The Peckerwood Pericles


“If the fellow was sincere, then so was P.T. Barnum. The word is disgraced and degraded by such uses. He was, in fact, a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without any shame or dignity. What animated him from end to end of his grotesque career was simply ambition – the ambition of a common man to get his hand upon the collar of his superiors, or, failing that, to get his thumb into their eyes. He was born with a roaring voice, and it had the trick of inflaming half-wits against their betters, that he himself might shine.”

Anno 1925, H.L. Mencken penned those uncharitable words about William Jennings Bryan after the letter exited both his public career and the realm of the animate. Anno 2004, as the Hon. Zell Miller, senior Senator from Georgia, approaches the end of his public career, the nation – or at least that portion of it that still possesses of a sense of irony – wishes the Sage of Baltimore could be living at this hour, so as to properly limn the life and works of this latest personification of a recurring American archetype: the country-fried demagogue.

Bryan himself was hardly the purest example of this species: he was born in Nebraska and as candidate for president held economic views that today, a century later, Sean Hannity would denounce as socialist. The true hatchery of genus demogogus is the Deep South: that intellectual Gobi where Kudzu strangles the Magnolia even as revivalism strangles thought.

And what a shining roster of rabble-rousers it has been: “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman; James K. Vardeman; “Cotton Ed” Smith (“my job is to keep N[egroes] down and the price of cotton up”); Orville Faubus; W. Lee (“Pass the biscuits Pappy”) O’Daniel; Herman (“Hummun”) Tallmadge; J. Strom Thurmond; the pre-makeover George C. Wallace; Lester Maddox[1]; and a plague of other rascals.

What is it that distinguishes this omnium gatherum of kooks, aside from their uniformly strident exacerbation of poisonous race relations, the chief curse and original sin of this republic? A close examination of genus demagogus australis since at least the time of Reconstruction reveals the following stigmata:

Anti-intellectualism. Consonant with the region’s historical record in the provision of public education and learning generally, the South’s demagogues assume the pose of the “wise fool,” whose cracker-barrel homilies are presumed to be far more instructive than the works of Aristotle. The most cursory reading of Zell’s latest literary opus provides verification of this thesis. It is difficult to decide, however, whether this disposition is due to a consciousness that the lights of science and learning (e.g., evolution) are inimical to the powers and principalities of revivalism, or whether the anti-intellectual stump speaker merely hates what he cannot comprehend. Zell Miller listening to chamber music, or watching Hamlet, would arouse as much astonishment as seeing a chimpanzee playing the viola da gamba.

Populism as a mask for oligarchy. Historically, the genus has expressed overwelling sympathy for the common man, whether as the flybitten sharecropper of Tobacco Road or as the NASCAR dad in sprawling suburban Atlanta who yells at his television set. This concern, however, never quite translates into concrete progress for the common man.

Instead, the demagogue shows an unwavering respect for the interests of power companies, pulp paper barons, and agribusiness in any contest between management and the common man’s unions or the consumer’s wallet. The demagogue’s theoretical hatred of the meddling Yankee central government melts before the lure of defense contracts, Corps of Engineers water projects, and similar assaults on the taxpayer. The last time the Southern politico showed an unaccustomed respect for science was when the Texas Congressional delegation lobbied furiously for the Superconducting Supercollider – the particle physics equivalent of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.

For one so religiously devoted to populist causes, one would think the Southern-fried pol would take up the cause of the common man with respect to the loss of manufacturing jobs. Yet he evinces substantially greater support for “free trade” (i.e., reverse mercantilism) than his counterpart in other regions of the United States. This may be in part a hangover from the Old Confederacy, when the Southern slaveocracy was a willing cog in the financial machinery controlled by British merchant banking. But it is mostly explained by the logic of campaign finance: in any conflict of interest between the Yankee money centers of Wall Street (the latter having replaced the effete Brits) and poor, grits-eating Tom Joad, guess who wins?

That Old Time Religion. If, as Mencken averred, Southern evangelicals “practiced a theology debased almost to the level of voodooism,” he would boggle at twenty-first century developments. The objects of Mencken’s withering scorn were, in his view, culturally retrograde and guilty of battening upon a helpless country by force of law the worst socio-theological nostrum in our history: Prohibition.

But after 80 years of putative Enlightenment, the descendants of John Scopes’s tormenters have concocted a new level of silliness that would render Mencken speechless: end-times religion for export by the military force of the United States Government. According to this vision, sending cannon fodder to die in heathen Babylon is a good thing because a spreading Middle East war will hasten the Apocalypse: whereupon the scapulae of the faithful will sprout wings lofting them into Bliss Eternal while infidels [2] will be consumed in the fiery furnace.

Can one picture the carnival of bunkum that attended Judge Roy Moore and the Ten Commandments controversy occurring in Auckland, New Zealand, Oxford (the English one, not Mississippi), or St. Tropez? Or Brattleboro, Vermont, for that matter. But this sort of theological exegesis is the meat and drink of the Southern demagogue, however much an examination of his private life shows him to be anything but prudish in his actual behavior. [3]

Patriotism as a mask for unfocused belligerence. Two of some of the most retrograde cultural strains on the planet went into the making of the old South: the English cavalier and the Scots borderer. [4] From the former came the following institutions: chattel slavery; indentured servitude (to re-emerge after the Civil War as sharecropping); the code duello; various sports involving cruelty to animals (cock fighting, bear baiting, etc.); enthusiasm for whipping, branding, and capital punishment; and a debt-service national economy. From the border reivers came a love of violence for its own sake; hatred of learning; and a periodic susceptibility to the more outlandish forms of evangelicalism.

Times may change, but ingrained habits persist. What really changes is the outward rationale for these habits. Fifty years ago a demagogue on the State House steps could cry “segregation forever” or rail in favor of Ku Kluxery, but such sentiments are verboten today – or at least hedged with tortuous euphemism. Enthusiasm for cruelty to animals would elicit a frozen disgust from the sane listener. But the aggressive impulse needs an outlet.

Hence the Southern martial enthusiasm, articulated by shoals of Dixie catchpolls from Carl Vinson of yore to the current incomparable Zell. One may think this passion is motivated to a degree by the rewards of pork-barrel spending, and so it is. But the belligerence and war-loving are as real as their zest for Coca-Cola and Moon Pies.

Zell was no doubt being sincere (at least as sincere as any practical politician can be) when he regaled the mob of Babbitts in New York about the glorious imperial project in Iraq. Those who doubt the rightness of our course, he said, would prefer to throw “spitballs” at the enemy. Skeptics who talk of the occupation of Iraq were crazy if not seditious; the Peckerwood Pericles would have us know in no uncertain terms that the proper word is “liberation.” Zell would have us stay the course, a policy that might be illustrated by a 12 September 2004 Reuters article recounting a U.S. helicopter rocketing a group of Iraqis crowding around a disabled Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The incident killed 13 people, including a reporter, and wounded 61; the U.S. military woodenly stated that the helicopter destroyed the Bradley “to prevent looting and harm to the Iraqi people.” Some spitballs. Some liberation. Some harm-prevention.

It would be tempting to dismiss Zell as a charlatan in Karl Rove’s traveling medicine show: a mere attraction for the gaping yokels. It would be tempting to dismiss the entire historical pageant of Southern demagogues as no more than a wart on the body politic – unsightly, a bit embarrassing, but not threatening.

It would be tempting, indeed, to regard the whole complex of political neuroses herein described as a regrettable but minor aberration in the national narrative: the great sweep of the popular idea of sovereignty and democratic self-government from Plymouth Rock, to Independence Hall, to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to FDR’s More Abundant Life; from Melville’s Young America, to Whitman’s Broad Democratic Vistas, to Sandburg’s The People, Yes, The People.

But there is another, competing narrative.[5] It begins in the London counting houses as an idea. It makes its way to the slave pens of Conakry, and jumps to the the Western Hemisphere via the cane plantations of Barbados. It makes continental landfall in Charleston, South Carolina; it drives through the Old South to the Rio Grande. It is a socio-economic idea composed of financier-driven “free trade;” resource exploitation consisting of vast, soil-depleting monocultures (plantations then, agribusiness and oil now); human labor as a cheap commodity[6]; and the culture of violence. This idea is responsible for the most nearly successful conspiracy (so far) to attempt the overthrow Constitutional government in the American Republic, taking 600,000 lives in the process.

Is it too far fetched to say Jefferson Davis’s dream of a great Southern plant ation empire stretching through Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America, an empire of compliant natives and lucrative resource extraction, was never definitively thwarted? Or did it merely slumber, like a serpent coiled in the national thicket, waiting for the right geopolitical circumstances and psychological tenor to re-emerge, in appearance different but in substance the same? Let us not forget that the reins of government are now held by two Texas oil patch millionaires; substituting for dreamy Veracruz, Havana, Cartagena, and Santo Domingo are the flintier but no less exotic Djibouti, Basra, Kirkuk, and the fabled Khyber Pass.

Thus considered, Zell Miller’s chief significance is as folksy bard of the new overseas plantation.

WERTHER* is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.

[1] Governor Maddox is the link to Miller in the demagogic line of succession. Miller began in politics in the 1960s as an aide to Maddox, who had gained local fame through chasing black patrons from his restaurant by distributing ax handles to white customers. When Maddox died in 2003, a segregationist to the last, Miller gave a heartfelt eulogy.

[2] Infidels would include unconverted Jews (sorry, Ariel). Evangelical necromancers somehow reconcile this future holocaust with obedient support for the present state of Israel.

[3] As a close reading of the past deeds of the late J. Strom Thurmond, “Hot Tub Tom” DeLay, and self-proclaimed Georgian Newt Gingrich will disclose.

[4] Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fisher explores this phenomenon in detail.

[5] How the South Finally Won the Civil War by Charles Potts is a quirky but inspired exploration of this theme.

[6] The South has progressed all the way from chattel slavery through sharecropping to the union-busting of Wal-Mart: progress certainly, but progress measured at the pace of glacial epochs.