Political Asylum — September 14, 2012, 10:58 am

Ruin and Rebirth in the South

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.

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Kevin Baker:

From the May 2019 issue

Where Our New World Begins

Politics, power, and the Green New Deal

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2019

The Maid’s Story

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Downstream

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Stonewall at Fifty

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Is Poverty Necessary?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Is Poverty Necessary?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1989 I published a book about a plutonium-producing nuclear complex in En­gland, on the coast of the Irish Sea. The plant is called Sellafield now. In 1957, when it was the site of the most serious nuclear accident then known to have occurred, the plant was called Windscale. While working on the book, I learned from reports in the British press that in the course of normal functioning it released significant quantities of waste—plutonium and other transuranic elements—into the environment and the adjacent sea. There were reports of high cancer rates. The plant had always been wholly owned by the British government. I believe at some point the government bought it from itself. Privatization was very well thought of at the time, and no buyer could be found for this vast monument to dinosaur modernism.

Back then, I shared the American assumption that such things were dealt with responsibly, or at least rationally, at least in the West outside the United States. Windscale/Sellafield is by no means the anomaly I thought it was then. But the fact that a government entrusted with the well-being of a crowded island would visit this endless, silent disaster on its own people was striking to me, and I spent almost a decade trying to understand it. I learned immediately that the motives were economic. What of all this noxious efflux they did not spill they sold into a global market.

Article
More Than a Data Dump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Last fall, a court filing in the Eastern District of Virginia inadvertently suggested that the Justice Department had indicted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and other outlets reported soon after that Assange had likely been secretly indicted for conspiring with his sources to publish classified government material and hacked documents belonging to the Democratic National Committee, among other things.

Article
Stonewall at Fifty·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Early in the morning on June 28, 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, the city’s most popular gay bar. The police had raided Stonewall frequently since its opening two years before, but the local precinct usually tipped off the management and arrived in the early evening. This time they came unannounced, during peak hours. They swept through the bar, checking I.D.s and arresting anyone wearing attire that was not “appropriate to one’s gender,” carrying out the law of the time. Eyewitness accounts differ on what turned the unruly scene explosive. Whatever the inciting event, patrons and a growing crowd on the street began throwing coins, bottles, and bricks at the police, who were forced to retreat into the bar and call in the riot squad.

Article
Downstream·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The squat warehouse at Miami’s 5th Street Terminal was nearly obscured by merchandise: used car engines; tangles of coat hangers; bicycles bound together with cellophane; stacks of wheelbarrows; cases of Powerade and bottled water; a bag of sprouting onions atop a secondhand Whirlpool refrigerator; and, above all, mattresses—shrink-wrapped and bare, spotless and streaked with dust, heaped in every corner of the lot—twins, queens, kings. All this and more was bound for Port-de-Paix, a remote city in northwestern Haiti.

When I first arrived at the warehouse on a sunny morning last May, a dozen pickup trucks and U-Hauls were waiting outside, piled high with used furniture. Nearby, rows of vehicles awaiting export were crammed together along a dirt strip separating the street from the shipyard, where a stately blue cargo vessel was being loaded with goods.

Article
Warm, Weird, Effervescent·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Lore Segal’s short story “The Reverse Bug,” a teacher named Ilka Weisz invites her conversational En­glish class to a panel at a Connecticut think tank: “?‘Should there be a statute of limitations on genocide?’ with a wine and cheese reception.” The class is made up of immigrants to the United States. Although Segal doesn’t give a date, we are to understand that most came several decades earlier as a result of World War II: Gerti Gruner, who recently arrived in the United States from Vienna, by way of Montevideo, and can’t stop talking about her lost cousins; the moody Paulino from La Paz, whose father disappeared in the American Consulate; and the mysterious Japanese Matsue, who tells them that he worked in a Munich firm “employed in soundproofing the Dachau ovens so that what went on inside could not be heard on the outside.” He’s since been working at the think tank on a “reverse bug,” a technological device that brings sound from the outside in. The class takes advantage of his poor En­glish to ignore what he is saying.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Gene Simmons of the band Kiss addressed Department of Defense personnel in the Pentagon Briefing Room.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today