Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tom Friedman’s Tea Kettle and the Mandarin Delusion

by Michael Kaplan

A defective Martha Stewart Everyday Brand Tea Kettle. A metaphor for Tom Friedman?

I’ve long been an admirer of Tom Friedman, the New York Times award-winning foreign affairs columnist. I’ve spent many days happily absorbed in his articles and books, which often inspired my own thinking on world issues. Friedman’s analysis of the realms of politics, culture, economics, and religion was incisive, penetrating beneath the surface of events, bringing historical perspective to current conflicts. Whether discussing Middle Eastern politics, global capitalism, or America’s place in the world, Friedman connected the dots with grace, elegance, and humor. Several years ago, when I taught at Yeshiva University, some students asked me how I could like both Tom Friedman and Rush Limbaugh. I replied that I don’t march in lock step with anyone and I’ll take my wisdom from wherever I can find it.

How disappointing it is to find that Friedman’s analytical and expository power, that allows him to get to the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict or explain globalization, fails him when he turns to his own country. Friedman is frustrated with democracy, at least in its two-party incarnation. The sad truth is that Tom Friedman, like so many other liberal pundits, does not understand Jacksonian America. I really shouldn’t be so surprised. Friedman was never a Jacksonian, but unlike many liberal progressives he is an American nationalist. In his writings Friedman usually tries to strike a balance between American nationalism and liberal internationalism, which is not an easy task. Friedman’s nationalism likewise tends to balance the patriotism of affirmation with the patriotism of dissent. No matter how critical he may be of America’s dysfunctions as he sees them, whenever he returns home from one of his globe trotting adventures, Friedman metaphorically kisses the ground and says “God bless America!”

A pensive Tom Friedman. Trapped in the mandarin delusion?

But getting to the point. As I said Friedman is frustrated with American democracy in its current two-party duopoly. Since at least 2005 Freidman’s writings have been dominated by three themes: the urgent need to develop green technologies and a green economy even if it has to be forced on a recalcitrant American public by governing elites who know better; the hijacking of American politics by the ideological far right and far left and the disintegration of the political center; China as the model of an enlightened autocracy where wise mandarin elites can impose reform on society unhampered by the dysfunctions of democracy (the mandarin delusion). Friedman really wants a third party, a party of “the radical center,” that can bring together the majority of Americans who are center right or center left (New York Times, October 3, 2010). Such a coalition, Friedman believes, can bring needed reforms to address America’s urgent social and economic problems and restore democracy to health. A new centrist party would, in Friedman’s view, see the wisdom in the policies that the liberal progressive elite want to impose on the nation, some of which have already been implemented by the Obama administration. I believe Friedman is mistaken in this. The center right is just as opposed to the progressive green agenda as the far right is, as indicated by the level of popular support for the Tea Party. And America is a center right (not a center left) nation. As Democratic pollster Pat Caddell told Monica Crowley on her WABC radio show (October 9, 2010), the Tea Party is “the tip of the spear” of a much larger Jacksonian populist revolt against the liberal progressive agenda.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Tea Party is the Spirit of Jacksonian America

by Michael Kaplan

Daniel Shays (l) and Job Shattuck (r) leaders of Shays's Rebellion

The bloggers at the conservative What Would the Founders Think? posted “We’re ALL Tea Partiers Now” in response to the uproar over the Tea Party victories in the Republican primaries, especially Christine O’Donnell’s victory in Delaware. The Tea Party, they insist, is not a political organization. It is a grassroots awakening of average Americans at kitchen tables and workplaces across the country who are now engaging with politics. The Tea Party is the American people asserting their sovereignty over government.

This is very much a Jacksonian populist movement. Most Americans today, conservative and liberal alike, are mistaken about the commitment of the Founders to popular democracy. The Founders believed in liberty, which they feared could be destroyed by a tyranny of the majority, which is how they looked at democracy. In 1948, Richard Hofstadter observed that “Modern American folklore assumes that democracy and liberty are all but identical, and when democratic writers take the trouble to make the distinction, they usually assume that democracy is necessary to liberty. But the Founding Fathers thought that the liberty with which they were most concerned was menaced by democracy. In their minds liberty was linked not to democracy but to property.” (The American Political Tradition, p. 10). Fareed Zakaria, writing in Foreign Affairs (Nov/Dec 1997, p. 30), commented on the Founders’ concerns: “Constitutional liberalism is about the limitation of power, democracy about its accumulation and use. For this reason, many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberals saw in democracy a force that could undermine liberty. James Madison explained in The Federalist that ‘the danger of oppression’ in a democracy came from ‘the majority of the community.’” Michael Mandelbaum writes in Democracy’s Good Name (pp. 17, 21), that the Founders, looking back to ancient Athens and Rome, were convinced “that the average person lacked the education, the judgment, the temperament, and the commitment to the public good to play a constructive role in public life.” The ignorance and lack of sophistication of the common people made them susceptible to the appeals of demagogues. Such demagogues would cultivate the politics of class envy, so that if a popular majority did gain control of the machinery of government, they would promptly proceed to redistribute property and wealth. This is why the Founders established a representative republic instead of a democracy. Of the major Founders, only Thomas Jefferson took issue with their suspicion of active participation by citizens in politics—and of democracy. The idea that ordinary citizens should be empowered to “take back our government” owes more to Andrew Jackson and the democratic movement of the 1820s that it does to the Founders.

There is one paragraph in the WWTFT post which I find to be an eloquent statement of the ideals of Jacksonian democracy and nationalism:

The Tea Party is us. Don’t let the establishment politicians and media brand us. Don’t let them “identify” us as anything but Americans who believe that we are best governed by ourselves, not a power elite. They are threatened by our belief in liberty. Tyrants always are. Remember that, and vote for people of quality and character regardless of how they are made to look on television. They may not be lawyers or glib performance artists. They may be rough-hewn and not articulate. But vote for those you can trust to go to Washington and do what is right for liberty. Don’t be seduced by the media smoothies. We know all about talkers who promise change but deliver poverty and stagnation; who lie and steal from the public treasuries and our wallets and our children’s futures. We are about reclaiming liberty. That is the battle here. It’s not between Republican and Democrat, or black or white, or Christian or atheist. It’s about the liberty to “be,” to shape our own futures. The branding being done by the Establishment is a distraction, an attempt to dilute and divide us. Don’t let it happen.  Stand for liberty.
Old Hickory could not have said it better himself. Jackson was determined to prevent self-interested elites from using government to promote their own special interests to the detriment of average, hard-working Americans.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fareed Zakaria GPS Panel Is Clueless About Jacksonians

by Michael Kaplan

On his CNN show this week (September 19, 2010), Fareed Zakaria moderated a panel which discussed, among other things, the recent political success of Tea Party candidates in Republican primaries. Also up for discussion was the controversy surrounding Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s proposed Ground Zero mosque. It didn’t take long for Fareed and the panel members—Kathleen Parker, Bernard-Henri Levy, Chrystia Freeland, and Dan Senor—to start complaining that Jacksonian populist conservatives are screwing up America.

I like Fareed Zakaria and I usually like his guests, the members of this panel included; I have enjoyed watching them on talk shows and have read some of their writings. I don’t always agree with them, but then again I’ve never been in lock step with anybody, left, right, or center. Here at The New Jacksonian Blog, we believe in free and open discussion and are always willing to entertain opposing points of view. What came through loud and clear was the panel’s liberal internationalist elite disdain for Jacksonian America. I hate having to keep saying it, I wish it were not true, but there it is.

Kathleen Parker, an establishment Republican journalist, started off saying that the Tea Party would be a disaster for the Republicans. Like most establishment Republicans, Parker was “appalled” at Christine O’Donnell’s victory in Delaware. Only Dan Senor had anything good to say about the Tea Party. But Senor misread the Tea Party when he pointed out their focus on conservative economic issues and silence on conservative cultural issues. “I think what's interesting about the Tea Party movement is in the 1980s and the 1990s, the fringe right of the Republican Party, those fights were fought and they were culture wars. Right? They were fought over abortion, they were fought over prayer in school and flag burning.” Senor continued, “What's motivating the Tea Party movement are not those issues. This is about spending. It's about bailouts. It's about the growth of government.” Yes, the focus is on fiscal issues, but the Tea Party is committed to conservative cultural positions on abortion, gay marriage, traditional values, and patriotism. Anyone who’s listened to Sarah Palin or Christine O’Donnell would know that. Lee Harris has written on this in The Weekly Standard. They are not the priority in this election cycle given the state of the economy—yes, as Freeland observed “this is an ‘it’s the economy stupid’ election.”

Parker, Freeland, and Levy agreed that economic uncertainty, the middle class fear of falling, is driving a tide of xenophobic nationalism that is behind such issues as immigration restriction and the mosque controversy. Levy lamented that America is abandoning its traditional pragmatism for extreme ideology. Parker raised the race issue: opposition to illegal immigration shows that Jacksonians are still wedded to white supremacy.

PARKER: I think we cant -- it would be remiss to skip the race factor, because what you're talking about when you talk about immigration now, especially these more highly-skilled workers, are people from other countries with darker skin, and we are seeing -- the Tea Party is primarily male, primarily white, primarily over age 45. And there is the sense that despite our wonderful history of immigration and immigrants, that this country is going elsewhere.
And we know the statistics down the road. What is it? By what year whites will be the minority? I mean, there's a very strong, emotional sense that the country is becoming something else that is exclusive to them.
Jacksonian opposition to the mosque, the panel minus Senor agreed, was driven purely by Islamophobia. “Well, its classic. I mean, the mosque, in particular, is classic displacement, right? Its looking for the other, looking for the enemy.” (Freeland) The three panelists contemptuously dismissed the idea that Ground Zero is sacred ground. When Senor, who opposes the mosque, spoke up for the majority of New Yorkers and Americans who also oppose the mosque, observing that the wounds of 9/11 were still raw, the other panelists jumped all over him. Parker complained that many Americans’ distrust of Rauf’s motives, fear of Sharia law, and concern that the mosque would be seen as a monument to Islamic triumphalism, was nothing more than xenophobia.

Unfortunately the GPS panel failed to provide a penetrating analysis that goes to the heart of why Jacksonians oppose the Ground Zero mosque. Ross Douthat in the New York Times and Fouad Ajami in the Wall Street Journal, do understand the real cause of Jacksonian angst. Where liberal progressives see America in constitutional terms as a set of political propositions, Jacksonians see America in cultural terms as a distinct and unique national community. For liberal progressives building the mosque is a matter of upholding the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion. For Jacksonians the mosque project is “an affront to the memory of 9/11, and a sign of disrespect for the values of a country where Islam has only recently become part of the public consciousness.” Jacksonians question whether Islam, with its heritage of Sharia law, is compatible with America’s culture of liberty and rugged individualism—just as it had similar concerns about Roman Catholicism in the nineteenth century. Liberal progressives, with this history in mind, argue that religious tolerance cannot be made conditional upon cultural assimilation. But Jacksonian America does expect Muslim Americans to make a greater effort to assimilate Islam to American democratic social and cultural norms if they want to be accepted as full members of the folk community. This includes showing respect toward Jacksonian sentiments on what they consider sacred ground.

So to sum it up, Fareed, Parker, Freeland, and Levy were basically saying that Jacksonian Americans (the 70 % who oppose the mosque) are just a bunch of racists, jingoists, xenophobes, and Islamophobes. This is just a recycling of the standard elite liberal progressive talking points. As much as I like Fareed Zakaria, he and his guests simply don’t get Jacksonian America—any more than President Obama does for that matter. Instead of trying to understand what motivates the 70% or so of Americans who are Jacksonians: their passion for liberty and honor; their love of God, family, and country; their commitment to keeping America exceptional; they just dismiss them as . . . you guessed it, boobus americanus. If Fareed Zakaria hopes to influence Jacksonian public opinion, he’s going to have to do better than this.

I've posted the video below. The panel discussion starts at around 4:30 minutes and ends at around 20:15.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan

Saturday, September 18, 2010

War Hawks of 1812, I: John C. Calhoun Calls for War with Britain

Introduction by Michael Kaplan

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina is most famous as the champion of states’ rights, southern sectionalism, and slavery. But early in his career he was an ardent nationalist and expansionist. Like Jackson, Calhoun came from a Scots-Irish family in the Carolina backcountry. His father Patrick had been a leader of the Regulator Movement which fought for backcountry rights in the 1760s and 1770s. Calhoun’s family was more stable and prosperous than Jackson’s and young John Caldwell received the education and advantages denied to Jackson. Graduating with honors from Yale and going on to law school, then marrying into South Carolina’s tidewater planter aristocracy, Calhoun rapidly advanced in his political career. Calhoun was very much the sophisticated intellectual, a man of grace and elegance, in contrast to Jackson the rough hewn frontier warrior. In 1811 and 1812, Calhoun, along with Henry Clay of Kentucky, led the War Hawk faction in Congress. In later years Calhoun, who shared Jackson’s iron will and self-discipline, came to resemble Jackson in his dour, craggy appearance as well. As Jackson’s vice president, Calhoun would come to blows with his chief on the issue of nullification. By then Calhoun had abandoned his nationalism in favor of southern sectionalism. Jackson, of course, remained a nationalist to the end.

Here are excerpts from four of Calhoun’s speeches in Congress (originally published in the Annals of Congress) on the need to vindicate American honor and restore national vitality through a just and righteous war. Calhoun, like Jackson, wanted to teach the British a lesson they would never forget.

* * * * * * * * * *

To wrongs, so daring in character, and so disgraceful in their execution, it is impossible that the people of the United States should remain indifferent. We must now tamely & quietly submit, or, we must resist, by those means which God has placed within our reach.

Your committee would not cast a shade over the American name, by the expression of a doubt which branch of this alternative will be embraced. The occasion is now presented, when the national character, misunderstood & traduced for a time by foreign & domestic enemies, should be vindicated. If we have not rushed to the field of battle like the nations, who are led by the mad ambition of a single chief, or the avarice of a corrupted court, it has not proceeded from a fear of war, but from our love of justice & humanity. That proud spirit of liberty & independence, which sustained our fathers in the successful assertion of their rights, against foreign oppression, is not yet sunk: The patriotic fire of the Revolution still burns in the American breast with a holy & unextinguishable flame, and will conduct this nation to those high destinies, which are not less the reward of dignified moderation, than of exalted valour.

But we have borne with injury until forbearance has ceased to be a virtue. The sovereignty and independence of these states, purchased and sanctified by the blood of our fathers, from whom we received them, not for ourselves only, but as the inheritance of our posterity, are deliberately and systematically violated: And the period has arrived when, in the opinion of your Committee, it is the sacred duty of Congress to call forth the patriotism and resources of the country. By the aid of these, and with the blessing of God, we confidently trust we shall be enabled to procure that redress, which has been sought for by justice, by remonstrance & forbearance in vain.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Andrew Jackson’s Proclamation to the Tennessee Militia, March 7, 1812

Introduction by Michael Kaplan

Massacre at Fort Mimms.  Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Andrew Jackson issued this call to arms to the citizens and soldiers of Tennessee just before the start of the War of 1812. British seizures of American shipping and encouragement of violence by the Indians had led to worsening relations between the United States and the old mother country. Jackson, who had been in command of the Second Division of the Tennesse militia for ten years was eager for a showdown with the British, whom he hated with burning intensity. What good did it do to be major general of the militia if you could not lead your men in battle? Jackson sought to win fame as a military chieftain and history was now giving him his opportunity.

In February 1812, several months before war was declared, Congress authorized President Madison to issue a call for fifty thousand volunteers from the states. The War Hawk faction, which included Jackson in Tennessee and Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun in Congress, banged the drum for a war that would defend American rights on the high seas, enable American expansion through military conquest of Canada and Florida, and vindicate America’s national honor. This was to be America’s second war of independence. These were themes that Jackson touched on in his address.

Though poorly educated, Jackson was able to express himself in powerful and forceful language. He understood the importance of the historical moment in which he and his country found themselves and he was able to communicate this to his men. The ideas he emphasized were all central to Jacksonian populist nationalism:

1. America’s tradition of voluntary service--citizen miliitas--in contrast to the forced conscription of European monarchies.

2. War as the arena in which young men would display their courage and patriotism, find adventure, achieve glory, make a name for themselves, and fulfill the demands of honor while defending their families, communities, and nation.

3. Americans will fight to defend their liberty and property. They are free citizens of a republic, the only people in the world who have liberty and property of their own to defend. They do not fight as subjects, as cannon fodder, for the power and glory of kings and emperors.

4. Americans will fight to defend their national character, vindicate their national honor, secure their national identity, expand into lands (Canada and Florida) they should rightfully possess, and show the slavish minions of the King of Great Britain that they cannot intimidate a free people. The people of the United States would assert their independence once more and cut mighty Britain down to size.

These themes of liberty, patriotism, martial prowess, and honor are the lifeblood of Jacksonian nationalism till this day. Jackson also had a very personal reason for going to war: he sought to avenge the deaths of his mother and brothers at the hands of the British during the Revolutionary War, which left him an orphan forced to make his own way in the world. At the Battle of New Orleans Old Hickory would indeed pay Britain back in full. And it would be the last time that Americans and Britons would face each other as enemies in battle.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Andrew Jackson to the 2nd Division, March 7, 1812

Division orders.

March 7th, 1812--

Volunteers to arms!

Citizens! Your government has at last yielded to the impulse of the nation. Your impatience is no longer restrained. The hour of national vengeance is now at hand. The eternal enemies of american prosperity are again to be taught to respect your rights, after having been compelled to feel, once more, the power of your arms.

War is on the point of breaking out between the united states and the King of Great Britain! and the martial hosts of america are summoned to the Tented Fields.

Citizens! an honourable confidence in your courage and your patriotism has been displayed by the general government. To raise a force for the protection of your rights she has not deemed it necessary to recur to the common mode of filling the ranks of an army.

No drafts or compulsory levies are now to be made.

A simple invitation is given to the young men of the country to arm for their own and their countries rights. On this invitation 50,000 volunteers, full of martial ardor, indignant of their Countries wrongs and burning with impatience to illustrate their names by some signal exploit, are expected to repair to the national standard.

Could it be otherwise? Could the general government deem it necessary to force us to take the field? We, who for so many years have demanded a war with such clamorous importunity—who, in so many resolutions of town meetings and legislative assemblies, have offerred our lives and fortunes for the defence of our country—who, so often and so publickly have charged this verry government with a pusillanimous deference to foreign nations, because she had resolved to exhaust the arts of negociation before she made her last appeal to the force of arms. No, under such circumstance it was impossible for the government to conceive that compulsion would be wanting to bring us into the field. and shall we now disappoint the expectations which we ourselves have excited? shall we give the lie to the professions which we have so often and so publickly made? Shall we, who have clamoured for war, now skulk into a corner the moment war is about to be declared? Shall we, who for so many years have been tendering our lives and fortunes to the general government, now come out with evasions and pitifull excuses the moment tender is accepted?

But another and a nobler feeling should impell us to action. Who are we? and for what are we going to fight? are we the titled Slaves of George the third? the military conscripts of Napolon the great? or the frozen peasants of the Russian Czar? No, we are the free born sons of america; the citizens of the only republick now existing in the world; and the only people on Earth who possess rights, liberties, and property which they dare call their own.

For what are we going to fight? To satisfy the revenge or ambition of a corrupt and infatuated Ministry? to place another and another diadem on the head of an apostate republican general? to settle the ballance of power among an assassin tribe of Kings and Emperors? “or to preserve to the prince of Blood, and the grand dignitaries of the empire” their overgrown wealth and exclusive privileges? No: such splendid atchievements as these can form no part of the objects of an american war. But we are going to fight for the reestablishment of our national charector, misunderstood and vilified at home and abroad; for the protection of our maritime citizens, impressed on board British ships of war and compelled to fight the battles of our enemies against ourselves; to vindicate our right to a free trade, and open a market for the productions of our soil, now perishing on our hands, because the mistress of the ocean has forbid us to carry them to any foreign nation; in fine, to seek some indemnity for past injuries, some security against future aggressions, by the conquest of all the British dominions on the continent of North america.

Here then is the true and noble principle on which the energies of the nation should be brought into action: a free people compelled to reclaim by the power of their arms the rights which god has bestowed upon them, and which an infatuated King has said they shall not enjoy.

In such a contest will the people shrink from the support of their government; or rather will they shrink from the support of themselves? will they abandon their great imprescriptible rights, and tamely surrender that illustrious national charector which was purchased with so much blood in the war of the Revolution? No: such infamy shall not fall upon us. the advocates of Kingly power shall not enjoy the triumph of seeing a free people desert themselves, and crouch before the slaves of a foreign tyrant. The patriotic tender of voluntary service of the invincible grays of Capt. F. Stumps independent company and a correspondent display of patriotism by the voluntary tender of service from the counties of Davidson Sumner Smith and Rutherford, is a sure pledge that the free sons of the west will never submit to degredation.

But the period of youth is the season for martial exploits; and accordingly it is upon the young men of america that the eye of the nation is now fixed. They in a peculiar degree are the proper subjects of a volunteer expedition. To say nothing of the generous courage which distinguishes that period of life, they, from their particular situation, can quit their homes at the shortest notice with the least inconvenience to themselves. Unencumbered with families and free from the embarrassment of domestic concerns they are ready at a moments warning to march to any extremity of the republick.

Should the occupation of the Canadas be resolved upon by the general government, how pleasing the prospect that would open to the young volunteer while performing a military promenade into a distant country, a succession of new and interesting objects would perpetually fill and delight his imagination the effect of which would be heightened by the war like appearence, the martial music, and the grand evolution of an army of fifty thousand men.

To view the stupendous works of nature, exemplified in the falls of Niagara and the cataract of Montmorence; to tread the consecrated spot on which Wolfe and Montgomery fell, would of themselves repay the young soldier for a march across the continent. But why should these inducements be held out to the young men of america? They need them not. animated as they are by an ambition to rival the exploits of Rome, they will never prefer an inglorious sloth, a supine inactivity to the honorable toil of carrying the republican standard to the heights of abraham.

In consideration of all which and to carry into effect the object of the general government in demanding a voluntary force, to give the valiant young men of the Second Military Division of the state of Tennessee an opportunity to evince their devoted affection to the service of the republic; the Major General of the said division has thereupon ordered

1 That the militia of the second military division of the state of Tennessee be forthwith mustered by the proper officers.

2 That the act of Congress for raising a volunteer corps of 50,000 men be read at the head of each company.

3 That all persons willing to volunteer under the said act be immediately enrolled formed into companies, officered, and reported to the Major Genl

4 The Generals of Brigade, attached to the Second division are charged with the prompt execution of these orders.

Andrew Jackson
Major Genl. 2 Division

Source: Harold D. Moser et al., eds., The Papers of Andrew Jackson, Volume 2 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1984), pp. 290-293.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September 11, 2001: A Defining Moment for Jacksonian America

by Michael Kaplan

I was at home on that fateful morning, September 11, 2001. I woke up to news of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center and watched the collapse of the South Tower on TV. I knew then that America and indeed the world would never be the same. On that beautiful late summer morn one of the major pillars of American exceptionalism came crashing down alongside the Twin Towers.

No longer would the two oceans guarantee America’s separation from the conflicts and hatreds of the Old World. For over two hundred years the United States had developed its republican institutions and its culture of liberty, rugged individualism, and “don’t tread on me” independence, free from interference by the aristocrats and warlords of Europe. There was no need for a huge military establishment and the intrusive authoritarian government that would accompany it; the perennial threats to liberty that Thomas Jefferson feared. The Second Amendment guaranteed that there would be men who knew how to use guns and who could organize themselves into voluntary militias when needed. No foreign army had dared set foot on the soil of the United States since that day in January 1815 when Old Hickory smashed the British army of Sir Edward Packenham at New Orleans. Frontier warfare with the Indians, while savage, was really just a nuisance that ad hoc citizen militias, with the occasional support of the small United States Army, could deal with. The lack of imperial predators in the New World and its geographical separation from the Old World helped make America unique and exceptional. It could permit liberty to flourish to an extent unthinkable in a nation surrounded by tribal enemies waiting to devour it. The most grievous wounds America suffered were those she inflicted on herself during the Civil War.

Andrew Jackson understood quite clearly what was at stake as he organized the militia of Tennessee for war in 1812:
But another and a nobler feeling should impell us to action. Who are we? and for what are we going to fight? are we the titled Slaves of George the third? the military conscripts of Napoleon the great? or the frozen peasants of the Russian Czar? No, we are the free born sons of america; the citizens of the only republick now existing in the world; and the only people on Earth who possess rights, liberties, and property which they dare call their own.
Americans could not take their rights, liberties, and property for granted. As much as we might like to ignore what Jacksonians think of as the dark world outside America as we pursue happiness, there are those in that world whom our pursuit of happiness fills with a burning rage. This lesson was brought home to Americans of our generation on September 11, 2001 amidst the death and destruction in the heart of our greatest city.

In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Japan’s Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the sneak attack, is credited with saying “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in 2001, like Hideki Tojo and the Japanese in 1941 did not understand Jacksonian America and its determination to assert America’s national honor and punish those who would do her harm. That miscalculation assured an aroused nation determined to avenge the attack. Ground Zero has, nine years later, become sacred soil for Jacksonian America. The 343 firefighters (along with police and emergency personnel) who went to their deaths while saving as many of their fellow citizens as humanly possible on that terrible day, rank with the 187 defenders of the Alamo in the annals of American honor and heroism. If not for their sacrifice the death toll that day would be much higher than the 2,977 who did perish, which was a toll higher than Pearl Harbor’s. Victor Davis Hanson, who understands Jacksonian America very well, concluded a discussion in The Wall Street Journal on “Why the Muslims Misjudged Us,” with a warning: “America has been a friend more often than not to you [the Muslim world]. But now you are on the verge of turning its people—who create, not follow, government—into an enemy: a very angry and powerful enemy that may be yours for a long, long time to come.”

As time has passed, liberal progressive America and conservative Jacksonian America have drawn very different lessons from 9/11; differences that would shape the heated domestic politics and foreign policy of both the Bush and Obama administrations. Simply put, did the Islamic jihadists attack us for who we are or for what we do? The cognitive dissonance between left and right over the meaning of and proper response to 9/11 has grown so great that the two sides of America might as well be living on different planets.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

An Artist’s View of Conflict: Phil Collins’s “Both Sides of the Story”

by Michael Kaplan

Phil Collins performs at the Prince's Trust Rock Gala, Nov. 17, 2010.

For more than twenty-five years Phil Collins has been near the top of my list of musical artists. Never a darling of music critics in the U.S. or the U.K., Phil brought to his music, both in Genesis and as a solo artist, a soulful and romantic vision imbued with hope for the human condition that has always inspired me. And some of his songs are downright hilarious. That is to say that Collins is the heir to the British Romantic tradition. Of course the human condition has a way disappointing; many of Phil’s songs are laments for the emotional loss and devastation that follow in the wake of intimacy gone wrong. And now at age 59, having survived three broken marriages (he’s reportedly paid $80 million in divorce settlements and is at a loss to explain why his third marriage failed), Collins swears he will never marry again. (Rush Limbaugh said the same, and he’s now on wife number four.)

But another theme in Collins’s art is the destruction wrought by social and political conflict and the need for social justice. Like many artists (and academics) who see themselves as liberal progressive citizens of the world, Phil feels the need to make big statements on pressing world issues like war, hunger, and poverty. This is the sort of thing that drives Jacksonian conservatives bonkers and led Laura Ingraham to write a book telling liberal-minded musicians to Shut Up & Sing. Having gone to one of Phils concerts at Madison Square Garden (way back in 1994), I can assure you he’s far from the worst in that department.

Phil Collins on the cover of Rolling Stone, 1985.

Recently I rediscovered Phil’s song “Both Sides of the Story” from his 1993 album Both Sides. This album is usually considered the start of Collins’s decline (if you look at it that way) from his 1980s superstardom. And to be honest it was never one of my favorites. But returning to the title song after many years I’ve found a musical and emotional power in it that I hadn’t suspected. It has also led me to think about the very different ways Jacksonian populist conservatives and elite liberal progressives look at the causes and resolutions of human conflict and whether these views can be reconciled. (You can read the lyrics here.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sarah Palin: Old Hickory in a Skirt

by Michael Kaplan

Well, the liberal media did it again. In the October 2010 issue of Vanity Fair, writer Michael Joseph Gross delivered what conservatives and even some liberal feminists are calling a “hit piece” on Sarah Palin. What is it about this woman, the former governor of Alaska, that inspires devotion in so many and drives so many others into paroxysms of incoherent rage? For Jacksonian Tea Partiers and conservatives Sarah is virtually a saint, while for elite liberals she is nothing less than the devil incarnate—a woman who in Gross’s words inhabits “a place of fear, anger, and illusion.” In the two years since she stepped on to the national stage as John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate, Sarah Palin has emerged as one of the most popular and divisive figures in American history. In this, as in much else, she is following in the footsteps of none other than . . . Old Hickory!

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this Weekly Standard cover says it all. (Go to Matthew Continetti’s outstanding cover article which examines Palin’s Jacksonian heritage.)

I really like Sarah Palin. As a Jewish academic I guess that makes me an oddity. But as a Jacksonian I’m right on target. When a former student asked if I would feel safe knowing her finger was on the nuclear button, I said yes, I would feel quite confident that the security of the American people was in good hands with Mrs. Palin controlling the nuclear codes; more confident than I feel with President Obama, his rejection of American exceptionalism (though he does believe in Obama exceptionalism), and his unending apologies for American power and greatness. Since when does the President of the United States bow down to the king of Saudi Arabia or kowtow to the mandarins of China! Old Hickory and Ronald Reagan must be turning over in their graves. I remember back in the ’80s when the liberal elites denounced Reagan as an ignorant, out of control cowboy, who by calling the Soviet Union what it was—an evil empire—would set off a nuclear holocaust. This is no different than today’s Palin derangement syndrome (or the recent Bush derangement syndrome) on the left. And despite my problems with President Obama, I don’t much like the Obama derangement syndrome on the right either. A little too apocalyptic for my tastes.

Anyway, I don’t agree with the idea bandied about by some elitists, liberal and conservative alike, that the presidency has outgrown the capabilities of the average “salt-of-the-earth” American. Having spent much of my life in and around academia, I've developed a somewhat dim view of the leadership abilities of academics and intellectuals (think Woodrow Wilson). Barack Obama reminds me of much that I find unattractive about the academic mindset—ivory tower arrogance, narrow mindedness, and theoretical obsessions disconnected from any true understanding of the realities of human nature, something you are supposed to learn from the study of history. It is precisely an “average” American with the right instincts, common sense, and strength of character that is needed to be commander in chief; someone who can make the hard decisions for the direction of this nation. George Washington was the least intellectual of the Founding Fathers, yet he was the only one who could lead America through the pangs of her birth. It was Andrew Jackson, who lacked any formal education, who kept the Union together during another time of crisis and Abraham Lincoln who kept it together during an even greater crisis. FDR was said (by John Maynard Keynes) to have had a second rate mind but a first class temperament. More recently it was Ronald Reagan, who nobody ever accused of being an intellectual, who presided over America's economic and national revival and of course defeated communist tyranny. It was the so-called “best and the brightest” who often led the nation astray and gotten us into deep trouble—think Vietnam. A president needs intellectuals among his advisors, but he (or she) needs above all to be a decision maker who can assimilate conflicting strands of advice and information and make a policy decision based on his or her larger vision of where America should be going.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

New York City Tavern Violence and the Creation of a Working-Class Male Identity: or B’hoys Will Be B’hoys

by Michael Kaplan

New York City's Five Points neighborhood painted by Geroge Catlin around 1827

Here's a blast from my past. I wrote this article fifteen years ago for the Journal of the Early Republic as part of my dissertation research. I dug through nineteenth-century court records and newspapers trying to figure out how violence shaped the political culture of Jacksonian New York. Tavern disturbances, I concluded, helped define the new, democratic, urban Jacksonian nationalist culture of the mid-nineteenth century. These forgotten brawls and riots created a distinct working-class male identity that was centered on the boisterous public assertion of honor, physical courage, independence, pride, and American patriotism, all central to Jacksonianism. Both the native-born (Anglo-Saxon and Scots-Irish Protestant) and immigrant (Irish Catholic) workingmen, who fought each other, contributed to forging this identity. A new populist hero, the b’hoy, was as symbolic of the urban Jacksonian persona as the yeoman farmer or Davy Crockett were of the western Jacksonian persona. These contests of honor allowed native-born and immigrant b’hoys to recognize each other as fellow citizens of the republic, while often violently excluding blacks and women. 

White supremacy, the idea that the United States was a “white man’s republic” was central to Jacksonian democracy from its beginnings until the 1960s. It was its most glaring point of conflict with the American Creed of liberty and justice for all. Stephen Douglas spoke for most Jacksonians when he declared in his first debate with Lincoln: “I believe this government was made on the white basis. I believe it was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races.” This was the ethos embraced by the b’hoys of New York and enforced by their riots in the taverns and the streets. Here we see both the positive and the dark sides of Jacksonian nationalism as it assimilated waves of Irish immigrants into America while creating a racially exclusive democratic republic for white men. Jacksonian America has struggled to overcome this aspect of its history ever since.

Scene of a Five Points riot from Martin Scorsese's film Gangs of New York

Writing this piece was the starting point for developing my ideas of the role Jacksonian populist nationalism played in the sometimes painful process of creating the American nation. All those b’hoys and fire laddies and assorted working-class brawlers, survivors, and heroes, built New York City with their strength, grit, determination, and sacrifice. They created the Jacksonian blue collar New York of legend which rose to an epic level of heroism on September 11, 2001. What Victor Davis Hanson wrote about the descendants of the b’hoys, the fire fighters, cops, and rescue workers of 9/11, was just as true of their forbearers: “Danger was nothing to them, courage and honor everything.” As the poster for Martin Scorsese’s historical film, Gangs of New York, put it, “America was born in the streets.”

© 2010 Michael Kaplan