A Whiter Shade of Faith: Saturday’s Tax Protests and the Religion of Whiteness
By Peter Laarman
Posted on September 13, 2009, Printed on September 17, 2009
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeons justlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what I want to know is
how do you like
your blue-eyed boy
—e. e. cummings
When I saw the Confederate flags and angry signs and heard the rhetoric of frustration coming from Dick Armey’s protest rally at the Capitol grounds on Saturday, I thought: So now it’s come to this—white people having to stake their claim to social space in a culture they think is overrun with foreigners and people of color?
I guess it has come to this. As Eric Reitan noted in these pages recently, a significant portion of the population has been seriously and superstitiously unnerved by the disorder represented by a president who (in their eyes) is both racially “other” and a foreigner.
We have long understood that nostalgia is the most dangerous of emotions in respect to political and cultural life. The nostalgia of the Weimar Germans for a strong and aggressive Reich, the current nostalgia of many Russians for the gold old days of Stalin or even Czar Alexander, and now—in our country—the nostalgia of white people and white men especially for a better time when, to be white, male, and Christian stood for something. A time when white men cold take certain things for granted, like the right to be ill-informed and obtuse but still receive deference and some degree of social privilege.
In yesterday’s New York Times, Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammad point to the irony of white folks believing that black people will get all the goodies in Obama Time, when in fact it is African American families (many of them new entrants to the middle class) who have taken and will continue to take the worst hits in the Great Recession that continues to unfold.
But the thing about a mythos, in this case about an entire worldview shaped by resentment and fear of falling, is that it is not susceptible to being corrected by mere facts.
I think it might be helpful to look back at expressions of White Faith from a century ago—Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris—before returning to consider the possible religious significance of Dick Armey and his tea-partying troops.
Novelist Larry McMurtry speculates that
He was also, of course, a famous marksman and slaughterer of bison (he personally shot 5,000 of them in 1867-68, furnishing meat to railroad workers). And he became a great showman after seeing some puny Wild West simulations and deciding that he could mount a compelling extravaganza built around his own legend and looks—along with a cast of hundreds and hundreds of real Indians (Sitting Bull himself, for example) and other “roughriders from around the world” (Turks, Mongols, Arabs, Georgians, Gauchos, etc.) on horseback. Annie Oakley and Wild Bill Hickok showed off their sharpshooting gifts at various points in the Show’s long life; Cody himself always played Gen. George Armstrong Custer reenacting Custer’s Last Stand, the big crowd-pleasing tableau that ended the Show.
The Wild West Show penetrated every corner of the country (my grandfather recalled thrilling to see it as a farm kid in
The Wild West Show was a stupendous social and financial success for Cody, who died in 1917 (on the cusp of
But what did the Wild West Show say about whiteness? It said (I think) that whiteness was everywhere sweeping all before it, all over the globe. It said that the martial virtues of the white man—even of George Custer in defeat —could not be resisted. It said that lesser peoples (Native Americans, those other exotics on horseback, even African-America
And here is a telling side note about this blue-eyed apotheosis of white manhood: as a young boy in the Iowa Territory, Bill Cody had saved his father, Isaac—an outspoken anti-slavery man—from being stabbed to death by an enraged racist mob.
Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah: Tales of White Superiority
As H.L. Mencken was the first white writer to observe, Joel Chandler Harris basically stole a big chunk of African American oral tradition, popularized it, and got rich from it once he began publishing his tales in The Atlanta Constitution in 1876.
Like Cody, Harris thought of himself as an entertainer, not as a paladin of white supremacist ideology; although the Constitution very much promoted such an ideology. What Harris did instead was render blacks as childlike creatures, helplessly naïve and funny, who could not really be expected to exercise the rights and bear the burdens of responsible citizenship. This was good news to Northern whites in particular, absolving them of any remaining twinges of conscience concerning the disenfranchisement and brutalization of the dusky people their own parents and grandparents had recently fought and died to liberate.
As historian David Blight pointed out in his magisterial Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, it was important for Northern whites during this period to convey to their Southern counterparts the message that whatever their sectional differences had been, there was no disagreement on the matter of black inferiority.
Harris died in 1905, the same year that Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr. produced The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. “The Clansman” was the original title for D.W. Griffith’s film, The Birth of A Nation (1915), which President Wilson (
The Last Gasp of the “Lost Cause”? Dick Armey’s Brand of White Faith
Born dirt poor in
Armey apparently does believe that socialism is on the march with Obama in the White House. He recently told the Los Angeles Times, “If I hadn’t stood up, Obamacare would be a train running right through this country right now.” Like many other propagators of an Astroturf-ish white “populism,” Armey has good reason to rally ’round the flag of acquisitive individualism: today he is a seriously rich man, having worked for a leading
Armey’s racial raison d’etre in creating and promoting Freedomworks is to avoid the disgrace of white men going too gently into that goodnight. Armey is a practiced confrontationist. When he was back in the House, he claimed not to enjoy confrontation; but then he would always add: “somebody has to be the first guy to stand up."
Pastoral Responsibility in the Waning Days of White Male Dominance
Religion is what religion does. I believe we should count ourselves lucky that we have not yet had a much more vicious upsurge of White Nationalism than Armey’s tea-partying army represents. I mean, white men have had it so good in this country for so long; in part thanks to the mythos of racial superiority that figures like Cody and Harris helped to create a century and more ago.
Authentic religion ought to be capable of helping people deal with loss. Faith leaders today could and should be helping their native-born white congregants look hard at their deep-down assumptions of privilege. They could and should be helping congregants prepare to negotiate a new social landscape.
I don’t see a lot of that kind of leadership out there. But whether or not today’s clergy leaders are willing to step up and accept this pastoral responsibility, the days of white male dominance are clearly numbered.
And what I want to know is: How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?
Peter Laarman is executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, a network of activist individuals and congregations headquartered in
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs
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