The Bakkers proved adept at growing their audience. It was hard not to watch just to see what crazy stunt they might pull next, like when a live camel visited the set (and promptly peed all over the stage) or the time that Tammy Faye hosted the show from a merry-go-round (53). But their fundraising method of choice was the telethon, hours of increasingly desperate appeals for donations. “We need $10,000 a month or we’ll be off the air. Listen people, it’s all over. Everything’s gone. Christian television will be no more” (28). In contrast to the hyperbole, PTL grew by leaps and bounds, airing on hundreds of affiliate stations and in as many as 13 million homes by the mid-1980s.
I presented a paper at the American Historical Association’s annual conference last January. My paper, titled “Polish Ham, Talk Radio, and the Rise of the New Right,” illustrated the power of conservative radio with the story of a little known yet wildly successful 1962 boycott of Eastern European imports by conservative housewives. Afterwards, David Farber, a professor of history at the University of Kansas, asked me a particularly important question. Before I get to the question, I should note that it was an honor to have him in attendance; my dissertation, of which this paper was a part, can be traced back to a graduate seminar I took with him while he was at Temple University. His encouragement and advice came at a key moment in my academic career.
My memory is not exact, but what Farber asked was, “What is the epistemology of Right-wing radio? How did conservative listeners know what they were being told was true?” It was an excellent question. After all, it’s not just that conservative radio listeners believed what they were being told, but that they believed so strongly that it inspired action. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks translated radio into activism, the kind of sign-waving, door-knocking, literature-passing, coffee klatch-holding, card party-organizing activism that only true believers participate in. You have to be really sure of something to engage so fully, to commit so much of your resources and time. A vibrant grassroots movement like the New Right of the early 1960s must have required a powerfully convincing epistemology to attract and maintain activists. I stumbled through an answer at the time, but I think I can answer more fully now that I’ve had time to reflect.
The very nature of radio broadcasting as a thing consumed in the privacy of the home or car encouraged listeners to feel a sense of personal connection to the broadcaster. Hearing a voice express emotion is a more intimate experience than reading words printed on a page. Politicians have long taken advantage of this broadcast media effect, like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “Fireside Chats” during the Great Depression. Americans at the time often reported feeling like Roosevelt was talking to them personally, that he truly cared about their individual struggles. Conservative broadcasters in the 1960s benefited from the same effect. Their listeners–who skewed middle-aged, middle-class, and female by a two to one margin–wrote to McIntire and poured out their concerns for their wayward children, ill spouses, and the decline of their nation. A grandmother in Illinois wrote of her concern for her grandchildren who attended a public school since their father had lost his faith in high school (though combat during WW2 partially restored it). A mother in Pennsylvania included a post-script to her letter in order to brag of her tenth-grader’s prize-winning oratory describing the Navajo Indians. A mother in Wisconsin worried about her daughter drinking alcohol, dating a Catholic boy, and refusing to help with household chores; her husband only attended church part-time and didn’t share her concerns. Another woman watched the 1960 election returns until 4am, confessing that she cried herself to sleep after realizing that the Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy had won.
That sense of intimacy fueled a willingness to trust conservative broadcasters when they spoke on political and social issues. A correspondent from Kansas felt that McIntire’s program armed her with the “facts at hand” and made her feel “a place along with many others who are listening.” That last statement is vitally significant. Radio bound listeners not only to the broadcaster but to each other. The Kansan went on to say that she felt “no longer alone and helpless.” And when the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations shut down conservative broadcasting in the late-1960s, these listeners did not just lose a show. No, they suddenly felt disconnected from a movement of like-minded conservatives. As one listener from the southeast corner of Washington State wrote after the local radio station dropped McIntire’s show, “I feel as tho [sic] my life-line has been cut.” This was not merely hyperbole. Every single weekday for the past five, ten, or fifteen years these listeners had turned on their radios and heard Carl McIntire, Billy James Hargis, and other conservative broadcasters tell them that they were part of a national movement to reclaim America for God and the Constitution.
The sharper among my readers have likely already noticed a disconnect between my argument and my chronology. After all, mass radio broadcasting had existed since the 1920s and there had been conservative voices on the air from the beginning. So it’s only logical to wonder why conservative radio broadcasting would have sparked the creation of the New Right in the late-1950s and early 1960s rather than at any other moment in the preceding four decades. Why at that moment did millions of Americans turn on their radios and suddenly find conservative ideas so much more convincing than before?
What changed between the 1920s and 1960s was the sheer number of conservative programs as well as the number and reach of stations willing to air those programs. There had always been conservative broadcasters, like Father Charles Coughlin, but they were confined to a handful of isolated time slots on stations mostly controlled by the major radio networks. You might hear Coughlin criticize the New Deal on air, but he would be followed by a pro-New Deal program or even one of the President’s own fireside chats. Conservative broadcasters in the early 20th century did not, in other words, have their own media ecosystem. Their listeners were exposed to the broader political spectrum. Also, their reliance on the major networks left them vulnerable to cancellation should they be too strident in their political attacks or if they strayed too far from consensus liberalism.
But that all changed in the 1950s as the major networks shifted their attention to television. The number of radio station licenses continued to climb steadily, but an increasing number went to small, independent station owners unaffiliated with the big networks. These stations were continually strapped for cash and willing to accept programming from previously unthinkable radicals including conservatives. As a result, conservative broadcasters started popping up all over the country. They cobbled together an informal network of stations that aired predominately conservative programming even if the owners were not themselves conservatives.
For the first time in broadcast history, the vast majority of Americans could listen to conservative radio programs from dawn till dusk every day of the week. During the morning drive, you might listen to an hour of Dan Smoot attacking the Kennedy Administration’s Cuba policy on Life Line. Then you could listen to Christian Crusade as Billy James Hargis ferreted out Communist-sympathizers at the highest levels of the federal government. Next came Howard Kershner’s fifteen minute weekly sermonizing on “the Christian religion and education in the field of economics.” Perhaps your station, particularly if you lived in the South, aired The Citizens’ Council, the radio home for white massive resistance. During lunch, you might listen to McIntire’s Twentieth Century Reformation Hour as he applauded the Polish Ham Boycott. And so on throughout the rest of the day, one conservative program after another keeping up the same basic drumbeat: Communists were everywhere, the Kennedy Administration was weak, and only conservative action could save America. It was a torrent of conservative ideas and calls to action, the first wave of talk radio.
When I call this a media ecosystem I’m referring to the manner in which these programs, despite a lack of any coordination, authenticated each other in the minds of their listeners. How did a listener know that what they were hearing was true? Well, an idea would be repeated in slight variations across dozens of programs. Perhaps one broadcaster might be wrong, but an entire channel’s worth of programs? Surely not. These weren’t the ideas of any lone radical; the same basic opinion on any given current event might be uttered by a range of seeming experts, from preachers (McIntire, Hargis, Fulton Lewis), an economist (Milton Friedman), a lawyer (Clarence Manion), a rear admiral (Chester Ward), and so on and so forth. All ecosystems require critical mass. Chop down too much of the Brazilian rainforest and the jungle may go into a death spiral on its own. The same is true for the conservative media ecosystem in the 1960s. As an unintended consequence of technological innovation, conservative broadcasting could attain the critical mass necessary to persuade millions of listeners that conservatism was no longer a fringe ideology. It was self-authenticating in a way that was previously impossible.
This idea of a media ecosystem–although I’m not sure we used the term–came up briefly during our AHA panel Q&A. Nicole Hemmer noted that all media ecosystems have this self-authenticating epistemology. It is quite simple to construct a left-of-center media ecosystem that provides a similar self-authenticating function today. I might subscribe to the New York Times, check Slate and Vox on a daily basis, fill my social media feeds with like-minded liberals, and end up *knowing* that the news I receive is accurate because I’m hearing similar ideas across a range of sources. Sure, this can easily lead to group think–Someone like Trump could never win the presidency! No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals!–but on some level we are forced to do so because we are inherently limited human beings who have neither the time nor skill to be experts in every subject. That doesn’t mean, of course, that all ecosystems are created equal, but it does mean that we all rely on ecosystems to provide our minds with an epistemological shortcut. Conservatives in the 1960s were no exception.
On Election Day last week I lectured on the election of 1968 for my class at Penn State, “From Hippies to Yuppies: America in the Long 1960s.” I am hardly the first to note the many echoes of 1968 on both sides of the contest in 2016. The anger of Bernie Sanders’s supporters at the Democratic Party placing a super-delegate-sized thumb on the scale for Hillary Clinton is an echo, albeit a pale one, of the protests that erupted in Chicago in 1968. To the chagrin of younger, more radical voters, the Democratic National Convention had nominated Hubert Humphrey for President despite the veteran politician winning not a single primary contest. On the Republican side in 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign explicitly embraced the slogans of Richard Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 campaigns, calling for a return to “law and order” and claiming to represent a “silent majority” of American voters (insomuch as 47.3% of the popular vote counts as a majority).
But the strongest resonance between 1968 and 2016 may well be the populist rhetoric of George Wallace and Donald Trump. Both men appealed to white working class voters who felt alienated from the major party establishments. In 1968, white ethnics (Poles, Irish, Italians, etc) had a long tradition of voting for the Democratic Party going back to before the New Deal, but the national party leadership had embraced civil rights reform. Wallace stoked these voters’ anger about a federal government more concerned with giving jobs and welfare subsidies to African-Americans than supporting the white working class. Wallace crisscrossed the South and the Rustbelt promising jobs and a government that prioritized the interests of white workers. Nearly fifty years later, Donald Trump has made a similar appeal but with illegal immigrants as the focus of white resentment rather than African-Americans. (He routinely criticized the Black Lives Matter movement but along another axis that more closely resembles Wallace’s criticism of anti-Vietnam War protesters.)
It can be a mistake for history teachers to spend too much time in class making direct (and sometimes tortured) comparisons between past and present. However, the 1960s fall well within living memory and continue to form the political, cultural, and religious background of our lives today. When speaking of the fall of modern conservatism at the hands of the alt-Right, one must first explain its rise in the late-1950s and early-1960s. When discussing the #blacklivesmatter movement, one must refer back to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and so on with nearly every facet of contemporary American life.
To help my students make some of these connections, I decided to create an in-class game show. Seven students were called to the front of the room. Each was given a microphone and a short quote. If they could correctly guess whether the statement was by Donald Trump or George Wallace, then they would receive a bonus point on their next quiz. If at least four of the seven contestants answered correctly, the entire class would receive a bonus point. To keep the entire class of ~160 involved, I posted an online poll for each quote so that the class could impart the wisdom of the crowd to the contestants. Below I have posted the quotes with links to the online polls. See if you can answer all seven correctly. The answers will be listed at the very bottom of the post, but no peeking.
Question #1: “I remember speaking at Harvard. I made them the best speech they’d ever heard. There are millions like you and I throughout this country. There are more today of us than there are of them.”
Question #2: “But you ladies and gentlemen take heart–gentlemen. I reckon there are some ladies here. I see by the [news]paper that not many ladies are here. [applause and cheering] You’re having the same fight that we’re having in some quarters. But it’s very bad for the folks try[ing] to destroy your traditions and your customs. But you got to get in the mainstream.”
Question #3: “I will be the greatest jobs president God ever created.”
Question #4: “If any demonstrator ever lays down in front of my car, it’ll be the last car he’ll ever lay down in front of.”
Question #5: “I love the old days, you know? You know what I hate? There’s a guy totally disruptive, throwing punches. We’re not allowed to punch back anymore … I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”
Question #6: “I have a great relationship with the blacks.”
Demonstrators: ________ go home! ______ go home!
________: Why don’t you young punks get out of the auditorium?
________: [whispers to someone off camera in audience] What’d you say? You go to hell, you son of a bitch. …
Crowd: We want _______! We want _______!
________ supporter: You ought to take them people over there and put them in a bunch of cages and ship them off in a ship and dump them!
The contestants in my class did very well, answering six of the seven correctly. The average margin for the wisdom of the crowd was 2-1 for the correct candidate. Ironically, one of the contestants was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. He received question #6 and answered correctly; you can’t say that he went to polls unaware of exactly what kind of person he was voting for! In any case, I figure that this poll will remain an enlightening classroom exercise for at least the next four years. (#silverlining)
From my fellow history instructors, I would be interested in hearing how you connect past with present in your class and about any exercises you use to do so. Feel free to send me an email or leave a comment.
Question #1: Wallace
Question #2: Wallace
Question #3: Trump
Question #4: Wallace
Question #5: Trump
Question #6: Trump
Question #7: Wallace
Surprising nobody, Donald Trump is making headlines yet again for an outrageous statement. On the Friday before the South Carolina Republican primary, he told the story of US Army General John Pershing who, faced by recalcitrant Muslim insurgents during the US occupation of the Philippines, ordered the execution of 49 prisoners. To add quite literal insult to injury, Pershing ordered the executioners to use bullets dipped in pig’s blood, a violation of Islamic halal dietary restrictions. The goal was to strike fear into the hearts of Muslim Filipinos who may have been thinking of joining the resistance. The only way I can imagine making that story more appealing to neo-conservatives is to have Pershing, holding machine guns in both hands, howl, “Eat lead, pigs!”
Now, this is the point where I’m supposed to note that the story is false and, indeed, it is. It’s a variation on a long-running, chain letter hoax. Some versions have Pershing burying pig corpses with the bodies of slain insurgents and others have him dipping bullets in pig fat rather than pig blood. I suspect that the author of the story may have conflated an incident from the 19th century British occupation of India with the Philippine-American War. In 1857 a group of British-Indian soldiers, or sepoys, mutinied in part because of rumors regarding the use of pig fat in the ammunition for the newly-issued Enfield Rifles. That revolt was put down viciously by the British, who employed an execution tactic called “blowing from a gun,” which involved tying prisoners to the mouth of a cannon, which, when discharged, turned the victim into a collection of miscellaneous body parts. These public executions were designed to cow the locals; in other words, it was an act of terrorism. In any case, you have here all the essential components of the Pershing hoax albeit jumbled up: Muslims, executions, pig residue, terrorism.
But I’m less interested in disproving the hoax than I am in highlighting that this hoax actually isn’t all that unbelievable in the context of the Philippine-American War, which was fraught with very real atrocities committed by US soldiers (although official accounts of the time valorized the conflict). The low end of estimates for people killed during the conflict is just under a quarter of a million, most of whom were civilians. Bald statistics are less compelling than individual stories, but we also have a multitude of accounts of massacres and torture inflicted on Filipinos from US soldiers writing home at a time before military censors were a commonplace. They describe US soldiers looting houses, killing “dagos”/”Injuns”/”niggers” indiscriminately, and executing wounded prisoners. Soldiers with some remaining shred of personal honor wondered why the US was in the Philippines at all or called for a general withdrawal from an unjust war. Soldiers without consciences described the slaughter either with glee or without passion, as something akin to hunting animals. It’s worth clicking through to the link above and reading some of these accounts. If your natural response afterwards is still applause, well, then I suppose I know who you’re voting for in the Republican primary.
And yet this was a war waged ostensibly for the betterment of the Philippine people. After the US took the islands from the Spanish during the Spanish-American War, President William McKinley was faced with a choice, either give the Philippines–who had fought alongside the US against the Spanish–their independence or turn them into the largest colony in the United States’ growing empire. Empire won, of course, or we wouldn’t be telling this story. But McKinley justified that decision through a religious appeal, telling a group of Methodist clergymen that God had gifted the Philippines to the United States so that we could “educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them.” A quarter of a million dead Filipinos give the lie to that reasoning, but it’s a logic that undergirds many instances of American foreign adventurism, from Woodrow Wilson’s war to make the world “safe for democracy” through George Bush’s and Barack Obama’s “War on Terror.” And yet such high-minded rhetoric routinely masks unnecessary deaths, insurgent blowback, and even outright war crimes committed by the US or its allies.
Which makes it rather bizarre that Trump would approve of the Pershing massacre story. After all, he is the only remaining Republican candidate to publicly condemn the US invasion of Iraq, blaming the US for the destabilization of the region and the subsequent rise of ISIS. Insurgents feed off of accounts of oppression and atrocities, the realer the better. ISIS was born in the bowels of Abu Ghraib prison and the US mistreatment of prisoners there is commonly cited by Sunnis fighting against the US-backed Shiite government of Iraq. The lesson of the US invasion of Iraq is the same as that of our occupation of the Philippines. Just stop doing it. Oppression begets resistance. Hatred breeds hatred. And every time we forget that lesson, we end up with blood on our hands.
If you are interested in scholarly work on the Spanish-American and/or Philippine-American War that highlights the role of religion, I’d recommend the following:
Matthew McCullough, The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U.S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War (Wisconsin, 2014).
Susan Harris, God’s Arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898-1902 (Oxford, 2011).
Anna Su, Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power (Harvard, 2016).
Today a federal district court judge ruled that “Happy Birthday to You” is not under copyright and belongs in the public domain. The ostensible copyright holder, a subsidiary of Warner Music, has been collecting over $2 million a year from filmmakers, artists, and others using the song. The story has been portrayed as a David vs. Goliath struggle between a major record label and four small artists, but while the case makes a nice, little human interest story for pop culture-watch journalists, it highlights a broader problem with our copyright system.
Copyright protection in the United States was written into the US Constitution which sought to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” It’s worth noting that the purpose of the copyright system was to encourage innovation; rewarding the creator was a means to an end, not the end itself.
At first, copyright protection lasted for 14 years from the date it was granted with the option of an additional 14 year renewal so long as the creator was still alive and kicking. That comes out to a state-protected monopoly on that text or artwork lasting a maximum of 28 years. Congress believed that bolstering the potential for profit would encourage creators to experiment, while limiting the total length of copyright protection would prevent creators from resting on their laurels and allow others eventually to use their ideas once they’d reverted to the public domain.
But as the handy chart above demonstrates, since 1790 the length of copyright protection has ballooned, with the most recent change extending it to the full life of a creator plus fifty years. The motive isn’t surprising. There’s a great deal of money to be made by those who inherit copyrights. A bestselling book or song could make not only its creator very rich, but, assuming they live to a relatively ripe old age, the next two generations of their family. Corporations have been particularly strong proponents of extended copyright terms, especially the Walt Disney Corporation, which deploys fleets of lobbyists every time the copyright to Mickey Mouse comes close to expiration.
Copyright has turned into a kind of corporate welfare. While the standard for individual creators is life + seventy years, for works of “corporate authorship” it’s a flat 120 years. Given the high cost of enforcing copyright claims against infringement–the armies of lawyers and trial costs–the system disproportionately enriches large corporations while providing little benefit to smaller authors.
The major downside of a vastly extended copyright term is that it skews the balance between profit and innovation all out of whack. This isn’t to say that copyright should be done away with entirely, but it does suggest that copyright protections are so strong that they have begun to hinder rather than advance innovation. We are too far to the right on Alex Tabarrok’s curve (and copyright protections are longer/stronger than patent protections).
Take, for example, the perverse, unintended consequences of extended copyright provisions on book publishing. Books published prior to 1923 are all in the public domain today, but those from after 1923 were under extended copyrights. Even those books for which copyright may have lapsed still remain under a cloud of potential legal claims. This is why Google Books–that great boon to historians–is chock full of works from pre-1923, but few works from after that date are fully accessible.
As others have pointed out, the twentieth century is a “lost century” for American publishing. Few books from the mid-twentieth century are in print and widely available. While the elite of successful authors have become rich as a result, the works of smaller authors languish in obscurity. For the better part of a century, egregious copyright extensions have shrunk the American canon by discouraging niche literary interests.
Think about it this way. The current system boosts sales and republications for a small number of bestselling books by discouraging the same for a much larger number of books published in smaller batches. It’s a transfer of profits and readers from the many to the few. I suspect that readers in the 19th century read a much more varied selection of books, but by the mid-20th century a larger mass audience consumed the same basic literary diet.
The historian in me can’t help wondering how that played into the creation of the post-WW2 era of consensus. Media historians have explored the role played by network control of the airwaves, but I’m not sure I’ve seen similar work done on how the shrinking horizons of book publication worked in a similar fashion by encouraging mass consumption of literature. How might that have affected mid-20th century American culture?
And on the flip side, if the implosion of network control led to the explosion of innovation that we associate with cable television today–with channels and shows dedicated to every possible taste, ideology, religion, and ethnicity–could the same be true if the copyright system were pruned back? I can’t help but suppose that without the copyright-induced barrier to niche publication, genre fiction might have looked less (ostensibly) white and male. If so, that would make the current imbroglio in the world of science fiction a legacy of unintended legal consequences rather than a referendum on who gets to identify as a “nerd.”
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!
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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”!
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.
Curriculum controversies are a staple of state and local politics. The brouhaha in Kansas is merely the latest in a long line of fights. Creationism is at a constant low grade boil that occasionally overflows the pot. Sex education launched a near revolt in Kanawha County in the early 1970s. Go back still further and you’ll find actual riots over which version of the Bible–the Protestant KJV or the Catholic Douay-Rheims–would be required for use in schools. Since the founding of the first public schools, Americans may have spent more time arguing about textbooks and course content than any other single topic.
Here’s an archival image from a 1970s front in the textbook wars.
You’ve got “Un-Americanism,” the catch-all label for attempts at “debunking” or “falsifying American history.” (Replaced in subsequent decades by the dreaded “revisionist” conspiracy.) It is a letter from the American Association of Christian Schools, so “rebellious spirit” and “disrespect for church, religious, the Bible,” make appearances. It seems that approved textbooks should make America look good, the USSR look bad, encourage respect for authority, and promote middle-class respectability.
Some of the categories are just befuddling. What is a “confusion complex,” are there job postings for “confusion complex” designers, and do they create both commercial and residential complexes? I suspect that my blog, if it had existed at the time, would’ve fallen afoul of at least seven of the eleven offenses. Then again, it’d be rather an honor to be found guilty of “excessive free speech.” Dang it, now I’m a “smart-aleck” and guilty of “vulgarity” to boot.
I will only briefly note that curriculum conflicts are an avoidable problem. The more centralized control of a curriculum is, the more likely a school system is to have a fight over its choice of texts. In Kanawha County, for instance, the state board of education mandated that all local schools include sex ed curricula; a local pastor’s wife ran for the school board and rallied locals in opposition.
Today you see the same pattern with state boards setting curriculum in Texas and Kansas. If each school district was given authority to set its own curricula (and, among other things, test, hire, and fire its own staff), a significant amount of the problem would go away as schools more closely reflected the views of their constituent families.
And let’s be honest with ourselves. Do you really think that forcing a kid to buy a textbook promoting creationism or sex education in a class or two will really make that much of a difference in whether they have a positive life outcome? Oh, if only I’d read a few chapters about evolution, I wouldn’t have become a bank robber! That ascribes far too much deterministic power to formal education, I think.