It comes as no great secret or surprise that Southerners love to tell stories. When it comes to politics, the stories they tell themselves aren’t always healthy or helpful.
The South is getting some new grief as of late as New Yorker writer George Packer has stirred up the cyberworld with his musings on why the Southern mentality seems to have overtaken the Republican party.
Packer quotes W.J. Cash and his seminal “The Mind of the South.” Cash was an alum of my alma mater Wake Forest, an accomplished newspaperman who committed suicide in Mexico in 1941. But he did provide an excellent study of the Southern capacity for romance and self-delusion.
Cash debunked the myth of the aristocratic Old South of moonlight and magnolias, noting that most of the planters were only a few years removed from taming a wilderness into cotton fields. Their creed was a stubborn individualism where every white man largely had to fend for himself. Their churches preached an emotional fundamentalism that promoted not this world, but the next. Their political rhetoric favored the high-flown, the appeal to emotion.
In short, the South had no real mind, no reason, but “a natural unrealism of temperament (that) bred in them a thorough-going self-satisfaction, the most complete blindness to the true facts of their world,” Cash wrote almost 75 years ago.
Packer is right to point out that the Republicans seem to have suffered that unreality in the last election, riled by what they considered unreliable polling, unable to see what hit them until it was too late, and Karl Rove melting down in his memorable Fox News appearance on election night. Remember it was Rove, who in the Bush administration (truly Southern in outlook and temperament) chided a New York Times reporter for being a clueless “member of the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Rove might have been quoting from Cash’s own book.
There were plenty of people in the Confederate South who believed they could create their own country, based on slave labor, and hold back the world’s growing moral outrage, and the industrial changes that were already transforming the northern states.
What’s remarkable about Cash’s book is that he largely left the black perspective out of it. Growing up in his time, even as a progressive white Southerner, he wouldn’t have had much, if any contact with blacks beyond menial servants. He would never had guessed at the profound changes that the 1960s brought to our region, nor fathomed the idea that America at large would. Virginia, North Carolina and Florida helped elect the nation’s first African-American president in 2008, which speaks volumes about the changes that are still underway in the region. The GOP reclaimed North Carolina as a red state in November, but just barely.
This is the land where I was raised and where I choose to live and write about. There’s no denying the terrible legacy in this land, from slavery to the how the Cherokee and other native tribes were treated, to how Hispanic immigrants are hounded in some states, or gays and lesbians, or anyone who’s a little different. But that’s not the only story.
Some Southerners, some Republicans, (but also a great many liberal Northerners) seem stuck in their old stories about the South. What I resent as a fiction writer is the simplistic tale, the stereotype, the caricature that gives the lie to the reality I find changing day to day, year to year whenever I drive around the Southeast.
Yes, the South is going to rise again, but not that old moldy Confederate corpse of unreality and delusion. Things are getting real down in Dixie, maybe slower than in some other burgs, but give it time. That Confederate red block of states on our election maps will show their true colors when Southerners of all creeds and races and parties take their stand.
Novelist, journalist, backpacker, aficianado of all things Appalachian.