Magazine article The Spectator

The South Is Another Country

Magazine article The Spectator

The South Is Another Country

Article excerpt

New Orleans

MY favourite American newspaper page is the daily wire-service round-up in USA Today called `Across the USA: news from every state'. It provides a steady stream of evidence that there is still a South, despite the tedious efforts of underemployed, mostly Southern academics to convince us otherwise. The theory is that strip malls, fast food, suburbs, cable TV - not to mention the end of the South's political isolation more than 30 years ago - have made us all but indistinguishable from the rest of America. Or that, since most of our national leaders (currently the President, vice-president, and majority leader of the Senate) now come from the South - as do two of the things most often cited as causes of the country's increasing homogenisation, CNN and Wal-Mart - the rest of America is becoming more like us.

I have kept a file of the USA Today page for years, so that I will always have on hand brief but forceful proof that neither assertion is true. For example, on the same day in 1994 that the Tennessee state senate in Nashville okayed a bill that would allow handguns to be used in self-defence - even by convicted felons - a citizens' group in Seattle, Washington, put forth an initiative that would increase the prison term of anyone using a gun to commit a crime. On 14 August 1995, the big news in Colorado was that the citizens were upset about the noise from Denver international airport, while in Arkansas a six-year-old girl shot herself in the chest with a gun she found under her mother's pillow, and in Middlesboro, Kentucky, police were probing the death of a woman who died of a snake bite inflicted during Sunday services at the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. It was, the paper reported, `the second church-related snakebite death this year'.

On 4 August this year, a judge in Kansas was reprimanded for allowing his secretary to hold a second job. The same day, a judge in Arkansas was busy upholding the conviction of a preacher who had burned down his own church in the hope that it would unite his flock. And finally, this very morning, nothing much is happening anywhere else in America, but officials in Mississippi are making it harder for prisoners to escape from the state penitentiary by installing 12-foot spans of razor wire and an electric fence capable of delivering a fatal shock. And in Tennessee, the attorney-general asked a judge to set an execution date for a man who shot a Memphis police officer in 1981.

If there is a theme here, it is that Southerners are still the most violent people in America, but we are also the most religious. (The stats bear this out: in 1999, violent crime was way down in every region of the country but the South. Southerners own more guns per capita, but we also have the most churches and the most churchgoers Southerners attending church once a week outnumber northerners by almost two to one.) This has been true for some time. Confederate general Stonewall Jackson was such a devout observer of the Sabbath that he wouldn't dare to mail a letter if he thought it might be in transit on Sunday.

A long-standing Southern tradition encompassing religion and violence was outlawed by the Supreme Court last summer, when the justices ruled that schools were no longer allowed to broadcast the Lord's Prayer before Friday night high-school football games. …

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