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.
September 5, 2017 § Leave a comment
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:
Washington, August 22, 1862.
Hon. Horace Greeley:
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.
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.
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.
November 18, 2016 § 7 Comments
Liberal news media sites are all a-gog with the rise of the ‘post-truth’ politician. Donald Trump is the most egregious example, nearly everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie. But Boris Johnson. Nigel Farage. Marine Le Pen. I could go on. It’s so bad that the venerable Oxford Dictionary has named ‘post-truth’ its word of the year for 2016.
I do not like the term ‘post-truth.’ I believe this is a case where a spade is a spade. These politicians are liars. They’re lying. They tell lies. Untruths. Fibs. Fiction. Calling it ‘post-truth’ normalizes their lying. It makes it seem ok. Like, we’re all in on the joke. Like none of this matters.
It matters. Deeply. In the country I live, the United States, we have just elected a president who has determined that Donald Trump speaks the truth exactly 4% of the time. Four per cent. A further 11% of his public utterances are ‘mostly true.’ And 15% are ‘half true.’ But half-true is still a lie. I learned the term from a lawyer friend, who notes lawyers love terms like this, because it means something is essentially a lie, but because there’s some factual veracity to it, it’s copacetic. So. Even if we want to be generous to Trump, 30% of his public utterances contain factual veracity. The other 70%, the overwhelming majority of what he says? Well, they’re ‘mostly false’ (19%), ‘false’ (34%), and the remainder, 17%, are what PoliFact calls ‘pants on fire,’ as in that children’s rhyme: ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’
Yes. The United States has just elected a man who speaks God’s honest truth 4% of the time he opens his mouth in public.
This is not ‘post-truth.’ This is lying. Donald Trump is a liar. Boris Johnson is a liar. Marine Le Pen is a liar. Nigel Farage is a liar. We need to call this what it is if we wish to combat it. The decisions people like Trump and Johnson get to make as head of state and government minister, respectively, impact the lives of millions of people, and not just in their own countries.
A lie is a lie is a lie.
November 14, 2016 § 2 Comments
The chattering classes are twisting themselves into knots to try to explain and understand how and why Donald Trump won last Tuesday. How did he win out in traditionally Democratic territory in the Rust Belt? This has been the $64,000,000,000,000 question. Me? I don’t see it as being that complicated.
Underneath it all, there is a very simple economic message that Trump has communicated to his base: he has promised to cut up NAFTA and bring the jobs back. The United States is currently reaping the consequences of ignoring the plight of a sizeable chunk of the population for nigh-on 30 years. They have lost their jobs, their self-esteem, their way of life. Time was, you could graduate from high school on Thursday. And Friday morning, wake up and head over to the HR office of the local factory or plant. They knew you; your dad worked there, so did your uncles and big brother. Your mom worked there, so did your sisters and your aunts. They hired you immediately. And on Monday, you came to work for the first time. And then you stayed there for 35-40 years. You made good money. Got married, had kids, raised them. Eventually, you retired. Your thanks for your loyalty and hard work was a generous pension plan that took care of you in return for giving your working years to the company. But that’s all gone. Deindustrialization. And free trade.
What happened when the jobs dried up? People lost their homes; their cars; their marriages. Alcoholism and addiction became more common. Re-training programs were a joke, they didn’t plan anyone for a new career in computers. Some were lucky and found a new career in the service industry. But making $9/hr to stock shelves at Walmart doesn’t pay the bills. Then there’s health insurance and benefits. With GE, those were all taken care of. Waffle House doesn’t take care of them. Their churches tried to take care of them but most of them weren’t religious to start with. And their politicians? They paid lip service for a bit, both Democrats and Republicans. But then they got bored and got obsessed with other things. And so no one had these dispossessed, under- and un- employed people’s backs.
And as a result, the Midwest joined the South as the lands of cultural carnage. They got written out of the national narrative, except when something stupid happens (don’t believe me, go read this rant from the Bitter Southerner). Think about TV and the movies. Time was, they were set in Milwaukee and Minneapolis and Savannah, GA. Now? Not so much. And when they are, you get Mike & Molly; their characters met at Overeaters’ Anonymous. And besides, it’s set in Chicago. Chicago isn’t of the Midwest anymore. It’s a national city. America no longer tells stories about the heartland anymore. There are no more little ditties about Jack and Diane. Midwesterners don’t see themselves on TV or the big screen, unless it’s a story about them going to NYC or LA. For example, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Or Parks and Recreation, which also began as a mockumentary making fun of Lesley Knope and the residents of Pawnee, IN.
The United States has long been a deeply divided nation. We like to think it’s North-South. It’s not. It’s the coasts and Chicago vs. the ‘flyover states.’ What’s more dismissive than referring the bulk of the nation as ‘flyover’ territory? No one listens to the fears and frustrations of the former white working class. And their visceral anger brings out all their latent fears of mistrust of anyone not exactly like them: African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ, and so on (and this in no way excuses hatred) And then Trumpism occurs.
Donald Trump and his Cult of Personality came along in the 2016 election and he promised to be their champion, to get rid of NAFTA, to bring the jobs back. I get this argument, I think I understand the visceral nature of it as both a son of the working class and an historian of deindustrialization. My family lost out with the first FTA between Canada and the US in 1988. My Old Man lost his job as his company sold out to a larger one south of the border. And the brief period of relative prosperity we had in the mid-80s was gone. He eventually recovered, luckily for us, he was a skilled tradesman, a welder. And my mom was university-educated. But. We lost. And so many others. Their anger is visceral. Even now, 30 years on, I still maintain deep, deep suspicion to FTA agreements, for this exact reason, despite knowing the rational reasons to support it.
But Trump cannot deliver on his promises. If he tears up NAFTA and other FTAs, the American economy will collapse, and so, too, will the world’s. Those factory jobs aren’t coming back. Automation, people. The smallish factories across the region I live in, the South, do not employ more than a fraction of what they used to; automation. More to the point, Trump doesn’t care about these people any more than anyone before him did. He used them to get to the White House, he exploited their anger.
So what is going to happen when all these angry white working class people realize they’ve been lied to, again? When Trump is revealed as nothing more than a false prophet, that anger will still be there. But it will be amped up because he failed to deliver. And they will look for scapegoats, and all the people who already feel unsafe will feel it all the more. Racism, homophobia, misogyny; these will all be amplified. Maybe Trump will mollify them by blaming someone else, another shadowy group that hindered his ability to deliver on his promises as our leader. Or maybe he’ll double down on the elitists, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, etc., etc. I don’t feel optimistic either way.
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.
April 6, 2015 § 6 Comments
Last week, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) had a very clear message to LGBT folk in the United States: “In Iran they hang you for the crime of being gay.” This comes as Cotton’s defence of the now amended Defence of Religious Freedom Act passed by the Indiana legislature the week before.
So this is what is has come to. A senator of this country is telling a group of its citizens that they’re lucky they don’t live in Iran. In other words, shut up. For Senator Cotton the United States should not strive to be leader of human rights in this world. In his mind, the country should just forget the statement that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal.” Nope. We should just forget what the State Department says on its webpage:
The protection of fundamental human rights was a foundation stone in the establishment of the United States over 200 years ago. Since then, a central goal of U.S. foreign policy has been the promotion of respect for human rights, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United States understands that the existence of human rights helps secure the peace, deter aggression, promote the rule of law, combat crime and corruption, strengthen democracies, and prevent humanitarian crises.
None of this matters to Senator Cotton. And this is very sad. Politics in this country is a blood sport, at least symbolically. Whenever people throw up their arms and express frustration at the current impasse between Democrats and Republicans, I like to gently remind them it’s never really been any different here, dating back to the first fights in Congress between the Federalists and the Republicans (not, of course, the same party as that today, which dates from the 1850s). On the one side, the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, believed in a strong federal government; the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, preferred a smaller national government and favoured personal liberty, free from government interference.
Nonetheless, there was a general belief in the right of Americans to dignity and a protection of their human rights (unless, of course, one was African American). But we’ve already fought this fight. In the 1960s, Americans sought a “Great Society,” one which provided care for its dispossessed and one that sought to protect its vulnerable citizens. Congresswoman Kay Granger (R-Texas) perhaps summed up how human rights work, including in this country:
Human rights are not a privilege granted by the few, they are a liberty entitled to all, and human rights, by definition, include the rights of all humans, those in the dawn of life, the dusk of life, or the shadows of life.
Cotton clearly has this equation backwards, he seeks to refuse basic rights to LGBT people in this country. It is not just that Cotton’s greatest ambition in terms of equality is to ensure American LGBT people are treated at least as well as the 75th ranked country on the 2013 Human Rights Index (the US, for reference, is ranked 5th). That is not good enough and violates everything that this country is supposed to stand for. And it does not represent the country that the vast majority of Americans hope for.
Tom Cotton should be deeply ashamed of himself.