(I originally posted this at The American Catholic, and I assumed that the Civil War Mavens at Almost Chosen People would enjoy reading it.)
Christopher Johnson, a non-Catholic who has taken up the cudgels so frequently in defense of the Faith that I have named him Defender of the Faith, has an unforgettable look at a book written by splenetic Leftist, Chuck Thompson, who wishes that the South would secede:
It may interest you to know that a significant number of those Americans who think that Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox was a devastating tragedy, maybe even most of them, reside north of the Mason-Dixon Line and probably have never been to, have no ancestors from and have no interest in visiting that large area south of it.
If a leftist Yankee travel writer named Chuck Thompson, author of Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession, ever put together a list of the worst American presidents, George W. Bush would probably come in second behind Abraham Lincoln. In the Wall Street Journal, Barton Swaim reviews the book:
On the first page, the author wonders why the American electoral system must be “held hostage by a coalition of bought-and-paid-for political swamp scum from the most uneducated, morbidly obese, racist, morally indigent, xenophobic, socially stunted, and generally ass-backwards part of the country.” You expect him to let up, to turn the argument around, to look at the other side of question. But he never does. For more than 300 pages, Mr. Thompson travels through the South observing customs, outlooks and people and subjecting them to an unremitting stream of denunciations.
The American South is certainly not above criticism or satire. And many writers from other parts of the country or the world have visited the South and written useful and interesting books about their experiences. Thompson, on the other hand, made up his mind beforehand and went looking for what he thought he needed to see.
Now, the South—I say this as a Southerner myself—ought to be fertile territory for any writer with even a modest talent for exposing inanities. From “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876) to the Englishman Nick Middleton’s “Ice Tea and Elvis” (1999), the American South has provided writers of satire with a ready source of targets: genteel hypocrites, proud ignoramuses, religious fraudsters. But unlike others from outside the South who have written about it—think of Jonathan Raban’s marvelous “Old Glory” (1981) or V.S. Naipaul’s “A Turn in the South” (1989)—Mr. Thompson didn’t set out on his travels to discover things he didn’t know before. He went to see the ridiculous and dreadful things he knew would be there, which is a different approach altogether.
In six essay-like chapters—on the South’s religion, politics, race relations, public education, economic policies and its obsession with, as he thinks, the region’s overrated college football teams—Mr. Thompson tries to show that the American South is so culturally detached from the rest of America as to constitute what really ought to be its own country. He deserves some credit, in these days of lazy punditry, for actually traveling to the places he writes about: Memphis; Columbia, S.C.; Athens, Ga.; Mobile, Ala.; Little Rock; and a lot of little places in between. But typically he just makes a beeline for some small-town gathering, a church or a bar, finds someone with cranky opinions, gets into an argument about politics or religion, and—at least in his own retelling—slays his opponent.
Thompson’s imaginary Confederate States of America is a LOT bigger than the original.
You begin to sense that something is seriously awry when the author, evidently unable to find enough cranks and simpletons to fill out a whole book on the South, keeps looking beyond the Confederacy’s borders for material. First he zings House Speaker John Boehner for some offense. Isn’t Rep. Boehner from Ohio? Yes, from Cincinnati, but that’s just across the Ohio River from Kentucky, so he counts as a Southerner. We hear about a public-school teacher who urges his students to believe the Bible infallible. This takes place in Cleveland, but because the teacher had once attended a seminary in Kentucky, it’s an instance of Southern “biblical literalism” infecting the entire country. Mr. Thompson derides U.S. Rep. John Shimkus for citing Genesis as a reason not to worry about global warming. Isn’t Mr. Shimkus from Illinois? Yes, but he is from “an area of southern Illinois settled almost entirely by farmers from Kentucky.” By the book’s halfway point, it’s clear that Mr. Thompson’s problem with Southerners isn’t that they are insular, angry or prone to illusions. It’s that, with exceptions, their political views are insufficiently left-wing.
Thompson ignores or dismisses anyone who dissents from the narrative. Like African-Americans who’ve moved to the South and like living there.
He is outraged, for example, to discover the close proximity of poor black and middle-class white neighborhoods in Southern cities. Of course, he is hardly the first outsider to notice it. Naipaul, in “A Turn in the South,” recalls riding in a car with a black woman near Greensboro, N.C.: “Hetty knew the land well,” he writes. “She knew who owned what. It was like a chant from her, as we drove: ‘Black people there, black people there, white people there. Black people, black people, white people, black people. All this side black people, all this side white people.” The intermingling of black and white neighborhoods can unsettle an outsider, true enough. Still, it’s not obvious to me that this is more reprehensible than the way in which many American cities outside the South contain vastly populated areas of racial uniformity.
Here’s how Mr. Thompson treats the same subject: In Laurens, S.C., he’s shown the street that “where stately, well-manicured ‘Southern Living’ mansions become Tijuana in the time it takes to run a red light.” Places like Little Rock and Memphis, he says, “are arranged along the lines of Third World horror shows; wide streets lined with opulent, plantation-style homes sitting just around the block from apocalyptic Negro wastelands.” Leave aside Mr. Thompson’s rather too superior descriptions of poor black neighborhoods (did he really use the term “Negro”?). More disturbing is his refusal to take seriously any evidence that Southern racism has diminished, even when that evidence comes from African-Americans themselves.
He is aware of reports in the New York Times and elsewhere that black Americans are moving to the South in record numbers. A black New York native living in Oxford, Miss., tells him, “I love it here.” But Mr. Thompson dismisses what he calls “breathless predictions of a post-racial South.” They just make him look harder for racism—and of course he finds it. He makes his way to the Redneck Shop in Laurens, a place that openly sells white supremacist paraphernalia.
Some of the customer reviews of this book at Amazon are interesting. Here’s a Yankee.
I earned a master’s degree at LSU. I also grew up in an area of southern Ohio that Thompson correctly refers to as “Little Dixie.” I know first hand what it’s like to live in the South.
The South is a political sewer. There’s no way to sugarcoat this fact. Its political culture is shaped by a bunch of political criminals and treasonous rednecks who are still licking their wounds over the fact that they got their butts kicked in a war 150 years ago. They imagine that their Civil War cause was “pure and just”, then moralize their failure as resulting from some type of higher purity that the barbaric, heathen North was able to exploit.
I’m getting sick and DAMN tired of being governed by these psychotic, right-wing lumpenproletariat. Lincoln’s heart was in the right place, but his brain was out to lunch. Let’s correct his mistake and kick them out of our Union. The new C.S.A. will, in short order, become a Third World cesspool that will make Haiti look like a shining example of modern governance.
Here’s another one.
At first I thought this book would be a humorous rant about southern foibles. It’s not; it’s deadly serious and its statistics are accurate, I have checked many of them. Chuck Thompson’s writing style is, I admit, strong to the point of offending people with genteel sensibilities, but in view of the extreme seriousness of the situation, his tone and language is well chosen to bang some heads with a two-by-four. Until I read this book, I was dumbfounded as to why some people consistently voted against their own interest by buying into the vacuous apple pie and motherhood of today’s conservative politicos and distorted Fox “news” shows. I thought it was simple manipulation of voters on single issue hot buttons, smart marketing by “suits” who made a fast buck by selling out their opinion manipulating skills to well funded political interests. But that’s just the egregious, visible tip of the iceberg. Chris Mooney’s “The Republican Brain”–another book I read to try to understand the success of this phenomenon–helped to understand the psychological dichotomy that explains it. But what “Better Off Without Em” documents is a much more overwhelming, powerful, long-lived and insidious philosophy that overarches simple opinion manipulation based on carefully crafted misinformation. Thompson documents the downright corrosive influence that has festered in the south since before the civil war and has been leaching out into other parts of the country even as it hypocritically leeches resources from the north. I, and I suspect, many other people growing up in western states never really thought much about the south except to think that there was some good reason the north didn’t want to see it leave the Union. I knew the south consistently ranked lowest in support for education and that it was the bastion of strange “revealed wisdom” notions in conflict with what science has learned about the earth and the universe. But I encourage everyone to read Chuck Thompson’s book. Once you do, you’ll see how the current political polarization is actually due to the increasing influence of the anti-common man “plantation” mentality of the southern elite–the southern “1%”. Enabled by the Citizen’s United decision of the Supreme Court’s politicized conservative majority, this elite is now funneling huge sums into political campaigns to bring Plantation America to all of us. I truly feel sorry for the 99% in the south who, although well-intentioned, have been used badly and duped into thinking that they are where God wants them to be and that everyone needs what they have. What the southern mentality represents is an abomination. Chuck Thompson has done a tremendous public service by developing this book. I encourage all concerned Americans to read it and see why I say that.
And here’s a Southron.
I would be glad to part ways with the North. Let’s see how quickly they come crawling back when they are starving.
During one or another of this country’s oil crises, I remember hearing about Texas bumper stickers that read something along the lines of “Drive 90. Let the Yankees Freeze in the Dark.” And thereby hangs the problem for guys like Chuck Thompson.
Thompson doesn’t seem to realize that the values he quite obviously despises have spread far beyond the borders of the original Confederate States. Missouri and Kentucky would definitely be part of a new CSA this time around while Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming are as “Confederate” as states can possibly be.
Go here to read the rest. As an unreconstructed Yankee and one of Abe Lincoln’s biggest fans on the net, I am appalled by this book. The type of raw vitriolic hatred that passes for political discourse on the Left in this country bodes ill for domestic tranquility in this nation. What these losers never comprehend is that if there was another Civil War in this country along ideological lines, they would quickly find themselves at Appomattox and wondering if they got to keep their lattes after they signed the surrender documents.
This tome is directly contrary to what Lincoln, a child of the South, strove for: one nation and one people, in which the sections worked together in mutual respect. It was what Lincoln meant when he said that the Confederate States had never been out of the Union, and that nothing vengeful should be done to the South, with civil government re-established in the former Confederate States swiftly, and Congressional representation of those states to follow immediately. It would have been a Herculean task to accomplish this and protect the civil liberties of the newly freed former slaves, but the bullet of John Wilkes Booth stopped Lincoln before the work had barely begun.
The hatred and contempt that Chuck Thompson has for the South was utterly foreign to Lincoln who, when asked by Grant what surrender terms he should give to Lee’s army advised, “I’d let ’em up easy.” Thompson forgets the great lesson of the Civil War, that we are one people. Besides that, the South is a magical place in comparison to a more prosaic North, and the country would be so much more boring without it! Some of this magic was summed up by William Faulkner in Intruder in the Dust:
“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is stll time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….”