Author Archives: Phil Leigh

Politically Correct Changing of “Kill a Mockingbird”

(March 16, 2018) In December a new stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird will premier on Broadway. It is written by Aaron Sorkin who is best known as the original writer of the West Wing television series. According to the New York Times the estate of the novel’s author, Harper Lee, has filed a legal complaint that “Mr. Sorkin’s adaptation deviates too much from the novel, and violates a contract, between Ms. Lee and the producers, which stipulates that the characters and plot must remain faithful to the spirit of the book.” The main objection is Sorkin’s portrayal of widower Atticus Finch who is a character based on Ms. Lee’s dad. Instead of the “crusading lawyer who represents a black man unjustly accused of rape [Sorkin] presents him as a man who begins the drama as a naïve apologist for the racial status quo.”

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In Sorkin’s version, Atticus learns to suppress his racism and fight for the black man’s justice only after series of arguments with the family’s black housekeeper, Calpurnia. Evidently Sorkin believes that Southern whites are not only endemically racist but incapable of changing without the uninvited edification of blacks. They are incapable of changing on their own initiative. Sorkin admits that President Trump triggered his new Mockingbird interpretation after the Charlottesville riots last year near the town’s Robert E. Lee statue when the President said, “there are good people on both sides.” While Trump was obviously referring to “good people” on each side of the argument over the statue’s future, Sorkin conforms to the mainstream media pretension that the President felt there were “good people” on the side of the white supremacist group that exploited the press exposure of the statue dispute to promote their racist agenda.

Southern History Expert Aaron Sorkin

Since Sorkin’s dad was a copyright lawyer perhaps Aaron and his partners worded their contract with Ms. Lee in a way that enables them to portray the story in a currently politically correct manner. Or perhaps in the blue vault of heaven, where he arrived ten months after Ms. Lee, Aaron’s dad is thinking, “Son, if you want to write your own story about how benighted white Southerners are, go ahead, although my recent acquaintance with Ms. Lee suggests that you are mistaken. But the manner in which you are violating Harper’s copyrights is a fraud upon the public. As Atticus Finch put it before the Monroeville jury, ‘in the name of God, do your duty!'”

In another context, the Lee-Sorkin dispute underscores the wisdom of Yale University’s Professor Carlos Eire who was a childhood refugee from Castro’s Cuba. In a warning against revisionism he wrote in Waiting for Snow in Havana: “Show me history untouched by memories and you show me lies. . . Show me lies not based on memories and you show me the worst lies of all.”

To Kill a Mockingbird is set in time and place that Harper Lee experienced. The story is shaped by her memories. She grew up in Monroeville, Alabama during the Great Depression when the town’s population was less than 2,000. Today the population is 6,000, the median family income is $50,000 and forty-two percent of its people are African American. In contrast, Aaron Sorkin spent his childhood and youth in the New York City suburb of Scarsdale during the 1960s and 1970s. Presently, Scarsdale’s median family income is almost $300,000 and less than one percent of the population is African American.

In comparison to Harper Lee, Aaron Sorkin knows as much about Depression-era Southerners and their race relations as a cow does about algebra.


St. Patrick and Heritage Celebration

(March 15, 2018) After arriving in Chicago decades ago upon leaving a small Southern city to earn a graduate degree, I quickly noticed cultural differences. Among the most memorable was the St.Patrick’s Day celebration. People in my hometown customarily wore something green and kids might pinch other kids who forgot. But the Windy City dyed the Chicago River green and held a massive parade. I thought, “Well, this is different. But in America people should be able to celebrate their heritage  even if it is unlike mine.” Thus, I absorbed the differences as a learning experience.

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But America today increasingly condemns any celebration of Southern heritage. Confederate monuments are hidden, defaced and destroyed. The South is judged to be the Evil Twin of the North that must be coerced into accepting American history precisely as it is taught in the North. The reasoning goes like this: “Unlike the Irish, Southerners started the Civil War over slavery and after losing the war resorted to terrorism to achieve their goals. Therefore, it is okay for Irish Americans to celebrate their heritage whereas Southern heritage is shameful and  should be condemned instead of celebrated. Any questions?”

Well, yes. I have three.

First, even if slavery is accepted as the main cause of secession, does that mean it was the chief reason the typical Confederate soldier fought? After all, less than thirty percent of Southern families were slave owners. According to historian William C. Davis, “The widespread Northern myth that the Confederates went to the battlefield to perpetuate slavery is just that, a myth. Their letters and diaries, in the tens of thousands, reveal again and again that they fought and died because their Southern homeland was invaded and their natural instinct was to protect their home and hearth.”

Second, didn’t Ireland revolt because she wanted independence from Great Britain just as the Confederate States wanted to be independent from the United States? The ultimately irreconcilable differences between the Irish and the British festered for decades as did the sectional differences between America’s North and South. The Irish Home Rule movement extended fifty-one years from 1870 to 1921 whereas America’s sectional arguments lasted at least forty years from 1820 to 1861. Even sixty-five years after the end of the Civil War Georgia Governor Ellis Arnall observed that discriminatory federal policies enabled the North to keep the South in a colonial status in which it served as the “economic doormat of the United States as Ireland was to the United Kingdom.”

Third, were members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorists or freedom fighters? As late as the 1970s the IRA was in the news because it had evolved into a paramilitary group that was fighting to liberate Northern Ireland from British rule. Although the British government designated it a terrorist organization and even the Irish Republic declared it to be “unlawful,” the IRA was supported by donations from Irish descendants in America where our media usually described IRA members as “activists.” Even today the United Kingdom classifies the IRA as a terrorist group and it also remains officially illegal in Ireland.

While slavery and racism are shameful American legacies, they are not the reasons Southerners want to remember their heritage. About sixty years ago Texas novelist William Humphrey explained it this way:

If the Civil War is more alive to the Southerner than the Northerner it is because all of the past is, and this is so because the Southerner has a sense of having been present there himself in the person of one or more of his ancestors. The war filled merely a chapter in his . . . [family history] . . . transmitted orally from father to son [as] the proverbs, prophecies, legends, laws, traditions-of-origin and tales-of-wanderings of his own tribe. . . It is this feeling of identity with the dead (who are past) which characterizes and explains the Southerner.

It is with kin, not causes, that the Southerner is linked. Confederate Great-grandfather . . . is not remembered for his (probably undistinguished) part in the Battle of Bull Run; rather Bull Run is remembered because Great-grandfather was there. For the Southerner the Civil War is in the family.

Clannishness was, and is, the key to his temperament, and he went off to war to protect not Alabama but only those thirty or forty acres of its sandy hillside, or stiff red clay, which he broke his back tilling and which was as big a country as his mind could hold.

Let America celebrate the fight to end slavery and racism with monuments to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin King, Medgar Evers and others. Put up more! But Southerners are Americans too and other Americans should let us celebrate our heritage as well, even though it is different than yours.

States’ Rights

(March 14, 2018) Most modern historians reject any suggestion that the South fought the Civil War over states’ rights. They insist that the only states’ rights the South cared about, “as neo-confederates are loath to admit,” was slavery.  (According to Wikipedia, “neo-confederate is a term used to describe the views of [those] who use [illegitimate] historical revisionism* to portray the [Confederacy] and its actions in the Civil War in a positive light.”) Thus, they conclude, slavery was the solitary cause of the war. They ignore evidence like the South’s persistent objections to federal public works spending, which antebellum Southerners regarded as a responsibility of the individual states and therefore a counterpart to states’ rights. But that’s another story, and a good one.

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When pressed to admit that Southern secession need not have led to war because the North could have allowed the South to leave in peace, today’s historians often assert that the North chose to fight the  war in order to “preserve the Union.” Yet if it is necessary to rhetorically ask, “Why did the South want to defend states’ rights?” it is equally proper to ask, “Why did the North want to preserve the Union?” Probing the second question reveals that “preserving the Union” was all about perpetuating Northern economic hegemony, which Pious Cause Mythologists** are loath to admit.

As a leading spokesman for “preserve the Union” mythology, even Professor Gary Gallagher admits that his students “are reluctant to believe that anyone would risk life or fortune for something as abstract as ‘the Union.’” The reluctance of his students is well founded and demonstrates the ancient wisdom that “common sense is not so common”— especially among leaders dedicated to promoting a dubious agenda.

In reality, “preserving the Union” was a euphemistic slogan for avoiding the consequence of disunion, which are grounded in economics.

A surviving independent Confederacy would undoubtedly employ much lower tariffs than the United States. In his inaugural address President Jefferson Davis stated, “Our policy is peace, and the freest trade our necessities will permit. It is . . . [in] our interest, and that of [our trading partners], that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon interchange of commodities.” Similarly Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin later offered France a special tariff exemption “for a certain defined period” in exchange for diplomatic recognition.

A low Confederate tariff would present the remaining states of a truncated Union with two consequences. First, the federal government would lose a large part of its tax revenue. Articles imported into the Confederacy from Europe would divert tariff revenue from the North to the South. Second, given the Confederacy’s lower tariffs its residents would likely buy more manufactured goods from Europe rather than from the Northern states where prices were inflated by protective tariffs.

Northerners quickly realized that such concerns were not mere abstractions. In March 1861 New Yorkers were panicked to read a dispatch from St. Louis in a Manhattan newspaper: “Every day . . . our importers are receiving, by way of New Orleans very considerable quantities of goods, duty free . . . If this thing is to become permanent, there will be an entire revolution in the course of trade and New York will suffer terribly.” Cincinnati also reported that goods were arriving from New Orleans tariff-free. Three months earlier the Philadelphia Press editorialized, “It is the enforcement of the revenue laws, not the coercion of [South Carolina] that is the question of the hour. If those laws cannot be enforced, the Union is clearly gone.” Historian Charles Adams explains:

If trade were to shift to the Southern ports because of a free trade zone, or extremely low duties relative to the North, then [the] great cities [of the Northeast] would go into decline and suffer economic disaster. The image painted by these editorials [from newspapers of Northeastern cities] is one of massive unemployment, the closing of factories and businesses, followed by unrest, riots, and possibly revolution. The inland cities of the North would also go into decline, like Pittsburgh, where duty-free British steel and iron products would cripple the American steel industry.

After the opening guns at Fort Sumter many Northern capitalists reasoned that a war would be good for business. Wall Street regarded disunion as a menace to their investments. Government bond quotations dipped with every incident of federal indecision. But the demand for war goods was correctly expected to lift the economy. Since hostilities would block much of the Mississippi River trade, eastern merchants concluded that they could monopolize commerce with the Midwest. Manufacturers would get many profitable military supply contracts. The Midwestern states would supply Union armies with provender.

Such conclusions proved to be valid. From 1860 to 1865, the gross national product increased from $4.3 billion to $9.9 billion, which translates to an 18 percent compounded annual growth rate. Since the economy in the South was shrinking, the rate applicable to the Northern states was probably well above 20 percent annually.

As Woodward and Bernstein famously put it in another context, “follow the money” to discover the truth.


*The Wikipedia defines “historical revisionism” as “an illegitimate distortion of the historical record.”

** “Pious Cause Mythology” is historical revisionism based upon the Evil Twin metaphor. It metaphorically interprets the Civil War and Reconstruction as a contest between twins in which the North is the “good” twin and the South is the “evil” twin.

Sectional Tariff Differences

(March 13, 2018) Since President Trump put tariffs back in the news for the first time in decades it is hard to avoid noticing critics who walk the same halls as academic historians that dismiss tariffs as a cause of the Civil War.  Purdue’s Professor Wally Tyner, for example, notes that many Indiana manufactures export machinery made from steel to overseas markets and would be hurt by higher steel prices.

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At least Indiana has the consolation of also benefiting  because she is presently America’s top steel producing state. Imagine how Dr. Tyner might have objected if he was a Southerner the year before the Civil War. At that time the region accounted for eighty percent of all U. S. exports and produced hardly any goods that benefitted from tariffs. Presumably he would have been pleased that the Confederate constitution outlawed protective tariffs. While it allowed for minimal tariffs to raise revenue it prohibited any designed to protect any domestic industry from overseas competition.

As the table above documents, only about five percent of Southern congressmen voted in favor of higher tariffs for about forty years before the Civil War. Similarly, only eleven percent of the region’s senators voted to hike tariffs during the same period. Thus, tariffs were a persistent and clear sectional difference that should not be minimized as is currently popular among most historians.

The table also illustrates that the western states held the decisive votes on tariffs. Northerners could basically buy western votes by promising to spend the tariff money on public works—then termed “internal improvements”—that would economically benefit the western states. Such expenditures gradually shifted the western region’s axis of commerce from North-South via the Mississippi River to East-West via the Great Lakes, canals and railroads.

Almost forty years before the Civil War, South Carolina Senator William Smith succinctly explained Southern opposition to internal improvements. It was not, as some critics suggest, a desire to retard progress. Instead it was opposition to tariffs for much the same reason that most economists today object: “Destroy the tariff and you will leave no means of carrying on internal improvements; destroy internal improvements and you leave no motive for the tariff.” Due to the linkage to tariffs, the South felt that public works spending should be responsibility of the individual states. It was basically an endorsement of the state’s rights doctrine, which is a connection that most modern historians fail to discern. 

Cut From the Movie

(March 12, 2018) Yesterday I posted a nine minute video interview with Homer Hickam who is the author of Rocket Boys, which was made into a movie with the anagram title October Sky. It is the story of how six Appalachian teenagers built rockets in the aftermath of the October 1957 Sputnik Russian satellite launch. They won the blue ribbon at the National High School Science Fair exposition in Indianapolis. The experience put each boy on a track out of poverty. The book is a memoir for which the movie is a fictionalized version.

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One episode cut from the movie because it did not fit into the artificially compressed 1957 narrative has large implications. Homer’s mom told him he needed to buy his first dress suit for the Indianapolis fair. Since his hometown had no men’s clothing store he travelled to the county seat. Due to his meager funds and shopping inexperience Homer—then known as Sonny—bought a bright orange suit and wore it out of the store.

A crowd had gathered in a nearby parking lot to listen to Senator John Kennedy speak as he was campaigning for the 1960 West Virginia Democratic Primary. Politicos reasoned that the Irish-Catholic candidate needed to show he could win in a Protestant state. Kennedy was telling the crowd how he sympathized with them due to their reliance upon the awful and underpaid work of coal mining. He said as President he would start new welfare programs, such as food stamps, to lighten their burden. When the crowd failed to react well the senator asked if anyone had any questions.

Since nobody raised a hand, Sonny did. Here’s how he remembers it.

For some reason Kennedy noticed me right off.

He said, “Yes, the boy in the [orange] suit.”

I said, “What do you think we ought to do in space?”

The candidate who obviously never expected the question at such a place and time  said, “Well, what do you think we should do?”

“I think we ought to go to the Moon.”

“Well . . .why would we want to go to the Moon?”

I looked around at the coal miners and said, “Well, we could just go up there and mine the blamed thing.”

The coal miners went crazy. “Oh yeah! We can go up their and mine anything! That’s what we do!”

Kennedy replied, “Well if you elect me President maybe we shall go to the moon.”

The crowd’s response caused Kennedy to shift his message. He started to tell the miners about the things he would do to get the country moving forward again by uplifting American spirits with ambitious goals.

A little over a year later President Kennedy famously announced in a May 1961 speech, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Two Authors That Became Rich and Famous

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(March 11, 2018) The YouTube interviews below are with two American authors who became rich and famous. The first is with Homer Hickam, who began writing novels in 1999 when he was fifty-six years old. Presently he has authored seventeen books, about half of which are novels. His best-known book is Rocket Boys, which was made into the 1999 movie, October Sky. Homer’s childhood was in Appalachia. You may learn more about his background in this two-and-a-half-minute video.

Nine Minute Interview With Homer Hickam


The second video interview is with Ta-Nahisi Coates who authored his first book, The Beautiful Struggle, in 2008 when he was thirty-three years old. Seven years later he released his second book, Between the World and Me, which won the National Book Award for non-fiction. In 2017 he released a collection of essays he had previously written for Atlantic Magazine during the Obama presidency, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. He has also written fictional stories for the Black Panther series of Marvel Comics.

Coates’s childhood was in a Baltimore ghetto. His Wikipedia article provides more background.  In addition to the National Book Award, Coates to date has won the Hillman Prize, National Magazine Award, George Polk Award and was made a fellow of the MacArthur Foundation with a generous stipend in 2015 that enabled him to move to Paris.

Eight Minute CBS Show About Ta-Nahisi Coates