Well I hope Michael Lind will remember...

>> Saturday, December 20, 2008

I was born in the South, lived here my whole life and went to college and law school down here, and I call myself a Southerner, though I think you'd have to call me a "New South" Southerner or maybe a "New Southerner" if that didn't make it sound like I'd moved down here from Buffalo two years ago. To say you're a Southerner frequently conveys the impression that you love Jesus and NASCAR and you vote Republican, none of which is necessarily true even among older and more traditional Southerners.

But even if that stereotype was true: I'm a born Southerner who's never voted Republican in a major election. I believe the good guys won the Civil War and we're all better off for it. I wish that FDR--one of our nation's greatest Presidents alongside Lincoln--hadn't left the millworkers high in dry when they tried to organize in '34. I don't believe in God or have much time for Jesus and I've never watched more than thirty seconds of a NASCAR race. And notwithstanding the reference in the title of this piece, when I think "Southern rock" I tend to think R.E.M. and the B-52s before I think of Skynyrd; maybe that's a generational thing. Of course, I grew up and lived in what could be the most "New South" of all the "New South" places in the "New South"--the "Newest South" or "New Southiest" if you'd like--a city of skyscrapers and banks, and the time I've spent on a farm or in the country might well be measurable in days out of thirty-seven years, so maybe that has something to do with it. I'd say it's a generational thing, except that this is a subject that always reminds me that Hal Crowther is a godlike being, and I could be wrong but I'd be pretty surprised if Crowther has a copy of Fables of the Reconstruction on his CD shelf (many years ago, Crowther did write a beautiful essay on how he hated Nirvana but thought he understood Kurt Cobain--it was a fine example of how you can respect something even if you don't like it, and one of the many examples of Crowther's depths; I believe the article is in Unarmed But Dangerous if you ever see a copy.)

All of which isn't the point. The point is that I was reading Salon on the internet during lunch earlier this week, and there was a man named Michael Lind who was saying a lot of things about the Southern Republicans who killed the auto bailout that made it sound like Lind had his ass stuck in 1863 and his head wedged up inside it at an awkward angle. The piece is called "The economic Civil War," and I wish I could totally hate it instead of mostly hating it, because Lind accidentally manages to suggest one or two reasonable things for entirely wrong reasons; I guess it's another case of the proverbial broken watch being right twice a day.

Lind's basic thesis, although he doesn't mention it and probably thinks his thesis was something else, is that Americans (by which he means New Englanders, probably New Yorkers, and definitely a few people from industrial Midwest states like Michigan) are good and foreigners (especially Nips and Krauts, natch) and hicks (i.e. Southerners, but he probably would keep his eye on rural Midwesterners just in case) are horrible people--the foreigners because they're, well, they're un-American by definition, and the hicks because they're too dumb for their own good, except for the Machiavellian ones who hold elected office (they're too selfish and evil for anybody's good).

Now with the help of Nissan, Toyota, and BMW, the South is trying to replace Detroit as the center of U.S. automobile production, using low wages, anti-union laws, and low taxes to benefit from the outsourcing of industry from societies more advanced than the South, like Japan and Germany. The economic Axis is collaborating with the neo-Confederates against their common opponent -- the American Union. If they succeed, the losers will be not only non-Southern regions in the U.S., but the majority of Southerners of all races, whose interest in decent wages, good education, and adequate public services have almost always been sacrificed to the greed of the well-connected few by Southern statehouse gangs


What, you thought I was kidding? I'm not even sure I was exaggerating.

It crosses the mind that maybe Lind is engaging in a little bit of Swiftery, engaging in a bit of modest proposing or maybe just trying to roleplay the part of some sort of weird left-wing/John Bircher (!) chimera, a misbegotten melding of a pro-labor Yankee progressive intellectual with a xenophobic, frightened, backwards-looking America-firster--an unholy composite with all the logic and naturalness of an illustration from a 16th-century travelogue ("Here Be Michael-Lyndde," reads the script written in the blank space on the map three inches southwest of Prester John's kingdom). If the piece is satire, I have to confess: I failed to get the joke. Rather, the piece reads as if Lind was merely being stupid.

Aside from the not-so-subtle bigotry, Lind apparently feels compelled to perpetuate that "real America" nonsense that normally pops out of the mouths of Republican morons like Nancy Pfotenhauer, except this time it's from the other side. That makes it no less offensive or stupid, of course: Detroit is no more or less American a city than Chattanooga. Lind talks about the "Southernization of America" versus the "Americanization of the South," and you have to wonder who he thinks this form of divisive politics plays to. Howard Dean and Barack Obama went to some trouble to establish and vindicate (respectively) a "fifty-state strategy" or the closest approximation to it they could manage, and I happen to think it went rather well. What makes Lind's article even more flummoxing is the way that phrasing the matter using the language of the Republicans' divide-and-divide-some-more strategy marginalizes everybody, even progressive Southerners; it's irritating enough when I have to insist that progressive urban intellectuals are still real Americans, thank you very much, without having to also waste my time reminding other progressive urban intellectuals that progressive urban intellectuals in the South are still real Americans, thank you very much. Lind does, eventually, sort of nod in our direction, writing that the "neo-Confederates" might prevail "If a non-Southern majority, controlling the White House and Congress, with the support of at least some moderate Republicans... along with the support of Southern populists and progressives, is too timid..."; unfortunately, it's so little so late and in such a smirkingly elitist tone that he manages to make us sound like some kind of Vichy collaborators instead of loyal Southerners who have fought the good fight for generations. (If my efforts and hopes for a slightly left-of-center White House and Congress have resulted in people like Lind taking over, I may need to look at Canadian residency requirements after all, and here I thought we'd won.)

It's sort of because of that last bit that it becomes ironic that Lind manages to say a few things that would sound sort of sensible if he wasn't muffled by the thick folds of ass his head is buried in. Lind advocates making the national minimum wage a living wage, which I agree with although it has nothing at all to do with Southern auto workers who are paid an hourly rate that's not that much less than what their unionized counterparts get in Michigan (the major compensation difference between union and non-union autoworkers isn't in their hourly wage, it's in their benefits and pensions).

Lind goes on to talk about raising environmental standards and safety regulations, which is a wonderful principle although I'm not entirely sure why Lind bothers to mention it: he makes it sound like we're all barefoot and living in piles of filth down here, and while I've frankly never been to Detroit I was never given the impression by anything I'd ever seen that it was actually a clean and green city. Lind goes on and takes a shot about "preventing America's own internal rogue states from gaining any advantages by flouting national [safety and environmental] standards"; I'd call it a cheap shot but it's so random and uninformed that it doesn't even rise to the level of a cheap shot--who the hell are these rogue states? Does Lind think factories in New Jersey don't sometimes cut corners on health, safety and environmental regs, or that there are no environmentalist groups in North Carolina taking corporations to court over the heights of smokestacks and the number of scrubbers they ought to have? More fundamentally, the issue isn't really whether a particular factory is "flouting" regulations (although many do across the nation), because the regulatory bars are frequently lowered by the national leaders in Washington during Republican administrations--following the minimum regulation isn't "flouting" anything, rather it's following the law to a sick degree and the problem is with the laws and their enforcement, not the factories' adherence to the laws. And, anyway, while I'm painfully aware that some factories and mills have substandard adherence to those few rules, would Lind like to name one? It's not enough to wave your hand and just figure that you're enlightened readership knows which ones you mean when you're making allegations like that: which automobile factory in the southeast is Mr. Lind accusing of flouting, or is this something we're all supposed to just know about already because we think it's true?

Lind has a proposal for revenue-sharing, but he doesn't give any numbers. I don't have a problem with his principles: I'm a tax-and-spend liberal and make no bones about it. The only people who don't believe in raising taxes and spending them are diehard ultra-libertarians, usually Ayn Rand disciples; anybody who's intelligent can figure out that fire departments, police departments, highways and national defense are generally good ideas--the real question isn't whether to tax and spend but how much to tax and what the money should be spent on (I don't have a problem with spending money on public education, public art, public parks, etc., but I can understand where reasonable people might differ on these sorts of specifics, whether to fund them at all or to what degree). He talks about creating national financial institutions for this, and I don't have a per se objection to such things on general principle, but I do wonder whether Lind might have smoked a rock or two while writing. Personally--and I know there are several regular readers who strenuously disagree--I don't have a problem with a mixed economy or socialist institutions; e.g. socialized medicine is, in my opinion, a good idea whose time was sixteen years ago. And a national industrial policy of some kind might be a sound idea depending on how it's implemented. But the necessity of Lind's proposed institutions, or why Mississippi needs them more than, say South Dakota (or, for that matter, more than Michigan, the proposed recipient of an automotive bailout) remains a little baffling.

There's one more begged question in Lind's piece that deserves to be addressed. Lind takes it for granted that the Southern Republicans who scuttled the automotive bailout did the wrong thing, never considering that they may have done the right thing for the wrong reasons. After all, there is an industry that, to the frustration of many of us on the left, has flooded its market with unsafe, environmentally-polluting, toxic, inefficient, wasteful products; and this is why so many liberals can be found driving small, safe, reduced-emissions and/or fuel-efficient vehicles made by automakers from Japan, South Korea, and Germany. Many of us would have been happy to drive a safe, clean fuel-efficient vehicle made by Ford or GM or Chrysler had any of those companies been willing to manufacture something as awesome, say, as a Toyota Prius for an affordable cost, and none did. And although we're lefties, many of us thought we were doing the good capitalist thing (ironic, no?) and voting with our dollars: surely, if there's no market for gas-guzzling SUVs, the American automakers will adapt and produce something that is like a Japanese car only so much more awesome that buying American is good for the country and the planet and just plain cool.

Which is why you'll find some antipathy for the bailout even among those of us who like unions and are sorry that all those union workers may be out of a job: while it's a bit regrettable, actually, that we find ourselves in a convenient alliance with some awful conservatives, we weren't (and aren't) pleased by the thought that after years of rewarding good engineering and punishing bad carmakers, we might be obligated to essentially buy a car that we'll never drive or even see--our tax money going to corporations that need the money precisely because we didn't want to give it to them. Lind doesn't pay any attention to the question of whether these companies deserve to survive, treating the automakers' fates as being somehow inextricably tied to the fates of the blue states. It seems to me that this would be the real issue that might be discussed, as opposed to trying stupidly to play the politics of division from the other side of the table.


2 comments:

John the Scientist Saturday, December 20, 2008 at 10:20:00 PM EST  

Oh. My. Lord.

I've got to blog about this one.

Jim Wright Sunday, December 21, 2008 at 9:14:00 PM EST  

You were kinder to him than I would have been.

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