By Tom Lamia
How is this impasse among us to be resolved? When and by what means can we expect to resume civility in our politics and in our daily lives? Will it come through policy persuasion? Or, from an erosion of cultural differences effected through birth rates, immigration rates, and education rates? Putting it more plainly, can we expect that what has become a venomous set of social and political animosities will eventually disappear by a reversion to the mean? Should we trust the “melting pot” theory of American history (“E Pluribus Unum”) to bring us together? Will “American Exceptionalism” (like Adam Smith’s invisible hand of capitalism) see us through our current head in the sand partisanship? Maybe, but my personal history suggests more is needed.
I was a student at the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, in 1957. There, a fellow “Yankee” student and friend, Frank Wolf (later a long-time Congressman from Northern Virginia) led me on a visit to William Faulkner’s house on Oxford’s town square. Frank, a serious Christian then and now, had been befriended at church by a Faulkner relative who was looking after the house while the owner was away teaching at the University of Virginia. Frank had an open invitation to visit the house and invited me along on one of his visits. At the time, I knew from cool responses to any mention of Faulkner within the Ole Miss community, that his personal esteem in the wider world was not shared in his hometown. He was an outrageous fabulist in his novels of life in Yoknapatawpha County, a thinly disguised version of his own Lafayette County, a literary device that so outraged his Oxford neighbors that not even his Nobel Prize for literature could make them proud. At UVA, however, another set of Southerners was honored by his presence. The difference? There was no mistaking Jefferson’s Charlottesville for Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. In Oxford, Mississippi, there was just too much local truth in the work of their resident genius for hometown comfort. He wrote of its past, which in 1957 was not dead, nor even past (as he put it).
Today Oxford, like most Southern small towns, has changed. A Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Board of Education) in 1954, a federal Civil Rights Law (1964), followed by a federal Voting Rights Law (1965) brought about that change. Unfortunately, another Supreme Court decision (Shelby County v. Holder) found, in 2013, that citizens of Mississippi and ten other Southern states no longer needed federal protection under the Voting Rights Act to protect their voting rights. Today it seems clear that this protection is as necessary as ever.
In 1966, I arrived in Lagos, Nigeria, bound for a position as Lecturer in Law at a Nigerian university. On the day of my arrival, a military coup was underway. From the nation’s founding in 1960, the three principal ethnic groups within Nigeria had shared political power, but that ended in 1966. Within six months of my arrival, the Eastern Region of Nigeria seceded, as Biafra, and a civil war began. Military superiority and international support for Nigeria put an end to Biafra’s dream of independence. Nigeria’s victory came at a high cost: coups, military rule, corruption, new constitutions, new ethnic regions, a new capital city. Insuperable differences were ultimately set aside as the price to be paid for co-existence. No one of the country’s hundreds of ethnic peoples could coerce peace, so all had to be accommodated, finally. It may not be over, but a lesson in the limits of power and the need for cooperation seems to have prevailed.
Being a freshman and a “Yankee” at Ole Miss put me in the distinct minority. I knew that and was prepared for it. Still, it was a shock when the Dean of Students invited a group of us to meet with him. He spoke of his concern that we might not feel welcome at Ole Miss. We should understand, he said, that it was not personal; that Southern values and traditions were difficult to share with outsiders. He was not making an apology, just stating the hard facts. This was years before Ole Miss was integrated. In our case the cause for a cool reception was cultural, not racial. A similar cause seems now to divide us into rural and urban social cells, ripe for exploitation by political actors.
In Nigeria, the social and cultural gaps were of chasmic proportions, but the disabling ones were ethnic (tribal) differences pre-dating colonialism. It took a civil war and years of social and economic chaos for these differences to be put aside for the sake of survival.
Our Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction have led to where we are today. The problem is not irreparable, but serious action must be taken. We cannot accept Jim Crow attitudes as legitimate simply because they represent hallowed tradition somewhere among us. Civil rights, voting rights, and constitutional government, with its constituent institutions, are not optional notions. We have a government of laws that must be protected by the pursuit of established avenues of redress in the courts and at the ballot box. Defending the constitution means suppressing rebellious conduct by such means. This takes resolve. So long as threats of violence are allowed to influence our elections or the administration of government, at any level, our strength as one nation is diluted.