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

September 2019

The Wood Chipper

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Common Ground

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love and Acid

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Black Axe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Common Ground·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.

Post
.TV·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A documentary about climate change, domain names, and capital

Article
The Black Axe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

Article
Who Is She?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

Article
Murder Italian Style·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

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.

A federal judge in South Carolina ruled in favor of personal-injury lawyer George Sink Sr., who had sued his son, George Sink Jr., for using his own name at his competing law firm.

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