Monday, April 14, 2014

Why the South doth prevail (and why to some extent it didn't)

A 1957 essay by William F. Buckley, Why the South Must Prevail, was making the rounds on Twitter last night (thanks to Erik Kleefeld). In it, Buckley pretends to some regard for the ultimate welfare of Southern "negroes" but asserts that Southern whites have the right to preserve their cultural superiority by denying their black neighbors the right to vote --because  "the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage."

That is, southern whites don't want to integrate and so pollute their...culture, so they have the right to keep "negroes" from voting to force them to do.  How can a minority claim to speak for "civilization"? "[T]he White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race."

People well-versed in Buckley's oeuvre and career, and in the legislative civil rights battles of the of the late 50s, will doubtless weigh in with appropriate context and analysis. Lacking more than passing familiarity with the latter and interest in the former, I still think it's worthwhile to note a couple of points that struck me, coming to this cold.

Buckley asserts that southern whites don't want to deprive African Americans of the vote just for the sake of doing so. To the extent that blacks would vote more or less as whites do on many or even most issues, they'd be fine with extending the franchise. But alas, there are pesky issues on which "corporate interests" take over, and when that is the case, the White community
means to prevail on any issue on which there is corporate disagreement between Negro and White. The White community will take whatever measures are necessary to make certain that it has its way.  
Here, Buckley is simply describing the reality -- later he justifies it.  My thought upon reading this aggressive assertion of fact is that it remains true today -- simply substitute "Republicans" for "the White community." Then, as now, issues on which there is "corporate disagreement" stand in for all practical purposes for all issues -- in that the Republican Party, with a major assist from the Republican Supreme Court, is going all-out to deny the vote to as many non-white citizens as possible  -- via onerous voter i.d. requirements, reduced early voting and polling hours, discouragement of absentee voting, etc.

Jonathan Chait is right to assert that while many conservative policies are historically associated with slavery and segregation, it's "insane" to assume that any given person favoring core conservative policies such as tax cuts is racist merely on the basis of that belief. Or, in Obama's words (as Chait points out in a followup post): "it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans." It's also possible to imagine Republican leaders advancing voter suppression policies out of pure realpolitik -- these people are not going to vote for us so let's shrink their turnout. But none of these caveats make voter suppression and its reed-thin justifications (as opposed to, say, tax cuts or social service spending cuts) any less racist.

My second thought concerns the historical process by which Buckley's high-minded defense of "civilization" became intellectually discredited -- to such an extent that I'm sure Buckley himself would not (did not) profess such sentiments, say, fifteen years later. In 1957, it was possible for a Respectable White Intellectual to end an essay on this magnanimous note:
The South confronts one grave moral challenge  It must not exploit the fact of Negro backwardness to preserve the Negro as a servile class . It is tempting and convenient to block the progress of a minority whose services, as menials, are economically useful . Let the South never permit itself to do this . So long as it is merely asserting the right to impose superior mores for whatever period it takes to effect a genuine cultural equality between the races, and so long as it does so by humane and charitable means, the South is in step with civilization, as is the Congress that permits it to function .
What strikes me here is the claim of "superior mores." As it happens, my father just last night repeated a recollection that he's recounted before, and that's stuck in my mind since I was a teen at least. During the sit-ins and freedom marches, he said, everyone in the country had the chance to sit in front of their TV and watch African Americans endure in dignified silence as the defenders of those "superior mores" spit on them or dumped ketchup on their heads or spit in their faces or beat them senseless or turned fire hoses or sicced dogs on them. That changed hearts and minds. It ended any possibility that any fair-minded person could speak with a straight face about the "superior mores" of Southern segregationists. 

As with defense of Stalin, you had to be willfully idiotic to make any such claim about white southern culture in 1957.  By 1967, you just couldn't. 

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