Over at Salon.com, Sara Robinson claims that the Southern aristocracy’s values—or lack thereof—have become the dominant ones among the governing class. This, she believes, is sending us all to hell in a handcart. I stumble across similar editorials from time to time, in which a pundit flies into hysterics over the ascendancy of Southern and/or conservative and/or evangelical forces with the same horror of a Roman patrician watching the Goths pour across the border.
Robinson started losing me right at the outset. She argues that the Yankee elite had a sense of noblesse oblige, whereas Southern planters always displayed an “utter lack of civic interest.” From a purely historical standpoint, this is simply asinine. Noblesse oblige was an integral part of the worldview of colonial Tidewater planters. Anyone who’s read anything substantial on early Virginia society should know this.
Equally bizarre is her inclusion of Woodrow Wilson as one of the “nerdy, wonky intellectuals who, for all their faults, at least took the business of good government seriously.” It’s true that Wilson was a reformer. And yet Wilson was also a Southern Democrat, the son of a Celtic father who migrated from Ohio to the South before the Civil War and enthusiastically embraced the Confederacy. Robinson decries the Southern aristocracy’s belief in inequality; she should recall that Wilson held firmly to that belief, and allowed his cabinet members to segregate their departments’ offices. In fact, Wilson is one of many examples one might cite to demonstrate the extent of Robinson’s drastic over-generalization; neither Southernness nor a belief in racial inequality have been incompatible with the reformist spirit over the course of American history.