Tag Archives: Founding Fathers

Alabama, Gay Marriage, and Roy Moore’s Christian America

Alabama Supreme Court justice Roy Moore once told God that He wasn't religious enough. True story.

Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore once told God that He wasn’t religious enough. True story.

In the 1998 Cohen brothers cult-classic film The Big Lebowski, the mustachioed narrator (played by Sam Elliot) ruminates on how some people truly are authentic products of the age in which they live. “Sometimes there’s a man…I won’t say hero, ’cause, what’s a hero? Sometimes, there’s a man well, he’s the man for his time and place,” the narrator notes. In the film, this narration refers to The Dude (Jeff Bridges), a doobie-smokin,’ former hippy turned middle-aged slacker who is thrust into a series of events of that give the impression that he’s more important than he actually is.

In 2015, there’s another man who is indeed “the man for his time and place.” His name is Roy Moore. He’s the current (and former) Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama. And while Judge Moore couldn’t be more different from the Cohen Brothers’ fictional “Dude” character, he’s nonetheless a man thrust into a series of events that have overly magnified his own importance and rendered him a symbol of a particular American subculture that is taking its last gasps in a very public manner. Continue reading

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The Mighty Turkey: An American Historical Icon

North-American-Wild-Turkey

Well, dear readers, American Thanksgiving is almost nigh, and that means it’s high-time that the turkey gets its due as a true American original.

Follow this link over to the History Vault, where I discuss the mighty turkey in all of its well-earned historical glory!

Why Rush Limbaugh’s Very Exceptional America is Very Bad History

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh, alongside his fictional horse, Liberty (yes, Liberty) fancies himself a historian, for some reason.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh, alongside his fictional horse, Liberty (yes, Liberty). He fancies himself a historian, for some reason.

Sigh. Rush Limbaugh. You’re familiar with him, right? He’s a formidable natural force that once spewed forth an estimated 1.5 million metric-tons of gas into the atmosphere. Wait, that was Mt. St. Helens in 1980. But Rush isn’t far behind. Since the 1990s, Rush has been contributing heavily to global warming by emitting dangerous levels of toxic, right-wing effluvium into America’s radio waves on a daily basis — and this gas has poisoned the minds of many an impressionable, angry white guy. After all, Rush is the radio blow-hard who once compared Obamacare to slavery, and slavery is bad!! But now, El Rush-bo is focusing his plume of billowing exhaust on America’s children.

That’s right, Rush has recently authored two “history” books for kids: 2013’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans, and 2014’s Rush Revere and the First Patriots. Now, you’d think that no self-respecting teacher would have the stones to use these books for instructional purposes in an actual history class, but you’d be wrong. Because a teacher named Ivy from South Carolina (how shocking) recently called up Rush’s radio show to let the world know that she uses Rush’s books to teach third-graders. “[W]hat I decided to do was to use your author’s note that explains the principles of the founders in our country as a way to introduce the Civil War,” Ivy told Rush. Ho boy.

It’s the “author’s note” section of Rush’s book on the Pilgrims, which purports to explain why the “principles of the founders” led to the end of slavery, that demonstrates why Ivy the teacher is making a big mistake here — in addition to the fact that she’s using a book by Rush Limbaugh to TEACH THIRD-GRADERS!

Thankfully, the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf spares me from having to read too much of Rush’s book on my own and highlights the goodies from Rush’s “author’s note,” which the king of talk-radio gas actually read on the air. The offending section reads as follows:

We live in the greatest country on earth, the United States of America. But what makes it so great? Why do some call the United States a miracle? How did we become such a tremendous country in such a short period of time? After all, the United States is less than 250 years old! I want to try to help you understand what “American Exceptionalism” and greatness is all about. It does not mean that we Americans are better than anyone else. It does not mean that there is something uniquely different about us as human beings compared to other people in the world. It does not mean that we as a country have never faced problems of our own.

American Exceptionalism and greatness means that America is special because it is different from all other countries in history. It is a land built on true freedom and individual liberty and it defends both around the world. The role of the United States is to encourage individuals to be the best that they can be, to try to improve their lives, reach their goals, and make their dreams come true. In most parts of the world, dreams never become more than dreams.

Well now, that sounds innocuous enough, don’t it?! Rush isn’t saying that America is perfect, he’s just saying it’s more perfect than everywhere else! But, as Friedersdorf notes, Rush’s embracing of American Exceptionalism allowed Ivy to explain slavery’s demise as something that was just bound to happen, gol’ darn it! “I used that as a way to introduce the Civil War because we were about to enter a discussion on the time when slavery existed in our country,” Ivy said, “but because of what you said in the book and the way that you explained the Founders’ passion for our country, it was because of that that slavery inevitably was abolished. So I felt like that would be a good way to get some conversation going.” Ho boy.

This idea really has got to go.

This idea really has got to go.

You get all that? According to Rush and teacher Ivy, slavery was abolished in the U.S. because it was destined to be abolished, because America is so great — so EXCEPTIONAL — that it was inevitable that it would eventually repent for its greatest original sin. The big problem with American Exceptionalism, however, is that takes a providential view of U.S. history by postulating that some divine or otherworldly force — usually the Christian God — has guided America’s progress from its founding to the present day. Thus, American Exceptionalism isn’t just bad history; rather, it places the United States outside of history.

Scholar Deborah Madsen has written a great book on American Exceptionalism, which I highlighted in a previous post, but her book is worth going back to in order to highlight the depth of Limbaugh’s historical delusions. Madsen defines “American Exceptionalism” as the belief that, “America and Americans are special, exceptional, because they are charged with saving the world from itself and, at the same time, America and Americans must sustain a high level of spiritual, political and moral commitment to this exceptional destiny — America must be ‘a city upon a hill’ exposed to the eyes of the world.”* The phrase “city upon a hill” is a quote from Puritan leader John Winthrop, who long ago envisioned that America was to be an exceptional Christian society that would offer a starting point for a new history in the form of a society that was free from the sins of Old Europe, and would thereby provide an example of spiritually informed enlightenment for all the world to emulate.

Thus, American Exceptionalism presents a redemptionist view of history that absolves America of its many sins by claiming that repentance for those sins was planned from the beginning, and that the pre-destined progress of history would attest to this inevitable redemption.

American Exceptionalism removes America from the historical path in which human decisions, mistakes, and prejudices combined with coincidences, external influences, and developments in the natural world to create very real conflict over the future. And this is why Rush Limbaugh likes American Exceptionalism, because it replaces human agency with a historical trajectory that was predestined and/or guided by providence — a trajectory that sits in stark contrast with the reality of how real, flawed human behavior shaped the course of American history. Above all else, American Exceptionalism is SIMPLE.

But, of course, history is never simple, and there was nothing at all inevitable about slavery’s demise. After all, slavery was enshrined in the U.S Constitution. Contrary to Limbaugh’s claim that “the Founders of this phenomenal country believed all people were born to be free as individuals,” the Constitution only counted black people as a decidedly unequal three-fifths of a person. This was because the humans who designed the Constitution — particularly the southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention — designed it to protect slavery.

The eventual end of slavery in America was, therefore, the result of decades of fervent agitation by people of faith, courageous politicians (yes, they have existed), and the slaves themselves who fought bitterly to correct the Founders’ great sin. Anti-slavery forces in America endured decades of virulent and bloody opposition to their stance, and when the kettle finally boiled over in 1861 and the U.S. descended into Civil War over the slavery issue, there was still nothing inevitable about the institution’s demise. Had the Confederacy won the war, slavery would have existed and thrived for an inestimable amount of time.

Dead soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. There was nothing exceptional about full-scale war.

Dead soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. There was nothing exceptional about full-scale war.

Nothing about the Civil War — when it happened, why it happened, why it happened the way that it did — was inevitable or guided by providence. The Civil War, like all events in American history, was the product of specific human actions and decision-making. The fact that a nation ostensibly dedicated to the ideal that “all men are created equal” had to fight a four-year-long war and sacrifice the lives of 600,000 soldiers over the right to perpetuate the enslavement of other human beings demonstrates the very real limits of America’s ability to be exceptional. To quote the late historian/novelist Shelby Foote, “we think that we are a wholly superior people — if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war.”

American Exceptionalism is bad history because it blinds people to the very real — and very human — triumphs and tragedies that the U.S. has faced in its relatively short national lifespan. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk do us no favors by trying to simplify and overly moralize the events of the American past, because doing so robs us of the chance to actually LEARN from that past. Viewing the U.S. as uniquely exceptional makes it hard to examine with a critical eye what America has done wrong as well as what it has done right. If we make simplistic assumptions about the inevitable, inherent goodness of America, then we run the risk of underestimating the real evils that have existed — and continue to exist — in American society, and we run the risk of failing to address those evils before they grow.

Today, it’s common for Americans to look back on the century-long debate over slavery and ask why it took so long for the U.S. to eradicate such a conspicuous evil. But many Americans thought that slavery was an American institution and thus, an inherently good institution that was worth holding on to. After all, America was exceptional.

* See Deborah L. Madsen, American Exceptionalism (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 2-4.

Hobby Lobby and the Real Meaning of Religious Liberty

You have a right to religious beliefs that are scientifically inaccurate, but you don't have a right to make others subscribe to those beliefs.

As these protesters recognize, you have a right to religious beliefs that are scientifically inaccurate, but you don’t have a right to make others subscribe to those beliefs.

Ah, yes, America: it’s a country with no official state religion in which people of all backgrounds can practice their respective faiths without the government deciding which faith is “true” via legislative action. Well, at least that’s the kind of country the United States is supposed to be, but thanks to the right-wing Catholic dude-bro contingent of the United States Supreme Court, “religious freedom” apparently now constitutes the right to make other people (especially women) accept as fact your own particular religious dogma via laws that sanctify (in more ways than one) those beliefs.

I am, of course, referring to the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that allows closely held (ie., non publicly traded) corporations to be except from the Obamacare mandate that employers provide contraceptives as part of their female employees’ heath plans. In keeping with a millenia-old tradition in which “religion” has too often been a code word for men controlling how the wimmin-folk use their lady-parts, the court’s conservative, male, Catholic justices made up the majority decision, with Justice Samuel “The Catholic Crusher” Alito opining that closely held corporations have the right to deny women contraceptive coverage simply because said corporations believe that contraception is the same damn thing as abortion, which it ain’t.

As I discussed at length in an earlier post, the case was instigated primarily by David Green and his family, the fundamentalist Christian owners of the arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby. The Greens believe that certain types of birth control, specifically Plan B, Ella, and a pair of intrauterine devices are, in fact, “abortifacients;” i.e, they cause abortions. This belief, however, is completely, utterly, false. It’s wrong. It’s not right. It’s scientifically falsifiable. As Mother Jones’ Erika Eichelberger and Molly Redden note, “Alito and the four other conservative justices on the court were essentially overruling not just an Obamacare regulation, but science. According to the Food and Drug Administration, all four of the contraceptive methods Hobby Lobby objects to…do not prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg into the uterus, which the owners of Hobby Lobby consider abortion. Instead, these methods prevent fertilization.”

Hobby Lobby’s position makes a weird kind of sense when you consider that the hallmark of religious fundamentalism is its obsessive rejection of secular-scientific advancements that contradict “traditional” faith beliefs regardless of the empirically verifiable validity of those beliefs. But that said, let’s be clear: the Hobby Lobby folks are free to believe whatever they want, truth and reality be damned (or not damned, if you subscribe to their point of view), but they don’t have the right to impose those beliefs on other people. This is what we mean by the phrase “religious liberty” in America, and it’s why the Supreme Court’s decision is dunder-headed and just plain wrong.

The idea of “religious liberty” is a concept that was debated during the earliest days of the Constitutional era following the American Revolution, and it’s a concept we still struggle with today. In his book Religion in American Politics: A Short History, historian Frank Lambert identifies the core point of division between religious and secular forces in America. “[R]eligious coalitions seek by political means what the Constitution prohibits, namely, a national religious establishment, or, more specifically, a Christian civil religion,” he writes.* But those wishing to make U.S. laws abide by particular religious codes have run into the problematic reality of secular forces and other religious groups that also want, and deserve, a voice in the public sphere. As Lambert writes, “the result is sometimes a clash between the country’s secular laws, which reflect the tenets of liberal capitalism and the free exchange of goods, and the ‘higher laws’ that religious groups cite to condemn certain goods and services offered in the marketplace.”*

These six Supreme Court justices are Catholic. But guess which one didn't vote in favor of Hobby Lobby, and then guess why.

These six Supreme Court justices are Catholic. But guess which one didn’t vote in favor of Hobby Lobby, and then guess why.

Science is one of those secular forces that challenges religion in the public sphere, and it has the weight of empirical evidence behind it that sometimes runs afoul of religious groups’ by-definition evidence-free ‘higher laws.’ Because religion often relies of these ‘higher laws,’ some types of religious folks — especially Christian fundamentalists — are thoroughly convinced that their laws should be EVERYONE’S laws, because who would dare argue with the TRUTH?! It’s these sanctimonious scallywags — not religious people in general — that the Constitution wisely prohibits from establishing a theocratic government in America. And it’s this prohibition that fundamentalists like the Hobby Lobby goons want to challenge.

No figure in American history recognized the threat posed by overly self-righteous believers better than the most Founding Father-est of all the Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson. Ole’ T-Jeff eloquently detailed the problem posed by unshaken religious dogmatism in his 1786 Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, a key document that he drafted in response to religious coercion by the Anglican Church. Before the American Revolution, the Anglican Church of England was the state church of the Virginia colony, and as such, all Virginians were legally compelled to attend church services and support its operations through taxation.

The Anglican Church’s domination of state laws pissed off renegade sects of Baptists and Presbyterians, and, in an effort to liberalize Virginia’s religious liberty laws in accordance with an independent, republican state — and to gain non-Anglican groups’ support for the Patriots during the fight against Britain — Jefferson, with much input from fellow Founding Father James Madison, drafted the Virginia Religious Freedom Statute in 1777. The Virginia General Assembly then adopted the statute in 1786. That’s right: Jefferson drafted his statute in support of religious pluralism in part to protect the rights of minority religions against the heavy-handedness of a state religion. He recognized that nothing dampens religious liberty more than Theocracy.

Among the key arguments in Jefferson’s statute is the timeless observance that some über-pious pilgrims just can’t help but force their particular beliefs onto others, and that American law must guard against this tendency. Jefferson warned against “all attempts” to influence the free human mind through “temporal punishments or burthens” imposed by “the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical.” He recognized that religious people, like ALL people, were “themselves but fallible and uninspired.” When these theocrats “have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible,” Jefferson wrote, they had only “established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time.”

Jefferson realized that forcing others to abide by YOUR particular brand of religious dogma is, you know, kind of tyrannical. Establishing any kind of state religion was “a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty,” he wrote, because the person wishing to force his beliefs on others “will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own.” This is precisely what Hobby Lobby is doing by effectively trying to turn a purely religious belief into a state law.

Thomas Jefferson. He wasn't perfect, but on occasion, he did write some good material.

Thomas Jefferson. He wasn’t perfect, but on occasion, he did write some good material.

Justice Alito’s argument highlights this absurdity while at the same time sanctioning it into law when he writes that, “the owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients.” As Wonkette’s Kaili Joy Gray writes, “does it matter whether their ‘religious beliefs’ are in any way, like, scientifically accurate? Nope, writes Alito, because ‘it is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial.'” She thus reaches the disturbing conclusion that Hobby Lobby has “a First Amendment right to believe whatever they want…and that First Amendment right is far more important than, say, a woman and her doctor to choose the best method of contraception for her.”

And there’s the religious rub. By demanding that the highest court in the land recognize, through law, the utterly non-factual belief that “abortifacients” cause an abortion, Hobby Lobby is forcing its employees to tacitly accept the “validity” of their religious beliefs. This denies Hobby Lobby employees, as well as other workers now placed at the whims of their potentially wingnut boss’s non-factual religious notions, the right to be free from religiously based coercion. This is the kind of coercion Jefferson warned was a direct threat to actual religious liberty.

But perhaps I’m putting too fine a point on the whole “religious liberty” angle and taking Hobby Lobby a bit too much at their own word. Why, you ask? Because this whole Supreme Court brouhaha may have nothing to do with “religious liberty” and everything to do about promoting a patriarchal culture that keeps men in control over women’s most personal rights. As Mother Jones details, Hobby Lobby has for years included contraception in employer retirement plans and has invested in them via manufacturers of all kinds of birth control. Perhaps those who are the most vocally self-righteous are always Pharisees in disguise. Jefferson would probably agree, dammit.

And as far as the Supreme Court goes: the five-justice majority that decided the Hobby Lobby decision are Catholic, male, and conservative. Is it wrong for me to suggest that subscribing to a religion that opposes contraception may have influenced these justices’ votes? You be the judge of that.

* See Frank Lambert, Religion in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 5,7.

Richard Cohen, Thomas Jefferson, and the Legacy of White Privilege in America

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. Even his beard is white.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. Even his beard is white.

Richard Cohen, columnist for the Washington Post, understands something. He understands that white people have it rough. Or, at least they think that they have it rough. Some white people think that they’re losing their traditional privileges as the default ruling demographic in America. Their ensuing anger has, of late, once again lit the age-old fuse of white grievance in the United States, and numerous media outlets have spilled plenty of real and electronic ink trying to access the implications of this anger on American culture.

Richard Cohen is, like me, a white person, and he wants to understand a particular brand of grievance that motivates other white people and manifests most potently in the form of that drooling, reactionary blob of grammatically challenged rage, the Tea Party. In a recent column, Cohen pissed off a large chunk of humanity by attributing Tea Party rage not to racism, but to fear of change. Despite devoting portions of his column to mocking Tea Party rodeo clowns like Sarah Palin, many readers saw a particular paragraph in Cohen’s column as evidence of the author’s apparent sympathy for conservative white cultural dominance. The offending paragraph claimed that:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

Now, Cohen has had some nasty bouts of foot-in-mouth disease in the (recent) past. This is the same guy who, earlier this month, claimed to have just learned that American slavery “was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks,” but was, in fact, “a lifetime’s condemnation to an often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty and, too often, their own children.” That’s right, Cohen just figured this out in 2013, and only after watching Steve McQueen’s film “12 Years a Slave,” because book-larnin’ is hard work.

But seriously, Cohen’s column stirred up a whole mess of anger because it appeared to reveal a stunning obtuseness on his part about the changing demographic face of America. Its been over sixty years since the end of legal segregation, yet Cohen admits that some Americans still have a “gag-reflex” when confronted with an interracial couple. Moreover, Cohen described the Tea Party as a group with “conventional” views, which, by default, seemed to suggest that non-Tea Partiers hold “unconventional” views. Cohen himself may or may not hold these views, though his history of writing oversimplified, bone-headed columns on the subject of race suggest that the former is possible. Plenty of people, for example, have labeled Cohen an “unreconstructed bigot” and a “racist.” But whatever Cohen’s own views, his column was, poor choice of words notwithstanding, an accurate description of Tea Party rage and the extremely potent source that fuels that rage: white privilege.

Simply dismissing Cohen as a good ole’ fashioned racist is not a particularly helpful way of discussing the kind of “indirect racism” (yeah, I just made up that term right now) that fuels modern white privilege. Liberals who call conservatives outright racists tend to get massive amounts of pushback from people aghast at being lumped together with the most theatrical and well-known symbols of American bigotry, such as the Old Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan, and the southern lynch mob. Thus, the cycle merely repeats: liberals accuse conservatives of being racists, conservatives accuse liberals of playing the “race card;” rinse, wash, repeat.

The kind of indirect racism that animates the Tea Party, however, is less about outright hatred based on mere skin color (though it is a legacy of that idea) and more about how the truly domineering racism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bequeathed the legacy of white privilege to modern-day Americans. For American whites, cultural, political, and economic dominance became common to the point of it being second-nature.

Let’s unpack that idea a bit further, shall we? There’s mounds of literature on the concept of white privilege, but let’s go with a straightforward definition: white privilege means that society affords you preferential treatment because you are white. Historian Linda Faye Williams helpfully expands on this idea in her book The Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America. Faye Williams writes that white privilege constitutes situations in which “whites display a sense of entitlement and make claims to social status and economic advantages, actively struggling to maintain both these privileges and their sense of themselves as superior.”*

In addition, white privilege tends to blind its benefactors to the very existence of their privilege. As Faye Williams notes, for many whites, “‘racism’ is a problem belonging to people of color, not to whites.”* Those who perceive their whiteness as the default, “normal” setting, and, by extension, equate whiteness with normality, often get defensive when others point out how such a stance could lead to the normalization of white racial dominance.

But, of course, such a normalization of white racial dominance is exactly what happened for much of U.S. history. Because the America was a nation paradoxically founded on the principles of equality and racial slavery, every one of its major historical events — from constitutional debates over taxation, to geographical expansion, to the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the Civil Rights Movement, to welfare reform — have, in some way, involved debates over the how the constructs of race afforded benefits to whites at the expense of non-whites.

Thomas Jefferson. Wearing a coat like that was totally a sign of privilege.

Thomas Jefferson. Wearing a coat like that was totally a sign of privilege.

Perhaps no single figure better encapsulates the reckoning with the consequences of white privilege than the undisputed Grand Poobah of American Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson. So hallowed a figure is Jefferson in American culture that even his biographers — who should know better — are nonetheless loathe to criticize the man for fear that recognition of Jefferson’s basic human faults would somehow negate his inherent genius and monumental accomplishments. The debate over Jefferson’s faults is at its most contentious when it comes to his views on slavery and race. Jefferson was, after all, an immensely wealthy slaveholding planter, but he also wrote about the detrimental aspects of slavery as an institution, most famously in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1788). Such writings have led many historians to claim that Jefferson was, in one form or another, anti-slavery.

However, as legal historian Paul Finkelman notes in his article “Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On,” Jefferson’s reservations about slavery hinged less on concerns for the enslaved, and more on concerns about how slavery as an institution affected his status as a privileged white slaveholder. As evidence for this interpretation, Finkelman cites Jefferson’s famous statement about slavery: “[W]e have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”* Historians have traditionally interpreted this statement as a fear of slave revolts, but Finkelman observes that the “self-preservation” to which Jefferson alluded could also refer to his personal fortune. The labor of his slaves afforded Jefferson the good life, making the thought of losing that labor downright unpalatable.

Finkleman describes Jefferson as “compulsively acquisitive.” Indeed, on one trip to France, Jefferson  bought over 60 oil paintings, over 40 luxury chairs, 7 busts by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, multiple full-length, gilt-framed mirrors, 4 marble-topped tables, and a vast assortment of ‘items of personal luxury.’* For Jefferson, Finkelman writes, “the wolf may also have been the wolf of gluttony and greed.” Indeed, slavery gave Jefferson his lavish lifestyle, and though he may not have liked being dependent on slaves, “he did not dislike it enough to anything about it.”* Jefferson could own slaves because he was a white man and his slaves were black, and the wealth generated by his slaves allowed Jefferson to live an aristocratic life.

No wonder he couldn’t let the wolf go: slavery was predicated on the concept of white privilege — that whites were superior and blacks inferior. Jefferson was a great man, but a man nonetheless, and those men (or women) placed into positions of power by the normalization of dominance over others are seldom in a rush to give up such a privileged status.

Got white privilege, America? You bectha' we do.

Got white privilege, America? You bectha’ we do.

Jefferson’s struggles with the moral implications of white privilege echo in the contemporary musings of people like Richard Cohen, who run into trouble when they casually brush off the type of indirect racism created by centuries of American white privilege. To be sure, the Tea Party types about whom Cohen writes are not racist in the same vein as the cross-burning Klansmen or the angry lynch mobs of decades past. Rather, like Jefferson and millions of whites before them, segments of the Tea Party have been simmering in the soup of white privilege for so long that they don’t even recognize that an earlier form of racial dominance helped make the base of that soup. Thus, you don’t need to be a flaming racist to defend cultural norms that were forged in a far more racist past.

American conservatives genuinely fear the consequences of losing their white privilege. Slavery is obviously no longer the issue, but slavery’s legacy has, as Linda Faye Williams writes, long resulted in the “unequal allocation of educational resources, substantial insider networks that funnel good jobs largely to whites, and social policies that deliver more generous benefits to whites.”* These are the modern fruits of white privilege.

It’s no coincidence that, according to a recent Democracy Corps study, the Republican Party’s Tea Party base “are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities.” Just as Jefferson feared losing the white privilege that created the luxurious life of an eighteenth-century planter, the modern Tea Party fears losing the white privilege that has long directed the benefits of social programs and political power disproportionately into the hands of American whites at the expense of non-white minorities. Richard Cohen, I think, understands this fear, but he also, on some level, identifies with it, which helps explain the befuddlement that he and others express when charged with racism. To paraphrase a particularly plain-spoken white guy, “It’s the whiteness, stupid.”

* See Linda Faye Williams, The Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003), 10-11.

* See Paul Finkelman, “Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 102 (April, 1994): 205.

Pumpkin Flavored History

Pumpkin

It didn’t used to be like this. Only five years ago, I swear that pumpkin-flavored stuff was still a bit of an anomaly. Oh, you could get a pumpkin spiced latte at Starbucks, and your standard pumpkin pies and pastries lined bakery sections everywhere, but now it seems that the very minute autumn begins to peek out from summer’s sweaty, smothering armpit, the pumpkin conglomerate unleashes a now ubiquitous barrage of pumpkin spice-flavored everything. Its fall and you must eat pumpkins! There’s even a pumpkin pie flavored vodka, because Russian alcoholics enjoy the fall season too, dammit.

So what’s the deal with everything being pumpkin flavored? Well, as with so many things these days, it all goes back to the nineeenth century. Pumpkins function as big, squashy symbols of idealized rural life, and rural nostalgia has always been popular with Americans. For a people stuck in the high-tech, urbanized twenty-first century world, pumpkins invoke more simple times and landscapes dotted with small family farms untainted by modernity’s impersonal touch.

Rural nostalgia, however, is nothing new in the U.S. In fact, it goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, who, of all the Founding Fathers, was surly the Founding Father-est. Jefferson’s vision of America centered on the “Agrarian Yeoman” ideal: he believed that small, independent yeomen farmers represented the highest level of American self-sufficient virtue and work ethic, and should therefore settle the vast American landscape. Jefferson considered an agrarian society to be morally superior to the cities, which he viewed as rife with unnatural economic and moral corruption in the form of financial speculation and industrial development that threatened his ideal of agrarian democracy.

Jefferson’s Agrarian ideal has never really left American popular culture, and pumpkins have helped keep it alive and kicking. Historian Cindy Ott, author of the fantastic book, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, traces the pumpkin’s modern popularity back to the ninteenth century, when the Market Revolution spurred the growth of industry that drew Americans away from the countryside into the larger cities. As the growing market economy caught more and more people in its web, Americans embraced the pumpkin as a symbol of pre-modern, idealized, rustic family life. Thus, pumpkins became big, orange emblems of the agrarian ideal that Jefferson so cherished and to which Americans ascribed the simple comforts of home, family, and small town life.

So powerful a symbol was the pumpkin that even after it ceased to be a valuable commercial crop, it still connected Americans to a primitive, pastoral age untainted by the cold mechanics of the modern world. As Ott observes:

As many Americans felt they were losing connections to the natural world, an authentic way of life, and their cultural roots, the orange field pumpkin, in particular, helped them rebuild those connections…What the orange field pumpkin lost in practical usage and economic value, it gained in symbolic power. Americans gave it a vibrant life in stories and holiday rituals that helped them talk about the meaning of nature within a rapidly developing urban and industrial society.

Since the transition from countryside to urban centers hasn’t really stopped since the nineteenth century, Americans today are scarfing down pumpkin flavored-stuff for largely the same nostalgic reasons. By eating and drinking pumpkin flavors, Ott notes, “We’re celebrating the nostalgia for this old-fashioned, rural way of life, that no one ever really wanted to stay on, but everyone’s always been romantic about.” The explosion in popularity of pumpkin flavored everything has left some people worrying about the rise of a “pumpkin spice empire” with possible designs for Genghis Khan-style world conquest, while others are downright angry, pleading for more rational heads to “stop the pumpkin-izing.

The growth of the “pumpkin spice empire” might lead some to conclude that the humble orange squash has been commercialized and factory-farmed to the point of it being yet another weapon in the industrialized agricultural onslaught that nearly wiped out American family farms. But never fear, for, as Ott notes, the commercialization of the pumpkin via the buying and selling of rural nostalgia has actually been a boon to small American farms. People’s idea about the pumpkin, she writes:

[H]ave revitalized the very thing it has long symbolized – the small family farm. The natural peculiarites of the crop, its meanings, and market conditions have all encouraged its production by small-scale growers for local markets at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The pumpkin’s increasing economic value arose out of the deep meanings Americans invested in it, and its increased commodification helped rejuvinate small-scale farmers and small rural towns rather than undermine them.*

Pumpkin flavored beers: nothing wrong with that!

Pumpkin flavored beers: nothing wrong with that!

It seems, then, that however annoying and shameless, the commercial onslaught that is pumpkin flavored-stuff will likely continue — even though most of that stuff likely contains no actual pumpkin. So far, this commodification has been beneficial to the great orange squash and the people who grow it. Moreover, by continuing to worship the pumpkin via attending the sacred church of American capitalist consumption, you are keeping the age-old Jeffersonian tradition of the Agrarian ideal alive and well. Even if you’re a suburban office dweller, by eating pumpkin flavored-stuff, you nonetheless gain a primal connection to Jefferson’s mythic, virtuous, independent yeomen — and that should make you downright sick with glorious American-ness.

So this fall, go on and enjoy your pumpkin flavored coffees, chocolates, pies, and, especially, beers. You can be safe in the knowledge that you are helping to stimulate the American economy, especially those fabled “small businesses,” via the cultural consumption of a storied American icon.

* Cindy Ott, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), 7.