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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Defending Atticus

An insightful if deeply flawed analysis of Southern politics from Malcolm Gladwell. The sin here is anachronism in the guise of historical subtlety, blaming (the fictional) Atticus Finch and (the real) Big Jim Folsom for not having been Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom we're always being told weren't really all that anyway. (See Sean Wilentz's recent TNR article on Lincoln for a nice defense of politics against the dream of an activist idealism pure and true). In the context of the 1950s south (Alabama! good Lawd!), there just wasn't a political space for anything more progressive than Jim Folsom. I'm not even sure there was a space for Jim Folsom, although he sure as hell made one for a few years: pro-black, pro-woman, pro-working man. The fantasy that there were "systemic" answers to segregation that a white southern governor could have achieved in that climate is little more than self-congratulatory hindsight: yes, aren't we so much more enlightened today, in the north.

Disclosure, maybe I'm blinded by what Gladwell dubs "personal" politics. The first politician I ever remember meeting was Big Jim Folsom. His grandson, Richard Boyen, was one of my best friends in elementary school, and lived across the street from me in SC, and I got a chance to meet the gov when I was about nine (1977?). Not that I knew who I was meeting--the first southern governor to have championed racial integration. He seemed a nice old grandfather. George Wallace was a family cousin. Never met him.


At 3:18 PM, Blogger Gina said...

Big Jim's son, Jim Folsom, Jr., was on the State Public Service Commission when I covered Alabama politics in the 80s. Eventually, he was elected Lieutenant Governor. During one PSC meeting on a proposed hike in phone rates (before the breakup of the Bell System), a consumer activist who ran a newsletter titled "For Whom the Bell Tolls" stood up and ranted at Jim Jr. that his daddy never would have sold out to big business the way he (Jim Jr.) had. As the state troopers were removing this guy from the room, he sang at the top of his lungs, "George Wallace, George Wallace, the fightin' judge, history will remember Alabama's fightin' judge." By the way, George's second wife, Cornelia, was Big Jim's niece. I don't know if that has anything to do with the song, but it might have something to do with "cousins." In any event, my phone bill went up.

At 3:45 PM, Blogger Frances said...

TMcD - I just had the chance to read the Gladwell essay. Just want to say that I 100% agree with your criticisms. It's amazing that there even was ever even a Folsom at all.

At 9:28 AM, Blogger rb said...

TenaciousMcD - This is Richard Boyen, I enjoyed reading this part of your blog. After looking around a little on the rest of the blog it looks like you enjoy following politics. How are things with you?


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