Note: Throughout the post I used the term anarchy. By this I mean disorder and lack of government. This is the traditional meaning of the word. But many Kossacks have objected to this use insisting that the only permissible use of Anarchy is to refer to the progressive Utopian movement.As a result the whole discussion was hijacked by a discussion of Anarchism. Important stuff. But not the point of this post. So I have gone back and edited out the offending word and substituted nihilism. It is not as good a word for what I was trying to convey and will probably set off another whole digression. But what is a girl to do?When my brother turned 18, we were living at Ft. Stewart, Georgia. Our next door neighbors, the Wades, were natives of Georgia and exemplified the rigid authoritarianism of the Deep South. They believed in punishment, not so big on reward. Children were to be obedient, respectful, responsible, and physical punishment was frequently used to enforce those standards. So when my brother turned 18; Cindy, age 15, Bill, age 13, and Douglas, age 7, were required to say “yes, sir” and “no, sir” to my poor befuddled brother. He just didn't get it. On March 21, he was just one of the kids. On March 22, he was authority, requiring deference. The Wade children, like all children in the Deep South, were told that all adults were to be given respect. The rules were clear: even as adults you said “yes, Ma’am” to all women older than you, or who had authority over you. You said “yes, sir” to all men older than you, or who had authority over you. No exceptions. Didn't matter if you liked or respected the person as a person; the respect came from social order, not personal regard.
Respect and courtesy are hallmarks of Southern culture. Mississippi calls itself the Hospitality State. Obedience and compliance are the hallmarks of Southern culture, as is respect for authority. Punishment is harsh, immediate, and rigid.
I train teachers. For years I taught classroom behavior management classes. What teachers wanted to know was the best ways to punish. They were not interested in preventing behavior problems. They were not interested in teaching children alternative behaviors. They were not interested in building classroom communities. They were not just skeptical of my insistence that corporal punishment was not effective; they were hostile to the idea. "All some children understand is a good whupping". End of story.
So the question is this: how is it that a sector of the country so identified with courtesy, respect, obedience and compliance has become a band of rude, cruel nihilists? How have they turned on their fellow Americans labeling all who disagree as Anti-American traitors? How have these Christian authoritarians turned against the poor, the elderly and the disabled? A few thoughts:
1. The Southern authoritarianism has always had exceptions. In the Jim Crow south, the deference to those older than you did not include people of color, regardless of age or gender. The aristocracy used the “yes, sir” only among their peers, and “yes, ma’am” for all WHITE women. As people of color gained civil rights including financial and professional independence, this distinction became weaker. But it is a cultural memory and violates the need for absolute rules.
2. There has always been a sense of Southern superiority mixed with a sense of Southern defensiveness. Recently our university, a small state university in north Mississippi, hosted a national special education conference in Memphis, Tennessee (the closest city with an International Airport). We featured Mississippi speakers, Mississippi products, Mississippi culture. At one point, one conferee remarked drily that he did not know Memphis was in Mississippi. Another conferee asked me why people from Mississippi seemed so determined to stamp their identity on the conference. It was simple; we have to prove ourselves wherever we go. "Oh," people say in pity, "You are from Mississippi." I understand the pity; I am not from here. But the people from here really believe their culture to be superior, so they feel embattled.
3. The emphasis on obedience and compliance requires an emphasis on punishment and a strong sense of absolute right and wrong. When your sense of right and wrong is absolute and rigid,when those who violate the rules you see as absolute, these people must be punished. Punishment must be quick and severe. If those violating the rules are in authority they must be both removed from authority and they must be punished. Then those who know the rules and follow them must be placed in authority. If you cannot remove them from power you must not cooperate with them. You must resist all of their plans and sabotage their efforts.
4. This is where it gets tricky. You say, what about Vitter, Sanford, Newt? It seems it is simply a matter of "the rules don’t apply to our guys". It really is not JUST that (it is a little bit that). It is that there is a higher authority. If the person is a Christian, then there is forgiveness and mercy. But you have to be right with God. If you are liberal, a Democrat, by your very nature your connection to God is suspect. If you are a Republican, a conservative, you are by your very nature connected to God, but merely strayed.
5. Liberals and Democrats cannot be in authority because they have disobeyed the ultimate authority, God. Support of gay rights and abortion are in defiance of God. Removing God from schools and the community is defying God. You want to say we are a secular society. You want to say there is no religious test in the Constitution. You want to explain separation of Church and State. By doing so you have violated the absolute rule. God first, then church, then family, then self. If you suggest otherwise, you are not to be listened to, respected, regarded. The rules are absolute, rigid, not to be questioned.
Those of you who are saying the south can be turned around need to think about these things. Is the hysterical reaction to Obama because he is black? Yes, indeedy, but it is part of a complex cultural rigidity. The south reflects a cultural oxymoron: authoritarian nihilism.