Is the Tide Starting to Turn on Genetics and Culture?

Here is an alt-righter struggling with scientific understanding:

What is so shocking?

This line of thought, taken broadly, has been developing and taking hold in the mainstream for more than a century. Social constructionism was popularized and spread by the anthropologist Franz Boaz. I don’t think this guy grasps what this theory means nor its implications. That “culture is a racial construct” goes hand in hand with race being a cultural construct, which is to say we understand the world and our own humanity through the lens of ideology, in the sense used by Louis Althusser. As applied to the ideology of pseudo-scientific race realism and gender realism, claims of linear determinism of singular and isolated causal factors are meaningless because research has shown that all aspects are intertwined factors in how we develop and who we become.

Bret Weinstein makes three assertions: “Sex is biological. Gender is cultural. Culture is biological.” I don’t know what is his ideological position. But he sounds like a genetic determinist, although this is not clear since he also claims that his assertions have nothing to do with group selection (a standard reductionist approach). Anyway, to make these statements accurate, other statements would need to be added — such as that, biology is epigenetics, epigenetics is environment, and environment is culture. We’d have to throw in other things as well, from biome to linguistic relativism. To interpret Weinstein generously and not taking his use of ‘is’ too literally: Many things are many other things or rather closely related, if by that we mean that multiple factors can’t be reduced to one another in that they influence each other in multiple directions and through multiple pathways.

Recent research has taken this even further in showing that neither sex nor gender is binary (1, 2, 3, 4, & 5), as genetics and its relationship to environment, epigenetics, and culture is more complex than was previously realized. It’s far from uncommon for people to carry genetics of both sexes, even multiple DNA. It has to do with diverse interlinking and overlapping causal relationships. We aren’t all that certain at this point what ultimately determines the precise process of conditions, factors, and influences in how and why any given gene expresses or not and how and why it expresses in a particular way. Most of the genetics in human DNA is entirely unknown in its purpose or maybe lack of purpose, although the Junk DNA theory has become highly contested. And most genetics in the human body is non-human: bacteria, viruses, symbiotes, and parasites. The point is that, scientifically speaking, causation is a lot harder to prove than many would like to admit.

The second claim by Weinstein is even more interesting: “Culture is as adaptive, evolutionary and biological as genes.” That easily could be interpreted in alignment with Richard Dawkins theory of memetics. That argument is that there are cultural elements that act and spread similarly to genes, like a virus replicating. With the growing research on epigenetics, microbiome, parasites, and such, the mechanisms for such a thing become more plausible. We are treading in unexplored territory when we combine memetics not just with culture but also with extended mind and extended phenotype. Linguistic relativism, for example, has proven that cultural influences can operate through non-biological causes — in that bilingual individuals with the same genetics will think, perceive, and act differently depending on which language they are using. Yes, culture is adaptive, whether or not in the way Weinstein believes.

The problems in this area only occur when one demands a reductionist conclusion. The simplistic thinking of reductionism appeals to the limits of the human mind. But reality has no compulsion to comform to the human mind. Reality is irreducible. And so we need a scientific understanding that deals with, rather than dismisses, complexity. Indeed, the tide is turning.

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The Many Stolen Labels of the Reactionary Mind

Ideological labels are used in an odd way on the political right. They are used more as weapons of rhetoric than as accurate descriptions. This relates to Corey Robin’s analysis of the reactionary mind. One of the most interesting things that distinguishes the reactionary from the traditionalist is how easily the reactionary co-opts from the political left.

This is particularly central to American society. The reactionary mind, like fundamentalism, is the product of modernity. And the American experience was born out of modernity, beginning with post-feudal colonial imperialism. The social order and social identity fell into disarray and so political ideology became ever more primary. The reactionary mind is dynamically adaptive, for it shifts according toward which it is reacting. It thrives in instability and will promote instability, even as it scapegoats its enemies for this very same instability that it requires.

Reactionaries are tough opponents. They feel no moral obligation to fight fairly. Nor will they ever state their true intentions. The mindset and worldview precludes it, at the level of consciousness. The reactionary mind is not just a set of tactics but a way of being in the world, a permanent survival mode of mistrust and deception. Labels in themselves mean nothing to the reactionary. They are like crabs, in camouflaging themselves, that attach things to their shells — pieces of coral, anemones, etc. There is a hodge-podge quality to their stated views, a little bit of this and a little bit of that with no need for principled consistency. 

The earliest example of this is the fight over Federalism. The war of rhetoric was won by those fighting for centralized power. They didn’t actually want Federalism. What they were attempting to create, as Corey Robin explains so well, was a new form of hierarchy and ruling elite involving the same old pattern of concentrated wealth and power. They were as much attacking the traditional ancien régime (old order) as they were attacking the revolutionary movement. They co-opted from both of their enemies, but over time as traditionalism declined they increasingly focused on co-opting from the political left.

The first great victory of American reactionaries was in falsely claiming to be Federalists. They did this by co-opting the revolution itself and, by way of the Constitutional Convention, redirecting it toward counter-revolution. This forced their opponents into the position of being called Anti-Federalists, even though their opponents were the strongest defenders of Federalism. The winners not only get to write the history books but also get to do the labeling.

This is how a society like ours, founded on liberalism, quickly had its radical liberalism defanged. Thomas Paine, in a short period of time, went from revolutionary hero to social pariah and political outcast. He didn’t fit into the reactionary scheme of the new centralized establishment. Even to this day, the political right goes on trying to co-opt the label of liberalism, despite the absurdity in calling themselves classical liberals. Now a radical progressive and social democrat like Paine was a classical liberal, but he was largely written out of the history books for almost two centuries.

This pattern has repeated throughout Anglo-American history (and I’m sure elsewhere as well). The capitalists originally were strong liberals with a clear progressive bent. Paine, for example, was for free markets. And like Paine, Adam Smith saw high economic inequality as a direct threat to a free society. Yet the reactionaries took over free market rhetoric to promote the inevitable authoritarianism and paternalism of a high inequality society. Because of this, it has become harder and harder to take seriously the rhetoric of free markets — in its being falsely used to defend crony capitalism, plutocratic corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, neoliberal globalization, market fetishism, and crude (pseudo-)libertarianism. There is nothing free, much less classically liberal, about this capitalist realism.

There are more examples. Consider right-wing libertarians and right-wing anarchists (e.g., anarcho-capitalists). Both varieties of right-wingers typically defend the legacy of inequality and injustice. Their labeling themselves as libertarian and anarchist would have been absurd a century ago. Both libertarians and anarchists arose out of the left-wing workers movement in Europe. Yet here we are with the political right having successfully co-opted the label of libertarianism and are in the process of co-opting the label of anarchism.

There is nothing they can’t co-opt, once they set their mind to it. This is true even for labels that involve race issues. The theory and label of human biodiversity has become popular among the political right, specifically among alt-righters, the Dark Enlightenment, and other similar types. They use it to promote the cynical worldview of genetic determinism and race realism. The sad part is that the originator of human biodiversity, Jonathan Marks, created the theory specifically to disprove these right-wing claims.

Once again, here we are with the political right having so thoroughly co-opted a label that its very origins is forgotten. It’s a theft not just of a label but the destruction of meaning. It makes genuine debate impossible, and that is the entire point. Reactionaries are constantly seeking to muddy the water. They do everything in their power to control the terms of debate. Their opponents are left in a state of disorientation and constantly on the defense. This is easy for reactionaries to do because they have nothing specific to defend or rather that they keep well hidden what they are defending by way of obfuscation.

This wouldn’t necessarily mean much if not for the consistent pattern that can be seen across the centuries. It’s clearly significant in what it says about the modern political right and the consequences it has for the political left. The lesson is this. Never take them at their word. And never fight on their terms. Labels do matter.

Poll Answers, Stated Beliefs, Ideological Labels

Possibly, upwards of a third of Americans are a wild card on polling and voting. These people are some combination of politically misinformed, ideologically inconsistent, anti-intellectually reactionary, mentally unstable, disconnected from reality, lacking self-awareness, socially unconcerned, apathetically indifferent, distractedly careless, cynically trollish, frustratedly outraged, generally irritated, etc. They are unable or unwilling to fully participate in the demands of democracy. Or else they don’t believe we have a functioning democracy to participate in.

Any crazy belief or crazy politician that only gets consistent support from a third or less of the public can be set aside, albeit not dismissed, at least in terms of understanding what is the actual motivation and intention. Even most Trump voters admitted that they didn’t like him nor trusted him to do what they wanted him to do. They voted out of protest, or else for shits and giggles; either way, it’s a clear ‘fuck you’ (maybe ‘fuck you, fuck me, fuck us all’, ‘just fuck it’, ‘who gives a fuck’, or something along those lines). Such people don’t form a monolithic demographic of opinion and values. And for damn sure they aren’t representative of any larger pattern in society, any larger trend among the public… beyond how screwed up it has all become.

Across the entire population, there is more than enough ideological confusion and inconsistency to go around. This largely has to do with how labels are used, or rather misused and abused. Liberals label their positions moderate, the very positions that the political and media elite think of as liberal. Either liberals really are more moderate or the elite aren’t as liberal as they think, although I suspect both are true. That leaves conservatives holding positions that these same elites consider liberal, while conservatives don’t see them as liberal, which questions the very concept of conservatism. There are more conflicted conservatives than consistent conservatives, something not found among liberals. To the degree that liberals are conflicted, it is because they mis-label their views right-ward.

Anyway, the average person probably doesn’t give much thought to how they answer polls and vote in elections. Most people have busy lives. Besides, it’s not as if the education system and news media does a great job of informing the public and explaining the issues. And that is on top of the low quality of options typically given. We also can’t forget the constant bullshit, spin, propaganda, psyops, etc. Framing alone sometimes will completely reverse what people state as supporting. When a combative frame is used, most Americans support harsh punishment of criminals. But when a public health frame is used, most Americans support rehabilitation. So, which is the real majority? Well, both are or neither is.

Here is a major point to be understood and emphasized. As data shows, most people who hold liberal positions don’t identify as liberal. And most people who identify as liberal don’t identify many of their own positions as liberal, instead identifying them as moderate. Also interesting is the fact that self-identified conservatives, many being conflicted conservatives holding liberal positions, tend to identify their liberal and moderate positions as conservative. So, every demographic labels their views to the right of where their views actually are on the spectrum, at least for most major issues. This is partly because of the political and media elite who claim to be moderate and centrist while in many ways being to the right of the general public. The narrative of public opinion and the political spectrum is being defined by a disconnected elite that is heavily biased to the right.

Considering this, maybe it’s unsurprising that the crazification factor is so large. This explains all the noise in public polling. And this probably explains why so many Americans don’t even bother voting. Their views aren’t being represented. In fact, the views of most Americans simply make no sense within the dominant paradigm that controls the political system.

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Crazification factor
Rational Wiki

Crazification factor (alternatively known as the “Keyes constant”[1]) is a neologism coined by blogger John Rogers to refer to the portion of the electorate comprising the nuttiest of the wingnuts and the batshit crazy.

In popular usage, it is an application of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, in which you only call attention to data supporting your proposition: you will find endless examples of people online crying “Crazification factor!” when 20-30% of people do something — anything — the speaker doesn’t like, or are even polled as holding an opinion they don’t like.[1][2]

Rogers later stressed that the phrase was a joke, not some serious statistical proposition.[3]

The margin of stupid
by Noah Smith

These errors were things that we lumped into something we called “response style” (psychologists call it response bias). It’s very very hard to observe response style. But I’d say we can make a pretty good guess that Americans – and possibly everyone – do a lot of random responding when it comes to these sorts of surveys.

[M]aybe people just don’t think very hard about how they answer these questions. Maybe some people are confused by the questions. Maybe some are trolling.

Whatever the cause, it seems like you can get 20 to 25 percent of Americans to say any ridiculous thing imaginable. “Do you think eating raccoon poop reduces the risk of brain cancer?” “23 percent of Americans say yes!” “Would you be willing to cut your toes off with a rotary saw if it meant your neighbor had to do the same?” “17 percent of Americans say they would!” Etc.

It makes no sense at all…unless you can get ~20 percent of Americans to say pretty much any ridiculous thing on a survey.

I call this the margin of stupid. Unlike the margin of error, it’s not even a roughly symmetric error — because you can’t have less than 0% of people give a certain answer on a survey, the margin of stupid always biases surveys toward showing some non-negligible amount of support for any crazy or stupid or horrible position.

Whenever you read a survey like this, you must take the margin of stupid into account. Yes, there are Americans who believe crazy, stupid, and horrible things. But dammit, there aren’t that many. Next time you see some poll breathlessly claiming that 21 percent of Americans support executing anyone whose name starts with “G”, or that 18 percent of Millennials believe themselves to be the reincarnation of Kublai Khan, take it with a grain of salt. It’s a lot easier to give a stupid answer on a survey than to actually truly hold a nuts belief.

Sadly, the margin of stupid also probably applies to voting.

The Alan Keyes Constant
by Whet Moser

This led screenwriter John Rodgers and a friend to coin the term Crazification Factor–an unpredictable and shifting yet relatively consistent bottom, like the silt at the bottom of a pond: “Half just have worldviews which lead them to disagree with what you consider rationality even though they arrive at their positions through rational means, and the other half are the core of the Crazification – either genuinely crazy; or so woefully misinformed about how the world works, the bases for their decision making is so flawed they may as well be crazy.”

“Crazification” seems not just unkind but simplistic, though I don’t deny a certain baseline: I’d add ironic voting, protest votes–a vote for Alan Keyes is a resonant protest vote–and even people who want to make a spectacle worse. But it still seems to be a useful theory, in the sense that when I see Donald Trump polling really well (26 percent!), or birthers continuing to emit a low hum (27 percent!), I’m no longer shocked: oh, that’s just the Keyes Constant.

Noisy Poll Results and Reptilian Muslim Climatologists from Mars
by Scott Alexander

Public Policy Polling’s recent poll on conspiracy theories mostly showed up on my Facebook feed as “Four percent of Americans believe lizardmen are running the Earth”.

(of note, an additional 7% of Americans are “not sure” whether lizardmen are running the Earth or not.)

Imagine the situation. You’re at home, eating dinner. You get a call from someone who says “Hello, this is Public Policy Polling. Would you mind answering some questions for us?” You say “Sure”. An extremely dignified sounding voice says – and this is the exact wording of the question – “Do you believe that shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our society, or not?” Then it urges you to press 1 if yes, press 2 if no, press 3 if not sure.

So first we get the people who think “Wait, was 1 the one for if I did believe in lizardmen, or if I didn’t? I’ll just press 1 and move on to the next question.”

Then we get the people who are like “I never heard it before, but if this nice pollster thinks it’s true, I might as well go along with them.”

Then we get the people who are all “F#&k you, polling company, I don’t want people calling me when I’m at dinner. You screw with me, I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to tell you I believe lizard people are running the planet.”

And then we get the people who put “Martian” as their nationality in psychology experiments. Because some men just want to watch the world burn.

Do these three groups total 4% of the US population? Seems plausible.

I really wish polls like these would include a control question, something utterly implausible even by lizard-people standards, something like “Do you believe Barack Obama is a hippopotamus?” Whatever percent of people answer yes to the hippo question get subtracted out from the other questions.

Poll Answers As Attire

Alas, not all weird poll answers can be explained that easily. On the same poll, 13% of Americans claimed to believe Barack Obama was the Anti-Christ. Subtracting our Lizardman’s Constant of 4%, that leaves 9% of Americans who apparently gave this answer with something approaching sincerity.

(a friend on Facebook pointed out that 5% of Obama voters claimed to believe that Obama was the Anti-Christ, which seems to be another piece of evidence in favor of a Lizardman’s Constant of 4-5%. On the other hand, I do enjoy picturing someone standing in a voting booth, thinking to themselves “Well, on the one hand, Obama is the Anti-Christ. On the other, do I really want four years of Romney?”)

Some pollsters are starting to consider these sorts of things symptomatic of what they term symbolic belief, which seems to be kind of what the Less Wrong sequences call Professing and Cheering or Belief As Attire. Basically, people are being emotivists rather than realists about belief. “Obama is the Anti-Christ” is another way of just saying “Boo Obama!”, rather than expressing some sort of proposition about the world.

And the same is true of “Obama is a Muslim” or “Obama was not born in America”.

Symbolic Belief
by Julian Sanchez

The classic case of a “symbolic belief” is what Orwell dubbed “doublethink”: propositions you profess publicly, maybe even sincerely believe you believe, even while, on another level, there’s some part of you that knows better, so that the false belief doesn’t actually get you into practical trouble. Pseudobeliefs may serve any number of functions; I’m using the phrase “symbolic belief” for the ones that either work as a public expression of some associated attitude, or play some role in defining the holder’s self-conception. In a post from last week, a commenter pointed out that there really are vegetarians and vegans, especially in certain punk scenes, who purport to believe that animals are not only morally equal to, but perhaps even morally superior to human beings. As he also pointed out, though, none of them really act as though they believe anything of the sort. Now, you might say that we already have a word for this: Hypocrisy. But I think it’s worth preserving a separate term here, because we usually use that term for people who specifically promote standards of behavior that they either consciously don’t really hold or do hold but are just incapable of adhering to (from weakness of will or whatever), and conceal this inability out of shame or fear. Symbolic beliefs, as I’m conceiving of them, are “sincere”—in that the person holding them probably isn’t consciously or reflexively aware that they’re false, but also shallow, insofar as a subconscious lack of commitment to the truth of the belief renders it behaviorally inert. For those who aren’t hardcore birthers, I’d hazard that the real meaning of professing either uncertainty or positive disbelief in the claim that he was born in the U.S. is something like: “I consider Obama phony, dishonest, and un-American.” It’s not, I hasten to say, that they really believe, deep-down, that Obama was born in Hawaii. It’s more that—as with H.G. Frankfurt’s definition of “bullshit”—the literal truth or falsity of the proposition is a matter of indifference; it’s not really the point.

Ideological Realignment and the Primacy of Symbolic Ideology
by John Camobreco

Over the last several decades, scholars have noted a strengthening link between ideology and party identification among the public, but the causal direction of this phenomenon remains contested. The ideological realignment thesis holds that ideology now strongly influences party identification, but this position conflicts with literature suggesting that party identification remains the primary causal force behind most important political attitudes. This study examines the causal forces at work between ideology and party identification by focusing on the distinction between symbolic and operational ideology. The methodology involves the use of panel data that span several decades, and structural equation modeling. The findings indicate that between 1982 and 1997, symbolic ideology had a strong influence party identification, but operational ideology had little effect on party identification. The results suggest an important revision to the ideological realignment thesis, as the evidence indicates that symbolic ideology has been the primary force driving realignment.

Why most conservatives are secretly liberals
by John Sides

Looked at this way, almost 30 percent of Americans are “consistent liberals” — people who call themselves liberals and have liberal politics. Only 15 percent are “consistent conservatives” — people who call themselves conservative and have conservative politics. Nearly 30 percent are people who identify as conservative but actually express liberal views. The United States appears to be a center-right nation in name only.

This raises the question: why are so many people identifying as conservative while simultaneously preferring more government? For some conservatives, it is because they associate the label with religion, culture or lifestyle. In essence, when they identify as “conservative,” they are thinking about conservatism in terms of family structure, raising children, or interpreting the Bible. Conservatism is about their personal lives, not their politics.

But other self-identified conservatives, though, are conservative in terms of neither religion and culture nor the size of government. These are the truly “conflicted conservatives,” say Ellis and Stimson, who locate their origins in a different factor: how conservatives and liberals have traditionally talked about politics. Conservatives, they argue, talk about politics in terms of symbols and the general value of “conservatism” — and news coverage, they find, usually frames the label “conservative” in positive terms. Liberals talk about policy in terms of the goals it will serve — a cleaner environment, a stronger safety net, and so on — which are also good things for many people. As a result, some people internalize both messages and end up calling themselves conservative but having liberal views on policy.

Ideology has two faces: the labels people choose and the actual content of their beliefs. For liberals, these are mostly aligned. For conservatives, they are not.

Are Many Conservatives Really Liberals?
by Ron Chusid

Polls have generally showed self-identified conservatives outnumbering liberals, with a recent slight increase in the number of liberals. I have often speculated that this is largely due to the success the right wing noise machine has had in demonizing the word liberal. Americans come out more liberal than would be expected by these poll findings when we look at individual issues.

While the pendulum swings both ways, the trend has been toward more liberal policies over the years. Most people wouldn’t think of returning to the days of child labor. Medicare and Social Security are deeply entrenched, to the point that even when Republicans vote for ending Medicare as we know it they realize they have to hide what they are doing. Recent polls show increases in the number of people who support legalization of same-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana. A majority even supports the individual components of Obamacare when asked without identifying the policy as Obamacare. […]

This idea that nearly 30 percent of self-identified conservative are really liberals would explain the increased support for liberal positions despite a majority identifying themselves as conservatives.

Ideological Labels in America
Claassen, Tucker, & Smith

Labeling Issue Positions

[…] The general pattern is not surprising. Symbolic ideology is correlated with the most commonly chosen label for issue positions.

A closer look shows important asymmetries. Across all issues, symbolic conservatives are always more likely to label their positions as conservative than anything else, even when an analyst would label many of those issue positions liberal or moderate. Moreover, symbolic conservatives use the conservative label for their issue positions far more frequently than symbolic liberals use the liberal label for theirs. For symbolic liberals, the moderate label is chosen by a plurality on 10 of the 13 issues. On only one issue, support for gay marriage, does a clear majority of liberals label their position as liberal.

The pattern of labeled issue positions among symbolic liberals is not consistent
with the Ellis-Stimson narrative. In that account, liberals’ unconflicted liberals’
ideological commitments and ideological sophistication allow them to apply the liberal label with ease. In fact, while liberals apply the general label to themselves, they do not embrace the term for many of their issue positions and instead more often choose the moderate label.

As one would expect, a plurality of symbolic moderates used the moderate label to describe their policy preferences—with the exception of social security, where slightly more described their position as “none of these.” For eight of the 13 issues, more moderates described their positions as conservative than liberal. The “none of these” option was chosen by 20-30 percent of moderates across the 13 issues. These results are consistent with research that describes moderates, on average, as less political than liberals or conservatives.

Plainly, the mismatch between symbolic ideology and issue position labels is common and is not limited to conservatives. In fact, the avoidance of the liberal label extends to symbolic liberals, which is consistent with the long-standing argument that the label has negative connotations. It may illustrate that the importance of the framing pathway described by Ellis and Stimson and, in doing so, raises a question of about how much framing accounts for conflicted conservatives for whom Ellis and Stimson emphasize the extra-political sources of ideological identity.

Mismatches between Issue Positions and Their Labels

For some of the most popular causes—such as spending on education—positions (and symbolic ideology) show a weak relationship to issue position labels. In the case of education spending, nearly half of symbolic conservatives considered opposing a cut in education spending to be a conservative position. More than ninety percent of liberals opposed this same cut in education spending, but only about one-third call this view liberal, with most liberals calling it a moderate position.

Mismatches are most common for issues on which there is a consensus view. In fact, across the 13 issues, there is an important correlation between the size of the issue position plurality and the frequency of mismatches between issue positions and issue position labels. For symbolic conservatives, the correlation is -0.81—more popular causes create more mismatches (liberal positions labeled conservative) for conservatives. For symbolic liberals, the size of the plurality and labeling liberal positions as conservative has a correlation of -0.71.

Consistent with findings about mismatches between symbolic ideology and issue positions, we find that mismatches for issue positions and their labels occur more often in the form of labeling liberal positions conservative than in labeling conservative positions liberal. More than 30 percent of labeling responses associated the conservative label with liberal positions, while only about 20 percent associated the liberal label with conservative positions.

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Warmongering Politicians & Progressive Public
Public Opinion On Government & Tea Party
Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich
Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data)
Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life
The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1 & Part 2

Sea Change of Public Opinion: Libertarianism, Progressivism & Socialism

Pew had a poll from a couple years ago that I missed. If you look at the broad public opinion, it looks like the same old same old. Most Americans have a more favorable opinion of capitalism than socialism. They also have a more favorable opinion of conservatism than liberalism. But it’s always in the details where it gets interesting. The cracks are beginning to show in the Cold War edifice.

More Americans have a positive opinion of progressivism, significantly more than their opinion of conservatism. As many have noted, progressivism has basically become the label for those who like liberalism but are afraid of the negative connotations of the word itself. There isn’t a vast difference between what liberals support and what progressives support.

Even most Republicans give a positive response toward progressivism. This probably relates as well to why many people who self-identify as conservatives will support many traditionally liberal positions. These positions back in the Progressive Era used to be called progressive. Americans strongly support them. That is the true Silent Majority or rather Silenced Majority.

US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism

So, if most Americans are actually conservative and the Democratic Party is actually liberal, then why does the Democratic Party have higher positive ratings than the Republican Party for more than a decade? Either Americans aren’t so conservative or the Democratic Party isn’t so liberal. I’d argue it’s both.

If Americans are so conservative, then why do they have a decently positive feeling rating toward what they perceive as ‘liberals’? The positive feelings for liberals hasn’t dropped below 50 in several decades. That ain’t too shabby for a supposedly conservative population. […]

The key values of the ideological divide are the basis of the key issues of society and politics. As such, determining the key issues is important in distinguishing liberalism vs conservatism in the American population. Key issues are important because they are the wedge issues that decide elections. What is telling to my mind is that it’s specifically the key issues of American politics that have been strongly moving leftward. I would conclude two things. First, the majority of Americans are definitely not right-leaning in any clear sense and there isn’t any evidence that the center of public opinion is shifting rightward. Second, however one might add up all the various issues, the majority of Americans are progressively liberal or becoming more progressively liberal on many if not most of the key issues.

Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals

According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans identifying as environmentalists is about half of what it was a quarter century ago, when I was a young teenager. Yet the other polls show that Americans are more concerned with environmental issues than ever before.

This is similar to how fewer Americans identify as liberal precisely during this time when polls showing majority of Americans hold liberal positions on diverse issues. Older labels have lost their former meaning. They no longer resonate.

It isn’t as if Americans are becoming anti-environmentalist conservatives. Quite the opposite. It’s just that an increasing number of Americans, when given a choice, would rather identify as progressive, moderate, independent, or even socialist. In fact, the socialist label gets more favorable opinion than the Tea Party label, although libertarianism is gaining favor.

Young Americans are the most liberal of any age demographic, in terms of their politics. They are more liberal than even the supposed liberal class, despite the young not self-identifying as liberal. They are so liberal as to be leaning leftist.

Conservatives are mistaken when they put too much stock in ideological labels and too little stock in substance of views. Their confusion is understandable. Many pollsters have had a hard time keeping up with changing labels, not initially realizing they needed to offer choices beyond the standard binary of liberal or conservative.

Environmentalist Majority

I keep coming back to corporatist politics, centered in Washington and Wall Street, and the corporate media that reports on it. This is what gets called ‘mainstream’. But the reality is that the ideological worldview of concentrated wealth and power is skewed far right compared to the general public, AKA the citizenry… ya know, We the People.

Most Americans are surprisingly far to the left of the plutocratic and kleptocratic establishment. Most Americans support left-wing healthcare reform (single payer or public option), maintaining the Roe vs Wade decision, stronger gun regulations (including among most NRA members), more emphasis on rehabilitation than punishment of criminals, drug legalization or decriminalization, etc. They are definitely to the left of Clinton New Democrats with their corporatist alliance between neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Hillary Clinton, for example, has long had ties to heavily polluting big energy corporations.

Maybe it’s unsurprising to learn that the American public, both left and right, is also to the left on the issue of climate change and global warming. This isn’t the first time I’ve brought up issue of environmentalism and public opinion. Labels don’t mean what they used to, which adds to the confusion. But when you dig down into the actual issues themselves, public opinion becomes irrefutably clear. Even though few look closely at polls and surveys, the awareness of this is slowly trickling out. We might be finally reaching a breaking point in this emerging awareness. The most politicized issues of our time show that the American public supports leftist policies. This includes maybe the most politicized of all issues, climate change and global warming.

Yet as the American public steadily marches to the left, the Republican establishment uses big money to push the ‘mainstream’ toward right-wing extremism and the Democrats pretend that their conservatism represents moderate centrism. The tension can’t be maintained without ripping the country apart. We can only hope that recent events will prove to have been a wake up call, that maybe the majority of Americans are finally realizing they are the majority, not just silent but silenced.

Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism

[…] from the book Whose Freedom? by George Lakoff (pp. 252-253): […]

It is not that positions on issues don’t matter. They do. But they tend to be symbolic of values, identity, and character, rather than being of primary import in themselves. For example, if you identify yourself essentially as the mother or father in a strict father family, you may well be threatened by gay marriage, which is inconsistent with a strict father morality . For this reason, someone in the Midwest who has never even met anyone gay could have his or her deepest identity threatened by gay marriage. The issue is symbolic, not literal, and symbolism is powerful in politics.

[…T]he general idea presented by Lakoff wasn’t new to me. I’d come across this in a different context (from a paper, Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinity, by Jost, Federico, and Napier) and have mentioned it many times (e.g., What Does Liberal Bias Mean?):

Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).

[…] The conservative elites, or at least their advisors, fully understood decades ago that most Americans didn’t agree with them on the issues. Nonetheless, most Americans continue to identify as conservative when given a forced choice (i.e., when ‘moderate’ or ‘independent’ aren’t given as an option).

It makes one wonder what exactly “symbolic conservatism” represents or what people think it represents. Reagan often stood in front of patriotic symbols during speeches and photo-ops. Look back at images of Reagan and you’ll find in the background such things as flags and the Statue of Liberty. Ignoring the issue of “true conservatism”, this symbolic conservatism seems to have little in the way of tangible substance, heavy on the signifier while being light on the signified.

[…] To look at the issues is to consider how values are expressed in the real world. What does it mean that many Americans agree with the symbolic values of conservatism while disagreeing with the actual enactment of those values in policies? What are Americans perceiving in the patriotic and pseudo-libertarian jingoism of the GOP or whatever it is? And why is that this perception appears to be so disconnected from reality on the ground, disconnected the reality of Americans’ daily lives and their communities?

[…] Most importantly, take note that the American public isn’t actually polarized, not even between the North and South — as Bob Moser explained in Blue Dixie (Kindle Locations 126-136):

[…] But the widespread notion that the South is one-party territory ignores some powerful evidence to the contrary. For one thing, more Southerners identify as Democrats than Republicans. For another: more Democrats win state and local elections in the South than Republicans. The parity between the parties was neatly symbolized by the total numbers of state legislators in the former Confederate states after the 2004 elections: 891 Republicans, 891 Democrats. The South is many things, not all of them flattering. But it is not politically “solid.”

[…] So, yes, there is something weird going on here with the American public. Is this confusion artificially created? Is the public being manipulated by politicians who know the American public better than the American public knows themselves? Apparently not, as Alex Preen explained on Salon.com:

According to a working paper from two political scientists who interviewed 2,000 state legislative candidates last year, politicians all think Americans are more conservative than they actually are.

The research found that this was as true for Democratic politicians. All politicians across the board were equally clueless about and disconnected from those they claim to represent. This is why it isn’t a partisan issue. It is a bipartisan ignorance.

Polarizing Effect of Perceived Polarization

In reality, most Americans agree more about most issues than they disagree. But it depends on how you frame it.

If you make Americans choose between the labels of liberal and conservative, most people of course will pick one of them and the public will be divided. You can use that to frame questions and so prime people to give polarized answers. But the fact of the matter is that if you give people another option such as independent, most won’t choose either liberal or conservative.

If you only give Americans two viable political party choices, many will consistently choose candidates of the same party from election to election. But most Americans identify as independents and would prefer having other choices. Consider the fact that some of the voters that helped Republican Trump win were supporters of Democratic Sanders. Few people are ideological partisans. That is because few people think in ideological terms.

Consider specific issues.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they are for or against tough-on-crime policies, polarization in public opinion is the inevitable result. But if you ask people about crime prevention and rehabilitation, most would prefer that. The thing is few polls ever give people the full, accurate info about the available choices. The framing of the questions leads people to answer in a particular way.

That is because those asking the questions are typically more polarized and so they have an self-interest in finding polarized answers (in order to confirm their own biases and worldview), even if their motivations are unconscious. The corporate media also likes to frame everything in polarized terms, even when it isn’t the best framing, because it offers a simplistic narrative (i.e., entertainment news) that sells advertising.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support pro-choice or pro-life, you will get a polarized response from the public. But if you ask people if they are for both women’s rights and abortion limits, you’ll find most Americans support both simultaneously. And if you ask people if they want to decrease abortions, you’ll find almost everyone wants to decrease abortions. It’s just people see different ways of decreasing abortions.

Most pro-choicers aren’t for increasing abortions (i.e., killing babies). And most pro-lifers aren’t for taking women’s rights away (i.e., theocratic authoritarianism). It’s just they see different policies as being more effective in achieving what pro-lifers claim to support. The two sides at worst disagree about methods, not goals or necessarily even fundamental values. Isn’t it interesting that so many pro-lifers support a women’s right to choose, depending on how the question is framed?

If you give people a forced choice question about whether or not they support same sex marriage, you get an almost evenly divided polarization of public opinion, with an ever so sleight majority toward support. But if polling is done differently, it is shown that the vast majority is tolerant of or indifferent toward this issue. People simply don’t care who marries whom, unless you intentionally frame it as a liberal agenda to use the government to promote gay marriage and force it onto the public. Framed as an issue of personal right of choice, most Americans are perfectly fine with individuals being allowed to make their own decisions. Even the average conservative doesn’t want to force their political views onto others, no matter what is asserted by the polarized GOP establishment and partisans who are reactionaries, authoritarians and social dominance orientation types.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support gun rights or gun regulations, you will get what appears to be polarization. But if you give them a third choice of supporting both stronger gun rights and more effective gun regulations, most will take that third option. That is even true with NRA members who disagree with ideologically polarized NRA leadership. And it is also true of liberals, a demographic shown to have surprisingly high rates of guns in the household.

Liberalism: Label vs Reality (analysis of data)

http://www.people-press.org/files/2011/05/Political-Typology-Detailed-Tables.pdf

In the 2005 Pew poll, the demographic was just called ‘Liberals’. In this 2011 Pew poll, the demographic is called ‘Solid Liberals’. So, I don’t know if it is speaking about the exact same demographic segment of the population. Pew changes the demographic groupings as the data changes. In the new ‘Solid Liberals’ demographic there is only 23% Independents whereas in the previous ‘Liberals’ demographic there was almost 1/2 Independents. Of those Indpendents, they didn’t ask how many self-identified as liberal or something else. Among ‘Solid Liberals’ in general, only 60% self-identified as ‘liberal’ while 31% self-identified as ‘moderate’ and 9% self-identified as ‘conservative’.

What does ‘liberal’ even mean when slightly less than 1/2 of supposed ‘liberals’ don’t self-identify as ‘liberal’? This goes to the heart of the American public’s confusion about ideologies and labels. Given a choice between the two, most Americans self-identify as ‘conservative’. However, when asked about specific issues, most Americans support many liberal positions on key issues. […]

http://www.opednews.com/Diary/More-Americans-Self-Identi-by-Thomas-Farrell-110301-401.html

“But the Gallup survey of self-identification of ideology shows that more Americans self-identify as moderates and liberals than as conservatives. Most Americans do not self-identify as conservatives.”

Given a choice between the three, the data I’ve seen shows most Americans self-identify as moderates. So, what is a moderate? They are essentially those who tend toward centrism or at least away from the extreme wings. Considering that, where is the center in American politics? […]

I was looking further at the Pew data. There is another interesting group: Post-Moderns. They are considered Independents and they are the only group to have the majority self-identify as moderates. One would assume, therefore, that they wouldn’t have any bias toward either party. But one would be wrong in that assumption.

Post-Moderns are 62% Independents, 26% Democrats and 2% Republicans. Of the Independents, 19% has no lean, 58% lean to the Democratic Party and 23% lean to the Republican Party. They favor Democrats over Republicans on almost every question, including reelecting Obama. Also, they listen to Fox News less than the average Democrat and listen to NPR at almost the same rate as the average Democrat. They are second only to Solid Liberals in their reading of The New York Times and their watching the Daily Show. They generally seem closest to Solid Liberals on most issues. They are strongly socially liberal. They have the strongest, although qualified, support of the government. They’d prefer it to be smaller, but they see a role for government in many social issues.

Post-Moderns are the only demographic with a majority of moderates which means they are the clearest indicator we have about where the center is right now in US politics. These moderates are more liberal than not. So, the majority of Post-Moderns identifies as moderate even as the majority also supports many liberal positions and policies.

– – –

Here is the reason why the Democratic Party has never been controlled by liberals and especially not by left-wingers.

http://smirkingchimp.com/thread/bob-burnett/37872/one-two-three-what-are-liberals-fighting-for

“The Pew Research poll notes a fundamental difference between “solid Liberals” and the other two groups that lean Democratic — “Hard-pressed Democrats” and “New coalition Democrats”: “both of these last two groups are highly religious and socially conservative.” To the extent that cultural issues — such as abortion and homosexuality — dominate political discourse, these groups can be peeled away from the Democratic bloc to vote Republican. In his classic, What’s the Matter With Kansas? journalist Tom Frank detailed how Republicans redirect economic discontent to explosive cultural issues. In 2012, “moral purity” will be a major Republican theme — particularly if messianic Texas Governor Rick Perry becomes the GOP candidate. The Liberal challenge is to ensure that jobs and economic fairness become the dominant political themes, not “How can we make the US a Christian nation?””

– – –

Here is some data from 2004 which I suspect might be even more true in 2011. The article notes that in 2000 the Independents were evenly split between the two parties but by 2004 they were leaning Democratic and liberal. If this is a trend that fits the other leftward trends, this will continue into the near future as OWS seems to demonstrate.

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m4021/is_3_26/ai_114558708/

“The bad news for conservatives is that a majority of independents line up on the liberal-to-moderate side of the ideological spectrum. Twenty-one percent of independents in the Zogby poll described themselves as liberal or progressive, while 37 percent called themselves moderates. In contrast, 30 percent of independents describe their politics as conservative, with only 4 percent calling themselves “very conservative” or libertarian.

“Zogby asserts that the polls indicate independents are trending more liberal in this election year as opposed to 2000. For example, fully 70 percent of independents believe the federal government should play a major role in protecting the environment, a traditionally Democratic concern. “The environment is a Democratic ace in the hole this year,” Zogby says.

“Meanwhile, 82 percent of independents want the federal government to play a major role in protecting individual freedom, suggesting a backlash against the Patriot Act and other attempts by the Bush administration to change the traditional balance between national security and individual liberty. Sixty-two percent feel the government should help ensure that all citizens have economic opportunities, while 60 percent want a dominant role by the federal government in providing social programs to help the needy.

“The liberal bias of independents contrasts sharply with the other elections in which their vote has proved critical. In the 1980 election, blue-collar workers deserted Jimmy Carter and the Democrats to vote Ronald Reagan into office. And in the 1990s, Bill Clinton infuriated traditional liberals but won the presidency twice by appealing to the socially moderate, fiscally conservative instincts of suburban soccer moms. Third party candidates – John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000 – attracted disaffected voters who saw no real difference between Republicans and Democrats.” […]

Considering all of this, it blows my mind that 9% of so-called ‘Solid Liberals’ self-identify as ‘conservative’. Pew defines ‘Solid Liberals’ as being liberal across the board, fiscally and socially liberal on most if not all issues. Essentially, ‘Solid Liberals’ are as liberal as you can be without becoming an outright communist.

How on God’s green earth could such a person ever be so confused as to think they are a conservative? What do these 9% of conservative ‘Solid Liberals’ think that ‘conservative’ means? What kind of conservatism can include liberalism to such an extent? What could possibly be subjectively experienced as conservative despite appearing liberal by all objective measures?

Consider the seemingly opposite Pew demographic which is labeled ‘Staunch Conservatives’ (basically, conservative across the board). Are there 9% of ‘Staunch Conservatives’ who self-identify as ‘liberal’? Of course not, although interestingly 3% do.

Compare also how many self-identify as ‘moderate’: 31% of ‘Solid Liberals’ identify as moderate and only 8% of ‘Staunch Conservatives’ identify as moderate. ‘Staunch Conservatives’ are as partisan as they come with %100 that lean Republican (0% that lean Democratic, 0% with no lean). On the other hand, ‘Solid Liberals’ have 1% who lean Republican and 3% with no lean; that might seem like minor percentages but that means 1 in 100 ‘Solid Liberals’ are drawn toward the Republican Party and 3 in 100 are genuinely independent.

Is there a balance point in a society of extremes?

“That decadence is a cumulative thing. Certainly, it is nurtured both by dogma and nihilism. Only a sceptical meaningfulness can push forward in a creative way.”
~ Paul Adkin, Decadence & Stagnation

Many liberals in the United States have become or always were rather conservative in personality and/or ideology. This is an old complaint made by many further to the left, myself included.

Quite a few liberals maybe would have identified as conservatives at a different time or in a different society. The US political spectrum is shifted so far right that moderate conservatives appear as liberals and typically portray themselves as liberals, but even these moderate conservatives long to push society further right into neoliberal corporatism and neocon authoritarianism. That is how so much of the political left gets excluded from mainstream respectability and legitimacy for, in big biz media and plutocratic politics, even a moderate liberal gets portrayed as a radical.

But the other thing about our society is how reactionary it is, not merely right-wing in the way seen a century ago. This forces the entire political left into an oppositional position that gets defined by what it isn’t and so leftists are forced into a narrow corner of the dominant paradigm. This causes many left-wingers to be constantly on the defensive or to be overly preoccupied with the other side.

And it is so easy to become more like what is opposed. There is a surprising number of left-wingers who become right-wingers or otherwise fall into reactionary thinking, who become obsessed with fringe ideologies and movements that feed into authoritarianism or get lost in dark fantasies of dystopia and apocalypse. Many others on the political left simply lose hope, becoming cynical and apathetic.

In a society like this, it’s very difficult to remain solidly on the political left while maintaining balance. One hopes there is a sweet spot between what goes for liberalism and the far left, these two in themselves forming extremes on a spectrum.

The danger on the political right is far different. Conservative, right-wing, and reactionary have all become conflated into an ideological confusion that is held together by an authoritarian streak. This is a vague set of overlapping visons involving dominance and oppression, fear and anxiety, righteousness and resentment, nostalgia and pseudo-realism, theocracy and nationalism, crude libertarianism and fascist-like futurism.

This scattered political left and mixed-up political right is what goes for American politics.

How does an individual as a member of the public gain enough distance from the very social order that dominates the public mind and frames public debate, manages public perception and manipulates public behavior? And where does one find solid ground to make a stand?

* * *

Let me add some thoughts.

We Americans live in an authoritarian society. There is a long history of authoritarianism: genocide, slavery, land theft, population displacement, reservations, internment camps, re-enslavement through chain gangs, Jim Crow, sundown towns, race wars, redlining, eugenics, human medical testing, tough-on-crime laws, war on drugs, war on the poor, racial profiling, mass incarceration, police brutality, military-industrial complex, near continuous war-mongering, anti-democratic covert operations (foreign and domestic), intelligence-security state, plutocratic corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, etc.

In America, there were openly stated racist laws on the books for several centuries. Of course, we inherited this authoritarian tradition from Britain and Europe. They have their own long histories of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, pogroms, Holocaust, eugenics, ghettoization, exploitation, oppression, prejudice, violence, state terrorism, wars of aggression, world war, and on and on. We can’t rationalize this as being just human nature, as not all humans have acted this way. There are societies like the Piraha that wouldn’t even understand authoritarianism, much less be prone to it. But even among modern nation-states, not all of them have an extensive past of conquering and dominating other people.

Anyway, what other societies do is a moot issue, as far as dealing with one’s own society and one’s own culpability and complicity. So you say that you’re an anti-authoritarian. Well, good for you. What does that mean?

Our lives are ruled over by authoritarianism. But it’s not just something that comes from above for it is built into every aspect of our society and economy. On a daily basis, we act out scripts of authoritarianism and play by its rules. Our lives are dependent on the internalized benefits of externalized costs, the latter being mostly paid by the worst victims of authoritarianism, typically poor dark-skinned people in distant countries. The cheap gas and cheap products you consume were paid for by the blood and suffering of untold others who remain unseen and unheard.

Even to embrace anti-authoritarianism is to remain captured within the gravity of authoritarianism’s pull. The challenge is that maybe authoritarianism can’t ever be directly opposed because opposition is part of the language of authoritarianism. Opposition can always be co-opted, subverted, or redirected. There is either authoritarianism or there is not. For it to end, something entirely new would have to take its place.

This is where radical imagination comes in. We need entirely different thinking made possible through a paradigm shift, a revolution of the mind. We aren’t going to debate or analyze, petition or vote our way out of authoritarianism. That puts us in a tricky spot, for those of us dissatisfied with the options being forced upon us.

The Way of Radical Imagination

Someone questioned me about what is radical imagination. I wasn’t sure if they were being merely disingenuous in playing Devil’s advocate as an intellectual pose. An intellectual debate about the issue wouldn’t have brought either of us closer to understanding.

Anyone who has ever had their mind shook loose by seeing in a new way knows the power of radical imagination, whether or not they could explain it. Radical means that which goes to the root. As such, radical imagination is what has the capacity to shake us to our foundation or send us tumbling down unexplored caverns.

The intellectual who was interrogating me seems more attracted to the dark imagination than to the radical imagination, not that the two are mutually exclusive. He considers himself a radical and yet he apparently has a hard time imagining what exists outside of the iron prison. I get the sense that he has come to romanticize dystopia and apocalypse, which he rationalizes as his seeking to understand. The danger is that it can lead to a mirror image of the dogmatic utopian, exchanging one absolutist fantasy for another.

I’m not dismissing this motivation to bleakly stare down ugly truths. Some of my favorite writers leaned heavily in this direction. There is a dark bent to Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Octavia Butler, etc; but their speculations didn’t end in mere gloomy cynicism. They were always looking beyond. Even a perverse and pessimistic visionary like William S. Burroughs sought to creatively portray alternative societies and other ways of being.

In my own sense of radical imagination, what drives my thinking is a profound epistemological dissatisfaction and ideological disloyalty, not just toward the status quo but also toward much of what opposes it. I’ve grown tired of predictable conflicts that endlessly repeat, like some cosmic tragicomedy. Each side reinforces the other, making victory for either side impossible. Radical imagination, however, seeks to escape this trap.

No amount of studying the hegemonic order will necessarily help one to see the hidden aporia and lacuna, the gaps in the structure. Negative capability is only useful to the degree that it opens the mind to negative space as creative void and a passageway through. The darkness can paralyze us in blind immobility or it can shift our perception into other senses.

The stakes are high. And the consequences all too personal. It goes far beyond any social order. This touches upon our humanity, the psychological reality of our being.

We stand in a hallway of doors, not knowing what is behind them. The entire social reality we live within is that hallway. We stand there in that tight place, the crowd shuffling back and forth. Groups form taking up different positions along the hallway and sometimes fight with the other groups. A few curious souls notice the doors themselves, but the doors remain unopened. That hallway is warm and safe. We are surrounded by the familiar and we have no fear of loneliness.

But what if some of the doors were cracked open, allowing one to barely glimpse something else? What then? Radical imagination is that inability to ignore the light coming through the crack, the temptation to press against the door, the curiosity about what is on the other side.

 

Social Construction & Ideological Abstraction

The following passages from two books help to explain what is social construction. As society has headed in a particular direction of development, abstract thought has become increasingly dominant.

But for us modern people who take abstractions for granted, we often don’t even recognize abstractions for what they are. Many abstractions simply become reality as we know it. They are ‘looped’ into existence, as race realism, capitalist realism, etc.

Ideological abstractions become so pervasive and systemic that we lose the capacity to think outside of them. They form our reality tunnel.

This wasn’t always so. Humans used to conceive of and hence perceive the world far differently. And this shaped their sense of identity, which is hard for us to imagine.

* * *

Dynamics of Human Biocultural Diversity:
A Unified Approach

by Elisa J. Sobo
Kindle Locations 94-104)

Until now, many biocultural anthropologists have focused mainly on the ‘bio’ half of the equation, using ‘biocultural’ generically, like biology, to refer to genetic, anatomical, physiological, and related features of the human body that vary across cultural groups. The number of scholars with a more sophisticated approach is on the upswing, but they often write only for super-educated expert audiences. Accordingly, although introductory biocultural anthropology texts make some attempt to acknowledge the role of culture, most still treat culture as an external variable— as an add-on to an essentially biological system. Most fail to present a model of biocultural diversity that gives adequate weight to the cultural side of things.

Note that I said most, not all: happily, things are changing. A movement is afoot to take anthropology’s claim of holism more seriously by doing more to connect— or reconnect— perspectives from both sides of the fence. Ironically, prior to the industrial revolution and the rise of the modern university, most thinkers took a very comprehensive view of the human condition. It was only afterward that fragmented, factorial, compartmental thinking began to undermine our ability to understand ourselves and our place in— and connection with— the world. Today, the leading edge of science recognizes the links and interdependencies that such thinking keeps falsely hidden.

Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference:
Race in Early Modern Philosophy
by Justin E. H. Smith

pp. 9-10

The connection to the problem of race should be obvious: kinds of people are to no small extent administered into being, brought into existence through record keeping, census taking, and, indeed, bills of sale. A census form asks whether a citizen is “white,” and the possibility of answering this question affirmatively helps to bring into being a subkind of the human species that is by no means simply there and given, ready to be picked out, prior to the emergence of social practices such as the census. Censuses, in part, bring white people into existence, but once they are in existence they easily come to appear as if they had been there all along. This is in part what Hacking means by “looping”: human kinds, in contrast with properly natural kinds such as helium or water, come to be what they are in large part as a result of the human act of identifying them as this or that. Two millennia ago no one thought of themselves as neurotic, or straight, or white, and nothing has changed in human biology in the meantime that could explain how these categories came into being on their own. This is not to say that no one is melancholic, neurotic, straight, white, and so on, but only that how that person got to be that way cannot be accounted for in the same way as, say, how birds evolved the ability to fly, or how iron oxidizes.

In some cases, such as the diagnosis of mental illness, kinds of people are looped into existence out of a desire, successful or not, to help them. Racial categories seem to have been looped into existence, by contrast, for the facilitation of the systematic exploitation of certain groups of people by others. Again, the categories facilitate the exploitation in large part because of the way moral status flows from legal status. Why can the one man be enslaved, and the other not? Because the one belongs to the natural-seeming kind of people that is suitable for enslavement. This reasoning is tautological from the outside, yet self-evident from within. Edward Long, as we have seen, provides a vivid illustration of it in his defense of plantation labor in Jamaica. But again, categories cannot be made to stick on the slightest whim of their would-be coiner. They must build upon habits of thinking that are already somewhat in place. And this is where the history of natural science becomes crucial for understanding the history of modern racial thinking, for the latter built directly upon innovations in the former. Modern racial thinking could not have taken the form it did if it had not been able to piggyback, so to speak, on conceptual innovations in the way science was beginning to approach the diversity of the natural world, and in particular of the living world.

This much ought to be obvious: racial thinking could not have been biologized if there were no emerging science of biology. It may be worthwhile to dwell on this obvious point, however, and to see what more unexpected insights might be drawn out of it. What might not be so obvious, or what seems to be ever in need of renewed pointing out, is a point that ought to be of importance for our understanding of the differing, yet ideally parallel, scope and aims of the natural and social sciences: the emergence of racial categories, of categories of kinds of humans, may in large part be understood as an overextension of the project of biological classification that was proving so successful in the same period. We might go further, and suggest that all of the subsequent kinds of people that would emerge over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the kinds of central interest to Foucault and Hacking, amount to a further reaching still, an unprecedented, peculiarly modern ambition to make sense of the slightest variations within the human species as if these were themselves species differentia. Thus for example Foucault’s well-known argument that until the nineteenth century there was no such thing as “the homosexual,” but only people whose desires could impel them to do various things at various times. But the last two centuries have witnessed a proliferation of purportedly natural kinds of humans, a typology of “extroverts,” “depressives,” and so on, whose objects are generally spoken of as if on an ontological par with elephants and slime molds. Things were not always this way. In fact, as we will see, they were not yet this way throughout much of the early part of the period we call “modern.”

What We Believe, What We Are

Humans perplex me. We are complicated creatures. We not only know not what we do but know not what we are.

The politicians in both parties are so obviously full of shit, such that their rhetoric has no resemblance to reality. If liberals and conservatives actually believed what they claim to believe, none of them could vote for either major political party. In that case, we’d have a far different kind of political system, even if it required a revolution to create it for nothing could stop us from acting on what we truly believed.

It’s not just mainstream politics, of course. Libertarians for damn sure rarely act according to any genuine principle of liberty, often promoting a supposed free market capitalism that ends up being as authoritarian and bureaucratic as so much else. As for left-wingers in the US, they are saved from having to face the implications and consequences of their own beliefs because they have no power within the political system, but the history of communist statism doesn’t offer much hope.

The same basic thing goes for religion. For example, you’d be hard put finding many Christians who live according to Jesus’ teachings and example, since anyone who attempted such a thing would likely be deemed crazy in our society. Could you imagine Christians giving all their wealth away, letting the dead bury the dead, turning the other cheek, and relying upon God as do the birds in the field? They would end up impoverished, homeless, and wouldn’t likely have long lives. Their reward might be in heaven, but they would get no reward in this world. If most Christians of all varieties actually believed they were to meet a God when they die, they would live in utter terror of the horrific actions they’ve committed and been complicit in, as God would know their every sin.

This applies to other religions. Maybe only the simplest of religions, such as Buddhism, might be exempt from this fatal human flaw for the reason that Buddhism doesn’t require much in the way of belief, making it harder fall short of an ideal. But in reality Buddhists are like anyone else and have beliefs that they no doubt never live up to.

In general, the only way religion can avoid hypocrisy is by lowering the standard of morality, as in theologically rationalizing away one’s failure or somehow making it impersonal such as with original sin or karma. Religion easily serves the purpose of giving people a way of escaping responsibility with arguments that failure is inevitable or to be blamed on outside forces. But is a belief in failed belief, a faith in excuse-making really all that much of a comfort? Even that seems like an avoidance of what is actually believed, whatever it is.

It’s clear that very few, if any, people act according to their stated beliefs and ideological identities. This indicates that their self-awareness and self-knowledge doesn’t amount to much. Most people don’t consciously know what they actually believe, what they actually support and value, what they actually desire and fear. But you can easily determine their genuine commitments and certitudes by observing their behavior. In making such observations, what people do prioritize tends to be more basic than ideological principles and beliefs, such as: social identities and position, comforts and privileges, basic sense of control and normalcy, avoidance of the awareness of mortality and other endless distractions, etc. All the rest is mostly stories we tell ourselves.

This assessment includes me. I don’t claim to have everything figured out. In fact, realizing how people are typically so clueless and oblivious and ignorant, I must assume that I’m probably the exact same way. Like anyone else, I surely deceive myself and make up convincing rationalizations. But I at least have the advantage of acknowledging this sad state of affairs, for whatever good that does. I’d like to think that, in knowing that I’m in a trap of my own making, it might allow me some semblance of hope in escaping it or at least in coming to terms with what it means.

If nothing else, I don’t want to lie to myself, assuming that is possible. The kind of hypocrisy that endlessly promotes harm and suffering in the world is a fate worse than death.  I’d like to at the very least not embrace hypocrisy. I despise hypocrisy. We should be as honest with ourselves as we are capable. The only evil that is real is what is to be found in our hearts, when we allow our minds to be ruled by darkness. Multiply that evil by the number of people on the planet. That is why the world is so utterly fucked up. And it is this reality that we are constantly trying to escape and in the process we make it worse. We can’t escape ourselves, as our haunted psyches travel with us.

This is a simple insight. It’s not an ideology, not a belief system, not even all that profound. It’s just humbling to be reminded of. If we aren’t what we think we are, then what are we? If people can be judged by their actions, what do our individual and collective actions say about us, in the kind of world we have created and are creating? Just some thoughts to consider as we hurtle into the future with a world war, climate change, or who knows what looming on the horizon. Whether or not we claim it, it will claim us.

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.

Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation

My last post, in response to a race realist, was mostly written for my own amusement. It wasn’t a particularly serious post. Something about that kind of intellectual dishonesty is compelling. But I wonder how much of it is self-deception, being taken in by one’s own ideological rhetoric.

I had no desire to analyze race realism to any great degree because it ultimately isn’t about race. It’s similar to how, when conservatives argue for pro-life, it isn’t really about abortion. And it’s similar to how, when apologists argue about the Bible, it isn’t really about historicity.

When you accept their framing, there is no way for the debate to go anywhere because the purpose of the frame is obfuscation, as much to cloud their own mind as to defend against criticism. This is particularly clear with apologetics in being used as a tool of indoctrination for young missionaries, since the purpose isn’t so much to convert unbelievers as to further convert the already converted, the missionary strengthening their own ideological worldview. Maybe there is an element to this with any ideological debate.

This is something that has fascinated me for a long time. I’ve pretty much given up on online debates. I’ve been involved in too many of them and they rarely if ever go anywhere. I’ve changed my mind about many things over my lifetime. And on most issues, I don’t have a strong opinion. But it’s hard to argue with an ideologue when one isn’t an ideologue. The problem is that most people interested in ‘debate’ are ideologues.

There is no way I can ‘win’ a debate with an ideologue because there is no way for a real debate to even happen. As long as the ideologue determines the frame, he can never lose and he will simply go around and around in circles. Try to debate a religious apologist sometime and you will quickly see the power of ideological rhetoric. Apologists can be masterful debaters for the very reason that intellectual honesty isn’t their motivation. They will never concede any point nor fairly deal with any criticism.

Here is the problem for me about race realism. I’m neither an anti-environmentalist hereditarian nor an anti-hereditarian environmentalist. The entire nature vs nurture frame of the debate is meaningless, as it can’t speak to what we actually know in terms of scientific research. Such a debate within such a frame becomes a battle of ideological rhetoric, having little to do with seeking truth and understanding. Ideologues tend to like meaningless frames because they are more interested in the frame and the agenda behind it than they are in the topic itself. To be fair, these frames aren’t entirely meaningless, just that they don’t mean what they superficially appear to mean.

This is the only part that interests and concerns me. I want to understand what motivates such behavior, what makes such a mindset possible, what locks in place such a worldview. It isn’t just ideologues or rather everyone has the potential to be drawn into an ideologue’s mindset. Our minds are constantly being bombarded by ideological rhetoric. Few people ever learn to escape the frames that have been forced onto them, often since childhood. We pick up frames from parents, teachers, ministers, reporters, politicians, etc. And these frames are immensely powerful.

I’ve been trying to understand what this all means for years now. It’s the main project of my blogging. It is what led me to formulate my theory about symbolic conflation.

I realized that race realism is a great example of how this works. Race realism effectively uses political correctness, just-so stories, social constructs, etc… and all of this fits into symbolic conflation. Ideas are taken as reality, speculations as facts. The purpose isn’t to argue about the science but to use it for purposes of rhetoric, to shore up the racialized social order. This is why the race realist can never honestly deal with heritability and confounding factors, since it really has nothing to do with the science taken on its own terms.

Race is used as a proxy for other things: class, social control, etc. What makes a social construct so powerful is that it is taken as reality. The symbol is conflated with the world itself. The symbol becomes embedded within every aspect of thought and perception. It is unimaginable to the race realist that race might not be real. It is at the core of their entire sense of reality.

So, why is race so useful for this purpose? Like abortion, it touches upon the visceral and emotional, the personal and interpersonal. The symbol isn’t just conflated with reality but is internalized and felt within the body itself, expressed through embodied thought. The symbol becomes concretely real. Then the symbol takes on a life of its own. Only personal trauma or other severe psychological experience could cause it to become dislodged.

Social constructs aren’t just ideas. Or to put it another way, ideas aren’t mere abstractions. We are embodied beings and social animals. Ideas always are deeply apart of who we are. The most powerful ideas are those that aren’t experienced as ideas. An idea, as a symbol, may not be objectively true. But that doesn’t stop it from being experienced as though objectively real.

Something like race realism can’t be debated. This is because it is the frame of debate. The frame of debate can’t be changed through debate. As I once explained, “Rationality must operate within a frame, but it can’t precede the act of framing.” The moment the frame is accepted as the basis of the debate, what follows is inevitable. Debate becomes a way of making it difficult to challenge the frame itself. As such, debate is a distraction from the real issue. It isn’t about race realism. It’s about an entire worldview and social order, an entire identity and way of being in the world. The more it is debated the stronger the frame becomes, the more deeply the symbol becomes conflated with everything it touches.

This isn’t just about those other people. This happens to the best of us. We all exist within reality tunnels. But some reality tunnels are more useful and less harmful than others. The trick is to learn to hold lightly any and all symbolic thought, to catch yourself before full conflation sets in. The imaginative mind needs to be made conscious. That is the closest humans ever come to freedom.

Confused Liberalism

Here are some thoughts on ideological labels and mindsets in the United States. I had a larger post I was working on, which I may or may not post. But the following is bite-sized commentary. Just some things to throw out there.

These views are not exactly new to my writing. They are issues my mind often returns to, because I’m never quite satisfied that I fully understand. I can’t shake the feeling that something is being misunderstood or overlooked, whether or not my own preferred interpretations turn out to be correct.

The two thoughts below are in response to this question:

What do we mean when we speak of liberalism?

* * *

We live in a liberal society, in that we live in a post-Enlightenment age where the liberal paradigm is dominant. But what exactly is this liberalism?

What I find interesting is that conservatives in a liberal society aren’t traditionalists and can never be traditionalists. They are anti-traditionalists and would be entirely out of place in a traditional society. These conservatives are forced to define themselves according to the liberal paradigm and so their only choice is to either become moderate liberals or reactionaries against liberalism.

Even if they choose the latter, they still don’t escape liberalism because our identities are shaped as much by what we react to as by what we embrace. In some ways, we become what we react to, just in a distorted way. That is why reactionary conservatives use liberal rhetoric, often unconsciously.

Ironically, the illiberalism of such reactionary politics is only possible in a liberal society. And, sadly, that reactionary politics has become the dominant ideology in a liberal society like this. The liberal and the reactionary are two sides of the same coin.

This is quite the conundrum for the liberal and reactionary alike. Both are chained together, as they pull in opposite directions.

* * *

There are a large number (how many?) of self-identified liberals who aren’t strongly liberal-minded and maybe a bit conservative-minded, aren’t consistent supporters of liberal politics, are wary of liberal economic reforms, are unsure about the liberalism of human nature, and/or doubt a liberal society is possible. These kinds of ‘liberals’ are their own worst enemies. They make it easy for the political right to dominate, for the authoritarians and social dominance orientation types to gain and maintain power.

I’ve come to a suspicion. It’s not just that many of these supposed liberals aren’t particularly liberal. I’d go further than that. Some of them, possibly a large number of them, could be more accurately described as status quo conservatives. But this isn’t to say that some liberals aren’t strongly liberal-minded. My thought goes in a different direction, though. Maybe the crux of the matter isn’t self-identified liberals at all.

Self-identified liberals have proven themselves easily swayed by the rhetoric of reactionaries, authoritarians, and social dominance orientation types. Because of this, the label of ‘liberal’ has become associated with weakly liberal positions and what are sometimes illiberal attitudes. Liberalism has become identified with the liberal class and bourgeois capitalism, with mainstream society and the status quo social order, with a waffling fence-sitting and Washington centrism.

My thought is that most liberal-minded people (specifically in the US) don’t identify as liberals and never have. Instead, the strongly liberal-minded have taken up other labels to identify themselves: independents, non-partisans, social democrats, progressives, leftists, left-wingers, socialists, democratic socialists, communists, communalists, communitarians, Marxiststs, unionists, anarchists, anarcho-syndialists, left-libertarians, etc. Pretty much anything but ‘liberal’.

This is where mainstream thought goes off the rails. The most liberal-minded tend to be ignored or overlooked. They don’t fit into the mainstream framework of ideological labels. These strongly liberal-minded people might be a fairly large part of the population, but they can’t be seen.

We don’t have the language to talk about them, much less study them. We have nuanced language to distinguish people on the political right and this nuanced language is regularly used in collecting and analyzing data. Pollsters and social scientists are often careful to separate conservatives from libertarians, authoritarians, and social dominance orientation types. Such nuance is rarely seen in mainstream thought about the political left.

It seems, in the mainstream, that it is assumed that ‘liberals’ can be taken as mostly representative of the entire political left. This is based on the assumption that leftists in the US are so small in number and therefore insignificant and irrelevant. But if we define leftists as all those who are to the left of the liberal class found in the Democratic Party establishment and the mainstream corporate media, we might discover there are more leftists than there are so-called liberals. And if many of those leftists are far more liberal-minded than the self-identified liberals, then how useful is the social science research that uses self-identified liberals as a proxy for all liberal-mindedness?