Revisiting Bernays’ Propaganda in the Age of Trumpism and Post-Truth

The past eighteen months can be characterized by wildly variable political expectations, forcing many to search the depths of their consciences for explanations of the domestic and global emesis of id that embraces aspects of racism, misogyny, and even fascism. The rise of Trump in the United States and various nationalist parties across Europe demands that we examine the causes and processes that enabled it. Enhancing this demand is the shifting analysis following the U.S. election. Much of the pundit class is ignoring previous campaign analysis, instead attributing Trump’s success to external influence and opponent mistakes. Surely there is a grain of truth to these statements, but there is no sound reason for abandoning previous observations that Trump taps an anger that evolved out of the 2010 Tea Party movement. Although Tea Party members are firmly entrenched in the Republican Party and revile Trump, their candidates could not shake the “establishment” label hurled by Trump supporters. What, then, is this force that provided Trump with a swift consolidation of power in a political party hostile towards him, and at the same time guaranteed an overwhelming flame-out for recent political darlings? A return to the Edward Bernays 1928 classic, Propaganda, provides much insight into the process.

Bernays defines propaganda as “the mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale.” The word dates back to the 17th century, when the Vatican’s Office for the Propagation of the Faith (Congregatio de propaganda fide) was established to oversee the Church’s missionary efforts. Until the Great War, the term’s meaning remained benign, but with the aggressive psychological tactics employed on the American and British people to maintain support of the military effort against Germany, it gained the negative connotation it still holds today. Bernays worked in the war effort with Walter Lippman and emerged as one of many practitioners who believed that the future of business and commerce relied upon the scientific use of propaganda to shape consumer attitudes. The book is thus both an attempt to reform the word and also an argument for why his corporate clients should engage his services. While he was wildly successful with the latter goal, he failed with the former.

At the core of Bernays’ work is the distinction between the individual and the group mind. Both are resident within each of us, and they operate independently of one another. The individual mind projects what we recognize as the self; the group mind penetrates myriad networks of interests that define our social being, ranging from book preferences to attitudes about labor unions. While specific individuals may share interests in one network, they may be opposed in other networks. It is not unusual for a person to join a network that is contrary to her individual interests. This is typically referred to as cognitive dissonance.

The sheer complexity of information assaulting the group mind necessitates the acceptance of what Bernays refers to as the invisible government. The members of this government — small and often unknown, even to each other — are responsible for shaping expectations of the group mind. The invisible government is not evil or conspiratorial, nor is it threatened by the knowledge of its existence. It is merely a mechanism of conferring credibility, prioritizing needs and wants, and shortening the process of selecting goods that will improve our lives. It falls to a few select individuals “because of the expense of manipulating the social machinery which controls the opinions and habits of the masses.” Whether we seek to purchase a fifth of vodka or a book on Atlantic history, we first filter the possibilities through early adopters, celebrities, thought champions, and product experts.

The propagandist, also referred to by Bernays as the public relations counsel, employs the invisible government to shape the group mind so that the goods and services offered are what the customer desires. There are various ways of achieving this, which Bernays touts in the book (remember, the book itself is propaganda for his firm.) While the archaic method involves repeatedly asserting a direct message[1], such as “Buy X for good health!”, by the 1920s a more scientific approach was advocated. The propagandist undertakes a study of customer needs and beliefs, and then executes a campaign to address the drives which might underlie the acceptance of a product. For example, instead of telling customers to buy product X to relieve stress, a campaign to set expectations of stress-free living makes the customer want to buy product X. This campaign employs members of the invisible government as well as public thought champions.

Bernays believed that checks on this process exist: customers react negatively to fabrications and dishonest propaganda. The professional public relations counsel demonstrates integrity in order to build credibility and maintain acceptance of the consuming public. Methods and messages lose effectiveness if they fail to satisfy the group mind.

Although Propaganda addresses product consumption, Bernays recognized its value in politics. Indeed, he found it ironic the original champion of the practice lagged so far behind in the precision and skill business had achieved. He devoted a chapter to entreating politicians to adopt the scientific methods of modern public relations in order to effectively engage the body politic. From page 119:

In actual fact, [molding the mind of voters] can be done only by meeting the conditions of the public mind, by creating circumstances which set up trains of thought, by dramatizing personalities, by establishing contact with the group leaders who control the opinions of the public.

Bernays realized that tapping into the networks of influence was infinitely more effective than “pressing the flesh”, making stump speeches, and kissing babies. The successful politician recognizes the desire of a network and offers the product that satisfies the voter’s need.

Which brings us back to Trump, his unfathomable behavior, his unflappability, and his success despite being profoundly unprepared for the task at hand. To understand his achievement we must examine the networks of influence he utilized to ascend to power. Were these networks available to Trump’s rivals? How were Trump’s tactics more effective than up-and-comers like Marco Rubio, or proven gubernatorial candidates like John Kasich?

The first step that Bernays prescribes is to create a need or expectation in the customer (in this case the voter.) This is not something Trump did himself, but he correctly identified it. The American Right has received a consistent narrative of “reverse oppression” across multiple media. For over two decades right-wing media has relentlessly “othered” liberal and non-white members of society. The breakdown of the social order, reverse racism, job loss, and faithlessness have been attributed to “coastal elites” and immigrants. Homosexuals are recruiting children in bathrooms. Liberal humanities professors are teaching young adults to hate their nation. These are not propaganda strategies to invoke direct action, instead they are designed to create a feeling of siege, a notion that what was once a position of wealth and power is now ephemeral. Despite the fact that individuals live in affluent, white suburbs (or other homogenous enclaves), their group mind is wracked with anxiety about losing everything at any moment.

Looking at Fox News (cable news on the Left has tried to copy but without the same success), it is obvious the opinion personalities highlighted during the evening hours are the network’s thought leaders, nurturing and shaping the prized networks of influence. “Real news” is relegated to the daytime hours when the audiences are smaller. Unleashing O’Reilly and Hannity with their fear-mongering and message of imminent social destruction helped form the network of influence that has driven the Republican Party (until recently the GOP considered Fox News a mouthpiece.)

One important factor that is different from politics in the days of Propaganda is the lack of overlap. Bernays spoke of myriad networks all overlapping. Today, ideological isolation is more pronounced than at any time perhaps since the Civil War (I will yield to constructive criticism on that judgment.) These silos of belief make it harder for people to find some common ground, even if it isn’t the topic under discussion. The idea that we might interact with a wide variety of people based on social contacts, church affiliation, work experience, or recreational endeavors seems less credible today than it did in Bernays time[2].

By the time Trump takes the idea of candidacy seriously, the infrastructure is already in place. It is important to give him credit for realizing it’s potential; no one else seemed to. “Gaffes” like calling Mexicans rapists or accusing the Chinese of fabricating climate change actually fueled his popularity, not because individuals accepted the veracity of these claims, but because a group mind had been conditioned to be satisfied by the slaying of these demons. Trump’s GOP rivals who tried to navigate a more responsible path were quickly vanquished, because there was no network of influence they could utilize. Their message didn’t resonate; they were irrelevant.

Those in today’s invisible government have eschewed integrity for power. Click To Tweet

Trump is a current crisis, one that Bernays did envision, albeit indirectly. The consummate professional, Bernays believed that integrity is the hallmark of the public relations counsel. He practice what he preached, dropping large tobacco clients when it became clear that smoking was harmful to consumers (long before the Surgeon General’s report.) And in fairness, he did believe that communists were a threat in Guatemala when he orchestrated the public relations campaign that encouraged lawmakers to support the CIA coup. He cautions politicians in Propaganda to be honest, lest the public punish them (page 113.) It appears that we are now in uncharted waters. The notion of Trumpism as “post-truth”, with the employment of “alternative facts” to present a fictional narrative, demonstrates that those in today’s invisible government have eschewed integrity for power.

Trumpism presents the United States with a seemingly overwhelming set of obstacles, which may destroy the republic or take decades to repair. We must accept the asymmetrical political networks of influence that divide our body politic and spread a false narrative (alternative facts.) Our group mind is reliant on propaganda to filter and coordinate the overwhelming number of social signals that are presented to us each day, yet the only thing separating us from the responsible assimilation of information and misdirection by influential people is the integrity of those shaping the message. Propaganda is our drinking water, and we rely on the invisible government not to poison it. This is not to say that we can fight propaganda by appealing to the individual mind; Hillary Clinton made a strategic error by focusing on policy and how it appeals to the voter. We cannot separate ourselves from the group mind; it is a facet of our personality unaffected by awareness or education. Those opposing Trump can only formulate their own group narrative, one that is more effective than the current one. Ultimately we can only campaign against corrupted networks and champion those that provide honest influence (as opposed to those that align with our ideology.) Finally, working to re-establish the myriad overlapping networks that Bernays described in 1928 may help people reconnect at the civic level, tearing down the ideological silos that separate us.

Bernays, Edward. Propaganda. New York: Ig Publishing, 2005.

[1] For an interesting read and discussion about cumulative advantage, see Roger L. Martin’s post in Harvard Business Review, “How the Attacks on Trump Reinforce His Strategy.”

[2] I realize I have stepped in a large pile of goop here. For the purpose of this essay, we do not need to discuss the race and sex segregation of the 1920s. I only wish to assert that Bernays’ suggestion of ideological interaction is less likely today.

Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise

[Note: This review appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books in December 2014. I am reproducing it here with some minor formatting changes.]

Seminal moments in our popular culture arrive less often than we claim, and their impact on our lives often requires time to manifest. Chris Taylor, deputy editor of Mashable and an undeniably rabid “Star Wars” fan, presents a compelling argument that the premiere of “Star Wars” was just such a moment, touching the entire human population. His new book, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise, is a social history of the franchise. More than a chronicle of movie production or an inventory of licensing agreements, it is a far-reaching examination of how the six-movie (and counting) film series changed the world and how the world shaped the franchise.

Taylor weaves his story through many short chapters, and he is not afraid to wander afield when necessary. He starts at the beginning with the founders of the science-fiction genre – H.G. Wells and Jules Verne – to illustrate the distinction between fantasy and science fiction. Later, this legacy explains the divergence of George Lucas’ space opera and Gene Roddenberry’s (the creator of “Star Trek”) futurist vision. Taylor discusses the influence of serial science fiction from the 1940s and 50s, including Lucas’ favorite, “Flash Gordon.”

As any good history demands, this is not simply a story about the movies or George Lucas. We are not only given a cohesive picture of Lucas’ formative years and social influences at home and in school, but also an adequate look at the cultural influences that preceded “Star Wars.” Film school social networks suggest how the Creator – Lucas’ self-proclaimed title – moved toward the realization of his childhood dream of creating a space fantasy/opera. Even Alejandro Jodorowsky’s stillborn “Dune” project demonstrates how failures liberated ideas and talent to change the direction of science-fiction filmmaking by cross-pollinating writers and special effects people. George Lucas may have occupied the watershed position for science-fiction cinema, but he was the product of hundreds of incremental forces.

The cornerstone of any franchise is the fan base, and multiple stories throughout the book emphasize its passion and influence. Albin Johnson’s tragic injury in an automobile accident created a circuitous route to the “Fightin’ 501st” Stormtrooper legion and their adoption as an official standard bearer at Star Wars events. This more than cosplay, it traces both the depth of cultural assimilation across the globe and the embrace of such movements by Lucas. What became known as the Expanded Universe of books, animated series, and other media not only allowed for creativity outside of the franchise, but also provided an environment for ideas to germinate. The success of the movie franchise – despite its uneven critical acceptance by fans – is intimately linked to the familial communities that flourish around the world. Taylor does an excellent job documenting these stories.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe excels when finding anecdotes to reveal its message. In this regard, there is no stronger writing than the Introduction, which recounts Taylor’s visit to the Navajo Nation for the first screening of “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” dubbed in the native language of Diné. This visit – 35 years after the film’s premiere – hoped to discover the few people left on the planet still unaware of the franchise’s cultural impact. We are introduced to George James Sr., who is not only significant for his isolation from “Star Wars,” but also because he is one of the last Code Talkers, a group of World War II veterans who crafted unbreakable code from the Navajo language. Their code was impenetrable because of the cultural barriers between the Navajo and the rest of the world. Now these folks are the latest adopters. James represents the difficulty of transporting myth across cultures, but by the end of the tale (and the screening of the movie), we realize that “Star Wars” has achieved that very goal.

A disappointing omission from the book is an explanation for the movies’ limited distribution channels. After finishing the chapter on the filming of “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back,” I took a break from reading in order to rent the movie. It took no time to realize that it was unavailable in digital format (although you can still buy a LaserDisc version). A bit of research on the Web uncovered myriad conspiracies and explanations, but none could be verified or seemed credible. In a world in which even this 50-something no longer keeps a Blu-ray or DVD player, this strikes me as a huge revenue opportunity being ignored. With all of Taylor’s access to executives from Lucasfilm and its owner, Disney, finding the answer to that question would have been valuable and insightful.

Still, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe engaged me in much the same way as the movies: It was informative and entertaining, even though I had to overlook its flaws from time to time. Taylor’s narrative occasionally strays, but there are great benefits to his storytelling. The book has iconic moments (like the Navajo Nation discussion) and there are sections that fade quickly. But as many fans of the “Star Wars” franchise will tell you, we watch the cable-TV marathons, are instantly transported back to that Memorial Day Weekend in 1977, and talk online with giddy excitement about the next release. Our parents are familiar with the Force and our children play with light sabers. For all of us in this global community, this is definitely a book you will want to read.

Identity as a Zero-Sum Game

I visited the Guggenheim Museum last weekend and viewed the Carrie Mae Weems retrospective. Weems is a photographer and videographer who deftly manipulates her instrument with what is deservedly called a powerful voice. If you live in the area, go see it now: it closes in mid-May.

My thoughts this week continue to coalesce around the idea that forming and achieving American identity is a zero-sum game, that those who hold an image of #BeingAmerican must struggle to maintain their identity real estate, and that becoming more inclusive means diluting what people have. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, which is the point. We have all been raised with the cultural myth of the melting pot: disparate populations coming together to form that savory, balanced stew that nourishes the most exceptional nation in history. I suspect that, in our moments of sobriety, all of us recognize that the myth and the reality are quite divergent.

Of all the moving imagery I saw, there are two in particular that I wish to consider here. They might not be the most memorable or popular images, but they carried the message of zero-sum identity politics.

The first image — a still-life of a living room end table — appears in an early portfolio, Family Pictures and Stories. The print itself is stunning, a dark image with a brilliant range of tone and balanced composition, lustrous wood contrasted by the stark light of the side lamp. On the table, next to the lamp, is a pair of “Chinaman” figurines. My initial reaction was very mixed. I am almost as old as Weems and therefore grew up in the same era, familiar with similar items in either my home or those of my extended family. But orientalism has always made me uncomfortable: it suppresses a true understanding of other cultures and allows one to avoid confronting prejudice by transferring that behavior to what is not real. So why were these types of icons so prevalent? Establishing a hierarchy of identities through stereotyping allows us to claim and hold that identity real estate we need to be American, to prove we are integrated into the whole. Instead of the melting pot being inclusive, we seek to join and remain American by excluding others.

I am not making this observation to excuse it, but merely to identify a weakness that we all share.

The second image — or images — were so powerful they brought me to tears. Weems overlaid a quadtych of four antebellum slave portraits with the words House, Kitchen, Yard, Field. Yes, we are to feel shame. Yes, Weems is making a point about dehumanization. But I also think there is a contrary force in motion here: the base labels take away a basic value for all of us, thus we must confront the consequences of an exclusive identification process throughout our history. To take something away imparts value to it. Denying people identity recognizes its importance. Even [especially] today, the exclusive politics of #BeingAmerican creates a hurtful, counterproductive, and unnecessary process of cultural assimilation.

If you want to know how important a cohesive American identity is to people, look at how white Protestants are responding to the demographic shifts in the United States (don’t forget one of my “favorites”, David Barton.) By seeking to deny American identity to people who are not white, male, and Protestant –okay, maybe I’ll give you Christian — we force the perpetuation of the zero-sum identity game. A game at which Carrie Mae Weems has proven a formidable opponent.

On #BeingAmerican

My current project examines the relationships between national, social, and individual identities, and how we view ourselves as American. Identity is like the Evil Queen’s Magic Mirror: it has defined boundaries and function, but everyone approaches it with different expectations and leaves with a personalized experience. It is not surprising then to find tremendous differences in personal beliefs while observing a shared definition and purpose. This has been the theme threaded through several recent readings.

At the end of my graduate coursework I wrote a state of the field paper that included Gretchen Murphy’s Hemispheric Imaginings: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire. The book examines how the Monroe Doctrine evolved throughout the nineteenth century; specifically, Murphy uses discourse analysis to show that popular culture contained many of the concepts that politicians and thought leaders adopted in their policies. Monroe’s nascent framework was nearly stillborn: it grew slowly, branching into different interpretations, each waxing and waning as our nation’s agenda and influence changed. The relationship between American social identity and political forces is direct and powerful. Even contemporary assertions that the Monroe Doctrine is dead ignore its incorporation into American identity.

Of interest today is a problem that Murphy identified in the opening of her Introduction:

Even the name “America” bespeaks the crisis; conventionally used to designate the cultural identity of the United States, its implicit erasure of Latin America and Canada is now painfully apparent…

For Murphy, the solution is to coin the term “USAmericans.” A bit clunky at first, I quickly realized it was effective for distinguishing between the various Americas of the present day. Recognizing the contemporary hubris of USAmericans to co-opt the identity of an entire hemisphere is a first step to respecting other cultures between Ellesmere and Patagonia.

Later, historian Jonathan Wilson posted the following to Twitter. “USians” indicated a trend and, upon chatting with him, he also offered his awareness of the term “Statism.”

However, our view of the hemisphere is much different today than in the nineteenth century, and one could accuse Murphy of performing Whiggish history (although in fairness she is a professor of English.) Did we view ourselves as rightful claimants to the title in the early days of the republic? Was there competition for the title at that time? Or are we simply projecting present-day concerns into the past?

I grabbed my copy of The Federalist and examined the thirty-four uses of the string “American.” Like those of us in the present day, the term is used to identify not only the new nation but also those members who comprise the cultural and civic body. That may be less surprising when one considers the neighborhood at that time: Great Britain, Spain, and France controlled most of the remaining western hemisphere and maritime routes, providing imperial perspectives for the non-indigenous peoples.

What is interesting about The Federalist is how Madison and Hamilton employ the word. While the latter favors its use in describing a regime, dominion, and state, Madison is quite comfortable using it as a container for the members of the new nation. Neither have a problem with excluding other western hemisphere societies.

Consider Hamilton’s remark in Federalist no. 11:

They foresee the dangers that may threaten their American dominions from the neighborhood of States, which have all the dispositions, and would possess all the means, requisite to the creation of a powerful marine.

He not only uses the term to describe various dominions within a geographic region, but he elevates the new nation to the status of a significant player. This statement asserts the role of the United States as a legitimate force in the Atlantic world, and foretells the development of attitudes and policies in the nineteenth century.

Madison, however, clearly favors the term to describe individuals as members of a society. Already in 1789, he views his cohort as one body, an organism evolved to conquer the vast geography of the continent and repel external dangers, as witnessed in Federalist no. 14:

…the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their Union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies.

The metaphor of the body is powerful, capturing the profound diversity of the nation’s citizenry, their interdependency on one another, and the transcendence beyond the sum of their parts. Although the brain and the liver are profoundly different and may work at cross-purposes from time to time — at least my brain regularly enjoys the alcohol that my liver must work to remove — they cannot exist without each other, and both clearly belong to something greater than themselves (at times, anyway.) By addressing this interdependency, Madison presages notions of being American. Whether deliberate or not, he is creating space for popular and civic culture to begin defining the boundaries of a national identity, a space that will be molded and kneaded by myriad factions throughout the history of the United States. This process not only shapes identity but also circumscribes the behavior of future actors.

Nearly 125 years later, the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan would focus its rebranding on notions of American identity. Dr. Kelly Baker deftly examines this process in her book, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. Although Baker — a historian of religion — warns us to maintain a boundary between the KKK and white, Protestant America, it is not irresponsible to place the KKK at a different point on the same continuum of American social identity. In essence, the Klan is looking into the same Magic Mirror as the rest of us.

Indeed, Baker draws the connection early:

The Klan gained a following because of its twin messages of nation and faith, and the fraternity progressed because of members’ commitment to its religious vision of America and her foundations.

Americans — USAmericans, USians, etcetera — have always expressed discomfort when facing down groups like the Klan. We tend to look at them as boils or abscesses on the body, and our social narrative regularly “others” such groups to preserve its pristine nature. Although identity is necessarily fictional by nature, such preservation is counterproductive to understanding the true capacity of it, where it originates, and how it might evolve in response to certain social pressures. It may be full of pus, but it’s our pus, and more importantly it is representative of processes within our civic body.

The space carved out by Madison et al. to debate the notion of American identity is still in use today, and still contains the momentum of that early legacy. Each iteration of cultural debate and policy depends upon the previous. Both Murphy and Baker successfully trace their subject matter through to the present, and both have their foundations in the late eighteenth century. In fact, I would argue that losing sight of Madison’s body metaphor constitutes the greatest internal threat. While it may be time to encompass other cultures in what we consider to be American, we must also strive to encompass the many factions within the body of the United States. Only through an honest assessment of what we are can we shape who we will become.

I would love to hear your thoughts. You can find me on Twitter using #BeingAmerican.

Orchid Show

I took a break yesterday and visited the New York Botanical Garden, where the annual orchid exhibition just opened. Instead of writing, I thought I would just post some images.

What a lovely facility.













Finally, we wandered outside of the Haupt Conservatory and discovered this collection of sculpture, each representing the four seasons. Frankly, I think Spring looks a lot like the late Peter O’Toole.





Neoliberalism and the God Emperor

I had the television on the other day while talking heads preached the gospel of low taxes and small government inducing economic growth and innovation, and I was overcome by the image of the God Emperor of Dune, Leto Atreides II. What would prompt such an association, short of powerful hallucinogens or a vacuum of social interaction? It is the quandary that we share with Leto II (or he will share with us, since his time is still several aeons in the future.)

Leto, the son of the prophet Muad’Dib, undergoes a physical and mental transformation from man to sandworm. For 1500 years, Leto crafts a new narrative of the human place in the Universe. He squelches independent thought and provides the tyranny that comforts so many in their banal lives. The God Emperor becomes the repository of ambition, risk, and power.

At the time of the story, Leto falls in love with Hwi Noree, the Ixian ambassador who speaks to his lost humanity. He faces two pathways: the most likely and necessary is his death and consequent reorganization of the Universe; but for a time he contemplates a life with Hwi as a human. The important point is that Leto can reverse his metamorphosis, yet he realizes that it will take another 1500 years. And here we come back to the talking heads on television…

For decades we have been sold a narrative that not only prescribes an optimal economic model, but defines our relationship to the community. Despite the fact that considerable evidence demonstrates the deficiencies of this economic model, we continue to build our identity around it and accept the bondage that it imposes. Much as humanity watched the transformation of the God Emperor and accepted his tyranny and order, we fling ourselves down the road of neoliberalism, without questioning its consequences or even our eventual destination.

This may sound trivial, but there are serious implications for the New Left, or whatever is out there in opposition to the American Right. Policy change is difficult and circumscribed without first changing identity through messaging. At present, a unified message does not exist, whether you are watching a Democratic spokesman like Chris Van Hollen on television or following the various fractured factions of the Occupy movement on social media. Until a coherent, alternative identity exists to challenge neoliberalism, catastrophes like the 2008 financial collapse will be inadequate to drive change, and leaders like President Barack Obama will operate within existing political confines. Even failures of the Right will be softened by the framework they have already built.

Too many people see themselves in a rising boat, even if it’s a dinghy. Much of the population matured in an era where no other message was communicated. The reality is that thought leaders are seeking a permanently impoverished working class to provide cheap labor for capital. Until I hear the opposition articulate that far and wide, I will remain skeptical that change is on the horizon.

Summer Reading

Finally, I’m back to reading what I want. It should be a good summer.

Adams, Brooks. The law of civilization and decay; an essay on history. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1897.

Adams wrote one of the first and certainly one of the most influential essays justifying American imperialism (TR cited him.) He and Turner set the tone for American expansionist thought.

Banks, Iain M. Consider Phlebas. New York: Orbit Books, 2008.

I have already started this one, picking it up after hearing about Banks’ cancer. Sadly, he died this week.

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, 1996.

I need to nurture my creative side a bit.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. Edited by Michel Senellart. Translated by Graham Burchell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

For my Great Famine paper. This may require copious amounts of vodka.

Martin, George R. R. Game of Thrones: A Song of Fire and Ice: Book One. New York: Random House Digital, 2003.

I’m hooked on the series. It’s time to try the books.

Nally, David P. Human Encumberances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011.

Nally is a geographer and Reader at Cambridge. He wrote a compelling, if sometimes problematic, article on biopolitics and the Great Famine. I’m excited to see what he does with this monograph.

Vance, Jack. Tales of the Dying Earth. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 1998.

Jack Vance was described as the greatest science fiction author you never knew. This is a volume of four novels. You can find me at the lake wall…

Williams, William Appleman. The Contours of American History. New York: Verso, 2011.

Williams was a brilliant and outspoken diplomatic historian. Contours and The Tragedy of American Diplomacy have both been reissued for their 50th anniversaries, with new introductions by Greg Grandin and Andrew Bacevich, respectively (both writing for The American Empire Project.)

The Hermeneutics of Single-Sex Marriage

As the nation awaits the Supreme Court to deliver verdicts in the Proposition 8 and Defense of Marriage Act cases, the arguments being advanced by the evangelical community bear scrutiny. A historical examination of evangelical thought and the definition of traditional marriage as “one man and one woman” suggests an ironic relationship to the abolitionist and proslavery debates in the antebellum United States.

The two ideological battles share more in common than evangelical actors. In each case, Biblical literalism is important: first, because it is an inherent characteristic of the movement; and second, because different factions within the evangelical churches employ it to support their argument.

Proslavery arguments developed within the churches partly as a way to increase congregations and garner support from the planter class. [I won’t digress into that argument here, but there are some wonderful histories listed at the bottom of the post.] The thrust of the proslavery argument rested on the practice of slavery in the Old Testament and the lack of condemnation by Jesus and Paul in the New Testament. Providence, the sole provider of order in the world, included slavery. Evangelicals may have believed that slavery was the peculiar institution, but as long as it had been placed in the world by God, it was blasphemous for man to try to change things. This became an important point of debate.

When the abolition movement began, some evangelicals sought to advance a moral argument against slavery in the churches. These clerics advanced a hermeneutic called the seed growing secretly, which asserted that the seeds of a morality of equality and freedom was found in the New Testament, and they had grown and blossomed over the past eighteen centuries. Just as the Hebrew dispensation of divorce and polygamy had been superceded by the Christian dispensation, so too was slavery now superceded by the seed growing secretly. This argument required quite a bit of pretzel logic, and was successfully countered by the proslavery factions with the hermeneutic of plain sense (Biblical literalism.)

Put simply, conservative evangelicals supported proslavery because the Bible did, God had ordered the world in His wisdom, and man’s desire to radically restructure society was not only prideful but blasphemous. Liberal evangelicals opposed slavery because of an inherent equality found in the Golden Rule and the belief that one man should not be subordinate to another.

These opposing views, emanating from the same set of religious beliefs, pitted two factions that believed the other was committing the greatest blasphemy possible. It led to not only schism within several churches but also brothers taking up arms against one another.

Let’s jump forward to the present day. Conservative evangelicals are asserting that the institution of marriage is in jeopardy because different forms are being considered by the State. We are told that marriage “is defined as the union between one man and one woman.” It is certainly a valid position to take, but what hermeneutical must conservative evangelicals adopt to support their case?

The problem for conservatives is that the Old Testament supports many forms of marriage beyond the “one man and one woman” arrangement. Multiple wives, concubines, and bonded companions are all considered acceptable, and sanctioned by God. For conservatives to advance the “traditional” view of marriage, they must actually adopt the hermeneutical of the seed growing secretly, since their view of marriage has clearly evolved since the time of the Old Testament.

Making the argument for traditional marriage — and even worse, passing legislation to enforce it — is exactly the prideful social adjustment that antebellum conservative evangelicals accused Enlightenment liberals of undertaking. Today, the different factions in the same-sex marriage debate have adopted opposite poles as their antebellum brethren: conservative evangelicals are making an interpretative reading of the Bible in order to impose a morality not found in the Bible. This conflict is being hinted at by modern liberals, but the actual gravity of the transgression against scripture is not often argued, probably because most liberals choose to consider the matter civil and not religious.

I often wonder how many conservative evangelicals understand the evolution of thought that supports their ideology. Hermeneutics inform, more than teach, the average congregational member. The hermeneutic of the seed growing secretly is not something that is discussed in a sermon, but at some level it shapes the sermon delivered during worship. For that reason, something that was once considered so heinous that it demanded bloodshed is now gleefully accepted to achieve modern objectives.

Keep reading! I’m sure many of you will take an exception to this post. There are a lot of good resources to help shape the argument. Here are a few:

Daly, John Patrick. When Slavery was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.

You can find Daly on Amazon.

Harrill, J. Albert. “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in theHermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 10 (Summer 2000): 149-186.

Here is the JSTOR link to Harrill.

Noll, Mark. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

You can find Noll on Amazon.

The World I Want

Since tomorrow is the New Year (in the West), people are making resolutions to change their behavior in 2013. I thought I might try something a little different and visualize the world I want to live in. Maybe 2013 will be a starting point.

  • Because future prosperity will hinge upon a qualified knowledge worker, I want every denizen of the United States to have access to a [nearly] free, quality college education. The social contract with our youth should include a basic education that does not leave them mired in debt. Our state schools need to be financially accessible to everyone.
  • It is wrong to make a profit by providing someone else with healthcare. Good wages yes, but Capital should not be increased because it provides life and happiness to others.
  • The American empire needs to be dismantled. It no longer serves to enrich our economy, it is creating enemies throughout the world, it distracts us from achieving strategic objectives for the upcoming century, and it is killing our youth. Let us begin to fashion a more stable geopolitical structure that serves our future interests before we collapse and become irrelevant.
  • People need to be able to thrive by working 2100 hours per year. Living wages are important, even if we have to pay more money for our shoes and boxer shorts. How about an ISO classification that companies can earn when they provide good working conditions? Then they could label their products in the same way companies tout their ISO 9001 quality standard. Customers could then decide if the extra cost of the product was worth it.
  • Inequality in the United States goes far beyond income. I want to see Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon et al. spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Not because I’m bitter, but because I’m sure that they have committed enough fraud to deserve it. It’s just the right thing to do.
  • Finally, let’s all be better people by leaving the demagogues behind. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Alex Jones and others of their ilk poison our civic society for their own enrichment. Why should we encourage that? Be a better person and walk away from this filth.

I certainly did not cover everything, but we need to start somewhere. If we set our expectations higher, we can change the dialog. Visualize your goal and move toward it. I’ll see you on the other side.

Have a happy and successful 2013.

Why Barton Doesn’t Matter (and Does)

The Christian and political activist David Barton has had a rough week. His most recent book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson was pulled from distribution by its publisher Thomas Nelson. A plethora of critics from the Christian Right have denounced his work, and NPR broadcasted a stinging profile of him this past Wednesday. But focusing on the man himself distracts us from a more interesting historical frame and set of questions addressing how we view education and history in this country.

There were historical details — matters of fact, not matters of opinion, that were not supported at all. –Senior Vice President Brian Hampton, Thomas Nelson Publishers

Barton is powerful and therefore a force to respect. He wields tremendous influence in Texas politics as well as with Christian opinion-molders at the national level. His most effective tactic in persuading his audience is the systematic delegitimization of academia, which has advanced his narrative for the current generation. But it is important to remember that the role he plays is perennial; in that sense David Barton is the flavor of the month for culture warriors. He occupies a niche in a pantheon of actors that began in the nineteenth century and have engaged in political battles to influence academic narratives of history.

David Barton committed a cardinal sin for the Right: he wrote a post-modern, revisionist history. I am sure he will not view it that way, but the fact that it is attracting criticism from such a broad spectrum of voices will make it difficult to dismiss. Unfortunately for him, he appears to have engaged in selective editing and framing in order to support a priori conclusions. That is something that a historian is not permitted, regardless of their worldview. Intellectual rigor does not maintain a mythical interpretation of historical events, but presents evidence to support a thesis and attempts to counter those who disagree.

Certainly historians can look at this week and surmise that the process is working: peers have examined an author’s thesis and pronounced it for what it is (in this case junk.) Ironically, this is the same process that is often attacked by culture warriors as being inadequate at policing “proper history.” Recent debates over the National History Standards, the role of the Enola Gay in ending World War II, and — most infamously — Holocaust denial have all highlighted the importance of the careful presentation of evidence and a reasoned response to existing scholarship (even if you seek to overturn it.) By writing The Jefferson Lies, Barton invited peer review and reasoned criticism of his thesis.

David Barton doesn’t matter because eventually, another political actor will take his place and continue the fight. David Barton does matter because he currently embodies the disconnect between politics and epistemology. He illustrates how woefully prepared the academy is to wage the fight, and parents to engage in local school board meetings. After a century and a half of battle to determine the history narrative, we still can not agree on the rules of engagement.