The New Yorker begins an article by describing a Southern politician of the old sort.
Big Jim Folsom was six feet eight inches tall, and had the looks of a movie star. He was a prodigious drinker, and a brilliant campaigner, who travelled around the state with a hillbilly string band called the Strawberry Pickers. The press referred to him (not always affectionately) as Kissin’ Jim, for his habit of grabbing the prettiest woman at hand....Thus we begin on a journey of discovery that proves that Folsom was a wicked man. His 'proud and loney stance for racial justice' is proven, by the alchemy of modern thought, to be a kind of evil. The magic begins here:
Folsom would end his speeches by brandishing a corn-shuck mop and promising a spring cleaning of the state capitol. He was against the Big Mules, as the entrenched corporate interests were known. He worked to extend the vote to disenfranchised blacks. He wanted to equalize salaries between white and black schoolteachers. He routinely commuted the death sentences of blacks convicted in what he believed were less than fair trials. He made no attempt to segregate the crowd at his inaugural address. “Ya’ll come,” he would say to one and all, making a proud and lonely stand for racial justice....
When the black Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., came to Montgomery, on a voter-registration drive, Folsom invited him to the Governor’s Mansion for a Scotch-and-soda. That was simply good manners. Whenever he was accused of being too friendly to black people, Folsom shrugged. His assumption was that Negroes were citizens, just like anyone else.
Folsom was not a civil-rights activist. Activists were interested in using the full, impersonal force of the law to compel equality. In fact, the Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ended Folsom’s career, because the racial backlash that it created drove moderates off the political stage. The historian Michael Klarman writes, “Virtually no southern politician could survive in this political environment without toeing the massive resistance line, and in most states politicians competed to occupy the most extreme position on the racial spectrum.” Folsom lost his job to the segregationist John Patterson...It ends here, after a traipse through literary theory and To Kill A Mockingbird:
Orwell didn’t think that Dickens should have written different novels; he loved Dickens. But he understood that Dickens bore the ideological marks of his time and place. His class did not see the English social order as tyrannical, worthy of being overthrown. Dickens thought that large contradictions could be tamed through small moments of justice. He believed in the power of changing hearts, and that’s what you believe in, Orwell says, if you “do not wish to endanger the status quo.”What we are being told here is that the wickedness of the mid-century Southern progressive is that he wasn't a revolutionary. He believed in changing people's hearts, in kindness, in respect to all mankind. He didn't hate enough: because if he'd been the best kind of man, he'd have known he should hate Bull Connor. As the author puts it, in a Mockingbird reference, "[T]he hearts-and-minds approach is about accommodation, not reform. At one point, Scout asks him if it is O.K. to hate Hitler. Finch answers, firmly, that it is not O.K. to hate anyone. Really? Not even Hitler?"
But in cases where the status quo involves systemic injustice this is no more than a temporary strategy. Eventually, such injustice requires more than a change of heart.
That dismisses outright the gentler, hearts-and-minds approach to changing a society. The kind of person who -- again, from Mockingbird -- states that you can understand others only if you "climb into his skin and walk around in it" are not suitable, according to the author, for fixing real injustice. The slow, quiet, decent method is not workable.
In fact, that was the very warning that was raised by progressives in the South during the Civil Rights era -- that pushing too hard, too fast, would cause a backlash that would make change even more difficult. The Civil Rights movement achieved all of its goals, eventually, but it did drive out the progressives, and the era saw bombings, murders, brutality, and other horrors.
The author asserts that it was necessary, because the Jim Crow system was so ingrained that slow and peaceful change could never be enough. Perhaps; but if you had looked at Chinese society during the Maoist era, you might well have thought that there was even less hope there. The Red Guard tormented the people, spies were everywhere, violence was fielded against intellectuals and, eventually, anyone who spoke at all. The government blithely demanded the people produce ingots for steel production, even though it meant they had to melt down their tools for farming. Tens of millions starved. The government refused to ask for outside aid, preferring to watch its millions die than admit the failure of its Communist planning.
Maoist China was a clear competitor for "Worst Place and Time in Human History." There was no obvious progressive movement at all. Yet now -- at a similar remove from the Civil Rights Movement -- you can see how remarkable the changes have been. In the South, where there was such a movement, who knows? Big Jim Folsom was elected governor of Alabama, after all. It's not like he was a fringe politician.
Today, Cassandra writes to warn against treating the Left from an 'us v. them' perspective. It's wise advice, though I dissent -- as I always do -- from her affection for the law. It's a conditional good only, if it is well-written and employed justly. Mao had courts and policemen too.
Nevertheless, it is worth noticing that there has been a lot of demonizing and fury going on. If it becomes de rigeur for politicians to be treated this way, we'll only get the sort of people whose lust for power overrides any sense of decency for the treatment of their families. That's hardly the kind of people we want writing, or enforcing, the law.
It may be we've passed the point of no return, and that it's already the case that decent men and women will avoid higher office. Let us hope, though, that that might also change -- with time, and patience.