The Right-Wing New Age

Describing a Salon article by Mitch Horowitz, there is a post over at Matt Cardin’s blog. He offers a summary:

“But the article’s overall topic is much broader, as indicated in the provided editorial teaser: “If you think New Age alternative spirituality is solely the domain of lefty hippies, you don’t know your history.” In just under two thousand words Horowitz discusses such things as the influence of Manly P. Hall on Ronald Reagan, Madame Blavatsky’s promulgation of the idea of “America as the catalyst for a revolution in human potential,” Donald Trump’s association with Norman Vincent Peale, FDR’s decision to put the eye-and-pyramid of the Great Seal of the United States on the dollar bill, Hillary Clinton’s visioneering meetings Jean Houston (who once told Bill Clinton that he was an “undeveloped shaman,” at which point he got up and walked out), and more. Horowitz’s basic point is that none of this represents a conspiracy, notwithstanding the claims of the paranoid conspiracy theorizing crowd”

It doesn’t surprise me. And I can’t say that I worry about the media having “characterized Bannon as the Disraeli of the dark side following his rise to power in the Trump administration.” That said, there might be a connection between Bannon’s attraction to both mysticism and fascism, which could cause one to wonder what kind of New Age he might envision. But the general connection between alternative spirituality and the political right isn’t particularly concerning. As Horowitz explains, that is simply a part of the social fabric of American society and far from being limited to right-wingers.

My conservative parents raised my brothers and I in several liberal New Agey churches, from Christian Science to Unity. It was my paternal grandmother, coming out of a Southern Baptist upbringing, who after she moved to California introduced my parents to New Age spirituality. It helped transition my dad from his earlier doubting agnosticism to his present family values Christianity. Interestingly, my parents now attend a liberal mainstream church, even as they remain strongly conservative. Both of my parents are into positive thinking, my dad being a fan of Norman Vincent Peale.

Religion plays a major role on my dad’s side of the family. My paternal grandfather was a minister who was more spiritual than religious, odd as that might sound. Along with reading my grandmother’s copy of A Course In Miracles, I enjoyed looking at some books my dad had inherited from my grandfather. Among those books, I was introduced to world religions and the likes of the two Krishnamurtis (Jiddu and U.G.).

I could point out that there is a common history to Evangelicalism, New Thought Christianity, and Prosperity Gospel. There are a number of books that cover this and other related history. Theosophy took hold in the US during the late 1800s Populist Era. There was a lot of odd mystical and spiritual thinking that arose in the 1800s, such as the popularity of spiritualism.

There have been many diverse expressions of religion across American history. My paternal great grandfather was an orphan in one of the last surviving Shaker villages, having left when he reached adulthood. Also, there was the Quakers, Deists, Unitarians, Universalists, Anabaptists, Pietists, Camisards, Huguenots, Moravians, Brethren, Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, Amanas, etc. Spiritualism and related practices became popular across religions. The Shakers went through a spiritualism phase, during which much interesting artwork was produced.

Multiple strains of dissenter religion influenced American society, in particular some of the radical thinking during the English Civil War when the first American colonies were taking hold. Roger Williams was a rather interesting religious radical in the early American colonies.

Here are some books that might be of interest, including one from the author of the article:

Occult America by Mitch Horowitz, Religion, Magic, and Science in Early Modern Europe and America by Allison P. Coudert, New Age and Neopagan Religions in America by Sarah Pike, A Republic of Mind and Spirit by Catherine L. Albanese, The New Metaphysicals by Courtney Bender, Ghosts of Futures Past by McGarry Molly, Plato’s Ghost by Cathy Gutierrez, The Occult in Nineteenth-Century America by Cathy Gutierrez, Each Mind a Kingdom by Beryl Satter, The History of New Thought by John S. Haller & Robert C. Fuller, Religious Revolutionaries by Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual, but not Religious by Robert C. Fuller, Restless Souls by Leigh Eric Schmidt, Spirits of Protestantism by Pamela E. Klassen, Secularism in Antebellum America by John Lardas Modern, The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912 by Thomas A. Tweed, America’s Communal Utopias by Donald E. Pitzer, and The Kingdom of Matthias by Paul E. Johnson & Sean Wilentz.

On a slightly different note, I would highly recommend The Churching of America by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. The authors show how, until the 19th century, Americans didn’t have high rates of religiosity such as church attendance. The increasing focus on spirituality was simultaneous with greater concern with mainstream religion.

Another thing that could be added were the Transcendentalists. They had interest in Eastern religious and philosophical thought. Translations of Eastern texts such as the Bhagavad Gita were available in the early 19th century. Henry David Thoreau brought the Bhagavad Gita with him to Walden. See: American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions by Arthur Versluis and The Gita within Walden by Paul Friedrich.

Later in that century, the Theosophical Society translated a large number of Eastern texts. Theosophists came to have much influence during the Populist Era of the 1890s and into the following century. I recall a march on Washington, DC during the 1890s was led by someone influenced by Theosophical thought.

That was a major turning point for American spirituality, fueled by populist revolt and questioning of religious authority. There was a hunger for both new politics and new religion. This was the same historical moment when such things as New Thought Unity Church was organized, specifically 1889. Jackson Lears, in Rebirth of a Nation, describes this era (pp. 237-238):

“Yet the vitalist impulse itself had larger than utilitarian implications. Its significance, like its origin, was religious. It lay at the heart of a broad revolt against positivism, a rejection of a barren universe governed by inexorable laws, where everything was measurable and nothing mysterious. The real problem for many vitalists (and certainly for James) was the specter of a life (and death) without meaning. It is possible to see all the talk about “life” as a way of whistling past the graveyard of traditional Christianity. But the vitalist ferment was also a genuine attempt to explore new meanings for human existence amid the wreckage of collapsing dualities: body and soul, matter and spirit, this world and the next.

“Educated Protestants, dissatisfied with desiccated theology, cast about for vital conceptions of cosmic meaning. Many explored medieval Catholic mysticism as an alternative to the banalities of the typical Sunday sermon, the sort of platitudes uttered by Henry Ward Beecher and other ministers who reduced the Protestant ethic to a mere prescription for worldly success. Buddhism and other Asian religions—discovered, imagined, and synthesized—also began to play a role in focusing popular longings. Vedanta, popularized at the Chicago World’s Fair and after by Swami Vivekenanda, and theosophy, preached by Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, were both synthetic expressions of spiritual ferment. Paul Carus founded the magazine Open Court to carry forward the work of the World’s Parliament of Religions, begun at the Chicago Fair, to create a common ground of ecumenical discussion, which might lead to a new synthesis—a “Religion of the Future” that might appeal to believer and skeptic alike.

“The results were mixed. Contributors to Open Court asked questions like “What is Life?” and then stumbled about in a soupy haze of abstractions. “The truth is, there are, as there must be, original factors in the world…and life (or chemical activity and appetency) is like gravity, one of them,” William Salter announced in 1901. “If we wish to account for them, we have to go back to the maker of all things (if there is a Maker) not to any of the things that are made.” One thing was certain: “The only salvation for society as for the individual, is from within—it is more life.” The reverence for “life” could overcome death itself. “Who knows but that that greater death which sooner or later overtakes us all…starts energies into play deeper than we had known before—that it is the death of the body, and freedom, new birth, to the soul?’

“The desire for regeneration led to death’s door and beyond. Yearnings for empirical proof of an afterlife and for communication with departed loved ones accelerated the appeal of spiritualism. Here was another example of fascination with invisible force, impossible to see but unmistakable (to believers) in its consequences—tables rising from the floor, sepulchral voices, mysterious music. Even William James was intrigued. While he remained skeptical of sweaty séances in darkened rooms, he joined the American Society for Psychical Research, providing legitimacy to the quest for connection with “discarnate spirits.” His interest in spiritualism reflected his openness to all manner of evidence, no matter how bizarre or apparently inexplicable—his radical empiricism, as he called it.”

By the way, Horowitz’s article reminded me of a passage in What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank. In a brief but insightful observation, Frank explains why right-wingers would find appealing what otherwise seems the New Age babble of hippies (Kindle Locations 1998-2013):

“Today bitter self-made men—and their doppelgängers, the bitter but not quite as well-to-do men—are all over the place. They have their own cable news network and their own TV personalities. They can turn to nearly any station on the AM dial to hear their views confirmed. They have their own e-mail bulletin boards, on which you can find hundreds of thousands of them plen-T-plaining about this outrage and that, from the national to the local. And although they like to fancy themselves rugged individualists (better yet, the last of the rugged individualists), what they really are is a personality type that our society generates so predictably and in such great numbers that they almost constitute a viable market segment all on their own.

“One more thing about the backlash personality type: every single one of the bitter self-made men of my youth was a believer in the power of positive thinking. If you just had a sunny disposish and kept everlastingly at it, they thought, you were bound to succeed. The contradiction between their professed positiveness and their actual negativity about nearly everything never seemed to occur to them. On the contrary; they would oscillate from the one to the other as though the two naturally complemented each other, giving me advice on keeping a positive mental outlook even while raging against the environmentalist bumper stickers on other people’s cars or scoffing at Kansas City’s latest plan for improving its schools. The world’s failure to live up to the impossible promises of the positive-thinking credo did not convince these men of the credo’s impracticality, but rather that the world was in a sad state of decline, that it had forsaken the true and correct path.2 It was as though the fair-play lessons of Jack Armstrong, Frank Merriwell, and the other heroes of their prewar boyhood had congealed quite naturally into the world bitterness of their present-day heroes, Charles Bronson, Dirty Harry, Gordon Liddy, and the tax rebel Howard Jarvis.”

(Note 2. “In The Positive Thinkers, Donald Meyer comments extensively on positive thinking’s understanding of the business civilization and extreme laissez-faire economics as the way of nature. (See in particular chap. 8.) As for its politics, Meyer points out that Norman Vincent Peale, the movement’s greatest celebrity preacher, dabbled in right-wing Republicanism, and a famous positive-thinking Congregationalist church in California embraced the John Birch Society. It is possible that the universal embrace of positive thinking by the bitter self-made men of my youth was a geographic coincidence, since Kansas City is home to one of the great powers of the positive-thinking world, the Unity Church. But I am inclined to think not. Positive thinking is today a nearly universal aspect of liberal Protestantism, traces of it appearing in the speeches of Ronald Reagan and the self-help entertainment of Oprah Winfrey.” [Kindle Locations 4350-4357])

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Some of the earliest blog posts I ever wrote was a 4 part series. In those earlier writings, I covered all of this in great detail and included much of my personal experience. They came from my old blog, originally posted on the now defunct Gaia website. I apologize for their needing to be cleaned up a bit, as the transferal of posts was done quickly, but they are readable as is.

New Age: Part 1
New Age: Part 2
New Age: Part 3
New Age: Part 4

* * * *

Additional thoughts (5/14/17):

My mother’s all-time favorite preacher is Robert Schuller. He is well known for his having built the Crystal Cathedral, the embodiment of the crass materialism of self-indulgence and cult of personality. Although humbly born and raised in Iowa, he became a mega-church preacher in California and thereby amassed immense wealth.

It’s interesting to learn about how California is the origins of the mega-church movement, along with the modern religious right that took over the GOP. California is also the birthplace of Nixon (infamous Orange County), as Southern California is filled with Southerners. Nixon promoted the Southern strategy and Reagan, a California transplant and professional corporate spokesperson, gave it a voice and a face. I should note that the Southern presence was so influential even in early Californian history that the state was almost split in two during the Civil War.

It was in California that my grandmother, raised Southern Baptist, converted to New Age religion. There is not much distance between the New Right and the New Age. Robert Schuller’s prosperity gospel and ‘old time’ family values easily bridges that distance. It’s why my conservative parents could simultaneously listen to the kindly patriarchal Schuller on television, attend a uber-liberal New Thought church (Unity), and vote for Reagan with his culture war religiosity and Hollywood smile — all part and parcel of the same worldview given its fullest form during the Cold War through the expression of Capitalist Christianity.

I recently learned that a regular guest on Schuller’s televized ministry was Laura Schlessinger, one of the major stars of late 20th century right-wing radio. I remember listening to her when I was still living in South Carolina. It was around the mid 1990s, considering her show was nationally syndicated in 1994 (the year I graduated high school). As the female version of Limbaugh, she was a typical egotist who thought her every ignorant opinion was God-inspired truth. She was a no-nonsense Cold War culture warrior, one of these privileged upper middle class white people who can talk tough because they’ve never dealt with a real problem in their entire life.

One time a caller complained about personal problems and Schlessinger’s advice was that the young woman should either take care of her problems or kill herself. I was shocked that any radio host would be that irresponsible, but that was common for right-wing talk radio. There is a heartlessness to this attitude. I can guarantee you that if this person had killed herself, a sociopathic social Darwinian like Schlessinger would have been happy that there was one less ‘loser’ in the world.

Now consider this mean-spirited asshole was a close personal friend of Robert Schuller, having said of her that she is “A positive voice for positive values without equal in our time.” Despite Schuller’s kind and friendly demeanor, there was a dark cancerous rot at the heart of his prosperity gospel. In the end, prosperity gospel was simply yet more rhetoric upholding the plutocracy and defending inequality. It was a worship of Mammon, in place of God.

This kind of prosperity gospel didn’t die with Schuller. It is still going strong. The mega-church movement has become more popular than ever and, with big money, it is a major political player with impressive clout. Some of Trump’s most outspoken and influential supporters were prosperity gospel preachers, such as Paula White and Joel Osteen (along with many others). This is nothing new. Going back decades, some truly hateful and demented religious leaders have openly supported and socialized with Republican politicians and even presidents. Some of these religious right leaders said things far worse than Trump and associates have dared to say and there was no backlash. Republicans have been courting rabidly reactionary radicalism for a long time.

This is not old time religion, in the traditional European sense. But America has always had weird strains of religiosity and spirituality, a hybrid spawn of Protestant Reformation and Counter-Enlightenment. The descendants of this match made in hell were suckled at the teat of American materialism with its dark history of oppression and inequality. Then driven mad through the delusional fear-mongering of generations of propaganda, from Cold War to War on Terror.

If one were feeling particularly cynical, it could be argued that Trump represents the final endpoint and highest expression of American Christianity. But that would be too dismissive toward the religious diversity that has always existed in North America, even if the ugliest expressions of religiosity too often have dominated. It should not be forgotten that the United States also has a history of radical left-wing religiosity as well. The hard-hitting Christian attitude eloquently put forth by the likes of Martin Luther King jr is alive and well, no matter how much corporate media hacks and corporatist politicians ignore it.

There is another point that should be made clear. The religious right mentality isn’t limited to the religious right, for the simple reason that the religious right itself in America is the product of post-Enlightenment liberalism. The American right in general has long been in love with the rhetoric of liberalism with its focus, however superficial, on liberty and freedom in terms of not just of religion but also of states rights, free markets, hyper-individuality, meritocracy, private ownership, gun rights, civil libertarianism, and on and on. So, in direct connection to this, it’s unsurprising to realize the extent to which liberals, specifically of the liberal class, have embraced right-wing ideology as great defenders of capitalist realism that supposedly liberates and empowers even as it harms and scapegoats so many.

Having been raised in the extreme liberalism of New Thought Christianity, this understanding developed in my direct personal experience. What Barbara Ehrenreich describes in her book Bright-sided is what I absorbed form childhood. And it really does fuck with your head. Ehrenreich criticizes a type of cruel optimism popular in America that is superficial and too often used to rationalize egregiously immoral or otherwise dysfunctional behavior. In my experience, positive thinking just made me feel worse, as if my depression was a sign of personal failure.

The expectation of positive thinking can be a heavy burden to carry. This is much worse when dealing with serious issues involving conditions of poverty and inequality, oppression and injustice, pain and suffering, desperation and struggle. According to prosperity gospel, all problems are to be blamed on individuals. It’s the punishment of having a wrong relationship with God, a carryover from the bleak predestination of Calvinism that involves a God who favors an elect of individuals and damns everyone else. But in prosperity gospel, God’s elect are made clear as his favors are seen in this world through material gifts and blessings, i.e., wealth.

I went into some detail about this in a previous post:

The inspiration for her writing about positive thinking was her experience with cancer. She saw the darkside of positive thinking within the cancer community.

This brings to mind my own grandmother who died of cancer. It’s because of her that I was raised in New Thought Christianity where positive thinking is very popular. She was diagnosed with cancer. She embraced the whole alternative medicine field and she had great faith in positive thinking. My dad says she was utterly crushed when doing all the right things didn’t make her cancer go away. She died of cancer. She was a woman who had a great sense of faith, and apparently I inherited my spiritual interests from her. I’ve seen all aspects of positive thinking and so I have a personal sense of what Ehrenreich is talking about.

But what is different is that positive thinking has become mainstream like never before. It’s not just alternative types. Positive thinking has become merged with the early American ideals of meritocracy, and together they create something greater than either alone.

In one video I saw of Ehrenreich, she made an interesting connection. She was talking about the meritocracy ideal, but I don’t think she was using that term. She was just talking about the ideal of positivie thinking in general within American culture. She connected this with Ayn Rand’s libertarians. If I remember correctly, she was making the argument that Rand was a one of the factors in popularizing positive thinking. She mentioned the book The Secret and how it’s representative of our whole culture. She blames the economic troubles we’re having now with the business culture of positive thinking, and it makes a lot of sense to me.

Also see two other videos:

Barbara Ehrenreich: “Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Undermines America”

‘Smile or Die” How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World

The Communist Commons

There is a nexus of issues: property and ownership, land and Lockean rights, the Commons and enclosure, free range and fences. This has been a longtime interest of mine. It goes back to the enclosure movement in England. It led to tumultuous conflict in England and Ireland. This then set the stage for the issues in the American colonies that brought on revolution. The issues remain unsettled going into the 19th century.

There are many angles to this, but I would first offer some background. Traditional European society, as with other traditional societies, was built on various notions of shared land and shared rights. This was well established in the land known as the Commons and guaranteed as part of common law and the rights of commoners (what in the colonies came to be thought of as the rights of Englishmen), established by precedent which is to say centuries old tradition involving centuries of legal cases, going back to the early history of the “Charter of the Forest” and Quo Warranto.

In writing about Thomas Paine’s ‘radicalism’, I noted that it particularly “took shape with the Country Party, the “Country” referring to those areas where both the Commons survived the longest and radical politics began the earliest; the strongholds of the Diggers and Levellers, the Puritans and Quakers; the areas of the much older Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian ancestries.” From another post that was even more scathing, it is made clear what are the consequences of the true radicalism of early capitalism in privatizing what was public: “The land enclosure movement shredded the social contract and upended the entire social order. It was the most brazen act of theft in English history. It was theft from the many to profit the few.”

This is how millions of English and Irish serfs were made landless and impoverished. In droves, they headed for the cities where many of them died of sickness and starvation. Others were imprisoned, hung, put into workhouses, or sent overseas as indentured servants. Yet more died along the way. Once they were inseparable from the land they lived on, but now their lives were cheapened and so their lives became brutal and short. The earliest indentured servants rarely lived long enough to see the end of their indenture. Those like Thomas Paine saw all of this firsthand and experienced some of it on a personal level.

This is the world out of which the American Revolution was fomented and a new nation founded. The issues themselves, however, remained unresolved. This should be unsurprising, considering Europeans had been fighting over these issues for millennia. Still, for most of history, there was a shared worldview. John Locke wrote about the right of land being based on who used it and improved upon it, but this was simply what most people took as common sense going back into the mists of the ancient world. Feudal serfs thought they had a right to the land that they and their ancestors had lived and worked on for centuries. Native Americans assumed the same thing. Yet Lockean land rights, without any sense of irony, was implemented as rhetoric to justify the theft of land.

Even so, the old worldview died slowly. The notion of private property is a modern invention. It remained a rather fuzzy social construct in the centuries immediately following the Enlightenment thinkers. This was particularly true in the American colonies and later on the frontier of the United States, as claims of land ownership were an endless point of contention. The same land might get sold multiple times. Plus, squatter’s rights had a Lockean basis. Use was the primary justification of ownership, not a legal document.

In early America, there was such vast tracts of uninhabited land. It was assumed that land was open to anyone’s use, unless clearly fenced in. Even if it was known who owned land, law initially made clear that others were free to hunt and forage on any land that wasn’t enclosed by a fence. Both humans and livestock ranged freely. It was the responsibility of owners to protect their property and crops from harm: “Livestock could range freely, and it was a farmer’s responsibility to fence in his crops and to fence out other people’s animals!” This was the origin of the open range for cattle that later on caused violent conflict in the Wild West when, like the wealthy elite back in England, ranchers enclosed public land with claims of private ownership. Barbed wire became the greatest weapon ever devised for use against the commons.

This struggle over land and rights was an issue early on. But the ancient context was already being forgotten. The traditional social order was meaningless in this modern liberal society where claims to rights were individualistic, not communal. Not long after the American Revolution, James Fenimore Cooper had inherited much family land. It apparently wasn’t being used by the property owner and, according to custom, the locals treated it as a public park. Cooper was offended at this act of trespass defended in the his neighbors making a Lockean-like claim of their use of the land. It wasn’t fenced in, as law required, to deny use by the public.

There was a simple reason for this early attitude toward land. It was an anti-aristocratic response to land accumulation. The purpose was to guarantee that no one could deny use of land that they weren’t using. This meant someone couldn’t buy up all the land in monopolistic fashion. Land had one purpose only in this worldview, in terms of its usefulness to humans. Basically, use it or lose it. And many people did lose their land according to such claims of use. That remains true to this day in US law. If a neighbor or the public uses your land for a certain period of time without your challenging their use, a legal claim can be made on it by those who have been using it. In many states, a squatter in a building can go through a legal process to make a claim of ownership.

The conflict involving Cooper and his neighbors was a minor skirmish in a larger battle. It only became a central concern with the large numbers of immigrants putting greater pressure on land ownership. This was exacerbated by conflicts with Native Americans, such as President Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of multiple tribes that had sought to gain legitimacy of legal rights to their land such as building houses and farming, along with assimilating to American culture. This act was the blatant betrayal of Lockean land rights and of the entire justification of law. These tribal members were free citizens of the United States who had both legal title and Lockean claim.

Tensions grew even worse after the Civil War. That was when settlers claiming land ownership came into conflict with both Native Americans and open range cowboys. Then as the railroads encroached, many squatters were kicked off their land, Lockean land rights be damned once again. Interestingly, Abraham Lincoln as a young lawyer worked for the railroad companies in kicking these poor people off their own land. As president, Lincoln wasn’t any kinder to the Native Americans, for the progress of capitalism superseded all quaint notions of rights and ownership.

Another point of conflict was Emancipation (see Ballots and Fence Rails by William McKee Evans). All of the freed blacks became a major problem for the racial order, not unlike how feudal serfs had to be dealt with when feudalism ended. Emancipation also caused disarray in relation to land and property. The Civil War decimated the South. In the process, a large number of Southerners were killed or displaced. There was no one to tell blacks what to do and so they went about living their own lives, squatting wherever they so pleased as long as it wasn’t occupied by anyone else. There was plenty of land for the taking.

This was intolerable to the white ruling class, despite it being entirely within the law. Fraudulent charges were brought against blacks with accusations of trespass, theft, and poaching. It was assumed that anything a black had couldn’t rightfully be theirs and so everything was taken from them, even property they had bought with money made with their own labor. Blacks were often forced off their land and made to return to their former plantations, now as sharecroppers… or else made into forced prison labor, since the law only made private and not public slavery illegal.

All of this led to property laws becoming more narrow and legalistic. Over time, further restrictions were placed on the public use of lands. The Depression Era was the last time when large numbers of Americans were able to live off of the commons. My mother’s family survived the Depression by hunting and foraging on public land and on open private land, as did millions of other Americans at that time. Yet conflicts still happen, such as the Bundy standoff where ranchers thinking they were cowboys in the Wild West pointed guns at federal agents over a disagreement about grazing rights on public lands. It’s amusing that these right-wingers, however misguided in their understanding of the situation, were fighting for the public right to the commons.

The Less Fortunate And More Frustrated

Someone commented that, “there’s just something about alt-right that is extremely draining. I’m not even sure if it’s my own personal reactions. It’s just such a negative, cynical, and above all hopeless lens to view things from. Friends say it’s not healthy to get immersed in it, but I wonder if it’s also unhealthy for the alt righters themselves, not just for outsiders.” I agree, but I’d put it in context.

It’s draining because it isn’t natural, far from the normal state of humanity. It’s not tribal hate. If alt-righters ever met actual tribal people, the two groups would not recognize or understand each other’s worldviews. Alt-right isn’t really about tribalism, any more than it really is about race or any other overt issue. What it is about is frustration, anger, and outrage.

That isn’t to deny the racism. It’s just to point out that we have a severely messed up society where racism is inseparable from other forms of oppression and social control that harm most Americans. Very few people are privileged enough to entirely escape the shit storm. Heck, even the wealthy are worse off in a society like ours, as has been shown in the research on economic inequality. This is not a healthy and happy society.

Part of me has a lot of sympathy for these lost souls. I understand what turns the mind in such dark directions. We live in a society that chews people up and spits them out. Nothing in our society is as advertised. Many people actually want to believe in the American Dream of upward mobility, of a growing middle class, of the good life, of each generation doing better than the last. People can only take all of the bullshit for so long. Alt-right gives them a voice, in a society that seeks to silence them.

Such things as alt-right are an indication of societal failure, not just individual failure. If we had increasing upward mobility instead of worsening downward mobility, if we had a growing instead of shrinking middle class, if we had no severe poverty and extreme inequality, if basic needs were taken care of and people had a sense of their own value in society, if people were supported in their aspirations and could live up to their potential, no one would ever turn to ideologies like the alt-right.

The average alt-righter isn’t a poor rural hick, hillbilly, or redneck. The alt-right tends to draw from the middle class, which mostly means the precarious lower middle class. Many people in the alt-right are those who want to be part of the liberal class, to live the liberal class dream, but something failed along the way.

There is a white guy I know. He is in academia and, though liberal in many ways, he became drawn to the alt-right. He wasn’t making much money and he felt stuck. He didn’t want to be living here and yet couldn’t find good job opportunities elsewhere. Even as he technically was in the liberal class, he was economically struggling and his life was not going according to plan. Worse still, there is little hope that the economy is going to improve any time soon for people like him.

That is type of person in the failed liberal class that the rest of the liberal class would prefer to ignore. What the liberal class doesn’t get is that their dream is desirable for many people even outside of the liberal class. But when it becomes unattainable for most of the population that leads to frustration. There are many poor whites who would love to go to college or send their kids to college, to have professional careers, to work toward a better life for themselves and their families, and to have all the good things that are available in liberal class communities such as nice parks, well-funded schools, etc.

If the liberal class is serious, they shouldn’t be supporting policies that make it harder for people to join the liberal class. New Democrats like Clinton support tough-on-crime policies, mass incarceration, privatized prisons, endless wars, growing military-industrial complex, corrupt corporatism, international trade deals that harm the lower classes, and all the other ways that screw over average and below average people. Why is it that the liberal class can’t understand that supporting neocon and neoliberal candidates is actually self-destructive to the liberal vision of society?

Liberals often like to pride themselves on not being racist or whatever. I call bullshit. If many of these liberals ever faced the threat of serious economic problems, downward mobility, and constant frustration of their dreams and aspirations, the majority of them easily could be swayed toward racism and other similar forms of bigotry. Research shows that such biases lurk just beneath the surface. What the liberal class lifestyle allows is for such people to not just be oblivious of what is going on in the world but also oblivious to what is hidden within their own minds.

After a period of societal stress and economic uncertainty, if an authoritarian came along promising progressive economics along with law-and-order rhetoric, most in the liberal class would support him. That is what the liberal class did in Germany when they supported Hitler. You are ignorant of history and human nature if you think it can’t happen here. As I put it in an earlier post:

“By the way, if your concern about Trump voters relates to right-wing authoritarianism, there is a key point to keep in mind. Groups like the Klan and the Nazis drew their strongest support from the middle class. That shouldn’t be surprising, as it is the middle class that is the most politically engaged. One would predict almost any political movement will attract many from the middle class. Also, it’s not so easy to pin this down ideologically. What you should really fear is when the liberal middle class (AKA liberal class) submits to the authoritarian trends in society, as happened in the past. Never forget that the Klan and the Nazis were rather progressive in many ways. Hitler rebuilt infrastructure and promoted policies that helped many ordinary Germans. The Klan supported child labor laws, public education, etc.”

I could add much to that, as I did in some comments to that post. Consider the Progressive Era. Many progressives supported eugenics, immigration control, and similar policies. The New Deal institutionalized racial biases that impacted the generations following.

Overt racist bigots and white supremacists would be a lot less powerful without the tolerant complicity and sometimes direct support of the liberal class. This can be broadened to the oppression that liberals so often allow and promote, such as their participation in anti-communist red-baiting and witch-hunts. Minorities (racial, ethnic, and religious) along with poor people and the political left have always been favorite targets of the liberal class, at least when they feel their privileged lifestyle is being challenged or there is a threat of social disruption. The liberal class, first and foremost, will always defend the status quo that makes possible their liberal good life… even when their defense betrays their stated liberal values.

The liberal class in a society like the US are among the fortunate few. Most of them don’t know what it is like to deal with tough times. They don’t know what is in their own hearts, what could emerge under much worse conditions. None of us ever knows what we are capable of until our back is against the wall, but many people are privileged enough to never find out. That is no reason for feeling self-righteous toward the less fortunate and more frustrated.

Who and where is the enemy?

I was looking at some books on the ancient world. A few of the books were on Rome, specifically the changes that happened after Christianization.

People often talk about the Barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome. But the fact of the matter is that the German tribes that ‘invaded’ were already there living in the empire. They had been mercenaries for generations and were trained by the Romans. They weren’t really ‘Barbarians’, in the sense of being a foreign pagan population that showed up from the wildlands beyond the Roman frontier.

These Germans were even already converted to Christianity, but it was at a time when Christianity was splintered in diverse traditions and beliefs. It’s quite likely that those in power feared the Germans because they adhered to heretical forms of Christianity. As far as that goes, most early Christians would be labeled as heretics by the heresiologists. That was fine until the heresiologists attempted to oppress and kill all competing Christian adherents. Maybe the German Christians took that personally and decided to fight for not just their sovereignty but also their religious freedom.

So, it was really just one population of Christians in Rome deciding to take power from or simply overthrow another population of Christians in Rome. Those Romanized and Christianized Germans would become the great monarchies and empires of Europe, such as the French Normans that turned much of Britain into England. And it was the Norman-descended Cavaliers who reinstated the monarchy after the English Civil War, creating modern England.

All that was meant in the ancient world by someone being Barbarian was that they were of a different ethnicity. It literally meant someone outside of one’s door, which is to say outside of one’s community. And in the Roman Empire, many ethnicities maintained separate communities. The Jews were Barbarians as well and the Romans feared them as well, although their earlier revolt failed.

It is interesting to think about those early German Christians that helped topple the Roman Empire. Maybe they were practicing for the later Protestant Reformation.

The original Lutherans, Anabaptists, Pietists, Moravians, Mennonites, Amish, etc were Germans. Calvin’s father came from the northern borderlands of the Roman Empire, in a town established by Romanized Gauls, and after Calvin escaped France Calvinism took hold in Switzerland. Huguenots also lived in the border regions of what once was the Roman Empire. The population out of which Puritanism arose, influenced by some of these German Christians, was of German descent. The English Midlands where the Scandinavians settled gave birth to Quakers and other dissenter traditions.

German Christians, along with other Northern European and British Christians, were constantly causing trouble. This challenging of religious authority lasted for more than a millennia. And to a lesser degree it continues. In the majority Germanic Midwest of the United States, this struggle over Christianity continues with much challenge and competition. The Midwestern Methodist church where my Germanic grandfather was once minister ended when some in the congregation challenged central church authority.

Christian authority is on the wane these days, though. American fundamentalists like to think of the United States as the last great bastion of Christian authority, like the Christianized Roman Empire once was. But if Washington is to fall as did Rome, it will likely be from an invading army of non-believers, of secularists, agnostics, and atheists. Maybe similar to those Germanic mercenaries but minus the Christianity, the defense contract mercenaries will grow so powerful that in their Godless capitalism they will turn against their weakened American rulers. Corporatism will be our new religion, as the American empire collapses and disintegrates into corporate fiefdoms. Some would argue that corporatism is already our new religion.

Anyway, if history is to be repeated, the so-called barbarians at the gates are already here. And they have been here for a while. They won’t need to invade, as they were welcomed in long ago and were enculturated into our society. The mercenaries of our society, whether taken literally or metaphorically, might turn out to be a fifth column. The enemy within might be those we perceive as protecting us, until it’s too late. Mercenaries aren’t always known for their loyalty. So, who are the mercenaries in our society, the guns-for-hire? And who is the real enemy in this situation? The mercenaries of our society would answer that question differently, as did the German mercenaries living in the Roman Empire.

Termites in the Structure of Political Evil

I was reading something from a right-wing source (Hillsdale’s Imprimis). Although right-wing, it’s very ‘mainstream’ in the neocon sense. The author, Christopher Caldwell, was talking about Russia in terms of Vladimir Putin and those who came before him. He spoke of oligarchs and kleptocracy. I found it amusing.

He might as well have been talking about the United States. Neoconservatism is all about oligarchy and kleptocracy. It is what our country was founded upon, especially since the coup we call the Constitutional Convention when the oligarchs unconstitutionally abolished the Articles of Confederation. The entire history of America, even back to the colonial era, was constant theft of land from Native Americans and theft of lives from forced servitude. America has never been free of oligarchy and kleptocracy.

The Articles of Confederation was the closest America ever came to a democratic political system. Yet even under it, most people were oppressed and powerless. But at least it decentralized power allowing the possibility for the common people to fight back. And indeed they did fight back, which is why the oligarchs made sure to create a stronger centralized government with the Constitutional Convention. This gave the federal government power of both direct taxation and a standing army, removing nearly all leverage of influence and resistance from local government, as the Anti-Federalists predicted would happen.

The neocon writing the article certainly knows this history. On some level, I suspect most Americans grasp the basic reality of the situation, in how entrenched it is and how long it has existed. But it’s what we can’t talk about out in the open. For public debate in respectable society, it is taboo and politically incorrect to point out any of this. It is an open secret that must not be uttered.

I guess it’s good that I’m not part of respectable society. Like most Americans, there is little risk that my words will be heard or have any effect on the machinations of concentrated wealth and power. I can speak freely because I don’t matter, not to those who control the social order. And if I ever did start to matter, they could squash me like a bug and few would take notice.

Eventually, though, enough people who don’t matter can combine their voices. Then suddenly they matter in a way that can’t so easily be stopped or suppressed. I like to think of myself as a termite, slowly gnawing away at the structure upholding political evil. It’s delicious! There are many other termites doing the same. Join in. It’s a feast!

Winter Season and Holiday Spirit

The Carnival season has ended and Lent is upon us. But Christmas has still been on my mind for some reason. There is something about the winter holiday season in general. I’m not a big fan of Christmas. It hasn’t excited me much since childhood. Even as a kid, all that Christmas meant was lots of presents on a particular day. Christmas follows directly after my birthday and so nothing about Christmas itself stood out to me.

I do somewhat get into the winter holiday mood because, as holidays go, Christmas sure is hard to ignore. My mother has always gone to great lengths to decorate. And we usually get together as a family. It helps having my nieces and nephew around on Christmas morning. It’s not the same without little children to get excited about gifts under the tree. All of that is nice, if only to see family. It’s just there isn’t much Christmas tradition in my family. The closest we get to that is decorating the Christmas tree, as we all have our own ornaments. And we do eat potato soup as a family meal, typically on Christmas Eve. But we don’t sing Christmas carols together or anything. Christmas simply happens, with family convening and then dispersing soon after.

This came to mind when I heard “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen“. It’s the version done by Annie Lennox. The style of the song and the imagery of the video make for an enjoyable combo, capturing a sense of old time mystery and touching on the pagan origins of the holiday season. It’s one of the oldest carols in the English tradition, although the present lyrics were not fully written down until recent centuries. There are multiple versions of the carol. The origins are obscure and the original version is unknown. The tune itself is much older, apparently going back to France and Germany. It very well might predate the spread of Christianity in Europe or else was a product of the surviving pagan wassailing tradition. Other songs are sung to the same tune, such as the “Sussex Sugar Wassail” and “Chestnut or Jack Doves Figary”.

All of that is fascinating. There is a long cultural and religious history behind winter holiday traditions and celebrations. It seems to have always been an important time of year. Somewhere between fall and spring equinoxes, one year is considered to have ended and another to have begun, the precise month and day differing between calendrical systems, but generally it corresponds to the period between harvest and planting. The central theme is that of transition and a loosening of boundaries between not just years and seasons but between this world and another, along with a loosening of the bounds of the social order. Things are brought closer together. Spirits, ghosts, gods, and Santa Claus are let loose to roam the human world.

This is why the custom of wearing masks was common from Halloween to Mardi Gras, including a masking tradition around Christmastime. Masks served many purposes. It hid your identity from those non-human beings, to protect you from harm. But sometimes the masks were to represent those very same beings, even one’s own ancestors. In general, masking and guising give one a new identity. Individuals could temporarily be someone else, of a different class or social role, and so act in ways not otherwise allowed.

With this revelry and reversal follows, along with licentiousness and transgression, drunkenness and bawdiness, fun and games, song and dance, feasting and festival. It is a time for celebration of this year’s harvest and blessing of next year’s harvest. Bounty and community. Death and rebirth. The old year must be brought to a close and the new year welcomed. This is the period when gods, ancestors, spirits, and demons must be solicited, honored, appeased, or driven out. The noise of song, gunfire, and such serves many purposes.

In the heart of winter, some of the most important religious events took place. This includes Christmas, of course, but also the various celebrations around the same time. A particular winter festival season that began on All Hallows Eve (i.e., Halloween) ended with the Twelfth Night. This included carnival-like revelry and a Lord of Misrule. There was also the tradition of going house to house, of singing and pranks, of demanding treats/gifts and threats if they weren’t forthcoming. It was a time of community and sharing, and those who didn’t willingly participate might be punished. Winter, a harsh time of need, was when the group took precedence.

This is when Jesus was born to a virgin, not to mention the birth of many other salvific gods and resurrection godmen. Jesus’ coming into the world was humble and with him came a message of hope but also of inversion, the powerful brought down low and the meek lifted up. Christianity inherited much from other religions that also placed great importance on the solstice, the greatest darkness before the return of the light, the liminal moment of time stopping and the sun reversing its course.

Two examples of virgin born godmen are Mithras and Attis. Like Santa Claus, both wore a Phrygian cap, sometimes referred to as the liberty cap because of conflation with the Roman pileus that was worn by emancipated slaves (the pileus was worn during Saturnalia, a solstice celebration). An important detail is that St. Paul came from Tarsus, the place of origin for Mithras worship that arose to prominence in the century before his birth, and so he certainly would have recognized the similarities to Christianity. Mithraism had been the most widespread religion in Europe before Christianity came to dominate under Constantine.

By the way, there is also an intriguing theory about the psychedelic mushroom known as the fly agaric, similar to the liberty cap. It grows under pine trees, is eaten by reindeer that then leap around, and is supposedly used by Siberian shamans who it was thought entered dwellings through the smoke hole. Some consider this to be the origin of much of the Christmas imagery.

Besides this, trees in general play a central role. Along with Christmas trees, there is the tradition of wassailing to the elder tree in an orchard where it was considered a spirit dwelled. Trees, of course, are an ancient symbol of the axis mundi, upon which the world turned, along with close association to the death and resurrection of gods and godmen. Also, the liberty pole became a central symbol of revolution, including during the American Revolution, and sometimes would have a Phrygian cap or pileus on top of it. The word ‘revolution’ came from astrology and referred to cycles, a returning. It’s interesting to note that the Boston Tea Party involved masking and occurred on the eve of Saturnalia.

I’m also reminded of the Santa Claus as St. Nick. This invokes an image of jollity and generosity. And this connects to wintertime as period of community needs and interdependence, of sharing and gifting, of hospitality and kindness. This includes enforcement of social norms which easily could transform into the challenging of social norms.

It’s maybe in this context we should think of the masked vigilantes participating in the Boston Tea Party. Like carnival, there had developed a tradition of politics out-of-doors, often occurring on the town commons. And on those town commons, large trees became identified as liberty trees — under which people gathered, upon which notices were nailed, and sometimes where effigies were hung. This was an old tradition that originated in Northern Europe, where a tree was the center of a community, the place of law-giving and community decision-making. In Europe, the commons had become the place of festivals and celebrations, such as carnival. And so the commons came to be the site of revolutionary fervor as well.

The most famous Liberty Tree was a great elm near the Boston common. It was there that many consider the birth of the American Revolution, as it was the site of early acts of defiance. This is where the Sons of Liberty met, organized, and protested. This would eventually lead to that even greater act of defiance on Saturnalia eve, the Boston Tea Party. One of the participants in the Boston Tea Party and later in the Revolutionary War, Samuel Sprague, is buried in the Boston Common.

There is something many don’t understand about the American Revolution. It wasn’t so much a fight against oppression in general and certainly not about mere taxation in particular. What angered those Bostonians and many other colonists was that they had become accustomed to community-centered self-governance and this was being challenged. The tea tax wasn’t just an imposition of imperial power but also colonial corporatism. The East India Company was not acting as a moral member of the community, in its taking advantage by monopolizing trade. Winter had long been the time of year when bad actors in the community would be punished. Selfishness was not to be tolerated.

Those Boston Tea Partiers were simply teaching a lesson about the Christmas spirit. And in the festival tradition, they chose the guise of Native Americans which to their minds would have symbolized freedom and an inversion of power. What revolution meant to them was a demand for return of what was taken from them, making the world right again. It was revelry with a purpose.

* * *

Trickster Makes This World:
Mischief, Myth and Art
by Lewis Hyde
pp. 188-189

Where we value the old world, carnival’s conservative function is one of its virtues, of course. The dirt ritual protects us against our own exclusions, like a kind of vaccination, and in that manner offers a stability that is lively and not particularly violent. After all, it is not just night-crowing cocks who end up dead when violence is the only way for the dominant order to protect itself. Beware the social system that cannot laugh at itself, that responds to those who do not know their place by building a string of prisons.

Where change is not in order, then, ritual dirt-work offers the virtue of non-violent stability. But where change is in order, dirt-work also has a role to play, for it simply isn’t true that these rituals are always conservative. Dirt rituals may stabilize things for years on end, but when the order is in fundamental crisis these rituals can become the focal points for change, catalytic moments for dirt’s revaluation and true structural shifts. Every so often Fat Tuesday does leak over into Lean Wednesday, and into the rest of the year as well. Regular dirt rituals are like nodes on a shoot of bamboo, repeating year after year to strengthen the growing stalk, but then, when conditions demand it, splitting open to produce new growth.

Historians have recently provided us with a number of specific cases that demonstrate this general model. It now seems clear, for example, that carnival’s ritual debasing of the Pope played a key role in the Reformation in Germany. The ritual container broke, the pollution leaked out, and the Church itself was fundamentally altered. It seems clear also that play with gender roles has sometimes leapt the fences of ritual. The historian Natalie Zemon Davis has argued that the gender reversals of various early modern European festivals served to “undermine as well as reinforce” prevailing social structures. The carnival image of unruly women, normally the object of joking and play, sometimes turned out “to sanction riot and political disobedience for both men and women in a society that allowed the lower orders few formal means of protest.” Davis is well aware that letting carnival’s “woman-on-top” have power during the holidays usually served to keep women on the bottom when the holidays were over, but once such an image exists it is hard to control, and this one sometimes also “promoted resistance,” “kept open an alternate way of conceiving family structure,” and served as “a resource for feminist reflection on women’s capacities.”

I assume that trickster tales serve an analogous double role; usually they bring harmless release, but occasionally they authorize moments of radical change. The tales themselves, at least, declare the latter point: the character who can freely play with dirt, they say, is also the culture hero who brings fundamental change.

Dancing in the Streets:
A History of Collective Joy
by Barbara Ehrenreich
pp. 89-90

The widespread occurrence of mocking rituals would almost suggest some human, or at least plebeian, instinct to playfully overthrow the existing order—whether as a way of harmlessly letting off steam or, at some level of consciousness, rehearsing for the real thing. Many of the mocking rituals associated with European carnival centered on a king of fools, a costumed character who probably first appeared in the Church-sanctioned Feast of Fools. If anything illustrates the ambivalence of the Church toward festive behavior, it was this event, which was initiated by the lower-level clergy—deacons, subdeacons, and priests—who comprised the Church’s internal lower class. This feast, described by Chambers as “largely an ebullition of the natural lout beneath the cassock,” originally took place inside churches between Christmas and New Year’s. The participating clergy dressed absurdly—in women’s clothes or their own clothes worn inside out—and performed a noisy burlesque of the mass, with sausages replacing the priest’s censer, or with “stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes” instead of incense, and “wanton songs” and gibberish substituting for the usual Latin incantations.23 As one disapproving contemporary described the scene: “They run and leap through the church, without a blush at their own shame. Finally they drive about the town … and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gestures and verses scurrilous and unchaste.”

pp. 101-102

Protestantism, serving as the ideological handmaiden of the new capitalism, “descended like a frost on the life of ‘Merrie Old England,’” as Weber put it, destroying in its icy grip the usual Christmas festivities, the maypole, the games, and all traditional forms of group pleasure.13 But this account downplays the importance of festivities as a point of contention in their own right, quite apart from their perceived economic effects. Without question, industrial capitalism and Protestantism played a central role in motivating the destruction of carnival and other festivities. There was another factor, though, usually neglected in the economic-based accounts: To elites, the problem with festivities lay not only in what people were not doing—that is, working—but in what they were doing, that is, in the nature of the revelry itself. In the sixteenth century, European authorities (secular and ecclesiastical, Catholic as well as Protestant) were coming to fear and disdain the public festivities that they themselves had once played starring roles in—to see them as vulgar and, more important, dangerous.

p. 103

There is probably no general and universal answer, though, to the question of whether carnival functioned as a school for revolution or as a means of social control. We do not know how the people themselves construed their festive mockeries of kings and priests, for example—as good-natured mischief or as a kind of threat. But it is safe to say that carnival increasingly gains a political edge, in the modern sense, after the Middle Ages, from the sixteenth century on, in what is known today as the early modern period. It is then that large numbers of people begin to use the masks and noises of their traditional festivities as a cover for armed rebellion, and to see, perhaps for the first time, the possibility of inverting hierarchy on a permanent basis, and not just for a few festive hours.

p. 165

Let us begin with carnival and other, somewhat secular festivities brought by Europeans to the Americas. These celebrations, which Europeans expected to carry on as vigorously—if not more vigorously—in the “new” world as in the old, posed an immediate problem in the colonial setting: What about the slaves? When Europeans caroused or simply feasted, there were always dark faces watching, waiting for some particle of generosity to come their way, or waiting perhaps for some moment of weakness to present an opportunity for revolt. In Protestant settings, such as Jamaica and the southern United States, where Christmas was the highlight of the social calendar, slaves used it as an opening to establish their own, probably African-derived festivity: Jonkonnu. As early as 1688, Jamaican slaves were celebrating Jonkonnu with costuming and dancing with “Rattles ty’d to their Legs and Wrists.”38 A little over a century later, they had won a measure of white respect for Jonkonnu, with whites agreeing to do their own chores during this brief period of black celebration. A white contemporary reported that during the holidays “the distance between [masters and slaves] appears to be annihilated for the moment, like the familiar footing on which the Roman slaves were with their masters at the feast of the Saturnalia, to which a West Indian Christmas may be compared.” 39 In the Carolinas, where Jonkonnu had spread by the nineteenth century, slaves marched to the big house, where they danced and demanded money and drinks from their masters. Thus a moment of white weakness—Christmas—was transformed into a black opportunity.

p. 168

In another striking parallel to the European festive tradition, Caribbean slaves and freed blacks put carnival to service as an occasion for armed uprisings. The historian Elizabeth Fenn reports that 35 percent of all known slave plots and rebellions in the British Caribbean were planned for the Christmas period, noting that “in this regard the slaves of the Americas differed little from the French peasants and laborers studied by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Natalie Zemon Davis.”

Inventing the People:
The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America
by Edmund S. Morgan
pp. 202-203

There were other parallels in contemporary English country life, in the fairs, “wakes,” and local festivals that punctuated the seasons, where sexual restraints were loosened and class barriers briefly broken in a “rough and ready social equality.” 82 But these were simply milder versions of what may be the most instructive parallel to an eighteenth-century election, namely the carnival— not the travelling amusement park familiar in America, but the festivities that preceded Lent in Catholic countries. The pre-Lenten carnival still survives in many places and still occupies an important place in community life, but it has assumed quite different functions from the earlier festivals. 83 It is the older carnivals, before the nineteenth century, that will bear comparison with eighteenth-century elections.

The carnival of the medieval or early modern period elicited from a community far more outrageous behavior and detailed ritual than did the elections that concern us. 84 But the carnival’s embellishments emphasize rather than obscure the fact that make-believe was the carnival’s basic characteristic and that carnival make-believe, like election make-believe, involved role reversal by the participants.

pp. 205-207

Where social tensions ran too high the carnival might become the occasion for putting a real scare into the cats and wolves of the community. There was always a cutting edge to the reversal of roles and to the seemingly frivolous competition. And when a society was ripe for revolt, the carnival activated it, as Le Roy Ladurie has shown in his account of the carnival at Romans in 1580. But normally a community went its way with the structure of power reinforced by its survival of the carnival’s make-believe challenge.

To put this idea in another way, one might say that the carnival provided society with a means of renewing consent to government, of annually legitimizing (in a loose sense of the word) the existing structure of power. Those who enacted the reversal of roles, by terminating the act accepted the validity of the order that they had ritually defied. By not carrying the make-believe forward into rebellion, they demonstrated their consent. By defying the social order only ritually they endorsed it. […]

The underlying similitude of an eighteenth-century election to a carnival is by now apparent. The two resembled each other not only in obvious outward manifestations— in the reversal of roles, in the make-believe quality of the contests, in the extravagance of the partisanship of artificial causes, in the outrageous behavior and language, in the drunkenness, the mob violence, even in the loosening of sexual restraints— not only in all these external attributes but also in an identity of social function. An election too was a safety valve, an interlude when the humble could feel a power otherwise denied them, a power that was only half illusory. And it was also a legitimizing ritual, a rite by which the populace renewed their consent to an oligarchical power structure.

Hence the insistence that the candidate himself or someone of the same rank solicit the votes of the humble. The election would not fully serve its purpose unless the truly great became for a time humble. Nor would it serve its purpose if the humble did not for a time put on a show of greatness, not giving their votes automatically to those who would ordinarily command their deference. Hence too the involvement of the whole populace in one way or another, if not in the voting or soliciting of votes, then in the tumults and riots, in the drinking and feasting, in the music and morris dancing.

It would be too much to say that the election was a substitute for a carnival. It will not do to push the analogy too far. The carnival was embedded deeply in folk culture, and its functions were probably more magical and religious than, overtly at least, political. An election, on had no the other hand, was almost exclusively a political affair, magical overtones; it was not connected with any religious calendar. 90 Nor did it always exhibit the wild excesses of a carnival; and when it did, it was surely not because the local oligarchy felt that this would renew their authority. They would generally have preferred to preserve “the peace of the country” by avoiding the contests that engaged them so hotly and cost them so much when they occurred. Moreover, the reversal of roles did not go anywhere near as far as in a carnival. In an election, along with the fraternization and condescension, there could be a great deal of direct pressure brought by the mighty on those who stood below them, with no pretense of reversing roles.

The resemblance to a carnival nevertheless remains striking. Is it wholly coincidence that there were no carnivals in Protestant England and her colonies where these carnival-like elections took place, and that in countries where carnivals did prevail elections were moribund or nonexistent? Is it too much to say that the important part of an eighteenth-century election contest in England and in the southern colonies and states was the contest itself, not the outcome of it? Is it too much to say that the temporary engagement of the population in a ritual, half-serious, half-comic battle was a mode of consent to government that filled a deeper popular need than the selection of one candidate over another by a process that in many ways denied voters the free choice ostensibly offered to them? Is it too much to say that the choice the voters made was not so much a choice of candidates as it was a choice to participate in the charade and act out the fiction of their own power, renewing their submission by accepting the ritual homage of those who sought their votes?

The Romance between Greece and the East
ed. by  Tim Whitmarsh & Stuart Thomson
“The Greek novel Ninus and Semiramis: Its background in Assyrian and Seleucid history and monuments”
by Stephanie Dalley
Kindle Locations 3943-3958

More likely, in my view, is a relationship of some romances to carnivals: a festival of Aphrodite for Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe where the lovers first meet, and a festival of Artemis for the setting of the beginning and end of the story in Habrocomes and Antheia. The Hebrew Book of Esther is integrally linked to the carnival-type feast of Purim. A festival based upon a Babylonian or Assyrian version of the traditional New Year Festival was celebrated at Palmyra, where a fine frieze showed the triumph (in Roman dress) over the sea of chaos, 47 and probably also at Hierapolis-Membidj. 48 But I doubt that one can claim a carnival connection for all the compositions.

The stories with a vaguely Assyrian historical background mainly have no particular love interest of the boy-meets-girl kind. This is not because such a theme was taboo in Assyrian literature: there are very explicitly erotic Love Lyrics, which were recited in rites of Ishtar of Babylon. 49 I would like to make a suggestion as to why the erotic element was introduced into the genre (if we can call it that). The carnival element involves dressing up, pretending to be another person or disguising one’s true nature, often behaving ‘badly’ in a theatrical way. Tomas Hägg suggested that the mosaics found near Antioch and at Alexandretta may have illustrated a theatrical performance, 50 and one might invoke a similar connection for the wall-painting depicting a scene from the story of Esther at Dura Europus, because we know that rude theatrical events were often a part of Purim celebrations.

Jesus Mythicism:
An Introduction
by Minas Papageorgiou
Kindle Locations 3094-3113

It should not surprise us that our people maintained or restored some of these elements throughout the centuries. A good example would be the so-called “Dodecameric,” the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany. The customs observed during that period reminds us of a series of Dionysian celebrations related to fertility that took place at the same time of the year in ancient times. For example, “Aloa” was a festival in honor of Demeter and Persephone, the “Rural Dionysia” was a joyful celebration, and “Lenaia” was a festival with a dramatic competition.

Thus, in the village of Volakas, in Drama, the feast of “Arapides,” masked men with faces painted with soot, takes place every year on January 7. The next day the “Bears” appear in the village. These are men covered in goatskin who make phallic dance movements, swear and strike with their sticks whomever they meet for good luck. These celebrations go back in time. “We are dressing up as ‘Arapides’ for good luck, for the good of our crops. This is how we found it, and so we keep it going,” say the disguised locals. Similarly, on the Epiphany (January 6), in another village in Drama, Kali Vrisi, another celebration takes place that lasts until the eighth day. It is the feast of “Babougera.” People are disguised as animals wearing masks and hang in their waist heavy bells. They dance and chase endlessly and cheerfully the people on the street. When the time for the ritual wedding comes, as part of the celebration, the disguised men grab the “bride,” who is basically a man dressed up as a woman.

All these elements, of course, are reminiscent of the traditional customs of Carnival. Strangely enough, at the same time when the ancient Athenians celebrated Carnival another celebration was taking place in honor of Dionysus, the Anthesteria festival. This included, among other things, the sacred marriage between the god and the “basilinna,” wife of the archon basileus (king), who represented the city. It is highly possible that modern carnival celebrations, such as the Vlach wedding in Thrace, have their roots in these ancient customs.

Dionysian elements can also be found in some phallic customs as part of the carnival celebrations, for example in Tyrnavos in Thessalia and Agia Anna in Evia. Besides, one of the main characteristics of the Rural Dionysia and the City Dionysia was the procession of men carrying phalloi, known as phallophoroi. In the center of the procession was a large wooden phallus, usually from a fig tree. People were also singing several “phallic” songs. Comedy, characterized by strong sexual and obscene language, derives from this tradition, as Aristotle informs us.

Religion in Human Evolution:
From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age
by Robert N. Bellah
Kindle Locations 5260-5286

It is part of the myth of Dionysus that he was an outsider, that he came from abroad, from Thrace or Phrygia, in historic times. Modern scholars as well as ancient Greeks tended to accept this part of the story as historically true, until the name of Dionysus appeared several times among the gods of the Mycenaeans in Linear B texts. So Dionysus is a very ancient Greek god, but he is “always” coming from abroad. He was very important in Athens, where a number of festivals, some of them very early, were dedicated to him. Robert Connor has seen the growth of Dionysiac worship in sixth-century Athens as a kind of religious preparation for the emergence of Greek democracy racy in the reforms of Cleisthenes beginning in 508-507.” Connor discusses the Dionysiac thiasotai (confraternities) as among the many forms of voluntary association that made up something like “civil society” in sixth-century Athens-associations that were to some degree self-governing and that fostered the practice of group discussion and group decision making. It was the combination of the social practice nurtured in such associations with the spirit of Dionysiac religion that Connor sees as an important foundation for the democratic reforms, reforms that Cleisthenes nurtured but could not have created.

The structural reforms undertaken by Cleisthenes, or by the people of Athens under his leadership, are too complex for us to describe in detail. Suffice it to say that these reforms overcame some of the divisiveness that characterized Athens in earlier times and extended the participation of the common people in the government of the polis. What is significant for us is the fact that these political changes were accompanied by, were one aspect of, a general change that was religious as much as political. It is this religious side of the change that Connor characterizes as the increasing importance of Dionysiac religion.

The myth of Dionysus is complex and ambiguous, indeed ambivalent, with a dark side as well as a joyous one, but one of its foci is that of the outsider god who comes into a city and turns it upside down, leading to the destruction of those who oppose him but to a new solidarity among those who accept him. He is transgressive, to use a term common in current discourse, a boundary-crosser crosser to be sure, but also integrative, the symbol of new community.72 Connor nor believes that Dionysiac worship in the sixth century “is best understood as the first imaginings of a new type of community.” More specifically, he writes:

Dionysiac worship tumbles into carnival and carnival inverts, temporarily, the norms and practices of aristocratic society. While these inversions may provide a temporary venting mechanism and thereby help stabilize repressive regimes, in the longer run they can have quite a different effect. They make it possible to think about an alternative community, one open to all, where status differentiations can be limited or eliminated, and where speech can be truly free. It is a society that can imagine Dionysiac equality and freedom.73

Connor gives the example of features institutionalized in the political realm “that probably originated in religious practice, for example, ‘outspokenness,’ parrhesia, and isegoria, `equality of speech.”’74 Given the importance of Dionysiac cult groups and the spirit of Dionysiac religion, Connor finds it “not surprising” that the newly established Athenian democracy would express itself in a new festival, the City Dionysia, or festival of Dionysus Eleuthereus (that is, the Dionysus who came from the border city of Eleutheria, but also with the etymological implication of freedom). He argues that the City Dionysia was founded not under the Pisistratids but under Cleisthenes or shortly thereafter and so was a kind of “freedom festival” celebrating the fall of the tyranny.75 Other specialists on Greek religion believe that the City Dionysia was founded under the Pisistratids, but that it underwent went significant reform and enhancement at the time of Cleisthenes.76 In that case, Connor’s argument would still be applicable.

What from our point of view is most interesting is that religious practice not only made possible the idea of a different social reality than the one existing, but helped to actualize it as well. Although the capacity to imagine alternative social realities is part of what we have described as the axial transition, it is interesting that in this case it does not involve anything explicitly theoretical. Indeed, Connor writes: “The festival helps us understand why our texts contain no elaborate statement of Athenian democratic theory … The ancient Greeks did not write theory; they enacted it. They enacted it in particular through the City Dionysia.”77

Circles and Lines:
The Shape of Life in Early America
by John Demos
pp. 11-13

Virtually everywhere, harvest was a peak time-a crisis even-when all hands, including those of women and children, were turned to getting the crops safely in. But there were slack times, too, especially in winter, when things slowed way down for days or weeks at a stretch.

The same agricultural rhythm meant changes also in food availability. People experienced dramatic seasonal differences in everyday diet-moving, say, from the summertime, with lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, to the special bounty of harvest, traditionally celebrated with a feast of freshly slaughtered animals (the antecedent of our own Thanksgiving), giving), and then to winter, when the dietary range would narrow to dried foods like peas and turnips and a dwindling supply of salted meats.”

A different (though not unrelated) kind of seasonal variance involved health and illness and marriage and reproduction. The evidence for this lies mostly below the surface and must be pried out through laborious demographic analysis, but its impact was certainly large. For example, marriage-making—weddings—showed making-weddings-showed a striking seasonal distribution. The headline is that weddings happened in hugely disproportionate proportionate numbers during the late fall.’2 And, going a bit further, one finds a distinct up-and-down annual “curve” for weddings (see Figure i), with much regularity from one year and one community to the next. Moreover, the distance between top and bottom was very wide; there were roughly three times as many weddings in November, for example, ample, as during the midsummer low. This particular curve was not so directly tied to Nature’s rhythms as, for instance, all the activity around farming. It could even be seen as culturally determined-since people might well have chosen differently about when to marry. Still, the link to harvest seems too obvious to ignore. When that was over, there was suddenly more time available, and more energy; there was also a feeling of release, and expansiveness, and good cheer. The impulse to celebrate might then lead not just to a Thanksgiving feast but to a wedding as well.

And there was more. This next had no aspect of cultural preference but was entirely controlled by Nature—in fact, by deep (and not fully understood) elements of human biology. It’s what demographers call the “conception cycle”; and it reflects the way pregnancies were unevenly, but very consistently, distributed throughout the calendar year. The evidence of copious local and family records yields another annual curve-in fact, a pair of curves, one reflecting births, the second, times of conception (see Figure z). Of course, the dynamic element here was always conception; once that had taken place, birth would (barring mishap) occur about nine months later. In fact, the curve shows two peaks in conception, the tallest coming in late spring, with corresponding valleys (and a difference between them approaching too percent).13

What this meant, in terms of actual experience, was many more babies born in late winter than at other times of the year. In fact, demographers have found the same rhythm in premodern communities throughout the northern hemisphere. sphere. Moreover, they have also found it in the southern hemisphere—except that there the months, though not the seasons, are directly reversed. The southern conception peak comes in November-December, which, of course, is their spring; so the pattern is actually the same. We might just note, as a final gloss on all this, that the conception cycle flattens out and virtually disappears in the modern period. The reason is obvious: as soon as contraception enters the picture—that is, planned fertility control-the timing of pregnancy is determined by innumerable individual choices; and those choices, when aggregated, spread evenly throughout the year.

pp. 45-47

We can zero in on that link by considering the word revolution and its own history of change. In fact, its not too much to say that the word moved from an originally circular to an eventually linear meaning, over the span of several centuries. Other scholarly hands have been into this history—of the word—in some detail.” Their conclusions deserve serve a careful summary. Revolution was, during the late Middle Ages and on into the early modern period, used to refer to things that turned, that rotated-circular and cyclical cal things. (In this it followed the sense of its Latin root.) Most especially was it used by astronomers to describe the orbital movement of the stars—for example, in the landmark work of Copernicus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. Then bit by bit it was brought down from the heavens and applied to more earthly matters-as a metaphor for revolving tendencies of all sorts. Then, in the seventeenth century, it became a specifically political term, but still with the underlying sense of movement around and back to pre-established positions. This was especially true of its widespread application to political events in England from mid-century onward: the Puritan Revolution (which, from the perspective of many, represented a turning back toward older and better ways), and also the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (which was widely understood as a restoration of monarchical cal power to its appropriate form and context).

And that was where the meaning of the term remained for quite a while longer—indeed, until the last part of the eighteenth century. The American Revolution, as we’ve already ready remarked, was begun in a spirit of restoration, of reengaging engaging principles and structures supposedly forgotten (or abandoned, or subverted). Thus the word, in its traditional usage, was initially a good fit. But when the political context changed—when the historical actors began to acknowledge, and even to embrace, the novelty of what they were about—the the word changed, too. This is the truly remarkable thing: events reversed a meaning that had endured for several hundred years. From now on, revolution would signify not a turning back into old paths but the creation of entirely new ones. (This result was solidified, just a few years further ahead, with the start of the French Revolution. There, too—though perhaps a bit more ambiguously—one sees a movement away from restorative conceptions toward openly innovative ones.)

* * *

Christmas carol
Wassailing
Apple Wassail
Wait (musician)
Mummers Parade
Mummers play
Carols, Wassailers, Waits and Mummers
Why do Christmas carols make the church feel nervous?
Wassailing with Wenceslas – Christmas Carol Origins
Here We Come A-Wassailing; The Roots of a Christmas Tradition
Here We Go a Wassailing
Wassailing through History
Apple Tree Wassails
Oh Apple Tree, we Wassail Thee
Wassailing! Notes On The Songs And Traditions
When Thanksgiving Tradition Included Halloween-Like Masquerading
Celebrating Hallowmas
Allhallowtide
Samhain (Historic customs)
Halloween, a faraway origin feast
Winter solstice
Christmas: The Birthday of Sun Gods

Happy Birthday Mithras!
Paul & Mithraism
St Paul – History, Biblical Epistles, Gnosticism and Mithraism
Mithraism and Early Christianity
Mithra: The Pagan Christ
Attis: Born of a Virgin on December 25th, Crucified and Resurrected after Three Days
Christmas and holiday season
Christmas
The History of Christmas

Christmas controversies (Pre-Christian influence)
A Roman Christmas

Christmas’ Pagan Origins
Boxing Day
Feast of Fools & Lord of Misrule
Twelve Days of Christmas
Twelfth Night (holiday)
Solar origins of the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ and Christianity.

Christmas, Yule and the Winter Solstice
Festive ecology (Christmas)
Christmas tree
O, Tannenbaum: the Origin of the Christmas Tree
List of Christmas and winter gift-bringers by country
The History and Origins of Santa Claus
Santa is a Wildman!
Krampus
SinterklaasZwarte Piet
Magic Mushrooms May Explain Santa & His ‘Flying’ Reindeer
Psychedelic Santa And Christmas Mushrooms
Yule
Brumalia
Saturnalia, Sigillaria, & Opiconsivia
The Roman Saturnalia parties and Christmas
Io Saturnalia! The Reason for the Season?
Saturnalia—A Roman Solstice Romp
The Puritan War on Christmas
Slaves Received Gift Of Role Reversal
Carnival
The Carnaval Celebration that became Christmas & New Year’S Eve
Carnival, A People’s Uprising at Romans
Carnival, Processions and Parades – Interview Claire Tancons
Carnival, an upside down world
Revolution as Carnival
In Theory Bakhtin: Carnival against Capital, Carnival against Power
Occupy Wall Street: Carnival Against Capital? Carnivalesque as Protest Sensibility
Carnival to Commons: Pussy Riot, Punk Protest, and the Exercise of Democratic Culture
The Lord of Misrule
Tactical frivolity
Phrygian cap
Pileus (hat)
The History of Marianne’s Cap
Liberty pole
The Maypole’s Revolutionary Heritage
Roots of the Liberty Tree
Merry Mount and May Poles
Démos, The People
Revolution and Apocalypse
Music and Dance on the Mind
Beating the bounds
Terminalia

Little House: Political Storytelling

The making of the “Little House” books is fascinating. It was written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But it appears that her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, heavily edited and informed the writing process, some considering her to have co-written it as she was already a published professional writer. The letters between them show how closely they worked in creating the series.

That relationship was central. There seems to have been an odd and sometimes unhappy relationship between mother and daughter. Yet they shared some common views of the world that framed their work together. Maybe this is because they both were born into the same era following the Civil War, only 19 years separating their births. It was a time of change and destabilization, not just because of war and the following Reconstruction but also because of a mix of violent frontier life, ongoing genocide of Native Americans, mass immigration, increasing racial and ethnic conflicts, poverty along with growing inequality, Gilded Age industrialization, labor conflict, and much else.

They were of two generations, Missionary and Lost. But they were close enough in age to face the challenges from the forming of a new order (socially, economically, and politically). There were important differences, though. Wilder spent her entire life in rural farm communities. But even there the entire world was shifting around her. Lane, as with many in her generation, went to the cities where opportunities were great but so were risks and costs. Cities were brutal places at the time, bustling concentrations of opulent wealth and desperate poverty, along with a small middle class beginning to grow. Lane was able to get a toehold into the middle class, although she always struggled and fell back into poverty during the Great Depression. Her mother, Wilder, never knew any of that.

What they did share was both having grown up in that last era of pioneer life. They used that common bond to shape the ideological world of the fictionalized Wilder family. And it was heavily fictionalized, removed from it were all the darkness and ugliness, all the struggle and suffering, all the violence and sexual debauchery, all the sickness and death, but also all of the support from community and government that made pioneer life possible. They created an ideological fantasy that struck a chord for many Americans.

Interestingly, their political beliefs took many decades to form. The late 1800s was a time of populism, a strange mix of ideologies, movements, and alliances. The Soviet Union didn’t come into existence until 1922, when Wilder was 55 and Lane 36. And the New Deal wasn’t to happen until 11 years after that. So, during the Populist Era, there was no clear distinction between impulses toward Marxism, commmunism, communitarianism, Christian socialism, labor organizing, anarchism, anti-statism, and libertarianism.

When you look at the views held by mother and daughter across their lives, it’s hard to find much consistency other than an attempt to make sense of their personal experience in terms of changing politics, not to mention a heavy dose of nostalgia that grew over time. For Lane, there was also a worsening sense of isolation, depression, anger, and bitterness; probably from untreated mental illness and lack of healthcare in general through most of her life. Even though her mother was much more stoical, self-denying and emotionally unexpressive, the two of them turned ever more toward right-wing libertarianism, verging on a harsh social Darwinism. The basic attitude seems to be that they had suffered horribly with few opportunities and somehow survived, and so no one should have anything they had lacked.

This ignores all that they were given, all that government made possible: ‘free’ land taken from Native Americans, subsidized-building of railroads, publicly-funded schools, etc. That is also to overlook how rural farmers were absolutely dependent on their neighbors and communities. Neither of them was ever as self-made as they liked to believe. There were many conflicts in their worldview, such as a conflict between how government helped them and how it helped others, a conflict between agrarianism and industrialization, etc. An example of this is how ‘libertarians’ like Lane came to be among the strongest supporters of Cold War militaristic neo imperialism, such as Lane’s later support of the Vietnam War.

In this, they were like many other Americans. The entire country was conflicted between rhetoric and reality, between competing economic interests and political visions. Americans were looking for stories that made sense of what didn’t actually fit into a simplistic narrative. A failure in terms of historical accuracy and moral accountability, the “Little House” series nonetheless offered such a compelling story to paper over the cracks. Generations since have had their minds shaped by this vision, the kind of rhetoric that would make possible the election of Ronald Reagan and the creation of our own conflicted age of neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Lane supported Reagan when Goldwater introduced him into politics and, in return, one of Reagan’s favorite tv shows was the adaptation of the “Little House” series which he watched while in the White House.

Never doubt the power of stories.

* * *

Little House with a Bigger Story
by Kjerstin Johnson, Bitch Media

Rose and her mother supported populist politics, but “ultimately, both women’s experience of adversity—or their selective recall of it—made them less sympathetic to the homeless and jobless.” Rose, who had supported union organizer Eugene Debs, lived with bohemians, and mixed with Soviet communists, eventually became known as one of the “mothers of Libertarianism” along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson. While one could wonder if her socially conservative politics made it way into my bedtime stories, it seems that Rose saved most of her politics for her later works, which didn’t meet with the critical success of her best-selling pioneer novels.

Autobiographical Sketch of Rose Wilder Lane
by Rose Wilder Lane, Library of Congress

Politically, I cast my first vote — on a sample ballot — for Cleveland, at the age of three. I was an ardent if uncomprehending Populist; I saw America ruined forever when the soulless corporations in 1896, defeated Bryan and Free Silver. I was a Christian Socialist with Debs, and distributed untold numbers of the Appeal to Reason. From 1914 to 1920 — when I first went to Europe — I was a pacifist; innocently, if criminally, I thought war stupid, cruel, wasteful and unnecessary. I voted for Wilson because he kept us out of it.

In 1917 I became convinced, though not practicing communist. In Russia, for some reason, I wasn’t and I said so, but my understanding of [Bolsdevism?] made everything pleasant when the Cheka arrested me a few times.

Wilder Women
by Judith Thurman, The New Yorker

“Little House in the Big Woods” was a great success, critically and commercially. Seven months after it was published, Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover. His victory bitterly dismayed the Wilders—Rose, in particular. Shortly after the Inauguration, she noted in her journal, “We have a dictator.”

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Wilders, along with other disillusioned pioneers, had briefly rallied to the incendiary populism of William Jennings Bryan. By the middle of the decade, Rose had become a follower of Eugene Debs, the union organizer and Socialist candidate for President. In her days as a bohemian, she had flirted with Communism. Laura was a Democrat until the late nineteen-twenties; after the First World War, she served as the local secretary of a national loan association that dispersed federal money to farmers, and as the chairwoman of her county’s Democratic Committee. But, ultimately, both women’s experience of adversity—or their selective recall of it—made them less sympathetic to the homeless and the jobless. “The Greatest Good to the Greatest Number,” Rose argued in a letter to Dorothy Thompson, “will obviously be reached when each individual of the greatest number is doing the greatest good to himself.”

Laura had kept in touch fitfully with her sisters, and when she began to research her childhood they sometimes provided details that she’d forgotten. Mary had died in 1928, but Grace, a farmer’s wife, and Carrie, a journalist, were both still living in South Dakota—Grace and her husband receiving welfare and surplus food. Nevertheless, from Rocky Ridge, the predicament of the urban poor was a remote abstraction, and the Wilders blamed rural poverty on the Democrats’ support, as they saw it, of industry at the expense of agriculture. They opposed legislation that compelled farmers to plow crops under as a strategy for price support. Miller writes that, according to Rose, Almanzo was ready to run off an agent from the Agriculture Department with a shotgun, telling him, “I’ll plant whatever I damn please on my own farm.” In 1943, the year that Laura published “These Happy Golden Years” (the final installment of her saga), she told a Republican congressman from Malone, New York, “What we accomplished was without help of any kind, from anyone.”

The Wilders had, in fact, received unacknowledged help from their families, and the Ingallses, like all pioneers, were dependent, to some degree, on the railroads; on taxpayer-financed schools (Mary’s tuition at a college for the blind, Hill points out, was paid for by the Dakota Territory); on credit—which is to say, the savings of their fellow-citizens; on “boughten” supplies they couldn’t make or grow; and, most of all, on the federal government, which had cleared their land of its previous owners. “There were no people” on the prairie, Laura, or Rose, had written. “Only Indians lived there.” (Hill writes that Wilder agreed to amend the sentence when an outraged reader objected, calling it “a stupid blunder.” It now reads, “There were no settlers.”) […]

Last June, Anita Clair Fellman, a professor emerita of history at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia, published “Little House, Long Shadow,” a survey of the Wilders’ “core” beliefs, and of their influence on American political culture. Two streams of conservatism, she argues—not in themselves inherently compatible—converge in the series. One is Lane’s libertarianism, and the other is Wilder’s image of a poster family for Republican “value voters”: a devoted couple of Christian patriots and their unspoiled children; the father a heroic provider and benign disciplinarian, the mother a pious homemaker and an example of feminine self-sacrifice. (In that respect, Rose considered herself an abject failure. “My life has been arid and sterile,” she wrote, “because I have been a human being instead of a woman.”)

Fellman concludes, “The popularity of the Little House books . . . helped create a constituency for politicians like Reagan who sought to unsettle the so-called liberal consensus established by New Deal politics.”

Lane’s Forgotten Writings on Race
by Roderick T. Long, Austro-Athenian Empire

Before her discovery of the Courier, Lane by her own admission had had a blindspot on the issue of race; she had “heard of lynchings and other racial injustice, but had assumed they were isolated incidents.” After she began reading the Courier’s documentation of the extent of racial oppression in the u.s., she declared that she had been an “utter fool” and a “traitor” to the “cause of human rights.” (p. 284) Soon she had joined the paper’s campaign against racism by becoming one of its regular writers.

Race was not the only topic of her columns; she advanced libertarian ideas across the board, often taking left-libertarian positions. For example, she defended the striking United Mine Workers for “refusing to submit to tyranny” (p. 288); praised Samuel Gompers as a proponent of an antistatist form of labour activism (for Gompers’ actual merits or otherwise, see here); championed “free mutual associations” as an alternative to the welfare state (p. 285); expressed concern about the tendency of women to subordinate their interests and identity to those of men and family (p. 286); and saw the “Big Boys” – politically connected plutocrats – as the chief enemies of the free market, declaring that “they can get themselves murdered in cellars for all I’d care.” (p. 285) (Her views on such subjects could be complicated, though. During her early flirtation with Marxism she’d even written a book praising Henry Ford as a practical implementer of Marxism.)

Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve
by Frances W. Kaye, University of Nebraska

Laura Ingalls Wilder was a person of her time and place. She fictionalized her memories to give what she honestly believed was the truest possible account-true in deeply human ways as well as in accurate details-of one family’s settlement history on the Great Plains frontier. I have never really liked her work. While my sister read all the Little House books, I read … Zane Grey. That I do not share Wilder’s values and point of view is no argument against the books-I do not share Zane Grey’s values and point of view, either. But Zane Grey is not held up to contemporary parents, teachers, and children as a moral exemplar. We accurately recognize him as a prolific popular writer whose work is violent, sexist, racist, and almost self-parodically anti-Mormon and, after 1914, anti-German. Laura Ingalls Wilder, on the other hand, has spawned a minor industry in criticism. Her work, and particularly Little House on the Prairie, has been almost universally praised, especially by feminist critics, as a humane and feminist alternative to the myth of “regeneration through violence” of the masculine frontier of Zane Grey and the Wild West. What we think about the Little House books matters. It seems to me that Wilder’s proponents are fundamentally mistaken. I honestly cannot read Little House on the Prairie as other than apology for the “ethnic cleansing” of the Great Plains. That her thought was unremarkable, perhaps even progressive, for the time in which she lived and wrote should not exempt her books from sending up red flags for contemporary critics who believe in diversity, multiculturalism, and human rights.

“Can you imagine, a real, live Indian right here in Walnut Grove?”: American Indians in Television Adaptations of Little House on the Prairie
by Amy S. Fatzinger, Dialogue

When Mary enthusiastically exclaims, “Can you imagine, a real, live Indian right here in Walnut Grove?” in a 1977 television episode of Little House on the Prairie (“Injun Kid”), it would seem that the Ingalls family’s attitudes toward Native people have evolved considerably since they first appeared in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1935 novel of the same name. In the novel, Wilder’s depictions of Native characters are often associated with negative imagery and fear; Laura’s sister, Mary, and their mother, were particularly terrified by even the prospect of encountering Native people. Fans and critics alike will recall times that Native people—most likely Osage men—visited the Ingalls home, nights the family stayed awake in terror as they listened to the “Indian jamboree” nearby, and Laura problematically longing for a papoose of her own—the epitome of non-Native appropriation of Native culture—as the Ingalls family watches the long line of Osage people file past their “little house.”

Little imperialist on the prairie
by Will Braun, Geez Magazine

In these books, Indians are wild, exotic and threatening, yet also dignified and peaceable. When the white neighbour says, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” Pa objects. They have reason to dislike white folk, given how often they have been forced to move. “But,” he says, honing in on the crux of his colonial justification, “an Indian ought to have sense enough to know when he was licked.”

In Wilder’s world, Indians are not entitled to the land. Indeed, if she believed otherwise, her life’s story, and the entire story of the continent, would fall apart. To maintain her belief she must portray Indians as inferior – interesting, even friendly, but ultimately uncivilized.

This classic colonial narrative is easy to critique. Yet it persists because it is nearly impossible for non-indigenous North Americans to truly untangle ourselves from it without getting back on the boat. We might not share Ma’s disdain for Indians, but our existence here constitutes a tainted sense of entitlement.

Historical Perspective or Racism in Little House on the Prairie?
by Laura McLemore, Little House on the Prairie

News of the impending opening of Indian Territory reached land-hungry settlers back east and caused an illegal land rush into the area.  Congress refused to ratify the Sturgis Treaty, fearing backlash from their constituents who favored free settlement of the land under the Homestead Act of 1862.  The Ingalls family was part of the wave of squatters or illegal settlers who entered and established homes in Montgomery County.  Whether Pa knew this or not is open for debate, but it is highly unlikely that he would have been ignorant of this fact.  In Little House on the Prairie Ma tells Laura that “Pa had word from a man in Washington that the Indian Territory would be open to settlement soon.  It might already be open to settlement.  They could not know because Washington was so far away.”   Pa was most likely betting that the government would allow squatters to claim homesteads once the Osage were removed.

When most of the settlers arrived in Indian Territory the Osage people were off on their annual hunting trips further west and it may have appeared that the land was unoccupied.  Although the land that Pa chose was obviously next to a well-used trail, he preferred to think of the land as unsettled.  In the early pages of Little House on the Prairie, Laura quotes Pa as saying that animals wandered “in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no settlers.  Only Indians lived there.”  As did all of the settlers, Pa chose to ignore the fact that the land and everything on it belonged to the Osage people.  He freely cut logs to build a house, hunted wild game for food and furs, dug a well and broke the land for farming.  When the Osage returned from their trip they found their home and their lands occupied by all kinds of settlers who, in their minds, were stealing from them.

Under the provisions of earlier treaties, the Osage had the right to charge squatters rent if they wanted to.  Laura tells several stories of Indians coming to the Ingalls’ home and demanding food and other goods.  They sometimes just came and took whatever they wanted.  The Osage saw it as collecting rent.  Ma saw it as an intrusion by uninvited guests.  Ma was terrified of these visits.  Wilder says that Jack, the Ingalls’ bulldog, hated the Indians and Ma said she didn’t blame him.  Laura asks Ma, “Why don’t you like Indians, Ma…This is Indian country, isn’t it? What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?”  But why was Ma so afraid of the Osage? In order for readers to understand Ma, you need to understand where she was coming from.

Before moving to Kansas, the Ingalls lived near the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin.  In late 1862 during the Civil War, many men left their families in Minnesota to fight in the war.  Local militias stretched to their limits, were unable to protect their communities.  The federal government denied any responsibility for protecting the settlers in Minnesota.  The Indians in the area saw this as an opportunity to retake land that they felt belonged to them.  The Sioux Uprising or Dakota Wars resulted in the looting and burning of homesteads and the killing of white settlers in the area, including women and children.  The newspapers were full of graphic accounts of the “Minnesota Massacre.”  Undoubtedly Ma had read these accounts.  Wilder mentions the Minnesota Massacre in her account of Mrs. Scott’s hatred for the Osage: “The only good Indian was a dead Indian.  The very thought of Indians made her blood run cold.  She said, ‘I can’t forget the Minnesota massacre.  My Pa and brothers went out with the rest of the settlers…Ma made a sharp sound in her throat, and Mrs. Scott stopped.  Whatever a massacre was, it was something that grown-ups would not talk about when little girls were listening.”

The whiteness of Laura Ingalls Wilder
by Abagond

In 1998 when this book was read at a grade school in Minnesota, one eight-year-old Indian girl came home in tears, having learned from this Beloved Classic that, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Another girl did not cry. When asked why, she said, “I just pretend I’m not Indian.”

Waziyatawin, the Dakota writer, was the mother of the crying child. After she showed the school board how racist the book was, they agreed to stop using it. But when the news got out it was turned into a censorship issue of banning books and the school, backed by the ACLU, changed its mind.

Waziyatawin was told she has a “chip on her shoulder”. Linda Ellerbee on Nickelodeon’s “Nick News” told children across America that all books are offensive to someone. The school defended the book as “history” – yet her daughter’s teacher was not taking apart its racist messages, which has the effect of normalizing them. That, no less, at a white-run school that stands on land stolen from the Dakotas.

The Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Germany are “part of history” too, yet no one thinks of reading their youth literature to schoolchildren without examining their racism. Why is “Little House on the Prairie” any different?

A letter to Mama Bess (a.k.a. Laura Ingalls Wilder)
by Mollie Wilson O’Reilly, Commonweal Magazine

Last week, Rebecca Onion at Slate dug up and posted a document that might be of interest to all you Laura Ingalls Wilder fans out there: a letter from Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder’s daughter, critiquing the first draft of Wilder’s book By the Shores of Silver Lake. […]

The biggest revelation in the letter is this bit of editing advice from Lane:

You have the brief scene in which Laura threatens to kill Charley with a knife, but that has to be cut out.

Wilder did accept that advice, which is why any fan of her books reads that sentence and thinks, Wait, what?! Preadolescent Laura pulling a knife on her cousin would certainly stick in the memory. Lane gives her mother a lot of psychological blarney about why it isn’t “credible” — which seems awfully presumptuous considering she’s talking to her mother about something the latter (apparently) experienced in real life. But what I would guess convinced Wilder to take the scene out was Lane’s admonishment that “if you do make it credible it’s not a child’s book.”

Wilder, as we know from her own words, was very concerned about keeping her books appropriate for children to read. Is Lane right that Wilder “can not have [Laura] suddenly acting like a slum child who has protected her virginity from street gangs since she was seven or eight”? Or is she just, as it seems to me, in love with her own worldly cleverness? (See also her weird notions about working men and “sexual degeneracy on the frontier,” elsewhere in the cited letter.) Regardless, the very thought of a character “protecting her virginity,” however authentic to Wilder’s life, must on reflection have seemed beyond the limits of what would be appropriate for young readers. And so it went — although, in subtler ways, Silver Lake still addresses Laura’s ambivalent transition from childhood to womanhood.

Little Government in the Big Woods
by Mary Pilon, Longreads

Although the “Little House” books are universally familiar to adults, Lane and Wilder didn’t publish the series until they were in their forties and sixties, respectively. They spent most of their formative years and adulthood toiling under conditions similar to what had been described in their pages, infusing the lens of the Great Depression on post-Civil War 1870s and 1880s.

In “Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture,” Anita Clair Fellman argues that Wilder’s and Lane’s dark narratives greatly fueled their reflections on the era, which are rife with anti-government, pro-family views of America’s more rugged patches, a contrast to the more chipper, image of Laura and Mary regaling themselves with simple pastimes like tossing a pig bladder that many readers carried for generations. The notion doesn’t sit well with some readers, who have long formed their own relationship with the fiction; finding out that a treasured children’s classic may, actually have been a political polemic.

Wilder and Lane were not alone in their criticism of the New Deal. Others had argued that it was “fascist,” a charged term considering the rise of dictators in Europe at the time, or compared it to Communism. Lane said she would “vote for anybody—Hoover, Harding, Al Capone—who will stop the New Deal” and that it is “killing…the American pioneering spirit.” She even wrote: “I hoped that Roosevelt would be killed in 1933….I would make a try at killing FDR now.” (Holtz, in his analysis of this comment, wrote that Lane’s harshness toward the president “was probably not so much a threat as it was a rhetorical symptom of her anxiety.”) […]

Now, scenes from the books, and later the TV show, like Pa going to the store and discussing prices or Laura and Almanzo farming and refusing welfare, seem like free market anecdotes, Woodside said. Yet, and paradoxically, government action like the subsidization of railroad construction and the Homestead Act is part of what created Wilder’s American frontier culture, Woodside said. “Still, the books have this message of, ‘We need to push on, because we’re Americans.’”

Some scholars posit that the messaging of “Little House” books helped contribute to the rise of conservatism, particularly in the 1980s as another actor-turned-candidate, Ronald Reagan, reframed the Republican party. (The television adaptation was his favorite television show, according to the New Yorker.) Businessman and noted political donor Charles Koch attended the Freedom School, a small institution in Colorado that Lane had championed, and had served as a trustee. Today, the “Little House” books are still an academic mainstay, particularly among homeschooled students, even if their full political context isn’t always known or discussed.

Finding America, Both Red and Blue, in the ‘Little House’ Books
by Maria Russo, The New York Times

“Little House in the Big Woods” was published in 1932, when Laura was 65 and Rose, her only child, was long divorced, an accomplished, but increasingly broke journalist and author. Rose Wilder Lane had lost both her own money and money she invested for her parents in the 1929 stock market crash, and they were scrounging by, with Almanzo hauling loads and Laura selling eggs and apples and writing occasional pieces about farm life.

Out of desperation Rose suggested that her mother write down the stories of her pioneer childhood, heavily revised the resulting manuscript, and found a publisher. In the rest of the books, as well, she provided substantial editing. Some historians insist that Rose — who later became an outspoken anti-government polemicist and is called one of the godmothers of the libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand — should be considered the books’ ghostwriter [see Wikipedia on Rose Wilder Lane, above]. Christine Woodside’s recent book, “Libertarians on the Prairie,” makes this case, cataloging libertarian messages Rose embedded in the books. (Some are overt: “The politicians are a-swarming in already,” says one character in “The Long Winter.” “They’ll tax the lining out’n a man’s pockets,” he cries. “I don’t see nary use for a county, nohow.”)

Still, it was Laura’s life story, not Rose’s, and Laura’s patient, precise voice, filled with awe at the wonders of the natural world, the fascination of making useful things, and the joys of everyday family love, never goes missing in the books for too long.

Both more interesting and more disturbing to me now are the ways the books massaged reality to support the pioneer fantasy of a self-sustaining family living in relative isolation. Newer research on the American West debunks that mythology, showing that settlers lived in close proximity, often as a matter of life and death. The “Little House” books take every opportunity to show the Ingallses as an independent unit. “The Long Winter” portrays family members as alone in their house, while in fact they took in an irksome couple who begged them for shelter.

But farming could not support the family, and Pa took jobs including one as a justice of the peace. Laura worked in later life as an administrator of a federal farm loan program. Mary’s tuition at the college for the blind was paid for by the government of Iowa, though the later books make it seem as though the extra money from Laura’s small jobs paid those bills.

When the New Deal began, Laura and Rose expressed outrage that struggling people were going to get “handouts,” when they had had to tough out so many hard, lean years. Maybe there was a lingering bitterness about the true sacrifices of both pioneer life and the small-family-farm life Laura and Almanzo pursued in Missouri, where Rose grew up and the family was often in penury. Both women attributed their painful dental problems and diabetes to poor childhood nutrition. Rose told piteous tales of having to go to school in town without shoes. When you’re raised with the belief that you don’t need society, that you’re better off suffering through every hardship than accepting help, it’s a small step toward believing that anyone who takes assistance is a drag on others. […]

But personal integrity and strength are not always enough. I came to see something sad about how it all turned out for the Ingallses and the Wilders, these two pioneer families etched onto our national consciousness. “I am the only one of the C. P. Ingalls family left, and Rose is the only grandchild,” Wilder wrote in a 1946 letter. None of Laura’s sisters had children, nor did Rose, so “the Almanzo Wilder branch will die out with us.” I thought of the hunger, illnesses and injuries in the books: the scarlet fever that left Mary blind, the diphtheria that withered Almanzo’s leg. Rose, who several times approached suicide, was clearly in the throes of untreated mental illness most of her life. Ma, Pa and Almanzo had come from large families that lived relatively comfortably. The hardscrabble way they raised their own children yielded adventure but also ill health.

Some of the blanks Wilder left have been filled in by other voices. Alongside the “Little House” version of the American westward push, we now also have Birchbark House, the cunning children’s series by the acclaimed novelist Louise Erdrich, which tells the story of white expansion in the upper Midwest from the point of view of a Native American girl. The books, engaging and addictive in their own right, have the satisfying ring of corrective truth about them.

Little Libertarians on the prairie
by Christine Woodside, Boston Globe

Unlike her parents and grandparents, Lane turned up her nose at manual labor, and there’s little evidence to suggest she felt any reverence for the hardscrabble people of the plains. In 1933, Lane sketched an outline, never finished, for a “big American novel.” One of the characters was the pioneer, whom she described as “a poor man, of obscure or debased birth, without ability to rise from the mass.” In a letter to her old boss in April 1929, six months before the stock market crash, she had written: “Personally, I believe what we need—what every social group needs—is a peasant class.”

When Black Tuesday did come, the Wilder-Lane households began a painful two-year downslide, as Lane’s savings deflated from $20,000 to almost nothing. Magazine work dried up. Wilder, too, lost some money but, characteristically, scraped together savings and paid off the farm. Lane fretted about money, missed rent payments to her parents, borrowed thousands from friends, and continued to call herself the head of the household. She also began to consider other possible writing projects.

For a decade already Lane had milked various snippets from her parents’ lives for short stories. Now she saw an opportunity for her mother. Pioneer struggles could eerily mirror the struggles of the Great Depression, and Lane thought Americans were ready to hear about covered-wagon childhoods. After magazines rejected Wilder’s real-life account, Lane began reworking some of the memoir into what would become the first children’s book, “Little House in the Big Woods.”

Published in 1932 by Harper & Brothers, the book was praised by book critics for its honesty and caught the interest of readers nationwide. The Junior Literary Guild, a national book club, paid them an additional fee to print its own run. The income crisis at the Wilders’ ended. In the shadow of the crash, tales of overcoming great adversity resonated, and the editors wanted more.

Wilder and Lane responded with their now-famous sequels. From the start, there was tension between their approaches. Wilder argued for strict accuracy, while Lane, the seasoned commercial writer, injected made-up dialogue, took out stories about criminals and murder, and—most significantly—recast the stoic, sometimes confused pioneers as optimistic, capable people who achieved success without any government help.

Laura Ingalls Wilder never got used to Lane’s heavy rewrites, but the evidence suggests that on the main approach, playing up toughness in adversity, she agreed with her daughter. Both women believed fervently that the nation in the depths of the Depression had become too soft. In 1937, Wilder wrote Lane that people’s complaints about having no jobs made her sick. (“People drive me wild,” she wrote. “They as a whole are getting just what they deserve.”)

The early books celebrated Laura’s early childhood in a cozy log cabin in Wisconsin. They celebrated Pa Ingalls’s storytelling abilities and described in gripping detail how backwoods and prairie farmers took care of themselves—hunted, butchered, cooked, built, and made things like soap and bullets—in the 1860s and 1870s. The third book, “Farmer Boy,” was about Wilder’s husband Almanzo’s life on a New York State farm. In the fourth book, “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” the Ingalls family relocated to Minnesota (the locale of the TV show), where they built a house and became wheat farmers despite a grasshopper plague.

In shaping the memoirs into novels, Lane consistently left out the kinds of setbacks and behavior that cast doubt on the pioneer enterprise; the family’s story became a testament to the possibilities of self-sufficiency rather than its limitations. The last four books—which tell the story of the Ingalls family’s attempt to homestead in the future state of South Dakota—are particularly fired by Libertarian themes.

Comparing Wilder’s original memoirs to the contents of the published books, it’s possible to see a pattern of strategic omissions and additions. In the fifth book, for example, “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” Laura promises to become a teacher to pay for her older sister Mary to attend a college for the blind. Wilder’s own account of her life reveals that although Wilder’s sister did attend a college for the blind, in reality it was the government of Dakota Territory—and not the family’s hard work—that covered the bills.

The next book, “The Long Winter,” stops for a moment of free-market speechifying almost certainly added by Lane. When a storekeeper tries to overcharge starving neighbors who want to buy the last stock of wheat available, a riot seems imminent until the character based on Wilder’s father, Pa, Charles Ingalls, brings him into line: “This is a free country and every man’s got a right to do as he pleases with his own property….Don’t forget that every one of us is free and independent, Loftus. This winter won’t last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it’s over.” It’s an appealing, if perhaps wishful, distillation of the idea that a free market can regulate itself perfectly well. Wilder rarely wrote extended dialogue in her own recollections, the manuscripts show; her daughter most likely invented this long exchange.

The Little House books barely mention the obvious, which is that the impoverished Ingallses never could have gone to Dakota Territory without a government grant: Like most pioneers, their livelihoods relied on the federal Homestead Act, which gave settlers 160 acres for the cost of a $14 filing fee—one of the largest acts of federal largesse in US history.

Wilder’s memoirs offer a picture of the costs and risks of isolation that never made it into the book series: A baby brother who died at 9 months. A miserable year working and living in an Iowa tavern. A pair of innkeepers who murdered guests and buried them out back. Another pioneer couple who boarded with them during the Long Winter whose attitudes were far more whining than stoic.

Perhaps the most telling omission is the book that almost never was. Wilder wrote one final volume, never revised by Lane, and not published until after they’d both died. “The First Four Years,” the ninth book, told of the drought that led to the failure of the Wilders’ first homestead after they were married in 1885. No one is sure why Lane did not revise that book, but it’s no stretch to imagine that she found herself at a loss to mold its dire underlying story—struggling, borrowing more and more money, losing the homestead anyway—into another celebration of self-sufficiency.

How ‘Little House on the Prairie’ Built Modern Conservatism
by Christine Woodside, Politico

It’s not hard to detect this impulse to celebrate individual freedom in the books, and it often appears in almost didactic form—“Don’t forget that every one of us is free and independent, Loftus,” Pa lectures a storekeeper in an argument over wheat profits during a winter famine. In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura, then a young teenager, has an epiphany about being responsible for herself after she hears a speech about independence at a Fourth of July ceremony. Elsewhere, the books minimize the role of government in the life of a family that sometimes did have to rely on it, as they took free land and benefited from state funds that paid sister Mary Ingalls’s tuition at the Iowa School for the Blind for seven years, a public subsidy the books quietly omit.

During the years they worked together, Lane—we know from her diaries, idea notebooks and letters to friends—began to think seriously about the relationship between the family’s farming roots and what makes America strong. Both Wilder and Lane thought that the solution to the Great Depression was to let people ride it out and learn to get by on less. The resulting books were best-sellers that celebrated the power of the individual over the government as an American principle just when that debate was raging over Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

These ideas fit with an anti-government-regulation movement that was beginning to light a fire under political conservatives. And they reached more readers with those ideas than a political manifesto could ever have done. […]

As early as the 1930s, she had started to connect with New Deal skeptics in the business community, and these ties only strengthened over the next 30 years. The greatest rapport with these business leaders was with former DuPont Chemical Executive Vice President Jasper Crane, with whom she corresponded at length through the 1940s. Crane committed himself in retirement “to the cause of freedom in America, which he feared was in great peril,” as Kim Phillips-Fein, a historian at New York University and expert on the conservative movement, has written.

Rose’s influence on Crane’s ideas can’t precisely be tracked, but they exchanged hundreds of letters, most of which I have read. In one of them, just three years after she and her mother finished the last Little House book, she wrote, “These are the most dangerous times in history and I am convinced that they will get much worse before they are better in any obvious or concrete terms. Since 1933 I have not been able to see anything in the near future but a terrific political, economic, social crash and chaos, with violence.”

Crane was just one of a large group of businessmen who banded together over their opposition to FDR and his New Deal. They included Leonard Read, manager of the western division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who’d grown up on a poor farm, and William Clinton Mullendore, who presided over Southern California Edison. These anti-New Deal activists admired the ideas of Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, economists who met in Austria in the 1920s and who argued that a strong economy rode on the freedom of buyers to determine value. These economists figured strongly in the growth of the libertarian movement in America—many years later, former Senator Ron Paul, who ran for president as a Libertarian in 1988, said he raised his son Rand Paul on their ideas.

In the mid-1950s, Rose found a new way to press her influence. Robert LeFevre, a businessman and champion of laissez-faire government and property rights, had written admiringly to Rose about her book The Discovery of Freedom. He began holding classes on an idyllic tract with comfortable rustic buildings north of Colorado Springs, calling the place the Freedom School and welcoming everyone from teenagers through the elderly for two-week sessions. LeFevre and his invited guests lectured for six hours a day, including weekends, on the theory of “nonarchism” (or “stateless capitalism,” an extremely minimalist form of government) and other concepts of the growing libertarian movement. LeFevre argued to his students that labor unions were coercive, foreign intervention was wrong and private enterprise could do better work than governments.

His school, despite its pro-business leanings, wasn’t much of a moneymaker, and he was at risk of closing. A timely, much-needed donation came from Rose’s ample income from the Little House royalties. In 1962, LeFevre named the main log building Rose Wilder Lane Hall. Rose attended the dedication ceremony. Two of the young students who sat under its roof for classes were the sons of industrialist Fred Koch, MIT-trained engineers named Charles and David Koch.

“Little House on the Prairie”: Tea Party manifesto
by Caroline Fraser, Salon

Wilder is now detained at those crossroads by Meghan Clyne, managing editor of National Affairs, former speechwriter for Laura and George W. Bush and contributor to the New York Post (where she worried that an Obama nominee might introduce sharia law). Clyne calls for building an “historical-appreciation movement” around Wilder, who is to model self-reliance for millions of less worthy Americans currently receiving Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and “food stamps or other nutrition benefits.” Citing Jefferson, Clyne warns against “degeneracy” in the dependent, commending Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 paper for its depiction of “the conquest of this last unsettled frontier,” without remarking on the removal of natives that made it possible, paid for by the federal government and intended as the type of benefit she condemns. She takes no notice of the fact that Indians occupy a great deal of real estate in Little House on the Prairie, with its references to the 1862 “Minnesota massacre,” when Sioux warriors angered by treaty violations killed hundreds of soldiers and settlers and were then captured, tried, and hung in the largest mass execution in our history. Or that the little house in question was built illegally on an Osage reserve, which may explain why the Ingallses relinquished it.

Condemning “welfare-state redistribution,” Clyne embraces the 1862 Homestead Act, central to the later Little House books. Yet it was one of the biggest federal handouts in American history. Clyne praises it as policy that “encouraged habits of self-reliance rather than undermining them,” but it sought to give away a trillion acres of “free land,” as it was called, in 160-acre parcels to those over twenty-one if they could live on it and improve it over five years. Homesteading was no picnic, as Wilder makes clear, but everyone at the time knew it was a giveaway. Wilder remembers her father singing, “Uncle Sam is rich enough / To give us all a farm!” a popular ditty that hardly comports with Clyne’s contempt for “the crutch of government support.” The Homestead Act was not a particularly succesful incubator of self-reliance, as only a fifth of the land went to small farmers, and less than half of all homesteaders managed to make the necessary improvements to keep it. The Act was also undermined by fraud and land speculation: Much of the property was acquired by railroads and large ranching interests. […]

In the chapter “Indians Ride Away,” the family “looked and looked” again as a seemingly endless single file of Osage Indians rides by. Earlier, the Ingalls girls have been terrified of “naked wild men,” witnessing their mother’s fear as “fierce-looking men” clothed in skunk skins and armed with hatchets and knives arrive at their cabin while her father is away, demanding food. But watching the Osage file away, Laura’s response is immediate, unfiltered. Entranced by the ponies and ornaments — blankets, beads, fringe, eagle feathers — Laura looks into the eyes of an Indian papoose, “black as a night when no stars shine,” and pleads with her father: “‘get me that little Indian baby!’” Pa tells her to hush, but to her parents’ dismay she begs — “‘Oh, I want it! I want it!’” — as “that long line of Indians slowly pulled itself over the western edge of the world.” It is a singular moment of pure naivete in the literature of the American west, capturing the primitive attitude of white settlers toward Indians: their fears, simplistic admiration, and essential acquisitiveness toward everything possessed by the people they are displacing. While Indians are largely absent from the books that follow, Laura’s cry is the childlike echo of her parents’ appropriation of land from its original owners, human and wild. It becomes her own such act, when Wilder describes her fictional self — casting off her sunbonnet with her mother’s strictures — as “brown as an Indian.”

Pa presents an unlikely fit with conservative ethics. In life, Charles Ingalls was a Populist, a party which opposed railroad interests and promoted those of wheat farmers. In fiction, with his tan skin and unruly brown hair and whiskers, he is a wild man himself: He plays “mad dog” with his daughters, growling on all fours. He tells tales of hunting bears and panthers but sometimes becomes lost in admiration at his prey: At the end of Little House in the Big Woods he returns empty-handed from a hunting trip, telling his daughters that he lured a bear and a family of deer to a salt lick but couldn’t bring himself to shoot them, they were so “‘strong and free and wild.’” This is a very different vision of freedom than that of the Tea Party, at least its hunting wing. Laura listens carefully and says, “‘I’m glad you didn’t shoot them!’” Wilder, who later described the novels as “a memorial for my father,” sees him as the quintessential human animal, forever longing to lose himself in an idealized, depopulated west: “Wild animals would not stay in a country where there were so many people. Pa did not like to stay, either. He liked a country where the wild animals lived without being afraid.”

While Clyne emphasizes “community,” Laura rebels against it, as the family retreats from Kansas to relatively settled Minnesota in On the Banks of Plum Creek. As they prepare to move into their new home, a dugout carved into a riverbank, Ma says, “‘It is all so tame and peaceful. […] There will be no wolves or Indians howling tonight. I haven’t felt so safe and at rest since I don’t know when.’” Her husband’s reply is ambiguous: “‘We’re safe enough, all right. Nothing can happen here.’” Their daughter is disappointed: “Laura lay in bed and listened to the water talking and the willows whispering. She would rather sleep outdoors, even if she heard wolves, than be so safe in this house dug under the ground.”

Crops, cattle, and profits, central to conservative notions of the frontier, are portrayed as false promises. Locust swarms consume the wheat. A pair of oxen runs away with the wagon bearing Laura’s mother and baby sister, threatening to dash them against a bluff. Her father heads them off and later comforts his daughters with hoarhound candy. Savoring it, Laura tells him, “‘I think I like wolves better than cattle.’” In a 1936 letter to her daughter, Wilder describes her emphasis on her mother’s search for a safe harbor as an explicit narrative choice: “The idea is that […] [Plum Creek] was safety and then look what happened. Laura preferred wolves.” […]

Lost in the discussion of whether she was a libertarian or a mere purveyor of liberty is the Wilder who rejoiced in wilderness. “She loved the beautiful world,” she says of herself in The Long Winter. Like those praised by the Sage of Concord, her books “smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects.” They do not celebrate the exploitation of nature, as conservative pundits do, but mourn it. They do not promote anything like the shooting wolves from helicopters, a right cherished by those Emerson called “parlour soldiers” and supported by Sarah Palin. Last year, the governor of Idaho, C. L. “Butch” Otter, declared wolves a “Disaster Emergency,” expressing his desire to “bid for the first ticket to shoot a wolf myself.” By this spring, Idahoans had killed some 500, around half the state’s population. Wyoming is poised to do the same. With taxpayer funds, a host of state and federal agencies, including the Department of Agriculture’s “Wildlife Services” — created in 1915 to exterminate wolves — still seeks to “control” the species and eliminate animals the federal government has spent millions to reintroduce, by poisoning, trapping, and aerial gunning. (For more on this federal program, see the three-part series, “The Killing Agency: Wildlife Services’ Brutal Methods Leave a Trail of Animal Death,” Sacramento Bee, April 29, April 30, and May 6, 2012.)

Wilder was a practical farm woman protective of her life and livelihood, but it is impossible to imagine her supporting such wasteful savagery. Indeed, her shift from Democrat to Republican was sparked by a disgust with New Deal policies after she heard that crops were to be plowed under to stabilize agricultural prices. This was an outrage to a woman who had lived with hunger and been forced by debt and crop failures to leave the Dakota prairies and her beloved parents.

The Little House books have always been stranger, deeper, and darker than any ideology. While celebrating family life and domesticity, they undercut those cozy values at every turn, contrasting the pleasures of home (firelight, companionship, song) with the immensity of the wilderness, its nobility and its power to resist cultivation and civilization. In her hymn to the American west, Wilder treasures forest, grasslands, wetlands, and wildlife in terms that verge on the transcendental. Alive in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memory of it, the wilderness she knew — now lost — continues to reflect her longing for a vanishing world, a rough paradise from which we are excluded by a helpless devotion to our own survival.

Libertarians on the Prairie
by Christine Woodside
Kindle Locations 227-246

The factual details of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life seem harsh when held up against the atmosphere of her autobiographical Little House novels. Between Laura’s third and thirteenth years, the Ingalls family moved six times. Her father, Charles “Pa” Ingalls, was a fiddle-playing, poetry-reading adventurer. He and Laura’s mother, Caroline or “Ma,” took Laura and her sisters by covered wagon on a multistage pilgrimage seeking fertile land, good hunting, and wide-open spaces. What reality brought were natural disasters, crop failures, and hunted-out regions. Each time they decided to leave a place, Charles and Caroline loaded the wagon with the most basic supplies—cornmeal, live chickens, a few dishes, iron pots, and blankets—and set off, camping on the prairie or in creek bottoms each night. Until they were big enough to sit up, Laura and the other children sat in their mother’s lap; once they were older (she wrote), they perched on a board placed across the wagon’s sideboards.

In fall 1869, Ma and Pa loaded her and her older sister, Mary, into the wagon. They left their log cabin in Wisconsin—their “little house in the big woods”—and made their way, along with possibly thousands of other settlers, onto a small band of land that the federal government had kept closed to all but some thirty-one tribes of Plains Indians in the future state of Kansas, near the Oklahoma border. The region was called the Osage Diminished Reserve because the Osage had been there the longest and lost the most. The Osage had signed a treaty to relinquish the land just before the Ingallses headed there, but the treaty had never been ratified. In Little House on the Prairie, Laura would call this land Indian Territory, although it lay just north of the actual Indian Territory (another region also closed to non-Indians at that time).

Laura recalled little from the year they tried to farm there, but she and Rose combined family stories with best guesses and some invention in writing Little House on the Prairie. We do know that Pa built a house of logs from the creek bottoms and the family began breaking land for crops and planted a garden. Their third daughter, Carrie (Caroline), was born there. With the tending of the vegetables and livestock and the planting of crops, daily life settled in, but tensions rose between the settlers and the Osage Indians. Later, in a letter to Rose, Laura would remind her daughter that the family had had no right to be there, since the treaty hadn’t been ratified. She called Pa a squatter, and he was one of many.

It seems likely they left in 1871, in part because of mounting worry about conflict between the settlers, the Osage, and the federal government.

Bloodland
by Dennis McAuliffe
Kindle Locations 1352-1442

One day, I was staring at a map of the Osages’ rectangle of reservation in Kansas, and my eyes stuck on a red dot in the middle of it, signifying a “Point of Interest.” The words “Little House on the Prairie” came into focus.

Little Laura Ingalls, her sisters and their beloved Ma and Pa were illegal legal squatters on Osage land. She left that detail out of her 1935 children’s dren’s book, Little House on the Prairie, as well as any mention of ongoing outrages-including killings, burnings, beatings, horse thefts and grave robberies-committed by white settlers, such as Charles Ingalls, against Osages living in villages not more than a mile or two away from the Ingallses’ gallses’ little house.

Mrs. Wilder’s unwitting association with the Osages would last a lifetime. She started writing the “Little House” children’s books-there were nine-in the 1930s, in her sixties, while living in a big house located on former Osage land in the Missouri Ozarks. The “Little House” books-especially especially the one that took place “on the Prairie” of the Osage reservation in Kansas-would be much read, broadcast and beloved. Shortly after World War II, the State Department ordered Mrs. Wilder’s books translated lated into German and Japanese, the languages of the United States’ most recently defeated enemies, who had just joined the list of America’s other Vanquished, including American Indians. The “Little House” books were “positive representations of America,” the U.S. government decreed, a good way to show other peoples of the world the American Way. Obviously ously someone in government forgot to consult the Osages.

After the Civil War, caravans of white settlers started overrunning the Osage reservation, and the Ingalls family joined them in 1869. They were drawn there by the U.S. government’s giveaway of 160-acre plots of free land to each adult settler under the Homestead Act of 1862, signed by Abraham Lincoln early in the Civil War as a way to keep the hearts and minds of poor northern people planted firmly in the Union, and maybe win some from the South. The subliminal message of the law was “Stick with us, and we’ll reward you-if you win this war. Trade in your slums for the wide-open spaces of the West, where you can be your own boss, on your own land. All you have to do is kill a couple of Confederates.” Railroads roads passed the good news to Europe-or at least to northern Europeans such as the hard-working Swedes, Norwegians and Germans. The railroads’ roads’ flyers, however, never made it to the Italians or Slavs. A song was even written to give settlers something to sing while traveling west, either to America or to their new homesteads west of the Mississippi:

Oh, come to this country
And don’t you feel alarm
For Uncle Same is rich enough
To give us all a farm!

[… The Osage] appear in her book only as beggars and thieves, and she adds injury to insult by comparing the Osages-who turned Thomas Jefferson’s head with their dignity and grace-to reptiles, to garbage or scum (depending on the definition of the word she actually uses). Mrs. Wilder assigns them descriptive adjectives that connote barbarism, brutality, and bloodthirstiness, and makes much ado about their odor. But she makes light of their obvious plight: In one passage, she describes almost mockingly the skeletal figures of two Osages who are fed cornbread by Ma, the eating noises they make and the pitiful sight of them stooping to eat specks of food they spot on the floor.

The Osages were hungry because white men such as her father were burning their fields, forcing them at gunpoint from their homes and threatening them with death if they returned, stealing their food and horses, even robbing their graves-all to force them to abandon their land. There is no proof, of course, that Charles Ingalls took part in these crimes, but I assume that he did, since he was sleazy enough to willfully steal their land, their most valuable possession. He did disappear for four days-according according to the book, it took that long to get to Independence and back, all of ten miles away-and returned with food and other supplies. He unabashedly abashedly told little Laura, trying to explain why he had moved the family to the Osage reservation, that because they and other whites were there, the Army would drive the Indians away.

In the words of the Osages’ U.S. agent in 1870, even being “kind and generous to the Indians . . . [does) not relieve these men from the reproach of being trespassers, intruders, and violators of the nation’s law.”

The annual reports of the Osages’ U.S. agent to his superiors in Washington, the commissioners of Indian affairs, provide the chapter of Little House on the Prairie that Laura Ingalls Wilder failed to write:

The Ingallses moved onto Osage land in 1869, about ten miles southwest of Independence, and only about five miles from the Kansas border with Indian Territory. The Ingallses were not alone. That year, more than 500 families trespassed on the reservation and “built their cabins ins near the [main} Indian camps”-in the Ingallses’ case, only a mile or so away. The 1870 U.S. census listed the Little House-and the Ingallses as its occupants-as “the 89th residence of Rutland Township,” although “a claim was not filed because the land was part of the Osage . . . Reserve.” serve.”

Squatters had “taken possession of [the Osages’) cornfields, and forbidden bidden them cutting firewood on `their claims,’ ” wrote agent G. C. Snow. “Their horses are constantly being driven off by the white men,” he said. The Osages “have had, to my certain knowledge, over 100 of their best horses stolen [in the past month). I learn that scarcely a day passes that they do not lose from five to twenty horses. . . . Not one of [the horse thieves has] as yet been brought to justice, or one in a hundred of the Indians’ ans’ horses returned to them.”

The settlers “threaten me with Crawford’s militia, and say they will hang me if I interfere with them,” the Indian agent complained, referring to the Kansas governor. Samuel J. Crawford was so opposed to Indians in general and Osages in particular that he once told a white constituent, Theodore Reynolds, complaining about problems over filing a claim because cause of a mixed-blood Osage, Augustus Captain: “Shoot the half-breed renegade and I will pardon you before the smoke gets away from your gun.”

U.S. agent Isaac T. Gibson wrote in his annual report for 1870 that settlers had grown bolder, forming vigilante groups “pledged to defend each other in the occupation of claims, without regard to the improvements, possession, or rights of the Indians. Many of the latter were turned out of their homes, and threatened with death if they persisted in claiming them. Others were made homeless by cunning and fraud.

“While absent on their winter hunt, [the Osages’} cribs of corn, and other provisions, so hardly earned by their women’s toil, were robbed. Their principal village was pillaged of a large amount of [casks), and wagon-loads of matting hauled away and used by the settlers in building and finishing houses for themselves. Even new-made graves were plundered, with the view of finding treasures, which the Indians often bury with their dead. . . .

“The question will suggest itself, which of these peoples are the savages?”

The outrages of 1870 were a turning point for the Osages. At that spring’s payment in provisions of promised treaty annuities, the government again pressed the Osages to sell their Kansas lands. In 1865, the Osages ceded under pressure nearly 4 million acres on the northern and eastern perimeters of their reservation, and in 1868 were forced to agree to sell their 8-million-acre “diminished reserve,” as the government called the remainder of their land, to a railroad corporation for 19 cents an acre. But President Ulysses S. Grant withdrew the treaty in 1870 when it became came obvious that the Senate would not ratify it amid an explosion of outrage rage from settlers that the sale would put the Osage lands in the hands of the railroads and not in theirs. Gibson noted the weariness of the Osages at the 1870 spring annuity payment, quoting “one of their head-men” as complaining, “Why is it that our Great Father can never even send us our annuities, without asking us to sell and move once more?” The Indian added, “We are tired of all this.” Gibson described the Osage as having “the look and tone of a man without hope.” […]

The morning after they signed the treaty, “the air was filled with the cries of the old people, especially the women, who lamented over the graves of their children, which they were about to leave forever,” a Kansas newspaper reported.

Most of the Osages left Kansas in late fall for their annual winter buffalo hunt on the plains, and did not return, staying instead in Indian Territory. Laura Ingalls—and her readers—did not know it, but she witnessed a watershed moment in the history of the Osages—their removal from Kansas—when one morning she looked out the window of the little house and saw a traffic jam of Indians riding past. They came from the creek bottoms to the east and rode west, past the house, on an old Indian trail that later was paved and became U.S. Route 75.

One of the Osage warriors who rode past the little house that day was my great-great-grandfather, and one of the Osage women Laura saw was my great-great-grandmother.

The Ingalls family left Kansas a few weeks later. Mrs. Wilder claimed that a cavalry troop rode in one day and warned Pa to vacate or be evicted, since the house was located just inside the Osages’ diminished reservation. But that could not have been the reason the Ingallses left Kansas and moved back to Wisconsin. The U.S. Army had not moved one squatter off the Osages’ land when it was their reservation, so why would that happen when there no longer was an Osage reservation in Kansas?

The Ingallses’ neighbors were not through with the Osages yet. Nearly twenty mixed-blood Osages had decided to remain on farms they had developed and improved over the years, and to formally enter the white man’s world by becoming U.S. citizens. They secured a special treaty with the good citizens of Independence to allow them to stay. But in the weeks after the main body of Osages left Kansas, the mixed-bloods’ farmhouses, one after another, were burned down.

One night, the white neighbors of Joseph Mosher broke into his house-a mile or two from the Little House on the Prairie-dragged him, his wife and children out of their beds and into the yard, where they beat them and torched the house.

Then they took the Osage man to the nearby woods, and pistol-whipped whipped him to death.

Ghost in the Little House
by William Holtz
pp. 72-73

Her ingrained assumptions were essentially Protestant and individualistic, the inheritance from her pioneer parents, however tempered by her infatuation with Eugene Debs. But her naive faith in Debs had waned during her real estate days, she recalled, as she “fought for commissions and sales, too busy getting them to worry about the Golden Rule in business, especially as I never happened to encounter it there.” And the religious certitude of that inheritance would be set aside: “there wasn’t any Eden ever, you know,” she wrote to Mama Bess. “Drunk on Darwin, Huxley, Spender, my generation nonchalantaly abolished God,” she later observed and Marx and Freud were part of the heady drink as well. Moral absolutes, under the eye of science, became simply conventions she and her cohorts sought to ground themselves in a newly discovered natural order that underlay the shattered culture of the nineteenth century.

What fell into place was a melange of ideas that essentially substituted a romantic naturalism for the departed theism and a social meliorism for the discredited gospels. As she had come to maturity in an urban business world, she had encountered the easy adaptation of the earlier tradition of individual struggle to the Darwinian hypothesis: social Darwinism had become a cliche by her adult years, and she had read Herbert Spencer while still a telegrapher. […] the instinctive, self-serving energies that had carried her in her business career found a new challenge in the vaguely socialist liberalism of many of her friends. Certainly the limitations of social Darwinism were on her mind as she wrote not merely in her willingness to consider government solutions to social problems in “Soldiers of the Soil” and “The Building of Hetch-Hetchy,” but also in her fiction and her local color pieces. In “Myself” her heroine is lectured on “survival of the fittest” by her business-school teacher, whereupon she immediately gets her first job by keeping from a more needy classmate news of an opening that she might fill it herself. And in one episode of “The City at Night,” Rose ironically invokes the Darwinian phrase as a hard-working immigrant boy, sole support of his family, learns of the death by disease of his infant sister. Years later Rose would proclaim at one time she had been a Communist, which was probably an overstatement; but from this period until her visit to Europe she accepted as more or less inevitable the eventual arrival of a benign socialist order. She was attracted to Jack London’s theoretical socialism, and when she recalled in a letter to Dorothy Thompson their generation’s enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution (“The sun is rising in Russia,” they said to each other), she was remembering an attitude, if not a creed, that she shared with many of her contemporaries. That she was willing to debate the Bolshevik war resisters who organized under Jack London’s name shows the pragmatic streak underlying her fling with socialism, but it is likewise no surprise to find in her FBI file that in 1919 her name was on the mailing list of the Finnish Singing Society, identified by the FBI as a propaganda group associated with the IWW. The mailing address was 1413 Montgomery, The Little House on Telegraph Hill.

Little House, Long Shadow
by Anita Clair Fellman
XVII-XVIII

As I was beginning to flirt with the idea of working on the Little House books someday, Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States. During that first election campaign, I was very much struck by the individualist, antigovernment nature of his rhetoric: his view of government (and taxes) as burdensome and an impediment to individual autonomy; his insistence that individuals are essentially responsible for themselves and that government is not needed or wanted to protect them from the fluctuations of the market or other misfortunes. We have become accustomed to such ideas and language now, but in 1980 it had been a long time since such language was used so fulsomely and frequently in the national political arena, regardless of similar rhetoric in business circles and the trend toward federal government downsizing in the Carter administration. Because the New Deal had changed the nature of American political discourse, the language of conservatism, from the 1930s until the mid-1970s, was usually more traditionalist and anticommunist than it was expressly antigovernment. Interestingly, Rose Wilder Lane’s papers indicated that she had had a positive response to Reagan’s rhetoric very early as he spoke on behalf of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential campaign, which, in its assault on the welfare state, was labeled extremist at the time.

Whatever I thought of the match between Reagan’s rhetoric and the actuality of most Americans’ daily lives in the complex economy had siphoned a stream of laissez-faire assumptions that ran forcefully and persistently just under the surface of American life. What fed that stream? I wondered. What kept such ideas alive? What gave them such emotional force? How were they conveyed? Beyond the relatively small core of people who were consciously developing a new conservatism in those years, most Americans had not heard a strongly articulated individualist perspective in mainstream politics for more than a generation, save for the rhetoric of the Goldwater campaign that was undercut by his cold war hawkishness. Why did Reagan’s antistate ideas immediately resonate for them? Why did they sound so familiar? How did such ideas get transmitted, generation after generation? I considered the possibility that other sources besides mainstream political rhetoric were responsible for maintaining an individualist vision among the population at large. Although I started studying the Little House books trying in general to understand their “hook,” I began wondering if the books’ appeal had something to do with that vision.

pp. 44-59

The only letter from a reader that Lane ever copied into her diary expressed appreciation that her serial on pioneer life, unlike the pessimistic writings of Hamlin Garland and Willa Cather, could help “lead the world back from the defeatist thinking of the socialistic militarist” European patterns, toward a vindication of the individual’s ability under stress to endure and flourish. Her book publishers, in the midst of the economic depression, used the political dimensions of this theme in their advertisements of the book: “What these two heroic young pioneers in con trast to much other advertising in the thirties that played on people’s fears and anxieties and promised security of one kind or another. […]

Watchful and at first neutral, Wilder and Lane became increasingly alarmed by President Roosevelt’s efforts to combat the Depression. Wilder left the Democratic Party and firmly opposed Roosevelt. In later years Lane liked to depict herself as a 1920 convert from near-communism to firm individualism, claiming to have attended meetings establishing the founding of the American Communist Party when she lived in Greenwich Village immediately after World War I, and becoming disabused of her ideas when she traveled in the Soviet Union in 1920. In actuality, she was cautiously feeling her way in the late 1920s and early 1930s from vague liberalism and internationalism toward an increasingly strong conviction that altruism stood in the way of progress, and that anything more than minimal government was an unnecessary evil. Unlike her parents, Lane seems always to have been vulnerable to the political currents of the times. She remembered being fervently in favor of William Jennings Bryan and the free coinage of silver, in opposition to the Republican-promoted gold standard in the 1896 election. Influenced by her aunt Eliza Jane during the year she spent living with her in Louisiana, she considered herself a socialist and an enthusiastic Eugene Debs supporter during his 1904 try at the presidency. Lane’s San Francisco and Greenwich Village sojourns as a young adult reinforced her inclination to be critical of the political status quo in the United States and interested in the Georgia remained just observations and not criticisms for almost a decade.

Living isolated on the Missouri farm in the early 1930s, save for occasional trips and visitors, Lane was left more on her own to dig down to her own intellectual bedrock. Everything, positive and negative, she had experienced and was then undergoing contributed to her evolving political perspective. Traveling and even living in some of the world’s trouble spots, combined with putting together a good if uneven living as a freelance writer, gave her a sense of the inevitable precariousness of life. Helping to support her parents, involvement with her mother on many levels, and writing about her family’s history led her to perceive how difficult it was to maintain the proper balance between care for others and for oneself. Feeling abandoned by many of her friends and battling ongoing psychological depression and periodic ill health exacerbated the sense that, in the final analysis, she was on her own in the world.

Wilder’s political outlook underwent fewer changes. No matter that Laura in These Happy Golden Years had disclaimed any interest in women obtaining the vote, the middle-aged Laura Ingalls Wilder had long been active in local politics in Mansfield. Like her sister Carrie, she and Almanzo apparently were loyal Democrats. Throughout the nineteenth century, during the couple’s formative years, the ideology of the Democratic Party, though strongly predisposed to the yeoman farmer as an independent producer, was consistently antistatist. Political scientist John Gerring characterizes the national party’s opposition to the federal government in those years as “virulent,” explaining, “No other single issue was repeated so adamantly or so persistently as limited government.” Charles Ingalls apparently had Populist leanings, along with a firm commitment to state rather than federal resolution of problems, but the Wilders do not seem to have been involved in the various farmers’ protest movements in the nineteenth century. William Jennings Bryan, in his long tenure as leader of the Democratic Party, from 1896 to 1912, worked to reform-minded goals, but as John Milton Cooper puts it, “Many aspects of the party’s ultimate reformation appeared only tentatively during Wilson’s time and would not fully capture the hearts and minds of party stalwarts—much less the country as a whole—until decades later.”

It is very possible that the Wilders were among those who never accepted substantial aspects of the evolving Democratic platform. Laura Ingalls Wilder was not opposed to all the federal regulatory agencies that had emerged during World War I, but thought that they should be evaluated for retention on a case-by-case basis. She could make an argument for the sugar board, for instance, because the existing monopoly on output had contributed to the exorbitant prices of sugar. It was when the reach of federal regulatory agencies penetrated their local community that the Wilders reassessed the implications of government power. Their fundamental expectations of the federal government were largely that it cease favoring industry over agriculture. In 1918 Wilder helped organize the Mansfield National Farm Loan Association, of which she served as secretary for ten years. The association dispersed money from the U.S. government in the form of loans to farmers at the reasonable rate of 5.5 percent. “I believe,” Wilder wrote in 1925, “that this amount of money [more than one hundred thousand dollars], brought into our community from the government, has increased our prosperity by that much, and has been of direct or indirect value to us all.” Presumably administered by farmers themselves rather than by bureaucrats, the association, in the Wilders’ view, evened the odds a bit for farmers in relation to the protected industrial sector. […]

Despite their long affiliation as Democrats, the Wilders were not prepared to make the shift in philosophy implied by the New Deal. Not only were they likely to have been influenced by their daughter, but the upending of economic and moral verities and the transformation in conceptions of the role of government also ran counter to their interpretation of their own experiences. Thinking back over their family’s struggles—the battle with the weather in South Dakota; Almanzo’s crippling illness; their survival of the 1893 panic; the long, slow transformation of a small, unpromising piece of rocky Missouri land into a moderate-size, productive farm; the eventual realization of their dream farmhouse—the Wilders and Lane increasingly became angered by government farm-relief programs that implied that individuals were incapable of coping with setbacks on their own. This may have been the Democratic policy that pushed them out of the party. As Lane wrote to her literary agent in April 1933, “My father is opposed to all ‘farm-relief’ measures, as such. Agriculture’s dilemma as we see it has been caused by industrialism’s having had special political favors; we believe the balance would be restored by giving agriculture equality with industry in tariff protection, available market data, and easy credit facilities for short-time loans, and that farming needs no direct governmental aid.” Three years later she made her indictment more sweeping: “Government’s paternal interference in agriculture has always done harm, and to date no visible good.”

Having spent fifty years in trying to wrest crops from recalcitrant soils, the Wilders were aghast at the prospect of plowing crops under so as to cut down on so-called surpluses. To do so seemed to violate the natural order and common sense. […]

In many ways besides the grasshopper invasion, Mansfield was deeply affected by the Depression. Even before the crash, the town had been in the doldrums, ceasing to grow economically and losing ground to other towns around it. Like others of its size, it had experienced changes owing to the delayed aftermath of national industrialization. However, without the dynamism and optimism accompanying growth, these changes seemed merely disruptive rather than challenging or promising. This, in turn, fostered resistance to changes in values and nostalgia for the old ways, as exemplified by the old-time fiddling and chicken-calling contests that took place in Mansfield in the late 1920s.

The Ozarks had never taken kindly to change. The transition from a subsistence to a cash economy, which had occurred only a short time before the Wilders arrived, had been accompanied by significant amounts of resistance and violence. Once the 1929 Depression hit, unemployment, high in Missouri, was even higher in the Ozarks. Although the two local Mansfield banks managed to stay open, stretches of area railroad were abandoned. Agricultural prices plummeted, as did farm income and land values. As had happened in 1893, drought exacerbated the economic decline. legislative sessions in Missouri for infighting rather than for tackling the ongoing economic disintegration of the state. But unlike 1893, this time the federal government was prepared to step in to alleviate the distress of at least some affected individuals. What John E. Miller characterizes as “a considerable number” of local farmers and unemployed workers obtained jobs through various New Deal projects in Mansfield, building roads and a new grade school, working in sewing rooms and workshops sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. Wilder complained about the shortage of farm labor, which she believed was owing to the work-relief programs. […]

None of these programs helped the Democrats win votes locally. Mansfield was normally Republican, and although the town supported Roosevelt by a slight margin in 1932, it reverted to its usual pattern of voting in 1934. That was also the year in which conservative Republican Dewey Short, a favorite of Wilder’s, regained his congressional seat for the district, which he maintained for the next twenty-two years on the basis of his opposition to liberal New Deal–type programs. Unlike the rest of the state, which Roosevelt carried by a two-to-one margin, the Ozarks went for Alf Landon in 1936. Consequently, throughout and Lane were surrounded by people also hostile to Roosevelt and presumably to the New Deal. […]

Theirs was a vision nourished by their experiences as mother and daughter in a specific historical context that reinforced their austere view. Their childhoods on the American frontier and their adult experiences as self-employed people evoked the virtues of self-sufficiency to them. The transition that occurred in their lifetimes to a more collectivist notion of society and a more interventionist role for government violated their interpretations of their own histories. “The old spirit of sturdy independence seems to be vanishing,” Wilder noted in her later years. “We all depend too much on others. As modern life is lived, we have to do so, and more and more the individual alone is helpless.” The two women’s final assessments of what people could realistically expect from one another, greatly influenced by their own family relationships, predisposed them to a kind of “ontological individualism,” a perception of the solitary individual as the true social and political unit, more basic than any entity termed society. It led them to a belief in political individualism, the notion that government should do as little as possible to intrude in the lives of individuals. “She is an extreme individualist,” Lane wrote of her mother in the 1940s, adding, “(so am I).” Of course, such a stance has other sources as well, outside the dynamics of family life. Nonetheless, Wilder’s and Lane’s responses to their relationship and to their life histories contributed to a view of the world that was at once uniquely theirs yet resonant Americans.

Each woman in her way turned her sense of deprivation into a moral principle by which to gauge the world. To both, the material world—Mother Earth—although for moments beautiful, was ultimately an unyielding place that granted nothing without a struggle. In parallel fashion, their beliefs about human society provided the individual with no sure allies. For Rose Wilder Lane, these beliefs led to an individualist libertarian philosophy that has gained in influence since 1940. The warm and broad reception of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books shows that aspects of a more extreme vision of individualism are widely shared by Americans and, in fact, are so generally accepted as truthful as to not be deemed “political” in implication.

Genealogy as Family History, Not Genetics

I was reading some articles about the writing of the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, co-written with her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. On a discussion board, a couple of scenes were mentioned where someone asked for or demanded to have the baby or child of another person. A few people mentioned how this used to be common for people to ask for and raise other people’s children.

There were various reasons for this. A couple who couldn’t have kids might have wanted a kid. Also, because of farm life, having lots of kids around was necessary. And there were many reasons for a couple to give up a kid. They might have been compensated for giving away their child. Or they might simply have hit hard times and couldn’t afford all their children. Or one parent got sick or died.

It was a rough world in centuries past with sickness and death being a near constant factor in people’s lives. Most people didn’t live long and many women died in childbirth. Kids being raised by people who weren’t their parents was extremely common. And no one thought much about it. People used to be a lot less sentimental about children and childhood, largely because most children died in the first few years. For this reason, it was common for children not to even be given names until they survived past toddler age.

This made me think about the problems of genealogy research. It is usually impossible to prove your actual genealogy more than a century back. In the past, birth records, baptismal records, etc were rare. And until the latter half of the 19th century, wives and children weren’t even named in the United States census records. Plus, proving paternity was impossible until the recent development of genetic tests. I remember reading about how many men came home after the Civil War to find their wives pregnant or with children who were born while they weren’t around. The same thing happens in every war, especially major wars like the two world wars. Most people don’t talk about such things, much less leave records indicating questionable paternity.

Most of genealogy is probably fictional. It represents generations of family identity, not genetic inheritance. An child who is adopted or of uncertain paternity is still part of the family they were raised in. That is what genealogy is about.

Christians Dancing

In Dancing in the Streets, Barbara Ehrenreich writes that (p.58):

From a Roman perspective, Christianity was at first just another “oriental” religion coming out of the east, and, like others of similar provenance, attractive to women and the poor. It offered direct communion with the deity, with the promise of eternal life, but so did many of the other imported religions that so vexed the Roman authorities. In fact, there is reason to think that early Christianity was itself an ecstatic religion, overlapping the cult of Dionysus.

The Roman Empire looked east, to the “Orient”. Almost everything of significance was came from that direction where most of the other great empires, societies, and cities were to be found: Persia, Greece, Alexandria, etc. Jews and early Christians, to the Roman mind, were perceived as Easterners. A practice like circumcision made Jews stand out in Rome, but in the East there were other religions and ethnic groups that did the same thing.

Jews and Christians, along with Stoics and the worshippers of Dionysus, Isis, and many others — they were all hard to tell apart. Before the Romans came to power, the Greeks developed a worldview of everyone who wasn’t Greek was therefore a Barabarian. In the ancient world, it was only the ruling authorities of the empires that eventually became concerned about sorting people into the proper box and labeling them accordingly.

So, if you vaguely looked like or did anything approximating the behavior of some known group, that is who you’d get lumped with. Simply refusing to eat Pork because you were a vegetarian could get you accused of being a Jew. At times, being Jewish had great advantages and so large numbers converted to Judaism. And at other times, some other identity was preferable. Ancient people were often taken at their word. If you claimed to be a member of a particular religion, ethnicity or nationality, you’d likely be treated as such.

It wasn’t usually a matter of deception, though. Most ancient people had fluid and overlapping identities. The distinction between one group and another was often rather fuzzy. The various populations were constantly intermingling, borrowing traditions from each other, incorporating foreign elements into their religions, and otherwise shifting their identities and cultures as social and political conditions changed.

Ancient people didn’t think in modern terms. But there was beginning to be changes. With the rise of colonial and expansionist empires during the Axial Age, the greater contact put greater emphasis on identity. This can be sensed most clearly in the late Axial Age when religions like Christianity arose. If you were in the growing Roman Empire, how a group defined themselves and were perceived became increasingly important. This is why, “The obvious parallel between the Christ story and that of pagan victim gods was a source of great chagrin to second-century Church fathers” (p. 58). Paul, as a Roman citizen, was particularly concerned about making Christianity respectable to the Roman authorities and within Roman society.

This was a challenge. It was obvious to everyone involved that Christianity had borrowed heavily from diverse religious and philosophical traditions. There was nothing unique about early Christianity. There were thousands of small cults like it. The worst part about it, from a Roman perspective, is the stark similarities and connections to Eastern groups. And how could it be denied. The first Christians were themselves Jews who were from the East.

The Jews had spent centuries mixing up various oral traditions with elements of nearby religions before writing any of it down. Then the Jews became heavily enmeshed in Greek culture. In the centuries immediately prior to Christianity, many Jews were worshipping pagan deities, including the ancient practice of conflating deities. Yahweh, for many Jews and non-Jews alike, had become identified with Zeus and/or Dionysus, the relation between those two Greek gods laying the ground work for the relationship between Yahweh and Jesus. Ehrenreich briefly quotes from Robert M. Price’s “Christianty, Diaspora Judaism, and Roman Crisis” and here is the passage she quoted from:

What about the challenges of Diaspora assimilationism? There surely was such a thing as Jews taking attractive features of Gentile faiths and mixing them with their own. My caveat is just to say that wildly diverse Judaism already existed back in the Holy Land. And I would say the mythemes later assimilated from Hellenistic Mystery Religions were able to gain entry because they answered to elements already present in Judaism, perhaps all the more attractive once they had become forbidden fruit in the wake of Javneh. In other words, when the family next door celebrated the death and resurrection of Osiris or Adonis this might appeal to a Jew who was dimly aware that his grandfathers had celebrated pretty much the same rites in honor of Baal, Tammuz, or even Isaac, years before.17 2 Maccabees 6:7 tells us that Antiochus converted large numbers of Jews to the worship of Dionysus. One suspects it was no arduous task, given that some Greek writers already considered Jehovah simply another local variant of Dionysus anyway. The Sabazius religion of Phrygia is plainly an example of worshipping Jehovah as Dionysus. The Phrygian Attis was another version of Adam, his mother and lover Cybele a cognate form of Eve. No wonder the Naasene Document identifies the resurrected Jesus with both Attis and Adam. No wonder we have Jewish sarcophagi from this period depicting both the menorah and the symbol of the resurrected Attis.18

The temptations and challenges of the Diaspora only served to increase the diversity of ancient Judaism, a diversity directly reflected in emerging Christianity, which demonstrably partakes of Jewish Gnosticism,19 Zoroastrianism,20 the Mystery Cults, etc. As Rodney Stark has shown, Diaspora Jews remained a major and continuous source of new Christian converts on into the fifth century.21 Christianity would have been, Stark very plausibly surmises, the ideal assimilation vehicle, since the “new” faith allowed one to retain the cherished ethical monotheism of Judaism yet without keeping up the walls of purity rules that separated one (arbitrarily, as it seemed, and as it would seem again to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Reform Jews) from one’s neighbors. It seems to me that adherence to Christianity (the “true Israel”) would also have been the natural way of clinging to traditional elements of popular Judaism upon which Orthodoxy had frowned but which, as Barker shows, had never died out. I suspect that such Christian-leaning Jews eyed emergent Rabbinic Javneh Judaism as a modern product and viewed it as most pious non-Pharisaic Jews had always viewed the stricter party of the Pharisees (and the Essenes). It would have been entirely natural for Christianizing Jews, hanging on to cherished “underground” mythemes, etc., to have viewed themselves as the real Judaism, the old-time religion. We have, again, been too eager to take the Rabbinic claims to pedigree and originality at face value. Perhaps one more piece of evidence that this is a proper way to view matters is the otherwise odd fact that many Christians continued to attend synagogue for centuries, alongside church, often to the great consternation of their bishops. This implies that the synagogue-attenders viewed the defining label for their religiosity as Judaism, not as a new, split-off religion. Their Christianity was Judaism in their eyes, even if Christian bishops (like Chrysostom) and Jewish Rabbis alike bemoaned the fact.

That fascinates me endlessly. It was such a different world. Monotheism had yet to become monolithic because monotheism itself was a rather fuzzy concept. Sure, you could believe there is one true god, but which god and how many forms could he take. In practical terms, there is no absolute distinction between monotheism and polytheism. Even the Jews often referred to their god using a word that was plural, Elohim. There was a polytheism within Judaism that was very much within living memory of many ancient Jews. And it seems a cultural memory of this continued into the early centuries of Christianity, which maybe explains why there came to be so many violent purges by the heresiologists who gained power. In order to make Christianity into a new religion, they had to annihilate the last remnants of the old time religion. They were never entirely successful, but not for a lack of trying.

An area of struggle was the ecstatic tradition of Christianity. That is part of Ehrenreich’s focus in her book. What has dancing and related practices meant to humans over the millennia. We modern Westerners, especially Americans, don’t associate dancing with the Christian tradition. But there has been a long struggle about this within Christianity itself. And this struggle has taken many forms. One site of struggle has been the dancing so typical of carnivals and festivals. These ecstatic forms of religiosity have sometimes been included within Christianity, at other times they were merely tolerated, and at yet other times they were forbidden. There is evidence that in early Christianity dance was considered by many as a normal expression of worship and devotion. But it isn’t entirely clear what kind of dance it was. Ehrenreich discusses this in great detail (pp. 65-66):

Most of what Christians of the first and second centuries actually did together—whether they even possessed a standardized form of worship, for example—is unknown to us today, but the general scholarly view is that “church services were noisy, charismatic affairs, quite different from a tasteful evensong today at the parish church.”20 They met in people’s homes, where their central ritual was a shared meal that was no doubt washed down with Jesus’ favorite beverage, wine.21 There is reason to think they sang too, and that the songs were sometimes accompanied by instrumental music. 22 Justin Martyr, a gentile convert who died at the hands of the Romans in 165 CE, once wrote that children should sing together, “just as in the same way one enjoys songs and similar music in church.”23 Very likely, Christians also danced; at least this is how the historian Louis Backman interpreted various statements of the second-century Church fathers. Clement of Alexandria (150-216 CE), for example, instructed the faithful to “dance in a ring, together with the angels, around Him who is without beginning or end,” suggesting that the Christian initiation rite included a ringdance around the altar. At another point Clement wrote that in order to invoke the “zest and delight of the spirit,” Christians “raise our heads and our hands to heaven and move our feet just at the end of the prayer—pedes excitamus,” where, according to Backman, pedes excitamus is “a technical term for dancing.”24

So Christians sang and possibly danced, but did they dance ecstatically, as did members of the old Dionysian cults? The evidence for ecstatic dancing, such as it is, hinges on Paul’s instruction, in his letter to the Corinthian congregation, that women should keep their heads covered in church (1 Cor. 11:5). This may represent nothing more than a concern that Christianity remain within the normal pagan and Jewish bounds of gender decorum. After all, Paul did not want women prophesying or even speaking in church, despite the fact that he worked with women as fellow proselytizers and had at one point proclaimed that “male and female are one in Christ.” An alternative explanation for the head-covering rule, proposed by the theologian E. S. Fiorenza, is that the women of Corinth were becoming a little too exuberant for Paul’s tastes.

It seems that during their ecstatic-pneumatic worship celebrations some of the Corinthian women prophets and liturgists unbound their hair, letting it flow freely rather than keeping it in its fashionable coiffure, which often was quite elaborate and enhanced with jewelry, ribbons and veils. Such a sight of disheveled hair would have been quite common in the ecstatic worship of oriental deities.25

Roman women spent hours on their tight coiffures, leaving the long, unbound look to the worshippers of Dionysus, Cybele, and Isis. If we know one thing about Paul, it is that he was greatly concerned about making Christianity respectable to the Romans, and hence as little like the other “oriental” religions—with their disorderly dancing women—as possible.

This may seem like a rather tenuous inference, but the association between hair-tossing and ecstatic practice is widespread and was well established in the ancient world.

All that we know of early Christianity, along with most other early religions, is a fading memory of what came before. It was that fading memory that was written down and typically written down by those who were attempting to eliminate the traces of that memory. All that we can be certain of is that modern Christianity probably has little if any resemblance to early Christianity, in either substance or form.

 

* * *

Dance of the Savior

The Round Dance–text and commentary
by Michael Howard

Singing with the Savior: Reconstructing the Ritual Ring-dance in the Gospel of the Savior
by Erik Yinglin

The Evolution of Sacred Dance in the JudeoChristian Tradition
by Jade Luerssen

Greek Dance: An Ancient Link — A Living Heritage
by Athan Karras

Jesus as Lord of the Dance
From early Christianity to medieval Nubia

by Paul Dilley

Reconstruction Era Race Relations

In Rebirth of a Nation, Jackson Lears captures a moment in history. The world we know was taking shape. But before any of that had yet fully taken hold, a different kind of experience was common and it is hard for us to imagine.

Most Americans in the nineteenth century were rural. They were mostly poor and living in small communities. In the South, this included blacks and whites living in close proximity and often working side by side. After the Civil War, most blacks remained in rural areas and continued farming. Many of them bought their own land and gained financial independence.

There wasn’t much conflict at the time. The KKK arose right after the Civil War and yet a few years later the federal government had destroyed it, not to be resurrected for another half century. There was remarkably little violence between blacks and whites. Rural black violence was almost non-existent. The main violence actually was among rural whites, but even that was rather limited. As for the cities, the fear about violence was focused on ethnic whites such as Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans. The greatest perceived threat by the WASP upper classes were the waves of poor European immigrants, many of them Catholic and speaking foreign languages.

Before the last years of that century, there was no large-scale systematic persecution of blacks and even then it took decades to develop into all-out race war. Lynchings didn’t become a serious issue until the 1890s. And the Second Klan wasn’t established until 1915, not gaining prominence until the 1920s. For the decades immediately following the Civil War, race relations were doing quite well, considering slavery had ended not long before. Freed blacks sought lost family members, farmed their own land, built houses, educated their children, elected politicians, formed militias, and published newspapers.

Many whites at the time didn’t see this as a serious threat. People were just happy that the Civil War was over and that everyone could get back to living. The average white person wasn’t sad about the destruction of slavery and the aristocracy that once controlled it. Most whites were no better nor worse than they’d ever been. Life went on.

It was primarily the middle-to-upper class whites who were most bothered by the changes. The old plantation owners, of course, experienced great loss. But the social order had been challenged more broadly. It must be remembered that the Second Klan, like the one before it, wasn’t a populist movement. Most Klan members were professionals and other respectable people: businessmen, managers, ministers, judges, lawyers, police chiefs, etc. These were the same men who pushed for Jim Crow and re-enslavement through forced prison labor, with blacks regularly imprisoned on false charges.

Poor whites, on the other hand, had little to gain from any of this. Wealthy Southerners always looked down on poor whites. And the Second Klan targeted ethnic whites more than it did blacks. But the powerful were highly resourceful in turning the poor against each other. When Reconstruction ended with the removal of US military from the South, the ruling elite were quick to re-establish the racial order.

This coincided with the Gilded Age when the Robber Barons turned brutal. There was a new kind of equality where hundreds of thousands of American workers, both black and white, were violently oppressed and sometimes killed in labor conflict. Some groups like the Knights of Labor nationally organized across racial and ethnic divides (“By 1886 20% of all workers were affiliated with the KOL, ballooning to nearly 800,000 members.”~Wikipedia). But they were ultimately fighting a losing battle.

American society became fractured. And average Americans began to see each other as enemies, almost as a premonition of the ethno-nationalistic world wars to come. As always, in the ensuing conflict, minorities struggled the most and suffered the worst. Yet in that golden moment after the Civil War, the future looked bright for most Americans with a promise of continuing progress and betterment for all. There was nothing inevitable about that coming to an end. It didn’t die of natural causes. It was killed by a ruling elite fueled by greed and lust for power. Bigotry was just a convenient means to that end.

* * *

Rebirth of a Nation:
The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920
By Jackson Lears
pp. 92-93

One baking-hot Georgia afternoon in 1877, the Methodist minister Atticus Haygood took the Macon and Brunswick Railroad from Jesup to Macon and chanced upon a memorable scene. “The smoking car,” he recalled, “was packed full with a rare and racy, if not rich crowd of lumbermen,” returning home to Macon after delivering a load of timber to Brunswick. “We saw a very black negro and a fair-haired youth drinking alternately out of the same black-bottle,” Haygood wrote. “They sat promiscuously and drank, smoked, laughed, sang, whistled, and danced together. One young fellow knew the potent notes and they sang ‘fa, so, la’ while he beat time…. He sings a sort of wild tenor we used to hear at camp-meeting.” The scene typified the easy race-mixing that characterized everyday life in parts of the rural South into the 1880s. Hunting, fishing, cooking, shucking corn, tending to the sick and midwifing babies—all involved cooperation and sometimes camaraderie between the races.

Consider another scene, a country picnic at Pitman’s Mill. Georgia in 1896. A young boy named Mell Barrett was about to listen to an Edison talking machine for the first time. “With the tubes in my ears, the Pitchman was now adjusting the needle on the machine…. My excitement increased, my heart was pounding so I could hardly hold the tubes in my ears with my shaking hands…. ‘All Right Men, Bring Them Out. Let’s Hear What They Have to Say,’ were the first words I understood coming from a talking machine…. The sounds of shuffling feet, swearing men, rattle of chains, falling wood, brush, and fagots, then a voice—shrill, strident, angry, called out ‘Who will apply the torch?’ ‘I will,’ came a chorus of high-pitched, angry voices…[then] the crackle of flames as it ate its way into the dry tinder…My eyes and mouth were dry. I tried to wet my lips, but my tongue, too, was parched. Perspiration dried from my hands. I stood immobile.” What Mell Barrett heard was several black men being burned alive, after they had confessed at gunpoint to an interracial rape. It was one of hundreds of such lynchings that scarred many parts of the South between the late 1880s and the early 1900s—a mass ritual of racial revitalization through violence.

The difference between these two scenes underscores the transformation of race relations in the Gilded Age South. The earlier period was hardly an era of biracial harmony, characterized as it was by systematic white efforts to drive blacks from public life. Yet as the lumbermen’s frolic suggests, even after Reconstruction, as white Democrats returned to power, race relations remained fluid among the folk. By the 1890s, the fluidity was gone. Lynching was only the most brutal and sensational example of a concerted white effort to reassert absolute dominance by drawing the sharpest possible boundaries between the races. This effort was part of a campaign by the prosperous to purify the Southern body politic, rendering it fit for inclusion in the parade of economic progress. In sum, it was all too appropriate that the first sound young Mell Barrett heard from that modern marvel, the talking machine, was the baying of a lynch mob. Southern lynching in the 1890s, like the incandescent racism that spawned it, was a product of modernity.

To be sure, the consciousness of racial difference had existed for centuries, at least since the earliest European encounters with the dark-skinned inhabitants of the New World. But there was something profoundly different about the racism of the late nineteenth century—it was more self-conscious, more systematic, more determined to assert scientific legitimacy. The whole concept of race, never more than the flimsiest of cultural constructions, acquired unprecedented biological authority during the decades between Reconstruction and World War I.