What if Liberals and Progressives Could Learn to Talk to White Southern Men?
Ever since Neil Young sang about him, the white Southern man has been the symbol for all that is wrong with America to urban lefties. He is a redneck. A gun-toting, rebel flag-waving racist whose sinister activities wreak far more havoc on the country than, say, the wily Wall Street financier. If you can’t hate the white Southern man, who can you hate?
I grew up with white Southern men. Some of them hard-core Republicans. They have been my classmates. My neighbors. I’m related to lots of them. Having been raised in North Carolina and attended the University of Georgia, it’s impossible for me to see them as strangers. And while they can irritate me no end when they say and do dumb things, I cringe when San Franciscans like Mark Morford wax elitist and paint them as a monolithic band of aliens whose intolerance is only matched by their ignorance.
I’m from a middle class background, a product of the liberal enclave of Raleigh, NC. But since I went to public schools, I often found myself hanging out with kids whose lives didn’t look like mine. When I was 15, I remember attending a Harley Davidson picnic with my friend Roxanne way out in a rural field that we accessed in her boyfriend’s pickup truck. I was a little fearful -- these were supposed to be the rednecks the Morfords of the world had warned me about. But I got a surprise. The manners of these working class guys were largely superior to those of the frat boys who groped my friends at Duke University parties. They liked Reagan, and baseball, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. They didn't have horns; most of them were gentle and generous. They called me “Cover Girl” because of my fresh-scrubbed appearance and seemed bent on treating me as an ambassador from another world. There was honor at stake; they didn’t want me to go back home and tell my friends about how rough they all were. The more conservative Southern men have a thing about honor and self-respect . If they see that you're not talking down to them, they will want to have your esteem, and show you their best selves, which are often hospitable and kind. If you can't, well, that's a different story. You're likely to get the dark side.
Conservative Southern white men have a thing about the place they call home, too. I remember riding around with the Republican stepfather of an old boyfriend, who showed me the astonishingly beautiful fields and woods of his South Carolina farm. “I love this land,” he said, getting choked up. “I know every sound the birds make.” (He proved this by giving an eerily accurate rendition of a wild turkey’s gobble). Though he was dyed-in-the-wool GOP, he had a strong instinct for conservation, and I could find common ground with him the need to protect the environment. That’s what you do in the South if you grow up a liberal and don’t want to walk around being pissed off every minute of the day. You try to see if there’s something you might agree on with folks who don’t share your politics. Some humanity that joins you. Usually there is.
I recall snippets like these from my experience with GOP men of the South to help me understand why they are overwhelmingly voting for Romney in this election. Some of it is certainly about race. Cultural memory and prejudice form strange currents in the Southern mind. The power of the fear and antipathy of the black man has been diluted, but it’s still there, and it's easily stoked by unscrupulous politicians. But it’s easy to just stop there, and you won't have a clear picture if you do.