I finished two books on the same day:
What’s the Matter with White People
by Joan Walsh
Better Off Without ‘Em
by Chuck Thompson
I’ve been in the process of reading a ton of books, but these are two I started some months ago and finally got back around to completing. I thought I might appreciate Walsh’s book more than I did, although it was still worth reading. Thompson’s book, on the other hand, was surprisingly insightful.
The authors are both Northern leftists and their books are, in a way, complementary. Both are about American culture and politics, both compare liberals and conservatives, and both focus on specific regions of the country. However, in another way, they are immensely incongruous. Walsh is a serious-minded do-gooder wanting to unite Americans in a common purpose. Thompson is a humorous travel writer advocating for secession so that the North and South can happily go their separate ways.
In reading Joan Walsh’s book about her Irish family, I was hoping for something akin to Joe Bageant’s writings on his Scots-Irish family. She is smart and she does offer me some perspective on an ethnic group with which I have little direct experience. Bageant, however, is a much more entertaining writer (Thompson being more similar to Bageant in writing style). Walsh maybe takes herself too seriously. Besides, her mainstream liberalism irritated me on occasion, very different from Bageant’s left-wing outsider viewpoint.
Criticisms aside, I liked her positive intentions and I liked the way she expressed her position. She does a good job of explaining how our country became so divided and maybe why it doesn’t need to be that way. It was her personal anecdotes about her family that drew me in the most. Like a good liberal, she was sympathetic toward even those she disagreed with.
I don’t know what Chuck Thompson identifies as, but he doesn’t act like a well-mannered housebroken liberal. He presents himself more as a cantankerous rabblerouser. I didn’t hold his opinionatedness against him for he remained amusing, even when or especially when ranting. I realized that few people would read a book like his without it having entertainment value.
The main reason I picked up his book was simply because it was provocative. Not many people these days advocate for the South to secede, and those who do tend to be right-wing Southerners rather than leftist Northerners. You’d think he would advocate for Northern secession, but he seems attached to the United States as the name of his country and so thinks the South should reinvent the Confederacy, although for some reason he feels reluctant to letting the South take Texas.
He played up the hyperbole and some would perceive his writing as mean-spirited. He used caricatures for humorous effect, but he also used a massive amount of data to make a serious argument. Although I’m well read about the North/South divide, even I learned a fair amount from his book. I discovered some new authors that I’ve added to my reading list.
The comparison and contrast is fascinating between these two books I finished. I typically come across more books like Walsh’s where the argument is for unity of the country, for compromise and cooperation, for everyone trying to get along. But Thompson points out we’ve been trying to do that for a long time and maybe it’s time to give up on the myth of a single American identity that is supposed to be embraced by all, whether willingly or through coercion.
Here is what Thompson writes about this dilemma of diversity and division (Kindle location 4911):
“Nothing really new there. As Abe Lincoln said of slavery in the run-up to the Civil War, “Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the entire controversy.”
“It takes little imagination to apply that statement to many of the fundamental divisions still hamstringing the country: religion, abortion, federal governance, taxation, education, health care, assistance for less fortunate neighbors, distribution and ownership of public wealth and resources. These are philosophical and moral problems with no definitive answers, issues that simply come down to one side thinking them right, and the other side thinking them wrong.
“In his “House Divided” speech, Lincoln also said that he did not believe the American house would fall. “I do expect it will cease to be divided,” he said. “It will become all one thing, or all the other.”7
“But Lincoln was wrong about that one. Unity hasn’t ever really come. Slavery is gone, but the cultural milieu that produced it and a raft of other cultural toxins still exists.”
I’m in agreement with Thompson.
Having grown up between the two regions, I’ve experienced the cultures of both the North and South. I’ve spent recent years reading every book I could get my hands on about this topic. I’ve thought long and hard about it. I’ve written about it over and over. I honestly don’t feel confident that there is enough commonality to hold these regions together.
(Plus, I’d add an argument for secession based on minarchism and decentralization. Our country is too vast, our population is too large, and our government is too unwieldy. We definitely don’t have much of a functioning democracy at this point. For the sake of civil liberties, I suspect we’d be wiser to opt for a smaller direct democracy or rather democracies and, while we’re at it, smaller localized economies. Small is beautiful, as it has been said. Secession would be good for all involved.)
In the earliest history of this country, the South had become dominant in both the military leadership and in federal politics. After the Civil War, the North took the lead role for quite a while. Now, the South is coming back into power and reasserting its influence over the whole country. It’s an endless vying for control of the nation, but it never leads to any fundamental unification of culture and certainly no common vision of politics and economics.
As accurately portrayed by Thompson, this divisiveness is experienced and expressed most strongly in the South. No other region of the country has such a strong sense of shared identity. The Civil War may not have brought the country together, but it sure did bring the South together.
I was never called a Yankee and I never thought of myself as a Northerner until I moved to South Carolina in middle school. It never previously occurred to me that I was part of a region called the North, although I may have vaguely been aware of the Midwest as a region. To the degree I thought about identity at all, I would probably just have considered myself as American.
Living in South Carolina, I regularly saw the Confederate flag. It used to fly over the capitol when I was growing up there. Even though the South lost the battle for being a separate country, they did succeed in creating a separate national identity that is only rivaled in distinctiveness by some Native American nations.
Thompson makes a strong argument for why this is problematic. The reasons he gives are many, but one in particular stood out. The core of the problem is that, in thinking of themselves as separate from the rest of the country, Southerners act as if they aren’t part of America’s shared societal enterprise. Instead, they act like competitors looking out for their own interests and no one else’s.
On the political front, there isn’t now nor has there ever been a Solid North in the way that a Solid South exists. The South essentially has a one-party system. This doesn’t lend itself to playing well with others in a democratic society. Thompson has doubts that a one-party system can be considered as democratic at all, and I suspect many Southerners would agree in a sense by asserting they live in a republic, not a democracy.
The economic role the South plays isn’t dissimilar from that of Mexico and China, countries that aren’t known for having well functioning democratic political systems. They don’t protect workers’ rights or the environment. They leave their population poor and under-educated. And they disenfranchise their citizenry.
Southerners, or rather the Southern political elite, refuse to raise their own local and state taxes to pay for their social infrastructure and social services, preferring to suck on the government teat of federal funding which means the rest of the country pays to keep the South from turning into something like a third world country. They take what little tax money they do take in and give massive subsidies to corporations so as to lure them away from other states. Overall, the South is an economic drain on the United States.
On top of that, their luring corporations to move to the South has caused people to move to the South looking for the jobs taken away from them. This increased population is giving the South increased representation in Washington and hence increased political power.
Meanwhile, we in the North (and West) are enabling the South to rob us blind. I take this personally, as I happen to live in one of those states that pays more in federal taxes than receives in federal funding. Why am I helping Southerners to live beyond their means? If the South has such a booming economy, isn’t it time for them to take responsibility by carrying their own weight and paying their own way?
None of this is to imply that I have an overall dislike of the South or that I think most Southerners are bad people. It’s just that the South has some serious dysfunction going on and Southerners keep voting the same people into power. Nothing is likely to change in the South, at least not in the near future. Like Thompson, what concerns me is that the South might end up changing the rest of the country instead and I doubt such changes would be positive.
For some concluding thoughts, I’ll let Chuck Thompson explain what liberals like Joan Walsh don’t understand (Kindle location 4923):
“In the same fashion that people across the South had denied culpability to me, had winked at all the issues that needed addressing in their own part of the country, every one of those who’d gathered at the Globe had in some form or other insisted that they themselves did not embody the predictable characteristics and behaviors (I’m not calling them stereotypes, I believe I’ve provided enough evidence to back up my contentions) that I was using to portray the less attractive side of Dixie.
“We aren’t crazy religious—that’s just a small percentage of southerners who you’re thinking of.
“We aren’t dedicated political obstructionists—that’s just a small percentage of southerners who you’re talking about.
“We aren’t racist—that’s just a small percentage of southerners who have a problem.
“We aren’t the ones keeping public school budgets at barely functional levels—that’s just a small percentage of southerners that don’t appreciate the inequities in the system.
“We aren’t against basic rights for workers—that’s just a small percentage of southerners who you have an issue with.
“We aren’t single-issue abortion voters or the ones who have a problem with gays—that’s just a small percentage of southerners who the media unfairly fixates on and uses to vilify the rest of us.
“All of these statements may be true. The majority of southerners are not loudmouthed, uneducated, redneck fuckwits flying Confederate flags from the backs of their Kia and Mercedes lynch wagons. To what extent they were ever true many of these notions are comically outdated. Operative word “comically,” which is why I’ve employed them from time to time in this book, since few things are as hilarious to the northerner as a well-placed Snuffy Smith zinger.
“What the majority of southerners are, and have always been, however, is willing to allow the most strident, mouth-breathing “patriotic” firebrands among them to remain in control of their society’s most powerful and influential positions.
[ . . . ]
“Maybe the fanatics do represent a minority, say one in three southerners—that’s a fair guess, in my estimation. That’s still an extremely potent one-in-three that the rest of the South enables—or succumbs to—or aligns with—or votes for—year after year, decade after decade, century after century. Theirs are the voices that perpetuate the agenda because theirs are the voices that ring with the most sincerity, that are most bereft of apology, that in their bellicosity resonate as the most authentically “southern.” If there’s one thing about the South that hasn’t ever changed it’s the hypnotic influence of the angry crusader.”