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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May 30, 2011

Voter ID as the new expression of racism in Mississippi

What the cops used to do in Mississippi voters of color -- now the Republicans want to institute an ID requirement in the same spirit of oppression.

It’s a crime today in Mississippi to do what the cops in this photo are doing — preventing a black man from registering to vote.  However, the Republican establishment of Mississippi, given their fear of a black activist voting population, want to make it effectively harder to vote in the State of Mississippi.  The Republicans are trying to introduce voter ID measures in the state that are unAmerican and anti-human-rights.

How can it be that in a country that requires ID to drive and to purchase alcohol that providing ID would be anti-democracy?  Imagine for a moment that the white men in this photo holding the black man in submission let go of him.  Let’s say they let him register to vote, get to a polling place.  Then, looking him square in the eye, filled with the implicit threat of their hatred of his rights, they demand to see his ID before he casts his ballot.  In a small town, one perhaps like the one in Mississippi where the prom is still segregated, voter ID is a deterrent for the people of color of the community the way that these cops holding this man back from registering to vote was a deterrent in the early 1960s.  Fair-minded people ought to be outraged at the very suggestion of a voter ID bill by Republicans, who desperately would like the black population of Mississippi to stay home on the first Tuesday of November.

The Republicans claim their concern is for voter fraud, but they re not concerned about fraud at all — the only game-changing  frauds are in the GOP, given the low, low turnout for most elections.  In many of districts in Mississippi, the majority of adult citizens are black.  This is a consequence of slavery and generations of share cropping.  In some districts, the percentage of people of color is above eighty percent.  Yet the majority of eligible persons are not voting.  The Democrats bear some responsibility for this — in some cases they have failed to inspire a turnout.  However, no one will doubt that the majority of people of color, were they to vote in the State of Mississippi, would not vote for candidates like Haley Barbour, who is the darling of white racists and a former presidential hopeful for the Republicans.  They would vote for Democrats.  Yes, an election where less than half of the people who might have voted actually vote is fundamentally fraudulent.  This by itself is not the fault of any one political party, but an initiative to limit access in even the slightest way to the ballot should shock the sensibility of any American.

Ironically, often the Republicans run in Mississippi on the notion that government needs to get out of our lives,  that regulations are unAmerican.  The gun laws in this state, for instance, are so very lax that I don’t even need to have a permit to own one on my own land.  I could own an arsenal without showing ID, one that would make David Koresh look like he was unarmed.  That’s the way Republicans want it.  However, if they get squeamish at the idea of voting without ID, I wonder who they think they are fooling.  Frankly, their work reminds me, particularly given Mississippi’s very libertarian gun laws, of the revolt to racist thinking that inspired  Malcom X to write his  famous speech “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Is that a choice for any  citizens in the 21st century?  Have we overcome so little in Mississippi  since this photograph was taken about 40 years ago?  Republicans just want these cops in this photo to look the black voter in the eye, check ID — intimidate — and keep this  man and  his family away from the polling places.

They disgust me.

February 27, 2011

Quoth the Raven No More Taxes — fake quotes and their liberating quality in political fraud

My friend Victoria, for reasons unbeknownst and doubtless incomprehensible to me, just listed a fake quote on her Facebook status from Oscar Wilde — she did not pretend it was not fake, only that it was attributable to a fake Oscar Wilde, something of which the really ironic Mr. Wilde would have doubtlessly approved.

For some reason — and I think it has to do with my dread of reading T.S. Eliot at this hour, an assignment looming above my head right now — this strikes me as a much more  interesting post-modern exercise than the work I really ought to be doing for my Long Poem class at Ole  Miss.

What if we all just decided what we WISH famous dead authors said and started quoting them with the authority of scholars, as if their fake comments were just as important as what they really said?

Here’s my list of quotes that I would like to bandy about at cocktail parties as if they were gospel —

  • “Methinks her hair doth bear the bleach of shame.” — Fake William Shakespeare
  • “The little black dress is my dance partner to the little brown shirt.” — Fake Coco Chanel
  • “I might have forced myself upon Sally, but only because liberty makes one lonely.” — Fake Thomas Jefferson
  • “A butler pushed a button a hundred times, grinding mint into mojito for his guests.” — F. (for Fake) Scott Fitzgerald (from his novel The Fake Gatsby)
  • “The Women’s Movement would be a lot more fun if we drank more.” — Fake Betty Friedan
  • “I never really went to the Galapagos. I only wanted to be left alone by all those other scientists.” — Fake Charles Darwin

This is the most wonderful thing I have ever seen!  It makes every conversation have a potential punch line of which I am the undisputed expert at repartee!  How brilliant I suddenly seem!

Where have I seen this before?

Oh — I know.  Republicans do this all the time with Ronald Reagan.

Read this book with real, not fake, quotes in it

A new book has recently come out about this sort of political gerrymandering of the real boundaries of what Ronald Reagan did and did not do.  Will Bunch wrote a book called Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy (2009, Simon & Schuster), where he starts off with two real quotes from two real presidents:

“Facts are stubborn things; and  whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” — John Adams, 1770

“Facts are stupid things — stubborn things, I should say.” — Ronald Reagan, 1988

Right now in Washington, the Republicans are having a field day revising the record of Reagan, claiming for reasons that have never been clear to me that his presidency was a golden age in America, when in fact he presided over a stock market crash and a recession, raised taxes, and acted toward women and minorities with the sensitivity of a sledge hammer, showed total indifference to the plight of people suffering from AIDS because it was a disease that preachers around him characterized as a punishment from God on gay men, funded the people who would become the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and supported apartheid in South Africa, deregulated the banking industry and thereby causing a myriad of problems that haunt us to this very day in our economy — and that’s just off the top of my head.

Why make him into a hero he wasn’t?  Why make him a genius when he seemed more addled than able?  Why make him a champion of any philosophy at all when he can at best be characterized as a spokesmodel for the powerful?

I mean the Republicans cannot seriously think that they were elected to shut down the government — nobody in their right mind seriously wants that.  If they said everything that they say Ronald Reagan said about spending the way that I just did — with the word “Fake” in front of it, we could all have a good laugh.  Sure — Fake Ronald Reagan cut spending.  Fake Ronald Reagan championed the common man.  Fake Ronald Reagan was a real fundamentalist Christian — he didn’t ever consult an astrologer with his wife Nancy (real Ronald and Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer for minute details regarding their inauguration arrangements, per the much annotated Kitty Kelly biography, and that should offend any believers in Christianity that would, say, think that astrology is a form of witchcraft — just sayin’).

Why not admit, as one does if implying that a fake historical figure has said something, that it is of one’s own invention?  Why not say, Republicans, we hate America, or at least its government, and we would feel totally comfortable dismantling the government of the country whose constitution we swore to uphold?  That would be honest, and we could all agree that it was funny that your fake Jesus hates the poor and your fake Reagan was a great president.  Maybe we can carve both of their heads on a fake Rushmore and call it a night.

November 3, 2010

Good Riddance to Blue Dogs

Bad dog! Bad dog!

What does it mean to be a Democrat?

In the news of this turnover of Congress, I was not sorry to read that 28 so-called “blue dog” Democrats were unseated out of the 60 seats in Congress lost by the Democrats.  That’s almost half of the seats they lost.

Why did they lose?  The media will ask this question ad nauseum, no doubt.  Why did they ever call themselves Democrats in the first place?  — That strikes me as a much better question.

This shift to the Right has occurred in American politics because Americans don’t have job growth back yet.  While no amount of rhetoric is enough to restore American confidence when, as the 1980s song “No Romance Without Finance,” says, there “ain’t nothing going on but the rent,” Americans have been right to feel disillusioned by the difference between the Obama-expressed idealism and what a majority Democrat Congress was actually willing to deliver.  The timidity, the hand-wringing, the unwillingness (with several important exceptions) of representatives to take strong stands for things like a public option in Healthcare, or — as was famously pointed out on The Daily Show — stand strong for a bill to guarantee mesothelioma care for rescue workers on September 11th while the Republicans stood against it, those are the reasons that many Democrats felt disillusioned and why Americans did not understand the importance of keeping a House Democratic majority in place.  After all, if a Democrat acts like a Republican, talks like a Republican, votes like a Republican, runs a campaign claiming to have stood up to a Democratic president, why on Earth would anyone care enough about him or her to vote for him against a Republican?  The Republicans are not apologetic for who they are — they walk like themselves, talk like themselves, think like themselves.  Why should anyone ever vote for a Democrat who thinks like a Republican?

Frankly, to most of us out there — it looked pretty Chicken Sh#t.

Travis Childers, whom I wrote about in this blog not long ago, lost his seat yesterday, and I won’t weep over this loss.  He mis-managed his campaign.  His ads proudly announced that he stood up to Obama.  Childers is indistinguishable from a Republican — except that he repudiates his supposed allies.  Between a Blue Dog Democrat who turns on his friends, or a loyal Republican , why would any voter embrace a Blue Dog Democrat?

What Americans lacked in this election was a sense that they had a choice between two very different visions of how America should go.  This is entirely the fault of conservative Democrats, who worried more about losing their own jobs than about fiercely standing up for the needs of Americans who had just lost theirs.

I am very sorry to see Nancy Pelosi lose her job as Speaker.  As the first woman who ever held that position, she was a champion deal maker, a tireless negotiator.  She was so effective that she became the target of most Republican television ads.  That’s a compliment to her.  By being the first woman to ever hold that job and hold it effectively for her party, no one will ever question again whether a woman is qualified to hold the position.

That said, I am thrilled to see the Blue Dogs go.  Voters need to see clear choices when they go to the polls.  They need to understand that a party has a platform, that the platform stands firm on issues that affect them.  They need to know that the candidate for whom they vote stands by a platform that means something positive to their lives.

Democrats have the ability to fumigate the blue dog poopy smell from their back rooms.  They can repopulate now with idealists who will take firm stands for the electorate.  I just pray they have the wisdom to do this.  I believe that they can take back the House in two years if this becomes their strategy today.

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