A Whiter Shade of Faith: Saturday’s Tax Protests and the Religion of Whiteness

Buffalo Bill’s
     who used to
    ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeons justlikethat

he was a handsome man
    and what I want to know is
how do you like
your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death

—e. e. cummings

When I saw the Confederate flags and angry signs and heard the rhetoric of frustration coming from Dick Armey’s protest rally at the Capitol grounds on Saturday, I thought: So now it’s come to this—white people having to stake their claim to social space in a culture they think is overrun with foreigners and people of color?

I guess it has come to this. As Eric Reitan noted in these pages recently, a significant portion of the population has been seriously and superstitiously unnerved by the disorder represented by a president who (in their eyes) is both racially “other” and a foreigner.

We have long understood that nostalgia is the most dangerous of emotions in respect to political and cultural life. The nostalgia of the Weimar Germans for a strong and aggressive Reich, the current nostalgia of many Russians for the gold old days of Stalin or even Czar Alexander, and now—in our country—the nostalgia of white people and white men especially for a better time when, to be white, male, and Christian stood for something. A time when white men cold take certain things for granted, like the right to be ill-informed and obtuse but still receive deference and some degree of social privilege.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammad point to the irony of white folks believing that black people will get all the goodies in Obama Time, when in fact it is African American families (many of them new entrants to the middle class) who have taken and will continue to take the worst hits in the Great Recession that continues to unfold.

But the thing about a mythos, in this case about an entire worldview shaped by resentment and fear of falling, is that it is not susceptible to being corrected by mere facts.

I think it might be helpful to look back at expressions of White Faith from a century ago—Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris—before returning to consider the possible religious significance of Dick Armey and his tea-partying troops.

Buffalo Bill: Putting White Folks Securely in the Saddle

Novelist Larry McMurtry speculates that Buffalo Bill Cody was the most recognizable celebrity in the world at the turn of the twentieth century. Cody had been chief scout for the Third Cavalry during its Indian removal campaigns (in 1872 he received the Medal of Honor for “gallantry” in this activity).

He was also, of course, a famous marksman and slaughterer of bison (he personally shot 5,000 of them in 1867-68, furnishing meat to railroad workers). And he became a great showman after seeing some puny Wild West simulations and deciding that he could mount a compelling extravaganza built around his own legend and looks—along with a cast of hundreds and hundreds of real Indians (Sitting Bull himself, for example) and other “roughriders from around the world” (Turks, Mongols, Arabs, Georgians, Gauchos, etc.) on horseback. Annie Oakley and Wild Bill Hickok showed off their sharpshooting gifts at various points in the Show’s long life; Cody himself always played Gen. George Armstrong Custer reenacting Custer’s Last Stand, the big crowd-pleasing tableau that ended the Show.

The Wild West Show penetrated every corner of the country (my grandfather recalled thrilling to see it as a farm kid in Wisconsin) as well as the capitals of Europe. In a bold move, Cody took his show to Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair; and drew thousands of Fair patrons and their dollars away from the White City after Fair promoters rebuffed Cody’s pitch to make the Show an official exhibit. The Show was presented in Britain to mark Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Cody was received by Pope Leo XIII in 1890.

The Wild West Show was a stupendous social and financial success for Cody, who died in 1917 (on the cusp of America’s entry into World War), and was saluted in death by Kaiser Wilhelm II, King George V, and President Woodrow Wilson.

But what did the Wild West Show say about whiteness? It said (I think) that whiteness was everywhere sweeping all before it, all over the globe. It said that the martial virtues of the white man—even of George Custer in defeat —could not be resisted. It said that lesser peoples (Native Americans, those other exotics on horseback, even African-America Buffalo Soldiers) could ride in the parade, but never in front: they could only ride as colorful adjuncts to the white man’s empire.

And here is a telling side note about this blue-eyed apotheosis of white manhood: as a young boy in the Iowa Territory, Bill Cody had saved his father, Isaac—an outspoken anti-slavery man—from being stabbed to death by an enraged racist mob.

Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah: Tales of White Superiority

Joel Chandler Harris staged no spectacular celebrations of whiteness: he didn’t need to. His Uncle Remus tales, published in book form between 1880 and 1905, were hugely successful in explaining to white people, both in the North and South, why the Civil War and Abolition had been a big mistake. Born poor and illegitimate and afflicted with shyness and a terrible stammer, Harris apprenticed himself to a powerful planter and newspaper publisher at age 15. While living on this patron’s plantation, he started absorbing the slaves’ folktales, many of whose characters (the trickster Br’er Rabbit, for example) came directly from West African folkloric traditions.

As H.L. Mencken was the first white writer to observe, Joel Chandler Harris basically stole a big chunk of African American oral tradition, popularized it, and got rich from it once he began publishing his tales in The Atlanta Constitution in 1876.

Like Cody, Harris thought of himself as an entertainer, not as a paladin of white supremacist ideology; although the Constitution very much promoted such an ideology. What Harris did instead was render blacks as childlike creatures, helplessly naïve and funny, who could not really be expected to exercise the rights and bear the burdens of responsible citizenship. This was good news to Northern whites in particular, absolving them of any remaining twinges of conscience concerning the disenfranchisement and brutalization of the dusky people their own parents and grandparents had recently fought and died to liberate.

As historian David Blight pointed out in his magisterial Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, it was important for Northern whites during this period to convey to their Southern counterparts the message that whatever their sectional differences had been, there was no disagreement on the matter of black inferiority.

Harris died in 1905, the same year that Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr. produced The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. “The Clansman” was the original title for D.W. Griffith’s film, The Birth of A Nation (1915), which President Wilson (Dixon’s classmate at Johns Hopkins) is reputed to have praised as “history written by lightning” following a private White House screening. This matters because the demeaning characterization of black people in the Uncle Remus series supported the notion that white Southerners were entirely justified in attacking Reconstruction and retaking state power by means of savage Klan terrorism.

The Last Gasp of the “Lost Cause”? Dick Armey’s Brand of White Faith

Born dirt poor in North Dakota, Armey hit the big time by making a successful 1984 run for the House in a district representing a wealthy slice of Dallas-Fort Worth. This followed a stint teaching free-market economics at North Texas State University. Dick Armey definitely meant it when, while serving as majority leader, he called Hillary Clinton “a Marxist.” And no one believed that his “Barney Fag” crack in relation to the Massachusetts legislator was any slip of the tongue.

Armey apparently does believe that socialism is on the march with Obama in the White House. He recently told the Los Angeles Times, “If I hadn’t stood up, Obamacare would be a train running right through this country right now.” Like many other propagators of an Astroturf-ish white “populism,” Armey has good reason to rally ’round the flag of acquisitive individualism: today he is a seriously rich man, having worked for a leading Washington lobbying firm in the years since leaving elected office. In Armey’s own words, he made “a darned handsome pile of dough” from using his influence for the benefit of assorted industries and foreign governments.

Armey’s racial raison d’etre in creating and promoting Freedomworks is to avoid the disgrace of white men going too gently into that goodnight. Armey is a practiced confrontationist. When he was back in the House, he claimed not to enjoy confrontation; but then he would always add: “somebody has to be the first guy to stand up.”

Pastoral Responsibility in the Waning Days of White Male Dominance

Religion is what religion does. I believe we should count ourselves lucky that we have not yet had a much more vicious upsurge of White Nationalism than Armey’s tea-partying army represents. I mean, white men have had it so good in this country for so long; in part thanks to the mythos of racial superiority that figures like Cody and Harris helped to create a century and more ago.

Authentic religion ought to be capable of helping people deal with loss. Faith leaders today could and should be helping their native-born white congregants look hard at their deep-down assumptions of privilege. They could and should be helping congregants prepare to negotiate a new social landscape.

I don’t see a lot of that kind of leadership out there. But whether or not today’s clergy leaders are willing to step up and accept this pastoral responsibility, the days of white male dominance are clearly numbered.

And what I want to know is: How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?