Monthly Archives: April 2014

Cliven Bundy, The Negro, and Poor White Trash

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is the epitome of the VERY angry white guy.

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is the epitome of the VERY angry white guy.

Anyone who pays any attention whatsoever to the 24-hour American news circle-jerk is by now familiar with the ongoing saga of Cliven Bundy, the good ‘ole boy Nevada cattle rancher who’s playing chicken with the federal government over the $1 million in fees that he’s refused to pay for grazing his cattle on federally owned land. Bundy’s become a right-wing folk hero thanks to his aversion to all things “big ‘gubmint,” and he’s attracted plenty of support from armed, anti-federal government militia whack-a-loons who’ve gathered to defend Bundy against Bureau of Land Management (BLM) goon-squads.

Look, given the revelations in recent years detailing the sweeping domestic-spying power of the National Security Agency (NSA), among other issues, criticism of excessive federal power is certainly warranted. But Cliven Bundy’s political views are weirdly a-historical: he denies the existence and authority of the United States Federal Government. In this respect, Bundy de facto rejects the federal constitution as implemented by the Founders back in 1787 and instead lives his twenty-first century life inside a constructed fantasy-world in which the old Articles of Confederation still constitute the law of the land. But while I could (and probably will) write more about Bundy’s political views, I’m instead going to focus on his unique take on race in America.

Thus, we come to a little statement Bundy made, caught on video, in which he detailed his thoughts on black culture. “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” Bundy said when describing a public-housing project in Las Vegas, “in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do.” And why were these black people so shiftless, according to Bundy?

“[T]hey were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Predictably and justifiably, Bundy’s comments received widespread criticism and even caused political supporters like libertarian homunculus Rand Paul (R-KY) to back off from their previous ballz-out support for the rancher. Bundy’s comments repeat the “blacks as poor urban criminals and welfare cheats” meme that has infected American culture for well over a century. This meme influences every major American domestic policy decision, and it’s one of the secret/not-so-secret reasons why many-a-voter (like Bundy) votes Republican (even some who are registered Democrats). Just think about dealing with your racist relatives at Thanksgiving and you’ll know what I mean.

The most damaging aspect of this critique of the alleged deviancy of “black culture” (a topic about which I’ve written here) is that it denies African-Americans their right to live as individuals. Instead, by lumping all black people into the category of “the negro,” even individual black Americans must exist as representatives of a broader “black culture.” Thus, if you’re, say, a successful professor who happens to be black, American culture holds you responsible for the actions of other black people who commit crimes — because they’re black too. Makes sense, right? We do the same thing for whites, don’t we?

Don't worry, other white people, these poor white trash folk don't reprensent "white culture." Image by Shelby Lee Adams.

Don’t worry, other white people, these poor white trash folk don’t represent “white culture.” Image by Shelby Lee Adams.

No we don’t. And let me provide an example from the nineteenth century to show that we don’t. As you may know, there exists a sub-group of white people in America, generally confined to rural areas and small towns, who’re pejoratively labeled as “rednecks,” “crackers,” “hillbillies,”  “yokels,” “trailer trash,” and other similar titles. In the nineteenth century, middle and upper-class white southerners often called these people “‘poor white trash,” and they often critiqued what they saw as the negative habits on display by this group.

Among the most studious observers of poor southern whites was Alabama lawyer D.R. Hundley. In his 1860 book, Social Relations in Our Southern States, Hundley divided southern whites into seven camps that ranged from the “southern gentleman” (planters) at the top to “poor white trash” at the bottom. While he distinguished these group of southern whites by financial affluence, he also argued that blood lines influenced different groups’ manners and habits — the worst of which were displayed by the poor white trash.

According to Hundley, “laziness” was the chief characteristic of poor whites. “They are about the laziest two-legged animals that walk erect on the face of the Earth,” he wrote, “even their motions are slow, and their speech is a sickening drawl.” Hundley added that “all they seem to care for, is, to live from hand to mouth; to get drunk, provided they can do so without having to trudge too far after their liquor.” Poor whites also liked to eat, sleep, and lie around all day, and Hundley wrote that, “we do not believe the worthless ragamuffins would put themselves to much extra locomotion to get out of a shower of rain; and we know they would shiver all day with cold, with wood all around them, before they would trouble themselves to pick it up and build a fire.”*

Hundley’s descriptions of lazy poor whites should remind you of Cliven Bundy’s description of shiftless, porch-squatting Las Vegas blacks who “didn’t have nothing to do.” Indeed, well-off white people have often lumped poor whites and blacks into the “lazy and shiftless” camp. But Hundley’s poor whites get a level of grace that still isn’t granted to blacks, because poor whites don’t represent all whites. Heck, poor white trash were just one category of whites, and they even shared their upper and middle-class peers’ belief in white supremacy. “The Poor Whites of the South seldom come in contact with the slaves at all, and thousands of them never saw a negro,” Hundley wrote, “still, almost to a man, they are pro-slavery in sentiment…from downright envy and hatred of the black man.”*

Cliven Bundy yearns for a time when black people had decent jobs and weren't lazy, as depicted in this picture.

Cliven Bundy yearns for a time when black people had decent jobs and weren’t lazy, as depicted in this picture.

That’s right, despite all of their crude laziness, which Hundley attributed to a combination of genetic lineage and ingrained habits, poor whites could still claim solidarity with planters and yeomen via their shared hatred of blacks. That’s because “blacks” represented a vast, amorphous, enslaved demographic group defined by broad, negative cultural traits, but poor whites were just that: a sub-group of whites that never symbolized “whiteness” in general and never represented “whites” as a whole. Contrast that with the way modern Cliven Bundy-types still characterize “blacks” as a broad group of people suffering from a shared cultural dysfunction that leaves them prone to crime, deviancy, promiscuity, and other bad habits. To Bundy and his ilk, the blacks on Las Vegas porches aren’t even “poor blacks:” they’re just “blacks” in general, and they need to fix “their” deviant culture.

So remember Cliven Bundy’s comments the next time you read a story about meth-head white trash in Appalachia or prescription drug abuse in the nation’s Heartland, and ask yourself: what’s wrong with white culture that would make these people act like that? If you feel weird saying it that way, that’s because, in America, there isn’t any “white culture” in need of uplift. Whites get to be individuals, but blacks still have to be “blacks.” And that’s a problem.

* See D.R. Hundley, Social Relations in Our Southern States (New York: Henry B. Price, 1860), 262-3, 273.

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Todd Starnes, Fox News, and Nostalgia’s Twisted History

Tod Starnes, the epitomome of American manhood, thinks the Doobie Brothers never smoked weed.

Fleshy Fox News gas geyser Todd Starnes, the epitome of American manhood, thinks the Doobie Brothers never smoked weed. Isn’t that precious.

It’s a fairly well-established trope in American politics that conservatives are overly obsessed with the past. Anyone whose ever spent time experiencing the ear-invading ceti-eel that is conservative talk-radio, or viewing the idiot-box propaganda that is Fox News knows that conservatives love to reference a past that was invariably better than the allegedly freedom-crushing nightmare of the Obama era.

For those to the right of the political spectrum, the space-time continuum is defined by two — and only two — eras: before and after the authoritarian reign of Barack Obama. And, of course, the era before Obama’s conquest was much better (and whiter). That’s because conservatives imagine the past to be a simpler, morally superior time, and they want to return to that time pronto!

The problem with yearning for a more wholesome (and by extension, less liberal) time is that such a time never actually existed. The idea of a simpler American past over which right-wingers salivate like golden retrievers anticipating a bag of Beggin’ Strips is, in fact, a past constructed from nostalgia.

In his classic article “Nostalgia and the American,” the historian Arthur Dudden defined nostalgia as “a preference for things as they are believed to have been.”* Conservatives use nostalgia to rally their followers (usually, but not exclusively, grey-haired, government-hating medicare beneficiaries) into supporting Republican political candidates who promise to destroy liberalism and bring America back to a mythical time when the federal government was non-existent and most people lived in a version of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, went to church every day, and didn’t have to deal with teh gayz.

Case in point: Todd Starnes — a pasty cross between Lou Dobbs and Lewis from Revenge of the Nerds who regularly serves as Fox News’ resident front-line correspondent for the non-existent “culture wars” — has written a new book that uses nostalgia to condemn all-things liberal. Brilliantly titled God Less America: Real Stories from the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values (conservatives don’t do irony), Starnes’ book is a standard collection of right-wing boilerplate describing the so-called assault on Christian values by the ever-expanding army of liberal heathens who are apparently intent on dragging the U.S. into a hellish orgy of critical thinking and secularism.

In most respects, Starnes’ screed differs little from the stack of conservative polemics published by the (now-threatened) right-wing book industry on a yearly basis that warn of America’s impending slide into moral anarchy. But Starnes’ book is notable thanks to its unbelievable reliance on hackneyed nostalgic clichés to describe a completely fictitious American past in which conservatism reigned supreme and that Barack Obama took away.

As this Andy Griffith statue in Raleigh, North Carolina demonstarte, the myth of a Mayberry-style small town still shapes American identity.

As this Andy Griffith statue in Raleigh, North Carolina demonstrates, the myth of a Mayberry-style small town still shapes American identity.

Andrew Kirell over at Mediaite first alerted me to the truly Shaksperian verbiage contained within Starnes’ mighty tome, and he dares people to actually get through the first six pages without bursting into uncontrollable (and possibly dangerous) fits of laughter. Take these paragraphs from Starnes’ Introduction,* in which the Fox News poet layeth down the corn-pone characteristics that defined his humble youth in small-town America:

I grew up in a much simpler time — when blackberry was a pie and dirty dancing meant somebody forgot to clean out the barn for the square dance. It was a time when father still knew best — when the girls were girls and the men were men. I grew up in a time when a rainbow was a sign of God’s promise, not gay rights.

And:

When I grew up, spam was something you ate and a hard drive was the twelve-hour trip to grandma’s house without any bathroom breaks. It was a time when a virus was cleared up with a bowl of chicken soup, not the Geek Squad from Best Buy. It was a time when Doobie was a brother and hip-hop was something a bunny rabbit did.

In a truly stunning feat of deception laced with stupidity, Starnes uses nostalgia to create a fictitious American past that is completely untethered from any actual time and space. Just look at the disparate pop-culture references he manages to cram into those two paragraphs: Square-dancing hasn’t been en vogue since at least the late-1970s; the film Dirty Dancing (which Starnes references to comment on the decline of American sexual values) came out in 1987; Best Buy’s Geek Squad was founded in 1994, and modern computers have been around in some form or another since the 1970s. This alleged “time” when Starnes “grew up” is an imaginary past that he created using nostalgia to stitch together disparate time-periods and pop-culture references into a mythical American historical cloth.

And then there’s the sheer obtuseness displayed in some of Starnes’ references to pop-culture, which he uses to contrast a simpler past with a more complicated present. Seriously, is there anything simple about what goes into making a can of Spam?! And what about the reference to a “Doobie” being merely a “brother?” If Starnes thinks that the name of seventies band the Doobie Brothers wasn’t a verbal nod to smoking weed — then he’s really, really dumb. Starnes commits the cardinal sin of all nostalgia mongers: he believes that because the past happened before, then it must have been simpler than what happened after. Of course, as historians have long pointed out, the past was never, ever “simple.”

So why do Starnes and other conservatives insist on viewing the past through nostalgia-colored lenses? Well, they do so because nostalgia simplifies the past and purports to offer solutions to problems in the present. In his book, Starnes invokes what scholar Andrew Murphy calls “Golden Age politics” by reappropriating the past in order to present a “solution to present difficulties.” Murphy writes that “nostalgic and Golden Age politics depend on the…claim that some aspect of the past offers the best way forward in addressing the inadequacies and corruptions of the present.”* In God Less America, Starnes is doing just that by claiming that the (fictional) America of his youth was simpler and, by extension, better than, the overly complex and morally depraved present that is the Obama era.

I’ve written about nostalgia before, particularly in reference to the reality show American Pickers and in terms of how nostalgia shapes the enduring myth of small-town U.S.A., and I’ve noted that nostalgia in-and-of-itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in some circumstances, it CAN be a bad thing, especially when conservatives use it reshape the past in an effort to disingenuously comment on the present.

Writing in the 1960s, Arthur Dudden recognized how nostalgia, which he characterized as a type of “cultural homesickness,” could be manipulated to serve devious ends. “Nostalgia implies a certain dissatisfaction with present circumstances, and very likely also a dissatisfaction with the apparent direction of trends leading into the future,” Dudden wrote — and I’ll be damned if he didn’t describe the essence of modern conservatism as promoted by Todd Starnes.*

For Todd Starnes, America begins and ends with this painting.

For Todd Starnes, America begins and ends with this painting.

But by invoking a mythical past to fix what they see as a “broken” present, conservatives like Starnes fail to see how their own beliefs and policies have shaped a contemporary world that seems so much more complex and amoral than the “simple” past they claim to remember. Consider conservatives’ sanctification of free market capitalism. As Erica Grieder notes, “capitalism encourages mobility and disruption. It therefore represents a particular challenge to the traditional structures, like family or civil society, that used to represent a person’s personal safety net.” Grieder recognizes how the inherent dynamism of capitalism pays no heed to traditional structures like family, church, and small-town communities that conservatives want to preserve.

All of the complexities of modern society — which Starnes sees embodied in things like the Blackberry device, the film industry, popular music, the internet age, and urbanization — are the direct result of the relentless free-market dynamism that conservatives promote. Market forces drive the onslaught of technology by creating products that people want to buy, and if, in the process, these same market forces decimate small towns by shipping jobs to Third World countries, or make employment so scarce that tight-knit families and communities are forced to split up in order to find work that is increasingly concentrated in big cities, as opposed to the small towns over which Starnes waxes nostalgic, then so be it.

Market capitalism doesn’t care about disrupting American social institutions, but Todd Starnes does, and like other conservatives, he’s unable to recognize how his undying support for free-market capitalism creates the contemporary conditions that he views as far less simple than the idealized past that he longs to return to in God Less America. And therein lies the dangerous aspect of nostalgia: by creating a fictional and overly simplified vision of the past, it renders people unable to deal with the present as it is.

While it’s worth reiterating that nostalgia isn’t always a bad thing, it’s nonetheless something that can prevent people from understanding the very real complexities of the modern world. Shameless nostalgia mongers like Todd Starnes only make things worse by promoting a past that never existed in order to fix a present that they simply don’t like. So suck it up Todd; your gay rainbow is here to stay.

* See Todd Starnes, God Less America: Real Stories from the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2014), 1-2.

* See Arthur P. Dudden, “Nostalgia and the American,” Journal of the History of Ideas 22 (Oct. – Dec., 1961): 517.

* See Andrew R. Murphy, “Longing, Nostalgia, and Golden Age Politics: The American Jeremiad and the Power of the Past,” Perspectives on Politics 7 (Mar., 2009): 126.

Jonathan Chait and the Shadow of Race in the Obama Era

Whether you voted for or against Barack Obama was in many ways dependent on a socially constructed concept known as "race" that, at least scientifically, doesn't even exist.

Whether you voted for or against Barack Obama was in many ways dependent on a socially constructed concept known as “race.”

There’s an old adage that goes something like this: in America, everything is about race, even when race has nothing to do with it. Ever since the colonial era, Americans of all stripes have dealt with the race issue because it’s been a crucial element in determining what it means to be an American from day one. Race was, of course, the major factor that drove America’s original sin of slavery (it’s rumored that early drafts of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence read: “All men are created equal, except for those dusky fellers picking my tobacco.) But long after slavery’s demise, race still lingers in American political discourse and, if you believe Jonathan Chait, race has been the defining theme of Barack Obama’s presidency.

In a simultaneously contentious, frustrating, and illuminating piece for the New Yorker, Chait performs some impressive mental gymnastics in order to argue that race — particularly the politics of white racial resentment towards African-Americans — is the core theme that has shaped modern conservatism while also arguing that liberals are wrong to call conservatives racists for opposing Barack Obama’s policies. You got that? Chait admits that “at the level of electoral campaign messaging, conservatism and white racial resentment are functionally identical,” but warns of “an increasing liberal tendency to define conservatism as a form of covert racial discrimination” that is both politically wrongheaded and factually untrue.

Plenty of otherwise like-minded commentators have taken Chait to the proverbial woodshed for his Charlie Brown-style wishy washiness on the race issue. Salon’s Joan Walsh, for example, chides Chait for pointing out recent Republican efforts to restrict minority voting rights and refusing to expand Medicaid — measures that disproportionately target black Americans — and then having the gall to chastise liberals for “mostly telling the truth about all of those things, while occasionally exaggerating it.” Meanwhile, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie characterizes Chait’s piece as “a story of mutual grievance between Americans on the left and right, with little interest in the lived experiences of racism from black Americans and other people of color.”

So is Chait wrong to worry about all characterizations of conservatism being reduced to mere anti-black (and anti-Latino) racial resentment? The short answer is “Yes;” the long answer is “No.” As has always been the case in American history, the issue of race is monumentally complicated, with multiple streams and rivers that flow into a much bigger — and much muddier — racial pool.

Chait is correct that being politically conservative in America doesn’t make you a racist in the most visceral, black-hating, pointed hood–donning sense, but he’s also wrong to claim that liberals start out with “a sound analysis of Republican racial animosity” but then extend this analysis into “paranoia.” This is why every issue in America comes down to race — even when it doesn’t.

Once upon a time, in the nineteenth century, the Democrats accused the Republicans of being the party that catered to black people. The more things change...

Once upon a time, in the nineteenth century, the Democrats accused the Republicans of being the party that catered to black people. The more things change…

Allow me to explain a bit further. What Chait, and so many others before him, always seem to stumble on is defining what they mean when they use the term “racism.” In his book Racism: A Short History, the eminent historian George Fredrickson defines racism in both broad and specific terms. Generally, racism is “the hostile or negative feelings of one ethnic group or ‘people’ toward another and the actions resulting from such attitudes.”* Specifically, however, racism differs from more standard human conflict via the crucial additions of difference and power. Together, these two components create “a mindset that regards ‘them’ as different from ‘us’ in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable.” Fredrickson writes that, “racism expresses itself in the practices, institutions, and structures that a sense of deep difference justifies or validates.”* In other words, racism doesn’t just create racist individuals; it also creates racist societies.

Chait is looking for examples of conservatives playing the racist role, as defined by Fredrickson, by explicitly enacting practices that mark blacks as different from, and less powerful than, whites. Thus, what he’s really trying to pin down is to what extent the U.S. is, or isn’t, a racist society — one in which whites still actively discriminate against blacks. Liberals say that it is; conservatives say that it isn’t. The answer, however, is “yes:” the U.S. has been, and continues to be, a racist society. But — and this is crucial — the U.S. isn’t as racist as it was thirty, fifty, a hundred, or two-hundred years ago, and it’s getting less racist every year. The problem is that racism, being so entwined into the fabric of American society, won’t just disappear over night, and before it dies entirely, it devolves into a less-potent — but no less influential idea — which I call “racialism.”

I didn’t invent the term “racialism;” it’s been bandied about for years by various types of academics looking for a way to describe racially tinged ideas that didn’t seem to fit into the full-on “racist” category. For my purposes, racialism is the belief that racial differences exist, and it constitutes the various ways, both positive and negative, that Americans have tried to shape and influence social and political policies in accordance with that belief.

Here’s an example of how racialism differs from racism. Growing up in Northeast Ohio’s Rust Belt, I often heard a racially insensitive joke that went something like this: Q: “What’s the difference between a large pizza and a black man?” A: “The large pizza can feed a family of four.” Anyone whose ever paid attention to the American welfare debate knows why this joke is supposed to be “funny:” it invokes long-running stereotypes depicting blacks as lazy, shiftless, and unwilling to work for themselves. Those stereotypes, in turn, go all the way back to the era of slavery, when whites deemed blacks as “inferior” and in need of the guiding light of white control. In modern political parlance, the “lazy black” idea fueled Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” story and continues to drive conservative hostility to welfare programs that allegedly benefit blacks at whites’ expense.

Not all conservatives are racists, but then again some are.

Not all conservatives are racists, but then again some are.

Any white person I knew who either told or heard that joke would deny that they were racists, and in terms of the popular understanding of what racists do, they’d probably be right. They would never join the Ku Klux Klan, harass black people, or do any of the other nasty stuff that racists are supposed to do. But a good many of them think that, due to “cultural” reasons, blacks are lazy, prone to criminality, and abuse welfare programs paid for by hard-working (read: white) taxpayers. But they’d be the first to tell you that they aren’t racist, even though you’d never hear them talking about all the rural, white Americans on welfare.

The thing is, you don’t have to be outwardly (or even inwardly racist) to “get” that joke. It invokes historically entrenched cultural ideas of alleged differences between blacks and whites that are still ingrained in American society, even if most white people would rightfully (hopefully?!) be repulsed by what the “black man/large pizza” joke connotes. In other words, racism has so significantly shaped American culture that its shadows, in the form of racialism, can appear everywhere, even when the elusive original source of the shadow is unseen or outright rejected.

If, like me, you’ve never been black, then there’s no way for you to experience the unique feeling of being black in America as filtered through the lens of non-black others. We can’t feel racialism because, thanks to the birth lottery and the trajectory of modern American history, we’ve never been judged on our skin alone. We can’t know what’s it’s like to be assessed, ridiculed, reviled, feared, and defined solely based on something as mundane as pigmentation. But if you’re black in America, you know racialism exists even when hardcore racism is waning — and you know, as does Jonathan Chait, which political party has racialism as an unspoken part of its platform.

Conservatives have long scored political points by assuming, correctly, that a good many white Americans who would never join the KKK or lynch someone nonetheless know what’s implied by the “black man/large pizza” joke. In criticizing liberals who label those who practice, and respond to, dog-whistle politics as racists, Jonathan Chait is trying to grapple with how the legacy of racism could still be so influential in the era of the first black American president. In one sense, he’s correct that not all conservatives are racists, but by downplaying the importance race plays in shaping the politics of the modern American Right, he’s missing out on how the long shadow of racialism still casts over the American body politic.

* See George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 1, 6, 9.

Vaccine Truthers, Conspiracy Theories, and American Democracy Unhinged

Demonstraters in New Jeresy protest a law requiring mandatory flu vaccinations. Because why not.

Demonstrators in New Jersey protest a law requiring mandatory flu vaccinations. Because why not.

Paranoia is everywhere in modern America. Granted, it’s always been that way, but in a society bathed in 24-7 mass media, you simply can’t avoid the endless rush of stupid that comes with the mainstreaming of bizarre conspiracy theories. Consider a recent example of this nonsense: In February the Washington Times reported that 38 percent of Americans still think President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. Yes, the so-called “Birthers” are still among us six years and one publically produced birth certificate into Obama’s presidency.

Then there are the old standards. Back in 2012, a National Geographic survey found that nearly 36 percent of Americans (about 80 million people) believe the government is covering up knowledge of UFOs, and last fall Gallop reported that 61 percent of Americans believe the JFK assassination was a conspiracy. Personally, I think that extraterrestrial Cuban mobsters killed Kennedy with the aid of Elvis and Sasquatch, but I digress.

Alongside these conspiracy standards, there’s also another whopper that, until recently, was less well-known than the usual harping over alien cover ups and JFK’s “magic bullet.” This conspiracy has caused serious damage to American public policy, most recently seen in the outbreak of measles in New York City. I’m talking about the utterly baseless belief, promoted by the anti-vaccination movement, that vaccines cause autism in kids — and that doctors, Big Pharma, and politicians are pushing them regardless of the danger. The modern anti-vaccine movement relies on celebrity endorsers like Jenny McCarthy to spread unscientific assertions based on appeals to irrational human emotion. The anti-vaxxers’ one medical supporter is discredited British gastroenterologist, Andrew Wakefield, whose bogus 1998 research into the supposed connection between autism and vaccines hasn’t tarnished his stature as the anti-vaccine movement’s own Obi Wan Kenobi.

But while the mass-media coverage of the anti-vaxxers is fairly new, the movement itself isn’t. Fears of vaccinations actually go back to the 1800s, when English physician Edward Jenner met a fair bit of resistance to his life-saving smallpox vaccine from folks who felt that inoculation was un-Christian (since it came from a cowpox blister) and just plain weird. Resistance to vaccines was widespread enough that in 1879, a group of concerned citizens formed the Anti-Vaccination Society of America in part to voice concerns about mandatory vaccine laws that took decisions about kids’ health out of parents’ hands. Yet even after a century of vaccination that has eliminated multiple horrible diseases, vaccines still retain an air of controversy among segments of the American public.

So why does the anti-vaccine movement just keep on keeping on? A major reason is that American democracy just happens to be the perfect fetid swamp in which conspiracy ideas can fester. Conspiracy theories are alternate, subjective visions of reality that are completely unmoored from actual reality, and these alternate realities thrive on fear and emotion. In his book A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, Michael Barkum defines a conspiracy belief as “the belief that an organization made up of individuals or groups was or is acting covertly to achieve some malevolent end.” Conspiratorial worldviews thrive on the notions that nothing happens by accident, everything is connected, and that all appearances are deceptive because they conceal actual truths. Above all, conspiracy beliefs seek to “reduce complex phenomena to simple causes,” and this makes them utterly immune (pun intended) to empirical evidence.*

Alexis de Tocqueville understood the good and bad aspects of America's obsession with the "common man."

Alexis de Tocqueville understood the good and bad aspects of America’s obsession with the “common man.”

America’s small “d” democratic culture and historical hostility to “elites” of all stripes has long made it a prime breeding ground for conspiracy beliefs. In an American society that rejected (at least in theory) the Old World’s inherited privileges of wealth and monarchy, conspiracy beliefs have thrived amid a culture that tends to favor the salt-of-the-earth wisdom of the common man over the egg-headed trappings of an elite aristocracy.

The great French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville observed this tendency in his 1840 classic Democracy in America, Vol. 2. “Men who live in democratic communities not only seldom indulge in meditation, but they naturally entertain very little esteem for it,” de Tocqueville wrote. He characterized Americans as a people always on the move, and this life of constant action was a by-product of small “d” democratic values that prioritized practical, material gain over more rigorously observed knowledge. Thus, the common man (and woman) had to perpetually rely on “ideas that he has not had leisure to search to the bottom.” The average American, de Tocqueville observed, “is much more frequently aided by the seasonableness of an idea than by its strict accuracy; and in the long run he risks less in making use of some false principles than in spending his time in establishing all his principles on the basis of truth.”

De Tocqueville highlighted the aspect of American democratic culture that elevated the folk wisdom of the common schlub to a status on par with that of the learned scientist. “The world is not led by long or learned demonstrations,” he wrote, “a rapid glance at particular incidents, the daily study of the fleeting passions of the multitude, the accidents of the moment, and the art of turning them to account decide all its affairs.”*

One hundred-forty years after Democracy in America, the great biochemist and sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov recognized that what de Tocqueville identified as the American habit of embracing the “seasonableness of an idea” too often resulted in a toxic rejection of empirical knowledge when such knowledge clashed with sheer gut feelings. “The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through out political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge,'” Asimov quipped. Unfortunately, conspiracy theorists like the anti-vaccers conflate earnestly felt ignorance with empirically derived knowledge — and many Americans are willing to follow suit.

Indeed, if anyone is willing to embrace the “seasonableness” of an idea over its “strict accuracy,” its anti-vaxxers, who’ve elevated a non-scientist common schlub like Jenny McCarthy to the status of spokesperson for their cause. The anti-vaccine movement demonstrates conspiracy theorists’ preference for simple answers to complex problems. Medical scientists, for example, still don’t know exactly what causes autism – although there is absolutely no evidence linking it to vaccines. But conspiracy theorists aren’t interested in evidence that might contradict cherished worldviews. As Barkum writes, to the conspiratorial mind, “information that appears to put a conspiracy theory in doubt must have been planted by the conspirators themselves in order to mislead.”* In other words, evidence that contradicts conspiratorial beliefs is taken as further evidence that those beliefs are true. The result is a self-reinforcing information echo chamber concealed behind an impenetrable wall of denial.

Jenny McCarthy's status as the anti-vaccers' top spokesperson speaks to the American tendency to place way too much trust in non-experts.

Jenny McCarthy’s status as the anti-vaccers’ top spokesperson speaks to the American tendency to place way too much trust in non-experts.

For those Americans whose kids suffer from autism, the struggle to find the cause of, and cure for, this mysterious condition is understandably frustrating and emotional. But those who promote the false connection between autism and vaccines only inhibit the search for a cure by muddying the media waters with discredited information. Furthermore, as recent outbreaks of long-dormant diseases like measles and whooping cough demonstrate, anti-vaccination conspiracy theories have serious real-world repercussions for real people. America might still be, as de Tocqueville observed, the land of the common folk, but this doesn’t mean that the common folk’s knowledge is on par with that of trained scientific professionals.

It’s one thing to have a healthy skepticism towards authority, but it’s another thing entirely to distrust authority to the point where the only authority is your gut – or a former model making baseless medical claims. Remember, all of the Founding Fathers were intellectual elites, so let’s put empirical knowledge back to the forefront of American culture where it belongs. Your life may just depend on it.

See Michael Barkum, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (Berkely: University of California Press, 2003), 3-7.

See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 2 (New York: Vintage, 1840, 1990), 43.