The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

September 13, 2015

Late Southern Night — Stephen Colbert and his Charlestonian Hospitality

Late night comedy on network television has heretofore been dominated by men from above the Mason-Dixon Line, all with acerbic, often cynical humor, greeting guests in a manner that let them know the host thought the guests were lucky to have a seat on the couch.  While Jack Parr and Johnny Carson came from the Midwest and had therefore something like a folksy air about them at moments, at least in their earlier careers, since the 1980s, Late Night Television has been dominated by men from the Northeast.  Conan O’Brien is from Boston, and Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and David Letterman are all from New York City.  This has meant that the tone of The Tonight Show, The Late Show and other shows American viewers watch transmit a sense of a sardonic New York State of mind, a mindset that is by now familiar to Americans as part of staying up to watch Jay Walking, Stupid Human Tricks, or other comedy bits which are as much about laughing at people as laughing with them.  New York City would be an unbearable place to live for so many reasons if New Yorkers did not claim the privilege of laughing at the idiotic and pompous, the grating and the lewd, the lunatic and the confused among their neighbors.  It is a strategy that all New Yorkers without exception employ on a bad day to get through a stressful time; I speak from personal experience of living and working in New York for decades.

Son of the South Stephen Colbert in front of the South Carolina State Flag

Son of the South Stephen Colbert in front of the South Carolina State Flag

But publicly and openly laughing at one’s neighbors is not considered good manners in the South, and The Late Show’s new host Stephen Colbert doesn’t do this.  Colbert grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, on James Island, literally at walking distance from the site of the first Civil War battle, Fort Sumter.  In Charleston, even the least well-behaved schoolboy learns not to point and laugh at others in public, and by all accounts Stephen Colbert learned good manners in his devoutly Catholic household, replete with Irish guilt, something I can personally attest to as more damning than any fire-and-brimstone sermon if a school child messes up, because in the Irish concept of propriety, one has the ability to shame one’s ancestors at least four generations back and receive their moral condemnation from their seat in eternity. So Stephen — of the rowdy audience chants, “Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!” — treats people with more respect than a guy like Dave Letterman.

Understand Stephen Colbert loves to ridicule the rich and powerful, but he does so ironically, usually with a rhetorical strategy that the French call “se foutre de la geule de quelqu’un,” a term untranslatable but demonstrable.  The moment he won my heart as a fan was when on his old show The Colbert Report was when he interviewed a Georgia Congressman who was vehemently opposed to gay marriage.  Stephen told the Representative, “I love your strong stand against gay marriage, but it doesn’t go far enough.”  The Congressman was surprised.  Stephen continued, “Why not oppose not only issuing marriage licenses to gay people, but also drivers licences?  I mean, I don’t want those people gay-ing up Americas highways.”  It was a brilliant way to put the man on the defensive while appearing to agree with him.  The Congressman honestly did not seem to know whether Stephen were kidding.  For the record, he was.

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Late night television now has a new, dancing hospitality straight out of the South.

Now, in his new role as the host of a more mainstream entertainment show, Colbert has changed the tone from David Letterman’s old tone, which seemed always to be making fun of the institution of the show itself.  Stephen fully participates in the genre of show he hosts, and he and his band leader, Jonathan Batiste, dance to New Orleans jazz at the beginning of the show (Batiste is from Louisiana, as a one-minute listen to his music attests), and then the mood is cordial.  Stephen’s gentle and personal interview with Joe Biden (whom he clearly wants to run for president) about his son’s death is not the kind of interview Letterman could have conducted.  Shortly after September 11, 2001, Dan Rather came on Letterman’s show and burst into tears talking about the tragedy, and while Letterman was not unkind, dropping the sardonic Alfred E. Newman-like grin long enough to say he understood that Rather was crying because “he was human,” Letterman didn’t have a tender bone in his interviewer’s body, not on camera.  Stephen Colbert seems rather incapable of treating a guest as anything other than human.  In fact, his show’s band’s name is “Stay Human,” which he seems to be trying to do.

Apart from the manners and compassion that Stephen Colbert brings from the South to late night television, one sees Charleston in his and Jonathan Batiste’s polished manner of dressing.  Charleston men are often elegant, and while Stephen doesn’t have the navy nautical blazer over a pair of immaculately pressed khakis that one associates with Charleston gentility, he lacks the slouchy air that Letterman gave in every one of his suits, however well-tailored.  We see, too, an honest effort to welcome his guests and to make them feel at ease.  While his encounters with food on the show thus far have only been to stuff his mouth with Oreos while making fun of Donald Trump’s stand against the cookie, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Colbert serving sweet tea to guests.

Of course, The Late Show is a New York institution and will remain one.  The credits roll with a claymation view of the city emblazoned with guests’ names.  The Ed Sullivan Theater is on Broadway, not Meeting Street in Charleston.  But lots of humorists and figures of American theater moved from the South to make it in New York ,and New York is as glad to see Southerners as they are glad to see anybody, which means only that they grudgingly scoot down the subway bench to make room for them, too.

Having Stephen Colbert as a curator of American culture from his seat on Broadway offers the possibility that late night comedy might become a bit more conciliatory.  His first show ended with a group singalong of “I am Everyday People” with Southern singer Mavis Staples, and perhaps we might be entering an era of American singalong again, with different strokes for different folks.  If that’s true, allow me to be the first to agree, “Ooh, sha sha!  We got to live together!”

June 19, 2015

The Beautiful South at its Most Ugly

The South is sweet and gentle, until it is cruel and brutal.  The South is hospitable until it is genocidal.

Northerners know most about the ugly South — the racism, the poverty, its sad legacy of slavery and oppression, the higher rates of obesity, illiteracy and teen pregnancy in certain areas.  And these are certain measures of the South, things one ought to know but that the South as a whole would rather forget.  Before I ever moved South, I knew about the Klan, the dummies with teeth missing, the abundant tackiness of certain Southerners.  But then I traveled to Mississippi and saw beauty that astonished me.  I saw poor people in the Delta, but where they lived was a beautiful landscape.  As a New Yorker, I had never seen poor people living in beautiful places.  I was delighted by the intense courtesy, even of gallantry, shown to me as a white lady.  I was charmed, seduced by the music, the food, the leisure, the heat that takes one breath away in mid-Summer, the magnolias and the honeysuckles, the sounds in the night of bull frogs and crickets, and the depth of the darkness no Manhattanite has seen on that island except during blackouts, and even then, the darkest of dark nights, punctuated by slivers of moon and fireflies clustered like gleaming pearl brooches on a mourner’s taffeta dress.

The South, I discovered, is beautiful, with its Spanish moss hanging like a bridal veil over venerable oaks, the sweeping hills of green crops budding, the long empty roads stretching as far as the eye can see.  What a beautiful place to live — until it suddenly isn’t beautiful at all.  Tornadoes hit.  Locusts eat crops. Neighbors back-stab. Rumors spread. Reputations get ruined. People get shunned.

The Ugliest Soul in the South on This Afternoon

The Ugliest Soul in the South on This Afternoon

We see in the horrible massacre at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston a contrast in the great, stately beauty of the South and its deepest ugliness.  A room full of accomplished people, contributors to their community in deeply meaningful ways, came together for an evening of peaceful prayer, like many other nights, in a beautiful old Charleston church, white-washed and elegant.  They came to read the Bible and its beautiful verses together in a spirit of love and fellowship.  This wasn’t Sunday, so these weren’t people who were half-committed Christians, back-sliders who might believe or might not — these were the faithful, the dutiful, the deeply committed, who had gathered together.  These were mostly older ladies, the kind with the best advice to give, if the young would but listen.  These were women whose lives already demonstrated virtue and wisdom.  The pastor, Reverend Clem Pinckney, was an elected official, a father of two, an articulate advocate for the community.  These people were beautiful.  They welcomed in warmth the young man who came in, a white man, an unusual visitor to a weeknight bible study at an African Methodist Episcopal church.  He sat with them for an hour, and they were kind to him.

Then, suddenly, like tornadoes hit, like clouds burst, like fires destroy barns, like fortunes change — this man revealed his intentions and murdered people, accusing old ladies of rape, of families that may have been in the United States longer than his own of “taking over America,” and in cold blood, to inspire terror and a new civil war, he killed these saints, these martyrs.  He calmly left, seeming to make no effort to disguise himself, to hide, to run from what he had done, to have no horror at it, to be entirely unrepentant, to believe ugly lies about the humanity of his victims.  He may not have planned this alone.  He assassinated an elected official.  He came to kill black people, he said.  He drove away in a car bearing confederate flag plates, He believes in apartheid, in slavery, in murder, in hatred.  The love he was shown when he walked in did not dissuade him from his premeditated purposes.  He saw no humanity in that room except his own.

It’s not as if we couldn’t see this coming, this storm of murder.  The FOX Network churns like an overloaded washing machine in the background of many households, spewing out perpetual paranoia and false racially-charged claims.  While most of America seems to have accepted the national project of a diverse society, whether they like our current president or not, perhaps one fifth of us, more of us in the South, I think, have become radicalized, and new hate groups spring up regularly, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.  It was inevitable that some people from houses of perpetual propaganda would believe the lies.  It was inevitable that with such easy access to guns, some of the propagandized people would obtain guns. It was inevitable, with such rampant drug use and insidious isolation in our culture, that someone propagandized and armed would tweak his brain enough he would lose his soul to the narcotics and the malevolence. While the Internet allows us to select our own news sources, however uninformative they may be, and to fall into chat rooms with people of shared beliefs, it was inevitable that this tweaked, armed and propagandized one would find a fraternity of evil thought online or in person.  Eventually, one of these people steeped in falsehood, hatred, drugs, and disenchantment would become this monster, a category-five inundation of Southern ugliness.

And he did this in plain sight, this appropriately named Mr. Storm Roof.  Uncles saw him lost, and gave him guns.  Friends saw him pop pills, and they did not stage an intervention.  Everyone heard him say harshly racist things, but they took this as a joke — as if those jokes were ever funny.  But by then, Mr. Storm Roof had identified an enemy, and that enemy wasn’t his joblessness.  It wasn’t a family that misunderstood him.  It wasn’t a lack of education.  It wasn’t an economy where the jobs a man like this could get could not pay his bills.  It was innocent black church-goers.  What did he think would change if there were only white people in America?  What part of his pointless life did he honestly think would improve? Why didn’t he understand that his presence in a purely Caucasian nation would only demonstrate all the more that he was poor, uneducated, drugged out, and shiftless?

He just got arraigned today on nine counts of murder.  In the court room, the family members of the deceased beautiful Christians forgave him because Jesus says to forgive our enemies.  The beautiful South looks beautiful again in light of their total commitment to the principles of their faith.

But then, here’s the truly most deceptive part of the South’s beauty — it covers over scars.  Once the flotsam and jetsam after the hurricane are hauled away, and the houses are rebuilt anew, it’s like the storm never happened.  Most days, there’s not a cloud in the sky.  The South forgets, like a woman sobered up after a night of debauchery, who declares with a Southern drawl, “I had so much bourbon last night, I don’t know WHAT-ALL happened!”

The beautiful South forgets and attempts to make us forget.  But if we forget the ugliness, we are doomed to repeat it.  If we never confront the racism in white communities and the propaganda machines that perpetuate it, we are doomed to live with it forever.  Most of us in the South are pursuing beauty.  However, the fifth of folks who aren’t, we need to have ugly confrontations with them, show them the falsity of lies they have believed, and then we must help them understand that a South rising again is a diverse South, an egalitarian South, and a South that actually remembers what really happened in the dark night of its soul.

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