Tag Archives: Nineteenth Century

America, Gay Marriage, and the Never-Ending 19th Century

Pro "Traditional Marriage" advocates protest the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. They had nothing better to do.

“Traditional Marriage” advocates protest the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. They had nothing better to do.

Have you ever taken a really wide-angle view across the American cultural landscape and experienced a nagging feeling of deja-vu? It’s almost as if issues that ought to have been settled over a century ago just keep popping back up into public discourse, usually at the behest of reactionary turnip heads fueled by an unceasing wish to go back to a better, more moral, more “traditional” time that only ever existed in their own fever-swamped craniums.

Yes-sir-ee-Bob, it might be the tail-end of 2014, but in many ways, Americans are still living in the long nineteenth century. Just look at some of the issues that have been causing a political brouhaha throughout the year: racial equality; gender equality; same-sex marriage; voting rights (?!); secession (the long-disregarded idea that states are independent political entities that can separate from the Federal Union whenever they see fit); nullification (the long-discredited idea that individual states have the power to overrule Federal law), and the evolving definition of what constitutes “family,” among others. If you know anything about U.S. history, then you know that each of these issues played a major role in shaping the culture of nineteenth-century America. Although the details varied with each issue, all of them involved a conflict over the definition of rights: who should have them and why.

In fact, the conflict over the expansion of rights is pretty much at the center of the American story, and Victorian-Era issues still exert a powerful influence on U.S. culture today. Among the contemporary issues that I’ve already listed, few have a more distinctly nineteenth-century flavor than marriage and the American family; or, more specifically, who has the right to define those terms. Which brings us to teh gayz. Yes, in contemporary America, nothing is scarier to some folks than the specter of two people of the same sex getting hitched. You see, marriage is a sacred institution that fuels sitcom jokes everywhere, and some people think that teh gayz should be denied the right to experience this holy sacrament/stand-up comedy staple.

One of the many ornery fellows out there who REALLY doesn’t like same-sex marriage is Douglas MacKinnon, a former aid to President Ronald Reagan. If anyone has a serious jonesing for the Victorian Era, it’s this guy. Recently, MacKinnon went on one of the nation’s infinitesimal number of right-wing radio shows to tout his new book, The Secessionist States of America: The Blueprint for Creating a Traditional Values Country … Now Ho boy. In this mind-expanding tome, MacKinnon argues that the conservative southern states should secede from the Union and form a new nation called “Reagan” (really) which would be a bastion for “traditional values” — and, possibly, Jelly Belly jelly beans. Now, MacKinnon spends a lot of time making a “legal” case for the fundamentally illegal act of secession — an idea that should have been settled after the Civil War but nonetheless keeps popping up in right-wing circles — but I’m not gonna’ focus on that part of his nineteenth-century worldview. Instead, I’m gonna’ focus on WHY he wants to form the nation of “Reagan:” to escape the gayness.

MacKinnon does not like anything that’s even remotely gay. “The world has been turned upside down if you do happen to believe in traditional values,” he whined. He went on to claim that:

If you happen to make a donation in favor of traditional marriage, you can lose your job. If you happen to refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple because it goes against your religious beliefs, you can be driven out of business. If you’re a football commentator and you happen to just say, innocently, that you know maybe I wouldn’t have drafted a gay football player because I wouldn’t want to deal with the distraction, many people on the left will try to drive you out of your job as well.

So MacKinnon REALLY doesn’t care for gay people, and he wants to inoculate himself from their nefarious gay influence by forming a new country that would take a stand for “traditional values,” and, more specifically, “traditional marriage” between one man and one woman. Indeed, keeping marriage limited to a man and a woman is the Alamo-call of many social conservatives, who like to claim that this type of marriage is “traditional,” because it’s “biblical” as well. For example, the Colorado-based advocacy group Focus on the Family asserts that “family is the fundamental building block of all human civilizations, and marriage is the foundation of the family.” They see marriage as being “under attack” by “the push for so-called same-sex ‘marriage’ and civil unions” that supposedly threaten the tradition of “male-female led families” that “have constituted the primary family units of human society.”

Other like-minded conservatives, such as celebrity pastor Rick Warren, claim that “traditional marriage” was “God’s intended, original design.” Never mind that the bible depicts all kinds of marital arrangements, including polygamy and women being sold into sexual slavery. For social conservatives, “God’s design” coincidentally coincides with their own, and they’ve amassed plenty of rhetorical and legislative ammunition to fight this battle in the larger culture war.

The nineteenth century American family in all of its nuclear glory.

The nineteenth century American family in all of its nuclear glory.

But here’s the problem: the ideal, “traditional” American nuclear family — a bread-winning husband, a stay-at-home wife, and their dependent children — that social conservatives view as a common thread that links America to biblical times is, in fact, a product of the bourgeoise notion of the family that emerged in the nineteenth century. During this period, distinct cultural separations between work and the home solidified, love and intimacy became (forgive me) wedded to the notion of marriage, and children came to be viewed not as smaller versions of adults, but as agents to be nurtured and protected from the outside world.

In her sweeping study Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, historian of the family Stephanie Coontz explains how, for much of history, marriage was primarily an “economic and political” transaction. From dowries to land deals; from property in assets to property in women; from forging political alliances to guaranteeing more workers for the family farm, marriage in different societies at different points in history had little to do with love and child-rearing. The notion that there was ever a single, “traditional” version of marriage geared towards consolidating romantic affection and maintaining nuclear family stability is a very modern concept.

As Coontz writes, “for centuries, marriage did much of the work that markets and governments do today.” Throughout much of history, marriage was deeply functional. “It organized the production and distribution of goods and people. It set up political, economic, and military alliances. It coordinated the division of labor by gender and age. It orchestrated people’s personal rights and obligations in everything from sexual relations to the inheritance of property,” Coontz notes.* Thus, in many ways, marriage was the foundation of civilizations, but not in the way social conservatives describe as a spiritual/moral bulwark against a corrupt outside world. That particular ideal of marriage and the family, which conservatives see as being threatened by extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, is a product of nineteenth-century America — yet it’s an ideal of marriage and family relations that we still cling to today.

During the Victorian Era, the U.S. underwent a series of changes that fundamentally altered American life and paved the way for our contemporary society. Most significantly, the Market Revolution unleashed a trend towards an increasingly industrial, increasingly urban society that began undercutting the importance of family farms as self-sustaining economic units. This transition to a society based on industrial mass-production and mass-consumption spurred the growth of a middle class that placed a greater emphasis on leisure, romantic courtship, delegated gender roles, and the notion that children should be specially cared for in a domestic sphere that shielded them from the cold, public sphere of the marketplace. Basically, with increased leisure and affluence, and a decreased need for familial farm-hands, kids made the cultural transition from being miniature adults to “children” in need of nurturing.

Historians Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg detail the emergence of the modern family in their classic book, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. Released from earlier conceptions of the family as a ‘little commonwealth’ that acted as a “microcosm” of the larger society, the nineteenth century saw the family transform into a “‘haven in a heartless world,’ a bastion of morality and tender feeling” that was separate from the “aggressive and selfish world of commerce.” Mintz and Kellogg also note that during this period, marriage became more explicitly identified as the natural reflection of romantic relations between husbands and wives.* This is how American social conservatives — and much of the general population — continues to view marriage today. When they say that allowing gays and lesbians to marry threatens the “traditional,” “biblical” concept of marriage, what they’re really saying is that they’ve accepted a particular ideal of marriage and the family that emerged in a very specific time-period — and they don’t want to give it up.

Although additional visions of the family influenced American life throughout the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Victorian, bourgeoise notion of the nuclear family became especially appealing to Americans in the post-World War II era. During this period, the recent memory of the most violent conflict in world history, coupled with the threat of the emerging Cold War nurtured a preference for the “traditional family” as a shelter of love and protection from a hostile outside world.

The Cleaver family as depicted on the sitcom "Leave it to Beaver." Seriously, was any family ever like this?!

The nuclear Cleaver family as depicted on the sitcom “Leave it to Beaver.” No gays allowed!

Stephanie Coontz notes that the resurgence of the nuclear family ideal in the post-war period was bolstered by vanilla 1950s sitcoms like “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave it to Beaver,” which reinforced the ideal of the breadwinner father, the homemaker mother, and those adorably dependent kids. Of course, just as the Victorian Era saw the growth of a new leisure class, the post-war boom in employment and the attendant growth in consumer spending allowed Americans to once again populate their homes with store-bought goodies and plenty of family love that stood as a solid reef in the bigger, scarier, more tempestuous Cold War-era ocean. “Putting their mouths where their money was,” Coontz writes, “Americans consistently told pollsters that home and family were the wellsprings of their happiness and self-esteem.”*

Of course, as Coontz notes, the messy reality of family life in the fifties was far more complex, but the ideal of the perfect, financially secure, Wonderbread white, and decidedly not-gay American nuclear family lives on in contemporary society. The loss of this supposed family ideal is what conservatives lament when the rail against gay marriage. And however they frame this ideal, either as “traditional” or “biblical,” they’re yearning for an ideal of marriage and family life that only emerged in the nineteenth century and became more entrenched in the post-World War II era. Of course, conservatives tend to prefer a worldview based on clear-cut hierarchies and black-and-white moral divisions, so they’re likely to perish — Ahab-style — chasing the anti-gay marriage white whale in a sea of historical nuance. This is unfortunate, because those wishing to strengthen American family bonds would do well to permit all loving couples to marry, gay or straight. After all, the fate of civilization hangs in the balance, no?

* See Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Penguin, 2005), 9.

* See Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988), xv.

* See Stephanie Coontz, The Way we Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 25.

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The Triumph and Tragedy of American Whiteness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bowe Bergdahl, Desertion, and the Meaning of American Loyalty

Jane and Bob Bergdahl, parents of freed U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, hold a press conference with President Barack Obama. Conservatives, of course, complained about it.

Jane and Bob Bergdahl, parents of freed U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, hold a press conference with President Barack Obama. Conservatives, of course, complained about it.

On May 31, 2014, U.S. president (and secret Muslim-communist-fascist-anti-colonialist-dentist) Barack Obama announced that he’d negotiated for the release of Sargeant Bowe Bergdahl, America’s last known POW, in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Since at least July of 2009, Bergdahl had been held captive by the Taliban, Afghanistan’s premier Muslim religious nutball cult, and the president’s actions ignited hope for the beginning of the end of the thirteen-year-long U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, which now ranks as America’s longest-running war.

Oh, but not everybody was happy about Bergdahl’s release. For you see, there’s a bit of controversy as to just how the sergeant disappeared from active duty back in June, 2009. Although Bergdahl remains a sergeant in good-standing, there have been allegations that he deserted his post. Some of his fellow-soldiers have accused Bergdahl of “deserting during a time of war” and costing the lives of many who searched for him. Accounts of Bergdahl’s disappearance — and the circumstances of exactly how he fell into the Taliban’s clutches — have been conflicting. Soldiers in his platoon have claimed that the sergeant walked away from his observation post, while other accounts claim that Bergdahl was abducted from a latrine by Taliban insurgents.

But whatever the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance, the usual hot gas-disgorging chorus of chest-puffing, self-righteousness-exuding, right-wing howler monkeys have taken to the media outlets to not only criticize President Obama’s handling of the prisoner exchange, but also to deride Bergdahl himself as an anti-American “traitor.”

Among the collective of expected conservative bloviators was former half-term governor of Alaska — and poster-child for the calcified state of American meritocracy — Sarah Palin. Yes, the Thrilla’ from Wasilla launched a scathing verbal assault from her Facebook page,  accusing Bergdahl of dishonorable service for harboring “horrid anti-American beliefs.” As Talking Points Memo reports, Caribou Barbie was referring to an e-mail message that Bergdahl sent to his parents just days before he went missing, in which the sergeant claimed to be “ashamed to be an american (sic),” and warned that “the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.” The e-mail was subsequently published in a 2012 Rolling Stone profile by the now-deceased journalist Michael Hastings.

Now, whether or not Bergdahl deserted is unclear, and if he did, then he’ll be court-martialed in accordance with military law. But I want to focus on the right-wing’s scathing reaction to the mere possibility that he might have deserted. After all, as Mother Jones’ Tasneen Raja notes, the army makes a clear distinction between soldiers who’ve gone AWOL by taking unauthorized leave from their duties, and soldiers who have been AWOL for over thirty-one days and are then summarily ‘dropped from the rolls’ and marked as deserters. If Bergdahl went AWOL and was then captured, then he wasn’t technically a deserter.

But these types of distinctions, and the fact that Bergdahl remains in good standing with the U.S. military, haven’t stopped conservatives like National Review jerk-in-residence, Ralph Peters from calling Bergdahl “a deserter already despised by soldiers” who is apparently now “the most-hated individual soldier in the history of our military.” Wow. Notice how Peters doesn’t call Bergdahl an “alleged deserter.” No, to the right-wing, mere allegations that Bergdahl deserted mean that he unquestionably did desert, and if you suggest otherwise then you’re an anti-American pinko. Because nuance BAD!

U.S. Sargeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was released after five years of Taliban imprisonment.

U.S. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was released after five years of Taliban imprisonment.

Conservatives consider Bergdahl a traitor because he (apparently) dared to question the unquestionable wisdom of U.S. military actions. As Michael Hastings reported in Rolling Stone, Bergdahl “had been enticed to join the Army…with the promise that he would be going overseas to help Afghan villagers rebuild their lives and learn to defend themselves,” but the sergeant quickly became disillusioned with the undisciplined nature of his platoon and the alleged callousness of American actions in Afghanistan.

According to Hastings, Bergdahl wrote e-mails detailing “his broader disgust with America’s approach to the war,” which seemed counter to the stated strategy of winning Afghan “hearts and minds.”  “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live,” read one of Bergdahl’s e-mails. He then related his disgust with seeing an Afghan child run over by an MARP. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks,” Bergdahl wrote, “[w]e make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”

Bergdahl’s comments may not justify desertion (if, in fact, he did desert) but do they really amount to “horrid anti-American beliefs?” Is criticizing possibly misguided national policy, especially military actions, tantamount to taking a position against America in general? The answer to both of those questions is an unambiguous “no.” Indeed, the right to criticize misguided or dangerous national policies is one of the most sacred rights Americans hold: the right to patriotic dissent is what makes the U.S. different from totalitarian regimes that deem any questioning of state policy as traitorous.

But to the right-wing authoritarian personality, patriotism is synonymous with unconditional fealty to the military arm of the state and the willingness to commit violence in the name of the state’s nationalist goals. Conservatives love to tout their antipathy towards the U.S. government, but they loathe any fool who dares question that ambiguous, amorphous, vaguely defined-but glorious concept known as “America;” a precious gem that must be sanctified via blood sacrifice in the form of military operations that bomb the shit out potential terrorists. For conservatives — and a good-many Americans in general — loyalty to the concept of “America,” if not its institutional governmental structure, should be unconditional. And because military service is culturally considered to be the highest form of patriotism, soldiers who shirk that duty by deserting have always been treated with extreme derision.

I don’t know if Bergdahl deserted, but let’s be clear: in terms of individual conceptions of loyalty, desertion has never constituted simple, clear-cut evidence of “anti-American beliefs.” Indeed, the circumstances of why American soldiers deserted or went AWOL in the past, and why they continue to do so today vary depending on individual conceptions of what constitutes a “just” and “necessary” war. Deserters have fled their posts in the past because they’ve questioned the established notion — a notion embraced by Palin and the right wing in general — that national loyalty is predicated on unconditional support for American war policy and demands total loyalty to the military as the agent that carries out that policy.

Take desertion during the American Civil War. During the course of that bloody, four-year conflict, thousands of men on both sides deserted from the armies, and Union and Confederate officials generally deemed them contemptible traitors for doing so. Confederate authorities in particular claimed that, in shirking their duty to defend the southern cause with a sacrifice of blood, deserters had expressed a de-facto rejection of the national cause itself.

Consider this 1863 anti-desertion proclamation by Confederate North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance. “Now therefore, I…do issue this my proclamation, commanding all such evil disposed persons to desist from such base, cowardly and treasonable conduct,” Vance warned, adding that deserters would face “indictment and punishment” by Confederate courts as well as “the everlasting contempt and detestation of all good and honorable men.” The assertion was, of course, that deserters were by definition not honorable. “Certainly no crime could be greater, no cowardice more abject, no treason more base, than for a citizen of the State, enjoying its privileges and protection without sharing its dangers…to desert the colors which they have sworn to uphold,” Vance concluded, warning that deserters deserved at worst “a miserable death,” and at best a “vile and ignominious existence.”

An 1864 despiction of Confederate deserters, from Harper's Weekly. Desertion has never been just about American loyalty.

An 1864 depiction of Confederate deserters, from Harper’s Weekly. Desertion has never been just about American loyalty.

But contrary to the claims of Vance and other Confederate officials and pundits, Confederate soldiers deserted for a whole host of reasons. Many simply didn’t agree with the Confederacy’s right to exist and were conscripted into the army against their will. To them, deserting wasn’t a crime since they believed that the state illegally forced them into military service. Other Rebel deserters thought that since wealthy slaveholders had started the war to preserve their human property, then they, rather than poor white men, should do the fighting. Still other Confederates deserted out of disgust with what they considered to be poor Confederate policies regarding the treatment of soldiers; while others merely wanted to return home to their families rather than die in what increasingly looked like a pointless war.

But Zebulon Vance’s proclamation includes themes that Sarah Palin and other right-wing goons have dredged up from the historical basement to lob at Bowe Bergdahl. Like Vance, they view military service as the utmost form of patriotic devotion, and to question American war policy is tantamount to treason. Just as Vance claimed that there was “no treason more base” than desertion, the National Review’s Ralph Peters claims that, as an (alleged) deserter, Bowe Bergdahl is “the most-hated individual soldier in the history of our military.”

The views of Vance in the 1860s and conservatives in 2014 all center around a simple idea: that the nation is the supreme authority, and as a citizen of that nation, you must observe (if not fight as a member of) it’s most hallowed institution, the military. Failure to do so means you’re against the state. For America’s right wing, national loyalty functionally equates to unconditional obedience. Gee, how American of them. This is, of course, a very dangerous idea. To equate patriotism with subservience to the state is to squelch one of the most essential of all democratic freedoms: the right to patriotic consent.

If Bowe Bergdahl did desert, then he violated military policy and should be charged accordingly. But, to promote the idea that criticism of U.S. policy, verbal or otherwise, equates to an “anti-American” stance is a simplistic notion with disturbingly authoritarian undertones. When we, as a culture, associate national loyalty with unqualified acceptance of American war policies, we’re effectively acting like an authoritarian wolf in sheep’s clothing. It might be against the law to desert, but it’s not against the law to critique war policies — especially if you’ve witnessed the shortcomings of those policies first-hand.

Climate Change Denial and the American Authoritarian Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pumpkin Flavored History

Pumpkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pumpkin flavored beers: nothing wrong with that!

Pumpkin flavored beers: nothing wrong with that!

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

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

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

Calhoun’s Ghost and the Enduring Dream of Secession

John C. Calhoun, with one of his many trend-setting mane styles.

John C. Calhoun, sporting one of his many trend-setting mane styles.

Secession is the idea that simply won’t die in the United States. You would think that after secession — the withdrawing of one or more states from the Federal Union — caused the The Civil War, which cost over 600,000 lives and left half of the country in ruins, the issue would have been settled in 1865. But Americans have never been ones to let a nutty idea go to waste, and in the year 2013, a few brave patriots are still bandying about the concept that withdrawing from the national compact is 1.) legal, and 2.) desirable.

Some recent examples from around the country are keeping the dream of secession alive and well — at least for a few misguided individuals. Back in June, some right-wing residents of northern Colorado counties with a serious Jones for the oil and gas industry drew up plans to secede from the rest of the state and form the newly sovereign state of “North” or “Northern Colorado.” Citing a general butt-hurt caused by the growing influence of liberal urban enclaves like Denver, conservatives in northern Colorado hope to create a separate haven for pro-gun, pro energy industry interests. As the CBS Denver news affiliate reported:

The secessionist movement is the result of a growing urban-rural divide, which was exacerbated after this year’s legislation session where lawmakers raised renewable energy standards for rural electric co-ops, floated bills increasing regulations on oil and gas, and passed sweeping gun control.

Pro-secessionist leaders in northern Colorado cited a lack of attention by state and federal lawmakers as the reason for their wanting to secede:

“We really feel in northern and northeastern Colorado that we are ignored — citizens’ concerns are ignored, and we truly feel disenfranchised,” Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said.

Conway said the new laws don’t support the interests of the northern part of the state, which is rich in agricultural history. Conway said that’s why he and others are proposing to break away from Colorado to form a new state.

Following the Colorado brouhaha, conservative activists in northern California and western Maryland have proposed seceding from their respective states in order to escape the perceived liberal political dominance of metropolitan areas. As the Washington Post reported, Western Marylander  Scott Strzelczyk summarized the secessionists’ views succinctly:

He wants to live in a smaller state, he says, with more “personal liberty, less government intrusion, less federal entanglements.” He wants the right to carry a gun. He would abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Although he thinks the government shouldn’t be involved with marriage, he’d put the question of gay marriage to a vote. Medical marijuana would be just fine, he says. There would be lots of liberty.

Proponents of contemporary secessionist movements who want “lots of liberty” have an intellectual godfather in the figure of nineteenth century South Carolina senator and Vice-President under Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun. He was a political theorist whose most famous ideas refuse to die despite being discredited in practice over a hundred years ago.

An early American nationalist and proponent of a strong national government in his early years, Calhoun eventually morphed into a radical proponent of limited government and states’ rights, especially the right of individual states to nullify any Federal law they found distasteful, constitutional prohibitions be damned.

Calhoun was also a steadfast defender of southern slavery, and his defence of states’ rights usually served as a bulwark against federal interference in the “peculiar institution.” Calhoun’s most famous idea was the concept of the “Concurrent Majority:” the theory that all interests within states had to concur on the actions of the government. The idea behind this concept was to prevent tyranny of the numerical majority, which would supposedly lead to mob rule running roughshod over the interests of minorities, thereby denying them a say in government. Calhoun proposed two measures to prevent supposed tyranny of the majority: nullification, the idea that states have the right to invalidate federal law, and secession, in which states would withdraw from the federal Union.

No less an authority than President Andrew Jackson — himself no fan of excessive federal government — recognized that Calhoun’s theory was blatantly unconstitutional. The constitution expressly grants the federal government power over the states, meaning that states cannot nullify federal law. But beyond the legal issue with the idea of “Concurrent Majority,” it also created a deep philosophical problem: taken to its logical conclusion, Calhoun’s theory negated the very principle of democratic government and sowed the seeds of anarchy. Requiring all states and interests to agree on operations of the general government guaranteed the death of compromise and the perpetuation of governmental paralysis. Furthermore, if a state, or a municipality within a state, could simply secede from the Union whenever it found fault with federal laws, then the basic idea of democracy failed, and republican countries would devolve into ceaseless fracturing, threatening social and governmental order.

This is why Abraham Lincoln characterized secession as the “essence of anarchy,” and why he and the vast majority of northern states decried the secession of the slaveholding southern states in 1860 and 1861 as a violation of the experiment in democratic republicanism. Put simply: you can’t spend years drawing the benefits of membership in a federal Union and then pick up and leave when things don’t go your way.

Despite the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy, however, the idea of secession, underpinned by Calhoun’s “Concurrent Majority,” just refuses to die. In 2009 Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) floated the idea that his state could secede from the Union if the federal government continued its supposed tyrannical overreach, though he failed to mention that Texas is among the states that receive the highest amounts of federal money. Republican state legislatures have also invoked Calhoun’s ghost by passing restrictive voter I.D. laws designed to hold off the growing majorities of non-white voters that in the future may not support the Republican Party.

Thus, John C. Calhoun’s ideas will continue to be popular among cranky conservative Americans for the indefinite future, or at least as long as they continue to perceive that their political privileges are slipping away. But in republican societies, secession isn’t the answer. Those who lose at the legislative level should go back to the drawing board, reorganize, and try winning at the ballot box. Leave Calhoun’s ghost in the past where it belongs, guarded by the hundreds-of-thousands of Americans who perished thanks to his ideas.