A. J. Liebling, “The Earl of Louisiana” (1961)

The Earl of Louisiana is Liebling’s nostalgic study of regional politics in an era when regional politics were being enveloped by a national mass culture and national political forum. It is not insignificant that the subject of this book, Earl Long — brother of the the Great Depression-era governor of Louisiana Huey P. Long — made his last bid for governor in 1959, one year before the famous Kennedy-Nixon televised debates. The later foreshadowed the emergence of a national political culture, shaped heavily by television media. Despite spending some of his last term as governor in a mental institution for his erratic behavior he remained a strong governor and decided to run for what would have been a fourth term (he served three terms off and on between 1940 and 1960), but lost to Jimmie Davis — a musician (Country Music Hall of Fame inductee) turned two-term politician. All of this makes for an interesting context for local politics, and something I have come to feel some nostalgia over myself after reading The Earl of Louisiana.

earl

Liebling starts with the in the Great Depression era politics were so local that people like Huey Long could make the same jokes at every public appearance (there was no national media to scoop stump speeches). Today, such repetition is laughable. Huey Long, who thought he could become president based on his successes in his state on social reform, seemed not to know that his achievements (such as free text books) were long in place in most of the Northern states.  But the broader point is that what seems ridiculous to the majority makes perfect political sense locally. But it is safe to say, I think, that someone who had just left a sanatorium today (or just been caught leaving a brothel, or slapped with paternity suits) might not have much luck in even regional politics today. With 24-hour news channels desperate for a story, they would likely turn all of that into national news.

Here are some looks at these colorful characters.

We need to accept this fact with some hesitation. Liebling’s book was written during the emergence of the Civil Rights movement and more importantly during the era of massive resistance by Southern state governments to school integration. Those same colorful local political cultures that allowed someone like Huey Long to emerge also made it possible for so many white Southerners to find integration inconceivable. Part of Liebling’s attraction to Earl Long was his relatively moderate position on Jim Crow laws. By the 1959 election, he supported expanded voting rights for blacks and an end to some Jim Crow laws. While this may have been politically motivated (he wanted the black vote) it did put him in the rare position of being a Southern democratic not to openly race bait at every chance. Some were even making a campaign point that the Fourteenth Amendment (the basis for most civil rights laws) was not legally ratified. This is also a product of the bizarre local politics.

Earl Long at work

Earl Long at work

“He had no need of the race issue; white poverty and the backwardness of the state gave him all the ammunition he needed. He adopted a policy of speaking disrespectfully of Negrores in public to guard against being called a nigger lover, and giving them what they wanted, under the table, to make sure they would vote for him. As the poorest Louisianians of all, they benefited disproportionately from his welfare schemes; it would be a dull politician who would try to disfranchise his own safest voters.” (354)

One example of this strategy was when he discovered that black nurses were not being hired at a hospital, he used racial outrage over white nureses waiting on black men to force the hospital to hire black nurses. I am not sure if this shows indifference, opportunitism, or “three-dimensional chess” but it worked in getting black nurses hired at the hospital.  In any case, however we read Earl Long’s racial policies, Leibling shows how his absence did not help matters in the context of the civil rights struggle. The final chapter documents through newspaper articles how race baiting was quickly becoming common again. At the very least, the Longs, Liebling suggests, prevented the worst of these horrific policies.

Well, populism and local idiosyncratic politicians is certainly Janus-faced. It can often break free of the rigidity and stagnation of the national realm (often irrelevant to the local) but it can also cultivate and nurture the most strange and odd perspectives, without sustained outside criticism. A national political culture may be able to reign in local tyrants but it also seems to make getting things done harder.

I dwell on this because the most common criticism of anarchism I have heard from people (outside of criticism of utopianism) is that it we will just end up with thousands of local cultures each pursuing their own odd values system. Of course, as long as this is not internal oppressive, I do not have a problem with it. In an age of global capitalist banality, where taking a job in Beijing looks, feels, smells, and tastes like taking a  job in the US (same hierarchies, same computers, same cubicles, same exploitation), I doubt that a diversity of local bizarre cultures may not be instantly better.

 

 

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