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Why Do So Many Southerners Think They're the Only Real Americans?

Let's not pretend that condescension is unique to the North.

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If it did nothing else, my time in the South did teach me to empathize with Southerners of all political persuasions who are sick and tired of having the honor of their region traduced by moralizing Northern jackasses such as myself (however impressively informed and well-intentioned we might be). For enduring the constant shaming and petty ridicule of the North, Southerners deserve some sort of national medal.

Still, there seems to be something dysfunctionally (and uniquely) Dixie at play in a bellicosity so intense that it leads otherwise intelligent people to the trough of abuse rather than to the table of intelligent counterpoint when confronted with an opinion that’s critical of their way of thinking.

Not to mention their way of voting.

The Angry South

I am by no means the first to have noticed the hypersensitivity of Southerners.

Among the more intriguing passages in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers is the section that recounts an experiment conducted at the University of Michigan by researchers measuring anger and loss of temper.

The study tested the short-fuse reactions of young males encountering a pushy stranger in a narrow hallway. The key to the study was a trigger word—“asshole”—used by the stranger to insult test subjects after he’d “accidentally” bumped into them.

Psychologists Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett recorded facial expressions and measured levels of testosterone and cortisol (the hormones connected to arousal and aggression) to determine how quickly tempers flared following minor offense. The results were striking.

Wrote Gladwell: “Most of the young men from the northern part of the United States treated the incident with amusement. They laughed it off. Their levels of cortisol actually went down, as if they were unconsciously trying to defuse their own anger. But the Southerners? Oh, my. They were angry. Their cortisol and testosterone jumped.”

A good friend of mine, a Vietnam veteran, talks on occasion about the most powerful narcotic he ever experienced.

“Anger,” Robert will say slowly. “Anger distorts reality as much as drugs. I was angry most of the time I was in Vietnam and for two years after I got out.”

Anger often stands in for rational analysis in the South, and, as with my friend Robert, a festering lesion of military resentment burbles behind it.

Perhaps this explains something about the Southern reaction to my book.

Until enough Southerners are able to examine their society honestly—until they can begin to withstand external criticism without collapsing into blind hysteria—nothing will change.

One South Carolinian’s review of my book referred to my visit to the KKK-themed Redneck Shop in Laurens, South Carolina, as evidence that I was merely “seeking out feeble-minded Klansmen” and that I went to the South “to see the ridiculous and dreadful things [I] knew would be there.”

One wonders why this Southerner—and others who beat the same drum of outrage—are not instead asking, “Why is a KKK Grand Dragon able to operate a long-running business selling Klan robes, booklets outlining Klan rituals and related disease across from the courthouse in a town square in 2012?”

Conveniently left unquoted in this or any other review is the coda to that anecdote—the visit I made to the African American barbershop just down the same street from the Klan store.

Here, a shop full of black patrons shook their heads in a mixture of resignation and fury at the town’s look-the-other-way attitude. A 26-year-old tool and die maker told me, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this, to tell somebody like you about this. If you tell the truth, I will buy a hundred copies [of your book] and give them away.”

 
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