Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that cultural friction between the North and South persists to this day. After all, we fought an incredibly brutal, ugly Civil War. The battlelines that were drawn then continued to divide us through the Reconstruction period and well into the middle of the 20th century, as federal troops were once again deployed to enforce the civil rights acts.
According to Chuck Thompson, a veteran travel writer who toured the American South, a degree of mutual enmity between Northerners and Southerners continues to be a source of cultural tension and political gridlock. We remain divided even as we have grown to become the world’s superpower. In his new book, Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession, Thompson argues that it may be time for a divorce – to shake hands and go our separate ways.
Thompson appeared on last week’s AlterNet Radio Hour to discuss his book. A lightly edited transcript of our discussion is below (you can listen to the whole show here).
Joshua Holland: Chuck, you seem to be channeling the frustration of a lot of Northern liberals. I may have even said myself that we should have let the Confederacy walk in 1860. But I haven’t heard a lot of people calling to break up the Union today. You’re known as a comedic travel writer. So my first question is to what degree are you being tongue-in-cheek here? To what degree are you being serious?
Chuck Thompson: I am being serious. I understand that the meta arguments here that call for secession can be received as somewhat absurd in some corners. I acknowledge that it is probably a remote possibility. Within the framework of that argument I think there is a lot of room to highlight a lot of these problems and a lot of these frustrations that you refer to. One of the goals of this book really was to more or less articulate — to put some facts, figures and research behind — a lot of this frustration of Northern and Southern liberals, of which there are many. I encountered many Southern liberals while conducting my research.
There’s this seething frustration people have. There’s this kneejerk reaction to blame the South. The sort of Northern media strafing of the South for a lot of the nation’s ills is a longstanding tradition. What I wanted to do was to get away from the traditional stereotypes of the dim-witted, mouth-breathing, Southern racist redneck and really look at what’s going on today. Find out why people are still having these issues with the South, and put some hard research and some facts and figures behind this general unease with the influence that the South has on the rest of the country.
JH: So we know we have an overtly religious political culture down South, and a culture today that is pretty hostile toward organized labor. What is it in your travels or in your research that prompted you to call for Southern secession?
CT: I get tired of everybody bitching about the problem. It’s like what Mark Twain said about the weather. Everybody complains about it, but nobody does anything about it. People have been having this problem with the South for my entire lifetime, and as my research pointed out to me, since even before there was a United States of America. Even in the Continental Congress, before the Declaration of Independence was signed, there were a lot of Southerners from South Carolina – particularly a family called the Rutledge family – sort of running the show back then and didn’t want any part of the United States. So a lot of the problems that have arisen between North and South have been around for a long time.
So, as I’ve said, I’ve spent a lot of my life hearing from everybody from Seattle to Savannah. Almost every American, at one time or another, has said that it’s too bad the country didn’t just split when we had the chance. We didn’t let the South go when we had the chance. We would have avoided a lot of problems. We – meaning this group in the north as we might identify ourselves – could take the country we want into a direction that we think is befitting of America without this push and pull that comes from the Southern states. At the same time the South could do the same thing.
What really led to this call for secession was understanding that a lot of people from the South are just as sick and tired of people like Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid having an impact on their country as I am sick of people like Newt Gingrich and Jeff Sessions, Eric Cantor, and Haley Barbour having an impact on my country.
So why shouldn’t each of these societies that are really very different from each other in the way they approach the fundamental building blocks of society – education, religion, commerce, politics … both sides of the country really approach their problems in the way they want to put their societies together in very diametrically opposed ways. Why shouldn’t people be allowed to live in a pseudo-theocracy if they want to? If the majority of the people in a very large part of the country wants to have the Ten Commandments emblazoned in front of their legislative houses, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so?
My call here for secession isn’t really a punitive thing towards the South, though I admit to a lot of these Northern frustrations. It’s an effort to identify these differences; to acknowledge that they’re very striking and very strong, and to say each one of these sides might be better of without the other.
JH: So we could have a divorce without an excessive amount of acrimony.
CT: I would hope so. Why not?
JH: How are you defining the South? Are we losing the Research Triangle in North Carolina? Are we losing Texas in this deal? And is there any chance we could give them some of the duller states. We’re not using South Dakota, are we?
CT: There are some noncontiguous pockets of what would be left of the North that I think would be culturally more comfortable in the South. It’s the first question I started off with in doing the research. It’s a lot trickier than we might imagine. As for the Research Triangle in North Carolina? Yes, we’re going to lose it. Texas is really interesting to me. The best line I heard about Texas during the research was from a student at the University of Georgia who said the Texas state flag is a perfect representation of Texas, in that it looks just like the American flag without all the other states.
Even though Texas was part of the original Confederacy, it’s always been an all-around pain in the neck to categorize. They’ve never really been much of a team player, let’s face it. In my breakdown of the South I did not include Texas as a Southern state. I completely acknowledge there’s a lot of room for argument there, and that’s probably the easiest point in my book to argue against. I could argue both sides of it myself. In the end I decided that Texas would stay with the North in large part for economic reason. Texas is really one of the economic anchors of this country.
JH: So it wasn’t just for the barbecue?
CT: Barbecue, cheerleaders and Dr. Pepper.
JH: What about the people who live in those states? It’s easy to say they vote for the crappy government they deserve, but consider that in Utah – the reddest state in the country – 30 percent of the population votes Democratic. I’m not saying that voting Democratic is a perfect proxy for one’s ideology, but there’s a good chunk of people down there who we would be consigning to basically English-speaking Mexico. In Alabama, it’s 40 percent. Do you just say, “Here you go, you have to live in a third-world country with crappy education systems, no health care, and a government of snake handlers?”
CT: [Laughing] You’re tougher on the South than I am! Let me give you two answers to that. One is that in my imaginary secession legislative framework, I’m building in a period of 10-20 years where there’s free and open citizenship for anybody who feels caught on the wrong side of the divide. A tofu-scarfing liberal in Mississippi would be free to come on back over to the North, as well as maybe some survivalist NRA fanatic in the hills of Washington state would be legally entitled to take up residency in the new Confederate homeland. So I’ve built something into the imaginary structure for that.
The larger point goes back to what I said about even if you consider the argument for secession absurd, it really does give us a lot of room to address other issues. One of those that you allude to in your question is one of Southerners who are not the mouth-breathing, white-supremacist, gun-toting rednecks. That is the stereotype, but the fact of the matter is, that’s a minority in the South.
JH: Fifty-seven percent of African Americans live in the American South.
CT: That’s right. That’s exactly right. One of the big mistakes that people who make these sort of polemics and screeds against the South is that they assume “Southerner” equals conservative white male. Now if you want to be really mean you include “racist” with Southern white male, that’s the stereotype.
But let’s even say that it’s conservative, evangelical Southerners. The fact of the matter is that’s not what the whole South is. There are a lot of African Americans in the South. There are increasingly a lot of Hispanics in the South. There are a lot of liberals in the South. There are atheists in the South. One of the things I really try to do with this book was not solely traffic in those easy stereotypes that I think a lot of people trap themselves with. That’s not to say I didn’t find a lot of those Southern, evangelical, white conservatives. I did and they’re in the book, but I also made a huge effort not to define the South solely on the classic Northern stereotypes.
JH: Ultimately, while I share your befuddlement with Southern politics, I have to say that I’ve traveled extensively in the South. I lived in Arkansas briefly. I love the South, and I’ve met good, progressive people everywhere I’ve gone.
CT: What did you love about it?
JH: I love the culture of the South. I love the people of the South. I really had some great experiences dealing with Southerners. Even those Southerners I couldn’t necessarily discuss politics with.
I guess a related question is this: We have a really screwy political system with lots of deeply entrenched problems. Do you see anything that could be gained by the South’s secession that couldn’t be achieved by, say, getting money out of our political system? Or bringing back the fairness doctrine? Maybe reforming the filibuster in the Senate? Do you know what I’m saying? Those things aren’t likely to happen in today’s environment, but the South splitting away isn’t too likely either.
CT: That’s right, but a lot of these problems have been deeply entrenched in American society long before this dysfunction befell our political system. Politics is really only one way in which the South is quite a bit different it approaches its society. I think religion is the really big factor here, and I think that’s what’s really not going to change in the South. Yes, there are evangelicals and religious lunatics in all 50 states in the country. Only in the South, though, do they represent a voting quorum. Only in the South can you appeal to voters in very overtly religious terms and expect success on a consistent basis. Again, that’s not to deny that this exists in the rest of the country. It does, but in the South is where its power base is.
I think that is the piece of the puzzle here that informs the politics of the South, in the same way that evangelical Christianity is the least tolerant of any sort of diversity or diversity of opinion. It’s Bible literalism. Everything is true and you adhere to everything; it’s black and white. When that is the foundation of the majority of the people in your society, when that becomes your whole social framework, then that’s the politics that grows out of that society. So we get that same sort of blinkered view of humanity of politicians in the South who come up to the North – we get this absolute, no compromise stance between these hardcore conservatives and other politicians.
When there were Republicans and Democrats fighting it out in the ’80s during the Reagan years, there was the famed Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan give-and-take. This is how politics works; it’s the art of compromise. The ruling power says to the opposition, “We won the election, so we’re going to get these big things. Don’t give us too much trouble and we’ll work with you. We realize you have a constituency. Let us get our big things through without a lot of hassle, and we’ll make sure you’re taken care of on some level.” That’s sort of how it has worked for the most part. In the South, it’s different, because there is no such thing as compromise. If it’s God’s law that is driving you — if God says gay marriage is an abomination, if God says abortion is an abomination — then you simply can’t compromise. That’s not in your DNA if you really believe that. That’s where I think a lot of the dysfunction of our political process comes into play.
And I don’t think that’s going to change, regardless of whether you pull the money out of it or not. This ties into how the South deals with education. Southern states don’t typically fund their public schools the way other states do – they’re typically at a much lower level. There’s less commitment to the ideal of public education in the Southern states than there is in the rest of the country. That’s why we see over and over when the statistics come out, the South has the lowest SAT scores, lowest graduation rates, the most illiteracy. Whatever measures you want to put on academic performance, it’s those core Southern states that are always leading the bottom of the back. In the bottom 10, eight or nine of them are always going to be Southern states.
I wanted to look into this. Why is that? Is it just that Southerners are stupider than the rest of us? Clearly that’s not the case. It’s the same gene pool. The more you look at it the more you realize there’s just a lower commitment to public education in the South than there is in the rest of the country. That’s been going on for hundreds of years. It’s not changing.
I was in Arkansas. I spent a week in Little Rock while they were searching for a new superintendent of schools last year. The dysfunction that I saw just in attending these public meetings where they were talking about what they needed was astonishing.
JH: We see a lot of liberal animosity towards the South. Were you at all concerned in writing this book about whether you would reinforce the stereotype of the coastal, elite liberals looking down their noses at the middle and the South? Was this a concern?
CT: Sure, people are going to jump to that conclusion. As you know — and as I found out in writing web articles and books — most of the really heated criticism you get from people are always from people who don’t even bother to read your article or your book in the first place. That’s going to happen. There’s nothing I can do about it. I really did make an effort not to be strident – though I’m certainly judgmental – and to find good things in the South, which there are. You deal with Southerners on an individual basis and they’re great. They’re friendly, hospitable, gregarious, and they like to party. They like to drink, to give you their food, they like to play music. It’s a lot of fun.
I didn’t try to be this super-strident jerk who was just sitting there bashing. I really am trying to put some numbers and some facts to this argument. These are two very different societies that have been economic and social frenemies from the day they were founded. The dysfunction has got to stop at some point.
Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He’s the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.