Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Isla Vista Shooting, Misogyny, and the Dark Legacy of American Manhood

A makeshift memorial for victims of the Isla Vista shooting: a tragedy brought about by insanity, a sick gun festish culture, and some seriously twisted ideas about masculinity.

A makeshift memorial for victims of the Isla Vista shooting: a tragedy brought about by insanity, a sick gun fetish culture, and some seriously twisted ideas about masculinity.

When an overprivileged, mentally disturbed, misogynistic asshat named Elliot Rodger gunned down seven people and wounded thirteen others in Isla Vista, California on May 23, 2014, the United States once again descended into a deep, meditative reflection on how our culture in many ways still treats women as subordinates and how America’s obsession with all things firearms might be an impediment to many citizens’ rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Okay, at least one of those things happened. After Rodger posted a misogyny-laced Youtube video declaring his intent to “slaughter every spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut” at the nearest University of California-Santa Barbara sorority house just because he was twenty-two and hadn’t yet gotten laid, women across the country started the #YesAllWomen Twitter hashtag to highlight and discuss the dangerous thread of misogyny that lies just beneath the underbelly of much of American masculinity. Meanwhile, the National Rifle Organization (NRA), a paranoid, insecure, violence-indifferent, bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, pathetic, shameless, greedy, small-dick compensating, borderline domestic terrorist-supporting, propaganda-disseminating shill organization for the multi-billion dollar firearms industry, was noticeably silent on the Isla Vista tragedy.

Oh, but not everyone in right-wing America kept quiet about the shooting. Former fake plumber, Mr. Clean imposter, and one-time 2008 McCain-Palin campaign toady Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher posted an open letter aimed at bereaved father and open critic of American gun culture, Richard Martinez. In the letter, Ole’ Joe proclaimed that, “as a father I share your [Martinez’s] grief and I will pray for you and your family…But: As harsh as this sounds – your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.”

Wurzelbacher was pretty blunt in delivering the standard right-wing spiel of crude, gun-fellating bullshit, but other outlets recognized how the shooting shed light on the dangers of an American culture of masculinity that prioritizes overt aggression and a sense of sexual entitlement.

Over at the Examiner, William Hamby identifies the dangerous mix of entitlement and white male identity crisis that probably contributed to Rodger’s rage. “White men are having a crisis of both aggrievement and entitlement. One need only look at the 2012 election season to see less brutal but equally mind-numbing examples of white men going mad because they are losing their power,” Hamby writes. Now, let’s be clear here: Elliot Rodger was clearly a whole burger short of a Happy Meal, and his mental issues played an obvious role in driving him to commit mass murder. But — and this “but” is very crucial — he channeled his rage through a distinctly misogynistic, aggrieved white male identity that, as Hamby observes, led him to justify murder as the appropriate response to a perceived failure on women’s part to recognize him — and him alone — as “the true alpha male” who deserved women’s “sex,” “love,” “affection,” and, “adoration.”

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir similarly comments on the mix of misogyny and explicit, dominating aggression that shaped Rodger’s ideas about masculinity. “Rodger said as clearly as he possibly could that he intended to avenge himself against women, en masse, for their independence, their sexual agency and their lack of subservience to his desires,” O’Hehir writes, “[t]his is an old desire, the desire to dominate and control female sexuality, in a contemporary frame.” What Hamby and O’Hehir are both hinting at is a bigger, broader, American cultural proclivity towards associating manhood and masculinity with violence, aggression, and, as Amanda Hess demonstrates, a dominating stance towards women. This cultural idea about American manhood is very real, and it has some deep historical roots.

Elliot Rodger, the misogynistic Isla Vista shooter.

Elliot Rodger, the misogynistic Isla Vista shooter.

As historian Gail Bedermen observes in her book Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, “during the decades around the turn of the century, Americans were obsessed with the connection between manhood and racial dominance.” During this era, Bedermen continues, “white middle-class men actively worked to reinforce male power” during a time when non-white male minorities were asserting their own rights in American society and large waves of new, non-Anglo immigrants flooded U.S. ports, thereby posing a threat to insecure white guys who desperately wanted to keep themselves at the top of the American power pyramid.*

But Bedermen reminds us that manhood is not a fixed trait but rather, it’s a “historical, ideological process” that is both “continual” and “dynamic.” In other words: what it means to be a man changes over time depending on who defines manhood and who accepts that definition. In modern America, an era that began at the end of the nineteenth century, it was middle-class white men who defined manhood. Through the process of defining masculinity, these white guys claimed “certain kinds of authority,” but at the turn-of-the-century, groups like working class men, immigrants, and especially women demanded more social, economic, and political rights, thereby challenging middle-class males’ cultural and economic supremacy.*

In response to challenges to their authority, middle-class white men adopted a new term, “masculinity,” to extract the notion of manhood from the by-then passé image of the composed, dandy Victorian gentleman. By redefining manhood, middle-class American men could reassert their authority over women and “lesser” males. “Masculinity,” then, denoted an idea of manhood characterized by physical power and domination of women. “By 1930,” Bedermen writes, ‘masculinity’ had developed into the mix of ‘masculine’ ideals more familiar to twentieth-century [and now twenty-first century] Americans — ideals like aggressiveness, physical force, and male sexuality.”* Indeed, white men were going to reassert themselves as real men and show those uppity blacks, foreigners, and wimmins who was boss.

Turn-of-the-century ideals about manhood embraced a more viral, more forceful, more violent ideal,encapsulated by this manly artisan picture.

Turn-of-the-century ideals about manhood embraced a more viral, more forceful, more violent ideal, encapsulated by this manly artisan picture.

Contemporary America is still living with the repercussions from this early twentieth-century redefinition of modern manhood, because inherent in this definition are the assumptions that white men are entitled to the submission of women. Now, of course, there has been mountains of progress made in the name of gender equality in recent decades, so it’s not like every American white guy is out there seething with rage over the fact that women won’t give them due deference at every turn. Nonetheless, there remains a dangerous rogue strain of American masculine culture that is inherently violent and demands that women be submissive in the sexual realm. This strain becomes especially potent when you add America’s insane proliferation of guns to the mix — a danger made real in Isla Vista, California.

You only have to look at the rise of so-called “Men’s Rights Activism” (MRA), a coalition of insecure, overprivileged douchebags who spend their time whining about how white guys are losing their right to dominate everyone else. As Time reported in an excellent piece on the rise of these pasty sad-sacks, “MRAs believe the traditionally oppressed groups have somehow seized control and taken away their white male privilege. They tap into fear and insecurity and turn it into blame and rage.” Yeah, that pretty much describes Elliot Rodger, who represents the extreme, violent-but-logical endgame of this type of deeply misogynist, power-hungry, reactionary movement.

The grievances proclaimed by MRAs are the same grievances that led middle-class white guys to redefine manhood in the early twentieth-century in response to women and other minority groups asserting their own rights. These grievances represent the pathetic siren-call of privilege lost; the manifestation of a mind-blowing lack of self-awareness, and the shameless squeal of reactionary authoritarianism disguised as enlightened, democratic impulses. And America had better deal with this dark side of American manhood fast, before more women — and men — are scarred by its misguided, historically backed rage.

* See Gail Bedermen,  Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 4-5, 7, 19.

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Climate Change Denial and the American Authoritarian Tradition

Fox News, the official propaganda network of the Republican Party and the favorite

Fox News, the official propaganda network of the Republican Party and the favorite “news” station for neck-vein bulging, grumpy old men everywhere, totally doesn’t buy climate change.

A lot of people in America don’t believe in anthropomorphic climate change, or, as it’s more colloquially known as, global warming. You see, it snowed this past winter in Squeallikeapiggyville, North Carolina, so that must mean that global warming is a big hoax concocted by pointy-headed, anti-Jesus, scientific Satanists hell-bent on promoting a vast, global climate conspiracy for the nefarious purpose of…securing grants to study the climate. You know, as far as conspiracies go, that one is pretty damn lame — especially when you consider the far grander designs for world conquest proposed by the New World Order, the Reptilian Lizard People, and Justin Bieber.

But the utter ridiculousness of a world-wide conspiracy to secure funding for scientific papers hasn’t stopped an army of right-wing interests from convincing one in four Americans that climate change isn’t real. More importantly, only a measly twenty-four percent of registered Republicans believe that humans are contributing to climate change. And there’s the kicker: climate change denial is, for all intents and purposes, a conservative phenomenon. If you’re a believer in right-wing political theology, there’s a good chance you think that global warming is a giant liberal hoax.

Case in point: as Salon’s Lindsay Abrams notes, one of Fox News’ resident ogres, the always glum Charles Krauthammer, recently dismissed the scientific consensus on global warming. “Ninety-nine percent of physicists convinced that space and time were fixed until Einstein working in a patent office wrote a paper in which he showed that they are not,” Sir Charles observed before defiantly declaring that, “I’m not impressed by numbers. I’m not impressed by consensus.” In response, the generally erudite Jonathan Chait points out that Sir Charles was basically dismissing the very idea of scientific expertise. “Krauthammer here has taken a radically skeptical position not merely on climate science, but on all science,” Chait writes, “given the provisional and socially constructed peer pressure driving the consensus theory of aerodynamics, it is amazing that he is willing to travel in an airplane.”

So what is it about conservatives in particular that makes them so skeptical of an issue with such solid and overwhelming scientific consensus? Well, you could say that they’re just dumb, and in some cases that would be true. But in most cases, it’s not that conservatives are stupid, or that they reject all appeals to authority; rather, they’re all about authority — as long as that authority supports a consensus that keeps conservatives in positions of power.

Conservatives like Krauthammer dismiss the overwhelming evidence for global warming not because they aren’t convinced by the evidence, but because they know that accepting the reality of global warming would potentially damage the business interests — specifically the fossil fuel industry — that wield vast amounts of power in American politics by providing the funding that supports right-wing politicians and pundits. As shown in a ground-breaking recent study by scholars Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, America is not a functional democracy; instead, it’s basically an oligarchy: a governing structure in which a small number of people — the business elites — control the political system. Political power in America rests within the authority of the superrich business lobby, and, for conservatives, this authority of wealth is the only authority that matters.

Don't worry about the melting ice caps, folks, Fox News says this will improve the property values in Palm Beach.

Don’t worry about the melting ice caps, folks, Fox News says this will improve the property values in Palm Beach.

This authoritarian preference — based on the idea that those in power must wield control over their considerably more numerous subordinates so as to assure an orderly society — is the defining characteristic of conservatism. It’s why conservatives promote the power of employers over employees; it’s why they demand that the state deny a woman her right to choose, and it’s why they reject climate science. In each of these cases, conservatives support the agents that are already in power so that those agents can retain their power over various subordinate groups. Krauthammer and his ilk fully understand that admitting to the reality of climate change might spur a cultural push, if not political legislation, to curb the largely untrammeled power of business interests to effectively shape American policy. Plus, liberals are in favor of stopping global warming, so there’s that.

The authoritarian instinct is also the common thread that unites religious social conservatives with libertarian conservatives who might otherwise reject religious beliefs and champion a more libertine approach to social behavior. Both groups center their ideologies on appeals to unquestioned authority. For social conservatives, that authority is the Christian God; for libertarians, that authority is the god of the free market. The core that holds these otherwise different groups of conservatives together is the notion that authority, whether it be God or the god of the marketplace, MUST NOT be questioned. Further, those who do have the brass gonads to question these supreme authorities are labeled foolish heathens or commie pinkos. Either way, conservatives view challenges to authority as illegitimate, even if those challenges come from, say, scientific experts.

For all of their differences, nearly all American conservatives believe in the inalienable authority of capitalism to the point where the lines delineating God from the god of the marketplace become blurred. When the market’s authority is challenged, is makes right wingers susceptible to embracing conspiracy theories as a way of dismissing legitimate challenges to capitalism’s authority.

Of course, people of all political ideologies are susceptible to conspiracy theories, but conservatives are especially prone to these loony ideas. Does anyone really think that ANY amount of actual data and evidence would convince hardcore climate change-deniers to change their minds? Of course not. Like all conspiracy theorists, these people have an ideologically vested interest in disbelieving global warming: they don’t WANT global warming to be real because if it were real, it would mean that there were (gasp!) negative consequences to the unlimited spewing of toxins into the ozone — and that would mean that capitalist development wasn’t (shock!) one-hundred bazillion percent perfect and beneficial! So, global warming deniers have convinced themselves that climate change isn’t real. Say what you will about Al Gore, but he was right: the most rejected truths really are the inconvenient truths that threaten to upend cherished human beliefs.

But conservatives are able to get away with their slavish devotion to the authority of capitalism thanks to the unique trajectory of American history. As historian William Leach observes in his book Land of Desire, the era that closed out the nineteenth century firmly linked capitalism to American identity. After 1885, Leach writes, mass industrialization and the growth of consumer culture created an American democracy defined by accumulation of wealth and predicated on the idea that wealth and the ownership of consumer goods equaled freedom — and power. “This highly individualistic conception of democracy emphasized self-pleasure and self-fulfillment over community or civic well-being,” Leach writes. Thus, “democracy could be ensured through the benign genius of the ‘free market’,  which allocated to Americans an infinitely growing supply of goods and services.”*

Of course, linking American freedom so thoroughly to capitalist consumption also elevated business elites to the pinnacle of American power and influence. In a society where buying and selling became the be-all and end-all of human existence, those who facilitated mass consumerism and wealth acquisition became American demigods, even as the shares of American wealth have been highly unequal in the past, and continue to be vastly unequal today.

America: land of the free, home of the shopper, global warming be damned!

America: land of the free, home of the shopper, global warming be damned!

Conservatives sanction this type of extreme consumer society because it sustains the authority of the already-powerful. Moreover, they gain widespread public support for their god of the marketplace thanks to what scholar Nelson Lichtenstein calls the “ideological trope” that asserts that, “democratic institutions are bound to flourish in a market society composed of numerous nodes of autonomous economic and institutional power.”* In other words, as long as Americans see themselves as free to buy all the crap they want, they’ll see themselves as wholly free.

This is why conservatives have made climate change denial a popular issue: they frame the issue as a threat to capitalism and thus, a threat to people’s unlimited ability to buy stuff, which Americans, in turn, see as a threat to their freedom. Hence, right-wing media mollusks like Charles Krauthammer aren’t denying climate change because they don’t think it’s real; they’re denying climate change because they see it as a vehicle through which liberals want to sneak critiques of unfettered capitalism by drawing attention to how market forces harm the natural environment. Krauhammer and other like-minded goons feed climate change denial to the masses by using consumerist language that appeals to Americans’ pocketbooks: “Any initiatives to address climate change will tax you more, raise your gas prices, and threaten your jobs.”

Right-wing climate change-deniers get away with such nonsense because American culture has historically fused consumer capitalism and national identity to the point where even suggesting that the two ideas might not be completely compatible invokes warnings of the second-coming of Chairman Mao. This is why appeals to rational evidence make no headway in the conservative mind: anything that threatens the authority of capitalism and, by extension, conservative power, is grounds for dismissal. On the plus side, we may be getting a hell of a lot more beachfront communities in the near-future, which will be great for vacation-minded, freedom-loving American consumers.

* See William R. Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1993), 6.

* See Nelson Lichtenstein, ed., American Capitalism: Social Thought and Political Economy in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 7.

Greece v. Galloway and America’s Long Sacred/Secular Mix

Where to drawn the line between the sacred and the secular in American society has always been a point of debate, and it probably always will be.

Where to drawn the line between the sacred and the secular in American society has always been a point of debate, and it probably always will be.

America has always been a deeply religious country. That’s just a plain fact. But saying that the U.S. is a religious country isn’t the same as saying that it’s a country with an official state religion. America has never been a theocracy, and trust me, we’re better off that way. This is why, despite the pipe-dreams of would-be modern theocrats on the Religious Right who want to impose their brand of fundamentalist Protestant Christianity onto every aspect of American life, the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids the recognition of any state religion.

And while some religious-minded folks work themselves into an apocalyptic tantrum over this inconvenient truth, they should consider that church/state separation is beneficial to both entities. Think about it: let’s say you want to make Christianity the official religion of the United States. Well, which version of Christianity do you mean?

Surely you don’t mean those cracker-munching, incense-huffing, indulgence-selling Catholics and their sinister Papal overlord — right? Or what about America’s home-grown Appalachian snake-handlers? How’d you like to make a serpent-fondling suicide cult the centerpiece of your national spirituality? Or what about the Church of Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons)? Sure, they say they’re Christians, but did you know they’re technically polytheists who wear weird, Minnesota ice fisherman-style long underwear? What about the Amish?! Okay, forget the Amish, they’re wise enough to generally avoid politics, but as for the rest of these groups: are these the “official” Christianities you want enshrined into state law?!

If you’re the typical, non-denominational, fundamentalist, white bread ‘Murican WASP, the idea of any of the above “Christianities” gaining state recognition should scare the (literal) Hell out of you. Wouldn’t it be better to have no state religion so that ALL faiths, regardless of their level of weirdness, can flourish in private — including yours? Of course it would better. That’s why it IS better that we have church/state separation.

This is why the recent Supreme Court decision in the case Town of Greece v. Galloway is really, really dumb. The case came before the Court after Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens — two persnickety, anti-God crusaders who are doomed to roast in the flames of Hell while listening to an endless loop of John Tesh playlists — claimed that the podunk city of Greece, New York violated the Constitution’s Establishment clause by opening its legislative session with a prayer. Galloway and Stephens had Americans United for Separation of Church and State on their side, but nonetheless received a legal smackdown in the form of a 5-4 decision — authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy — arguing that “Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents.” This is legalese for, “Yeah, they’re praying to God, but no one’s forcing you to pray along.”

Susan Galloway (left), an atheist, and Linda Stephens who is Jewish, recognize that in Greece, they're prayin' to a VERY specific God.

Susan Galloway (left), who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, recognize that in Greece, they’re prayin’ to a VERY specific God.

Despite Kennedy’s claim that opening a governmental session with prayers is fine ‘n dandy as long as the prayers invoke “traditional” themes and are “addressed only to a generic God,” this decision is a cheap way to slide Christianity into official state recognition because, to absolutely no one’s surprise, the prayer offered in Greece, NY was a Christian prayer. As Slate’s Dhalia Lithwick observes, “What Kennedy did here…was to announce that as a matter of constitutional law, some religious traditions that are universal and longstanding are basically Christian.” Because Kennedy deemed that “Christian values are basically universal,” Lithwick writes, he “drew a line between ‘traditional’ and accepted religions, and religions that are ‘other.'”

The biggest problem with the Supreme Court’s decision in Greece v. Galloway is that it essentially sanctions non-Christian religions as “others” in the public square while suggesting that “traditional” Christian beliefs should be given some form of state recognition. This is counter to the entire American legal precedent of promoting religious pluralism. In terms of numerical representation, America may indeed be considered a “Christian” nation, but it’s never been just that — and has never been defined as such by law. Multiple faiths have always thrived within U.S. borders, including versions of Christianity — such as Mormonism — that were once violently persecuted by “mainstream” Christians before finally gaining acceptance (for the most part) after the passage of time. Prohibiting a state religion ensures that minority and upstart groups like the Mormons can thrive rather than submit to persecution by the state.

This unique relationship between the sacred and the secular in American life helped forge a country in which religions could flourish and influence public policy while never explicitly directing public policy. In his excellent book Touchdown Jesus: The Mixing of Sacred and Secular in American History, historian R. Laurence Moore describes the U.S. as “a secular state indifferent in formal ways to all religious institutions but dependent for its survival on their health.”* Indeed, the health of religious pluralism reflects the health of American equality. “[I]n the United States the expansion of equality has always involved the erasure of difficulties attached to being different,” Moore writes. Because religion has always been a “constitutionally privileged form of difference,” he adds, “religious pluralism has played an important role in advancing the struggles of many Americans held back because of their race, or ethnicity, or sex, or national origins.”*

C'mon folks, do you REALLY want teh government to give preference to this guy's religious beliefs?

C’mon folks, do you REALLY want the government to give preference to this guy’s religious beliefs?

In other words, by not privileging one religion over another, the U.S. has historically allowed different belief systems to grow and influence the public sphere in ways they could never do if there were an official state religion. The separation of church and state, then, has historically been less about the exclusion of religion and more about its unofficial inclusion. As scholars Marjorie Garber and Rebecca Walkowitz explain in their book One Nation Under God?, “those who use the language of secularism would have to speak to a secularism of presence, not absence.” What they mean is that, while the U.S. is unquestionably a secular nation with secular laws, religions always have — and always will — play a role in the pubic sphere “negotiating for voice and influence in public discussion.”*

The important thing is that Christianity shouldn’t get special treatment in the public sphere via the state’s Christening (see what I did there?!) of it as the one-true religion. The decision in Greece v. Galloway tramps all over religious pluralism like a drunk, cleat-sporting golfer on a putting green. By claiming that Christian prayer, no matter how generic and “traditional” it may be, can be used to open government functions — even local meetings in upstate New York — the Supreme Court is getting uncomfortably close to saying, “Christianity’s fine, but everything else isn’t cool, bro.” American religious pluralism has long protected and expanded the rights of religious minorities, both of the Christian and non-Christian variety. This is a tradition worth holding onto — unless you’re fine with taking up poisonous serpents as a prerequisite for voting.

* See R. Laurence Moore, Touchdown Jesus: The Mixing of Sacred and Secular in American History (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 6, 5.  

* See Marjorie Garber and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, eds., One Nation Under God? Religion and American Culture (New York: Routledge, 1999), 17.

Oklahoma’s Botched Execution and the Death Penalty’s Rough Justice History

The execution table used to administer lethal injection. Damn, it's actually pretty scary-looking.

The execution gurney used to administer lethal injection. Damn, it’s actually pretty scary-looking.

Clayton Lockett’s last minutes on this earthly plane were, by any stretch of the imagination, rough. The state of Oklahoma executed Lockett by lethal injection on April 29, 2014, but something went wrong, and he apparently struggled for over a half-hour before finally dying of a drug-induced heart attack. Lockett’s botched execution has raised more concerns about what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” as prohibited by the Constitution, and rekindled the long-running debate over whether America should still administer the death penalty.

But the legitimacy of capital punishment isn’t so easily dismissed or endorsed. In America, execution is the direct result of a long historical proclivity towards brutal, racially motivated rough justice — lynching — and the later attempts to contain and satisfy the primal human need for vengeance within a civilized legal framework. Basically, humans wanna’ kill each other — heck, they often enjoy killing each other — and capital punishment in America exists to satiate that blood lust.

Now, as long as we’re talking about blood lust, it’s easy to conclude that Clayton Lockett deserved his wriggly, torturous last few minutes on earth. After all, he was sentenced to death for kidnapping, beating, gang-raping, and eventually murdering eighteen-year-old Stephanie Neiman during a 1999 robbery-escape gone haywire. And how did Lockett and his accomplices dispatch their victim, you ask? Well, when Neiman refused to give Lockett the assurance that she wouldn’t go to the police, the scumbag spent a good twenty minutes digging Neiman’s grave before shooting her twice with a sawed-off shotgun. I go back and forth when it comes to supporting the death penalty. For one thing, there’s plenty of evidence that it doesn’t deter crimes. But Clayton Lockett was clearly what we might call, in legal parlance, a piece of slime, and I have to admit, my own inner vigilante thinks that he deserved his fate.

But therein lies the thorniness when it comes to capital punishment: it exists to satisfy that primal need to seek vengeance, and in the process, it runs the risk of sanctifying in the administers of justice the same brutal thoughts that lead men like Lockett to commit their horrendous crimes. Historically, the sanctification of blood lust caused some real problems when it came to administering justice in America, especially when we throw in the equally thorny issues of racism and individual rights.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, capital punishment was usually administered extralegally, in the form of lynching (aka “rough justice”). Historian Manfred Berg writes in Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America, that the term “lynching” came out of the American Revolution (though the actual practice existed since time immemorial) and defines lynching as “extralegal punishment meted out by a group of people claiming to represent the will of the larger community and acting with an expectation of impunity.”* That’s right, at its core, lynching is execution by mob law. But lynching never respected due process — when the mob decided that you were guilty of a crime, you were gonna’ die regardless of whether or not you committed that crime.

The lynching of Rubin Stacy, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1935. For a long time, this was what the death penalty looked like in America.

The lynching of Rubin Stacy, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1935. For a long time, this was what the death penalty looked like in America.

Now, this might have been all well and good if the victims of lynching were, in their heart of hearts, guilty, but if not, the result was community-sanctioned murder. But there was even more to it than that. Americans have never been ones to employ a tactic without running roughshod over some non-white people, and their approach to lynching was no exception. In his somewhat dense, but still fascinating book Roots of Rough Justice: Origins of American Lynching, historian Michael J. Pfeifer explains how white Americans used lynching to suppress minority rights. By lynching blacks, Mexicans, Native Americans, and even poor whites, white Americans “rejected growing legal reforms that offered the promise of legal fairness to the unpopular and powerless by protecting the rights of those accused of crimes.”*

Indeed, in nineteenth century America, lynching was at the heart of debates between those who favored locally administered rough justice characterized by swift (and trial-less) retribution, and those who favored due process characterized by reform of the criminal, the right to lawyer, and the state as the ultimate administer of justice. Proponents of due process, including an Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, recognized that white mobs tended to lynch people whom they deemed inferior and unworthy of equal rights — especially African-Americans.

While lynching was national in scope, in was most prevalent in the South. It was common for slaves to be lynched in the antebellum era, but the number of black lynchings not coincidentally exploded alongside the enactment of late-nineteenth century Jim Crow laws that relegated blacks to second-class citizenship by denying them suffrage and severely curtailing their rights in private and public facilities. Whereas southern whites initially used slavery as a system for controlling blacks, slavery’s demise necessitated other forms of racist control, and since Jim Crow laws said that blacks were fundamentally not equal to rights, whites justified the lynching of blacks through community approval. The result was rough justice run amok.

Historians estimate that between 1898 and 1968, roughly 4,743 blacks were lynched in the South, although the number was likely higher since many lynchings went undocumented. Lynching victims were most commonly accused or murder and the rape of white women. And the methods of lynching were brutal. Victims were burned alive, disemboweled, tortured with hot brands and pokers, mutilated, shot, and hanged. One mob in Georgia tore a woman’s unborn infant from her abdomen and stomped it with their boots. In far too many instances, this was how the death penalty was administered in America.

National outrage against lynching couldn’t stop it, since criminal justice was the purview of the states, not the federal government. But the eventual decline in lynching coincided with a more legal form of justice: the death penalty. Anti-lynching activists recognized the need to offer swift, harsh, and legal criminal justice in order to stem the popular tide of mob law, and that’s just what happened. By the 1930s and 40s, capital punishment gradually replaced lynching in the South, and with more executions came fewer instances of rough justice. The 1930s in the South, for example, saw 60 percent fewer lynching than the previous decade, but legal executions increased by 44 percent. By the 1940s, the number of legal executions rose up to 61 percent.

Plenty of Americans still have a problem with the death penalty, and often for good reason, given it's historical connection to rough justice.

Plenty of Americans still have a problem with the death penalty — often for good reason, given its historical connection to rough justice.

As Manfred Berg notes, “the death penalty appeared to be the appropriate cure for lynching. If the people could be certain that murderers and rapists would end up promptly on the gallows, they would no longer see the need to take the law into their own hands.”* Of course, this didn’t mean than the racial component of lynching vanished. Blacks accused of crimes continued to suffer swift (and not always just) convictions defined by short trials, shoddy evidence, and convictions by all-white juries thrown together to appease pitchfork and torch-wielding mobs outside of courthouses.

Even today, the issue of race is inextricably bound to the death penalty issue. Scholars Charles Ogletree Jr. and Austin Sarat note that decades of capital punishment studies have shown the “powerful race-of-the-victim effects in the decisions about who will receive a death sentence,” and they point out that of all the American executions since 1976, 43 percent of the defendants were black or Hispanic.* Commenting on a Pew Research poll showing that more whites than blacks support the death penalty, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie casts these findings as springing from the intertwined history of capital  punishment and “racialized ideas on crime and criminality.”

The historical connection linking the death penalty to racially motivated lynching demonstrates why the justice of state-sanctioned execution is anything but blind and far from morally clear-cut. There’s no question that Clayton Lockett was a nasty SOB who deserved to be punished for his crimes, but whether or not he deserved death and torture — however unintended the latter may have been — is a question worth ruminating over. After all, if we demand the swift murder of criminals, no matter how vile they may be, we place ourselves in uncomfortable company with the raving lynch mobs of days gone by. And while our intentions may be theoretically purer than theirs, the emotions are the same. Rough justice has largely been stamped out of American society, but the deep human desire for vengeance remains, and that blood lust is something worthy of continued discussion — and wariness.

* See Manfred Berg,  Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America (Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 2011), ix, 159.

* See Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and Austin Sarat, eds., From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State: Race and the Death Penalty in America (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 2.