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The Worst of the South

Excuse me, but some of us are trying to have a civilization here.

MENTION THE LATEST CELEBRATION of the “Best of the South”—that familiar exercise in home-brewed hubris—and the oldtimers half-suppress a smirk because we can’t lose the image of the professional inebriate Phil Harris belting out “That’s What I Like About the South.” Without fear of contradiction, I might confer my highest honors on the incredible cheese biscuits at Emilie’s bakery in Todd, N.C. But by temperament and training I’m better qualified to identify the worst of the South, much of which has been all too evident this spring. In May, on the actual eighty-second anniversary of the arrest of John Scopes for teaching Darwin to high-school students in Tennessee, a dismal lineup of ten Republican presidential “hopefuls” (abandon all hope, America, if any of these midgets is elected) was asked to revisit The Origin of Species.

“Is there anybody on the stage that does not believe in evolution?” the moderator asked them. Three raised their hands. Three—in the Year of Our Lord 2007. Only one, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, was a Southerner. But we all know which region harbors most of the Stone Age fundamentalists to whom this vile pandering is directed.

Of course, the question is as stupid as any of their answers. You don’t believe or disbelieve in evolution, any more than you believe or disbelieve in gravity, or photosynthesis. For a hundred years now, no one with a scientific IQ much higher than a mole rat’s has questioned the fact of evolution. The debates, the controversy, the “theory” part was about process, about the genetic and biological intricacies of natural selection. Fundamentalists who keep saying that it’s only a theory engage in flagrant rhetorical dishonesty—as I’ve been obliged to call out at least ten thousand times.

H.L. Mencken, that great disparager of Dixie who covered the Scopes Trial in 1925 and found the best of the South to be mighty slim pickings, would have to muster all his pessimism and distaste for feral religion to believe that Charles Darwin is still on trial in the twenty-first century. But he would relish, no doubt as much as I do, the science story that has made my year so far. As reported in the Washington Post, geneticists at MIT and Harvard have concluded that human beings and chimpanzees not only evolved from a common ancestor 6.3 million years ago, but actually enjoyed (we assume) a million years of interbreeding before they went their separate ways romantically. So the modern human is a monkey-island mongrel, a hybrid primate with intimate blood ties to modern chimpanzees, who share 99.4 percent of our DNA. Remember the so-called “Missing Link” between apes and humans? The Missing Link is you, pilgrim. You and me.

When I told Roy Blount about the chimp scandal and all those flat funny faces peering down from the branches of the family tree, he didn’t seem alarmed. “Wonder if it was us or them who decided to stop,” said he.

“We probably had a bit of a messy origin,” concedes geneticist James Mallet of University College, London.

“We humans appear as only slightly remodeled chimpanzee-like apes,” adds Morris Goodman of Wayne State, who has proposed that the biological genus Homo, currently reserved for Homo sapiens alone, be expanded to include chimpanzees and bonobos.

Wouldn’t you like to put on a gorilla suit and hand-deliver the bad news to Pat Robertson? There’s even a place in Holy Scripture where one of Jane Goodall’s seductive little friends may be hiding. Close readers of Genesis have always been troubled by Genesis 4:17, where the fratricidal Cain, expelled from Eden and settled in the land of Nod, “knew his wife” and fathered a son. We don’t doubt that he knew her well; but where did she come from, since no humans other than Adam’s dysfunctional little family have yet appeared? Was Cain’s bride on the short and fuzzy side, and does that make him the Bible’s first liberal?

Confronting creationists and scriptural literalists, it’s hard not to rub it in. If you want to believe that the earth is four thousand years old or that angels hover over Knoxville on warm summer nights, God bless you, that’s what freedom’s for. But when Christian troglodytes obstruct education, vandalize basic science, and humiliate craven politicians already dancing like organ grinders’ monkeys to please Wall Street and its media, enough is enough, and it was enough in 1925. Some of us, without much luck, are trying to have a civilization here. It’s an uphill struggle, and a lot of you aren’t pulling your weight.

When the South is safe for Darwin, maybe that’s when we can begin to boast. Yet creationists are harmless cranks compared with our native gun cult, a pack of mad dogs who came out howling after the Virginia Tech massacre to argue—as if this were a golden opportunity to present their case—that the death toll from armed psychotics would be much lower if every American carried a pistol. “If the professors and students had been allowed to carry guns, how many lives would have been saved?” asked Gary Meier of Young Harris, Georgia. The first three or four times I encountered this argument in letters to the editor, I thought, well, this is just your odd mental patient, stirred up by violence and low on medication. But after reading several dozen similar outbursts, one from a Virginia college professor, I had to prop up a jaw, which had dropped to my knees, and conclude that odd mental patients are the core constituency of the NRA’s gun lobby—many of them Southerners and many no more intimate with reality than the gunman at Virginia Tech.

It’s the firearms obsession, even more than our Star Wars versions of Christianity (more than seventy percent of Americans claim to believe in angels), that compels so many Europeans to declare that this whole nation should be wrapped in a straitjacket. Argument with gunslingers is as pointless as argument with anti-evolutionists, and twice as dangerous. But it’s mind-cleansing to imagine the world as they see it, a world no doubt realized already in some crime-crazed urban enclave where everyone’s packing and survival’s just a question of getting the drop on the next gunman who doesn’t like your looks.

Philadelphia was recently described in the New York Times as a city where “minor disputes are often settled with easily available firearms,” but that’s scarcely less true of the small town in North Carolina where I live. A kid from nearby Raleigh was wounded by a friend who shot him and murdered another nineteen-year-old in a dispute over a Sony PlayStation console. Advocates of a fully armed, Billy-the-Kid society dismiss a “collateral” body count that vastly exceeds the toll from certified lunatics like Seung-Hui Cho. Pistol worshippers think like characters in comic books and call themselves realists, compared with effeminate gun-control dreamers like me. But when their paranoia becomes realistic and practical, as it will be soon if we can’t defeat them, there won’t be a lot left to firefight over. In a society where your personal safety is guaranteed by nothing more reliable than your skill with a lethal weapon, one manufactured for the sole purpose of killing other human beings, every pretense, illusion, and last lingering hope of civilization has been abandoned.

The banner headline on the front page of my morning newspaper is BLOODIED MAN STAGGERS IN, DIES. The subhead reads “Gunshot victim’s screams were heard before he stumbled into a woman’s home, mortally wounded.” Pass the sugar, please. And a handsome new magazine celebrating Southern “lifestyles” was launched the week of the murders at Virginia Tech. Published in Charleston, S.C., it’s called Garden & Gun.

Shortly before the death of mythmaster Joseph Campbell, in 1987, Bill Moyers asked the old man to predict the symbol that would dominate the twenty-first century. “Weapons, of course,” said Campbell. “Every movie I see shows people with revolvers. There is the Lord Death, carrying his weapon.”

Our chimpanzee cousins have already developed simple weapons, using stones and pointed sticks to kill small prey. Shouldn’t someone warn them that this is an evolutionary avenue they may wish to avoid?

One more thing about the beloved Southland. Virginia Tech upstaged the conclusion of our reigning North Carolina scandal, the rape case against three Duke lacrosse players that had mesmerized America’s tabloid media. After waiting a year to find out what happened at that infamous off-campus stag party, we were told that nothing happened. Or at least that the two things that seemed most unlikely a year ago were indisputably true—that the district attorney, an unusually experienced prosecutor, had pursued a hopeless case like a novice and an idiot, never once considering the deep pockets, expensive legal talent, and institutional muscle arrayed against him; and that the players’ accuser was a pathological liar and possibly
a psychotic.

The DA was virtually lynched, an unprecedented martyrdom that seems to have crushed his career and any hope of future happiness. The black stripper who pressed the charges was merely impeached, ostracized, and forgotten. The exonerated lacrosse players, according to my local paper, were “greeted like heroes” wherever Duke students gathered. Innocent was the word in general use, though all the Attorney General had actually determined was that they couldn’t be convicted—and shouldn’t have been indicted—on these charges brought by this witness (doesn’t that make them less innocent, technically, than, say, O.J. Simpson, who was actually acquitted?).

Their innocence was asserted so aggressively by the media that we were left with the impression that they had actually been studying in the library when the incident in question occurred, or perhaps that the whole episode with the strippers had been a sociology project in community outreach. “What actually happened?” has become a question that no one gets to ask. I experienced extreme nausea when one local columnist apologized abjectly to these newly purified paragons, though neither she nor any pundits in their right minds had ever claimed to know that they were guilty—only that they were behaving like over-entitled little pigs with atrocious judgment, behavior that many Duke observers claimed was chronic and that we all fervently hoped had not culminated in sexual assault.

If injustice was avoided, everyone should be relieved. But the smell of whitewash—accent on white—was hard to escape. Blacks and whites didn’t view this case through the same lens. A columnist for the student newspaper at North Carolina Central University, where the dancer had been enrolled, called for violent resistance to white justice, under the headline DEATH TO ALL RAPISTS. Certain white people I regarded as enlightened and well-meaning appeared to be rooting for Duke’s dubious bruisers—one of them had a rap sheet for gay-bashing—long before any of the facts were clear. Professors who used the lacrosse case to make a statement about over-privileged and under-restrained athletes are still receiving threatening e-mails from bullies with racial agendas. A lot of race stuff that had been half-buried came to the surface, and none of it was very pretty.

I can’t hit the low notes or kick up my heels enough to do a Phil Harris impression, but try to imagine me singing “That’s What I Don’t Like About the South.” The bad mood I was nursing did not improve when our cringing little legislature voted down a bill to ban smoking in restaurants. Or when the chain newspapers in Atlanta and Raleigh eliminated their book editors and downsized the book pages (Southerners don’t read much anyway, right, and why indulge the elitist slackers who do?). For a moment there I couldn’t think of anything regional that filled me with pride, except the posthumous report that the late Molly Ivins, the great Texas freedom fighter, had once mooned the Ku Klux Klan.

But the worst moment passed. There in the same newspaper was the unsinkable Lisa Price, the wife of my congressman, “debating” some heavily armed numskull whose answer to Virginia Tech was to put a pistol in every student’s backpack. As founder and executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, Lisa Price has fought the good fight for decades in a trigger-happy state where her message was only slightly more welcome than the NO SMOKING signs. Hostile legislators and violent e-mails never fazed this warrior. If there are still a handful of Tar Heels who have never been grazed by a bullet, Price is the one they should thank.

At a literary gathering in Charlottesville, I heard Janisse Ray and John Lane, two Southern writers with passionate commitments to the environment, describe their love for the land and the things that live on it in words so lyrical that even a developer, had he strayed in by accident, might have shed a tear and sworn to change his life.

As the book page downsizes and development metastasizes, the real soul of the South is in peril. But the words that could heal us have already been published, if only the right people would read them. Words and music have always been our strength. It was during a break between songs at the MerleFest bluegrass festival that big Harry Leak of Durham, leader of the Gospel Jubilators, established himself as one of my heroes. In the rural heart of this most military of all Southern states, facing a Sunday audience of at least ten thousand strangers, nearly all of them white as he is not, Leak took the microphone and said unexpectedly, “You know we’ve got no business in this war.” And then in a transition as smooth as his tenor, he turned it into a prayer for North Carolina’s soldiers in Iraq. There were plenty of cheers, a few frozen faces, and not one catcall—bad news from the heartland for the warlords in Washington.

Give ’em hell, Harry. There are hundreds of other Southerners who deserve those cheers—though maybe not thousands. The best of the South is the spirit of those few who fight tirelessly against the worst of the South, against odds that improve very slowly, if at all. The best are the people who get up early and groan at the newspaper, as I do, but then brush their hair or straighten their neckties and go out again and organize, proselytize, harmonize. Day after day, year after year, they’re the ones who do what has to be done to keep our best hopes alive. 

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