This Friday marks the first anniversary of one of the meanest pieces of writing I’ve seen from a liberal pen. It is Sara Robinson’s piece for Alternet (picked up by Salon) on “conservative Southern values” as an existential threat to our republic.
While there’s a glimmer of truth to Robinson’s portrait of what she calls “Plantation America,” there are enough distortions, exaggerations, and oversimplifications to make it downright harmful. Her version of U.S. history reminds me of how New Age charlatans often use science-y language to justify their chosen conclusions. Their method: Cherry-pick facts, ignore contrary evidence, and freely associate until you like what you see.
What does Sara Robinson see?
- First, history is made and culture is shaped by elites. (Wrong.)
- Second, the Northern elite is composed of earnest Puritans and the Southern elite is a crowd of slave drivers from the Caribbean.
- Third, everything good in our elites comes from the North; everything bad from the South. (Life is always that simple.)
What are we to do about it? Robinson has nothing constructive to propose, just a litany of reasons to hate and despise the South. “Southern values” must be stopped at any cost, or else.
This is the kind of error made by many bright but heartless and soulless progressives, including the late Gore Vidal. What this country needs, they like to suggest, is another civil war. No more ambiguity. Everyone will be forced to take sides, our side will be in the right, and their side will be in the wrong. Violent struggle will arbitrate all our disagreements for us, and no one will dispute the final result.
Of course this is nonsense. Worse, it’s seductive nonsense because it is skillfully expressed and offers a feeling of mastery over a complicated past and present. All you have to do is accept Sara Robinson’s thesis and suddenly the motives of your political enemies become so clear! Their behavior is predetermined by their perverse culture. You won’t ever have to respect them or acknowledge their shared humanity again.