Tag Archives: Tea Party

Ted Cruz’s religious horror: Why he’s really running for High Priest of America

Read Cruz's words and watch his stagecraft -- and you see this is the deeply fundamentalist vision he's propagating.

Read Cruz’s words and watch his stagecraft — and you see this is the deeply fundamentalist vision he’s propagating.

My latest piece is an article for Salon that explains why Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential ambitions are driven, in part, by a strangely fundamentalist  interpretation of American civil religion.

In many ways, America deserves Ted Cruz. After all, it’s been nearly eight years since voters (and the Supreme Court) elected a cocksure, right-wing adopted Texan, long on discredited ideology but short on wits, who plunged the United States into a sinkhole of economic and foreign policy chaos from which it has yet to fully emerge. The American political attention span is notoriously short.

Read the whole thing over at Salon.

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The Border Children Crisis and Manifest Destiny’s Return

Protestors in California want refugee kids sent back ti Latin America. Because human beings are just mail packages that you can send back within thirty days.

Protesters in California want refugee kids sent back to Latin America. Because human beings are just like brown mail packages that you can return within thirty days.

Ah, Latin America. It’s a vast, culturally diffuse part of the world with a rich, complicated history that has involved hundreds of ethnic-groups from an incredibly diverse swath of ancestries and experiences. Moreover, Latin America’s political history shares many similarities with that of the United States, as our neighbors to the south also shook off the shackles of European colonialism during the great Age of Revolution.

But most Americans — especially that know-nothing contingent of reactionary Bubbas that we affectionately call “Wingnuts” — don’t know much of anything about Latin America’s rich history. What they DO know is that Latin America is that place where people play soccer and Fidel Castro plots against freedom. It’s also the place where American college kids and mid-life-crisis wracked adults go to get sh*tfaced off of Sammy Hagar tequila while holding wet t-shirt contests on a beach. But, most importantly, Latin America is where all of those illegal, Spanish-speaking, drug-muling, job-taking brown people come from. That’s right: when many Americans talk “immigration” these days, what they’re focusing on is how to keep the Messicans’ and other Hispanics from crossing America’s sacred, freedom-filled borders. Indeed, in the eyes of the Tea Party, the only good kind of “run for the border” is a late-night Taco Bell binge.

Despite it’s obvious history as a “nation of immigrants,” white Americans have never been particularly thrilled about the idea of Spanish-speaking folks seeking refuge among America’s amber waves of grain. This fact is on full display in the current Border Children crisis in California, Arizona, and Texas.

As Salon’s Joan Walsh reports, self-appointed wingnut border patrols have gathered in places like Murrieta, California and Oracle, Arizona to stop busloads of unaccompanied children from Central American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala from seeking asylum in America. For wingnuts, the crisis of 52,000 Central American kids fleeing to the United States is yet another chapter in the long struggle to prevent brown Hispanics from polluting white American soil with their illegal Hispanic-ness. Geriatric wingnut leader Robert Skiba said as much when he told right-wing internet cesspool Breitbart.com that, “we’ve got to wake people in America up…This is our country. We’re just average people. [But] we’re not going to let them shove this down our throats.”

Of course, the “this” that Skiba doesn’t want shoved down his throat are, in fact, human beings — specifically children fleeing murder, rape, and horrendous gang violence in Central America. In two harrowing reports for the New York Times, reporters Frances Robles and Sonia Nazario have detailed the horrific humanitarian crisis in Latin America that is sending unaccompanied kids to the U.S. border. Gang violence in countries like Honduras has resulted in the torture, rape, and murder of dozens of children — some as young as 7 — and thousands are now fleeing or being sent to the U.S. by their parents to avoid the terrors in the home countries. Gangs are roaming Central America with increasing impunity, and they are giving children a choice between recruitment or death.

The clothes of a 7-year old boy murdered by gangs in Honduras.  Photo by Meridith Kohut, New York Times

The clothes of a 7-year old boy murdered by gangs in Honduras. Photo by Meridith Kohut, New York Times.

The violence in Latin American countries has, in large part, been an offshoot of the brutal drug wars that are fueled by America’s inexhaustible appetite for illegal narcotics. You, dear readers, owe it to yourselves to read both Robles’ and Nazario’s Times reports in full to better understand why so many kids are seeking refugee status in the U.S. But for the rest of this post, I want to focus on the cultural force that is driving American right-wing opposition to the border children: the return of the nineteenth century concept of Manifest Destiny.

I discussed Manifest Destiny in an earlier post in terms of how it helped create America’s absurd gun culture, but let’s reiterate a bit. “Manifest Destiny” was a term coined in 1845 by journalist John O’Sullivan that described America’s inherent, God-given right to conquer all territories and cultures from sea to shining sea. But the idea of “Manifest Destiny” existed long before O’Sullivan coined the phrase— it was the ideological centerpiece of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy, for example — and it has never entirely gone away from American discourse over what constitutes American citizenship. In effect, “Manifest Destiny” was the nineteenth century version of “American Exceptionalism.”

Manifest Destiny contains a distinct racial component that has always cast the U.S. as a nation dominated by white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. In the decades following the Civil War, other, previously excluded white Americans like Irish Catholics were gradually granted admittance into exclusive club of white cultural dominance. But other groups, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, have traditionally been denied the right to participate in the Manifest Destiny that has deemed the United States to be a white man’s country. It is this idea — that America has been, and should continue to be, a country for whites to control — that animates current right-wing opposition to the border children.

Historian Reginald Horsman outlined this concept in his classic 1981 study, Race and Manifest Destiny: Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. By the mid-nineteenth century, Horsman writes, the U.S. cultural emphasis was on “the American Anglo-Saxons as a separate, innately superior people who were destined to bring good government, commercial prosperity, and Christianity to the American continents and to the world.”* Thus, white Americans were “destined” to “manifest” their superiority everywhere they roamed. The phrase “Anglo-Saxon” is a now largely outdated term that was popularly used in nineteenth and early twentieth-century America “to describe the white people of the United States in contrast to blacks, Indians, Mexicans, Spaniards, or Asiatics.”*

JOhn Gast's famous 1872 painintg despicting "Manifest Destiny." Here' Lady Liberty can be seen trouncing mercilessly over Indians, Blacks, and Hispanics.

John Gast’s famous 1872 painting depicting American Progress via “Manifest Destiny.” Here, Lady Liberty can be seen trouncing mercilessly over Indians, Blacks, and Hispanics.

But while we might not use the phrase “Anglo-Saxon” much anymore, the idea that it supported — that white Americans alone were destined to be the only true U.S. citizens — still shapes white, conservative American opposition to Latin American “illegals.” As legal scholar Bill Ong Hing observes in his book Defining America Through Immigration Policy, “immigration policies are not simply reflections of whom we regard as potential Americans, they are vehicles for keeping out those who do not fit the image and welcoming those who do.”*

American conservatism, especially the Tea Party, anti-Latin American immigrant strain of conservatism that is trying to bar the Central American refugee children from entering the U.S., is a manifestation of what Ong Hing calls the reactionary “other America.” This America has remained “largely mired in a Eurocentric (originally western Eurocentric) vision of America that idealized the true American as white, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking, and Christian.”* It is this part of conservative America that still revels in their perceived “Manifest Destiny” to keep America white and free of the brown, Spanish-speaking menace that is constantly threatening to cross the U.S. border.

Make no mistake, folks: Manifest Destiny is alive and well in twenty-first century America. These days, we’re more prone to calling it “American Exceptionalism,” but the core feeling is still the same. It’s an ugly mix of provincial ignorance, cultural myopia, discredited racial theories, and an astounding lack of self-awareness that precludes so many people from recognizing that, unless they’re actual indigenous Native Americans, they too are immigrants. And unfortunately, thousands of children are paying the price for this old-time American ignorance, because if they’re sent back to Central America, they’ll likely end up in body bags. But hey, it’s a small price to pay for freedom, right?

* See Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 2, 5.

* See Bill Ong Hing, Defining America Through Immigration Policy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), 2, 5.

American Religious Tolerance: It’s Complicated

Southern Baptist pastor, talk-radio host, Georgia congressional candidate, and all-arounf nut bag, Jody Hice. There is so much 'Murica in this image that it's almost too much freedom to handle...almost.

Southern Baptist pastor, talk-radio host, Georgia congressional candidate, and all-around nut bag, Jody Hice. There is so much ‘Murica in this image that it’s almost too much freedom to handle.

Isn’t it great to be religious in America? After all, there are so many deities in the world today vying for the mantle of the “One True God®,” it’s nice to know that there’s one nation on earth that guarantees you the right to worship any deity you see fit — if for no other reason than to hedge your spiritual bets. But alas, all is not well in the land that separates church from state and (constitutionally, anyway) doesn’t recognize an official state religion. For you see, according to Georgia yokel Jody Hice, if you’re one of the 2.2. billion or so of the world’s Muslims who worship that bloodthirsty desert Satan known as Allah, then your right-to-worship ain’t protected by the Constitution, my friend. Because in America, some people think that if you’re not genuflecting to a heavily armed, tax-cutting American Jesus, then you can kiss your religious rights goodbye.

Jody Hice is a Georgia-based syndicated right-wing radio host and pastor who is currently running to fill the 10th congressional seat vacated by current GOP senatorial candidate Paul Broun. Now, admittedly, it’s hard to out-crazy Paul Broun, a guy who once stood in front of a wall of stuffed deer heads and criticized the idea of evolution — and most science in general — as un-biblical heresy “straight from the pit of Hell.” But this being the Deep South, loony right-wing politicians are more prolific than fantastic barbecue and diabetes, and Jody Hice doesn’t disappoint.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, Hice recently claimed that freedom of religion doesn’t apply to Islam. “Although Islam has a religious component,” Hice stated, “it is much more than a simple religious ideology. It is a complete geo-political structure and, as such, does not deserve First Amendment protection.” And that’s not all. Talking Points Memo dug up similar statements Hice made at a Tea Party rally, at which he claimed that, “[m]ost people think Islam is a religion, It’s not. It’s a totalitarian way of life with a religious component. But it’s much larger. It’s a geo-political system that has governmental, financial, military, legal and religious components. And it’s a totalitarian system that encompasses every aspect of life and it should not be protected [under U.S. law].”

Now, look, you don’t need to be a card-carrying, Caliphate-beckoning, beard-stroking, desert monkey-bars training, Kalashnikov-toting member of Al Qaeda to recognize that Hice is one-hundred percent wrong about Islam and religious freedom in America. First off, the mind-boggling level of ironic self-unawareness on display from a Protestant religious fundamentalist who accuses Islam of having “governmental, financial, military, legal and religious components” while simultaneously proclaiming on his campaign website that American society is “based upon Christian principles” and “imbued with Judeo-Christian values” is downright awe-inspiring. It’s pretty damn ballsy of Hice to criticize Muslims for wanting to hijack all levels of American society while also bragging that Christians have already done that.

But lack of self-awareness aside, what Hice is invoking is an age-old stance that has challenged America’s most pie-in-the-sky ideals since day-one: tyranny of the majority. And no, I don’t mean the kind of “tyranny of the majority” espoused by nineteenth century South Carolina senator and pro-slavery nitwit John C. Calhoun, who claimed that an evil majority of abolitionist zealots sought to snuff out the political voice of God-fearing, black people-owning Southern planters everywhere. No, I mean the type of tyranny of the majority that emerges when a particular belief or practice becomes so widespread and so well-known among the majority of the population that it sheds its historical provenance and becomes ensconced in that nebulous cultural void known as “the way things have always been.”

An image depicitng the 1844 Philadelphia nativist riot during which Know Nothings targeted Catholics. Hurray for religious tolerance!

An image depicting the 1844 Philadelphia nativist riot during which Know Nothings targeted Catholics. Hurray for religious tolerance!

Christianity — especially the Christianity espoused by Jody Hice — falls into that category of a belief system that the majority of Americans subscribe to and, consequently, accept as the “default” American religion — even if it’s not recognized by the Constitution as such. But just because the majority of Americans are Christians doesn’t mean that Christianity is the state religion and that other belief systems should play second-bananas to the Jesus clubs. Unless you’re someone like Jody Hice. You see, despite America’s espoused ideals of religious tolerance, stances like Hice’s have been historically more common than most people think. In other words, quite often in America, “freedom of religion” in practice meant “freedom of religion as long as that religion is the same religion that I and everyone else I know practices.”

The worst offenders of this type of cultural tyranny of the majority — in the past and today — have been American Protestants, if for no other reason than they got here first (aside from Native Americans, but they were heathens, so who cares) and constituted the majority religious population for a very long time. Historians John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal note that early on “a Protestant majority was secure in its belief that extension of its morality and beliefs to the nation as a whole was its God-given destiny, and it was confident that freedom of religion in America was a fact that Protestant ambitions could in no way undermine.”* Thus, when new religious groups gained traction, the various factions of Protestant Christians, drunk on their own majority cultural clout, have often freaked out, and they’ve reacted in a way that rendered them “unable to see that minority groups suffered at the hands of majority traditions.”*

Thanks to the long-time Protestant domination of American religious culture, other belief systems, even different factions of Christianity such as Catholicism and Mormonism, have faced discrimination for not being true “American” religions. Basically, Catholics and Mormons used to be what Muslims are today: supposedly shadowy, alien religious agents that threaten to infiltrate American society and alter it for the worse. This type of fear of the religious “other” is what’s freaking the Hell out of already borderline insane folks like Jody Hice.

Catholics, for example, were long considered to be scheming pawns of the Imperial Papal regime who were hell-bent on infiltrating America’s democratic society and transforming it into a slave colony beholden only to the pointy-hatted Roman Pontiff.

Heck, when Catholics started immigrating to the U.S. in large waves in the mid-nineteenth century, they spawned a Nativist Protestant political party known as the Know-Nothings (who I’ve written about more here and here) whose primary goal was to stamp Catholicism out of American life. The Know Nothings vowed to bar all Catholics from holding political office, and their supporters sometimes started riots during which they tarred-and-feathered and even murdered Catholics. One of the most notorious of these riots, known as “Bloody Monday,” occurred on August 6, 1855 in Louisville Kentucky. During a heated election that pit the Know Nothings against the Democratic Party, a wave of Protestant mobs attacked Irish Catholic neighborhoods in an orgy of street fighting, property destruction, and violence that left twenty-two people dead.

The martyring of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, 1844. Don't worry, Smith later got is revenge in teh form of Mitt Romney.

The martyring of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, 1844. Don’t worry, Smith later got his revenge in the form of Mitt Romney.

But Catholics haven’t been the only group to bear the brunt of Protestant religious intolerance. Also during the nineteenth century, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, aka the Mormons, were considered by “mainstream” American Christians to be a weird, heretical sect that needed to be put in its place. Mormonism was, of course, founded in 1830 by the boringly named New York prophet Joseph Smith, but Smith’s beliefs — especially his idea that the Christian God had once been a mortal man — earned him the heretic tag from upstate New York’s Protestant majority, and he eventually fled with his followers to Nauvoo, Illinois, where he established a new LDS settlement. But when Smith sanctioned polygamy as part of Mormon practice, the local non-Mormons jailed him and his brother. All hell eventually broke loose on June 27, 1844 when a mob stormed the jail and shot Smith and his brother to death.

These past examples of American religious intolerance may be more extreme than the bone-headed rantings of Jody Hice, but the common-thread of tyranny of the cultural majority remains. Wherever there are belief systems that stand in obvious contrast to the beliefs of the majority of Americans, friction and even violence have been the results. This strain of religious intolerance in the erstwhile land of the free continues to have repercussions, particularly in a post-9/11 world where troglodytes like Hice can reap electoral rewards from trafficking in anti-Islamic demagoguery.

As Corrigan and Neal write, “stories of religion in American have taught us to see religious intolerance and violence as something inflicted upon the United States or something that occurs in less-civilized and sophisticated nations than our own.” Thus, when would-be theocrats like Jody Hice tout their Jesus bona fides by invoking the Muslim devil, they’re tapping into a deep historical well of religious intolerance that has justified action against “foreign” minority faiths “all in the name of upholding American values and protecting American liberty.”* Of course, the obvious retort to such instances of religious bigotry is to remind America’s home-grown theocrats that religious tolerance and diversity ARE American values that DO protect American liberty. Anything else would truly be uncivilized.

* See John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal, eds., Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 5, 9.

Gun Nuts, Militias, and American Extremism in a Globalized World

Alabama militia leader Mike Vanderboegh speaks incoherently while possibly sweating profusely.

Alabama militia leader Mike Vanderboegh speaks incoherently while possibly sweating profusely.

Do you ever get the feeling that the world is a vast, exceedingly complex entanglement of random chance occurrences, flawed human decision-making, and constant disruption brought about by the break-neck pace of technological change and ideological formulations that create a series of interconnected problems immune to any and all simplistic solutions? If so, then it’s likely that you’ve never been a militia member.

It seems that these days, America’s home-grown breed of Far Right, paranoid nutballs known variously as “patriots,” “gun nuts,” “sovereign citizens,” and “militia members” are occupying way too many headlines. And if anything unites this otherwise diverse and motley crowd of barrel-stroking bubbas, it’s their proclivity towards exceedingly simple responses to a very complex world. They tend to shoot first and ask the wrong questions, particularly when it comes to the issues of government power and how American society is organized in an globalized world where corporations, not states, are pulling the levers of power and the notion of national loyalty seems hopelessly antiquated.

Case in point: a California man by the name of Brent Douglas Cole has been recently accused of shooting a California highway patrol officer and a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ranger in Nevada County, California. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) dug a bit into Cole’s background and found that he’s a full-bore, conspiracy theorist, gun-fondling, sovereign citizen looney toon. Wonkette notes that Cole thinks the U.S. is dousing the atmosphere with chemtrails, believes Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, and, of course, seems to think that the Jews control the world (because when it comes to world domination, you gotta fit the Jews in somewhere). Talking Points Memo provides a snippet of Cole’s court documents in which he claims that “I am being persecuted for being a gun owner, and for exercising my inherent Right by unwitting or unknowing accomplices of a seditious conspiracy against rights instituted by foreign powers inimical to the United States of America.” Ho boy.

Cole’s attack follows in the wake of other recent militia/sovereign citizen actions such as the Las Vegas shooting of two off-duty police officers and a civilian by Tea Party/Gadsden Flag-waving militia sympathizers Jerad and Amanda Miller, and the high-profile stand-off between Nevada bumpkin Cliven Bundy (whom I wrote about here) and the BLM over Bundy’s refusal to pay his cattle-grazing fees. Jerad Miller expressed public sympathy for Cliven Bundy, but what unites the Cole, Miller, and Bundy cases is a common anti-government thread: these people think that the American government has become too big, too tyrannical, and that it has abandoned “traditional” American principles. They want to restore American back to a better time, which must have existed…sometime. It’s a simple, comforting goal that nevertheless seems so out of reach.

As Erin Kania writes, the modern militia and sovereign citizens movements are drive by a core belief “that the federal government of the United States can no longer be trusted” and they fear that “the government is not looking out for the safety and protection of its citizens, but is instead attempting to limit the rights and liberties that the Founding Fathers and Constitution intended all individuals to possess.” Moreover, these groups believe that the government is embracing global policies at Americans’ expense, and that an essential part of the globalist agenda involves taking away Americans’ guns.* Contained within these general, overarching beliefs are a sordid cornucopia of nutty ideas about the New World Order, the Zionist threat, white supremacy, and the existence of what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “secret treasury accounts” that supposedly enslave newborn Americans to a shadow government, or something.

Conpiracy-minded gun nut Brent Douglas Cole is accused of shooting to law enforcement officers. For freedom, of course.

Conspiracy minded gun nut Brent Douglas Cole is accused of shooting two law enforcement officers. For freedom, of course.

But you don’t need to get down into the movements’ paranoid weeds to see their common themes. As historian Darren Mulloy notes, “In the broadest terms, the emergence of the Militia movement in the late 1990s appears to be connected to a sense that the United States was a nation in decline: politically, economically, morally, spiritually.”* Implicit within these beliefs is a serious uneasiness with change and a sense that the American past has been dangerously altered for the worse and must be restored to its original, pristine form. This “restorationist” view of history unites all elements of the modern American Far Right; indeed, it’s the life force that crackles along the wingnut spectrum, animating gun nuts, militia members, sovereign citizens, and Tea Partiers alike.

The “restorationist” view of history is a fundamentalist view, and, like all forms of fundamentalism, it proposes simple, clear-cut answers to very complicated problems by advocating a return to basic, “fundamental” principles. In the mind of the Far Right, America wasn’t a nation conceived by brilliant but flawed individuals who accepted the necessity of political compromise; rather, it was a nation blessed and conceived by the (white Protestant Christian) God who used the Founding Fathers as modern-era prophets.

In her essential study of the modern right-wing Tea Party movement, historian Jill Lepore explains that “historical fundamentalism is marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past — ‘the Founding’ — is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts — ‘the founding documents’ —  are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments,” and that “the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired.” A belief in historical fundamentalism, Lepore notes, means that “political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible.”* In other words, the Far Right, from the Tea Partiers to the militia and sovereign citizens all believe that the Founding past must be restored to reclaim the present from the tyrannical powers of big government and the globalized world order.

Militia and sovereign citizen types aren’t alone in their unease with globalization and America’s internal changes, of course, but what is unique is how they respond to these changes by adopting a straightforward “lock and load” mentality. If change poses a threat, then they plan to riddle change with bullets until it learns its place. This makes a strange amount of sense when you consider the very real and symbolic role that guns have played in forging American identity.

To understand what drives Far Right gun nuts, consider how America must have appeared to a white male who grew up absorbing all the myths of American exceptionalism. During the early twentieth century, and more conclusively after World War II, the United States emerged as the dominant world superpower — a position it largely still retains today. And the thing about being a citizen of the world’s superpower is that it bestows on you all the rights and privileges that such citizenship entails. Basically, you get to think that your country is where true freedom lies; that your country always operates on the noblest of motives; that your country knows what’s best for the rest of the world; that your country will always have the KFC Double Down® for only $6.00! Truly, these are the things that make America great.

The Tea Party: don't let these whack-a-loons teach you about history.

The Tea Party: don’t let these whack-a-loons teach you about history.

But here’s the problem: if you myopically view history from a fundamentalist stance that considers the American founding as a sacred event and American identity as sublimely virtuous, then you’re bound to have a rude-awakening when the myths that you take as gospel turn out to be just that — myths. If these myths were real, then Barack Obama wouldn’t have been elected president, the federal government wouldn’t try to take away your guns, and good-paying jobs wouldn’t be shipped overseas or handed to undeserving “minorities.” Thus, we have the rise of the militia and sovereign citizen types who, in many respects, are reacting to real changes in America and the world, albeit in spectacularly misguided and misinformed ways.

The modern world is now defined by permanent high unemployment, rapidly shifting American demographics, and a technologically interconnected global economic system that allows capital to move freely with little concern for international borders and pits American workers against far-cheaper international counterparts.

In this environment, the barriers that formerly separated the “domestic” from the “global” are rapidly thinning, and the urge to somehow restore America to a fundamentally pure past is enticing to those people who feel that change has left them in the dust. Sociologist Manuel Castells notes that with the acceleration of the modern globalized economy, American workers and small business entrepreneurs have witnessed a steady decline in their standards of living, thereby “reversing the historical trend of the improvement of each generation’s material well-being over that of previous generations.”* Couple these trends with the rise of gay rights, the gender equality movement, the growing non-white ethnic makeup of America, and gun control, and you’ve got a recipe for hot ‘n simmering reactionism-by-gunpoint.

Thus, as Castell observes, the militia, sovereign citizen, and patriot movements see themselves as “defenders of the traditions of the country against cosmopolitan values, and of self-rule of local people against the imposition of global order.” By adopting age-old American preferences for individualism and suspicion of government, the gun nuts have taken up armed resistance to “threats generated by the informationalization of society, the globalization of the economy, and the professionalization of politics.”*

America’s gun nuts, patriots, militia members, sovereign citizens, and Tea Partiers demonstrate how history can be misused to further a reactionary agenda based on weirdly fundamentalist views of the past. The degree to which any one of these groups are willing to use guns to restore America back to its sacred past varies with their level of extremism. But all of them believe that the federal government is the enemy, that all politics should be local (in the case of sovereign citizens, extremely local), and that globalization cannot be allowed to destroy America’s unique identity. Lacking other viable alternatives, they’ve turned to guns, because at least guns offer the most straightforward, literal way to stop something you fear dead in its tracks.

* See Erin Kania, “The American Militia Movement in the Age of Globalization,” Reason & Respect 2 (Spring, 2006): 16.

* See Darren Mully, American Extremism: History, Politics, and the Militia Movement (New York: Routledge, 2004), 12.

* See Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 16.

* See Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity: The Information Age, Economy, Society, and Culture, Vol. 2 (West Sussex, U.K., Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 99-100.

Nicholas Kristof and Anti-Intellectualism in U.S. History

Democracy: it's America's gift to the world.

American intellectualism at its finest.

Pity the suffering American intellectual. I’m serious about that statement. Despite hosting the finest universities and producing some of the most ground-breaking scientific research in the world, the United States has always been a haven for an especially virulent strain of anti-intellectualism that never seems to go away. These days in particular, it seems as if we’re living in the “Age of Uncuriousness,” if not the “Age of Willful Ignorance.” Okay, neither of those phrases are catchy, but damn if they don’t describe the intellectual rabbit hole down which the U.S. has descended in the last 50 years. Heck, we even have a Tea Party that’s twice as nutty as the one Alice experienced.

America might very well be getting dumber. Recently it was host to a live-streamed debate between Bill Nye the Science guy and Ken Ham, a transplanted Aussie Christian fundamentalist, over whether evolution is real and whether the earth is 6,000 years, not a few billion years old as scientists maintain. Of course, that’s just one recent example of American numbskullery. There’s plenty of others. A Republican lawmaker in Utah, for example, thinks none too highly about human-caused climate change despite the scientific consensus, and wants to spew more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere “for the needs of the plants.” Also, Americans came close to electing this person as Vice-President.

But don’t despair, my deep-thinking compatriots, for Nichols Kristof, opinionator for the New York Times, yearns for an America in which intellectuals once again reach out to influence the public sphere. In a recent piece lacking in some major self-awareness, Kristof laments the apparent retrenchment of academic intellectuals into their university fortresses writing important stuff in language that nobody outside of their arcane areas of expertise can understand. Yes, Kristof chides people like me – who hold PhDs but supposedly spend all of our time producing impenetrable jargon – for not making a more concerted effort to bless the general public with access to our rich well of refreshing wisdom.

First off, let me just say to Kristof in the most colloquial, non-jargony way possible, “up yours, buddy.” After all, what in Sam Hill else am I doing writing this blog if not trying to touch the proletarian rabble, King Midas style, with my priceless intellectual gold?! (Note to readers: I don’t actually think of you as proletarian rabble, at least not all of you…) You can click the above link to read Kristof’s piece for yourself, but among the most offending lines was as follows:

[I]t’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves…There are plenty of exceptions, of course, including in economics, history and some sciences, in professional schools like law and business, and, above all, in schools of public policy; for that matter, we have a law professor in the White House. But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.

Notice what Kristof doesn’t say in the above paragraph. He complains about the lack of public engagement by smart academics, but of course makes no mention of the fact that the neoliberal domination of the American economy has all but squelched any opportunities for paid public commentary by academic intellectuals. The dominant corporate culture in the U.S. is just fine with that, of course. After all, intellectuals ask questions and frequently challenge the status quo, which benefits financially from promoting anti-intellectualism. Keep people from thinking too hard and they won’t show up at your mansion’s gate wielding torches and pitchforks when you, I don’t know, crash the economy. This is why the Times employs opinionators like Kristoff and scribbling mush melon Tom Friedman instead of opening up its pages (and payroll) to those who might more vigorously challenge business-backed anti-intellectualism.

Nicholas Kristof occasionally writes some good material, but seriusly dude, knock off the academic-bashing.

Nicholas Kristof does write some good material, but seriously dude, let some academics write for the Times!

Over at his blog, political science professor, and all-around awesome guy Corey Robin not only lists the multitude of academics writing for public audiences, but he also explains Kristof’s obtuse lack of self-awareness:

The problem here is not that scholars don’t aspire to write for “The New Yorker.” It’s that it’s a rather selective place… If you’re flying so high up in the air—Kristof tends to look down on most situations from 30,000 feet above sea level—you’re not going to see much of anything… He doesn’t see the many [academic] men and women who are in fact writing for public audiences. Nor does he see the gatekeepers—even in our new age of blogs and little magazines—that prevent supply from meeting demand…The problem here…[is] the very material pressures and constraints young academics face, long before tenure. It’s the job market.  It’s the rise of adjuncts. It’s neoliberalism [my emphasis].

As Robin observes, Kristof and his ilk complain about academics’ lack of public engagement while tacitly supporting the neoliberal power structure that disdains any intellectual challenge to the Walmartization of American culture. By the way, let me really step off of my academic pedestal for a moment and cite Wikipedia’s fairly succinct definition of neoliberalism as “a political philosophy whose advocates support economic liberalizations, free trade and open markets, privatization, deregulation, and enhancing the role of the private sector in modern society.” That’s right, neoliberalism is, in fact, conservatism, and for decades it’s been shredding safety nets, decimating wages, crashing economies, and generally advocating profit maximization as both the means and end of American life.

One of neoliberalism’s (and conservatism’s) most tried-and-true strategies has been to stoke America’s long predisposition towards anti-intellectualism as a way of inhibiting legitimate challenges to its power. The historian Richard Hofstadter examined this American suspicion towards excessive smarts is his 1963 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

Hofstadter defined anti-intellectualism as “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.”* He noted that business has always had an antagonistic history towards intellectualism, given that “intellect is always potentially threatening to any institutional apparatus or to fixed centers of power.”* But Hofstadter also observed that the relationship between business and intellectualism isn’t inherently antagonistic – heck, plenty of business people are intellectuals! But he traced corporate power’s nonetheless very real resentment of “eggheads” back to America’s industrial era, which cemented business leaders as the supreme power players in U.S. culture.

I'm not sure what exactly this guy is trying to say, but go 'Murica!

I’m not sure what exactly this guy is trying to say, but go ‘Murica!

Hofstadter qualified that anti-intellectualism has by no means been limited to business, but the influence of corporate anti-intellectualism has been outsized because “business is the most powerful and pervasive interest in American life.”* He argued that a historical proclivity towards practicality has manifested in both American civic and religious life and contributed to business’s general antipathy towards intellectualism. The combined notions of self-help and up-by-the-boot-straps advancement have historically been the ideological drivers of the American economic spirit. Beset with “ample land and resources,” Americans long ago “set a premium upon technical knowledge and inventiveness” that could exploit the nation’s resources.* The rise of America as an industrial power in the mid-19th century also gave rise to a notion, rooted in the old reverence for “practicality,” that bred “disdain for all contemplation which could not be transformed into practical intelligence.”*  

Therein lies the historical origins of the recent strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture. To the country’s reigning corporate and financial elites, contemplation that examines society from deep and critical angles seems impractical in a business sense because it doesn’t invoke an immediate profit incentive. Moreover, this contemplation might also threaten the neoliberal culture that views “business” as interchangeable with “America.” If you’ve ever lamented over the excesses of American materialism, it’s because in the U.S., materialism has long symbolized practicality and profit, while contemplation has often been viewed as flowery at best, outright hostile to material gain at worst.  

Anti-intellectualism, then, continually foils academics looking to apply their abilities as paid members of the public media sphere. Corporate interests, for example, have provided the hiding-in-plain-sight Astroturf support for the anti-intellectual Tea Party since day-one. The same pro-corporate, anti-intellectual culture also discourages would-be college intellectuals from studying the humanities and seeking “majors that employers do not value.” And the same culture has resulted in the Walmartization of the American university, in which the majority of academic intellectuals are stuck in adjunct positions that pay a pittance for their labor.

It’s no wonder, then, as Corey Robin notes, that academics’ thoughts don’t populate the opinion pages: they’re too busy trying to pay the bills in a culture that, Nicholas Kristof’s claims notwithstanding, doesn’t value their work. The reigning American cultural notion holds that contemplation is often bad for business, and until that notion is dispelled, people like Kristof have no right to complain about “self-marginalized” intellectuals.

* See Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage, 1963), 7, 233, 237-39.

Unemployment Insurance and the Southern Roots of Modern Conservatism

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the unemployed occasionally recieved donuts and coffee, while the GOP deemed them parasitic moochers.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the unemployed occasionally received donuts and coffee. The GOP, of course, deemed them parasitic moochers.

If there’s one thing that characterizes the pit of drooling, addle-brained wampas known as the 133th United States Congress, it would be inactivity. Dominated as it is by the Republican Party faction of obnoxious brats known as the Tea Party, the so-called “Do-Nothing Congress” and its only mildly less insane Senate counterpart is once again engaged in the now traditional ritual that involves deciding whether or not long-term unemployment benefits should be extended.

Republicans in the House and Senate are, as in the recent past, opposed to unemployment insurance, and the welfare state in general, on ideological grounds. For example, arch-conservative Wisconsin rep., and failed vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan claimed on the 2012 campaign trail that welfare policies of all kinds had “created and perpetuated a debilitating culture of dependency, wrecking families and communities.” Indeed, the idea that millions of Americans take advantage of welfare as an incentive to simply not work is standard dogma on the American Right.

Lest they be seen as stingy, stone-hearted Scrooges, however, Republicans have fallen back on their tried-and-true defence of slashing unemployment benefits by claiming that they only care about saving money. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargant reports, “Republicans want to reframe this as a battle over how to pay for extending benefits…as a fight over fiscal responsibility, not over whether to preserve the safety net amid mass unemployment.”

Of course, conservatives’ claims to fiscal hawkitude are belied by the long history of atomically exploding deficits under their watch. Salon’s Brian Beutler rightly observes that Republicans are instead invoking fiscal restraint to conceal their “opposition to or reluctance to support the benefits themselves without obtaining some kind of conservative policy concession in return.” Thus, Republicans’ current whining about the cost of extending unemployment insurance is more smoke and mirrors designed to conceal their beliefs that welfare is detrimental to the very fabric of society.

As with most of their antics in the age of Obama, however, modern Republicans’ opposition to unemployment insurance is in keeping with a tradition of conservative thought that, in an American context, has deep roots in the antebellum (pre-Civil War) South. In his book The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism, Eugene Genovese, the sometimes brilliant, and often controversial, late historian of the antebellum South identified the crucial elements of order and hierarchy that were central to an American conservatism forged in a 19th century slave society. According to Genovese, true southern conservatism was not defined by any slavish devotion to rampant individualism and the unfettered capitalist free market, but by “a belief in a transcendent order or natural law in society as well as nature, so that political problems are revealed as essentially religious and moral.*

This is not to say that conservatives don’t actually like capitalism. Indeed, Genovese makes no such claim. But he does suggest that conservatives support capitalism only insofar as it successfully perpetuates the hierarchies and unequal power relations that they belief are essential to maintaining true order in society. Hierarchies, whether in the home or in the marketplace, are defined by power relations; by those who dominate and those who are dominated. Conservatives, unsurprisingly, have defended ordered hierarchies because they are usually the ones dominating. The American right wing views this set of social and economic hierarchies as “tradition” that must be preserved at all costs. Hierarchies are preserved by order, and maintaining order is essential to conservatives’ preservation of power.

Simon Legree, the sadistic southern slaveholder in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, strove to preserve "traditional" hierachies.

Simon Legree, the sadistic southern slaveholder in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, strove to preserve “traditional” hierarchies.

As Genovese explained, “‘Tradition’ is…understood as an embodiment of ‘givens’ that must constantly be fought for, recovered in each generation, and adjusted to new conditions.”* These “givens” that conservatives view as constituting tradition are almost always characterized by the maintenance of power by a ruling few over more numerous subordinate groups. When the subordinate groups threaten the ruling few’s power by demanding agency over their own conditions, conservatives, the beneficients of “traditional” power structures, get angry and fight back like spoiled toddlers.

The slave society of the antebellum South, in which one (white) ruling group held unlimited power, sanctioned by the state in both private and public spheres over another (black) laboring class, was the perfect breeding ground for this type of “traditional” conservative power structure. And even after southern conservatives fought and lost the Civil War in the name of preserving the slave system, the core hierarchical tradition over which they battled continues to be the primary motivator of American conservatives in the 21st century.

Historian Leo Ribuffo notes this continuity by explaining how the New Deal energized a conservatism that had steadily been losing ground in almost all matters except race since the turn-of-the-century. The New Deal, Ribuffo writes, “undermined ‘traditional values’ by incorporating working-class Catholics, Jews, cosmopolitan intellectuals and occasionally African-Americans.” In response to the New Deal’s challenging of traditional social and economic orders that favored employers and white southern men, northern Republicans and southern Democrats formed an “anti-New Deal ‘conservative coalition'” that laid the groundwork for the conservatism of the modern GOP.*

This is why the GOP’s current opposition to extending unemployment benefits in the name deficit hawkishness rings utterly hollow. They could care less about deficits, but they do care deeply about preserving “traditional” hierarchies that grant full power to employers over their workers.

Libertarian historian Thomas Woods, Jr. makes this point abundantly clear when he invokes Irish political philosopher, and conservative Grand Poobah Edmund Burke to defend traditional social orders. “Traditionalist political and social thought focused primarily on preserving what Edmond Burke called the ‘little platoons’ of civilization, all those associations – e.g., family, church, town, civic group – that gave people social identities and prevented them from dissolving into an undifferentiated mass,” he writes.* By insisting that the ‘little platoons’ of civilization must be maintained, Woods Jr. is, by extension, demonstrating the conservative proclivity towards hierarchical orders that subordinate some members of society to rulers who, not coincidentally, are usually conservatives.

The Congressional GOP, along with their Senate allies, don't want to extend unemployment benefits because they're jerks.

The Congressional GOP, along with their Senate allies, don’t want to extend unemployment benefits because they’re jerks.

Burke’s “little platoons” have historically been sites of unequal power structures. Especially in an American context, families have traditionally subordinated women to men, while churchs, towns, and civic groups have been ruled by white men who dominated everyone from women, to blacks, to the poorer classes. After all, the most vociferous advocates for slavery in the Old South were preachers, local politicians and businessmen – all of whom where white – and all of whom ruled over lower groups. What Woods Jr. and other conservatives advocate via “little platoons” are multiple public and private hierarchies dominated by – you guessed it – conservatives. Tradition indeed.

Since the Civil War, capitalism has done a good job of preserving hierarchical traditions that favor conservative rule. But when the lower orders attempt to challenge, or at least mitigate, the inequality-breeding tendencies of capitalism, as in the case with issuing unemployment insurance in the midst of the Great Recession, the Right Wing strikes back…hard. When conservatives wax nostalgic about “simpler” times and invoke “tradition,” they are really yearning for a past during which their ilk held greater power of society’s lower orders, which included workers, women, children, and non-white minorities.

Unemployment benefits threaten conservatives’ vision of “traditional” social order by providing relief and agency to workers who would be otherwise left to the brutal whims of a business-favoring economic system that demands the total subordination of employees to employers. Conservatives’ opposition to unemployment benefits stems from their paternalistic worldview, in which the rulers must maintain order over the less-deserving masses in society.

Hence, as the Washington Post recently noted, a Republican memo is making the rounds for the purpose of coaching House GOP members on how to be empathetic to the “personal crisis” experienced by unemployed Americans. Tellingly, the memo doesn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of unemployment insurance. Rather, it only states that Republicans should feign concern for the unemployed masses. This is paternalism at its most loathsome. That conservatives need to be coached on how to show empathy for workers speaks volumes about how they view society. By opposing unemployment benefits, and any form of welfare in general, Republicans are keeping alive a conservative tradition, nurtured in the Old South, that seeks to preserve social hierarchies – and conservative rule – in the name of social order.

* See Eugene Genovese, The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 22, 4-5.

* See Leo P. Ribuffo, “The Discovery and Rediscovery of American Conservatism, Broadly Conceived,” OAH Magazine of History 17, Conservatism (Jan., 2003): 5.

* See Thomas E. Woods, Jr., “Defending the “Little Platoons:” Communitarianism in American Conservatism,” American Studies 40 (Fall, 1999): 128.