What’s Good About the South?

I’ve recently come across several articles like this critiquing the South:

“As long as America runs according to the rules of Southern politics, economics and culture, we’re no longer free citizens exercising our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as we’ve always understood them. Instead, we’re being treated like serfs on Massa’s plantation — and increasingly, we’re being granted our liberties only at Massa’s pleasure. Welcome to Plantation America.” (italics mine.)

This isn’t a new critique, and its flaws aren’t new either. Yes, the South has an enormous problem with racism, segregation, white supremacy, anti-intellectualism, inequality, and political stupidity–but these are American problems as much as they are southern problems. To blame the South for our nation’s problems is to leave real culprits, for example under-regulated capitalism, scot-free, while ignoring those movements from the South that have come closer than anything to fixing this country.

In the 1890’s the southern Progressive party was a viable, racially integrated threat to the planter aristocracy that nearly gave us a third political party. The Civil Rights Movement was born in the South as the most courageous political movement in our history. While the Occupy protests in New York fizzled because of a lack of direction, the sharp focus of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays protests have mobilized a coalition across racial, class, gender, and sexual orientation lines to continue the work of the civil rights movement across the South.

Perhaps it doesn’t help to list these incredibly strong movements which wouldn’t be necessary if our worst leaders didn’t seem to have a stranglehold on political power. But I do so to insist that painting southern politics as wholly destructive to the US leaves out those movements which have gone a long way in saving this country from all its excesses, southern and otherwise.

Regarding Southern culture, let me point out that the South is responsible for three-quarters of the American songbook and its musical genres, a portion of its great literature far out of proportion to the South’s population, and, let’s face it, nearly all the best cuisine. To dismiss all that at once is throwing out an entire nursery with the bathwater.

So yes, let’s lay the blame for the problems of unbridled capitalism, white supremacy, political dysfunction, and anti-intellectualism at the feet of those southern leaders to whom it belongs, both historically and presently. Let’s vote them out of office and refuse to let those ideologies into national dialogue ever again. But don’t blame the South for all of America’s problems and simply burn it. Sherman already did that once.

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