SocraticGadfly: American exceptionalism and American political violence.

January 10, 2011

American exceptionalism and American political violence.

As I read this powerful column at Salon by Glenn W. LaFantasie, I started thinking.

First, I agree with him that political violence IS deeply rooted in American political DNA, and that the success of the American Revolution may be part of it, not only the violence in it, but the violence leading up to it.

I also agree that many Americans, from across the polticial spectrum, have denied that idea ever since it was first seriously raised in 1968, after the last of the three huge political assassinations of that era.

His nut graf, which needs to be quoted in full, is at the end:
So what can we do about this tradition of violence? The remedy, in my opinion, should begin with recognizing its existence. Acknowledging our full and rather tawdry history of violence would be the first step toward doing something about it. The United States has unpleasant chapters in its history; likewise, the American people have not always behaved in civilized, rational, ways. If we face up to our history, confronting it head-on, we might be able to move past all our elaborate denials of our worst traits, our shared sins, our mistakes, our lies. To accomplish this as a people, however, requires something unusual, something remarkable, something even noble. It requires courage. It requires us recognizing that American political violence is something that’s not just committed by the likes of Nathaniel Bacon, John Brown, Preston Brooks, or, allegedly, Jared Loughner. It requires us admitting that the violent deeds that flow so calamitously through our history were -- and are -- quintessentially American. In that sense, then, what we cannot face is that those who commit these terrible acts are not pariahs or maniacs, just as the acts themselves are not mere aberrations. What we truly cannot face is that violent Americans like John Brown and Timothy McVeigh and Jared Loughner are ... us.

But, is it POSSIBLE for Americnas to do that?

The good professor doesn't lay out probabilities.

And, I say, it's certainly not likely.

I see this denial of the DNA of Anerican political violence as being interwoven with American exceptionalist beliefs. Too many Americans want to believe "our country is better than that."

Well, what if it isn't? An ostrich-like approach to an issue like this only lets it fester and become more ingrained in our DNA. Add in increasing income disparity, right-wing answers to that disparity that will only increase it AND neolib ones hat will only be a Band-Aid, the surge of the Religious Right 2.0, some legitimate concerns about immigration issues with the sidebar of those concerns then being politicized, and the near-death of true progressive politics in America all being fuel for the flames of existential angst in America, and, if we don't admit this problem is part of America's warp and woof, it will likely get worse in the short-term future.

And, denial, as is often the case in America, is the hope for a "magic" solution from a god, higher power or whatever force allegedly makes America exceptional in the first place. Circular reasoning is indeed at the heart of much American exceptionalist thinking.

Now, as for claims like those of David Frum, that political violence doesn't work? They're laughably wrong.

1. The Boston Massacre was provoked by rock-throwing colonials. As a key stepping-stone to the American Revolution, it worked quite well. Ditto the Boston Tea Party, which did involve some violence.
2. Shay's Rebellion got America a new constitution, albeit one not tailored too much to them. It did get a new governor in Massachusetts, too.
3. The violence of the Know-Nothings surely suppressed Catholic voting in the 8150s in many cities.
4. The violence of the first Klan helped end Reconstruction and establish Jim Crow.
5. Antiunion violence by rich individuals, big business and even the United States government on occasion wound up provoking pro-union forces into violence in return that often, tragically, backfired.
6. The violence of the second Klan held off black civil rights in the south for at least a generation. And, in much of the northern midwest, too.

Now, Frum cheats by limiting his claim to post-1970 politics. First, that's cherry-picking, as we don't know what will happen in 2011, the rest of the year, or into 2012 and beyond. (As someone who likes talking baseball stats, I know that's one way to cherry-pick.)

Second, even with that cutoff, it's debatable, at best, and wrong, at worst. The self-immolating violence of Waco has run straight through Tim McVeigh to today's Tea Party types. It's led to anti-government violence that some might not call "Political," because not directed at elected officials, like the guy in Austin, Texas, flying the airplane into an IRS building, but that, actually, IS political.

And, some of the pre-1970s violence, like the Klan, is still working its way through the system today.

James Fallows tries to pull the American exceptionalism card in a subtle way, by claiming man political assassinations and other acts of violence weren't really political.

Some of his "murkier" examples aren't murky at all:
1. Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist, had clear political reasons for shooting McKinley. And, anarchism, and semi-anarchism, had been a big matter, or at least a big matter of concern, in American for 20 years before that. Remember Haymarket, Mr. Fallows? It wasn't anarchist, but the ruling classes blamed it on anarchists.
2. Charles Guiteau, a would-be political job-seeker affiliated with one wing of the Republican Party in an intraparty scrum, had clear (if base-level) political reasons for assassinating Garfield. His action was extreme, but pre-civil service, the scrum for political jobs was huge.
3. The Puerto Rican nationalists had clear reason for trying to assassinate Truman, head of a government that wasn't even discussing or considering Puerto Rican independence.
4. Sirhan Sirhan clearly believed, and quit possibly with a fair amount of reason, that RFK's support of Israel was so strong as to constitute anti-Palestinianism.

Update, Jan. 11 One Texas Republican Congressional candidate from last year, while supporting the option, or coming close, of violence against the government today, agreed on its historical roots.

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