Why Do So Many Southerners Think They're the Only Real Americans?
Editor's note: Portions of this article are reproduced or adapted from Better Off Without ’Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession.
For large chunks of the last two years I traveled through Dixie doing research for a book called Better Off Without ’Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession (published this month by Simon & Schuster).
Wherever I went in the South I was called a socialist.
I was branded anti-American.
For supporting the administration of a sitting U.S. president, I was told that I was in league with the Muslim vanguard of a secret plot to destroy the United States.
Although otherwise respectable reviewers, bloggers and emailers have accused me of seeking out only the opinions of slack-jawed hayfoots slurping moonshine from ceramic jugs during my travels, the truth is that in the South this sort of ugly invective is mainstream orthodoxy.
It’s the same mainframe groupthink that’s going to allow a millionaire corporate flunky with a track record of destroying jobs to carry and very possibly sweep the South in November.
I dealt with the same reactionary slander everywhere I went.
I heard it from small business owners in South Carolina. From working professionals in Alabama. From college-educated football fans in Tennessee.
Southerners love trashing the rest of the country (when did you last hear a kind Rebel word for New York, Detroit or San Francisco?), but when their blood is really up the go-to move down South is to dismiss their fellow citizens as un-American.
“If we secede, the U.S.A. would become Canada South,” an otherwise likable history major at the University of Georgia told me. “We are the real U.S.A.”
By “we,” of course, he meant the South.
In no other region of the country is the need to define one’s moral and patriotic superiority such a fixation. Spend 30 minutes in a Southern church or listening to country radio and the self-congratulatory “we’re the salt of the earth” pathos is impossible to miss.
Can’t Take the Heat, Still in Kitchen
I knew when writing Better Off Without ’Em that the biggest gamble I’d be taking was counting on Southerners to appreciate the sense of humor of an aggrieved Northern liberal; I’m nothing if not a sucker for a well-placed Snuffy Smith rejoinder.
Yet while all of us are capable of laughing at our own crazy aunts and uncles, it takes a certain thickness of hide to be able to accept with grace the criticism of those outside the family. And to take a step back and consider that an analysis that comes with the benefit of external perspective might be worth considering.
The Dixie blowtorch that greeted publication of my book was immediate and intense, a collective meltdown of Limbaughnian proportions.
With few exceptions, from mainstream reviews to blogs posts to personal emails, Southerners were ready to hit the “fuck you” button as soon as they so much as caught wind of a Northern critique of the South.
“I’m not going to read your piece of shit, worthless book that is full of lies and false stereotypes,” wrote one of hundreds of knee-jerk non-readers in a typical email. “Go rot in the heat of the South.”
“I haven’t read the book, nor do I plan to,” wrote a chip-on-the-shoulder blogger before going on to lambaste the book anyway, roughly following the script set forth in published reviews by Southerners that misrepresented my argument and then summarily excoriated the presumed wickedness.
The bully smokescreen in the face of criticism is a traditional Southern defense mechanism. The counterblast of moral reprobation from the South that followed the 1852 publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, produced the publication of no fewer than 14 pro-slavery novels in three years in an effort to debunk the unflattering portrait of slavery presented by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
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.”
Don’t Look at Me, I Didn’t do Nuthin’
The majority of Southerners are not uneducated rednecks flying Confederate flags from the backs of their pickups.
I never claimed they were, in the book or elsewhere.
Better Off Without ’Em presents profiles and quotes drawn almost exclusively from “typical” Southerners: small business owners, skilled laborers, elected officials, political consultants, lobbyists, federal and state government employees and managers, pastors, musicians, entrepreneurs, journalists, media personalities, park rangers, tour guides, think tank founders, economists, oil workers, laborers, librarians, veterans, university students and professors, public school teachers and the like.
However good and polite they may be, what the majority of Southerners are, and have always been, is willing to allow the most angry and “patriotic” firebrands among them to remain in control of their society’s most powerful and influential positions, be they in the realms of politics, business, education, religion or media.
Just as it was angry Southern zealots who pushed the country into the Civil War, it was angry zealots who, while the rest of the South turned its back, were allowed to construct and maintain the legal foundations of Jim Crow; who were allowed to turn the Scopes Monkey Trial into a humiliating circus; who were allowed to circumvent Brown vs. Board of Education and school desegregation by calling out the National Guard and building segregation “academies”; who were allowed to resist Civil Rights with dogs and water cannons; who are still allowed to denounce science as a liberal conspiracy and proclaim without ridicule that a black president’s birth certificate is fake and throw secessionist balls and insist that slavery had nothing whatsoever to do with the Civil War, and swear that all of this was and is somehow being done in the name of a liberty to which they feel deprived due to their miserable lives of oppression and persecution beneath the stars and stripes.
Embittered fanatics may represent a minority of Southerners. But they’re still an extremely powerful minority that the rest of the South enables—or succumbs to—or aligns with—or votes for—or prays alongside—or links arms in martyred brotherhood with—year after year, decade after decade, century after century.
Theirs are the voices that perpetuate the toxic agenda because theirs are the voices that ring with the most anger, that in their belligerence resonate as the most historically and authentically “Southern.”
This, too, is nothing new. As far back as 1941, Southern journalist W.J. Cash was remarking on “the ancient incapacity of the great body of Southerners to examine and analyze a case realistically even when their own fate hinged upon it, the tendency to take the easiest answer as explaining all their ills.”
Until the good and rational and reasonable among them stop being so thin-skinned, and start seeing that a helluva lot of us above the Mason Dixon Line are just as American and just as right as they’ll ever be, the hateful denial that anything is wrong with a region where citizens and civic leaders alike feel justified in forcing their own proudly uninformed anger on the rest of us will persist.
Blind Southern anger brought this country to its knees once before. It’s up to reasonable Southerners not to let it happen again.