Thursday, January 17, 2013

Discomfort, Indeed.

As my wife likes to remind me, I am not really a Southerner; I am a Floridian.  Even though the latitude of my birthplace is 3 degrees south of hers, I am still an outsider, a sort of mongrel, even though a sizable portion of my higher education and all of my professional life has been spent squarely in the South.  I'm not sure I'll ever get to be a member of that club, in part because I don't drink sweet tea and sound like I was born closer to to the Iowa River than the Chattahoochee, where my wife was.

I do feel like I understand this place somewhat, though, and certainly felt more at home in Clemson, South Carolina than I did in Terre Haute, Indiana.  I was an outsider there, too, because the Midwesterners categorized me as one of those from the other side of the Line. College is a place where identity is both calcified and shattered, sometimes more than once.  I never got the impression that there was all that much that identified an Midwesterner, really, or an "Hoosier" in particular.  In fact, nobody even knew what a Hoosier is.

The same could not be said in the Upstate of South Carolina.  The people there had a distinct sound -- distinct from the other side of the state, distinct from the other Carolina and distinct from the other side of the Savannah River.  I could not tell an Ohioan from an Illinoisan in nearly the same way I can pick out an Upstater from a Low Countryman from an Alabaman or a Tennesseean.  The food is different in these places, the music, the dress (especially the colors -- Red is not welcome in the Upstate, and Orange is frowned upon in Athens, Georgia), the sense of place and the sense of story.

I think the story telling comes from the Scots-Irish stock that populates the region; I am convinced there is something inherent in the Celtic blood that makes words pour out like honey -- whether it be from the mouth or the pen.  Like any other people with a strong sense of identity, it's strange to have someone else try to tell your story for you, so I am not even sure I am qualified to write this now, but when I came across this New Yorker piece, my reservations about my credentials receded lazily like the tide over the dark, cakey pluff mud of the Charleston marsh.

After spending some half a dozen paragraphs talking about how Southerners are stubborn, xenophobic, backward, somewhat barbaric, greedy, racist, ignorant, out of touch while culturally dominant, football and Nascar obsessed, tribalist, and violent, he closes with a couple of throwaway sentences that make it seem he's really not judging (the phrase that's used down here is, of course, "Bless his heart"):

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.
The implication is that the South we have now is an inferior facsimile of what the South should be that is popularly understood to be personified in a recalcitrant Senator, a dead business man, and a football star, after he describes the region in precisely those terms.  I don't know what sort of inspiration Packer expects the natives of my adopted home state and our neighbors to provide when the the picture he paints of Southerners is so grim.  None of the buildup to this terminus tells us how the positive qualities do indeed benefit society at large outside of a rather ambiguous listing of positive traits: "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.”  That sounds nice, until two sentences later, he extols vices to counter them.  He is treating my neighbors as either terrorists or children who ought to be mollified.

I am particularly sensitive to that sort of attitude because I chose to be among these people.  I picked Clemson University for graduate work.  I bought my first house in Augusta, Georgia.  I married one of the Peach State's daughters.  We decided together to move to Charleston.  And, in the next place we live, I am certain we will be greeted with y'alls, elongated vowels and an extremely dedicated knowledge of college football.  I like the polite conversation.  I like the weather.  I like the pace of life.  I like the sense of culture.  I like the emphasis on faith.

The task of refashioning the identity has been going on here for over 200 years.  Re-examinations of what it means to be born between Virginia Beach and El Paso came to a rather violent head in 1861, of course, and no one forgets it.  The benefit of losing, though, is being forced to have that conversation; the winner is spared from that kind of existential introspection.

So a magazine entitled the New Yorker is an odd place indeed to read about an explanation on what's going on inside of the cultural mind of the South, especially when, upon completing this story, I was offered a suggested reading link of this story

Like I said, I'm not actually a Southerner and I don't know if Packer is either..  I don't know why it feels like politics are dramatically different now than just two election cycles ago.  But I do know that Packer's infantile reduction of the region to the Republican Party, Wal-Mart and the SEC is not productive or accurate.  I am skeptical that you couldn't go to a small town in Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Oregon and find similar evidence of the low-brow to which Packer objects.  And so what?  What exactly is he trying to argue?