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The South is, perhaps, the last romantic place in America, in all the best and worst senses of that word. It is a region where the wail of a freight train whistle is never very far away, and where you can see both lovely, fetid green swamps and nuclear-reactor towers from your train window. It is where a stretch of highway might bring the majestic spectacle of summer lightning illuminating a rolling cloud bank, or a gigantic American flag flying proudly over an auto dealership—or the Chernobyl-like remains of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s old Heritage USA, Christian theme park and residential complex, in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
No place else in America are there actual ruins like in the South, outside of maybe Detroit or a few other wasted city neighborhoods. Unlike those urban disaster sites, though, in the South these ruins—crumbling brick walls, or tall, solitary chimneys left from factories and mills that closed forty years ago—are often in little towns. There is a great sadness in this, particularly when you understand that a hundred years ago you would have seen another generation of ruins, the remains of grand plantation houses and early factories burned in the Civil War.
It’s this repetition that gives one pause. The cosmopolitan Yankee visitor is often tempted to see the South as still wild, or untamed, or even uncivilized. That’s nonsense, but the South’s public infrastructure is often underdeveloped, and I did pass through occasional spots such as Orlando’s Amtrak station, which seemed like it was in a dissolving Third World nation. And it is a region of extremes. The combined heat and humidity of a Deep South summer is like nothing else you will encounter in America, and so is the attempt to compensate for it. I have never been so cold indoors in my life, and I grew up in northern Massachusetts. But what usually strikes one when traveling through even the poorest rural Southern towns is how meticulously most of the homes are maintained, the yards manicured and the cars and pick-ups cleaned. This is a place used to the cycles of hard times, and a people possessed of a singular valor and grace in seeing them through.
Writing a little while back for this site, in trying to explain the Republican mindset—which is evermore the white, Southern mindset—I fear I may have sounded more glib than I meant to. What I was trying to say is that the right today in America believes in its heart that God and the world make a mockery of any attempts at social engineering, or planning too much for the future.
It’s this plunge-right-in mentality that is intrinsic to the American character, that made it possible for Europeans and their descendants to settle this daunting landscape in the first place. But it’s also the same mentality that has boiled over into runaway ambition and avarice—from the first settlers at Williamsburg still scouring the land for gold even as they starved; to more gold- and land-hungry whites robbing the Cherokees of their land and setting them on the Trail of Tears; to the planting of those boom crops, tobacco and cotton, that set a pattern of leeching the soil, then burning the husks and moving on; to that most monstrous of all our crimes—shared by all of original white America—which was slavery, and its long aftermath.
The patterns of industrialization and deindustrialization here, booms founded on empty land and cheap labor, ended when even freer land and cheaper labor could be found elsewhere, overseas. I don’t believe that it is a pattern we can afford much anymore, not in the South, or in Detroit, or in the wasted regions of upstate New York.
For much of our sojourn through the South, we stayed with Jack Hitt’s remarkable family in South Carolina.
The difficult thing about the Hitts is trying to determine which one of them you like the best. It’s a tough call. They come in various shapes and sizes and political persuasions, though as a general rule they tend to be tall, red-headed, loquacious, and funny, with a love of good food and good company.
Jack’s from Charleston himself, although he has plenty of relatives upcountry. Among them is his nephew, Rob Miller, a Marine combat veteran who has waged two tough election races against that awful ass Joe Wilson, the one who decided to shout insults at the president during the State of the Union address. (Predictably, this made him a hero in Republican circles.) Jack’s sister, Dianne, is a circuit judge, and his older brother, Bobby, is a former newspaperman who some years back decided to do something truly useful by helping BMW establish its first plant in his home state.
Bobby has a very nice home that he and his wife Gwen built along the shore of Lake Wateree. It has a formidable front porch, necessary to seat his many relations in the evening, as well as a couple of dogs that are the size of Shetland ponies, and as friendly as cocktail waitresses. He enjoys a nice bottle of wine, and telling a good story, and hauling his visitors along on a rubber tube behind his motor boat on the lake, while they scream and holler, and hang on for dear life
Most of his waking thoughts, though, are occupied with the task of bringing jobs to South Carolina. It has become nearly an obsession since he was made state secretary of commerce by Governor Nikki Haley last year. Haley is an avowed, Tea-Party Republican, and Bobby is a lifelong moderate, but he has the highest respect for her ability and her desire to do worthwhile things for their state.
You hear a lot of pining for “bipartisanship” from the commentariat in this election, but the sort of work that Bobby Hitt and Governor Haley do together is where it actually takes place. For Hitt, there are no absolutes or fantastic new schemes. He lives in a world of give-and-take, where no one gets everything they want, and nothing is taken personally. What Bobby Hitt and Nikki Haley would like to do is help along some sort of more lasting economy, and community, and it’s this sort of common ground that still gives one hope, after all the cavil of this campaign and the obstructionism of the last three years.
The South is changing, as the election of Haley—an Indian-American woman, despised by the white old guard of the state’s political establishment—symbolizes. It also remains country that enthralls even those ill-used by it. Medgar Evers, the civil rights martyr who returned to the Mississippi Delta when he could have gone anywhere after returning from World War II, used to say, “If everything got straight here, it would be the best place in the world to live.” Amen.
More from Kevin Baker:
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Years ago, I lived in Montana, a land of purple sunsets, clear streams, and snowflakes the size of silver dollars drifting through the cold air. There were no speed limits and you could legally drive drunk. My small apartment in Missoula had little privacy. In order to write, I rented an off-season fishing cabin on Rock Creek, a one-room place with a bed and a bureau. I lacked the budget for a desk. My idea was to remove a sliding door from a closet in my apartment and place it over a couple of hastily cobbled-together sawhorses.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”