Friday, May 02, 2014

Andrew Jackson as symbol of democracy and the Democratic Party


Ari Rabin-Havt argues that it's Time for Democrats to Stop Celebrating Andrew Jackson The American Prospect 05/04/2014

Since I've been using Jackson as the symbol for this blog for over 10 years, maybe it's time to readdress that issue.

Here is what I posted in my very first one here, entitle Why Old Hickory?:

Why Old Hickory? Old Hickory is, of course, Andy Jackson, President of the United States, 1829-1837.

Because he's an heroic figure who championed the interest of working people against concentrated wealth and defended the Union and democracy against its enemies foreign and domestic.

He was also a deeply flawed hero, a slaveowner who - unlike Thomas Jefferson - defended the institution of slavery and displaced the Indian tribes of the Southeast in a way that any American today would find it difficult to defend.

He is an appropriate hero for Americans today because he was one of history's greatest champions of democracy.

But it's also important for us to remember that even our greatest heroes were people that made choices, some of them better than others. As long as our politicians feel it necessary to constantly say that America is "the greatest country in the world," something is wrong. When they no longer feel the need to say that, and when the voters no longer need to hear it all the time, we will have regained some of the realistic confidence that made leaders like Jackson what they were.

Some people today talk about George W. Bush's foreign policy being "Jacksonian."

Well, I keep a little bust of the General (as many of Jackson's admirers always called him) setting on my desk. And every time an article appears on my computer screen comapring him to today's Enron Republicans, his eyes seem to glow bright red.
That explanation from 10-plus years ago still holds. I have posted here about various aspects of Jackson's career, including his Indian policies both before and during his Presidency.

I do disagree with Rabin-Havt's description of the Indian Removal Act during Jackson's Presidency as "genocidal." As he details, the effects of the mass removal were horrible. And, honestly, if I thought that was Jackson's intent in the Act, I wouldn't use him as a symbol of progressive politics.

The bottom line for me on using historical figures as political images is that I'm not willing to surrender the progressive and democratic aspects of the early American political tradition to conservatives and the Glenn Becks and Massa Cliven Bundys of the world. The American Nazi Party in the 1930s and 1940s used George Washington and an idealized American Indian as symbols of their movement. The latter was more-or-less because they had declared current or past Native Americans to be honorary Aryans, the Ur-Americans in their version of the Nazi Blut und Boden ideology. Rightwingers will use historical images in a reactionary way, whether progressives give up the effort to use them in a progressive way or not.

With Calhounite nullification and segregation having become central to the Republican Party's present-day program, I'm not willing to retire the image of the President who was Calhoun's main adversary, both in reality and in symbolism, who successfully fought Calhoun's attempt to use nullification in South Carolina to defend slavery and undermine democracy on a national basis.

As I've said before, the best-known political figures in the pre-Civil War years of the Republic that had attitudes on voting rights, equality between the races and women's rights that match the nominally dominant understanding of those things in the US today is John Brown. John Brown, who fought a brutal guerrilla war in Kansas and was captured and hung as a traitor when he attacked a military facility of the United States.

Can you imagine the howls from FOX News and every other corner of the Republican Party if the Democratic Party suddenly decided to rename its Jefferson-Jackson Dinners to John Brown-Frederick Douglass Dinners? And can you picture how fast the Democrats would scramble to distance themselves from that rebranding? I'm sure you can, it's unfortunately very easy.

Hegel wrote, "World history is not the ground of happiness. The periods of happiness are empty pages in it." ("Die Weltgeschichte ist nicht der Boden des Glücks. Die Perioden des Glücks sind leere Blätter in it ihr.") That's from the Introduction to his lectures on the philosophy of history. He follows it with something less often quoted: "because they are the periods of agreement, of the lack of opposites" ("denn sie sind die Perioden der Zusammenstimmung, des fehlenden Gegensatzes").

I'm quoting that here not to dismiss the importance of moral judgments in understanding history. Rather it is to that emphasize progress in democracy and improvement of the human conditions emerges in a complex historical process. It's important to recognize and encourage the more constructive developments to the extent it's possible, and to discourage the destructive ones.

But history is always made by human beings, never by plaster saints. Reactionaries will misuse images and traditions from the past to turn back the clock. Progressives who want to embrace the future and make it better than the present can't simply surrender all progressives traditions to the winds.

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