Friday, July 06, 2012

Southern rebel talk

Ever have a car seat that moves, but just won’t click into place? And it feels vaguely weird for awhile, but then the car hits a bump in the road and the seat finally clicks? Well, that bump in the road is this article, and the seat that clicked was my mind.

I really don’t know how else to put it. The article articulates something that I’ve vaguely felt for most of my life but couldn’t place. Sara Robinson argues that the aggressive conservatism currently reigning in politics is a manifestation of the southern plantation mentality, a strain historically blocked from national leadership even by other conservatives.

If you’re not inclined to read the whole piece, at least take this away from it:

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.

Robinson makes it clear that she’s comparing prevailing attitudes of Civil War-era North and South elites. The distinction is important because she isn’t arguing that either attitude is confined to its borders, or that they necessarily describe everyone who lives within those borders (a point that nearly every critical comment misses). Indeed, that’s why this clicked with me: because I’m a southerner who subscribes to the northern view, and there are plenty of us (and vice versa).

(To keep it simple, as Robinson does, I’ll refer to north versus south as a way of comparing the two attitudes. Don’t take it personally and don’t tell me to move to New York unless you’re buying the ticket.)

Even before I moved to the Midwest for a few years, I felt a vaguely rotten undercurrent about the South, my home turf. As if it was the greatest place in the world, but only if you were the right kind of person, which I was. The veneer of that began to erode as more people realized my political views, and responded to them with a hostility that suggested I’d let them down. But it wasn’t just about race or politics: it was the law the school board passed that required students to say “ma’am” and “sir.” It was hearing a teacher say that school uniforms were good practice for the real world, where you had to “CONFORM.” It was about the never-ending cacophony of voices talking about “kicking ass” and daring someone to confiscate their guns. It’s about women who surrender their lives at a man’s request. It’s the child who isn’t allowed to call me by my name out of “respect” even though that’s what I’m comfortable being called. Our cultural mores involve rote and enforced respect, obedience and knowing your place — or, at least, making sure others know theirs. When you think hierarchically like this, you don’t have a lot of room for community or sympathy. We're better than we used to be, but it's not hard to see how we took these views to inhumane extremes 150 years ago. And how many politicians, from all over, want to take us right back there.

To the extent that such attitudes can be distilled into regions the way Robinson does, I lean toward the northern view. With great power comes great responsibility, and I believe that we all have to succeed together. I hope it’s not impolite to say that. It shouldn’t even be that controversial.

I just hate to see our cultural and political export to the rest of the nation be the most shameful mindset we've ever possessed. 

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