The political observer and humorist offers evidence to prove his theory that the ideas, pastimes, and prejudices attributed to the South--including racism, conspiracy theories, and professional wrestling--have been adopted by the nation as a whole.
Release date: October 30, 2002
Publisher: Warner Books
Print pages: 256
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thrown together in one of those inexplicable twists of fate that are, for me, indisputable truth that there is a God and He
writes for Monty Python.
I was an eighteen-year-old white kid straight from the rural South. A graduate of the South Carolina public school system,
I came to Oral Roberts because of a deep, spiritual calling to attend whatever university was farthest from South Carolina
and offered me a full scholarship. That’s how I ended up in the shadow of the Prayer Tower in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
John spoke seven languages, none of them English. At least, not that I could tell. And though he was an officer in a national
army that regularly fired on its own citizens without apology, John himself was a gentle, almost gregarious man. That fact
did not lessen the shock a southern white boy feels on his first morning away from home when he is awakened at dawn by a large
black man in Nigerian cammies doing anticommunist calisthenics at the foot of his bed.
John had never been to America before. His knowledge of our country came almost entirely from his exposure
to commercial television back in Africa. And so our first conversation went something like this:
JOHN: Where were you born, Michael?
ME: Los Angeles, California.
JOHN: California! Hollywood, movie stars!
ME: How do you like it here in Oklahoma?
JOHN: Oklahoma! Cowboys, Indians, Wild West! So where do you live now?
ME: Actually, I grew up down in South Carolina…
JOHN: South Carolina! The American South! Dixie! Ah, the South, ahem… Oh. I see.
Later that night, I found him checking my pillowcases for eyeholes.
Here’s a guy from Africa who doesn’t know Montana from Maryland and thinks Walt Disney was one of our greatest presidents,
but he knows enough about the South to assume that every white guy from South Carolina is in the KKK.
I didn’t think much of this southern stereotyping at the time because I was used to it. In fact, not only was I unfazed by
charges that white southerners were racist, redneck hicks, I was an enthusiastic witness for the prosecution.
There is no other way to put it: I hated growing up in the South. From the age of six, I lived in the rural town of Pelion,
South Carolina, a picturesque community of 211 hearty southern folk, where I spent my formative years running from large,
hairy people named “Bubba,” many of them women.
The public school was a single campus that accommodated
all twelve grades, so I spent my entire educational career with the same group of drawling, intellectually uninspired mouth-breathers,
most of whom thought I was a pinhead who read too many books.
The students didn’t like me, either.
I spent my summers cropping tobacco in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, home of NASCAR’s Darlington International Speedway
and one of America’s highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases, which, due to local cultural traditions, would often
spike immediately after large family reunions.
It was during one of these summers working tobacco that I learned how powerful racism was as a social force in the South:
A black coworker pulled a knife on me late one afternoon in one of the sweltering tobacco barns. Back then the barns were
tall, narrow, heat-holding structures with huge rails—skinned tree trucks, actually—used for hanging sticks of green tobacco
while they cured. My black assailant was only half serious and we were both very young and who knows if we were on the verge
of a fight or a tutorial on fingernail cleaning, but when the knife appeared, the same redneck barn workers who had tortured
me throughout the summer began dropping from the railings above to rescue me. They seemed to appear out of thin air, like
Army Rangers dropping from Black Hawks in a firefight.
After beating the crap out of the black field worker and his friends, one of the older boys in the group looked at me and,
seeing the wonder across my face, said, “Don’t worry—we still hate you, too.”
To this day, I think he meant it in a nice way.
Back home, my family and I attended a series of small
evangelical churches, the kind where the casting-out of demons was a regularly scheduled part of services. These were old-time,
red-meat “Thank you, Jesus!” southern churches with a Pentecostal flair. I never attended a church with a mainstream name:
no First Baptist or Elm Street Methodist. No, we always seemed to be the newest members of places called Springdale Revival
Center or Shekinah Temple or God’s Gonna Smite Yo’ Ass-embly of God.
And so I grew up going to church four or five times a week and playing “fuhtbawl” and hunting squirrels and getting called
“nigger lover” and having the Great American Southern White Boy Experience. All that was missing was a banjo and severe dental
Which is why I never complained when Northerners (or Nigerians) cracked wise about me or my homeland. When I saw movies or
TV shows mocking the South as an inbred backwater of racial obsession, good-ol’-boy politics, and Hee Haw culture, I didn’t grouse because I knew they were right. All I had to do was look around my living room.
But I also inferred that these Northerners who were looking down on us were doing so because they were different. I just assumed
they mocked southern ideas and attitudes because they, as Northerners, found them at the least strange, at the most repulsive,
and, under any circumstances, unacceptable.
So it threw me off my stride when, less than fifteen minutes after arriving in Boston, Massachusetts, for the first time,
the very first white person I spoke to used the word “nigger.”
I had just pulled into town and needed directions. I
stopped at a gas station where a burly, blue-shirted white guy with his name over the pocket barked at me (or is that “baaked”
at me), “You’re all turned around, buddy. This is Nigger Town.”
My head almost snapped back. Here I was, eight hundred miles north of the redneck wonderland I had fled in rural South Carolina,
and the first Yankee I talk to is a racist idiot. I couldn’t believe it. Then I saw him glance at my out-of-state license
plate. “Aha,” I thought to myself, “he’s just going native on me as a southerner. It’s really my fault,” I told myself in
a pathetically codependent way.
And in a way, it was my fault. I spent six years doing stand-up comedy, traveling to forty-one states and performing for thousands of people;
I spent six more years working as a GOP political consultant in places like Chicago and Westchester County, New York, talking
to volunteers and voters from both sides of the political aisle. And inevitably I found that not only did northerners assume
I was a closet Klan member but they had my tacit permission to slip on the intellectual white sheet as well.
In 1997, I was at a cocktail party in Westchester County, which is ground zero for limousine liberalism in America, the kind
of place where Bill Clinton’s annoying mix of self-absorption and self-righteousness would fit right in. Surrounded by Manhattan
expatriates, SUV socialites, and liberals with causes, I happened to mention that I’m from South Carolina. It turns out one
of the gathered had gone through army basic training at Fort Jackson in Columbia. Without so much as a sidelong glance, he
“I like you southerners. You sure know how to handle your niggers.”
I have since discovered that incidents like these are
hardly the exception. Yes, I realize that anecdotes alone aren’t sufficient for drawing grand conclusions about society north
of the Mason-Dixon line. But after a lifetime fleeing my southern heritage and looking for that place in America that practices
(for the lack of a better term) “Northernism,” I am persuaded that no such place exists. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland,
there is no there there.
I’ve eaten Maxwell Street hot dogs near Chicago’s Cabrini Green, Norwegian lefse in Minnesota, sturgeon from the Columbia River, lobster rolls in Massachusetts, ribs in Kansas City, homemade salsa in Los
Angeles, and mounds of fries and gravy at the diner around the corner from the Improv in New York.
I’ve driven through the Rockies a half dozen times, gotten into arguments with snot-nosed college pukes on the steps of a
Boston comedy club, suffered through a program of awful Italian folk songs sung in worse Italian by Sicilian wanna-bes in
Yonkers, New York, and had a shotgun pulled on me at a gas station in Umatilla, Washington.
I’ve written two books, been on dozens of TV shows, and debated everyone from Alan Dershowitz to Pat Buchanan on my talk radio
program. I’ve spent my entire adult life critiquing American politics, culture, society, and the arts from virtually every
corner of this country. At every stop, I was looking for that place so far and so distinct from the Land of Cotton, that corner
of America where the old times of the South would finally be forgotten. And guess where I am today, my northern American Yankee
Right back where I started from, smack-dab in the heart of Dixie.
Twenty years of traveling, tracking, seeking, and soulsearching,
and I have come to the horrifying conclusion that there is no escape. I’m Dustin Hoffman in Papillon. I’m never getting out because there is no out to get.
I live in a Redneck Nation.
From Bangor, Maine, to Baja, California; from Washington State to West Palm Beach; from the ever-burning lights of Manhattan,
New York, to the never-ending boredom of Manhattan, Kansas; from the campuses of Hahvahd, Mass., to the cubicles of Chicago’s
high-rises: No matter where you go in this American nation, you will be surrounded, beset, and overwhelmed by redneckery.
Forget the calzone and cannoli; the only real difference between Brooklyn, New York, and Birmingham, Alabama, is that you
can’t get a gun rack into a Trans Am.
Every one of the fundamental southern ideas I spent my life opposing—racism, irrationalism, mysticism, professional wrestling—has
been accepted and absorbed by our nation as a whole. It’s as if Jefferson Davis came back to life to lead a black helicopter
Confederate coup, seized control of the Union, and took command of the airwaves… but everyone was too dumb to notice.
Yes, Northerners and Southerners talk differently, and, yes, we eat differently and vote differently and express our arguments
differently, but the same Old South principles are at work. Somehow—and I’ll be damned if I can figure it out—the South lost
the Civil War of 1860, lost the civil rights struggle of 1960, but has managed to win the battle of ideas.
This is not a good thing. The South is a land of few ideas, nearly all of them bad.
And if you’re a typical modern northern American, they are probably yours.
When Al Gore announced his pick of Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate for the 2000 election, we Southerners felt the
cold, unfriendly glare of the northern media establishment on the back of our necks. The first Jewish candidate joins a major
party’s national ticket, and immediately the editorialists look southward over their reading glasses and demand, “Well?”
The Associated Press headlined a Karin Miller story “How Will Lieberman Play in the South?” Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times wrote, without source or attribution, “If there is any backlash against Lieberman, it’s most likely to come among Southern
evangelical Protestants in states Gore will probably lose anyway.”
Al Gore himself, praising his own courage and vision, insisted that by simply nominating Lieberman he would “tear down a mighty
wall of division.” The location of this mighty wall was undisclosed, but it’s a safe bet he believed it to be somewhere south
of Skokie, Illinois.
Joe Lieberman: welcomed candidate in the North, suspected Christ killer in the South. That was the story. But this time, the
media right-thinkers were all wrong.
I say this as an avid practitioner of southern self-hatred who under normal circumstances is more than happy to give my homeland
a swift kick in the crawdads. I know from firsthand experience that racism, ignorance, and idiocy down South aren’t as bad
as you think: They’re worse.
In fact, I am so openly critical of my homeland that the natives have awarded me the premier appellation for disloyal Southerners:
scalawag. (The South is the only region of America with a vocabulary dedicated solely to describing its infidels.) A scalawag
is any white southern male (we would never use such a rude word for a lady) who opposes the official flying of the Confederate
flag, supports the activities of the NAACP, or uses an excessive amount of noun-verb agreement.
I plead guilty. But on the issue of southern anti-Semitism, I must defer to the facts. For example:
Where is the oldest synagogue building in the United States in continuous use? What is the home of the fourth oldest Jewish
congregation in America? Boston? Philadelphia? New York? No, Charleston. Charleston, South Carolina. (The third oldest congregation
is in that northern enclave of Savannah, Georgia.)
Who was the first Jewish U.S. senator in America? Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana. Yes, the home of Dixieland and David Duke:
Louisiana. In 1852—when he would have been kicked out of every “decent” club in Connecticut or Massachusetts—Judah P. Benjamin
was representing the very southern folks of Louisiana as a
member of America’s most exclusive debating society. After the secession, the reviled white Protestants of the Confederacy
went kosher and chose Benjamin to serve in the national cabinet as secretary of war and later secretary of state.
In my home state of South Carolina, the building that houses the offices of our state representatives is the Solomon Blatt
Building. Blatt, the son of poor Jewish immigrants, served in the House for fifty-four years—right through Jim Crow and the
rise of the KKK. For thirty-three of those years, which included the tumultuous era of the Civil Rights Movement, he served
as Speaker. Indeed, when the Confederate battle flag was first raised over the statehouse, it was under the watchful eye of
Speaker Sol Blatt.
According to southern scholar John Shelton Reed of the University of North Carolina, if the American South today were a nation,
it would have the sixth largest Jewish population in the world. Include Jews from outside Palm Beach, Florida, and that ranking jumps even higher.
But the point is still made: Jews in America, both at the founding of Charleston’s Beth Elohim temple in 1742 and in the Florida
condominiums of today, have found the South at least as hospitable as the rest of the nation.
And yet northern newsrooms covering the 2000 election operated under the unexamined assumption that the closed-minded South
is an enclave of Jew haters, while the open-minded North is a bastion of tolerance and acceptance. Are there anti-Semites
down in Dixie? You might as well ask if there are anti-Semites in Brooklyn. Or Brookline. Or Chicago. (Just ask Congressman
My personal experience as a Southerner raised in a strongly evangelical home who attended Oral Roberts University is that
I never encountered anti-Semitism—in word or deed—while growing up in the South. Yes, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman lost every
southern state in 2000 (including Gore’s humiliating loss in Tennessee), but they didn’t lose a single one of these states
because of the senator’s faith in Jehovah.
As for Gore/Lieberman’s faith in big-government liberalism… well, that’s another matter.
With this clear, objective record, why is the South viewed in such a negative light, compared to the rest of America? To the
typical nonSoutherner, we’re still the twenty-first-century equivalent of the swimming club in Great Neck, New York, that
refused to let Groucho Marx join because he was Jewish. (“Well, then, how about my son?” asked Groucho. “He’s only half Jewish. Can he go in up to his waist?”)
I stand today and accuse you, my northern friends, not of antisouthern prejudice, but of worse: snobbery. Snobbery and self-righteousness,
both of which are unexamined and undeserved. The typical American Northerner, when considering his Southerner neighbors, suffers
under what can best be described as “delusions of adequacy.”
As a white Southerner who has spent much of his life traveling America, I have repeatedly experienced the immediate, visceral
snobbery that northern Americans, particularly liberals from urban centers, emote when they meet Southerners. It’s an unpleasant
mix of suspicion and condescension. You shake our hands cautiously and, after a “Who bought you the shoes?” glance at our
clothes, give a dubious smile as though you expect us to burst into an
enthusiastic rendition of “Dixie” or start asking questions about how to work the indoor toilet.
It’s not that there aren’t plenty of real southern rednecks—a videotape of my last family reunion could have been a National Geographic special titled “Swimming the Shallow End of the Gene Pool: Redneck Reproduction in the American Southeast.” And I will never
dispute the notion that the American South is dominated by irrational attitudes about race, religion, and culture. My challenge
is: Tell me what part of America isn’t.
This smugness, this condescension, this false sense of superiority that you Northerners feel toward me and my fellow Southerners,
is the reason I wrote this book. Believe me, I grew up believing Northerners were the erudite, rational, antiracist advocates
of achievement and culture you pretend to be. It took me twenty years to find out you were lying.
I know that many readers, Southerners in particular, will reject the idea that there is any significant demarcation of America,
North and South. That the South is the stupidest place in America is obviously, palpably true, but when it comes to the truth,
most Southerners are like the jury in the O. J. Simpson trial. We will not be influenced by mere facts.
But this isn’t a regional conflict between bagels and biscuits. What I thought was happening in the 1960s during the civil
rights struggle was a cultural battle between two worldviews, “Northernism” and “Southernism.”
And there is a distinct southern culture. I lived the southern life, I was enveloped in the southern spirit, I drank from
the deep springs of southern pride, and, at my first opportunity, I ran like a bat out of hell.
Let me be clear: I didn’t just leave the South. I rejected it. As a teenager, whenever I met people for the first time, I
would always try to work in the phrase “Well, I was born in Los Angeles…” The fact that I didn’t know Compton from Santa Clarita was irrelevant. It gave me that one measure of distance
from my southern identity.
When I was thirteen, my father played a cassette recording he had made of me speaking to the church. I think it was “Kids
Who Found Christ Through Herbalife” Day or something like that, and I was working the crowd hard—but that voice. Ugh! I sounded like an a. . .
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