Friday, May 10, 2013

A Note on the Provenance of the 'Tyranny' Meme

Have you noticed how many right-wingers are decrying the "tyranny" of the Obama administration these days?

It's particularly rife on the Tea Partying far right, where it's extremely common to hear Obama being portrayed as a "tyrant," particularly regarding his recent attempts to promote gun-control measures. (See Ben Shapiro whining thus in the video above.) So you'll often find crap like this floating about on their Facebook pages.

But it's becoming common among mainstream right-wingers, particularly after the president dismissed these characterizations during a speech at Ohio State. Sure enough, everyone from Jonah Goldberg to Michelle Malkin piled on with the "yeah, whatever you say, dude" retorts.

But I was reminded the other day, rereading Stephen Budiansky's marvelous book about Reconstruction, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War, just where the right-wing fetish about "tyranny" comes from. It's a highly selective fetish, after all; none of these "libertarians" seemed even remotely concerned when George W. Bush launched the whole "enemy combatants" enterprise back in 2001.

According to Budiansky, it -- like the phrase "waving the bloody shirt," as well as the whole conservative adoption of that rhetorical ruse as an aggressive form of defense -- has its origins in the years during and immediately following the Civil War, when it was common for Southerners to sneer at Abraham Lincoln (alive or dead) as a "tyrant":

A bald fact: Generations would hear how the South suffered “tyranny” under Reconstruction. Conveniently forgotten was the way that word was universally defined by white Southerners at the time: as a synonym for letting black men vote at all. A “remonstrance” issued by South Carolina’s Democratic Central Committee in 1868, personally signed by the leading native white political figures of the state, declared that there was no greater outrage, no greater despotism, than the provision for universal male suffrage just enacted in the state’s new constitution. There was but one possible consequence: “A superior race is put under the rule of an inferior race.” They offered a stark warning: “We do not mean to threaten resistance by arms. But the white people of our State will never quietly submit to negro rule. This is a duty we owe to the proud Caucasian race, whose sovereignty on earth God has ordained.”
“No free people, ever,” declared a speaker at a convention of the state’s white establishment a few years later, had been subjected to the “domination of their own slaves,” and the applause was thunderous. “This is a white man’s government,” was the phrase echoed over and over in the prints of the Democratic press and the orations of politicians denouncing the “tyranny” to which the “oppressed” South was being subjected.

A bald fact: more than three thousand freedmen and their white Republican allies were murdered in the campaign of terrorist violence that overthrew the only representatively elected governments the Southern states would know for a hundred years to come. Among the dead were more than sixty state senators, judges, legislators, sheriffs, constables, mayors, county commissioners, and other officeholders whose only crime was to have been elected. They were lynched by bands of disguised men who dragged them from cabins by night, or fired on from ambushes on lonely roadsides, or lured into a barroom by a false friend and on a prearranged signal shot so many times that the corpse was nothing but shreds, or pulled off a train in broad daylight by a body of heavily-armed men resembling nothing so much as a Confederate cavalry company and forced to kneel in the stubble of an October field and shot in the head over and over again, at point blank.

So saturated is our collective memory with Gone With the Wind stock characters of thieving carpetbaggers, ignorant Negroes, and low scalawags, that it comes as a shock not so much to discover that there were men and women of courage, idealism, rectitude, and vision who risked everything to try to build a new society of equality and justice on the ruins of the Civil War, who fought to give lasting meaning to the sacrifices of that terrible struggle, who gave their fortunes, careers, happiness, and lives to make real the simple and long-delayed American promise that all men were created equal—it comes as a shock not so much to be confronted by their idealism and courage and uprightness as by the realization that they were convinced, up to the very last, that they would succeed. Confident in the rightness of their cause, backed by the military might of the United States government, secure in the ringing declarations, now the supreme law of the land embodied in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments of the Constitution, that slavery was not only dead but that equality and the right to vote were the patrimony now of all Americans, they could not imagine that their nation could win such a terrible war and lose the ensuing peace.
Indeed, it's common to hear neo-Confederate agitators -- those folks who are still pushing for modern secession by the South -- describe Lincoln to this day as a "tyrant."

The idea of being governed by a black president? To many of these people even today, that is itself the essence of tyranny.

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