The Legend of Small Town U.S.A.

smal ltown usa

“Main Street” is one of those apple pie invoking, corn-cob pipe toking, patriotism stoking, nostalgia choking symbolic themes in American culture that lacks a clear definition but with which most Americans are intimately familiar. I’m not talking about the actual street called “Main” that runs through your particular town or city. Rather, I mean the idea of Main Street U.S.A., also known as Small Town U.S.A., or, in recent political terms, Real America. You know what I’m talking about: its the America defined by a lily-white demographic, at a least a partially agricultural economy, Mom and Pop stores (no Targets allowed!), old guys sitting on porches, lots of churches, and a penchant for traditional values, whatever those might be.

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Of Kochs and Carnegies: The Myth of Capitalist Market Purity

Charles and David Koch flood the U.S. government with cash, and get subsides in return.

Charles and David Koch flood the U.S. government with cash, and get to shape the government-private sector relationship in return.

This week a story broke that would surprise no one with even a passing knowledge of the shady relationship between business and government in the U.S. It turns out that a previously unknown conservative “sugar daddy” group called Freedom Partners had raised a cool $256 million in 2012 and then funneled out $236 million of that cash to a rogue’s gallery of right-wing organizations, including Americans for Prosperity, the National Rifle Association, and, of course, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The group organized as a 501(c)6 tax-exempt chamber of commerce, allowing it remain in the shadows raising so-called “dark money” from a host of secret donors. Several members of the board have close ties to Koch Industries, the vast industrial conglomerate based out of Witchita, Kansas and owned by ultra right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch — better known the general public, and to those with a soul — as the Koch Brothers.

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“Duck Dynasty” and the Historical Power of Beards

"Duck Dynasty's" unabashedly hirsute stars, Phil, Uncle Si, Jase, and Willie Robertson.

Duck Dynasty’s unabashedly hirsute stars, Phil, Uncle Si, Jase, and Willie Robertson.

Maybe you’re like me and you don’t have cable t.v. Good for you. Tell yourself, like I do, that this makes you inherently intellectually superior to the millions of glow-box zombified American scarecrows who have nothing better to do with their lives than exist in an immobilized state guarding the t.v. from the nefarious Corvidae of real life. Or, you could be honest and, like me, admit that you can’t afford cable. But whether or not you have cable, there’s no way to escape the current American cultural juggernaut that is A&E’s “reality-based” show, Duck Dynasty.

The show follows the exploits of “Duck Commander” Phil Robertson, his Vietnam-vet, eccentric brother Si, and his three sons, Jase, Willie, and Jep. The Robertsons live in West Monroe, Louisiana. Phil Robertson is a former star quarterback for Louisiana Tech who turned down pigskin glory to hand craft duck calls in a backwoods cabin. According to people who actually give a damn about duck hunting, Robertson’s calls work pretty darn well. When Phil’s son, Willie, took over control of the Duck Commander company, he turned it into a multi-million dollar outdoor empire and made the Robertson clan into self-proclaimed “redneck millionaires.”

A&E’s Duck Dynasty show is a fairly simple set-up that depicts the daily lives of the Robertson clan, which includes the Robertson women, Phil’s wife Miss Kay, Willie’s wife Korie, Jase’s wife Missy, Jep’s wife Jessica, and their large brood of kids. Yet, as simple as the show is, its a massive hit: as of late August, it’s poised to be the biggest cable show ever. So why the heck is this the case? After all, like any “reality” show, Duck Dynasty’s plot lines are transparently staged, but two things about the show really resonate with viewers: the Robertson’s eccentricity and, perhaps more importantly, their beards.

There’s lots to write about regarding Duck Dynasty as a cultural phenomenon, but this is a history blog, and I’m going to focus on the history behind American beards and why that history is essential to the show’s success. Over at History Scene, Sarah Gold McBride posted a fantastic historical recap of the power of the beard in terms of shaping masculinity in the 19th century. The 19th century was a period of vast changes during which the modern world as we know it was formed. Indeed, many of the cultural, political, and economic tropes that we acknowledge today were first articulated and solidified in the 19th century, and this includes beards and their relationship to masculinity. As Gold McBride writes, with vast social, political, and economic change:

The social and economic roles of men and women changed, too splintering into distinct activities and spaces that could be organized under a system of “separate spheres.” Under this schema, men laid claim to public places like taverns and city streets, while women were confined to private spaces—namely, the home. Even though this binary is more of an ideal than a reflection of reality (as historians like Christine Stansell and Mary Ryan have shown),  gender distinction gained a greater importance over the course of the century—particularly in the minds of white men, who began looking for ways to demonstrate a distinctly male identity.

They distinguished themselves from women in politics; a fundamental feature of the new universal manhood suffrage was, of course, the fact that it was only for men. But men also began exaggerating the physical differences between themselves and women. Men’s clothing styles shifted from a corseted, curvaceous look—one not dissimilar from a female figure—to the boxy silhouette of the three-piece suit. Men also began donning another distinct physical feature: facial hair—including side-whiskers, moustaches, and especially beards.

In the 19th century, beards came to define a concept of masculinity in a way that was unmistakably visual to better distinguish them from increasingly public women:

Boxy clothing and bushy beards were reactions to women’s changing role in American public life. Although men in Europe and the United States had long written—even in times of overwhelming beardlessness—about how beards marked the male members of their species as strong, manly, powerful, and wise, it was only once women began entering “their” public that American men started to cultivate the facial hair they had publically revered (but personally scorned) for generations. Facial hair was a visual and visceral way for men to distinguish themselves from women—to codify a distinctly male appearance when other traditional markers of masculinity were no longer stable or certain.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, beards thus emerged as a key method for American men to demonstrate their masculinity to themselves, to women, and to each other.

So what does the rise of beards in the 19th century have to do with Duck Dynasty’s popularity in 2013? Much of the show’s popularity stems from its carefully controlled depiction of very generic, supposedly “down home” southern American values like family, Christian religious observance, traditional gender roles, patriotism, humility, good manners, reverence for the outdoors, and general redneck-ness. Thrown together in a pot, these values create a simmering, clichéd stew of good ole’ folk southern identity that harks all the way back to the antebellum South, when sectional divisions over slavery led southerners to double down on creating cultural distinctions between themselves and the North to justify southern values as superior.

Minus the slavery issue, of course, the above-listed generic stew of southern cultural values survived well into the 20th century because these values seemingly offered an authentic alternative to the fast-paced, modern, cold, money-obsessed, industrializing nation that emerged after the Civil War. As historian James C. Cobb observes in Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South, culture is a process, and in the post-Civil War South, southern culture was “an ongoing cycle of interaction”  during which some southerners constantly shaped, reshaped, and reformed southern cultural identity to adapt older traditions to the demands of modern life and social change that threatened to leave Dixie and its culture in the dust.* The South’s general cultural, political, and religious conservatism aided this continuing process.

Now, in the 21st century, the vague idea of “southern culture,” defined by traditional religion, gender roles, guns, family values, and patriotism has been mass-produced and sold via shows like Duck Dynasty. The show is consumed by a large segment of the American public that is fed up with what they perceive as the modern world’s assault on traditional values and religion, and they’re willing to commit their time to a  little slice of supposedly authentic southern American-ness to combat the secular hordes of social change roaring at tradition’s gates.

The beards in Duck Dynasty symbolize this general, supposedly authentic, but actually mass-produced, southern cultural conservatism. As Gold McBride noted, 19th century beards symbolized masculinity and an affirmation of gender distinctions in an age when gender roles were shifting. Contemporary America is witnessing many of the trends that shaped the 19th century, including growing income inequality and the increasingly public role of minority groups asserting their rights; groups that in today’s context include gays, women, atheists or non-religious folks, and (shudder) liberals of all types.

Duck Dynasty's bearded hunters. Real men still hunt.

Duck Dynasty’s bearded hunters. Real men still hunt.

Duck Dynasty’s bearded male stars offer a symbolic reaffirmation of traditional values onto which many Americans threatened by social change can latch. The Robertson men’s bushy beards, like beards in the 19th century, distinguish them from the Robertson women and symbolize southern masculinity. Just look at the hirsute Robertsons’ favorite things: they do manly activities like hunting, fishing, shooting guns, and praising God. Hell, their entire business is built around the idea that MEN hunt to bring home food and take care of the family.

And what distinguishes all of the bearded Robertson’s activities? For the most part, they happen outdoors, that is, outside the sphere of the home, where the Robertson women reside. When Jase or Willie or Jep return from a days work at the Duck Commander headquarters or a day out hunting, they return to the home sphere to meet the women. There was even an episode where Jase and Willie take their wives hunting, and, in a fantastically clichéd plot line, the thoroughly suburbanized and home-bound ladies act the classic part of ducks out of water (or babes in the woods), unable to fathom how their manly, bearded beaus could possibly derive joy from going into the woods to shoot deer. And just so viewers don’t forget: these are indeed REAL men – they have beards. Bushy Beards.

Duck Dynasty’s bearded display of warm, corn-pone, conservative but non-threatening, down home, southern cultural values resonates with a portion of the American population. Conservatives have taken to declaring the show’s popularity as driving liberals crazy, while regular Christian Americans praise the show as an antidote to the ills of modern culture via its depiction of warm, simple, family values. Thus, the Robertson men’s beards alone do not a successful show make. But their beards do symbolize and invoke a long history of cultural construction based around generic southern American values served up hot and ready to many Americans. These folks want a little something simpler in their lives to combat what they see as a host of uncomfortable modern social changes. All hail the power of beards.

* See James C. Cobb, Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 1-4.

To Kill or not to Kill? From the Copperheads to September 11

Civil War-era cartoon depiciting Copperheads as venomous snakes attacking liberty herself.

Civil War-era cartoon depicting Copperheads as venomous snakes attacking liberty herself.

I initially wanted to avoid writing what might very well turn into yet another hackneyed patriotic post on The United States’ most recent and visceral national tragedy. Plus, I like to keep this blog at least partially rooted in the nineteenth century, and what do the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks have to do with that era? Well, there actually is a connection. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that 9/11 actually connects to some deep-seated and long-lasting American ambiguities about the use of violence and the wisdom of war.

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The History Behind the Southern Booze Buzzkill

Devil girl liquor caddy and paper towel holder made by Speedcult, Detroit.

Devil girl liquor caddy and paper towel holder made by Speedcult, Detroit.

Following up on my recent post on the historical demise and recent resurgence of American craft breweries, I thought I’d discuss another example of how booze and American history are forever intertwined. Last year the BBC ran an interesting article on the slow death of vestigial prohibition laws in the American South. Following the ending of national prohibition law in 1933, laws regarding the sale and distribution of alcohol fell back to the states. In the southern Bible Belt, the spirit (pun intended) of prohibition remained alive in the hearts of local temperance advocates. As the BBC reported:

When alcohol regulation was handed back to individual states, many local communities voted to keep the restrictions in place, particularly in the southern Bible Belt.

Today there are still more than 200 “dry” counties in the United States, and many more where cities and towns within dry areas have voted to allow alcohol sales, making them “moist” or partially dry.

The result is a patchwork of dry, wet and moist counties stretching across the south.

There’s an old saying (or maybe I just made it up) that even in the midst of economic depression, the bars always remain open. Well, following the 2008 economic crash, the temptation to reap some easy cash from the sale of booze has fuelled momentum to repeal long-established temperance laws:

Every few weeks, somewhere in the US, citizens of a dry area gather enough signatures on a petition to trigger a wet/dry referendum. It is not a one-way street – some communities have voted to remain dry or even introduce further restrictions on alcohol sales.

But hard economic times have accelerated the march of alcohol, and in recent years many communities that have been dry for decades are opting to end prohibition, for fear of losing business to their wet neighbours.

So how did the South come to embrace prohibition so thoroughly that its effects still linger in the form of dry counties well into 2013? The answer involves two central themes in southern history: religion and race. Southern prohibition laws were mostly enacted between 1880 and 1915. They were spearheaded by Evangelical Protestantism, a cultural force that still maintains a powerful influence in the South today. Historian Joe Coker, who was interviewed for the BBC piece, explains in his book Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause that southern evangelicals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly the Baptists, embraced prohibition in order to preserve the moral uprightness of southern culture. For evangelicals, “southern culture” entailed traditions of honor, Christian religious faith, and, especially, white supremacy.

The American temperance movement originated in New England, but antebellum southern evangelicals had little need for temperance in a culture that linked alcohol consumption to honor and white manhood. Indeed, slaves were forbidden from drinking except during carefully controlled celebrations like Christmas, when slaveholders monitored slaves’ drinking as a form of racial control. After the Civil War, however, the abolition of slavery gave blacks open access to hooch. This became especially problematic in the late nineteenth century, when the racist cultural trope of the lustful “black beast” bent on raping white women swept the South, spurring an era of brutal lynchings. White evangelicals argued that black rapists were driven by alcohol consumption and, consequently, advocated for prohibition as a means of reasserting white control over wayward southern blacks.

Evangelicals combined their desire to control alleged drunken black rapists with a recasting of southern honor that eschewed traditional honorable activities like drinking, fighting, gambling, and racial violence in favor of a new bourgeoise version of southern honor characterized by Victorian propriety. Thus, evangelicals succeeded in extending a plan of racial control to prevent all of southern society, black and white, from partaking of the forbidden elixures.*

Map showing the still remaining U.S. dry counties. Nearly all are located in the South. Map courtesy of the BBC.

Map showing the still remaining U.S. dry counties. Nearly all are located in the South. Map courtesy of the BBC.

Thanks to the efforts of evangelicals, a good slice of the South, particularly in Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee still have dry counties. This highlights a broader point about the nature of government involvement in private affairs in Dixie that influences southern lawmaking and culture to this day. Despite a generally conservative political culture in the South that emphasizes limited government interference in individual affairs, southern evangelicals have not ceased trying to use the state to shape social behavior according to their preferred designs. Contemporary evangelicals are behind efforts to use government power to ban gay marriage and restrict, if not outright ban, women’s access to abortion — and they still want to keep some counties in the South booze free.

In terms of the liquor bans, though, it looks like the religious folks’ stranglehold is starting to loosen. And, as with a lot of things in history, if you follow the money trail, you’ll get close to some answers. There’s nothing like a big ole’ recession to uncork (pun REALLY intended) a few bottles to start pouring out some much-needed revenue. Back in March, Governing reported that a growing number of localities across the South were ending decades-long prohibitions on sale and consumption of hooch in efforts to raise revenue without raising taxes. This trend is also happening outside of Dixie. In February, for example, the town of Seneca, New York reversed an 80 year standing ban on the sale of booze in order to raise enough dough to keep its landfill open.

The slow hammering of the final remaining nails in prohibition’s coffin reminds us of two crucial points about Americans as a group. 1.) Whatever their political persuasions, they aren’t shy about using the state to force others to bend to their sacred whims, and 2.) even the most deeply held beliefs can become suddenly negotiable when you threaten the cash flow. Now go out and get sloshed tonight, my friends, its your civic duty.

* For more information on prohibition in the South, see Joe L. Coker, Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause: Southern White Evangelicals and the Prohibition Movement (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007).

Calhoun’s Ghost and the Enduring Dream of Secession

John C. Calhoun, with one of his many trend-setting mane styles.

John C. Calhoun, sporting one of his many trend-setting mane styles.

Secession is the idea that simply won’t die in the United States. You would think that after secession — the withdrawing of one or more states from the Federal Union — caused the The Civil War, which cost over 600,000 lives and left half of the country in ruins, the issue would have been settled in 1865. But Americans have never been ones to let a nutty idea go to waste, and in the year 2013, a few brave patriots are still bandying about the concept that withdrawing from the national compact is 1.) legal, and 2.) desirable.

Some recent examples from around the country are keeping the dream of secession alive and well — at least for a few misguided individuals. Back in June, some right-wing residents of northern Colorado counties with a serious Jones for the oil and gas industry drew up plans to secede from the rest of the state and form the newly sovereign state of “North” or “Northern Colorado.” Citing a general butt-hurt caused by the growing influence of liberal urban enclaves like Denver, conservatives in northern Colorado hope to create a separate haven for pro-gun, pro energy industry interests. As the CBS Denver news affiliate reported:

The secessionist movement is the result of a growing urban-rural divide, which was exacerbated after this year’s legislation session where lawmakers raised renewable energy standards for rural electric co-ops, floated bills increasing regulations on oil and gas, and passed sweeping gun control.

Pro-secessionist leaders in northern Colorado cited a lack of attention by state and federal lawmakers as the reason for their wanting to secede:

“We really feel in northern and northeastern Colorado that we are ignored — citizens’ concerns are ignored, and we truly feel disenfranchised,” Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said.

Conway said the new laws don’t support the interests of the northern part of the state, which is rich in agricultural history. Conway said that’s why he and others are proposing to break away from Colorado to form a new state.

Following the Colorado brouhaha, conservative activists in northern California and western Maryland have proposed seceding from their respective states in order to escape the perceived liberal political dominance of metropolitan areas. As the Washington Post reported, Western Marylander  Scott Strzelczyk summarized the secessionists’ views succinctly:

He wants to live in a smaller state, he says, with more “personal liberty, less government intrusion, less federal entanglements.” He wants the right to carry a gun. He would abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Although he thinks the government shouldn’t be involved with marriage, he’d put the question of gay marriage to a vote. Medical marijuana would be just fine, he says. There would be lots of liberty.

Proponents of contemporary secessionist movements who want “lots of liberty” have an intellectual godfather in the figure of nineteenth century South Carolina senator and Vice-President under Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun. He was a political theorist whose most famous ideas refuse to die despite being discredited in practice over a hundred years ago.

An early American nationalist and proponent of a strong national government in his early years, Calhoun eventually morphed into a radical proponent of limited government and states’ rights, especially the right of individual states to nullify any Federal law they found distasteful, constitutional prohibitions be damned.

Calhoun was also a steadfast defender of southern slavery, and his defence of states’ rights usually served as a bulwark against federal interference in the “peculiar institution.” Calhoun’s most famous idea was the concept of the “Concurrent Majority:” the theory that all interests within states had to concur on the actions of the government. The idea behind this concept was to prevent tyranny of the numerical majority, which would supposedly lead to mob rule running roughshod over the interests of minorities, thereby denying them a say in government. Calhoun proposed two measures to prevent supposed tyranny of the majority: nullification, the idea that states have the right to invalidate federal law, and secession, in which states would withdraw from the federal Union.

No less an authority than President Andrew Jackson — himself no fan of excessive federal government — recognized that Calhoun’s theory was blatantly unconstitutional. The constitution expressly grants the federal government power over the states, meaning that states cannot nullify federal law. But beyond the legal issue with the idea of “Concurrent Majority,” it also created a deep philosophical problem: taken to its logical conclusion, Calhoun’s theory negated the very principle of democratic government and sowed the seeds of anarchy. Requiring all states and interests to agree on operations of the general government guaranteed the death of compromise and the perpetuation of governmental paralysis. Furthermore, if a state, or a municipality within a state, could simply secede from the Union whenever it found fault with federal laws, then the basic idea of democracy failed, and republican countries would devolve into ceaseless fracturing, threatening social and governmental order.

This is why Abraham Lincoln characterized secession as the “essence of anarchy,” and why he and the vast majority of northern states decried the secession of the slaveholding southern states in 1860 and 1861 as a violation of the experiment in democratic republicanism. Put simply: you can’t spend years drawing the benefits of membership in a federal Union and then pick up and leave when things don’t go your way.

Despite the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy, however, the idea of secession, underpinned by Calhoun’s “Concurrent Majority,” just refuses to die. In 2009 Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) floated the idea that his state could secede from the Union if the federal government continued its supposed tyrannical overreach, though he failed to mention that Texas is among the states that receive the highest amounts of federal money. Republican state legislatures have also invoked Calhoun’s ghost by passing restrictive voter I.D. laws designed to hold off the growing majorities of non-white voters that in the future may not support the Republican Party.

Thus, John C. Calhoun’s ideas will continue to be popular among cranky conservative Americans for the indefinite future, or at least as long as they continue to perceive that their political privileges are slipping away. But in republican societies, secession isn’t the answer. Those who lose at the legislative level should go back to the drawing board, reorganize, and try winning at the ballot box. Leave Calhoun’s ghost in the past where it belongs, guarded by the hundreds-of-thousands of Americans who perished thanks to his ideas.

Southern Conservatism, the Confederacy, and the Legacy of Slavery

1861 U.S. Coast Survey Showing Prevalence of Slavery in Southern Counties.

1861 U.S. Coast Survey Showing Prevalence of Slavery in Southern Counties.

At the Vault History blog, Rebecca Onion posted a really cool map of the United States in 1861 (shown above), which uses data from the 1860 census to determine the percentage of enslaved people per county in the southern states.  Onion explains that:

The map, which shades counties based on the percentage of total inhabitants who were enslaved, shows what a range there was in levels of Southern enslavement. Some counties, the map explains, “appear comparatively light … this arises from the preponderance of whites and free blacks in the large towns in these counties.” The population of Orleans Parish, La., in one example, was 8.9 percent enslaved. Places that were rural but were located in mountainous areas devoid of plantations were similarly light-shaded: The people of Harlan County, Ky., were 2.3 percent enslaved.

Meanwhile, a dark belt of counties bordering the Mississippi River held more than 70 percent of their residents in slavery, with Tensas Parish, La., at 90.8 percent and Washington County, Miss., at 92.3 percent.

 

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The Revenge of (Good) American Beer

New York Beer Lithograph, 1800s. New York Historical Society.

New York Beer Lithograph, 1800s. New York Historical Society.

Americans like to think that they invented everything, including the eternal elixir of the gods: beer. Of course, Americans didn’t invent beer, in fact, the malty beverage’s existence goes back at least to ancient Sumeria. One thing Americans did succeed in, however, is establishing an astonishing number of independent breweries by the mid-19th century. Unfortunately, American craft brewing fell prey to that quality-sucking colossus: industrial capitalism. As Natasha Geiling notes in a post for Smithsonian.com, the American brewing boom peaked in 1873 with over 3,700 breweries. As the 20th century closed in, however, a corporate onslaught, coupled with a healthy dose of German immigrants, government meddling, and technological advances diluted (pun intended) the overall number and quality of Americans beers, sending the tradition of American independent brewing into a long dormancy from which it has only recently started to stir. As Geiling writes:

The death of the American brewery can be attributed — at least in part — to the heartbreak of loving something too much: when beer became popular, it became profitable, opening itself up to large-scale corporate control and consolidation.

Before 1810, production statistics for beer are widely unavailable, speaking to its lack of standing in the American beverage rotation. Toward the mid-1850s, however, a number of social and technological advancements made beer an appealing option for drinkers. For one, an influx of immigrants from Britain, Germany and Ireland contributed to the idea of a beer-drinking culture. Additionally, wages were on the rise, affording workers the economic means to knock back a cold one after work. Substantive improvements in technology — such as refrigeration and pasteurization — also contributed to beer becoming more widely available. In 1865, per capita consumption of beer in the United States was 3.4 gallons — by the end of the 19th century, that number had nearly quadrupled.

The explosion in the number of urban working class laborers in 19th century cities like Milwaukee and Cincinnati, fueled by European immigration, not only drove beer’s rising popularity, but also made the malty brew ripe for mass production. Further, those immigrant workers, especially the Germans, liked their beers in the lager and pilsner styles, two styles that eventually became synonymous with “American beer.” In a historical turn that would prove detrimental to those who preferred darker ales, most urban workers preferred lighter lagers and pilsners: beers that use a bottom fermenting yeast and pour with a lighter golden to clear color.* As Geiling observes, when lager’s growing popularity coincided with technological advancements in the production, transportation, and storage of beer and a pious dose of government activism, independent breweries were hit hard:

As thirst for the malty beverage increased, a new dynamic pitted big business against small craftsmanship. In 1870, 3,286 breweries produced, on average, 2,009 barrels of beer per year. By 1915, only 1,345 breweries remained, but these were prodigious in their production, cranking out 44,461 barrels per year. “Brewery declines in the 1870s were related to refrigerated and iced rail cars allowing breweries to extend their reach, pushing consolidation and closure of small, local brewers,” says Gatza.

It wasn’t until after Prohibition, however, that these large scale “shipping breweries” began to truly outwit the smaller craft breweries — which, though outnumbered, had been able to sustain their business by supplying small batch brews to their immediate local markets. With the passing of the 21st amendment, a measure was put in place that banned brewers from owning bars or saloons, requiring a middleman to go between bar owners and beer manufactures. Such a step drove up cost for small breweries, making their model economically unfeasible. “After Prohibition, over 700 breweries opened, but consolidation of smaller brewers by larger brewers started quickly and continued to around 1980,” Gatza says. “The post-Prohibition low point was 89 breweries owned by 42 companies in the late-1970s.” A combination of factors began to make beer — especially craft beer — less appealing to the American public. Marketing campaigns effectively dictated that the industry center around pale lagers, and diet crazes proselytized the light beer above all. The bell was tolling for the American brewery: experts projected that by the 1980s, there would be five brewing companies left in the United States.

The presence of the distributer middle-man helped proliferate the expansion of lager production, but it also had the effect of diluting the quality of even the best lagers. This resulted in a decades-long plague of watery, factory-farmed ales that descended over the American landscape like malted barbarian beer hordes, flooding the market with tasteless abominations like “light” beers that you could buy in massive, cheap “cubes” at your local grocery store or enjoy for $20 a cup at the latest Eagles reunion tour. Thankfully, the Corporate Beer hordes’ grip on Malted Rome is starting to slip thanks to a contemporary renaissance in American craft breweries. As Reuters and other outlets reported in July:

The steady and sustained growth of American craft brewing continued during the first half of 2013, according to mid-year data released by the Brewers Association (BA). The not-for-profit trade association, which represents the majority of U.S. breweries, announced that during the first six months of 2013, American craft beer dollar sales and volume were up 15 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Over the same period last year, dollar sales jumped 14 percent and volume increased 12 percent.

During the first half of 2013, approximately 7.3 million barrels of beer were sold by small and independent1craft brewers, up from 6.4 million barrels over the first half of 2012. American craft beer continues to grow despite decreased overall beer sales, which were down two percent through the first six months of the year.

“Demand for beer produced by small and independent brewers has never been higher, as evidenced by increased production and the hundreds of new breweries joining the playing field each year,” said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association. “Beer drinkers nationwide are responding positively to high-quality, full-flavored, diverse offerings from American craft brewing companies that continue to innovate and push the envelope.”

The history of American beer has changed over the last two centuries. Through their undying love of lager ales, a steady influx of German immigrants who came to America’s cities in the 19th century revolutionized the production and consumption of American beer. Their arrival coincided with new advances in brewing technology and the rise of Prohibition. This confluence of circumstances helped beer rise in popularity, but it also spelled the death knell of independent brewers.

"Antietam Ale," part of The Sesquicentennial Series of Beers, a joint project between the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Brewer’s Alley Restaurant, and Monocacy Bottling Company.

“Antietam Ale,” part of The Sesquicentennial Series of Beers, a joint project between the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Brewer’s Alley Restaurant, and Monocacy Bottling Company.

The power of the Big Brewers would remain largely unchallenged until relatively recently, when a long untapped market for quality artisan ales unleashed an entrepreneurial brewing movement that is on the verge of crowning the U.S. the new world leader in microbrewed ales. This beer renaissance promises to return American brewing to its quality, independent historical roots. So the next time you’re at the local beer merchant, instead of reaching for a cube of the newest lime-flavored floor cleaner, check out the ever-increasing craft brew options and experience the outer limits of beer snob wonderment.

* For more detailed information on American brewing, see Martin H. Stack, “A Concise History of America’s Brewing Industry.”

Labor Day in the New Gilded Age

United States Infantry square off against Chicago workers in the Stock Yards, by Fredric Remington, from Harper's Weekly Magazine

United States Infantry square off against Chicago workers in the Stock Yards, by Fredric Remington, from Harper’s Weekly Magazine

Well, its Labor Day 2013, a national holiday in both the U.S. and Canada bolstered by an idea — that the national economy thrives when we recognize workers’ contributions to creating an economic system based on broadly shared prosperity — that seems more and more hopelessly symbolic in the New Gilded Age. In the contemporary U.S., American income inequality has reached pre-Great Depression-era levels, private sector unionization is now a pale shadow of its former strength thanks to 30-plus years of concerted right wing ideological and policy assaults, and public sector unions seem destined for collapse for the very same reason.

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“For what they died, I fight a little longer:” More on National Blood Sacrifice

Soldiers' Graves at Vicksburg National Cemetery, Mississippi. Some of the graves remain unmarked and unidentified.

Soldiers’ Graves at Vicksburg National Cemetery, Mississippi. Some of the graves remain unmarked and unidentified.

As a way of building on some points I made in the previous post about the interconnectedness between modern nation-states and mass violence, Dan Vermilya has an interesting post at his blog Our Country’s Fiery Trial.  Vermilya is a Park Ranger at Antietam National Battlefield, who previously worked at Gettysburg National Historical Park. Reflecting on the meaning imparted by national parks that preserve the sights of mass slaughter during the Civil War, he emphasizes the usual, though still important, roles battlefields serve in reminding contemporary Americans why so many men died during that horrendous conflict. We as the American populace continue to honor the Civil War dead for making the “last full measure of devotion,” for sacrificing their bodies on the nation’s altar.

Such an idea is so commonplace, however, that I think its easy to really gloss over the full meaning implicit behind such sentiments, namely, that it is impossible to separate violence from the idea of the modern American nation. If we imagine the United States as metaphorically being constructed out of bricks, those bricks only hold together because they are tempered with the blood of the 600,00o plus soldiers who died at places like Antietam. The traditional, and far more inspiring way to acknowledge this national blood sacrifice is through honor and gratitude. As an example of this, Vermilya prints a portion of an 1881 letter written by Rufus Dawes, a veteran of the 6th Wisconsin, to his wife. In the letter, Dawes recounts his visit to Arlington National Cemetery, where he gazed over the graves of his fallen comrades:

I looked over nearly the full 16,000 headboards to find the twenty-four, but they all died alike and I was determined to find all. Poor little Fenton who put his head above the works at Cold Harbor and got a bullet through his temples, and lived three days with his brains out, came to me in memory as fresh as one of my own boys of to-day, and Levi Pearson, one of the three brothers of company ‘A,’ who died for their country in the sixth regiment, and Richard Gray, Paul Mulleter, Dennis Kelly, Christ Bundy, all young men, who fell at my side and under my command. For what they died, I fight a little longer. Over their graves I get inspiration to stand for all they won in establishing our government upon freedom, equality, justice, liberty and protection to the humblest.

The key statement in this passage is “for what they died, I fight a little longer.” And what did these men die for? They died for their country, of course. Their blood spilled so that a government of “freedom, equality, justice, liberty and protection to the humblest ” might live on. Generally, we give such sentiments the due respect they deserve. Yet, to fully understand the meaning of such sentiments, we would do well to consider that violence; horrible, mass violence, is intrinsically tied to our modern concept of nationalism. And we continue to legitimize that violence.

Each Memorial Day, Americans remember those who gave their lives to their country, but they also, by extension, sanctify and consecrate the mass violence that was integral to the creation of the modern American nation. This is the darker side of patriotism, the darker side of honoring war dead, because through such rituals, we tacitly acknowledge, even embrace, a history of brutal acts on human bodies committed by other humans. So ingrained is the idea of blood sacrifice in modern national cultures the world over that we scarcely stop to wonder if by turning the macabre act of war into a regular, communal ceremony, we lose perspective over our stated human desires for peace. Of course, through honoring war dead, we promote the notion that their blood sacrifice will bring about peace. Historically, however, violence begets violence in a continually repeating pattern. This was certainly true with the Civil War: the end of the formal fighting gave way to a savage, decades-long cycle of terroristic racial violence, the legacy of which we’re still dealing with today.

From the February 10, 2009 New York Times. An undated photo shows American military personnel with coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq at Dover Air Base in Delaware.

From the February 10, 2009 New York Times. An undated photo shows American military personnel with coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq at Dover Air Base in Delaware.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t honor war dead by acknowledging that they paid the ultimate sacrifice. But it is to say that if we’re serious about taming the level of mass violence in the modern world, perhaps we should be aware of how commonly we sanctify violence in the name of our most cherished ideals, especially nationalism. I mean, if we really want that cake, we should at least be aware of how many eggs we need to crack.