Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist
The South: It's Everywhere
I'm hardly an expert on "The South" - living for four years in and around Durham, North Carolina in the early seventies hardly counts. Yes, there was Jesse Helms, before he became a senator, on the television from Raleigh doing his commentary, two or three times a week, ranting about the federal government out to destroy "or way of life" - but that was not the life we knew at Duke University, called by some, perhaps ironically, "the Harvard of the South." While on campus we might as well have been in Cambridge, the one on the north end of Boston, but for the sticky hot weather and the mixed smell of magnolia and fresh-cut tobacco in the air (American Tobacco had a plant near campus churning our Winstons). Off campus it was odd to hear the Civil War referred to as "The Late Unpleasantness Between the States" and sometimes "War of Northern Aggression," and that sort of thing. But one developed a fondness for grits and red-eye gravy after a time, and Smithfield Ham (Virginia's answer to prosciutto) is pretty nice - even if I never got the thing with collard greens. But is North Carolina really The South? It's not The Deep South. My only taste of that was attending a wedding a few years back in Houma, Louisiana - a full Catholic high mass with, count 'em, two monsignors at the local cathedral in the swamp. What can I say? The band at the reception placed "Dixie" and everyone stood and put a hand over his or her heart. Not a Black or Asian or Hispanic within miles. But I liked the crayfish pie, gumbo and crab cakes. The following day was New Orleans - the French Quarter, and walking Bourbon Street in the evening - an odd, dark place. And then there were the two marching bands at midnight and floats and more craziness. Then I assumed no one really lived there - it was a tourist place - and now, no one does. Earlier in the day, mid-afternoon, I had found the Faulkner Bookstore in the place where he once lived and wrote his first novel. Well, he lived there for a time. But to someone born and raised in Pittsburgh, who has worked for stretches of years in upstate New York, rural Canada, and finally out here in Los Angeles, The South is still a mystery - as dense as Faulkner's enigmatic prose.
Sites like Save the South, with its ninety-seven links to web sites like Confederate Pride, The South Will Rise Again!, League of the South National Homepage and Never Give Up, just puzzle me. What's the big deal?
Denver-based criminal defense attorney Jeralyn Merritt tries to help folks like me with a pointer to an item just published in Znet, September 14th by Douglas Dowd, that explains, in rather unflattering terms, what The South is all about, and it seems what it's about is the whole country now. We are them. The item is titled The United States Becomes Its Own Worst Enemy.
This is the introduction:
And that is the thesis here. Zinn nailed it, according to Dowd. We've all become "The South" now. Dowd says, "our nation as a whole is well on its way to having a functional resemblance to that South" - or worse. "That South" that Cash, from sweet Carolina, described? That's the idea.Since the 1970s the United States has become increasingly captive to consumeristic frenzy and religious zeal at home and to an arrogant and bloody militarism abroad. As we do so, has not the following description come to fit us as a people?
"Violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and a too narrow concept of social responsibility, attachment to fictions and false values..., too great an attachment to racial values and a tendency to justify cruelty and injustice in the name of those values, sentimentality and a lack of realism... ."
Not all of us, just yet; but those words were written to describe the people of the eleven states of the "New South" that evolved after 1877. The quotation is from The Mind of the South (1940); its author was the Carolinian journalist W.J. Cash.
The New South was a toxic brew of institutionalized cruelty and systemic irrationalities, fueled by fear, greed, and hatred; only the worst of its social crimes was the encouragement and immunity given to the lynching of thousands of blacks after 1877.
That the New South's characteristics were embraced with fervor by virtually all of its whites is well-known; almost entirely forgotten or generally unknown is that in significant degree its roots were in our national history and its values shared to one degree or another throughout the nation - as noted by the historian Howard Zinn, after his many years of teaching and working in the South:
"It is everything its revilers have charged, and more than its defenders have claimed. It is racist, violent, hypocritically pious, xenophobic, false in its elevation of women, nationalistic, conservative, and it harbors extreme poverty in the midst of ostentatious wealth. The only point I have to add is that the United States as a civilization embodies all of those same qualities. That the South possesses them with more intensity simply makes it easier for the nation to pass off its characteristics to the South, leaving itself innocent and righteous."
Dowd of course provides a discussion of "The Southern Mystique." He does a number on slavery and says it was never in "another country" - the Confederacy. Of course Article II, Section 9 of the constitution permitted slavery to continue for years, until the 14th Amendment was passed in 1866, and four of our first five presidents were slave owners. And this: "southern slavery could not have flourished without the spirited slave traders of the North; nor could the North's economy have gained its economic strength as quickly or substantially as it did without slavery." He cites Veblen on that (Veblen, Thorstein. 1923, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times. New York: Huebsch). Everyone was playing in that game.
But ending slavery fixed all that, right? Not exactly -
What was that deal? See this - Hayes got become president, not Tilden, and that brought an end to the period of Reconstruction following the war. In effect, an end to military occupation and any enforcement of the Reconstruction policies allowing blacks the rights of citizens. Dowd: "In practice that meant a free hand to mistreat, oppress and murder blacks as, meanwhile, both northern and southern business prospered at the expense of 'poor whites.'"Though blacks were formally free after 1877 their lives may be seen as having become more miserable: black slaves had one protection freed blacks did not have: they were property and, as such, treated with at least some care. Also needing explanation is the descent into misery of most whites.
The basis for the explanation lies in an 1877 congressional act put together "at night and by cloud." (Veblen) Then as now, Congress was very much bought and paid for; its "buyers" were conservative northern Republicans and their counterpart southern Democrats; the sellers were congressmen of both parties. The deal came to be called "the Compromise of 1877." How did it happen?
Workers lose, owners win. That sort of thing. And it took years for things to change - by WWII southern white workers finally began to make reasonable wages, and full citizenship for "the others" had to wait until the Civil Rights stuff in the sixties. These "others" got to vote, and ride in any seat on the bus they wanted, and eat where they wanted, and all the rest.And its consequences? The symbol of what ensued in the South became the hooded Klansman at a riotous lynching party; for the North, its easy access to the South's cheap natural and human resources served both to strengthen and greatly to speed up overall industrialization. Over the next several decades, the South's economy became "modernized," with what were almost entirely northern-owned - with "whites only" workers - textile factories, mines, railroads, steel mills and banks. However, in that "modernization" the overwhelming majority of both its white and its black population sank into deep poverty. ...
Is this good history? Dowd concedes his view is unusual:
Okay, he may make too much of "the Compromise of 1877" - but he moves on to where we are today.The foregoing history could reasonably be seen as absurdly inaccurate by most, including - perhaps especially - students of U.S. history. My own graduate work was divided between economics and history at a leading university, and I knew nothing of this until after my student years. That my experience was not unique may be at verified by an examination of almost any accepted U.S. history text. Representative of that deficiency is what may be found in a widely-used "dictionary" of American history. Although there is an entry for "The New South" there is no mention of "the compromise" that created that South or of its foul underside; what is discussed are its economic "triumphs."
So we're there again. And he lists eight "destructive interactions" that define what this new but familiar "there" is, among which are "an increasing concentration of already excessive economic and political power and pervasive corruption, guided by a White House whose arrogance, heedlessness, ignorance and seeming indifference to realities at home and abroad go well beyond anything earlier" (check), and "a notable arousal of U.S. militarism, accompanied and supported by intensifying racism and fundamentalist religion" (check), and "the weakening of already inadequate educational, health care, and housing policies" (check). The whole list is quite detailed and heavily footnoted, and quite depressing.Setting aside the 2000 election, there has been no simple "compromise" greasing the skids for today's reincarnation of the New South. Instead, the ominous directions in which the U.S. now moves are a product of a grotesque meeting of minds - those of big and small business and the otherwise wealthy plus militarists and pro-gun individuals and groups, fundamentalist Christians, anti-abortionists. anti-gays and a modern variation of the "Know-Nothings." Taken together, both the powerful few and the passionate many provide extraordinary amounts of political purchasing power and political strength - both absolutely and relative to those of us who oppose current trends.
Those millions who feverishly egg on or acquiesce in this rightward shift are all too reminiscent of the majority "poor whites" of the New South who unwittingly brought economic, political, and social damage upon themselves.
So where are we as a nation? It looks like post-Reconstruction Alabama, circa 1877, everywhere.
I'm not sure this is what was meant with the vow 'The South Will Rise Again." It has, and it's not pretty.
Let's see, it's 1972 on we're at the little house out towards Hillsboro, sitting around watching Channel Five from Raleigh, and Jesse Helms is ranting about the welfare moms and other assorted black riff-raff not taking "personal responsibility." Any evening here in Hollywood, in 2005, I can watch Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity do pretty much the same on Fox News. And that's national.
Maybe the South won the Civil War after all. Or if it was "The War of Northern Aggression" they staged a guerrilla war against the occupiers and, like the Vietnamese and soon the Iraqis, got just what they wanted.
Posted by Alan at 12:48 PDT
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Updated: Thursday, 15 September 2005 12:58 PDT home