The Midterm Elections and the Rural-Urban Divide in U.S. History

Walt Curlee, Taking Pumpkins to the Market (). The idea of a "Chick=f=lay+ section of America is really a re-tread of the old agrarian myth.

Walt Curlee, Taking Pumpkins to the Market (2012). The idea of a “Chick-fil-A Country” is really just a re-tread of the old agrarian myth.

Ah, the American press. The third estate. Delivering the hard journalistic facts to an information-starved American public. Okay, so those are the ideals that the more idealistic fools among us would wish upon U.S. journalism. Instead, we have programs like Meet the Press, now hosted by renowned Beltway fluffer Chuck Todd, who, like famed NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, has two first names. In a recent segment in which he discussed the upcoming 2014 midterm elections, the goeteed sage decided to frame the current political narrative through the lens of that most American of institutions: fast-food. You see, Todd believes that the current liberal-conservative divide in American politics has split the country into a “Starbucks Nation” and a “Chick-Fil-A Country.”

“Starbucks Nation” is characterized by big cities, where effete, spineless, multi-cultural, non-open-carrying, socialistic, Starbucks’ latte-sipping, atheistic, possibly homosexual, tax-raising urban liberal hippies vote for the Democratic Party and thus, plan to destroy America. “Chick-Fil-A Country,” by contrast, is characterized by small-towns — the real America — and is populated by white, gun-humping, (Protestant Christian) church-door-darkening, tax-cutting, flag-waving, freedom-oozing, military-worshipping, free-market-mouthing, conservative Chick-Fil-A patronizing rubes who vote Republican to save America. According to Chuck Todd, it’s the political battle between these two competing demographics — “the Democrats who live in the big cities” versus the “Republicans that live in the areas between suburban America and rural America” — that will decide the 2014 mid-term elections.

This is your press, America. And while Chuck Todd should certainly be taken to the proverbial woodshed for reducing American politics to a dualistic smackdown between competing styles of fast-food (believe it or not, there actually are small-town Starbucks AND big-city Chick-Fil-As!), he is nonetheless echoing a very old — and very real — divide in American culture: the clash between the rural and the urban; between the small-town and the big city.

Culturally, the Seattle-based Starbucks, as purveyors of crappy, overpriced coffee and mass-marketed faux-European cafe kitsch, is often used as an all-purpose stand-in for air-headed progressive urbanity (“Putting soymilk in your ten-dollar mocha-chai-pumpkin-Twinkie-latte AND supporting gay-marriage?! How sophisticated!”). By contrast, Chick-Fil-A has a conservative, middle-American image. Its founder is an evangelical Christian, and the chain’s critique of all-things queer-o-sexual made it a rallying point for right-wing, small-town Americans who wanted a big helping of culture-war conformity alongside their value-priced, coagulated chicken globules.

But regardless of how overly simplistic it is to associate Starbucks with liberal city life and Chick-Fil-A with small-town conservatism, Chuck Todd can get away with this kind of superficial bunk because there’s a very real history of urban-rural clashes in American history. Todd is referencing that history in his bone-headed, fast-food-based take on the 2014 midterm elections. After all, as the Wall Street Journal reported early in 2014, it’s a well-established fact that in modern America, cities tend to be havens for liberals while conservatives are mostly concentrated in rural areas and small towns. This type of political divide is the legacy of an American cultural proclivity towards viewing cities as bastions of openness, impersonality, and chaos in contrast to the supposed stability, conformity, and slower-paced, value-driven life of the countryside.

Just look at these left-wing, urban Starbucks patrons. Clearly, they're ordering the new Trotsky latte.

Just look at these left-wing, urban Starbucks patrons. Clearly, they’re ordering the new Trotsky latte.

As historian Paul Boyer writes in his book Urban Masses and Moral Order in America: 1820-1920, the urban-rural divide in American life is as old as the republic itself. The first wave of mass urban growth during the Jacksonian era struck fear into the hearts of American agrarians. “Urbanization posed profound threats to the social and moral order they knew,” Boyer writes, and, as a result, critics of urban life unleashed “somber warnings about the prevalence of intemperance, gambling, sexual immorality, profanity, and Sabbath breaking in the cities.”* To nineteenth century America’s moralizing country-bumpkins, “the urban order represented a volatile and unpredictable deviation from a familiar norm.”*

Perhaps America’s most famous of all agrarian apologists was none other than Thomas Jefferson. The archetypical Founding Father spent most of his life touting the importance of an agrarian ideal in which America would ideally be populated by independent, virtuous yeomen farmers far-removed from the tempting licentiousness of the cities.

In his famous 1784 book Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson waxed nostalgic about how rural and small-town life provided a bulwark against the dastardly influence of urbanization. “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue,” Jefferson wrote. “It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.” And what did Jefferson think of the cities? Although he wasn’t totally adverse to the growing importance of urban commerce, he nonetheless took a defiant stance in favor of the countryside, writing that, “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” Ouch.

The influence of Jefferson, a southerner, echoed during the buildup to the Civil War. In the antebellum period, northern and southern opponents tended to cast the sectional conflict as a clash between a rural, slaveholding South and an industrial, urbanizing North. But such black-and-white distinctions were products of politics and culture, not reality. Historians have since shown that while the South was indeed more rural than the North, it had plenty of cities and industry, and while the North was more urbanized and industrial than the South, it was still a mostly agrarian region that sent far more farmers than factory workers to the battlefields.

But such nuances didn’t matter to pro-slavery politicians like South Carolina’s James Henry Hammond, who invoked the rural life to defend southern slavery against supposedly hypocritical, anti-slavery urban northerners who criticized the South’s peculiar institution while simultaneously ignoring the wage-slavery in their midst. In his famous 1858 “Mudsill Speech,” Hammond argued that southern slaves were, “hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our [enslaved] people, and not too much employment either.”

Unlike southern slaves, Hammond claimed that northern workers were, “hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street of your large towns.” “Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South,” he boasted. The virtuous southern rural lifestyle, Hammond argued, was superior to northern urbanization because it kept only a specific group of (black) people enslaved, whereas wage-slavery affected whites and spread like a disease through northern cities. Checkmate, countryside!

Even decades after the Civil War, however, the allure of the countryside as an antidote to urban ills maintained a powerful hold on some folks in the conservative South. In the early twentieth century, a group of southern agrarian intellectuals railed against the influence of so-called “New South Boosters,”  who sought to remake the post-war South into a northern-style industrial urban powerhouse.

In their seminal essay collection I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, the agrarians made their case for the inherent virtue of Dixie’s rural and small town lifestyle. “Opposed to the industrial society is the agrarian,” they wrote, “the theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations.” The rural lifestyle stood in sharp contrast to the “evils” of urbanization and industrialization, especially “overproduction, unemployment, and a growing inequality in the distribution of wealth.” Like that of Jefferson before them, the echoes of the agrarians ring loudly in modern American discourse that presents the conservative small town as morally and spiritually superior to the liberal big city.

Small town America tends to fancy itself as more patriotic, but know this: even city-dwelling hippies like chicken nuggets.

Small town America tends to fancy itself as more patriotic, but know this: even city-dwelling hippies like chicken nuggets.

While America’s rural areas are declining in population, the old historical preference for the countryside now surfaces via “traditional” residents of small-town America who put their faith in the Republican Party as the last bulwark against a creeping, urbanized, secular, liberal culture. As Josh Kron of the Atlantic wrote a few years back, “the new political divide is a stark division between cities and what remains of the countryside…the voting data suggest that people don’t make cities liberal — cities make people liberal.” This demographic reality is why 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin adopted her best “aw shucks, gosh darnnit'” tone to claim that authenticity reigned not in cities, but rather “in these small towns” and “wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America,” the residents of which were apparently “hard-working, very patriotic, and very pro-America.”

Palin’s speech is the type of hayseed-mongering that rural and small-town conservative voters lap up like St. Bernards at a cotton candy convention, and it’s a major component of the Republican Party’s electoral playbook. The same folks who were inspired by Palin’s neo-agrarian rhetoric are the same folks who get a major culture war hard-on when they buy a Chick-Fil-A sandwich just to spite teh gayz. And it’s these same conservative, small-town and rural voters that urban, lefty, Starbucks slurping, gay-marrying pinkos are dismissing as relics of a barbaric age.

Chuck Todd’s Starbucks vs. Chick-Fil-A approach to American politics may be slightly moronic, but it does make a certain kind of indirect sense when you consider the long urban/rural divide that his fast-food metaphor is clumsily referencing. And while this divide has been — and continues to be — a real thing, let’s not overlook the myriad complexities of American history that caution against total, black-and-white approaches to regionalism. Both cities and small towns have their virtues and vices; there are liberal farmers and conservative hedge funders; and pretty much everyone in America has, at some point in their lives, ordered a Starbucks coffee or chomped on some Chick-Fil-A waffle fries.

So while rural/urban divisions will probably never go away, we’ll all be better off if we try to identify our similarities as well as our differences, wherever we live. The reality is that most small towns aren’t idealistic Mayberrys, but they aren’t necessarily backwards hellholes either. Moreover, while they can certainly have higher crime rates, most cities aren’t morally deprived war zones. The charm and slower pace of the countryside can house deep-seated prejudices just as the dynamic multiculturalism of the city can conceal some very real feelings of anomie and alienation. The world is more complex than a simple urban/rural divide would suggest, despite its historical provenance. And as for Chuck Todd: lay off the fast-food, man, Jefferson would have wanted it that way.

* See Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 5, 4.

Poverty, Shopping, and American Inequality

This American consumer doesn't believe in class. He knows that he runs fast enough, he'll catch up with the plutocrats and end up rich. Some day...

Just keep on running, American consumers, because you’ll catch up with the plutocrats and end up rich, some day…

Americans love to shop. More than a mere mundane exercise in the exchange of script for goods and services, shopping in the U.S. has long been a kind of secular ritual. During this ongoing rite, the trembling, plastic and paper contents of Americans’ collective purses and wallets are gleefully drawn and quartered through millions of soulless, retail card-swipe machines or fed into the ravenous, gaping maws of insatiable cash registers in an orgiastic display of consumerist debauchery that would make Caligula blush.  Indeed, so intense is the American consumer’s desire to please the market and retail gods that we even have a term, “citizen-consumer,” to describe how Americans want to define and project their personal identities via the buying of goods and services.

The fact that citizen=consumer in modern America only makes the recent census report on the state of the American economy all the more depressing. As TPM reports, while the overall health of the economy is apparently improving, the lingering question is, “improving for who?” And that’s where the future bodes ill for the poor and the already over-maxed, under-earning — but still consumption-crazed — middle class. Basically, the “economy” has been improving for those at the very top of the economic pyramid. But for everyone else, especially the poor and the now endangered species known as the middle class, income gains have been flat, if not outright regressing. The New York Times’ Neil Irwin sums up the problem nicely:

This simple fact may be the most important thing to understand about today’s economy: Around 1999, growth in the United States economy stopped translating to growth in middle-class incomes. In the last 15 years, median income has been more or less flat while there was far sharper growth in, for example, per capita gross domestic product.

But a good GDP doesn’t necessary translate to a good overall economic environment for the average American. “You can’t eat G.D.P. You can’t live in a rising stock market. You can’t give your kids a better life because your company’s C.E.O. was able to give himself a big raise,” Irwin writes. The real measure of America’s economic health, he concludes, “is median real income and related measures of how much money is making its way into their [Americans'] pockets and what they can buy with that money.”

The key line there is “what they can buy with that money,” because buying is a core aspect of American identity. The growing gap between GDP and the average American’s purchasing power is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is how it unveils the inherent dangers of associating American identity with that of conspicuous consumption. The link between citizenship and consumption in modern America can’t be overstated. Since the early twentieth century, Americans have associated the freedom to shop with the essence of freedom itself. At this point in history, people who’re born in the United States might technically be citizens, but if they aren’t working to buy large quantities of mass-produced crap, then they don’t really count as Americans.

Thus, linking citizenship to consumption has caused a circular problem in American culture: the vexing issue of income inequality has lessened more and more Americans’ purchasing power, but the fact that Americans can still buy anything at all is taken as evidence by some commentators — notable those on the Right — that poverty and income inequality are issues that simply don’t matter in America today. Think I’m kidding? Consider a 2011 article by Robert Rector, a malcontent who works for the National Review. Rector mocks the idea that poor Americans are actually poor simply because they might own TVs, cars, or have internet access. Likewise, oozing talk-radio boil Rush Limbaugh frequently cites Rector to argue that, “poverty in America isn’t poverty” because Americans have access to consumer goods like cell-phones, air-conditioning, and Chicken-McNuggets.

Granted, poverty is certainly relative depending on where you are in the world (being poor in India is far worse than being poor in America, for example), but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that conservatives actually give a damn about the material conditions of America’s poor (and, increasingly, its middle class). The right-wing touts the “poor people aren’t poor” meme as a way to dismiss the notion that the inequalities created by market capitalism should be acknowledged and addressed, period. To the Right, the blessings of American market citizenship bestow an unbelievable purchasing power on even the most lowly of citizens, who have the ability to buy stuff that would make a Third-World peasant salivate.

In July 2009, Newsweek threw all nuance out the window when it equated citizenship with shopping.

In March 2009, Newsweek threw all nuance out the window when it equated citizenship with shopping.

But as Slate’s Jordan Weissmann notes, this is a dodge to avoid addressing the REAL problem of growing income inequality. The availability of cheap goods misses the fact that prices are rising on essentials such as education, health-care, and child care. Weissmann calls this “the tension at the core of modern impoverishment.” In order to climb out of poverty in America, you need higher education, and if you have kids, and if you have to work full-time for ever-declining wages, or if you get chronically sick, you can kiss economic improvement goodbye. “While a high-definition television is nice, it won’t permanently improve your circumstances,” Weissmann writes, “and psychology has told us that the stress of financial instability…is part of what makes poverty such a horrible experience.”

Which brings us back to the historical trends that have conflated “citizen” and “consumer” to the point where right-wing concern-trolls can doubt the existence of poverty and brush off the need to question unfettered capitalism’s inequality-producing tendencies by simply saying that, “Americans can still buy stuff.” In her book A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Post War America, historian Lizabeth Cohen describes how Post War American culture embraced the idea of the “purchaser as citizen” as a way of harmonizing patriotism with the need to boost the American economy after the twin blows of the Great Depression and World War II. For a while, the citizen-consumer ideal seemed to work, but in the wake of the Great Recession, the wheels have come off the spending bus and there aren’t any spares.

Of course, consumption has been an essential aspect of American identity since the earliest commercial transactions between European colonists and Native peoples, but modern consumer citizenship is far more total in its power to define pure ‘Muricaness. Cohen explains how the post-war era fully developed the idea of a “Consumer’s Republic” that, “entrusted the private mass consumption marketplace, supported by government resources, with delivering not only economic prosperity but also loftier social and political ambitions for a more equal, free, and democratic nation.”* Equating consumerism with citizenship was all well-and-good to a point: after all, it was a GOOD thing for more Americans to have the ability to improve their material well-being, even it meant buying a bunch of junk on the side.

But a consumer republic only works if Americans have the ability to consume. And even if that ability could somehow be retained by the mythical free-market, conflating citizenship with consumerism runs the risk of equating the value of American life to buying Ed Hardy perfume at Target: it’s a pay-to-play model of national identity that says, “you’re not an American unless you’re a consuming American.” In a consumer’s republic, basic citizenship rights — like petitioning your government, voting, and, complaining about the growing influence of Big Money on American society — are all things that can be brushed aside as the whiny tantrums of people who should be thankful that they can own a TV.

This is why increasing income inequality in the American economy is such a troubling development. If American citizenship is reduced to the ability and means to go shopping, then the declining purchasing power of the average American becomes that much more tragic. Perhaps even worse, however, is the rise of a conservative political discourse that trivializes the experiences of poverty and broad-based economic anxiety. Equating citizenship with consumption cheapens the value of a small “r” republican society, in which the plight of average citizens should be synonymous with the plight of the nation. These days, we’re witnessing a perverse flipping of that ideal, as the success of the 1 percent is taken as evidence of an improving national economy even as most Americans continue to face an ever-increasing economic uncertainty. This is no way to run a nation, unless you want to run it into the ground.

* See Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Post War America (New York: Vintage, 2003), 13.

Iraq, ISIS, and the Legacy of American Redemptive Violence

Some angry dude from ISIS shows off a missle that is in no way compensating for anything else.

Some angry dude from ISIS shows off a missile that is in no way compensating for anything else.

Iraq. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, amiright?! You’d think that after America flexed its collective freedom muscles and bombed the shit out of liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein — the dictator that America once supported — that all of the Fertile Crescent would rejoice at the chance to bow before the benevolent, freedom-extolling Yankee occupying forces. Because, after all; freedom! But nooooooo, Iraq had to go ahead and turn itself into one of the biggest American foreign policy blunders ever — maybe even out-porking the Bay of Pigs. And so, the current American President, Barack Obama, has been forced to deal with the latest Mesopotamian morass known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — or ISIS, for short.

I discussed ISIS in a previous post about the dangers of American nation-building, but let’s briefly recap who these jolly jihadists actually are. ISIS is essentially a group of über pissed off Sunni Muslim extremists, and they trace their origins to the Al Qaeda faction that emerged in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Conservatives in particular are making ISIS out to be the scariest group of foreign brown people since the last scary group of foreign brown people. But the group’s military gains in Iraq aren’t particularly impressive when you consider that the U.S.-trained-and-equipped Iraqi army decided to run without even cutting, thereby allowing ISIS to capture several Iraqi cities and seize plenty of military goodies to further their goals.

And their goals are quite lofty. As the BBC reports, not only does ISIS want to control Iraq and Syria (you know, that OTHER Middle-Eastern country that’s in total chaos right now) but it also wants to “create a broader Islamic caliphate.” Hey, give them credit for thinking big.

And so, facing increasing pressure from American conservatives (who have soooo much credibility when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East) to stop being “passive” about ISIS’ reign of terror, president Obama gave a speech on  September 10, 2014 in which he outlined his plans for dealing with the latest Iraq sh*tstorm. Obama’s speech was actually well-thought-out. He reiterated that ISIS doesn’t represent Islam as a whole — since most of the group’s victims have been Muslims — and noted that the U.S. had already been conducting air-strikes against ISIS. But the president also noted that U.S. forces alone can’t — and shouldn’t — destroy ISIS, so he outlined a multi-pronged strategy based on a combination of continued air-strikes, collaboration with anti-ISIS forces and the Iraqi government, and general anti-terrorism strategies that will, with luck, help put a stop to the cock-sure caliphatin’ conquerors. But above all else, Obama emphatically reassured Americans that the fight against ISIS “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”

This was about as reassuring as any American president, regardless of his political party, could be in this type of situation. What Obama is wrestling with, nay, what America is wrestling with, is the world’s continued refusal to accept the supposedly superiority of U.S. freedom-by-gunpoint. Violence has always been an essential part of American identity, and throughout its history, the U.S. has embraced the redemptive power of violence in order to influence people inside and outside of its borders into embracing the supposed righteousness and beneficence of freedom, American-style.

Now, let’s be clear: I certainly don’t mean to condone ISIS, or any other of the Middle East’s Islamic terrorist clubs. These guys are downright barbaric; the worst type of religious fundamentalist scum, and every single one of them deserves to get a missile up his ass and lice in his beard. But the problem in Iraq goes beyond ISIS or any other single group. The real problem is the United States’ history of embracing a providential mission to violently spread its own vision of freedom in the world. The history of American violence is bolstered by a potent mix of secular and sacred beliefs, and America’s vision of making the world embrace its own brand of freedom has too often been a vision that mistakes strength for wisdom, substitutes forethought with vengeance, and creates wrathful enemies instead of passive subjects.

President Obama is aware of the need to maintain an extremely delicate balance between appeasing national calls to reign down Hell on the ISIS insurgency while also trying to make sure that the U.S. isn’t stuck playing terrorist whack-a-mole in Iraq for the next hundred years. A key moment in his speech came when Obama tried to embrace the long-held belief that America must use violence to redeem the world in the name of freedom while acknowledging that, quite often, this type of violence only begets more violence and chaos. “American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world,” he said, “it is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists.” But the president also admitted that, “America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.”

In trying to prevent the violence caused by the ISIS nutcases, the U.S. is likely creating conditions for even more violence. Photo from Reuters.

In trying to prevent the violence caused by the ISIS nutcases, the U.S. is likely creating conditions for even more violence. Photo from Reuters.

Therein lies the problem: America has always welcomed the responsibility to lead, but sometimes it doesn’t realize that its leadership might be misguided. The U.S. has too often demonstrated its “endless blessings” through religiously motivated, redemptive violence, and the results have been the “enduring burden” of unintended — and often violent — consequences.

In their essay collection From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America, scholars John Carlson and Jonathan Ebel emphasize how the sacred embracing of violence has colored American identity since the colonial era — with alternately beneficial and catastrophic results. Religion, they write, “has been operative in the background culture of American violence” for a very long time. The most famous of American wars: The Revolutionary War, the Mexican War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq — all “have been infused with religious rhetoric and faith-based ‘othering.'”*

This “othering” has almost always employed religious justification for violence. Consider the case of the Civil War, when both Union and Confederate clergy spouted spiritually sanctioned rhetoric to urge their respective sides to violent victory over the enemy “other.” In his book Upon the Alter of a Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, historian Harry Stout observes that violence North and South had to be “augmented by moral and spiritual arguments that could steel millions of men to the bloody business of killing one another.” Indeed, Stout notes that, “both sides needed to enlist God in their cause as both justifier and absolute guarantor of their deliverance,” and the result was that “thousands of clergymen in thousands of churches North and South” became “especially meaningful as critics or cheerleaders of the war’s conduct.”*

But quite often, Civil War-era clergymen were cheerleaders for violence in the name of a higher, providential purpose. Thus, at the outbreak of the conflict, men like the northern Universalist minister J.G. Bartholomew proclaimed that, “‘Never before since the days of the Revolutionary memory and fame has there been a call to arms that has so thrilled the great heart of our people…and set the pulse of patriotic feeling beating.'”* Similarly, James H. Elliot, an Episcopal minister in South Carolina, warned that the outbreak of war constituted “‘instinctive warnings of great importance in God’s government of the world,'” and claimed that, after the fall of Fort Sumter, the South had “‘a signal display in the powerful providence of God.'”* For both sides, the message was clear: violence should be used to annihilate enemies and enshrine American greatness because the head honcho of heaven willed it.

In the 1860s, this ‘signal display’ justified bloody war against the “other” in the name of national redemption and the promotion of earthly freedom. But the idea that God has granted America the authority to wage redemptive violence still rings loudly in the twenty-first century — a continued “enduring burden.”

Both sides in the American Civil War claimed that God sanctioned their redemptive violence. Over 600,000 died for that redemption.

Both sides in the American Civil War claimed that God sanctioned their redemptive violence. Over 600,000 died for that redemption.

Indeed, who exactly constitutes the “other” is relative and always changing. Moreover, regardless of whether the “other” deserves to be vanquished, plenty of people will die. In some cases, the foes that America has identified as “others” to fight, reform, and/or vanquish have been true villains; the Nazis, for example. In other cases, these “others,” such as Native Americans, Mexicans, and Iraqi civilians, have been unfortunate casualties who died in the name of American imperialism. By there’s an additional process to the violence that complicates America’s tendency to “other-ize” different groups: some foes, like Saddam Hussein and ISIS, might deserve a good beating, but the question remains: should America actually administer that beating?

This is the question vexing America in 2014 as it deals with yet more violent strife in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. In its willingness to use violence as a redemptive force, America has transcended its former position of supposedly speaking for a higher power and, instead, has acted the role of a small “g” secular god in itself; one that deems itself worthy of righting perceived worldly wrongs. The U.S. is willing to use violence not only to protect its own interests, but also to make sure that non-Americans get a lesson in U.S.-style freedom. President George W. Bush embarked on just such a sacredly secular adventure in Iraq in 2003, and the U.S. is still dealing with the fallout. After all, if the history of religiously motivated violence tells us nothing else, it’s that you can’t bask in the glory of the angels without encountering a few demons. And for the U.S., some of the worst demons, from Confederate rebels to ISIS, have been self-created.

Although a generic Christianity has historically justified American redemptive violence (largely because Christianity has been the majority American religion since the beginning), in 2014, American violence represents no particular denomination and is waged in the name of a civic religion that retains its Christian flavor but extols the virtue of a more general American Exceptionalism.

It’s tragically fitting that America now finds itself waging redemptive violence against Islamic foes. Islam is, after all, Christianity’s historical antagonist. And while Barack Obama, unlike past presidents (cough, cough, Dubya) tends to not wear his faith on his sleeve, he can’t help but succumb to historically established spiritual precedents for American redemptive violence. Even as the President admitted that America’s “endless blessings bestow an enduring burden,” he nonetheless concluded his speech with the refrain, “May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America.” There’s no doubt that ISIS is making similar pleas for Allah to bless their own cause, and the results will no doubt be burdens that endure for many years to come.

* See John Carlson and Jonathan Ebel, eds., From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 15.

* See Harry M. Stout, Upon the Altar of a Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006),  xvii, 37, 44.

Slavery, The Economist, and the Worship of Capitalism

The Economist was dissapointed that historians are negelcting the many jolly slaves who were grateful for white folks' charity.

The Economist was disappointed that historians are neglecting the many jolly slaves who were grateful for white folks’ charity.

There are plenty of sanctimonious idiots in the world, and one of those idiots writes for the Economist. You’ve heard of that magazine, right? It’s pretty well-known, and despite its right-wing leanings, it generally publishes some reasonable content — I mean, it ain’t a shameless agglomeration of conservative verbal circle-jerkitude like the National Review, right? Maybe so, but the Economist still employ some idiots, and one of those idiots wrote an idiotic review of historian Ed Baptist’s non-idiotic new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

Yep, an unnamed Economist troll caused a major internet ruckus when he wrote a review titled “Blood Cotton” (which has since been officially taken down but is still available for archival viewing) in which he criticizes Baptist for attributing the southern cotton boom of the late antebellum era to planters who pushed slaves to the limits of human endurance and beat the shit out of them (via the concept of “calibrated pain”) when they failed to produce the targeted cotton quotas. But this point didn’t sit well with the Economist’s intrepid reviewer. “Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity,” the unnamed doofus states, “slaves were valuable property, and…Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their ‘hands’ ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment.”

You got all that? The reviewer thinks that slaves worked harder because they were treated better. Oh, but that ain’t the worst part of the review. No sir-ee-Bob. The reviewer takes Baptist to task for being a communist, hippy, revisionist, affirmative-action promoter, concluding that, “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.” This is sanctimonious, upper-crust douche-nozzle speak for, “why you gotta’ criticize white people like that?” Thankfully, the Twitter-verse caught wind of the review and launched the hashtag #economistbookreviews, wherein non-morons from all over the world (including yours-truly) parodied the Economist’s lame-brained logic. Check out the hashtag for a damn good chuckle.

The outrage from the Twitterz quickly shamed the Economist into withdrawing the numb-skulled review of Baptist’s book, and the magazine apologized by reiterating that, “Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil.” In terms of historical observations, this one is about as close to common sense as you can get these days, but common sense has never been known to intrude on right-wing views of economics, history, and human power-relations. Baptist himself called the review’s questioning of slave testimonies “explicitly racist.”

The review and the subsequent outrage it sparked was particularly ridiculous because Baptist’s argument is hardly new, nor is it especially controversial. “Slavery’s expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politic’s of the new [American] nation,” Baptist writes, “not only increasing its power and size, but also, eventually, dividing US politics, differentiating regional identities and interests, and helping to make civil war possible.”* This isn’t a conclusion that would shock historians. Baptist is not the first scholar to connect slavery to capitalist expansion, but I suspect that for a good number of Americans, the idea that capitalism fostered slavery, and that slavery, in turn, built America, is unsettling.

The slave auction. This is what happened when capitalism won out over equality in America.

The slave auction. This is what happened when capitalism won out over equality in America.

Baptist notes that, “the idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African-Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear.”* And there’s the rub. After all, being an American means that, at some point in your life, you’ve had your head ceremoniously dipped in the baptismal pool of American Exceptionalism. And being American means that, on more than one occasion, you’ve genuflected before the altar of capitalism — even if you weren’t consciously aware of it. This is because American culture has long conflated capitalism and freedom to the point where it’s difficult for some people to step outside of the cultural church run by America’s bellicose, free-market pastors, ignore the spastic, floor-bound believers speaking in Milton Friedman tongues, and honestly question whether capitalism and freedom are one-in-the same.

Indeed, capitalism and democracy have had a strained co-existence since the beginning of the American republic, and they are not inherently compatible. In his behemoth book, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900, historian H.W. Brands notes that while democracy and capitalism ostensibly share the goal of maximizing individual freedom in politics and economics — in most other ways, the two systems are pretty antagonistic. “Democracy depends on equality, capitalism on inequality. Citizens in a democracy come to the public square with one vote each; participants in a capitalist economy arrive at the marketplace with unequal talents and resources and leave the marketplace with unequal rewards,” Brands notes. The resulting clash of socio-economic ideals means that “tension between capitalism and democracy has characterized American life for two centuries, with one and then the other claiming temporary ascendance.”*

Thus, we come back to the Economist’s review of Baptist’s book. The reviewer, like so many Americans, worships capitalism. To those who sanctify the free-market, the mutual exchange of goods and services is tantamount to engaging in holy sacraments. The worship of capitalism transforms a socio-economic system designed by flawed human-beings into an incontestable secular gospel. Especially in the minds of American conservatives, those who benefit from capitalism deserve to benefit because the free-market, led by the deified Invisible Hand, has bequeathed unto them success. And in the same vein, those who fail at capitalism deserved to fail: the god of the marketplace smited them, and so shall they remain smoted.

With this in mind, the anonymous Economist reviewer simply can’t fathom how capitalism — a system he views as freedom in its very essence and therefore, inherently just towards all who participate in it — could foster a system so antithetical to freedom that it established a society of slaves and masters.

But if you think of capitalism and democracy as being perpetually in tension with each other, then the idea that capitalism=freedom seems far more ludicrous. Back in 1840, the great French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville succinctly observed how these two systems were at odds in America. “The principle of equality, which makes men independent of each other, gives them a habit and a taste for following in their private actions no other guide than their own will,” he wrote. The independence created by equality can lead to a dangerous demand for extreme individualism — and capitalism is all too ready to facilitate such a demand. Any independent American, de Tocqueville wrote, “will soonest conceive and most highly value that government whose head he has himself elected and whose administration he may control.”*

Historian Ed Baptist, feeling vindicated, baby!

Historian Ed Baptist, feeling vindicated, baby!

Therein you see how the seeds of rampant inequality — watered by capitalism — can sprout an American society that strays from democratic, egalitarian ideals to embrace rule by the few at the expense of the many. From the First Gilded Age to our current one, unregulated capitalism has threatened American democracy by concentrating wealth and, by extension, power, into the hands of a few (whether they be J.P. Morgan or the Koch Brothers) who have sought to elect and control governments for their own narrow purposes, democracy be damned.

This is what the Economist just doesn’t get in its assertion that slavery wasn’t all bad because it was built on capitalism — and capitalism is perfect. So effective is unchecked capitalism at creating disturbingly unequal power-relations that it helped build and perpetuate an American society in which a small ruling-class of white slave-holders, with the support of those whites of lesser-means, exercised total dominance over black people. This element of the American past offers a cautionary tale that warns against worshipping capitalism to the point where you become an apologist for its worst excesses. Capitalism has no moral compass; it will commodify anything if you let it — including human beings — and if you worship capitalism, you’ll end up claiming that the commodification of human beings wasn’t all that bad.

If the American Civil War was nothing else, it was, first-and-foremost, a broad-based, multi-forced, cataclysmic reaction between the colliding forces of capitalism and equality. And the still-ongoing, multi-generational rebuilding of American society in the Civil War’s wake has represented democracy’s various attempts to regain its cultural ascendance. In this long struggle, equality has perhaps lost as many battles as it has won. But at least democracy did win — however imperfectly — the battle over slavery that threatened to forever submit equality to the domineering whims of the marketplace. Plenty of Americans understand this fact. It’s too bad the Economist doesn’t.

* See Edward J. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic, 2014), xxi-xxii.

* See H.W. Brands, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 (New York: Anchor, 2010), 5.

* See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 2 (New York: Vintage, 1840, 1990), 287.

Ferguson and the Lingering “Floating Negro” Syndrome in America

Protestoers in Ferguson, Missouri hold up their hands and chant "Don't Shoot!"To much of white America, they're just some good ole' fashioned dangerous negroes. Photo by Lucas Jackson for Reuters.

Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri hold up their hands and chant “Don’t Shoot!” In the eyes of many white Americans, they’re just some good ole’ fashioned dangerous negroes. Photo by Lucas Jackson for Reuters.

In America, nothing is ever about race, except when it’s about race. You see, Americans have this little problem about race and historical perspective: since day-one, we’ve been wrestling over the so obvious-it’s-not-obvious paradox that stems from one of our most cherished documents proclaiming that “All Men are Created Equal” in a society where this has patently not been the case. The fact that the guy who wrote those inspiring words was a slave-owning, black concubine-schtupping product of imperialist era racialized thinking — in addition to being a brilliant statesman and enlightened political theorist — perfectly captures the mind-bending level of irony that stands at the heart of America’s experience when it comes to race. For over 2oo years, Americans have been alternating between grasping the wolf of slavery by the Ears and letting the beast go — and then trying to deal with the entailing racial consequences.

Such is the historical legacy on full display in Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the August 9 shooting of eighteen year-old, unarmed black man Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson. That’s right, it matters that Brown was Black and Wilson is white. I already wrote a probably brilliant post on the Ferguson shooting, but the whole case demands an even more probably brilliant post! If you don’t think that race matters in the Ferguson case, allow me to learn ya’ a thing-or-two about why being a black person in America carries the unfortunate connotation of criminality.

What we’ve seen in Ferguson — the protests, the white police clashing with black residents, the typical claims by right-wing media outlets that “It’s not about Race!” — all invoke a historical legacy planted in American slavery and harvested during Jim Crow that identified the so-called “floating negro” as the prototypical American criminal. But before we discuss the “floating negro” syndrome, let’s briefly remind ourselves why race matters when it comes to broadly discussing crime in America — and the Ferguson case in particular. Consider, as Talking Points Memo reports, how the more scuzzy elements of the right-wing moron-o-sphere have effectively tried to legitimize Brown’s killing by tarring him as an “n-word” “negro,” “thug.”

For example, the website of noted conservative douche-canoe, David Horowitz, notes that Brown liked rap music (a black guy that likes rap music, will the shocking revelations ever cease!), that Brown was shown flashing hand-gestures that “some say are gang-signs,” and that he allegedly swiped some cheap cigars as depicted on a quick-e-mart’s security video. Plus, Brown was black. In a similar vein, the conspiracy nut-factory Worldnet Daily claims that Brown was a pot-smoker who rapped about pot-smoking, and, therefore, deserved to die. Because only black people smoke weed. And Brown was black. And that’s the real point here. Thus, when the New York Times claimed that Brown was “no angel,” that claim ignited some major controversy because the Times seemed to somehow suggest that Brown deserved to be shot dead because he was already a bit of a bad (black) seed.

But the point here isn’t that black people aren’t, and can’t be, criminals. Of course they can, and of course some of them are. No, the point is that, in American culture, blackness is automatically associated with criminality and deviance in a way that has never been the case with whiteness. To be white in America is to be American by default, but to be black in America is to be, by default, a potential criminal. What conservative media outlets — and a good chunk of white America — are harping on is the notion that Brown deserved to die because he was probably a criminal. And he was probably a criminal because he was black. But this isn’t a “natural,” “foregone” conclusion; rather, it’s a conclusion woven out of very potent historical threads that, when knitted together, created a cultural meme that associated blackness with deviance and justified constant white control over supposed black criminality.

In the antebellum South, slavery wasn’t just an economic system, it was also a system of racial control that gave whites total domestic, social, and political power over blacks. But what about when the Civil War ended slavery? How did whites scheme to control blacks then? The answer eventually coalesced under the banner of Jim Crow, a system of white hegemony over black human rights that created a nation-wide racial apartheid that was strongest in the South, where the legacy of slavery especially poisoned black-white social relations.

Officer Darren Wilson (left) the cop who shot Mike Brown (right). And so, the American racial saga continues.

Officer Darren Wilson (left) the cop who shot Mike Brown (right). And so, the American racial saga continues.

The most dangerous form of racial control in the Jim Crow South came in the form of lynching: an extra-legal form of law enforcement. And what so-often justified this form of illegal rough justice, you may ask? The answer was pretty straightforward: blacks were criminals who needed to be controlled and punished — especially when the law failed to do just that. Lynching, then, was law-enforcement by mob-rule. This brings us now to the “floating negro” syndrome.

Early twentieth-century muckraking journalist Ray Stannard Baker coined the phrase “floating negro” in his 1905 report “What is Lynching?” Baker wanted to understand how seemingly normal, small-town Americans could be responsible for the horrors of lynching, in which blacks were tortured, hanged, mutilated, and even burned alive. Now, Baker was, in many ways, a progressive-minded social-reformer whose heart was often in the right place. But he was also a man of his time who harboured some of the same (albeit water-down) notions of black inferiority that more avowed racists wore on their sleeves. Thus, while Baker was against lynching, his explanation for why it happened rested on the kind of racially based, “blame the victim” mentality that continues to influence public debate over contemporary cases like the Ferguson shooting.

In particular, Baker identified the “Danger from the Floating Negro” as the primary explanation for why lynchings occurred:

In all the towns I visited, South as well as North, I found that this floating, worthless negro caused most of the trouble. He prowls the roads by day and by night; he steals; he makes it unsafe for women to travel alone. Sometimes he has gone to school long enough to enable him to read a little and to write his name, enough education to make him hate the hard work of the fields and aspire to better things, without giving him the determination to earn them.*

In Baker’s estimation, these violence-prone, poorly educated, sexually lascivious, lazy negroes floated aimlessly across the white American landscape, driven by little more than malice in their hearts toward the caucasian devils who kept them down. No wonder lynchings occurred. According to Baker, rough justice was the natural, if sometimes brutal, white response to a very real danger: the danger that one of these ill-tempered blacks might float into their towns and wreck criminal havoc before moving on to their next sight of debauchery:

He [the floating negro] is often under the domination of half-educated negro preachers, who sometimes make it their stock in trade to stir their followers to greater hatred of the whites. He has little or no regard for the family relations or home life, and when he commits a crime or is tired of one locality, he sets out un-encumbered to seek new fields, leaving his wife and children without the slightest compunction.*

Now, if you’ve been paying any attention to the media coverage of the Ferguson shooting, you should recognize some of the same themes as noted in Baker’s report. Mike Brown wasn’t lynched in the traditional sense, but he did feel the same brunt of racially motivated justice that fueled both the legal and extra-legal application of the law for much of U.S. history.

The floating negro who is “under the domination of half-educated negro preachers, who sometimes make it their stock in trade to stir their followers to greater hatred of the whites?” Enter the far-right publication the New American, which launched a standard conservative criticism of black preachers like Rev. Al Sharpton, whom it called a “notorious racist agitator” who went to Ferguson “to add his own incendiary remarks to the volatile mix.” A “worthless negro” who “steals” and “prowls the roads by day and by night?” Enter John Lott of the right-wing Daily Caller, who claims that “Michael Brown looks more like a thug, not an innocent victim.” And while Lott acknowledges that, “Black pepole [sic] have legitimate historical grievances over how they have been treated by police,” he ultimately asserts that “the main problem facing the black community is black-on-black crime.”

Ray Stannard Baker, the journalist who identified the "floating negro" as the cause of white-on-black violence.i

Ray Stannard Baker, the journalist who identified the “floating negro” as the cause of Jim Crow-era white-on-black violence.

It really doesn’t matter if any of the above criticisms of the shooting of Michael Brown stem from any inherent racist attitudes. As sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva notes in his book, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, white people in America often claim that race, as an issue, should be relegated to the past. “Most whites believe that if blacks and other minorities would just stop thinking about the past, work hard, and complain less (particularly about racial discrimination), then Americans of all hues could ‘all get along,’ he writes”*

But Bonilla-Silva argues that it just ain’t that simple. Many whites have adopted “color-blind racism” that justifies modern racial inequality and absolves them from “any responsibility for the status of people of color.”* Color-blind racism is the kind of “soft racism” that fuels discriminatory housing, school, and employment policies. It also drives political gerrymandering schemes and voter ID laws that disproportionately affect blacks. Indeed, color-blind racism “aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those who it subjects and those who it rewards.”*

Color-blind racism is deeply paternalistic, and it’s just this type of paternalistic racism that influenced Baker’s concept of the “floating negro” that still resonates in contemporary American society. Heck, it’s quite easy to imagine a Ferguson police officer bathed in the culture of racial-profiling who perceived Mike Brown and a friend as two up-to-no-good negroes “floating” down a Ferguson street. Officer Darren Wilson need not be a hood-donning racist to be affected by the cultural meme of the dangerous floating negro — he wouldn’t even be unique in that respect.

Yet, even if this wasn’t the case (since the facts are not all in on the Brown shooting), the local and national reaction to the Brown shooting reveals deeply entrenched racial divides that, in many respects, hinge on where different Americans stand on the perceived danger of Ray Stannard Baker’s “floating negro.” As long as whites continue to believe that blackness equates to criminality while refusing to understand how historical trends came together to create the “color-blind racism” that supports such a belief, more blacks will be shot, more whites will deny the existence of racism, and America will continue to alternate between holding the wolf’s ears and letting them go. Either way, we’ll keep getting bitten.

* See Christopher Waldrep, ed., Lynching in America: A History in Documents (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 186.

* See Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 1, 2, 4.

Why (Good) History Matters: The Republican National Committee and the AP Exams

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus scowls as thinks about actually educating Americans about history.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus scowls as he thinks about actually educating Americans about history.

Have you ever heard someone say that pursuing the liberal arts is a waste of time? Sure you have. The refrain goes something like this: Studying the liberal arts is a waste of time because you’ll never get a job with a “useless” degree in English, Art, or (gasp!) History. A few years back, for example, the estimable Forbes ran an article titled “The Ten Worst College Majors,” and, of course, almost all of them were liberal arts majors. In a similar vein, Thought Catalog troll Matt Saccaro has claimed that the liberal arts, including history and literature, should be outright removed from college in order to focus on “what matters;” namely, making lots of money.

This granite-headed attitude — that the study of the HUMAN EXPERIENCE is now pointless because it won’t make you any money — is what passes for conventional “wisdom” in modern America. And even those who aren’t calling for an outright banning of the liberal arts are trying to squelch the idea that intellectual pursuits should be liberal at all. I mean, it’s almost as if some dark, malevolent force seeks to drain Americans of their access to critical thinking skills, numb them to the beauty of art and literature, nullify their ability to understand the complex web of human history, and deprive them of the intellectual tools needed to question authority and interpret human existence as more than just an endless series of vacuous, materialistic market exchanges.

Which brings me to the Republican Party.

Recently, the odious pit of snarling Uruk-hai known as the Republican National Committee (RNC) condemned what they call a “radically revisionist” view of American history that is supposedly presented in the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history exams. As Talking Points Memo reports, the RNC sent an open letter to the College Board to voice their complaints about the AP’s alleged assault on American freedom, and the core point in their letter is worth quoting in full:

Instead of striving to build a ‘City upon a Hill,’ as generations of students have been taught, the colonists are portrayed as bigots who developed ‘a rigid racial hierarchy’ that was in turn derived from ‘a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority…

The new Framework continues its theme of oppression and conflict by reinterpreting Manifest Destiny from a belief that America had a mission to spread democracy and new technologies across the continent to something that ‘was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.’

You see the problem there? The actual story of the American past — what professional historians would call “reality” — has run afoul of the Republican Party’s simplified vision of an American experience characterized by the steady, inevitable march of freedom that benefitted EVERYBODY, dammit. If you think that the liberal arts don’t matter — if you think that history doesn’t matter — then you’re dead wrong, and the RNC’s complaints against the AP History exam demonstrate exactly why you’re wrong. To quote the esteemed scholar Dr. Emmett L. Brown, the critical study of history helps us “to gain a clear perception of humanity — where we’ve been, where we’re going, the pitfalls and the possibilities, the perils and the promise — perhaps even an answer to that universal question, ‘Why?'” The Republican Party knows that those with the authority to interpret the “why” of U.S. history also wield enormous influence over how the general population understands what they can expect from American citizenship.

Conservatives know full-well that a population deprived of the critical thought that the liberal arts provides will be a population that accepts their lot in life without question. They know that an American populace that is unaware of the real struggles that have defined U.S. history will be a populace of acquiescent drones who tacitly accept the inherent “goodness” of America and, therefore, will never think that things can ever be better than they are at any given moment. A wholly obedient citizenry lacking in critical thought will never question the Status quo; it will never challenge the unmitigated power of hierarchical employers, clergy, and state officials, and it will never demand that America consistently live up to its founding values — because an America that was manifestly destined to spread those values could never have deviated from them in the first place, right?

If the RNC has its way, all American history course will be taught by Prof. Michelle Bachmann.

If the RNC has its way, all American history courses will be taught by Prof. Michelle Bachmann.

The critical aspect of good history always revolves around that simple question, “Why?” At its core, the study of history is the study of why humans do the things they do. Historians analyze the past so that we can learn from the past, and while good scholars understand that all historical eras must be examined in their own context, they also understand that learning from the mistakes and misconceptions of our forebears is essential to interpreting how human ideologies, decision-making, prejudices, and triumphs have culminated to create and continually shape the contemporary world as we know it. Thus, if you believe (as you damn well should) that the ultimate value of studying history (and ALL of the liberal arts) is to learn how we can facilitate human flourishing via an understanding of how human freedoms have been curtailed in the past, then you should be aware of why the RNC wants to simplify and distort the very real struggles for freedom that have defined the American historical experience.

Indeed, despite Republican delusions, history doesn’t consist of mere fairy tales that detail the harrowing account of how George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, a time-traveling Lee Greenwood, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex-riding, open-carrying, tax-cutting, pro-free-market Jesus saved America from Mecha-Karl Marx and his hordes of communist, Injun, collectivist, pointy-headed liberal elitist Muslim hippies. Instead, the American past is, in part, the story of a nation that proclaimed exceptional and lofty values such as (almost) universal equality, religious pluralism, and the rejection of hereditary monarchies. The other part of the American story, however, involves the long — and often bloody — struggle between the various factions within the United States who sought to make the nation’s lofty founding values into tangible realities for real people — and the factions that opposed such advancements.

By glossing over these real historical struggles, the RNC reduces the study of history to an exercise in mindless patriotism that purports to mean everything while simultaneously meaning nothing at all. In her influential 1994 article “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum argued that a blindly patriotic approach to the world was not only antiquated, but also downright dangerous. Throughout most of their history, Nussbaum writes, Americans have given themselves a false sense of moral and political superiority that has equated “American identity and specifically American citizenship” with “a special salience in moral and political deliberation” and “a special power among the motivations to political action.”

But this type of blind patriotism, Nussbaum warns, prevents a critical examination of America’s many moral failings. “One of the greatest barriers to rational deliberation in politics is the unexamined feeling that one’s own current preferences and ways are neutral and natural,” she writes. “An education that takes national boundaries as morally salient too often reinforces this kind of irrationality, by lending to what is an accident of history a false air of moral weight and glory.” It’s precisely this “false air of moral weight and glory” that the Republican Party wants to propagate by replacing the critical examination of history with Manifest Destiny-style myth-making.

Raphael's famous 1511 frescno, the School of Athens depicts men who dedicated their lives to the Liberal Arts. What a bunch of commies.

Raphael’s famous 1511 fresco the School of Athens depicts men who dedicated their lives to the liberal arts. What a bunch of commies.

The RNC wants to claim that America has been uniquely exceptional in its relentless spreading of “freedom” in the modern era. This is tantamount to demanding that the U.S. be shielded from the necessary historical criticism that sheds light on the wrongs and misconceptions of the past. But historians study the past so that those same wrongs and misconceptions won’t be repeated in the present and the future. The Republican vision of American Exceptionalism, therefore, ignores America’s internal struggles with racism, genocide, sexism, inequality, political corruption, and imperialism — all struggles that place America squarely within, not outside of, the broader trajectory of world history.

By ignoring the messy reality of the past, the RNC seeks to inculcate students with the notion that “America is the greatest, so don’t suggest otherwise!” But this type of thinking only conditions people to not question ANYTHING. As the eminent historian Eric Foner writes in The Story of American Freedom, U.S. history is “a tale of debates, disagreements, and struggles rather than a set of timeless categories or an evolutionary narrative toward a preordained goal.”* Indeed, “freedom” has always been a contested concept. Foner notes that, “discussions of freedom are inescapably political,” because “under almost any definition they lead directly to questions concerning how public institutions and economic and social relations affect the nature and extent of the options available to individuals.”*

Making students think that America has been exceptional — that it can do no wrong — will effectively create a compliant populace that won’t worry about how “public institutions and economic and social relations” affect “the options available to individuals.” After all, individuals who lack a solid understanding of the real struggles and conflicts that have been waged in the name of “freedom” throughout U.S. history won’t be inclined to view themselves as agents who can take part in those ongoing struggles. That is why good history matters; it’s why the liberal arts matter, and it’s why the RNC should STFU.

* See Martha Nussbaum, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” Boston Review, Oct. 1, 1994.

* See Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), xiv, xix.