How about three news items from a typical week in a Southern university town (Chapel Hill, May 1990), just to get the old motor warmed up after last month’s absence?

A new law against urinating on the sidewalks resulted in a dozen arrests, nearly all of them beer-drinking students too pressed to wait or too drunk to care. Formerly such revelers were charged with “littering”—a nice euphemism, I always thought, but I guess the Age of Euphemism is over.

The School Board lowered the required grade average for admission to the high school Honor Society, to provide “a level playing field” for all students. One board member observed that “black students might not have an equal chance at society membership because of peer pressure to do poorly in school.”

A new yuppie muffin shop opened—a chain operation. Unless I grossly underestimate the local muffin hunger it should drive the old, locally-owned yuppie muffin shop out of business. That’s what happened with the premium ice cream shops and the frozen yogurt places. And a locally-owned book shop was recently kicked out of the mall to make space for B. Dalton, which (we were told) would make the mall more easily valued when the owner wants to sell. Thus, man, born free, is found everywhere in chains. (Sorry.)

About that last item: it turns out that the mall’s present owner is the pension fund of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines—which gives me a theme for this month’s tirade. It’s no secret that some of my colleagues at Chronicles are given to ranting about foreign ownership of U.S. enterprises; let’s take that logic one step farther.

First of all, though, let me make it clear that I’m not knocking outside investment in underdeveloped economies. I grew up in what amounted to a branch-factory company town in East Tennessee, and our Eastman Kodak plant was certainly good for local pocketbooks. If it didn’t contribute a hell of a lot to the community other than some noxious fumes and several thousand jobs—well, the people who had those jobs contributed greatly, and without Eastman there wouldn’t have been much of a community in the first place.

But Eastman built that factory and created those jobs. That’s a different proposition from what has been going on lately in North Carolina, where outside corporations have been grabbing up existing enterprises, more often than not destroying jobs, or at least moving them somewhere else, in the process. Recently Morgan Stanley looted Burlington Industries so shamelessly that even the Wall Street Journal was shocked. Once-proud Liggett and Myers is now owned by a British outfit that runs it almost as an afterthought—and ghost factories in downtown Durham are the result. After RJR merged with Nabisco the insufferable CEO of the new enterprise moved its headquarters from bucolic Winston-Salem to the fleshpots of Atlanta, allegedly because his wife found us Tar Heels insufficiently urbane. And homely old Piedmont Airlines, also formerly of Winston-Salem, got itself bought by USAir; now its headquarters are in Pittsburgh, its flight attendants all sound as if they grew up in Cleveland, and its in-flight magazine no longer carries inspirational articles by Methodist bishops.

I’m agnostic on the economic aspects of these deals—although I can’t believe they’re good for North Carolina. But the cultural and civic consequences are surely dismal. Private philanthropists and middle-sized corporations with local ties tend to spend their money near to home, and often in admirable ways. No citizen of North Carolina can be indifferent to the benefactions of the state’s great textile and tobacco families. When their money got old enough, these folks showed as much noblesse oblige as anyone could ask. Besides, they lived in the state and had an interest in North Carolina’s welfare and its reputation. But does anyone suppose that the managements of Morgan Stanley or RJR Nabisco give a damn about North Carolina’s churches and hospitals and universities and public libraries? How can we rely on private philanthropy—and restrict the Arts Endowment to commissioning equestrian statues of dead generals—when all the philanthropists have left town?

The problem with these mega-conglomerates is that they tend to replace the community-oriented philanthropy of provincial corporations and private capitalists with centrally determined do-good policies that address whatever the fashionable cause du jour may be. For example, I’ve got a copy here of something called “Making a Difference,” a “Social Responsibility Report” for Time Warner, the corporate result of the recent takeover of Time, Inc. by Warner Communications. The pamphlet seems to define social responsibility as a matter of trendy environmental concern and sensitivity to politically correct pressure groups. Prominently listed among the company’s contributions to the commonweal are putting “safe sex” leaflets in albums by Warner Bros, artists Madonna, Lou Reed, and the B-52’s, and allowing Madonna to appear at “Don’t Bungle the Jungle,” a rain forest benefit concert.

Now, I’ve got more than incidental interest in what Time Warner is up to, because five or six years ago Time, Inc. bought Southern Progress Corporation, publishers of Southern Living, the fabulously successful house-and-garden magazine that I’ve mentioned before in these letters. Some of us never did like the idea that the largest-circulation Southern periodical now reports to New York, and this pamphlet makes me even more suspicious. “The broad agenda for Time Warner’s community investments is set at corporate headquarters,” it begins, and of course that’s so: you can’t let individual field commanders declare their own wars. But there goes Southern Living‘s special relationship to its hometown of Birmingham, which has helped to make that city one of the few that gets more pleasant each time I visit. That relationship now survives only by permission of Time Warner headquarters.

So far I don’t think the change of ownership has been reflected in the magazine’s content, but the signs aren’t promising. Consider the new “editor-in-chief” Time Warner recently sent to Birmingham to oversee all of Southern Progress Corporation’s publishing ventures.

First, let me say that it’s not her fault that she’s a native of New Jersey. Just because someone was born in a stable it doesn’t mean he’s a horse (as the Duke of Wellington growled when someone referred to his Irish birth). For all I know this lady may be as Southern as kudzu—which, after all, came from Japan not that long ago.

And we probably shouldn’t hold it against her that her last job was president of Gannett News Services, which gives us (USA Today—I mean, it’s a living. When she was chosen along with Patricia Schroeder and Phil Donahue for something called a Trailblazer Award (for “significantly altering the lives of all women”)—well, it might have hurt somebody’s feelings if she’d turned it down. And she probably couldn’t help it that Washingtonian magazine named her as one of the hundred most powerful women in D.C. Somebody’s got to do it.

But she didn’t have to mention all this stuff in her official bio, damn it! I mean, I would have understood if she’d just left it out. We all have dirty little secrets, and I didn’t want to know this!

Sorry. Completely uncalled for. Beg your pardon. But I haven’t felt this way since I learned that a New York company owns Rebel Yell whiskey. Yankee buy-outs of our tobacco and textile companies are one thing, but our identity is a different matter. Excuse me for sounding like a French Minister of Culture, but it’s scary to think that my friends at Southern Living now work for the same bosses as Madonna.

I hope I’m wrong, but keep an eye on Southern Living. If all this means a few public service ads for environmental causes—well, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if it means propaganda for safe sex, watch out. Southerners know there’s no such thing. Any country music fan can tell you that.