The Local Crank

Musings & Sardonic Commentary on Politics, Religion, Culture & Native American Issues. Bringing you the finest in radioactive screeds since 2002! "The Local Crank" newspaper column is distributed by Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.

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Location: Cleburne, Texas, United States

Just a simple Cherokee trial lawyer, Barkman has been forcing his opinions on others in print since, for reasons that passeth understanding, he was an unsuccessful candidate for state representative in 2002. His philosophy: "If people had wanted me to be nice, they should've voted for me."

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Review of "Hellfire Nation" by James A. Morone

Subtitled, "The Politics of Sin in American History," Morone's book describes the historical cycle in American history of moral crises driving politics, beginning with the Puritans. His thesis is that these crises follow a fairly predictable repeating pattern: moralizers denounce some social evil, the general public is rallied both by opposition to the evil and to the demonic "others" that profit by or are seduced by the evil (and this usually ties into patterns of racism and sexism), the authorities are compelled to take action and typically overreact with draconian and sometimes disastrous results. Morone begins with the Puritans themselves, who originally rallied "The City on the Hill" against evil Indians with their demonic ways and seduction of white women. Once the Indians were all killed or driven off, the Puritans turned on themselves with the famous witch trials. An interesting point I hadn't realized: Tituba, the slave woman who eventually became the focus of witch hysteria was not, as commonly portrayed, African; she was actually a Native American from the Caribbean, though still a slave.
The book then recounts numerous instances of this pattern of moral outrage repeating itself throughout American history, from the Abolitionist Movement and the Civil War, to the Suffragettes, to Prohibition, the War on Drugs and (briefly, since this book was only published in 2003), the War on Terror. The other theme involves the tension between Puritanism (with its focus on moral condemnation of sin) and another American meme, the Social Gospel (focusing on the causes of sin, rather than merely punishing the sinner). For Morone, the high water mark for the Social Gospel as a driving force in politics came in the brief period from 1933 (The New Deal) to 1973 (as the 'Sixties came crashing to an end, and Roe v. Wade transferred the force of moral persuasion in public life from the Left to the Right, where it firmly remains to today). One of my complaints, however, is that the author does not further develop the differences between the Social Gospel and classic liberalism, though to be fair, at 497 pages (not counting the extensive notes) this is already an exhaustively-researched work. Nevertheless, it is a surprisingly easy read for an academic work (Morone is a professor of political science at Brown University). I was frankly shocked (though I should have known better) by some of the grotesque detail on the truly venal and cruel nature of racism in America, from wars of genocide against Native Americans to the terrorist state of the post Civil War pre Civil Rights South. I don't like to constantly harp on the long and sad history of racism, but often the reality of how bad things really were is glossed-over with feel-good rhetoric, particularly at this time of year when white politicians dutifully trot out press releases praising Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when the vast majority of them would if he were still alive be bitterly denouncing the theories of economic justice he was exploring just before his assassination.
In short, I recommend "Hellfire Nation" if you are interested in political history and especially if you want to explore the origins of the Culture Wars that actually stretch back to the very beginning of America.

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