Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Old Texas, The New South and "Abiding Complacency"

     Two recent New York Times book reviews caught my attention.  The first concerned my home state.  Erica Grider, formerly of The Economist and now of Texas Monthly, is the author of the appropriately- titled Big, Hot,Cheap and Right:  What America Can Learn  from the Strange Genius of Texas.  She attempts to rebut “Northern writers” who characterize Texas as “corrupt, callous, racist, theocratic, stupid, belligerent, and most of all, dangerous.”  Indeed.  One wonders where such notions come from about a state currently represented at home by Rick Perry, in Washington by Ted Cruz and Louie Gohmert, John Hagee on the Bejeezus channels, and not one, but two Bush Libraries.  Grider’s basic point is that Texas “works,” which she attributes to a notoriously weak state government, few taxes, fewer regulations, and minimal services.  She finds the roots of this in our independent nationhood for nine years, the self-reliant cowboy era, and the oil-infused entrepreneurialism of the 2oth century, producing a culture that is “pragmatic, fiscally conservative, socially moderate and slightly disengaged.”

      The Texas Governor’s office is notoriously weak (yes, in every sense of the word,) largely due to our reactionary 1876 Constitution.  The Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House hold the real power in Austin, and the governor is brought in for the photo-ops, official signings and the like (think Governor William J. Lepetomane in Blazing Saddles, or better yet, Charles Durning in TBLWIT.)  Back in my college days, some of us kept track of how many days (weeks) the lights were off in the Governor’s Mansion, meaning of course, that the then-governor was “out at the ranch.”   
      I doubt I will ever read the book, as Grider gives high praise to Gov. Rick Perry for his incentives to business.  Life is too short to endure that sort of thing.  She does find, however, that the most crucial component are Texans themselves, whom she finds to be “to be tolerant, optimistic and results-oriented.” 
     There is some truth to this.  While our politicians can be bat-shit crazy, we generally do not pay them too much attention.  “Texas voters are notoriously ambivalent about politics, in large part because the state Constitution gives politicians so little power. As a result, even the worst Texas leaders tend to do little damage.  Texans are, ultimately, a pragmatic people….So maybe it doesn’t matter if the state’s leaders breathe fire, pray for rain, turn up at Tea Party rallies and spend all day suing the federal government….Texas is a pretty good place to live; that’s why several million people have moved here since the beginning of this century.”

     So, yes there are jobs to be had in Texas.  Everybody come on down!  Put that snow-blower in the yard sale and head south.  I would highly recommend, however, they you become rich before doing so, just in case you want to provide your children with a good education, or expose them to culture, or if you happen to get sick, or if you happen to get old.  You will need your own resources for all that.
     The Times also carried a short interview with Tracy Thompson, author of The New Mind of the South.  This work shows more promise.  I expect to eventually read it, if for no other reason than its intentional deference to the neglected 1941 classic, The Mind of the South, by W. J. Cash.

(Whenever the subject of  “the South” comes up, I invariably remember the line from Carl Carmer’s 1934 autobiographical  Stars Fell on Alabama.  He arrived at Tuscaloosa in 1927 from upstate New York, a newly-hired professor at the University of Alabama.  After an eventful first day, he found himself in an upstairs hotel room, drinking corn whiskey with several new acquaintances.  Professor Saffold warned him, as leaving, “For God’s sake, get out of here before it is too late.”)
    I found the following interchange between the interviewer and Thompson to be of interest:

In your account, large parts of the South have stubbornly clung to thinking that the Civil War was not really about slavery and have not come to grips with the systemic violence against blacks that occurred as recently as the 1960s. Yet you also write that Southern cities are less segregated than their Northern counterparts and more openly discuss issues of race and class. How do you reconcile those things?

They aren’t hard to reconcile; the fact that many white Southerners believe some distorted version of history doesn’t have anything to do with where they live or what they think about their neighbors. White Southerners are entirely capable of believing that slavery was a benign institution while at the same time living on cordial terms with the African-American family next door, or for that matter with their African-American son-in-law.

As for open discussions of race and class: I’ve never met a Southerner, black or white, who could not tell you with great specificity what class of people they came from, whether it was redneck prole, coastal aristocracy, black bourgeoisie, trailer trash, plain old country people or whatever. Honest discussions of race can be hard to find in the South — they are rare everywhere — but on a day-to-day basis, black and white Southerners are very comfortable with each other. We’ve lived together a long time, and we are big on being polite.

     I would say that Thompson’s answer is largely true, if a bit self-serving.  That is exactly the sort of thing Southerners like to say.  We think it makes up for all the bad stuff.

The Oxford American engages in a more thorough examination of Thompson’s book (and the journalist’s account of Southern small-talk in a Parisian salon is definitely worth a read.)     They give the book high marks, though finding her coverage of the South to be a bit spotty.  Thompson—a native of Atlanta who has lived in D.C. since 1989—devotes much of the book to her Georgian hometown, with a nod to Virginia and North Carolina, as well as a dip into Oxford (of course) and Clarksdale, Mississippi.  Much of the South cannot be characterized by any of those locales.  On Atlanta, Thompson concludes:
[Atlanta] is Southern in its inferiority complex…Southern in its reflexive need to sugarcoat racial realities, Southern in its resilience and adaptability in the face of calamity.  It is Southern in the same unintentional way Scarlett O’Hara was Southern:  shrewd, afflicted with a remarkable incuriosity about its own past and an almost childlike attachment to its illusions.  Over and over, it has been unafraid to morph into some new version of itself; over and over, it has chosen some kind of packaged myth…over authenticity.

     I often hear of how Atlanta is unrepresentative of the South, but it certainly is to the extent that Thompson’s characterization is true.  She follows very much in W. J. Cash’s footsteps.  This, from a Louis J. Rubin article:
      It doesn't really matter why W. J. Cash did what he did, but one is led inevitably to such speculation because of the way the book is written; it dramatizes the author's wrestling with his subject and himself. The Mind of the South is a virtuoso performance, a one-man show, written out of the author's impassioned identification with and revulsion at the South, and both its existence and the form it assumes are a testimony to the powerful hold of the South's community identity upon so many of its citizenry.
     What Cash develops throughout his book is what he identifies as the enormously hedonistic quality of the Southern people. He sees them as self-satisfied, complacent. They will not be diverted from their smugness, their unwillingness to look critically at what they are, with the result that throughout their history anyone who has attempted to point out to them the extent to which they are being used and manipulated for the benefit of those in power has been unable to get anywhere. Conversely, those who have flattered their self-esteem and confirmed them in their prejudices have been able to manipulate them to vote and act contrary to their own economic and political interests.
     During the antebellum period the rank and file of the white population permitted the planter establishment to conduct the South's national politics with a single-minded emphasis upon the protection of chattel slavery, even though their own economic interest was by no means best served by such protection. During the late 19th century the efforts of populist reformers were frustrated because the spectre of black domination was evoked to keep white voters from bolting the Democratic Party and supporting efforts to make the state governments responsive to the needs of disadvantaged agriculturalists. In the 20th century the attempt of labor unions to mobilize textile workers against victimization by the owners of mills was thwarted because the average Southern white refused to recognize the divergence between his interests and those of the very wealthy, complacently preferring things as they were to a fairer share of the benefits of government, and allowing himself to be easily beguiled into voting his prejudices instead of his economic welfare.
     Until Cash wrote his book, nobody had ever articulated that abiding complacency and hedonism quite so pointedly and vividly. The Mind of the South is an historic account of the enormous difficulties of getting the white people of the South to confront their own problems and do something about them.

     Modernity and Sam Walton have swept across the South, carrying away much of what should have been preserved.  Instead, we have held on to that which we should have relinquished.  Despite the momentous changes in the South, too much of Cash's "abiding complacency and hedonism" remains.  In that regard, Thompson's book is a welcome addition to the canon.   


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Years ago Dick Gregory said "in the South we can get close but not big, in the North we can get big but not close".