Monday, November 1, 2010

Sanity/Fear from this Blog's Perspective

Thanks to our friend Erin scoring Special Guest passes at work, yours truly and my wife had a pretty sweet vantage point for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on Saturday. From our spot we could not only see the stage pretty well, but more importantly hear the performances -- which seemed to be a pretty big problem given the "Louder" chants from the back.
Any attempt to digest what it all meant on Saturday must first acknowledge that for all but the last 15 minutes of the rally, the point was to put on a performance in the style of Colbert and Stewart's TV shows. The two ping-ponged their sanity/fear schtick's back and forth pretty effectively. Some of the musical content was questionable -- someone I had dinner with last night complained perfectly that they managed to make Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples boring, and then there was the Kid Rock piano ballad (!?!) -- but all-in-all it was pretty fun. Prince of Petworth has some cool pix of the crowd to check out.

What struck me about Stewart's speech at the end was how old-school progressive it was. Instead of partisan noise and hype, he argued, if citizens could only hear reasonable and impartial reporting on critical issues from the media then they would be able to foster the kind of informed decision making that democracy needs. Whereas the people really needed information from mass media, all they really get was a filter that manipulated them. Remove the filter, and the people's innate reasonableness would prevail more often than their raw emotional reactions. Fundamentally, that's what the humor on the Daily Show is all about -- ridiculing the filter. The show doesn't so much lean left as assert over and over, "they are fucking with you -- don't let them get away with it." And that's more or less what Stewart said Saturday.

And it's a message progressives like Mary Parker Follett and even John Dewey were asserting a century ago. Remove the interference from partisan handlers, yellow journalists, and ideologues of all stripe and democracy will function on its own accord. Follett and other reformers thought that nonpartisan, broadly representative forums for face-to-face debate on the civic level were the solution. Dewey believed in the saintly powers of experts to dispense the information the people needed in their deliberations before heading to the polls. Dewey was unique for believing this even after most progressives who had invested faith in the sanity of the American public had experienced the profound disappointment of World War I, when fear had overwhelmingly prevailed. Even after the war, the desire to keep fear alive, whether expressed through the Red Scare repression of radicals and unions, restrictive immigration legislation, lynchings, or the rise of a more mainstream version of the Ku Klux Klan, swamped the forces of sanity. A conservative sense of "normalcy" replaced Wilsonian Progressivism. On Election Day eve, this sounds vaguely familiar, no?

I don't mean to call Stewart naive here, because I fundamentally agree with his criticism of cable news. But for generations democracy has struggled with the sad fact that people would rather hear what they already believe parroted back to them than be presented with impartial reporting of policy debate. Fox and MSNBC are what they are because there's money in it. There's money in what the Daily Show does, too, especially through Stewart's often brilliant interviews of his incredibly-high-brow guests, but only through the hook of comedy.

Saturday demonstrated that mobilizing the sane is possible. But it's difficult, especially when fear can be conducted so masterfully by those whose interests are served by it. A hundred years ago, most progressives responded by taking their marbles and going home from the political game. It looks like the same thing's happening tomorrow, despite Stewart's best efforts.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Us vs. Them

This ad is the perfect closing argument for this election cycle, or perhaps the last year and a half of American politics.

The ad was put out by Ralph Reed's new outfit. The Faith and Freedom Coalition, as reported by Mother Jones, joined with other conservative evangelical Republican groups called the Council for National Policy to meet with Tea Party Patriots officers plan Get-Out-The-Vote operations for Tuesday's elections. They also plotted out, just to be safe, coordinated activities for the next 40 years.

While the depth of direct involvement by Religious Right figures like Reed, Phyllis Schlafly, Tony Perkins, and Richard Viguerie is an important new part of the story, the connection between the Tea Party "movement" and the old culture warriors has been probed for quite some time.

What I find interesting is the uniting of minds that would produce a message like the one above. The Culture Wars have roiled politics for so long because they have been sustained by a quasi-Calvinist elect that sees its controversies not as policy debate among reasonable people but the division between the holy and the nonbelievers. Because of its Constitutionally-mandated secularism, the Government is part of the "them" for such zealots. If Tea Partiers do not embrace this idea personally -- and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that many do -- they carry the same mindset in their Constitutional originalism and fixation on idealized Founding Fathers. While the Tea Party may steer clear of cultural issues at the present, it has erected its own version of "Us vs. Them" since last summer's health care debate.

Because political commentary so often focuses on policy outcomes and not ideology, progressives have underappreciated how intertwined the religious and political strains of the Us vs. Them narratives are. Hints of that interconnection are squirting out in strange places. Take Glenn Beck's assault, for instance, on Wilsonian progressivism and Woodrow Wilson himself, one that has some currency among Tea Partiers. As Dana Milbank, David Greenberg, and Media Matters have detailed, Beck's historical interpretation of the Wilson presidency is little more than historical ignorance borrowed from Jonah Goldberg. For Beck and like-minded conservatives, Progressivism's original sin was allowing the ideas of secularism into the Constitutional garden. Belief in the secular state's power to improve the lives of its citizens is what defined the Them. Beck is simply laboring to give that categorization a rickety historical narrative.

For many of us, this narrative seems positively bizarre. As Greenberg puts it in Slate,
it's telling that these Progressive Era reforms have enjoyed such an enduring and uncontroversial place in our sense of what government should do. Their long-reigning acceptance shows better than anything else just how deeply reactionary Beck and company are.
 But Wilson is merely a useful, if poorly utilized example of the larger critique not just of the "welfare state" but of secularism in toto. If you read or listen to Beck carefully, he is echoing an argument made by the Council for National Policy's founder Tim LaHaye. Yes, the same Tim LaHaye who wrote those Left Behind novels you are too much of an elitist to have read. Before he got into the business of commercializing one of the more troubling aspects of Christianity, LaHaye wrote political tracts decrying the pervasive influence of secular humanism in American government and intellectual life. His first book, The Battle for the Mind, came out in time for the 1980 elections, and leveled fantastic charges at the welfare state, public education, international organizations, and government agencies as being part of an interconnected atheistic conspiracy to overturn a Christian nation. He rehashed the same arguments in time for the 2000 election.

If the state represents the sinister Them against the godly Us, then what do we do with the fact that people elected that state to do those sinister things? That voters election after election, generation after generation have chosen to support fairly strong regulatory and redistributive policies? Are all of those people the Them, too, or have hundreds of millions of individual votes been the product of a grand and unholy plot? Of course not, just as Harry Reid and Barack Obama are not Them. They are not space aliens in a bad flick. They are Americans -- Us. And so are the people who voted for them and will vote for them again on Tuesday.

This sentiment is what Nancy Pelosi may have been getting at when she called those Tea Baggers who crashed Congressional Town Halls "un-American" last summer. They were un-American in their rejection of democracy. If I can channel one of my Founding Fathers here, James Madison first made the point that the minority has right to have their opinion voiced, but not the right to overturn electoral results. This kind of ad, this kind of sentiment does exactly that.

For all the hand-wringing on the Left about what the Tea Party stands for and where it came from, the Us vs. Them dynamic is the most critical to understand and counteract.


Monday, October 25, 2010

The Politics of Sports: Jimmie Johnson Edition

My graduate advisor went to prep school with Jeb Bush and then went on to graduate from Harvard and Johns Hopkins. But the two of us probably talked about college football more over the years than my dissertation. During one such conversation I revealed that I had, squirreled away in a dresser in my parents' house, a pristine Bernie Bar - a chocolate bar bearing Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar's likeness and endorsement. I had owned said candy bar since relatives in Cleveland had sent it to me in the mid-1980s. I hadn't even removed it from the plastic shopping bag they had sent it in, let alone ever dreamed of unwrapping and consuming it, for fear that doing so would dishonor the man or even risk him bodily harm through product-endorsement voodoo. I'm sure the chocolate sucked anyway. My advisor, a huge fan of University of Miami football, at which his father had taught music and Bernie had starred, straightened up upon my report of owning such a lost idol of past football greatness. He offered to buy it off me. I'm sure if I'd named a dollar amount he would have whipped out his checkbook right then and there.

But of course you understand that the Bernie Bar is not for sale.

As the nation approaches the midterm elections and the zenith of the "Tea Party Movement," I raise this story in frustration with a common narrative, raised over and over again in recent months, that the "elite" is out of touch with "real America" for reasons like the sports we watch. In keeping with the general editorial gestalt of the Washington Post's opinion page, Charles Murray offered up boring and patronizing rendition of this refrain on Sunday, taking the assumption that elites don't know who Jimmy Johnson (the NASCAR driver, not the coach/Survivor contestant) is as a sign of their undemocratic out-of-touchness. This is a somewhat ironic argument for someone with a degree from Harvard who wrote a book claiming a biological connection to intelligence to make - and whose recent output as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, bastion of common-manhood, was a column about golf.

Characterturing the tastes of the nation's best and brightest has been en vogue at least since Joe McCarthy made fun of Dean Achenson's wardrobe. It's a tired act, but one that clearly has some juice in it. That said, it's time to retire the sports part of the act.

For starters, NASCAR has carefully courted its fan base of "real" Americans for generations because it is an upstart operation. Its promoters knew it couldn't just break into big media markets and compete with football or baseball. Its success has depended on its ability to work around the ways other major sports have developed fan bases through geographic and media advantages. The biggest race of its season takes place in the sports dead zone of February. Its biggest stars are marketed and promoted as local guys to fans far removed from ever getting to see their favorite team sport franchises in person. We may live in a nationalized media marketplace, which allows the kid from Alabama or Indiana or even New Jersey to grow up rooting for the Cowboys -- but that doesn't mean sports fans don't still yearn for the proximate. Hence, the popularity of high school and college football far away from NFL franchises and of NASCAR in flyover America.

Conservatives who want to exploit the high/low divide, furthermore, treat NASCAR fandom as some kind of exclusive lifestyle choice. People who care about one sport usually care about more than one, and being a NASCAR fan does not come at the exclusion of other sports that are popular on the coasts. 
College football is a perfect example of the interplay between high and low status or culture in the nation rather than its division. The rise of college football as an obsession in the South happened in response to Elite America's dominance of the sport in the first half of the 20th century. Catching up to the Harvards and Yales was a motivating force, and the success of that motivation still shapes the competitive landscape today.

Finally, let's just all agree that it's stupid to think that all the "elite," who number a few hundred thousand people in Murray's definition anyway, care about niche activities and not major team sports like the rest of the country. It's just not true. They might not care about NASCAR, but that's because NASCAR isn't chasing their dollar -- the NFL and Major League Baseball already has that locked up. Also, because car races are boring until someone crashes. The rabid Red Sox fan made so by a stint in Cambridge is practically a cliche among the sports-loving intelligentsia. And it's not even just a guy thing any more -- the Red Sox and Phillies lead sales of pink hats. So, in the interest of truth and national unity, let's just stop using sports in the "elites are out of touch" narrative.      

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tea Party and Goldwater

Leave it to me to bash political science and then link to something written by a political scientist about polling data. Well, anyway, over at Salon, Alan Abramowitz parses some data on Tea Party self-identification and reports that the movement is essentially an intraparty movement within the GOP and not an independent force:
Eighty percent of Tea Party supporters were Republican identifiers or independents who leaned toward the Republican Party, and 54 percent were strong Republican identifiers. And 96 percent of Tea Party supporters reported voting for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election.
Fully 84 percent of strong Tea Party supporters described themselves as conservative and 54 percent described themselves as very conservative while only 41 percent of all members of the public described themselves as conservative and only 20 percent described themselves as very conservative.
here's some fun with maps for the sake of comparison:
1964 Election returns by county:

Tea Party Membership per 10,000 (June 2010)

Throw out the Deep South results because of lack of voting rights in 1964.  

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Tea Party and Political Science

Hoover Institution senior fellow Peter Berkowitz put up something of a good argument in his October 16th Wall Street Journal column about liberals' fundamental misunderstanding of the Tea Party movement. By liberals, of course, he means a select few liberal pundits whose scribblings he takes as synecdoche for "vast numbers of other highly educated people" who agree with them. There is something to the idea, as he puts it, that
for the better part of two generations, the best political science departments have concentrated on equipping students with skills for performing empirical research and teaching mathematical models that purport to describe political affairs.
Left-of-center commentators have missed the best way to understand the political heart of the Tea Party movement: the central narrative of re-establishing the nation's "tradition" of "limited government" in the myriad of ways that desire had been expressed since last summer. The trappings of the Revolutionary War era, the language of "isms," the self-righteous and overtly revivalist spirit of its people-power rallies all point to a powerful, if intellectually shallow, attachment to an ideal of American national identity. Much of Political Science, and some parts of my own discipline of political history, are ill-equipped to take ideology seriously and to disentangle its strands. As for liberal pundits generally, I've harped on the Hofstadter fixation enough at this point.

For Berkowitz, the Tea Party carries on the vision of the Constitution as described in the Federalist Papers, an ideology Tea Partiers simply derive from the ether of American life since most of them haven't read the essays themselves. No bother, says Berkowitz, they love the Constitution and that's enough -- even if they haven't read the First Amendment very carefully.

There is something going on here, and it's not that the folky heroes of the Tea Party understand the Constitution better than Woodrow Wilson and generations of PolySci majors at elite institutions (the kind one might lie that one attended in the middle of a senatorial run, perhaps). What Wilson (PhD, Johns Hopkins, Political Science) and other progressives (and liberals since) understood about their political age is that limited government could no longer protect the individual liberties Tea Partiers claim to defend. Corporations, industry interests, and regionally-build party machines (i.e., the states) had broken American politics so thoroughly that concentrated wealth could threaten the liberty of all Americans anywhere. Monopoly, graft, greed could literally ruin the lives of individuals clear across the continent from centers of power. Government, through a more expansive reading of the Constitutional powers granted the legislative and executive branches, had to step in where the people were powerless. This was not statism: it was democracy, a word that saturated the Progressive Era and is almost meaningless in our own.

The brilliance of the modern conservative movement is not a rediscovery of the Constitution as much as a annihilation of the idea that the interests of private individuals and large concentrations of wealth are frequently at odds with one another. Conservative supporters of the Tea Party movement have pulled an even more impressive feat by getting most of the public, liberal pundits included, to forget that this modern conservatism now afoot isn't so modern even. As Sean Wilentz detailed in the New Yorker (an essay I'll get to later), the powerfully anti-government opinions of one Glenn Beck have been around since the late 1950s. Conservative corporate leaders' attempts to bring down the New Deal with an ideology of Constitutionally-mandated "limited government" are decades older, as Kim Phillips-Fein and Nancy Wall have tracked in their excellent books. Contemporary resistance to "the State" or "statism" or whatever ism once chooses to dollop on Obama on a poster has nothing to do with 1787 and everything to do with 1945, when Readers' Digest first published excepts of Road to Serfdom.

Whether or not the Tea Party is racist, or an astroturf movement, or a conspiracy fronted by the Koch brothers (and I suppose I would say yes to all three) is less important than why the bunch of recycled truisms its members have heard since their grade school days still have currency: that free enterprise alone drives prosperity, that the private sector is destroyed by taxes, that state services only make people lazy, and that government has no place in regulating the economy. They probably heard it when their moms and dads (or they) voted for Goldwater, or maybe Reagan. Why has the left allowed such obvious falsehoods and such modern political inventions to stand for timeless national tradition? Maybe Berkowitz is right -- because we've been building too many mathematical models and reading too many polls.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Paranoid Style Never Goes Out of Style

I risk beating a dead horse here, but it's still deflating to see Richard Hofstadter's "Paranoid Style in American Politics" cited over and over again by present-day pundits and writers. Yesterday on Salon, Laura Miller proclaimed that the essay "never seems to get old." The current up-swing in anti-Muslim sentiment, she writes, is another manifestation of the paranoia cycle Hofstadter describes. Journalist Will Bunch's new book on the Tea Party movement similarly relies on Hofstadter in its analysis of the movement's rank-and-file.

I am not dismissing "The Paranoid Style" as a piece of work -- it is an excellent essay. Furthermore, I admire its author a lot. Hofstadter was the kind of public intellectual that is rare today, unfortunately. But working historians moved beyond his psychologically-centered analysis of the Right decades ago. Why? First, the value of Freudian analysis has dimmed considerably in the humanities. Let's just leave that issue alone for now. More importantly, scholars like Hofstadter had a particular way of looking at American history that has fallen out of favor within the profession. He was among the "Consensus school" of historians of the 50s and early 60s who believed the country was on a historical path toward becoming an ever-more just, tolerant, and liberal society. Its recent triumph over fascism was a validation of that belief, and the nation's conflict with Communism would bear it out once again. What the right-wing anticommunist fringe of Hofstadter's era didn't appreciate was that Communism was dangerous to the nation only if it failed to live up to its liberal democratic ideals, enshrined in a post-New Deal political order. As the United States became a more equitable society, such conservatives lashed out at the process of leveling out of their own personal insecurities.

The problem with this mode of analysis, as scholars like Michael Rogin, Leo Ribuffo, Michael Kazin, Alan Brinkley, and a whole host of contemporary historians of post-1945 conservatism have pointed out, is its assumption that the nation truly is on a developmental arc in the first place, let alone a liberal democratic one.  It obscures powerful contra-narratives created by conservatives out of their own understanding of American history, which have co-existed with those of liberals for decades. These are the narratives about personal freedom, limited government, and human imperfection that the Tea Party or other hard-Right conservatives are tapping into to attack the Obama Administration. These narratives include tacitly (or actively) racist and classist interpretations of American history and individualism, echoes of the Reagan-era critique of Cadillac-driving Welfare Queens. But these narratives are constructed not out of anxiety, but from the impressions and personal experiences that form the world views of everyone, no matter their politics.

The reason to dispense with Hofstadter "status anxiety" crutch is because it encourages progressives to see the Tea Party and their ilk as freaks. They are not a spectacle at the end of the American political boardwalk for the rest of us (who know so much better) to gawk at. If we read American history from outside the friendly confines of the Consensus School, we discover something very different indeed about progressive or liberal values -- that the belief in racial and gender equality, economic justice, an active government that intervenes on behalf of individual rights and the greater good, and a social safety net are the outlier ideas through much of our existence. In many ways, we are the freaks.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Does America Need to Commemorate 9/11?

On Saturday, college football coaches whose schools have shoe contracts with German-based Adidas will don specially-designed shirts and hats featuring the Stars and Stripes to commemorate the 9th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Notre Dame, not to be undone, will also sport special patriotic logos on the back of players' helmets as they take on Michigan and its star-spangled coaching staff. The Cincinnati Reds, meanwhile, will commemorate the anniversary with a Navy SEAL team demonstration -- but only after honoring the anniversary of Pete Rose's record-breaking 4,192nd hit.

The folks at a local Lubbock, Texas bank decided to tone down their usual 9/11 tribute this year and will plant only 1,000 American flags in a local field instead of the usual 3,000 - approximately one for every victim of the attacks. "We wanted to get away from the sadness of a memorial and make it sort of a field where you can come and remember our loved ones, police officers, firefighters, veterans," a bank employee explained.

So that's where we are nine years later. While the gesture of burning books draws all the attention, the more mundane, if not outright militaristic commemorations continue on. So, too, do the claims and counterclaims of politicizing the anniversary, or sullying its memory by not politicizing it in just the right way through the requisite spirit of detached reverence.

Like the public commemorations of the attacks on Pearl Harbor in the 40s and 50s, the nation is compelled to make some public acknowledgment of enormous human losses. 9/11 shares with Pearl Harbor Day the sense as well of simmering revenge. Because the attacks were perpetrated by foreigners, it is a moment to reflect on what they did to us. In this way, the historical memory of 9/11, just like Pearl Harbor, has become inherently political. They could do this to us because people in charge failed in some way -- either to fully appreciate the strategic ramifications of the American oil embargo on Japan, or to apprehend an international criminal syndicate on a suicide mission. They became inherently political also as a rallying cry to avoid similar calamity the next time, even in vastly different international contexts with different foreign players.

But loss and revenge do not a patriotic holiday make. I couldn't even tell you the date of the Battle of Antietam or the sinking of the Maine. We remember the Alamo as a John Wayne movie. And we no longer commemorate Pearl Harbor Day. In due time, September 11th may become just one more historical factoid morning TV show anchors mention before kicking it over to the weather guy.

I actually want that to happen. No important message about national community will come out of Rich Rodriguez wearing a red-white-and-blue shirt. It will simply acknowledge that people died and other people are fighting because of it. Perhaps it will go a step further and celebrate heroic American manhood in the form of firefighters, cops, and soldiers, and oblige fellow citizens only to offer their ill-defined "support" for such figures. But these kinds of gestures, far from the scenes of the smoldering wreckage of that Tuesday morning, merely enable those who pour their own political meaning onto the day and appropriate the site of the World Trade Towers as a perverse hallowed ground -- a site too valuable to leave free of commercial redevelopment it must be acknowledged, as Jack Shafer brilliantly does. Most of America should just let it go.

Letting go will be especially hard for the New York City area (where I grew up) and DC (where I live now). Hundreds of people in my native Morris County, New Jersey, died in the attacks, and many people in the DC area knew Pentagon victims personally - like my wife's old youth soccer coach. I'll never forget watching F-15's circle over my girlfriend's (now wife's) apartment in Arlington at low altitude weeks later, guarding Washington from further attack. Nor will I forget the different meaning the American flags seemed to have on the overpasses and in people's yards in New Jersey than in central Virginia, where I was living at the time. The Jersey flags seemed so much more personal. They said "we are the America you attacked -- the lovers of a vibrant, brash, and heterogeneous megalopolis. And we are still here. And in our sorrow, we will endure." Elsewhere, the flag seemed so much more jingoistic, a flag-by-Toby Keith, "Let's Roll" banner. Still, even in the cities that suffered anger persists and will persist. In heading to the ATM machine in Providence two August ago I was surprised by the sign "Closed for Victory Day" on the door. The state of Rhode Island, its proud maritime tradition leading so many of its young men to watery graves in World War II, still commemorated the defeat of the Japanese. It did so, however, not on the day Japan surrendered but on the anniversary of the obliteration of Nagasaki. Some grudges last a long time.

As I was researching the commemoration of Armistice Day in the 1920s and 30s for my book, something an American Legionnaire in Iowa wrote about the day having a complicated meaning for veterans struck me in this vein of thought. He mentioned that for the veteran, Armistice Day had two meanings -- a public celebration of victory, and a more somber, personal, and private reflection on the comrades lost. The two could not be reconciled in a way the public would understand, at least in the American context of World War I in comparison to say, France, or Germany or Great Britain, whose losses were astronomically higher. Those personally affected by 9/11, even those who are simply natives to the metropolises attacked, probably feel the same way. Their local-level commemorations have an important meaning to their communities. Their dead remain absent. But the rehashed patriotism of the rest of the country does little any more to foster national unity and simply enables the further politicization of the event --as veterans of the Great War were careful to do themselves annually on November 11th.  

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

On Burning the Qu'ran

I hate controversies like the one surrounding that idiot's desire to violate the Gainsville, FL fire code on the anniversary of 9/11. Unsurprisingly, that idiot displayed cultish tendencies in his last attempt to explain the divine nature of the Universe, making his sudden prominence in America life all the more depressing. It's not every day somebody ministering to a congregation roughly the size of one of my old discussion sections figures out a way to get condemned by the Secretary of State, the US Attorney General, and a wartime theater commander. I just want this guy and his stupid Grover Cleveland mustache to go away.

By injecting himself into the national -- and now international -- consciousness, the good minister rekindles tired old debates. Muslims around the world get to probe once again the unfathomable depths of their victimhood at the hands of disrespecting westerners. Americans debate whether such a fiery gesture is consistent with their ever-shifting standards of First Amendment rights. Essentially, that question is a debate about civil liberties by proxy since only a tiny fraction of Americans really care about the thing getting burned, unlike other objects like like the American Flag or the Bible. (Perhaps this is an inopportune time to recall Secretary Clinton's campaign-season support for the flag-burning amendment.) The rest of us can battle over the depths of our outrage over this affront to the nation's poorly-understood tradition of religious tolerance.

Some Americans don't feel outrage as much as smug satisfaction, pointing out that the act of burning the Qu'ran in many countries, even European ones, would be a criminal offense --never mind that the United States, too, has a long history of blasphemy law. Other conservatives have opposed to burning not because it will increase the very real threat of violence against Americans overseas but rather because it will heighten the very unlikely risk the nation faces from advocates of sharia law here.

It's true, conservative politicians so eager to condemn the "9/11 Mosque" have been reticent on the Qu'ran immolation. But let's not act so surprised. One of their media darlings just channeled Billy Graham, circa 1952, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, calling on America to return to a Judeo-Christian god that dispenses their natural rights. I've written before about how Newt Gingrich and Jim DeMint have said the exact same thing, a sentiment that has echoed through the conservative movement since before the Goldwater campaign of '64. This idea is not any less of a politicization of religion than sharia. Each sees human nature as inherently corrupt and try to limit individual behavior according in their own way. While differences in culture in our modern era make these limits remarkably dissimilar, the world view is nearly identical: a special relationship between god and man determined through a prophetic intermediary. Each see themselves as the one true faith, as a message that must conquer the world, and this verisimilitude drives the conflict of those obsessed with their own righteousness. For Christian conservatives, Islam is "of the devil" rather than Buddhism or Hinduism because it is on the same mission and it seems unencumbered by methods Christianity abandoned centuries ago -- because of the very same values they now say are theological in nature. The debate we should be having is not how to add one more religious faith into the national tolerance hopper but whether a divine conception of rights and obligations in any form are useful at all.  

When blue-collar pride became identity politics

When blue-collar pride became identity politics

Read past the book summary to Joan Walsh's conversation with Cornell labor historian Jefferson Cowie, which is very interesting.

Fun Fact! I was once on a conference panel with Professor Cowie. My paper was described by the panel chair -- one of the fathers of labor history -- as "plausible."

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Murfreesboro Mosque

The resistance to the expansion of a Islamic community center in Murfreesboro is turning more sinister and has gained more national attention accordingly. During the weekend someone set fire to construction equipment outside the center and fired shots in its vicinity. Last night, members of the community held a candlelight vigil in response, which, too was challenged by anti-mosque protesters.

Mosque opponents have reached a particular critical mass in our culture: Daily Show interviews.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Tennessee No Evil
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Skip to about half-way for the Murfreesboro part (although the rest is funny enough to watch, too-- but it's about the NYC controversy). The comments of the anti-mosque leader are obviously disturbing, even just for the simple reason that reveals there are adults out there who don't know what I used to tell my students every semester: you can't trust everything you google. It's easy to laugh at these kinds of folks. At the level of serious commentary, it's also easy to dismiss them a part of an anxiety-ridden majority that is slowly seeing its dominance melt away and is digging in its heels.

I don't think either is particularly useful in getting at the heart of the matter, or in answering the question of "why middle Tennessee?" Having lived in the Volunteer State for a time and having thought about this kind of activity as a historian, here are my impressions.

As a preamble: I spent a weekend in Murfreesboro when UVa played at Middle Tennessee State for some strange reason several football seasons ago (and a game we really should have lost...but anway...). It's not worth a return trip.

With that out of the way, the fire at the mosque was not terrorism: it was vigilantism. By that, I mean it was an example of extra-legal enforcement of the community's cultural norms where the rule of law traditionally failed. The board that approved the expansion would have no constitutional leg to stand on to oppose it, so the arsonists are defending the community through alternative means. This kind of stuff used to happen quite a lot and for a variety of reasons in the early 20th century. The gunfire is terrorism, in that it is designed to cow the Muslim community into submission.

I raise this distinction because how people think about their local community are the most useful way to understand these incidents. This perspective is important because this episode is not as cut-and-dried as reactionary yokels vs. new immigrants with a strange faith. For example, I had assumed myself that Murfreesboro was in Marsha Blackburn's Congressional district. It's not. It's in Al Gore's old district and hasn't had a Republican represent it in Congress since 1983. But it does have lots and lots of churches.

View Larger Map

When I lived in Memphis one of the first things people would ask in a dinner party situation was where I went to church. It was usually the second question, right after where in town we lived, and was only asked if the conversation survived the revelation that we resided in the middle of downtown -- a concept so alien and undesirable to most native Memphians that it usually halted any desire for further interaction. The religion question, of course, was no less awkward because I haven't been a church attendant since middle school. People would often then invite us to attend their church, assuming that we just hadn't found one we liked. While for me that was true in a way, the invitation was a way to be neighborly and not nosy. More than half of Tennesseans are evangelical Christians, and more than 7 out of 10 told the Pew Research Center's survey efforts that religion was "very important" in their lives. What this meant was less about religious dogma and more about community. Church was the center of most people's social lives and most of the lives of the friends I made there. Every year "in church" finished first in the free newspaper's best-of poll for best place for singles to meet.

Memphis at least is a pretty big city with other stuff to do. In Murfreesboro, church is probably all that more central as a social outlet a center of community life. Church membership is also socially isolating. So people who oppose the Muslim community center's expansion understand one part of its desires -- to continue to have the faith community be central to its members' lives. But they have no idea what actually goes on within that community. While they probably have an idea what the Episcopalians down the street are up to, they have to use the google machine to understand anything at all about Islam. Understanding their own church as an insular community with shared beliefs they see the Muslim community in the same way, but believe it subscribes to a single, radical form of Islam that dominates the entire religion.

This kind of scenario is exactly why those of us who rejected the language of a "global war on terror" did so: it leveled differences within an enormously complicated faith tradition and makes the local struggle the equivalent of the worldwide one. People in Murfreesboro think they're fighting jihadis like the Marines in Kandahar. Of course, those not actively resisting mosques see it another way: as a debate between the tolerant and the intolerant. But the protesters in Tennessee or elsewhere do not think they are fighting for intolerance, and elevating the conversation to the level of civil liberties is really a waste of time.

Link: Pregnant Devil at the Beck Rally? Yep.

Sorry, blog fans, for the posting delay. I was cranking out the last of my book manuscript edits this month and can gladly say I've put that behind me (until the series editors get a hold of it at least).

I did not get to the Beck god-a-thon last weekend. But these guys did. Bravo.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Douthat Part Deux

Ross Douthat, did you read my blog? Your recent blog entry offered the kind of nuanced and more historically-accurate account of the history of Americans' assimilationist impulses I wanted from your column Monday. What you write there is so much more interesting and better formed I wonder why you didn't just go with it in the first place instead of the two Americas "conceit." The Catholic-Muslim parallel is a much more interesting (and appropriate) conceit if Times columnists feel the need to employ one.

Bravo for this recovery:

It would be nice, obviously, if you could draw a bright line between benighted exclusionists and enlightened assimilationists in American history. But the record doesn’t really support that kind of line-drawing. The two tendencies can be separated, and sometimes were. But they just as often coexisted in the same movements and institutions — and in the same human hearts.
But this is exactly why modern-day progressives are nervous when conservatives speak of assimilation. For starters, the assimilationist ethos -- even among the "enlightened -- was saturated in the now-outmoded racial theories of the past. One very well could be a racist in the sense that one believed racial categories were real and classifiable and explained differences between social groups and be an assimilationist, or even reject immigration restriction on nativist grounds. Forgive contemporary progressives for their skepticism over whether elements of American conservatism have moved beyond such perspectives.

Second, assimilation was and remains an idea imposed upon immigrant groups. As such, it was inherently coercive. In explaining to newcomers how to become "American," the Americanizers worked their political and social values into their lessons. While the worry that new immigrants will join the Wobblies has passed, concern that they will become terrorists obviously has not. But lest we forget the McVeighs and Rudolphs of the nation's recent past, demanding that some immigrants demonstrate their loyalty fully before receiving full acceptance into the nation has limited bearing on our safety. With that in mind, what should modern-day Americanizers ask of immigrants? To abandon emotional, cultural, and political connections to their homeland, which was the original meaning of the metaphor of the Melting Pot? To resist the urge of bringing foreign perspectives on global affairs with them, or at least those that are not convenient for confronting our enemies and supporting our allies as in the Cold War? To shed the political and class solidarity found in their working-class ethnic communities? To refrain from joining any movement that advocates expanding the American social safety net, or else risk having one's ethnic group being ostracized as welfare hounds? 

Progressives' discomfort with the inherent chauvinism of assimilation has led then to develop no answer at all to what immigrants should be required to do to Americanize. They have essentially punted the question back to ethnic and religious organizations -- like the one under attack in lower Manhattan, or the Latino groups under fire from Arizona conservatives I've discussed before. As a result, the only consensus Americans have formed on the issue of assimilation is that immigrants should learn English, they can keep their hard-to-pronounce names, and they can keep their food (hooray for number three!). Progressives need to work harder on their end of the debate and explain, as Randolph Bourne tried in his "Trans-National America" essay so long ago, how immigrants can transform America for the better, rather than merely be transformed themselves. 

Finally, to champion Americanization is to ignore the ways in which immigrants themselves have chosen to assimilate to American life. Beginning with Oscar Handlin, the entire field of immigration history has been built on this exact narrative. The problem the Vatican had with democracy that Douthat cites is exactly this kind of story -- members of the clergy in the United States argued for the adaptation of some Church doctrines (including the superiority of the Catholic Church over Protestant sects) to fit the pluralistic and democratic American political culture of the late 19th century. Pope Leo XIII, in turn, condemned what was being called "Americanism" within the Church. It would seem that the same accommodation is taking place in most American mosques without Americanizers or nativists pounding on the door - and irrespective of the opinions of foreign imams.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Douthat's Two Americas

Good for Joan Walsh for cleaning Ross Douthat's clock on Salon today. His column in this morning's Times was Washington Post opinion page-quality stupid.

Walsh points out his most disturbing and glaring historical inaccuracy, and outright logical fallacy, in recalling the violent nativist/Know Nothing response to Catholic immigration in the 1800s. Let me pile on by pointing out that the "the two Americas" Douthat is writing about in terms of the nation's history of immigrant assimilation were really one America until the middle of the 20th century. By our modern standards, with the occasional exception of an individual like Horace Kallen, intolerance prevailed up to that point. The difference between camps was merely in degree. And there has been, in fact, very little tension between the "constitutional" and the "cultural" Americas he cites -- culture drove the constitutional conversation.

Or, to be more historically accurate, a cultural understanding derived from racism drove the constitutional. 1920s immigration laws weren't "draconian." They were racist. They were written from the perspective that race created culture and that Anglo Saxons, having the best genes, had the best culture and therefore were the most desirable potential Americans. Everyone else had to overcome the handicap of their racial identity demonstrably. I simply do not understand what Douthat sees that is usable in that past.

I think what he and other conservatives are calling for is not assimilation but the old spirit of "100 percent Americanism:" a demonstration of unquestioned loyalty according to the terms they set. These terms have to do with more than just bringing Islam up to speed with Western standards of individual rights -- a project, I must admit, I support (mainly because I believe such standards are truly secular in nature, unlike the Christian fanatics now so eager to bash Islam and ignore their own religion's sordid history on the matter). Conservatives also demand a forfeiture by Muslim immigrants of any political conception of the world that does not meet the demands of the post-9/11 national security state. They are simply not allowed to bring the perspectives of the nations they have left to bear on a conversation about the American projection of power in the world. This demand is just as damaging to the principles of American democracy as any interruption of the right to free exercise of religious faith. Douthat would be right to remember, too the America that threw German Americans into detention camps for not supporting a war against their homeland enough, or that beat them for not buying enough Liberty Bonds. Or the more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans whose disloyalty was perceived to be too great a risk not to strip of their rights, liberty, and property -- a position another commentator on that side of the aisle astoundingly has defended.

In our own time, to describe the United States as "an accessory to the crime" of 9/11 is wrong and offensive. But it is not the same as endorsing the act. But that doesn't matter to the America Douthat really wants us to live in, which would rather the person making that comment never participate in the conversation at all.

Making Sense of the "Ground Zero Mosque" Controversy: Religion, Assimilation, Countersubversion

Rather than wading into the question of whether or not the Cordoba House should get its building permit, I want to take a poke at understanding the reaction of those most stridently against its establishment. (Readers can gather from my previous scribblings about mosque construction that I would vote to approve the lower Manhattan project, although - for those who care about my personal opinions - my reaction to the controversy itself is more or less Hitchensesque.)

The most startling part of the Cordoba House controversy is the disproportional quality of conservative opponents' responses. These reactions, of course, were ginned up by the ultra-Right blogosphere and the Murdoch media empire in willful denial of the plain facts that, first, the building will not be a mosque, and second, that there is already a mosque four blocks from the World Trade Center site. Unfortunately, the controversy - now grown to the level of presidential comment - has also distracted from the fact that what's happening in Manhattan is going on all across the country

Some of the over-reaction has to do with conservatives' own view of Christianity. They are the driving force behind the 62 percent of Americans who view the United States as a "Christian Nation." Figures like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have been just as explicit in their opinions that national identity is wrapped up in Christianity, even if the latter feels no need to live up to his own religiosity in his personal life. While they may accept the principle of tolerance that allows those "peace-loving" muslims that Palin has tweeted about to practice their religion, this religiousized nationalism will always leave the Islamic community at the margins.

But conservatives' perception of Islam itself is much of the problem. The issue runs deeper than their mere ignorance of a major world faith. The understanding of Islam that conservatives are operating from fundamentally denies the possibility of its assimilation into American society. They have assumed this position because they are even more ignorant of the politics and history of Muslim nations than they are of the tenets of the faith. The religion and its affect on politics in many Middle Eastern nations have become inseparable to these conservatives. This is why Gingrich thinks it's relevant to insist that no mosque be built near Ground Zero before Saudi Arabia allows the construction of Christian churches. Islam to him and his conservative supporters is the House of Saud (or Hamas, or Hezbollah.) Despite the counterexamples offered by places like Indonesia, Turkey, and even Syria, Islam is shariah. As one mosque protester told the New York Times, “I do believe everybody has a right to freedom of religion. But Islam is not about a religion. It’s a political government, and it’s 100 percent against our Constitution.”

This view of a monolithic and oppressive ideological enemy of Liberal democratic values is strikingly similar to the way conservatives thought about Communism during the Cold War. The conservative approach to radical Islam broadly, from a declaration of war on the totalitarian ideology of "Islamofascism" to the opposition of cultural centers, is a lingering hangover of this era. Then, conservatives claimed the nation faced subversion by a dedicated minority that was loyal only to an international conspiracy. They argued that Communists simply used American civil liberties to shield their true destructive intent, and therefore deserved no Constitutional protection. Their key to securing the nation at home and abroad was constant exposure of Communists "true intentions" as a monolithic international conspiracy and unending confrontation with its proponents. Rejecting a mosque is to claim its parishioners cannot entirely be trusted and the threat of subversion or terrorism is too great to tolerate. An opponent of a mosque in Murfreesboro told the same Times reporter “A mosque is not just a place for worship. It’s a place where war is started, where commandments to do jihad start, where incitements against non-Muslims occur. It’s a place where ammunition was stored.”

Clearly, the exotic nature of Muslim immigrants to what Republicans euphemistically call "Mainstream Americans" exacerbates this overactive countersubversive imagination. The California grandmother the Times quoted worried that the nation will be overtaken by Muslims in the future because of immigrants' high birth rates, an interesting extrapolation because there are more Jehovah's Witnesses and Buddhists in America than Muslims (0.6 percent of the population). And one could argue that Catholics faced a similar conspiratorial barrier in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when more ignorant varieties of Protestants believed Catholic practitioners were loyal only to the Pope.

For those raised at the height of the Cold War, though, the conservative countersubversive imagination is ingrained in a political world view. We simply argue past them when we argue for tolerance. They would rather have the targets of their suspicion "refudiate" on the terms they set and claim represent the rest of us.

Mike Blake/Reuters, via New York Times

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Birthrates and Immigration

In 1921, a professor from Stanford University testified to a Congressional committee that by the year 2000 a majority of the population of California would be of Japanese heritage. He extrapolated this stunning conclusion from birthrate data, which showed a tremendously higher fertility rate among Japanese than the general population.

Perhaps standards for faculty hiring at Stanford University in its early years were shockingly low. What's more likely is this professor was simply lying with math to reach a preordained conclusion -- that he didn't like Japanese immigration. Obviously, old people don't typically embark on transoceanic emigration voyages, and the birthrate he cited was simply a product of the Japanese population being much younger than the rest.

Demographers at Pew, in releasing their findings that 8% of births in 2008 were by illegal immigrant mothers, dutifully made this point up front. But let's start the clock on how fast immigration opponents start spinning these figures to claim some demographic cataclysm is coming, or to prove that the 14th Amendment really does need revising.

Like internal migration within a country, immigration/emigration is about a search for resources and employment. Sure, some percentage of immigrants in the nation's past were fleeing oppressive regimes in their homelands -- my great-grandfather left Lithuania because the Russians were going to conscript him to fight the Japanese. Especially since the end of the Cold War, however, immigration policy has had little to do with a flight to freedom, which remains the domain of national refugee policy (and vice-versa, when it comes to the differences between Haitian and Cuban refugees, for example.) What we are essentially talking about when we talk about immigration is what to do with a particular, transnational labor pool.

Law professor Bill Ong Hing was totally right last week writing for Slate that the real solution to keeping the largest (Mexican) portion of this labor home is economic development in their home countries. It's what richer EU countries did, he notes, to stem emigration from nations like Greece and Portugal when they joined in the 1990s. And NAFTA's been a disaster for many working and farming Mexicans.

The reason we're still talking about birthrates and the 14th Amendment, though, is the same reason the professor's proposal has not a snowball's chance in hell of going anywhere. If conservatives have a problem giving WIC cards or even public school education to the children of illegal immigrants on the grounds that it's redistributing resources to people who don't deserve it, how are they going to feel about giving away the billions it would take to boost the Mexican economy?

An issue like immigrant birthrate is illuminating because it's fundamentally a visceral one. Those squeamish about the racial diversification of the country imagine "they are making more of them." How far the Republican leadership at the national, state, and local level will want to run with this issue will be telling because of all the angles of attack on the illegal immigration problem, this is the one that closest to outright white supremacy.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

On UN Plots

I, like 99.9% of historians, am not one of those "history repeats itself" people. But literally last night I was writing about how members of the American Legion in the 1950s declared educational materials from UNESCO to be a one-world government and/or Communist plot. One of the main proponents of this stance thought the Girl Scouts were passing out subversive literature because it said something vaguely internationalist. And he got the Illinois Department to pass a resolution saying so.

So then today I read that Tea Party/GOP candidate for governor in Colorado thinks a Denver bike share program is a UN plot to subvert the US Constitution and our freedom. (Well, the bikes are RED.)

Please, just stop.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Links: Crushing It

From the "stuff I think is awesome and blog-related" category...

This guy is my new hero for his idea of "Burn a Confederate Flag Day" to coincide with the Tea Party/Glen Beck 9/12 shenanigans. Simply put, cojones.

You might have read this already, but if you haven't William Saletan absolutely crushes GOP opposition to the "Ground Zero" mosque.

Hey Republicans, On Immigration, Why Stop at the 14th Amendment?

The so-called "anchor baby" issue in Arizona state politics has metastasized, entering the halls of the Senate. Republicans Jon Kyl and Lindsey Graham have called for a repeal of the 14 Amendment's provision that automatically grants US citizenship to anyone born in the country. As TalkingPointsMemo lays out, they have plenty of company within GOP ranks in supporting this idea. Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell signed on as well to at least examining the proposal.

As I've mentioned here before, the idea of revoking the automatic citizenship portion of the 14th Amendment is not new. Conservatives in the 1920s argued for doing the same to deny the Japanese "anchor babies" of the day their citizenship. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor they also pushed for the deportation of those same citizens of Japanese heritage along with their "alien" parents at the conclusion of World War II. Their arguments weren't much different then as now. Japanese immigrants and their "alien citizen" progeny unfairly sucked up American resources (in this case, land and agricultural markets, not welfare) and they were a potential security risk (one GOP Congressman has suggested that Islamic terrorists may use "anchor babies" as 20-year sleeper agents. Really.)

Given this, long (if not, in its own way, proud) heritage, why not push beyond repealing part of the 14th Amendment? The GOP should consider repealing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which gave Japanese-Americans reparations (reparations!) for property lost during their internment in World War II. If Japanese immigrants had those kids simply to stay in the country, which was necessary because after early-1920s Supreme Court decisions they themselves were not eligible for naturalization, then why reward those anchor babies with taxpayer money? Repealing the Civil Liberties Act would also take back the nation's apology for racial profiling on the grandest and most grotesque scale, which, of course by superior logic of Arizona politicians, wasn't really racial profiling at all.

The GOP could also add a plank to its national platform commemorating the deportation of 400,000 Mexicans from the Southwest during the Great Depression to give their jobs to hard-working Okies. That half of those deported were US citizens is immaterial: the larger point is the federal government acted to secure the border for Americans' economic opportunity.

The Republican Party could call for a federal investigation of anyone whose ancestors immigrated to the United States after 1924, the first time actual paper documentation was required of Europeans to enter the country as an immigrant legally, to ensure generations of anchor babies have not unfairly received citizenship because of their ancestors' fraud.

With enforcement of the 14th Amendment out of the way, the Republican Party could advocate a return to the jurisprudence of the Ozawa (1922) and Thind (1923) cases, which restored the Founding Fathers' vision of immigration and citizenship to something of their original intent and forbade naturalization of any non-whites. If we should be so concerned with the original intent of the framers of the 14th Amendment, why not go all the way back with originalism and restore the Naturalization Act of 1790? That will certainly play to the Tea Party crowd in more ways than one. 


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Links-a-go-go: Palin and Democracy, Old White People v. Everybody Else

I need to bear down on book editing this week so my bloggy thoughts will consist mainly of a few grunts toward interesting things I've read. There's a coherence to be found somewhere in these meanderings.

Palin as Democracy's Antimatter 
Maybe Salon should go back to selling subscriptions. Blogger Ned Resnikoff writes that progressives (or, anyone with half a brain) should worry about a Sarah Palin 2012 nomination, not cheer for it. Because Saint Sarah will only excite (and certainly not refutiate) right-wing violence, a Palin presidential campaign is too dangerous for democracy to handle. Because:
democracy, after all, must be founded on broad consensus regarding certain social norms. That does not mean that there is no room for disagreement over policy and philosophy within that broad framework -- indeed, that is an obvious feature, not a bug, of representative democracy -- but that these disagreements, no matter how fervent and profound they may become, must take place between parties that share a mutual commitment to the liberal democratic system
 Ever heard of Barry Goldwater? The Southern wing of the Democratic Party? George Wallace?

If we're talking consensus on social norms as in not shooting people during elections, we've more or less had that under wraps since Reconstruction. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates is Awesome
Speaking of the search for consensus, or even reasonable conversation, here's some great writing on the subject re: race. Getting people just to listen is so damn hard.

Old White America v. Young Diverse America
Coates, in his awesomeness, links to a similarly awesome piece in the National Journal that describes the looming "cultural generation gap" rising between White, conservative Baby Boomers and the generation of Americans under 18 who are the most diverse in the nation's history. Citing terrific work being done at Brookings, Ron Brownstein writes about how the interests of young minority populations, now the majority of people under 18 in many states, are clashing with the political ideologies of Boomers raised in all-white suburbs.

As Brownstein points out, this clash is much bigger than race. It also involves the ways that the experience of growing up in the 1950s and 60s formed Boomers' political consciousness.

Speaking of Generational Insularity...
Look no further for the cultural generation gap than conservatives' recent reactions to mosques. Although it was approved by a planning board with only one dissenting vote, conservatives have taken aim at a mosque and cultural center that will be built two blocks from the World Trade Center cite. Palin's "refudiate" tweet, along with Newt Gingrich's similar criticism, were latecomers to the Islam-bashing bandwagon and a community center whose stated goal is to model the radical epicenter of hate, the 92nd Street Y. 

Over in Staten Island, the proposed sale of a former convent for construction of a mosque I blogged about previously was turned down by a Catholic board of trustees.

In Tennessee, Lt. Governor and gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey didn't stop at criticizing a proposed Muslim community center in Murfreesboro (which already has a mosque).  He called the world's second-largest religion a cult (go to the 3:10 mark).

In the buckle of the Bible Belt, it's a safe assumption that folks like Ramsey have never met a Muslim, let alone know anything about the tenets of the religion. [Having been to Murfreesboro, the nicest thing I can say about it is it has a Hardees.] That the same sentiment about Islam publicly thrives in cosmopolitan New York City, however, demonstrates that age and personal history can be just as isolating as geography.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Unemployment Benefits and the American Standard of Living

The debate about extending unemployment insurance benefits another time is coming to a head in Congress. So far, fiscal issues have driven the argument because Republicans have resisted on the grounds that unemployment benefits will add to the deficit. The battle over whether or not to offset the cost of benefits with other spending cuts or tax increases seems to be pretty economically one-sided, so Republicans have resorted to calling the unemployed lazy. Advantage: Democrats.

One thing I haven't seen in the debate, however, is an invocation of how this issue would have been framed a half-century ago. It may be useful for Democrats to revisit that era. A consensus emerged after World War II that there was such a thing as an "American standard of living," tied very closely ideologically and rhetorically to an "American way of life" that the nation had just fought to defend. It was government's role, liberals argued, to preserve that standard of living for all citizens. Pro-growth policies were part of that. But so was a social safety net, which ensured that in such an affluent society the unlucky didn't have to suffer unduly. It became part of your rights as a citizen not to lose everything during economic hard times, as was the case for so many during the Depression. Lifting people up to that American standard of living was the central ethos of the Great Society and the welfare system it expanded.

While that idea of government intervening to lift people out of poverty as part of the wages of their citizenship is a much tougher political sell now days, protecting their standard of living if they were gainfully employed and are no longer should not be. Perhaps resurrecting this old liberal language would be another way to hold the advocates of an "ownership society" to the fires of their own economic disaster.

Links-a-go-go: The Paranoid style found in a strange place; far-right worldview v. GOP street sense

Two links worth checking out from yesterday if you missed them that got me thinking:

Ross Douthat argued that working-class white kids from the flyover states not getting into Ivy League colleges breeds the kind of paranoia that fuels right-wing conspiracy theories about Obama's heritage, socialist takeovers, open borders, etc. 

He makes a pretty fair point that:
Among the highly educated and liberal, meanwhile, the lack of contact with rural, working-class America generates all sorts of wild anxieties about what’s being plotted in the heartland. In the Bush years, liberals fretted about a looming evangelical theocracy. In the age of the Tea Parties, they see crypto-Klansmen and budding Timothy McVeighs everywhere they look.
 But I would venture that there are plenty of highly-educated, elite conservatives (perhaps employed by the New York Times) who have little contact with those same rural, working-class volk resentful of being left off the East Coast meritocratic escalator. Taking up the cause -- a perfectly noble one, I agree -- of a couple of hundred kids shut out of Harvard or Princeton seems like an elaborate way to do what Douthat really wants to do, which is disavow the worldview of the right fringe of the conservative movement as a product of psychological reactions. Condescension is not exclusive intellectual property of liberals.

Over at the New Republic, Jonathan Chait provides a really interesting examination of the tension between the tactical and ideological parts of the GOP brain during this election cycle. It's a great question he's asking: why is the Republican Party choosing far-right candidates and making elections unwinnable rather than running garden-variety conservatives and cleaning Democrats' clocks. Maybe someday we'll get the definitive insider story of the battle between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party fringe - Chait's analysis should suffice for now.

One thing that stuck out to me in the context of my blog that he wrote: "Obviously the conservative movement is intoxicated with hubris right now. Part of this hubris is their belief that the American people are truly and deeply on their side and that the last two elections were either a fluke or the product of a GOP that was too centrist." Bingo. But isn't that hubris connected to a larger worldview about who the "American people" really are and what their historical destiny is? Since the primary system we have can exaggerate the influence of ideologically-driven groups, cracking the mind of the ideological radical seems the key to understanding GOP2010.  

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Utah Illegal Immigrant List -- Echoes of 1919

Vigilantism sometimes can arrive via a keyboard. A group in Utah called the Concerned Citizens of the United States sent a list of 1,300 names of suspected illegal immigrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices and to Salt Lake City newspapers and TV stations. It demanded that the persons on the list be deported immediately. Because the list also included personal information like addresses, phone numbers, and women's pregnancies media outlets have refused the group's request to publish the list.

Concerned Citizens of the United States has offered little to identify itself beyond the anonymous cover letter that accompanied the list. In the letter, its members assert that they not a militia, a cult, or a terrorist organization. "We are not violent nor do we support violence. We love our country. We love our state. We love our government. We love our Constitution." They decry, meanwhile, the "degradation of our country and our state caused in part by the continuing presence of illegal aliens who are allowed to stay in our country."

Part of the degradation Concerned Citizens of the United States cites is the perceived rise in crime, alcoholism, and drug abuse for which it holds illegal immigrants responsible. More forcefully, though, it decries the fact that illegal immigrants have come exclusively to "take advantage of our system" and sop up welfare benefits, free public education, and of course jobs.

In so doing, Concerned Citizens demonstrates the vigilante imagination. With the state unwilling or incapable to enforce law, they have taken it upon themselves to do so. They envision themselves as the bulwarks of law and order. Meanwhile, their targets become something other than desperate people taking a risk for a better life: rather they are a criminal conspiracy made up entirely of individuals intent on gaming the system. Everyone on the list is guilty not only of an illegal border crossing but a particular frame of mind. And that frame of mind makes them unassimilable.

Similar lists were complied after World War I of "alien slackers," or those immigrants who had supposedly took unfair advantage American conscription and naturalization laws to avoid military service. Alien slackers drew the ire of similar vigilante groups because they, too, had gamed the system -- filing naturalization papers in order to remain in the country to work but not filing for the draft to remain on the job. Self-appointed native-born patriots like the American Legion collected lists of alien slackers and sent them to local newspapers, so that employers would feel compelled to promptly fire the men named. In the economic downturn that followed World War I, the jobs that alien slackers supposedly occupied were precious. Unlike today, these lists were published, either by newspapers or by organizations themselves.

Just as Concerned Citizens of the United States didn't feel compelled to compile a list of native-born citizens of Utah guilty of tax evasion, those publicizing alien slackers did not reveal the names of American-born draft dodgers (who, some historians now estimate, represented about one in ten eligible men). And, of course, the accuracy of either list is suspect.
I raise this historical parallel not simply to say "same as it ever was," but because it's striking how consistent the vigilante imagination remains, even after vigilantism itself has fallen well out of favor. This narrative that claims that "we" the pure must defend a weak or incompetent state from "them," the inherently criminal is among the most insidious ideas in American political culture. It is so not simply because it calls for the deportation of those guilty of breaking American immigration law (and surely the list contains at least some of those), but because it destroys a capacity to perceive immigration through the context and contingencies of millions of individual lives. 

Monday, July 12, 2010

"One Nation" or, Why the Right can Unify and the Left Cannot

Spooked by the Tea Party, a coalition of progressive, labor, and civil rights groups have founded their own umbrella organization called "One Nation," as the Washington Post reported today. The coalition is designed to unite the disparate agendas of the Left for the midterm election battle and to hold the Obama Administration to its progressive campaign promises.

Apparently, even coming up with a name like "One Nation" took some heavy lifting. It gives just a subtle whiff of a national rallying cry -- and, unfortunately, echoes unintentionally the name of a right-wing nationalist party in Australia. The challenge of uniting the American Left around an activist or electoral agenda has a history as deep as the emergence of the labor movement in the late 19th century. The United States has no labor party for a reason. The periodic assembling of the armies of reform has a similar history -- pick your favorite Progressive Party, for instance.

Putting aside the potential for success or failure of this latest round of coalition building, the explicitly antipodal nature of the One Nation effort in response to the Tea Party demonstrates some interesting differences in the political imaginations of the left and right. One of the most striking things about the Tea Party is its invocation of representing "the people." What holds it together is less an ideology (at least one that can be broken down into bullet points) than a feeling of community. The "We" is less about people interested only in gun rights, or taxes, or immigration but in restoring the political primacy of a particular kind of American -- suburban or rural, middle or lower-middle class, white, non-mainline Protestant.

Americans on the Left find their community in a more fractured. They gather around particular issues with similarly impassioned activists. Environmentalists or free speech advocates or those looking to Save Darfur may all think and act the same way in the election booth, but they are not good at thinking collectively as a "we." I found this to be true even on the local level of left-of-center politics during my graduate student days. We were trying to organize a response of students to the Daisy Lundy hate crime incident and the usual cast of characters assembled to talk strategy. The kid from the Living Wage campaign insisted that his cause was fundamental to racial harmony and should be made a priority of the response. We tried not to slap our hands to our foreheads.

Why the modern Left is so bad at claiming it speaks for the best interests of the nation, or that its political tradition represents the best of American democracy is a question too big for a Monday morning blog post. It would rather invite people to its cause to defend the specificity of their needs and wants (good wages, equal opportunity, gender equality) than to be heard as the "real" America or as "the people." Meanwhile, the Right drifts from the specific to the general and generates if not grassroots energy than at least disproportionate media attention. We don't need to start a Talmudic study of the 14th Amendment or the Civil Rights Act to counterbalance the Tea Party's nationalistic embrace of the Constitution. But, as the Obama campaign so grandly demonstrated (and the Hillary campaign did not), something more evocative would help.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Blog news

A variety of events kept me away from blogging two weeks ago and this past week I just wasn't feeling the writing mojo, so forgive the long hiatus. Fresh content is coming up shortly.

I've also asked my friend and fellow historian Chris Loomis to join me in writing the blog. Chris and I share an interest in the history of citizenship and civic engagement but he comes at it from a focus on media, so he'll provide a fresh perspective. He'll also provide damn good writing, which is the more important thing. I'll leave it to him to introduce himself further. 

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Fun with LexisNexis -- searching historians

Suburban Warriors is one of my favorite books on the history of post-1945 American conservatism. It's author, Lisa McGirr, does a fantastic job disentangling the strands of thought and lived experiences that shaped the worldview of Orange County conservatives as they rose to prominence within the national GOP. This approach, which I've tried to mirror in my own academic work on the similarly-conservative American Legion, breaks with the "paranoid style" model of McCarthy-era scholarship best championed by historian Richard Hofstadter. So Suburban Warriors would be a good jumping-off point for anyone writing about the Tea Party movement.

So I plugged "Lisa McGirr" into a LexisNexis news search. Four measly hits came back. And it's not like McGirr is hard to find for a quote -- she's on the Harvard faculty. Hofstadter returned over 300 hits from the last five years. Off the top of my head I can remember three different New York Times editorial writers who have raised his name. Which is fine and good -- his work is brilliant. But it's been out of favor for at least 15 years now among historians, and new work is much more useful to understanding what's going on in the Right today.

I don't mean to pick on McGirr, or particular journalists and columnists. The same exercise could be done for any number of historians on any number of issues with similar results (searching Mae Ngai and illegal immigration, for instance, returned a similarly paltry hit total). Certainly the laziness of some journalists has a role to play here, as does the poor job scholars generally do in getting their work exposed to wider audiences. But historians within the academe as a group are coming very close to disengaging with the general public altogether. While it is intellectually uncomfortable for almost all historians to analogize the present with the past, most people are perfectly willing to do so. There seems to be a limitless supply of historical antecedents for the Tea Party for writers to reference, without fear of correction of people who know a thing or two about the politics of the past. Historians don't need to be cops walking an intellectual beat, but they can be more aggressive about joining the conversation. Those conversations right now take place all too often among ourselves.

The extreme pressures on the academic job market are only making this disengagement problem worse. Young scholars write books not for a broadly-conceived audience but for a hiring committee, who will respond best to writing that engages the existing scholarly literature and carves out its own niche within it. This kind of enterprise was not the reason I went to grad school, and partially explains why it took me longer than it should have to finish my dissertation. Most historians create work for each other and for themselves. We can and should be more useful than that -- especially since most of us who have PhDs will find ourselves on the outside of the ivory tower looking in, just like everyone else.