Although I was born in Michigan and lived there intermittently over the course of my forty-two years, I grew up in rural Tennessee and still live there today. I am half Southern by blood (my mom’s family is from Arkansas) and have spent the majority of my life here. I love the South. It’s a beautiful place to live: the mountains, the forests, the wildlife, the winding country roads. But I have to admit that there is something terribly wrong here, and that something is an entrenched culture of poverty and violence. Some of the talking heads here will claim that the problem only exists in the urban areas, but don’t be fooled. I have never lived in a Southern city, only on the fringes of small towns, with the closest metropolitan areas of any real size an hour’s drive away from me, and I see the effects of poverty here everyday.
For privacy reasons I will not identify the town I live in at this point, but I would like to compare it to a town in Michigan I once lived in, also to remain unnamed. That town–let’s call it Town M–was once identified as one of the five hundred best small towns in America (it was in a book!) When I was growing up, it had–at one time or another–an independent book store, an arcade and a music store. Today there are art galleries, bars and microbreweries in the town, and street art is prominently displayed. It has brick sidewalks with permanent metal benches interspersed throughout. It’s a beautiful place. There’s an annual multi-day Summerfest in this town. It even has suburbs for its middle class.
By contrast, the Tennessee town–which I will dub Town T–has virtually nothing in the way of entertainment (unless you consider Wal-Mart and Piggly Wiggly to be entertainment). There is a movie theater, but Town M has one of those too. There are fast food joints, a handful of independently own restaurants, a newspaper, and a whole bunch of stores, banks and churches. That’s about it. It’s a grubby and unattractive town. And it is not a town geared towards young people; nor is it interested in growth. Its leaders are all about maintaining the status quo, nothing more. There was a bookstore here at one time, but it was aimed mostly at serving Christians, and it was short-lived. There is virtually no middle class here–there is a small number of wealthy citizens and a ton of poor people. (Guess which group I belong to?)
And there is the heart of the problem that infects the South. This is a place devoted to the outmoded notion of trickle-down economics, which any decent economist will tell you is nonsense and doesn’t work. But the South is a conservative culture with a lot of desperately poor folks who are still living on the fumes of hope for the American Dream, who are told by their religious leaders that if they bear the hardships of this life, they will be heartily rewarded in the next. And so they continue to endure this hell instead of working on making it better. Meanwhile, it is wholly infested with the shallow and the meaningless, as well as the outright self-destructive–the worst aspects of commercialism run rampant, a strange contrast to its purported spirituality.
This is the reality of the modern South, and it has come with a high price. Let me explain. When I lived in Town M, I knew only one person connected to a murder, and it was a distant one: the father of a girl I went to elementary school with killed two elderly women over money. And I certainly didn’t know anyone who was murdered. Not so here. Since I’ve lived here, I have known of no less than four murders with less than three degrees of separation from me, and in three of the four cases I knew the victims. If we break them down, two of the victims died by firearms, one by stabbing and choking, the last partly by vehicular homicide and partly by being burnt alive. Three of the four were intrafamilial murders, and all four were crimes of passion. Three of the victims were female, one male, and all were killed by males. These murders had different motives: one was over a breakup and the killer being turned in for other crimes, one was over a payment dispute, the third was over drugs, and I do not know the motive for the last murder. But the uniting factor for all of these is that both victim and perpetrator were poor.
Violence is also at the heart of the recent debate over the Confederate flag. The rallying cry of those defending its continued public use is that it represents heritage rather than hate and bigotry, but this argument has been soundly drubbed by Lonn Taylor in his article The Confederate Flag’s Big Lie. The flag in question was not, in fact, the standard of the Confederate “nation” (as it were); it was a flag created specifically for the war, since the official Confederate flag was too difficult to distinguish from Old Glory in the heat of battle. Hence, it is a flag attached to violence by design: a battle flag. Moreover, as Taylor explains, it was never associated with Southern “heritage” until the 1950s, when the Ku Klux Klan adopted it as a way to protest civil rights advances, and Southerners–including some state governments–simply carried that concept further. Segregation itself was a violent affair, predicated on keeping blacks in their own mini-reservations, separating them from white-designated locations and arenas by force if need be. To say nothing of slavery, the continued practice of which Southern Americans fought and killed their fellow countrymen to try to protect.
Today, however, Southern violence is largely directed at other Southerners. For a region of people famous for their pride, it seems they are awful willing to hurt and kill their fellow Southerners. Indeed, the South is consistently the most violent region in the US and has been for decades. Going by state alone, my own–Tennessee–often makes the top of that list every year. Anyway, guess what else the South is tops in? If you said poverty, ding ding, you win the prize! And we’re also number one in obesity, thanks largely to a diet high in fatty and fried foods. I see this as another facet of Southern violence, only turned inward, against themselves. Perhaps it stems from guilt and insecurity, or something similar. Maybe deep down most Southerners really do feel awful about their shameful history, but they can’t express it outwardly because they fear being an outsider in their own society. So they punish themselves by eating badly. Ha! Armchair psychology, I admit.
At any rate, the South is clearly afraid of progress. Many here still resent those Yankees for trouncing them during the Civil War. They may not always say it openly, but it’s just beneath the surface of their conversations about the “federal government” taking away their rights. Here that term is just code-speak for “outsiders”, meaning anyone who comes into the South and mucks up their way of life. And the debate over keeping the Confederate flag prominently displayed really comes down to the fact that Southerners resent being reminded that they lost the Civil War, and that it will never be ‘business as usual’ here ever again. Nobody holds a grudge like a Southerner. Trust me: I’ve seen it too many times. This is, I think, where the violence stems from, at least in part. Far from dying out, racism is still woven into the very fabric of Southern life and thought. Segregation, though no longer enforced in any official capacity, is still imposed unofficially by white Southerners refusing to sell certain property to blacks or other races, and keeping their distances from them in other ways too. Don’t get me wrong: there are some genuinely tolerant and open-minded white people in the South (I’m one of them), but they are a small minority.
Ironically, the newly stoked controversy over the so-called “rebel flag” and the mass shooting of blacks by an avowed white supremacist which caused it happened to fall in the same time frame as the historic Supreme Court vote that assures the legal protection of gay marriage throughout the nation, and the rainbow flag has since been waving vigorously across the land. There was even a meme floating around Facebook which said something to the effect of, “My Facebook looks like a war broke out between the Confederacy and a Skittles factory.” We may make light of it, but there is something intrinsic about the Culture War in there. In the larger sense, the fight between conservatives and liberals is really about fear vs. love, with conservatives defending a culture of fear and liberals defending a culture of love.
Think of it this way: conservatives embrace largely two things, small government and strong religious values, the former because they do not trust others and the latter because they do not trust themselves. Conservatism is an inherently cynical worldview, a highly negative and paranoid way of looking at reality. It suggests that outsiders (be they other nations, other religions, other powers, etc.) are to be feared and violently opposed. Hence, we get a huge military, strong anti-Muslim sentiment, massive opposition to any large, centrally organized government, and so on. Given its attachment to religion–which is ultimately just a glorified death cult (it’s about spending your life in preparation for death and whatever comes after)–and its love of violence to solve problems, conservatism is also about death. In contrast, liberalism is about trust: trusting individuals to guide their own morality and trusting the government to properly take care of its people. Trust arises out of affection, which is to say, love. Liberalism is therefore a culture of love. It embraces diversity for the sake of diversity and human well-being. It says that, no matter what happens, we are going to be okay. We will survive by accepting transformation, not by avoiding it. Indeed, the scientific principle of evolution teaches that those most likely to survive long-term are the ones most susceptible to change. It’s really no wonder conservatives despise it: it goes against everything they believe. So, yes, conservatism is a philosophy of stasis, and stasis is death. Growth comes about through change, and anything that does not change either dies or readies itself for death. There are no other options. To stand still is to give in to entropy, that steady march of the universe towards chaos.
And so, South, I love ya, but it’s time for you to change. It’s time to give up your outmoded and archaic worldview. If you don’t, your culture will eventually perish, swallowed up by its own violence and stagnation. You should’ve learned your lesson by now: you cannot have your Johnny Reb cake and eat it too. Lose the racism, paranoia and delusions of a heritage worth defending and move into the 21st century. Come on, you can make the leap; it’s not that far. And we’ll be waiting . . .