Tag Archives: Andrew Jackson

Christianity, Islam, and the American Aversion to Nuance

President Barack Obama does prayer stuff at the National Prayer Breakfast, an event that shouldn't even exist.

President Barack Obama does prayer stuff at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Americans don’t do nuance. The basic dictionary definition of nuance is “a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound,” and boy does this ever go against the American predilection for dualistic thinking in absolutely everything. From the highest level political “masterminds,” to the status-anxiety wracked petite bourgeoisie, to the common blue-collar Bubba, Americans prefer simplistic approaches to a very complicated world. They therefore derive thought-free comfort in the notions that black and white long ago teamed up to gag the numerous shades of grey with a balled-up American flag, that there is only good (America) and evil (everything that isn’t America), and that might ALWAYS equals right — at lease when America uses might.

And no U.S. subculture better exemplifies this inoculation-proof allergy to nuance better than the conservative hive-mind. Yes, if Americans in general prefer simple answers to complex problems, the Right Wing goes a step further: they deny that complex problems even exist. Thus, we have the dunder-headed conservative reaction to President Barack Obama’s invocation at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast. Continue reading

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The Enduring Popularity of Nazi Comparisons in American Politics

To some strains of the American electorate, fears of Nazi-style impending rule trump both political nuance and common sense.

A sign paid for by an Iowa Tea Party group. To some strains of the American electorate, fears of Nazi-style impending rule trump both political nuance and common sense.

Americans just love Nazis. Have I got your attention? Great, now let me explain. What I mean is that American politicians — and some of the public at large — often invoke the specter of Adolf Hitler and Nazism as the go-to example of political evil. Depending on their political preferences, some Americans like to accuse their political opponents of bringing on the Second Coming of the Third Reich in America. No matter that far too many people in the good ole’ U.S. of A know precious little about ACTUAL Nazism and the historical context from which in sprang in 1930s Germany; if they don’t like the other side, then the other side must be de-facto Nazis. Because Nazis are bad.

A recent case-in-point: two Republicans in Asheville, North Carolina recently compared the flying of the gay-rights rainbow flag at the city hall to Nazism. Former city councilman Carl Mumpower didn’t mince words when he stated that, “I am equating their methods with the Nazi movement…They are indifferent to the rule of law and indifferent to the vote of the people. And that’s Adolf Hitler all over again in a different disguise.” The “they” that Mumpower was referring to in his granite-headed statement was both the Asheville City Council and U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn, who recently struck down North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Mumpower’s equating of gay rights to Nazism is particularly galling since the Third Reich actively persecuted homosexuals in Germany. But not only is his statement galling, it’s also monumentally hypocritical. As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes, “The Nazis posed as moral crusaders who wanted to stamp out the ‘vice’ of homosexuality from Germany in order to help win the racial struggle.” You got that? A pair of North Carolina Republicans, who fancy themselves moral crusaders in the fight to uphold “traditional marriage,” are accusing their opponents of being Nazis — the very-same Nazis who positioned themselves as moral crusaders against the so-called threat of homosexual influence in Germany. Pot, meet every single kettle EVER MADE.

But this is hardly the only instance in which one U.S. political faction has likened their opponents to Nazis. As Media Matters noted early this year, conservatives in particular just can’t stop describing those wily liberals as another Third Reich. An especially choice instance of this type of lame-brained demagoguery involved hyperbolic venture-capitalist/comical plutocrat Tom Perkins, who wrote an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal (natch) in which he called liberals’ criticisms of the so-called “one percent” a “progressive Kristallnacht.” Perkins was referring to the infamous November 1938 pogrom in which Germans attacked Jews, destroyed Jewish businesses, and sent many to concentration camps. Because criticizing the wealth of spoiled ass-hat billionaires is totally the same thing state-sponsored anti-Semitic violence.

No recent American political figure has received more Nazi comparisons than President Barack Obama. Yes, it’s true that lefty protesters had a tendency to equate President George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. But the sporadic “Left” has little influence on the ostensibly “liberal” Democratic Party, as evidenced by, well, the party’s entire platform. By contrast, hyperbolic conservative activists exert a LOT of influence on the Republican Party, and boy do they like to equate Obama to Hitler. Beyond the super-rich doing it, grassroots conservative activists — especially the various factions of foaming-at-the-mouth goobers in the Tea Party — just love to claim that, “the comparison between Hitler and Obama is striking.” Other Tea Party groups have carried signs with Obama sporting the infamous Hitler ‘stash, because Obama is just like Hitler, of course.

Nazi references run rampant in American politics, and they’re a particularly favored target by those on the Right who want to tie all political threats to the supposed re-emergence of the Third Reich. But when Americans call someone Hitler, or invoke Nazism in general, they aren’t concerned with making any actual, historical connections; rather, Nazi comparisons serve as an all-purpose-catch-all for invocations of current or impending evils. When Americans call their political opponents Nazis, they’re using Nazism as a stand-in for generic evil, all of which the Third Reich represents in an easily recognizable package. Unmoored from its historical context as a sociopolitical movement that happened in mid-twentieth-century Germany, Nazism becomes a generic political boogeyman. In America, you call your political opponent a Nazi because you don’t want to address the actual substance of their ideas.

The United States' ownunique history of racialized nationalism and territorial expansion makes Nazi references deeply personal.

The United States’ own unique history of racialized nationalism and territorial expansion makes Nazi references deeply personal — and visceral.

So, yeah, Nazis are big in America. But the question remains: why Nazis? Why Hitler? After all, there have been plenty of really evil humans in the past and a good-many nasty political movements that Americans could reference as a political slur. Sure, for a while, Communism was big, and it wasn’t unheard of for conservatives to call anyone to the left of Ayn Rand or John Birch a commie pinko, but there just seems to be something about Hitler and his merry band of genocidal Übermenschen that jingles American political bells.

Nazi comparisons are potent in America because Nazism sheds light on the darkest aspects of modern nationalist culture and its accompanying characteristics of patriotism and group-think — characteristics from which Americans have not been immune. Nazism invokes, whether consciously or unconsciously, a shared cultural fear that recognizes the universal human capacity for evil while simultaneously trying to relegate that capacity to the past.

Let’s take a general view of the central tenants of Nazism. Above all, there was the idea of a unified, powerful nation-state underpinned by a core belief in Aryan racial superiority over all other supposedly “inferior” races. White supremacy led the Nazi-controlled German state to purge its population of Jews, homosexuals, eastern Europeans, Gypsies, and other groups whom the Nazis deemed of lesser value than supposed ethnic Teutons.

But the Third Reich didn’t stop at its own borders. The Nazis believed that a racially homogenous Germany had the right to forcefully expand and conquer the rest of Europe (and eventually, the world). The “superior” Aryan population — the Master Race — was destined to dominate over areas populated by racial inferiors. Indeed, among Nazism’s driving forces was its incessant militarism; its cultural belief that war and violence could purge the world of “undesirables” and claim Germany’s rightful place as the supreme ruler of humanity. This potent combination of militarism and white racial supremacy eventually resulted in the Holocaust, during which 6 million European Jews were summarily exterminated in what remains the worst instance of “ethnic cleansing” in modern history.

Of course, the long arc of U.S. history also involves its own themes of white supremacy, the vast territorial expansion of an increasingly powerful nation-state, and the violent conquest and subjugation of non-white peoples. The near two-centuries long forced removal and relocation of Native Americans onto federally designated and administered reservations was the most significant legacy of an American ideology of white supremacy merged with a Manifest Destiny to expand the (white) American empire from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

While there is heated debate among historians over whether the American treatment of its native peoples constituted a genocide, there is no disputing that Indian Removal was born of white supremacist nationalism. President Andrew Jackson, who signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, spoke for millions of (though not all) white Americans in his famous speech to Congress in which he outlined how removing Indians would “place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters.” For Jackson, and for many Americans in the nineteenth century, “the waves of [white] population and civilization” were “rolling to the westward,” and “the benevolent policy of the Government…in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements” would soon come to “a happy consummation.”

Although genocide wasn’t the goal of American Indian Removal, the results where nonetheless violent and tragic. Hundreds-of-thousands of Indians died from exposure, starvation, and from outright warfare with the United States government. This mass death and relocation took place in the name of a racially unified, expansionist American nation-state. In the words of nineteenth century journalist John O’Sullivan, “we are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march? Providence is with us, and no earthly power can.” Among those earthly powers who couldn’t stop this “human progress” were America’s native peoples.

The United States also displayed its racialized nationalism via the enslavement of millions of African-Americans and the continued relegation of blacks to second-class citizenship for decades after slavery’s demise. The notion of a white “master race” who ruled over an inferior black slave race was codified at the highest levels of American government and embraced on an intimate, social level in the South. Even in the regions where slavery was illegal, white supremacy was a potent cultural force, and it remained so well-after the Civil War and into the twentieth century. During the Second World War, for example, critics as diverse as the NAACP and the Axis Powers pointed out the hypocrisy of an American nation that fought for freedom against the dictatorships while still maintaining a segregated armed forces and a system of domestic racial apartheid.

The U.S. has its own issues with race, but dang-nabbit, we still kicked Hitler's Teutonic ass.

The U.S. has had its own issues with race, but dang-nabbit, we still kicked Hitler’s Teutonic ass.

Americans with even a basic grasp of history understand how ugly shades of racial subjugation and expansionist nationalism influenced their own past. Some choose to look at history as, in part, an abject lesson in the human capacity for evil: even those who purport to represent freedom can fall prey to the darkest of human impulses that lead to violence and domination. For other Americans, however, the fact that some of Nazism’s ideological underpinnings have also influenced U.S. history leads them to embrace denial and oversimplification. For them, Nazism was evil incarnate, therefore, it is the antithesis of all-things America, as are their political opponents.

On the one hand, the continued use of Nazi comparisons in U.S. politics does highlight the American ability to (eventually) overcome the worst political ideas that the world has to offer. We know that the Nazis were bad and we don’t ever want to become just like them. The U.S. of the past was a white supremacist nation bent on, at times, violent national expansion, but it never became the kind of totalitarian one-party state that defined the European fascist powers. Heck, the United States fought — and won — a war against fascism even as it continued to struggle with the legacy of its own past, in which racism had a profound influence. Many Americans are aware of the uglier aspects of their history, and they want to continue to move beyond it, and that’s a good thing.

But while the presence of Nazis as all-encompassing political boogeymen in U.S. politics might serve as a useful reminder of the benefits of American freedom, more often than not, such comparisons are reduced to pointless, hyperbolic fear-mongering. So what’s say we lay off the Nazi comparisons. Barack Obama is not Hitler. George W. Bush is not Hitler. Only Hitler was Hitler. The sooner Americans recognize these points, the sooner they can reconcile the best and worst aspects of their own history and move forward to create a better (and fascist-free!) future.

The Border Children Crisis and Manifest Destiny’s Return

Protestors in California want refugee kids sent back ti Latin America. Because human beings are just mail packages that you can send back within thirty days.

Protesters in California want refugee kids sent back to Latin America. Because human beings are just like brown mail packages that you can return within thirty days.

Ah, Latin America. It’s a vast, culturally diffuse part of the world with a rich, complicated history that has involved hundreds of ethnic-groups from an incredibly diverse swath of ancestries and experiences. Moreover, Latin America’s political history shares many similarities with that of the United States, as our neighbors to the south also shook off the shackles of European colonialism during the great Age of Revolution.

But most Americans — especially that know-nothing contingent of reactionary Bubbas that we affectionately call “Wingnuts” — don’t know much of anything about Latin America’s rich history. What they DO know is that Latin America is that place where people play soccer and Fidel Castro plots against freedom. It’s also the place where American college kids and mid-life-crisis wracked adults go to get sh*tfaced off of Sammy Hagar tequila while holding wet t-shirt contests on a beach. But, most importantly, Latin America is where all of those illegal, Spanish-speaking, drug-muling, job-taking brown people come from. That’s right: when many Americans talk “immigration” these days, what they’re focusing on is how to keep the Messicans’ and other Hispanics from crossing America’s sacred, freedom-filled borders. Indeed, in the eyes of the Tea Party, the only good kind of “run for the border” is a late-night Taco Bell binge.

Despite it’s obvious history as a “nation of immigrants,” white Americans have never been particularly thrilled about the idea of Spanish-speaking folks seeking refuge among America’s amber waves of grain. This fact is on full display in the current Border Children crisis in California, Arizona, and Texas.

As Salon’s Joan Walsh reports, self-appointed wingnut border patrols have gathered in places like Murrieta, California and Oracle, Arizona to stop busloads of unaccompanied children from Central American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala from seeking asylum in America. For wingnuts, the crisis of 52,000 Central American kids fleeing to the United States is yet another chapter in the long struggle to prevent brown Hispanics from polluting white American soil with their illegal Hispanic-ness. Geriatric wingnut leader Robert Skiba said as much when he told right-wing internet cesspool Breitbart.com that, “we’ve got to wake people in America up…This is our country. We’re just average people. [But] we’re not going to let them shove this down our throats.”

Of course, the “this” that Skiba doesn’t want shoved down his throat are, in fact, human beings — specifically children fleeing murder, rape, and horrendous gang violence in Central America. In two harrowing reports for the New York Times, reporters Frances Robles and Sonia Nazario have detailed the horrific humanitarian crisis in Latin America that is sending unaccompanied kids to the U.S. border. Gang violence in countries like Honduras has resulted in the torture, rape, and murder of dozens of children — some as young as 7 — and thousands are now fleeing or being sent to the U.S. by their parents to avoid the terrors in the home countries. Gangs are roaming Central America with increasing impunity, and they are giving children a choice between recruitment or death.

The clothes of a 7-year old boy murdered by gangs in Honduras.  Photo by Meridith Kohut, New York Times

The clothes of a 7-year old boy murdered by gangs in Honduras. Photo by Meridith Kohut, New York Times.

The violence in Latin American countries has, in large part, been an offshoot of the brutal drug wars that are fueled by America’s inexhaustible appetite for illegal narcotics. You, dear readers, owe it to yourselves to read both Robles’ and Nazario’s Times reports in full to better understand why so many kids are seeking refugee status in the U.S. But for the rest of this post, I want to focus on the cultural force that is driving American right-wing opposition to the border children: the return of the nineteenth century concept of Manifest Destiny.

I discussed Manifest Destiny in an earlier post in terms of how it helped create America’s absurd gun culture, but let’s reiterate a bit. “Manifest Destiny” was a term coined in 1845 by journalist John O’Sullivan that described America’s inherent, God-given right to conquer all territories and cultures from sea to shining sea. But the idea of “Manifest Destiny” existed long before O’Sullivan coined the phrase— it was the ideological centerpiece of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy, for example — and it has never entirely gone away from American discourse over what constitutes American citizenship. In effect, “Manifest Destiny” was the nineteenth century version of “American Exceptionalism.”

Manifest Destiny contains a distinct racial component that has always cast the U.S. as a nation dominated by white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. In the decades following the Civil War, other, previously excluded white Americans like Irish Catholics were gradually granted admittance into exclusive club of white cultural dominance. But other groups, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, have traditionally been denied the right to participate in the Manifest Destiny that has deemed the United States to be a white man’s country. It is this idea — that America has been, and should continue to be, a country for whites to control — that animates current right-wing opposition to the border children.

Historian Reginald Horsman outlined this concept in his classic 1981 study, Race and Manifest Destiny: Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. By the mid-nineteenth century, Horsman writes, the U.S. cultural emphasis was on “the American Anglo-Saxons as a separate, innately superior people who were destined to bring good government, commercial prosperity, and Christianity to the American continents and to the world.”* Thus, white Americans were “destined” to “manifest” their superiority everywhere they roamed. The phrase “Anglo-Saxon” is a now largely outdated term that was popularly used in nineteenth and early twentieth-century America “to describe the white people of the United States in contrast to blacks, Indians, Mexicans, Spaniards, or Asiatics.”*

JOhn Gast's famous 1872 painintg despicting "Manifest Destiny." Here' Lady Liberty can be seen trouncing mercilessly over Indians, Blacks, and Hispanics.

John Gast’s famous 1872 painting depicting American Progress via “Manifest Destiny.” Here, Lady Liberty can be seen trouncing mercilessly over Indians, Blacks, and Hispanics.

But while we might not use the phrase “Anglo-Saxon” much anymore, the idea that it supported — that white Americans alone were destined to be the only true U.S. citizens — still shapes white, conservative American opposition to Latin American “illegals.” As legal scholar Bill Ong Hing observes in his book Defining America Through Immigration Policy, “immigration policies are not simply reflections of whom we regard as potential Americans, they are vehicles for keeping out those who do not fit the image and welcoming those who do.”*

American conservatism, especially the Tea Party, anti-Latin American immigrant strain of conservatism that is trying to bar the Central American refugee children from entering the U.S., is a manifestation of what Ong Hing calls the reactionary “other America.” This America has remained “largely mired in a Eurocentric (originally western Eurocentric) vision of America that idealized the true American as white, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking, and Christian.”* It is this part of conservative America that still revels in their perceived “Manifest Destiny” to keep America white and free of the brown, Spanish-speaking menace that is constantly threatening to cross the U.S. border.

Make no mistake, folks: Manifest Destiny is alive and well in twenty-first century America. These days, we’re more prone to calling it “American Exceptionalism,” but the core feeling is still the same. It’s an ugly mix of provincial ignorance, cultural myopia, discredited racial theories, and an astounding lack of self-awareness that precludes so many people from recognizing that, unless they’re actual indigenous Native Americans, they too are immigrants. And unfortunately, thousands of children are paying the price for this old-time American ignorance, because if they’re sent back to Central America, they’ll likely end up in body bags. But hey, it’s a small price to pay for freedom, right?

* See Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 2, 5.

* See Bill Ong Hing, Defining America Through Immigration Policy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), 2, 5.

Darrell Issa and the Historical Shadow of the Gag Rule

Darrell Issa (R-CA) does NOT approve of you speaking like that!

You’re talking, my friend, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) is soooo not cool with that!

Poor Darrell Issa. For years, the hard-charging GOP Congress-critter has been on a Quixotic quest to destroy what he believes to be the multi-tentacled scandal beast at the heart of the Obama administration. Since his party of curmudgeonly gremlins took control of Congress back in 2010, the California representative has planted himself as the lead inquisitor-chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and over the last three years or so, he’s investigated everything from the alleged liberal causes of the 2008 financial crisis, to the supposed job-killing effects of government regulation, to the existence of Bigfoot.

Okay, I made that last one up, but suffice to say that Issa has made it his goal to find everything rotten in government and place the blame for that rot squarely on the shoulders of the Obama Administration. Indeed, the guy is so delusional that it’d be none-too-surprising if he concluded that Bigfoot was working as a secret environmental agent for liberal activist groups.

Issa’s been especially busy in 2014. His main concerns have been non-scandals like Benghazi, the supposed IRS effort to target conservative dark-money organizations who applied for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status (it turns out the agency also targeted left-wing groups too), and the so-called “Fast and Furious” scandal. The latter involved a scheme in which ATF agents tried to snare border gun runners who’ve been funneling firearms to Mexican drug cartels. This ill-conceived program was implemented by the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and while a host of problems plagued the effort, the Right’s favorite talking point – that Attorney General Eric Holder intentionally allowed guns to fall into cartel hands – has long been debunked.

But none of this matters to Darrell Issa, because he’s on a mission to bring the Obama Administration down for the crime of being (allegedly) liberal. And so this week Issa was still hammering away at the phony IRS scandal, trying to get IRS official Lois Lerner to answer questions about the agency’s supposed targeting of right-wing money groups. As TPM reports, when the hearing got heated, ranking committee member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) tried to argue that even after a multi-year investigation, the committee found no evidence of a political conspiracy at the IRS, though some mismanagement was identified. Issa, apparently perturbed by a Democrat voicing an opinion in a Congressional investigation, abruptly cut Cummings’ mic, after which Cummings accused Issa of disrespecting a fellow congressman and directing “a one-sided investigation.”

Although Issa eventually apologized to Cummings, the reaction to Issa’s cutting a Democratic colleague’s mic was swift and justifiably critical. Salon’s Joan Walsh called Issa’s behavior “Thuggish,” and concluded that “He’s [Issa] trying to shame the White House, and Cummings makes a great stand-in.” The New York Times’ David Firestone rightly notes that when Congressional minority members are silenced, “it makes the majority look like a bunch of insecure authoritarians.” It’s that whole “authoritarian” angle that made Issa’s behavior especially galling, particularly given the U.S. Congress’s history of authoritarian-style silencing of dissenting views that have ultimately turned out to be right on target. Issa’s move echoes back to one particularly onerous Congressional policy: the Gag Rule.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) will not be gagged by the GOP's own Don Quixote.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) will not be gagged by the GOP’s own Don Quixote.

In the mid to late 1830s, the abolitionist movement in the United States finally began to muster some political power after years of being relegated to fringe sects like the Quakers. And the anti-slavery agitators were up against a very real threat: the Slave Power. Thanks to the efforts of southern political power-players like President Andrew Jackson and his northern collaborator/lacky, New York’s Martin Van Buren, the Democratic Party in the mid-nineteenth century solidified itself around a commitment to pro-slavery ideals. Of course, slaveholders benefitted politically from a Congressional boost in representation guaranteed by the Constitution via the ownership of human property.

The Democrats at the time were especially effective, at least until about 1860, at maintaining party discipline (imagine that: the Democrats were once a disciplined political party!) with regards to supporting slavery. The two-thirds rule at Democratic National Conventions ensured that southern support was a prerequisite for receiving the party’s presidential nomination, and southern support meant supporting slavery. As historian Daniel Walker Howe notes in What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, his mammoth, but essential account of the Jacksonian Era, “in shaping the Democratic Party the way they did, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren forged the instrument that would transform the minority proslavery interest into a majority that would dominate American politics until 1861.”* A key component in maintaining a pro-slavery political majority was combating anti-slavery agitation, and that’s where the Gag Rule came in.

Initially, abolitionists tried to protest slavery by sending anti-slavery mailings directly to southern mailboxes via the postal system, but pro-slavery interests in Congress collaborated with the Postmaster General to ban the mass-mailing of all anti-slavery literature. Shut out of the post office, abolitionists turned to circulating mass anti-slavery petitions in Congress and urging for the open discussion of abolitionism within the House. In response, the Slave Power in Congress passed a series of so-called Gag Rules from 1836 to 1840 that blocked any and all congressional discussions of anti-slavery ideas in an effort to prevent abolitionists from influencing the public sentiment on slavery.

Among the most vociferous opponents of the Gag Rule was former president John Quincy Adams, who undermined the rule at every turn by defending abolitionists’ constitutional rights to petition Congress. Adams – who also coined the term “Gag” in reference to the banning of anti-slavery discussion – read petitions at the beginning of congressional sessions before the rules could be adopted, then forced a vote on the right to implement the Gag. Adams also made congressional committees do their jobs and thoroughly examine anti-slavery petitions in order to determine if the language therein qualified as Gag-worthy, thereby forcing discussion on a topic the Gag was supposed to silence entirely.

John Quincy Adams: propoent of both epic chops and petitioning Congress

John Quincy Adams: proponent of both epic chops and petitioning Congress.

The efforts of Adams – and thousands of anti-slavery petitioners – brought plenty of heat down on the congressional Slave Power, drawing boatloads of attention to the abolitionist cause. Much to southern Democrats’ dismay, the controversy over the Gag Rule brought extra attention to an issue that was supposed to be gagged, as more anti-slavery petitions bearing tens-of-thousands of signatures poured into Congress.* Indeed, the entire Gag Rule brouhaha reinforced a by-now old rule in American politics: when you try to suppress legitimate grievances in the name of political gain, you run the risk of empowering the very people you want to marginalize.

And thus we come back full-circle to Darrell Issa. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman not only tried to gag Elijah Cummings from speaking, he’s also tried to gag any and all information that might undermine his quest to tar the Obama Administration with scandal after scandal. Through his bone-headed actions, Issa is invoking an ugly authoritarian aspect of the Congressional past. By silencing Cummings, who is, of course, African-American, Issa provided the uncomfortable image of a white speaker silencing a black colleague in a manner that evoked a rule once used by white supremacists to silence discussion about ending black slavery in America. Having endured far-worse attempts to block black political participation, Cummings called out Issa’s shenanigans until the Republican chairman finally apologized.

The brief spat between Issa and Cummings speaks to larger issues of decorum and democracy in the chamber that’s supposed to most closely represent the interests of average Americans. The House of Representatives, like other institutions in the American system, has on occasion been captured by the thuggery of authoritarianism. Such incidents are ugly stains on the House and shouldn’t be repeated in any century. Darrell Issa is free to continue swinging his chairmanship at scandalous Democratic windmills, but he’d better not complain when someone like Cummings points out the loads of Republican malarkey that such bravado is trying to conceal.

* See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 512-515.

Big Government and Race: An American Saga

Tea Party protectors are part of a grand tradition in U.S. history, in which the prviledged complain about stuff.

Tea Party protesters are part of a grand tradition in U.S. history, in which privileged white people complain about stuff.

With the Republican Tea Party-backed congressional orcs continuing to lay siege to the Helm’s Deep of the federal government, there’s been a lot of discussion of late, especially by Salon’s Joan Walsh and Think Progress’ Zack Beauchamp, about how deeply entrenched issues of racial resentment are at the heart of the government shutdown. Both point to the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” that for several decades now has effectively convinced insecure white people that “Big Government,” steered by the Democrats, will redistribute state-supported goodies like tax benefits and welfare from the truly deserving ivory nobles to the allegedly mooching dusky rabble.

As I noted in a previous post, there’s a whole lot of truth to Walsh and Beauchamp’s points. Over at the Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore cites recent focus group studies by Stanley Greenberg of Tea Party supporters to frame the current shutdown over Obamacare as the logical end-point of a conservative ideology driven in large part by fear of redistributive government policies. As Kilgore notes, Greenberg’s study concluded that:

[The argument against Obamacare that] is the most important and elicits the most passions among Evangelicals and Tea Party Republicans—that big government is meant to create rights and dependency and electoral support from mostly minorities who will reward the Democratic Party with their votes. The Democratic Party exists to create programs and dependency—the food stamp hammock, entitlements, the 47 percent.

Greenberg’s Republican Tea Partiers are terrified that black and brown minorities, whom they view as undeserving, will use “Big Government” to take from the deserving (read: whites). Don Swift of the Rag Blog echoed this argument during the 2012 presidential election, linking Tea Party nutbaggery to what the historian Richard Hofstadter termed “the paranoid style in American politics,” in which self-described white “Real Americans” freak out over the thought of variously defined foreign elements taking what they perceive as rightfully theirs. The benefits up for grabs have ranged from tax breaks to suffrage, but the sentiment of “I earned it, you’re taking it” remains the same.

Swift sees the Tea Party, the current vice around the quivering gonads of the congressional Republican caucus, as part of a long streak of fringe, right-wing weirdo groups in U.S. history that also includes the John Birch Society and various Militia movements. These groups, Swift notes, “react against change,” and “they see the government as an agent of unwanted change and they set out to disrupt and replace it.”

The Tea Party is indeed radical, and nuttier than a Planter’s factory, but on thing they are not is fringe. Lest you need reminded of Tea Party conservatism’s political legitimacy, I point to Exhibit A: the Republican Party. There’s a bunch of historical factors that led up to the Tea Party movement, but the most significant of those factors is the resiliency of anti “Big Government” sentiment in American history.

Americans have always had a complicated relationship with government power. Often they have been, and continue to be, justifiably sceptical of it, but just as frequently, Americans of various stripes have embraced “Big Government” when it ensured that state power would be used to benefit white Americans at the expense of non-white minorities. This was especially true in the 19th century with regards to Native Americans and African-Americans. By contrast, when whites have perceived that state benefits would flow to non-whites, they have tended to rail against “Big Government” as the agent of tyranny. Thus, American fears of “Big Government” have been historically intertwined with racial prejudice, the Tea Party being only the most recent example.

Far from being a fringe idea, anti “Big-Government” paranoia is a deeply influential, deeply American cultural sentiment, with roots in the 19th century and wrapped in historical cloaks of hypocrisy and status anxiety. Its staying power attests to its long tradition.

A few glaring examples of this phenomenon should suffice. Take one of the most odious instances of racial injustice of the 19th century: the removal of Native Americans from the southeast in the 1830s. The policy of Indian Removal had its greatest champion in one the towering figures of limited government: President Andrew Jackson. For the most part, Jackson favored laissez-faire economics, states’ rights over federal power, opposed a national bank, and mouthed a general distrust of a government monopoly by “elites.” But, like nearly all Americans of his time, Jackson also believed in white cultural and racial superiority, and was willing to use federal power to enforce those beliefs.

The Trail of Tears: Big government in the service of white Americans.

The Trail of Tears: Big government in the service of white Americans.

In the 1820s and 30s, the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes,” the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creeks, Chickasaw, and Seminoles still lived on the lands of the Old Southwest (GA, AL, MS, LA, AK) that had been guaranteed by federal treaties which (ostensibly) recognized Indians as sovereign people. White Americans in these southern states, however, regarded “savage” Indians as barriers to white settlement and economic gain, and resented federal Indian policy as an affront to white democracy and states’ rights. Whites, especially in Georgia, complained that the federal government lacked the authority to recognize sovereign peoples within states and demanded that it kick the Indians out.

When the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, upheld Indians’ rights to occupy southern lands and denied the states’ rights to kick them out, President Andrew Jackson defied the court’s orders, supposedly sneering, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!” Jackson thus emerged as the champion of white grievances. After signing the Indian Removal Act of 1830 into law, he ordered the “savage” tribes to remove to Oklahoma, threatening to use Federal power in the form of the U.S. army if they refused to voluntarily relocate. The tragic “Trail of Tears” is Jackson’s legacy.

In one of those great and shameless historical ironies, Jackson, the small government proponent, used big government to enforce the racial and economic whims of states’ rights favoring white southern Americans, who were all too happy rely on federal power to open up lands for white settlement.

White southern Americans, erstwhile supporters of “Big Government” when it was used to their advantage against “savage,” non-white Indian “others,” nonetheless threw the biggest political fit in U.S. history when, in 1860, it appeared that Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party would gain control of the federal government and use it to force the emancipation of slaves and subsequent “negro equality” on the helpless white South. To prevent this impending doom, white southern secessionists decided that “Big Government” was now the enemy, and leaned on states’ rights as the last buffer against Lincoln’s coming tyranny.

The Deep South states of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama were the first to secede from the Union in 1860-61. In an effort to convince other slaveholding southern states like Virginia, Kentucky, and Georgia to follow their lead, the already seceded states sent secession commissioners out to convince the rest of the Slave South to join the southern Confederacy. Historian Charles Dew documents the secession commissioners’ work in his stellar book, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.

South Carolina's Secession Commissioner to the State of Georgia, helped framed "Big Government" as the diabolical agent of "negro equality."

James Orr, South Carolina’s Secession Commissioner to the State of Georgia, helped framed “Big Government” as the diabolical agent of “negro equality.”

The secession commissioners gave mind-blowingly racist speeches to convince white southern good ole’ boys that the Republican Party would use the government to enforce black whims as whites’ expense. Take the following lines from a December 17, 1860 speech delivered in Georgia by Mississippi commissioner William Harris. “Our fathers made this government for the white man, rejecting the negro, as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race,” Harris stated. “This new [Lincoln] administration comes into power, under the solemn pledge to overturn and strike down this great feature of our Union…and to substitute in its stead their new theory of the universal equality of the black and white races.”*

A December 27, 1860 letter written by Alabama commissioner Stephen Hale to Kentucky governor Beriah Magoffin framed a Republican domination of government in equally apocalyptic racial terms. “If the policy of the Republicans is carried out,” Hale warned, “the slave-holder  and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate; all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes…stripped…of that title to superiority over the black race.*

Its nary much of stretch to compare the rhetoric of the 19th century secession commissioners, who warned that the Republican Party would use its control over the federal government to force “negro equality” on the beleaguered white South, to that of contemporary Tea Party Republicans, who warn that the Democratic Party will take money from hard-working (read: white) Americans and give it to undeserving, shiftless black and Latino minorities. It’s no coincidence that the Tea Party draws most of its strength from the old Southern Confederacy; like the southern secessionists, they fear that state benefits will be transferred from “us” to “them.”

The circumstances have changed, but the broader sentiments remain: “Big Government” is fine when it gives land to white settlers, enforces white racial superiority, and gives “earned” benefits like Medicare and Social Security to whites. But its tyrannical when it threatens to recognize Indians’ rights, mess with slavery, or extend state benefits like Obamacare to lazy racial “others.”

This is why, as CBS news’ Timothy Noah reported last year, Tea Partiers supported arch Ayn Rand drone Paul Ryan (R-WI), despite his plans to destroy Medicare and Social Security: because 70-75% of them are AARP eligible. The Tea Party geriatrics, Noah writes, “are against government benefits for other people,” but rely on anti-government rhetoric  to “convince themselves that Medicare and Social Security benefits are different because they’ve already paid for them through payroll taxes (when in fact beneficiaries take out far more than they put in; that’s why both programs need periodic adjustments).”

By supporting “Big Government” for themselves while denying it to “others,” Tea Party Republicans are continuing a long, mainstream American tradition in which views about state power have been highly contingent on who draws the benefits of state power. As the ruling demographic majority during the United States’ entire existence, white people have been able to walk a hypocritical line, embracing state power in the name of caucasian rights while rejecting the federal government as tyrannical and antithetical to states’ rights when it threatens to serve Indians, Blacks, and Latinos.  But don’t accuse conservative white America of hypocrisy in this matter because…FREEDOM!

* Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 85, 98-99.

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.