Chuck Thompson—dubbed "savagely funny" by The New York Times and "wickedly entertaining" by the San Francisco Chronicle—spent two years traveling the American South to determine whether, as he’d long suspected but not yet proven, the whole country might be better off letting Dixieland make good on its two-hundred-years-old threat to secede. The result is a long overdue and serious inquiry into national divides that is deliberately provocative and uproariously funny while making a compelling case for "a kind of no-fault divorce for nation-states: no hard feelings, just two adults who can’t quite make the relationship work, shaking hands and walking away" (The Oxford American).read more
Reviews forBetter Off Without 'Em by Chuck Thompson
Disclaimer: I am an over-educated biracial Yankee agnostic bisexual. I have perhaps the least possible incentive to defend anything like this stereotype of the South. That being said, this book is profoundly terrible, and is an example of the sort of ignorant, self-congratulating, xenophobic arrogance which is the syphilis of modern American politics.
To be fair, nobody should come here expecting to read a nuanced critique of racial and economic tensions between North and South. My best hope was for a scorning but intelligent critique of racialist attitudes. A Hunter S. Thompson or H. L. Mencken style lampooning. Instead we got the most cliched stereotypes, not even fit to grace that beacon of journalism where the author worked, Maxim. Southerners like sports and heavy food? Oh do go on.
Here are some details.
The 'intrepid' author visits a few cemeteries and schools, shouts a few angry questions at the locals, and sneers as he sees the Confederate dead. He remarks, "this is one war where the losers got to write the history books," and indeed they have". Why, then, is the great crime of slavery disguised as 'states rights', and why have too many racist and fundamentalist demagogues thrived here? A fair question. But he gives no real original answers.
To be fair, there is a fair bit of the South to be proud of. Southerners can write, act, film, play sports, cook, compose, engineer, think, lead in war, die in war, explore, discover, and lead presidential as well as the rest of America can. Why, then, are their most shameful bits of history dragged up and smeared around and called pride? At the very end of the book, Thompson sheepishly admits that the majority of people were, in fact, decent, and that a few politicians and tycoons tend to mislead, deceive and misrepresent the majority. No surprise there.
If there is anything like a Great Divide in American Society today, it is between Rural and Urban. Many of the South's cities are as vibrant and distinct and thriving as any Northern one. Austin, Charlotte, Knoxville, and so on. There are Democrats in North Dakota and Iowa, as there are Republicans in California and New York.
If there is any group which deserves contempt as much as pity, it is the Tea Party, that insidious group of reactionaries, which has laid its slimy fingers all over the Midwest and the richer gated communities of the Coasts as much as it has the Deep South. They claim to protest the negative effects of government, but instead aim for policies which would lead to near-total corporatist control of the government. Tea Party protesters spat on a black representative, Emanuel Cleaver, and called Rep. Barney Frank a 'faggot'.
One of their most visible leaders was Allen West of Florida, who claimed to have served honorably in the First Iraq War and campaigned on it, committed a mock-execution on civilians and was fined for it, escaping the worse penalties Court Martial. His case is uniquely bad, and he was barely defeated this year. But many others have continued a path of lies, hypocrisy, and openly destructive policy.
It is parochialism, a shambling revival of Nixon's 'Silent Majority'. Lie repeatedly to the people that you are one of them, that you have their best interest in mind, and they will vote for you. Yes, there are racist undertones to the party, yes, there is fundamentalist capitalism which somehow praises both God and Mammon. But this group is not unique to the South, and blaming the latter solves nothing. One must find out why they do what they do, sympathize with them, and try to convince them otherwise. Pry apart the propaganda, make campaigns of your end. Educate, organize. If that doesn't work, make sure you outnumber them, and outvote them. Or, as the case may be, outspend them.
In such a large and diverse country as this, there are still people which cling to their old ways, to the old days when they had some mythical or racial assurances that they were superior, when something new was considered threatening. Such is the sentiment of the Tea Party, which is starting to recede. A few bitter flames may endure until the 2014 midterms, but they are starting to snuff out, decompose. America is America, willing to tolerate and embrace those who would come to it, and share in common values.
Books like this do not serve America well - they incite controversy and inflame regional hatreds to stir up sales. It is as intelligent and witty as a Youtube comment. To be ignored and pulped.read more
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During the last election campaign, a disinterested observer might have thought that a big chunk of the American electorate would jump at the chance to secede from the Union. According to Chuck Thompson’s often hilarious expanded essay proposing the North split from the South, both sides would be better off. As he says in the preface, “It’s too bad we didn’t just let the South secede when we had the chance."Whether or not he is serious about secession, Thompson uses the secession proposal to rant against a personality type that appears all to commonly in the “land of pickled pig knuckles, prison farms, coon-hunting conservatives, NASCAA tailgaters, prayer warriors, and guys who build million-dollar careers out of bass fishing.” To him, the American South (rather imprecisely defined) is separated from the rest of the nation by “its own impenetrable morality, worldview, politics, religion, personality, and even language.”Chief among his complaints is Southern evangelical religion. He writes: “To be a modern evangelist is to submit to the nullity of reason….[A]s every southern churchgoer can tell you, people lose their faith by degrees: first bachelors, then masters, then doctorate.” Only in the South, he argues, could something as zany as the Creation Museum (with exhibits showing that dinosaurs roamed the earth a mere 4,000 years ago) prosper. But the trouble with the evangelists is that “they’re infecting public schools all over the country with this same pigheaded stupidity.” And more importantly, they have been the impetus behind the nationwide growing division between the mostly white charter and religious schools, and the mostly underfunded and racially segregated public schools.Thompson paints with a very broad brush, and his criticisms probably don’t hold uniformly true across the entire region. The real object of his bile is not so much a geographical region as a state of mind that one finds in Kansas as well as Mississippi. That said, that state of mind is surely more common in Alabama than in Oregon. In fact, he observes (incorrectly in my view), the Republican Party has become more of a group that pushes the South against the North than a group that leans right against the left. Nevertheless, Thompson claims that his “problem isn’t with Republicans. It’s with hyperventilating ideologues and extremists who want to conflate Bible law with U.S. law. When they’re behaving like reasonable negotiators, the Republicans are fine.”Thompson takes many more pot shots at various southern idiosyncrasies, such as utter distrust of anything emanating from the federal government and residual racial animus. He even makes a moderately convincing case that Southeast Conference football is overrated. But his strongest argument for secession is not that southerners are different, backward, and uncooperative—it is that they take more from the rest of the country than they give. Every southern state receives more in federal benefits than it pays in taxes.Thompson concedes that it may be that only a minority of southerners are crazy religious or racist. But he adds:“What the majority of southerners are, and have always been, however, is willing to allow the most strident, mouth-breathing ‘patriotic’ firebrands among them to remain in control of their society’s most powerful and influential positions.” The secession proposal is probably not serious, and it is clearly unworkable. Thompson is very funny, but he is also angry. In the end, the book amounts to a sad, but entertaining, recognition that so many of our fellow-Americans are so benighted. And unfortunately, some of that Southern ethos – anti-education, anti-secular, and anti-science – has migrated northward, to the detriment of all.(JAB)read more
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I gather that Chuck Thompson is a travel writer, and he's written a book about his travels in the southern US with a distinct political bias, that the south, with it's history of resistance and hyper-religiosity, is holding the country back. They seem to be mired in grievances over their loss of the American Civil War and thus all their political power is directed against the US government. They seem to think they should have been allowed to secede, and he agrees with them.He lists the Seven Deadly Sins of Southern Gub'mit and how they negatively affect the US.1. Demagogic Dishonesty. The Southern political playbook hasn't changed from 1860 to 2012 with their reaction to any new proposal by the government being negative.2. Religious Fanaticism. Those who hold that God's law is immutable arrive in the nation's capital armed not with the diplomat's skills of persuasion and compromise, but with the fanatics conviction that negotiation with infidels equals sin. No way to run a government.3. Willful Obstruction. Relates to above: the reason the United States was able to turn totalitarian enemies into friendly allies with such ease in postwar Germany and Japan - in a way it was never able to do after vanquishing the South in the Civil War - is that the lack of powerful religious institutions in those countries enabled the rise of cooperative, logic-driven governments ... In other words, they were able to find common points of interest and behave as rational actors in mutually beneficial social and economic arrangements. They were able to compromise.4.Disregard for Own Self Interest. Why is it that, as southerners are quick to tell you, almost none of the poor bastards who got bayoneted for slavery in the Civil War actually owned any slaves or land themselves? Why in continually supplicating himself to political and commercial interests demonstrably hostile to his own, does the southern voter so fluently assume the role of the battered woman in an abuse relationship...? No answer, it's just in their blood.5. Corporate Supplication. Neither intellectual nor populist, the modern political South is more accurately described as a captive tool of corporate ideology ... an unwavering drive to confirm the conviction that the industrialization of the South is not only sacred, but attainable only through cheap labor and laws that maintain a perpetually impoverished lower class from which to draw it. Before the country started outsourcing jobs overseas, they outsourced to the South, because the workingman there is non union, non benefited, and desperate for work.6. Disproportionate Influence. Thanks to its outsized influence in the federal government, Americans from Hilo to Huntsville are now hostage to the South's martyr=infused dysfunction. The "Solid South" is a term that for most of post-Reconstruction history has been used to describe the single-party system under which all southern politics operated. Voting as a block has enormous influence.7. Military Adventurism. The southerner/s enthrallment with war and bloodshed, his veneration of defeat and disaster, his zeal for religious crusade, and easy compliance with the corporate profit motive, has repeatedly dragged the nation into unnecessary wars.He puts for a good case for secession, and I'm more than willing to stand here waving good bye.read more
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