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.

Ferguson Burning: Race and the Law in America

In this photo from the AP, Lesley McSpadden, the mother of slain 18 year-old Michael Brown, drops rose petals at the scene where her son was killed by a police officer. This is only the latest example of  racial tensions have always run deep when it comes to the law in America.

In this photo from the AP, Lesley McSpadden, the mother of slain 18 year-old Michael Brown, drops rose petals at the scene where her son was killed by a police officer. This is only the latest example of racial tensions have always run deep when it comes to the law in America.

To say that the application of the law in America is highly racialized is an understatement. In the eyes of many Americans, blackness is the unofficial color of criminality, and black men have long been stereotyped as a criminal class epitomized today by the image of what sociologist Kelly Welch calls the “young Black male as a violent and menacing street thug” that’s gonna come and kill whitey!! Indeed, the interconnection between race and crime in American culture is so historically ingrained — so culturally potent — that every time white police officers shoot a black man, the resulting fallout threatens to unleash a powder keg of racial anxieties that literally stretch back to the colonial era.

Thus, when it comes to crime and the law, the issue of race exists whether we want it to or not. As Welch notes in her 2007 article, “Black Criminal Stereotypes and Racial Profiling,” “perceptions about the presumed racial identity of criminals may be so ingrained in public consciousness that race does not even need to be specifically mentioned  for a connection to be made between the two because it seems that ‘talking about crime is talking about race.'”*

The ramifications of this fact are currently on full display in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. On Saturday, August 9, Ferguson police officers shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen year-old black man named Michael Brown. As always in such cases, reports of what actually happened are conflicting. A friend of Brown’s claims that the police treated Brown belligerently, ordering him to “get the fuck off the sidewalk,” after which an altercation ensued and Brown tried to flee the scene, only to be shot by the officers. By contrast, the officers claim that Brown assaulted them, and that after a struggle during which Brown tried to take their guns, they fired on him in self-defense.

But whatever happened, the fact that even the police admit that Brown was unarmed has brought long-standing racial tensions to a boiling point in Ferguson, and the resulting anger has resulted in multiple days of neighborhood protests and a rash of rioting and looting of store fronts that have turned Ferguson into a de-facto war zone. Using language that echoes the outrage following the Trayvon Martin verdict — which allowed pudgy, would-be Batman George Zimmerman to walk free — protesters have demanded justice for Brown, whom they believe was racially profiled and killed by white police officers who simply assumed that Brown was a potential criminal. Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, maintains that her son was a good-natured individual who had just graduated high school and was preparing to attend local Vatterott College. She and the protesters believe that Brown was killed for the “crime” of being black.

Brown’s killing has sparked national attention, even resulting in the Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, in which black Americans have been posting dueling, side-by-side “good” and “bad” pictures of themselves to bring attention to the news media’s tendency towards portraying blacks in a criminal or “thuggish” light. Incidents like the Brown killing inspire a rash of strong feelings precisely because they are the product of an American tradition that has historically linked crime to blackness.

Throughout American history, being black quite simply meant that you could be punished more harshly for crime than a white person could. During the colonial era, when the southern American colonies developed into full-blown slaveholding societies from the seventeenth century onward, slaveholders deemed it necessary to sternly punish black slaves to deter individual acts of defiance as well as wholesale slave rebellion. Separate penal codes were enacted for slaves that permitted extracting confessions by torture, and blacks were sentenced to death much more frequently than whites. And colonial slave punishment was brutal: whipping, castration, branding, and amputations were common. The race-conscious makeup of colonial criminal justice set clear patterns for the future racialization of American justice.

Michael Brown, the victim of a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

Michael Brown, the victim of a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

During the nineteenth century, as slavery spread further west and became the most important bedrock of the southern economic and social system, deviance and criminality became further associated with the threat of rebellious blacks. In his book The Long, Lingering Shadow: Slavery, Race, and Law in the American Hemisphere, historian Robert Cottrol notes that, “the racial rational for slavery in a society that otherwise celebrated freedom meant that the barriers between black and white had to be made more rigid, less permeable.”* One of these ways that racial barriers were made “less permeable” was the criminalization of blackness itself.

In the antebellum South, heavily armed, all-white “slave patrols” stalked the countryside in search of potentially wayward and runaway slaves who might disobey the tenant of white supremacy. These were the forerunners of “stand-your-ground law” motivated twenty-first century vigilantes and trigger-happy cops. After the Civil War abolished slavery, southern whites sought to reinstate racial dominance over blacks by associating blackness with deviancy. Whites characterized black males especially as sexually deranged potential criminals who wanted nothing more than to kill white men and rape white women. These charges resulted in thousands of vigilante lynchings in the South and beyond. When millions of African-Americans fled the South in search of better opportunities during the Great Migration, northern prejudice coalesced to concentrate blacks into segregated urban communities that, over the decades, became sights of racial strife and rioting.

One of the worst race riots in American history occurred a mere fourteen miles away from Ferguson, Missouri in an Illinois town that, in one of those eery historical coincidences, is called East St. Louis. Many blacks fleeing the racial intolerance of the Deep South settled in the industrial city of East St. Louis hoping to find work and a better overall life. The city’s white residents resented the influx of black newcomers and, as a result, racial tensions simmered. Those tensions exploded on July 2 and 3, 1917. Following a rumor on July 1 that a black man had killed a white man, the city’s white population went berserk. Rampaging white mobs — which included police officers — looted and torched black homes and businesses. Drive-by shootings, beatings, and arson reigned for nearly a week, and the chaos got so bad the Illinois National Guard was called in to quell the violence. When the riots finally stopped, white rioters had caused three-million dollars in property damage, razed multiple neighborhoods, killed hundreds of black residents, and forced seven thousand more to flee across the Mississippi River into St. Louis.

Historian Charles Lumpkins calls the July 1917 East St. Louis race riot an “American Pogrom,” referencing how Europeans had long targeted Jewish communities for spontaneous acts of violence and property damage. “The East St. Louis pogroms were but one episode in a violent and protracted struggle by various white factions to maintain legalized racism in the South and to reconfigure white supremacy into a form appropriate for the urban industrial North,” Lumpkins writes.*

A mob stops a street car during the 1917 East St. Louis race riots.

A mob stops a street car during the 1917 East St. Louis race riots.

The situation is obviously different in the case of the Michael Brown killing, but the same tensions and racial demographics that led to the 1917 race riots are still at play in 2014, albeit in forms that reflect how race and the law interact in contemporary American society. The mass-migration of blacks to northern cities helped create the racial tensions that, over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, resulted in multiple violent altercations between whites and blacks. The subsequent rise of the black male as “menacing street thug” stereotype stems from a historical association of blackness with criminality that, when mixed with criminal statistics and race-based cultural perceptions, has combined to create a fuse that police gunshots often ignite.

As Welch writes, “blacks do account for a disproportionate amount of crime arrests and are disproportionately convicted and incarcerated.” But to claim that such statistics are clear evidence of an alleged black proclivity towards crime is a tenuous conclusion that can’t help but be clouded by centuries of historical baggage. Welch notes, for example, that “public estimates of Black criminality surpass the reality,” and that “linking race with criminality” only “fuels the practice of racial profiling by criminal justice officials.”*

We don’t yet know what really happened in Ferguson, Missouri. Obviously, black people — just like people of all shades — commit awful crimes. But if you want to know why there’s such an uproar over the police killing of an unarmed black man, and if you want to know why these incidences seem to happen enough that such uproars are now common, consider the long history that has inextricably wound race and the law together in American life.

* See Kelly Welch, “Black Criminal Stereotypes and Racial Profiling,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 23 (Aug., 2007): 276, 286.

* See Robert J. Cottroll, The Long, Lingering Shadow: Slavery, Race, and the Law in the American Hemisphere (Athens, University of Georgia Press, 2013), 10.

* See Charles Lumpkins, American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics (Athens, Ohio University Press, 2008), 1, 8.

Why Rush Limbaugh’s Very Exceptional America is Very Bad History

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh, alongside his fictional horse, Liberty (yes, Liberty) fancies himself a historian, for some reason.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh, alongside his fictional horse, Liberty (yes, Liberty). He fancies himself a historian, for some reason.

Sigh. Rush Limbaugh. You’re familiar with him, right? He’s a formidable natural force that once spewed forth an estimated 1.5 million metric-tons of gas into the atmosphere. Wait, that was Mt. St. Helens in 1980. But Rush isn’t far behind. Since the 1990s, Rush has been contributing heavily to global warming by emitting dangerous levels of toxic, right-wing effluvium into America’s radio waves on a daily basis — and this gas has poisoned the minds of many an impressionable, angry white guy. After all, Rush is the radio blow-hard who once compared Obamacare to slavery, and slavery is bad!! But now, El Rush-bo is focusing his plume of billowing exhaust on America’s children.

That’s right, Rush has recently authored two “history” books for kids: 2013’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans, and 2014’s Rush Revere and the First Patriots. Now, you’d think that no self-respecting teacher would have the stones to use these books for instructional purposes in an actual history class, but you’d be wrong. Because a teacher named Ivy from South Carolina (how shocking) recently called up Rush’s radio show to let the world know that she uses Rush’s books to teach third-graders. “[W]hat I decided to do was to use your author’s note that explains the principles of the founders in our country as a way to introduce the Civil War,” Ivy told Rush. Ho boy.

It’s the “author’s note” section of Rush’s book on the Pilgrims, which purports to explain why the “principles of the founders” led to the end of slavery, that demonstrates why Ivy the teacher is making a big mistake here — in addition to the fact that she’s using a book by Rush Limbaugh to TEACH THIRD-GRADERS!

Thankfully, the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf spares me from having to read too much of Rush’s book on my own and highlights the goodies from Rush’s “author’s note,” which the king of talk-radio gas actually read on the air. The offending section reads as follows:

We live in the greatest country on earth, the United States of America. But what makes it so great? Why do some call the United States a miracle? How did we become such a tremendous country in such a short period of time? After all, the United States is less than 250 years old! I want to try to help you understand what “American Exceptionalism” and greatness is all about. It does not mean that we Americans are better than anyone else. It does not mean that there is something uniquely different about us as human beings compared to other people in the world. It does not mean that we as a country have never faced problems of our own.

American Exceptionalism and greatness means that America is special because it is different from all other countries in history. It is a land built on true freedom and individual liberty and it defends both around the world. The role of the United States is to encourage individuals to be the best that they can be, to try to improve their lives, reach their goals, and make their dreams come true. In most parts of the world, dreams never become more than dreams.

Well now, that sounds innocuous enough, don’t it?! Rush isn’t saying that America is perfect, he’s just saying it’s more perfect than everywhere else! But, as Friedersdorf notes, Rush’s embracing of American Exceptionalism allowed Ivy to explain slavery’s demise as something that was just bound to happen, gol’ darn it! “I used that as a way to introduce the Civil War because we were about to enter a discussion on the time when slavery existed in our country,” Ivy said, “but because of what you said in the book and the way that you explained the Founders’ passion for our country, it was because of that that slavery inevitably was abolished. So I felt like that would be a good way to get some conversation going.” Ho boy.

This idea really has got to go.

This idea really has got to go.

You get all that? According to Rush and teacher Ivy, slavery was abolished in the U.S. because it was destined to be abolished, because America is so great — so EXCEPTIONAL — that it was inevitable that it would eventually repent for its greatest original sin. The big problem with American Exceptionalism, however, is that takes a providential view of U.S. history by postulating that some divine or otherworldly force — usually the Christian God — has guided America’s progress from its founding to the present day. Thus, American Exceptionalism isn’t just bad history; rather, it places the United States outside of history.

Scholar Deborah Madsen has written a great book on American Exceptionalism, which I highlighted in a previous post, but her book is worth going back to in order to highlight the depth of Limbaugh’s historical delusions. Madsen defines “American Exceptionalism” as the belief that, “America and Americans are special, exceptional, because they are charged with saving the world from itself and, at the same time, America and Americans must sustain a high level of spiritual, political and moral commitment to this exceptional destiny — America must be ‘a city upon a hill’ exposed to the eyes of the world.”* The phrase “city upon a hill” is a quote from Puritan leader John Winthrop, who long ago envisioned that America was to be an exceptional Christian society that would offer a starting point for a new history in the form of a society that was free from the sins of Old Europe, and would thereby provide an example of spiritually informed enlightenment for all the world to emulate.

Thus, American Exceptionalism presents a redemptionist view of history that absolves America of its many sins by claiming that repentance for those sins was planned from the beginning, and that the pre-destined progress of history would attest to this inevitable redemption.

American Exceptionalism removes America from the historical path in which human decisions, mistakes, and prejudices combined with coincidences, external influences, and developments in the natural world to create very real conflict over the future. And this is why Rush Limbaugh likes American Exceptionalism, because it replaces human agency with a historical trajectory that was predestined and/or guided by providence — a trajectory that sits in stark contrast with the reality of how real, flawed human behavior shaped the course of American history. Above all else, American Exceptionalism is SIMPLE.

But, of course, history is never simple, and there was nothing at all inevitable about slavery’s demise. After all, slavery was enshrined in the U.S Constitution. Contrary to Limbaugh’s claim that “the Founders of this phenomenal country believed all people were born to be free as individuals,” the Constitution only counted black people as a decidedly unequal three-fifths of a person. This was because the humans who designed the Constitution — particularly the southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention — designed it to protect slavery.

The eventual end of slavery in America was, therefore, the result of decades of fervent agitation by people of faith, courageous politicians (yes, they have existed), and the slaves themselves who fought bitterly to correct the Founders’ great sin. Anti-slavery forces in America endured decades of virulent and bloody opposition to their stance, and when the kettle finally boiled over in 1861 and the U.S. descended into Civil War over the slavery issue, there was still nothing inevitable about the institution’s demise. Had the Confederacy won the war, slavery would have existed and thrived for an inestimable amount of time.

Dead soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. There was nothing exceptional about full-scale war.

Dead soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. There was nothing exceptional about full-scale war.

Nothing about the Civil War — when it happened, why it happened, why it happened the way that it did — was inevitable or guided by providence. The Civil War, like all events in American history, was the product of specific human actions and decision-making. The fact that a nation ostensibly dedicated to the ideal that “all men are created equal” had to fight a four-year-long war and sacrifice the lives of 600,000 soldiers over the right to perpetuate the enslavement of other human beings demonstrates the very real limits of America’s ability to be exceptional. To quote the late historian/novelist Shelby Foote, “we think that we are a wholly superior people — if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war.”

American Exceptionalism is bad history because it blinds people to the very real — and very human — triumphs and tragedies that the U.S. has faced in its relatively short national lifespan. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk do us no favors by trying to simplify and overly moralize the events of the American past, because doing so robs us of the chance to actually LEARN from that past. Viewing the U.S. as uniquely exceptional makes it hard to examine with a critical eye what America has done wrong as well as what it has done right. If we make simplistic assumptions about the inevitable, inherent goodness of America, then we run the risk of underestimating the real evils that have existed — and continue to exist — in American society, and we run the risk of failing to address those evils before they grow.

Today, it’s common for Americans to look back on the century-long debate over slavery and ask why it took so long for the U.S. to eradicate such a conspicuous evil. But many Americans thought that slavery was an American institution and thus, an inherently good institution that was worth holding on to. After all, America was exceptional.

* See Deborah L. Madsen, American Exceptionalism (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 2-4.