Progressives and conservatives can both trace their core political beliefs and philosophical underpinnings to the culture and power structure of the plantations in the antebellum south. The rebuke reflex that progressives have toward any entrenched power structure is based at least in part on the deep and abiding hostility toward the plantation master- a historical figure who lived his life in absolute power over other people more than any other class of people in our nation’s history. His unquestioned supremacy on his land was complete until he was dethroned and dispatched by the Union Army- the enforcement arm of the villified and maligned federal government.
This is not complicated. Unchecked by any state law, the plantation master was almighty on his land and the experience of every plantation resident was dictated by the will and whim of this one individual. Everyone who lived on the plantation was subject to the control of this man- from the plantation mistress, to the overseers, to the slaves and all of the children- regardless of parentage.
No wonder conservatives hate the federal government and reflexively advance states rights as a solution to every issue imaginable. As an evolved society we recognize that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So it is impossible to imagine a class of people in all of American history that is more deeply rooted in corruption than the plantation master. Consider the haunting reality that on any given night, a rapacious plantation master could decide on a whim if he were more titillated by the prospect of raping a black woman, a black man or even a black child. But why not all three?
He had the power to forcibly penetrate anybody he found in those quarters were he drunk and depraved enough to act on his lechery. Besides the pleas for mercy that were never heeded or the cries for help that never came, the only expression of will that any of the victims could ever have was whether they would submit to another violation of their humanity or subject themselves to a certain and torturous death. So all of you Confederate enthusiasts out there think about that the next time you are whistling Dixie and fantasizing about being Rhett Butler. Fuck you and your stars and bars flag. Under that flag and all it represents your ancestors raped women and men alike for sport, bred human beings like dogs, and treated black children as pets and toys for white children. The wheels of justice turn very slowly sometimes but you and yours are most certainly going to get your comeuppance.
A politically conscious citizen is not allowed to hedge on this. This is one of those rare issues on which you have to choose a side or keep your mouth shut indefinitely. You are either for or against the interest of the plantation master. There is no middle ground. Progressives are against this figure and all he represents. Conservatives are for the rights of this figure to retain his power, privilege and position. So when conservatives carry on about how much they love and value “freedom,” they are talking about the freedom of the plantation master to stay right where he is and the “freedom” of others to aspire to be where he is. Historical facts are on the progressive’s side here and we need to start using them.
Meanwhile, conservatives don’t have a leg to stand on- regardless of what new Uncle Remus character they can pull out, polish up and parade in front of the cameras as a symbol of their racial egalitarianism. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott seems like a descent guy but he is currently filling that unfortunate and recurring role.
After you have chosen a side on the plantation master, your analysis has to turn immediately to the role of the white labor class- the overseers and patrollers that did the bloody grunt work to keep the slaves controlled. Arguably, this pivotal class is the most fascinating group to examine as they occupied the critical space between the master at the absolute top of the pyramid and the slaves who made up the unmistakable and unfortunate bottom. So the state of mind of this group determined whether the pyramid would stand stable and erect or be lopsided and topple over. Since I was a high school student in the ‘80’s I have been a ravenous consumer of slave narratives. Whenever I come across one that has been reasonably authenticated, I’ll pick it up. One of the salient themes that runs through them all is that for this particular class of plantation dwellers their greatest currency was their capacity for cruelty.
The analysis of this group starts with the acknowledgment of the fact that if a white man was working as an overseer, he was already in a disadvantaged economic position relative to the plantation master and his family. He literally had to drive the slaves to work tirelessly as his means of economic survival. Obviously these men could not drive the slaves to work unless they were out there with them.
They didn’t have security cameras to monitor the slaves, or electric razor-wire fences to keep them on the property. And bullwhips are a close range weapon. The blazing hot sun did not spare the redneck overseer from its suffocating heat on those unforgiving days in the fields. The master may have the option to sip on a drink and watch his land worked from the shade of his porch but the overseer had no option but to watch the slaves toil at close range- it was his very livelihood. And any indication that the slaves were not sufficiently terrorized into working at peak output meant that an overseer could find himself looking for work as field labor. His final decent into the bin of white trash would no doubt be complete at that point.
Clearly these men held no land of their own otherwise they would be working that land for a living. This same logic applied to those white men who worked as patrollers. These were the men who rode around in small bands along the roads and through the woods at night looking to catch any slave who was away from his plantation without a pass proving he had his master’s permission. Again, for these men a lack of cruelty or bloodlust meant direct financial loss. They were paid to retrieve and punish slaves that they apprehended away from their plantations. Their role was vital in maintaining the plantation order which was fueled by fear above all else. In nearly every film set in slavery days in any scene depicting a whipping, take note of the fact that the beating is always done before an audience of other slaves- and also note that the man wielding the whip is almost always an agent of the plantation master rather than the master himself.
We don’t often think of these harrowing scenes as political but we need to- because many of us are not just the blood descendants of the people involved in those scenes, we are also the new reflection of the social order established back then. All these white men had going for them was the advantage of NOT being niggers. So they rode that singular advantage as hard as they possibly could to ensure the survival of their own families. Oppressing black people through violence and cruelty was the very foundation of any stability they could ever hope to enjoy. For these men, the privilege of whiteness meant absolutely everything. They literally had nothing else to stand on. So they would gladly get the mud and blood on their hands that the plantation owner preferred not touch himself.
Is that dynamic alive today between white men of modest means and white men of privilege? The enduring challenge of progressives has always been to show the men in this class that they have long been on the receiving end of a cruel con-game. Convincing them that they have more to gain from an alliance with the people that the owner pays them to oppress than from embracing the perpetual servitude of a junior partnership to the white men’s club has been difficult. Conservatives have it much easier: just keep these white men feeling good about NOT being niggers and you have them exactly where you want them.
The slaves’ lives of toil and sorrow mixed a complicated brew of contradictions- composed of survival and self-loathing, of rebellion and resignation, and of pride and submission. As a class, the slaves were the object of the plantation system, subject to the whim and will of everyone but themselves. It is fair to ask how divergent the experience is today for those occupying the very bottom rung of the American socio-economic ladder. Nothing compares to the horror of slavery, but in relative terms the life of the poorest wage laborer or a state prison inmate contrasts to the life of a wealthy investor or business owner in frighteningly similar dimensions to what existed between a plantation master and a slave. The foundation of progressivism is to uplift the status of those that made up the bottom wrung of society to that of equal citizen, living and functioning in the same fashion as all other citizens of every other background. We know what conservatives wanted then and they took up arms against their countrymen in order to hold on to it. They lost that war on the battlefield but they are still fighting it in our elections and our governance. Just watch the direction of the Justice Department under Alabama Senator Jefferson Boregard Sessions.
Progressives cannot continue to allow conservatives to fight political battles along the familiar lines that were drawn on southern plantations. And we need to abandon the mentality that we can sweeten the taste of our group engagements to the point that institutional racism will just burn itself out. That has been tried a long time and no matter how sweet it is, the power dynamic will not be moved.
If we don’t make that mental shift, we will continue to allow that paradigm to define our terms and frame our debates, legitimizing positions that were long ago proven unworthy of our nation’s ideals. Conservatives, by their very nature, will never give this up. Progressives have to take it from them by force- starting right here and starting right now.