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Jewish World Review Dec. 23, 2002 / 19 Teves, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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History counts

Musing on who should have won a long-past election is not a minor question | Does knowledge of our political history count for something in this country? For those who doubted that, the past week's headlines have certainly made the point clear.

The controversy over the remarks made by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) about the desirability of Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond being elected president in 1948 has provided us with an unexpected look at our own political history. And it reminds us that though we believe we have arrived at something like consensus over issues like race, a troublesome minority still is fighting the conflicts of another era.

Though one would think the echoes of the Civil War would have been long ago drowned out, this central event in American history still seems to have the power to contort and distort American culture and politics.

With Lott's resignation following his repeated apologies and the accompanying political maneuvering, it would be easy to dismiss this imbroglio as just a case of a political foot-in-mouth disease.

Already factors such as President Bush's deft maneuvering to orchestrate the incoming majority leader's ouster are now being talked about more loudly than anything else. Indeed, African-Americans -- presumably the injured party here -- took a back seat in discussions about Lott to the debate among conservatives over whether resignation would be too harsh a penalty for comments endorsing segregation.

But as the 24-hour TV news channels obsessed about the latest twists and turns of this story, it is still important for Americans to think seriously about what this strange piece of political theater really means.


Considering that Americans are a people who are, by and large, not terribly concerned with history or particularly knowledgeable about it, it may be odd that so much attention would be devoted to the question of which we think should have won the 1948 presidential election.

Indeed, how many Americans actually are aware that that year three serious candidates contended for the top spot against President Harry S. Truman, with the incumbent being considered a distinct underdog? Truman beat the odds and ultimately defeated Republican New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, the Progressive Party's Henry Wallace, as well as Thurmond.

Had Lott or anyone else revisited that contest and expressed the wish that Wallace, whose Progressives were thoroughly infiltrated by Communists and whose soft-on-the-Soviet Union sentiments still shock us, I doubt that we would be discussing the end of his political career. Though if that had been the case it would have been no injustice.

But to say that is not to excuse him, because as infuriating as nostalgia for the anti-anti-Communist cause was and is, that argument is about something that is dead, namely Communism. But the detritus of American racism is with us yet.


Lott's counter-factual whimsy about a party that was devoted solely to depriving some Americans of their civil rights cannot be divorced from the history that flows both forward and backward from that point in time. The Mississippian's comments speak volumes about the way too many of us have shoved the American nightmare of racial hatred and slavery into the back of our heads without understanding the meaning of the symbols of this era.

Even though most Americans citizens today are descended from immigrants who arrived after 1865, the Civil War remains the seminal event in our history.

As it turned out, in the same week that Lott was trying desperately to save his career, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas spoke eloquently from the bench during oral arguments over a Virginia law banning the burning of crosses. Thomas reminded his colleagues that cross burning, a hateful symbol of the Ku Klux Klan's reign of terror in this country is a symbol of hate that should not be treated as protected free speech. We are not so far removed from the era of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation that we can afford to forget this.

Thomas was right, but nostalgia in some quarters for the old Confederacy is by no means limited to the remnants of the Klan. I don't begrudge those Americans whose relatives were Confederate veterans a measure of pride in their ancestors. But I still find it hard to believe that the flying of the Confederate battle flag-- a symbol of racism and, yes, treason -- is, in some states, still a political battle many choose to fight.

And though I am personally as fond of Civil War history as many of those involved in the re-enacting of Civil War battles, don't any of the accountants, lawyers and doctors camping out in period costumes of butternut and grey think there is something creepy about honoring a cause that sought to protect the practice of human slavery, even if the antique outfits and weapons they carry are pretty neat?

And that goes double for those who have devoted themselves to preserving the memory and defending the good names of the tiny number of American Jews who served the Confederacy. Judah P. Benjamin may have been the first Jew to serve as an American Secretary of State (as the answer to a popular trivia question goes), but I personally don't find this accomplishment anything to be proud of. The fact that this Louisiana precursor of the 11 Jews currently serving in the U.S. Senate used his enormous talents to defend one of the worst causes that men ever fought and died for is something shameful, not heroic.

If so many of us can be so cavalier about this sort of thing, who can be surprised by what Lott said?

Race is no longer the primary focus of civil strife in this country, though some prefer to pretend that it still is. Ending segregation is a battle that has been fought and won.

The point about this controversy is that if America has truly risen above its racist past, then no one in our top political leadership should be allowed to get away with making light of an event such as the Thurmond candidacy. Even were he to live as long as the 100-year-old South Carolina senator and spend the rest of it apologizing (as he may well do), what Lott and others who think like him have done is to reinforce the idea that we have not left that chapter behind. And that is a sin for which he deserved to pay a heavy price.

Some may look at the Lott affair and be puzzled at this obsession over history. But they shouldn't be. History counts, and the sooner more Americans take that concept seriously the better off we will all be.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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