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?