Friday, April 01, 2011
Who had the worst week in Washington? Newt Gingrich.
Ask Newt Gingrich a question, and you’ll get an answer. Usually a long one with references to international economics, ancient history and sometimes even flex-fuel vehicles.
Gingrich is, without question, a big brain who can bowl you over with the depth and breadth of his knowledge.
But he can also trap himself with his rhetoric — offering contradictory answers to the same question, leaving himself trying to explain the unexplainable.
Witness Gingrich’s acrobatics on Libya.
On March 7, he told Fox News Channel’s Greta Van Susteren that President Obama should establish a no-fly zone over the country. Then on March 23, he appeared on NBC’s “Today” show to forcefully declare: “I would not have intervened. I think there were a lot of other ways to affect Gaddafi.”
Gingrich spent most of the ensuing days trying to dig out of that rhetorical hole, arguing that the “contradictions” in his position were the result of responding to an ever-changing White House policy.
He doubled down on the confusing verbiage — this time on a domestic issue — during a recent visit with House Republicans, simultaneously pushing his party not to compromise with Senate Democrats on budget cuts while also making clear that a government shutdown should be avoided.
By this past week, Gingrich had become a punch line — the Onion wrote a “story” in which he marveled at how he was a serious contender for the presidency — and even some Republicans had gotten in on the act.
“I was happy to see that Newt Gingrich has staked out a position on the war, a position, or two, or maybe three,” Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) joked at an annual congressional dinner on Wednesday. Zing!
Newt Gingrich, for turning your rhetorical firepower on yourself, you had the worst week in Washington. Congrats, or something.
Posted by Hart Kirch at 10:00 PM
One hundred fifty years after the Civil War began, we’re still fighting it — or at least fighting over its history. I’ve polled thousands of high school history teachers and spoken about the war to audiences across the country, and there is little agreement even about why the South seceded. Was it over slavery? States’ rights? Tariffs and taxes?As the nation begins to commemorate the anniversaries of the war’s various battles — from Fort Sumter to Appomattox — let’s first dispense with some of the more prevalent myths about why it all began.
1. The South seceded over states’ rights.
Confederate states did claim the right to secede, but no state claimed to be seceding for that right. In fact, Confederates opposed states’ rights — that is, the right of Northern states not to support slavery.
On Dec. 24, 1860, delegates at South Carolina’s secession convention adopted a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” It noted “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery” and protested that Northern states had failed to “fulfill their constitutional obligations” by interfering with the return of fugitive slaves to bondage. Slavery, not states’ rights, birthed the Civil War.
South Carolina was further upset that New York no longer allowed “slavery transit.” In the past, if Charleston gentry wanted to spend August in the Hamptons, they could bring their cook along. No longer — and South Carolina’s delegates were outraged. In addition, they objected that New England states let black men vote and tolerated abolitionist societies. According to South Carolina, states should not have the right to let their citizens assemble and speak freely when what they said threatened slavery.
Other seceding states echoed South Carolina. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world,” proclaimed Mississippi in its own secession declaration, passed Jan. 9, 1861. “Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth. . . . A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”
The South’s opposition to states’ rights is not surprising. Until the Civil War, Southern presidents and lawmakers had dominated the federal government. The people in power in Washington always oppose states’ rights. Doing so preserves their own.
2. Secession was about tariffs and taxes.
During the nadir of post-civil-war race relations — the terrible years after 1890 when town after town across the North became all-white “sundown towns” and state after state across the South prevented African Americans from voting — “anything but slavery” explanations of the Civil War gained traction. To this day Confederate sympathizers successfully float this false claim, along with their preferred name for the conflict: the War Between the States. At the infamous Secession Ball in South Carolina, hosted in December by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, “the main reasons for secession were portrayed as high tariffs and Northern states using Southern tax money to build their own infrastructure,” The Washington Post reported.
These explanations are flatly wrong. High tariffs had prompted the Nullification Controversy in 1831-33, when, after South Carolina demanded the right to nullify federal laws or secede in protest, President Andrew Jackson threatened force. No state joined the movement, and South Carolina backed down. Tariffs were not an issue in 1860, and Southern states said nothing about them. Why would they? Southerners had written the tariff of 1857, under which the nation was functioning. Its rates were lower than at any point since 1816.
3. Most white Southerners didn’t own slaves, so they wouldn’t secede for slavery.
Indeed, most white Southern families had no slaves. Less than half of white Mississippi households owned one or more slaves, for example, and that proportion was smaller still in whiter states such as Virginia and Tennessee. It is also true that, in areas with few slaves, most white Southerners did not support secession. West Virginia seceded from Virginia to stay with the Union, and Confederate troops had to occupy parts of eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama to hold them in line.
However, two ideological factors caused most Southern whites, including those who were not slave-owners, to defend slavery. First, Americans are wondrous optimists, looking to the upper class and expecting to join it someday. In 1860, many subsistence farmers aspired to become large slave-owners. So poor white Southerners supported slavery then, just as many low-income people support the extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy now.
Second and more important, belief in white supremacy provided a rationale for slavery. As the French political theorist Montesquieu observed wryly in 1748: “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures [enslaved Africans] to be men; because allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.” Given this belief, most white Southerners — and many Northerners, too — could not envision life in black-majority states such as South Carolina and Mississippi unless blacks were in chains. Georgia Supreme Court Justice Henry Benning, trying to persuade the Virginia Legislature to leave the Union, predicted race war if slavery was not protected. “The consequence will be that our men will be all exterminated or expelled to wander as vagabonds over a hostile earth, and as for our women, their fate will be too horrible to contemplate even in fancy.” Thus, secession would maintain not only slavery but the prevailing ideology of white supremacy as well.
4. Abraham Lincoln went to war to end slavery.
Since the Civil War did end slavery, many Americans think abolition was the Union’s goal. But the North initially went to war to hold the nation together. Abolition came later.
On Aug. 22, 1862, President Lincoln wrote a letter to the New York Tribune that included the following passage: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”
However, Lincoln’s own anti-slavery sentiment was widely known at the time. In the same letter, he went on: “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.” A month later, Lincoln combined official duty and private wish in his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
White Northerners’ fear of freed slaves moving north then caused Republicans to lose the Midwest in the congressional elections of November 1862.
Gradually, as Union soldiers found help from black civilians in the South and black recruits impressed white units with their bravery, many soldiers — and those they wrote home to — became abolitionists. By 1864, when Maryland voted to end slavery, soldiers’ and sailors’ votes made the difference.
5. The South couldn’t have made it long as a slave society.
Slavery was hardly on its last legs in 1860. That year, the South produced almost 75 percent of all U.S. exports. Slaves were worth more than all the manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation. No elite class in history has ever given up such an immense interest voluntarily. Moreover, Confederates eyed territorial expansion into Mexico and Cuba. Short of war, who would have stopped them — or forced them to abandon slavery?
To claim that slavery would have ended of its own accord by the mid-20th century is impossible to disprove but difficult to accept. In 1860, slavery was growing more entrenched in the South. Unpaid labor makes for big profits, and the Southern elite was growing ever richer. Freeing slaves was becoming more and more difficult for their owners, as was the position of free blacks in the United States, North as well as South. For the foreseeable future, slavery looked secure. Perhaps a civil war was required to end it.
As we commemorate the sesquicentennial of that war, let us take pride this time — as we did not during the centennial — that secession on slavery’s behalf failed.
Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and co-editor,
with Edward Sebesta, of “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.”
Posted by Hart Kirch at 11:35 AM
“Instead of a leaner, smarter government, we bought a bureaucracy that now tells us which light bulbs to buy,” complained Representative Michele Bachmann in her Tea Party response to the president’s State of the Union address.
Bachmann has strong opinions on this matter. She is the author of the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, which would repeal a federal requirement that the typical 100-watt bulb become 25 percent more energy efficient by 2012.
Bachmann hateshateshates that sort of thing, as you would expect from a woman whose Earth Day speech in 2009 was an ode to carbon dioxide. (“It’s a part of the regular life cycle of the earth.”)
Hysteria over the government taking away our right to buy inefficient light bulbs has been sweeping through certain segments of the Republican Party. Representative Joe Barton of Texas, sponsor of the Better Use of Light Bulbs Act, says we’re about to lose the bulb that “has been turning back the night ever since Thomas Edison ended the era of a world lit only by fire in 1879.” Barton’s vision of the standard 100-watt incandescent is so heroic, you’d think it would be getting its own television series.
“When Congress dictates which light bulbs folks in South Carolina must buy, it’s clear the ‘nanny state’ mentality has gotten out of control in Washington,” said Senator Jim DeMint, one of 27 co-sponsors of a Senate bill calling for repeal of the new efficiency standards.
The great thing about this battle, which has spawned predictions of widespread light-bulb-hoarding, is that it will take your mind off Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and the pending government shut-down. It’s a little like the Donald Trump presidential candidacy, only less irritating.
Opponents of the law claim that the newer, more energy-efficient and cost-saving breeds of bulb give a less pleasing light, although that doesn’t seem to have dissuaded the American consumers from moving away from the incandescents in droves. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association says demand for the allegedly beloved old bulbs has dropped 50 percent over the last five years.
A terribly cynical mind might suspect the whole hubbub was just for political show. Jeff Bingaman, the chairman of the energy committee, said he had not actually been accosted by any of his fellow senators begging him to help get angry light bulb aficionados off their backs.
“I heard the statements at the committee hearing, but nobody’s walking the halls lobbying me about this,” he said.
That was the famous hearing during which Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky began with a rant about light bulbs and wound up complaining that his toilets back home didn’t work. “You busybodies always want to tell us how we can live our lives better,” he said passionately. “I’ve been waiting for 20 years to talk about how bad these toilets are.”
If Paul has been stewing about his bathroom fixtures since 1991, it may go a long way toward explaining his rather gloomy worldview. But the crux of his argument came at a different point, when he demanded to know whether Kathleen Hogan, a Department of Energy official, was “pro-choice.”
“I’m pro-choice on light bulbs,” Hogan said cannily.
Paul, not to be dissuaded, claimed that Obamaites favored “a woman’s right to an abortion, but you don’t favor a woman’s or a man’s right to choose what kind of light bulb.”
The proper comparison here would really be between the energy-efficiency regulations and the government rules that set minimum standards for sanitation and medical care when an abortion is performed. If you were willing to overlook the fact that any attempt whatsoever to equate abortions and light bulbs is completely nuts.
It’s a classic Tea Party herd of straw horses. Paul managed to lump the light bulb regulations with things his supporters hate (abortions/federal government telling me what to do) while ignoring the fact that the rules are much closer to things they like, such as standards that guarantee that if they go to a hospital or clinic, the place will be clean and staffed by qualified personnel.
Although the Rand Paul crowd is blaming the light bulb regulations on Obama, the rules were actually signed into law in 2007 by George W. Bush. And as Roger A. Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, wrote in a Times Op-Ed article recently, Washington has been in the standard-setting business since 1894, “when Congress standardized the meaning of what are today common scientific measures, including the ohm, the volt, the watt and the henry, in line with international metrics.”
You have to wonder if, back in 1894, there was a general outcry against the federal government trying to tell an American citizen how big his ohm should be.
Posted by Hart Kirch at 1:42 AM