Nelson Mandela’s memorial ceremony was held in South Africa this week, and leaders and dignitaries from all over the world made sure to descend on Johannesburg to pay their respects to the civil rights icon. Among those at the memorial service for the first black South African president was Barack Obama, the first black American president (sorry Bubba, you have to relinquish that title). But of course, anyone whose been to any type of memorial ceremony — not least one the size and scale of the Mandela fête — knows that things can get kind of dull. Alas, world leaders are as human as anyone else (though sometimes less so) and they get bored like the rest of us. Hence, President Obama took some time out from the long, drawn-out mourning/celebration to clown around with British PM David Cameron and Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt in a manner that exemplifies the contemporary narcissistic age: they took a group selfie.
Abe Lincoln, cross-dressing and the American way: The real history of Thanksgiving
Its American Thanksgiving today, so to celebrate, I wrote a piece for Salon. Go check it out!
The GOP, the Debt Ceiling, and the History of Killing Political Legitimacy
The situation was unprecedented in scope. The conservative party in America, its hardcore base mostly relegated to the South, had just suffered a devastating electoral defeat in which a lawyer and political progressive from Illinois won the U.S. presidency along mostly sectional lines, carrying primarily northern and west coast states. In response to the stinging rebuke of their policies by the majority of the American people, the conservative party decided that rather than accept the outcome of the presidential election, they would instead try to prevent the victorious party from governing by denying their very political legitimacy. In so doing, the conservative party in America waged war against democracy itself.
Abe Lincoln Resurfaces, Still Helping with our Better Angels
Recently, news broke that a keen-eyed former Disney animator named Christopher Oakley had discovered a previously unknown image of President Abraham Lincoln in an old picture taken by photographer Alexander Gardner. Gardener took the photo on November 19, 1863, the day Lincoln delivered his “Gettysburg Address,” perhaps the most famous – and shortest – speech in the history of the United States. If this admittedly blurry and tiny image does indeed show Old Abe, and the evidence looks fairly convincing that it does, then it would be one of the very few images of the 16th president not taken in a posed, studio setting.
The Bible Says it…Right? American Politicians, Scripture, and the Legacy of the Slavery Debate
This week, the dignified monkey cage and lobotomy experiment laboratory known as the House of Representatives, which, thanks to gerrymandering during the 2010 midterm elections, is dominated by the Republican Party, voted to slash $39 billion in food stamps from the Federal budget. While such a move is not unknown for a party that may, or may not, get thrills from shooting kittens and orphans out of skeet launchers, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) justified the vote using what he, and a good many other Americans consider to be, the ultimate authority on everything from policy decisions to haircuts: the bible. Quoting 2 Thessalonians 3:10 from the English Standard Bible, Cramer stated that “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”
The American Civil War Rages on…in England
This past weekend, a bloody battle raged between entrenched Confederate forces and determined Union attackers in Bath, U.K. That’s right, the Brits also like to reenact the American Civil War. Today I thought I’d follow up a bit on an earlier, and deeply profound (just trust me on that) post about Civil War reenactments by highlighting an annual event held by British Civil War enthusiasts.
As the Bath Chronicle reported:
Gunfire rang out around the edge of Bath at the weekend as hundreds of people re-enacted some of the drama of the American Civil War.
The American Museum at Claverton has been hosting the annual weekend-long re-enactment since 1970 and this year welcomed around 200 members of the Southern Skirmish Association to the attraction, dressed in full 19th century battle regalia.
The event is associated with the American Museum in Britain, which bills itself as “the only museum of American decorative and folk art outside of the United States.” The reenactors themselves are members of the Southern Skirmish Association, a group of British Civil War buffs that date back to 1968, making them “the oldest American Civil War Re-enacting Society outside of the United States.” The SSA is a registered U.K. charity and its mission statement is as follows:
Our aim is to honour the fallen of the American Civil War and we do this by means of “living history” re-enactments, with most members camping out in period costume and accommodation although modern camps are also available. We recreate realistic battle scenes and skirmishes, including artillery, cavalry as well as infantry forces.
The group’s Civil War reenactments seem to be reasonably popular, as far as these things go, and, like similar events in the U.S., the reenactments attract visitors hoping for a rush of history without the blood and mayhem:
Around 700 visitors came through the doors of the museum over the weekend, and both skirmishers and officials were delighted with the event.
Zoe Dennington, head of learning and events programming for the museum, said: “We have lots of visitors who come especially for the re-enactment. It’s quite a specialist thing and it appeals to people who have a specific interest in the civil war. People come from across the country to see the event, and it also appeals to families because it’s such a spectacle.
Of course, its more than just mock fighting. The event also relies on a good dose of nineteenth century nostalgia:
Skirmishers spent the weekend camped outside the museum living life as it was back in the 1860s, holding several events including two hour-long skirmishes with firing displays, prize ceremonies and displays of medical equipment used in the period.
While its interesting to note the popularity of the American Civil War in other countries (I’m writing a post about it, so it must be important), the existence of a British Civil War reenactment group isn’t really that surprising. The U.K. also boasts a West Yorkshire-based group called the American Civil War Society that does “living history” style demonstrations and reenactments, and of course, the British also like to reenact their own civil war. A similar state-side phenomenon is the popularity of Medieval and Renaissance faires, in which Americans of all stripes leave their comic book shops and parents’ basements for a few days and re-create the supposed chivalrous heroism of Europe’s Dark Ages and ensuing enlightenment.
These types of historical reenactments are ways in which contemporary folks can experience history in a very selective and bloodless manner by playing up notions of honor, chivalry, and the general pleasures associated with allegedly simpler times. Certainly, the big draw of these types of events is the chance to see some historical violence without having to see any actual violence, and there’s something mildly uncomfortable about that notion. Its neutering the past to make it less threatening for the present. Then again, it’s no doubt a good idea to leave the nineteenth and other centuries’ worst violence in the past. Better to have a fake civil war than another real one…right?
The Legend of Small Town U.S.A.
“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.
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.
To Kill or not to Kill? From the Copperheads to September 11
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.