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

October 8, 2017

Lessons from God — American politics and regional experiences

Imagine for a moment that all Americans believed in some kind of divine, at least in Jefferson’s “nature and nature’s god” from the Declaration of Independence.  Imagine now that all of us here also really believed what we say unkindly to those in trouble: everything happens for a reason.  How might such a set of universally held beliefs affect our regional politics?

I believe that when disaster strikes, especially when that disaster defies explanation, the rational mind shuts down and looks for paranormal interventions, whether we mean it to or not.  As a Christian, I have no trouble believing in the divine, but I also know that I have an irrational side that does not square with my theology, that believes that when a tornado warning goes off and a funnel cloud appears in the distance, no mater how much I know about meteorology, that the rotating winds are there as God’s thumb to squash me like a bug. No amount of schooling, no amount of storm-tracking by satellite, can prevent me from holding this view. There is part of me that cannot reconcile my immediate anxiety to a clear-headed rational thought.

During the Middle Ages, people made no pretense of rational thought in such circumstances, however resigned they were to meeting their Maker. In Palermo, during a horrible outbreak of plague, people wrote of seeing the plague appear in the form of a large black dog dressed as a bishop, cutting people down with a broadsword.  In Sweden, the plague was sighted as  beautiful maiden who waved a deadly saffron-colored scarf into one window or another in a village, causing all inside to die. In the absence of any germ theory or immunology, people did what they could in their terror to understand the emotionally incomprehensible.

plague

During the Middle Ages, people frightened by the plague hallucinated phenomena that could allow them to understand how one person could die while another lived.

Let’s be honest. For all our Doppler 4000 and our antibiotics, we’re no better. We respond to disaster viscerally, and because individually we are largely unable to control events larger than ourselves, we look to God.  It has often enough been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Allow me to submit to you that in America, whatever our pretense of intellectualism or agnostic yogic meditative practices, there are no atheists in America when a disaster hits us, and consequently, we form ideas about the theodicy — the “how could God let this happen here” — of such events. As some events are more likely to happen in the North than in the South, in the East than in the West, regional concepts of the divine, not the church divine, the scriptural divine, but the irrational-brain-invented notions of god and that idolatrously constructed god’s mysterious ways, that influence how we understand commonweal and political responsibilities in the face of catastrophe.

yellow fever

In industrialized cities, wealthier people understood that letting the poor die of yellow fever without care endangered their own health.

In Philadelphia and in Chicago, it became clear that a system of government that could prevent and extinguish fires would be useful. It was clear that if Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked a lantern in a shed, the whole town would suffer. In New York and Boston, it became clear that some form of sanitation and public health system would be better than not having one.  While the pilgrims believed in an Abrahamic covanential sort of responsibility toward one’s neighbor, particularly towards one’s pious and hard-working neighbor who fell ill, in New York, the motives for this were different.  There, it became clear to the very wealthy that sometimes even when one leaves town during an outbreak of yellow fever, one might catch it anyway from one’s butler or one’s laundress. Hence, having health clinics for the poor might secure the health of the wealthy and powerful. Either way, in major American cities, we are all our brothers’ keepers even today. We understand that an attack from unseen forces on one of us is likely a harbinger of trouble for us. We show up to liberate people from airport jail during a fascist Muslim ban.  We dig through the rubble of the World Trade Center. We make condoms free during the AIDS epidemic. We make sure every building has a fire escape on it, and if need be, a water tank as well, so that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow can’t harm anyone but itself.

This is not what disaster teaches the irrational mind of Americans outside of sardine-packed cities, particularly not in the South, where tornadoes and hurricanes are the most common mass tragedies.

storm

A storm hits one place and misses another — are we spared catastrophe by our innate virtue?

Take last night.  My husband and I hunkered down in New Orleans with our two dogs and more starchy food and alcohol in the house than we commonly have, cases of bottled water, and flashlights. We removed outdoor hanging plants from hooks and packed up lawn furniture. Why? Because Hurricane Nate was headed for us. Why? Because Hurricane Nate was supposed to land on us as a category two disaster. The mayor Mitch Landrieu wisely told us to stay indoors after seven pm.  He told people repeatedly not to go surfing on Lake Catherine — apparently a hurricane jackass dare. He called for a mandatory evacuation of three neighborhoods on the far-eastern side of town. We were battened-down.  We were prepared.

And then, at the last possible minute, the storm turned Eastward, away from us. We were spared from all disaster. I saw a rainbow in the sky. I knew we were fine.

Here is the insidious lesson that might be learned from the irrational-brain-god about this event, one that might serve to explain a lack of general compassion on the part of some for the problems of others, particularly those poorer than we are: We might learn that this god spared us because we are somehow better than our neighbors in his eyes.

We hear the occasional crack-pot preacher claiming Houston got flooded because it elected a lesbian mayor, that New Orleans has too much decadence in it, and that caused Katrina. I’m not really talking about those losers who say this. I think that the frightened human mind cannot quite help momentarily thinking that the disaster that narrowly missed us and hit another is a confirmation that we are just in the hands of a proactive and highly insightful deity who knew that the person whose house got clobbered by a tornado either had fantastic insurance and would get a much better house or was sinful in ways that we weren’t, and that’s why our house was spared. The lesson here is the opposite of the lesson learned in the industrial city.  In a rural community, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicks a lantern in a shed, and the shed burns down, maybe her cows get loose, and her son gets scolded for sleeping in the shed drunk with a lantern that could catch the hay on fire. The person who got sick from yellow fever whose nearest neighbor lived five miles away probably didn’t spread the disease.  They won’t even know he’s dead until he’s half decomposed. The irrational brain divine tells us to believe in ourselves, in our own virtues, in such circumstances.  While this is not scriptural — Jesus says to us that rain falls on both the wicked and the just — it is an almost inescapable human reflex, one that is destructive to our Republic.

There are cynical politicians in Washington bought up by a few wealthy and greedy megalomaniacs who are willing to demand help for Katrina and withhold it for Sandy because it won’t directly benefit their districts and will cost their patrons more in taxes. They are what we call down here common trash scalawags, and I am not worried about them because I believe (despite recent political rallies) they are few in number. I worry, though, about people who refuse to learn either from the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, or rational and secular humanism that they ARE their brothers’ keeper, that if one of us burns down, we all do, that a flood in Biloxi, is a flood in New Orleans, is a flood in Houston, is a flood in Miami, is a flood in San Juan. How many of us are willing, relieved that we were spared, to share the burdens of others at a distance?

I am sitting writing this now in my un-flooded living room, my pit bull asleep on the love seat, one of the hands typing this intermittently reaching into a bag of starchy snack food that was supposed to sustain me in the event of disaster that never arrived. I feel comfortable. Two hundred miles away, there are sixty thousand people without power. That’s where the storm hit. Even as I send disaster relief, there is a small, barely conscious part of myself that wants to congratulate me for my moral hygiene and clever foresight that I was not the victim here. I need to smash that idol — right after I eat this bag of puffy starch sticks.

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October 17, 2015

Blood, bodies and Flags on the Ole Miss Campus

At a recent rally to take down the Confederate-emblematic-Mississippi-State-Flag from the University of Mississippi’s campus, the student newspaper The Daily Mississippian quoted a counter-protester Shaun Winkler, who came with swastika tattoos and a Stars-And-Bars banner to say, “Black lives don’t matter.  We are the blood of conquerors.”

The students on campus generally want to take the state flag down, but the outside community staged counter-protests. Thank you DAILY MISSISSIPPIAN for the image.

The students on campus generally want to take the state flag down, but the outside community staged counter-protests. Thank you DAILY MISSISSIPPIAN for the image.

Conquerors?  Really?  That’s funny.  I recall my Yankee ancestors conquering yours in the battles where that flag in your hands was waved unanachronistically.

And Black lives do matter.  So do the protests of  black students, who have every right, while trodding on ground where men like Mr. Winkler threatened to shed James Meredith’s blood fifty years ago for having the audacity to enroll there, to feel that the last contemporary bastion of institutional racism’s symbolism is embodied in the Mississippi State Flag, the last flag in the Union still emblazoned with the Confederate symbol.

Mr. Winkler gave the impression in his interview and in his choice of tattoo of not having a college education.  He and the counter-protesters came from other places, no doubt from under Tallahatchie river rocks next to newts and insects, to protest the removal of a flag from a place that wouldn’t have let his conquering blood matriculate because of low test scores.  Certainly Mr. Winkler flunked history, at least.

But Mr. Winkler needn’t have protested if his objective in doing so was to keep a Confederate heritage alive at The University of  Mississippi.  Indeed, the history of the college is such that it can hardly be doubted that it will retain its past symbols of conquered Confederates.  And while I abhor the politics of racism, I think the Left enters dangerous and anti-intellectual territory where it wishes to deface monuments longstanding to racist regimes, for if we do not remember the past, we are doomed to repeat it.  It is the contemporary symbols, like the contemporary flag, which must go — but it would be nearly impossible to imagine that the University of Mississippi could divide itself from the Confederacy in history, even if it wanted to.

This is a monument to the Confederate Dead on the Ole Miss Campus.

This is a monument to the Confederate Dead on the Ole Miss Campus.

When one enters the campus of Ole Miss from University Avenue, headed toward the administration building, one passes a monument to the Confederate dead.  Indeed, if seen in a vacuum, the story of the deaths of students at Ole Miss at the Battle of Shiloh and elsewhere are tragic — entire graduating classes perished in grey uniforms under fire from the Union army.  Next to the Confederate monument is a building that was used as a hospital for the dying Confederacy.  In it, one sees a stained-glass monument of the high-melodramatic style of the late Victorian era.  If one enters the campus from Highway 6, and one looks for parking away from the football stadium, which is often restricted, one may park behind the basketball stadium, where a cemetery for those soldiers who died in the hospital building on campus got buried.  On Confederacy memorial days, women of this era show up in hoop skirts, and men in grey reenactment uniforms arrive, and they place wreaths here for unknown soldiers of their conquered cause.

Mississippi ought to stop insulting the African-American descendants of slaves with the symbol that was used to oppress them during the war, then terrify them in the hands of Klan terrorists after the Civil War was over and the Yankees had packed up and moved back North.  Nobody deserves to go to school in an environment where some ignorant idiot would actually tell them that their lives didn’t matter.

The truth of those monuments — that the boys who enrolled in 1861, white and privileged, arrogant and swaggering, the sons of slave-owners, who all got Gatling-gunned down and got buried here and there where swamp animals didn’t devour their corpses — the truth of the sad melodrama of a society that knew it had been conquered, those things ought not be removed.  I wouldn’t mind, though, seeing a monument somewhere on campus to the people who died in Mississippi from the rigors of plantation life in dirty shacks, with insufficient food, backs scarred from whippings.  My instinct would be to put it right next to that Confederate soldier statue, though it would ruin the symmetry of the rotunda.  My instinct would be to make it at least as large as the nineteenth-century monument, and why?  Because black lives do matter.  Confederates did not conquer. And those privileged white boys, their lives were extinguished to defend an indefensible institution, one that brutalized the many for the pleasures of a few.

This is literally where the Confederate bodies are buried on the Ole Miss Campus.

This is literally where the Confederate bodies are buried on the Ole Miss Campus.

But I would tear nothing down.  The ghosts of Confederate soldiers will continue to haunt Ole Miss, especially on nights like the night of November 6, 2012, where a young man got filmed for Youtube, naked all but for an American flag diapering his frat-boy bottom, drunk in the flatbed of a friend’s trunk, angry because Obama won again, shouting “F#ck the N%ggers!” over and over again, just yards away from that Confederate Soldier statue, the true son in the political spirit and overbloated privilege of a small class of white men in Mississippi over the hardworking aspirations of people of color who did him no wrong and over even Mr. Winkler, who needs a real history lesson, as he assumes the cause of that spoiled rich boy somehow reflects his own interests, when in fact it does not.  If he were not so defined by his hatred, literally scarred with swastikas of his own selection, I would call him a victim here.  I think he has been horribly conned.  I would tell him he should clamor for something that acknowledges the total and wasteful loss of white lives in the service of an elitist Confederacy which held the lives of  his ancestors at an even lower price than the lives of the slaves they owned and might exploit in peace time.

There is blood on the campus  of Ole Miss, but it is not the blood of conquerors.  There is dried blood of wasted lives.  And there is new blood of hopeful members of the New South, and they want to take down a flag that insults the humanity of many students there and the intelligence of absolutely anyone.  We don’t believe in myths any more.  We want to explore the truth in greater clarity. We want our lives, all our lives, to matter, to be spent in pursuit of worthy causes, ones that serve our interests collectively and individually. Take that accursed flag down!

October 13, 2010

The Land of Cotton — and other mythical landscapes

 

Old times here, apparently, are not forgotten

 

When European writers imagined the Orient — a distant place, vaguely understood, rarely visited — they invented a landscape in their minds, invented customs and people unlike the  real residents of the lands to the  East of Europe, and what they invented said a lot more about their own feelings than the reality of the lands to the East of them.

I am reading a great deal about problems of orientalism in literature, am writing about imaginary versions of Japan concocted by Anglo writers.

As I drove this Monday through landscapes of rolled haystacks bound with wire and cotton — fields and fields of it, stretching with loden green and tufts of white everywhere — I wondered if there might not be a similar mystical landscape version of the South popularized in the North.

And so there is:  Dixie.

Dixie the song was written by a Yankee from Ohio — Daniel Decatur Emmett in 1859.

The song was first publicly sung in a minstrel show in  New York City that year.  White men from the North pretending to be black men from the South sang these words:

Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton!

Old times there are not forgotten!

Look away, Look away, Look away Dixie Land.

I have not written it in the offensive imitation of ebonics that was the original language of the minstrel show because it makes me unhappy to do so.

Within a few years, this song about happy ex-slaves nostalgic for a life of slavery in the South became part of the mythology, fully adopted, mind you, by rebel troops as their fight song in the Civil War.

There was an imagined South — one where slaves happily sang as they picked cotton.  There were happy women in hoop skirts.  There were white men with suits and string bow ties and goatees.  There were, in this imaginary South, no real poor white people suffering as the  real poor white people did as subsistence farmers.  The imaginary South was a fun Broadway show South.

Here I stand in the real South, overlooking real and quite lovely cotton fields with a greyish tinge and gritty dirt clods.   I am glad I have no picking to do  of these tufts.  I much prefer this South, the one with the real people who are not always happy but are usually smiling anyway.

In Orientalist fantasies, there are often despots.  Despotism, according to a scholar named Grosrichard, is an important part of the fantasy.  In the fantasy of the South, there are despots, too.  The reality of a history of despotism cannot be ignored.  The South did hold slaves longer than the Northern states, and there have  been many incidents of violence against people of color.  However, in the North, the image that the Klan is pandemic in the Bible Belt — that is a fantasy that absolves the North to some degree of its present hate crimes.  Earlier this month, a horrible hate crime was committed in the Bronx against a man who was assumed by his  attackers to be homosexual.  New Yorkers understand this horrible crime within the context of a much larger community where not everyone is filled with hate, not by a longshot.  However, the idea persists in New York City that hatred is more universal here in Mississippi.

Standing here near a cotton field — admittedly being white, being blonde with blue eyes, hence not as easily a target of such forms of hatred as if I were an African-American woman — I’m not sure that this is so.  I tend to think that while there are still some people who are hateful, the vast majority of people behave more like their neighbor’s keeper in a way that New Yorkers do not, can not, given the vast number of neighbors New Yorkers have.  People say hello to strangers all the time.  Churches feed people and visit the sick (something they also do in New York, when they know who is sick in the community).   There are haters here, to be sure, but in New York, I think some of that is just more suppressed, not extinguished.  Look at the awful things the Republican candidate for governor of New York said this week.   New York is not hate-free.  Neither is the South.  However, the despotism is muzzled at least down here to some degree in the real contemporary South, at least compared to the imagined South of the song Dixie.

In his book Orientalism Edward Said talks about Gustave Flaubert‘s  interaction with a courtesan in Egypt — Flaubert had a few imaginary ideas about the way women were different in Egypt than in France.  To be fair to Flaubert, in strictly external and superficial ways, the women did look different and sound different.  That said, his ideas about Egyptian women were crude and reductive.

The ideas that Northerners have about women of the South are a bit silly.  They imagine Scarlett O’Hara saying, “Why fiddle dee dee!”  They certainly imagine every Miss America contestant from below the  Mason Dixon line.  There are women who cultivate the pageant and the belle images, to be sure, but it would be crude and reductive to imagine there are no feminists down here, no thinkers among women, no hilarious, goofy interesting and individualistic women.  I do think it is harder to be that way down here than up North, as I see a greater pressure to conform to the artificial standards of the cult of Southern womanhood.

So as I look at the field in the land of cotton — are old times forgotten here?  Look away — no, but perhaps they will be overcome yet.  Look away — no, but the South is reinventing itself.  Look away — but why would you look away?  These fields are beautiful, aren’t they? — Dixie Land.

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