Our Hidden History: A Response to The New Yorker

Wayne_Graceland_squareToday 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.

28 Responses to “Our Hidden History: A Response to The New Yorker”

  1. How many National Championship Trophies (in Football), does ANY University in New York have? Just saying!

    • As a moderate, I’m so sick of each extreme acting like we don’t exist or matter. Thank you for a lovely response to their ignorance.

  2. Mr. Packer just made you famous. Expect (hopefully) some media coverage.

    Any writer worth his pen or keyboard would know your site is laced with humor. That said, I’ll paraphrase what a writer for Sports Illustrated recently wrote: This is the South. Our barbecue is tastier. Our women are prettier. Our football is better.

  3. Dear lord…I couldn’t have taken your writing to mean anything more than a personal reflection about “the fight we all fight”. Simply, I do believe someone is trying too hard to find something sinister where there is none. Write on Real Southern Men, we like the voice you have found!

  4. A nice, thoughtful response Wayne.

  5. Thanks for approaching Mr. Packer’s clearly misinformed piece with class.

  6. Thanks for addressing Mr. Packer’s clearly misinformed piece with a touch of class. Well done sir.

  7. Four paragraphs in, there’s an obvious sign Mr. Packer (as in Green Bay? hmmmm) doesn’t do much research:

    He states, “In 1978, the Dallas Cowboys laid claim to the title of ‘America’s team’…”

    Any NFL fan worth their salt knows that the nickname was coined by NFL Films founder Ed Sabol (a New Jerseyan…or is it New Jerseyite?) and that the Cowboy organization initially balked at its use.

    But that’s just my silver and blue blood boiling.

    The rest of the article is full of fallacies. Most notably that “Northern Liberals” are more altruistic in their political beliefs. They’re wearing blinders when it comes to their candidates and causes, just like southerners.

    On a separate but related note…

    I was on Twitter Sunday night as the Golden Globes ceremony was airing (I was not watching the telecast). At a certain point, my feed blew up with a lot of hate speak about Jodie Foster: things like “she’s crazy”, “she’s weird”, “obviously on drugs”, “whacked out of her mind”, “no wonder she’s friends with Mel Gibson…she’s nuts”, etc.

    It should be noted that I follow a lot of openly liberal comedians and writers, and they were the ones making this ruckus over Foster.

    Next morning, I woke up to find that Foster’s speech was essentially a “coming out” statement (again, I did not see it). I’m not exaggerating when I say that on Twitter that morning a lot of those very same liberal comedians and writers were applauding her for being courageous. It was like they completely wiped their previous opinions from their heads because the issue of homosexuality had been introduced.

    As a moderate who openly supports gay rights, I can tell you that Jodie Foster’s speech (I finally saw it on YouTube) is indeed kinda, sorta, a little bit crazy. She’s essentially denouncing the idea that celebrities have to divulge their private lives by coming out of the closet. It’s like trying to prove the sky is green by pointing out how blue it is…i.e. crazy.

    The point is, anybody who tells you that the political beliefs of one group is more selfless and magnanimous than another’s is either a) willingly blind or b) just plain dumb.

    The same can be said for anyone who attacks my buddy Wayne!

  8. “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.”

    Well thought and well written. I agree completely. Alas, as a Southern man with a life full of Southern fathers, uncles, brothers, and friends, I cannot make the observation that what you’ve written is emblematic of the way most Southern men think, Wayne.

  9. When my dad was in the army back in the 50’s, he was stationed right outside of DC. The guys in his unit were surprised when he unpacked a suit, dress shoes and a tie to wear into town one night. They assumed it was mail order and didn’t know we had street cars that took you to a downtown filled with modern shopping.

    Jump ahead to 2011, we were on a shoot in New Mexico. Several days into the shoot, a locally hired production assistant asked if I was from Alabama. I said yes and acknowledged that most of the crew was. He said the Dukes of Hazard was his favorite show and wanted to know if everybody “back home” really kicked around in General Lee cars because it really looked like fun. The guy was disappointed to hear that I don’t like country music, didn’t even know anyone with a rebel flag, hadn’t driven on a dirt road in maybe a year before I came to New Mexico and had only seen cars like the General Lee on television. His mouth was further agape to hear that one of the ten wealthiest cities in the nation is in Birmingham metro area. Surely this was a fluke, right?

    Days later a crew member who also works as a firefighter in the Birmingham area introduced himself to an Albuquerque, New Mexico firefighter named “Geronimo” (which I took to be the cultural equivalent to “Bubba”). Light-hearted banter ensued and took an awkward pause when the Geronimo made the sympathetic observation “I bet it’s really tough to keep your trucks and gear clean, I mean with all the dirt roads down in Alabama”. What tha?

    Twice in one week we encounter two people with grossly distorted views of who we are as southerners and what our lives, values and cars look like. It’s no different than the same ignorant assumptions that my dad faced in the 50’s. Time changes, culture progresses and yet somehow the country at large thinks were are locked in stasis. I could rant on about the blissful ignorance of other regions but instead I’ll channel the gentle voice of every southern grandmother and sum it up with, “Bless their hearts, they don’t know no better”.

    If all you know about the south was learned in high school, through a red state, blue state map, football game or satirical blog – or god forbid, The Dukes of Hazard – you just don’t understand the depth and diversity of the region.

  10. Brian-so well said! I agree with you Wayne obviously Mr. Packer has some underlying issue with the South-he must not have adopted the southern attitude when it comes to “those” relatives-there is one in every family…

  11. Your response was that of a well educated, informed, (Southern) gentleman. Good Lord! When someone reads a blog like this and doesn’t understand the tongue-in-cheek humor, then they are in danger of being labeled an “uptight, lugubrious Yankee.” Lighten up!

    And please don’t let him read my blog about Southern Belles sweeping the beauty pageant scene. He’ll have a stroke.

  12. As a New Englander who bears his share of anti-southern stereotypes, I’ll acknowledge that I read Packer’s piece and turned to your website smugly expecting to find more confirmation of my stereotypes. What a pleasure to find a strong, thoughtful, and wise voice! Thanks for keeping my hope alive that we still constitute a single country with shared values and a positive future. Differences we may have, but men like Wayne–and Packer as well–remind us that we are also big enough to value our differences while respecting what we share as Americans.

  13. Very nice.

    Mr. Packer clearly didn’t spend much time here. I surely hope the people he sent your way will take a longer look around. Sit a spell. Maybe take their shoes off and take a stroll through the lush southern grasses we got in these parts. Soak up some of that RSM atmosphere. Personally, I really like it here.

  14. Well, to be fair to Packer, mention of this website was in passing. The point of his column was to bemoan the compromise-free nature of the South’s monolithic, tea-party Republicanism (only 12 out of 81 southern congressmen voted with the majority on the fiscal cliff compromise). The “Solid South” mostly refers to the rural south, where you can still drive for hours hearing nothing but gospel and preaching on AM radio, and voter intimidation is still rampant. Birmingham, not so much.

  15. I’ve been increasingly horrified by the NY media’s recent portrayals of Southerners. Packer’s article is a continuation of that trend, making some good points, but filled with generalizations that make my Southern skin crawl. Must be the ~”narrower thinking” of my Southern mind or my Southern tendency to move “swifter to violence” (the article’s quotes from W.J. Cash’s 1941 assessment of the Southern character which Packer appears to accept at face value).

    The quote Packer lifted from your site seems like sloppy reporting, taken out of context, dragged up on a last minute google search. I was particularly offended by Packard’s insulting, patrician conclusion (“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”)

    Your response was well-argued and (dare I say it?) gracious. I am happy to have such an eloquent writer representing the South and defending Southern-ness so thoughtfully.

    May I also say that I am blown away by the responses to your article here. What a nice, comfy corner of the Southern internet to discover by chance, while reading the New Yorker. You and your followers “do us Southerners proud”!

    Now, I’m off – to try to be the best Southern-transplant-to-California I can be.

  16. Reading this sort of response makes me proud to live in the South (not that I wasn’t already). We can become our stereotypes, fight our stereotypes, or better yet, as Wayne suggests, embrace them to be the best version of Southerners that we can be. I’m happy to have been transplanted here from my origins in Yankee territory.

  17. Linda O'Connell Reply July 2, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    Hi Wayne,

    I just discovered your blog. I love your voice. I too am proud of my southern heritage and take offense at being stereotyped. I definitely don’t conform to the demographics. Nice job on the response to the “NY Yank.” He’s probably done some time on the therapist’s couch trying to exorcise the influences of his Rebel Grandpa. Keep up the good work. Looking forward to more.

  18. I just clicked over from Fairhope Supply Co. blog and enjoyed your post. I’ve lived “up north” for several years but was born and lived most of my life in the south. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. There is something unique about the people, the land, the hospitality, the food and the spirit of those who reside here. Southerners need not take on the “painful task of refashioning our identity.” We know who we are. We take pride in who we are and to indicate otherwise only adds to the long list of Mr. Packer’s assumptions. I assume that Mr. Packer knows the quote about what assuming does…………….bless his heart. If not, I’m sure we could educate him.

  19. As a young lad growing up it the South, I was 12 years old when I found out “damn yankee” was two words, the way my grand-daddy said it I thought it was two words, Having worked all over the country there will always be the “big city know it all Northerner”, they are the real bigots in this country. We here in the South could teach them a lot, but they will not open their minds to learn from others, how did they ever win the war..

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