Better Off Without 'Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession
By Chuck Thompson
Simon & Schuster: New York
$25 hardback, $11.99 Kindle edition
Take the opening:
Hang out in my living room on any national election night and at some point in the evening, usually around 7 p.m. Pacific time, you're almost certain to hear me scream something like: "Why in the hell does the United States—and by extension the entire free world, capitalist dominion, and all of Christendom—allow its government to be held hostage by a coalition of bought-and-paid-for political swamp scum from the most uneducated, morbidly obese, racist, indigent, xenophobic, socially stunted, and generally ass-backwards part of the country?"With a set-up like that, it's tempting to think you're going to be treated to a good, old-fashioned polemic—a barnburner of a thought experiment, a cathartic liberal lambasting meant to simply make put-upon, beat up liberals feel good (or to feel bad, and feel good about feeling bad).
And the book works fine on that level. It revisits many of the topics and situations that drive us nuts here on Daily Kos: how blue states pay, on average, so much more in federal taxes than they receive; that the red states have the highest percentage of folks taking federal dollars out of the system even as they whine and swagger about being "small government" advocates; the casual and clueless, almost daily, exhibitions of racism common in the South; the glorification of traitors known as the worship of the "lost cause" of the Confederacy; and on and on and on.
But there appears to be more to the author's intention than that. On some level, it's clear he wants us to take seriously the notion of parting of the ways between the two incompatible parts of the country. He amasses data, and somewhere in between the fire and the brimstone, plans of serious argument are laid down. It's hard to dismiss as merely preaching to the choir a book that has 25 pages of detailed data in end notes at the back.
Still … that divine, bitter, over-the-top snark? That whole chapter (short, granted, but … a whole chapter?) devoted to arguing that the SEC college football conference is one of the main arguments for separation between North and South, placed on an equal basis with sections on religion, racism and education? Really?
(Continue reading below the fold)
Then you flip back to taking it for real, when you are presented with a honed, not-made-every-damn-day argument like this:
The Solid South's evangelical rigidity of thought not only confers upon the region an inordinate influence in presidential politics, it enables the South to assume a disproportionate control of Congress through the assumption of congressional committee chairmanships. The seniority system for chairmanships adopted by Congress in 1910 has allowed change-fearing southern voters—who tend more than others to return the same officials to Washington year in and out—to seize control of House and Senate leadership positions. Thus have the most reactionary and entrenched politicians in the country wrested control of the laws and policies of the entire nation.And the intertwining of the religion and politics makes Southern reform near impossible, author Thompson contends: "It's not that religious freaks won't compromise. It's that they can't. If they could they wouldn't be religious freaks in the first place. And wouldn't get elected to office. Not in the South, anyway."
He appears dead serious too, when accusing the South of creating its own Third World, dead-beat, banana republic economy that drains the more vital states of its workers, wages, protections and industries:
The South is bad for the American economy in the same way that China and Mexico are bad for the American economy. By keeping corporate taxes low, schools underfunded, and workers' rights to organize negligible, it's southern politicians who make it so. By separating itself from this suppurating cancer in our midst, the rest of the country would at least be able to deal with the South as it would any other Third World entity, rather than as the in-house parasite that bleeds the country far more than it contributes to its collective health.How cozy, yes? We create our own little economic Indonesia in Dixie. Thompson, does, in all seriousness, salute the Southern labor force—for the "grit," as he calls it, that's evident in these folks who work for crap pay, with few safety protections, high injury rates, and little opportunity to get trained, educated or advanced up any ladder.
But this is not a road the rest of the country should aspire to take. And this ethos and the resulting conditions are as responsible for the demise of great American jobs in Detroit as any Third World country is, he contends:
The auto industry in the United States isn't dead. It's thriving. But it's doing so with cut-rate workers in southern states whose leaders have adopted the business tactics of banana republic despots who take jobs from American workers by shamelessly exploiting their own.Thompson pounds it home, we would be better off without 'em:
It wasn't just Japan and Korea and Mexican laborers that killed Detroit. Essentially operating as its own country with its own economic interests in mind, the "patriotic" South has done plenty to help wreck the Motor City.
Indeed, one could make the argument that in terms of economic practice the South is profoundly un-American for the way in which it betrays our own citizens by prostrating itself to foreign interests and fat-cat traitors who sell out America's dwindling middle class for the short-term gain of a pocketful of euros and yuan; and that despite a few misleading statistics and specious political claims, northern citizens might actually be better off without the ball and chain of the southern economy.Naturally, there will be offended liberal and moderate Southerners who will object strenuously to Thompson's broad brush approach to writing off the region—or, more accurately, showing it (politely, of course) the door. There are, he admits, obviously individuals who are exceptions, who are not backwards-looking, science-bashing, good ol' boy racists. But, he writes, that doesn't let them off the hook: "Are all Southerners racist? Or ignorant? Or backward-looking? Or anti-progress? Of course not. But enough of them are, and their influence is so strong, that they are a threat to the rest of America's well-being."
By underscoring the three pillars of southern economic philosophy—abuse labor, fellate corporate interests (especially foreign ones), and fuck the environment—I intend to make that every argument.
The gist of the argument:
What the majority of southerners are, and always have been … is willing to allow the most strident, mouth-breathing "patriotic" firebrands among them to remain in control of their society's most powerful and influential positions. This is true whether they operate in the realms of religion, politics, business, education, or just basic day-to-day civic operations, like the hamlet nabobs in Laurens, South Carolina, who, knowing it's wrong, still grant a business license to a guy who sells Klan shit from a shop in front of their picturesque little courthouse....Thompson, himself, is one heck of an angry crusader. In the final section of the book, though, he sits down with a group of Southern professors and their students, and poses the question: How would the South feel about secession, if a war didn't have to be fought over it? Strangely, they appear against it (despite acknowledging the past 150 years of the region's devotion to lost causedom and "the North are heathens and thugs and sinners and destroyers of worlds"). For the most part, the reaction is, without a tremendous amount of specifics, "Boy, would the North ever be sorry"—mostly on economic grounds, since economic growth is strong in the region (unmentioned are the shitty wages and crap jobs driving it).
Maybe the fanatics do represent a minority, say one in three southerners—that's a fair guess, in my estimation. That's still an extremely potent one-in-three that the rest of the South enables—or succumbs to—or aligns with—or votes for—year after year, decade after decade, century after century. Theirs are the voices that perpetuate the agenda because theirs are the voices that ring with the most sincerity, that are most bereft of apology, that in their bellicosity resonate as the most authentically "southern." If there's one thing about the South that hasn't ever changed it's the hypnotic influence of the angry crusader.
In fact, the region's economic Third Worldish growth looks like it will be even worse in the future. Thompson points out what the drastic desertion of any semblance of financial commitment to public education in the South means, both to those states and other parts of the country that are moving toward emulating it.
The South's economic disregard for public education is incongruous with the rest of the country's determination to reestablish American schools as a standard-bearer for the world. The southern "approach" to education is nearly as dismal now as it ever was. The rest of us can no longer afford to drag the South's truant ass kicking and screaming into the world of twenty-first century knowledge and discovery….More than anything else in the book, Thompson's most sobering point is what the future holds if the South's educational ethos continues to be taken national: the awful cross-fertilization between racism and crazy right-wing theology merge to suck the public education population into white-only charter and religious schools, leaving behind a gutted system of poverty-stricken minority kids. Want this for your national future, America? Continue to drag the albatross of the South into the heart of your political system.
And that alarming thought makes me ultimately decide to take Better Off Without 'Em as a serious thought experiment—and worth a read—no matter how many folks it's determined to piss off.