Monthly Archives: June 2014

American Religious Tolerance: It’s Complicated

Southern Baptist pastor, talk-radio host, Georgia congressional candidate, and all-arounf nut bag, Jody Hice. There is so much 'Murica in this image that it's almost too much freedom to handle...almost.

Southern Baptist pastor, talk-radio host, Georgia congressional candidate, and all-around nut bag, Jody Hice. There is so much ‘Murica in this image that it’s almost too much freedom to handle.

Isn’t it great to be religious in America? After all, there are so many deities in the world today vying for the mantle of the “One True God®,” it’s nice to know that there’s one nation on earth that guarantees you the right to worship any deity you see fit — if for no other reason than to hedge your spiritual bets. But alas, all is not well in the land that separates church from state and (constitutionally, anyway) doesn’t recognize an official state religion. For you see, according to Georgia yokel Jody Hice, if you’re one of the 2.2. billion or so of the world’s Muslims who worship that bloodthirsty desert Satan known as Allah, then your right-to-worship ain’t protected by the Constitution, my friend. Because in America, some people think that if you’re not genuflecting to a heavily armed, tax-cutting American Jesus, then you can kiss your religious rights goodbye.

Jody Hice is a Georgia-based syndicated right-wing radio host and pastor who is currently running to fill the 10th congressional seat vacated by current GOP senatorial candidate Paul Broun. Now, admittedly, it’s hard to out-crazy Paul Broun, a guy who once stood in front of a wall of stuffed deer heads and criticized the idea of evolution — and most science in general — as un-biblical heresy “straight from the pit of Hell.” But this being the Deep South, loony right-wing politicians are more prolific than fantastic barbecue and diabetes, and Jody Hice doesn’t disappoint.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, Hice recently claimed that freedom of religion doesn’t apply to Islam. “Although Islam has a religious component,” Hice stated, “it is much more than a simple religious ideology. It is a complete geo-political structure and, as such, does not deserve First Amendment protection.” And that’s not all. Talking Points Memo dug up similar statements Hice made at a Tea Party rally, at which he claimed that, “[m]ost people think Islam is a religion, It’s not. It’s a totalitarian way of life with a religious component. But it’s much larger. It’s a geo-political system that has governmental, financial, military, legal and religious components. And it’s a totalitarian system that encompasses every aspect of life and it should not be protected [under U.S. law].”

Now, look, you don’t need to be a card-carrying, Caliphate-beckoning, beard-stroking, desert monkey-bars training, Kalashnikov-toting member of Al Qaeda to recognize that Hice is one-hundred percent wrong about Islam and religious freedom in America. First off, the mind-boggling level of ironic self-unawareness on display from a Protestant religious fundamentalist who accuses Islam of having “governmental, financial, military, legal and religious components” while simultaneously proclaiming on his campaign website that American society is “based upon Christian principles” and “imbued with Judeo-Christian values” is downright awe-inspiring. It’s pretty damn ballsy of Hice to criticize Muslims for wanting to hijack all levels of American society while also bragging that Christians have already done that.

But lack of self-awareness aside, what Hice is invoking is an age-old stance that has challenged America’s most pie-in-the-sky ideals since day-one: tyranny of the majority. And no, I don’t mean the kind of “tyranny of the majority” espoused by nineteenth century South Carolina senator and pro-slavery nitwit John C. Calhoun, who claimed that an evil majority of abolitionist zealots sought to snuff out the political voice of God-fearing, black people-owning Southern planters everywhere. No, I mean the type of tyranny of the majority that emerges when a particular belief or practice becomes so widespread and so well-known among the majority of the population that it sheds its historical provenance and becomes ensconced in that nebulous cultural void known as “the way things have always been.”

An image depicitng the 1844 Philadelphia nativist riot during which Know Nothings targeted Catholics. Hurray for religious tolerance!

An image depicting the 1844 Philadelphia nativist riot during which Know Nothings targeted Catholics. Hurray for religious tolerance!

Christianity — especially the Christianity espoused by Jody Hice — falls into that category of a belief system that the majority of Americans subscribe to and, consequently, accept as the “default” American religion — even if it’s not recognized by the Constitution as such. But just because the majority of Americans are Christians doesn’t mean that Christianity is the state religion and that other belief systems should play second-bananas to the Jesus clubs. Unless you’re someone like Jody Hice. You see, despite America’s espoused ideals of religious tolerance, stances like Hice’s have been historically more common than most people think. In other words, quite often in America, “freedom of religion” in practice meant “freedom of religion as long as that religion is the same religion that I and everyone else I know practices.”

The worst offenders of this type of cultural tyranny of the majority — in the past and today — have been American Protestants, if for no other reason than they got here first (aside from Native Americans, but they were heathens, so who cares) and constituted the majority religious population for a very long time. Historians John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal note that early on “a Protestant majority was secure in its belief that extension of its morality and beliefs to the nation as a whole was its God-given destiny, and it was confident that freedom of religion in America was a fact that Protestant ambitions could in no way undermine.”* Thus, when new religious groups gained traction, the various factions of Protestant Christians, drunk on their own majority cultural clout, have often freaked out, and they’ve reacted in a way that rendered them “unable to see that minority groups suffered at the hands of majority traditions.”*

Thanks to the long-time Protestant domination of American religious culture, other belief systems, even different factions of Christianity such as Catholicism and Mormonism, have faced discrimination for not being true “American” religions. Basically, Catholics and Mormons used to be what Muslims are today: supposedly shadowy, alien religious agents that threaten to infiltrate American society and alter it for the worse. This type of fear of the religious “other” is what’s freaking the Hell out of already borderline insane folks like Jody Hice.

Catholics, for example, were long considered to be scheming pawns of the Imperial Papal regime who were hell-bent on infiltrating America’s democratic society and transforming it into a slave colony beholden only to the pointy-hatted Roman Pontiff.

Heck, when Catholics started immigrating to the U.S. in large waves in the mid-nineteenth century, they spawned a Nativist Protestant political party known as the Know-Nothings (who I’ve written about more here and here) whose primary goal was to stamp Catholicism out of American life. The Know Nothings vowed to bar all Catholics from holding political office, and their supporters sometimes started riots during which they tarred-and-feathered and even murdered Catholics. One of the most notorious of these riots, known as “Bloody Monday,” occurred on August 6, 1855 in Louisville Kentucky. During a heated election that pit the Know Nothings against the Democratic Party, a wave of Protestant mobs attacked Irish Catholic neighborhoods in an orgy of street fighting, property destruction, and violence that left twenty-two people dead.

The martyring of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, 1844. Don't worry, Smith later got is revenge in teh form of Mitt Romney.

The martyring of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, 1844. Don’t worry, Smith later got his revenge in the form of Mitt Romney.

But Catholics haven’t been the only group to bear the brunt of Protestant religious intolerance. Also during the nineteenth century, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, aka the Mormons, were considered by “mainstream” American Christians to be a weird, heretical sect that needed to be put in its place. Mormonism was, of course, founded in 1830 by the boringly named New York prophet Joseph Smith, but Smith’s beliefs — especially his idea that the Christian God had once been a mortal man — earned him the heretic tag from upstate New York’s Protestant majority, and he eventually fled with his followers to Nauvoo, Illinois, where he established a new LDS settlement. But when Smith sanctioned polygamy as part of Mormon practice, the local non-Mormons jailed him and his brother. All hell eventually broke loose on June 27, 1844 when a mob stormed the jail and shot Smith and his brother to death.

These past examples of American religious intolerance may be more extreme than the bone-headed rantings of Jody Hice, but the common-thread of tyranny of the cultural majority remains. Wherever there are belief systems that stand in obvious contrast to the beliefs of the majority of Americans, friction and even violence have been the results. This strain of religious intolerance in the erstwhile land of the free continues to have repercussions, particularly in a post-9/11 world where troglodytes like Hice can reap electoral rewards from trafficking in anti-Islamic demagoguery.

As Corrigan and Neal write, “stories of religion in American have taught us to see religious intolerance and violence as something inflicted upon the United States or something that occurs in less-civilized and sophisticated nations than our own.” Thus, when would-be theocrats like Jody Hice tout their Jesus bona fides by invoking the Muslim devil, they’re tapping into a deep historical well of religious intolerance that has justified action against “foreign” minority faiths “all in the name of upholding American values and protecting American liberty.”* Of course, the obvious retort to such instances of religious bigotry is to remind America’s home-grown theocrats that religious tolerance and diversity ARE American values that DO protect American liberty. Anything else would truly be uncivilized.

* See John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal, eds., Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 5, 9.

Why the “Redskins” Name Change is a Damn Good Idea

The logo fro the Washington Redskins. To add insult to an already insulting logo, the team places in D.C., seat of the Feeral governmnet -- the same federal government that sanctioned and directed acts of genocide against native peoples ovet he last three centuries.

The logo for the Washington Redskins. To add insult to an already insulting logo, the team plays in D.C., seat of the Federal government — the same federal government that sanctioned and directed acts of genocide against native peoples over the last three centuries.

Well, the political correctness police have really done it now, haven’t they? In their never-ending zeal to crush the spirit of America, this amorphous, white-guilt-bleeding, lawsuit-wielding band of killjoy hippie liberals have shown their tyrannical iron fist by attacking that most paramount of freedom-displaying American institutions, the NFL. Yes, using the United States Patent and Trademark Office jackbooted Nazi stormtroopers, the PC tyrants have cancelled six of the Washington Redskins’ trademark registrations under the dubious justification that the team’s various logos depicting a stereotypical feather-headed Indian brave “were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered.” My god, you can just smell the tyranny from here!

After the Patent Office’s decision, American conservatives took time away from being apoplectic about everything else to be apoplectic over this most recent blow to freedom. As Talking Points Memo notes, the wingnuts took to the Twitterz to voice their (perpetual) anger in their typically reserved fashion and (natch) blame Obama, who supported the Redskins name-change. Right-Wing blogger Matt Barber whined that because federal trademark law prohibited the display of culturally and racially disparaging imagery from a sports team, “the American free market and private enterprise are no longer free nor private. Liberty is under threat as never before.” Echoing Barber’s sentiment, RedState.com Grand Pooba Erick Erickson — the self-proclaimed “alpha male” and defacto spokesman for paunchy, white, privileged jerks everywhere — blamed the Redskins decision on “guilty feeling white liberals” who are a “threat to freedom.”

You honestly have to wonder how these people can function mentally when they believe that changing an NFL team’s logo represents the death knell of capitalist society. But let’s ignore the conservative temper-tantrums and ask ourselves, as a culture: should the Washington Redskins change their name and logo? The answer is “hell yeah.” Now, before you label me just another guilt-compensating white guy (I admit to being that anyway) consider, for a moment, why it’s historically offensive for sports teams like the Redskins to use Native American mascots and logos.

It’s no secret to anyone who’s even remotely aware of the history of the United States that the country’s native peoples have, to put it in academic terms, gotten royally screwed. The history of Native-White relations in America is characterized by colonialism, prejudice, violence, racism, genocide, and finally, cultural appropriation. The latter term refers to the process through which a dominant culture (which usually became dominant through violent means) adopts particular cultural aspects or practices of another group and employs those cultural aspects or practices for its own purposes. Cultural appropriation is generally (and rightfully) considered a bad thing because it almost always involves a cultural majority’s flagrant demonstration of its power to a conquered minority culture.

Among Indians themselves, the issue of cultural appropriation is decidedly complicated. Last Real Indians notes that, “It’s not me they [whites] are honoring [with mascots]; they are honoring themselves for doing such a good job on killing all the Indians.” Indeed, some tribal representatives view Indian mascots as the legacy of institutionalized racism, while others feel that mascots distract from more important issues facing Native communities. At the very least, as Jenny Vrentas of MMQB writes, “Native Americans want to have a say in how words and imagery that refer to them are used, in the same way that African-Americans establish when and how the n-word can be used.”

History, however, suggests that a name change is worth making. Over at Talking Points Memo, fellow academic-turned-blogger Josh Marshall has a great take on how the use of the term “Redskins” is a classic example of cultural appropriation via “mascotization.” “If you look back over the course of four centuries of American history there’s a clear pattern. When Indians represented a threat to the dominant immigrant settler culture (whether militarily or culturally or economically), they were the focus of an intense demonization, one rooted in fears, perceived alienness and competition for preeminence,” Marshall writes. But when Indians ceased to be a threat to white culture, he adds, “a totally different image of the Indian emerged – some mix of noble savage or a people representing something quintessentially American.”

In the nineteenth cetury, this is how white American culture responded to Indians. Needless to say, no footballs were involved.

In the nineteenth century, this is how white American culture responded to Indians. Needless to say, no footballs were involved.

What Marshall is saying is that once the white power structure succeeded in conquering Native peoples on America’s battlefields, it then proceeded to conquer them culturally by turning the Indians into little more than symbolic servants of the colonial culture that vanquished them. Thus, we have the Indian sports team mascot: a figure invented by the colonizing culture for the purpose of promoting that culture’s own rituals. Indian mascots like the one on the Redskins’ logo are supposed to represent “noble” aspects of Indian cultures such as bravery and prowess in battle, but this only works because the real Indians who were brave in battle have already been defeated and relegated, both literally and figuratively, to reservations on the outposts of American life.

Historically, real Indians were scary, barbarous, and a problem to be wiped out via the barrel of a gun and brutal territorial usurption. But now that they’re no longer a threat, we can use Indians for our sports teams because, gosh-darnnit, they were just so brave and noble as we slaughtered them mercilessly! It’s this nasty history that is invoked every time a sports teams uses Indian mascots and imagery, and it’s why team names like “Redskins” need to go.

In his book Contesting Constructed Indian-ness, historian Michael Taylor explains that “[Indian] mascots are the results of conquest and control,” and are thus created “to fit tropes of colonialism, history, and myth-making in order to control the physical body of the Indian.” Sports teams that use Indian imagery, Taylor writes, “profit from the idea of the Indian to produce a cultural and commercial context to the conquering of the West and its peoples by ‘owning’ the lands and the people living upon said lands.”* In other words, after American colonial society decimated Indian societies through genocide and land expropriation, it then decided to further rub its clout into Indians’ eyes by employing native customs and imagery to cheer on a bunch of guys chasing a ball across a field.

This is how white America has dealt with what historian Thomas King calls the “Inconvenient Indian,” the annoyingly persistent presence of nativeness in a country that would rather just forget about native peoples except on terms dictated by the colonizing culture itself. “When we look at Native–non-Native relations,” King writes, “there is no great difference between the past and the present. While we have dispensed with guns and bugles, and while North America’s sense of its own superiority is better hidden, its disdain muted, twenty-first-century attitudes towards Native people are remarkably similar to those of the previous centuries.”* Thus, Indians can still be stereotyped at will and used to encourage all aspects of the colonial culture that conquered them.

So if you ever find yourself feeling aggravated over the alleged “political correctness” that accompanies instances like the Redskins trademark decision, take a step back and consider that maybe, just maybe, something as purportedly simple as supporting an Indian mascot actually invokes a sad, violent, genocidal history of American conquest that non-Native people can easily brush off but which Indians themselves rightfully feel a bit more strongly about. And I say this as a die-hard Cleveland Indians fan. That team’s logo, “Chief Wahoo,” is offensive as hell and should be dropped. Who knows, maybe changing their name and logo might actually result in the Indians becoming a good team. But I won’t hold my breath on either of those two things happening.

* See Michael Taylor, Contesting Constructed Indian-ness: The Intersection of the Frontier, Masculinity, and Whiteness in Native American Mascot Representations (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013), 13.

* See Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2013), 5.

Gun Nuts, Militias, and American Extremism in a Globalized World

Alabama militia leader Mike Vanderboegh speaks incoherently while possibly sweating profusely.

Alabama militia leader Mike Vanderboegh speaks incoherently while possibly sweating profusely.

Do you ever get the feeling that the world is a vast, exceedingly complex entanglement of random chance occurrences, flawed human decision-making, and constant disruption brought about by the break-neck pace of technological change and ideological formulations that create a series of interconnected problems immune to any and all simplistic solutions? If so, then it’s likely that you’ve never been a militia member.

It seems that these days, America’s home-grown breed of Far Right, paranoid nutballs known variously as “patriots,” “gun nuts,” “sovereign citizens,” and “militia members” are occupying way too many headlines. And if anything unites this otherwise diverse and motley crowd of barrel-stroking bubbas, it’s their proclivity towards exceedingly simple responses to a very complex world. They tend to shoot first and ask the wrong questions, particularly when it comes to the issues of government power and how American society is organized in an globalized world where corporations, not states, are pulling the levers of power and the notion of national loyalty seems hopelessly antiquated.

Case in point: a California man by the name of Brent Douglas Cole has been recently accused of shooting a California highway patrol officer and a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ranger in Nevada County, California. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) dug a bit into Cole’s background and found that he’s a full-bore, conspiracy theorist, gun-fondling, sovereign citizen looney toon. Wonkette notes that Cole thinks the U.S. is dousing the atmosphere with chemtrails, believes Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, and, of course, seems to think that the Jews control the world (because when it comes to world domination, you gotta fit the Jews in somewhere). Talking Points Memo provides a snippet of Cole’s court documents in which he claims that “I am being persecuted for being a gun owner, and for exercising my inherent Right by unwitting or unknowing accomplices of a seditious conspiracy against rights instituted by foreign powers inimical to the United States of America.” Ho boy.

Cole’s attack follows in the wake of other recent militia/sovereign citizen actions such as the Las Vegas shooting of two off-duty police officers and a civilian by Tea Party/Gadsden Flag-waving militia sympathizers Jerad and Amanda Miller, and the high-profile stand-off between Nevada bumpkin Cliven Bundy (whom I wrote about here) and the BLM over Bundy’s refusal to pay his cattle-grazing fees. Jerad Miller expressed public sympathy for Cliven Bundy, but what unites the Cole, Miller, and Bundy cases is a common anti-government thread: these people think that the American government has become too big, too tyrannical, and that it has abandoned “traditional” American principles. They want to restore American back to a better time, which must have existed…sometime. It’s a simple, comforting goal that nevertheless seems so out of reach.

As Erin Kania writes, the modern militia and sovereign citizens movements are drive by a core belief “that the federal government of the United States can no longer be trusted” and they fear that “the government is not looking out for the safety and protection of its citizens, but is instead attempting to limit the rights and liberties that the Founding Fathers and Constitution intended all individuals to possess.” Moreover, these groups believe that the government is embracing global policies at Americans’ expense, and that an essential part of the globalist agenda involves taking away Americans’ guns.* Contained within these general, overarching beliefs are a sordid cornucopia of nutty ideas about the New World Order, the Zionist threat, white supremacy, and the existence of what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “secret treasury accounts” that supposedly enslave newborn Americans to a shadow government, or something.

Conpiracy-minded gun nut Brent Douglas Cole is accused of shooting to law enforcement officers. For freedom, of course.

Conspiracy minded gun nut Brent Douglas Cole is accused of shooting two law enforcement officers. For freedom, of course.

But you don’t need to get down into the movements’ paranoid weeds to see their common themes. As historian Darren Mulloy notes, “In the broadest terms, the emergence of the Militia movement in the late 1990s appears to be connected to a sense that the United States was a nation in decline: politically, economically, morally, spiritually.”* Implicit within these beliefs is a serious uneasiness with change and a sense that the American past has been dangerously altered for the worse and must be restored to its original, pristine form. This “restorationist” view of history unites all elements of the modern American Far Right; indeed, it’s the life force that crackles along the wingnut spectrum, animating gun nuts, militia members, sovereign citizens, and Tea Partiers alike.

The “restorationist” view of history is a fundamentalist view, and, like all forms of fundamentalism, it proposes simple, clear-cut answers to very complicated problems by advocating a return to basic, “fundamental” principles. In the mind of the Far Right, America wasn’t a nation conceived by brilliant but flawed individuals who accepted the necessity of political compromise; rather, it was a nation blessed and conceived by the (white Protestant Christian) God who used the Founding Fathers as modern-era prophets.

In her essential study of the modern right-wing Tea Party movement, historian Jill Lepore explains that “historical fundamentalism is marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past — ‘the Founding’ — is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts — ‘the founding documents’ —  are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments,” and that “the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired.” A belief in historical fundamentalism, Lepore notes, means that “political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible.”* In other words, the Far Right, from the Tea Partiers to the militia and sovereign citizens all believe that the Founding past must be restored to reclaim the present from the tyrannical powers of big government and the globalized world order.

Militia and sovereign citizen types aren’t alone in their unease with globalization and America’s internal changes, of course, but what is unique is how they respond to these changes by adopting a straightforward “lock and load” mentality. If change poses a threat, then they plan to riddle change with bullets until it learns its place. This makes a strange amount of sense when you consider the very real and symbolic role that guns have played in forging American identity.

To understand what drives Far Right gun nuts, consider how America must have appeared to a white male who grew up absorbing all the myths of American exceptionalism. During the early twentieth century, and more conclusively after World War II, the United States emerged as the dominant world superpower — a position it largely still retains today. And the thing about being a citizen of the world’s superpower is that it bestows on you all the rights and privileges that such citizenship entails. Basically, you get to think that your country is where true freedom lies; that your country always operates on the noblest of motives; that your country knows what’s best for the rest of the world; that your country will always have the KFC Double Down® for only $6.00! Truly, these are the things that make America great.

The Tea Party: don't let these whack-a-loons teach you about history.

The Tea Party: don’t let these whack-a-loons teach you about history.

But here’s the problem: if you myopically view history from a fundamentalist stance that considers the American founding as a sacred event and American identity as sublimely virtuous, then you’re bound to have a rude-awakening when the myths that you take as gospel turn out to be just that — myths. If these myths were real, then Barack Obama wouldn’t have been elected president, the federal government wouldn’t try to take away your guns, and good-paying jobs wouldn’t be shipped overseas or handed to undeserving “minorities.” Thus, we have the rise of the militia and sovereign citizen types who, in many respects, are reacting to real changes in America and the world, albeit in spectacularly misguided and misinformed ways.

The modern world is now defined by permanent high unemployment, rapidly shifting American demographics, and a technologically interconnected global economic system that allows capital to move freely with little concern for international borders and pits American workers against far-cheaper international counterparts.

In this environment, the barriers that formerly separated the “domestic” from the “global” are rapidly thinning, and the urge to somehow restore America to a fundamentally pure past is enticing to those people who feel that change has left them in the dust. Sociologist Manuel Castells notes that with the acceleration of the modern globalized economy, American workers and small business entrepreneurs have witnessed a steady decline in their standards of living, thereby “reversing the historical trend of the improvement of each generation’s material well-being over that of previous generations.”* Couple these trends with the rise of gay rights, the gender equality movement, the growing non-white ethnic makeup of America, and gun control, and you’ve got a recipe for hot ‘n simmering reactionism-by-gunpoint.

Thus, as Castell observes, the militia, sovereign citizen, and patriot movements see themselves as “defenders of the traditions of the country against cosmopolitan values, and of self-rule of local people against the imposition of global order.” By adopting age-old American preferences for individualism and suspicion of government, the gun nuts have taken up armed resistance to “threats generated by the informationalization of society, the globalization of the economy, and the professionalization of politics.”*

America’s gun nuts, patriots, militia members, sovereign citizens, and Tea Partiers demonstrate how history can be misused to further a reactionary agenda based on weirdly fundamentalist views of the past. The degree to which any one of these groups are willing to use guns to restore America back to its sacred past varies with their level of extremism. But all of them believe that the federal government is the enemy, that all politics should be local (in the case of sovereign citizens, extremely local), and that globalization cannot be allowed to destroy America’s unique identity. Lacking other viable alternatives, they’ve turned to guns, because at least guns offer the most straightforward, literal way to stop something you fear dead in its tracks.

* See Erin Kania, “The American Militia Movement in the Age of Globalization,” Reason & Respect 2 (Spring, 2006): 16.

* See Darren Mully, American Extremism: History, Politics, and the Militia Movement (New York: Routledge, 2004), 12.

* See Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 16.

* See Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity: The Information Age, Economy, Society, and Culture, Vol. 2 (West Sussex, U.K., Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 99-100.

American Nation-Building and the Endless Fight in Iraq

Insurgents ride triumphantly as Iraq descends into more ethnic-fueled chaos.

Insurgents ride triumphantly as Iraq descends into more ethnic-fueled chaos. It’s all Obama’s fault, of course.

What in Sam Hill is going on in Iraq? Yeah, remember that country? It’s the one in the Middle-East that seems to be constantly riven with ethnic strife, religiously motivated terrorism, and a spectacularly corrupt government. Okay, I guess that really doesn’t nail it down, now does it? More specifically, Iraq is that Middle-Eastern country run by a former mustachioed dictator whom the United States used to support because we wanted his oil and didn’t give a damn about how his iron-fisted tactics made the phrase “human rights” into little more than a punchline. Wait — that doesn’t narrow it down either. Okay, let’s try this one last time: Iraq is the country that President George H.W. Bush kicked out of Kuwait in 1991 in the name of freedom oil and President George W. Bush invaded in 2003 because it was supposedly a threat to freedom oil.

Bush-the-Younger’s dunder-headed excursion into Iraq became the Biggest Mistake in American Military History. Now, Iraq is once again descending into chaos — and no one knows what in the Hell to do about it. In recent weeks, ethnic and religious strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq has exploded into civil war-like conditions (seriously, how many times have we heard a variation of that headline?) and the epic finger-pointing has begun.

As Mother Jones reports, a Sunni Muslim Al Qaeda-linked group known as The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — which grew out of Iraq’s Al Qaeda faction that sprouted up in the wake of the U.S. invasion — has been stirring up all kinds of badness. In the last year or so, the ISIS has joined forces with other goon squads such as the local Sunni militants and former Baath officials from Saddam’s old ruling party to launch deadly “dirty war” style insurgent strikes on key enemy targets — especially the Shiite-led Iraqi government. The ISIS has taken control of northern Iraq, and they look to cause more nastiness now that the U.S. has been withdrawing it’s troops from the country.

The Republicans, of course, are blaming Obama for the chaos in Iraq. South Carolina senator/ventriloquist dummy Lindsay Graham warned that “If Baghdad falls, if the central government falls, a disaster awaits us of monumental proportions.” Alongside Graham’s blubbering, former losing presidential candidate, and Montgomery Burns doppelgänger Mitt Romney whined that “what has happened in Iraq and what we’re seeing with ISIS is a good deal predictable for the failure of Obama to react.”

And really, this Republican criticism makes sense. I mean, remember back in 2003 when President Obama told the country that Iraq had lots and lots of Weapons of Mass-Destruction (WMDs) and that if the U.S. didn’t invade the country and drop a ton of freedom bombs, democracy grenades, and liberty missiles, Saddam Hussein would invade Flyoverville, Indiana and make every chicken-wing eating, cheap beer-guzzling, freedom-inhaling American Cletus swear eternal allegiance to the Muslim devil and turn every church into an Islamic terrorist training camp? Yeah, I don’t remember that either. But I do remember how American conservatives, led by then-president George W. Bush, lied about WMDs in Iraq, and I remember how these same chicken hawks spent the last ten years trying to cover their asses as Operation Iraqi Freedom spawned enough quagmires to drown a sauropod herd.

Insurgant Iraqi forces line up in an orderly fashiion to eagerly learn about American conceptions of freedom.

insurgent Iraqi forces line up in an orderly fashion to eagerly learn about American conceptions of freedom. Photo by AP.

So, of course, the American right-wing is now calling for yet more troops to be sent back into Iraq. Led by John “The Surge” McCain (R-AZ), these Republican proponents of still further military intervention in the Mesopotamian Quagmire of Doom are scratching an age-old American itch: the desire to nation-build. But the thing is, the U.S. has engaged in plenty of nation-building experiments in the past during which American armed forces have been deployed to rebuild war-torn countries into stable democracies and/or dictatorships, depending on how well one or the other served American interests. And these attempts at nation-building have, with few exceptions, failed.

From the Philippines to El Salvador; from the defeated Confederate South to Vietnam; from Korea to Afghanistan to Iraq, the United States, drunk on a huge kegger of American-exceptionalism ale, has stumbled blindly out of other countries’ military and political quagmires, and like a barfly being ejected after last-call, they’ve usually left these places messier than when they arrived. This is because using the military as an apparatus through which to rebuild societies from the ground up is bound to fail. The American army, like all armies, is built to destroy things, not to rebuild them. When it’s been tasked with nation-building, the U.S. army has often found itself fighting what historian Russell Crandall calls “Dirty Wars,” in which U.S. forces have been pitted against irregular, insurgent forces who employ hit-and-run, guerilla-style attacks and bleed into the native population like ghosts — all with the end goal of expelling the invaders.

In his book America’s Dirty Wars: Irregular Warfare from 1776 to the War on Terror, Crandall takes a long view of America’s historical attempts to nation-build at home and abroad while trying to fight protracted dirty wars that have stymied such noble efforts. “What American leaders have forgotten at their peril is that, by definition, dirty wars are dirty,” Crandall writes, “civilians are disproportionately targeted, the line between combatant and innocent is often intentionally blurred, and there is a great temptation to ‘fight fire with fire’ against foes who refuse to play by the ‘rules’ of warfare.”* Crandall reminds us that America’s status as the (allegedly) world’s greatest democracy has usually hampered, rather than aided, its nation-building plans.

The U.S. likes to employ political rhetoric claiming that its nation-building efforts are being done for all the ‘right’ reasons, like spreading democracy, fighting terrorism, standing up for human rights, etc. All that’s well-and-good, but such idealistic stances are difficult to uphold in the face of relentless insurgent attacks that drive U.S. forces to get dirty and fight down in the guerilla mud. Nation-building fails because, beyond the dubious reasons for invading other countries in the name of freedom oil, when America fights dirty, it tends to overly rely on brute force that doesn’t help win the hearts and minds of the locals. Thus, as Crandall notes, “the outcomes of these wars has been nebulous, domestic support for them has been precarious, and in them American forces have committed atrocities.”* After all, it’s tough to convince a shell-shocked Iraqi that you bombed the shit out of his house and family in the name of “freedom,” and it’s tough to convince Americans citizens that they should keeping paying for these types of freedom bomb missions.

And the thing is, you’d think that Americans would know better at this point, but instead, these just keep on trucking, fueled by the hope that more troops, more bombs, and more targeted drone strikes will eventually convince people in a foreign land that American-style democracy is the greatest thing since craft beer. And why should the U.S. know better, you may ask? Because in the 1860s and 1870s, the American military tried — and failed — to rebuild a nation in its own backyard: the defeated Confederate South after the Civil War.

When the southern Confederacy surrendered to Union forces in 1865 after four brutal years of combat, American government and military officials were tasked with rebuilding a vast swath of U.S. territory — the South — that had been reduced to ruin during the conflict. This sounds simple enough, right? I mean, the Confederate South wasn’t Afghanistan; in 1861 it was still literally a part of the American nation, and not all of the southern states even seceded from the Union. But the ones that did secede found their world turned upside down in the wake of military defeat: much of their infrastructure was destroyed, tens-of-thousands of their men were dead, and, most significantly, their slaves were freed. And those freed slaves were bound to start agitating for, you know, political rights — and the South would have none of that.

Domestic terrorists groups like the White Leagues and teh Ku Klux Klan made the U.S. government's experiment with nation-building in the former Confederate South a rather difficult process.

Domestic terrorists groups like the White Leagues and the Ku Klux Klan made the U.S. government’s experiment with nation-building in the former Confederate South a rather difficult process.

In order to deal with the newly freed slaves and “reconstruct” the South back into the Union, the American government divided the South into five military districts occupied by U.S. troops, and it established a federal humanitarian aid agency, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands — better-known as the Freedmen’s Bureau — to help aid the former slaves’ transition to freedom. But American military and civilian forces in the South soon found that the local yokels were restless: white southerners remind defiant in the face U.S. forces attempts to rebuild their society according to rules hammered out in Washington D.C., and they remained especially hostile towards any attempts to integrate newly freed African-Americans into southern society as the political and social equals of whites.

So southern whites organized into irregular bands of paramilitary insurgent groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the White Leagues, the Red Shirts and others. These domestic terrorist groups waged a campaign of political intimidation, property destruction, and murder against freed people and northern Republicans across the South. They usually attacked at night using guerilla tactics to burn houses and assault blacks and political opponents of the southern Democratic Party. During the daytime they melted back into the civilian population, which often tacitly, and sometimes openly, supported the white supremacist insurgents.

U.S. forces tried to squelch these terrorist groups, and sometimes they succeeded. But in the long run, tamping down on southern insurgent violence and enforcing the rights of freed blacks always meant more violence, more troops, more political will, and more money — with no end in sight. A weary northern government and public eventually soured on this seemingly endless dirty war and gave up on reconstructing the South. By the late 1870s, the old-line white supremacists — many of whom had fought in the Confederate armies — were back in control of Dixie. Thus, after the Civil War, American forces found themselves caught up in a long-running conflict with local and national elements that was driven by ethnic factionalism and power-struggles over how political and economic resources were to be reorganized and controlled following a destructive conflict. The more things change…the more Americans try to nation-build.

So as America’s right-wing noise machine bellows incessantly about once again sending in the military to restore peace to Iraq and other foreign quagmires, maybe, just maybe, they’ll take a step back and consider the numerous historical instances in which fighting dirty wars in the name of nation-building blew up in America’s face. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll carefully analyse the costs and benefits of U.S. military campaigns and determine that American forces are ill-equipped to serve as mediators in the face of long-held political, religious, and ethnic conflicts. And maybe, just maybe, someone will pay me to write this blog. But we can all hope, right?

* See Russell Crandall, America’s Dirty Wars: Irregular Warfare from 1776 to the War on Terror (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 13.

Bowe Bergdahl, Desertion, and the Meaning of American Loyalty

Jane and Bob Bergdahl, parents of freed U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, hold a press conference with President Barack Obama. Conservatives, of course, complained about it.

Jane and Bob Bergdahl, parents of freed U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, hold a press conference with President Barack Obama. Conservatives, of course, complained about it.

On May 31, 2014, U.S. president (and secret Muslim-communist-fascist-anti-colonialist-dentist) Barack Obama announced that he’d negotiated for the release of Sargeant Bowe Bergdahl, America’s last known POW, in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Since at least July of 2009, Bergdahl had been held captive by the Taliban, Afghanistan’s premier Muslim religious nutball cult, and the president’s actions ignited hope for the beginning of the end of the thirteen-year-long U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, which now ranks as America’s longest-running war.

Oh, but not everybody was happy about Bergdahl’s release. For you see, there’s a bit of controversy as to just how the sergeant disappeared from active duty back in June, 2009. Although Bergdahl remains a sergeant in good-standing, there have been allegations that he deserted his post. Some of his fellow-soldiers have accused Bergdahl of “deserting during a time of war” and costing the lives of many who searched for him. Accounts of Bergdahl’s disappearance — and the circumstances of exactly how he fell into the Taliban’s clutches — have been conflicting. Soldiers in his platoon have claimed that the sergeant walked away from his observation post, while other accounts claim that Bergdahl was abducted from a latrine by Taliban insurgents.

But whatever the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance, the usual hot gas-disgorging chorus of chest-puffing, self-righteousness-exuding, right-wing howler monkeys have taken to the media outlets to not only criticize President Obama’s handling of the prisoner exchange, but also to deride Bergdahl himself as an anti-American “traitor.”

Among the collective of expected conservative bloviators was former half-term governor of Alaska — and poster-child for the calcified state of American meritocracy — Sarah Palin. Yes, the Thrilla’ from Wasilla launched a scathing verbal assault from her Facebook page,  accusing Bergdahl of dishonorable service for harboring “horrid anti-American beliefs.” As Talking Points Memo reports, Caribou Barbie was referring to an e-mail message that Bergdahl sent to his parents just days before he went missing, in which the sergeant claimed to be “ashamed to be an american (sic),” and warned that “the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.” The e-mail was subsequently published in a 2012 Rolling Stone profile by the now-deceased journalist Michael Hastings.

Now, whether or not Bergdahl deserted is unclear, and if he did, then he’ll be court-martialed in accordance with military law. But I want to focus on the right-wing’s scathing reaction to the mere possibility that he might have deserted. After all, as Mother Jones’ Tasneen Raja notes, the army makes a clear distinction between soldiers who’ve gone AWOL by taking unauthorized leave from their duties, and soldiers who have been AWOL for over thirty-one days and are then summarily ‘dropped from the rolls’ and marked as deserters. If Bergdahl went AWOL and was then captured, then he wasn’t technically a deserter.

But these types of distinctions, and the fact that Bergdahl remains in good standing with the U.S. military, haven’t stopped conservatives like National Review jerk-in-residence, Ralph Peters from calling Bergdahl “a deserter already despised by soldiers” who is apparently now “the most-hated individual soldier in the history of our military.” Wow. Notice how Peters doesn’t call Bergdahl an “alleged deserter.” No, to the right-wing, mere allegations that Bergdahl deserted mean that he unquestionably did desert, and if you suggest otherwise then you’re an anti-American pinko. Because nuance BAD!

U.S. Sargeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was released after five years of Taliban imprisonment.

U.S. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was released after five years of Taliban imprisonment.

Conservatives consider Bergdahl a traitor because he (apparently) dared to question the unquestionable wisdom of U.S. military actions. As Michael Hastings reported in Rolling Stone, Bergdahl “had been enticed to join the Army…with the promise that he would be going overseas to help Afghan villagers rebuild their lives and learn to defend themselves,” but the sergeant quickly became disillusioned with the undisciplined nature of his platoon and the alleged callousness of American actions in Afghanistan.

According to Hastings, Bergdahl wrote e-mails detailing “his broader disgust with America’s approach to the war,” which seemed counter to the stated strategy of winning Afghan “hearts and minds.”  “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live,” read one of Bergdahl’s e-mails. He then related his disgust with seeing an Afghan child run over by an MARP. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks,” Bergdahl wrote, “[w]e make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”

Bergdahl’s comments may not justify desertion (if, in fact, he did desert) but do they really amount to “horrid anti-American beliefs?” Is criticizing possibly misguided national policy, especially military actions, tantamount to taking a position against America in general? The answer to both of those questions is an unambiguous “no.” Indeed, the right to criticize misguided or dangerous national policies is one of the most sacred rights Americans hold: the right to patriotic dissent is what makes the U.S. different from totalitarian regimes that deem any questioning of state policy as traitorous.

But to the right-wing authoritarian personality, patriotism is synonymous with unconditional fealty to the military arm of the state and the willingness to commit violence in the name of the state’s nationalist goals. Conservatives love to tout their antipathy towards the U.S. government, but they loathe any fool who dares question that ambiguous, amorphous, vaguely defined-but glorious concept known as “America;” a precious gem that must be sanctified via blood sacrifice in the form of military operations that bomb the shit out potential terrorists. For conservatives — and a good-many Americans in general — loyalty to the concept of “America,” if not its institutional governmental structure, should be unconditional. And because military service is culturally considered to be the highest form of patriotism, soldiers who shirk that duty by deserting have always been treated with extreme derision.

I don’t know if Bergdahl deserted, but let’s be clear: in terms of individual conceptions of loyalty, desertion has never constituted simple, clear-cut evidence of “anti-American beliefs.” Indeed, the circumstances of why American soldiers deserted or went AWOL in the past, and why they continue to do so today vary depending on individual conceptions of what constitutes a “just” and “necessary” war. Deserters have fled their posts in the past because they’ve questioned the established notion — a notion embraced by Palin and the right wing in general — that national loyalty is predicated on unconditional support for American war policy and demands total loyalty to the military as the agent that carries out that policy.

Take desertion during the American Civil War. During the course of that bloody, four-year conflict, thousands of men on both sides deserted from the armies, and Union and Confederate officials generally deemed them contemptible traitors for doing so. Confederate authorities in particular claimed that, in shirking their duty to defend the southern cause with a sacrifice of blood, deserters had expressed a de-facto rejection of the national cause itself.

Consider this 1863 anti-desertion proclamation by Confederate North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance. “Now therefore, I…do issue this my proclamation, commanding all such evil disposed persons to desist from such base, cowardly and treasonable conduct,” Vance warned, adding that deserters would face “indictment and punishment” by Confederate courts as well as “the everlasting contempt and detestation of all good and honorable men.” The assertion was, of course, that deserters were by definition not honorable. “Certainly no crime could be greater, no cowardice more abject, no treason more base, than for a citizen of the State, enjoying its privileges and protection without sharing its dangers…to desert the colors which they have sworn to uphold,” Vance concluded, warning that deserters deserved at worst “a miserable death,” and at best a “vile and ignominious existence.”

An 1864 despiction of Confederate deserters, from Harper's Weekly. Desertion has never been just about American loyalty.

An 1864 depiction of Confederate deserters, from Harper’s Weekly. Desertion has never been just about American loyalty.

But contrary to the claims of Vance and other Confederate officials and pundits, Confederate soldiers deserted for a whole host of reasons. Many simply didn’t agree with the Confederacy’s right to exist and were conscripted into the army against their will. To them, deserting wasn’t a crime since they believed that the state illegally forced them into military service. Other Rebel deserters thought that since wealthy slaveholders had started the war to preserve their human property, then they, rather than poor white men, should do the fighting. Still other Confederates deserted out of disgust with what they considered to be poor Confederate policies regarding the treatment of soldiers; while others merely wanted to return home to their families rather than die in what increasingly looked like a pointless war.

But Zebulon Vance’s proclamation includes themes that Sarah Palin and other right-wing goons have dredged up from the historical basement to lob at Bowe Bergdahl. Like Vance, they view military service as the utmost form of patriotic devotion, and to question American war policy is tantamount to treason. Just as Vance claimed that there was “no treason more base” than desertion, the National Review’s Ralph Peters claims that, as an (alleged) deserter, Bowe Bergdahl is “the most-hated individual soldier in the history of our military.”

The views of Vance in the 1860s and conservatives in 2014 all center around a simple idea: that the nation is the supreme authority, and as a citizen of that nation, you must observe (if not fight as a member of) it’s most hallowed institution, the military. Failure to do so means you’re against the state. For America’s right wing, national loyalty functionally equates to unconditional obedience. Gee, how American of them. This is, of course, a very dangerous idea. To equate patriotism with subservience to the state is to squelch one of the most essential of all democratic freedoms: the right to patriotic consent.

If Bowe Bergdahl did desert, then he violated military policy and should be charged accordingly. But, to promote the idea that criticism of U.S. policy, verbal or otherwise, equates to an “anti-American” stance is a simplistic notion with disturbingly authoritarian undertones. When we, as a culture, associate national loyalty with unqualified acceptance of American war policies, we’re effectively acting like an authoritarian wolf in sheep’s clothing. It might be against the law to desert, but it’s not against the law to critique war policies — especially if you’ve witnessed the shortcomings of those policies first-hand.