The Embittered Heartland

excerpted from the book

America Right or Wrong

An Anatomy of American Nationalism

by Anatol Lieven

Oxford University Press, 2005, paper


Radical nationalism has many fathers, but its mother is defeat, and her milk is called humiliation. From this poisoned nourishment comes in part the tendency to chauvinist hatred which has streamed through so many of the world's nationalisms.

prolong a widespread spirit of inveterate malignity against Russia for a decade after the Soviet Union ... the Israeli lobby has ... played its part over the decades in generating hostility to Arabs and Muslims.

... ethnic lobbies ... would not have achieved their objectives had they not been able to tap the support of much larger bodies of Americans who have a natural tendency in the face of any disagreement to adopt harshly adversarial stances and who, when confronted with opposition from any other country, feel impelled automatically to take up positions of fear, hostility, militancy, intransigency and self-righteousness: in other words, classically nationalist positions.

'The nationalist culture, and not only public ignorance, helps to explain how the Bush administration could transfer the anger Americans felt after 9/11 to targets which had nothing to do with that attack and why the opposition by much of the world to the Iraq War caused such an outburst of chauvinist fury in sections of the American media and public opinion.

This capacity for chauvinist nationalism in the United States can be explained largely by the fact that the role of defeat in the genesis of nationalism resides not only in the defeat of nations as a whole, but of classes, groups and indeed individuals within them. The hatred and fear directed abroad by nationalism often emanates from hatreds and tensions at home, and this is strikingly true in the case of the United States.

The appearance of nationalism in many countries has been correctly attributed in large part to the ascendancy and needs of new bourgeois classes; but it is equally true that many of nationalism's darker features have been produced by classes in relative or absolute decline, or with good reason to fear such decline, ones that have seen not only their status and security but their cultural worlds undermined by economic and social change. These sentiments are especially liable to become radicalized if a period of economic growth ends and is replaced by depression or stagnation; thus many of Europe's modern radical conservative and radical nationalist movements had their origins in the first "Great Depression' which lasted from the mid-1870s to the 1890s.

If one defining feature of many nationalisms has been a belief in a glorious future for the nation, another equally common feature has been the desire for a return to an idealized past, of a culturally and ethnically purer nation, a stable, traditional society and a "moral economy" in which decent, hardworking people are guaranteed a decent job: a shimmering, golden, ungraspable mirage, ever present, ever receding. In Germany, for example, this was the old world of the independent small towns, with their homogenous religious cultures and their guilds guaranteeing employment to respectable insiders and the exclusion of outsiders.

In the United States, this sense of defeat and embattlement resides in four distinct but overlapping elements of the American national tradition: the original, "core" White Anglo-Saxon and Scots Irish populations of the British colonies in North America; the specific historical culture and experience of the White South; the cultural world of fundamentalist Protestantism; and the particular memories, fears and hatreds of some American ethnic groups and lobbies.

Daniel Bell's words of 1963 remain true today: "What the right wing is fighting, in the shadow of Communism, is essentially 'modernity'-that complex of beliefs that might be defined most simply as the belief in rational assessment, rather than established custom, for the evaluation of social change-and what it seeks to defend is its fading dominance, exercised once through the institutions of smalltown America, over the control of social change. But it is precisely those established ways that a modernist America has been forced to call into question."

The White South

Both foreign analysts and Americans themselves have often treated the South as a culturally quite separate part of the United States, without influence on the nation's wider national identity. And the South does indeed have a very special historical and cultural character-one which, however, cannot be somehow cut out from America's wider political culture and American nationalism: "No small part of the reactionary nationalism of the twentieth century United States can be directly attributed to the South's pronounced conservatism and its comparative isolation from contact with foreigners and foreign ideas."

The White South occupies a very considerable section of the United States and a very much bigger one of what I have called the American Nationalist Party or Republicans .61 According to the 2002 census, the eleven former Confederate states made up 30.21 percent of the U.S. population, with the Greater South (including Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia) making up 35.44 percent. Only 19.79 percent of the former Confederate Old South and 18.13 percent of the Greater South was Black; 17.91 percent and 15.71 percent respectively were Latino, Asian and Native American.

This means that White Southerners make up over one-fifth of the total U.S. population-not a dominant section, but certainly a potentially very powerful one. In terms of political power, the position of the South (and the often-allied West) is strengthened by the American federal system, which gives disproportionate weight to states with small, mainly traditional White populations." Since the 1970s, only a handful of Southern states have ever voted Democrat in presidential elections.

As Michael Lind, Kevin Phillips, Peter Applebome and others have pointed out, over the past two decades the "southernization" of the Republican Party has given these traditions a very considerable new importance in the politics of America as a whole and consequently in U.S. international behavior. Among the effects of this "southernization" has been a harsher form of nationalism. The growing Southern-style religiosity of the Republicans also has had its effect, both in alienating the United States from "atheist" Europe and in increasing commitment to Israel. This transformation of the Republicans has contributed greatly to the increasing polarization of Americans along party lines. As indicated in the introduction, party lines also reflect strongly contrasting attitudes to religion, morality, culture, economics and nationalism.

This division was symbolized in 2003 by the public condemnation of the Democrats for moral decadence and lack of patriotism by their last senior conservative Southern representative, Senator Zell Miller of Georgia. Or as Thomas Schaller put it in 2003, "Trying to recapture the South is a futile, counterproductive exercise because the South is no longer the swing region. It has swung: Richard Nixon's 'Southern strategy' of 1968 has reached full fruition."

... Because a majority of the White South switched its allegiance to the Republican Party in the 1960s and 1970s in reaction against Democratic advancement of Civil Rights and multiculturalism, its role has become a good deal more activist. The critical importance of the White South to Republican hopes has been demonstrated in a series of presidential elections-most notably in 2000, when Al Gore's failure to win a single Southern state (despite coming from Tennessee himself) doomed his presidential hopes.

The region's importance to hard-line conservative influence in the Republican Party is indicated by the fact that in a survey compiled by the National Journal of senators and congressmen in 2004, of the sixteen senators dubbed "most conservative" (one-third of the Republican total), ten came from the Greater South; of twenty-one senators dubbed "centrist," only five were from the South.

If only because Southern Blacks now have the vote and use it to vote solidly Democratic, the South today is not as overwhelmingly Republican as it was once Democratic. The recent end of discrimination and the economic rise of the South (compared to the "Rust Belt" cities of the Midwest and Northeast) has led Blacks to return to the South. If this process continues and intensifies, eventually it will seriously undermine the grip of White conservatives on the South.

As of 2004, however, Southern Whites form the most solidly and reliably major Republican voting bloc in the country, which naturally gives them immense influence. The political power and longevity of the Southern conservatives in Congress has been unintentionally increased by the redivision of congressional districts to create solidly Black areas and therefore strengthen Black representation; the result of which has also necessarily been to create more solidly White districts. From the late 1970s, and particularly since the Republican Revolution led by the Georgian Newt Gingrich in 1994 and the formation of the Texan-led Bush administration in 2001, this influence has been used to advance programs with their roots in White Southern culture.

As noted by Applebome, Mead and others, this process has been greatly facilitated by the fact that important parts of White Southern culture have in recent decades spread far beyond their original homelands; consider the Southern evangelical Protestant religion; the cult of personal weaponry; country and western music; and stock car racing (which apparently originated among Appalachian Mountain bootleggers of moonshine whiskey). The South has also long been the home of a particularly intense form of American nationalism, strongly flavored by respect for the military and military values, and part of a wider culture which believes in traditional values of religion, family, manhood and honor.

A Vignette of the Deep South

In 1979 I spent several months at a college in the small town of Troy, in southern Alabama, on an English-Speaking Union scholarship named for the soon-to-retire governor, George C. Wallace. At that time, not only was society rigidly divided between Blacks and Whites, but the absolutely overwhelming majority of locally born Whites I met were of mixed Anglo-Saxon and Scots Irish descent, and Southern Baptist by religion. A 1982 survey shows religious adherents in Pike County, where Troy is situated, as 67.5 percent Southern Baptist and 15.7 percent United Methodist. No other church reached 5 percent of the total. Eighteen years later, the figures for the Southern Baptists and Methodists were almost identical. Fundamentalist believers in the Assembly of God and Church of Christ had grown to 3.8 percent and 4.9 percent respectively.

The public spirit of the place was strongly marked by this religious tradition. Thus the county was "Dry" (not completely, but alcohol could not be advertised or drunk in public, and bars were highly restricted). Neither this nor the fact that we students were mostly under twenty-one, the legal drinking age, seemed to have the slightest effect on the drinking habits of my peers. The great majority of White students were self-described "rednecks," and proud of it. They were very far indeed from the centers of American wealth, power, culture and influence. They knew this, and their response differed from prickly pride to bitter resentment.

They possessed a very strong sense of ethnoreligious community and local tradition. Although very few were of wealthy or aristocratic descent, very many were able to trace their ancestry back beyond the creation of Alabama, to settlers who had originally moved from Tennessee, Georgia, or the Carolinas. Surprisingly, some were even proud of the possession of Cherokee or Creek ancestry, since this constituted proof of ancient establishment-whereas Black ancestry, although perhaps sometimes present, was emphatically not talked about. Despite state relief programs a large part of the rural population, White as well as Black, was also still appallingly poor by the standards of the "developed" world, with extremely high levels of illiteracy.

Except for time spent in military service, a quite astonishing number had never been outside Alabama, except for visits to nearby Pensacola and the beaches of the Florida Panhandle, and still more had never traveled outside the South. Given the greater distances in the United States compared to Europe, Troy's isolation was in some ways comparable to that of small European towns before the coming of the railroads.

People were extremely kind and hospitable to the individual visitor (at least from Britain, a land which seemed to enjoy an almost mystical prestige both as an ally in war and as their own ancestral land of origin), but many were deeply suspicious of outsiders in general and deeply ignorant of America beyond the lower South. The world beyond America's shores was a kind of magic shadow play, full of heroes and demons, but without real substance. "Demons" in some cases is a literal rendering of how they saw America's enemies, for millenarian views of history were also present, although of course less at the college than among the surrounding population.

This was therefore a society as different from the common image both of American prosperity and of the American "melting pot" as could be imagined; and this picture was and to a considerable extent still is mirrored in small towns across the Deep South and certain parts of Texas and the West, reflecting what Oran Smith has called the continuing "incredible homogeneity among White Southerners." Blacks had been accepted into the university and were not subject to overt discrimination, but they were still in a thoroughly subordinate position, with little local influence.

Over the past sixty years, the tremendous economic changes initiated by World War II have changed the South greatly. The shift of industries from the Rust Belt of the Northeast and Midwest have transformed parts of the South into some of the most industrialized areas in America, and this transformation has been widely publicized by boosters from the region and beyond. Economic development has sucked in new immigrants, including not only Latinos but also South Asians, so that for the first time since the expulsion of the Indians, Southern society is not simply split along Black-White lines.

However, a glance at the political, religious and ideological map of the White South reveals a society which has not changed nearly as much as figures for economic change would suggest. Although both the Latino and South Asian minorities have grown enormously, in 2000 the Southern Focus Poll still found that 65 percent of Southerners declared themselves Protestant, and more than half the population of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia belonged to one denomination, Southern Baptist. Six out of ten Southerners still say that they prefer the biblical account of Creation to evolutionary theory (this figure of course includes Southern Blacks)."

The region has continued to elect a range of politicians of strikingly conservative, religious and nationalist cast. Older representatives of this culture such as Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms have retired, only to be followed by younger figures such as Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, James Inhofe and Dick Armey, who perpetuate their tradition. These are indeed "lively dinosaurs," as one observer put it. They are no fading remnants of a dead tradition and a lost cause.

One reason for this continuity may be that in one respect, the South has become if anything more homogenous over the past century. Before the Civil War, Blacks were a majority in two Southern states (South Carolina and Louisiana) and very close to a majority in two more (Alabama and Mississippi). By the 1960s Black emigration to the North, pulled by Northern jobs and pushed by Southern White oppression and harassment, had radically reduced these figures-a change which helps explain why the achievement of civil rights for Blacks under federal pressure, savagely resisted though it was by many Whites, did not lead to the Balkan-style eruption of White mass violence of which Southern racists and conservatives had so often warned. According to the census of 1880, Blacks made up 41 percent of the population of the Old South. By the 1960s this figure had fallen by more than half.

For a century and a half, however, the desire to preserve first slavery and then absolute Black separation and subordination had contributed enormously to the closing of the Southern mind, with consequences for America as a whole which have lasted down to our own day. Both before the Civil War and in the mid-twentieth century, the social system of the South was "on the defensive against most of the Western world" and White Southerners saw "outside aggression" against the South everywhere." The effects of this long experience of embittered defensiveness continue to this day.

Racial solidarity gave poor Whites pride in belonging to the superior, ruling race and helped deflect resentment against the wealthy plantation owners. Cultural, racial, political and economic defensiveness reached the point in the 1850s where the South became the pioneer in the modern world of the mass public burning of "dangerous books"; in this case, attacks on slavery from the abolitionist North. "In place of its old eagerness for new ideas and its outgoing communicativeness the South developed a suspicious inhospitality toward the new and the foreign, a tendency to withdraw from what it felt to be a critical world. "

Civil War
Some 260,000 Confederate soldiers-more than one-fifth of the entire White adult male population-were killed in action or died of disease. (Some 350,000 Union soldiers died, but from a much larger population.)

In an opinion poll commissioned in May 2004 by the Washington Post and ABC News, 34 percent of respondents said that torture is acceptable in the case of "people suspected of involvement in recent attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan' with 64 percent rejecting this. When asked if physical abuse short of torture is acceptable, 45 percent said yes and 53 percent no."

What happened can also clearly have come as no surprise to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who in a memo to the president of January 25, 2002, described articles of the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of prisoners as "quaint" and advised that they be abandoned (Cohn Powell strongly dissented). Later, lawyers in the Justice Department (August 2002) and in the Pentagon (March 2003) advised the administration that a U.S. President in his capacity as commander in chief has the right to override both U.S. and international law and sanction physical abuse of prisoners as part of the war on terrorism."'

These memos were intended to be kept secret. There was nothing secret, however, about the reaction of numerous right-wing politicians and media commentators to the Abu Ghraib revelations. Senator James Inhofe (Republican, Oklahoma) declared to his colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee: "I'm probably not the only one at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment .... You know, they [the prisoners at Abu Ghraib] are not there for traffic violations... they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents.

Senator Inhofe attacked the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as "humanitarian do-gooders right now crawling all over these prisons looking for human rights violations while our troops, our heroes, are fighting and dying." His fellow Republican senator, Trent Lott (Mississippi), declared: "Frankly, to save some Americans' troops lives or a unit that could be in danger, I think that you should get really rough with them." Reminded that at least one prisoner had been beaten to death by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib, Lott replied: "This is not Sunday school. This is interrogation. This is rough stuff." Similar statements came from right-wing media figures such as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Michael Savage. Limbaugh declared: "Maybe the people who ordered this [the abuses at Abu Ghraib are pretty smart. Maybe the people who executed this pulled off a brilliant maneuver... boy, there was a lot of humiliation of people who are trying to kill us-in ways they hold dear. Sounds pretty effective to me if you look at us in the right context."

Right-wing radio star Michael Savage described Arabs as "non-humans" and declared that "conversion to Christianity is the only thing that can probably turn them [Arabs] into human beings." He said: "Smallpox in a blanket, which the U.S. Army gave to the Cherokee Indians on their long march to the West, was nothing to what I'd like to see done to these people." Savage's talk show is broadcast on 350 radio stations and has an audience of some 7.5 million people. Limbaugh's goes out on 680 stations and has an audience of around 20 million.

Senator Inhofe's attack on the ICRC was echoed two days later by the Wall Street Journal in an editorial entitled "Red Double Cross," which decried the organization's "increasing politicization" and warned that it was at risk of becoming "just another left-wing advocacy group along the lines of Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International" (the Journal has always been glad to cite these bodies as respectable authorities when it comes to attacking countries which its editors hate and wish to target).137 Of course, these statements did not represent the views of all Republicans. They drew a sharp rebuke from former prisoner of war Senator John McCain, who praised the ICRC's record and stressed America's duty to abjure torture and respect international conventions."'

This tradition is clearly antithetical to the formal aspects of the American Creed when it comes to both the administration of justice and the equality of rights-it certainly does not believe either that fundamental rules of justice are to be found in law books or that "all men are created equal." However, in the past it has usually coexisted comfortably enough with the Creed at home, because the eruptions of popular fury and folk justice have been short-lived responses to particular real or perceived threats.

The exceptions were the Frontier, where the threat from the Indians and the tradition of vigilanteeism and collective punishment which it produced, lasted as long as the Frontier itself, and the South, where the constructed threat from the Blacks required collective repression which lasted from the origins of these colonies to the 1960s.

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