Farting Through the Fence

Having spent the last forty years trying to get college students to think about the past in ways that will equip them better to think about what they see in the present, I clearly see the benefits of such an approach. However, just as I sort of jumped ugly with the Tea Baggers behind this attempt to rewrite U. S. history for Georgia public school students recently, I have no more patience with high-minded lefties who are not only willing but in this case clearly eager to distort or oversimplify the past in order to support their own ideological take on what’s happening today. Sara Robinson shows no hesitation or nuance whatsoever in blaming the revival of “conservative Southern values” for the fact that we are now at the mercy of what she sees as “a brutal strain of American aristocrats.” This attempt to use a facile, overgeneralized, and conveniently self-serving account of the South’s history and its role within American history to explain everything she feels is wrong in the country today has garnered plaudits all over the left-hand side of the blogosphere (“Best description of the Southern mind and its priorities that I have ever read. Ever. Anywhere.”) Seeing this simply affirms for me how desperately some Yankee liberals need to convince both themselves and the rest of us of their intellectual and moral superiority.

"United Stereotypes of America" by Haley Nahman
“United Stereotypes of America” by Haley Nahman

Perish the thought that the country has shifted sharply to the right over the last two generations because they failed to lead or grew smug and aloof and lost touch with the people. Rather, it’s simply that many of those who once stood ready to follow them all the way to Armageddon, if need be, suddenly fell prey to a contagion of reaction and intolerance that, after festering for nearly four centuries, suddenly erupted across the Mason-Dixon line and quickly infected the rest of country. Forget that it has been pervasive nationally for several decades now. For the people writing this script, this pestilential scourge of hide-bound conservatism, evangelical Protestantism and ardent anti-intellectualism remains,not only in its origins but in its essence, peculiarly and indelibly southern. As Sara Robinson puts it, “from its origins in the fever swamps of the lowland South, the worldview of the old Southern aristocracy can now be found nationwide. Buttressed by the arguments of Ayn Rand [a native of St. Petersburg, after all, albeit the one in Russia] who updated the ancient slaveholder ethic for the modern age—it has been exported to every corner of the culture.”

Ms. Robinson is not by any means the first pundit to blame the nation’s rightward tilt over the last two generations on the proliferation of “southern” values, which in her view and that of her cohort ain’t changed one damn bit since Jamestown. According to Robinson, before this plague of Dixie-itis enveloped the country, we had been benignly “dominated by a New England-based Yankee aristocracy that was rooted in Puritan communitarian values, educated at the Ivies and marinated in an ethic of noblesse oblige (the conviction that those who possess wealth and power are morally bound to use it for the betterment of society).” Contrast this, she argues, to “the plantation aristocracy of the lowland South, which has been notable throughout its four-hundred-year history for its utter lack of civic interest, its hostility to the very ideas of democracy and human rights, its love of hierarchy, its fear of technology and progress, its reliance on brutality and violence to maintain ‘order,’ and its outright celebration of inequality as an order divinely ordained by God.”

The roots of this deplorable mindset, Robinson airily explains, may be found in the fact that “the elites of the deep South are descended mainly from the owners of sugar, rum and cotton plantations of Barbados” who, after screwing up the Caribbean island beyond repair, proceeded to descend en masse upon the coastal lowlands of the Deep South where they managed not only to recreate the Barbadian horrors of brutality, greed, and ruthless exploitation of slave labor but to impose the controlling ethos behind them on an entire region, apparently in perpetuity. In support of this rather sweeping contention, Robinson cites the work of one Colin Woodward, who, so far as I can tell, read something somewhere about several hundred planters from Barbados emigrating to South Carolina and decided to run with it.

At any rate, Robinson apparently was so smitten with Woodward’s Barbadian thesis that she decided to take it for a little test drive herself, all the way to “the gleaming new cities of the South and West.” In the years after World War II, the latter drew “a vast number” of their new residents “out of the South,” meaning that “the elites that rose along with these cities tended to hew to the old Southern code, and either tacitly or openly resist the moral imperatives of the Yankee canon.” Thus along with Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta, “the soaring postwar fortunes of cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, [and] Phoenix” [Everybody has noticed the predominance of southern accents in Vegas, right?] quickly fed that ancient Barbadian slaveholder model of power with plenty of room and resources to launch a fresh and unexpected twentieth-century revival.”

Robinson, who seems never to have met a sweeping negative generalization about the South that she didn’t like, also apparently never encountered Abe Lincoln’s reported observation that “you can’t fertilize a field by farting through the fence,” to which, in this case, with characteristic indelicacy, I would add, “especially when you have clearly been feasting on a steady diet of unsubstantiated generalizations, stereotypes, and downright inaccurate assertions of fact.“ By way of a few of many examples, how about: “Since shortly after the Revolution, the Yankee elites have worked hard to keep the upper hand on America’s culture, economy and politics—and much of our success as a nation rests on their success at keeping plantation culture sequestered in the South, and its scions largely away from the levers of power.” [So much for my distinct recollection that nine of the first twelve presidents of the United States and three of the first six chief justices of the Supreme Court were actually from slaveholding states.]

There’s also: “The Yankees thought that government’s job was to better the lot of the lower classes.” [Yep. This was an especially passionate conviction for ol’ Bill McKinley and Cal Coolidge, all right.]

And this: “They countered Yankee hegemony by building their own universities, grooming their own leaders and creating their own media.” [The absence or weakness of which had made them the butt of Yankee derision for more than a century.] “By the 1990s, they were staging the RINO hunts that drove the last Republican moderates (almost all of them Yankees, by either geography or cultural background) and the meritocratic order they represented to total extinction within the GOP.” [Apparently, I missed all the reports of southerners cramming into buses and heading north to vote these wussies out.] “A decade later, the Tea Party became the voice of the unleashed id of the old Southern order, bringing it forward into the twenty-first century with its full measure of selfishness, racism, superstition, and brutality intact.” [Look, no one with a lick of history in his/her head would argue that the South hasn’t left a disproportionate share of smudges on the national character or that it hasn’t produced more than its share of what Lewis Grizzard called the kind of folks who “think the moonshot’s fake and wrestlin’s real,” but give it a rest, will you?]

And, finally, this: “As [Michael] Lind points out, to the horror of his Yankee father, George W. Bush proceeded to run the country exactly like Woodard’s description of a Barbadian slavelord.” [So, let me get this straight, wasn’t this horrified Ivy-educated “Yankee father” and scion of a distinguished Connecticut family the same guy who played to white racial fears nationwide by shamelessly flogging the Willie Horton episode in 1988? As to his son, didn’t he attend prep school in New England and wind up with degrees from both Yale and Harvard?] “And Barack Obama has done almost nothing to roll this victory back.” [According to Robinson’s historical approach, this proves conclusively that Obama was actually born in Barbados. And to think that I didn’t even know they allowed Muslims there!]

Image: “America In My Book” — Haley Nahman’s map of US stereotypes by region (click here to purchase a print).
Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb teaches history at the University of Georgia, where he is B. Phinizy Spalding Distinguished Professor in the History of the American South. His most recent book is the South and America Since World War II (Oxford University Press, 2010) He has been known to blog at www.cobbloviate.com.

  1. I’m not sure why geography is supposed to be such a culturally defining entity. I suspect it may be related to ambient temperatures which prompt humans to migrate to find their comfort zone. In flat terrain, that involves moving north or south, depending on how heat tolerant a person is. In mountainous regions, the migration can be vertical and seasonal to accomplish the same end. People whose awareness of their environment is slim to non-existent, either stay put or wander around at random. The latter behavior is very annoying to people who want to keep track of them. Making them carry ID cards is supposed to make it easier.

  2. Who’s Sara Robinson? No context. Could not find her on Google.

    1. Jeff Cochran

      She wrote the story Jim refers to. Press the “this case” link in the first paragraph and you can read her story which ran in Salon. Jim did a great job in providing context.

  3. Lee Leslie

    Jim – just thinking about how much I miss reading your stories (I have quoted this one many times). Of course, I googled you and realized I could have been reading your stories these last few years at http://cobbloviate.com/ (let me know if you would like us to also post any of your stories on the dew.
    I hope you are well and happy. – Lee

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