Monthly Archives: March 2014

Hobby Lobby, Religious Liberty, and American Exceptionalism Gone Bad

Hobby Lobby is a a craft store run by veout Christians whose adherence to bibical teachings is so strict that they sell blasphemous Pagan paraphenialia.

Hobby Lobby is a craft store run by devout Christians whose adherence to biblical teachings is so strict that they sell blasphemous Pagan paraphernalia just so good Christian shoppers know what such forbidden items look like and therefore do NOT buy them.

Who’d have thought that a middle-of-the-road arts and crafts store run by religious nutballs would provide the most formidable challenge yet to Obamacare? Strange as it may seem, this is what’s happening as the U.S. Supreme Court holds hearings in the case Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Inc..

So what’s sticking in Hobby Lobby’s craw about Obamacare (aka The Greatest Abomination in the history of history)? Superfically, it’s about religion and birth control, but on a deeper level, it’s about power relations in U.S. culture. Mother Jones provides a fantastic breakdown of this bizarre case and details its significance in terms of shaping the future of American health care and employee-employer relations. But this case is also important for bigger reasons. Hobby Lobby’s crusade against providing emergency contraception coverage to female employees demonstrates the waning, yet still formidable power of religiously motivated American Exceptionalism.

As Mother Jones’ Stephanie Mencimer writes, Hobby Lobby is a privately held, Oklahoma City-based corporation owned by a trust managed by CEO David Green and his family. The Greens are hardcore Jesus Freaks who run their company in accordance with so-called “biblical principles,” and they’re suing the Obama administration over provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Satan’s Law, if you prefer) that requires employers to cover emergency contraception, known as Plan B, in employee health insurance plans. The Greens believe that emergency contraception is a so-called “abortifacient” — a made-up word that means Plan B causes an abortion — and that mandating emergency contraception coverage therefore violates their pro-life religious beliefs.

No matter that the “Plan B=abortion” notion is pure hogwash — and no matter that other conservative Christians accept that plan B doesn’t=abortion — what matters to the Greens is that they believe that emergency contraception causes abortion, and that this belief should exempt them from full ACA coverage on religious freedom grounds. This would be akin to securing endangered species protection for Bigfoot based on the mere belief that Bigfoot exists, but Hobby Lobby’s case has proved attractive to the right-wing troglodyte majority on the U.S. Supreme Court — I’m looking your way, Scalito.

Much of the controversy over this case, as Mencimer notes, stems from Hobby Lobby’s assertion that “a for-profit corporation can have the constitutionally protected right to the free exercise of religion.” This previously asinine notion gained credence thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, a decision that effectively granted corporations “personhood” via full first amendment rights. That’s right: corporations are now people, my friend! And some of these people don’t like the women-folk using birth control because Jesus…or something.

What tyhese protestors are fighting against is the assertion of religious dominance over personal, secular affairs.

What these protestors are fighting against is the assertion of religious dominance over personal, secular affairs.

But if you look at the broader assertions that the Greens are making, their Hobby Lobby case is about much more than a spiritual squabble over contraception. No, what we’ve got here is a contest over power — specifically, the power of religiously motivated American Exceptionalism to still hold sway over an increasingly science-dominated American culture.

Let me explain a bit further. As scholar Deborah Madsen writes, American Exceptionalism has been at the center of every major American historical event. It’s also been at the core of debates over what constitutes American cultural identity. Madsen defines American Exceptionalism as the idea that “America and Americans are special, exceptional, because they are charged with saving the world from itself” while simultaneously sustaining “a high level of spiritual, political and moral commitment to this exceptional destiny.” This idea dates back to the Puritans who described America as “a city upon a hill” that should serve as a redeeming beacon to a spiritually fallen world.*

Indeed, there’s no separating religious belief from American exceptionalism. The Puritans, as I noted in a piece for Salon, came to North America to establish a new heavenly kingdom on earth. Rebelling colonists fought the American Revolution based, in part, on the belief that Old King George was disrespecting their Creator-endowed inalienable rights. Nineteenth century westward expansion was driven by Manifest Destiny: the idea that Americans were chosen by the Christian God to conquer their land from sea to shining sea. Both sides in the American Civil War claimed to be acting on the will of God. And during the Depression and World War II, Americans were quite literally convinced that they fought in God’s name to save the world from the evils of fascism and communism.

In the twenty-first century, legal fights over “religious liberty” involve the same notions of American Exceptionalism, as conservative religious Americans struggle to maintain their long-established cultural dominance over a society that’s slowly but surely becoming less religious and more secular. Those convinced that a belief in God makes America morally, politically, and culturally exceptional interpret any challenges to religious authority as a challenge to their vision of American identity. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that, scientifically, Plan B contraception doesn’t constitute abortion. For religious authoritarians like David Green of Hobby Lobby, even the mere whiff of a secular challenge to the cultural domination of Christian fundamentalism can’t be tolerated. In Green’s mind, the literal soul of America hangs in the balance. 

It’s no coincidence that the rise of the American Religious Right happened after World War II and the triumph of the modern scientific age. In his book Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science, historian James Gilbert notes that in the years following the Second World War, scientific secularism rose to its highest level of prominence in American culture, and it hasn’t looked back since. “Not only did science and technology provide the material of progress,” Gilbert writes, “but in their intellectual process, standards, and professions, they offered enticing and convincing ways to discover and organize knowledge.”*

A Hobby Lobby in Stowe, Ohio. Screw these jerks: just go to Michael's.

A Hobby Lobby in Stowe, Ohio. Screw these jerks: just go to Michael’s.

The rise of science to a previously unheard-of level of prominence in American culture proved problematic to religious folks who saw belief in God, not adherence to the scientific method, as the foundation of American exceptionalism. Religious Americans reacted to the rise of scientific secularism in different ways. Some accepted it. Some sought to improve on it. Others, however, dug in their heels and resisted it when they could. The Hobby Lobby folks and other modern Christian Fundamentalists fit squarely in the latter camp. “For reasons of self-preservation and expansion,” Gilbert explains, “American religions have been deeply concerned about the impact of scientific law and discovery,” and the long-running strategy of religious conservatives has been to resist marginalization at every turn.*

Thus, while Science and a secular government may say that emergency contraception doesn’t equal abortion, God says otherwise, and the Almighty’s Hobby Lobby holy warriors will be damned if they don’t put up a worthy spiritual — and legal — fight.

Hobby Lobby is contesting the ACA requirements because a victory in their case would mean a victory over the colluding forces of liberalism and scientific secularism, all of which they see embodied in the power of the secular state to institute universal health coverage. For Green and others, the fight against Obamacare is part of larger fight for the soul of America, nay, the soul of an exceptional America. They see themselves as generals on the front lines of the culture wars fighting to uphold their long-held, God-sanctioned authority in American culture. In their minds, losing the battle over Plan B coverage would constitute a major defeat in the larger war over the right to define the meaning of American Exceptionalism.

So make no mistake: Hobby Lobby doesn’t really care about “religious liberty.” What they do care about is the right to continue to define American Exceptionalism on their own terms and, by extension, the authority to decide the fates of women and employees in the broader socio-economic hierarchy. After all, those groups oughta know their submissive place — the bible says so.

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

* See James Gilbert, Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 5, 16.

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Paul Ryan and the Historical Myth of the Undeserving Poor

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Unicorn Land) has never let reality intrude on his impenetrable ideological "truths."

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Unicorn Land) has never let reality intrude on his impenetrable ideological “truths.”

If you’re poor in America, Wisconsin’s favorite Social Security-collecting, Ayn Rand worshipping Congresscritter thinks it’s your own fault. Why does Paul Ryan blame people for their own poverty, you may ask? After all, as I discussed in a previous post, being poor is absolutely terrible: it leaves you wracked with financial insecurity; it flattens your self-confidence, and it’s bad for your health. But despite the general awfulness of poverty, guys like Paul Ryan and his army of ideologically like-minded right-wing goons still think that the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor. And in the U.S., what you look like (hint: what box you check when asked if you’re “black” or “white”) matters a whole lot when it comes to discussing being poor.

Paul Ryan and other conservatives know this all too well; in recent decades, they’ve made plenty of electoral hay out of playing up the long historical connection between race and poverty in America. Recently, Ryan was a guest on the Morning in America radio show of conservative moral crusader – and full-time gambler – Bill Bennett, where he discussed the long-running War on Poverty. When the discussion moved to the inner city (an American phrase that’s code for “black people”), Ryan cited the bogus theories of right-wing social scientist Charles Murray – who believes that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites – to claim that inner city poverty stems from a culture of laziness on the part of African-Americans.

You see, Ryan, Murray, and plenty of other Americans think that poor people are poor because they don’t want to work. They think that lazy people can’t get jobs, so instead they get on public welfare doles. And historically, blacks and other minorities have had the high rates of poverty in the U.S. Thus, in the minds of Ryan and his ilk, “the poor” is often used as a stand-in phrase for “black people,” or other minorities, who’re allegedly stuck in “poverty traps” because they don’t have enough initiative to work. End of story.

This is why conservatives are hostile to the idea of welfare and why they score political points among many white voters when they talk about shredding the safety net. As the mighty Paul Krugman notes in the New York Times: “American conservatism is still, after all these years, largely driven by claims that liberals are taking away your hard-earned money and giving it to Those People.” In American history, race is utterly inseparable from class. When you talk about one, you have to talk about the other. Conservatives know this. By invoking images of lazy black people to white voters for political gain, they’re tapping into a long-held national myth that casts America as the forever “Land of Opportunity,” where not making it economically is, to paraphrase popular philosopher Jimmy Buffett, your own damn fault.

Of course, things have never been that simple. As historian Gary Nash explains in the book Down and Out in Early America,”the great myth of early American history is that scarce labor in a land-rich environment eliminated poverty.” Nash writes that Americans don’t want to discuss poverty because the very concept “is offensive to the notion of a people of plenty, an insult to the bounteous natural resources of North America, a puzzlement to those who believe in the untrammeled equality of opportunity” and “an embarrassment to those who trumpet American classlessness and exceptionalism.”* But even in the eighteenth century – the century of revolution – there was poverty. Lots of it. The streets of early America were strewn not only with widows, orphans, the disabled, and the sick – groups traditionally prone to poverty – but also with thousands of able-bodied men and women. This trend only accelerated with the rise of the industrial era and continues into the twenty-first century.*

Quite simply: the poor have always been with us, and being poor in America has always been an awful state of being. The reasons for American poverty have varied over time, but two points stand out: 1.) non-white people have often been poorer than whites and 2.) living in a land of plenty doesn’t help when you’re denied access to political rights and economic resources by those who use force and privilege to play by their own rules and keep a bigger share of the American economic apple pie.

Poverty and alcoholism run rampant on the Pine Ridge Oglala/Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota, where the shadow of history looms large.

Poverty and alcoholism run rampant on the Pine Ridge Oglala/Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota, where the shadow of history looms large.

Let’s just consider a few general examples, shall we? Native-Americans continue to live in some of the most poverty-stricken conditions in America. African-Americans have tended to fare better in recent decades, but the wealth gap between blacks and whites in America continues to be vast – and it’s still widening. Now what types of experiences could blacks and Native people have possibly shared during the long formation of modern America?

Well, native tribes were, from the colonial era well into the twentieth century, forcefully removed from their ancestral lands (most notably under Andrew Jackson, champion of  democracy for all white men) and relocated onto reservations that – thanks to government indifference – became sites of generationally reoccurring poverty. And they were the lucky ones when you consider that hundreds-of-thousands of other native people were exterminated under U.S. government policies that were, by any measurement, genocidal. Those who survived endured, and still endure, prejudice and discrimination even after they gained franchise rights. In the twenty-first century, counties with American Indian reservations still contain some of the highest percentages of people living in poverty in the U.S. Considering the historical background, is that much of a surprise?

African-Americans endured similar violence and subjugation throughout much of U.S. history. First brought to the American colonies as slaves, blacks endured generations as human property that was bought, sold, and abused by whites who supposedly lived by the creed that “All Men are Created Equal.” Even after the Civil War ended slavery, blacks spent another generation fighting for political and social rights as free people. From the mid-nineteenth century up to the mid-twentieth century, white America denied blacks full access to political and economic equality, and anti-black prejudice was enforced by the swords of domestic terror groups like the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs.

An image of urban poverty in America. This guy must be lazy because just look: he's lying down!

An image of urban poverty in America. This guy must be lazy because just look: he’s lying down!

Even as southern blacks left the countryside for the cities during the Great Migration, whites used, and continue to use, tactics like redlining, white flight, discriminatory tax incentives, and mortgage discrimination to drain wealth out of the cities and limit economic opportunities for blacks trapped therein. Should it be any surprise, then, that poverty has historically been high in black communities? No, it shouldn’t.

It’s easy to say that history is in the past, and that the past shouldn’t be used as an excuse for conditions in the present. But those who spout variations of that sentiment are often, not coincidently, white males who have never been on the historical receiving end of apartheid, genocide, forced labor, cultural decimation, disenfranchisement, and mass discrimination. This isn’t to say that individual Native-Americans and African-Americans haven’t reached levels of success in American society. They have. Nor am I saying that white Americans haven’t endured – and continue to endure – grinding poverty. They have.

But those like Paul Ryan, who continue to insist that poverty is the pure result of some sort of cultural (or racial) defect, and not the result of a multiplicity of structural issues – not least of which is the concentration of American wealth and political power into fewer and fewer hands – are polluting public discourse with claims that stem not from reality, but from ideology. Conservatives shy away from the structural reasons for poverty because these reasons expose critical flaws in their conceptions of free-market capitalism as the organic, natural, and just way to organize a society.

Capitalism has many virtues and, when properly regulated by the state or other appropriate forces, it can improve the standard of living for millions of people. But as a system designed and implemented by flawed humans, capitalism is not immune to the worst of all human instincts: greed and the will to dominate others. For Paul Ryan to recognize these realities would entail a re-examination of his cherished faith in unfettered market forces and a recognition that, as a white guy, he and others like him have had it made for quite some time.

* See Gary B. Nash, “Poverty and Politics in Early American History,” in Billy G. Smith, ed., Down and Out in Early America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 1-14.

“12 Years a Slave,” the “American Spectator,” and the Historical Legacy of Paternalism

A scene from Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, which reminds that slaves were proprty no matter how they were treated, and that was truly awful.

A scene from Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, which reminds us that slaves were property no matter how they were treated.

In the year 2014, most people would agree that slavery was – and is – a very, very bad thing. In an American context especially, slavery and its proponents flouted supposedly sacrosanct ideals such as freedom, equality, and liberty – you know, the really important stuff. Moreover, the “peculiar institution” caused unmeasurable human misery and left a cultural scar on U.S. society that still hasn’t fully healed. So if historians’ work hasn’t been in vain – and I think it hasn’t – then most of us will have long been informed about the nature of slavery and why it was (one of) the greatest atrocities ever committed by the United States.

Few films in recent memory have depicted the horrors of slavery better than Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, a picture based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup: a New York-born free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana for over a decade. McQueen’s movie received widespread critical acclaim from both film critics and historians (a group known to be understandably finicky about how Hollywood depicts the past) and won the Academy Award for Best Picture at the 2014 Oscars.

But alas, James Bowman, culture critic for the conservative American Spectator magazine, has the brass gonads to stand above the consensus and claim slavery wasn’t all that bad, and that 12 Years a Slave should be viewed as “propaganda” because it fails to show any kind-hearted slaveholders or well-treated slaves. In a review for the Spectator that’s one part stupid, two parts asinine, Bowman argues that despite the film’s “considerable virtues,” 12 Years a Slave ultimately reflects “the politicization of historical scholarship in our time” because, maybe, just maybe, there were happy slaves, and director Steve McQueen only shows us the negative aspects of human bondage! I’m not kidding. Here’s the most offensive part of Bowman’s considerably offensive piece:

If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave, as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that Mr McQueen does not want us to hear about it.

You get all that? Bowman accuses the film of being politically correct and reflecting the so-called “Marxist-Leninist war of exploiters against exploited” academic agenda that conservatives are convinced is a real thing. Sort of like the way some people are convinced that they see Jesus in a potato chip. Now, given the pseudo-intellectual flavor of his Spectator piece, Bowman likely thinks that he’s making an original observation. But the thing is, he’s invoking a very old – and very discredited – defence of slavery, and in so doing he’s also demonstrating an odious conservative preference for paternalism.

In asserting that there must have been the occasional “kind master” and “contented slave” – and thus, a good side of slavery – Bowman is echoing a nineteenth-century pro-slavery defense that historians call the “positive good” argument. Proponents of this argument claimed that slavery was a benign institution because white people were the supposedly superior race, and that black people, as members of an “inferior” race, by nature needed the civilizing influence of white guidance. In this view, blacks were to accept their lot as social and racial inferiors in exchange for all the perks that came with white dominance; including Christianization, protection, food, clothing, free room and board, and a very full-time job.

The idea of Paternalism underlay every facet of the “Positive Good” argument. Paternalism is a relationship in which a state or an individual forcefully asserts their will over another person and limits that person’s freewill and autonomy under the pretence that the person being dominated will be better off under the heel of a superior individual. Basically, “paternalism” boils down to the idea that “it’s for your own good,” which was the favored argument of pro-slavery ideologues.

This 1946 Disney film is perhaps more fitting to James Bowman's ideas about slavery.

This 1946 Disney film is perhaps more fitting to James Bowman’s ideas about slavery.

The paternalistic “Positive Good” argument for slavery was most famously articulated by South Carolina pro-slavery demagogue, John C. Calhoun. In an 1837 speech titled (natch) “The ‘Positive Good’ of Slavery,” Calhoun argued that “the present state of civiliza­tion [in the South], where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil…a positive good.”

Other southern pro-slavery advocates elaborated on Calhoun’s basic premise that slavery was good for both those in bondage and their masters. Many cited the bible’s approval of slavery as justification for the institution’s prominence in the Old South. Moreover, southern religious writers claimed that slavery made masters kinder and slaves more obedient through a mutually beneficial relationship that existed only in the bullshitting minds of slavery apologists.

For example, in an 1851 essay titled The Duties of Christian Masters, the Rev. A.T. Holmes wrote that “the master should be the friend of his servant” because “friendship implies good will, kindness, [and] a desire for the welfare of him for whom it is entertained.”* Holmes then asserted that kind, Christian masters were a boon to slaves. “The servant, under such a master, knows his condition, and understands that, while he is restricted to certain privileges and required to perform certain duties, he is not held in subjugation by an unfeeling tyrant, nor driven to his work for a heartless oppressor.”* With those types of assurances in mind, it’s a wonder more black people didn’t submit their resumes to the slaveholders’ HR department! 

Indeed, Holmes argued that slaves got real benefits from being dominated by masters who acted as both protectors and teachers. “The servant should feel [sic] that the superior wisdom, experience, power and authority of his master, constitute his [the slave’s] abiding security,” Holmes wrote.* Moreover, the good Reverend also claimed that masters should act as teachers to their slaves because “ignorance, in a peculiar sense, attaches to the negro.”* Of course, education shouldn’t extend to stuff like literacy, knowledge of Enlightenment law, and biblical stories like the Exodus, because then slaves might get the idea that they were entitled to basic human rights and start getting all uppity, which would be bad for slavery’s PR as a “benevolent” institution.

And so, when James Bowman of the American Spectator insists that films like 12 Years a Slave should, in the spirit of avoiding political correctness, depict “a kind master or a contented slave” to show that slavery wasn’t all that bad, he is, whether consciously or unconsciously, referencing the exact same argument that slavery apologists used to justify human bondage in the Old South. Bowman essentially claims – as did pro-slavery ideologues – that benevolence softened an institution otherwise predicated on the most extreme form of paternalism. Yet while this argument is wholly repugnant, it’s not unexpected given that paternalism is central to conservative ideology.

The Americcan Spectator's James Bowman. To prove his point about slavery, he's willing to auction his freedom off to teh highest bidder - provided that said bidder treat him kindly.

The American Spectator’s James Bowman. To prove his point about slavery, he’s willing to auction his freedom off to the highest bidder – provided that said bidder treats him kindly.

I’ve already detailed the common ideological threads that link the paternalistic slaveholders of the Old South to modern-day conservatives in a previous post, which you should read – right after you finish this post. But it bears repeating that paternalism is essential to conservatism. As Corey Robin observes in The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, “conservatism is about power besieged and power protected.”* As an ideology, conservatism acts to defend the power of the ruling classes in both public and private spaces against “the agency of the subordinate classes.”* Throughout history, the subordinate classes have risen up against their rulers in the name of labor rights, feminism, abolition, and other like causes; and in each instance, conservatives have fought back under the banner of submission for the lower orders; agency for the elite.*

Conservatives believe that those in power (a group that, not coincidentally, includes themselves) are by nature superior to, and know what is better for, the people in subordinate positions. Conservatives are consummate paternalists. This is why they favor the power of employers over organized labor; it’s why they’re hostile to women gaining reproductive rights over their own bodies; it’s why they once argued that whites were permitted to enslave blacks, and it’s why James Bowman can find a supposed silver lining in the horrors of slavery. Conservatives have historically defended the agency of those in power, and they continue to do so today.

It isn’t that James Bowman supports slavery; rather, as a conservative, he can’t understand why paternalism is antithetical to freedom. He’s incapable of comprehending the full meaning of slaves’ status as property, and that as such, no amount of kind treatment could mask their inherent status as human beings deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by self-interested paternalists. A person who is under the total control of another person can never be truly free, regardless of their material conditions.

Thus, what Bowman laments is not the end of slavery itself, but American culture’s gradual rejection of paternalism – the idea that underpinned slavery – as an acceptable condition in society. If and when paternalism ever goes the way of the dinosaurs, you can rest assured that plenty of other conservatives will lament the triumph of an “exploiters against exploited” worldview: after all, if paternalism goes, so goes the power of the exploiters.

* See Reverend A.T. Holmes, “The Duties of Christian Masters,” in Paul Finkelman, ed., Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003), 103, 104, 105.

* See Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 28, 3, 7.

Darrell Issa and the Historical Shadow of the Gag Rule

Darrell Issa (R-CA) does NOT approve of you speaking like that!

You’re talking, my friend, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) is soooo not cool with that!

Poor Darrell Issa. For years, the hard-charging GOP Congress-critter has been on a Quixotic quest to destroy what he believes to be the multi-tentacled scandal beast at the heart of the Obama administration. Since his party of curmudgeonly gremlins took control of Congress back in 2010, the California representative has planted himself as the lead inquisitor-chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and over the last three years or so, he’s investigated everything from the alleged liberal causes of the 2008 financial crisis, to the supposed job-killing effects of government regulation, to the existence of Bigfoot.

Okay, I made that last one up, but suffice to say that Issa has made it his goal to find everything rotten in government and place the blame for that rot squarely on the shoulders of the Obama Administration. Indeed, the guy is so delusional that it’d be none-too-surprising if he concluded that Bigfoot was working as a secret environmental agent for liberal activist groups.

Issa’s been especially busy in 2014. His main concerns have been non-scandals like Benghazi, the supposed IRS effort to target conservative dark-money organizations who applied for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status (it turns out the agency also targeted left-wing groups too), and the so-called “Fast and Furious” scandal. The latter involved a scheme in which ATF agents tried to snare border gun runners who’ve been funneling firearms to Mexican drug cartels. This ill-conceived program was implemented by the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and while a host of problems plagued the effort, the Right’s favorite talking point – that Attorney General Eric Holder intentionally allowed guns to fall into cartel hands – has long been debunked.

But none of this matters to Darrell Issa, because he’s on a mission to bring the Obama Administration down for the crime of being (allegedly) liberal. And so this week Issa was still hammering away at the phony IRS scandal, trying to get IRS official Lois Lerner to answer questions about the agency’s supposed targeting of right-wing money groups. As TPM reports, when the hearing got heated, ranking committee member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) tried to argue that even after a multi-year investigation, the committee found no evidence of a political conspiracy at the IRS, though some mismanagement was identified. Issa, apparently perturbed by a Democrat voicing an opinion in a Congressional investigation, abruptly cut Cummings’ mic, after which Cummings accused Issa of disrespecting a fellow congressman and directing “a one-sided investigation.”

Although Issa eventually apologized to Cummings, the reaction to Issa’s cutting a Democratic colleague’s mic was swift and justifiably critical. Salon’s Joan Walsh called Issa’s behavior “Thuggish,” and concluded that “He’s [Issa] trying to shame the White House, and Cummings makes a great stand-in.” The New York Times’ David Firestone rightly notes that when Congressional minority members are silenced, “it makes the majority look like a bunch of insecure authoritarians.” It’s that whole “authoritarian” angle that made Issa’s behavior especially galling, particularly given the U.S. Congress’s history of authoritarian-style silencing of dissenting views that have ultimately turned out to be right on target. Issa’s move echoes back to one particularly onerous Congressional policy: the Gag Rule.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) will not be gagged by the GOP's own Don Quixote.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) will not be gagged by the GOP’s own Don Quixote.

In the mid to late 1830s, the abolitionist movement in the United States finally began to muster some political power after years of being relegated to fringe sects like the Quakers. And the anti-slavery agitators were up against a very real threat: the Slave Power. Thanks to the efforts of southern political power-players like President Andrew Jackson and his northern collaborator/lacky, New York’s Martin Van Buren, the Democratic Party in the mid-nineteenth century solidified itself around a commitment to pro-slavery ideals. Of course, slaveholders benefitted politically from a Congressional boost in representation guaranteed by the Constitution via the ownership of human property.

The Democrats at the time were especially effective, at least until about 1860, at maintaining party discipline (imagine that: the Democrats were once a disciplined political party!) with regards to supporting slavery. The two-thirds rule at Democratic National Conventions ensured that southern support was a prerequisite for receiving the party’s presidential nomination, and southern support meant supporting slavery. As historian Daniel Walker Howe notes in What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, his mammoth, but essential account of the Jacksonian Era, “in shaping the Democratic Party the way they did, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren forged the instrument that would transform the minority proslavery interest into a majority that would dominate American politics until 1861.”* A key component in maintaining a pro-slavery political majority was combating anti-slavery agitation, and that’s where the Gag Rule came in.

Initially, abolitionists tried to protest slavery by sending anti-slavery mailings directly to southern mailboxes via the postal system, but pro-slavery interests in Congress collaborated with the Postmaster General to ban the mass-mailing of all anti-slavery literature. Shut out of the post office, abolitionists turned to circulating mass anti-slavery petitions in Congress and urging for the open discussion of abolitionism within the House. In response, the Slave Power in Congress passed a series of so-called Gag Rules from 1836 to 1840 that blocked any and all congressional discussions of anti-slavery ideas in an effort to prevent abolitionists from influencing the public sentiment on slavery.

Among the most vociferous opponents of the Gag Rule was former president John Quincy Adams, who undermined the rule at every turn by defending abolitionists’ constitutional rights to petition Congress. Adams – who also coined the term “Gag” in reference to the banning of anti-slavery discussion – read petitions at the beginning of congressional sessions before the rules could be adopted, then forced a vote on the right to implement the Gag. Adams also made congressional committees do their jobs and thoroughly examine anti-slavery petitions in order to determine if the language therein qualified as Gag-worthy, thereby forcing discussion on a topic the Gag was supposed to silence entirely.

John Quincy Adams: propoent of both epic chops and petitioning Congress

John Quincy Adams: proponent of both epic chops and petitioning Congress.

The efforts of Adams – and thousands of anti-slavery petitioners – brought plenty of heat down on the congressional Slave Power, drawing boatloads of attention to the abolitionist cause. Much to southern Democrats’ dismay, the controversy over the Gag Rule brought extra attention to an issue that was supposed to be gagged, as more anti-slavery petitions bearing tens-of-thousands of signatures poured into Congress.* Indeed, the entire Gag Rule brouhaha reinforced a by-now old rule in American politics: when you try to suppress legitimate grievances in the name of political gain, you run the risk of empowering the very people you want to marginalize.

And thus we come back full-circle to Darrell Issa. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman not only tried to gag Elijah Cummings from speaking, he’s also tried to gag any and all information that might undermine his quest to tar the Obama Administration with scandal after scandal. Through his bone-headed actions, Issa is invoking an ugly authoritarian aspect of the Congressional past. By silencing Cummings, who is, of course, African-American, Issa provided the uncomfortable image of a white speaker silencing a black colleague in a manner that evoked a rule once used by white supremacists to silence discussion about ending black slavery in America. Having endured far-worse attempts to block black political participation, Cummings called out Issa’s shenanigans until the Republican chairman finally apologized.

The brief spat between Issa and Cummings speaks to larger issues of decorum and democracy in the chamber that’s supposed to most closely represent the interests of average Americans. The House of Representatives, like other institutions in the American system, has on occasion been captured by the thuggery of authoritarianism. Such incidents are ugly stains on the House and shouldn’t be repeated in any century. Darrell Issa is free to continue swinging his chairmanship at scandalous Democratic windmills, but he’d better not complain when someone like Cummings points out the loads of Republican malarkey that such bravado is trying to conceal.

* See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 512-515.