Number of posts: 19
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By Jim Cobb:
For some two generations now, way too many American liberals have been beguiled by the facile trope of “the Southernization of America,” which blames the nation’s shift to the right since the 1960s on the South’s rapid political, economic, and cultural ascent. If early takes on the 2016 presidential election, which chalk up Trump’s upset triumph to the “revenge” of the rural white voter in traditionally blue northern states and essentially leave it at that, are any indication, we may soon see “ruralization” supplant “Southernization” as the primary threat to political liberalism in this country.
window into a national past
The excitement and acclaim that greeted both the Peachtree and the Broadway premieres of producer David O. Selznick’s adaptation of Gone With the Wind seventy-five years ago this week seems genuinely cringe-worthy today, after multiple indictments over recent years of Margaret Mitchell’s novel as racist and historically distorted. Mitchell is clearly culpable on the first count, although by no means uniquely so, but latter-day critics who charge her with distorting history would be well advised to consider the history she had to work with and, in some aspects, even undertook to revise.
It’s fair to say that the South and Scotland go back a ways. For example, the cult of the “Lost Cause” that sprang up in the aftermath of the South’s failed fight for independence had something of an antecedent in the fabled “lost cause” of the Scottish Jacobites whose four-decade struggle to restore to the Stuart monarchy of Scotland to its rightful seat on the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland was heartily romanticized in the novels of Sir Walter Scott…
Racism, Intolerance or Xenophobia
A couple of weeks back an intelligent, well-intentioned fellow in the employ of the New York Times asked me to respond to a new study showing that, among other things, 62 percent of working-class white southerners supported Mitt Romney, a figure roughly 20 points higher than in any other region. “How could this be?” my earnest new editor friend begged to know. Why did lower-income whites persist in voting Republican in direct contradiction to their economic interests? This being only the gazillionth time I have fielded this query, my first impulse was to politely decline his invite, but …
Tacking to the Big Donors
Since football season steadfastly refuses to start, the only real diversion left to me right now is politics, my second favorite sport. I thought I might take a shot at sizing things up one last time before toe finally meets leather and the trivial matter of who will be our next president will forfeit any claim it may have held on the rapidly shrinking bandwidth of my attention span.
As fundamentally artificial enterprises from the get-go, presidential campaigns are always fertile ground for paradoxes and contradictions, and this one is surely no exception.
Farting Through the Fence
Right now, a lot of our problems stem directly from the fact that the wrong sort has finally gotten the upper hand; a particularly brutal and anti-democratic strain of American aristocrat that the other elites have mostly managed to keep away from the levers of power since the Revolution. Worse: this bunch has set a very ugly tone that’s corrupted how people with power and money behave in every corner of our culture. Here’s what happened, and how it happened, and what it means for America now.
The headlines make it impossible to forget my prediction several years back to a friend at the University of Vienna that as the restrictions and regulations of the European Union grew more numerous and burdensome, he would come to a much fuller understanding of where southern secessionists were coming from in 1861. I have to say that I am not particularly surprised by the current state of affairs in the Euro Zone, which seemed a very iffy if not downright wishful venture from the get-go…
The Redneck Riviera
I have to confess it was only twenty years ago, after completing a book on the Mississippi Delta, that I began to understand the true importance of such noteworthy sociocultural enclaves to a fuller, more textured appreciation of the South as first, a place of many parts, and second, a place all the more remarkable for it. For some time now, we have had the benefit of some excellent writing about the Low Country South, the Appalachian South, the Cajun South, etc. Now comes a new and most worthy addition to the bibliography of special southern places that focuses on a narrow strip of sand, scrub, and asphalt stretching along the Gulf Coast from roughly Gulf Shores, Alabama, to Panama City, Florida, and known more with affection than condescension as “The Redneck Riviera.”
It's the Electoral College, Stupid!
I have always said that, for me, politics is one of the best “spectator sports” going. This reality came home to me once again as I prepared for an upcoming oration on recent changes — and continuities — in southern politics. In much the same way that TV sports commentators will do their dead-level best to create a sense of drama or uncertainly about the outcome of an arm wrestling contest between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pee Wee Herman — “Well, Arnie pinned him again, but it took him nearly twelve nanoseconds, and Pee Wee barely whimpered this time” — so do political reporters leap to embrace any signs that the frontrunner is losing ground.
Rights & Not Rights
Since the South’s interactions with the rest of the country are simply replete with examples of “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result,” I’ve always said that southern historians would simply be forced to go out of business if we were no longer allowed to use any form of the word “irony.” A contemporary case in point lies in the controversial Arizona immigration bill now under scrutiny by the United States Supreme Court.
The American passion to centennialize—especially if there’s a buck to be made in the bargain—embraces not only triumphs but tragedies as well, and in both cases, the bigger the better. Thus, we were assured of some truly big-time hoopla and kerfuffle surrounding the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Persistent rumors about my age notwithstanding, I was not around for the actual event and did not share a pint or two with the navigator before he set sail. In fact, my first knowledge of the sad affair came as a child when I was rummaging through some old books and found what was basically a pictorial history of the ship and a gallery of photographs of all the rich and famous swells who were on board.
Worth A Thousand Words
If one picture can be worth a thousand words (depending, of course, on the relative quality of both picture and words), the same is surely no less true of a map. I regret that it was so late in my career when I truly began to understand the illustrative power of a good map. Take the following example, drawn from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, which is the very best political map site out there in my doubtless insufficiently humble opinion. (Be advised, though, that old Dave does the switcheroo on the traditional pattern in these parts by using red for the Democrats and blue for the Repubs…
The odds are that darn few Minnesota parents cast their first adoring gaze on a newborn expecting that their little bundle of joy will grow up to become a southerner, much less a larger-than-life, iconic one. Yet, by golly, that’s just what happened to a Minneapolis boy born in 1922 as Lawrence Harry—but known to millions in these parts as “Larry”—Munson, whose recent passing now casts something of a pall over his beloved Georgia Bulldogs’ upcoming annual tilt with archrival Georgia Tech.
I have always said that the best way to learn about anything is to teach a course on it. Teaching a new class is a lot of work, especially at my advanced age. Still, way back in my distant past, I offered a course at the University of Maryland on the history of country music. Later, at Ole Miss, I was one of three instructors for an “Introduction to Southern Culture” class where we tried to integrate history, literature, and music in a coherent way. Although I enjoyed trying to hold up the history end of the bargain, the most stimulating –not to mention challenging–aspect of my duties was helping college freshmen try to figure out William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Now, on the cusp of my dotage, I have somehow caught a wild hair and undertaken to reprise this course, although flying solo this time with upperclassmen, rather than freshmen, along for the ride.
Historical analogies can enhance our understanding of both past and present, provided we take care to distinguish between superficial similarities and fundamental sameness. Contrary to what you may have heard, history doesn’t repeat itself. (Would only that the same could be said for those who presume to interpret it.) An excellent case in point involves critics of Georgia’s Draconian new immigration laws who have dubbed them the “Brown Codes,” in an effort to link them to the “Black Codes” passed by Georgia and other former Confederate states in 1865-66 to redefine and codify the subordinate status of newly freed blacks.
Well, I always heard, I ain’t too sure
That a man’s best friend is a mangy cur,
I kinda favor the hog myself,
How ’bout a hand for the hog?
Roger Miller, “How ‘Bout a Hand for the Hog?“
In what has already become a classic, if not a damn near iconic piece of writing that at once makes me both envious and proud, my friend and former PhD student Jonathan Bass seized on the title and refrain of the little Roger Miller ditty excerpted above as the inspiration for a lively and insightful examination of “the enduring nature of the swine as a cultural symbol in the South.” (Bass’s essay appeared way back in 1995, by the way, in Southern Cultures, a wonderful journal that anyone from pointy-head to pipefitter who happens to be interested in the South will find extremely readable and engaging.)
When a good friend sent me this now semi-viral photo captioned, “Miracle in the Alcohol Aisle,” I recalled immediately that Item #1 on my list of indications that a truly “New” South (not to be confused with “The Rapture”) has finally arrived is: “The Baptists will start to make eye contact in the liquor store.” Then I flashed to the story of the minister who, when pulled over for driving erratically, assured the policeman that the cup resting on his console contained nothing but water. When the officer’s examination ascertained that the vessel actually contained wine, the good Rev. broke into a huge smile and proclaimed, “Praise God! He’s done it again!” …
I’m struck by the fact that although things have been decidedly on the upswing down in these parts for at least two generations, practically every report on apparently positive developments in the South, seems to start from the premise that this is something brand-new. Hence, the New York Times captions a story thusly: ” Many U.S. Blacks Moving to South, Reversing Trend.” Since this has been going on for roughly forty years, I think it would be more accurate to say that black migrants are “continuing a trend,” but then change seldom comes easily or quickly either to the South, or, so it appears, to the minds of a lot of Yankee journalists where the South is concerned.
Enumerating his wife’s eccentric but endearing traits in the offbeat love song, In Spite of Ourselves, John Prine notes that “convict movies make her horny.” You know what they say about “different strokes.” Weddings have the same effect on an old friend of mine, although he claims said effect is completely neutralized if they play jazz at the reception.
It’s fair to say that most of us have probably heard of some fairly weird “turn ons” in our day, but leave it to Newton Leroy Gingrich to come up with a new aphrodisiac. Apparently, it’s good old-fashioned patriotism that gets the job done for him down there, or so he told the Christian Broadcasting Network yesterday as he tried to explain his mid-1990s affair (with a woman 23 years his junior) that came at the same time he was giving one William Jefferson Clinton down the country for his carryings on with a certain Ms. Lewinsky.