The South of the future is a liberal bastion, according to speakers at a National Archives symposium Tuesday evening.
This new South will be a place where the diversity is as diverse as the food and culture are good. A place where “tricky” religion is in its place, “nutty right-wing talk radio” is replaced by Keb’Mo’s greatest hits, and the only “ism” one will find is “eco-tourism.”
In conjunction with its “The Future of the South” issue, the premier Southern culture magazine Oxford American hosted a symposium that included a keynote speech by Virginia Republican Governor Bob McDonnell. But during the evening discussion on “The Future of Southern Culture and Identity,” the panelists had a different vision than McDonnell, who spoke of “jobs,” “tourism” and, according to one participant, the same meaningless phrases “you hear every politician say.”
If McDonnell’s address was uninspiring, the panelists at the discussion were quite revealing.
Award-winning writer Connie Fowler and Diane Roberts – a Florida State University English professor, author, and NPR commentator – astutely noted that many people have trouble even defining what the South is.
“Is it the 11 states of the old Confederacy,” asked Roberts. “Well that won’t work because there were other slave territories and states that didn’t secede that thought they belonged to the South.” Roberts said that her students even have trouble defining what the South isn’t.
For Fowler, a Gulf Coast resident, the South wasn’t a vibrant culture that had to be contained within the sphere of a specific area. The culture and its elements could transcend even country borders, she said.
Both Fowler and Roberts spoke passionately of their desire to preserve the South’s natural beauty. Fowler’s eyes welled up as she described the aftermath the recent oil spill had on her Florida community.
But then things got weird as the two reverted to confused environmental references, and expounded on the troubles and “isms” that the South faces, all of which were blamed on the conservative population, its guns and its religion.
“We’ve been using this word all day long – sustainable,” said Fowler. “What is sustainable in the South. Hateness is not sustainable. Raping the earth is not sustainable. Classism is not sustainable. Stupidity is not sustainable. “
During the question and answer session one man, who had been at the symposium all day, stood up and said, “I’ve been traveling around the South for several months and the conversation here today bares very little resemblance to the impromptu conversations I had with those people I ran into out in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia.”
Chuck Thompson openly describes himself as a Northern liberal. He’s been traveling around the South this past year as research for a book about, “a dissatisfied liberal Northerner’s view of the South. And taking a look at Southern culture and the way Southerners want to preserve it.”
Moderator Jay Barth, the chair of politics & international relations at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, said that the South was still defined by several major negative traits: a proclivity to violence, a rigid and oppressive social hierarchy and a provincialism that rejects outside ideas. In an interview with The Daily Caller the day after the symposium, Barth repeated his thoughts that the conservative strain in the South is authoritarian and that liberals are the opposite of that.
Progressives tend to be “less authoritarian, in that they have shades of gray, they don’t have unquestioning respect for hierarchy you know,” said Barth.
Barth said that while the liberals have shades of gray, examples of conservative differences — such as the establishment GOP, the Tea Party movement, etc. – were just exceptions.
Fowler appeared to find the perfect recipe for the whole future-of-the-South mess of politics, culture, liberals and conservatives.
“I think the South will always be an interesting gumbo with all kinds of unexpected things arising form it,” she said. “And good government can only make that better.”