The challenge of this moment...

In the on-going challenge of exploring the state of American civil society a variety of people - myself included - have noted the role of racism in the populist backlash against President Obama. Two deeper insights need to be considered:

+ First, it is truly hard to escape the fact that only 48% of white America voted for Obama and that in the deep South that rate falls to 11%. Not that race was the only factor, but as Jimmy Carter has articulated, it cannot be denied. It should be noted, of course, that the South is not the only place in the United States where racism is all too alive and well. What's more, in many ways, the new South has made great advances when it comes to race relations. Simultaneously, however, America's grasp of racism is so immature - and at times deformed - it is both easier to deny and politically advantageous, too.

In his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen shares a host of empirical truths that have been systematically obscured in the teaching of American history. The result of this obfuscation is that most citizens of the United States know nothing of our racially progressive history and all too much of the "Gone with the Wind" revisionism that passes for fact re: slavery and the era of Reconstruction.

We don't comprehend the moral anguish Abraham Lincoln experienced over slavery - nor how his faith and ethics compelled him to wrestle with this bigotry - so we have no point of reference for doing likewise. The reality of John Brown has been carefully subverted, too. Most textbooks deem him to be a fanatic who was emotionally imbalanced, when in reality his acts of insurrection on behalf of African Americans was driven by a careful and prayerful application of Christian faith.

Most of us are equally ignorant of the overt racism that drove the modern policies and practices of Woodrow Wilson - including his affinity with a renewed Ku Klux Klan - so that we are essentially unable to put the modern Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s into a context. "I never held a slave or oppressed anyone," tends to be the extent of our contemporary conversations about race - with this addition: "So affirmative action is just racism in reverse." Without an understanding of where we have been, of course, we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of history.

+ Second, as David Brooks has written recently in the NY Times, there is also a populist backlash taking place against the Obama administration that is anti-intellectual and anti-urban. Brooks links this to the historic divide between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. He writes:

Hamiltonians stood for urbanism, industrialism and federal power. Jeffersonians were suspicious of urban elites and financial concentration and believed in small-town virtues and limited government. Jefferson advocated “a wise and frugal government” that will keep people from hurting each other, but will otherwise leave them free and “shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

Jefferson’s philosophy inspired Andrew Jackson, who led a movement of plain people against the cosmopolitan elites. Jackson dismantled the Second Bank of the United States because he feared the fusion of federal and financial power. This populist tendency continued through the centuries. Sometimes it took right-wing forms, sometimes left-wing ones. Sometimes it was agrarian. Sometimes it was more union-oriented. Often it was extreme, conspiratorial and rude.

That is clearly a part of what is happening in America today: the voice of deep fears is finding shape and form - and it is extremely rude and conspiratorial. What's more, as Sam Tanenhaus observes in his new book, The Death of Conservatism, the moral and intellectual leaders of the conservative movement have been replaced by side-show barkers like Limbagh and Beck. They are loud and shrill but have nothing but fear and frustration to offer: they are not deep thinkers, have little to no deep moral convictions and look backwards rather than ahead. He writes:

"These radical people on the right – and they include intellectuals and the kinds of personalities we’re seeing on television and radio and also to some extent people marching in the streets – think America has gotten away from them. Theirs is a politics of reclamation and restoration... If you are a free-marketeer, or an evangelical, or a social conservative, or even an authoritarian conservative, you can all agree on one thing: you hate the liberals that are out to destroy us. That’s a very useful form of political organization. I’m not sure it contributes much to our government and society, but it’s politically useful and we’re seeing it again today... The paradox of conservatism is that it gives the overt signs of energy and vitality, but the rigor mortis I described is still there. As a philosophy, as a system of government that all of us can learn from as a means of evaluating ourselves, our social responsibilities, [and] our personal obligations and responsibilities, it has – right now – nothing to offer.”

At this moment in time, when political change is all around us and economic stability has been threatened, it is small wonder that these two constituencies should over lap. I would argue that the backlash is both/and rather than either/or - and needs to be challenged accordingly. There is a tradition of progressive and compassionate populism, too. I guess there is always more work to be done?


Nice site you have here.

Why is so much hatred being hurled toward President Obama? That's a no-brainer!

He's a Kenyan-born Arab terrorist who wants to bring DEATH PANELS to this grand and glorious land of ours so he can pull the plugs on Granny and Gramps.

HE'S A LEFT WING SOCIALIST whose education was funded by the American Communist Party, MoveOn.Org, Barbara Streisand and Ed Asner.

He named his two daughters Sasha and Malia - YO! WHAT'S UP WITH THAT???

He would prefer to have dinner with Mahatma Gandhi over Ronald Reagan. RONALD REAGAN!!!

He wants to start a TROTSKY FOR TOTS program for our children.

He's just an evil person!



My fellow Americans, heed my warning.

The Big, Black, Bolshevik Bogeyman is gonna git'cha!

It has not a thing to do with race.

I am a white person. I would not lie to you.

But seriously, folks....

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY
RJ said…
thanks, my man... great site you have, too!

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