S is for Southern is an encyclopedia of sorts. It’s not comprehensive and it’s not it meant to be. Nor is it meant as an actual reference guide. No, the book is meant for reading cover to cover, and in that way, it’s enjoyable. And it reminds of the many things I love and hate about the South.
S is for Southern is a mostly pleasant exploration of the many things that make the South the South. For those of you who have never spent much time in Dixie, the place can lay claim to many things. Some, such as Coca-Cola and Elvis, you have heard about. Others, such as boiled peanuts, maybe not. And while I’ve lived in the South about 20 years, I’ve never once had a boiled peanut, nor do I aim to. They look disgusting.
At one level, S is for Southern is a moonlight and magnolias, mint julep-sipping celebration of the people, places, food, music and traditions that make the South distinctive. At another level—and here I’ll employ my Yankee cynicism—it is another entry in the vast southern propaganda mill, which has been at work at least as early as 1607, when the English landed at Jamestown. Later, this propaganda mill would churn out many writings by Jefferson and Madison, not to mention the hardcore proslavery theorists of the antebellum period and the segregationists of the late 19th and 20th centuries.
The South might lag behind the North and West Coast in per capita income, employment, divorce rates and literature. But it continues to win the propaganda war. Despite the many, many problems plaguing the South, southerners defend it as a place of lower taxes, warmer and sunnier weather and friendlier people. After all, southerners say, “what are you gonna do when the rent gets too high in New York, move to Detroit?”
You probably won’t find a book out there called N is for Northern, for the simple reason that Northerners don’t spend much time thinking about what makes them Northern. In contrast, southerners often dwell on identity, probably because they have much explaining to do. Despite the progress the region has made in the last 50 years on civil rights, economics and education, the South remains a profoundly racist, bitterly conservative and shockingly intolerant place with dismal public education (especially in cities), infrastructure, and economic stratification.
I’m not even sure the food is better, even though S is for Southern is certain it is. As an example, and I’m speaking from painful personal experience here, southern Chinese food is the worst in the country. And let me remind you of the existence of boiled peanuts. The truth of Southern food is that unless you can afford one of the South’s many overpriced restaurants, you’ll have to make do with Waffle House or Hardees.
Weather? Please. If you’re sick of winter you can move somewhere warm and sunny, such as Florida. Mostly, though, the South has three types of weather: hot, cold and allergies. Even if you move to Florida, you will have to put up with one major obstacle to your happiness: the fact that you live in Florida.
“Ah,” southern boosters will counter, “taxes are so much lower in the South!” Maybe for some people. What the South truly loves, though, are regressive taxes, like sales tax. New Hampshire doesn’t have sales tax. Massachusetts doesn’t tax food. When I was in Baton Rouge, I had to pay a 9% sales tax. Freedom, y’all!
In essence, southerners are cheap and they get what they pay for. Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi are consistently ranked at the bottom of all the good stuff nationally and are at the top of the heap in all the bad stuff. But their football teams are great, right? Wrong. Sure, the South do love them some college football. But college football is the bush leagues when you are talking about the NFL. And who dominates football? Well, for the past 20 years, it’s been the Patriots. Baseball? The Yankees and Red Sox. Hell, even the Cubs won a championship a few years ago.
About the only area I’ll give the South the edge in is music. The blues, country and jazz all started in the South. And today, pretty much all American music I listen to originated in the South or was heavily influenced by it. Arkansas alone produced Al Green, Levon Helm, Johnny Cash, Sonny Burgess, Charlie Rich and Conway Twitty.
Really, music is about the only healthy thing the South has ever produced. Historically speaking, New England got the Puritans and Virginia got the tobacco growers. People in Richmond still complain about hikes on cigarette taxes.
Despite contributions by edgy writers like Patterson Hood and Jason Isbell, S is for Southern is remarkably quaint, with a tone closer to Roy Blount than it is to H. L. Mencken. In many ways, S is for Southern harkens for the days before air conditioning, when peoples sat fanning themselves on porches while they sipped mint juleps. But let’s face it, no one outside of the movies has ever done that. The South will continue to be what it always has been: a drag on the rest of the country.
Trump is a national politician, but the most stubborn rocks in his base are in the South. Since day one, the South’s mouthpieces have been masters of manipulation. “Our slaves are content and loyal,” masters argued. It was the North, they claimed, that was truly racist and working its factory laborers like chattel. The South has been so important to American politics that Nixon devised a southern strategy, one that was disturbingly relevant in 2016.
The takeaway in S is for Southern is this: “aren’t we just a bunch of colorful characters down h’yuh?” Be careful, my northern friends. Be very careful.