Wayne O’Leary

Irreconcilable Differences

Can we finally put aside the silly insistence, kept alive by politicians, professional patriots, and others with a vested interest in perpetuating the myth, that this is one nation indivisible, united from sea to shining sea in terms of fundamental values and aspirations? Except for a brief revival following 9/11, the myth has been slowly eroding for decades — since at least World War II, when its hold on the public imagination was strongest — and it seems at last to have hit bottom.

Just as a candle burns brightest just before flickering out, the one-nation idea found recent expression during the Bush administration’s Iraq adventure, when Americans were informed by war partisans that “united we stand.” It was an exhortation, almost in the form of a threat, to conform to militarism or else. More benign was the contemporaneous one-nation proclamation of Barack Obama, first uttered at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, that there were no “red” or “blue” Americas, but just a United States of America, with transcendent beliefs, commonly shared, that rendered any differences insignificant.

Obama’s heartfelt conviction, it turns out, is more dream than reality, as he himself must realize by now. If we’ve learned nothing else over the past five years, it’s that there are, in fact, two Americas, and they are at political, economic, and cultural loggerheads over issues, such as the elemental right to vote, cutting to the core of our national existence. For all intents and purposes, these two Americas are, and ever have been, at war with one another.

To a remarkable degree, there is a distinct geographical cast to the two Americas; they are not merely expressions of political and ideological difference that exist in a vacuum, appearing spontaneously throughout the country irrespective of place. They comprise, on the one hand, the South — the 11 states of the former Confederacy, along with the so-called border states (e.g. Kentucky) that are Southern in all but name — and, on the other hand (give or take a few outliers), the rest of the country.

The distinction was drawn in sharp relief several decades ago by one of the brilliant, underappreciated scholars of the twentieth century, W. J. Cash, himself a native Carolinian, whose seminal interpretive work, The Mind of the South (1941), speaks uncannily to our time. “The peculiar history of the South,” Cash wrote, “has so greatly modified it from the general American norm that, when viewed as a whole, it decisively justifies the notion that the country is — not quite a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it.”

In Cash’s view, this land apart exhibited homogeneous patterns of thought, social organization, and values that differentiated it from the rest of America. Most controversially, he perceived certain vices characteristic of his region that persisted over time: an aversion to and suspicion of new ideas, a tendency toward intolerance, an exaggerated individualism and overly narrow concept of social responsibility, and a too-great attachment to racial concepts.

Does any of this ring familiar? It should, because a generation after the “second Reconstruction” of the civil-rights movement supposedly consigned Southern racism to the dustbin of history, and two generations after the reforms and public investments of the New Deal saved Dixie from economic disintegration and dragged it, kicking and screaming, into some semblance of modernity, the bad, old states-rights South is back badder than ever. The main difference is the solidly conservative, one-party Democratic South of W. J. Cash’s day is now the solidly conservative, one-party Republican South created by Dick Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” Once more, the land of union busting and Jim Crow is performing its traditional function of being a drag on the country.

It’s easy, of course, to point to the most extreme manifestations of Southern reactionary politics. There’s the revived secessionist sentiment following in the wake of Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection: seven states of the old Confederacy, led by Texas, hysterically petitioning to leave the Union despite the Supreme Court having ruled that recourse illegal in 1869.

Then there’s the bizarre behavior of certain Southern states, notably South Carolina, one of whose congressmen, Rep. Preston S. Brooks, set the stage for the Civil War by caning Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner into unconsciousness on the Senate floor in 1855 for speaking against slavery. Brooks has a worthy successor in the Palmetto State’s former Lieutenant Governor André Bauer, who not long ago opposed school lunch programs on the grounds that, if fed, poor children would grow up to “breed.” And who can forget fire-eating Congressman Joe Wilson, Obama antagonist of “You lie” fame?

We can also look to neighboring and equally vermilion North Carolina, which has distinguished itself by working overtime to punish its own by restricting voting rights, rejecting Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, cutting the size and duration of unemployment-insurance benefits, and attempting to limit course offerings at public colleges and universities to subjects beneficial to business interests. This is the same North Carolina that has banned gay marriage by state constitutional amendment and plans to abolish state personal and corporate income taxes, replacing them with a quadrupled sales tax on grocery purchases aimed squarely at its poorest citizens. Wayward homeboy W. J. Cash must be saying “I told you so” from the beyond.

It’s no coincidence that a correlation exists between states voting against the Obama-Biden ticket a year ago, a majority of which were Southern or border states, and those pursuing an aggressively obstructionist right-wing agenda. For example, 11 of the 24 states with anti-union “right-to-work” laws are in the South, as are 13 of the 25 states implementing various anti-abortion policies and 8 of the 15 states whose governors actively oppose federally mandated Medicaid expansion.

There’s a Southern knee-jerk reaction when it comes to public policies favored by the wider America: Universal healthcare? Gun control? Climate-change initiatives? Immigration reform? Expanded voting? Reproductive freedom? Gay rights? Environmental regulation? Infrastructure spending? Enhanced minimum wages? Workplace-safety enforcement? Unemployment benefits? Guaranteed collective bargaining? On all these questions, the South is opposed.

There is a Southern liberal tradition — the agrarian Populist revolt of the 1890s, the millworker union militancy of the 1920s and 1930s — but it’s been airbrushed from public consciousness. An entire region needs to regain its sanity, reclaim the best of its past, and join the nation. The alternative is to be permanently (and justifiably) regarded as an impediment to progress.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.

Note: This column was corrected on Sept. 5 with an updated number of "right to work" states.

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2013



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