Segregations Last Best Defender

Trent Lott is gone, but the right still has Reg columnist Steven Greenhut

Illustration by Bob AulIn the unlikely event you've ever read The Orange County Register's editorial page and thought, "If only these guys would stop writing about politics and actually run for office, the world would be a much better place," you need to know two things:

First, you should stop mixing alcohol with the medicine your doctor prescribed to make the voices in your head go away.

Second, you can scratch Register editorial writer Steven Greenhut from your dream list of candidates.

At the end of an article Greenhut recently published on LewRockwell.com—a website that advertises itself as "the premier anti-state, pro-market site on the net"—he announces he has "no plans for public office." Why? Because he knows he is unelectable—and not for the reasons those who have read his drivel in the Register might think.

Steven Greenhut is unelectable because Steven Greenhut has principles that Steven Greenhut bravely stands up for, no matter what the price. How do I know this? Because in his LewRockwell article, "They Keep Driving Dixie Down," Steven Greenhut tells us so. In this article, Greenhut praises the South and "the noble Confederate cause" as embodying "some of the most honorable traditions in American history"—which for Greenhut means Christianity and a belief in limited government of a libertarian sort—while also praising the moral beauty and courage of Steven Greenhut. He makes a point of telling us more than once what a dedicated and principled fellow he is. He can't write about limited government without telling us, "I'm not interested in being hip, if hip means abandoning the limited-government principles that are supposed to be the bedrock of the Republican party." He also wants us to know he is willing to rise to the defense of Christianity, even though he knows there will be a terrible price to pay: "I'm more concerned about salvaging a few scraps of Christian civilization than being an acceptable guest at cool parties."

And while I'm more than willing to believe people who know Greenhut don't consider him "hip" and that he rarely gets invited to "cool parties," I think he needs to look elsewhere for explanations about what's wrong with his social life. Greenhut's unhip politics are decidedly, momentarily hip. At least as far as services for the needy are concerned, the Bush administration is pursuing a strategy of rolling back the power of government with a relentlessness that hasn't been seen since the Vandals sacked Rome. And when was endorsing limited government ever a social risk in Orange County?

As for his willingness to stick up for Christianity, which blankets this country with more than just "a few scraps," that will be a brave position as soon as political candidates start winning by denouncing Jesus as a religious charlatan and a bad carpenter, rather than citing him as their "favorite philosopher."

These minor idiocies are perfectly in keeping with the whole article. Greenhut's argument is that the South has somehow become a pariah region of the nation, and only a few brave souls are rallying to its defense. "I keep wondering why no one, besides LewRockwell.com and a few others, will stand up for the South," Greenhut wrote.

The reasonable answer is that the South doesn't need anyone to stand up for it. Since 1964, every successful presidential candidate has either come from one of the states that made up the Confederacy or followed a "Southern Strategy" of vigorously pursuing Southern votes with a thinly veiled appeal to those nostalgic for a past when life seemed simpler and whites could always find a seat at the front of the bus.

Reason, however, just like fact, has little to do with Greenhut's article. Greenhut's main examples of prejudice against the South are the resistance to appointing Judge Charles Pickering to an appellate court and the hue and cry over Trent Lott's wish that Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948. Greenhut treats both with the same rigorous attention to fact and careful reasoning that he displays in writing for the Reg.

Pickering, who was appointed to the federal bench in Mississippi by the elder Bush, was rejected as a candidate for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last year when Democrats controlled the Senate. In a move that has caused some controversy, the current Bush resubmitted Pickering's nomination to the now Republican-controlled Senate.

Civil-rights groups are outraged. Democrats threaten to filibuster. Why? According to Greenhut, opposition to Pickering is "based mainly on the fact that he is a Republican from Mississippi."

That is the sole reason he gives to explain the opposition to Pickering, and, of course, it is wrong. Among the many reasons cited in rejecting Pickering the first time was his unethical behavior in helping a defendant in a case in which he, Pickering, was the presiding judge. Daniel Swann, the defendant in the 1994 case, was convicted for burning a cross on the front lawn of a home owned by an interracial couple. The U.S. attorney in the case, following standard sentencing guidelines, asked for a seven-year prison sentence. Pickering, however, believing Swann deserved nothing more severe than supervised parole, went behind the prosecutor's back and asked an old friend in the Justice Department to persuade the prosecutor to back down.

Unfortunately for Swann, this didn't work. Unfortunately for Pickering, it got noticed.

But fortunately for Pickering, not many people have realized this wasn't the first time in his legal career he has been involved with the issue of interracial marriage. In 1960, Pickering wrote a law review article complaining that Mississippi's laws against miscegenation weren't being strictly enforced. He offered suggestions on how the state could make its laws against interracial love more effective, and two months after the article appeared, the Mississippi state legislature adopted some of these suggestions in its campaign against "race mixing."

Pages could be filled with other reasons for objecting to Pickering's nomination, none of which have anything to do with his being, as Greenhut put it, "a Republican from Mississippi."

(In fairness, it should be noted that when Pickering wrote his law review article, he was a Democrat. He didn't switch parties until after the 1964 Democratic convention, when many prominent Mississippians left the party to protest the national party's decision to force the state delegation to admit two African-American members.)

But as blinkered and fact-free as Greenhut's take on the Pickering nomination is, it is positively enlightened compared with what he has to say about the Trent Lott debacle. Greenhut isn't upset that Trent Lott said America would be in better shape if Strom Thurmond, the candidate of the white supremacist States Rights Democratic Party (a.k.a. the Dixiecrats) in the 1948 presidential election, had been elected. He considers this just an example of Lott saying "some generous things," explaining, "I've been to many going-away parties where the speakers say overly effusive things." That's right: Who among us can say that once full of cake and punch, we've never told our fellow partygoers that what America really needs is a president whose campaign stump speech included "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the army cannot force the nigger into our homes, our schools, our churches"? Well, me for one, but then I don't travel in the same social circles as Greenhut. (Still, it's nice to see he does get invited to some parties.)

Greenhut is also not upset that someone like Lott could have risen to such a powerful position as Senate majority leader in the first place. No, what upsets Greenhut is that "Lott and the Republicans" didn't use the occasion to "inform and enlighten the public." How? By standing up for the platform of Thurmond's States Rights party. Greenhut is scathing about those who reject the principles on which Dixiecrats stood. He acknowledges in passing that segregation should be deplored before going on the attack.

"Secretary of State Colin Powell," he writes, "argued that there was nothing of any value coming out of the States Rights party platform, which—as one writer noted on this website—means that Powell either hasn't read the platform or doesn't believe in the Constitution."

Harsh stuff, indeed. But has Greenhut himself read platform? Plank four of the platform contains the heart of the States Rights party's appeal for its supporters in 1948. It's hard to believe Greenhut could have missed it. It's the plank that begins "We stand for segregation of the races." Sandwiched among the standard high-minded bloviating found in all party platforms is the heart of the matter: "We oppose the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, the control of private employment by the federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil-rights programs."

That, rather than any appeals to the libertarian principles Greenhut moons over in his Register columns, is why people voted for Thurmond in 1948.

For the Dixiecrats, libertarianism was always a means to an end, and that end was always the maintenance of segregation. Let's be generous and assume that Greenhut hasn't read the platform; that seems likely given the rest of the article. The only document he quotes at all is the lyrics sheet to the song "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." (I feel it is important to note I am not making that up.) Let's also be generous and ignore that of all the Republicans who spoke out condemning the ideas of the States Rights party during the Lott debacle, Greenhut singles out for abuse the party's most recognizable African-American member. What is impossible to ignore is Greenhut's ignorance of the real South.

It would be tempting to write Greenhut off as nothing more than a ridiculous and ill-informed man, but that isn't possible. The nonsense that makes up his "They Keep Driving Dixie Down" is typical of the opinions of an important segment of the right wing of the Republican party that mistakenly believes it is standing up for the South. That couldn't be more wrong. Writers like Greenhut confuse the South, which is a vibrant cultural region, with the white-supremacist regimes that have blighted its history. The South really has produced some of "the most honorable traditions in American history," but they aren't the ones Greenhut celebrates. The South's real contributions to America and the world have come out the blending of African and European traditions, not the effort to keep the races separate. Out of the South's cultural mixing has come America's distinctive musical traditions: jazz, the blues, rock & roll. The encounter between the South's cultures has also resulted in a remarkable literary tradition, from Les Cenelles, a collection of French poetry published in New Orleans in 1845 and written by poets from the city's gens de couleur libres(free people of color), to Faulkner and beyond. And, of course, the South provided one of the 20th century's most stirring examples of political and personal courage in the civil-rights movement. By focusing his admiration for the South on the Confederacy and the Dixiecrats, Greenhut misses out on all this and encourages others to do likewise.

The South is a land haunted by irony, as the historian C. Vann Woodward once noted, so perhaps it is fitting that it attracts defenders like Greenhut, an Ohio native, who have no interest in defending what is truly special about the region. Still, let me honor the South's tradition of good manners by ending on a positive note. There is one sentence in Greenhut's article I find wholly admirable, the last sentence: "It's a good thing I have no plans for public office."

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