Tag Archives: history

Tribalism Versus Americanism

Permit me a “Sunday morning meditation”…

We Americans are a cantankerous and argumentative lot. We hold vastly different political philosophies and policy preferences, and we increasingly inhabit alternate realities. Partisans routinely attack elected officials—especially Presidents—who don’t share their preferences or otherwise meet their expectations.

Politics as usual. Unpleasant and often unfair, but—hysteria and hyperbole notwithstanding– usually not a threat to the future of the republic. Usually.

We are beginning to understand that Donald Trump does pose such a threat.

In the wake of Trump’s moral equivocations following Charlottesville, critics on both the left and right characterized his refusal to distinguish between the “fine people” among the Nazis and KKK and the “fine people” among the protestors as an assault on core American values. His subsequent, stunning decision to pardon rogue sheriff Joe Arpaio has been described, accurately, as an assault on the rule of law.

It’s worth considering what, exactly, is at stake.

Whatever our beliefs about “American exceptionalism,” the founding of this country was genuinely exceptional—defined as dramatically different from what had gone before—in one incredibly important respect: for the first time, citizenship was made dependent upon behavior rather than identity. In the Old World, countries had been created by conquest, or as expressions of ethnic or religious solidarity. As a result, the rights of individuals were dependent upon their identities, the status of their particular “tribes” in the relevant order. (Jews, for example, rarely enjoyed the same rights as Christians, even in countries that refrained from oppressing them.)

Your rights vis a vis your government depended upon who you were—your religion, your social class, your status as conqueror or conquered.

The new United States took a different approach to citizenship. Whatever the social realities, whatever the disabilities imposed by the laws of the various states, anyone (okay, any white male) born or naturalized here was equally a citizen. We look back now at the exclusion of blacks and women and our treatment of Native Americans as shameful departures from that approach, and they were, but we sometimes fail to appreciate how novel the approach itself was at that time in history.

All of our core American values—individual rights, civic equality, due process of law—flow from the principle that government must not facilitate tribalism, must not treat people differently based upon their ethnicity or religion or other marker of identity. Eventually (and for many people, reluctantly) we extended that principle to gender, skin color and sexual orientation.

Racism is a rejection of that civic equality. Signaling that government officials will not be punished for flagrantly violating that foundational principle so long as the disobedience advances the interests of the President, fatally undermines it.

Admittedly, America’s history is filled with disgraceful episodes in which we have failed to live up to the principles we profess. In many parts of the country, communities still grapple with bitter divisions based upon tribal affiliations—race, religion and increasingly, partisanship.

When our leaders have understood the foundations of American citizenship, when they have reminded us that what makes us Americans is allegiance to core American values—not the color of our skin, not the prayers we say, not who we love—we emerge stronger from these periods of unrest. When they speak to the “better angels of our nature,” most of those “better angels” respond.

When our leaders are morally bankrupt, all bets are off. We’re not all Americans any more, we’re just a collection of warring tribes, some favored by those in power, some not.

As the old saying goes: elections have consequences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which America Do You Live In?

My father was called up for service in World War II when I was a toddler, and when the war ended, I was still far too young to comprehend what “war” really meant. But one of the most vivid memories I have of those days was coming across my mother reading something called “The Black Book,” and crying.

The book was a compendium of Nazi atrocities. My mother said I was too young to hear about such things (as I recall, I was about five) but that I should always remember how lucky I was to live in the United States.

Years later, I read multiple historical and sociological analyses in an effort to understand how the Nazis came to power, how otherwise good people could participate in–or turn a blind eye to–what was happening. The lesson I took away began with an economic reality: when people are experiencing economic insecurity and privation–especially if they see that others are flourishing– resentments suppressed in better times surface, and the very human need to find someone or some group to blame for loss of status and/or security becomes incredibly easy for demagogues to manipulate.

There’s a reason that loss of the American middle class is so dangerous.

A recent book by an MIT economist paints a very troubling picture: America is now two countries, and one of those countries looks a lot like the third world.

 Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT, believes the ongoing death of “middle America” has sparked the emergence of two countries within one, the hallmark of developing nations. In his new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, Temin paints a bleak picture where one country has a bounty of resources and power, and the other toils day after day with minimal access to the long-coveted American dream.

In his view, the United States is shifting toward an economic and political makeup more similar to developing nations than the wealthy, economically stable nation it has long been. Temin applied W. Arthur Lewis’s economic model – designed to understand the workings of developing countries – to the United States in an effort to document how inequality has grown in America.

Temin describes multiple contributing factors in the nation’s arrival at this place, from exchanging the War on Poverty for the War on Drugs to money in politics and systemic racism. He outlines the ways in which racial prejudice continues to lurk below the surface, allowing politicians to appeal to the age old “desire to preserve the inferior status of blacks”, encouraging white low-wage workers to accept their lesser place in society.

Temin lists policies that could begin to ameliorate the economic divide: Expanding education, updating infrastructure, forgiving mortgage and student loan debt, and programs to encourage social mobility for all Americans.

Right now, of course, the clear priority of Congress–let alone the current, deranged occupant of the Oval Office–is tax reduction for the wealthy at the expense of the already disadvantaged.

What’s that famous Santayana quote? Those who who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

 

The Circle of Political Life

When we study history, it isn’t difficult to see repeating patterns. Not that events or eras actually recur, but–humans being what we are–contending impulses and beliefs about the proper way to construct a society often create situations that look familiar. Sometimes, eerily so.

The other day, I was reading an essay on Spinoza, and I was struck by the following paragraphs:

Much of Spinoza’s philosophy was composed in response to the precarious political situation of the Dutch Republic in the mid-17th century. In the late 1660s, the period of ‘True Freedom’ – with the liberal and laissez-faire regents dominating city and provincial governments – was under threat by the conservative ‘Orangist’ faction (so-called because its partisans favoured a return of centralised power to the Prince of Orange) and its ecclesiastic allies. Spinoza was afraid that the principles of toleration and secularity enshrined in the founding compact of the United Provinces of the Netherlands were being eroded in the name of religious conformity and political and social orthodoxy. In 1668, his friend and fellow radical Adriaan Koerbagh was convicted of blasphemy and subversion. He died in his cell the next year. In response, Spinoza composed his ‘scandalous’ Theological-Political Treatise, published to great alarm in 1670.

Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance. At a time when Americans seem willing to bargain away their freedoms for security, when politicians talk of banning people of a certain faith from our shores, and when religious zealotry exercises greater influence on matters of law and public policy, Spinoza’s philosophy – especially his defence of democracy, liberty, secularity and toleration – has never been more timely. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear.

The ability of our own era’s “Prince of Orange” to capture the GOP nomination is evidence that the assault on Enlightenment values is alive and well these many centuries after Spinoza.

Whether enough of us are willing to “boldly defend” those ideals–which lie at the very heart of America’s constitutional system–remains to be seen.

The Nazi Salute…Really?

Students at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis are at the center of a controversy created when they posted a picture showing them making Nazi salutes to social media.

According to the Indianapolis Star,

Students at a private Indianapolis high school are in trouble for making the Nazi salute at the end of a class segment on the German language. It’s the latest example of intolerance and anti-Semitism at area schools….

The photo — taken in a World Languages classroom at Cathedral High School, a private college preparatory school on Indianapolis’ northeast side — shows 15 students holding the German flag and some raising their arms in the Nazi salute, a gesture used during German dictator Adolf Hitler’s reign, usually followed by some variant of the phrase “Heil Hitler!”

When the photo triggered a public outcry, officials of Cathedral released a statement saying, in part “We are having a meeting about cultural awareness with these students and their families regarding the poor choice they made in the picture and how offensive and hurtful this can be.”

Well, sorry, but “Heil Hitler” goes considerably beyond “offensive and hurtful.” Try ignorant and hateful.

I use the word ignorant advisedly, because if I had to guess, I’d attribute this incredible incident to Cathedral’s failure (shared by far too many schools, public and private alike) to actually teach their students history, among other subjects necessary to informed participation in civic life.

A few days ago, several people posted a video to Facebook showing a series of “person on the street” interviews conducted in New York’s Times Square. The young people who were stopped were asked questions that should have been no-brainers: “what countries fought in World War II?” “What was World War II about?” “Have you ever heard of Hitler?” To say that the answers were dispiriting would be a massive understatement. (If anyone has the link, I’d appreciate it; I couldn’t find it, and it really needs to be seen to be appreciated.)

Here in Indianapolis, as elsewhere, the Jewish community–through organizations like the Jewish Community Relations Council–holds annual events intended to educate the broader community about the Holocaust. Survivors–all of whom are now quite elderly, so their ranks are thinning–are made available to speak to student groups and civic organizations. There are books and films and memorials, all with a single focus: to bear witness to Nazi atrocities, in the fervent hope that “never again” will human beings visit horrors of this magnitude on other human beings.

These efforts, however, require fertile ground in which to take root and promote understanding. An uneducated, uninterested and unaware population is impervious to such undertakings.

The best we can hope for in situations like the one at Cathedral is to discover that these young people had no idea what the Nazis did–that they acted out of ignorance rather than bigotry and hatred, and that some mandatory education might open their eyes to the evil they were celebrating.

If not–if they were aware of what the Nazis did and what the salute conveyed–they are frightening harbingers of a new dark age to come, and we are all in trouble.

There’s a reason that many of us who do know our history see incidents like this, and watch voters respond to Donald Trump’s blatant appeals to racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism (he “tells it like it is,” he isn’t “politically correct”) with cold chills and foreboding.

Santayana said it best: those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.

 

It’s Not Just a Card–It’s the Whole Deck

Speaking of the “race card”….

As Donald Trump has continued his march toward the Republican nomination, pundits and political historians alike have tried to explain his emergence. One of the most cogent of those explanations appeared in the Guardian, in a lengthy, well-researched article tracing the trajectory of racism and political calculation in the United States.

After describing the events leading up to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the article referenced Lyndon Johnson’s well-known quote:

“I think we just gave the south to the Republicans,” he told his staff after ramming the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. His aide Bill Moyers recalled the moment in more drastic terms: Johnson feared he had delivered the south to Republicans “for your lifetime and mine”, a prediction whose proof, while not yet conclusive – we are happy that Mr Moyers is still with us – has trended ever since toward prophecy.

Fast-forward to Nixon, and the “southern strategy.”

What was needed was white backlash with a kinder, gentler face. Years later, the Republican strategist Lee Atwater, by then an operative in the Reagan White House, would explain the essence of the “southern strategy” to an academic researcher:

You start out in 1954 by saying ‘nigger, nigger, nigger’. By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced bussing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying ‘We want to cut this’ is much more abstract than even the bussing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘nigger, nigger’.

The article details how Nixon refined the strategy and Reagan perfected it. It also describes  the way in which the GOP “establishment” used that racism to distract from a more plutocratic agenda–engaging in a “bait and switch” operation that won elections and then ignored the base that delivered those victories.

Enter Donald Trump.

While the other Republican contenders keep their xenophobia within the bounds of acceptably cruel political discourse, Trump blows it out: his racist rants play like full-fledged operas compared to the dog-whistle stuff, shredding the finely honed code that’s worked so long and so well for the GOP establishment. But that’s why the base loves him; he feels their rage.

Paul Krugman has an abbreviated version of that same history in a recent New York Times column.

How does a party in thrall to a basically unpopular ideology — or at any rate an ideology voters would dislike if they knew more about it — win elections? Obfuscation helps. But demagogy and appeals to tribalism help more. Racial dog whistles and suggestions that Democrats are un-American if not active traitors aren’t things that happen now and then, they’re an integral part of Republican political strategy.

Krugman takes up where the Guardian leaves off, and completes the history of the southern strategy.

During the Obama years Republican leaders cranked the volume on that strategy up to 11 (although it was pretty bad during the Clinton years too.) Establishment Republicans generally avoided saying in so many words that the president was a Kenyan Islamic atheist socialist friend of terrorists — although as the quote from Mr. Rubio shows, they came pretty close — but they tacitly encouraged those who did, and accepted their endorsements. And now they’re paying the price.

For the underlying assumption behind the establishment strategy was that voters could be fooled again and again: persuaded to vote Republican out of rage against Those People, then ignored after the election while the party pursued its true, plutocrat-friendly priorities. Now comes Mr. Trump, turning the dog whistles into fully audible shouting, and telling the base that it can have the bait without the switch. And the establishment is being destroyed by the monster it created.

If we’re lucky, America won’t be destroyed in the process.