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The "Tea Party" Would Make Slaveholders of Us All

By       Message Brian Coyle       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   3 comments

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Back in US history's dark age, when "southern minority" meant slaveholders, not blacks, a culture of personal distrust threaded through the south. Historians William Freehling and George Frederickson agree that slaveholder faith in other people's reliability declined after 1800. Even in the Deep South, a white majority didn't own slaves, so their alliance with plantation owners lacked economic credibility. Slaveholders enforced these whites' allegiance with violent ideology: anyone who doubted the patrician slave-based order was branded an abolitionist, a lynching charge. Any break in white unanimity seemed to threaten slavery, since slave-owners knew national and international norms were moving towards emancipation.

Slave-owners worried whether ordinary whites were secret free marketers who dissimulated absolutist faith, yet when masters punished pro-slavery suspects, it made them suspect rational yeomen even more, since they hid true feelings. But whether the white non-slaveholder majority pretended to like the slavery system, or bought into it authentically, they feared slaveholder power, and loathed of African-American competition.

Slaves were another slaveholder dilemma. By the 19th century's second decade, abolitionism gained northern traction. The British debated shutting the international slave trade, and an evangelical minority preached emancipation. In response, slave-owners claimed slaves acquiesced to their condition, and as patricians their responsibility was to rule an inferior population. For evidence, they demonstrated, and thus demanded, acquiescent slave behavior in public. Back stage the rules were compelled with whippings and torture, peppered with discordant bits of reward. Officially powerless, slaves flexed their identities to survive. They could act subservient, feign sickness, or hang tough as opportunity afforded. In the privacy of African-American community, masks dropped. Stories mocked owners, real-world knowledge was collected, plots hatched.

Slave-owners might dimly recognize blacks' bifurcating identities, or see clearly that subservience was usually an act; in either case it transformed owner psychology. They told each other that slaves had doubtful character, but what that really meant was the slave's intentions were hidden.

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Surrounded by subjugated blacks who pretended dog-eared humility to survive, and white commoners who might pretend to fit correct roles, slaveholders felt adrift in interpersonal distrust, unanchored in interpersonal reality. The mass of other people hid revolutionary thoughts, whispers, and activists. Slave-owner paranoia was only partially a reaction to organized slave insurrections. A much greater psychological impact came from interpersonal threats, unknown until executed by apparently subservient helpers. Sudden death after tea service, or from a wayward wagon wheel or hunting fall, all supposedly random, increased as slaves were forced to act like servants.

To keep sane, when common-sense logic suggested slaves could murder their tormentors quite rationally, slaveholders pretended to believe their own propaganda: they opined trust in patrician order, authentic slave subservience its real result. Yet they were actually far from certain. Plantation owners wanted to deny slave complicity in accidental deaths, because admission revealed their patrician power wasn't good enough. But big house wives, educated but subordinate, knew better.

This sowed deep paranoia, not of mass movements, but of hidden agency. Slave-owners scanned for secret revolutionaries, who might exist behind the most appealing or subservient mask. This habit of fearing hidden traitors with secret threats began as a psychological adaptation to slave-owners immediate conditions. But if stimulated by context, once learned and spread it entered culture, passed by intimate osmosis between generations. It became a way of understanding the world.

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After the Civil War, the south itself feigned national subservience, while it reasserted white supremacy in daily life. This balancing act between slavery and freedom, succession and nationalism, bottled up slaveholding culture regionally. Populist southern demagoguery showed that southern society remained ripe for interpersonal distrust, its traitors under every rock. But the American economic engine chugging Midwest was too hopeful for nation-wide paranoia.

Post World War II southern out-migration changed the picture. Northern industrial centers found new neighbors. The blacks were different, their motives difficult to unlock. Southern whites provided keys, which warned that friendly behavior could mask murderous intent.

Southern whites also moved southwest, to the sunshine reaches of Arizona, Texas, and California. Although historically anti-immigrant, these areas had relatively fewer African-American concentrations. Yet reading Nixon, Goldwater, and Reagan, conservative southwesterners confidently brandished the threat of secret traitors. They used it as a tactic, rather than from fear (although Nixon's paranoia muddies the picture). Their goal was to maintain social order, based on ethnicity and ideology, and denouncing hidden traitors served this purpose.

McCarthy rediscovered how to profit from hidden identity paranoia. The threat was no longer abolitionism, but communism served a similar role. Communist agents threatened a "way of life", as did abolitionists in the anti-bellum south. Like slaveholders, McCarthy used fear to establish apparent order. Like slaveholders, he wasn't concerned about attacking innocents; his purpose was to set examples, not serve justice.

The Manchurian Candidate, a best-seller about a presidential operative brainwashed by communists, represents this with classic cold-war themes. Subtract a century, move the tale to South Carolina, and have the political pretender brainwashed by abolitionists in Boston, and much dialogue and action can remain the same. Even America's commander-in-chief could be a revolutionary agent, as the big plantation's most trusted slave could secretly murder his or her true master. (Return to the present, put the Manchurian Candidate in his original Washington DC setting, and make him a secret Muslim foreigner ... you get the story.)

Whether from intuition, logic, or advice, southwest conservative politicians recognized alignments between southern culture and their contemporary political projects. They sought to lead southwestern publics that paid attention to the cold war, but some had inherited a belief of secret traitors. To multiply these fears purposefully, anti-communism offered limited targets. The State Department "turncoat" accused of communist sympathies was rarely intimidating in person. It was the idea that a trusted servant stabbed the nation in the back that connected with tradition.

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Goldwater and other conservatives were as serious about minority subservience as anti-communism. Perhaps the southwest's ethnocentric culture had roots in southern slaveholding reactionaries, which made the McCarthy model appealing. They also could recognize that hidden communists symbolized a generalized secret threat. If stoking the latent culture of hidden paranoia fired up the tinder of ethnic politics, civil rights movements did the rest.

As the Cold War threat receded, black equality proceeded. Goldwater lost his presidential effort by a landslide, signaling how cold war politics weakened. But within two years, the south's peculiar Jim Crow equilibrium was also finished, which unleashed double-barreled paranoia. Southern whites had to rub shoulders with blacks they'd oppressed for centuries; who knew what secret retributions they planned? Northern whites noticed they and black populations had not assimilated, and if whites didn't understand or like blacks, they assumed blacks felt the same in return.

Minority populations did harbor some sixties revolutionaries, though barely hidden. Yet time passed and revolution faded. Northern blacks succumbed to poverty or rose to the middle class, and northern white fears turned to safety and crime. Young black men were potential muggers, not traitors. In the south, whites resegregated schools by sending their children to affordable Christian academies. Race war failed to materialize.

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I write books, run a small investment consultancy, and serve on a very small school district governing board. I worked for several years on development projects in West Africa, also researched an MS in the area. Started a Coop in Cote d'Ivoire, (more...)

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