Since the 1970s the United States has become increasingly captive to consumeristic frenzy and religious zeal at home and to an arrogant and bloody militarism abroad. As we do so, has not the following description come to fit us as a people?
Violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and a too narrow concept of social responsibiity, attachment to fictions and false values…, too great an attachment to racial values and a tendency to justify cruelty and injustice in the name of those values, sentimentality and a lack of realism… .
Not all of us, just yet; but those words were written to describe the people of the eleven states of the “New South” that evolved after 1877. The quotation is from The Mind of the South (1940); its author was the Carolinian journalist W.J. Cash.
The New South was a toxic brew of institutionalized cruelty and systemic irrationalities, fueled by fear, greed, and hatred; only the worst of its social crimes was the encouragement and immunity given to the lynching of thousands of blacks after 1877.
That the New South’s characteristics were embraced with fervor by virtually all of its whites is well-known; almost entirely forgotten or generally unknown is that in significant degree its roots were in our national history and its values shared to one degree or another throughout the nation — as noted by the historian Howard Zinn, after his many years of teaching and working in the South:
/It is/ everything its revilers have charged, and more than its defenders have claimed. It is racist, violent, hypocritically pious, xenophobic, false in its elevation of women, nationalistic, conservative, and it harbors extreme poverty in the midst of ostentatious wealth. The only point I have to add is that the United States as a civilization embodies all of those same qualities. That the South possesses them with more intensity simply makes it easier for the nation to pass off its characteristics to the South, leaving itself innocent and righteous.
The Southern Mystique
Now our nation as a whole is well on its way to having a functional resemblance to that South; or worse. There are many differences, of course, not all of them are for the better. To the degree that is so, it is vital for those who cherish “the American dream” to know how easily that society came to be, its full nature, and its consequences. After a summary discussion of its creation and its evolution, today’s already alarming realities and evident probabilities will be examined.
A despicable triumph. From our beginnings, the South was an integral part of the U.S.A. and subject to its laws; it was never “another country.” Slavery, its key shaping element, is seen as its “peculiar institution”; it was not all that “peculiar.”
Item: Article II, Section 9 of the Constitution permitted U.S. slavery to continue for 20 years, a permission quietly renewed until the 14th Amendment was passed in 1866.
Item: Four of our first five presidents were slave owners.
More to the point, southern slavery could not have flourished without the spirited slave traders of the North; nor could the North’s economy have gained its economic strength as quickly or substantially as it did without slavery. Veblen put it well, if also wryly:
The slave trade was never a “nice” occupation or an altogether unexceptionable investment — “balanced on the edge of the permissible.” But even though it may have been distasteful to one and another of its New England men of affairs, and though there always was a suspicion of moral obliquity attached to the slave trade, yet it had the good fortune to be drawn into the service of the greater good. In connection with its running-mate, the rum trade, it laid the foundation of some very reputable fortunes at that focus of commercial enterprise that presently became the center of American culture, and so gave rise to some of the country’s Best People. At least so they say. Perhaps also it was… in the early pursuit in this moral penumbra that American business enterprise learned how not to let its right hand know what its left hand is doing, and there is always something to be done that is best done with the left hand. (Absentee Ownership /1923/)
The Civil War and the amended Constitution formally ended slavery in the U.S. Though blacks were formally free after 1877 their lives may be seen as having become more miserable: black slaves had one protection freed blacks did not have: they were property and, as such, treated with at least some care. Also needing explanation is the descent into misery of most whites.
The basis for the explanation lies in an 1877 congressional act put together “at night and by cloud.” (Veblen) Then as now, Congress was very much bought and paid for; its “buyers” were conservative northern Republicans and their counterpart southern Democrats; the sellers were congressmen of both parties. The deal came to be called “the Compromise of 1877.” How did it happen?
Much has been written in answer to that questions, but until the works of the historian C. Vann Woodward the answers did more to obscure or conceal than to explain. Digging deeply, Woodward (himself a southerner) produced the definitive works on that legislation and the South it allowed to emerge: Reunion and Reaction (1951,1956), and Origins of the New South, 1887-1913 (1951). Reunion… concerned itself with what his first chapter calls “The Unknown Compromise.” Origins… traces out the South’s resulting history. Unless otherwise indicated, the ensuing brief summary is drawn from those books.
The presidential election of 1876 was hotly contested. The Democrat, Samuel J. Tilden (New York), was favored to defeat the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes (Ohio). The rationale for a “compromise” was the need to avert a renewed civil war.
What was “arranged” were provisions meant to satisfy the demands of the dominating powers of both North and South: 1) northern capital fervidly desired unfettered access to the rich but undeveloped resources and beckoning economic possibilities of the South; 2) southern merchants, small bankers, and landowners also sought gain for themselves, but of equal importance and more relevantly and disastrously, to end military occupation and its enforcement of the Reconstruction’s policies allowing blacks the rights of citizens. In practice that meant a free hand to mistreat, oppress and murder blacks as, meanwhile, both northern and southern business prospered at the expense of “poor whites.”
The manner in which the Compromise was arranged could be seen as amusing had it not laid the basis for decades of disaster for the majority of the southern population, irrespective of color. We turn first to the sordid details concerning the stolen election.
The southern states were expected… to line up solidly behind Tilden. All except three of them, Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana were reported to have piled up substantial Democratic majorities, and the Republican chairmen in Louisiana and Florida were rumored to have conceded those states….
Even without those /states’/ votes, Tilden had 184 electoral votes in the bag, only one short of the 185 required to elect. Hayes was trailing with 166 electoral votes…. In popular votes. Tilden, according to official returns later, led his opponent by more than a quarter of a million /= 2 + million today/.
Then…, “it was announced that Hayes had 185 electoral votes and is elected.”
Sound familiar? It should, and not only because it was Florida’s locally controlled electoral board that was decisive. The popular vote in favor of Tilden notwithstanding, an electoral victory of Hayes by that one vote placed Hayes in the White House. And its consequences? The symbol of what ensued in the South became the hooded Klansman at a riotous lynching party; for the North, its easy access to the South’s cheap natural and human resources served both to strengthen and greatly to speed up overall industrialization. Over the next several decades, the South’s economy became “modernized,” with what were almost entirely northern-owned — with “whites only” workers — textile factories, mines, railroads, steel mills and banks. However, in that “modernization” the overwhelming majority of both its white and its black population sank into deep poverty. What is especially striking were the political attitudes of the “poor whites” as their material lives worsened.
Increasing hardship for workers side-by-side with increasing national strength was not novel; Hobsbawm informs us that British workers’ life spans were reduced by 20 percent from the 1820s into the 1850s. Those “dark Satanic mills” (Blake) of the industrial revolution were imposed upon an initially demoralized but soon to be resistant working class. The response of southern white workers in the post-1877 years was to accept their always increasing material misery in exchange for “the wages of whiteness” (Roediger); and they were miserable:
By 1900 the cotton-mill worker was a pretty distinct type in the South, a type in some respects perhaps inferior to even that of the old poor white, which in general had been his to begin with. A dead-white skin, a sunken chest, and stooping shoulders were the earmarks of the breed. Chinless faces, microcephalic foreheads, rabbit teeth, goggling fish eyes, rickety limbs, and stunted bodies abounded — over and beyond the limit of their prevalence in the countryside…. And the incidence of tuberculosis, of insanity and epilepsy, and, above all, of pellagra, the curious vitamin-deficiency disease which is nearly peculiar to the South, was increasing. (Cash; and see Woodward, Origins…; and Mitchell.)
It was not until World War II that southern white workers began to move toward material wellbeing; nor until the late 1960s that its black population began to move toward full citizenship. It was war production and its many industrial and military installations that made for southerners’ enhanced material wellbeing. For those who stayed, the numerous war plants and military bases were the key; in addition, millions of both blacks and whites moved out to the North, East, or West for jobs and/or served in the military. Directly and indirectly, the war had much to do with the postwar civil rights struggles; millions of blacks served in the armed forces, to fight against… what? Their grievances, added to the always rising demands for black dignity and freedom, made for a powerful movement.
Thus, when the South evolved toward living within the accepted ways and means of the nation as a whole after the war it was because of influences importantly external in origin. However, the United States as a nation now so much resembling the New South cannot expect outside assistance to save us from ourselves.
The foregoing history could reasonably be seen as absurdly inaccurate by most, including — perhaps especially — students of U.S. history. My own graduate work was divided between economics and history at a leading university, and I knew nothing of this until after my student years. That my experience was not unique may be at verified by an examination of almost any accepted U.S. history text. Representative of that deficiency is what may be found in a widely-used “dictionary” of American history. Although there is an entry for “The New South” there is no mention of “the compromise” that created that South or of its foul underside; what is discussed are its economic “triumphs.”
Worse, when political matters are discussed, we are informed that in the New South “Megro and white suffrage” increased….” However, as Woodward shows, there was a brutal decrease in average material wellbeing after 1877 for blacks and whites. As for political progress, a major element of the Civil Rights struggles in the South in the 1960s was merely to allow blacks to register to vote without fear of being beaten or killed. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was necessary to even begin to end that disgrace. Also left unmentioned is that even in a moderate southern state such as Tennessee most blacks had no schools, no health care, disgraceful housing, and were overworked as sharecroppers at starvation incomes — as were the “poor whites,” as noted earlier.
The Mind of the United States.
So what is it in today’s U.S.A. that gives relevance to the foregoing discussion? Setting aside the 2000 election, there has been no simple “compromise” greasing the skids for today’s reincarnation of the New South. Instead, the ominous directions in which the U.S. now moves are a product of a grotesque meeting of minds — those of big and small business and the otherwise wealthy plus militarists and pro-gun individuals and groups, fundamentalist Christians, anti-abortionists. anti-gays and a modern variation of the “Know-Nothings.” Taken together, both the powerful few and the passionate many provide extraordinary amounts of political purchasing power and political strength — both absolutely and relative to those of us who oppose current trends.
Those millions who feverishly egg on or acquiesce in this rightward shift are all too reminiescent of the majority “poor whites” of the New South who unwittingly brought economic, political, and social damage upon themselves.
There are of course many differences between that South’s past and this nation’s present; but some of those differences are more alarming than soothing. The role of “the Solid South” in the Democratic Party was vastly disproportionate to its percentage of its population, as measured in its effectively permanent committee seniorities in Congress and thus its power to approve federal judges up to the Supreme Court and power to dictate or modify legislation. (Katznelson) Dire to the nation though that was,- the South harmed mostly itself. Today, when the great power of the U.S. is abused it threatens the material wellbeing, peace and, not least, the environmental survival of the entire globe.
The damage wrought to and by our nation has already been excessive; now it accelerates. Even were our domestic and global conditions to continue to deteriorate at its present rate it would be scary enough. However, were crises at home and/or abroad were to take hold and its present holders of power continue to prevail, we could lurch into disaster. Are there reasons to anticipate any such “crises”?
Indeed there are, all too many. Here a summary listing of the main elements at home and abroad threatening turbulence and disorder; and it needs noting that each feeds upon, is fed by, and aggravates the others in destructive interactions:
1) in the United States especially, an increasing concentration of already excessive economic and political power and pervasive corruption, guided by a White House whose arrogance, heedlessness, ignorance and seeming indifference to realities at home and abroad go well beyond anything earlier;
2) a global economy critically dependent upon the already mountainous household, corporate, national, and foreign debts of the United States, which must keep rising or collapse;
3) a dangerously fragile U.S. economy, whose once matchless but now weakening manufacturing sector (measured by millions of lost good jobs) now takes second place to its financial sector which, in turn is dominated by speculation — most menacingly in housing, most disgustingly in pension funds;
4) a set of rising and combined economic and political challenges to U.S.-guided globalization, whether in the already substantial and growing dissent from Latin America, the spreading weakness of European economies, and the spectacular rise in the strengths of both China and India;
5) a notable arousal of U.S. militarism, accompanied and supported by intensifying racism and fundamentalist religion and the rising conflicts between “Jihad and McWorld” (Barber)
6) increasing tensions and possibilities of conflict between the U.S. and China regarding Taiwan and, as well, North Korea and Iran, as the “quagmire” in Iraq deepens and, at the same time, tensions both in Israel/Palestine and Saudi Arabia rise, as they do between India and Pakistan;
7) the weakening of already inadequate educational, health care, and housing policies in the U.S., now also eroding the once substantial policies of Western Europe and Japan, with resulting social unrest, uncertainties, and paralysis;
8) the ways in which consumeristic borrowing and buying serve to detract attention and energy from reasoned political activity in the U.S. and, increasingly, in other countries — all of that and more fed by a “consciousness industry” (Shor; Ensenzberger) that sells attitudes and ideas as easily as goods and services, and in doing “teaches us to want what we don’t need and not want what we do” (Baran); just what those in power wish, just when the general public needs to become better informed and politically involved.
Throughout our history, we have seen ourselves as the land of opportunity; it has never been that for all, but has been for the many. Now, the very wealthy become disgustingly more so and and are taxed disgustingly less in this richest country in the world — as meanwhile, and for related reasons, always fewer are able to meet their basic needs for nutrition, health care, housing, education, and opportunity.
There is no acceptable reason for those needs not to be met, nor to allow the worse that is on its way . Instead, our leaders blithely speak and behave as though “prosperity is here to stay” as, wittingly or not, they set the stage for a convulsive process.
This evolving nightmare will not be reversed from the top down; for our ideals to become realizable once more, “we the people” must bring it to life; must increase, spread, and deepen our political efforts. In the first half of the 20th century, as its crises shoved the world into chaos, convulsions, and war, it also produced fascism. Is that where we are headed?
Yes and no. One of fascism’s foremost critics described it as “capitalism with the gloves off.” (Laski) The “gloves” were those of political democracy. If, as, and when the U.S. as a whole becomes increasingly like the “New South,” it is likely to do so with political democracy; “fascism with the gloves on,” that is.
To many who read this that such could happen to the United States is simply impossible? Whether it is that, or merely improbable that depends upon whether the millions of us who have taken the “American dream” seriously will also take politics much more seriously than has been our custom.
In 1937, when German fascism was full-throated, Robert A. Brady wrote what remains the best study of its origins and nature: The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism. On its title page he chose to quote Shakespeare’s Lear:
If that the heavens do not their visible spirits
Send quickly down to tame these vile offences,
It will come,
Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.
Time had already run out for the Germans; there is still time for us “to tame these vile offences.”
Baran, Paul. 1969. “Theses on advertising,” in The Longer View. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Brady, Robert A. 1937. The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism. New York: Viking Press.
Cash, W.J. 1941. The Mind of the South. New York: Knopf.
Ellsberg, D. 2002. Secrets: A Memoir on Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. New York: Viking Penguin.
Ensenzberger, H. 1974. The Consciousness Industry. New York: Seabury Press.
Hobsbawm, E. J. 1968. Industry and Empire. New York: Pantheon.
Katznelson, I. 2005. When Affirmative Action Was White. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Laski, H. 1936. The Rise of European Liberalism. London: Allen & Unwin.
Mitchell, B. 1921. The Rise of Cotton Mills in the South. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Roediger, D. 1991. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. New York: Verso.
Schor, J. 1991. The Overworked American. New York: Basic Books.
———- 1998. The Overspent American. New York: Basic Books.
Veblen, Thorstein. 1923, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times. New York: Huebsch.
Woodward, C.V. 1951. The Origins of the New South, 1877-1923. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Zinn, H. 1964/2002. The Southern Mystique. New York: Knopf/South End Press.