Sunday, June 04, 2006

For the South, the Past Is Never Past

Of all the thoughtful, eloquent writing by Digby that I've enjoyed over the past two years since discovering his great blog Hullabaloo, this diary may be the best yet. Digby goes back to the pre-Civil War era to trace the roots of the ongoing battle over regional cultures and the persistent defensiveness of the South. He quotes the following passage from Lincoln's Cooper Union speech, describing the position of the then-new Republican Party (talk about historic role reversals!):

The question recurs, what will satisfy them [i.e., the white Southerners who defend slavery]? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly - done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated - we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.
And Digby goes on to say:

So too, today, we must ask the question, "what will satisfy them?" Will it be to ban gay marriage? Outlaw abortion? Destroy the public schools? Institute mandatory prayer? Deport all non-English speakers?

I don't think so. It certainly will not be enough to nominate a conservative, born again southern Democrat. We did that. His name was Jimmy Carter. Here's what they are still doing to him even 25 years later. [Digby links to a diary chronicling the latest conversative attacks or Carter.] We nominated a son of the "New South," modern, moderate and pro-business. They impeached his ass.

No, what must happen is that Democrats everywhere must place themselves avowedly with the most conservative red states in every way. They must openly reject their own tribal identity (whatever that may be) and become them. Nothing less will do.

"The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of [liberalism], before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us."

We are not going to win conservative red states simply by respecting the culture. There is no evidence that it will work.
The whole post--like almost everything Digby writes--is well worth reading.

I am usually skeptical of "grand theories" that try to explain current political and social trends in terms of vast historical forces operating on a scale of centuries. But I am becoming increasingly convinced that the current North/South divide is in some sense the "same" conflict as the one that split the nation almost 150 years ago. ("Same" in quotation marks because of course no two historical events are ever truly the same.) Which is not to say that civil war must inevitably recur, or that the regional split can never be healed--but that Northern liberals have much to learn from the wisdom of Lincoln--his clarity, flexibility, firmness, and courage--in dealing with the South in the 1850s and 60s.

Perhaps William Faulkner, that insightful, conflicted, bitter yet loyal son of the South, had it right when he wrote (in Requiem for a Nun), "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

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