In Defense of the Southern Gentleman

I’m a liberal, so read the liberal threads. More and more commonly I find on those threads the admonition to “nuke the south.”

I can understand the frustration. I grew up there. Believe me, I can understand. But, eh, no.

The older generation in the south is pretty much the last generation who grew up in the country. 1959 was the year when the U.S. went primarily urban, as I remember.

I grew up, and so did a lot of other southerners my age, hoeing gardens, gathering eggs, climbing trees, picking blackberries off the fence-rows, wandering by myself in the woods, playing for hours outside (happily unattended), watching the stars and looking for meteors, picking up free pecans after the harvesters had passed, getting stung by yellow-jackets, wading barefoot in puddles, taking snakes for granted though they scared me, breathing DDT powder from crop-dusters, and so on. I can tell you all about it, but I can’t make you feel how very different that world was.

One of the most traumatic events in my life was when I was ten or thereabouts in 1954 or thereabouts and highway 20 bypassed Clinton but ate the 53-acre wild paradise downhill of the house, a patch that I called “The Gulley,” a wild tangle of briar and bush and tree and creeklet and mysterious pathways we roamed at will, fantasizing ourselves in all sorts of stories.

The world is changing around people my age like it changes in a flood in low country. First there’s more puddles than usual. Then the puddles start joining. Then the main surface is water and there are at best small islands of land in a universal sea.

It’s a mysterious and beautiful process if you can look at it in a detached way. But if your barn is on one of those islands, if your cattle and your crops and your vegetable garden will drown, and you won’t be able to sell anything, and you won’t be able to live off the land. maybe it scares you.

We hope not, but maybe it even scares you out of sense and common decency. After all, you were brought up to trust authority, because the elders knew how to do things, not to know how to handle yourself when the authority itself was a lie.

The children of these people are the first generation of U. S. citizens to live in a primarily urban environment. They get the worst of it, taught the country traditions but living in an urban world. A lot of them blame people they shouldn’t blame. A lot of them stay angry.

My point isn’t that hatred and studipity and meanness ought to be forgiven. My point is that it might be useful to provide another model of southern gentleman, one that any native male southerner can aspire to, one that does not, in invoke the baleful redneck stereotype (which though often accurate is useless; it only exacerbates reciprocal hostility).

Such people are largely belligerent and defensive now, I grant you. Point is, even people aren’t that way get treated as if they were. Sorry, but as a motivator for actual change, big social guilt just doesn’t cut it. Most humans are are only trying to get by, and southerners are no different. You really want them to change, you have to show them a realistic but positive way to go. Righteous anger might make you feel better but won’t otherwise help. These people good at righteous anger, remember.

So to young southern males I say, Get rid of the self-deception, the victimization gambit, the hatred, the illusions. Ask yourself the scary questions.

But keep courtesy, respect, patience, firmness, independence, self-reliance. Find ways to enjoy staying out-of-doors. Care, but insist on evidence.

I’m speaking of only males here because. though men and women are irreducibly equal and more alike than different, that’s a whole nother issue and not a matter of direct experience.

The qualities above would make good qualities in any human, of course. It’s just that living in the country preferentially nourished them, It would be a shame to lose them while getting rid of the nasty stuff.

I know plenty of younger southern males (and when I say “younger,” I mean, well, younger than me) who have a good old-fashioned sense of honor, but whose honor demands honesty and who therefore have no respect for the rabid mouth-breather stereotype.

Emotion is fine. Nobody wants robots. But you govern your behavior according to your emotions? Then you’re an idiot.

A great many of the people who’ve gone for hate have not done so because of inborn malice. Okay, that doesn’t count for a lot in court. But I’m not talking about court and judgment and appropriate penaltiy. Again, I’m talking about what might work. I’m talking about changing the model, changing it in a so that the change is at once beneficial to the culture and appealing to the individual.

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One thought on “In Defense of the Southern Gentleman

  1. I have been baling hay next to a power plant 20 miles south of my home for the last week. The plant is staffed mostly by good ol’ boys in generic appearance but not in the pejorative behavioral sense. They have been courteous and helpful when we have had breakdowns and check on us at each shift change. The equipment they work with is enormous and all of ours is small-scale so I doubt that there is much interest in our endeavors from that standpoint. Most of these guys would probably refer to themselves as rednecks(the black ones probably would,too). Here in the Arkansas delta I believe the model you speak of may be changing slightly and positively. Maybe Faulkner was right about Man prevailing. If so, it’ll probably be baby steps mostly. Through rambling-don’t trade Sethook.

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