There are few things less satisfying than beating up on a Self-Satisfied Yankee Elitist who is proud to be a Self-Satisfied Yankee Elitist—it has the unfortunate effect of making him even more satisfied with himself and his elitism. But when Self-Satisfied Yankee Elitism is taken to the heights that Hendrik Hertzberg did in this week’s New Yorker, there is a moral obligation to shake your fists.
In Hertzberg’s defense, he was fulfilling his own moral obligation to beat up on a target that, however easy and obvious, was still necessary—Texas Governor Rick Perry and his silly secession talk during an anti-tax protest on April 15, where he intimated that Texas might wish to revert to its brief adolescence as an independent republic.
So let me begin by praising Hertzberg, who could have simply asserted Perry’s buffoonery, but instead took a show-don’t-tell approach.
He painted a portrait of a re-divided Anglophone North America in which Texas and other ex-Confederate states re-seceded, delivering a financial and intellectual windfall to the states left behind. Southern states, which tend to be poorer, get more back in federal spending than they pay in taxes, so they would no longer be a drag on the federal treasury. And, of course, unfettered by southern congressmen, Hertzberg imagines the U.S. would be governed by The Nation’s editorial board:
A more intimately sized Congress would briskly enact sensible gun control, universal health insurance, and ample support for the arts, the humanities, and the sciences.
Meanwhile, the South would promptly devolve into dystopia, getting on, Hertzberg imagines, “with the business of protecting the sanctity of marriage, mandating organized prayer sessions and the teaching of creationism in schools, and giving the theory that eliminating taxes increases government revenues a fair test.” Judges would no longer stand in the way of executions, so space would open up on death row for “more … abortion providers.”
As a former legislative aide in the state legislature in Richmond, Virginia—the city that was once the Confederacy’s capital—I appreciate this caricature of the most extreme factions of southern conservatism. The only problem, of course, is that the South does not live up to this caricature so neatly. Virginia, after all, is represented by two pro-choice Democratic senators, the newest of whom, Mark Warner, became one of the state’s most popular governors after enacting the largest tax increase in the history of the Old Dominion. And the former seat of the Confederacy elected the country’s first black governor, Doug Wilder, twenty years before Massachusetts elected the second, Deval Patrick.
And then there’s Arkansas, which has two Democratic senators; and Louisiana, whose Democratic senator, Mary Landrieu, was written off in the last cycle but won reelection despite having lost a huge chunk of the African American Democratic base to dislocation after Hurricane Katrina.
Though it’s true that a general conservatism pervades the south—and most conservative politicians are southerners—it is far from the ideological hegemony imagined by Northeast liberals. Even the dominance of the GOP in Texas is more a reflection of Tom DeLay’s illegal efforts to reengineer the state legislature and its federal congressional districts, rather than an actual reflection of the views of its electorate. (DeLay and two associates were indicted for a fundraising scheme to help Republicans recapture the state legislature, which then voted for a redistricting plan that cost five Democratic congressmen their seats.)
Still, after such a long run of disastrous leadership by conservative southern politicians—including the Senate and House leadership as well as President Bush—Hertzberg can be forgiven his lack of sophistication concerning the details of southern politics. (Of course, one could point out that Bill Clinton and Al Gore are southerners, but that would be quibbling.)
No, where Hertzberg’s caricature most egregiously misses its mark is when he quips that “the greatest benefit [of this schism] would be psychological: freed from the condescension of metropolitan élites and Hollywood degenerates, the new country could tap its dormant creativity and develop a truly distinctive Way of Life.”
Right. Because there has been such a dearth of creativity in the South over the last hundred years. If the South gives back Hollywood degeneracy, the North should return rock and roll, jazz, blues, and country music. It should give back some of the greatest literature of the 20th century. And what would Manhattanites do if they can’t indulge their occasional taste for barbeque or soul food?
I understand that the last fifty years have been hard on Self-Satisfied Yankee Elitists, as conservatives seized political power in part by using them as scapegoats. And I suppose turnabout is fair play. But the only thing sorrier than a southerner refighting the Civil War is a New Yorker trying to beat him at the same game.Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.