By John L. Godwin
The Southern region of the U.S. has received its share of criticism over the years. The expansion and perpetuation of slavery, the disastrous plunge into Civil War, the construction of Jim Crow segregation and black political disenfranchisement after the war, along with the persistence of the plantation economy, and the failure to develop education and democracy to their fullest potential: these were some of the shortcomings that tended to set the region apart well into the post-World War II era. In recognition of all of this in their recent book, American Crisis, Southern Solutions, a diverse array of scholars of the region, including historians, novelists, activists, businessmen, lawyers and educators, have reasserted what has become a recent refrain in regional studies—that a post-1960s conservatism anchored in the Republican Party of the Southern states has led to a pernicious and destructive “Southernization” of American politics on the national level. And in recent times, they assert, the American South and the U.S. are facing an extraordinary crisis arising out of the failure of U.S. leadership to act in a manner consistent with basic American values. In foreign affairs the failure of that leadership is evident in the disastrous Iraq War fiasco—its massive waste of human life and horrific human rights abuses. And on the home front, the betrayal of New Orleans—one of the South’s and America’s greatest cities—is further emblematic of what is herein understood specifically as a crisis of government.
Four years ago, prior to the 2004 election, NewSouth Books published Where We Stand: Voices of Southern Dissent, a collection of twelve linked essays by writers all professing an intense opposition to the politics and policies of President George W. Bush and his administration. As an opposition manifesto, these writers sought to correct any misperception that the former Texas governor represented or spoke for the best and most informed opinion in the South. Their Voices were sounded as a means to demonstrate a candid rejection of the type of conservative outlook Bush and his supporters typically assert—and to provide expression of the kind of progressive values fundamentally akin to the best that is within the American tradition of democratic reform and government responsive to the public interest. Unlike those Southerners who identify with the region’s dominant mode of politics, the authors of the two books have had a difficult task to pull off—to simultaneously evaluate in critical terms the region’s traditional brand of conservatism as it has played out through current events, while at the same time uncovering a rationale by which the region might in a sense, find a new reason to claim itself in the face of a wider skepticism from among American progressives. Where the programmatic, 1930s I’ll Take My Stand, sought to provide a manifesto of romantic longing from Southern intellectuals bent on renewing the regional model of resistance to modernity, these writers ardently embrace the liberal reforms of the twentieth century and the notoriously radical Sixties. Unlike the 1930s Fugitives, they take their cues from C. Vann Woodward’s classic, The Burden of Southern History, whose insistence that the South could learn from its mistakes was probably not well enough understood inside the region or elsewhere. But in this book there is emphasis on the positive lessons of the more recent regional experience. More to the point, these writers consistently assert that the South has a new watershed of grassroots activism to draw from—that Americans generally can profit from an examination of the Southern experience.
So there is more to this collection of writings by Southern liberals than a serpent devouring its own tail. Both books taken together can be viewed in terms larger than their immediate function as vehicles for protest against a dangerously misguided leadership in Washington that has in a sense, already pre-empted the field of Southern politics. The books, given their unique quality as rhetorical manifestoes of defiant progressivism in the South, can be viewed as political primers (absent a theoretical frame of reference) toward a new Southern politics. The fundamentals of that new politics are evident: acknowledgement of responsibility toward the earth and her peoples, advocacy of grass roots democracy and public interest government, of active government seeking solutions that include the regulatory state and public financing for health care and social security, of workers rights through organized labor, of better and more accessible public education, and of environmental protections for all of society and the world. Both books embrace the civil rights revolution and the sexual revolution that have so altered the terms of existence in the region since the 1960s. And both books operate from the perception of an evident crisis both institutional and psychological resulting from an American drift toward the far Right. But there are slight differences of emphasis within the two collections that suggest that both books should remain of interest. Where Voices seemed to place its primary hope in electoral politics, American Crisis suggests that the problems go deeper and may demand more radical or systematic solutions—those that may in effect, find precedents in the indigenous movements for grassroots democracy already evident in the contemporary scene.
For those who have had no problem manufacturing a Southern mythical past out of which to rationalize their conservatism, this book may be offered as an exercise in political realism. While we may not go as far as Mark Twain in giving up altogether on Arcadia, (and Twain himself was drawn more than once back to that mythic town of Hannibal), we might pause for a moment to reckon on the quality of mind by which political objectives are formed in the imagination. In the most fundamental sense, American Crisis asks us to consider not only that our world is diverse—made up of differing races, immigrant groups, workers as well as employers, gays as well as straights, Catholics, Protestants and more, all possessing the same intrinsic human rights... but that our world also demands that we become larger people by seeking to improve the human condition. It’s not a new thought, but it has been given novel expression in these books. The 2004 Voices, a collection of twelve essays, contained substantial articles on identity politics (Hackney), American militarism and empire (Carter), and the thematic essay by John Egerton, “The Southernization of American Politics”. American Crisis continues in this vein, though four writers have taken a rest, leaving the core group of eight original writers, plus seven newcomers for a total of fifteen new essays of equal depth and relevance. Both books offer strong essays on education and democracy in the South, on religion and its political exploitation, on sexuality and human rights, and on broad themes involving African Americans, voting rights and the politics of inclusion. Stern criticism of the Bush administration remains a persistent theme, though the strident progressivism of Voices, owing much of its ire perhaps to the war in Iraq, has given way to a mood of cautious optimism mingled with warnings. As such, it appears to reflect the current mood of the nation, as Americans in the wake of the 2006 Congressional victory for Democrats, place their hopes in the upcoming Presidential election in 2008.
In the opening essay, “Hope from Southern Voices,” by historian Charles Bussey, we have an introspective look at the author’s background—reared on an experimental “back to nature” farm in western Kentucky—conjoined with a survey of noteworthy figures from Southern history, from the founders of the republic, Washington and Madison, to the abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, to times more recent in such figures as Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas, heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis and others, in addition to politicians and journalists, such as President Jimmy Carter, John Edwards and Bill Moyers. Such courageous figures, drawn from both races of the South, model the traditional civic virtues of wisdom, knowledge, and commitment to the public good. Through their activism and involvement in public affairs, they point the way to the future not only for the South but for America as a whole. Like Bussey, Daniel Pollitt, a retired UNC law professor, draws meaningfully on the example of the Civil Rights Movement, while pointing out the legal, human rights, and constitutional questions raised by the decision by Bush and his followers to take the nation to war in the wake of the 9/11 “attack on America”. Although Pollitt stops short of arguing for impeachment, and does not say point blank that the Iraq War is illegal, he does make a compelling case that the heritage of government by law in accordance with the Constitution has been fundamentally compromised. The essay is concise, and observes appropriately that Americans face problems with the behavior of key institutions, such as the U.S. military (Guantanamo Bay), the CIA (extraordinary rendition), and the FBI (no fly lists).
Among new writers to appear in American Crisis, Glenn Feldman in “Our Appointment With Destiny” takes up the theme of Southernization, laying bare the basic traits of the new conservatism with its demagoguery and racism, while cautioning that the recent political pendulum swing reflected in the 2006 election may not correct the errant drift in U.S. politics unless we come to terms with its rhetoric and substance. The book also contains an essay by Doug Davis, a Tennessee business owner who exposes bigotry and prejudice aimed at Latino workers, drawing analogies from the school desegregation ordeal at Clinton and Little Rock, Arkansas. Danny Collum, a Kentucky professor of English and Journalism, has provided an account of a successful struggle by one newspaper, the Daily Journal of Tupelo, Mississippi, through more than seventy years of publication, to bring an enlightened awareness of labor and human rights issues to one Deep South community. This article challenges our understanding of how a newspaper can or should function in an American town. But what is particularly striking in this volume is a series of essays from the standpoint of politics, labor, and environmental protection, which deal with and expose the ordeal of New Orleans through and after the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Louisiana politics failed New Orleans because it had already long been corrupted, but when Mayor Ray Nagin in conjunction with business interests and the Bush administration decided that it was more important to be a “black mayor” than an effective spokesman for the reconstruction of a city, the result was the tragic spectacle of one of America’s greatest cities careening towards a new status as a third world town trapped in a downward spiral of unemployment, incompetent government, and crime. New Orleans’ hope lies not only in its history as a city of dreams, but in the spirit of volunteerism and grassroots reform that has continually sought to spark new life since 2005. American Crisis also contains not one, but three essays that deal with different aspects of the environmental crisis, connecting the New Orleans story to the phenomenon of global climate change—including the observation that the South as a region is contributing more than its share to the atmospheric conditions that lie at the root of the global warming problem.
American Crisis also contains noteworthy contributions from other core group members, particularly from Gene R. Nichol who has assembled a wealth of information about recent trends in U.S. education—particularly in re-segregation both by race and by wealth. Leslie Dunbar has provided an interesting analysis of religion and politics –one that prescriptively suggests what the real relationship between the two should be while acknowledging how we have fallen short in the perennial strains of militarism, oligarchy and racism that have darkened our politics from the beginning. Back from Voices, also, is Laughlin McDonald who has contributed an essay on the “ballot security movement” traced to its origins in the Republican gubernatorial campaign of 1981 in New Jersey. If you thought you knew what the conservatives were up to, read this essay for new insights on the electoral process. Dan Carter, whose opening essay in Voices showed that changes in U.S. political economy underlie the crisis, is back with an Afterword that cuts to the most fundamental problem we face as Americans. Research has shown that more than eighty percent of Americans rely on television and talk radio for most of their information about politics and public affairs. But the absence of logic and reason from this discourse (to say the least) suggests that the task of reforming our politics may be both long and arduous.
American Crisis, Southern Solutions adds considerably to the wealth of insight contained in Where We Stand, Voices of Southern Dissent. The essays remind us that when Woodrow Wilson admonished the South to “rise and take its place within the councils of the nation,” he most surely meant that the advice would be salutary and the councils both democratic and constitutional. Taken together, these books offer a spectrum of commentary that should inform Americans and the world of what is actually taking place in the Southern states in the era of George W. Bush. While there is much more to be said about “the crisis” and the solutions at times seem pale by comparison to the problems, the book is certainly a step in the right direction. It should be read by those who take politics in our region seriously.
Visit the site for this new release by NewSouth books:
American Crisis, Southern Solutions:
From Where We Stand, Promise and Peril
Edited by Anthony Dunbar
NewSouth Books, Montgomery AL., 2008
An Essay in Review
From Carolina Civic Voice, Spring 2008