Cultural Change: An Example

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Something I frequently mention here is the need for fundamental cultural change to occur before any number of disastrous political trends can be halted or reversed. Whenever I mention this need, I typically also mention that the way to achieve such fundamental change is through something I call "cultural activism." To borrow a definition from a page about cultural activism at the web site of the Ayn Rand Institute:

Cultural Activism means actively promoting rational ideas throughout the culture, from education to science, from the art world to the media to public policy, all for the purpose of bringing about a cultural renaissance.
That's a huge and multifaceted goal. On top of that, many don't really appreciate the need to change people's minds before they will change the way they act (including which candidates or causes they will support). Setting aside that problem for a moment, there is a further difficulty: It can still be difficult for those who do appreciate this need to learn or devise ways to help it along, or to imagine that such sweeping changes can occur at all, much less make demonstrable progress over one's lifetime.

Fortunately, history can provide us with inspiring and instructive examples. I have mentioned the abolition of slavery in the United States before. On a much smaller scale, there is also the story about the end of commercial segregation in Houston, Texas. I ran into another such story yesterday, right out of my childhood back yard, and over a period of time about a decade longer than I have been alive.

The publicity surrounding the likely entry of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour -- whom I am unlikely to support -- into the 2012 Republican presidential field has cast some indirect light on yet another example of big cultural change happening over a short period of time. Regarding Barbour's candidacy, I noted the other day that more media attention will be devoted to racial issues than to Barbour's merits as a candidate. That has, so far and to the extent I can gauge, unfortunately proved to be the case.

There has been a silver lining, however: Some positive stories, about how much things have changed in his state over the past half-century, are starting to come out. I'll excerpt from one such story, by Robert S. McElvaine, a historian from Jackson's Millsaps College:
Fifty years ago today, white Mississippi staged an extravaganza, billed as the "Secession Day Centennial." Gov. Ross Barnett, decked out in a Confederate general's uniform, led the parade, followed by thousands of men, marching or riding horses, all wearing Confederate gray uniforms. (Gray still seems an odd color choice for people adamantly opposed to the mixing of black and white.) Also on parade were marching bands, majorettes and women in antebellum dresses sipping mint juleps. Tens of thousands looked on, many giving the Rebel yell.

It was described as the biggest celebration in Mississippi's history -- and the grandest of the events across the South to mark the anniversary of the dissolution of the Union.

Virtually all Mississippi's political leaders took part. The world's largest Confederate battle flag, which stretched across Capitol Street, was the principal object of veneration. Thousands of people watched an outdoor re-enactment of the secession convention. Four grand balls were held that night to honor the state's decision to secede.


It is time to ask, 150 years after the Civil War and 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, how much Mississippi has changed. Attitudes toward secession and the war can provide a rough gauge.

A comparison of the centennial celebration of the state's secession in 1961 with this year's marking of the sesquicentennial is telling.

"Here in Mississippi," the Biloxi Sun-Herald noted, "observances of milestones in Confederate history -- if any have taken place -- have escaped public notice."


The evidence that Mississippi has changed greatly over the past half-century is clear. The state House of Representatives passed is a bill designating the last Monday in April as "Civil Rights Memorial Day."

And, finally, there is this: The large commemorative event planned in Mississippi this year is not for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War -- but for the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. [minor format edits]
While there are, as the article indicates, certainly still racists in Mississippi, it is heartening to step back and consider this rapid and profound change. I would not say that racism is dead as a cultural force there, but, judging from such evidence, it appears to be dying out. That is real progress.

Times are tough and are probably going to get a lot tougher before they get better. Our nation is on the cusp of an existential crisis. But great improvements to the culture can take place over a few decades, and that fact gives us hope.

-- CAV


Chris L said...

I've taken to calling the soon-to-be-arriving financial/cultural/social upheavals "The Big Re-think". A lot of people will be confronted with the need to rethink some of their most basic ideas - about things like the nature of money and wealth, and under what circumstances they come into existence. Many will avoid this task of course - but many will not. One helpful guide will be this one unusual new movie coming out...

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for helping me laugh about that for a change!

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you quote Robert McElvaine: "The evidence that Mississippi has changed greatly over the past half-century is clear." True. Another good example of how much the South has changed is old hat, but I've not seen it discussed much in this context (but that could just be me): First, remember Emmett Till? Next, remember Susan Smith? Now imagine Susan Smith telling South Carolina police in 1955 what she told them in 1995.

Gus Van Horn said...

Good point.

From the article on Susan Smith:

"Smith initially reported to police, on October 25, 1994, that she had been carjacked by a black man who drove away with her sons still in the car. Smith made tearful pleas on television for the rescue and return of her children.


It later emerged that investigators had been suspicious of Smith's story from the beginning and believed she had actually killed her own children.

Yes. Law enforcement does now usually live up to its name in the south.