Tag Archives: George W. Bush

Social Security: America’s Longest Legislative War

President Barack Obama delivers the 2015 State of the Union Address. Behind him, Vice-President  Joe Biden thinks about capturing Bigfoot while Speaker of the House John Boehner imagines constructing a tanning salon in the House chamber.

President Barack Obama delivers the 2015 State of the Union Address. Behind him, Vice-President Joe Biden thinks about capturing Bigfoot, while Speaker of the House John Boehner imagines constructing a tanning salon in the House chamber.

The State of the Union Address is typically an annual demonstration of frictional political masturbation, in which the sitting Chief Executive uses up an entire bottle of presidential speech-writers’ lube in an attempt to assure the American public that the future is bright and that they aren’t getting royally screwed from every possible angle by a sweaty, panting, Viagra-popping combination of sociopathic plutocrats and re-election-obsessed government drones. As a result, the SOTU usually ends up as a crusty rhetorical sock in the national bedroom’s unattended hamper: forgotten, unacknowledged, a source of necessary shame.

But on January 20, 2015, President Barack Obama, a Commander-in-Chief now well into the twilight, lame-duck years of his two-terms in the Oval Office, decided to kick off his last years in power by using the State of the Union address to launch a bucket-full of rhetorical grenades into the squawking macaw gallery that is the Republican Party. Now free from the burden of re-election, and facing a conservative-controlled House and Senate that won’t touch his legislative proposals with a thirty-nine and a half-foot pole, Obama nonetheless gave a full-throated defense of American liberalism. He defended the use of government to mitigate the blunt force of market fundamentalism that, for decades now, has left American wages stagnant, has flooded the one-percent’s coffers with Scrooge McDuck levels of cash, and has turned the government into one giant, sticky-floored lobbyists’ whore-house. Continue reading

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The Enduring Popularity of Nazi Comparisons in American Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iraq, ISIS, and the Legacy of American Redemptive Violence

Some angry dude from ISIS shows off a missle that is in no way compensating for anything else.

Some angry dude from ISIS shows off a missile that is in no way compensating for anything else.

Iraq. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, amiright?! You’d think that after America flexed its collective freedom muscles and bombed the shit out of liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein — the dictator that America once supported — that all of the Fertile Crescent would rejoice at the chance to bow before the benevolent, freedom-extolling Yankee occupying forces. Because, after all; freedom! But nooooooo, Iraq had to go ahead and turn itself into one of the biggest American foreign policy blunders ever — maybe even out-porking the Bay of Pigs. And so, the current American President, Barack Obama, has been forced to deal with the latest Mesopotamian morass known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — or ISIS, for short.

I discussed ISIS in a previous post about the dangers of American nation-building, but let’s briefly recap who these jolly jihadists actually are. ISIS is essentially a group of über pissed off Sunni Muslim extremists, and they trace their origins to the Al Qaeda faction that emerged in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Conservatives in particular are making ISIS out to be the scariest group of foreign brown people since the last scary group of foreign brown people. But the group’s military gains in Iraq aren’t particularly impressive when you consider that the U.S.-trained-and-equipped Iraqi army decided to run without even cutting, thereby allowing ISIS to capture several Iraqi cities and seize plenty of military goodies to further their goals.

And their goals are quite lofty. As the BBC reports, not only does ISIS want to control Iraq and Syria (you know, that OTHER Middle-Eastern country that’s in total chaos right now) but it also wants to “create a broader Islamic caliphate.” Hey, give them credit for thinking big.

And so, facing increasing pressure from American conservatives (who have soooo much credibility when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East) to stop being “passive” about ISIS’ reign of terror, president Obama gave a speech on  September 10, 2014 in which he outlined his plans for dealing with the latest Iraq sh*tstorm. Obama’s speech was actually well-thought-out. He reiterated that ISIS doesn’t represent Islam as a whole — since most of the group’s victims have been Muslims — and noted that the U.S. had already been conducting air-strikes against ISIS. But the president also noted that U.S. forces alone can’t — and shouldn’t — destroy ISIS, so he outlined a multi-pronged strategy based on a combination of continued air-strikes, collaboration with anti-ISIS forces and the Iraqi government, and general anti-terrorism strategies that will, with luck, help put a stop to the cock-sure caliphatin’ conquerors. But above all else, Obama emphatically reassured Americans that the fight against ISIS “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”

This was about as reassuring as any American president, regardless of his political party, could be in this type of situation. What Obama is wrestling with, nay, what America is wrestling with, is the world’s continued refusal to accept the supposedly superiority of U.S. freedom-by-gunpoint. Violence has always been an essential part of American identity, and throughout its history, the U.S. has embraced the redemptive power of violence in order to influence people inside and outside of its borders into embracing the supposed righteousness and beneficence of freedom, American-style.

Now, let’s be clear: I certainly don’t mean to condone ISIS, or any other of the Middle East’s Islamic terrorist clubs. These guys are downright barbaric; the worst type of religious fundamentalist scum, and every single one of them deserves to get a missile up his ass and lice in his beard. But the problem in Iraq goes beyond ISIS or any other single group. The real problem is the United States’ history of embracing a providential mission to violently spread its own vision of freedom in the world. The history of American violence is bolstered by a potent mix of secular and sacred beliefs, and America’s vision of making the world embrace its own brand of freedom has too often been a vision that mistakes strength for wisdom, substitutes forethought with vengeance, and creates wrathful enemies instead of passive subjects.

President Obama is aware of the need to maintain an extremely delicate balance between appeasing national calls to reign down Hell on the ISIS insurgency while also trying to make sure that the U.S. isn’t stuck playing terrorist whack-a-mole in Iraq for the next hundred years. A key moment in his speech came when Obama tried to embrace the long-held belief that America must use violence to redeem the world in the name of freedom while acknowledging that, quite often, this type of violence only begets more violence and chaos. “American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world,” he said, “it is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists.” But the president also admitted that, “America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.”

In trying to prevent the violence caused by the ISIS nutcases, the U.S. is likely creating conditions for even more violence. Photo from Reuters.

In trying to prevent the violence caused by the ISIS nutcases, the U.S. is likely creating conditions for even more violence. Photo from Reuters.

Therein lies the problem: America has always welcomed the responsibility to lead, but sometimes it doesn’t realize that its leadership might be misguided. The U.S. has too often demonstrated its “endless blessings” through religiously motivated, redemptive violence, and the results have been the “enduring burden” of unintended — and often violent — consequences.

In their essay collection From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America, scholars John Carlson and Jonathan Ebel emphasize how the sacred embracing of violence has colored American identity since the colonial era — with alternately beneficial and catastrophic results. Religion, they write, “has been operative in the background culture of American violence” for a very long time. The most famous of American wars: The Revolutionary War, the Mexican War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq — all “have been infused with religious rhetoric and faith-based ‘othering.'”*

This “othering” has almost always employed religious justification for violence. Consider the case of the Civil War, when both Union and Confederate clergy spouted spiritually sanctioned rhetoric to urge their respective sides to violent victory over the enemy “other.” In his book Upon the Alter of a Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, historian Harry Stout observes that violence North and South had to be “augmented by moral and spiritual arguments that could steel millions of men to the bloody business of killing one another.” Indeed, Stout notes that, “both sides needed to enlist God in their cause as both justifier and absolute guarantor of their deliverance,” and the result was that “thousands of clergymen in thousands of churches North and South” became “especially meaningful as critics or cheerleaders of the war’s conduct.”*

But quite often, Civil War-era clergymen were cheerleaders for violence in the name of a higher, providential purpose. Thus, at the outbreak of the conflict, men like the northern Universalist minister J.G. Bartholomew proclaimed that, “‘Never before since the days of the Revolutionary memory and fame has there been a call to arms that has so thrilled the great heart of our people…and set the pulse of patriotic feeling beating.'”* Similarly, James H. Elliot, an Episcopal minister in South Carolina, warned that the outbreak of war constituted “‘instinctive warnings of great importance in God’s government of the world,'” and claimed that, after the fall of Fort Sumter, the South had “‘a signal display in the powerful providence of God.'”* For both sides, the message was clear: violence should be used to annihilate enemies and enshrine American greatness because the head honcho of heaven willed it.

In the 1860s, this ‘signal display’ justified bloody war against the “other” in the name of national redemption and the promotion of earthly freedom. But the idea that God has granted America the authority to wage redemptive violence still rings loudly in the twenty-first century — a continued “enduring burden.”

Both sides in the American Civil War claimed that God sanctioned their redemptive violence. Over 600,000 died for that redemption.

Both sides in the American Civil War claimed that God sanctioned their redemptive violence. Over 600,000 died for that redemption.

Indeed, who exactly constitutes the “other” is relative and always changing. Moreover, regardless of whether the “other” deserves to be vanquished, plenty of people will die. In some cases, the foes that America has identified as “others” to fight, reform, and/or vanquish have been true villains; the Nazis, for example. In other cases, these “others,” such as Native Americans, Mexicans, and Iraqi civilians, have been unfortunate casualties who died in the name of American imperialism. By there’s an additional process to the violence that complicates America’s tendency to “other-ize” different groups: some foes, like Saddam Hussein and ISIS, might deserve a good beating, but the question remains: should America actually administer that beating?

This is the question vexing America in 2014 as it deals with yet more violent strife in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. In its willingness to use violence as a redemptive force, America has transcended its former position of supposedly speaking for a higher power and, instead, has acted the role of a small “g” secular god in itself; one that deems itself worthy of righting perceived worldly wrongs. The U.S. is willing to use violence not only to protect its own interests, but also to make sure that non-Americans get a lesson in U.S.-style freedom. President George W. Bush embarked on just such a sacredly secular adventure in Iraq in 2003, and the U.S. is still dealing with the fallout. After all, if the history of religiously motivated violence tells us nothing else, it’s that you can’t bask in the glory of the angels without encountering a few demons. And for the U.S., some of the worst demons, from Confederate rebels to ISIS, have been self-created.

Although a generic Christianity has historically justified American redemptive violence (largely because Christianity has been the majority American religion since the beginning), in 2014, American violence represents no particular denomination and is waged in the name of a civic religion that retains its Christian flavor but extols the virtue of a more general American Exceptionalism.

It’s tragically fitting that America now finds itself waging redemptive violence against Islamic foes. Islam is, after all, Christianity’s historical antagonist. And while Barack Obama, unlike past presidents (cough, cough, Dubya) tends to not wear his faith on his sleeve, he can’t help but succumb to historically established spiritual precedents for American redemptive violence. Even as the President admitted that America’s “endless blessings bestow an enduring burden,” he nonetheless concluded his speech with the refrain, “May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America.” There’s no doubt that ISIS is making similar pleas for Allah to bless their own cause, and the results will no doubt be burdens that endure for many years to come.

* See John Carlson and Jonathan Ebel, eds., From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 15.

* See Harry M. Stout, Upon the Altar of a Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006),  xvii, 37, 44.

Liberty and Security Forever? The Very Long Surveillance State Debate

Rogue NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden: whether hero and villain, he's a symbol of over 200 years of American debate over balancing liberty with security.

Rogue NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden: whether hero and villain, he’s a symbol of over 200 years of American debate over balancing liberty with security.

Are you free? No, seriously, are you really free? Do you feel that your government is protecting you from terrorists? If so, how much power should the government have to protect you from harm? Furthermore, how much power should the government have to protect itself from harm, and should you play a role in defending the state that affords you liberty and protection? These types of questions are actually quite difficult to answer if you really dig into the details of what duties and obligations come with being an American citizen.

Maintaining the supposed existential balance between liberty and security has been a hot topic in U.S. political discourse in the 12 years since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but it flared up significantly in the summer of 2013 when former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified documents to the media that detailed the NSA’s PRISM program. PRISM collects information from internet servers via Facebook, Google, Youtube and other sites. When combined with other NSA methods of collecting signals intelligence from internet companies and various communications infrastructure, the NSA effectively had the power to conduct warrantless surveillance on American citizens in the name of rooting out potential terrorists.

Snowden’s revelations caused an uproar among civil liberties advocates from all sides of the political spectrum who claimed that the NSA’s programs directly violated constitutional rights to privacy.  In response, most of the reigning political class, regardless of party, defended the NSA programs as necessary to protect American interests against terrorism. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, claimed that “it’s called protecting America,” while the House Republicans, including chairman of the House Committee on Intelligence, Mike Rogers (R-MI), held a hearing in June to defend the NSA programs as essential to national security interests. President Barack Obama has also defended the NSA, leading to accusations that he was carrying out “George W. Bush’s Fourth Term.”

The debate between liberty and security, however, is as old as the American republic itself, and presumes a possible balance between the two ideals that may be impossible to achieve. Supporters of the right to privacy against government intrusion often invoke Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” The quote has been floating through the internet ether for years, but it’s never contextualized. A while back, Brookings Institute fellow Benjamin Wittes researched the origins and context of Franklin’s quote. He found that it stems from a 1755 letter likely addressed on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly to protest the colonial governor’s refusal to let the Assembly tax Penn family lands to raise cash to defend the Pennsylvania frontier from French and Indian attacks. Thus, the colonial governor was a little too cozy with the Penns, and, as Wittes observes:

Franklin was writing not as a subject being asked to cede his liberty to government, but in his capacity as a legislator being asked to renounce his power to tax lands notionally under his jurisdiction. In other words, the “essential liberty” to which Franklin referred was thus not what we would think of today as civil liberties but, rather, the right of self-governance of a legislature in the interests of collective security.

So Franklin was complaining about the governor denying the PA Assembly’s rights as representatives of the people to raise money to defend the people’s interests. This is, of course, quite different from how the quote is used to comment on current “liberty vs. security” debates. You can read Wittes’ longer paper for Brookings that elaborates a bit more on Franklin’s quote here. I’m addressing the quote in this post because it’s generally used to support a black and white idea positing an attainable harmonic balance between liberty and security.

Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Party says you are an enemy of the state, you Jeffersonian scum!

Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party says you are an enemy of the state, you Jeffersonian scum!

Wittes thinks that no such balance is possible, and suggests instead that we consider liberty and security as “existing in a kind of ‘hostile symbiosis’ with one another—that is, mutually dependent and yet also, under certain circumstances, mutually threatening.” I think that this idea makes a bit more sense with regards to the liberty/security debate, especially when we consider two historical incidents in U.S. history, The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, and military conscription during World War I, where government power was controversially used in the name of protecting the country. Both incidents demonstrate that regardless of the reasons for alleged excessive government power in the name of security, these acts will always be simultaneously accused of inhibiting and upholding American freedoms.

Among the first major pubic flare ups of the liberty/security debate occurred in 1788 when, amidst an undeclared naval war with revolutionary-era France, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed four wartime laws collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These laws were designed both to thwart French influence in the U.S. and smite the Federalists’ political enemies, the Jeffersonian-Republicans, whom Federalist leaders like Alexander Hamilton accused of harboring French anarchist sympathies. The first three laws empowered the president to detain and deport any suspected enemy aliens during wartime and extended the U.S. naturalization process from 5 to 14 years. The fourth law, the Sedition Act, threatened jail times and fines to anyone caught writing, publishing, or possessing  “any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States.”

President John Adams never made use of his power to deport suspected aliens, but under the Sedition Act, 14 Republicans, primarily journalists, were prosecuted for criticizing the laws. Republicans howled, with good reason, that the Alien and Sedition Acts violated the First Amendment. In response, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote up the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which argued that the Federalists’ Laws gave the federal government unconstitutionally excessive powers, reaffirmed the role of states’ rights, and declared the right for states to nullify Federal laws.

Although the controversy over the Alien and Sedition Acts helped the Jeffersonian-Republicans defeat the Federalists in the 1800 election, the Virginia-Kentucky Resolutions proved controversial in their own right when southerners later used them to defend states’ rights to uphold slavery and multiple courts declared the theory of “nullification” to be unconstitutional.

Two centuries after the Alien and Sedition Acts, another long-controversial issue, conscription, again aroused debates over the balance between liberty and security. In order to field troops for American entry into World War I, Congress passed the Selective Service Act in 1917 to raise a national army via the draft. Like previous American drafts, the 1917 draft proved controversial because it often disproportionately affected the poor, who were considered more expendable as soldiers. Proponents of the draft in both the Democratic and Republican parties defended it as necessary to make those who benefitted from American freedoms defend those freedom abroad. Opponents of the draft, by contrast, criticized it as an unconstitutional affront to personal liberty.

A U.S. Draft Poster from World War I. Millions of Americans resisted despite the immanent threat posed by European ape men.

A U.S. Draft Poster from World War I. Millions of Americans resisted the draft despite the immanent threat posed by European ape men.

Resistance to the draft was particularly strong in the South, where a generation of southerners raised on Populist agrarian radicalism rejected the Great War as a tool to serve the financial and industrial interests of northeastern elites. As Jeannette Keith observes in her excellent book Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War, “28 percent of the nation’s deserters came from the states of the former Confederacy,” and, “if southern men refused to even register at a rate that reflected their proporation of the national population,” then a half-million never even signed up for the draft.*

Keith calls World War I “the birthplace of the American surveillance state.” Through laws like the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act, and the Trading with the Enemy Act, “Congress effectively criminalized antiwar speech.”* Southerners’ evasion of the federally induced World War I draft spurred the federal government to implement widespread domestic surveillance in the South in the name of rooting out anti-war traitors. The Bureau of Investigation’s spy network targeted regular southerners in addition to pacifists, leftists, Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World Union members), and African-Americans. Keith explains that the Bureau of Investigation’s Agents in the rural South “spent a lot of time tracing down antiwar talk and threatening dissenters until they promised to shut up. The bureau used fear to suppress dissent.”*

In 1788 and 1917 the federal government obviously lacked the infrastructural capability to reach modern NSA level spying capabilities, but the delicate balance between liberty and security was the core issue that arose with the Alien and Sedition Acts and the WWI draft.

Debates in 2013 over the NSA’s spy network continue this tradition of trying to find some kind of balance between liberty and security, but such a balance may be, by nature, unattainable. As Benjamin Wittes notes, “some surveillance…is destructive of freedom. But sometimes, the relationship between surveillance and liberty is symbiotic—that is, increasing government surveillance powers can actually be liberty-enhancing.”* The Alien and Sedition Acts and the WWI Surveillance laws were, for the most part, unconstitutional. But when the draft has been implemented for “good wars” like World War II, Americans have reinterpreted it as a “liberty-enhancing” part of patriotic duty. After all, we now call the World War II generation the “Greatest Generation,” even though they were a generation that was conscripted to fight for the nation’s greater good at their own expense.

Like the draft, how Americans feel about NSA surveillance largely depends on were we draw the line with regard to the invasion of privacy, the reach of federal government power, and the legitimacy of the stated security goal. Many supported the World War II draft in the name of defeating the twin evils of Fascism and Communism. Attitudes toward the draft turned sour, however, when is was employed to wage a perceived “unjust war” in Vietnam. Likewise, government power to spy on U.S. citizens has been criticized when used by megalomaniacs like J. Edgar Hoover, but defended in the name of upholding national security interests against international terrorism.

Whether or not the NSA’s surveillance powers are an unconstitutional affront to Americans’ freedoms will be a major subject of debate for years to come. Although the NSA programs have been credited with foiling multiple terrorist attacks, the NSA has come under deserved scrutiny for spying on American citizens in violation of its stated rules against doing so without justified suspicion.

Government power should always be viewed with a measure of suspicion, but government power can also serve a purpose: after all, the modern United States is a vast country, with a vast population and massive financial, industrial, and military interests that simply cannot be adequately protected by a technologically neutered state. Despite my seemingly infinite wisdom, I don’t have an easy answer for where the line between liberty and security should be drawn, but perhaps that’s because looking for such a line is a futile exercise. Better to recognise that the two interests are instead “mutually dependant” and “mutually threatening,” depending on the (always complicated) circumstances.

* See Jeanette Keith, Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 2, 11-12.

*See Benjamin Wittes, “Against a Crude Balance: Platform Security and the Hostile Symbiosis Between Liberty and Security,” Brookings Institute Project on Law and Security, pg. 4.

Obama Calling Lincoln: History as the Great Legitimizer

President Barack Obama meets "President Abe Lincoln" during a 2012 campaign rally in Iowa.

President Barack Obama meets a fellow prairie stater, “President Abe Lincoln,” during a 2012 campaign rally in Iowa.

Over the summer, President Barack Obama made a series of speeches designed to drum up public and private support for better infrastructure investment as part of his broader long-term economic recovery plan. This speeches were mostly political, insofar as no such plan has any chance of squeezing through the fatalistic lunatic factory that is the current Republican controlled Congress. The president knows this, of course, but his speeches gave him the chance to do what all politicians do during their time in office: invoke history to legitimize the present…and the future.

At a  late July speech in Jacksonville, Florida, Obama resorted to some campaign-style rhetoric to blast Republican obstructionism on infrastructure spending. In doing so, the former little known lawyer and state politician from Illinois who became president invoked a previous little known lawyer and state politician from Illinois who became president:

The first Republican President is a guy from my home state.  He was a pretty good President, named Abraham Lincoln.  (Laughter.) He had a whole lot of things to worry about — had a Civil War, probably the biggest crisis that this country ever experienced.  And yet, in the middle of that, he was still thinking about how do we build that Transcontinental Railroad?  How are we going to widen our canals and our ports so that we can move products all around the country and eventually the world?  How do we invest in land-grant colleges so that our workers are now skilled and can get those new jobs?  We’re going to invest in the National Science Foundation to make sure that we stay ahead of everybody else when it comes to technology.

He made those investments, the first Republican President.  He didn’t say, well, that’s not the job of government to help do that.  He wouldn’t have understood that kind of philosophy, because he understood there are some things we can only do together.  And rebuilding our infrastructure is one of them.

Obama has frequently used this tactic of highlighting his opposition’s past positions, which they now conveniently oppose, to expose political hypocrisy. It makes for great speechifying, given that the contemporary Republican Party is populated by anarchist trolls who would burn Dwight Eisenhower at the stake for communist sorcery and accuse Abraham Lincoln of ghost-writing for Friedrich Engels. But if infrastructure investment has no chance of getting through the Republican Congress, and the president most certainly knows this, why bother with the speechifying? Because it gives him the chance to legitimize his proposals and legacy via historical precedent.

For those out there who don’t think that history matters, consider Obama’s invoking of Lincoln to show why you are just so wrong. And he doesn’t just call up Old Abe: Obama has also invoked the Gipper, past master of the ‘stash and monocle, Teddy Roosevelt, arch Simpsons mayor parody source, JFK, and interstate highway aficionado, Dwight Eisenhower. Nor is Obama unique in referencing the legacy of historical figures. Ronald Reagan famously invoked 17th century Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop, Bill Clinton recently honored the spirit of Martin Luther King, and George W. Bush liked to reference permanent president of the whole spiritual universe, Jesus Christ, a guy who, like Bush, also got power from his dad.

So why do politicians invoke historical figures? They do it because humans value historical provenance. When something is old, it becomes more valuable, and this applies as much to political and cultural legacies as it does to antiques and religions (with age, for example, religions like Catholicism and Mormonism went from being fringe cults to respected world powers). History really does matter. Think about Abraham Lincoln’s iconic historical role in American culture: of course Obama wants to associate himself with that legacy. The same is true for every other American politician who has referenced respected figures from the past to boost their current agenda. Whether we always admit it or not, history matters to us. To quote Dr. Emmett L. Brown, history helps us explain “where we’ve been, where we’re going. The pitfalls and the possibilities. The perils and the promise. Perhaps even an answer to that universal question: why?”* Without an observance of history, we can’t begin to know any of that important stuff.

When something is old; when something has a history that a large number of people respect and admire, it becomes inherently more valuable. Remember this the next time your smarmy friend tells you that history only constitutes talking about what a bunch of dead guys did on a battlefield. Though it’s also that too. And battlefields are interesting, dammit!

*  See Back to the Future, Part II (1989).

To Kill or not to Kill? From the Copperheads to September 11

Civil War-era cartoon depiciting Copperheads as venomous snakes attacking liberty herself.

Civil War-era cartoon depicting Copperheads as venomous snakes attacking liberty herself.

I initially wanted to avoid writing what might very well turn into yet another hackneyed patriotic post on The United States’ most recent and visceral national tragedy. Plus, I like to keep this blog at least partially rooted in the nineteenth century, and what do the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks have to do with that era? Well, there actually is a connection. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that 9/11 actually connects to some deep-seated and long-lasting American ambiguities about the use of violence and the wisdom of war.

Despite a recent American cultural penchant towards mistaking force for strength and resorting to violence throughout the world without a full examination of the consequences, Americans have always been more divided than is commonly assumed over the use of violence in the name of grand ideals like “freedom,” “liberty,” “peace,” and, I should add, “Union.” Echoing my earlier post on how violence begets violence, the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania served as justification for the U.S. to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, even though no connection existed between that country and the 9/11 attacks. In 2003, when thousands of anti-war demonstrators gathered in cities like New York and Washington D.C. to protest then President George W. Bush’s proposal to go to war with Iraq, they were continuing a long tradition in which some Americans, rightly or wrongly (but in this case, rightly), vehemently resisted what they considered dubious reasons for American use of violence.

These protesters had strange kindred spirits among the Peace Democrats, or “Copperheads.” During the American Civil War, the Copperheads adamantly opposed President Abraham Lincoln’s war against the Confederacy and generally supported the South’s right to own slaves. The Copperheads were strongest in mid-western states like Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Republicans gave them their nickname, likening peace Democrats to the venomous snake because they supposedly represented a sinister internal threat to the Union war effort. The most famous Copperhead was Ohio congressman  Clement L. Vallandigham, whom Abraham Lincoln had arrested in May of 1863 on charges of aiding enemies of the United States via his outspoken anti-war and pro-slavery views.

The Copperheads, then, acted as more than mere political opponents of the Republican Party. As historian Keith Altavilla observes in an article for the Winter 2012 issue of Ohio Valley History (sorry, membership only through the Filson Historical Society, so take my word for it), the Copperheads served as a sort of internal “fifth column”— to use a phrase lobbed by conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan at anti-Iraq War protesters — that Union soldiers in the field saw as a domestic uprising against the necessary war against the Confederacy. Copperheads disrupted pro-war rallies and meetings, fielded anti-war, pro-Confederate political candidates, and inspired fears among some Union soldiers of secret Copperhead societies infiltrating all aspects of northern society. For northern soldiers in the field, Copperheads represented such a dire threat because they were neighbors, friends — even family members. As Michael Corleone once observed, nothing is more sinister than enemies who are as close as your friends.

Now, lest I get accused of (very) latent Copperhead support, let me be clear: the Copperheads were wrong. They were wrong about supporting Southern secession and they were wrong about supporting slavery. But the Copperheads do demonstrate that those who (misguidedly) spoke out against American war in the past found themselves both justly and unjustly vilified for refusing to immediately support more violence as a solution to a problem that began with violence in the first place.

During the 2002-2003 build up to the Iraq War, for example, right-wing commentators lobbed a series of nasty epithets at war protesters, accusing them of treason, cowardice, emasculation, and, worst of all, of being FRENCH. And why were anti-war protesters accused of liking baguettes and Gérard Depardieu? Because they didn’t support an equally violent response to the violent 9/11 attacks. Never mind that links between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks were fabricated; these loathsome, treasonous, granola-scarfing, patchouli-dipping, unwashed hippies needed a lesson in patriotic duty, a duty defined in large part by violence.

Unlike the Copperheads, however, who were wrong about the futility of the Union war effort, the Iraq War protesters were right: not only was the connection between Iraq and 9/11 non-existent, but the entire military operation against Iraq turned into a quagmire of untenable nation-building for the U.S. and tribal sectarianism for Iraq itself. Heck, opposing the Iraq War even got another lawyer from Illinois elected president. So in the right were the Iraq protesters that even Andrew “Fifth Column” Sullivan issued a pleading mea culpa for his misguided support for pre-emptive war.

The point is not that Copperheads and Iraq War protesters are quite the same. They aren’t. The Copperheads were wrong-headed supporters of secession and slavery who often employed anti-war rhetoric as an anti-Republican partisan cudgel. The Iraq War protesters, though some were unquestionably guilty of dirty hippie-ness, nonetheless recognized that going to war is not an act to be taken lightly or under shady pretences, even when calls for vengeance were loud and influential. But the Copperheads and the Iraq War demonstrators are part of a distinct tradition in American history in which some group, usually the minority, has been willing to question U.S. decisions to rectify damage done through violence  with yet more violence. This is the great legacy of September 11, 2001. For all of the post-attack calls for unity, what 9/11 really did was reawaken American divisions over violence that had largely been dormant since the end of the Vietnam War.

Now, as President Obama half-heartedly tries to convince a justifiably skeptical American public on the wisdom of U.S. military intervention in Syria, he simply cannot escape the shadow of 9/11 and the disastrous Iraq War that it spawned. So when remembering 9/11 today, also try to remember that the question of “to kill or not to kill” probably shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.

Just ask this guy:

Mission Accomplished