Oh, I love it and I hate it,
Every now and then berate it,
The sweet and sunny south where I was born.
— Gina Forsyth
Image in my head: a tour bus arriving in the republic of Biblestan, disgorging a file of daytrippers, like poverty tourists in a Rio slum, at some ramshackle barbecue joint, hiply-shod, fanny-pack-wearing gawkers shocked at the absence of recycling bins by the dumpsters, saying “Gee whilikers!” and “You betcha!”, having their barbecue not too spicy! then waddling off to the Gift Shop for some outrageous corncob art.
I have Chuck Thompson’s book Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession to thank for this curious bit of mental film — that, and the feeling that his argument for expelling the south from the rest of the country called for some response. I had first encountered Thompson in a short piece somewhere deriding those trendy riverwalk and microbrewery-boasting towns and their vibrant denizens. I didn’t share his disdain for the beer — I love good beer and am willing to put up with a certain amount of vibrancy to get it — but otherwise I thought: Ah! kindred spirit! Even after reading Better Off Without ‘Em I didn’t entirely lose that feeling; the book is wickedly provocative and I appreciated the provocation. Thompson is a good reporter, creative traveler, and an entertaining writer. His critiques of southern politics, religion, education, corporate whoring, college football, and much more, can’t be dismissed — and I recommend the book to my fellow southerners. It will make you something.
Still, about halfway through, the whole snarky tirade began to grow tiresome — like being in the company of people whose only topic of conversation is how stupid they are. Maybe the whole book is tongue-in-cheek, but it doesn’t feel like it. I like to think he’s half serious — but even so it comes across as a transparent attempt to turn what is obviously a strong personal distaste into an agenda — and all the duct-taped thinking such an enterprise requires. I’m from Alabama — I can’t say I’m not used to it — but seeing a caricature of the south presented as the south lost its novelty as I read — as did his insistence that the south is holding the rest of the country back. From what? No vision offered here. It is so rare to find someone who thinks of life as something one experiences, rather than wields or advances by.
I don’t want to engage him point by point — but his book inspired me, and I would like to use that inspiration to spur the following rant.
The first thing I noticed (after the inevitable indignation one feels at an outsider trashing one’s family) is that we share many loathings — he as an outsider, I as an in. And we both have a fantasy of life without morons. But it’s only a fantasy. Enlightened people would never try to impose their world view on everybody, because they know nobody’s smart enough to be Right. This is the strength of a diverse democracy: it demands compromise and a search for the common good. Or at least it used to. But it’s something one doesn’t have to bother with if one buys into this book’s ridiculous hubris that everything wrong with America is generated by and confined to the south. He even finds a way to blame Sarah Palin from his home state of Alaska on the south, likewise the nationwide Tea Party, prosperity gospel, along with everything else.
The real question here is much more serious than this book implies: can America be salvaged?
All of us living in modern America are so inured to bullshit we hardly notice it anymore — the constant stream of advertising, scams, political baloney, deceit, distortion, omission, evasion, half truths, loopholes, making things sound like something else, disguising what things are with cheap tricks. We basically accept it as the price of living in a free society. But it is a high price, and contributes to a general dehumanization. There are too many people to deal with, and we will pay good money for anything that enables us not to have to deal with as many as possible. It’s all become very nasty and bitter, and in joining the pile-on Thompson is, to put it mildly, no help. It seems to me it is just that nastiness and bitterness that we could use less of. God, Americans are petty! Mistrusting, hating each other — trashing those different from ourselves with unbelievable viciousness, nobody making the slightest attempt to hear what anybody else is saying. For a democracy to work, people have to respect and give a little bit of a shit about each other. We don’t. We have abandoned the basic mechanisms that make a democracy feasible.
Thompson’s book is an extreme expression of the fact that no one seems to look at America as a single entity anymore. We no longer agree on what “the country” means. It’s like the walls have come down and we’re all trying to grab what we can. One of the most valuable assets one can have — personally, socially, cosmically — is something to blame, and Thompson delivers. You betcha. He has learned the trick of invective. (Cornwall had his man wrong, but nailed the type in King Lear: “This is some fellow/Who, having been praised for bluntness, doth affect/A saucy roughness, and constrains the garb/Quite from his nature.”) For all his self-congratulation for being “just the man” to take down these clichés, he proves himself part of the system, the problem.
Which basically answers the question: who is his audience? The choir, obviously. Those who would most sharply feel the lash of his pissy whip don’t, or can’t, read. He’s grandstanding to people who are paying for a them. Who couldn’t hear the wisdom, if there were any, in their point of view if their lives depended on it. At one point Thompson says, “Few things are as hilarious to the northerner as a well-placed Snuffy Smith zinger.” Which he generously provides. He’s a clever entertainer. But surely not the type who would come down here, win people’s confidence fishing for said zingers, then go for the back. Surely not.
I offer that the real schism in this country is not south/everybody else, but a deeper division endemic to human nature. I don’t know what to call it — I guess you could start with liberal/conservative, though those terms are oversimplified beyond usefulness. Maybe creative/conservative. Enlightened/philistine. People who feel suffocated when doing things like other people/people who feel most secure when they are. Probably it all just boils down to have-nots/haves. But whatever this elemental division is, I would like to consider it for a moment.
Holding both liberal and conservative views and detesting both extremes, I guess I am one of those mealy-mouthed moderates. I hate bureaucratic complacency and waste, I do not feel we should live beyond our means, I think the test of time is a good test — but I recoil from the conservative propaganda machine churning out ideological tricks that fool Jethro and keep the haves in place. And I believe, if “our country” means anything at all, the place to address the vanishing middle of American society, the soil from which the upper grew, hence America itself, is the “have,” not the “have-not” end. I guess that makes me liberal. Actually, I’m both, and the fact that people say they don’t know what I am until they can see it on a bumper sticker is just further proof of what most of us know: television political advertising works — and political opinion can be engineered and sold effortlessly with sound bites (abetted by the Supreme Court in “Citizens United” — my God, they’re supposed to be protecting us! — or conservative commentators euphemizing this predatory propaganda as “political speech”).
Not long ago a conservative-minded acquaintance of mine was heard to remark, concerning a certain group of people, that he didn’t want to be around all that creativity. Only a trace of tongue-in-cheek — basically he meant it. I had never heard anybody say that before — but after my initial surprise, I found the remark not so shocking. The conservative mindset, by definition, distrusts innovation, change, any sort of playing loose with tradition — often with good reason. Often not. But to that mindset creativity is threatening. The great questions about right/wrong, us/them, male/female, life/death etc. need to be in place and beyond tampering with. Life is what happens atop this bedrock. Fair enough — I believe that conservatism is important to a society, to a person. At its best it can prevent harebrainedness. But at its worst it stifles the adaptation necessary to survive. I believe members of the Tea Party are absolutely sincere — they really believe their view is the only hope for America; that is, the only way to save America is to jettison the poor, even though they don’t quite have the courage to phrase it that way, publicly. And of course they don’t mean America, but their America. The far-right mentality seems blind in general to the obvious power of collectivity. And so, though I believe them sincere, I have a dark vision about the Tea Party. In power they would squelch all creativity, all unorthodoxy, all nonconformity, all mirth, and replace it with a colorless realm where they are rich, and no challenge to their simplistic view of reality is allowed, and they rule it with a new bureaucracy of their kind — which are legion, so the bureaucracy would become bloated, inefficient, and Kafkaesque, with one mission, to keep things as they are, as bureaucracies always do — but they would be in control and free to indulge the barbarities of their singlemindedness. This is horrifying, but hardly exclusively “southern” — and in fact would never happen in the south. Or anywhere in this country. The last meaningful war this country fought was against exactly that. Americans love their self-indulgence too much. Same for extreme liberalism, a reflection of the altruistic side of human nature, but which decays so easily into timidity, impracticality, and self-righteousness, or the current disappointing mushiness — just as creativity can become so enamored of itself it decays into self-important triviality — it is equally terrifying. It won’t make it here. Clearly we need a balance.
It may be true that southern demagogues have undue political influence — personally I think it’s doomed to time and demographics — but I get sick of reading about John Boehner’s or Paul Ryan’s “dilemma” — how to come up with something that makes sense while mollifying their base. If the national conservative establishment could grow a pair and come up with a candidate in 2016 with guts and vision who isn’t enslaved to the loonies nor a transparent front man for the haves, he/she would walk in. But they’ll probably get it wrong again. They just can’t find the person. Maybe he/she doesn’t exist. In fact, that’s exactly the problem with attempts at vast social compacts — he/she never does.
Like any time, our time is a time of transition, with all the attendant dangers and opportunities — but I don’t believe too many Americans feel we’re heading to something better. Young Americans don’t. I’m a college teacher and I am equally delighted by my students’ charm, and saddened by their feeble expectations. Hard conservatives, for all their dispiriting simpletonness, are sensing and registering something that genuinely threatens their world. Can you blame them? Same-sex marriage, for example — a non-topic in the scheme of things, but a very visible symbol of a dying world-view. Or the “new atheism.” Here’s the thing about atheism — it doesn’t matter if you are or aren’t — there’s nothing there in either case. If there were, the question would not be whether you believed it or not. The fight is not over a being, but an idea. A material being, someone objects. Being is material, science answers.
When I think of the things I hate/fear/mistrust — the military-industrial complex, the medical-pharmaceutical complex, the higher education complex (enslaving our most valuable resource through enriching a mediocre class of intellectuals and bureaucrats and bankers — bragging points, along with its esotericism, for Stanley Fish — no help), the genetically-modified food industry, resilient bacteria, the warped distribution of wealth, the growing electronic zombification of our youth and the growing disappearance of their opportunities and responsibilities, people who don’t create anything standing where the money goes by and grabbing as much as they can, the stealing of everything of value in American piece by piece by China, bureaucracy, environmental rape for a few more years of driving big cars and leaving our progeny the bill, mob thinking, snobbery, cruelty — in short, overpopulation — I don’t really see them as regional. I’ve been to most of the other parts of this country, and I’ve never found things all that different. Everywhere I’ve been I’ve found weird-ohs, people who have their minds locked around some idea, people who have freed their minds to some extent, usually only to lock them around something else, people who congratulate themselves for being in some club, people who think what they’re told, people who don’t think at all, young people who obey their i-masters, many who are just along for the ride, and a few enlightened souls — but all of us circumscribed by a set of limitations we can do nothing about.
The pre-Civil War south was a medieval plantation economy, fueled by the hideous evil of slavery, where the haves and have-nots were in a ratio far more severe than today, and as was frequently the case on the northern side as well, the have-nots fought the haves’ war for them. The loss of the war (instigated with extraordinary short-sightedness and hubris by southern haves trapped in an irresolvable economic stand-off) brought misery to everyone in the south, and turned the region into a new plantation for rape and exploitation by the north for the next several generations. The Brazilian writer Paulo Freire analyzed the dynamic between oppressors and oppressed, focusing on the Orwellian machinations, essentially forced ignorance, or forced swallowing, by which the oppressed are kept in their condition and even made to feel responsible, and, finally, blamed — a ploy Thompson’s book richly illustrates. Thompson trashes the mentality of the south (as if this were a single thing) with little taste for understanding its causes. Agreed, there’s no shortage of cognitive putrescence in the south, but he offers something better? A capitalistic economy has been shown over the last century to be superior, by Bentham/Mill’s standards, to a socialistic one, but it is important to keep in mind that the sources of socialistic thought were compassion at injustice, and its failure human greed and incompetence. Greed, of course, unapologetically also drives capitalism with great effectiveness, but sensation-seeking, shallow, materialistic, lucre-obsessed Americans rarely stop to reflect on the spiritual banality and dehumanization that are its consequences. The coming of industrialization to the north in the nineteenth century brought the modern world and all its beloved wonders, but also the despoliation of the environment, the commodification of natural resources, theft, dispossession, exploitation, the ruination of native Americans, the destruction of a commons-based way of life, the creation of huge parasitic bureaucracies, an obsession with “private property” that has driven us apart and led to a proprietary mentality that makes democracy perhaps impossible, and has spilled over to our contemporary preoccupation with “intellectual property” — well and good if you invented something you can make a living by, not so good in the million daily combats over who owns what piece of published triviality. All you’d have to do is be in America ten minutes and you would realize it’s just a bunch of people absorbed in their own worlds — the ones full of passionate intensity wasting their energy in bickering. We’re not strong in the shared vision department. Of course, we never were — and never was anybody else — but there was a time when we didn’t think of America as a fire sale. We’ll always have that.
* * *
So here I am, living in the south, loving it and hating it — at any rate staying here — and Thompson forces me to ask why? Well, the obvious answer is — it’s my home, and I’ve never been anywhere that felt better. I don’t exactly think of myself as defending the south — it’s just that when I think of the things that most vividly define the south to me, none of them appear in Thompson’s book. He is omitting something vital, and he set me trying to figure out what it is.
I’ve concluded it’s the energy. The south is the id of the country. Casting it out would be like taking the bass out of a rock’n’roll band.
That energy — a confluence of black and white — is rich and powerful and pounds through the south like a pulse. I think I draw a good bit of my will to live from it, even if that will is often expressed as revulsion and rage. Because, of course, in animating the extraordinary personalities of the south, that energy often manifests itself in grotesque ways — toxically ignorant rednecks, survivalists, conspiracy theorists, little men driving big trucks, birthers, white southerners being trained to vote against their own interests, people who think everybody should wear a gun, lunacies such as prosperity gospel, creation museums, Alabama claiming fourteen national championships, and so forth — but most of the people I know intuitively understand that these things just come with the energy. You live with it, accept it as the price of the good things it also produces. When I’m with people I want to be with, in places I want to be, which is most of the time, we don’t talk about these matters. Or if we do, the point is not how stupid some dispensable group of people is. That’s a given, and the reason why many southerners will find this book unenlightening: it belabors the obvious. Taking down creationists is not exactly manly sport. We go straight to how funny they are.
Flannery O’Connor famously observed that southern writers often write about freaks “because we are still able to recognize one.” So much that is, to me, freakish elsewhere — the dehumanization that comes with disjunction — has been so institutionalized and mainstreamed it is invisible; in the south we (some of us) can still see it. O’Connor wrote about a quality not much believed in anymore — grace — and saw behind the grotesque the defining human drive towards it — and serious as she was, she was a really funny writer. Please don’t confuse her with someone like Jeff Foxworthy who pimps out his own people by rendering them into clichés for foreign entertainment. Even worse when those clichés are rolled out for the same purposes by foreigners. As much as I love the Coen brothers (Fargo! — for once, thank God, a region other than the south held up for some laughs) — I find the parody of Faulkner in Barton Fink sickening, and, entertaining though it is, I can’t get comfortable with the clichemongering of O Brother, Where Art Thou? Thompson wants to amputate southern freaks — let them go form their own, what obviously would soon be, third world country, and the hell with the rest — but neither southern nor any freaks are separable — they’re systemic. Just as he has cherry-picked the illustrators of his argument, and ignored everything else, he has no qualms about continuing the exploitation of the south by extracting and stealing the little good he finds in it — “Bourbon Street, South Beach, Augusta National, a lot of great musicians, a few good writers” — without having to befoul himself by any interaction with the other vermin who live here. And apparently forgetting that everything of value one has, one has because someone at some point fought for it, he is presumably willing for the south to keep showing up in disproportionate numbers when it’s time to fight the wars — any wars — as long as he gets to claim southerners started them and complain about southerners being so aggressive. Clinical studies have shown that northerners express their aggression more tastefully through ignoring each other.
Thompson is on board with the ascendant equation of religion and backwardness — and you’ll get no argument from me that religious fundamentalism, the world over, packs more stupidity per pound than just about anything else — but I have always understood the drive that creates religions feeling — fundamentalism as well as its milder cousins — and have never dismissed it as the superstitious residue with which it is usually dismissed. The human mind craves a context to understand itself in — a place to prop the ladder, so to speak — and we are told that can only be rational reductionism. I love and believe in science as much as anybody — mankind’s greatest achievement, the harnessing of common sense — but I’ve always felt it would do better to leave off the philosophizing, a betrayal of its own principles. It’s very good at what it does, but in declaring itself the only way to approach reality it doesn’t seem to notice that it is only a restatement of something unknowable, and will be sufficient to account for human experience only by a continual enlargement of its definition of “reality” and “material” — in other words, the science vs. religion debate is another non-issue. The idea that dead matter organized itself by blind chance into something like ourselves that are aware of ourselves strains credulity, to put it mildly — except for the unfortunate fact that it obviously did. How it happened that it happened is another matter. Obviously saying that some being whose origins can’t be explained just made it happen doesn’t advance the discussion.
College football. Thompson’s accusation of collusion among the BCS, ESPN, and the SEC may be justified — I don’t know but don’t doubt it — and I’m as nauseated as he is by the SEC assuming it has a permanent place in the title game. The problem, if you ask me, is the BCS itself — good riddance. No doubt in the south the quotation marks around “student” athlete are more deserved than elsewhere, but it’s only a matter of degree. Parts of the country still trying to sustain the illusion of student-athletes and amateurism understandably resent that, but they’re just drawing from different environments. This is just what “college” football has become. If you agree that athletics are one of the most necessary and brilliant innovations in civilized society, and the goal is to put the best athletes on the field, often taking them off the streets and out of lives of hopelessness, then the system is working. The fact that athletes in their prime play at colleges is the result of a marriage of convenience. Colleges have the infrastructure and the concentration of support people that make them the ideal place for athletics to happen. That we have to pretend all of these young players are “students” (even though many are) requires the standard tomfoolery we know well from TV commercials, pictures on Burger King menus, politics, and the like. But it’s either that or divorce athletics from higher education, and go build all the infrastructure somewhere else (like the rest of the world). We should probably just call them employees, pay them, and get it over with. Except there is no incentive whatsoever for that to happen.
College football is an exciting game — it’s exciting everywhere it’s played, and each region has its own traditions and style. Everybody knows that college football fans do not pick a team, they are assigned one at birth. The argument over which region is best bores me to tears, but is to be expected as our sense of the greater group dissolves and we adhere the more strongly to the local — and I’m equally bored by my fellow countrymen’s obsession with who’s number one? It’s not even apples and oranges — it’s also grapes, pineapples, tangerines, and kumquats. I don’t care. I’m not interested in the playoff system either, unless the starting line is the same for all, i.e., abolish pre-season rankings. All in all, I liked the old bowl system better. Just let them play, then come up with some interesting matches at the end. The problem is that it’s already obvious what the pattern is becoming: top athletes will play one year at some college, then leave for the NFL. No more bothering with even the subterfuge of calling them students. There’s really no trace left of the college football I grew up with.
Towards the end of Thompson’s book his tone does wax strangely conciliatory, and he even seems to find a couple of people he likes; but still, the two groups of people that are to me the soul of the south get scant recognition here. These folks, like folks everywhere, are defined by personality, not geography. First — educated, well-read, smart, clever, funny, enlightened people — which are in good supply; and second — the not formally educated but highly intelligent salt of the earth type, highly skilled, colorful, possessed of deep wisdom and extraordinary life experience, that are everywhere down here. In both cases, black and white. These groups, both of which I’ve met wherever I’ve traveled, are mixed in with all the buffoons and cretins and idiots that as much as Thompson I fantasize expelling from my sight, except that I know we are all drawing on the same energy in a deep synergistic complementarity. Not understanding the inter-connection of all things leads to the amputation argument on display in this book. Keep chopping and you end up without a soul.
Thompson’s book, even though it is, at heart, a plea for conformity, also owes its existence to that energy — just as the current purgation owes its to his.
There’s a class of people who have nothing to do until somebody else does something. They wait for anything creative, productive, successful, or interesting to happen, then put on suits and descend upon it, organize meetings, draw up rules, and take most — maybe all — of the money. I have long felt a greater distaste for mediocrity, in its parasitism, than for fundamentalism. But I have also understood that this class are only playing their role, number in the millions, and aren’t going anywhere. If anybody could secede, I wish it were them, but that would be stupid. Somebody’s got to draw up the flow charts. I approach the literary canon and all its isms and periods and movements with the same sense of resignation, recognizing it as the indexing work of this class. Personally, I’ve decided there’s just this writer and that writer. Same with people. Lumping them into easily dispensable groups is evil. It has been my general experience in life that the smaller the mind the more it exaggerates the little differences among us, and the less able it is to see the immense commonalities. Take your fellow man one at a time, without prefab mental files that kill their souls before they even speak. If we don’t, as Americans, respect our common humanity we have no future as a body politic.
Since Thompson doesn’t say, I don’t know what kind of progressiveness the exit of the south would free everybody else up for. I’m not really seeing anything all that compelling. I’m sure there will be other southerners like me who just think what crawled up your drawers? — and it might be a wiser use of your time to check on things a little, you know, closer to home.