Monday, January 7, 2013

The New Old Civil War

Andrew O'Hehir over at Salon thinks that the South has risen again, like a zombie from the grave: 

"Even though it’s a truism of American public discourse that the Civil War never ended, it’s also literally true. We’re still reaping the whirlwind from that long-ago conflict, and now we face a new Civil War, one focused on divisive political issues of the 21st century – most notably the rights and liberties of women and LGBT people – but rooted in toxic rhetoric and ideas inherited from the 19th century....Our new Civil War is infused with the undead spirit of the old one and waged by a rebellious neo-Confederacy rooted in the states of the Old South, but its influence can be felt, as with the pro-slavery forces of the 1860s, in every part of the country."

Well, yeah. And it's also true that the forces of the 21st century culture wars shape up along lines that bear more than a vague similarity to the Rebel-Yankee lines of 150 years ago, and that some of the issues--states' rights, generalized resistance to Washington, claims of a special relationship with the Almighty--are the same. 

So far, so good. But where Mr. O'Hehir loses me is when he lets fly the standard accusation that liberals of my ilk always dredge up: that what conservatives are all about is finding a convenient rationale for bigotry. Bigotry, like poverty, will always be with us--but just as racism was never the sum total of all things Southern, even in the 19th century, bigotry is not the sum total of all things Southern/conservative today. 

What I see going on is a war between two ways of thinking about society. One is communitarian. Its highest values are economic justice and a particular type of personal autonomy: not freedom from them gol-durned bureaucrats in Washington, but freedom from sanctimonious judgments from the neighbors. The other is an authoritarian, deeply religious and class-based, and its highest values are social order and freedom from government restrictions. I grew up in a Southern culture steeped in the latter tradition, and instinctively migrated to the former once I was old enough to draw my own conclusions about things. 

But here's a funny thing: the culture I knew growing up was deeply communitarian in a lot of ways--far more neighborly and friendly than life in these so-called enclaves of liberal tolerance I live in today--and the liberal tradition I count myself a member of today is every bit as bigoted about conservatives in general, and Southerners in particular, as any Klansman of old. The comments to O'Hehir's piece start out this way: "The South is so screwed in the head...." and end with this: "There is something wrong down here." No, I'd say there's something wrong all over.

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