Wednesday, August 22, 2007

When It's Wakey Time Down South

Take a good look at the photo above. It was taken almost a century and a half ago. Do you know who that man is? I'll give you a hint: He's dead. Nah, that doesn't say much, does it? Here's another hint: He was, beyond any doubt, the worst traitor in American history. Hats off to you if you recognized him - but don't feel bad if you didn't. By all rights his name should be forgotten. And yet, a lot people - particularly in the southern region of this country - are so out of touch with reality, they still view him as a great American hero. His name was Jefferson Davis: a man who actually raised an army to do battle against the government of the United States of America. The civil conflict which he helped to create was based primarily upon the silly notion that white people had a God given right to keep black people in bondage. In the four year period between 1861 and 1865, over six-hundred thousand human beings would die in the pursuit of the idea that that notion might forever be extinguished from America's national political conversation. However, one-hundred and forty two years after the Civil War ended, the treasonous flag that he flew in mortal combat against his own country - the so-called "stars and bars" - still flies high at court houses and government buildings (not to mention private homes) all over the deep south.
Well, Ah do declare! If that doesn't sound just a wee bit un-American! Oh, Mammy! Pass me mah smellin' salts!
Being a voracious reader of American history, I cannot but notice that the one common headache of every American president, going all the way back to George Washington, was dealing with the reactionary fools south of the Mason-Dixon line. Whether fighting them on principal or pandering to them for reasons of political expediency, the chiefs executive of this country have wasted much time and treasure over the years keeping the South pacified. Theodore Roosevelt was actually burned in effigy all over the former confederacy for the simple act of inviting an African American, Booker T. Washington, to dinner at the White House! Bully for you, Teddy!
Like most people, I'm proud of my family history - except with respect to some aspects of my southern heritage. But while I'm proud to say that I am descended from southerners Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Lord Baltimore, the founder of the state of Maryland (and head of the first Catholic family to settle in the New World), I'm also descended from another native of Dixie, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney. Believe me, I don't sleep any easier at night knowing that I am related to the knucklehead who wrote the Dred Scott decision - the worst Supreme Court ruling ever. It is said that President Lincoln considered throwing Taney in prison for the good of the Union. He should have.
In a recent piece in the New York Times, Paul Krugman made the astute observation that in order to win in a Republican primary - particularly in the deep south - a candidate has to say a lot of really stupid things. Why is that? Why does so much of our nation's well being depend on appeasing the remnants of the confederacy? Why do southern voters consistently elect as their representatives men and women appallingly lacking in vision, substance and - yes - intellect? Why is it that America's political dialogue has been held hostage by these clowns for as long as most of us can remember? What the hell is wrong with these people? Is it the heat? It must be.
What tends to be forgotten is the fact that in the century following the end of the civil war, the "solid south" was primarily in the hands of the Democratic party. You see, for exactly one-hundred years, the idea of voting for the party of Abraham Lincoln - "that nigger lovin' bastard who freed the slaves" - was pretty much anathema to most southern voters. Remember, this is a people who seceded from the union because they thought slavery was a really neat idea! (There is still a cult that views John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln's assassin, as a great American prophet) After Lyndon Johnson managed to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed into law (the greatest political feat of the twentieth century), he told his aide, the recently deceased Jack Valenti, "We've lost the South for at least the next generation." He was right - and then some!
During the campaign of 1968, while the Dems still had some hope of reclaiming Dixie, Dick Nixon cheerfully pounded the final nail in that coffin. Part of the Nixon Gang's "Southern Strategy" that year was convincing enough of these bole weevil Democrats (who were ideologically drawn to the third party candidacy of George Wallace) that they had more in common with the Republicans than they even knew. Through subtle use of code words and the race card, the GOP managed to do the seemingly politically impossible. The strategy worked. The "Solid South" has been solidly Republican ever since.
The purpose of this little essay is not meant to imply that all southerners are idiots. Certainly that is not the case. A culture that can produce the likes of Tennessee Williams, Oliver Hardy, Charlie Parker and Molly Ivins has more than enough merit to it, thank you very much. It's just that one has to wonder why southerners - White southerners - many of whom live at or below the poverty level - would so habitually and happily vote against their own interests by supporting the GOP. Is it merely that the hatred of black people is so ingrained into their souls that they cannot see the forest through the trees? I'd like to believe there's another, less obvious reason. I'd like to believe that it's less a matter of social indoctrination than a matter of education.
What needs to happen in the south (indeed, what needs to happen all over America) is an education revolution. Anyone who believes that a vote for Trent Lott or George Allen was a wise decision needs to be enlightened, to be sure. Were they not aware of the fact that it was a Democrat - a northern, LIBERAL Democrat - who brought the south into the twentieth century? Prior to Franklin D. Roosevelt's rural electrification programs, many areas of the deep south were in total darkness. The New Deal, which was opposed by the Republican party on almost every issue, changed all of that. Do they know that the economy has always soared during liberal administrations? (Excuse my language: I meant, "progressive" administrations) Have they ever been taught the undeniable fact that at three times in our nation's history, the plutocracy has seized control of all three branches of our government and that in every single instance they ran this country into the dirt? Maybe with a little education they might come to the obvious conclusion: Conservative philosophy of governance does not work. Period. It never has. It never will. While it might be a fine and dandy arrangement for the wealthiest one or two percent of the country, the rest of us always wind up getting hurt - BADLY.
They used to say that the south shall rise again. Believe me, if they ever start talking secession again, I won't try to talk them out of it, I promise. But if there is ever another revolution in dear ol' Dixie, let's hope and pray that it's a revolution of ideas; a revolution of thought; a revolution of hope and Christian values - and I mean real Christian values: Jesus Christ - not Jerry Falwell.
The South does not need to rise. The South needs to wake up.
Tom Degan
Goshen, NY


At 1:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, you might want to read Joe Bageant's essays on the same topic.
I have corresponded with Joe and while I really appreciate his writing, his request that true liberals head South to reeducate the people don't wash with me. My family personally know one Northern woman who tried, and was turned back with a shotgun from a shotgun shack.
The only way any ethnic group ever improved its lot was to educate itself. The problem with the backwoods Southerners is that they already KNOW everything through their damfool religion. That is not going to change. You can't talk to them. They aren't listening.

At 2:01 PM, Blogger Bambic said...

As you know, I live about 15 minutes away from the Clinton Library.
I also live where very few people know the names "Scooter" Libby or even Karl Rove.
Given the choice, I'd be back in L.A.,but when you're disabled and living below the poverty level, (with a sister who writes for the Disney channel that doesn't give a damn---she thinks my herniated discs in my back are something I made up), life here is intolerable. When I enter a store and ask a clerk something, all heads turn because of my "Yankee" accent. It's like having a second head or something.
And just about 30 minutes ago, our CNN (I don't know if it was a local ad or what) aired an ad from FreedomWatch or or com, I couldn't tell, that urged people to call their congress reps and senators to STAY in Iraq to fight for our freedom.
My jaw dropped.
And don't tell anyone that you're not a member of any church, because they'll start praying for you and speaking in tongues...I wish I were kidding.
When I say that back in L.A. many of my friends were Jewish and Buddhist and I really don't think they'll end up in hell because they don't accept Christ as their saviour, they look at me like I was a mentally challenged child.
Hell is here, right here, for people like me.
That's why I live like some old recluse...I cannot deal with the ignorance and intolerance and I don't know if it will ever change.
The churches (cults) have everyone brainwashed, so I see it as hopeless.
P.S. Belated Happy Birthday!

At 7:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


i dig your column. you're a liberal urban democrat to core. me, i have a similar upbringing but have since stopped looking for a savior every 4 years. but a couple of thoughts as an anarcho, buddhist, pagan, luddite:

1. the civil war wasn't about the North righteously trying to end slavery, no more than America's involvement in WWII was about saving the Jews from the gas chamber. It was about two economic systems that could no longer simultaneously exist - industrial capitalism and agrarian slavery. Not to diss my man Frederick Douglass, or John Brown, but if the industrial revolution hadn't happened, the United States would probably still be a slave state today.

2. The south did rise again - in 1994 w/ Ginrich's GOP revolution.

3. One huge overlooked reason why we have such a dramatic resurgence of religious fanaticism in this country (from the deep south to the MidEast) goes back to the Cold War - i.e. The perpetual antagonisms between the rich and the poor are no longer framed in terms of class struggle. We talk about race, gay rights, feminism, etc but rarely of class - which, is really one of the best ways to explain what's happening right now. Of course, to do so would stoke latent cultural anti-communist feelings - so instead, people turn to religion for the answers.

4. As far as I'm concerned, the South is a backwards-ass 3rd world country that should be cut loose from the union - seriously, it's one of the main reasons the political atmosphere in United States is the way it is today. Then again, I also think the north midwest, from Montana to South Dakota should be returned to the Sioux, clearly, the United States can't seem to do anything good with it.

At 8:49 AM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Thank you for the kind words. You make some excellent points - particularly with respect to class and the fact that the Industrial revolution and slavery could not exist side by side. I agree with you that the the primary reason the North fought the war was to preserve the Union. As for the Rebels, it was ALL about preserving slavery. Indeed, the former confederates today support a kind of economic slavery: Just pay 'em enough to live on. The slaveowner of days gone by would pay to feed and shelter his servants just to keep them healthy and alive - it is not too different from the theory of "trickle down economics" when you think about it.


Tom Degan

At 1:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's late and I'm tired but I want to add something to this discussion. First of all I have to say, Tom, your knowledge of the history of politics in the South is amazing, also your strong feelings about it, even more so because it is something of irrelevance to most people. It is very relevant to me, however because I lived in the deep South-the southern tip of Alabama, about as deep as the South gets- for almost three years. I was exposed to the jaw-dropping attitudes of Southern white folks on numerous occasions.

They would confide in me, I suppose just because my skin was the right color, as we were standing in line at the grocery store, or in the all white waiting room at the doctor's office, or in line at the video rental store. "Yes, Ma'am," they would start, "The Lord never intended for there to be any mixing of the races. It says right there in my Bible that the Lord rejected Cain and He accepted Abel, and the elder was to serve the younger. You believe the Bible, don't you?" I would mumble something like, "Well, the Bible does say that if Cain did well, he would be accepted too. Doesn't that mean that equality is possible?" They were invariably not interested in that particular passage of Genesis.

This is the most damning, damaging misuse of Holy Scripture, bar none, by one group of people to assume superiority and the right to abuse another part of humanity. I wonder, how many white Christians north of the Mason-Dixon line believe this way also? How many in the White House? That white organized Christianity has been silent on this point speaks volumes.

Perhaps the saddest part of all is the way that many Black southern residents seem to buy into this twisted theology and seem to doubt their own value as human beings. It was evident in the extreme deference and exaggerated politeness they always show to white people, while keeping socially at an arm's length. It made my heart heavy.

The first commentator above is right about white Southerners and their "damfool" religion. Until they can be convinced of the falseness of their beliefs, things will never change.

At 1:09 PM, Blogger Sarah D said...

if it isn't bad enough down here, try fighting for a new constitution for the state of alabama.

you know, like, taking racist wording out of a 106-year-old document, declaring it legal constiutionally for mixed-race marriages, and letting counties have home rule. not to mention rightfully taxing the rich, giving timber farmers responsibility for their state through taxes, and finally giving education a chance.

ask me about it sometime. you might even see my late father in there.

At 11:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, A good posting by you and some good comments by your readers. Being from Georgia (and notice the FROM) many years ago, everyone has hit the nail on the head. The south is simply ignorant, backwards and in a time warp fed by Bible thumping uneducated excuses for whaht passes for preachers or ministers.

If you want an example of truth, go the the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific written many years ago in which there is a song You Have To Be Carefully Taught. They picked up on the very essence of this entire problem - one generation teaches the next to wallow in ignorance and hatred.

At 1:57 PM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

"You've Got To Be Perfectly Taught" is one on the greatest songs to EVER come out of the American musical theater. In 1949, while South Pacific was still in pre-production, the show's financial backers informed Rodgers and Hammerstein that the song would have to be taken out - too controversial, they said. Oscar Hammerstein informed them, it the that song was taken out, all songs would be taken out. Richard Rodgers stood by him. Thank God it remains.

Tom Degan


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