Jefferson’s “Tree of Liberty” & His Defense of Protesting Rubes

14 03 2011

It’s useful to take the time to look into history sometimes. Particularly when details of that history are shorn of context and held bare in a spotlight as proof of current righteousness.

We get it.

I don’t begrudge the tea party activists their protests; though I get the sense they feel that only their protests “count,” that theirs is true populist rage but nothing else is. If you want to protest taxes you perceive as too high, hey, that’s a long tradition in America. Go buck wild. But don’t then look at the massive protests for immigration reform, labor rights, against the war, and pretend they’re less meaningful because they’re somehow un-American or not “real.”

We get it.

The Tea Party campaign has taken the powerful and expansive ideas of the revolution and dulled their power by limiting them to being “anti-government.” The Founding Father’s weren’t “anti-government.” They were anti- lots of different things. Some were practically monarchists, others French-style Jacobin democrats. There was one thing common to almost all of them, though: they were radicals. By the measure of the time, they were progressives and they were radicals. This is a bald fact. They wanted to engage in social engineering, to undo the entire social, political and economic system and rebuild it according to commonly-held principles. They wanted to form the first republic in the history of civilization to officially forbid government interference in religion and vice versa. It is not at all a debate that within the at-time “modern” world, America’s revolutionary leaders were radicals–revolutionaries, after all.

Guess what we get?

And Jefferson, who provides right-wing activism with some of its most potent rhetoric, was on the radical end of that radical group. Jefferson rested his theory of government on a foundational need to formally limit the power of three classes (said another way, he really fucking hated the following groups of people): aristocrats, clergy, and creditors. He wasn’t a fan of slave traders either, but coming from a slave owner that’s not really compelling.


Aristocrats to Jefferson were not a political class as much as an economic class. They were the landowners. They weren’t powerful because their title was a magic word; their title was powerful because it represented ownership of property that was impossible to dislodge from their grip. As to clergy, he said once there would have never been a single infidel if there had never been a single clergyman. He used the phrase “monkish ignorance.” You get it. That one’s obvious. Creditors–sometimes “bankers,” some times other wacky 18th century nicknames for them, like “stockjobbers,” though that one is specific to London–he loathed probably because he was in debt his whole life. But also he saw the hold of debt by one free person over another as a threat to democracy. Prior to industrial economies of scale, the creditor was most responsible for the economic misery of the working class husbandman or tradesman. It was a vacuous freedom to Jefferson to work all your days for the benefit of another who expends no labor.

Which brings us to his “Tree of Liberty” letter to William Smith, Read the rest of this entry »

March of the Morons: Brady on Evolution and Creation

6 10 2010

I have one question that I believe should be used to disqualify people from running for executive office. It is, “Do you accept the theory of evolution?” Anybody who says no should be disqualified. No, it’s not a religious test that would violate the Article VI prohibition. It’s a moron test. We could also ask, “Are you a moron?” but then we’d be less likely to get an honest response. This way we could actually root out the morons.

This has nothing to do with conservative/liberal, Democrat/Republican. Evolution is a fact–in fact, it’s more than a fact. It is a theory built upon literally millions of facts. Believe whatever other thing you want, but denying that evolution took place–maybe not exactly how science now conceives, but that it took place in some way–is absolutely no different than denying gravity. Newtonian physics got the mechanics of gravity wrong, but that didn’t make gravity itself wrong. If you think “the jury is out” on evolution, you’re not particularly bright, willfully ignorant, or poorly educated (which may not be your fault, but still–probably shouldn’t be elected to executive office).

Bill Brady thinks it’s okay to teach Creationism in schools. By doing so, he betrays his claim that he accepts “both” creationism and evolution. Accepting both as equivalent to be taught is like saying you accept “both” the theory of electromagnetism and fish are delicious. I don’t care about any of the rest of his politics. How can you vote for a person like that? Creationism in schools? Really? We want the US to create well-educated kids prepared to tackle the most significant problems of the future–not to mention stay on the cutting edge of science–and we’re going to allow school districts to teach Creationism? How stupid is this guy?

Apparently immensely.
Read the rest of this entry »

The Crucifixion of Sarah Palin

19 01 2010

I posted this a few days after Barack Obama’s election to the Presidency. I’m chilled to think I may have been right.


For conservatives and Republican partisans, John McCain was a sinner—imperfect. But Sarah Palin was pure as driven snow; yet since her selection, she has been subjected to an eight week Passion play, to end in crucifixion by an unelected aristocracy (e.g., “the media”). The right’s instinctive outrage will know no earthly bounds once the skies clear. Speculation on Sarah Palin’s future role in right wing politics abound as soon as people started to notice “tension” between Palin and that McCain guy; John Dickerson wondered if Palin has “gone rogue” in an effort to salvage her future.

Now that McCain-Palin have failed, will Palin wither away into a Trivial Pursuit answer (Which Alaska pol spent $150,000 on clothes while appealing to “hockey moms”?) alongside Admiral Stockdale or Charles McNary? Or will the fact of her crucifixion, coupled by the ever-sharpening identity politics of the right-wing transform the Republican Party into something sinister? If the GOP’s recent history of constant outrage is any guide, Palin is on her way to becoming a semi-spiritual figure of immense symbolic importance, to a large, vocal right-wing base.

In a recent New York Times Magazine piece, Robert Draper basically confirmed what everyone had suspected: that the choice of Palin as running mate was essentially a publicity stunt and sop to the base meant to stiffen an increasingly flaccid campaign. For most conservatives and partisans Palin was a generally unknown quantity, yet within forty-eight hours were absolutely in love. Faster, in fact, than any acquaintance with her record or political history could be made. There is no doubt that her instant appeal was due wholly to the news cycle narrative the GOP operators spun and the media repeated. Stories are quick, but facts are slow. Before the facts could come out, people fell in love with a two-dimensional character, and love is a much harder to bond to break than respect. So as the facts began to arrive, they appeared to be “designed” to harm the integrity of the beguiling, tough-talkin’, moose-huntin’ mom of five who also, by the way, runs a state!

Her somewhat affected dropped g’s, winking, and corny shout-outs indicate that she is aware of her power as a symbol, rather than an engine for a political philosophy. She is pure, distilled identity; and like purely distilled corn, that is right on the edge of being poison.

The left can’t match identity politics with the right. Since Nixon’s trailblazing days mapping the Nixonland of Rick Perlstein’s monstrously researched book Nixonland, identity politics has been the right’s preferred and perfected legerdemain, and the left can only awkward punch back, forever harping about “issues” and running from the dreaded “class warfare” epithets. Republicans can and do win on issues—particularly locally—but the national party, particularly in the Nixon and Bush regimes, has run on cultural identity issues and little else.

If this campaign has shown anything, it is that the GOP is not afraid to encourage the lesser of people’s natures—questioning their fellow citizens’ loyalty and motives, emphasizing differences rather than similarities, and generally appealing to vague xenophobia. That they honestly appear to consider these tactics legitimate—although certainly they’d use different words to describe their tactics in the last few weeks of the campaign—is more worrisome. We shouldn’t question their motives, and just judge their actions: and drawing attention to the Bill Ayers issue, as though they think Senator Obama is actually a radical terrorist, and by resurrecting the word “welfare” after a twelve year hiatus (when it was ended as we know it) can be objectively judged as purposefully divisive.

This nastiness can be attributed directly to the identity politics and cultural relativism that came to maturity in the 1970s and were appropriated so handily for the creation of Nixonland, where right wing identity politics filled the vacuum left by class consciousness.

After thirty years of red-hounding, the economic left wing was simply unable to disguise their class-conscious politics any longer. Abandonment of class ideology disoriented them and the ensuing disarray led to the birth of an identity-focused party “left wing” party.

Without a class appeal, the left just cannot hang. In Nixonland, anybody who disagrees with you  is really just violating your own personal “truth”.

Nixon’s wing of the Evil Genius Hall of Fame would be safe enough with that achievement, but he stepped his game up with his deft weaponizing of self-pitying outrage. He generally kept it private, but outrage at his own treatment was a steady beat throughout Nixon’s cacophonous career. LBJ, too, but Nixon turned it into politics. On October 9th, Pat Buchanan, erupting with indignation tipped their hand. As Chris Matthews drew a line through the history of culturally divisive Presidential smears—Dukakis and the flag, Clinton going to Russia, John Kerry was a traitor, also French, Barack Hussein Obama—Buchanan loses it:

BUCHANAN: Let me tell you, I came into politics with Barry Goldwater, 1,200 psychiatrists signed a full-page ad…


BUCHANAN: … saying he was…

MATTHEWS: Two wrongs don’t make a right.

BUCHANAN: … he was nuts! You guys started it with the daisy ad, and you’re getting it back in spades…

The outrage over Barry Goldwater’s treatment at the hands of the Eastern intellectuals (then much more so than now code for something else) dovetailed with the agony of the “stolen election” of 1960, which robbed Richard Nixon and, much more painfully, created a Democratic icon that would last for generations. Then in the 1970s, it was outrage over the mythological spit-upon vet. The idealized soldier—Lt. William Calley, convicted of murder in the My Lai massacre—was metaphorically spit-upon, and that led to further outrage. In the 1980s, the hearings on Supreme Court Justice nominee Robert Bork gave rise to an outrage shorthand—getting “Borked” meaning subjected to cruel ideological and personal dissection. And then they gave that shorthand a good workout during the also outrageous Borking of Clarence Thomas. That’s a pretty seamless continuum of outrage.

And now the mother of them all: Sarah Palin.

Do not assume that popular rejection of Palin will push her out of national politics. Nor will the heightened right wing identity politics just disappear—just as the scream didn’t vanquish the Deaniacs. The fact that her destruction came at the hands of the fourth estate makes Palin perfectly positioned to run a criticism-proof campaign in the future, or if not Palin herself some Palin-supported stand-in.  Patrick Ruffini of, arguably the most thoughtful movement right blogs, recently called Palin “the Right’s Howard Dean”:

How was [Dean’s] comeback even possible? Whatever Dean’s faults, there was a sense that the party elite had bankrupted itself by running a series of poll-tested me-too triangulators. Dean’s easy victory at the DNC was the precursor of the grassroots’ long-term victory over the elite, culminating in the evisceration of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Does any of this sound familiar?

And who seems to be the flashpoint in this elite-grassroots war currently raging in the GOP? Like Dean, it’s Sarah Palin.

Andrew Sullivan disagrees, which may prove Ruffini’s point. John Henke, another contributor at The Next Right, questions whether Palin has a sophisticated enough political philosophy, and the answer of course is no: she has a cultural philosophy. She governs a state that has socialized its largest resource, and like a colony receives an enormous amount of aid from the federal government per capita. What political philosophy relevant to the nation as a whole could she really be familiar with? Yet another MSNBC conservative, Joe Scarborough, on an October 2nd edition of Hardball, cast similar doubts:

You sit there and say, okay, she is saying she is a conservative, but is there that ideological grounding? What would you (sic) say if you asked her about Milton Friedman? What would she say if you asked about Hayek? What would she say if you asked her about what Ronald Reagan’s overriding message was in 1976 and 1980? I don’t think she would have the answers.

Democratic partisans used Howard Dean to reorganize around a loose collection of vague principles. A right wing reorganized around Sarah Palin would reorganize around a particular cultural identity—a loose collection of issue positions and cultural symbols. You can’t build a party around being a maverick. Minus the maverick, Sarah Palin is pure identity politics, powerful because of what she represents—how people identify with her—rather than her ideology, or philosophy.

The moderate right has been steadily declining for a generation, but just since the 106th Congress, the Republicans have lost twenty six Congressional seats—in both houses—in the Northeast and California alone, not to mention Rust Belt and upper Midwestern suburbs, where Republicans have been steadily picked off the last three cycles. The disastrous Bush administrations, in other words, have whittled the Republican coalition to its most indivisible base—its lowest common denominator. This doesn’t mean that all the moderates are gone—only that their political relevance has considerably diminished. Why would a grassroots Republican movement born again by the Good News of the woman from Wasilla look to David Brooks or Peggy Noonan or David Frum (the “establishment”) for political guidance? More likely they will look to the identity incarnate, who died in their image.

Gentle Sarah, meek and mild.