In the Historical Closet
S. D. Vincent

Cultural history as it begins to be written in the years after 9-11 reveals that the fault-line along the American psyche has become seismically active again.  The right-wing is sounding its irrational depths, and suddenly this great National Buddha stirs from its hibernation—out of the blubber of historical lullaby and the sugar plums of paranoia.  The collapse of the Twin Towers was a terrible suction event, in which any remaining intelligibility was evacuated from national discourse, like oxygen in a conflagration.  An asphyxiation of sensibility has characterized this era, which will be remembered as much for the release of monster trucks from the Coliseum onto public roads as for—back inside the Coliseum—the unexamined veneration of military apoplexy.  The right-wing has at last become psychologically incontinent, nursing its inner chickens of fear and chagrin—what’s worse, in public. 

Antonio Gramsci wrote that once political problems are disguised as cultural they become insoluble; and in its existential need for historical denial, the right-wing today has taken up what Orwell called the “gangster gramophone” more than ever since its salad days of the 1920s.  The crucial difference is that the original home-brewed right-wing understandably perceived its village-agricultural ethos to be imperiled by the “alien invasion” of modernism, a term used interchangeably in those days with Liberalism and atheism.  Well, the “aliens” won—long ago; so the arch perversity of the current national rhetoric—made cornpone  already by the Scopes Trial in 1925—is its implicit desire, puerile and contradictory, to return to a fixed and static pre-modernity before moving pictures; before the accumulation of great postwar national wealth and military strength; before unemployment insurance, food stamps and Medicare; before the national freeway system and the G.I. bill—before the greatest time of prosperity in the history of the nation (perhaps they have a cyclical view of history).   Perhaps before we are finished here we shall apprehend just what it is that the right-wing—and their Tea-bagging brethren—finds exceptional about America.

Dark Satanic Mills

In his 1956 book The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills laid down the cogent observation that in America there “can be no conservative ideology of the classic type;” that, despite what he called the conservative mood then gathering strength, there was nevertheless no authentic conservative tradition passed down from early America.  A conservative ideology, he points out, would presume a natural aristocracy anathematized in our nation from its very beginning—pointedly so after the Revolution.  Conservatism venerates the past, crystallizing as reaction; Americans in the early nineteenth century looked restlessly forward, not backward.  As Richard Hofstadter showed in his classic essay on American political paranoia, early American distrust of Elites and obsession with conspiracy are broadly national features, not creations but co-optations of the right-wing.  In fact it took more than a century from the time of the Founding Fathers for a peculiarly American variety of conservatism to acquire its distinctive plumage.  What galvanized the right-wing was a sudden awakening to what must have seemed a disorienting modernism.  The years between 1915 and 1925 represent a very compressed decade.  Unprecedented events like the political rise of Labor and the Bolshevik Revolution; the First World War—and America’s troubling entry into it—and the postwar meteoric rise of wealth based upon our suddenly increased international stature; these events were all the more perplexing in light of the sudden onslaught of the technologies of modernism.  Industries based on electro-chemical and petroleum had undermined in a single generation the old ways of life.  Suddenly the sense of time was compressed as traditional distances were annihilated, and this disorientation couldn’t help but disturb the peaceable digestion of that second, swarthier wave of immigrants to American shores; a dyspepsia that would stamp the olive-skinned newcomer as an anarchist in the nickelodeon mind’s eye of America. 

It was into this technologically-induced crisis of identity that the revivified Ku Klux Klan positioned itself as the “protector of traditional values during the Jazz Age,” and the upholder of an unalloyed, “One Hundred Percent Americanism.”   According to the era’s preeminent public intellectual, Walter Lippmann, “The Ku Klux Klan, Fundamentalism, and Xenophobia are an extreme, but authentic expression of the politics, the social outlook, and the religion of the older American village civilization making its last stand against what looks to it like an alien invasion.” Further on, he added, “The alien invasion is in fact the new America produced by the growth and prosperity of America.” (italics added)   

During the 1920s, membership in the Ku Klux Klan swelled to over 4 million men, and they boasted of having enlisted 15% of the nation’s eligible electorate.  The Klan comprised mainstream, pre-middle-class America; doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, barbers, bus drivers and clergymen eagerly donned the hood and robe.  Klan membership was nearly as robust in the Midwest and Far West as in the South; in Ohio, for example, their ranks had surged to 300,000 by the mid-twenties.  In 1924 the KKK succeeded in engineering the elections of officials from coast to coast, including the mayor of Portland, OR, and in Indiana they controlled the machinery of state government.  That same year the Invisible Empire assembled 40,000 strong and marched, fully costumed, through Washington D.C. during the Democratic National Convention.  

In the Jazz Age the Ku Klux Klan exercised an influence roughly equivalent to our modern Tea Party, and many politicians felt compelled to pander to it, while statesmen and judges alike took to the hood and robe.  To the early right-wing, Liberalism represented the entire interlocking assemblage of modernism.  As such, it was a term of approbation, even treachery; for beneath those overarching banners of progress carried by well-meaning denominationalists—the nation was overwhelmingly Christian—festered even more sinister “isms,” which would produce the torque of our rising, oil-based industrial empire: alienism, labor radicalism and cosmopolitanism.  From the passing of the Federal Reserve Act (1913) to the rise of a politically potent organized Labor there existed in the right-wing mind a treacherous cabal which saw to it that, in the words of the Klan’s Imperial Wizard, dentist Hiram Wesley Evans, “the interests of Americans were always the last to be considered, and native Americans were consistently discriminated against, in business, in legislation and in administrative government.”  In the same piece Evans concluded that in addition to abetting what he dubbed the “mongrelization of thought,” modernism, that is, the entire enterprise of what would become within a generation the “national interest,” was charged with “nothing less than national, racial and spiritual treason.”

And yet it Moves

The right-wing was suckled on the premise that a consortium of alien interests—alas, modernism—was bent on extinguishing the original and undiluted American way of life.  Why this magnetic compulsion toward conspiracy?  As W.B. Riley, founder of the Anti-Evolution League, put it in 1927, “God’s creation is incapable of improvement,” based as it was upon absolute values.  Static and immutable, then, the divine handiwork could only be altered or derailed by the concerted usurpation of some distant and inscrutable cabal.  The right-wing inability to see both the rise and eclipse of its values as the result of a natural historical development—i.e., their a-historical mind-set—is the root of their need for denial.

Biblical fundamentalism was from the beginning the perfect vehicle for this type of rancor.  Throughout the 19th century and especially after the appearance of Darwinism, theologians like Charles Hodge of Princeton pondered the immense shadow cast upon theology by the advances of science—for which divine revelation was irrelevant.  Hodge was a leading light for the famous Princeton Theology, arguably the biggest influence on ur-fundamentalism.   Its central tenet, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, was in some ways an odd piece of innovation.  The doctrine that the Bible was factual in the same way as science—through objective reason—appeared to critics as an attempt to rescue divine revelation from obsolescence by means of the litmus test of its rival—infamously reckoning the earth’s antiquity by counting backwards the generations of biblical action figures.  This smacked of chagrin.  Also, to insist that the Bible was literally true—every reference, statistic and quotation—was peculiar because the novel act of declaring it inerrant, far from recovering the original sense of the Gospels, added a layer of sophistication that would have made it well-nigh incomprehensible to a pre-modern Christian like Joan of Arc, for whom the notion that God made the Sun stand still would not have clashed with the popular operating system of her time.  

The sad utterances of William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial in 1925 highlight the exertions involved in holding spiritual revelation to the requirements of objective reason; all spiritual truths, including that of ancient Christianity, are cryptic and paradoxical, and are lost upon being blanched into rational coherence.  The doctrine of biblical inerrancy—in its parroting of modernism—not only forecloses on the original significance of Christianity—the paradox of the God-man—but also reveals itself as a symptom of the ethical malaise of modernism, the very scourge against which Hodge and his brood had cast their prescriptions.  Had not Hodge, with his emphasis on reason and facts, thrown ancient religion under the bus? Nevertheless the doctrine of inerrancy turned out to be a savvy gambit.  The sheer fact of fundamentalism’s popularity at the centennial of its origins suggests that it was the genius of the Princeton theologians to conceal the modern inability to believe without a prophylactic of facts behind an alleged recovery of the original, undiluted Christianity.

But the cultural takeaway lies in recognizing the fantastic contradiction of insisting upon the historical inerrancy of the Bible while having at one’s core the existential need for historical denial.  This psychological disconnect results in a radical lack of self-comprehension that is magnified exponentially by the passage of time into an unbridgeable chasm between who they think they are and who they are, in truth.  Thus guilelessly they press forward pettiness as piety, hypocrisy as virtue, until their judgments of others are nothing more than toxic projections; until finally, by some guiding inner logic, their Savior’s injunction to renounce worldly possessions is contorted into a mandate to transfer all of yours to the wealthiest few.   

Darwinism, to the early right-wing, was the ultimate “mongrelization of thought,” the presiding spirit over all the technological innovations that suddenly overwhelmed the village-agricultural ethos.  It was the most sinister “ism” of them all because it was what was left stuck to the bottom of the cauldron after all the other isms had been steamed away.  Darwinism was nothing but Atheism, all gussied-up.  According to no less an observer than Walter Lippmann, the campaign against Darwinism was “an attempt to erect a spiritual barrier against the metropolitan spirit.”  

Senator you are no Don Quixote

Any examination of the narrative of climate science—its coalescence over decades from separate scientific disciplines in feedback with the power of digital computers—ought to begin by referring to the Ice Ages and the Cold War.  These chilly leitmotifs provide dialectical relief to the prevailing curve of warmth now acknowledged by nearly every researcher that hasn’t been turned out by the American Petroleum Institute.  

In trying to understand the radical climatic shifts causing the Ice Ages—and the mysterious periods of warming between them—scientists a hundred and fifty years ago learned of the heat-trapping capacities of water vapor and CO2.  In 1896 a Swedish scientist had a “Eureka!” moment and decided to calculate emissions of CO2 from industrial sources.  It was determined even then that these man-made emissions roughly equaled the natural volcanic output of the gas back to the atmosphere.  No one spilled their tea over this; and since early research into greenhouse gasses was conducted by scientists with a geek-like passion for understanding how the Ice Ages worked, a backward glance remained the central focus into the 1950s. 

Throughout the first half of the century, then, when a lone voice strayed to argue that after a few centuries the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere might produce some unforeseen consequences, the chorus of scientific consensus would chime in that there was nothing after all to worry about because any added CO2 would be taken up by the oceans and churned into the depths—except of course the oceans operated on an unknown timetable; they were effectively like black holes for all oceanographers in those days understood of their chemical interactions.

All this was soon to change thanks to one of history’s more satisfying ironies. What would eventually become known as climate science was plucked straight from the rib of the Cold War.  The Office of Naval Research (ONR) was keenly interested in the mapping of ocean currents out of concern for the disposal of radioactive debris in the North Pacific. This postwar infusion of funding for military research put paid to some long-held assumptions about the complicated dynamics of ocean and atmospheric circulation.

Thus across the 1950s the ONR was scattering research funds like Johnny Appleseed and one result was that nuclear physicists, in perfecting the heat-seeking missile, were able to make advances in infrared instrumentation that could detect the radioactive isotope carbon-14, created abundantly in nuclear tests.  Not only did their data provide the first mapping of the global circulation of air, which disproved the theory that water vapor was already trapping all the heat that could be trapped; it also led a few years later to the epochal knowledge that the abysses of the North Atlantic take some 650 years to turn over—disproving by accident the assumption that the oceans could absorb all of the extra CO2 introduced by human agency. 

As physicist and chronicler of climate science Spencer Weart put it, the military had answered a question it had never thought to ask, and by the end of the fifties engaged scientists began to suspect for the first time, without any political convictions or intent—sprung from the rib of the military-industrial complex—that the burning of fossil fuels could introduce a trend of global temperature warming.   Apropos to this ripple of educated opinion, in 1957 an oil industry scientist went on record for the first time to deny that the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for any current or future global warming.

In the sixties the sophistication of carbon-14 measurements helped enable the emergence of the first carbon-cycle community—a coral reef of awareness—composed of climatology, forestry, agriculture and geochemistry; and by the end of the decade attempts to represent ocean circulation on computers had begun at MIT.  This trend of the increasing sensitivity of instruments, communication between previously isolated disciplines and computer modeling would build over the next few decades into an overwhelming consensus of politically disinterested concern, even as it ran head-on into the neoliberal political machinations of the Reagan Revolution.

By the end of the seventies some public officials were becoming aware that increasing CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels could have serious economic and political effects; coincidently this was also the early spring of deregulation, and the coal and oil industries were now paying close attention.  A significant aspect of the Reagan Revolution lay in the sewing of distrust for any activity that might interfere with the interests of business—including scientific research; funding for both NASA and NOAA suffered big hits.  It is at this point that the politicization of global warming begins—and not with any data.

During the first Bush administration, the Global Climate Coalition—funded by major corporations—focused a laser beam of public relations on convincing a scientifically-challenged Congress and citizenry that the science behind climate change was flawed.  This was about the time that climate scientists lost control of the issue, as the consensus of experts that had been building for thirty years or more was now drowned out by the irresistible leverage exerted by fossil-fuel interests and conservative think-tanks, mobilized by threats to their profits and smelling blood in the water in the era of deregulation.

Another key moment was the 1995 IPCC’s formal declaration, by an assembly of world experts—for the first time officially—that climate change was not only upon us, but on an accelerated schedule; possibly with unforeseen, nonlinear effects.  The debate among peer-reviewed scientists was over, they declared.  While many large investors took their cue and began considering the risks of global warming to any potential investments, a fusillade of rage and groundless denial ensued, galvanized by talk-radio and the new phenomenon of internet credulity.  This circling of the wagons amounted to personal attacks on the integrity of engaged scientists—including death-threats; clearly an existential nerve had been struck.  The right-wing characteristically saw this world-wide scientific consensus as a tightening of the noose.

In 2003 Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) stood before Congress and declared that man-made climate change was the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” and this sentiment leads us back again to the historical psychology of the right-wing.  A world-wide scientific consensus, based upon the rational interpretation of voluminous data by those qualified to interpret such matters, was to the right-wing mind nothing more than a trigger event,  converted by some dim necessity into the concerted leverage of distant and inscrutably corrupt forces bent upon the liquidation of the American way of life.  This is either the expression of a circular view of history or a demonstration that the most definitive traits of the right-wing mind are unconscious—the atavistic channeling of their founders from more or less a century ago.  These episodic séances exhibit a radical lack of self-comprehension due to the existential need for historical denial, as suggested above.  There seems to be a quasi-scientific determinism at work in the interstices of the right-wing psyche—much like the formation of a tornado.

And while it would never occur to anyone to label a tornado irrational…there is something more than mere fatuousness at work in accepting the verdicts of oil-industry scientists and conservative think-tanks as homespun truth in support of Main Street; meanwhile demonizing independent researchers as a cabal of propagandizing elites, politically motivated by the desire for profit.  As textbook psychological projection, the interpretation of climate science as “liberal hoax” is a conspiratorial masterpiece of water-tight denial,  and its maintenance requires a concerted investment of energy dwarfing that put into any of the white giants loosed by the John Birch Society, once allowance is made for the vastly greater credulity attached to it in the mainstream.  This kind of unreason should be hooted and ridiculed into silence, from every possible venue, every possible angle.  

It’s easy to see the slippery slope from the denial of man-made climate change to the outright rejection of all science, exhibited of late by an unnamed right-wing celebrity hockey mom, channeling the tribal elders from the Scopes era (transcripts of her recent speeches do read sometimes like séances).  What the right-wing can’t resist rejecting is the dialectical movement toward scientific truth—it probably smacks of Marxism—for example the ironic emergence of a carbon-cycle community out of the rib of the Cold War.  This process of the acquisition of understanding—its feedback with history and error—is frankly offensive to any fixed, static picture of God’s Creation; and the tacit assumption, at least behind all Natural History, of the earth’s extreme antiquity is provocative to any fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity.  The historical development of climate science shows that the realization of consensus requires the input and cooperation of the global community of researchers; as Steven Shapin notes in his 3 December 2015 piece for the London Review of Books, scientists are the “natural cosmopolitans.”

All this was viscerally apprehended by the early right-wing.  The original war on science took place in the sweltering trenches of Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925.  They perceived the struggle against the teaching of evolution to be a desperate and final sand-bagging against the rogue wave of “modernism.”  The fighting was house to house; what was at stake in this clash of civilizations was the total replacement of their village-agricultural ethos, featuring thrift, by a rising, oil-based industrial empire with the ethic of consumption as its centerpiece.  It’s important to observe here not only the right-wing associative trinity of Darwinism-atheism-consumerism; but also the right-wing intuition that all technological change is a product of an alien modernism, inasmuch as it was felt to undermine the older ethos.  In a 1927 article called “The Faith of the Fundamentalists,” pastor W.B. Riley, founder of the Anti-Evolution League, asked, “Of what value is our boasted accomplishment of mechanical, and electrical, and chemical discoveries if, while they are contributing to our material prosperity they are more rapidly still undermining our morals?”


A fantastic contradiction thus sits atop the right-wing elephant of denial: when Darwinism was the arch-enemy back in the twenties, the value-system they pledged to defend was ultimately eclipsed by the one they now champion in the war against climate science—yet somehow in their minds they are still sand-bagging for Main Street, that mythological aerie of absolute values and inscrutable turncoats. In reality of course we are all modernists now—and not just in our recent prostration before smart devices.  The over-arching value of consumption in America has been unequivocal across all political and socio-economic boundaries for generations, and the right-wing itself has been as hard on the teat of modernism as everyone else since around 1950, when preacher A.A. Allen reported that God had turned some one-dollar bills into twenties so he could pay his bills; this suggested to Allen that maybe He had flip-flopped on consumption and now wanted everyone to be prosperous… 

Such hypocrisy only lends nuance to the charges of treason that still echo down the mountain in the bespittled oaths of basement prophets.  In the fifties C. Wright Mills wrote that if we were committed to the vision of our nation as a democratic society, then “we must look to the intellectual community for knowledge of the power elite and their decisions.  For democracy implies that those who bear the consequences of decisions have enough knowledge… to hold the decision-makers accountable.”  Today of course anything of this sort is denounced by the right-wing as the treasonous secretions of “elites.”  But considering the right-wing addiction to psychological projection one might ask just who exactly is the traitor in contemporary America, because scholars and public intellectuals—heirs to C. Wright Mills—have assiduously documented the ignominious fact of right-wing complicity in the siphoning of wealth from fellow working people into the coffers of financial elites; four decades running and this machine is more finely tuned than ever thanks in large part to the increasing amplitude of right-wing credulity. This absolute disavowal of self-examination is what is most irrational about right-wing patriotism—it loves Empire, not nation.  Driven by the need for self-aggrandizement, it swoons before unfettered wealth and swaggers in the lee of swollen military budgets.  As de Tocqueville put it, “National pride resorts to all the petty tricks of personal vanity.”   And out of this torture chamber of right-wing cogitation comes the perverse ability to masquerade as Populists while operating as shock-troops for corporate America in the final liquidation of the public square. 

S.D. Vincent enjoys singing pirate song while loading trucks at his day job. He believes that with just the right combination of precision and recklessness one day the pariah will recognize himself in the looking-glass of the saint.