In his new book, self-described “extreme tourist” Chuck Thompson—whose approach is summed up in the title of a previous book, To Hellholes And Back—journeys through the South, focusing on such hot-button topics as race, religion, politics, education, economics, and football to better understand why the South and the people who live there fall so far short of his definition of the acceptable normal. His mission is to explore “cultural dysfunction in the South, which I believe has put the brakes on national progress.” In the process, he concludes that if only we could “remove the South,” the rest of the country would immediately become “more intelligent, healthy, safe, and financially sound.”
In mapping out what’s troubling about contemporary Southern culture, Thompson hits on some relevant points. Taking in the monuments that stand in tribute to the Confederate dead, including one that bears the legend, “The world shall yet decide, in truth’s clear far-off light, that the soldiers who wore the gray and died with Lee were right,” he rolls his eyes and writes: “Imagine statues of SS soldiers inscribed with quotes from Mein Kampf in every little town in Germany. The Civil War is the only conflict in history after which the losers were allowed to write the history.” He explores the degree to which the power and agenda of Southern conservative Christian churches have been shaped by the same people who promoted segregation before, and for years after, Brown V. Board Of Education. And there’s certainly statistical and cultural evidence to back up his contention that education reform has been a non-starter in the South because voters in Southern states don’t get behind the idea of paying for better schools to the degree voters elsewhere do.
At other times, though, he applies his snark to more universal quirks and nuisances, identifying them as “Southern” in nature because he can argue that people in the South indulge in them with their own zesty regional flavoring. The whole country is getting fatter, but only the South prides itself on the “regional” charms of its unhealthy diet. (And only a professional Southerner like Paula Deen could make a living charming Northerners with recipes they’d recoil from in horror if they found them hand-written and taped to Mom’s refrigerator.) “Football really is a religion in the South,” he writes. That’s true in itself, but he seems to think it doesn’t apply elsewhere, in spite of the evidence that Penn State isn’t located in the South. Trying to clinch his case, he tracks down a supposed expert who assures him that only in the American South would anyone name their child after a football coach, or shoot or stab someone in the wake of a game.
And though the South has a history of race relations that’s certainly different from the rest of the country’s, it’s debatable whether its racism, below the institutional level, is all that different from racism in the rest of the country. Thompson thinks he’s scored a point when “an incredibly nice man” tells him that the area he’s visiting is so poor that “you’ve got whole roads of houses with no floors,” and then adds that these are houses inhabited not by blacks, but by “poor white people.” But this revealing statement isn’t measurably different from Bill O’Reilly’s famous on-air remark about how he was taken to a restaurant in Harlem and was shocked that, “even though it’s run by blacks, primarily black patronship,” it was full of people just “sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun,” without “any kind of craziness at all,” and no one screaming, “MF-er, I want more iced tea!” The most obvious difference is that O’Reilly is well-paid to display his crassness on a major cable network, while the nice Southern guy had to be tracked down in his native habitat by a writer looking for evidence that all his kind are assholes.
It would be unfair to nitpick about specific cases like this if Thompson were doing anything himself but driving down a gravel road with a blunderbuss in his lap, looking for the smallest barrels with the most fish in them. He has no difficulty at all finding idiots to tap for quotes, but he does himself no favors when he includes his half of the conversation. When he’s talking politics with a man named Marvin, who contradicts Thompson’s notion that the South has a monopoly on Tea Party heroes by pointing out, “Sarah Palin is not from the South,” Thompson spits back, “So what? Hitler wasn’t from Germany, either.” While savoring his victory—“This shuts Marvin up for half a second”—Thompson adds to the ugliness of the moment, and reveals just how badly he overrates the slashing, satirical wit of his dun-colored prose by addressing the reader: “And, please, spare me the phony ‘He compared Palin to Hitler! He compared Palin to Hitler!’ histrionics. If everyone could make a deal to stop pretending to have emotional breakdowns every time someone dots their point with a rhetorical flourish, the culture war conversations would be a lot more fun.”
This whole scene is especially cringeworthy because, before playing the Hitler card, Thompson spears Marvin’s wife for daring to say she feels just as hated by liberals as liberals feel hated by the likes of her. (As if to rub salt in the wound, Thompson signs off, in the acknowledgments section, by ridiculing “this whole myth of southern hospitality,” on the grounds that “Generosity toward strangers is not novel behavior…” It’s as if he’s disappointed he was able to talk to people like this without getting his teeth kicked in.) Thompson himself is no liberal; he identifies as a libertarian of the loudmouthed variety, the sort of fellow who thinks anything that might be insulting to someone must be both courageously truthful and scaldingly hilarious. It’s a stereotype that’s become as tiresome as any connected to the South, and he plays it to the hilt.
Thompson’s final conclusion is that the South is full of intelligent, good-hearted folks, who may in fact be the majority, but they let the monsters among them set the agenda and eat up all the oxygen. In other words, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” a line that predates the Tea Party. In a Salon interview, Thompson said he wanted to “get away from the traditional stereotypes of the dim-witted, mouth-breathing, Southern racist redneck and really look at what’s going on today.” If that’s true, he failed, while accomplishing what he seemingly actually set out to do: The whole book is dull and ugly in ways that smack of an author confirming his laziest prejudices and oozing smugness from every pore. Unlike other visitors to the South, such as Jonathan Raban and V. S. Naipaul, and other non-fiction writers in general, such as David Foster Wallace and John Jeremiah Sullivan, Thompson is never surprised, and evidence of stupidity or cruelty is never an occasion for sadness or empathy, but just another excuse for him to feel good about how smart he is. This book reveals a great deal about the divided state of the country, but not in the way he intended.