Tag Archives: Sarah Palin

The Midterm Elections and the Rural-Urban Divide in U.S. History

Walt Curlee, Taking Pumpkins to the Market (). The idea of a "Chick=f=lay+ section of America is really a re-tread of the old agrarian myth.

Walt Curlee, Taking Pumpkins to the Market (2012). The idea of a “Chick-fil-A Country” is really just a re-tread of the old agrarian myth.

Ah, the American press. The third estate. Delivering the hard journalistic facts to an information-starved American public. Okay, so those are the ideals that the more idealistic fools among us would wish upon U.S. journalism. Instead, we have programs like Meet the Press, now hosted by renowned Beltway fluffer Chuck Todd, who, like famed NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, has two first names. In a recent segment in which he discussed the upcoming 2014 midterm elections, the goeteed sage decided to frame the current political narrative through the lens of that most American of institutions: fast-food. You see, Todd believes that the current liberal-conservative divide in American politics has split the country into a “Starbucks Nation” and a “Chick-Fil-A Country.”

“Starbucks Nation” is characterized by big cities, where effete, spineless, multi-cultural, non-open-carrying, socialistic, Starbucks’ latte-sipping, atheistic, possibly homosexual, tax-raising urban liberal hippies vote for the Democratic Party and thus, plan to destroy America. “Chick-Fil-A Country,” by contrast, is characterized by small-towns — the real America — and is populated by white, gun-humping, (Protestant Christian) church-door-darkening, tax-cutting, flag-waving, freedom-oozing, military-worshipping, free-market-mouthing, conservative Chick-Fil-A patronizing rubes who vote Republican to save America. According to Chuck Todd, it’s the political battle between these two competing demographics — “the Democrats who live in the big cities” versus the “Republicans that live in the areas between suburban America and rural America” — that will decide the 2014 mid-term elections.

This is your press, America. And while Chuck Todd should certainly be taken to the proverbial woodshed for reducing American politics to a dualistic smackdown between competing styles of fast-food (believe it or not, there actually are small-town Starbucks AND big-city Chick-Fil-As!), he is nonetheless echoing a very old — and very real — divide in American culture: the clash between the rural and the urban; between the small-town and the big city.

Culturally, the Seattle-based Starbucks, as purveyors of crappy, overpriced coffee and mass-marketed faux-European cafe kitsch, is often used as an all-purpose stand-in for air-headed progressive urbanity (“Putting soymilk in your ten-dollar mocha-chai-pumpkin-Twinkie-latte AND supporting gay-marriage?! How sophisticated!”). By contrast, Chick-Fil-A has a conservative, middle-American image. Its founder is an evangelical Christian, and the chain’s critique of all-things queer-o-sexual made it a rallying point for right-wing, small-town Americans who wanted a big helping of culture-war conformity alongside their value-priced, coagulated chicken globules.

But regardless of how overly simplistic it is to associate Starbucks with liberal city life and Chick-Fil-A with small-town conservatism, Chuck Todd can get away with this kind of superficial bunk because there’s a very real history of urban-rural clashes in American history. Todd is referencing that history in his bone-headed, fast-food-based take on the 2014 midterm elections. After all, as the Wall Street Journal reported early in 2014, it’s a well-established fact that in modern America, cities tend to be havens for liberals while conservatives are mostly concentrated in rural areas and small towns. This type of political divide is the legacy of an American cultural proclivity towards viewing cities as bastions of openness, impersonality, and chaos in contrast to the supposed stability, conformity, and slower-paced, value-driven life of the countryside.

Just look at these left-wing, urban Starbucks patrons. Clearly, they're ordering the new Trotsky latte.

Just look at these left-wing, urban Starbucks patrons. Clearly, they’re ordering the new Trotsky latte.

As historian Paul Boyer writes in his book Urban Masses and Moral Order in America: 1820-1920, the urban-rural divide in American life is as old as the republic itself. The first wave of mass urban growth during the Jacksonian era struck fear into the hearts of American agrarians. “Urbanization posed profound threats to the social and moral order they knew,” Boyer writes, and, as a result, critics of urban life unleashed “somber warnings about the prevalence of intemperance, gambling, sexual immorality, profanity, and Sabbath breaking in the cities.”* To nineteenth century America’s moralizing country-bumpkins, “the urban order represented a volatile and unpredictable deviation from a familiar norm.”*

Perhaps America’s most famous of all agrarian apologists was none other than Thomas Jefferson. The archetypical Founding Father spent most of his life touting the importance of an agrarian ideal in which America would ideally be populated by independent, virtuous yeomen farmers far-removed from the tempting licentiousness of the cities.

In his famous 1784 book Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson waxed nostalgic about how rural and small-town life provided a bulwark against the dastardly influence of urbanization. “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue,” Jefferson wrote. “It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.” And what did Jefferson think of the cities? Although he wasn’t totally adverse to the growing importance of urban commerce, he nonetheless took a defiant stance in favor of the countryside, writing that, “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” Ouch.

The influence of Jefferson, a southerner, echoed during the buildup to the Civil War. In the antebellum period, northern and southern opponents tended to cast the sectional conflict as a clash between a rural, slaveholding South and an industrial, urbanizing North. But such black-and-white distinctions were products of politics and culture, not reality. Historians have since shown that while the South was indeed more rural than the North, it had plenty of cities and industry, and while the North was more urbanized and industrial than the South, it was still a mostly agrarian region that sent far more farmers than factory workers to the battlefields.

But such nuances didn’t matter to pro-slavery politicians like South Carolina’s James Henry Hammond, who invoked the rural life to defend southern slavery against supposedly hypocritical, anti-slavery urban northerners who criticized the South’s peculiar institution while simultaneously ignoring the wage-slavery in their midst. In his famous 1858 “Mudsill Speech,” Hammond argued that southern slaves were, “hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our [enslaved] people, and not too much employment either.”

Unlike southern slaves, Hammond claimed that northern workers were, “hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street of your large towns.” “Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South,” he boasted. The virtuous southern rural lifestyle, Hammond argued, was superior to northern urbanization because it kept only a specific group of (black) people enslaved, whereas wage-slavery affected whites and spread like a disease through northern cities. Checkmate, countryside!

Even decades after the Civil War, however, the allure of the countryside as an antidote to urban ills maintained a powerful hold on some folks in the conservative South. In the early twentieth century, a group of southern agrarian intellectuals railed against the influence of so-called “New South Boosters,”  who sought to remake the post-war South into a northern-style industrial urban powerhouse.

In their seminal essay collection I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, the agrarians made their case for the inherent virtue of Dixie’s rural and small town lifestyle. “Opposed to the industrial society is the agrarian,” they wrote, “the theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations.” The rural lifestyle stood in sharp contrast to the “evils” of urbanization and industrialization, especially “overproduction, unemployment, and a growing inequality in the distribution of wealth.” Like that of Jefferson before them, the echoes of the agrarians ring loudly in modern American discourse that presents the conservative small town as morally and spiritually superior to the liberal big city.

Small town America tends to fancy itself as more patriotic, but know this: even city-dwelling hippies like chicken nuggets.

Small town America tends to fancy itself as more patriotic, but know this: even city-dwelling hippies like chicken nuggets.

While America’s rural areas are declining in population, the old historical preference for the countryside now surfaces via “traditional” residents of small-town America who put their faith in the Republican Party as the last bulwark against a creeping, urbanized, secular, liberal culture. As Josh Kron of the Atlantic wrote a few years back, “the new political divide is a stark division between cities and what remains of the countryside…the voting data suggest that people don’t make cities liberal — cities make people liberal.” This demographic reality is why 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin adopted her best “aw shucks, gosh darnnit'” tone to claim that authenticity reigned not in cities, but rather “in these small towns” and “wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America,” the residents of which were apparently “hard-working, very patriotic, and very pro-America.”

Palin’s speech is the type of hayseed-mongering that rural and small-town conservative voters lap up like St. Bernards at a cotton candy convention, and it’s a major component of the Republican Party’s electoral playbook. The same folks who were inspired by Palin’s neo-agrarian rhetoric are the same folks who get a major culture war hard-on when they buy a Chick-Fil-A sandwich just to spite teh gayz. And it’s these same conservative, small-town and rural voters that urban, lefty, Starbucks slurping, gay-marrying pinkos are dismissing as relics of a barbaric age.

Chuck Todd’s Starbucks vs. Chick-Fil-A approach to American politics may be slightly moronic, but it does make a certain kind of indirect sense when you consider the long urban/rural divide that his fast-food metaphor is clumsily referencing. And while this divide has been — and continues to be — a real thing, let’s not overlook the myriad complexities of American history that caution against total, black-and-white approaches to regionalism. Both cities and small towns have their virtues and vices; there are liberal farmers and conservative hedge funders; and pretty much everyone in America has, at some point in their lives, ordered a Starbucks coffee or chomped on some Chick-Fil-A waffle fries.

So while rural/urban divisions will probably never go away, we’ll all be better off if we try to identify our similarities as well as our differences, wherever we live. The reality is that most small towns aren’t idealistic Mayberrys, but they aren’t necessarily backwards hellholes either. Moreover, while they can certainly have higher crime rates, most cities aren’t morally deprived war zones. The charm and slower pace of the countryside can house deep-seated prejudices just as the dynamic multiculturalism of the city can conceal some very real feelings of anomie and alienation. The world is more complex than a simple urban/rural divide would suggest, despite its historical provenance. And as for Chuck Todd: lay off the fast-food, man, Jefferson would have wanted it that way.

* See Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 5, 4.


Obamacare, Pajama Boy, and the Historical Paradox of American Masculinity

The longtime prototypical image of American masculinity: a right-wing, pill-popping draft-dodging chicken hawk.

The longtime prototypical image of American masculinity: a right-wing, draft-dodging chicken hawk whose image was built on colonialism and pseudo machismo.

Quick question: what makes a man? Is it, as the Big Lebowski famously quipped, “the ability to do the right thing?” In that context, manhood is defined through deeds and actions, but is that all there is to being a man? After all, the idea of a blanket definition of “masculinity” in the 21st century is patently absurd, resting as it does on the assumption that human identities can be shaped by a singular cultural experience or molded via the reigning social values that are inevitably dictated by those who hold power in any given society. The former sentence is a highfalutin way of saying that men, just like women, are all individuals who develop in a vast number of ways depending on a vast number of experiences. The idea of complexity in gender identity, however, has historically not meshed well with rather simplistic cultural notions of American masculinity.

American manhood has historically been associated with testosterone-drenched ideals of toughness, rugged individualism, peer validation through violence, and the projection of white male dominance over non-white peoples such as blacks and Indians. This image of the domineering (white) American male has been hard to shake over the decades, and it still occupies a particularly prominent gleam in the eyes of American conservatives who are always eager to use their ideological hammers on what they see as an ever-expanding number of nails.

Case in point: a recent ad for the Affordable Health Care (or Obamacare, if you will) insurance exchange has gotten the usual rogues’ gallery of conservative loony toons all riled up. The ad features an image of a scrawny hipster sipping hot chocolate in his pajamas alongside the tagline of “Wear pajamas. Drink hot chocolate. Talk about getting health insurance.” The right-wing, America’s perpetually simmering caldron of self-persecution and undeserved entitlement, went apoplectic over the supposed insult to real American masculinity that the derisively labeled “Pajama Boy” allegedly represents.

Let’s examine some examples, shall we? Jonah Goldberg – the dough-faced, more Stay Puft than Chuck Norris National Review writer who only got a job on the wingnut welfare train because his Mom worked as a long time conservative campaign troll – whined that “there are plenty of gay dudes — and women! — who are vastly more masculine than Pajama Boy. Pajama Boy doesn’t exude homosexuality; he gives off the anodyne scent of emasculation.” Rich Lowry, another National Review editor and self-appointed conservative He-Man, took time out from mixing Sarah Palin pictures with hand cream and tissues to call “Pajama Boy” “an insufferable man-child” who “might be glad to pay more for his health insurance to include maternity benefits he doesn’t need as a blow against gender stereotyping.”

The Obamacare "Pajama Boy" ad that has white, conservative males lowering measuring sticks to their crotches.

The Obamacare “Pajama Boy” ad that has white, conservative males lowering measuring sticks to their crotches.

Goldberg and Lowry’s implications are clear: “Pajama Boy” is not the mythical, rock-ribbed alpha male who tamed the American frontier. Instead, they view the guy in the ACA ad as decidedly feminine (and therefore, weak); hence Lowry’s claim that Pajama Boy would support maternity benefits and Goldberg’s assertion that he represents “emasculation.” Conservative ideology is, in large part, projected through a hierarchical lens that views patriarchal dominance of women and non-white minorities as the essence of true manhood. Thus, Pajama Boy, despite being a fictional ad-campaign construction, represents the retrenchment of a conservative-approved American masculinity defined by whiteness, toughness, heterosexual virility, and the use of capitalism and nationalism to dominate minority populations. Pajama Boy, as National Review writer Charles Cooke complains, is a “vaguely androgynous…carefully ambi-racial” threat to the primacy of American manhood because he is neither definitively white nor definitively male.

The image of American masculinity as longed-for by Goldberg, Lowry, and Cooke goes back a long way in U.S. history and demonstrates how, as historian Anthony Rotundo notes, “manliness is a human invention” rather than a naturally occurring state.* Sociologist Michael Kimmel writes in Manhood in America: A Cultural History that “we cannot fully understand American history without understanding masculinity,” a history that has been “shaped by the efforts to test and prove manhood” via “the wars we Americans have waged, the frontier we have tamed…[and] the leaders we admire.”* Indeed, it’s no stretch to view much of American history as one protracted dick-measuring contest.

Kimmel describes two major shifts in American manhood that, over time, have butted heads to create a frustrating ideal of masculinity that is rife with paradoxes, yet remains an ideal which white American males have struggled to emulate.  In the early 19th century, Kimmel writes, “American manhood was rooted in landownership (the Genteel Patriarch) or in the self-possession of the independent artisan, shopkeeper, or farmer.” This ideal of a real man-as-independent provider and tradesman stems from the frontier history of the early U.S., in which white, Anglo males culturally tested their testosterone-laced mettle against the imposing wilderness and the Indians that inhabited it in order to establish themselves as virtuous, freedom-loving yeomen.*

But the Market Revolution that accelerated in the 1830s challenged this early masculine ideal. Caught up in a new world in which consumer spending and business acumen replaced frontier ruggedness, “American men began to link their sense of themselves as men to their position in the volatile marketplace, to their economic success,” Kimmel notes, “a far less stable yet far more exciting and potentially rewarding peg upon which to hang one’s identity.” Yet the tying of masculine identity to the whims of a modern industrial market society separated American manhood from its original ideal of independent, frontier-taming machismo, and white American men have struggled to come to terms with this change ever since. “The Self-Made Man of American mythology was born anxious and insecure, uncoupled from the more stable anchors of landownership or workplace autonomy. Now manhood had to be proved,” Kimmel writes.* And so the proving continues, as American men, especially conservatives, struggle to live up to a Davy Crockett ideal in a world where the frontier is now lined with Targets, Wal-Marts, and gut-expanding Taco Bells.

Legendary American frontiersman Davy Crocket. White American men don't get to be like him anymore.

Legendary American frontiersman Davy Crockett. White American men don’t get to be like him anymore.

Conservatives who criticize images like “Pajama Boy” are, in fact, trying to reconcile the success of consumer capitalism, of which they are the most vocal champions, with the inevitable taming of the frontier and the distinctive loss of independent manliness that a market society has wrought. There are no more frontiers; no more wildernesses left for anxious men like Jonah Goldberg and Charles Cooke to try to conquer. Picking out hormone-stuffed zombie meats from Super Wal-Mart freezers has long since replaced hunting for game. Sitting in endless, smog spewing suburban traffic jams has long since replaced westward wilderness expansion. Televised NFL games have long since replaced Indian battles. And the rise of a high-tech economy means that supposedly effete men like “Pajama Boy” now count as top providers and the gender income gap is closing to the point where more American women are now family breadwinners.

It’s perhaps fitting that John Wayne, the symbol of conservative, 20th century American manhood, was a product of Hollywood fakery as opposed to real life exploits. The rugged, domineering, white American male has now been thoroughly homogenized into just another product to be hocked by consumer culture and purchased by insecure men who have no choice but to buy their machismo from a store.

So what are apprehensive toadstools like Goldberg, Lowry, and Cooke supposed to do in a society where their precious white male egos can no longer authentically thrive? Well, they spend their time spinning fantasies in which a fictional ACA advertising figure symbolizes the collective butthurt they feel over slowly losing their privileged white male status to women, minorities, and the “carefully ambi-racial” Pajama Boy. So to these fellers I say suck it up: you made your consumer marketplace beds, now you have to sleep in them. It’s the new American way.

* See Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: Basic, 1993), 1.

* See Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (New York: Free Press, 1996), 2, 9.

The real history of the “war on Christmas”

Charlie Brown and Linus Van Pelt witness the commericalization of Christmas in the form of alluminum mass-produced Christmas trees.

Charlie Brown and Linus Van Pelt witness the commercialization of Christmas in the form of aluminum, mass-produced Christmas trees. In an attempt to push back against the sanctification of mass consumption, Charlie Brown opts for a small wooden tree, and gets called a “blockhead” for his troubles.

If you think that the idea of Christmas commercialism is something new, then you haven’t checked out the 19th century recently. Follow this link to Salon where I discuss why the “War on Christmas” is utterly bogus. 

A Tea Party at the White House: The Confederate Flag as Reactionary Emblem

A massive army, perhaps 200 strong, of deluded Tea Party members protest sport the Confederate flag outside of the White House. Give them credit for being able to find the White House.

A massive army of deluded Tea Partiers sport the Confederate flag outside of the White House. Give them credit for being able to find the White House.

The scene of perhaps 200 confused, yelling white people gathered at the grounds of the World War II Memorial and the White House was indeed stirring. The most notable antecedents of these Tea Party dingbats, the Confederate revolutionaries who rebelled against the federal government from 1861-65, would be proud to see their torch being carried by such valiant souls.

On October 13, 2013, this group of motley rebels convened on Washington D.C., carrying the Confederate battle flag, of course, to complain about the World War II monument and other federal sites being closed due to the Republican-led shutdown, which started over Obamacare, then descended into a mindless brouhaha of conservative hen pecking. Leading these fearless warriors was Sen. Ted “Filibuster, but not Really” Cruz, the de facto figurehead of the shutdown itself. Sarah “Caribou Barbie” Palin, former half-term governor of America’s largest welfare state, tagged along — because why not. Despite being rallied by Senator Cruz, the guy who engineered his party’s shutdown of the federal government, the Tea Partiers blamed the shutdown on President Obama — because why not.

In keeping with a grand tradition of Tea Party obtuseness with regards to U.S. history, the crowd thought that waving the Rebel flag in Washington D.C. was the appropriate symbol to air their most recent in a vast list of petty grievances. One guy shouted something about “freedom!” Others cheered. Problems were solved. Just kidding.

Even if this most recent coughing up of reactionary Tea Party hair balls wasn’t quite as majestic as the sight of thousands of ragged, butternut Rebels lined up in the heat of a Gettysburg afternoon, the intent to subvert the federal government was still there. The Tea Party protesters brought the Confederate flag to their latest public tantrum because for well over a century, the stars-and bars has served as a symbol of white, conservative, reactionary protest against federal policies that might benefit anyone but white, conservative reactionaries.

The history of the Rebel battle flag — an emblem which never actually flew over any Confederate state house but nonetheless became the enduring symbol of the southern attempt to establish a breakaway slaveholding republic — is complicated to say the least. But while the flag has stood for a variety of specific historical causes in the nineteenth, twentieth, and now twenty-first centuries, the thread of white racial grievance runs through all of them.

In his book, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem, historian John Coski explains that despite its use as the symbol of a treasonous rebellion, the Rebel banner is a deeply American symbol because it has embodied deeply American traditions that range from the admirable, to the shameful, to the downright odious. Some of these traditions, such as states’ rights, remain enshrined in the Constitution. Others, such as slavery, used to be enshrined in the Constitution, but were expunged when the southern rebellion failed to make slavery a permanent institution in the 1860s. Other traditions, such as institutional and cultural racism, have, since the Civil War, been inextricably linked to states’ rights when it comes to the Confederate flag. This is why, despite the fact that those who still wave the flag claim that it represents patriotism, the flag will always invoke themes of the domination of one racial group by another.

The Tea Partiers wave the flag in 2013 because they are well aware that the flag, since the Civil War, has stood as a symbol for white American reactionary stances against the agency of minority groups. Whether those groups are racial, political, or cultural matters little, since all pose a threat to conservative power structures threatened by change. In the 1860s, the flag stood witness to Confederate armies formed to win the independence of a breakaway nation that, in the words of Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, made slavery and white supremacy the cornerstone of its existence. The Confederacy was the most significant conservative reactionary movement in U.S. history, but it was by no means the last, and the flag outlasted the nation it symbolized.

Alabama Governor George Wallace: the symbol of white southern "Massive Resistance" to the Civil Rights movement. He knew why the Rebel flag appealed to his targeted audience.

Alabama Governor George Wallace: the symbol of white southern “Massive Resistance” to the Civil Rights movement. He knew why the Rebel flag appealed to his targeted audience.

When the Confederacy lost its bid for independence, the flag continued to serve as a symbol of white southern Democratic defiance to northern, Republican-led Reconstruction. During the Jim Crow era, it flew over a racially segregated New South terrorized by white lynch mobs. In the early twentieth century, the Second Ku Klux Klan adopted the flag as a symbol to promote its yearned for anti-black, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-Communist utopia, and because Americans well outside of Dixie shared the Klan’s reactionary ideals, the Rebel flag became as a much a national symbol as it was a southern one. During the 1960s, white segregationists — the direct cultural ancestors of the long-extinguished Confederates — took the flag into battle against the Civil Rights movement.

As John Coski explains, although the flag flew in different eras and for slightly different causes, in each instance it symbolized a unifying theme of conservative reaction to minority agency, usually directed against African-Americans:

The Confederate flag’s meaning in the 1960s was logically and historically consistent with its meaning in the 1860s – as a symbol of opposition to the employment of federal authority to change the South’s racial status quo.*

For modern right-wing groups like the Tea Party, the Rebel flag continues to serve as a reactionary emblem. Indeed, Tea Partiers need not be foaming-at-the-mouth racists to employ the flag. While true racist groups like the KKK and various neo-Nazi skinhead organizations have adopted the stars-and-bars to serve their own ends, the mainstream Tea Party right uses the flag to protest federal policies that they believe will unjustly reward various “taker” minority groups at the expense of “maker” taxpayers.

Charges of racism are often brushed aside by Tea Partiers who will defend its use as a mere expression of patriotism. And, on one level, they have a point. Coski notes, for example, that “the Confederate flag modifies the U.S. flag, defiantly symbolizing constitutional ideals and, for an untold number of people, social and cultural values they believe that modern America has rejected.”* Thus, the flag waving World War II Memorial protesters can reasonably argue that they aren’t racists in the vein of Confederates of the 1860s or “Massive Resistance” pro-segregationists of the 1960s. Nonetheless, Tea Partiers, like the aformentioned groups, are conservatives who promote policies that reject federal government intervention that will aid minority groups — especially blacks and Latinos — at the perceived expense of ruling whites.

Try as they might to escape the racist symbolism of the flag, the Tea Party can neither escape the flag’s historical meaning nor deny the reactionary stances at the heart of their political ideology that led them to embrace the flag in the first place. They can’t have their tea and drink it too.

Nor is patriotism a justifiable excuse for flying the Rebel flag. As Conor Friedersdorf explains in an excellent piece for Atlantic, blind, reactionary patriotism is a dangerous ideology that has resulted in much bloodshed in the modern era. Patriotism has been exploited by “patriot-baiters” like Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin to rally the support of gullible moops like the Tea Party for shallow political goals. Throughout the country’s history, Friedersdorf writes, “millions of Americans have betrayed the ideals of the Declaration in various ways. Almost always, those bad actors did so while waving the flag, posing as patriots, or viciously impugning the patriotism of their critics.”

The Tea Partiers at the World War II Memorial used the Confederate flag for that very same reason: to pose as patriots while explicitly denying groups of their fellow Americans equal access to the federal government by shutting down that government when it appears to be working against their preferred goals. Conservatives who claim that the Rebel flag symbolizes “patriotism” and “freedom,” not racism and injustice, ignore the long history in which the flag has been used in the service of the latter, not the former. After all, it’s that history that makes the flag appealing to them, even when cognitive dissonance makes them blind to that fact. The Tea Party seems content to continue a sad — if unfortunately American tradition — in which the Rebel flag will continue to serve a cause that should have died with Robert E. Lee’s surrender in 1865.

See John Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 294-95.

The Legend of Small Town U.S.A.

smal ltown usa

“Main Street” is one of those apple pie invoking, corn-cob pipe toking, patriotism stoking, nostalgia choking symbolic themes in American culture that lacks a clear definition but with which most Americans are intimately familiar. I’m not talking about the actual street called “Main” that runs through your particular town or city. Rather, I mean the idea of Main Street U.S.A., also known as Small Town U.S.A., or, in recent political terms, Real America. You know what I’m talking about: its the America defined by a lily-white demographic, at a least a partially agricultural economy, Mom and Pop stores (no Targets allowed!), old guys sitting on porches, lots of churches, and a penchant for traditional values, whatever those might be.

Certainly, such towns have existed, and continue to exist, in the U.S. These towns invoke the image of “Main Street” that has been a major part of American identity since the country’s founding. Over at the S-USIH blog, Robert Greene II has a great review of Miles Orvell’s new book, The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community that charts the history of the idea of Small Town U.S.A. Greene writes that:

Orvell situates the idea of “main street” in American history, showing both how this idea has affected American society, and in turn, how American society and technology have affected ideas about main street and the “small town”.

Main Street, Greene notes via Orvell, has been waging a two-centuries long battle against modernization in its many forms.

A combination of factors, whether they be geographic, political, or economic, has caused the gradual disappearance of small towns over time. Yet, despite it being under siege from the forces of modernization, Orvell persuasively argues for the importance of the small town throughout American history. He also shows that the division between the city and the small town, seen time and again in American political discourse and most recently embodied with the red state/blue state split, has gone through intriguing incarnations. For example, his chapter on Sinclair Lewis’ book “Main Street” shows how in the 1920s the small town was seen as backwards, juxtaposed with a Bohemian big city outlook embraced by Lewis and other writers of the 1920s era. However, despite the battering the idea of the small town took from Lewis, H.L. Mencken, and others, the Great Depression would see the idea of Main Street make a comeback—one that has never really stopped.

The Depression led to many Americans longing for a simpler time and place—somewhere that was isolated from the global economic forces causing considerable hardship for millions of Americans. Main Street became that place.

You should read Greene’s whole review and then read Orvell’s book, but one point is especially worth observing here:  the idea of Main Street, or Small Town U.S.A., has perpetually existed in a never-ending cold war against the forces of economic and cultural modernity. The Great Depression that hit in 1929 stemmed from the high-rise towers of New York City, about as far away as you could get from Small Town U.S.A., but the stock market crash hit American small towns in a very real way. So it makes sense that Depression-era Americans embraced the idea of Main Street as the very antithesis, geographically, culturally, and especially economically, of New York City, the heart of the American financial center that had failed them. This pattern still exists in 2013.

Following the great economic crash of 2008, another crash that originated in New York City, Americans have once again embraced the notion of Small Town U.S.A. as the America that matters, especially in contrast to such havens of cultural debauchery like New York. Today, Main Street has no particular, single location, but you can bet that its somewhere in “Flyover Country,” that vast, expanse of mid-western, Small Town Folkistan that, in the minds of many, exists as America’s great inoculator against the cultural diseases festering in coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles. Whereas Small Town U.S.A. supposedly promotes down home American values, the urban coastal enclaves allegedly thrive on a Satan’s brew of diversity, moral relativism, urbanity, and…iced lattes.

Why are such ridiculous distinctions important? Because American political parties have always co-opted the supposed moral superiority of Small Town U.S.A. to suit their own agendas, and today rural and small town political culture is mostly the property of America’s conservative Republican Party. Conservative media hucksters like Glenn Beck have made millions pimping the good ole’ fashioned Murica’-ness of small towns, but no recent political figure demonstrated this penchant better than 2008 Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, then Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin. In a now infamous 2008 speech in North Carolina, Palin labeled small town residents as the “Real America:”

“We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit and these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard-working, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation.”

Palin’s words caused plenty of outrage, spurring her to issue an apology. Much of the anger over her comments stemmed from rather pointless semantic arguments over the meaning of “Real America.” Although such a term is generally meaningless and totally subjective, it speaks to the larger tradition that Orvell addresses in The Death and Life of Main Street in which Americans have historically embraced a vague ideal of Small Town U.S.A. without ever having to really define what it is. Palin’s audience knew that “Real America” meant them. They didn’t need a definition because they stood in direct contrast to the “fake America” of liberal urban centers like New York. In the context of a Republican Party rally, “Real America” meant conservative Small Town U.S.A. But this is a definition that will never be fixed. In the late 19th century, for example, Small Town U.S.A. invoked the left wing economic populism of William Jennings Bryan.

According to Glenn Beck, Real Americans stand in cornfields.

According to Glenn Beck, Real Americans stand in cornfields.

This is why Main Street has historically been located everywhere and nowhere at once: its location is wherever Americans want it to be when they feel threatened by the dynamism and dislocation of the capitalist economy and its associated modern cultural changes. Small Town U.S.A. then, is not so much a political idea, though it’s always been used by politicians of all ideological backgrounds. No, Small Town U.S.A., or Main Street, if you prefer, is really a long-running manifestation of Americans’ complicated relationship with modernity. As the world’s pre-eminent, dynamic capitalist country, the U.S. has both embraced, and fought against, modernity by welcoming its technological and economic innovations while simultaneously fighting against the challenges it poses to long-standing cultural traditions.

None of this is to say Small Town U.S.A. is an inherently bad thing. Heck, some of the best day drives and weekend trips you’ll ever take are to the small towns of the American Midwest. But take Main Street as one aspect of America, not as its only aspect. Like the broader United States, Small Town U.S.A. harbors  its own dark secrets, and is prone to the mix of good and bad just like everywhere else. Except for Canada. That place is freakin’ perfect.

American “Patriotic Shopping” and Mississippi’s Rebel Women Consumers

The United States has always had an uneasy relationship between capitalism and patriotism. As residents of the world’s preeminent materialist, consumer-driven society, Americans have often bent over backward to sanctify the act of consumption as a badge of honor and even American identity. After all, what could be more American than scoring a completely necessary 10 gallon tub of processed, imitation mayonnaise from Sam’s Club for the always low price of $15.95? Lets see some communist bread-line society compete with that kind of freedom!

Yet somehow, the notion that patriotism and freedom can be equated with capitalist consumption has never been wholeheartedly accepted by all Americans. This was especially true in Civil War Mississippi, a state where Confederate civilians and government leaders equated material sacrifice with patriotic devotion. Such an ideal meant making homespun, jarring your own food, and, in general, learning to live without as a way of mirroring the sacrifice of Confederate soldiers who gave their lives for their country on the battlefield. If those left on the home front, especially women, couldn’t give their lives, they could at least sacrifice material luxuries by not shopping at cities like Memphis, Vicksburg, New Orleans, and Natchez. And there was a very particular reason why good Confederate patriots shouldn’t shop at those urban centers: by 1863, all were controlled by the occupying Union forces. Thus, to buy goods at Union lines was colluding with the enemy.

Fast forward a century and the ideals have been reversed: now its seen as patriotic to shop. In fact, it’s so downright American that malls might as well be secular places of worship, where every red-blooded American is baptized with the ring of every cash register and the swipe of every over-maxed credit card. The idea of “patriotic shopping” really took hold after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Heeding President George W. Bush’s urging of Americans to continue shopping lest the terrorists win, publicans like Salon posed the question “Is Shopping the New Patriotism?” In order to bounce back from the attacks, Salon stated, Americans needed to shop:

The question is, how exactly will people bounce back? There is no clearly defined enemy, as in World War II, that can compel citizens to volunteer for the armed forces. There is no pressing need to save every shred of rubber or paper to contribute to the war effort. How can Americans express their patriotic fervor? How will they pull together?

Maybe, by remembering what makes this country’s economy great — shopping. The suggestion may sound facile — but it also carries with it some possibilities for pyschological satisfaction. Resolute Americans can stand tall by refusing to despair, by holding on to their stocks and heading to the mall — by continuing to shop, even in the face of unthinkable terror.

While most Americans seemed all too happy to equate patriotic sacrifice with their inalienable right to super-size their order of six-piece McDonalds’ coagulated chicken globules and update their wardrobes with the latest designer shirts stitched together by non-unionized Third World toddlers, some were nonetheless uneasy about the idea of “patriotic shopping.”  Writing for Mother Jones, Ian Frazier mocked such “all consuming patriotism” as an insult to his patriotic Civil War forebears, especially Union women, who “sewed uniforms, made pillows, held ice-cream sociables to raise money, scraped lint for bandages, emptied their wedding chests of their best linen and donated it all.” In comparison to this type of material sacrifice, Frazier viewed “patriotic shopping” was utterly hollow to the core. Commenting on his photo collection of American “patriotic consumption,” photographer Brian Ulrich similarly mocked the idea that “We need to call on the nation’s best shoppers to fight the terrorists.”

Frazier’s and Ulrich’s concerns about the absolute non-sacrifice of material consumption when measured up against “higher” ideals such as patriotism would have rang true in Civil War Mississippi. In this Union-occupied state, issues of consumerism and sacrifice were a source of intense wartime debate, particularly regarding how good Rebel women should show their Confederate patriotism.

From the moment the Federal army established itself as an occupational force in 1862, Mississippi women traded commodities like cotton at Federal lines in exchange for Union Greenback notes or other consumer items. They did this in defiance of Confederate law that explicitly forbade trading with the Northern enemy. To staunch Confederate nationalists, trading with the Yankees filled the enemy coffers with valuable cotton, but more symbolically, buying and trading at Union lines evidenced an unwillingness to make material sacrifices for the Confederate cause. Put simply: shopping at Union lines meant you weren’t a good Confederate. This was especially true for women, long idealized in popular culture as the true keepers of the South’s patriotic ideals.

Mississippi Governor Charles Clark said as much in his 1863 inaugural address when he told women that  “the spinning wheel is preferred to the harp, and the loom makes a music of loftier patriotism and inspiration than the keys of the piano.” Confederates like Clark wanted women to show their patriotic sacrifice by relying on homespun rather than committing the treasonous act of buying and trading from Union lines. But Mississippi’s women didn’t abide. By 1864, the Daily Clarion newspaper out of Meridian, MS complained that “the rustling of fresh silk, the snowy handkerchiefs, the love of a bonnet, the light tap of prunella boot heels on our pavements” demonstrated women’s refusal to forgo shopping at Union lines in the name of Confederate patriotism.

Confederate women were all too happy to acquire good from Federal lines, even as they mouthed pro-Confederate sentiments. In a series of letters to her daughter, Raymond, MS native Eliza Sively berated fellow women who traded with Union forces at Vicksburg for being “crazy about Yankee goods” to the point of ignoring their sacrificial duty to the Confederacy. Yet, Sively apparently saw no hypocrisy at work when in June 1864 she told her daughter, Jane, “I will try and…get you some muslins from Vicksburg, you ought not to wear all your clothes and have them all ruined.” A month later, Sively scored calico dress patterns, shoes, corsets, and “a rite pretty pink muslin” for Jane —all from Yankee lines at Vicksburg and Memphis.

Amanda Worthington, a Washington County, MS planters’ daughter, claimed that “rather than go back into a union” with the Yankees, “I would have every man, woman and child in the Confederacy killed.” Nevertheless, when her sister went shopping in Union-controlled New Orleans, Worthington was overjoyed to get a copy of David Copperfield, photographs, linen dresses, two pairs of shoes, handkerchiefs, stockings, perfume, jewelry, fancy hats, and two custom-made silk dresses.

Natchez, MS resident Louisa Lovell, the hard-line Rebel wife of a Confederate colonel, justified her mass consumption in New Orleans by claiming, “we did a good deal of shopping as our wardrobes needed replacing very badly.” These women remained loyal Confederates, but they didn’t accept the notion that equated patriotism with material sacrifice. They recognized a certain absurdity in the idea that shopping had anything to do at all with patriotic devotion to one’s country, regardless of what blustery Confederate boosters advocated.

In the decades after the Civil War, as the pace of American capitalist development accelerated into the twentieth century, the association of American identity with consumerism only became more entrenched. Contemporary Americans now invoke their right to drink a Big Gulp from a 7 Eleven as evidence of their perceived cultural superiority over other nations. Just as it did for women in Civil War Mississippi, however, the notion of “Patriotic Shopping” still rings hollow — at least a few Americans. What exactly constitutes true patriotism is worthy of discussion, and is something I don’t have any easy answer for, but let’s shelve the idea that buying a discount dress from Macy’s is as much a patriotic duty as it is an act of good ole’ American vanity. Seriously, the terrorists don’t care what you wear.