Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Illiberal Core of the Clean Hands Left

I have been thinking a great deal recently about the part of the American political left that advocates abandoning the South. The basic argument goes - the South is a hopeless morass of retrograde customs, laws, religion and attitudes, forever cemented to the legacy of racism and slavery. We can't change it and only hurt ourselves trying to win over those states because it makes us compromise on our fundamental liberal values. The Democratic party specifically and the progressive left generally needs to "write-off" the South and let it belong to the bigots and the religious fundamentalists. The recent mid-term electoral successes should prove that we can control the nation without having to deal with the South.

I wrote a post not long after the mid-terms, End of the Party of Lincoln, where I tried to distinguish between the South as a geographical location and the Southern Stain, which is a mind-set of a large minority of Americans, rooted in the legacy of slavery and race thinking from the original slave-holding states. What the left fights - what it always fights - is the anti-democratic impulse that can be found in any society, the dedication to tribalism and fundamentalism in preference to modernity. This may have a geographical stronghold in the US, but it is not a geographical problem. The senate race in Virginia, with a California boy ("Macaca" Allen) proudly defending the forces of anti-modernism, should put a firm and final end to that line of thought.

But there is something not entirely "clean" about the arguments of the Clean Hands Left. Ed Kilgore of New Donkey has been getting at it in oblique ways with a number of his recent posts (Hard Boys, Ford and the DLC, and The Netroots and Clintonism to name a few) where he points out the myths and blind spots of a certain portion of the progressive left. I was bothered by it again today in a comment thread on Carpetbagger Report where a commenter quite blithely said that the North should have let the South go rather than wage a civil war to keep them in the union, with the implicit argument that "we" would have been better off not having this retrograde bunch of states messing up our more perfect union. This is the ultimate bedrock of the "Abandon the South" argument.

Does that mean that it would have been preferable to leave several million people in chattel slavery rather than enforce the liberal tenant that all humans are equal beings, endowed with the same intrinsic rights? Evidently so. The arguments about how the civil war wasn't really about slavery, but about Northern economic dominance, begs the question of the foundations of the southern economic system, which was premised upon the illiberal assertion that slavery is an acceptable social and political practice, without which you cannot have the economic system. It also ignores the fact that the South was prepared to wage war to preserve the ability to expand a slave-based economy to the rest of the continent, as well as to require the North to treat US citizens by two sets of laws - freedom for northern state denizens, slavery for southern states. The "Abandon the South" argument sidesteps the core question that Lincoln answered decisively "Yes" - shall the rights of liberal society be extended to and enforced for all citizens, regardless of the retrograde interests of local and regional elites?

Abandon the South arguments also sidestep the role of violence and institutionalized bigotry in preventing liberal practices from taking root. Have the advocates of this stance really forgotten the structural mechanisms (KKK terrorism, Jim Crow laws, voter intimidation, deliberate disenfranchisement) used to prevent change from occurring? You would think that no one lives in the Bible Belt except white racist religious fundamentalists from the way they argue. Their implicit argument is that people who aren't like that should either leave the region, or somehow vote out the local power elites. If they don't, they have no one but themselves to blame.

This is profoundly disrespectful to those trying to bring about change in the traditional American stronghold of illiberal society, and it is strangely anti-political, as it presumes that there is no point in compromise, no advantage to long-term strategy, and no difference between Trent Lott and Mary Landrieu - they are both from the South and neither are progressive, so to hell with 'em both. Any Southerner who will not be more Northeast-Liberal-than-thou is simply a stealth Republican and must be "exposed" for the frauds that they are.

The way in which this perspective is far closer to the ideology of George Bush than to my own liberalism is found in its callous instrumentality. It is focused upon the needs and desires of a small, ideologically consistent group of "progressive" pundits, and simply cannot acknowledge that to "Abandon the South" in real, human terms means to abandon large swaths of the southern state populations to the reign of fascists and fundamentalists. We already know what this looks like. It is de facto apartheid, rigged legal systems and domestic terrorism.

It is treating the South as Bush is treating New Orleans - no advantage to me there, time to move on. It makes individuals who lack access to power responsible for removing the local and regional power elites, and says they deserve their miserable lives if they aren't "smart" enough to know to vote Democrat. It is the attitude that if you don't support the ideologically pure left, you are indistinguishable from Strom Thurmond.

This is in and of itself a profound abandonment of liberalism.


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