Tag Archives: Fox News

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.

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Climate Change Denial and the American Authoritarian Tradition

Fox News, the official propaganda network of the Republican Party and the favorite

Fox News, the official propaganda network of the Republican Party and the favorite “news” station for neck-vein bulging, grumpy old men everywhere, totally doesn’t buy climate change.

A lot of people in America don’t believe in anthropomorphic climate change, or, as it’s more colloquially known as, global warming. You see, it snowed this past winter in Squeallikeapiggyville, North Carolina, so that must mean that global warming is a big hoax concocted by pointy-headed, anti-Jesus, scientific Satanists hell-bent on promoting a vast, global climate conspiracy for the nefarious purpose of…securing grants to study the climate. You know, as far as conspiracies go, that one is pretty damn lame — especially when you consider the far grander designs for world conquest proposed by the New World Order, the Reptilian Lizard People, and Justin Bieber.

But the utter ridiculousness of a world-wide conspiracy to secure funding for scientific papers hasn’t stopped an army of right-wing interests from convincing one in four Americans that climate change isn’t real. More importantly, only a measly twenty-four percent of registered Republicans believe that humans are contributing to climate change. And there’s the kicker: climate change denial is, for all intents and purposes, a conservative phenomenon. If you’re a believer in right-wing political theology, there’s a good chance you think that global warming is a giant liberal hoax.

Case in point: as Salon’s Lindsay Abrams notes, one of Fox News’ resident ogres, the always glum Charles Krauthammer, recently dismissed the scientific consensus on global warming. “Ninety-nine percent of physicists convinced that space and time were fixed until Einstein working in a patent office wrote a paper in which he showed that they are not,” Sir Charles observed before defiantly declaring that, “I’m not impressed by numbers. I’m not impressed by consensus.” In response, the generally erudite Jonathan Chait points out that Sir Charles was basically dismissing the very idea of scientific expertise. “Krauthammer here has taken a radically skeptical position not merely on climate science, but on all science,” Chait writes, “given the provisional and socially constructed peer pressure driving the consensus theory of aerodynamics, it is amazing that he is willing to travel in an airplane.”

So what is it about conservatives in particular that makes them so skeptical of an issue with such solid and overwhelming scientific consensus? Well, you could say that they’re just dumb, and in some cases that would be true. But in most cases, it’s not that conservatives are stupid, or that they reject all appeals to authority; rather, they’re all about authority — as long as that authority supports a consensus that keeps conservatives in positions of power.

Conservatives like Krauthammer dismiss the overwhelming evidence for global warming not because they aren’t convinced by the evidence, but because they know that accepting the reality of global warming would potentially damage the business interests — specifically the fossil fuel industry — that wield vast amounts of power in American politics by providing the funding that supports right-wing politicians and pundits. As shown in a ground-breaking recent study by scholars Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, America is not a functional democracy; instead, it’s basically an oligarchy: a governing structure in which a small number of people — the business elites — control the political system. Political power in America rests within the authority of the superrich business lobby, and, for conservatives, this authority of wealth is the only authority that matters.

Don't worry about the melting ice caps, folks, Fox News says this will improve the property values in Palm Beach.

Don’t worry about the melting ice caps, folks, Fox News says this will improve the property values in Palm Beach.

This authoritarian preference — based on the idea that those in power must wield control over their considerably more numerous subordinates so as to assure an orderly society — is the defining characteristic of conservatism. It’s why conservatives promote the power of employers over employees; it’s why they demand that the state deny a woman her right to choose, and it’s why they reject climate science. In each of these cases, conservatives support the agents that are already in power so that those agents can retain their power over various subordinate groups. Krauthammer and his ilk fully understand that admitting to the reality of climate change might spur a cultural push, if not political legislation, to curb the largely untrammeled power of business interests to effectively shape American policy. Plus, liberals are in favor of stopping global warming, so there’s that.

The authoritarian instinct is also the common thread that unites religious social conservatives with libertarian conservatives who might otherwise reject religious beliefs and champion a more libertine approach to social behavior. Both groups center their ideologies on appeals to unquestioned authority. For social conservatives, that authority is the Christian God; for libertarians, that authority is the god of the free market. The core that holds these otherwise different groups of conservatives together is the notion that authority, whether it be God or the god of the marketplace, MUST NOT be questioned. Further, those who do have the brass gonads to question these supreme authorities are labeled foolish heathens or commie pinkos. Either way, conservatives view challenges to authority as illegitimate, even if those challenges come from, say, scientific experts.

For all of their differences, nearly all American conservatives believe in the inalienable authority of capitalism to the point where the lines delineating God from the god of the marketplace become blurred. When the market’s authority is challenged, is makes right wingers susceptible to embracing conspiracy theories as a way of dismissing legitimate challenges to capitalism’s authority.

Of course, people of all political ideologies are susceptible to conspiracy theories, but conservatives are especially prone to these loony ideas. Does anyone really think that ANY amount of actual data and evidence would convince hardcore climate change-deniers to change their minds? Of course not. Like all conspiracy theorists, these people have an ideologically vested interest in disbelieving global warming: they don’t WANT global warming to be real because if it were real, it would mean that there were (gasp!) negative consequences to the unlimited spewing of toxins into the ozone — and that would mean that capitalist development wasn’t (shock!) one-hundred bazillion percent perfect and beneficial! So, global warming deniers have convinced themselves that climate change isn’t real. Say what you will about Al Gore, but he was right: the most rejected truths really are the inconvenient truths that threaten to upend cherished human beliefs.

But conservatives are able to get away with their slavish devotion to the authority of capitalism thanks to the unique trajectory of American history. As historian William Leach observes in his book Land of Desire, the era that closed out the nineteenth century firmly linked capitalism to American identity. After 1885, Leach writes, mass industrialization and the growth of consumer culture created an American democracy defined by accumulation of wealth and predicated on the idea that wealth and the ownership of consumer goods equaled freedom — and power. “This highly individualistic conception of democracy emphasized self-pleasure and self-fulfillment over community or civic well-being,” Leach writes. Thus, “democracy could be ensured through the benign genius of the ‘free market’,  which allocated to Americans an infinitely growing supply of goods and services.”*

Of course, linking American freedom so thoroughly to capitalist consumption also elevated business elites to the pinnacle of American power and influence. In a society where buying and selling became the be-all and end-all of human existence, those who facilitated mass consumerism and wealth acquisition became American demigods, even as the shares of American wealth have been highly unequal in the past, and continue to be vastly unequal today.

America: land of the free, home of the shopper, global warming be damned!

America: land of the free, home of the shopper, global warming be damned!

Conservatives sanction this type of extreme consumer society because it sustains the authority of the already-powerful. Moreover, they gain widespread public support for their god of the marketplace thanks to what scholar Nelson Lichtenstein calls the “ideological trope” that asserts that, “democratic institutions are bound to flourish in a market society composed of numerous nodes of autonomous economic and institutional power.”* In other words, as long as Americans see themselves as free to buy all the crap they want, they’ll see themselves as wholly free.

This is why conservatives have made climate change denial a popular issue: they frame the issue as a threat to capitalism and thus, a threat to people’s unlimited ability to buy stuff, which Americans, in turn, see as a threat to their freedom. Hence, right-wing media mollusks like Charles Krauthammer aren’t denying climate change because they don’t think it’s real; they’re denying climate change because they see it as a vehicle through which liberals want to sneak critiques of unfettered capitalism by drawing attention to how market forces harm the natural environment. Krauhammer and other like-minded goons feed climate change denial to the masses by using consumerist language that appeals to Americans’ pocketbooks: “Any initiatives to address climate change will tax you more, raise your gas prices, and threaten your jobs.”

Right-wing climate change-deniers get away with such nonsense because American culture has historically fused consumer capitalism and national identity to the point where even suggesting that the two ideas might not be completely compatible invokes warnings of the second-coming of Chairman Mao. This is why appeals to rational evidence make no headway in the conservative mind: anything that threatens the authority of capitalism and, by extension, conservative power, is grounds for dismissal. On the plus side, we may be getting a hell of a lot more beachfront communities in the near-future, which will be great for vacation-minded, freedom-loving American consumers.

* See William R. Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1993), 6.

* See Nelson Lichtenstein, ed., American Capitalism: Social Thought and Political Economy in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 7.

Cliven Bundy, The Negro, and Poor White Trash

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is the epitome of the VERY angry white guy.

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is the epitome of the VERY angry white guy.

Anyone who pays any attention whatsoever to the 24-hour American news circle-jerk is by now familiar with the ongoing saga of Cliven Bundy, the good ‘ole boy Nevada cattle rancher who’s playing chicken with the federal government over the $1 million in fees that he’s refused to pay for grazing his cattle on federally owned land. Bundy’s become a right-wing folk hero thanks to his aversion to all things “big ‘gubmint,” and he’s attracted plenty of support from armed, anti-federal government militia whack-a-loons who’ve gathered to defend Bundy against Bureau of Land Management (BLM) goon-squads.

Look, given the revelations in recent years detailing the sweeping domestic-spying power of the National Security Agency (NSA), among other issues, criticism of excessive federal power is certainly warranted. But Cliven Bundy’s political views are weirdly a-historical: he denies the existence and authority of the United States Federal Government. In this respect, Bundy de facto rejects the federal constitution as implemented by the Founders back in 1787 and instead lives his twenty-first century life inside a constructed fantasy-world in which the old Articles of Confederation still constitute the law of the land. But while I could (and probably will) write more about Bundy’s political views, I’m instead going to focus on his unique take on race in America.

Thus, we come to a little statement Bundy made, caught on video, in which he detailed his thoughts on black culture. “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” Bundy said when describing a public-housing project in Las Vegas, “in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do.” And why were these black people so shiftless, according to Bundy?

“[T]hey were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Predictably and justifiably, Bundy’s comments received widespread criticism and even caused political supporters like libertarian homunculus Rand Paul (R-KY) to back off from their previous ballz-out support for the rancher. Bundy’s comments repeat the “blacks as poor urban criminals and welfare cheats” meme that has infected American culture for well over a century. This meme influences every major American domestic policy decision, and it’s one of the secret/not-so-secret reasons why many-a-voter (like Bundy) votes Republican (even some who are registered Democrats). Just think about dealing with your racist relatives at Thanksgiving and you’ll know what I mean.

The most damaging aspect of this critique of the alleged deviancy of “black culture” (a topic about which I’ve written here) is that it denies African-Americans their right to live as individuals. Instead, by lumping all black people into the category of “the negro,” even individual black Americans must exist as representatives of a broader “black culture.” Thus, if you’re, say, a successful professor who happens to be black, American culture holds you responsible for the actions of other black people who commit crimes — because they’re black too. Makes sense, right? We do the same thing for whites, don’t we?

Don't worry, other white people, these poor white trash folk don't reprensent "white culture." Image by Shelby Lee Adams.

Don’t worry, other white people, these poor white trash folk don’t represent “white culture.” Image by Shelby Lee Adams.

No we don’t. And let me provide an example from the nineteenth century to show that we don’t. As you may know, there exists a sub-group of white people in America, generally confined to rural areas and small towns, who’re pejoratively labeled as “rednecks,” “crackers,” “hillbillies,”  “yokels,” “trailer trash,” and other similar titles. In the nineteenth century, middle and upper-class white southerners often called these people “‘poor white trash,” and they often critiqued what they saw as the negative habits on display by this group.

Among the most studious observers of poor southern whites was Alabama lawyer D.R. Hundley. In his 1860 book, Social Relations in Our Southern States, Hundley divided southern whites into seven camps that ranged from the “southern gentleman” (planters) at the top to “poor white trash” at the bottom. While he distinguished these group of southern whites by financial affluence, he also argued that blood lines influenced different groups’ manners and habits — the worst of which were displayed by the poor white trash.

According to Hundley, “laziness” was the chief characteristic of poor whites. “They are about the laziest two-legged animals that walk erect on the face of the Earth,” he wrote, “even their motions are slow, and their speech is a sickening drawl.” Hundley added that “all they seem to care for, is, to live from hand to mouth; to get drunk, provided they can do so without having to trudge too far after their liquor.” Poor whites also liked to eat, sleep, and lie around all day, and Hundley wrote that, “we do not believe the worthless ragamuffins would put themselves to much extra locomotion to get out of a shower of rain; and we know they would shiver all day with cold, with wood all around them, before they would trouble themselves to pick it up and build a fire.”*

Hundley’s descriptions of lazy poor whites should remind you of Cliven Bundy’s description of shiftless, porch-squatting Las Vegas blacks who “didn’t have nothing to do.” Indeed, well-off white people have often lumped poor whites and blacks into the “lazy and shiftless” camp. But Hundley’s poor whites get a level of grace that still isn’t granted to blacks, because poor whites don’t represent all whites. Heck, poor white trash were just one category of whites, and they even shared their upper and middle-class peers’ belief in white supremacy. “The Poor Whites of the South seldom come in contact with the slaves at all, and thousands of them never saw a negro,” Hundley wrote, “still, almost to a man, they are pro-slavery in sentiment…from downright envy and hatred of the black man.”*

Cliven Bundy yearns for a time when black people had decent jobs and weren't lazy, as depicted in this picture.

Cliven Bundy yearns for a time when black people had decent jobs and weren’t lazy, as depicted in this picture.

That’s right, despite all of their crude laziness, which Hundley attributed to a combination of genetic lineage and ingrained habits, poor whites could still claim solidarity with planters and yeomen via their shared hatred of blacks. That’s because “blacks” represented a vast, amorphous, enslaved demographic group defined by broad, negative cultural traits, but poor whites were just that: a sub-group of whites that never symbolized “whiteness” in general and never represented “whites” as a whole. Contrast that with the way modern Cliven Bundy-types still characterize “blacks” as a broad group of people suffering from a shared cultural dysfunction that leaves them prone to crime, deviancy, promiscuity, and other bad habits. To Bundy and his ilk, the blacks on Las Vegas porches aren’t even “poor blacks:” they’re just “blacks” in general, and they need to fix “their” deviant culture.

So remember Cliven Bundy’s comments the next time you read a story about meth-head white trash in Appalachia or prescription drug abuse in the nation’s Heartland, and ask yourself: what’s wrong with white culture that would make these people act like that? If you feel weird saying it that way, that’s because, in America, there isn’t any “white culture” in need of uplift. Whites get to be individuals, but blacks still have to be “blacks.” And that’s a problem.

* See D.R. Hundley, Social Relations in Our Southern States (New York: Henry B. Price, 1860), 262-3, 273.

Todd Starnes, Fox News, and Nostalgia’s Twisted History

Tod Starnes, the epitomome of American manhood, thinks the Doobie Brothers never smoked weed.

Fleshy Fox News gas geyser Todd Starnes, the epitome of American manhood, thinks the Doobie Brothers never smoked weed. Isn’t that precious.

It’s a fairly well-established trope in American politics that conservatives are overly obsessed with the past. Anyone whose ever spent time experiencing the ear-invading ceti-eel that is conservative talk-radio, or viewing the idiot-box propaganda that is Fox News knows that conservatives love to reference a past that was invariably better than the allegedly freedom-crushing nightmare of the Obama era.

For those to the right of the political spectrum, the space-time continuum is defined by two — and only two — eras: before and after the authoritarian reign of Barack Obama. And, of course, the era before Obama’s conquest was much better (and whiter). That’s because conservatives imagine the past to be a simpler, morally superior time, and they want to return to that time pronto!

The problem with yearning for a more wholesome (and by extension, less liberal) time is that such a time never actually existed. The idea of a simpler American past over which right-wingers salivate like golden retrievers anticipating a bag of Beggin’ Strips is, in fact, a past constructed from nostalgia.

In his classic article “Nostalgia and the American,” the historian Arthur Dudden defined nostalgia as “a preference for things as they are believed to have been.”* Conservatives use nostalgia to rally their followers (usually, but not exclusively, grey-haired, government-hating medicare beneficiaries) into supporting Republican political candidates who promise to destroy liberalism and bring America back to a mythical time when the federal government was non-existent and most people lived in a version of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, went to church every day, and didn’t have to deal with teh gayz.

Case in point: Todd Starnes — a pasty cross between Lou Dobbs and Lewis from Revenge of the Nerds who regularly serves as Fox News’ resident front-line correspondent for the non-existent “culture wars” — has written a new book that uses nostalgia to condemn all-things liberal. Brilliantly titled God Less America: Real Stories from the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values (conservatives don’t do irony), Starnes’ book is a standard collection of right-wing boilerplate describing the so-called assault on Christian values by the ever-expanding army of liberal heathens who are apparently intent on dragging the U.S. into a hellish orgy of critical thinking and secularism.

In most respects, Starnes’ screed differs little from the stack of conservative polemics published by the (now-threatened) right-wing book industry on a yearly basis that warn of America’s impending slide into moral anarchy. But Starnes’ book is notable thanks to its unbelievable reliance on hackneyed nostalgic clichés to describe a completely fictitious American past in which conservatism reigned supreme and that Barack Obama took away.

As this Andy Griffith statue in Raleigh, North Carolina demonstarte, the myth of a Mayberry-style small town still shapes American identity.

As this Andy Griffith statue in Raleigh, North Carolina demonstrates, the myth of a Mayberry-style small town still shapes American identity.

Andrew Kirell over at Mediaite first alerted me to the truly Shaksperian verbiage contained within Starnes’ mighty tome, and he dares people to actually get through the first six pages without bursting into uncontrollable (and possibly dangerous) fits of laughter. Take these paragraphs from Starnes’ Introduction,* in which the Fox News poet layeth down the corn-pone characteristics that defined his humble youth in small-town America:

I grew up in a much simpler time — when blackberry was a pie and dirty dancing meant somebody forgot to clean out the barn for the square dance. It was a time when father still knew best — when the girls were girls and the men were men. I grew up in a time when a rainbow was a sign of God’s promise, not gay rights.

And:

When I grew up, spam was something you ate and a hard drive was the twelve-hour trip to grandma’s house without any bathroom breaks. It was a time when a virus was cleared up with a bowl of chicken soup, not the Geek Squad from Best Buy. It was a time when Doobie was a brother and hip-hop was something a bunny rabbit did.

In a truly stunning feat of deception laced with stupidity, Starnes uses nostalgia to create a fictitious American past that is completely untethered from any actual time and space. Just look at the disparate pop-culture references he manages to cram into those two paragraphs: Square-dancing hasn’t been en vogue since at least the late-1970s; the film Dirty Dancing (which Starnes references to comment on the decline of American sexual values) came out in 1987; Best Buy’s Geek Squad was founded in 1994, and modern computers have been around in some form or another since the 1970s. This alleged “time” when Starnes “grew up” is an imaginary past that he created using nostalgia to stitch together disparate time-periods and pop-culture references into a mythical American historical cloth.

And then there’s the sheer obtuseness displayed in some of Starnes’ references to pop-culture, which he uses to contrast a simpler past with a more complicated present. Seriously, is there anything simple about what goes into making a can of Spam?! And what about the reference to a “Doobie” being merely a “brother?” If Starnes thinks that the name of seventies band the Doobie Brothers wasn’t a verbal nod to smoking weed — then he’s really, really dumb. Starnes commits the cardinal sin of all nostalgia mongers: he believes that because the past happened before, then it must have been simpler than what happened after. Of course, as historians have long pointed out, the past was never, ever “simple.”

So why do Starnes and other conservatives insist on viewing the past through nostalgia-colored lenses? Well, they do so because nostalgia simplifies the past and purports to offer solutions to problems in the present. In his book, Starnes invokes what scholar Andrew Murphy calls “Golden Age politics” by reappropriating the past in order to present a “solution to present difficulties.” Murphy writes that “nostalgic and Golden Age politics depend on the…claim that some aspect of the past offers the best way forward in addressing the inadequacies and corruptions of the present.”* In God Less America, Starnes is doing just that by claiming that the (fictional) America of his youth was simpler and, by extension, better than, the overly complex and morally depraved present that is the Obama era.

I’ve written about nostalgia before, particularly in reference to the reality show American Pickers and in terms of how nostalgia shapes the enduring myth of small-town U.S.A., and I’ve noted that nostalgia in-and-of-itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in some circumstances, it CAN be a bad thing, especially when conservatives use it reshape the past in an effort to disingenuously comment on the present.

Writing in the 1960s, Arthur Dudden recognized how nostalgia, which he characterized as a type of “cultural homesickness,” could be manipulated to serve devious ends. “Nostalgia implies a certain dissatisfaction with present circumstances, and very likely also a dissatisfaction with the apparent direction of trends leading into the future,” Dudden wrote — and I’ll be damned if he didn’t describe the essence of modern conservatism as promoted by Todd Starnes.*

For Todd Starnes, America begins and ends with this painting.

For Todd Starnes, America begins and ends with this painting.

But by invoking a mythical past to fix what they see as a “broken” present, conservatives like Starnes fail to see how their own beliefs and policies have shaped a contemporary world that seems so much more complex and amoral than the “simple” past they claim to remember. Consider conservatives’ sanctification of free market capitalism. As Erica Grieder notes, “capitalism encourages mobility and disruption. It therefore represents a particular challenge to the traditional structures, like family or civil society, that used to represent a person’s personal safety net.” Grieder recognizes how the inherent dynamism of capitalism pays no heed to traditional structures like family, church, and small-town communities that conservatives want to preserve.

All of the complexities of modern society — which Starnes sees embodied in things like the Blackberry device, the film industry, popular music, the internet age, and urbanization — are the direct result of the relentless free-market dynamism that conservatives promote. Market forces drive the onslaught of technology by creating products that people want to buy, and if, in the process, these same market forces decimate small towns by shipping jobs to Third World countries, or make employment so scarce that tight-knit families and communities are forced to split up in order to find work that is increasingly concentrated in big cities, as opposed to the small towns over which Starnes waxes nostalgic, then so be it.

Market capitalism doesn’t care about disrupting American social institutions, but Todd Starnes does, and like other conservatives, he’s unable to recognize how his undying support for free-market capitalism creates the contemporary conditions that he views as far less simple than the idealized past that he longs to return to in God Less America. And therein lies the dangerous aspect of nostalgia: by creating a fictional and overly simplified vision of the past, it renders people unable to deal with the present as it is.

While it’s worth reiterating that nostalgia isn’t always a bad thing, it’s nonetheless something that can prevent people from understanding the very real complexities of the modern world. Shameless nostalgia mongers like Todd Starnes only make things worse by promoting a past that never existed in order to fix a present that they simply don’t like. So suck it up Todd; your gay rainbow is here to stay.

* See Todd Starnes, God Less America: Real Stories from the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2014), 1-2.

* See Arthur P. Dudden, “Nostalgia and the American,” Journal of the History of Ideas 22 (Oct. – Dec., 1961): 517.

* See Andrew R. Murphy, “Longing, Nostalgia, and Golden Age Politics: The American Jeremiad and the Power of the Past,” Perspectives on Politics 7 (Mar., 2009): 126.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Napolitano then dropped this mind-blowing piece of nonsense:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear of a Black Santa: Kris Kringle and the Historical Color of American Identity

The gloriously 1970s-ish album cover for Akim's 19773 Christmas novelty tune, "Santa Claus is a Black Man."

The gloriously 1970s-ish album cover for Akim’s 1973 Christmas novelty tune, “Santa Claus is a Black Man.”

Everybody knows what Santa Claus looks like, right? Sure we do: he’s an obese, hirsute, exceptionally jolly home invader who shows up in malls, Christmas parades, and your living room every December armed with a sack full of goodies with the intention of teaching well-behaving youngsters the value of rampant materialism. Oh, and Santa is a white guy. We know all of these facts despite the overwhelming fact that Santa isn’t even real. Yes, I’m sorry Virginia, but Santa Claus is indeed a mythical figure. Yet, as anyone whose studied comparative religions knows, humans often imbue mythical figures with the very real powers to shape social discourse. How humans perceive mythical figures speaks volumes about the way they perceive important issues in their society.

Case in point: writer Aisha Harris, in a recent a column for Slate, recounts how, during her youth, the overwhelming cultural image of a white Santa Claus contrasted with the depictions of a black Santa in her own home. “I remember feeling slightly ashamed that our black Santa wasn’t the ‘real thing,’ Harris writes, “[b]ecause when you’re a kid and you’re inundated with the imagery of a pale seasonal visitor…you’re likely to accept the consensus view, despite your parents’ noble intentions.” Harris goes on to suggest, only semi-jokingly, that Santa should be changed into a penguin, because having such an omnipresent cultural figure depicted as a white guy “helps perpetuate the whole ‘white-as-default‘ notion endemic to American culture.”

Following the publication of Harris’ article, Fox News host Megyn Kelly decided to squelch any attempts to colorize St. Nick by defiantly reasserting that “Santa just is white.” Leaving aside the obvious weirdness of arguing over the racial background of a figure that doesn’t actually exist, Kelly’s comments stirred plenty of internet outrage. Liberal media outlets like Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show mocked Kelly relentlessly (she also claimed, in the same segment, that Jesus was a white guy), while the Los Angeles Times insisted, per input from its readership, that there’s nothing wrong with a black Santa.

Of course, Fox News, being the undisputed media Delphi of white, reactionary outrage that it is, came to Kelly’s defence. Bill O’Reilly, self-proclaimed “Culture Warrior,” and noted General on the front lines of the non-existent “War on Christmasreasserted that “Megyn Kelly is correct. Santa was a white person.” Following this unequivocal statement about Santa’s honky heritage, O’Reilly then claimed that “the spirit of Santa transcends all racial boundaries,” as long as those boundaries don’t move beyond that of a white guy.

So what’s the big deal here? On the one hand, the whole “Black Santa” controversy can be attributed to the needs of the now standard 24 hour news cycle to fill airspace with vacuous, manufactured tripe. Fox News itself excels at turning absolutely any story into an excuse for its white, geriatric viewership to snatch persecution from the jaws of privilege. But there is an important theme underlying this whole story. As I noted above, and in case you weren’t aware, Santa Claus isn’t real. In that respect, he has no race or ethnicity. So why do so many Americans care about the race of a mythical, jolly, bearded fat guy who gives kids toys every December 24th? Americans care because what constitutes a default “American” racial identity has always been a contested concept.

Much of the trajectory of American history can be defined by a dichotomy of black and white and the struggles that dichotomy unleashed over time. In the 18th and 19th centuries, notions of “blackness” and “whiteness” weren’t just markers of outward appearances; rather, these notions also symbolized broader concepts like “slavery” and “freedom.” In his classic book Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860, Historian William J. Cooper identifies the symbiotic existence of slavery and freedom in early American history by observing that for white Americans, especially southerners in a slave society, slavery was the real, manifested opponent of freedom. Seeing black slaves in their midst constantly reaffirmed white Americans’ own identities as free citizens of the United States.*

Indeed, from the constitutional period up to the Civil War, white Americans equated blackness not only with slavery but also with the idea of “otherness;” that blacks did not share a truly American identity with whites. The early juxtaposition of black slavery with white freedom helped forge the still existent notion that equates whiteness with American identity and blackness as somehow an aberration from the cultural default that is an American white face.

Fox News' host Bill O'Reilly: defender of Christmas and a honky Santa Claus.

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly: defender of Christmas and a honky Santa Claus.

Even after the Civil War, when slavery ceased to exist as a legal institution, the idea that blackness somehow constituted a “lesser-than” form of otherness in an American sea of “normal” whiteness survived and thrived. As historian Grace Elizabeth Hale notes, white northerners and white southerners sought to reconcile after the Civil War, and it was a reconciliation grounded in “modern whiteness” that contrasted with the “culture of segregation” that marked African-Americans as legally and culturally inferior to whites by the turn-of-the-century.* Although they were no longer slaves, blacks were still a cultural and racial minority who were denied equal rights because of their blackness well into the 20th century.

The idea that blackness has historically be seen as an aberration from the “normalcy” of (white) American identity is hard for actual white people like Megyn Kelly to comprehend. For them, whiteness “just is,” just as Santa Claus is white because he “just is.” Kelly and other white Americans can’t understand why anyone would care if a beloved mythical character is claimed by white people because they don’t take the time to try to view American society from the perspective of someone not blessed by white privilege. Whiteness, according to sociologist George Lipsitz, is “the unmarked category against which difference is constructed.” This means that “whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations.”* This is the fog of white privilege: it allows those who benefit from it to claim ignorance of its very existence and criticize those who see white privilege from an outsider’s perspective as misguided or “politically correct.”

Hence, Bill O’Reilly can simultaneously assert that “Santa was a white person. Does that matter? No. It doesn’t matter.” But of course it matters: it matters to O’Reilly, hence his devoting airtime to firmly establishing the racial provenance of a mythical figure. In one sense, however, O’Reilly is right; Santa Claus is a white man because the dominant (white) American culture created him in its own image.

In America, Santa Claus is what scholars call an “invented tradition,” defined by the late scholar Eric Hobsbawm as “a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.” Invented traditions claim to have a rich history, even though they’re usually rather new, and they tend to reflect the values of those who create them. It’s no surprise, then, that Santa Claus, who was popularized in the early 19th century by the dominating white members of an American white supremacist society, emerged as white. After all, by that point in U.S. history, whiteness had itself become a tradition invented by those who gained the most from it.

In his great book The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’ Most Cherished Holiday, historian Stephen Nissenbaum explains how Santa Claus falls squarely into the realm of invented tradition. The American Santa Claus as we know him: white, fat, jolly, bearded, and prone to squeezing down chimneys to give toys to deserving rug-rats, emerged in the 1820s from the writings of Clement Clark Moore, the patrician New Yorker who wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas” (1823). Moore’s depiction of Santa Claus inspired the cartoonist Thomas Nast to create later iconic images of Santa that fixed the jolly holiday icon into the American popular imagination as a character who had always been there, even though he had only been invented, in an American context, in the 1820s.*

An iconic image of a (white) Santa Claus by Thomas Nast. From Harper's Weekly, 1881.

An iconic image of a (white) Santa Claus by Thomas Nast. From Harper’s Weekly, 1881.

The fact that Santa Claus emerged as a white guy was a given, considering the historical time period during which he became a fixture in American culture. But American culture was, and in many respects remains, a culture projected through the default prism of whiteness. Thus, conservatives who become apoplectic over attempts to topple the pasty-white image of Santa Claus are really fearing the loss of white privilege that such attempts symbolize.

If the whiteness of such an iconic character as Santa Claus can be challenged, then whiteness itself, or at least the inherent privilege that comes with whiteness, can also be challenged. Those who benefit the most from the projection and consumption of white privilege via mass media, such as highly paid Fox News anchors, have much to lose from the gradual erosion of whiteness as the default characteristic of American identity. Of course, if you’re one of those people who understand that traditions can and should be changed, then the idea of a black Santa should be no more threatening than the idea of a black president. Both images reflect long overdue changes to an America in which one cultural perspective wielded far too much influence. A “White Christmas” indeed.

* See William J. Cooper, Jr., Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983, 2000), 30-31.

* See Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (New York: Vintage, 1998), 9.

* See  George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), 1.

* See Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday (New York: Vintage, 1996), 65-89.