Cheetos-infused pickles and other reasons the South is that friend we’re kind of embarrassed by but love anyway

16 Nov

Better Off Without Em Chuck ThompsonIn the latest example of America never failing to be hilariously American, residents of basically every state have signed online petitions to secede from the union, something you can apparently do on the White House’s “We the People” website. Of course, signing such a petition — even for those states who managed more than 100,000 signatures (naming no names; Texas) — is very close to meaningless, but whatever, people like to do meaningless things that seem controversial and statement-y, and the media loves to report on those things so ultimately everyone’s happy. In reality, signing a petition to secede from the union is like running away from home and going to the mall. Or worse, since each of the potentially defecting states obviously receives money from the federal government, like running away to the mall and asking your mom to drive you there.

Sidebar though: Am I wrong to think that the We the People site is completely underrated? Obama administration, get on this: A bit of a redesign and this could be the Reddit of legislation. Sure, it might reduce the caliber of political discourse to just a few notches above cat memes, or, based on the current petitions, result in a lot of obscure statues, but it’d be worth it. I mean really, isn’t voting just crowdsourced government?

Anyway, since people in every state have signed one of these petitions, I’m not entirely sure what this post-secession country(ies) would look like (interactive feature idea for We the People 2.0: “make your own USA” map game), but the typical assumption on the subject is to think of the South wanting to secede from the North because of, well, a little thing called precedent. And it’s that particular assumption that makes it so fun to read Better Off Without ‘Em, Chuck Thompson’s impassioned (and at least partially facetious) manifesto for southern secession from the perspective of a northerner.

Thomson is from Alaska, so comes to the table with an interesting perspective on the fragmentation of America, one that I think could have helped him appear nonpartisan. Which is to say that an Alaskan who grew up hunting is at least slightly less likely to be dismissed as a Yankee than, say, a hipster journalist from Brooklyn.

Unfortunately (or fortunately if we’re leaning towards the facetious side of things), Thompson’s background can’t negate the fact that he makes little to no effort to couch his opinions on the South in political correctness. Despite being packed with history, data, and interviews, Better Off Without ‘Em is snarky, cutting, and fairly mean-spirited. Thompson isn’t asking about the ramifications of an actual secession so much as making an impassioned plea to the rest of the country: “Seriously guys, fuck ’em. They’re dragging us down anyway.” He doesn’t call it a manifesto for nothing.

Amid the vitriol, Thompson does lay out a pretty compelling argument for the division between the South and the rest of the country, if not the logical or appropriate response to that division. He tackles the region’s record on business development, workers’ rights, women’s rights, education , college football (in a detailed an extremely passionate chapter that mostly went over my head) and, of course, on racism. He visits and speaks with professors, authors, economists, and politicians, and has no shortage of anecdotes from run-of-the-mill southern folk, who he tries (sometimes successfully) to treat with more equanimity than judgment. Through all of it, Thompson paints a disconcerting picture of a South that has little regard for the education of its children, the economic well-being of its people, or the separation of church and state. It’s hard to look at the numbers and not argue that, at least in certain respects, the South is on a fundamentally different page than much of the rest of the country, and so perhaps it would be in everyone’s best interest if we shook hands, gave each other a nod, and parted ways. The United States of America and the Confederate States of America: neighbors, allies, trade partners, annual college football competitors. The geographic equivalent of amicably divorced parents.

The paradox of Better Off Without ‘Em is that what makes it such a hilarious read is also what fells Thompson’s argument. His personal viewpoint — that the South is for the most part filled with overweight evangelical right-wing idiots — shines through on every page, and his inability to make a point without throwing in a dig has the overall effect of lessoning the impact of his statements. For example,

“Southern states simply do not believe in funding education to the extent that northern states do. That’s not a value judgment or insult — it’s documented fact. The difference this makes in the ongoing concerns of society are enormous; the gulf it creates, significant. Unless we’re willing to separate ourselves from our lowest common academic denominator, we’ll forever be a nation sitting around waiting for the slowest kid in the class to catch up. Or at least learn to properly enunciate ‘education.'”

For the most part, Thompson’s book is an interesting thought experiment, and an extremely well-researched one. Nor does he disparage every individual who disagrees with his perspective, whether for cultural reasons (“the South isn’t as bad as all that”) or logistical (“economically, a North without the South would be screwed”).  It’s just that as an author, Thompson seems happiest when uncovering living affirmations of the southern stereotype: racists, morons, and otherwise affable middle-aged folks that just so happen to hate Muslims. And why not? Those people are fun to write about, just like it’s fun to laugh at “keep your government hands off my Medicare” guy, or “they upheld Obamacare so I’m moving to Canada” lady. Being right when someone else is wrong is entertaining; merely disagreeing is, by contrast, mundane.

There are parts of Better Off Without ‘Em that really shine, like a hypothetical 2017 inauguration speech from the first president of the Confederate States of America (cleverly compiled from actual disconcerting quotes made by southern political figures), and a roundtable conversation Thompson has with two professors and three students from the University of Georgia, which devolves into buttercream-flavored shots and shouting. I also appreciate that, for a funny book, Better Off is informative, and for an informative book, it’s entertaining. And of course, given recent events, it’s also incredibly timely.

But ultimately, Thompson has concocted an intellectual exercise whose thoroughness is matched only by its utter irreleverance to reality; like hand-sewing a ball-gown for your dog, or writing a constitution for a settlement on Jupiter. At the end of the day (or election cycle), America is going to keep being America, whether or not we manage to agree on, as Thompson puts it, “many of the fundamental divisions still hamstringing the country: religion, abortion, federal governance, taxation, education, health care, assistance for less fortunate neighbors, distribution and ownership of public wealth and resources.” As Daniel Day-Lewis Abraham Lincoln said of slavery (and as Thompson points out; let’s not pretend I can just pull a Lincoln quote out of my ass), “Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the entire controversy.” However insidious it sometimes feels, it’s that — that fundamental freedom to believe in and say absolute batshit nonsense — that’s just plain American.

TITLE: Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession
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AUTHOR: Chuck Thompson
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PAGES: 336 (in hardcover)
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ALSO WROTE: Smile When You’re LyingTo Hellholes and Back
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SORTA LIKE: What’s the Matter with Kansas? after a few beers
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FIRST LINE: “Nothing separates the North and South like religion. Not politics, not racism, not Paula Deen’s butter popsicles.”

One Response to “Cheetos-infused pickles and other reasons the South is that friend we’re kind of embarrassed by but love anyway”

  1. Annie December 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

    I cannot state enough how revolting and dangerous I find this book to be, based on your review.

    If I were to write a response, I would call it “The South: That Friend Whose Awfulness Reminds You Of Your Own Shortcomings.” Because the “north” has racism too: in New York, it’s called public housing and economic disparity. And if this man’s argument is based on the “north” caring about education more, then let’s ask Mayor Bloomberg how all the school closings are going! Well-researched my ass. (PS the President took 40% of my home state of Kentucky a few weeks ago, which if I was properly educated enough down there means darn near half of the white people support the black guy.)

    The South is not actually a geographic body of land. That’s why you find Confederate flags and KKK rallies in places like Utah. Being Southern is like being Jewish — it’s passed down, there are many levels of self-identification, and there is much handwringing over said identification. Some reject it, some accept it, and the ones who have little else go full tilt booty and proudly rev their truck engines to the sound of country music. But I can’t expect a guy from Alaska to get this. Perhaps if this guy had bothered to examine himself a little closer he might see his own attitudes were shaped from not living in the lower 48, where most of us dwell, fight, eat, shit, and so on.

    But I agree with you on We The People.

    Rant over.

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