So, I’ve recently seen the following URL bandied about:  http://www.fuckthesouth.com.

The basic premise is little different from Adam Felber’s
tounge-in-cheek concession speech:  that the reasons so many
conservative yahoos in “red” states complain about the government
(taxation, federal handouts and such offenses in the sight of God as
divorce) are actually far more commonly exploited by the red states
than the “blue” states, and that basically red staters can go fuck
themselves.  The bottom line here is, blue states pay the most
taxes which in turn provide the handouts mostly enjoyed by red states
while they simultaneously engage in vastly more divorce but point the
finger (or at least a finger, generally their middle one) at blue
states for “threats to the sanctity of marriage.”

After reading fuckthesouth.com, I can’t say I disagree with the
non-geographical content of the site.  The facts are quite
plain:  the people who vote for Bible-thumping, marriage-loving,
tax-cutting freakazoids are the same people cashing the welfare checks
they abhor.  It’s a sad dichotomy, but one I think can be
easily-enough explained.  In places where the economy is so
depressed as to have strangled any real hope for escape or improvement,
and has been for a generation or three, there’s very little left to
motivate people other than pie-in-the-sky religion and the fuel of
arrogant moral superiority.  A sense that one is still “better”
than the damn Yankees no matter how bad off one gets is essential to
some of these people:  people who still lock their doors when they
drive through an African-American neighborhood, still tut when they see
a mixed-race couple, still assume that supression of the truth of the
human existence – that relationships are tricky and frequently
unworkable things, that gay people are people too, that it shames no
one to accept the offer of a helping hand – is a fine substitute for a
little self-examination and a lot of shifting perspectives.

To say that life moves more slowly down here and that our cultural
wheels take longer to turn is to baldly participate in the incumbent
culture of denial.  Our culture shifts just as rapidly as anyone’s
– the same music sits on our record store shelves and the same videos
play on our MTV and the same desk-drivers appear on our news channels
and our local newscasters wear the same television hair.  Our
local newspapers are all owned by the newspapers of larger places
somewhere further north.  Our malls all have Cinnabons and our
Wal-Marts are just as evil. 
What is frequently unrealized is that our powers of self-delusion are so very, very strong, and that what our culture does contain is an almost fanatical adherence to appearance
over substance.  Our communities are very, very good at
constructing alternate versions of reality in which the differences we
behold every day simply don’t count, a false world in which those among
us who are openly and proudly and brazenly different from the idealized
norm are somehow rare outliers rather than an honest representation of
the broad spectrum that is life.  Southern life, if lived as it is
expected to be, is nothing if not a balancing act.  As we grow up,
we yearn to explore the world beyond our meager boundaries but maintain
the facade that we are hometown boys and girls who wish nothing more
than to take over the family farm or work in the factory down the
road.  If we ever return, we speak openly of how good it is to be
back where things are the way they ought to be, but all of our
stories are of how beautiful it was somewhere else, when we were
younger and had more freedom.  We tend to dying relatives and when
they pass we pretend our eyes are dry because we’re strong, not because we’re frankly glad to see some of them go.

I cannot count the number of people I know who are my age (30) and who
grew up in the South and who fought tooth and nail to get out of their
towns because they knew, no matter how they wanted a different life,
that their hometown would simply never allow anything other than what
had come before.  But why was that?  Not because anyone
literally sat them down and said, Your life here will be as ours or not at all – no, they felt that way because they feared
that their town would not allow them anything new or different, a
little freer or a little more permissive.  I am where I am,
geographically, out of that very same fear.  I am one of those
people who ran away from a little town I had convinced myself would
never let me have the life I wanted to live.   The incumbent
culture is that appearances must be maintained at all costs.  If
one cannot appear to conform, one is best off going somewhere else.  In the meantime, as long as one appears
to conform, one can do anything they want.  I know of gays and
lesbians who ended up in marriages but got plenty of action on the
side.  I know of relatives who maintained mixed-race relationships
but were never seen in the same crowd – every date was a trip to the
beach or a cruise or a flight to New York.  My own mother’s stated
preference is for the lifestyle of our small, Southern town but her
fondest memories are of living on her own, up north, working in an
office and being independent for the first time in her life.  I
cannot count the number of relatives who, when asked where they went to
church, mumbled something about a new church in another town because,
in all honesty, their atheism was perfectly fine as long as they never talked about it.

To say that we are so very different down here is a lie.  To say that we won’t admit
to that difference, however – that’s where the truth is found. 
Everyone accepts that we have synagogues and shrines and neopagan
covens and mullahs and witches and rabbis and Buddhists as long as
everyone only talks about our quaint country churches. 
Everyone accepts that of any random nine North Carolinians (or
Alabamans, for that matter), four of them voted for Kerry – as long as
we only talk about the five who voted for Bush.

No, our culture is just as diverse and just as fractious and just as
malleable as anywhere else in the country.  Bush’s margins down
here were far, far slimmer than in states such as Wyoming or Indiana,
but few people down here will admit that.  The culture of
misrepresentation is so strong as to let people convince themselves
that they’re the only ones who feel differently, who think differently,
who love or want or need differently.

So everyone stays quiet, and everyone tows the local line about
whatever it is they want, and they either find their desires in another
place at a later time or they ferret them out in the darker, more local
corners and pray that secrets are kept.

We change down here – we change just as much as anywhere else.  But we only do it behind closed doors.

Is all of that to say there’s no real pressure to maintain a slower
pace of change down here?  No, I’m not a complete idiot. 
This is the same place where Eric Rudolph was able to stay on the lam
with obvious help despite a $1,000,000 reward.  This is the same
place where countless crosses were (and are) burned, where the KKK
still checks out newcomers, where outsiders are regarded with suspicion
even while their wallets are open.  This is the birthplace of the
phrase, “We don’t take kindly to your type around here,” and I’m not so
attached to my rose-colored glasses as to believe for a second that
such facts are a myth.  But for every hooded racist and every
gay-bashing redneck, there’s a drunk in a church choir who hates his
life and a gay couple hiding their relationship from friends, family
and spouses.  For every overt expression of the right wing,
there’s an oft-hid manifestation of something else, something
no one talks about, something everyone just pretends isn’t there for
fear it makes them or their neighborhood or their community look bad to
everyone else. 

We are not all Bush-worshipping theocrats down here.  We are not
all conservative.  But plenty of us are scared or stifled just
enough to go along with keeping up appearances.  Don’t hate all
those down here who vote for Bush and listen to Rush and hate the
federalis for coming down here and taking our money away – a surprising
number (no majority, but I’d bet a significant minority) of them are
trying to say anything they can think of, anything they think will
sound good to their neighbors, rather than admit they’re on food
stamps, that their careers have ended five or ten or twenty years
early, that they have no hope, that they’re drunks, that they’re tired
of pretending they like what they have and can find no good reason for
what’s happened to them.  It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it
might start to explain it.  They’re deeply unhappy, and the only
time they’re allowed to yell and shout is when their neighbors do the
same for a candidate or a party or an idea.  Sometimes, just going
with the crowd is the only way they can feel empowered again, think
they’re a part of something, think they’re making a difference.

Most of all that demonstrates that the South, for good or ill, isn’t so much unlike any other place at all.

Reducing a criticism of such a complex set of conditions – a desire to
conform mixed with a desperate desire for a different, better way of
life – to nothing more than a rant and a flip of the bird is just
insulting.  I get anger – trust me, I understand anger –
but no one’s going to build any bridges that way.  I’ve seen it
suggested elsewhere that the author may well be a Southern liberal, and
I find that especially believable.  After all, our own code of
what’s acceptable doesn’t include a Southerner yelling at his neighbors
like that.  But it would fit perfectly fine within our image of
ourselves for some Northerner to say just those words.

Conformity’s a fun game for everyone to play. (more…)