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Lessons on Social Continuity

W. J. Sidis

[MS fragments, 3 pages, unpublished, found in Helena Sidis's files, 1977.]

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7. Continuity of Place

        One of the strongest forms of social continuity is continuity of place. In spite of complete changes in the nature of the population, the tendency is very strong for institutions in the same general locality to persist to some noticeable extent. Where a new people take over a locality, there is a strong tendency for them to acquire at least a powerful admixture of the institutions of the people that lived there before them.

        Would this be the case if a place remained uninhabited for a long time? It is hard to tell; there are such cases, but nothing in such cases to indicate the exact social institutions of the former inhabitants. It is possible that, if the new colonists of such places as Easter Island or Pitcairn Island had, when they got there, known much of the social institutions of former inhabitants, they might have made considerable use of them in building up their own society. An extreme, if fictional, case of local continuity of this sort, appears in the case of a book called "After Worlds Collide," wherein the earth is pictured as being destroyed by a collision, while a few refugees from the earth succeed in getting away to another planet just arrived from outer space, and whose original inhabitants became extinct in its millions of years of travel through space; here the institutions of the former inhabitants are pictured as having an influence on the new inhabitants to a remarkable extent.

        But, however such a fictitious case would work out, there is nothing new or unusual in a new people taking over a land previously inhabited by people of different customs and institutions. America is a conspicuous case of this; and in America, as in most cases of this sort, the original institutions of the place not merely have a strong influence on the new people and guide them to the formation of their own societies, but, in so far as they are displaced, show a strong tendency to come back. The American Revolution itself was an instance of that tendency working itself out, where Algonquin and Iroquois traditions of rights and liberty popped out explosively—a tendency that has been noticeable in this country both before and since that time, in spite of many set-backs. On the other hand, when the influence of contact brought these ideas of rights over to Europe, the European continuity made it necessary to adapt the whole proposition to the Eastern Hemisphere tradition of "The State with illimitable power"—and thereby converted even American libertarian ideas into authoritarian forms; respect for individual rights and limitation of governmental powers in accordance with that, became reduced to a formula of "majority rule" which deprived minorities of all protection, a form which America has always rejected because it flies in the face of American continuities.

        Even sectional differences in modern America are largely parallel to the differences between the various aboriginal nations in those sections, so that, in many ways, New England is still the Penacook country, the South is still the Maskoki country, and so on. The intense rivalry between the various valleys of California is geographically identical with the fights between the various California tribes of a couple of centuries ago. American speech, though mainly English in its vocabulary, has adopted many native features of idiom and sentence structure, so that, while the colonists brought in new words, the habits of language-thought were American in origin.

        Aboriginal American institutions differed widely over this continent, but the various reversionary tendencies are noticeable in the different sections, while there is no tendency to revert to British institutions, which, even where they were imposed, are normally "good riddance" when abolished at last. Eastern institutions, especially Penacook, Iroquois, Lenape, have been of most importance in forming modern American institutions, and those are the most powerful reversionary tendencies, though, of course, continuities introduced in the past three centuries would prevent any complete restoration of tribal society. For better or worse, there has been in North America an interbreeding of a strain of foreign social forms with the main body of American native forms, with the latter coming out ever stronger, and a certain amount of reversion to the American type may be expected as a natural result.

        Penacook, Iroquois, and Lenape continuity must inevitably include a powerful tendency to the federal form in government—where a number of units ("States" in the American sense) agree to limiting their authority to permit a central ("federal") organisation to handle certain specific matters for them—and, in the case of Penacook continuity, to permit complete non-interference with individual rights. All attempts in America at upsetting that tradition in favor of the European one of centralised authority have uniformly met with increasing resistance as long as such attempts kept up, and, by the principle of continuity of place, must continue to do so as long as this nation continues to live on the continent of North America. This resistance never comes from a single united source, but from so many directions that no one can oppose them all at once—from more directions as more continuities set affected. The so-called "New Deal" administration, for instance, when it encounters this type of resistance, may blame it all on "Big Business" or use some such catchword, but very little of the manifestations of resistance can be traced to such a source; for instance, there were very few "Big Business" people among the group that composed the Lexington Resolutions of 1934 which ultimately brought about the downfall of the Blue Eagle—a revulsion that could rather be explained by continuity of place, by reference to the American Revolution that started in that same county, with the same town of Lexington occupying a prominent place. Again, of all States in America least likely to contain "Big Business" for year-round citizenship, the choice could readily fall on Maine and Vermont, known for their opposition to centralised government, while New York City, the world's financial headquarters, was prevailingly the other way. This incidentally, is not propaganda for or against anyone, but simply picks out difficulties in the way of attributing American decentralisation tendencies to any particular source except continuity of place.

        Penacook, Iroquois, and Lenape reversionary tendencies would also tend to get rid of property institutions (which were toned down considerably in the process of introduction from Europe); particularly reversions of Penacook origin, which would bring about something on a federal and libertarian basis and otherwise approximating what used to be defined as "socialism" in prevailing pre-war definitions—with the exception that the class angle would necessarily be completely absent, as the continuities come from a source that knew no classes.

9. Discontinuity.

        In order to effect any sweeping change in society, it is absolutely essential to produce a discontinuity—that is, a break in Continuity. The theory of social continuity shows that. without this, the old continuities will necessarily tend to pull things back to the past.

        What constitutes a discontinuity? A social system cannot start absolutely without any continuity. Continuity of place is always there, unless the country is not only newly settled but was previously uninhabited. Continuity of population is always there, but it is the weakest kind there is, and can easily be counteracted. But continuity of organisation is always dangerous, and can be gotten rid or only by breaking that continuity and starting with a totally new organisation. Continuity of organisation is broken if none of the pieces of the new organisation is taken from the old one. Each piece taken over from the old organisations into the new constitutes a source of infection which can spoil the completeness of any change it may be desired to make in social—or any other—organisation.

        In the American Revolution, most colonies had simply a revolt of legislature against the executive, so that the overturn was only within the government, and not a real revolution. Connecticut and Rhode Island underwent no change in form of organisation, and therefore had to go through their revolutions at a much later period. In Massachusetts and Vermont, though, completely new organisations were built up, and were therefore infinitely more rebel in nature than anything that arose elsewhere; in Massachusetts, the new regime later on admitted the legislature from the old regime. and this led to a counter-revolution, while Vermont, which made no such error, remained much more rebellious and independent, and remains so to this day.

        It is also true that a new organisation may develop a continuity of its own before it can take control. Thus, if it is a propaganda organisation, excluding all opponents, its continuity is likely to result in general "purges" and other forms of repressions; etc.


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