Better off Without ‘Em: a Review
Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Independence by Chuck Thompson was something of a guilty pleasure that I picked up in a moment of pique from the iBookstore a little while ago.
When I was very young, I once travelled to a town called Walhalla, South Carolina (yes, really). It was a very small town, chosen as a lunch stop while my family travelled through the region on our way to visit my grandmother in Alabama. Hauling a camper sporting Maine license plates, I couldn’t help but notice the long, deadeye stares that followed us through the streets; the strange reluctance to offer service in a local diner; a sense of unease that seemed to permeate every interaction. This was not “southern hospitality” like I had read about in books. In fact, this discomfort was so notable, that I had to ask my father about it. His explanation was unflattering, and likely explains a great deal of my cautious approach to the southern question in later life – perpetuating a divide between Union and Confederacy that has defined so much American history in the years following the Civil War. So, perhaps a book like Better Off was written with people like me in mind – people confused by life on that side of the Mason-Dixon line and hoping for a sensible explanation for the different atmosphere we’ve come to expect there. But that wasn’t what I found. Instead what I got was a senseless fantasy of northern superiority that ignores the complexity of the region, and instead exploits human tragedy that Mr. Thompson bandies about like a carnival barker.
But he is earnest in his push for a revision of America’s borders. The suggestion for secession is a powerful one, and not one that should be promoted lightly, and he attempts to explore his subject with some thoroughness. And I’ll concede that given the seeming depth of differences between regions of the country, there are occasions when it might seem the only choice that really seems reasonable. Especially when faced with the grinding poverty and failing institutions that seem to characterize much of the news and analysis coming out of the former Confederate States. Ultimately, Better Off’s author Chuck Thompson (To Hellholes and Back, Smile When You’re Lying), offers up an occasionally witty, fear-mongering, and generally offensive picture of a region of the country that many agree is… well, different than the rest. At the end of the day though, his book solves nothing, disparages too broadly, and takes a gleeful joy in desperately serious challenges. It is not a good book. At best, it scores a few cheap laughs.
Nevertheless, the call for secession can’t be so easily dismissed either and has a way of creeping into the national dialogue – after all, to many in the north, there’s something funny happening down in Dixie; something that northern progressive liberals like me just can’t get our heads wrapped around (am I’m certain this sentiment must cut both ways). And maybe Mr. Thompson is right. Maybe it’s been that way since northern armies indelicately informed the slave-owning Confederacy that the US was going to join the civilized world and stop doing that kind of thing to people. That the south was both the home of, and subjugator of most of America’s black population left it with a host of issues that would never be fully resolved on either side of that racial divide, and the whole nation has a hand in that – not just a handful of reactionaries from Charleston.
But this is basically the core of Mr. Thompson’s argument – the south is ruining the party for the rest of the country by insisting on the de facto embrace of racism, an unquenchable thirst for segregation, and blatantly discriminatory religious movements that have so screwed up development there, that the rest of the country shouldn’t have to support them any longer. After all, the whole issue of states rights was pretty well settled after the the Articles of Confederation were scrapped for a constitutional government that could support a navy and end the abuse of Americans off of the Barbary coast (among other things). Industrialism, and the many automobiles, weapons, and pet rocks that came with it, was an economic system that needed a different kind of objectification of the laborer than that offered by slavery.
Even without all of that, slavery was a disgusting system that needed to brought to an end. As such, I generally think that it’s okay to teach kids that a big reason for the Civil War was “because of slavery.” After all, slavery was an unjustifiable moral evil that cannot be excused, and to pretend that the confederacy could be understood without the institution is a mistake. The south was stuck in a different, and arguably aberrant mindset that successfully, like the fascism or the Soviet communism of later generations, offer a grim counterpoint to the many accomplishments of European culture. We should be outraged at such behavior by our ancestors and still struggle to explain it to our children.
So I’ve never really questioned the need for the Civil War. And I feel as though the Union was on the side of the angels at the end the last fusillade. After all, the Confederacy was culpable in nothing less than attempting to perpetuate a crime against humanity.
Better Off hints at this and draws the conclusion that southern culture has proven incapable of settling these old scores. He suggests that southern elites have actively worked to sweep these horrors under a rug stitched together from creepy accents, NASCAR, and southern “hospitality”, all while leaving an unchallenged status quo of wealthy white religiosity lording over a vast underclass of both black baptists and white rednecks.
If you look at that paragraph again, you’ll notice (I hope) a yawning oversimplification of the demographics in play. The south, like any place in the entire world, is a complex mixture of peoples, the totality of whose experience might yield something of a unique cultural block within the larger American canvas. But the problems that he describes in such delightfully malicious detail are writ large across the country. Whether or not they are more pronounced in the south is really a matter of how you select your data.
And to be fair, he concedes this point (occasionally at the risk of his whole argument). Mr. Thompson makes reference to a handful of examples from around the country, but sticks to his assessment that the South is special. Because of differences in the scale of abuse (it would seem), the South cannot, and should not, be crammed into a governing coalition with a country that it neither likes nor wishes to be associated with. And vice-versa.
Of course, polling data suggests that most southerners don’t feel this way (though to be fair, the idea seems to be more appealing to southerners than to people in other parts of the country). Yet the argument is put forth that, regardless of your geographical loyalties, both northerner and southerner should agree that we are all living in two countries. The deeply rooted problems in the South shouldn’t be the responsibility of other regions. Presumably, the powerful and ignorant down in Dixie should be free to squat over their victims until the end of time while California starts building Star Fleet.
Cast this way, to be a northerner supporting secession is effectively one way to wash our hands of the very real challenges faced by people in that part of the country. It feeds a narrative that drives a sense of smugness on the part of Yankees, and a contrarian hostility on the part of Confederates.
Alongside demonstrations that most southern states represent a net loss to the US Federal Government, he goes on to show how their schools are resegregating, welfare systems are collapsing, and southern businesses are rhapsodically despoiling their natural environment. It’s a grim picture. What is lacking from his cherry-picked discussion is any notion of what happens after. He tosses together a couple of triumphalist speeches from well-known southern politicians, but never examines how the rest of the US should, for example answer the creeping horror of southern air pollution once freed from the onerous constraints of more delicate government. Nor does he enter into the genuine human rights tragedy that would unfold once Mississippi is cut off from desperately needed federal education dollars. He solves nothing; instead he promises that we just won’t have to worry about it any longer. In fact, he even suggests that, once freed from the interfering hand of effete northern progressives, the south might actually start taking its problems seriously; a claim that, given his analysis, is as farcical as an illiterate learning to read by thinking about it really hard.
The truth is that the difficulties in these states will not be solved by some fantasy banishment to their own delusions. The world is far too integrated today (did you know that Jim Beam is owned by a Japanese liquor conglomerate? That information is not in this book). If things really are so bad in down in Dixie, it falls to us as a nation to confront these issues and manage them. Simply cutting southerns off is far more likely to exacerbate an already challenging situation. No, the tragedy of Mississippi (generally found at the bottom of every good list, and the top of every bad one) or South Carolina (chasing after Mississippi on most measures) is the tragedy of America. Only by confronting it earnestly and honestly can we hope to redeem ourselves. Shooting at fish in barrels is a waste of everyone’s time.