en route Amsterdam-Apeldoorn, January 16, 2013—
The Southernization of American life was an expression of the great turn away from the centralized liberalism that had governed the country from the Presidencies of F.D.R. to Nixon.For years I've railed about The Marlboro Man, whom I have always found emblematic of what Packer calls The Southernization of America:
—George Packer, The New Yorker, Jan. 21, 2013.
…the Southern way of life began to be embraced around the country until, in a sense, it came to stand for the “real America”: country music and Lynyrd Skynyrd, barbecue and NASCAR, political conservatism, God and guns, the code of masculinity, militarization, hostility to unions, and suspicion of government authority, especially in Washington, D.C. (despite its largesse).Packer writes about this in a concise piece meant mainly as a comment on — a contextualization of — the current obstructionist deep-red mentality which threatens any Congressional social legislation. On gun laws, for example, or debt-limit debate, today's example: but, further, on virtually anything approaching the kind of social engineering a dense, complex, and vulnerable society must rely on for its survival.
For a century after losing the Civil War, the South was America’s own colonial backwater—“not quite a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it,” W. J. Cash wrote in his classic 1941 study, “The Mind of the South.” From Tyler, Texas, to Roanoke, Virginia, Southern places felt unlike the rest of the country. The region was an American underbelly in the semi-tropical heat; the manners were softer, the violence swifter, the commerce slower, the thinking narrower, the past closer. It was called the Solid South, and it partly made up for economic weakness with the political strength that came from having a lock on the Democratic Party, which was led by shrewd septuagenarian committee chairmen.I increasingly believe there is a synergy between the cultural values Packer refers to as "the Southern way of life" and an edgy, seemingly resentful attitude I can only think of as antisocial. We're living in a crack between two social orders, I think: the one that saw us through industrialization, urbanization, away from slave-labor, through a hundred years of social progress; and whatever is going to follow, if we can't moderate the two big present threats against intellilgently planned and maintained social structures: either despotic global technological, commercial and economic forces, or a new Dark Ages.
I know perfectly well there are many Southern traditions and values worth praising; I have Southern friends who embody them, with grace and sympathy and taste and patient courtesy. But younger generations seem to have lost connection to the gentility, the comity that characterizes this Southern civility.
Packer's piece closes rather ominously:
…At the end of “The Mind of the South,” Cash has this description of “the South at its best”: “proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal.” These remain qualities that the rest of the country needs and often calls on. The South’s vices—“violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas”—grow particularly acute during periods when it is marginalized and left behind. An estrangement between the South and the rest of the country would bring out the worst in both—dangerous insularity in the first, smug self-deception in the second.Beware resentment, which can turn vicious, even at its own cost.
Southern political passions have always been rooted in sometimes extreme ideas of morality, which has meant, in recent years, abortion and school prayer. But there is a largely forgotten Southern history, beyond the well-known heroics of the civil-rights movement, of struggle against poverty and injustice, led by writers, preachers, farmers, rabble-rousers, and even politicians, speaking a rich language of indignation. The region is not entirely defined by Jim DeMint, Sam Walton, and the Tide’s A J McCarron. It would be better for America as well as for the South if Southerners rediscovered their hidden past and took up the painful task of refashioning an identity that no longer inspires their countrymen.
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