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.