Tag Archives: Native Americans

Why the “Redskins” Name Change is a Damn Good Idea

The logo fro the Washington Redskins. To add insult to an already insulting logo, the team places in D.C., seat of the Feeral governmnet -- the same federal government that sanctioned and directed acts of genocide against native peoples ovet he last three centuries.

The logo for the Washington Redskins. To add insult to an already insulting logo, the team plays in D.C., seat of the Federal government — the same federal government that sanctioned and directed acts of genocide against native peoples over the last three centuries.

Well, the political correctness police have really done it now, haven’t they? In their never-ending zeal to crush the spirit of America, this amorphous, white-guilt-bleeding, lawsuit-wielding band of killjoy hippie liberals have shown their tyrannical iron fist by attacking that most paramount of freedom-displaying American institutions, the NFL. Yes, using the United States Patent and Trademark Office jackbooted Nazi stormtroopers, the PC tyrants have cancelled six of the Washington Redskins’ trademark registrations under the dubious justification that the team’s various logos depicting a stereotypical feather-headed Indian brave “were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered.” My god, you can just smell the tyranny from here!

After the Patent Office’s decision, American conservatives took time away from being apoplectic about everything else to be apoplectic over this most recent blow to freedom. As Talking Points Memo notes, the wingnuts took to the Twitterz to voice their (perpetual) anger in their typically reserved fashion and (natch) blame Obama, who supported the Redskins name-change. Right-Wing blogger Matt Barber whined that because federal trademark law prohibited the display of culturally and racially disparaging imagery from a sports team, “the American free market and private enterprise are no longer free nor private. Liberty is under threat as never before.” Echoing Barber’s sentiment, RedState.com Grand Pooba Erick Erickson — the self-proclaimed “alpha male” and defacto spokesman for paunchy, white, privileged jerks everywhere — blamed the Redskins decision on “guilty feeling white liberals” who are a “threat to freedom.”

You honestly have to wonder how these people can function mentally when they believe that changing an NFL team’s logo represents the death knell of capitalist society. But let’s ignore the conservative temper-tantrums and ask ourselves, as a culture: should the Washington Redskins change their name and logo? The answer is “hell yeah.” Now, before you label me just another guilt-compensating white guy (I admit to being that anyway) consider, for a moment, why it’s historically offensive for sports teams like the Redskins to use Native American mascots and logos.

It’s no secret to anyone who’s even remotely aware of the history of the United States that the country’s native peoples have, to put it in academic terms, gotten royally screwed. The history of Native-White relations in America is characterized by colonialism, prejudice, violence, racism, genocide, and finally, cultural appropriation. The latter term refers to the process through which a dominant culture (which usually became dominant through violent means) adopts particular cultural aspects or practices of another group and employs those cultural aspects or practices for its own purposes. Cultural appropriation is generally (and rightfully) considered a bad thing because it almost always involves a cultural majority’s flagrant demonstration of its power to a conquered minority culture.

Among Indians themselves, the issue of cultural appropriation is decidedly complicated. Last Real Indians notes that, “It’s not me they [whites] are honoring [with mascots]; they are honoring themselves for doing such a good job on killing all the Indians.” Indeed, some tribal representatives view Indian mascots as the legacy of institutionalized racism, while others feel that mascots distract from more important issues facing Native communities. At the very least, as Jenny Vrentas of MMQB writes, “Native Americans want to have a say in how words and imagery that refer to them are used, in the same way that African-Americans establish when and how the n-word can be used.”

History, however, suggests that a name change is worth making. Over at Talking Points Memo, fellow academic-turned-blogger Josh Marshall has a great take on how the use of the term “Redskins” is a classic example of cultural appropriation via “mascotization.” “If you look back over the course of four centuries of American history there’s a clear pattern. When Indians represented a threat to the dominant immigrant settler culture (whether militarily or culturally or economically), they were the focus of an intense demonization, one rooted in fears, perceived alienness and competition for preeminence,” Marshall writes. But when Indians ceased to be a threat to white culture, he adds, “a totally different image of the Indian emerged – some mix of noble savage or a people representing something quintessentially American.”

In the nineteenth cetury, this is how white American culture responded to Indians. Needless to say, no footballs were involved.

In the nineteenth century, this is how white American culture responded to Indians. Needless to say, no footballs were involved.

What Marshall is saying is that once the white power structure succeeded in conquering Native peoples on America’s battlefields, it then proceeded to conquer them culturally by turning the Indians into little more than symbolic servants of the colonial culture that vanquished them. Thus, we have the Indian sports team mascot: a figure invented by the colonizing culture for the purpose of promoting that culture’s own rituals. Indian mascots like the one on the Redskins’ logo are supposed to represent “noble” aspects of Indian cultures such as bravery and prowess in battle, but this only works because the real Indians who were brave in battle have already been defeated and relegated, both literally and figuratively, to reservations on the outposts of American life.

Historically, real Indians were scary, barbarous, and a problem to be wiped out via the barrel of a gun and brutal territorial usurption. But now that they’re no longer a threat, we can use Indians for our sports teams because, gosh-darnnit, they were just so brave and noble as we slaughtered them mercilessly! It’s this nasty history that is invoked every time a sports teams uses Indian mascots and imagery, and it’s why team names like “Redskins” need to go.

In his book Contesting Constructed Indian-ness, historian Michael Taylor explains that “[Indian] mascots are the results of conquest and control,” and are thus created “to fit tropes of colonialism, history, and myth-making in order to control the physical body of the Indian.” Sports teams that use Indian imagery, Taylor writes, “profit from the idea of the Indian to produce a cultural and commercial context to the conquering of the West and its peoples by ‘owning’ the lands and the people living upon said lands.”* In other words, after American colonial society decimated Indian societies through genocide and land expropriation, it then decided to further rub its clout into Indians’ eyes by employing native customs and imagery to cheer on a bunch of guys chasing a ball across a field.

This is how white America has dealt with what historian Thomas King calls the “Inconvenient Indian,” the annoyingly persistent presence of nativeness in a country that would rather just forget about native peoples except on terms dictated by the colonizing culture itself. “When we look at Native–non-Native relations,” King writes, “there is no great difference between the past and the present. While we have dispensed with guns and bugles, and while North America’s sense of its own superiority is better hidden, its disdain muted, twenty-first-century attitudes towards Native people are remarkably similar to those of the previous centuries.”* Thus, Indians can still be stereotyped at will and used to encourage all aspects of the colonial culture that conquered them.

So if you ever find yourself feeling aggravated over the alleged “political correctness” that accompanies instances like the Redskins trademark decision, take a step back and consider that maybe, just maybe, something as purportedly simple as supporting an Indian mascot actually invokes a sad, violent, genocidal history of American conquest that non-Native people can easily brush off but which Indians themselves rightfully feel a bit more strongly about. And I say this as a die-hard Cleveland Indians fan. That team’s logo, “Chief Wahoo,” is offensive as hell and should be dropped. Who knows, maybe changing their name and logo might actually result in the Indians becoming a good team. But I won’t hold my breath on either of those two things happening.

* See Michael Taylor, Contesting Constructed Indian-ness: The Intersection of the Frontier, Masculinity, and Whiteness in Native American Mascot Representations (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013), 13.

* See Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2013), 5.


Paul Ryan and the Historical Myth of the Undeserving Poor

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Unicorn Land) has never let reality intrude on his impenetrable ideological "truths."

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Unicorn Land) has never let reality intrude on his impenetrable ideological “truths.”

If you’re poor in America, Wisconsin’s favorite Social Security-collecting, Ayn Rand worshipping Congresscritter thinks it’s your own fault. Why does Paul Ryan blame people for their own poverty, you may ask? After all, as I discussed in a previous post, being poor is absolutely terrible: it leaves you wracked with financial insecurity; it flattens your self-confidence, and it’s bad for your health. But despite the general awfulness of poverty, guys like Paul Ryan and his army of ideologically like-minded right-wing goons still think that the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor. And in the U.S., what you look like (hint: what box you check when asked if you’re “black” or “white”) matters a whole lot when it comes to discussing being poor.

Paul Ryan and other conservatives know this all too well; in recent decades, they’ve made plenty of electoral hay out of playing up the long historical connection between race and poverty in America. Recently, Ryan was a guest on the Morning in America radio show of conservative moral crusader – and full-time gambler – Bill Bennett, where he discussed the long-running War on Poverty. When the discussion moved to the inner city (an American phrase that’s code for “black people”), Ryan cited the bogus theories of right-wing social scientist Charles Murray – who believes that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites – to claim that inner city poverty stems from a culture of laziness on the part of African-Americans.

You see, Ryan, Murray, and plenty of other Americans think that poor people are poor because they don’t want to work. They think that lazy people can’t get jobs, so instead they get on public welfare doles. And historically, blacks and other minorities have had the high rates of poverty in the U.S. Thus, in the minds of Ryan and his ilk, “the poor” is often used as a stand-in phrase for “black people,” or other minorities, who’re allegedly stuck in “poverty traps” because they don’t have enough initiative to work. End of story.

This is why conservatives are hostile to the idea of welfare and why they score political points among many white voters when they talk about shredding the safety net. As the mighty Paul Krugman notes in the New York Times: “American conservatism is still, after all these years, largely driven by claims that liberals are taking away your hard-earned money and giving it to Those People.” In American history, race is utterly inseparable from class. When you talk about one, you have to talk about the other. Conservatives know this. By invoking images of lazy black people to white voters for political gain, they’re tapping into a long-held national myth that casts America as the forever “Land of Opportunity,” where not making it economically is, to paraphrase popular philosopher Jimmy Buffett, your own damn fault.

Of course, things have never been that simple. As historian Gary Nash explains in the book Down and Out in Early America,”the great myth of early American history is that scarce labor in a land-rich environment eliminated poverty.” Nash writes that Americans don’t want to discuss poverty because the very concept “is offensive to the notion of a people of plenty, an insult to the bounteous natural resources of North America, a puzzlement to those who believe in the untrammeled equality of opportunity” and “an embarrassment to those who trumpet American classlessness and exceptionalism.”* But even in the eighteenth century – the century of revolution – there was poverty. Lots of it. The streets of early America were strewn not only with widows, orphans, the disabled, and the sick – groups traditionally prone to poverty – but also with thousands of able-bodied men and women. This trend only accelerated with the rise of the industrial era and continues into the twenty-first century.*

Quite simply: the poor have always been with us, and being poor in America has always been an awful state of being. The reasons for American poverty have varied over time, but two points stand out: 1.) non-white people have often been poorer than whites and 2.) living in a land of plenty doesn’t help when you’re denied access to political rights and economic resources by those who use force and privilege to play by their own rules and keep a bigger share of the American economic apple pie.

Poverty and alcoholism run rampant on the Pine Ridge Oglala/Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota, where the shadow of history looms large.

Poverty and alcoholism run rampant on the Pine Ridge Oglala/Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota, where the shadow of history looms large.

Let’s just consider a few general examples, shall we? Native-Americans continue to live in some of the most poverty-stricken conditions in America. African-Americans have tended to fare better in recent decades, but the wealth gap between blacks and whites in America continues to be vast – and it’s still widening. Now what types of experiences could blacks and Native people have possibly shared during the long formation of modern America?

Well, native tribes were, from the colonial era well into the twentieth century, forcefully removed from their ancestral lands (most notably under Andrew Jackson, champion of  democracy for all white men) and relocated onto reservations that – thanks to government indifference – became sites of generationally reoccurring poverty. And they were the lucky ones when you consider that hundreds-of-thousands of other native people were exterminated under U.S. government policies that were, by any measurement, genocidal. Those who survived endured, and still endure, prejudice and discrimination even after they gained franchise rights. In the twenty-first century, counties with American Indian reservations still contain some of the highest percentages of people living in poverty in the U.S. Considering the historical background, is that much of a surprise?

African-Americans endured similar violence and subjugation throughout much of U.S. history. First brought to the American colonies as slaves, blacks endured generations as human property that was bought, sold, and abused by whites who supposedly lived by the creed that “All Men are Created Equal.” Even after the Civil War ended slavery, blacks spent another generation fighting for political and social rights as free people. From the mid-nineteenth century up to the mid-twentieth century, white America denied blacks full access to political and economic equality, and anti-black prejudice was enforced by the swords of domestic terror groups like the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs.

An image of urban poverty in America. This guy must be lazy because just look: he's lying down!

An image of urban poverty in America. This guy must be lazy because just look: he’s lying down!

Even as southern blacks left the countryside for the cities during the Great Migration, whites used, and continue to use, tactics like redlining, white flight, discriminatory tax incentives, and mortgage discrimination to drain wealth out of the cities and limit economic opportunities for blacks trapped therein. Should it be any surprise, then, that poverty has historically been high in black communities? No, it shouldn’t.

It’s easy to say that history is in the past, and that the past shouldn’t be used as an excuse for conditions in the present. But those who spout variations of that sentiment are often, not coincidently, white males who have never been on the historical receiving end of apartheid, genocide, forced labor, cultural decimation, disenfranchisement, and mass discrimination. This isn’t to say that individual Native-Americans and African-Americans haven’t reached levels of success in American society. They have. Nor am I saying that white Americans haven’t endured – and continue to endure – grinding poverty. They have.

But those like Paul Ryan, who continue to insist that poverty is the pure result of some sort of cultural (or racial) defect, and not the result of a multiplicity of structural issues – not least of which is the concentration of American wealth and political power into fewer and fewer hands – are polluting public discourse with claims that stem not from reality, but from ideology. Conservatives shy away from the structural reasons for poverty because these reasons expose critical flaws in their conceptions of free-market capitalism as the organic, natural, and just way to organize a society.

Capitalism has many virtues and, when properly regulated by the state or other appropriate forces, it can improve the standard of living for millions of people. But as a system designed and implemented by flawed humans, capitalism is not immune to the worst of all human instincts: greed and the will to dominate others. For Paul Ryan to recognize these realities would entail a re-examination of his cherished faith in unfettered market forces and a recognition that, as a white guy, he and others like him have had it made for quite some time.

* See Gary B. Nash, “Poverty and Politics in Early American History,” in Billy G. Smith, ed., Down and Out in Early America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 1-14.

“Lone Survivor” and the Historical Legacy of Violence and American Militarism

Mark Wahlberg stars in "Lone Survivor:" a violent ode to 'Murica.

Mark Wahlberg stars in “Lone Survivor:” a violent depiction of the Afghanistan War. This conflict has surpassed the Vietnam War in terms of sheer length and ambiguity.

Americans are a violent people. Whether in a wartime or civilian context, we like to shoot guns, and we are good at killing people with those guns. This is an indisputable fact. The U.S. has by far the highest rates of gun ownership in the industrialized world, and, as the Washington Post reported shortly after the brutal Sandy Hook massacre in late 2012, the U.S. is only outranked in terms of gun violence by developing nations in South Africa and South America.

Many Americans unfortunately view violence as the go-to solution for all kinds of vexing problems. Historically, this has always been the case, and this obsession with firearms shows no signs of letting up in the 21st century. Indeed, a good many Americans take gun worship to a bizarrely fetishistic level. You can almost picture any number of the country’s self-proclaimed gun nuts spending their Friday nights hung from ceiling chains while wrapped in shiny leather and stroking one of their 300 AR-15s with scented oils.

American gun-nuttery begets an entire culture of violence that affects both domestic and foreign affairs. By mixing a jingoistic belief in American cultural superiority with an already insane domestic devotion to the proliferation of firearms, the U.S. has created a Frankensteinian, militaristic cultural monster that has reaped much bloodshed over the decades.

The prime characteristics of American cultural militarism are its embracing of violence as a means to an end, its idolistic bowing before anything with a trigger and ammunition, and its belief that America can do no wrong. Over the last few decades, American culture has become increasingly militarized both on a foreign and domestic level. The militarization has become so strong that even sensible gun regulation fails to become law, and the American military is seen in some circles as an unassailable institution, rather than as a collection of individuals who are to be admired and respected, but not unconditionally worshipped.

Consider the recent snafu over the film “Lone Survivor,” a war epic starring Mark Wahlberg that’s based on a memoir by former Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell; the lone survivor of an Afghanistan mission that went bad. L.A. Weekly film critic Amy Nicholson lambasted “Lone Survivor” as “a jingoistic snuff film” that drains all nuance from the Afghanistan conflict in order to create a “Rambo”style war porn spectacle that espouses simplistic notions of American Exceptionalism and military superiority. “These four men were heroes,” Nicholson writes, “but these heroes were also men. As the film portrays them, their attitudes to the incredibly complex War on Terror…were simple: Brown people bad, American people good.”

Part of Nicholson’s critique centered on the fact that Luttrell’s memoir was heavily ghost written by British novelist Patrick Robinson, who may have added more Taliban fighters to the story than were present during the actual events. This created additional scenes of violence that helped to spice up the film (Hollywood has long called this tactic dramatic emphasis). Nicholson was criticizing the film rather than the real-life soldiers upon whom the movie was based. But in right-wing American circles, criticizing the military, in either a real or fictionalized context, is considered grounds for extreme chastisement. Hence, when radio slime-ball Glenn Beck got wind of Nicholson’s criticism of the film, he went on the air and called her “a “vile, repugnant, and ignorant liar.”

Beck is nothing less than a shameless sycophant who built a multi-million dollar media empire by feeding gullible conservatives a steady diet of paranoia mixed with simmering white person resentment. So when his listeners heard that Nicholson had criticized “Lone Survivor,” they responded in a manner befitting of today’s right-wing jerk menagerie. As Salon reports, Beck’s minions went on Twitter, the world’s preeminent outlet for conflict resolution, and called Nicholson, among other things, a “military hating bitch.” Over at Beck’s website, one of the many commenters claimed that Nicholson meant to “demean the service of our soldiers,” a move that said commenter found “beyond words for me.” This online brouhaha over a movie lays bare the danger inherent in American militarism: it sanctifies violence as the highest form of patriotic expression, and it demands, in true authoritarian style, that the military be above criticism.

Since the colonial era, gun violence has been intimately linked to American national identity, a connection that has costs hundreds of thousands of lives.

Since the colonial era, gun violence has been intimately linked to American national identity, a connection that has costs millions of lives.

The idea that the American military should not be critiqued, lest critics face alarming accusations of treason and even death threats, is the byproduct of American militarism. On the domestic side, this trend manifests itself in a truly irrational cultural bias that favors the right to own and operate nearly any type of firearms without restriction. You don’t have to be a hippie pinko peacenik to support some gun limits: even most gun owners support background checks. But such has been the militarization of American society on all fronts that even basic gun regulations are viewed by the Gestapo/NRA as assaults on American freedom itself. The idea that guns and the military are above critique is a belief rooted in the regenerative power of violence — that violence can create rights out of wrongs. Hence, gun nuts think that a only “good” person with a gun can prevent a “bad” person with a gun from committing violence, and neo-conservatives think that American military force can “fix” foreign countries.

Unfortunately, the regenerative power of violence, and the type of gun-worshipping militarism that it produces, is as idea with deep historical roots. On the domestic side, blame the frontier. In a previous post I discussed how the frontier nurtured American gun culture, but its influence can’t be overstated.

In his book Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860, historian Richard Slotkin identifies frontier violence as a key component of American national mythology. Early American culture was shaped by the notion that the New World, populated as it was by “savage” native peoples who didn’t know how to utilize its bounty, had to be “liberated from the dead hand of the past and become the scene of a new departure in human affairs.”* Guns were the preferred tools of this “liberation,” as the American frontier became a killing ground in which white Americans nearly obliterated the nation’s native past to bring about that “new departure” that became the United States. Slotkin reminds us that violence was integral to this transformation. The idea that Americans “tore violently a nation from the implacable and opulent wilderness” by killing the Indians who were “the special demonic personifications” of that wilderness are “the foundation stones” of American historical mythology.*

When the regenerating power of violence transformed the frontier from “savage” outpost to “civilized” America, it also shaped an American notion that frontiers of various kinds must constantly be subdued with violence in order for the U.S. to retain its supposed moral and cultural superiority. Way back in 1970, the late American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote that “there is far more violence in our national heritage than our proud, sometimes smug, national self-image admits of.” Hofstadter argued that recognizing the American propensity for violence was crucial: “In our singular position,” he observed, “uncontrolled domestic violence coincides with unparalleled power, and thus takes on a special significance for the world.”* This statement is nothing if not prescient today. The modern militarized culture creates new frontiers out of urban crime areas, sites of mass shootings, and pesky foreign countries where gun-carrying Americans must regenerate the U.S. through violence, both at home and abroad.

Consider our current cultural unwillingness to view American overseas military endeavors with a more critical eye. As historian Susan Brewer writes in Why American Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq, U.S. government leaders have consistently sold their war aims to the general public by packaging them as “official narratives” of propaganda. “The official narratives,” Brewer notes, “have presented conflict as a mighty clash between civilization and barbarism in the Philippines and Word War I, democracy and dictatorship in World War II, freedom and communism in Korea in Vietnam, and…civilization and terrorism in Iraq.” These “official narratives” draw on a long tradition in which Americans have used violence to assert their alleged cultural superiority via “the message that what is good for America is good for the world,” and it is this type of militaristic thinking that has, over time, created America’s distinct culture of violence.*

The result has been the seeping of cultural militarism into all aspects of American life to the point where it even influences reviews of war movies like “Lone Survivor.” U.S. soldiers, nay, the military itself must not be criticised, because to criticize the military is to criticize America, which is above criticism. Taken to its logical extreme, this type of thinking threatens to ideologically reshape the U.S. along the lines of a military junta; a type of government that has committed some of the worst atrocities in human history, from Argentina, to Chile, to MyanmarPolitical scientist (and Vietnam veteran) Andrew Bacevich calls this development the “New American Militarism,” in which “misleading and dangerous conceptions of war, soldiers, and military institutions…have come to pervade the American conciousness.”* 

U.S. soldiers do their best with the near impossible tasks they've been given in Iraq and Afghanistsan. But while sometimes violence is the answer, more often than not it begats more violence in a never-ending cycle.

U.S. soldiers do their best with the near impossible tasks they’ve been given in Iraq and Afghanistan. But while sometimes violence is the answer, more often than not it begets more violence in a never-ending cycle.

The militarization of American society, both in the military and civilian spheres, is a dangerous development that threatens the fundamental identity of the U.S. a small “r” republican nation. Militaries are, by their very nature, authoritarian, deeply hierarchical institutions. This is why they are good at protecting nations but bad at ruling them: authoritarianism and democracy don’t mix, which is why the U.S. (for now) has civilian control over its armed forces. But the problem runs deeper than mere soldier worship. A highly militarized society is also a paranoid society that will inevitably degenerate into an irrational orgy of circular violence in the name of regenerating its supposed previous greatness. Such societies are also intolerant of dissent, incapable of rational argument, and paralyzed by the limited options presented by itchy trigger fingers.

The U.S. today finds itself at this particular crossroads. After fostering a culture of gun violence born in the frontier and nurtured in countless wars, both domestic and foreign, official and unofficial, America in 2014 cannot seem to wrest itself from the idea that violence solves all problems. Thus, no matter how many school kids are blown away with assault weapons; no matter how many brown people are ripped to shreds overseas; and no matter how many American soldiers are killed or maimed in the name of the American empire, a militarized society ensures that there will always be those willing to defend to the death their right to own a bazooka and watch movies like “Lone Survivor” without criticism. So strap on your concealed carry holsters folks, ’cause its gonna be a bumpy ride.

* See Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973), 3-4.

* See Richard Hofstadter and Michael Wallace, eds., American Violence: A Documentary History (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 4.

* See Susan A. Brewer, Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philipines to Iraq (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 4.

* See Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), xi.

The Ugly History of “Makers vs. Takers” Rhetoric

This is not a good way to debate human social organization. Its just not.

This is not a good way to debate human social organization. It’s just not.

During the 2012 presidential election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney made some remarks that may have sunk his candidacy. This was nothing new for the perennial presidential candidate. After all, the guy is about as charismatic as a brick wall and has changed his political positions so often over the course of his public career that “foot in mouth disease” likely runs in his bloodline. But the comments to which I’m specifically referring were his infamous “47 percent remarks” delivered on May 17, 2012 in Bacon Raton, Florida to a table of chair-straining plutocrat donors. The remarks were, of course, captured on hidden camera by bartender Scott Prouty.

Romney’s remarks effectively divided the U.S. into two populations: the supposedly hard-working, usually rich, and always self-unaware “takers,” and the 47 percent of welfare-addicted takers who allegedly rely on government redistributive policies to siphon wealth from the “makers.” The full text of Romney’s remarks can be read here, but the “47 percent” spiel went as follows:

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Romney says in the video. “All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what … These are people who pay no income tax.”

Besides the unmitigated chutzpah of a son-of-a multi-millionaire arbitrarily chastising some amorphous mass of U.S. citizens for not working hard enough while claiming that he himself had “inherited nothing,” Romney’s comments echoed a familiar idea, popular among the American Right, that crudely divides human society into camps of either productive workers or useless parasites. In recent years, this idea has been promoted in pseudoscientific right-wing literature, is routinely promulgated by utopian-craving Libertarian circle-jerk centers like Reason.com, and is spewed out by columnists like Wall Street Journal fungus-sprout, and privileged son of the affluent Chicago suburbs, Stephen Moore.

Such a simplistic division of humans into opposing “productive” and “worthless” camps, however, is nothing new. In fact, this odious approach to social organization is rooted in 19th century pseudoscientific racial thinking. The idea of “makers vs. takers” influenced the social trajectory of modern western history and, when taken to its extremes, it has provided the intellectual justification for slavery, eugenics, and, in the worst case scenario, the Holocaust. Lest the former point strike you as hyperbolic, I thought I’d take some time in this post to highlight some past examples of “makers vs. takers” arguments as revealed in some good ole’ fashioned primary source documents. These texts can help demonstrate why the “makers vs. takers” argument is despicable and dangerous.

19th century philosopher Herbert Spencer. At least his impressive chops were the fittest.

19th century philosopher Herbert Spencer. At least his impressive chops were the fittest.

Let’s begin with Herbert Spencer, the 19th century English philosopher, anthropologist, and all around tool whose unscientific application of Darwinian natural selection to human societies led him to coin the term “survival of the fittest.” Spencer adamantly opposed 19th century “poor laws,” early types of state welfare, because he believed such laws took from the “strong” to give to the “weak.” Take, for example, this excerpt from Spencer’s work Social Statistics (1851):

The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many “in shallows and in miseries,” are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence.

It seems hard that an unskilfulness which with all his efforts he cannot overcome, should entail hunger upon the artizan. It seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows, should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life or death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately, but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of the highest beneficence—the same beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased parents, and singles out the low-spirited, the intemperate, and the debilitated as the victims of an epidemic.

Spewing the racialist thought popular at the time, Spencer believed that some humans, like European whites, were inherently genetically superior to others, like black Africans, that were inherently inferior. He thus divided humans into “weak” and “strong” camps, and justified the disease, death, suffering, and poverty experienced by millions as natural retribution for their inherent weaknesses. Spencer claimed that the good of greater humanity depended on such “harsh fatalities,” which were, in fact, of the “highest beneficence” to humanity in general. He opposed poor laws and welfare because he believed that such laws propped up weak, inferior takers at the superior makers’ expense.

Spencer, an early supporter of eugenics, advocated sterilization to eliminate the “unfit” parasites from the earth. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, eugenics was popular among both progressive and conservative thinkers, but Spencer’s Social Darwinian theories are still popular within contemporary right-wing circles, where his delegation of the human race into “fit” and “unfit” categories appeals to those inclined towards a “makers vs. takers” worldview. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that nearly all of Spencer’s writings can be accessed for free at the website of Liberty Fund, an Indiana-based Libertarian foundation.

Moving along from Spencer, lets visit the antebellum South, where we’ll examine the famous 1858 “Mudsill Speech” delivered by pro-slavery apologist, and South Carolina senator, James Henry Hammond. Hammond was unquestionably one of the great scumbags of American history. In 1829, at age 21, he married a wealthy heiress named Catherine Fitzsimmons, from whom he gained ownership of over 100 slaves. Hammond not only sexually abused his female slaves on multiple occasions, but also molested his own nieces, a process he bragged about in detail in his own journal!

These actions stemmed from Hammond’s domineering worldview that saw women and blacks as tools for his pleasure. This idea informed his “Mudsill Speech,” through which he defended southern slavery against northern criticism by dividing society into a racial hierarchy of peon laborers and dominating owners:

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves.

Hammond emphasized that without a laboring “mudsill” class to do hard, manual labor without complaint, and for little compensation, civilization itself could not flourish. The existence of a permanent laboring class freed up enlightened geniuses like himself to marry rich women and pursue intellectual stimulation that would lead to cultural “refinement.” In Hammond’s racist time, better to have enslaved “inferior” blacks do the dirty work. For him and his ilk, “equality” was anathema to freedom, since the natural order of free society supposedly necessitated an “inferior” (read: black) class to provide for the economic and political security of a ruling (read: white) class. For men like Hammond, abolishing slavery entailed foisting a vast “taker” class of African-Americans onto the ruling “makers” who were busy building civilization.

James Henry Hammond: he really was a total jerk.

James Henry Hammond: he really was a total jerk.

Echoes of Hammond’s “Mudsill Theory” reverberates in modern conservative ideas about “makers and takers.” This view of society provides those who identify themselves among the “makers” with a feeling of superiority over an allegedly idle class that refuses to pull up its collective bootstraps and embrace good old fashioned labor. No matter the pittance of compensation or carefully constructed barriers to economic advancement that may come with such labor; conservatives, like those at the Heritage Foundation, bemoan the supposed “erosion of our culture of work” because such an erosion allegedly creates a parasitic class that refuses to be “mudsills,” and instead leaches from the noble upholders of American civilized culture.

But by dividing society into “makers and takers,” conservatives come eerily close to consigning the human population into “worthy” and “unworthy” classes, a type of social division that provided the ideological justification for slavery’s domination of one human group by another. Pro-slavery ideologues like Hammond dehumanized blacks as unworthy of participation in the American experiment, and modern conservatives who blithely dismiss half the population as parasites by extension deny millions of their fellow citizens their basic human dignity as legitimate members of the body politic.

The repugnant, and possibly dangerous, consequences of viewing human society as made up of “makers” and “takers” stems from a long tradition of historical beliefs that sought to categorize the human race into various types of “worthy” and “unworthy” groups along lines of genetics, race, gender, and class. The Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer still echoes in modern conservatives’ characterization of “welfare” as undeserved “handouts” to those unwilling to work on their own. Moreover, the notion of hard-working “worthy” and idle “unworthy” classes underpinned pro-slavery arguments that inequality was essential to the upholding of freedom for the “civilized” classes.

When you arbitrarily divide human beings into “productive” and “unproductive” groups, you inherently deem the so-called “unproductive” classes as undeserving of social acceptance. Historically, this has been the first ideological step taken by those wishing to dominate other humans by controlling their labor or, in the worst case scenario, eliminating them altogether. Those who label their fellow humans as “takers” equate them to parasites, and parasites must be exterminated.

Historically, this view, taken to its utmost extremes, has resulted in the genocide of Native Peoples in America, Jews in Nazi Germany, and the Tutsis tribe in Rwanda, to name but a few examples. It’s no coincidence that 19th century American Indian Bureau officials sought to “make labor honorable and idleness dishonorable” among Indians who would otherwise starve to death following the confiscation of their hunting grounds by whites. It’s also no coincidence that the Third Reich railed against “parasitical Jews,” and that Rwandan Hutu death squads viewed Tutsis as “treacherous speculators and parasites.”

Dividing human beings into simplistic camps of “makers” and “takers” implicitly dehumanizes one group while empowering the other. The historical baggage that comes with such divisions is not something that should be exhumed from the graveyard of discarded human ideologies. Political differences are fine, and should be recognized, but let’s not lose sight of basic human dignity in the process.