CommunityFDL Main Blog

Late Nite FDL: Southern Fried Civility

chivalry Last Thursday, a Republican punched a Democrat on the floor of the Alabama Senate:


Now it’s wrong to say that this sort of thing only happens in the South; but it is right to say that for America, its origin as a tendency is Southern. Punching someone instead of arguing with them — the instinct to use violence as the first, best answer to a threat not just against one’s person, but against one’s position or “honor”, is something very old, enduring, and ingrained in Southern culture.

“Violence as the first resort” is a basic part of Southern identity and tradition. There’s an old study of Southern psychology, The Mind of the South by W.J. Cash that, whatever its other faults, describes the tendency very well:

In focusing the old backcountry pride upon the ideas of superiority to the Negro and the peerage of white men, and thereby (fully in the masses, and in some basic manner even in the planters) divorcing it from the necessity for achievement, it inevitably shifted emphasis back upon and lent new impulsion to the purely personal and puerile attitude which distinguishes the frontier outlook everywhere.

And when to that was added the natural effect on the planters of virtually unlimited sway over their bondsmen, and the natural effects on the common whites of the example of these planters, it evenuated in this: that the individualism of the plantation world be one which, like that of the backcountry before it, would be far too much concerned with bald, immediate, unsupported assertion of the ego, which placed too great stress on the inviolability of personal whim, and which was full of the chip-on-shoulder swagger and brag of a boy — one, in brief, of which the essence was the boast, voiced or not, on the part of every Southerner, that he would knock hell out of whoever dared to cross him.

This character is of the utmost significance. For its corollary was the perpetuation and acceleration of the tendency to violence which had grown up in the Southern backwoods as it naturally grows up on all frontiers. Other factors […] played their part in perpetuating and elaborating this pattern, too. But none was more decisive than this one. However careful they might be to walk softly, such men as these of the South were bound to often come into conflict. And being what they were — simple, direct, and immensely personal — and their world being what it was — conflict with them could only mean immediate physical clashing, could only mean fisticuffs, the gouging ring, and knife and gun play.

Nor was it private violence that was thus perpetuated. The Southerner’s fundamental approach carried over into the realm of public offenses as well. What the direct willfulness of his individualism demanded, when confronted by a crime that aroused his anger, was immediate satisfaction for itself — catharsis for personal passion in the spectacle of a body dancing at the end of a rope or writing in the fire — now, within the hour — and not some ponderous abstract justice in a problematic tomorrow. And so, in this world of ineffective social control, the tradition of vigilante action, which normally lives and dies with the frontier, not only survived but grew so steadily that already long before the Civil War […] the South had become peculiarly the home of lynching. […]

Allow what you will for esprit de corps, for this or that, the thing that sent him up the slope at Gettysburg […] was before all else nothing more or less than the thing which elsewhere accounted for his violence — was nothing more ot less than his conviction, the conviction of every farmer among what was essentially only a band of farmers, that nothing living could cross him and get away with it.

When Senator Bishop punched Senator Barron for calling him a son of a bitch, he was simply adhering to a Southern tradition. Obviously, Senator Barron was being obnoxious. Yes, and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was pompous and conceited (when U.S. Grant was told Senator Sumner didn’t believe in the Bible, the general was spot-on in his reply: “That’s only because he didn’t write it.”), but even so, it did not mean that another Southern traditionalist, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina ought to have beat him down with a cane on the floor of the Senate while a Southern comrade held back by gunpoint any attempts at intervention. And indeed, it’s only because the majority of American opinion is Liberal — which is to say, disgusted by manifestations of violent Southern tradition — that Senator Zell Miller could not follow through on his famous wish to meet Chris Matthews on the field of honor.

Contrast the description in the Cash quote to the perennial claims of wingnuts that the Republican Party is the party of ideas, whereas the Democratic Party is the party of feelings. Actually, wingnuts act the way they do because of feelings, too — except theirs are the wrong sort of feelings, child-tantrum feelings, impulsive and violent.

Wingnuttia, which knows it is troglodytic, admires the Southern cultural tradition of impulsive violence for exactly that quality. Wingnuttia perpetuates it, inculcates it, exalts it; indeed, it would like to universalize it. As Hank Jr. might say, when wingnuts rage on and want America to bomb Muslims all night long, well it’s a Southern tradition. And that tradition of interpersonal, tribalist, and racist violence, acted out of impulse and entirely divorced from reason, entirely influences everything they do.

Like, in foreign policy. The Southern tradition of impulsive violence is part of what Walter Russell Mead calls “The Jacksonian Tradition”, named after President Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, a semi-literate hothead who raged against those who offended his honor–and sometimes killed them. Now Mead likes Jacksonian America, and seeks to conflate it with all sorts of simple populist tendencies so as to make it more palatable to the masses; he believes America needs Jacksonians, and so avoids describing in unadorned language what they are really all about — armed to the teeth, irrational, itching for a fight with anyone, anywhere. But the Freepers can parse his code, see themselves in the Jacksonian mirror. Reading their comments one can almost hear the “yeeeeeeeeee haws” and “tarnations”. And Perfesser Corncob of Knoxville, Tennessee, echoes their rebel yells. Oh, yes, America: all your Jacksonian base are belong to wingnuts!


Contra the Jacksonians, the way of civilization is to solve international disputes without violence. Through diplomacy. Though this is not always possible, it is the proper “first, best” response to a problem. This is exactly purpose of the State Department; and only if and when the State Department fails does another executive branch ministry, the Department of Defense (which was originally and honestly named the Department of War before Empire’s hardworking euphemists gave it a make-over) take action. Naturally then, wingnuts detest the State Department’s whole reason for existence. State Department “realists” versus Department of Defense neocons has been the primary internecine conflict of the Bush administration. For a long time there, you could scarcely read anything by Frum, Perle, Krauthammer, et al. that did not have a sneer at Colin Powell’s expense inserted somewhere in the text, usually accusing Powell’s State Department of sabotaging the war effort. And now they hate Condi, whom they loved when she was National Security Advisor. Condi has not changed, but her position has; as Secretary of State her job is diplomacy not jingoism. So now that she’s not a jingo, she sucks. As an example, here’s Michael Ledeen, snarling at diplomats and recommending Joe “Bomb Iran” Lieberman for Secretary of State. As is usual for neocons, Ledeen’s formula is to demonize diplomats as “appeasers”. Ledeen wants to eliminate diplomats and replace them with jingos; he wants to change the very nature of the State Department so that it ceases to think and communicate and haggle; he wants it to bomb first and ask questions and think about consequences later; and Ledeen is right that Joe Lieberman is no diplomat. Yet, even if Ledeen got his wish and Lieberman were made Secretary of State, it’s doubtful he or the rest of the neocons would be satisfied. Even Henry Kissinger, war criminal, is not and was not bellicose enough for their tastes. But then it kind of logically if sociopathically follows that there is a point at which even overkill fails to sate the urges of those who are recklessly and impulsively violent. Neocons are Jacksonians 2.0.

It’s a pathetic situation. The Southern tendency to impulsive stupidity is everywhere. The Southern tendency to impulsive violence, however, is mostly confined to wingnuttia — a deserving home. And it goes without saying that it remains in the geographical South. I’m a Southerner by birth and have lived most of my life in Arkansas and Tennessee. Impulsive violence surrounds me; and I admit that I have sometimes engaged in it or have wanted to. But as Cash says, it’s a part of the frontier mentality. Only under special conditions did it survive the demise of the frontier. Those conditions are caused in large part by the desire of people to preserve things that ought to go over the cliff. Wingnuts seek to preserve this part of the Southern tradition because it suits their warmongering purposes. Which is all the reason more why we should let it die. When Rush Limbaugh attacked the First Daughter by comparing her to a dog, the Southerner in me wanted Bill Clinton to storm “EIB” studios and kick his fat ass. But it would have been wrong, and a bad example. Part of being civilized is trying to overcome the nasty habits of one’s culture. We may not always be successful, but we must try.

Previous post

Profiles in Courage, GOP Edition

Next post

HTML Mencken

HTML Mencken