"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Southern Hatred For The Federal Government–History, Religion, and Social Conservatism

I am staying in a part of the country which is very suspicious of the Federal Government.  The Deep South in many ways is still living the legacy of the loss of the Confederacy, the rigors of Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights era.  Most Northerners impatiently say ‘Get over it’. Slavery and Southern rebellion caused the War; Federal dominion over a defeated land was necessary to consolidate victory, to reconfigure regional society and politics and to assure that the South would indeed never rise again; and the National Guard was necessary to force integration on a bitterly racist and persistently rebellious region.

From the South’s perspective, what they saw as their legitimate claims to states’ rights were abridged or nullified (even Lincoln was aware that he was on shaky Constitutional grounds), Reconstruction was a corrupt land-grab by carpetbaggers and an ignorant rush to Negro sovereignty.  It is understandable that a white backlash occurred, that the Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence, and that a burning hostility towards the North and its federal government was rekindled in the 1960s.  Once again, Southerners say, the Federal Government of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson – no different from that of Lincoln – used military force to resolve serious regional issues.  We have reason to suspect the Federal Government, many Southerners say. They can never be trusted.

Federal reforms, however, were never enough to change 200 years of Southern history and tradition.  The South was still deeply rural in its outlook, still far more socially stratified than the North, and deeply, profoundly racist.  Tenant farming replaced slavery, and although blacks had more rights than they did before the War, the relationship between plantation owner and laborer remained very much the same.  White aristocratic society reconstituted itself, and a concerted social and political effort was made to rebuild the South as the unique alternative to Northern industrialism.  For a hundred years until 1965 the South remained the Old South minus slavery; and only with the passage of the first Civil Rights Act did a real Federal challenge come.

The period from 1965 to the present was one of slow growth and social progress.  Mississippi and Alabama have been two of the poorest states in the Union with the worst social indicators.  De facto segregation and racism persist, and if anything, the hostility towards ‘Washington’ has gotten worse.  It has been hard for many in the South to accept that a black man is President of the United States, and this has undoubtedly been a principal reason for the increasingly virulent hatred of the Federal Government.  Conspiracy theories abound here and many focus on the illegitimacy of Obama, his supposed African, Socialist roots, and his defiance of true American values.

Mississippi and Alabama are two of the most politically conservative states in the Union, one of the most socially and religiously conservative, and one of the most fundamentalist.  A staggering number of residents (far more than the already high national average) reject evolution, adopt a strict Constructionist view of the Bible, and believe in the coming of Christ within their generation.  Taken together, Southern history and Southern profound social, political, and religious conservatism make a heady anti-federal brew – and a totally illogical one.

There were many analyses of the American electorate after the Presidential election last year, and most concluded that the country was more divided than it ever had been.  We were divided politically – red and blue states were deep in hue and unlikely to moderate or change.  We were divided by urban-rural geography, income, race, and ethnicity.  What was never mentioned was the fundamental divide in America today – that between logic and illogic – or put another way, between rational analysis and belief. As many as sixty percent of Christians in America consider themselves fundamentalists, thus giving the Bible and religious teaching primacy and priority over logical exegesis. “How do I know?”, says the famous country song, “The Bible tells me so”; and intellectual inquiry stops there.

If over 50 percent of Americans reject Evolution and espouse Creationism – that is to willfully ignore a fossil record – is it so surprising that an untold number of conspiracy theories abound? How hard is it for an economically and socially marginalized white Southerner, still bitter and angry about Southern defeats, discouraged about Southern poverty, and hyper-sensitive to persistent Northern stereotypes of ‘cracker’, ‘redneck’, and ‘poor white trash’ to turn his suspicions to Washington and their malevolent schemes?  Not hard at all.

In fact, it is easier for a disaffected Southerner to turn his anger towards a target – Obama – than to logically consider the facts.  Why not assume that the failed states of the South and their stagnant socio-economic systems are the result of ‘Government’ now headed by a Black Nationalist, Socialist traitor?  It is simpler to lay blame elsewhere than to look inward and address the many problems that have held states, counties, and municipalities in a state of perpetual stagnation.

Perhaps the most surprising phenomenon at all is the hatred for the federal government by those who benefit from it and in fact rely on it.  While it is certainly true that the rich have perhaps benefitted more than the poor from government subsidies, programs, and supports, low-income earners are living on the margins and could not survive without government safety nets.  I have met many enterprising, defiantly independent Southerners who are one pitfall away from falling off their precarious tightrope. One illness, one accident, one Act of God, and their carefully but fragilely-constructed life will be finished. 

However, the classic and often reviled social programs like Medicaid and Public Assistance (Welfare, ADC, Food Stamps) are a drop in the bucket compared to the vast array of federal investments in transportation, energy, housing, mining, and agriculture which directly and indirectly benefit most Americans.  Most programs are so taken for granted that they are forgotten.  FDIC, for example, insures savings deposits so that families cannot be wiped out in the case of bank failure.  Although the institution was established in response to The Great Depression, events of the past five years have been a pungent reminder of how relevant the FDIC is today.  The FDA provides the American consumer with the certainty that pharmaceuticals are produced according to high standards, are safe and unadulterated; and that claims are legitimate.  The CDC tracks disease and epidemics and provides assistance in the detection, prevention, and treatment of disease.

Mortgage interest payments are deductible expenses on federal income tax.  Federal block grants to states allow them to make necessary investments in infrastructure and public services for which they do not have the revenues.  The list is endless.

So why is it that so many Southerners vilify the federal government and see it as evil and out to destroy the country? Can the region’s painful history, its fundamentalism, poor education, and insularity be the only reasons?  Something is missing when so many people willingly suspend rational judgment, and fall into a miasma of irrationality and emotional conviction.

I have written extensively on conspiracy theories (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/10/conspiracy-theories.html) and have summarized the various schools of thought which seek to explain them.  Some observers have concluded that it is a result of psychopathology:

The paranoid style, Hofstadter argued, was a result of ‘uncommonly angry minds’, whose judgment was somehow ‘distorted’. Following this vein, some scholars came to view conspiracy theories as a product of psychopathology, such as extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism… In this view, the delusional aspect of conspiratorial beliefs was thought to result in an incapacity for social or political action.

Others have felt they were more a result of social pathology:

A belief in conspiracy theories is more likely to emerge among those who feel powerless, disadvantaged or voiceless, especially in the face of catastrophe. To use a contemporary example, believing that the 7/7 London bombings were perpetrated by the British or Israeli governments may be a means of making sense of turbulent social or political phenomena.

At the very least and most benign is the possibility that conspiracy theories are the result of inadequate information, insufficient education to search for and discover rational answers, and social insularity.  If one lives in a small Southern town or rural area, contact with homosexuals, feminists, atheists, Pro-Choice adherents, or far left political progressives will be limited. Distortions will therefore be the norm.  Gays are out to corrupt and convert the young; feminists dedicated to destroying the traditional American family; progressives (i.e. Socialists and Communists) are out to dismantle the capitalist, democratic system.

The scariest part of all, however, is that once one subscribes to one illogical conspiracy theory, it becomes easier to believe others.  Once you believe that Obama is not an American but an African, then it is not hard to believe that he was influenced by Nyerere socialism; and if you believe that, the jump to believing he is a Black Nationalist sympathizer is easy.

I was not prepared for the fiery, irrational hatred of anything even slightly left of center in the South; and have never got used to hearing such an impassioned, militant hatred of Washington.  There is much to dislike about the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the press corps; but they are acting according to predictable human and political nature and necessity.  There is nothing manipulatively evil about the men and women in power.  If anything they are overly greedy, venal, and ignorant; and not even capable of putting together an international conspiracy.

I think I have understood why people feel as strongly as they do, and why they subscribe to such outlandish political, social, and economic theories; but I think I have had enough.

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