Tag Archives: Conservatisim

Obamacare and the American Cult of Individualism

South Carolina resident Luis Lang is the classic example of the perils of taking ideology too far.

South Carolina resident Luis Lang is the classic example of the perils of taking ideology too far.

Few things in this world are more dangerous than the true believer. If you’re thoroughly convinced that the world should be ordered in accordance with your predetermined ideology, then reality can slap you until your mug is redder than a beefsteak tomato at Uncle Bernie’s Memorial Day cookout and you still won’t change your mind. But every once in a while, the true believer is faced with the ultimate test of his belief: believe or die, or at least believe or get horribly maimed. In some of these instances, the true believer must open his maw wide and swallow that quarter-inch-wide, grainy pill known as pride without so much as a sip of water until that pill tumbles down his gullet and activates his gut’s underutilized reality-check nerve.

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Confederate Echoes: The Ugly History Behind Questioning Obama’s Patriotism

Former Republican Mayor of New York City thinks that there colored boy is only three-fifths "Murican.

Rudy Giuliani, the Former Republican Mayor of New York City, apparently thinks that thar colored boy don’t love ‘Murica.

Remember when everyone liked Rudolph Giuliani? The former “Mayor of the World” was, after all, Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Yeah, I remember that too. But Giuliani is also a right-wing dunce.

Case in point: he recently stirred the endlessly bubbling American political chamber pot when, at a private gathering of like-minded conservative Oompa Loompas held for Wisconsin Koch Brothers organ-grinder monkey Scott Walker, he questioned President Barack Obama’s patriotism. “I do not believe that the president loves America,” Giuliani babbled, “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.” Translation: Obama’s black different; we’re not; Anti-Americanism follows. But questioning a political rival’s love of country is an old American political tactic, and it hasn’t gotten any less vile over time.  Continue reading

Ferguson and the Lingering “Floating Negro” Syndrome in America

Protestoers in Ferguson, Missouri hold up their hands and chant "Don't Shoot!"To much of white America, they're just some good ole' fashioned dangerous negroes. Photo by Lucas Jackson for Reuters.

Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri hold up their hands and chant “Don’t Shoot!” In the eyes of many white Americans, they’re just some good ole’ fashioned dangerous negroes. Photo by Lucas Jackson for Reuters.

In America, nothing is ever about race, except when it’s about race. You see, Americans have this little problem about race and historical perspective: since day-one, we’ve been wrestling over the so obvious-it’s-not-obvious paradox that stems from one of our most cherished documents proclaiming that “All Men are Created Equal” in a society where this has patently not been the case. The fact that the guy who wrote those inspiring words was a slave-owning, black concubine-schtupping product of imperialist era racialized thinking — in addition to being a brilliant statesman and enlightened political theorist — perfectly captures the mind-bending level of irony that stands at the heart of America’s experience when it comes to race. For over 2oo years, Americans have been alternating between grasping the wolf of slavery by the Ears and letting the beast go — and then trying to deal with the entailing racial consequences.

Such is the historical legacy on full display in Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the August 9 shooting of eighteen year-old, unarmed black man Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson. That’s right, it matters that Brown was Black and Wilson is white. I already wrote a probably brilliant post on the Ferguson shooting, but the whole case demands an even more probably brilliant post! If you don’t think that race matters in the Ferguson case, allow me to learn ya’ a thing-or-two about why being a black person in America carries the unfortunate connotation of criminality.

What we’ve seen in Ferguson — the protests, the white police clashing with black residents, the typical claims by right-wing media outlets that “It’s not about Race!” — all invoke a historical legacy planted in American slavery and harvested during Jim Crow that identified the so-called “floating negro” as the prototypical American criminal. But before we discuss the “floating negro” syndrome, let’s briefly remind ourselves why race matters when it comes to broadly discussing crime in America — and the Ferguson case in particular. Consider, as Talking Points Memo reports, how the more scuzzy elements of the right-wing moron-o-sphere have effectively tried to legitimize Brown’s killing by tarring him as an “n-word” “negro,” “thug.”

For example, the website of noted conservative douche-canoe, David Horowitz, notes that Brown liked rap music (a black guy that likes rap music, will the shocking revelations ever cease!), that Brown was shown flashing hand-gestures that “some say are gang-signs,” and that he allegedly swiped some cheap cigars as depicted on a quick-e-mart’s security video. Plus, Brown was black. In a similar vein, the conspiracy nut-factory Worldnet Daily claims that Brown was a pot-smoker who rapped about pot-smoking, and, therefore, deserved to die. Because only black people smoke weed. And Brown was black. And that’s the real point here. Thus, when the New York Times claimed that Brown was “no angel,” that claim ignited some major controversy because the Times seemed to somehow suggest that Brown deserved to be shot dead because he was already a bit of a bad (black) seed.

But the point here isn’t that black people aren’t, and can’t be, criminals. Of course they can, and of course some of them are. No, the point is that, in American culture, blackness is automatically associated with criminality and deviance in a way that has never been the case with whiteness. To be white in America is to be American by default, but to be black in America is to be, by default, a potential criminal. What conservative media outlets — and a good chunk of white America — are harping on is the notion that Brown deserved to die because he was probably a criminal. And he was probably a criminal because he was black. But this isn’t a “natural,” “foregone” conclusion; rather, it’s a conclusion woven out of very potent historical threads that, when knitted together, created a cultural meme that associated blackness with deviance and justified constant white control over supposed black criminality.

In the antebellum South, slavery wasn’t just an economic system, it was also a system of racial control that gave whites total domestic, social, and political power over blacks. But what about when the Civil War ended slavery? How did whites scheme to control blacks then? The answer eventually coalesced under the banner of Jim Crow, a system of white hegemony over black human rights that created a nation-wide racial apartheid that was strongest in the South, where the legacy of slavery especially poisoned black-white social relations.

Officer Darren Wilson (left) the cop who shot Mike Brown (right). And so, the American racial saga continues.

Officer Darren Wilson (left) the cop who shot Mike Brown (right). And so, the American racial saga continues.

The most dangerous form of racial control in the Jim Crow South came in the form of lynching: an extra-legal form of law enforcement. And what so-often justified this form of illegal rough justice, you may ask? The answer was pretty straightforward: blacks were criminals who needed to be controlled and punished — especially when the law failed to do just that. Lynching, then, was law-enforcement by mob-rule. This brings us now to the “floating negro” syndrome.

Early twentieth-century muckraking journalist Ray Stannard Baker coined the phrase “floating negro” in his 1905 report “What is Lynching?” Baker wanted to understand how seemingly normal, small-town Americans could be responsible for the horrors of lynching, in which blacks were tortured, hanged, mutilated, and even burned alive. Now, Baker was, in many ways, a progressive-minded social-reformer whose heart was often in the right place. But he was also a man of his time who harboured some of the same (albeit water-down) notions of black inferiority that more avowed racists wore on their sleeves. Thus, while Baker was against lynching, his explanation for why it happened rested on the kind of racially based, “blame the victim” mentality that continues to influence public debate over contemporary cases like the Ferguson shooting.

In particular, Baker identified the “Danger from the Floating Negro” as the primary explanation for why lynchings occurred:

In all the towns I visited, South as well as North, I found that this floating, worthless negro caused most of the trouble. He prowls the roads by day and by night; he steals; he makes it unsafe for women to travel alone. Sometimes he has gone to school long enough to enable him to read a little and to write his name, enough education to make him hate the hard work of the fields and aspire to better things, without giving him the determination to earn them.*

In Baker’s estimation, these violence-prone, poorly educated, sexually lascivious, lazy negroes floated aimlessly across the white American landscape, driven by little more than malice in their hearts toward the caucasian devils who kept them down. No wonder lynchings occurred. According to Baker, rough justice was the natural — if sometimes brutal — white response to a very real danger: the danger that one of these ill-tempered blacks might float into their towns and wreck criminal havoc before moving on to their next sight of debauchery:

He [the floating negro] is often under the domination of half-educated negro preachers, who sometimes make it their stock in trade to stir their followers to greater hatred of the whites. He has little or no regard for the family relations or home life, and when he commits a crime or is tired of one locality, he sets out un-encumbered to seek new fields, leaving his wife and children without the slightest compunction.*

Now, if you’ve been paying any attention to the media coverage of the Ferguson shooting, you should recognize some of the same themes as noted in Baker’s report. Mike Brown wasn’t lynched in the traditional sense, but he did feel the same brunt of racially motivated justice that fueled both the legal and extra-legal application of the law for much of U.S. history.

The floating negro who is “under the domination of half-educated negro preachers, who sometimes make it their stock in trade to stir their followers to greater hatred of the whites?” Enter the far-right publication the New American, which launched a standard conservative criticism of black preachers like Rev. Al Sharpton, whom it called a “notorious racist agitator” who went to Ferguson “to add his own incendiary remarks to the volatile mix.” A “worthless negro” who “steals” and “prowls the roads by day and by night?” Enter John Lott of the right-wing Daily Caller, who claims that “Michael Brown looks more like a thug, not an innocent victim.” And while Lott acknowledges that, “Black pepole [sic] have legitimate historical grievances over how they have been treated by police,” he ultimately asserts that “the main problem facing the black community is black-on-black crime.”

Ray Stannard Baker, the journalist who identified the "floating negro" as the cause of white-on-black violence.i

Ray Stannard Baker, the journalist who identified the “floating negro” as the cause of Jim Crow-era white-on-black violence.

It really doesn’t matter if any of the above criticisms of the shooting of Michael Brown stem from any inherent racist attitudes. As sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva notes in his book, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, white people in America often claim that race, as an issue, should be relegated to the past. “Most whites believe that if blacks and other minorities would just stop thinking about the past, work hard, and complain less (particularly about racial discrimination), then Americans of all hues could ‘all get along,’ he writes”*

But Bonilla-Silva argues that it just ain’t that simple. Many whites have adopted “color-blind racism” that justifies modern racial inequality and absolves them from “any responsibility for the status of people of color.”* Color-blind racism is the kind of “soft racism” that fuels discriminatory housing, school, and employment policies. It also drives political gerrymandering schemes and voter ID laws that disproportionately affect blacks. Indeed, color-blind racism “aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those who it subjects and those who it rewards.”*

Color-blind racism is deeply paternalistic, and it’s just this type of paternalistic racism that influenced Baker’s concept of the “floating negro” that still resonates in contemporary American society. Heck, it’s quite easy to imagine a Ferguson police officer bathed in the culture of racial-profiling who perceived Mike Brown and a friend as two up-to-no-good negroes “floating” down a Ferguson street. Officer Darren Wilson need not be a hood-donning racist to be affected by the cultural meme of the dangerous floating negro — he wouldn’t even be unique in that respect.

Yet, even if this wasn’t the case (since the facts are not all in on the Brown shooting), the local and national reaction to the Brown shooting reveals deeply entrenched racial divides that, in many respects, hinge on where different Americans stand on the perceived danger of Ray Stannard Baker’s “floating negro.” As long as whites continue to believe that blackness equates to criminality while refusing to understand how historical trends came together to create the “color-blind racism” that supports such a belief, more blacks will be shot, more whites will deny the existence of racism, and America will continue to alternate between holding the wolf’s ears and letting them go. Either way, we’ll keep getting bitten.

* See Christopher Waldrep, ed., Lynching in America: A History in Documents (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 186.

* See Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 1, 2, 4.

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to the Republican Party.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Nation-Building and the Endless Fight in Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Some Americans Just Can’t Handle the Truth About Slavery

A slave market in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864. The right to commodify  human beings is something Americans defended for generations. Deal with it.

A slave market in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864. The right to commodify human beings is something Americans defended for generations. Deal with it.

Americans like to think of themselves as exceptional people. As the world’s dominant economic and cultural power for much of the last century, they tend to puff their chests and proclaim that, “We’re the best! Look at our wealth! Look at our military power! There are McDonalds restaurants in China!” But for all of America’s power, the idea of American Exceptionalism wouldn’t hold as much appeal if it wasn’t backed by a clear belief in American moral superiority. After all, plenty of civilizations have dominated the world in the past, but a key component to American Exceptionalism is the idea that, unlike those past powers, the U.S. achieved peaceful world domination via the exportation of freedom, democracy, and capitalism – not necessarily in that order.

No matter that the idea of a benign American Exceptionalism is patently untrue; what matters is that people believe it to be true, and this belief influences their interpretations of the American past. This is especially true of conservatives, particularly some fuzzy little libertarians who are always insisting that if we only found that pot of free market gold at the end of Ayn Rand’s rainbow, the U.S. would be a perfect society. Because humans are such rational actors that we’d never do anything to pull the rug out from under the glorious market utopia we work so hard to construct. But I digress.

Among those many libertarian leprechaun chasers is Fox News turnip Andrew Napolitano. In a recent segment, the judge and legal analyst got all hot-and-bothered over the Civil War. You see, Napolitano thinks that Abraham Lincoln was America’s “first dictator” and that the Civil War was unnecessary. In a recent segment for Fox News squawkfest “The Independents,” the self-proclaimed Lincoln “contrarian” employed a series of bogus arguments, which historians debunked about 50 years ago, to claim that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. The judge’s  statements are worth quoting in full so you can fully grasp the epic stupidity contained therein:

At the time that he [Lincoln] was the president of the United States, slavery was dying a natural death all over the Western world. It had just been expired by legislation in England. It had just died a natural death; that is, it was no longer economically feasible in Puerto Rico and Brazil, and the southern plantation owners were on the cusp of it dying here. Instead offer allowing it to die, or helping it to die, or even purchasing the slaves and then freeing them — which would have cost a lot less money than the Civil War cost — Lincoln set about on the most murderous war in American history.

Napolitano then dropped this mind-blowing piece of nonsense:

Look, it’s not even altogether clear if slavery was the reason for secession. Largely, the impetus for secession was tariffs!

Now, I could go on and on about the many falsehoods Napolitano packed into a few short statements, but much of what the judge said has already been brilliantly ripped apart in a segment by the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which you absolutely must watch (Canadian readers can view the Daily Show segment here). Instead, allow me to focus on his contentions that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery, his idiotic claim that slavery would have died a “natural death,” and how a belief in American Exceptionalism demonstrates why folks like Napolitano can’t handle the truth human bondage.

Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano has never actually been right about anything.

Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano has never actually been right about anything.

First off, let me put it as plainly as I can: the Civil War was about slavery. One-hundred percent about slavery. You got that? Every other issue that arose during the build-up to the war was also directly related to slavery. Oh, but what about “State’s Rights?” you may ask. Let me be clear on this as well: humans don’t go to war over abstract concepts alone. These concepts need to be reflected in real-world, day-to-day issues. Thus, when southerners complained about “State’s Rights,” they referred to state’s rights to own slaves; rights they believed would be taken away by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party.

I’ve discussed the southern states’ Declarations of the Causes of Secession in previous posts (which you can read here and here), but allow me to once again provide some choice quotes from these documents that were written by the seceding states explicitly for the purpose of explaining to the world that they seceded over the right to own slaves and perpetuate slavery.

Mississippi stated that, “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” Texas boldly claimed in a very Texas-y way that, “the controlling majority of the Federal Government” was bent on “acquiring sufficient power…to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slaveholding States.” Georgia likewise noted that the South held “numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.” And good ole’ South Carolina whined that the northern states “have united in the election of a man [Lincoln] to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Unlike modern-day Libertarians, Confederates in 1860-61 weren’t shy about admitting that the South seceded to protect the “peculiar institution.” Seriously. Go read the whole documents at the links. Slavery was a big thing.

So why, if the historical evidence is overwhelming that the Civil War was fought over slavery (just check any scholarly book on the Civil War written in the last half-century) do people like Napolitano claim that slavery wasn’t the cause of the conflict and that it would have died out were it not for the meddling of Dishonest Abe? The answer lies in a discomforting fact: slavery was a deeply American institution that flourished because of – not despite – American values.

This is where American Exceptionalism makes some people want to ignore the uglier aspects of U.S. history. If you believe, as Peter Beinart of the National Journal writes, “that America departs from the established way of doing things, that it’s an exception to the global rule,” then something as un-freedom-like as slavery can be pretty hard to accept. Of course, it seems that slavery is antithetical to American values. Doesn’t the Declaration of Independence say that “All men are created equal”? Isn’t slavery the very antithesis of freedom, which is the most cherished of all American ideals? The answer to both of those questions is “yes,” but with some very essential qualifications.

The Declaration of Independence is a statement of values and intent, not a binding legal document. The Constitution, by contrast, is the binding legal document in America, and for 78 years it stated that holding slaves was perfectly legal. The Constitution made slavery legal because the southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention argued that outlawing slavery was an attack on their property rights. You see, whenever you discuss freedom, you have to consider what “freedom” actually means. “Freedom” as a concept always has qualifications (freedom for whom? freedom to do what?), and when the U.S. embraced an ideal of freedom that was intrinsically bound up with the Lockean emphasis on private property rights, that property included human beings.

These individuals, known as "Tariffs," were so important to the South that it waged a bloody war to protect them.

These individuals, known as “Tariffs,” were so important to the South that it waged a bloody war to protect them.

For better and for worse, Americans have always linked capitalism to their interpretation of freedom. Simply put, capitalism is an American value. The right to free exchange of goods and services in an open, competitive marketplace has always been essential to American identity. Capitalism, however, is also distinctly amoral: its has no intrinsic values of its own, and its consistent need to commodify everything leads it to reduce human interactions to an endless series of monetary exchanges. Capitalism, like any other human-devised system, can be used for good or bad. Yet its tendency towards unequal wealth concentration, and the way it bequeaths political power to those it enriches, is precisely why slavery flourished in America, and why those who benefitted the most from slavery fought so hard to preserve it.

If you reason, as the did the slaveholders (and most Americans, for that matter), that freedom cannot exist without property rights, then you’ll understand why the Confederate States of America existed and why some people still have a hard time accepting that hundreds-of-thousands of Americans fought for the freedom to deny freedom to others. Among the many dangers of equating capitalism with freedom is that doing so risks valuing the right to market exchange over the right to human flourishing. Slavery was first-and-foremost an economic institution that existed because Americans believed that the right to buy, sell, and own property extended to the buying, selling, and owning of other humans. For pro-slavery Americans, this right trumped African-Americans’ right to flourish as free individuals. So valued was the trade in black bodies that modern Americans often find it difficult to believe that a value they still hold dear – the right to market exchange – once underpinned slavery.

Furthermore, slavery was about more than just economics. Never underestimate the very real – and very dark – human desire for domination over others. Slavery was an economic system, but it was also a social institution that gave one group of people total legal power over another group. As historian Walter Johnson observes in his book Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, people’s’ identities “as masters and mistresses, planters and paternalists, hosts and hostesses, slave breakers and sexual predators were all lived through the bodies of people who could be bought and sold in the market.”*

Thus, while you can put a dollar value on slavery – the total value of southern slaves in 1860 was 3 billion, nearly equal to the combined value of all northern industry and railroads – you can’t put a dollar value on the appeal of domination.* Yes, slaves were property, but they also provided unlimited concubines for planter men and served as literal punching bags onto which plantation mistresses unleashed their frustrations over the existence of “mulatto” children that looked suspiciously like their husbands. Finally, even for common, non-slaveholding southern whites, the existence of black slaves provided comfort in the knowledge that even the poorest cracker was socially and economically superior to the lowly negro.

While slavery as an economic institution gave southern whites political power, it also gave them the power to absolutely dominate millions of people in the most intimate of personal spaces. Those given such power over others are seldom in a rush to give it up. This is why, Andrew Napolitano’s claims notwithstanding, slavery wouldn’t have died “a natural death:” too much of southern – and American – identity was bound up in human bondage. Such facts don’t fit the black and white moral framework of American Exceptionalism. Nonetheless, the things that many people believe make America exceptional: its commitment to market capitalism, its Constitution, and its love of freedom were all used to justify and uphold black slavery. Any reasonably intelligent and compassionate mind can recognize this fact. Andrew Napolitano and his ilk cannot.  

* See Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 16.

* See James L. Huston, Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 28-29.