Taylor Branch on how George Wallace invented our current political discourse

Taylor Branch on how George Wallace invented our current political discourse January 26, 2013

This is pretty terrific, James Fallows has posted a video of his interview with historian Taylor Branch at the Aspen Institute.

The excuse for the hour-long conversation is the publication of Branch’s latest book, The King Years, which is a distillation or concentration of his massive, and massively important, trilogy on the Civil Rights eraParting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge.

Fallows asks Branch about the series of important 50-year anniversary milestones we will see this year of watershed moments in the Civil Rights Movement and Branch, speaking conversationally, works his way into the following discussion of segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace and his lasting influence on American politics, discourse and imagination.

Head over to Fallows’ blog at The Atlantic to watch the full video, or just watch the first 10 minutes or so to hear Branch discuss Wallace. But here’s my hasty transcript of those comments, which I think affords some rich insights on the roots of contemporary anti-government conservatism, on the resentful distress of the privileged, and on how America, despite itself, has changed for the better over the past 50 years:

BRANCH: Fifty years ago this month was also when George Wallace took office in Alabama, in a famous inaugural speech pledging “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

In a South that had segregation embedded in the constitutions of the southern states, and in the institutions widespread across the North. In a society that was so segregated that it’s beyond the memory we take for granted all of these things … College sports in the South were segregated. … There was no Sun Belt, it was poor. Segregated by race down to the public libraries. Segregated by gender to the point that there were no female students at the University of Virginia, very few at my old alma mater, North Carolina. None at Yale and Princeton yet. Let alone in West Point. Let alone in combat in the military. The word “gay” hadn’t even been invented. No, nothing for disability. No seatbelts in cars. TV ads incessantly promoting cigarettes as healthy, sophisticated and invigorating. That’s 50 years ago.

Wallace pledged to protect segregation. Only 50 years ago. He failed. But in his failure, he invented most of the language that is chillingly contemporary today in resenting the government and the political activity that forced about these changes for equal citizenship through the doorway of race and then opening up to everybody else. He started cussing, when it was no longer respectable to stand up and defend segregation, he started cussing the government and the politics that people resented and feared for these changes ahead. He talked about pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington telling you how to run your business, and where you had to send your children to school. And that they were in cahoots with a biased national media that had a racial agenda. Whose effective goal was to concentrate all … power in the central government in Washington.

That language is contemporary. It’s the language of “government is bad.” … It started out consciously in resistance, though Wallace’s … second step, after inventing all of these ingenius terms that we live with, his second one was to insist indignantly, whenever questioned, that he had never said anything in his whole public career that had any bad racial reflection on anyone. And that there was no racial motive in any of this. Because that was the sine qua non of creating unconscious memory in culture. And it became comfortable for a lot of people, because most people are in the business of making themselves comfortable.

Barack Obama is not. Any minority person lives having to stretch themselves across the boundaries, because their accepted world is not the accepted world. So Barack Obama is the first elected African American president, but he’s also the one who’s mentioned race least since Dwight Eisenhower. And whenever he does a storm comes up. If he says his son would’ve looked like Trayvon Martin, the whole world goes nuts, saying that he’s being too black. …

So it shows that we are accepting, and we are moving forward, and it is vital, but we’re doing it on our terms, that is, the majority culture is doing it on our terms, and we’re blind to the fact that our unconscious assumptions … our political discourse — anti-government, in which “big government” is bad, is out of phase with what ought to be a very bracing and optimistic view of what we’ve accomplished in the last 50 years that ought to steel us for the task of again stepping outside our comfort zones and again trying to tackle difficult problems today.

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