Tag Archives: history

The Echoes Of History

I just finished reading The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, James H. Madison’s deeply researched and very readable account of Indiana’s history with the KKK. To say it was sobering would be a considerable understatement.

Madison, an Emeritus Professor of History at Indiana University, is often referred to as the “Dean” of Indiana historians, and this recent book, published by IU Press, is a good example of his meticulous approach and his ability to place historical events in a larger context. He cautions us that the malcontents who currently affiliate with the Klan and other white nationalist organizations are very different from those in the broad-based movement that included thousands of “good Indiana citizens” in the 1920s–a movement that effectively took over the state’s political establishment for a time.

Times change, but sometimes less than we might hope. After reading the diatribe Becky shared in yesterday’s comments, I was especially struck by its echoes in Madison’s description of the Klan’s 1920s appeal:

In churches, town halls, and public parks, Hoosiers heard the warnings. People not like us were tearing down our religion and our country. Enemies were rising up. The Klan could identify them. The Klan could show 100 percent Americans who they should fear and how they should fight.

I don’t want to overstate the case. We really have come a long way from the hysteria of the 1920s, and the susceptibility of enormous numbers of Americans to fear and hatred of “others.” But as Trump devotees remind us, an uncomfortable percentage of Americans still respond to messages of division, threats of  displacement, and hostility to people they perceive as different from themselves.

I grew up in Indiana, but Madison’s book expanded considerably on what I’d known about Klan dominance in the state. I’d heard about the passage of a state law authorizing sterilization of people deemed “defective,” but I was totally unaware that our first state constitution denied African-Americans the right to vote, or that its replacement in 1851 (affirmed by a large vote) “excluded African-Americans from taking up residence in the state.”

I knew that the Klan had been active in Indiana politics, but I was surprised to read an excerpt from a New York Times article reporting that the “Indiana Klan had a machine that made [New York’s] Tammany seem amateurish,” and depressed by assertions that “85% of the [Republican] party were Klan members.”

I was also largely unaware of the degree of anti-Catholic fervor the Klan tapped into–although I do recall a couple of people telling me in 1960 that Catholics were stockpiling firearms in church basements, and that if John F. Kennedy won the election, the Catholics would mount a take-over. (I thought those people were nuts. It didn’t occur to me that such a myth was widespread, but evidently it was.)

It was impossible to read this history without discomfort, or without hearing its echoes in today’s fringe precincts. Madison pointed out, for example, that the  Klan constantly whined, consistently characterizing white Protestants as “victims” and seeing any and all social change as a descent into immorality, crime and godlessness. I had been unaware of the Klan’s considerable role in pushing for Prohibition, its suspicion of public libraries (!), and its savvy use of that new communication device called radio. “This new technology helped create the imagined community of like-minded Americans separated by distance.”

And I’d known nothing about the Klan’s “aggressive” education agenda–bills to require (Protestant) Bible reading in the public schools, to allow the state to approve all textbooks in both public and parochial schools, and ensure that curricula advanced “patriotism and Americanism.” (Where have we heard that lately?)

I recommend the book.

As Santayana warned, those who don’t know their own history are doomed to repeat it.

 

 

In Case The Racism Wasn’t Clear Enough…

There’s something to be said for clarity.

As the United States barrels toward an election that will determine whether we remain wedded to a set of unrealized but morally-appropriate ideals about equality, the focus of that election has steadily narrowed. November will be about one thing: White Nationalism and the continued privileging and social dominance of white male “Christians.”

Short of producing yard signs with swastikas, the Trump campaign has done everything it can to convey that message–and in Tuesday’s first “debate,” Trump’s refusal to disavow white nationalism made it explicit. (“Debate” is in quotes, because Trump’s rants and bullying prevented anything that could be considered a genuine debate.)

The GOP has disdained issuing a platform, making it clear that obedience to the party’s “Dear Leader” was the only plank that mattered. Then the campaign echoed Trump’s rant against the accurate teaching of American history–especially about slavery– and his insistence that teachers should engage in patriotic indoctrination rather than education.

More recently still, just in case there was a Neo-Nazi somewhere in rural America who missed the message (is there a backwoods area where Fox can’t penetrate?), he ordered an immediate cessation of diversity training in federal agencies, and followed that with a similar edict covering federal contractors. As Talking Points Memo reports:

President Donald Trump increased the scope of his assault against the government’s anti-racism workplace trainings on white privilege on Tuesday night with an executive order banning government contractors from holding the trainings.

In the order, Trump claimed that trainings that discuss the disproportionate amount of power afforded to white men “perpetuates racial stereotypes and division and can use subtle coercive pressure to ensure conformity of viewpoint.”

“Such activities also promote division and inefficiency when carried out by Federal contractors,” the order said.

The contractors thus “will not be permitted to inculcate such views in their employees,” according to the order.

Trump touted the ban on Twitter on Tuesday.

These sessions–common in corporate and business environments–are intended to improve communication and understanding among employees who bring different cultures and life experiences to the workplace. (Well done, they improve both employee morale and productivity–outcomes of absolutely no interest to Trump, since they don’t line his pockets or advance his egocentric agenda.)

It is unlikely that this most recent “edict” is legally enforceable. Absent corruption (which in this administration cannot be taken for granted) government contracts are awarded to companies that respond to RFPs–Requests for Proposals. Those RFPs set out the qualifications required by the contracting agency, and it’s a fair bet that none of the RFPs to which current contractors responded contained a provision that the contractor could not offer diversity training to its employees.

But enforceability and legality are beside the point here.

In much the same way that Trump’s issuance of meaningless “Executive Orders” aren’t legally effective, the bans on diversity training are a type of “performance art.” The Executive Orders are intended to convince his largely civically ignorant base that he is keeping his various promises–to build a wall, protect pre-existing conditions, forbid Muslims from entering the country, etc. The ban on anti-racist training and the attack on teaching accurate history are intended to reassure his largely racist base that he is with them.

It’s a very dangerous game.

Law enforcement agencies–including the FBI– have warned that alt-right organizations are actively trying to foment a race war. 

A report by the Brookings Institution explains a right-wing effort called “accelerationism.”

Accelerationism is the idea that white supremacists should try to increase civil disorder — accelerate it — in order to foster polarization that will tear apart the current political order. The System (usually capitalized), they believe, has only a finite number of collaborators and lackeys to prop it up. Accelerationists hope to set off a series of chain reactions, with violence fomenting violence, and in the ensuing cycle more and more people join the fray. When confronted with extremes, so the theory goes, those in the middle will be forced off the fence and go to the side of the white supremacists.

Obviously, not every Trump voter is a conscious part of that White Supremacy movement–but every Trump vote will support it.

 

 

Statues And Shades Of Gray

Americans are having yet another iteration of a longstanding argument about the various monuments erected to memorialize–or let’s be honest, valorize– Confederate heroes of the Civil War.

People defending these statues argue that they teach us about our history. Proponents of removal respond that placing them in museums is adequate to the teaching of history, and remind us that Germany still remembers the Nazis despite the fact that there are no statues of Hitler or Eichmann “gracing” the public way.

In my view, deciding that Confederate statues should come down is an easy call.

Here’s the test: why was this particular statue erected? To ask that question a bit differently, why is this person being honored? Public statues are uniformly considered “honors”–so the first question to ask is, logically, “why do we honor Senator or General or XYZ?” If the person portrayed has been selected for his participation in the Confederate secession, the monument should go. If the person is historically significant, move the statue to a museum or other teaching venue; if he is just a reminder of Confederate treason, smash him.

As numerous historians have reminded us, these statues weren’t erected in the aftermath of the Civil War; almost all of them were placed in prominent places during the civil rights movement as a testament of white resistance to African-American equality. They aren’t even legitimately “historic.”

The question of public monuments gets more complicated when it comes to people who were less one-dimensional. What do we do, for example, about people like Woodrow Wilson?

As Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times awhile back,

When it comes to hating Woodrow Wilson, I was an early adopter. Raised with the bland liberal history that hailed the 28th president as a visionary for championing the League of Nations, I picked up in college what was then a contrarian, mostly right-wing perspective — that many of Wilson’s legacies were disastrous, including an imperial understanding of the presidency that’s deformed our constitutional structure ever since, the messianic style in American foreign policy that gave us Vietnam and Iraq, and a solidification of Jim Crow under a scientific-racist guise.

Now his racism has finally prompted Princeton University, which once had Wilson as its president, to remove his name from its prominent school of public and international affairs. This move was made under pressure from left-wing activists, but it also answered conservatives who had invoked Wilson’s name to suggest that progressive racists might be unjustly spared from cancellation.

For this Wilson-despiser, his fall was a clarifying moment. I expected to be at least a little pleased and justified when the name was gone. Instead, the decision just seemed fundamentally dishonest, a case study in what goes wrong when iconoclasm moves beyond Confederates to encompass the wider American inheritance.

Douthat says that monuments and honorifics are intended to honor deeds,  “to express gratitude for some specific act, to acknowledge some specific debt, to trace a line back to some worthwhile inheritance.” I agree.

So–what do we do with monuments to inevitably flawed real humans–to Founders who glorified human liberty while “owning” other human beings, for example?

Thus when you enter their Washington, D.C., memorials, you’ll see Thomas Jefferson honored as the man who expressed the founding’s highest ideals and Abraham Lincoln as the president who made good on their promise. That the first was a hypocrite slave owner and the second a pragmatist who had to be pushed into liberating the slaves is certainly relevant to our assessment of their characters. But they remain the author of the Declaration of Independence and the savior of the union, and you can’t embrace either legacy, the union or “we hold these truths …” without acknowledging that these gifts came down through them.

I find myself in agreement with Douthat. The relevant question remains the one I previously outlined: what, exactly, are we memorializing?

To repudiate an honor or dismantle a memorial, then, makes moral sense only if you intend to repudiate the specific deeds that it memorializes. In the case of Confederate monuments, that’s exactly what we should want to do. Their objective purpose was to valorize a cause that we are grateful met defeat, there is no debt we owe J.E.B. Stuart or Nathan Bedford Forrest that needs to be remembered, and if they are put away we will become more morally consistent, not less, in how we think about that chapter in our past.

On the other hand, complicated and often profoundly flawed individuals often do very good things. If the statue we have erected was intended to honor those good things, it should stay. If it is only there to remind us that something happened–especially when that “something” was regrettable– it shouldn’t.

If we shouldn’t celebrate what a monument celebrates, it should go.

 

The Politics Of White Male Grievance

I have obviously spent most of my life being naive.

Until very recently, I had faith that the overwhelming majority of my fellow-Americans were really good people. Wrong sometimes, certainly. Confused sometimes. But essentially kind and well-meaning, and –importantly–receptive to reality and able to learn from it.

I accepted that there would always be a small minority of people who are damaged in some way. I still think that “damaged” explains more than “evil,” but I’m less certain that the distinction is helpful (and Mitch McConnell has convinced me that some people really are evil).

During the past few years, I’ve read more American history, and a lot of that history isn’t pretty. The Internet has put more information at our fingertips (some credible, some not), and much of that information has been depressing. And then, of course, came November of 2016. It was like ripping a bandage off a very ugly sore.

If there is one central thread running through my various disillusionments, it is some people’s evident need to divide humanity into “us versus them”–and to dominate “them.”

Paul Krugman recently published a column responding to Stephen Moores’ comparison of the protestors storming state capitols to Rosa Parks. (If you missed that bit of Trump administration idiocy, I assure you I am not making it up.)  I was particularly struck by this observation:

The modern right is driven in large part by the grievances of white men who don’t feel that they’re getting the respect they believe they deserve, and Fox-fueled hostility to “elites” who claim to know more than guys in diners — which, on technical subjects like epidemiology, they do — is a key part of the movement.

Krugman is restating what social science research has confirmed: white male grievance explains most of Trump’s base support. (There is also significant evidence that white male grievance has motivated most mass shootings.)

As Rebecca Solnit has observed, these are white men who feel threatened because they see life in America as a zero-sum game–a game that rightwing media and the Republican party are constantly telling them they are losing. They were born into a culture that told them they were entitled to dominate us “lesser” folks: black and brown people, women, gay men, non-Christians…that they were the “real Americans.” Suddenly (or so it seemed), those “lessers” were demanding a place at the civic table, and they had to defend their superior status.

We saw that resentment in Charlottesville. (It’s important to note that we also saw it in the appalling behavior of now-Supreme-Court Justice Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing. White male grievance isn’t the exclusive province of people we can dismiss as “yahoos” and “uneducated yokels.”)

As a column in the Washington Post put it, shortly after Charlottsville,

More than a half-century ago, minorities, women and immigrants began to challenge the economic, political and legal hierarchy that had favored white men for centuries. Their efforts produced a white backlash that burst into the open after Barack Obama’s election in 2008.

Donald Trump has tapped into this anger and manipulated it to his political advantage. The bond between President Trump and his white followers is not based on policy but on grievance. They both reject the cultural changes over the past half-century, and Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan signals his intent to unravel them…

Until the 1960s, white men sat unchallenged atop the United States’ cultural and economic pyramid. They did not have to compete against women or African Americans in the workplace, and they benefited from laws and customs that sustained their privileged position. They not only ruled the workplace, they dominated American politics and exercised virtually unchallenged power at home.

That automatic dominance based on skin color is changing. Slowly and unevenly, but it is changing. And a significant number of white men simply can’t deal with the change.

My problem is, I’m having an equal amount of trouble dealing with the realization that these attitudes characterize something like 35% of American voters.

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.