Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: History — Rick Moran @ 7:43 am

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One the the reasons I love to study American history is the opportunity it affords me to travel back in time and put myself in the shoes of people who lived long before I was born.

Don’t get me wrong. There is no doubt in my mind that these are the best of times in which to live and I wouldn’t trade places with those earlier Americans for anything. The fact is, I’m much too addicted to flush toilets, electric lights, and bologna sandwiches to pine for an opportunity to live in a time when outhouses were a fixture of the American landscape and going nearly blind by being forced to read by the light of whale oil candles was considered part of the price of being an educated man.

And needless to say, given the way that bologna is processed today, I can’t even contemplate the 19th century alternative although sweeping the floor of the slaughterhouses here in Chicago and placing the contents in a sack would probably come pretty close to what our ancestors would translate as my favorite food.

But I think that visiting the 18th or 19th Century for a while would do all of us some good to one degree or another. It would help in understanding that the times we live in today are, in many ways, not that much different than the way things have always been in America. I have to laugh when someone on the right or the left points to our divisions, our polarization, the nastiness of our politics and use adjectives like “the worst” it has ever been or “we’ve never been this close to dictatorship” or anything to do with religious oppression, or race relations, or the economy, or any of a dozen other benchmarks that those ignorant of our past will use to try and convince us that the times we live in are unique in the strife and struggle manifested in our polity and politics today.


Washington bemoaned the divisions in America of his day as the country split down the middle between those who supported the British and those that backed the French during the revolutionary struggles in France during the late 18th century. Washington himself was often accused of trying to set himself up as a monarch, a preposterous charge looking back on it but a cause for real concern back then.

During the campaign of 1800, Jeffersonians actually believed that if their man wasn’t elected, liberty in America would be destroyed (sound familiar?). When Jefferson won, there was a tremendous surge of relief that the evil Federalists would be prevented from turning the country into an English lap dog and a debased aristocracy.

This kind of thing wasn’t just rhetoric. Reading accounts of Jefferson himself from that time makes it clear that he saw his election as a fortuitous circumstance in history, that 4 more years of Federalist rule would have meant the nation’s ruin.

Boy - the Democrats sure haven’t changed much in 200 years.

During the Compromise of 1820, when South Carolina was agitating for the umpteenth time already to leave the union, the American people were ready to go to war to prevent such an occurrence. The level of vituperation directed against each other in Congress is shocking (as it would be until long after the Civil War ended) and individual members routinely came armed with pistols when the House sat in session.

Abraham Lincoln was usually caricatured as an ape in opposition newspapers. The invective hurled at our 16th President makes George Bush’s term of office look like a cakewalk.

I could go on and on. The clergy of early America railed against the materialism and the grasping for possessions of the American people - something de Tocqueville commented on as well. There were cries against the influence of religion in politics during elections of the late 19th century as prairie populism swept the country.

Moral condemnation has always been popular in politics. Abolition, “race mixing,” prohibition, and a dozen other “moral crisis” have roiled American politics since its founding. To believe that the mixing of politics and religion by ministers from the pulpit is somehow a new and novel political development indicates that those who make such an argument never read any of Martin Luther King’s thundering denunciations of racism and segregation from the pulpit of the Ebeneezer Baptist Church.

This is a very special 4th of July. It is special because despite more than 200 years of pretty much being at each other’s throats, America is still here. The miracle of America to me has always been this disconnect between our ideals of unity, community, and togetherness and a reality where those concepts are honored in the breach. And where the biggest schism occurs and where our schizophrenia is revealed in all of its glory is in the constant tension between individual liberty and sacrificing some of that liberty for the common good.

In the end, you can’t have charity without selfishness, altruism without greed, or love without hate. Not in this country. Not where 300 million people jostle each other on a daily basis with conflicting goals and ambitions. The friction caused by interest groups would make any other nation fly apart at the seams. Farmers versus city folk. Management versus labor. The rich versus everybody else. It’s a wonder sometimes that our preternaturally violent culture doesn’t explode into paroxysms of hate and murder given all the excuses we give ourselves to try and hurt each other.

To my mind, this is the most exceptional thing about America; our ability to live together in relative peace despite our differences.

So the next time you hear some blow-dried pundit solemnly intone about how unique our problems are, you have my permission to smile to yourself and remember that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.



    Right Wing Nut HouseOne the the reasons I love to study American history is the opportunity it affords me to travel back in time and put myself in the shoes of people who lived long before I was born.

    Don’t get me wrong. There is no doubt in my…

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