Taking the Vote Away from White People: Tea Party Populism and Elite Intentions

April 2, 2014 / one comment

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About 30 years ago I wrote about the disfranchisement campaigns after the Civil War and during the Populist movement of the 1880s-1890s.  Leafing through some old papers, I realized that the topic was more relevant than ever, given the rabid Republican revival of the disfranchisement movement.  It’s the same story, over and over again.  Except, the last time around the Democrats were at the helm.  Then again, back in the Old South, Democrats were just Democrats because they couldn’t be Republicans. Follow me below the fold for a history lesson, heavy on the irony….

Republicans are waging an all-out war on black and Latino voters.  At least, that’s what their base thinks, because the Republican campaign for voting restriction is based on evoking the specter of dark hands at the ballot box, voting with nefarious, un-American purpose. There’s nothing but an Amen chorus to be heard from the Tea Party, or even from more authentically grassroots Republicans in the lower socio-economic brackets. The Republican middle-class (what there is left of it) is nodding genteel approve to more and more draconian policies. But the text of the sermon floats down from rarified air, from the pulpits of the privileged class.

Not that it falls on deaf ears — no, of course not. The white working class is hungry—those that still have jobs are performing the kind of service work they always assumed was the domain of those who were… darker. The white middle- class is hysterically trying to hold on to the status that credit bought them (dreading the knock of the debt collector at their door, dreading their pink slip even more). The fact that they both got there by pulling the wrong levers at the ballot box seems to be lost of the majority. Blaming immigrants and non-whites is much easier than facing the America they’ve (un)built. The Republican elite can see this as clearly now as they always have, and have returned to the same old divide-and-conquer strategies that have always worked so well for them.  The disfranchisement push is one of those, though most white voters have no idea what it’s really about. As a student of history, however, I will stake a claim: Disfranchising minorities is a sweet by-product of the Republican elite’s real end game: disfranchising everyone who isn’t rich. And in the U.S., “everyone” still means mostly white folks.

The following is based on research I did about 30 years ago, but the past doesn’t change much.  I never guessed it would happen again in the United States in my lifetime, but that’s the thing about history. Despite neoliberal claims about its “end,” history is alive and well, and still kicking us in the ass. So follow along as I set the Wayback Machine to 1876, and take you on a trip through agrarian radicalism, the Southern populist movement, and the southern disfranchisement movement. Be patient, because at first it will seem like I’m leading you far afield. But I promise, in the end you will understand the disfranchisement campaigns of today all too well.

After the Civil War, the two great parties of the United States faced each other across a geographical divide. The political party to which you belonged was almost entirely determined by which side you backed in the War Between the States.  This left the U.S. in the curious position of being a two-party system composed of two geographically determined one-party regions.

The North was Republican and the south was Democratic.  Southerners identified Republicans with abolitionists and industrial interests. The former had destroyed their slave-based way of life and sent troops to occupy her ground, and the latter had exploited the South as a colony, extracting her natural resources and taking advantage of the desperate poverty and devastation that the war had brought. Northerners, on the other hand, identified Democrats with Dixie Secessionists who had threatened the sanctity of the Union, whose traitorous actions had brought devastation on a generation of Northern youth and emptied the nation’s coffers.  Thus, the Northerners “waved the bloody shirt,” and the Southerners voted “the party of the fathers.”

These were the sentiments of the majority of American voters, except for a segment of the Northern urban working class that declared itself anti-Republican (and was therefore Democratic), and a segment of the Southern population (black freedmen) who did not dare to declare themselves anti-Democratic, but who nonetheless voted Republican whenever they had the opportunity.

Neither party consistently held the balance of power. This was graphically illustrated by the disputed Presidential election of 1876. In South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida, both Republicans and Democrats claimed the victory. The Democrats had raise ballot box manipulation to artistic heights, and the Republicans cried foul. In South Carolina and Louisiana, rival governments and administrations—one from each party—sprang up and effectively began a small-scale civil war.  As it happened, the presidential race between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden hinged on the disputed returns from those states.  The House of Representatives had a Democratic majority and they launched a filibuster to prevent the electoral votes from being counted.  If they held out, they could have indefinitely delayed the inauguration of the new President (whoever he was).  It was looking mighty like Civil War could break out again.

So the center of decision shifted to certain small rooms. Hayes’ representatives met with the representatives from the South.  A compromise was reached. The South would concede the election if the North would agree to pull out its troops and allow “home rule,” and grant the South certain economic concessions.  This was done, leaving the South to quash the nascent black Republican vote in its midst, cementing the South as Democratic territory.

Still following? Good, because it hasn’t even begun to get complicated.

One party each, in two territories, does not a two-party system make—even if those two territories together call themselves a nation. And we all know the problems inherent in one-party systems: they can’t, by definition, be representative, and they tend to be controlled by the politically powerful and monied class.  In the North, the situation is a bit easier to explain, so that’s where I’ll start.

By the 1880s, in the north and north-western states, there were three distinct groups, with three different sets of political interests: the farmers; the urban workers; and, the commercial classes.  The Republican party was controlled and run for the benefit of the commercial interests—banks, industrialists, and the monied Eastern aristocracy who were most often involved in these pursuits. The farmers, who might in ordinary times have been Democrats, were compelled by the lack of political alternatives to remain members of a party that opposed their interests.  The urban workers, many of whom were immigrants and had arrived since the Civil War (and who were thus not as susceptible to the coercive power of American political labeling) actually did become Democrats, and formed the bedrock of the Democratic city machines that we can still see in play in cities like Chicago today. But they were not the same kind of Democrats who inhabited the South (the implications of this will become clearer a bit later). They had little influence outside their urban environment and remained apart from the growing conflict of interest between the farmers and commercial interests.

Western farmers suffered from high interest rates on their farm equipment, steadily falling commodity prices, and the exorbitant rates charged by grain elevators and railroads (owned by Northern industrialists) that had a choke-hold on transport.  They also suffered from increasing money shortages. Bankers and creditor-bondholders, who formed a powerful block in the Republican party, urged the government to keep the money supply at existing levels, while the population and the economy of the nation expanded. This forced general price levels down to a point at which it was no longer profitable to redeem paper “greenbacks” in gold to finance imports.  The banker-creditors hoped that if the currency continued to contract, the U.S. would have to go back onto the “hard money” system of the gold standard.

Contraction was a blessing to banker-creditors, but a burden on the the nation’s producer-debtors, and it eventually drove the nation’s farmers into the Populist revolt.  To use historian Laurence Goodwyn’s example:

Letting 10 farmers symbolize the entire population, and ten dollars the entire money supply, and ten bushels of wheat the entire production of the economy, it is as once evident that a bushel of wheat would sell for one dollar. Should the population, production, and money supply increase to twenty over period of, say, two generations, the farmer’s return would still be one dollar per bushel. But should population and production double to twenty while the money supply was held at ten—currency contraction—the price of wheat would drop to 50 cents. The farmers of the nation would get no more for twenty bushels of wheat than they had previously received for ten. Moreover, money being more scarce, interest rates would have risen considerably. A person who borrowed $1000 to buy a farm in 1868 would not only have to grow twice as much wheat in 1888 to earn the same mortgage payment he made earlier, he would be repaying his loan in dollars that had twice as much purchasing power as the depreciated currency he had originally borrowed.

It’s easy to see that the farmers and the commercial interests did not want the same thing, though both were nominally members of the same party.

But the Populist movement didn’t begin in the West. It began on the Southern frontier. And here’s where things move from complex to positively intricate.

In 1876, with the Hayes compromise, the Southern Democrats managed to rid themselves of the last vestiges of Republican rule, though some states, like Mississippi, had shed that rule earlier.  At this point, most Reconstruction historians assert, the South was essentially a one-party region controlled by a white supremacist Democratic party that directed, by fair means or foul, the entirely subdued, though latently Republican, black political community.  Many (white) Southern historians see this as the triumph of justice and the return of home rule, while Northern historians tend to see it as the final defeat of civil rights and democracy in the South for a very long time to come.  But whatever they see it as, they see it. This is a watershed moment.

The victorious Southern Democratic party found itself, on the morning after Reconstruction was terminated, with no enemy to unite its various constituents.  After an orgy of violent retaliation against Republican carpetbaggers and Black political leaders, the Democrats were left with nothing to do except contemplate themselves.  It is easy enough to rally a white man’s party when there is (allegedly) a black man’s party, but when there is only one party, all made up of white men, it becomes glaring obvious that although all white men may be equally white, some are more equal than others.

The white farmers who lived in the primarily white hill counties of Southern states like Georgia were not happy to find themselves becoming subject to the merchant in much the same way that freedmen of the plantation low country were subject to the planter elite, under the crop lien system.  In the crop-lien system, the merchant or planter agreed to furnish seed and supplies to the farmer and his family, on credit.  The farmer then pledged, in advance, to repay the loan through income generated by selling his or crop. The system favored the creditor because merchants or planters were usually the only suppliers of goods, and they could set their prices according to their whim. Since they usually also collected the crop from the farmer (using their own machines to do the weighing) and sold the crops themselves, they got the farmer coming and going.  The temptation to cheat the farmer appears to have been quite hard to resist; unscrupulous creditors were the rule rather than the exception. Farmers were economically bound to their creditors, politically dominated by them, and often unable to read, so they could not check the validity of the accounts kept by the merchant of planter. Most were reduced to a state of debt peonage and kept there indefinitely.  Historian Stephen Hahn describes the situation:

As the class structure of the hills came increasingly to resemble that of the black belt, as the white farmers in the hills were forced into tenancy by the merchant elite’s monopoly on credit and increasing ownership of land, the position of the black belt planter-merchants and the hill country merchant landlords appeared to converge; a single ruling class with two branches seemed to have arisen.

Though, in the political power battle among the Democrat elites, the merchants were defeated by the planter-elite, their interests were still more closely allied to those of the planters than those of the tenants they exploited.

And it was out of that class of exploited Southern white yeoman farmers that the Populist movement emerged. It began in Texas, on the Southern frontier, in September of 1877, when a group of farmers formed the Farmer’s Alliance, a rural self-help organization.  Many of these farmers had moved west to Texas to escape the tenant farmer system in their home states, and had found that the system followed them wherever they went. One of the founders of the Alliance was a man named S.O. Daws, who traveled around lecturing to people and persuading them to form “sub-alliances” based on the idea of “trade stores”—stores that were owned and operated by the farmers themselves, as collectives. Daws also spoke against the crop-lien system and the gold standard, but the Alliance maintained a strictly non-partisan political stance, and its members stayed firmly entrenched in the Democratic party.

The Texas Alliance sponsored mass cotton sales from Alliance warehouses, “bulking” all of the farmer-members’ cotton, and selling it at a decent profit directly to eastern dealers. In 1886, the Knights of Labor began their Great South Western Strike against Jay Gould’s Missouri-Pacific railroad, and a large segment of the Alliance membership urged support of the strike.  Though the Knights were defeated, the Alliance’s membership increased and the organization solidified its radical stance.

Charles Macune, an Alliance organizer, called a conference in January, 1887, in Waco, Texas.  Out of this conference was born the National Farmer’s Alliance and Cooperative Union, and Populism spread beyond the borders of Texas with spectacular results, blooming in ten Southern states in an eight-month period. The Western states also began to form sub-alliances in 1888, and the Alliance’s popularity there grew steadily. By 1888 the Alliance had over million members.

The cooperative movement was at the heart of the Populist struggle—through cooperation, the farmers could take control of their own economic destiny and free themselves from the yoke of their creditors. But despite the general popularity of the Alliance, it was impossible for the groups to find bankers who would honor the collateral of the Alliance Exchange, and without financing the famers could not make the Cooperative Exchange run.  The banker’s reluctance to participate in cutting his own financial throat may be easy for us to understand, but it was a rude awakening for the Southern white yeoman farmer of the 1880s. When the Texas Exchange failed due to lack of funds, the focus of the Alliance shifted from cooperative movement to political movement—Alliance members realized that only by gaining political power could they ensure their survival.  They could no longer afford to be non-partisan, but this required that their members in the South break ties with “the party of the fathers.”

Macune came up with a daring and innovative “sub-treasury proposal,” which asked the federal government to underwrite the Farmer’s Cooperatives by issuing greenbacks to provide credit for farmers’ crops. This would make the national currency more flexible. Goodwyn explains, “The People’s Party was to wage a frantic campaign to wrest effective operating control of the American monetary system from the nation’s commercial bankers and restore it, ‘in the name of the whole people,’ to the United States Treasury. It was a campaign never to be waged again.”

In the Midwest and the Northwest it was easier to make this switch from cooperative venture to political party because in those regions the farmer-commercial interest-urban worker triangle was relatively simple.  But in the South, the situation was complicated by the presence of freedmen and the idea of “the party of the fathers” was even more emotionally charged than Northern “bloody shirt” ideology. “If Texas had led the Farmers to the Alliance,” Goodwyn wrote, “then Kansas led the Alliance to the People’s Party.”  He should have gone on to say, “Where Kansas led, Texas could not follow.”

Most of the historians of the Southern Populist movement claim the Democratic party was under the control of an economic elite.  A few emphasize the merchant, and say that he wielded the most economic and political power.  More emphasize the planter, but even they would agree that in the white hill counties where Populism emerged in the South, the merchant ruled the roost.  Those who emphasize the planter argue that the hill merchants were ultimately dominated by the power-base of the Democratic elite, which had its home in the lowland plantation counties, despite the fact that planter-elites were never more than a small minority of the South’s white population. Ironically, the planter’s power lay in the so-called black vote, for they controlled territory inhabited by a substantial number of freedmen who consistently voted (or, shall we say, were voted) Democratic, and who, by their sheer number, gave the Democratic Party the “majority” it needed to remain in power.

Yes, we’ve finally made it to the voting part….

On the one side, we have the Populist team, composed of poor white farmers from the hill counties, who had little in the way of economic power to wield against the Democrats who controlled state government. But what the Populists did have was numbers, and their numbers translated into votes that, unlike those of black freedmen, were not usually subject to coercion. Methods of coercion traditionally used to subdue black voters were hard to use against white voters, because the same whites that the Democratic elites wished to subdue were those they had recruited into the rank-and-file of organizations like the Klan. In fact, it was just this segment of white voters who had traditionally been used to keep blacks “in their place,” and they were not likely to police themselves in a similar fashion. Certainly they would not club themselves on the head to uphold the Democratic elite that oppressed them.

Thus, the Populists had real numbers and real votes, but not much else with which to threaten the Democrats.  They did have one more power, which also was a product of their numbers and their traditional status as “subduers of the black vote”—the more Populists there were in an area, the more black votes those Populists could claim.  The Populists either persuaded or coerced the votes of all freedmen within their reach, and there is no reason this should be surprising. Despite their avowed radicalism, Populists were southern whites and had cut their teeth on Democratic methods and had grown up with Democratic attitudes.  Antiracist populists were rarer than hen’s teeth.

Freedmen were pawns caught between the two parties. Some progressive historians have the nerve to lament that black voters “failed” to support the Populists, and thus failed to work for their own liberation, but this is a harsher judgement than freedmen deserve. Immediately upon the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, and for the brief period that freedmen were granted the right to vote, they consistently voted the Republican ticket. Voting Republican became impossible, or, at the very least, hazardous to life and limb, when the southern states were captured or handed back to the Redeemers; historians of Reconstruction generally agree on that point.

Unfortunately, historians of Populism rarely look back at those histories of Reconstruction when they criticize black voting practices during the Populist revolt. Instead, they merely remark that blacks in the low-country consistently voted with the Democrats during the Populist period.  If one were not inclined to follow the usual rigid period divisions of the Southern historian (“Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860-1877,” “Populist Movement, 1880-1896”), the connection is easier to make between the fact that the black vote was suppressed at Redemption, and the fact that freedmen “voted” Democratic during the Populist era.

It is reasonable to assume that if the Democrats controlled the black vote in 1877, they would still control it in the 1880s. And the Democrats not only controlled the votes of living freedmen—as a later Congressional investigation showed, during the post-Reconstruction period, “Negroes who had been dead for years and other who had long since left the country” somehow voted Democrat as well. Thus it is a mistake to assume, as many Populist historians do, that freedmen held the balance of power in the Populist-Democratic political power battle.  What is clear is that the Democrats held the balance of power through manipulating the number of black votes.

Historians might be confused by Populist party rhetoric in 1880s. Tom Watson, for instance, urged freedmen to respond to the Populist party’s call.  Too many historians have interpreted this as a sign that Populists bridge the racial gap and saw a wider class connection between the white and black tenant farmer, but this is just a mirror trick.  There was just as much rhetoric from the Democratic party calling for black support.  Neither party based their calls on the unfounded assumption that blacks in the South possessed independent political power, or could respond to any call. Any disappointment Populists voiced with the lack of black voter “respond” was probably due to their frustration that they could not wrest away power over black votes from white Democrats.

It may well be that the failure to literally “capture” those black votes was the downfall of the Southern Populist movement. But other factors doubtless contributed, including Democratic control of the polls and the state militias. In many Southern counties, Populists were defeated through rampant voter fraud, harkening back to the tactics that Democrats had used against Republican voters during Reconstruction. But Populists were also defeated by their own inability to convince enough white yeoman farmers that their oppression was a direct result of the actions of the Democratic elite, and that reform could not be accomplished within the Democratic fold.

I’m going to digress slightly, just to make the situation even more complex…

Remember that the South was Democratic only because the North was Republican: to be anti-Republican in the Reconstruction period was to be a Democrat.  And remember that in the North there was a group of urban workers who called themselves Democrats, but who I said were quite different from Southern Democrats.  Remember that the Democratic elite in the South was composed of planters and merchants. And remember that the Republican elite in the North was composed of bankers and commercial interests. Got that all in your head? Great. Just hold it there, and I’ll tell you a couple of things that will start tie everything together.

Before the Civil War, most of the rich planters in the South were Whigs. They were also Secessionists, which gave Whiggery, after the Civil War, a bad name, even in the South, since the Secessionists had lost.  Before the Civil War, most of the white yeoman farmers had been… Democrats!  Right after the Civil War, the Secessionists were stripped of most of their rights (including the vote), and a lot of their property.  It took little while, but most of them got their land back, a lot of them got their fortunes back, and almost all of them got their slaves back under the new name of the tenant system.  It took them just a little longer to get their votes back, and by the time they did, the Southern Democratic party had already defined itself as the party of the South.  Even though the word Democratic left a bad taste in their mouths, when they regained their political as well as their economic clout, they joined the Democrat party and then took it over. In fact, most of the Southern Democratic leadership after Redemption had previously been members of the Whig party.

This explains the dilemma of the southern white yeoman farmer. His party since the days of Jackson was overrun by the old Whigs, who became the new Democrats, leaving him voiceless, confused and oppressed.

Finally, I have reached the moment where I can turn the discussion to disfranchisement.  We know from the histories that most Southern states passed disfranchisement amendments after the Populist wave crested and broke in 1896. (Mississippi Goddamn was the only state to pass disfranchisement laws before 1895, but then it’s always been… special.)  These disfranchisement acts were ostensibly passed to put an end to the black vote, and Populists had a special investment in getting rid of it because they believed that the black voter (or the way blacks were voted by their Democratic masters) had caused the defeat of the Populist party. Populists saw disfranchisement as a way to end corrupt election practices, such as Democrats stuffing ballot boxes with black votes, and using black numbers to swing elections.

On the surface, it’s more of a challenge to explain why Democrats pushed for disfranchisement. Logically speaking, it would do the Democrats no good at all to rid themselves of the black vote, since they controlled it, and, in fact, used it as a lever to pry power out of Populist hands.  Indeed, without the black vote, Democrats might lose control of the polls, since there just weren’t that many white Democrats, even if you included the dead ones or the ones who had long since left town. Thus, Democrats had to have another reason for supporting disfranchisement, and they had a good (evil) one:  the elimination of universal white manhood suffrage.

Seen in these terms, the situation is clearer.  The Democrats were eager and willing to disfranchise black voters if, along with them, they could manage to disfranchise the majority of poor white hill country voters as well.  Democrats could then retain political power while substantially reducing the threat of future uprisings and protests caused by poor white dissatisfaction with Democratic rule.  Democrats had been scared silly by the Populist movement, and set out to abridge the Constitution with enthusiasm.

The yeomen of the Populist party were not entirely unaware of the intentions of the Democrats, and did protest against the general property and literacy qualifications the Democrats wanted to impose. The Populists knew those rules would apply to them as well as to Southern blacks.  But the proponents of disfranchisement created loopholes that would be applied to poor whites, ostensibly to protect them from the effects of the new laws. Even many of those who know some of the history of disfranchisement will say that the “understanding clause,” which allows illiterates to register if they can understand part of the state constitution as read to them out loud, was designed to disfranchise blacks, and it certainly was applied to that end.  But it was introduced to reassure poor whites, as were other clauses that have the power of discrimination to voter registrars, who might be more “understanding” the political aspirations of white voters than of black voters.

Carter Glass, a leading Democrat at the Virginia Convention, said, “Discrimination! Why that is precisely what we propose; that exactly is what this convention was elected for!”  The Louisiana convention further proposed the well-known “grandfather clause” that allowed those entitled to vote on January 1, 1867, and their sons and grandsons, to register without application of literacy or property qualifications. This turned voting into an hereditary right.  The state conventions all borrowed freely from each other, swapping around complex franchise and loophole provisions.  But most of these loopholes and special clauses had time limits, after which they would expire. The Democrats who ran the conventions were aware of this, and though the provisions lulled poor whites into a false sense of security, the plan of the elites was to disfranchise them all a little later on.  The poll tax, which was instrumental in preventing poor Southerners, black and white, from voting had no such time restrictions. The Democrats were also aware of this; indeed, in Mississippi it was the Delta (the Black Belt, Democratically-controlled planter counties) which insisted on including the poll tax.

Mississippi is a special case because it passed disfranchisement laws in 1890, before the Populist movement exploded onto the scene, but it illustrates the effectiveness of disfranchisement laws in damping the power Populists in that state.  A proponent of the poll tax in Louisiana took Mississippi for his example:

It reduces the electorate and places the political control of the State in the hands not of a minority of the voters alone, but of the minority of the whites…. Take the case of Mississippi, for instance. The poll tax gets rid of most of the Negro voters there, but it gets rid of a great many whites at the same time—in fact, a majority of them.

Van Woodward notes that, “The total vote in the 1896 Mississippi state election, whene the Populists made a hot fight, was only 64,339, including the Negroes. Less than half of the whites voted—the law ‘discouraged’ probably 6,000 Negroes who would have been qualitifed, who might have voted but of the poll tax; but it discouraged 60,00 or more white men from voting.”

The Democrats were aware of the potential of the poll tax and other requirements to disfranchise poor whites, and, indeed, looked to the example of areas where this had already happened. It may be that the 1896 election would have been a Populist victory rather than just a “hot fight” if those likely to vote Populist had not already been disfranchised. It is astonishing, considering the stranglehold that Southern Democratic elites held over the political operations of the South, that populism made such a strong show through 1896.

The Democrats who ran the disfranchisement conventions, beginning with the first one in Mississippi, were aware of the feelings of those about to be disfranchised.  They knew they could not expect voters to pass measures that would deprive themselves of the vote and chose to deal with this fact by not submitting the measures to the voters at all.  Only Alabama’s convention allowed the electorate to vote for the ratification of disfranchisement measures.  The others simply declared them law. Most justifications for this action were based on the need to take the decision out of the hands of freedmen, but this was disingenuous. In fact, in Alabama, where these were put to the vote, the disfranchisement constitution was consistently rejected by white counties and passed in black counties with majorities that included a substantial segment of the black population.  This last makes two points clear:  1) Black voters in black belt counties were kept so well in hand by Democrats that they were coerced into voting themselves out of the vote; and, 2) White counties were filled with voters who knew that passing the new constitution was not to their benefit—they did not want to disfranchise freedmen badly enough to disfranchise themselves.

The ruling political elite in the South had overcome the setback of losing the Civil War, and had colonized the Democratic party. Its interests diverged from those of the majority, black and white. Planters and, in a subsidiary position, merchants held both black and white farmers in an economic stranglehold, reducing them to debt peonage. To prevent any threat to its political supremacy by freedmen, the ruling elite, assisted by poor whites who were convinced that racial solidarity was of primary importance, effectively disfranchised freedmen at the end of Radical Reconstruction, through a process of Redemption that concluded in 1877.  Then, when the threat of black domination was ended, and poor whites became disenchanted with ruling class policies that kept them in penury, the elites kept them in line by wielding “the black vote” against them — winning elections through coercion and fraud, and ensuring that a fictitious majority was gained by the Democratic party.  When popular disgust at this tactic became widespread, and a hue and cry was raised to prevent Democrats from casting black votes in their own favor, the Democratic elites responded by passing laws that disfranchised both black voters and poor white voters.  Thus, Democrats ensured that their opponents, black and white, would have a hard time challenging them in the political arena.

Populist power was further reduced by the inability of almost all white Populists to recognize that they and black freedman had common interests. But the tendency of Southerners to view the political battle throughout the lens of racial conflict was not complete. The Governor of Alabama assured the convention of his state, in 1896, that the question of disfranchisement was not based in race, but in class.  Sadly, those he intended to deprive of power were not nearly as perceptive.

The Populist movement could not succeed in the states if it failed in the South, and by 1896 its failure in the South was complete.  The death of the Western populist movement took longer.  Goodwyn explains that it succumbed to the blandishments of the Democratic and Republican parties, compromising its stand on the “sub-treasury” idea, greenbacks, and monetary expansion with the Democratic placebo of the “silver standard.”  Many Western Populists were absorbed back into the Democratic party, and continued their political careers. Some remained die-hard Populists and also continued their political careers. But the latter was not an option in the Southern states, for in the South there existed no true Democratic path to reabsorb them. A large number, the overwhelming majority, were disfranchised and their political lives effectively ended. Those who continued in Southern politics, like Tom Watson and “Cyclone” Davis, succeeded as Southern demagogues—outrageous characters of the sort that the South famously produces, railing against Jews and Catholics and proclaiming white supremacy.

It would be terrible to end this article by leaving you stranded in the middle of 1896, which was a mighty inhospitable time for progressives. Instead, I’d like to end with a passage from C. Van Woodward’s Origins of the New South. He speaks of the history of disfranchisement in Virginia, by no means the worst of the Southern states:

Between the presidential elections of 1900 and 1904 the franchise restrictions of the Virginia constitution went into full effect. The total vote in Virginia in 1900 was 264,240, while in 1904 it was 130,544—a decline from 147 voters per 1000 to 67 per 1000. Nor can it be assumed that this decrease is to be explained by the elimination of the Negro voter, for while only about 35% of the males of voting age were colored, the poll was reduced by 51%.  Not until 1928 did Virginia cast as large a vote in a Presidential election as she did in 1888. This was a temporary rise. When Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Wendell Wilkie in 1940, Virginia cast 61,000 fewer votes than when Harrison defeated Cleveland, and in 1944, fewer by 37,166 than she cast 56 years earlier…. In the meanwhile, however, the electorate had been doubled by the enfranchisement of women and the population had increased by approximately 1 million. In 1940 fewer than 10 in every 1000 of the population were voting, as against 147 in 1900.

Most view the civil rights movement as a huge victory for black voters, and indeed it was.  But ironically it resulted in enfranchising even more white southerners than blacks. And it is these white voters who are once again being played, this time by Republican elites, with promises of benefitting from disfranchising non-whites.  In the end, however, they will lose their votes along with, or soon after, those they despise.


Coulter, E. Merton. The South During Reconstruction, 1865-1877. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1947.

Gaither, Gerald H. Blacks and the Populist Revolt. The University of Alabama Press: Tuscaloosa,1977.

Gillette, William. Retreat from Reconstruction, 1869-1879. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1979.

Goodwyn, Laurence. The Populist Moment. Oxford University Press: New York, 1978.

Hahn, Steven, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850-1890. Oxford University Press: New York, 1983.

Harris, William C. The Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1979.

McMath, Robert C. Jr. Populist Vanguard, A History of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1975.

Trelease, Alan. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. Harper & Row: New York, 1971.

Van Woodward, C. Origins of the New South, 1877-1913. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1951.

Wiener, Jonathan, Social Origins of the New South, Alabama, 1860-1885. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1978.

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22 August 2013, PTSD & Trauma News Roundup

August 22, 2013 / no comments

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We know it’s bad… when it happens to a white woman

CNN featured the story of Michele Cross, a University of Chicago student who was diagnosed with PTSD after she returned from her studies in India.  CNN and other news outlets who discussed the story never failed to mention that Cross was a “fair-skinned, red haired” woman, as opposed, one assumed, to all thosee dark-skinned, dark-haired Indian women who inhabit the continent.   The story Cross originally told in a CNN iReport under the screen name of RoseChasm” rack[ed] up more than 800,000 page views” within 3 days of publication. Could it be because Cross herself emphasized her whiteness, her hair color, her blue eyes in a short piece of dramatic prose, full of florid passages like the following:

There was no way to prepare for the eyes, the eyes that every day stared with such entitlement at my body, with no change of expression whether I met their gaze or not. Walking to the fruit seller’s or the tailer’s I got stares so sharp that they sliced away bits of me piece by piece. I was prepared for my actions to be taken as sex signals; I was not prepared to understand that there were no sex signals, only women’s bodies to be taken, or hidden away.

I covered up, but I did not hide. And so I was taken, by eye after eye, picture after picture. Who knows how many photos there are of me in India, or on the internet: photos of me walking, cursing, flipping people off. Who knows how many strangers have used my image as pornography, and those of my friends. I deleted my fair share, but it was a drop in the ocean– I had no chance of taking back everything they took.

If everything Ms. Cross says is true, she endured a level of harassment that was awful. And of course no woman should have to put up with that.  But I find it incredible that in all her description, she did not find it in her heart, even once, to mention what daily life must be like for Indian women, who have been in the streets  protesting a campaign of murder and rape waged against them by their countrymen.  A “South Asian Studies” scholar, Cross did not for a moment contextualize her own suffering — nope, this was all about her.  And the public ate it up—this story of a white woman pawed by native men.  Though Cross claims she is not the only UC student who experienced this harassment, at least one  other woman on the trip attempted to counter the tone of Cross’s narrative.  Katherine Stewart, a black UC student, confirms that there were attacks on women in the program, but takes issue with—what she tactfully does not say outright—the racism evident in Cross’s response. Stewart wrote:

RoseChasm does not address the fact that there are warm and honest men in India. When we do not make the distinction that only some men of a population commit a crime, we develop a stereotype for an entire population. And when we develop a negative stereotype for a population, what arises? Racism….

I understand RoseChasm’s pain, and I too had a hard time readjusting to life in America after my experience in India. I truly hope for her to be well again, but I will not sit back and allow the image of India’s men to be tarnished by an article that does not articulate other sides to India. I experienced love, excitement, and awe in India. And while I did experience unacceptable harassment, I know that my ability to not generalize a population will allow people to see that we must find another way to deal with this issue.

You can bet Stewart didn’t get 800,000 hits in three days.

You’re all whiners… or maybe not

Psychologist Michael J. Hurd (Ph.D., LCSW) rants on delmarvaNow!com about the lack of definition of “trauma.”  This pretty much sums it up: “Our government and educated intellectuals (psychiatrists included) have frankly turned many of us into a bunch of babies.”  His “argument” seems to be that if psychiatrists didn’t go around inventing ridiculous diseases, we wouldn’t have them.  Just makes you want to jump up and run to his office for therapy, doesn’t it?

On the other side of the spectrum is Michael Pond, a therapist who works with First Nations patients in British Columbia. He thinks it’s a good thing that the diagnosis is now “pervasive”:

And before anyone rolls their eyes derisively, according to the updated criteria for the illness in the new DSM 5, the bible of psychiatry, it’s very likely the diagnosis is correct.

I treat a lot of First Nations people for addictions, depression, anxiety and aggression. But the more they reveal the extent of the horror they experienced in residential schools, the more obvious it is to me that my clients actually suffer from PTSD, and all the other problems are symptoms of it.

The pervasiveness of the condition, Pond argues, will help us take the victims of violence more seriously.

Making money off of war…

HeroBracelets.org (don’t let the “org” fool you — it’s a commercial endeavor) was founded by Chris Great, an advertising executive who speicalizes brand development, marketing and entrepreneurship.  His company markets commemorative bracelets to soldiers and their families for prices ranging from $14 to $134.50, says it donates $2/bracelet to “military support organizations.”  One of these organizations is the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund (where do they get these names?), to which they recently donated $150,000 in bracelet money (which means they sold at lest 75,000 bracelets, at, say, an average price of $25, which totals to something around $7.5 million earned from soldiers and veterans and families.  IFHF raised money to build a treatment center for Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) on the Navy Campus of Bethesday, as well as other centers for treatment and study of TBI.  We’re talking big, big bucks here — these centers can cost upwards of $50 million, so HeroBracelets.org’s $150,000 is a drop in the bucket.  But Herobracelets has certainly used this as a PR opportunity, marketing its bracelets as a way to “support our military”:

HeroBracelets.org gives them an opportunity to spread awareness by wearing their bracelet, and it allows them to make a financial contribution to a charity of their choice.” said Christopher and Loree Greta, founders of HeroBracelets.org. “$2 per bracelet may not seem like much, but it has certainly added up – and $150,000 later, it’s allowed us and our customers to make a difference for the thousands of service members and their families who rely on Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund and the NICoE Centers for treatment of their invisible wounds.

$2/bracelet.  Doesn’t seem like much to do for our veterans, does it.  Especially when it’s them and their families forking over the money in the first place.


It’s rare that clinical studies include PTSD with comorbid disorders, so it was nice to see this August 7 randomized clinical trial on Naltrexone and Prolonged Exposure Therapy in patients with both PTSD and alcohol dependence. It’s tough to do a double-blind study for psychological interventions, since therapists need to be trained in the methods they use. Thus, this was a single-blind study, meaning the patients did not know whether whether they were receiving the medication or a sugar pill, and did not know if they were receiving Exposure Therapy (ET) or supportive counseling (SC). As usual, symptom severity was the measure of success, along with the Alcohol Craving scale: were symptoms and drinking days reduced more by the naltroxene or the Exposure Therapy or by both in combination? The group they studied was mostly between 36-43 years old, about 66% male, and the majority of subjects were black.  (An odd note here — blacks made up 70-75% of those given ET+Naltrexone and ET+Placebo, but only 50-60% of those given SC+Naltrexone and SC+Placebo.)  Also unusual is the fact that combat vets made up only about 15% of the study group. The predominant traumas were sexual assault and physical assault.  Like many other surveys, this one found that there was no significant difference between the effectiveness of Exposure Therapy and supportive counseling, and PTSD symptoms did not decrease significantly in any of the combinations. The study found that the patients prescribed naltrexone drank less often.   The best they could say about Exposure Therapy is that it “was not associated with an exacerbation of alcohol use disorder.”  That’s a good thing to know about one of the most frequently prescribed talk therapies for PTSD: at least it doesn’t make it worse.

Fund Raising

Veteran Doug Setter, and his colleagues Linh Lai and Dave Iten are doing a “four-mile open water relay swim across Bellingham Bay [WA] in honour of American and Canadian servicemen that lost their lives to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Along with other military stressors, Setter blames “the public’s [negative] perception of soldiers” for some of the stress veterans feel when they return home. It’s not clear what the swim is designed to do except “honour soldiers who killed themselves because of PTSD” and “shine a light on the challenges soldiers face with their duty is done.”  The swim is named after a local veteran who committed suicide after a tour in Iraq.

War on Film

Steven Grayhm of Astoria Film Co.(Los Angeles) is trying to raise $750,000 on Kickstarter to fund Thunder Road, a film based on a story told to him by Iraq war veteran Nick Carbonell, who witnessed the death of his best friend on a nighttime operation in Iraq. From the Kickstarter site:

Thunder Road is the story of returning U.S. soldier SGT. CALVIN COLE (played by Steven) whom we meet in present day Detroit as a troubled veteran who suffers from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and tbi (Traumatic Brain Injury) from multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Initially resistant to the VA system COLE must find a way to assimilate back into civilian life before he ends up dead or in prison.

Through his rekindled friendship with his estranged childhood friend PFC. DARRYL SPARKS (played by Matt) who he served on the “buddy system” with and his newly formed relationship with a doctor at the VA Medical Center, COLE finds redemption and salvation through sharing his captivating experience as a combat infantryman. The film also explores the psychological repercussions of war and seeks answers to the growing epidemic of PTSD and tbi in returning soldiers.

A pretty predictable plot trajectory, and certain one right out of the mainstream pop culture representations of PTSD: damaged warrior helped back to health by a wise VA therapist, finds redemption in sharing his story of trauma.  A report on its quality will have to wait until the film is made, but I don’t hold much hope it’ll be groundbreaking. I’m sick of films that imply that the only two choices choices facing a vet with active PTSD are either winding up dead or in prison.  The vast majority of people with PTSD continue on with their lives, dealing as best they can, and commit neither crimes nor suicide.

This notion that sharing a trauma is an end in itself is very popular, despite the fact that thousands of such stories have been shared by traumatized soldiers, and that there’s no evidence that simply sharing these stories actually contributes to improved reintegration or happiness. Trauma survivors who make a practice of telling and retelling their stories, particularly for public consumption, over many years, rarely seem to move beyond the trauma of war.  It cheers the public up to see stories in which an earnest vet, traumatized in war, regains his ability to connect with his emotions and with his significant others, and it’s even better if he then shoulders the burden of dealing with other  vets like himself.  But that’s a rarity — the vast majority of vets who are treated for PTSD by the VA are still under treatment four years later.  If there is “healing,” it’s a slow process and conclusion is far from assured.  And one reason that it’s such a slow path to recovery might be that the public taste for trauma narratives does not seem connected to the public’s interest in ending the circumstances that cause trauma.

And the inevitable PTSD Diagnosis by Media section…

The L.A. Times says that journalist Michael Hastings “may have suffered PTSD from work as a war journalist.” Hastings died in a single-car accident, and in such cases there’s often speculation that the crash was a form of suicide. Despite the claim of journalists Richard Winton and Andrew Blankenstein, the coroner’s report seems to contain no evidence at all that PTSD had anything to do with Hasting’s death. Hastings may well have had PTSD, given his experiences in the war, and he may have said that he used medical marijuana to treat PTSD, but that’s a far cry from PTSD causing a suicide.  Perhaps the L.A. Times journalists confused the coroner’s comment that Hastings had died of “traumatic injuries,” with “post-traumatic stress disorder,” contemporary journalistic standards being what they are.

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18 August 2013, PTSD News Roundup

August 18, 2013 / no comments

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It wasn’t genocide! It was PTSD!

The story that wins the prize for the Most Loathsome Example of Exploiting Sympathy for PTSD to Excuse Egregious Behavior is…  “Excessive drinking, PTSD plagued Thomas Weir.”

Not all of the fatalities of the Battle of the Little Big Horn took place on the battlefield.

After the defeat of George Armstrong Custer at the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876, Lt. Thomas Weir went into a deep depression (now defined as post-traumatic stress disorder) and died Sept. 28, three months after the battle.

I’m not sure where to file this except under “frickin’ unbelievable.” This is a sob story that’s supposed to leave us feeling deeply sympathetic towards Lt. Weir, who survived the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  Weir was an instrument in the U.S. government’s genocidal campaign against Native Americans and participated in the Washita Massacre, where Custer’s troops murdered women and children. (The article describes the event as “the Battle of Washita, or as many call it, a massacre” — “many” apparently not including the author of the article, Curtis Eriksmoen.)  Though the article lauds Weir, it’s impossible to tell his story without admitting that he was a drunk, well before the Battle of the Little Big Horn. This is the first of a two-part story, so we’re left hanging without evidence for the premise of the story, which is that poor Weir developed PTSD as the result of his failed attempt to save Custer at the Little Big Horn, which contributed to his demise.  What the authors don’t consider is that Weir’s PTSD might instead have been a result of his participation in the slaughter of innocents. A fine example of misusing PTSD in the cause of right-wing revisionism.

Veteran homelessness is a racial issue

The Augusta Chronicle gives us the story of Anthony Garrett, a homeless, unemployed 51-year-old black veteran who spends his jobless hours as a street preacher in Augusta’s Under the Bridge Ministry. For staff writer Wesley Brown, Garret illustrates the way “homelessness has become a way of life” for the estimated 300 homeless veterans in and around Augusta.  We learn little about Garret from the article, only that he was at some time married and lived in his own home (rented or bought, it’s not clear), and that he was laid off as a forklift operator, got a job digging graves at a funeral home, and was unable to continue doing hard physical labor because he received a back injury during Operation Desert Storm that left him with fused discs in his back. He currently does carpentry work for his ex-wife’s uncle, in exchange for a place to sleep, so, unlike many other vets, he’s not quite homeless, “just” destitute.  The story wanders, as if it’s not really sure of its subject, bouncing around from the claim that Augusta vets are not receiving the help for which they are eligible (statement from the Augusta Warrior Project, a non-profit dedicated to connecting veterans to the benefits for which they are eligible), to the problems of having a “documented” disability (“Once an employer learns you are a veteran with a certain illness, they will not hire you,” Garrett says, towards the end of the article.)  The third sentence from the last reveals his disability: PTSD.  It ends with Garrett’s comment that “Augusta is not a good environment for recovering veterans.”

What I find most interesting in the article is that it doesn’t mention Garrett’s race at all. (I could see from the  photo that he’s African American.) In May of this year, the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans (NCHV) published a report that documented the unequal effect of military service on African American veterans, from the Vietnam war era to the current day.  Income disparity is the most important determiner of whether a veteran will wind up homeless or not, and the NCHV report emphasizes that.  It’s worth looking at this telling statistic from 2002:  “… Blacks were 47% of the homeless population, and were over 4x as likely to be homeless as other veterans.” The percentage of the homeless population that is African American has not changed much since 2002. It’s also notable that in 2007 the VA found that 71% of the homeless women vets in their program were African American. The NHCV report notes that veteran status is only one of the risk factors for homelessness among African American vets. For example, black vets are unemployed far out of proportion to their numbers: 48% of black veterans between the ages of 18-24 are unemployed.  This was pretty easy for me to find out, with a quick google of “African American veterans homelessness,” and should have been an obvious search question for any responsible reporter.   Ignoring race, and emphasizing PTSD as an equal opportunity cause of homelessness is deeply dishonest. I can’t say I’m surprised that this is the practice in Augusta, but it shouldn’t be.

Therapy Dogs

I’ve been avoiding this issue, but stories about vets and their dogs are in the news pretty much every day, so I guess I have to face it. So I’ll start with the wynt.com article about Jeremy Walton, a Rensselaer County veteran who was happy to receive his PTSD therapy dog, Alanna, a brown labrador retriever.  “‘I haven’t smiled like this in years… Another one of the best days of my life,” said Walton.  I like dogs, and I think they’re good for a lot of people, and especially for people who don’t get as much human companionship and love as they need. I’ve always had dogs myself, and I think my life is better for it.  But the scientific evidence that psychiatric service dogs can alleviate PTSD symptoms is sparse to non-existent.  PubMed lists only a dozen studies of psychiatric service dogs, and I found only four results that linked service dogs to treating PTSD. Of those, only two were actual studies. A 2008 study in Issues Ment Health Nurs is of a single case in “a patient who received animal-assisted therapy as a psychiatric rehabilitation tool to ameliorate his atypical depression following an assault and subsequent head injury.” This study claims only that service dogs have “therapeutic potential.” And one study, from U.S. Army Med Dept J (2012) claims only that there is “anecdotal evidence that training service dogs reduces the PTSD symptoms of Warrior-trainers and that the presence of the dogs enhances the sense of wellness in the NICoE staff and the families of our Wounded Warriors.” A more general search on “pets mental health” brought further results, and the most recent studies made claims like this:

Although scientific evidence on the effects is far from being consistent, companion animals are used with a large number of human subjects, ranging from children to elderly people, who benefit most from emotional support. Based on a comprehensive review of the literature, this paper examines the potential for domesticated animals, such as dogs, for providing emotional and physical opportunities to enrich the lives of many frail subjects. In particular, we focus on innovative interventions, including the potential use of dogs to improve the life of emotionally-impaired children, such as those affected by autism spectrum disorders. Overall an ever increasing research effort is needed to search for the mechanism that lie behind the human-animal bond as well as to provide standardized methodologies for a cautious and effective use of animal-assisted interventions.

If you’re used to reading scientific papers, you can boil this down to the following:  There are a lot of untested programs that provide service animals to people with various illnesses. But we don’t know if they work.  We should probably figure out if they work, and then why they work before we go around handing over animals to people they may or may not benefit, under circumstances that may or may not be good for the animal or the veteran. If a vet wants a dog, and has the means to care for the animal properly, he or she should have the same right to have one as any other person.  But I’m opposed to programs that spend money on providing unvalidated treatments for PTSD, the effects of which (on veteran or dog) we do not know in the medium- or long-term.  Well-controlled research studies are necessary.  If you give a vet a dog with the expectation that she or he will form a deep emotional bond with the animal, and you’re pretty sure the vet will outlive the dog, can you say for certain that the ultimate effect that living with the dog will have on a vet is undoubtedly positive? Folks without PTSD are devastated with their dogs die.  How are folks with PTSD going to handle that devastation?

Today’s news also gives us a glimpse of that pain. Devastated by the loss of her service dog, veteran Karen Sagahon “says life has been incredibly difficult without her service dog and friend.”  Sagahon, whose dog disappeared at a local mall explained, “”It’s another day of putting one step in front of another until we can find him and bring him home. I won’t quit until I can bring him home and make our family whole again.” Better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all? The truth is, we don’t know. It’s possible that vets with service dogs will have a higher rate of suicide after the death of the dog.  We probably ought to find out before we start singing the praises of these programs, but it’s so easy to play this as a “feel good” story that news media never take a critical view.

PTSD Feature Articles

The Napa Valley Register profiled Juan Mora, a Calistoga High School footballer who served in the Marines and the Navy. The high school sports star (“starting center of a Wildcats team that reached the summit of the CIF North Coast Section Class B playoffs, capped by a 22-18 come-from-behind win over St. Bernard [Eureka] in 1999”) was a natural leader.  After high school he joined the Marines and then the Navy, served two tours in Iraq, is married, with two children, and has a BA in criminal justice. He worked as a corrections officer in Arizona, and is now in school again, getting an Associate of Arts in sports sciences. The article reads like an average Sunday section “local hero makes good” piece, and Mora sounds like a perfectly nice, normal guy who has gained some wisdom along the way:

I don’t take things for granted like I used to when I was younger,” Mora said. “I’ve been in a Third World country. I’ve seen that a bathroom is a privilege. Over here in the United States, you can pull over to a gas station wherever you want. Also, I learned that not everyone in Iraq is a mean person. They live and try to survive just like we do over here in the United States.

But then the article changes gears:

With exposure to most any combat situation comes the greater risk of being afflicted by PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Though seeing numerous forms of “Support the Troops” communications from civilians have an uplifting tone, Mora, by his own admission, still experiences PTSD.

I’m not even going to tackle the incoherence of the paragraph. I’m just going to use it as a marker of the beginning of the “wounded vet” part of the feature, where it move from “local hero makes good” into revelations of Mora’s problems with alcohol, the failure of stoicism (macho) in his efforts to cope with PTSD, his need and gratefulness for professional help, the obligatory mention of “nightmares, cold sweats, and flashbacks,” and his reintegration into a stable family life in which “his wife, mother and children” are “his security blanket.”

This may indeed be Mora’s story, and it could be that he, not the reporter or editor, chose its trajectory.  But I’ve read a thousand of these features, and they are starting, more and more, to sound like morality plays to me.  Here’s the trope:  1) Normal guy goes off to war; 2) Unspeakable things happen offscreen; 3) Vet comes home to the civilian world where can’t readjust; 4) Vet develops serious problems with alcohol/violence/relationships/other placeholder, and hits bottom; 5) Vet admits he needs help and brings his problems to a therapist or program; 6) Vet is healed with help from the therapist/program/wife/other placeholder; 7) Vet is reintegrated into “normal” life, signified by family bonds, and can serve as an “example” to other vets.  This is a pretty safe story for a Sunday paper, and I can see why they might look for subjects who seem to fit the bill.  There’s nothing threatening in this story at all; it has a happy ending and it reassures the reader that veteran stories, generally, can have happy endings if only vet is willing to go “find help.”  What’s not part of the story is that help is pretty hard to find for a lot of vets, and that PTSD treatments don’t work for the majority of them, even when they are available, and that most vets with PTSD have other hard-to-treat problems (substance abuse, depression, etc), and that PTSD isn’t the worst problem for many vets, particularly vets of color who face terrible unemployment problems… well… we don’t really want to talk about that in a feel-good Sunday feature article.

Indigenous veterans in Australia

And speaking about racial discrimination and its effect on veterans, there’s an excellent (and rare) article on Australia’s indigenous Vietnam War veterans in The Age today. It’s clumsily titled, “War does not discriminate,” but the point of the article is actually that discrimination plays a strong role in war and its aftermath.  An excerpt:

Though there are many points where the indigenous and non-indigenous Vietnam experiences were similar, there are also significant points of difference. Before signing up for the armed forces, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Vietnam veterans grew up in an Australia under assimilation policies. This meant restrictive legislation in every state and territory that regulated indigenous people’s movements, marriages, education and job prospects, and, as indicated already, they also faced the threat of child removal.

Like Dave Cook, many Aboriginal soldiers were members of the stolen generations. Even those Aboriginal veterans who were not separated from their families have memories of hiding from welfare as children. They remember confronting prejudice in their everyday pre-service lives, whether in the form of taunts, job discrimination or police harassment.

Unfortunately for Aboriginal veterans, the return to civilian society after Vietnam also often entailed a return to racial discrimination. Many RSLs denied entry to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans because of their race. In some states, publicans would not even serve alcohol to them. In some instances, racial discrimination merely compounded the problems of PTSD, leading to downward spirals in their personal lives.

PTSD Features in Web Series

Atlantic City is premiering at 8:00pm tonight at atlanticcitychronicles.com:

The series follows Frank Porter (played by Richard John Patrick), who returns home to Atlantic City after a tour in Afghanistan. In addition to his war-related trauma, Frank also faces terminal illness within his family, his girlfriend’s marriage to another man, joblessness and the temptation of street life. His experience with PTSD will rear its head and lead him into crime.

Dave Polgar, 29, a resident of Ambler, plays Julian Foster, a Marine assigned the task of tracking Frank down. While the cast and crew are keeping details about the series secret, Polgar admits that Frank’s PTSD leads him to do “some very, very bad things.” Although Frank is the lead character, he isn’t the only one embracing the bad.

Sigh.  Yes, of course.  In pop culture, PTSD makes people do very, very bad things.  I thought we’d gotten over the crazy vet bullshit, but here it comes again, full force.  I’ll watch and let you know whether it’s going to be as awful as it sounds.

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17 August 2013, PTSD News Roundup

August 17, 2013 / no comments

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Bad Science Department

Sometimes the names of the trauma-focused therapies that folks come up with make me shudder all by themselves, they’re so weirdly Orwellian.  That’s the case for “reprogramming therapy,” of which Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) is being hyped as the latest and greatest “cure.”  Here’s the headline: “Scottish nurses are to be trained in a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder that works by reprogramming the brains of combat veterans.” Though it sounds like a kind of Orwellian brainwashing, it’s yet another version of Francine Shapiro’s endlessly “promising” (no-longer-so-)new therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).  EMDR and its variants have proved no more effective than any other trauma-focused therapy, which means they’re moderately effective at relieving clinical symptoms in the short-term, for a very small segment of the population that suffers from PTSD (the 20% of women, and about 12% of men with no co-morbid psychological disorders). The description of how ART works is pretty weak: “The patient is asked to move their eyes back and forth while recalling traumatic events, a process which is thought to “unlock” the memory and enable the therapist to start a discussion aimed at detaching the associated negative emotions.”

Since even variations on EMDR that don’t use eye movements all seem to work about the same, it’s pretty hard to argue convincingly that eye movements are the key to “unlocking” the memory.  The idea of “unlocking” is purely metaphorical anyway, since there’s no proof that the memory mechanism (whatever it is) “locks” or “unlocks” at all.  Since we don’t (even the neuroscientists) have good models for the mechanisms by which we remember, forget, revise or associate, “explanations” like the above are no better than “just so” stories, and often worse than no explanations at all.  Sterling University of the UK is teaming up with University of South Florida (USF) to implement ART, which was developed at USF. The rationale is a an allegedly successful study “carried out among 80 war veterans in the US found that the proportion showing signs of PTSD fell from 90 per cent to 17 per cent after four sessions or fewer. (When I found the study, it did not seem to include any war veterans. See next paragraph.) Incidences of depression in the same group dropped from 80 per cent to 28 per cent.”  The people who report on science these days are so dim that they don’t understand that stats like this are like giving half a baseball score.  A drop from 90% to 17% sounds pretty stunning, but it sure would be nice to know the response rate in the control group (if there was a control group), if they accounted for the placebo effect, and if there was a follow-up study to find out if the treatment had lasting effect.  So I poked around and looked for the study (not referenced in the article).

Brief Treatment of Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by Use of Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART®)” wasn’t hard to find. It was published in June of this year in a relatively new open-access journal called Behavioral Sciences. It’s so new that it’s published a total of 45 articles and I can’t find any record of its impact factor.  This doesn’t make it a bad journal, and it’s from a reputable publisher, but a more robust study would have found a more prominent home.  So let’s see what the study says…  1) Those selected for the study suffered from PTSD, but veteran status was not a criteria for inclusion; 2) 77% of the subjects were women, and 29% were Hispanic: those numbers are not representative of the population of British veterans (none of the subjects appeared to be vets); 3) 17.5% of the subjects dropped out before the end of the study, and 18.2% of the remaining subjects dropped out before the 2-month followup, which means that they collected full data on less than 70% of the full group of participants (54 people); 4) they excluded substance abusers (which would exclude 64%-84% of veterans with PTSD); 5) there was no control group, and all therapists were trained in and administered only ART therapy, which means that the effect of researcher allegiance on the patient was unaccounted for; 6) all data was self-reported.   So there is no way to know if the amazingly large effect they reported was due to ART or simply a product of entering any kind of very short-term trauma-focused treatment.  Section 4.2, “Possible Therapeutic Mechanisms,” is pretty funny.  I’ve rarely seen a longer list of “may be.. postulate… may help… may occur… may simultaneously…” and so on.  The chain of conjecture continues for miles. Some of it is just plain pseudoscientific gobbledygook: “… ART involves an additional therapeutic element known as the ‘Director’ intervention that directs the patient to establish a new narrative to address ‘unfinished business’ in much the way that Gestalt techniques are used experientially to achieve positive results. Success of the intervention is determined by the therapist asking the participant to pull up the original distressful [sic] images, and reporting being unable to do so.”  In light of the fact that the study did not include combat veterans, the final line of the paper is telling:  “Future controlled studies with ART are warranted, particularly given its short treatment duration, and in light of current heightened emphasis on health care cost constraints, as well as the very large clinical burden of treatment of PTSD being experienced from the lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” To me, this just screams:  “We’re gonna sell this to the military!”  And, of course, the military bought it: the DOD paid for the initial research, and now ART® (don’t forget that trademark!) is a product now offered to British war veterans.

PTSD Made Them Do It!

In Denver, a military veteran named Daniel Abeyta was arrested for allegedly shooting two women and blowing up a propane tank. The CBS Denver headline was “Neighbors say shooting suspect is vet with PTSD,” but that’s not mentioned in the article until the final paragraph: “Neighbors said Abeyta… suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and is involved in a difficult marriage.”  It’s always fun when your neighbors diagnose you for the news media and then the news affiliate headlines the hearsay. In other news, 43-year-old Dinalynn Inez Andrews Potter, a retired Navy vet, allegedly jumped on stage and clobbered elderly soul singer, Lester Chambers when he sang a song dedicated to murdered teenager Trayvon Martin. Apparently Potter’s claim she has PTSD makes this “not a racial attack” in the eyes of the arresting officer, even though Potter yelled, “It’s all your fault, you caused this shit,” before she knocked the frail singer on his ass.  This “It’s not racism, it’s PTSD” stuff is just silly. It’s not like the two are mutually exclusive.  PTSD doesn’t change your political beliefs or give you prejudices you didn’t have in the first place, even though it might remove your inhibitions to acting on them.


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Why There Is No Such Thing as “Reverse Racism”

January 27, 2013 / one comment

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This is a revised version of an essay I published on DailyKos.

In any discussion of racism and it’s alleged reverse, it’s crucial to start by defining prejudice and discrimination,  racism  and institutional racism.  There’s a reason these different terms exist, and a very good reason not to conflate them.

Prejudice is an irrational feeling of dislike for a person or group of persons, usually based on stereotype or on a generalization based on personal experience or perception.  Virtually everyone feels some sort of prejudice, whether it’s for an ethnic group, or for a religious group, or for a type of person (like blondes, or fat people, or tall people, or that guy who looks like their evil Uncle Howard).  The important thing is they just don’t like them. Prejudice is a feeling, a belief.  You can be prejudiced, but still be a fair person if you’re careful not to act on your irrational dislike.

Discrimination takes place the moment a person acts on prejudice.  This describes those moments when one individual decides not to give another individual a job because of, say, their race or their religious orientation.  Or even because of their looks (there’s a lot of hiring discrimination against conventionally “unattractive” women, for example).  You can discriminate, individually, against any person or group, if you’re in a position of power over the person you want to discriminate against.  White people can discriminate against black people, and black people can discriminate against white people if, for example, one is the interviewer and the other is the person being interviewed.

Racism is the belief that one race is superior to another.  People who believe this are called racists. They advocate the creation of systems that enforce their prejudices, and that will allow them to discriminate, but unless they live in a racist system, their individual racism can be expressed only in personal acts of discrimination.  For example, a black person in the U.S. might believe in black supremacy, and might think black people are better than white people, but he or she doesn’t have the ensure that the society’s institutions reflect those racist beliefs.  It is very important to understand that individual racism, and racism as an ideology, are not the same thing as a racist society, which is why the term institutional racism has emerged to describe racist systems.

Institutional racism (sometimes simply called “racism,” as well) describes patterns of discrimination that are institutionalized as “normal” throughout an entire culture.  At this point it’s not just one person discriminating at a time, but a whole social structure that evolved to enforce discrimination. A racist system actually makes it difficult for a person not to discriminate,  no matter how well-meaning they are. Continue Reading…

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Playing the Race Card: A Rightwing Meme

January 27, 2013 / no comments

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This is a revised version of an essay that appeared earlier on DailyKos.

Right-wingers love the phase “the race card.” They drum it into our heads, flood the media with its repetitions, and sponsor the publication of articles, tracts and books that condemn African Americans—at every opportunity and on widely disparate occasions—for “playing the race card.” Its use is so ubiquitous, so pervasive, that it’s crept even into the vocabulary of some progressives, who invoke it to criticize and silence African Americans who point out racism within the progressive movement itself.

As a white, antiracist progressive, I find this both a sad testament to the power of right-wing propaganda, and an appalling example of the unexamined racism that unconsciously underlies much contemporary white progressivism. Most progressives who use the phrase do so unselfconsiously, as if its meaning were widely understood and the conclusion foregone, but an examination of the assumptions and arguments that underlie the phrase easily reveal it to be completely counter to the principles of progressive politics.

Scholar Linda Williams, who wrote a whole book on the history of “the race card” as a concept, argues that the term is part of “an extended cycle of racial melodrama seeking to give a ‘moral legibility’ to race.” And melodrama it is, invoking the image of a super-charged “card” (racial guilt on the part of whites) which allows magically powerful African Americans to subjugate whites. In the drama, the use of this “card” makes white people helpless to defend themselves or their own rights because they are consumed by guilt. Resisting the card, then, becomes a kind of white heroism: “standing up to” those dominating African Americans who are “trying to take away our rights.” This particular melodrama conveniently omits any reference to the centuries-old structures of institutional racism upon which the Republic was built, and which we progressives are allegedly dedicated to disassembling. Continue Reading…

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White/Het/Male Privilege, Identity Politics & Progressivism

January 27, 2013 / no comments

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This is a slightly revised version of an essay I posted on DailyKos.

A refrain that I’ve heard again and again—primarily from white, or male, or heterosexual progressives in response to identity-based organizing—is that “identity politics” is counter-productive, and distracts “us” from the real issue. Often, in their opinion, the real issue is class warfare. They often blame the alleged fragmentation of “the left” on identity-groups who impede “our” progress. At best, they argue, identity is a “distraction,” and, at worst, a cynical tool of manipulation. The “neutral” position—consciously or unconsciously—assumes that the majority group (white, male, and/or heterosexual) is normative (the standard by which the behavior and ideas of all other groups should be judged).

First of all, I want to say this is an essay about pragmatics, and not theory.  Theory is wonderful and important, and I write about it all the time, but that’s not what I want to talk about now.  I want to discuss the myths that are impeding our progress as progressives. We’ve indulged them for a long time, but we have to put a stop to them now if we want an ice cube’s chance in hell of pushing a progressive agenda in the U.S. To make my points, I’ll use examples from my own life, because I think it’s easier to understand this particular problem if we personalize, rather than theorize.

Much has been written about “identity politics,” and I’m not going to try to recapitulate it here.  I will say, though, that if you’re not familiar with the various schools of thought on identity politics, you’ll likely miss some of the nuances of the essay, because I’m discussing a common reaction to a frequently misunderstood phenomenon.  Hence, I suggest that you turn to the very good article on Identity Politics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if you need background for the discussion. I don’t entirely agree with the author, but the article provides an excellent theoretical overview of the uses and the problems of identity.

I start with the assertion that there isn’t a single one of us who doesn’t define ourselves based on both conscious and unconscious, and chosen and imposed, identities.  To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, “We are who we think we are, so we must be very careful who we think we are.” I don’t care if your primary identifications include “left-hander,” “African American,” “Catholic,” “gay,” “Irish,” “Muslim,” “geek,” “middle child,” “Marxist,” “sports fan,” or “normal guy/gal.”  We all have identities, and multiple identities at that.  Who can fit themselves into just one or two simple categories and be satisfied? Individually, we all want our personhood acknowledged from our head down to our little toes. Continue Reading…

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Race & Gender Studies: Expertise Counts

January 26, 2013 / one comment

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A version of this post previously appeared on DailyKos.

This post was provoked by yet another stumbling attempt to re-invent the wheel by yet another person who feels perfectly entitled to start a conversation on race without doing any homework.

At the moment, I’m not interested in debating what “racism” or “sexism” is or isn’t.  My topic is expertise: it exists in the fields of race and gender studies & activism, just like it exists in the fields of physics, sociology, politics, philosophy, biology and anthropology.  The people who study gender and race, and who spend their careers in the field and in research are actually doing something. So are the activists who are out there, day after day, dealing with racism and sexism in our communities. Their long experience makes them experts. They’re  more prepared and more thoughtful about answering race- and gender-related questions than people who have spent their careers doing something else. If you’re a progressive and you don’t get that, you’re not nearly as much of a progressive as you think.

I’m not a physicist but…. I’m going to venture out here and explain the theory of relativity without reading any books about it or referring to the work of a single physicist. By the way, I suck at math.

You wouldn’t get much respect for that, and you wouldn’t expect it, would you?

It’s a mark of pervasive, systemic racism that, time and again, folks want to ignore the fact that there actually is expertise on the topic of race, racism, racial prejudice and discrimination. It’s a mark of pervasive racism that folks believe that the race scholar equivalent of the physicist has the time and energy to enter into endless conversations with people who don’t bother to get the equivalent of an 8th grade education on race before they start batting around definitions.  (Same goes for pervasive sexism, but for brevity I’m going to stick to the example of race thoughout the diary.) Then again, maybe it’s just that the opinions of the experts aren’t congenial to the beliefs of the proudly ignorant.

Would you get pissed off at the biologist who took issue at the misuse of the term Darwinism in the social sphere? Or who argued that “Social Darwinism” isn’t really “Darwinism” at all?  Again, I don’t think so.  A little courtesy across disciplines, please.

Stop pretending that it’s utterly outrageous that “racism” (a term invented by social scientists, by the way) has a technical meaning that specialists attempt to prevent from becoming degraded by its consistent misuse by those who don’t like to admit the reality of the concepts that the term “racism” was invented to describe.

When the U.S. falls far behind in science education, and people lose sight of the meaning of the word “evolution,” my guess is that most of you think that the best thing to do about it is improve American education, not change the definition of “evolution” so that it stops describing what it was invented to describe.  And yet, many of the same people who believe it’s a tragedy that the average American is so ignorant about science are totally cool with the fact that Americans are dangerously and aggressively ignorant about race.  Understanding complex topics (“evolution,” “racism”) requires education.  We’re progressives; we’re supposed to love education.

Race is a hard topic.  Chances are that you aren’t going to be able to contribute much to a discussion that’s been ongoing since the 1930s unless you already know where in that discussion your opinions and beliefs are situated. When you barge in with naive opinions (which, of course you are entitled to have) as if they are equivalent to educated opinions (which, of course, they are not), then you’re situating yourself in a position that’s not very pretty. That is entitlement.  That is racism. If you don’t want to be called a racist or a sexist, don’t act like one.

When you’re ready to come to a discussion actually prepared for it with more than something beyond, “I think…. ” you might find that other people who know a lot more than you do will be willing to actually engage with you to continue your education. You might even find that we’re willing to listen respectfully to your dissenting opinions, once you’ve done the research to show that your dissent is based on evidence and argument.

Until then, pardon me for assuming that deliberate public profession of ignorance on a hot-button topic is a trollish ploy meant to distract the energies of antiracists and feminists rather than to further knowledge on the topic.

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Nobody I Know Thinks of Themselves as White

January 26, 2013 / no comments

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This is a revised version of a post that originally appeared on DailyKos.

This is a meme that I see coming up again and again:  But nobody I know thinks of themselves as white!  I’m Dutch-Irish!  I’m Norwegian! I’m a proud Polish-American! And so on.  A lot of white folks get confused, or hurt, or angry when people of color start talking about how “white folks say this” and “white folks do that.”  And most of them get pretty upset when “white” is used as a pejorative term in by people of color and their allies.  As a white person who doesn’t take offense at this, I’ll explain the history that lies behind that category called “whiteness” and try to help you understand why “white” has become a shorthand term to describe a power structure that, in truth, most progressives, of any color, should oppose. I will also explain why “white” and “black” are not equivalent descriptions of individuals or groups, since both definitions were imposed by white authorities on both black and white people.  This is, by the way, a long-ass essay, because some things are just too complex for sound bites.

As always, a history lesson is a good place to start. In the U.S., in the period leading up to the Civil War, slave or free status often turned on an almost incalculable percentage of “black blood.”  Those deemed to possess “black blood” were defined as salable commodities. From the period of Colonization until the Civil War, and even after the Civil War, “black blood” determined where you could live, where you were physically unsafe, where you could work and play, and whether or not you could vote.

In the beginning, the Colonies imported both Africans and indentured servants for use as labor, and the status of Africans was somewhat ambiguous.  Slavery had not yet been established as the “peculiar institution” that came to distinguish the U.S.  But for a variety of economic and cultural reasons, it was more convenient and attractive to European colonists to retain the labor of African slaves, rather than to allow them the freedom and rights that indentured European servants inevitably earned. Eventually, African descent marked the difference between servants who were to be manumitted and servants who were to retain slave status throughout their lives.  Indentured servitude was eventually phased out, and slavery became the foundation of the laboring body that built America. It is important to note that the children of indentured servants were not indentured, but that the children of African slaves inherited the servitude of their mothers.  Slavery was thus determined by one’s “African blood,” and the condition was inextricably bound to the notion of “blood” and “blackness.”

I would like to note, here, that European and U.S. notions of Native American “race” were the product of another crucible.  Unlike blacks, who were defined as valuable property (or potential property, if free), after a number of failures to successfully enslave Native Americans, they were defined as “non-people” — neither valuable property nor potential American citizens, but members of a vestigial group whose eradication was either celebrated or lamented, on the path to extinction. I cannot follow this trajectory in this diary, but there are very fine Native American bloggers whose work documents the genocidal policy of the U.SOjibwa comes immediately to mind.

The problem with the “African blood” demarcation is that, sufficiently diffused, African genetic heritage is invisible. And plenty of African blood was diffuse, due to generations of sexual slavery and rape. Property that can talk and walk just like free people needs to be distinguished in some fashion, and if you can’t see a distinction, you need to invent one. Because African heritage was often invisible after several generations, it became crucial to define the category of people who didn’t possess it: thus “whiteness” was invented. Continue Reading…

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