An intellectual freedom blog with an emphasis on libraries and technology

Sunday, September 02, 2012

The Southern Question

When I was a teenager, growing up in New Jersey, I was surprised to learn in school one day that the town where I lived hosted the National Headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s - the height of the Klan's power and the high-water mark of its membership in all of U.S. history. Coming home from school that day, I mentioned my amazement at this to my family. My brother matter-of-factly told me that we lived next door to the building that was the National HQ. Sheet sheik central - right there.

Chuck Thompson recently wrote a book called Better Off Without ’Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession. Parts of that book he adapted for an article in Alternet.  My co-blogger AROY have frequently discussed this idea. Racism and idiocy happen on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. The U.S. has a dreadful and sordid history of racism that extends to all parts of the country at one time or another. We all have some toxic, venomous extremists among us, all over the U.S. But talking about the here and now, in 2012, we have to ask what is it about the majority of people in the South of the U.S. that leads them to vote their toxic, venomous extremists into public office?

Thompson attempts to explain this by way of Southern anger. I'm not sure I buy this.  Without a foundation of racism and/or belief in "the underserving other" no amount of anger can explain the support for the birther "movement" nor the belief that poor people remain so because they do not want jobs, or that women should not have the rights they have, much less acquire ones they should have had all along but still don't. Despite my disagreement on cause, the article (and maybe even the book) I find a worthwhile read. Thompson points out the disingenuousness (really outright dishonesty) of the southerners who attempt to distance themselves from the fanatics among them, and even work themselves up into a full-court press of martyrdom over anyone pointing out something such as "KKK-themed Redneck Shop" in their town.

In response to the martyrdom complex Thompson writes:

One wonders why this Southerner—and others who beat the same drum of outrage—are not instead asking, “Why is a KKK Grand Dragon able to operate a long-running business selling Klan robes, booklets outlining Klan rituals and related disease across from the courthouse in a town square in 2012?”
What prevents today's Southerners from asking this sort of question? (BTW, the old HQ in New Jersey served as a retirement home when we lived next door to it and you could not find any KKK themed anything sold anywhere).  

What makes me most interested in reading the book comes from this passage in which Thompson deconstructs the lame excuse of "Don’t Look at Me, I Didn’t do Nuthin’" 

[Emphasis mine]

However good and polite they may be, what the majority of Southerners are, and have always been, is willing to allow the most angry and “patriotic” firebrands among them to remain in control of their society’s most powerful and influential positions, be they in the realms of politics, business, education, religion or media. 
Just as it was angry Southern zealots who pushed the country into the Civil War, it was angry zealots who, while the rest of the South turned its back, were allowed to construct and maintain the legal foundations of Jim Crow; who were allowed to turn the Scopes Monkey Trial into a humiliating circus; who were allowed to circumvent Brown vs. Board of Education and school desegregation by calling out the National Guard and building segregation “academies”; who were allowed to resist Civil Rights with dogs and water cannons; who are still allowed to denounce science as a liberal conspiracy and proclaim without ridicule that a black president’s birth certificate is fake and throw secessionist balls and insist that slavery had nothing whatsoever to do with the Civil War, and swear that all of this was and is somehow being done in the name of a liberty to which they feel deprived due to their miserable lives of oppression and persecution beneath the stars and stripes. 
Embittered fanatics may represent a minority of Southerners. But they’re still an extremely powerful minority that the rest of the South enables—or succumbs to—or aligns with—or votes for—or prays alongside—or links arms in martyred brotherhood with—year after year, decade after decade, century after century.


  1. Steven, note that both Thompson's theory and your response are "idealist", meaning you both explain history in terms of how people think - the contents of their heads - rather than explaining their thinking as the outcome of real history, meaning historical struggles which could have gone either way, and probably still can.  The failure of Reconstruction is probably the key.  While northern armies occupied the defeated South it would have been possible and even reasonable to break up the large plantations, turning them over to former slaves as smaller freeholdings.  Two results would probably have followed: faster spread of market relationships throughout the South, eliminating the historically uneven economic development between North and South which still exists today; and a consequent ideological evolution away from the racism which justified the plantation system.  Because the large estates were not broken up and the Southern "aristocracy" owning them remained largely intact, the outcome instead was sharecropping and the American form of apartheid, with its debilitating ideological consequences.  I'm paraphrasing Marx's view of the time.  This is a "materialist" theorization, where historical struggles determine how people think, less so the other way around.


  2. Mark, thank you for commenting. I sometimes wonders if anyone reads this blog. 

    I like your analysis. I had not thought of the possible alternate reconstruction. I wonder what the white southerners would have done had the North broke up the plantations and given holdings outright to the freed slaves as you describe. Not that I disagree that something other than share-cropping would have proven more just and economically sound, but I wonder if the underlying racism that persists to this day would not simply have found another pretext? Would an "ideological evolution away from the racism which justified the plantation system" have happened? Although racism made the plantation system possible, racism did not "need" the plantation system for racism to exist. Elimination of the plantation system's reincarnation as share-cropping I find justified independently from fighting racism, and I agree would have produced a better outcome. I'm just not sure the better economic outcome (for blacks) would not have set white southerners' hair on fire just as much or more as what really happened. 

    I do appreciate your time and effort in replying to my post and hope you find time to do so again. 

  3. I was best friends with a kid in grade school in New Jersey who ended up, today, getting his picture in the paper picking up trash along the road in his Klan outfit.  Today I live in Jim Crow Capital, Atlanta.  I have found the distinction of Racism and Religious Elitism appears more to be an intellectual and metropolitan divergence than one of latitude (Or is it longitude?).  Cities, especially along the coast tend to have more tolerant attitudes and liberal ideals.  More educated populations as well.  Many times I have driven the back roads of the United States with my radio on 'scan' and the rural areas are steeped with Religious Elitism Ignorance.  Much like the cause of the Civil War and many other comparible strife, the more enlightened are resented by the old-guard ideas.  Watch the movie "Happy Feet".  No, there are as many gays in Atlanta, the 3rd largest gay city as other metropolitan areas.  Likewise the rural country folk from New Jersey and Georgia have the same percentage of prejudice.  The idiot bigots who have the money, thus political power, were more from my parents generation of 'Yell to make you right' like most Tea-Party conservatives believe and are still in the top seats of power.  But not all of them, in New York City and Birmingham, Alabama.  I met Senator Talmidge's son through circumstance.  An extreme biggot with lots of legacy and money.  Is he any different than my old New Jersey friend now Klansman?  What's that cliche' - The South hates Blacks as a race but likes them individually but the North likes Blacks as a race but hates them individually?

    My grandmother had prejudice against the Irish and especially Italians.  Her oldest son, My uncle, married Carmela.  A lovely Italian woman.  We can hope the tides of time do take away these stigmatisms, especially those who would contrive, through popular indifference, to allow injustice.  Um... if anyone asks, that's why it's SO important that the N-bomb stay in Huck Finn.  Mark Twain, in the 1880's toured his beloved Mississippi to witness the failure of the Civil War to free Blacks.  He knew to personify, even just one, would make them human.  The N-word at the time was basically "no consequence" or "doesn't matter".  Because of Mark Twains one book, the long road to making this such a nasty word of White American hypocracy was blazed.  We have yet to reach that road's destination.

  4.  > Although racism made the plantation system possible, racism did not "need" the plantation system for racism to exist.

    Racism has a history, tied intimately to the mercantile period of early capitalism, later reorganized during the imperialist period as "the white man's burden", blah blah.  The ideology evolves with the real history.  It's driven by that history, it's not the driver.

    Total aside - but interesting to me.  One of the central tropes of the racism of the imperialist period is the small band of civilized white brothers fighting off an ocean of not white savages, mowing them down by the thousands, often with superior technology, as they recklessly charge the lonely beleaguered bastion outpost in the isolated wild.  Watch the movie "Zulu", then John's Wayne's "The Green Berets", then Peter Jackson's "The Two Towers"; then answer the question, "Where do Tolkien's orcs originate?"  Instructive.

  5. "Is he any different than my old New Jersey friend now Klansman?" Yes, your ex-friend the klansman is having his picture taken picking up trash at the road-side and Talmidge is the son of a senator and likely to become one someday. That's a big difference. The question lies not with those who exhibit abhorrent, bigoted behavior but of the ones who vote them into office. My question is not one that assumes no bigots live north of the Mason-Dixon line, but how the majorities on one side vote them into office in far greater numbers than the other. BTW, I realize that Michelle Bachman represents a district in Minnesota and that Sarah Palin represents a kind of Evangelical colonization of Alaska. Geography is not an absolute dividing line. I find the whole question of how a relatively small paranoid, xenophobic, angry-at-reality faction have such a strangle-hold on electoral politics in the U.S. I would not pretend I have the "answer" nor fully understand the dynamics. I do like raising the question. 

  6. Mark, As much as I like Tolkien and LOTR the answer to the question "Where do Tolkien's orcs originate?" I find sadly obvious. I often wonder whether had we grown up with less black & white fairy tales and more shades of gray ones would we live in a very different society? 

    On an even more digressive note, a Russian Re-telling of LOTR casts Mordor as a civilization in an early modern stage (early Renaissance) which loses a war to an alliance fighting to maintain medieval institutions. This makes the Tolkien version a mythic/heroic re-telling of an actual war which casts the enemy in the role of mindless hoards under the influence of evil wizards.