The Southern Point: The Identity of “We”

I go, but not to Avalon
Or any cloud-capped promontory hid
Beyond the eyes of men. The battle’s end
Is now my fortune, but this change of state
Confounds me not. A duller magic rules
Until the blood shall speak again.

-Donald Davidson, from “Geography of the Brain”

Montgomery, Alabama is a strange place. I grew up there. My parents grew up there. My grandparents grew up there. In fact, two of my ancestors (a couple of brothers) are still cited amongst the pioneering frontiersmen of the original settlement. So, what could possibly be so strange about a place to one with such deep roots stretching all the way back to the beginning?

Well, in truth, I don’t live there anymore. Occasionally, I visit.  Whenever I do, however, I get troubled by a number of difficult contradictions and I end up feeling like…well, like a stranger in my own town. You see, there’s a certain level at which the cultural soil seems to be rejecting the likes of me these days. It’s not at the deepest level of the full matrix but nevertheless it’s enough to make me wonder about the quality of my future blossoming potential in what has always been my neck of the woods.

For instance, upon entering the city these days, one might notice a series of billboards that read “Welcome to Montgomery: Cradle of the Confederacy & Birthplace of Civil Rights.” Strange, indeed! Could it really be possible to celebrate both of these apparently opposing currents in the same sentence?

In fact, this is the motto that now appears on the official Montgomery city seal as of 2002. The city rhetoric (just like any good politician) deftly attempts to embrace everybody; to have a cake and eat it, too. Of course, there is the surface and then there is what lies beneath.

As one penetrates a little further the trouble clears up a bit and it becomes obvious (at a moderate depth level of the cultural sediment) that the Confederate part of this all-encompassing and seemingly hospitable welcome is generally regarded as an unfortunate legacy that was gracefully rendered impotent by the federal interventions of the 50s and 60s. You know, that unpleasant business which reformed (albeit through force) the segregation system, that notorious lingering remnant of Uncle Sam’s old Southern nemesis.

1956 account of MLK’s civil rights struggle

And yet, despite this apparent increase in “progress”  according to the “enlightened” Northern model, the mayor was quoted in The Montgomery Advertiser in 2005, encouraging citizens to arm themselves because the police were unable  to maintain adequate law and order. When my parents were growing up in the 50s it was quite common for folks to leave house and car doors unlocked without a care. Of course, these types of comparisons and the conclusions that one might draw from them, are not kosher.

Inauguration of Jefferson Davis as 1st president of CSA

The real heroes of Montgomery (as anyone in the know can tell you) are Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Morris Dees and the Montgomery “Biscuits” baseball team (“Biscuits” was the only southern mascot that wasn’t deemed offensive —  it’s no longer pc to be a “rebel” in the “Heart of Dixie”). How curious that the only palatable symbol of a Montgomery sports team’s fighting spirit today, is a food item more conducive to high cholesterol levels and expanding waistlines than to homers! Could there possibly be a more adequate representation of our current state of emasculation?

Of course, historic events (even the “shameful” episodes) and architecture (even those buildings financed by the “god-awful” slaveholders) are valuable as tourist attractions. Notoriety holds a certain fascination for the contemporary voyeur. So, it is useful and lucrative to still advertise pride in both traditions. There is, after all, that considerable contingent of Civil War buffs and all those hopeless romantics who are indeed paying customers. And, in addition, as the huge financial success of the Holocaust industry might suggest, it is important to keep these relics of supremacy available for contemporary viewing, so that we never forget.

Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery

Wait. So that who never forgets…what? ‘We’ is such a big word. Does ‘we’ refer to the Yankee snowbirds who come through (on their way to Florida for the winter with all their Wall Street moolah) to reminisce over the struggles that their token few parental “trustafarians” endured when they hopped on the Freedom Buses of the 60s and came down South to rail against ‘evil’ Whitey and his “weekly” lynch mobs? Or is ‘we’ the miniscule 2–3% Jewish population who with its disproportionate control of American media continues to masquerade as the national conscience and yet, for all its apparent righteousness, cannot brook the smallest criticism without viciously lashing out — the President of the United States can’t even get away with criticizing their hypocritical cousins over in Israel? Or is ‘we’ the Blacks whose parents and grandparents rose up together and threw off the yoke of ‘oppression'(with a little help from some friends) and finally won (for themselves??) the legal political equality that they had been wrongfully denied for so long, according to an abstract indictment funded by alien organizations with ulterior motives? Hmmm….

All well and good. But what about the Middle American Whites in the United States who still make up a rather clear cut majority?  What about those “crackers” who actually designed Montgomery and all the other American cities that popped up on the American frontier in the 18th and 19th centuries? You know, the ones who carved a viable civilization out of the forests and fought to protect their families at a time when Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio were considered the wild West (or more accurately, the Old or First West). You know, those daring folks who traveled in small groups and were seeking new opportunities in a rough and dangerous land with no capital but a fighting spirit based on a lot more than … a biscuit. Isn’t there anything positive for those descended from this group to remember in all of these historic conflicts for which they do not have to apologize? What happens when they start using the term ‘we’? What about the integrity of their communities? Isn’t there an argument that through it all, this rather civilized group (and its western roving descendants) has had legitimate self-interests that they were acting to secure and protect? Surely, there must be. After all, isn’t this our country? Don’t majorities generally rule?

The point that I want to make here is that if one is to speak of a group with so many conflicting internal components like the American populace, it is a dangerous business to begin using ‘we,’ especially when it is used to make sweeping moral statements that may reflect negatively on certain portions of that diverse group (i.e. — the host majority).  And, should certain minorities continue to use this term to buoy up their own selective historical memory (at the expense of the rep of said majority) then they should not get upset if that majority starts to swing its ‘we’ around, too. Either no one has a self-identity outside of “citizen” or everyone gets to assert themselves. Fair is fair.

Now, if I left it to the contemporary news media to tell me the story of race in America, all I would get are those endlessly repeated clips of Birmingham, the dogs, the hoses, the ‘glorious’ speeches of Martin Luther King, the ‘noble’ resistance of Rosa, the ‘valiant’ stand of criminal outfits like the SPLC, and the one-sided total indictment of George Wallace and what he represented — all of which would leave me (an average White guy with a rusty suit of armor and a southern accent) generally feeling pretty guilty, worthless, and ready to give up anything else asked of me, without a fight.

American Storytellers – Andy Thomas

If I hadn’t reached suicidal thoughts yet and wasn’t the lazy type, however, I might get up off of the couch, stop watching the tube during the month of February, and start digging a little deeper in the local libraries. I might perchance become troubled with a conviction that I was being played for a fool. And if I listened to that voice underneath that poisonous middle range of cultural sediment, the one closer to the blood that kept saying “Now, wait just a minute…” I might arrive at a few different conclusions regarding my perceptions of the past and prospects for the future. And I just might, as a result, try to turn the tide or, at the very least, withdraw certain lines of support from a beastly entity that didn’t have my welfare in mind “atall.” Then I might go call up some buddies and see if they wanted to do a little bonfire gathering on Saturday afternoon, where we could begin to “chew the cud” and “shoot the bull,” you know, as our men are wont to do.

Off to the library…

If I did end up making it to the library before rounding up the boys, the first place I might start is with this question: Were there any intelligent spokesmen for the White majority during the tumultuous mid-20th-century civil rights upheavals? And if so, what did they have to say about my people and our community, that great host of the United States that despite its overwhelming size, has so much trouble finding its healthy and innate “we”?

The answer to that first question is yes, indeed, there were a few brave voices who risked a lot to speak Truth to Power — men who said things that a lot of people knew to be true but were afraid to say so. To the eternal lament of our detractors and self-abnegators, we were not completely ruled by angry little dudes in white pointy hats. For example, in 1945, Donald Davidson, an esteemed English professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, penned an essay entitled “Preface to Decision” which was published in The Sewanee Review (Vol. 53(3) Summer, 1945, 394-412), a well-respected academic journal still in circulation. This essay sums up both the complicated idealism and difficult realism behind the South’s defense of segregation in an intelligent and dispassionate manner. At the very least, the paper provides us with another perspective.

It’s obvious that we won’t be going back to the old formats but it is healthy to have this distinctly White (read authentic American) perspective set before us as we try to find some viable solutions for the present and future. We do still have the right to voluntarily associate.  And after all, these days, we only hear the other side of the story; the “canard” of the downtrodden and oppressed minorities that the culture of critique continues to foist upon us. If we want to move forward as a racially conscious community with a sincere perception of our best self interests at heart, though, it is crucially important that we have a well-rounded perspective of history, a full knowledge of all of the pros and cons. After all, if we must not forget, we should remember the positive arguments for our side. Right? If they can be selective in their presentation of historical memory, then so can we. It is in this context that Davidson’s defense of segregation, which cost him dearly, is useful, for it laid out several important ideas that have not received a hearing for a long time. Again, there is the surface and then there is what lies beneath. By now, we have gotten past all of the effluvia posing as bedrock and are now approaching the hot lava of our genetic ramparts. Here the reaction has reached its roots.

“Preface To Decision”

First, Davidson indicts the sociologist and the academy in back of him, who are responsible for prescribing an abstract solution to the “Negro problem” that required a forceful intervention to realize. In his introductory paragraph, he asserts:

For better or worse, the sociologist has become chief expert consultant on the Negro problem, at least to that part of the American public which believes that the problem can be solved by legislative means. The reasoning of this public can be briefly stated as follows: the cause of the problem is race prejudice, which is a kind of social disease afflicting White folks, especially in the South; the sociologist is a kind of doctor, who isolates and describes the disease, and then designates remedy and treatment; apply remedy and treatment through Federal legislation, and you have the cure. (394)

While the sociologist relies primarily on equipment generated by a number of “ologies,” he does not give much attention to “history as a causal force” (394). Instead, he abstracts the issue, which is the technique of science. In doing this, he denies “the history of the problem” which, ironically, contains the data of primary importance (396). This is the “baby with the bath water“ conundrum that objective science recurrently encounters: the observer who inevitably affects his observations with his own ideological baggage.

Davidson sees the dilemma as a conflict between Custom and Law. He finds it strange that the sociologist, whose study is supposedly the organic nature of societies, would align himself without any trouble or second thought, to the artificial prescriptions of Law and would go so far as to engage in a polemical fight to thwart Custom through a forceful application of “remedial legislation” (397). Though he doesn’t state it in exactly the same way, I am immediately minded of Kevin Macdonald’s analysis of the Frankfurt School which, he asserts, tends to frame sociological issues in terms of preconceived ideological conclusions that have radical social and political ramifications potentially out of step with a host populations’ best interests(see Culture of Critique, Ch. 5, e.g., “From the beginning there was a rejection of value-free social science research (‘the fetishism of facts’) in favor of the fundamental priority of a moral perspective in which present societies, including capitalist, fascist, and eventually Stalinist societies, were to be transformed into utopias of cultural pluralism” [157]).

Davidson follows this analysis with a survey of various reform agitators on the topic, including Black and White writers, whose tone varies from the didactic to the sarcastic amid such accusations that Southern Whites have “Hitleristic” tendencies worthy of extirpation or at least a little lecturing from the likes of W.E.B. Dubois, Paul Robeson, Lillian Smith, or Erskine Caldwell (400). He identifies a Marxist undercurrent and recognizes that the thinkers radically pressing towards civil rights reform are consistently invoking the egalitarian components of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments which they accept as “having unquestioned validity and merit” (401).  The “democracy” that they embrace is not that of Jefferson or even Lincoln but “of the New Deal, with its strong leaning toward collectivism, its emphasis on economic rather than political government, its convenient notion that the state is the unique source of its citizen’s welfare” (401). He asserts that “all of this is being advocated … in disregard of the past failure of Federal legislation to a achieve a solution” and that in fact, “the history of the question shows that, in this matter, it is a practical impossibility to oppose Law to Custom in any part of the United States, and above all in the South, unless the sponsors of the ill-conceived law are able and willing to back it with military force” (403).

With these considerations in mind, it seems strange that the sociologist would not recognize that the issue involved a deeper “racial and cultural matter, into which legislation comes at peril.” Instead, the sociologist acts romantically, for his solution is a “letter to Santa Claus,” Santa Claus in this case being Uncle Sam con machine gun (404).

Davidson then discusses the “historical memory” of the South, which he confronts with brutal honesty. He boldly gives us our side of the equation. Generally speaking, it is not inspiring to go there but I see no choice when our enemies are constantly reminding us of previous grievances.

If we are forced not to forget the sufferings of the Africans at our hands as is demonstrated in monumental inscriptions like the one enshrined on the memorial in Savannah, then we would also do well to remember the following points:

  • Slavery afforded a means of control over an element in the population that otherwise would have been deemed undesirable…He [the Negro] did not migrate here voluntarily, and he would not have been brought here to simply to swell the population of citizens.
  • Abolition efforts began in the White South but were squelched when it became obvious that the issue would become a sectional lever by means of which the North might achieve political hegemony and ascendancy in the Union.
  • While it can be said that the White South accepted the Thirteenth Amendment (the abolition of slavery) as the heavy price of the Civil War despite an alien Northern comprehension of the problem, the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were undeniably accomplished illegally through fraud and force, and thus are technically unconstitutional.
  • Segregation laws originated in positive concern for the White race, not in ill will toward the Negro race. … Back of the total system is, of course, a racial decision of long standing. The White South denies the Negro equal participation in White society, not only because it does not consider him entitled to equality, but because it is certain that social mingling would lead gradually to biological mingling, which it is determined to prevent, both for any given contemporary generation and for its posterity.
  • The South believes that a voting Negro will vote, not as a citizen, but as a Negro, in which case he will become the obedient instrument of sectional drives against the South [and any subsequent conscious White voting blocs]. Or else he will lend himself to ordinary corruption and become, as now in certain localities, simply an instrument for stuffing the ballot-box. [We could now apply this reasoning to other growing minorities like the Mexican immigrants.]
  • By judicial interpretation, the Fourteenth Amendment has been perverted from its supposed original aim and has been turned into an instrument for sheltering corporate “persons.” The growth of industrial monopolies in the United States at large and the “colonialization” of Southern resources by the financial-industrial East are direct results of this extension of the Fourteenth Amendment. In giving giant industry and speculative finance a free hand, the Amendment tore up the social and economic foundations of the older American life and substituted an abstract economic life. … As a present corrective, we now have the Leviathan state of the New Deal model, which talks democratic slogans with its mouth but abridges both corporate and individual freedom with every effective step it takes. It moves toward a totalitarian form of government.
  • To set Law against Custom in the ways now being proposed is to reverse the process by which the English Common Law and the democratic American institutions founded upon it came into being. The advocates of such a reversal are enemies of democracy; they are leading us away from the realm of law into the realm of decree and arbitrary regulation. But meanwhile, unless we surrender to an iron despotism, under which the Negro becomes the favorite of the despot, what reason has anybody — and most of all the Negro — to suppose that an unwilling populace will not again contrive means of evading or nullifying laws that cynically ignore the social will of the White majority?
  • The old-time abolitionist called for justice to the Negro; he ended by perpetrating large-scale injustice upon the White man, and with it a bloody ruin from which we have not yet recovered. Perhaps he did not intend it that way. That does not excuse the vice of partial thinking which drove him into paths of cruelty and abuse. The modern liberal, walled up in sociological abstractions, is about to adopt the same vice. He will incur a like guilt if he continues on his present course. [excerpted and paraphrased from pp. 404–412]

Davidson suggests that “the South has a better historical memory of all aspects of the question than other sections, not because of an innately keener historical consciousness, but because it has always had to face the results of its decisions — and of other people’s decisions” in regard to racial issues (404).

Remember that these remarks were made in 1945, almost ten years before Brown vs Board of Education. Considering our current state of cultural confusion about these topics and the extraordinarily shallow representations of the South’s defense of segregation, it seems that Davidson’s trajectory was nothing if not prophetic. There is a wealth of insight in his essay that I am not able to fully address in this space. Perhaps the most striking point is the strange collusion that he identifies between the expansion of the industrial state and the egalitarian racial rhetoric championing minorities. This alliance seems to continue to belabor any attempt at allowing the “social will of the White majority” to have its way.

Davidson’s essay apparently engendered some controversy because in the following issue of The Sewanee Review there is a response by Allen Tate (the journal’s editor during the 40s), entitled “Mr. Davidson and the Race Problem”(The Sewanee Review, Vol. 53(4) (Autumn, 1945), 659-660).  In the initial paragraph, Tate recounts how the journal had received angry letters accusing it of lining up with reactionary “forces of evil” (659). He goes to some trouble to suggest that the journal maintained a higher position between two extremes, and pointed out some differences of opinion that the journal’s leadership had with Davidson’s critical perspective from the right. Then Tate critically summarizes the left side with the following statement:

The other extreme position, which has been recently set forth in the symposium, What the Negro Wants, is that the Negro possesses some mysterious source of power and virtue which makes him potentially superior to the White man; and this view has been strengthened by certain anthropologists (we hesitate to say, of the White race) [the Culture of Critique describes them a bit differently] who begin by arguing that there are no races, and end with the indirect conclusion that the Negro is superior to the American White. The radical Negro leaders feel that justice for the Negro ought to be special and distinct, as Negro injustice in the past has been: there is no indication that either the so-called White conservatives or the radical Negro leaders want the just society, in which neither the White man nor the Negro is penalized (660).

Many Whites still attempt to adhere to this concept of a “just society” which, in Tate’s rhetoric, really means one that is color blind. Since that time, however, it has become obvious that this ideal is not attainable when Whites are the only ones who are expected to think and act in this way and all other groups are encouraged to specifically identify themselves on the basis of their ethnicity. It would seem that Davidson’s stance was more realistic.

Tate then concludes by endorsing Davidson’s central argument, despite remaining aloof as the journal’s voice:

For Federal legislation, which in this matter must be backed by Federal arms, would solve the race problem by producing race war. Mr. Davidson’s principle is simply that there is a point beyond which legislation cannot, without risk of violence, go against custom. Meanwhile, unless the South can produce the imagination and the courage to take the leadership from the false conservatives and the radicals of both races, there can be no other ultimate prospect than violence (660).

Well, Mr. Tate, though it did produce some nastiness, it did not ignite a war, at least not yet.  It seems that federal intrusions ultimately succeeded in weakening the will of White resistance more than anything else. The “extreme position” that you identified from the Left that “race does not exist,” however, has become the accepted position, across the mainstream political spectrum — despite its lack of scientific support. There can be no fight at all coming from a servile group of White men who continue to swallow that load of baloney without question.

Maybe Eliot was right with his despairing poetic conclusion to ‘The Hollow Men’:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.

As it stands, this appears to be the endnote with which a majority of White Americans seem to be contented, at least for now.

Though it’s healthy, the trip to library, in the end, is depressing even when we succeed in selecting the historical memory that is resonant with our cause (the discovery of our true “we”), considering the past half century’s move in the opposite direction. When the time comes to stand up, we’ll need a lot more than sitting quietly doing dry research to animate our hearts and souls with the unquenchable force necessary to survive.

But despair not. Join me for the next episode of The Southern Point where we’ll be heading out for a bonfire gathering. It’s BYOB because the spirits that I’ll be serving up as your host can’t be contained in a can.

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