Tag Archives: American South

“Job Creators” and the Echo of Slaveholding Republicanism

A 19th century southern "job creator" rests comfortably on his porch while one of his dutiful employees looks on with great reverence.

A nineteenth century southern “job creator” rests comfortably on his porch while one of his dutiful employees looks on with great reverence.

Greetings fellow plebeians. Have you done your patriotic duty lately and courteously genuflected before our great nation’s sacred bestowers of all things employment based? Yes, I of course refer to that most noble, industrious, ultra-rich, and all around better-than-you group of Americans referred collectively by that oversized chamber pot known as the political pundit industry as “job creators.” If you have not yet shown due and expected deference to these money-swollen lords of society, then I suggest you do so quickly; for you see, the “job creators” are angry, and when they get angry, they refuse to cast their magical, job-creating spells like so many disgruntled Hogwarts rejects.

Why are the “Job Creators” angry, you ask? Well, allow me to enlighten you. Some audacious lower members of society, especially Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Soviet Union) have been unduly chastising our glorious plutocratic overlords. Warren has used her relatively brief Senate position to attack Wall Street with a combination of old-time progressive populist rhetoric and actual legislation that would reign in the casino-like excesses of the financial services industry. The “Job Creators” are not pleased.

Bloomberg’s Zac Bissonnette, for example, recently accused Warren of harboring “disdain for the private sector” by having the gall to propose legislation that curtails hiring discrimination based on credit scores. Moreover, a few years’ back, the ignominious trolls over at the Libertarian unicorn production factory known as Reason.com claimed that Warren “wants America to be more like Communist China.” The Peoples’ Republic of China, of course, has been an authoritarian capitalist society for a while now, but whatever. These types of accusations from American conservatives are bolstered by an idea that they believe to be fundamental to American society: that the wealthiest members of society must be respected, nay, worshipped by the smudge-faced commoners because they hold the power, through their control of capital, to create jobs for everyone else. In short: piss them off and they’ll “go Galt.

At the heart of the “job creators” mentality is that wealth in its own right amounts to virtue, and that virtue, by extension, must be acknowledged. Thus, the “lesser” members of society who aren’t wealthy should be all-too-happy to accept the scraps of benefit free, low-wage Wal-Mart greeter and Wendy’s Frosty incubator jobs that the “job creators” create for the proletarian masses.

The term “job creators” itself is a concoction by right-wing marketing nematode Frank Luntz, a guy whose stock-in-trade is using gentle euphemisms to make conservative policies sound less odious than they actually are. To plenty of folks, “jobs creators” sounds better than terms like “oligarchs,” “leeches,” “tax cheats,” well, you get the idea. Luntz is also the guy who refashioned the positive sounding “inheritance tax” into the negative sounding “death tax” in order to convince Americans that not taxing the inherited wealth that spawns “job creators” like Paris Hilton actually benefits average people.

Remeber back when President George W. Bush's massive tax cuts caused the "job creators" to create jobs? Neither do I.

Remember back when President George W. Bush’s massive tax cuts caused the “job creators” to create jobs? Neither do I.

Plenty of Americans — though not a majority — have bought into the idea that the wealthy must be given constant policy tongue baths via lower taxes, less regulation, and exemptions from giving minimum wage and health benefits to employees, lest they pack up their money and leave the country. No matter that, despite the flagging economy, corporations have been sitting on huge piles of cash without hiring workers for the last few years. And no matter that the ultra-wealthy don’t really create jobs. The idea of “job creators” is a myth that won’t die because it has historical precedent. Looking back to the nineteenth century slave-holding South, the notion of due deference being shown to the wealthy in exchange for labor benefits was a key argument favored by pro-slavery ideologues.

Defenders of American slavery cast their arguments in terms designed to appeal to the broader white masses, in both the North and South. They argued that racial slavery ensured social harmony because it made all free white men equal in their shared superiority over enslaved blacks. In this respect, wealthy slaveholding planters demanded the support of their “peculiar institution” from the majority of white southerners who didn’t own slaves on the basis that slaveholding created wealth that benefitted all of society — not just the rich. Not only were slaves valuable property in-and-of themselves, but their labor was valuable as well. Thus, wealthy planters and their defenders cast themselves as the “job creators” of the Old South. They told poor and even middle class whites to support slavery because doing so always made them better off than black slaves, who did the dirtiest, hardest work in society.

This form of proslavery advocacy eventually coalesced into a complete ideology known as “proslavery republicanism.” While republicanism entailed a government based on the will of the people through equal popular representation, proslavery republicanism stated that only white men were guaranteed participation in a republican society. As historian Stephanie McCurry notes, “the modern slave republic was defined above all else, as its defenders never tired of saying, by the boundary that separated the independent and enfranchised minority from the majority of dependent and excluded others.”* The “excluded others” were black slaves (and women). Proslavery republicanism ensured all white men that even if they were poor and beholden to the South’s planter oligarchs, they were still, in comparison to black slaves, “equal” to the rich, and should therefore be content with their lot or else work to improve their condition.

Statistically speaking, the average white southerner had little hope of reaching the planter class via slave ownership, but the oligarchs reaped the rewards of wealth and power from keeping such a dream alive among the common white South. The lower classes were less likely to rebel if they believed that they could one day enter the planter class — even if that hope was mostly a pipe dream.

Proslavery republicanism was, therefore, the glue that held the old southern socio-economic order together, despite its many internal fractures that often revolved around issues of class division. Perhaps the most famous proslavery defense came in the form of the so-called “Mudsill Speech” delivered by South Carolina slaveholder, and all-around slime ball, James Henry Hammond. I wrote about Hammond’s speech in a previous post, but it bears repeating. Hammond, a guy who admitted in his journals (!) to molesting his own nieces, defended slavery on the grounds that:

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill…it constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill.

The “mud-sill” class to whom Hammond referred were slaves, and he and other advocates of proslavery republicanism argued that even white Americans of lower classes should support slavery, and the planter oligarchies it created, because they benefitted from creating a permanent “mud-sill” class over which they could claim social and economic superiority. This was a form of trickle-down economics, in which wealthy planters courted, and often got, the support of less well-off groups based on the assumption that what was good for the rich was good for everyone (or at least all white men). Did it work, you may ask? May I point to exhibit A: the Confederate States of America, a short-lived proslavery republic in the name of which thousands of slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike died during the Civil War.

If James Henry Hammond were alive today, he'd tell you to support tax cuts for the rich on the basis that "hey, at least you ain't a mudsill." He'd also want to spend some time with your nieces.

If James Henry Hammond were alive today, he’d tell you to support tax cuts for the rich on the basis that “hey, at least you ain’t a mudsill.” He’d also want to spend some time with your nieces.

Historian Larry Tise observes that proslavery republicanism was “a system of values and beliefs that reconciled for Americans the inevitable conflict between the nation’s revolutionary ideals and the facts of enslavement.”* So powerful were these contradictions that we’re still dealing with the fallout from slavery to this day. Hence, the major underlying theme of proslavery republicanism; its emphasis on due deference to the rich in the name of the greater good, survived the demise of slavery and continued to resurface in latter-day conservative defences of all forms of social and economic privilege. This defense of privilege is the same notion that underpins the contemporary right-wing American obsession with worshipping wealthy “job creators.”

So the next time someone warns you about the supposed dangers of taxing the super-rich, or waxes apocalyptic about the alleged detrimental effects of raising the minimum wage, remember that in America, we used to claim that slavery ensured freedom. The maintenance of peasant-and-lord style mentalities like the “job creators” myth doesn’t help those who are unemployed in a nation swimming in wealth, and its bodes ill for the continued vitality of truly equal, small “r” republican governance. In the U.S., wealth has always equaled power, and if you think the so-called “job creators” are standing up for anyone’s interest but their own, then I suggest loading up your Confederate musket, ’cause your gonna’ need it.

* See Stephanie McCurry, “The Two Faces of Republicanism: Gender and Proslavery Politics in Antebellum South Carolina ,” Journal of American History 78 (March., 1992): 1246.

* See Larry E. Tise, Proslavery : A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 361.

Advertisements

Nelson Mandela and the Legacy of American Apartheid

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002  International Aids Conference.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002 International Aids Conference.

This week one of the towering figures of twentieth century politics passed from his mortal coil. Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, died at the age of 95, leaving a legacy that stretches beyond the limits of South Africa and even his own lifetime. Heck, Mandela’s legacy is one that challenges what had been among the core ideologies of the modern world dating back at least to the 18th century: white supremacy as practiced via the supposed inherent right of European powers to subjugate non-white, non-European peoples.

Mandela was, of course, the first black president of South Africa, a nation whose modern history is framed largely through the prism of its brutal system of racial segregation known as Apartheid. Mandela spent 27 years in prison as punishment for his lifelong fight against institutional racism, and his greatness as a symbol of human resistance in the face of adversity is now forever sealed. I mean, Morgan Freeman even played Mandela in a movie, and if that doesn’t attest to the South African president’s greatness, nothing else will.

I kid, of course. Mandela stands with Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Ghandi, as one of the most influential world players in the battle against racism and segregation in the modern era. So what exactly was Apartheid, and why was it so awful? Legal historian Steven Ratner offers a good, comprehensive definition:

Apartheid was the system of racial discrimination and separation that governed South Africa from 1948 until its abolition in the early 1990s. Building on years of discrimination against blacks, the National Party adopted apartheid as a model for separate development of races, though it served only to preserve white superiority. It classified persons as either white, Bantu (black), colored (mixed race), or Asian. Its manifestations included ineligibility from voting, separate living areas and schools, internal travel passes for blacks, and white control of the legal system.

Take some time to absorb that for a second: “a model for the separate development of the races.” If you’ve ever studied American history, for example, you might be aware that such institutionalized racism was not unique to South Africa. And how did South Africa’s racist regime go about instituting Apartheid? Policymic has a good roundup of the policies that built Apartheid:

Blacks were denied citizenship and the right to vote. They were forcibly relocated into impoverished reservations. People of color were barred from operating businesses or owning land inside white areas, which comprised most of the country. Sexual relations or marriage between people of color and whites was strictly forbidden. Racial segregation was enforced in public areas, including schools, hospitals, trains, beaches, bridges, churches and theaters. To enforce apartheid, the government often resorted to police brutality, the imprisonment and assassination of political dissidents, and the murder of black protesters.

The type of racial segregationist program known as “Apartheid” in South Africa, however, was far from limited to that country alone. Racial segregation in the name of white supremacy was a guiding principle that came to characterize the age of discovery, when European powers explored, settled, and colonized other parts of the world from the 15th century all the way up the 20th century. What Mandela fought against in South Africa reverberated throughout the world, as long-subjugated groups in former and current colonized nations fought for the equality that had been denied them in large part based on the color of their skins. It wasn’t an easy fight: as Mandela’s life demonstrates, those who have the power to dominate others won’t give it up that power easily, and they aren’t shy about enforcing their power through violence and intimidation.

The nation that emerged at the top of the world power heap by the mid-20th century was the United States, and nearly all of America’s history as a modern nation involved a reckoning with its own form of American Apartheid that manifested in the system of racial slavery that was enshrined in its Constitution and, over time, created one of the most racially divided societies in modern history. This development was all the more ironic since it took place in a country that supposedly cherished the notion that “All men are created equal.”

This American Apartheid echoed through the centuries via a Civil War fought over the right to enslave black bodies. After slavery’s demise, American Apartheid took the shape of the racial terrorism of Reconstruction. By the late 19th and early 20th century, it became institutionalized in the barbaric Jim Crow system that witnessed the smoldering stench of immolated flesh as lynching swept the American South and African-Americans were relegated to nation-wide second-class citizenship. American Apartheid only finally began to collapse in the mid-20th century, the same era during which Mandela waged his fight, following a sustained attack by Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. But as recent attacks on minority voting rights indicate, Apartheid casts a long shadow in America and throughout the world.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

America’s reckoning with its own apartheid explains why many elements in the U.S., up until very recently, viewed Nelson Mandela as a racial terrorist rather than a freedom fighter. As Sagar Jethani of Policymic notes, American conservatives long-defended South Africa’s anti-communist, white minority government in the name of anti-communist zeal. Mandela’s support for liberal policies, including worker’s rights and social justice, when combined with his early support for violence against the Apartheid government before he embraced peaceful resolutions, did not endear him to the American Right.

Over at Student Activism, for example, Angus Johnston reminds us how in 1986, William F. Buckley, the silver-spooned National Review founder and “intellectual” godfather of modern American conservatism, vehemently opposed universal suffrage in South Africa. “The government will not … grant political equality to everyone in South Africa. Nor should it,” Buckley wrote. “It is preposterous at one and the same time to remark the widespread illiteracy in South Africa and to demand the universal franchise.” Buckley had already made it abundantly clear that he opposed racial equality in the American South, both on prejudicial grounds and because he associated equality with a threat to established political and economic hierarchies, hence his distaste for South African universal suffrage.

In the 1980s, American conservative luminaries like Jesse Helm (R-NC), Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Phil Gramm (R-TX), and Dick Cheney (R-Hell) followed Buckley by opposing the Congressional Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which imposed sanctions on South Africa.

For many Americans, not just conservatives, the specter of racial equality also suggested economic equality and the threat to capitalism that would supposedly undermine social hierarchies across the land. Race and class have always been inextricably linked in American history, which helps explain why American conservatives in particular viewed Mandela as a threat: he tapped into old domestic fears that conflated anti-racism with economic and social revolution.

Proponents of American Apartheid have defended racial segregation since the beginning, but they’ve been at their most defensive when white supremacy, with all of its economic benefits, has been explicitly challenged. Such was the case during the run-up to southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860-61. As historian Charles Dew notes, southern secession commissioners (whom I discussed in an earlier post) charged with promoting secession throughout the South endorsed slavery and the Apartheid that bolstered slavery as a justification for the South’s forming the Confederate States of America to fend off northern anti-slavery aggression.

Commissioner William L. Harris of Mississippi, for example, complained that the North demanded “equality between the white and negro races, under our Constitution; equality in representation, equality in the right of suffrage…equality in the social order.” Harris warned that Mississippi would rather “see the last of her [white] race, men, women and children, immolated in one common funeral pile,” rather than be “subjected to…social equality with the negro race.”* Indeed, the Confederate South fought America’s greatest and bloodiest revolution, the Civil War, in order to preserve American Apartheid, and they didn’t stop defending racial segregation after the Confederacy’s demise.

During the Jim Crow era, as lynching and black disenfranchisement swept across the South and other parts of the country, defenders of American Apartheid continued to echo the sentiments of their Confederate forebears. In March of 1900, for example, the mind-blowingly racist South Carolina Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman claimed on the Senate floor that the lynching of blacks was necessary to uphold racial segregation. “We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will,” Tillman stated. “We have never believed him to be equal to the white man,” he continued, “and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.” Rarely had Apartheid produced so blunt a spokesman. For Tillman and his ilk, racial equality meant social equality, which they believed would upend the entire American white supremacist socio-economic order.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America's most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America’s most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

Even after the success of the Civil Rights movement, certain segments of American society nonetheless held on to their defence of American Apartheid, particularly in the 1980s when violence erupted in South Africa. Jesse Helms, for example, the Republican senator and general scumbag from North Carolina, defended South African Apartheid in large part because it reminded him of the American Apartheid system in which he had been born and raised.

As Eric Bates of Mother Jones reported in June 1995, Helms “grew up in a segregated world not unlike the one of apartheid,” and this upbringing gave him “a view of a fundamentalist Christian society in which everyone is not welcome” and which resembled “South Africa of 20 years ago.” With a lifetime of pro-segregationist ideology informing his thought, Helms filibustered U.S. sanctions against South Africa in 1986, claiming that “the Soviet Union is orchestrating upheaval in all of Africa.” By supporting South African Apartheid on grounds that it would supposedly bring about communist revolution, Helms followed a long tradition in which American segregationists, from Confederate ideologues to lynching proponents, linked racial equality with social revolution. American conservatives’ mixed ideas about Nelson Mandela’s legacy reflect a reluctance to reckon with America’s own historical Apartheid past.

With Mandela’s passing, here’s hoping that Apartheid in any part of the world will continue to be a shameful part of the human past. But as U.S. history shows, despite Americans’ long-held claims of American Exceptionalism,” Apartheid has never been limited to South Africa. In fact, its has been a reality of the modern world and has manifested in nearly every continent over the last few centuries. This is not the kind of legacy that goes away quickly, and this fact makes Mandela’s legacy all the more remarkable and worth continuing.

* See Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 85, 89.

“Duck Dynasty” and the Historical Power of Beards

"Duck Dynasty's" unabashedly hirsute stars, Phil, Uncle Si, Jase, and Willie Robertson.

Duck Dynasty’s unabashedly hirsute stars, Phil, Uncle Si, Jase, and Willie Robertson.

Maybe you’re like me and you don’t have cable t.v. Good for you. Tell yourself, like I do, that this makes you inherently intellectually superior to the millions of glow-box zombified American scarecrows who have nothing better to do with their lives than exist in an immobilized state guarding the t.v. from the nefarious Corvidae of real life. Or, you could be honest and, like me, admit that you can’t afford cable. But whether or not you have cable, there’s no way to escape the current American cultural juggernaut that is A&E’s “reality-based” show, Duck Dynasty.

The show follows the exploits of “Duck Commander” Phil Robertson, his Vietnam-vet, eccentric brother Si, and his three sons, Jase, Willie, and Jep. The Robertsons live in West Monroe, Louisiana. Phil Robertson is a former star quarterback for Louisiana Tech who turned down pigskin glory to hand craft duck calls in a backwoods cabin. According to people who actually give a damn about duck hunting, Robertson’s calls work pretty darn well. When Phil’s son, Willie, took over control of the Duck Commander company, he turned it into a multi-million dollar outdoor empire and made the Robertson clan into self-proclaimed “redneck millionaires.”

A&E’s Duck Dynasty show is a fairly simple set-up that depicts the daily lives of the Robertson clan, which includes the Robertson women, Phil’s wife Miss Kay, Willie’s wife Korie, Jase’s wife Missy, Jep’s wife Jessica, and their large brood of kids. Yet, as simple as the show is, its a massive hit: as of late August, it’s poised to be the biggest cable show ever. So why the heck is this the case? After all, like any “reality” show, Duck Dynasty’s plot lines are transparently staged, but two things about the show really resonate with viewers: the Robertson’s eccentricity and, perhaps more importantly, their beards.

There’s lots to write about regarding Duck Dynasty as a cultural phenomenon, but this is a history blog, and I’m going to focus on the history behind American beards and why that history is essential to the show’s success. Over at History Scene, Sarah Gold McBride posted a fantastic historical recap of the power of the beard in terms of shaping masculinity in the 19th century. The 19th century was a period of vast changes during which the modern world as we know it was formed. Indeed, many of the cultural, political, and economic tropes that we acknowledge today were first articulated and solidified in the 19th century, and this includes beards and their relationship to masculinity. As Gold McBride writes, with vast social, political, and economic change:

The social and economic roles of men and women changed, too splintering into distinct activities and spaces that could be organized under a system of “separate spheres.” Under this schema, men laid claim to public places like taverns and city streets, while women were confined to private spaces—namely, the home. Even though this binary is more of an ideal than a reflection of reality (as historians like Christine Stansell and Mary Ryan have shown),  gender distinction gained a greater importance over the course of the century—particularly in the minds of white men, who began looking for ways to demonstrate a distinctly male identity.

They distinguished themselves from women in politics; a fundamental feature of the new universal manhood suffrage was, of course, the fact that it was only for men. But men also began exaggerating the physical differences between themselves and women. Men’s clothing styles shifted from a corseted, curvaceous look—one not dissimilar from a female figure—to the boxy silhouette of the three-piece suit. Men also began donning another distinct physical feature: facial hair—including side-whiskers, moustaches, and especially beards.

In the 19th century, beards came to define a concept of masculinity in a way that was unmistakably visual to better distinguish them from increasingly public women:

Boxy clothing and bushy beards were reactions to women’s changing role in American public life. Although men in Europe and the United States had long written—even in times of overwhelming beardlessness—about how beards marked the male members of their species as strong, manly, powerful, and wise, it was only once women began entering “their” public that American men started to cultivate the facial hair they had publically revered (but personally scorned) for generations. Facial hair was a visual and visceral way for men to distinguish themselves from women—to codify a distinctly male appearance when other traditional markers of masculinity were no longer stable or certain.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, beards thus emerged as a key method for American men to demonstrate their masculinity to themselves, to women, and to each other.

So what does the rise of beards in the 19th century have to do with Duck Dynasty’s popularity in 2013? Much of the show’s popularity stems from its carefully controlled depiction of very generic, supposedly “down home” southern American values like family, Christian religious observance, traditional gender roles, patriotism, humility, good manners, reverence for the outdoors, and general redneck-ness. Thrown together in a pot, these values create a simmering, clichéd stew of good ole’ folk southern identity that harks all the way back to the antebellum South, when sectional divisions over slavery led southerners to double down on creating cultural distinctions between themselves and the North to justify southern values as superior.

Minus the slavery issue, of course, the above-listed generic stew of southern cultural values survived well into the 20th century because these values seemingly offered an authentic alternative to the fast-paced, modern, cold, money-obsessed, industrializing nation that emerged after the Civil War. As historian James C. Cobb observes in Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South, culture is a process, and in the post-Civil War South, southern culture was “an ongoing cycle of interaction”  during which some southerners constantly shaped, reshaped, and reformed southern cultural identity to adapt older traditions to the demands of modern life and social change that threatened to leave Dixie and its culture in the dust.* The South’s general cultural, political, and religious conservatism aided this continuing process.

Now, in the 21st century, the vague idea of “southern culture,” defined by traditional religion, gender roles, guns, family values, and patriotism has been mass-produced and sold via shows like Duck Dynasty. The show is consumed by a large segment of the American public that is fed up with what they perceive as the modern world’s assault on traditional values and religion, and they’re willing to commit their time to a  little slice of supposedly authentic southern American-ness to combat the secular hordes of social change roaring at tradition’s gates.

The beards in Duck Dynasty symbolize this general, supposedly authentic, but actually mass-produced, southern cultural conservatism. As Gold McBride noted, 19th century beards symbolized masculinity and an affirmation of gender distinctions in an age when gender roles were shifting. Contemporary America is witnessing many of the trends that shaped the 19th century, including growing income inequality and the increasingly public role of minority groups asserting their rights; groups that in today’s context include gays, women, atheists or non-religious folks, and (shudder) liberals of all types.

Duck Dynasty's bearded hunters. Real men still hunt.

Duck Dynasty’s bearded hunters. Real men still hunt.

Duck Dynasty’s bearded male stars offer a symbolic reaffirmation of traditional values onto which many Americans threatened by social change can latch. The Robertson men’s bushy beards, like beards in the 19th century, distinguish them from the Robertson women and symbolize southern masculinity. Just look at the hirsute Robertsons’ favorite things: they do manly activities like hunting, fishing, shooting guns, and praising God. Hell, their entire business is built around the idea that MEN hunt to bring home food and take care of the family.

And what distinguishes all of the bearded Robertson’s activities? For the most part, they happen outdoors, that is, outside the sphere of the home, where the Robertson women reside. When Jase or Willie or Jep return from a days work at the Duck Commander headquarters or a day out hunting, they return to the home sphere to meet the women. There was even an episode where Jase and Willie take their wives hunting, and, in a fantastically clichéd plot line, the thoroughly suburbanized and home-bound ladies act the classic part of ducks out of water (or babes in the woods), unable to fathom how their manly, bearded beaus could possibly derive joy from going into the woods to shoot deer. And just so viewers don’t forget: these are indeed REAL men – they have beards. Bushy Beards.

Duck Dynasty’s bearded display of warm, corn-pone, conservative but non-threatening, down home, southern cultural values resonates with a portion of the American population. Conservatives have taken to declaring the show’s popularity as driving liberals crazy, while regular Christian Americans praise the show as an antidote to the ills of modern culture via its depiction of warm, simple, family values. Thus, the Robertson men’s beards alone do not a successful show make. But their beards do symbolize and invoke a long history of cultural construction based around generic southern American values served up hot and ready to many Americans. These folks want a little something simpler in their lives to combat what they see as a host of uncomfortable modern social changes. All hail the power of beards.

* See James C. Cobb, Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 1-4.

Welcome!

Statue of Confederate General, and all around jerk, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Statue of Confederate General, and all around jerk, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

The title of this blog comes from a remark made by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman during the American Civil War. Referring to the notorious Tennessee-born former slave trader, Confederate Cavalry General, and later, prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Sherman growled in 1864 that “that devil Forrest must be hunted down and killed if it costs ten thousand lives and bankrupts the federal treasury.”

Forrest proved a constant thorn in the side of Union commanders in the Civil War’s western campaigns, and he remains a controversial figure in American history to this day. As a symbol of the support for the system of chattel slavery and racial oppression that birthed the Confederate States of America, Forrest is simultaneously derided by those who wish to move beyond the uglier events of America’s past and celebrated by those who want to wrap up the past’s wounds in factually relative, revisionist gauze.

Beyond competing memories of the Civil War’s tumultuous legacy, however, Forrest serves as a greater symbol of how the American past, in William Faulkner’s famous words, is “not even past.” History continues to influence contemporary discussions of everything from political debates to popular culture. This is because everyone has an opinion — however well or poorly informed — about American history. Even those who claim ambivalence or outright hostility to the study of the past will have a strongly worded stance on it once you prod them enough on their particular pet issue. Thus, historical figures like Forrest, and the symbols and ideologies evoked by such figures, continue to stir passions among the historically literate and illiterate alike. Depending on who you ask, and depending on the cultural context on which they base their opinions, Forrest is either a hero or a villain — his legacy either embraced or rejected.

In this respect, the symbol of “that devil Forrest” might well be applied to history itself. Indeed, history is that most nefarious of devils whose influence can be embraced or rejected, invoked for good or bad, used to justify peace or murder, freedom or repression. This blog, then, will tackle “That Devil History” warts and all to examine crucial issues in America’s past. Furthermore, it will also connect historical issues to contemporary ones to discuss the ways history is appropriated and refashioned to suit the needs of the righteous and the devious alike, the best and the worst in American society.

Thanks for reading. I’m looking forward to looking backward.