September 5, 2002

MICKEY KAUS sums up, and weighs in on an interesting discussion of “Guilty Southern White Boys” in the media (Kaus has all the links). The notion (originally suggested by one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers) is that southerners — always the target of jibes and discrimination — try to out-left the left in order to be accepted in the media crowd. Postrel and Kaus disagree, and call it the lingering influence of the civil rights era when — in the South — the left really was on the side of the angels.

I think it’s a bit of both, and this discussion makes me realize what I didn’t like about Richard Marius’s generally excellent novel, An Affair of Honor, which I mentioned earlier. Marius appreciates many things about the South, but there’s something vaguely patronizing about his treatment, and it comes out in a gratuitous scene at the end of the novel, when the protagonist is sitting on an airplane next to a man in a “Georgia Bulldogs” shirt:

Charles took out a book and began to read. The Georgia Bulldog seemed miffed. “You going to read?” he said.

“Yes, I have to finish this book,” Charles said.

“Why?” the Georgia Bulldog asked.

“Because I’m dying to know how it comes out.”

“Is it a mystery?”

“No, not really.”

The Georgia Bulldog leaned cumbersomely over and stared at what Charles was reading.

“My God, it’s in a foreign language!” he said. “And I thought you was an American.”

Now overall this is a very good novel, but it’s telling, I think, that this scene — which rings horribly false and serves no purpose in the narrative — takes place in the present day, rather than in the racially-charged early 1950s where the rest of the book is set. (Interestingly, elsewhere in the book another character — a Columbia alumnus — is offended at being patronized by a Harvard professor who assumes he’s an ignoramus simply because he’s from the South. He fairly bristles at being lumped with those other Southerners).

I see this as a generational thing. Not every Southern white boy from that period suffered from this neurosis — my old law-school mentor Charles Black, though well-known for his racial liberalism (he and Thurgood Marshall wrote the brief in Brown together) never succumbed to the notion that the South was defined by Bull Connor. But he was in this way, as in many others, an exception. For too many others, it was always Birmingham in 1963. (One of my professors even had a huge blowup of the firehose photo from Life magazine on his office wall).

Those of us who are younger know that the myth of northern racial liberalism was mostly just that — a myth. (If I recall correctly, the professor with the firehose picture sent his kids to all-white private schools rather than to the New Haven public schools, and when I was a kid I spent time in Roxbury, where my dad was doing community work, and where things were not noticeably better than Birmingham). So while Howell Raines, Tom Wicker, and similar examples of GSWBs may still rule the roost, I think that the phenomenon is on the way out. Which is probably just as well.

UPDATE: Geitner Simmons has more on this (and scroll up for additional posts), along with the observation that Nicholas Kristof doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to the Great Plains.

ANOTHER UPDATE: A reader writes:

I grew up in suburban Philadelphia and almost everyone I came into contact with acted as though the South and Southern white people were some kind of throwbacks.

In the last five years, I’ve had occasion to work for short periods of time in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas — in rural areas as well as urban. Everyone in the South may hate each other. I don’t know what is in their hearts. But I do know what comes out of their mouths, and there is far more civility in the South than anywhere in the Northeast. People are superficially nicer and kinder to each other. Whites and blacks towards whites and blacks. In the broad scheme of things, it seems better to me that everyone act in a polite way no matter what they believe, than profess to be ideologically pure, like in the Northeast, and be rude to just about everyone in some way or other.

Also, Philadelphia and the metropolitan area are just as segregated if not more so than most cities in the South. Should anyone not believe me tell them to take the 42 bus the entire route — I know you don’t know the bus routes — it goes from the richest neighborhoods to the poorest and some middleclass ones in between. If your eyes are open, you will see the race and residency patterns.

Meanwhile Allison Alvarez knows who to blame:

I blame people’s misconceptions about the south on ‘Hee Haw’. Think about it; other than the southern lawyer dramas most shows about the south are still in love with that slow southern comfort, Gone With the Wind stereotype. Even ‘Designing Women’ was obsessed with southern charm. So, I can’t blame most people who live outside of the south for their cultural ignorance when all they see is Colonel Sanders and Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel.

I spent my entire life in Georgia before moving to Washington, DC and I’m completely astounded at the way people react when I say I’m from the south. I always get comments of my lack of southern accent or my fast way of speaking. Sometimes I’m tempted to give trolley tours in an affected southern accent just to please the tourists.

Blame “Hee Haw?” Why the hell not?

UPDATE: Rod Dreher weighs in and says it’s all about race. And Media Minded offers some views, too.

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