Sin of the North, Sin of the South

As with culture, the sin of the American North is different than the sin of the American South. I would go so far as to say the culture and the sin are aspects of the same thing. 

To criticize the sin of one culture isn’t to excuse the sin of the other culture. It’s just to say they aren’t identical. It’s not helpful to make a criticism that doesn’t apply. Teasing out the specific differences is important.

I see a problem in trying to unite separate cultures into a single culture. This is what has been attempted in America for centuries. I don’t think it has been entirely successful and it isn’t clear that it ever will be successful. Cultures don’t change easily, even when politics is used to try to force basic conformity.  The underlying separate cultures remain along with their respective sins, but only a patina of commonality is created, an unhappy compromise at that.

This is an argument, related to my thoughts on secession, that I want to follow. I don’t know how much I support this argument or rather how much the evidence supports it. Let me make the case, anyhow.

Between the North and South, I see several areas that demonstrate the distinctness of each region. The most basic of these is the raw data on social problems (poverty, economic inequality, violent crime, obesity, high school dropouts, teen pregnancy, etc) and on more neutral social conditions (union membership, gun ownership, religiosity, etc). The more complicated aspect more directly or obviously involves culture (ethnic immigration patterns, political traditions, economic patterns, etc). All of these factors overlap in various ways or can be interpreted as being interconnected, the question being do the correlations indicate a causal relationship.

I’ve already discussed much of this in my other writings and so I’ll keep it brief by using key examples. Let me begin by pointing out two common misconceptions — the divide between North and South is (1) a divide between urban and rural and/or (2) a divide between areas with and without a large white majority.

One example that truly hits home this regional difference is that of violent crime. The South overall has higher rates of violent crime than the North overall. Is it because the South is more rural? No. The rural North doesn’t have equivalent high rates of violent crime. Is it because the South is more racially diverse? No. The white majority rural South has higher rates of violent crime than is even found in the multiracial urban North. Heck, the majority white rural South even has more violent crime than the urban South, and so for certain blacks can’t be blamed. Even more specifically, most of the violent crime in the rural South is white on white crime.

The only thing that makes the rural South distinct is it’s heavy concentration of Scots-Irish population. I’d point out that the Scots-Irish have a very distinct culture that has become a point of pride for many white Southerners, especially in Appalachia. The fighting tradition of the Scots-Irish also has become identified with the Lost Cause worldview, and along with a fierce independent streak this has made the Scots-Irish culture symbolic of the entire Southern identity.

Another example is religiosity. This stood out to me when I was reading Chuck Thompson’s Better Off Without ‘Em, stated with dramatic flair (Kindle Location 322):

“It’s not just the overwhelming percentage of believers in the South, it’s the attitudes they bring to—or from—their religiosity. In 2009, a Pew Forum “Importance of Religion” study measured a number of variables (frequency of prayer, absolute belief in God, and so forth) to determine the degree of religious fervor in all fifty states.

“Led by Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, nine of the top ten most religious states were southern. Oklahoma ruined Dixie’s perfect record by sneaking in at number seven. Of all southern states, only D.C.-infected Virginia and Semitic Florida finished just outside the top fifteen, edged out by such powerful fanatics as the Mormons of Utah and the pious enigmas of Kansas. The bottom half of the list presented a representative cross section of the rest of the country: Michigan, New Mexico, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Montana, New York, California, Maine, and, cordially sharing most hellbound honors, New Hampshire and Vermont.

“Not only is the South the place where 50 percent of American evangelicals live, it’s also the region from which the national movement draws its ideas and through which most of its fame and profit are harvested. Rabid believers are disproportionately southern—with around a third of the national population (counting Texas), the South accounts for 55 percent of the “electronic church” audience.

“Nearly every important evangelical figure of the past century has come from the South (Californian Rick Warren being an exception). A recent Trinity Broadcast Network program touting the national influence of southern Christianity proclaimed that Virginia was the most important state for “birthing national leaders on the religious front.””

This passage caught my attention because Iowa was listed as one of the least religious states, according to Pew. Iowa is below the national average for stated importance of religion, belief in God and frequency of prayer, although 1% above the national average of stated church attendance. On all the measures, Iowa is 20-30% below the most religious states.

That says a lot. Iowa is similar to the Southern states in many ways. Iowa has many working class people, especially farmers and those in the agricultural business. Iowa is mostly rural, and like the rural South mostly white. Along with these, another factor correlated to higher religiosity rates is an older population and Iowa has one of the most aging populations in the country.

The only clear difference between people in the rural North and the rural South is ethnicity.

The North had more settlers from Northern Europe. One of the differences with Northern Europeans such as Germans was that they were very skilled farmers who were used to high quality soil. They knew what high quality soil looked like which is why they chose to settle in the American North and, once settled, they knew how to cultivate the soil to maintain its viability.

The South had two agricultural traditions. They had the slave-based plantation model that came from Barbados and they had the yeoman subsistence model that came from the Scots-Irish. Both the plantation tobacco farming and the subsistence slash-and-burn ended up depleting the soil which wasn’t as rich to begin with.

This relates to an economic difference. Plantation farming and subsistence farming helped create an economy in the South that was less like modern capitalism. The plantation owners were so vastly wealthy that they didn’t build their own local industry, choosing instead to buy products shipped in from elsewhere. As an aside, the wealth of plantation owners wasn’t capitalist wealth (i.e., wasn’t fungible capital) because plantation owners tended to be heavily in debt as their wealth was invested in their land and their slaves. The subsistence farmers never harvested enough crops to make much in the way of profit, fungible or otherwise; and, as Joe Bageant points out, many of the small Southern farming communities were mostly cashless societies where people bartered and kept store tabs.

Modern industrialized capitalism was only strongly established in the South with Reconstruction following the Civil War. In being introduced, capitalism built upon the framework of the economic system already established in the South. This meant that capitalism incorporated the plantation mentality and the class-based rigidity. There were high rates of poverty and economic inequality in the Antebellum South and there are still high rates of poverty and economic inequality in the South today.

In one sense, you can blame the North for forcing modern industrialized capitalism onto the South. It’s possible that, if the South had successfully seceded, Southerners might have transitioned into a better kind of economic system… then again, maybe not. It’s not like capitalism wasn’t already beginning to gain footholds in the South prior to Reconstruction. It would be surprising if a Confederate South could have avoided capitalism’s ascent. Anyway, it wasn’t the North that forced onto the South a poverty-based, union-busting form of capitalism.

However, the South has always had its own native tradition of liberalism/leftism, not to mention reform-minded populism. It seems to me that, because of the effects of the Civil War, the Southern Left has been stunted and never given a chance to grow to its full potential. Many Southerns have come to think of liberalism/leftism as an ideology imported from the North and forced upon them by the federal government. Maybe the sin of the South has grown worse, or at least not lessened, because what Southerners perceived as non-Southern solutions being forced on them.

Whatever is the case, these are differences that make a difference. More than a century of political change following the Civil War hasn’t fundamentally changed this social reality.

The sin of the South was a caste-based society, later becoming a class-based society, that was built on slavery and the working poor. The sin of the North, on the other hand, was capitalism that was (and still is) brutal in its own way. There weren’t as many slaves in the North, but places like New York used a capitalist economy to profit off the slave trade. Northern capitalism has endless problems and I’m no fan of capitalism in general. Nonetheless, the sin of the North isn’t the same as the sin of the South.

This distinction seems important to my understanding, however one may wish to interpret it.

We are a united country, and that is what Abraham Lincoln was centrally concerned about. Even slavery for Lincoln was mixed up with maintaining the Union for he thought slavery would continue to undermine the country. Lincoln worried that, if secession were to happen, America would become balkanized like Europe. Instead of one big war, there would be endless small wars. I can see Lincoln’s perspective, but I think he put too much faith in the utopian ideal of unity.

The federal government could end slavery through force. What the rest of the country can’t do for the South is to solve it’s problems. We can send federal funds to deal with the worst issues of poverty and such, but the problem is structurally a part of the entire Southern society. Poverty doesn’t exist in such rates in the South because of a lack of wealth. The South’s economy is booming and yet the poverty persists. This is a problem of Southern culture and there may be little that Northern culture can do, besides exacerbating the problem by enabling those who are contributing to it.

By the way, the guilty parties would include some Northern corporations that go to the South to take advantage of weak regulatory enforcement and oppressive anti-union laws, the same reason corporations build factories in Mexico and China. This is corporatism, not free market capitalism. We shouldn’t allow American corporations to participate in social and economic oppression at home any more than we should allow it abroad.

Indeed, Northern culture has its own problems and contributes to the problems of others. Northerners have even sought solutions for those Northern problems. For example, a Northern city was the only place in the entire country that ever had a socialist government (i.e., the Milwaukee Sewer Socialists). Maybe the reason socialism couldn’t take hold in the North was partly because the South was so rabidly anti-socialist. Also, it is the anti-union South that has helped undermine the Northern unions by using unfair practices to lure corporations to build in the South.

The collusion of Northern capitalism and Southern aristocracy is a toxic mix.

I’m beginning to wonder if the North and the South have been getting in each other’s way and each bringing out the worse in the other. The culture of each region has its respective sin, but it also has the seed of potential for solving its own problems. Before public debate can ensue, there first has to be public awareness of the facts, conditions and cultures involved. Let’s be clear about the situation as it is, and then we can work from there.

After finishing this post, I realized I had forgotten one of my central points. I’ll just add it here at the end as an additional note.

Building up to the Civil War, both Northerners and Southerners were lobbing criticisms at one another.

In the North, slavery had been losing support for a long time prior to the Civil War. New immigrants were mostly coming to the North during this time and many went Westward to the frontier territories. These new immigrants didn’t want slavery to be expanded because they saw it as unfair competiion for Yeoman farmers.

White Southerners, however, had their own ideas about personal freedom. They saw the growing industrialization of the North as a menace to the Southern way of life, and it wasn’t only the aristocracy that felt this way. Many lower class whites countered the criticisms of slavery with their own allegations of Northern wage slavery where whites would simply be brought down to the level of menial labor.

Both sides made accurate criticisms. The average person wasn’t being offered a tremendous amount of freedom by either system. I’m sure Marx’s support of the Northern cause was mixed with much concern about the wage slavery of industrialized capitalism.

7 thoughts on “Sin of the North, Sin of the South

  1. The north is not more stastically mutliracial than the south,in fact the reverse is true in some cases by leaps and bounds. And this should be explored much more, in the cities in the north and midwest with high poverty (detroit, st. Loius, Stockton, Youngtown) are just as violent as the South, were there are two groups who are generationally poor competing violence goes up even more. The pockets of that in the other regions of the country are just as violent as the South, or in the case of the rust belt empty industrial cities, more so.

    You are on to something about the toxic ideas of aristocracy, but you still don’t explain the strong Southern backlash against it in the Souths love of FDR and William Jennings Bryant. The supresion of sewer socialists was done by the same people who suppressed southern populists, and that aligns to class much more than region but can be seem as a mixture of Sunbelt and New England politicians.

    There is more than one culture in both the North and South, but by solely focusing on political culture as defined by the civil war Binary, you are skimming that here and obscuring points that are much more clear when looking in terms of class than culture alone.

    • I was simplifying things for argument’s sake.

      There are many cultures that aren’t always perfectly distinct. Boundaries are often blurred. That is why I’m not sure how much I support arguments about the regional distinctiveness. The cultures are real and different, but maybe we are past the point of ever being able to separate them or deal with them as separate systems. What I fear is that a dysfunctional codependency has formed between cultures.

      You are correct that suppression (and oppression) knows no boundaries. This is true for regions, but it is true across the world. Corporatism is a global phenomena.

      I’ve been wondering for a long time about the native traditions of radicalism and reform that have existed in every region of this country. There seems to be a near universal amnesia by the local populations of their own collective past. This seems to be true as much as in Iowa as anywhere else. I really have to go digging to discover the history of activism and organizing in Iowa.

      I’d agree that culture can’t explain everything. Class is important, but I’m still not convinced that class by itself is as fundamental as culture. Our culture limits our understanding and response to issues of class. I was touching upon this factor in my post by speaking of certain regions having a more class-based culture and other areas have less. Although class exists everywhere, the differences matter in terms of political structure and social movements. For example, some towns in New England have more of a direct democracy tradition when it comes to local politics.

      There are things that unite us all such as certain common problems and common causes behind those problems, but actually uniting of people is a tricky thing to attempt.

  2. But here is one idea,a British friend of mine actually thinks the North and South divide keeps people in both regions from dealing with the class problem and thus keeps the aristocracy of both regions safe by constantly playing up culture issues. I think this might be a way in which the two regions stand in each others way.

    • I would be surprised if cultural divisions aren’t maintained and exacerbated for purposes of divide and conquer. This is why I wanted to get at a deeper level of culture. The culture wars are superficial. Most class war is probably superficial as well. So, the common problem is superficiality.

      Culture is used to divide people with common class interests. And class is used to divide people with common cultural interests. Divisions upon divisions upon divisions.

      However, it’s not as if the present group of elites in the world created most of these divisions. They simply took advantage of them. Even without devious elites, divisions probably would still be vast challenges, although maybe challenges that would feel less overwhelming and dispiriting.

    • I’ve often noted that I don’t particularly think of myself as a Northerner, certainly not a Yankee. I’m a Midwesterner, for good or ill. It has shaped my worldview in such fundamental ways. I like being a Midwesterner, not that it gets in the way of other identities.

      I do feel particularly confused as an Iowan. It feels like a no-man’s land of sorts. I’m neither a Northern Yankee nor a Southern Rebel. I’m neither an East Coaster nor a West Coaster. Even in the Midwest, Iowa is on the other side of the Mississippi.

      No one particularly cares about Iowa or other even more rural farming states. Political battles are generally about these other regional divisions which most Iowans feel less identified with. Iowans aren’t radically pulled in any direction for the most part, although there is a hidden history of farmer radicalism from earlier last century.

      Even my identity as a Midwesterner is vague. It is more just a background to my personal reality. My identity as an American is even more vague. I find patriotic nationalism to be a mostly ugly thing. I’m just tired of oppression for all people in all places. Unfortunately, not all people in all places share this greater concern. Most people seem content with small identities: national, regional, cultural, ethnic, etc.

      I don’t know how to get past this. The North/South divide, real or perceived, probably isn’t helpful in any way. Still, this is a division that has come to define us Americans and our politics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s