The Invention of Christopher Columbus, American Hero
How the founding fathers turned Christopher Columbus, a mediocre Italian sailor and mass murderer, into a historical icon.
By Edward Burmila
In 1892 The Youth’s Companion—a national magazine for kids edited by Francis Bellamy (the socialist minister better known for writing the Pledge of Allegiance)—offered its readers a program to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. Every school in the nation, the magazine solemnly intoned, was to follow it to the letter.
Students and war veterans were to gather around the school flagpole at 9:30 a.m. and begin by reading President Benjamin Harrison’s ode to Columbus, followed by the flag raising, the singing of “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” a Bible reading chosen by local religious dignitaries, and finally performing an original Columbus Day song commissioned for the occasion.
Columbus’s quadricentennial was 100 years in the making, and it would take nearly another century for a more critical and historically accurate picture of Columbus to creep into the American consciousness.
The American Revolution created the Columbus most of us over the age of 30 learned in grade school. Prior to the late 18th century, he was a historical footnote with no connection to the 13 colonies. An Italian, he sailed under a Spanish flag and landed in no part of the modern-day United States. Yet when the need to develop a national history with no discernible connection to Britain arose during the Revolution, early Americans seized upon him. He was a blank slate on whom post-Revolution Americans could project the virtues they wanted to see in their new nation. Then, as now, the process of writing Columbus was one of defining what it means to be American.
In 1775 Phillis Wheatley, a 14-year-old free African-American girl, wrote a poem to George Washington that so moved the general that he distributed it widely. In it “Columbia” was used as an allegorical representation of the American nation, no doubt a riff on the female figure of Britannia. Though written examples of “Columbia” as old as 1761 exist, young Wheatley’s correspondence with the most popular man in the colonies made it, in today’s parlance, go viral.
Soon Columbia and Columbus were appearing in songs, poems, and essays in newspapers around the colonies. Historian Claudia Bushman cataloged nearly 100 of the surviving odes, most of which are awful. Columbus went from a minor figure in the history of European exploration to an American hero almost overnight.
Why? Even then, people knew that Europeans, including Vikings and Portuguese fishing fleets, had visited or sighted North America before Columbus. And other explorers of Columbus’s era have better claims to “discovery” of the land that we now call the United States. But the politics of the Revolution disqualified the other contenders. Henry Hudson was British. Giovanni Caboto (anglicized as “John Cabot”) sailed for Britain. Juan Ponce de Leon was already in use as a hero in Spain. Giovanni da Verrazzano met an end unbefitting any proper national hero, having been eaten by Carib Indians in 1526.
Columbus had flaws as well. Until his death, he publicly insisted that he had in fact landed in East Asia as he originally intended. He was neither an especially talented mariner nor a success at founding a colony in the New World. Other than to allow him to begin bouncing around the Caribbean doing capricious and cruel things to its inhabitants, his famous voyage accomplished little.
Yet almost nothing was known about Columbus in the American colonies at the dawn of the Revolution, and this worked in his favor. The few written records of his voyages, including a biography by his son Ferdinand and a 16th-century history by Bartolome de Las Casas, were unavailable in the New World and were not translated into English until much later. The only detailed history of Columbus and his voyages widely available in colonial libraries was written by a Scotsman, James Robertson, in 1777. The author took a racist, ethnocentric tone, depicting Columbus as an explorer of noble intent bringing civilization to the savages. Importantly, Robertson also historicized Columbus as a man stifled by the rigid ways of the Old World and yearning to set his own course. The metaphor was not subtle, and revolutionary America embraced it.
Columbus-mania swept the nation beginning with the war, because he became, with the help of Robertson’s history and the flood of epic poems and odes to him, a symbol for the go-it-alone, trailblazing spirit of the American people. Adopting “Columbia” as an informal name for the budding nation implied that, like Columbus, the colonies were shedding the yoke of the Old World. Historical accuracy was irrelevant.
Towns and streets beyond counting, including state capitals in South Carolina (1786) and Ohio (1812), were named for him. In 1784, King’s College in New York City restyled itself Columbia University. Many publications—Columbian Magazine (1786), Columbian Museum (1791), the Columbian Register, the Columbian Weekly Register—appropriated his name. The political organization that eventually became the powerful Tammany Hall political machine in New York was founded in 1786 as the Columbian Order. In 1791, the Territory (later District) of Columbia was established as the national capital. A year later, Robert Gray, sailing the Columbia, scouted the Pacific Northwest, christened the Columbia River, and named the entire region Columbia (which survives north of the border today as British Columbia). And in 1798, Joseph Hopkinson wrote the original national anthem, “Hail Columbia.”
Two events conspired to ensure that the American affection for Columbus was no passing fad. First, Americans turned the tricentenary of Columbus’s 1492 voyage into a massive celebration. Statues and monuments began appearing around the country. New York, Boston, and Philadelphia all held parades led by costumed actors portraying Columbia and Christopher Columbus. Who better to lead the nation’s first opportunity to celebrate a history that was not connected to Britain and had not happened within living memory?
Rather than fade, the mythologization of Columbus only intensified. Joel Barlow’s epic (and nearly unreadable) poem The Columbiad (1807), for example, was narrated by an angel. Judging by the popularity of the poem, few at the time thought attributing divine guidance to Columbus (read: America) was overwrought.
The second key turning point in weaving Columbus into the fabric of American identity was the publication in 1828 of Washington Irving’s The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. This stunningly inaccurate book purported to be a history and codified the version of Columbus who “sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety-two” taught to generations of American children. Exemplary of Irving’s mythmaking was the mangling of Columbus’s motivation for the voyage of 1492. The real Columbus studied Portuguese sailors’ maps, concluded that Southeast Asia lay just beyond the map edges, and set out to prove it. Irving’s Columbus sailed to prove that the world was round, thumbing his nose at European elites who insisted it was flat. Throughout the book, Columbus is valiant, intrepid, and eager to shed Old Europe—not coincidentally, exactly the qualities the United States saw in itself.
But even compared to the late 18th century, nothing can match the Columbus Fever achieved in 1892–93 as the country celebrated the 400th anniversary of his voyage with the Chicago World’s Fair, the “Columbian Exposition.” No monument was too grand, no speech too florid or obsequious, and no projection of the nation’s desire to assert itself too obvious for the America of 1893. Francis Bellamy’s program for schools was, if anything, restrained by the standards of that year.
Eventually, time chipped away at this hero Columbus. Irving’s fables of 1828 remained in history books, oral traditions, and school curricula throughout the 20th century. But the legend began to share space with a growing, if still insufficient, recognition of the atrocities that Columbus inflicted upon the population of the Americas during the so-called Age of Exploration. His landing in 1492 was downgraded (appropriately) from a “discovery” to the more prosaic “encounter” or “exchange,” as Americans slowly admitted that the word “discovery” is a poor description of a man landing on an island where other people already lived.
More importantly, as more Americans have grown (slightly) more comfortable with confronting the darker aspects of history, discussion of Columbus’s enslaving, summarily killing, and dispossessing the populations he encountered rose above a whisper for the first time during the much-subdued 500th anniversary in 1992. Historians and cultural critics persuasively asserted that glorification is unbefitting a man who wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold,” as he rounded up 1,500 Arawak inhabitants of the Lesser Antilles to sell them in Spain. Bartolome de Las Casas, in his 1561 account based on accounts from Columbus’s crew, depicted Columbus as a man for whom casual killing was a leisure activity. Once again Columbus was a surrogate, this time for an America making a clumsy and overdue effort to grapple with a shameful part of history.
Colonial Americans adopted Columbus as a cultural icon because of the practical need to construct a national historical identity that excluded Britain. Celebrating Columbus, for much of American history, has been an exercise in projecting onto him the virtues we would like to see in ourselves and our country.
Today, in an America learning to accept the Columbus legend as a hagiography, using Columbus as a national metaphor feels dated and naive. Only willful ignorance of the historical record can preserve him today as the enlightened voyager who discovered and brought blessings upon an unknown land.
But the real Columbus—not the constructed myth—should resonate in contemporary America. Columbus set off to find Asia, landed in the Caribbean, and, until his death, insisted in the face of overwhelming evidence that it really was Asia. Rather than celebrate what he did achieve, admit that fortune had something to do with his success, or recognize the horrors he wrought, he unapologetically defended himself and blamed any suggestion of failure or incompetence on others. Americans of the 18th century rescued the then-obscure Columbus from the history of European imperial conquest for political reasons unique to that era. They could not have known how perfect a cautionary tale the real Columbus would be for the United States of 2017.
Edward Burmila is an assistant professor at Bradley University. He lives in Chicago and blogs politics at Gin and Tacos.
Mike Pence’s NFL Walkout Was a Cheap, Transparent Stunt
For which taxpayers picked up the tab.
By Dave Zirin
Vice President Mike Pence used the NFL to star in a cheap, transparent political stunt. The narrative Pence tried—and failed—to sell was that he showed up at the Colts-49ers game in Indianapolis and then supposedly left in a huff after being shocked—SHOCKED!—at seeing the San Francisco 49ers kneel. After taking a whiff of his personal smelling salts, he immediately released a statement that magically was already prepared, which read in part, “I left today’s Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.”
Forget for a moment that this is a vice president who fronts for a Commander-in-Chief that mocked a POW and insulted the family of a slain solider, yet blathers about “disrespect.” Forget that he just used “soldiers, Flag, and National Anthem” for his own form of protest (irony!). Forget even his bizarre capitalization of “Flag.”
It’s not what happened. It’s how it happened. This was staged: a taxpayer subsidized stunt aimed at attacking dissenting black athletes. It was revealed in record time to be yet another toxic effort by this administration to divide people along racial lines and distract us from a train wreck of an administration, described by Senator Bob Corker as “an adult day care center” that looks after a big orange baby.
The first sign that Pence’s scurrying-off was staged: these were the San Francisco 49ers that the Colts were playing. The 49ers have been protesting racism during the anthem for over a year. Led by safety Eric Reid, the first player to kneel with Colin Kaepernick over a year ago, the 49ers are the team you’d pick if you wanted to fake outrage about someone peacefully protesting police brutality. Peter Alexander of NBC News tweeted almost immediately, “Reporters [accompanying Pence] were told to stay in van because ‘there may be an early departure from the game.’” In other words, in advance of the anthem, Pence was planning to show up and then leave.
Then the veep’s own publicly available schedule tripped him up. That morning, his team let it be known that Pence would be at a California fundraiser by 6:30 p.m. The plane was gassed up and ready to go. Pence actually flew from Nevada to Indianapolis to go to a game for five minutes only to fly back to the West Coast. As Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King tweeted, “@VP took a taxpayer-funded airplane knowing he’d be walking out right after the anthem to protest. Swell use of our tax dollars.”
When you factor in the secret service, the diverting of law enforcement, as well as the clearing air and road traffic to get him in and out, this was at least a six figure authoritarian stunt.
Just to add an even thicker lacquer of incompetence, Pence tweeted out a photo of himself from the game; yet as the Indianapolis Star quickly noted, the photo was from 2014.
Then, like a baby who wants to show a room of adults what’s in his diaper, Trump tweeted out that this was all his doing, hanging Pence out to dry. He wrote, “I asked @VP Pence to leave stadium if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country.”
This was amateur hour fraud. It was Gulf of Tonkin for idiots: a ham handed effort to isolate people brave enough to dissent in the face of the most powerful people in the world and raise issues of racism that this administration is too craven to discuss. It’s also very disturbing. The very week Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke about Trump’s “respect for the 1st Amendment,” we had a staged spectacle with the highest levels of government attempting to intimidate and coerce people to not exercise those rights. It’s disgusting and another example of Pence’s degradation, his Faustian bargain with this administration.
Dave Zirin is the sports editor of The Nation.
Trump Thinks Protest Is a Worse Offense Than Treason
He has suggested that those who desecrate the flag should lose their citizenship.
By Patricia J. Williams
President Trump has been busily tweeting that there ought to be a rule: “The NFL has all sorts of rules and regulations. The only way out for them is to set a rule that you can’t kneel during our National Anthem!”
This was, of course, just one of his many forays in response to the recent league-wide protest begun by Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the anthem to protest inequitable and excessive instances of state force. Yet it seems not to matter what those who are kneeling say their action meant: “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture,” wrote San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid in The New York Times of his and Kaepernick’s decision. “I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”
No matter: To Donald Trump, kneeling in sorrow is both a sign of disrespect for the rules of the game and a desecration of the American flag. If Trump were just some random armchair grouch, that wouldn’t be so worrisome. But he is not a private citizen; he’s our president, and everything he says carries the weight of that office.
There are at least two grave legal implications to what the president has been urging—one of private law, the other constitutional.
The first concern is that executive power is being used to interfere in contract relations between private parties. Yes, rich owners and their rich celebrity employees, but still: private parties. Trump’s tweeted injunction, moreover, was deployed by a head of state against citizens whose political views he doesn’t like. This resembles the sort of pressure applied by the House Un-American Activities Committee and its Senate counterpart, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which was chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy (and whose lead counsel, let it not be forgotten, was Trump’s mentor, Roy Cohn). At least 300 members of the motion-picture industry were blacklisted as a result of that politically motivated purge. Few ever recovered their careers.
Such heavy-handed state influence has a long history of legitimizing discrimination. After all, one shouldn’t have to give up basic civil rights in deference to a service or employment contract. A contractor who fires someone simply for being a Democrat or a Republican, for being gay or a woman—these are all situations that may trigger judicial scrutiny. By the same token, contractors who discriminate unfairly among their customers may trigger the same kind of scrutiny. This latter point will be adjudicated by the Supreme Court in its current term, in a complaint brought before the Court by Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker. Backed by Trump’s Justice Department, Phillips maintains that his religious beliefs prevent him from making wedding cakes for gay couples. Yet permitting him to opt out of anti-discrimination laws would ultimately undermine their application everywhere—department stores, hotels, restaurants, florists, planes, trains, and buses. The long-standing norm of fair and equitable public accommodation would be rolled back to the era of Jim and Jane Crow. As Louise Melling of the ACLU argues, “No bakery has to sell wedding cakes. But if it chooses to sell wedding cakes it can’t turn away some customers because of who they are.” Similarly, terminating the employment of professional athletes for expressing a view that has nothing to do with their job may be construed as a form of discrimination against “who they are.”
The second concern is a matter of constitutional rights. Trump has repeatedly equated “taking a knee” with desecration of the American flag. This is quite a conceptual leap, but it seems to be one that many of his supporters have also made. Trump has further warned that desecrating the flag must have “consequences—perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” Of course, the Supreme Court has ruled more than once that disrespecting or outright destroying the flag isn’t a punishable offense—and expatriation has been deemed “cruel and unusual punishment” even for wartime desertion. It is very settled jurisprudence that, under the First, Eighth, and 14th Amendments, a citizen cannot be alienated without his or her clear and voluntary renunciation of that citizenship. Period.
And yet… President Trump has suggested all sorts of wild things that once seemed unimaginable but that have now or might one day come to pass. So it’s worth thinking about this notion of revoking citizenship for peaceful political protest. After all, the concept of birthright citizenship has been present since the founding of the Republic. Slavery presented a conspicuous exception, and the Supreme Court’s infamous 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford denied citizenship to any African American, whether slave or free. The 14th Amendment was passed after the Civil War to remedy that constitutional lacuna, and since then American jurisprudence has resisted all efforts to deny certain groups of people citizenship rights if they were born here. Recently, however, Republicans have moved to rewrite or revoke the 14th Amendment in order to deny birthright citizenship to so-called “anchor babies.”
I worry that Trump has even linked taking a knee to the threat of physical danger, speculating that many team owners joined in the league-wide manifestations of dissent because they were “afraid of their players.” Moreover, I cannot easily dis-aggregate Trump’s unfounded sense of a threatened ownership class from the far right’s conviction that Black Lives Matter should be classified as a “terrorist” organization. It would be ironic if protests against the use of excessive force by police were used to justify expatriating people or banning political movements for being “violent.”
If Trump is right that “most people agree” with him that NFL owners are cowering and kowtowing to the bullying of big black men, then, dear reader, we need to ponder that insinuation with more apprehension and less complacency than that with which the very possibility of Trump’s election was so laughingly dismissed.
Patricia J. Williams is the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University School of Law and a columnist for The Nation.
The Republican Plan to Rob America
Massive tax cuts will starve public investment for years to come.
By Robert L. Borosage
October 6, 2017
The Republican tax plan is a lie. It’s being sold with the promise that the tax cut will create jobs and growth. In fact, the Republican tax cuts, if passed, will become the major obstacle to the very investments vital to generating good jobs and future economic growth.
Contrary to Donald Trump’s claims, the rich and big corporations will pocket the vast bulk of the tax cuts, not working people. The tax cuts won’t pay for themselves. They will increase the deficit. By 2027, one in four taxpayers will end up paying more. And for 80 percent of Americans, the tax cut they do get would be so small that it will go virtually unnoticed in most households. For example, the Tax Policy Center estimates that in 2027, the 27 million households with children and incomes under $75,000 will receive an average tax cut of all of $20 when the provisions are in full effect.
Americans get this. Fewer than one-third think they will end up paying less under the Republican plan, according to a new Politico/Morning Consult poll; about the same number think they’ll end up paying more. By a 41-28 margin, Americans know the rich will end up paying less, rather than more. Yet a plurality, 44 percent, thinks the tax cuts will have a “positive impact on the US economy,” while only 24 percent think the tax cuts will have a negative impact. The big lie still works.
President Donald Trump argued that “our country and our economy cannot take off” without the tax cuts. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a true chicken-hawk on deficits, now argues that the tax cuts are vital, even with greater deficits, because “we need to have the growth.” Yet there is simply no reason to believe the tax cuts will generate greater growth or more jobs.
Historically, tax cuts haven’t produced greater growth. The Reagan tax cuts are celebrated, but in fact the Reagan years produced a slower rate of growth than Jimmy Carter’s term in office. And the tax cuts weren’t nearly as important to the economic recovery in the 1980s as the Federal Reserve’s cutting interest rates and Reagan’s doubling the military budget in peacetime—a classic example of military Keynesianism.
Although George W. Bush cut taxes deeply and repeatedly in the early years of this century, growth collapsed in his administration. Real GDP rose well below its rate in the 1990s. In fact, after Clinton and Obama raised taxes, the economy grew faster than it did after Bush slashed them.
The idea that tax cuts will create jobs isn’t borne out by evidence. Sara Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies looked at 92 profitable large corporations that already pay at or less than the 20 percent rate promised in the Republican plan thanks to taking advantage of loopholes in the tax code. Those corporations have been laying off, not adding, workers over the past nine years. Corporate profits are at near-record levels, but companies are spending their money buying back stock, financing mergers, or issuing dividends, rather than investing in new jobs or products. A stunning 55 percent of corporate profits of the S&P 500 corporations have been devoted to stock buybacks, which raise the price of the remaining stocks and, not incidentally, boost the value of executive-suite stock options.
The rich will pocket most of the GOP tax cuts—over one-half of the reductions will go to the wealthiest 1 percent, an average bonus of $129,000 in 2018. But inequality is already at record extremes, and even the conservative International Monetary Fund finds that extreme inequality is a drag on jobs and growth. The paltry tax break offered most Americans under the Republican plan might boost demand a smidgen, but, with consumer debt at record levels, most will simply go to pay down what is already owed.
Worse, the tax cuts—totaling $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years—will give away tax dollars that could be used to address our true investment deficit: the shortfall of public investments vital to our economy. Virtually absent in the public debate is the reality that the competitiveness of this economy is crippled by the starving of vital public investments.
The physical infrastructure that companies and families depend on—roads, bridges, airports, water systems, broadband, electric grid, public schools, and more—is dangerously decrepit. The American Society for Civil Engineers has documented the shortfall in our physical infrastructure, concluding that $2 trillion over 10 years will be needed simply to bring core infrastructure up to a reasonable standard. That does not begin to cover what’s needed to create the resilience and transformations needed to deal with catastrophic climate changes.
Already, before Republicans have managed to further slash federal revenues, public investment in research and development—vital to capturing the breakthrough inventions of the future—is being cut by 17 percent in the Trump budget. America has prospered by leading the world in education. Now vital investment in education—from pre-K to advanced training to college—is falling behind our global competitors. Trump’s budget would cut $143 billion from student loans over the next decade. It’s obvious that burdening college graduates with debts, depriving workers of technical training, and having children go without the pre-K that helps prepare them for school will damage the country.
Yet Republican tax cuts essentially lock in a continuing public-investment deficit over the next decade. For today’s reactionary Republican party, that is a feature, not a bug. The tax cuts won’t produce jobs or growth, but they will generate more pressure for more cuts in public spending. And when that spending is cut, most Americans will find themselves losing ground to pay for the tax breaks that were pocketed by the already wealthy and the big corporations.
Democrats need to be louder champions of public investment. They are cautious because 61 percent of Americans, including 44 percent of Democrats, think Democrats “too often” see government as the only way to solve problems. The Wall Street wing of the party, with its embrace of austerity and neo-liberalism, is happy to feed that suspicion. Many politicians are reluctant to champion a cause that is compelling but controversial, but they shouldn’t be.
Republican tax cuts will constitute a disgraceful giveaway to the wealthy and the entrenched corporate interests. Worse, they will squander tax dollars vital to the public investments essential to generating jobs and growth over the next years. They won’t simply add to America’s extreme inequality. They will sap our future prospects.
Robert L. Borosage is a leading progressive writer and activist.
Don’t Be Fooled: The NRA Doesn’t Want to Ban ‘Bump Stocks’
Letting the ATF handle this decision probably means nothing will happen.
By George Zornick
October 5, 2017
In the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting that killed 58 people and wounded 489 more, pressure developed quickly inside Washington to ban “bump stocks,” the devices that Stephen Paddock used to increase the firing rate on his semi-automatic assault rifles. Legislators in the House and Senate introduced bills to ban the accessory, and even some top Republicans said they were willing to consider such measures.
The big question was how the ultra-powerful National Rifle Association would respond. It had remained silent for four days, which is the typical operating procedure for the group after a mass shooting. But Thursday afternoon the NRA finally released a statement from Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox, the NRA’s top lobbyist. “The National Rifle Association is calling on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to immediately review whether these [bump stock] devices comply with federal law. The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”
This led to a spate of headlines noting the NRA made a “rare move” to endorse new regulations on guns. On its face, that seems to be what happened—and indeed, in the past, the NRA has dug in against any new restrictions.
But, in context, the NRA might be actually be trying to head off the regulation of bump stocks by kicking the decision to the ATF instead of Congress. The ATF is far less likely to ban them, and the NRA surely knows that.
Under Obama, the agency sanctioned the sale of bump stocks when they came on the market in 2010 because it determined the devices did not violate any laws—and technically, they may not. Banned machine guns are defined in the National Firearms Act as “any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.”
Bump stocks do not alter a gun’s trigger, but rather are attached to the back of a rifle and use the force of recoil to bump the rifle off the shooter’s shoulder and back onto his or her trigger finger. It mimics a fully automatic trigger, but does not create one, and the trigger does not complete a “single function” to shoot continuous shots with a bump stock attached.
The former ATF official who originally signed off on the decision to allow bump-stocks told The Washington Post this week he considers them to be “goofy little doodads” that don’t violate the letter of federal law. It’s certainly possible the ATF might take another look this year and reconsider that determination, but all it has to work with is the letter of the law. It won’t consider public safety, constituent pressure, or common sense—only whether the devices are in violation of what’s described in the United States Code.
The NRA’s maneuver also provides political relief to any Republicans who don’t want to vote on a ban on bump stocks for fear of angering conservative media or the hyper-rigid Gun Owners of America, a smaller but more radical version of the NRA that has come straight out against bump-stock regulations. “I don’t think these should be banned” is a tough sell when a Vegas concert venue was turned into a killing field with war-level casualties, but “I think it’s best to let the ATF handle this with existing law” is a much smoother line.
Even if the ATF ultimately bans bump stocks, it’s still a win from the NRA in the sense that it protected members from having to take a vote on gun-restricting legislation. There would be no highly public Senate and House drama, which bring a lot more public attention to the issue of gun regulation and stuff the coffers of gun control groups with donations in the process as people mobilized around the vote. Instead, the whole debate can be shunted to a bureaucrat’s quiet desk at the ATF.
The NRA notably did not say in its statement if it supports the House and Senate legislation, and did not respond to a request for comment from The Nation. None of the bill’s sponsors will withdraw it, obviously, but the NRA may have just plunged a knife into the efforts, while pretending to be sensible.
George Zornick is The Nation’s Washington editor.
The Fall of Aung San Suu Kyi, Democracy Icon
Turning “The Lady” into a secular saint only helped Myanmar’s junta.
By Sebastian Strangio
October 6, 2017
First we built her up, then we tore her down. For a quarter-century, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar sat alongside Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. as one of the exemplary moral figures of our age. Praised and feted around the world and the recipient of nearly every prize and recognition that the international human-rights community has to offer, she was less a person than a chiseled-in-stone idol—a totem of democratic values and principled opposition to tyranny. Now, at least in the eyes of the West, recent events in Myanmar have sent “The Lady,” as Aung San Suu Kyi is known to her admirers, toppling from her plinth.
Her dramatic fall has been prompted by the ferocious campaign of ethnic cleansing that has been directed against the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority in Myanmar’s west. The Nobel laureate has come under attack for saying little, and doing less, to stem a military-directed campaign of arson and violence that has driven more than 400,000 people over the border into Bangladesh in little over a month.
As Myanmar’s army torched Rohingya communities, pundits, journalists, and human-rights activists called for the 72-year-old to be stripped of her Nobel Prize and other baubles of international recognition. Her portrait has been removed from the walls of Oxford University. A onetime democratic icon is now being described, accurately, as “an apologist for genocide, ethnic cleansing, and mass rape.”
The fervor of Aung San Suu Kyi’s detractors, however, says as much about us as it does about her. Indeed, the anger seems to stem less from her actions, or lack thereof, than from her stubborn refusal to play the redemptive role assigned to her by the international community. As Gavin Jacobson wrote recently in The New Yorker, the tenor of the denunciations carries a distinct tone of personal betrayal, as if years of investments in Aung San Suu Kyi’s promise had culminated in the bankruptcy of a moral Ponzi scheme. Jacobson argued that Aung San Suu Kyi “has exposed the artlessness with which many in the West reduced a complex personality into a Rapunzel of the East.”
All of this, however, prompts the more fundamental question of why we built her up so much in the first place. Why did we—Western governments, the media, human-rights advocates—invest so much hope in a single, fallible individual?
On one level, it is easy to understand Aung San Suu Kyi’s idolization. Her life story traces a romantic arc from the vales of Oxford, to the UN headquarters in New York, to her crumbling family home on the shores of Inya Lake in Yangon, where, like a character out of Gabriel García Márquez, she lived out more than 15 years of house arrest. Revered by ordinary Burmese (though for very different reasons than overseas), Aung San Suu Kyi offered the perfect foil to the villainous Myanmar military, whose violent crackdown on the 1988 demonstrations left hundreds dead. In the subsequent years, Aung San Suu Kyi’s life took on all the qualities of a moral fable: one in which the beautiful daughter of an assassinated national hero sacrifices her own freedom to save her country from tyranny.
Yet there was more to the fashioning of Myanmar’s heroine than a good story. On a deeper level, it also seemed to be an outgrowth of the conviction, embedded in the global human-rights movement and much of the Western media and policy-making elite, that the world is moving inexorably, if sometimes haltingly, in the direction of liberal values. It is perhaps no coincidence that Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, a year that saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the wave of liberal triumphalism that followed. This optimism was best articulated by the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who in his 1989 article, “The End of History?,” claimed that the West’s Cold War victory marked “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Coincidence or not, Fukuyama’s mass-market Hegelianism had a loud echo in the fable that grew up around The Lady. For Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi was no simple politician, but a world-historical figure who would sweep away the hated military junta and shepherd her people toward the promised land of liberal democracy and human rights. Over time, we raised Aung San Suu Kyi so high that she stood outside and above the political realities of her country.
The urge to manufacture political idols, like so much else, begins in good intentions: that is, a desire to provide recognition for those standing up against oppression and tyranny around the world. But the process always distorts. Take the case of Nelson Mandela. While Mandela’s own global idolization helped draw attention the cruelty and racism of South African apartheid, it also had the effect of effacing the radical nature of his politics, and his willingness to use violent means to achieve political aims. In the transmutation from politician to saint, a complex and revolutionary figure was reduced to a simple signifier of moral righteousness—an emblem of political change, minus the politics.
In a similar vein, the beatification of Aung San Suu Kyi encouraged a dangerous simplification of her own country’s political realities. Viewed through the lens of her personal story, Myanmar’s ethnic and political complexities were flattened into a dyadic struggle between a freedom-loving people and a coterie of evil generals, a view that recent events now show to have been reductively naive.
In truth, military rule was as much a symptom of Myanmar’s problems as their cause. From nearly the moment of its independence from Great Britain in 1948, the country has been in a state of near-constant civil war between the central government, dominated by the ethnic Burman majority, and a raft of minority peoples occupying outlying parts of the country.
After the Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw, seized power in 1962, military rule and ethnic conflict became mutually inflaming. The junta’s fierce repressions fueled the desire of minority peoples for self-determination, which, in turn, bolstered the Tatmadaw’s perennial claim that it—and it alone—could hold the country together. As the political scientist Mary Callahan has noted, praetorian rule was one answer—albeit a cruel and self-defeating one—to the centuries-old problems of state-building in outlying regions of Myanmar that had never been under effective central control.
The beatification of Aung San Suu Kyi was dangerous in another way, too. While it was effective in rallying international opposition to Myanmar’s ruling generals, it also gave the latter an easy route back to legitimacy. By 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi had so come to embody Myanmar in the eyes of Western policymakers that all the junta needed to do was to find a way to co-opt her—which is precisely what it did.
Beginning with Aung San Suu Kyi’s surprise release from house arrest on November 13, 2010, Myanmar’s opening to the world involved a conscious and canny leveraging of her global idol status. To start with, her release had the effect of legitimizing a deeply flawed national election that had been held just a week earlier, alchemizing the military “regime” into a quasi-civilian “government” stacked with ex-army men and led by a retired general, Thein Sein.
Later, Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to parliament, which took place via by-elections in April 2012, spurred the further rehabilitation of Myanmar’s international image. Western governments, euphoric at The Lady’s fairy-tale elevation, loosened and dropped sanctions; aid workers, journalists, and investors flooded into the country. There were concrete improvements at street level: Fear dissipated; people spoke openly about politics for the first time in years, and pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi, once-banned, appeared everywhere. The 2015 election saw this excitement staged at a national level, as the NLD surged to an overwhelming victory over the military’s proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party.
But this apparently happy ending masked the fact that in terms of who held effective power, little had changed. Taking office in April 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi’s authority was tightly restrained by a junta-drafted Constitution that preserved a special role for the military. It reserved a quarter of parliamentary seats for military-picked candidates, giving the army an effective veto over constitutional amendments, and granted the army control of the ministries of Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs. And just to be sure Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t slip her moorings, the military included a clause barring her from becoming president, by virtue of her past marriage to a foreigner (she currently serves as “state counselor”).
Aung San Suu Kyi’s global profile was crucial to this stage-managed process of reform. By luring her out of house arrest and into the halls of power, the Tatmadaw and its allies were able to shrug off Myanmar’s pariah status and secure the removal of Western sanctions, all while ceding little practical power. It was an act of audacious political sleight-of-hand—one enabled by the international community’s investment in a certain rosy narrative about Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi, more hard-headed than many of her admirers abroad, appears to have entered into this bargain with no illusions. Since her release in 2010, she has repeatedly stated that she views herself not as an icon but as a politician, one willing to make the pragmatic alliances and trade-offs necessary to achieve her goals. This was likely the reasoning, however flawed, behind her party’s controversial decision to not run any Muslim candidates at the 2015 election, out of fear that it would alienate the ethnic Burmans who make up the bulk of the NLD’s support.
It also explains Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence around the plight of the Rohingya, who are widely despised by the ethnic Burman population. As Rakhine state burns, the Nobel laureate remains fixated on revising the Constitution to give her party the full power that she believes it deserves, in the service of the broader goal that eluded the old junta: the forging of a peaceful and unified Myanmar. In these political calculations, the Rohingya figure as collateral damage, ignored or hated by nearly every domestic constituency in Myanmar, including many of the pro-democracy forces that fought the junta for so many years. If anything should give us pause, it is the specter of Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters standing side-by-side with the military that they once opposed, united in their view that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants with no place in Myanmar’s national community.
The backlash in the West against Aung San Suu Kyi reflects a disillusionment about her willingness to engage with the complex and contradictory political circumstances in which she finds herself—and, maybe, on some level, for the very process of politics itself. That is not to excuse her grievous mistakes. But her dramatic fall should remind us above all of the perils of political idolization and of enchanting ourselves into believing intractable problems can be magically overcome. The tale of The Lady suggests that it might be wiser if we resist making idols in the first place.
Sebastian Strangio is a journalist who covers Southeast Asia and the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
Articles from The Nation were used for this story.
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