Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Is this 2004 or 1896?

As a historian, I am loathe to make historical parallels between eras without some pretty good evidence. But I think that there are a few striking comparisons between today and the 1890s. Here are 3.

1. Today, like the 1890s, we are a nation that does not know war. What do you mean I can hear you asking? We are at war. Yes, that's true. But how many of us know what war is like? Certainly, many of our young men and women are learning, and the families of the 1037 Americans killed in Iraq since the beginning of the war know war real well. But the average pro-war American does not know war. For the last 30 years, we have only seen war through the artificial visual mediums of television and movies. These of course have presented a skewed version of war. How many times have I heard someone wounded in Iraq or the relatives of someone killed over there talk about how they didn't understand what war was like? Several. Few of us have known someone killed or wounded in war. Few of us know what it's like to be personally attacked at home and before 9/11 virtually none of us did. This has led to a belief that going to war is not a WWI type struggle where you will probably die. Instead it's about kicking some ass. We go to war and kick ass--that's what America does.

Very similar beliefs circulated through the 1890s. By 1898, when we declared war on Spain, it had been 33 years since America had been in a major conflict. And despite the horrors of that conflict, Americans had forgotten what war was like. With the reconciliation between North and South after Reconstruction, even the old issues had been largely put aside. The horrors of war had disappeared from the public mind and instead we had a population ready to kick some ass. This was seen in the rise of yellow journalism and personified by Theodore Roosevelt and his talk about American imperialism. The Spanish-American War did not produce enough casualties to end the romanticism of war in this nation and neither did the Philippine-American War that followed. Unfortunately it took the true horrors of WWI to end this. Have Iraq ended Americans romanticization of war? I think not and I will hate to see the conflict that does.

Another interesting comparison is how in both the 2000s and 1890s, Americans held the war experiences of a previous generation at a heroic height. In the 1890s, the experiences of Civil War veterans were romanticized, monuments placed on Civil War battlefields for both sides and even reunions between the combatants during the anniversaries of major battles. Today we have the Greatest Generation bullshit. Rather than examine the complex causes behind both wars and the actions of their participants, we have chosen to look at them as heroic struggles that we are not worthy to emulate, but we will try our best.

2. The rise of masculine discourse. I don't want to push this one too far but it the high level of masculine speech coming out of the Republican convention was very interesting. The 1890s witnessed an incredible rise in Americans wrapping up their actions in worries about the masculinity of the nation and its future. See Gail Bederman's Manliness and Civilization, Elliott Gorn's The Manly Art, or Kristin Hoganson's Fighting for American Manhood, among others, for in depth discussions of this. But in general, many Americans were deeply concerned that America was becoming a feminine nation that needed a good war to instill masculine characteristics in it and lead it to its destiny as a great power. Now I don't know that we really feel that today, but going back to the Clinton administration and really before with the whole Alan Alda sensitive man thing, a lot of white males have complained about the nation becoming more feminized and that things just aren't like they used to be. Many of these same men are resentful of affirmative action and provide the core audience to talk radio and FOXNews. Watching and reading about the Republican convention, we witnessed a surprising amount of this kind of rhetoric. See this Slate article for more. Governor Arnie really epitomizes this.

3. Karl Rove admitted in a New Yorker article from about a year ago that he wanted to take America back to the Gilded Age. He admired the atmosphere of unfettered competition and social Darwinism (greatly paraphrasing here). And of course the policies of the administration have looked to not only overturn the accomplishments of the Great Society and New Deal, but also the Progressives. That Rove and other Republicans actually look at the Gilded Age as an ideal is frightening. Mind you, this was the time before the FDA, before even the most basic environmental protections, before the FDIC, before the Federal Reserve, before minimum wage laws, before the Wagner Act, not to mention a time of massive lynchings of blacks in the South and anti-Asian riots in the West. This is what Karl Rove wants us to turn back. I'd say that's reasons number 1 through 1 million not to vote to reelect this administration.

There may be other parallels as well but I think these three are particularly salient and disturbing.