“Disguise the fact as you will, there is an enmity between the Northern and Southern people that is deep and enduring, and you never can eradicate it—never!”
Many Chronicles readers are probably already familiar with Reg-nery’s Politically Incorrect Guides (P.I.G.) series, two of which have achieved best-seller status in recent years. Currently, there are eight titles in the series, the most recent being Clint Johnson’s Politically Incorrect Guide to the South.
Johnson claims to be from a small town in Florida, called Fish Branch, and currently lives in North Carolina. I say “claims to be” because I suspect that Johnson is really a Connecticut Yankee who, having moved to the South in the recent past, has had a “born again as a Southerner” experience. I have looked at a map of Florida, and no such place as Fish Branch appears there. Admittedly, it may be a very small town. But I wonder whether Fish Branch may, in fact, be a figment of Johnson’s imagination. Perhaps he is so deeply abashed by his Northern origins that he has repressed the hateful memory. Why should I make such a libelous assertion? Well, perhaps it is because, like so many religious converts, Johnson defends his faith with all the boasting fervor of a crusader. So, what is wrong with that? Southerners have always fervently defended their beloved homeland. That’s quite true. But if Johnson really is a Southerner, his mama and his daddy must have neglected to teach him that boasting is bad manners. But to say as much would be to slander Johnson’s parents. No, Johnson can’t be a Southerner, simply because Southerners never boast. Only Northerners do that, as we all know.
According to Johnson, the South is patently superior to the North (or any other region of the country) in every respect worth mentioning. Southern folkways are the most distinctive; Southern speech, the most poetic. Southern cuisine is the most delectable, as are Southern women. While Southerners are musical and make the only American music worth listening to, Northerners are tone deaf. Southerners still cling loyally to the old-time religion, while Northerners (and otherners) worship liberal idols and the almighty dollar. Southerners don’t care so much about money, yet, paradoxically, they are better capitalists. In peace, Southerners are more fruitful; in war, more courageous. More importantly, Southerners invented America: They wrote the Constitution, gave us the Bill of Rights, and gave voice to Manifest Destiny before it had a name. Last, but certainly not least, Southerners have better manners than those loutish Yankees.
I may have misstated one or two of Johnson’s points. He never says that Northerners are tone deaf. I apologize. That was unmannerly of me, a Southerner originally from the great state of Tennessee, where the women are the most delectable of all. However, I trust that the reader has caught my drift. But just in case, let me illustrate with a brief anecdote (as true Southerners are wont to do, and to do better than anyone else, according to Johnson).
A few years back, a friend of mine here in South Carolina acquired for himself one of those mail-order brides from Russia. Let’s call her Natasha. Natasha was from a fair-sized town called Kirov, and proud of it, and had spent a good deal of time in Moscow, of which she was equally proud. While visiting my friend (call him Richard) and his new bride, I quickly discovered, much to my astonishment, that nearly everything in Kirov, or Moscow, was better than here in America. Kirovian cuisine was tastier and prepared with healthier ingredients. Even the McDonald’s in Moscow, I learned, was better than ours. In the Moscow shops, women’s fashions were of a far better quality. In Kirov, the summers were lovelier, and the good folk there, it seems, were more polite than Charlestonians. And Russian men, in general, were more virile. Thus duly instructed, over the course of several visits, in the superiority of all things Russian, I have since neglected to partake of Richard’s hospitality as often as I should.
So what is the moral of this story? Just this: While it is admirable that one should speak occasionally of his country and kinfolk with pride, doing so boastfully and habitually may alienate one’s friends.
Much of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the South is given over to such defensive boasting, and, if it was written to educate our friends in the North and elsewhere, they are not likely to take well to Johnson’s suggestion (in Chapter 14) that they “thank God for the South.” Frankly, I have some difficulty imagining New Yorkers or Iowans or Oregonians sitting down to what they call “dinner” and thanking the Good Lord for “these thy gifts and those good Southerners to whom we owe so much.” No, I don’t think that Johnson or his publisher really imagined that copies of this book would be flying off the shelves in Vermont or Indiana or California. My local Books-a-Million, however, probably has them stacked in pyramids in the front of the store, right next to a similarly stacked pile of Neal Thompson’s Driving With the Devil. In other words, unless I am sorely mistaken, most readers of this guide will be a certain kind of Southerner, the kind who isn’t content in his Southern pride but who must habitually feed it with invidious comparisons to those less-privileged regions where the benighted invent mean stories about us out of secret envy at our possession of so many of the Lord’s blessings.
To be fair, it is quite true that the South has been the nation’s most maligned region, and well before Mr. Lincoln’s war. Johnson says in his Introduction that his chief aim is to “even the score.” To the extent that evening the score means correcting misconceptions and exposing anti-Southern myths, his intentions are laudable. Indeed, he does a fair amount of that, and the curious Northerner who manages to acquire a copy of this book will no doubt learn some salutary facts. For example, he will learn that “most of the 500,000 African slaves transported to Southern plantations came in Northern-owned ships.” He may—if he is a Rhode Islander—be dismayed to learn that ships bearing the Rhode Island flag were more numerous in the slave trade than ships bearing the flag of any other state (though New York could boast of being the trade’s principal port). He will also note (let us hope, with hand wringing and lamentation) that that most progressive of Ivy League universities, Brown, was heavily endowed by a prominent family of slave merchants back when it was still called Rhode Island College. In fact (though Johnson does not mention it), at one point in the years before the transportation of slaves was outlawed, as many as 30 members of the governing Brown Corporation had investments in the trade. Such information is not hard to find, but I would guess that not many Northerners are aware of facts of this kind. As Johnson points out, we are still waiting for the North to undertake a collective renunciation of its association with slavery.
Johnson’s attempts to “even the score” sometimes involve him in arguments that are not so flattering for us Southerners as he seems to think. For instance, he implies that one reason Americans should “thank God for the South” is that, were it not for the South, American capitalism would be floundering. Thank God, he urges us, for Sam Walton, “a native Southerner” and the founder of Wal-Mart. Thank God for Sam’s “vision for selling products to average Americans at affordable prices.” Call me an elitist, but, while I will gladly rub shoulders with “average Americans” at the Charleston County Fair, I will not join them in their frenzy to subsidize the Chinese economy by shopping for jockey shorts at Wal-Mart. When the good citizens of Bentonville, Arkansas, build a shrine to Uncle Sam Walton, that is one Southern altar before which I will not kneel.
Similarly, the ever populist Johnson laments the passing of the “old” NASCAR brand of stock-car racing with its “rough and tumble good ol’ boys who would sometimes duke it out in the pits” and who “posed with a Confederate flag in the victory lane.” The “new” NASCAR, by contrast, has been embraced by the national sports media, has cleaned up its act, and, as a result, is “boring.” Self-respecting good ol’ boys are already “grumbling” about this, he suggests, and NASCAR’s popularity may be on the wane in the South. Frankly, I say, good riddance. The “old” NASCAR may have been more colorful, but it was no less idiotic. “Men’s men” (as Johnson refers to old drivers such as Richard Petty), to my way of thinking, don’t risk their lives for so trivial an object. Old or new, NASCAR drivers were never “heroic,” merely foolhardy. If the NASCAR mania fades in the South, perhaps we will once again have some blessed peace and quiet on the Sabbath.
Johnson’s “born again” Southern zeal is also on display in his ardent admiration for the Southern martial spirit. I, too, am proud of the brave Southern tradition of service, though it is hardly “politically incorrect” to acknowledge (as virtually everyone who takes an interest in military history does) that many of the nation’s greatest military leaders were Southerners. However, I fail to see what purpose is served by claiming, in grandiose fashion, that World Wars I and II could not “have been won without Southerners.” (Actually, Johnson says, “Maybe . . . but not likely.”) And while I do not doubt for a moment that Southerners are still among the most patriotic of Americans, it must be admitted (as Johnson does not) that our patriotism and military ardor are sometimes blind. I am not particularly proud that South Carolina remains a bastion of support for Mr. Bush’s war in Iraq. On the other hand, while it is probably true that Southerners enlist in the Armed Forces at significantly higher rates than do those from other regions, such uncritical crowing overlooks the rather obvious fact that many of those recruits enlist for reasons unrelated to patriotism. It is no secret that military recruiters have focused their efforts on economically depressed rural areas, many of them in Southern communities where factory closures have tripled unemployment rates.
For those who know little or nothing about Southern history and culture, this book will be of some value. Its chapters on the slave trade, the War for Southern Independence, and Reconstruction provide a fair amount of useful information. Few Americans (including most Southerners) know anything about the nefarious political maneuvering that led to the ratification of the 14th Amendment, an inglorious moment in American history that Johnson succinctly chronicles.
Some may wonder whether I have been a little too hard on Johnson; these “life-style paperbacks” (as they are called in the publishing trade) are not intended to be scholarly treatments of their subjects. One hardly expects them to be thorough. One might also argue that I have taken exaggerated umbrage at Johnson’s boasting tone. Surely, he intends much of this crowing to be taken as light-hearted raillery. After all, he quotes Hank Williams, Jr., on the cover. (“If the South woulda won, we’d a had it made.”) To that, I can only respond that the joke quickly stales (after about 30 pages, to be exact). I would rather listen to Hank.
[The Politically Incorrect Guide to the South (and Why It Will Rise Again), by Clint Johnson (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc.) 288 pp., $19.95]