Saturday, June 29, 2013

Rant -- Paula Deen, George Zimmerman and Other Embarrassments

This post is nothing more than a rant. It's different from a report, analysis, summary, referral, re-post or pontification. Ranting is blogging at its best, the Web equivalent of skinny-dipping without actual images -- few or no links, no attempt at either accuracy or balance. Take it or leave it. I'm not sure, but this may be the first of a series (in the same way that all my healthcare reform posts are tagged HCR, this one is tagged simply "Rant.")

This is what happened when I was writing yet another comment at Elatia Harris' Facebook link to one of the Paula Deen stoies that currently pollute the air.

I'll be happy to see L'affaire Paula Deen story fade into oblivion. This woman and her schtick are a shameful remnant of some of the worst attributes of the American South. It's more than generic bigotry. It's the proud, in-your-face kind, unrepentant and irredeemable. I've heard and seen it all my life and every time I see another car tag or decal with the battle flag of the Confederacy it reminds me that two or three generations may need to pass on before we shake free of this ignorance. It would be comforting to imagine that this is a reflection of economic hardships or poor education. But we keep sending elected representatives to Washington who are every bit as backward, with a mean-spirited streak of indifference tossed in for good measure.

Witness the recent exhibition of ignorant bigotry in the Texas Senate. That's ostensibly about women's issues, but you can be certain that the same mind-set applies to blacks, queers and immigrants of all kinds -- even those who are legal, some of whom may have been here for generations. It's all part of the "cracker" sense of victimhood that the defense attorney for George Zimmerman is trying to capitalize on. Someone in one of the comment threads hit the nail on the head when he said it was an appeal to "us crackers gotta stick together." Stir in a little Evangelical righteous indignation, season with Islamophobia, spread on a generous layer of anti-semitism and you have a fully baked main dish just in time for Independence Day.

I don't want to malign Paula Deen personally (or George Zimmerman, for that matter) but my complaint about these stories is more about a subliminal message of which they are part. In the same way that American tourists and others abroad gave rise to the expression "the ugly American" which was also a book title, these unfortunate fumes wafting up from the Southern cultural swamps have none of the romance of ignis fatuus or will-o-the-wisp. They are more like the stench that blows downwind from land fills, cesspools or (as any good Southerner can attest) paper mills. Simply stated, it stinks. The people who keep the pot boiling are not mean people any more than the ignorant bystanders who watch revolutionary changes, vigilante mobs or serious arguments over their heads. When recognized experts argue in public about important matters, from global warming to a military threat of another country, most everyday people tend to remain quiet, even as they sink in a pool of ignorance. That's where the image of the frog in hot water comes from. Or the saying that all that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing. 

The sad part is that the South has not always been this way. At least not to the degree that it has become in my lifetime. This part of the country was for years the poorest and most inhospitable place to live, even for those who might be called gentry. Prior to refrigeration and the discoveries of germs and vaccinations it was downright dangerous. We tend to forget that infant mortality was part of the landscape for years, not only in the South but everywhere, but in these latitudes it was especially problematical. Large families with many hands were necessary for agriculture, and that was the economic foundation of the South. Very labor-intensive. Slavery was more than a cultural foible. It was foundational to the economy. In his book "1493" Charles C. Mann writes at length about the Columbian Exchange, the impact of the discovery of the New World on the rest of the planet. His research documents that not only did European diseases and colonial practices wipe out upwards of ninety percent of the indigenous population of the Western Hemisphere, the introduction of African slaves (genetically more resistant to the strains of malaria which killed off European indentured servants which made that labor alternative a poor business model) was a cold-blooded response to man's endless quest to accumulate wealth. 

But even as racism was foundational to Southern history (and no, that's no excuse or justification) there was a connection between blacks and white in the South that other parts of the country could never know about. Southern cooking is essentially that of black cooks, and many of the foods associated with the South were of African origin -- peanuts, collards and okra, for example. Peanut allergies, like melanoma cancers,  are an overwhelmingly white phenomenon. And many a white baby was nursed by a black wet-nurse and reared by a black nanny. And all of these connections were held together with social bonds as strong as they were evil. Jim Crow South was not importantly different in that regard from South African apartheid. Even the Supreme Court validated the system in Plessy vs. Ferguson which was not reversed until the Fifties by Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.

But throughout all this ugly history, there were Southerners who knew better. Southern writers present a documentary trail that we were not all as ignorant at today's redneck, trashy stereotypes. Even Twain (who famously used the word Nigger, incidentally) reveals a foundational understanding of the humanity of his black contemporaries. Southern writers saw all sides of our complicated society and did so in a way that usually overcame racism. I went to the same high school as Carson McCullars and later became aware of Lillian Smith, both of whom showed a side of the South that was far more sensitive to the pains of the underclasses both black and white than today's Jeff Foxworthys and others who seem to take pride in their backwardness. And who can forget Harper Lee's imortal "To Kill a Mockingbird"? 

As I said, today's Southern racism is more subliminal than overt. Each generation recycles vocabularies giving old words new meanings and interpretations. The day will come, I presume, that terms and phrases once racist will be free of the taint. I know people from Louisiana who talk candidly about being Coonasses, and songs about a Coal Miner's Daughter and Oakey from Muskogee immortalize other parts of a complex mixture of American social classes. I'll let others comment on those variants. But until the South is cleansed of the prejudice about blacks and outsiders that I know is still part of the social fabric, I claim the right to bitch about it. 

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