This era, enshrining the court-endorsed principle of federalism, sowed the seeds we are reaping bigly: state legislatures empowered to undo the electoral will of the people.

Although the years between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars are commonly “characterized as a civics lesson on the value of compromise to induce in youth the notion that the Constitution actually worked,” per Potts that document’s interpretation in reality presented “an opportunity to hear bloated senators, Clay, Webster, Calhoun, rise to the compromises until the state of their arrangement fell apart in a wave of gangrene and gunfire.”

The Civil War constitutes a convulsion by any definition. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox led to a “Forced Republic”—invoking the “you can check out anytime you want but you can never leave” rule. Postwar Reconstruction ended with “the fraudulent installment of Rutherford B. Hayes” in 1876, made possible by “Republicans agreeing with racist Democrats in the South to recall Union troops.” Waving goodbye to the federal troops, the South proceeded to largely restore power arrangements to antebellum status, minus legalized slavery.

Our fourth convusion, which saw us supplant the British as imperial shot callers (cf. Henry Luce’s truncated “American Century.”), spanned the 1930s and 40s, with World War II as its fulcrum, After allowing that “a liberal consensus installed by Franklin Roosevelt more or less held sway until the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980,” Potts reminds us that “the next 40 years would be the eventual spiraling out of control of the Reagan instituted Movement Conservatism.”

What links these convulsions together, according to Potts, is the aforementioned chip-on-the-shoulder sense of “victimhood.” Anyone can play! And does. Cartoonist Walt Kelly’s succinct parody of a military adage from the early nineteenth century comes to mind: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Jews will not replace us, indeed! (Which for me would be a wash.)

One caveat before I wrap this up: Potts at times moves too fast for my grasp of history to keep up with— although that did not dim my enthusiasm for his propulsive momentum or impede the persuasiveness of his thesis.

In 2021, when The Fifth Convulsion saw print, we were 76 years out from the end of WWII. Right on schedule we are “slogging through our Fifth Convulsion,” which will test “whether this nation or any nation so convulsed will long endure.” (The turns of phrase alone make this book worth reading.) “The four horses [of] this contemporary apocalypse,” Potts (who breeds and raises Appaloosas) tells us, are political disasters, climate disasters, and financial disasters, with a coronavirus natural disaster as a chaser. “Then the carnival of disasters was sideswiped by the intermittently buried four hundred year old plus racial disaster.”

As well, “the Fifth Convulsion has the capacity to be accompanied by an enormous war.” Leading to the question: Will that war be internal or against foreign enemies? Who says it can’t be both! Either outcome may well fulfill the prophecy quoted above: We will surrender to the Chinese in Spanish.

The Fifth Convulsion, like its predecessor, will be global. Taking a wide angle perspective, we have been steadily losing ground to the Chinese, and even if neither you nor I live to see the surrender, who can doubt Potts the seer after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? On one level Vlad’s motivation is the furtherance of territorial aims, but on another he may also be China’s stalking horse for the invasion of Taiwan it is chomping at the bit to unleash. If and when, expect the US to roundly condemn that incursion in “the strongest terms,” pitting high diplomatic dudgeon against overwhelming force, empty words against someone else’s idea of Manifest Destiny.

We call ourselves a perennial work in progress. Progress continues, but mostly in the wrong directions, and when Potts says our Empire is lurching toward “oblivion,” I am hard-pressed to find evidence to the contrary. That said, Charles Potts is not the hopeless sort. He defines the country as its “mountains and rivers, seashores, swamps and deserts, large cities and great plains,” and points out that “most of the country will still be here when the government is long gone.” Hailing from Idaho and for much of his adult life based in eastern Washington, a patch of the continent where land and sky dwarf human inhabitants and exploiters, Potts is a patriot of the land itself. Maybe that’s a slice of the answer: cutting humanity down to size, just add bioregionalism. After we get rid of the Senate.