Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What's For Breakfast? Southern-Fried America

There seems to be a newfound interest in the South lately, and in how its history affects America's politics and race relations today. On the whole the news is not good, at least if you believe in human equality and republican (as opposed to Republican) government. These two stories are a good starting point (H/T Fallenmonk; see link below):
  • Sara Robinson at AlterNet: "Conservative Southern Values Revived: How a Brutal Strain of American Aristocrats Have Come to Rule America"
  • Fallenmonk (who is himself a liberal Southerner): "The South Has Risen Again"
You'll have to look elsewhere if you want a link to Asshole Ted Nugent's assertion that we'd all be better off if the South had won the Civil War. For the record, he did say something like that, but I'm not going to link to it.

The problem is that the consequences of slavery, an institution that never should have been permitted to arise in a self-proclaimed free society (Robinson's post contains a good explanation of how it did arise), have never been fully dealt with. I could hope that when heretofore racial minorities become, in aggregate, the majority, maybe we can make some headway, but I just don't see it happening in states like Texas, which is already "majority minority." (How I hate that phrase! But it is current usage.) And nationally, old-style Southern thinking, some of it done by Southerners and some not, is leading the nation somewhere many of us perceive as straight to Hell. Here's Robinson:

For most of our history, American economics, culture and politics have been 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). While they've done their share of damage to the notion of democracy in the name of profit (as all financial elites inevitably do), this group has, for the most part, tempered its predatory instincts with a code that valued mass education and human rights; held up public service as both a duty and an honor; and imbued them with the belief that once you made your nut, you had a moral duty to do something positive with it for the betterment of mankind. Your own legacy depended on this.


Which brings us to that other great historical American nobility -- the plantation aristocracy of the lowland South, which has been notable throughout its 400-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.

Well, yes. And today's racists, who are by no means exclusively confined to the South and are often very conservative in other aspects of their sociopolitical views, are gaining power, in an apparently intentional effort to transform the United States into something other than what it had evolved to be. Authors like Robinson avoid talking about the nation's origins, in which many of the founders were themselves slaveholders. But That was Then, and Now Everything is Different... Except in the South. If that were true, we would face a much smaller problem. But it isn't, and we don't.

I always remember an experience I had when I was 22 years old, right out of college, working for Texas Instruments in their Software Branch. (The Software Branch was about hardware, and all the other branches were about hardware... it was, and probably still is, the nature of TI.) The company contracted to construct a control system for a major radio station and network headquartered in NYC. Having worked on developing TI's general-purpose control software, I was assigned to adapt it for use by the network. I was to work with a guy named Kevin, sent from NYC to Houston for the duration of the project. Kevin was, like me, a man of lower-class origins. Unlike me, Kevin was an unrestrained racist, and he felt that because he was in "the South" (I could spend a paragraph attacking the concept that Texas is really the South, but I won't), among the white men who dominated the Software Branch, he could freely voice his racist tendencies. He just assumed I would agree with him. I couldn't fight back; it was worth my job to have fought back. So I bit my tongue, tapped my code and somehow got through it. Perhaps I'd have responded better if I had had a few years in the field and a reputation that enabled me to walk out the door and find another job right away. But all that came later. In my solo contracting career, I had the luxury of not putting up with racists, but not in that first job.

It is very important that every person of good will, anywhere in America, who participates in the effort to overcome America's latent (and sometimes blatant) racism, not make automatic assumptions about individuals based solely on their region of origin. If you do that, you'll be wrong more often than right... and you'll damage your cause more than you can imagine. Give us a break. Many of us are pedaling as hard as we can, fighting against obstacles you may understand intellectually but not viscerally. Do not oversimplify the obstacles we face: it doesn't help us, and therefore it doesn't help us to help you.


  1. The above quotes characterize two distinct economic paradigms: the North and it's advancing industrial capitalism and the agrarian South, whose economy was more characteristic of feudalism based on cheap slave labor. It seems to me that while the cultural history of these two distinct cultures still endures or rather festers, the fact is that Northern capitalism has metastasized into a system
    somewhat representing the values of the old south. When 'debt' becomes wealth and the classic characteristic of product based capitalism is destroyed the empire will fail echoing the failure of the old South.

  2. Re-reading this I think I just tripped over my own BS!

  3. I've been seeing this for years and it didn't really register for what it was. The structure and lack of justice in the South has never really gone away and now it appears it has resurfaced as the face of the Republican party and that's not a good thing.

  4. karmanot - perhaps so! :-)

    To me, the core of the issue that resulted in the Civil War is that the North was largely industrial and commercial, while the South was largely agrarian. To the extent that the antebellum North purchased Southern agricultural products, the North was, indirectly but indisputably, responsible for slavery as surely as the South. But I'm not sure I agree with you that the North adopted the values of the South; they were, and are, socially and economically, very different cultures, even today. But...

    To what degree is today's race problem regional? Before you answer, head over to the Southern Poverty Law Center site and look at their maps of so-called "white patriot" groups: since Obama's election, they have doubled in number, and they aren't scarce in any part of the country. Racism is ubiquitous in America; it's everybody's problem.

  5. fallenmonk - precisely so. The Republican Party is not our grandparents' Republican Party; ever since Nixon's "Southern strategy" succeeded in splitting the Democratic Party into Democrats and Dixiecrats, the latter then joining the GOP, that GOP has become something perverse and not recognizably in tune with the principles of America's founding. The Democratic Party doesn't have a lot to brag about, but at least they seem to have extinguished any blatant racism in their ranks.

    America was founded as an already divided nation; the Civil War was largely a consequence of divisions not resolved satisfactorily at the founding. And we haven't really fixed the problem yet, and it may contribute to the nation's demise, especially if economic and/or environmental conditions worsen sufficiently.



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