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MID-TERM ELECTIONS


The last little trickle of disappointments from the midterms came through the radio while we were driving through long, sloping fields of old snow. Florida and Georgia had elected hard-nosed red-state Republicans over Democrats, by fairly slim margins to protect the dismal status quo of the Old South. California had routed the last Republican from Orange County, and turned the whole state a deep, luxurious blue, even as the wild fires raged and snarled like medieval dragons at all those weary fire fighters from the penitentiaries. I felt like slumping against the steering wheel, but I knew a giant stag might come galloping out of the woods we were passing, and heave himself against the car. Better to stay alert, and to fight off my leaden emotions.

What depressed me about the midterms was the fact that I was reminded how America had not yet recovered from the Civil War a century and a half ago, that as a nation we were stunted before we could grow up and become a real society. America had a serious limp and couldn't walk in a straight line. The bad leg was the embittered South, whose pride had been insulted and very nearly destroyed by Sherman's march to the sea, by Grant's exquisite chess plays against his formidable rival, General Lee.

Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia, spoke to NPR about her new movement, "Fair Fight," to contest the lost integrity of the voting system in Georgia. She was the most articulate, balanced politician I have heard in a long time. It is a great loss for Georgia that she didn't win the seat that no woman of color, no woman of any color, had ever occupied. She would have been a marvelous force for dragging Georgia away from its cronies in the Old Boy system that keeps the Senate and the House divided and polarized. Old snow lies on the ground like the discarded ballots of the last election, the ones Brian Kemp, governor-elect, managed to purge from the rolls of eligible voters. "Take a deep breath," as my wife would say, "and drive safely."

I once had dinner with a socio-linguist named Lester Faigley, a professor at the University of Texas/Austin at the time, who told me about a branch of his subject called "warm-weather linguistics." He said warm weather was notable for slow talk, drawling pronunciation, gaps and hidden pockets of meaning behind the bland statements about the weather. Cold-weather language is crisp by comparison, with sharp edges and chiseled pronunciation of Latinate words like institution and jurisprudence. There may be pockets of unstated meaning or intention there too, but the speech is so fraught with the effort to be rational that it opened a wide gulf between the casual southern way of speaking and the straight-backed primness of northern elocution.

We were dining at an Indian restaurant in Singapore at the time, picking up our food with our fingers from a section of banana leaf, and nodding as a man with two trays of food stood over us and dumped more little cups of delicious, spicy curry onto our "plates." We were being served by a Sri Lankan, a man from the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, who must have drawled and elided and held back many tiny truths if I could have conversed with him. A small basin stood against a far wall where you could wash your hands before and after the meal. Southern Asia brooded over us with a starry night sky full of secretive little clouds and shooting stars. We were in the grip of the slowest, most mysterious drawl on earth, and what eight thousand years of hot summers did to the human imagination was folded away deep in the brains of these dark-skinned, handsome men who towered over us like palm trees.

When the British arrived in the 18th century and laid claim to the great "backward" nation of India , The Raj would conduct its affairs in crisp, elegant English sentences that cast a spell of sublime rationality over the tragic errors and miscalculations of the British empire. No one could stop the lofty ministers of the crown from plunging the vast country into chaos and then chopping it into religious blocs that would leave Pakistan and India forever at war with each other. The drawled speech of Hindi lay under the ruins of British empiricism, as it would under Africa, and under the Middle East in the 20th century. Britain drew the shape of nations with the quirts of its generals, who never suspected they might be churning the mud of millennia and rearranging culture without consulting local authority.

Sherman's march to the sea through Georgia laid waste to the once grand old capital of Atlanta, and razed all those faux-18th century manor houses of the cotton country without a thought of what it would sow for the future of American life. The ashes were like dragon's teeth, to borrow an old metaphor. The monsters of resentment came out to haunt the North and to plague all future efforts to re-unite the severed halves of a nation.

Of course, the South's medieval imagination could not find much fault in its institution of slavery; the firm belief in its own racial superiority to Africa meant that nobility had its privileges, even without the fiat of royal England. The very nature of the South's artificial kingdom meant it was doomed to death in a democracy. But I lived my years observing Confederate flag decals on the back of Texas pick-up trucks and posters of an enraged Confederate colonel crying, "Forget Hell!" The ill-fated bonfire celebration each year at Texas A&M University, my employer, brought out the simmering Confederate passions of many male students, who danced around the blazing fire yelling out all the racial epithets a beer-soaked twenty-year old could remember. It was embarrassing and hurtful to see such primitive behavior over a supposed celebration of school spirit before its Thanksgiving game with the University of Texas Longhorns. It didn't work; most years the Aggies lost. But then, in almost every skirmish with reality, the South lost its wagers and ended up humiliated.

But Georgia won its gubernatorial campaign to keep a white male in power over a state that now exhibits the most brazen disregard for the rules of state democracy. Brian Kemp, the winner, served as Secretary of State for Georgia and oversaw the electoral process. He purged 1.5 million voters from the rolls, closed down polling sites, allowed many counties to stray from vetting their own voter lists. Stacey Abrams was stopped at her polling place because she had already voted, she was told. She called for the manager of the polling station and demanded an explanation, only to be told she had sent in an absentee ballot, which she had not. The matter was resolved a few minutes later and she was permitted to cast her actual ballot. "I know the law, a lot of others don't, and didn't know to ask questions," she told NPR. A black woman demanding justice may not go down well in a Georgia election, but reality and the pressures of the future were bearing down on this state in the middle of a seemingly indestructible state of mind. Cracks keep appearing, foundations of racist tradition and fudged laws are losing their cement.

So I drove on through the old snow and found our house glowing with lamplight and the twinkles of a fire in the hearth. The living room was warm and inviting, the cold Vermont night enclosed it in a thick blue velvet full of diamond luster and frost-silvered maples. We were in the pocket of old America, the cradle of a democracy that was split in half by the ax of history and warfare. I took solace from a glass of wine and tried not to think about the Senate holding the power to appoint more extreme right jurists to the bench and to continue to hold to Mitch McConnell's vision of a vanished America of white men wielding all the power.

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© 2014 by Paul Christensen