July 30, 2014
Better Off Without ’Em
Posted on Jul 2, 2013
By Allen Barra
“Better Off Without ’Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession”
In 1978, out of college without a job and having failed to establish Birmingham’s version of The Village Voice, I took a job as advance man for the Alabama Republican Senate candidate.
One incident that stuck with me was a visit to campaign headquarters by a young Republican adviser—I didn’t recognize his name, but I remember that he strummed a guitar while talking to us. He told us, “Don’t ever use the words ‘black’ and ‘white’ in an argument. Always say ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ You’ll turn every argument about race into a political one. You do that, and race will start to disappear as an issue.”
Our candidate, Jim Martin, lost the election to somebody named Donald Stewart, who was the very model of the politically ineffectual Democrat who would soon get steamrolled by the new Reagan-led Republican Party. Within a few years, however, Alabama would move, along with much of the South, from the Democratic to the Republican Party. But it was a case of rebranding rather than change. In less than a generation, every Wallace segregationist Democrat I knew had turned into a conservative Reagan Republican; as the guitar-picking adviser had predicted, race almost ceased to be a political issue and, as my friend the late journalist Paul Hemphill put it, “George Wallace’s role in framing the politics of the new South was obscured.”
I thought of these words while reading Chuck Thompson’s “Better Off Without ’Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession.” Or rather, rereading. On its release in August, I dismissed it because the author is rude and obnoxious and because his chapter on football in the South is utterly lacking in logic and sound history. Thompson doesn’t think that the Alabama Crimson Tide has the greatest tradition in college football. But I digress. (More on football later.)
Over the past months, however, I’ve become more convinced by Thompson’s main argument, that the South—the states that comprised the Old Confederacy—should not only be allowed to secede, but both countries created by the split would be better off.
Most of Thompson’s main points are in the first 40 pages:
—“It’s too bad that we just didn’t let the South secede when we had the chance.”
—“Everyone has joked about a modern-day secession. Politicians, like Texas Governor and presidential hopeful Rick Perry, have even threatened it. But what would the measurable impact be if it actually happened? … In fact, for both sides, an exciting by-product of separation would be an explosion of southern tourism. … ”
—“With time, Americans would start thinking of the South as another Mexico, only with a more corrupt government.”
—“The South has operated like a competing nation in cannibalizing and degrading Michigan and the American auto industry.”
—“ … [A] union based on such a diametrically opposed approach to social organization—uncompromising Bible literalism versus protean secular law—is like a bad marriage that needs to end in order to save the children. … “
—“All these gloom and doomers … whining about a world on the brink of extinction are descendants of the Lost Cause defeatism fostered and fetishized in post Civil War southern churches. …”
Let me interject: Ever since the rise of the Nashville Fugitives, a group of poets, novelists and historians who met at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s, it’s been a popular argument among Southern academics that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery but in defense of states’ rights. (I’ll never forget the Birmingham News’ 1963 Civil War centennial issue that proclaimed “The True Story of the Heroic Struggle for States’ Rights.”) This ties into one of the primary myths being hammered home to white school kids in the South: that because slavery only benefited the rich and not the common soldier/farmer, the latter did not believe he went to war in defense of slavery.
As historian James M. McPherson noted, the leaders of the Confederacy were clear before the war that they were quite willing to fight for slavery. Here’s McPherson from his essay “The War of Southern Aggression” in The New York Review of Books (Jan. 19, 1989): “Whether or not they owned productive property, all southern whites owned the most important property of all—a white skin. This enabled them to stand above the mudsill of black slavery and prevented them from sinking into the morass of inequality, as did wage workers and poor men in the North.”
I don’t think racism is the cardinal sin of the South, and it certainly isn’t exclusive to the South. The South’s cardinal sin is in pretending that racism didn’t cause the Civil War, and that racism doesn’t survive as a major issue.
On this point Thompson is unrelenting. “We can no longer afford to wait on the South to get its racial shit together,” he writes. “It’s time to move on, let southerners sort out their own mess free from the harassment of northern moralizers.” This is pretty much what William Faulkner wrote in more eloquent terms some 60 years ago. And, as we approach the 150th anniversary of the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg, Thompson finds plenty of Southerners who think, as one of them tells him, “We’re on the verge of a civil war.” Thompson asks, “Between North and South?” The answer: “Between conservative and liberal.”
It’s attitudes like this that keep white Southerners from understanding that year after year, decade after decade, they support policies that don’t help them. “Rank-and-file southern voters—who have lower average incomes than other Americans—resoundingly defeated Barack Obama in 2008; the eventual president carried just 10, 11, and 14 percent of the white vote in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana respectively,” Thompson writes. “An influential percentage of poor, uneducated, underserved, insurance-less white southerners continue to cast votes for candidates whose agendas clearly conflict with their own self interest.” What Thompson doesn’t do—what I’ve never seen anyone do—is offer a valid explanation for why white Southerners ally themselves with the party that treats them contemptuously.
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