Its American Thanksgiving today, so to celebrate, I wrote a piece for Salon. Go check it out!
The “Knockout” Game, Race, and Fears of Urban Crime in American History
Crime and cities have always been close bedfellows in America. The sense that cities, in contrast to the countryside, are havens of delinquency and debauchery populated by the worst kinds of morally deprived low-lifes is a longstanding notion in American culture that remains potent in the twenty-first century, even when urban crime rates are at their lowest point in some 40 years. But whatever the current level of crime in American cities, the denser populations of urban areas, when combined with the natural human proclivity towards delinquent behavior, has ensured that the cultural meme of “cities as havens of vice” has remained perennially popular.
The latest manifestation of urban crime fears is the viral panic over the supposed “knockout” trend that is currently sweeping the internet. Reports have emerged from cities such as Pittsburgh, New York, Philadelphia and others of the growing popularity of a depraved new game called “knockout” among groups of urban teenagers. As the New York Times reported, this game allegedly involves “young assailants…randomly picking unlucky targets and trying to knock them out with just one punch.” Essentially, the knockout game amounts to little more than a random, dangerous assault, since no reports of actual theft have emerged from these attacks.
The real history of the “war on Christmas”
If you think that the idea of Christmas commercialism is something new, then you haven’t checked out the 19th century recently. Follow this link to Salon where I discuss why the “War on Christmas” is utterly bogus.
Horatio Alger’s Long Shadow: Blaming the Poor in American History
Have you ever been poor? Have you ever lived in a state of poverty where the basic necessities of life, such as food, water, shelter, and income security barely existed? If not, then count yourself lucky. Really lucky. Because being poor is awful. It’s not just damaging to every aspect of your physical health and well-being; it’s also psychologically damaging in that being poor tends to reinforce a sense of despair that leads to viewing poverty as an inescapable trap. In a column for Pacific Standard, Paul Hiebert recently reported on a new Harvard study that explains how poverty reinforces itself:
Banks and Rough Justice: Why Lynching Imagery Matters
It the annuals of foot-in-mouth syndrome, few will ever be able to compete with Bob Benmosche, the entitled gas bag and so-called “in your face” CEO of American International Group (AIG). AIG is one of the most powerful multinational insurance corporations/mafioso syndicates in the world. It also just happens to be one of the mega-banks that melted under the weight of its own greed and had to be bailed out by taxpayers in 2008 to the tune of over $180 billion dollars. Why does that matter?
Of Kochs and Carnegies: The Myth of Capitalist Market Purity
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.
“Duck Dynasty” and the Historical Power of Beards
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 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.
The Revenge of (Good) American Beer
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.
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.”