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Opinion

The American South as self and other

Slavery was a global institution, not a Southern one; its legacy, in the form of the Tea Party, is global too.

Last updated: 29 Nov 2013 07:59
Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
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"The American South has always been culturally different from the nation as a whole. It has been, in multiple ways, both self and other," writes Paul Rosenberg [AP]

During the recent US government shutdown, we saw a renewed outpouring of articles drawing historical connections between the Tea Party and earlier examples of Southern-based obstructionist movements. I myself was part of that outpouring in my column "US Civil War redux".

But a couple of days after the shutdown ended, Salon published a contrarian view from Seth Ackermannn, "Thank Yanks for the Tea Party!" in which he critiques this sort of analysis through the lens of one example, a New Republic article by John Judis, "The Shutdown Standoff Is One of the Worst Crises in American History." Ackermannn presents his prime objections thus:

"But like much of the liberal pop-history genre it belongs to, Judis's New Republic analysis seems governed by two overarching reflexes: (1) an insistence on seeing this crisis, not as structural, but as a product of the wicked recklessness of Republican extremists; and (2) a desire to attribute it to the influence of some alien force, from some other place, one that is archaic and unlike our own. For Judis, that place is an imagined neo-Confederate South.

In either case, the danger comes from outside - from some place exterior to the familiar, modern, consensual United States we all thought we lived in. I disagree. As I see things, the reality is much less comforting."

Of course, I agree with Ackermann that the US' political structures were deeply implicated in the crisis. But why must it be an either/or matter? Why not see both sorts of causes involved - along with others as well? After all, the structural problems have been there for centuries without making budget crises a regular feature of our government.

The same goes for the matter of alien, archaic influence. The American South has always been culturally different from the nation as a whole. It has been, in multiple ways, both self and other. You can't talk about it as wholly other or wholly similar. It is partially both, by turns.

This new-fangled multinational system bound together the most "advanced" and most "backward" parts of the world, including the American South - a prodigious producer of raw materials - and the American North - a centre of shipping, commerce and manufacturing.

Economics and power

We can begin with gross economics and political power. The South has always had to have help - and the South has been help - for either reactionary or progressive economic policies. It is an economic colony of the North. They could not have done these latest things without a lot of outside help - they didn't have enough delegates. And, of course, the Tea Party is financed by outsiders. So any blame is merited, but they still have to have allies from outside the region. 

This can be easily expanded to a global canvas, since the South's colonial status and relationship to the North was hardly unique. The entire European colonial system emerged in a way that enabled European modernity to flourish - particularly the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, neither of which owes anything at all to the vast, archaic, agricultural foundations of human history (much less their present-day continuation) according to their own official narratives, which are, like all official narratives, composed almost entirely of comforting fictions.

But it's the careful scholars, rather than grand theoreticians, who've done the most to bring the real stories into focus, so I'd like to briefly touch on some of what they've uncovered, beginning with historian David Brion Davis in works such as The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823, and others. 

Davis viewed slavery as integral to the first system of mass-market multinational production - for sugar, tobacco, coffee, dye-stuffs, rice, hemp, and cotton, all produced by slave labour. This new-fangled multinational system bound together the most "advanced" and most "backward" parts of the world, including the American South - a prodigious producer of raw materials - and the American North - a centre of shipping, commerce and manufacturing.

Fallacy of emancipation

After the American Revolution sowed the seeds of gradual emancipation in the North, a sort of "grand bargain" was struck between Northern and Southern political elites, in an ideological fantasy known as African colonialisation. Both condemned slavery in the abstract, and agreed that the solution was gradual emancipation and repatriation of slaves to an African colony. Of course, it was never a practical reality - there were far too many slaves for it to have been possible. But in the meantime, it let Northern elites keep their principles, and Southern elites keep their slaves, while a small fraction of black Americans were repatriated to Liberia, which helped provide the invaluable illusion that the whole idea was not an illusion.

In Of One Blood: Abolitionism and the Origins of Racial Equality, historian Paul Goodman describes how the organised response of the North's free black community to colonialisation in the late 1810s planted the seeds of white abolitionism. Then, when white abolitionists began making real progress in the early 1830s, Southerners suddenly discovered that slavery wasn't a necessary evil to be gotten rid of some day after all, but that it was a positive good. The chief source for such arguments was the Bible. But, as Larry E Tise showed in Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840, the authors first promoting such views were New England preachers and academics, and the arguments themselves had roots in writings from across the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The grand bargain keeping segregation in place lasted until after World War II, when the Nazis had completely discredited racism and Soviet Communism was competing ideologically throughout the Third World, where the US' highly visible race problem put it at a distinct disadvantage.

The Civil War was not originally waged over slavery, but over preserving the union. The two causes were eventually joined by necessity, and hundreds of thousands of blacks were involved in the struggle. But after the war, over time, white Northern interests changed, eventually coming to favour reconciliation and economic reintegration with the re-established white supremacist South.

As this process unfolded over half a century, a national consensus on the meaning of the Civil War was forged which deliberately excluded the perspective of the African Americans and their white abolitionist allies, a process described in detail by David W Blight in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.  A comment on Blight could be found in my review for the Denver Post.

The dominance of the white supremacist reconciliationist vision represented yet another "grand bargain" between Northern and Southern white elites. At the same time that a tightly regulated system of racial segregation was imposed in the South, a less-recognised, but similarly sweeping system arose in the North as well, where thousands of communities purged themselves of all their black residents beginning around 1890, as documented by James Loewen in his book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, my review of which can be found here.

Racism discredited

The grand bargain keeping segregation in place lasted until after World War II, when the Nazis had completely discredited racism and Soviet communism was competing ideologically throughout the Third World, where the US' highly visible race problem put it at a distinct disadvantage. In this situation, establishment foreign policy realists eventually helped to decisively tip the scales against the continued acceptance of Southern segregation as the civil rights movement emerged in the 1950s. Yet, even then, elite Northern intellectuals were remarkably "fearful, cautious, distracted, or simply indifferent", as Carole Polsgrove painstakingly documented in Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement.

So where does this leave us with respect to Ackermann's argument? I believe it takes his most important point to heart: It's vitally important not to fall into thinking that all the evil in the world is somehow "out there" in some intractable other - seeing the Tea Party and the dysfunction it brings in much the same way that conservatives seem to see women, blacks, gays, immigrants and non-Christians. Yet, it's equally important not to make the mistake of seeing them as liberals with a different set of policy priorities. Southern conservatives are historically and culturally distinctive, even when, as Ackermann points out, they adapt strains of northern conservative thinking to their own purposes.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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