Building and Unbuilding the Empire

‘We’ll be holding our noses and voting for her’, he said.

He was referring to Hilary Clinton and the watershed United States elections of 2016.

We had met by chance in the dining car of the Empire Builder, a train that crosses North America from Chicago to Portland, Oregon. He was a retired African American lawyer, having worked his life in Chicago, but now settled in Los Angeles. I was trying to find myself on the last North American transcontinental rail crossing.

The feel was decidedly weird, apprehensive even, although we had different reasons for feeling so. For me it may have been a growing sense of futility and uselessness of liberal (or bourgeois) democracy. For him it was a sense that the system in which he had believed for so long, even committed himself, was showing its real and rather ugly nature.

Do not get me wrong. The setting was brilliant, if somewhat surreal. I had made my way, by ‘The Cardinal’, from Philadelphia to Chicago. From there, I would board the fabled Empire Builder to Portland, Oregon, and then travel southward, for a fourth day, on the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles.

On the heavy, if somewhat battered, Amtrak rail carriages we trundled westward. In contrast to the few moments spent in Illinois, we ambled across Wisconsin and the vast plains of North Dakota. Well into Montana we began – as the name suggests – to rise into the mountains in all their glory. Here we touched in Idaho, passed through the Cascade Mountains and Glacier National Park, before running through Washington to Portland, just over the state border with Oregon.

Yet this breathtaking countryside is also soaked in blood, where systematic extermination of the indigenous people was attempted, by killing off the food sources (bison), poisoning water, starving them, driving them off the land, or simply slaughtering them en masse. This was land that assisted in defusing social unrest and potential revolution, for the under-employed and poor working classes were unleashed on the ‘west’, to vent their class fury in hard toil, disease, and early death. This is part of North America that makes the chic urban types of the north-east or west coast shiver with apprehension. And this is where Donald Trump found so much support in the election a few days later.

I sat long in my cabin, pondering the land, life and the universe. Or I was down the stairs in the vestibule, camera in hand, or relishing – as always – a shower on the move. Being the loner and nomad that I am, I savoured the long hours and deep slumber on my own. In this context, the dining car is a strange pleasure, with its communal seating. In the past, I have been able to distinguish between the world seen through the panoramic windows and the world inside the train. On this journey, the world outside, especially the social and political world, was everywhere inside.

In the dining car, I met a black earth farmer, who spoke not a word for most of the evening. Two older women had been making very polite conversation, in the curious way they do in this part of the world.

But when asked his name, he said, ‘I am a black earth farmer’.

‘Black earth?’ I asked.

‘Up north’, he said. ‘The best soil in North America’.

Then I remembered: ‘Like the black earth in the Ukraine and south-western Russia’.

Eyes wide, he said: ‘My grandfather immigrated from Ukraine, after his family had moved there from Germany’.

‘Why have you kept so quiet?’ Asked one of the women.

‘I prefer to listen to people who are more intelligent than I am’, he said with the slightest of smiles.

But now he was unleashed, speaking of GPS steering of farm equipment, of agribusiness, of being 74 (he certainly did not look it), of children and grandchildren who did not want to work the farm. All the while a sharp sense of humour shone through.

At another meal I sat at an all-male table, with a hipster from western parts and a know-it-all California wine merchant who obviously enjoyed the benefits of constantly sampling the products he sold. When I asked about the looming election, the hipster quietly indicated that it was a taboo subject.

Not so for my lawyer friend on his way to Los Angeles. He had been visiting daughters in different parts of the country, returning home by the means he loved best. In years past, he had experienced what it was like to be a black lawyer in a country riven with racial discrimination. And this experience had driven him to become a member of the Democratic Party.

‘I’m a Bernie [Sanders] man’, he said. ‘I’m really disappointed in the way the party machine froze him out and put up Hilary’.

‘So it’s now Trump versus Clinton’, I said.

‘The way I see it’, he said, ‘Democrats will vote for Clinton holding their noses and Republicans will vote for Trump doing the same’.

‘But all the opinion polls suggest Clinton will win’, I said.

‘Yes, yes, but the feeling is not right’, he said. ‘It’s weird’.

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘They’re missing something’, he said. ‘I hope Clinton will win, but I am really not sure’.

Brexit came up often, in the way that the opinion polls had missed the mood in the UK a little earlier in the same year. Their methods seemed to be outdated, so they were unable to do what they are supposed to do – gauge public opinion.

‘I fear a large number of people are not saying what they will do on election day’, he said. ‘Or that they will make up their minds on election day and vote the other way’.

Despite his concerns, which turned out to be well-founded, he remained a firm believer in the system as such.

At one point, I suggested, ‘People in China look at the system in the United States and say “no thanks”’.

To which he responded, ‘And we look at China and say “no thanks.” We don’t want someone else telling us what to do’.

This exchange soured our open conversations, so that we began to avoid one another on the run south from Portland, on the Coast Starlight, to Los Angeles.

I needed more time to myself by that stage, so I did not mind so much. But even my solitude could not block out the mood about the train. A mixture of disbelief, suspense and barely contained anger abounded – depending on which side one was on. For some, the disbelief was based on the apprehension, if not desperate expectation, that the unexpected could happen. For others, the anger at a system that had made their lives worse could not wait for election day. For me, I found it hard to believe that anyone would find such a system desirable.

Meanwhile, I could not help noticing many other signs of a crumbling empire – apart from its political system and social fabric. The train, while solidly built, was increasingly battered and groaning. The cracks on the station platforms seemed wider than ever. The forms of payment seemed archaic. The list could go on and on. It seemed that only thing keeping the system going was the insatiable demand for military expenditure, funded by the extraordinary process of relying on the funds from others, via US Treasury bonds. An empire built on massive debt, enabled by brute force and grudging trust.

But a question kept coming back to me. I would ask: ‘Why do you call it the ‘“Empire Builder”’?

No-one seemed to have answer. Was it a signal of the age-old plans to invade Canada when it was still a British colony? Or was it a signal: this is line; anyone who dares cross it risks life and limb? Or was it part of the extraordinary process of defusing unrest from workers and farmers, pushing them west in a perverted form of the ‘welfare state’? In this case, the state compensated those who took on the task of dispossessing and decimating the indigenous population. Now it seemed as though their descendants were intent on unbuilding the empire through an unlikely champion.

2016 November 036

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Slavery, Service and Tips

‘Service’ derives from the Latin servitium, slavery, which is of course itself a derivative of servus, slave.

As for the word ‘slave’ itself, the most persuasive theory is that it derives from the medieval Latin term sclava, meaning captive. But it is also closely connected with the Byzantine Greek term for Slavs, sklabos (from about 580 CE). The connection is both one of merging two terms and the political reality of Holy Roman Empire’s policy of enslaving many Slavs from the ninth century CE as a way of securing the German-Slav demarcation line.

Why the etymology?

I was confronted once again with a curious phenomenon in the strangest of countries, the United States of America. Here they obsess about ‘service’.

I had been travelling across North America by train, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. I went via Chicago and took the Empire Builder to Portland, before running down California on the Coast Starlight. All the way I encountered one exceedingly helpful person after another. But it really came home to me in the midst of a lunch discussion as we rolled across Montana.

One of the women said, ‘That would do it for me; if the service is excellent, I’ll go back’.

Why the obsession? I wondered. So much so that it is a defining feature of travel itself.

Indeed, everywhere I turned on my journey, I was smothered in people trying to offer service. In a shop I was asked in a cheery but brittle tone how I am ‘doing today’. If the shop assistant managed to catch my name, I was forthwith addressed as though we had known each other for ages. If I paused for a moment on a street or in a railway station, someone inevitably asked if I need some help in finding my way.

Do not get me wrong. I really appreciate the effort. But I remain puzzled.

So I came to my etymological sleuthing.

Service is directly connected to slavery. I mean this not purely in terms of the history of the word, but in the actual practice. When slavery was finally abolished, those who had been slaves became ‘servants’. Lower working class men and women, often from the countryside, would also become ‘servants’ in large households. Perhaps we should say ‘wage slaves’.

Yet, this practice can be found in many parts of the world. So what is different about the United States? I suggest that tipping functions in a way to maintain old patterns of subservience.

In theory at least, the possibility of a tip is meant to encourage greater levels of service. Let us leave aside for a moment the framework of tipping that includes ridiculously low wages, or the assumption that private philanthropy makes the world go around. I am interested in the theory: depending on the ‘quality’ of the service, the tipper may choose to give nothing or give generously, or anywhere in between. The power held by the one tipping lies in the option to withhold or give.

Of course, all manner of cultural expectations and percentages now apply to what is deemed appropriate. But so is the unquestioned assumption that if the service is bad, no tip should be given. Hence the obsessing over service, the entrenchment of slave-like behavior, the etymology itself of ‘service’ and ‘slavery’. It could really only happen in a country with the complex history and continued cultural presence of slavery in its very fabric.