Political Tribalism

July 24, 2018 § 2 Comments

There has been a lot of hand-wringing about the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.  This began the night of the election and shows no signs of abating.  The current issue of Foreign Affairs, the august publication dedicated to the impact of the world on the US and vice versa, is dedicated to unraveling this question from the point-of-view of foreign affairs and policy.

In the issue is an article from Amy Chua, John M. Duff, Jr., Professor of Law at Yale, adapted from her new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations.  In it, Chua argues that tribalism explains not just messy American involvements in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but Trump.  In the case of those three messy wars, she notes that American policy makers failed to recognize questions of ethnic or national identity in those three countries, hence the quagmires.  Her argument is compelling and well argued.

But when it comes to Trump, it seems to me she is on much shakier ground.  She argues that tribalism is what led to white voters to elect him.  She notes that the white majority in the United States is shrinking and Trump capitalized on that.  So far, so good.  She goes on to discuss classism and the plight of the (white) poor in the country.  Again, so far, so good. But it’s when she gets into unpacking this argument, I begin to wonder about it.

She argues, as many others have, that due to the widening gulf between rich and poor, it is now harder for the poor to escape poverty and attain middle class standing.  I have yet to see compelling data on this (though it is entirely possible it exists).  But, allow me to be the historian here and point out that this so-called American Dream is more a dream than a reality.  The United States, like any other culture or nation, is based on inequality.  And it has been since the birth of the patriot movement in Boston in the early 1770s.  In those days, the élites of the city used the working classes to engage with the British, from the Boston Massacre to the outbreak of violence.  As with all other armies in history, the infantry of George Washington’s nascent Continental Army was from the lower reaches of society (for a very good analysis of the plight of the white poor in American history, you can do worse than Nancy Izenberg’s White Trash).

Inequality has always been the norm here, and it remains so today.  Sociologists and political analysts have been wringing their hands over the white working classes and the white poor who voted for Trump in various parts of the nation (together with continuing with the canard that Hillary Clinton did not visit key parts of the country where such folk live).  But the white working classes and the poor have been here for a long time.  I lived in Appalachia in Tennessee when Trump was elected.  My neighbours voted for him, as they voted for Republicans in 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000, and 1996 (it is possible they voted for their fellow Southerner Bill Clinton in 1992) and before that too.  The people where I lived were poor then, too, and they were poor when they helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, too.  And so on.

Chua argues, though, that tribalism is emerging amongst the white working classes and the poor.  But, my historian’s training tells me this is nothing new, either.  In fact, this was how the planter élite in the antebellum and Civil War South convinced the poor white farmers that ethnic/racial lines mattered more than class lines.  The historian Noel Ignatiev argued in 1997 in his ridiculous How the Irish Became White that had the Irish, the most downtrodden of the downtrodden white people in the antebellum United States pitched their lot with African Americans, then slavery would’ve ended a generation or two earlier.  There is no universe I can see where that would’ve happened.  The Irish were never going to cast their lot with African Americans in the United States, in the North, the black population was their closest economic rival.  In Canada, it was the French Canadians with whom the Irish shared the lowest rung of the ladder.  And the Irish and French Canadians did fight, literally.  But they also intermarried and socialized together.  But, of course, in the antebellum North, so did the Irish and free black populations, from both vicious racial attacks in Manhattan’s Five Points by the Irish, to intermarriage and socialization.

But the larger point is that the way in which capitalism is organized is to exploit differences and tribalism at base levels.  In other words, the second lowest group on a totem pole is never going to side with the group below it.  That’s not how it works.  And in the United States, as David Roediger argued, questions of whiteness were exploited by the capitalists and planter class to get the poor people to authenticate a form of shared whiteness.  Roediger made the argument that what sociologists called ‘ethnic brokers’ encouraged the white working classes (a large segment of which was Irish) to side with their (white) social betters against African Americans.

In other words, what Chua is identifying is not new.  Tribalism on the part of the white working classes was part and parcel of the American experience in the 19th century, and it was in the 20th, too.  And not just in the example of the Ku Klux Klan.  The Klan, of course, in all of its manifestations, may have been led by élites, but it was the poor and the working classes and farmers who engaged in the racist behaviour and violence (with some help, of course).  But the white working-, middle-, and poor classes during the Civil Rights Era were the resistance to the work of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and others.

So, ultimately, Chua’s argument (at least in the Foreign Affairs August issue, I haven’t read her new book yet) falls on its face here.  Identifying an old standing behaviour and calling it new and exceptional to explain something surprising does not hold water.

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#FakeNews, Memes, and US History

September 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

Sometimes I think that memes are going to be the undoing of all of us.  They tend towards the stupid.  I have written of this before, here and here.  This weekend on Facebook, I came across this meme:

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And once more we have a stupid meme.  The quotation from Lincoln is out of context, and it would appear that Robert E. Lee never said this.  Let’s start with Lincoln.

The quotation here comes from a letter he wrote to the prominent New York City abolitionist Horace Greeley, on 22 August 1862.  Lincoln wrote to Greeley in response to the latter’s editorial in his influential New York Tribune, calling for the emancipation of the Confederacy’s slaves immediately. Here is the full text of that letter:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, August 22, 1862.

Hon. Horace Greeley:
Dear Sir.

I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.

As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

Yours,
A. Lincoln.

In other words, for Lincoln, his primary duty was to uphold the Union.  And, as any American historian will tell you, every action he took during his presidency was directed at exactly that goal.  Slavery was not an issue for the Union, it was not why it went to war.  That, of course, changed on 1 January 1863 when Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation came into effect.

As for Robert E. Lee, there is no evidence whatsoever he said this.  It is most likely that this fake quote is a mangling of something he did say or write, but I even have my doubts about that.

Lee, of course, was the the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia for the Confederate States of America, a failed statelet that existed from 1861-65.  During its short lifespan, the CSA did not gain the official recognition of any other state.  And it ended with the massive defeat of the Confederacy’s army.  At any rate, Lee fought to preserve slavery.  Full stop.

Slavery was the primary reason for the secession for each and every of the Confederate states.  It was also the primary reason for the existence of the Confederacy.  Not states’ rights. Not taxation.  Slavery.  And this was what Robert E. Lee fought to preserve.

So even IF this line from Lincoln could be extrapolated to mean something, and even IF Robert E. Lee said what this meme claims, it is irrelevant.  One man ultimately ended slavery, the other fought to preserve it.

But, the meme is not correct.  It is FAKE NEWS.

Do Not Make Hatred Mainstream, or, Don’t Feed the Trolls

November 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

Donald Trump is the first man elected President of the United States with the support of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups since, well, before the Civil War (Andrew Johnson was elected Vice-President, but he did so as Lincoln’s junior partner and after taking a hard-line against Confederates, which he later walked away from). I refuse to call these people the alt-right. They’re not. They’re white supremacists.

But in the wake of Trump’s election, the media has been bending and tripping over itself to normalize white supremacy.  Perhaps those in the media behind this would claim that they’re just attempting to understand.  But there is nothing to understand. White supremacy is pretty bloody obvious.  There is no need to explain it differently, it is deeply offensive to let members attempt to explain themselves and argue for the justness of their cause in public.  There is no justness of their cause.

I came of age in the early 90s, when racist skinheads could still be found wandering around Canadian cities like Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal.  There, they beat on black people, harassed and intimidated non-white people, targeted LGBTQ people.  Violently.  And since that era, white supremacy has faded into the background, usually affiliated with violent racist fringe groups.

Until now.  President-Elect Trump has appointed Steve Bannon, an anti-Semitic, misogynist white supremacist as his Chief Counsel.  And much of the so-called liberal media in the United States has attempted to normalize it, like this is just a run-of-the-mill appointment.

But it gets worse.  Starting the morning after the election, on November 10, NPR was interviewing white supremacists on Morning Edition, as if that was to be expected.  The New York Times has alternated between shaming the incoming administration for its ties to white supremacists and normalizing those same ties.  The BBC has allowed the editor of The Weekly Standard, a deeply conservative, and apparently racist, publication, onto its set to claim that the KKK does not exist and, moreover, even if it did, to compare it with the Catholic fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus.  Nearly every media platform I consume has had some commentary from David Duke crowing about how happy he is.  And CNN had a man on last week asking whether or not Jews are people.  I refuse to provide links to this.  Search them yourselves if you want to see/read.

This is disgraceful.  This is giving screen-time to white supremacists, it is making them acceptable members of the body politic. It is allowing white supremacy to gain a beach head in the mainstream.  This is wrong.  So very wrong.  None of these clowns deserve support, or attention.  There’s a reason they were almost personae non gratae in the mainstream for the past two-plus decades: they’re extremists.  And watching the media feed these trolls is nauseating.

On Experts & Anti-Intellectualism

July 5, 2016 § 5 Comments

Nancy Isenberg‘s new book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, is attracting a lot of attention.  No doubt this is, in part, due to the catchy title.  White trash is a derogatory and insulting term, usually applied to poor white people in the South, the descendants of the Scots-Irish who settled down here prior to the Civil War, the men who picked up their guns and fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.  (Oddly, the term is not really applied all that often to poor white people in the North).

I am also deeply suspicious of books that promise to tell me the “untold” or “true” story of anything.  And certainly, if you asked American historians if class was an “untold story”, they’d laugh you right out of their office.  But no doubt the title is due to Viking’s marketing department, not Isenbeg.

Nonetheless, I bought the book, but as I was doing so, I read some of the reviews on Amazon.The negative ones caught my eye. Most of the negative reviews were either misogynistic or anti-Semitic.  But, one, by someone calling themselves Ralphe Wiggins, caught my eye:

This book purports to be a history of white trash in America. It is not. It is a series of recounting of what others have said about the lower white classes over the past 400 years. In most cases the author’s summarizations are a simple assertions of her opinion.

The book is 55% text, 35% references and 10% index. The “Epilog” is a mishmash of generalizations of Isenberg’s earlier generalizations.

Let us now parse Wiggins’ commentary.  First, Wiggins complains that Isenberg simply summarizes “her opinion” and then generalizes her generalizations.  Clearly, Wiggins does not understand how historians go about their craft.  Sure, we have opinions and politics. But we are also meticulous researchers, and skilled in the art of critical thinking.  The argument Isenberg makes in White Trash are not simply her “opinion,” they’re based on years of research and critical thinking.

Second, Wiggins complains that the book is 35% references and 10% index.  Of course it is, it’s an academic work.  The arguments Isenberg makes are based on her readings of primary and secondary sources, which are then noted in her references so the interested reader can go read these sources themselves to see what  they make of them.  Revealing our sources is also part of the openness of scholarship.

Wiggins’ review reminds me of Reza Aslan’s famous turn on FoxNews, where he was accused by the host of not being able to write a history of Jesus because he’s a Muslim.  Aslan patiently explained to her over and over again that he was a trained academic, and had spent twenty years researching and pondering the life and times of Jesus.  That was what made him qualified to write Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

But all of this, Wiggins’ review, Aslan’s turn on FoxNews is symptomatic of a bigger problem: the turning away from expertise. In the wake of the Brexit vote, the satirical news site “News Thump” announced that all experts would be replaced by Simon Kettering, a local at the neighbourhood pub:

Williams knows absolutely everything about any subject and is unafraid to hold forth against the received wisdom of 400 years of the scientific method, especially after four pints of Strongbow.

Amongst his many accomplishments Simon is remarkably well-informed about optimal football formations, the effects of political events on international capital and bond markets, and the best way to pleasure a woman – possibly his favourite subject.

His breadth of knowledge is all the more impressive as he doesn’t even need to bother spending ten seconds fact-checking on Google before issuing a firm statement.

As my good friend, Michael Innes, noted in response:

Yep. Personally, I’m looking forward to all the medical and public health experts at my local surgery being fired and replaced with Simon. Not to mention the car mechanics at my local garage. I’m sure with a little creative thinking (no research!!!) we can dig deeper and weed out yet more of the rot, too.

See, experts can be useful now and then.  And Nancy Isenberg is certainly one, given that she is T. Harry Williams Professor of History at Louisiana State University.

 

 

Bringing the Past to Life

February 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

Twenty-odd years ago, I took a course on pre-Revolution US History  at the University of British Columbia.  I don’t know what possessed me to do this, frankly. It must’ve fit into my schedule.  Anyway, it turned out to be one of the best courses I took in undergrad.  It was taught by Alan Tully, who went onto become Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor of American History at the University of Texas.  We read a bunch of interesting books that semester, including one on the early history of Dedham, Massachusetts.  But, the one that has always stuck out in my mind is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Diary of a Midwife: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary, 1785-1812I remember being deeply struck by this book as a 20-year old in Vancouver. I had a pretty strong interest in women’s history as an undergrad, but this was one of the best history books I’ve ever read.

In my last semester teaching at John Abbott College in Montreal, I taught US History, and assigned this book. I even got in touch with Dr. Tully to tell him how influential that course had been on me, and how influential this book had been and to thank him.  I think he was chuffed to hear from me, even if he didn’t remember me (I wasn’t a great student,I barely made a B in his class).

I am teaching US History to 1877 this semester and I have assigned this book again.  Last time I assigned in, in 2012, my students, much to my surprise, loved it.  And they loved it for the same reasons I do.  Ulrich does an incredible job showing the size of Martha Ballard’s life in late 18th century Hallowel, Maine.

Based on the singular diary of Ballard, Ulrich delves into the social/cultural history of Hallowel/Augusta, Maine, drawing together an entire world of sources to re-create the social life of Ballard’s world.  I’m reading the book again for class, we have a discussion planned for today.  I’m still amazed at how Ulrich has re-created Ballard’s world.  And even if Ballard’s written English isn’t all that familiar to us today, 200+ years on, you feel almost like you’re in the room with Ballard.  She has her own singular voice in my head, I feel like I know her.

Writing history isn’t easy. It is a creative act, attempting to bring to life things that happened 10 or 200 years ago.  We work from disparate sources, with multiple voices, created for a multitude of different reasons.  They agree with each other, they argue with each other.  And it’s our job to bring all of this together.  In many ways, we’re the midwives of the past.  The very best History books are like The Diary of a Midwife or E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class: they bring the past to life. They make us feel almost like we were there.

Freedom Isn’t Free

September 30, 2015 § 5 Comments

Here in the United States, it is common to see a bumper sticker that says “Freedom Isn’t Free.”  18244837-623x389These stickers pre-date 9/11 and the War on Terror and the devastating human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But they have taken on special meaning in the decade-and-a-half since 9/11.

I am, as usual, teaching American history this semester.  One of my classes is reading David Roediger’s classic book, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class.  While Roediger’s attempts to connect himself to EP Thompson are perhaps overdone, he still makes a powerful argument about the centrality of race in the development of a free labour ideology in the US.  He especially ties his argument to WEB DuBois’ conclusion in his Black Reconstruction of the psychological benefit the white worker received (in lieu of fair wages) through his whiteness, and its pseudo-entry to power.

Roediger digs back into what he calls the pre-history of the American worker, the period between colonization and the dawn of the 19th century and the beginnings of the American industrial revolution.  This involves a discussion of the compromise over slavery in the Constitution.  Roediger writes:

Even artisan-patriots with substantial anti-slavery credentials supported the Constitution as a compromise necessary to secure the world’s greatest experiment in freedom.

Indeed.  The freedom of white Americans, especially white American artisans/workers in the Revolutionary era came at the cost of the enslavement of African Americans.  On one hand, Roediger seems to be letting these artisan-patriots off the hook.  On the other, I have never quite understood the apparent lack of irony in the Revolutionary generation’s easy resort to slavery rhetoric to complain of Britain’s treatment of the colonies.  I find it preposterous and disingenuous.  And yet, this rhetoric became powerful during the Revolution.  At any rate, as Roediger reminds us, freedom isn’t free.

Slave Narratives and the Carolina Chocolate Drops

March 31, 2014 § 6 Comments

Last night, we were up in Woodstock, VT, to see the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band from Durham, North Carolina.  The band is comprised of three African-Americans and fronted by Rhiannon Giddens, who is of mixed white, black, and aboriginal descent, they play a mixture of traditional and modern folk/roots instruments.  They’ve revived a number of songs from the slave era in the Deep South, most of which, according to Giddens, were set down in the 1850s, just before the onset of the Civil War.  Most of these, however, come without lyrics, for perhaps obvious reasons.  The band were incredibly talkative on the stage last night, which created an incredible community vibe inside this small theatre in small-town Vermont.  Both Giddens and band mate Hubby Jenkins kept up a running monologue with the crowd, telling us about their songs, how they came to perform them, write them, play them, their traditional instruments, and so on.

Before one song, Giddens told us about her explorations of American history, specifically African-American history, and about a book she read that collated slave narratives, and analysed them collectively, as opposed to the usual individuated approach to slave narratives.  However, Giddens also noted one story that stuck out for her, about a slave woman named Julie at the tail end of the Civil War, as the Union Army was coming over the crest of the hill towards the plantation that Julie lived on.  Julie is standing with her Mistress, watching them approach in the song, “Julie.”

This video was shot last night, by someone sitting close by us, though I don’t know who shot it, I didn’t see it happening.  This is one powerful song, and it got me thinking.  I’m teaching the Civil War right now in my US History class, and as I cast about for sources I am intrigued by slavery apologists, then and now, who argue that the slaves were happy.  But even more striking are the stories about slave owners who were shocked to their core when the war ended and their slaves took their leave quickly, looking to explore their freedom.

It seems that the slave owners had really convinced themselves that they and their slaves were “friends” and that their slaves loved them.  That arrogance seems astounding to me in the early 21st century.  But this song last night powerfully brought the story right back around.

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