The New York Times is already trying to poison the political well against Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024. Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton turned liberal journalist, reviewed the book “Freedom’s Dominion” by Vanderbilt University historian Jefferson Cowie, and reached beyond the actual content to paint it as a warning against the Republican governor. The online headline painted freedom as racist: “When Freedom Meant the Freedom to Oppress Others.”
Americans, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked shortly after the Civil War, were “fanatics in freedom; they hate tolls, taxes, turnpikes, banks, hierarchies, governors, yea, almost laws.” It might not have surprised him, then, had he been alive in 1963, that George C. Wallace, the newly elected governor of Alabama, invoked freedom in nearly every passage of his inaugural address. That speech, made infamous by its call for “segregation now … segregation tomorrow … segregation forever,” was focused, principally and relentlessly, on Wallace’s idea of freedom....
The Wallace inauguration serves as an overture, a thunderous rehearsal of themes, in the opening pages of “Freedom’s Dominion,” Jefferson Cowie’s important, deeply affecting -- and regrettably relevant -- new book. Cowie, a historian at Vanderbilt University, traces Wallace’s repressive creed to his birthplace, Barbour County, in Alabama’s southeastern corner, where the cry of “freedom” was heard from successive generations of settlers, slaveholders, secessionists and lynch mobs through the 19th and 20th centuries. The same cry echoes today in the rallies and online invective of the right; though Cowie keeps his focus on the past, his book sheds stark light on the present. It is essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand the unholy union, more than 200 years strong, between racism and the rabid loathing of government.
One suspects Shesol is reading more into Cowie’s book than Cowie wrote into it. For instance, a “Google Books” search on the contents turned up no mention of Ron DeSantis, and only a single reference to the Trump presidency, in which Cowie explained “this book was conceived before anyone imagined the presidency of Donald Trump.” So, the book likely has little to say about Ron DeSantis after all. Meaning that Shesol is cynically smuggling in a partisan, 2024 argument under cover of a history review.
Shesol made a pathetic attempt to conflate the racist backlash against black civil rights by Alabama Governor George Wallace to DeSantis keeping sexual discussions out of second-grade classrooms.
That attitude, we know, is pervasive now -- a primal, animating principle of conservative politics. We hear it in conspiracy theories about the “deep state”; we see it in the actions of Republican officials like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who built a case for his re-election in 2022 by banning -- in the name of “individual freedom” -- classroom discussions of gender, sexuality and systemic racism.
As for the “Deep State,” you can read many ironic encomiums to it in the Times itself.
In explaining how we got here, “Freedom’s Dominion” emphasizes race above economics, but this seems fitting. The fixation on the free market, so long a defining feature of the Republican Party, has loosened its hold; taxes and regulations do not boil the blood as they once did. In their place is a stew of resentments as raw as any since George Wallace stirred the pot. “Freedom is here to stay!” DeSantis exulted in November, after winning by a wide margin. Cowie’s book shows that this is no mere boast.