Paul Revere by Cyrus Dallin, North End, Boston



Monday, February 18, 2013

The South: The distillation point for all the fugitive extremisms of our time.

Garry Wills has written a thoughtful, heartfelt essay on the present-day South and its affinity for Teapublicanism. A southerner himself, Wills delves into the underlying reasons beneath the South's stubborn refusal to embrace change and give up its extremism.

The essay is so good I've posted it in its entirety here:

"George Packer’s recent New Yorker comments on the South made me sort out my own complicated feelings about the region. Both sides of my family are from the South: my mother’s from Georgia, my father’s from Virginia. Though my parents left Atlanta soon after I was born there, we often visited southern relatives in Atlanta, Louisville, and Birmingham. I preferred those who had stayed in the South to those who moved north. My Irish grandmother in Atlanta was a warm-hearted Catholic, while my English grandmother in Chicago was a pinched Christian Scientist always correcting her family. But even apart from the contrast in grandmothers, I always liked the South, though my northern accent made me an outsider there as a child (the family “Yankee”). 

One reason I like the South is that I am conservative by temperament—multa tenens antiqua, as Ennius put it, “tenacious of antiquity.” A sense of the past helps explain why America’s southern writers were to the rest of America, in the twentieth century, what Irish writers were to England. The English had Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, Sean O’Casey, Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. We (whose relevant region is larger) had Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, Ralph Ellison, Robert Penn Warren, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, John Crowe Ransom, Erskine Caldwell, Andrew Lytle, and Carson McCullers. 

The South escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking. The North puffed confidently into the future, Panglossian about progress, always bound to win. But the South had lost. It knew there was an America that could be defeated. That made it capable of facing tragedy, as many in America were not. This improved its literature, but impoverished other things. Yet poverty did not make the South helpless. In fact, straitened circumstances made it readier to grab what it could get. In its long bargain with the Democratic party, for instance, it not only fended off attacks on its Jim Crow remnant of the Old Confederacy, but gamed the big government system through canny old codgers in Washington—the chairmen of the major congressional committees, who sluiced needed assistance to the South during the Great Depression. 

Under the tattered robes of Miss Havisham were hidden the preying hands of the Artful Dodger. Southerners were not really trapped in the past, since they were always scheming to get out of the trap. They were defeated but not dumb. With dreams of an agrarian society, they might denounce the industrial north, but they got the funds to bring electricity to large parts of the South from the government’s Tennessee Valley Authority. They wanted and got government-funded port facilities, oil subsidies in Louisiana, highways and airports and military bases. 

But the current South is willing to cut off its own nose to show contempt for the government. Governor Rick Scott of Florida turned down more than $2 billion in federal funds for a high-speed rail system in Florida that would have created jobs and millions of dollars in revenues, just to show he was independent of the hated federal government. In this mood, his forebears would have turned down TVA. People across the South are going even farther than Scott, begging to secede again from the Union. Packer notes that the tea is cooling in parties across the rest of the nation, but seems to be fermenting to a more toxic brew in the South. No one needs better health care more than the South, but it fights it off so long as Obama is offering it, its governors turning down funds for Medicaid. This is a region that rejects sex education, though its rate of teenage pregnancies is double and in places triple that of New England. It fights federal help with education, preferring to inoculate its children against science by denying evolution. 

No part of the country will suffer the effects of global warming earlier or with more devastation than the South, yet its politicians resist measures to curb carbon emissions and deny the very existence of climate change—sending it to the dungeon with evolution and biblical errancy. One doesn’t need much imagination to see the South with lowered or swollen waters in its rivers and ports, raging kudzu, swarming mosquitos, and record-breaking high temperatures, still telling itself that global-warming talk is just a liberal conspiracy. But it just digs deeper in denial. The South has decided to be defeated and dumb. 

Humans should always cling to what is good about their heritage, but that depends on being able to separate what is good from what is bad. It is noble to oppose mindless change, so long as that does not commit you to rejecting change itself. The South defeats its own cause when it cannot discriminate between the good and the evil in its past, or pretends that the latter does not linger on into the present: Some in the South deny that the legacy of slavery exists at all in our time. The best South, exemplified by the writers listed above, never lost sight of that fact. Where are the writers of that stature today in the Tea Party South? I was made aware of the odd mix of gain and loss when I went back to Atlanta to see my beloved grandmother. She told me not to hold change between my lips while groping for a pocket to put it in—“That might have been in a nigger’s mouth.” Once, when she took me to Mass, she walked out of the church when a black priest came out to celebrate. I wondered why, since she would sit and eat with a black woman who helped her with housework. “It is the dignity—I would not let him take the Lord in his hands.” 

Tradition dies hard, hardest among those who cannot admit to the toll it has taken on them. That is why the worst aspects of the South are resurfacing under Obama’s presidency. It is the dignity. That a black should have not merely rights but prominence, authority, and even awe—that is what many Southerners cannot stomach. They would let him ride on the bus, or get into Ivy League schools. But he must be kept from the altar; he cannot perform the secular equivalent of taking the Lord in his hands. 

It is the dignity. This is the thing that makes the South the distillation point for all the fugitive extremisms of our time, the heart of Say-No Republicanism, the home of lost causes and nostalgic lunacy. It is as if the whole continent were tipped upward, so that the scattered crazinesses might slide down to the bottom. The South has often been defeated. Now it is defeating itself. "

 January 21, 2013, 3:26 p.m.


Infidel753 said...

And of course it's the more developed parts of the country that will end up paying to clean up all the messes in the South once the effects of all this self-destructiveness become too severe to deny any more.

It's actually worse than Wills implies. The main victims of the South's cultural backwardness have been not white Southerners themselves but the black people who lived among them. The post-Civil-War occupation should actually have been much more harsh than it was, with something like the de-Nazification which was imposed on Germany after the end of World War II, and the Southern states similarly not being allowed to run their own affairs again until the process of reform was complete. Because we didn't do this, blacks suffered a lost century of disenfranchisement and worse between the end of slavery and the Civil Rights movement. And the continuing backwardness of the South remains a drag on the whole country to this day.

Dave Miller said...

It seems to boil down to stupid statements like these which have been directed at me many times over the years...

It's okay to date a black person [if you're white] but you should never marry one...

And this classic...

They're fine for screwing, but marryin? Never...

Great essay Shaw... thanks for posting it...

Shaw Kenawe said...

Infidel753 and Dave,

The weirdest part of the essay is the part where Wills talks about how his grandmother told him not to hold the change in his mouth. A very close relative told me the very same story. He was originally from Cincinnati. When he was a child, his grandmother gave him a penny and warned him not to put it in his mouth because "a N-word might have had it in his hand." I'll never forget that story he told me. I knew the grandmother, and she was a lovely, devout Catholic. Hard worker, and wouldn't hurt a flea. But that sort of thinking was so endemic to that part of the country that I don't think the poor woman had any idea of how toxic it was, as she handed the racism down to her grandson.

Dave, I can only imagine what you have had to listen to over the years. You know what is at the heart of Wills' essay. He's not denigrating the South as much as pleading for it to grow up and come into the 21st century.

Dave Miller said...

And yet Shaw, we can still read screeds that proclaim there are only black racists in America today. i dare say that if every single black person alive in our country today was indeed racist, the numbers would pale in comparison to people of the other persuasion.

And of this we can be sure... their effect would be limited because they do not control the levers of power in the Federal, State and local governments that white racists held onto for years, insuring a poverty that would long outlast sanctioned, official racism.

skudrunner said...

Good article and most of it is true.
One thing I would take exception to is Florida is south but certainly not Southern.

Discrimination from the elite northerners, they use to be called Yankees, has always been a fact of life yet the northerners keep relocating to the south. Most people of southern decent would just as soon they not.

Prejudice comes in many forms

Dave Miller said...

Skud... Prejudice yes.... Racism however is always about power...

Infidel753 said...

Florida, aside from the panhandle, is not culturally Southern any more. Migration of people from elsewhere in the country has made it more culturally diverse. The same has been happening in northeastern Virginia and parts of North Carolina, which is why those states have gradually become swing states. The same is happening in Texas (culturally distinct from the South yet sharing some of the same pathologies, and of course it was part of the Confederacy).

That's what will ultimately mitigate this regional problem. Mixing of people throughout the country, including the unprecedented Hispanic influx into places like Georgia, combined with the large black populations which many Southern states already have, will ultimately turn much of the region culturally pluralist. The culture Wills describes will become one of several in a mix, rather than remaining dominant there.

Always On Watch said...

My grandmother, from the South and hardly unprejudiced, never told me any such thing about holding change in one's mouth. Neither did she ever forbid me to touch "a colored person" (my grandmother's terminology -- she never used the other word).

I battled with my family over racism. Even so, they weren't total barbarians about the topic of race.

I do recall my parents and my grandmother coming under fire by nearly everyone for paying Social Security for our maids. Yes, our maids were "coloreds" (again, my family's terminology; everybody's maids back then were black, and most women who worked in the D.C. area had maids. I also recall my grandmother's neighbor -- he frequently proclaimed himself a liberal, and he was not from the South -- had fits when my grandmother took in Aunt Hattie, an elderly maid from years past, when Aunt Hattie was dying. My grandmother did the caregiving for a long time -- until, finally, some family could be located. I'll never forget that hypocritical neighbor; he declared himself an advocate of Civil Rights, but didn't want an n- living across the street from him. Strange, that -- Aunt Hattie lived for years across the street from him while she was a maid, but he couldn't stand it when she lived across the street not as a maid.

I'm not sure exactly why I'm typing all this in here. Maybe because I see problems in the South, but not only on the part of Southerners. Also, it seems to me that the matter of race relations in America is far from resolved -- for all sorts of reasons. Extremism, albeit at times of different types, seems to be running rampant in America.

Rational Nation USA said...

Thanks for posting the link to this very thoughtful and IMNHO though provoking article over at RN USA.

I have but two observations; 1) The fear of change limits the opportunities for growth, and 2) those who fail to understand history are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past.

An active mind is a blessing, as such it is a terrible thing to waste.

My two cents worth. Again Shaw thanks for linking at RN.

Ducky's here said...

They're trying

Ducky's here said...

"Down south they don't care how close you get, as long as you don't get too big. Up north they don't care how big you get, as long as you don't get too close."

--- Dick Gregory

But times have changed and some have no desire to go back to the time of white male privilege. Others see Obama as a terrifying sign that those days are gone and that fright moves their intense hatred.
It isn't racism. It's the loss of privilege that drives the intense Obama hatred.

S.W. Anderson said...

Wills' piece is excellent and thought provoking.

Having had more than a passing acquaintance with the deep South and southerners, I will add a couple of things Wills didn't mention. Compared to the Northeast and West Coast, the South was largely insular. It had black slaves from Africa, some French and Cajuns in Louisiana, but little else. The South never experienced up close the massive waves of immigrants — Black Irish, Germans, Poles, Swedes and Norwegians, central and Eastern Europeans and Russians (many of them Jewish), Puerto Ricans and so on. White Southerners never had to move over and make room for those "others," never watched close up as they gained their place at the table, becoming successful business people, professionals and political leaders. Southerners for the most part never had to accept those "others" as members of their families through marriage.

Overwhelmingly, those who counted in the South, from the earliest days of the U.S., were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, nearly all English, Scotch and Irish. They brought with them notions inherited from Medieval times, that there is a natural pecking order in which some people are more intelligent, industrious and civilized than others. Lesser beings could only elevate themselves over centuries of accepting the discipline of hard work and the religious and social-behavior notions imposed on them by their superiors.

In return for this "benefit" of being gradually elevated to a state of intelligent civilization, lesser beings must be subservient in word and deed, and accept exploitation, physical and verbal abuse, and lifelong poverty as their lot in life. Just as God intended some people to be kings and nobles, so too did He intend for the people of the British Isles and NW Europe to dominate the lesser beings of the tropics, Asia, Africa and the Southern Hemisphere.

These notions are deeply rooted in most White Southerners from early childhood. They're gained firsthand from parents, reinforced by extended family, neighbors, schools, community, state and region. As such, these notions are extremely difficult for most who hold them to shed, even if they somehow get an inkling they should shed them.

The other thing is resentment, which if intense enough and nursed long enough becomes a personality trait. People steeped in fundamentalist religion, social and cultural traditions; people with strong racial and ethnic biases, and with a sense of having been done wrong as a region, tend to harbor resentment individually and cross-pollinate it as a group.

Resentment is poisonous to sound public policy and corrosive of Democracy. The GOP has been the party of resentment for a long time, and it shows more and more every year. Last year we saw it big time in voter suppression efforts, in outrageous statements about rape and the vilifying of Sandra Fluke. Mitt Romney's soliloquy about the 47 percenters was pure resentment served up to people Romney perceived as being exploitable because of their own resentment.

I state these observations as being common across the South. By no means do they apply to all white Southerners. And, by no means are all people in other parts of the country completely devoid of these notions and characteristics.

S.W. Anderson said...

"The fear of change limits the opportunities for growth."

What's more, resistance to or resentment of change as a phenomenon is futile. Change is the one constant in life.

News Flash said...

A Republican state legislator in Missouri has proposed legislation that would make it a felony for lawmakers to introduce legislation to restrict Second Amendment rights in the state.

Legislation introduced Monday by state Rep. Mike Leara (R-St. Louis) would make state legislators guilty of a Class D felony if they introduce legislation "that further restricts an individual's right to bear arms." Leara said that the bill is needed because he sees a growing number of his colleagues looking to take away gun rights from the state's residents.

“We seem to be having a lot of people willing to further restrict our constitutional rights and take our rights," Leara told The Huffington Post. "It is a push-back to the people who don’t believe in our constitutional rights. There have to be consequences to removing our constitutional rights.”

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