The South has always made me uncomfortable. I love its wonderful creativity in food and literature. I'm touched, even slightly overwhelmed, by offers of Southern hospitality and friendship. But I'm also troubled, sometimes hurt or frightened, by the powerful gusts of intolerance, sanctimoniousness, violence and hate that swirl about in Dixie's heavy air.
Of course, no particular region has a monopoly on intolerance and hate. Lift the lid off of placid little Winona, Minnesota, and one quickly sees that this town, too, is a stew of bigots and crazies: a quick glance at the local newspaper's Letters to the Editor is clear proof.
What, then, is the difference? If Northerners are just as irrational and hateful as Southerners, shouldn't I feel equally uncomfortable in both places? I suppose. But there is a difference--and it has to do with "boundaries." We often think of Southerners as "polite." But that is not really true, at least in my experience--and my recent trip to New Orleans reinforced my view. Southerners are indeed nice to other people who, they assume, share their values and life-style. But they do not usually extend their politeness to those whom they exclude from their tribe. Indeed, they are often quite careless in denouncing, demeaning and even threatening their many enemies (for the Southern "tribe" is getting smaller and smaller).
So, I guess what I really mean is this: a depressingly large number of Southerners have not yet accepted as conclusive or binding the post-Civil War definition of the American social contract: that we are, like it or lump it, a “mongrel” nation—composed of peoples of differing ethnicities, religions, eating habits, sexual orientations, sports preferences. And that we are mobile and competitive and legitimately unwilling to accept an assigned spot in a social hierarchy. This is very messy, very chaotic—very unlike Tara’s apparently pretty (but actually ugly) plantation order : master, house niggers, field niggers, white trash outliers and drunken underlings of various dubious origins.
But Southerners often refuse to include—within the “boundaries” of acceptable American values—this diversity and mobility. Instead, they yearn for an America which excludes openness and which restricts “Americanness” to those who want to return to Tara. As evidence that many in the South still cling to this inhumane and inherently unjust “ideal,” we have only to note that the current governor of Virginia has just declared April to be “Confederate History Month.” A month in which, presumably, Virginians are exhorted to romanticize and honor the evil civilization that was the Old South.
While in New Orleans last week, Carole and I had breakfast in an ancient building that was once a slave market—where human beings were bought and sold as casually as flat-screen TVs are now marketed at Best Buy. That, not barbecues at Twelve Oaks, is Confederate History!
Anyway, let me return to my discussion of “boundaries.” I do not for a minute believe that Northerners are free from prejudices and intolerance; nor would I assert that “most” Northerners actually like diversity. But I DO believe that most Northerners have accepted the necessity of putting up with “different” people. Most Northerners (with the frightening exception of Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and their ilk) extend—however grudgingly—the boundaries of Americanness to INCLUDE even those people who, despite their unpleasant habits and distasteful beliefs, live under the protection of the Constitution.
And so, intolerant Northerners tend to grumble about the blacks or the Asians or the gays or the Jews (you can substitute juicier epithets if you like), but they sense, in their gut, that their opposition to these groups is, legally at least, unsustainable—that their dislike, however powerful, is UNCONSTITUTIONAL. The Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments—especially the Fourteenth—settled the matter with a Lincolnian Solution that must be lived with!
But many delusional Southerners, I think, would assert that their similar prejudices ARE constitutional, at least in terms of the REAL Constitution—the Constitution of the REAL America—the Constitution that was in force BEFORE the Civil War--the Constitution that considered most blacks to be 3/5 of a person. (Remember: “Confederate History Month!”) And they do not want to “live with” a living Constitution.
Because the Constitution isn’t just a dusty document—rather, it’s that social contract I mentioned earlier--a body of conventions (both written and unwritten) that govern how people within a given society interact. What is acceptable for both individuals and society? What is “good” for the commonweal as well as for each individual citizen? Justice Holmes once wrote that “a constitution is made for people of fundamentally differing views.” He meant, I think, that the Constitution is a set of "etiquette" rules--boundaries that allow two people who don't agree to co-exist and even prosper without shooting each other--indeed, without even toting a gun to the supermarket.
I'm always appalled at the hypocrisy of so-called conservatives who assert that their "strict-constructionism" is about guaranteeing "freedom." Nonsense. Constitutional literalism, like Biblical literalism, is authoritarian and anti-libertarian. "Think like me and act like me or you're un-American." For the strict –constructionists, like for the Return to Tara governor of Virginia (and a lot of other politicians still fighting for the Rebel Cause) the Constitution should be interpreted not as a contract that advances freedom by extending boundaries, but rather as a freedom-limiting moral code, imposing uniformity--of both belief and conduct--on everybody.
Have I been unfair to the South? I'm not sure. Surely the South is not monolithic (New Orleans is egregiously un-Southern in many ways--it's friendly and hospitable without much discernible intolerance). And these attitudes and behaviors, which I have labeled “Back to Tara,” crop up everywhere, of course--Orange County, CA, comes to mind. Still, I can't help it: after a trip to the South, I always breathe easier and feel more comfortable in my own (unconventional) skin once I leave the Old Confederacy behind. I wish it were all "gone with the wind." Perhaps one day it will be.