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Courteous Cannon Shots to the South, with Like Volleys Returned

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Message Lawrence Velvel
January 3, 2007

Dear Colleagues:

A few days before Christmas I received a terrific email taking issue, in most civil terms, with a theme that often appears in my writings: criticisms of the South. The email from Dr. Robert Dotson of Oak Ridge, Tennessee -- yes, that Oak Ridge -- was so impressive that it should be seen by others, and deserved a hopefully thoughtful response. I asked Dr. Dotson if he would mind my posting his email, my response, and any reply he might care to make to the response. He agreed to this, in a very charming and friendly email. I also mentioned to him that, because our office was closed for the holiday season, the response would not be typed and posted until after the holidays.

The holiday season being over, I am now posting Dr. Dotson's email and my response. If he writes a reply. I will post that too.

From: Robert Dotson
Sent: Thursday, December 21, 2006 5:15 PM
Subject: RE: The DeFacto Closing Of The Flagships And Possible Replacements for Them

Dean Velvel,

Firstly, let me say that I greatly enjoy your rantings from the North lands of Amerika! You are obviously a brave and intelligent man. I have particularly appreciated your unique perspective on numerous social problems, as life has forced my own thinking down similar paths.

Having said all of this, however, I would like to take a moment to protest one small thematic element that seems to creep periodically into your postings - specifically: a tendency to belittle the intellectual capacities of those who live South of the Mason-Dixon line and to paint the entire region with a broad brush which clearly displays a lack of first-hand knowledge of the region and a good bit of historical inaccuracy. The problems that assail our Failing State can surely not be laid solely on the backs of us "ignorant" Southerns. Perhaps you were assaulted or insulted by a Southerner as a child?

Though I have spent most of my life in Tennessee, I am a Texican by birth (McAllen, '49) and have traveled to and lived in numerous places during my lifetime. My father was a Naval aviator in WWII and, following the war, he pursued advanced degrees in his chosen field of Agriculture. After receiving his PhD in Ag Extension at Penn State, he took a position at UT and died there in his traces as Director of Extension Education in the mid-80's. Preceding ancestors have been preachers and teachers, small business owners and farmers, union leaders and railroad men - no "elite" or "moneyed" in the lot. My great-great grandfather Dotson served as a Chaplain in the 125th US Colored Infantry in the 1860s and was a staunch abolitionist. Other members of the family served the Southern cause, even though all were common people without slaves or plantations.

In my own travels, I have lived in the South (Knoxville/Oak Ridge, childhood, college and practice years and Memphis, Medical School and post-doc training), the Midwest (Kansas, US Army), and the Northeast (Pennsylvania, childhood, and New Jersey/New York, Fellowship). I have lived and worked in the inner city of Memphis (ran a Community Action Program while I was in my residency). I have served in the Army (Chief of Ophthalmology and ENT for 1st Infantry Division, Ft. Riley). I have studied and worked in Manhattan (AIOIS Epstein Fellow). In making this circuit, I was dismayed to find that the alleged bigotry of the South is really non-existent when compared to that of the Midwest and, even worse, the Northeast. New York, in particular, contains some of the most provincial, intolerant, elitist, overtly rascist, and, dare I say it, myopic people on the planet! The most backward red-neck cracker is a paragon of civility and tolerance when compared to the Chosen Few occupying seats of power in Manhattan!

Anyway, my purpose in all of this was to try and return some civility to discourse. I know that it is difficult to lay down lifelong preconceptions about others, but I would beg that you re-evaluate your views on and comments about the South. A few of us do wear shoes, have attended colleges and universities, and have been able to function in our post-modern world to some degree. Some of us are even "progressive" in our thinking... I've gone so far over the edge that I'm now in Noam Chomsky's camp (and, Hugo Chavez is my new hero for waving a Chomsky book in the face of the The Great Decider and calling him what he is!)!

If I have offended with these comments, I apologize, as that was not my intent at all. My hope was simply to make an appeal for empathy and sympathy for fellow travelers whether they be Yankees or Rebels.

I hope that the Holiday Season is a great one for you and yours! Keep up the fight...

In solidarity...

Robert S. Dotson, M.D.
Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Passage became possible in the early 1860s because southerners, who had precious little public education at any level in their own mostly ignorant states and opposed federal assistance to higher education, had walked out of Congress and gone South (where they should have but unfortunately did not stay, if you take my meaning).

Dear Dr. Dotson:

As said to you previously, I feel that your very fine email deserves a response, hopefully a considered one. So here goes.

You are correct, of course, that a certain anti Southern bias appears in my writings. As said to you previously, this is not because I have any desire to insult educated, competent, thoughtful Southerners such as yourself, or even those rare birds like Hilton Helper who have appeared at prior times in our history. (Helper wrote his book -- explaining that slavery was economically harmful to the South -- before the Civil War, and, if memory serves, was run out of the South for it.) Nor are my views based on ever having been assaulted or insulted by a Southerner.
Thus, personal experience has nothing to do with the intellectual views I express about the South. Rather, my views have been formed by both history and modern events. The history includes both the history of the nation's earlier years, and the history of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s when I was growing up and was a young adult. What might be called the modern events are those from approximately the time Nixon managed to implement his (I think quite evil) southern strategy until today.

Some of both the history and the modern events have been canvassed to some extent in a blog about the need for a third party that I posted on January 21, 2006, and later rewrote slightly and reposted on October 13, 2006. Pertinent points not be relabored here, but can merely be listed. The history of slavery, the subsequent suppression of African Americans and Jim Crowism, the horrendous actions of people like Bilbo, Eastland, Tillman and their ilk, horrendous southern actions during the Civil Rights Revolution (Birmingham, Philadelphia, Mississippi and all that), the southern code of violence and southern militarism, both of which come down to us from early days of the Republic and still rule the nation's thinking in my judgment (and one of which, militarism, has had awful effects borne out in Viet Nam and Iraq), 85 years or so of southern lynchings of blacks, the longstanding and widespread, albeit now often altered, Southern lack of respect for (public) education and for information, southern-led efforts to impose fundamentalist religion on others and often to stifle speech, and, quite frankly, the fact that so much of the South was for so long racist, ignorant and backwards yet had such extensive control over the politics of the nation -- all this history has influenced (or infected) my thinking.

As well, my generation grew up in a time when the South still was especially cruel to blacks -- much of this stuff was in our daily papers and, later, on television. The horrendous treatment received by black soldiers in the South and from Southern noncoms and officers during World War II, continued lynchings and Jim Crowism, the long successful efforts of Southern Congressmen and Senators to stifle civil rights, the never to be forgotten Emmet Till murder, the killings and beatings administered and the fear engendered by Southerners during the Civil Rights Revolution -- all this is part of the history of my own generation and is well known to any of us who read or who watched TV.

After the Civil Rights Revolution, of course, the one party Democrat South became the one party Republican South, conservative to reactionary Democrats became conservative to reactionary Republicans, and, being a one party, reliably conservative to reactionary region, the South was the backbone of conservative to reactionary policies, particularly including military ones, that have so often ruled from the 1960's until this very day.

So, as you can see, I believe it is history and events, not bad personal experience or blind bias, that propel my views about the South. It is history and events, moreover, that have caused me to write, in the posts on a third party, that it is necessary to have some form of proportional representation in Congress -- perhaps even to have each state's entire delegation elected by proportional representation, I now note -- and to get rid of the electoral college. Only if there is proportional representation and no electoral college will the decent views and the votes of persons like yourself have any impact in the South. Without these changes the views of both people like you and people of decent views who are less liberal than you but whose views do not fit the southern mold, will continue to be completely nullified by use of the winner take all system in voting for Congressman and Presidents. (Not to mention voting for Senator, where noting can be done because an entire state votes for only two Senators.) As written previously, it is also true that proportional representation and direct election of Presidents will give more influence to conservatives in the so-called blue states, just as it will give more power to liberals in the red states. That seems to me perfectly proper. It is not less so because a key to a better politics -- I think the key to a better politics -- is to break the stranglehold the conservatives have over the South, and to consequently reduce the presently one party South's control over this country (which it has largely controlled for our entire history except for 1861-1876) to the degree of influence appropriately possessed by any region of the nation.

My views with regard to the South should not be taken to excuse the racism, incivility, elitism or intolerance that you found to exist in the midwest and north. Even though there doubtless are people who would find me personally guilty of several of these faults, I would wish the faults not to exist or to exist in far lesser degree. As well, it is perhaps not irrelevant that, in his recent autobiography, Mirror To America, John Hope Franklin, the great historian who experienced many of the horrible things that could happen to African Americans in the South in the 1920s and onward, found living in
Brooklyn very difficult because of the racism of his neighbors. This struck me as horrible.

A final point, if I may. You said, at the beginning of your email, that you enjoy my "rantings" from the North. The statement that you enjoy my rantings was intended to be complimentary, I believe; at least I took it that way, and appreciate it very much. But, you know, I wish you hadn't used the word "rantings" even as a semi joking matter. In this society "rantings" has become a word used to describe the views of people with whom one not merely disagrees, but whose views one seeks to discredit by use of a word indicating lack of thought, lack of evidence, and just plain blind, emotionally laden prejudice. (No surprise, then, that conservatives have accused me of ranting, regardless of the fact, here immodestly stated, that a number of my once unconventional views have proven accurate over the years.) It will not surprise you to hear that, regardless of how unconventional my views may sometimes be -- e.g., the longheld position that we should divide Iraq into three separate countries and get out -- I personally believe they are not the product of lack of thought, lack of evidence, and blind emotion, but are usually supported by facts, evidence and history. In short, I don't consider them mere rants, regardless of what right wingers might think of them. In an analogous connection, though you now find yourself agreeing with Noam Chomsky, conservatives consider his views to be mere rants, a position I know you would strongly disagree with.

Well, I hope that this email has been reasonably thoughtful, so as to provide the kind of considered response that your own excellent email deserves. I thank you for writing and for agreeing to have your views posted so that others could see them, not just myself. If you wish to send me a reply, I will be glad to post it too. And, of course, you have my very best wishes for an excellent 2007.

Sincerely yours,

Lawrence R. Velvel
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Lawrence R. Velvel is a cofounder and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, and is the founder of the American College of History and Legal Studies.
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