Sunday, October 22, 2006

Southern Sense

[posted by Callimachus]

Garrison Keillor is one of the best pure prose writers we've got these days. And he seems to make a pretty good living at it. So why does he want to be an opinion columnist?

Well, one rationale, I suppose, would be as an excuse to empty out his notebooks. You know, he's probably got hundreds of vignettes he's half-written over the years; luminous little pieces that just never quite connect to anything; plants that never flower.

Why, you can take any one of those, tack on a paragraph of polemics at the end, and, voila! Opinion column.

That would explain this. It's a old man's lovely little ode to the warmth and courtesies of the American South.

Then, tied on to the end like a tin can to a dog's tail, is this:

If we can't talk to strangers, if there is no public life in America, then it's no wonder politics is so out of whack. And yet in the South, which has produced the most regressive politicians this side of Sudan, who are proud of bad government and lousy wars, in which a disproportionate number of young Southern men die, you keep running into the friendliest people on earth. Explain that to me, sunshine. Sweeten up here and tell me why these good people keep electing those dreadful idiots.

OK, here's a try. I'll even overlook the grotesque hyperbole of "most regressive politicians this side of Sudan," which, if you draw the straight line between Sudan and Texas, includes Cuba.

The problem is, he's asking the question backwards. Disproportionate numbers of Dixie boys die in our Middle Eastern and Asian wars because Southerners, disproportionately, volunteer for the armed services. Part of that, no doubt, is economics. But part of it is a culture and collective ethos that values sacrifice and service, and that respects a military career. And yes, they are different than the rest of us. But it's not alien to the aspect of them that is generous and courteous.

And because they have such a greater stake in the nation's military honor, and in the respect given to those who volunteer for it, they are less likely to choose the candidates Keillor would seem to prefer they choose, the ones who still can't seem to wipe that "I just tossed my Purple Heart over the fence and denounced soldiers as baby-killers" gleam from their eyes. The ones who are just a little too cozy with the career denouncers of "American militarism" and a little too willing to understand those who chant "Death to America."

Even when the alternative turns out, like Dubya, to be incompetent leaders of that military. Because that's when the other half of the answer kicks in. Once the shooting starts, once the hometown boys start getting killed and all their lives are at risk, you rally to your captain, no matter what sort of disagreements you have with him. The mentality runs itself into a particular set of potential problems. But it is hardly the inexplicable contradiction Keillor seems to feel it is, in wondering how people can be obviously nice and yet fail to fall into line with his politics.

Ever wonder why the Southern Confederacy of 1861-65, a fractious nation with a back-stabbing government, but at war through its entire existence, never developed a two-party system? Its constitution, in its political aspects, was essentially a carbon copy of the U.S. constitution.

The people who so confound Garrison Keillor are people who understand that what you say to -- and in the presence of -- other people, matters. It matters. A waitress's "dear," a little word of politeness, can change your whole attitude toward her. And she knows it. It might even mean an extra buck in her tip, but that's not why she does it.

He sees that. Well, chances are that same waitress intuitively knows that a big premature public mouth-off about your own people's futility and failure while the army is still in the field, and her own son is with it in uniform, can change things, too. And not for the better. And the price waiting to be paid is a lot more than some Yankee scribbler's tip.