Tag Archives: Rush Limbaugh

Why Rush Limbaugh’s Very Exceptional America is Very Bad History

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh, alongside his fictional horse, Liberty (yes, Liberty) fancies himself a historian, for some reason.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh, alongside his fictional horse, Liberty (yes, Liberty). He fancies himself a historian, for some reason.

Sigh. Rush Limbaugh. You’re familiar with him, right? He’s a formidable natural force that once spewed forth an estimated 1.5 million metric-tons of gas into the atmosphere. Wait, that was Mt. St. Helens in 1980. But Rush isn’t far behind. Since the 1990s, Rush has been contributing heavily to global warming by emitting dangerous levels of toxic, right-wing effluvium into America’s radio waves on a daily basis — and this gas has poisoned the minds of many an impressionable, angry white guy. After all, Rush is the radio blow-hard who once compared Obamacare to slavery, and slavery is bad!! But now, El Rush-bo is focusing his plume of billowing exhaust on America’s children.

That’s right, Rush has recently authored two “history” books for kids: 2013’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans, and 2014’s Rush Revere and the First Patriots. Now, you’d think that no self-respecting teacher would have the stones to use these books for instructional purposes in an actual history class, but you’d be wrong. Because a teacher named Ivy from South Carolina (how shocking) recently called up Rush’s radio show to let the world know that she uses Rush’s books to teach third-graders. “[W]hat I decided to do was to use your author’s note that explains the principles of the founders in our country as a way to introduce the Civil War,” Ivy told Rush. Ho boy.

It’s the “author’s note” section of Rush’s book on the Pilgrims, which purports to explain why the “principles of the founders” led to the end of slavery, that demonstrates why Ivy the teacher is making a big mistake here — in addition to the fact that she’s using a book by Rush Limbaugh to TEACH THIRD-GRADERS!

Thankfully, the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf spares me from having to read too much of Rush’s book on my own and highlights the goodies from Rush’s “author’s note,” which the king of talk-radio gas actually read on the air. The offending section reads as follows:

We live in the greatest country on earth, the United States of America. But what makes it so great? Why do some call the United States a miracle? How did we become such a tremendous country in such a short period of time? After all, the United States is less than 250 years old! I want to try to help you understand what “American Exceptionalism” and greatness is all about. It does not mean that we Americans are better than anyone else. It does not mean that there is something uniquely different about us as human beings compared to other people in the world. It does not mean that we as a country have never faced problems of our own.

American Exceptionalism and greatness means that America is special because it is different from all other countries in history. It is a land built on true freedom and individual liberty and it defends both around the world. The role of the United States is to encourage individuals to be the best that they can be, to try to improve their lives, reach their goals, and make their dreams come true. In most parts of the world, dreams never become more than dreams.

Well now, that sounds innocuous enough, don’t it?! Rush isn’t saying that America is perfect, he’s just saying it’s more perfect than everywhere else! But, as Friedersdorf notes, Rush’s embracing of American Exceptionalism allowed Ivy to explain slavery’s demise as something that was just bound to happen, gol’ darn it! “I used that as a way to introduce the Civil War because we were about to enter a discussion on the time when slavery existed in our country,” Ivy said, “but because of what you said in the book and the way that you explained the Founders’ passion for our country, it was because of that that slavery inevitably was abolished. So I felt like that would be a good way to get some conversation going.” Ho boy.

This idea really has got to go.

This idea really has got to go.

You get all that? According to Rush and teacher Ivy, slavery was abolished in the U.S. because it was destined to be abolished, because America is so great — so EXCEPTIONAL — that it was inevitable that it would eventually repent for its greatest original sin. The big problem with American Exceptionalism, however, is that takes a providential view of U.S. history by postulating that some divine or otherworldly force — usually the Christian God — has guided America’s progress from its founding to the present day. Thus, American Exceptionalism isn’t just bad history; rather, it places the United States outside of history.

Scholar Deborah Madsen has written a great book on American Exceptionalism, which I highlighted in a previous post, but her book is worth going back to in order to highlight the depth of Limbaugh’s historical delusions. Madsen defines “American Exceptionalism” as the belief that, “America and Americans are special, exceptional, because they are charged with saving the world from itself and, at the same time, America and Americans must sustain a high level of spiritual, political and moral commitment to this exceptional destiny — America must be ‘a city upon a hill’ exposed to the eyes of the world.”* The phrase “city upon a hill” is a quote from Puritan leader John Winthrop, who long ago envisioned that America was to be an exceptional Christian society that would offer a starting point for a new history in the form of a society that was free from the sins of Old Europe, and would thereby provide an example of spiritually informed enlightenment for all the world to emulate.

Thus, American Exceptionalism presents a redemptionist view of history that absolves America of its many sins by claiming that repentance for those sins was planned from the beginning, and that the pre-destined progress of history would attest to this inevitable redemption.

American Exceptionalism removes America from the historical path in which human decisions, mistakes, and prejudices combined with coincidences, external influences, and developments in the natural world to create very real conflict over the future. And this is why Rush Limbaugh likes American Exceptionalism, because it replaces human agency with a historical trajectory that was predestined and/or guided by providence — a trajectory that sits in stark contrast with the reality of how real, flawed human behavior shaped the course of American history. Above all else, American Exceptionalism is SIMPLE.

But, of course, history is never simple, and there was nothing at all inevitable about slavery’s demise. After all, slavery was enshrined in the U.S Constitution. Contrary to Limbaugh’s claim that “the Founders of this phenomenal country believed all people were born to be free as individuals,” the Constitution only counted black people as a decidedly unequal three-fifths of a person. This was because the humans who designed the Constitution — particularly the southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention — designed it to protect slavery.

The eventual end of slavery in America was, therefore, the result of decades of fervent agitation by people of faith, courageous politicians (yes, they have existed), and the slaves themselves who fought bitterly to correct the Founders’ great sin. Anti-slavery forces in America endured decades of virulent and bloody opposition to their stance, and when the kettle finally boiled over in 1861 and the U.S. descended into Civil War over the slavery issue, there was still nothing inevitable about the institution’s demise. Had the Confederacy won the war, slavery would have existed and thrived for an inestimable amount of time.

Dead soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. There was nothing exceptional about full-scale war.

Dead soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. There was nothing exceptional about full-scale war.

Nothing about the Civil War — when it happened, why it happened, why it happened the way that it did — was inevitable or guided by providence. The Civil War, like all events in American history, was the product of specific human actions and decision-making. The fact that a nation ostensibly dedicated to the ideal that “all men are created equal” had to fight a four-year-long war and sacrifice the lives of 600,000 soldiers over the right to perpetuate the enslavement of other human beings demonstrates the very real limits of America’s ability to be exceptional. To quote the late historian/novelist Shelby Foote, “we think that we are a wholly superior people — if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war.”

American Exceptionalism is bad history because it blinds people to the very real — and very human — triumphs and tragedies that the U.S. has faced in its relatively short national lifespan. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk do us no favors by trying to simplify and overly moralize the events of the American past, because doing so robs us of the chance to actually LEARN from that past. Viewing the U.S. as uniquely exceptional makes it hard to examine with a critical eye what America has done wrong as well as what it has done right. If we make simplistic assumptions about the inevitable, inherent goodness of America, then we run the risk of underestimating the real evils that have existed — and continue to exist — in American society, and we run the risk of failing to address those evils before they grow.

Today, it’s common for Americans to look back on the century-long debate over slavery and ask why it took so long for the U.S. to eradicate such a conspicuous evil. But many Americans thought that slavery was an American institution and thus, an inherently good institution that was worth holding on to. After all, America was exceptional.

* See Deborah L. Madsen, American Exceptionalism (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 2-4.

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Rush Limbaugh, the Marxist Pope, and American Anti-Catholicism

This 1870 cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the Pope and his minions eyeing America from Rome.

This 1870 cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the Pope and his minions eyeing America from Rome.

The United States is, in theory, a secular nation. Despite the occasional verbal hat tips to a supernatural watchmaker by some of the more deistic leaning founders, all of America’s founding documents are secular: they embrace no official state religion of any kind and maintain a strict separation between church and state. This political structure has, in turn, made the U.S. one of the most religiously pluralistic societies in the world. After all, having  freedom of religion ensures that all religions can be practiced openly.

In practical terms, however, for much of its history the U.S. has been a majority Christian Protestant nation. The first European settlers (with the exception of some pesky Spanish Catholics in Florida and out west) to America were Protestants, and a Protestant religious tradition has shaped much of American history. And, of course, the violent, sectarian brouhaha that is Christian history ensured that a predominantly Protestant United States would also have its fair share of Anti-Catholic sentiment.

Modern anti-Catholicism in the U.S. has nowhere near the strength and popularity that it enjoyed in its 19th and early 20th century heyday, as Catholics have long since been accepted as full-fledged members of American society. Nonetheless, there remains a certain ambiguity about Catholicism in America; particularly among the country’s WASPY political and economic elites, who have embraced and accepted some aspects of Catholicism while remaining leery of some of its more left-wing traditions.

A case in point: conservative radio pustule Rush Limbaugh — a guy known for spewing more toxic gas into the atmosphere than your average Anaerobic lagoon — recently accused Pope Francis of espousing “pure Marxism.” And what did the Pope do to incur El Rushbo’s wrath? Well, in an 84-page apostalic exhortation that defined the platform of his papacy, the current vicar of St. Peter had the gold-gilded gonads to critique the excesses of globalized, unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism as a “new tyranny” that has created vast inequality and human suffering throughout the world. “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded,” the Pope noted, critiquing a market culture that “deadens” humanity via the promise of shallow material acquisition and leads to a “globalization of indifference” towards the poor.

As he is want to do, Limbaugh blew a major gasket in the wake of the Pope’s remarks. Rushbo not only accused Pope Francis of being an unrelenting Marxist, but then went on a standard tirade about capitalism’s amoral “invisible hand.” Rush did make a salient point, however, by pointing out the Catholic Church’s immense wealth, and how that wealth has, for centuries, been accrued through market means.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh. He actively tries to be a tool.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh. He actively tries to be a tool.

But Rush also made a telling observation, suggesting that Catholicism, for all of its “mainstream” success in the U.S., still remains a potential threat to American society by virtue of its collectivist tradition. “There has been a long-standing tension between the Catholic Church and communism.  It’s been around for quite a while. That’s what makes this, to me, really remarkable,” Limbaugh said. Rushbo was echoing an age-old fear of Catholic collectivism that has emanated at various times from both the Right and the Left in U.S. history; a fear that the Catholic Church, as a hierarchical organization, was at best indifferent to, and at worst hostile to, America’s individualist, small “r” republican virtues.

The fear of the Catholic Church’s allegedly totalitarian collectivist designs has been a powerful strain in American culture, which has long been dominated by a Protestant, individualist ideal that can be traced all the way back to Martin Luther’s idea of “sola scriptura.” Luther espoused the idea of a “priesthood of all believers” who need not consult a professional clergy for spiritual advice. The Protestant notion of a personal, individual relationship with God proved eminently compatible with republican ideals of individual liberty free from a meddling, theocratic state — of which the Catholic Church has historically embodied in the eyes of its critics.

Age-old Protestant fears of a multi-tentacled papist hierarchy wriggling its way into American life manifested most prominently in the rise of the Know Nothing movement in the 19th century. The Know Nothings, whom I discussed in an earlier post, were a political party that coalesced around the Protestant American cultural backlash against a new wave of Irish and German Catholic immigrants who came to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. The Know Nothings, or Nativists, originated as secretive, fraternal societies before organizing into a political party in 1854.

The Know Nothings believed that Catholic traditions were antithetical to American liberal democracy. They decried Catholic immigrants as nefarious moles sent by Rome to infiltrate American society and reshape it in the papist image. A theocratic organization with a central figurehead in Rome that was controlled by a vast clerical hierarchy could never acclimate to a republican society in which free individuals exercised their individual right to self-government — or so the Nativists thought. As historian Elizabeth Fenton observes, “in the emergent United States…the concept of individual freedom…hinged on an anti-Catholic discourse that presented Protestantism as the guarantor of religious liberty…in a plural nation.”* The importance Americans placed on “private individualism” rendered the seeming collectivist hierarchy of the Catholic Church an inherent threat to American culture. Indeed, unlike the president, the Pope’s only term limit was death.

A Know Nothing flag. The oddly spelled "foreign influence" referred to those wily Papists.

A Know Nothing flag. The oddly spelled “foreign influence” referred to those wily Papists.

Of course, contrary to popular depictions, the Catholic Church has never been an entirely monolithic institution. Both politically and theologically, it’s been historically wracked by internal factions that have embraced the hard right and the hard left of the political and economic spectrums. The multitude of official documents advocating the importance of social justice attest to the Church’s leftist strain, while the support given to right-wing dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere by the church’s more conservative elements reminds us that Catholics are as divided over politics as the rest of society. It’s the Catholic Church’s more leftist elements, however, underpinned by its inherently collectivist structure, that have more often than not been a source of worry for American Protestants.

The case of Father Charles Coughlin is among the best examples of how anti-Catholic fears have manifested via the fear of socialist infiltration — a tradition Rush Limbaugh is keeping alive by accusing Pope Francis of Marxism. Charles Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest who rose to prominence during the Great Depression by championing social justice in a thoroughly demagogic fashion. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1891, Coughlin became the pastor of the small Royal Oak parish in suburban Detroit in 1926. Inflamed by persistent anti-Catholicism in America (the Ku Klux Klan once burned a cross on his church lawn) and the economic turmoil of the Depression, Coughlin took to preaching his sermons via a nationally syndicated Sunday radio show. In his radio sermons Coughlin demanded silver-based inflation, railed against the gold standard and international bankers, and called for the nationalization of the American banking system.*

Coughlin was a charismatic Catholic left-wing agitator-turned-right-wing fascist who was not above using demagoguery to achieve his vision of social justice.  An early supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Coughlin soon turned on the president when FDR failed to nationalize the banks and pursued anti-inflationary monetary policies. Feeling burned by Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, in November 1934, Coughlin formed a new party, the National Union for Social Justice, which campaigned for the rights of labor and the nationalization of key industries. Coughlin’s proclivity towards embracing nutty conspiracy theories, however, proved his undoing. He seemingly railed against everything; denouncing ‘communists,’ ‘plutocrats,’ and FDR’s alleged collusion with international bankers. Coughlin also peppered his broadcasts with vile anti-semitic rhetoric, accusing an international Jewish cabal of controlling the world banking system.*

During the late 1930s, amidst the outbreak of World War II, Coughlin took an ideological turn to embrace the right-wing fascist dogma then en vogue in Europe. He embraced Mussolini-style authoritarianism as the only way to cure the world of the ills that capitalism and democracy had wrought. By 1940, his radio program was off the air, but he continued to publish his magazine, Social Justice. After Pearl Harbor, however, Coughlin outright blamed the Jews for starting the war, leading the FBI to raid his church and U.S. authorities to forbid the postal service from disseminating his magazine. When the archbishop of Detroit ordered Coughlin to cease and desist all non-pastoral activities in 1942, the agitator-priest relented and retired from public life.*

Father Charles Coughlin railing against stuff in Cleveland, Ohio, 1936.

Father Charles Coughlin railing against stuff in Cleveland, Ohio, 1936.

Whether he was spouting left-wing or right-wing demagoguery, Coughlin always framed his ideas through the prism of a collectivist hierarchy; whether in the form of a central government-instigated redistribution of wealth or via an authoritarian system that squelched individual rights in the name of a greater, fascist whole. In this respect, Coughlin was an extreme example of the type of papist proclivity towards hierarchy that had long worried American non-Catholics. The ignominious Canadian-born priest never spoke for most of St. Peter’s flock, of course, but his demagoguery fed into already established concerns about the threat Catholicism supposedly posed to American republicanism. Heck, Rush Limbaugh might as well have invoked Coughlin when he accused Pope Francis of Marxism.

While American Catholics have come a long way since the days of being publicly reviled by Know Nothings and having an insane Detroit priest act as their national spokesman, the Catholic Church’s hierarchical structure is still a source of unease when that structure is invoked to critique the worst excesses of free-market capitalism. Whether those critique’s come in the form of Coughlin-style demagogic rants or Pope Francis’ elegant exhortation, the reaction has historically been one of hesitation — if not outright disgust — by non-Catholics who invoke, however unconsciously, a history of Anti-Catholic prejudice rooted in fears of the Church’s theocratic hierarchy. In America, old habits die hard.

* See Elizabeth Fenton, Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6.

* See David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 227-37.

* See Charles E. Coughlin Biography, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia.

Horatio Alger’s Long Shadow: Blaming the Poor in American History

Upon viewing this sign,  Jesus Christ, a guy who once told people to

Upon viewing this sign, Jesus Christ, a guy who once told people to “sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” was reported to have metaphorically spun in his empty grave.

Have you ever been poor? Have you ever lived in a state of poverty where the basic necessities of life, such as food, water, shelter, and income security barely existed? If not, then count yourself lucky. Really lucky. Because being poor is awful. It’s not just damaging to every aspect of your physical health and well-being; it’s also psychologically damaging in that being poor tends to reinforce a sense of despair that leads to viewing poverty as an inescapable trap. In a column for Pacific Standard, Paul Hiebert recently reported on a new Harvard study that explains how poverty reinforces itself:

Being broke is tough. Not only does a lack of money restrict what you can do, but now your survival also involves an endless amount of compromise over the most basic of goods and services…it’s like browsing the Internet while your computer downloads a file, ad infinitum. It’s impossible to stop dwelling on unpaid utility bills when you have absolutely no idea how you’re going to pay them.

Yet, for all of the physical and mental misery that poverty causes, a huge chunk of Americans continue to blame the poor for being poor, with some particularly repugnant Sarlaccs even going so far as to claim that poor people enjoy being poor. This type of thinking is not only morally vacuous, it’s also contrary to significant evidence that a host of structural problems, including income inequality and the devaluing of wages, are to blame for the existence of poverty in the United States.

Yet blaming the poor for their condition remains a central tool in the arsenal of American conservatives like pestilent boil and spewer of septic radio sludge Rush Limbaugh, who routinely claims that the poor simply “don’t want to work.” A variant of this theme echoes at the top levels of government. Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, for example, justifies his plans to shred the American safety net by claiming that “it lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency” and  “drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” Ryan, a guy who got a big boost early on from Social Security and has amassed a fair share of government subsidies, never provides evidence for this assertion.

On the one hand, its easy to characterize the “blame the poor” trend as yet another example of conservatives’ perpetual aversion to nuance in favor of black-and-white thinking. But the idea that the poor are poor due to their own moral failings has a long history and is deeply entrenched in American culture. The reason for the “blame the poor” response is rooted in the persistence of “rags to riches,” or “bootstrap” mythology, which postulates that America is the land of political and economic freedom in which even the poorest and humblest individual can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and achieve economic success. In this vision of American society, those who fail to succeed have only themselves to blame, since America afforded them every opportunity for success in exchange provided they work hard.

No American made more hay out of the “bootstrap” myth than the nineteenth-century author Horatio Alger, Jr. During the Gilded Age, Alger wrote hundreds of cheap, juvenile novels that espoused the “rags to riches” theme. Alger’s works, especially his most famous book, Ragged Dick (1868), were fictional accounts of young boys born into poverty who nonetheless achieved economic success in American society through a potent combination of hard work, determination, self-reliance, and an embracing of capitalist virtues. Alger’s novels were simplified depictions of individuals who achieved the American dream: the idea that because the U.S. eschewed the inherited wealth of Old Europe, hard work and self-reliance would ensure that even Americans from the humblest beginnings could achieve social and economic success — maybe even become president. Thus, Alger helped promulgate the myth of the “self-made man.”

Alger’s writings are painfully lacking in nuance, but they struck a chord with Gilded Age readers — and continue to indirectly influence contemporary Americans — because the cultural view of the United States as the “land of opportunity” is based, to a point, on historical truths. Especially in the nineteenth century, the U.S. did indeed provide much opportunity to both American-born citizens and immigrants from all over the world who took advantage of its dynamic capitalist system to achieve success.

Horatio Alger, Jr. This guy has proven to be a major historical pain in the arse.

Horatio Alger, Jr. This guy has proven to be a major historical pain in the arse.

On the other hand, Alger’s depiction of the American dream was also stunningly simplistic to the point where he largely ignored the other realities of Gilded Age American life. These included the monopolistic practices of trust-forming big businesses that stifled competition, the rampant urban and rural poverty experienced by millions, and a thoroughly corrupted political system in which big business aligned itself with the state to crush labor rights and enact protectionist policies that mocked the concept of “free markets.” In an era when the rise of massive, vertically integrated and politically connected corporations threatened market competition and seemed on the verge of perpetuating a permanently impoverished laboring class, Horatio Alger’s “bootstrap” myth was more than just harmless fantasy, it also gave those with the most economic power an excuse to blame the poor for their condition.

The influence of the Alger “bootstrap” myth played right into the hands of tycoons who bought into Social Darwinist ideas about human society. Adopting a pseudo-scientific idea that, when taken to its logically illogical conclusion, nearly wiped out much of the human race, Social Darwinists wrongheadedly applied Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection to human social organization. Thus, “intellectual” nitwits like Herbert Spencer (the mutton-chopped ogre who coined the term “survival of the fittest,” and about whom I wrote in an earlier post) claimed that capitalism was the perfect, organic system for separating the human wheat from the human chaff. The Alger “bootstrap” myth played right into Social Darwinists’ hands by providing a cultural template that explained in simple fashion why those who worked hard could succeed in America, and why those that failed to succeed simply didn’t work hard enough.

The steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie, whose free-market hypocrisy I described in a an earlier blogpost, was among the most vociferous proponents of Social Darwinism via laissez-faire capitalism. But he often wrapped his paternalistic ideas in rhetoric that stressed the moral duties of businessmen to give back to their communities in the form of philanthropy. Carnegie’s support for philanthropy allowed him to maintain power over workers while simultaneously claiming that he was looking after their best interests. Implicit in his ideology was the idea of the capitalist marketplace as moral playing field: because he had lived the Alger dream, having risen from rags to riches as a Scottish immigrant to America, others who failed to do the same should not be rewarded with welfare that allegedly fueled idleness.

In his essay the Gospel of Wealth (1889), Carnegie claimed that the charge of the wealthy paternalist was to guide and look after his workers. The “duty of the man of wealth,” he wrote, was to act as the “mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.” The paternalistic undertones of this quote are laid bare when you consider Carnegie’s hard-line anti-union stance and his obsessive desire to get the most out his workers for the least possible amount of pay. 

Carnegie believed that workers should have as little control over their own destinies as possible. Unions and higher wages threatened his power as a “superior” employer, which is why he preferred them to be beholden to “better” men like himself who had proved their worth via the marketplace. Implicit in Carnegie’s words is the idea of workers as men who failed Alger’s “bootstrap” test. Carnegie’s ideology was not lost on workers. In 1894, an anonymous “workman” published a brutally satirical response to Carnegie in a Pittsburgh labor paper:

Oh, Almighty Andrew Philanthropist Library Carnegie…Oh, lord and master, we love thee because you and other great masters of slaves favor combines and trusts to enslave and make paupers of us all. We love thee though our children are clothed in rags. We love thee though our wives . . .

Oh, master, we thank thee for all the free gifts you have given the public at the expense of your slaves. . . Oh, master, we need no protection, we need no liberty so long as we are under thy care. So we command ourselves to thy mercy and forevermore sing thy praise.

Carnegie’s union-busting and support for wage-slavery was “blame the poor” ideology in action. He had no trouble establishing libraries and donating musical instruments to the poor, but giving them agency over their own labor was another thing entirely. As Carnegie noted in the Gospel of Wealth, recognizing workers’ rights or giving out too much welfare risked enabling “lesser” members of the human race to promulgate their laziness. “Neither the individual nor the race is improved by alms-giving,” he noted, “those worthy of assistance…seldom require assistance. The really valuable men of the race never do, except in cases of accident or sudden change.” With those lines, Carnegie, ever the true Social Darwinist, claimed that “valuable” people didn’t need handouts and that the poor got what they deserved, a type of rhetoric that still thrives in contemporary American conservative circles.

Carnegie’s and other Gilded Age tycoons’ inflated sense of their own superiority as achievers in business often overshadowed the simplicity of Alger’s “bootstrap” ideal. As the satirical “workman’s” letter recognized, Carnegie and his ilk employed trusts and cartels for the purpose of establishing monopolistic capitalism that thwarted market competition via consolidation and price-fixing and exploited workers to the point where advancement on the job was often a pipe dream.

The worst of this bunch were the railroad barons who, in the 1870s, organized themselves into price-fixing cartels that divided up rail traffic amongst themselves and set freight rates. When this scheme collapsed in the 1880s, the railroad barons instead controlled competition by jointly constructing massive, but shoddy rail networks in order to drive smaller competitors out of business. This was, of course, the same group of industrialists who urged the poor to make it on their own by pulling up their bootstraps and competing in the American free market.

Conservatives have been blaming the the poor for being poor for a long time, right Newt?

Conservatives have been blaming the the poor for being poor for a long time, right Newt?

The disconnect between the reality of structural hindrances to social and economic advancement and Horatio Alger’s myth of “bootstrap” advancement retains a pernicious influence on contemporary American society. As Time reported last year, the myth of “bootstrapping” continues to overshadow the growing difficulties of social mobility in the United States. Citing a Pew Research Study, Time’s Noliwe Rooks reported that:

Social mobility between the lowest levels of American society and the middle class is increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Specifically, the study found that while a large number of Americans (84 percent) have a higher family income than did their parents, those born at both the top and the bottom of the “income ladder” stay where they are from one generation to the next.

If Americans ever want to get serious about alleviating poverty, they’re going to have to seriously drop the outdated Horatio Alger “bootstrap” myth and recognize that while capitalism does indeed create wealth and provide a better standing of living for many people, it’s also a system created by humans that can be subjected to the worst human ideas. We’ve all met lazy people, but they do not represent the reality of the poor in America. Most of the poor in America are the working poor, whose hopes for social advancement have been steadily diminished by structural attacks on unions and wages, lack of flexibility with regards to health insurance, and the race-to-the-bottom style of twenty-first century globalization.

Yet, despite all of the structural issues contributing to income inequality and poverty, and despite the effects of the Great Recession, Horatio Alger keeps peering out from the closed curtains of the past, insisting that those faced with daunting unemployment pick themselves up by their bootstraps and just get a job already. The “bootstrap” myth resurfaces in criticisms of supposed millennial generation sloth, in Republican dismissals of alleged “lazy blacks” who don’t want to work, and, of course, in conservative claims that the “working poor” don’t exist. The clowns who lob such simplistic statements with gleeful abandon still subscribe to the Alger “bootstrap” myth, and, like the Gilded Age tycoons before them, they’re too concerned with consolidating the power of the ruling plutocracy to look beyond such black-and-white views. The only way to end the “blame the poor” trend is to kill Horatio Alger once and for all, which, as history has shown, is easier said than done.

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(Still) Fear of a Black Planet

Racial Propaganda Cartoon, Demonstrating White Fear of "Negro Rule," North Carolina, 1900.

Racial Propaganda Cartoon, Demonstrating White Fear of “Negro Rule,” North Carolina, 1900.

In American history, everything is about race. Even when an issue has nothing to do with race, Americans of certain stripes will find a way to make it about race. A case in point is the August 16, 2013 murder of Australian national Christopher Lane by three teenagers in Duncan, Oklahoma. An outraged Australian press seized on the incident to criticize the widespread availability of guns in the United States, which allegedly resulted in a cold-blooded slaying by three kids who were “bored and didn’t have anything to do.” Meanwhile, as Adam Serwer observes, the various American right-wing media propaganda outlets, who specialize in stoking a completely fabricated persecution complex among the country’s privileged, white, Ralph Kramden clones seized on Australian reports that erroneously identified the three suspects as black to claim that Lane was gunned down by blacks specifically because he was white.

As Serwer notes, no evidence has yet surfaced indicating that this was a racially motivated killing, though one of the suspects, James Francis Edwards, has been accused of posting “anti-white” tweets via his Twitter account. Moreover, it turns out that one of the suspects is white, contrary to early Australian reports that identified all three as black. Whatever the motive, the conservative outrage machine started overheating pretty quickly, with various charges that the Lane murder was the reverse of the infamous Trayvon Martin case — but without any accompanying popular outrage against the suspects. As usual, among the loudest of the outrage merchants was radio sinkhole, Rush Limbaugh. As Serwer writes:

Even after learning that one of the suspects was white, conservative media insisted the killing must have been motivated by anti-white racism. “They got bored and said, ‘Let’s go shoot a white guy!’ Folks, I gotta tell you, there’s something else about this. This is Trayvon Martin in reverse, only worse,” Rush Limbaugh told listeners Wednesday. “No matter where you look in the media, it’s not a racial event. Nothing about it is racist. This is the epitome of media irresponsibility.”

Limbaugh’s sarcastic claim that “Nothing about it is racist” speaks to a long-held fear among many white Americans of black male-violence directed towards innocent whites. This fear has deep roots that reach back to antebellum society, especially in the South, where racial paranoia in the form of alleged slave insurrections fueled a constant vigilance against slaves and free blacks alike. Among the worst crackdowns by white vigilance committees occurred in 1861 in the Second Creek neighborhood outside of Natchez, Mississippi. Following rumors that slaves in the area plotted to violently revolt against whites, lynch mobs arrested and executed over 200 slaves by 1863. Historians now believe that no plot actually existed; slave confessions were elicited through torture, which in turn fueled already rampant white paranoia that justified a mass lynching.

During the Jim Crow era, continued fears of “wayward” and “vicious” blacks seeking to impose racial dominance over whites gave rise to an epidemic of extralegal violence in the form of brutal lynchings in both the North and the South. Especially in the South, the charge of murdering a white person practically guaranteed that an African-American would meet his or her end at the hands of a lynch mob. Although the number of lynchings dropped with each decade into the twentieth century, the ugly specter of white racial fears of black violence remains a potent element in contemporary American culture.

Particularly within the vast conservative media complex that feeds its recipients a constant stream of unearned daily grievances, fears of black-on-white violence are invoked to rally support for laxer gun laws, tougher prison sentences, redlining, and the intimidation — or outright suppression — of minority voters. Of course, having the first black president occupy the White House provides a handy supreme leader towards which the right can direct its claims of caucasian victimization. Any perusal through the comments section on stories about the Lane murder invokes images of a secret army of black criminals acting on direct orders from the president himself.

Such claims are, of course, absurd on their face, but they exist because there is a long and deeply entrenched historical proclivity towards fears of “negro rule” among a large element of the white American population. This racial fear has existed for hundreds of years. Before the Civil War, it surfaced every time some poor white southern dirt farmer repeated rumors of slave insurrection. After the war, it emerged whenever some pasty American good ole’ boy felt slighted by the black person in his midst.

In contemporary America, the fear of “negro rule” comes up whenever a black person is accused of committing violence against a white person. For the outrage peddlers on the right, the mere fact that a crime suspect is black is evidence of racially motivated violence. The three suspects who allegedly murdered Christopher Lane may or may not have had racial motivations, and if found guilty, they should be punished accordingly for what appears to be a cold-blooded murder. But the mob of manufactured conservative opinion has verbally lynched them without trial, proving once again how astonishingly difficult it is to have an intelligent public discussion about American racial issues. When it comes to race in America, it’s apparently better to be safe than sorry.