Redneck Nation: How the South Really Won the Warby Michael Graham
A wicked concoction of down-home hilarity and scathing political satire is served up in this provocative and entertaining look at the South's pervasive influence on America from one of the nation's funniest political observers.
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Redneck NationHow the South Really Won the War
By Michael Graham
Warner BooksCopyright © 2003 Michael Graham
All right reserved.
When Al Gore announced his pick of Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate for the 2000 election, we Southerners felt the cold, unfriendly glare of the northern media establishment on the back of our necks. The first Jewish candidate joins a major party's national ticket, and immediately the editorialists look southward over their reading glasses and demand, "Well?"
The Associated Press headlined a Karin Miller story "How Will Lieberman Play in the South?" Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times wrote, without source or attribution, "If there is any backlash against Lieberman, it's most likely to come among Southern evangelical Protestants in states Gore will probably lose anyway."
Al Gore himself, praising his own courage and vision, insisted that by simply nominating Lieberman he would "tear down a mighty wall of division." The location of this mighty wall was undisclosed, but it's a safe bet he believed it to be somewhere south of Skokie, Illinois.
Joe Lieberman: welcomed candidate in the North, suspected Christ killer in the South. That was the story. But this time, the media right-thinkers were all wrong. I say this as an avid practitioner of southern self-hatred who under normal circumstances is more than happy to give my homeland a swift kick in the crawdads. I know from firsthand experience that racism, ignorance, and idiocy down South aren't as bad as you think: They're worse.
In fact, I am so openly critical of my homeland that the natives have awarded me the premier appellation for disloyal Southerners: scalawag. (The South is the only region of America with a vocabulary dedicated solely to describing its infidels.) A scalawag is any white southern male (we would never use such a rude word for a lady) who opposes the official flying of the Confederate flag, supports the activities of the NAACP, or uses an excessive amount of noun-verb agreement.
I plead guilty. But on the issue of southern anti- Semitism, I must defer to the facts. For example: Where is the oldest synagogue building in the United States in continuous use? What is the home of the fourth oldest Jewish congregation in America? Boston? Philadelphia? New York? No, Charleston. Charleston, South Carolina. (The third oldest congregation is in that northern enclave of Savannah, Georgia.)
Who was the first Jewish U.S. senator in America? Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana. Yes, the home of Dixieland and David Duke: Louisiana. In 1852-when he would have been kicked out of every "decent" club in Connecticut or Massachusetts-Judah P. Benjamin was representing the very southern folks of Louisiana as a member of America's most exclusive debating society. After the secession, the reviled white Protestants of the Confederacy went kosher and chose Benjamin to serve in the national cabinet as secretary of war and later secretary of state.
In my home state of South Carolina, the building that houses the offices of our state representatives is the Solomon Blatt Building. Blatt, the son of poor Jewish immigrants, served in the House for fifty-four years-right through Jim Crow and the rise of the KKK. For thirty-three of those years, which included the tumultuous era of the Civil Rights Movement, he served as Speaker. Indeed, when the Confederate battle flag was first raised over the statehouse, it was under the watchful eye of Speaker Sol Blatt.
According to southern scholar John Shelton Reed of the University of North Carolina, if the American South today were a nation, it would have the sixth largest Jewish population in the world. Include Jews from outside Palm Beach, Florida, and that ranking jumps even higher. But the point is still made: Jews in America, both at the founding of Charleston's Beth Elohim temple in 1742 and in the Florida condominiums of today, have found the South at least as hospitable as the rest of the nation.
And yet northern newsrooms covering the 2000 election operated under the unexamined assumption that the closed-minded South is an enclave of Jew haters, while the open-minded North is a bastion of tolerance and acceptance. Are there anti-Semites down in Dixie? You might as well ask if there are anti-Semites in Brooklyn. Or Brookline. Or Chicago. (Just ask Congressman Rahm Emmanuel.)
My personal experience as a Southerner raised in a strongly evangelical home who attended Oral Roberts University is that I never encountered anti-Semitism-in word or deed-while growing up in the South. Yes, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman lost every southern state in 2000 (including Gore's humiliating loss in Tennessee), but they didn't lose a single one of these states because of the senator's faith in Jehovah.
As for Gore/Lieberman's faith in big-government liberalism ... well, that's another matter.
With this clear, objective record, why is the South viewed in such a negative light, compared to the rest of America? To the typical nonSoutherner, we're still the twenty-first-century equivalent of the swimming club in Great Neck, New York, that refused to let Groucho Marx join because he was Jewish. ("Well, then, how about my son?" asked Groucho. "He's only half Jewish. Can he go in up to his waist?")
I stand today and accuse you, my northern friends, not of antisouthern prejudice, but of worse: snobbery. Snobbery and self-righteousness, both of which are unexamined and undeserved. The typical American Northerner, when considering his Southerner neighbors, suffers under what can best be described as "delusions of adequacy."
As a white Southerner who has spent much of his life traveling America, I have repeatedly experienced the immediate, visceral snobbery that northern Americans, particularly liberals from urban centers, emote when they meet Southerners. It's an unpleasant mix of suspicion and condescension. You shake our hands cautiously and, after a "Who bought you the shoes?" glance at our clothes, give a dubious smile as though you expect us to burst into an enthusiastic rendition of "Dixie" or start asking questions about how to work the indoor toilet.
It's not that there aren't plenty of real southern rednecks -a videotape of my last family reunion could have been a National Geographic special titled "Swimming the Shallow End of the Gene Pool: Redneck Reproduction in the American Southeast." And I will never dispute the notion that the American South is dominated by irrational attitudes about race, religion, and culture. My challenge is: Tell me what part of America isn't.
This smugness, this condescension, this false sense of superiority that you Northerners feel toward me and my fellow Southerners, is the reason I wrote this book. Believe me, I grew up believing Northerners were the erudite, rational, antiracist advocates of achievement and culture you pretend to be. It took me twenty years to find out you were lying.
I know that many readers, Southerners in particular, will reject the idea that there is any significant demarcation of America, North and South. That the South is the stupidest place in America is obviously, palpably true, but when it comes to the truth, most Southerners are like the jury in the O. J. Simpson trial. We will not be influenced by mere facts.
But this isn't a regional conflict between bagels and biscuits. What I thought was happening in the 1960s during the civil rights struggle was a cultural battle between two worldviews, "Northernism" and "Southernism." And there is a distinct southern culture. I lived the southern life, I was enveloped in the southern spirit, I drank from the deep springs of southern pride, and, at my first opportunity, I ran like a bat out of hell.
Let me be clear: I didn't just leave the South. I rejected it. As a teenager, whenever I met people for the first time, I would always try to work in the phrase "Well, I was born in Los Angeles ..." The fact that I didn't know Compton from Santa Clarita was irrelevant. It gave me that one measure of distance from my southern identity.
When I was thirteen, my father played a cassette recording he had made of me speaking to the church. I think it was "Kids Who Found Christ Through Herbalife" Day or something like that, and I was working the crowd hard-but that voice. Ugh! I sounded like an adolescent Jethro Clampett addressing the annual belt buckle collectors' convention. Imagine a cross between the basso profundo of Barney Fife and the masculine articulations of Harvey Fierstein-that was my voice.
So I decided not to have a southern accent. I didn't want to be one of "them," with "them" defined as pretty much every human being I knew at that time. Part of this anger was teen angst, and part of it came from the fact that I actually was, and am, an obnoxious ass, but there was an earnest, legitimate longing, too. It wasn't just that I wanted to leave the South. I also had a vision of being a part of something else.
Where I really wanted to go, the home I was truly seeking-even if I never said it out loud-was a place I had heard about all my life. The North. There are those who say "the North" is just a direction, while "the South" is a place. They're wrong. The North exists in a true and powerful way, and I know it does because we Southerners invented it.
The people I grew up with and live with today talk of it constantly. I don't know if it's got a precise longitude or latitude, but the North certainly exists, if only in the imaginations of suspicious Southerners.
For the devoted, fundamentalist Southerner, the North is any place that isn't the South. New York, Chicago, Seattle, these places are obviously part of the North, but so are San Diego, Tucson, and Santa Fe. Ask any Southerner and he'll tell you Washington, D.C., is part of the North. We do so for the same reason Northerners say D.C. is part of the South: We don't want it, either.
But the North I grew up with in my mind was the place where John Irving and Woody Allen lived. It wasn't just where Woody lived, it was where people lived who went to see his movies ... and liked them. It was a place where a young man stretched askew across the sofa with a book was never asked, "Whatcha readin' that for?" It was a place where people watched baseball, not football, because baseball was more artful, more intelligent, and less violent. Where a black man and a white woman who sat down in a restaurant together weren't stared at, or worse.
And for an angry, embattled, out-of-place teenager trapped in a backwood bastion of Old South bigotry and dim-wittery, the North that called to me was a powerful, compelling place that existed specifically to be not the South.
This is true North. You find references to this North in our most sacred southern texts: T-shirts and bumper stickers. No philosophy is held by the southern mind that can't be expressed in an 8" x 3" rectangle on the back of a truck, with room left over for the Confederate flag:
IF THE NORTH IS SO GREAT, WHY DON'T YOU GO BACK? or KEEP THE SOUTH CLEAN: BUY A YANKEE A BUS TICKET. And then there's the ever-popular WE DON'T CARE HOW YOU DID IT UP NORTH.
This is demonstrably untrue. We Southerners don't just care about how you do things up North, we're obsessed with it. We are painfully self-conscious of our relationship to the North. In part, we resent the snobbery and unearned superiority we sometimes encounter. We are very aware that you think you're smarter, quicker, and more cosmopolitan than we are.
But what's worse-and this is the real source of friction-we often suspect you are right. We just won't admit it. If he were being honest, the typical Southerner's bumper would read: EVEN IF WE UNDERSTOOD, WE STILL WOULDN'T CARE HOW YOU DID IT UP NORTH, or IF YOU'RE SO SMART, WHY ARE YOU HERE?
Southern scholars like C. Vann Woodward insist that this southern inferiority complex is rooted in the fact that (if you ignore that Vietnam thing) we're the only Americans to lose a war. Not me. I trace the southern ethos and its struggle against Northernism to the civil rights battle of the 1950s and '60s.
Let's turn again to the example of Senator Lieberman, who in 2000 bravely traveled across the South (those parts directly between Connecticut and Miami, anyway) as a liberal, Democratic, somewhat observant Jew. Despite the predictions and hand-wringing before the campaign, there were in fact no more cross burnings or synagogue bombings or yarmulke snatchings in Macon, Georgia, than in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Nevertheless, Senator Lieberman's southern campaign was instructive. It offered some interesting symbolism for the astute observer of history, for this wasn't Joe Lieberman's first tour of the old Confederacy. He made another important trip in 1963, during the Civil Rights Movement.
According to the New York Times, "Mr. Lieberman was among 67 Yalies who formed the first large group of Northern white students to travel south for the cause of civil rights." Lieberman also participated in the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr., shared his dream with America.
One of the things I like about Joe Lieberman is that he hasn't attempted to exploit his youthful stand for civil rights. "I'm very proud that I went. It was a very important experience in my life. But, you know, there were others who were there much longer and did much more than I did," Lieberman told the Times.
His efforts were modest and, to his credit, so is he. It wasn't until Al Gore and Donna Brazille-the Slobodan Milosevic of the Democratic Party-revamped his resume that Lieberman was offered to voters as the Harriet Tubman of the 2000 election.
Lieberman and the thousands of other Northerners, black and white, deserve credit for traveling to the Jim Crow South, and for all the right reasons. They didn't go there to learn from it or study it, but to defeat it. These "outside agitators" were waging a war against the southern culture of the time, and rightfully so.
What these civil rights warriors brought with them wasn't just a specific view of social justice or the rule of law. They brought a philosophy: Northernism. They saw up close the evils of racism, cronyism, anti-intellectualism, irrational religiosity, and general bad taste. They heard Southerners make claims of ethnic exceptionalism, arguing that what appeared unfair or irrational up North made perfect sense down home, and rejected them. These civil rights volunteers fought repeatedly against legal restrictions on the freedom to speak and to dissent. They would eventually support the creation of a federal television and radio network, in part to bring something resembling culture and enlightened entertainment to the region H. L. Mencken immortalized as "the Sahara of the Bozart."
We Southerners fought back-hard.
Excerpted from Redneck Nation by Michael Graham Copyright © 2003 by Michael Graham. Excerpted by permission.
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