Today seemed ordinary enough. I drove to my freelance editing gig. I fought with computer glitches all day while editing video for a couple of clients. I ate a salad for lunch to try to get rid of this gut. I loaded up on caffeine to stay alert after a poor night’s sleep. I drove home in the cold rain, listening to sports radio along the way. By any measure, it was an uneventful day. And then I got home.
I checked my email this evening to see that I had a few new comments on this site. I responded to the first two: one was gently critical of a post; another was harsh and accusatory. Then I saw a third comment I didn’t expect at all. The third one informed me that the site had been quoted in a not-so-flattering fashion on The New Yorker site.
Wait. What? THE New Yorker? I had to see for myself.
The column in question was written by a George Packer. In it, he asserts that the South, through its change resistant, ultra-conservative Republican political stance, is rendering itself politically isolated and culturally irrelevant. It seems that he genuinely wants to see the South embrace its best traits for the betterment of the country. At least that’s what I took from it, but I could be misinterpreting his intent. I choose to give him the benefit of the doubt. As you’ll see, Mr. Packer did me no such favors in assuming the intent of my work. As an example of “regional defiance,” Mr. Packer quoted my post from last week about the importance of football in the South:
After the Crimson Tide’s big win over Notre Dame on January 7th, a Web site called Real Southern Men explained the significance in terms of regional defiance: “Football matters here, because it is symbolic of the fight we all fight. Winning matters here, because it is symbolic of the victories we all seek. Trophies matter here, because they are symbolic of the respect we deserve but so rarely receive.” That defiance is a sure sign, like Governor Rick Perry’s loose talk of Texas seceding, that Southernization has run its course.
Before I rebut his assumptions about the intent of my post, I feel the need to explain a few things about this site. Real Southern Men was created as a lark, a tongue-in-cheek exploration of traditional Southern masculinity and a celebration of the beauty, flavor and unique rhythm of Southern life. As a result, one post might be completely satirical and the next a serious, soulful meditation on more serious matters. Such is the nature of Southern story telling.
This site has no overt political agenda. In fact, we try to stay politically neutral. Sure, we may suggest that every Real Southern Man should know how to responsibly handle a weapon, but we also are willing to question the assumptions of most Southerners about the nature of the 2nd Amendment … and whether we still deserve the rights it confers.
Over the couple of years this site has existed, we have developed an invented editorial voice for it, a voice that is admittedly far more Southern than my own. That voice is quick to adopt the language of Southern hyperbole and make good-natured jibes at “Yankees.”
However, in order to refute Mr. Packer’s claims, I must speak frankly and without the artifice of that editorial voice. This is not Real Southern Men talking. This is Wayne, just Wayne.
Let me start by saying I don’t totally disagree with Mr. Packer. The South is running the risk of political irrelevance. One only need look at the paucity of campaign visits here by presidential candidates. (Then there are those we wish had never come. I’m looking at you, Romney.) It takes nothing short of a disaster to garner the attention of a sitting president. However, to suggest that the South is alone in embracing conservative candidates and conservative ideas is fallacious.
Mr. Packer speaks in broad generalizations throughout, talking of “Northern liberals” and intimating that only Southerners (and all Southerners, at that) were opposed to the societal changes that won President Obama a second term. In painting with such sweeping brush strokes, Mr. Packer only serves to further the disenfranchisement of Northern conservatives and Southern liberals alike. His column, whether it was his intent or not, typifies the divisive, polarizing language of today’s politics. Perhaps most ignored in the politics of “us” and “them” are the political moderates … like me.
My politics are my own business, but suffice it to say I haven’t picked a winner in a presidential election since “The Rachel” was the hair-do du jour for women. Furthermore, I hold both major parties in contempt for the political gamesmanship and violations of personal liberty that have come to define modern American government. Given that I find myself “smack dab” in the middle, on the dividing line between left and right, how then can my post about the importance of football be a statement of Southern political defiance? It cannot. (I won’t even go into the comparison to Gov. Rick Perry, to whom we have also been less than kind on this site.)
When I wrote of the “fight we all fight,” “the victories we all seek” and “the respect we deserve,” that had absolutely nothing to do with political battles. Rather, I was speaking of the challenges and disrespect we often face in our daily lives because of negative Southern stereotypes. Yes, it may have sounded like a polemic to some ears. I can see that. But, hey, I’m Southern. We like our words. I’m just glad he quoted an excerpt where I sounded fairly intelligent.
The fights I fight are those to be the best version of myself that I can be: to be a good husband, father, filmmaker and writer. The success of a football team may not have any direct effect on my life, but the hard work and discipline required to win a championship can inspire me to excel in my own pursuits. This in spite of a culture that often tells me that, as a Southerner, I am inconsequential or, as Mr. Packer would have it, irrelevant.
The victories I seek have nothing to do with politics or regional identity. They have to do with being a positive member of society, raising children who impact this world in a positive way and creating a little bit of beauty in an increasingly ugly world. The respect I deserve is the same respect you deserve, the respect we all deserve.
But we Southerners are often fighting those fights and seeking those victories from a disadvantaged position. As an example, my wife and I were once chosen to present a film project at the Sundance Producers Conference. Of the two hundred or so filmmakers present, no more than a dozen were from the South … and only a handful of us from the Deep South. The first day, we were doing the old “cocktail and mingle.” Another couple (from New York) were very interested in chatting with us until they asked where we were from. When we answered, “Birmingham, Alabama,” they simply uttered a disappointed, “Oh,” and walked away without saying another word. They refused to acknowledge us for the rest of the weekend. This is but one of many examples from my own life. And it seems that every Southerner I know can share similar accounts.
Perhaps, as one commenter suggested, we are “congenitally insecure” in seeking respect. I think not. Perhaps it’s a difference of culture. We are, after all, the people who say hello to total strangers passing on the sidewalk and wave to drivers of approaching cars. Perhaps we’re expecting too much. I don’t think it’s that, either. Mr. Packer’s misreading of my intent is a perfect example of why I don’t. He made assumptions about me (and the contributors to and readers of this site) due simply to geography.
He never thought to imagine that the title of this site is ironic, that when we write about our obsession with football, bacon and guns that it is done with a knowing self-mockery. He never stopped to consider that there are Southern liberals who are just as obsessed with football as their conservative cousins. I suspect Mr. Packer was simply looking for something that seemed stereotypically Southern to bolster his point. Lucky me. (I also suspect that if he ever met me, he would be horribly disappointed. A nerdy, uncoordinated filmmaker in a body that looks like that of a linebacker on the skids is probably not what he had in mind.)
At the end of Mr. Packer’s column, he attempts to end on a hopeful note, appealing to the “hidden history” of the South. A number of people asked me what exactly this hidden history is. I have no idea. He alludes to Southerners fighting against poverty and injustice, but fails to cite any examples. I suppose to do so might have painted the South in a more sympathetic light, and that might have clouded his message. (It should be noted that Mr. Packer’s Wikipedia entry indicates his maternal grandfather was a congressman from Alabama. I sense a story there, one leading to some complicated feelings about the South.)
To quote Mr. Packer:
It would be better for America as well as for the South if Southerners rediscovered their hidden past and took up the painful task of refashioning an identity that no longer inspires their countrymen.
Allow me, if I may be so bold, to take up that challenge. I encourage my fellow Southerners (and all Americans, for that matter) to embrace the best of your regional identity. Be the best Southerner you can be. Be the best New Englander you can be. Be the best New Yorker, Midwesterner or Californian you can be. Regarding politics, inform yourself and make the choices to which your conscience leads – not merely those that conform to your regional stereotype or that represent the lesser of two evils. Our differences should lead to a synthesis of ideas that serves us all. Achieving that synthesis will mean accepting a concept that has become verboten: compromise.
And when it comes to those who disagree with you, I encourage you to remember these words: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
With that in mind, I have reached out to Mr. Packer. Many of my friends hoped I would excoriate him – not only for his misrepresentation of my work, but also for the overall tone and content of his column. Others suggested that an insult from The New Yorker constitutes a compliment. And still others pointed out that any attention is good attention. (I’ve raised toddlers; I find it hard to agree with that one.)
Instead, I chose to apologize for any failings of my own that may have led him to his incorrect assumptions. I also offered to buy him some good ol’ fashioned Southern cuisine should he ever venture down this way. I sincerely hope he does.