About a decade ago, I wrote of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary:
We tend to view wars in the isolation of their military events. By such a standard, there is no doubt the North won. But what about the social, cultural and economic aftermath?
For example, while the Civil War ended slavery, it would take more than a hundred years to begin enforcing effectively the equality that was presumed to result in its wake.
Right into the present the South enjoys a disproportionate influence on our politics and values. When was the last time you saw a politician afraid of what New England might think?
Further, the increasingly hegemonic structure of our business, political and cultural life has far more in common with the southern past than with that of the anarchistic old west or more democratic Northeast.
But none of this gets discussed because we judge military triumphs on such a narrow basis, despite there being much more to it all.
If there is any moral that should be drawn from the commemoration of the Civil War – but almost certainly won’t be – it is this: just because your troops win doesn’t mean that you did.
A decade later, little seems to have changed. Our political and cultural debates are distorted by still vigorous remains of Confederate values whether we’re discussing race and gender or which country to invade next.
What’s driving this in no small part are aspects of traditional southern culture, particularly a hegemonic view of liberty, that gets too little attention.
The hegemonic view of liberty, as outlined by David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed, is that liberty is a function of power. A slave had none, the elite had as much it wanted, This contrasted with liberty being defined by community values as in New England, the Quaker notion of reciprocal liberty (I can’t have mine without you having yours) and the western idea of what we might today call libertarian liberty.
We have quietly and without debate moved strongly back to the regressive idea of hegemonic liberty aided by a mass media that treats it as normal except on those rare occasions, as with Donald Sterling, when its abuse moves irrefutably into the absurd.
But consider the comfort with we assume that other sports owners are free to do what they want, our entertainment stars are similarly entitled as long as it makes a good story, our CEOs are tacitly permitted to act like barons of the Middle Ages (only our media calls it “free enterprise”), and our politicians can engage in all sorts of misbehavior for which we ask only for an “apology” and that they “move on.”
More than any place else, it is the South – representing about one third of our total population – that has been the region most strongly adhering to such values throughout its history. As a 19th century European visitor put it, the leaders of the South “think and act precisely as do the nobility in other countries.”
But what is notable is the degree to which these values have now spread throughout America to a point where seven of the top eleven GOP candidates for president come from southern states and the leading Democratic candidate – while born in the north – vigorously adopted similar values during the course of living in Arkansas.
And what is extraordinary is the degree to which the mass media has accepted these values as a given, as have post-modern liberals in the case of Hillary Clinton. We now view our leaders whether in sports, business, politics or entertainment as living in a bubble of impunity in which faults, failures or frauds are largely to be taken as business as usual.
Thus, there is the possibility that we will in 2016 be asked to choose between two representatives of what might be called southern planter politics in which power and its access are the only virtues necessary. The Clintons and the Bushes, in best southern style, represent the inherited nobility of ill gained and poorly practiced power.
Bill Clinton, for example, had not a liberal bone in his body, raised innumerable ethical issues, was governor of a state in which the Dixie drug mafia flourished, and could be fairly categorized as corrupt and contented.
But hardly any of this was made known to the general public. A mythology replaced the actual story. What had actually happened in Arkansas was mostly ignored by the media.
The contrast in perspective was striking. For example on the very day that Bill Clinton was nominated for president, Meredith Oakley of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette wrote in a column:
“His word is dirt. Not a statesman is he, but a common, run-of-the-mill, dime-a-dozen politician. A mere opportunist. A man whose word is fallow ground not because it is unwanted but because it is barren, bereft of the clean-smelling goodness that nurtures wholesome things. Those of us who cling to the precepts of another age, a time in which a man’s word was his bond, and, morally, bailing out was not an option, cannot join the madding crowd in celebrating what is for some Bill Clinton’s finest hour. We cannot rejoice in treachery.. He subscribes to the credo that the anointed must rule the empire, and he has anointed himself. In his ambition-blinded eyes, one released from a promise has not broken any promise. He ignores the fact that he granted his own pardon.”
Bill Clinton was aided by two major sources of support. One was a post-modern liberal constituency increasingly turning its back on its own values as expressed by the New Deal and Great Society. And the other was a Dixiecentric Democratic Leadership Council whose open agenda was to reverse these values, thus producing a bizarre coalition of political masochists and political sadists. To help things along, Bill Clinton became the fourth of the of the first five DLC chairs who was from the south – just in time to boost his own candidacy.
For 73% of the time from 1992 to now, the White House has been filled by southern backed presidents. Even Barack Obama was aided towards the presidency by being on the DLC approved list, a fact he would try to hide while pretending to be a liberal.
Add to this the rise of a modern planter economy in which banks and other corporations increasingly considered themselves exempt from moral, fiduciary, or legal responsibility. An economy in which the federal government and its Democratic president could find tens of billions to bail out an insurance company but hardly anything to save Detroit.
A planter economy where a Democratic administration considered public schools just more acreage in which to raise profitable crops for its campaign contributors. Where an increasingly large segment of the population found itself in prison because of minor offenses, or going without food so someone in Washington could brag about austerity. And where
Further, like the culture of the South, lower income whites have been convinced by a rampantly deceptive white elite that their problems are due to poor blacks, latinos and immigrants rather than the work of the elite itself.
There are plenty of good souls in the South but they are up against not just a distorted regional tradition but one that has gone national, one that has, in many ways, come to define the collapse of American decency and constitutional government.
It is small wonder that we find blacks and latinos denied the vote, Wall Street getting away with fiscal rape and women denied the right to make the most personal of decisions.
Yes, we ended slavery and preserved the union. But in many ways the old South continues to win.