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Monday, July 02, 2012

Yankee vs Cowboy, 2012

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?
You do mean CARL, not Carol, I presume?
Just finished reading this. It's excellent and describes the redneck/good old boy environment that I've seen in the south. I've been convinced Jindal is trying to turn our state back into a plantation economy for several years now and I've directly used that terminology. What I find most distressing is the number of folks that say they supported Hillary Clinton that seem to fall clearly into folks who embrace this. Many of them are pushing Romney who is just about the perfect example of the manipulative, controlling slave driver that I've ever seen. We're getting trolled by them constantly now and it feels like Dixie is on the rise. They don't seem to recognize manipulation when they see it and they don't see how incompatible this is with FDR liberal ideology and their own self-interests. You can't fuse right and left wing populism and this article explains why clearly. Some slaves clearly embrace the master to earn a few privileges and to feel safe.
Yow! Thanks for the catch, Linda. I have corrected.
I read him a long while back, so maybe I misremember.

But I thought the Cowboys was a term for the new rich, the Texas oil millionaire/billionaire types: the Hunt Brothers, Clint Murchison, the Koch brothers (well, their father, back in the day), etc.

There is some overlap of the oil-rich regions and the South, but barely. Neither Texas nor Oklahoma nor Louisiana are typical southern states. And those oil gazillionaires are not particularly epitomes of those oil state citizens, either.

I suggest you've employed a Procrustean bed, to force more from the analogy than can be made out of it.

Ah yes, the Southern boogeyman, as represented by those well-known Southerners Bush & Romney both of Southern New England.
You have to recapture the zeitgeist. Many of the people who succumb to the message of the right wing do so because that's the message they see as prevalent. They are simply compelled to follow the apparent mainstream. As everything, no matter how bizarre or obtuse, can become normal with enough repetition, the culture of the right has captured the minds of people who are either too witless or too distracted to oppose the erosion of their own standards. Somehow you have to recapture their imaginations, assuming that joining the propaganda game against a more experienced opponent is both unwise and unseemly.
Anonymous -- and please use a nick next time -- you raise a good point. I talked about that very issue with Oglesby during the first Bush administration. At the time, I thought that the Yankee-Cowboy paradigm had broken down. He did admit that Bush represented a shift -- As I recall, Oglesby said: "He Cowboys up the Yankee thing. Or maybe he's Yankee-ing the Cowboy thing."

Robinson's piece brings the matter to a deeper level. It's not a matter of personality. Yes, the Bushes and Romney are born Yankees with what we might call a strong Cowboy outreach program. But on a deeper level, the Cowboy ideology -- the mentality -- has taken over much of the country.

Or as Robinson might put it, Americans now think the way southern plantation owners thought.
To amplify Robinson's article, the founders of this country were keenly aware of classical history. The Northerners saw themselves as the inheritors of Greek democracy - keen traders and merchants, intellectuals, and expanding the potential of a democratic society through invention, the arts, and natural philosophy (what we now call "science").

By contrast, the Southerners saw themselves as Romans - an empire that was based on theft of labor, a culture that celebrated violence, and run for the benefit of the slaveowning aristocracy, not the common mass of people.

There's no way to reconcile the two cultures. As Robinson points out, there's no such thing as a mutual "win-win" in a slaveowning culture - it's all about power and degradation of the weak, the ultimate vision of fascism. Dig deeply enough into the Straussian or Randian fantasy worlds, and the society they envision is a modern version of feudalism, with slaveowning a delightful and kinky option.
From the introduction in Oglesby's book:

The success and then the successful defense from 1950 to 1975 of the Asian revolutionary nationalist campaigns against further Western dominance in Asia-China, Korea, Vietnam-means that all that is changed. What was once true about the space to the west of America is no longer true and will never be true again. There will never be a time again when the white adventurer may peer over his western horizon at an Asia helplessly plunged in social disorganization. In terms of their social power to operate as a unified people and in the assimilation of technology, the Chinese people are, since 1950, a self-modernizing people, not colonials any more. And instead of a Wild West, Americans now have a mature common boundary with other moderns like ourselves, not savages, not Redskins, not Reds, only modern people like ourselves in a single modern world. This is new for us, a new experience for Americans altogether. [My emphasis]

That's why a longing for a return of some kind of New Deal political and economical arrangement on a national level is wishful thinking - that world does not exist anymore.
One must admire those progressive titans of Northern industry, whose democratic longings produced such paradisiacal scenes as these:

Nope, those Northern aristocrats never exploited the working class. Not a bit.

This is silly - all aristocracies are inherently antidemocratic, and that's true regardless of geography.

Does anybody seriously think Chris Christie (or, for that matter, Jon "what's mine is mine and what's yours is mine, too" Corzine) is a morally superior thug to Bobby Jindal?
Moshe, I reject absolutely all arguments predicated on the assertion that "that world does not exist anymore." The New Deal was not born of developments in Asia, and what I call "New Deal Normal" was sustained through times of great turmoil and change in Asia.

Your argument thus makes as much sense as saying: "The invention of the washing machine changed our quotidian life. Therefore, we can no longer have democracy. Democracy was born in a pre-washing machine world that no longer exists."

I'm pretty sure that Oglesby would agree.

(Besides, FDR was a Yankee, which means that he looked toward Europe, not Asia.)
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