The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Doing a ‘Macaca’ on Haley Barbour

Posted on | December 20, 2010 | 26 Comments

If you’re not from the Deep South and don’t personally know people who lived through the civil rights era — or if you’re a liberal just trying to smear a conservative Republican from Mississippi — it seems perfectly fair to play the kind of dirty game that Matthew Yglesias is playing with Haley Barbour.

Yglesias seizes on a passage in a Weekly Standard profile of Barbour in which the governor of Mississippi explains why school desegration in his hometown of Yazoo City was accomplished without violence:

“Because the business community wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. “You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. . . .”

Barbour states this as a fact, which sets Yglesias and other liberals to shouting “white supremacist!” And yet nothing that Yglesias or anyone else musters as evidence sheds any light on the facts in dispute: Was the White Citizens Council in Yazoo City composed principally of “town leaders” and members of “the business community”? And did these leaders play a role in ensuring that school desegregation took place without violence?

Whether or not Barbour’s characterization of circumstances in Yazoo City half a century ago is accurate, it ought to be possible to address that question without imputing to Barbour — as Yglesias evidently desires to do — any nostalgia for Jim Crow. Keep in mind that Haley Barbour was born in October 1947, so that he was only 16 when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law and thus has lived his entire adult life in a post-civil rights America without incurring the sort of reputation with which Yglesias & Co. are now attempting to tar him.

Ben Smith of Politico scarcely does any better:

The roots of Southern Republicanism are in the segregationist split from the Democratic Party . . .

This is not true, and I don’t care how many times liberals invoke “The Southern Strategy,” that still doesn’t make it true. The Democratic Party remained a viable and even dominant political force in the South for three decades after the end of segregation.

Southern Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976 and Southern Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. The Democratic Party maintained control of the Georgia state legislature until 2003 and it was not until this year — let me check my calendar, yeah, it’s 2010 — that Republicans gained a majority in the Alabama state legislature.

As much as it may flatter the vanity of liberals to think that the Democratic “Solid South” ended in 1964 — and that the success of the GOP in the Sunbelt is therefore somehow attributable to redneck bigotry — it simply is not true.

And I’m sick and tired of pious lectures from arrogant fools whose moral horizons can be summarized in two words: “Vote Democrat.”

UPDATE: Tom Maguire notes the absurdity of Matthew Yglesias teaching Mississippi history to Haley Barbour, a fifth-generation Mississippian.

But Yglesias went to Harvard. That means he know everything.

UPDATE II: Drew M. at Ace of Spades HQ:

A lot of folks whose only notions of the south come from watching or reading To Kill a Mockingbird or popular history simply equate “southern” with “racism”.

Thanks for acknowledging that reality, Drew. I’ve often said that some people seem to believe that racism is like Coca-Cola, a product invented in the South and exported from there around the world.

Drew also notes Jimmy Carter’s early political career as a segregationist. Although, in fairness to Carter, it would have been impossible for him — or anyone else — to get elected to public office in Sumter County, Ga., as an advocate of integration in 1956.

I have on my shelves a 1960 book by William D. Workman Jr. entitled The Case for the South. Workman makes clear that it was foolish to speak of “moderates” in the Deep South of that era if, by “moderate,” you meant white people who were in favor of integration. The overwhelming majority of white Southerners were in favor of maintaining the status quo of Jim Crow, which was all they’d ever known.

When it became obvious that the federal government intended to impose desegregation at all hazards, one might say that those leaders who counseled peaceful cooperation for the good of the community were “moderates,” but this doesn’t mean they were actually in favor of desegregation. Neither does it mean that officials like Jimmy Carter — who campaigned and governed as a segregationists so long as that was the means to political success — were any more “racist” than anyone else.

It is worthwhile to observe that the man whom Carter succeeded as governor of Georgia, Lester Maddox, campaigned as an outspoken segregationist but, once in office, governed in a far more equitable manner than anyone expected. Indeed, you might even say that Maddox was a progressive reformer, who especially improved the previously deplorable conditions in Georgia’s prison system.

The problem in all this involves the moralitic tendency to make mere politics a proxy for virtue, with a one-dimensional focus on race, during one of the most controversial eras in American history.

UPDATE III: Dave Weigel:

Like I said, Barbour is not dumb. If he’s being a revisionist about race in Mississippi, he’s not alone, and he’s fighting back against a media standard that all conservatives hate — this idea that Southerners and conservatives can never stop atoning for Jim Crow. Why should he have to apologize for this, after all? He wasn’t in a Citizens Council. . . . [H]ow many of these reporters know what they’re talking about, anyway?

That last question is the most important. The idea that everything knowable about race relations in Yazoo City (or anywhere else) in 1960 can be learned from the distance of a thousand miles and a half-century is extraordinarily foolish. To borrow Orwell’s axiom, “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”


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