If you come to the South with a bad attitude and want to find clichés, you’ll find them.
As Oregon travel writer Chuck Thompson relates in his new South-hating book, the South still has some rednecks, tacky trailer parks, racists, government-haters, religious zealots, fat people and guys who look cloned from the movie “Deliverance.” But so do Vermont, Kansas, Utah, Alaska and just about anywhere you look across America.
Come to think about it, it’s probably not too hard for anyone visiting Oregon to find salmon-wrestling lumberjacks who wear cowboy hats. Or maybe someone who looks like Thompson’s book jacket mug shot — an effete, coffee-drinking, wannabe hipster who dreams lazily of spending more time on a skateboard while decked out in the latest fleece sweater.
Thompson has particular disdain for South Carolina, which he calls the “most dysfunctional state in the union … renowned for producing politicians as slimy as the inside of a pumpkin.” Then he sashays forward a predictable list of disgraced figures from Thomas Ravenel to Mark Sanford. And then, almost on cue, he paints everyone here as a racist.
Yep, this Thompson guy has a problem. He’s a regional bigot. His irresponsible screed, “Better Off Without ‘em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession,” willfully ignores how today’s South is a far different place than the “Dukes of Hazzard” cliché he sought.
At more than 75 million people, the South is home to a fourth of the nation’s population. People are moving here in droves — not because of the backwardness that Thompson imagines, but because of the great quality of life in dynamic places like Charleston, Durham, Birmingham, Orlando and Atlanta, just to name a few.
Sure, we still have historic problems with education, poverty and obesity. But we’re still struggling Civil War-induced stagnation that the North didn’t have to deal with for four generations. While other areas of the country industrialized, much of the South had to wait until after World War II.
In the years since, we’ve significantly transformed an agrarian economy into a manufacturing powerhouse where more cars are produced than any other region of the country. In South Carolina, we’ve now got BMW and Boeing, neither of which would have moved here if the state were as bad as Thompson imagines. In fact, think of top Fortune 500 companies and where they’re headquartered — Wal-Mart (#2), Bank of America (13), Home Depot (35), UPS (52), Lowe’s (54), Coca-Cola (59), FedEx (70). Answer: All in the South.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the offensive Thompson criticizes Southerners for its growth when he notes, “the modern political South is more accurately described as a captive tool of corporate ideology. Regional politics reflect this reality with an unwavering drive to confirm the conviction that the industrialization of the South is not only sacred, but attainable only though cheap land and laws that maintain a perpetually impoverished lower class from which to draw it.”
Boy, this guy is at least a generation behind. BMW, which has built more than 2 million cars in South Carolina, didn’t need cheap land when it moved here. It came here for a skilled work force, not a poor one, to build complex machines. It wanted a place where people take pride in their work. (It should be noted, though, it didn’t hurt that unions aren’t strong here.)
Fortunately, Thompson’s venom is being panned by critics. “If there are good things to be discovered about the South,” Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, “this book has no use for them. Nashville’s music? Not mentioned. Contemporary Southern literature? Mr. Thompson thanks the publisher of the journal Oxford American in his acknowledgements. But his actual text sticks to the ignoramus theory.” [Check out the review by S.C.’s Barton Swaim here in The Wall Street Journal.]
Thompson’s anti-South rant is embarrassing. It spews a lot of disconnected facts and venom but is surprisingly shallow on any real intellectual level of trying to comprehend the South of today. Do we still have work to do? Absolutely. But things have changed dramatically, a concept which the dilettante Thompson only gives lip service to because his wacky see-the-world-my-way beer goggles are in the way.
Bottom line: Do not buy this book. In fact, throw away this column or remove it from your computer’s cache so you don’t have to think about Thompson’s tirade ever again.