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Problematic Southern Culture: Venerating Disastrous Leaders

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Andrew Bard Schmookler     Permalink
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<em>Introductory Remark:

Here's a proposition I am convinced is true, but that I will not elaborate here sufficiently to prove it:  the problems in America that are manifested in the presidency of George W. Bush are problems ESPECIALLY of the American South.  That the South was solidly red in both 2000 and 2004 is but one part of a complex and deep picture that substantiates this notion.

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The presidency of George W. Bush has passed, praise the Lord.  But we are still compelled to grapple with the lessons of this dark period of our history.  We are so compelled not only because the damage the Bushites did will take years to repair, but also because the various cultural forces that it expressed remain present and active in the American cultural system.  Those cultural forces --psychological, spiritual, political-- existed in America (and particularly in the American South) long before Bush, and they will persist into our future.

It is therefore an essential part of the course of healing to which America is now called to explore those forces, and in particular to seek to understand the forms of consciousness that structure thought and feeling, value and meaning, in the American South.

It is in the context of that quest for understanding that I am launching here what I expect will be a series of occasional pieces exploring questions about the culture of the South.  Here is the first entry in that series.</em>

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Some years ago, I found on the Internet a site where one could play chess against a computer program.  One of the things I liked about that chess program was that it enabled one to live out alternative histories.  At a given juncture, one could try a move and see what happened.  If, after several more moves, one decided that the move had proved regrettable, one could click the back arrow several times until one came back to the original juncture, at which one could try a different one.

Would that life were like that.  But of course it's not.  People make decisions --in their private lives and as nations-- and then, as Omar the Tentmaker wrote so long ago,

<blockquote>The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it
</blockquote>

History shows, of course, that peoples can re-write their histories in the sense of lying and denying.  But they are nonetheless stuck with the consequences of the decisions they made and of what really happened.

***

That the Civil War was an unmitigated disaster for the American South seems beyond any serious question.  A major proportion of its menfolk were killed or maimed, its land was devastated, its economy ruined, its way of life was abolished, its whole population deeply traumatized.  The South paid an enormous price for the choices that its leaders made:  to secede from the Union, to wage war to preserve its newly declared independence, to continue with the war well beyond the point where the ultimate outcome was clear.  And the costs of those disastrous choices were paid for generations.

If history could be lived like that computerized chess game I used to play, is there any rational Southerner from that era, or in the generations growing up in the aftermath of the Civil War, who would not choose to click the back button back to the time of Lincoln's election in 1860 and play the game out along a very different course?

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***

What does a people most need, and most want from its leaders?   Would the answer not be that the people would want their leaders to make decisions that lead to favorable outcomes for the people and their nation?  Would not a people --if they were rational-- respect and appreciate least those leaders whose decisions lead them into disaster?

Yet that does not seem to be how the South regards its leaders of that era of catastrophic decision-making that led to the ruination (described above) of the whole region.  To cite one prominent example:  How many schools, how many major avenues, are named after Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy?  The answer:  a great many.  (I leave out the veneration of the military leaders of the Confederacy who, for the most part, executed rather than made the disastrous policy.)

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
 

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