The Charlotte News



White Blasts Legend


Site ed. note: The "Farm Problem" of which Cash makes mention was largely resolved in the years immediately following World War II. (See, e.g., "The Land Where Whoppers Grow", by Cameron Shipp, Saturday Evening Post, November 27, 1948.) The resolution of the problem, however, resting as it did on both increasingly gargantuan agri-business and increasing dependence on a cheap source of labor, migrants from Mexico often poorly housed and almost always poorly paid, was decidedly "imperfect", as Cash predicted at the end of this article it perforce would be--no doubt, a conclusion he reached from his own observations while growing up in the rural South. It took the brave organizational efforts of Cesar Chavez and considerable informal organization of various boycotts of specific produce and fruits throughout the Sixties, Seventies, and into the early Eighties significantly to improve the conditions of these migrant workers. But in the process, the family farm has largely become a thing of the past in the West, especially in California where most of the farmland is today owned and operated by large corporations.

White's thesis that populist democracy has had the chance to flourish in the West as nowhere else is best exemplified by the conventions of referendum and recall in the coastal states of California, Oregon, and Washington. The same problem, however, which has become endemic to a society increasingly wedded exclusively to a goal of corporate profits and hence, a potential threat to democracy everywhere in the United States--that being the limit of access to the ballot bred by the competition of increasingly moneyed special interests--finds little or no exception today in these more populist-constituted States. While referendum and recall had their populist concept realized perhaps through the 1960's, since the late 1960's, especially in California, the system has increasingly, though not exclusively, become the province of heavily moneyed interests funded by groups often--and usually--stationed elsewhere than in the state where a ballot initiative originates, and having corporate and/or conservative political agendas behind them. Such groups appear often to use the basest forms of scare-tactic appeals through saturation advertising to attempt to change the laws through referendum or to recall judges whose decisions are unfavorable to profiteering interests. Witness the recall of four of seven California Supreme Court justices in 1986 accomplished through corporate-sponsored advertising alleging failure to implement the death penalty while plainly, as anyone who ever studied the problem objectively knows, the impetus to finance this attack resulted from that Court's favorable opinions to consumer protection as against laissez-faire for large corporate interests. (And the ultimate proof of the premise is that in the thirteen years since that coup de poing, most death penalty cases still remain in the appellate process and still grind slowly through the courts with only a handful of executions having taken place since--just as it should be and must be when such ultimate justice as the taking of life by the State is in the swing.)

The answer to these problems? As with the more pervasive problem in the country at large, campaign spending limits and/or free and equal access to advertising media seem to be the best offered. Will it ever occur to such degree that the principles set forth by the founders can again be realized in the ideal? Who knows? Perhaps, the internet itself with its relatively free access will offer some degree of remedy as more of the country begins to use it. But the pressing need for immediate solution to the dilemma cannot be underestimated: It is best to bear in mind in this regard that the whole thing began some two and a quarter centuries back with the dumping of tea as an act of non-violent civil disobedience primarily aimed at unjust taxation, absence of freedom of speech and franchise, and unreasonable searches of personalty and property at the whim and fancy of the moneyed and favored--all based on the fact or perception of lack of representation; and without free and equal access to the ballot, not just the ballot box, it is not surprising that the perception abounds at large today that such abuses have again reached these shores, North, South, East and West alike. And perhaps, as Professor White pointed out 60 years ago, the West remains the best equipped region by deign of heritage and founding background to make the first modern try at remedy of both the perception and the threat in fact of a Great Imbalanced Polity where pollice verso, with ploûtos-as-emperor, is the rule of law supplanting sophistry, speed, and fiat for integrity, deliberation, and fairness.


William Allen White, in his "The Changing West," disposes of the persistent old legend that it was extraordinary courage which built the West in short order. The people who settled the West, he judges, were pretty much the run of the mine of the middle class, with the middle class virtues and the middle class vices--some of them lazy and shiftless, more of them thrifty and industrious, not a few of them over-acquisitive, a good many of them cheats and scoundrels, and hypocrites. But in general a people with an ideal of democratic neighborliness and piety and good morals, and struggling, as a body, to achieve it, in spite of all their imperfections and back sliding. And that, it seems to me, is a pretty good estimate of the people who settled all America.


What made the West, then, if not super human courage? In the last analysis, the land itself is a concatenation of precisely the middle class qualities the people brought to it. The vast empire of unexploited wealth extending from Pittsburgh and Buffalo, along the Ohio, and across the plains and the the Rockies to California and Oregon and Washington. The perfect country for the development of the pattern already dominantly established in the East and the South. And that pattern? Protestantism and its corollary of faith in man, issuing in democracy and capitalism (credit rests on faith), and as a corollary to these, again, a vast faith in public education. The Protestant church and the little red schoolhouse--these, as White sees it, were the primary institutions upon which the West was built. It holds for the rest of the country, more or less, of course. Only, in the West they could grow more freely than anywhere else. In the South there was the heavy drag of slavery on democracy. In the East, there was the established plutocracy. In the West, again, Protestantism had an almost clear field. And finally, there was the enormous unearned increment--the vast and constant increase in the price of land right on down until the last decades of the past century--something created by no individual but by the whole action of a society, but which built up a tremendous latent capital, which was free to be used for other purposes than those of daily bread--the thing that made the machine more used in the West than anywhere else on earth, which built the great universities out that way, etc.


It was a good society, in spite of its own scoundrels and plutocrats, in spite of the fact that it had its poor, for perhaps a greater portion of its people than that of any other society on earth could and did enjoy not only the necessities of life but many of its luxuries. It was crude and vulgar often, but in the mass, it did show a great deal of the fine qualities of character which constituted its ideal. Men on the whole were undoubtedly freer in the West than elsewhere.

But since the 1880's change has been growing up. Not yet, not by a lot, has it overthrown all the good. Prosperity is still widely distributed in the West, especially in the towns. Still the West has become the Farm Problem. Tenancy is on the increase. The Grade A farmer goes on doing fairly well, though he is by no means satisfied, the Grade B farmer staggers under the weight of mortgages, the Grade C farmer falls steadily into tenancy, loses his independence as he goes. The old stern Protestant theology is passing into the discard. In four of the Western states the industrial plutocracy has seized control and rules with little regard to anything but its own interest, which is now that of the middle-class majority.


But White, always an optimist, does not despair. The old middle-class and Protestant virtues, the ideal that rose from the ground, still persists, he says, beneath the changing facade. And the ultimate problem is the adjustment of the philosophy to the new conditions created by mass production and the failure of unearned land increments--the failure ultimately of the present order to provide for the man on the land. In sum the modification of that order to the point in which it will again provide a happy medium for the middle-class outlook. And in that he includes the rectification of the case of the new city proletariat. The middle-class, he says, is fundamentally opposed to the notion of class, wants above all to make it easy for the man at the bottom to enter it from below, to make it difficult or impossible for the upper strata to establish a new class at the top. That has been the philosophy of Western statesmen from the earliest days through Bryan right on down to the LaFollettes, Nyes, Cappers, etc. of the present.

And he believes that the West is the best hope for achieving this goal for the nation. For the West, among other things, furnishes half the membership of the United States Senate. However, the task is not easy, will not be accomplished by a single panacea or formula. The Farm Problem alone is almost inconceivably complex. And wise men will expect the thing to be accomplished only by piecemeal in the imperfect human fashion.

The book is made up from lectures originally delivered at Harvard University. It was published at New York by MacMillan Nov. 8, runs to 144 pages, and sells for $1.50.

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