The attitudes of the Southern United States, the old Confederate States, and wherever else in the nation these attitudes have taken root, are becoming intolerable to ordinary, decent Americans who are trying to cope with the serious dilemmas of our times – from the ever growing canyon between the rich and the poor to the Keystone Pipeline and fracking. We the People are getting fed up with the white southerners’ slavery to fundamentalism: hypocrisy, racism, and the plastic god that gives them a holy right to bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, self-righteous pious stupidity, ignorance, the extreme arrogance of their oil and cotton plutocracy, and the denial of global warming.
And that is just the beginning for people growing impatient with this whole knuckleheaded approach to life. -- blj
Rethinking Thomas Jefferson
Exclusive: Americans are proud that their Declaration of Independence was also a declaration of universal rights. But the hard truth is that, in 1776, the words were mere propaganda cloaking the fact that a third of the signers were slaveholders, including the famous author, Thomas Jefferson, as Robert Parry recalls.
By Robert Parry
Thomas Jefferson is admired for his elegant prose in the Declaration of Independence, but he was a world-class hypocrite. He wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” – but he didn’t really believe any of that.
In his thoroughly repugnant book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson even engaged in the pseudo-science of measuring the skulls of African-Americans to prove that not all men were created equal. Some of Jefferson’s white supremacy nonsense survives to the present day in the views of unreconstructed segregationists.
Because of his racism – and his undeniable political skills – Jefferson also ranks among the Founders as perhaps the most responsible for putting the United States on course for the Civil War. In the years after the Constitution was ratified, he pushed a highly constrained view of federal power, supporting the interests of white Southern plantation owners who feared that a strong central government would eventually doom slavery.
To promote that position, Jefferson injected a nasty factionalism that demonized George Washington’s Federalist allies, especially Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, in the 1790s. Hamilton, Adams and Washington believed that a vibrant central government was crucial for the nation’s development.
However, Jefferson and other Southern slaveholders saw an effective central government as an existential threat to slavery. Thus, they ramped up their angry insistence of “states’ rights” and concocted an extra-constitutional theory about the power of the states to “nullify” federal law.
Jefferson was the driving force in this movement, creating what became known as the Virginia Dynasty, a string of three consecutive two-term U.S. presidents from Virginia, starting with Jefferson in 1801 and continuing through James Madison and ending with James Monroe in 1825. By then, slavery’s roots had dug down even deeper across the South and spread into new states to the west.
It would take the bloodbath of the Civil War to finally pull slavery out of the soil of the South, but Jefferson’s weed-like political legacy would keep resurfacing, first after Reconstruction with the South’s reassertion of “states’ rights” and white supremacy. The South again would resist federal authority and repress blacks under Jim Crow laws and segregation.
Even today’s anti-government extremism from the likes of the Tea Party and “libertarians” can be traced back to Jefferson, a common thread from the days when Jefferson’s pro-slavery “nullificationists” tied up the pre-Civil War Congress to today’s anti-government extremism that has made Congress again a laughingstock of dysfunction.
Fearing Slave Rebellion
So, as Americans admire Jefferson’s soaring words – first read to the American people on July 4, 1776 – they shouldn’t forget that Jefferson and many of his fellow delegates at the Continental Congress considered their African-American slaves as mere investments, albeit potentially dangerous ones who needed to be kept in line with whips, guns and nooses.
A major impetus toward the Revolution in Virginia came when the tough-minded Royal Governor, the Earl of Dunmore, responded to colonial insults and insubordination in 1775 by threatening to “declare freedom to the slaves.” This perceived British encouragement of slave rebellions scared Virginia’s white aristocracy and created a financial incentive for plantation owners to join the drive toward independence, much as Britain’s blockade of Boston’s port did for the colonial ruling class of Massachusetts.
Some of Jefferson’s modern defenders argue that he shouldn’t be criticized too harshly for his hypocrisy on slavery, saying he should be judged by the standards of his time. But Jefferson – more than most people today – knew the horrors and degradations of slavery. He made that clear in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence when he included a segment blaming the King of England for the slave trade:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold.
“He has prostituted his negative [his veto] for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce; and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die. He is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people for whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
This section was largely deleted by slaveholding delegates of the Continental Congress – only the phrase “He has excited domestic Insurrections among us” survived – but Jefferson’s attempt to place the blame for slavery on the King, rather than on the colonists who owned slaves, reveals that he was well aware of the evils involved in the slave industry. Ultimately, a third of the signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves, including Jefferson.
Fighting the Federalists
After the Revolutionary War was won, the country floundered under the Articles of Confederation, which declared the states “sovereign” and “independent” states. To save the nation’s fragile independence, George Washington and his then-protégé James Madison devised a new Constitution in 1787 that concentrated power in the central government.
However, this major change was fiercely opposed by key Southerners, such as Virginia’s Patrick Henry and George Mason, who warned that the federal government would eventually come under the control of the North and would demand the end of slavery – thus intruding on the “rights” of white Virginians to own black slaves. Despite these warnings, the Constitution won ratification, albeit narrowly in Virginia. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "The Right's Dubious Claim to Madison."]
During this period of the writing and ratification of the Constitution, Jefferson was outside the country serving as the U.S. representative to France. His input into the debate over the Constitution was limited to several letters to Madison in which Jefferson criticized the dramatic power shift but did not advocate rejection.
When Jefferson returned to the United States in 1789 – and then served as President Washington’s Secretary of State – he grew worried about Virginia’s interests within the new constitutional framework and became harshly critical of Treasury Secretary Hamilton’s ambitious plans for creating a financial system and building the nation.
The charismatic Jefferson also began pulling his Virginia neighbor Madison out of Washington’s orbit and into his own, a shift in allegiance that caught Washington and Hamilton by surprise. Soon, with Jefferson secretly funding newspaper attacks on the Federalists — and them returning the favor — the young United States began descending into the bitter factionalism that Washington had feared.
A gifted wordsmith and impressive intellectual, Jefferson also proved adept at playing these power games as he shaped his small-government political faction into the Democratic-Republican Party. In 1800, from his perch as Vice President, Jefferson succeeded in ousting President John Adams amid such acrimony that it left lasting scars in the two men’s relationship which stretched back to Adams recruiting Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson considered his election in 1800 the “Second American Revolution” in that it pushed back against the strong nationalism of the Federalists and replaced it with a new constitutional interpretation that emphasized “states’ rights.”
Jefferson succeeded in selling his movement as the essence of democracy, relying on industrious small farmers and their common wisdom. But his real political base was the aristocracy of Southern plantation owners. It was their vast investment in slavery that was protected most by Jefferson’s resistance to an activist central government.
Through the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century, with the federal government constrained and with Virginians at the helm, the cataclysmic fear of Jefferson’s fellow slaveholders – Patrick Henry and George Mason – could be deferred; a weak federal government would not soon infringe on their “liberty” to own other humans.
The ‘Black Jacobins’
But fear of slave rebellions was never too far beneath the surface of Jefferson’s thinking, coloring his attitudes toward a slave revolt in the French colony of St. Domingue (today’s Haiti). There, African slaves took seriously the Jacobins’ cry of “liberty, equality and fraternity.” After their demands for freedom were rebuffed and the brutal French plantation system continued, violent slave uprisings followed.
Hundreds of white plantation owners were slain as the rebels overran the colony. A self-educated slave named Toussaint L’Ouverture emerged as the revolution’s leader, demonstrating skills on the battlefield and in the complexities of politics.
Despite the atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict, the rebels – known as the “Black Jacobins” – gained the sympathy of the American Federalists. L’Ouverture negotiated friendly relations with the Federalist administration under President John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, a native of the Caribbean himself, helped L’Ouverture draft a constitution.
But events in Paris and Washington soon conspired to undo the promise of Haiti’s emancipation from slavery. Despite the Federalist sympathies, many American slave-owners, including Jefferson, feared that slave uprisings might spread northward. “If something is not done, and soon done,” Jefferson wrote in 1797, “we shall be the murderers of our own children.”
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the chaos and excesses of the French Revolution led to the ascendance of Napoleon Bonaparte, a brilliant and vain military commander possessed of legendary ambition. As he expanded his power across Europe, Napoleon also dreamed of rebuilding a French empire in the Americas.
In 1801, Jefferson became the third President of the United States – and his interests at least temporarily aligned with Napoleon’s. The French dictator wanted to restore French control of St. Domingue and Jefferson wanted to see the slave rebellion crushed.
President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison collaborated with Napoleon through secret diplomatic channels. Napoleon asked Jefferson if the United States would help a French army traveling by sea to St. Domingue. Jefferson replied that “nothing will be easier than to furnish your army and fleet with everything and reduce Toussaint [L’Ouverture] to starvation.”
But Napoleon had a secret second phase of his plan that he didn’t share with Jefferson. Once the French army had subdued L’Ouverture and his rebel force, Napoleon intended to advance to the North American mainland, basing a new French empire in New Orleans and settling the vast territory west of the Mississippi River.
In 1802, the French expeditionary force achieved initial success against the slave army, driving L’Ouverture’s forces back into the mountains. But, as they retreated, the ex-slaves torched the cities and the plantations, destroying the colony’s once-thriving economic infrastructure. L’Ouverture, hoping to bring the war to an end, accepted Napoleon’s promise of a negotiated settlement that would ban future slavery in the country. As part of the agreement, L’Ouverture turned himself in.
But Napoleon broke his word. Jealous and contemptuous of L’Ouverture, who was regarded by some admirers as a general with skills rivaling Napoleon’s, the French dictator had L’Ouverture shipped in chains back to Europe where he was mistreated and died in prison.
Infuriated by the betrayal, L’Ouverture’s young generals resumed the war with a vengeance. In the months that followed, the French army – already decimated by disease – was overwhelmed by a fierce enemy fighting in familiar terrain and determined not to be put back into slavery.
Napoleon sent a second French army, but it too was destroyed. Though the famed general had conquered much of Europe, he lost 24,000 men, including some of his best troops, in St. Domingue before abandoning his campaign. The death toll among the ex-slaves was much higher, but they had prevailed, albeit over a devastated land.
By 1803, a frustrated Napoleon – denied his foothold in the New World – agreed to sell New Orleans and the Louisiana territories to Jefferson, a negotiation handled by Madison that ironically required just the sort of expansive interpretation of federal powers that the Jeffersonians ordinarily disdained.
However, a greater irony was that the Louisiana Purchase, which opened the heart of the present United States to American settlement and is regarded as possibly Jefferson’s greatest achievement as president, had been made possible despite Jefferson’s misguided – and racist – collaboration with Napoleon.
“By their long and bitter struggle for independence, St. Domingue’s blacks were instrumental in allowing the United States to more than double the size of its territory,” wrote Stanford University professor John Chester Miller in his book, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. But, Miller observed, “the decisive contribution made by the black freedom fighters … went almost unnoticed by the Jeffersonian administration.”
Without L’Ouverture’s leadership, the island nation fell into a downward spiral. In 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the radical slave leader who had replaced L’Ouverture, formally declared the nation’s independence and returned it to its original Indian name, Haiti.
A year later, apparently fearing a return of the French, Dessalines ordered the massacre of the remaining French whites on the island. Jefferson reacted to the bloodshed by imposing a stiff economic embargo on Haiti. In 1806, Dessalines himself was brutally assassinated, touching off a cycle of political violence that would haunt Haiti for the next two centuries.
Hand-Wringing over Slavery
On a personal level, Jefferson might occasionally wring his hands about the evils of slavery and express his earnest wish that something could be done. But he also viewed his slaves as investments. He considered his child-bearing female slaves particularly valuable because they could boost his “capital” via reproduction.
“I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm,” Jefferson remarked. “What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption.”
Though considering blacks inferior to whites and rejecting the possibility that free blacks could live peaceably with whites, Jefferson reputedly bedded one of his teenage slave girls, Sally Hemings.
Jefferson’s many apologists either deny the evidence of this sexual relationship or they insist it was consensual, amounting to something like a historic love story. Some Jefferson apologists also excuse his failure to free his slaves in his will – as George Washington and some other Founders did – because of his financial difficulties. Jefferson only allowed a few slaves from the Hemings family to go free.
Jefferson’s defenders also whitewash much of his political legacy, arguing that “Jeffersonian democracy” was the paragon of liberty, with its supposed reliance on the simple wisdom of hardworking family farmers. But the hypocrisy of “Jeffersonian democracy” was largely the same as the hypocrisy that pervaded the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party was controlled by slave-owning elites, not common farmers and surely not citizens who were serious about setting African-Americans free. Indeed, Jefferson’s political promotion of states’ rights, including “nullification” of federal law, helped set the stage for Southern secession after Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 as an anti-slavery candidate.
Yet, even after the bloody Civil War, many Southern whites continued to embrace Jefferson’s political hostility to a strong central government, leading to the decades of Jim Crow repression of blacks and surviving to the present day with the racism that bubbles just beneath the surface of the Tea Party.
Arguably, Jefferson’s greatest weakness as a national leader – and why modern Americans should view his legacy with particular skepticism – is that he was a Virginian first, an American second. Like many of his contemporaries, he grew up considering Virginia his country, just as many Bostonians saw themselves primarily as citizens of Massachusetts.
Some colonial leaders, especially George Washington, overcame their parochial interests and came to see themselves as Americans first. For Washington and his aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton, that transformation was aided by their involvement in fighting up and down the length of the nation. But Jefferson was not a soldier and spent most of the war in Virginia.
As historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg note in their 2010 book Madison and Jefferson, Jefferson – along with his later ally Madison – were, first and foremost, politicians representing the interests of their constituencies in Virginia.
“It is hard for most to think of Madison and Jefferson and admit that they were Virginians first, Americans second,” Burstein and Isenberg note. “But this fact seems beyond dispute. Virginians felt they had to act to protect the interests of the Old Dominion, or else, before long, they would become marginalized by a northern-dominated economy.
“Virginians who thought in terms of the profit to be reaped in land were often reluctant to invest in manufacturing enterprises. The real tragedy is that they chose to speculate in slaves rather than in textile factories and iron works. … And so as Virginians tied their fortunes to the land, they failed to extricate themselves from a way of life that was limited in outlook and produced only resistance to economic development.”
So, while it’s understandable why Americans would celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s famous words in the Declaration of Independence, they should not forget the history. Those noble words about the “self-evident” truths – that “all men are created equal” endowed with “unalienable Rights” – were simply propaganda in 1776. They were given substance only by a long struggle against the political machinations of, among others, their author.
Exclusive: Libertarianism has gained new followers amid disclosures of excessive government surveillance. But this trendy ideology is filled with hypocrisy on principles and hostility to facts, having evolved from the South’s defense of slavery and now resistant to the science of global warming, Robert Parry reports.
By Robert Parry
An inconvenient truth for “libertarians” is that their ideology of a minimalist U.S. government grew out of the South’s institution of human bondage, i.e. the contractual right of a white person to own a black person, and from the desire of slaveholders to keep the federal government small so it could never abolish slavery.
That is why many “libertarian” icons – the likes of Patrick Henry, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson and the later incarnation of James Madison – were slave owners who understood the link between the emergence of a strong national government and the threat to slavery.
More recently, “libertarian” political favorites, such as Ron and Rand Paul, have either opposed or criticized civil rights laws that, in their view, infringe on the rights of white businessmen to discriminate against blacks. And libertarian-oriented Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court and in legislatres across the country are gutting voting rights for black and brown Americans.
But an even bigger crisis facing “libertarianism” now – and why the ideology is particularly dangerous – is the existential threat from global warming and the urgent need for collective government action on a worldwide scale to reduce human output of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping chemicals.
The “libertarian” response to the overwhelming scientific consensus on this life-threatening reality has been either to deny the facts or to propose implausible “free market” solutions that would barely dent the crisis. Some dismiss the threat in mocking tones as some kind of “statist” conspiracy. Typical were sarcastic comments by the Independent Institute’s Mary Theroux, writing: “The climate crisis is real, it’s here, and it’s time for absolute power for Obama!”
There’s also lots of sophistry and quibbling about the science. The preferred “libertarian” position adopts the pretense that the release of carbon dioxide by human activity contributes little or nothing to climate change.
Other “libertarians” accept the science but still can’t bring themselves to recognize that a coordinated government response is needed. Anti-government ideology trumps even the possible destruction of life on the planet, a very real possibility given the likelihood of mass dislocations of populations and the availability of nuclear weapons.
The “libertarians” are further hampered in their thinking about global warming by the fact that many of their principal funders are major energy extractors – and it’s nearly impossible to get people to think rationally about a problem when their paychecks depend on them not doing so.
Most notably the billionaire Koch Brothers who own Koch Industries, a giant oil and natural gas company, have lavished millions upon millions of dollars on “think tanks,” academic centers and Tea-Party-style activist groups to raise doubts about climate-change science and to deflect public demands for action.
Pluses and Minuses
Clearly, “libertarianism” does have its valid points – especially regarding the absurdity of U.S. drug laws, the destructive wastefulness of the American Empire and the excessive surveillance that followed 9/11 – but there are many other crazy elements to the ideology and its resistance to reason.
Its principal tenet of unregulated “free markets” has been discredited again and again, through market crashes, economic depressions and the foisting of dangerous products on customers. There is also the grander lie that “free markets” somehow can or will address broader societal needs when capitalism is really about how to maximize short-term profits regardless of the danger inflicted on the environment or individuals.
There also are legitimate societal concerns that “libertarianism” would essentially ignore, such as how to care for the elderly, how to educate the population for today’s economic challenges, how to ameliorate the suffering of the poor, how to maintain an effective infrastructure, etc.
That doesn’t mean that government has all the answers. But there is a significant difference between adopting a position favoring a government only doing what it needs to do and the “libertarian” insistence on the smallest government conceivable. The former accepts that capitalism can handle many undertakings with minimal government regulation, while recognizing that the failure of “free markets” in other settings requires greater government intervention to “promote the general welfare” as the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution states.
For instance, the private sector can’t do transportation infrastructure very well. Thus, governments have to step in with spending for roads, rail, airports, etc. Capitalism also has little need for aging, worn-out or sick workers. So, the government is needed to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.
On a current topic, the Affordable Care Act represented the government’s recognition that the profit motive behind private health insurance had failed millions of Americans, forcing them to overburden hospital emergency rooms and requiring some government intervention. Yet, “libertarians” still cry tears for the insurance industry.
Of course, even among those holding a pragmatic view toward the need for government, there can be legitimate differences over policy prescriptions, whether a certain rail project makes sense or how best to care for the sick. But “libertarianism” and its ideological hatred of “guv-mint” has an irrationality to it, which only makes sense if you reflect on the origins of the philosophy, born in the intensity of the South’s resentment toward the federal government’s intervention to end slavery and later to stop racial segregation.
Some “libertarians” get angry over anyone making this connection between their supposedly freedom-loving ideology and slavery, but it is historically undeniable. Any serious study of the U.S. Constitution, its ratification and its early implementation reveals intense Southern fears about the Constitution’s creation of a vibrant central government and its eventual implications on slavery.
For instance, as historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg wrote in Madison and Jefferson, Patrick Henry and George Mason, two “libertarian” heroes who opposed the Constitution and its strong central government, warned plantation owners at the Virginia ratification convention that “slavery, the source of Virginia’s tremendous wealth, lay politically unprotected.”
“Mason repeated what he had said during the Constitutional Convention: that the new government failed to provide for ‘domestic safety’ if there was no explicit protection for Virginians’ slave property,” Burstein and Isenberg wrote. “Henry called up the by-now-ingrained fear of slave insurrections – the direct result, he believed, of Virginia’s loss of authority over its own militia. …
“Madison rose to reject their conspiratorial view. He argued that the central government had no power to order emancipation, and that Congress would never ‘alienate the affections five-thirteenths of the Union’ by stripping southerners of their property. ‘Such an idea never entered into any American breast,’ he said indignantly, ‘nor do I believe it ever will.’
“Madison was doing his best to make Henry and Mason sound like fear-mongers. Yet Mason struck a chord in his insistence that northerners could never understand slavery; and Henry roused the crowd with his refusal to trust ‘any man on earth’ with his rights. Virginians were hearing that their sovereignty was in jeopardy.”
Despite the success of Mason and Henry to play on the fears of plantation owners, the broader arguments stressing the advantages of Union carried the day, albeit narrowly. Virginia ultimately approved ratification by 89 to 79.
Key Framers of the Constitution – the likes of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and the earlier incarnation of Madison – had envisioned an activist federal government that would address the needs of the young nation, from finances to road-building. However, after Thomas Jefferson returned from France in 1789, he emerged as the charismatic leader of the “small government” faction dedicated to protecting the “rights” of Southern whites to own blacks.
Jefferson pulled Madison, his central Virginia neighbor, from Washington’s orbit into his own as Jefferson fashioned what became known as the Virginia Dynasty of three consecutive presidents, Jefferson, Madison and James Monroe, all from Virginia, all defenders of the South’s slavery. By the time Virginia’s grip was broken in the late 1820s, the young United States was on course toward the Civil War. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Right’s Dubious Claim to Madison.”]
This marriage of “small government” ideology and racial bigotry has never been broken. It was reaffirmed during Jim Crow days and during the battle against racial integration. Even today, advocates of “libertarianism” are among those pushing for new restrictions on voting rights with the obvious (though usually unstated) goal of suppressing the votes of black and brown citizens who are seen as likely to vote Democratic. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Marriage of Libertarians and Racists.”]
lobal Warming’s Threat
But the most serious threat posed today by the “libertarians” is their resistance to serious government action to curb global warming. Surely, individuals can take personal action to reduce their own carbon footprints, but the scope of the crisis requires aggressive intervention by governments to maintain the livability of the planet.
In his June 25 speech on climate change, President Barack Obama began and closed his remarks with references to the famous “Earth rise” photograph taken in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronauts circling the moon and looking back on the blue globe that holds the only life that we know to exist in the universe.
Obama’s speech echoed one given by President John F. Kennedy a half century ago, on June 10, 1963, at American University, in which Kennedy said, “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
What astronomers have also come to understand in recent decades is how extremely rare – possibly unique – the circumstances were that let advanced life forms develop over four billion years on Earth. The planet has a stable, circular orbit around a small-to-medium-sized star, not too close to burn up but not too far away for a permanent ice age. Plus, there were other lucky breaks, like the giant Jupiter circling outside the Earth and absorbing asteroids that otherwise could have made the planet unlivable.
Peering around our galaxy and deep into the universe, astronomers have found scientific conditions intensely hostile to the development of life as we know it. Interspersed through the frigid void of space, there are powerful stars crashing into one another, exploding as pulsars and collapsing into black holes that then drag other stars and planets to their doom.
Most planets that have been detected are spinning too close to their stars or revolve in irregular orbits that go from searing heat to intense cold. The relatively gentle and nearly perfectly circular orbit of Earth around the Sun is extremely rare.
Because the universe is so vast, one might hope or assume that other planets exist that have been lucky enough to have the combination of factors that makes life possible on Earth. But so far scientists haven’t detected such a place. As far as we know, Earth may be the only place where complex life forms have ever evolved.
Thus our current understanding of the universe makes protecting this remarkable planet even more of an imperative. It would be a tragedy beyond measure if some anti-government ideology – especially one that sprang from the evils of slavery – were allowed to serve the interests of the Koch Brothers and thus doom the one habitable sphere spinning in the universe.
Is the South Dragging the Rest of the Nation Down?
Why poor white Southerners keep voting for policies that screw them and how this hurts the rest of the nation.
by Allen Barra
In 1978, out of college without a job and having failed to establish Birmingham’s version of The Village Voice, I took a job as advance man for the Alabama Republican Senate candidate.
One incident that stuck with me was a visit to campaign headquarters by a young Republican adviser—I didn’t recognize his name, but I remember that he strummed a guitar while talking to us. He told us, “Don’t ever use the words ‘black’ and ‘white’ in an argument. Always say ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ You’ll turn every argument about race into a political one. You do that, and race will start to disappear as an issue.”
Our candidate, Jim Martin, lost the election to somebody named Donald Stewart, who was the very model of the politically ineffectual Democrat who would soon get steamrolled by the new Reagan-led Republican Party. Within a few years, however, Alabama would move, along with much of the South, from the Democratic to the Republican Party. But it was a case of rebranding rather than change. In less than a generation, every Wallace segregationist Democrat I knew had turned into a conservative Reagan Republican; as the guitar-picking adviser had predicted, race almost ceased to be a political issue and, as my friend the late journalist Paul Hemphill put it, “George Wallace’s role in framing the politics of the new South was obscured.”
I thought of these words while reading Chuck Thompson’s “Better Off Without ’Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession.” Or rather, rereading. On its release in August, I dismissed it because the author is rude and obnoxious and because his chapter on football in the South is utterly lacking in logic and sound history. Thompson doesn’t think that the Alabama Crimson Tide has the greatest tradition in college football. But I digress. (More on football later.)
Over the past months, however, I’ve become more convinced by Thompson’s main argument, that the South—the states that comprised the Old Confederacy—should not only be allowed to secede, but both countries created by the split would be better off.
Most of Thompson’s main points are in the first 40 pages:
—“It’s too bad that we just didn’t let the South secede when we had the chance.”
—“Everyone has joked about a modern-day secession. Politicians, like Texas Governor and presidential hopeful Rick Perry, have even threatened it. But what would the measurable impact be if it actually happened? … In fact, for both sides, an exciting by-product of separation would be an explosion of southern tourism. … ”
—“With time, Americans would start thinking of the South as another Mexico, only with a more corrupt government.”
—“The South has operated like a competing nation in cannibalizing and degrading Michigan and the American auto industry.”
—“ … [A] union based on such a diametrically opposed approach to social organization—uncompromising Bible literalism versus protean secular law—is like a bad marriage that needs to end in order to save the children. … “
—“All these gloom and doomers … whining about a world on the brink of extinction are descendants of the Lost Cause defeatism fostered and fetishized in post Civil War southern churches. …”
Let me interject: Ever since the rise of the Nashville Fugitives, a group of poets, novelists and historians who met at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s, it’s been a popular argument among Southern academics that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery but in defense of states’ rights. (I’ll never forget the Birmingham News’ 1963 Civil War centennial issue that proclaimed “The True Story of the Heroic Struggle for States’ Rights.”) This ties into one of the primary myths being hammered home to white school kids in the South: that because slavery only benefited the rich and not the common soldier/farmer, the latter did not believe he went to war in defense of slavery.
As historian James M. McPherson noted, the leaders of the Confederacy were clear before the war that they were quite willing to fight for slavery. Here’s McPherson from his essay “The War of Southern Aggression” in The New York Review of Books (Jan. 19, 1989): “Whether or not they owned productive property, all southern whites owned the most important property of all—a white skin. This enabled them to stand above the mudsill of black slavery and prevented them from sinking into the morass of inequality, as did wage workers and poor men in the North.”
I don’t think racism is the cardinal sin of the South, and it certainly isn’t exclusive to the South. The South’s cardinal sin is in pretending that racism didn’t cause the Civil War, and that racism doesn’t survive as a major issue.
On this point Thompson is unrelenting. “We can no longer afford to wait on the South to get its racial shit together,” he writes. “It’s time to move on, let southerners sort out their own mess free from the harassment of northern moralizers.” This is pretty much what William Faulkner wrote in more eloquent terms some 60 years ago. And, as we approach the 150th anniversary of the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg, Thompson finds plenty of Southerners who think, as one of them tells him, “We’re on the verge of a civil war.” Thompson asks, “Between North and South?” The answer: “Between conservative and liberal.”
It’s attitudes like this that keep white Southerners from understanding that year after year, decade after decade, they support policies that don’t help them. “Rank-and-file southern voters—who have lower average incomes than other Americans—resoundingly defeated Barack Obama in 2008; the eventual president carried just 10, 11, and 14 percent of the white vote in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana respectively,” Thompson writes. “An influential percentage of poor, uneducated, underserved, insurance-less white southerners continue to cast votes for candidates whose agendas clearly conflict with their own self interest.” What Thompson doesn’t do—what I’ve never seen anyone do—is offer a valid explanation for why white Southerners ally themselves with the party that treats them contemptuously.
\Whites in the South overwhelmingly support right-to-work laws, which Thompson defines, correctly, as “the Orwellian euphemism for ‘the right for companies to disregard the welfare of their workers.’ ” According to a 2009 survey by Grand Valley State University, annual salaries for autoworkers in Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina averaged about $55,400, while their counterparts in Michigan averaged $74,500. Thompson notes that Southern blue-collar workers also have “inferior health and pension plans, less job security, higher risk of being fired for trivial reasons, and diminished safety precautions. … ”
Not only are Southern workers hurt by their anti-union attitudes, the whole nation suffers. “Southern economic success,” writes Thompson, “comes at the expenseof the rest of the country.” By luring foreign manufacturers to Southern states with promises of cheap labor, “The South is bad for the American economy in the same way that China and Mexico are bad for the American economy. By keeping corporate taxes low, public schools underfunded, and workers’ rights to organize negligible, it’s southern politicians who make it so. … [The South] is an in-house parasite that bleeds the country far more than it contributes to its collective health.”
That leads to what is for me the single most baffling 21st century paradox about the South. The region, home to nine of the nation’s 10 poorest states, is rabidly against government spending, yet all of its states get far more in government subsidies than they give back in taxes, as pointed out by Sara Robinson in a 2012 piece for AlterNet, "Blue States Are the Providers, Red States Are the Parasites."
I live in a blue state, New Jersey, where we get about 70 cents back for every dollar in taxes we send to Washington. I work several days out of my year to support Southern states as well as Western red states like New Mexico and Arizona, which can’t support themselves. Is Kentucky a Southern state? Well, it’s red, and it receives $1.57 from the feds for every buck it pays. How does its senator, Rand Paul, justify this?
“The hard fact,” writes Thompson, “is that the South simply does not pull its own weight.”
I wish I didn’t have to come back to Thompson’s football argument, but he’s completely and obviously wrong, and unfortunately this chapter has been the most quoted from “Better Off Without ’Em.”
Thompson argues that “Between 1950 and 1997 only nine southern teams were crowned as undisputed national champions.” He seems unaware that until the Bowl Championship Series started in 1998, just about every year more than one team was chosen No. 1 by various polls. Having family ties to Notre Dame, Thompson resents that in 1973 the Alabama Crimson Tide was voted the national champions by UPI, despite the fact that the Fighting Irish beat Alabama 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl. I guess he isn’t old enough to remember 1966, when defending champion Alabama finished 11-0 and was still outvoted in the AP and UPI polls by a 9-0-1 Notre Dame.
He insists that the SEC has been regarded as the nation’s top football conference for so long because “It’s better than other conferences at media manipulation.” I wonder what Thompson thought this past January when Alabama manipulated the media into thinking it had crushed Notre Dame 42-14 in the BCS title game.
Thompson is right that we are two separate countries with irreconcilable differences on health care, gun control, abortion laws, gay marriage, voter registration, subsidies for education, the role of religion in society, the definition of patriotism and the importance of unions. It could be an amicable divorce where everyone gets what they want: Southerners want the federal government to stop spending so much money and get out of their lives, and we in the Northeast would pay lower taxes because we would no longer have to support the poorest states in the country. All the crackpots and phonies who vied for the Republican nomination for president last year—Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Ron Paul and for good measure I’ll toss in Sarah Palin—were taken seriously only because the potential nominee would have all the Southern states on their side of the ledger. (When someone reminds Thompson that Palin is not from the South, he responds, “Hitler wasn’t from Germany, either. Palin wouldn’t exist if not for the South.”)
Let all the other states decide which country they want to be part of, and if Texas really believes it can be self-sufficient, let it declare itself an independent republic.
To Thompson’s credit, Southerners are allowed their comments. “I think,” one of them tells him, “you all would be dull as shit without us.” That guy is right. So much of American culture comes from the South: writers Edgar Allan Poe, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor, to say nothing of our music—blues, jazz, country, rock ‘n’ roll. But if we did split into two countries, we’d still get to enjoy all that culture. Being separated by a 3,000-mile ocean didn’t keep the Brits from loving rock ‘n’ roll.
One of Thompson’s interviewees tells him, “The most fundamental flaw I see in your scenario is the South has come to really embody the real patriotic America. If we secede, the USA would become Canada South. We are the real USA.” I might agree if I saw Southerners expressing their patriotism on any subject other than war. In any event, it’s of no concern to me who gets to be the real USA—maybe the competition would do us both good. And right now, to be frank, Canada South sounds pretty good.