MISSISSIPPI: THE CLOSED SOCIE I V. by James W. Silver. (Gollanci. 30s.).
Reviewed by ELIZABETH SEWELL THIS is a very American book indeed, in its subject-matter and its manner of presentation. It is a diagnosis of the condition, present and past, of the deepest State of the Deep South by a historian long resident there. Professor Silver has taught at the University of Mississippi, alias "Ole Miss", for 25 years.
It deals with the central themes of America's preoccupation today, the resistance of white society to the resurgence of the Negro. and the struggle between States' Rights and Federal attempts to enforce the Constitution. It centres around the riot at "Ole Miss" in the autumn of 1962 when Federal marshals were brought in by President Kennedy to uphold the right of the qualified Negro, James Meredith, to enrol in the University.
Professor Silver was an eyewitness of this event, this "insurrection against the armed forces of the United States" as he soberingly terms it, in which two men died. It is, for him, both symptom and symbol of the results of what he calls the Closed Society, to describe and analyse which. as embodied in the State of Mississippi, is the purpose of his book.
• These preoccupations are not, as we opine, ours in Britain. Then. too, the book is full of verbal technicalities from American public life which a reader over there would take for granted, but which we cannot and which are not explained. Shall we necessarily know what AFL-CIO or NAACP are, or accreditation, or even the Fourteenth Amendment?
Why, then, should we here bother with this book? Why is it possible to claim that it is an important book for us, perhaps a vital one?
Of course one can always read, for information, eveit about remote and rather unpresentable regions of a not-too-near neighbour, and there is plenty of information here, much of it horrifying. Indeed, the publishers come near to suggesting a this-willmake-your-flesh-creep approach to the book.
A taste for esoteric facts or for social Grand Guignol will miss the point entirety, however. This book
deals with something we know, live amidst, must reckon with. The
notion of the "Closed Society" is a key to it.
What is a "Closed Society"? This is Professor Silver's underlying theme, which he sums up at the end of Part 1. Yet it is hard to visualise unless you have lived in it, and even when you have.
Imagine a community in which you are expected and allowed to think only one thing: that your community's Way of Life is right, just and happy, stemming from an honourable and rosy past, and never to be changed in the present or future.
You have only local newspapers and television, in which all news is slanted or suppressed. Should the national TV networks put out programmes derogatory to your 'community, these will not be transmitted or there will be "power failures" just before they are due to appear.
You will not meet "foreigners", that is anyone outside your community, all of whom are untrustworthy and possibly Communist. The entire power structure, politics, judiciary, police, education, business, and churches with few exceptions, is fully committed to transmitting and preserving Our Way of Life.
Anyone voicing such becomes automatically an unpatriotic subversive or foreign agitator and will be "taken care of" by various methods (some of which Professor Silver has met, as emerges from his letters) — ostracism, police molestation, loss of job, anonymous threats by telephone or letter, and in extreme cases, beating, mutilation or murder.
Thus the "Closed Society",
Mississippi. Near-totalitarian or Police State, says the author, and we may agree, again assuming its remoteness from ourselves, unless and until we notice that he refers the "Closed Society" back to the "Closed Mind". Suppose that this or any society is hut an image ot a state of mind and heart?
Translate those communal traits into those of an individual—set. rigid, determined to preserve the wants ono, rejecting "foreigners" though knowing nothing of them and refusing to learn, uttering noble principles yet prepared to condone injustice to preserve an illusory security for "the family", for "people like us".
This book, then, discusses what is, I believe, the most urgent and least understood disease of contemporary civilisation. It offers little optimism and no panacea, but what it does offer, warning and diagnosis. is immensely valuable. That warning takes a second form.
"Men of good will are not enough", Professor Silver says, and one remembers Dr. Martin Luther King's words from prison, "the appalling silence of the good people".
This book could help us, by its content but also its clear-sightedness, honest self-criticism, humour and courage. It is a very American book indeed.