Unstuck in time, or Castro! Negroes! Duck and Cover!

In October, 1962, Mrs. Goode’s third grade class at Houston’s Longfellow Elementary School filed out of its classroom in “the shacks,” temporary wooden structures used to relieve overcrowding. We were headed for the playground when a couple of jets roared overhead. I’ll never forget that moment, because I turned to the boy behind me in line and mumbled, “Is this it?” By “it” I meant an expected nuclear attack.

These were the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we were getting drilled daily in the “duck and cover” routine. Any minute, we believed, deadly atomic bomb missiles from not-so-very-far-away Cuba would rain down upon our little heads. We were told to protect those little heads by getting on our knees under our desks, bending down and covering the backs of our necks with our arms and hands.

The memory resurfaced as President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro swapped meaningful signals of détente lately. Of course, Fidel tried to toss cold water on the prospect. History, I think, is just one damned intransigent old fool after another.

Recent events, especially here in the South (or, Southwest as I prefer to call my home), got me thinking. Have I come unstuck in time, like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade? Am I just reliving the forever moments of the early 60s, or is it that some things never change?

Some are talking once again of states’ rights and secession. Castro is castigating us. It’s true that brown-skinned Muslim terrorists have taken the place of brown-skinned communist Cubans in the national nightmare. But once again we’re scanning the skies for signs of murderous designs on our little heads.

We have a brave new president, just like we did back then. Of course, Obama’s victory has many on the right dressing up like Vonnegut’s American Nazi propagandist, Howard W. Campbell. Watch the ’72 film version of Slaughterhouse and tell me Campbell doesn’t remind you of Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.

Maybe the rest of the country is less alarmed at these portents. Just yesterday the New York Times reassured us of a “rising sense of racial optimism.” I’m not so sure. Here’s an ominous item from the September 16, 1962 New York Times:

In Mississippi, a major test of state vs. Federal power was shaping up. Gov. Ross R. Barnett invoked the doctrine of “interposition” to prevent a Negro, James H. Meredith, from entering the University of Mississippi this week under a Federal court order. The doctrine, which has been brushed aside by Federal courts, holds that a state has the power to “interpose” its sovereignty between the Federal Government and the state’s citizens.

And here’s Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2009, just a couple months after the inauguration of President Obama, endorsing “interposition” or nullification of the U.S. Constitution if a state doesn’t like a federal law or action:

I believe that our federal government has become oppressive in its size, its intrusion into the lives of our citizens, and its interference with the affairs of our state,” Gov. Perry said. “That is why I am here today to express my unwavering support for efforts all across our country to reaffirm the states’ rights affirmed by the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

There’s considerable national talk that a declining Republican Party has been cornered in the racist South. I think that’s dangerous talk. Those bigoted Southern governors of the ‘50s and ‘60s faded to infamy. But an opportunist Republican Party picked up the bigots’ flag and carried it on to decades of national dominance.

I want to give a warning like Vonnegut’s unstuck-in-time Billy Pilgrim gave about the plane crash he could see in his own future. Unless we want to risk a national rebirth of the Republican “Southern Strategy,” we’d better use our resources – from the national Democratic Party, the House and Senate campaign committees, the netroots and every other institution we can call to battle – to diminish the power of the angry white, right South.

If the rest of the nation turns its back on the South, content to enjoy a brief respite from the fanatical insanity of the right, it is only inviting a return of that insanity. It might be that domestic race relations won’t be the very center of a new Republican Southern Strategy. It might be true that much of the country is, finally, entering some kind of post-racial era. But there’s a latent power in fiery, regressive Southern Populism. Don’t discount it. It will find its way.

We have a responsibility to continue the fight for justice and freedom in every part of the nation, even though we might be tempted to mock loony talk of secession and walk away. That’d be irresponsible and shortsighted, too. Texas will get four or five new congressional seats out of the next census, while some safe Democratic districts in the north and Midwest will be lost.

So it goes.

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About Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith has spent the past 30 years in journalism and politics, where he’s made a name for himself as a writer, campaign manager, activist, think tank analyst and, as Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas says, a “legendary political consultant and all-around good guy.” “There’s no one like him,” says author George Lakoff. CNN commentator Paul Begala says, “He has unmatched experience, a graceful pen (or pixel nowadays) and deep insight into the best and worst of us.” Novelist Sarah Bird speaks of his “lucid and lyrical” prose. And, she says, he’s fun. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington says Glenn writes with “grace and abundant humor” and “uses his colorful experiences in Texas to enlighten us all.”

Smith led Ann Richards’ successful 1990 campaign for Governor of Texas. He worked for former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Earlier, Smith was a political reporter for the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post. He’s coordinated national campaigns for groups such as MoveOn.org. In 2004, he authored the highly acclaimed book, The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction. He also wrote Unfit Commander, a book that detailed George W. Bush’s mysterious disappearance from military service.

In 2004, Smith was featured in the film, Bush’s Brain, a documentary about Karl Rove. Smith provided commentary on Rove’s role as then-President Bush’s senior advisor. He has made numerous media appearances with Chris Mathews on Hardball, Joe Scarborough, Brit Hume, and many others. He writes a regularly for top national web sites, including FireDogLake and Huffington Post.

As a senior fellow at George Lakoff’s prestigious Rockridge Institute in Berkeley he studied, wrote and taught on the power of metaphor and narrative in political communications. He also lectured on religion and politics at the Starr King School for Ministry in Berkeley. As a sponsor and organizer, he has pulled together numerous national events with progressive religious leaders. He also organized a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King at Riverside Church in New York City as well as “Freedom and Faith” bus tours, which was a nationwide campaign for social justice and progressive values.

Smith’s play, Double Play, which explored American Western myths and legends, was held over to sold-out audiences. He’s even written and performed songs in the Americana tradition, such as his best-known song, “Helping Marty Robbins,” a tribute to his hometown, Houston.

Most recently, Smith is the creator of DogCanyon, a political and cultural web site covering state, national and global issues from a Texas perspective. DogCanyon is an exhilarating and unique site that gets the connections between politics and culture and explores both the personal side of politics and the ups, down, craziness and beauty of “life its ownself,” as humorist Dan Jenkins would say. DogCanyon offers heartfelt personal essays, hard-hitting political analysis, and, most importantly, laughs.

As Paul Begala said, Smith writes in “the finest, firmest, fearless tradition of Texas essayists like Molly Ivins.”