There's been an argument raging about the South. Liberals, we're told, shouldn't demonize or condescend to Southerners. The South they imagine, the South of lynchings, Jim Crow, "separate but equal" and the KKK, isn't the South of today. And besides, even the South of yesterday wasn't all bad. It was, after all, the home of America's greatest literary tradition, of Faulkner, Hurston, O'Connor, McCullers, Williams, Percy, Styron....
In fact, the South of Faulkner and the South of slavery are one and the same, and William Styron is unimaginable without Jim Crow.
Great literary traditions don't always arise out of exemplary societies. Indeed, the opposite is more nearly the rule. Great literary traditions arise out of unsettled, painful, insecure societies. Look at the god-awful history of Ireland, arguably the greatest literary nation, pound for pound, on the planet. More to the point, look at Russia.
Late tsarist Russia, the Russia of Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, was something of a historical coelacanth, a living fossil of a country, an agrarian, feudal society living alongside democratic and industrialized neighbors. Where the serfs had been legally emancipated for years, but life was still ruled by class and caste division. An inherently neurotic place where xenophobia and ferocious nationalism uneasily coexisted with a shameful but pervasive sense of inferiority. A country where the French-speaking upper classes endlessly romanticized the simple piety of the Russian peasant. (Which also brings to mind the English-speaking nouveau riche of contemporary China, but that's another topic.)
Does any of this sound familiar, Alabamans?
While we're on the subject of inferiority and insecurity, let's talk about shame. Shame is rooted in the fear of being found out, of being exposed as less than what one likes to think one is. Of losing reputation, face, status. It has particular power in cultures-- the American South, modern China, the Arab world-- with a history of defeat and humiliation at the hands of stronger, more economically advanced rivals.
Growing up in the South, I heard many times, from many adults, justifications of racism and segregation that began the same way: "When people want to live together in a society...." The upshot being that social rules are more or less arbitrary and indefensible. And incidentally implying that prohibitions against, say, farting in public, incest, selling hammers on Sunday, and racial mixing all have about the same level of moral authority. But moral authority was never the issue. It's really all about shame. "What would the neighbors say?" "If your grandfather were alive to see this...." And a sense of shame, instilled early and reinforced often, is devilishly hard to break free of.
Back to books. Look at the power of shame, of social insecurity, of fear of unworthiness in the work of Southern writers. Look at the class-striving-and-shame in Faulkner and Williams, at O'Connor's characters' reverence for "good country people" and loathing of "white trash."
This is what non-Southerners need to understand. Southerners so vehemently hate condescension because they secretly fear that it's justified. In their heart of hearts, they see themselves as weak, incapable, bullied. At the same time, they revel in macho fantasies and manufactured memories of a heroic heritage. To condescend to, or even in many cases, to criticize Southerners is to pry off the lid of a box of loathing-- of self and other-- so long-fermented and putrid that it smothers reason and discourse, and takes the shape of violence and vengeance. (The U.S. owes its high murder rate mostly to the South.)
The Southern states are the Harris-and-Klebolds of the Union.