George Washington überquert den Rhein

"Washington Crossing the Delaware" (1851) by Emanuel Leutze [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851) by Emanuel Leutze [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ronald D. Gerste erzählt in einem in einem interessanten Artikel in der ZEIT die Geschichte des vielleicht berühmtesten Gemäldes der USA. Wie kam es dazu, dass ausgerechnet ein deutscher Auswanderer im neunzehnten Jahrhundert George Washingtons Überquerung des Delaware darstellte und warum bewegt sich der erste amerikanische Präsident eigentlich über den Rhein?


AZ charter school’s Tea Party history book claims…

AZ charter school’s Tea Party history book claims whites envied the ‘freedom’ of slaves | Raw Story #AmericanHistory

An Ice Cream Truck Song From 1916 Is Incredibly Racist

Image: "People posing in front of a Dreyer's Ice Cream truck." simpleinsomnia, flickr (CC_BY_2.0)
Image: “People posing in front of a Dreyer’s Ice Cream truck.” simpleinsomnia, flickr (CC_BY_2.0)

In my opinion, popular culture (as in everyday culture) is often a good indicator of a cultural mainstream at a given time. Therefore, if we look at a seemingly banal or innocent artifacts, that may give us clues about the zeitgeist of a period. Theodore R. Johnson, III over at NPR thought so, too, and examined the origins of a famous ice cream truck song going back to the minstrel shows of the nineteenth century (go and read the article, it is great!). And he found a 1916 record by a Harry C. Browne, courtesy of Columbia records, that contains lyrics like this (warning: incredibly racist):

Browne: “You niggers quit throwin’ them bones and come down and get your ice cream!”

Black men (incredulously): “Ice Cream?!?”

Browne: “Yes, ice cream! Colored man’s ice cream: WATERMELON!!”

Almost a century later, such open forms of racism are quite shocking and thankfully would be unacceptable in mainstream advertising. That is not to say that popular culture today is free of racism. But I would argue that these days, for the most part, racism manifests itself in subtler forms. I am not talking about the realm of politics. There, as a regular observer, I note a lot of dogwhistling, especially since 2008 and the election of Barack Obama for POTUS. But that discussion is for another time.


Adolph Reed Junior On The Surrender Of America’s Liberals

Adolph Reed Junior on the surrender of America’s liberals

If we understand the left to be anchored to our convictions that society can be made better than it actually is, and a commitment to combating economic inequality as a primary one, the left is just gone. – Adolph Reed


The western front of the United States Capitol. The Neoclassical style building is located in Washington, D.C., on top of Capitol Hill at the east end of the National Mall. The Capitol was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960. By United_States_Capitol_-_west_front.jpg: Architect of the Capitol derivative work: O.J. (United_States_Capitol_-_west_front.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The western front of the United States Capitol. The Neoclassical style building is located in Washington, D.C., on top of Capitol Hill at the east end of the National Mall. The Capitol was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960. By United_States_Capitol_-_west_front.jpg: Architect of the Capitol derivative work: O.J. (United_States_Capitol_-_west_front.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
There is an interesting recent article (paid subscription at Harper’s magazine) by political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. about the decline of the American Left and the Democratic Party’s embrace of neoliberalism.

Bill Moyers interviewed him on his show and has a video on his website. In the interview, Moyers points out as an example of this trend the Obama administration’s fast-tracking of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.

Reed argues that the Democratic Party is too fixated on winning elections and appeasing Wall Street and the Right—the Clinton campaign’s triangulation comes to mind.

Reed sees in American politics today a “bipartisan neoliberalism [. . .] at the center of gravity of the American government.” And as its two core components, he identifies two things: a “free market, utopian ideology [a]nd [. . .] a concrete program for intensified upward redistribution.”

The interview is well worth watching, I think.


New Documentary Covers Infiltration of Civil Rights Movement By Mississippi State Government

A new documentary covers the infiltration of the Civil Rights Movement by the Mississippi state government in the 1950s and 1960s

The new documentary Spies of Mississippi, which airs on PBS, covers the clandestine activities of the little-known Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. During the 1950s and 60s, the group sought to subvert and destroy the Civil Rights Movement and efforts at desegregation by using espionage tactics, including employing black informants and agents provocateurs to discredit Civil Rights activism.

Here is a clip from DemocracyNow! featuring an interview with producer/director Dawn Porter and investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell:

Read more:


Over A Quarter Of U.S. Presidents Were Involved In Slavery

Over a quarter of U.S. presidents were involved in slavery

“Slave sale, Charleston, South Carolina,” wood engraving, by an unknown engraver, page taken from the Illustrated London News, 1856. Courtesy of the British Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

President Obama recently invited French President Francois Hollande on a tour of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation estate in Virginia.

Jefferson—No. 3—was not the only slaveowning president.

As Clarence Lusane, professor of political science at American University writes in his book The Black History of the White House and talks about in this interview with Amy Goodman on DemocracyNow!, six of twelve slave-owning presidents kept slaves in the White House.

Read more:

Missing From Presidents Day: The People They Enslaved.” (Clarence Lusane, The Zinn Education Project, Huffington Post, 2014/02/13)

Nelson Mandela, The Cold War, And The Uses Of History In American Politics

Nelson Mandela, the Cold War, and the uses of history in American politics

 Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 2008. Attribution: South Africa The Good News / | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Source:
Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 2008. Attribution: South Africa The Good News / | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Source:

After former South African President Nelson Mandela‘s death on December 5, 2013, political leaders and dignitaries from all over the world flew to South Africa to pay tribute to Mandela’s legacy as a fighter against Apartheid. Among them was Barack Obama, who praised Mandela as a great inspiration.

In 1962, the CIA betrayed Nelson Mandela to the South African Apartheid regime

But here is an interesting footnote about U.S. foreign policy in the twentieth century: When  Mandela was arrested by the Apartheid regime and thrown in jail in 1962, where he spent the next twenty-seven years of his life, that was enabled by the location of Mandela being passed on to the South African secret police by none other than the CIA.

On Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman interviewed former anti-Apartheid activist and later South African intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils on Mandela’s activism in the 1950s and early 1960s.

“The Anti-Apartheid Underground: Ronnie Kasrils on Meeting Mandela in an ANC Safehouse in 1962 (2/2)”

And here is an interview on Democracy Now! wherein Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez interview Andrew Cockburn of Harper’s magazine on the CIA and Mandela:

“One of Our Greatest Coups”: The CIA & the Capture of Nelson Mandela”

One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist

Since the 1950s, Mandela had been embracing Marxist thought and been involved with the African Communist Party. With the latter, he co-founded the African National Congress’s militant wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), which was active in sabotage campaigns against the Apartheid regime.

In the 1980s, when an international movement for the release of Mandela took shape, political figures like American President Ronald Reagan, future Vice President DIck Cheney, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher supported the Apartheid regime against the imprisoned Mandela, whom they considered to be a communist terrorist.

In hindsight, the support of the racist white supremacist government of South Africa at the time by the U.S. and other governments was obviously morally repulsive. Those supporting it were clearly on the wrong side of history. But during the Cold War, the communist leanings of Mandela probably drew more negative attention than his involvement in the righteous struggle against Apartheid.

[Update, 2014/07/10] As the Guardian now reports, previously classified documents show that the FBI continued to spy on Mandela and the ANC after his release from prison in 1990. They were interested in Mandela’s links to U.S.-based left-wing groups and anti-Apartheid activities of the American Communist Party.

A communist no more – Mandela as president

One interesting aspect of Mandela’s presidency is that despite his communist past, he quickly embraced neoliberal capitalism once in office. On Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman interviewed former anti-Apartheid activist and later South African intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils on Mandela’s turnaround considering economic policies.

“From Marxism to Neoliberalism: Ronnie Kasrils on How Mandela & ANC Shifted Economic Views (1/2)”

A posthumous nontroversy (I): Conservative politicians saying nice things about a former communist

In the American news media, especially in the conservative blogosphere, a dubious controversy (or nontroversy) over Mandela’s political past has been stirred up in the days following his death.

Newt Gingrich, of all people, a politician not generally suspected of being a lefty, said some reasonable things about Mandela and was promptly criticized on his Facebook page. Yes, the obvious commie bashing and racism is in those comments. Other conservative politicians who praised Mandela posthumously received similar reactions. Gingrich, in his response to those commenters, asked a poignant question:

Where were the masses of conservatives opposing Apartheid?

Watch a summary of the whole thing on the progressive talk show The Young Turks here:

A posthumous nontroversy (II):  Obama shakes hands with Raúl Castro

As one would expect with a historic figure as important as Mandela, there were many political leaders present at his funeral. President Obama ran into Cuban President Raúl Castro, brother of Fidel Castro, and shook hands with him. Some conservative politicians criticized Obama for a friendly gesture towards an authoritarian communist regime with a dubious human rights record.

On the one hand, this is true. There are many things worthy of criticism about the Cuban government, especially its abysmal human rights record. On the other hand, the U.S. has upheld the embargo against Cuba since Fidel Castro came to power, making this gesture in the context of a funeral look minuscule.

Conservative politicians in good/bad company

Furthermore, many American politicians, including conservative Republicans, have been shaking hands—and continue to do so—with dictators and other unruly figures, whenever it suited ‘the national interest.’ Some examples: Nixon meets Mao Zedong in 1972, Donald Rumsfeld meets Saddam Hussein in 1983, Condoleezza Rice meets Moamar Gadhafi in 2008.

Only in the 80s: John Rambo the jihadist

The ambiguous and rather flexible morality of realpolitik is also reflected in pop culture. Consider this: In the 1980s action movie Rambo III (1988), Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo fights along the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet Union. They are presented as benign freedom fighters against foreign communist occupation. Who else was among the Afghan Mujahideen, in reality? Osama bin Laden.

While there is no evidence of direct financial support for Bin Laden from the U.S., according to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. government did fund militant jihadists in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Who was the American president at the time? Conservative icon Ronald Reagan.

Much ado about nothing

All things considered, the outrage over Obama shaking hands with Raúl Castro is nothing but a tempest in a teapot. In a perfect world, there would be no dictators, no authoritarian regimes, and certainly no superpowers backing any of them while hypocritically pretending to make the world safe for democracy. And to be clear, I extend that criticism to other states such as my native Germany, which allows the export of weapons and surveillance technology into non-democratic regimes.

That being said, in the world as it is, leading politicians will from time to time brush into unruly characters. It cannot be avoided.

Here is another entertaining clip from The Young Turks:

Read more:

Here Are 6 Moments From Mandela’s Marxist Past That You Won’t Hear On CNN.” (Zach Carter and Shadee Ashtari, Huffington Post, 2013/12/06)

The Day Mandela Was Arrested, With A Little Help From the CIA.” (Jeff Stein, Newsweek, 2013/12/05)

When Conservatives Branded Nelson Mandela A Terrorist.” (Rick Ungar, Forbes, 2013/12/06)


The RNC Implies That Racism “Ended” with Rosa Parks, 58 Yrs. Ago

On Twitter, the RNC implies that racism in America “ended” with Rosa Parks, fifty-eight years ago

Fifty-eight years, ago (counted back from 2013), on December 1, 1955, civil rights activist Rosa Parks, a black woman from Montgomery, Alabama, refused to step to the back of a bus to sit down in the ‘colored section,’ marking the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott to end segregationist laws in the U.S.

Photograph of Rosa Parks with Dr. Martin Luther King jr. (ca. 1955) Original caption reads: "Mrs. Rosa Parks altered the negro progress in Montgomery, Alabama, 1955, by the bus boycott she began. National Archives record ID: 306-PSD-65-1882 (Box 93)." Source: Ebony Magazine Source: USIA / National Archives and Records Administration Records of the U.S. Information Agency Record Group 306 This work was obtained from the now defunct United States Information Agency. In 1999 the agency was merged into the Bureau of Public Affairs which is the part of the United States Department of State. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of 17 U.S.C. § 105. Source:
Photograph of Rosa Parks with Dr. Martin Luther King jr. (ca. 1955)
Original caption reads:
“Mrs. Rosa Parks altered the negro progress in Montgomery, Alabama, 1955, by the bus boycott she began. National Archives record ID: 306-PSD-65-1882 (Box 93).”
Source: Ebony Magazine
USIA / National Archives and Records Administration Records of the U.S. Information Agency Record Group 306
This work was obtained from the now defunct United States Information Agency. In 1999 the agency was merged into the Bureau of Public Affairs which is the part of the United States Department of State. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of 17 U.S.C. § 105.

The Civil Rights Movement according to the RNC

This year, the Republican National Committee sort of stepped in it with a tweet that suggested racism in America ended after Rosa Parks. As Politicususa reports, the tweet said:

Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism.

That statement is very questionable, to say the least. The pronouncement of the end of racism in America is premature today, and would have been even more so by orders of magnitude almost sixty years ago.

Racism is alive and well

I would like to mention just a few issues to illustrate this reality: The Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman case, the level of hostility against President Obama that goes way beyond any reasonable (and deserved!) criticism of his administration’s policies, and countless stories about harassment and excessive use of force by the police, in particular against people of color.

We, ahem, misspoke

The RNC then deleted the tweet above and replaced it with this one:

Previous tweet should have read “Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in fighting to end racism.”

To be fair, everyone can make mistakes in social media. But the GOP and the RNC are not just “Joe Sixpack” who happens to have a smartphone to tweet from.

Ending racism with voter ID laws?

In the past election cycles, the GOP has been actively working to make voting harder for (poor) people of color and other demographic groups who would likely support Democrats by implementing various voter ID laws (see here, here, and here). In this light, the RNC’s honoring of Rosa Parks and their very loose interpretation of civil rights history might be seen much more cynically.

You can watch a discussion of the issue from the progressive talk show Majority Report with Sam Seder here:

Read more:

RNC Tries to Cover Tracks Over Tweet Saying Racism has Ended.” (Justin Baragona, Politicususa, 2013/12/02)

150 Years Ago: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

150 Years Ago: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

150 years ago, on November 19, 1863, the United States of America were in the midst of a bloody civil war that would test whether the American project would endure.

During the summer of 1963, the slave states of the Confederacy had gained the upper hand, or so it seemed.

One of three known photos of Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863. Made from the original glass plate negative at the National Archives which had lain unidentified for fifty-five years until 1952 when Josephine Cobb recognized Lincoln in the image. To Lincoln's right is bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon. To his far left is Governor Andrew G. Curtin of Pennsylvania. The photograph is estimated to have been taken at about noontime, just after Lincoln arrived, before Edward Everett's arrival and about three hours before Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address. 19 November 1863. Image by David Bachrach (1845-1921). This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. Source:
One of three known photos of Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863. Made from the original glass plate negative at the National Archives which had lain unidentified for fifty-five years until 1952 when Josephine Cobb recognized Lincoln in the image. To Lincoln’s right is bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon. To his far left is Governor Andrew G. Curtin of Pennsylvania. The photograph is estimated to have been taken at about noontime, just after Lincoln arrived, before Edward Everett’s arrival and about three hours before Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address. 19 November 1863. Image by David Bachrach (1845-1921). This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. Source:

Abraham Lincoln’s brief speech, held in the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where just a few months earlier, a bloody battle had left thousands dead and many more wounded, addressed the question of America’s future as a nation.

It begins with a reminder that

[f]our score and seven years ago [eighty-seven years ago, in 1776,] our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

The ideal of liberty versus the historical reality

Historically, of course, there was a mismatch between the ideal of a new free nation and the reality for several segments of the population. In the beginning, liberty was something to be enjoyed by white, propertied men (“all men” meaning ‘not women’).

The expansion of white settlements across the continent entailed the genocide and marginalization of Native American peoples.

The existence of chattel slavery contradicted the national self-image of America as a bulwark of liberty, as was pointed out with cutting precision by abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, for instance in his brilliant 1852 speech “What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?,” held eleven years before Lincoln’s.

That said, the issue of slavery had become central to the continuing existence of American nation. And while Lincoln had not planned to abolish slavery altogether prior to the Civil War, but only to stop its expansion, as can be read in his 1861 inaugural address, abolition would come about as a consequence of the war.

Sacrifice for saving the ideal of American popular government

Lincoln does not directly talk about slavery in the Gettysburg Address. He instead emphasizes the sacrifices of soldiers for the cause of the nation. Still, he talks about a “new birth of freedom”:

The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it [the improved cemetery on the battlefield] far above our poor power to add or detract. [. . .] It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth [emphasis mine].

Lincoln appeals to the Union army by encouraging them to protect the American form of popular government, or at least the ideal of what it could be.

One and a half years later, in April of 1865, Lincoln was assassinated.

In June of 1865, the Civil War ended. The estimate of the number of military casualties is about 750,000. Combined with civilian deaths, it goes up to one million.

In retrospect, the Gettysburg Address is generally seen as a turning point in the Civil War and remains one of the most famous political speeches in American history (and with a length of only about two minutes, a really short one, as well).

Update [2013/11/20] Conservative outrage over Obama not using “under God” in reading of the Gettysburg Address

President Obama recited the Gettysburg Address as one of many public figures after being approached by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. As The Raw Story reports, he used an early version that did not yet include the words “under God,” as in the version I quoted further up in this blog post. Because of this, the conservative outrage machine has thrown a temper tantrum.

This nontroversy is of course ridiculous. Firstly, because Obama just did an accurate reading of one specific version that just does not contain those words. Secondly, because in a secular state like the U.S., there are no religious tests as a requirement for public office.

Despite all this, the social reality in today’s American politics is extremely contradictory to this fact. To be elected to political office, one basically has to pay lip service to being religious, and the right kind of religion at that. Protestant Christianity is the default, Catholicism and Judaism is also kind of okay by now, but Muslims are few and suspect, in particular since 2001. But none are more suspect than those who lack the ‘proper’ public displays of religiosity, regardless of context.

As a European who thinks that the separation of church and state was the most brilliant idea of the American Founding Fathers (European history is full of theocracies and religious wars), I facepalm.

Read, hear, and see more:

[Audio] “For Its 150th, A Reading Of The Gettysburg Address.” – Historian Eric Foner and NPR staff read the Gettysburg Address. (NPR, 2013/11/19)

[Audio] “A Reading of the Gettysburg Address.” – Actor Sam Waterston reads the Gettysburg Address. (NPR, 2003/11/13)

The full text of the Gettysburg Address at American Rhetoric.

The Civil War: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.” (C-SPAN, 2013/11/16)

Filmmaker Burns celebrates Gettysburg Address.” (David Jackson, USA Today, 2013/11/18)

[Audio] “Putting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address In its Original Context.” (NPR, 2013/11/19) – Historian Eric Foner explains the Gettysburg Address in the larger context of the American Civil War.

The Words That Remade America.” (Garry Wills, The Atlantic, 1992/06) – A 1992 essay by Pulitzer- Prize-winning author Gary Wills on the language of the Gettysburg Address.

[Video] Gettysburg Address online exhibition at the Library of Congress. (myLOC, n.d.)

[Video] The Gettysburg Address Animated (Maria Popova, Open Culture, 2010/11/04)

The fake controversy about Obama not saying “under God”:

Conservatives flip out after Obama reads original Gettysburg Address without ‘under God’.” (David Edwards, The Raw Story, 2013/11/19)

Right-Wing Noise Machine Fabricates Gettysburg Address Omission To Attack Obama.” (Tyler Hansen, Media Matters for America, 2013/11/19)

[Video] “Obama ‘One Nation Under God’ Controversy.” (TYT, 2013/11/13)


New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll.” (Guy Gugliotta, New York, 2012/04/02)

Statistical Summary America’s Major Wars.” (United States War Center via

Auf deutsch:

Schnelles Gedenken: Gettysburg-Rede.” (Ulrike Rückert, Deutschlandfunk, 19.11.2013)

The Smithsonian’s Historic Objects That Made America

The Smithsonian’s Historic 101 Objects That Made America

Cultural artefacts embody history and tell stories. They can be a great starting point for learning about historical developments.

The Smithsonian has recently published a new book titled 101 Objects That Made America and features a gallery of selected items on its website, including a baseball from the Negro Leagues of the 1930s, a wooden stamp from a ship sunken in the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War Two, or the Pill. Out of a wealth of historic objects, the Smithsonian’s curators faced the difficult task of selecting the most essential.

Ayun Halliday over at OpenCulture has written a nice article about the project including some interesting pictures and links. Please do have a look and enjoy visual history of the US.

Website ‘Constitute’ Enables Comparison Of Constitutions

Website ‘Constitute’ enables comparison of constitutions around the world

Are you currently writing a new constitution for your imaginary new nation? Would you like to find out more about similarities and differences between, say, the United States Constitution and the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (the Grundgesetz)? Here is a new handy tool for you.

The Comparative Constitutions Project (CCP) has recently launched the new website Constitute which enables users to compare the texts of constitutions from around the world.

Constitute website
Constitute website

Constitutional texts can be searched for specific passages or browsed by topics. The search results can be filtered further and downloaded for later consultation.

Constitute website
Constitute website

At the moment (September 2013, the scope of the project encompasses “the constitution that was in force in September of 2013 for nearly every independent state in the world.”

The project is supported by Google Ideas, the Indigo Trust and IC2.

I like the idea that Google supports this project with funding. Unfortunately, as the Snowden leaks have revealed, Google is also among the biggest tech companies subverting the US’s and other nations’ constitutions by enabling the totalitarian surveillance ambitions of the NSA.

Everyone involved in intelligence should use this website and reconsider whether the bureaucracy they are serving actually protects their respective constitution.


New Online Archive “The Lantern” Covers US Media History

New online archive “The Lantern” covers US media history

This is great news for anyone interested in media history of the twentieth century in the US.

The Lantern is “a new open access, interactive library” from the Media History Digital Library in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Communication Arts featuring 800,000 pages of documents covering the history of radio, film, and television.

The archive allows for full text searches in vintage magazines. You can also browse through the cover pages and get inspired by the imagery. A quick glance at the main search page reveals how different the designs and layouts from a few decades ago look compared to contemporary magazines.

lantern archive
lantern archive

Please also check out Kate Rix’s longer article over at OpenCulture.


The Distribution of Slavery in the US in 1860 [Map]

Historical map shows the distribution of slavery in the US in 1860

In 1961, the United States Coast Survey created a map showing the distribution of slavery across the US South based on data from the 1860 Census. The map was often consulted by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and even appeared in a 1864 painting. via OpenCulture.

Please also check out Mike Springer’s longer article on Open Culture.

Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the Southern States of the United States Compiled from the Census of 1860. Sold for the benefit of the Sick and Wounded Soldiers of the U. S. Army. By E. Hergesheimer (cartographer), Th. Leonhardt (engraver) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the Southern States of the United States Compiled from the Census of 1860.
Sold for the benefit of the Sick and Wounded Soldiers of the U. S. Army. By E. Hergesheimer (cartographer), Th. Leonhardt (engraver) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fifty Years Ago: The March On Washington (1963)

Fifty Years Ago: The March On Washington (1963)

"Hundreds of thousands descended on Washington, D.C.'s, Lincoln Memorial Aug. 28, 1963. It was from the steps of the memorial that King delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. King's many speeches and nonviolent actions were instrumental in shaping the nation's outlook on equality." By "US Government Photo" [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Hundreds of thousands descended on Washington, D.C.’s, Lincoln Memorial Aug. 28, 1963. It was from the steps of the memorial that King delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. King’s many speeches and nonviolent actions were instrumental in shaping the nation’s outlook on equality.” By “US Government Photo” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Fifty years ago, on August 28, 1963, the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” marked a pivotal moment in the post-World-War-Two-era of the Civil Rights Movement. During that rally joined by between 200,000 and 300,000 participants, Martin Luther King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

During the next two years, two seminal pieces of civil rights legislation were passed: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed voter discrimination and racial segregation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enabled federal oversight of elections in order to ensure black voters were not disenfranchised by various schemes. Such had been the practice since the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War, especially in the former Confederate states of the US South.

The FBI versus the Civil Rights Movement

At the same time, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, who saw MLK as at least a communist sympathizer, tried to subvert the Civil Rights Movement. Hoover ordered surveillance on King and there is evidence to suggest that the FBI tried to persuade King to kill himself by blackmailing him with compromising material from King’s extramarital affairs. An FBI memo at the time characterized King as “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”

Barack Obama’s 2013 speech on Martin Luther King’s legacy

The 44th POTUS took the opportunity to commemorate the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King in a speech that highlighted the accomplishment of that era, but also acknowledged the remaining challenges.

And there are many: Higher unemployment and incarceration rates for peope of color, racial suspicion leading to unnecessary death as in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, racial profiling by police forces and ‘stop-and-frisk’ laws, or even open racist hostility against Obama himself. Racist anti-Obama signs displayed at Tea Party rallies and the Birther Movement questioning Obama’s American citizenship and legitimacy illustrate that in this regard, even at the highest level of power, there is no escape from the dynamics of society at large.

Race is over, say conservatives

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal: Why do you immigrants want to be chunks of salad? You should jump into the melting pot and become real Americans!

Some American conservatives beg to differ, of course. In a recent op-ed addressing the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R), who is Indian American, and a possible 2016 presidential contender, argues for “the end of race” in America.

But contrary to the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. et al., his solution to race-related social issues in America is not to address them, but to ignore them. Jindal claims that “too much emphasis [is put] on [Americans’] “separateness,”” and that “[w]e live in the age of hyphenated Americans.” In his opinion “we must resist the politically correct trend of changing the melting pot into a salad bowl.” Oh those metaphors for America!

But in my opinion, Jindal sets up a strawman argument here. Judging from my personal reading of current events (and history) in America, the real issue is not that racial and/or ethnic groups care about their cultural heritage. The real issue is that the construct of race, as it has developed throughout American culture and history, has negative real-life effects on those not designated as white (plus male, heterosexual, etc.).

Furthermore, the idea of a mainstream American culture that people can melt into, as Israel Zangwill’s ‘melting pot’ metaphor suggests, is in itself not neutral. Who gets to define the mainstream culture? For a long time, the undisputed hegemon of mainstream American culture was the WASP male.

True, this has changed over time, to a certain degree, especially in the area of popular culture. Who would, for example, seriously deny the influence of African American culture on what became known as Rock’n’Roll, which conquered the world as a quintessentially American form popular music and youth rebellion. History thus suggests that in many ways, difference and a common culture have always coexisted in America on some level. As an outsider, I think that this is actually great about America.

As I see it, the subtext of Jindal’s article seems to be that in order to be one happy American family, everybody should adopt white mainstream culture. My suspicion is that Governor Jindal is pandering to old white men, who are currently the core GOP constituency, whom he wants to vote for him in 2016.

Fox News: Just ignore racism!

Also in the ‘racism is over’ camp are the usual suspects, namely the Fox ‘News’ punditariat. Recently, host Bill O’Reilly was talking about an incident whereas African American billionaire talk show host Opray Winfrey, who was travelling abroad in Switzerland, was not shown a very expensive handbag in a store because the clerk did not know who she was, and apparently thought that a random black woman could not afford such a luxurious item. O’Reilly suggested that, in general, people should just ignore racists, because there would be no use in trying to change their minds. But as I mentioned before, as opposed to Bill O’Reilly, people of color in America often do not have the white privilege of ignoring racism.

Coopting King for political parties

As Martin Luther King, Jr. is such an American icon and the symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, it is no wonder that both big political parties want to coopt King’s legacy for their own political purposes. Republicans are claiming that MLK was one of them. But King did not endorse any of the two parties.

One might speculate that, were he alive today, King would side with some of the Democrats’ policies. Back in his day, King criticized the racism of the GOP (and many Southern Democrats would join the GOP). But he was also critical of the Vietnam War and might certainly have some critical words about Obama’s drone war, the totalitarian surveillance by the NSA, and the unwillingness to curb the obscene excesses of capitalism on Wall Street.

Read, see, and hear more:

[Video] “Civil Rights Pioneer Gloria Richardson, 91, on How Women Were Silenced at 1963 March on Washington.” (Democracy Now, 2013/08/27)

Martin Luther King: Too far, too fast, just right.” (Roger Simon, Politico, 2013/08/27) – White racial panic in 1963: “To most black people, the March on Washington a half-century ago was about hope. To most white people, it was about fear.”

I Have A Dream” – Songs für und über Martin Luther King.” (Tarik Ahmia, Deutschlandradio Kultur, Radiofeuilleton – Musik, 27.08.2013)

[Video] “Obama March On Washington Speech: President Speaks On King’s Dream, Lingering Disparities.” – Suzanne Gamboa and Nancy Benac, AP, Huffington Post, 2013/08/28)

The Dark Side of “I Have a Dream”: The FBI’s War on Martin Luther King.” (David Corn, Mother Jones, 2013/08/28) – The FBI tried to subvert the Civil Rights Movement.

[Video] “Watch The March, the Masterful, Digitally Restored Documentary on The Great March on Washington.” (Open Culture, 2013/08/28) – A 1964 documentary by James Blue about the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

This Black, Gay, Badass Pacifist Mastermind of the March on Washington Is Finally Getting His Due.” (Lauren WIlliams, Mother Jones, 2013/08/27) – A portrait of Bayard Rustin, adviser to Martin Luther King and organizer of the March on Washington.

Why some movements work and others wilt.” (John Blake, CNN, 2013/08/19) –  How social movements succeed and how they fail.

Visual History: Photographic Essays On 1970s America From Documerica

Visual history: Photographic essays on 1970s America from Documerica at The Atlantic

I recently discovered a fantastic series of photographic essays covering the 1970s in America over at Alan Taylor’s photography blog In Focus on the website of The Atlantic.

The material is originally from Documerica, a photojournalistic documentary project conducted by the EPA  between 1971 and 1977 that sought to “capture environmental problems, EPA activities, and everyday life in the 1970s.”

The photographic essays available on The Atlantic’s website so far portray life in different parts of the United States at the time, among them New York City, The Southwest, Chicago’s African-American communityTexas, and The Pacific Northwest.

It is great stuff for anyone interested in American history of the late twentieth century. I highly recommend taking a look!

History: Electricity in 1920s America [Map]

Electricity in 1920s America

The Atlantic has a very interesting map of the use of electricity throughout the US in 1921. The states are resized according to their relative consumption of electricity.

As can be seen on the map, the South was at the time underdeveloped in comparison to parts of the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast.


The Post-Racial America That Was Not: Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and the American Justice System

The Post-Racial America That Was Not: Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and the American Justice System

In July 2013, in what might be the most significant court case dealing with race in the US since Rodney King (1992) and O.J. Simpson (1994), George Zimmerman, a twenty-eight-year-old self-styled vigilante neighborhood watchman in Florida of mixed-race Hispanic descent, was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old unarmed black teenager, in February of 2012.

The acquittal led to nationwide protests.

The first black POTUS weighs in

On July 19, President Obama weighed in on the matter of race relations in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict and talked about the context in which many black Americans see this case. Here is the video recording, from the White House’s official YouTube-channel:

Here is a transcript via Huffington Post.

It did not take long, until Obama’s far-right critics lambasted him for speaking out on the case in the context of race relations in America. For instance, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly tried to divert attention from racial profiling in the Zimmerman case by shifting the attention to violent crime within black communities, supposedly caused by “gangsta culture” and “[t]he disintegration of the African-American family.”

So according to O’Reilly, violence against black Americans is black America’s problem. While the issues mentioned are worth discussion elsewhere, and are in fact addressed on a regular basis by organizations within these communities, the case in question has nothing to do with this. To me it appears that O’Reilly is consciously trying to blame the victim here.

The court of public opinion is divided

As a 2012 poll by the Christian Science Monitor highlights, the evaluation of the case among the American public breaks down along color lines, but also age, wealth, and politics.

Racialized clothing and suspicion

Before and during the trial, conservative commentators claimed that a hooded sweatshirt or ‘hoodie’ was suspicious criminal attire and that therefore Trayvon Martin was to blame for being perceived as a thug. This is another example of how race played into the case.

When black Americans wear a hoodie, they are deemed suspicious. When non-black Americans wear it, they are considered perfectly normal. Cenk Uygur, host of progressive talk show ‘The Young Turks’ highlights this racial double standard of clothing with a compilation of American celebrities who all wear hoodies. When non-black celebrities wear a hoodie, it is perceived as a non-threatening sweatshirt. The best part is when he shows images of Fox News hosts Bill O’Reilly and Geraldo Rivera, who blasted hoodies as “thug dress,” wearing hoodies. Of course they, as white and Hispanic males firmly entrenched within the mass media establishment are outside of any racial suspicion. Once again, the boundless hypocrisy of these two Fox News commentators shows. It is one standard for them, and another for ‘those black people.’

Debate over the shooter’s race

Even before the trial, a public debate about whether the shooter George Zimmerman was white, Hispanic, or white Hispanic, unfolded in the media.

Conservative commentators alleged that labeling Zimmerman as white Hispanic served a purpose of perpetuating a narrative of white-on-black crime.

What happened during Trayvon Martin’s last night?

According to police reports, Zimmerman had decided to pursue Trayvon Martin, whom he suspected to be a thug simply for walking down the street in a hoodie in a predominantly white neighborhood while being black. When Zimmerman called the police, they explicitly told him not to pursue the young man. Zimmerman did anyway, after stating “Fucking punks [. . .] These assholes, they always get away.”

When Zimmerman continued to pursue Martin, an altercation arose between the two, likely because Martin noticed he was being tailed by a complete stranger.

From there on, the details are shaky. But the end result is not: George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in the chest and killed him.

Believing the non-black shooter by default

What followed when the police arrived is a scandal unto itself. After some questioning on the scene of the killing, Zimmerman was free to go home and was not arrested for weeks. That the victim was black and the shooter was not might have played a role in why the police believed the shooter’s version of the event.

During the trial, Zimmerman’s defense team tried to paint a picture of Trayvon Martin as a criminal, implying that he basically deserved to die. Never mind the fact that it was Zimmerman who chased after Martin, was armed with a gun, and killed the young man, when he could have just stayed in his car, as he was told to by the police.

Acquitted by a not-so-diverse jury

Last weekend, a jury consisting of six women, five of them white, and one Latina, acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges. As Janell Ross at The Root notes, this is a pattern known to social science researchers.Racially homogenous (white) juries statistically tend to side with non-black defendants when the victim is black.

Members of the jury speak in public after the verdict

After the verdict, Juror B29, the one minority member of the all-female jury gave an interview to ABC News, telling the network that “he [Zimmerman] got away with murder.”

A frightening message to Black America

The effects of the Zimmerman verdict are chilling on Black America. As many commentators have noted [1] , black Americans, especially male black youth, are under general suspicion. They constantly have to prove to white Americans that they are not the dangerous criminals that the racial stereotype ascribes to them. And as the Trayvon Martin case shows, these racial stereotypes have deadly consequences. Self-styled vigilantes can kill black youth with impunity.

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, some political writers and cultural critics lauded the dawning of ‘post-racial America,’ a new age wherein the nation would finally transcend its painful history of racist violence and discrimination, especially against black Americans. But as the past five years and the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case in particular highlight, no such thing as ‘post-racial America’ has happened. Race relations may have changed in some respects. But even with a black/mixed-race president and attorney general in office, the realities of daily life still differ along color lines.

Read, listen, and see more:

[I will continue to add more links from time to time.]

George Zimmerman acquittal leads to protests across US cities.” ( in Miami,  and agencies, Guardian, 2013/07/15)

George Zimmerman Trial & Trayvon Martin Case (CBS) – In-depth coverage of the case featuring many articles.

Is George Zimmerman a ‘white Hispanic’?” (Eric Wempe, Washington Post, 2012/03/28)

Is George Zimmerman white or Hispanic? That depends.” (Isa Hopkins,, 2013/07/16) – On the discussion about Zimmerman’s race.

[Video] “Re-enactment: Retracing Trayvon’s last steps.” (, 2013/06/20)

Trayvon Martin: What It’s Like to Be a Problem.” (Melissa Harris-Perry, The Nation, 2012/03/28) – On the parallels between post-Civil War Jim Crow laws and the suspicion of black Americans within public spaces informally designated as white.

[Video] “Zimmerman Acquittal and Trayvon Trial Reaction.” (TheLipTV, YouTube, 2013/07/15) – Legal experts discuss the verdict.

‘White Hispanic’ not an agenda, a reality.” (Raul Reyes,, 2012/04/26)


[Podcast] “Getting Real On Race After Zimmerman Verdict.” (NPR barbershop, 2013/07/19) – Michel Martin discusses the Zimmerman verdict with writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, Fernando Vila, director of programming for Fusion, a joint venture between ABC and Univision, sportswriter and professor of journalism Kevin Blackistone, and Mario Loyola of the National Review magazine and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

[Podcast] “How President Obama ‘Showed His Brother Card.’” (Mark Memmott, NPR, 2013/07/19) – A Detroit radio host argues that the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case is one of the rare occasions where Obama allows himself to show the part of his identity as a black man in America.

[Podcast] “Obama: ‘Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me 35 Years Ago’.” (NPR, 2013/07/19) – President Obama’s speech on race relations after the Zimmerman verdict.


Poll: Trayvon Martin case divides US by race, age, wealth, and politics.” (Christian Science Monitor, 2012/04/06)


Stand-your-ground-law (Wikipedia)

Killing in Self-Defense: You Better Be White.” (Danielle C. Belton, The Root, 2013/07/16) – Statistics show that race plays a significant role in whether claims of justifiable homicide are accepted by courts in the US.

The Race Card Project – A project by NPR host Michele Norris (‘All Things Considered’) that seeks to foster an honest conversation about race in America via old-fashioned postcards.

We Are Not Trayvon Martin – A tumblr blog containing stories of white privilege in America. Mostly white people share stories that show how they experienced certain situations different than many black Americans because of their race.

White Juries and Black Victims.” (Janell Ross, The Root, 2013/07/2013) – Social science research shows that all-white or nearly all-white juries are less empathetic towards the victim when it is black.

Fourth of July, 2013

Fourth of July, 2013

Benjamin Franklin, infamous traitor to the Kingdom of Great Britain for exposing the government’s wrongdoings (and declaring independence, too), says:

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, ca. 1785, work is in the public domain, Source:
Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, ca. 1785, work is in the public domain, Source:

“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins. Republics and limited monarchies derive their strength and vigor from a popular examination into the action of the magistrates.” – Benjamin Franklin, “On Freedom of Speech and the Press”, Pennsylvania Gazette, 17 November 1737.

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin, 1775, as in  Memoirs of the life and writings of Benjamin Franklin (1818)

Texas German, A Disappearing Dialect Shaped By Immigration

Texas German, A Disappearing Dialect Shaped By Immigration

NPR reports on Texas German, a variant of German spoken today only by a rapidly declining minority of the population of the Lone Star State, whose origins can be traced to mid-nineteenth-century German migrants to Central Texas.

Anti-Muslim Bigot Violently Attacks Cab Driver In Northern Virginia

Anti-Muslim Bigot Violently Attacks Cab Driver In Northern Virginia

In Northern Virginia, an aviation executive violently attacked a cab driver, who happens to be an American military veteran, for being a Muslim.

According to a report from the Washington Post, cab driver Mohamed Salim, a veteran of the Iraq War, picked up Ed Dahlberg, owner of Manassas-based Emerald Aviation at a local country club. When Dahlberg noticed Salim’s name, he called him a terrorist, threatened to kill him, and then broke his jaw.

Apparently, Dahlberg’s hatred of Muslims runs so deep that he believes that all of them are jihadist terrorists and he feels personally entitled to go on a violent crusade against random people.

If these allegations are proven in court, Dahlberg is truly one of the most disgusting men in America.

Nativisms, then and now

Historically, this type of resentment against certain minority groups at particular points in time is well-known in America. Think of the nineteenth century with its anti-Asian stereotype of the “Yellow Menace”, the anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic Nativism, or the Red Scares of the twentieth century. After 9/11, the violent jihadist has become the stereotype du jour for Muslims.

Feeding you fear and paranoia

Personal responsibility aside, a large portion of the blame for violent incidents like this one has to go to far-right media outlets such as Fox News, or more specifically to figures such as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Pamela Geller, or Robert Spencer.

With their hateful rhetoric, these organizations and individuals spread fear of all Muslims among their audiences, and feed paranoid fantasies about holy wars. Whenever a member of their audience takes them by their words, of course, the above mentioned wash their hands in innocence.

Bigotry does not help in the fight against terrorism

To point out the obvious, none of this dangerous nonsense in any way helps to fight the actual threat of jihadist terrorism. If anything, the rhetorical perpetuation of a hostile climate might lead to the alienation of some American Muslims, with unintended consequences. In the long run, this sort of bigotry could lead to the radicalization of more people. Who in their right mind would want that to happen?

Read more:

Muslim cabdriver alleges assault by passenger who cited Boston Marathon bombing.” (Joe Stephens and Justin Jouvenal, Washington Post, 2013/05/01)

Vicious Assault On Muslim Cab Driver Caught On Camera.” (Hyacinth Mascarenhas, PolicyMic, 2013/05/02)


The ‘Letters To Newtown’ Project Digitally Preserves Memory Of The Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting in Newtown, Connecticut

A Digital Archive Of Letters Expressing Grief Over The 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Is Being Created.

Ross MacDonald, an author, illustrator, and designer from Newtown, Connecticut, site of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting, works to create a digital archive of letters that were sent to the school in remembrance of that massacre on December 14, 2012. For this purpose, MacDonald has partnered with Mother Jones magazine and Tumblr. Watch the project’s introductory video below and make sure to read the longer article on the project (linked below).

Read more:

Letters to Newtown.” (Ross MacDonald, Mother Jones, 2013/02/06) – Ross MacDonald explains the ‘Letters to Newton’ project.

Letters to Newtown (Blog) – The project’s blog on Tumblr

Thrills of History: 1969’s Worst Case Scenario: If The Moon Landing Had Failed

 If The Moon Landing Had Failed

The Apollo 11 lunar module, the Moon, and the Earth.
A view of the Apollo 11 lunar module “Eagle” as it returned from the surface of the moon to dock with the command module “Columbia”. A smooth mare area is visible on the Moon below and a half-illuminated Earth hangs over the horizon. The lunar module ascent stage was about 4 meters across. Command module pilot Michael Collins took this picture just before docking at 21:34:00 UT (5:34 p.m. EDT) 21 July 1969. (Apollo 11, AS11-44-6642)
This image by NASA is in the public domain

On July 18 of 1969, the world held its breath. The Apollo 11 space mission was reaching the moon, preparing for the first human descent onto its surface. As Neil Armstrong, astronaut and first man on the moon, who recently passed away, famously said, the moon landing was “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind!”

But what if the endeavor had gone awry? If the Apollo 11 crew could not have returned to Earth? How would the public have reacted to such a disaster, especially at the height of the Cold War? The Nixon White House certainly did not want to leave anything to chance, and so it prepared for the worst case scenario, which fortunately never materialized.

At Letters of Note, a very recommendable blog presenting historical documents in context, you can read the prepared statement that would have been disseminated through the mass media in case of a catastrophe. It is a fascinating read, in my opinion. It ends with these words:

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

Read more:

IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER.” (Letters of Note, 2012/11/05)

The Moon Disaster That Wasn’t: Nixon’s Speech In Case Apollo 11 Failed to Return.” (Josh Jones, Open Culture, 2012/11/23)

Listen more:

[Podcast] “A Tribute to Neil Armstrong.” (StarTalk Radio Cosmic Queries, 2012/09/09) – Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson‘s podcast on Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 mission.


Podcasts: Gerrymandering at My History Can Beat Up Your Politics

The Gerry-Mander
Original cartoon of “The Gerry-Mander”, this is the political cartoon that led to the coining of the term Gerrymander. The district depicted in the cartoon was created by Massachusetts legislature to favor the incumbent Democratic-Republican party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists in 1812. Originally published in the Boston Centinel, 1812. Image by Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835). This image is in the public domain. Source:

Bruce Carlson, producer of the My History Can Beat Up Your Politics podcast has currently released a very entertaining episode about the history of redrawing electoral districts in the US, also known as ‘gerrymandering.’ For anybody who wants to feed their inner political history geek and get to know the ins and outs of winning majorities by changing electoral districts, this is very worthwhile.

Make sure to check out this episode, listen to some other ones as well, and support the podcast if you can.


Today Is The 77th Anniversary of the Social Security Act

On August 14, 1935, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States (1933–1945), signed the Social Security Act. Here is Roosevelt’s speech on the law:

A transcript can be found here at the American Presidency Project.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965: 47th Anniversary (2012)

Fourty-seven years ago, on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which strengthened the rights of African Americans to cast their ballot—after highly-visible violent crackdowns on peaceful civil rights activists in Alabama and immense pressure in their aftermath.1 Even though the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, passed in 1870 as part of the Reconstruction Amendments shortly after the American Civil War, had on paper secured African Americans’ right to vote, the following century was marked by disenfranchisement through both legal tactics, such as literacy tests, but also mob violence, especially in the US South. In recent times, a push for stricter voter identification laws in some places has reignited the debate about voting rights.

Here is an excerpt of Johnson’s speech before Congress on the matter of voting rights in 1965:

Here is the full speech and its transcript at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

Further reading:

The Voting Rights Act of 1965:

Transcript of Voting Rights Act (1965) (
The Most Important Voting Rights Law In American History Turns 47 Today (Think Progress)
The Voting Rights Act: A 20th Century American Revolution (American Prospect)
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (US Department of Justice)

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Recent Political Debate On Voter Identification Laws (some op-eds included):

Al Sharpton: Protecting the Voting Rights (LA Times)
Congressional Black Caucus Holds Faith Leaders Summit on Voting Rights (C-SPAN)
Charles Postel: Why voter ID laws are like a poll tax (Politico)
Eric Holder: Voter ID Laws Threaten Voting Rights (Huffington Post)
Eric Holder: The Right’s New Boogeyman (The Nation)
Eric Holder wades into debate over voting rights as presidential election nears (Washington Post)
Holder’s Racial Incitement (Wall Street Journal)
New Target In Voter ID Battle: 1965 Voting Rights Act (NPR)
Texas to test 1965 voting rights law in court (Reuters)
U.S. voting rights under siege (CNN)
The Voting Rights Act: Our Last Best Hope (Huffington Post)
Voting Rights Act: Remember, Celebrate and Protect (Huffington Post)
Voting Rights Act under siege (Politico)
Voting Rights, Voter Suppression and 2012
(NY Times)

  1. For Johnson’s track record on race, see Robert Caro, “Johnson’s Dream, Obama’s Speech.” NY Times, August 27, 2008.

The American Revolution Animated

Over at Crash Course World History (Episode #28), the hyperactive John Green presents a humorous look at the American Revolution, including a Monty Phython-esque cut-out Ben Franklin arguing with King George over taxation and representation, all in colorful animation. The most interesting serious point, in my opinion: the Founding fathers made sure that their revolution would not develop like the French Revolution, i.e. become radically democratic.

Guns and American Political Topoi

Columbia reaching out to viewer. Original design for the “Be Patriotic” poster by Paul Stahr, ca. 1917-18. By Paul Stahr [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons”
In a recent provocatively-titled piece following the Aurora shooting on July 20, 2012 at a screening of the new Batman movie, New Yorker columnist John Cassidy asks “Is America Crazy?” He points out that the latest iteration of the national discourse about gun control following such an act of violence, whereas many argue for buying more guns and against stricter regulations, highlights that attitudes towards guns are an “American shibboleth:” a widely-shared cultural-political national myth that evades rational discourse. Cassidy continues to give a list of what he considers to be such topoi:

1. Gun laws and gun deaths are unconnected.

2. Private enterprise is good; public enterprise is bad.

3. God created America and gave it a special purpose.

4. Our health-care system is the best there is.

5. The Founding Fathers were saintly figures who established liberty and democracy for everyone.

6. America is the greatest country in the world.

7. Tax rates are too high.

8. America is a peace-loving nation: the reason it gets involved in so many wars is that foreigners keep attacking us.

9. Cheap energy, gasoline especially, is our birthright.

10. Everybody else wishes they were American.

Supreme Court Upholds Health Care Reform

On June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court upheld President Obama’s health care reform, stating that the individual health care mandate was a legal form of taxation. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. enabled the 5 to 4 vote by joining the liberal side of the court.

Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.
– Chief Justice John Roberts

This article from Politico has a handy chart that shows how the health care law looks like after the ruling.

The cause of repealing ‘Obamacare’ had been a key mobilizing issue for the GOP and the Tea Party Movement since the law was enacted in 2010.

Here is an incomplete collection of news articles on the Supreme Court’s ruling:

NY Times here, Washington Post here, Huffington Post here, Wall St. Journal here, Politico here and here (key quotes from the ruling), SCOTUSblog here, Think Progress here, USA Today here, Daily Beast here.

Politico’s analysis of Justive Roberts’ motivations can be read here. In brief, some professional observers think that the conservative-leaning Roberts’ surprising decision has to do with creating his own legacy, a “Roberts Court,” and deflecting critics’ arguments about a Supreme Court characterized by conservative judicial activism.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who had introduced an almost identical individual health care mandate in Massachusetts as Governor, continues to campaign on repealing ‘Obamacare’ despite the fact that he had earlier advocated for the Massachusetts health care reform to become a model for national health care reform.

The Obama administration highlights this inconvenient fact in their campaign ads against Romney.

One of Romney’s arguments is that “Obamacare adds trillions to our deficits and to our national debt.” The fact-checking website PolitiFact rates Romney’s statement as ‘false.’

At Politiwhoops, a website of the Sunlight Foundation, you can read all the tweets deleted by politicians who were against the health care reform. Some of them falsely tweeted that the Supreme Court had repealed the individual mandate.

Holidays of Interest: Juneteenth (June 19)

Juneteenth day celebration in Texas, 19 June 1900. From Wikimedia Commons. The picture is in the public domain.

Juneteenth falls on June 19 every year and commemorates the liberation of African Americans from slavery. It was first celebrated by former slaves in Texas in 1865, when, two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of the American Civil War, Union General Gordon Granger reached Galveston Bay, accompanied by 2,000 troops.

On June 19, General Order No. 3 was publicly announced. It read:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere. 1

The former slaves celebrated their newfound freedom with exuberant songs, barbecue, and rodeos. Throughout the late nineteenth century, Juneteenth was established an African American tradition. But with the Great Migration towards the Northern industrial centers, the holiday declined in prominence.

Moreover, during the Reconstruction Era and the rise of Jim Crow, Juneteenth was not widely endorsed by state and federal governments, especially in the former Confederate States. In Texas, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in 1890.

Since the last decades of the twentieth century, however, there has been an increased activism to bring back Juneteenth into public conscience. Currently, Juneteenth is recognized as an official holiday in thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia. [Update: It is now celebrated in fourty-two states]2

At the Griot blog, you can read about Barack Obama’s proclamation for Juneteenth 2012.3

Davis, Kenneth C. “Juneteenth: Our Other Independence Day.” Smithsonian Magazine. 16 June 2011. Web. 20 June 2012.

Wikipedia: Juneteenth.

Social Psychologist Stephen L. Klineberg on the Changing Face of Houston and America

On June 14, 2012, Stephen L. Klineberg, social psychologist and Co-Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, visited American Studies Leipzig as part of the Fulbright lecture series. Houston, Texas is one of Leipzig’s sister cities.1

Professor Klineberg, who has been co-directing the Kinder Houston Area Survey for thirty-one years, talked about socio-demographic developments in the  Houston area and its implications for the US in the twenty-first century.

Panoramic view of the Houston skyline.
Panoramic view of the Houston skyline. By Hequals2henry (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( , via Wikimedia Commons.
For most of the twentieth century, the primary source of wealth for the Houston area has been its geographic nearness to the oil fields of East Texas. According to Klineberg, in the twenty-first century, Houston will transition into a center of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information technology industries.

If this is to become a reality, Houston needs to lure the best and the brightest into its centers of academic research, and develop ways to turn new knowledge into profitable ventures. In order to succeed in the emerging knowledge economy, the city needs to become attractive for an international mobile elite that could—at least in theory—live anywhere in the world. In this context, quality of life issues are taking on a central role for the economic success of the city as a whole.

Geography and Demographic Developments

With merely one third of LA’s urban density, Houston is the most spread-out city in the US. Harris County, TX covers a land area of 1,703.48 mi² (4,411.99 km²) is the fifth largest metroplex in the US and the third most populous county, inhabited by around 4 million people. It is a city of automobiles, open spaces, and suburbs. The latter are largely the result of the post-World War Two baby boom.

By 2035, the population of the Houston area is estimated to grow to around eight million inhabitants.2

But despite the reliance on cars, mass transit by other means has become increasingly important. Since 2004, Houston has a light rail line, the METRORail, covering 7.5-mile (12.1 km) and catering to approximately 34,000 daily commuters, something that has long been a common sight in European cities.

In the last decades, living in the city, as opposed to suburbia, has become more attractive. Surveys have traced the growing popularity of smaller homes closer to the city centers, where the workplace and other infrastructure is within walking distance.3

Demographics, Klineberg holds, is the key cause for this development. Today, less than one third of all households has children living at home.

All of this constitutes a trend towards “walkable urbanism.”

New Immigration, Ethnic Diversity, and the Face of Twenty-First Century America

Historically, Houston has essentially been a bi-racial Southern city. But today, it is the most culturally diverse metropolitan center in the US. In 2010, Houston’s population was 40.8% Hispanic, 33% Anglo, 18.4% Black, and 7.7% Asian.4

Race and ethnicity 2010: Houston By Eric Fischer  [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.
Race and ethnicity 2010: Houston By Eric Fischer [CC-BY-SA-2.0 ( Maps of racial and ethnic divisions in US cities, inspired by Bill Rankin’s map of Chicago, updated for Census 2010. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other, and each dot is 25 residents. Data from Census 2010. Base map © OpenStreetMap, CC-BY-SA.
The new immigration from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean has prevented population loss in Houston, which has been a problem in other major US cities.

In some ways, Houston today hints at the future of the US in general. By 2045, so the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, a majority of the population will be of non-European descent.5

Professor Klineberg is optimistic about the prospects of the US population dealing with this fact. Looking at Houston, with its great ethnic diversity, he points out that anti-immigrant sentiment is less pronounced here than in other places in America.

Much of this optimism stems from what Klineberg calls the “psychology of inevitability.” While the American population as a whole is aging and today’s seniors—the Baby Boomers—are mostly Anglo (or non-Hispanic white), younger generations of Americans are disproportionately non-Anglo. Furthermore, there has also been a significant increase in interracial marriages over the last decades.6 Younger Americans today are better attuned to the reality of a more ethnically diverse society than their parents or grandparents. In Klineberg’s view, the major fault line of the twenty-first century will therefore not be race but economic class.

The Knowledge Economy, Higher Education, and Inequality

In the twenty-first century, education will be the key to prosperity. The effects of globalization, automation, and government inaction have led to a decline in manufacturing jobs and put the American working and middle classes under increasing pressure.7

In the knowledge economy, both in Houston, Texas, and the US as a whole, access to higher education is therefore the crucial factor for long-term economic well-being of citizens.

Here is American Studies Leipzig’s video interview with Stephen L. Klineberg:

  1. Aktivitäten und Projekte – Partnerstadt Houston (USA). Stadt Leipzig.
  2. Houston-Galveston Area Council 2035 Regional Growth Forecast.
  3. Smaller homes, urban lifestyles attractive to new homebuyers: ULI. Housing Wire. March 21, 2012.
  4. Harris County, Texas, 2010. State & County QuickFacts. U.S. Census Bureau. See also the Wikipedia page on Demographics of Houston.
  5. U.S. Population Projections. U.S. Census Bureau.
  6. Jordan, Miriam. “More Marriages Cross Race, Ethnicity Lines.” Wall Street Journal 17 Feb. 2012. Web. 15 June 2012.
  7. Noah, Timothy. The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It. Bloomsbury, 2012.; Pierson, Paul, and Jacob S. Hacker. Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Historian Ulrich Adelt on the Blues in Cold War Germany

On April 26, Dr. Ulrich Adelt, Junior Professor of American Studies from the University of Wyoming, gave a talk at American Studies Leipzig as part of the Fulbright lecture series. His presentation was titled “Just Play the Blues: African Americans, Afro-Germans, white Germans and the Politics of Primitivism.”

Professor Adelt’s research interests include pop music, transnationalism, and racial politics.

In the 1960s, blues music underwent a shift from black artists and audiences to white artists and audiences. With the appropriation of the blues by white artists and audiences, the genre shifted away from its former black working class base. The white middle-class embrace of certain notions of blackness stood in contrast to black audiences’ increasing attraction to new music genres emphasizing civil rights and black power, such as Soul and Funk. For white audiences, black masculinity was perceived as a marker of authenticity. Nevertheless, African American performers often resisted such forced constructions of blackness.

Adelt used the American Folk Blues Festival, a music festival organized by German promoters starting in the early 1960s to illustrate the complex relationships between transnational popular culture and race during the Cold War.

The Transatlantic Dimension of the Blues

In the 1960s, blues music became a transatlantic phenomenon in its own way. Black American blues musicians, some of whom became expatriates, brought their music to eager European audiences. After a while, blues in an updated form was re-imported to the US, mostly through British rock bands.

As an example of an expatriate blues musician, Adelt mentioned Memphis Slim (1915 – 1988), who was portrayed in the June 1966 issue of Ebony magazine while living in Paris (You can read the issue in the Ebony archives). But this was not the norm. Most African American blues performers did not become expatriates.

Memphis Slim, American Folk Blues Festival, Hamburg 1972. Picture by Heinrich Klaffs. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license. From Wikipedia.
Memphis Slim, American Folk Blues Festival, Hamburg 1972. Picture by Heinrich Klaffs. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license. From Wikipedia.



Germany Gets the Blues (Sort of)

In Germany, promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau organized the American Folk Blues Festival, beginning in 1962. Their construction of the blues was highly romantic. It used the genre’s blackness to highlight blues as the primitive root of Rock’n’Roll. Lippmann and Rau saw the blues as a vehicle of Denazificiation and Anti-racism. In retrospect, however, they continued to deploy racial constructions that are uncomfortably close to that of the Third Reich.

Adelt argued that pop culture is not always a liberating force, but can also work to uphold racial hierarchies and oppression.

Primitivism in Germany

In Germany, positive racism in the form of appropriating the art of ‘savages’ has a long history. African bodies used in art were seen as modern, fresh, or lively. Examples of works of art in this vein include Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Emil Nolde‘s Dance Around the Golden Calf (1910), or the enthusiasm for American-born French dancer/singer/actress Josephine Baker (1906 – 1975).

Josephine Baker in Banana Skirt from the Folies Bergère production "Un Vent de Folie," 1927. Picture by Walery, French, (1863-1935). PD by age (Walery died more than 70 years ago). From Wikipedia.
Josephine Baker in Banana Skirt from the Folies Bergère production “Un Vent de Folie,” 1927. Picture by Walery, French, (1863-1935). PD by age (Walery died more than 70 years ago). From Wikipedia.



During the Third Reich, this former positive racism was replaced by negative racism, exemplified by terms such as Entartete Musik (‘Degenerate music’) (see also here) for jazz, and a fear of Vernegerung (‘Negroidization’) or Verjudung (‘Jewification’) of German culture through ‘foreign’ popular culture.






After World War II, certain Nazi imagery survived in popular children’s television series such as Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver (Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotivführer) (1960). [There is a debate in Germany about whether Jim Button has to be read as racist or anti-racist.]

Racism was also present among parts of the white German left. Here, a “fascination with the real” drove the interest in the black embodiment of suffering.

Race in Germany Before and After World War Two

Transplanting the blues to Germany brought with it certain traveling problematic racial conceptions. While the US certainly had its own historic issues with race, the blues was entering a German culture that was no stranger to racist ideas, even before National Socialism. Among these were the ‘Black Horror on the Rhine’ (“Die Schwarze Schmach“)—fear of the presence of black French troops during the Occupation of the Rhineland following World War I, the vilification of interracial fraternization in the phenomenon of  ‘Occupation Babies’ (“Besatzungskinder”) after World War II, caused by sexual relationships between black American GIs and white German women.

Such negative racial constructs were later challenged by Afro-German activists, for instance in the book Farbe Bekennen (‘Showing our Colors’) in 1986.

After the reunification of Germany, a wave of Neo-Nazi attacks on immigrants and non-white persons conveyed an urgency among ethnic minorities and sympathetic parts of the mainstream German population to organize against racial stereotypes. Within German popular culture, Hip Hop artists, especially multi-ethnic or Afro-German Hip Hop artists, such as Advanced Chemistry (early 1990s), Samy Deluxe (starting in the late 1990s), or Brothers Keepers (early 2000s) were involved in anti-racist activism.

Blues as Cold War Propaganda in East and West

The blues was used as a propaganda tool on both sides of the Cold War divide. The capitalist West promoted blues and Jazz as symbols of openness in  contrast to the Soviet system. Nonetheless, during the early Cold War, the Jim Crow system was still very much intact in the US, and the Civil Rights Movement had not yet gained that strong a foothold.

The communist East was eager to point out these contradictions, presenting blues and jazz as a signs of resistance against the inherent racism of the capitalist system. In the German Democratic Republic, blues was promoted as music of the oppressed masses, embedded into a critique of US capitalism. On the other hand, there were crackdowns on long-haired blues fans nonetheless, and racial stereotypes were not absent.

Lippmann and Rau Bring American Popular Music to Germany

The organizers of the American Folk Blues Festival were coming from very different backgrounds. Lippmann was Jewish and his family had been persecuted by the Nazis. He saw similarities between black suffering in the US and the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany. Rau, on the other hand, came from a family that had profited from the Nazis’ war buildup. He discovered Jazz in the 1950s and imagined the possibility of Dennazification and “rebirth through Jazz.”

When Lippmann and Rau began to organize jazz concerts featuring African American artists, for instance the Modern Jazz Quartet, they sought to give Jazz an aura of “respectability” by having artists wear tuxedos, advertising events with abstract art, and setting up concerts in symphony halls instead of small, smoke-filled clubs. As Adelt argued, this idea of having to make jazz and its performers respectable can be traced back to racial ideas of the Nazi era.

While organizing blues concerts, Lippmann and Rau gave up on the concept of creating respectability and appealed to primitivist ideas instead. The American Folk Blues Festival, staged between 1962 and 1972, and 1980 to 1985, usually went for three to four hours and featured eight to ten headliners.

What was presented in these concerts can be described as nostalgic blues for white audiences. Both folk music from the 1930s and 1950s blues were at this point somewhat outdated. Older blues artists, such as Willie Dixon (1915 – 1992), were rediscovered during the 1960s. In this context, there was also a conflict between older black and younger white blues performers.

Big Joe Williams, American Folk Blues Festival, Hamburg 1972. Photo by Heinrich Klaffs. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license. From Wikipedia.
Big Joe Williams, American Folk Blues Festival, Hamburg 1972. Photo by Heinrich Klaffs. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license. From Wikipedia.

Lippmann and Rau’s posters advertising their events made extensive use of romantic primitivist imagery. The artwork often featured guitars and earthy colors, reminiscent of nameless black bodies. Overall, their design conveyed a “non-threatening” nostalgia.

The events themselves even surpassed the posters in their stagecraft. To enhance the atmosphere of the spectacle, concerts sometimes featured recreated juke joints and other scenery, and African American GIs were bused in as studio audience in Germany.

Here, here, and here are some videos of typical performances (you can find much more material on youtube).

In 1967, Lippmann and Rau started booking Soul and Funk artists such as James Brown. With a turn towards these more contemporary forms of black popular music, the audience also shifted notably from white Germans to black American GIs.

Blues, Civil Rights, and Well-Meaning Racism

In 1965, Lippmann and Rau linked their American Folk Blues Festival to the US Civil Rights Movement. While well-meaning, in retrospect they upheld problematic racial constructions. In concert booklets, for example, blacks were presented as victims without an agency of their own. In a sense, Lippmann and Rau catered to their audience’s expectations of blues as a primitive, raw, emotional, but certainly not intellectual form of art.

Some African American blues artists developed what Adelt sees as strategies to counter such forced constructions of identity. At times, they spontaneously changed playlists at their shows. Some defied stereotyping by showing off their extraordinary skills and gimmicks in musicianship, for instance on the guitar. Stage antics, appearance in decidedly flashy clothes, or the performance of novelty songs were forms of resistance against expectations. White audiences did not always take this too well. In 1965, Buddy Guy (born in 1936) was booed for playing a medley of James Brown songs. To some degree, the blues resisted against expectations of white middle class respectability.

In conclusion, Adelt remarked that the appropriation of the blues by white German audiences was characterized by ambiguity. While there was great optimism about the prospects of Denazification through American popular culture, the project of transplanting the blues to Europe had a blind spot in its continuation of racial stereotypes.

Here is American Studies Leipzig’s video interview with Ulrich Adelt:

Further Reading:

Adelt, Ulrich. Blues Music in the Sixties: A Story in Black and White. First Paperback ed. Rutgers UP, 2011.
Balitzki, Jürgen et al. Bye Bye, Lübben City. Bluesfreaks, Tramps Und Hippies in Der DDR. 1st ed. Schwarzkopf + Schwarzkopf, 2004.
Carby, Hazel V. Race Men. Harvard UP, 2000.
Filene, Benjamin. Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music. U of North Carolina P, 2000.
Hamilton, Marybeth. In Search of the Blues. Reprint. Basic Books, 2009.
Hohn, Maria. GIs and Fräuleins: The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany. U of North Carolina P, 2002.
Oguntoye, Katharina, May Ayim, and Dagmar Schultz. Farbe Bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen Auf Den Spuren Ihrer Geschichte. 3., veränd. Aufl. (REV). Orlanda Frauenverlag, 2007.
Von Eschen, Penny M. Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War. Harvard UP, 2006.

Historian Charles Postel Talks about the Tea Party Movement

Today, historian Charles Postel of San Francisco State University and a visiting scholar at Heidelberg University, visited American Studies Leipzig as part of the Fulbright lecture series to talk about the rise of the Tea Party Movement in the US.

Postel, who specializes in populist movements in America, sees the Tea Party Movement as driven by a convergence of two different forces: ideology and economic self-interest.

The Founding Myth: The Boston Tea Party

“The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor” by Nathaniel Currier, lithograph depicting the 1773 Boston Tea Party (1846), from Wikipedia

He mentioned the myth of the original Boston Tea Party of the eighteenth century in American folklore, which is widely seen as a tax revolt, but was, according to historians, much more complex, involving political ideas about freedom and economic self-interest of Boston merchants and smugglers.

In order to illustrate the anatomy of today’s Tea Party Movement, Postel noted that federal taxes are at the lowest level since sixty years and that tax levels for the highest income groups have declined even sharper than for the average taxpayer.

Ideological Roots: Cold War Hard Right Paranoia

Postel held that much of the ideology of the Tea Party Movement derives from anti-New Deal conservative movements of the Cold War Era, in particular the John Birch Society, who saw social programs such as Social Security, trade unions, and the Civil Rights Movement as communist subversion of America. The enemies of those anti-New Deal conservative Republicans were for the most part moderate Republicans of the time.

The John Birch Society, which was the first grassroots conservative movement in the US, achieved a victory in mobilizing for Barry Goldwater as Republican candidate in 1964.

Robert Welch, the founder of the JBS, even went so far as accusing Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy as communist agents. In fact, anyone in favor of the New Deal and Civil Rights was seen as a communist.

In this video clip on YouTube, you can see Welch’s presentation (ca. 1965) of the JBS.

Other leading conservative intellectuals, such as William F. Buckley, distanced themselves from Welch and the JBS.

Welch and his allies, among them writer Leon Scousen, whose books have had a revival among Tea Partiers, built their own conservative movement on an anti-New Deal agenda.

For them, America’s fall from grace began in the early 1900s with the Progressive Movement’s social reforms.

The Birchers demanded the repeal of early twentieth century reforms, the Sixteenth Amendment, which allows for the federal government to raise an income tax, and the abolition of the Federal Reserve. They also demanded that the Seventeenth Amendment be repealed, which allows for the direct election of Senators. This was subsumed under the idea that America was a republic, not a democracy.

The Tea Party Movement picks up many of those ideas. It aims at repealing the remaining elements of the New Deal. It wants to abolish the Fed and for the reintroduction of the Gold Standard. It wants to repeal the 16th and 17th Amerndments. It argues that President Obama is a socialist and points to the Affordable Healthcare Act or ‘Obamacare.’

According to Postel, Obama is actually a centrist Democrat. A health care legislation similar to Obama’s was first proposed by President Nixon in 1974. For a long time, Republicans endorsed this idea.

The Tea Party Movement sees any regulation of the health care sector as socialism.

The Comeback of Bircher Rhetoric

If the rhetoric reminds of Joseph McCarthy and Barry Goldwater, that is, Postel says, because the John Birch Society has a revival.

Leon Scousen’s books are advertised regularly on Fox News by opinion hosts such as Glenn Beck.

Right-wing corporate lobbyists, including groups like FreedomWorks or Americans for Prosperity, but also think tanks, such as the conservative Heritage Foundation or the libertarian Cato Institute promote ideas similar to those of the Birchers.

Overall, the Cold War Hard Right has made a comeback, and it has gained the upper hand within the Republican Party.

Moderate Republicans have become a pariah within their party.

[Update]: I just stumbled upon a recent example of Bircherite Tea Party rhetoric. Congressman Allen West (R-FL) suggesting that 80 House Democrats are members of the Communist Party (article from The Raw Story).

The Politics of Self-Interest: Medicare Is Fine, But Only For Me

Besides ideology, politics of interest play an important role in the Tea Party Movement.

Postel sees this embodied in the Tea Party Movement’s opposition to health care reform as fight against ‘big government.’

The size of the federal government has remained relatively stable over the last decades. Most federal spending has been shrinking in the last thirty years. The two big exceptions to this are military spending and Medicare.

Most Tea Party supporters are on favor of higher military spending.

Regarding Medicare, typical Tea Party supporters—older, better educated, white males—have in the past most profited from government programs.

In other words, the Tea Party Movement mobilizes in the name of defending Medicare for themselves.

Tea Party figures such as Michelle Bachman have argued to the effect that Obama would take funds out of Medicare to give it to younger people.

Postel mentioned that the Paul Ryan Budget, favored by Republicans, illustrated this interest: those over fify-five would keep Medicare, while everyone else will have to shop in the insurance market with private vouchers.

The Politics of Inequality

The Ryan Budget also includes tax cuts for top earners and budget cuts for social programs.

This plan is proposed within the context of rising inequality within the US. While problematic for many, Postel noted that tens of millions of Americans have also benefited from rising inequality.

So far, Tea Party-influenced legislation at the state and local level has fostered inequality, with a clear anti-immigrant, anti-union, anti-reproductive health, and anti-voting rights agenda.

Currently, about twenty percent of Americans sympathize with the Tea Party Movement.

The Tea Party Movement has links to corporate lobbyists. Postel highlighted the Koch Brothers, the fourth wealthiest individuals in the US with an industry conglomerate in petrochemicals. The Kochs bankroll the Tea Party Movement through lobby groups such as Americans for Prosperity. They founded libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, and ALEC, a legal think tank. Fred C. Koch, father of Charles and David Koch, was a founding member of the John Birch Society.

Despite the involvement of the Kochs and others, Postel said that the Tea Party Movement cannot be called purely an ‘astroturf’ or fake grassroots movement.

Postel also held that while the mass media often emphasize the Tea Party Movement’s anti-elite rhetoric, there is not very much of it on closer look. Rather, all political movements in the US since the nineteenth century have used some form of anti-elite rhetoric, out of necessity.

Blowing Up The Social Contract

For Postel, the core agenda of the Tea Party Movement is “blowing up the social contract.” While in Europe there is general agreement about the validity of some form of social contract, even among right-wing populist parties, who want to limit the beneficiaries of that social contract, Tea Partiers want to end it. To American Tea Partiers, European right-wing populist parties might look statist, which is opposite to Tea Party ideology.

Many Tea Partiers call themselves ‘tenthers,’ in reference to the Tenth Amendment, which gives established the federal system giving states all rights not granted to the federal government. Postel noted that in the US, political movements have always swung for or against states’ rights and federal rights, depending on whether the legislation in question aligned with their particular agenda.

Postel ended his talk noting that, ironically, the Tea Party Movement has nationalized politics more than anything else in the recent past.

Charles Postel is currently working on a book chapter for an anthology on the Tea Party Movement.


Here is a video from American Studies Leipzig featuring an interview with Charles Postel after his talk: