February 7, 2006
Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (Hardcover)
Published by Oxford University Press, "Away Down South" is another book well worth reading to understand the modern Republican Party. We need to warn you that it is not per se about the GOP; in fact it is an eminently readable, but scholarly, study of the actual and perceived heritage of the South.
And the author, former president of the Southern Historical Association and a Professor at the University of Georgia, James C. Cobb, is painstakingly fair. As a specialist in the history of the South, he balances the facts with the myths about the region.
Indeed, the challenge to understanding the South is that it is such a mixture of myth and reality. If the North was prospering as a result of the gritty process of industrialization, the South was relying on the ultimate low wage market (as in slavery) and the intoxicating fuel of romantic notions about its "values."
"Away Down South" is a thoughtful, reflective book that reveals a South much more complicated than its frequent reduction to a stereotype. And Cobb spends much of his book discussing the historical development of the area.
BuzzFlash has discussed before that the new South consists of two different worldviews from an economic standpoint. There is the high-tech, globalized Southern economy represented by people like Ross Perot, who made their fortunes off of the "new" American economy. Then there is the low-wage, natural resources, non-industrialized heritage of the South that came directly from the slave owning tradition.
It is the latter tradition (and these thoughts are BuzzFlash's, not the book's author) that the Bush/Cheney Administration owes its heritage to. That explains why Bush, despite the right wing objections of his party, wants low-wage immigrant workers to be allowed into the country. That is why Cheney and Halliburton and Iraq and oil are so important to the current regime. They harken back to a South that lived off natural resources and the cheapest labor available: slavery. (Again, the book doesn't get into politics much. These are BuzzFlash's observations.)
"Away Down South" is subtitled "A History of Southern Identity," and Cobb does a masterful job of dissecting the perception of identity vs. the reality of life. On the other hand, the self-image of many Southerners, historically, has had more to do with the perception of their identity than with reality. Sound like anyone we know?
Cobb doesn't hold Northerners blameless. He is correct in accusing us of all too easily stereotyping the South into a one size fits all sort of image, which BuzzFlash regularly indulges in. And he's hopeful that the new South is emerging from the shackles of its past identity into something more nuanced.
Cobb has pondered whether there still is a Southern "identity" other than among those with nostalgia for the myth of the "Cavalier" plantation owner. There are so many dynamics at work in the new South, including a rapid growth in the Hispanic population in many key states, such as Texas, that he views the current Southern "identity" as a work in progress.
Unfortunately for us, Bush and Cheney are still stuck in the identity of the ante-bellum South.
This is a rich, detailed discussion of the subtleties of the "Southern Identity." There's no flame throwing here, just an intellectually vibrant exploration of a region whose direction and myths are still unfolding.