I naively accepted all the myths of American equality and opportunity until my 34th birthday , one year after the election of Ronald Reagan, when I began to sense I had been lied to, manipulated and made irrelevant in the life choices offered me as I matured. I could live the American dream as long as I was willing to perpetuate glaring discrimination and repression, as long as I was willing to exploit anyone socially or economically below me, of a different gender or with a different skin color, as long as I was willing to accept any and all injustice as long as it did not directly affect me or mine, as long as I was willing to accept the brutal exploitation of people of Non-North American, Caucasian origins. In short, to be a good American in the 1980s and since, I had to be a self-centered good soldier, consume consumer goods prodigiously and accept whatever was given me by my self-appointed betters. Needless to say, I had a crisis of faith, an un-American questioning (as most Conservative politicians and Second Amendment “Patriots” would say) of what an American could expect of his society. I came to the conclusion that, as my Daddy used to say jokingly, “Everyone and everything was going to hell in a handbasket.”
Interesting phrase that. Prior to the dawning of the 21st century it was a clichéd phrase for unanticipated negative political and social change. Usually the phrase was conceived as being delivered by a misdirected old coot who simply could not adapt to a changing world. Actually, the phrase’s true meaning and origin is lost in antiquity. Perhaps the most viable explanation lies in the history of Charlemagne’s empire building in the eighth century AD.
Charlemagne’s wars of conquest were going poorly at one point, so the story goes, and Charlemagne’s generals claimed lack of victory on the heavy losses of troops to the barbarians during battle. After a period of listening to these excuses, the Holy Roman Emperor demanded physical proof of the losses. He required his generals to deliver the right hand of each dead troop to his court in a hand basket, which the generals promptly did. However, some of the less than honest generals felt the need to pad the count with the right hands of dead enemy troops.
Whether Charlemagne was taken in by this ploy or not is not recorded; however, the cutting off of the hands of the northern European tribes’ warriors created an unanticipated backlash as the tribes believed only a warrior who died and was buried physically whole could enter heaven. Should the dead warrior appear at heaven’s gate missing a body part he was condemned to an eternity in hell, which for most early European tribes was not a place of Dante’s chamber of tortures but an eternity of dark, monotonous nothing.. Thus, Charlemagne’s generals greatly pissed off the surviving members of his enemies by mutilating the battleground fallen to ease their king’s anger at their ineffectiveness.
We’ve seen this behavior over and over throughout the centuries, the daily body count reported by American generals during the Vietnam conflict as proof of progress is a recent, literal example. So, the real meaning of going to hell in a hand basket would seem to entail a deception meant to enhance the perception of someone’s personal integrity or glory but that, actually, drastically increases the danger for peripheral and non-participants in an existing situation. In essence no one wins and everyone loses as those in power attempt to maintain their status through deception and manipulation while creating ever new and more severe problems through their arrogance.
Since the tenor of US politics has seemingly morphed into a general practice of winning elections and maintaining personal power at all costs, the practice of citizen manipulation through the strategic use of lies, misdirection and gaslighting has seemingly become the new norm of reality in almost every aspect of American life. The average citizen from nearly every mid-level and below socio/economic class has begun to recognize that living as a free citizen in charge of his/her own destiny is no longer viable as the uber-wealthy strengthen their stranglehold on US politics and the US economy. These ubermasters seem hell bent on denying the average US citizen the promise of the American dream and the obscuring of the function and legitimacy of an elected government as stated in the US Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and happiness.”
In nearly every era of US history the gradual relinquishing of the power to reserve the benefits of the self-evident truths voiced and endorsed by the Second Continental Congress by the educated and wealthy elites of US society has been the result of ordinary US citizens (and in the early years of non-citizens) challenging what they experienced as injustice. Those challenges resulted in the successes of the increased voting franchise for all adult citizens regardless of wealth, sex, race or both religious and ideological orientation. In today’s society nearly all those successes have been attacked by the wealthy and privileged in their efforts to secure the power of government in order to protect and increase their wealth, to ensure and extend their privilege and segregate those from society who are categorized as inferior and undesirable by established prejudices rooted in unreasonable and unquestioned bigotry.
The time for the US population to exercise their right “to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and happiness” may be at hand, whether willfully or unknowingly executed.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.