The Cold War Meaning of “To Kill a Mockingbird” & “Go Set a Watchman” as Literary Trolling

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Allison Miller has posted an insightful essay over at the American Historical Association’s blog. The brouhaha over the release of Go Set a Watchman is a product of a pretty fundamental misreading of the underlying themes of To Kill a Mockingbird. Here’s an excerpt:

As beloved as it may be, To Kill a Mockingbird itself has never been free of controversy. There is no doubt a kind of mystique emanating from its evergreen status as a book that some local school boards seek to ban. According to the American Library Association, this has often been due to the book’s frank presentation of rape and incest, as well as its use of profanity. But the forces behind censorship haven’t always been conservative; some teachers and parents have objected to the book’s portrayal of the South’s black citizens as kind-hearted, simple, and passive, not to mention Lee’s historically accurate but seemingly casual use of derogatory language. Literary critics have said as much, too. To Kill a Mockingbird is about white people, it uplifts white people, it makes middle-class white people feel better about racism by projecting it onto “common” white southerners.

But these arguments suggest a superior way of analyzing To Kill a Mockingbird—as a primary source, not a “timeless” depiction of the South, coming of age, or the virtues of tolerance. As much as it is an allegory of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, it is also “about” the Cold War.

I love the new book title, Go Set a Watchman. It’s an allusion (and a pretty obscure one at that) to the Biblical book of Isaiah chapter 21. The prophet Isaiah is predicting the coming desolation of Babylon, the capitol of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Northern Kingdom of Israel based at Samaria had already fallen to the Assyrians and the Southern Kingdom at Jerusalem seemed sure to follow. Israel trembled at the seemingly unassailable power of Assyria. Isaiah says that God told him to “Go, set a watchman,” referencing Isaiah’s own prophetic understanding of coming events. And “the watchman” reports that he has seen messengers riding from a ruined Babylon saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the carved images of her gods he has shattered to the ground.” Babylon’s destruction was Israel’s salvation.

The first layer of significance for the title is a comment on the modern day equivalent of mighty Babylon, the Pax Americana. Who in the mid-twentieth century doubted that American power was nearly unassailable? And yet at America’s Babylonish core was a corruption, a system of racial inequality that threatened to undermine American might. America’s gods of consensus liberalism would be shattered to the ground. Of course, in that destruction is the seed of America’s salvation.

That’s a pretty hefty allusion, but I wonder if Harper Lee is also having a bit of a laugh with the title. Lee must’ve known that people would react viscerally to her pegging Atticus Finch as a racist. And yet isn’t she just tearing down an idol? She smoothed over Atticus’s racism in To Kill a Mockingbird, something which likely aided the success of the book because it allowed readers to tacitly deny the pervasiveness of southern racism. But now the seemingly unimpeachable character of Atticus Finch has been shown to be corrupt at its core. Yet this nuanced, morally ambiguous version of Atticus Finch is truer than the avatar of justice we erected.

If I’m reading that right, what an epic act of literary trolling! Props to Miss Lee!

Fixing the Interstate Highway System; or, Why Ike Shouldn’t Have Copied the Nazis

Reihan Salam has a new essay at Slate summarizing the history of the Interstate Highway System and the political dysfunction preventing proper maintenance today. Here’s an excerpt, but it’s worth reading in full.

In the pre-interstate era, most of America’s superhighways were turnpikes, financed by tolls. Because these roads had to pay for themselves, there was a powerful incentive to avoid building more road than was strictly necessary. Early plans for a national highway system involved tolls as well. Yet lawmakers in the Deep South and sparsely populated Western states objected to the idea, fearing that their highways wouldn’t generate enough toll revenue to make them financially viable. Thus was born the idea of financing the entire Interstate Highway System through a federal tax on gasoline, which would redistribute resources from states that generate a lot of gasoline tax revenue to those that generate very little. This new federal tax would fund a Highway Trust Fund, and through it the federal government would meet 90 percent of the cost of new highway construction, including local highway construction. Since the Interstate Highway System was almost entirely funded by the federal government, local policymakers found it hard to resist going along with plans that tore neighborhoods apart. Who in their right mind would turn down “free” money? Who would turn it down if the neighborhoods that were being destroyed were full of people who didn’t have a ton of political power, as was frequently the case?

Ike’s fascination with the German autobahn may sound strange today. But during the 1930s there was a routine exchange of ideas between National Socialists in Germany and technocratic progressives in America and Great Britain. I have a favorite anecdote which illustrates that exchange although it transpired during WW2. In the early 1940s the British government commissioned a book titled the Beveridge Report, which was the blueprint for domestic reforms that would be enacted by British socialists following the war. It was something like the British version of the New Deal. When the Soviets captured the Fuhrerbunker in Berlin in 1945 they found summaries of the Beveridge Report among the captured documents. Nazi officials were discouraged from bringing up this “consistent system…superior to the current German social insurance in almost all points,” but if asked about it they were to claim that the report was “obvious proof that our enemies are taking over national-socialistic ideas.”

That sense of admiration went both ways. Spend time in the archives of more than a few New Deal functionaries and you’ll find letters glowing with admiration for fascist technical genius. They might moot concerns over Germany’s anti-semitic social policy and expansionism, especially after 1938, but they longed for the kind of power the regime had in setting economic policy. Set in that context, Ike’s open admiration for the autobahn makes more sense. The Nazis, or so the logic went, may have been evil people, but they built great things. Every time I walk up the mall toward Pattee Library with its harsh neo-classical lines, I’m reminded of that technological, cultural, and ideological exchange. It’s like taking a stroll to the Zeppelinfeld at Nuremberg! (Construction took place from 1935-1939 at Nuremberg and 1937-1940 at State College.)

Pattee Library, Rights:

Eisenhower might have talked a good game when it came to criticizing the military-industrial complex, but he was its architect. The interstate highway system was an example of the kind of federal largesse laid out for defense initiatives during the 1950s. Ike wanted a road system that could quickly transport troops and tanks to repel a Communist invasion. Beyond the usual guff about shovel-ready jobs and the realities of pork barrel politics, broader social consequences were generally unintentional.

However, those unintended social consequences were immense. Installing highway belts around cities decreased the time it would take to commute to work from outside the city. With the advent of cars people were already moving out to the new suburbs, but the highway system turned the flow into a flood. The people who could most afford the move, and a car, and a new house were disproportionately middle-class and white. And as both white and black middle classes moved out of the city center, most major US cities suffered from a generation of inner city decay. Highways weren’t the only government-induced variables to unintentionally fuel suburbanization and white flight–federal housing subsidies and redlining practices deserve a hefty share of the blame–but they played an enabling role.

I wonder how the highway system is taught in high school history textbooks today. As I remember it from my grade school years, Eisenhower’s highways were treated like the Hoover Dam or the transcontinental railroad, lauded as symbols of American ingenuity, determination, and prosperity. I’m not sure that narrative had space for the negative unintended consequences of what amounts to an incredible federal subsidy for automobile transportation. It makes sense that it’s time for historians to reevaluate how they tell that tale. After all, Richard White (book, article) and others have revised the exceptionalist narrative about the transcontinental railroad by revealing the sketchy politics, graft, and general wastefulness associated with its construction. It shouldn’t be any harder to do the same for the interstate highway system.

The Obama Administration Responds to a Petition for Edward Snowden’s Pardon


Back in 2013 I signed one of the White House’s “We the People” petitions calling for a “full, free, and absolute pardon for any crimes” committed by Edward Snowden relating to his “blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs.” I believe that in twenty years or so historians will draw a direct line between Snowden’s action and those of other famous, vindicated whistle-blowers like Daniel Ellsberg and the Media Eight.

This morning the White House responded to the petition. It was deeply disappointing. Here’s the statement from Lisa Monaco, Obama’s adviser on Homeland Security and Counterterrorism:

“Since taking office, President Obama has worked with Congress to secure appropriate reforms that balance the protection of civil liberties with the ability of national security professionals to secure information vital to keep Americans safe.

As the President said in announcing recent intelligence reforms, “We have to make some important decisions about how to protect ourselves and sustain our leadership in the world, while upholding the civil liberties and privacy protections that our ideals and our Constitution require.”

Instead of constructively addressing these issues, Mr. Snowden’s dangerous decision to steal and disclose classified information had severe consequences for the security of our country and the people who work day in and day out to protect it.

If he felt his actions were consistent with civil disobedience, then he should do what those who have taken issue with their own government do: Challenge it, speak out, engage in a constructive act of protest, and — importantly — accept the consequences of his actions. He should come home to the United States, and be judged by a jury of his peers — not hide behind the cover of an authoritarian regime. Right now, he’s running away from the consequences of his actions.

We live in a dangerous world. We continue to face grave security threats like terrorism, cyber-attacks, and nuclear proliferation that our intelligence community must have all the lawful tools it needs to address. The balance between our security and the civil liberties that our ideals and our Constitution require deserves robust debate and those who are willing to engage in it here at home.”

This is breathtakingly hypocritical logic. First, the government has offered no evidence that Snowden’s disclosures endangered any government operatives. Indeed, unlike the Wikileaks document dumps which did create real danger to American agents and foreign assets, Snowden and his friends at the Guardian have been very careful to not disclosure the names or identifying details of US agents. You can see that concern on Snowden’s mind if you watch the remarkable documentary Citizenfour

Second, I’ll also note that accusations of endangerment are the routine response to every public scandal involving government overreach. Simply put, it is in the bureaucratic best interests of corrupt and power-hungry government officials to exaggerate the scope of the dangers associated with disclosure of government wrongdoing. It was true during the scandals involving the Nixon White House and the Vietnam War and remains true today. (In part that’s because the same cast of characters that concealed, lied, and blustered its way through the Congressional investigations of the 1970s–including Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney–would later become the architects of the post-9/11 Patriot Act.)

Third, it relies on the assumption that anything that harms the US government is equivalent to harming the American people. It is a debatable proposition whether the leviathan that is the federal government truly governs by the people or for the people, but what is certain is that this logic has been employed against every major social movement in American history. For example, as Mary Dudziak points out in her book Cold War Civil Rights, civil rights activists faced criticism for undermining US moral authority during the nation’s standoff with the Soviet Union. Whenever MLK or Malcolm X compared US treatment of its minorities unfavorably to their treatment in Communist countries, why, they were aiding the enemy by parroting Communist propaganda! More moderate voices tempered that language while keeping the substance, arguing that racial equality could wait until after the Cold War had been won. (I like Nina Simone’s response to this “go slow” logic.) Replace “civil rights” with “civil liberties” and “Communism” with “terrorism” and you have the current rhetorical backlash against Snowden in a nutshell.

Pause and consider that the Obama administration is echoing the logic of the white supremacists who murdered, bombed, and intimidated in order to try and prevent someone like President Obama from ever holding that office.

Fourth, the statement criticizes Snowden for hiding “behind the cover of an authoritarian regime” yet fails to mention that Snowden was stranded in the Moscow airport because of the White House. The administration placed pressure on its allies and recipients of US foreign aid (read: almost everybody) to deny asylum to Snowden. It’s not like Snowden said, “Hmmm, which country do I want to live in exile in? Oh, Russia, it’s perfect! I love me some borscht!” Snowden applied to at least half a dozen different (and less authoritarian) regimes but each bowed under pressure from the Obama administration. Take for example the moment when the US strongarmed the Portuguese government into denying fuel to the President of Bolivia’s plane because of a rumor that Snowden was aboard. Can you imagine the fireworks that would ensue if another nation did that to Air Force One? The White House actively hemmed Snowden in, giving him no realistic option except residence in Russia, and then used his presence in Russia to dismiss Snowden’s loyalty to America. That phrase from the White House statement is audaciously mendacious.

Fifth, Snowden has been vindicated at least in part by the actions of all three branches of government, including Obama’s executive overhaul of the NSA’s rules in 2014, Congress’s revisions to parts of the Patriot Act in 2015, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recent ruling against bulk collection of metadata. It’s rich that the Obama administration was willing to acknowledge that the NSA overreached its authority, but now refuses to call Snowden a whistle-blower.

Finally, allow me to introduce you to a certain presidential candidate from 2007. He had a few things to say about illegal wiretapping and NSA overreach. If only we’d elected this guy! What a missed opportunity.

Alas Barry, we hardly knew ye.

American vs. Australian Country Music

I recently heard Keith Urban’s new song, “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” It’s got a catchy tune and the title makes a great lyrical hook. The title itself evokes several recurrent themes in country music. John Deere is symbolic of grit, farm/country life, and general Americana. Many (too many?) country songs make the pickup truck that central symbol, but a John Deere tractor works just as well. Sandwiching our tractor is John Cougar (Mellencamp), an avatar of rock n’ roll rebellion, and John 3:16 as a reference to evangelical religiosity.(1) In any case, pick one or two of those three themes and you’ve pretty much summarized any American country song.

Which makes it deeply odd that Keith Urban sings it. He was born in New Zealand and spent his teenage years in Queensland, Australia. After minor success as a country singer Down Under, he moved to Nashville and to much greater success in the States. Indeed, as long as you only listened to his music, you wouldn’t know from his accent that he wasn’t born in America. This is a fairly common pattern, see Russell Crowe, Mel Gibson, and Nicole Kidman (Urban’s wife).

Still, it’s strange when Urban sings about quintessential American experiences that he never had. He couldn’t have been a “blue jean quarterback saying ‘I love you’ to the prom queen in a Chevy” because he would’ve been playing rugby and gone to a school formal. Australia did have John Deere by the time Urban was born, but via a merger with the more traditional Australian tractor company Chamberlain. And in Australia Urban would’ve been more likely to drive around in a ute rather than a pickup truck (and it probably would’ve been a Ford, Toyota, or Subaru rather than a Chevy). It’s self-explanatory why it’s odd for him to refer to the Mississippi, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Wheel of Fortune, and Texaco.

Of course, Urban didn’t write the song and, as he’s said in interviews, he absorbed a great deal of American culture from exported film, television, and music.(2) And it’s certainly true that America doesn’t own a monopoly on music celebrating place, family, and tradition. This post isn’t meant as a criticism of Urban; it is an opportunity to mention some of the distinctions between American and Australian country music.

But really I just want to talk about my favorite Australian country singer, John Williamson. I spent eight summers in Australia as a teenager. Two nuffy (good) mates introduced me to Williamson and I immediately fell for what seemed like a very exotic blend of influences for someone with very little exposure to global popular music.

Visiting the Outback in 1998

Visiting the Outback in 1998

The first thing I’d like to note is that in Australia, country music and folk music aren’t the almost completely distinct genres that they are in America. In the States, contemporary country music is strongly rock and pop influenced, plugged in, and rarely references anything pre-WW2. Folk music, on the other hand, eschews “over-produced” sound, roots itself in the blues and pre-WW2 country, and is the preserve of the hipsters and progressives who listen to NPR. (Full disclosure: my wife is a volunteer host for “The Folk Show.” I myself have a hermit beard and have been known to wear flannel year round.) American artists have played with the line between the two genres from time to time especially during the first folk revival (think Bob Dylan) and the second (think Mumford and Sons), but these moments are the exception that prove the rule.

In Australia, country and folk overlap more. John Williamson is a perfect example. Williamson usually performs on acoustic guitar, but he’s not averse to plugging in for albums. You’ll hear lots of harmonica and didgeridoo. He writes most of his own songs, which cover quite a few topics from early twentieth century Australian history. You’ll hear that mix in many of the examples of Williamson’s music that I’ll mention below, but you can certainly see it in his first hit single from 1970, “Old Man Emu.”

It’s not uncommon for Williamson to use the didgeridoo in his tracks and his embrace of the traditional aboriginal instrument indicates his wider advocacy for aboriginal rights. Even from my short time in Australia as a white man, I routinely overheard offensive sentiments about aboriginals. Imagine that all the animus in America towards blacks AND Native Americans was focused on one group and you’ll have some idea of what Australian aboriginals face. Which makes Williamson’s support for the aboriginal music scene all the more remarkable. American country music isn’t exactly known as a bastion of civil rights activism let alone for possessing any appreciation of Native American culture and music.

Like in America, Australian country music is deeply nationalistic. That nationalism is complicated however by Australia’s status as a member of the British commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth the Second is ceremonial head of state for Australia, albeit one with very little political power. That gives Australian nationalism a bit of bite that is lacking in American patriotic songs. Take John Williamson’s ardently republican “A Flag of Our Own,” in which he advocates for replacing the Australian national flag with its embedded British flag. The song just drips of Australiana. Framing story that appeals to beloved national hero? Ned Kelly, check. Epithets for foreigners? “Frogs,” “POMs,” “Yankees,” check, check, and check. And all are rooted in specific foreign policy clashes between Australia, Britain, France, and the US during the early 1990s. Like I said, this has way more bite than rather anodyne American songs like “God Bless the USA.”

“A Flag of Our Own” includes a touch of another motif in Williamson’s music: the importance of environmental conservation. One of my favorite songs is “Rip Rip Woodchip” in which Williamson describes the shortsighted, unsustainable destruction of Australian forests. It expresses a conservationist rather than preservationist ethos with its nostalgia for 19th century woodcutters, but it’s unlike anything in mainstream American country music.

Finally I’d like to touch on what I believe is a significant source of the difference between Australian and American nationalisms. For both nations country music is the musical expression of nationalist sentiment, a feeling that naturally flows into appreciation for the military service of their veterans. But the two nations have had very different encounters with war. American songs celebrating military service tend to highlight our victories over fascism and communism while downplaying colonial misadventures and defeats. Australians are much more attuned to the dark side of war.

Here’s a simple comparison that might help us understand the distinction between these national experiences. Ask an American about the most important moment in American military history and there’s a pretty good chance they’ll mention the D-Day landings in Normandy. American soldiers stormed the beaches while suffering awful casualties, but they successfully broke through Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall.”

Australians on the other hand also remember a beach landing, albeit one with a very different outcome. At the behest of over-confident British officials(3), some 78,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers (ANZAC) landed at Gallipoli in an ill-advised attempt to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. The landings were a disaster as initial efforts became bogged down in the same kind of trench warfare that bedeviled the Western Front. Except at Gallipoli the allied soldiers were less well-supplied, had less artillery, and were fighting in much more rugged terrain. The generals just kept pouring more and more reinforcements into the meat grinder. After eight months of brutal fighting and more than 141,000 ANZAC casualties, the Allied forces withdrew in defeat. To put that in perspective, Australia suffered approximately the same number of battlefield deaths during WW1 as the United States despite having less than 1/18th the total population.

What does that kind of tragedy do to a nation’s remembrance of war? Well, they still celebrate their veterans just as vigorously but without the assumption that their soldiers died in the defense of Australia. Those young “Diggers of the Anzac” died instead in the service of a callous British government.(4) Instead of focusing on the “goodness” of the war, Australians honor the personal bravery and integrity of its soldiers. Under horrible conditions, these men fought for each other even as the generals sent them over the top into almost certain death.

Those themes–individual heroism, soldierly comradery, all in the service of a questionable cause–are the subject of several Williamson songs, including “Diggers of the ANZAC.” Notice the mention of “men like Simpson,” a reference to Jack Simpson Kirkpatrick. Although his story quickly became myth, the real Simpson was a hero who ferried some 300 wounded soldiers down the steep cliffs at Gallipoli on the back of his trusty pack-mules before being shot in the back less than a month into the battle.

I really just can’t fathom an American country music star successfully combining these diverse instincts–folk music, indigenous rights, environmentalism, nationalism. We couldn’t handle a little criticism of the Iraq War let alone someone as interesting as John Williamson!


(1)  The sinner and saint juxtaposition is common in country songs and this song highlights that tension. What more perfect pairing than the personification of concupiscence, Marilyn Monroe, with the state of original innocence in the Garden of Eden??

(2) Hey, it’s a fact of empire from Hellenism through to Pax Americana.

(3) Including Winston Churchill, who was the rather strategically incompetent, warmongering First Lord of the Admiralty. I share the general Australian contempt for the man. American conservatives idolize him, but then Americans do tend to be as ignorant of WW1 as they are fixated on WW2, a weighting that works in Churchill’s favor.

(4) British officialdom never comes out looking good in Australian films and television. Here’s a clip of a young Mel Gibson in his first major movie role. Note the individual heroism and British incompetence. It’s as emotionally brutal an end to a film as I’ve seen. This quote from Gibson’s press tour does a nice job summarizing Australian cultural memory of the battle: “Gallipoli was the birth of a nation. It was the shattering of a dream for Australia. They had banded together to fight the Hun and died by the thousands in a dirty little trench war.”

Sybil Ludington and Replacement Mythology


I posted recently about a popular myth concerning eighteenth century preacher Samuel Davies. In the story, Davies beards the King of England in his own palace. The story helped nineteenth century evangelicals overlook the pro-British attitudes that the real Davies had espoused, attitudes that were very unpopular after the American Revolution. Myth making always serves a greater political or cultural purpose. We can advance our agenda by burnishing the memory of us and ours (and vilifying them and theirs). So it’s no surprise that nineteenth century evangelical republicans smoothed the rough edges off Samuel Davies.

The same can be said for the valorization of the “Founding Fathers.” There’s an entire cottage industry today that exists to uncritically reproduce early nineteenth century myths about the founders. Given the surprising rise of evangelical theology in the decades following the Revolution, these myths tended to write evangelical sentiments back into the memory of the founders. There’s a detailed historiographical debate over exactly what the religious beliefs of men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were, but suffice it to say they were not evangelicals. (If you’re interested in the topic, I’d recommend starting with either Gregg Frazer or John Fea.)

But it’s worth mentioning that evangelicals aren’t the only ones guilty of spinning myths about the American founding. Given that today’s the Fourth of July, I’ve seen a number of friends post on social media about Sybil Ludington’s ride. In 1777 Sybil–the sixteen year old daughter of a Revolutionary militia colonel–rode forty miles (twice the distance ridden by Paul Revere!) to raise the militia in time to respond to a British thrust into New York. Because of her bravery, that militia unit aided the Revolutionary forces in driving the British back to Long Island. George Washington himself thanked the young girl for her service.

The story, however, is very poorly sourced. It was first written down in 1907, fully a hundred and thirty years after the event, by one of Sybil’s descendants. Both of those facts should raise red flags. There’s a complete lack of primary source documentation for the story; there’s not even any record of the Ludington’s militia being involved in that military action. Of course, it’s all but impossible to prove a negative, but while Sybil’s story might be true in whole or part, it’s best classified as myth rather than history.

The story was first published in 1907 with money provided by the Ludington family. What family wouldn’t want to highlight their ties to the American Revolutionaries? In 1961 the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution commissioned a statue of Sybil. What civic organization wouldn’t want to highlight their town’s ties to the American Revolutionaries? It was a useful myth.

Recently, the story has become even more popular. She is the heroine in children’s books, graphic novels, and she even got her own segment on the PBS show “Liberty’s Kids.” I think the “Liberty’s Kids” episode description suggests why there is a sudden revival of interest in Sybil Ludington:

James learns that all kinds of people can be heroes and that especially includes strong-minded courageous young ladies. Meanwhile Sarah sees Benedict Arnold battle for respect with the same passion he uses to battle the British. She becomes concerned that Arnold’s passions might do what the British cannot – defeat him.


Sixteen-year-old Sybil Ludington defies the standard view of what is proper for a young lady and makes her own courageous “midnight ride” in Westchester County, New York to help the rebels cause (4/26/77)….


Limitations that others place on us cannot stop one from achieving greatness if one’s mind is set on it.

Although reports of the death of evangelicalism in the United States have been greatly exaggerated, we do live in an increasingly post-Christian cultural milieu. Burnishing the credentials of evangelical heroes via myth-making is sooo last century. Instead, we use a new group of myths to advance progressive causes and ideals, like an egalitarian appreciation of the role of women in American history. Throw in a dash of self-esteem psychology, and boom, you have all the ingredients of Sybil Ludington’s ride.

Child Abuse Prevention Theater

Following the terrorist strikes on 9/11, the American people handed Congress a blank check with only the “For” line filled out: “Make us feel safe again.” Congress has been cashing that check for fourteen years now. Depending on how you juggle the numbers, the USA has spent somewhere between $1.7 and $5 trillion fighting the war on terror (which happens to be the most existential war in American history, the first one waged to defeat an emotion).

However, those numbers don’t reflect the full cost of the war at home. A bevy of federal agencies were created or expanded after 9/11, but the one I have in mind is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA, which employs some 47,000 security screeners and has a ~$7.6 billion annual budget, has done very little to justify its existence. It seems to spend much of its time making air travelers arrive half an hour earlier at the airport, sexually harassing them, helping the DEA steal people’s money, and giving them the chance to show off their smelly socks, all while failing to actually stop weapons or suspected terrorists from making it onto planes.

Critics of the TSA have labeled it an example of “security theater,” or a system designed to make people feel safer without actually making them safer. It’s just a big, expensive show. It was the logical product of the federal government scrambling to do something, anything, to show that they were being proactive in the wake of 9/11.

I was recently thinking of how the concept of “security theater” might apply to other venues. Stripped down to its most essential elements, we should expect such a “______ theater” to be the product of the following circumstances: 1) a crisis provokes widespread outrage, 2) there is near universal public consensus that something must be done to prevent a repeat of the crisis, 3) the governing organization which failed to stop the first crisis tries to maintain its legitimacy by doing something, 4) under those conditions the organization’s prime motive is to insulate itself from blame rather than prevent future occurrences, which means 5) the implementation of processes that prioritize visibility over effectiveness.

I believe my recent encounter with the child abuse prevention program at Penn State more than qualifies under  that definition. Call it “child abuse prevention theater.” This summer, like the past two summers, I am working for a grant project housed at Penn State. The university is in the middle of rolling out a policy mandating that all PSU employees go through three background checks to ensure that they do not have a history of child abuse.

The first background check was the easiest. An hour spent filling out a form online, a $10 payment, and within minutes the state of PA declared that I was not a felon. The second ratcheted up the time commitment by asking for the address of every home I’ve lived in since birth as well as the names of, and my relationship to, every other person residing with me. A week later, the state of PA informed me that none of those addresses correlated to any incidents of child abuse. Finally, it was time for me to send full, and I do mean full, sets of my fingerprints to the FBI. You register online, visit a fingerprint scanner, pay $27.50, and then wait four to six weeks for the FBI to clear you. (The biggest winner of the fingerprint requirement appears to be UPS, which dominates the local fingerprint scanner racket.) The FBI promises to delete your fingerprints after checking you against their national criminal database. (Sure they do…)

In total, filling out the forms, obtaining the fingerprints, and turning in the documents has taken me more than a full working day. And I’m still waiting on the FBI clearance, which means I’m halfway through a summer job without yet receiving a paycheck.

Now, that inconvenience would be well worth it if the process helped prevent child abuse from occurring at Penn State. As someone who was here during the Sandusky abuse scandal, I’m very cognizant of how important it is that Penn State contribute to the fight against child abuse. Go watch the documentary Happy Valley on Netflix this evening for a taste of what it was like here in 2011-2012. Prior to Sandusky, Penn State’s child abuse policies weren’t worth the paper they were written on. Things did (and still do) need to change. Requiring all Penn State employees to go through mandatory reporter training was a good first step.

But I doubt whether Penn State’s universal background check requirement will actually prevent child abuse. Indeed, it might make it even harder to catch.

It throws too wide a net. My summer job is a good example. The job consists of me working from home. I write entries for an interactive, online timeline of American religious history. I’ve never seen a child (other than my own) while “on the job” in my two and a half summers working on the timeline. Most days, I don’t see another human being. Yet I was required to fill out background checks on the basis of pursuing “Employment with a Significant Likelihood of Regular Contact with Children.” There’s a clear mismatch between the two job descriptions.

But maybe you’re asking what harm could result from it? Why not throw as wide a net as possible? Well, the wider the net–and the larger the bureaucracy created to handle the resulting deluge of paperwork–the more likely it is that someone will slip between the cracks. In other words, it may be worth the risk of someone with a child abuse incident on their record working in a non-childcare related job if it made it more likely that Penn State would prevent someone with a similar record from working with children. Throwing thousands of non-childcare related jobs into the same pool as the much smaller number of childcare related jobs runs the risk of diluting the level of scrutiny focused on any one category of employees.

There’s an interesting corollary to this problem in the world of airport security. In the US, the TSA subjects every passenger to a heightened level of security, but in doing so has proven itself incompetent at finding the proverbial terrorist needle in the resulting haystack. In contrast, Israel doesn’t bother with raising the minimum level of scrutiny on all passengers; instead, after the Entebbe incident, Israel’s version of the TSA does a cursory interview with each passenger and only conducts scans or pat-downs on a handful of fliers. There are still civil liberties concerns with Israel’s approach, but from an efficiency and effectiveness standpoint, it’s the better system. Israel focuses its efforts on fewer, higher risk individuals rather than casting a uselessly wide net.

Following Israel’s example, it makes sense for Penn State to focus its efforts on those actually employed in the on-campus daycares, ie the childcare workers, kitchen staff, janitors, etc. Other jobs make sense for that extra scrutiny as well, like recruiters who come in frequent and direct contact with high school students. The change wouldn’t require much other than a little box labeled “in direct and/or frequent contact with children” when Human Resources creates job postings. The total volume of people to track and documents to process would be much smaller, making it less likely that sex offenders will slip through the system through bureaucratic error. Indeed, it makes sense for the child abuse taskforce at Penn State to go beyond the three background checks by interviewing former employers, validating given addresses, and otherwise checking on the provided information. (Very little of that is done now. “Trust the databases” seems to be the watch phrase.)

Instead, Penn State has almost certainly created dozens of new staff and mid-level administrative jobs to oversee the greatly expanded background clearance process. Who knows what the annual expense will be, but it’s likely significant. I’m concerned that doing so doesn’t actually protect any children; worse, it might make it easier for sex offenders to slip through the system. But it allows Penn State to tell the world (and, more importantly, juries considering tort awards) that it’s doing everything it can to stop child abuse. If every employee is required to go through the process, than nobody can say that Penn State didn’t at least try. As long as every is larger than some, Penn State is insulated from future lawsuits and investigations.

It also fits pretty well into the definition of “_______ theater.” Penn State failed to stop or properly report Sandusky’s crimes. National outrage forced Penn State to show that it was trying to prevent a repeat of its prior failures. In order for the NCAA to repeal its penalties on the football program, Penn State implemented some pretty sweeping policy reforms. Those reforms seemingly emphasize visible action over effective action.

Sounds like child abuse prevention theater to me.

I’ll leave you with one last thought. There has been much hand-wringing over tuition increases, ballooning student loan debt, and the misuse of campus funds for non-academic purposes. These are all legitimate worries. It has been noted recently that underlying these problems is the unsustainable growth in the ranks of university administrators. Every time a new initiative, taskforce, or program is instituted, campus bureaucracy swells. Child abuse prevention is no exception. There’s probably a horde of new assistants to associates to vice presidents in charge of child welfare at Penn State since 2011. Bureaucracies never let a crisis go to waste.

Samuel Davies lectures King George II: A (Mostly) Forgotten Evangelical Myth


Samuel Davies played a significant role promoting the First Great Awakening among American Presbyterians in the 18th century. He fought for religious toleration in Virginia, preached a series of sermons in support of the British during the French and Indian War, and served as the fourth president of Princeton University. For extra details, here’s a link to my ARDA entry for Davies.

His reputation as a powerful preacher continued after his death into the 19th century and reprints of his sermons circulated widely. He was the “prince of preachers” long before Charles Spurgeon was born. Davies gave one of his final sermons to the students at Princeton on New Years Day 1761. The text was Jeremiah 28:16, “This year thou shalt die.” While exhorting the students to not waste what time in this life remained to them, Davies stated, “Perhaps I may die this year.” A month later, Davies was dead. They don’t make sermon illustrations quite like they used to!

Yet Davies’s most famous sermon was delivered while he was on a fundraising tour of Britain. As the story goes, Davies was called to preach in the royal chapel for King George II. When the king started whispering to others in attendance, Davies stopped talking, fixed his gaze on the King, and said, “When the lion roars the beasts of the forest all tremble; when King Jesus speaks, the princes of the earth should keep silence.” The chastened monarch later held a private audience with the bold minister, apologized, and donated some money which helped Princeton erect its first major building, Nassau Hall.

It’s a grand story and it’s easy to see why it was so often retold. What ardent republican in the early 19th century could resist a story about a native-born American bearding King George II in his own palace? It certainly would have gone down smoother after the American Revolution than, say, Davies’s eulogy to King George II–“George, the mighty, the just, the gentle, and the wise!”–upon the monarch’s death in 1761. After all, they had just fought a war with his ostensibly tyrannical, unjust, and foolish grandson, King George III.

However, the story of Davies and the King–coming to an Off Broadway show near you!–is a complete fabrication by an infamous 19th century booster of the Second Great Awakening, “Parson” Mason Locke Weems. He was an ordained Episcopalian minister until financial difficulties forced him out of the ministry. As an author and traveling book seller, Weems had a practical interest in compelling stories and didn’t let little things like evidence keep him from spinning tall tales. He specialized in well-selling biographies of prominent men like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and General Francis Marion. The heroes of the founding and the Revolution were starting to die off, first Benjamin Franklin (1790), then Francis Marion (1795), George Washington (1799), and many others.

Americans wanted to memorialize their departed national heroes, but they also wanted to see themselves in them. Weems’s tailored biographies were a particularly smart sales tactic in the 1800s and 1810s as the revivals associated with the Second Great Awakening broke out. America was rather suddenly more evangelical than ever before. Weems was happy to supply that demand by “evangelicalizing” the Founding Fathers. His versions of the historical figures prayed more often, acted piously at all times, and were conspicuously loyal to the idea of America as a nation specially chosen by God.

Weems is famously responsible for the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree. (Here’s a delightful painting by Grant Wood winking at the story by featuring Weems in the foreground pulling back the curtain on a surprisingly adult looking George Washington.) He also invented the story of George Washington praying at Valley Forge. Those are both famous examples, but Weems is likely also the author of the Samuel Davies sermon anecdote. Editions of Sermons on Important Subjects, by the late Reverend and Pious Samuel Davies, A.M. were routinely ordered by quite a multitude of booksellers in the 1790s and 1800s. In 1816 an edition was printed in Baltimore for “Mason L. Weems.” Prior editions did not include the anecdote, but Weems did and later editors imitated him. Despite attempts at debunking the story, the fiction was better than the truth.


Older version

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Weems’s anecdote has declined along with the memory of Samuel Davies. Myths about the Founding Fathers continue to circulate despite the efforts of historians to stamp them out–that’s a constant!– but few evangelicals today have ever heard of Davies and the political and religious milieu is no longer served by fanciful stories about his showdown with the King of England. Still, the episode is a reminder of the natural human inclination to invent and believe histories that are convenient to those causes which we hold dear.

Mary Dyer’s “Monstrous Birth” and (Our) Puritan Hypocrisy


Puritans were no more dour, provincial, or narrow-minded than anybody else. That caricature was created much later by the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and HL Mencken. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter tells us more about the theological controversies of the 19th century than it does the 17th century. And when Mencken pithily defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” he was really criticizing religious conservatives of his own day. In reality, early American Puritans were an unusually cosmopolitan, well-educated lot. Take Henry Vane, who was educated at Oxford and worked for the English ambassador in Vienna before traveling to Massachusetts and serving a term as governor.

Unfortunately, Hawthorne and Mencken didn’t have to work too hard to create their caricatures. Puritans gave critics plenty of ammunition, especially in regards to the entanglement of church and state in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It doesn’t take more than a few hanged Quakers or burnt “witches” to make one thankful for religious toleration.

Let’s consider for a moment the story of Mary Dyer and her “monstrous birth.” Imagine that you’re a young mother (~26) who has just given birth to a stillborn daughter with anencephaly and obvious physical deformities. You bury her secretly because at the time deformed children are seen as signs of God’s displeasure. Your religious and political opponents pressure a friend into telling them where your daughter was buried. Then the civil authorities exhume your child without permission, write up a description of her deformities, mail copies to every minister in your area, and further publish a book that uses her as proof that you are under God’s judgement for your religious beliefs. All of this is done in order to bring your good friend to trial and banishment.

John Winthrop exploited the pain of a traumatized woman for political gain on the basis of questionable theology.

Winthrop leveraged the political controversy into a successful bid for the governorship and banished Dyer. She went to England and became a Quaker. When she returned to Massachusetts twenty years later, Winthrop was dead, but his successor and political ally, John Endecott, had enacted a ban on Quakers in the colony punishable by death. He hanged Dyer from an elm tree. Other Quakers were whipped, had their ears shaved off, and their tongues bored through with a hot iron. Like I said, Hawthorne and Mencken didn’t have too work too hard to construct their caricatures.

I’m no Quaker, but given the circumstances I find myself of one accord with Dyer’s last words. After she watched two other Quakers hanged, she approached the ladder to the gallows. One of her former pastors, John Wilson, called on her to repent and save her life and she replied, “Nay, man, I am not now to repent.” She was then asked if she wanted some of the church elders present to pray for her soul, to which she gave the biting answer, “I know never an Elder here.” Indeed.

I have a short moral for this story. There has been a revival of interest in Reformed theology among conservative evangelicals over the past two decades. Evangelicals are suddenly reading Puritan divines like John Owen. Yale University Press has been steadily publishing the complete works of Jonathan Edwards. You can even buy a t-shirt emblazoned with “Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy.” (That said t-shirt is made of the finest “organic cotton” is no small irony. Ahem.)

Yet while this embrace of Puritan theology and history is heartening, it has been selective. We read Edwards, not John Cotton. Owen, not Cotton Mather. When Winthrop is mentioned it’s usually some imagination-deprived politico spouting off about America as a “city upon a hill.” Winthrop’s scurrilous attacks on a grieving mother? Yeah, that’s been forgotten. This selective reading of American Puritanism prevents evangelicals from learning from Puritan vices as well as their virtues. Jonathan Edwards and other Puritans have rightly been taken to task for their ownership of slaves, but who speaks for Mary Dyer?

A group of Puritan religious dissenters fled England for the sake of their religious freedom, a freedom they then denied to Baptist and Quaker dissenters. For sure, the entangling of church and state was an older mistake, but age did not impart one whit of grace to the harm that necessarily resulted from using the sword of the State to advance the Church. While erecting their city on a hill, Puritans forgot that they were strangers in a strange land. If contemporary evangelicals better understood their Puritan past, perhaps they would be less likely to repeat their mistakes.

Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism – Michael McVicar

Christian Reconstructionism has long functioned as a bogeyman in electoral politics. Politicians identified with the New Christian Right are routinely tarred by accusations of proto-theonomy, the belief that the government should enforce Old Testament civil and moral laws. Fear is an effective means of getting out the vote, so around every election season you’ll find a profusion of essays, even entire books, suggesting that a vote for [insert conservative politician] is the first step towards laws punishing homosexuality, witchcraft, and even childish rebellion with stoning. The slippery slope towards Christian Reconstructionism functions for the Left as accusations of incipient socialism do for the Right.

Apologists for Christian Reconstructionism typically respond by saying that this common depiction of their movement is skewed. Yes, they believe that in an ideal society these sins would be punishable by the civil authorities, but the advent of that society is many generations removed from the present. By that point in time, society will have already been remade voluntarily by Christian families and thus homosexuality and other sins will be much rarer than they are today. Government sanctions would hardly even be necessary. (I’m not sure that this line of Reconstructionist reasoning has ever reassured anybody anywhere who wasn’t already a convinced Reconstructionist.) In any case, the apologist avers, it’s unfair to fixate on one small, controversial part of Reconstructionist ideology while ignoring the broader intellectual framework.

Michael McVicar’s book, the first critical history of Christian Reconstructionism, digs deeper into the ideology of the movement than either the shallow criticisms of previous books or the self-congratulatory work produced by Reconstructionists themselves. McVicar had unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s personal papers and thus was able to reconstruct the theologian’s intellectual evolution in his own words. The portrait of Rushdoony that emerges is of a theological lone-wolf who patched together a system of thought by borrowing from a surprising variety of sources.

From his mentor at UC Berkeley, German expat Ernst Kantorowicz, Rushdoony imbibed a romantic nostalgia for early modern European Christendom. As McVicar puts it, he was compelled by the “ways in which abstract theological conceptions of God and man had concretized into the political infrastructure of the medieval and modern worlds.” Rushdoony wanted to bring that missing sense of religious enchantment back to American politics. Not long after his time at Berkeley, Rushdoony chanced upon the work of Cornelius Van Til. Van Til, a theology professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, had created a system of Christian apologetics known as presuppositionalism. Van Til argued that epistemology is always grounded in presuppositions about the nature of the universe. In short, a belief in God so drastically alters a Christian’s approach to learning the truth that an uncrossable chasm opens up between theology and secular philosophy. By combining Kantorowicz’s political theology and Van Til’s system, Rushdoony created a critique of State progressivism. He believed that the government’s efforts to solve social ills without reference to God were not only doomed to failure but actively harmful.

Rushdoony’s first ministry was as a missionary pastor to the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada. Rushdoony believed the social disorder on the reservation was the result of the heavy hand of a State that had divorced itself from God’s law. As Rushdoony griped, “[The state] is the giver of all things, the course of power, of land, and (having built a reservoir for irrigation here) even of water….The government hospital delivers the children, and the government army taketh them away, and blessed is the name of the government each Memorial Day.” In the face of widespread drunkenness and gambling on the reservation, Rushdoony’s messages of individual salvation seemed insufficient. The reservation, and American society more broadly, needed a full-orbed reconstruction along Biblical lines.

While on the reservation, Rushdoony encountered the third major ideological strand that composed Christian Reconstructionism. Rushdoony had grown dissatisfied with premillennial eschatology, the belief that society would sink into ever greater depravity until the second coming of Christ to earth. Rushdoony rejected premillennialism’s pessimistic outlook in favor of postmillennialism, the belief that Christians would actively usher in the kingdom of God. Christ would return once a truly Christian society had pervaded every corner of the globe. The telos of history, according to one postmillennial scholar found in Rushdoony’s personal library, “is nothing less than a Christianized world.”

These three major components of Rushdoony’s thought–Kantorowicz, Van Til, postmillennialism–were all borrowed from other sources, but he gave them his own spin by adding a novel scriptural hermeneutic. Traditionally, Reformed theologians had distinguished between three kinds of Old Testament law: civil, ceremonial, and moral. The ceremonial laws were fulfilled by the first coming of Christ and the civil laws ceased to apply after the transition from theocratic Israel to the New Testament Church. Only the moral commandments remained fully binding for Christians.

Rushdoony rejected this division between “two tables” of the law as excessively facile. He believed that the division between civil and moral law had been read into scripture rather than pulled from the text itself. Furthermore, even ceremonial law, while technically superseded by the new covenant in Christ, remained instructive as a series of principles that should inform proper Christian living today. Rushdoony’s opus, Institutes of Biblical Law, applied these Old Testament laws and principles to modern American society in mind-numbing detail. For example, the OT prohibition on mixing linen and wool threads when weaving clothes and harnessing oxes and donkeys together while plowing (Deutoronomy 22:11) elicited a lengthy discussion on the dangers of genetic hybridization, bestiality, interracial marriages, and the wanton use of the pesticide DDT.

Indeed, that odd list of issues is evocative of the idiosyncratic nature of Reconstructionism. Rushdoony attempted to harmonize three discrete streams of thought and the rough edges show through. For example, Rushdoony believed that America was headed to hell in a handbasket. (Gary North later pinned his hopes on Y2K.) That’s a grand narrative usually associated with premillennialism. Yet once America had been debased Christian Reconstructionists, organized around patriarchal family units, would rebuild a Kingdom society brick by brick. Rushdoony wedded the pessimistic assumptions prevalent on the Right during the New Deal and early Cold War with an optimistic future view of the Kingdom associated with postmillennialism. Similarly, Rushdoony’s distrust of heavy government intervention from his days on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation led him to advocate for a radically decentralized, shrunken State. And yet his hermeneutic also led him to conclude that the Bible commanded a massive extension of civil authority to protect and advance the institution of the church and Biblical morals. It’s the natural outcome of an ideological project that mingled the fears of mid-20th century conservative political culture, the political theology of a German romantic historian, and the theology of two Dutch Reformed intellectuals.

Much of the rest of McVicar’s book is an interesting account of Rushdoony’s mostly failed attempts to work with conservative think tanks. Because of his Van Til-ian presuppositionalism, he kept pushing broadly-based conservative groups to adopt stricter policies on employing Catholics and agnostics. Rushdoony’s disciples, including his son-in-law Gary North, spread his ideas to a wider audience by being willing to view non-Reformed conservatives as co-belligerents in the fight for a Christianized America. They also connected Christian Reconstructionism to the survivalist movement, which turned out to be a very profitable source of income for North in particular. It wasn’t long before Rushdoony, North, and other Reconstructionists started squabbling over who represented the future of the movement. (North even insinuated that his father-in-law had gone insane for living in godless California.)

If I have one critique of McVicar’s book, it’s that I think he exaggerates the influence of formal Reconstructionist thought on the broader New Christian Right. In his final chapter, he argues that everyone from Francis Schaeffer to Pat Robertson borrowed ideas from Rushdoony. I suspect McVicar gets this from Rushdoony himself, who frequently grumbled about people stealing his ideas without giving him credit. Yet while the language of “dominion” certainly bounced about in Right-wing discourse, I’m not sure that McVicar gives strong evidence that those ideas necessarily came from Christian Reconstructionism. New Christian Right intellectuals were more likely to cite Abraham Kuyper or Cornelius Van Til than Rousas Rushdoony. I’ve embedded a Google Ngram for “Abraham Kuyper,” “Rousas Rushdoony,” and Cornelius Van Til. It’s hardly scientific, but it’s suggestive as to their relative weight on conservative Christian political theology.

Take the example of Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer’s books, How Should We Then Live? and A Christian Manifesto, were hugely influential among evangelicals interested in cultural engagement during the 1970s and 1980. McVicar credits Rushdoony with a “distant, complex influence on the genesis of Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto” and recounts one of Rushdoony’s journal entries: “Read Francis Schaeffer: A Christian Manifesto, another book using some of my material…with no mention of me…Not faith but timidity is the mark of too many Christians today, including able men like Francis.” Yet while Rushdoony may have felt that Schaeffer borrowed his ideas, it seems just as likely that Schaeffer merely pulled from the same streams as Rushdoony had. Schaeffer attended Westminster Theological Seminary and had taken classes from Cornelius Van Til. He certainly borrowed Van Til’s ideas, but I’m not sure McVicar gives any direct evidence that Schaeffer borrowed from, or even read, anything by Rushdoony. A visit to Schaeffer’s archives might have shed light on the matter, but in this and other instances, McVicar is too willing to take Rushdoony’s assertions at face value.

I’ll close with a personal comment. (That’s the advantage of writing a review for your own website!) As a Reformed Christian myself, I found the sections of McVicar’s book that touched on Rushdoony’s hermeneutic of Scripture deeply disturbing. Oddly enough, I do agree with Rushdoony on one point, that the traditional division between “two tables” of Old Testament law is facile. It’s just not that neat and tidy when you get down into the weeds. However, I push that observation to exactly the opposite conclusion. I agree with David Dorsey’s view in “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise.” The New Testament authors say that the entire Old Testament law code is fulfilled in Christ and is thus voided for the New Testament believer. While pieces of the Old Testament law are restated and even expanded upon in the new covenant, the Mosaic law code is no longer binding upon the life of the Christian. Period. The OT law does have value inasmuch as it tells us something about the character of the God who wrote it, but it should not be fodder for endless speculation on how to apply OT law to NT life. That feels more like something learnt sitting at the seat of Gameliel than at the foot of the Cross.

And it’s worth noting where Rushdoony’s hermeneutical logic led him. McVicar includes the following anecdote. At one of Rushdoony’s Bible studies, a student asked him, What would happen to a Hindu in a reconstructed America? Rushdoony, bouncing a child on his knee, responded, “As long as he didn’t practice his faith, the Hindu would be fine.” The student pushed again. And what if said Hindu did practice his faith? Well then, Rushdoony replied, “He’d be guilty of violating the laws of the state.” And? “And be subject to capital punishment.” Rushdoony pushed his vision of a postmillennial Christendom enforcing Old Testament law to its logical extreme.

Jade Helm, Operation Water Moccasin, and Conservative Conspiracy Theories

After the Pentagon planned a series of summer military exercises in the South, conservatives accused the federal government of enabling either a foreign invasion or some kind of military coup. The military futilely protested that the presence of foreign military observers was standard procedure and that all observers were from US allies. Several US congresspeople and state government officials called for the exercises to be cancelled.

While that may sound like a description of the conservative criticism of the Jade Helm 15 exercises planned for Texas this summer, it actually is a summary of a similar controversy in Georgia that riled conservatives more than fifty years ago. In 1963 the US military conducted “Operation Water Moccasin III,” a counter-insurgency exercise in the sleepy rural town of Claxton, Georgia. (Claxton’s town slogan: “The Fruitcake Capital of the World.”) One hundred and twenty-four foreign observers from allied nations attended, including Canada, France, and South Vietnam. The United States had been steadily expanding its involvement in the Vietnam conflict, so the exercise was timely.

Conservatives, however, feared that the exercises were really practice runs for a foreign invasion of the United States. Various versions of the conspiracy floated around, but US Congressman James Utt (R-CA) spread one of the most popular in a letter to his constituents. Utt imagined that Operation Water Moccasin was a rehearsal for a United Nations-sponsored takeover of the United States.

Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary, Carl McIntire Papers

Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary, Carl McIntire Papers

While it sounds frankly bizarre today, in the early 1960s conservatives feared that the John F. Kennedy administration was planning to phase out the US military in favor of a global United Nations peacekeeping force. Also, throughout 1963 the Kennedy administration lobbied for Senate confirmation on a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that would restrict the number and kind of nuclear tests conducted by the US and the USSR. Thus in the summer of 1963 conservatives were on edge concerning the administration, the US military, and the United Nations. It was perfect fodder for conservative politicians, like Utt, with an eye on the 1964 elections.

Utt’s most inflammatory comments regarded the rumored inclusion of “bare-footed Africans” in the exercise. There was no evidence of such, but Utt cited the presence of African troops in Cuba undergoing training for guerrilla warfare as cause for concern. Utt was pandering to a radical conservative fringe. Notice that he lacked any hard information, but he nodded towards the concerns of paranoid anti-Communists. He suggested variously that the United Nations, the Soviets, or even the United States (!) might be responsible for the presence of African troops in Cuba. (As if the same Kennedy administration that had armed Cuban insurgents to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 was now sponsoring African troops in Cuba!) Without coming out and saying so, Utt validated conservative worries that these African troops were involved in Operation Water Moccasin. It’s really a piece of scaremongering art.

Utt also uttered some pretty obvious racial dog whistles. His thirteen-year-old Cuban-American correspondent described the Africans in Cuba as barefooted “savages” wearing “short skirts,” “big rings,” and “talk[ing] funny.” This “whole tribe” even “beat a woman.” Utt followed her description by suggesting that these troops would return to Africa to “murder, pillage, and rape.” It’s likely not an accident that violence against women figures so strongly in the letter; lynchings in America often began with accusations of sexual misconduct towards white women by black men. Utt evoked the idea that if these “savage” Africans abused women in Cuba and Africa, it could happen here too. Dog whistle indeed!

Now think about Utt’s words in the context of the civil rights struggle in Georgia in 1963. During the summer of 1963 civil rights activists in Savannah, Georgia–the closest major city to Claxton–held a series of demonstrations callings for the desegregation of restaurants, hotels, and movie theaters. Unlike the Birmingham demonstrations earlier that year, Savannah’s business and civic leaders adopted a conciliatory approach and the protests were relatively peaceful. Early in 1964 Martin Luther King Jr. gives an address in Savannah in which he calls it “the most desegregated city south of the Mason-Dixon line.”

That racial progress alarmed die-hard segregationists, providing fertile ground for conspiracy theories linking Operation Water Moccasin to civil rights activism. Some saw Operation Water Moccasin as a plan for a foreign invasion to start an insurgency among discontented blacks in the South. Indeed, versions of this conspiracy resurfaced routinely throughout the rest of the decade. Here’s a map produced by a Christian Right-wing group showing a “Negro Communist State to be Carved Out of the South.” The flyer went on to claim that unless conservatives acted now, “10 Million White People [would] be Driven From Their Homes to Make Room for Black Communist Soviet”!

Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary, Carl McIntire Papers

Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary, Carl McIntire Papers

The current brouhaha over Jade Helm 15 follows the pattern of Operation Water Moccasin. Both sets of conspiracy theories began with relatively marginal groups on the conservative fringe. Both received wider attention when more mainstream politicians validated, or at least declined to invalidate, the theories. Both were, of course, hogwash. What’s especially interesting to me as a historian studying the New Right is that Jade Helm switches from the racial dog whistles of Operation Water Moccasin to nativist dog whistles. Fears of African men raping white women have been replaced by worries about Mexican immigrants as a fifth column or as a precursor to Chinese invasion.

All social movements have a paranoid fringe that generate extreme versions of wider concerns. Conservatives in 1963 worried about desegregation, but relatively few of them seriously thought that a United Nations-sponsored African invasion from Cuba was imminent. Likewise in 2015 conservatives worry about the effects of immigration from Central America, but I suspect that not many really buy into the Jade Helm conspiracy theories. Still, politicians are loathe to alienate even a small part of their base, especially when that segment is particularly motivated and loud. It’s easier to try and chart a middle path by pandering to the fringe without formally committing to the conspiracy. Bravery is only infrequently a virtue for politicians.