What is it with these Southerners?

September 14, 2009

I love the South.  I grew up in Oklahoma, which I think of as part of the South.  It was not a state during the Civil War, but had it been, I suspect it would have seceded.  The last confederate general to surrender at the end of the War of Northern Aggression, Stand Watie, was a Native American of the Cherokee Tribe who participated voluntarily in the removal of Native Americans to what is now eastern Oklahoma.  Oklahomans refer to the southeastern third of the state as “Little Dixie.”

I always say I can prove that I’m a southerner because I have a sister whose (middle) name is Darrell, which is my great-grandmother’s maiden name.  Who else but a southerner would reach back three generations for family names?  The Darrells were a fine old former slave-owning family from southern Louisiana near the McIlhennys of Tabasco Sauce fame.

The South is a place of incredible natural beauty and an inventive, resilient culture that has contributed enormously to the larger culture of the United States.  As a former colleague of mine argues, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame should be in Memphis, not Cleveland.  Rock ‘n’ Roll is, at base, a fundamentally southern invention.  Then there are the many great southern story tellers who have immeasurably enriched the American literary imagination – Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, and William Faulkner, to name only a few.

As is often the case with humans, southerners’ best quality is also their worst quality.  Southerners tend to be defiantly independent, caring little or not at all for what others think about them.  An old song by that southern apotheosis of the intersection of country and rock ‘n’ roll music, Charlie Daniels, nicely summarizes this attitude: “People say I’m no-good/And crazy as a loon/I get stoned in the morning/ I get drunk in the afternoon/Kinda like my old blue tick hound/I like to lay around in the shade/An’, I ain’t got no money/ But I damn sure got it made/’Cos I ain’t askin’ nobody for nothin’/If I can’t get it on my own/If you don’t like the way I’m livin’/You just leave this long-haired country boy alone.”

This song also contains a swipe at televangelists, which is high irony given that southerners still attend church regularly at higher rates than other Americans.  Of the states with the ten highest rates of self-reported regular church attendance, only two – Utah and Nebraska – are not southern states.

I admire Charlie Daniels’ philosophy, and tend to think this way myself.  Of course, in my case, my defiance of convention manifests as being openly gay and Buddhist in an overwhelmingly heterosexist, homophobic, Christian culture, but I bet ol’ Charlie and I could get along just fine if the opportunity presented itself.

But a darker version of this same attitude manifested itself during the African American civil rights movement, when many white southerners took the position that anyone who called for racial integration just didn’t understand the realities of southern culture and traditions, and needed to go away and leave them all alone.  Many white southerners proved willing to give up just about everything, including the respect of the rest of the nation and the rest of the world, in order to keep segregation.

On hearing that global opinion strongly condemned the violent response of police in Birmingham, Alabama to peaceful civil rights protestors, Alabama Governor George Wallace replied, “I don’t care what they think.  After all, we’re feeding half of them.”

Several southern states enacted legislation in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision requiring desegregation of American public schools that would have closed the states’ public schools entirely rather than comply.

This is the sad side of southern defiance, a cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face sort of mentality that can result in all manner of willful stupidity in defense of an abstract notion of “southern culture.”  I thought of this while reading a New York Times article recently about Louisiana Senator David Vitter, who is working anti-Obama sentiment among his state’s white voters for all it’s worth.  The Times reports that, while Louisiana has among the highest percentage of adults with no health insurance, most of the white population opposes President Obama’s healthcare reform proposal.

This is the sort of political belief system that leaves the rest of the country scratching their heads and dismissing southerners as a bunch of stupid hicks.

But most true, white southerners don’t really care.

More of Limbaugh, Racist Pig

September 10, 2009

As if to prove my claim that Rush Limbaugh cares about nothing but his own racist piggy white-person privilege, today he said he wished that the member of the House, Joe Wilson, who shouted at the President during his speech last night, had not apologized.   According to the New York Times, no one can remember such an outburst during a presidential speech.  The other side often expresses its doubts through body language and facial expressions, but not by yelling at the President.

Limbaugh said the President was lying, and that he was shouting, “you’re lying” at the television while he watched from home (we can all hope that soon Limbaugh’s shouting will cause him to have a fatal myocardial infarction).

I wonder if Limbaugh was shouting “you’re lying” at his television set when George W. Bush told us that we needed to invade Iraq to get control over all those weapons of mass destruction that the CIA never said he had, and that he turned out not to have once we had the entire nation under our control.  Nah.  Limbaugh would never shout that at a Republican President.  He’s much too much the eager partisan for that.  Never mind that George Bush was in fact lying when he told the nation that.

Sorry, but it seems clear to me that the real source of Limbaugh’s anger is not policy differences, but garden-variety racism.  As I’ve said before about “birthers,” Limbaugh is one of those who just cannot get his tiny little mind around the idea that a black man is President of the United States.  And, given that Limbaugh, unlike most people, regrettably has a podium from which to spew his venom, he can be more creative about trying to tear the President down than just by supporting the “birther” movement.

In his broadcast, Limbaugh justified Joe Wilson’s outburst by saying that the President is trying to tear down the institutions that made this country great.  Oh, such as blatant racism?  You really have to wonder if Limbaugh is so stupid that he actually believes this garbage, or just so cynical that he’s willing to schlep it to keep his income high.  I can’t decide which is worse.

And Republicans should be careful about this.  True conservatives, which Rush Limbaugh is not, like their authority figures to be beyond question.  Shouting at the President of the United States during a speech should be completely off-limits to any true conservative.  Conservatives complain about the breakdown in respect for authority during the 1960s.  They’re not helping matters with their blatant disrespect for the current President of the United States.

A friend on Facebook suggested that Joe Wilson would be on his knees in front of Limbaugh’s fat, gross gut within minutes groveling to regain the support of the de facto leader of the Republican Party.  Looks like he’s going to need all the help he can get from his Republican racist pig cronies.  In 2008, he won re-election by 54 to 46 percent despite outspending his opponent 2 to 1.  The New York Times reports, however, that, in the wake of his outburst, the same opponent, who plans to run against him again, received $200,000 in contributions from across the country in a matter of hours.

Bad news travels fast.

Republicans are Racist Pigs

September 9, 2009

Republicans are Racist Pigs

Republicans are racist pigs (except for Colin Powell, and he voted for Obama).  Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck prove it.  They don’t care a fig for the well-being of the United States, or the world, they only care about their own piggy little white-person privilege, which they think they deserve and should be allowed to keep.  Luckily for the rest of us, white people are becoming a minority in the United States – back to colonial days, when Europeans first started to colonize and push the Native Americans and African Americans around.

Scary?  Not if you’re a white person who gets along fine with black and brown persons.  The coming  black/brown majority is only a problem for those persons who consider all black/brown persons inherently problems.

This is why the fantasy of the Republican Party becoming the majority party, as the Democratic Party has been nationally since the New Deal, is just that: a fantasy.  Give the devil his due: George Bush made a good-faith effort on immigration reform, only to get shot down by members of his own party, which is the default home of American racists, as it has been for years, ever since white southerners abandoned the Democratic Party for seriously advancing African American civil rights.

In case we forget, the South, which we now think of as the primary home of the Republican Party, was solidly Democratic until about 1948, when Harry Truman bowed to pressure from Hubert Humphrey and accepted a strong civil rights plank in the Democratic Party Platform, then ordered the racial integration of the U.S. military.  Strom Thurmond, delegate from South Carolina and long-time U.S. Senator from that state, bolted the convention and ran on the “State’s Rights” plank that year.  He later became a Republican, of course.

But the key point is this: THE REASON why white southerners became Republicans is garden-variety racism.  That’s all there is to it.  They abandoned the Democratic Party because it started to make real headway on civil rights for African Americans.  Remember that when you hear them bloviate (if you can’t just ignore them).

And now they project their own racism onto African Americans.  How else to explain Glenn Beck’s assertion that President Obama is a racist who favors black people over white people?  This assertion is patently preposterous, but that doesn’t stop dedicated racists like Beck.  From his perspective, any success by any African American necessarily comes at the expense of white people, because he cannot conceive of the possibility of cooperation and social, cultural, and political unity with African Americans.  He can only see competition and oppositio

He is, in short, a racist pig.

Race and Sexuality

September 1, 2009

It’s tempting to think that race and sexuality, as characteristics of identity, have nothing in common.  This is an especially inviting proposition for persons who wish to restrict as closely as possible the reach of the changes that African Americans achieved with their civil rights movement during the 1940s through the 1960s.

Lesbian/gay rights activists have consistently attempted to claim the mantle of the African American movement for themselves, partly out of conviction that discrimination based on sexual orientation is as wrong as discrimination based on race, partly out of the strategic recognition that the lesbian/gay rights movement would benefit enormously by being able to build directly on the successes of the African American civil rights movement.  When famous New York Representative Bella Abzug introduced legislation to prohibit sexual-orientation discrimination in Congress in the mid-1970s, her bill would simply have added sexual orientation to the list of protected categories in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Conceptually simple, but politically impossible.

The issue of how sexuality relates to race as an identity category and as a potential category for civil rights protections simmers constantly beneath the surface of debates about lesbian/gay civil rights.

We see this political/rhetorical battle most clearly in the fight over same-sex marriage, where lesbian/gay rights activists point to Loving v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s statute prohibiting miscegenation, or interracial marriages.  Lesbian/gay rights activists assert that prohibiting same-sex marriage is just as unjust as prohibiting interracial marriages, and that the case striking down prohibitions on interracial marriages should apply with equal force to prohibitions of same-sex marriages.  Conservatives put a fair amount of energy into trying to refute this argument because they realize that, if lesbian and gay men win in asserting the comparison, all hope for preventing lesbian/gay civil rights claims is lost.

As a historian and activist, what I find most fascinating about all of this is that, in reality, race and sexuality are completely indistinguishable as identity categories in the United States.  It turns out that, if you look not even that closely, you quickly see that white supremacists have always relied heavily on attributions of putative sexual immorality among African Americans as part of their justification for their racism.

Sexuality, in short, defines race.

Most infamously, everyone knows that the most reliable way to motivate a lynching was by claiming that the black man in question had made some sort of sexual advance to a white woman.  The claim was usually pure fiction, but that didn’t stop lynch mobs.  It was apparently true in perhaps the most famous lynching case in United States history, that of Emmett Till, a young man visiting relatives in Mississippi from Chicago.  Because he was from Chicago, he was not familiar with the codes of segregation and African American subordination in the South, so he did, in fact, make a fresh remark to a white woman.  It’s very hard for any sane person to understand how that could prompt the woman’s husband and brother-in-law to take the boy from his uncle’s house that night and kill him.  The perpetrators were prosecuted, but acquitted, after the defense attorney told the all-white jury that they all knew what their duty as “Anglo-Saxons” was in the case.

Less extremely, as part of my research into the racial integration of Emory University, I have read many letters that the Chairman of the Emory Board of Trustees, Henry Bowden, received from opponents of integration at Emory.  Every one of them contains some sort of allegation about African American sexual irresponsibility.  It’s as predictable as the sun rise.  Even a relative moderate, a man who served as governor of Florida and later represented Florida in the United States Senate, and, at one point, actually voted for civil rights legislation, wrote to Bowden as an Emory alumnus opposing integration at Emory.  He rambled on at some length about a television show he had seen on the topic of integration and concluded from it that interracial marriages were always the end goal of African American civil rights movement activists, whether they admitted it or not.  He noted that, based on his personal observation, many NAACP “boys” got to Washington, D.C., then promptly divorced their black wives and married white women.

Thus, in the sense that the definitions of race as perpetrated by white supremacists have regrettably not yet left us (please hurry up and go), and insofar as it was (still is, I suspect, although I happily do not currently know any of them to ask) impossible to talk to white supremacists about race without having them bring up the alleged sexual irresponsibility of African Americans, then sex is a necessary, inescapable component of the American definition of race.

Obama Right, Obama Wrong

August 26, 2009

What Obama did right about health care reform was to articulate a set of broad goals, then leave it to Congress to turn those goals into specific legislation.  Members of Congress are notoriously skeptical of legislative proposals that come from outside, and jealous of their powers and prerogatives relative to the other two branches of government.

Jimmy Carter and Hillary Clinton learned this lesson the hard way.  Both assembled comprehensive, coherent, internally consistent legislative proposals – on energy in Carter’s case, on health care in Clinton’s case — using task forces consisting entirely of executive-branch appointees with no input from members of Congress or their staffs.  They then sprang these proposals fully formed on Congress, where they died tortuous, very public deaths.

The apparent advantage to this approach is that it produces highly rational, internally consistent proposals free of the strange trade-offs that tend to result from political horse-trading.

That apparent advantage falls flat, however, in the face of the political reality that Congress is unlikely to pass anything that its members had no input into the writing of.

President Obama apparently learned this lesson.  He differs from both Carter and Clinton in having served in Congress before becoming President.  And, of course, he had the advantage of being able to watch as Carter’s and Clinton’s proposals died.

What he did wrong is that he waited too long to take the lead in the public relations battle that inevitably erupted once Congress began serious work on his health care reform proposals.  He could easily continue to leave to Congress the business of writing the specific legislation and still be the major cheerleader on the sidelines, responding to critics of the whole idea, reminding the public of the case he made for the necessity of reform during the campaign for the presidency that he won.  He seems finally to have begun to play this very important role, but only after some really stupid criticisms – death panels, anyone? – had already gotten traction with the public.

Obama still seems to enjoy the public’s trust.  If he stands up and says forcefully that we need health care reform, and that it needs to have a public option, he can get Congress to produce a bill that meets his requirements.  And to hell with the Republicans.  Do it without them if they won’t go along.  Health care reform is good for the nation, and if the Resnublicans want to be obstructionist, that’s their problem.

Students v. DOMA

August 24, 2009

Ooops!  DOMA has started to Backfire

One of the problems LGBT civil rights activists face is that it’s often hard to figure out how to protest discrimination against us.  African Americans finally beat segregation, at least in public accommodations, with sit-ins – they put their bodies on the line by sitting in at segregated lunch counters, bringing business to a halt, making segregation cost the business owners until they cried uncle and desegregated.

How to do that with, say, same-sex marriage?  There is no obvious way.  We could maybe try to block access to offices that issue marriage licenses, but no one has suggested that, and I sorta doubt it would work well.

One option that has always been available for straight people who support same-sex marriage rights is to refuse to get married until same-sex marriages are legal.  I knew a professor in graduate school who did that.  She had all the queers excited because, before she officially arrived, she asked about university services for her “partner,” which we all took to indicate that she was a lesbian.  She was not.  She and her male partner had chosen not to get married out of solidarity with same-sex couples.  Within a year, they had gotten married, very quietly, because the partner had an eye condition that was treatable, but would have resulted in his blindness if left untreated, so they had to get married to get him onto her health insurance.  Certainly can’t blame them.

This incident just illustrates the feminist critique of marriage generally: why should anyone’s access to health care depend on her/his marital status?  We use marriage to distribute all manner of social goods that we should distribute in other ways.  Marriage is a decrepit, sexist institution that the state should not enable or promote.

Now it turns out that a group of Stanford students has picked this idea up, pledging not to get married until same-sex couples can do so.  More power to ‘em.  This is just perfect, because it makes a mockery of  the idea of “defending” marriage from same-sex couples.  Here are students at one of the nation’s leading universities demonstrating that the prohibition on same-sex marriage makes marriage less desirable to couples who are committed to social justice.  No defense of marriage here.

I’m sure the conservatives are fuming over this one.  Not a damned thing they can do about it, except to fulminate on their radio shows and web sites. Much as they might like to, they can’t force people to get married.

As is often the case in American social movements, the students are in the lead on this one.  It was a group of students in North Carolina who set off the national sit-in movement in 1960.  The leaders of their university didn’t like it, because they worried that the students were jeopardizing their futures by starting the sit-ins.  This was still a time when any African American who resisted segregation would likely lose her/his job, or have her/his loans called in by the bank, or have her/his house firebombed, or suffer some other heavy-handed enforcement action by the good Christian conservatives who defended segregation tooth and nail, including by killing people who defied it.

Of course, students are uniquely poised to take the lead on this issue, since they’re at the age when many people get married.  Their refusal to marry, especially given that these are the cream of the American crop, will carry weight.  Conservatives will not be able to ignore the fact that their attempt to “defend” marriage against same-sex couples is now backfiring big time on them.

Of course, since they’re conservatives, that fact won’t necessarily change their position.  They’ll just dig their heels in and fulminate at the students in hope of shouting the students into doing the conservatives’ bidding.  But, since the conservatives have precisely zero leverage, their fulminating should not have much effect.

I love American politics.

Communists

August 23, 2009

I recently saw someone in print observe that he had not seen people protesting as vigorously in public as during the recent town halls on health care since the death throes of segregation forty years ago.  I thought that was an interesting observation, and it says something about the opponents of health care reform.

I was reminded of this observation recently while doing  research on the racial integration of Emory University.  Being the leading university in Georgia, a state that seriously considered closing its public schools entirely rather than integrate them, Emory’s leaders, particularly the Chair of its Board of Trustees, who was the motor behind the integration decision, caught some serious flack from the die-hard segregationists, people who were incapable of seeing, in 1962, as the Board Chair, Henry Bowden, saw, that Emory faced the choices of integrating, or sliding into a slough of southern mediocrity.  It is now one of the nation’s leading research universities.  It would not be had it not integrated voluntarily when it did.  That decision was one of many that led Judson Woodruff, Coca-Cola magnate, to see in Emory the kind of leadership that prompted him to give the University $105 million in 1979, at the time, the largest single gift ever to an American university.

The connection to health care reform is this: the conservatives are still saying the same thing they’ve always said – this is communism/socialism.  Die-hard segregationists said over and over that racial integration was a communist conspiracy to destroy “our way of life.”  Ever since Harry Truman tried to do something about health care sixty years ago, the cry has been the same over and over – “socialized medicine,” as if that were a self-evidently bad thing.  I recently heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio (not sure how – I don’t ordinarily listen to him) trying to make the specific historical argument that universal health care was the first step the Germans took that led inevitably to Nazism, which was a form of socialism, culturally very conservative socialism, but it was, after all, the National Socialist Party.

The obvious problem with Limbaugh’s equation of universal health care with Nazism is that many other western nations have adopted some form of universal health care without even thinking about going Nazi.  This is precisely the sort of  jaw-droppingly stupid, irresponsible argument that makes Limbaugh so dangerous and so hideous.

While Limbaugh’s genealogy is so bizarre as not to merit detailed refutation, one cannot escape the related thought that the current opponents of health care reform are the genuine heirs to the segregationists of the 1960s.  One suspects, and several observers have posited, that many health care reform opponents are also birthers, those whose racism is so profound that they cannot believe a black man is President of the United States, so they have dreamed up a cockamamie explanation for why he is not, in fact, legitimately the President when everyone else agrees that he is.

The good news is that, eventually, in the African American civil rights movement, the rational position – that African Americans deserve full equality in American society and they do not deserve to suffer segregation or any other form of discrimination – eventually won out, even with opponents of African American equality squealing about communism the whole way.

So we do have some hope for sanity among the American people as a whole.

Fred

August 19, 2009

I recently vacated an assisted living facility, Northwinds, one of the other residents of which is a man named Fred.  Fred, who is Native American, immediately called to my mind the Native American character in Ken Kesey’s famous novel of 1960s alienation, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because, like the character, Fred rarely speaks, and when he does, he is usually incoherent.  There the resemblance ends.  At the risk of ruining a fascinating novel for anyone who has not read it (as in all great novels, this one contains much richness that merits exploration even for one who already knows the ending), the big difference between the Native American in the novel and Fred is that in the novel, the Native American ultimately triumphs over the system.  Finding out exactly how will provide enormous fascination for anyone who knows only that much – read the book.

Fred will never triumph over the system.  Rumor has it that Fred is a former huffer, or one who deliberately concentrates the fumes of gasoline and solvents and inhales them to get high.  One does not need to have a Ph.D. in neuroscience to predict that this is not good for one’s cognitive skills.  I think someone should take Fred around to local high school to show students what you do to yourself by huffing.  It’s not a pretty picture.

Fred seems to think he wants to leave the facility, although he is mistaken – he would not fare well in the outside world, and the staff at Northwinds are very patient, kind, and compassionate with Fred.

Fred could actually escape easily, if he could read.  The exit doors both plainly say on them that, although locked from inside as well as out, they will open from the inside 15 seconds after one begins to push on the crash bar.  I don’t know, but I assume this is a fire safety feature.

Even though Fred is apparently incapable of comprehending this point, still the possibility of accident is always present, so Fred wears a device that sets off a piercing alarm when he gets too close to the door.  This alarm makes me want to poke my own eyeballs out, I find it so offensive, but it seems to bother Fred not in the least.  Most other residents also find it extremely annoying.

But Fred never learns.  He will sometimes go for days without setting the alarm off, but then set it off multiple times in a single day.  Fred can’t help himself, I’m quite sure after observing him for some eight month now, but I’ve concluded that his failure to learn is an anti-social act.

I think one can reasonably expand this principle to human society in general.  At the moment, I have in mind those Americans who loudly oppose healthcare reform even as they rely on Medicare for their health insurance, apparently oblivious to the obvious fact that Medicare (and Medicaid) is the closest the United States has yet come to something called “socialized medicine” (the issue of what exactly that politically useful phrase really means being a matter of considerable discussion, for those who are willing to engage in discussion).   Medicare is a huge federal program that socializes medicine — distributes significant decision-making authority to the society as a whole via the federal government — simply because it is the single largest health insurer in the nation, and what it does, most private insurers also do.

I think that, like Fred, these people are engaged in an anti-social failure to learn.  They are vociferously obstructing a major reform that would benefit the society as a whole because of their own, willful ignorance.  Unlike Fred, I think we can and should hold them responsible.  I think we should require everyone to renew her/his voter registration in person and ask each individual if they are aware that Medicare is a creature entirely of the federal government.  We could use other big, hairy programs that benefit many, many people and that the inveterate privatizers want to privatize, such as the interstate highway system.

Anyone who betrays ignorance of this fundamental point will be required to take a crash course in Post World War II federal policy before registering to vote.  Anyone who objects to the course is free not to take it, but that person will not be eligible to vote.

The course would be scrupulously politically neutral, as neutral as such a course can be, anyway, given that, except for the interstate highway system, which Dwight Eisenhower started, all of the relevant programs began under Democratic presidents.  And we should invite libertarians and social conservatives who oppose many of the programs in question to teach the course, free of supervision (except on issues such as sexual harassment and clear-cut discrimination on the basis of any irrelevant characteristic).

But militant ignorance about the federal government and its programs should disqualify one as a voter.  I hesitate to say that, because I think the right to vote is precious and we should restrict it only for the very best of reasons.  But, insofar as one chooses to remain willfully ignorant of what one’s government does, why should that person have the option of contributing to the decisions of that government?  That’s like allowing someone who avowedly hates pizza and will never eat it to pick the toppings for the rest of us.

Not That Stupid

August 17, 2009

We’re Not That Stupid

Why do conspiracy theorists think we’re all stupid?  Could it be they’re projecting their own stupidity onto their fellow citizens?  (Hey, how do we know you’re a citizen?  Lemme see your birth certificate.  Hmmm, looks Kenyan.)

I think this is true of conspiracy theorists generally, but they’ve achieved unusual prominence lately in the health care debate and the birther movement.

The birther movement, of course, consists of persons who believe that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and therefore is not a citizen, and therefore is not qualified to be president of the United States.  As I have argued elsewhere, this is all just racist wish-fulfillment.  Birthers can’t believe that a black man is President of the United States, so they respond to the overwhelming evidence that a black man is, in fact, President of the United States by concocting a theory for why he’s not really President, even though all sane, intelligent citizens (here’s my birth certificate, where’s yours?) agree that he is.

The health care debate has produced all manner of outright lies from opponents of reform, including claims about rationing health care (we ALREADY ration health care, by price) and Sarah Palin’s whopper about “death panels” that would review individuals’ capacity to contribute to society to decide who lives and who dies.

Of course no public official in the United States would ever propose such a thing (apart from juries in death penalty cases, but there you have at least the allegation of criminal activity – we won’t get distracted just now by the profound racism built into that whole process).  For Sarah Palin to expect that anyone would believe what she’s saying is either grossly irresponsible of her, or an indication of fantastic stupidity.  Either way, she must think most Americans are profoundly stupid if she thinks we’re going to believe what she says.

As an apparently  anonymous writer at Talking Points Memo dot com notes, one problem with stupid people is that they have trouble recognizing smart people.  They also tend not to recognize their own stupidity.  One suspects that this is the problem with Sarah Palin and her supporters: she’s so stupid that, when she says stupid things, and observers point out how stupid her statements are, all she sees is people picking on her.

But pointing out stupidity is not picking on, it’s just that: pointing out stupidity.  All she has to do to avoid being “picked on” in this sense is to stop saying stupid things.

Andrew Sullivan Don’t Know Dookey about History

August 16, 2009

Poking around — just wandering through the world with your eyes wide open to see what you can see — is fun and often edifying, and the world wide web is a great place to do it.   It’s especially entertaining, albeit frustrating, to come across famous pundits showing off their ignorance.

So, while poking around on the web site of Salon.com, in response to a search for “queer” — always a great choice for poking around — I ran across this quotation from Andrew Sullivan’s new book:  “If conservatism had begun as a political philosophy designed to check power, to ensure individual liberty, to protect individuals from lawless government authority, it ended in a dark room, with a defenseless detainee strapped to a board, terrified beyond most of our imagining.”  Apart from the gratuitous use of the past perfect tense, which is only useful to place the time of a statement farther in the past than an existing statement, of which there is none here, Sullivan falls into an error that is quite common in our time: the belief that “conservatives” are interested in limiting the power of government.  That is absurd.  As my genuinely conservative colleague from graduate school and fellow Okie, Ted McAllister, now a chair in public policy at Pepperdine, states, conservatives will accept all manner of tyranny, so long as it’s local tyranny.

The desire to impose limits on the power of government is, in the pantheon of western political thought, THE distinctive contribution of liberalism, which emerged in the writing of John Locke near the end of the seventeenth century in response to the avowedly conservative defense of the divine right of kings as articulated by Robert Filmer, who argued that all kings derive their authority from  the Biblical Adam.

The mistake of believing that conservatives have some claim in terms of the history of political theory to being great defenders of limited government is easy to make, and common, in the modern United States.  It is so because, at least since the New Deal, conservatives have made common political cause with libertarians around their shared concerns — many of them quite legitimate — about the increasing size and power of the federal government to such a degree that it is now sometimes hard to tell them apart.  It is common, then, to refer to the Republic’s most famous libertarian, Barry Goldwater, whom Landslide Lyndon trounced in the 1964 presidential election, as a “conservative.”  He was not, as he demonstrated with his derisive remarks about the emerging Christian conservative movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  If you like litmus tests, abortion and lesbian/gay civil rights are good ones, and Goldwater fell resoundingly on the libertarian side — supporting both abortion and lesbian/gay rights — before he died.  True conservatives avidly oppose both.  Goldwater opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act not because, like conservatives, he was a white supremacist (about the only true conservatives left in the U.S. any more), but because he opposed its dramatic expansion of federal power, even to increase the liberty of that most oppressed group, African Americans.

But this erroneous belief in conservatism as a political philosophy of liberty (note the similarity to the word, “liberal”) can be dangerous.  It leads seemingly intelligent, well informed folks such as Andrew Sullivan initially to support George W. Bush, only to be shocked, shocked, when Bush turns out to be a statist whose authoritarian passions remained in check — to the extent that they remained in check — solely because of the very liberal political institutions and culture of the United States.   The available evidence is, to my eye, overwhelming that Dick Cheney consistently harbored dictatorial fantasies throughout his two terms as Vice President.  How else to explain his patently ridiculous attempt to opt out of our liberal Constitution’s structure by claiming that the Vice President is not part of the Executive Branch.

And Bush proved the wisdom of placing the power to declare war with Congress.  That idea, like many in the Constitution, was a direct reflection of the Founders’ concerns about the bad habits of monarchs, one of which is starting wars more for personal glory or vengeance than for the good of the people — because war, except to repel invasion, is almost never good for the people as a whole.  Unfortunately, even as he strove to counteract the influence of “factions” on the American republic by creating a bundle of smaller republics (see Federalist #10),  Madison could never have anticipated the faction-building machine that is the modern Republican Party, nor the impact of a major terrorist attack on the United States.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to be a loyal American and a true conservative.  Conservatives like authority.  They live with the constant, deep-seated fear that, absent some authority that commands unquestioned deference from the vast majority of the population — usually a god, who can be inscrutably distant, leaving his intentions for humanity to a self-appointed clique of interpreters to edify the masses (the official policy of the Catholic Church, after all) — humanity will go completely off the rails and slide into barbarism.

I’m with Locke on this one.  He believed that human reason is far from perfect, but it’s sufficiently sturdy to support self-government.  And, as the Declaration of Independence attests, the Founders of the United States were good Lockeans.  Here’s the sticking point for conservatives — but for our willingness to blow off the king of England, whose birthday American colonists used to celebrate (not in the arch mode, one fancies, that modern gay men might throw a birthday party for the Queen of England), we’d still be a British colony.

Memo to Andrew Sullivan: We’re not a British colony.  We’re a self-governing republic (forgive the redundancy) full of people who, as we have seen in recent weeks, have no hesitation about calling out their “leaders” when they see fit.  Yes, in terms of contemporary political categories, the opponents of health care reform, the birthers, the tea baggers (not THAT kind of tea bagging) are all “conservatives.”   But in terms of western political philosophy, they’re the ultimate liberals.  Any true conservative would be horrified at the very idea of shouting down a public official in a public meeting, or of openly  questioning the qualifications of the head of state.

But we’re Americans.  It’s in our blood.  We’re all libertarians — NOT conservatives — at heart.  And American politics will make much more sense to Andrew Sullivan insofar as he learns that distinction.


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