Guilt by Association

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“That the New South advocates perpetuated the Old South standard of an inexpensive and tractable labor force stands out as most harmful to the economy in that it forestalled the emergence of a vigorous worker-consumer society.”

* * *

Anger swells as I re-read my summations, drawn from the scholarship of excellent historians. The tale of Old South and New South, of populist Tom Watson of Georgia, is a modern-day screenplay. Elizabeth Warren is exhibit A.

Nation, read it and weep, for once again the experience of the South is a culture in a petri dish in which the illogic of a nation festers. Going back over one hundred years, we clearly hear the same calls for economic justice, the case against less government regulation – counterarguments to seedy, pernicious manipulations overwhelmingly aimed at forwarding the interests of concentrated capital at the expense of the public interest.

A student of history need not rush to publish in response to every detail in the daily press. The response is sometimes better voiced by authoritative, quiet history, for the truth is embedded there.

* * *

“The cotton mills, much as the cotton fields, became entangled in a financial and marketing system deleterious to self-sufficiency and growth, and without governmental or industry devices for correction. The earning and purchasing power of the Southern laborer was held low and inert for Southern and Northern enterprises alike – as a matter of Southern business and political policy. The laborer’s immovable wage was his contribution to regional development – his memorial to the original cotton mill uplift of poor whites.”

* * *

Weeks ago, I read a story in The New Yorker about West Virginia and have been out of sorts since. [1] I experienced the urge to cry with shame and fury over the insanity in our midst, about a people crushed by calculated deceit and their own self-deception. My family’s biography embraces people in those hills. Where did they, we, go wrong?

One bright spot about living in the politics of Tennessee today is that at least I don’t live in West Virginia, or Texas, or a half dozen other states that are led by worse misanthropes. For some reason, now when I think of the electorate of West Virginia, I think of the misguided, benighted people of Russia. Though not strictly of the Confederacy, West Virginia today, in its worst characteristics, seems Southern, too. What makes a people screw themselves right into the ground and contaminate it for generations to come on their way down?

The issues stay with us, particularly in the South. Nationwide we confront loud voices and maneuvers to lower standards of education and health, to neglect the environment and public safety, to proliferate and protect tax shelters, to suppress wages, to debilitate organized labor, to bait race, religion and sexual orientation, to promote wholesale exclusion and vigilante violence. We look away, but these issues never go away in Dixie.

* * *

This story goes way back, but we can start at the period following the end of the American Civil War. When I first read C. Vann Woodward’s account of the history of political economy in the South after the Civil War, I was both enraged and saddened beyond easy, scholarly recovery. The buying (or selling) of the South was the United States’ first foray into colonialization on steroidal dollars. I reacted mostly to the selling, but the two-faced buying was galling as well.

We have our green patches and charming ways in the South, but when we lift up the old full-grained oak boards lying on our sacred ground, they are riddled with worm holes and rot. If we don’t look underneath, we do not see the disintegration until it is too late. We can go our relaxed, pretending way, waltzing with our precious manners, but we harbor guilt by association with the cheerful neglect that is the gigantic mayonnaise blob, a cancer of the mind, that is Southern political style and anti-husbandry still eating at the core of our wallets, our health, and our valued earth.

The Roberts Court sees no problem with buying political influence, thinking it one of the honorable traditions of American history. It is a part no doubt – but not one to be esteemed or prolonged. Collusion between cash and public policy has had a comfortable rocker on the front porch of state and local government in the South for a very long time; it still sits there, smiling and rocking and getting fat.

We have seen this before and we are seeing it again: low-wage debates, rapacious mineral extractions, political skulduggery for personal gain, people not seeing the trees of their personal interests for the forest of moral and cultural hocus-pocus, for the thicket of junk, cultural distraction and social intimidation. Even so, one can hardly say that things are worse today. That is except for the growing sinkhole of willful unawareness – and the speed of negative change. We have a high-school- and college-educated citizenry who has the past record and expert analysis at its fingertips. We know that things we do are harmful to our long-term economy and to our planet, but we continue to do them.

This introduces ethical dilemmas of a whole new magnitude. Degradation of the planet and the future are no longer merely aesthetic or Biblically moral concerns, or former constitutional concerns of the Founding Fathers: they are concerns of survival – not just of ways of life or peoples, but of a habitable planet and everything of human value on it – far more complex than the problems that the old holy lands and wild frontiers once presented – though I am fairly sure that water-poisoning was a more grievous offense way back then than it is today.

Pollution, corruption, what difference do they make? In isolation these crimes injure but we struggle through. However, when connected and magnified as in modern day, destructive influences are more rapid and fundamental and can do irreparable harm to our social fabric and earth. Though difficult to imagine, over a few centuries, damage to our world could move beyond even human adaptability.

* * *

“The Farmers’ Alliance platform of 1889, formulated in St. Louis and endorsed by the Knights of Labor, highlights agrarian and labor grievances. Beyond a doubt it was a program containing radical elements: the end of national banks, the prevention of futures speculation, ‘the free and unlimited coinage of silver, reclamation of excessive lands granted or sold to corporations or aliens[,] decrease of the tax burden on the masses, fractional paper currency, and government ownership and operation of means of transportation and communication.’ One essential point worthy of special note is that while these allied individualists were engaged in unprecedented cooperative and organizational activities for self-help, they saw ultimate relief as depending on an expansion of government activism. They were not opposed to private property; theirs was a critique of raw capitalism, offering the corrective of a regulated capitalism compatible with democracy and workable on a broad, open front rather than on an exclusive one. As was proven in subsequent progressive legislation, it was a corrective that strengthened capitalism for agrarian and urbanite alike by bolstering consumer purchasing power and public confidence, and by building public management skills and local markets.”

* * *

Perhaps the widespread success of consumerism is our environmental problem. But I don’t think that is entirely true. Economic justice is implied in the growth of a middle class and a rising standard of living – to a point. That does not absolve leaders, Southern or Northern, from better management for public good. Nor does it absolve individual consumers and voters from their responsibility to not only see but to care for the trees of self-interest and public interest in tandem.

I will not spell out further how the South’s experience pertains, in part because that ruins the intellectual fun and in part because I have spelled it out in a long monologue, disguised as a glorified review of books, that I composed in 1990. It is like a long comparative review found in a famous New York publication, except that it is longer and less polished – and it conspicuously lacks niceties. (Links are included at the top and bottom of this much shorter screed, though I do not expect any takers. The bits of the cycle about Tom Watson might, however, induce some to take a look at that enlightening book.) [2]

FOOTNOTES:

1. Evan Osnos, Letter from West Virginia, “Chemical Valley,” The New Yorker, April 7, 2014.

2. WARNING: As a precaution, I advise students to refrain from quoting or referencing anything from the linked essay (above and below) without returning to the source material; be particularly cautious about recycling my summarizing and paraphrasing statements which are outside of quotation marks. (NOTE: The extracts above between double quotation marks are my statements and not quoted source material.)

The elaboration of a reading assignment presented in the linked essay goes the extra mile and is spot on in melding key sources. The resulting product could point determined seekers in the right direction. But for the advent of Google Books searches, however, the facts and opinions embedded and commingled therein would be lost to curiosity beyond service as a passing journalistic synthesis and a tedious entertainment.

A real nerd could fault this linked essay for not going further in terms of academic notations that would have given it more utility and weight as a reference for others. But on the other hand, it goes well beyond what was asked for and required. At any rate, the professor who received it offered no such Pecksniffery in return.

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