The Lesser Part of Valor

You wouldn’t say that Preston Brooks sucker-punched Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber in 1856—but only because he used a cane. Brooks, a South Carolina congressman, began bludgeoning Sumner, the anti-slavery Massachusetts senator, while Sumner wasn’t looking, and beat him unconscious as Sumner was still bent under his desk trying to stand up.

.. Brooks and his supporters in the South saw the incident as an act of great valor, as the historian Manisha Sinha writes. Brooks bragged that “for the first five or six licks he offered to make fight but I plied him so rapidly that he did not touch me. Towards the last he bellowed like a calf.” The pro-slavery Richmond Enquirer wrote that it considered the act “good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequence.” Other “southern defenders of Brooks,” Sinha writes, praised Brooks for his “manly spirit” and mocked Sumner for his “unmanly submission.” It would have been manlier for the unarmed Sumner not to have been ambushed.

 .. Sumner gave a speech accusing Butler of having chosen “the harlot, slavery,” as his “mistress.” Brooks’s defense of Southern honor was to ambush an unarmed man reaching under his desk. As Sinha writes, Brooks later said that attacking Sumner with a cane, rather than challenging him to a duel, was an attempt to humiliate Sumner for his abolitionism by treating him like a slave.
.. Northern papers rightly saw Brooks’s act of violence against Sumner as an attack on free speech
.. Despite Brooks’s public bravado, many of his contemporaries understood that what he had done was an act of cowardice.
.. Anson Burlingame, a representative from Massachusetts, denounced Brooks on the House floor.
.. The Times reported at the time that the proprietor of the shooting gallery “had witnessed, in his time, some accurate shooting, but nothing that equaled this.”
.. Brooks’s headstone would later say that heaven itself never opened its arms to a “manlier spirit.”
.. The antebellum South was a society built on the violent exploitation of defenseless people; it is in no sense strange or odd that slaveholders would see no incompatibility between their concept of freedom and valor, and ambushing and caning a man who said something that hurt their feelings.
.. Gianforte attacked a man professionally obligated not to fight back. He initially accused Jacobs of being the aggressor and justified the assault by describing him as a “liberal reporter.” He hid from reporters all through election day, and as Brian Beutler points out, apologized only after he had won the seat.
.. Physically attacking journalists for asking questions is cowardly. Every single person who defends it is engaging in an act of cowardice. The notion that Gianforte was merely channeling the rugged frontier culture of Western mountain men when he attacked someone who asked him a question is laughable and patronizing.
.. It is not 1856, but these are the politics of a false valor forged by fear. It is the undercurrent of a politics that defends grown men who stalk black teenagers in the night and then gun them down when they raise their hands in their own defense; it is the politics that rationalizes Ohio police shooting a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun without so much as a chance to surrender; it is the politics of mass deportation and Muslim bans and Blue Lives Matter bills. It is the political logic of frightened people who need to tell themselves they are brave. This is not valor; it is the celebration of violence against those who cannot respond in kind.
.. That logic is properly realized in the avatar of a president who mocks those who served and suffered while having avoided service himself; who brags about sexual assault behind closed doors and threatens to silence the women who say he assaulted them; who ridicules disabled people then denies doing so; who calls the press the “enemy of the people” when reporters write stories that upset him; who attacks religious fundamentalism from the safety of a podium in this country and then genuflects before its most powerful representatives abroad. Brooks is long dead, but the heirs to his peculiar notion of bravery govern America still.

Montana’s Charles Sumner Moment

One hundred and sixty-one years ago, in retaliation for a blistering speech against slavery, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a gold-tipped cane on the Senate floor until he was unconscious. The unapologetic Brooks (“Every lick went where I intended”) audaciously resigned his seat, and then was promptly re-elected in the subsequent special election, proving his constituents had his back.

Northerners were appalled, but Southern newspapers leapt to Brooks’ defense. The Richmond Whig hailed the caning as “a most glorious deed”; the Examiner said Sumner “ought to have nine-and-thirty [lashes] every morning.” The shocking attack, and the South’s fulsome embrace of it, became a rallying point for the abolitionist movement and fueled the rise of the nascent Republican Party.

Conservative radio host Glenn Beck has long warned that a polarized America would eventually suffer another violent and divisive “Charles Sumner moment.” Last June he said, “Mark my words. It will be someone like Ted Cruz or Louie Gohmert that gets the cane to the head. It will be a self-righteous progressive that will beat a liberty person almost to death.”

.. And he earned the approbation of President Donald Trump, who interrupted his trip to Italy to hail the “great victory in Montana.”

.. America’s already destabilizing political polarization has only gotten worse since November.

.. Gianforte’s solid win makes Trump’s election seem like less of a fluke. Trump encouraged beatings of protesters and was caught on tape bragging about groping women.  .. But maybe we should be contemplating the awful possibility that perhaps he won because of it.

.. Gianforte didn’t win in spite of his violent outburst. He channeled a rage against the media that Trump routinely stokes. “You’re lucky someone doesn’t pop one of you” one Gianforte voter told a CNN reporter on Election Day. A caller to Rush Limbaugh’s show from Billings insisted, “If every Republican candidate in the country picked up a reporter and threw him to the ground, it would increase my chances exponentially of voting for them.”

.. It’s about time that people started sticking up for our side. If enough of this happens, those reporters are gonna learn to back off a little bit.” Keep in mind that the question the Guardian’s exceedingly polite Ben Jacobs asked was about Gianforte’s reaction to a CBO report.

.. The largely college-educated scribes are treated, fairly or not, as representatives of a cultural elite that sneers at working-class whites who lack bachelors degrees.

.. Those who thought some economic populism and down-home folksiness would bridge the cultural divide got a rude awakening on Thursday night.

.. Republicans still yoked him to coastal liberalism.

  • After a report that Quist had once performed at a nudist colony, one super PAC ad snarked, “He’s not interested in Montana values. He’s more interested in Hollywood values.”
  • He was also hit hard for not always paying his taxes, which Quist futilely tried to explain was a result of financial troubles following a botched surgery. But even that was treated as evidence of his ties to national Democrats: “Can you trust Quist and Pelosi with your money?” charged another super PAC ad.