Monthly Archives: September 2013

Pumpkin Flavored History

Pumpkin

It didn’t used to be like this. Only five years ago, I swear that pumpkin-flavored stuff was still a bit of an anomaly. Oh, you could get a pumpkin spiced latte at Starbucks, and your standard pumpkin pies and pastries lined bakery sections everywhere, but now it seems that the very minute autumn begins to peek out from summer’s sweaty, smothering armpit, the pumpkin conglomerate unleashes a now ubiquitous barrage of pumpkin spice-flavored everything. Its fall and you must eat pumpkins! There’s even a pumpkin pie flavored vodka, because Russian alcoholics enjoy the fall season too, dammit.

So what’s the deal with everything being pumpkin flavored? Well, as with so many things these days, it all goes back to the nineeenth century. Pumpkins function as big, squashy symbols of idealized rural life, and rural nostalgia has always been popular with Americans. For a people stuck in the high-tech, urbanized twenty-first century world, pumpkins invoke more simple times and landscapes dotted with small family farms untainted by modernity’s impersonal touch.

Rural nostalgia, however, is nothing new in the U.S. In fact, it goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, who, of all the Founding Fathers, was surly the Founding Father-est. Jefferson’s vision of America centered on the “Agrarian Yeoman” ideal: he believed that small, independent yeomen farmers represented the highest level of American self-sufficient virtue and work ethic, and should therefore settle the vast American landscape. Jefferson considered an agrarian society to be morally superior to the cities, which he viewed as rife with unnatural economic and moral corruption in the form of financial speculation and industrial development that threatened his ideal of agrarian democracy.

Jefferson’s Agrarian ideal has never really left American popular culture, and pumpkins have helped keep it alive and kicking. Historian Cindy Ott, author of the fantastic book, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, traces the pumpkin’s modern popularity back to the ninteenth century, when the Market Revolution spurred the growth of industry that drew Americans away from the countryside into the larger cities. As the growing market economy caught more and more people in its web, Americans embraced the pumpkin as a symbol of pre-modern, idealized, rustic family life. Thus, pumpkins became big, orange emblems of the agrarian ideal that Jefferson so cherished and to which Americans ascribed the simple comforts of home, family, and small town life.

So powerful a symbol was the pumpkin that even after it ceased to be a valuable commercial crop, it still connected Americans to a primitive, pastoral age untainted by the cold mechanics of the modern world. As Ott observes:

As many Americans felt they were losing connections to the natural world, an authentic way of life, and their cultural roots, the orange field pumpkin, in particular, helped them rebuild those connections…What the orange field pumpkin lost in practical usage and economic value, it gained in symbolic power. Americans gave it a vibrant life in stories and holiday rituals that helped them talk about the meaning of nature within a rapidly developing urban and industrial society.

Since the transition from countryside to urban centers hasn’t really stopped since the nineteenth century, Americans today are scarfing down pumpkin flavored-stuff for largely the same nostalgic reasons. By eating and drinking pumpkin flavors, Ott notes, “We’re celebrating the nostalgia for this old-fashioned, rural way of life, that no one ever really wanted to stay on, but everyone’s always been romantic about.” The explosion in popularity of pumpkin flavored everything has left some people worrying about the rise of a “pumpkin spice empire” with possible designs for Genghis Khan-style world conquest, while others are downright angry, pleading for more rational heads to “stop the pumpkin-izing.

The growth of the “pumpkin spice empire” might lead some to conclude that the humble orange squash has been commercialized and factory-farmed to the point of it being yet another weapon in the industrialized agricultural onslaught that nearly wiped out American family farms. But never fear, for, as Ott notes, the commercialization of the pumpkin via the buying and selling of rural nostalgia has actually been a boon to small American farms. People’s idea about the pumpkin, she writes:

[H]ave revitalized the very thing it has long symbolized – the small family farm. The natural peculiarites of the crop, its meanings, and market conditions have all encouraged its production by small-scale growers for local markets at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The pumpkin’s increasing economic value arose out of the deep meanings Americans invested in it, and its increased commodification helped rejuvinate small-scale farmers and small rural towns rather than undermine them.*

Pumpkin flavored beers: nothing wrong with that!

Pumpkin flavored beers: nothing wrong with that!

It seems, then, that however annoying and shameless, the commercial onslaught that is pumpkin flavored-stuff will likely continue — even though most of that stuff likely contains no actual pumpkin. So far, this commodification has been beneficial to the great orange squash and the people who grow it. Moreover, by continuing to worship the pumpkin via attending the sacred church of American capitalist consumption, you are keeping the age-old Jeffersonian tradition of the Agrarian ideal alive and well. Even if you’re a suburban office dweller, by eating pumpkin flavored-stuff, you nonetheless gain a primal connection to Jefferson’s mythic, virtuous, independent yeomen — and that should make you downright sick with glorious American-ness.

So this fall, go on and enjoy your pumpkin flavored coffees, chocolates, pies, and, especially, beers. You can be safe in the knowledge that you are helping to stimulate the American economy, especially those fabled “small businesses,” via the cultural consumption of a storied American icon.

* Cindy Ott, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), 7.

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The GOP, the Debt Ceiling, and the History of Killing Political Legitimacy

Poster advertising a "Save the Union" meeting, Frederick, Maryland, September, 1860.

Poster advertising a “Save the Union” meeting, Frederick, Maryland, September, 1860.

The situation was unprecedented in scope. The conservative party in America, its hardcore base mostly relegated to the South, had just suffered a devastating electoral defeat in which a lawyer and political progressive from Illinois won the U.S. presidency along mostly sectional lines, carrying primarily northern and west coast states. In response to the stinging rebuke of their policies by the majority of the American people, the conservative party decided that rather than accept the outcome of the presidential election, they would instead try to prevent the victorious party from governing by denying their very political legitimacy. In so doing, the conservative party in America waged war against democracy itself.

Does this sound familiar? If you pay any attention to history, it should. But I’m not talking about the current showdown in Washington over the debt ceiling, in which the congressional Republican caucus, its base largely confined to the South, is demanding that President Barack Obama agree to defund his signature health care reform law or else they will shut down the government. Rather, in the above paragraph, I was referring to the fallout from the election of 1860, in which the conservative southern Democratic Party decided that rather than accept the election of Illinois Republican Abraham Lincoln as president, the southern states would reject his election entirely and secede from the Union.

The two situations are not identical, but they share uncanny similarities, particularly the attempt by a conservative political party to deny the very political legitimacy of its opponent. Mark Twain once said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” That should be clear to anyone observing the current debt ceiling fiasco.

As the summer of 2013 winds down, the idea that a president who just won reelection would cave to the insane demands of a small, right-wing minority in the House, is, of course, ludicrous, but the Republican Party isn’t interested in shaping policy here. They’re doing something far more symbolic and destructive: like the southern Democratic Party secessionists of 1860-61, the conservative Republican radicals in the House are testing just how far they can get away with denying the current Democratic Party’s right to govern.

As Jonathan Chait observes in a recent piece for New York Magazine, the debt ceiling showdown is:

[A] Constitutional struggle, a kind of quasi-impeachment, that will test Obama’s mettle and, next to his reelection campaign, poses the most singular threat to his presidency.

The progression of events begins with a dynamic I described in a print piece at the beginning of 2012 – conservatives had come to regard the 2012 race as their last chance to win an election as authentic conservatives against a rising Democratic majority. Since their crushing defeat, they have ignored the task of refurbishing the party’s national appeal for its next national electoral bid, and instead have recommitted themselves to waging increasingly millenarian confrontations from their existing red state power base in Congress.

Most of us expected, at some level, that the election would cool the right’s apocalyptic fervor. Instead, the opposite has occurred. Paul Ryan candidly explained the calculation: “The reason this debt limit fight is different is, we don’t have an election around the corner where we feel we are going to win and fix it ourselves. We are stuck with this government another three years.” This is a remarkable confession. Republicans need to compel Obama to accept their agenda, not in spite of the fact that the voters rejected it at the polls but precisely for that reason.

Paul Ryan’s confession that for conservatives, a legitimate national election in which voters rejected their policies should be no impediment to Republicans trying to enact those very policies at any cost is indeed remarkable. Yet, it makes perfect sense when you consider that, as political scientist Corey Robin notes, radicalism is the very essence of conservatism. Recent political commentators’ revelations about the nature of the American right, Robin writes, are completely on target. Conservatism, he reminds us:

[L]ives in a fact-free universe, where ideological purity is more important than pragmatic solutions… it’s revolutionary and radical rather than realistic and moderate…it’s activist rather than accommodating…it’s, well,…not…really…conservative.

This preference for purity of ideology and rejection of compromise defines modern conservatism (and by “modern” in this context, I mean the conservatism that goes back to the reaction against the French Revolution) and helps explain the striking parallels between the debt ceiling showdown of 2013 and the secession crisis of 1860-61. In both instances, a reactionary conservative party, divided amongst itself  but nonetheless fearful that’s its grip on national power was slipping away, sought to use radical measures to prevent its political opponents from governing, despite their opponents having been victorious in democratic elections.

Take the issue of party division: contemporary political commentators have noted that the debt ceiling fight over Obamacare has spurred a Republican Party inner civil war in which House conservatives find themselves at odds with their Senate colleagues and even their former presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

Speaker of the House John Boener (R-OH) leads a Republican caucus that is threatening to shut down the Federal government.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) leads a Republican caucus that is the equivalent of political arsonists.

Similar party divisions over how best to preserve slavery against the northern based Republican Party split the Democratic Party into three factions during the 1860 presidential election. As a result of this split, Abraham Lincoln faced three Democratic challengers: the pro-slavery, states’ rights candidate John C. Breckinridge, whose support was strongest in the slave-heavy Deep South, the “Constitutional Union Party” candidate, John Bell, a moderate whose platform of compromise to keep the Union intact made him popular in the Border South, and Stephen Douglas of “popular sovereignty” fame, who represented the last hope of the pro-Union Democratic Party in the North. All factions wanted to preserve slavery, but were divided over how to do so.

Southern support for the pro-slavery, states’ rights Breckinridge faction eventually spilled over into support for secession. By seceding from the Union and forming the Confederate States of America, southern Democratic leaders flat-out rejected the results of a fair national election and denied the political legitimacy of Republican Abraham Lincoln to govern. Consider, for example, these lines from Georgia’s “Declaration of the Causes of Secession:”

The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party, under its present name and organization, is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an anti-slavery party. While it attracts to itself by its creed the scattered advocates of exploded political heresies, of condemned theories in political economy, the advocates of commercial restrictions, of protection, of special privileges, of waste and corruption in the administration of Government, anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose. By anti-slavery it is made a power in the state.

Such are the opinions and such are the practices of the Republican party, who have been called by their own votes to administer the Federal Government under the Constitution of the United States. We know their treachery; we know the shallow pretenses under which they daily disregard its plainest obligations. If we submit to them it will be our fault and not theirs.

To avoid these evils we resume the powers which our fathers delegated to the Government of the United States, and henceforth will seek new safeguards for our liberty, equality, security, and tranquillity.

Now, compare Georgia’s desire to “seek new safeguards for our liberty” with a statement from Representative Trent Franks (R-AZ) during the 2012 presidential election following one of multiple House Republican votes to repeal Obamacare:

I’m encouraged today to see the House of Representatives fulfill its intended role as the body closest to, and most ‘representative’ of, the American people.

House Republicans are delivering on their promise to do everything possible to prevent Obamacare, including continuing to work to defund the fatally flawed law.

The American people have been unmistakably clear in rejecting the notion of a socialized health care system, but have been unceremoniously ignored by this Administration. But make no mistake: President Obama has had his say; the Supreme Court has had its say; and the American people will have their say this November.

Just as the Georgia secession declaration claimed that the Lincoln administration had used “treachery” to gain control over the federal government and implement its anti-slavery agenda, Franks claimed that the Obama administration “unceremoniously ignored” the wishes of the American people by implementing Obamacare, and that the people would have their say by voting President Obama out of office in 2012. The American people, of course, HAD their say: but instead, they reelected President Obama, giving him every right to implement the Affordable Health Care Act.

So, when the traditional political routes failed, the House GOP resorted to taking the country hostage by pulling a page from the 1860-61 southern secessionists’ playbook: just as the secessionists threatened to tear the country apart when they lost an election, the House GOP are now threatening to shut the country down in a last-ditch effort to destroy Obamacare. In so doing, they are following the advice of conservative ideologues, like tax policy advocate Grover Norquist, who famously stated that Republicans’ strategy in the face of a Democratic president should be to “make it so that a Democrat cannot govern as a Democrat.”

This is what happened the last time democracy was voided in the U.S.

This is what happened the last time democracy was voided in the U.S.

Thus, while contemporary conservatives are not advocating secession, they are advocating the essence of secession: the idea that when a political party is defeated at the polls, is has the right to damage and destroy the democratic process in an effort to get its agenda recognized. Just as conservative Democrats denied Republican Abraham Lincoln’s right to govern in 1860-61 by seceeding from the Union, conservative Republicans in 2013 are denying Democrat Barack Obama’s right to govern by holding the federal government hostage.

The historical ironies are so deep that we just might drown in them. The events of 1860-61 and 2013 prove that, even in the world’s greatest democracy, the democratic process cannot be taken for granted. These events should also give pause those who still maintain that conservatism, as an allegedly reactionary movement, cannot be radical. In their effort to save the burning house from the flames of change, conservatives have historically been willing to burn the house down. Contemporary conservatives show no signs of bucking this trend as they circle the House of Representatives carrying torches and kerosene.

Abe Lincoln Resurfaces, Still Helping with our Better Angels

An image taken in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863 that very well might show a previously un-noticied picture of President Abraham Lincoln. Picture by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

A picture taken at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania that very well might show a previously unnoticed image of President Abraham Lincoln. Picture by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Recently, news broke that a keen-eyed former Disney animator named Christopher Oakley had discovered a previously unknown image of President Abraham Lincoln in an old picture taken by photographer Alexander Gardner. Gardener took the photo on November 19, 1863, the day Lincoln delivered his “Gettysburg Address,” perhaps the most famous – and shortest – speech in the history of the United States. If this admittedly blurry and tiny image does indeed show Old Abe, and the evidence looks fairly convincing that it does, then it would be one of the very few images of the 16th president not taken in a posed, studio setting.

As Discovery News reports:

Earlier this year, Christopher Oakley — a former Disney animator and Civil War buff — was working on a 3D animation of Honest Abe as part of his Virtual Lincoln Project, a student collaboration. (Oakley also teaches new media at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.)

While examining Gardner’s stereograph, Oakley wondered if the Library of Congress (which owns the image) had ever created a high-resolution copy of the photo’s left-sided negative. They hadn’t, but would do so for $73. “It’s the best $73 I ever spent,” Oakley told USA Today. “As soon as I had that in my hands, I was able to look at it much more clearly.”

…Oakley identified a man with a trimmed beard and stovepipe hat standing precisely where Lincoln would have stood, near a man Oakley determined to be then-Secretary of State William Seward, who was on the speaker’s platform. “All the landmarks — jawline, beard, hair, cheekbones, heavy brow, ears — line up perfectly,” Oakley told Smithsonian.

This find is especially fortuitous: Lincoln is currently en vogue in American popular culture, though he’s never really gone out vogue. Steven Spielberg’s 2012 Lincoln bio-pic was a big box office success, the ever prolific and award-garnering historian Eric Foner recently published a book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in history, and President Obama has been invoking Lincoln lately to boost support for his economic plan.

Lincoln has always been a popular American icon because he stands as a symbol; a reminder that the United States just may be able to overcome its worst instincts and flaws in order to live up to the lofty ideals set forth in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Lincoln, being both a human being and a politician, was by no means perfect, but that’s why Americans like him. In today’s particularly trying times, amidst economic recession, endless overseas wars, and social unrest at home, the U.S. is undergoing a deep process of soul-searching. Americans today are trying to reconnect with what Lincoln, facing civil war in his First Inaugural Address, termed “the better angels of our nature.”

Ever since his untimely assassination in 1865, Americans of all stripes have tried to find the real Lincoln. An estimated 15,000 books have been written about the 16th president, books that have ranged from award-winning biographies, to penetrating critiques of his wartime policies, to deeply disingenuous, loose-with-the-facts hatchet jobs. Even Spielberg’s well-made and acclaimed film, as historians have noted, took the occasional dramatic license with the facts, as Hollywood productions are want to do. Moreover, in terms of the major issues of his day, slavery and race, Lincoln has been called everything from a flaming racist, to a paternalistic sort of racist, to a pro-slavery demagogue, to a politically deft Abolitionist, to a champion of racial equality. Some people even think Lincoln was gay.

Yet, despite all of the debate over the real Lincoln, the 16th president’s historical legacy as an American political icon has largely been sealed: he was, after all, the president who saved the Union from political insurrection and emancipated the slaves, ushering in “a new birth of freedom” as he so famously stated in the “Gettysburg Address.” True, Lincoln, as was the case in his own lifetime, does have some enemies today. He remains a demonic symbol of alleged statist tyranny for modern libertarians seeking historical excuses for why their much yearned-for stateless, free market utopia has not yet materialized. But libertarians aside, Lincoln is largely revered by Americans not despite his flaws, but because of them. Lincoln was only human, after all, but for a man of his time, he overcame a lot of social, racial, political, and military obstacles and emerged from these challenges as a symbol of how the worst American traits can be vanquished.

This is why a newly discovered picture of Lincoln is such big news: the image shows the president as an ordinary guy, just one among a crowd. He isn’t grandly posed in a sanitized, Washington D.C. photographic studio setting. A small, blurry image of Lincoln the man helps us connect to Lincoln the man, a man who was flawed like any other human but who nonetheless achieved great things. After all, isn’t that the very ideal to which Americans strive? Sure it is dammit.

Lincoln as we usually see him: poised and presidential.

Lincoln as we usually see him: poised and presidential.

Like everyone in 19th century America, Abraham Lincoln was a racist in the sense that his views of African-Americans were filtered through the social lens that deemed blacks as inferior to whites in most ways. But Lincoln was also a man who struggled with balancing a personal objection to slavery with the knowledge that slavery as an institution was protected by the Constitution. It was Lincoln’s recognition of the realities of American racism and slavery, after all, that influenced his early support for a scheme to colonize black people to present-day Panama under the guise that white prejudice made racial co-habitation impossible in the United States. Despite these obstacles, of course, Lincoln eventually issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a wartime necessity before finally declaring the destruction of slavery a moral imperative to Union victory in the Civil War.

Lincoln’s wartime policies with regards to government power were controversial at the time and remain so to this day. Most famously, his suspension of Habeas Corpus and declaration of martial law for the purpose of silencing political enemies, like Ohio Democratic Party congressman Clement Vallandigham, spurred accusations of tyranny during the Civil War. These same actions still irk modern libertarians and other various “limited government” folks. Lincoln, however, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, believed that he was acting in the country’s best interest, though he was certainly aware that the chance to silence Copperhead Democrats was a welcome perk. Yet, as legal historian James Dueholm reminds us, “[u]nder the Constitution the federal government can unquestionably suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus if the public safety requires it during times of rebellion or invasion. The issue is whether Congress or the president holds this power.” Indeed, people often forget that suspension of Habeas Corpus isn’t, in and of itself, unconstitutional.

Ultimately, though, the Confederacy’s defeat ensured that Lincoln’s issues with civil liberties would come to be viewed as unfortunately necessary measures to ensuring Union victory. Again, Lincoln wasn’t perfect, but he was on the right side of history when justifying controversial government policies. Besides, he wasn’t alone in these matters: as historians like Mark Neely Jr. have noted, Confederate president Jefferson Davis also suspended Habeas Corpus, declared martial law in the South, imprisoned political rivals, and instituted the first draft in American history. Lincoln was hardly the only presidential tyrant during the Civil War.

Lincoln’s overcoming of so many wartime obstacles in the form of issues like race, government power, and political equality helped make him such an enduring symbol of America’s “better angels.” In modern American society, as very similar issues of racial justice, civil liberties, and political representation constantly occupy the headlines, we can look to Lincoln as a symbol of another age when these types of issues also tried American resolve. If Lincoln could overcome them, then so can we.

Criticisms that Lincoln was a flawed man and politician are beside the point here: its because of his flaws that he remains an icon, just as the long story of America’s overcoming its worst prejudices to expand equality to all has become integral to American identity itself. If a new picture of Lincoln, however small and blurry, helps us identify a little bit more with the man himself, all the better. Perhaps now we are all Lincoln, with the potential to connect to our “better angels.” And perhaps now I should stop writing, lest I run out of clichéd phrases.

Banks and Rough Justice: Why Lynching Imagery Matters

The August, 1930 public lynching of two young men in Marion, Indiana. This is not the same thing as criticizing plutocrats.

The August 1930 public lynching of two young men in Marion, Indiana. This is not the same thing as criticizing plutocrats.

It the annuals of foot-in-mouth syndrome, few will ever be able to compete with Bob Benmosche, the entitled gas bag and so-called “in your face” CEO of American International Group (AIG). AIG is one of the most powerful multinational insurance corporations/mafioso syndicates in the world. It also just happens to be one of the mega-banks that melted under the weight of its own greed and had to be bailed out by taxpayers in 2008 to the tune of over $180 billion dollars. Why does that matter?

It matters because in a recent interview with noted organized crime publication the Wall Street Journal, Bob Benmosche complained that average Americans were lynching bankers. That’s right, lynching. Supposedly, Americans angry at AIG for paying out $165 million dollar bonuses to its various executives, the same executives who tanked their company and the world economy by making endless shady bets on mortgage bonds, were tantamount to a Jim Crow era Southern lynch mob:

“That was ignorance … of the public at large, the government and other constituencies. I’ll tell you why. [Critics referred] to bonuses as above and beyond [basic compensation]. In financial markets that’s not the case. … It is core compensation.

“Now you have these bright young people [in the financial-products unit] who had nothing to do with [the bad bets that hurt the company.] … They understand the derivatives very well; they understand the complexity. … They’re all scared. They [had made] good livings. They probably lived beyond their means. …They aren’t going to stay there for nothing.

The uproar over bonuses “was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that–sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.

“We wouldn’t be here today had they not stayed and accepted … dramatically reduced pay. … They really contributed an enormous amount [to AIG’s survival] and proved to the world they are good people. It is a shame we put them through that.”

So, Benmosche didn’t just defend a bunch of financial market goons who should be stamping license plates rather than getting bonuses. No, no, no: he likened them to a persecuted minority, African-Americans, who, for, decades, were murdered without due process by racist mobs in the Deep South that employed “rough justice” to enforce white supremacy in the decades following the American Civil War. This wasn’t an off-the-cuff remark: Benmosche deliberately referenced the mob violence of Jim Crow, one of the most brutal and shameful periods in the history of the United States, because lynching evokes a visceral, historically vindicated injustice committed illegally by a privileged group against a persecuted minority. But since Wall Street bankers are the ultimate in privileged, overcompensated, drunk with power, insulated from the consequences of their poor business practices gang of miscreants on planet earth, Benmosche’s remarks got a predictably angry reaction.

This angry reaction is expected because lynching was a form of extralegal mob justice used to prevent real justice from being rendered. Lynching calls to mind deep American cultural conceptions of the threat of long-entrenched power relationships in society being overthrown. Above all, lynching in the Deep South was a tool to enforce white supremacy: the last resort of privileged scoundrels terrified by the thought of losing the cultural hegemony to which they laid claim merely by being born with white skin.

The Jim Crow era in the American South lasted broadly from 1876 to 1965. Following the “Redemption” of the South by the white supremacist Democratic Party, aided by the vigilantism of the Ku Klux Klan, southern state governments passed a series of discriminatory laws designed to reduce blacks to second-class citizenship. These included poll taxes, property qualifications, and literacy tests designed to prohibit blacks from voting. Other laws mandated racial segregation in public facilities and private, white-owned businesses. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned black second class citizenship via the decision Plessy v. Ferguson, which stated that “separate but equal” was constitutional.

Despite using the law and economic discrimination to relegate blacks to the status of social pariahs, whites in the South still feared the spectre of racial equality. As the “New South” industrialized after the Civil War, new railroads and factories created new patterns of regional migration, spurring whites and blacks to move from place to place seeking employment. This resulted in increased tensions from racial encounters, as white men feared blacks would compete with them for jobs and intermingle with white women. Further, despite white attempts to limit black economic gains, a small but noticable black middle class emerged in the South by the late 19th century, stoking white fears of “uppity” blacks upending the long-standing racist social order. With slavery long gone, and with it, a time-tested system of controlling black Americans, white mobs resorted to lynching to maintain the racial status quo. These lynch mobs employed trumped-up charges of rape or assault to justify rough justice against African-Americans in order to keep said group in their “proper place” in society.

Oh, and lynching was brutal. Very brutal. Take the example of Sam Hose. In April 1899, a Georgia mob accused Hose of murdering his white employer and mutilated him as punishment. The lynch mob cut off Hose’s ears, fingers, and genitals, peeled the skin from his face, drenched him in kerosene, tied him to a tree and burned him while he was still alive. Needless to say, Hose, like all victims of lynch mobs, didn’t get a fair trial.

Bob Benmosche, persecuted victim of lynch mobs.

AIG CEO Bob Benmosche, persecuted victim of lynch mobs.

The sheer brutality of American lynching, coupled with the ideology of white privilege that it was supposed to uphold, is why Benmosche’s invocation of rough justice is galling. There is a corollary between lynching and the 2008 financial crash: both are horrendous historical events that seem contrary to American ideals but which nonetheless occurred, and were even sanctioned, by significant segments of American society.

Benmosche’s comments notwithstanding, Wall Street bankers are far from a persecuted group; if anything they hold a power to crush the less fortunate in a manner similar to that of the old lynch mobs, a power demonstrated by their reckless disregard for the lives, jobs, and savings of ordinary Americans and their relentless fight to kill any and all new financial sector regulations that might reign in their greed. Moreover, bankers, as did lynchers, fancy themselves to be upstanding citizens, despite acting like the scum of society. Members of southern lynch mobs were not “riffraff;” they were respected members of society that included small farmers, sharecroppers, construction workers, teachers, politicians, pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, and barkeepers. The participation of the “best citizens” in lynchings legitimized rough justice as an appropriate means of criminal punishment and racial control. Likewise, the modern American cultural proclivity towards associating wealth acquisition with all success in life legitimizes bankers’ behavior despite its destructive impact on the national economy.

In a way, Benmosche’s use of the lynching analogy to defend banking executive bonuses is entirely appropriate, except that he has the roles reversed. Rather than being the victims of illegal actions designed to maintain unjust privilege and power, executives at AIG and other such companies have acted like the lynch mobs themselves, using their corruptly earned power to maintain their privileged status in the face of overwhelming evidence that their practices cause real damage to the lives of millions of innocent people. Benmosche, like the average southern lyncher, can’t imagine that he is defending a corrupt system because he benefits from that system in a way that feels natural and wholly earned, despite all evidence to the contrary. He defends bankers’ actions because he considers them to be “best citizens” whose contributions to society make them “good people.”

Invoking images of lyncing harks back to an era in American history during which wrong was deemed right and notions of equality before the law, economic fairness, and social responsibility were perverted in the name of upholding the unearned power of one racial group. Nowadays, we see similar trends in society as solidly American ideals of market capitalism, meritocracy, and economic innovations are perverted by schmucks like Bob Benmosche in the name of the morally loathsome pursuit of wealth at any cost.

So let’s be clear here: there’s a difference between banks, which are institutions necessary to the modern financial world, and the type of financial casino rackets that AIG and other mega-corporations have been running for years. It’s the same difference that distinguishes necessary law enforcement officers from brutal lynch mobs. And like the lynch mobs, these banks need to be repudiated.

A Race Against Time: The South and the Fight Against Social Welfare

1930s poster advertising the benefits of Social Security. The South accpeted this program on condition that African Americans be excluded from its benefits.

1930s poster advertising the benefits of Social Security. The South accepted this program on condition that African-Americans be excluded from its benefits.

This October, some of the major benefits of President Obama’s signature health care reform bill will start being implemented across the U.S. Of course, ever since the bill’s passage back in 2010, the Republican Party has stood in strident opposition to a supposedly Stanliesque health reform law that was inspired by… the Heritage Foundation: a Republican think tank that over a decade ago proposed the idea of mandated individual health insurance. Among the GOP’s most vociferous opponents of Obamacare has been Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas who is aiming for the title of senate Wingnut Royale. Cruz has made headlines of late by defiantly claiming that he’ll find a way to destroy Obamacare even in the face of procedural impossibilities in the Senate.

Cruz’s Quixotic quest to defund the health care law is, in large part, a rhetorical attempt to regurgitate just enough political innards into the gaping maws of his nested Tea Party backers in exchange for their continued support. But Cruz’s anti-Obamacare stance is also standard politics for a conservative politician from the South: Cruz, as did many southerners in the past, opposes social welfare programs. Historically, however, conservative southerners’ opposition to welfare has been far from total; rather, as scholars like Lisa Disch and many others have observed, it has been selective along lines of class and, especially, race.

Earlier this summer Salon published an excerpt from Sasha Abramsky’s new book, The American Way of Life: How the Other Half Still Lives, that details the South’s historical opposition to the safety net. Abramsky notes that the U.S. as a whole, but particularly the South, stood against social welfare in the nineteenth century, even as European nations worked to implement early safety nets:

In the United States…support for such reforms remained more tenuous. True, an array of progressive political groups supported workers’ compensation laws by the early twentieth century. And by 1917, with the Supreme Court having upheld the constitutionality of these laws, thirty-seven states had systems in place, most of them compulsory. In fact, as a region, only the Deep South had completely neglected to implement compensation schemes for at least some categories of injured workers.

Some minor state-level tinkering aside, Abramsky observes that it took the Great Depression to loosen the U.S.’s opposition to the safety net and embrace FDR’s New Deal, especially in the South. Opponents of mandated social programs:

[A]rgued that the imposition of mandates on working Americans, forcing them to pay into a system to support the elderly and to provide medical coverage for the sick, was foreign to the country’s founding principles. What was happening in Europe was, they argued, too paternalistic, too coercive. Moreover, in a land of great social mobility and endless opportunity such systems were unnecessary. Keep them for the ossified Old World—keep them for places where one’s station in life was determined by one’s parentage.

This excerpt, however, neglects the important role race played in shaping Southern — and American — opposition to social welfare. After all, the U.S. did, in fact, implement welfare policies before the New Deal. As historian Elna Green writes, the Civil War produced the first great shift towards social welfare in the form of veterans’ pensions that covered soldiers and their immediate families and dependants. By 1893, 40 percent of the Federal budget was reserved for Union veterans’ pensions. Former Confederate soldiers were exempt from Federal soldiers’ pensions, but white conservative southern politicians who “redeemed” the South after Reconstruction implemented state pension programs similar to those at the Federal level.*

The Confederate pensions started small, but grew thanks to the influence of the Lost Cause movement, which Green defines as “an emotional defense of the [Confederate] war effort, slavery, the Confederacy, and the superiority of southern civilization.”* Rebel pensions set a precedent for defining social welfare as for whites only, laying the groundwork for the notion that the safety net was okay for some — but not all — that still influences modern southern conservatives.

Florida, for example, funded its 1909 Confederate Pension Law via property taxes that drew from white and black landowners, even though African-Americans did not serve as Rebel soldiers and were therefore ineligible for veterans’ benefits. By taxing blacks to pay for white pensions, Florida justified the existence of social welfare on grounds that it benefited whites at blacks’ expense. By enacting welfare in the form of Confederate veterans’ benefits, the state hedged against any potential black agitation for welfare benefits.* As Green notes, defining social welfare in racial terms “allowed Southern states to create extensive and expansive social welfare programs, without appearing to do so.”* Pensions for poor whites were earned through service, but welfare for blacks constituted racial entitlements.

Conservative southerners continued this line of thought in their approach to Social Security in the 1930s. Southern Democrats chaffed at the idea of redistributing money from whites to supposedly indolent blacks, and worried that extending federal Social Security benefits to blacks would discourage them from working as peons in the South’s fields, factories, and domiciles. In order to gain the support of powerful Southern Democrats for the program, Franklin D. Roosevelt ensured that Social Security excluded agricultural laborers and domestic servants, over 60 percent of whom were, not coincidently, black. Thus, conservative southerners embraced Social Security as long as it benefited whites only. As with Confederate pensions, the issue of race influenced conservatives’ support for social welfare.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX): arch-foe of Obamacare.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX): (Deluded?) arch-foe of Obamacare.

Today’s southern conservative politicians, such as Ted Cruz, are not unabashed racists like their political forerunners. But modern Republicans’ opposition to the welfare state is still deeply influenced by the racial issues that have long been at the heart of conservative approaches to the safety net. Indeed, much of Cruz’s opposition to Obamacare stems from his hawkish stance on immigration. He’s claimed, for example, that a quirk in the law exempts non-citizens from coverage and therefore encourage businesses to hire newly amnestied illegals over U.S. citizens. This assertion has been disputed, but Cruz’s claim is symbolically significant because it echoes historical southern conservative warnings that social welfare benefits should be endorsed with caution, lest those benefits flow to undeserving, non-white “others.”

Now, I don’t think Cruz is a racist: he is, after all, the son of a (nutty) Cuban refugee. But with his stance against Obamacare, he’s playing to the larger conservative electorate’s conditional opposition to social welfare, which is based on the fear that welfare’s benefits might go to undeserving blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities. Consider, for example, the return of Ronald Reagan’s fictional “Welfare Queen” story during the 2012 presidential election. This old myth served as a rallying point for conservatives fighting against Barack Obama’s liberal welfare state supposedly doling out benefits to non-white “takers.” The “Welfare Queen” meme still exists despite the fact that food stamp usage is REALLY high in Red States, especially among conservative whites, and that conservative Red States generally take in more in federal dollars than they pay into the system.

Cruz’s and the Republican Tea Party’s opposition to the safety net, whether in the form of Obamacare or Food Stamps, draws on a historical legacy of southern conservatism’s opposition to social welfare’s benefits going to the “wrong” people. The fight over the American welfare state has never been waged along simple lines of “for” and “opposed.” So the next time you hear shouts about “limited government,” remember to ask: “limited government for whom?”

* Elna C. Green, “Protecting Confederate Soldiers and Mothers: Pensions, Gender, and the Welfare State in the U.S. South, a Case-Study from Florida,” Journal of Social History 39 (Summer, 2006): 1079, 1085-6, 1082.

The Bible Says it…Right? American Politicians, Scripture, and the Legacy of the Slavery Debate

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-Hell) quotes the Bible to justify slashing food assistance programs. Photo by AP.

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-Hell) quotes the Bible to justify slashing food assistance programs. Photo by AP.

This week, the dignified monkey cage and lobotomy experiment laboratory known as the House of Representatives, which, thanks to gerrymandering during the 2010 midterm elections, is dominated by the Republican Party, voted to slash $39 billion in food stamps from the Federal budget. While such a move is not unknown for a party that may, or may not, get thrills from shooting kittens and orphans out of skeet launchers, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) justified the vote using what he, and a good many other Americans consider to be, the ultimate authority on everything from policy decisions to haircuts: the bible. Quoting 2 Thessalonians 3:10 from the English Standard Bible, Cramer stated that “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

Cramer’s use of the Thessalonians passage to justify not feeding the poor was prompted by one of his constituents posting a biblical passage on the Congressman’s Facebook page that would seem to advocate helping those in need. Citing Matthew  25:36-43, the constituent highlighted the following verses:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

So who’s right on this one? Depending on your politics, the answer might seem simple, but in terms of the historical use of the bible in U.S. politics, the answer isn’t so clear-cut. Cramer was following a grand American tradition in which elected politicos use the bible to justify policy — only to have different bible verses launched right back at them from political foes. The use of the bible is not a trivial thing in U.S. politics: it played a major role in the most important social, political, and economic debate in American history, the debate over slavery.

In the mid-nineteenth century, as the sectional debate over slavery drove the country further and further towards Civil War, religious abolitionists invoked the bible to condemn what they believed to be heretical uses of scripture by southern pro-slavery politicians and religious leaders. In the 1830s, new anti-slavery movements emerged out of the flames of religious revivals that swept the American northeast, creating a reform-minded evangelical culture in the North that began attacking slavery as un-biblical. Christian abolitionists argued that slavery encouraged sin among both master and slave. Slavery corrupted masters because it drove them to amass overwhelming power, which promoted pride, lust (not limited to slaves) and violence that was antithetical to Christian life. Slavery also corrupted those in bondage by consigning them to the mercy of corrupt masters and leaving them ignorant of God. Abolitionists claimed that slavery was contrary to biblical notions of love, peace, and respect for your neighbors as articulated in the Sermon on the Mount and other like passages.

Abolitionists, however, tended to invoke the bible in more general terms rather than citing individual passages, and when they did discuss specific passages, they argued over issues of interpretation. Consider the introduction from Christian abolitionist George Bourne’s 1845 book A Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument, which you can read in full online at Documenting the American South:

THE belief was long nearly universal, and is yet very general throughout the Christian world, that the Scriptures do, to some extent, justify human slavery, as practised in this country. The object of the following chapters is to controvert this belief, and to prove that it is false and heretical, as well as dangerous and destructive to human happiness; that this belief is founded entirely on perversions of the true meaning of certain passages in the Scriptures, and is entirely contrary to the spirit of the divine volume, the letter of which condemns the practice with as much severity as it did that of any other crime. The following argument is presented for the calm and prayerful consideration of all Christians, both in the North and in the South.

Bourne’s claims that scriptures do not, in fact, sanction slavery, and that southerners who claimed otherwise used “perversions of the true meaning of certain passages in the Scriptures” could be easily mocked by southern pro-slavery apologists. As Rachel Held Evans notes in a blog post dealing with biblical pro-slavery defences:

[T]he fact of the matter is, the pro-slavery side had more going for it in the way of proof texts. Slavery apologists could cite passages like Genesis 17:2, Deuteronomy 20:10-11, 1 Corinthians 7:21, Ephesians 6:1-5, Colossians 3:18-25; 4:1, and I Timothy 6:1-2 to support their case. They pointed out that slavery was practiced by the people of Israel and regulated by God, and that Jesus never said a word against slaveholding. Even the apostle Paul instructs an escaped slave, Onesimus, to return to his master, they observed.

Held Evans references the work of historians who have long pointed out that pro-slavery Christians kind of had a point. Scholars like Eugene and Elizabeth-Fox Genovese, for example, note in their massive book The Mind of the Master Class that southern, Christian, pro-slavery apologists like the Rev. Thornton Stringfellow frankly had more biblical cannon fodder in their rhetorical war against Christian abolitionists. It was easier for pro-slavery Christians to invoke specific scriptural passages to defend slavery than it was for abolitionists to use the bible to condemn slavery.

Thortnon Stringfellow, Virginia Reverend and author of biblical pro-slavery tracts.

Thornton Stringfellow, Virginia Reverend and author of biblical pro-slavery tracts.

So what does this have to do with modern politicians using the bible to defend political actions today? Well, you can use the bible to justify just about anything. This often comes as somewhat uncomfortable news to the general public, but as biblical historians like New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman have long observed, the bible is wrought with contradictions; the results of centuries of human writers trying to alter and shape the finished bible to support varying — often contradictory — agendas. This means that if you look hard enough, you can find biblical support for slavery and slashing food stamp-funding.

If the bible can be used to justify slavery, an institution long consigned to the dustbin of moral abominations, then perhaps American politicians should think twice, or, at least exercise some nuance, when trotting out the good book to sanctify their pet legislations. You may or may not agree with Kevin Cramer that the bible justifies cutting food stamps, but wherever you stand on that — or on any other issue — at least be aware that someone else is already pointing to a bible passage that will supposedly prove you’re wrong. And you probably ARE wrong. The problem is, they’re probably wrong too: the bible says so.