Tag Archives: United States

Michelle Obama, Selfies, and Historical Stereotypes about Black Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nelson Mandela and the Legacy of American Apartheid

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002  International Aids Conference.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002 International Aids Conference.

This week one of the towering figures of twentieth century politics passed from his mortal coil. Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, died at the age of 95, leaving a legacy that stretches beyond the limits of South Africa and even his own lifetime. Heck, Mandela’s legacy is one that challenges what had been among the core ideologies of the modern world dating back at least to the 18th century: white supremacy as practiced via the supposed inherent right of European powers to subjugate non-white, non-European peoples.

Mandela was, of course, the first black president of South Africa, a nation whose modern history is framed largely through the prism of its brutal system of racial segregation known as Apartheid. Mandela spent 27 years in prison as punishment for his lifelong fight against institutional racism, and his greatness as a symbol of human resistance in the face of adversity is now forever sealed. I mean, Morgan Freeman even played Mandela in a movie, and if that doesn’t attest to the South African president’s greatness, nothing else will.

I kid, of course. Mandela stands with Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Ghandi, as one of the most influential world players in the battle against racism and segregation in the modern era. So what exactly was Apartheid, and why was it so awful? Legal historian Steven Ratner offers a good, comprehensive definition:

Apartheid was the system of racial discrimination and separation that governed South Africa from 1948 until its abolition in the early 1990s. Building on years of discrimination against blacks, the National Party adopted apartheid as a model for separate development of races, though it served only to preserve white superiority. It classified persons as either white, Bantu (black), colored (mixed race), or Asian. Its manifestations included ineligibility from voting, separate living areas and schools, internal travel passes for blacks, and white control of the legal system.

Take some time to absorb that for a second: “a model for the separate development of the races.” If you’ve ever studied American history, for example, you might be aware that such institutionalized racism was not unique to South Africa. And how did South Africa’s racist regime go about instituting Apartheid? Policymic has a good roundup of the policies that built Apartheid:

Blacks were denied citizenship and the right to vote. They were forcibly relocated into impoverished reservations. People of color were barred from operating businesses or owning land inside white areas, which comprised most of the country. Sexual relations or marriage between people of color and whites was strictly forbidden. Racial segregation was enforced in public areas, including schools, hospitals, trains, beaches, bridges, churches and theaters. To enforce apartheid, the government often resorted to police brutality, the imprisonment and assassination of political dissidents, and the murder of black protesters.

The type of racial segregationist program known as “Apartheid” in South Africa, however, was far from limited to that country alone. Racial segregation in the name of white supremacy was a guiding principle that came to characterize the age of discovery, when European powers explored, settled, and colonized other parts of the world from the 15th century all the way up the 20th century. What Mandela fought against in South Africa reverberated throughout the world, as long-subjugated groups in former and current colonized nations fought for the equality that had been denied them in large part based on the color of their skins. It wasn’t an easy fight: as Mandela’s life demonstrates, those who have the power to dominate others won’t give it up that power easily, and they aren’t shy about enforcing their power through violence and intimidation.

The nation that emerged at the top of the world power heap by the mid-20th century was the United States, and nearly all of America’s history as a modern nation involved a reckoning with its own form of American Apartheid that manifested in the system of racial slavery that was enshrined in its Constitution and, over time, created one of the most racially divided societies in modern history. This development was all the more ironic since it took place in a country that supposedly cherished the notion that “All men are created equal.”

This American Apartheid echoed through the centuries via a Civil War fought over the right to enslave black bodies. After slavery’s demise, American Apartheid took the shape of the racial terrorism of Reconstruction. By the late 19th and early 20th century, it became institutionalized in the barbaric Jim Crow system that witnessed the smoldering stench of immolated flesh as lynching swept the American South and African-Americans were relegated to nation-wide second-class citizenship. American Apartheid only finally began to collapse in the mid-20th century, the same era during which Mandela waged his fight, following a sustained attack by Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. But as recent attacks on minority voting rights indicate, Apartheid casts a long shadow in America and throughout the world.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

America’s reckoning with its own apartheid explains why many elements in the U.S., up until very recently, viewed Nelson Mandela as a racial terrorist rather than a freedom fighter. As Sagar Jethani of Policymic notes, American conservatives long-defended South Africa’s anti-communist, white minority government in the name of anti-communist zeal. Mandela’s support for liberal policies, including worker’s rights and social justice, when combined with his early support for violence against the Apartheid government before he embraced peaceful resolutions, did not endear him to the American Right.

Over at Student Activism, for example, Angus Johnston reminds us how in 1986, William F. Buckley, the silver-spooned National Review founder and “intellectual” godfather of modern American conservatism, vehemently opposed universal suffrage in South Africa. “The government will not … grant political equality to everyone in South Africa. Nor should it,” Buckley wrote. “It is preposterous at one and the same time to remark the widespread illiteracy in South Africa and to demand the universal franchise.” Buckley had already made it abundantly clear that he opposed racial equality in the American South, both on prejudicial grounds and because he associated equality with a threat to established political and economic hierarchies, hence his distaste for South African universal suffrage.

In the 1980s, American conservative luminaries like Jesse Helm (R-NC), Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Phil Gramm (R-TX), and Dick Cheney (R-Hell) followed Buckley by opposing the Congressional Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which imposed sanctions on South Africa.

For many Americans, not just conservatives, the specter of racial equality also suggested economic equality and the threat to capitalism that would supposedly undermine social hierarchies across the land. Race and class have always been inextricably linked in American history, which helps explain why American conservatives in particular viewed Mandela as a threat: he tapped into old domestic fears that conflated anti-racism with economic and social revolution.

Proponents of American Apartheid have defended racial segregation since the beginning, but they’ve been at their most defensive when white supremacy, with all of its economic benefits, has been explicitly challenged. Such was the case during the run-up to southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860-61. As historian Charles Dew notes, southern secession commissioners (whom I discussed in an earlier post) charged with promoting secession throughout the South endorsed slavery and the Apartheid that bolstered slavery as a justification for the South’s forming the Confederate States of America to fend off northern anti-slavery aggression.

Commissioner William L. Harris of Mississippi, for example, complained that the North demanded “equality between the white and negro races, under our Constitution; equality in representation, equality in the right of suffrage…equality in the social order.” Harris warned that Mississippi would rather “see the last of her [white] race, men, women and children, immolated in one common funeral pile,” rather than be “subjected to…social equality with the negro race.”* Indeed, the Confederate South fought America’s greatest and bloodiest revolution, the Civil War, in order to preserve American Apartheid, and they didn’t stop defending racial segregation after the Confederacy’s demise.

During the Jim Crow era, as lynching and black disenfranchisement swept across the South and other parts of the country, defenders of American Apartheid continued to echo the sentiments of their Confederate forebears. In March of 1900, for example, the mind-blowingly racist South Carolina Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman claimed on the Senate floor that the lynching of blacks was necessary to uphold racial segregation. “We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will,” Tillman stated. “We have never believed him to be equal to the white man,” he continued, “and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.” Rarely had Apartheid produced so blunt a spokesman. For Tillman and his ilk, racial equality meant social equality, which they believed would upend the entire American white supremacist socio-economic order.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America's most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America’s most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

Even after the success of the Civil Rights movement, certain segments of American society nonetheless held on to their defence of American Apartheid, particularly in the 1980s when violence erupted in South Africa. Jesse Helms, for example, the Republican senator and general scumbag from North Carolina, defended South African Apartheid in large part because it reminded him of the American Apartheid system in which he had been born and raised.

As Eric Bates of Mother Jones reported in June 1995, Helms “grew up in a segregated world not unlike the one of apartheid,” and this upbringing gave him “a view of a fundamentalist Christian society in which everyone is not welcome” and which resembled “South Africa of 20 years ago.” With a lifetime of pro-segregationist ideology informing his thought, Helms filibustered U.S. sanctions against South Africa in 1986, claiming that “the Soviet Union is orchestrating upheaval in all of Africa.” By supporting South African Apartheid on grounds that it would supposedly bring about communist revolution, Helms followed a long tradition in which American segregationists, from Confederate ideologues to lynching proponents, linked racial equality with social revolution. American conservatives’ mixed ideas about Nelson Mandela’s legacy reflect a reluctance to reckon with America’s own historical Apartheid past.

With Mandela’s passing, here’s hoping that Apartheid in any part of the world will continue to be a shameful part of the human past. But as U.S. history shows, despite Americans’ long-held claims of American Exceptionalism,” Apartheid has never been limited to South Africa. In fact, its has been a reality of the modern world and has manifested in nearly every continent over the last few centuries. This is not the kind of legacy that goes away quickly, and this fact makes Mandela’s legacy all the more remarkable and worth continuing.

* See Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 85, 89.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abe Lincoln, cross-dressing and the American way: The real history of Thanksgiving

lincoln_thanksgiving

Its American Thanksgiving today, so to celebrate, I wrote a piece for Salon. Go check it out!

The GOP, the Debt Ceiling, and the History of Killing Political Legitimacy

Poster advertising a "Save the Union" meeting, Frederick, Maryland, September, 1860.

Poster advertising a “Save the Union” meeting, Frederick, Maryland, September, 1860.

The situation was unprecedented in scope. The conservative party in America, its hardcore base mostly relegated to the South, had just suffered a devastating electoral defeat in which a lawyer and political progressive from Illinois won the U.S. presidency along mostly sectional lines, carrying primarily northern and west coast states. In response to the stinging rebuke of their policies by the majority of the American people, the conservative party decided that rather than accept the outcome of the presidential election, they would instead try to prevent the victorious party from governing by denying their very political legitimacy. In so doing, the conservative party in America waged war against democracy itself.

Does this sound familiar? If you pay any attention to history, it should. But I’m not talking about the current showdown in Washington over the debt ceiling, in which the congressional Republican caucus, its base largely confined to the South, is demanding that President Barack Obama agree to defund his signature health care reform law or else they will shut down the government. Rather, in the above paragraph, I was referring to the fallout from the election of 1860, in which the conservative southern Democratic Party decided that rather than accept the election of Illinois Republican Abraham Lincoln as president, the southern states would reject his election entirely and secede from the Union.

The two situations are not identical, but they share uncanny similarities, particularly the attempt by a conservative political party to deny the very political legitimacy of its opponent. Mark Twain once said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” That should be clear to anyone observing the current debt ceiling fiasco.

As the summer of 2013 winds down, the idea that a president who just won reelection would cave to the insane demands of a small, right-wing minority in the House, is, of course, ludicrous, but the Republican Party isn’t interested in shaping policy here. They’re doing something far more symbolic and destructive: like the southern Democratic Party secessionists of 1860-61, the conservative Republican radicals in the House are testing just how far they can get away with denying the current Democratic Party’s right to govern.

As Jonathan Chait observes in a recent piece for New York Magazine, the debt ceiling showdown is:

[A] Constitutional struggle, a kind of quasi-impeachment, that will test Obama’s mettle and, next to his reelection campaign, poses the most singular threat to his presidency.

The progression of events begins with a dynamic I described in a print piece at the beginning of 2012 – conservatives had come to regard the 2012 race as their last chance to win an election as authentic conservatives against a rising Democratic majority. Since their crushing defeat, they have ignored the task of refurbishing the party’s national appeal for its next national electoral bid, and instead have recommitted themselves to waging increasingly millenarian confrontations from their existing red state power base in Congress.

Most of us expected, at some level, that the election would cool the right’s apocalyptic fervor. Instead, the opposite has occurred. Paul Ryan candidly explained the calculation: “The reason this debt limit fight is different is, we don’t have an election around the corner where we feel we are going to win and fix it ourselves. We are stuck with this government another three years.” This is a remarkable confession. Republicans need to compel Obama to accept their agenda, not in spite of the fact that the voters rejected it at the polls but precisely for that reason.

Paul Ryan’s confession that for conservatives, a legitimate national election in which voters rejected their policies should be no impediment to Republicans trying to enact those very policies at any cost is indeed remarkable. Yet, it makes perfect sense when you consider that, as political scientist Corey Robin notes, radicalism is the very essence of conservatism. Recent political commentators’ revelations about the nature of the American right, Robin writes, are completely on target. Conservatism, he reminds us:

[L]ives in a fact-free universe, where ideological purity is more important than pragmatic solutions… it’s revolutionary and radical rather than realistic and moderate…it’s activist rather than accommodating…it’s, well,…not…really…conservative.

This preference for purity of ideology and rejection of compromise defines modern conservatism (and by “modern” in this context, I mean the conservatism that goes back to the reaction against the French Revolution) and helps explain the striking parallels between the debt ceiling showdown of 2013 and the secession crisis of 1860-61. In both instances, a reactionary conservative party, divided amongst itself  but nonetheless fearful that’s its grip on national power was slipping away, sought to use radical measures to prevent its political opponents from governing, despite their opponents having been victorious in democratic elections.

Take the issue of party division: contemporary political commentators have noted that the debt ceiling fight over Obamacare has spurred a Republican Party inner civil war in which House conservatives find themselves at odds with their Senate colleagues and even their former presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

Speaker of the House John Boener (R-OH) leads a Republican caucus that is threatening to shut down the Federal government.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) leads a Republican caucus that is the equivalent of political arsonists.

Similar party divisions over how best to preserve slavery against the northern based Republican Party split the Democratic Party into three factions during the 1860 presidential election. As a result of this split, Abraham Lincoln faced three Democratic challengers: the pro-slavery, states’ rights candidate John C. Breckinridge, whose support was strongest in the slave-heavy Deep South, the “Constitutional Union Party” candidate, John Bell, a moderate whose platform of compromise to keep the Union intact made him popular in the Border South, and Stephen Douglas of “popular sovereignty” fame, who represented the last hope of the pro-Union Democratic Party in the North. All factions wanted to preserve slavery, but were divided over how to do so.

Southern support for the pro-slavery, states’ rights Breckinridge faction eventually spilled over into support for secession. By seceding from the Union and forming the Confederate States of America, southern Democratic leaders flat-out rejected the results of a fair national election and denied the political legitimacy of Republican Abraham Lincoln to govern. Consider, for example, these lines from Georgia’s “Declaration of the Causes of Secession:”

The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party, under its present name and organization, is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an anti-slavery party. While it attracts to itself by its creed the scattered advocates of exploded political heresies, of condemned theories in political economy, the advocates of commercial restrictions, of protection, of special privileges, of waste and corruption in the administration of Government, anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose. By anti-slavery it is made a power in the state.

Such are the opinions and such are the practices of the Republican party, who have been called by their own votes to administer the Federal Government under the Constitution of the United States. We know their treachery; we know the shallow pretenses under which they daily disregard its plainest obligations. If we submit to them it will be our fault and not theirs.

To avoid these evils we resume the powers which our fathers delegated to the Government of the United States, and henceforth will seek new safeguards for our liberty, equality, security, and tranquillity.

Now, compare Georgia’s desire to “seek new safeguards for our liberty” with a statement from Representative Trent Franks (R-AZ) during the 2012 presidential election following one of multiple House Republican votes to repeal Obamacare:

I’m encouraged today to see the House of Representatives fulfill its intended role as the body closest to, and most ‘representative’ of, the American people.

House Republicans are delivering on their promise to do everything possible to prevent Obamacare, including continuing to work to defund the fatally flawed law.

The American people have been unmistakably clear in rejecting the notion of a socialized health care system, but have been unceremoniously ignored by this Administration. But make no mistake: President Obama has had his say; the Supreme Court has had its say; and the American people will have their say this November.

Just as the Georgia secession declaration claimed that the Lincoln administration had used “treachery” to gain control over the federal government and implement its anti-slavery agenda, Franks claimed that the Obama administration “unceremoniously ignored” the wishes of the American people by implementing Obamacare, and that the people would have their say by voting President Obama out of office in 2012. The American people, of course, HAD their say: but instead, they reelected President Obama, giving him every right to implement the Affordable Health Care Act.

So, when the traditional political routes failed, the House GOP resorted to taking the country hostage by pulling a page from the 1860-61 southern secessionists’ playbook: just as the secessionists threatened to tear the country apart when they lost an election, the House GOP are now threatening to shut the country down in a last-ditch effort to destroy Obamacare. In so doing, they are following the advice of conservative ideologues, like tax policy advocate Grover Norquist, who famously stated that Republicans’ strategy in the face of a Democratic president should be to “make it so that a Democrat cannot govern as a Democrat.”

This is what happened the last time democracy was voided in the U.S.

This is what happened the last time democracy was voided in the U.S.

Thus, while contemporary conservatives are not advocating secession, they are advocating the essence of secession: the idea that when a political party is defeated at the polls, is has the right to damage and destroy the democratic process in an effort to get its agenda recognized. Just as conservative Democrats denied Republican Abraham Lincoln’s right to govern in 1860-61 by seceeding from the Union, conservative Republicans in 2013 are denying Democrat Barack Obama’s right to govern by holding the federal government hostage.

The historical ironies are so deep that we just might drown in them. The events of 1860-61 and 2013 prove that, even in the world’s greatest democracy, the democratic process cannot be taken for granted. These events should also give pause those who still maintain that conservatism, as an allegedly reactionary movement, cannot be radical. In their effort to save the burning house from the flames of change, conservatives have historically been willing to burn the house down. Contemporary conservatives show no signs of bucking this trend as they circle the House of Representatives carrying torches and kerosene.

Abe Lincoln Resurfaces, Still Helping with our Better Angels

An image taken in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863 that very well might show a previously un-noticied picture of President Abraham Lincoln. Picture by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

A picture taken at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania that very well might show a previously unnoticed image of President Abraham Lincoln. Picture by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Recently, news broke that a keen-eyed former Disney animator named Christopher Oakley had discovered a previously unknown image of President Abraham Lincoln in an old picture taken by photographer Alexander Gardner. Gardener took the photo on November 19, 1863, the day Lincoln delivered his “Gettysburg Address,” perhaps the most famous – and shortest – speech in the history of the United States. If this admittedly blurry and tiny image does indeed show Old Abe, and the evidence looks fairly convincing that it does, then it would be one of the very few images of the 16th president not taken in a posed, studio setting.

As Discovery News reports:

Earlier this year, Christopher Oakley — a former Disney animator and Civil War buff — was working on a 3D animation of Honest Abe as part of his Virtual Lincoln Project, a student collaboration. (Oakley also teaches new media at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.)

While examining Gardner’s stereograph, Oakley wondered if the Library of Congress (which owns the image) had ever created a high-resolution copy of the photo’s left-sided negative. They hadn’t, but would do so for $73. “It’s the best $73 I ever spent,” Oakley told USA Today. “As soon as I had that in my hands, I was able to look at it much more clearly.”

…Oakley identified a man with a trimmed beard and stovepipe hat standing precisely where Lincoln would have stood, near a man Oakley determined to be then-Secretary of State William Seward, who was on the speaker’s platform. “All the landmarks — jawline, beard, hair, cheekbones, heavy brow, ears — line up perfectly,” Oakley told Smithsonian.

This find is especially fortuitous: Lincoln is currently en vogue in American popular culture, though he’s never really gone out vogue. Steven Spielberg’s 2012 Lincoln bio-pic was a big box office success, the ever prolific and award-garnering historian Eric Foner recently published a book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in history, and President Obama has been invoking Lincoln lately to boost support for his economic plan.

Lincoln has always been a popular American icon because he stands as a symbol; a reminder that the United States just may be able to overcome its worst instincts and flaws in order to live up to the lofty ideals set forth in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Lincoln, being both a human being and a politician, was by no means perfect, but that’s why Americans like him. In today’s particularly trying times, amidst economic recession, endless overseas wars, and social unrest at home, the U.S. is undergoing a deep process of soul-searching. Americans today are trying to reconnect with what Lincoln, facing civil war in his First Inaugural Address, termed “the better angels of our nature.”

Ever since his untimely assassination in 1865, Americans of all stripes have tried to find the real Lincoln. An estimated 15,000 books have been written about the 16th president, books that have ranged from award-winning biographies, to penetrating critiques of his wartime policies, to deeply disingenuous, loose-with-the-facts hatchet jobs. Even Spielberg’s well-made and acclaimed film, as historians have noted, took the occasional dramatic license with the facts, as Hollywood productions are want to do. Moreover, in terms of the major issues of his day, slavery and race, Lincoln has been called everything from a flaming racist, to a paternalistic sort of racist, to a pro-slavery demagogue, to a politically deft Abolitionist, to a champion of racial equality. Some people even think Lincoln was gay.

Yet, despite all of the debate over the real Lincoln, the 16th president’s historical legacy as an American political icon has largely been sealed: he was, after all, the president who saved the Union from political insurrection and emancipated the slaves, ushering in “a new birth of freedom” as he so famously stated in the “Gettysburg Address.” True, Lincoln, as was the case in his own lifetime, does have some enemies today. He remains a demonic symbol of alleged statist tyranny for modern libertarians seeking historical excuses for why their much yearned-for stateless, free market utopia has not yet materialized. But libertarians aside, Lincoln is largely revered by Americans not despite his flaws, but because of them. Lincoln was only human, after all, but for a man of his time, he overcame a lot of social, racial, political, and military obstacles and emerged from these challenges as a symbol of how the worst American traits can be vanquished.

This is why a newly discovered picture of Lincoln is such big news: the image shows the president as an ordinary guy, just one among a crowd. He isn’t grandly posed in a sanitized, Washington D.C. photographic studio setting. A small, blurry image of Lincoln the man helps us connect to Lincoln the man, a man who was flawed like any other human but who nonetheless achieved great things. After all, isn’t that the very ideal to which Americans strive? Sure it is dammit.

Lincoln as we usually see him: poised and presidential.

Lincoln as we usually see him: poised and presidential.

Like everyone in 19th century America, Abraham Lincoln was a racist in the sense that his views of African-Americans were filtered through the social lens that deemed blacks as inferior to whites in most ways. But Lincoln was also a man who struggled with balancing a personal objection to slavery with the knowledge that slavery as an institution was protected by the Constitution. It was Lincoln’s recognition of the realities of American racism and slavery, after all, that influenced his early support for a scheme to colonize black people to present-day Panama under the guise that white prejudice made racial co-habitation impossible in the United States. Despite these obstacles, of course, Lincoln eventually issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a wartime necessity before finally declaring the destruction of slavery a moral imperative to Union victory in the Civil War.

Lincoln’s wartime policies with regards to government power were controversial at the time and remain so to this day. Most famously, his suspension of Habeas Corpus and declaration of martial law for the purpose of silencing political enemies, like Ohio Democratic Party congressman Clement Vallandigham, spurred accusations of tyranny during the Civil War. These same actions still irk modern libertarians and other various “limited government” folks. Lincoln, however, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, believed that he was acting in the country’s best interest, though he was certainly aware that the chance to silence Copperhead Democrats was a welcome perk. Yet, as legal historian James Dueholm reminds us, “[u]nder the Constitution the federal government can unquestionably suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus if the public safety requires it during times of rebellion or invasion. The issue is whether Congress or the president holds this power.” Indeed, people often forget that suspension of Habeas Corpus isn’t, in and of itself, unconstitutional.

Ultimately, though, the Confederacy’s defeat ensured that Lincoln’s issues with civil liberties would come to be viewed as unfortunately necessary measures to ensuring Union victory. Again, Lincoln wasn’t perfect, but he was on the right side of history when justifying controversial government policies. Besides, he wasn’t alone in these matters: as historians like Mark Neely Jr. have noted, Confederate president Jefferson Davis also suspended Habeas Corpus, declared martial law in the South, imprisoned political rivals, and instituted the first draft in American history. Lincoln was hardly the only presidential tyrant during the Civil War.

Lincoln’s overcoming of so many wartime obstacles in the form of issues like race, government power, and political equality helped make him such an enduring symbol of America’s “better angels.” In modern American society, as very similar issues of racial justice, civil liberties, and political representation constantly occupy the headlines, we can look to Lincoln as a symbol of another age when these types of issues also tried American resolve. If Lincoln could overcome them, then so can we.

Criticisms that Lincoln was a flawed man and politician are beside the point here: its because of his flaws that he remains an icon, just as the long story of America’s overcoming its worst prejudices to expand equality to all has become integral to American identity itself. If a new picture of Lincoln, however small and blurry, helps us identify a little bit more with the man himself, all the better. Perhaps now we are all Lincoln, with the potential to connect to our “better angels.” And perhaps now I should stop writing, lest I run out of clichéd phrases.