Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Valerie Martin's Property and Southern White culture

In a recent article on Slate, Ron Rosenbaum discussed the "structural" racism of the Republican party. The states of the old Confederacy, like Alabama or Mississippi, are practically guaranteed to vote Republican, and without their racist votes, Republicans could never win National elections. Rosenbaum refers to Thomas Schaller's Whistling Past Dixie, which shows abundant evidence that white, Southern conservatives simply refuse to vote for Democrats, far more than equally conservative voters in the North.  I thought about this article quite a bit, since I had also just read Property by Valerie Martin, a vivid account of the life of a slave owner in Louisiana in 1828.

The main character of Property, Manon Gaudet, hates her life on the plantation her husband owns, and despises her crude husband.  Her husband repeatedly rapes her personal slave, Sarah, who is pretty, intelligent, and far more miserable than Manon.  But instead of sympathizing with Sarah, Manon is so self-absorbed that she considers only her own difficulties, particularly the humiliation that her husband prefers a woman who is, to her mind, little more than an animal.  I see echoes of Manon's self-absorption in the pathetic insistence of some white people that they are sooo oppressed, presumably because they are now expected to treat people of other races as equals.

As the story continues, Martin reveals the deep paranoia at the heart of plantation life.  The white slave owners are a small minority who are outnumbered by their slaves.  While some slave owners trick themselves into believing that their slaves care about them or feel some loyalty, deep down they recognize that their brutality inspires the deep hatred of their slaves.  Manon's husband is obsessed with tracking down run away slaves, believing that they intend to start a slave revolt and kill them all.  His worst fears are confirmed when an armed group of escaped slaves invade their plantation.  Manon is terrified, although she is not sure if the rebels intend to kill her.  But in the chaos of the insurrection, she and Sarah will finally confront one another.

What is so fascinating to me is the culture of paranoia that contaminated the plantations--it seems obvious to me now that slave owners must have lived in fear of their slaves.  After all, slaves were a constant presence; they cooked and served the food, and often shared their master's bedrooms. Yet, the slaves were treated so abominably that they could not possibly have any love or loyalty for their owners. Although Manon's husband seems in love with Sarah, she had begged him to marry another slave, but instead he brutally raped her and had her suitor whipped.  He is obsessed with his guns.

I think that this paranoia infects Southern white conservatives to this day.  They seem to constantly feel threatened or attacked. While most non-conservatives see gay people as human beings just trying to live their lives openly, Southern conservatives see gays "attacking" marriage.  Likewise, Southern conservatives seem to think that anyone who questions their actions is attacking them, from feminists to civil rights activists.  What's clear in Property is that Manon does consider it an attack whenever a slave refuses to pander to her every whim; she is so entitled that to question her even slightly is to insult her.  People with this attitude do not want to question their beliefs or examine their conscience--their entire system is built on hypocrisy and constant lies, as Manon herself realizes bitterly.

Today's conservatives do not put forth any new ideas.  They do not admire or advocate for scientific research.  They reject scientific ideas or evidence about climate change, birth control, sexual orientation, and a rash of other subjects.  The Republicans in Congress violently reject any compromise or reasonable debate, but only scream ever more shrilly about their desperate need to dominate the private lives of other people by denying health services like access to birth control. Like the slave owners of Manon's society, they live in constant paranoia and conspiracy theories.  It's time we call out Southern conservatives; their rhetoric is racist and domineering, and I am tired of pretending that there is any sense of value in anything that the party of Todd AkinJon Hubbard, and Charlie Fuqua.

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