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?

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.

Not all of this can be blamed on pollsters, though. There was enough polling data to show major shifts were afoot. Some pollsters were able to discern that Millennials had a majority positive opinion of the ‘socialism’. That interesting fact of public opinion began showing up about a decade ago, but apparently few in the mainstream were paying attention until Sanders’ candidacy came along.

The older generations are shocked. As children of Cold War propaganda, they unsurprisingly have a knee jerk reaction to the word ‘socialism’. More interesting is that these older Americans also dislike libertarianism. For the young, socialism and libertarianism are two expressions of their growing extremes of liberal-mindedness.

So, it’s more of a divide of generations than of ideology.

Central to this are environmental concerns. Most older Americans probably assume they will die before major environmental catastrophes happen, allowing them to shut these problems out of their minds and pretend they aren’t fully real. Younger Americans, on the other hand, realize they’ll be forced to deal with these problems they’re inheriting.

* * *

Americans’ Identification as “Environmentalists” Down to 42%

Americans’ Concerns About Water Pollution Edge Up

U.S. Concern About Global Warming at Eight-Year High

For First Time, Majority in U.S. Oppose Nuclear Energy

Opposition to Fracking Mounts in the U.S.

In U.S., 73% Now Prioritize Alternative Energy Over Oil, Gas

Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology

On Quora, someone asked, “What is the link between conservatism and paranoid schizophrenia?” It’s an intriguing and provocative question. One could also ask it of other ideologies in relation to other mental illnesses. (Just the other day, I speculated a bit about depression and schizophrenia, in a similar line of thought).

The responses on Quora were mostly dismissive, some in knee-jerk fashion. I’m not sure why that is. I actually think this is a fair question. It’s too bad some people are unable or unwilling to engage, just because it makes them uncomfortable. This kind of thing doesn’t bother me as long as it is being discussed sincerely and honestly, and I find it odd that others are resistant to even considering it.

There are clear differences in how the brain functions for liberals and conservatives, along with many other ideological demographics you might want to consider: left-wingers and right-wingers, socialists and capitalists, anarchists and authoritarians, etc. And these proven differences in brain functioning presumedly would include how the brain malfunctions (or, if you prefer, functions neuroatypically).

For example, some data shows liberals have higher rates of drug use (“fairly steady increase in amount of drug use as one moves from the conservative to the radical end of the scale.”) and alcohol use (“when a state becomes more liberal politically, its consumption of beer and spirits rises”) and this leads to higher rates of addiction and alcoholism. Some of this is just demographic, as substance abuse increases with increasing wealth and increasing IQ, both correlated with liberalism (i.e., liberals on average are wealthier and higher IQ than all other demographics, besides libertarians). But others argue that it is an inherent tendency to liberal psychology, related to high ‘openness to experience’ and low ‘conscientiousness’. Liberals are prone to curiosity and experimentation, rule-breaking and authority-challenging.

Another example is that some have found that liberals have higher rates of depression. This makes sense, as liberals have lower rates of such things as religiosity (e.g., church attendance) that is negatively correlated to depression. So, either the liberal personality itself predisposes one to depression or predisposes one to behaviors that make one vulnerable to depression. There is also a link between depression and both high and low IQ, liberals on average being on the high end.

On a related note, some research shows that conservatives aren’t actually happier, despite self-reporting as happier. In some studies, liberals were observed as smiling more often and more naturally, and also using more positive words (University of California, New Yorker, Time, Washington Post, NYT, & FiveThirtyEight). Then again, maybe there is some psychological benefit to reporting one is happy, specifically as a desire to fit into social norms and so to be socially accepted (happiness or its appearance most definitely is a social norm in American society). But it could be that liberals have both higher rates of depression and happiness, which is to say they are disproportionately represented at both ends (similar to how Democrats include more people at the low and high IQ extremes, whereas Republicans are disproportionately found in the average IQ range)—or maybe liberals are just moody.

Anyway, it would be beyond bizarre if we didn’t find these kinds of correlations across the political spectrum, including for conservatives. Every ideological predisposition has its problems and deficiencies (I have a lovely post about the weaknesses and failures of liberalism). With almost anything pushed to an extreme, one would reasonably expect to find such things as mental illnesses. This relates to personality traits, for when imbalanced they lead to all kinds of psychological and behavioral issues.

Let me get back to the original question. Schizophrenia is an interesting issue. But it is complex. There may or may not be a correlation to conservatism. I don’t know. More probable would be correlations found between conservatism and certain mood disorders, specifically those involving fear, anxiety and conscientiousness. One possibility is something like obsessive-compulsive disorder (“These findings support the view that OCPD does represent a maladaptive variant of normal-range conscientiousness”). Still, there are those who argue that there is a link between schizophrenia and conservatism, and some might consider their theories to be scientifically plausible—from Neuropolitics.org:

“Previc’s review of religiosity and mental disorders also adds fuel to the fire of a schizophrenic-conservative link. Previc writes “psychotic delusions are a common feature of mania, [temporal lobe epileptic] psychosis, and paranoid schizophrenia…all of these disorders are to varying degrees associated with overactivity of the fronto-temporal pathways (mostly on the left side), elevated [dopamine], and a bias toward extrapersonal space”. […] The conservatives seem to be more prone to mental disorders of the left hemisphere, while, based on the evidence we’ve gathered, liberals are more prone towards depression and anxiety disorders, which are predominately right hemispheric in origin. The mental disorder evidence supports both Brack’s hemisphericity theory of political orientation and Previc’s dopaminergic-spatial theory of religiosity.”

I’m not familiar with that research. But it seems a reasonable hypothesis. I can think of no justifiable criticism, other than political correctness, for not taking it seriously and for scientists to not study it. If it isn’t worthy of further appraisal and analysis, some counter-evidence would need to be offered to explain why it is unworthy—such as a critique of this research or, better yet, other research with alternate conclusions.

Let’s look at this dispassionately. Think of this in terms of other distinctions, as shown in diverse social science research. Do different people measure differently on personality traits/types? Yes. Do people who measure differently on personality traits/types have different rates of ideological tendencies? Yes. Different rates of psychological conditions? Yes. All of this is entirely non-controversial.

In this context, let me give a basic example that could explain possible higher rates of schizophrenia among conservatives. Liberalism correlates to high ‘openness to experience’ and the opposite for conservatism. So, how do schizophrenics measure on ‘openness’? According to one scientific study—Personality traits in schizophrenia and related personality disorders (where SZ refers to “a diagnosis of schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder”):

“On the five-factor personality scales, SZ subjects showed higher levels of neuroticism, and lower levels of openness, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness than control subjects.”

The psychological trait of ‘openness’ is one of the most defining features of liberalism. This has been found in endless studies. That schizophrenics rate lower levels of this is extremely telling. It doesn’t prove the hypothesis of a conservatism-schizophrenic link. But it does indicates that it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

To shift to a different perspective, consider it in terms of something like gender. Are gender differences real? Yes. They can even be seen in brain scans, as can personality traits/types and even ideological differences. Is there gender differences in measures of personality traits/ types and ideological differences? Yes. In MBTI, a disproportionate number of women measure as Feeling types and a disproportionate number of men measure as Thinking types. As for ideology, a disproportionate number of women are Democrats, but men are more evenly divided between the parties (disproportionate number of men, instead, are found among Libertarians and Independents).

Well, what about mental illnesses? Are there gender differences in mental illnesses? Yes. Emily Deans, at Psychology Today, wrote:

“Psychiatrically speaking, it is probably not a coincidence that dopamine related disorders, such as schizophrenia, addiction, ADHD and autism are more common in men, whereas the serotonin/norepinephrine linked anxiety and depressive disorders are more common in women. Of course dopamine is also associated with depression and opiates with addiction, and men get depressed and anxious while women have ADHD and autism. These are obviously not absolutes, just trends.”

I saved one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for last.

A major discovery about conservatism and liberalism involves brain structure. Conservatives on average have a larger amygdala (i.e., emotional learning and relating) and liberals on average have a larger ACC (i.e., emotional regulation and cognitive control/flexibility). Both are important, and so an emphasis of one over the other creates different tendencies.

The amygdala sometimes gets associated with fear responses, but it is also necessary for empathy and without it functioning well you could become a psychopath. Also, this emotional learning is what builds emotional bonding, which isn’t just about empathy but also group identity. This is probably why conservatives are inclined to identify with family, church, ethno-nationalism, etc.

It’s not that liberals lack empathy. It just expresses differently, less of a strong emotional pull from conservative group-mindedness. Instead, liberals are prone to an abstract, universalizing empathy—which is why conservatives will, for example, argue that liberals sympathize with the enemy and to an extent they’re right (at the same time, liberals are right that conservatives lack this broader empathy toward those outside of some narrow group identity). Conservatives are much more loyal than liberals, because they are more group-minded, related to their being more partisan as well and less tolerant of cooperation and compromise.

If you want to see the extreme of liberalism, look to libertarians who promote a hyper-individualistic laissez-faire worldview that is the complete opposite of conservative group-mindedness. Indeed, libertarians show the least amount of empathy than any other ideological demographic, not even showing the liberal non-groupish empathy. As such, liberals could be seen as in the middle between the extremes of conservatism and libertarianism. If the problem of liberal politics is the difficulty of herding cats, then the challenge of libertarian politics is that of trying to train lizards for synchronized swimming. Almost any trait of liberalism is going to be found even higher among libertarians. Libertarianism is liberalism on drugs or rather on more drugs—quite literally, as libertarians do have very high drug use. Liberals are downright conservative-minded compared to libertarians (and I’d expect brain scans to show this).

The difference between conservatives and liberals has more to do with who they empathize with and to what degree. As National Review discusses, conservatives place their empathy of US soldiers above even the innocent foreigners that US soldiers kill, whereas liberals don’t place US soldiers so high in the empathy scale and actually see them as equal to foreigners—so who has more empathy? Overall, liberals tend to favor those perceived as outsiders and underdogs, which is why they aren’t overly loyal and patriotic. On some measures (e.g., empathic concern), liberals even rate higher than conservatives. This probably has to do with other factors besides just the amygdala, but surely the amygdala plays a role. From a conservative standpoint, liberals (as with libertarians) have a deficiency in group-mindedness, to the point of being seen as a danger to society, which is to say the conservative’s society.

If a liberal becomes deficient enough in this area, they likely will be drawn to libertarianism. Does that mean libertarianism itself is a mental illness? No, but to have any less empathy than the average libertarian would clearly push one toward psychopathic territory. At the same time, the libertarian’s lack of emotional response is what makes them so idealistic about rationality, which is why they are the most idealistic of post-Enlightenment classical liberals. Conservatives are right that group concern is important, just as libertarians are right that groupthink can be oppressive, but one could argue that conservatives are making the stronger point considering humans are first and foremost social animals. For a social animal to disregard and devalue the group obviously would be less than optimal according to social norms, including psychological and behavioral norms (i.e., mental health). Libertarianism taken to the extreme would be severely dysfunctional and even dangerous, but that is true for almost anything taken to an extreme.

As a side note, gender plays into this, as I noted earlier. Matt Ridley has a WSJ article, in which he writes that: “The researchers found that libertarians had the most “masculine” psychological profile, while liberals had the most feminine, and these results held up even when they examined each gender separately, which “may explain why libertarianism appeals to men more than women.”” On this scale, I guess conservatives are in the middle—one might call them ideologically bisexual (I couldn’t help myself).

I got a bit distracted there. The data is so fascinating. To get back to my point, my last point, the brain structure issue hits home what is so central, at least in terms of conservatives and liberals (I don’t know about libertarians, much less anarchists, socialists, communists, Marxists, etc). What struck me is something Chris Mooney said in a Discover article:

“People with some forms of schizophrenia, Paranoid Type, for instance, typically have a poorly functioning ACC, so they have trouble discerning relevant patterns from irrelevant ones, giving equal weight to all of them.”

The one part of the brain liberals clearly express high function is with the ACC (anterior cintulate cortex). And this is precisely what is relatively smaller for conservatives. This biological variance is one of the main defining distinctions in ideological expression, what makes liberals liberal-minded and conservatives conservative-minded. Isn’t it interesting that highly functioning ACC correlates both to lower rates of conservatism and schizophrenia? It’s just a correlation, but one has to admit that it is interesting, to say the least.

It is the opposite of surprising that different rates of various psychological illnesses, disorders, and behaviors would be found disproportionately among various demographics. This is true in terms of gender, class, and even race. In the US, whites are more likely than blacks to commit suicide. So, why not look at ideologies in this light? None of this proves a causal link. There are endless confounding factors. Correlations aren’t necessarily meaningful, but they aren’t necessarily meaningless either. They are just evidence to be considered.

American Populism, From Frustration to Hope

Every movement fails. Until it succeeds. And then, when it does, everyone says, of course it succeeded, it had to succeed. No, actually, it didn’t have to succeed. But what made it succeed—or at least helped it succeed—was that men and women, for a time, shook off the need for certitude, let go of the bannisters of certainty, remembered that they are not scientists, and put themselves into motion. Without knowing where they’d end up.
~ Corey Robin

There is a lot of frustration and demoralization in the air. It is quite the downer. The campaigns are moving into their nasty phase, and the rest of the population is following suit, those of us who aren’t simply feeling burned out and beat up by the endless harangue. It can lead to doubts and pessimism about the entire political system.

I noticed the effect of this with my dad who is showing signs of emotional fatigue. He utterly despises Trump. And he finds Cruz to be mean-spirited and divisive. As a last resort, he supported Rubio in the caucus, even though he sees him as a weak candidate against Democrats.

My dad has been in a despondent mood. Trump’s campaign, in particular, maybe makes him more sad than outraged. He can’t comprehend what it all means or why it’s happening. I could point out that the conservative movement has been intentionally pushing the GOP to ever greater reactionary extremism for a long time, but I don’t feel like putting my finger into that wound and wiggling it around.

I want to send my love out to the world. I know it’s bad. Instead of inspiration, we get politics as usual or else something worse. I hate seeing people turn on one another, especially average people who for decades have been dumped on by both parties. The voters on the other side aren’t the source of your problem. We don’t live in a functioning democracy and those people far off in Washington don’t represent you. If you want to take back America, whatever that might mean, then you’ll have to do it with more than a vote and a fight for your party, your candidate, your group.

Let’s get straight about the basics. Bernie Sanders isn’t a radical communist. Hillary Clinton isn’t a progressive feminist. Cruz isn’t a principled libertarian. Trump isn’t anything other than a car salesman in a fancy suit. And fergodsake NO! Sanders and Trump are not the same, populist rhetoric aside. Is that clear?

That is what these candidates aren’t. But the campaigns all share a commonality in responding to the public mood. People want something different and the candidates are all trying to present themselves in that light. For this reason, I suspect voters could so easily switch their loyalties as the campaign season continues. It’s not exactly politics as usual, although not as different as some like to pretend.

Let me further clarify a point. This campaign season isn’t an ideological battle. No, Americans aren’t particularly divided, at least not in the ways typically portrayed in the mainstream media (not even Obama has divided the public). When you look at polls, most Americans agree about most things, including healthcare and tax reform, even including taxing the wealthy more. Populism is in the air, all across the spectrum.

Even so, let me note something. Pew states that there is increasing polarization, although I’d point out that it is mostly among the activists and political elite. Anyway, Pew goes on to say that (Beyond Red vs. Blue, 2014):

Even so, most Americans do not view politics through uniformly liberal or conservative lenses, and more tend to stand apart from partisan antipathy than engage in it. But the typology shows that the center is hardly unified. Rather, it is a combination of groups, each with their own mix of political values, often held just
as strongly as those on the left and the right, but just not organized in consistently liberal or conservative terms. Taken together, this “center” looks like it is halfway between the partisan wings. But when disaggregated, it becomes clear that there are many distinct voices in the center, often with as little in common with each other as with those who are on the left and the right.

Looking at various data, I’ve noted that this mix or confusion even exists within ideological demographics and, of course, within the parties. For example, Pew data (Beyond Red vs. Blue, 2011) showed that 9% of Solid Liberals self-identify as ‘conservative’. That is a broad conservative movement that includes a significant number of people who are liberal across most issues. This is how symbolic ideology can trump all else, at least under the right conditions.

Categories that seem distinct can be porous and overlapping. Plus, there are larger patterns that cut across the seeming divides. How we group people can at times seem almost arbitrary.

The following is some data from a 2011 Pew poll. Progressivism has found favored opinion in both parties and among independents, with more support than even conservatism. Meanwhile, both ‘socialism’ and ‘libertarianism’ have found growing support. Libertarianism oddly gets a more positive response from Democrats than Republicans. More interesting is the comparison of socialism and capitalism, as explained by Sarah van Gelder:

There is growing willingness to name corporate rule and global capitalism as key problems, and to look to decentralized, place-based economies as the answer. While capitalism is viewed more favorably among all Americans than socialism, the reverse is true among those under 29, African Americans and Hispanics, and those making less than $30,000 a year, according to a Pew poll. And more Americans have a favorable view of socialism than of the Tea Party.

The most telling part is the numbers among Republicans. Libertarianism and the Tea Party have lost favor, among those who are supposedly its strongest supporters. At the same time, only 66% of conservative Republicans have a positive view of capitalism, while 25% (1 in 4) of moderate-to-liberal Republicans have a positive view of socialism. Even though that means 90% of Republicans overall still dislike socialism (as of 2011), that leaves 1 in 10 with either a positive or neutral position and I bet that latter group has been growing, especially among young Republicans. Then again, the younger generation has turned away from the Republican Party and this might have played a part, as after a while it would be hard to maintain the cognitive dissonance of listening to candidates of your party who attack what you support.

The youth vote is up in the air, for both parties—as described by Morgan Gilbard:

Millennials, usually categorized as individuals between 18 and 33, are less willing to identify with a party than ever before, according to a Pew Research study in April 2015. Only 18 percent identified as Republican and 28 percent as Democrat. A staggering 48 percent considered themselves independent, compared with 40 percent in 2008.

This is particularly true of a demographic Pew calls Young Outsiders. They are 14% of the general public, 15% of registered voters, and 11% of the politically engaged. Even Pew’s Next Gen Left (12%, 13%, 11%) could be pulled right based on their weaker support for a social safety net. And the relatively young Bystanders, 10% of the general population, could be inspired to become registered and politically engaged.

Although social liberalism is popular for Millennials, including among young Republicans, there are key issues that split the youth vote and could tip the balance in either direction. Frustration with the government could lead many otherwise liberal Millennials to vote Republican, just as frustration with the economy could lead many otherwise conservative Millennials to vote Democratic. Yet much of the frustration is basically the same across the board—Siraj Hashmi reports:

“Why are we fighting the Iraq War? Why are we spending billions of dollars trying to rebuild Afghanistan, which looks like the Moon, than spending money on our cities like Detroit? Why do we not care about putting Americans first? Those are very appealing questions,” Girdusky said. “They’re [Trump and Sanders] coming at different answers, but it’s the questions that millennials are asking themselves as well.”

The youth of today aren’t the same as the youth of the past. It is today’s youngest generation of voters that has the strongest support for both socialism and libertarianism (the opposite for older generations, including when they were younger), which maybe puts libertarian socialists such as Noam Chomsky in a new position of influence. It might even explain some of the appeal of Sanders, even for rural conservatives in his state, as his ‘socialism’ includes defense of gun rights. Among several demographics, there isn’t always a perfect alignment in their opinions about various labels. Blacks, for example, have a majority with positive views of conservatism, liberalism, and socialism. This seems to be related to what Pew recently has called the Faith and Family Left (30% Black, 19% Hispanic), 51% of which “hold an equal mix of liberal and conservative values”—while religiously and socially conservative in many ways, their liberalism being specifically a “strong support for government and a commitment to the social safety net.” So, conservatism can go along with ‘socialism’ just fine but even more strangely doesn’t even have to be opposed to liberalism. Ha!

This might partly relate to what “scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology” (Jost, Federico, & Napier). Few people seem to grasp this distinction. This explains the power of culture war rhetoric (i.e., symbolic ideology) and why that rhetoric will lose power as conditions change. Populist eras tend to defy easy ideological categorizations, and the public during such times isn’t as predictably easy to manipulate by machine politics. Symbolic ideology can quickly shift and morph, allowing the operational side to emerge. When people are hurting on a basic level of making a living and getting by, the symbolic and operational can come into alignment. That is the power and potential of populism, and also its danger.

Related to this, there have been many articles about Republicans turning to join the Sanders campaign. Who are these Republicans feeling the Bern? The more recent 2014 Pew poll (Beyond Red vs. Blue) tells us who they are. But first let me tell you who they aren’t. What Pew calls Business Conservatives is a demographic that is more socially liberal and pro-immigration, while of course being strong in their economic conservatism—74% of them believe that “Wall Street helps economy more than it hurts.” That is unsurpising. Now for the other major group on the political right, Steadfast Conservatives. Close to half of them (41%) disagree with this faith in Wall Street. Most Americans (62%) think that “Economic system unfairly favors powerful,” with Steadfast Conservatives being divided on this issue (48% unfair; 47% fair), but even almost a third (31%) of Business Conservatives agree that it is unfair. A larger majority of Americans (78%) think that “Too much power is concentrated in hands of few large companies”—in response to this, division is even greater on the political right with 71% of Steadfast Conservatives agreeing and once again about a third (35%) of Business Conservatives agreeing as well, although it should be noted that it is a small majority (only 57%) of the latter who state that the “Largest companies do not have too much power.”

These are the populists that Trump is also able to tap, but also the type of person who might choose Sanders over someone like Cruz. The era of culture wars is coming to an end and class war is taking its place. A divide is growing even among upper and lower classes in the conservative movement. Also, among Independents (even those who lean Republican: Pew’s Young Outsiders), the majority sees the Democratic Party as more caring about the middle class, an attitude that puts some wind in Sanders’ sails. In US politics, rhetoric about the middle class has immense symbolic force, as it speaks to both the fears of the shrinking middle class and the throttled aspirations of the working class.

On a slightly different note, some see nationalist fervor as being an area of divisiveness and conflict, that which could negate or mute all else. Conservatives supposedly think America is the best and anyone who disagrees should leave. It is true that many ‘conservative’ politicians and pundits talk that way, but it isn’t what most conservatives think in private. The majority of all Americans across the spectrum don’t believe that “The U.S. stands above all other countries,” even as they do think it’s a great country. On this note, most Americans don’t believe the US should use its capacity of ‘overwhelming’ force to fight terrorism. And, in a different area of policy, most Americans support a path to citizenship for immigrants and support affirmative action—a majority of conservatives supporting the former and a third of conservatives supporting the latter. Patriotic and prejudicial rhetoric is effective for getting strident activists and loyal supporters excited at GOP campaigns. It’s just not likely to sway most potential voters come election time. The average American simply isn’t all that concerned about such things, specifically not in terms of a chest-beating fear-mongering attitude.

Even religion isn’t going to do much for conservatives and Republicans, not even from Evangelicals. The majority of young believers are progressive and liberal, increasingly both in terms of how they label themselves and in what they support (e.g., same sex marriage). Minorities have higher rates of religiosity than even white conservatives. According to Pew’s 2014 Beyond Red vs. Blue, the most religiously-oriented demographic is the Democratic-voting Faith and Family Left—91% affirming that it is “Necessary to believe in God to be moral,” whereas this agreed to by only 69% of Steadfast Conservatives and 31% of Business Conservatives. As for the majority of Americans, they don’t hold this religious view of morality.

Similarly, most Americans don’t take the Bible literally, do acknowledge Darwinian evolution, think homosexuality should be accepted and favor gay marriage, support abortion in all/most cases, see no reason to expect people to prioritize marriage and children over all else, don’t believe Islam is inherently violent, etc. I could point to dozens of other issues that demonstrate the liberalism of Americans (e.g., majority support of global warming and need of improved environmental regulations, such as 71% saying “should do whatever it takes to protect the environment”), at least in terms of operational ideology and I’d argue increasingly in terms of symbolic ideology as well (e.g., the progressive label now being more popular than the conservative label).

The real Silent Majority, left and right, are those tired of the divisive and mean-spirited culture war rhetoric. Only the political and media elite remain divided by their own rhetoric. Still, the divisive minority is disproportionately vocal and influential, but my sense is that most Americans are growing tired of this minority dominating politics.

Obviously, people are beginning to see labels and ideologies in new ways, as they more and more question the status quo. You can begin to feel the change in the air. How the American public and the two main parties get described in the MSM simply no longer matches reality on the ground. The real divide is older and wealthier non-Hispanic white people versus everyone else. It’s ultimately a class divide, since most of the wealth is concentrated among the older generations and among non-Hispanic whites. The rest of the population is economically struggling or, at best, stuck and stagnating.

Let me return to the issue of what does and doesn’t divide most Americans. Over the years, I’ve talked to a variety of my fellow citizens, online and in my everyday life. I’m often surprised by the amount of agreement that exists, if and when you get past superficial divisive rhetoric. You wouldn’t know that by paying attention to the mainstream media and the partisan campaigning.

All the time, I find points of agreement with my dad who is a lifelong Republican, and this agreement usually involves the issues that get ignored by the mainstream. My mom, an old school conservative and former public school teacher, defends public education and she also supports a return of a New Deal work program for the unemployed. My second cousin is a right-wing libertarian and Tea Partier, and yet we both are inspired by the same ‘socialist’ vision of Star Wars: The Next Generation.

Heck, Sander’s own ‘socialism’ simply represents much of what most Americans state they already support in polls. One of the strongest arguments many Hillary Clinton supporters make is that they want a woman for president, but I doubt many other Americans oppose that, not even Republicans with their own female candidate. Likewise with libertarianism, even many on the political left (including many minorities) might be fine with a president who was a genuine libertarian, that is to say not an authoritarian corporatist theocon—see Reason Magazine’s take on this:

A majority—53 percent—of millennials say they would support a candidate who described him or herself as socially liberal and economically conservative, 16 percent were unsure, and 31 percent would oppose such a candidate.

Interestingly, besides libertarians, liberal millennials are the most supportive of a libertarian-leaning candidate by a margin of 60 to 27 percent. Conservative millennials are most opposed (43% to 48% opposed).

A libertarian-leaning candidate would appeal to both Democratic and Republican voters. For instance, 60 percent of Hillary Clinton voters, 61 percent of Rand Paul voters, 71 percent of Chris Christie voters, and 56 percent of those who approve of President Obama all say they would support a fiscally conservative, socially liberal candidate.

As for Trump’s followers, that is a whole other ball of wax. They are just outraged beyond all sense or reason. It really doesn’t matter what Trump says or advocates. I suspect his followers would follow him all the way to Soviet-style communism without blinking an eye, proclaiming conservative rhetoric all the while. The outrage may get a lot of attention and the mainstream media loves it for its entertainment value (i.e., advertising dollars), but it has little to do with what most Americans want, not even among Republicans.

Americans aren’t ideological in the sense that word is normally used. Social science research has shown this. Most Americans support liberal and progressive policies, even as they support symbolic conservatism. The latter is why culture war rhetoric is so persuasive. The thing about symbolic conservatism, though, is that it has no inherent meaning. It captures a mood, a sensibility, or an attitude—not so much a specific political system or worldview. When you look at the present and former communist countries, they are all socially conservative. It’s important to remember that conservatism isn’t the same thing as right-wing, which is particularly clear when one considers how socially liberal are most libertarians. Economic populism in the US in the past was strongly supported by conservatives. There is even an old history of Christian socialism.

In the end, labels are mostly meaningless. That is being demonstrated with Sanders campaign. It doesn’t matter what he calls himself. He is drawing support from many Independents and even is luring a surprising number of Republicans who are fed up with the GOP circus. In reality, Sanders is just an old school New Dealer. So was Reagan before he became a neoliberal (he never lost his admiration for FDR). There is nothing contradictory between conservatism as a general view and the economic left. Russell Kirk was the mid-20th century thinker who made American conservatism respectable again and yet he saw no problem voting for a Socialist Party candidate.

Clinton and other mainstream types point to Sanders’ history on gun policy. They see this as harsh criticism, proving he is no liberal. Such an argument merely proves how disconnected are the political and media elite. Most liberals, like most conservatives, are for gun rights. Just as most conservatives, like most liberals, are for stronger gun regulation. There is no contradiction here. As a politician, Sanders doesn’t just represent urbanites but also many rural folk. As in Iowa that usually votes for Democratic candidates in presidential elections, you don’t have to be a crazy right-winger to own a gun. On the political left, there is between a quarter and a third who have a gun in their homes (depending on the Pew demographic). That isn’t extremely different from the half of those on the political right who have a gun in their homes. It is important to remember also that conservation, a major issue supposedly for liberals, has always been strongly defended by gun-toting hunters.

None of this is about ideology in a simple sense. Nor is it about parties. Voters switch parties easier than do most politicians and candidates. Even entire parties shift over time, as with the GOP once having been the home of radical left-wingers—critics having called them Red Republicans. As for Democrats, it was common to find white supremacists among their ranks earlier last century. Obviously, the parties have changed… and they will keep changing. Until a short while ago, Sanders wasn’t even a Democrat. If an Independent politician can become a Democratic candidate, then maybe many Independent voters will follow suit.

Older Americans still live in the shadow of McCarthyism and many tremble with fear at being associated with communism and socialism, but younger Americans simply don’t give a frack about Cold War propaganda since they never knew the Cold War. Those among us who do remember it are simply tired of it and are ready for something new.

I’ll tell you what I care about—democracy! That is always the first victim of the US campaign season. I’m not a political animal. It doesn’t even take a Trump to make me despondent. Still, I care about democracy, if only as a vision and a glimmer of potential.

The first political candidate I ever cared about was Ralph Nader. That was back in 2000. I was entirely apolitical before that. It was a shock to the system when I heard Nader speak. Holy shit! This was a politician who had principles and actually believed them. You could hear it in his voice. I had never come across that before.

That was the first time I voted for a presidential candidate. It was a strange campaign to which to lose my political virginity. I felt dirty afterwards. The ugliness of that campaign season put this one to shame. Nader supporters like me got blamed for everything going wrong, even though the Democratic candidate won the election before it was handed over to Bush by the Supreme Court. Shouldn’t the Democrats instead have been mad at a system that was proven corrupt and been mad at their own candidate who bowed down before that corruption, refusing to challenge it?

It was disturbing that the members of a party called Democratic would be so accepting of a process that was shown to be so blatantly undemocratic. To many Americans, it was just corrupt politics as usual, as if there was nothing that could be done about it other than to repeat the same insanity and idiocy four years later.

Of course, the kind of Democrat that attacked Nader voters in the past are now attacking Sanders supporters now, with the DNC leadership trying to tilt the field in Clinton’s favor (e.g., shutting down debates or scheduling them when few would watch). It’s the same old game: defend the status quo at all costs, even as the status quo grows worse and worse. The reason given is that the only alternative to present problems are even worse problems. So, vote for the lesser evil, going down a road paved of good intentions, until by slow descent we all end up in hell. Third Way politics has turned out to be nothing more than an appeasement to the powers that be. More of the same will just get us more of the same, all the while expecting something different, what some define as madness.

Even Sanders isn’t some extreme alternative. On military issues, he might not be all that different from Obama who has followed the example of Bush. Even his economic views are really just mainstream social democracy, rather moderate and tame, and popular as well. The main advantage Sanders offers is the possibility of a shift in the political narrative, a chance to widen the range of allowable opinion. He isn’t much of a socialist, but just the ability to use that word in a national campaign is a breath of fresh air. It’s a sign of new options being put on the table. I’m so tired of replaying the Cold War endlessly. The Russians aren’t going to invade. We don’t need to constantly act in permanent panic mode—America against all the world, including too often American against other Americans. It’s time to look not to the past, but to the future, to new possibilities.

This is what gives me hope. The younger generations don’t carry all that baggage from last century. And it really is a heavy load on the shoulders of the Cold War generations. Americans haven’t been able to think straight about almost anything for a long time, our minds being in the vice grip of paralyzing rhetoric.

In the Cold War battle between left-wing communism and right-wing fascism (or what others call corporatism, crony capitalism, inverted totalitarianism, etc), the latter won and we are living with the results of that. Instead of Godless communism, the ruling elite promoted a religious-tinged culture war both in the US and around the world. The US and other Western governments took out the communist governments in places like the Middle East and helped to replace them with Islamic nationalism (or else ruthless dictators), in the hope that it would keep the oil flowing and neoliberal markets open. How did that work out? The youth today wouldn’t mind a bit of Godlessness at this point, maybe even a moderate dose of genuine leftism for a change.

I do believe that shifting public perception is one of the most important things we can do right now. It doesn’t matter that Sanders isn’t actually a socialist. I realize that electing him president won’t lead to revolutionary changes that will transform our government toward a functioning democracy nor our economy toward socialism. What it will do is open up a space where dialogue can begin. No other mainstream candidate is offering such an opportunity. That shouldn’t be dismissed with cynicism and supposed realpolitik pragmatism.

I sense many Americans agree with me on this. What we need right now is a way of speaking across the many divides of generations and skin color, parties and ideologies. As Americans, our concerns, our lives, and our fate is held in common. It’s not about finding the right leader to solve our problems, but to reenvision who we are as a people. We don’t need to take America back. We are America, all of us.

* * *

(I should make note of something. I wasn’t ignoring third party candidates. I actually despise the two-party system. I like that Sanders’ campaign is opening up discussion of important issues, such as what does and could socialism mean in a democracy, and heck what does and could democracy mean in a corporatist political system. Yet, all in all, I’m more likely to vote third party. But in a sense this post isn’t really about the presidential election. My interest is in what this all means for the American people, where is it that we are heading, what is possible.)

* * *

Political Revolution and the Third-Party Imperative

Bernie Sanders Wins Historically Accurate Mock Election

My Prediction: Bernie Sanders Will Win the White House

Shock Poll: Sanders Catches Clinton and Crushes Trump in Iowa and New Hampshire

The Blast That Swept Him Came Off New Hampshire Snowfields and Ice-Hung Forests

When you ask me to vote for Hillary

The Establishment’s Last Gasp

On Electability

90% of what goes on at The New Yorker can be explained by Vulgar Marxism

Hillary Clinton: The Ultimate Outsider

BERNIE SANDERS’ LACK OF PARTY ENDORSEMENTS IS A GOOD THING

Why Is Hillary Clinton Using Republican Talking Points to Attack Bernie Sanders?

Hillary Clinton Is Using GOP Fear Tactics Against Bernie Sanders’ Health Care Plan

The Escalating Media Assault on Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders Will Become President, Despite Rigged Debate Schedules, Skewed Polls, and Clinton’s ‘Inevitability’

Bernie Won All the Focus Groups & Online Polls, So Why Is the Media Saying Hillary Won the Debate?

Did Hillary Clinton really win the Democratic debate?

Sanders: Timing of debates structured to help Clinton

Clinton bias accusations chase top Democrat Wasserman Schultz

Why Did the DNC Let the Bernie-Hillary Tech Story Leak?

Sanders Adviser Suggests Staffer That Breached Voter Data May Have Been DNC Plant

AUDITOR PROBING SANDERS BREACH HAS A REPUTATION FOR BRIBERY, ILLEGAL WIRETAPPING, AND MORE

DISGRACEFUL: DNC Compromises Clinton Campaign Data, Then Blames Bernie Sanders

The Scandal of the DNC Data Breach

SANDERS BREACH PUTS DATA VENDOR BATTLE FRONT AND CENTER

Bernie Sanders campaign claims DNC voter data was leaked multiple times

Report: Sanders campaign told DNC of data issue months ago

The “electability” argument is bogus: Why Bernie Sanders isn’t the second coming of George McGovern

Bernie Sanders is no Ron Paul: What the press gets all wrong about the Vermont senator

Bernie Sanders, First Libertarian Socialist?

HOW I EVOLVED FROM A RON PAUL SUPPORTER TO A BERNIE SANDERS SUPPORTER

Libertarian voting for Bernie Sanders in primary

How Bernie Sanders Helped Kill Rand Paul’s Campaign

How Reddit (and Bernie Sanders) helped kill Rand Paul’s campaign

Ron Paul Gives Bernie Sanders a Boost… Sort Of

The Republicans who love Bernie Sanders

The Lifelong Republicans Who Love Bernie Sanders

Republicans for Bernie

Republicans for Bernie Sanders

Why Surprising Numbers of Republicans Have Been Voting for Bernie Sanders in Vermont

Bernie Sanders Is a Loud, Stubborn Socialist. Republicans Like Him Anyway.

GOP Senator: I’d Vote For Bernie Sanders Over Ted Cruz

Millennials in Poll Fake Right, Go Left

Millennials have a higher opinion of socialism than of capitalism

Hey, GOP, Here’s Why Millennials Hate Us

CLINTON’S UNPOPULARITY WITH YOUNG VOTERS OFFERS GOP AN OPENING [WITH COMMENT BY JOHN]

Clinton looks to sisterhood, but votes may go to Sanders

Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

I learned of a new author, Andrew Alexander, the same year he died. I came across him because of a book he wrote on the Cold War, America and the Imperialism of Ignorance: How America Won the War and Lost the Peace – US Foreign Policy Since 1945. I’ll add that book to my reading list for all Americans, even if Oprah doesn’t include it in her book club list.

Alexander was highly critical of Cold War policies and propaganda (and its continuing influence), having seen it as some combination of ignorance and delusion. But he was no radical activist, academic revisionist, or dogmatic ideologue trying to defend left-wing politics. Besides being a respectable editor, journalist and columnist for The Daily Mail, he was a Tory conservative (and once a Conservative candidate), Thatcher neoliberal, right-wing British patriot, and hardline anti-communist. As Simon Jenkins at the Guardian puts it, “No one could possibly call him leftwing, let alone a pacifist appeaser. He has no illusions about the evil of Stalin or Mao, any more than he has about Saddam and al-Qaida.” David Duff, in an Al Aribaya News article, states it simply when he calls Alexander “a crusty Tory of the old school.”

Alexander’s social circle included many in the British political and economic elite. He wasn’t some nobody attacking his perceived superiors in hoping to make a name for himself. His career has been well established for a long time. His is not an angry commentary from an outsider, but a set of long considered concerns directed toward his own ideological peers and associates. He makes this clear in the dedication to his book: “To my numerous friends in the Conservative Party whose relentless belief remains to this day that the Cold war arose from the aggressive ambitions of the Kremlin, thwarted by the bold response of our American friends. Their refusal to contemplate any other explanation has spurred me on in this, my survey of US foreign policy over the last sixty-five years.” His book was an offering to friends, not an attack against enemies. It was his love of country that made him take this issue so seriously, as he worried about the costs wasted and damages done.

It is interesting to read the views of someone like him. It is hard to imagine a conservative of that variety in the mainstream media of the United States. From a Guardian article more than a decade old, he offered this gem (The Soviet threat was a myth):

“One can, of course, understand why few in the west want the orthodox view overturned. If that were to happen, the whole edifice of postwar politics would crumble. Could it be that the heavy burden of postwar rearmament was unnecessary, that the transatlantic alliance actually imperilled rather than saved us? Could it be that the world teetered on the verge of annihilation because post-war western leaders, particularly in Washington, lacked imagination, intelligence and understanding? The gloomy answer is yes.”

That is a damning conclusion, especially considering it comes from a conservative. To give some perspective, here is a passage from his book’s first chapter, The Flawed Cold War Orthodoxy (Kindle Locations 137-154):

“A wider look at history shows that a strongly interventionist US foreign policy is nothing new – though the current power to intervene globally is. A century ago, an American incomprehension of the outside world was exemplified by President Woodrow Wilson, so determined to remake countries in the American image after the First World War. His mixture of benevolence and ruthlessness may be summed up in a dispute with Mexico in 1913, when he announced ‘I will teach the Latin-Americans to elect good men’ followed by bombarding the town of Vera Cruz. His gunboat diplomacy intensified such feelings of nationalism and anti-Americanism that Germany hoped to make Mexico an ally in an attack on the USA in 1917 – famously exposed in the Zimmermann telegram, decoded by London.

“In 1945, the USA dedicated itself in Wilsonian language to bringing ‘democracy and freedom’ to the countries occupied by the Soviets at the end of the Second World War. The goal was high-minded. But there was a puzzling refusal to acknowledge the Soviet claim that two invasions by Germany in twenty-seven years made the firm control of Eastern Europe essential to Russian security. Truman insisted on seeing the Soviets as the determinedly expansionist enemy of the free world almost from the day he assumed office. They were, he said, ‘planning world conquest’.2

“The United States over which he presided had emerged from the Second World War with a military and economic supremacy unparalleled in history. Of the three powers which defeated the Axis alliance, the USA was unique in ending the war wealthier than when it began. By contrast, Britain’s income was down by a third with much of its overseas assets sold to buy armaments from the USA. In the case of Russia, which had been responsible for destroying the vast bulk of Hitler’s forces, the loss of income was immeasurable. Soviet statistics, always dubious, have never provided a wholly reliable picture of national income. But the scale of the devastation, involving at least twenty-two million and possibly twenty-seven million military and civilian deaths, speaks for itself.

“There was in fact no evidence in 1945 that the Soviet Union had a sinister plan to conquer the West. The threat perceived by Truman and others was imaginary – though no less powerful for that – stoked up by years of fearing the deadly spread of Communism.”

Alexander is able to write with such authority because he has gone to the direct words of Stalin and others. Mining records that weren’t available to earlier historians and journalists, his writings on the Cold War includes many telling quotes. What becomes clear is that Stalin was simply another nationalist despot with nationalist concerns. He worried about his own power and position, and of course he took seriously his role as leader of the country he ruled. He was a Russian nationalist, not an ideological communist and Trotsky internationalist (Stalin, by the way, assassinated Trotsky). Alexander states this in no uncertain terms (Kindle Locations 195-202):

“Given the German invasions, it would not have mattered whether the government in Moscow had been Communist, Tsarist or Social Democrat. It would still have insisted on firm control of these countries through which invasion had come; and bound to regard with deep suspicion any attempts to prevent it. In any case, Moscow could never forget that it was British and French policy in the interwar years to make Eastern Europe a barrier against the Soviet Union, even to consider – crucially – allowing Hitler a free hand against Russia. Colonel, later President, de Gaulle noted that even after the start of the Second World War:

“Certain circles saw the enemy in Stalin rather than Hitler. They busied themselves with finding means of striking Russia, either by aiding Finland or bombarding Baku or landing at Istanbul, much more than in coming to grips with Hitler.”

There is an intriguing insight about Stalin and non-Russian revolutions. Alexander explains that (Kindle Locations 161-165):

“Stalin’s attitude to the so-called world proletarian revolution is essential to understanding his personal and political motivation. He was, like the despot throughout the ages, principally concerned with his own survival rather than with ideological issues. He abandoned the grand global ambition of the world proletarian revolution in 1924 when he proclaimed that, henceforth, the aim was to be ‘socialism in one country’. To believe that he remained at all times a devout ideologue is to misread his character.”

One suspects those who saw Stalin as an ideologue were maybe projecting their own dogmatic tendencies. These Western ruling elites wanted an ideological war, whether or not Stalin wished to participate. “The determination of the West to see every Soviet move as explicable in terms of the pursuit of the world proletarian revolution provides one of history’s great ironies: the West took Communist doctrine more seriously than Stalin” (Kindle Locations 180-181). These ideologues were eventually able to force the hand of the Soviets to join this game of ideological battle, as they insisted on goading the Soviet government into aggression. In discussing the “European powers’ readiness to follow the American lead,” Alexander makes the point that “ironically…” (Kindle Locations 114-121),

“the launch of the Cold War by the USA did in due course bring into existence the very danger which had been imagined. It made frantic defence measures seem sensible. Threatened by President Truman, Russia responded by a vigorous programme of rearmament and an even tighter clampdown on Eastern Europe. With the refusal of the USA to respond to peace initiatives launched by the Soviet leadership on the death of Stalin in 1953, the Kremlin fought back under the new and more assertive leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. American and Western power in general was challenged wherever it could be found. It became rational to talk of a Communist threat and of the danger of a Soviet Union with a nuclear armoury. What was inaccurate was the assumption that a new military threat had come into being when the wartime allies finally came face to face in Germany.”

I sometimes find myself talking about the Cold War. I’m on the tail end of the Cold War generations, when that era was winding down. It’s just a childhood memory to me, mostly as portrayed in the fictionalized accounts of Hollywood movies and tv shows. I sense how different older Americans often respond to Cold War history. What to me just seems like propaganda to many who are older seems tangibly real. The ideological terms of capitalism versus communism so fully define and determine their sense of reality.

I found it interesting that even the Soviets talked about defending freedom and democracy from American greed, immorality, and destructiveness. Both sides were often making similar arguments. I’ve come to the conclusion that it never was about ideology. You can see evidence of that in how easily formerly communist Russia and Maoist China have come to embrace variants of capitalism.

It seems to me that the greatest threat to the United States has always been fascism, not communism. You can also see the evidence of that in how easily this country has taken on forms of crony capitalism, corporatism, and inverted totalitarianism. But it isn’t an ideological issue, per se. It is partly just about power and in the US power has always been tied up with capitalism, not any opposing ideologies. Even the most left-wing progressivism in the US merely sought to reform capitalism and did so to protect against anything further left.

Plus, I see the cultural angle being so much more important. That is seen with Stalin. He was a Russian nationalist, first and foremost, through and through. The United States has never been an ethnically homogeneous country like any of the communist countries or, for that matter, any of the traditionally fascist countries. Diversity has been a great protection for the US against the worst forms of authoritarian takeover.

In terms of Russia and Eastern Europe, there was never much of an issue, since only a small part of America’s population comes from that part of the world. The main reason fascism was a threat in this country wasn’t even the dominance of plutocratic capitalism, but because so many Americans came from countries that became fascist. Many German-Americans, the single largest ancestry in the US, proudly marched in the streets carrying flags and banners with the swastika. The characteristics of the American people that resonated with fascism were cultural rather than ideological. Even ignoring ancestry and issues of national loyalty, this resonance included America’s populist folk religiosity, a defining feature of fascism and quite opposite of official communist ideology. The same social and political forces that brought fascism to Europe also brought the German Bund and Second Klan to America.

Yet we go on arguing about ideology. It never was about ideology. It still isn’t. So many ideological debates ring hollow. Like the Cold War, the culture wars were simply a spectacle of distraction. Most Americans agree about most things. There is no grand ideological conflict in America, although there is a class war between the economic elite and everyone else (Joe Bageant made the argument that 60-70% of Americans are actually working class, those with little economic freedom and self-determination), but a class war in raw form is still not directly an issue of ideology. There certainly isn’t any threat of communist takeover. Even Bernie Sanders is simply a moderate mainstream social democrat and not a radical dogmatic ideologue.

I doubt the ideological Cold War will end until the last person with living memory of that era has left this earth. It has been such a powerful force in ruling over our collective psyche, strangling our ability to imagine anything else. We can only hope that with historical distance its grip will loosen and its influence fade.

I’m a Confused Hypocrite

“Identity is the Ur-form of ideology.”
~ Theodor Adorno

I was considering my confused identity.

I typically identify as a liberal, but I always mean that in the broadest sense. First and foremost, I’m psychologically liberal. This means I’m generous in attitude, if not always perfectly so in practice. More specifically, I am or seek to be: open-minded, curious, not ideologically dogmatic, lacking in group loyalty (especially in terms of groupthink, although I’m strong in personal loyalty to those I care about), tolerant of differences, tolerant of cognitive dissonance (tolerant of the differences within myself and hence tolerant of my own confused identity), etc.

I’m accepting of ambiguity even as I’m desirous of clarity. I’m critical of hypocrisy and try to avoid it, but I know that I fail. I’m inconsistent and it seems to me all humans are inconsistent. Inconsistency isn’t problematic as such. Rather, it is the unawareness of one’s inconsistency. I try to lessen my sin of hypocrisy with a dose of humility.

One of my favorite sayings is that, “It’s complex”. That is my way of saying that, although I have many opinions based on what I hope is good info and careful thought, in the end I just don’t feel all that certain about lots of things. I could be wrong, to put it lightly. No doubt, there is more that I don’t know than I do know.

On a more personal level, I’m both an idealist and a philosophical pessimist. I’m a radical skeptic (zetetic), which translates to my being skeptical of even skepticism. I’m an equal opportunity agnostic. I question and doubt everything, and that can be a quite demoralizing attitude at times when coupled with my streak of depression. I’m agnostic about belief and unbelief. I sometimes identify as an agnostic gnostic, just for shits and giggles.

All in all, my liberalism is one of the most central aspects to my identity. It is at the heart of my confusion. In ideological terms, I have many tendencies and concerns. I’m equal parts: progressive, communitarian, civil libertarian, social democrat, “rat park” municipal socialist, and on and on.

I’m socially globalist/internationalist (a humanitarian or maybe better yet a Gaian), but I simultaneously lean toward minarchism in my politics and anarchism in my economics (e.g., anarcho-syndicalism). Yet I’m not against big government or big anything on principle. It’s more of a practical emphasis, of wanting to bring the world back down to the human level, to the level of lived experience and living reality (non-human included), of personal relationships and communities, of a sense of place and a sense of home.

On the other hand, I can’t say I’m against such things bureaucracy or technocracy, per se. Nor am I necessarily opposed to capitalism and big biz. I really don’t care about such things in and of themselves. What I do care about is democracy and hence freedom, which to me are always most fundamentally personal and interpersonal, not mere abstractions or theories.

If any particular ideological system can be made to align and support democracy and freedom, then more power to it. I don’t feel I’m in a position to predict what new forms and directions society might take, but I wouldn’t mind a bureaucracy and technocracy of the variety portrayed in Star Trek: The Next Generation. As for capitalism and big biz, I just want a genuine free market which means a democratized and socially responsible economics, whatever that may be (obviously, present capitalism and big biz fails that standard to an extreme degree).

My biggest concern is about externalized costs, the free rider problem, and the precautionary principle (all of which I consider to be most fundamentally conservative-minded and so, at least superficially, opposed to my more typical liberal predisposition). More than anything, I’d like to live in a society that (1) is wise and (2) is not self-destructive. Our present society is highly dysfunctional and I feel that I have internalized much of that dysfunction. I’m a confused person because that seems like the inevitable fate right now of any person who is self-aware and of a concerned attitude.

I want to live in a world that is worth caring about. I want to live in a society that considers me worth caring about.

Because I’m a liberal, I’d like to believe such a world and society is possible. The disconnect from what I’d like to believe and what is present reality is more than a bit disconcerting. It’s downright irritating and frustrating. It would be easier to be righteous than confused, but I’m never able to maintain an attitude of righteousness for very long. Righteousness is more tiresome than even depression.

My inner child just wants the bad people to stop doing bad things. But my cynical adult self points out that I’m part of this problematic society. How can I be anything other than confused and hypocritical? How can I not fail my own idealistic standards and aspirations? Still, apathetically accepting the status quo of soul-crushing misery and injustice would be a far worse fate.

The Case of the Missing Concepts

Hypocognition, in cognitive linguistics, means missing and being unable to communicate cognitive and linguistic representations because there are no words for particular concepts.”

* * *

The enthusiasm for evidence-based medicine (EBM) has not been accompanied by the same success in bridging the gap between theory and practice. This paper advances the hypothesis that the phenomenon psychologists call hypocognition may hinder the development of EBM. People tend to respond to frames rather than to facts. To be accepted, a theory, however robust, must fit into a person’s mental framework. The absence of a simple, consolidated framework is referred to as hypocognition. Hypocognition might limit the application of EBM in three ways. First, it fails to provide an analytical framework by which to orient the physician in the direction of continuous medical development and variability in individual people’s responses. Second, little emphasis is placed on teaching clinical reasoning. Third, there is an imbalance between the enormous mass of available information and the practical possibilities. Possible solutions are described. We not only need more evidence to help clinicians make better decisions, but also need more research on why some clinicians make better decisions than others, how to teach clinical reasoning, and whether computerised supports can promote a higher quality of individualised care.”

* * *

Americans, especially, suffer from what linguists call hypocognition: the lack of a core concept we need in order to thrive. The missing concept is of democracy as a way of life; democracy not as a set system–something done to us, for us, finished and done–but as a set of system values that usefully apply in all arenas of life. In the dominant, failing idea of democracy, society is a subset of economic life. To make the needed planetary turn to life, we must envision the opposite: economic life re-embedded in society guided by shared human values, including fairness, inclusion, and mutual accountability.”

* * *

Frances Moore Lappe (Hope’s Edge, 2002) makes the case that often politicians and corporations use terms that leave us suffering from “hypocognition.” Hypocognition results when a term is used to conjure up all-positive images to prevent us from understanding what is really going on. For example, hypocognition makes it hard for the public to believe there can be anything wrong with “globalism” or “free trade,” which sound like the apple pie and motherhood of the 21st century. It is easy for the press to portray those who protest against “free trade” as fringe lunatics.

“Ms. Lappe coined the term “primitive marketism” as a more appropriate name for what has become the accepted standard of world trade over the last 20 years — that the single principle of highest return to existing wealth is the sole driver of the world-wide system of production and exchange. That leaves cultural integrity, human rights, environmental protection, and even the ability of people to feed themselves as inconsequential to multinational corporations reaching around the world for opportunities for the highest return to existing wealth.

“As much as the term “primitive marketism” helps identify problems inherent to the way global trade is structured today, it takes a bit of bending of the mind and tongue to use it. It seems to me that a term that more immediately and clearly identifies where we are headed with world trade — a term which leaves no room for hypocognition — is “corporate colonialism.””

* * *

This perspective on reason matters to the discussion in this forum about global warming, because many people engaged in environmentalism still have the old, false view of reason and language. Folks trained in public policy, science, economics, and law are often given the old, false view. As a result, they may believe that if you just tell people the facts, they will reason to the right conclusion. What actually happens is that the facts must make sense in terms of their system of frames, or they will be ignored. The facts, to be communicated, must be framed properly. Furthermore, to understand something complex, a person must have a system of frames in place that can make sense of the facts. In the case of global warming, all too many people do not have such a system of frames in the conceptual systems in their brains. Such frame systems have to be built up over a period of time. This has not been done.” (pp. 72-73)

“Have you ever wondered why conservatives can communicate easily in a few words, while liberals take paragraphs? The reason is that conservatives have spent decades, day after day building up frames in people’s brains, and building a better communication system to get their ideas out in public. Progressives have not done that.” (p. 73)

“The right language is absolutely necessary for communicating ‘‘the real crisis.’’(p. 74)

“‘Hypocognition’ is the lack of ideas we need. We are suffering from massive hypocognition in the case of the environment.” (p. 76)

“An important frame is in throes of being born: The Regulated Commons – the idea of common, non-transferable ownership of aspects of the natural world, such as the atmosphere, the airwaves, the waterways, the oceans, and so on.” (p. 78)

* * *

Not all corrections to hypocognition have to be heavy stuff, like grief and scientific advancement. One of my favorite authors tried to give everything a word. Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, put out a book with John Lloyd called, The Meaning of Liff. It started as a slightly-drunken party game, during which Adams and his friends picked out the names of English towns and pretended the names were words that they had to define. As they were coming up with different definitions, they realized that, as humans, they all shared common experiences that don’t have names.

“My favorite word of the book is “shoeburyness,” which is defined as “the vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat which is still warm from somebody else’s bottom.” Everyone has felt that. One author I read went to a strict college at which men were forbidden to sit in a seat directly after a woman vacated it, because he would feel her residual body heat and the dean of women considered that too sexual. But no one came up with a word for it. Once there is a word for it, people can begin to refer to it. What concept do you think needs a word? I nominate “splincing” — when you’re completely in the wrong, and hate it, and you daydream about someone wronging you so you can feel righteously aggrieved about something.”

Political Appetitions

Appetition

Definitions
n. Desire; a longing for, or seeking after, something.

Etymologies
From Latin appetītiō (“a longing for or desire”).

Leibniz’s Philosophy of Mind
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Appetitions are explained as “tendencies from one perception to another” (Principles of Nature and Grace, sec.2 (1714)). Thus, we represent the world in our perceptions, and these representations are linked with an internal principle of activity and change (Monadology, sec.15 (1714)) which, in its expression in appetitions, urges us ever onward in the constantly changing flow of mental life. More technically explained, the principle of action, that is, the primitive force which is our essence, expresses itself in momentary derivative forces involving two aspects: on the one hand, there is a representative aspect (perception), by which that the many without are expressed within the one, the simple substance; on the other, there is a dynamical aspect, a tendency or striving towards new perceptions, which inclines us to change our representative state, to move towards new perceptions. (See Carlin 2004.)

Leibniz: truth, knowledge and metaphysics
Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

This is the famous doctrine of unconscious perceptions. Here it is helpful to recall Leibniz’s hierarchical arrangement of monads. All monads perceive, but they differ vastly in terms of the quality of their perceptions. Human minds or spirits are distinguished not only by reason but also by ‘apperception’ which means consciousness or perhaps even selfconsciousness. But though Leibniz holds that human minds are set apart from lower monads by their capacity for (self)-conscious awareness, he further believes that they also have unconscious or little perceptions (petites perceptions); such perceptions are little because they are low in intensity. Not merely do large stretches of our mental life consist wholly in little perceptions, but even conscious mental states are composed of such perceptions. The doctrine of unconscious perceptions is perhaps Leibniz’s principal innovation in psychology, and it is of course profoundly anti-Cartesian in its implications. For Descartes subscribes to the view that the mind is transparent to itself; he is explicit that there is nothing in the mind of which we are not conscious.80 In the New Essays on Human Understanding, his reply to Locke, Leibniz remarks that there are ‘thousands of indications’ in favour of unconscious perceptions.81

Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences
By John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith, and John R. Alford
Kindle Locations 429-488

People are not fully conscious of their predispositions. Gottfried Leibniz, a seventeeth-century mathematician and scientist, called them “appetitions” and argued that, though unconscious , appetitions drive human actions. His ideas so troubled Descartes-addled Enlightenment minds that they were not published until well after Leibniz’s death. Even then, they were not taken seriously for a long time. Recent science, though, is fully on board with Leibniz’s ideas and is providing ever -increasing evidence that people grossly overestimate the role in their decisions of rational, conscious thought , just as they grossly overestimate the extent to which sensory input is objective.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman goes so far as to claim that “the brain is properly thought of as a mostly closed system that runs on its own internally generated activity … internal data is not generated by external sensory data but merely modulated by it.” 14 Noting that people often do things because of forces of which they are not aware and then produce a bogus reason for these actions after the fact, Stephen Pinker refers to the portion of the brain involved in constructing this post hoc narrative as the “baloney generator.” 15 The baloney generator is so effective that people believe they know the reasons for their actions and beliefs even when these reasons are inaccurate and patently untrue. 16

Need examples of physiology affecting attitudes and behavior, even when people think they are being rational? Consider this: Job applicant resumes reviewed on heavy clipboards are judged more worthy than identical resumes on lighter clipboards; holding a warm or hot drink can influence whether opinions of other people are positive or negative; when people reach out to pick up an orange while smelling strawberries they unwittingly spread their fingers less widely— as if they were picking up a strawberry rather than an orange. 17 People sitting in a messy, smelly room tend to make harsher moral judgments than those who are in a neutral room; disgusting ambient odors also increase expressed dislike of gay men. 18 Judges’ sentencing practices are measurably more lenient when they are fresh and haven’t just dealt with a string of prior cases. 19 Sitting on a hard, uncomfortable chair leads people to be less flexible in their stances than if they are seated on a soft , comfortable chair, and people reminded of physical cleansing, perhaps by being located near a hand sanitizer, are more likely to render stern judgments than those who were not given such a reminder. 20 People even can be made to change their moral judgments as a result of hypnotic suggestion. 21

In all these cases the baloney generator can produce a convincing case that the pertinent decision was made on the merits rather than as a result of irrelevant factors. People actively deny that a chunky clipboard has anything to do with their assessment of job applicants or that a funky odor has anything to do with their moral judgments. Judges certainly refuse to believe that the length of time since their last break has anything to do with their sentencing decisions; after all, they are meting out objective justice . Leibniz was right, though, and the baloney generator is full of it. The way we respond—biologically, physiologically, and in many cases unwittingly— to our environments influences attitudes and behavior. People much prefer to believe, however , that their decisions and opinions are rational rather than rationalized.

This desire to believe we are rational is certainly in effect when it comes to politics, where an unwillingness to acknowledge the role of extraneous forces of which we may not even be aware is especially strong. Many pretend that politics is a product of citizens taking their civic obligations seriously, sifting through political messages and information, and then carefully and deliberately considering the candidates and issue positions before making a consciously informed decision. Doubtful. In truth, people’s political judgments are affected by all kinds of factors they assume to be wholly irrelevant.

Compared to people (not just judges) with full stomachs, those who have not eaten for several hours are more sympathetic to the plight of welfare recipients. 22 Americans whose polling place happens to be a church are more likely to vote for right-of-center candidates and ideas than those whose polling place is a public school. 23 People are more likely to accept the realities of global warming if their air conditioning is broken. 24 Italians insisting they were neutral in the lead-up to a referendum on expanding a U.S . military base, but who implicitly associated pictures of the base with negative terms, were more likely to vote against the referendum; in other words, people who genuinely believed themselves to be undecided were not. 25 People shown a cartoon happy face for just a few milliseconds (too quick to register consciously) list fewer arguments against immigration than those individuals who were shown a frowning cartoon face. 26 Political views are influenced not only by forces believed to be irrelevant but by forces that have not entered into conscious awareness. People think they know the reasons they vote for the candidates they do or espouse particular political positions or beliefs, but there is at least a slice of baloney in that thinking.

Responses to political stimuli are animated by emotional and not always conscious bodily processes. Political scientist Milt Lodge studies “hot cognition” or “automaticity.” His research shows that people tag familiar objects and concepts with an emotional response and that political stimuli such as a picture of Sarah Palin or the word “Obamacare” are particularly likely to generate emotional or affective (and therefore physiologically detectable) responses. In fact, Lodge and his colleague Charles Taber claim that “all political leaders, groups, issues, symbols, and ideas previously thought about and evaluated in the past become affectively charged— positively or negatively.” 27 Responses to a range of individual concepts and objects frequently become integrated in a network that can be thought of as the tangible manifestation of a broader political ideology.

The fact that extraneous forces that may not have crossed the threshold of awareness (sometimes called sub-threshold) shape political orientations and actions makes it possible for individual variation in nonpolitical variables to affect politics. If hotter ambient temperatures in a room increase acceptance of global warming, maybe people whose internal thermostats incline them to feeling hot are also more likely to be accepting of global warming. Likewise, sensitivity to clutter and disorder, to smell, to disgust, and to threats becomes potentially relevant to political views. Since elements of these sensitivities often are outside of conscious awareness, it becomes possible that political views are shaped by psychological and physiological patterns.