Wednesday, February 20, 2013


!I am slow on the uptake sometimes, so my first reaction to the uproar over remarks by Emory University President James Wagner was to roll my eyes. Wagner had written an essay about the virtues of political compromise that mentioned the (in)famous 3/5ths compromise during the writing of the Constitution, in which  North and South agreed that slaves in the South would be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and representation in Congress. I thought the critics were agog that Wagner had mentioned something that had involved slavery, and was thus giving some kind of "those were the good ol' days" imprimateur to the South's Peculiar Institution.

If only that had been true. Then I could have had fun at 21st century liberals getting their panties in a wad by judging 18th century history in the light of 21st century morals. But actually what Wagner did was to pick the worst--The. Very.Worst.--example for the point he was trying to make, which is that political compromise is the 10W-40 that makes democracy work. Why?

1. It's actually a counter-argument, a plausible example of why principle might at times trump all other considerations. Even in the 18th century there were people who ardently, passionately opposed slavery, the slave trade and agricultural economies which depended on slave labor. Theirs is a rare example of a principle which still looks pretty good 200-plus years later. If you want to advocate for compromise, don't hand the Tea Partiers a way to compare themselves with people who were morally ahead of their time.

2. It was a compromise based on an intellectually dishonest argument. How can slaves be three-fifths of a person on some occasions, like when you are counting population for Congressional representation, and a piece of livestock at others, like when you sell a mother's son for profit? When it comes to slavery, the South was always trying to have it both ways. "States' rights" was a cherished principle--until it came to the question of whether Massachusetts, say, could exercise its sovereign state power to refuse to send a fugitive slave back down South. Then, suddenly, it was all about property rights."Slaves cannot be allowed to fight for the Confederacy," said the leaders of the Confederacy at the beginning of the war; they were afraid of what those those loving, well-cared-for slaves might do once they got hold of some guns. By the end of the war, Confederate leaders had done a 180 on that question--with the exception of Alexander Stephens, who protested, "If slaves can fight, our whole theory of slavery is wrong." Bingo!

President Wagner is an engineer, not a historian, so maybe we can excuse him for not having a better grasp of history. But hey, I was an Emory English major, which most definitely does not qualify me to run a university, and even I would know better than to pull something like this. To quote Homer Simpson: D'oh!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Southern = White? Since When?

Michael Lind, of the New America Foundation, has a piece out in which he describes the current  political culture in the South as a "fading demographic's last hope to maintain political control"--the fading demographic in question being white Southerners. The Old South, he writes, is doomed to political irrelevancy in the same way that old-stock Yankees in the Northeast and Midwest have seen their hegemony fade, thanks to successive waves of immigration in the 20th century.

The argument that increasingly ethnic diversity in the South should mean the death of all things Southern still strikes me as a little weird, mainly because it's based on the assumption that "Southern" equals "white." While it's true that some people in the South still feel that way--and, for that matter, some people in the South still talk about secession--I always find it odd when educated observers of the South fall into this mistake. Did anybody notice Beyonce at the Super Bowl saying, "Thanks, y'all"? Anybody here heard of the Great Re-Migration, or the fact that the Atlanta area has surpassed Chicago as the largest majority-black urban area in the country? Can't black people--and, for that matter, Hispanic people and Asian people--be Southerners, too? Lind seems dubious.

If Southern culture had a tradition of assimilating immigrants, then cultural “Southernness” could be detached from any particular ethnicity or race. One could be an assimilated Chinese-American good old boy or a Mexican-American redneck.  To some degree, that is happening. And Southern whites and Southern blacks have always shared many elements of a common regional culture.

It remains to be seen how much Hispanic culture can be assimilated into Southern culture, and vice versa, but early evidence indicates to me that the answer will be "a great deal." I also think it's fair to say blacks and whites in the South do more than "share many elements of a common regional culture." I'm with Wilbur Cash on this one; he believed that the influence of white and black Southerners on each other was subtle, profound and pervasive--a list to which I would add the term "miraculous." It may be that in 25 years, "Southern" will be as automatically associated with dark skin as some people now associate it with white. If that happens, it won't mean the Death of the South (which, by the way, people have been predicting for about 200 years now). It will just mean that the South has done what it does best: morphed into something else, while maintaining its regional distinctiveness.