"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"
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.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,
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.
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. . . ."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").
[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.
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.