The descent into self-parody in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s endorsement last weekend of Tom Cotton was as inevitable as the endorsement itself. Flowery hero-worship? Check. Mattie Ross? Check. Purple prose love letters to bygone American greatness? But of course. I’d write a satire, but it would be no different than the original.
But it wouldn’t be a true D-G editorial classic without a few fond words for John C. Calhoun, the white supremacist firebrand who argued that slavery was a “positive good” and stands as one of the great villains of nineteenth-century America.
The D-G’s premise is that Cotton’s supposed unbending principles remind the paper of Calhoun, and this is supposed to be…a good thing.
Here’s our statewide daily newspaper, waxing nostalgic for the good old bad old days when “giants roamed the earth”:
…John C. Calhoun. That old wraith may have represented a clear and present danger to the Union and the very idea on which this Republic was founded—that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Yet he defended his principles, however dubious, with a coherence and courage that even now inspire admiration despite ourselves.
One wonders, considering the “principles” in question, who might be included in “ourselves” and who might not. Those who admire Calhoun in spite of themselves ought to have the guts to offer up a few examples.
Here are some samples from Calhoun, the long-time South Carolina congressman who also served as vice-president and cabinet member and died a decade before the secessionists he inspired brought the nation to a Civil War:
[T]o destroy [slavery] would be to destroy us as a people
[I]t is a great and dangerous error to suppose that all people are equally entitled to liberty.
I hold [slavery] to be a good…the black race of Central Africa…came among us in a low, degraded, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions, reviled as they have been, to its present comparatively civilized condition. This, with the rapid increase of numbers, is conclusive proof of the general happiness of the race, in spite of all the exaggerated tales to the contrary.
Slavery is indispensable to a republican government.
I mean, the coherence! The courage!
The D-G here is playing up one of the themes from the Cotton campaign itself – one they come back to again and again and again and again and again. You might not always agree with Cotton, the argument goes, but at least he’s principled. (In fact, while Cotton certainly likes to brag that he chooses the “hard right over the easy wrong,” during this election, those unbending principles have done a fair amount of bending – but we’ll leave that for another day.) The trouble with this argument: what if those principles are in defense of bad stuff? The comparison with Calhoun, which D-G thinks is a compliment, in fact shows precisely the weakness of the “principled” defense. An ideologue’s rigidity is only as impressive as the ideology.
Whatever one thinks of Calhoun’s notions of republicanism, they are inseparable from his defense of slavery, the project to which he devoted his intellectual fervor. Whatever one thinks of his critiques of majority rule, they are inseparable from the notion that the apartheid South was itself an oppressed minority. Calhoun’s logic is only “coherent” insofar as one accepts the notion that black people in the South were not human beings deserving of rights in the United States of America. (A different version of that same lunacy masquerading as logic pops up more than a century later from another D-G fave, in William F. Buckley’s 1957 National Review editorial, “Why the South Must Prevail” — which argued that because of the “cultural superiority” of whites over blacks, “the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically.”)
The D-G’s habit of giving a token mention to the evil of Calhoun’s ideas so that they can get on to the business of romanticizing his “greatness,” gets things exactly backwards. Extremism in defense of slavery is no virtue.
The endorsement’s title is one more tell that we’re reading yet another wistful paean to those lost days of American greatness from the D-G: “Tom Cotton: A Profile in Courage.” If Tom Cotton really wants to show some political courage, he could tell the D-G thanks but no thanks to an endorsement grounded in such a rotten conceit. Or at least ask them to not to compare him with John C. Calhoun. (Cotton sees it differently.)
Arkansans should vote for Cotton or vote for Sen. Mark Pryor as they see fit. But all of us should be embarrassed of our daily paper’s Confederate nostalgia gussied up as True Grit.