Timely & topical

October 6, 2016

This is one of the many short essays I've been writing.

Southern Paradox

“You are kept apart that you may separately be fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetrates a monetary system that beggars both.” This was Georgia politician and “agrarian rebel” Tom Watson in the 1890s, calling on poor whites—and blacks—to unite. (C. Vann Woodward’s 1938 biography was called Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel.)

Watson ran for vice president with William Jennings Bryan on the Populist ticket in 1896, pushed for Negro [sic] suffrage, and, as a Congressman, started Rural Free Delivery, which was a godsend even in my day in getting packages to out-of-the-way farms. His journal, the People’s Party Paper, declared that it “is now and will ever be a fearless advocate of the Jeffersonian Theory of Popular Government, and will oppose to the bitter end the Hamiltonian Doctrines of Class Rule, Moneyed Aristocracy, National Banks, High Tariffs, Standing Armies and formidable Navies—all of which go together as a system of oppressing the people.” So far so good….

However, after 1900 Watson shifted to attacking blacks, Catholics and Jews; his then-newspaper The Jeffersonian promoted the Ku Klux Klan and the lynching of Leo Frank. It seems that as his personal wealth grew, he began to abandon his old ideals. Surprised? …. He was elected to the U.S. Senate, and when he died in office in 1922 was replaced by the first woman to ever serve in the Senate, Rebecca L. Felton.

Felton—who was appointed as a favor to her husband and served just 24 hours—was the last former slaveholder in the U.S. Senate. A white supremacist, she spoke out in favor of lynching—but also advocated women’s suffrage, equal pay for equal work, and prison reform. At nearly 88, she was the oldest-ever freshman senator and still the only woman to have been a Georgia senator. “A Senator of the U.S., a woman, is still a sort of political joke with our masculine leaders in party politics,” she wrote. “But the trail has been blazed! The road is apparently rough—maybe rocky—but the trail has been located. It is an established fact. While it is also a romantic adventure, it will ever remain an historical precedent—never to be erased.”

In The Crack-Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Maybe Watson and Felton held contradictions not paradoxes; maybe they aren’t opposing ideas: it’s not uncommon to want freedom and rights for ourselves, without being as concerned about who is outside the OK Corral.

It’s pretty easy to justify this, too: They don’t have the historical needs we do, they don’t try as hard as we do, they don’t love their children as much, they haven’t suffered as much.

And when my needs conflict with yours? We both want the last cookie, that on-sale pair of shoes, this piece of land. Why should I give in? Why should you?

I like it the most so I should get the biggest piece.