Monday, January 14, 2013

Is "Southern Honor" Partly to Blame for the Debt Ceiling Hostage Crisis?

I lived in East Texas, a region I see as the westernmost edge of the South, for three years.  During my time there I immersed myself in the history of the South in an attempt to make sense of a place that seemed so alien to a native Midwesterner such as myself.  It is still a place that fascinates and horrifies me in just about equal measure, where I love the food, music and a great many of the people, but despise the religiosity, bigotry, and reactionary politics that still often reside there.  It is certainly a changing region full of paradoxes, with a black bourgeoisie dominating the growing metropolis of Atlanta, culturally progressive college towns like Chapel Hill, and and influx of immigrants.  On the other hand, a large percentage of white southerners still sympathize with the Confederacy.

Both WJ Cash's The Mind of the South and Bertram Wyatt-Brown's Southern Honor helped me understand white southern culture and its historical roots.  These authors talk at length about the South's hierarchical nature, and the role honor plays in that hierarchy.  Even after the demise of slavery, the southern white men who hold positions of power expect to be masters, and others to respect their honor by giving them due deference.  The southern politicos in Washington have had it easy over the past few decades; Obama is the first Yankee liberal to occupy the White House since JFK.  Southern conservatives have not reacted well to this development, to say the least.

George Packer, writing in The New Yorker this week, makes a decent case for the growing political isolation of the (white) South.  He notes that when Congress voted on the fiscal cliff deal, Republicans in other regions were willing to accept it, but Southern Republicans voted against it 81-12.  That got me thinking.  Is this intransigence, both on the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling not just the outcome of radical conservatism, but also of southern honor?

The men and women (but mostly men) so opposed to Obama in Congress seem to dislike not just policies, but the very fact that he presumes to tell these politicians what to do.  The president has witnessed the kinds of slights and insults from Congress that I have never seen before.  (Joe Wilson's "you lie!" outburst, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell refusing to pick up the phone, Louie Gohmert comparing Obama to Hitler in a House floor speech, etc.)  Much of this has to do with racism and the current heated-up partisanship, but I think both of these things are intensified by the role southern honor is playing.  A certain brand of white southerner simply will not cotton to an "uppity" (in their mind) black northerner setting the agenda or making them do something against their will, even if it be the people's desire.  They will filibuster, obstruct, go over the fiscal cliff and even default on the nation's debt before their position of mastery is compromised.

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