The Deep South. Dixie. The Confederacy. The Bible Belt.
How is it that every name I can think of for this region carries with it emotional baggage? If you are a liberal, black or committedly secular person, the words with which I began this essay probably make you angry. They make you think of Bull Connor blasting black children with fire hoses. They make you think of rednecks, shirtless and chewing tabacco, glowering as you pass. They make you think of all the political ideas you hate to read about in the New York Times – creation science, faith based initiatives, voter ID laws. Maybe you just think of failure
If you are white, evangelical or angry about the reach of the federal government, you perhaps think of salt of the earth, tradition, a nobility and independence hard won from the arrogant, meddling North. Perhaps you are angry when you think of those Northern liberals thinking they know what’s best for you
, perhaps you want to tell them where to shove it when they try to control your life from up on high.
The Civil War, it seems, is very much alive and, if you read the not so excellent comments attached to Brooks D. Simpson’s excellent blog
post, you will find the emotions have hardly faded. When I think about it, I wonder if it isn’t as much more basic conflict, a conflict between naked power and naked fantasy.
A gentleman with whom I am acquainted once wrote thus:
The south “lags” behind mainly because it’s comparatively rooted, philosophically, in Confederate-aristocratic ideals. Many of the branches from those roots remain. As any southerner will tell you, actual life in the south can be pretty kick ass. That same southerner will try to defy the statistics which depict it as lagging. The reason for this is because the southern ethos is very class based, where, subconsciously (and sometimes even consciously), within southern communities, class hierarchies are more pronounced and almost celebrated. So, in a very real sense, particularly the deeper south you go, for all intents and purposes, life is very much like the aristocratic old south where within communities, you basically have white, affluent neighborhoods with white schools tucked away from the black, poor neighborhoods with bad schools. So yeah, from a statistical standpoint, the south lags, but if you happen to be within a bubble in the south, life’s pretty damn good (not that different than how the aristocrats saw the south) – maybe even better than the north.
This is also why everyone flocks to the south – to be their own little mini-aristocrats. With not a whole lot of money, you can pretty much set yourself up to not have to deal with the bad stuff while you yourself can live quite nice. Now, this separation is not absent in the rest of the country, however, the key distinction for me is that in the south, the aristocratic roots create a far more pronounced attitude ranging from detachment to just plain superiority among the white majority in regards to their lagging demographics. The blighted southern black neighborhoods are conveniently dismissed as “other”, separate and apart from the broader community; hence why you commonly get attitudes like right wing “hey the south is great, it’s just that our blacks hold us down.” And, in some cases, the existence of the “poor blacks” is reinforcing of white supremacist attitudes, i.e., what better way to feel superior about your own culture than to have a separate culture living in poverty? In a very real way, having a bunch of poor blacks helps reinforce old, white supremacist attitudes. So, in the south there’s a level of indifference and tolerance of blight so long as within that community it can be shrugged off as “other” [“the blacks”] and shielded from the rest.
I would actually go a step further and posit that human society can be seen through the lens of naked fantasy and naked power, which are almost always opposed to each other. The fantasy is status, automatic status. To be a mini-aristocrat, safe in your bubble. This is indeed the entire reason for inheritances, exclusive private schools and nobility in general – to protect one’s offspring from fair competition against the children of the rabble. In truly extreme cases, this is how we justify inbred freaks (ala the handsome fellow pictured below) ascending to the absolute heights of power. This drive is great for the happiness of those blessed with inevitable superiority – they can be lazy, they can suck at their jobs, they can be stupid and cruel and it doesn’t matter. There is always another courtesan to bed and another shower of money into which they might stumble. Indeed, it’s pretty much heaven and it only has one drawback.
That drawback is weakness. A nobility exists to prevent fair competition because a nobility is, by definition, never based on merit past the first generation. The skill, abilities and talents of the aristocracy, excluding some random statistical noise, is therefore exactly mediocre. And just as you’d expect a group of random people to screw things up pretty bad if they were suddenly put in charge of CERN, the aristocracy will almost always cock up the business of running a state.
Compare this to a competitive society. Here merit is the determining factor of status. This is stressful, it entails a great deal of work and it means the powerful never quite have a secure handle on the power they’ve earned. It is a society in which the question “what have you done for me lately” updates and refreshes like a Twitter feed on crack. If there are courtesans to bed, they are there only because you’ve triumphed over great odds. If there is a shower of money, it exists only because somebody else has deemed you worthy of the investment. This is the society that tells Theodore Roosevelt “thanks, but we’re done with you now.” It is the society where Nicolla Tesla rises from anonymity, achieves great heights and then ends his life destitute and talking to pigeons.
This society is hard, it is anything but a fantasy but it is also strong in ways the aristocracy can never hope to be. It is the result of the necessity to power and power can be its only justification. To the extent happiness and security as achieved by individuals is the goal, the Southern aristocratic fantasy is virtue and the Northern, competitive power struggles are corruption. To the extent that Darwin was right, however, fantasy and power exist in a state of tension, power is the goal and the propagation of Southern-style fantasies is prevented by periodically reoccurring, competitive General Shermans swinging by and lighting the aristocratic Georgias on fire.