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The Final New South?

ISSUE:  Winter 1998

Distinctions there still are between the South and the rest of the country, but not very interesting ones. Praise of the unique Southern cuisine or spiritual, country, and Appalachian folk music can carry regional celebrants only so far. In most qualities, even including race relations, the South’s differences from the North, East, and West are mostly only of degree. Degrees are important, but not generally historically crucial.

The South is still awash in irrationalities, as traditionally it has always been. But now these tend to be shared irrationalities, much the same as those which burden the entire nation. At their front are faith that nears zealotry in a market economy and its entrepreneurs; reverence of technology; and conviction that material satisfactions are as inexhaustible as are desires for them, and that the legitimacy of desires knows no bounds so long as they are served by American commerce. None of those notions was characteristic of the traditional South. All are now deeply ingrained, and were learned and absorbed quickly and easily as soon as the Civil Rights Movement freed the white South.

It has become an aggressive region. Banks, universities, hospitals, professional sports teams—the drive among all is to be as big as there is anywhere, or bigger. The St. Petersburg Times in February 1997 printed a special supplement, headlined “Does Daytona Beat Indy?” The South is on the move.

Stock car racing is distinctive: the competitors are virtually all white males. It is one of the last strongholds of “good old boys.” Basketball and football, the sports crazed region’s two other great loves, are professionally and in the universities starred in mostly by blacks. The paying spectators and the universities’ deep-pocketed alumni subsidizers are largely white, cheering lustily for their black performers. Southern race relations are flexible: whatever suits convenience and desire.

A good bit of division of racial role and function like this occurs, along both old and new lines. Some patterns endure. In Durham in 1996 homicides broke all records. There were 42.Victims included three Hispanics and three whites. All the remainder were black. Segregation was the rule; an Hispanic was charged with the murder of one of the whites (she was a girl friend) but otherwise people killed their own. All black victims were murdered by other blacks. The blacks, victims and perpetrators, were nearly all young males, and poor ones unless temporarily enriched by the drug trade. If data were known, they would probably show that they were also little schooled. The same pattern prevailed in 1997.

None of this is, however, a Southern singularity, though in fact, and this is a tradition that has been adhered to, the South does lead all other regions in killing. It is, always has been, a violent place. On this score, the Southern Civil Rights Movement, which believed genuinely in gentleness, failed.

In 1961, I wrote for these pages an essay titled “The Annealing of the South.” The theme was that its torrid battle over civil rights would leave the South readied—”annealed”—by its inevitable defeat for movement into a new and, despite loud protestation, a welcomed era. I concluded a 1964 article published in another place saying that the future would see “all over the South, battle lines drawn close to each other” between “Southern conservatism—blending now with that of the nation” and Southern liberalism which has “no choice but to accept the Negro’s cause as its own,” and that this prolonged contest would define the region.

Both predictions proved more or less accurate. Neither was difficult to make (though the first attracted at the time some strong doubts). We know now, at least for the present, the outcome of the second. The “new” conservatives (quotation marks seem needed, for newness and conservatism don’t get on) have mostly won. The white South is not again a one-party electorate, and it will not become so; but it for the foreseeable future is close to that. The harsh side of that is not that the Republican Party is now the claimant majority party. The menace is what the Southern Republican Party has become, a menace magnified by its success in imposing its views on the national Republican Party.

In the 1860’s, the Republican Party set out to conquer the South; in our years, it found a more effective way: mutual absorption.

Though the South’s politics may by the late 90’s have come close to being simply “American”—and joining the “mainstream” had been reformers’ long-time goal—that is not good enough. The South owes. No other region has caused the nation so much hell. It ought to compensate. The way it could is to lead toward a society better in some fundamental ways. Southern progress has in the past been measured by its critics, insiders and outsiders alike, in terms of changed racial relations. Such are now about as good and as bad as the rest of the nation’s. The South should now be measured by, should measure itself by, the contributions it makes toward a good national society. The prospects are discouraging.


What does America lack that the South might help supply? Above all, there needs to be a bridle on American violence. Almost as urgent is the end or at least the dramatic diminishing of poverty. And of similar order of urgency, there needs to be more diligent care for our natural environment. And as always, individual freedom and the rule of law need to be guarded.

Expecting Southern politicians to lead on any of these causes is unrealistic. Now. Recognizing that throughout the South there is an abundant belief in all of them among the citizenry, and expecting that to continue and grow, is, on the other hand, realistic. Liberalism’s building blocks are all about.

Perhaps, if we accept certain opinions Southern novelists and essayists have taught us, we could say that the South might impart to the turbulent national polity a deeper awareness of man’s place in history; of the sacredness of community and tradition; and of the social wisdom that breeds tolerance of sin and human faults. These would be altogether imaginary hopes, for the present. Southerners may cherish the loving words of their writers’ explorings of their souls—souls of white folks and souls of black folks—but the spirit that strongly is moving is the external one of American capitalism.

And if one holds, as the prevailing national ideology does, that our military power should be immense and dominant worldwide; that the self-perceived interests of the United States define what’s best for the world; that the self-perceived interests of businessmen define our national interest; that the needs of the poor and the uses made of and care given to the natural environment are best left to the marketplace; if one has these convictions then Southern politicians, today typified by Senator Jesse Helms, may be said to be contributing to the nation, for these are their creed, and now substantially are imposed on the national Republican Party.

For reasons which must be the tares and thistles of American— and first of all, Southern—history, these hard principles reflexively pick up camp followers: anti-abortion, pro-capital punishment, pro-school prayer, anti-homosexuals, public school choice and tuition grants. Tomorrow’s papers will add to the list. The same people and voters will favor school prayer and the Pentagon’s latest budget-buster.

Here and now, these people politically exist and have formidable power. They are, because black voters are as strong as they are in the Democratic ranks, mainly Republicans. So great is their power that very few Republican congressmen will oppose any item of the package. The Christian Coalition is a wing of the party. It is leading the party into a dangerous testing of the national commitments to church and state separation and to personal privacy.

If one does not hold to this bundle of convictions, to be a Republican would seem to require a strong belief in the possibilities of party redemption. There are many Southern Baptists who are saddened and despairing over the conquest of their old denomination by heretics, but can’t bring themselves to stop sending in their Lotte Moon offerings. Loyal Southern Republicans of the Dewey-Taft-Eisenhower school—such as, for example, those Republican judges of the old Fifth Circuit who steered the South through the storms of the 1950’s and 1960’s—must feel similarly deserted.

Republicanism does, at least, have convictions. Democratic leaders are trimmers. Few are known for their principles. They tend not, however, to be in the embrace of the Christian Coalition. And they tend not to make public exhibit of attitudes of hardness, even meanness, toward the needs and conduct of the poor, especially the non-white poor.

Democrats join with Republicans in maintaining the bipartianship of irrationalities. The parties are as one in refusal to reconsider drug policies, continuing to pour billions into policies of proven failure. They are as one in coddling the C.I.A. and other dubiously named “intelligence” agencies, despite their proven malfeasances and non-utility. (The same Southern political leaders who decry expenditures for the poor or for the environment turned their heads when the National Reconnaissance Office not only built for itself a new $300 million office without Congressional authorization or even notification but then misplaced $4 billion; a “remarkable accounting feat,” The New York Times called it.) And like schoolyard bullies who pick on only the little kids, they avoid all confrontation with the huge military contractors.

The parties are as one in damning Castro; are as one in belligerence toward so-called “rogue” or terrorist governments, that is those which violate human rights beyond their borders, unlike those others which are of use to us—China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Indonesia, even more—which oppress mostly their own. The parties are as one in pouring money into the Pentagon, even though enemies have to be imagined. These are national irrationalities; Southern political leaders are at the forefront of them all.

Benedetto Croce, great historian and philosopher, had hymned what has through the centuries given life to liberalism at its best:

Liberty demands ideas and ideals, and the infinite sky, and the background of the universe, not as extraneous to man but as the very spirit that thinks and works within him and joyfully creates ever new forms of life.

Liberalism is the politics of ideas and of determination that there be better and freer and fairer lives for all. It is that or it is nothing worthwhile—or worthy of the American journey. It has been betrayed over and over again. It has been betrayed lately so grievously that to fear that the nation has doomed itself as a force for further good is all too reasonable.

The best that can be said of today’s politics is that it may be a necessary historical working-out of all the new interests and people that have surged into the society-of-those-who-count-for-something. Blacks had no or minuscule political effect before the 1960’s. They simply did not count. And then they opened up American politics, and a line of followers—women, other minorities—have marched in. The political process is sorting them out, well or badly.

Probably politics will succeed best at that in those localities where demography and economics have come into a rough balance, and where nevertheless there has survived or has emerged a recognition that stability and advance of the town or city is important to all. This kind of balance is far from the “beloved community” of the Movement’s hopes, but it’s not bad and it is an achievement of the Movement’s drive to enlarge the ranks and classes of those who “count.” There are dozens, maybe scores, of localities where this “new order” is in place, and the South may have a large share of them. Durham is, perhaps, such a one: political actions that trespass too heavily on any rooted interest, racial or economic, are seldom possible—and yet there is steady new rearticulation of what those interests are.

Whether from such will come a political movement that looks up to and seeks to live under that “infinite sky” is for the future to know. Probably not. Too much truth rings still from Walt Whitman’s 1871 cri’de coeur:

Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness of heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believed in, . . .nor is humanity itself believed in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, maladministration; and the judiciary is tainted.

Yet Whitman would hold onto his “unshaken faith in the elements of the American masses.” So may we try to do. Do we not have in the South, in the nation, standing apart from political parties, people, more and more of them, growing in self-confidence, assured of themselves in knowing what to say “no” to, where to place their “yeses”?

People can learn how to say “no” to the Pentagon’s and the C. I. A.’s greed and to the spread of militarism’s spirit; can learn to say “no” to the gods of the marketplace; can learn to say “yes” to the claims of the “least among us” and to nature; can learn to say a resounding “yes” to the flourishing of individual thought and creativity. People can learn to break free of the barriers that politics builds trying to separate us from each other, not allowing individuals or nations to find their places and destinies.

Near the heart of the old Southern Civil Rights Movement was repugnance against the overuse of power. The Movement said “yes” to unity, “no” to division, said “yes” to brotherhood and sisterhood, “no” to separation and segregation. Even deeper in the Movement, at its best, was a commitment to the belief that a good society is a society of people linked together through gentleness of spirit.

The Movement was, nevertheless, honest and realistic in its confrontation of American society. It went into the vile tenements of Harlem, into lifeless counties of rural Mississippi and North Carolina and of all the Southern states, where white men with worn-out wives and worn-out land and too many children dragged themselves through a bewitching Southern climate with nothing really important to do and no hope of finding anything to do to give their lives self-respect. It knew the alleys of Southern cities or towns, heavy with the oppressive yet somehow friendly odor of frying catfish, where Negro children, too numerous to count easily, were the only spots of brightness in the human scene, knew too the camps of the migrant workers, who are truly America’s forgotten people, as they make their way up and down the Eastern seaboard and into the gardens of California and into the broad lands of the Midwest.

Over the intervening decades, the old Movement calls us still to see these scenes. America likes to call itself a middle-class country. If it were wholly a middle-class country, there likely would be as much fetid prejudice of all kinds as we have today. But we would not have the problems which currently make many lives so grim.

It is disproportionately the disadvantaged among American’s people, both white and black, who give the tense seriousness to racial relations, the anger and violence. Asking these “least among us” to acknowledge the civil rights of others or to accept and exercise the rights which are theirs under the Constitution, is asking people on whom a whole society stomps to behave with civility.

Consequently, they act often uncivilly. Why should we, after all, be surprised if a handful of semi-illiterate white men in an impoverished county, having spent what little change they have on a bottle of booze, and having nothing else to do or even to wish for, go off and burn a black church? Why should we be surprised if, despite all the efforts of black community organizations, families confined to a vermin-infested ghetto do not send off to the public schools children who are models of behavior and intellectual curiosity?

We have millions of people in America, for whom the American standard of living, the American way of life, the American “dream” are but the emptiest of phrases. These people include blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, white folk of the rural South, and others as well.

The white supremacists (who live both in the North and South) are right about some things. Blacks are often poor, often have high crime rates, often have low educational records, often display personal and family irresponsibility. And that this should be a fact is a sin of the white race. After having hammered at the Negro consciousness and vitality by 300 years of slavery, brutality, discrimination, and segregation, some of us seem now perplexed to discover that many blacks do not behave well. We sowed, and we reap. We need to accept the nation’s moral, economic, and political necessity for rescuing the millions whom we have put adrift. What the poor are being asked to do, in the name of welfare “reform,” is to find their own niches in an economy which makes high and ever-higher demands on those who strive for more than subsistence. It is a daunting assignment. What can they offer the economy which it wants and will pay for?

Made especially daunting because the organizing principle of American public life is war. World War I was the determining event of this century. The horrors it unloosed still enchain the world. War is not only violence incarnate but is the pursuit of violence as life’s necessary pathway. It is the reproductive genitalia of lesser violence. It is humanity’s great sin, which we rationalize by glorifying it. Nowhere in the European or North American world is the esteem for war and warriors as great as it is in our South. The South’s militaristic spirit may well have done and is doing as great a harm to civilization as did its racial practices.

Protestantism, which abounds in the South, calls on believers to forgive others. Forgiving those Southern political leaders, some of whom are still in high office, who cruelly fought the Civil Rights Movement, is hard. Forgiving those who led us into Vietnam is hard. Is it any easier, for those who led us into Iraq? What besides cheap oil and the salvation of certain Arab dictatorships are on the credit side of that exhibition of America’s habitual insistence that its perceived interests are humanity’s?

We are still a nation consumed by belief in its “manifest destiny.” No longer especially territorial, that old ideology has been transmuted into a conviction of our national right to impose our will on other peoples; especially, on weaker ones. The Helms-Burton aggression against Cuba—what other name fits it as well?—is a late episode.

Can it be believed that the fever of national arrogance and greed will break, in its wake give this nation a humbler spirit, give us here in the South that tolerance and acceptance of others our novelists said was in our regional character? Can we believe that the strength of this generation of Southern political leaders has peaked, out of its own excesses and crudities, as a generation ago did that of Eastlands and Wallaces?

The annealing of the South during civil rights days, the region’s opening itself up for change, required a defeat of its established politics. South and nation are one now. The region’s faults, especially its militarism and callousness toward the poor and the natural environment, are the nation’s too. Thirty-some years ago, Southern dissenters could hope for defeat of Southern policies, and feel and know that even so they were loyal to their home. What would defeat of national policies look like? I do not know, but patriotism does not preclude hoping for it.

For generations Southerners have talked, longingly, of a “New South.” Must we acknowledge that we have now arrived, finally? Our Southern political men and women lead the nation. Our businesses are the most technologically advanced. Republicans abound. The Democratic party is dependent on black voters. Is this not indeed a “New South?” the end of the South as we’ve heretofore known it?

Or can it be believed that possibly another South, in a new nation, wrung from the hopes of self-confident, liberty loving, and peacemaking people, lies yet ahead?


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