As a white Southern
male, I'd like to explain my views about
Howard Dean and the confederate flag. Here are my credentials: I've
lived in Arkansas since 1972, drive a pickup truck, currently own four
hunting dogs, two horses, and three shotguns. I've hunted deer and
ducks, consider fried catfish a delicacy, and haven't missed a Razorback
game in years. I don't believe Faith Hill's ever recorded a song worth
hearing twice, but that girl's got a smile that'd make a mule get down
on its knees and thank God for Mississippi.
for you? Because it's also true that I'm of
Irish Catholic descent, was born and raised in New Jersey--state motto:
"Oh yeah, who says?"--and hardly knew where Arkansas was until I
followed my wife home from grad school at the University of Virginia.
Offer me NASCAR tickets or a root canal, and I'd opt for the dental
work. Does that disqualify me? Some Professional Southerners would say
so, but few Arkansans.
You accept Arkansas,
Arkansas pretty much accepts you. Little
Rock's nothing like Richmond, or Charleston, S.C.. There's little talk
about the glories of the pre-Civil War South. "Arkansas aristocrat" is
a phrase that won't make. Indeed, "Thank God for Mississippi" is
sometimes said to be the state motto, as our neighbor to the east often
makes Arkansas look, well, so enlightened by contrast. You can infer
somebody's politics by whether or not they think it's funny.
Anyhow, I've been
on the lookout for confederate flags over the
past week, but haven't actually seen any. Not even at the feed store or
the biker bar out on the old Conway highway. The old boy at the saddle
shop had some baseball caps with a rebel flag motif, but didn't appear
to have sold many. They looked out of place with the boots and bridles
and cowboy hats. Wearing one would pretty much be the equivalent of
going around with your middle finger stuck in the air.
People who act
like that don't vote anyway. Even if they did,
Howard Dean could win the support of every rebel flag-waving redneck in
Arkansas and still lose badly--which I'm persuaded he'd do if he got
the Democratic nomination, losing the presidential election in the process.
But enough about
one small Southern state, albeit one whose
electoral votes could easily turn the 2004 election. My larger point is
that the South is a big, complicated place. Racial melodrama simply
doesn't dominate public debate throughout the region anymore, as Sen.
John Edwards (D-N.C.) did his opportunistic best to point out during
the recent Democratic debate.
"The people that
I grew up with, the vast majority of them, they
don't drive around with Confederate flags on pickup trucks," he said.
"The last thing we need in the South," he told Dean "is somebody like
you coming down and telling us what we need to do."
Sigh. See, in my
view, the whole point of America and the
Democratic party is that this kind of identity politics is a dead end.
Howard Dean made his point a lot more effectively when I heard him
at a Little Rock appearance earlier this year. What he planned to ask
Southern white men, the former Vermont governor said, was "You've been
voting Republican for thirty years, ever since Nixon. What have you got
to show for it? Better schools? Better jobs? Reliable health insurance?"
Bringing a potentially
divisive symbol like the rebel flag into it wasn't
the smartest thing Dean's done in an otherwise cleverly innovative campaign.
But his rivals' make-believe outrage made them look ridiculous. Does anybody
really think that Al Sharpton and Sen. John Kerry were personally offended?
What hurts Democrats
most in such charades is the absurd ritual of
forcing somebody like Dean to apologize for a remark everybody knows
wasn't offensive in the first place. It feeds the perception that they're fakers
and panderers to trumped-up, phony grievances every one--a party
dominated by sissies and snobs.
And that's an image
that Republicans have become unpleasantly
clever at manipulating. See, it's not race that sets the South apart
these days as much as religion: specifically a suburbanized brand of
Protestant fundamentalism that comforts people uneasy with rapid social
and technological change, by offering rigid moral certitude and positing
modernity and cosmopolitanism as the enemy.
If White House
political guru Karl Rove gets his way, from
Arlington, Virginia to El Paso, Texas, the 2004 election will turn not
on Iraq or the dubious glories of the Bush economy but on liberal
judges, partial-birth abortion, and gay marriage.
Bush's manifest failures, Arkansas's not the only
Southern-accented state that the right Democratic nominee could win in
2004. But Dean's vulnerability on the cultural/religious issues, I fear,
could doom his candidacy across the region.
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