As some of you may recall, I've long had an affection for Carl Oglesby's The Yankee-Cowboy War
, a classic of conspiracy literature which rises miles above its genre through the quality of its prose and the scope of its vision. You don't have to believe that JFK was killed by a cabal to appreciate Oglesby's grand meta-narrative of American history.
Oglesby (a one-time mentor to Hillary Clinton) believed that American power is locked in a permanent struggle between an entrenched eastern establishment and a loosely-allied group of affluent upstarts in the south and the west. As I said on an earlier occasion
The Yankees are old money, the Atlantic, New England, New York, the industrialized north, Wall Street, finance capital. The Cowboys are new money, the Pacific, the west and the south, the frontier, industrial capitalism. (Well, they were industrial capitalism; now they're Wal-Mart.) The Yankees look to Europe, especially to England -- think of Joseph Kennedy's posting as an ambassador; think of his son John's first book. The Cowboys fancy Asia -- think of Douglas MacCarthur, the ultimate Cowboy hero and one-time ruler of Japan, enraptured by that which he conquered.
Salon (by way of Alternet) offers an update
of Oglesby's scheme. Alas, writer Sara Robinson does not acknowledge her predecessor; either she's ignorant of his work or she's embarrassed by the JFK material. Although I'm a little sorry to see a master go unmentioned, c'est la vie
In the view of writer Sara Robinson, the war has resulted in a Cowboy victory -- although Robinson thinks that the villains are not so much Cowboys as Good Ol' Boys.
David Hackett Fischer, whose Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways In Americainforms both Lind’s and Woodard’s work, described just how deeply undemocratic the Southern aristocracy was, and still is. He documents how these elites have always feared and opposed universal literacy, public schools and libraries, and a free press. (Lind adds that they have historically been profoundly anti-technology as well, far preferring solutions that involve finding more serfs and throwing them at a problem whenever possible. Why buy a bulldozer when 150 convicts on a chain gang can grade your road instead?) Unlike the Puritan elites, who wore their wealth modestly and dedicated themselves to the common good, Southern elites sank their money into ostentatious homes and clothing and the pursuit of pleasure — including lavish parties, games of fortune, predatory sexual conquests, and blood sports involving ritualized animal abuse spectacles.
When a Southern conservative talks about “losing his liberty,” the loss of this absolute domination over the people and property under his control — and, worse, the loss of status and the resulting risk of being held accountable for laws that he was once exempt from — is what he’s really talking about. In this view, freedom is a zero-sum game. Anything that gives more freedom and rights to lower-status people can’t help but put serious limits on the freedom of the upper classes to use those people as they please. It cannot be any other way. So they find Yankee-style rights expansions absolutely intolerable, to the point where they’re willing to fight and die to preserve their divine right to rule.
Once we understand the two different definitions of “liberty” at work here, a lot of other things suddenly make much more sense. We can understand the traditional Southern antipathy to education, progress, public investment, unionization, equal opportunity, and civil rights. The fervent belief among these elites that they should completely escape any legal or social accountability for any harm they cause. Their obsessive attention to where they fall in the status hierarchies. And, most of all — the unremitting and unapologetic brutality with which they’ve defended these “liberties” across the length of their history.
When Southerners quote Patrick Henry — “Give me liberty or give me death” — what they’re really demanding is the unquestioned, unrestrained right to turn their fellow citizens into supplicants and subjects. The Yankee elites have always known this — and feared what would happen if that kind of aristocracy took control of the country.
From its origins in the fever swamps of the lowland south, the worldview of the old Southern aristocracy can now be found nationwide. Buttressed by the arguments of Ayn Rand — who updated the ancient slaveholder ethic for the modern age — it has been exported to every corner of the culture, infected most of our other elite communities and killed off all but the very last vestiges of noblesse oblige.
It’s not an overstatement to say that we’re now living in Plantation America.
The rich are different now because the elites who spent four centuries sucking the South dry and turning it into an economic and political backwater have now vanquished the more forward-thinking, democratic Northern elites. Their attitudes towards freedom, authority, community, government, and the social contract aren’t just confined to the country clubs of the Gulf Coast; they can now be found on the ground from Hollywood and Silicon Valley to Wall Street. And because of that quiet coup, the entire US is now turning into the global equivalent of a Deep South state.
As long as America runs according to the rules of Southern politics, economics and culture, we’re no longer free citizens exercising our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as we’ve always understood them. Instead, we’re being treated like serfs on Massa’s plantation — and increasingly, we’re being granted our liberties only at Massa’s pleasure. Welcome to Plantation America.
I think this is right on target. But it misses one important point: The Wall Street connection. As I noted in an earlier post, southerners despise New York -- yet they will vote only for politicians in thrall to the bankers.
How can Yankee/Cowboy theorists reconcile that dichotomy?
And how do we transform Plantation America back into New Deal America?