February 2016 Archives


(This image may well get the job done better than the 1,500 words that follow.)

The Ol' Bloviator has never been loath to mouth off about any and all matters political, and he considers it quite the triumph of self-restraint that he is only now breaking silence on the cascading lunacy that is the 2016 presidential race. The O.B. has always considered American politics the finest comedic spectacle out there, and thus the almost ideal target for his normally irrepressible impulses to mock and ridicule. However, where earlier presidential contests have offered at least a modest challenge to those impulses, this one offers such an unbroken stream profound ignorance, reckless stupidity, and over-the-top meanness that no one who has even walked by a TV set or a newsstand needs any help in understanding that what we are witnessing has the earmarks of a potential tragedy masquerading as epic farce.

With sincere apologies to his esteemed colleagues in political science, the O.B. can tell you without so much as a glance at exit polls that, in primary elections especially, people are more motivated not just to vote but to vote a certain way when they are angry than when they are reasonably content. This, of course, explains why at lot of folks outside the South voted for George Wallace in the 1968 presidential primaries only to drop ol' George like a hot sweet potato before heading to the polls that November. It was easy enough to interpret surging support in the polls for both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as indicative of just such a "blowing-off -steam-before-coming-to-my-senses" reaction among primary voters of both parties. In fact, Bernie already trails Hillary 503-70 in the scramble for the 2,383 delegates needed for the Democratic nomination. With the Super Tuesday slog through Dixie looming large and menacing, the dedicated dreamer of the impossible and impractical dream and the sturdy band of zealots who have fallen under his spell may well be looking at their last dance among the sugar plums.

 Not so for the Donald, however. Indeed, not only "No," but Hell No!" The guy whose very entry into the Republican field was lustily hooted at by every professional and amateur pundit--not to mention several hair stylists--from Harvard to Hahira is not only still standing but looking at excellent odds of being the last one doing so. Since he was edged out in the quadrennial Iowa contest to see who can cram the most "Bevs" and "Berts" into a middle-school cafeteria by the equally scary Ted Cruz, Trump, whom the Wall Street Journal can only bring itself to refer to as "the businessman," has kicked some serious booty among the wishfully disbelieving.

            For months, we waited expectantly for the next in an almost daily progression of Trumpisms, each aggressively insensitive enough in its own right to make Archie Bunker seem like the Dalai Lama, to finally take him down. Meanwhile, the imperturbable Mr. T. proceeded merrily along down, curb-stomping his opponents verbally while besting them first in--then largely at--the polls. Although he Republican establishment finally seems ready to act forcefully against yon Donald's threat to their party, it appears that they may have stuck with their Nero act a Virginia Reel or two too long. At this too-late date, barring a groundswell of folks desperate enough to cross the Rubio-con with Marco, or indisputable revelations of ol' Donnie's excessive fondness for farm animals--and even this is no sure thing-- he stands somewhere between "quite likely" and "all but certain" to show up at the July GOP confab in Cleveland (That desperate to win back Ohio, are we?) with enough delegates in his pocket to collect the nomination on the first ballot. Any proportional expression of the perceived improbability of this just a few months ago being impossible, the O.B. can only call upon one of his Mama's favorite maxims to suggest that somewhere, surely, the band is tuning up to play "Who'da' Thought It?"

            It is tempting simply to conclude that Republicans brought Donald Trump on themselves through the tolerance, even deference that they have increasingly shown to a polarizing array of reckless, loud-mouthed spewers of meanness, and vitriol in recent years. (True to form, John Kasich, in all likelihood the most electable aspirant still in the Republican race, has been unable to get the fatal monkey of moderation off his back and is struggling simply to stay in the race until the March 15 Ohio primary, where, ironically enough, he represents one of the few feeble hopes for slowing down the Trump juggernaut.) What pleasure may be taken in seeing the Republicans being force-fed the bitter fruits of their own venality, however, must be tempered by the fact that their unscrupulousness has taken the rest of us and, for that matter, the rest of the world to the threshold of an era where rage Trumps (Sorry!) reason not just frequently but consistently and thoroughly.

Unfortunately, joining ol' Pilate at the washbowl is not an option in this case, nor is a self-righteous recusal to the moral high ground, because few of us can escape some measure of responsibility for the currently appalling state of American politics. For example, how many self-professed God-fearing Christians apparently didn't fear Him enough to step up and cry "Enough!" when his name was mocked and exploited by self-serving posturers like Jerry Falwell, Sr., and, more recently, Jr., whose endorsement of Donald Trump as a man who "lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment" truly sickened even so hardened a cynic as the O.B. in its brazen hypocrisy. We Bible-Belters who have been hit more than one hypothetical such as "How would Jesus be received if he visited your community tomorrow?" certainly have good reason to retaliate by asking how He might fare with today's power-brokering preacher/politicos if he came back determined to run for office with the Sermon on the Mount as his platform. How much does "blessed are the poor in spirit" or "the meek" or "the merciful" or "the peacemakers" resemble anything that ever came out of the mouth of Falwell's man Trump, or the self-styled uber-evangelical, Ted Cruz, for that matter?

            Finally, there is also more than a whiff of culpability among many in the Democratic camp currently watching the Republican Rocky Horror Show with the smug, self-satisfied amusement afforded only by the miseries of an adversary.  Each confident but failed prophesy that Trump's latest shot at the canon of political correctness would ultimately cost him his big toe should simply underscore the depth of the Democratic left's disconnect with prevailing popular attitudes. The casual presumption that everyone with at least a modicum of intelligence should share their views on transgender issues, any and all attempts to curb illegal immigration, buildings named for racists, sexists, imperialists, and pretty much everything else that might offend anyone but conservatives has finally grown so stultifying that many liberals in the media and (gasp!) academia have cried out for relief.

There is no doubt that Donald Trump benefits inordinately and even proudly from the support of the people whom he affectionately (for now, at least) calls "the poorly educated," as well as the folks who, as Lewis Grizzard put it, "think the moonshot's fake and wrestlin's real." (Note here surveys suggesting that nearly one in five Trump supporters remains unpersuaded that the Emancipation Proclamation was such a hot idea, and in South Carolina, nearly one in four still wish the South had come out of the Recent Unpleasantness on top.) For all that, however, Trump's troops are actually drawn from a reasonably broad demographic, and polls consistently show him stronger among self-identified moderates than Tea Partiers or rock-ribbed conservative regulars. Some of this may be written off to Mr. T's lack of ideological consistency--his extremism is more of a selective, or even knee-jerk sort. But the point here is not simply that he is pushing a lot of the right anger buttons across a broad spectrum of Republicans, including those still registered as Democrats, but also that there are so many "hot" buttons that work in his favor.

It hardly seems necessary even to suggest that Bernie's ranks are heavily populated not only by those who are salivating for a piece of his pie-in-the-sky but by those who simply cannot stomach Hillary. Yet, even the sharpest of Mr. Sanders's jabs at his opponent seems like the thrust of a butter knife compared to the chainsaw approach Trump has thus far wielded so effectively against his rivals. Whatever happens from here on out, the fact that D.T.'s ostentatious contempt for his fellow Republicans has played so well for this long with so many of the rank-and-file cannot portend well for the GOP. To a lesser but still notable extent, the protracted dalliance with Bernie suggests that a lot of Dems don't particularly care for their party establishment either. The larger, more portentous question looming over this election, however, is not simply which party's' levers get the most pulls in November but how many voters will pull either one with their other hands clamped over their noses and, beyond that, how much longer will they tolerate such a necessity.

Deutschland Meet Southland (in 1600 words)

  [Some of the Ol' Bloviator's friends in Germany asked him to boil the essence of southern history and identity down to the tidy sum of 1600 words, for the benefit of public school teachers who will be devoting an instructional unit to the American South.  This exercise in hypercompression (some might call it "bliviting") took the O.B. a lot longer than he expected and hammered home Kenny Rogers's wisdom about the importance of knowing "what to keep, and what to throw away." Needless to say, the O.B. had to do a great deal of throwing away, so please keep that in mind if you are troubled by what you don't read below. If that doesn't work, by all means, take your own shot at being a southern-fried oracle in 1600 words.]        

In the United States, the "South" can be defined in many ways, including its geography (roughly the same latitude as Spain, Portugal, and Southern Italy) its relatively warm, humid climate average high temp above 22 C.), racial population mix (Black to white ratio: South 30%; United States 18%), and strong religious commitment (highest church attendance rates in the U.S.). The most unifying characteristic of the South, however, remains its history, and the most important factors in that history are African slavery and the Civil War, 1861-1865, to which slavery was the major contributing cause. In this sense, the eleven states that went to war in defense of slavery present the most cohesive representation of the South.

Slavery flourished first in Virginia in response to the labor requirements of growing tobacco, the colony's principal crop, and spread to the rice plantations farther down the Atlantic Coast as well as the sugar plantations of Louisiana. Slaves were also employed in growing cotton, which was first confined to the warm, moist coastal areas of Georgia and the Carolinas suitable for growing the finer, long-stranded variety whose fibers could be separated from the seeds by hand.  Even with slaves doing the work, this was still a slow and arduous process until 1793, when, in the face of mounting demand from British textile manufacturers, inventor Eli Whitney perfected his cotton "engine" or "gin," a machine that could efficiently extract the seeds from the fibers, even in hardier, shorter-stranded cotton that could be grown across much of the South. In response to Whitney's invention, southern cotton production exploded from 3,000 bales (227 kg each) in 1790 to the more than 3.8 million bales that by 1860 accounted for 58 percent of the total value of U.S. exports and 75 percent of the world's cotton supply. High demand for cotton meant higher slave prices as well, and by 1860, with slaves accounting for roughly two-thirds of their wealth, southern planters were among the richest people not only in the United States, but in the entire world.

With mounting national opposition to slavery threatening their wealth and status by the end of the 1850s, slaveholders came increasingly to advocate withdrawal from the federal union even if it meant taking up arms against it. Barely one-third of southern white families owned slaves in 1861, but the ensuing death and destruction of the Civil War brought economic devastation to the entire South. Destroying slavery also meant destroying the $4 billion value attached to the slave population, leaving the region sorely lacking in the capital needed not only to rebuild southern agriculture but to finance the South's industrial development, which by the end of the Civil War lagged even farther behind that of the northern states than it had at the beginning. The lack of capital or skilled labor condemned the South to a pattern of slow industrial growth dominated by manufacturers looking to take advantage of its vast pool of cheap, unskilled labor.

Meanwhile, with actual cash so hard to come by, southern cotton production slipped into a system in which larger landholdings were divided into separate plots, each farmed by a family of "sharecroppers." Instead of wages, sharecroppers received a designated share of the proceeds from the crops they produced after charges for the supplies and food, advanced to them on credit at extremely high interest rates, had been deducted. In combination with a general decline in cotton prices, this very inefficient and often exploitive way of farming caused millions of southerners, black and white, to sink deeper and deeper into unrelenting debt and poverty. It was small wonder that per capita income in the South was barely half the national average in 1900 or that malnutrition and chronic disease were also widespread.

             Most white southerners blamed the Republican Party for the Civil War and the destruction of slavery and fiercely resisted its efforts to assist newly freed blacks. The overthrow of the last Republican state governments in 1877 not only marked the end of the "Reconstruction" era, but set the stage for the South to become a fortress of Democratic Party support for more than three-quarters of a century.  With both the region's industrial and agricultural economies heavily dependent on cheap and easily controlled labor, restoring white supremacy over the former slaves became a priority. The resulting system of economic and social repression included not only rigid racial segregation, but a variety of discriminatory restrictions that prevented the great majority of southern blacks and quite a few poorer whites from continuing to vote.

These tightly interconnected economic, racial, and political arrangements survived largely intact until the Great Depression of the 1930s brought federal incentives to reduce farm production, which, in turn, led to massive evictions of sharecroppers. World War II drew even more southerners away from farming and spurred the development of a mechanical cotton picker that reduced the need for farm labor even further. Rapidly declining agricultural employment dictated a much more aggressive campaign to bring industry to the South, and the sharp wartime increase in personal income set the stage for an influx of faster-growing, sometimes better-paying manufacturers attracted by an expanding base of more affluent metropolitan consumers.

Meanwhile, black veterans returning from World War II after fighting for democracy overseas were determined to have it for themselves back home.  They played a key role in rallying support for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and its push for racial equality that led the U.S Supreme Court to outlaw public school segregation in 1954 (Brown vs. Board of Education). The ensuing campaign of public protests and civil disobedience headed by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., generated the pressures necessary to prompt Congress, with considerable prodding by President Lyndon B. Johnson, to pass legislation prohibiting racial discrimination by employers or public businesses and aggressively guaranteeing the voting rights of southern blacks. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 led to widespread black voting (for the Democratic Party), and the South soon led the nation in the number of blacks holding elected office. On the other hand, after liberal northern Democrats joined President Johnson in calling for the new civil rights measures, a majority of white southerners abruptly switched their allegiance to the more conservative Republican Party, although in recent elections Democratic presidential candidates have regained strength in states like Virginia and Florida, which have attracted many new residents from outside the region.

Some parts of the South have enjoyed remarkable economic progress since the 1960s, as rising global competition encouraged more northern industrialists to move their production facilities to the South, which still offered the lower labor and other operating costs that also spurred investments by a number of international manufacturers, including German automakers BMW and Mercedes. The South now boasts twenty metropolitan areas with populations of 1 million or more. Yet there are many pockets of enduring poverty, especially in rural areas with heavily black populations. Eight of the ten poorest states are in the South, which also lags behind most of the rest of the U.S. in categories like support for public education and public health and leads in the incidence of health problems like obesity, diabetes, and susceptibility to strokes and heart disease.

As poor as it might be in certain respects, the South is undeniably rich in culture. Although its original white settlers came from Great Britain and Western Europe, its cultural heritage was also shaped by Native Americans and enslaved Africans, who brought with them a rich bounty of foods, spices, and cooking techniques. The South's famed barbecue derives from "Barbacoa," a technique for slow-cooking and roasting meat likely adopted from the native population of the Caribbean and West Indies by slaves and the whites who deposited them there before they were imported to the southern colonies. Slaves were largely responsible for the pepper and vinegar sauces spread across the barbecued meat, although later German immigrants to the Carolinas insisted on a mustard-based sauce. Finally, "grits" became a fundamental staple of the southern diet after Native Americans were observed soaking ground corn in a mixture of water and ashes prior to boiling in order to unlock its full nutrient content.

No element of the South's culture has had more influence on the culture of the U.S. and other nations than its music. While the ballads and fiddle tunes brought by British settlers provided the foundation for what would become country music, the work songs and field hollers that were a vital part of the slaves' African heritage formed the basis of the blues. These musical forms did not always respect the South's racial divisions. There was more interaction than many realized as both the blues and country music grew more commercialized and, as members of both races left the farm in droves, more urbanized as well. When local radio stations and recording studios in cities like Memphis and New Orleans began to feature the work of both black and white performers after World War II, the closer contact and familiarity bred the revolutionary new sound that would become "rock 'n roll." Elvis Presley quickly won an enormous youthful following as a white singer who sounded "black," but if he succeeded by borrowing heavily from black stylings, he also helped to open the door to white audiences much wider for a host of black performers ranging from Little Richard to Chuck Berry.

            If the South gave America its most characteristic music, its writers also contributed some of its greatest literature. The region's striking racial and economic disparities and injustices and its stark extremes of religious piety and violent cruelty helped to fuel the creative instincts of a host of brilliant writers, white and black, from William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and Carson McCullers to Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker.  In the end, however, like the southern people themselves, more than anything, the works of these writers reveal a common struggle with the enduring presence of a past that, for them, as Faulkner writes, is "never dead" and "not even past."

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