Thursday, January 25, 2007

For Good or Ill, Jackson lives on

My previous posts dealt with reasons why that rarest of American birds, a southern liberal, might want to seek political asylum in the UK. The first was (mostly) light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek; the second just a bit more serious. Since I have been away from the blogosphere for too long, I have decided to sound a more serious note in this post.

There are facets of the American outlook that are just plain out of step with the rest of the industrialized western world. The peculiarly American outlook derives from many sources, but an important one is the legacy of Jacksonian democracy, which resulted in part from what I will call "The Walpole Diagnosis" - the significant role of 18th century Scots-Irish (labeled, I think, Ulster-Scots in the UK and R of I), and their low church theology and attitudes, in shaping the American vision.

The exact historical details are a matter of continued scholarly debate, but I think there is wide agreement within the Academy that, between 1710 and 1770, nearly 250,000 Ulster-Scots settled in what would become the United States, that they formed distinct communities and a distinct sub-culture, and that they played an important (perhaps even pivotal, or critical) role in the creation and ultimate success of the American Revolution. Obviously, Walpole thought so too.

If one were to overlay a contemporary political map of the United States with a map of where Ulster-Scots and their descendants were the predominant force of white settlement, any number of things would "stand out" immediately. First, these are the parts of the country which went most solidly for George Bush in 1990 and 1994, and which Bill Clinton did NOT carry in either of his elections. Second, they are where the "Christian Right" is most politically influential. Third, their public schools systems are weaker than those of the rest of the US on a statewide basis, and by a wide margin. Fourth, they have some of the lowest per capita incomes in the US. Fifth, a larger percentage of the population elects military service than in the rest of the US.

If one studies the political career of President Andrew Jackson, and glances over at the "Ulster-Scot" map a second time, it seems pretty clear that "Ulster-Scot" America is what put him in office and kept him there. President Jackson is, of course, credited with the crafting of "Jacksonian Democracy." For my UK readers not familiar with this term I would (somewhat contentiously, I guess) define Jacksonian Democracy, then and now, as adherence to the following doctrines (among others):
  • Universal suffrage - in the sense of voting rights being in no way linked to wealth, social position or property ownership (factors such as race, gender and religious affiliation DID count, until the 1960's. Can't have those Catholics voting - they would just be following orders from the Pope).
  • Explicit limits on government power, whether local, state or federal. This deeply seated suspicion of government generally played out in the early days of Jacksonian democracy in a multitude of ways, resulting in a number of doctrines and practices, many of which still have contemporary "legs." One related Jacksonian notion that is still at least given lip service is the doctrine of a "strict construction" of the written constitution (unless we are talking about the "rights" of "terror suspects," or "enemy combatants," or persons of Japanese ancestry living on the Pacific coast after Pearl Harbor- then the construction is anything BUT strict). Another is a general acceptance of laissez-faire economics. A third is an elected judiciary that is "of the people" (in many "Jacksonian" states, the judiciary did not even wear robes until the 1960's, and there were no qualifications required to hold judicial office) - no "activist" judges allowed. A fourth is the notion, unique to American conservatives, that there is such a thing as government which is "too large," no matter what benefits it might provide or how efficient and benevolent it is. Unless, of course, there's a war on. THEN the government can go half a trillion dollars in debt overnight and no one bats an eye.
  • A belief in the "Manifest Destiny" of the United Sates - at first, expressed as a right to occupy all of North America after murdering anyone who was already there; later, as a belief that the United States is uniquely favored by God, and is in some sense an "ideal" society with a right to lead the rest of the world around by the nose. This is perhaps the most "Ulster-Scot" leg of the Jacksonian outlook - containing, as it does, a dose of Calvin/Knox determinism along with a vision of a Deity who favors some people at the expense of others, and has countenanced, and indeed approved of, the virtual extermination of entire peoples, and the reckless use of natural resources for the benefit of a tiny fraction of the world's people. Why should the US, with 5% of the world's population, enjoy 25% of the world's wealth and resources? The Jacksonian answer is "because God wills it so. If God didn't want us to have it, we wouldn't." Convenient.
  • The subordination of knowledge to belief. In the early days of Jacksonian thinking, this was expressed simply as a "belief in the wisdom of the common man" - which meant in practice that the opinion of some ignorant Florida cracker, for example, was every bit as valuable as that of an Adams or a Jefferson. Today, it lives on in the form of a suspicion of, and hostility towards, education generally. Examples are numerous: elected Boards of Education made up of people who haven't read a serious book in years; attempts to smuggle "intelligent design" into the Biology curriculum; insistence that liberal arts courses have "linked employability skills;" a steady weakening of broad humanities requirements in college curricula. It is thanks to Jacksonian democracy that, in America, television discussions of "ethical issues" involve clergymen only - no philosophers present. Even the "liberal media" in America is blissfully unaware of a 2,500 year old tradition of inquiry in to the nature of the right and the good which leaves religion out of it - further proof (as if any more were needed) that in America even the press is dumber than a box of rocks, and proud of it.
There is more to the Jacksonian outlook than that, of course, but just this partial list illustrates the degree to which that outlook is still a part of the American character and experience. As a group the Ulster-Scots arrived here deeply suspicious of, and resentful towards, any government official;  accustomed to using violence to get their way (and proud of it); resentful of any clergyman who was called a "priest," whether Anglican or Catholic (Canterbury is over halfway to Rome, you know); resentful of any class distinction; and absolutely convinced, in their profound ignorance, of their own superiority to everyone else in terms of divine favor.

Needless to say, these principles have often looked even worse in practice than they do in print. To take just two examples, Universal suffrage didn't even extend to WHITE women (much less anybody else, like blacks) until less than 100 years ago. And, anti-clericalism doesn't extend to low church hacks - the rest of us are expected to listen respectfully to their dreary, ignorant, ungrammatical ravings in all manner of public places (schools, sessions of Congress, football games, etc) whether or not we want to hear it. And when politicians of a Jacksonian bent piously spout their "family values" nonsense, the temptation to paraphrase Churchill and ask "which one - adultery, wife beating or child molestation?" is hard to resist.

The American south is, of course, quintessentially Jacksonian. Jackson was born in North Carolina and lived most of his adult life in Tennessee. And, much of the current "dark side" of American politics and foreign policy finds a home here in the south. It is the only region of the United States where the Iraq war still enjoys anything like support. Most of the Senate, including many Republicans, are raising hell over the war and its conduct - but not North Carolina's Senators. Or Georgia's. Or Mississippi's. Or Alabama's. Or... You get the picture. The schools are horrible. Many of my US students arrive at college unable to construct a simple thesis-style essay. In terms of geography and world history, they are galactically ignorant, even about matters of urgent concern. My students from the UK, Bermuda, Ghana, Nigeria and the rest of the English speaking world are, in contrast, uniformly at least minimally competent writers, and are better read and generally better informed about every subject from art to zoology than their American classmates. The foreign students even know their bible better than the pious American knuckleheads they sit next to (query: if you really did believe the bible to be inerrant, wouldn't you urgently seek to familiarize yourself with the contents?).

That is the dark side. But there has been a bit of a bright side, believe it or not. Jacksonian democracy has produced a few individuals who found in it the inspiration for a vision of absolute, uncompromising adherence to constitutional principles of due process and equal protection under the law. The late Senator Sam Ervin, of Watergate fame, comes to mind immediately. The trouble is, visions of the rule of law like "Senator Sam" had are easy for the American body politic to quickly loose sight of in the heat of the moment. This has been noticed on both sides of the Atlantic. In a recent address, Lord Bingham quoted, with approval, the following words of America's Justice William Brennan:

"There is considerably less to be proud about, and a good deal to be embarrassed about, when one reflects on the shabby treatment civil liberties have received in the United States during times of war and perceived threats to national security … After each perceived security crisis ended, the United States has remorsefully realized that the abrogation of civil liberties was unnecessary. But it has proven unable to prevent itself from repeating the error when the next crisis came along."

In that vein, I can't help but wonder what "Senator Sam" would think about what goes on these days. What WOULD he think, for example, of an Attorney General who even dares to ARGUE that American citizens can be arrested and held without trial for indefinite periods of time, without right of Habeas Corpus, while all Courts are open and sitting for the regular dispatch of business? What WOULD he think of a Vice President so Orwellian that he can say, with a straight face, that America doesn't torture prisoners because a) waterboarding isn't torture and/or b) it isn't our fault if we just happen to leave a prisoner in the hands of some OTHER jurisdiction that DOES torture people? I am pretty sure Senator Sam would nod with approval at the following recent observation by Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead in A (FC) and others (FC) v. Secretary of State for the Home Department (conjoined with another appeal):

82. That word honour, the deep note which Blackstone strikes twice in one sentence, is what underlies the legal technicalities of this appeal. The use of torture is dishonourable. It corrupts and degrades the state which uses it and the legal system which accepts it. When judicial torture was routine all over Europe, its rejection by the common law was a source of national pride and the admiration of enlightened foreign writers such as Voltaire and Beccaria. In our own century, many people in the United States, heirs to that common law tradition, have felt their country dishonoured by its use of torture outside the jurisdiction and its practice of extra-legal "rendition" of suspects to countries where they would be tortured...

Of course, Lord Nicholls wouldn't be delivering this opinion in a case before The House of Lords if the Blair government wasn't also taking a pretty expansive view of the Government's right to abridge liberty in the name of security. So, how about Canada? No legacy of Andrew Jackson, no locking people up without trial by a supposedly liberal government. They even let you go deer hunting up there. Canada might work out, if I could learn to put "eh" at the end of each sentence.


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About Me

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Greensboro, North Carolina, United States
Writer, Adjunct Philosophy Professor, and Nurse. Formerly an Attorney. Political and Religious liberal (with a capital "L"). Gun lover (I AM American, after all is said and done). Dog lover.