Tag Archives: Corey Robin

Obamacare: The Ultimate American Wedge Issue

The pro and anti-Obamacare protesters at the the Supreme Court epitomize the ultimate divide in American politics.

Obamacare is dead; long live Obamacare. Or maybe not. Early in 2015, thanks to incessant conservative teeth gnashing, the Supreme Court will once again gird up its robe-covered loins to make a major ruling on Barack Obama’s signature law.

The plaintiffs in the upcoming King v. Burwell case claim that, according to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) statute, the IRS exceeded the limits of its regulatory powers by allowing for both state-run AND federal exchanges. It’s a classic right-wing “states’ rights” argument. 22 states have already balked on setting up exchanges, and conservatives are betting that weeding out the federal cash that’s picking up the slack in red states will undermine the entire structure of Obamacare. No matter that blocking federal subsidies could yank insurance coverage away from upwards of 11.8 million people: after all, are there no prisons, no poorhouses?! Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Triumph and Tragedy of American Whiteness

Angry white people protest school integration in Little |rock, Arkansas, 1959. That guy in the middle of the photo gets the award for angriest white dude EVER.

Some pissed-off white people protest school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1959. That guy in the middle of the photo gets the award for angriest white dude EVER.

Let’s all shed a tear for the untimely and tragic demise of American whiteness. No, I’m serious. At no time in history have those-of-the-pasty-complexion had it so bad. It’s almost as if they’re on the brink of losing their sacred, inalienable rights to reap the best social, economic, and cultural goodies just because they’re melanin-challenged. To quote one of the most famous of all white philosophers, “this aggression will not stand, man!”

I mean, just look around you! White peoples’ percentage of the electorate is shrinking fast; their standard-bearer lost the presidency to a communist-socialist-Kenyan-Muslim-Buddhist-Podiatrist-usurper in the 2012 election, and perhaps worst of all: white people can’t even hold their annual “White History Month” parade in the proud American small town of Hope Mills, North Carolina without fear of being criticized by dusky people who just don’t know their place, dammit.

But thankfully, some heroic white people are standing up, walking tall, and vowing not to relinquish their white privilege without a (white) fight. One of these alabaster Argonauts is even a member of Congress. That’s right, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Obviousville Alabama) recently went on Laura Ingraham’s radio show to respond to an accusation by political-pundit/stable boy, Ron Fournier, who claimed that the Republican Party “cannot be the party of the future beyond November” because they’re “seen as the party of white people.” Well just you wait and see what that proud Republican congressman stated in return! “This is a part of the war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party. And the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else,” the noble congresscritter told Ingraham. Brooks then went on to cite a bunch of issues, especially illegal (read: brown person) immigration, that he claims Democrats use as a cudgel to attack patriotic white folks everywhere.

Brooks’ comments, while amusing, are nothing new. The phenomenon of right-wingers (who are usually members of society’s most privileged social class) adopting the mantel of victimhood is one of the major pillars of conservatism. In his fantastic book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, political scientist Corey Robin notes that victimhood has long been one of the Right’s core talking-points. “The conservative, to be sure, speaks for a special type of victim,” he writes, “one who has lost something of value, as opposed to the wretched of the earth, whose chief complaint is that they never had anything to lose.”* And the sense of conservative victimhood runs deep in today’s Republican Party: a sociopolitical faction so lily-white that it has to slather itself in SPF 300 sunscreen just to pass anti-Obamacare resolutions.

Mo Brooks’ “war-on-whites” remarks may have been off-color, but he spoke to a very real feeling shared by many conservative white Americans: a feeling that their identity as the natural, default color of American-ness is evaporating before their eyes. Consider, for example, the dire warnings of former presidential candidate, and lovable Übermensch, Pat Buchanan. “The Census Bureau has now fixed at 2041 the year when whites become a minority in a country where the Founding Fathers had restricted citizenship to ‘free white persons’ of ‘good moral character,'” Buchanan moaned in 2011. Uncle Pat then concluded that Western civilization can’t possibly survive with a slightly diminished level of white privilege. Bummer.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Al). Damn, he's very white.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Al). Damn, he’s very white.

But however hyperbolic their rantings are, conservative whites’ fears of their diminishing cultural status in America exist because, for the majority of U.S. history, “whiteness,” — especially white maleness — has been synonymous with privilege in the domestic, political, racial, economic, and cultural spheres of American life. Indeed, up until very recently, to be an American WAS to be exclusively white. Of course, whiteness is also inextricably connected to the cultural, religious, imperial, and racial subjugation of non-white peoples — a subjugation that fostered white privilege for centuries. This has been true throughout the whole of the modern era — the time from Columbus’ fourteenth-century arrival on New World shores to the present day.  

Now, of course, the white people who founded America gave the world some great things, such as (modern) republicanism, capitalism (to an extent, anyway), and a religious pluralism, among other boons. But the problem is that, historically, whites haven’t been too keen on sharing their privileges with non-whites. In the U.S., the most explicit white/non-white divide has been between whites and blacks. There was that whole slavery thing. That whole Reconstruction thing. That whole Jim Crow thing. That whole Civil Rights thing. That whole “Silent Majority” thing. Throw the brown Messicans’ into the mix, stir vigorously, add a dash of equal rights, and you’ve got a recipe for some serious reactionary white porridge! As Robin writes, “because his losses are recent…the conservative can credibly claim…that his goals are practical and achievable. He merely seeks to regain what is his, and the fact that he once had it — indeed, probably had it for some time — suggest that he is capable of possessing it again.”*

It’s this spirit, the promise that white privilege can be possessed once again by those who took it for granted for so long, that animates conservative white reactionaries like Alabama representative Mo Brooks. Heck, it’s no coincidence that a pasty, conservative politician from the Deep South is worried about a non-existent “war on white people.” Back in 1928, the historian Ulrich B. Phillips observed that race was “The Central Theme of Southern History,” and a major component of that theme was (and is) the fear of losing the benefits of being white. The very “essence” of southern identity, Phillips wrote, was the commitment to keeping the South “a white man’s country.” The fear of losing southern white privilege arose “as soon as the negroes became numerous enough to create a problem of race control in the interest of orderly government  and the maintenance of Caucasian civilization.”*

Thus, the locus of southern exceptionalism can be found in its historical commitment to white supremacy even when other issues splintered the region into multiple factions. Historian Ira Katznelson reiterates this point in his brilliant study, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. While he notes that white supremacy has always been national in scope, Katznelson makes clear that, “the tension that marked the relationship between racial inequality and the country’s rights-based political system based on free citizenship — an association that had vexed the American republic from its first days — was more insistent and most acute” in the South.*

The American South, where white privilege has always been a big deal.

The American South, where white privilege has always been a big deal.

Politicians like Brooks, and the people who’re swayed by his rhetoric, are following in a grand conservative tradition in which fear is cultivated to prevent the loss of long-enjoyed white privilege. Although the fires of southern race-baiting have dimmed significantly over time, their embers still create heat in the form of reactionary stances against the loss of an American identity that is white-by-default. While most persistent in the South, this fear expanded across the nation as conservatism grew in popularity over the last few decades of the twentieth century. And make no mistake: fear and whiteness are close bedfellows.

A few years back, Scientific American reported that, “conservatives are fundamentally more anxious than liberals, which may be why they typically desire stability, structure and clear answers even to complicated questions.” American conservatives are mostly white, a majority of them are in the South, and fear helps them address their anxieties by motivating them to continually impose their moral order over those who they believe threaten the “natural” stability of things. And in modern America, those who threaten this “stability” are the growing non-white populations. For the right-wing, the “war on white people” is very real, and the history of white privilege guarantees that this “war” will wage on for many more years — or at least as long as Pat Buchanan can type.

* See Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 58-9.

* See Ulrich B. Phillips, “The Central Theme of Southern History,” The American Historical Review 34 (Oct., 1928): 31.

* See Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013), 134.

“12 Years a Slave,” the “American Spectator,” and the Historical Legacy of Paternalism

A scene from Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, which reminds that slaves were proprty no matter how they were treated, and that was truly awful.

A scene from Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, which reminds us that slaves were property no matter how they were treated.

In the year 2014, most people would agree that slavery was – and is – a very, very bad thing. In an American context especially, slavery and its proponents flouted supposedly sacrosanct ideals such as freedom, equality, and liberty – you know, the really important stuff. Moreover, the “peculiar institution” caused unmeasurable human misery and left a cultural scar on U.S. society that still hasn’t fully healed. So if historians’ work hasn’t been in vain – and I think it hasn’t – then most of us will have long been informed about the nature of slavery and why it was (one of) the greatest atrocities ever committed by the United States.

Few films in recent memory have depicted the horrors of slavery better than Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, a picture based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup: a New York-born free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana for over a decade. McQueen’s movie received widespread critical acclaim from both film critics and historians (a group known to be understandably finicky about how Hollywood depicts the past) and won the Academy Award for Best Picture at the 2014 Oscars.

But alas, James Bowman, culture critic for the conservative American Spectator magazine, has the brass gonads to stand above the consensus and claim slavery wasn’t all that bad, and that 12 Years a Slave should be viewed as “propaganda” because it fails to show any kind-hearted slaveholders or well-treated slaves. In a review for the Spectator that’s one part stupid, two parts asinine, Bowman argues that despite the film’s “considerable virtues,” 12 Years a Slave ultimately reflects “the politicization of historical scholarship in our time” because, maybe, just maybe, there were happy slaves, and director Steve McQueen only shows us the negative aspects of human bondage! I’m not kidding. Here’s the most offensive part of Bowman’s considerably offensive piece:

If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave, as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that Mr McQueen does not want us to hear about it.

You get all that? Bowman accuses the film of being politically correct and reflecting the so-called “Marxist-Leninist war of exploiters against exploited” academic agenda that conservatives are convinced is a real thing. Sort of like the way some people are convinced that they see Jesus in a potato chip. Now, given the pseudo-intellectual flavor of his Spectator piece, Bowman likely thinks that he’s making an original observation. But the thing is, he’s invoking a very old – and very discredited – defence of slavery, and in so doing he’s also demonstrating an odious conservative preference for paternalism.

In asserting that there must have been the occasional “kind master” and “contented slave” – and thus, a good side of slavery – Bowman is echoing a nineteenth-century pro-slavery defense that historians call the “positive good” argument. Proponents of this argument claimed that slavery was a benign institution because white people were the supposedly superior race, and that black people, as members of an “inferior” race, by nature needed the civilizing influence of white guidance. In this view, blacks were to accept their lot as social and racial inferiors in exchange for all the perks that came with white dominance; including Christianization, protection, food, clothing, free room and board, and a very full-time job.

The idea of Paternalism underlay every facet of the “Positive Good” argument. Paternalism is a relationship in which a state or an individual forcefully asserts their will over another person and limits that person’s freewill and autonomy under the pretence that the person being dominated will be better off under the heel of a superior individual. Basically, “paternalism” boils down to the idea that “it’s for your own good,” which was the favored argument of pro-slavery ideologues.

This 1946 Disney film is perhaps more fitting to James Bowman's ideas about slavery.

This 1946 Disney film is perhaps more fitting to James Bowman’s ideas about slavery.

The paternalistic “Positive Good” argument for slavery was most famously articulated by South Carolina pro-slavery demagogue, John C. Calhoun. In an 1837 speech titled (natch) “The ‘Positive Good’ of Slavery,” Calhoun argued that “the present state of civiliza­tion [in the South], where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil…a positive good.”

Other southern pro-slavery advocates elaborated on Calhoun’s basic premise that slavery was good for both those in bondage and their masters. Many cited the bible’s approval of slavery as justification for the institution’s prominence in the Old South. Moreover, southern religious writers claimed that slavery made masters kinder and slaves more obedient through a mutually beneficial relationship that existed only in the bullshitting minds of slavery apologists.

For example, in an 1851 essay titled The Duties of Christian Masters, the Rev. A.T. Holmes wrote that “the master should be the friend of his servant” because “friendship implies good will, kindness, [and] a desire for the welfare of him for whom it is entertained.”* Holmes then asserted that kind, Christian masters were a boon to slaves. “The servant, under such a master, knows his condition, and understands that, while he is restricted to certain privileges and required to perform certain duties, he is not held in subjugation by an unfeeling tyrant, nor driven to his work for a heartless oppressor.”* With those types of assurances in mind, it’s a wonder more black people didn’t submit their resumes to the slaveholders’ HR department! 

Indeed, Holmes argued that slaves got real benefits from being dominated by masters who acted as both protectors and teachers. “The servant should feel [sic] that the superior wisdom, experience, power and authority of his master, constitute his [the slave’s] abiding security,” Holmes wrote.* Moreover, the good Reverend also claimed that masters should act as teachers to their slaves because “ignorance, in a peculiar sense, attaches to the negro.”* Of course, education shouldn’t extend to stuff like literacy, knowledge of Enlightenment law, and biblical stories like the Exodus, because then slaves might get the idea that they were entitled to basic human rights and start getting all uppity, which would be bad for slavery’s PR as a “benevolent” institution.

And so, when James Bowman of the American Spectator insists that films like 12 Years a Slave should, in the spirit of avoiding political correctness, depict “a kind master or a contented slave” to show that slavery wasn’t all that bad, he is, whether consciously or unconsciously, referencing the exact same argument that slavery apologists used to justify human bondage in the Old South. Bowman essentially claims – as did pro-slavery ideologues – that benevolence softened an institution otherwise predicated on the most extreme form of paternalism. Yet while this argument is wholly repugnant, it’s not unexpected given that paternalism is central to conservative ideology.

The Americcan Spectator's James Bowman. To prove his point about slavery, he's willing to auction his freedom off to teh highest bidder - provided that said bidder treat him kindly.

The American Spectator’s James Bowman. To prove his point about slavery, he’s willing to auction his freedom off to the highest bidder – provided that said bidder treats him kindly.

I’ve already detailed the common ideological threads that link the paternalistic slaveholders of the Old South to modern-day conservatives in a previous post, which you should read – right after you finish this post. But it bears repeating that paternalism is essential to conservatism. As Corey Robin observes in The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, “conservatism is about power besieged and power protected.”* As an ideology, conservatism acts to defend the power of the ruling classes in both public and private spaces against “the agency of the subordinate classes.”* Throughout history, the subordinate classes have risen up against their rulers in the name of labor rights, feminism, abolition, and other like causes; and in each instance, conservatives have fought back under the banner of submission for the lower orders; agency for the elite.*

Conservatives believe that those in power (a group that, not coincidentally, includes themselves) are by nature superior to, and know what is better for, the people in subordinate positions. Conservatives are consummate paternalists. This is why they favor the power of employers over organized labor; it’s why they’re hostile to women gaining reproductive rights over their own bodies; it’s why they once argued that whites were permitted to enslave blacks, and it’s why James Bowman can find a supposed silver lining in the horrors of slavery. Conservatives have historically defended the agency of those in power, and they continue to do so today.

It isn’t that James Bowman supports slavery; rather, as a conservative, he can’t understand why paternalism is antithetical to freedom. He’s incapable of comprehending the full meaning of slaves’ status as property, and that as such, no amount of kind treatment could mask their inherent status as human beings deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by self-interested paternalists. A person who is under the total control of another person can never be truly free, regardless of their material conditions.

Thus, what Bowman laments is not the end of slavery itself, but American culture’s gradual rejection of paternalism – the idea that underpinned slavery – as an acceptable condition in society. If and when paternalism ever goes the way of the dinosaurs, you can rest assured that plenty of other conservatives will lament the triumph of an “exploiters against exploited” worldview: after all, if paternalism goes, so goes the power of the exploiters.

* See Reverend A.T. Holmes, “The Duties of Christian Masters,” in Paul Finkelman, ed., Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003), 103, 104, 105.

* See Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 28, 3, 7.

Nicholas Kristof and Anti-Intellectualism in U.S. History

Democracy: it's America's gift to the world.

American intellectualism at its finest.

Pity the suffering American intellectual. I’m serious about that statement. Despite hosting the finest universities and producing some of the most ground-breaking scientific research in the world, the United States has always been a haven for an especially virulent strain of anti-intellectualism that never seems to go away. These days in particular, it seems as if we’re living in the “Age of Uncuriousness,” if not the “Age of Willful Ignorance.” Okay, neither of those phrases are catchy, but damn if they don’t describe the intellectual rabbit hole down which the U.S. has descended in the last 50 years. Heck, we even have a Tea Party that’s twice as nutty as the one Alice experienced.

America might very well be getting dumber. Recently it was host to a live-streamed debate between Bill Nye the Science guy and Ken Ham, a transplanted Aussie Christian fundamentalist, over whether evolution is real and whether the earth is 6,000 years, not a few billion years old as scientists maintain. Of course, that’s just one recent example of American numbskullery. There’s plenty of others. A Republican lawmaker in Utah, for example, thinks none too highly about human-caused climate change despite the scientific consensus, and wants to spew more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere “for the needs of the plants.” Also, Americans came close to electing this person as Vice-President.

But don’t despair, my deep-thinking compatriots, for Nichols Kristof, opinionator for the New York Times, yearns for an America in which intellectuals once again reach out to influence the public sphere. In a recent piece lacking in some major self-awareness, Kristof laments the apparent retrenchment of academic intellectuals into their university fortresses writing important stuff in language that nobody outside of their arcane areas of expertise can understand. Yes, Kristof chides people like me – who hold PhDs but supposedly spend all of our time producing impenetrable jargon – for not making a more concerted effort to bless the general public with access to our rich well of refreshing wisdom.

First off, let me just say to Kristof in the most colloquial, non-jargony way possible, “up yours, buddy.” After all, what in Sam Hill else am I doing writing this blog if not trying to touch the proletarian rabble, King Midas style, with my priceless intellectual gold?! (Note to readers: I don’t actually think of you as proletarian rabble, at least not all of you…) You can click the above link to read Kristof’s piece for yourself, but among the most offending lines was as follows:

[I]t’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves…There are plenty of exceptions, of course, including in economics, history and some sciences, in professional schools like law and business, and, above all, in schools of public policy; for that matter, we have a law professor in the White House. But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.

Notice what Kristof doesn’t say in the above paragraph. He complains about the lack of public engagement by smart academics, but of course makes no mention of the fact that the neoliberal domination of the American economy has all but squelched any opportunities for paid public commentary by academic intellectuals. The dominant corporate culture in the U.S. is just fine with that, of course. After all, intellectuals ask questions and frequently challenge the status quo, which benefits financially from promoting anti-intellectualism. Keep people from thinking too hard and they won’t show up at your mansion’s gate wielding torches and pitchforks when you, I don’t know, crash the economy. This is why the Times employs opinionators like Kristoff and scribbling mush melon Tom Friedman instead of opening up its pages (and payroll) to those who might more vigorously challenge business-backed anti-intellectualism.

Nicholas Kristof occasionally writes some good material, but seriusly dude, knock off the academic-bashing.

Nicholas Kristof does write some good material, but seriously dude, let some academics write for the Times!

Over at his blog, political science professor, and all-around awesome guy Corey Robin not only lists the multitude of academics writing for public audiences, but he also explains Kristof’s obtuse lack of self-awareness:

The problem here is not that scholars don’t aspire to write for “The New Yorker.” It’s that it’s a rather selective place… If you’re flying so high up in the air—Kristof tends to look down on most situations from 30,000 feet above sea level—you’re not going to see much of anything… He doesn’t see the many [academic] men and women who are in fact writing for public audiences. Nor does he see the gatekeepers—even in our new age of blogs and little magazines—that prevent supply from meeting demand…The problem here…[is] the very material pressures and constraints young academics face, long before tenure. It’s the job market.  It’s the rise of adjuncts. It’s neoliberalism [my emphasis].

As Robin observes, Kristof and his ilk complain about academics’ lack of public engagement while tacitly supporting the neoliberal power structure that disdains any intellectual challenge to the Walmartization of American culture. By the way, let me really step off of my academic pedestal for a moment and cite Wikipedia’s fairly succinct definition of neoliberalism as “a political philosophy whose advocates support economic liberalizations, free trade and open markets, privatization, deregulation, and enhancing the role of the private sector in modern society.” That’s right, neoliberalism is, in fact, conservatism, and for decades it’s been shredding safety nets, decimating wages, crashing economies, and generally advocating profit maximization as both the means and end of American life.

One of neoliberalism’s (and conservatism’s) most tried-and-true strategies has been to stoke America’s long predisposition towards anti-intellectualism as a way of inhibiting legitimate challenges to its power. The historian Richard Hofstadter examined this American suspicion towards excessive smarts is his 1963 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

Hofstadter defined anti-intellectualism as “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.”* He noted that business has always had an antagonistic history towards intellectualism, given that “intellect is always potentially threatening to any institutional apparatus or to fixed centers of power.”* But Hofstadter also observed that the relationship between business and intellectualism isn’t inherently antagonistic – heck, plenty of business people are intellectuals! But he traced corporate power’s nonetheless very real resentment of “eggheads” back to America’s industrial era, which cemented business leaders as the supreme power players in U.S. culture.

I'm not sure what exactly this guy is trying to say, but go 'Murica!

I’m not sure what exactly this guy is trying to say, but go ‘Murica!

Hofstadter qualified that anti-intellectualism has by no means been limited to business, but the influence of corporate anti-intellectualism has been outsized because “business is the most powerful and pervasive interest in American life.”* He argued that a historical proclivity towards practicality has manifested in both American civic and religious life and contributed to business’s general antipathy towards intellectualism. The combined notions of self-help and up-by-the-boot-straps advancement have historically been the ideological drivers of the American economic spirit. Beset with “ample land and resources,” Americans long ago “set a premium upon technical knowledge and inventiveness” that could exploit the nation’s resources.* The rise of America as an industrial power in the mid-19th century also gave rise to a notion, rooted in the old reverence for “practicality,” that bred “disdain for all contemplation which could not be transformed into practical intelligence.”*  

Therein lies the historical origins of the recent strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture. To the country’s reigning corporate and financial elites, contemplation that examines society from deep and critical angles seems impractical in a business sense because it doesn’t invoke an immediate profit incentive. Moreover, this contemplation might also threaten the neoliberal culture that views “business” as interchangeable with “America.” If you’ve ever lamented over the excesses of American materialism, it’s because in the U.S., materialism has long symbolized practicality and profit, while contemplation has often been viewed as flowery at best, outright hostile to material gain at worst.  

Anti-intellectualism, then, continually foils academics looking to apply their abilities as paid members of the public media sphere. Corporate interests, for example, have provided the hiding-in-plain-sight Astroturf support for the anti-intellectual Tea Party since day-one. The same pro-corporate, anti-intellectual culture also discourages would-be college intellectuals from studying the humanities and seeking “majors that employers do not value.” And the same culture has resulted in the Walmartization of the American university, in which the majority of academic intellectuals are stuck in adjunct positions that pay a pittance for their labor.

It’s no wonder, then, as Corey Robin notes, that academics’ thoughts don’t populate the opinion pages: they’re too busy trying to pay the bills in a culture that, Nicholas Kristof’s claims notwithstanding, doesn’t value their work. The reigning American cultural notion holds that contemplation is often bad for business, and until that notion is dispelled, people like Kristof have no right to complain about “self-marginalized” intellectuals.

* See Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage, 1963), 7, 233, 237-39.

On Liberalism: Its Faults and its Historical Necessity

Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830) has long symbolized both the triumphs and failures of modern liberal thought,

Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) has long symbolized both the triumphs and failures of modern liberal thought.

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I’m a political liberal. I make no apologies for this stance, and have spent plenty of time on this blog critiquing conservatism as a political theory. Simply put, I think that an examination of modern history supplies sufficient evidence to prove that liberalism, despite its many flaws, remains the best hope for individual freedom and small “r” republicanism in the modern world. 

Liberalism, therefore, must be preserved and vigorously defended against the relentless conservative onslaught that, for decades, has sought to delegitimize it in the eyes of the American public. On many fronts, the Right has succeeded in doing just that, often with the unknowing aid of wishy-washy lefties who are quick to descend into hyperbolic pits of despair in moments when their ideas and policies falter. But this doesn’t mean that liberals shouldn’t critique their ideas in order to make them better and to justify why such ideas are superior to those of the Right in terms of extending freedom in America and across the globe.

In a recent article for Salon, noted liberal Andrew O’Hehir provides a brutal critique of modern liberalism via what he calls the “monumental catastrophe of the Obamacare rollout.” Crucial to O’Hehir’s critique is the notion that liberalism suffers when its ideas and policies are watered down in a futile effort to make them palatable to conservatives who are hostile to liberalism as a basic political philosophy. Hence, by eschewing any type of single-payer program and, instead, basing Obamacare on a conservative model of mandated individual private insurance, President Obama and Congress created a law that sought an unattainable balance between states’ rights and federal power. The result, O’Hehir observes, was “a complicated mishmash with dozens of brand-new moving parts.” The complexity of the health care law allowed for “red-state resistance and bureaucratic incompetence” that made the law’s initial rollout a qualified mess.

O’Hehir views Obamacare’s difficult rollout as indicative of a broader problem that reveals the still inherent weakness of liberalism in the 21st century:

[T]he fact that a Democratic president who’s perceived as a liberal and has been comfortably elected twice had to fight so hard for such a patchwork law testifies to the ideological weakness of his party, which has been dragged inexorably to the right ever since its historic schism between Cold War liberals and antiwar activists in 1968, and often appears to have no clear principles and no core constituency beyond New York lawyers and Hollywood celebrities.

This is a biting indictment of liberalism made all the more harsh given that is comes from one of its own. But O’Hehir’s critique rings true because it hits at what has always been liberalism’s strength, as well as its weakness: its commitment to equality. Unlike conservatism, which views freedom and equality as incompatible, liberalism seeks equality of opportunity in a world where hierarchies are the norm. Conservatism, at its core, is a political philosophy that defends hierarchies, whether earned or unearned, because it sees hierarchies as essential to maintaining social order. Thus, as O’Hehir notes, liberalism does itself no favors by “moving inexorably to the right,” thereby diluting its commitment to challenging hierarchical powers that pose a threat to human freedom.

Ideologically, liberalism’s commitment to equality has given it a moral edge over conservatism by providing a trenchant critique of the Right’s historical defense of social hierarchies as ends unto themselves. In the realm of policy, however, liberalism’s defence of equality has often necessitated much more universal support for liberal programs. Conservatism is a philosophy predicated on hierarchical social divisions. Rather than seeking universal appeal, conservatism needs only to gain enough popular support to bolster the power of the ruling classes. Liberalism’s task is more difficult. Because it often seeks to challenge the power of entrenched ruling classes, liberalism must gain a broader base of support from various subordinate classes that, historically, have been far more willing to either side with the ruling classes, or divide amongst themselves. Such tendencies have made broad-based political challenges to conservatism difficult to sustain, a fact embodied in Will Rogers‘ classic quip: “I’m not a member of any organized political party…I’m a Democrat.”

In the rest of this post, I’m going to further discuss liberalism’s flaws, but I’m also going to offer a firm defence of liberalism – especially in contrast to conservatism – as the political philosophy that offers the best hope for preserving both individual freedom and democracy in the 21st century and beyond.

Modern American liberalism reached its peak during the era of FDR, whose New Deal programs destroyed freedom for privilged jerks everywhere.

Modern American liberalism reached the peak of its powers during the era of FDR, whose New Deal programs destroyed freedom for privileged jerks everywhere.

Before going any further, I should at least explain what liberalism is. In his book The Future of Liberalism, political scientist Alan Wolfe defines the basic, core principle of liberalism as this: “As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take.” A commitment to liberty and equality underlies liberalism. As Wolfe notes, liberals want equality to extend beyond the aristocratic class or the business elite via equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes. “Liberals,” he writes, “believe that the freedom to live your life on terms you establish does not mean very much if society is organized in such as way as to deny large numbers of people the possibility of ever realizing that objective.”*

In contrast to conservative claims that liberty can best be achieved via free markets and the absence of state intervention, liberals believe in a “positive liberty,” which holds that human flourishing should not be reduced to a series of monetary exchanges. Thus, it is not enough for a free person to be merely “left alone” by the state; a free person should also have the capacity to realize her own personal goals, and liberals are “prepared to accept state intervention into the economy in order to give large numbers of people the sense of mastery that free market capitalism gives only to the few.”* In his book American Liberalism: An Interpretation for Our Time, an excellent compliment to Wolfe’s study, political scientist John McGowan quotes philosopher Thomas Nagel to succinctly define liberalism as a philosophy favoring both ‘individual rights’ and ‘a form of distributive justice that combats poverty and large inequalities.’* Liberalism, then, recognizes that equality is absolutely essential to ensuring individual freedom and the functioning of democratic societies.

The value that liberals place on equality is what puts them at odds with conservatives, who view equality as, at best, an unachievable state, and at worst, an impediment to individual freedom because it rejects the role that organic social hierarchies play in maintaining social order. In a 1790 speech, one of conservatism’s towering thinkers, the Irish political theorist Edmund Burke, outlined conservatism’s preference for hierarchy when he described the implications of the French Revolution:

It was the case of common soldiers deserting from their officers, to join a furious, licentious populace. It was a desertion to a cause the real object of which was to level all those institutions, and to break all those connections, natural and civil, that regulate and hold together the community by a chain of subordination: to raise soldiers against their officers, servants against their masters, tradesmen against their customers, artificers against their employers, tenants against their landlords, curates against their bishops, and children against their parents. That this cause of theirs was not an enemy to servitude, but to society.*

Here, Burke outlined his core reasoning for why liberalism, as unleashed by the chaos of the French Revolution, was dangerous. Liberalism entailed the overturning of what Burke considered to be the “natural” hierarchies that held society together through a “chain of subordination.” And why did Burke consider this to be so dangerous? Because those in power, whether they be employers, landlords, or clergy, always view their rule as “natural.” They therefore view rule by the subordinate classes as an “unnatural” affront to social order. This is why political scientist Corey Robin characterizes conservatism as “a meditation on, and theoretical rendition of, the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” Winning back power restores order, and conservatives view equality as a threat to order.

Edmund Burke still stands as as a hero to conservatives who defend unearned privilege.

Edmund Burke still stands as a hero to conservatives who defend unearned privilege.

The need for order was a central tenet of Arizona senator Barry Goldwater’s book The Conscience of a Conservative, one of the core texts of modern American conservatism. “The Conservative looks upon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of the social order,” Goldwater writes. He rightly observed that freedom is impossible if one man can deny to another “the exercise of his freedom,” but, like conservatives throughout history, Goldwater postulates that state intervention in the marketplace more often than not diminishes freedom by overturning orders that conservatives view as “natural.”* These so-called “natural” orders, however, tend to be defined by those who have the power in society and, by extension, have the most to gain and maintain by describing their rule as “natural.” It’s no surprise, then, that those “natural” rulers tend to be conservative.

Liberalism has fallen short of its goals, and witnessed its greatest failures, when it has failed to convince the majority of society that their interests are not synonymous with those of the ruling few. In some historical instances, such as the Democratic Party’s failure to unite its middle class, socially liberal wing with its more traditional working-class supporters, liberals are to blame for their own messaging failures. But liberals also face a more difficult task than do conservatives: they must consistently forge broad-based coalitions in order to maintain support for their cause.

As Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson note in their study The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, liberal unity has historically fallen prey to ugly American divisions that strengthen conservatives’ political power. “Liberals’ inability to unite the poor and the middle classes in America,” Alterman and Mattson write, “is profoundly complicated by historical circumstances – specifically the divisions of race…that continue to define so many citizens’ identities.” Liberalism’s failures, they conclude, can often be explained by the fact that people “do not generally appreciate subsidizing, through tax and transfer policies, the lifestyle’s of those they deem to be different from themselves.”*

The less-than-successful rollout of the Obamacare insurance exchanges bares such hallmarks: it is a law that could never gain broad popular support beyond its component parts. Conservatives exploited widespread fears that Obamacare would redistribute wealth from whites to “lazy” minorities, leading the president and his Democratic Congress to compromise the bill into a complicated mess that attempted to please everyone but ended up pleasing almost no one.

By compromising with conservatives, who have little interest in a functioning government that uses its power to ensure greater freedom to individuals left at the mercy of insurance companies, liberals failed to fully embrace and defend their commitment to universal equality. This does not mean that Obamacare can not work, or that the president should not make it work to benefit of all Americans. Rather, Obamacare’s rocky introduction should push liberals to defend their ideas with greater confidence, and recognize that caving to the Right’s demands in the name of short-term political gain ultimately weaken’s liberalism’s overall political hand. Americans get behind leaders who are firm in their convictions, and if liberalism is to regain its once prominent stature in American society, it must first convince voters that it has backbone. In that respect, liberals have their work cut out for them.

* See Alan Wolfe, The Future of Liberalism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 10-13.

* See  John McGowan, American Liberalism: An Interpretation for Our Time (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 8.

* See Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama (New York: Viking, 2012), 465.

* See Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative (New York: Viking, 1960), 5, 3.