Wednesday, March 22, 2006
The Voice Of The South

I've mentioned this to the odd person from time to time, but I don't think I've ever written about it on the blog: my mother has a plan for me.

The mothers of 30-nothing women are notoriously pushy, and mine, while certainly not the worst offender ever, isn't an exception. The thing that makes her a strange case, though, is what she's pushing for -- she doesn't push me to find a man and get married, she doesn't push me to start making grandbabies, she never pushed me into law school or medical school (though she and others certainly made, shall we say, suggestions.) Nope, my mother only pushes me towards one gleaming goal: royalties.

More specifically, she wants me to write a book. She doesn't care, I don't think, what kind of book it is. It could be a novel, a cookbook, a film book, a political screed, maybe even pornography -- if it brought in the occasional check, she'd probably be okay with anything I churned out. She points to this very blog -- yes, this one you're reading right now -- as evidence that I am up to the job. She has even (and I hope I'm not embarrassing her too much by telling you this) printed up a dummy cover for the book for which she hopes I'll provide the filling. She's proud of me, which is nice, except I can't help but feel reluctance to put too much stock in my mother's opinion of my writing.

(She'll protest that last statement, watch.)

Anyway, the book she really, really wants me to write is about Southern-ism. (I know that's not a real -ism, but I think you understand the cultural phenomenon I'm referring to.) She encourages me to drop the political line and write about life in the south with an eye towards the "Why I Live at the P.O." ouvre that Eudora Welty made the common currency of southern letters. The problem, though, is that it just ain't that easy. Southern life is inherently political; the only question is whether or not you go along with the prevailing current. I do not. For me, being a southerner living in the south is an exercise in relentless frustration and constant low-grade conflict with my own culture and within myself.

Here's a funny thing: everybody knows about the feud between David Cross, Jewish intellectual comedian, and Larry the Cable Guy, Spokesman for Planet Redneck, right? My mother and her husband were watching one of those fawning extended advertisements for LtCG's new movie, and, when speaking implicitly of the feud and of his critics (as represented by David Cross), Mr. Cable Guy's statement was essentially this: "they" don't get "our" culture, so "they" can fuck off. (That's not a quote, but that's what he said.)

I understand the sentiment; I really do. I've lived as a foreigner (and a not-entirely-favored one at that); I've been condescended to because of where I come from; I still get to deal with it on a regular basis when dealing with my liberal brethren from the north. I comprehend the emotions behind that reaction on a visceral level, based on personal experience. But here's the funny thing about that: between Larry the Cable Guy and David Cross, which one do you think is the southerner?

If you guessed Mr. Cable Guy, well... you're wrong. Daniel Whitney (aka Larry the Cable Guy) is from Nebraska. And okay, you don't have to be from the south to be a redneck, but Daniel Whitney's not even blue-collar. He went to prep school in Nebraska, learned his "redneck" dialect from college classmates, is both a southern and redneck poseur. Nothing illegal or wrong about any of that, of course, except that he still considers himself qualified to lecture people like David Cross -- who was born and raised in Atlanta -- about how he "doesn't get" the culture.

Here's the thing I wish Larry the Cable Guy's audience would wrap their heads around: this is OUR culture, too. Even those of us who don't vote Republican, who have gay and lesbian and transgendered friends and partners, who happily live in racially-mixed neighborhoods, who don't give a shit what the neighbor's religion is as long as they don't try to teach it in the public schools or use the courts to jam it down our throats, who accept that evolution is undeniably true, who don't carry guns or drive pick-up trucks, who love books other than the Bible, who speak other languages, who see the civil war as utterly irrelevant to our lives, who love kinky sex and dirty books and contraception, and who don't listen to Toby Keith -- we're all southerners, too. And what's more, we're every bit as southern as Larry the Cable Guy; in fact, we're more southern, in that we're, y'know, actually from the south. I don't remember ever giving Daniel Whitney the sole right to define what southern culture is. The only thing I resent about the persona that he's made for himself is that it pushes a version of southern culture that makes me -- yes, I'm actually going to say it -- ashamed. Embarrassed. It's exactly the same set of emotions I sometimes felt as an American living in London -- but it was never the Europeans who made me feel that way (though a few of them tried), it was other Americans. I felt ashamed for them.

I know that sounds like snobbery -- and I'm not going to deny that I, like everyone else, possess a snobbish streak. (For a liberal, intellectual southerner, snobbery is more a defense mechanism than a social weapon.) But in this case, it's not snobbery that drives my shame, it's something a lot more like love. I love the south, I'm a product of it, it's part of me -- including the ugly parts. When I lived abroad, I learned on a deep level that not only am I thoroughly American (in the full, complicated meaning of that word), I'm also thoroughly southern. Living in New England, I learned all over again that, however much more smoothly I "fit in" in the north, I'm never going to be a Yankee. My mother is a product of fallen Texas aristocracy, and my father was from mixed-Cherokee, Scots-Irish stock -- in a word, hillbillies. I am firmly and deeply rooted in the south, however much I sometimes wish it wasn't so. This is my native culture, and however far away I move, however deeply enculturated I become somewhere else, it's always going to be. We're stuck with each other.

The real source, then, of this shame and anger is the knowledge of how much better the South could be. It hurts and disappoints me to watch my culture -- or at least broad sections of it -- reject its potential in favor of the celebration of ignorance, the practice of intolerance, and the rejection of the world beyond our arbitrary geographical and mental borders. I'm pissed off at you because I have to sit here and watch you sell yourselves short, have to watch you get high off of your own reverse-snobbery and anti-intellectualism, have to watch you exult in your victim mentality, your welfare-queendom, your glorification of all the least noble aspects of yourself. And there doesn't seem to be a fucking thing I can do to pull you out of it. This is why David Cross so resents Daniel Whitney, this is why Bill Hicks was always so fucking pissed off, and this is why I get so fucking frustrated.

The only solace and salvation I have is my ability to define for myself what words like "southern" mean. Daniel Whitney's got his pastiche of southern culture, and lots of people seem to like it -- and I can see why, since now and then, inbetween the "redneck" routine (which I am convinced is nothing more than a white version of the old vaudevillian blackface pickaninny act), he sometimes makes a funny joke. But that version of "southern" is no more true than mine, even as it is diametrically opposed. My version has its roots in the black south, the gay south, the liberal south, the intellectual south, the artistic south -- the scientific, rational, godless south. I've been to Daniel Whitney's south -- I've spent most of my life here -- but I don't think he's ever been to mine. I don't think he even knows it exists. I'd quite like to tell him that it does. So back to my original point:

My mother wants me to write a book, and especially a book about the south. And I could certainly do that -- in fact, I think such a book might even be needed. But if I were to do it, this is what it would be about. It wouldn't be about kudzu or Wal-Mart or Elvis, it would be about art and literature and science and ideas. It would be about liberalism and gay equality and feminism and multiculturalism. It would be about learning our place in the world, about getting over our history, about making a place for those who are different from us, and about how they, too, are southerners. It would be about my South, written by a Southerner. A liberal, intellectual Southerner.

Given Daniel Whitney's success, though, you'll have to pardon my skepticism about whether anybody would want to read it. But from the looks of things, all I'd need are a few gratuitous fart jokes. I think I could manage that.

Oh, and in case you haven't, you should read David Cross' open letter to Daniel Whitney. Mom'll hate it.

Related: I want to see this so bad.
11:01 PM ::
Amy :: permalink