Today I’ve been reading the back and forth on Andrew Sullivan’s blog about the above video by filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi which recently aired on Real Time with Bill Maher, where the citizens of the poorest state in the nation flaunt their prejudices and their lack of teeth. According to Sullivan, the wing nuts are going “ape-shit” over this. I don’t need to go dumpster diving in the right-wing blogosphere to verify this. After all, this is just the perfect storm to set right-wing spittle flying: the daughter of San Francisco Liberal Nancy Pelosi and that atheist Hollywood libertine Bill Maher making fun of the poor, humble, hardworking folk of the American heartland.
It’s not just the right-wing who react when someone shines airs the dirty laundry of the South; moderates and liberals like the dissenters quoted by Sullivan leap to the defense of aggrieved southerners whenever someone besmirches their honor. Because they know a few gays or progressives or minorities and frequent a nice vegan restaurant in town and don’t know a single person in the Klan, they claim that accusations of racism of their fellow southerners are unfounded. Often the violent reaction to Martin Luther King’s visit to Chicago is trotted out as an example of how the North is just as bad, or even worse, than the South. Never mind that this argument is undercut by the fact that the South directed violence against African-Americans for a hundred years prior to King’s visit to Chicago, or that King himself was murdered in Tennessee.
“It is the manifestation of why the Democratic Party, and left-leaning politics in general, are so totally irrelevant to many of the people who should, by all rights, be its base,” one of Sullivan’s dissenters writes about the video. If only liberals would stop being such meanypants about the South! If we would abandon our prejudices against the hard-working, toothless masses of places like Mississippi, then those voters would abandon their prejudices and begin voting in their economic interests. Really? I fail to see how this is anything but fantasy, powered by the perennial American myth in the essential goodness of common folk. Is it the prejudices of liberals that caused 52% of Mississippi GOP voters to think Barack Obama is a Muslim or 46% of them to think interracial marriage should be illegal? Is it the prejudices of liberals that caused members of the Southern Mississippi University band to chant at a Puerto Rican basketball player on the opposing team “Where’s your green card?’
If Mississippi didn’t have the lowest high school graduation rate in the nation, they might know that Puerto Rico is part of the United States.
The dissenters claim that we must respect the South and are ignorant of the ways of its kind, hard-working folk. The dissenters never insist the reverse; that southerners respect and learn about other places, such as knowing that Puerto Rico is a territory of the US.
An anecdote from neighboring Alabama: You may have heard of gifted scientist Douglas Prasher, whose work helped three others win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, while he ended up driving a courtesy van for an Alabama car dealership. A profile in Discover highlighted his interactions with some of those southerners:
“We’ve been teaching Douglas about the real world,” he said. Jim, another body shop worker, listed some of the things they had educated Prasher about. They all happened to be local culinary delights: “mountain oysters” (hogs’ testicles), fried moon pies, Goo Goo Clusters. I asked Jim if Prasher had taught them anything in return—say, about DNA. “DN who?” Jim asked, smiling.This respect, this learning, this open-mindedness demanded of liberals is not a two way street. While we have to learn about the “real world” of eating pig testicles, they can remain wholly ignorant of the entire world outside their state. We have to endlessly praise them as the “heartland” of this country and listen to them attack the rest of us as wicked, evil, and corrupt. We are subsiding their rural lifestyles with our money while they demand that taxes and government services be cut even further, except for stuff they like, of course, which doesn’t really count.
I’m sure there will be some responses that echo the dissenters above, that I’ve unfairly tarred all southerners with the same brush, that I’m reinforcing mean liberal prejudices, etc. It may surprise you to learn that I live in a southern state that has also often been a national laughingstock. When my state is attacked, I don’t cling to some sort of stubborn regional pride and complain that we’ve been unfairly maligned. I realize that the attacks are accurate. After all, we elected as Governor a guy who defrauded Medicare of millions because his opponent, a former Bank of America executive, was a socialist or something. Yes, there are racists and toothless idiots in Florida and Illinois and Pennsylvania and Oregon, but there are a hell of a lot of them in Mississippi, and you aren’t being unfairly maligned just because we are pointing out what you already knew. Yes, Mississppi is the home of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty and B.B. King too, but you can be damn sure they knew what their neighbors were like, so there’s no sense in you denying it.