(Sara Robinson, AlterNet, June 28, 2012)
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Conservative Southern Values Revived:
How a Brutal Strain of American
Aristocrats Have Come to Rule America
For most of our history, American economics, culture and politics have been dominated by a New England-based Yankee aristocracy that was rooted in Puritan communitarian values, educated at the Ivies and marinated in an ethic of noblesse oblige (the conviction that those who possess wealth and power are morally bound to use it for the betterment of society). While they’ve done their share of damage to the notion of democracy in the name of profit (as all financial elites inevitably do), this group has, for the most part, tempered its predatory instincts with a code that valued mass education and human rights; held up public service as both a duty and an honor; and imbued them with the belief that once you made your nut, you had a moral duty to do something positive with it for the betterment of mankind. Your own legacy depended on this. . . . Which brings us to that other great historical American nobility — the plantation aristocracy of the lowland South, which has been notable throughout its 400-year history for its utter lack of civic interest, its hostility to the very ideas of democracy and human rights, its love of hierarchy, its fear of technology and progress, its reliance on brutality and violence to maintain “order,” and its outright celebration of inequality as an order divinely ordained by God. . . . As described by Colin Woodard in American Nations: The Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, the elites of the Deep South are descended mainly from the owners of sugar, rum and cotton plantations from Barbados — the younger sons of the British nobility who’d farmed up the Caribbean islands, and then came ashore to the southern coasts seeking more land. Woodward described the culture they created in the crescent stretching from Charleston, SC around to New Orleans this way: “It was a near-carbon copy of the West Indian slave state these Barbadians had left behind, a place notorious even then for its inhumanity….From the outset, Deep Southern culture was based on radical disparities in wealth and power, with a tiny elite commanding total obedience and enforcing it with state-sponsored terror. Its expansionist ambitions would put it on a collision course with its Yankee rivals, triggering military, social, and political conflicts that continue to plague the United States to this day.” . . . David Hackett Fischer, whose Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways In America informs both Lind’s and Woodard’s work, described just how deeply undemocratic the Southern aristocracy was, and still is. . . . When a Southern conservative talks about “losing his liberty,” the loss of this absolute domination over the people and property under his control — and, worse, the loss of status and the resulting risk of being held accountable for laws that he was once exempt from — is what he’s really talking about. In this view, freedom is a zero-sum game. Anything that gives more freedom and rights to lower-status people can’t help but put serious limits on the freedom of the upper classes to use those people as they please. It cannot be any other way. So they find Yankee-style rights expansions absolutely intolerable, to the point where they’re willing to fight and die to preserve their divine right to rule. . . . Once we understand the two different definitions of “liberty” at work here, a lot of other things suddenly make much more sense. We can understand the traditional Southern antipathy to education, progress, public investment, unionization, equal opportunity, and civil rights. The fervent belief among these elites that they should completely escape any legal or social accountability for any harm they cause. Their obsessive attention to where they fall in the status hierarchies. And, most of all — the unremitting and unapologetic brutality with which they’ve defended these “liberties” across the length of their history. . . . The Civil War was, at its core, a military battle between these two elites for the soul of the country. It pitted the more communalist, democratic and industrialized Northern vision of the American future against the hierarchical, aristocratic, agrarian Southern one. Though the Union won the war, the fundamental conflict at its root still hasn’t been resolved to this day. . . . George W. Bush proceeded to run the country exactly like Woodard’s description of a Barbadian slavelord. And Barack Obama has done almost nothing to roll this victory back. We’re now living in an America where rampant inequality is accepted, and even celebrated. . . . Torture and extrajudicial killing have been reinstated, with no due process required. . . . The wealthy and powerful are free to abuse employees, break laws, destroy the commons, and crash the economy — without ever being held to account. . . . The rich flaunt their ostentatious wealth without even the pretense of humility, modesty, generosity, or gratitude. . . . The military — always a Southern-dominated institution — sucks down 60% of our federal discretionary spending, and is undergoing a rapid evangelical takeover as well. . . . Our police are being given paramilitary training and powers that are completely out of line with their duty to serve and protect, but much more in keeping with a mission to subdue and suppress. Even liberal cities like Seattle are now home to the kind of local justice that used to be the hallmark of small-town Alabama sheriffs. . . . Segregation is increasing everywhere. The rights of women and people of color are under assault. Violence against leaders who agitate for progressive change is up. Racist organizations are undergoing a renaissance nationwide. . . . We are withdrawing government investments in public education, libraries, infrastructure, health care, and technological innovation — in many areas, to the point where we are falling behind the standards that prevail in every other developed country. . . . As long as America runs according to the rules of Southern politics, economics and culture, we’re no longer free citizens exercising our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as we’ve always understood them. Instead, we’re being treated like serfs on Massa’s plantation — and increasingly, we’re being granted our liberties only at Massa’s pleasure. Welcome to Plantation America.