AlterNet.org: Nancy Isenberg https://www.alternet.org/authors/nancy-isenberg en American History: Fake News That Never Goes Away — and Empowered the Trumpian Insurrection https://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/american-history-fake-news-never-goes-away-and-empowered-trumpian-insurrection <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Only by confronting our lies about the past can we hope to meet the challenges of the present.</div></div></div><!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="https://www.alternet.org/sites/default/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/shutterstock_573949285.jpg?itok=BSGp_HAc" /></div></div></div><!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> <p>Don’t worry, all of this will be forgotten. If the past is any sort of prologue, even the spectacle of Donald Trump will someday be turned into a vague creature of a bygone era when ethical progress stalled, and loud and lewd slithered its way into the White House. A persistent historical amnesia makes it possible to forecast that Americans in 2050 will be just as unable to recall the emotionalism of 2017 as today’s undergraduates are in attempting to grasp the panic-swept days after Sept. 11, 2001. Ask them. It’s something they’ve “heard about,” and that’s it. When their children hear tell of 2016-17, barring the collapse of civilization, it will be: “Yeah, weren’t there protests or something?”</p><p>One thing probably won’t change, however: the tendency to accept fake history. We take as real the enduring notion that America is and has always been a “land of opportunity,” which lovers of country perceive as their fortunate heritage. You say it often enough, and it becomes fact: “Through hard work, anyone can succeed here.” Equality of opportunity? It sounds real. It sounds like it’s based on empirical evidence.  </p><p>Fake history is fake news, only more widely believed.</p><p>Our past ought to be kept close at hand, and used as a barometer to test humility. But it’s not. It’s all too easy to ignore the unpleasant parts of history that live on in our DNA. One doesn’t have to lift a finger to embrace the cause of forgetting whatever gets in the way of pride. Just don’t read about Dred Scott, immigrant exclusion acts, lynching, Japanese-American internment camps or McCarthyism. It is who we are, at least as much as that bright bulb Thomas Alva Edison is who we are. (Not to destroy anyone’s faith in America’s tradition of technological innovation, but Edison also helped bring the electric chair into use.) Recent events recede faster and faster. As unwarranted as it might seem, the emotions we associate with the ill-conceived and utterly devastating Iraq War are already fading.</p><p>Here’s an illustration of how our historical amnesia began: Think of all the places you’ve been to that are names taken from Native American languages. Almost all of those languages are in disuse today, many entirely gone. The literal origins of America’s geography are devoid of recognizable roots: Chicago is Ojibwa for “onion fields,” but no one thinks of Chicago and conjures its premodern natural environment. Connecticut means “long river” in the language of a lost Algonquian tribe no one can name. Not a single linguist alive today knows what the word “Wisconsin” means – one must presume that at the time it became a state, many people did.</p><p>When meanings are abandoned, we lose a tiny bit of truth along with historical identity. Americans pretend not to despise the truth-seeking purpose of history, but they would rather convert the nation’s essence into a parade of heartwarming stories that feed commemorative ritual: Pilgrims and Thanksgiving, Christmas and its attending religious conviction, were all reinvented for commercial purposes.  </p><p>Hallmark says that Thanksgiving and Christmas are who we really are. Yet the so-called Pilgrims weren’t even given that quasi-religious label until 150 years after they arrived; until then, they were, prosaically, “the first comers.” Washington Irving, as far from a Christian enthusiast as you can be, conceived American Christmas as a means to bring cheer to children in the dead of winter. Borrowing Old World traditions, he converted a dour Dutch patron saint of yore into the jolly fellow we call Santa Claus. Think of brave Paul Revere on his midnight ride, warning all that “the British are coming,” which were not his actual words, and when he was merely one of several called on to carry out the same task. No one remembers the others, because it was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who led the cheer for Revere and enshrined him in a poem of 1861, creatively reimagining the past.</p><p>But how dare someone with historical knowledge rain on that parade!  </p><p>One of the reasons we let these things happen is that we are taught when young to be worshipful. It’s the one duty to history we are never permitted to forget. We have our hymns – reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or singing “O Beautiful” and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner” at ballgames, in order to feel good about our civil religion. Rituals have a taming effect; they do not encourage the questioning of patriotic authority. The probing method of the professional historian is not the equivalent of atheism, but it is the protector of rights of conscience. The American historian’s creed says: If we are to deserve to be called a democratic republic, the twin ills of ignorance and apathy have to be cured.</p><p>Course corrections occur, even in the sunshine of our forgetfulness. But one thing seems to remain fairly constant: the insistent belief in the moral superiority of American democracy. Yet we “chose” the bulging, humorless, TV-ratings hustler to take over from the brainy biracial guy with the big smile. (The quotes around “chose” reflect the yet uncertain contribution of Vladimir Putin and the sleight-of-hand that infected voters with the idea that Hillary’s emails compromised national security – though historical amnesia is already kicking in on that one.)</p><p>The slogan “Make America Great Again” only meant something in 2016 because of the enduring appeal of the theory of exceptionalism, the conviction that the United States retains a unique place in human history and a unique responsibility as role model for all other nations. It’s a fittingly banal bromide for a blindly boastful Trump. President Obama’s so-called “apology tour” was the reactionaries’ symbolic proof that his election spelled the end of exceptionalism – which may explain why Obama felt impelled to invoke his belief in American exceptionalism so publicly and so repetitiously. Our politicians parrot old clichés because Americans have been eagerly accepting clichéd history ever since Parson Weems claimed that George Washington chopped down his dad’s cherry tree. Our people continue to adopt an overly sentimental grade-school mentality and take civics lessons in the form of fantastic morality tales.  </p><p>The vast majority of Americans suffer from historical amnesia, and others of us permit the condition to go untreated. In its finest rendering, our history is the story of a union of sentiment connected to the noble idea of self-government and individual freedom. The unprecedented Great Depression brought about FDR’s hyperactive federal relief programs and, thankfully, we still have Social Security; yet by and large, the American idea is associated not with beneficial government programs but instead with countless stories of individual success.</p><p>Sociologists report that the best predictor of success in America is wealth and privilege passed down from ancestors, or from parents to children. Despite this fact (the Trump system, if you will), we prefer to claim hard work as the dominant component of the national character. Biographical testaments to the power of freedom and democracy have worn us down. Columbus the intrepid adventurer – with his own national holiday. Washington the Solomon-like father figure. Lincoln the soul of us. Not to mention a hip-hop musical’s magical conversion of a British subject named Alexander Hamilton into the first immigrant-made-good story. Spoiler alert: Hamilton actually “made good” by marrying the daughter of a slave-owning land baron, and still died broke – after doing all he could to consolidate power and prestige in the hands of the moneyed elite. It’s not just Trump. No other nation names so many of its towns after land developers. Allentown. Astoria. Austin. Baltimore. Binghamton. Cleveland. Cooperstown. There are thousands.</p>But our received history masks financial motives. Facts are actively twisted to promote “the land of liberty” and the “American Dream.” You hear conservatives protest that their children are forced by “liberal” academics to hear about the deceit that accompanied the rampant theft of Indian lands or the large-scale exploitation of unpaid human labor. Slavery was imposed upon ungrateful Indians until men and women taken from West Africa proved a better investment for “liberty-loving” colonists. Poor children were exploited for their labor on farms, in factories and in coal mines until 1919. Those “liberal” academics must hate America, to dwell on such details.<p>Oh, and can we also do something to stop diabolical minds from equating expertise with elitism? Elitists are out-of-touch and unfeeling people with more money than they need, who belong to Trump’s exclusive golf clubs. Academics are, for the most part, regular people with lots of questions who read in order to better understand the human condition. They are not free from ideology; no one is. But at least they are trained to weigh evidence. That’s not so much “elitism” as it is self-improvement through active engagement. You know, what education is supposed to do for us. Why, then, is the pursuit of historical accuracy considered a “liberal” interpretation? Willingly suspending the capacity for critical thinking is, admittedly, not as subversive as, say, voter suppression; but it is certainly dangerous if you believe in the concept of democracy even a little bit.</p><p>Fake history is false advertising for bad consumer products. It’s how you get Citizens United, a travesty of monumental historical proportions. Who in their right mind thinks that the framers of the Constitution, or any truly representative government, ever envisioned the legal seduction of voters by those with the most money?</p><p>America is, at its best, an idea. Thomas Jefferson defined the moral component of political democracy in his First Inaugural Address, when he said, “Though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” Needless to say, as an owner of human property, Jefferson did not have clean hands, but when he uttered those words he was steeped in a body of literature, a moral philosophy, that he commended to the new nation.   </p><p>Still, one thing that never seems to get old is the hero motif. The republican form of government was supposed to get us past king-worship. It introduced the idea that the educable, improvable citizen could play a positive role in his/her government; that we do not have to wait for someone to come and rescue the country. If you listen to what Trump says, it is, effectively: Whoever believes in me, whoever believes in my special ability, my insight, my genius (as proven by “great deals” in real estate), will live to see American greatness as never before experienced. It’s a ridiculous idea, and the unexceptional gambler with the God complex deserves all the ridicule he has received. Credulity is the antithesis of all that a representative democracy strives to achieve.</p><p>The goal of enlightened government is to protect its citizens from the dictatorship of a privileged minority (the minority voters we should really be monitoring closely), or an elected executive who is convinced that he knows more than the generals in waging war and more than scientists in combating pollution-producing corporations. Equal pay standards and the widening gap between the super-rich and everyone else should not be obfuscated in a modern democratic state. We should focus on what matters to the many. Not made-up stuff that diverts attention.  </p><p>But fear, exploited, digs in. Remember when, in 1990, the idea of women in the military was scary to a lot of people? In 1890, giving women the vote was scary to just as many. In 1790, it was eliminating each state’s sponsorship of its chosen Protestant sect, which conservative leaders swore would mark the beginning of the end of civilization. Just as no one with a head and heart says, “We sure are lucky conservative forces blocked that radical Civil Rights agenda from being implemented,” future citizens won’t be lamenting, “Too bad we don’t have any more like Mitch McConnell around to limit the numbers receiving affordable health care.”</p><p>Let us ask why, in a representative democracy, the general good does not prevail more often. The answer is, of course, credulity. To borrow from the simplified vocabulary of Trump, voter credulity is a DISASTER. It is credulity that allows privileged minorities – and money – to rule.</p><p>That said, what we’re seeing in the press, in the federal bureaucracy and on the streets today proves that expertise won’t coddle spite-filled anti-intellectualism in its moment of electoral triumph. Real threats loom that a shiny border wall won’t arrest. We must contend with the war on women’s bodies, willful ignorance of climate science and the fact that while medicine has done much to improve the quality of life, national priorities support capitalism, not human health.  </p><p>The future will stand in judgment whether or not we get the money out of politics and put money into projects that serve the interests of the many. If we’re worth remembering at all, it will be because of good government. The credulous will continue to believe the historical myth that individualism is the equivalent of freedom and the engine of democratic achievement, when it was, in truth, the federal government that created the middle class. Nothing succeeded so well as the GI Bill after World War II. Make Government Great Again!   </p><p>If you work hard at what you do but lack opportunities, you want government to help level the playing field. The American who most needs to hear this critical message is the credulous worker who is indignant, racist and anti-immigrant, having been fed the story that government helps everyone but him/her. GOP lawmakers have worked to dismantle unions with “right-to-work” laws; white workers who vote Republican are blinded, because their enemy is the corporate elite. White Protestants who think they’re losing the demographic war are especially vulnerable, and the first to buy into fake news-generated fear-mongering. Last year it was procreative Mexicans and “fanatical” Muslims, who in fact have done nothing to injure the folks who take offense at their presence – any more than gay marriage has ruined straight marriage.  </p><p>But here we are, in 2017, and millions remain deluded, still so tragically bent by Tea Party-inspired GOP demagoguery. Our glorious narratives promoting individualism won’t save a nation consumed by fear and fed lies. If we start by facing the past honestly, we might yet face the present in a manner that acquits us well when the future squints real hard and tries to remember who we were.   </p><p> </p> Sat, 25 Feb 2017 11:55:00 -0800 Andrew Burstein, Nancy Isenberg, Salon 1072902 at https://www.alternet.org News & Politics News & Politics donald trump fake news american history pilgrims Their Brand Is Demagogic Rage: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Our Sad New Politics of Anger and Performance https://www.alternet.org/election-2016/their-brand-demagogic-rage-donald-trump-ted-cruz-and-our-sad-new-politics-anger-and <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">American politicians have trafficked in insults and fear for centuries. This is why Trump and Cruz are different.</div></div></div><!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="https://www.alternet.org/sites/default/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/hqdefault_3.jpg?itok=sL2Qf-0I" /></div></div></div><!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> <p>Unrestrained language.  Simplistic, fear-based messages.  Expressions of personal contempt.  Childish tit-for tat.  Our democracy has countenanced, if not sanctioned, incivility ever since Alexander Hamilton unwisely insulted one particularly sharp-eyed political opponent, and that man, the ordinarily patient Aaron Burr, privately observed of the sharp-tongued Hamilton to a trusted friend: “He has a peculiar talent of saying things improper and offensive.”</p><p>In those days, insults during campaign season were handled directly, and out of the public view––with sometimes deadly results.  Newspapers reported “affairs of honor” like the Burr-Hamilton duel, of course, but those papers would find a loyal readership with or without the sensationalization of partisan attacks.  The difference these days lies in the power of the visual over newsprint, and in the high-stakes competition among media corporations: Incivility is pretty much all that attracts viewers (and advertisers) to the televised debates.  Raised voices pretty much govern our national elections.  </p><p>Under these conditions, no one can be surprised by the personalities who have emerged from their respective corners to engage in verbal fisticuffs.  Soft-spoken Ben Carson and the unnatural, “low-energy” debater Jeb Bush were not made for such an environment.  We get it.  Strident-sounding men (not to exclude the similarly cast Carly Fiorina) with strong egos and financial backing who imagine themselves worthy leaders will run for president whether or not their public record actually serves the public.  Donald Trump is a real estate man whose scatter-shot investments are not all smart but who admits to no bad ideas.  Ted Cruz owns a Senate record that bespeaks a rude, divisive, uncompromising demagoguery.  What the two men have in common, besides a sturdy belief in the value of their Ivy League credentials, is that they are self-promoting performers who love to hear themselves speak.  Notably, too, both lack an off-switch.  </p><p>They are, in meaningful ways, the latter-day incarnations of two colorful southern politicians: the Virginian John Randolph and the Mississippian James Vardaman.   Randolph of Roanoke, as he was known, was a cranky, oddly shaped slave owner, who for the first three decades of the nineteenth century translated his small-government principles into an unreserved language few understood.  Though six feet tall, his shoulders spanned only thirteen inches.  His dress was old-style: he was known to attend Congress in his riding outfit, attended by a servant who passed him a flask on command.  He was erratic, garrulous, clownish, folksy, a knight errant who had no filter when he spoke.  He accused opposing politicians of corruption.  Occasionally, his barbs were beautiful: “There is a corruption of timidity, which consists in men not saying what they think.”  (We might learn from that.)  As he rambled on for literally hours on the floor of Congress, Randolph acknowledged himself “a wild man,” as transcribers scurried to keep up with his verbose meanderings, and newspapers across the states regularly carried page-long excerpts.  Words were his dancing partners: even when detouring from the subject at hand, which was nearly always, he kept his colleagues riveted.  </p><p>The Ivy-educated debater peppered his speeches with Latin and Greek aphorisms and Biblical allegories, filling the air with eyebrow-raising non-sequiturs.  The impractical scene-stealer invited opponents to mock what he could not change about himself: his beardless face, his sexual ambiguity (we don’t know the size of his hands).  To his constituents, it didn’t matter whether they even understood him: they loved it that he thumbed his nose at the establishment.  As a wealthy plantation owner he was of the elite; but as a thorn in the side of all the “regular politicians,” he was of the people. </p><p>One day in 1826, in the Capitol, Randolph went a tad too far, calling the relationship between President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay unseemly––without exactly naming names.  He dubbed them “the puritan and the black-leg”––the latter meant “cheater.”  Clay found out; he went ballistic––“Your unprovoked attack of my character in the Senate of the United States….”––and he challenged Randolph to a duel.  So a cabinet member and a U.S. senator, in the manner of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, took to the field of honor.  Both missed on the first fire, and Clay said: “This is child’s play!” before demanding another go.  “Mr. Clay, you owe me a coat,” the hubristic oddball Randolph said to the man whose manly honor was hereby (symbolically) restored after his second bullet passed through the Virginian’s coat without striking flesh.  This legendary encounter made all the papers.  Thirty years later, in the Senate chamber, it was the brutal caning of abolitionist Charles Sumner, rendered unconscious by a South Carolina congressman, that preceded the Civil War.  In antebellum America, people still believed, sometimes in perverse ways, that “actions speak louder than words.”  </p><p>The point is that in nineteenth-century political theater, hurled insults invited physical consequences.  Once the code duello no longer prevailed in American politics, political combat on the national stage was resolved (or left unresolved) with more talking.  In the first decade of the twentieth century, Governor Vardaman of Mississippi was a caricature of southern discomfort.  “The White Chief,” as many knew him, was the darling of angry poor whites, combining a cruel racist bent with a redneck proclivity for trash-talking.  So when Theodore Roosevelt received Booker T. Washington at the White House and dined with the African-American leader, Vardaman went nuts, calling the president a “coon-flavored miscegenationist.”  Questioning Roosevelt’s pedigree, he reported that the president’s mother, while pregnant, was frightened by a dog; and in a moment of alchemy, the “qualities of the male pup” were transferred to the embryo.  This kind of personal inventive was Vardaman’s stock in trade; he had no respect for the office of president.  As with Trump, all that mattered was bringing down the high and mighty and obliging them to roll in the mud.  </p> Sat, 12 Mar 2016 00:00:00 -0800 Andrew Burstein, Nancy Isenberg, Salon 1052379 at https://www.alternet.org Election 2016 Election 2016 2016 elections donald trump ted cruz We Have Always Been Good Haters: Our Donald Trump Problem Goes All the Way Back to the Founding Fathers https://www.alternet.org/culture/we-have-always-been-good-haters-our-donald-trump-problem-goes-all-way-back-founding-fathers <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">The battle between fear and hope is as old as America. We have always been idealists -- and suspicious.</div></div></div><!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="https://www.alternet.org/sites/default/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/shutterstock_320263841.jpg?itok=m4yKizZD" /></div></div></div><!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> <p>Some days, the poll-manufactured drama of the long and laborious 2016 campaign is presented as though it’s the only development in the life of the planet that’s current and newsworthy. We lose the larger picture. In truth, a super-rich guy’s affront to American values is not really newsworthy, and its currency is equally debatable. Furthermore, despite what you’ve heard, the coming presidential contest is not about one-upmanship; it’s not about little things at all.</p><p>As historians, we’ll go so far as to suggest that the culture-warring drums that daily beat are but reverberations of the 18th-century Enlightenment and 19th-century struggles to define America’s moral position in the world. That’s how not far we’ve come in 2016. We are not independent of our cultural inheritance. Americans were always idealists. And always good haters.</p><p>Historians are taught to see the present through a long lens. To take one hot-button issue of the here and now–perceptions of immigrants from Mexico and the Islamic world–a student of the past knows that the visceral language used to tar new arrivals as pollutants and regard them en masse as objects of suspicion is as old as our country. In colonial Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin had no patience for Germans who refused to abandon their native language. The Irish, across generations, were despised as simple-minded, argumentative drunks and rabble-rousers. Swarthy southern Europeans and Jews were “filthy”; Chinese were “loathsome” and legislatively prohibited from entering the country.</p><p>The list is long. The anti-foreign types in today’s GOP who court the votes of bigots and xenophobes reflect American history. And yet, the story we are taught is that of the Statue of Liberty, and the poor immigrant who saw America as an asylum from persecution. So many politicians credit their honest, hardworking immigrant parents for pointing the way. But what are they leaving out? Answer: historical perspective. Without even knowing it, here is what they are professing: that the United States of America was the one place in the world that enacted the admirable ideals of the Enlightenment. This one statement underlies all claims of American exceptionalism. It is who we wish we were.</p><p>The Enlightenment, first and foremost, was a movement conceived for the broad betterment of the human condition, promulgated in an age when the civilized world, so-called, regularly wrought destruction through military adventure. The technology is vastly improved, but that’s where we still are in terms of the ethical dilemmas we confront. War is constant.</p><p>A second, highly charged aspect of the Age of Enlightenment was an intellectualization of the reactionary tendencies inherent in organized religion. Traditionally, ministers retained influence and obtained preferential treatment by allying with royal power and the warrior class of aristocrats attached to the authoritarian state. Ordinary people were kept from thinking for themselves, kept from challenging aristocratic prerogatives and the royally sanctioned power structure. In short, popular ignorance kept the powerful safe.</p><p>So you see, we’re pretty much in the same place as we debate the role of government and rights of the individual today.</p><p>Philosophes challenged existing authority by holding that religion was but one branch of knowledge, imperfectly understood, and subject to science and the law of nature. Miracles and biblical authority belonged to ancient superstition, and had no place in the modern world. The divine right of kings, as a concept, was overthrown. When Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” he was reflecting at least a century of Enlightenment philosophy emanating from the works of Baruch Spinoza, John Locke and others decrying the willfully blind, self-promoting clerics who ran from rationality and logic.</p><p>In the eighteenth century, religious conservatives who resisted the Enlightenment stood against humanistic progress that they insisted was illusory. They felt the rise of the individual conscience in human affairs would bring on chaos and the collapse of moral civilization (as symbolized by the sturdy pillars of church and the royal state). Thus, the grasping leaders who profess belief in abject submission to an all-powerful deity–a deity whose implicit message for humanity such men arrogate to the gyrations of their own minds–have always been able to subordinate worshippers to their “received” message. Why wouldn’t they be comfortable with a tough-talking strongman who courts their bloc of votes? It should come as no surprise that leaders of today’s fundamentalists (in more than one religious sect, mind you) ally themselves with the pro-war/apocalyptic message of the political right wherever they are. They retell stories about the need to smite mortal enemies, so as to better worship God.</p><p>In the grandest terms, the Enlightenment contested imperial dominion. Adopting that liberating spirit, progressives of 2016 have effectively reconstituted the moral-intellectual energy of the Enlightenment. They express pride in possibility, in the idea of applying scientific knowledge to the existential challenges of our century; they protest the oppressive power of the large banks and corporations that pay millions to influence government; they place trust in global institutions and cooperative bodies to engage in high-level negotiation, using calm reasoning and respect for difference in order to reduce conflict and minimize the chances of economic catastrophe or world war.</p><p>And the reactionaries? Who adopts the role of the unenlightened war-making kings and the ministerial cohort of old? Why, those who have no respect for the liberal intellectual class and their dreams of a world built on collaborative, multi-state organs aimed at a peace-seeking balance of global forces. They prefer a Social Darwinian order, in which the strongest prevail by force of arms. They want Andrew Jackson to be in charge.</p><p>He was the epitome of reaction. Everything about Jackson (as a soldier, politician and president) revolved around character assassination. Name calling was his specialty. When he rejected a perspective, he would (in vague terms) recommend punishment at the hands of the people; in opposing a decision, he’d call the decision maker “base and vindictive,” but he never acknowledged himself as vindictive. Retributive justice was his mantra. He demanded “redress” of whatever injuries he felt, and decried every man he saw as a “petty tyrant.” Every political enemy was a “villain.” Defending a coarse vocabulary, he insisted it was the language of “freemen” who know their rights. He made it a habit to judge others’ character while asserting his own virtues with an unshakable self-confidence. And people loved it. He threw caution to the wind. He preferred, as much as possible, to dictate terms. He made good on his threats when he fired his entire cabinet. He most assuredly did not accept criticism. He did not admit mistakes. He regularly promoted yes men. In 1824 and 1828, Jackson’s vocal supporters declared their candidate a man of active energy, and the over-educated President John Quincy Adams a “sedentary” executive–in Trumpian parlance, a low-energy bureaucrat. This week, President Obama remarked that the Trump phenomenon was “nothing new” in American history. He’s right.</p><p>Since the Tea Party triumph of 2010, fanatics have shouted obscenities at the industrious thinkers and project engineers whom they associate with the amorphous enemy known as “big government.” In the eighteenth century, the equivalent enemy was “Philosophy.” The question that reactionaries could not effectively answer then or now is: how does blind adherence (dishonestly called “personal freedom” today, when it’s really fear-based tribalism) make things better for anyone?</p><p>Even in the lumbering age of sail, a promoter of the Enlightenment was a global citizen, someone who dreamt big. Education and self-cultivation, engines of gentility, were synonymous with personal opposition to dogma. Their idea was that critical thinking among a literary public produces societal change, advancing a community-wide sense of decency. It remains part of the Obama way of thinking too: that thoughtful engagement is not weakness but the definition of responsible republican governance, and preferable to the language of “attack and subdue.”</p><p>The countervailing Jacksonian model came with heroic imagery associated with westward expansion. Jackson embraced warfare initiated by the state and violence initiated by the armed individual–both as a proper function of conscience when one anticipated a possible attack. His populist message was laden with bellicosity, if not cruelty. But it resonated because it was predicated on a belief in the essential goodness and innocence underlying the “true” American identity. The Hollywood myth of the frontier hero, forced to commit violent acts to save the world from unreasoning evil, is as alive today as it was when the Indian fighter Andrew Jackson came of age. That America has to protect itself at all costs, using any and all means.</p><p>Supporters of Trump, Cruz, Rubio and those who see threats to the homeland coming from all directions are the inheritors of this Jacksonian mindset. They lead with threats. Jackson did so because it came naturally to him as a hardened frontiersman. His language was more than bluster; that of today’s GOP candidates is nothing but. Though they have never been to war or courted danger in any appreciable way, they pretend that their political competitors are weaker than they, and that they know how best to contend with existential threats. Such irresponsible, pandering phoniness is the military equivalent of a preacher insisting that God has instructed him in charting a moral course for society at large.</p><p>For those who are responsive to the pandering candidates, the world today is relatable to the lawless Wild West of myth, where the good guy out-shoots the bad guy. It is a useful myth. (And on occasion, it’s true.) Jackson, the first president to arise from outside the elite world of college-educated sons of relative privilege, made America strong, whereas–the way the story went–his predecessors, frilly bewigged eggheads, merely cogitated. The Jacksonian of today promotes conflict, believes in winning at all costs, and insists on peace that is best sustained in social Darwinian terms by retaining preponderant power. And in that world view, those who don’t belong–immigrants who don’t readily appear assimilable–are necessarily suspect.</p><p>While the Enlightenment exposed faulty beliefs, it did not preach pacifism but reason. The so-called conservative candidate of today may label the empathetic progressive as weak, but progressives are not utopians either. A Bernie Sanders would not unilaterally disarm, because that defies reason. (No one can talk sense to the irrational dictator of North Korea.) So if the history of the post-Enlightenment teaches anything, it is that peace is sought not by wishing for enlightened communion among culturally distinct states, as desirable as that might be to all who owe their sense of humanity to Enlightenment values; rather, coexistence is based on rationally applied leverage, balances of forces.</p><p>Yet even this approach is flawed. The United States, during the Cold War, befriended undemocratic governments, looked the other way at the backwardness and inhumanity of leaders, and rewarded them with arms in return for oil, air bases, etc. As a nation, we have been doing this for so long on the basis of realpolitik that we have to recognize that neither a Democratic or Republican presidency can reverse course easily.</p><p>So this is where we are. Where we still are, locked in a 300-year-old battle between fear and hope. For some, discredited forms of knowledge are still considered sacrosanct, because any threat to hallowed tradition is perceived as a threat to a protective order of the world without which the fires of anarchy will consume all. Enlightenment thinkers objected to tyranny over the mind. To consider Biblical stories timeless, universal, and somehow “the holy word of God,” was, they understood, to artificially construct a moment of uniform, universal truth. Rather, the “holy” Bible was a less than intelligible compilation of ideas that animated a narrowly positioned, long-dead people of one very limited part of the world.</p><p>An expansive, unfettered liberal arts education dictates against blind allegiance and uniformity, placing historical study for the sake of intellectual advancement alongside empirical energies directed toward improving humanity’s lot. Cross-cultural communication and the evidence-based questioning of old ways are the very definition of enlightened modernity, while an unquestioning acceptance of rigid ideologies only stands in the way of new possibilities.</p><p>We have the world we do today because the change we want happens very, very slowly and in select places only. The Enlightenment set the course for Obama-style hope and change. But in spite of the general, imperfect direction pursued by America’s founders, responsive to the Enlightenment, reactive forces continue to limit choice and promote authoritarianism. The suspicion-laden Jackson model (commanding obedience from lesser peoples) makes America’s delusive neo-populists appear in the eyes of others as hubristic, hypocritical, contemptuous, gun-toting moralists.</p><p> </p> Sun, 17 Jan 2016 07:34:00 -0800 Andrew Burstein, Nancy Isenberg, Salon 1049072 at https://www.alternet.org Culture Culture trump founding fathers history Who Was the Real Thomas Jefferson? https://www.alternet.org/who-was-real-thomas-jefferson <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">A heated op-ed war among historians is picking up where two controversial new biographies left off this fall. </div></div></div><!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="https://www.alternet.org/sites/default/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/screen_shot_2012-12-03_at_7.18.57_pm.png?itok=yVpgAeFy" /></div></div></div><!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--><p><span style="font-size: 12px;">The firestorm over author Henry Wiencek’s unsparing portrait of Thomas Jefferson, </span><a href="http://www.amazon.com/dp/037429956/?tag=saloncom08-20" style="font-size: 12px;">“Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves,”</a><span style="font-size: 12px;"> has taken to the pages of the </span><a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/27/books/henry-wienceks-master-of-the-mountain-irks-historians.html?pagewanted=all&amp;_r=0" style="font-size: 12px;">New York Times </a><span style="font-size: 12px;">and other media outlets with a vengeance. </span><a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/books/review/thomas-jefferson-the-art-of-power-by-jon-meacham.html?pagewanted=all" style="font-size: 12px;">Amid tepid praise for Jon Meacham’s folksy best-seller,  ”Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” which skirts the complex world of slavery</a><span style="font-size: 12px;">, it is Wiencek’s hubristic treatment that has returned Jefferson to center stage in historians’ long-standing war over whom to blame first and foremost for our racist underpinnings as a nation.</span></p><div><p>Wiencek seizes upon stray notes in Jefferson’s hand in which the Virginia planter performs cold calculations on the monetary value of slaves. A Scrooge-like Jefferson becomes cruel and uncivilized as he obsesses over the slave economy – which he comes to see as a “convenient engine” of American growth. You don’t remove the human face from slavery and come out ahead. But that is what Henry Wiencek has done to Thomas Jefferson.</p><p>Swayed as many of us were by Wiencek’s deft examination of George Washington and slavery, Jefferson scholars expected a hard-hitting sequel. But in its design to shock, “Master of the Mountain” rashly removes the conversation from the long-active scholarly community, by self-consciously claiming that Wiencek, as historical detective, has smoked out a criminal.</p><p>Here’s the irony: Nothing is new in the current debate. Jefferson and his fellow founders have been sensationalized in the press and in popular literature and academic monographs without cease for over 200 years. For the uninitiated reader who has not followed the long parade of books on Jefferson, every spin on the third president appears at first to have merit. Jefferson has been a political symbol since he first sought the presidency, and a piñata in America’s culture wars for nearly as long as that.</p><div data-toggle-group="story-13113481"><p>Matthew Livingston Davis, Aaron Burr’s first biographer, actually knew Jefferson. When Thomas Jefferson Randolph published four volumes of his grandfather’s papers in 1829, Davis went through the letters and was shocked to discover that the Virginian’s real talent lay in deception. His favorite term of derision for Jefferson was “Jesuitical.” But the award for the most entertaining portrait of a villainous, hypocritical Jefferson goes to the late Gore Vidal. In his fictional <a href="http://www.amazon.com/dp/0375708731/?tag=saloncom08-20">“Burr,”</a> we get a president who violated the Constitution while seducing his foes at the dinner parties he threw (those gatherings Jon Meacham offers up as his model of bipartisanship). Vidal’s Jefferson is surrounded by mixed-race offspring; his concubine Sally Hemings is pretty, but unfalteringly stupid.</p><p>Meacham’s Jefferson is “attractive and virile,” a smooth operator, serenely philosophical about the criticism he regularly receives, and a man who swings gleefully from realism to idealism, blending republican politics with haute cuisine. Oh, and also a master compromiser (which he was decidedly not). These characterizations of the sensitive politico serve to reframe the Jefferson biography as a Bob Woodward-style, inside-the-White-House intimate drama. Making Jefferson recognizable to us as a practitioner of political hardball allows the biographer to go on Chris Matthews’ “Hardball” and delight the host with comparisons to whatever is happening in Washington this week.</p><p>A studious historian strives to contextualize evidence. The 4 percent annual profit on the births of slave children that Wiencek seizes on is not pretty; no one gives Jefferson high marks, because there is no such thing as a good master. Yet the evidence Wiencek plucks from the page belongs to a conversation, foreign to our time, that took place in general terms relating to the collective self-interest of Southern elites who had inherited feelings of racial superiority. The evidence should be viewed as well in the context of those pages Jefferson produced when he doodled daily with numbers and lines, sketching out his parquet floors. In designing Monticello, he saw his world as a mathematical puzzle and calculated to fractions of an inch when builders of his day couldn’t come anywhere close. He said he lulled himself to sleep by conjuring “diagrams and crotchets” (wooden building supports).</p><p>Jefferson marveled, with melancholic persuasion, at the sublime scenes that nature, day and night, produced on his mountaintop. And this same man, born into a world of slavery, saw human ownership in terms that he could convert into practical experiments – slaves were pawns in his experiments with fruit trees and rice cultivation, too. Yet he was not a monster. We must always try to assess the true boundaries of the moral universe that existed, as we seek greater insight into the social limitations he and they contended with. It’s hard to do this without making premature judgments, which is why historians continue to find employment.</p><p>Still, there is something seductive in Wiencek’s argument. We want to get inside the heads of people who came before, who left a paper trail, whom we can imagine still speaking to us.<a href="http://www.salon.com/2012/10/14/master_of_the_mountain_the_real_truth_about_thomas_jefferson/">Salon’s book review editor, Laura Miller, does not pretend to be an archivist of early American sources, and in reviewing Wiencek’s book she positively responded to its stark provocations</a>. It is perfectly reasonable that she would not have identified senior scholars who were missing from the endnotes. And that is what moved experts on Jefferson and slavery to go public in their denunciations of the book. Selective evidence, presented effectively, is how prosecutors stage an argument, and Wiencek is clearly prosecuting his case against Jefferson. His detractors are not “Jefferson defenders,” but scholars whose more nuanced perspectives are absent from his argument.</p><p>Over the last two weeks, op-eds have rolled and roiled. Legal historian Paul Finkelman, writing in the Times, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/opinion/the-real-thomas-jefferson.html">said that Wiencek is wrong only in his timing</a><span style="font-size: 12px;">, </span><span style="font-size: 12px;">and that</span><span style="font-size: 12px;">Jefferson w</span><span style="font-size: 12px;">as not suddenly roused to racism when he discovered his 4 percent solution–no, he was always “deeply committed” to slavery</span><span style="font-size: 12px;">. Finkelman terms Jefferson “creepy,” fixing understandably on Jefferson’s words in calling free blacks “pests in society” and emotionally primitive. Finkelman targets Jefferson, but at the same time excuses Washington, whose slave-owning experience differed from Jefferson’s only in that Washington was not perpetually in debt as Jefferson was, and could therefore have lived quite well if he had freed his slaves while he was in his prime and set a standard for others to follow. (We should add that even the urbanite Benjamin Franklin was a slave owner, and only freed his slave in his will.)</span></p><p>Everyone seems to have an ax to grind. Professor Finkelman is correct to charge Wiencek with exaggeration. To reduce Jefferson’s views on slavery simply to profit misses all the other ways that he engaged with the institution. This is the problem when a writer takes a very complex man and makes him familiar; this is what scholars call reductionist, wherein one solitary trait stands in for an entire personality.</p><p>But to call Jefferson “creepy” reflects Finkelman’s long-held bias. His Jefferson is incorrigible, a morally deformed figure lurking in the bowels of historic memory. When we isolate Jefferson and see his actions apart from those of his fellow Southerners (and a clear majority of Northerners), we miss the larger picture. Of course, he wrote in “Notes on Virginia” that Africans were a “blot” on the American landscape, and it sounds horrifying to our ears; it should. But his language drew on the respected 17th-century travel writer George Best and the ethnographic science of the mid-18th century’s ingenious (if misguided) Comte de Buffon.</p><p>We cannot do without historical context. Jefferson’s obsession with blood lines and breeding reflected his reading on animal husbandry and population theories. That is how he came to argue that interbreeding between Africans and Europeans improved the black race. So Wiencek is wrong to limit Jefferson’s view on slavery to the cash nexus alone; and Finkelman, while a deep constitutional thinker, also tends to be single-minded when it comes to Jefferson. For the historical Jefferson, race and procreation were conditioned by forces of culture beyond the obvious–his evolved theory on the “fortuitous concourse of breeders” asserted that uncontrollable human passions made it impossible to breed superior offspring.  So he wrote tauntingly to John Adams in 1813.  Reading Jefferson’s “Notes,” Adams offered unconditional praise, not only overlooking its reprehensible racial arguments but calling Jefferson’s remarks on race “gems” of political expression.  Is Adams creepy for not condemning Jefferson?  When we make Jefferson the measure of all things, we simplify what came before and distort the contested nature of past ideas and practices.</p><p>Annette Gordon-Reed, the Harvard professor whose books have done more than any other modern scholar to reframe the conversation about Jefferson and slavery, wrote in Slate that Wiencek’s treatment was “bizarre” and obsessive and full of misreadings. Jan Ellen Lewis of Rutgers-Newark took apart the author’s claims in the Daily Beast, charging that Wiencek was “blinded by his loathing.” Wiencek responded by calling Professor Lewis’ arguments “petty twistifications” — a word Jefferson himself used in attacking Chief Justice John Marshall for interpreting the law so that it reflected his personal biases.</p><p>The scholar who should be most offended by Wiencek is Lucia (Cinder) Stanton. Her long career as a researcher at Monticello has been singularly devoted to comprehending the personal lives and limitations imposed on the slave families of Monticello. Stanton receives praise in Wiencek’s acknowledgments; then the author proceeds to obscure, if not undermine, all she has brought to light.  We strongly recommend to readers her book <a href="http://www.amazon.com/dp/0813932238/?tag=saloncom08-20">“Those Who Labor for My Happiness.”</a> Stanton has no ax to grind; her purpose is to humanize the past and bring it to life responsibly.</p><p>It’s fascinating that people still get angry about dueling portrayals of Jefferson. He wasn’t the only one who lacked political courage. The founders were clannish lawyers and land speculators who identified with the interests of their states and never entirely surrendered their will to an idealized Union. They had to deal with state jealousies, jurisdictional controversies over land and expansion.  In the 1780s, Jefferson wanted slavery prohibited in the federal territories of the Northwest. And that’s how Congress voted. So, do we laud Jefferson for his progressive instincts?  Tentatively.  Does it rescue him from the collective judgment of scholars?  Hardly.</p><p>For he was a timid abolitionist at best. His primary constituency was the Southern planter class, landed men of social privilege. Like him, they borrowed heavily. They owed bankers in England and elsewhere. They were constantly perched on a fiscal cliff. And they, like the majority of their Northern peers, bought into the convenient consensus that those millions of individuals brought in chains from Africa and the Caribbean were an inferior race of people. Political men constantly privileged their own collective self-interest. No surprise there. Even in manumitting certain individual slaves (most commonly upon the death of the master), they allowed slavery to fester. There were a few heroes who spoke out for racial justice, a relative few who turned their backs on slavery. But in the first 50 years of the republic, the vast majority of elected U.S. representatives invested their hearts in issues we’ve long since forgotten. No inheritance continues to affect the U.S. and point to its deficiencies so much as the brutal memory of ugly mistreatment of a people whose skin pigmentation offended some lily-white European-Americans.</p><p>Why Jefferson? He is a bellwether, a moral indicator. Though the superior democrat, he is still compared unfavorably to the intrepid Washington, who finally freed his slaves in his will. But Washington never attempted to legislate in the interest of the enslaved in any one of his 68 years. In fact, his will kept his human property enslaved until after his widow Martha’s death, which occurred a few years later. One of those he owned was Martha’s half-sister – we learned that fact in Henry Wiencek’s earlier, well-received book, <a href="http://www.amazon.com/dp/0374529515/?tag=saloncom08-20">“An Imperfect God.”</a></p><p>Jefferson cared deeply about how he would be remembered. In the final decades of his life, he made repeated attempts to find a political historian friendly to his perspective on post-Revolutionary partisanship, with whom he could share his trunkfuls of documents.  But he did not exhibit any concern over his published views on black inferiority, because he did not anticipate the 21st century and its evaluation of him on the basis of his life as a sexually active slave owner. He though his credentials in that regard would shield him from attack where and when it mattered.  Like the posthumous Washington image. Seeing black as inferior was, and would remain for quite some time, mainstream thinking.</p><p>Like us, that generation argued without reaching an epiphany. In Madison and Jefferson, we show that Madison’s racism did not descend to the level of Jefferson’s. In <a href="http://www.amazon.com/dp/0465008135/?tag=saloncom08-20">“Jefferson’s Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello,”</a> Andrew Burstein focuses on early American cultural understandings of the body and right living, to explain how the widower and man of privilege that Jefferson was could justify sex with any “healthy, fruitful female” as an acceptable, indeed prescribed, method for a man of letters to maintain his health.  There remains much to learn about the conflicted culture that birthed this nation.</p><p>Slavery as an institution was defended by the Constitution — a document Jefferson did not have any hand in drafting. Slavery was protected by state and federal laws. History is the art of engagement with that distant country we call the past; it is about more than personalities. It is not enough to be repelled by Jefferson; you have to probe the political and social environment if you wish to explore the reasons why he did those things that we find so reprehensible.</p><p>It is we today who have outsize expectations from Thomas Jefferson, because his most uplifting words attest to American ideals. We want someone from the receding past to be transcendent, to warrant the superlatives collectively conferred on a “greatest” generation. Yet no generation ever lives up to its ideals.  We are all rationalizers. We are all prioritizers. But here’s a great line, which Jefferson wrote to a fellow Virginian in 1816: “I wish to avoid all collisions of opinion with all mankind.”  Good luck with that, Mr. Jefferson.</p></div></div> Mon, 03 Dec 2012 16:15:00 -0800 Andrew Burstein, Nancy Isenberg, Salon 754575 at https://www.alternet.org thomas jefferson