Thank God for the South

There is a lot of talk these days about the need for enlightened and educated people to help guide—nudgeif you will—people’s choices. Academics especially have a penchant for believing it their right, perhaps even their humanitarian duty, to protect others from their own bad decisions.

Albert Jay Nock called this a “monstrous itch” to run other people’s lives, and he argued that, although adorned with benevolent language and intentions, this itch can lead to enforcement with totalitarian ferocity. There seems no end to what people will do, no moral lines or boundaries or principles they will not cross, if they believe they are doing it “for your own good.” Hence “monstrous.”

As an academic I encounter this impulse regularly, but it was not until I came to live and work in the New York City area that I fully appreciated it. Here is how the conversation often goes:

Enlightened Person: “We know that [fill in the blank—activity x, y, z] is bad [good] for people, so we have to help people who aren’t educated to make the right choices.”

Me: “What do you mean by ‘help’ them?”

EP: “We have to educate them to make good choices.”

Me: “What if they still make the ‘wrong’ choices after you’ve ‘educated’ them?”

EP: “We owe it to them to help them.”

Me: “Do you include yourself in that?”

EP: “What do you mean?”

Me: “Do you think people should ‘help’ you make the right choices, out of fear you might make the wrong ones?”

EP: “Oh, no, I’m already educated. I mean the uneducated people.”

Me: “Who do you have in mind?”

EP: “Like people in the South.”

The discussion then usually continues with a tale of horror at what the Enlightened Person has read about or seen on TV happens in the South: the things they’d teach in school if left to their own devices, the things they teach in their churches, the food they eat, the guns they own, and so on. This is a Backward People, the EP is sure, and they are sorely in need of the benevolent guidance.

I am in an unusual position to appreciate this attitude. I grew up in the Chicago area, where the attitude is far less common, and I spent ten years living in Alabama—which is really the belly of the beast, the lowest of the low, for New Yorkers. Indeed, it is for some people in Alabama too: the University of Alabama, where I used to teach, had—and I presume still has—a fair number of faculty who came to UA specifically to bring, as they saw it, enlightenment to these backward, benighted bigots. The people in the state of Alabama, who pay a large portion of the budget of the university, usually had no idea in what contempt many of the faculty hold them.

So I have been struck at how much elitism there is in the New York area, and how much condecension there is toward—well, toward just about all non-New Yorkers—but especially toward the South. The South occupies its own special plane of low in the eyes of New Yorkers, filled, as they are sure it is, with all the worst dregs of humankind, a veritable cess pool of racism, ignorance, troglodytic tastes, barbaric impulses, and destructive vice.

Yet for all that I think the New Englanders need the Southerners—and especially those New Englanders who have that “monstrous itch” that Nock talked about. The reason: the South is always the ready-to-hand example of why enlightened people need to rule. One look at the South will show you that the EPs are obviously, and desperately, needed.

I call this argument form the reductio ad Nascaram: Individual liberty is fine and excellent, but only for those fit to enjoy it properly; just as parents must limit the choices of their children, so too must the enlightened limit the choices of the benighted. So individual freedom should be respected until we get to the point on the human continuum where intellectual development is so lacking that it compromises personhood. Locke said that point was when the people we are talking about are children, madmen, or “ideots”; for contemporary enlightened persons, it is when the people we are talking about are Southerners.  

As long, then, as there are people, like those in the South, who continue to make such horrendously bad choices, there will be a need for others, like us, to guide, nudge, even require or restrict, them to make good choices—for their own good.

What would so many of the enlightened people do if it were not for the South? There is so much work still to be done, so many nudges yet to be made, so much work for the philosopher kings. Thank God for the South!


19 thoughts on “Thank God for the South

  1. Being an educated former New Yorker who has a monstrous itch to enlighten you, I will of course acknowledge the danger of arguing by anecdote.

    Nevertheless, let’s recall that the greatest legal mind in Alabama is, apparently, Roy Moore. Let’s also recall that the greatest political mind in Alabama is, apparently, Jeff Sessions.

    As they say in Alabama: Thank god for Mississippi!

    P.S. Which state, in which part of the country, uses its K-12 curriculum committee as a political-religious apparatus? Hint: Not New York.

    P.P.S. Which part of the country is more likely to want to “enlighten” other parts of the country about the evils of, say, homosexuality, atheism, foreigners, etc.? Hint: Not New York.

  2. Ah yes! Having spent the last 20 years in Connecticut, I have witnessed the same. Of course, “the South” is also shorthand for all of the other things that the anointed find so disturbing (e.g., Christians, gun owners/hunters, Republicans).

  3. Interesting post with much truth. However, I should point out that most residents of New England would find the idea of New Yorkers being part of New England abhorent. New York is its own thing – and even CT is suspect despite being part of New England.

  4. KipEsquire, thank you for an uncompensated (dear readers, I assure you it was) illustration of precisely my point!

  5. Several points here:

    1. New Yorkers and New Englanders generally don’t get involved in local southern land use decisions the way some southerners (and at least one Alaskan) are in the current Lower Manhattan Islamic center controversy.

    2. Anything northerners are doing now to remake things they dislike about the south rather pales in comparison with the 1861-1865 intervention.

    3. related to number 2. Northern desire to remake the south was an essential ingredient in the abolition of both slavery and Jim Crow, so maybe it’s not entirely a bad thing.

  6. KipEsquire, allow me to enlighten you…

    I have lived in Alabama all my life. In this state, Roy Moore is largely recognized as being a charlatan who plays on a very narrow group of highly motivated supporters – mostly southern Baptists and other similar evangelicals. I wont excuse them, but they tend to behave very similarly to other single issue groups all over the country. On the whole, Moore has little more than sparse support outside of Sand Mountain.

    As for Jeff Sessions, well, what can I say? He is not really the atypical embarrassment you seem to think. More like a typical embarrassment, but how many Senators are just like him? So you say Alabama has contributed no great legal or political minds? What constitutes greatness in politics or law? Do you decide?

    1. William… you are trying to create problems for KipEsquire? You have lived in Alabama your whole life and yet you know how to read, write, and use those computer things?

  7. Tarring the entire South with the Roy Moore/Jeff Sessions brush would be a bit like painting all of New York with the Charlie Rangel/Elliot Spitzer image, wouldn’t it? They are New Yorkers, ergo all New Yorkers are either crooked, morally challenged, or both. The logic works both ways and is as stupid on one end as it is the other.

    I’m surprised that someone who obviously considers himself an “educated former New Yorker” wouldn’t have thought that through.


  8. I live in the South now, having heretofore been a Northerner for 60 some years. I find today’s South to be full of former Yankees and lots of immigrants from all over the world. In northern Texas it is hard to run into a native. Globalization is true in most parts of the US, I believe.

  9. We don’t need to rely on Roy Moore et al. There is objective data available, in the form of survey polls.

    Southerners show higher levels of outright ignorance on basic questions of fact and science: creationism, man-made global warming, Saddam Hussein’s involvement in 9/11, etc. And show greater hostility towards equal rights for minorities (e.g., gays).

    In other parts of the country , these patterns of belief are found disproportionately concentrated amongst the poor, ignorant and stupid.

    That coincidence may explain the Northern attitudes that your post remarks upon.

  10. I live in Texas and I agree with most of “a casual observers” assertions about southerners. I would note that in the South it is considered most impolite as well as unwise to cast aspersions on those one may consider “poor, ignorant and stupid”; be it out of simple humanity, or the fact that such persons are serving your plate(metaphorically).

    I do take exception to the last assertion about “greater hostility towards equal rights for minorities (e.g., gays).” That is not really true in todays south. Minorities, including gays, live much more harmoniously in southern cities and rural areas than in the Northeastern cities such as Philly, NYC, and Boston. Such cities are still quite segregated and suffer frequent racial problems in policing, schools and politics.

    This is in sharp contrast to southern cities like Birmingham and Atlanta which once epitomized the Jim Crowe South. You rarely hear a peep about such issues from Atlanta through Houston. With Florida excepted(perhaps because it is populated by Northeasterners), people in the South have long learned to move along to get along. Perhaps New Yorkers would be well off to do the same with Southerners.

  11. Apparently we Southerners aren’t the only dumb people. “A casual observer” has been brainwashed by just such a Southerner; he believes Al Gore’s lies about man-made global warming.

  12. Jardinero1 — “Minorities, including gays, live much more harmoniously in southern cities and rural areas than in the Northeastern cities such as Philly, NYC, and Boston.”

    My observation was based on survey research. For example, more people in the South than in the Northeast oppose marriage rights for gay people.

    Tennessee Budd–“he believes Al Gore’s lies”

    Actually, I don’t agree with a number of Mr Gore’s views about global warming. But he’s irrelevant to this discussion. The existence of rising temperatures, and the contributions of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, are matters of science not politics.

  13. a casual observer

    Surveys say very little about whether the surveyed is making a truthful statement and even less about the reasoning behind the statement.

    I am opposed to gay marriage but I am also opposed to the state being involved in marriage at all. Marriage is a legal fiction designed to benefit some at the expense of others. I don’t think the state should accord any special priviledges to persons who choose to cohabitate, be they gay or straight. A friend of mine who is a lesbian and married(though not by the state of Texas) also subscribes to that view. Does that make her or me anti-gay?

  14. Jardinero1 —

    The attitude I described favors lots of ‘special privileges’ for marriages between heterosexuals … just not between gays. And it’s not just marriage … the same attitude even opposes recognizing civil unions between gays.

    In short, this attitude singles out the gay minority for adverse treatment. It’s petty and pointlessly vicious; and it’s especially prevalent in the South.

    If I’ve read you correctly, that attitude is very different from yours.

  15. Polls do a bad job of explaining why people are for or against a thing like gay marriage. Even dumb southerners like myself can have nuanced and varied reasons for being opposed to things.

  16. Living abroad, I find many people simply assume I’m dim because I’m American.

    Being a Southerner, I’m used to that from my own country, but I would think it should take Northerners ‘doing’ Europe by surprise. From my own observation, however, it doesn’t take them at all. I’ve noticed that many Northerners, particularly know-it-all students abroad, assume that by ‘Americans’, their sophisticated Euro peers really just mean ‘the bad, probably Southern, ones’ and join in the snobbery.

    When I’m faced with these sorts of horrid people, I make it a point to point out how high the percentage of African American people is many Southern states, completely a propos of nothing, of course.

    I then hope that their fear of not appearing even obliquely racist will trump their enlightenment urge and they will at least shut up, and hopefully feel bad for days.

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