As someone once said (was it TS Elliot?) human beings cant stand very much reality. Every now and again communities, and sometimes whole nations go potty – psychotic. Jonestown is perhaps one of the best examples, although it was a kind of concentrated community a cult which attracted a certain type of person the kind of person who ended up dead. The best example of a nation in the grip of psychosis is Nazi Germany as a reading of Sebastian Haffner’s marvellous output on What It Was Like helps illustrate. Its only when I read his Defying Hitler that I really got a feel for how it might have been, how people could have been so – well – crazy.
And another example Ive always thought is the South in the American civil war. Here they were with no chance of winning, picking a fight so they could ultimately lose it, when they could have kept their slaves and got on with their lives. Why were they so crazy, so unreasonable as to simply jump off the cliff? Who knows? As we say in our family – with apologies to Manning Clark – “who can ever tell what goes on in the heart of a mango?” But an economist believe it or not anatomised the very strange state of the South in around 1860. J. E. Cairns wrote a book called The Slave Power. And his focus was on the way in which a particular economic structure had poisoned the culture of the South.
He argues that one thirtieth of the population are slave owners who manage to get their hands on all the surplus of the slaves. There is then another large class of ignorant ‘poor white trash’ the value of whose labour is undercut by slave labour. They thus sit on their porches cleaning their guns and nursing their resentments. This is Cairns summary (from a review of the book by John Stuart Mill).
To sum up in a few words the general results of the foregoing discussion the Slave Power that power which has long held the helm of government in the Union is, under the forms of a democracy, an uncontrolled despotism, wielded by a compact oligarchy. Supported by the labor of four millions of slaves, it rules a population of five millions of whites a population ignorant, averse to systematic industry and prone to irregular adventure. A system of society more formidable for evil more menacing to the best interests of the human race, it is difficult to onceive.
Jesse James is famous for his exploits in the wild west, but he got going before the civil war in terrorist hit squads that would liquidate local families who were suspected of inadequately vicous racial sympathies. Thus from before the civil war, the South was a kind of terrorist state. You knew you might be bumped off if you were too nice to niggers or people thought you might have nigger loving sympathies.
And of course it wasnt just before the war. After the war the South became a fully fledged terrorist state in which lynching was a fairly normal part of life. Not a good place to be a nigger-lover or perhaps an atheist or anything else that was . . . well weird. I lived in North Carolina in primary school and of course I was too young to understand the place, but I do recall it was a strange, strange place. We went to a guest house for one weekend on the coast and I caught crabs and proudly cooked them up on the stove for everyone to eat. One woman with a broad southern accent took me aside and sat me down and talked to me for a while. She seemed like such a nice lady. Then she said to me how do you think those crabs felt as you caught them. I didnt know what to say. How do you think they felt as they were lifted up towards the pot of boiling water . . . what do you think they thought as they were slowly boiled alive? How would you have felt?
My parents came looking for me many hours later. I was hiding in the back seat of our car, still crying for the sins I had committed against those crabs. The south is a strange place.
Anyway, the fact is that it’s been clear to me for a long time that the USA is a strange place too. Its a place which is dominated, both economically and in terms of population by its North East and West Coast which are just normal places, where normal views of the world predominate. Of course like anywhere else they have their particular strengths and weaknesses. But people mostly believe in evolution and things like that. And then its got the Midwest which is full of conservative people who probably think the 1950s were pretty good, but Im guessing theyre pretty normal people. And then youve got the South, and its only a generation really the 1960s since it ceased being a pretty openly terrorist state with lynchings and officially sanctioned racism. So here’s my theory. The south perturbs the U.S., which might otherwise be a pretty normal place where the reality based community can frolic away, that it is prone to fits of paranoia which can border on psychosis.
Paul Krugman is one of the few people in the daily press who are calling something that has long seemed to me to be evident. Mainstream republicans are crazy – not all but many. And of those that are not, many have to cow tow to crazy people anyway. And so Krugman laments the way in which, since Obama won the election, he gets more hate mail, and more crazy hate mail. Jimmy Carter has also weighed in, deeply worried about the craziness he’s always lived amongst. This is what I was getting at in a post a long time ago, when I called for apologies anyone?
This post by Brad Delong suggests that it’s only going to get worse.