This essay was published in Why the South Will Survive: Fifteen Southerners Look at Their Region a Half Century after I’ll Take My Stand, edited by Clyde Wilson, 1981.
When the Southern Agrarians took their stand, they did it stoutly, on two feet. Some emphasized the “Southern,” others the “Agrarian,” but fifty years ago it seemed that the two loyalties, to the South and to rural life, could (indeed, pretty well had to) go together.
Today that juxtaposition is less self-evidently sensible. If ever a society can be said to have repudiated agrarianism, the South, to all appearances, has done so. Two-thirds of all Southerners now are “urban” by Census Bureau standards; of the rural one-third, only a fraction are employed in agriculture; and of those a good many are proprietors or hands in “agribusiness”—an expression that some of the Agrarians blessedly did not live to encounter.
It is still possible to combine an affection for the South with an appreciation of the virtues and strengths of the family farm and rural life, but someone who is not prepared to exclude most residents of the South from the category “Southerner” must recognize that it is no longer a matter of defending a “Southern way of life” against industrialism. Increasingly, that way of life is industrialism.
Many feel, of course, that neither the South nor agrarianism has much to be said for it. To hell with them. But even those who find I’ll Take My Stand pretty much right-headed on both counts must choose, in a single essay, which leg to stand on.
Whether the Agrarians’ ideas on the proper relation between work and leisure, on the importance of humanizing scale, on respect for nature, on autonomy and self-respect—whether those ideas can be translated into an urban and industrial context is an important question, and one, I believe, not yet answered. That side of the Agrarian argument may be more appealing now than it was fifty years ago. We are hearing versions of it from such unlikely quarters as the governor of California and Mother Jones magazine. While it does seem to be better received in Vermont and Colorado than in the South, at least it is alive and well somewhere.
It seems to me that those arguments can pretty well take care of themselves. What needs to be reasserted is the other half of the Agrarian position, the case for provincialism—in particular, the case for the South. What is now unusual about I’ll Take My Stand is less the “small is beautiful” motif than its unshakeable affection for the South; less the insistence that the South has something to offer the rest of the country as an exemplar of an agrarian civilization than the assumption that the South has something to offer Southerners. Some of the Agrarians valued the South because they believed it embodied their social ideals; most, I suspect, cherished it because it was home.
Why do Southerners, most of us, love the South? Why should we? In these times, those questions might be rephrased as: What good is it? Is the South any different, anymore, from the rest of the United States? If so, what differences are likely to remain, and what good are they7.
Let me proceed in the approved Southern manner, with a lengthy anecdote about a particular individual, which, despite appearances, does have a point. This story is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1960s, and concerns a young Tennessean, an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At that time, Cambridge was not a comfortable place to be a Southerner. To this young man, it seemed that his Southernness, which he had never thought much about, was often being thrust upon him. After a few months he began to understand that, however unimportant his origins seemed to him, they were an important datum for others, a marker they used to orient themselves to him, at least at first. The more ill mannered of his Northern acquaintances made it clear that they saw him as a curious specimen of some sort; a few, at least, saw his Southernness as the salient fact about him, overriding all others. About the seventeenth time he was held personally responsible for Little Rock and Clinton (places he’d only heard of) and for Scotts-boro and Gastonia (places he hadn’t heard of), the novelty began to wear off.
He found that other Southern boys were going through the same sort of thing, and they used to joke about the bottomless ignorance and boundless credulity of their New York and New England friends. Many of these folks, whether smugly self-righteous or innocently curious, would apparently believe anything at all about the South, provided only that it was weird. (Some years later he discovered that William Faulkner said very much the same thing.) When he ran out of true stories to entertain his Yankee friends, he was not above talking about things he knew of only at second hand—swamps and alligators, foot washing and snake handling, moonshining and stock-car racing. When he found a truly gullible listener, sometimes he really laid it on. (For years he remembered with embarrassment a somewhat drunken account of darkies dancing down Main Street on Robert E. Lee’s birthday.) The only excuse for his behavior was that he was eager to please, and he had discovered that a Southerner who denied that there was anything particularly interesting about the South ran into almost palpable disappointment, if not the suspicion that he was hiding something.
Some of his friends were more aggressive. One, an Arkansas boy, took to telling Radcliffe girls (who invariably asked) that race relations back home were just fine, that blacks were now allowed out until ten o’clock at night, midnight on Saturday. His friends from less notorious Southern states made allowances for his exasperation.
The result of all this was that Southerners in Cambridge at that time almost had to think about the South. Even the most deracinated began to wonder whether the observation that they were not “typical Southerners” was the compliment it was intended to be, since the speaker’s idea of typical Southerners had little to do with the people they had grown up with.
Certainly this young man began to think. What was this Southernness he was apparently stuck with? Why was he moved to defend the South? What was it to him? People assumed that he had things in common with other Southerners, but (aside from being on the receiving end of that assumption) did he? These weren’t easy questions for a nineteen-year-old. But since he had plenty of other things to think about (he was no Quentin Compson), they didn’t weigh too heavily on him. Nevertheless, he did wonder about them from time to time, and they set him up for his first encounter with I’ll Take My Stand.
Browsing at the MIT bookstore one day in 1963, he ran across the Harper paperback. The title caught his eye, and the authors, “Twelve Southerners,” made the book sound even more interesting. He bought it and started reading Ransom’s essay, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate,” as he walked back to his room. For a Tennessee boy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was having his doubts about both Massachusetts and technology, the book was a bombshell. For someone who felt moved to defend the South, this fire-eating counterattack was a revelation. It suggested an entirely new line: not “We’re as good as you,” not (God forgive him) “We’re no different from you,” but, by God, “We’re better than you.” Hot stuff, in those defensive days.
But after the first enthusiasm wore off, he started having second thoughts. What was all this about agriculture? It was clear to him, thirty years after the Agrarians, that most Southerners had nothing to do with agriculture. Surely the point of the book wasn’t that he and most of his friends weren’t really Southerners after all. He liked the country people he knew, but they weren’t “typical Southerners.” Moreover, he’d spent possibly the worst summer of his life working tobacco for four dollars a day. Idealizing the agricultural life would take some doing. What really appealed to him was the book’s unabashed championship of the South, its forthright assertion that the South was doing something right. Now if he could just figure out what that was.
His Northern friends mostly assumed that the heart of the matter was racism. He learned later that they weren’t alone in tins assumption: Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, a distinguished historian from Georgia, had argued the same thing some decades before. Unflinching support for white supremacy, he had said, was “the central theme of Southern history and the cardinal test of a Southerner.” But that just didn’t feel right. Segregation had no charms for him, or for most of his Southern friends in Cambridge, and they resisted and resented the idea that Jim Crow was the essence of Southern life and culture.
This position on race wasn’t ideological; it was based on their experience. They might have felt differently if they had come, like Phillips, from the Black Belt. But they didn’t. They came, mostly, from the periphery—East Tennessee, Arkansas, East Texas—or from the cities and suburbs of the “New South”—Atlanta, Winston-Salem, Baton Rouge. In those settings, for whites anyway, race was simply not very important. Of course, all of them knew—and a few of them were—white supremacists, but (the undergraduate reflected) race was clearly not the obsession that it should have been if it was as central to their lives as everyone assumed it was. And yet they were Southerners—as they were often reminded, and soon began to insist.
There were, in addition, a couple of newfound black friends—like him, young men from the South, displaced in New England. He did not discuss his musings with them—in fact, he tended politely to avoid the subject of the South; and they did, too, probably for the same reason. But he came to realize, and to hope that they realized, that he and they had a good deal in common, at least compared to the Northerners around them. They spoke with similar accents and in a similar allusive, anecdotal way; they knew the same Baptist and Methodist hymns and had the same trick of quoting or paraphrasing Scripture in outrageous contexts; they liked the same foods (although these blacks, like most of those he came to know later, preferred Scotch whiskey to bourbon, for some reason); and they seemed to share a good many assumptions that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Whatever Southernness was, he came to believe, it obviously included them—unless they chose to reject it.
So, he concluded, his Northern friends were just wrong. The South no more depended on segregation than it did on subsistence agriculture. Both had been fateful influences on the South, both had left their marks, but neither was the sine qua non of Southernness. Sometimes he was tempted, when under attack, to adopt a line from the Southern comedian Brother Dave Gardner: “I love everything about the South. I even love hate.” But it wasn’t really necessary to defend segregation in order to defend the South. To be sure, he thought, white supremacy could be defended by thoughtful and humane people (he knew some); but that observation merely proved to his satisfaction that thoughtful and humane people could be wrong, and unintentionally wicked. Perhaps because he was very young, this conclusion struck him as both profound and depressing.
But he was no closer to learning what did define the South. Off and on, as his circumstances allowed, he had begun to read and, in a most un-Southern way, to theorize about it. He rejected out of hand one possibility suggested by his reading. The South no longer depended (if it ever had) on the myths and imagery of the Lost Cause. The Stars and Bars, “Dixie,” the whole Confederate heritage—all were dandy to use for annoying Yankees, and all served as a kind of Masonic code for white Southern boys, especially outside the South. But these symbols did not seem genuinely to move most Southerners of his generation. The last Confederate veteran had died, in his own home town, while he was in high school; what he remembered of the event was the amused local speculation that the old boy’s war record was fictitious, invented to chisel a veteran’s pension from the Commonwealth of Virginia. The United Daughters of the Confederacy soldiered on, but they were as remote from the real life of his town and as faintly ridiculous as the D.A.R.—to whom, he realized dimly, they were somewhat inferior, as these things are reckoned. People still stood up for “Dixie” at football games, but they would give that up without protest a few years later. Some of his high school friends once ran the Stars and Bars up the school flagpole on the anniversary of Appomattox, but they’d have flown the swastika or the hammer-and-sickle, if they’d had one, with the same fine, thoughtless, apolitical desire to raise hell.
No, time and Yankee textbooks had eaten away the core of Confederate sentiment. The little they had left was being undermined, in the early 1960s, by the Southern defenders of segregation, who had pretty well appropriated the Confederacy’s flag and anthem. Their considerable success in identifying their own lost cause with the earlier one was, he felt, a shame.
He recognized that—like agriculture, like white supremacy—the War had helped to form the South he knew. But, he believed, it had long since ceased to play an important part in sustaining it. Once again, it seemed his conclusions were only negative.
Time passed, several years’ worth. The undergraduate became a graduate and married a Southern girl. His penchant for brooding about questions of little practical consequence led him to drift more or less inevitably into graduate school, in New York City, where something he had noticed in Cambridge finally sank in.
In New York, even more than in Cambridge, it was borne in on him that, in the urban Northeast, almost everyone had what he thought of as a backup identity. Not just “some of his best friends” but most of his best friends were Jewish. Those who weren’t were Italian, or Irish, or Puerto Rican, or Polish. Everybody was .something, even if only “WASP”—a label applied to those who couldn’t do any better. What was he? Didn’t being Southern mean much the same thing to him, serve many of the same functions, social and psychological, as his friends’ ethnic identities? Wasn’t there at least an analogy there?
This wasn’t a particularly original idea; other people had been saying much the same thing for years. (Although he was pleased with himself for figuring it out independently.) Still, it seemed to offer a key to understanding many of the things that had puzzled him since his first months in Massachusetts.
For one thing, relations among Southerners in the Northeast were very much like those he observed among his Jewish friends. It wasn’t so much that they liked each other better than they liked non-Southerners (although, other things being equal, they probably did). Rather, they knew more quickly whether they liked one another or not. Because a background of understanding and shared experience could be assumed, interaction could proceed without the preliminary, tentative sort of negotiation that characterized their initial relations with non-Southerners. Even at a later stage, there were fewer surprises, fewer misunderstandings. They understood each other’s humor to be humor, for instance, and usually found it funny—which was not always the case in relations with non-Southerners. There was just a lot less explaining to do.
There was, in addition, the relation between a group’s identity and its past. Clearly, his Jewish friends had no more to do with the shtetl than he had to do with sharecropping. The Troubles were no more an ever-present burden to his Irish friends than Reconstruction was to him. His “Forget, Hell!” cigarette lighter had about as much historical significance as a “Kiss Me—I’m Italian” button. It became evident, to him at least, that ethnicity as he came to know it in New York was an American creation, and a recent one. Group identity had been forged and reinforced in interaction with other groups, and its relation to the group’s actual history (as opposed to the myth of that history it created for itself) was very tenuous indeed.
But these other groups, he observed in New York, resisted the melting pot, just as the Agrarians would have had Southerners do. Various social scientists were starting to document the cultural differences that American ethnic groups maintained, in the aggregate—differences that presumably explained the greater “easiness” of relations within particular groups. Clearly, though, while a group’s culture might reflect its origins in some refracted way, that culture was being sustained and employed in quite different circumstances.
Like other ethnic identities, he concluded, Southernness had two aspects: on the one hand, an undeniable core of shared meanings, understandings, and ways of doing things (particularly evident in the presence of those who do not share them); on the other, outsiders’ insistence that his group membership was significant, and their expectations based on that datum. This conclusion was somehow comforting: locating Southernness as a special case of a more general phenomenon not only seemed to explain a lot, but it made the whole business more normal, less troublesome, and—in an odd way—more “American.”
So he had found at least a partial and tentative answer to one of his early questions. What was Southernness to him? It was an important answer to the question “Who are you?”—a question common in a fluid and pluralistic society. And it was a label for a cultural community where he could be relatively sure of being understood— not necessarily accepted, but understood.
But the content, the organizing principles and the shared assumptions, of that cultural community still remained tantalizingly out of reach. He thought of Southernness, inelegantly, as something like an onion. He had, to his own satisfaction at least, peeled away the dry brown outer layers that first met the eye but that had lost their former vitality, and he was left with a solid, pungent nucleus. But while he felt he knew what made up that core, he was not much closer to being able to describe it. The observables—food, speech-ways, music, and the like—were signs, markers, symbols of that quiddity, but not the thing itself. Later, he was to read and listen with a sense of recognition as blacks strove to articulate the mystique of negritude and of “soul,” and he came to realize that for Southerners, as for other ethnic communities, the essential qualities of the group may be, finally, ineffable—although to allow that possibility was far from allowing that they might be illusory, or that there was no point in trying to identify them.
It may seem that this third-person account has led us rather far from I’ll Take My Stand, and indeed it has. The point is that Southernness is a more complicated business than it appeared to be in 1930. It’s no longer a matter of taking one’s stand in the lower right-hand quadrant of the United States and hurling defiance at an alien industrial civilization. For better or for worse, the South finally has “rejoined the Union” (as journalists are fond of saying). The region is increasingly and, it appears, irreversibly bound up with the rest of the country. It has become more and more difficult for Southerners to live out their lives entirely in the South, entirely with other Southerners. Unreflective, reflexive Southerners can still be found, and perhaps we can be thankful for that, but they are like the snail darter—threatened by the advance of that modern regime the Agrarians warned us about. We might wish it otherwise, it may yet be a Southern characteristic to wish it otherwise, but to believe it otherwise is to display the sort of romanticism and wishful thinking that lost us a war.
But perhaps this case history, this narrative of a young Tennessean, can serve as an example, if not an argument a fortiori, suggesting that the implications of “the facts” are not straightforwardly antipathetic to the continued existence of Southern culture and identity. Like other “primordial affiliations” (in Edward Shils’s phrase), other ties based on blood and soil, Southernness provides a substrate beneath the overlay of functional and utilitarian relationships imposed by a modern industrial economy. Its evidences can’t be kept down; it continues to crop up here, there, and everywhere, like grass through concrete.
One particular aspect of our region’s culture seems to be not only surviving under these new conditions, but actually thriving. This trait has always been present in the South’s cultural ecology, but (like goldenrod along new highways) it benefits from the elimination of its natural competitors by urbanization and industrial development. I am referring to our regional variant of what used to be seen as the American trait of individualism. This characteristic has always coexisted uneasily with some other “Southern” traits—in particular, those that the South has shared with other “folk cultures,” traits that characterize all rural, village, and peasant societies—which is what the South has been, in the American context, until very recently. Such characteristics as parochialism, fatalism, authoritarianism, ethnocentrism, and categorical resistance to innovation have been “Southern” characteristics, in the sense that Southerners have been more likely than other Americans to display them. But the same catalogue could be (has been) applied to other “premodern” societies, to Iran, Turkey, Sicily, Mexico, and Ireland, among others. This bundle of traits, which one sociologist has called the traditional value orientation, is menaced everywhere by urbanization and industrialization. The Agrarians knew this: that list of deceptively Latinate, “scientific” and ostensibly non-evaluative terms includes some of the things they cherished most about the South. These characteristics are indeed linked, as effect to cause, to rural and small-town life and to agricultural pursuits. In the South, as in other modernizing societies, they survive most strikingly among the rural, the poor, the uneducated, those who are isolated from urban life, the industrial regime, and the media of mass communication.
The same traits survive, in attenuated form, among many other Southerners: the majority of us, after all, are no more than a generation removed from the countryside. But the prognosis for these aspects of Southern distinctiveness is not favorable. In many of these respects, the South’s urban and suburban middle classes are already well-nigh indistinguishable from their non-Southern counterparts; in others, a difference remains, but who can say for how long? It may be that the South will hang on to a residuum of these cultural characteristics, a souvenir of its agrarian past. But such a vestige will only provide a traditional, folkish flavor to the standard industrial entrée; it will not be the foundation for a competing civilization not the sort of thing manifestoes are made of.
Alongside the folkish, organic strain in our region’s culture, however, there has always been a stubborn, individualist, “I’m as good you” outlook, a collection of cultural themes that competed with and undermined the demands of prescription, hierarchy, and organic community. The openness of early Southern society, the possibilities for individual mobility, meant that the would-be hierarchs of the South had to resort to slavery to keep their retainers in place. The varieties of Christianity that were equipped by their histories to legitimize a prescriptive order never fared well among those folk who needed encouragement to do their duty in the station in life to which it had pleased God to call them, at least not after they had the opportunity to choose something else. Throughout the South’s history, those whites who seemed intended to fill the lower ranks of Southern society showed a disturbing tendency to take off for the hills or the frontier. If they stayed around, they lingered not as humble servitors, but to display the prickly independence of men whose God has told them they are as good as anybody else, and better than the unsaved. Many Southern blacks adopted the same stance, as soon as they were able. It is significant, for instance, that after 1865 the new freedmen widely refused to work in gangs under supervision and forced Southern landowners to turn to a sharecropping system based (in theory, at least) on a contract between two autonomous parties.
These two competing visions—the individualist and the organic–can be illustrated by a series of oversimplified contrasts—Jefferson and Fitzhugh, Baptists and Anglicans, yeomen and planters, Huey Long and Harry Byrd, perhaps uplands and low-country. One of the unresolved contradictions of I’ll Take My Stand, some critics have observed, is that of which South it is defending. In fact, the combination, however unstable or philosophically unsatisfying, may have something to be said for it, if each of these tendencies served to check the excesses of the other. But that question is neither here nor there, if I am right: the erosion of the folkish South by twentieth-century economic and demographic changes has left the South’s version of laissez-faire free to develop relatively unchecked by prescriptive obligations and restraints based on family position, rank, class, or even race. (Sex remains, perhaps, a different matter.)
The characteristics that I am clumping under the label “individualism” differ from the traits that Southerners have shared with those from other folk societies in at least two ways. In the first place, they seem to exist sui generis, so to speak, reflecting the unique circumstances of the South’s settlement, development, and historical experience; they are by no means universal among or unique to “traditional” societies. In the second place, indicators of these traits “behave” differently when examined statistically: they differentiate educated, urban and suburban, modernized Southerners fully as much as poor, rural, and uneducated ones. Regional differences in these respects show little sign of disappearing—indeed, they often seem to be increasing.
These cultural presuppositions are easier to illustrate than to list. They are displayed with greatest clarity, perhaps, in the dominant religion of the South, a brand of evangelical Protestantism that cuts across denominational lines and, for that matter, probably characterizes the beliefs of most of the unchurched. Students of the subject agree that the South is unique, religiously, because it is dominated by low-church Protestant groups—notably the Southern Baptists, but also Methodists, Presbyterians, and other denominations that tend to imitate the more successful Baptists. These groups emphasize the individual’s salvation and his role in accepting it. “The Hour of Decision,” as the Reverend Mr. Graham tells us, is now, and it is up to the individual to choose, to accept the freely offered gift salvation. Nobody else can walk the Lonesome Valley, as the song has it. You’ve got to walk it by yourself. Others can and do help, but ultimately you’re on your own. The Catholic doctrine of the church as the Body of Christ is, in this view, an elegant metaphor at best, a mystery (in the simplest sense of that word) at worst. The church is seen as an inorganic aggregate of individual congregations, themselves convenient gatherings of voluntarily associated individuals, each of whom maintains his own unmediated personal relation to transcendent Deity. The South’s economic life increasingly relies on a complex hierarchical and specialized division of labor, but its religious economy is what the textbooks call a Robinson Crusoe situation.
Whatever else can be said about it, there is no question that this individualistic emphasis in Southern religion is comfortably consistent with other aspects of Southern culture. Just as Southerners are expected to work out their own salvation without calling on the formal institutional apparatus of church, priest, and sacrament, so we have often been inclined to work out our own justice without running off to the legislature or the courts. In the South, the state has no more monopoly on the means of justice than the church has on the means of grace. To concede all legitimate coercion to the state would be repugnant to many Southerners, if not to most. Ultimately, individuals must have the ability—indeed, may have the obligation—to settle such matters for themselves. A closer look at the South’s homicide rates, perennially twice as high as the rest of the country’s, bears this out. The sort of murders the South specializes in are not assaults on innocent and inoffensive citizens going about their business,they are, rather, responses to attacks—on someone’s person, honor, or self-esteem. They are in fact private attempts, however excessive or misguided, to redress grievances. Collective violence has followed much the same pattern.
Some historians are now emphasizing the strong “Celtic” strain in Southerners’ ancestry, and it is pleasant to recall that another Celtic nation has as its motto Nemo me impune lacessit (in Southern, “Nobody messes with me and gets away with it”). Although this handsome boast expresses for Southerners—as for the Scots— an ideal rather than a fact, what it threatens is clearly not a lawsuit.
A respect for individualism and self-reliance is also increasingly evident in Southerners’ economic views. Let me tell another story. I asked an older man recently what had happened to a brilliant black athlete from his town who had played outstandingly for four years at a Southern university, only to have his professional career cut short by injuries. He had returned, I was told, to the middle-sized Southern city where he’d gone to college, as an executive in a predominantly white business. “He married a white girl, you know, but he’s doing very well.” Fifty years ago, that would have been one dead black man. No amount of athletic or commercial success would have offset his breach of racial etiquette; success, in fact, would have compounded the offense. But my friend mentioned the man’s marriage as he might have alluded to some bad habit, and his tone in general was one of approval, even of pride in a local boy made good.
I don’t pretend that this reaction would be universal, or even typical, but it is increasingly widespread. Particularly among the Southern middle class, we find a belief system which Fitzhugh and probably some of the Agrarians would have despised: an individual is entitled—indeed, obliged—to work out his own well-being; he is free to compete, without prescriptive restraints; and he is free to enjoy the fruits of success—even a white wife—if he succeeds. Public opinion polls have shown a substantial increase of late in the proportion of Southerners who support “conservative” (that is, laissez-faire) economic policies, along with an increase in those who support “liberal” social policies. The apparent contradiction is only in the cockeyed terms of American politics: in both respects, Southerners increasingly display a version of libertarianism, the natural political expression of an individualistic ethos long evident in other institutional spheres.
Cynics may argue that this represents merely another strategic retreat, a new and more sophisticated stance in defense of race and class privilege. If top-dog Southerners can no longer get away with holding hack other groups, as groups, their new ideology assures at least that those others will not be helped, categorically, to threaten the top dogs’ “hegemony.” There may be something to this argument. It must deal with a great deal of false consciousness on the part of Southerners who are hardly top dogs; but it may be, for example, that the truly incredible rates of individual upward mobility that have accompanied the South’s recent economic development are encouraging people to have aspirations that will eventually prove unrealistic.
In any case, the increasingly dominant Southern doctrine is an internally consistent one, perhaps for the first time, and it is a form of lihertarianism. When middle-class Southerners tell us, as most now do, that blacks should not be held back economically by Jim Crow laws or employment discrimination, that they’d be pleased to have as a neighbor anyone who can afford to live in the neighborhood, that their neighbors’ children should go to the same schools as their own–when they say all this, their sincerity is not impugned by their practical indifference to those, black and white, who fail the sink or-swim test of a laissez-faire economy. They believe that well-being is ultimately a man’s own lookout, and he ought to be able to work it out without the help of institutions like government, unions, and the like (although other individuals—kinfolk, neighbors, and Christians generally—ought to help him if he needs it and they are able). Like those who achieve salvation, those who achieve economic success are entitled to the benefits, regardless of what they were before. Those who don’t succeed—well, they may get helped, but, like the unsaved, they will get exhortation and Christmas baskets, and hardly as a matter of right.
If, as I believe, the South is refining and beginning to exemplify a worldview that puts individual responsibility at the heart of things and insists that individuals should—and, by and large, do—get what they deserve, it presents some interesting, homegrown features. One of the most common theoretical objections to pure libertarianism—that it destroys community—simply does not seem to apply to the Southern variety, as it is actually put into practice in most Southern towns and institutions. Community seems at least as healthy in the South as elsewhere, and I don’t think it is merely as a residue from the region’s preindustrial past. Here again, we can look at Southern churches as a useful microcosm of Southern society. If we can understand their cohesivencss, perhaps we can see the same processes at work in other Southern settings.
Southerners, I have said, incline to the view that churches are simply voluntary associations for the benefit, in the last analysis, of the individuals who make them up—a view so taken for granted that many Southerners cannot conceive that there is any other way to think of the church. The proposition “Love it or leave it” seems perfectly reasonable to many Southern churchmen. From time to time groups do leave, to set up their own congregations or to found entirely new denominations. This mode of response results in both homogeneity and considerable group loyalty—in the new groups, obviously; but also in the old.
The same phenomenon can be observed at the community level: Congregationalism in the churches of the South (whatever their formal polity] is echoed by localism, especially in smaller communities. Southerners’ relations to their communities are not merely utilitarian: loyalty is expected and is usually forthcoming, but it is also freely chosen. The prototypical Southern sentiment may be the bumper-sticker admonition, “Get your heart in Dixie or get your ass out.” That sentiment applies, mutatis mutandis, to churches, communities, and even business and industrial enterprises, as well as to the region as a whole. But, paradoxically, this species of apparent intolerance is not wholly antithetical to individualism. In a way, individualism is its prerequisite, for the individual is free to choose: salvation or damnation, right or wrong opinions, loyalty or treason, to stay or to go. “Love it or leave it” is said only to free men. “Leaving,” of course, need not be physical (although it often is). As Southerners have shown repeatedly, it is no longer necessary to go to Rhode Island or to Utah to set up a new religious denomination, and someone willing to be lonesome can usually withdraw from the life of a Southern town without heading for points west or north. But in order to be part of a community one must adhere to community standards, or else start a new community with like-minded individuals. In theory, nonconformity can be dealt with by suppression, by abandoning group standards altogether, or by excluding the deviant from the group. It seems to me that Southerners usually prefer the last of these solutions, although the first gets more publicity.
The old joke about both of our churches worshipping God—you in your way, we in His—summarizes an anomaly that has puzzled many observers of Southern life. Theoretical hostility toward other groups, other communities, and other regions is often combined with a sort of workaday pluralism that lets folks get along pretty well most of the time, although it wouldn’t satisfy the sponsors of National Brotherhood Week. Southerners quite often tolerate the theoretically intolerable from “outsiders,” reasoning that what those people do is of no concern to us. An element of circularity defines outsiders, in part, as those who think or do the intolerable. Whatever else may be said about this solution, it seems to me that it’s usually preferable to trying to make outsiders conform to insider standards, and always superior to concluding that there is nothing that could be called intolerable.
In return, Southerners would like a similar toleration for themselves. Nashville’s Charlie Daniels sings about it in “Long-haired Country Boy,” suggesting that his critics just leave him alone. The coiffure has changed, but the sentiment is as old as the hills to which Daniels’s ancestors migrated, in order to be left alone. And, it should be noted, today’s long-haired country boy is likely to be a loyal member of a group of long-haired country boys who are tolerated by the rest of the community, as long as they keep their intolerable tastes and habits to themselves and only knife each other.
What has always particularly annoyed Southerners is not what others do among themselves but others’ attempts to make us do differently. My reading of the defenders of slavery and later of segregation is that they were genuinely puzzled by the attitudes of their opponents. After all, Southerners didn’t approve of the way other Americans ran their affairs, but they didn’t try to make those others change. Southerners, it seems to me, are usually willing to let the rest of the country (the world, for that matter) go to hell any way it pleases, and won’t interfere unless invited—an attitude learned at home. But it’s only reasonable, in this view, to expect that others will keep their missionaries, inspectors, revenue agents, soldiers, and outside agitators at home. If they don’t like the way we’re living, what’s it to them? Nemo me impune lacessit.
So what we have, I am suggesting, is a nested set of communities–a region composed of states, composed in turn of cities and towns, themselves made up of groups and associations and neighborhoods, down, in good Burkean fashion, to the level of the family and perhaps beyond. At each level, the criteria for membership and the definitions of the intolerable differ, but everywhere the “love it or leave it” principle applies—even, if we examine the divorce statistics, at the level of the family. The result is communities and groups which enlist the loyalty of their members, so long as they remain members, precisely because they are free to leave. Cash’s “savage ideal” of conformity may well characterize relations within many Southern communities, while between communities a certain rough-and-ready tolerance (indifference, really) prevails.
Of course, this mode of association is, by its nature, centrifugal. The history of the Confederacy, like its existence in the first place, attests to this. The internal tensions, the struggles among the composite states, would have torn the young nation apart, had it not been held together by the common adversary. Just so, the churches of the South have exaggerated the natural tendency of Protestantism to go to seed, dividing over and over again. Groups break away from larger groups, rather than compromising or accommodating. Individuals take their leave as well. But things somehow don’t fall apart all that often, or all that disastrously. What holds them together? What countervailing forces check this inherent tendency toward disintegration?
In the first place, there is some measure of self-selection. Although nonconformists don’t usually have to leave, many choose to do so. The South has always exported a large proportion of its population to other regions, and it still docs. Those who remain, it has been shown, are culturally more “Southern” than those who leave. Although Southern fiction is filled with cranks, grotesques, and weirdos, the South itself doesn’t seem to have a great many more than its share. No doubt many have joined the outward migration, and they are now California’s problem, or New York’s. Similarly, there has always been a great deal of migration within the region, originally to the Southwest, more recently from the countryside to the South’s cities. It is my impression that misfits and dissenters from the South’s smaller communities now tend to migrate to Southern cities, along with the many who go for other reasons, thus helping to preserve the homogeneity and cohesion of the groups they have left behind.
What this means for Southern cities is a different matter. It may mean that big Southern cities will become downright strange— nothing new for New Orleans, but surprising to observe in Atlanta and Houston, Nashville and Memphis. The fact that oddballs from the small-town South can often link up with communities of like-minded deviants, and the fact that different communities within Southern cities pretty well succeed in ignoring one another may mean that most residents of these cities can overlook this development. (In any case, it is an urban phenomenon, and not specifically a Southern one.)
The fact remains that the Southern city is not simply one large community; I am suggesting, furthermore, that the Southern small town was not simply one community either. The two racial groupings are only the most obvious of the many subcommunities within most Southern towns, subcommunities with the ability to mind their own business and to cooperate when circumstances require. The monolithic small-town community may be a New England or a Midwestern phenomenon, but the Southern reality has usually been more complicated than that.
Also operating to offset the tendency toward fragmentation is the frequent presence, sometimes contrived, of external “threat.” The South is never more united than when it feels the North is picking on it or pushing it around. I will leave the anthropologists to analyze the solidarity-producing functions of competitive sports, but will note simply for example that the heterogeneous state of North Carolina is seldom unified except when one of its universities’ basket-hall teams faces outside opposition. At a lower level, the disparate and often hostile subcommunities in small towns unite to support their high school teams against those of other towns. At a higher level, we see the Atlantic Coast Conference contra mundam. The structure of Southern athletics, like that of Southern religion, both mirrors and reinforces more general patterns of social organization.
The importance of outsiders in holding things together is reflected in the narrative of the young Tennessean. His background was far from “typically Southern,” even in a statistical sense. He came from a part of the South whose Civil War loyalties had been, at best, equivocal; an area with fewer blacks, proportionately, than Boston. His hometown was a busy, dirty industrial city with few reminders of any history before the 1920s, populated mostly by first and second-generation migrants from other parts of the South. He was raised as a Republican and an Episcopalian (the former minority more acceptable than the latter, in his neck of the woods—an inversion of the usual Southern pattern). Yet all these atypical attributes, however important and telling for Southerners, were of no consequence to most Northerners, for whom the overriding datum was simply “Southerner.” It could be said that his sense of himself as a member of the regional group was very largely the result of his experiences outside that group. Indeed, his friends who stayed in the South for their educations were generally a good deal less self-conscious about their region than he; many—particularly those who went to the “better” Southern schools—were inclined, in an unreflective way, to be vaguely ashamed of their origins and apologetic about them, anxious to avoid the stigma of “provincialism.” Paradoxically, it seemed that, for this young man and others he new, travel and residence outside the South led not to “assimilation,” but to a heightened sense of distinctiveness and solidarity with other Southerners. (The best antidote for a sense of regional inferiority seemed to be exposure to Yankees.)
Finally, the South and its constituent groups and communities show more cohesion than we might expect because they aren’t really organized all that consistently with the social ideology I have been describing. The old prescriptive ties, obligations, and hierarchies are disappearing, where they have not already vanished, and with them is fading the ideology that justified them and served to offset the implications of the principles of individualism and voluntarism. But the old patterns have been replaced by hierarchies and restraints of a different order, no less real for going unrecognized and unlegitimated by custom and traditional principle. Southern churches, like all formal organizations, exhibit hierarchy and differentiation of function. Southern communities, like all communities, reflect social stratification. And the South’s economy is, perhaps more than ever, a complicated, interdependent system in which some command, others obey, and most do both. Whether acknowledged explicitly or not, power remains power, and, within the broad limits established by the “love it or leave it” principle, it can still be used to keep others in line.
It is interesting to see how Southerners deal with the facts of stratification, facts that some would say contradict an image of society as made up of autonomous individuals freely acting and in some senses equal. Of course, someone’s position in the various hierarchies of Southern society can be attributed partly to his own efforts and decisions. Success, like salvation, has its rewards. On the other hand, Southerners are at least as aware as other Americans that many things are outside their control, that much of what happens to people results from external forces, or chance. Since fatalism is one aspect of the now-evaporating “traditional value orientation,” it may be that Southerners will become more consistent in this respect. Still, it seems to me that we shrink from inflicting on those at the bottom all the scorn, or according to those at the top all the deference, that should follow from our conviction that they deserve to be there. We do not follow through; the harsher implications of our individualism are mitigated by a set of manners that leave a great deal implicit, that even tend to deny the existence of a top and a bottom.
Authority in the South is often veiled by a style that pays lip service to the useful fiction that all men are created equal, whatever the private opinions of those who exercise the authority. W. J. Cash wrote of the oldtime Southern industrialist whose back-slapping manner as he mingled with his employees, speaking of hunting and fishing and college football, denied that there was any sharp distinction, much less a qualitative difference, between capitalist and worker. Southern workers have often returned the compliment by refusing to listen to outsiders who insist that there is a difference. Similarly, a friend who left the Southern Baptists for the Episcopal Church allowed that he preferred a denomination where the bishops were visible (a most un-Southern taste). The Baptists can camouflage their elite; while Anglican bishops may shun the trappings of prelacy, they can hardly escape the designation.
This style is also evident in politics. When President Carter walked in his inaugural parade, when he was sworn in wearing a business suit and came on television in a cardigan sweater, he was solidly in the Southern tradition. (Jefferson’s inauguration was also informal, and he was condemned for lacking dignity.) Southerners know who’s the president, but we appreciate his not rubbing it in.
Consider as well the folkways of tipping. Expatriate Southerners who have had a New York mailman return all their mail marked “Addressee Unknown” when they didn’t know to render a Christmas tribute will recognize that there are regional differences in this matter. Any Northern headwaiter or parking lot attendant will attest that unassimilated Southerners are notoriously poor tippers, and some Southerners more concerned with service than with honor have been known to have friends with less obtrusive accents call lor restaurant reservations, or to tip various flunkies in advance.
The point is not that Yankees are greedy or Southerners tight. The difference in customs reflects, rather, a Southern conviction that expecting and receiving tips is demeaning, and somehow unmanly; that giving them can be insulting. Another story: When I got my first Southern haircut in some years, I asked cautiously whether North Carolinians tipped barbers yet. “Some do,” I was told. “Had a doctor, used to come in here a lot. Always gave me fifty cents.” The barber clipped thoughtfully for a while. “Went for a physical one time. Gave him fifty cents. ‘This is for you, Doc.'” He chuckled. ‘Seems to me if I want more money I can raise my price.” Like the doctor, this man had his skills, his independence, and his pride. He didn’t need or intend to depend on the charity of his customers.
Times and mores are changing, perhaps, but the underlying attitude persists. Presents are all right: a present is from one friend, one equal, to another. But tips are for servants, and who would want to be a servant? If you want more money, raise your price. If you don’t like it, leave.
Finally, it may even be that the same tendency to deny hierarchy—hierarchy, to repeat, that may very well exist—is evident in Southerners’ conversation-starting style. It seems to me that the ice-breaking “What do you do?” is heard less often below the Mason-Dixon Line. Southerners, I think, prefer “Where are you from?” (“What’s your sign?”—the West Coast standard—hasn’t caught on, even among the singles-bar set.) If Southerners do avoid “What do you do?” this avoidance may simply reflect the survival of an older belief that what you do is a paltry way to indicate who you are. But it’s also a matter of manners. To ask that question is to ask someone to brag if he’s successful, or to confess failure if he’s not. One can like “Where are you from?” for the same reason Melbourne liked the Order of the Garter: because there’s no damned merit about it.
In any case, everyone knows there are hierarchies everywhere, in church, state, and economy. But that fact is unpleasant enough for those at the bottom without being reminded of it all the time. Those at the top may (in fact, certainly do) feel superior to those at the bottom—why else would they be at the top? But they’re obliged not to assault the self-respect of their inferiors by ostentatiously putting them down. Similarly, members of a group may agree among themselves about their group’s social or moral superiority to other groups, but they tend to follow forms that keep those opinions tacit, forms that, like the entente among Southern churches, disguise indifference as cordial respect. If, as I believe, race relations are now better in many respects in the South than anywhere else in the country, it may be simply because whites are now prepared to follow these forms in their relations with blacks, as they have always followed them in relations with other whites. And blacks are willing to return the favor.
A final story. A black North Carolinian, now living in New York, once tried to explain why he saw more anti-white sentiment among New York blacks than among black Southerners. “Lots of people came here because they wanted to be treated like white folks,” he told me. “What they still don’t realize is that New Yorkers treat everyone like niggers.” Most Southerners are raised to want others to feel at ease, at home, part of the community. Even if we believe their part is an inferior one, even if they are newcomers still on probation, even if they are transients never to be seen again, well-mannered Southerners will try to include them, unless we have reason to believe that they are unassimilable. (Then, of course, we can be as savagely rude as anyone else.) Californians might say we are not “sincere”; New Yorkers and others who are friendly only to their friends sometimes accuse us of hypocrisy. But it seems to me that we are just trying to deal with the peculiarly modern problem of how to reconcile liberty, equality, and fraternity—a fine but obviously unstable combination. If Southern principles increasingly exalt the first of these, our manners emphasize the second, and the result is a workable version of the third.
What I have been describing is not an abstract blueprint but a way ot life, a set of unexamined axioms about the nature of association that I believe are widespread in the South and arc likely to remain so. People are free to choose in many important matters, and should bear the consequences. Association is based on shared values and beliefs. People are free to leave associations they find onerous, and should do so. It is impolite to emphasize unavoidable differences in rank. Groups, like individuals, should be free to choose in many matters. Consequently, pluralism and decentralization are desirable policies (a Southern refraction of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity). … It is impossible to make a systematic list of these convictions, since they are not so much articulated as lived. Like any way of life, this one embodies contradictions, evasions, and blind spots that rigorous ideologues of any persuasion will likely find intolerable. Never mind: it seems to work, and many of us like it.
More than that, it seems to me that these are among the more important “shared understandings” that set the young Tennessean and his fellow Southerners apart from their Northern friends. Not that I claim that this mode of association has always been distinctively Southern. I don’t know in what respects it has been that: many features of it strike me as things the South resisted longer than the rest of the country, that the South adopted only after they had been pretty well abandoned elsewhere. But that doesn’t matter. The point is that these are now “Southern” understandings, in the American context; they are, for the time being, at least, principles that many Southerners find almost instinctively congenial. No doubt many other Americans find those same understandings quaint—or more likely repugnant, since (I have noticed) people who can be perfectly dispassionate when discussing infanticide among the Toda cannot bring a similar detachment to their view of Southern folkways.
I don’t insist that these understandings arc somehow at the heart of Southern identity, or that all else depends on them. I doubt that that is true. Details and emphases have changed and will continue to change. Southerners who don’t share this view of things, though, may well be uncomfortable in the South (increasingly so, if I am right) and might be happier elsewhere. Recall the bumper sticker’s advice to those whose hearts aren’t in Dixie.
Clearly, one thing this set of understandings does is to provide a solid rationale—perhaps “underpinning” is the better word—for Southerners’ continued insistence on our right as a regional and quasi-ethnic group to keep on doing some things our way, to hold out as a large and gristly lump in the national stew. One thing that sets Southerners off from many other Americans may be the conviction that groups like ours are entitled to be set off from the rest.
But however much Southerners may find Southern identity and Southern culture congenial and downright useful, the question remains whether the South has anything to offer the rest of the country. It is an article of the liberal pluralist faith that every group, no matter how apparently degraded, has something to offer the rest of us, that we can all learn from each other. Doesn’t this axiom apply to Southerners? To be sure, many who assert this principle most vigorously can, in the next breath, deplore the “Southernization” of America, by which they mean the proliferation of everything from Kentucky Fried Chicken stands and country music to fundamentalist religion and high homicide rates. But they may be right in their assertion, even if inconsistent in its application. The South may indeed have something to offer the rest of the country—something other than a bad example, that is.
Alas, as I have explained, it is presumptuous to tell other people how to order their own affairs. Some have abandoned or never subscribed to the principle of individual responsibility, have no respect for self-respect, and regard the worldview I have described as hopelessly retrograde. They may have taken a wrong turn, but that is their prerogative. If they have, the consequences will be on them and on their children. So long as we are not obligated to save them from those consequences, they’re entitled to the same toleration we have always asked for ourselves. For our part, we should refrain from preaching at them and should seek to construct a society pleasing to man and to God. If we succeed, others can draw the lessons for themselves.