Then And Now

A week or so ago, my husband and I watched an American Experience episode titled  “Nazi Town”–a PBS documentary about the extent of pro-fascist opinion in the United States in the run-up to World War II.

The documentary left me both saddened and (unexpectedly) hopeful.

I  was saddened–to put it mildly– to learn of the enormous numbers of Americans who had embraced Nazi ideology. Until recently, I had assumed that the great majority of Americans actually believed in democratic government and the protection of civil liberties. I knew, of course, that a minority of my fellow-citizens harbored less comforting views, but I had no idea of the extent to which the American people endorsed truly horrific hatreds and were ready–indeed, eager–to hand the country over to a strongman who would relieve them of any responsibility for political decision-making.

In the 1930s, the nation had dozens and dozens of “Nazi camps,” where children were indoctrinated with White Nationalism. The German-American Bund enrolled hundreds of thousands of Americans who affirmed the notion that the country was created only for White Protestant Christians, and endorsed a “science” of eugenics confirming the superiority of the Aryan “race.” Racism and anti-Semitism were rampant; LGBTQ folks were so deep in the closet their existence was rarely recognized.

All in all, “Nazi Town” displayed–with scholarly documentation and lots of footage of huge crowds saluting both the American flag and the swastika –a very depressing reality.

But the context of all that ugliness also gave me hope–even in the face of the MAGA Trumpers who look so much like the Americans shown giving the “heil Hitler” salute.

I’m hopeful because we live in a society that is immensely different from that of the 20s and 30s.

During those years, the country experienced a Depression in which millions of Americans were jobless and desperate.  America was also in the throes of Jim Crow, and most White and Black Americans effectively occupied separate worlds. Thousands of people–including public officials– wore white robes and marched with the KKK. Europe’s age-old, virulent anti-Semitism had not yet “matured” into the Holocaust, and Hitler’s invasion of Poland–and knowledge of what came after–were still in the future. Few Americans were educated beyond high school.

World War II and discovery of the Holocaust ultimately ended the flirtation with fascism for most Americans, and in the years following that war, the U.S., like the rest of the world, has experienced considerable and continuing technical, social and cultural change. As a result, the world we all inhabit is dramatically different from the world that facilitated the embrace of both fascism and communism. (In fact, it is the extent of those differences that so enrages the MAGA culture warriors.)

Today, despite the contemporary gulf between the rich and the rest, America overall is prosperous. Unemployment has hit an unprecedented  low. Many more Americans are college educated. Despite the barriers that continue to face members of previously marginalized populations, people from different races and religions not only live and work together, they increasingly intermarry. Many, if not most, Americans have gay friends, and some seventy percent approve of same-sex marriage. Television, the Internet and international travel have introduced inhabitants of isolated and/or homogeneous communities to people unlike themselves.

Although there is a robust industry in Holocaust denial and other forms of racial and religious disinformation (I do not have a space laser), Americans have seen the end results of state-sponsored hatreds, and even most of those who harbor old stereotypes are reluctant to do actual harm to those they consider “other.”

The sad truth is that many more of my fellow Americans than I would have guessed are throwbacks to the millions who joined the KKK and the German-American Bund. The hopeful truth is that–even though there is a depressingly large number of them–they are in the minority, and their numbers are dwindling. ( It’s recognition of that fact, and America’s changing demography, that has made them so frantic and threatening.)

I firmly believe that real Americans reject the prejudices that led so many to embrace Nazi ideology in the 20s and 30s.

Today, most of us understand that real Americans aren’t those who share a preferred skin color or ethnicity or religion. Real Americans are those who share an allegiance to the American Idea–to the principles enumerated in the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights.

In order to send that message to today’s fascists and neo-Nazis, we need to get real Americans to the polls in November.

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A Speech Worth Revisiting

It’s probably a sign of just how suspicious I am these days of quotations on the Internet, but when I saw a post on Daily Kos that purported to be a lengthy portion of a speech by Ulysses Grant, I checked with two separate academic sites to confirm its accuracy.

It turned out it was accurate–and prescient.

Grant might have been commenting on our current national woes when he spoke in Des Moines in 1875.

I do not bring into this assemblage politics, certainly not partisan politics, but it is a fair subject for soldiers in their deliberations to consider what may be necessary to secure the prize for which they battled in a republic like ours. Where the citizen is sovereign and the official the servant, where no power is exercised except by the will of the people, it is important that the sovereign — the people — should possess intelligence.

The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a free nation. If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon’s, but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition, and ignorance on the other.

Now in this centennial year of our national existence, I believe it a good time to begin the work of strengthening the foundation of the house commenced by our patriotic forefathers one hundred years ago, at Concord and Lexington. Let us all labor to add all needful guarantees for the more perfect security of free thought, free speech, and free press, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and of equal rights and privileges to all men, irrespective of nationality, color, or religion.

Encourage free schools, and resolve that not one dollar of money appropriated to their support, no matter how raised, shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school. Resolve that the State or Nation, or both combined, shall furnish to every child growing up in the land, the means of acquiring a good common-school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistic tenets. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate. With these safeguards, I believe the battles which created the Army of the Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.

Grant eloquently addressed what I have called “civic literacy”–the need of a “sovereign people” to be both patriotic and informed. As is clear from the context of his words, Grant’s definition of “patriotic” is very different from the jingoism displayed by today’s MAGA Republicans. True patriotism requires an allegiance to the principles of America’s Constitution and Bill of Rights, an allegiance based upon a proper understanding of those documents and the philosophy that animated them.

Grant was very clearly aware that such allegiance and understanding comes from instruction “unmixed with sectarian, pagan or atheistic tenets”–that such religious precepts must be left to the family, the church and private schools “supported entirely by private contributions.”

An eon ago–in 1980–I was a Republican candidate for Congress. I even won a Republican primary.  Despite the fact that I was pro-choice and pro-gay rights, among other things, I was considered–and considered myself– to be a conservative. Then and now, I believe the proper understanding of that label includes a commitment to conserve the values that Grant enumerated in that long-ago speech.

I continue to believe that labeling today’s GOP “conservative” is a travesty that works to normalize what is a truly frightening and very unconservative approach to politics and American governance.

True conservatism requires a commitment to uphold the individual liberties protected by the Bill of Rights: freedom of speech and press, Separation of Church and State, freedom of conscience and personal autonomy, among others.

I don’t know the proper label for the MAGA fanatics who have taken over what was once my political party. Culture warriors? White Christian Nationalists? Fascists? Today’s GOP is probably a blend of all those, together with a heavy sprinkling of people who are too civically-illiterate to understand how very unconservative–and dangerous– their party has become.

Grant eloquently defended the extension of “equal rights and privileges to all men, irrespective of nationality, color, or religion.” Today’s Republicans would call him “woke,” and angrily reject him (along with Lincoln) as “anti-American.”

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Speaking Of Higher Education

With all the media focus on a handful of “elite” universities, perhaps it’s time (or overdue) to take a look at some of the hundreds of small colleges and universities that dot the country and are most definitely not “woke.” A number of them are religious, and several–like Hillsdale–are proudly “conservative.” (I put quotes around conservative because true conservatives have very little in common with the political movement that has appropriated that label.)

I’ve been aware of Hillsdale for a number of years. I’ve had graduate students who matriculated there, and several years ago I wrote a book about a libertarian organization headquartered in Indiana that–according to its Executive Director– was scammed by Hillsdale and its then-President. I still get –and routinely discard–their slick newsletter.

The New York Times recently did a “deep dive” into Hillsdale’s more recent political shenanigans.

A few days before Thanksgiving 2020, a half-dozen or so people gathered at the home of a Michigan lawyer named Robert E. Norton II.

Norton is the general counsel of Hillsdale College, a small, conservative Christian school in the southern part of the state. One of his guests was Ian Northon, a Hillsdale alumnus and private lawyer who did work for the college. Also in attendance were a couple of state lawmakers, Beth Griffin and Julie Alexander, who represented conservative districts north of Detroit.

Northon would later describe the meeting to the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol. “Somebody at Hillsdale reached out to me, said they are going to have this little meeting,” he testified. “I went to it. There were a handful of reps there, and then Giuliani called in.” That, of course, was Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor turned personal lawyer to President Donald J. Trump.

Hillsdale was already well connected to the Right. Northon had worked for the Amistad Project, an “election-integrity watchdog” that the Times reported “emerged as a primary partner in the Trump campaign’s election-fraud litigation.” He’d been a vice president of the Bradley Foundation, a Milwaukee-based Rightwing philanthropy that has funded groups pushing voter-fraud conspiracy theories.

And most prominent was Hillsdale’s president, Larry P. Arnn. Over two decades, Arnn had fashioned the college as an avatar of resistance to progressivism, all the while amassing relationships with many of the influencers and financiers who were transforming conservative politics in America. By the time Trump swept into the White House in 2017, Arnn had made Hillsdale an academic darling and supplier of philosophical gravitas to the new right.

So prominent was Arnn that he was mentioned as a possible education secretary before losing out to Betsy DeVos, part of a wealthy Michigan family of major conservative donors and Hillsdale patrons. (Her brother, the private-security contractor Erik Prince, is an alumnus.) Hillsdale graduates became aides in the Trump administration and on Capitol Hill and clerks at the Supreme Court. (“We have hired many staff from Hillsdale,” says Marc Short, who served as chief of staff to Trump’s vice president and Arnn’s longtime friend, Mike Pence.) In the Covid years, the backlash against school closures, mask mandates and diversity programs made education perhaps the most important culture-wars battleground. Hillsdale was at the center, and nowhere more than in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis frequently invoked Hillsdale as he sought to cleanse the state’s schools of liberal influence. “How many places other than Hillsdale are actually standing for truth?” he said at a 2022 Hillsdale-sponsored event in Naples, Fla.

The Times article explored the way in which this small Michigan college got mixed up in the plot to subvert American democracy, and it certainly makes for fascinating reading. But Hillsdale is hardly the only small religious institution providing an academic environment actively indoctrinating students against progressive political beliefs.

There are some 900 Christian-affiliated colleges in the United States, and while not all of them emulate Hillsdale, those that  pride themselves on turning out “conservative” students collectively educate thousands of young Americans–far, far more than matriculate from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Chicago, et al.

I suppose pointing this out is a form of “what-aboutism.” I certainly do not intend it as an argument that all is well in the hallowed halls of the Ivy League; there is plenty of hypocrisy masquerading as inclusiveness on those campuses, and the fact that their graduates are over-represented in government and academia makes them proper targets for evaluation and–when warranted– criticism.  

I just think that criticism should be–in the immortal words of Faux News– “fair and balanced.” For every Harvard graduate, there are probably twenty from schools like Hillsdale, Oral Roberts and Liberty– and their graduates are the ones passing anti-gay and anti-women measures in state legislatures around the country.

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About That War On Education

Far-right Republicans have been very candid about their war on higher education, as I have previously detailed. The party’s activists have been less open about their continuing effort to destroy American public education, and to re-direct public money to the private, mainly religious schools that teach from a perspective they prefer. (As with so many of the Right’s accusations, projection is obvious; claims that “government schools” are indoctrinating–“grooming”–children reflects their own intent.)

A recent article in the New Republic suggests that the Right is winning its war on public education. The article began with a report on the Congressional testimony of one Lindsey Burke.

Burke, an education policy program director at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, was responding to a question from Democratic Representative Jamaal Bowman, after Burke had spoken in favor of “school choice.” Allowing parents to use public education funds to send their children to private schools—including religious schools—was, she argued, merely a way to enable families to “choose learning environments that are safe, and effective, and reflect their values.”

Heritage is one of a number of Rightwing “think tanks” and organizations dedicated to defunding public education–mostly through educational vouchers and similar mechanisms that they claim will “restore parental control” over education. Parental control is increasingly the  “frame that contains both the typical free-market conservative argument against public education and the Christian right argument against exposing children to the immorality of “government schools.”

In 2021, Burke co-wrote a paper with a colleague for the American Enterprise Institute that argued for “allowing families an escape hatch from government schools pushing an agenda that runs counter to their values,” like critical race theory and “transgender ideology.”

This “values-based” coalition Burke said she was introducing in 2022 involved “not just education choice groups,” she explained, “but also groups like Moms for Liberty,” who helped force “parental rights” onto the agenda in school board elections while also aligning with the far right, and “partners” such as Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian nationalist law project focused on anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion cases, which argued both the Dobbs case and a recent fake same-sex wedding website case. These groups, Burke said, “understand that the school choice movement is the solution to current cultural battles.” Conveniently, these groups also instigated these “battles.”

Think about the messaging: calling public schools “government schools.” Talking about “parental choice” and “Christian values.”

It isn’t just coincidence that these “Christian values” warriors focus inordinate attention on trans children (a vanishingly small percentage of the nation’s children, but an unfamiliar population and thus an excellent target for bigots). Rightwing activists are demanding that educators out trans students in the name of “parental rights.”

Nearly 90 bills forcing teachers to monitor students’ gender expression—including dress, pronouns, and names—and report trans and gender-nonconforming students to parents were recently introduced in state legislatures across the country, according to PEN America’s Index of Educational Intimidation Bills. At least five states have adopted these policies into law: North Dakota, Iowa, Alabama, North Carolina, and Indiana. What we are seeing in places like Chino Valley reflects a coordinated national plan to push laws and policies that would penalize educators who don’t go along—inverting their roles as mandatory reporters of harassment, neglect, and abuse at home….

As a tool of gender conformity and as a moral panic about the content of public education, these policies hit a sweet spot for the right—which may explain why more established conservative groups are stepping up to promote and defend them.

The article noted what has become increasingly obvious– the Right’s effort to eradicate public education is “inseparable from their accelerating attacks on LGBTQ rights and racial justice.”

Perhaps there is no better symbol of that intersection than Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who has boasted about writing the playbook: moving from using critical race theory as a rallying cry for white grievance against schools, then similarly promoting accusations that LGBTQ-inclusive schools are “grooming” young people. Rufo revels in “laying siege to the institutions” as strategy, as he said in a 2022 speech at the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan. “We go in there and we defund things we don’t like, we fund things we do like.”

The linked article explores the effort to “defund” public education in much more depth, and I encourage you to click through and read it in its gloomy entirety.

In Indiana, the effort to help parents escape those nefarious “government schools” is succeeding; a growing number of children are using Hoosier tax dollars to attend  voucher schools–over 90% of which are religious.

Tribalism, anyone?

The next time you hear a self-proclaimed conservative bemoan “identity politics,” you might point out the way vouchers divide Americans.

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Evidently, Not All History Is Written By The Victors…

A recent article from the Washington Post challenged my belief in the old adage that history is written by the victors. (It would also appear that Faux News didn’t invent propaganda. Who knew?) Apparently, successfully resisting Reconstruction wasn’t the only tactic employed by pro-slavery Southerners. 

They were also able to suppress “inconvenient” history. 

As Howell Raines, the author of the essay, noted, “Until a few years ago, I was among the thousands of Southerners who never knew they had kin buried under Union Army headstones.” It appears that a regiment of 2,066 fighters and spies who came from the mountain South were chosen by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman as his personal escort on the March to the Sea. Raines wondered how their history got erased, and found that “the explanation reaches back to Columbia University, whose pro-Confederate Dunning School of Reconstruction History at the start of the 20th century spread a false narrative of Lost Cause heroism and suffering among aristocratic plantation owners.”

As a 10-year-old I stood in the presence of Marie Bankhead Owen, who showed me and my all-White elementary-school classmates the bullet holes in Confederate battle flags carried by “our boys.” She and her husband, Thomas McAdory Owen, reigned from 1901 to 1955 as directors of the archives in a monolithic alabaster building across from the Alabama State Capitol. They made the decision not to collect the service records of an estimated 3,000 White Alabamians who enlisted in the Union Army after it occupied Huntsville, Ala., in 1862. The early loss of this crucial Tennessee River town was a stab to the heart from which the Confederacy never recovered. Neither did the writing of accurate history in Alabama.

The Owens were not alone in what was a national academic movement to play down the sins of enslavers. In the files in Montgomery, I found the century-old correspondence between Thomas Owen and Columbia University historian William Archibald Dunning about their mission to give a pro-Southern slant to the American Historical Association. 

The essay documents the effort to sanitize the “War Between the States,” by claiming that  Southerners had been solidly behind the Confederacy; that the war had been fought about “states’ rights,” not slavery; and–most pernicious of all–that African Americans were “scientifically proven to be a servile race” that brought down Reconstruction because they were incapable of governing.

The fact that few Americans have ever heard of the 1st Alabama Cavalry and the defiant anti-secession activist who led to its founding, Charles Christopher Sheats, documents how such historiographic trickery produced what the Mellon Foundation calls “a woefully incomplete story” of the American past. The foundation’s Monuments Program is spending $500 million to erect accurate memorials to political dissidents, women and minorities who are underrepresented in many best-selling history books.

Recent research has traced the ways in which an “alternate” Southern history became the predominant story of the Civil War.

Dunning was the son of a wealthy New Jersey industrialist who taught him that Southern plantation masters were unfairly punished during Reconstruction. The younger Dunning installed a white-supremacist curriculum at Columbia and, after 1900, started dispatching his doctoral students to set up pro-Confederate history departments at Southern universities. The most influential of these was Walter Lynwood Fleming, whose students at Vanderbilt University produced “I’ll Take My Stand,” a celebration of plantation culture written by 12 brilliant conservative “Agrarian” writers including Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and Andrew Nelson Lytle…Fleming, who was born on an Alabama plantation, reigned as the director of graduate education at Vanderbilt and peopled Southern history departments with PhDs schooled in the pro-Confederate views he learned from Dunning at Columbia.

It turns out that there were some 100,000 Union volunteers from the South. They were, Howell tells us, “Jacksonian Democrats who hewed to Old Hickory’s 1830 dictum that the Union must be preserved.” Lost Cause historians who had been schooled by Dunning and Fleming glossed over the fact that “White volunteers from the Confederate states made up almost 5 percent of Lincoln’s army.”

Howell concludes by considering how this history was lost.

How then did the Civil War become the only conflict in which, as filmmaker Ken Burns told me, the losers got to write the history, erecting statues of Johnny Reb outside seemingly every courthouse in Alabama? Long story short, after the Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction, plantation oligarchs regained control of Southern legislatures and state universities started churning out history books that ignored Black people and poor Whites. When national historians set about writing widescreen histories of the war, they relied on these tainted histories.

The essay is lengthy, and filled with fascinating details documenting both accurate history and the dishonest machinations of those whose devotion to Confederate ideology suppressed it.

It made me wonder how often losers have become victors by simply rewriting history…

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