This is the South, NOT the Confederacy

As the government shutdown dragged on, journalists everywhere, on the left and the right, raised the level of their rhetoric in search of what they believed to be the appropriate scapegoat for their wrath. The American South, it turned out, was one of their favorites.

Enough of this.
Enough of this.

The Washington Post’s Colbert King offered a sardonic editorial in which he used the metaphor of the Confederacy to describe today’s Tea Party.  Over at Salon.com, Stephen Richter of The Globalist wrote that the shutdown was a reminder that the Civil War never ended.  Richter argued that “the South is once again rebelling against modernizing shifts in American society” and makes the analogy that “Southerners and white conservatives everywhere” fear that offering healthcare to Americans is akin to “freeing the slaves.” Of course, the article would not have been complete without illustrations of the Confederate battle flag.

Well, thanks for nothing.

The quagmire in Washington, DC, cannot be explained by simply tossing it into the lap of the South since just as many states outside of this region are being represented in Congress by members of the Tea Party caucus. When Ari Berman wrote in The Nation that the GOP has a “white southern Republican problem” by noting the high numbers of southerners in the Tea Party caucus, he failed to address the reality that the shutdown would have been impossible if only GOP conservatives from the South were involved.  The fact is that this southern faction has co-conspirators across the country. (See the list.)

Not only do these comparisons perpetuate the idea of a monolithic South, it keeps alive regional divisiveness (to say nothing of continued stereotyping) as the comments section of these articles attest. It also ignores the changing demographics of the region, which over the last few decades has included a considerable migration of people from North to South.

Moral Monday protest
Moral Monday protest

More importantly, this Neo-Confederate rhetoric does nothing more than embolden Tea Party leaders and their acolytes, while at the same time it undermines the efforts of southern progressives. All the anti-South commentary illustrated with battle flags damages any inroads that are being made through grassroots efforts like those of the Moral Monday protesters here in North Carolina who are doing their damnedest to hold the GOP’s feet to the fire.

The real power struggle is not inside the Beltway, but in individual states. Conservative Republicans have gerrymandered districts to insure their power, but southern progressives in the state are not taking it lying down.

Wendy Davis, Democratic candidate for Texas Governor
Wendy Davis, Democratic candidate for Texas Governor

Sen.Ted Cruz (R-TX) may still be a Tea Party darling (and a shoe-in for Joseph McCarthy), but State Senator Wendy Davis is offering a change to politics as usual with her candidacy for governor. And in Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn is off to a strong start to replace Republican Saxby Chambliss in the U.S. Senate.

The point here is that progressives nationally need to support southern progressives. (Apparently, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) agrees.)  It makes no good political sense to dismiss an entire region as a “lost cause” behind the drumbeat of Civil War rhetoric.

What’s happening in Washington is not a result of the return of the Confederacy. It might make good hay to allude to the South as the “Old South” or to suggest that it lacks the diversity (and by suggestion, education) to accept “modernizing shifts,” or insinuate that all southerners are conservative.  But this kind of commentary only serves to inspire southern conservatives, while placing yet another obstacle in the path of those seeking change.

Yes, conservatives appear to have a stranglehold on the region, but throughout the South there are strong progressive voices that need to be heard. So here’s a novel idea: rather than bolstering conservatism in the South by pointing fingers to its Confederate past and discouraging progressive voters, which is what the Tea Party wants, how about shining more light on candidates and grassroots efforts and give Progressivism a fighting chance?

And, by the way, I live in the South, NOT the Confederacy.

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Southern progressives could learn a lesson from Julia Sugarbaker

sugarbaker
Designing Women’s Julia Sugarbaker, played by Dixie Carter.

Sometimes I feel like a lone voice in the wilderness when I write essays in an effort to counter some of negative images of the South that permeate popular culture or to contest the drivel that national journalists churn up in order to take swipes at a region they’ve never visited, much less know.

With the government shutdown, writers from The Nation to Salon to the Washington Post have all pointed their fingers at the South, especially conservative Republicans from the region, the most intransigent of which are members of the Tea Party caucus. Here, they say, the Civil War has not ended.  Here, they say, are nothing but a bunch of “Neo-Confederates.” I’m not suggesting that these journalists don’t have a point to make, but in making it, they are using a fairly broad brush that hits me and other southern progressives like a slap in the face.

This is when I wish I could muster up a rant that would make Julia Sugarbaker proud.  In the 1980s television series Designing Women, Julia Sugarbaker, played so well by the late actress Dixie Carter, knew how to rip someone a new one. In one particular episode, she lashed out at a writer from the New York Times for printing an article about dirt eating in the South.

Today, the articles about dirt eating may have subsided, but the stereotypes of the region remain.  The use of banjo music for television programs, illustrations of the Confederate battle flag for articles about the South, and so on. In one week John T. Edge might write a nice food article for the New York Times that gets all sorts of compliments (southerners do okay when it comes to food), but the next week a comedy-news show (The Daily Show or perhaps Real Time with Bill Maher) will interview a hillbilly type to make a point.

It’s tiresome and I wish Julia Sugarbaker were here to let them all know.

Being Gay in the South–Uncle Poodle Is Beside the Point

I wish to take a few minutes, in the spirit of civility, to respond to Jonathan Capehart’s Washington Post columns (in spite of the condescension and the personal barbs) which have taken aim at my New York Times op-ed “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Y’all.”  For the record, the idea of using Uncle Poodle’s appearance on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo as a hook (not an argument) was not my own, but that of an editor. The real argument was based on my own personal experience.  I could have shared dozens of stories, because as he learned from my friend Helen, both she and I and all the other gays and lesbians I know living in the South are indeed consequential and not because we were or were not raised in an urban environment.  I made it clear in my editorial that there was a real limit to acceptance in the region.  The point was that being gay in the South should not be seen in black or white, all or nothing, because there are clearly shades of grey.

What I saw coming out of Capehart’s columns and also some messages I received was a disagreement with me for countering the narrative about the South as a cold, angry, place where gay people could not possibly want to live and would set out for New York, DC or San Francisco as soon as they got the chance.  Some of them surely have, but many others have not.  And the decision to leave may have to do with the limits of acceptance, and maybe not. Perhaps they simply want to experience a different part of the country. The decision to stay, however, is often (in my personal experience) that they don’t want to leave their families or communities.  If they leave the small town South, they often move to larger cities in the South.  New Orleans, Dallas, Atlanta, even Charlotte.

As this map shows, New Jersey had the highest hate crime rate in the nation in 2008–more than any other southern state, including Texas. For more recent statistics from the FBI see: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/hate-crime/2010/tables/table-12-agency-hate-crime-reporting-by-state-2010.xls

Capehart used the case of the gay Texas couple who was recently harassed by the local minister and received threatening messages from his followers to make his point “that this says more about the South than ‘Uncle Poodle’ ever will.” Really?  Is this a southern phenomenon?  To read his piece, you’d think it is.  I know that it was timely in that it fit his argument, but hate crimes take place in the urban North (New York, DC, Minneapolis, etc) that don’t receive nearly the same amount of media attention. Yet when it takes place in the South, the national media makes hay of it, because it supports the narrative of a sinister South where such things must only happen here.  This does not mean that I don’t condemn what happened to the couple in Texas because I absolutely do.

The Uncle Poodle reference–again, an editorial decision–was used because of it’s pop culture relevance, but is beside the point.  I have lived a very rich and wonderful life in the South and wouldn’t choose to leave.  Has it always been easy? No, but I could have said this had I been raised in another region of the country.  Are there problems still? Yes, and here in my own state of North Carolina I voted against the marriage amendment and will support Equality NC in its efforts to derail it. I’d also have to do this in several other states, not all of which are in the South.  However, neither that amendment nor a hateful evangelical minister (there is one who proselytizes in the free speech zone on the campus of UNCC with some regularity) is enough to make me flee because this is my home.

In the end, and despite the criticism, I am pleased that my editorial ignited a conversation about the South as a place where LGBT people can and do live happily, work, and have families, etc. because it’s a much more complicated and nuanced region than it’s given credit for being.