When I read the headline, I laughed out loud: “What is wrong with the South?” After I got through chuckling, I said to myself, “Good question!”
Though I only read it recently, the article appeared in The Atlantic in August 2009, and its primary subject was the fact that a disproportionate number of Southerners polled didn’t believe that Barack Obama is an American. If one were to trust the polling data that writer Max Fisher was referencing, that portion of Southerners who were sure that we’d put an ineligible foreigner in the White House could have been as high as 70%. (Keep in mind that August 2009 was less than a year after Obama was elected the first time, and there had been a vigorous “birther” campaign led by a certain businessman who shall remain nameless.)
Fisher then continues to explore this myth in the first of three subheadings, “The crazy South.” Here we read a few one- to two-sentence excerpts from liberal bloggers who coalesce their anti-Republican and anti-Southern sentiments into one cozy package, one of them even maintaining, “Outside the South, this madness is gaining very little traction, and remains a fringe conspiracy theory. Within the South, it’s practically mainstream.” It’s hardly true that this myth was unique to the South; NPR reported in early 2011 that 51% of Republican voters (nationally) didn’t believe that Barack Obama is an American.
Fisher follows those juicy, albeit questionable nuggets with a quick paragraph on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ take on the situation, and then with a sprinkling of other commentators, who opined that “partisan hatred of the President is much greater” in the South, and finally that “the GOP and the South are increasingly the same thing.”
That was more than a decade ago, and I feel certain that a majority of conservative, white Southerners were pleased to see the 44th President leave office. Once, during his presidency, I was talking to an old friend at a high school football game, and he remarked to me that Barack Obama was a “piece of shit,” then seemed genuinely surprised when I replied that I didn’t agree. His opinion was based largely on the idea that Obama wanted to “take our guns.” I shared that I didn’t own one – another shocker to him – and also seriously doubted that his concerns were valid. He assured me that they were.
Questions about Barack Obama’s citizenship entered the Southern mythology only recently. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when Obama was an Illinois state senator then US senator, the average Southerner probably didn’t even know who he was, much less where he was from. Theories about this pointed concern over the man’s citizenship have been traced to sources ranging from pure racism to his having the middle name Hussein, which connected him in some people’s minds to Iraq’s dictator, who was deposed in 2003 and killed in 2006. If you ask me, the roots of the “birther” myth had more than one tendril, in addition to more than locale.
Among the traits that are mythically ascribed to the South, xenophobia, racism, a love of guns, and a disdain for the federal government litter the top ten. However, what is less-often discussed is the use of these traits by some left-leaning (and sometimes moderate) writers to push their own myth that we’re “crazy,” that there is something “wrong” with us, and that our culture is steeped in “madness.” Because, after all, if folks are crazy, then you don’t have to pay their ideas any mind or take them seriously. The myriad problems with that myth are more than I can discuss here. I try to have a sense of humor about it, because I know what those kinds of writers are trying to do: rather than undertake a serious exploration of Southern culture, which could be productive, they want to win fans and followers by standing on a platform that has already been built.
Nobody’s Home is about kicking the tires on that way of thinking. Just because the modern South has a strong Republican leaning doesn’t mean that the GOP is the South or vice versa. That portrayal writes off hundreds of state and local officials and millions of voters across the region as irrelevant, or worse nonexistent, because they’re Democrats or independents. Again, that generalization by writers and pundits does makes for a comfortable heuristic, but being partially wrong is still being wrong. So, with that said, my question as an editor is: Then what’s right?