Chuck Thompson is by no means the first to argue that many of the nation’s pathologies can be traced back to the South. Tax policies fostering economic inequality; the rolling back of consumer, worker, and environmental protections; efforts to underfund public education so as to provide tax cuts for the wealthy and subsidies for the world’s most profitable energy companies; and end of times-driven foreign policy all have their core constituencies well south of the Potomac. Writers from Kevin Phillips to Michael Lind have been pointing this out for years. Nor is it novel to say that other parts of the country are falling under the South’s influence—Stephen Cummings’s The Dixification of America was published back in 1998, when few would have bet that Texas Governor George W. Bush could be elected president.
Better Off Without ‘Em:
A Northern Manifesto for
by Chuck Thompson
Simon and Schuster, 336 pp.
What sets Thompson apart is his bold assertion that Uncle Sam should hack off his gangrenous right leg before the infection spreads any further. Most southerners, he suspects, “really just want the same thing I do: a country liberated from the tyranny of Mormons and seditionists, and the freedom to say about the other side, in all honesty and with complete accuracy, that we might be better off without ’em.”
Letting the South secede, he argues, would be best for everyone. “Freed from its standing as a hind tit, guilt-by-association international embarrassment to the rest of the country, the politically repressive religious monarchy of the born-again Confederacy would be transformed overnight into a travel destination swarming with trendsetting elites,” Thompson, author of comedic travelogues To Hellholes and Back and Smile When You’re Lying, writes at the outset. “Lonely Planet types from around the world would immediately embrace the South as … an indigenous society teeming with underappreciated folk wisdom, ancient values, and fascinating dialects deserving of fierce protection and a slew of new expat-financed eco-lodges.” It would be another Mexico, in other words, “only with an even weaker currency and more corrupt government.”
Better Off Without ’Em maintains this fevered and irreverent tone—as if Phillips’s American Theocracy were being narrated by Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi—throughout its grand tour of the American South, a circuit that took Thompson two years to complete. Viciously funny and thoroughly tasteless, it’s an easy and cathartic read for anyone fed up with the Confederate influence on the national discourse. But like Taibbi or Bill Maher, Thompson isn’t aiming just to entertain; he wants readers to take his underlying argument seriously. That’s where things get dicey.
At the outset, Thompson confronts that perennial political science problem: Where is “the South” exactly? Is it everything south of the Mason-Dixon line (including Maryland and excluding Kentucky?) or the old Confederacy (what about West Virginia?) or all the slave states of 1860 (hello, Missouri)? Is Texas in or out? How about Oklahoma, or southern portions of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio? Even Pennsylvania is said by politicos to be Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. If the South were to rise again, how big a chunk of turf are we talking about?
I’ve offered a two-part answer in my recent book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. There’s never been a single South, but, rather, three distinct regional cultures that, while on different sides of the Civil War, formed a durable alliance during the crucible of Reconstruction. These cultures—the Deep South, Tidewater, and Greater Appalachia—don’t observe state boundaries, so if you wanted to be rid of them altogether, you’d have to say good-bye to a big piece of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Missouri, and the lower Great Lakes states, and most of Delaware, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas to boot. That’s not an amputation, it’s a vivisection.
Thompson—who, for the record, is from Alaska—takes an uncharacteristically cautious approach to the problem. He’s willing to let go of the ten Confederate states, plus West Virginia and Kentucky, but not D.C.’s northern Virginia suburbs (as they’re no longer southern) or Texas (because “we can’t afford to lose it”). Military installations in places like Norfolk and Pensacola will remain under joint title as part of “Gitmo-like treaties.” That leaves tens of millions of “southerners” living on their “native” territory within the rump of the United States, which sounds like a recipe for internal dissension and Balkan-like territorial squabbles. If amputation is really the best way to save the body politic, one wonders if Thompson isn’t making a fatal mistake in trying to save a knee.
The question of subject settled, Thompson lets us ride shotgun on his two-year odyssey through the South, where we encounter bigots, religious fanatics, hypocrites, and good ol’ boy politicians. We visit school districts that closed their best-performing (and almost entirely black) school to save money while the district was running a surplus. There’s an obligatory stop at that temple of Flat Earth magical thinking, the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky,
and a Baptist megachurch in suburban Georgia, where worshippers are asked to stand and applaud a favored political candidate. We’re shown how the South “has spent the past forty years systematically siphoning auto jobs from Michigan and the Midwest by keeping workers’ salaries low and inhibiting their rights to organize.” A spin around the South Carolina State House grounds confirms the presence of bronze statues of Ben Tillman (public advocate of lynching all black voters) and Strom Thurmond (the segregationist who, at twenty-two, fathered a child with his family’s sixteen-year-old black housekeeper). At a store on the courthouse square of Laurens, South Carolina, Thompson buys an entire Klan uniform while recordings of old KKK rallies play in the background.
The foregone conclusion: the South has a negative influence on the rest of the country—economy and all—as “it jilts workers, promotes poverty, sells out American interests to foreigners, wrecks the environment, [and] makes trans fat pushers like Paula Deen and Paul Prudhomme into national heroes.” There’s even an entire chapter devoted to its corrosive effect on college football through an unholy alliance between the Southeastern Conference and ESPN—territory Phillips, Lind, and Cummings never ventured into. The solution: “waving buh-bye to a passel of religious fanatics, bloviating politicians, and Larry the Cable Guy.”
Unfortunately, the sections of the book dealing with the merits of breaking up the country and the technical aspects of doing so aren’t as compelling and thought out as one might hope from a book promising to provide a manifesto on the subject. Thompson assumes a friendly diplomatic breakup with “a series of military treaties and economic agreements that play both to southern strengths and American needs.” The two states would be tied together in a cooperative defense agreement with what sounds like a joint standing army, while open borders and existing interstate commerce laws would remain in effect “for a minimum of fifty years.” Anyone who felt they wound up in the wrong country could automatically become a citizen of the other during an extended probationary period. Thompson makes the process sound as calm and technocratic as the proceedings of the European Commission.
Maybe it’s because I spent the 1990s covering eastern Europe and the Balkans, but I feel far less assured that Thompson’s Second Confederacy would have a peaceful birth. We have most of the ingredients here for a nasty bloodbath: long-suppressed national grievances, religious extremists in positions of power, a militant culture (in Appalachia), an armed and poorly educated populace, a formal ethnically based caste system in place within living memory, and a history of conflict with the federation it would be leaving. Call me crazy to suggest things could spin out of control during the fractious effort to undo the federation, but remember that in 1990 alarmists in Sarajevo laughed at that concept too. My assessment of the human condition prevents me from endorsing or advocating a breakup of the United States, as convenient a solution as it might seem on paper. If anything, Thompson’s work heightens rather than allays these concerns.
Apparently I’m not alone in feeling this way. As the book barrels toward its conclusion, Thompson describes trying to get various figures to engage with his secession plan. James Carville, Paul Krugman, and Lindsey Graham wouldn’t return his repeated interview requests. Lind, a native Texan and author of Made in Texas, wrote back that he disapproved of the project. “The last thing we need at this moment is one group of Americans suggesting others belong in another country,” Lind’s e-mail read. “Even as a joke, it is not funny.” Even the three University of Georgia professors who agreed to chat with Thompson at a pub slipped away when, as he writes, they saw “the slushy, truth-serum effects of beer and political talk with a loudmouthed Yankee [sic] descending upon the evening.”
Many of our federation’s problems are indeed due to profound, historically based differences in the ideals, values, religious attitudes, and political behavior of its component regional cultures. Perhaps, decades or centuries down the line, we will break up, but it’s not something we should wish for. Things might turn out as Thompson imagines, but we might also find ourselves in a far darker scenario, wishing we were still with ’em after all.
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