Sunday, May 15, 2005

Suppose I'm just a Southern Democrat

As a Southern expatriate who finds the advantages of being Southern outweighs the disadvantages, I greedily reached for a used copy of John Sheldon Reed’s collection of essays, Whistling Dixie: Dispatches from the South. Interesting title! Feeling the need to recharge my Southernerness, I dug right into it.

Reed is a professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina. Unlike any of the Sociology Profs I had, Reed is incredibly funny. Of course, it’s not unusual to find southern writers that are funny; hell, we’ve given the English language more than our fair share. Think about these guys (and gals): Flannery O’Conner Roy Blount, Clyde Edgerton, Jerry Clower, Lewis Grizzard, Mark Twain, Willie Morris, and Guy Owen (if you ain’t read the Flim-flam Man, you’re missing a treat)… Shoot, we even train Yankee humorists. This is because we’ve been well bred to show hospitality, a good thing I think you’d have to admit. Could you imagine Dave Barry, a New Yorker, writing for the Boston Globe? Of course, ain't none of them writers a sociologist, which makes Professor Reed stand out.

In addition to having more than our fair share of humorous writers, our politicians pull their load by creating great characters (at one point Reed sarcstically notes: “they”—referring to Yankees—“thought Flannery O’Conner made it all up.”). The political influence probably explains why Chicago, which isn’t in the South, stands out as a cultural outpost up North and has produced fine writers like Mike Royko and as well as world class blues. Nothing like corrupt politicians to prime the humor pump and encourage the creation of sad music! There’s other ways to support the arts than give funds to councils, as Southern politics have shown us. Why spend someone else’s money, our politicians surmise, when they already provide enough color and plot lines to make their jobs easy?

Yet, between the laughter, I had a problem with Reed. Here’s a man with the privilege of teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an honor of which he’s rightly proud. And he waxes beautifully about my home state, but get this, he ain’t even a Tarheel. He’s a hillbilly from East Tennessee. And what makes him worst is his radically conservative politics. He has no use for traditional southern populism. He’s a Jesse Helm’s Republican. Now, East Tennessee and Western North Carolina are traditional Republican areas down South. A lot of those mountain folk voted for Lincoln, the original Republican, something I couldn’t see Jesse doing. If Jesse had been born a century earlier, instead of trying to free slaves, he'd been arguing that taxes were too high on ‘em. I always admired the Republicans from the hills; they were Republican when it wasn’t popular. About the only Republicans you had then in the South, before the voting rights acts, were hillbillies and what the few African-Americans who got to vote. But as African-Americans abandoned the party of Lincoln for the party of Roosevelt, a bunch of conservative Democrats, like Jesse, switched to the Republican Party. And they've provided us with great role models. There's Jesse, who espouses a closed mind; Gingrich, an example of personal ethics; and DeLay, who shows how to creatively fund our adventures with other folk’s money. Yes, those Republicans from the hills had a lot more sense the later types of Southern Republicans cast in the image of Jesse Helms.

During the 80s’, the Helms’ organization and Jim Broyhill, a capitalist furniture-maker and Republican of more moderate leanings from Western North Carolina, fought it out. If you’d listened to the rhetoric of Helm’s henchmen, you’d thought Broyhill wasn’t only a card caring commie, but that he was Lenin’s kissing cousin. What nonsense! And it don’t speak too well of my native land that many people believed Helm’s henchmen.

I’m proud to be a Tarheel. According to Reed, this ain’t newsworthy since 90% of North Carolinians are proud of their heritage, a figure twice as high as you’d find in New York. But I’m not always proud of our politicians. As you may have already surmised, I couldn’t stand Jesse Helms. Even after leaving the state for grad school, I stayed a registered voter for a year so I could vote against him. It didn’t do any good, Jesse brought himself another election, greatly outspending his opponent for a win of a couple of percentage points. Not exactly a landslide or a mandate, but what did he care. He got six more years in the Senate.

During the run-up to the 1988 election year primaries, I hiked the Appalachian Trail. It was a great way to get away from it all and I missed all the news about who was in and out of the campaign during the summer of ’87. That was okay with me. For most of the summer, or at least for all but one day of it, I didn’t think about the elections. But there was that one day in New Hampshire (the state that hosts the first Presidential primary during the election year)when another hiker and I detoured down a paved road at the promise of good pancakes served with real maple syrup. The Thompson Maple Syrup Farm was just a half mile or so from the trail and they’d posted fliers to entice hikers. It sounded good and hikers are always hungry, so the two of us hiked to their roadside pancake house and ordered up a couple of stacks. It wasn’t very busy so as the proprietor fried the cakes, I read the framed news articles and stuff on the walls and quickly surmised that her husband had been governor of the state of New Hampshire.

Trying to keep up the reputation that Southerners are friendly, I asked if her husband was still in politics.

“Oh yeah,” she replied, “right now he’s out trying to jumpstart Paul Laxalt’s campaign.”

“What,” I asked with a puzzled look, “Laxalt is running for President?”

“Oh yeah,” she said, “Who are you for, George Bush?”

Thinking back on this conversation with the vantage of hindsight, the ideal comeback should have been: “I’d be proud to vote for him if he just had himself a vasectomy half-century earlier.” Instead, I dug just as deep hole when I said, “I suppose if I had to vote for a Republican, I’d vote for Bush.”

Then she asked me what I had against Laxalt. At the time, I’d never even been to Nevada, Laxalt’s home state (and now my home away from home). All I could think to say was, “He’s good friends with Jesse Helms, who’s an embarrassment to my home state.”

“Oh, we do differ,” she said. “We’re good friends with Jesse. My husband wanted him to run for President.”

At this point, I realized I’d dug my hole a full six feet deep and if I didn’t shut up quickly it’d become my grave. So I let her run off her diatribe about what’s wrong with the world (which had something to do about there not being enough conservative Republicans) as I tried to eat my pancakes. This lady obviously hadn’t learned the philosophy that the customer is always right. I paid my bill, but I didn’t leave a tip. She’d already given me enough tips and I didn’t think she needed any more.


  1. The politics of the South is such a complicated thing to even begin to understand, but you've taken a stab at what is like and have been delightfully successful! My parents are die-hard democrats and my hubby is a die-hard republican. Half the time, they actually are saying that the same thing should happen, but they never seem to realize it. It's kind of fun to watch (from afar... way afar...).

    The Applalachain Trail, huh? What was that hiking like? How far did you go? We usually go up to a little campground called Standing Indian and do a little walking on it, but just day trips. I've always wondered what it'd be like to REALLY hike the Appalachain Trail though.

  2. I've hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. I even wrote an article and got paid about what one of the two pair of boots that I used cost... This guy named Bill Bryson hiked less than a quarter of the trail and wrote a book (A Walk in the Woods) and has become rich. But no one ever said the world is fair.

    The trail was wonderful. The summer I wrote about, I hiked about 1300 miles. The rest of the trail I hiked in 1-2 week sections. I remember Standing Indian (in the NC mountains). It was wet when I hiked that section (it was on of those shorter trips, back in 1984 or 85). I hiked it in what was left of a tropical storm that had come up from the gulf and it rained so hard the in the trail was over my boots.