Where We Stand, Voices of Southern Dissent
Edited by Anthony Dunbar, with a Foreword by Jimmy Carter
New South Books, Montgomery, Al., 2004, $24.95
An Essay in Review
by John L. Godwin
If someone dropped a book on your table by twelve conspicuously Southern writers at odds with the George W. Bush administration while extolling human rights, would you be inclined to want to read it? This collection of insightful essays by leading historians, activists, journalists, law professors, classicists and theologians of the region offers a rare glimpse of intellectual life in the South at a critical moment. It was written and compiled with a foreword by former President Jimmy Carter in anticipation of the 2004 presidential election to educate readers about the failures and illusions of the type of politics practiced by George W. Bush and his conservative supporters. Therein lies the book’s purpose in simplified form, though in thematic content the essays vary considerably. While the election is over and we all know (or think we know) the result—the essays are as meaningful now as at the time of their first appearance in June of 2004.
A few highlights can suggest the overall depth and perspicacity of these essays. University of South Carolina historian, Dan Carter provides the opener, “Confronting the War Machine,” which sets the tone for the rest by exposing Bush militarism, with such relevant observations as that the U.S. today is responsible for as much as fifty percent of the world’s military expenditures. Carter, who has published several books on Southern politics, shows that the inherent link between 9/11 “attack on America” rhetoric and the massive weapons programs of the Bush administration has little to do with protecting Americans from terrorism, but much to do with the maintenance and development of an American empire. UNC law professor Daniel Pollitt, meanwhile, provides extensive examination of the erosion of civil liberties as a by-product of Patriot Act legislation and post-9/11 hysteria, marking the parallel to the Old South’s proscriptions for the suppression of the antislavery movement. Charles Bussey’s “Postcard from Norway” explores the negative impact of U.S. militarism in Europe and its wider significance. And Sheldon Hackney, a history professor and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under the Clinton administration, reveals the crucial role of the Southern voter in today’s resurgent conservatism, along with the dangers of identity politics.
Although this brief book of 250 pages did create a minor stir when it appeared in the months leading up to the election, only a few Southern newspapers appear to have reviewed it. The best of all the critics, George Frederickson, an historian, published a lengthy piece in the New York Review of Books, entitled “Is There Hope for the South?” A few papers in North Carolina and Tennessee likewise offered favorable comments. Two of the essayists were interviewed on National Public Radio, and a panel discussion with writer participants was sponsored by the Robert P. Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University on October 5. A number of reviewers, both favorable and otherwise, commented on the scant treatment given this book in the Southern press. To have been truly influential in the electoral process, the book probably needed to be available at least by 2003 and vigorously promoted by activists and friends across the region.
But this did not happen.
The primary reason may be obvious. The perspective of these writers is at odds with the dominant currents in the popular politics of the South and the U.S.A. today. Where We Stand is a cry of protest and alarm by Southern liberals in an era of conservatism, from a region noted for its vigorous support for America’s leading conservative icon—George W. Bush, the former governor of Texas. Each of the twelve essays looks at the contemporary scene from a different angle, while joining in defiant opposition to the policies of the Bush administration. In the words of the editor, Anthony Dunbar, an award winning author, all the writers of the volume “share the beliefs that the current policies of our national administration sacrifice the interests of the poor and the people who work for a living to the interests of a privileged elite, that the power of money and the military must be tethered, that the natural environment must be sheltered, and that racial justice matters.”(.12) The essays, moreover, are written by Southern authors about regional and national concerns, but directed primarily to a Southern audience.
Such books in the South’s history, as in its politics, have been rare. The most striking parallel derives from the work, I’ll Take My Stand (1930), a collection of twelve essays by a group based in Nashville. Although the authors of ITMS were mostly an obscure group by comparison to those of the current volume, the depression era classic also appeared at a crucial moment in the nation’s history. A catastrophic collapse in prices had thrown agriculture into a state of crisis. Industrialization, migration both out and in, along with resurgent activism among African Americans in the cause of social justice were about to change the region forever. A defiant group of mostly poets, novelists, critics and other literati sought to reassert the South’s distinctive regional identity as defined by an agrarian way of life grounded in virtues of community, leisure, family, education and attachment to the land and locality—in contrast with the perceived inadequacies of the urban-industrial economy of the North. Mired in the fallacies and illusions of a Southern traditionalism still hostage to white supremacy, the Nashville agrarians were sidelined in the politics of reform that came to be called the New Deal.
The current volume, by contrast, represents what might be described as a novel attempt by Southern intellectuals to realistically grapple with national politics while remaining honest on the subject of the South’s history of racial oppression. Five of the authors of the current book are historians by profession, and at least six, if not more, had direct involvement in the civil and human rights ferment of the 1960s. For these essays, the African American movement is a watershed event that helps to shape the perspective of each writer.
If there is any theme that runs through all of these essays, in addition to the theme of Bush and his misguided leadership, it is “the Southernization of American politics”. This theme is also the central focus of the closing essay by John Egerton, who has written and researched extensively on this subject. Most writers in Where We Stand allude to or make reference to a common Southern experience at the hands of an arrogantly racist elite and the demagogic politicians who do their bidding, as noted for their mean-spiritedness as for their failure to act in accordance with the public interest. It is only with this in mind that the theme of “Southernization” has any applicability to national affairs. Egerton observes that the South has today become “hugely important, if not indispensable to a successful run for the White House.” With a broad interpretive look at the region’s history from the Civil War on, Egerton traces the region’s career in reaction from the 1948 Dixiecrat revolt to the exodus of Southern whites from the Democratic Party after 1964. Today, says Egerton, the South “has become the eight hundred-pound, stogie-puffing gorilla in the smoke-filled rooms of national politics.”(216)
Disturbing though it may be to consider, the question of regional identity is not an irrelevant diversion in this book. If the concept of “Southernization” has any meaning, it must be a reflection of the South’s approach to politics. But Where We Stand is not about regional identity in a manner comparable to I’ll Take My Stand. Remarkably free from self indulgence, these essays sound a clear call for Southerners to sharpen the focus of their political understanding in order to put history into perspective and grasp the negative influence they are exerting in national affairs, perhaps as they have never done before. And here the “voices of dissent” have much to say. The essays typically invoke visions of a South transformed by the Civil Rights Movement. But the failure of “the dream” to fully materialize has left African Americans falling short, while the recrudescence of a socially uniformed conservatism in the South poses the risk of an America in decline, in retreat from its most fundamental ideals, marching in a direction remarkably suggestive of the Old South on its road into the maelstrom of the Civil War.
The hope of this group of Southerners, in sharp contrast with the authors of the earlier volume, was and remains that the South could actually learn from its mistakes, to act out of a collective sense of the broader meaning of its historical experience. In the words of Anthony Dunbar, “progressive voices in the South have learned that opposition to injustice is a hard duty…They have learned from the leadership of Southern blacks that the misuse of power must be attacked frontally.”(16) Since the results of the 2004 election seems to establish, if nothing else, that neither the South nor the rest of America showed adequate signs of an ability to learn from its mistakes, we may prefer to ask why the progressive intellectual in America today is so conspicuously absent from our national discourse? It is not clear, therefore, that Southern intellectuals of the liberal school are any less marginal in today’s politics than were the agrarians, but it is important that this group has made the effort.
A few additional observations may help to underscore the importance of this book. Although it is doubtful that a more intensive examination of the South’s economy, cultural life, its public presses, universities, agriculture, or the impact of its economic growth upon the environment, would have made it more effective, there is much that remains to be said in each instance. And in this book we have as little sense of the influence of the national defense industries on the Southern states as of the impact of white in-migration on the region and its politics. Yet in two significant cases, George W. Bush and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, among the region’s most influential conservative politicians, derive from in-migrating families involved in the national defense establishment. And no attempt has been made to fathom the impact of the corporate media on Southern politics, along with the consolidation of the media into corporate control, or the manipulation of voters as a result of the same.
Especially because these essays were written more for students of practical politics than for a gentrified leisure class, these voices of Southern dissent represent a new South in a new era and a new current in its intellectual life. They add forcefully to the growing criticism across the U.S. aimed at the misdirected policies of this administration. At a time in the nation’s political life when there is not much else to be cheerful about, we can applaud the fact that in this group we have twelve Southern intellectuals who speak for a democracy they are not willing to relinquish and are ready to assert themselves by participating in public discourse. Although the 2004 election may be over, we need them now more than ever. For this reason the future of this book will be different from that of its predecessor.
John L. Godwin is author of Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way: Portrait of a Community in the Era of Civil Rights Protest, (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 2000).
From Carolina Civic Voice, Fall 2005