Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Southernization of America

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.
—George Packer, The New Yorker, Jan. 21, 2013.
For years I've railed about The Marlboro Man, whom I have always found emblematic of what Packer calls The Southernization of America:
…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.

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.
Beware resentment, which can turn vicious, even at its own cost.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Curtis Faville said...

Charles: I'm familiar with the strange patriotic fervor that occasionally grips one when abroad. I often had that feeling during the year we lived in Japan. I think Gore Vidal maintained a paternal scorn and hope for his country in the years he lived on the Amalfi Coast of Italy. It gave him perspective, mixed with nostalgic longing.

Anti-bellum South was a sharply stratified social hierarchy. We forget that "poor whites" were the largest single class, both before, and since the Civil War. And by "since" I mean right up to the present day. The South is poor, and its poorest citizens have traditionally been culturally isolated, and poorly educated. There's a creeping anxiety among southerners that masquerades as fake confidence. They feel challenged by the "elites" the radical right keeps harping about, and they're filled with resentment.

An "elite" is anyone or -thing that purports to know more than they do--politically, aesthetically, culturally, etc.

About 40 years ago--give or take a decade--the Republican Party set about breaking up the Democratic Party's hold on the South. The strategy was to demonize sophistication and intellectualism and free-thinking. I'm not talking about the rich olde classic Southern aristocracy, but the majority of ordinary poor whites. They've used all the push-button issues--abortion, gun-rights, racial hatred and suspicion, anti-unionism, suspicion of Federalism, States Rights--and it's worked. It worked not only in the South, but in the American Southwest, in the Plains States, and in the Prairie States as well. It's the new redneck, tinhorn constituency, resentful and stupid, gullible and gauche.

These people vote AGAINST their own interests, supporting big extractive capital exploitation, and fighting "socialism" and enlightened self-interest. They've been duped. They're pawns in a grand bargain between capital and the great unwashed. They're capitalism's unconscious running-dogs.

But try to mention any of this in a coffee shop in Helena, Montana, or Fort Worth, Texas or Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and you're likely to get your head blown off like the boys in Easy Rider. I'm not kidding, either.

We are still a divided nation, and the Republicans are cultivating that schism with whole-hearted determination.

JonSchwartz said...

Curtis Faville,

How long if at all did you live in the South and did you do so with having an open mind and open heart. I am going to make a silly assumption and based on your family living in Japan due to military employment or some type of diplomatic jobs. So if you or your relatives where in the military do you not understand the sacrifices southerns have made time and again to our armed forces.

Point two about the South, again have you even live there sir? If not I would suggest holding back such inaccurate and vile commentary on a place you have never been. I am not cultural expert merely a historian and political scientist but I have moved around this county.

I have lived in several states Arizona, Northern and Southern California, South Florida, North East Ohio, North Mississippi, Memphis, TN and Eastern Washington State, beyond living abroad in Argentine.

So do you know what I saw in all these places, a struggle between progressive ideas of a younger generation against the older generation trying to keep their traditions alive. The "septuagenarian[s]" mentioned in the above blog post still run many small towns not just in the South but in New England and the Midwest, the individual citizens are aware of this but trapped by corporate consumerism and bank financed debt.
Secondly, I know several professors in both Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas versus Professors in Ohio and Pennsylvania and I have to say education levels of students entering community colleges and 4-year institutes in the South surpass their northern counterparts. So maybe Southerns did not ascribe to your political beliefs, but is that not their American right to choose their beliefs and speak their mind. Even the most evil people like West Boro Baptist church has the right to speak. We do not need to validate them through media coverage and counter protests. People need to understand that hate begets hate. So sir I ask you this?

Why not come to the South. It is the major of the US, the fastest growing part of the economy, a higher level of book stores and music venues than the midwest above it and even now it is still true that more Pulitzer Prize winners for literature came from Mississippi than any other state.


A Southern in Ohio, JDS

JonSchwartz said...

Also Charles if you will indulge one more comment - You claim that we are so violent but based on census information from 2006 -

It looks like the South is just as Violent as the Eastern and Midwest.

Quick 10 ten with rates and rank
(With region next to rank

South Carolina 766 1 S*
Tennessee 760 2 S*
Nevada 742 3 W
Florida 712 4 S+N
Louisiana 698 5 S*
Alaska 688 6 W
Delaware 682 7 E
Maryland 679 8 E
New York 435 9 E
Michigan 562 10 MW

John Whiting said...

Charles - May I suggest that what you call the Southernization of America could also be called the Fragmenting of America. What typified the mind of the South was a sense of being an embattled minority, and this is a frame of mind which the internet, in its splitting up of humanity, from whole populations down to individual families, is doing to the world in a way that's analogous to fundamentalist religious sects. As internet news groups tear themselves apart in internecine warfare, the fragmentation becomes ever more progressive. All of us now -- even Wall Street bankers! -- have the mind set and speak the language of the oppressed.

What was supposed to be a global village has become a global battlefield. We celebrated electronic media's contribution to bringing down Middle Eastern dictators, only to see the vacuum filled by murderous hysteria. A terrible thought: have the new media merely given humanity the opportunity to express and to act upon our true nature?