“The Southernization of America: A Story of Democracy in the Balance” by Frye Gaillard and Cynthia Tucker (New South Books, $25.95) is a collection of essays on how some of the worst qualities of the South seem to have infected the entire body politic. from this country. It’s a sad book, and undeniably it has the truth to tell.
It is, the authors insist, a sort of spiritual sequel to John T. Egerton’s 1974 “The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America”, a seminal work that noted how much the South increasingly resembled the rest of the country.
But while the general tone of Egerton’s book was optimistic – the South was beginning to understand the economic and psychological consequences of apartheid and rusty bigotry – “America’s Southernization” reads like an indictment. He sees Southern roots in distressing national trends, particularly the integration of tribalist white supremacy and the subversion of democratic ideals.
It’s not a good habit to quote the back cover of a book, because the publishing business is about as bad with bait and switches and outrageous antics as any other capitalist business, but I’ll make an exception here, because Douglas Blackmon, the pride of Stuttgart and the Pultizer Prize-winning author of “Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” fully understands when he says the book “reveals how the worst aspects of what was once the Southern ‘way of life’ have metastasized across the country to contaminate the values of millions of Americans who should know better.”
I provided the italics in this sentence – it’s the “should know better” that confuses me. It’s not like we haven’t seen how these scenarios play out and how the only people who really benefit from the divisions we make between ourselves and others are certain cynical elites who understand how to manipulate our fears in order to to obtain and maintain power and profit.
Tucker, former editor of the editorial page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (where she won a Pulitzer), and Gaillard, author of more than 20 books (including the excellent “A Hard Rain: America in the 1960s, Our Decade of Hope, Possibility, and Innocence Lost”), seem to have assembled this book from discrete essays – some written in tandem, others attributed to one or the other – in which they examine the ” Southern strategy” of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, which led to the realignment of Southern politics; the campaign of Trumpian “birtherism” and the racial reaction to the election of Barack Obama; the rise of the Christian right; of tiki torches in Charlottesville, Virginia; the death of George Floyd in police custody; and the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol. All of these events, they argue, can be traced to attitudes and assumptions present in the South.
Some people will call it the Southerner-bashing (not all Southerners!) but I don’t disagree.
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A few weeks ago I was preparing to show a class Elia Kazan’s 1957 film which stars Andy Griffith (in his first on-screen role) as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a vulgar con man who steps out of a drunken small-town Arkansas tank to become a media sensation and, as he proclaims, “an influencer” who commands the hearts of millions of everyday people. During my research, I came across a podcast from a few years ago by aspiring screenwriters reviewing old movies whose names I’ve forgotten.
Their view of the Kazan film seemed vulgar; they spent a lot of time talking about how quickly things seem to be moving (one argued that there was no way Rhodes could have gone from a local Memphis TV station to a national broadcast from New York in a matter of weeks) and missed the indicate. But one thing they agreed on was that the only place such a loud, brash, and rude character could dominate the population was in the South.
Southerners would love it, one said, but no one in California or New York would fall for Lonesome Rhodes’ brand of hokum.
It reminded me of the days of the Chris Matthews”https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2022/mar/13/book-worst-parts-of-south-infecting-us/”Hardball” program when Andrea Mitchell suggested to me that the people of Arkansas couldn’t quite understand or appreciate the importance of Hillary Clinton.
Ignorance is all around us.
But we might agree that there is something we might call the Southern character, whether or not we can agree on the qualities that make up that character. Fred Hobson believed that Southerners had “a rage to explain”.
There is a theory that human beings, like other animals, are nothing more than meat, bones, blood, and tallow. So our thoughts, our dreams are accidents, by-products of our essential drives to reproduce. There are serious people who insist that our understanding of the natural world is limited only by the inability of our minds to collect and process relevant data.
This means there are no ghosts and magic; our understanding is incomplete, but there is nothing inexplicable if we look carefully and long enough, if we apply the correct set of equations. Sometimes I suspect these people are right – or at least I understand their argument. But there is something sentimental and superstitious about me, something that could otherwise be described as a lack of discipline. I prefer to believe in the inexplicable, the ineffable.
I prefer to think that there are things beyond our knowledge that cannot be discovered in our chromosomes. And I think that tendency might be most of what we might describe as the southern character – a willingness to indulge in mystery.
Egerton could lament that the South, manifested by this particular and mysterious quality, should disappear; that America was absorbing it, that we were all becoming a homogenized mall pitch leveled by MTV and cable TV. But the deal was that anything brutal and coercive in the South would be mitigated by its assimilation. Perhaps his well-known sins could be erased by his rubbing against America?
Gaillard and Tucker suggest that Southern cultural pathology is becoming a dominant strain in our national composition. The South has risen; May God help us all.
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