The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

A little while back, I tried to set down some thoughts regarding national attitudes toward the South. At the time, my focus was mostly on literature. Jacob Levenson looks at the it primarily from the political angle, although it all ties together.

I'd like to cherry-pick parts of his article:
But as I listened to [editor of the Austin American-Statesman, Richard] Oppel and others dig beneath the surface of their longstanding displeasure with their perception of the northern press's paternalism, I grew more interested in the shape of the caricature than the fact that it exists. As the presidential primaries unfolded, it struck me that the country, and, by natural extension, the press, often use the South as a convenient box to contain all sorts of problems, situations, and conditions that are actually national in scope--race, white poverty, the cultural rift forming between the religious and the secular, guns, abortion, gay marriage, the gradual extinction of rural life, states' rights, the continuing debates over the size of government, the contours of American morality, and the identity of the major political parties. As a northern journalist who has recently spent time reporting in the rural South, I find myself deeply conflicted about this practice, increasingly attuned to both its potential and its risks.
Excellent observation. I've always thought it was hypocritical of Northerners to poo-poo reports of overt racism in random Southern small towns, and derive a sense of superiority from it, when the very same thing happens in their communities. It's convenient to point fingers at faraway places instead of cleaning up your own house.
To try to understand the southern identity in historical terms is to quickly realize that over time there have been many Souths: the sunny South, the savage South, the agrarian South, the Jim Crow South, the violent South, the cracker South, the frontier South, the antebellum South; H.L. Mencken's Old South, populated by "men of delicate fancy, urbane instinct and aristocratic manners--in brief, superior men--in brief, gentry," the suffering South, the moral South, and the list goes on. Even now, when interviewing astute observers of the region, it becomes rapidly clear that to talk about the South is to speak with southern mythologizers, southern debunkers, southern redeemers, and southern reinventors. Running clear through most of these narratives, however, is the theme that in some fundamental sense the South sits apart from the rest of the country. (italics mine)
A dead giveaway is when something--a place, person, concept--requires a definition, thus distinguishing its sense of otherness. For the United States, the default is the metropolitan Northeast; the rest of the country, including the South, is someplace else.
James Cobb, a southern historian at the University of Georgia, told me that this phenomenon can be traced directly to the birth of the American press. Even before the Revolutionary War, the literary market was concentrated in the North and it defined the country in its image. America was supposed to be New England writ large, while the South, Cobb said, was portrayed as colonial, lacking the dynamism of the national character--the antithesis of America. By the early twentieth century, the notion that the region was culturally separate had become particularly pronounced.
I have to question this, and wonder if this viewpoint isn't being distorted by the national prism created by the Civil War. Certainly you can find examples of Northern bias back to colonial times, but if you look, you can probably find almost as many Southern pockets of media concentration. Virginia, for instance, was the largest State for several decades following 1776; it was in many ways the national center of gravity. I think the real break came with the Northern victory in the Civil War.

In fact, I find it curious that Levenson almost completely ignores mentioning the Civil War in this analysis. Hello? It's a watershed event from which practically all present-day events still evolve. Maybe he believes that approach has been examined to death, but ignoring it makes any discussion of the South woefully incomplete.
The difficulty with this enterprise is that the South is still often cast as completely other. So, as Peter Applebome, the former New York Times Atlanta bureau chief, who has argued that the rest of America is becoming more like the South, told me, talking about race in the South becomes a way of not talking about race in the rest of the country. It's a point worth highlighting, and it extends beyond race. As we head into an election, Richard Oppel believes that the political horserace stories that can casually frame God, guns, and gays as southern concerns promise to oversimplify southerners' relationship to these issues, and, at the same time, relegate the national struggle to come to terms with these same issues to the periphery of the debate. All of which seems to highlight James Cobb's observation that many have come to believe that what "is wrong with America has metastasized across the country from its origins in the South." The trouble with that, he said, is that nobody has an explanation for why the rest of the country provides such a wonderful "export market" for these Southern values. Given all of this, how can the press capture the region in a nuanced way that also offers insight into the country at large? Part of the trick is to make clear what elements of a story are southern and what are national.
The heart of it, really: When are the issues truly reprentative of a national consciousness? And do non-Southerners have a hangup about recognizing this?