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Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Crackers

Last night, I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
With a smart-ass New York Jew
And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox
Audience laughed at Lester Maddox, too

Well, he may be a fool, but he's our fool
If they think they're better than him, they're wrong
So I went to the park and took some paper along
That's where I made this song

--Randy Newman, "Rednecks"

I thought of that song last night, when I saw Chris Matthews and Eugene Robinson bear-baiting Thomas Hiter, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who was there to stick up for South Carolina on the occasion of its throwing a ball to "celebrate" the centennial of the state's voting to secede from the union. It cannot be said that Mr. Hiter did any favors to himself or any cause he thought he was defending. He's either one of those sorry bastards who think he's winning an argument by moving the semantic goalposts or else he's just not on really good terms with the English language. He tried to put his opponents--and he did them the favor of making it clear from the outset that he saw them as being agin him rather then trying to be friendly, thus giving them the option of taking off their gloves--on the defensive by saying that he thought there was a right to free speech in this country and that the anniversary celebration was protected by that right, but since nobody was saying otherwise, he sounded deranged; few things make a man sound more overwrought than pretending that the people pointing and laughing at him and calling him a jackass are actually debating his right to exist. He got testy when Robinson described the act of secession as "terrorism", insisting that, although we now know that it doesn't work, it was an admirable political act at the time because it took some courage. (Every dumbass in America, except one, can be counted on to insist, at one point or another, that what really counts in politics isn't intelligence or decency or even being right but bravery. The sole exception is George H. W. Bush who, for obvious reasons, always insisted that what he most wanted was to be seen as loyal.) Then, when Matthews asked him if he himself would have opposed slavery if he'd lived a hundred years ago, and, after Hiter said that it was a moot point because the Civil War wasn't about slavery, Matthews asked him if, for example, he would have been a supporter of John Brown's, and Hiter gagged: of course not, he said, because "John Brown was a terrorist!"

All this same time, Hiter clung stubbornly to the word "celebrate", repeating it again and again and saying that we ought to "celebrate" important historical events, instead of even attempting to try out cooler alternate terms such as, say, "commemorate" or "remember" or even "honor". Mercifully, neither Matthews nor Robinson asked him how he planned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of 9/11 or next Pearl Harbor Day. They did everything else, though, literally chortling at their new friend's haplessness, until, at the sign-off, Matthews thanked Robinson for having represented "the right side" of this argument. There's no question that Robinson was on the right side of the question over whether seceding from the union to protect the peculiar institution was something to be celebrated with dancing and petit fours, or something to be stuffed into the history books and then never spoken of again, if being right about something that obvious is something to be proud of. It must be said that being wrong about it is a lot worse.

Still, it seemed a little, what's the word, rude, to invite the third runner-up in the Shelby Foote Look-Alike Contest at the Southern Division Village Idiots' Convention onto your TV show just to pull his tail and laugh in his face. It's simply not the case that Chris Matthews does not routinely have guests on his show who talk ridiculous, fantasy-based gibberish, some of it very offensive, while treating them respectfully. People come on and say that there is good reason to believe, despite all the evidence of the past quarter century of American life, that taxing the affluent causes economic ruination and that tax cuts prevent deficits and improve things for everyone, just as deregulation flushes corruption and incompetence out of the system, and Matthews doesn't hit them with pig bladders on cut a rope that drops cardboard props with "1000 LBS." printed on the side onto their heads, because the shit they're talking is still seen as conventionally accepted nonsense, spoken by people he might want to have on his show more than once. Hell, if Matthews were to behave this way after every interview, there was a time not too long ago when the people he'd have been laughing at were the ones who were skeptical about the need for war in Iraq and the ones he'd have been congratulating for being on "the right side" would have been the guests who swore up and down that Blofeld's underground lair was beneath Saddam Hussein's presidential palace. Nothing that Hiter said was forgivable, but given how predictable this was, it might have been kinder to not invite the silly man to come on the show at all than it was to invite him on so that a soft target could have the stuffing beaten out of it.

Because I grew up in Mississippi, I've known about Haley Barbour for a bit longer than most other people. Haley was much in the local news when I was still in high school: he worked on John Connolly's short-lived bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 and then ran unsuccessfully for John Stennis's U.S. Senate seat in 1982. In between those early years and his current position as Governor of the Magnolia State, Barbour was a frighteningly successful lobbyist and head of the RNC, and he is a pol to his core. Michael Kinsley recently summed him up as "a master spin artist, plays on this social insecurity among journalists. Barbour doesn’t literally wink as he spins, but he manages to send the message: This is all a big game — a big wonderful game — and you have the privilege of playing it with me." Because of his friendliness to the press, Barbour really is as beloved among journalists now as John McCain used to be, and, with weird but inexorable logic, they write stories that celebrate his soulless machine-politician efficiency the same way they used to wrote stories extolling McCain's high, high character and stature as something other than a (ick! nasty!) politician.

There may even be journalists who share Barbour's delusion that he could be president someway. I don't see how that could happen, because the one constant in national elections held in my lifetime is that nobody stands a chance unless he's seen as a non-politician, like George W. Bush--that whole "guy you'd like to have a beer with" bullshit--or as some kind of savior. The same qualities that Kinsley recognizes as flattering to reporters will repulse Joe and Ma Lunchpail, or whatever the hell we're calling the regular citizens of Oz this week. Given this fact, I have mixed feelings about the arguments made by some observers that Barbour has no shot at achieving a national constituency because he's from Mississippi and, with his thick, rubbery features, potato-sack build, and Depity Dawg accent, he automatically reminds people of the racist sheriff of corn pone melodrama; The New Republic has mocked him as Bogg Hogg. I get the point, sure, but I can see where this kind of talk is just going to add to the sense of grievance and self-pitying anger that makes conservative white Southerners see the "elites" as banded against them. And of course, it's going to drive these guys crazy that this kind of caricature is socially acceptable in a way that portraying Obama as a pimp or a monkey isn't, and shouldn't be. They may be blind to the irony that Obama had to be careful to not given racist jokers anything they could work with, while Barbour probably gains a few points with his target audience whenever he staggers away from the barbeque table wiping his hands on his shirt, thus proving that he's an authentic good ol' boy.

Andrew Ferguson's profile of Barbour in The Weekly Standard has gotten Barbour in trouble on account of his butt-stupid remarks about how little racial tension there was in his home town of Yazoo when he was growing up, and how much the White Citizens Council was to thank for this. Barbour claims to be proud that school integration, when it came to Yazoo, was nonviolent, and Ferguson seems to agree that this was an impressive feat. The only problem with this view is that by the time desegregation did come to Yazoo--and to other parts of Mississippi, including Walthall County, my old stomping grounds--it was 1970, fifteen years after the Supreme Court issued its edict about getting this shit straightened out "with all deliberate speed." "Up north," Barbour told Ferguson about the White Citizens Council, a racist pro-segregationist organization,"they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you’d lose it. If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there. We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.” Of course, if anyone tried to integrate any quicker than the town leaders wanted, nobody would shop at their store either, and eventually, they'd get run out of town. What Barbour is saying is that Yazoo had no need of the Klan, because it had a group of town leaders who had nonviolent ways of keeping things the way they ought to be. The inclusion of the phrase "up north" is his reminder that "the elites" may think that racism had something to do with the way things were done at home, just as they may think that slavery had a little something to do with the Civil War, but that, to his mind, just proves that they don't get it. Because the White Citizens Council was an unambiguously racist organization, and overt appeals to racial discrimination don't cut it anymore, in 1988 the group morphed into the "Council of Conservative Citizens", on which Barbour has always been on good terms, and whose membership it would do him no good to piss off. Since his comments to Ferguson went viral, he has tried to get back into the good graces of the rest of the world be saying that the WCC was "totally indefensible", despite the fact that his original comments amounted to saying that no one would think they even need defending, unless that person had the misfortune to be a typical ill-informed Yankee. All he's saying is, hey, they weren't the Klan! And, as George Bush used to say about Dan Quayle, it's not like he ever burned the American flag, right?

So many conservative bloggers and pundits have rushed to declare that Barbour is toast as a national politician that I have to assume that they share the belief that he's too alienating a figure for non-crackers and that any attempt by him to enter the presidential race would be a straight-up disaster. Such defenses of him that I've seen have boiled down to saying that the Governor is kind of stupid, but in that lovable, Bush-Reagan-Gump way that just goes to show what a regular good American from Riverdale High the candidate really is. We've been told that he was too busy thinking about girls, nudge-nudge wink-wink, to think about the state of racial matters in the 1960s. And anyway, what American boy doesn't see his home town through "rose-colored glasses"? For the sake of perspective, Barbour was sixteen years old when he murders of the three civil rights workers occurred in Neshoba County and twenty-two in 1970, and has always given the impression of having been especially plugged in since he was in the womb.

For my part, I'm about twenty years younger than Barbour and remember having grown up, in a post-desegregated society, feeling very much aware of race and its deranging effects on most of the white Mississippians around me, all my childhood, and I don't know anyone I grew up with who didn't feel the same way. This shit doesn't grow in the brain naturally and without lots of encouragement. I remember my first day at elementary school in Mississippi: I remember the days leading up to it, and all the helpful advice that my parents and other grown-ups beat into me. I was told that there were things called black children, and that they'd probably find me fascinating because they would have never seen straight blond hair before, and they'd most likely reach out to touch it, but if that happened, just scream for the teacher, and she'd get out her can of mace and a whip and a chair and set things right. My mother, who was the closest thing to a hipster in the 39641 zip code, warned me that black kids became wild and murderously violent if any mention was made of their mothers. Just to be on the safe side, I was told to absolutely not to talk to any of them. At the end of the school day--which turned out to be my last day in public elementary school, before my dad pulled me and enrolled me in one of the costly new "private academies" that sprang up in the wake of desegregation--we were told to line up in two rows, one black and one white, and wait for the bell to ring. I noticed that the black kid standing next to me had one of his shoelaces untied; summoning all my courage, I whispered, "Psssst!, to him, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. This is the environment that Barbour grew up in, never noticing any signs of racial uneasiness and thinking of the White Citizens Council as some kind of booster organization that passed the hat around for holiday wreaths to hang on the lampposts when Christmas rolled around. Mind you, I'm not saying that I think he's lying. I think he probably fit right in, to a degree that I find deeply unsettling.

This past couple of years--during the presidency of Barack Obama, what a shocking coincidence--we've seen a rise in the number of aggrieved white guys, such as Andrew Breitbart, trying to make careers on the backs of black politicians and activists who they accuse of the opportunistic (and racist) use of charges of racism. It's a line that depends on the assumption, which is probably shared by a depressing number of people, that overblown charges of racism against whites is now a bigger problem than actual racism against non-whites. It goes hand in hand with a tendency to think that people who invoke the Civil Rights movement do so only to make white people feel guilty and ashamed. We saw this reach a new low earlier this year during the health care debate, when Breitbart and others accused John Lewis and other civil rights heroes of being lying hucksters slandering noble Tea Party goons as bigots. Then, as if to prove that you can always go lower than the bottom. we had Steve King attacking the Pigford settlement, intended as compensation for discrimination against black farmers by the USDA, as "reparations for slavery" by another name, which made him the poster boy for white cranks so obsessed with what they see as other people's morbid obsession with slavery that they automatically connect it to any make up for an injustice which found black Americans on the receiving end.

People like King and Breitbart, and Thomas Hiter, don't understand why we can't shut up about slavery and segregation, which were never really that bad and anyway were so long ago and anyway, the Negroes won--and won and won and won and won, so could they please get off their neck already? In order to appreciate just how surreal this line of thinking is, you need to keep in mind that we're talking about an issue that, whatever level of social acceptance race-based policies ever enjoyed, was always as morally clear-cut as anything anyone has dealt with in the last couple of centuries: you can say that there were places and times when trying to do away with slavery or segregation would have made a person unelectable, but how many people, especially in the past half century or so, could ever have been morally obtuse enough to convince themselves that supporting these things, or even tolerating them, didn't make you evil? Men like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms and Ross Barnett and William Rehnquist were all, fully consciously, deeply committed to serving evil--and to subverting democracy, since a key political component to segregation was denying the vote to a considerable percentage of eligible voters.

You could say it was in some ways a little more complicate than that, so long as you don't mind flat-out lying. And the amazing thing is, they all got to keep their careers, becoming revered old men of the U.S. Congress and, in the case of Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. They were as wrong, morally and intellectually, as it was possible to be about one of the most important issues of their times, and it didn't hurt their careers at all, and this is in a world where, as recently as 2004, John Kerry's opposition to a war he fought in, with distinction, was enough to blow a hole in his own presidential hopes. People who are still mad at Jane Fonda can't imagine why anyone would think harshly of someone like Thurmond, who fought against civil rights for blacks even while keeping it quiet that he'd had a part-black daughter after screwing his family maid. Those guys are gone now, and in their place are guys who came along in their wake and learned politics at their feet--people like Haley Barbour and Trent Lott and Joe Wilson, who, when word got out about Thurmond's daughter after the old man's death, savagely denounced the woman for having besmirched a great man's reputation by having had the temerity to exist. I mean, talk about uppity!

The question that the most reasonable of these people would ask is, what does it matter, now, what someone like Barbour thinks Yazoo was like fifty years ago, so long as he understands what things are like now and is prepared to make the proper insincere noises about race? It's not that I think Barbour is a flaming racist underneath the affable exterior. I don't think he's eaten up about having to live in a post-desegregation world, and I don't think he has any thoughts of trying to change things back to the way they used to be. I certainly don't think he'd get very far with that program even he tried. But, even though we can't know for sure how anyone, even ourselves, would have behaved if they'd lived their lives in a world that viewed a little enforced racial discrimination as just something you have to learn to live with, I'd like to at least think that anyone we'd elect to high office would have been in the camp that fought to change it, and I can't think that of Barbour, or of Lott or Wilson. They're just too comfortable with the old ways, even if they seem less pissed off than someone like Breitbart about the new ways. I'm sure that Barbour thinks that discrimination is unacceptable now, because thinking that is now a prerequisite for getting elected; but he's never given anyone a reason to think that, fifty years ago, he wouldn't have believed, just as sincerely and just as unthinkingly, that integration was unacceptable, if he'd seen that as a prerequisite for getting elected. And though old times aren't coming back on the next train, if they did, I'm sure that he could see things that way again, and that the change would come to him as naturally as breathing. And for reasons that he could never begin to understand, that makes him and his brethren hard to trust and connect with. The fact is, most people I know don't feel guilty or ashamed when they think of the Civil Rights movement. Those of us who are white and of a certain age see it as something to be grateful for, because we were spared having to find out how hard a time we would have had adjusting to a system that had singled us out for unfair advantages, but all of us see it as something to take pride in, because the people who ended segregation, like the people who ended slavery, were--are--American heroes. But we see these things as victories for Americans, while others see them as victories for black people. That might not necessarily be a racist attitude, but I'd argue that it's not a fully American one.

It's weird how adaptable some of the old professional racist politicians turned out to be, after giving so many fiery speeches vowing to lay down their lives before they'd see all Americans granted the same rights and privileges as themselves. Anyone who can't imagine what that would sound like coming from someone today must have missed John McCain's impassioned diatribe on the Senate floor railing against the repeal of DADT, expressing shock that, "about six weeks after an election that repudiated the agenda of the other side", in "a direct repudiation of the American people", something could happen that is favored by a huge majority of the public. McCain knows that most people disagree with him, he knows about the lives and careers that DADT has wrecked, he knows about the weakening of our intelligence networks by the dismissal of Arab-language translators whose bedroom activities he disapproves of, and all that matters to him is what he sees as his God-given right to use the government to officially classify a major segment of the population as less than fully human. This is someone who, not very long ago, a lot of people thought would make a fine president.


Tehanu said...

The fact is, most people I know don't feel guilty or ashamed when they think of the Civil Rights movement. Those of us who are white and of a certain age see it as something to be grateful for, because we were spared having to find out how hard a time we would have had adjusting to a system that had singled us out for unfair advantages, but all of us see it as something to take pride in, because the people who ended segregation, like the people who ended slavery, were--are--American heroes. But we see these things as victories for Americans, while others see them as victories for black people.

You do have a talent for summing things up in a way that's both pithy and insightful. Great post, as usual!

kent-allard-jr said...

Great post as usual. It's surprising that Barbour's remarks were made public at the same time the CCC is protesting the Thor movie for having a black character in it.

Ken Pidcock said...

You could say it was in some ways a little more complicated than that, so long as you don't mind flat-out lying.