Media, Mystery, And The South
The Atlantic’s James Fallows and his wife Debra have been reporting lately from Mississippi. In this blog post, they hear from a Mississippian who appreciates the nuances in their coverage, and not in a boosterish way. First, Fallows points out that when the national media covers people and places not on either coast, they tend to follow a formula that simplifies and (therefore) distorts the human complexities of the place and its people. Fallows:
You’ve seen something like that going on in Mississippi these past few days, with more to come in the two weeks ahead. The Senate primary is the latest front in the struggle for the future of the GOP. Thus we have reports from Meridian and Hattiesburg, op-ed pieces on the paradox/ hypocrisy of America’s most “conservative” states being the ones most reliant on Federal subsidies, and so on. And, given Mississippi’s past, plus eloquent reminders of the omnipresence of that past from the state’s most celebrated writer, there’s an all-but-irresistible freak-show undertone to a lot of reports from Mississippi. These Southerners! Can you believe them?
A Mississippi lawyer named Zachary Bonner writes to Fallows to thank him and his wife for not doing that in their recent reporting from his state. Excerpt:
I find a lot of reporting, storytelling, and documenting of the South in general and Mississippi in particular to be diagnostic and mostly hostile or contemptuous. (There’s no victim complex here, I assure you, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who give you a more honest accounting of our historical cultural and political depravity which has given way to the current cultural and political malaise and decay). The hostility is born of our state’s vicious history and pretty understandable; however, I think the tendency to diagnose comes from a certain impenetrability of our society or culture.
There is a complexity of feeling and attitude that history has imprinted on most Mississippians through the generations. This is a place that the American dream went and continues to go unlived by most, not only because of our racial history, but because of isolation, poverty and backwardness that transcends any questions of black and white and effect huge numbers of endemically poor of both races. The collective emotional damage of that history remains unresolved just as the social and economic damage does in way that is more pronounced than Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas or South Caronlina.
What I appreciate about your series is that, and maybe you are simply performing that now rare function called journalism, in the face of that impenetrability you broadcast the voices of Mississippians working on the ground in hopes of turning the tide of history in their communities or for themselves. You may find this odd, but Higgins’ quote [in this post] about Eurocopter “changing the psyche” nearly brought me to tears. Despite the small upward or downward spikes in wealth and affluence for the small elite and middle classes (of which I am, thankfully, one), it is that image of sharecropper, white or black, Higgins invokes about which we all shudder. The shame of poverty, lack of education, civic and political failure is shame for those who experience it directly as well as the elites who have allowed it to persist uninterrupted since Reconstruction.
Bonner goes on to talk about the shame of poverty, and the hope for jobs as a form of deliverance from that shame, in a way that reminded me of things Sam M. has said many times on this blog regarding fracking and western Pennsylvania, where he lives. There’s a lot in the Fallows post, so please read the whole thing.
On Saturday afternoon, after the last of the Percy Weekend panels, I found myself back in my kitchen with Leslie Fain and her husband, as well as an old friend whose liberal politics are different from my own. At one point we got to talking about race and Southern history, and disagreed a bit on this or that point. But what we all agreed on was that the reality of race, culture, the South, and the burden of history is stranger than we usually see reflected back to us. Then again, the mysteries of the South and the human heart — black and white both — are so mysterious even to us; it must be particularly hard for outsiders to grasp adequately. I’m not making a theological or a sociological claim when I say that it’s an aid to understanding to approach Southernness as if it were a religion — that is, a poem, not a syllogism.