16 July 2009

The south

I'm beginning this with no real idea of where it's going to go, or when it will be finished. It was prompted by two posts under the same title by Unreal Nature and TTMF respectively. Various things moved around in the junk room that passes for the back of my mind, before being moved again by follow up posts ("Negatives" and the second paragraph of "Today's mini-report" respectively from both). Perhaps other additions will occur before this one finally crawls out into the light of day.

The very words "the south" are what programmers call a local variable ... most of the time, anyway. In Britain "the south" usually refers to an area of England south of a line drawn roughly from Worcester to Great Yarmouth (those places are indicative only ... any sample of a hundred Britons would draw the line in a hundred different ways). In Lebanon, "the south" meant that area south of a line drawn, perhaps, with the same disclaimers, from Sour to Deir el Aachayer. In many professional contexts, I take "the south" to mean a broad socioeconomic division of the globe (with only a vague relation to geographic polarity) intersecting with other labels such as "developing countries" or "third world" or "the disadvantaged".

When a USAmerican says "the south", however, it means the southern states of the union and, because the USA is culturally dominant, that sense has also become a fuzzy global variable as well.

I describe it as fuzzy because outside the USA "the south" means a huge range of different things. (That is also true within the USA, in fact, which is what underpins the posts which started this; but even more so outside.) "The south" as it is perceived outside the USA is gracious courtly gentlemen and their fair skinned ladies, and it is also the inhuman bastion of the slave trade. It is Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the wind and Gene Hackman or Susan Sarandon in John Grisham's The chamber and The client respectively. It's Joan Baez singing The night they drove old Dixie down. It's a million and one stereotypes that I can't begin to list here.

If I, as an outsider, step outside the stereotypes, suddenly there doesn't seem to be any such thing as an identifiable "the south". Not that I know it as a whole; I have only snapshots to work with, assembled over a period of fifty years. But, try as I might, I just can't make those snapshots add up to facets of one place called "the south". What does Cary NC, circa 2004, have in common with Raleigh at the end of the 1950s? What does rural Louisiana at any time have in common with Austin TX? The ravaged lunar coal mining landscapes of long ago West Virginia with the Monongahela National Forest? A school in Columbus Ohio with media images from a Florida I've never visited in person? None of those things seem to me more closely related to each other than (for example) to Seattle WA, Ann Arbor MI or Buffalo NY.

Unreal Nature draws parallels between "very welcoming people and great food" in Lebanon and the US south. My experience, such as it is, is that the same is true of everywere on earth. Even in places where I represented an enemy, I have usually been welcomed and treated kindly as an individual. The food may not seem great to every palate, because it is strange (humans have a universal tendency to regard what they know as the norm and difference as deviance) but with familiarity comes appreciation.

There is, of course, a flip side to that: also in Lebanon, the US south, and everywhere else on earth, the same people can when frightened (or angry, but that's very often the same thing) erupt into vicious, unreasoning and unrestrained violence – especially against the actual or perceived outsider. Some places, at some times, are nevertheless different to other places and times in unpleasant ways.

And places differ in different ways. Britain and the US, for example, are both far more racist places than they ought to be, but it expresses itself in different ways. Neither place likes to think of itself as racist. Each sees as most significant in the other those aspects of racism which are least visible in itself.

I didn't know what racism or race were, until I was 14. I was lucky. Some places we lived, people were black, other places brown, other places again the same pasty "pinko grey" (thank you, E M Forster) as myself. That was just how things were. I lost that innocence not in the US south but in a smallish UK market town; I got my most physically painful education in Birmingham (UK West Midlands, not Alabama). I saw grim evidence of what it could do in Moscow. But the place where I became most terrifyingly face to face with its potential, I have to say, was Texas in the early 1970s.

Societies, and groups of societies, are judged not in global terms but against their chosen company. And memory is short: Britain, for example, hardly remembers now its (race and poverty based) urban riots of the early 1980s. "The south" of the USA, overall, made slower progress towards genuine racial emancipation over a certain period than some other liberal democracies in general and "the north" in particular. That fact was highlighted by the iconic civil rights events of the 1960s. Since then, "the south" has made astonishingly rapid progress (far more so than any other comparable liberal democratic sector I can think of), but there is no equally iconic marker to highlight the fact – which is probably why the south has the image it does.

Then again, stereotypes can be true at one level but not at others. The global image of the US as a crass and insensitive thug is formed from observation and experience of its foreign policy – at which level the stereotype contains a lot of truth. Look at almost every US citizen I personally know, however, and it couldn't be further from the truth. Stereotypical images of Britons in the coastal areas of mediterranean Europe are formed from, and widely true of, much tourist behavour in those areas – but is no more summatively accurate that the “cute accent” or emotionally stunted “stiff upper lip” US stereotype Brit.

If it's any comfort to US Southerners undeservedly living with negative perceptions, they are not alone. New York, for instance, is seen around the world through the filter of The Godfather while Chicago is forever the land of Al Capone. "The west" is an endless desert peopled by gun toting Clint Eastwood or Yul Brynner figures in large hats ... unless it's “the west” where I lived for a time as a child, the west of England, a hayseed region of inbred imbecile scrumpy cider addicts muttering impenetrable dialect past the straws in their mouths (remarkably similar, in fact, to the Hillbilly sterotype from the US “south”).

  • E M Forster, A Passage to India. 1931, London: Arnold.

  • John Grisham, The client. 1993, New York: Doubleday. 038542471X. [film]

  • John Grisham, The chamber. 1994, New York: Doubleday. 0385424728. [film]

  • Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the wind. 1936, New York: Macmillan. [film]

  • Mario Puzo, The godfather. 1969, New York: Putnam. [film]

  • Robbie Robertson, The night they drove old Dixie down. 1969.

1 comment:

Ray Girvan said...

Interesting: I wonder if there's some cultural/geographical effect in common? In the Northern hemisphere, it could be a universal that "the South" is perceived as having better food. Further south = warmer = longer growing season, more variety of flora/fauna, fruit sweeter, more expression of the interesting phytochemicals that make for variety of flavour?