After the Crimson Tide’s big win over Notre Dame on January 7th, a Web site called Real Southern Men explained the significance in terms of regional defiance: “Football matters here, because it is symbolic of the fight we all fight. Winning matters here, because it is symbolic of the victories we all seek. Trophies matter here, because they are symbolic of the respect we deserve but so rarely receive.” That defiance is a sure sign, like Governor Rick Perry’s loose talk of Texas seceding, that Southernization has run its course.--George Packer
Wills was born in Georgia and has lots of relatives there. He said he grew up preferring his southern relatives to his northinern ones, but here, Wills reflecting on George Packer's "Southern Discomfort" in the New Yorker from which the quote above, writes about his mixed feelings about the South:
The South escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking. The North puffed confidently into the future, Panglossian about progress, always bound to win. But the South had lost. It knew there was an America that could be defeated. That made it capable of facing tragedy, as many in America were not. This improved its literature, but impoverished other things. Yet poverty did not make the South helpless. In fact, straitened circumstances made it readier to grab what it could get. In its long bargain with the Democratic party, for instance, it not only fended off attacks on its Jim Crow remnant of the Old Confederacy, but gamed the big government system through canny old codgers in Washington—the chairmen of the major congressional committees, who sluiced needed assistance to the South during the Great Depression.
Under the tattered robes of Miss Havisham were hidden the preying hands of the Artful Dodger. Southerners were not really trapped in the past, since they were always scheming to get out of the trap. They were defeated but not dumb. . . .
So, Wills wonders, why has its political leadership become so dumb?
Humans should always cling to what is good about their heritage, but that depends on being able to separate what is good from what is bad. It is noble to oppose mindless change, so long as that does not commit you to rejecting change itself. The South defeats its own cause when it cannot discriminate between the good and the evil in its past, or pretends that the latter does not linger on into the present: Some in the South deny that the legacy of slavery exists at all in our time. The best South, exemplified by the writers listed above, never lost sight of that fact. Where are the writers of that stature today in the Tea Party South?
Then he tells a story about his beloved, warm-hearted Irish Catholic grandmother:
She told me not to hold change between my lips while groping for a pocket to put it in—“That might have been in a nigger’s mouth.” Once, when she took me to Mass, she walked out of the church when a black priest came out to celebrate. I wondered why, since she would sit and eat with a black woman who helped her with housework. “It is the dignity—I would not let him take the Lord in his hands.”
Tradition dies hard, hardest among those who cannot admit to the toll it has taken on them. That is why the worst aspects of the South are resurfacing under Obama’s presidency. It is the dignity. That a black should have not merely rights but prominence, authority, and even awe—that is what many Southerners cannot stomach. They would let him ride on the bus, or get into Ivy League schools. But he must be kept from the altar; he cannot perform the secular equivalent of taking the Lord in his hands. It is the dignity.
I think it's hard for non-southerners to understand how deep that sense of white identity goes, and how the indignity of defeat during the Civil War made the retrieval of their dignity dependent on keeping blacks in their place. It's not even something most of them can think about in any sensible way. It's in the air native white southerners breathe and in the water they drink. But I don't think the psychology is much more complicated than the father fired from the mill slapping his ten-year old for no good reason, and then the child turns and kicks his dog. If you can't hit back at those who can hurt you, you turn and hit those who can't.
It's how the powerless make themselves feel powerful. It's how people who feel that they are nobody can get some fleeting sense that they are in fact somebody, that they have an identity. Having some sense of one's power is a prerequisite for having any sense of one's dignity. It's why terrorists blow themselves and others up; it's why kids take guns into schools and start shooting anyone who's there. But in the South it's a kind of collective neurosis rooted in the psychology of victimization and toxic resentment. It's a resentment of the sanctimonious northern elites who inflicted this indignity on them, but also a resentment they direct toward those whom they must see as their inferiors if they are to maintain even a rudimentary sense of their own dignity.
So why has the southern poltiical class become so dumb? I think it's because there's a correlation between helplessness and dumbness, between the level of toxic resentment and the willingness to cut off your nose to spite your face. Southerners, the dumb ones anyway, have become trapped in the past, and I believe, have come to feel even more helpless as it becomes clear to them that they are being left behind by history, and so they're not going down without dragging as many as they can with them.