(Permanent musical Accompaniment To The Last Post Of The Week From The Blog's Favourite Living Canadian)
This is the 100th anniversary of one of the great lost turning points in American history, a moment in which the old republic finally died and the new global power asserted itself for good, and a moment in which the Congress began to deed away in practice its constitutional power to declare war, a process that wouldn't reach its fulfillment until the end of the 20th Century.
In March of 1917, Progressive Republican Senator Robert LaFollette mustered a group of senators to filibuster out the clock on Woodrow Wilson's proposed bill to arm American merchant ships against German submarines, a move that LaFollette et. al. believed was a big step toward World War I and would culminate the ongoing process, started after the Spanish-American War, of changing the US from a republic to an empire.
They won the battle but lost (literally) the war. The Senate adjourned without acting on the bill, but, in the next session, it changed the filibuster rules to the ones we have now, so this little saga has a bit of resonance in present history. This was a pivotal moment in American political history-a "small band of willful men," as Wilson called them, throwing themselves across the mechanisms of history that would lead to the American empire, and to an imperial presidency that persists to this day.
But there's more to it than that. First, the six willful men themselves were quite a bunch, drawn from all over the country, and opposed to the war for different reasons. LaFollette was a giant in the American politics of the era. James Vardaman of Mississippi used to ride down the boulevards on a white horse, dressed in a white suit. He was one of the most virulent racists of his time. He lined up with LaFollette. The other senator from Mississippi, John Sharp Williams, a genteel aristocratic Southern bigot, lined up with Wilson. ("Rich man's war, poor man's fight" outlasted Appomattox as a Southern political maxim.) George Norris was a populist from Nebraska who made a career of lining up behind unpopular causes. Harry Lane from Oregon was a dying man who had championed the rights of Native Americans and African Americans his whole life. Asle Gronna of North Dakota was a pure prairie populist who thought the war was a scam by big Eastern bankers.
The opposition also was led by heavyweights, including Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. Looming over all of them was Wilson, the most truly "willful" man of them all, who had fought roughly the same group of senators throughout his term of office. (LaFollette et.al. filibustered to death 12 bills in 1916-1917.) Those were the players.
On the morning of March 4, 1917, when the debate roared to a climax, LaFollette was scheduled to speak last, but the Wilson forces connived a way to keep him from gaining the floor. Senator Gilbert Hitchcock, presiding over the Senate that day, refused to recognize LaFollette, who was screaming in the center aisle. Decorum broke down entirely. A Kentucky senator named Ollie James led a group of senators toward LaFollette. Harry Lane saw a pistol under James's coat and brandished a sharpened file at the enraged Kentuckian. (At some point the night before, LaFollette's son, Robert, Jr.-who one day would lose his own Senate seat in a primary election to an ambitious hack named Joseph McCarthy-removed the revolver that his father always carried from an overnight bag.) Eventually, LeFollette got so frustrated that he flung a spittoon at the Senate president's chair. And they beat the armed-ships bill, at least for that Congress.
The aftermath got ugly for five of the six willful men. Back home, practically every one of them had a resolution condemning them pop up in their respective state legislatures. Even states that didn't have a senator involved in the filibuster condemned them anyway. The Tennessee and Kentucky legislature called them traitors. (Lane, as I said, died shortly thereafter and was spared the brunt of it, but Oregonians got up a petition to demand his resignation.) Wilson ginned up the war fever against them all.
They were portrayed as German stooges at best, and German agents at worst. In Mississippi, with no little irony, Vardaman was threatened with lynching. (They burned an effigy of him in Meridian, and a redneck blacksmith made a 40-foot Iron Cross and mailed it to him.) LaFollette took it worse than all of them: Henry Cabot Lodge called him a gifted German agent on the floor of the Senate. (Here's The New York Times for March 5, 1917, which will show you how quickly things went south for them.) Nevertheless, six of them ultimately voted against Wilson's request for a declaration of war against Germany. It got worse for them all after that.
So 100 years ago this week, the issues of war and peace, republic or empire, president and Congress were engaged pretty much for the last time in an unprecedented way. It was the last chance for a lot of the assumptions upon which American politics had rested since the end of the Civil War, assumptions that had been undermined steadily since the 19th century ended and the American empire began. Assumptions get undermined when everybody's cheering something else.
Two of the best essays I've read in recent months both concerned the lingering ghost of the Confederate States of America, and its consistent sabotage of progressive politics both in the North and the South. The first one, and a h/t to Erik Loomis at LGM for pointing it out, came from The State, the major newspaper for the home office of American sedition.
They managed this con job partly with a propaganda technique that will be familiar to modern Americans, but hasn't received the coverage it deserves in our sesquicentennial celebrations. Starting in the 1840s wealthy Southerners supported more than 30 regional pro-slavery magazines, many pamphlets, newspapers and novels that falsely touted slave ownership as having benefits that would – in today's lingo – trickle down to benefit non-slave owning whites and even blacks. The flip side of the coin of this old-is-new trickle-down propaganda is the mistaken notion that any gain by blacks in wages, schools or health care comes at the expense of the white working class. Today's version of this con job no longer supports slavery, but still works in the South and thrives in pro trickle-down think tanks, magazines, newspapers, talk radio and TV news shows such as the Cato Foundation, Reason magazine, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. These sources are underwritten by pro trickle-down one-per-centers like the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch. For example, a map of states that didn't expand Medicaid – which would actually be a boon mostly to poor whites – resembles a map of the old Confederacy with a few other poor, rural states thrown in. Another indication that this divisive propaganda works on Southern whites came in 2012. Romney and Obama evenly split the white working class in the West, Midwest and Northeast. But in the South we went 2-1 for Romney.
This was not a lesson completely lost. When he was pushing through the Civil Rights Act, and the voting Rights Act, and the Great Society programs of the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson made this argument more than once, including in a speech to the Congress in 1965:
For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated, how many white families have lived in stark poverty, how many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we have wasted our energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror? So I say to all of you here, and to all in the Nation tonight, that those who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your future. This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are the enemies and not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too, poverty, disease and ignorance, we shall overcome.
The second essay was bandied about on the electric Twitter machine for most of Friday. Daniel Fried, a career diplomat, gave a farewell address upon retiring, and Fried saw quite clearly what was developing around him, encouraged at the highest levels, in the country he'd spent his life serving.
"We are not an ethno-state, with identity rooted in shared blood. The option of a White Man's Republic ended at Appomattox. On the contrary, we are "a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." We say this more often than we consider its significance. Our nation is based on an idea that, when embraced, makes us Americans. We fought a Civil War over whether that sentence – that all men are created equal – was meant literally."
The Confederate States of America was a moral obscenity and a political disaster. It was an offense against liberty and it didn't even work. By its end, it existed only as the ragged remnants of Robert E. Lee's army and as a warm nostalgic appeal to the worst of our instincts. We are well rid of it as an entity, and we would be well rid of it as an idea. It was an exercise in treason, not merely against the United States, but against humanity itself. It would be nice if we all would keep that in mind over the next couple of years.
WWOZ Pick To Click: "Hot Sausage Rag" (New Orleans Joymakers): Yeah, I still pretty much love New Orleans.
Weekly visit To The Pathe Archives: Here, from 1957, are the musical Mounties. I'm telling you, we could have done a lot worse for neighbors than Canada.
As long as our closing theme this week is Stuff People Said A Long Time Ago From Which We Learned Precisely Nothing, here, via Lapham's Quarterly, is a little something from Plutarch about how wealthy Romans grabbed up all the land, leaving the poor and (especially) veterans with nothing. This got all up in the grill of Emperor Tiberius, who decided to do something about it.
When the rich began to offer larger rents and drove out the poor, a law was enacted forbidding the holding by one person of more than five hundred acres of land. For a short time, this enactment gave a check to the rapacity of the rich and was of assistance to the poor, who remained in their places on the land they had rented. But later on the rich men, by means of fictitious personages, transferred these rentals to themselves and finally held most of the land openly in their own names. Then the poor, who had been ejected from their land, no longer showed themselves eager for military service and neglected the bringing up of children, so that soon all Italy was conscious of a dearth of freemen and was filled with gangs of foreign slaves, by whose aid the rich cultivated their estates, from which they had driven away the free citizens. Tiberius, on being elected tribune of the people, took the matter directly in hand. With the people crowding around the rostrum, he took his stand there and pleaded for the poor. "The wild beasts that roam over Italy," he would say, "have every one of them a cave or lair to lurk in. But the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else. Houseless and homeless, they wander about with their wives and children. And it is with lying lips that their imperators exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchers and shrines from the enemy. For not a man of them has a hereditary altar, not one of all these many Romans an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own."
I'm not sure, but I think there are some things that need more than 140 characters to explain.
Hey, International Business Times, is it a good day for dinosaur news? It's always a good day for dinosaur news!
The two reptile species, communis and intermedius, were always part of the same genus: Ichthyosaurus. Paleontologists have debated for decades about whether those two creatures were distinct from each other or were one and the same. The argument for them being different originally hinged on the formation of their teeth, but according to the study, the teeth of the ichthyosaur can vary both throughout the species "as well as within an individual." After poring through fossil evidence and literature, Lomax and his fellow researcher, New York's Brockport College professor Judy Massare, concluded that the communis and the intermedius are the same species, based on the similarities of their features. The only remaining hitch is in which of those two names the single species should retain moving forward - although the study notes that their new definition of the reptile mostly includes features that were associated with intermedius originally, the name "communis" is not expendable because, as it was discovered a year earlier than its counterpart, it "has been widely used in the literature and is historically significant." For the sake of avoiding confusion, they propose calling the reptiles I. communis. Indeed, the species name "has become one of the most well-known and iconic of all the British fossil reptiles," the publisher notes. "They were the first, large extinct reptiles brought to the attention of the scientific world."
A communis manifesto! (Come on, you were thinking of it, too.) I'm glad they finally cleared that up. I was getting tired of all those ichthyosaur arguments at the Fourth of July barbecues.
The Committee congratulates all the entrants, but when Top Commenter Alfred McCloud comes with the Zevon tribute, the contest is pretty much over.
I hear Biwagaku static on my radio,
and the Boars they glow in the dark.
I'm here with you and there's Godzilla too,
Losing hair in doomsday park.
That's good for 98.85 Beckhams, and I'll brook no argument.
I'll be back on Monday with whatever fresh hell the weekend produces. (My money, by the way, is Villanova repeating this year, and not just because it'll keep Ms. Clay off my back.) Be well and play nice, ya bastids. Stay above the snakeline, and do what Plutarch tells you. Rule for living.
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