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

January 3, 2018

What Does it Mean to be Southern in 2018?

Some aspects of Southern life are nearly universal and date back to descriptions over a century old. Mark Twain briefly joined an ad hoc Confederate militia hunting for Yankees they never found, but in his description of their several-day adventure, after which Twain quit the militia, he describes the welcome and the breakfast the several members of the self-formed militia met at a farm house — a breakfast with eggs, fresh biscuits, grits, and two kinds of pig meat, butter and jam.  Big breakfasts are still a quintessential Southern experience today, and a century from now, Southerners will likely still eat big breakfasts. Southern life was and remains more about who you know than what you know in many areas of life, unlike life in New York, where personal connections open doors, but only competitive competency and some measure of luck keeps one in a job. Laws are more like rules of thumb down here, with privilege playing an unjust role in many individual circumstances, not just in matters related to race and class, but also whether your uncle Bill is still a county deputy. While that politic of relationship may change over time, I don’t expect to see it disappear during my lifetime. Other aspects of Southern life that seem perennial include a deep love for hound dogs, women who pay a great deal of attention to grooming, more than in other regions of the country, and a large gap between publicly-declared moral codes and private behavior — Southerners continue on the whole to sin on Saturday night at the honky-tonk and repent on Sunday morning in the church pew. That cognitive dissonance doesn’t seem headed out of town any time soon, though a girl can hope. The South has always worked hard but values leisure time, cherishing lazy afternoons. And I show myself as a Yankee every time I ask for “unsweet” iced tea — because iced tea without sweetener is just a Southern heresy. None of that is going away in the near future. These cultural phenomena are not universal.  Not every woman grooms for three hours before a date.  Not everyone loves a good hunting dog down here. But they are norms — and the South tends to change slowly when it changes at all.

alabama-trump-supporters

White Southerners two years ago — how many feel this enthusiasm today?

Nobody in the land of political punditry was terribly surprised that formerly Confederate states voted for Donald Trump in the last election.  He was, after all, employing Goldwater’s “Southern Strategy” of race-baiting and xenophobia — and there are enough registered voters in the South who see brown people foreign and domestic as the reason things aren’t working out for them.  They believe their local jobs have gone to immigrants, rather than have been relocated overseas to countries where human rights are not respected.  They don’t distinguish clearly between the Islam of Malala Yousafzai, who got shot in the face by the Taliban, and the Islam of the member of the Taliban who shot her in the face, and rather than assuming that Malala’s Islam is the predominant view of the religion on matters personal and political, they assume, with a great deal of help from a fear-mongering television network, that it is the Taliban’s view that predominates (it does not). The Trump campaign message got rid of the dog-whistle in dog-whistle racism, as nothing could be clearer than declaring Mexican immigrants rapists with “some, I assume, are good people” tacked on at the end — translation: I know Mexicans are rapists, but I can only assume that this is not universal because I only see Mexicans as rapists. His calling women who opposed him “nasty” or  talking pejoratively about “blood coming out of her whatever” — that plays on old-school Southern sexism, applied by those who practice it in either smiling and condescending false chivalry toward “ladies,” and applied aggressively and menacingly toward women who have opinions that differ from their own — like the man from Alabama who called me a “cunt” recently for believing Roy Moore’s accusers.  Most men in the South seem to respect women, though they may not understand them all that well. But for a certain segment of the population of Southern states, the sexism and racism of the Trump campaign wasn’t a bug — it was a feature.  For some Southerners, some white Southerners, Trump’s call to make America great again was a call back to a social system that discounted the majority of the human race as child-like or inherently criminal. Not all Southerners ascribed to this vision of a great America, but enough did.

 

Neither was it a surprise to see a ban on transgender bathroom access emanating in the South. The South likes ladies a lot, but not ladies who used to be gentlemen. Regional fear-mongering made some fear rapists would use this as an excuse (despite a significant number of people reluctant to believe women who come forward to report rape as it is actually likely to happen. That such ideas would particularly take hold in small Southern towns is not surprising. The South was behaving predictably, showing a preference of traditional notions of gender and gender roles over any acknowledgment of changes actually taking place in their own communities. As Hannah Rosin showed in her book The End of Men, where big changes actually take place in what women do and what men do in the South at about the same rate as they do in the North, in the South, the rhetoric about gender remains largely unchanged in many communities — even if the majority of women in a Southern town work outside the home, the rhetoric about women’s roles sound like a reflection of expectations not lived for the last 50 years.

But then, as the nation polarized during and after the 2016 election, and intellectuals read Hillbilly Elegy in an attempt to understand what hit them, something shifted. Almost exactly a year ago, women all over the country, including in the South, marched in pink hats to reject the rhetoric of Trump and his political agenda for women, not just for women. When Trump signed an (unconstitutional) Muslim immigration ban, thousands of people spontaneously ran to the airport to protest, not just in places where one might expect leftist radicals, like San Francisco and New York, but at Atlanta and Kansas City airports as well. Was it Southern to reject the idea that Mexicans were rapists and Muslims? What had happened to the people who had overwhelmingly voted in Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri for the Trump agenda?

tiki torch nazi

How many Southerners felt these men spoke for them?

Then, in Virginia, after a group of out-of-town Nazis arrived in Charlottesville to terrorize (and kill one of) their political opponents with the explicit approval of Donald Trump, who called them “very fine people,” it was as if a switch flipped. In that same Virginia, which had voted for Trump in 2016, the state flipped like a cosmic morality lesson.  Not only did they take the governor’s house, the lieutenant governor’s house, and the attorney general’s job, they (pending a court battle) seem to have taken the Virginia House of Delegates Republican majority away.  But it wasn’t just that the tide turned against Republicans. A man whose girlfriend had gotten shot ran against a pro-NRA candidate and won. A transgender candidate won against a man trying to ban her from certain bathrooms and won — not while talking about gender, while talking about traffic problems in the community. And multiple candidates of color won against overtly racist candidates. It was as if Virginia was as good as its slogan: it really was for lovers, not haters chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

 

And then there was Roy Moore, bless his heart.  He wore a cowboy hat inspired by Toy Story, waved a gun around at his rally, excused his predatory sexual behavior with teenagers by saying he always got a girl’s momma’s permission to date a high schooler before he did in his thirties, who got compared to Jesus (!) by pastors who saw him as a persecuted victim when (Republican) now-adult women came forward despite death threats (!) to talk about his sex crimes against them, and rode a horse he didn’t know how to ride to go vote for himself on election day.  He got beat by a guy who prosecuted the Birmingham Church KKK terrorist bombers The first Democrat to serve in the United States Senate to serve in decades just got sworn in a couple of hours ago.  Alabama’s politics have been ugly for quite some time, rife with corruption and race-baiting, much uglier than the good nature of most of the people of the state, but now, they have elected a man who is a pillar of the community and who has just hired one of the few African-American chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill.

take it downWhat happened to the South? My own wonderful town, New Orleans, took down the Confederate monuments. They did this despite death threats to construction crews assigned to the work and menacing demonstrations by white supremacists from out of town — though not so far out of town as the Charlottesville protesters. KKK poster boy David Duke lives fifteen minutes away from what used to be called Lee Circle.  And New Orleans elected its first woman mayor.  Atlanta elected a black woman mayor. And when climate-denying crazy bag-lady-with-a-nice-blonde-blowout Ann Coulter asked whether having a lesbian mayor caused Hurricane Harvey to hit Houston, Texas resoundingly rejected her remarks. Yes, I’m talking about Texas, a place as Republican as a Mercury Astronaut drinking Tang astride an electric bull while Ted Nugent plays guitar!

Something happened in the South last year.  What exactly was it?

I have a theory. As a carpetbagger, I have had an outsider’s point of view as I reside below the Mason-Dixon line, and consequently, I believe I witnessed a cultural realization, however incident-specific and/or temporary it may be. As I observed earlier, the South talks a serious game of rigid cultural morality, but they don’t live out that morality as preached. In his book Everybody Lies Seth Sephens-Davidowitz confirms, for instance, that while Southerners are much more likely to say they don’t like homosexuality and don’t believe they know people who are homosexual, the South watches as much gay porn as the North does. While Southern pulpits speak passionately against heterosexual promiscuity, and pews are usually filled with people to shout “Amen,” the five states with the highest rates of STDs are all Southern. It’s as if Southerners like the abstract idea of an all-hetero-virgin-before-wedding-night community, but in life, they are not prepared to live out the moral standards they claim to espouse for themselves and want to impose upon everyone in America. Could it be that this gap between actually living out the imagined cultural standard in sexual matters and the standard itself exists in other parts of Southern thinking about social norms?

My theory is this: A lot of Southerners liked  the rhetoric of Donald Trump until somebody tried to live it out. Getting rid of Mexicans (remember — they’re rapists) might sound good until you see the picture of a child crying while his mother gets handcuffed by ICE. The idea of embracing something called “white pride” sounds appealing until you see those terrorists in khakis and Tiki torches attacking non-violent protesters in Virginia. Swaggering around calling women nasty sounds great until you realize the people calling others nasty are nastier than the accused women, and maybe you elected some. Banning transgendered people from bathrooms sounds like common sense until you meet an inoffensive customer at the big box store who isn’t allowed to use the restroom, and a mannish-looking biological woman gets arrested for using the ladies’ room, and all of a sudden what seemed like common sense seems unneighborly and unnecessary. We are more than fifty years since John Lewis crossed the bridge in Selma. A lot of Southern white people have forgotten what lived-out Southern bigotry looks like in person, and it isn’t great , it isn’t American, and seen up close, it won’t make America great again. Having seen it and confronting its real implications, many Southerners are quietly and privately revising their commitment to Trump’s stated values.

There are counterarguments to what I am saying.  The voters for Roy Moore were overwhelmingly white, and the voters for his opponent, newly-seated Senator Doug Jones were disproportionately black. Trump’s base has not eroded so much that he does command respect from about a third of Americans polled, and a lot of those people live in the South.  But a lot of people who weren’t involved, weren’t paying attention, shrugged their shoulders, talking about not trusting politicians are now paying attention, asking questions, getting organized, and going out to vote.

If making America great again means splitting up families, shaming peaceful members of the community who expose the truth of gender and sex in the South, insulting women who work and express opinions, and revering as contemporary role models people who fought to keep slavery, increasingly, Southerners are doing what Huckleberry Finn did when confronting his conscience about the runaway slave Jim. A month ago, when Steve Bannon said, “there’s a special place in hell for Republicans who don’t support Roy Moore,” Kyle Whitmire, an Alabaman journalist whose columns are picked up by multiple newspapers in the state, tweeted the famous words from Mark Twain’s great American novel out of the mouth of Huckleberry Finn in response to Bannon: “All right then.  I’ll go to Hell.”

This quotation from the novel about the moral growth of its unlikely hero suits the South in this time as perhaps never before. The South seems to be saying to itself “all right then.” Transgender people are against God’s law, and normalizing their lives is sinful? All right then.  I’ll go to Hell.  Gay couples want a wedding cake for a marriage or a respectful mortuary for a funeral, and gay marriage is unscriptural? All right then.  I’ll go to Hell. Women ought to know their place and not try to run things — after all, the Bible says, “Thou shalt not suffer a woman to teach”? All right then.  I’ll go to Hell. Treating undocumented immigrants is unpatriotic, and breaking up their families is legal? All right then. I’ll go to Hell.

The South as a whole may NOT have questioned the overarching validity of abstract stated goals of the campaign of Donald Trump, but one person by one, Southerners are walking away from the MAGA rally. Racism still exists in the South.  Sexism and homophobia still exist in the South.   An abiding belief that poor people are lazy still exists here, too. But Southerners are just not mean enough as a group to really get behind the lived-out oppressions this administration intends to enact if left unchecked. Perhaps more Southerners who voted for Trump heard “drain  the swamp” and thought the Donald had correctly diagnosed a problem, and he had conveniently blamed people that most Southern whites consider “other” for all of it. But when it comes to solutions, this administration offers few of them that Southerners seem prepared to abide.

All right then.

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June 29, 2015

The Open Chiffarobe: The Uncloseted Closet of the South

Down the street from my house in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when I would take walks at 5 am in July before the day got really hot, I would often see a couple of elderly gentleman on a stroll together.  These men lived down the street from me, and they looked like any other pair of men one might see at a VFW barbecue — golf caps, t-shirts with brand names on them that might endorse a NASCAR car, jorts, sneakers with gym socks.  But these men strolled close to one another, not holding hands, but close enough to murmur secrets to one another in hushed voices.  They had lived together for decades in a house down the street from mine, only theirs had an impeccably manicured garden that they lovingly tended together.  They would often sit on the front porch together, talking.  They waved at neighbors who had known them for years.  Everyone was polite, though the men generally kept their own close counsel.

No one ever referred to these men as a gay couple in my presence, though I have trouble imagining that their relationship could have ever been construed as anything else.  Without benefit of the right to marry legally, they had nevertheless constructed a permanent relationship together that had a quiet warmth, the way I hope my husband and I share a warmth in our golden years, only nobody ever officially acknowledged this couple’s relationship out loud.

In Vicksburg, it was entirely possible to imagine someone shouting the word “faggot” at someone else, with all the bitterness and hatred the word contains.  There wasn’t a pulpit in town from which one might not hear a sermon that decried same-sex relationships as unnatural.  And yet, in a town of about sixty thousand people, there were a number of such couples.  At Shonee’s, I would often see a younger pair of men, stylishly dressed quietly enjoying a meal together.  I would on occasion see a pair of women with matching short haircuts and tattoos at Kroger’s buying organic vegetables.  But nobody quite acknowledged the presence of these relationships before their eyes.  One lesbian couple I know would go home for Christmas every year, and under the tree would be two presents waiting for them, one labeled “Teresa,” the daughter of the family, and another one labeled “Teresa’s friend,” although Teresa had brought home for Christmas the same “friend” for over fifteen years.  The gifts were carefully chosen for both specific recipients in mind, but the family, who knew these women slept in the same bed, needed to live with a pretense that this relationship was the same as if one’s college roommate invited one to visit home over holiday break because one had no other fixed plans.

This is the strange system by which the South can exist in a schizophrenic denial and in a deep division regarding their own LGBTQ communities.  In Southern red states, a great many people honestly believe they have no personal acquaintances who are non-heterosexual because they have accepted a form of omerta regarding these entirely visible relationships around them.  As a result, they are able to believe the idea that Christian marriage is specifically under attack from radical Yankee queers in a manner that would limit their own civil rights.  The civil right that many heterosexual conservatives seem to cling to in this instance is the ability to deny what is in fact really none of their business.  I think only a few people in the South still think that gay is contagious, that proximity to someone who loves people from his or her own sex will make others do the same.  Most people have understood that it would be a wider-spread phenomenon were that true.  But they feel that openness and officially acknowledging these relationships would destabilize their basic ideas about how relationships work.  This in fact may be true, but they have willfully missed the obvious for so long now they have been living a longstanding  lie.

Let's get real.  There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

Let’s get real. There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

The irony is that the South not only has a longstanding public LGBTQ populaiton, although its communities tend, as they do in the North, to concentrate in urban areas, the South has produced the most notable gay and lesbian writers in American literature.  What are the seminal works of queer literature in America?  The first ones that come to my mind are Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, Every single Tennessee Williams play, so rich in queer subtext, the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker — and all of these works are by Southern writers. Being queer is not only a thing that happens in the South; it may be that the South actually has more people born here who want to have sex with same-sex partners than people born in the North, given the literary production of the South on the topic is so rich and diverse. It’s hard to know, though, as this firm commitment by the South to silence on this topic masks the real statistics.

Gay Southern writer Allan Gurganus once remarked that one reason why many Southerners used to be so blind to the sons and daughters of Dixie who were gay and lesbian was that a lot of those people left town the second they could.  The story people told at the church picnic about these absent relatives was that George had moved to Chicago because he got a fantastic career and loved his life as a playboy bachelor surrounded by pretty ladies. Harriet went North to teach at a girl’s school in New Hampshire, and bless her heart, she just couldn’t seem to meet the right man.  The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s made many Southern families confront the reality of certain male relatives’ lives because cousins and brothers came home to die from the disease, and this meant beyond any doubt that confirmed bachelors were not out looking to meet ladies in bars, though they might have met gentlemen in bars quite regularly.  The suffering and death of these men brought many instances of acknowledgement in private and forgiveness of past offenses, but few families declared the reasons for these deaths in public forums.  Things went along in communities the same as if these successful, beautiful sons had died of cancer, not a disease spread by sex.

I think that one of the reasons the South has resisted a closer examination in all frankness of its LGBTQ community is that the straight community would also be up for scrutiny if this ever happened.  Southern straight men cheat with comparative impunity (think of Bill Clinton’s rather prolific track record, and I am not just talking about Monica Lewinsky and Jennifer Flowers), and Southern women, while not all as committed to promiscuity as Rosemary Daniell is in her still-astonishingly-honest memoir Sleeping with Soldiers, nevertheless have a lot more extramarital sex than the Junior League is ready to announce in its monthly newsletter.  There’s a reason why STD rates are so high in Mississippi, and it’s not just because people don’t use condoms as often as they ought; people in Mississippi screw around at least as much, possibly more, than people in the North do.  But after the debauchery of Saturday night, people around here go to church on Sunday morning, where the pastor tells them that Christians don’t act like they actually did the night before.

This lack of openness about people’s actual choices in the South has led to a mismeasurement of Southern life as it is actually lived.  This mismeasurement has led sinners to feel isolated rather than forgiven. It has led to many Billy Joe McAllisters jumping off of many Tallahatchie Bridges. It leads certain others, almost as an overcompensation for their own transgressions, to vote for people who condemn their own behavior during election cycles. The rhetoric of the South does not match the life of the South, and as a result, a kind of Blanche-DuBois-like unwillingness to stand under direct light for examination can explain some of the Southern politics that Northerners find so confounding. It’s the whole South’s sex life that is really in the closet, not just the non-heterosexual sex, but any sex that isn’t fully sanctioned by marriage within the limits set by old anti-sodomy statutes.  The South wants to pretend there are more virgins on wedding nights than there really are.  The South wants to pretend that marriages are more faithful than they really are.  They want to pretend there are fewer sluts, male and female, than there really are.  And they want to pretend they don’t know any queers, unless you mean Georgia queer — a guy who likes women better than football.

I acknowledge that my Stanley-Kowalski-like desire to rip the paper lantern off the light bulb here in the South and expose the raw truths of its existence is a Yankee impulse if ever there were one.  I admit this very blog would like to wrap its arms around the South, smother its neck with kisses, and say to it, “I pulled you down off them columns, and how you loved it having them colored lights going.”  Given my many Southern readers, I have to believe that like Stanley does for Stella and Blanche, my frankness at once horrifies and fascinates.  All I can say to the South, as I lift it up in my brutal, sensual arms, is that we’ve had this date from the beginning.

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