Ferguson and the Black Outsider in America

Black protestoers clash with Ferguson, Missouri's largly white, militarized police force.

Black protestors clash with Ferguson, Missouri’s largely white, militarized police force.

If you’ve never been black in America, then you can never fully understand what it means to be black in America. White folks like myself, regardless of our socioeconomic status, are born with the privilege of color — white privilege — and no matter how we conduct ourselves in our public and private lives, we’ll always be citizens of America in a way that black people still can’t be. To be white in America is to be a full citizen, but to be black in America is to be the perpetual outsider. When a St. Louis County grand jury failed to indict officer Darren Wilson for the August 9, 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the continued outsider status of blacks in America was laid bare for the world to see. Wilson, of course, is white, and Brown was black. If you think those facts don’t mean anything, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Following the verdict, parts of Ferguson once again exploded, as rioters set fire to multiple buildings and smashed and burned police cars. Predictably, America’s right-wing media lined up in lock-step support for the verdict and for Wilson, and reactionary Twitter feeds lit up with the usual spiel of white victimhood. But the surge of anger among many of Ferguson’s black residents is not merely the response to the Ferguson verdict: it’s also a response to the historical legacy that laid the foundations for such a verdict. Whatever really happened on the day that Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, the history of institutional racism, suburban white-flight, and racially based redlining and housing discrimination have, over the decades, culminated to create a modern environment — in both Ferguson and across the country — that designates blacks as outsiders to be feared in a culture that gives special preference to whiteness.

One way to describe the darker trajectory of U.S. history is to describe how so many of America’s laws, cultural norms, and economic practices have been geared towards the social and legal recognition of white privilege. Over time, this process has involved counting blacks as three-fifths of a person in the Constitution; enslaving them as human property for over a century; precluding them from having basic civil rights and making them the target of brutal lynchings from the end of the Civil War to the mid-twentieth century, and enacting discriminatory housing and schooling policies to relegate much of the black population to urban poverty in the contemporary era. Race is inseparable from an American history that saw the continued designation of African-Americans as outsiders impinging on the “norm” that is whiteness.

Michael Brown was an individual, but he was also a symbol of the perpetual black outsider: a menacing figure that, via his very existence, poses a threat to white safety and comfort. As sociologist Kelly Welch observes, the black outsider stands as the go-to representation of crime, and the “black male as vile and menacing street thug” mentality has manifested throughout U.S. history in fears of slave revolts, black political agency, “miscegenation,” and the now-familiar urban “thug” whose only goal is to wreck endless havoc in the peaceful society that American whites built on the backs of his ancestors. In past eras, the problem of the black outsider was generally called the “negro problem,” and while that phrase is no longer en vogue today, the sentiment remains — ever-present and ever volatile.

Officer Darren Wilson, in a photograph depicting his injury after the shooting of Michael Brown.

Officer Darren Wilson, in a photograph depicting his injury after the shooting of Michael Brown.

Black intellectuals of all stripes have long tried to reconcile the outsider status of blacks with America’s ostensible devotion to freedom and equal rights. In an 1863 speech titled “The Present and Future of the Colored Race in America,” the great abolitionist and civil rights advocate Frederick Douglass tried to frame the contours of the “negro question” in the midst of the Civil War. Even as Union soldiers were dying to free black slaves, the notion that someday blacks might attain equal rights with whites was still a form of cultural heresy, as Douglass knew all to well. “Men sneer at it as the ‘n–r question,'” Douglass stated, “but… the destiny of the nation has the Negro for its pivot, and turns upon the question as to what shall be done with him. Peace and war, union and disunion, salvation and ruin, glory and shame all crowd upon our thoughts the moment this vital word is pronounced.” By referring to blacks as the “pivot” of the nation, Douglass referenced both the duel roles that they played as a symbol of the blinding hypocrisies within American society with regard to equal rights and as a political and economic problem on which so many significant developments — especially the Civil War — hinged.

When confronted with the question of “What shall be done with the Negro?” Douglass made remarks that are eerily prescient given recent racially charged events such as the shooting of Michhael Brown. “Save the Negro and you save the nation, destroy the Negro and you destroy the nation, and to save both you must have but one great law of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for all Americans without respect to color,” he stated. Douglass recognized that America could never become whole unless its commitment to equality triumphed over its commitment to racism. Despite white America’s relegating of blacks to outsider status, Douglass knew that blacks were an integral part of the fabric of America: they had helped to (literally) build the country, and during the Civil War they donned Union blue to save it from itself. But until blacks became “insiders” — until America decided to “save the negro” and let blacks have equal status with whites, then the nation would always be on the cusp of destruction: a powder-keg of racial tension that could explode with the simple firing of, say, a white police officers’ gun.

W.E.B Du Bois, the black scholar who examined the duality of black life in America.

W.E.B Du Bois: the scholar who examined the duality of black life in America.

Much like Douglass, the brilliant scholar and civil rights-activist W.E.B. Du Bois also wrestled with the “negro problem” and the question of how to deal with blacks’ outsider status in American society. In an 1897 piece titled “The Conservation of Races,” Du Bois noted that no black person in America had failed to ask himself (yes, it should be gender-neutral, but such were the times) “What, after all, am I? Am I an American or am I a Negro?” Du Bois believed that this duality of black life — being a part of the nation but still a distinct outsider — was perhaps the defining characteristic of the black American experience. “Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American? If I strive as a Negro, am I not perpetuating the very cleft that threatens and separates Black and White America?” Du Bois asked. Because blackness fell outside of the accepted American experience, to strive to be an American raised the question of whether such an act required the disavowal of blackness itself. This was a problem that no white person ever had to face. To be American was (and, to a large extent, still IS) to be white. Surely no one at this moment intuitively understands this fact better than Darren Wilson.

Although I can’t speak for black people today, I suspect that many still struggle with the fundamental questions of identity raised by Douglass, Du Bois, and countless others throughout U.S. history. When a black person like Michael Brown is viewed as a potential criminal first, an American citizen second, he is forced to analyze his place in a society that, for all of its advances and success regarding the issues of race and equal rights, still considers him an outsider — and a threat. In his grand jury testimony, Darren Wilson described Brown as the ultimate outsider by claiming that Brown looked “angry” and like a “demon.” When it comes to Western culture, no one is a bigger outsider than the Devil, and Wilson’s (however unconscious) dehumanization of Brown  as a “demon” follows an established historical trend in which black rage has been deemed non-human: the ultimate threat to a society where whiteness is the established norm.

The dual nature of black American identity that Douglass and Du Bois identified over a century ago continues to influence American society, dividing it along hardening racial lines and poisoning any wells of intelligent dialogue on the subject of race from which Americans might otherwise drink. So while Michael Brown is dead and Darren Wilson will walk free, the underlying tensions fostered by a society in which whiteness still constitutes Americanness and blacks are viewed as outsiders will continue to erupt, prompting yet more national discussions about race that go nowhere. Even as Ferguson burns, we just keep dousing the fires with kerosene.

Don Blankenship, Triangle Fires, and Plutocracy Unhinged

Former Massey Energy CEO -- and world-class asshat -- Don Blankenship, wraps himself in the flag to give the impression that he cares more about the red, red, and blue than he does the green.

Former Massey Energy CEO — and world-class asshat — Don Blankenship, wraps himself in the flag to give the impression that he cares more about the red, white, and blue than he does the green.

Americans like to talk a good deal about their twin-commitments to both capitalism and democracy, but the relationship between the two systems is, shall we say, fraught with tension. Democracy tries to remind capitalism about the importance of freedom and individual human rights, but, like an anti-domestic violence group trying to lecture the NFL about the importance of respecting women, its success rate is mixed, to say the least. The resulting conflict between corporate profit and human flourishing has burned with the intensity of a coal fire throughout U.S. history — which brings us to Don Blankenship.

Blankenship is the former CEO of Massey Energy, which was one of the country’s biggest coal extractors before Alpha Natural Resources bought it out in 2012. He’s the mustachioed poster-boy for the way capitalism can undermine human rights. Indeed, even when it comes to ignominious plutocrats, Blankenship has all the redeemable qualities of a hacked-up, charcoal colored, black lung induced phlegm wad. He was recently indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiring to violate federal mine safety regulations and making false claims to the Securities and Exchange Commission — among other counts. Blankenship’s blatant disregard for mine safety resulted in the death of 29 coal miners in the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, when explosions ripped through the poorly ventilated West Virginia mine causing the worst mining disaster in 40 years. You can read a list of the miners’ names here. An independent investigation found that the miners’ deaths were the result of Blankenship’s flouting of mandatory safety regulations in order to produce more coal and make more money.

Yes-sir-ee-Bob, Don Blankenship is a slimeball, but even among slimeballs, his revolting viscosity stands out. Mother Jones has the breakdown of the most vile allegations to come out of his indictment, in which Blankenship manages to make Montgomery Burns look like “Daddy” Warbucks. Some choice highlights include the following: the Upper Big Branch mine averaged about one safety violation a day; Massey had a secret code used to alert employees to cover up safety violations when Federal inspectors were snooping about; and, worst of all, Blankenship thought that the mine’s lousy ventilation wasn’t a problem — until the mine blew up, of course. You can read the rest of the stomach-churning allegations if you’re so inclined, but suffice to say that Blankenship, whom Rolling Stone dubbed the “Dark Lord of Coal Country,” put profits over human safety at every turn, demonstrating why the idea of “self-regulating” big business is a sick joke that far too many Americans nonetheless still take seriously.

But the fact that so many people still believe that big business shouldn’t be regulated — that the “free market” will create some kind of balance between capitalism and individual rights — is particularly depressing given that disasters like this have happened in the past, with precisely the same awful consequences. Perhaps the most notorious industrial disaster in U.S. history was the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which occurred in the heart of New York City’s unregulated garment district.

A memorial to the 29 miners who died at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia.

A memorial to the 29 miners who died when the Upper Big Branch Mine exploded.

The Triangle Waist Company was a classic sweatshop: its mostly immigrant female employees labored long hours for pittance wages amidst appalling working conditions. In an echo of the current craze for outsourcing and sub-contracting in order to extract dirt-cheap labor, factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris subcontracted their garment work to sleazy middle-men who pocketed a portion of the workers’ profits, and Blanck and Harris allegedly didn’t know how much the women were paid or even how many were working in the factory at any given time. Oh, and then there were the conditions. The ramshackle, multi-story factory building was poorly ventilated (sound familiar?) and clogged with piles of lint, debris, and highly combustible cloth. The fire escapes were also woefully inadequate. Moreover, the jerks who owned the place had their foremen barricade the doors in order to keep the workers from taking breaks. The building was a fire trap, and trap a fire it did.

On March 25, 1911, smoke began spewing from one of the factory’s many top-floor rag bins, and, in a span of a few minutes, a fire spread, trapping the workers. With the doors locked, the women panicked. Some of them fled down the skeletal, rusted fire-escape, which collapsed under their weight, sending dozens to their deaths. Other workers had no choice but to jump from the ninth-floor windows: they chose being smashed to death on New York’s concrete sidewalks over being immolated in the inferno Hell of their workplace. Out of the 500 Triangle Factory workers, 146 of them — most of whom were recently arrived Italian and Jewish immigrants — died in the fire. You can read a list of their names here. Many others were severely injured. The factory owners went to trial but escaped conviction, only to open up another Triangle Shirtwaist firetrap a few weeks later.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was a pivotal moment in U.S. labor history, as it resulted in several key industrial reforms geared towards improving the conditions and rights of workers. The fire led to the transformation of New York’s labor code into one of the most progressive in the nation, and spurred stringent new fire-safety laws that served as models for the rest of the country. Moreover, the tragedy emboldened the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) to further establish standards for the industry and monitor factories to try to ensure that workers’ could be assured some levels of health and safety on the shop floors.

But the most important legacy of the Triangle Fire was what it revealed in the charred bodies of 146 young women: for many people, the single-minded, utterly ruthless pursuit of profit results not in life, liberty, and happiness, but repression, sickness, misery, and death. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire occurred in the early part of the Progressive Era, which the political influence of big business ensured rampant inequality and a major imbalance in power-relations between employers and employees (sound familiar?). Such an imbalance proved quite deadly, as the Triangle Fire demonstrated, but many Americans still haven’t learned from history that when any single group is granted total power over another, it WILL abuse that power. That includes capitalists, who, if given the leeway and cultural approval, won’t hesitate to value money over human life — regardless of whether it’s 1911 or 2010.

Much like the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Don Blankenship didn’t give a damn about the lives of the people who died as a result of his greed: he’s the living embodiment of how capitalism, if left to its own devices, is incompatible both with democracy and individual rights. As Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodall notes in his devastating profile of the coal baron, “Blankenship has never hidden the fact that, when it comes to mining coal, he’ll do whatever it takes to make a buck.” Like the worst industrialists of Gilded Age America, Blankenship is a Social Darwinist. Capitalism is ‘like a jungle, where a jungle is survival of the fittest,'” he once told a documentary filmmaker, “‘Unions, communities, people — everybody’s gonna have to learn to accept that in the United States you have a capitalist society, and that capitalism, from a business standpoint, is survival of the most productive.'” Ever the unabashed right-wing asshat, Blankenship has spent decades obliterating West Virginia mountaintops and fouling the air and waterways with his coal fumes and coal slurry. And he thinks that’s just fine –because freedom.

The charred victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City.

The charred victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

Blankenship’s naked disregard for workers’ lives or the health of the natural environment demonstrates the importance of bringing back a little-appreciated historical subject: industrial democracy. Historian Richard Greenwald writes that industrial democracy was, “an effort to square free market capitalism with democracy to provide a fair and just workplace.”* Economic justice was a key element of industrial democracy, and it was a major ideological force for Progressive Era reformers who sought to reconcile the dynamism of the marketplace with the recognition that the pursuit of profits should never overshadow the basic rights of human beings to flourish as free individuals. And being a free individual requires the right to have a say in your own working conditions. The 29 miners that died thanks to Don Blankenship’s greed didn’t have that say, and neither did those 146 Triangle Shirtwaist workers.

Capitalism without democracy is tyranny, and the existence of ogres like Don Blankenship should remind us all that industrial democracy, whether in the coal fields or Amazon.com warehouses, remains a vital necessity in twenty-first century America. Contrary to conservative claims that capitalism = freedom, there is no freedom in being utterly beholden to a powerful interest against whom you have no recourse to protest injustice. When you are forced to accede to the will of someone else; when your very livelihood depends on subjecting your health and your family’s lives to the machinations of dollar-crazed, megalomaniacal plutocrats, then you are not free. And don’t tell me that coal miners can just move to another mine, because any other mine will be operating along the same right-wing ideological fuel as the Massey Energy death pit.

The idea that a private interest has the right to completely dominate another person’s life and their environment is not a natural law, it’s a political belief, and as such, it can be — should be — challenged in the marketplace of ideas. Only then can America ever really move towards maintaining a workable balance between capitalism and democracy. Oh, and one more thing: F@#k you, Don Blankenship.

* See Richard Greenwald, The Triangle Fire, The Protocols of Peace, and Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 3.

The Mighty Turkey: An American Historical Icon


Well, dear readers, American Thanksgiving is almost nigh, and that means it’s high-time that the turkey gets its due as a true American original.

Follow this link over to the History Vault, where I discuss the mighty turkey in all of its well-earned historical glory!

The 2014 Midterms, Old People, and Entitlement: A Manifesto

Old white people rally for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.

Old white people rally for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.

Well, the 2014 midterm elections are over, and, depending on where you stand politically, they were either a smashing vindication or a mega-blowout. Count me in the latter camp. That’s right, the Republican Party absolutely dominated, expanding their already swollen (and, thanks to their shady gerrymandering of districts), near incontestable dominance of the House and winning control of the Senate. And I couldn’t be more pissed off, and not just because I’m an unabashed liberal (and if you don’t agree with me, too bad, ’cause you’re wrong). No, there’s a bigger story regarding the outcome of the 2014 midterms that is both glaringly obvious and yet still underappreciated: the mind-blowing hypocrisy of old, white American voters.

Traditionally, midterm elections in the U.S. have a strong, built-in right-wing advantage, and they’re generally pretty hostile to the party that controls the White House. But in recent years, it’s become clear that there’s functionally two electorates in America: a younger, more ethnically diverse, moderately liberal coalition that votes in presidential elections (who gave Barack Obama a two-term presidency), and a much older, more lily-white, and more conservative reactionary coalition that shows up en masse to vote in midterm elections. In general, fewer Americans vote in midterm elections than in presidential ones, and the ones who do show up at midterm polls are often old, conservative, and very, very angry. And this is exactly what happened in the last two midterms. The electorate that gave Republicans total dominance of the House in 2010 was an aged electorate: 34 percent of those midterm voters were 60 or older. This trend repeated in 2014, as seniors compromised 37 percent of the electorate that gave the GOP total dominance of the House and Senate. In modern America, midterm elections truly are a right-wing grey dawn.

Now, before I go any further, I realize that not ALL seniors are foaming-at-the-mouth Republican drones. Seniors, just like the rest of us, are individuals with individual personalities and preferences. That said, however, as a demographic group, American seniors have unquestionably made a large-scale political shift rightward. Earlier this year, Gallup noted that, “over the last seven years, seniors have become less Democratic and have shown an outright preference for the Republican Party since 2010.” Similarly, Pew Research Center observed that “well-known generational divides” characterized the 2014 midterms, as seniors overwhelmingly favored the GOP. To put it simply: not all seniors are Republicans, but these days, most Republicans are seniors.

Thus, we come to the point in this post where I get angry, because here’s the thing about many of America’s seniors: they’re entitled, self-absorbed, hypocritical, greed-driven, prejudice-prone generations, and their current voting preferences have ensured that they’ll get all the advantages of government programs for themselves even as Republican politicians work to dismantle those same programs for younger generations. Not all seniors fall into this bracket, of course, but too many of them do, and if I sound angry, it’s because I am. The generations that constitute the current crop of right-wing seniors have also played no small role in helping to build an economy and a society that is growing worse and worse for younger generations, especially Generation Y, better known as millennials (those born between the early 1980s and 2000s), among whom I count myself. So, yeah, I’m angry, and people in my age bracket have every right to be angry at the political habits of old people who have spent decades trashing the American economy, accruing mountains of debt, and generally voting to cut younger generations’ throats. This is generational warfare alright, and I’m tired of sitting in the trenches.

But before I go further, let’s define the two groups who constitute America’s senior population, shall we? First off, there’s the so-called Silent Generation. These are people born before 1946 who came of age during World War II. They faced neither the trials of the Great Depression nor the fighting of the war (though they did serve in Korea), and thanks to their small numbers, they really had it made.

According to sociologist Elwood Carlson, the Silent Generation are the “lucky few” because they grew up in the post-war boom of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a period when jobs were plentiful, economic prosperity was wide-spread, the labor movement was strong, progressive taxation was the norm, and the American Dream® consisted of an increasingly white-collar middle-class life followed by an early retirement. But this generation also lived to play by established rules: because they inherited an economic boom, they didn’t want to rock the boat or change the system, in fact, they disappeared into the system. This group’s preference for unspoken, starched-shirt conformity earned them the name “Silent Generation” in a 1951 essay in Time magazine.

The "Scumbag Baby Boomer" meme. You people had it coming.

The “Scumbag Baby Boomer” meme. You people had it coming.

After the Silent Generation came the other group that now makes up a fair number of American seniors: the Baby Boomers. They were the kids born roughly between 1946 and 1964 during the post-World-War II Baby Boom, when one of the biggest economic expansions in U.S. history spurred people to have more kids based on the notion that the good times were here to stay. As historian Doug Owram writes in his book Born at the Right Time: A History of the Baby Boom Generation, boomers were a “fortunate generation” if ever there was one. “Few generations grew up in such prosperous times,” he writes, “the quarter-century after the Second World War brought the Western world some of the most sustained economic growth in history…a growing economy, an improving set of government social programs, and a wide dispersion of wealth meant that the average…citizen benefitted.”* (Note: Owram is a Canadian historian who largely covers Canadian Boomers, but the Canadian situation during this era so mirrored that of the U.S. that his book is the definitive history of Baby Boomers).

As a result of their great historical fortune, Baby Boomers are positively insufferable: they are the most entitled generation ever; a numerically dominant, collective pain-in-the-ass that went from the (admittedly overcooked) idealism of the 1960s to the safety-net shredding, union-busting, greed-obsessed, race-to-the-bottom conservatism that destroyed the economy in 2008 and made the world a lousier place for the generations that followed them. They’re the generation that reaped the most from government programs and progressive policies even as they came to ideologically reject those policies. Heck, Boomers are so awful that they have their own internet meme, “Scumbag Baby Boomer.”

Whether it was union membership, a wide-open job market that could turn high-school graduates into members of the middle class, a dirt-cheap college education if they wanted it, social security, medicare, or progressive taxation, the Boomers took everything and scorched the earth in their wake; they went from Woodstock to Gordon Gekko, and they rail against “entitlements” even as they spent decades benefitting from those entitlements. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the Boomers became known as the “Me” generation: their self-absorption is so legendary that the Newseum in Washington D.C. is hosting an exhibit dedicated to Boomer narcissism.

Thus, we come full-circle to the source of my righteous anger over how America’s old people voted in the 2014 midterm election. If there is one characteristic that defines seniors today, whether they’re members of the Silent Generation or Baby Boomers, it’s that both groups came into the world amidst unbelievably fortunate economic circumstances, and before they leave the world, they’re casting votes for policies that are making America a crappier place for younger generations. The Boomers’ current conservatism reflects a blindingly narcissistic need to preserve everything they reaped at others’ expenses.

Take, for example, the way old people in America love to criticize the millennial generation as lazy, entitled, adverse to hard work, and whiney — despite the fact that millennials are entering adulthood during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. As Kate Dries notes in the New York Times, Boomers are accusing millennials of “doing everything wrong” and “destroying this great nation that was built by the Baby Boomers.” But wait, there’s more! Writing for the American Bar Association, Lauren Stiller Rikleen sums up older generations’ criticisms of millennials as such: “‘Millennials are too entitled.’ ‘They are unable to solve problems.’ ‘They want to make a lot of money without working hard for it.’ ‘They want constant feedback.'” But wait, there’s more! Another big problem that old people have with millennials is political. As Pew Research Group and other outlets have noted, millennials tend to be fairly liberal on all kinds of issues: they’re pretty tolerant of homosexuality, they support regulation of big business, they’re less attached to religious institutions, they’re more supportive of diversity, and they’re less critical of government — even though they’re fed up with both political parties.

A college graduate waits fore magical free-market job fairy to come and create jobs.

A college graduate waits for the magical free-market job fairy to come and create jobs.

Of course, like any age group, millennials aren’t monolithic: there are plenty of conservatives in this group too. But regardless of specific political preferences, something else characterizes millennials: we’re what the Atlantic calls the “Mad as Hell Generation.” At the same time that old people are telling us to just shut up and get a job, we’re enduring an apocalyptically bad job market — one worse than most of the current crop of old people ever faced — and millennials are the first generation in American history who will very likely end up worse off than their parents. There’s a reason we’re called the Lost Generation.

Millennials have every right to be angry because they’re being forced to sleep in the terrible bed that the older generations made. They face an economy in which there are far more applicants than jobs; an economy in which unpaid internships are becoming all-too-common and wages have been stagnant for decades. Millennials also have to deal with the new normal that is the Great Recession, caused by the overheated, free-market gamble-a-thon long championed by deregulating Boomers drunk on neoliberal punch. These facts, in addition to the hard truths that middle-class jobs are a vanishing luxury and a college education doesn’t guarantee a job but does guarantee crippling student debt, make it hard to NOT get mega-pissed off at the gaggle of seniors who vote to further deregulate the economy, enact race-to-the-bottom policies like corporate tax cuts that only empower employers, and deny basic human rights to same-sex couples and minorities. America’s old people truly had it made, but they’re making things harder for everyone else.

Now, obviously I don’t speak for everyone in my age group, and there’s plenty of folks who’ll disagree with me, but this isn’t their blog, it’s mine, and I’m calling out America’s olds for their hypocrisy and self-centered political stances. When seniors send full-on whackaloons like Joni Ernst and Tom Cotton to the U.S. senate, they’re not just casting a vote; they’re supporting an odious political ideology that seeks to dismantle the safety net — especially Obamacare — that is one of the few remaining defenses against a conservative culture that has enriched the top 1 percent of oligarchs who rule this country and driven the deeply undemocratic growth in income inequality over the last thirty-plus years.

This conservatism thrives on a culture of fear in which everyone who is different from old, white people — whether they be Hispanics, blacks (or “coloreds,” to the really old), “liberals,” gays, atheists, young women, workers, community organizers, city dwellers, or the President of the United States — are deemed enemies of America. And quite frankly, I’m sick of it. So I say to America’s right-wing oldsters: STFU up and let someone else run things. If you butt out, we’ll work on actually turning up at the polls to vote. End of rant.

* Note: complaints from elderly conservative readers can be sent to the following e-mail address: Idontgiveadamn@gmail.com.

* Note: to Baby Boomers who aren’t jerks; you know who you are, so I’m not talking about you, obviously.

* See Doug Owram, Born at the Right Time: A History of the Baby Boom Generation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), x.

The Military and the Search for Heroes in American Culture

American soldiers deserve the utmost respect, but that doesn't mean that American shouldn't question the government that sends them to war.

American soldiers deserve the utmost respect, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question the organizations that send them to war.

Do you support the troops? In some respects, that’s a trick question. After all, how could you not support the troops? With each passing day, thousands of men and women in the American military put their lives on the line in far-off places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, and even in a series of little-known strategic training operations in Africa — all in the name of protecting American freedom. And while these brave individuals are enduring all sorts of physical and psychological dangers, the rest of us are, well, not. The current American military consists of voluntary forces, and let’s be honest: most of us don’t want to volunteer for a job that involves getting shot, blown up, or other similarly unpleasant experiences that involve significant bodily harm.

And so, to make up for the fact that most of us aren’t in the military, we support the troops. But what, exactly, does that even mean? Of course, in our minds, we’re thanking them for their service; we’re wishing them the best of luck and the best of safety on their respective missions, and we might even stick a “support our troops” magnet on our vehicles. But other than vague, non-action-oriented displays of emotion, what can we really do to support the troops? Well, we hold benefit concerts; we send soldiers care packages, and we donate our frequent flyer miles.

Those are all good things to do, of course, but we as civilians also do something else for the troops that, however well-intended, is also deeply problematic: we double down on the platitudes by calling them “heroes” to the point where we run the risk of stifling legitimate criticism of U.S. military interventions. Furthermore, our platitudes create a culture of soldier worship that oversimplifies the complex beliefs and experiences of the people in uniform.

In a recent piece titled “Stop Thanking me for my Service,” Rory Fanning, a veteran of two deployments to Afghanistan, argues that the “heroism” of military service is often fraught with horrible experiences that are no cause for celebration, and that the American public usually isn’t aware of these experiences when they mouth patriotic platitudes to the troops. “[W]hat about that term ‘hero’?” Fanning writes, “[m]any veterans reject it, and not just out of Gary Cooperesque modesty either. He continues by noting that, “most veterans who have seen combat, watched babies get torn apart, or their comrades die in their arms, or the most powerful army on Earth spend trillions of dollars fighting some of the poorest people in the world for 13 years feel anything but heroic.” Here, Fanning emphasizes that in order to make soldiers into automatic heroes, you have to ignore the ugly realities of war, and you have to ignore the fact that not everything your government sends its soldiers to do is going to be for a worthy cause.

Fanning further quotes journalist Cara Hoffman, who writes that:

Hero’ refers to a character, a protagonist, something in fiction, not to a person, and using this word can hurt the very people it’s meant to laud. While meant to create a sense of honor, it can also buy silence, prevent discourse, and benefit those in power more than those navigating the new terrain of home after combat. If you are a hero, part of your character is stoic sacrifice, silence. This makes it difficult for others to see you as flawed, human, vulnerable, or exploited.

Building on Hoffman’s point about the super-human notion of idealized heroism, Fanning notes that, “Thank yous to heroes discourage dissent, which is one reason military bureaucrats feed off the term.” So why do we want to overly hero-ize American soldiers? Part of this tendency stems from the fact that we want to legitimize American military operations. We want to believe that when America fights, it does so for the right reasons, because it’s the best hope for freedom in the world — or so we think. But there’s another reason why we want to turn soldiers into heroes, one linked to the paradoxical ideal that NOT serving in the military is an inherent right for free Americans. Indeed, historically, compulsory military service has been associated with unfree, dictatorial governments the world over. In the eyes of many Americans throughout history, being forced to fight negated the very idea of American freedom. After all, if the state could force you to die in its name, how could you ever truly be free?

On the other side of that argument is the idea — so often quoted on sanctimonious bumper stickers everywhere — that “freedom isn’t free,” and that those who want to live free better be prepared to die free. But it’s this very conflict — between the idea that military service embodies freedom and the idea that military service can also be an example of state tyranny — that explains Americans’ complicated need to make soldiers into heroes. By doing so, we make their service compulsory in the sense that they act as vessels into which we pour all of our idealized notions of American freedom and goodness. They MUST serve so that we don’t have to; they bear burdens that we assume to be necessary. The problem is that those soldiers who deviate, however justifiably, from this idealized notion of heroism, such as Bowe Bergdahl, face accusations of treason, and the powerful interests who send them to distant war-zones remain in the shadows — unexamined; unquestioned; unhinged.

This cartoon from Harper's Weekly demonstrates how Confederate Conscription made its own heroes and villains.

This cartoon from Harper’s Weekly demonstrates how Confederate Conscription made its own heroes and villains.

In an era when military service is voluntary, those willing to die for their country (regardless of the worthiness of the respective cause they’re dying for) seem to embody a heroism that civilians can’t live up to. And on one level, this is certainly true: those in arms are indeed brave and they deserve our gratitude. But when we associate military service with automatic heroism, we legitimize a type of cultural totalitarian nationalism that stifles legitimate criticisms of military operations and the government and private interests that instigate them. If the soldiers who are the agents of the state (and its private sector partners) are sanctified as heroes, then the actions of the interests for which they fight also become unassailable. This is a dangerous development that has emerged in previous eras, and it was just as controversial then as it should be now.

Consider the conflict that defined modern American identity as we know it today: the Civil War. In April of 1862, the Confederate States of America instituted the first national draft in U.S. history, commonly known as the Confederate Conscription Act, to fight a war with the North that had already gone on longer than many on both sides had expected. Reception to the Conscription Act was decidedly mixed throughout the South. Some fighting-age men willingly acceded to it and joined the Confederate ranks to avoid being hunted down by conscript officers. Others, however, deserted the ranks or went into hiding to avoid compulsory service. Many believed that conscription favored the poor while exempting the rich from fighting (which wasn’t entirely true), and others maintained that the state had no right to force free men to fight in its name.

But so important was conscription to the southern war effort that Confederate president Jefferson Davis vigorously defended it in a December 26, 1862 speech in his home state of Mississippi. Addressing a crowd in the state capital of Jackson, Davis stated that the Confederate government needed to draft men to serve so that, “the men who had stayed at home — who had thus far been sluggards in the cause — should be forced, likewise, to meet the enemy.” The Conscription Act declared that all men from the ages of 18-35 were liable for military service, and Davis took pains to emphasize that donning the Rebel uniform was intimately linked to the Confederate struggle for freedom from the Union. “[W]ill you be slaves; will you consent to be robbed of your property…will you renounce the exercise of those rights with which you were born and which were transmitted to you by your fathers?” Davis asked. “I feel that in addressing Mississippians the answer will be that their interests, even life itself, should be willingly laid down on the altar of their country.”

This was an invocation for blood sacrifice to the Confederate cause, in which soldiers would die “on the altar of their country” so that the nation could live. But there was another issue that fueled Davis’ sanctification of military service: property. When Davis warned Mississippians that capitulation to the Union would result in them being “robbed of your property,” he was talking about slaves. Indeed, the Confederate quest for national independence was predicated on the notion that the South had the right to preserve slavery, and the most vociferous cheerleaders for southern independence just so happened to be men like Davis — men who were wealthy and powerful slaveholders. By turning military service into an act of devotion and heroism, Davis and other defenders of the Old South’s slave society made questioning the southern war effort — and, by extension, the powerful interests behind it — an act of treason. Those who fought in the Confederate armies for the South’s vested interests were labeled heroes, but those who objected were unpatriotic cowards who “skulk from the duties they owe their country.”

The Confederate experience with military service — as an either a heroic act of national devotion or a potential pawn of vested interests — rings loudly in modern America’s tendency to label all military service as heroism and all dissent as unpatriotic. As Steven Salaita writes, the powerful interests that run the U.S. in don’t necessarily have altruistic motives when they tout the heroism of American soldiers. “The terms we use to define the troops — freedom-fighters, heroic, courageous — are synecdoche for the romance of American warfare: altruistic, defensive, noble, reluctant, ethical,” Salaita writes. But now, as in the past, the service of individual soldiers can be admirable even as the greater cause remains less so. And the causes for which American armies fight, now as in the past, are rarely one-hundred percent pure-hearted.

The soldiers fighting in the Middle East can rest comfotably at night knowing that America's mailboxes wholeheartedly support the military.

U.S. soldiers fighting in the Middle East can rest comfortably at night knowing that America’s mailboxes wholeheartedly support the military.

Whether it concerns defense contractors, oil oligopolies, or, in a previous era, slaveholders, war is profitable, and profits don’t discriminate between noble and ignoble motives. “Multinational corporations have a profound interest in cheerleading for war and in the deification of those sent to execute it. For many of these corporations, the U.S. military is essentially a private army dispatched around the world as needed to protect their investments and to open new markets,” Salaita writes. This is not to say that soldiers don’t fight out of patriotic motives in the name of national defense; rather, he cautions Americans to always critically assess why their military fights, and he warns that viewing soldiers as heroes in the service of the American empire makes such critical evaluations impossible. “If we recognize that the troops are in fact human beings, then we simultaneously accept that they are too complex to be reduced to patriotic ephemera,” Salaita observes.

Now, we should continue to “support the troops.” They are our friends, family members, and fellow Americans who shoulder a heavy burden by choosing to enlist, and their efforts are to be commended. That said, however, we should also remember that soldiers are nonetheless human beings who embody all of the hopes, fears, contradictions, and yes, dissent that characterizes the broader human experience. To be sure, soldiers can engage in great acts of heroism, but making them into default heroes ignores both the complexity of military service as well as the fact that soldiers can serve interests that shouldn’t be exempt from criticism.

The Confederate experience during the Civil War demonstrated how a critical stand against militant patriotism can be an act of legitimate dissent that sheds light on the bigger issues about war and the powerful interests behind it. When Jefferson Davis urged Mississippians to sacrifice themselves “on the altar of their country,” he referred to a country that served the interests of the slaveholding oligarchs. Thus, the men who fought in the southern armies fought bravely for a rather ignoble cause, and those who evaded conscription functionally refused to serve that cause — and that’s worth noting.

Americans would do well to remember the past before jumping mindlessly onto the “support our troops” bandwagon without ever considering the broader consequences of conflating military service with mythical heroism. Somewhere, in a deep, dark, possibly undisclosed location, executives from Triple Canopy, Academi (formerly known as Blackwater), and DynCorp are also calling the troops heroes — and that should concern every American.

America, Gay Marriage, and the Never-Ending 19th Century

Pro "Traditional Marriage" advocates protest the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. They had nothing better to do.

“Traditional Marriage” advocates protest the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. They had nothing better to do.

Have you ever taken a really wide-angle view across the American cultural landscape and experienced a nagging feeling of deja-vu? It’s almost as if issues that ought to have been settled over a century ago just keep popping back up into public discourse, usually at the behest of reactionary turnip heads fueled by an unceasing wish to go back to a better, more moral, more “traditional” time that only ever existed in their own fever-swamped craniums.

Yes-sir-ee-Bob, it might be the tail-end of 2014, but in many ways, Americans are still living in the long nineteenth century. Just look at some of the issues that have been causing a political brouhaha throughout the year: racial equality; gender equality; same-sex marriage; voting rights (?!); secession (the long-disregarded idea that states are independent political entities that can separate from the Federal Union whenever they see fit); nullification (the long-discredited idea that individual states have the power to overrule Federal law), and the evolving definition of what constitutes “family,” among others. If you know anything about U.S. history, then you know that each of these issues played a major role in shaping the culture of nineteenth-century America. Although the details varied with each issue, all of them involved a conflict over the definition of rights: who should have them and why.

In fact, the conflict over the expansion of rights is pretty much at the center of the American story, and Victorian-Era issues still exert a powerful influence on U.S. culture today. Among the contemporary issues that I’ve already listed, few have a more distinctly nineteenth-century flavor than marriage and the American family; or, more specifically, who has the right to define those terms. Which brings us to teh gayz. Yes, in contemporary America, nothing is scarier to some folks than the specter of two people of the same sex getting hitched. You see, marriage is a sacred institution that fuels sitcom jokes everywhere, and some people think that teh gayz should be denied the right to experience this holy sacrament/stand-up comedy staple.

One of the many ornery fellows out there who REALLY doesn’t like same-sex marriage is Douglas MacKinnon, a former aid to President Ronald Reagan. If anyone has a serious jonesing for the Victorian Era, it’s this guy. Recently, MacKinnon went on one of the nation’s infinitesimal number of right-wing radio shows to tout his new book, The Secessionist States of America: The Blueprint for Creating a Traditional Values Country … Now Ho boy. In this mind-expanding tome, MacKinnon argues that the conservative southern states should secede from the Union and form a new nation called “Reagan” (really) which would be a bastion for “traditional values” — and, possibly, Jelly Belly jelly beans. Now, MacKinnon spends a lot of time making a “legal” case for the fundamentally illegal act of secession — an idea that should have been settled after the Civil War but nonetheless keeps popping up in right-wing circles — but I’m not gonna’ focus on that part of his nineteenth-century worldview. Instead, I’m gonna’ focus on WHY he wants to form the nation of “Reagan:” to escape the gayness.

MacKinnon does not like anything that’s even remotely gay. “The world has been turned upside down if you do happen to believe in traditional values,” he whined. He went on to claim that:

If you happen to make a donation in favor of traditional marriage, you can lose your job. If you happen to refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple because it goes against your religious beliefs, you can be driven out of business. If you’re a football commentator and you happen to just say, innocently, that you know maybe I wouldn’t have drafted a gay football player because I wouldn’t want to deal with the distraction, many people on the left will try to drive you out of your job as well.

So MacKinnon REALLY doesn’t care for gay people, and he wants to inoculate himself from their nefarious gay influence by forming a new country that would take a stand for “traditional values,” and, more specifically, “traditional marriage” between one man and one woman. Indeed, keeping marriage limited to a man and a woman is the Alamo-call of many social conservatives, who like to claim that this type of marriage is “traditional,” because it’s “biblical” as well. For example, the Colorado-based advocacy group Focus on the Family asserts that “family is the fundamental building block of all human civilizations, and marriage is the foundation of the family.” They see marriage as being “under attack” by “the push for so-called same-sex ‘marriage’ and civil unions” that supposedly threaten the tradition of “male-female led families” that “have constituted the primary family units of human society.”

Other like-minded conservatives, such as celebrity pastor Rick Warren, claim that “traditional marriage” was “God’s intended, original design.” Never mind that the bible depicts all kinds of marital arrangements, including polygamy and women being sold into sexual slavery. For social conservatives, “God’s design” coincidentally coincides with their own, and they’ve amassed plenty of rhetorical and legislative ammunition to fight this battle in the larger culture war.

The nineteenth century American family in all of its nuclear glory.

The nineteenth century American family in all of its nuclear glory.

But here’s the problem: the ideal, “traditional” American nuclear family — a bread-winning husband, a stay-at-home wife, and their dependent children — that social conservatives view as a common thread that links America to biblical times is, in fact, a product of the bourgeoise notion of the family that emerged in the nineteenth century. During this period, distinct cultural separations between work and the home solidified, love and intimacy became (forgive me) wedded to the notion of marriage, and children came to be viewed not as smaller versions of adults, but as agents to be nurtured and protected from the outside world.

In her sweeping study Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, historian of the family Stephanie Coontz explains how, for much of history, marriage was primarily an “economic and political” transaction. From dowries to land deals; from property in assets to property in women; from forging political alliances to guaranteeing more workers for the family farm, marriage in different societies at different points in history had little to do with love and child-rearing. The notion that there was ever a single, “traditional” version of marriage geared towards consolidating romantic affection and maintaining nuclear family stability is a very modern concept.

As Coontz writes, “for centuries, marriage did much of the work that markets and governments do today.” Throughout much of history, marriage was deeply functional. “It organized the production and distribution of goods and people. It set up political, economic, and military alliances. It coordinated the division of labor by gender and age. It orchestrated people’s personal rights and obligations in everything from sexual relations to the inheritance of property,” Coontz notes.* Thus, in many ways, marriage was the foundation of civilizations, but not in the way social conservatives describe as a spiritual/moral bulwark against a corrupt outside world. That particular ideal of marriage and the family, which conservatives see as being threatened by extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, is a product of nineteenth-century America — yet it’s an ideal of marriage and family relations that we still cling to today.

During the Victorian Era, the U.S. underwent a series of changes that fundamentally altered American life and paved the way for our contemporary society. Most significantly, the Market Revolution unleashed a trend towards an increasingly industrial, increasingly urban society that began undercutting the importance of family farms as self-sustaining economic units. This transition to a society based on industrial mass-production and mass-consumption spurred the growth of a middle class that placed a greater emphasis on leisure, romantic courtship, delegated gender roles, and the notion that children should be specially cared for in a domestic sphere that shielded them from the cold, public sphere of the marketplace. Basically, with increased leisure and affluence, and a decreased need for familial farm-hands, kids made the cultural transition from being miniature adults to “children” in need of nurturing.

Historians Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg detail the emergence of the modern family in their classic book, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. Released from earlier conceptions of the family as a ‘little commonwealth’ that acted as a “microcosm” of the larger society, the nineteenth century saw the family transform into a “‘haven in a heartless world,’ a bastion of morality and tender feeling” that was separate from the “aggressive and selfish world of commerce.” Mintz and Kellogg also note that during this period, marriage became more explicitly identified as the natural reflection of romantic relations between husbands and wives.* This is how American social conservatives — and much of the general population — continues to view marriage today. When they say that allowing gays and lesbians to marry threatens the “traditional,” “biblical” concept of marriage, what they’re really saying is that they’ve accepted a particular ideal of marriage and the family that emerged in a very specific time-period — and they don’t want to give it up.

Although additional visions of the family influenced American life throughout the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Victorian, bourgeoise notion of the nuclear family became especially appealing to Americans in the post-World War II era. During this period, the recent memory of the most violent conflict in world history, coupled with the threat of the emerging Cold War nurtured a preference for the “traditional family” as a shelter of love and protection from a hostile outside world.

The Cleaver family as depicted on the sitcom "Leave it to Beaver." Seriously, was any family ever like this?!

The nuclear Cleaver family as depicted on the sitcom “Leave it to Beaver.” No gays allowed!

Stephanie Coontz notes that the resurgence of the nuclear family ideal in the post-war period was bolstered by vanilla 1950s sitcoms like “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave it to Beaver,” which reinforced the ideal of the breadwinner father, the homemaker mother, and those adorably dependent kids. Of course, just as the Victorian Era saw the growth of a new leisure class, the post-war boom in employment and the attendant growth in consumer spending allowed Americans to once again populate their homes with store-bought goodies and plenty of family love that stood as a solid reef in the bigger, scarier, more tempestuous Cold War-era ocean. “Putting their mouths where their money was,” Coontz writes, “Americans consistently told pollsters that home and family were the wellsprings of their happiness and self-esteem.”*

Of course, as Coontz notes, the messy reality of family life in the fifties was far more complex, but the ideal of the perfect, financially secure, Wonderbread white, and decidedly not-gay American nuclear family lives on in contemporary society. The loss of this supposed family ideal is what conservatives lament when the rail against gay marriage. And however they frame this ideal, either as “traditional” or “biblical,” they’re yearning for an ideal of marriage and family life that only emerged in the nineteenth century and became more entrenched in the post-World War II era. Of course, conservatives tend to prefer a worldview based on clear-cut hierarchies and black-and-white moral divisions, so they’re likely to perish — Ahab-style — chasing the anti-gay marriage white whale in a sea of historical nuance. This is unfortunate, because those wishing to strengthen American family bonds would do well to permit all loving couples to marry, gay or straight. After all, the fate of civilization hangs in the balance, no?

* See Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Penguin, 2005), 9.

* See Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988), xv.

* See Stephanie Coontz, The Way we Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 25.