Tag Archives: American history

Age of Anxiety: The Quest for Freedom from Fear in America

Norman Rockwell's  Freedom from Fear (1943). This depiction of Americans getting safley tucked in an night while London experienced the Blitz had a clear message: Americans should, above all else, be free from fear.

Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear (1943). This depiction of American kids getting safely tucked in at night while England experienced The Blitz had a clear message: Americans should, above all else, be free from fear.

Be afraid, America, be very afraid. It’s a dangerous world out there, with a never-ending series of threats laying siege to the republic from every possible angle, each of them exposing the quivering globule of disquietude that is modern society. If Americans have wanted nothing else over the span of their history, they’ve wanted freedom from fear, but they never seem to get it. With each passing era, new fears arise in the form of internal and external threats that shake American society to its foundations. Sometimes these fears have been real and justified; other times they’ve been born of prejudice and paranoia, but the results have always struck terror into the American collective psyche. Indeed, it’s no stretch to say that U.S. history has been one long age of anxiety.

Let’s do a run down of the numerous threats currently invoking fear in American society, shall we? There’s Ebola, of course. Recently, news outlets confirmed the first documented U.S. case of the deadly virus via an unnamed patient now being quarantined in Dallas, Texas. Americans (nearly 40 percent, according to one poll) are pretty terrified of the virus that’s been ravaging West Africa, and their fear isn’t entirely unwarranted. Ebola is awful: it spreads through contact with bodily fluids and causes uncontrollable bleeding from multiple orifices, as well as bloody discharges (yeah, those kind of discharges), rashes, and all kinds of corporeal pains. But Ebola isn’t the only thing Americans fear. There’s also the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the latest nutball incarnation of radical Islamic terrorism. ISIS fighters have been waging guerilla war in the middle-eastern crescent that’s already fertile with chaos, and they’ve taken barbarism to scarily casual new levels by beheading American journalists and making threats via their savvy PR machine.

But, of course, Ebola and ISIS aren’t the only things that Americans fear these days. Depending on their political inclinations and individual composure, Americans are afraid of economic recession; inflation; deflation; domestic mass shootings; gun control; terroristsvoter fraud; voter suppression; illegal immigration; drug gangs; black people; white peoplethe government; money in politics; Democrats; Republicans; environmental destruction; environmentalists; Obama the dictator; Obama the weakling; the Koch Brothers; George Soros; the End Times; war with Iran; war with Russia; war with North Korea; war with China; the Federal Reserve; Wall Street; FEMA internment camps; the New World Order, and, perhaps the most terrifying thing of all: Obamacare.

The fact that Americans are fearful of, well, A LOT of things makes sense given that most of U.S. history is littered with events and happenings that scared the hell out of people at any given historical moment. American identity is, in part, defined by the fear of losing American freedoms.

During the colonial era for example, white settlers on British America’s frontier regions lived in a constant, paralyzing fear of ambush-style Indian attacks. As historian Peter Silver notes in his excellent book Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America, “the violence that provincial Americans found themselves first dreading and then experiencing was, in the most literal sense, terroristic. It had been carefully planned and carried out by the Indians with whom they were at war to induce the greatest fright possible.”* For white frontier settlers, the fear of violent Indians who killed men, women, and children alike; who struck without warning, and who refused to recognize the rules of “civilized warfare” was the greatest possible threat to (white) American freedom. On the British American frontier, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness could literally be taken away by the swipe of a tomahawk.

The threat of Inidan attacks permetaed everyday life for white colonial settlers.

The fear of Indian attacks permeated everyday life for white colonial settlers.

Indian attacks provided the quintessential example of how a determined, violent “other” seemingly threatened American freedom, and so powerful was this example that Americans applied a variation of it to most major events in their history. Fear of British tyranny fueled the Revolutionary War and its sequel, the War of 1812. The buildup to the Civil War pitted southerners who feared slave-stealing abolitionists against northern factions who feared the excessive influence of the “Slave Power” in the national government. The terrors of Reconstruction came from fears that former slaves would achieve theretofore unheard-of levels of political and social power. The late nineteenth and early twentieth-century reforms of the Populists and the Progressives were inspired by fears of the excessive power of Big Business. The fear of the social and moral detriments of alcohol inspired Prohibition. And conflicts in Europe, Japan, Latin America, Russia, Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq were all variously fueled by fears that fascists, Nazis, communists, “Japs,” socialists, rogue dictators, and Islamic terrorists all threatened American freedoms.

Fear, and the freedom to be free from fear, have always been a part of the American D.N.A. In his book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, political scientist Corey Robin argues that “American Style” political fear is a truly omnipresent beast. He defines “political fear” as “a people’s felt apprehension of some harm to their collective well-being — the fear of terrorism, panic over crime, anxiety about moral decay — or the intimidation wielded over men and women by governments or groups.”* Robin observes that fear has consistently been a major source of unity in a pluralistic, decentralized democratic society where unanimity on anything rarely exists. “We [Americans] savor the experience of being afraid,” Robin writes, and, citing the experience of unity after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he argues that, “only fear, we believe, can turn us from isolated men and women into a united people.”* As Robin notes, however, fear divides as much as it unites, and it inspires actions both heroic and stupid.

The historical influence of fear in American society helps explain why FDR’s famous first inauguration quip that, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” seems so clear and yet so mysterious. In 1933, Roosevelt urged Americans not to fear the Great Depression, but to instead fear the fear of the Great Depression. It was “fear itself” that would cripple America’s ability to deal with the economic crisis, because whatever the consequences of the Depression, to tackle it based on fear — “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” — would only make the problem worse. But if fear was a detriment to combating the Depression, it was also a source of unity: only “fear itself” could rally a nation behind a new leader tasked with alleviating an economic catastrophe the likes of which the U.S. — and the world — had never seen before.

So integral was fear to addressing the events of mid-twentieth century American history that FDR made “Freedom from Fear” a part of his “Four Freedoms” that every American deserved. In his January 6, 1941 Annual Message to Congress, Roosevelt declared Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear to be integral to the American experience. He invoked these freedoms to combat both foreign and domestic threats. As historian David Kennedy writes in his epic study Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, “at this level of basic principle, there was unmistakable continuity between Roosevelt’s domestic policies during the Great Depression and his foreign policies in the world war.”*

President Franklin Deleno Roosevelt invoked fear to both scare and inspire Americans to action during the Depressiona nd World War II.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked fear to both scare and inspire Americans into action during the Depression and World War II.

Roosevelt explicitly invoked his “Four Freedoms” to contrast the U.S. with the growing dictatorships of Europe and Asia, where governments threatened to take away freedoms, not preserve them. Yet even as FDR championed “Freedom from Fear,” he paradoxically invoked fear — the fear that the four freedoms could be taken away from Americans by an increasingly unfree world — as a source of motivation for Americans to fight for, and preserve, those freedoms. A world characterized by Freedom from Fear, FDR stated, “is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.” Thus, the determination to be free from fear — and the things that inspired that fear — nonetheless relied on making Americans afraid of what would happen if they failed to defeat the forces of dictatorship. To stop a world from falling to fear, Americans needed to be very afraid of that world. Americans intuitively understood this because fear had been a motivating force in U.S. society since the colonial era. The Indians and dictators of the past have become the terrorists and diseases of today. The more things change…

Given the long-standing and important role that fear has played in U.S. society, it’s no surprise that Americans are still afraid of an endless barrage of potential foreign and domestic threats. Some of these threats are very real; others are overblown, and still others are the products of unhinged hysteria. And while we might lament the at-times overwhelming presence of fear in U.S. society, it’s at least worth remembering that fear, for better or for worse, is utterly central to the American experience. The age of anxiety has always been with us, and it probably always will be. Hopefully, that fact won’t scare you — too much.

* See Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian Warfare Transformed America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 41.

* See Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 2-3.

* See David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 470.

Advertisements

Poverty, Shopping, and American Inequality

This American consumer doesn't believe in class. He knows that he runs fast enough, he'll catch up with the plutocrats and end up rich. Some day...

Just keep on running, American consumers, because you’ll catch up with the plutocrats and end up rich, some day…

Americans love to shop. More than a mere mundane exercise in the exchange of script for goods and services, shopping in the U.S. has long been a kind of secular ritual. During this ongoing rite, the trembling, plastic and paper contents of Americans’ collective purses and wallets are gleefully drawn and quartered through millions of soulless, retail card-swipe machines or fed into the ravenous, gaping maws of insatiable cash registers in an orgiastic display of consumerist debauchery that would make Caligula blush.  Indeed, so intense is the American consumer’s desire to please the market and retail gods that we even have a term, “citizen-consumer,” to describe how Americans want to define and project their personal identities via the buying of goods and services.

The fact that citizen=consumer in modern America only makes the recent census report on the state of the American economy all the more depressing. As TPM reports, while the overall health of the economy is apparently improving, the lingering question is, “improving for who?” And that’s where the future bodes ill for the poor and the already over-maxed, under-earning — but still consumption-crazed — middle class. Basically, the “economy” has been improving for those at the very top of the economic pyramid. But for everyone else, especially the poor and the now endangered species known as the middle class, income gains have been flat, if not outright regressing. The New York Times’ Neil Irwin sums up the problem nicely:

This simple fact may be the most important thing to understand about today’s economy: Around 1999, growth in the United States economy stopped translating to growth in middle-class incomes. In the last 15 years, median income has been more or less flat while there was far sharper growth in, for example, per capita gross domestic product.

But a good GDP doesn’t necessary translate to a good overall economic environment for the average American. “You can’t eat G.D.P. You can’t live in a rising stock market. You can’t give your kids a better life because your company’s C.E.O. was able to give himself a big raise,” Irwin writes. The real measure of America’s economic health, he concludes, “is median real income and related measures of how much money is making its way into their [Americans’] pockets and what they can buy with that money.”

The key line there is “what they can buy with that money,” because buying is a core aspect of American identity. The growing gap between GDP and the average American’s purchasing power is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is how it unveils the inherent dangers of associating American identity with that of conspicuous consumption. The link between citizenship and consumption in modern America can’t be overstated. Since the early twentieth century, Americans have associated the freedom to shop with the essence of freedom itself. At this point in history, people who’re born in the United States might technically be citizens, but if they aren’t working to buy large quantities of mass-produced crap, then they don’t really count as Americans.

Thus, linking citizenship to consumption has caused a circular problem in American culture: the vexing issue of income inequality has lessened more and more Americans’ purchasing power, but the fact that Americans can still buy anything at all is taken as evidence by some commentators — notable those on the Right — that poverty and income inequality are issues that simply don’t matter in America today. Think I’m kidding? Consider a 2011 article by Robert Rector, a malcontent who works for the National Review. Rector mocks the idea that poor Americans are actually poor simply because they might own TVs, cars, or have internet access. Likewise, oozing talk-radio boil Rush Limbaugh frequently cites Rector to argue that, “poverty in America isn’t poverty” because Americans have access to consumer goods like cell-phones, air-conditioning, and Chicken-McNuggets.

Granted, poverty is certainly relative depending on where you are in the world (being poor in India is far worse than being poor in America, for example), but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that conservatives actually give a damn about the material conditions of America’s poor (and, increasingly, its middle class). The right-wing touts the “poor people aren’t poor” meme as a way to dismiss the notion that the inequalities created by market capitalism should be acknowledged and addressed, period. To the Right, the blessings of American market citizenship bestow an unbelievable purchasing power on even the most lowly of citizens, who have the ability to buy stuff that would make a Third-World peasant salivate.

In July 2009, Newsweek threw all nuance out the window when it equated citizenship with shopping.

In March 2009, Newsweek threw all nuance out the window when it equated citizenship with shopping.

But as Slate’s Jordan Weissmann notes, this is a dodge to avoid addressing the REAL problem of growing income inequality. The availability of cheap goods misses the fact that prices are rising on essentials such as education, health-care, and child care. Weissmann calls this “the tension at the core of modern impoverishment.” In order to climb out of poverty in America, you need higher education, and if you have kids, and if you have to work full-time for ever-declining wages, or if you get chronically sick, you can kiss economic improvement goodbye. “While a high-definition television is nice, it won’t permanently improve your circumstances,” Weissmann writes, “and psychology has told us that the stress of financial instability…is part of what makes poverty such a horrible experience.”

Which brings us back to the historical trends that have conflated “citizen” and “consumer” to the point where right-wing concern-trolls can doubt the existence of poverty and brush off the need to question unfettered capitalism’s inequality-producing tendencies by simply saying that, “Americans can still buy stuff.” In her book A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Post War America, historian Lizabeth Cohen describes how Post War American culture embraced the idea of the “purchaser as citizen” as a way of harmonizing patriotism with the need to boost the American economy after the twin blows of the Great Depression and World War II. For a while, the citizen-consumer ideal seemed to work, but in the wake of the Great Recession, the wheels have come off the spending bus and there aren’t any spares.

Of course, consumption has been an essential aspect of American identity since the earliest commercial transactions between European colonists and Native peoples, but modern consumer citizenship is far more total in its power to define pure ‘Muricaness. Cohen explains how the post-war era fully developed the idea of a “Consumer’s Republic” that, “entrusted the private mass consumption marketplace, supported by government resources, with delivering not only economic prosperity but also loftier social and political ambitions for a more equal, free, and democratic nation.”* Equating consumerism with citizenship was all well-and-good to a point: after all, it was a GOOD thing for more Americans to have the ability to improve their material well-being, even it meant buying a bunch of junk on the side.

But a consumer republic only works if Americans have the ability to consume. And even if that ability could somehow be retained by the mythical free-market, conflating citizenship with consumerism runs the risk of equating the value of American life to buying Ed Hardy perfume at Target: it’s a pay-to-play model of national identity that says, “you’re not an American unless you’re a consuming American.” In a consumer’s republic, basic citizenship rights — like petitioning your government, voting, and, complaining about the growing influence of Big Money on American society — are all things that can be brushed aside as the whiny tantrums of people who should be thankful that they can own a TV.

This is why increasing income inequality in the American economy is such a troubling development. If American citizenship is reduced to the ability and means to go shopping, then the declining purchasing power of the average American becomes that much more tragic. Perhaps even worse, however, is the rise of a conservative political discourse that trivializes the experiences of poverty and broad-based economic anxiety. Equating citizenship with consumption cheapens the value of a small “r” republican society, in which the plight of average citizens should be synonymous with the plight of the nation. These days, we’re witnessing a perverse flipping of that ideal, as the success of the 1 percent is taken as evidence of an improving national economy even as most Americans continue to face an ever-increasing economic uncertainty. This is no way to run a nation, unless you want to run it into the ground.

* See Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Post War America (New York: Vintage, 2003), 13.

Calhoun’s Ghost and the Enduring Dream of Secession

John C. Calhoun, with one of his many trend-setting mane styles.

John C. Calhoun, sporting one of his many trend-setting mane styles.

Secession is the idea that simply won’t die in the United States. You would think that after secession — the withdrawing of one or more states from the Federal Union — caused the The Civil War, which cost over 600,000 lives and left half of the country in ruins, the issue would have been settled in 1865. But Americans have never been ones to let a nutty idea go to waste, and in the year 2013, a few brave patriots are still bandying about the concept that withdrawing from the national compact is 1.) legal, and 2.) desirable.

Some recent examples from around the country are keeping the dream of secession alive and well — at least for a few misguided individuals. Back in June, some right-wing residents of northern Colorado counties with a serious Jones for the oil and gas industry drew up plans to secede from the rest of the state and form the newly sovereign state of “North” or “Northern Colorado.” Citing a general butt-hurt caused by the growing influence of liberal urban enclaves like Denver, conservatives in northern Colorado hope to create a separate haven for pro-gun, pro energy industry interests. As the CBS Denver news affiliate reported:

The secessionist movement is the result of a growing urban-rural divide, which was exacerbated after this year’s legislation session where lawmakers raised renewable energy standards for rural electric co-ops, floated bills increasing regulations on oil and gas, and passed sweeping gun control.

Pro-secessionist leaders in northern Colorado cited a lack of attention by state and federal lawmakers as the reason for their wanting to secede:

“We really feel in northern and northeastern Colorado that we are ignored — citizens’ concerns are ignored, and we truly feel disenfranchised,” Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said.

Conway said the new laws don’t support the interests of the northern part of the state, which is rich in agricultural history. Conway said that’s why he and others are proposing to break away from Colorado to form a new state.

Following the Colorado brouhaha, conservative activists in northern California and western Maryland have proposed seceding from their respective states in order to escape the perceived liberal political dominance of metropolitan areas. As the Washington Post reported, Western Marylander  Scott Strzelczyk summarized the secessionists’ views succinctly:

He wants to live in a smaller state, he says, with more “personal liberty, less government intrusion, less federal entanglements.” He wants the right to carry a gun. He would abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Although he thinks the government shouldn’t be involved with marriage, he’d put the question of gay marriage to a vote. Medical marijuana would be just fine, he says. There would be lots of liberty.

Proponents of contemporary secessionist movements who want “lots of liberty” have an intellectual godfather in the figure of nineteenth century South Carolina senator and Vice-President under Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun. He was a political theorist whose most famous ideas refuse to die despite being discredited in practice over a hundred years ago.

An early American nationalist and proponent of a strong national government in his early years, Calhoun eventually morphed into a radical proponent of limited government and states’ rights, especially the right of individual states to nullify any Federal law they found distasteful, constitutional prohibitions be damned.

Calhoun was also a steadfast defender of southern slavery, and his defence of states’ rights usually served as a bulwark against federal interference in the “peculiar institution.” Calhoun’s most famous idea was the concept of the “Concurrent Majority:” the theory that all interests within states had to concur on the actions of the government. The idea behind this concept was to prevent tyranny of the numerical majority, which would supposedly lead to mob rule running roughshod over the interests of minorities, thereby denying them a say in government. Calhoun proposed two measures to prevent supposed tyranny of the majority: nullification, the idea that states have the right to invalidate federal law, and secession, in which states would withdraw from the federal Union.

No less an authority than President Andrew Jackson — himself no fan of excessive federal government — recognized that Calhoun’s theory was blatantly unconstitutional. The constitution expressly grants the federal government power over the states, meaning that states cannot nullify federal law. But beyond the legal issue with the idea of “Concurrent Majority,” it also created a deep philosophical problem: taken to its logical conclusion, Calhoun’s theory negated the very principle of democratic government and sowed the seeds of anarchy. Requiring all states and interests to agree on operations of the general government guaranteed the death of compromise and the perpetuation of governmental paralysis. Furthermore, if a state, or a municipality within a state, could simply secede from the Union whenever it found fault with federal laws, then the basic idea of democracy failed, and republican countries would devolve into ceaseless fracturing, threatening social and governmental order.

This is why Abraham Lincoln characterized secession as the “essence of anarchy,” and why he and the vast majority of northern states decried the secession of the slaveholding southern states in 1860 and 1861 as a violation of the experiment in democratic republicanism. Put simply: you can’t spend years drawing the benefits of membership in a federal Union and then pick up and leave when things don’t go your way.

Despite the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy, however, the idea of secession, underpinned by Calhoun’s “Concurrent Majority,” just refuses to die. In 2009 Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) floated the idea that his state could secede from the Union if the federal government continued its supposed tyrannical overreach, though he failed to mention that Texas is among the states that receive the highest amounts of federal money. Republican state legislatures have also invoked Calhoun’s ghost by passing restrictive voter I.D. laws designed to hold off the growing majorities of non-white voters that in the future may not support the Republican Party.

Thus, John C. Calhoun’s ideas will continue to be popular among cranky conservative Americans for the indefinite future, or at least as long as they continue to perceive that their political privileges are slipping away. But in republican societies, secession isn’t the answer. Those who lose at the legislative level should go back to the drawing board, reorganize, and try winning at the ballot box. Leave Calhoun’s ghost in the past where it belongs, guarded by the hundreds-of-thousands of Americans who perished thanks to his ideas.