Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

August 28, 2009

A Match Made in America

Filed under: Conservatives,Economy,Missouri — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:00 am

I can’t say this connection had occurred to me consciously, but it made only too much sense to see that in one suburb, at least,  two outsized, fearful items of modern conspicuous consumption have converged: Hummers and assault weapons. It does indeed seem to take a similar mentality to think that suburban personal safety requires driving to the supermarket in an armored personnel carrier and that personally acquiring enough munitions to capture Iwo Jima is a good idea. And to regard living that way as somehow cool and manly. But let the St. Louis Post-Dispatch tell it:

Chesterfield Hummer dealership fights declining sales with guns


Like many of his competitors, Hummer dealer Jim Lynch is fighting for survival.

Unlike the rest of them, Lynch reached for a gun. Lots of them, actually.

Faced with declining sales and an uncertain future, his Chesterfield dealership has expanded in a direction that’s drawing national attention. It’s what happens when you replace some of those pricey Hummers with dozens of Glocks, Sig Sauers, Colts, Berettas and Brownings.

For Lynch, those guns are the solution to a problem that’s been hounding him for months.

“We’ve got a beautiful building with a big mortgage,” Lynch said. “The Hummers weren’t going to cover it.”

In the good old days — way back in 2005 — Lynch’s dealership could sell 70 Hummers during a strong month. But high gas prices, a sour economy and the auto industry’s ongoing struggles have wreaked havoc. These days, he’s happy to watch 10 of the gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles leave the lot. But the money he pockets selling guns makes up for the profit on about 15 Hummers.

But why guns? Why not flowers? Or lawn mowers? Or jewelry?

That’s easy. The people who like Hummers also tend to like guns.

The story goes on rather matter-of-factly from there, with the dealer, his customers, and even a Marketing professor from Philadelphia treating guns-n-Hummers as the most natural thing in the world, which I suppose it is, at least in this part of it.

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Now playing: Jon Auer – Six Feet Under
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August 24, 2009

Conspiracy Theory-a-Go-Go

Filed under: Conspiracy theory,Jeff Pasley's Courses — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 2:56 am

My History of Conspiracy Theory course is starting up again this week in a different format than usual, an undergraduate seminar. That I means I will be posting interesting conspiratorial bits on the blog for that course, including my vast collection of playlists that can be used to make many bitter, unsettling, though also rocking, CDs, or to really shake your IPod to its core with anti-establishment rock speculations. First up, however, some articles rounding up for students the outburst of political paranoia we have seen this summer with the rise of the Birthers, the “death panel” issue, and gun-toting dudes outside of Obama’s speeches.
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Now playing: Army Navy – Snakes of Hawaii
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August 21, 2009

The Post That Drove Old Dixie Down

Filed under: Civil War Era,Film,Historians,Music,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:51 am

There was an interesting but overheated discussion at “Edge of the West” of a beloved piece of classic rock, The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” There was contextualizin’ and politicizin’ a-plenty, and I made the following remarks way, way down in the comments:

Sorry I saw this late. I love “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” dearly, and hearing the Band’s searing, lumpy original version after growing up with the dopey, slick Joan Baez sing-along on AM radio was a formative musical experience for me: it just illustrated the difference between original popular art and dumbed-down music industry pablum. (Also, the correct lyrics actually told a story that made sense.)

That said, Robbie Robertson’s lyrics for that song and several of the others on “The Band” and “Stage Fright” partook of a fairly naive infatuation with Confederate/white southern Americana that was common in the counter culture and its offshoots circa 1969 (and after). Whilst heading back to nature and making laid-back country-rock, they loved them their doomed outlaws and rebels back in those days, and with less historical insight than we might like, the hippie songwriters and screenwriters tended to think they identified with the poor Confederate soldier, especially if he turned “social bandit” after the war. Even in the dark, revisionist westerns they turned out, the good guys were almost always ex-Confederates, just like John Wayne and Randolph Scott had always been. Blue uniforms were only seen sacking Indian villages and southern farms.

I would say it is to Robbie Robertson’s credit that, unlike a number of left-wing historians of that day, he wrote his elegiac ballad about Confederate cannon fodder rather than, say, a revanchist thug like Jesse James.

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Now playing: The Band – Rockin’ Chair
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August 14, 2009

Jim Downs: ‘The Interesting Narrative’ of President Obama’s Trip to Ghana

Filed under: Black history,Civil War Era,Colonial Period,Guest posts,Obama Administration — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:44 am
“Does President Obama need a history lesson?,” asks Prof. Jim Downs of Connecticut College. Quite possibly, I would have to agree, especially on matters besides the Lincoln Administration. Obama has got the hiring your rivals and frustrating moderation parts down, anyway, but there is no doubt about his penchant for bland, comforting, conventional history designed not to upset the suburban voter. (Unfortunately, the president’s recent experience commenting too honestly on the Gates arrest probably is not going to push him in more daring directions anytime soon.) Downs sent in the following comment, which I am happy to publish here as a guest post:

During his recent trip to Ghana, President Obama did not discuss the brutal history of the Atlantic slave trade that began in Ghana, and only mentioned the word slavery once during his speech. Instead, the President spoke in general terms about “oppression” and “evil.” In fact, in the opening sentence that he delivered standing outside the haunting Elmina Castle, Obama likened his trip to Ghana to his visit to a concentration camp in Germany.  For decades, historians have been trying to dissuade the American public from comparing the slave trade to the Holocaust, which often leads to explosive debates on which group suffered more, and to the imminent question: would the President standing on the grounds of a former concentration camp evoke the history of slavery?

By discussing the history of the slave trade in Ghana as part of larger history of “evil” and “cruelty,” the President missed the opportunity to educate the American public (and the world for that matter) about the actual history of the slave trade: the 2 million slaves who died en route to the Americas and the millions more who suffered in the crowded, disease-ridden, dark bowels of the slave ships. He also gave up the chance to discuss the effects of the international slave trade: the destruction of African cultural traditions, languages, and religious practices by New World slaveholders; the pain felt by African families torn apart by the hands of Dutch, Spanish, and English traders and merchants; the greedy profits gained by European nations and the burgeoning colonies in the Americas; and even the transformation of West African economies; political structures; and military strategies.

Throughout his speech in front the 15th century slave castle, Obama only mentioned the word slavery once and when he did invoke it, he made enormous historical leaps. He reflected on the 19th century abolitionist movement when whites and blacks fought together to end slavery. While white and black people did eventually work together in the early to mid-nineteenth century to terminate slavery, one cannot ignore that on the ground where the President made such a comment, whites and blacks worked together during the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries to send Africans into chattel slavery in the New World. While Obama more than likely made this remark in order to illuminate a moment of interracial solidarity with the hope of improving race relations, he forfeited the opportunity for Americans to actually reflect on the horrors of the slave trade—a cultural memory that most black people acknowledge but one that most non-black Americans know little about. A more informed reflection on the actual history of the slave trade could do more to improve race relations than cherry picking a moment in history that happened after the international slave trade ended and did not even lead to the abolition of slavery. President Obama ought to know that it was not just abolitionists who ended slavery, but enslaved people themselves. Southern blacks dismantled the institution of slavery by fleeing from plantations across the Confederacy and joining the Union Army, contributing mightily to the North’s victory in the Civil War and the collapse of the slaveocracy.

Jim Downs is a history professor at Connecticut College, focusing on African-American history and 19th century U.S. History. His books include Taking Back the Academy and Why We Write. His articles have appeared in History Today, the Chicago Tribune, The Southern Historian, Prologue, History News Network, and Reviews in American History, among other places.

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Now playing: Robyn Hitchcock And The Egyptians – The President
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August 11, 2009

The Constitution as Holy Text — NOT

Filed under: Conservatives,Constitutional history,Founders,Historians — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:28 pm

I hardly get to read the now-venerable H-Net email lists any more, but this morning I did catch a good post from H-LAW and H-SHEAR patiently explaining to the lawyers and right-wingers who swarm those lists on certain topics that the Constitution should not be read the way fundamentalist Christians read the Bible, as an “inerrant” text every word of which is divinely inspired. The author of the following is constitutional historian R.B. Bernstein, and he was responding to a post asking somewhat bitterly whether the last five words in Article I, Section 6, Clause 2 of the Constitution  “are anything but a complete nullity,” as though it was news that there was some not eternally-applicable language in there:

I also think that the question, as it stands with its note of suppressed dismay and outrage at language that might be a nullity, targets a constitutional straw-man, a general assumption about the Constitution’s text that we ought to discard once and for all — that the text is not only authoritative but somehow transcendantly so, clear and dispositive far beyond the powers of mortal men.

The framers of the Constitution were human beings, working under very difficult conditions that sometimes meant that they did not write — or “frame” — with the focused, unwavering attention to clarity and guidance for posterity that posterity has too often attributed to them.  One example, memorably elucidated by Professor Michael Stokes Paulsen, now distinguished university professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, is the arrangement for who would preside in the case of a Senate impeachment trial of the Vice President.  The constitutional text, read with care, indicates only one possible answer: the Vice President.  The explanation is that the framers added the Vice Presidency to the Constitution at a very late stage of the game, and they may have meant to modify the language governing presiding officers in Senate impeachment trials to have the Chief Justice preside over the impeachment trial of a President or a Vice President, but they didn’t do a thorough enough mark-up.

Further, the reverence for the text of the Constitution that suffuses today’s constitutional and legal culture may not have been present at its creation, and for very good reason.  The framers and their contemporaries lived in an era of rapid constitutional change, in which they all lived through three or even four forms of American constitutional governance (British empire to 1775 or 1776, Continental Congress from 1775-1776 to 1781, Articles of Confederation from 1781 to 1789, and Constitution from 1789 on); they also each lived through at least two and sometimes three different versions of state constitutional arrangements — charter or other colonial organization to 1775-1776, provision or first constitution in 1776, with at least one and sometimes two later constitutions, depending on the state. (The only exception is Rhode Island, which marked up its colonial charter to remove references to the British Crown and then did not do anything to revise or replace that reworked charter until the Dorr Rebellion in the late 1830s and early 1840s.) When Jefferson referred to the Articles of Confederation in late 1787 as a venerable fabric, he was not writing with the sarcasm that some later scholars have attributed to him. Given that rapid succession of constitutional frameworks on both state and national levels, it’s unlikely at best that the framers of the Constitution or their contemporaries thought that the Constitution proposed in 1787, ratified in 1788, and put into effect in 1789 would last more than a generation.

It may be true, as James Madison argued in an essay for the NATIONAL GAZETTE on 19 January 1792, that “every word [of the Constitution] decides a question between power and liberty,” but that is a description of the Constitution’s purposes and functions, not of its consistent literary excellence, and we would do well to recognize this fact.

Not my thoughts exactly — much more judicious — but perhaps this is the sort of cool reason that ahistorical abusers of the Constitution and the Founders might be able to heed? Probably not, but they should.

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Now playing: Los Campesinos! – Don’t Tell Me To Do The Math(s)
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August 7, 2009

The Paul Revere of the 20th Century

Filed under: Conservatives,Conspiracy theory,Founders,Missouri — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:38 am

. . . lived in Missouri, apparently. From local newspaper columinist T.J. Greaney, one more reason the Founders really should wonder about the quality of the p.r. representation they have been receiving. Apparently one of their recently-deceased modern legatees liked to spread his message on bathroom stalls:

In the 1960s if you entered a restroom or a phone booth, there’s a chance you might have noticed a three-inch-square sticker at eye level. A closer look might show the image of a rifle crosshairs superimposed over a menacing text:

“See that old man at the corner where you buy your papers?” the sticker read. “He may have a silencer equipped pistol under his coat. That fountain pen in the pocket of the insurance salesman that calls on you might be a cyanide gas gun. What about your milkman? Arsenic works slow but sure. … Traitors, beware! Even now the crosshairs are on the back of your necks.”

The author of this screed is Robert Bolivar DePugh, and his goal was terror. For more than a decade, DePugh led a shadowy militia group known as the Minutemen. Their stated purpose was to use guerilla warfare to repel the Communist invasion they always believed was at hand. Later, they vowed to root out Communist spies they swore were entrenched in the U.S. government. War, in their minds, was always imminent, and a group of armed patriots was the last best hope for the Republic.

“He saw himself as the Paul Revere of the 20th century, that he was going to save the United States from Communism,” said Eric Beckemeier, who grew up in DePugh’s adopted hometown of Norborne and wrote a book in 2007 chronicling his movement. “It was delusions of grandeur, almost.”

Almost? Anyway, the whole piece is well worth reading. Not exactly a heart-warming local human interest story, but also not exactly not.

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Now playing: Graham Parker & The Rumour – Stupefaction
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August 5, 2009

Democracy means never having to say you’re sorry . . . to the government

Filed under: Government,Historians,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:23 pm

I have found that even most historians don’t want to give government credit for important developments, preferring a universe in which all people are the agents of their own destinies. And that’s fine, Americans are conditioned to think that way, and at least historians usually know enough about the social and institutional details of American life to understand the stiff challenges most people have faced in trying to take control of their lives. But imagine the chore involved in selling a government program to ordinary Americans who have the same conditioning, but know none of those details, or refuse to acknowledge them. One example would be the detail that we already have a huge government-run health care system called Medicare that senior citizens would fight to keep . . . the government out of? The president speaks ruefully about some of his mail:

[Via TPM]: The Washington Post reported a similar anecdote from a recent town hall in rural South Carolina with Rep. Robert Inglis (R-SC). Someone reportedly told Inglis, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”

Bob Cesca at Huffington Post has a funny piece with those details and more, emphasizing the fact that a lot of the people disrupting these Democratic “town hall” meetings on health care are obvious Medicare recipients. I have talked to more than senior American myself who likewise touted their Medicare out of one side of their mouths and decried “socialized medicine” out of the other.

This is American political psychology at work, the same kind of self-hypnosis that a lot of military people seem to perform on themselves, depending on government for their every need while refusing to intellectually or emotionally process that fact, the better to maintain their ultra-conservative politics in the world outside the military. Perfectly happy to be dependent on Medicare, millions of older Americans have just conveniently “forgotten” the fact it is a government program that should, according to their conservative ideology, be enslaving them, destroying their initiative, euthanizing them, etc.

I think this is why the health insurance industry really should be worried about the “public option” health insurance program being enacted. If the public option exists, people and small businesses will start relying on it, and about two weeks later, they will forget all about its being an evil socialistic intrusion and the thing will be as hard to get rid of Medicare and Social Security, which is to say nearly impossible.  Even the next Republican administration will be trying to expand it. The smarter right-wing ideologues and industry lobbyists know this very well. I hope the president and the congressional Dems are ready, because the onslaught of disinformation and disruption is not going to stop. Certain people have too much money and ideological crediblity at stake.

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Now playing: Ideal Free Distribution – The American Myth
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