Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Other Right Wingers Want to Turn Back the Clock to 1900 -- What Was Life Like Back Then?
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Wednesday's 230-195 vote in the GOP-controlled house against Speaker John Boehner's special funding measure to keep the government running past September 30th showed how far the far-right of the already far-right Republican Party will push a principle. They refuse to pass the bill (containing much-needed disaster relief, which is meager enough that the Democrats largely declined to vote for the bill) without deeper budget cuts written in. Boehner will have to rewrite the thing either to placate recalcitrant Democrats, intent on helping the vulnerable, or recalcitrant Republicans, intent on depriving the government of the means to help the vulnerable. One wonders what the odds are regarding his decision.
Weeks earlier, the destruction wrought by Hurricane Irene had provided an excellent opportunity to examine the real-life implications of arguments over the size of government in relation to the quality of liberty. Conservatives have always held that a government’s growth implies freedom’s decline and vice versa, but disaster relief has historically been an area where that formulation acquires the flavor of angels dancing on pinheads: when Americans are suffering and their local communities are ill-equipped to mitigate their despair, the federal government has routinely stepped in with aid.
But this time around, the libertarian populism exemplified by the Tea Party took center stage. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) at first insisted the debt situation was so dire that disaster relief funds would have to come from elsewhere in the budget.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) insinuated that the deaths and destruction from North Carolina to Vermont were God’s way of alerting us to his will that America “rein in the spending.”
And Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), assuming the vanguard of Tea Party reactionaries, deemed a FEMA response unnecessary, remarking, “We should be like 1900… I live on the Gulf Coast; we deal with hurricanes all the time. Galveston is in my district.”
There it is: the GOP fantasy laid bare. Return the United States to the way it was in 1900. In the grotesque flight of fancy occupying the minds of ultraconservative politicians and activists, 1900 was a simpler time, a time when Uncle Sam wasn’t always busy poking his nose into everyone’s affairs, a time when anyone could start a business and make a good living if he worked hard enough, a time when America respected her Christian roots and everything went like it came. But this 1900 is a myth; the disparity between it and actual history is enormous.
In 1900, the American South was essentially run by a religious fundamentalist terrorist faction that perpetrated untold murders with impunity. Women were deprived of individual rights and therefore limited to the chattel position to which the Bible conscripts them. Children worked in factories, where they were often severely injured or worse. In short, 1900 was a time of Dickensian squalor in America. As for disaster relief in that year, Melissa Harris-Perry reminded MSNBC viewers that “somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 people died in the Galveston hurricane – so many bodies that people couldn’t bury them all. Barrels of whisky were handed out to dull the horror of the funeral pyres that burned across the city for weeks on end. That seemed to be the extent that the government could respond, to dull your pain with some free liquor. ‘Sorry, we can’t do more.’”
A list of important developments in the field of rights and liberty in America since 1900 must necessarily be rather summary, but it should include women’s suffrage, child labor laws, antitrust laws and the Federal Trade Commission, the National Park Service, the Food and Drug Administration, social security, the minimum wage, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the federal highway system, racial integration, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, Pell Grants, seatbelt requirements, health care privacy rights, women’s equality laws including education and employment opportunities and prohibitions of spousal abuse and marital rape, the Environmental Protection Agency, the creation of the internet, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and, recently, the extension to homosexual Americans of the right to serve in the military.