Monday, January 21, 2013

"The South escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism " (Garry Wills)


"The South escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking. The North puffed confidently into the future, Panglossian about progress, always bound to win. But the South had lost. It knew there was an America that could be defeated. That made it capable of facing tragedy, as many in America were not."
-- Garry Wills, in a NYRB blogpost, "Dumb America"

by Ken

I wasn't the only reader whose attention was caught by George Packer's recent New Yorker "Comment" piece, "Southern Discomfort." In a new New York Review of Books post, "Dumb America," Garry Wills reports, "George Packer's recent New Yorker comments on the South made me sort out my own complicated feelings about the region."

Packer, you'll recall, wrote:
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 [Alabama Crimson] 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.
Garry himself, he tells us, is Southern on both sides -- his mother's family from Georgia, his father's from Virginia. He was born in Atlanta, and even though the family moved away shortly thereafter and his "Yankee" accent would make him feel like an outsider, he "always liked the South." Among his relatives, he says,
I preferred those who had stayed in the South to those who moved north. My Irish grandmother in Atlanta was a warm-hearted Catholic, while my English grandmother in Chicago was a pinched Christian Scientist always correcting her family.
The South's "sense of the past," he says, appealed to his conservative temperament. Southern writers like Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, Ralph Ellison, Robert Penn Warren, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, John Crowe Ransom, Erskine Caldwell, Andrew Lytle, and Carson McCullers," he says, did for the rest of America what such Irish writers as Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, Sean O'Casey, Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett had once done for England.

The South, he says, "knew there was an America that could be defeated."
The South escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking. The North puffed confidently into the future, Panglossian about progress, always bound to win. But the South had lost. . . .

[P]overty did not make the South helpless. In fact, straitened circumstances made it readier to grab what it could get. In its long bargain with the Democratic party, for instance, it not only fended off attacks on its Jim Crow remnant of the Old Confederacy, but gamed the big government system through canny old codgers in Washington -- the chairmen of the major congressional committees, who sluiced needed assistance to the South during the Great Depression.
"But the current South," says "Garry, "is willing to cut off its own nose to show contempt for the government," citing the case of Florda Gov. Rick Scott turning down $2 billion-plus for a high-speed rail system "that would have created jobs and millions of dollars in revenues" ("in this mood, his forebears would have turned down TVA") as well as encroachments like federal money for better health care (which "no one needs more than the South"), not to mention possible government largesse for education ("preferring to inoculate its children against science by denying evolution").
No part of the country will suffer the effects of global warming earlier or with more devastation than the South, yet its politicians resist measures to curb carbon emissions and deny the very existence of climate change -- sending it to the dungeon with evolution and biblical errancy. One doesn't need much imagination to see the South with lowered or swollen waters in its rivers and ports, raging kudzu, swarming mosquitos, and record-breaking high temperatures, still telling itself that global-warming talk is just a liberal conspiracy. But it just digs deeper in denial. The South has decided to be defeated and dumb. . . .

Tradition dies hard, hardest among those who cannot admit to the toll it has taken on them. That is why the worst aspects of the South are resurfacing under Obama's presidency. . . .

[T]he South [is] the distillation point for all the fugitive extremisms of our time, the heart of Say-No Republicanism, the home of lost causes and nostalgic lunacy. It is as if the whole continent were tipped upward, so that the scattered crazinesses might slide down to the bottom. The South has often been defeated. Now it is defeating itself.

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At 11:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The geographical arc from Oklahoma southeast down thru Louisiana, curve up catching all of Florida that isn't tourist/foreign/gay (all not bad things, certainly elevates FLA) and peters out in Virginia, this arc, has the highest dun death rates, obesity, diabetes, teen pregnancies, SYDs, divorces, many other social dysfunctions. And, the most religious. And the most Republican.

At 2:51 AM, Blogger assignments web said...

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At 4:49 AM, Anonymous me said...

Please delete the spam.

At 4:50 AM, Anonymous me said...

The link to the Dumb America book is broken. This is what it should be:

At 4:51 AM, Anonymous me said...


At 5:00 AM, Anonymous me said...

Speaking of his grandmother, Wills said, "...she walked out of the church when a black priest came out to celebrate. I wondered why, since she would sit and eat with a black woman who helped her with housework. 'It is the dignity - I would not let him take the Lord in his hands.'"

That is a perfect example of why the South sucks.

WTF is wrong with those people???? You couldn't pay me enough to live in that shithole.

At 6:24 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Like Wills, I am a son of the South (western North Carolina) who has chosen to live in the North (upstate NY). I visit regularly; my family still lives there. And while there are many things to like about the South, there are two things that keep me from even thinking about moving back. The first is Faulkner's famous line, "In the south, the past is not dead. It's not even past." Far too many people there are still trying to re-fight the Civil War, trying to pretend that they actually won. The second is related: emotional denial of their defeat overriding any rational response to the present. That is the cause, IMO, of their climate change denial, their refuge in Biblical literalism, their extreme conservatism.

The two combined go a long way toward explaining the pathologies of the region; though there are delightful islands of exception (Asheville, NC; Athens, GA; Austin, TX, and others), the weight of unreality pressing down on all sides is too much for me to consider going back to even one of those enclaves.

At 10:28 PM, Anonymous me said...

I sort of understand their unhappiness at losing the war. But only sort of. For chrissakes, it's been 150 years. Get over it.

But even more important is the reason the war happened in the first place. The South started the war because they wanted to remain slaveholders. There is no other significant reason. They wanted to preserve the miserable, corrupt, and inhuman institution of slavery. Not that old chestnut "states rights", not "Northern aggression", not anything else. Slavery.

That, I suspect, is one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, reasons behind their incoherent beliefs today - the cognitive dissonance that results from being "proud" of their Confederate heritage.

Keeping slaves, and fighting a war that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths in order to continue keeping slaves, is not something to be proud of. It is something to be ASHAMED of. And until Southerners grow up and admit that fact, they will continue to be what they have been.

At 5:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How utterly ironic that a blog calling itself "DownWithTyranny" would write (yet another) slur piece against the South.

The North is perfectly welcome to it's Godless confabulations (evolution, Gullible Warming), it's hypocrisy ("Think of the CHILdren!" while demanding the "right" to dispose of them before they are even born, bullying children from grades K-12 because they are White, male, & "privileged"), their upside-down depravity (queers & women-as-men/ men-as-women) & the pathological self-hatred that makes them claim that the world would be a better place if everyone who didn't think like them would just die-
if only Northern liberals would shed the South & let us go our own way. Y'All could have your "utopia" unencumbered except that you need our tax dollars to foot the bill.

Just like the years leading up to the War Between The States, the North is damned & determined to keep it's greedy hands in our pockets & would rather destroy us than let us go.
That's pretty sick.

At 7:57 PM, Anonymous me said...

We just heard a perfect example of why Southerners suck. Ignorant and proud of it.


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