Tag Archives: race

Baltimore and the Tradition of American Rioting

The militarization of city police forces is a spark that's leghting up neighborhoods primed for explosition by decades of beneath-the-surface social unrest.

The militarization of city police forces like those in Baltimore is a spark that’s lighting up neighborhoods primed for explosion by decades of beneath-the-surface social unrest.

Another day in America, another racially charged urban riot sparked by the suspicious death of a black person at the hands of the police.

This time, it’s happening in Baltimore, where there continues to be a glaring lack of information regarding the death of a Freddie Gray. Police arrested Gray on April 12 — for no reason other than the fact that Gray apparently ran — and by April 19, Gray died from “spinal injuries.” If that seems bizarre, that’s because it is. According to witness Kevin Moore, who recorded Gray’s arrest, the cops had Gray “folded up like he was a crab, or like a piece of origami.” Go ahead and view the video at the link, it’s not easy to watch, unless maybe you’re an advanced Yogi who’s used to having your body turned into an Auntie Anne’s pretzel.

Continue reading

Advertisements

The Long, Strange Tale of American Race Relations

Rev. Martin Luthrt King Jr. after delivering his "I Have  Adream Speech" in Washington D.C.,  August 28, 1963. From that moment on, racism was no longer a problem.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after delivering his “I Have A Dream Speech” in Washington D.C., August 28, 1963. From that moment on, racism was no longer a problem.

Here’s the thing about racism in America: it’s both ubiquitous and non-existent. Race plays a role in every major cultural issue that seems to tarnish our otherwise more perfect union — except when it has nothing to do with any given problem and we should stop talking about race because only racists talk about race. The latter is the preferred talking-point of the right-wing, whose collective fetish for American exceptionalism utterly inhibits their ability to interpret U.S. history as anything more than the triumphant march of alabaster altruists spreading benevolent, capitalistic, freedom-stuffed fruit baskets to all manner of benighted minorities who should be eternally grateful for this ivory-colored benevolence. Obviously, the history of race relations is more complicated than that, and leave it to a famous, gravel-voiced comedian to shed some light on how race really works in America.

In a recent Q & A with Frank Rich for New York Magazine, stand-up legend Chris Rock made some rather insightful comments about American race relations following the verdict in Ferguson, Missouri that let white police officer Darren Wilson off the hook for gunning down black civilian Michael Brown. When discussing the idea of racial progress, Rock was straightforward in his response: “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before,” he stated. Continue reading

Michelle Obama, Selfies, and Historical Stereotypes about Black Women

British Prime Minister David Cameron, Danish Prime Minister Hell Thorning Schmidt, and President Barack Obama take a group selfie at Nelson Mandela's memorial. The anger the media projected on Michelle Obama in this photo is rooted in old stereotypes about black femininity.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and President Barack Obama take a group selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial. The anger the media projected on Michelle Obama in this photo is rooted in old stereotypes about black femininity.

Nelson Mandela’s memorial ceremony was held in South Africa this week, and leaders and dignitaries from all over the world made sure to descend on Johannesburg to pay their respects to the civil rights icon. Among those at the memorial service for the first black South African president was Barack Obama, the first black American president (sorry Bubba, you have to relinquish that title). But of course, anyone whose been to any type of memorial ceremony — not least one the size and scale of the Mandela fête — knows that things can get kind of dull. Alas, world leaders are as human as anyone else (though sometimes less so) and they get bored like the rest of us. Hence, President Obama took some time out from the long, drawn-out mourning/celebration to clown around with British PM David Cameron and Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt in a manner that exemplifies the contemporary narcissistic age: they took a group selfie.

A photographer captured the world leaders’ selfie and his images became mildly infamous, raising questions over whether such behavior was appropriate at a funeral. Even more controversy, however, arose from First Lady Michelle Obama’s apparently stern countenance as she cast a steely gaze off into the distance while President Obama and the Europeans goofed around with a cell phone. As Roxane Gay notes in an a perceptive article for Salon, the press quickly assumed that Michelle Obama was angry at her husband’s behavior. “The media,” Gay notes, “have reacted, trying to frame Michelle Obama as ‘angry’ or ‘disapproving’ when maybe she wasn’t even paying attention to her husband being silly with his world leader friends.”

Indeed, the Washington Post claimed that “the First Lady looks stern,” while the New York Daily News reported that Michelle Obama “sat at a distance, as if in disapproval of the digital display.” The fact that the First Lady was apparently not angry at all hasn’t dissuaded the media from playing into an old narrative of Michelle Obama as a standard “angry black woman.”

Gay identifies the “angry black woman” stereotype as the underlying theme driving this otherwise non-story about world leader funeral selfies. “More than anything,” Gay writes, “the response to these latest images of Michelle Obama speaks volumes about the expectations placed on black women in the public eye and how a black women’s default emotional state is perceived as angry…She never gets to simply be.” Indeed, the “angry black woman” idea in American culture is a powerful stereotype that’s deeply rooted in the nineteenth century and the legacy of slavery. The idea that black women are perpetually angry, aggressive, loud, and strong-willed in the most obnoxious ways is a cultural construction stemming from historical circumstances in which black women found themselves at the bottom of American social power structures for generations.

In her book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, political scientist and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry notes how black women’s historical experiences in America, framed through the prisms of racism, slavery,  Jim Crow, segregation, and patriarchal dominance created a “specific citizenship imperative for African American women – a role and image to which they are expected to conform.” Harris-Perry calls this image “the strong black women.” It’s an image characterized by self-sacrifice, devotion to husbands and children, a dedication to endless hard work, and a seeming imperviousness in the face of trials and tribulations.* As Harris-Perry notes, the “strong black woman” image doesn’t consult black women about how they are, rather, it’s a social construct that has allowed American society to define black women in ways that society thinks they are.

Michelle Obama looks angry in this photograph, which, of course, means that she is angry!

Michelle Obama looks angry in this photograph, which, of course, means that she is angry!

Although many elements of the “strong black woman” idea are, on their face, positive attributes, such as motherly devotion and courage in the face of adversity, when this ideal has been externally projected onto African-American women, it’s been warped to embody perceived negative aspects of black female strength — especially black women’s supposed unmitigable anger. This stereotype is an inversion of ostensibly positive virtues because it frames black women’s confidence and assertiveness in the face of domination as evidence of irrational anger. As Harris-Perry writes, “by its idealized description, black women are motivated hard-working breadwinners” whose “irrepressible spirit is unbroken by the legacy of oppression, poverty, and rejection.” Thus, black women who embrace the “strong” identity can imbue it with positive characteristics. When wielded by external sources, however, as in the case with the Michelle Obama selfie snafu, the “strong black woman” often transforms into an irrational “angry black woman” whose anger must be publicly pointed out and critiqued.*

The idea that black women are perpetually angry stems from the nineteenth century and African-American women’s experiences under slavery. Historian Thavolia Glymph notes, for example, that white mistresses in plantation households characterized black female slaves as “obstinate, self-willed, cross, and dirty” in order to deny the fact that female slaves were not just being “angry black women” but were, in fact, engaging in rebellious behavior that challenged the “civilizing” expectations of the southern slave system.*

“By the late antebellum [pre-Civil War] period,” Glymph writes, the idea that black women were vessels of disorder and filth had become central to southern pro-slavery ideology.”* When female slaves refused to work, when they shouted at or spat on their mistresses, and when they beat their mistresses physically, white slaveholders characterized them as refusing to be “better girl[s].” In the eyes of white slaveholders, black female slaves were merely “angry black women,” not strong-willed individuals resisting the slave system. Framing female slaves’ behavior as merely “angry” or “cross” allowed whites to believe that it wasn’t the system of slavery that was wrong, it was merely black women who were wrong by refusing to conform to that system.

The idea of the obstinate, “angry black woman” survived slavery’s demise and surfaced throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whenever black women took it upon themselves to assume more public roles and assert their equal rights. This stereotype has legs because it taps into deeply uncomfortable and historically debated notions about what constitutes American social and civic identity. The American system of racial prejudice has, unfortunately, played a major role in every major debate about equal rights and American citizenship over the decades, particularly the debate over black women’s identities as U.S. citizens.

African American women who resisted this system in the 19th century were, according to slaveholders, just "angry."

African-American women who resisted this system in the nineteenth century were, according to slaveholders, just “angry.”

Even with historical advances like the abolition of slavery and the expansion of equal rights following the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, stereotypes about black Americans in general — and black women in particular — have proven difficult to dispel. Deeply engrained ideas pertaining to the nature of African-American women have yet to be fully banished from public discourse, just as similar stereotypes about black men as shiftless, criminal, and crude continue to shape debate in contemporary society.

The persistence of the “angry black woman” idea is attested to by the fact that no black woman — even one with a law degree from Harvard who’s married to the President of the United States — can escape such a labeling. Of course, the various media outlets thought they were having some light-hearted fun by depicting Michelle Obama as being “angry” over her husband’s funeral selfie. But the fact that the “angry black woman”  stereotype is so universally recognized as to constitute the foundation of a joke speaks to its staying power and deep resonance in American culture. Michelle Obama might just as well be called “strong,” but then, that would be more of a positive than a negative description. Media outlets looking to poke fun at the “angry” First Lady are likely unaware that such a characterization invokes the legacy of slavery, racial inequality, and vastly unequal power structures that have so often been at the heart of African-American women’s experiences, and therein lies the problem.

* See Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 21, 184.

* See Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 64-66.

On Liberalism: Its Faults and its Historical Necessity

Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830) has long symbolized both the triumphs and failures of modern liberal thought,

Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) has long symbolized both the triumphs and failures of modern liberal thought.

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I’m a political liberal. I make no apologies for this stance, and have spent plenty of time on this blog critiquing conservatism as a political theory. Simply put, I think that an examination of modern history supplies sufficient evidence to prove that liberalism, despite its many flaws, remains the best hope for individual freedom and small “r” republicanism in the modern world. 

Liberalism, therefore, must be preserved and vigorously defended against the relentless conservative onslaught that, for decades, has sought to delegitimize it in the eyes of the American public. On many fronts, the Right has succeeded in doing just that, often with the unknowing aid of wishy-washy lefties who are quick to descend into hyperbolic pits of despair in moments when their ideas and policies falter. But this doesn’t mean that liberals shouldn’t critique their ideas in order to make them better and to justify why such ideas are superior to those of the Right in terms of extending freedom in America and across the globe.

In a recent article for Salon, noted liberal Andrew O’Hehir provides a brutal critique of modern liberalism via what he calls the “monumental catastrophe of the Obamacare rollout.” Crucial to O’Hehir’s critique is the notion that liberalism suffers when its ideas and policies are watered down in a futile effort to make them palatable to conservatives who are hostile to liberalism as a basic political philosophy. Hence, by eschewing any type of single-payer program and, instead, basing Obamacare on a conservative model of mandated individual private insurance, President Obama and Congress created a law that sought an unattainable balance between states’ rights and federal power. The result, O’Hehir observes, was “a complicated mishmash with dozens of brand-new moving parts.” The complexity of the health care law allowed for “red-state resistance and bureaucratic incompetence” that made the law’s initial rollout a qualified mess.

O’Hehir views Obamacare’s difficult rollout as indicative of a broader problem that reveals the still inherent weakness of liberalism in the 21st century:

[T]he fact that a Democratic president who’s perceived as a liberal and has been comfortably elected twice had to fight so hard for such a patchwork law testifies to the ideological weakness of his party, which has been dragged inexorably to the right ever since its historic schism between Cold War liberals and antiwar activists in 1968, and often appears to have no clear principles and no core constituency beyond New York lawyers and Hollywood celebrities.

This is a biting indictment of liberalism made all the more harsh given that is comes from one of its own. But O’Hehir’s critique rings true because it hits at what has always been liberalism’s strength, as well as its weakness: its commitment to equality. Unlike conservatism, which views freedom and equality as incompatible, liberalism seeks equality of opportunity in a world where hierarchies are the norm. Conservatism, at its core, is a political philosophy that defends hierarchies, whether earned or unearned, because it sees hierarchies as essential to maintaining social order. Thus, as O’Hehir notes, liberalism does itself no favors by “moving inexorably to the right,” thereby diluting its commitment to challenging hierarchical powers that pose a threat to human freedom.

Ideologically, liberalism’s commitment to equality has given it a moral edge over conservatism by providing a trenchant critique of the Right’s historical defense of social hierarchies as ends unto themselves. In the realm of policy, however, liberalism’s defence of equality has often necessitated much more universal support for liberal programs. Conservatism is a philosophy predicated on hierarchical social divisions. Rather than seeking universal appeal, conservatism needs only to gain enough popular support to bolster the power of the ruling classes. Liberalism’s task is more difficult. Because it often seeks to challenge the power of entrenched ruling classes, liberalism must gain a broader base of support from various subordinate classes that, historically, have been far more willing to either side with the ruling classes, or divide amongst themselves. Such tendencies have made broad-based political challenges to conservatism difficult to sustain, a fact embodied in Will Rogers‘ classic quip: “I’m not a member of any organized political party…I’m a Democrat.”

In the rest of this post, I’m going to further discuss liberalism’s flaws, but I’m also going to offer a firm defence of liberalism – especially in contrast to conservatism – as the political philosophy that offers the best hope for preserving both individual freedom and democracy in the 21st century and beyond.

Modern American liberalism reached its peak during the era of FDR, whose New Deal programs destroyed freedom for privilged jerks everywhere.

Modern American liberalism reached the peak of its powers during the era of FDR, whose New Deal programs destroyed freedom for privileged jerks everywhere.

Before going any further, I should at least explain what liberalism is. In his book The Future of Liberalism, political scientist Alan Wolfe defines the basic, core principle of liberalism as this: “As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take.” A commitment to liberty and equality underlies liberalism. As Wolfe notes, liberals want equality to extend beyond the aristocratic class or the business elite via equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes. “Liberals,” he writes, “believe that the freedom to live your life on terms you establish does not mean very much if society is organized in such as way as to deny large numbers of people the possibility of ever realizing that objective.”*

In contrast to conservative claims that liberty can best be achieved via free markets and the absence of state intervention, liberals believe in a “positive liberty,” which holds that human flourishing should not be reduced to a series of monetary exchanges. Thus, it is not enough for a free person to be merely “left alone” by the state; a free person should also have the capacity to realize her own personal goals, and liberals are “prepared to accept state intervention into the economy in order to give large numbers of people the sense of mastery that free market capitalism gives only to the few.”* In his book American Liberalism: An Interpretation for Our Time, an excellent compliment to Wolfe’s study, political scientist John McGowan quotes philosopher Thomas Nagel to succinctly define liberalism as a philosophy favoring both ‘individual rights’ and ‘a form of distributive justice that combats poverty and large inequalities.’* Liberalism, then, recognizes that equality is absolutely essential to ensuring individual freedom and the functioning of democratic societies.

The value that liberals place on equality is what puts them at odds with conservatives, who view equality as, at best, an unachievable state, and at worst, an impediment to individual freedom because it rejects the role that organic social hierarchies play in maintaining social order. In a 1790 speech, one of conservatism’s towering thinkers, the Irish political theorist Edmund Burke, outlined conservatism’s preference for hierarchy when he described the implications of the French Revolution:

It was the case of common soldiers deserting from their officers, to join a furious, licentious populace. It was a desertion to a cause the real object of which was to level all those institutions, and to break all those connections, natural and civil, that regulate and hold together the community by a chain of subordination: to raise soldiers against their officers, servants against their masters, tradesmen against their customers, artificers against their employers, tenants against their landlords, curates against their bishops, and children against their parents. That this cause of theirs was not an enemy to servitude, but to society.*

Here, Burke outlined his core reasoning for why liberalism, as unleashed by the chaos of the French Revolution, was dangerous. Liberalism entailed the overturning of what Burke considered to be the “natural” hierarchies that held society together through a “chain of subordination.” And why did Burke consider this to be so dangerous? Because those in power, whether they be employers, landlords, or clergy, always view their rule as “natural.” They therefore view rule by the subordinate classes as an “unnatural” affront to social order. This is why political scientist Corey Robin characterizes conservatism as “a meditation on, and theoretical rendition of, the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” Winning back power restores order, and conservatives view equality as a threat to order.

Edmund Burke still stands as as a hero to conservatives who defend unearned privilege.

Edmund Burke still stands as a hero to conservatives who defend unearned privilege.

The need for order was a central tenet of Arizona senator Barry Goldwater’s book The Conscience of a Conservative, one of the core texts of modern American conservatism. “The Conservative looks upon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of the social order,” Goldwater writes. He rightly observed that freedom is impossible if one man can deny to another “the exercise of his freedom,” but, like conservatives throughout history, Goldwater postulates that state intervention in the marketplace more often than not diminishes freedom by overturning orders that conservatives view as “natural.”* These so-called “natural” orders, however, tend to be defined by those who have the power in society and, by extension, have the most to gain and maintain by describing their rule as “natural.” It’s no surprise, then, that those “natural” rulers tend to be conservative.

Liberalism has fallen short of its goals, and witnessed its greatest failures, when it has failed to convince the majority of society that their interests are not synonymous with those of the ruling few. In some historical instances, such as the Democratic Party’s failure to unite its middle class, socially liberal wing with its more traditional working-class supporters, liberals are to blame for their own messaging failures. But liberals also face a more difficult task than do conservatives: they must consistently forge broad-based coalitions in order to maintain support for their cause.

As Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson note in their study The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, liberal unity has historically fallen prey to ugly American divisions that strengthen conservatives’ political power. “Liberals’ inability to unite the poor and the middle classes in America,” Alterman and Mattson write, “is profoundly complicated by historical circumstances – specifically the divisions of race…that continue to define so many citizens’ identities.” Liberalism’s failures, they conclude, can often be explained by the fact that people “do not generally appreciate subsidizing, through tax and transfer policies, the lifestyle’s of those they deem to be different from themselves.”*

The less-than-successful rollout of the Obamacare insurance exchanges bares such hallmarks: it is a law that could never gain broad popular support beyond its component parts. Conservatives exploited widespread fears that Obamacare would redistribute wealth from whites to “lazy” minorities, leading the president and his Democratic Congress to compromise the bill into a complicated mess that attempted to please everyone but ended up pleasing almost no one.

By compromising with conservatives, who have little interest in a functioning government that uses its power to ensure greater freedom to individuals left at the mercy of insurance companies, liberals failed to fully embrace and defend their commitment to universal equality. This does not mean that Obamacare can not work, or that the president should not make it work to benefit of all Americans. Rather, Obamacare’s rocky introduction should push liberals to defend their ideas with greater confidence, and recognize that caving to the Right’s demands in the name of short-term political gain ultimately weaken’s liberalism’s overall political hand. Americans get behind leaders who are firm in their convictions, and if liberalism is to regain its once prominent stature in American society, it must first convince voters that it has backbone. In that respect, liberals have their work cut out for them.

* See Alan Wolfe, The Future of Liberalism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 10-13.

* See  John McGowan, American Liberalism: An Interpretation for Our Time (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 8.

* See Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama (New York: Viking, 2012), 465.

* See Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative (New York: Viking, 1960), 5, 3.

The History Behind the Southern Booze Buzzkill

Devil girl liquor caddy and paper towel holder made by Speedcult, Detroit.

Devil girl liquor caddy and paper towel holder made by Speedcult, Detroit.

Following up on my recent post on the historical demise and recent resurgence of American craft breweries, I thought I’d discuss another example of how booze and American history are forever intertwined. Last year the BBC ran an interesting article on the slow death of vestigial prohibition laws in the American South. Following the ending of national prohibition law in 1933, laws regarding the sale and distribution of alcohol fell back to the states. In the southern Bible Belt, the spirit (pun intended) of prohibition remained alive in the hearts of local temperance advocates. As the BBC reported:

When alcohol regulation was handed back to individual states, many local communities voted to keep the restrictions in place, particularly in the southern Bible Belt.

Today there are still more than 200 “dry” counties in the United States, and many more where cities and towns within dry areas have voted to allow alcohol sales, making them “moist” or partially dry.

The result is a patchwork of dry, wet and moist counties stretching across the south.

There’s an old saying (or maybe I just made it up) that even in the midst of economic depression, the bars always remain open. Well, following the 2008 economic crash, the temptation to reap some easy cash from the sale of booze has fuelled momentum to repeal long-established temperance laws:

Every few weeks, somewhere in the US, citizens of a dry area gather enough signatures on a petition to trigger a wet/dry referendum. It is not a one-way street – some communities have voted to remain dry or even introduce further restrictions on alcohol sales.

But hard economic times have accelerated the march of alcohol, and in recent years many communities that have been dry for decades are opting to end prohibition, for fear of losing business to their wet neighbours.

So how did the South come to embrace prohibition so thoroughly that its effects still linger in the form of dry counties well into 2013? The answer involves two central themes in southern history: religion and race. Southern prohibition laws were mostly enacted between 1880 and 1915. They were spearheaded by Evangelical Protestantism, a cultural force that still maintains a powerful influence in the South today. Historian Joe Coker, who was interviewed for the BBC piece, explains in his book Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause that southern evangelicals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly the Baptists, embraced prohibition in order to preserve the moral uprightness of southern culture. For evangelicals, “southern culture” entailed traditions of honor, Christian religious faith, and, especially, white supremacy.

The American temperance movement originated in New England, but antebellum southern evangelicals had little need for temperance in a culture that linked alcohol consumption to honor and white manhood. Indeed, slaves were forbidden from drinking except during carefully controlled celebrations like Christmas, when slaveholders monitored slaves’ drinking as a form of racial control. After the Civil War, however, the abolition of slavery gave blacks open access to hooch. This became especially problematic in the late nineteenth century, when the racist cultural trope of the lustful “black beast” bent on raping white women swept the South, spurring an era of brutal lynchings. White evangelicals argued that black rapists were driven by alcohol consumption and, consequently, advocated for prohibition as a means of reasserting white control over wayward southern blacks.

Evangelicals combined their desire to control alleged drunken black rapists with a recasting of southern honor that eschewed traditional honorable activities like drinking, fighting, gambling, and racial violence in favor of a new bourgeoise version of southern honor characterized by Victorian propriety. Thus, evangelicals succeeded in extending a plan of racial control to prevent all of southern society, black and white, from partaking of the forbidden elixures.*

Map showing the still remaining U.S. dry counties. Nearly all are located in the South. Map courtesy of the BBC.

Map showing the still remaining U.S. dry counties. Nearly all are located in the South. Map courtesy of the BBC.

Thanks to the efforts of evangelicals, a good slice of the South, particularly in Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee still have dry counties. This highlights a broader point about the nature of government involvement in private affairs in Dixie that influences southern lawmaking and culture to this day. Despite a generally conservative political culture in the South that emphasizes limited government interference in individual affairs, southern evangelicals have not ceased trying to use the state to shape social behavior according to their preferred designs. Contemporary evangelicals are behind efforts to use government power to ban gay marriage and restrict, if not outright ban, women’s access to abortion — and they still want to keep some counties in the South booze free.

In terms of the liquor bans, though, it looks like the religious folks’ stranglehold is starting to loosen. And, as with a lot of things in history, if you follow the money trail, you’ll get close to some answers. There’s nothing like a big ole’ recession to uncork (pun REALLY intended) a few bottles to start pouring out some much-needed revenue. Back in March, Governing reported that a growing number of localities across the South were ending decades-long prohibitions on sale and consumption of hooch in efforts to raise revenue without raising taxes. This trend is also happening outside of Dixie. In February, for example, the town of Seneca, New York reversed an 80 year standing ban on the sale of booze in order to raise enough dough to keep its landfill open.

The slow hammering of the final remaining nails in prohibition’s coffin reminds us of two crucial points about Americans as a group. 1.) Whatever their political persuasions, they aren’t shy about using the state to force others to bend to their sacred whims, and 2.) even the most deeply held beliefs can become suddenly negotiable when you threaten the cash flow. Now go out and get sloshed tonight, my friends, its your civic duty.

* For more information on prohibition in the South, see Joe L. Coker, Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause: Southern White Evangelicals and the Prohibition Movement (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007).

The Age of Violence Continues?

Dead soldiers litter the killing fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1863.

Dead soldiers litter the killing fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1863.

Is the human race predestined to off itself in a vicious orgy of mass violence? Lawrence Wittner, professor of History at SUNY/Albany, thinks so. In a post for the History News Network’s blog, Wittner ruminates on the continued popularity of mass violence in the form of warfare throughout the modern world. Citing the over a hundred million deaths resulting from the two World Wars of the 20th century, the continued persistence of 21st century warfare in the Developing World, and the trillions spent on military buildup in the so-called First World, Wittner sees a dreary pattern of death and destruction that may spell the end of humankind in the near future. He’s particularly worried about the human propensity towards mass violence in a world where many nations continue to proliferate their nuclear arsenals. Wittner observes that:

Resorting to violence is a long-term, deeply-ingrained habit in human history, and is not easily discarded. To shake it probably requires less attention to a royal childbirth or the latest sex scandal and more attention to the dangers of mass violence in an age of modern weaponry and war. This was certainly what the French writer, Albert Camus, meant when, in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the first use of nuclear weapons, he offered a simple but powerful challenge: “All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice.”

Wittner’s concerns are certainly valid, but in questioning whether or not humans can ever curb their lust for conflict, he’s hitting on a debate that is as old as human society itself. Wittner’s conclusions, for example, contradict Steven Pinker’s claims in his best-selling book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. Pinker argues that in terms of the broader historical arch of human history, violence is actually on the decrease, and that the 21st century is the most peaceful century ever. Pinker’s book has proven rather controversial, especially in a contemporary world beset by economic downturns, social instability, and understandable mass cynicism about world politicians’ ability to deal with such pressing problems. Americans in particular are inclined to be resigned towards accepting violence as an inevitable reality of modern life. In an article for Global Research, for example, John Cozy thinks that violence infiltrates most aspects of American life:

The United States of America was conceived and nurtured by violence. The Europeans who colonized America were neither tolerant or enlightened; they were the dregs of society, and they even despised each other. The totally impure Puritans of Massachusetts despised the Quakers of Pennsylvania and the Catholics of Maryland. In the Pequot War, English colonists commanded by John Mason, launched a night attack on a large Pequot village on the Mystic River and burned the inhabitants in their homes and killed all survivors. By conservative estimates, the population of the United states prior to European colonization was greater than 12 million. Four centuries later, the count has been reduced to 237,000. Four centuries of continuous violence against native Americans, and the violence persists.

I could easily accuse Cozy of hyperbole, of which he is certainly guilty to a point, but he rightfully identifies the prevalence of violence in American culture that has been an issue since the founding generation first decided to stick a massive splinter in King George’s posterior. That said, Cozy nonetheless overemphasizes the United States’ uniqueness in terms of its violent history in the modern era. In fact, most of the world is still living in the midst of the great Age of Violence that began in the 18th century, intensified in the 19th century, and exploded into the 20th century’s ultra-violent conflicts. Four major trends underlay outbreaks of mass violence throughout the world in the modern era: race/ethnicity, nationalism, economics, and religion. No violent conflict embodies the potent stew of these factors better than the American Civil War.

Beginning in the 18th century, the great European mercantilist powers began competing for territorial and economic control of North America. In such bloody conflicts as the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, these great powers unleashed a new nationalist movement that eventually bore fruit in the formation of the United States. Conceived as a secular republic without a state religion, the U.S., like many of the European powers of the time, enshrined nationalism as new type of civic religion to which citizens owed their devotion. The “last full measure of devotion,” in Abraham Lincoln’s immortal words, was to give one’s life for one’s country, a form of modern bodily sacrifice in which mortals sanctified the national spirit with an offering of blood, so that the nation might live on in the face of threat’s to its very existence.

When combined with the Market Revolution’s unleashing of a dynamic capitalist economy in the early 19th century, part of which saw the expansion of the southern system of racial slavery that fueled widening sectional divisions, splitting North and South along economic, religious, political, and nationalistic lines, the idea of the “last full measure of devotion”  resulted in the most violent conflict to ever erupt on American soil. The Civil War, like other wars of the time, was a war in the name of the new civic religion of nationalism. It legitimized mass violence by amassing two competing armies that acted in the name of their respective Union and Confederate nation-states. These armies proceeded to cut each other to pieces in Hellish killing fields like Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Gettysburg, and Shiloh.

Beyond nationalism, each side claimed divine sanction for their mass violence: the Confederates insisted that they represented a uniquely Christian nation, while the Union saw itself as leading God’s heavenly march to bring freedom to all the world against the tyranny of the great Southern Slave Power. And slavery, of course, was the issue. The debate over slavery encompassed the intertwined issues of nationalism, race, economics, and religion during the Civil War era. The South attempted to protect a slave investment that, as historian James Huston notes, represented 3 billion dollars of investment, more than the combined value of northern railroads and other industries. The South decided to protect slavery by establishing an independent nation that claimed to be the world’s first powerful, pro-slavery republic, a republic built on white supremacy and sanctioned by the Christian God. While the North shared the concept of white supremacy with the Confederacy, it rejected the right of secession, which Lincoln characterized as the “essence of anarchy,” and depicted itself as the only potential vanquisher of the anti-democratic Slave Power that corrupted republican institutions with the sin of human bondage.

John Steuart Curry's mural "Tragic Prelude" (1938-1940), at the Kansas State House depicts radical Abolitionist John Brown as a symbol of how the combined issues of nationalism, racial slavery, and religious fanaticism resulted in the Civil War.

John Steuart Curry’s mural “Tragic Prelude” (1938-1940), at the Kansas State House depicts radical Abolitionist John Brown as a symbol of how the combined issues of nationalism, racial slavery, and religious fanaticism resulted in the Civil War.

We know how this conflict ended, of course, because we are still living with its legacy in the 21st century. Not just the United States, but the entire world is largely organized around the social-political lines established during the 19th Century Age of Violence. Large, secular nation-states are now the principal form of human political organization, and they still seek independence and power, and they do so by constructing mass armies that hold a monopoly on violence to defend their national interests. Further, while legal slavery has been abolished (illegal slavery is thriving in the world at a sickening rate), the continued growth of globalized capitalism over the past 150 years has spurred an even greater demand for resources to feed the world-wide marketplace’s insatiable hunger for greater and greater wealth. Religion, of course, has not stood spectator to this process. The U.S., for example, continues to inject religion into all of its major foreign and domestic issues, while even greater mass violence has erupted in former Western colonies in Asia and the Middle East, as largely Islamic religious fundamentalists invoke hard-line belief systems as antidotes to the perceived corruptions of the modern globalized world.

Its no surprise, then, that mass violence should still be common in the world today. The modern world as we know it was born and baptized in violence. Whether or not the contemporary world is more or less violent than in the past remains a controversial, and likely unsettled, question, but focusing too narrowly on that question tends to miss the more obvious problem: building societies around multiple competing nationalistic, economic, racial, and religious factions is a recipe for continued violence. So what’s the alternative? Damn if I know, but there’s certainly no harm in thinking about new forms of human organization if doing so has the chance to decrease violence. After all, what to we have to lose, except possibly our lives?