The government shutdown. The Tea Party. The first election of George W. Bush. The inexplicable popularity of Duck Dynasty. Opposition to Obamacare. U.S. education that ranks below that of Finland and South Korea. The demise of unions. Climate-change deniers. High dropout and divorce rates. The death penalty. Americans’ love for fried food. Virulent anti-immigration laws. Fox News’ ratings.
In America, if it’s fouled up, messed up, out of whack, incomprehensibly boneheaded or gloriously fattening, it’s because of the South. Or so the pundits are quick to claim.
Of the South-haters, satirist H.L. Mencken today retains his crown as our region’s top historical critic. He’s been dead half a century, but his written attacks on the “godawful South” are hardly six-feet under. His 1920 essay, “The Sahara of the Bozart,” still lances every boil, real or imagined, on the region’s backside — its arts, its politics, its education, its religion, its contribution at large to post-Great War America.
If you’ve never read it, do so. It’s equally painful and comical. Mencken wrote, in one of my favorite passages, and one of his nicer phrases, “Obviously, it is impossible for intelligence to flourish in such an atmosphere (as the South). Free inquiry is blocked by the idiotic certainties of ignorant men.”
For an example of Mencken at his South-hating worst: “Once you have counted James Branch Cabell, you will not find a single southern prose writer who can actually write. And once you have — but when you come to critics, musical composers, painters, sculptors, architects and the like, you will have to give it up, for there is not even a bad one between the Potomac mud-flats and the Gulf. Nor an historian. Nor a sociologist. Nor a philosopher. Nor a theologian. Nor a scientist. In all these fields the South is an awe-inspiring blank — a brother to Portugal, Serbia and Esthonia.”
Now, meet Chuck Thompson.
He’s an Alaskan by birth, an Oregonian by education, and editorial director of CNNGo.com. Last year, he wrote Better Off Without ’Em, which is — being polite here — a 300-page, best-selling screed about every cottin’-pickin’ aspect of the modern South. He’s picked up where Mencken left off. His book is rude, brash, sometimes vulgar, often hilarious and more-often-than-not truthful, though his theory that the United States would be wise to let its Southern brethren reprise 1861 and bolt is, well, ludicrous.
(Words of advice: If you have an “Impeach Obama” bumper-sticker on your car, don’t bother with Thompson’s book. You won’t like it. If you have family in Mobile, or if you go to church on Sundays, or if you believe President Obama is a socialist, you won’t like it, either.)
Here, though, is what’s worth hearing.
The South, Thompson writes, suffers from what he describes as the Seven Deadly Sins of Southern Politics:
Disregard for own self-interest.
In a way, he’s right; we do suffer from the worst of those maladies, and Alabama provides ample proof. Gov. Robert Bentley is an obstructionist; Sen. Scott Beason is demagogically dishonest; and those who concur with Bentley’s Obama-fueled refusal to expand Medicaid are disregarding their own self-interest, as well as others’.
Thompson is part journalist, part “please buy my book” author and part political satirist, a Jon Stewart with an anti-Southern bent. At times, you have to decide if he’s humorist or pundit, especially when he writes, “The majority of Southerners are not loudmouthed, uneducated, redneck (expletives) flying Confederate flags from the backs of their (cars) … What the majority of Southerners are, and have always been, however, is willing to allow the most strident, mouth-breathing ‘patriotic’ firebrands among them to remain in control of their society’s most powerful and influential positions.”
If anything, the South is that: a region whose leaders have too often led them astray. Is that our fault for electing them, or their fault for being so destructive?
It’s unfair to draw a line between Alabama’s secessionists to George Wallace to Robert Bentley. Give Bentley credit: He’s no secessionist or racist.
Bentley, however, is among an ignoble group that includes Beason, Reps. Micky Hammon and Kerry Rich, former Attorney General Troy King,Chief Justice Roy Moore and those who pushed through this state’s mean-spirited immigration law and Alabama Accountability Act. They, in their own ways, some more egregiously than others, have led the state astray.
Among the modern-day South’s faults is its penchant for giving South-haters like Thompson fodder for their prose. That truism isn’t debatable.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.