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On the American South: Wayne Don Lively, Guest Blogger

This essay was stimulated by an article in the NYTimes by an Englishman who had moved to rural Mississippi.


You don’t know a place until you’ve been there for awhile. The author says they have lived in Mississippi for three years. He didn’t say how long he’d lived in NY, but as an Englishman he’s probably as well-suited to have a good opinion as anyone. I’ll take his observations as true, if only because they square with my own.

I’d say going from California to West Virginia is in the same ballpark. How about my going from Dallas to New England to Florida to Las Vegas. I’ve lived now in LV for ten years and probably know less about it than 13 in Mass and 5 in SW Florida (with a brief stop in Pensacola). I know much more about them, which might say something about Las Vegas more than the others. I believe I have a pretty accurate picture of all of them. 

But growing up in Texas—the Southern part, not the Western part—I think I have an even better handle. They are both the kindest people in the world, while also the meanest. They are loving, and suspicious. They are polite to a fault, and judgmental to a flaw. This was all brought out by the author. I’m probably going to end up buying his book. I don’t have a “hankerin’” for living in Miss, maybe Texas, but that doesn’t mean I won’t find the book entertaining. From this piece, I’m looking forward to it.

The more I understand Southerners, the more I’m dismayed. I am reading In the “Heart of the Sea,” which oddly is the name of a movie directed by Angelina Jolie and starring Brad Pitt. (Who is, btw, WAY too old to play one of the characters in the true story.) There was one fascinating passage which rings true today.

Their ship, the Essex, was sunk by a whale. They were left in 24 ft rowing boats with makeshift sails. The captain and his two mates had to choose between sailing through nearly impossible conditions for twice as long, and sailing on the prevailing breezes to the islands in the western Pacific. Two months v a month. They feared cannibals more than the sea. They tried to return 2,000 miles to South America, instead of Tahiti where the British has established a base. The author of the biography says they were victims of the (Nantucket Quakers) culture, which was “profoundly conservative.” They distrusted anything that didn’t come from the lips of someone they knew, someone they knew very well. They didn’t believe what they read, but the rumors of being eaten had been repeated for a generation. Sound familiar? 

This is true of conservatives today, too. We know this. There are none more conservative than the Scotch-Irish of Appalachia, and those descendants dominate the South. Those are MY ancestors, too. I know these folks, and I barely understand them. They all share the same characteristics—clannish, suspicious, and fiercely independent.

Good Republican Tea Party stock. The Republicans have finely settled on what they are all about. Forget about the country club Republicans regaining control. It’s now and forever more will be radically right-wing, white, and decidedly redneck. Even if they have an education, they will still identify with the clan, or should I say Klan. Trust me, the Klan is not dead. It is still alive and well and prospering in the South. They probably sell more guns both legal and illegal than anybody in the world.

I love the South. I wish they could change. I have to accept they can’t. We can look at them in the same way we can enjoy Lewis Carroll and his Alice’s Wonderland. It’s not going to change. Ever, or at least in my lifetime. The GOP mainstream will never get it back from them. They can end up becoming right-leaning Democrats, or try to take enough conservative Democrats along with traditional Republicans and make a third party. But the party of Ike, Nixon and Ford is never, ever coming back.

Can the country survive them?

I am coming the final conclusion that conservatism as practiced in Appalachia is a disorder. I think the Tea Party people are delusional. Doubting is normal. Believing, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, is a hole in the mind. It resists growth. It causes suffering. So far—not even with education, although that sometimes relieves the worst symptoms—there is no known cure. They are the broken half of humanity.

I wish someone, anywhere, would prove me wrong.

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