Tag Archives: American Exceptionalism

Ted Cruz’s religious horror: Why he’s really running for High Priest of America

Read Cruz's words and watch his stagecraft -- and you see this is the deeply fundamentalist vision he's propagating.

Read Cruz’s words and watch his stagecraft — and you see this is the deeply fundamentalist vision he’s propagating.

My latest piece is an article for Salon that explains why Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential ambitions are driven, in part, by a strangely fundamentalist  interpretation of American civil religion.

In many ways, America deserves Ted Cruz. After all, it’s been nearly eight years since voters (and the Supreme Court) elected a cocksure, right-wing adopted Texan, long on discredited ideology but short on wits, who plunged the United States into a sinkhole of economic and foreign policy chaos from which it has yet to fully emerge. The American political attention span is notoriously short.

Read the whole thing over at Salon.

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Slavery, The Economist, and the Worship of Capitalism

The Economist was dissapointed that historians are negelcting the many jolly slaves who were grateful for white folks' charity.

The Economist was disappointed that historians are neglecting the many jolly slaves who were grateful for white folks’ charity.

There are plenty of sanctimonious idiots in the world, and one of those idiots writes for the Economist. You’ve heard of that magazine, right? It’s pretty well-known, and despite its right-wing leanings, it generally publishes some reasonable content — I mean, it ain’t a shameless agglomeration of conservative verbal circle-jerkitude like the National Review, right? Maybe so, but the Economist still employ some idiots, and one of those idiots wrote an idiotic review of historian Ed Baptist’s non-idiotic new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

Yep, an unnamed Economist troll caused a major internet ruckus when he wrote a review titled “Blood Cotton” (which has since been officially taken down but is still available for archival viewing) in which he criticizes Baptist for attributing the southern cotton boom of the late antebellum era to planters who pushed slaves to the limits of human endurance and beat the shit out of them (via the concept of “calibrated pain”) when they failed to produce the targeted cotton quotas. But this point didn’t sit well with the Economist’s intrepid reviewer. “Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity,” the unnamed doofus states, “slaves were valuable property, and…Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their ‘hands’ ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment.” Continue reading

Why (Good) History Matters: The Republican National Committee and the AP Exams

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus scowls as thinks about actually educating Americans about history.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus scowls as he thinks about actually educating Americans about history.

Have you ever heard someone say that pursuing the liberal arts is a waste of time? Sure you have. The refrain goes something like this: Studying the liberal arts is a waste of time because you’ll never get a job with a “useless” degree in English, Art, or (gasp!) History. A few years back, for example, the estimable Forbes ran an article titled “The Ten Worst College Majors,” and, of course, almost all of them were liberal arts majors. In a similar vein, Thought Catalog troll Matt Saccaro has claimed that the liberal arts, including history and literature, should be outright removed from college in order to focus on “what matters;” namely, making lots of money.

This granite-headed attitude — that the study of the HUMAN EXPERIENCE is now pointless because it won’t make you any money — is what passes for conventional “wisdom” in modern America. And even those who aren’t calling for an outright banning of the liberal arts are trying to squelch the idea that intellectual pursuits should be liberal at all. I mean, it’s almost as if some dark, malevolent force seeks to drain Americans of their access to critical thinking skills, numb them to the beauty of art and literature, nullify their ability to understand the complex web of human history, and deprive them of the intellectual tools needed to question authority and interpret human existence as more than just an endless series of vacuous, materialistic market exchanges.

Which brings me to the Republican Party.

Recently, the odious pit of snarling Uruk-hai known as the Republican National Committee (RNC) condemned what they call a “radically revisionist” view of American history that is supposedly presented in the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history exams. As Talking Points Memo reports, the RNC sent an open letter to the College Board to voice their complaints about the AP’s alleged assault on American freedom, and the core point in their letter is worth quoting in full:

Instead of striving to build a ‘City upon a Hill,’ as generations of students have been taught, the colonists are portrayed as bigots who developed ‘a rigid racial hierarchy’ that was in turn derived from ‘a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority…

The new Framework continues its theme of oppression and conflict by reinterpreting Manifest Destiny from a belief that America had a mission to spread democracy and new technologies across the continent to something that ‘was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.’

You see the problem there? The actual story of the American past — what professional historians would call “reality” — has run afoul of the Republican Party’s simplified vision of an American experience characterized by the steady, inevitable march of freedom that benefitted EVERYBODY, dammit. If you think that the liberal arts don’t matter — if you think that history doesn’t matter — then you’re dead wrong, and the RNC’s complaints against the AP History exam demonstrate exactly why you’re wrong. To quote the esteemed scholar Dr. Emmett L. Brown, the critical study of history helps us “to gain a clear perception of humanity — where we’ve been, where we’re going, the pitfalls and the possibilities, the perils and the promise — perhaps even an answer to that universal question, ‘Why?'” The Republican Party knows that those with the authority to interpret the “why” of U.S. history also wield enormous influence over how the general population understands what they can expect from American citizenship.

Conservatives know full-well that a population deprived of the critical thought that the liberal arts provides will be a population that accepts their lot in life without question. They know that an American populace that is unaware of the real struggles that have defined U.S. history will be a populace of acquiescent drones who tacitly accept the inherent “goodness” of America and, therefore, will never think that things can ever be better than they are at any given moment. A wholly obedient citizenry lacking in critical thought will never question the Status quo; it will never challenge the unmitigated power of hierarchical employers, clergy, and state officials, and it will never demand that America consistently live up to its founding values — because an America that was manifestly destined to spread those values could never have deviated from them in the first place, right?

If the RNC has its way, all American history course will be taught by Prof. Michelle Bachmann.

If the RNC has its way, all American history courses will be taught by Prof. Michelle Bachmann.

The critical aspect of good history always revolves around that simple question, “Why?” At its core, the study of history is the study of why humans do the things they do. Historians analyze the past so that we can learn from the past, and while good scholars understand that all historical eras must be examined in their own context, they also understand that learning from the mistakes and misconceptions of our forebears is essential to interpreting how human ideologies, decision-making, prejudices, and triumphs have culminated to create and continually shape the contemporary world as we know it. Thus, if you believe (as you damn well should) that the ultimate value of studying history (and ALL of the liberal arts) is to learn how we can facilitate human flourishing via an understanding of how human freedoms have been curtailed in the past, then you should be aware of why the RNC wants to simplify and distort the very real struggles for freedom that have defined the American historical experience.

Indeed, despite Republican delusions, history doesn’t consist of mere fairy tales that detail the harrowing account of how George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, a time-traveling Lee Greenwood, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex-riding, open-carrying, tax-cutting, pro-free-market Jesus saved America from Mecha-Karl Marx and his hordes of communist, Injun, collectivist, pointy-headed liberal elitist Muslim hippies. Instead, the American past is, in part, the story of a nation that proclaimed exceptional and lofty values such as (almost) universal equality, religious pluralism, and the rejection of hereditary monarchies. The other part of the American story, however, involves the long — and often bloody — struggle between the various factions within the United States who sought to make the nation’s lofty founding values into tangible realities for real people — and the factions that opposed such advancements.

By glossing over these real historical struggles, the RNC reduces the study of history to an exercise in mindless patriotism that purports to mean everything while simultaneously meaning nothing at all. In her influential 1994 article “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum argued that a blindly patriotic approach to the world was not only antiquated, but also downright dangerous. Throughout most of their history, Nussbaum writes, Americans have given themselves a false sense of moral and political superiority that has equated “American identity and specifically American citizenship” with “a special salience in moral and political deliberation” and “a special power among the motivations to political action.”

But this type of blind patriotism, Nussbaum warns, prevents a critical examination of America’s many moral failings. “One of the greatest barriers to rational deliberation in politics is the unexamined feeling that one’s own current preferences and ways are neutral and natural,” she writes. “An education that takes national boundaries as morally salient too often reinforces this kind of irrationality, by lending to what is an accident of history a false air of moral weight and glory.” It’s precisely this “false air of moral weight and glory” that the Republican Party wants to propagate by replacing the critical examination of history with Manifest Destiny-style myth-making.

Raphael's famous 1511 frescno, the School of Athens depicts men who dedicated their lives to the Liberal Arts. What a bunch of commies.

Raphael’s famous 1511 fresco the School of Athens depicts men who dedicated their lives to the liberal arts. What a bunch of commies.

The RNC wants to claim that America has been uniquely exceptional in its relentless spreading of “freedom” in the modern era. This is tantamount to demanding that the U.S. be shielded from the necessary historical criticism that sheds light on the wrongs and misconceptions of the past. But historians study the past so that those same wrongs and misconceptions won’t be repeated in the present and the future. The Republican vision of American Exceptionalism, therefore, ignores America’s internal struggles with racism, genocide, sexism, inequality, political corruption, and imperialism — all struggles that place America squarely within, not outside of, the broader trajectory of world history.

By ignoring the messy reality of the past, the RNC seeks to inculcate students with the notion that “America is the greatest, so don’t suggest otherwise!” But this type of thinking only conditions people to not question ANYTHING. As the eminent historian Eric Foner writes in The Story of American Freedom, U.S. history is “a tale of debates, disagreements, and struggles rather than a set of timeless categories or an evolutionary narrative toward a preordained goal.”* Indeed, “freedom” has always been a contested concept. Foner notes that, “discussions of freedom are inescapably political,” because “under almost any definition they lead directly to questions concerning how public institutions and economic and social relations affect the nature and extent of the options available to individuals.”*

Making students think that America has been exceptional — that it can do no wrong — will effectively create a compliant populace that won’t worry about how “public institutions and economic and social relations” affect “the options available to individuals.” After all, individuals who lack a solid understanding of the real struggles and conflicts that have been waged in the name of “freedom” throughout U.S. history won’t be inclined to view themselves as agents who can take part in those ongoing struggles. That is why good history matters; it’s why the liberal arts matter, and it’s why the RNC should STFU.

* See Martha Nussbaum, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” Boston Review, Oct. 1, 1994.

* See Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), xiv, xix.

Why Rush Limbaugh’s Very Exceptional America is Very Bad History

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh, alongside his fictional horse, Liberty (yes, Liberty) fancies himself a historian, for some reason.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh, alongside his fictional horse, Liberty (yes, Liberty). He fancies himself a historian, for some reason.

Sigh. Rush Limbaugh. You’re familiar with him, right? He’s a formidable natural force that once spewed forth an estimated 1.5 million metric-tons of gas into the atmosphere. Wait, that was Mt. St. Helens in 1980. But Rush isn’t far behind. Since the 1990s, Rush has been contributing heavily to global warming by emitting dangerous levels of toxic, right-wing effluvium into America’s radio waves on a daily basis — and this gas has poisoned the minds of many an impressionable, angry white guy. After all, Rush is the radio blow-hard who once compared Obamacare to slavery, and slavery is bad!! But now, El Rush-bo is focusing his plume of billowing exhaust on America’s children.

That’s right, Rush has recently authored two “history” books for kids: 2013’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans, and 2014’s Rush Revere and the First Patriots. Now, you’d think that no self-respecting teacher would have the stones to use these books for instructional purposes in an actual history class, but you’d be wrong. Because a teacher named Ivy from South Carolina (how shocking) recently called up Rush’s radio show to let the world know that she uses Rush’s books to teach third-graders. “[W]hat I decided to do was to use your author’s note that explains the principles of the founders in our country as a way to introduce the Civil War,” Ivy told Rush. Ho boy.

It’s the “author’s note” section of Rush’s book on the Pilgrims, which purports to explain why the “principles of the founders” led to the end of slavery, that demonstrates why Ivy the teacher is making a big mistake here — in addition to the fact that she’s using a book by Rush Limbaugh to TEACH THIRD-GRADERS!

Thankfully, the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf spares me from having to read too much of Rush’s book on my own and highlights the goodies from Rush’s “author’s note,” which the king of talk-radio gas actually read on the air. The offending section reads as follows:

We live in the greatest country on earth, the United States of America. But what makes it so great? Why do some call the United States a miracle? How did we become such a tremendous country in such a short period of time? After all, the United States is less than 250 years old! I want to try to help you understand what “American Exceptionalism” and greatness is all about. It does not mean that we Americans are better than anyone else. It does not mean that there is something uniquely different about us as human beings compared to other people in the world. It does not mean that we as a country have never faced problems of our own.

American Exceptionalism and greatness means that America is special because it is different from all other countries in history. It is a land built on true freedom and individual liberty and it defends both around the world. The role of the United States is to encourage individuals to be the best that they can be, to try to improve their lives, reach their goals, and make their dreams come true. In most parts of the world, dreams never become more than dreams.

Well now, that sounds innocuous enough, don’t it?! Rush isn’t saying that America is perfect, he’s just saying it’s more perfect than everywhere else! But, as Friedersdorf notes, Rush’s embracing of American Exceptionalism allowed Ivy to explain slavery’s demise as something that was just bound to happen, gol’ darn it! “I used that as a way to introduce the Civil War because we were about to enter a discussion on the time when slavery existed in our country,” Ivy said, “but because of what you said in the book and the way that you explained the Founders’ passion for our country, it was because of that that slavery inevitably was abolished. So I felt like that would be a good way to get some conversation going.” Ho boy.

This idea really has got to go.

This idea really has got to go.

You get all that? According to Rush and teacher Ivy, slavery was abolished in the U.S. because it was destined to be abolished, because America is so great — so EXCEPTIONAL — that it was inevitable that it would eventually repent for its greatest original sin. The big problem with American Exceptionalism, however, is that takes a providential view of U.S. history by postulating that some divine or otherworldly force — usually the Christian God — has guided America’s progress from its founding to the present day. Thus, American Exceptionalism isn’t just bad history; rather, it places the United States outside of history.

Scholar Deborah Madsen has written a great book on American Exceptionalism, which I highlighted in a previous post, but her book is worth going back to in order to highlight the depth of Limbaugh’s historical delusions. Madsen defines “American Exceptionalism” as the belief that, “America and Americans are special, exceptional, because they are charged with saving the world from itself and, at the same time, America and Americans must sustain a high level of spiritual, political and moral commitment to this exceptional destiny — America must be ‘a city upon a hill’ exposed to the eyes of the world.”* The phrase “city upon a hill” is a quote from Puritan leader John Winthrop, who long ago envisioned that America was to be an exceptional Christian society that would offer a starting point for a new history in the form of a society that was free from the sins of Old Europe, and would thereby provide an example of spiritually informed enlightenment for all the world to emulate.

Thus, American Exceptionalism presents a redemptionist view of history that absolves America of its many sins by claiming that repentance for those sins was planned from the beginning, and that the pre-destined progress of history would attest to this inevitable redemption.

American Exceptionalism removes America from the historical path in which human decisions, mistakes, and prejudices combined with coincidences, external influences, and developments in the natural world to create very real conflict over the future. And this is why Rush Limbaugh likes American Exceptionalism, because it replaces human agency with a historical trajectory that was predestined and/or guided by providence — a trajectory that sits in stark contrast with the reality of how real, flawed human behavior shaped the course of American history. Above all else, American Exceptionalism is SIMPLE.

But, of course, history is never simple, and there was nothing at all inevitable about slavery’s demise. After all, slavery was enshrined in the U.S Constitution. Contrary to Limbaugh’s claim that “the Founders of this phenomenal country believed all people were born to be free as individuals,” the Constitution only counted black people as a decidedly unequal three-fifths of a person. This was because the humans who designed the Constitution — particularly the southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention — designed it to protect slavery.

The eventual end of slavery in America was, therefore, the result of decades of fervent agitation by people of faith, courageous politicians (yes, they have existed), and the slaves themselves who fought bitterly to correct the Founders’ great sin. Anti-slavery forces in America endured decades of virulent and bloody opposition to their stance, and when the kettle finally boiled over in 1861 and the U.S. descended into Civil War over the slavery issue, there was still nothing inevitable about the institution’s demise. Had the Confederacy won the war, slavery would have existed and thrived for an inestimable amount of time.

Dead soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. There was nothing exceptional about full-scale war.

Dead soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. There was nothing exceptional about full-scale war.

Nothing about the Civil War — when it happened, why it happened, why it happened the way that it did — was inevitable or guided by providence. The Civil War, like all events in American history, was the product of specific human actions and decision-making. The fact that a nation ostensibly dedicated to the ideal that “all men are created equal” had to fight a four-year-long war and sacrifice the lives of 600,000 soldiers over the right to perpetuate the enslavement of other human beings demonstrates the very real limits of America’s ability to be exceptional. To quote the late historian/novelist Shelby Foote, “we think that we are a wholly superior people — if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war.”

American Exceptionalism is bad history because it blinds people to the very real — and very human — triumphs and tragedies that the U.S. has faced in its relatively short national lifespan. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk do us no favors by trying to simplify and overly moralize the events of the American past, because doing so robs us of the chance to actually LEARN from that past. Viewing the U.S. as uniquely exceptional makes it hard to examine with a critical eye what America has done wrong as well as what it has done right. If we make simplistic assumptions about the inevitable, inherent goodness of America, then we run the risk of underestimating the real evils that have existed — and continue to exist — in American society, and we run the risk of failing to address those evils before they grow.

Today, it’s common for Americans to look back on the century-long debate over slavery and ask why it took so long for the U.S. to eradicate such a conspicuous evil. But many Americans thought that slavery was an American institution and thus, an inherently good institution that was worth holding on to. After all, America was exceptional.

* See Deborah L. Madsen, American Exceptionalism (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 2-4.

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.

Hobby Lobby, Religious Liberty, and American Exceptionalism Gone Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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