Posted by: MC | February 27, 2009

The Heart of Dixie

Town Square
Decatur, GA

Here I am in the heart of Dixie. This is where my mother was born, as was her mother, and hers. 

I know the South. It helped raise me. All my young life we navigated the summer highways between TX and GA to visit relatives. The journey became second nature. Over time it went from a three day trip in the late 60’s to a one day trip when the interstate was finally finished through Birmingham – when I hit college and became newly prone to 13 hour road trips. 

Since leaving Arkansas on this my latest driving adventure, I’m finding a new vibe in the conversations I’m having on Change. Constant is the essential interest people from all backgrounds are showing in the wellbeing of all Americans, our families, communities and the planet; but as I drive farther into the South there is a closer presence of the tension, the fundamental mistrust that has pervaded our nation in recent decades. 

A white man in Jackson, MS spoke specifically of the noise of dueling ideologies – people on both sides bound and determined not to give an inch – to the point of sacrificing the wellbeing of the people of the country just to save their rigid positions and inflated pride. This frustration has been mentioned by Americans down the West coast and across the Southwest and Texas. 

The new presence in discussions in Mississippi, Alabama and now in Georgia is a wariness – an expectation that one will be summarily dismissed and/or harshly criticized for stating her or his beliefs. Now that I think of it, there were shades of this tension already in Texas. A black man in rural Texas said this. “The primary change I’m looking for is to be able to trust my President. Right alongside that, I want to be able to disagree with my President of other elected officials without having my patriotism called into question.” 

Maybe what I’m sensing rises out of exaggerated dialogue and emotion across the red/blue line. Maybe it carries the echoes of generational trauma from that long ago Civil War. Maybe it is evidence the suspension of “political correctness” – something that’s never been comfortable to conservative Southerners who see such posturing as a thin varnish that can render dangerously inauthentic and thus untrustworthy, the public statements of people in the rest of the country. 

Whatever it is, this tension reflects quite accurately what happens in congress when rigid party lines predetermine votes and hold us so often socially paralyzed. 

I can’t tell if people in the deep South aren’t talking with one another because of hatred or fear or both. I do know, however, that the stories we tell about one another when we are not talking are usually wrong. They’re wrong in their absolute and rigid adherence on both sides to versions of “the other” as being of ill will and bad heart – as being intractably absolute and rigid. 

I’ll be here for a bit. I’ll try to listen across this tension to see if there are points of dialogue. 

It sounds excruciatingly odd to many of my friends from other parts of our country, but I actually appreciate the opportunity this overt division provides. We are and have been a divided country. We like to gloss it over. The division embarrasses us. But the truth is, our vote this Presidential election was split 45.7% – 52.9%. 

Many of the people I’ve spoken with who did not support Obama’s election have indicated sincere hope for his success. That magnanimity is bit less in evidence so far here in the deepest South. The fact of that tension may provide an opportunity. Listening across the strong feelings and words here in the South may give all of us a chance to learn in spite of our embarrassment from our most dearly held and explosive differences.

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