usofthesouthI don’t know exactly what was said – I never heard the full story from either – but I do know something about the argument that arose. It was apparently the last bout in an ongoing argument about women. The debate surrounded this issue: these two girls were obviously here to be picked up, brought home, and screwed. Should we have done so?

I know this argument seems hopelessly naïve and perhaps even ridiculous to the current generation of 21 year olds, but in 1973 this was a subject on which thoughtful young men could disagree. This was a strange time, after all. Eight years before the ranks of bar tramps had been filled exclusively by bar tramps. By 1973 the bar tramps could have been Phi Beta Kappas from Vanderbilt. You never knew.

Donald, who was very popular with the ladies, made this point (I’m simplifying, but that’s okay. I’m repeating the arguments of two drunk, horny 21 year olds): Women have a right to decide what they want to do with their bodies. They are as interested in sex as men are, and are as justified in seeking it. To deny them this right is worse than sexist, it’s paternalistic.

Pat’s response was something like this: True, women are just as sexual as men, and have the same right to seek out sex. But it is neither sexist nor paternalistic to admit that a double standard exists. For example, Pat said, try creating for the movies a female James Bond who sleeps with every man she meets. A woman who sleeps around, he said, suffers disproportionate public censure.

Is this fair? He asked.

No.

Is it just?

No.

Is it true?

Yes.

Then what to do?

The end result was a disagreement that couldn’t be solved. That’s hardly surprising – I wouldn’t begin to hazard a solution to this conundrum today, 30 years later.

What interests me, though, is the nature of this argument. It explains much about the South’s multiple personality disorder. On the one hand, there is the advocate of change, and of necessary liberation. On the other, the advocate of tradition, and of mannerliness. You might even say chivalry.

If anyone wants to understand the South, you might begin here. Every movement toward liberation has brought with it progress, and a measure of misery. Every attempt to preserve tradition has served to keep in place ideas that are unjust on their face. Even in their most grotesque acts the traditionalists are seeking to save something they can vaguely remember that was good. Much of what they remember never was.

Here’s a story to illustrate the point. Every school kid in Louisiana knows it, or should, though many misattribute the story to Huey’s nephew, Gov. Earl Long:

In 1930 or so a contingent of black leaders (read: ministers) from New Orleans paid Governor Huey Long a visit in Baton Rouge. “Governor,” they said, “we have a request for you.”

They wanted jobs for blacks at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, then as now the flagship hospital for the only socialized medical system in the United States. The vast expansion of that system was a gift to the people of Louisiana from Huey himself.

Huey responded immediately. I will get you jobs, he said. Lots of them. High paying jobs. But I won’t accept any criticism whatsoever of the way I accomplish it. If you say a word, I swear to God I’ll never do anything again for you gentlemen.

The black leaders agreed.

The next day’s New Orleans Times-Picayune led with a story detailing the shock the governor had experienced when he discovered there were white women, white nurses, caring for black men at Charity Hospital! A.J. Liebling, Louisiana’s de Tocqueville, said Huey “blew high as a buzzard can fly, saying it wasn’t fit for white women to be so humiliated.” You can guess the result.

Let me give another example:

They arrived in 1965, 16 black kids who would be attending Pass Christian High School. They were the pioneers, the extraordinary babies of an entirely new era. They changed everything.

Among these changes is one that is almost never acknowledged: Both blacks and whites in the South are now more poorly educated than they were in 1964. Because it is the way the world works, blacks have borne the brunt of the diminished schools.

And yet, it had to be done.

You can see how difficulties might arise. I suppose that’s what Pat meant one night when he was having an argument with my mother about “the South.” He had by this point been living in lower Manhattan for two years, and had adopted “the North” as his home. “The South doesn’t have a common culture,” he told my mother, “it has joined pathologies.”

“And this somehow makes us different from the rest of America?” my mother asked.

One Thought on “A few words on “The South”

  1. Jess McKenzie on August 6, 2015 at 4:36 pm said:

    Mark, here’s an Earl Long story:
    I was in grad school at UT Med Branch, Galveston, when Earl was “kidnapped” (his term) and locked up in the psych hospital. My friend, Norm, a big Norwegian med student was an orderly on Earl’s floor.
    One day Earl approached Norm, to opine, “Son, I guess you know that this whole place is full of liars. Everything here is just one damned lie after another.”
    Norm said, “Why do you believe that, Governor?”
    Earl said, “Why, hell, I’ll give you an example. See that exit sign down there at the end of the hall? I’ll bet you five hundred dollars I can’t get out that door!”

Post Navigation