Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The South and Selfhood

Last night, I partook in an inadvertently tense conversation.  Somehow, as our community group meandered through the serious and the hysterical, the topic of conversation turned to the display of Dixie flags and Southern identity in general.  One friend from Indiana was somewhat taken aback to discover that she was a "Yankee".  This was not a label she applied to herself, nor was it something derisive where she was from.  Yet upon moving to Kentucky and being surrounded by transplanted Southerners, she found that she was a damn Yankee "who just couldn't understand."  She seemed confounded and almost taken aback by the casual attitude many Southerners (mostly from Alabama, Georgia, [panhandle] Florida, or Virginia) took toward the display of the Confederate flag--to say nothing of the nostalgia for the Confederacy or the exclusivity of being Southern.  The room seemed divided quickly between the vocal Southerners and mostly silent (and presumably Yankee).  Explanations fell on deaf ears going both directions and the tension cooled only when I explained the history of the flag and when it moved from a symbol of a region to carrying racist connotations (Southern protests against the Brown v. Board decision in 1956).

My friend never thought of herself as a Yankee.  She is first and foremost herself, no more tied a unique historical or geographic identity than any one in most states north of the Mason-Dixon.  There's not as much of a tribal--even adversarial--concept among the many Northerners I've met in Louisville.  They don't even much consider themselves "Northerners" (with the exception of a friend from New Hampshire, though is identity is more "New England" than "New Hampshire" and that only because he is in a quasi-Southern setting now).

Yet even among young people from the South, I have observed a tendency away from Southern pride.  Many young, sophisticated professionals in Atlanta would even prefer to do public-relations damage control, going above and beyond to mock Southern ignorance on racial and social issues.  Finding a conservative "good ol' boy" under thirty in Atlanta is easier than finding one in many cities, but much harder than in small Southern cities like Montgomery, Chattanooga, or Columbus.  To their credit, these millennial cosmopolitans are doing much to raise awareness of latent racial and social injustices (though I think they overplay the problem; racism is no worse in Montgomery than it is in New York or Chicago these days).  Yet they too are struggling to identify themselves as individuals rather than as Southerners.

The movement of higher education, according to Peter Lawler in chapter 3 of Modern and American Dignity, is no longer toward teaching students to live in light of their natural condition.  Instead, college is now based on two premises: productivity and autonomy.  Productivity is the thrust of twentieth-century bourgeoisie values represented by practical majors like engineering, hard sciences, and business.  Autonomy is the 1960s bohemian response, usually embodied in majors like psychology, the "soft sciences" (sociology, anthropology, etc.), and anything ending in "-studies" (Native American studies, African American studies, women's studies, etc.)  These are, in the minds of modern sophisticates, the two venues for displaying real individual dignity and significance.

Let's break those two down some more.  The philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that people demonstrate their dignity through their productivity.  This means that traditional understandings of dignity--birth or pedigree, race, gender, religion, means--are false and useless.  The only adequate and legitimate measure of a man or woman is what results he or she can get.  So the hard sciences are what you wanna study.  Engineers build stuff and make money.  Managers lead big companies and make money.  Scientists invent stuff or save lives and make money.  Very pragmatic and useful definition, just like the stereotypical 1950s dad.

And autonomy?  This comes from the philosopher Immanuel Kant (among others).  He taught that your dignity can't come from what you can do.  It's crass!  So instead, your dignity comes from asserting your individuality against the principles of nature and behavior.  You are at your individual best when you are distinguishing your values and identity over and against whatever society prescribes to you.  You are not first and foremost a son, a wife, a student, a Christian, an employee, an American, even a Southerner.  You are an individual and the more you distinguish yourself from any natural limitations or societal roles, the more dignified you are.  That's why many social sciences (sometimes eschewing the earlier and more medieval term "humanities") are all about empowering yourself against the constraints of a society out to define you.  At my college, there was even a women's studies group called "Empower" for this very reason.   The thrust of this idea is very free-spirited and unique, just like the stereotypical 1960s hippie.

Today we have fused these two principles together.  Millionaires are no longer stuffy and WASPy like Cornelius Vanderbilt or John D. Rockefeller.  Now they are button-down, casual, even whimsical like Steve Jobs or the executives of the laid-back and fun Googleplex.  David Brooks called these nouveau riche "bobos"--bourgeoisie bohemians.  They display their individuality as much as they can... so long as it doesn't interfere with their productivity.  Even the funhouse that is Google headquarters will fire you if you spend too much time in the onsite swimming pools or volleyball courts.

And what has all this to do with Dixie?

As the family, the church, and the social state weaken, colleges ought to be filling in the gap.  My time in college ministry showed me that many students don't know who they are or what they should be doing.  They have been raised on 90s pop-psychology of self-esteem.  Since "everyone's a winner" and "you can be whatever you want to be", the immediate questions to arise in each student are: "Then who am I?"  "And what should I be?"  Parents, pastors, educators, and community leaders who drank deeply of the feel-good Kool Aid have no answer.  So many will distract them with money and material needs or will resort to empowering them against the ills of society.  But who are they?

Proud Southerners, with our tribal mentality and our sometimes-irrational devotion to our region and culture, find better grounding than the Atlanta-style sophisticates or the Yankees because Southern is part of the identity.  Our devotion to God, guns, and glory (or college football, fried chicken, and "Bless Your Heart"s if you prefer) is finally impossible to explain.  It is a part of being Southern and it something greater than any individual Southerner.  It's part of a larger realization of our natural roles given to us by the God of the Bible or the philosophers' God of nature.  It is a part we are given as a part of our tribe, just as we are all sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, citizens of our nation, servants of Jesus Christ.  Call them roles, call them labels, call them duties, whatever you want; they give us our identity.  As Walker Percy says in Lost in the Cosmos, we just don't have the words for ourselves.  We ultimately can't define ourselves because there's no words we can formulate to fully encapsulate who we are as individuals.  To do so is futile.  We must ground ourselves from the outside with the roles we have been given.

When we recognize the futility of self-definition, will we finally cry out for help from beyond?


  1. "Colleges ought to be filling in the gap."

    I completely agree.



    How should they do this?

    I suspect you'd say that colleges ought to fill the gap by requiring students to read the great books (or maybe even pretty good ones), which of course I find great. But I imagine that a thoughtful and intense reading of the great books does more to disorient a person and dislodge her from her "natural condition" (i.e. lead her to question her actual life) than about anything else. After all, a reading of authors who lived scattered over the planet and over scores of centuries is the best way to reveal the conditional and temporal and trendy elements of one's own culture--which is to say culture itself. The best way to feel connected to place and to one's peers and co-inhabitants in a college setting would be to focus on all the things that make students everywhere identify with their college--things like rooting for one's football team, wearing the school name on every article of clothing, and, yep, even engaging in those silly team-building exercises because they inadvertently bond the participants in a feeling of rebellion against The Man. Also I’d encourage students to take "studies" classes, which effectively do the opposite of what you suggest. In practice their tendency is communal (or, from a conservative perspective, collectivist). They build solidarity and group identity in practice far more than they celebrate the autonomy of the individual.

    So what you're really calling for, it seems, is less book reading, more football, more team-building exercises, and more studies classes.

    Okay...before I go. "Proud Southerners..find better grounding than..." You may be right. But what does this mean? Without getting all assessment-trendy or social-science-y on you, I need to ask, "...and how do you know/measure this?" Is it just a feeling? I’m okay with it being just a feeling, but I just wanted some clarity here.

  2. Excellent points. Let me clarify and disagree. Or maybe disagree and clarify. Don't get picky on the order.

    You're right about the great books. They grant a good deal of perspective, geographic and temporal. But teaching these texts ought to to do more than simply encourage free-thinking. There must be something true in these books for anyone to find them compelling. So let's get real, teach as though there's something here worth taking home and applying. Maybe they've stood the test of time due to some academic majority consensus or white man's power. Or maybe there are still around because they are somehow truer and more compelling (and just frankly have more to offer us) than the not-so-classic 1702 diary of Stephen Obscuricus.

    So yeah, colleges can fill the gap with these fine texts. But that's not all! Nothing beats a professor who takes the time to get to know the students. As he/she/roboprof does so, there ought to be a sort of fervency about the material. I think great teachers are sort of infectious about the material. They love it and it moves them because they think it's really true, not just information to be assimilated and relegated to the masses of competing and co-equal accounts of life, the universe, and everything. If everything is true, nothing is true. If it's all equality compelling and quality, then really none of it is.

    I am pro-football. The Crimson Tide is my second denomination and Nick Saban is the vicar of Bear Bryant. And I am personally anti-team-building because there in my heart there's a diminishing return on those ropes courses. The more I'm forced to do them, the less I actually enjoy them or engage with others with me. But in principle I'm not opposed.

    Also, this last point you raise seems to be the most misunderstood from folks I've heard from. That's probably my failure as a writer. If I'd read it aloud, "Proud" and "Southerners" would have been equally emphasized. Let me go back to my friend from earlier; she is from Ft. Wayne, Indiana. I am just plain ignorant of the level of community cohesion in Ft. Wayne. But if it's high enough, you could just as easily say "Proud Fort-Waynesians". And any Proud Fort-Waynesian could tell you why Ft. Wayne is better than Paris or Milan. I picked the Proud Southerner because I am Southern and I know it best. Also, there's a swagger and a sense of belonging that comes with it. If you got it right, I mean. It's not that Yankees are ontologically inferior, they're just not Southern. Bless their hearts.

    So really it's a part of our human condition that may ultimately be a bit beyond the empirical. (Seems like a cop-out. Is it? Probably.) Maybe I could do a survey and analyze the results, demonstrating that respondents who feel high senses of belonging and high communal pride are less likely to be depressed, but surveys seem a bit dubious to me.

    I'd rather explain that you'll never eat chili as good as my sister's. It won first prize in the 2005 Crosspoint Church Chili Cook-off Fundraiser. She was only fifteen and beat out guys three times her age, even Pastor Greg and Doug the hotshot Atlanta cameraman. Or how Pastor Keith still won't let me hum AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" around him because he wrecked his fourth car to it in high school (back when they called him "The Bandit"). Or how Mom still threatens to bend me over her knee and whip me if I ever mouth off to her. Though I'm a solid seven inches taller and twice her size, I know she can do it. So is it a feeling? Sorta. It's logical and true, just not very empirical.

    I mean, I know that I KNOW you are living in darkness until you eat that chili.

  3. "Or maybe there are still around because they are somehow truer and more compelling."

    But they don't speak in one voice. One example of among a billion: Spinoza says the universe is one thing; Leibniz says the universe is an infinite number (or big bunch) of things; Descartes says the are two kinds of things; and half of the 20th century thinkers seem to suggest there is no-thing apart from our thoughts.

    Since I know you're not a relativist, I don't think it's possible to say that there's "something true in these books." All of them, or all but one are surely wrong. Badly wrong. The truth of which, when absorbed, is not grounding but disorienting.

    Except, of course, in the land of good chili.

    One last thing. The "last point" I raised wasn't a point at all. It was a question. A sincere one.

    How ARE Southerners better grounded? I'm still curious.

  4. Mike, you keep me on my toes. I appreciate it because it produces better writing. Or maybe just better-footnoted writing. Or couched writing. Or dense writing. No, better.

    You’re right that the Great Books don’t seem to have much consensus. However, to plagiarize Moses, Paul, and God, maybe we can “plunder the Egyptians” or “test the spirits and cling to the good.” So it could be that Descartes is right on x but wrong on y. Spinoza may be right on y, but wrong on x and z. We can appreciate—and even appropriate—what Spinoza says about y and synthesize it with Descartes’ x. Some will argue that this destroys Descartes and Spinoza, that you can’t take a single Jenga block without destroying the whole tower. But I think you can affirm what a thinker gets right without buying it all wholesale. We could, for instance, agree with Locke’s definition of rights without buying his myth of our origins. We may find that x is true even if the path to getting there was faulty. It may not be true to all of what Locke said, but so long as we distinguish what he said from what we’re affirming, I don’t think we’re being relativists. In fact, I think we’re actually appealing to a standard—an Absolute Truth—by which we can judge what’s good and bad and leave behind what is wrong. As to what the Whole Truth exactly is, I’m not sure we will ever by our own efforts completely discover it (I’m not Hegel). So I think we should be bold about what has been revealed, humble in what we opine, and honest concerning what we’ll never on our own be sure.

    So why are Southerners better-grounded? Far better authors than I have tackled this before (Robert Penn Warren, C. Vann Woodward, Walker Percy, the list goes on). So I’ll give it a layman’s shot:

    1) The ghost of Christianity. The South has historically and now decreasingly a socially Christian culture. Southern churches are just as often social clubs as they are religious organizations. There is PLENTY to critique about this and much good work is being done on that front. But one nice benefit of it is that most Southerners believe that there are things only in the hands of a personal God. So there’s a sense of divine providence haunting the South, limiting what can be accomplished by human effort.

    2) Confederate defeat. Percy once told a reporter that the South has so many good writers because they lost the war. The Civil War was a crushing defeat to Southern pride. Instead of marching boldly into the Promised Land over the heathen Yankee Canaanites, the defeated Confederacy found itself the enslaved in Babylon—exiles in their own land. Much soul-searching, stump speeches, and fiery sermons led to the conclusion that there are limits to what we can achieve. Make all your plans for a productive economy, earnestly check yourself for a just and honorable heart, boast as loudly as you can about your inherent dignity and autonomy, fast and petition Almighty God as fervently as you can; you may still find yourself defeated and broken. So the question during Reconstruction moving forward became how to lose well. Don’t think you can achieve too much. The hubris of Babylon may have been the sin of Richmond.

    1. 3) Tribalism/localism. No other American region is quite so navel-gazing and frankly snooty than the South is. I have yet to see a writer boast about the superiority of Iowa to all its neighbors or see a shirt that says, “It’s a Montana thing. You Wyomingans just wouldn’t understand.” One exception would be Texas, but it is in fact a Southern state (when it wants to be). And Southerners will puzzle over what constitutes being Southern and which states are appropriately “in the family” (I say Kentucky and Texas yes, West Virginia and Maryland no, Delaware and Florida south of Orlando never). New England does this some (I hear Rhode Island is suspicious and New York unworthy), but not the same extent. I was recently shocked to hear that barbeque is a uniquely-Southern food… I thought it was everywhere food. But this obsession ties you to where you live over and against everywhere else. Why is my sister’s chili the best? Because your chili is inferior! It’s foreign and bizarre, made without special love for me nor care for the unique spices of our Georgia household. And you didn’t win our church’s chili cook-off, you carpetbagger. As an example, in my mom’s hometown of Camden, Alabama, everyone STILL knows who the descendants of Yankee carpetbaggers are. They have a lot of the money in town (still) and sycophants are nice to their faces (still) and most folks are polite yet still regard them with disdain and suspicion (yes, even still). All that to say: Southerners tend to think privately that they’re better than others because they belong to this place and y’all don’t. But any given individual is one of “us” and any interloper is one of “them”. It’s tribal and primitive, but it certainly gives any individual Southerner a grounding in who she is and where she’s from.

      4) Knowing your place. This is probably the most offensive point to the country at-large. Indeed it has been used to justify racism and social stagnancy, as well as to stigmatize social or economic advancement. However, on its better days, it teaches that there is dignity is doing what you can with what you have been given. My great-grandmother never had a fraction of the opportunities women have today. She grew up in Dallas County, Alabama, and that’s where she died. She drove a school bus or worked in the department store in Selmont for most of her life. She never went to college and never really aspired to. It just wasn’t a possibility. She was never a particularly productive or entrepreneurial worker (she didn’t make much money) nor did she proactively assert her autonomy. One time she did put a .38 special in an abusive husband’s face and swore she’d blow his brains out if he ever laid a hand on her grandbaby again, but that was in her (quite proactive) role as a granny. I think many today could look at her situation and say that patriarchy held her in a submissive economic position (especially the sleazy basketball coach that seduced her in high school) or that economic inequality limited her earning potential. She wouldn’t though say all that though. She would fetch out her King James Bible and say, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” She tried to do what she could with what God had given her. He could have given more, he could have given less. Deal with what is, she’d say, and be grateful for what you don’t deserve rather than rail about what you should be owed. And because she wasn’t awash in pure potentiality, because she wasn’t raised to believe that she could be whatever she wanted to be, she just did right by what she had. Her role as a wife, a mother, and a grandmother gave her far more grounding than the modern student who has plenty of options but no real guidance.

    2. That’s not to say Southerners support lessening the opportunities students get, only that we oughtn’t to be afraid to tell our kids that some dreams just aren’t realistic. If Timmy has a knack for plumbing but can’t tell a stapler from a Saturn V rocket, maybe he shouldn’t be an engineer. Steer him away from it. Teach him how God has gifted him and show him out to live out what he was meant to be rather than to throw open the floodgates and drown him with “productive” or “empowering” ideas that leave him angst-y and whimpering.

      Whew! Maybe all that sounds a little fatalistic and too accepting of injustice in the world. I just think there are limits to this project of self-definition most Americans seem intent on completing. I’m not sure we’ll ever really complete it. I also greatly fear what lay at the end of this road we’ve paved with good intentions.

  5. "But I think you can affirm what a thinker gets right without buying it all wholesale." Right.

    The other thing I thought you might say (um, because I believe it and therefore assumed all right thinking people would think it) is this: the authors of these books did a lot of intellectual heavy lifting, and they are far heavier lifters than I am (mb, that is). Though they don't agree with one another, it is instructive and humbling to see how really smart and really thoughtful people do disagree with one another. Tracking their arguments, though challenging, ultimately is closer to being within our reach than doing that heavy lifting ourselves. It's also useful to read the best arguments for any position.