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The Burden of Southern History (and the Future of an Idea)

By Benj DeMott

Two well-known American historians – Sean Wilentz and Lawrence Goodwyn – offered profoundly different commentaries on the Age of Obama around the time of the midterm elections. You can read Wilentz here http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/79004/you-said-you-wanted-revolution-midterm-elections-obama and "First" has just reprinted Goodwyn’s q & a with an AlterNet editor above.

Goodwyn aims to lift up America’s natural-born egalitarians - those the Founders once called “the democracy.” Wilentz looks down in snark on folks who joined Obama's "movement."

Goodwyn means to resist doom-mongers (and right-wingers), reassuring doubters in Obama’s base and those on the fence beat down by the bad economy. While Goodwyn nails the most “toxic” of Obama’s advisors and notes limits of the president’s lived experience and economic conceptions, he’s still trying to feel his way forward in solidarity with the head of the Democratic Party. He dares to rate the young president above F.D.R. and Thomas Jefferson, crediting Obama with “infinite patience,” high eloquence and a Lincolnesque capacity for learning. Goodywn is not engaging in hagiography. (He spends more time on Jefferson’s failings than Obama’s virtues.) He’s not out to suck up to the president, but to revive the sense of solidarity that suffused Obama’s soulful ground game in 2008.

Wilentz is dying to kill it dead. His jeering intervention - "you-said you-wanted-revolution" - is all about his petty sense of schadenfreude. As a former Hillary partisan who once tried desperately to trip Obama up, he can hardly hide his pleasure in the Dems’ midterm disaster. He takes it as proof the “idea” behind Obama’s “political experiment” has been defeated.

Wilentz derides the emotional side of Yes We Can politics. He traduces Obama’s chief organizing guru, Marshall Ganz, for privileging values and feelings over policy details during the 2007-08 campaign:

“Values are not just concepts, they’re feelings,” Ganz explained knowingly. “That’s what dropped out of Democratic politics sometime in the ‘70s or ‘80s.” Thus, the Obama campaign presented itself as a social movement that was more sentimental than political

Wilentz’s conflation of emotional with "sentimental" suggests his felt experience may be pretty dessicated. (God knows his new book on Bob Dylan’s life and times, Bob Dylan in America, is a dry trip.) But maybe that quick and dirty slide from values and feelings to “sentimental” is just a debater’s trick. What’s certain is that conflation won’t do. Unless Thoreau was all wrong when he told Americans: “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.”

Wilentz counsels Obama to turn away from a former ally such as Marshall Ganz who has taken the president to task for switching from a “transformative” to a “transactional” mode of politics. But, unlike Ganz and other serious critics of Obama (such as former Hillary backer Governor Ed Rendell), Wilentz isn't aiming to get real about practical politics or the vision thing. The suggestions he offers today are made in the same umfriendly (and facetious) mode as his advisory to Obama’s supporters after the election of 2008:

Liberal intellectuals actually could have aided their candidate, while also doing their professional duty, by pressing him on his patently evasive accounts about various matters, such as his connections with the convicted wheeler-dealer Tony Rezko, or his more-than-informal ties to the unrepentant terrorist William Ayers …

Pride more than “professional duty” now seems to impel Wilentz whenever he steps forth from the Academy to serve as a “public intellectual.” (You can see his ego fly in a recent joint interview with Greil Marcus commemorating the publication of their recent books on Bob Dylan. While Marcus hints he wasn’t all that thrilled when he first found out their twins would be coming out the same month, Wilentz was less circumspect: “It’s a great day for Bob Dylan.”)[1]

Wilentz’s take on the midterms testifies to his ever-expanding faith in the weight of his own pronouncements. A “shellacking” becomes an excuse for a gloat. Wiilentz ain’t trying to hear colleagues at The New Republic who argue Obama’s historic healthcare reform – legislation that should guarantee something close to universal healthcare for generations of Americans – was worth the loss of the House. According to Wilentz, the G.O.P.’s electoral triumph (after two “wave” election for Democrats) in a midterm contest during a period defined by terrible unemployment signifies Obama and his most fervent supporters were wrong to believe “change comes from the bottom up.” A respected American historian – a man with broad knowledge of America’s urban organizing traditions (and someone who once dug Lawrence Goodwyn’s deep back story of American populism) – is now asserting one election proves there’s no future for a politics shaped by the history/model of social movements.

A reader unaware of Wilentz’s recent political projections might be fooled by his told-you-so tone. Especially since our expert never cops to how he once insisted Obama had “usurped” the Democratic Party during the primaries and would surely be beaten like a drum in the 2008 general election. Wilentz’s commentary then and now has been marked by his will to invoke the authority of the past (and his own profession) to justify wild exaggerations.

Such as his claim Obama had engaged in “the most outrageous deployment of racial politics since the Willie Horton ad campaign in 1988 and the most insidious since Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, praising states’ rights.” Wilentz wrote two pieces in 2008 (in The New Republic and Philadelphia Inquirer) attacking the Obama campaign for whipping up race-based controversies immediately before and after the South Carolina primary. As I noted at the time, he might have scored important points if he’d been content to complain Obama’s campaign had fallen into p.c. piety on occasion, but his pieces amounted to propaganda since he left out important incidents that complicated his case for the Clintons’ supposed magnanimity. In the TNR article, for example, which purported to offer a comprehensive account of race-based tensions between the Obama and Clinton campaigns, Wilentz passed right over the ugly turns during the run-up to the Carolina primary after one of Hillary’s prominent black supporters – Robert Johnson, the billionaire founder of Black Entertainment (BET) – insinuated Obama had been cracking up in the 80’s. Johnson dove into the gutter as he was introducing Hillary at an event and defending her remark that the Civil Rights Movement required “a president to get it done” (i.e. LBJ). The Clinton campaign put out a statement denying Johnson meant to defame Obama, though the man himself apologized once it became clear nobody was buying that lie.

How could a professional historian like Wilentz end up leaving the Johnson episode out of his account of the race-based tit-for-tats during the primaries? I suspect now he must have figured no-one cared what the Clintons’ black surrogates actually said. They were just up there on the stage (or behind the podium) – objects to be finessed “to get it done.”

But things done changed.

Lawrence Goodwyn watched it happen in North Carolina and he reported on the process in his definitive First piece on Obama’s ground game in that state http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2009/01/i_had_studied_s.html. Goodwyn saw how Obama’s speeches started the “vast wave of recruiting” that carried him to victory. But Goodwyn’s account wasn’t stuck on the top of the ticket; he portrayed the wide range of everyday people who threw themselves into the campaign - boyish Obama staffers, feminists with heavy prior experience in pro-choice organizing (and Hillary’s campaign), a brotherly crew of ex-con early voters, a post-millennial race man with a genius for voter registration. He slipped himself into the mix at the end though only to capture the felt quality of election day:

Seven hundred and forty five people signed in at a familiar Obama residence on the corner of Watts and Trinity Street on election day. They came, they picked up things, they left, usually looking somewhat determined. The ones who stayed behind looked driven. You could ask anyone to do anything and they would just do it. Right then. And if the task at hand required a level of expertise they did not have (which happened, but not often), someone within hearing distance would know what to do, or who to get, or somebody else would just step in and begin. Volunteering was not necessary. To get yourself “integrated” into the scene, you simply had to sit down on the floor in any room (except the kitchen) and wait. People came through bearing stacks of stuff to be pasted or tied to, or folded into other stacks of stuff. “Yell out when you finish and we’ll pick it up.” The norm at a Staging Location was the sense of urgency. It was like a giant ground-level mist that failed to obscure much of anything because people were breathing it in and out – a nice equilibrium of rhythmic anxiety.

What Goodwyn evoked here was a structure of feeling that had been built over time. Far from a sentimental antithesis to real politics, this emotional construct was (pace Wilentz) the essence of democracy. There’s no doubt it requires…reconstruction all over again. But Goodwyn’s latest analysis of the state of our politics is founded on his conviction authentic democratic formations are more resilient than Wilentzs of this world grasp. Goodwyn’s faith in “the democracy” rests on his intimate knowledge of what’s gone down when black and white Southerners have heeded the imperative of social equality. His willful optimism amounts to the flip side of “the burden of Southern history.” Round about midnight, Goodwyn's and Wilentz's personal and ideological divergences may well come down to regional differences between a born-and-bred New York intellectual and a son of the South.[2]

It’s a tribute to Obama's eloquence that he managed to move voters below the Mason Dixon line though his own roots were in Hawaii, Indonesia, Kenya and Chicago. But there was a history of grunt work behind the words. A recent home movie-style documentary about Obama’s North Carolina campaigns by independent black journalist Cash Michaels provided an image that encapsulated the (political) practice that enabled Obama to get the South. In this old photo a young Obama (with a bigger ‘fro) is shown smiling and directing the lens to a not-quite-iconic head-shot on his t-shirt – it’s the face of Harvey Gantt, the black senatorial candidate who almost unseated Jessie Helms back in 1996. (Gantt himself was around to savor Obama’s victory – he wept for joy on election night.)

If you’re from Up South, it can be harder to see (as per Goodwyn) "those are not softballs Obama is throwing" at white supremacists. I got some help recently on this score from Southern culture enthusiast Alice Randall (author of Wind Done Gone and dozens of country songs). In her contribution to an anthology of pieces devoted to Obama’s race speech, she picked up on a resonant absence in that oration's last anecdote that had gone right by me. As you’ll probably recall, Obama invoked a connection between two of his supporters – a young white woman named Ashley and an elderly black man who answers her call to say “why he’s there:”

He does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, "I am here because of Ashley."

Randall noted she was bothered for a time by the fact “He” goes unnamed. But then she realized the focus on “Ashley” added a dimension to the story by highlighting the mature black man's readiness to say the name of a young white woman. A speech act that in the Old South would have put his life at risk. “He” enacted the new social and racial contract upheld by Obama’s campaign.

That contract is Movement-made – rooted in the Southern dream of freedom. But it’s not locked on any region, race or creed as Obama reminded us when he hung tight with American Muslims this summer. As I wrote last month, Obama’s groundings with Brothers and Sisters enabled him to bring universal humanism down to earth (and put an end to the moral panic over the Ground Zero mosque). I know Obama’s pre-midterm press conference September 10 may seem like old news, but I want to come back to his final statement then because it speaks to why Goodwyn is right to believe Obama is a “president for the Ages" (and why Wilentz is wrong to deny "change comess from the bottom up"). Obama defended the civil rights of American Muslims, distancing them from the “tiny minority of people who are engaging in horrific acts – and have killed Muslims more than anybody else.”

We’ve got millions of Muslim-Americans, our fellow citizens, in this country. They’re going to school with our kids. They’re our neighbors. They’re our friends. They’re our coworkers. And, you know, when we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?

I’ve got Muslims who are fighting in Afghanistan, in the uniform of the United States armed services. They’re out there putting their lives on the line for us. And we’ve got to make sure that we are crystal clear for our sakes and their sakes: They are Americans. And we honor their service. And part of honoring their service is making sure that they understand that we don’t differentiate between “them” and “us.” It’s just “us.”

Obama’s equation of “just 'us'” with simple justice amounted to a message from the grassroots. It’s part of the folk culture of Afro-Americans to mock the unfairness of our country’s legal system: “We go down to there looking for justice and what do we find, just us.” Obama flipped that old bluesy truth – transforming “local” racial lore into a source of solidarity with a new group of American outsiders. His audacious aim? (As ever?) To perfect our union.

Obama’s last word, though, wasn’t enough for CNN’s David Gergen who offered an amazing...meh in his post-Conference sound-bite. Gergen allowed Obama “impresses everybody with his competence…the subtlety of his mind:”

At the same time, I thought it was mostly passionless and frankly, boring.

Gergen allowed the Conference “came alive” at the end, but his thumbs down still drew a rebuke from CNN’s African-American panelist Roland Martin:

Let me also address something that David said. David talked about - well, you know, the nuance and what he said - you know, and it was boring. Well, you know what? He's not an entertainer.

Martin went on to defend “the idea of talking about things in a substantive way,” rejecting once again the notion a President “should be entertaining.” Martin was speaking for himself, but he was also talking back to Gergen on behalf of multitudes of African Americans who take pride in Obama’s evident seriousness. Gergen’s flustered, flailing response to the race man’s on-the-fly critique suggested (to me) he’d been shamed. After all, his role on CNN is to serve as non-partisan judge of judges. He plays it well because it fits his own sense of himself as a smooth but honorable operator with a first-rate temperament and a history of service to his country. Yet here he was in the dock, on trial for trifling. The twinning of Martin’s and Obama’s black acts of judgment must have seemed a nightmare scenario to him – as if he was being mau-mau-ed by mo bettah patriots who made him feel mighty irreal (and mighty white).

Gergen is usually a human coolant so his (for him) hair-on-fire response to Martin’s protest hints he felt uneasy in his skin for a hot second. Gergen is a Carolina boy and I take his discomfort as a sign he feels the weight of his Southern past. On this score, he’s probably closer to his homie Lawrence Goodwyn than to a true Northern type like Sean Wilentz. Which means Gergen’s moral future is unwritten. Wilentz, though, seems fated to be eternally right (in his own head at least). A Southern writer’s phrase comes to mind: The poor bastard.


1 “You know what they say man, they say it’s all good."

2 The break between Wilentz and Goodwyn may be most striking when it comes to their responses to Obama's race speech. Goodwyn thought he'd been privileged to witness an act of imagination (and hear a soon-to-be-classic piece of American oratory). To Wilentz the speech was just a slick attack on...Geraldine Ferraro. (I'm reminded just now that in a conversation soon after the speech, Goodwyn commented on Obama's forbearance toward Ferraro.)

From November, 2010

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