Monthly Archives: December 2013

Obamacare, Pajama Boy, and the Historical Paradox of American Masculinity

The longtime prototypical image of American masculinity: a right-wing, pill-popping draft-dodging chicken hawk.

The longtime prototypical image of American masculinity: a right-wing, draft-dodging chicken hawk whose image was built on colonialism and pseudo machismo.

Quick question: what makes a man? Is it, as the Big Lebowski famously quipped, “the ability to do the right thing?” In that context, manhood is defined through deeds and actions, but is that all there is to being a man? After all, the idea of a blanket definition of “masculinity” in the 21st century is patently absurd, resting as it does on the assumption that human identities can be shaped by a singular cultural experience or molded via the reigning social values that are inevitably dictated by those who hold power in any given society. The former sentence is a highfalutin way of saying that men, just like women, are all individuals who develop in a vast number of ways depending on a vast number of experiences. The idea of complexity in gender identity, however, has historically not meshed well with rather simplistic cultural notions of American masculinity.

American manhood has historically been associated with testosterone-drenched ideals of toughness, rugged individualism, peer validation through violence, and the projection of white male dominance over non-white peoples such as blacks and Indians. This image of the domineering (white) American male has been hard to shake over the decades, and it still occupies a particularly prominent gleam in the eyes of American conservatives who are always eager to use their ideological hammers on what they see as an ever-expanding number of nails.

Case in point: a recent ad for the Affordable Health Care (or Obamacare, if you will) insurance exchange has gotten the usual rogues’ gallery of conservative loony toons all riled up. The ad features an image of a scrawny hipster sipping hot chocolate in his pajamas alongside the tagline of “Wear pajamas. Drink hot chocolate. Talk about getting health insurance.” The right-wing, America’s perpetually simmering caldron of self-persecution and undeserved entitlement, went apoplectic over the supposed insult to real American masculinity that the derisively labeled “Pajama Boy” allegedly represents.

Let’s examine some examples, shall we? Jonah Goldberg – the dough-faced, more Stay Puft than Chuck Norris National Review writer who only got a job on the wingnut welfare train because his Mom worked as a long time conservative campaign troll – whined that “there are plenty of gay dudes — and women! — who are vastly more masculine than Pajama Boy. Pajama Boy doesn’t exude homosexuality; he gives off the anodyne scent of emasculation.” Rich Lowry, another National Review editor and self-appointed conservative He-Man, took time out from mixing Sarah Palin pictures with hand cream and tissues to call “Pajama Boy” “an insufferable man-child” who “might be glad to pay more for his health insurance to include maternity benefits he doesn’t need as a blow against gender stereotyping.”

The Obamacare "Pajama Boy" ad that has white, conservative males lowering measuring sticks to their crotches.

The Obamacare “Pajama Boy” ad that has white, conservative males lowering measuring sticks to their crotches.

Goldberg and Lowry’s implications are clear: “Pajama Boy” is not the mythical, rock-ribbed alpha male who tamed the American frontier. Instead, they view the guy in the ACA ad as decidedly feminine (and therefore, weak); hence Lowry’s claim that Pajama Boy would support maternity benefits and Goldberg’s assertion that he represents “emasculation.” Conservative ideology is, in large part, projected through a hierarchical lens that views patriarchal dominance of women and non-white minorities as the essence of true manhood. Thus, Pajama Boy, despite being a fictional ad-campaign construction, represents the retrenchment of a conservative-approved American masculinity defined by whiteness, toughness, heterosexual virility, and the use of capitalism and nationalism to dominate minority populations. Pajama Boy, as National Review writer Charles Cooke complains, is a “vaguely androgynous…carefully ambi-racial” threat to the primacy of American manhood because he is neither definitively white nor definitively male.

The image of American masculinity as longed-for by Goldberg, Lowry, and Cooke goes back a long way in U.S. history and demonstrates how, as historian Anthony Rotundo notes, “manliness is a human invention” rather than a naturally occurring state.* Sociologist Michael Kimmel writes in Manhood in America: A Cultural History that “we cannot fully understand American history without understanding masculinity,” a history that has been “shaped by the efforts to test and prove manhood” via “the wars we Americans have waged, the frontier we have tamed…[and] the leaders we admire.”* Indeed, it’s no stretch to view much of American history as one protracted dick-measuring contest.

Kimmel describes two major shifts in American manhood that, over time, have butted heads to create a frustrating ideal of masculinity that is rife with paradoxes, yet remains an ideal which white American males have struggled to emulate.  In the early 19th century, Kimmel writes, “American manhood was rooted in landownership (the Genteel Patriarch) or in the self-possession of the independent artisan, shopkeeper, or farmer.” This ideal of a real man-as-independent provider and tradesman stems from the frontier history of the early U.S., in which white, Anglo males culturally tested their testosterone-laced mettle against the imposing wilderness and the Indians that inhabited it in order to establish themselves as virtuous, freedom-loving yeomen.*

But the Market Revolution that accelerated in the 1830s challenged this early masculine ideal. Caught up in a new world in which consumer spending and business acumen replaced frontier ruggedness, “American men began to link their sense of themselves as men to their position in the volatile marketplace, to their economic success,” Kimmel notes, “a far less stable yet far more exciting and potentially rewarding peg upon which to hang one’s identity.” Yet the tying of masculine identity to the whims of a modern industrial market society separated American manhood from its original ideal of independent, frontier-taming machismo, and white American men have struggled to come to terms with this change ever since. “The Self-Made Man of American mythology was born anxious and insecure, uncoupled from the more stable anchors of landownership or workplace autonomy. Now manhood had to be proved,” Kimmel writes.* And so the proving continues, as American men, especially conservatives, struggle to live up to a Davy Crockett ideal in a world where the frontier is now lined with Targets, Wal-Marts, and gut-expanding Taco Bells.

Legendary American frontiersman Davy Crocket. White American men don't get to be like him anymore.

Legendary American frontiersman Davy Crockett. White American men don’t get to be like him anymore.

Conservatives who criticize images like “Pajama Boy” are, in fact, trying to reconcile the success of consumer capitalism, of which they are the most vocal champions, with the inevitable taming of the frontier and the distinctive loss of independent manliness that a market society has wrought. There are no more frontiers; no more wildernesses left for anxious men like Jonah Goldberg and Charles Cooke to try to conquer. Picking out hormone-stuffed zombie meats from Super Wal-Mart freezers has long since replaced hunting for game. Sitting in endless, smog spewing suburban traffic jams has long since replaced westward wilderness expansion. Televised NFL games have long since replaced Indian battles. And the rise of a high-tech economy means that supposedly effete men like “Pajama Boy” now count as top providers and the gender income gap is closing to the point where more American women are now family breadwinners.

It’s perhaps fitting that John Wayne, the symbol of conservative, 20th century American manhood, was a product of Hollywood fakery as opposed to real life exploits. The rugged, domineering, white American male has now been thoroughly homogenized into just another product to be hocked by consumer culture and purchased by insecure men who have no choice but to buy their machismo from a store.

So what are apprehensive toadstools like Goldberg, Lowry, and Cooke supposed to do in a society where their precious white male egos can no longer authentically thrive? Well, they spend their time spinning fantasies in which a fictional ACA advertising figure symbolizes the collective butthurt they feel over slowly losing their privileged white male status to women, minorities, and the “carefully ambi-racial” Pajama Boy. So to these fellers I say suck it up: you made your consumer marketplace beds, now you have to sleep in them. It’s the new American way.

* See Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: Basic, 1993), 1.

* See Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (New York: Free Press, 1996), 2, 9.

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Fear of a Black Santa: Kris Kringle and the Historical Color of American Identity

The gloriously 1970s-ish album cover for Akim's 19773 Christmas novelty tune, "Santa Claus is a Black Man."

The gloriously 1970s-ish album cover for Akim’s 1973 Christmas novelty tune, “Santa Claus is a Black Man.”

Everybody knows what Santa Claus looks like, right? Sure we do: he’s an obese, hirsute, exceptionally jolly home invader who shows up in malls, Christmas parades, and your living room every December armed with a sack full of goodies with the intention of teaching well-behaving youngsters the value of rampant materialism. Oh, and Santa is a white guy. We know all of these facts despite the overwhelming fact that Santa isn’t even real. Yes, I’m sorry Virginia, but Santa Claus is indeed a mythical figure. Yet, as anyone whose studied comparative religions knows, humans often imbue mythical figures with the very real powers to shape social discourse. How humans perceive mythical figures speaks volumes about the way they perceive important issues in their society.

Case in point: writer Aisha Harris, in a recent a column for Slate, recounts how, during her youth, the overwhelming cultural image of a white Santa Claus contrasted with the depictions of a black Santa in her own home. “I remember feeling slightly ashamed that our black Santa wasn’t the ‘real thing,’ Harris writes, “[b]ecause when you’re a kid and you’re inundated with the imagery of a pale seasonal visitor…you’re likely to accept the consensus view, despite your parents’ noble intentions.” Harris goes on to suggest, only semi-jokingly, that Santa should be changed into a penguin, because having such an omnipresent cultural figure depicted as a white guy “helps perpetuate the whole ‘white-as-default‘ notion endemic to American culture.”

Following the publication of Harris’ article, Fox News host Megyn Kelly decided to squelch any attempts to colorize St. Nick by defiantly reasserting that “Santa just is white.” Leaving aside the obvious weirdness of arguing over the racial background of a figure that doesn’t actually exist, Kelly’s comments stirred plenty of internet outrage. Liberal media outlets like Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show mocked Kelly relentlessly (she also claimed, in the same segment, that Jesus was a white guy), while the Los Angeles Times insisted, per input from its readership, that there’s nothing wrong with a black Santa.

Of course, Fox News, being the undisputed media Delphi of white, reactionary outrage that it is, came to Kelly’s defence. Bill O’Reilly, self-proclaimed “Culture Warrior,” and noted General on the front lines of the non-existent “War on Christmasreasserted that “Megyn Kelly is correct. Santa was a white person.” Following this unequivocal statement about Santa’s honky heritage, O’Reilly then claimed that “the spirit of Santa transcends all racial boundaries,” as long as those boundaries don’t move beyond that of a white guy.

So what’s the big deal here? On the one hand, the whole “Black Santa” controversy can be attributed to the needs of the now standard 24 hour news cycle to fill airspace with vacuous, manufactured tripe. Fox News itself excels at turning absolutely any story into an excuse for its white, geriatric viewership to snatch persecution from the jaws of privilege. But there is an important theme underlying this whole story. As I noted above, and in case you weren’t aware, Santa Claus isn’t real. In that respect, he has no race or ethnicity. So why do so many Americans care about the race of a mythical, jolly, bearded fat guy who gives kids toys every December 24th? Americans care because what constitutes a default “American” racial identity has always been a contested concept.

Much of the trajectory of American history can be defined by a dichotomy of black and white and the struggles that dichotomy unleashed over time. In the 18th and 19th centuries, notions of “blackness” and “whiteness” weren’t just markers of outward appearances; rather, these notions also symbolized broader concepts like “slavery” and “freedom.” In his classic book Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860, Historian William J. Cooper identifies the symbiotic existence of slavery and freedom in early American history by observing that for white Americans, especially southerners in a slave society, slavery was the real, manifested opponent of freedom. Seeing black slaves in their midst constantly reaffirmed white Americans’ own identities as free citizens of the United States.*

Indeed, from the constitutional period up to the Civil War, white Americans equated blackness not only with slavery but also with the idea of “otherness;” that blacks did not share a truly American identity with whites. The early juxtaposition of black slavery with white freedom helped forge the still existent notion that equates whiteness with American identity and blackness as somehow an aberration from the cultural default that is an American white face.

Fox News' host Bill O'Reilly: defender of Christmas and a honky Santa Claus.

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly: defender of Christmas and a honky Santa Claus.

Even after the Civil War, when slavery ceased to exist as a legal institution, the idea that blackness somehow constituted a “lesser-than” form of otherness in an American sea of “normal” whiteness survived and thrived. As historian Grace Elizabeth Hale notes, white northerners and white southerners sought to reconcile after the Civil War, and it was a reconciliation grounded in “modern whiteness” that contrasted with the “culture of segregation” that marked African-Americans as legally and culturally inferior to whites by the turn-of-the-century.* Although they were no longer slaves, blacks were still a cultural and racial minority who were denied equal rights because of their blackness well into the 20th century.

The idea that blackness has historically be seen as an aberration from the “normalcy” of (white) American identity is hard for actual white people like Megyn Kelly to comprehend. For them, whiteness “just is,” just as Santa Claus is white because he “just is.” Kelly and other white Americans can’t understand why anyone would care if a beloved mythical character is claimed by white people because they don’t take the time to try to view American society from the perspective of someone not blessed by white privilege. Whiteness, according to sociologist George Lipsitz, is “the unmarked category against which difference is constructed.” This means that “whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations.”* This is the fog of white privilege: it allows those who benefit from it to claim ignorance of its very existence and criticize those who see white privilege from an outsider’s perspective as misguided or “politically correct.”

Hence, Bill O’Reilly can simultaneously assert that “Santa was a white person. Does that matter? No. It doesn’t matter.” But of course it matters: it matters to O’Reilly, hence his devoting airtime to firmly establishing the racial provenance of a mythical figure. In one sense, however, O’Reilly is right; Santa Claus is a white man because the dominant (white) American culture created him in its own image.

In America, Santa Claus is what scholars call an “invented tradition,” defined by the late scholar Eric Hobsbawm as “a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.” Invented traditions claim to have a rich history, even though they’re usually rather new, and they tend to reflect the values of those who create them. It’s no surprise, then, that Santa Claus, who was popularized in the early 19th century by the dominating white members of an American white supremacist society, emerged as white. After all, by that point in U.S. history, whiteness had itself become a tradition invented by those who gained the most from it.

In his great book The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’ Most Cherished Holiday, historian Stephen Nissenbaum explains how Santa Claus falls squarely into the realm of invented tradition. The American Santa Claus as we know him: white, fat, jolly, bearded, and prone to squeezing down chimneys to give toys to deserving rug-rats, emerged in the 1820s from the writings of Clement Clark Moore, the patrician New Yorker who wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas” (1823). Moore’s depiction of Santa Claus inspired the cartoonist Thomas Nast to create later iconic images of Santa that fixed the jolly holiday icon into the American popular imagination as a character who had always been there, even though he had only been invented, in an American context, in the 1820s.*

An iconic image of a (white) Santa Claus by Thomas Nast. From Harper's Weekly, 1881.

An iconic image of a (white) Santa Claus by Thomas Nast. From Harper’s Weekly, 1881.

The fact that Santa Claus emerged as a white guy was a given, considering the historical time period during which he became a fixture in American culture. But American culture was, and in many respects remains, a culture projected through the default prism of whiteness. Thus, conservatives who become apoplectic over attempts to topple the pasty-white image of Santa Claus are really fearing the loss of white privilege that such attempts symbolize.

If the whiteness of such an iconic character as Santa Claus can be challenged, then whiteness itself, or at least the inherent privilege that comes with whiteness, can also be challenged. Those who benefit the most from the projection and consumption of white privilege via mass media, such as highly paid Fox News anchors, have much to lose from the gradual erosion of whiteness as the default characteristic of American identity. Of course, if you’re one of those people who understand that traditions can and should be changed, then the idea of a black Santa should be no more threatening than the idea of a black president. Both images reflect long overdue changes to an America in which one cultural perspective wielded far too much influence. A “White Christmas” indeed.

* See William J. Cooper, Jr., Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983, 2000), 30-31.

* See Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (New York: Vintage, 1998), 9.

* See  George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), 1.

* See Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday (New York: Vintage, 1996), 65-89.

Christmas is for Capitalists: The Bourgeois History of American Yuletide Ideology

A depiction of a 19th century middle class New York Christmas. The amount of bourgeoise fumes stuffed into the this image is enough to make you want to reach for a guillotine.

A depiction of a 19th century middle class New York Christmas. The amount of bourgeoise stuffed into the this image is enough to make you want to reach for a guillotine.

The middle class is a big deal in American society. Last year, America’s ever-observant punditocracy, including southern-fried campaign guru and Gollum look-alike James Carville, harped endlessly about how corporate Democrat Barack Obama and Montgomery Burns stand-in Mitt Romney waged their electoral battle royal in the name of the American middle class. President Obama dived head-first into this quadrennial tradition of bourgeois boot-licking, blowing past Romney in terms of the number of times he mentioned the phrase “middle class” in campaign speeches.

American politicians universally exist as servants/toadies for the country’s oligarchs, but they nonetheless pepper their campaign rhetoric with appeals to the middle class because bourgeois identity may as well be considered “American identity.” Want proof of this? Look no further than Christmas.

That’s right: Christmas, perhaps more than any other American tradition, has promulgated the ideal of a middle-class ideology that sanctifies capitalist conspicuous consumption (alliteration is always alluring) and warm, hearth-centered family togetherness as an antidote to cold (literally and figuratively, being December) external worldly ills. Since its emergence in the nineteenth century as the dominating signifier of American cultural identity, consumer capitalism has marched arm-in-arm with Christmas to create a highly idealized seasonal tradition that promotes excessive market consumption and middle-class, “on the make” values as synonymous with American identity.

Sure, that stuff about a deified Jewish kid being born in a livestock trough after his supernaturally inseminated mother was refused admittance to the Bethlehem Best Western has always been an important component of American Christmas, but Americans even celebrate that story through the ritual of consumerism — just look for yourself. It’s always been that way, and as long as Americans continue to bow down to the omniscient and ever-wise god of the marketplace, malls and Amazon.com will continue to be the holiday temples in which they do the majority of their December genuflection.

The idea of Christmas as middle-class consumer ritual is less a value judgement than it is a statement of reality. Shameless capitalism, the engine of bourgeois domestic ideology, is as Christmassy as Tiny Tim and a swaddled up infant deity. As scholar of popular culture Sheila Whiteley observes in Christmas, Ideology, and Popular Culture, the idea of a ‘traditional Christmas’ evokes “a concern for the family, children, and family-centred activities, the rituals and expectations framing gift-giving and receiving, and an idealized nostalgia for the past, which prioritizes themes of neighbourliness, charity and community.”* Christmas ideology is middle-class ideology. It was the construction of a new leisured class, born in the nineteenth century, that had the time and the money to envision family togetherness and the exchange of mass-produced market goods as a traditional annual ritual, rather than as the relatively recent historical development.

Historian Mary Ryan notes in her classic book Cradle of the Middle Class that the early nineteenth century transition of the American socio-economic structure away from a predominantly agricultural framework towards an economy increasingly characterized by industrial mass-production fundamentally reshaped the American home and family. As Americans farmed less and shopped more, their identities shifted to accommodate an increasingly reliance on the market economy. “The family’s economic unity was now expressed primarily at the point of consumption rather than production,” Ryan writes, “the separation of the place of work from the place of residence was of central historical importance.”*

Ironically, the new middle-class domestic homes couldn’t have come into existence without the market from which they were supposed to be separate. Those domestic shelters were created by an industrializing society in which white-collar work became increasingly distinct from older forms of manual work. The rise of a non-laboring, white-collar middle class brought about an increase in market consumption, and that consumption, in turn, helped weld bourgeois identity to shopping. Thus, as historian Stuart Blumin writes, “with its new-found wealth, the non-manual stratum soon moved into fashionable homes, and the formal parlor became the recognized hallmark of middle-class life.” As middle-class homes flourished, distinct “patterns of consumption” emerged, and store-bought items such as carpets, sofas, pianos — and yes, Christmas presents — came to define the lifestyle of a new leisured class.*

A middle class, commercial Christmas embodied in a 1951 ad for Plymouth automobiles, courtesey of Norman Rockwell. Christmas is better with family, presents, and a new car.

A middle-class, commercial Christmas embodied in a 1951 ad for Plymouth automobiles, courtesy of Norman Rockwell. Christmas is better with family, presents, and a new car.

Christmas emerged during the Victorian era as a holiday that fed the ideological needs of the new middle class. They had money to spend and fancy homes to decorate, and Christmas gave them an annual excuse to load up on mass-produced joy. Cultural historian John Storey puts it bluntly when he explains that, “Christmas was invented first and foremost as a commercial event. Everything that was revived or invented – decorations, cards, crackers, collections of carols…visiting Santa Claus and buying presents — all had one thing in common: they could be sold for profit.” Indeed, Storey notes that Christmas was, and is, a celebration of “the achievements of industrial capitalism — conspicuous consumption in a market economy.”* And as much as Victorian Brits embraced leisurely holiday buying, Americans soon proved that they could out-capitalist even their Industrial Revolution-spawning cousins across the pond.

Historian George McKay notes that by the 1860s, the American economy had been thoroughly transformed by the acceleration of Western capitalism. The transition from an agricultural to an urban nation that began in the early part of the century fed demand for an economy increasingly based on production and consumption. These cultural trends provided the perfect breeding ground for that most American of creatures: the department store. Department stores “made a new shopping leisure experience and consumerist lifestyle possible.”* American shoppers had more money and flashier homes that housed kids eager to receive store-purchased items, and what holiday symbolized family togetherness and domestic bliss via gift-giving and excessive consumption? Christmas, of course.

It’s no surprise, then, that perhaps the most recognized of American Christmas icons, Santa Claus, is also an icon of capitalism itself. Santa Claus became a fixture of American department stores by the late-nineteenth century, and what a commercial symbol he was: who better to symbolize capitalism than an obese, bearded, cookie craving, near dictatorial factory owner who rules over a diminutive, proletariat army that slaves all year to mass produce the products over which middle-class American kids salivate? The ‘deity of materialism,’ as one scholar labels old Claus, perfectly embodies the modern American fusion of Christmas and capitalism, as evidence by the prominent role he’s played in advertising everything from Coca-Cola, to Lucky Strike cigarettes, to M & Ms.* Its ironic, then, that Santa Claus and Karl Marx sort of resemble each other: one railed in vain against capitalism, while the other developed into the smiling, grandfatherly symbol of world-dominating bourgeois excess.

Santa Claus once hocked cigarrettes. Dude, Santa, not cool.

Santa Claus once hawked cigarettes. Dude, Santa, not cool.

Of course, American materialist consumption at Christmas hasn’t been historically limited to the store. After all, gifts purchased in stores were meant to be enjoyed in the warm domestic bliss of homes populated with kith and kin. When industrial capitalism took hold of food production, it helped create yet another American holiday consumer tradition in the form of the “traditional” Christmas dinner. Yet, as food historian Cathy Kaufman writes, “Christmas dinner” became popular “only in the mid-nineteenth century, when turkey with gravy, stuffing, potatoes, and plum pudding was hailed as the quintessential American Christmas dinner” that emulated the Cratchit family meal in Charles Dickens’ Victorian era classic, A Christmas Carol (1843).* Although the ingredients that make up the “traditional” American Christmas dinner have changed over the years, the idea that there had to be some kind of middle-class, home-bound, family centered holiday feast remained a core element of the commercial festival that is American Christmas.

So the next time you’re out at the mall in December and you feel a bit sick amidst the shameless commercialism displayed by your fellow shoppers, try to remember that, historically, Christmas has never been some kind of spiritually pure tradition that was separate from the cold, secular whims of the marketplace. The marketplace made Christmas, and the American middle class long ago adopted Christmas as the quintessential bourgeois holiday that best embodied the virtues of domesticity, family, consumption, and leisurely living. To criticize Christmas commercialism is to criticize the very middle-class values that have become synonymous with American values. No wonder American politicians consistently pander to the middle class: they’re the only group who can claim their own world-renowned holiday.

* See Sheila Whiteley, ed. Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 2.

* See Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 231.

* See Stuart M. Blumin, The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 155.

* See John Storey, “The Invention of the English Christmas,” in Sheila Whiteley, ed. Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture, 20.

* See George McKay, “Consumption, Coca-colonization, Cultural Resistance – and Santa Claus,” in Whiteley, ed., 52, 54.

* See Cathy Kaufman, “The Ideal Christmas Dinner,” Gastronomica: the Journal of Food and Culture 4 (Fall, 2004): 17.

Michelle Obama, Selfies, and Historical Stereotypes about Black Women

British Prime Minister David Cameron, Danish Prime Minister Hell Thorning Schmidt, and President Barack Obama take a group selfie at Nelson Mandela's memorial. The anger the media projected on Michelle Obama in this photo is rooted in old stereotypes about black femininity.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and President Barack Obama take a group selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial. The anger the media projected on Michelle Obama in this photo is rooted in old stereotypes about black femininity.

Nelson Mandela’s memorial ceremony was held in South Africa this week, and leaders and dignitaries from all over the world made sure to descend on Johannesburg to pay their respects to the civil rights icon. Among those at the memorial service for the first black South African president was Barack Obama, the first black American president (sorry Bubba, you have to relinquish that title). But of course, anyone whose been to any type of memorial ceremony — not least one the size and scale of the Mandela fête — knows that things can get kind of dull. Alas, world leaders are as human as anyone else (though sometimes less so) and they get bored like the rest of us. Hence, President Obama took some time out from the long, drawn-out mourning/celebration to clown around with British PM David Cameron and Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt in a manner that exemplifies the contemporary narcissistic age: they took a group selfie.

A photographer captured the world leaders’ selfie and his images became mildly infamous, raising questions over whether such behavior was appropriate at a funeral. Even more controversy, however, arose from First Lady Michelle Obama’s apparently stern countenance as she cast a steely gaze off into the distance while President Obama and the Europeans goofed around with a cell phone. As Roxane Gay notes in an a perceptive article for Salon, the press quickly assumed that Michelle Obama was angry at her husband’s behavior. “The media,” Gay notes, “have reacted, trying to frame Michelle Obama as ‘angry’ or ‘disapproving’ when maybe she wasn’t even paying attention to her husband being silly with his world leader friends.”

Indeed, the Washington Post claimed that “the First Lady looks stern,” while the New York Daily News reported that Michelle Obama “sat at a distance, as if in disapproval of the digital display.” The fact that the First Lady was apparently not angry at all hasn’t dissuaded the media from playing into an old narrative of Michelle Obama as a standard “angry black woman.”

Gay identifies the “angry black woman” stereotype as the underlying theme driving this otherwise non-story about world leader funeral selfies. “More than anything,” Gay writes, “the response to these latest images of Michelle Obama speaks volumes about the expectations placed on black women in the public eye and how a black women’s default emotional state is perceived as angry…She never gets to simply be.” Indeed, the “angry black woman” idea in American culture is a powerful stereotype that’s deeply rooted in the nineteenth century and the legacy of slavery. The idea that black women are perpetually angry, aggressive, loud, and strong-willed in the most obnoxious ways is a cultural construction stemming from historical circumstances in which black women found themselves at the bottom of American social power structures for generations.

In her book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, political scientist and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry notes how black women’s historical experiences in America, framed through the prisms of racism, slavery,  Jim Crow, segregation, and patriarchal dominance created a “specific citizenship imperative for African American women – a role and image to which they are expected to conform.” Harris-Perry calls this image “the strong black women.” It’s an image characterized by self-sacrifice, devotion to husbands and children, a dedication to endless hard work, and a seeming imperviousness in the face of trials and tribulations.* As Harris-Perry notes, the “strong black woman” image doesn’t consult black women about how they are, rather, it’s a social construct that has allowed American society to define black women in ways that society thinks they are.

Michelle Obama looks angry in this photograph, which, of course, means that she is angry!

Michelle Obama looks angry in this photograph, which, of course, means that she is angry!

Although many elements of the “strong black woman” idea are, on their face, positive attributes, such as motherly devotion and courage in the face of adversity, when this ideal has been externally projected onto African-American women, it’s been warped to embody perceived negative aspects of black female strength — especially black women’s supposed unmitigable anger. This stereotype is an inversion of ostensibly positive virtues because it frames black women’s confidence and assertiveness in the face of domination as evidence of irrational anger. As Harris-Perry writes, “by its idealized description, black women are motivated hard-working breadwinners” whose “irrepressible spirit is unbroken by the legacy of oppression, poverty, and rejection.” Thus, black women who embrace the “strong” identity can imbue it with positive characteristics. When wielded by external sources, however, as in the case with the Michelle Obama selfie snafu, the “strong black woman” often transforms into an irrational “angry black woman” whose anger must be publicly pointed out and critiqued.*

The idea that black women are perpetually angry stems from the nineteenth century and African-American women’s experiences under slavery. Historian Thavolia Glymph notes, for example, that white mistresses in plantation households characterized black female slaves as “obstinate, self-willed, cross, and dirty” in order to deny the fact that female slaves were not just being “angry black women” but were, in fact, engaging in rebellious behavior that challenged the “civilizing” expectations of the southern slave system.*

“By the late antebellum [pre-Civil War] period,” Glymph writes, the idea that black women were vessels of disorder and filth had become central to southern pro-slavery ideology.”* When female slaves refused to work, when they shouted at or spat on their mistresses, and when they beat their mistresses physically, white slaveholders characterized them as refusing to be “better girl[s].” In the eyes of white slaveholders, black female slaves were merely “angry black women,” not strong-willed individuals resisting the slave system. Framing female slaves’ behavior as merely “angry” or “cross” allowed whites to believe that it wasn’t the system of slavery that was wrong, it was merely black women who were wrong by refusing to conform to that system.

The idea of the obstinate, “angry black woman” survived slavery’s demise and surfaced throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whenever black women took it upon themselves to assume more public roles and assert their equal rights. This stereotype has legs because it taps into deeply uncomfortable and historically debated notions about what constitutes American social and civic identity. The American system of racial prejudice has, unfortunately, played a major role in every major debate about equal rights and American citizenship over the decades, particularly the debate over black women’s identities as U.S. citizens.

African American women who resisted this system in the 19th century were, according to slaveholders, just "angry."

African-American women who resisted this system in the nineteenth century were, according to slaveholders, just “angry.”

Even with historical advances like the abolition of slavery and the expansion of equal rights following the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, stereotypes about black Americans in general — and black women in particular — have proven difficult to dispel. Deeply engrained ideas pertaining to the nature of African-American women have yet to be fully banished from public discourse, just as similar stereotypes about black men as shiftless, criminal, and crude continue to shape debate in contemporary society.

The persistence of the “angry black woman” idea is attested to by the fact that no black woman — even one with a law degree from Harvard who’s married to the President of the United States — can escape such a labeling. Of course, the various media outlets thought they were having some light-hearted fun by depicting Michelle Obama as being “angry” over her husband’s funeral selfie. But the fact that the “angry black woman”  stereotype is so universally recognized as to constitute the foundation of a joke speaks to its staying power and deep resonance in American culture. Michelle Obama might just as well be called “strong,” but then, that would be more of a positive than a negative description. Media outlets looking to poke fun at the “angry” First Lady are likely unaware that such a characterization invokes the legacy of slavery, racial inequality, and vastly unequal power structures that have so often been at the heart of African-American women’s experiences, and therein lies the problem.

* See Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 21, 184.

* See Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 64-66.

Nelson Mandela and the Legacy of American Apartheid

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002  International Aids Conference.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002 International Aids Conference.

This week one of the towering figures of twentieth century politics passed from his mortal coil. Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, died at the age of 95, leaving a legacy that stretches beyond the limits of South Africa and even his own lifetime. Heck, Mandela’s legacy is one that challenges what had been among the core ideologies of the modern world dating back at least to the 18th century: white supremacy as practiced via the supposed inherent right of European powers to subjugate non-white, non-European peoples.

Mandela was, of course, the first black president of South Africa, a nation whose modern history is framed largely through the prism of its brutal system of racial segregation known as Apartheid. Mandela spent 27 years in prison as punishment for his lifelong fight against institutional racism, and his greatness as a symbol of human resistance in the face of adversity is now forever sealed. I mean, Morgan Freeman even played Mandela in a movie, and if that doesn’t attest to the South African president’s greatness, nothing else will.

I kid, of course. Mandela stands with Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Ghandi, as one of the most influential world players in the battle against racism and segregation in the modern era. So what exactly was Apartheid, and why was it so awful? Legal historian Steven Ratner offers a good, comprehensive definition:

Apartheid was the system of racial discrimination and separation that governed South Africa from 1948 until its abolition in the early 1990s. Building on years of discrimination against blacks, the National Party adopted apartheid as a model for separate development of races, though it served only to preserve white superiority. It classified persons as either white, Bantu (black), colored (mixed race), or Asian. Its manifestations included ineligibility from voting, separate living areas and schools, internal travel passes for blacks, and white control of the legal system.

Take some time to absorb that for a second: “a model for the separate development of the races.” If you’ve ever studied American history, for example, you might be aware that such institutionalized racism was not unique to South Africa. And how did South Africa’s racist regime go about instituting Apartheid? Policymic has a good roundup of the policies that built Apartheid:

Blacks were denied citizenship and the right to vote. They were forcibly relocated into impoverished reservations. People of color were barred from operating businesses or owning land inside white areas, which comprised most of the country. Sexual relations or marriage between people of color and whites was strictly forbidden. Racial segregation was enforced in public areas, including schools, hospitals, trains, beaches, bridges, churches and theaters. To enforce apartheid, the government often resorted to police brutality, the imprisonment and assassination of political dissidents, and the murder of black protesters.

The type of racial segregationist program known as “Apartheid” in South Africa, however, was far from limited to that country alone. Racial segregation in the name of white supremacy was a guiding principle that came to characterize the age of discovery, when European powers explored, settled, and colonized other parts of the world from the 15th century all the way up the 20th century. What Mandela fought against in South Africa reverberated throughout the world, as long-subjugated groups in former and current colonized nations fought for the equality that had been denied them in large part based on the color of their skins. It wasn’t an easy fight: as Mandela’s life demonstrates, those who have the power to dominate others won’t give it up that power easily, and they aren’t shy about enforcing their power through violence and intimidation.

The nation that emerged at the top of the world power heap by the mid-20th century was the United States, and nearly all of America’s history as a modern nation involved a reckoning with its own form of American Apartheid that manifested in the system of racial slavery that was enshrined in its Constitution and, over time, created one of the most racially divided societies in modern history. This development was all the more ironic since it took place in a country that supposedly cherished the notion that “All men are created equal.”

This American Apartheid echoed through the centuries via a Civil War fought over the right to enslave black bodies. After slavery’s demise, American Apartheid took the shape of the racial terrorism of Reconstruction. By the late 19th and early 20th century, it became institutionalized in the barbaric Jim Crow system that witnessed the smoldering stench of immolated flesh as lynching swept the American South and African-Americans were relegated to nation-wide second-class citizenship. American Apartheid only finally began to collapse in the mid-20th century, the same era during which Mandela waged his fight, following a sustained attack by Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. But as recent attacks on minority voting rights indicate, Apartheid casts a long shadow in America and throughout the world.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

America’s reckoning with its own apartheid explains why many elements in the U.S., up until very recently, viewed Nelson Mandela as a racial terrorist rather than a freedom fighter. As Sagar Jethani of Policymic notes, American conservatives long-defended South Africa’s anti-communist, white minority government in the name of anti-communist zeal. Mandela’s support for liberal policies, including worker’s rights and social justice, when combined with his early support for violence against the Apartheid government before he embraced peaceful resolutions, did not endear him to the American Right.

Over at Student Activism, for example, Angus Johnston reminds us how in 1986, William F. Buckley, the silver-spooned National Review founder and “intellectual” godfather of modern American conservatism, vehemently opposed universal suffrage in South Africa. “The government will not … grant political equality to everyone in South Africa. Nor should it,” Buckley wrote. “It is preposterous at one and the same time to remark the widespread illiteracy in South Africa and to demand the universal franchise.” Buckley had already made it abundantly clear that he opposed racial equality in the American South, both on prejudicial grounds and because he associated equality with a threat to established political and economic hierarchies, hence his distaste for South African universal suffrage.

In the 1980s, American conservative luminaries like Jesse Helm (R-NC), Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Phil Gramm (R-TX), and Dick Cheney (R-Hell) followed Buckley by opposing the Congressional Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which imposed sanctions on South Africa.

For many Americans, not just conservatives, the specter of racial equality also suggested economic equality and the threat to capitalism that would supposedly undermine social hierarchies across the land. Race and class have always been inextricably linked in American history, which helps explain why American conservatives in particular viewed Mandela as a threat: he tapped into old domestic fears that conflated anti-racism with economic and social revolution.

Proponents of American Apartheid have defended racial segregation since the beginning, but they’ve been at their most defensive when white supremacy, with all of its economic benefits, has been explicitly challenged. Such was the case during the run-up to southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860-61. As historian Charles Dew notes, southern secession commissioners (whom I discussed in an earlier post) charged with promoting secession throughout the South endorsed slavery and the Apartheid that bolstered slavery as a justification for the South’s forming the Confederate States of America to fend off northern anti-slavery aggression.

Commissioner William L. Harris of Mississippi, for example, complained that the North demanded “equality between the white and negro races, under our Constitution; equality in representation, equality in the right of suffrage…equality in the social order.” Harris warned that Mississippi would rather “see the last of her [white] race, men, women and children, immolated in one common funeral pile,” rather than be “subjected to…social equality with the negro race.”* Indeed, the Confederate South fought America’s greatest and bloodiest revolution, the Civil War, in order to preserve American Apartheid, and they didn’t stop defending racial segregation after the Confederacy’s demise.

During the Jim Crow era, as lynching and black disenfranchisement swept across the South and other parts of the country, defenders of American Apartheid continued to echo the sentiments of their Confederate forebears. In March of 1900, for example, the mind-blowingly racist South Carolina Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman claimed on the Senate floor that the lynching of blacks was necessary to uphold racial segregation. “We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will,” Tillman stated. “We have never believed him to be equal to the white man,” he continued, “and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.” Rarely had Apartheid produced so blunt a spokesman. For Tillman and his ilk, racial equality meant social equality, which they believed would upend the entire American white supremacist socio-economic order.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America's most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America’s most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

Even after the success of the Civil Rights movement, certain segments of American society nonetheless held on to their defence of American Apartheid, particularly in the 1980s when violence erupted in South Africa. Jesse Helms, for example, the Republican senator and general scumbag from North Carolina, defended South African Apartheid in large part because it reminded him of the American Apartheid system in which he had been born and raised.

As Eric Bates of Mother Jones reported in June 1995, Helms “grew up in a segregated world not unlike the one of apartheid,” and this upbringing gave him “a view of a fundamentalist Christian society in which everyone is not welcome” and which resembled “South Africa of 20 years ago.” With a lifetime of pro-segregationist ideology informing his thought, Helms filibustered U.S. sanctions against South Africa in 1986, claiming that “the Soviet Union is orchestrating upheaval in all of Africa.” By supporting South African Apartheid on grounds that it would supposedly bring about communist revolution, Helms followed a long tradition in which American segregationists, from Confederate ideologues to lynching proponents, linked racial equality with social revolution. American conservatives’ mixed ideas about Nelson Mandela’s legacy reflect a reluctance to reckon with America’s own historical Apartheid past.

With Mandela’s passing, here’s hoping that Apartheid in any part of the world will continue to be a shameful part of the human past. But as U.S. history shows, despite Americans’ long-held claims of American Exceptionalism,” Apartheid has never been limited to South Africa. In fact, its has been a reality of the modern world and has manifested in nearly every continent over the last few centuries. This is not the kind of legacy that goes away quickly, and this fact makes Mandela’s legacy all the more remarkable and worth continuing.

* See Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 85, 89.

Rush Limbaugh, the Marxist Pope, and American Anti-Catholicism

This 1870 cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the Pope and his minions eyeing America from Rome.

This 1870 cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the Pope and his minions eyeing America from Rome.

The United States is, in theory, a secular nation. Despite the occasional verbal hat tips to a supernatural watchmaker by some of the more deistic leaning founders, all of America’s founding documents are secular: they embrace no official state religion of any kind and maintain a strict separation between church and state. This political structure has, in turn, made the U.S. one of the most religiously pluralistic societies in the world. After all, having  freedom of religion ensures that all religions can be practiced openly.

In practical terms, however, for much of its history the U.S. has been a majority Christian Protestant nation. The first European settlers (with the exception of some pesky Spanish Catholics in Florida and out west) to America were Protestants, and a Protestant religious tradition has shaped much of American history. And, of course, the violent, sectarian brouhaha that is Christian history ensured that a predominantly Protestant United States would also have its fair share of Anti-Catholic sentiment.

Modern anti-Catholicism in the U.S. has nowhere near the strength and popularity that it enjoyed in its 19th and early 20th century heyday, as Catholics have long since been accepted as full-fledged members of American society. Nonetheless, there remains a certain ambiguity about Catholicism in America; particularly among the country’s WASPY political and economic elites, who have embraced and accepted some aspects of Catholicism while remaining leery of some of its more left-wing traditions.

A case in point: conservative radio pustule Rush Limbaugh — a guy known for spewing more toxic gas into the atmosphere than your average Anaerobic lagoon — recently accused Pope Francis of espousing “pure Marxism.” And what did the Pope do to incur El Rushbo’s wrath? Well, in an 84-page apostalic exhortation that defined the platform of his papacy, the current vicar of St. Peter had the gold-gilded gonads to critique the excesses of globalized, unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism as a “new tyranny” that has created vast inequality and human suffering throughout the world. “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded,” the Pope noted, critiquing a market culture that “deadens” humanity via the promise of shallow material acquisition and leads to a “globalization of indifference” towards the poor.

As he is want to do, Limbaugh blew a major gasket in the wake of the Pope’s remarks. Rushbo not only accused Pope Francis of being an unrelenting Marxist, but then went on a standard tirade about capitalism’s amoral “invisible hand.” Rush did make a salient point, however, by pointing out the Catholic Church’s immense wealth, and how that wealth has, for centuries, been accrued through market means.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh. He actively tries to be a tool.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh. He actively tries to be a tool.

But Rush also made a telling observation, suggesting that Catholicism, for all of its “mainstream” success in the U.S., still remains a potential threat to American society by virtue of its collectivist tradition. “There has been a long-standing tension between the Catholic Church and communism.  It’s been around for quite a while. That’s what makes this, to me, really remarkable,” Limbaugh said. Rushbo was echoing an age-old fear of Catholic collectivism that has emanated at various times from both the Right and the Left in U.S. history; a fear that the Catholic Church, as a hierarchical organization, was at best indifferent to, and at worst hostile to, America’s individualist, small “r” republican virtues.

The fear of the Catholic Church’s allegedly totalitarian collectivist designs has been a powerful strain in American culture, which has long been dominated by a Protestant, individualist ideal that can be traced all the way back to Martin Luther’s idea of “sola scriptura.” Luther espoused the idea of a “priesthood of all believers” who need not consult a professional clergy for spiritual advice. The Protestant notion of a personal, individual relationship with God proved eminently compatible with republican ideals of individual liberty free from a meddling, theocratic state — of which the Catholic Church has historically embodied in the eyes of its critics.

Age-old Protestant fears of a multi-tentacled papist hierarchy wriggling its way into American life manifested most prominently in the rise of the Know Nothing movement in the 19th century. The Know Nothings, whom I discussed in an earlier post, were a political party that coalesced around the Protestant American cultural backlash against a new wave of Irish and German Catholic immigrants who came to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. The Know Nothings, or Nativists, originated as secretive, fraternal societies before organizing into a political party in 1854.

The Know Nothings believed that Catholic traditions were antithetical to American liberal democracy. They decried Catholic immigrants as nefarious moles sent by Rome to infiltrate American society and reshape it in the papist image. A theocratic organization with a central figurehead in Rome that was controlled by a vast clerical hierarchy could never acclimate to a republican society in which free individuals exercised their individual right to self-government — or so the Nativists thought. As historian Elizabeth Fenton observes, “in the emergent United States…the concept of individual freedom…hinged on an anti-Catholic discourse that presented Protestantism as the guarantor of religious liberty…in a plural nation.”* The importance Americans placed on “private individualism” rendered the seeming collectivist hierarchy of the Catholic Church an inherent threat to American culture. Indeed, unlike the president, the Pope’s only term limit was death.

A Know Nothing flag. The oddly spelled "foreign influence" referred to those wily Papists.

A Know Nothing flag. The oddly spelled “foreign influence” referred to those wily Papists.

Of course, contrary to popular depictions, the Catholic Church has never been an entirely monolithic institution. Both politically and theologically, it’s been historically wracked by internal factions that have embraced the hard right and the hard left of the political and economic spectrums. The multitude of official documents advocating the importance of social justice attest to the Church’s leftist strain, while the support given to right-wing dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere by the church’s more conservative elements reminds us that Catholics are as divided over politics as the rest of society. It’s the Catholic Church’s more leftist elements, however, underpinned by its inherently collectivist structure, that have more often than not been a source of worry for American Protestants.

The case of Father Charles Coughlin is among the best examples of how anti-Catholic fears have manifested via the fear of socialist infiltration — a tradition Rush Limbaugh is keeping alive by accusing Pope Francis of Marxism. Charles Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest who rose to prominence during the Great Depression by championing social justice in a thoroughly demagogic fashion. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1891, Coughlin became the pastor of the small Royal Oak parish in suburban Detroit in 1926. Inflamed by persistent anti-Catholicism in America (the Ku Klux Klan once burned a cross on his church lawn) and the economic turmoil of the Depression, Coughlin took to preaching his sermons via a nationally syndicated Sunday radio show. In his radio sermons Coughlin demanded silver-based inflation, railed against the gold standard and international bankers, and called for the nationalization of the American banking system.*

Coughlin was a charismatic Catholic left-wing agitator-turned-right-wing fascist who was not above using demagoguery to achieve his vision of social justice.  An early supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Coughlin soon turned on the president when FDR failed to nationalize the banks and pursued anti-inflationary monetary policies. Feeling burned by Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, in November 1934, Coughlin formed a new party, the National Union for Social Justice, which campaigned for the rights of labor and the nationalization of key industries. Coughlin’s proclivity towards embracing nutty conspiracy theories, however, proved his undoing. He seemingly railed against everything; denouncing ‘communists,’ ‘plutocrats,’ and FDR’s alleged collusion with international bankers. Coughlin also peppered his broadcasts with vile anti-semitic rhetoric, accusing an international Jewish cabal of controlling the world banking system.*

During the late 1930s, amidst the outbreak of World War II, Coughlin took an ideological turn to embrace the right-wing fascist dogma then en vogue in Europe. He embraced Mussolini-style authoritarianism as the only way to cure the world of the ills that capitalism and democracy had wrought. By 1940, his radio program was off the air, but he continued to publish his magazine, Social Justice. After Pearl Harbor, however, Coughlin outright blamed the Jews for starting the war, leading the FBI to raid his church and U.S. authorities to forbid the postal service from disseminating his magazine. When the archbishop of Detroit ordered Coughlin to cease and desist all non-pastoral activities in 1942, the agitator-priest relented and retired from public life.*

Father Charles Coughlin railing against stuff in Cleveland, Ohio, 1936.

Father Charles Coughlin railing against stuff in Cleveland, Ohio, 1936.

Whether he was spouting left-wing or right-wing demagoguery, Coughlin always framed his ideas through the prism of a collectivist hierarchy; whether in the form of a central government-instigated redistribution of wealth or via an authoritarian system that squelched individual rights in the name of a greater, fascist whole. In this respect, Coughlin was an extreme example of the type of papist proclivity towards hierarchy that had long worried American non-Catholics. The ignominious Canadian-born priest never spoke for most of St. Peter’s flock, of course, but his demagoguery fed into already established concerns about the threat Catholicism supposedly posed to American republicanism. Heck, Rush Limbaugh might as well have invoked Coughlin when he accused Pope Francis of Marxism.

While American Catholics have come a long way since the days of being publicly reviled by Know Nothings and having an insane Detroit priest act as their national spokesman, the Catholic Church’s hierarchical structure is still a source of unease when that structure is invoked to critique the worst excesses of free-market capitalism. Whether those critique’s come in the form of Coughlin-style demagogic rants or Pope Francis’ elegant exhortation, the reaction has historically been one of hesitation — if not outright disgust — by non-Catholics who invoke, however unconsciously, a history of Anti-Catholic prejudice rooted in fears of the Church’s theocratic hierarchy. In America, old habits die hard.

* See Elizabeth Fenton, Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6.

* See David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 227-37.

* See Charles E. Coughlin Biography, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia.