Alabama Getaway: The Political Imaginary and the Heart of Dixie

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Alabama Getaway: The Political Imaginary and the Heart of Dixie. By Allen Tullos. Politics and Culture in the Twentieth-Century South. (Athens, Ga., and London: University of Georgia Press, c. 2011. Pp. [xiv], 364. Paper, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-8203-3049-5; cloth, $69.95, ISBN 978-0-8203-3048-8.)

Mississippians should like this book. By exposing modern Alabama's "long list of bunglings, neglect, everyday iniquities, malfeasances, and atrocities," Allen Tullos makes Mississippi look not quite so bad (p. 21). These neighboring states, after all, compete for the top spots in many bad indices--like poverty and obesity--and for the lower rank in most good categories--like environmental quality, education, and income--and they achieve depressingly consistent success in their failure. Of course, other southerners may feel even better about themselves after reading Tullos's indictment of his beloved native state.

Joining the venerable muckraking tradition of Lincoln Steffens, I. F. Stone, and Michael Moore, Tullos tries to explain what's the matter with Alabama. As a result, he has produced a polemic that could have aptly carried the title "The Shame of Alabama," or "The Hidden History of Alabama," or "Alabama: A Love Story." The state has blessed him with plenty of corruption, crime, idiocy, greed, stupidity, scandal, racism, foolishness, and ignorance to expose. Alabama has been, in effect, a veritable muck machine.

In the first of three disparate but passionate sections, Tullos seeks to explain the "debilitating habits of judgment and feeling that shape the state's reputation and pile stones in its path" (p. 5). Outsiders' ridicule of "gullible, disenfranchised, redneck, dumb-assed, feckless, soiled, and toothless" Alabamians only "instills stiff-necked, in-your-face, sez-you resistance down home," and Tullos translates "sez-you" as "[j]ust try and make me" (pp. 22, 23, 24). In the defensiveness Tullos sees "a spectrum of cultural constraints and prejudices in need of confrontation" (p. 64). His second chapter confronts one such problem, Alabama's prison system, and he reveals its "racism, labor exploitation, brutality, isolation, political demagoguery, and official evasion" (Tullos likes lists) (p. 66). As of 2006, the state had an incarceration rate one-third higher than the national average, yet it traditionally spent less than half the national average per inmate. Responding to criticism of the state's jails and prisons, one sheriff "opted for the defensive sez-you: 'You're never going to satisfy any incarcerated individual ... an inmate is not in jail for singing too loud in choir on Sunday'" (p. 82).

The second section serves up a series of "oafs of office" who confirm "the state's reputation for political dysfunction" (pp. 131, 109). Tullos describes George C. Wallace, Guy Hunt, Forrest Hood "Fob" James, Roy Moore, Bob Riley, Richard C. Shelby, Don Siegelman, and Jeff Sessions in an almost mind-numbing catalog of "intolerance, criminality, buffoonery, arrogance, and parochialism" (p. …