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Besides, everyone knows Lincoln was a fascist anyway…

[ 99 ] November 13, 2013 |

Oh, for fuck’s sake:

Abraham Lincoln, a Democrat?

So says a plaque at a public university in Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, where, since 1905, students at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago have seen the nation’s 16th president — and quite possibly its most influential — honored as a democrat.

“This building is dedicated to public service honoring the memory of Abraham Lincoln,” the inscription reads. “Democrat.”

The explanation for this inscription is simultaneously banal and rather more complicated than it would seem. As the university pointed out (for what seems not to have been the first time), the plaque used the word “democrat” because indeed “Lincoln was an advocate for democracy — the political or social equality of all people. The word was not chosen to reflect a political affiliation.” The latest organization to obsess over the plaque is something called Turning Point USA, which appears to be a project founded by middle-aged dudes hoping to inspire college students and other younger folk to work themselves into a grand mal over the size of the national debt. Charlie Kirk, the group’s founder, is determined to learn the truth about Obama’s birth certificate the inscription’s provenance. “Before we go hard at it,” he explains, “we want to know if this is the original plaque, or was it replaced, because it might have eroded due to corrosion.”

The university’s explanation makes a good deal of sense, but as it happens, Democrats in 1905—especially (but not exclusively) Northern ones—were often quite content to appropriate Lincoln as one of their own. Republicans of course laid first claim to the man, but by the 1890s progressive Democrats like William Jennings Bryan were loudly quoting Lincoln’s various pronouncements on the rights of labor among other subjects; anti-imperialists were harvesting from Lincoln’s Mexican War speeches to condemn McKinley’s war in the Philippines; the national party hosted dinners and other gatherings under the auspices of the so-called Jefferson-Jackson-Lincoln League; and Democrats like Ohio’s John Lentz were arguing that the Republican Party had essentially squandered their rights to Lincoln’s legacy. Agrarian and urban radicals were even credulously circulating an apocryphal bit of text they called “The Lincoln Prophecy,” in which Lincoln had supposedly warned that corporations would soon be “enthroned” and the “money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign” by suffocating the people and aggregating wealth in the hands of a tiny few. (Lincoln’s “prophecy” was an obvious forgery, but it continues to play people for suckers to this day.) Most horrifically, even Democratic Lost-Causers like Thomas Dixon, D.W. Griffith, and Woodrow Wilson adopted Lincoln as a segregationist avant la lettre—a man who, had he lived, would have treated the South gently and accepted its reassertion of mastery over emancipated slaves. Most Southern Democrats would continue to loathe or ignore Lincoln’s memory for years to come, but there were not a few who discovered something they might admire about him.

So while this week’s minor rumble over the Lincoln plaque at NEIU has nothing to do with anyone actually caring about history, there’s nevertheless some interesting historical questions that could be—but won’t, sadly—make their way into the conversation.


It’s not the context…

[ 192 ] November 7, 2013 |

American Orientalism is alive in Southern California, where Coachella Valley High School has really outdone itself:

The current mascot is based on an “angry Arab” design unveiled in the 1950s. The scowling face was meant to be a fearsome front for the football team, said Art Montoya, 74, one of the directors of the alumni association

But that was decades ago. The context of the design has faded, and it is easy to see why this unflattering “cartoon” character could be seen as offensive today, he said.

The Arab mascot is a mainstay at football games, joined by belly dancers during halftime shows. Murals on the high school buildings show an Arabian couple riding a book as if it were a magic carpet and a school logo flowing out of a genie’s lamp.

As with the Redskins nickname, there’s no “context” in which imagery like this could ever have made sense as anything other than a gesture of grotesque racism. The “context” that bred this particular iteration of the mascot was a decade in which white Americans were reading transparently racist novels like Leon Uris’ Exodus, which portrayed Arabs as foul-smelling, joyless miscreants — the “dregs of humanity” — who happened to be perched on culturally and economically valuable real estate. It’s depthlessly absurd to pretend that imagery like this evolved from any sense of “admiration” of or historical connection to Arab people, as the school’s principal contends, and it’s silly to pretend that replacing this odious caricature ought to be preceded by some kind of reasonable, measured community dialogue in which two equally-weighted perspectives are offered the chance to make their case. Longevity is a poor alibi for racist dipshittery.

“Pieces of meat passed high overhead…”

[ 37 ] November 2, 2013 |

Farewell to George Thomas Thornton, an American visionary who understood that few dreams are worth pursuing that don’t involve dynamite and the rotting carcasses of charismatic megafauna.

While Thornton’s decision to obliterate a sperm whale in November 1970 would, decades later, bring him lasting internet fame, he was also very much a product of his own, dreamier historical moment. Operation Plowshare was in mid-swing, as the George Thorntons staffing the Atomic Energy Commission imagined using nuclear blasts to excavate harbors, widen canals, stimulate natural gas flows, and rupture oil shale deposits. Nuclear blasts, so far as I’m aware, were never seriously considered as instruments for carcass removal or as a means of dispersing carrion for seagulls and crabs, but Americans are well known for their failures of imagination. George Thornton offered us a brief glimpse into a better world; we are diminished for having chosen not to follow him.


Treason in Defense of Scientific Management

[ 133 ] November 1, 2013 |

I must admit that I don’t find this at all surprising:

Caitlin C. Rosenthal didn’t intend to write a book about slavery. She set out to tackle something much more mundane: the history of business practices. But when she started researching account books from the mid-1800s, a period of major economic development during the rise of industrialization in the United States, Rosenthal stumbled across an unexpected source of innovation.

Rosenthal, a Harvard-Newcomen Fellow in business history at Harvard Business School, found that southern plantation owners kept complex and meticulous records, measuring the productivity of their slaves and carefully monitoring their profits—often using even more sophisticated methods than manufacturers in the North. Several of the slave owners’ practices, such as incentivizing workers (in this case, to get them to pick more cotton) and depreciating their worth through the years, are widely used in business management today.

Though it appears this is all news to historians of business, historians of slavery have been pointing this out more or less since the 1970s. In an oft-cited 1973 article in the Journal of Economic History, R. Keith Aufhauser pointed out that the task system — usually regarded as less brutal than gang labor — enabled plantation overseers to calibrate particular jobs to the capabilities of particular slaves, and that the meager forms of autonomy available to the enslaved within the task system (e.g., small garden plots and other “rewards” for obedient labor) enabled managers to assert greater control over the enslaved. Historians since the 1970s pretty well demolished Eugene Genovese’s assertion slavery was a feudal anomaly within an emerging bourgeois capitalist economy, and I can’t think of any recent work on slavery that hasn’t emphasized slavery’s ruthless capitalist aspects. Then again, classic business histories like Alfred Chandler’s Visible Hand and Daniel Wren’s Evolution of Management Thought had utterly nothing to say about the genealogical relationship between slavery and scientific management, so I suppose it’s a promising sign that business historians like Rosenthal are finally catching up….

Today in “Wingnuts Reading Tweets”

[ 51 ] December 19, 2012 |

I’m just going to have to assume that in ordinary, grammatically complex conversations with actual human beings, these folks are simply unable to carry on for longer than five minutes without pissing themselves with rage.

So summarize:

  1. Joyce Carol Oates wonders NRA members might become outraged enough to support new gun laws if — using “if” in a first conditional clause —”sizable numbers” of them had their heads mounted on sticks experienced gun violence in their own lives.
  2. Marg Helgenberger notes — using the auxiliary modal “can” when she clearly meant to use the related auxiliary modal “could” — that we could “only hope” that if such unforeseen horrors were to actually transpire, experience might prove a tonic to ideology. As Adorno wrote once, “The splinter in your eye is the best microscope magnifying glass.”*


* Note: I am TOTALLY NOT calling for everyone to immediately begin stabbing NRA members in the eye.**

** OK, maybe I am just a little.***


[Added: And I neglected to mention that in Helgenberger’s tweet, she specifically concluded that NRA gang-bangers would be unswayed by experience. Thus, even if someone were to line them up, offer them a handful of cornmeal, and shoot them like old country mules, they would still advocate for unrestricted gun rights. So far from inciting violence, we have someone glumly noting that it would nevertheless serve no useful pedagogical aim. If, that is, someone were actually to demand blood. Which would, of course, be completely rude and irresponsible.]

The stupidest fucking thing you’ll read in the next five minutes

[ 47 ] December 14, 2012 |

Shorter Ace of Spades:

We could prevent mass shootings by laughing at the perpetrators’ tiny penises.

I’m not sure how many lobes of my brain I need to excise in order to understand this, but apparently what ails our national culture is a collective failure to ridicule people based on heterosexist fables about satisfying the wimmin. Remarkable.

No, Lincoln did not have a “secret plan” to liquidate slavery

[ 44 ] November 28, 2012 |

It’s probably not worth adding to Scott’s corrective observations on Connor Kilpatrick’s Jacobin post, but since I’m currently working on a manuscript about Lincoln in American fiction, I’m more or less helplessly drawn to the ways that Lincoln has been appropriated by historians as well as novelists and filmmakers for every conceivable political aim. As Donald Fehrenbacher once explained, “in the whole gamut of American politics, no reactionary is so blind, no revolutionary is so militant, no misfit so freakish that he cannot find a place in Abraham’s bosom.” So, for example, Thomas Dixon — author of the novels that inspired Griffith’s Birth of a Nation — wrote a hilariously unreadable novel asserting (in the 50th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation, no less) that Lincoln was a lifelong white supremacist who would have either deported or segregated free blacks had he not been unwisely murdered. Kilpatrick’s regard for Lincoln, by comparison, is drawn from an extensive body of historical and imaginative literature arching back to the 1930s Popular Front that posed Lincoln as an instrument of class warfare — liquidating, as Kilpatrick notes, an enormous proportion of the nation’s wealth and presiding over the greatest social revolution in American history. (The “Red Lincoln” historiography survives today, in affectionate as well as neo-confederate varieties. Dixon’s white supremacist Lincoln has substantially less cultural vitality these days, at least so far as I’m able to tell.)

In any event, the “true” or “real” Lincoln is an elusive thing; he had, as one of his biographers noted, an “essential ambiguity” that makes him perpetually available for reinterpretation. So when someone insists, as Kilpatrick does, that Lincoln had a “secret plan” to abolish slavery when he entered the office in 1861, we have to wonder how he arrives at such a precise understanding of Lincoln’s motives. Kilpatrick quotes Lincoln as vowing that “the powder in this bombshell will keep dry and when the fuse is lit, I intend to have them [the South] touch it off themselves,” destroying slavery in the process.

The problem with this interpretation, of course, is the context for Lincoln’s words.

Read more…

The Wretched of the Earth

[ 79 ] November 13, 2012 |

Robert Barnwell Rhett would be embarrassed to learn that his self-parodying ideological heirs are, it seems, actually pleading with the Twelfth Imam to set them the fuck free already. The White House petitions — which you can read here — are just as faithful to the rhythms of grammatical and punctuational orthodoxy as you’d expect from people who can actually imagine an independent Kansan Republic. But for the love of Christ, these people could use some truth:

There’s only one way to be a first-class citizen. There’s only one way to be independent. There’s only one way to be free. It’s not something that someone gives to you. It’s something that you take. Nobody can give you independence. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it. If you can’t take it, you don’t deserve it.

What do you say, people of Wyoming? It’s time to stop singing and start swinging.

(Now as for Alaskans, we’re a peaceful people who believe in fair dealing and compromise, and we’re not beyond politely asking for stuff. In that spirit, my students crafted this during tonight’s session, and we’re optimistic that it will receive a proper hearing.)

The gift that keeps on giving…

[ 31 ] September 20, 2012 |

Holy shit, can this presidential campaign please go on forever? Please don’t ever stop, Mitt. Please.

Meantime, Willard should take Bing Crosby’s lead and prove he’s really an heir to the Party of Lincoln.

Oh, God.

[ 67 ] September 5, 2012 |

Paul Ryan, among many others, is evidently dismayed that the 2012 Democratic Party platform has performed a third-trimester abortion on Baby Jesus, whereas the GOP platform has been cleverly inscribed on a tortilla miraculously bearing the toasted image of the Virgin Mary.

For shits, I devoted a needlessly long chunk of time this morning reviewing the archive of party platforms available through the invaluable American Presidency Project, and — well — here you go:

A few observations:

  1. The 2012 GOP platform is a total outlier, presumably designed to intimidate the Saracen hordes biding their time for Obama’s re-election.
  2. Judging entirely by the text of its platforms — for by their words, or works, or whatever, ye shall know them — the party clearly had no use for God from its founding through the 1960s. By my sophisticated calculations, the godlessness of the Republicans from 1856-1956 likely accounts for the successful passage of 93 percent of Progressive Era legislation and 97 percent of the New Deal.
  3. I have new-found, albeit limited, appreciation for the Nixon-era GOP.
  4. How did Reagan manage to win in 1980 with 66 percent less Jeebus than 1976?
  5. How did Bush manage to win in 2000 with 75 percent less Jeebus than 1996?
  6. I don’t know what that weird green dash is to the right of the graph, but fuck it! I made a graph!


UPDATE: Here’s another meaningless graph:

“So, professor: Would you say it’s time for everyone to panic?”

[ 8 ] July 24, 2012 |

Yes I would, Kent.

When the rat-muscled cyborg jellyfish rise up and devour your loved ones, you can thank me for at least trying to sound the alarm.

“I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them: that is why I am here”

[ 79 ] July 13, 2012 |

I was sitting in a Juneau bar last night when Loomis messaged me about this absurdity by Arthur Herman, who currently appears to be packing away the silver cutlery in anticipation of the nation’s “Coming Civil War,” an irrepressible conflict to be staged between the “Makers” and Mudsills “Takers.” (And you, dear reader, are probably a Taker.) Herman’s article is for the most part a boneyard of conservative grievances about unions, welfare, and the mistreatment of the job creators, whose staggering wealth just barely compensates for the love and appreciation we cruelly withhold from them. He also goes to the predictable trouble of goofing up his numbers, insisting that 48 percent of Americans “are now on some form of government handout” when in fact the data actually show that half of all households have one or more individuals receiving cash payments, food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security.

But so far as the Civil War analogies go, Herman really distinguishes himself from the field of contemporary Republican lamentations. He’s no Paul LePage, but he does conclude, after wise and patient study of 20th and 21st century economic and sociological data, that “we’re a house divided again and another civil war is coming, with the 2012 election as its Gettysburg.” Which apparently means that while the war is “coming” — as in “not yet started” — we’re about to wage one of its decisive battles. So if I follow him properly, either the Makers or the Takers are about to invade (probably figuratively) the other’s territory, organize a poorly-conceived (and also likely figurative) charge up a vital hill, and get mowed down enormously before they’re allowed to withdraw and continue the fight for another two years. (That last part is probably literal. People really want their food stamps and subsidized student loans.)

Since I can’t imagine that Herman envisions the Makers losing or abandoning the struggle — and since he approvingly quotes (and misquotes) Abraham Lincoln — I’m supposing he sees the Makers carrying on the spirit of the Union. You know, like raising income taxes on the wealthy, subsidizing massive railroad and other public works projects, and essentially giving away hundreds of millions of acres to ranchers, miners, farmers, and . . . well, just read the Ryan Budget, and you’ll see that it’s pretty much the same thing. And since Republicans are constantly accusing liberals of keeping (blah) people enslaved rather than setting them loose into the splendor of the Northern textile mills, stockyards and iron foundries, we’re obviously wearing Confederate grey in this scenario, destined to lose the war of attrition the 53 Percenters have in store for us. (Don’t despair, though. In fifty years, the history books will be telling our side of the story. Long march through the institutions, motherfuckers!)

And yet Herman also wants the Makers to identify with the terror endured, circa 1859, by the Southern master class in the face of dangerous liberty fanatics and their Big Government abettors. “Like John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry,” Herman warns, “Obamacare has been a wakeup call to what’s at stake — just as the turbulent events in Wisconsin showed how far Democrats are willing to go to win.” Indeed. If you can’t spy the similarities between (a) early 1990s Republican health care policy suggestions, (b) perfectly legal, if rare, procedures to unseat elected officials, and (c) messianic plots to foment servile insurrection and carry out a protracted Appalachian guerrilla war, then you’re clearly not paying attention to the signs of the times. Much as Jefferson Davis decried the Brown escapade as “the invasion of a state by a murderous gang of abolitionists bent on inciting slaves to murder helpless women and children,” Republican governors like Jindal, Perry and Scott are answering the call of history and making sure helpless women and children aren’t violated by preventive checkups, tuberculosis vaccinations, or prenatal testing. Or maybe it’s more like George Wallace a century later, only with primary care clinics instead of Foster Auditorium. I don’t know. History is hard.

Nevertheless, Herman assures us that the “angels of our better nature [sic]” might yet prevail. “We’re not Greece yet — or on the brink of Bull Run.” (Um. Aren’t we about to fight Gettysburg?) But we can apparently “make a house divided whole once more” by electing the States’ Rights guy instead of the Free Stuff guy. What a relief.

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