Tuesday, November 12, 2013

How 'Bout Them Stadiums!

I've been college-shopping with my daughter, who is very interested in Sweet Briar, a women's college in Virginia. Sweet Briar has a well-known horseback riding program with some of the most luxurious barns I've ever seen, and so I asked the dumb question parents are supposed to ask: are students expected to bring their own horse? (Because my daughter doesn't have one.) No, I was told--and the admissions person added something I found very interesting: the college has a rule that if you do bring your horse, you are automatically disqualified from getting any kind of financial aid--the thinking being that any student who can afford to keep her own private horse on the grounds at school should be able to foot the tuition bill by herself.

At this point, I decided I really, really liked Sweet Briar.

What does this have to do with the Braves leaving Atlanta? The new stadium is going to be built in Cobb County (where a lot of Braves fans now live, according to this interesting graphic in the Washington Post), and it's going to cost $672 million. The owners--a bunch of rich guys who include billionaire Ted Turner--are putting up something like $200 million of their own money, with the rest to be paid for by--you guessed it--the taxpayers. But that's okay! Because apparently this new stadium will create so many jobs in its new location that everybody will benefit. This is the huge whopper trotted out every time some sports mogul wants to build another palace, and it's especially effective in Atlanta, a real sports town which has always been The City Too Busy to Hate Money. Of course, the vast majority of the jobs created will be low- to medium-wage service sector jobs (somebody has to serve all those tables and sweep up all those empty beer cans)--and it goes without saying that a lot of the people who really could use jobs like that will be hard-pressed to get to this new stadium, because Cobb County is not connected to Atlanta's rapid rail system, known as MARTA. Back in the 1970s, it voted not to participate in MARTA, because at the time it was a white enclave and everybody knew that MARTA stood for Moving Africans Rapidly OuT of Atlanta. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Braves fans will continue getting to the games in their cars, further clogging roads in one of the most congested regions of one of the most congested cities in America. And isn't it weird, how easy it seems to be for these guys who own sports teams to get these tax breaks--especially in a region like Atlanta, where the average teacher makes $52,000 a year? Oh well, who cares. Their kids go to private schools.

I'm not singling Atlanta out here. Washington, D.C. recently made the Washington Nationals a very sweet deal, and Prince George's County bent over--well, I started to say backward, but let's just say bent over--for Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, so he'd build his new stadium there. The results are mixed: the Nationals ballpark is a great place and the surrounding area, formerly the Land of Blight, is indeed taking off--but it's two blocks from the nearest rapid rail station. Landover Field has made Dan Snyder a whole bunch of money, but it is nowhere near mass transit, and the only economic benefit to the surrounding neighborhoods is the kind you might realize with a bucket of soapy water and a squeegee. Wash your windshield, sir?

Two thoughts here. One: sports palaces without access to mass transit equal big money for fat cats and a rip off for the taxpayer. Two: taxpayers should demand that their government leaders adopt the Sweet Briar Rule: if you are rich enough to own a sports team, you are rich enough to pay for your own damn stadium.

CORRECTION: Ted Turner no longer owns any part of the Atlanta Braves. Today they are owned by Liberty Media, whose majority owner is some guy named John C. Malone.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Southernisms, Or: English as Your Second Language

Apropos of what I don't know, but The Business Insider has just come up with a list of 13 Southern sayings the rest of America won't understand, and I feel the need to weigh in, since articles like this give the impression that Southerners all talk alike. We don't. Southern, like any other language, has its regional idiosyncracies and variations. Feel free to peruse the full list, but for the benefit of future historians of the language, here are my footnotes.

"He could eat corn through a picket fence." This is one of the many reasons I love the South; where else on earth would you ever find such a concise and colorful description of a person with buck teeth? Says it all, doesn't it? Similarly, "grinning like a jackass eating briars" pretty much sums up the kind of phony smile you often see on the faces of TV preachers and politicians. I propose further that Southerners have the ability to come up with these gems on a moment's notice, a case in point being the time when I was a kid standing on a street in California watching the world go by with my dad, waiting for my mom to finish some shopping, and he said, "Lookit that girl. She's so knock-kneed her knees gotta signal to pass." You can't acquire this facility; I think it has to be genetic. Or something in the water (which, in my dad's case, would have been Gadsden, Alabama water.)

"You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear." Honestly, I had no idea this was a Southern expression; I thought everybody knew it. I will admit that I used it the other day with my 16-year-old daughter, Maryland born and bred, and she looked at me like I had just put my panties on my head.

"He looked as drunk at Cooter Brown" and "I'm finer than frog hair split four ways." Just to emphasize that Southerners do not all go to secret meetings where we are given lists of expressions to memorize, these are two I've never heard. However, my grandmother used to say, when asked "How are you?" (supposedly the antecedent for the frog hair remark), "I'm large as life and twice as natural." I don't know what that means, but I've been saying it all my life.

"She's as happy as a dead pig in sunshine." The version I always heard left out the "dead," and I am wondering if the reporter of this piece either mis-heard or somebody was having a little fun at his expense. Because in my experience, a dead pig is not happy; a dead pig is pork chops.

"He thinks the sun comes up just to hear him crow." Nope, never heard that particular one, either; the version I grew up hearing was the description of some blowhard as "a rooster taking credit for the dawn."

"Catawampus." If this is a Southernism, then it is one that English-speaking people everywhere need. "The bow on the back of your dress is a little off-center" and "The bed looks wrong against that wall" and any number of other remarks could be more concisely rendered thusly: "That thing is all catawampus." I hope the OED folks are paying attention.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Most Inconvenient Man

Oh, Tom Watson. Whatever shall we do with you?

Stuff you in a closet, apparently. That seems to be the approach being taken by the state of Georgia when it comes to a statue of the fiery turn-of-the-century politician and journalist which stands on the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta. Actually, according to a spoikesman for Gov. Nathan Deal, the 12-foot statue will be moved to a nearby state-owned park.

To people who know who he was (hint: the Tom Watson we're talking about was not a professional golfer). Tom Watson's name is synonymous with "racist." He's best known as the firebrand who whipped up anti-Semitic passions during the Leo Frank case and helped incite Frank's infamous lynching. But he hated Catholics, too, and he was one of the most virulent bigots who ever wrote about African Americans in the South.

I remember coming across the Tom Watson statue years ago when I was a reporter in Atlanta and had to go down to the Capitol for something. At the time I wondered about the inscription, "a champion of right who never faltered in the cause." I had no idea of who he was, except for a vague sense that he'd been a bad guy; none of my school books had ever mentioned him. Years later, I picked up a used copy of C. Vann Woodward's classic biography, Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel, and I learned about the first half of Watson's career, before he surrendered to the Dark Side.

That Tom Watson was a gifted orator and a lacerating critic of the railroad cabals who owned Georgia's government in the late 19th century. He was decades ahead of his time in advocating public ownership of the railroads and government delivery of mail to rural areas. He also opposed the convict lease system, in which prisoners (black, naturally) who had often been arrested on flimsy charges to begin with were "leased" out serve their sentences by working for state agencies or private companies owned by rich people who had pals in state government. This was the practice Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Blackmon later described so vividly in his book, Slavery By Another Name. It lasted up through World War II, and I remember finding vestiges of it in eastern Georgia--near Tom Watson's hometown of Thomson--when I was reporting there in the mid 1980s.

More than anything, though, Tom Watson was the guy who saw through the "let's you and him fight" tactics that have been used by economics elites in the South for the last 150 years to distract poor whites and poor blacks from realizing how much they are getting screwed. (Southern Republicans used a similar distraction technique to whip up anti-Obamacare sentiment: Forget about those record salaries of insurance and hospital CEOs or those record profits in the pharmaceutical  industry--the government's trying to pick your pocket!  "You are kept apart," Watson told integrated audiences of black and white farmers back when he was running for Congress in the 1880s, "that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings"--by banks which denied them credit for to buy seed, then evicted them from their homes when their crops failed. This bald statement of fact earned him the animus of Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady, that famous pro-business proponent of "The New South", who made sure that Watson's immensely popular speeches ran next to the truss ads on the back page, if they made the paper at all. As a Populist candidate for Congress in 1892, Watson was defeated by the pro-business Georgia Democratic Party machine in an election that his biographer, Woodward, called nothing less than "a farce"--full of voter intimidation, ballot box stuffing, bribery and the miraculous voter participation of small children and people who had been dead for years. The experience drove him out of politics. It made him mean and bitter. It made him into the twisted rabble-rouser he became.

Now the state of Georgia is going to "relocate" his statue somewhere as part of some renovation project. I am guessing it will wind up in a place where the only regular visitors will be winos and homeless people. In death, as in life, Tom Watson is an inconvenient reminder of a racist past a lot of Southern white people would like to bury, as well as economic realities a lot of rich people would rather the rest of us not think about. Southerners love their history, as long as it's not too inconvenient.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Look Away, Dixie Land

 For Southern nostalgia buffs who like to sing "Dixie," here's something to consider: that "land of cotton" the song mythologizes is with us still, though not in ways that would make a person long to go there. The Daily Yonder, one of my favorite websites, has a story today on "persistent poverty counties" as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When it comes to rural poverty, the original Cotton Kingdom, also known as the Black Belt because it contains a high number of counties where African Americans are an overwhelming majority of the residents, shows up in vivid green as a a band of overwhelming rural poverty.. I recommend you click on the link to see the map; it leaps out at you. It's worth noting that the other striking pattern of rural poverty is in--who woulda guessed?--Appalachia.

The South doesn't have a monopoly on rural poverty, but it's close: it has 84 percent of the total. According to the USDA report, "There are no non-metro persistent poverty counties in the Northeast, 29 non-metro persistent poverty counties in the Midwest, and 20 in the West. The remaining 252 ...are in the South."  If you live in the rural South, there's about a one-in-four chance that you will be living in poverty.

Seventy-five years after FDR called the South "America's Economic Problem Number 1" and 45 years after Robert Kennedy toured Appalachia, some things haven't changed. The big thing that has changed is the difficulty facing the people who live in these counties: in 1968, the difference between the poorest and the richest in this country had been poking along at about the same rate for decades; starting in the 1980s, the rich started getting richer, and that trend has been accelerating ever since. It's no wonder that the Honey Boo-Boos of the South exist; the wonder is that they manage to be so darn cheerful. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Screaming Hour

Tonight I was sleuthing through some old computer files looking for something, and I found this. It is dated February 2007, and though the computer credits me with being its author, I have no memory of writing it. I was having some, um, mental health treatments around about that time, which created a wide swath in my frontal lobe's memory banks, so that probably explains why its discovery today comes as such a complete surprise. If anybody is interested in the original saccharine and insipid literary gem to which this refers, you can find it here.

And now, here offered without further comment:

With No Apologies Whatsoever to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the Old Fart

By Tracy Thompson


Between the dark and the daylight
As the night is beginning to lower
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations
That is known as the Screaming Hour.

I hear in the chamber above me
A thunderous sibling stampeding,
A slam that would shatter a doorframe,
My six-year-old howling, “I’M BLEEDING!”

From my study I see in the lamplight
Two divas descending the stair.
“I DID NOT!” comes my 10-year-old’s roaring;
“YOU DID, TOO!” yells Miss Curly Hair.

A whisper, and then a silence
And I know from the whimper-marked hush
One’s raiding the Band-Aid supply
While her big sister hisses, “You wuss!”

A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the door!
They’ve seen me! They descend full of grievance,
Tales of woe, wrongs endured, marks of gore.
Little Sophie hits “delete” on my keyboard
While she rats out her big sister’s sin;
If I tell them to leave, they ignore me;
Emma screams, “I HATE BEING TEN!”

Oh, what I’d give for an icepick
I’d stick it right into my brain
Maybe a home-made lobotomy
Would keep me from going insane

From this 5 p.m. scourge of fighting,
Low blood sugar, wails, homework hell.
Then again, the racket these kids make
Would penetrate a well-padded cell.

Do you think, o mother who reads this,
That because my kids cause me these woes
That you’re a superior parent?
That your children will never be foes?

Maybe so. All that I’m sure of
Is that if H.W. Longfellow were here,
I’d say, “You think kids are so darling?
Take mine, then. I need a beer.”

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Teachable Moment

Went to the Newseum today in downtown DC with my 16-year-old daughter, where we saw a short film on the media and the civil rights movement. At the end of it I said to her, "Just about every single person in that movie who made history, good or bad, from the President on down to the cops and the reporters and the students staging those sit-ins, were Southerners. Now do you see why I still think the South is so important?"

And she said, "Yes."

Monday, July 22, 2013

History is Interested in Us

We are products of our history whether we know it or not.

That's become my mantra after spending years researching the South, where I grew up. The latest evidence of this is a study published today in the New York Times,  which paints a stark geographical portrait of where in this country it is the hardest for a child born in poverty to better his economic condition. 

Guess where it's the hardest? Yup: the Deep South, which is to say a band of counties starting in southeast Arkansas and west Tennessee and curving down and then up again through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South and North Carolina and extreme southeast Virginia. The worst city? Atlanta. 

The reasons for this are undoubtedly complex, but it is not particularly linked to present-day racial factors: researchers noted that the climb out of poverty was just as hard for white children as for children of any other ethnic group. Geographic and demographic factors do play a role, though:

In Atlanta, the most common lament seems to be precisely that concentrated poverty, extensive traffic and a weak public-transit system make it difficult to get to the job opportunities. "When poor communities are segregated," said Cindia Cameron, an organizer for 9 to 5, a women’s rights group, “everything about life is harder.”

And that's where history comes in. Even though its neighborhoods remain, on average, more racially integrated than most American cities, Atlanta still bears the broad imprint of decades of residential segregation: poor minorities live south of I-20, affluent whites north. The fact that Atlanta is crippled today by a lack of rapid rail is directly traceable to the decision in the 1970s by residents of Cobb and Gwinnett counties to opt out of MARTA, because so many affluent white folks in those counties feared more mobility would mean an influx of poor black people into their neighborhoods. (It would have, too, and in the long run everybody would have benefitted.) And finally, the symbiotic link between public officials and private developers--by no means an exclusively Southern phenomenon, but one that flourished in the South's conservative anti-union, pro-business climate--has mean decades of suburban sprawl: more houses, more roads, more traffic, very little regional planning. 

To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, we may not be interested in history, but history is interested in us. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Life After Air Conditioning

As I type, I am sitting in my air conditioned office and it is a torrid 90 degrees outside. These days it's hard to imagine life without AC, and those times when storms have knocked out the power have made it abundantly clear how much of a necessity it's become. And yet I grew up--in the Deep South, no less--without air conditioning, and managed to survive without even feeling particularly deprived. How did we get from there to here? By making incremental changes in residential architecture and urban design, none of which have made for a healthier planet. Here's one case where the rural South of 50 years ago could show the rest of the world how to live in a post-industrial future. How did they do it?They used:
  • Trees. Not those puny little things developers set up on the front lawn after they have denuded the landscape to build another housing tract, but actual trees--the kind that may be older than the inhabitants of the houses they shade. Your basic oak or maple or tulip poplar or whatever is a complex ecosystem that takes in greenhouse gases and turns it into oxygen, while sheltering human beings from heat and preventing soil erosion, providing a home for birds, insects and other wildlife, not to mention the occasional treehouse. Trees are amazing. And yet: the managers at my gym recently cut down a 50-year-old tree because one of the members complained it was dripping sap on his car. There are times when I despair, and start to consider the possibility that human beings deserve extinction.
  • Hassock fans. They were round, built like something you'd rest your feet on, and they moved air in all directions around the room at a level where you could actually feel it. Ceiling fans rarely work that well, especially when they are placed 15 feet overhead in a cathedral-style ceilinged living room, where they serve mere decoration. It goes without saying that we did not have skylights, since the whole point was to keep the summer sun out of the house, for pete's sake. (I saw a house the other day with a front porch where somebody had put skylights in the porch roof. Talk about being unclear on the concept.)
  • Iced tea.
  • Cross ventilation. The "dog trot" style of architecture, where there's a central hallway that moves air from front to back, worked with nature to move the air around. We have replaced this with house layouts with more angles than a pinball machine, one HVAC unit per floor and (often) a humongous generator out back for when the grid goes down. Which it will.
  • Sleeping porches. Even in a sultry climate, the night air is usually cool, and there is something mesmerizing about dozing off looking at the stars and judging the passing of the hours by their movement if you wake up in the middle of the night. The cicadas and tree frogs will sing you to sleep, if the hum of the hassock fan doesn't do it first. It beats the frigid woosh of central air conditioning by a mile. 
  • Porches, period. The demise of the front porch is one of the major tragedies of late 20th century residential architecture. Front porches invite people out of their house toward the street, where they can watch the neighbors and the neighbors can watch them, where they can converse with each other or gossip about each other as they see fit, where they can simply sit and contemplate the human comedy. They are cool places to sit and catch a breeze when the house is too hot to stand. They are good places to sit while shelling peas or stringing beans, chores that frequently involve long, meandering conversations of and great story-telling. Backyard decks say "we are all hanging out back here to get away from all you riffraff." Poches say, "Come on in and sit a spell." They create community. 
          All this we know, or at least used to know. When will home-builders get a clue? When, oh Lord?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Thank God for....New Mexico?

The South is still the epicenter of child poverty in the United States, but the old "thank God for Mississippi" saying we Southerners all know is no longer operative when it comes to overall child well-being, according to the annual Kids Count report issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. For the first time in the 24 years that the Casey Foundation has issued the report--which is avidly read by journalists, social scientists and policy makers around the country--New Mexico has replaced Mississippi as 50th in the ranks.

That's the good news. The bad news is that there still seems to be an inverse relationship between geographic latitude and child poverty rates--i.e., that the further South you go the more child poverty you will find. After Mississippi, Louisiana came in at 46, followed by South Carolina at 45, Alabama at 44, Georgia at 43, Arkansas at 40, Tennessee at 39, North Carolina at 35--and then Virginia, way up at 11. Texas (which is only partly a Southern state these days), Nevada and California don't come out looking so well, either, but for the most part, sadly, the South has got the child poverty thing covered.

The state with the lowest child poverty? It's them dern Yankees up in New Hampshire.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Fantasyland, Southern Style

If a map of rail lines in the United States is like a series of interconnected spider's webs, Atlanta sits like the spider in the middle of a the biggest one in the southeast--a well known fact ever since Sherman set his sights on the city. What's also well known is that outside of Atlanta, vast stretches of rural Georgia are essentially unconnected to Atlanta, or anywhere, except by car. Air service? Don't be silly. Greyhound stopped coming years ago, if it ever did. Many of these small towns have lovely old train stations, which have either been boarded up or pressed into use by some forlorn "civic restoration" committee. The trains that pass by those stations are not passenger trains; they're freight trains headed to some Home Depot or Wal Mart 50 or 100 miles away. If you live in, say, Hogansville or Barnesville, and you don't have a car, your employment options are limited to low-paid fast food or retail jobs. If you live in those places and you work in the Atlanta metro area, you will spend a fortune on gas and half your life behind the wheel.

I've traveled a lot in these areas over the years, and looking at the rail infrastructure that's already there--not to mention the lovely old housing stock many of these small towns can offer--I've wondered many times: what would it take to get passenger rail going again for rural Georgia? Imagine the economic benefits of being able to live in one of those beautiful 19th century homes and commute to work in Atlanta by rail. Repeat that story up and down the old Atlanta-West Point line, and think of the number of cars you could take off the roads. Think of the lifestyle you'd be able to afford. Think of the jobs that people who already live in Hogansville would have access to. Am I nuts for even thinking this would be a good thing?

Yes, and no, according to a an interesting piece in  The Daily Yonder, a blog run by Austin, Texas-based writer Bill Bishop. Reporter C. B. Hall describes the persistent fight it took for rural residents in Washington state to get Amtrak to provide passenger service to their small towns, which Amtrak's Empire Builder passenger trail had whizzed through for years without stopping. I figured there would be formidable obstacles to this kind of thing, but "formidable" doesn't begin to describe it, according to Hall:

  • Amtrak is perennially strapped for cash and hasn't bought any new passenger cars for years; its passenger car budget is limited to replacing and repairing what it already has.
  • The freight trains that use the existing rail infrastructure are legally required to let Amtrak share the rails, but there's no law that limits how much they can charge Amtrak for doing so. The exorbitant rates they charge Amtrak for use of the rails effectively keeps Amtrak out of the passenger rail service in rural areas. 
  • For the same reason, Amtrak requires that the towns themselves pay for the cost of building a train station. Obviously, the towns I'm talking about, there's no building involved--the stations are already there, and in pretty decent shape--but there would be some considerable refurbishing and re-hab. And small towns in Georgia have even less money than Amtrak.
Here's the point where the current state of Southern politics poses the most insurmountable hurdle. If we were living in the days of FDR, angling to get a little federal largesse to jump-start a project like this would be a political no-brainer. Today, in the current "government is evil" climate, it's a political non-starter. A small-town mayor could get away with it; state-wide political figures can do it behind the scenes, as they always do. But get the region's leaders to go all-out for more federal money to re-establish a communal transportation infrastructure that makes all the sense in the world? Hell, no. They can hear their constituents right now. I ain't giving up my car so some dern tree-huggers can live out in the country, and I ain't payin' more taxes for it, neither. Yet the money is there: for starters, all we'd have to do is junk those seven F-22 bombers that Sen. Saxby Chambliss loves so much but that the Air Force has said over and over it doesn't want or need, and that's $1.75 billion right there. 

Yeah, right. When pigs roost in trees.

And so, Southern history repeats itself. In the days after the Civil War, there was federal money available to jump-start rail-building throughout the war-ravaged South. Business leaders knew that's what was needed, farmers knew it was needed--but regional animosity, political shenanigans and ingrained suspicion of the federal government made it all but impossible, except for a few miles here and there. The railroads were built, eventually, by private rail barons who made huge profits for themselves and spread it around, to the extent that they spread it around at all, only as far as the local politicians they needed to buy to maintain their monopolies.  We've advanced past that--today, we have public ownership of the railroads, an idea which was considered radical, even Socialist, back in the 1870s. As the Daily Yonder piece shows, a few rural towns have succeeded in restoring passenger service, in places like New England and Washington state. But in the South, getting public service out of our public rails still seems like a fantasy.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

What Were We Thinking?

There is no group easier to take down these days than antebellum Southern plantation owners--those folks  who saw absolutely nothing wrong with living a life of ease made possible by the backbreaking, unpaid labor of other human beings. To our 21st century minds, their discombobolation at the end of slavery--the sudden "rudeness" of formerly docile servants, the "ingratitude" of slaves who just up and left one day--seems comical. What did they think would happen? we ask.

I can't help but wonder if someday our descendants will think the same of us when it comes to our fossil fuel addiction. I think in analogies--and I'm just working this one out--but it seems to me that (and here = stands for "roughly analogous to"):

  • Our dependence on oil and natural gas=the plantation South's dependence on slave labor
  • The long-term damage to the planet caused by over-dependence on fossil fuels = long-term damage to the Southern economy caused by over-dependence on cotton as a cash crop
  • Damage to soil caused by unsustainable dependence on petroleum-derived fertilizers and resulting monoculture practices (like growing corn, corn and more corn) = damage to soil caused by monoculture created by growing cotton, cotton and more cotton
  • Our indifference to/defensiveness about the human role in climate change for the last 50 years = antebellum South's attitude toward growing anti-slavery sentiment for most of the 19th century 
  • The willingness of Western society to let poorer (and let's face it, mostly brown-skinned) nations pay the price for climate change = the willingness of white Southerners to get a free ride out of slave labor
It may not be a perfect analogy, but I think it's got some meat to it. Comments welcome. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sorry--I just had to do this, to say one last thing on that Brad Paisley song, "Accidental Racist," with that whiny sounding line that says something about not being able to rewrite history. 

Behold, rewritten history. Note the happy slaves in Western attire, greeting their affectionate master-to-be. 

From a textbook used in Virginia public schools in the 1960s, entitled Virginia: History, Government, Geography, published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1957. (Thanks, Diann.)   

Monday, April 8, 2013

Old Times There HAVE Been Forgotten

I worship at the altar of Johnny Cash, I think Dolly Parton is a genius and as far as I am concerned "Sweet Home Alabama" ought to be our national anthem. But most of what currently passes for country music has always left me cold, which is why I confess I am unfamiliar with the ouevre of Mr. Brad Paisley. He's got me riveted, however, with his latest song, "Accidental Racist." 

It's about a white Southern guy wearing a Lynnard Skynnard t-shirt encountering a black guy who views the shirt's Confederate flag with distrust and dislike. It's a song that sums up everything I find both exasperating and endearing about today's Southern culture: its friendliness, the willingness of blacks and whites to attempt to talk about difficult subjects--and, not least, the abysmal ignorance most Southerners today outside of academia have about their own history. Let us deconstruct.

Just a proud rebel son with an old can of worms--Okay, that's a nice phrase... 

I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done/And it ain’t like you and me can re-write history--Wrong! You can rewrite history. We've done it! Robert E. Lee barely had time to re-plant his posterior on the back of ol' Traveler at Appomattox before Southerners got right down to doing just that. What was the war about? Going in, it was slavery ("Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world"--the Mississippi Ordinance of Secession, just one document out of many contemporaneous pieces of evidence); after the war, it was about states' rights. The Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, formidable lobbying groups in their day, devoted the next three or four generations to making sure that this "correct" version of history was the only version taught to schoolchildren in the South, and they worked their will on both public education, Southern universities and educational publishing for the next 75 years or so. It's highly likely that any Southerner who reads this will have been the recipient of some version of the Lost Cause myth. I was. It was a hell of a PR effort, and the damage that it did is with us still. A good place to start to read about this is David Blight's Race and Reunion, which has the single best summation of exactly how the UDC did it in chapter 8. 

Moving on:

They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears / We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years

Wrong again! Thanks to the UDC et al., generations of Southerners have grown up with the delusion Mr. Paisley still labors under--that it was a disaster perpetrated on a defeated South by thieving Yankee Carpetbaggers and Southern Scalawags who cynically manipulated those simple-minded darkies to gain money and political power for themselves, destroying civil society in the process. There was corruption during Reconstruction--it was the dawn of the Gilded Age, an era of rampant political corruption everywhere, and come to think of it a lot like today--but Reconstruction was not an unmitigated disaster for the South. The destroyers of civil society were the Ku Klux Klan, which came into being the instant it became clear in 1867 that Congress was going to give former slaves the vote. The record of racial and political violence perpetrated by the Klan and their Southern Democratic allies over the next four years is so vast it takes up 13 volumes of testimony before Congress--which you can find online today at the Internet Archive, a non-profit open source website for scholars, under the ponderous title  Report of the Joint Select Committee to Inquire Into Conditions in the Late Insurrectionary States. Never heard of it? That's because the Lost Cause folks made sure that most of anti-Klan witnesses were discounted as drunks or thieves or "nigger lovers" or any one of a dozen other all-purpose epithets of the day. At the same time, people in the North were getting heartily sick of that pesky "Negro question" and were more than ready to write off the whole thing as a gigantic Redneck Brawl. The result: all the investigations came to nothing, and the testimony fell into more than a century of oblivion.

Mind you, the Klan didn't just intend to put former slaves back in their place. They also hated public education, anybody who voted Republican, anybody who dared to try to teach former slaves their ABCs, and any preacher of the Gospel of Christ who dared to propose that white and blacks were equal in the sight of God. In this they made no distinction whatsoever between white and black. And when I say "hate" I don't mean writing nasty letters; I mean terrorism of the kind that the Taliban is doing in Afghanistan today. They tortured. The burned down schools. They castrated. They killed. They ran law-abiding people off their land and left their children to starve. The only reason they went away (only to come back later, in the early 20th century) was that in the hotly contested Presidential election of 1876, between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes, Southern Democrats made a devil's bargain with the northern Republicans: we'll let you steal this election if you take your soldiers out of the South and let us run things here the way we want to. The result was something we know now as Jim Crow. 

I know Mr. Paisley is busy touring, so I have little hope he will delve into any of this. But before one more white person from the South gets up on his high horse to defend "Southern pride," I wish to God (pausing here, to bang my head against my keyboard) that they would take a look at the actual historical record to make sure they know what they're professing pride in. Southerners do indeed have much to be proud of, chief among them the fact that black and white Southerners are generally on cordial terms these days; moreover, the record of our contributions to American culture, literature and music fill many libraries. But for a people who profess to love history, we have been tragically misled and tragically incurious about which history we choose to love. It is time, for God's sake, to get a clue.

Here endeth the rant--except one last thing, directed to all those snobs out there who delight  in taking such opportunities to start trashing my native region as a land of bigots and hicks. I say this with all sincerity, and in the nicest possible way: Fuck off. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

This just in, from Salon:
The chairwoman of the Georgia Republican Party fears that if same-sex marriage becomes legal, straight people will enter into fake gay marriages in order to fraudulently receive benefits.
“You may be as straight as an arrow, and you may have a friend that is as straight as an arrow,” Sue Everhart told the Marietta Daily Journal. “Say you had a great job with the government where you had this wonderful health plan. I mean, what would prohibit you from saying that you’re gay, and y’all get married and still live as separate, but you get all the benefits? I just see so much abuse in this it’s unreal." 
So, just thinking out loud here, let's say I have this great federal job with the fantastic federal health care benefits, and I have this friend, let's call her Marcia, who needs health insurance--and of course! We'll get married! Because why wouldn't a person enter into a fake but legally binding arrangement with another person that they'd have to get out of in case they ever met somebody they'd actually want to marry, if not for major medical? And who cares if this opens them to potential liability if their spouse gets sued over something, or if they have to decide whose house gets to be the primary residence for income tax purposes? Heck, people are probably queuing up right now to find some same-sex partner with a federal job that they can marry so they can cheat the government. You have to wonder why nobody has tried this with plain old heterosexual marriage before.
Oh, right. It's because the whole idea is as weird as it is possible to get.  

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Two Stories About Race in the South

I get interesting mail these days from people who have read my book, and one particularly interesting one came today. I won't use my correspondent's name, since I haven't asked his permission to do that, and in any event the point he raises is more important than who he is. He has taken issue with the way in which I portray the attitudes of many white Southerners throughout the 20th century when it comes to confronting our region's history on race; the gist of his argument, I think, is that I am being over-the-top politically correct and laying on the white liberal guilt pretty thick. In hopes of getting me to reconsider my position, he said, he was including a brief story, "in hopes that it might make people with good intentions begin to rethink their philosophy about how to save blacks from themselves, and the "feel good" guilt-driven liberal philosophy that is pervasive in our institutions." 

Okay, I thought; fair enough. 

This is a story about two brothers, age 5 and 6.  Marty, the older brother, did not treat his younger brother, Jesse, as he would like to be treated.  He went so far as believing that he was better and smarter than his younger brother, even though this was not the case.

One day, Marty did some terrible to his younger brother.   Their mother had just made lunch for the boys and put their sandwiches out in the breakfast room.  Marty noticed that Jesse was still outside playing and he began to think about how he could hurt his brother.  Marty had always been a little jealous of Sammy, so this was his chance to get even.  He knew that Jesse was allergic to peanuts, which made his Mother worry all the time about him.  She never seemed to worry much about him.  So, when nobody was looking, he crushed a few peanuts and placed them inside his bologna and mustard sandwich.   That would do the trick!

Well, Jesse ate the sandwich and got sick, real sick.  He had to go to the hospital and got his stomach pumped.  The Doctor said he might have died had he not gotten treatment as quickly as he did, but he did get better and soon was able to go home.   Marty realized what happened and felt awful.  He did not understand that what he did could have caused so much damage, maybe even killed his brother, so he told Jesse that he would never do anything like that again.  And, he really meant it.   From that day forward, Marty never did anything to hurt Sammy.   He never put him down or made fun of him.  And soon enough, Jesse forgave him for what he did. 

Their mother knew that Jesse could have died and she took a long time to get over what happened.  So that Marty would never, ever do anything like that again, once a month she would get the two boys together in the kitchen and tell Jesse what a terrible thing his brother had done.  She would retell how sick Jesse was and how he almost died.

[As the years passed--I am editing for space here--these re-tellings would get more elaborate and detailed and embellished, since the boys' mother wanted to make sure Marty never forgot what he had done wrong. 

Although Marty felt awful and had never treated Jesse bad after the incident,  Jesse eventually grew to resent his brother for what he did.,,,Gradually, over time, he began to feel a bubbling hatred towards his brother. He did not really know how it happened, but he felt like he just didn’t want to have a brother anymore. 

Going on twenty years now, Jesse has never spoken to his brother.

Marty still loves his brother very much but has moved on, knowing that he can’t do anything to change his brother’s heart, which has hardened with hate.

Jesse still lives at home with his mother, who loves him very much, and takes care of him. 

End of story. And I thought it was a terrific story, though not for the reasons the author probably intended. I thought it was terrific since it so perfectly explains how guilt and defensiveness can stifle honest conversation, and how this "hardening of the heart" Marty accuses Jesse of can look an awful lot like psychological projection. So in answer, I wrote this alternative proposed ending:  

After Marty did this terrible thing to his brother, he realized how awful it was and vowed never to do it again. In fact, he was so deeply ashamed of what he had done that he also vowed to put the whole painful incident behind him and never, ever mention it to a living soul again. Over the years, Jesse had some lingering stomach problems associated with the peanut incident--nothing fatal, more of a continuing reminder of how he had almost died--and it bothered him that from all he could see, Marty had totally forgotten about what he had done. He not only never apologized for it, he never mentioned it or even said "that's too bad" when Jesse didn't feel so well. Jesse didn't want Marty to wear a hair shirt for the rest of his life; he just wanted Marty to be able to talk about what had happened and to own what he'd done. Instead, all he got was "Aren't you over that yet?" After awhile, this really began to eat at him, and this was bad for both brothers: it put a wall between them, and it also affected Jesse's sense of responsibility for managing his own health and well-being. 

Today, Marty thinks his brother is a casebook example of learned helplessness; Jesse thinks his brother is a casebook example of the power of psychological denial. They are both right. 

But here's the thing: I don't like the ending of my story any better than I like the ending of the first one.  Is it possible that at some point in the 21st century, somebody will come up with something better? 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Thank God for Mississippi

So no sooner does Mayor Bloomberg in New York get behind a city ordinance that would ban the sale of sodas over the size of sixteen ounces than Mississippi comes back with a law that that would ban municipalities from enacting such bans. Mississippi, the state with the highest obesity rate in the nation--and high rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes to show for it--is taking a courageous stand against any legislative attempt at curtailing marketing techniques that foster obesity.

What, you ask, were they thinking? I know exactly what they were thinking: "I'll be damned if any sumbitch  gonna tell me what to eat." They were thinking from that lizard brain all Southerners have, located directly at the base of the skull, which bypasses the frontal lobe altogether and rises up in outrage at the mere suggestion that they might knuckle under to any edict, no matter how well meaning, from some dern Outsider. Hell, yeah, us folks in Mississippi are fat! So what? You folks in New York City eat fish bait on little bitty rice cakes!  

It is in the nature of Southerners to see threats to freedom everywhere--everywhere outside of our own immediate environs, that is. It is not in the nature of Southerners to perceive that their freedom may have already been compromised by advertising wizards and focus groups who are so fiendishly clever at coming up with more and better ways to cram more "mouth feel" and calories into that bag of Doritos or bucket of KFC. Southerners love guns; we do not excel at introspection.

Actually, I confess that I too sort of bridled at the thought of Mayor Bloomberg telling me I couldn't have a 32-ounce soda if I wanted it. One of those things is cheaper than four 16-ounce sodas at the movies, and when I go with my husband and kids we often get three or four straws and pass the Vat o' Coke back and forth. (Actually, I'd be fine with just one straw, but my kids think Mom has cooties.) We don't keep soda in our house, so this is one of those occasional treats--and who's to say we can't have it? Apparently a judge in New York thought the same thing, since he struck down the Bloomberg law. I forget the exact legal rationale, but it was something along the lines of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In a way, this little episode is the story of democracy in microcosm: a nation's struggle to discern and pursue the common good despite the determined resistance of its citizens to submit to anything of the sort. Oh well. As we say in Georgia: Thank God for Mississippi. If eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, then knee-jerk redneck contrarianism comes with the territory.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Lunatics of Georgia, Unite!

I love being from Georgia. This is because Georgia lawmakers are a never-ending and rich source of amusement, living as they do in an alternate reality of their own devising. Where else, I ask, would you have discovered a serious legislative consideration of something called the Traveling Electric Chair? And yet this was a serious proposal at back when I was a reporter at the Atlanta Journal Constitution; the idea was to put the state's execution apparatus into a van and hold executions around the state at the site of the crime. I mean, why not? They make extension cords, don't they? (To be fair, this wasn't a new idea, just an old idea resurrected; states in the South used to do something like this all the time.) It was while this proposal was being debated that the AJC ran two of my favorite newspaper headlines of all time: "Traveling Electric Chair Clears House" was one, followed the next day by "Traveling Electric Chair Passes Senate Panel." No, I am not making this up. No, there is no record of how fast the traveling electric chair was going at the time.

Oh, but that was decades ago, you protest; things have gotten better. No, they have not! Georgia legislators, in their finite wisdom, are now considering a law that would allow people who are mentally ill to carry firearms. In light of massacres at Newton and Virginia Tech, both perpetrated by people whose mental states should have prevented them from getting anywhere near a gun and yet who found it appalling easy to do so, Georgia legislators decide that the answer is: loosen the few pathetic restrictions on gun ownership that we have now! More Marshal Dillon wannabes packing heat! As Mao Tse-tung might have said if he'd been a member of the NRA, Let a thousand bullets zoom! 

This is of course lunacy--yet as a potential beneficiary of this law (I am a certifiably crazy person who has been hospitalized for a mental illness, and I often visit the relatives in Georgia), there is a part of me that says, Right on! For one thing, crime statistics show that mentally ill people are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators of it. And in Georgia, they clearly have reason to fear not just the criminals who routinely prey on them, but also the inmates who are running the asylum they call the Georgia General Assembly. It's an arms race, people! Allons, enfants de la patrie! --target practice starts at eight.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


!I am slow on the uptake sometimes, so my first reaction to the uproar over remarks by Emory University President James Wagner was to roll my eyes. Wagner had written an essay about the virtues of political compromise that mentioned the (in)famous 3/5ths compromise during the writing of the Constitution, in which  North and South agreed that slaves in the South would be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and representation in Congress. I thought the critics were agog that Wagner had mentioned something that had involved slavery, and was thus giving some kind of "those were the good ol' days" imprimateur to the South's Peculiar Institution.

If only that had been true. Then I could have had fun at 21st century liberals getting their panties in a wad by judging 18th century history in the light of 21st century morals. But actually what Wagner did was to pick the worst--The. Very.Worst.--example for the point he was trying to make, which is that political compromise is the 10W-40 that makes democracy work. Why?

1. It's actually a counter-argument, a plausible example of why principle might at times trump all other considerations. Even in the 18th century there were people who ardently, passionately opposed slavery, the slave trade and agricultural economies which depended on slave labor. Theirs is a rare example of a principle which still looks pretty good 200-plus years later. If you want to advocate for compromise, don't hand the Tea Partiers a way to compare themselves with people who were morally ahead of their time.

2. It was a compromise based on an intellectually dishonest argument. How can slaves be three-fifths of a person on some occasions, like when you are counting population for Congressional representation, and a piece of livestock at others, like when you sell a mother's son for profit? When it comes to slavery, the South was always trying to have it both ways. "States' rights" was a cherished principle--until it came to the question of whether Massachusetts, say, could exercise its sovereign state power to refuse to send a fugitive slave back down South. Then, suddenly, it was all about property rights."Slaves cannot be allowed to fight for the Confederacy," said the leaders of the Confederacy at the beginning of the war; they were afraid of what those those loving, well-cared-for slaves might do once they got hold of some guns. By the end of the war, Confederate leaders had done a 180 on that question--with the exception of Alexander Stephens, who protested, "If slaves can fight, our whole theory of slavery is wrong." Bingo!

President Wagner is an engineer, not a historian, so maybe we can excuse him for not having a better grasp of history. But hey, I was an Emory English major, which most definitely does not qualify me to run a university, and even I would know better than to pull something like this. To quote Homer Simpson: D'oh!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Southern = White? Since When?

Michael Lind, of the New America Foundation, has a piece out in which he describes the current  political culture in the South as a "fading demographic's last hope to maintain political control"--the fading demographic in question being white Southerners. The Old South, he writes, is doomed to political irrelevancy in the same way that old-stock Yankees in the Northeast and Midwest have seen their hegemony fade, thanks to successive waves of immigration in the 20th century.

The argument that increasingly ethnic diversity in the South should mean the death of all things Southern still strikes me as a little weird, mainly because it's based on the assumption that "Southern" equals "white." While it's true that some people in the South still feel that way--and, for that matter, some people in the South still talk about secession--I always find it odd when educated observers of the South fall into this mistake. Did anybody notice Beyonce at the Super Bowl saying, "Thanks, y'all"? Anybody here heard of the Great Re-Migration, or the fact that the Atlanta area has surpassed Chicago as the largest majority-black urban area in the country? Can't black people--and, for that matter, Hispanic people and Asian people--be Southerners, too? Lind seems dubious.

If Southern culture had a tradition of assimilating immigrants, then cultural “Southernness” could be detached from any particular ethnicity or race. One could be an assimilated Chinese-American good old boy or a Mexican-American redneck.  To some degree, that is happening. And Southern whites and Southern blacks have always shared many elements of a common regional culture.

It remains to be seen how much Hispanic culture can be assimilated into Southern culture, and vice versa, but early evidence indicates to me that the answer will be "a great deal." I also think it's fair to say blacks and whites in the South do more than "share many elements of a common regional culture." I'm with Wilbur Cash on this one; he believed that the influence of white and black Southerners on each other was subtle, profound and pervasive--a list to which I would add the term "miraculous." It may be that in 25 years, "Southern" will be as automatically associated with dark skin as some people now associate it with white. If that happens, it won't mean the Death of the South (which, by the way, people have been predicting for about 200 years now). It will just mean that the South has done what it does best: morphed into something else, while maintaining its regional distinctiveness.

Monday, January 21, 2013

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

I have this elderly friend--I'll call her Gladys--who is 90. Back when she was a spry 78, she worked for us for a time as a baby nurse right after our youngest was born, and I will love her forever if for no other reason than the memory of the love she lavished on my little girl. Gladys was with us until it was painfully apparent that she could not meet the needs of a growing toddler, and we have stayed in touch ever since. She lives alone, on Social Security, with her cat, who I will call Big Bastard.

The Lord broke the mold when he made Big Bastard. His feet are the size of our beagle's paws, he could make three of any ordinary house cat, and when he settles down on the braided rug in Glady's living room, he looks like a lion, surveying his kingdom on the veldt. He is a Maine Coon, and like most Maine Coons he is a long-hair, which would make him hard to groom even if he were a small kitty, which he is not. Consequently, Big Bastard needs to go to a groomer's---and this is where this ordeal begins.

Before Christmas, I called the local Petsmart and said I had this monster cat who needed to come in. Somebody who didn't know what they were talking about told me it could be handled on a walk-in basis. So one morning I load up the cat carrier, drive to Glady's house, install her in the front seat and BB in the back seat, and off we go to Petsmart--only to be told that we'd have to come back because the cat groomer wasn't in until 3 p.m. Ooookay. So last week, we made Try #2. This time I made an appointment, and showed up at Gladys's house with the cat carrier and, on my way in with this large item, I managed to break a glass pane in the bottom part of her metal exterior door. "I'll fix it later," I tell Gladys, and we spend the next 15 minutes cornering Big Bastard, who by now has figured out what this is all about, and cramming His Nibs into the carrier. Grooming accomplished--you could have knitted three afghans with what they shaved off that cat--I dropped off Gladys and BB and headed to Home Depot. Did they sell replacement panels for metal exterior doors? No, they did not. I could, however, buy a whole new door, for a mere $100.

Not doing that. So I do some online searching, which doesn't turn up what I want, and a couple of days later, I head out to a local salvage place, thinking I will get this little chore done lickety split, and one of Bowie's Finest gives me a friendly wave on my way. How nice of that sweet police officer! I think, just before it dawns on me that he has a speed camera and he is not waving to be friendly. I get a warning for doing 45 in a 30 mph zone--the guy he'd pulled over just before me, he said, was going 90--and I am informed that I can a) pay the fine and get one point on my license or b) go down to the county courthouse and tell the judge in person how really, really sorry I am, and I will get no points and probably a $6 fine or something. Wonderful. So I continue on my way to the salvage place and find a replacement door for $25, just as I knew I would, and get all ready to pay for it and take it home....when I see a sign saying, "Customers load their own merchandise." Well, I can't pick up this door; it's heavy, and I've got back and neck problems already. So I put a hold on it and come home, only to find the phone is ringing and Gladys is on the other end saying she just talked to a guy at Home Depot and he swore to her that he can put glass in that thing for $50 and would I please just go over there and get it taken care of. (She is being antsy and a little anxious, as 90-year-old ladies who live alone tend to be.)

Okay. So the next day, which would be Saturday, I get in the car AGAIN with this blasted metal frame with the jagged glass stuck in it and go to Home Depot, and just as I suspected, the people in the door department give me this fish-eyed look that says, "Whaaaat?" when I explain my mission. Nope, they do not do glass replacement. Nope, they never talked to any old lady. What I should do, they say, it take this thing down to a place about five miles down the road, because they will have what I want. I start to ask why they didn't tell me this the FIRST time I was there, but whatever. Back to the car. Head up the road to look for this place, and wander around for 15 minutes because it's in a strip mall that is hardly visible from the main road--but at last, at LAST I find it. I pull in, go to the back and get my metal frame with the jagged glass still in it, march up to the door of this place and---it's closed. On a SATURDAY, which is the day you might expect a lot of people to be running errands of this nature. It closed at noon, approximately 30 minutes before I got there. At this point, I get back in the car, roll up the windows, and scream.

So let us review: two trips to Petsmart, two trips to Home Depot, one hour of Internet sleuthing, five or six phone calls, one speeding ticket, one trip to a salvage store, one prospective trip to see the folks at the county courthouse and one expedition to a glass replacement store that for some mysterious reason is not open on Saturday afternoons. And I still have this godddamn metal frame with the jagged glass in the back of my car. And the phone is ringing. I'm pretty sure it's Gladys.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The New Old Civil War

Andrew O'Hehir over at Salon thinks that the South has risen again, like a zombie from the grave: 

"Even though it’s a truism of American public discourse that the Civil War never ended, it’s also literally true. We’re still reaping the whirlwind from that long-ago conflict, and now we face a new Civil War, one focused on divisive political issues of the 21st century – most notably the rights and liberties of women and LGBT people – but rooted in toxic rhetoric and ideas inherited from the 19th century....Our new Civil War is infused with the undead spirit of the old one and waged by a rebellious neo-Confederacy rooted in the states of the Old South, but its influence can be felt, as with the pro-slavery forces of the 1860s, in every part of the country."

Well, yeah. And it's also true that the forces of the 21st century culture wars shape up along lines that bear more than a vague similarity to the Rebel-Yankee lines of 150 years ago, and that some of the issues--states' rights, generalized resistance to Washington, claims of a special relationship with the Almighty--are the same. 

So far, so good. But where Mr. O'Hehir loses me is when he lets fly the standard accusation that liberals of my ilk always dredge up: that what conservatives are all about is finding a convenient rationale for bigotry. Bigotry, like poverty, will always be with us--but just as racism was never the sum total of all things Southern, even in the 19th century, bigotry is not the sum total of all things Southern/conservative today. 

What I see going on is a war between two ways of thinking about society. One is communitarian. Its highest values are economic justice and a particular type of personal autonomy: not freedom from them gol-durned bureaucrats in Washington, but freedom from sanctimonious judgments from the neighbors. The other is an authoritarian, deeply religious and class-based, and its highest values are social order and freedom from government restrictions. I grew up in a Southern culture steeped in the latter tradition, and instinctively migrated to the former once I was old enough to draw my own conclusions about things. 

But here's a funny thing: the culture I knew growing up was deeply communitarian in a lot of ways--far more neighborly and friendly than life in these so-called enclaves of liberal tolerance I live in today--and the liberal tradition I count myself a member of today is every bit as bigoted about conservatives in general, and Southerners in particular, as any Klansman of old. The comments to O'Hehir's piece start out this way: "The South is so screwed in the head...." and end with this: "There is something wrong down here." No, I'd say there's something wrong all over.