Thursday, March 1, 2018

Dispatch from the 'American' South

‘Southern Cultural Nationalism’ and Southern Liberals

I went to a journalism seminar at the University of Georgia (UGA) campus in Athens, Georgia, USA, which was announced in the local alternative weekly The Flagpole as ‘For the Love of the South.”   Yup.  As a cranky Yankee, I had to see what ‘southern’ journalists had to say about their region, because no one ‘up north’ is talking about how they ‘love’ the north.  The panel consisted of editors from the 'Flagpole,’ ‘The Bitter Southerner - Great Stories from the South;’ the ‘Oxford American – A Magazine of the South;’ the NY Times Atlanta bureau and ‘Scalawag – Reckoning with the South;’ along with one member of the journalism faculty at UGA.
The South is Easy to Find

If you pay attention you discover that the ‘south’ is saturated with an obsession about itself as a region, and this does not compare to anything in the north. The reporter from the NY Times brought this up in the panel discussion.  The exception might be the tub-thumpers of New York City, though they never identify with ‘the north,’ only their own city.  The conservatives in ‘the west’ attempt to carve out some kind of identity, but the Pacific Coast states blunt their regionalism.

The South is Everywhere

I went to a fashion show at UGA and cups were handed out that said ‘Stay Southern.’  I’ve never seen a cup like that in Minnesota.  One local Athens rock venue is called ‘the Georgia Theater.” If it were in Minneapolis, we’d laugh at the dullness of the title “Minnesota Theater” as the name of a rock music venue.  Minneapolis’ own tongue-in-cheek outdoor store “Midwest Mountaineering” doesn’t even know that Minnesota is not in the ‘Midwest’ but is actually in the north.  If you go to a music show in Athens where roots, folk or country music are played, you will inevitably hear one or two damn songs about “being born in Kentucky” or Tennessee or some other southern state.   You never or rarely hear Minnesota or Iowa bands yowling about their region or even state.  The Weather Channel, headquartered in Atlanta, refers to the area between the Dakotas and Pennsylvania as ‘the Midwest’ not ‘the north.’ They never call New England ‘the north’ but maybe the north-east and definitely New England.  They never fail to include Georgia in ‘the south’ or at least the ‘south-east.’   This geographic misdirection is rampant, essentially disappearing ‘the north’ as a place.  The 2018 Minneapolis city campaign to re-christen Minnesota ‘The Bold North” during the recent Super Bowl is indicative of the lack of northern regionalism or nationalism.

There is no ‘northern rock’ genre to compare with ‘southern rock.’  There is ‘southern gothic’ as a type of U.S. literature, but nothing of the reverse.  Country music itself is self-consciously based in the south, though it certainly flows into rural areas throughout the country.  There is no ‘northern’ equivalent.   We have the ‘Southern Baptist Convention” but not the northern version.  There is a 'southern strategy' which has been successful. I could go on, but you see the point.  All of this expresses a smothering southern regional or ‘national’ consciousness, in this case cultural.  Is this basically progressive or reactionary?  I think the latter.
Funny and Symptomatic

The Panel

The speakers on the panel, especially the editor of Scalawag, made brief obligatory nods to ‘racial and class’ problems in the south.  But then they went on to one of their central topics, the stereotypes and misconceptions about the south. They insisted there is a ‘modern south’ now, full of ‘diversity,’ localism, cross-culturalism and pleasantries, incorporating migrants, hip-hop and women.  Great southern food like okra (?), great music, beautiful landscapes and craft cocktails!  I like music or fiction artists from the south as much as the next person and the land can certainly be outstanding.  But the subtext of what they were saying is that the ‘new South,’ as inaugurated by the presidency of neo-liberals like Jimmy Carter and later, Bill Clinton, exists and seemingly has little to do with the ‘old one.’  Interestingly, the concept of the 'new south' was first introduced in the 'new south' is nothing new. (Scalawag is headquartered in Durham, North Carolina; the Bitter Southerner in a suburb south of Atlanta; the Oxford American in Little Rock, Arkansas.)   It seems problems are in the past.   But is the ‘new’ south really that new?

Is the South Oppressed?

For instance, is the south as a whole an oppressed region, hence logically responding to oppression with expressions of national or regional defiance?  No, unless you confuse some idiotic northerners making fun of ‘rednecks’ as ‘oppression.’ This is not an expression of the ‘black belt’ or even Appalachia.

Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the oil patch and other centers of capital are scattered throughout the country.  They manage to oppress every single geography and rural area in different ways.  The southern capitalists are centered in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami and Charlotte.   The most powerful and right-wing are in Texas, the center of oil and gas corporations.  Many low-quality fast-food chains originate from the south, including the most popular diabetic beverage of all time, Coca-Cola (Atlanta).  Ted Turner’s media empire started in Atlanta and Delta, UPS, Home Depot, AFLAC, The Southern Energy Co. and Suntrust are headquartered there too.  Charlotte is the home to top national financial corporations like Lending Tree, Bank of America and BBT and others like Lowes and Duke Energy.  Miami has American Airlines, Office Depot, Wackenhut and Motorola.  Even partially ruined New Orleans hosts corporations like Entergy and Centurylink.  Wichita, Kansas is home to Koch Industries. The vast majority of U.S. military bases are located in the south.  Many automobile manufacturers moved their plants from the north to the south to get cheaper wages, or came from overseas to do the same.  Its factory chicken industry dominates the country.  It is the last bastion of coal.  It is a powerful sector of the U.S. capitalist class, not some backward bunch of plantation owners living without air-conditioning while watching sharecroppers bringing in the cotton.

And yet, tax revenues flow from mostly northern states to mostly southern states, as part of the currency union that is the U.S.A.

Mississippi Godamn, II

It is not an oppressed region, but its regional working class is the most oppressed in the U.S., as determined by every statistical measure you can name.  Disposable income, poverty-rates, health coverage, under-age pregnancy, unionism, abortion rights, education, literacy, collectivity, voting rights, life expectancy, workplace safety, pollution, homicides, voter turnout, public benefits, privatization, Medicaid, minimum wage laws etc.  Mississippi is at the bottom of the state stack and this affects the black population of that state the most.  Louisiana has the most prisoners per population of any state in the union, with Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Alabama not far behind.  New Orleans parish and its archaic 'habitual offender' law use, along with plea bargaining, is one of the main reasons. So they sell ‘southern nationalism’ to white workers, as if waving a virtual rebel flag at northerners will solve these problems.  The basic truth is that these problems are also their problems, white workers' problems.

Did this panel of journalists mention so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws?  Did they mention the word ‘Republican’ once?  Did they mention the role of fundamentalist religion?  Did they mention the long list of low quality-of-life indicators for the southern population and southern states?  Did they mention the low minimum wages in the south?  Did they mention the modern neo-Confederates?  Not at all.  Did they mention mass incarceration?  Once in passing, by the editor of the Scalawag.  There was a polite hush over specific southern problems.  All evidently to be combated by ‘increasing diversity,’ the all-purpose liberal panacea and also the ostensible goal of many corporate HR departments.  They concluded that the upscale Gun & Garden magazine could do with some diversity, even though most rich white people in the south probably don’t want to look at anyone but their own.

VW Chooses Non-Union
Unions and the South

One person who recognized that there was still a continuing real ‘battle’ in the south was the UGA professor.  And that is exactly it.  To improve the U.S. for the working class, especially black and Latino people who are the most exploited, unions and progressive community organizations have to win the fight in the south – not ignore it.  That was the 1940s program of the AFL-CIO – to organize the south, and it is still absolutely necessary.  As an example, a Caterpillar plant was just re-located to Athens Georgia from Illinois, making small-track bulldozers and excavators, but with a far cheaper workforce due to the absence of a union.

For northern workers, southern ‘right-to-work-for-less’ laws are the Dred Scott laws of modern wage slavery.  Dred Scott was a slave who lived for a time at Fort Snelling in Minnesota, and also in Wisconsin and Illinois with his slave master.  According to an 1857 U.S. Supreme Court decision when he sued for his freedom, he was still a slave even though these northern states did not have legal slavery.  This became the basis of the fugitive slave laws, which is why you had to get to Canada to really get away.  As the battle in Wisconsin showed, these anti-union laws still move up the Mississippi.  And they rob the north of work by enabling plant foreclosures.  Delta Airlines, based in Atlanta, merged with Minneapolis-based Northwest Airlines in 2008 and in the process, decertified the Machinists and other unions that had existed at Northwest.  The unions are now trying to re-unionize Delta now.  The problem is not just cheap labor in China or Mexico, it is in our own southern-accented ‘maquiladora’ zone, running a race to the bottom.  This mostly middle-class panel did not see fit to address this key issue.

A small union was recently organized on the UGA campus, the “United Workers of Georgia, Local 3265.” They attempted to run an ad on a local radio station, which refused their ad because a union ‘was not consistent with free market principles.’  This is a state campus, so the ability to organize is easier than in the directly capitalist workplaces, but still very difficult.  That is what the low-paid workers of the south face.
Oxford, MS Town Square - Faulkner Land
Shadow of the Civil War

The real issue is that southern regional / national consciousness was based on the agrarian and plantation economy of indebted servitude, then slavery - first white, then black.  This clash of economic systems with a more industrialized north populated by free farmers led to the Civil War.  As noted in the book, “Why the South Lost the Civil War” the south lost primarily because of the failure of this southern nationalism.  As books like “Peoples’ History of the Civil War,” “Guerillas, Unionists and Violence on the Confederate Home Front” and “The Civil War in Florida” all note, non-plantation regions in nearly every southern state resisted secession and opposed the war.

Yet ‘southern nationalism’ still continues, attempting to bind especially white southern workers to white southern capitalists.  And it extends across the whole political and social culture of the south.  It is most strongly seen in the openly racist defense of Confederate monuments or the Confederate battle flag by fascist and alt-right groups.

Politically it is seen in the practices and rhetoric of the present Republican Party, which is strongest in the south, controlling every state.  It is accompanied by the fundamentalist propaganda of the Southern Baptist Convention and the strong celebrations of militarism in southern states (even at Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport), especially around the civic religion of college football.  The continuing efforts of the oil, gas and coal industries, along with auto, to demonize unions and mask the effects of global warming (even as it floods the south) are part of the same right-wing assault.  It is coming not just from Wall Street but the resurgent southern capitalists.  Wall Street in fact is in league with them, as it was prior to the Civil War.  Slavery was actually a large part of the northern capitalist class's strategy for profits.  Now the federal government is once again held by the virtual party of the south.  Ironically, the same Supreme Court that criminally ruled on Dred Scott will probably soon rule that paying dues to a union in a union-represented ‘agency’ shop is illegal in government workplaces. This will help spread southern anti-unionism nationwide.   The case is “Janus v. AFSCME Council 31.” You want a union, pretty soon you’ll have to escape to Canada.

One Big Happy Southern Family

The southern capitalists have succeeded in their strategy to split southern white workers from the black and Latino working class by claiming that ‘we are all southerners,’ binding lord and vassal together. This ‘rebel’ tactic works, especially when combined with intimidation of all kinds.  This can be seen in the recent anti-union votes at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee and the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi.  Imagine that.  The majority voted for a German or Japanese company over an evidently 'foreign' U.S. based union, the UAW!  The UAW was faced with incredible intimidation, threats to close the plants and an almost community-wide hostility on the part of businesses and politicians.  This is the root of the subservience of southerners to their ostensible ‘betters’ - threats.  Even small farmers in the south buy into this fable, though corporate farming is pushing them off the land too, as it did to black farmers already.

How does liberal southern cultural nationalism play into this scenario?  From what I can see, it dovetails, as they all embrace the concept of ‘the wonderful south’ in varying degrees.  The fact of the matter is that in every capitalist country, there are regions that are the most benighted.  In the U.S. the ‘south’ is it. Combined and uneven development is essential to capitalist economics and this country is no exception.

The Magazines

The Oxford American is a mostly apolitical cultural and academic journal that styles itself the New Yorker of the south. (Though the New Yorker was never a symbol of the ‘north.)  At one point the editor of the Bitter Southerner sounded like he said that the average income of their supporters was $335K a year, which created a buzz onstage.  When I brought up the term ‘southern cultural nationalism’ to the panel in the short question and answer period, the editor of the Bitter Southerner threatened to semi-humorously come down and ‘shake’ me. Striking a nerve is always entertaining.

Scalawag seems to be the most left in its approach to political issues in the south, mentioning in their most recent issue capitalism and the ‘Trillbilly Workers Party,’ a leftist podcast out of Appalachia.  In one podcast the Trillbillies take right-wing ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ author T.D. Vance apart.  The term ‘scalawag’ was applied to southerners who supported Reconstruction and the post-Civil War Republican Party, so the title is progressive.  The editor returned from the north to the south to ‘reclaim’ the south, as her relatives were part of the mass exodus to the north in the 1920s-1930s.  But you’d never guess that from the presentation - instead the editor wanted the south to be a ‘re-imagined place.’   But what that means is left unimagined.  The Flagpole heroically soldiers on as an alternative weekly based on advertising - making food, drink, music and mild liberal politics its mainstays.  The Bitter Southerner seems more like a high-end lifestyle magazine for educated southerners, which the editor said earns most of its money from sales of T-shirts and coffee mugs (!)   We all know about the NY Times, and it mostly covers hard news like the Florida school shooting.

What would be really progressive is to challenge southern regionalism as an idea, because it stretches across the political spectrum, but is a mainstay of the southern capitalist class and its far-right allies.  Tub thumping of any kind – whether ‘patriotic’ Americanism, southern or ‘western regionalism;’ city boosterism (Babbitt-style), ‘love my state’ mania or football team loyalty – are all crude and divisive geographic perspectives that ignore our potential collective unity as proletarians across all these borders.  Yes, of different places and locales, of different ethnicities and genders, of different national origins or sexualities, of different levels of oppression, but still potentially united as people with the same economic and social goals.

Besides the civil war books mentioned above that are all reviewed below, other relevant reviews are:  “Hillbilly Elegy,” “White Trash,” Jacobin’s ‘Civil War’ issue, “The New Jim Crow” and “Slavery by Another Name.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

P.S. - The present teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky only confirm this diagnosis.  Victory to the mostly female teachers!

Read this Truthout article about a new 2018 audit of poverty in the U.S., which specifically highlights policies in the south that increase poverty:
Red Frog, the Cranky Yankee

Athens, GA

March 1, 2018

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