Alabama Capitol, Montgomery
Wayne Flynt, Auburn University emeritus professor of history, has cultivated a reputation as Alabama’s progressive conscience. He is a prodigious writer who has published some 13 books on the history of Alabama and the South.
Predictably, he has weighed in on the upcoming Alabama Senate election, offering less than a savory view of Republican nominee Roy Moore.
Moore, Flynt contends, “represents the old Alabama of Robert E. Lee Ewell, of lynching and the sexual abuse of women.”
“Law to Moore is merely an instrument of exclusion and oppression, whether of women, teenage girls, African Americans, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, or homosexuals,” he contends.
I’m not surprised that Flynt regards Moore as the worst threat to Alabama’s reputation since Eugene “Bull” Conner. But I do find it slightly irritating whenever Flynt raises these issues as an excuse to engage in another round of self-flagellation over what he perceives to be Alabama’s wretched political and cultural legacy, one for which Alabamians are obligated to atone.
I’ve never liked this sackcloth-and-ashes approach and that goes for countless other Alabamians.
I am far from a scion of the old South. I come from simple old yeoman Southern stock, particularly on my father’s side. My paternal line and much of my maternal one were among the thousands of lumbers – desperately poor whites – who poured into this impoverished region in the early 1800’s simply because they had no place else to go.
Alabama was not only encumbered with legions of struggling poor whites but also with a slave economy that maintained a predominant hold in the Southern half of the state – one that collapsed after the close of the Civil War. Essentially we are talking about a deeply bifurcated state, culturally, politically and economically, that has been digging itself out of poverty and relative backwardness – imposed, incidentally by the Yankee equivalent of the British Raj – since the end of the Civil War.
One of the only socially redeeming factors on the Alabama frontier was evangelical religion, which dragged so many of our forebears away from a life of gambling, drinking and bare-knuckle fighting. This old religion, largely imported from New England, carried a strong Calvinist hue, and it carved out a place in the hearts of many Alabamians, even among apostates like me. It is deeply embedded in our DNA – as much as Catholicism is in Irish cultural DNA.
It’s not surprising that many of us identify with Moore’s public avowal of religious faith and propriety.
Alabama, like every other state in this Union, evolved out of a unique set of circumstances. And our politics and culture reflect many effects of that development.
Personally, there are many aspects of New England society that I find appallingly irritating and abhorrent and that have adversely affected the course of this country, especially after these tawdry shits became the cultural and economic hegemons after the war. Yet, they have enjoyed a free pass, largely because they remain our national and cultural hegemons.
Southerners, on the other hand, remain a special focus of animus among these people and their spiritual and intellectual progeny on the Left Coast. That is not all that surprising: As the world’s first propositional nation, Americans have always required a focus of animus, which the South has supplied, however unwittingly, since this country’s founding.
Consequently, every other ethnic group and region is afforded a pass for bad behavior stemming from its cultural inheritance EXCEPT the South, despite our region’s having inherited a cultural legacy with both good and bad elements like every other ethnic group and region in this nation and throughout the entire planet.
And honestly, given the unfortunate set of circumstances that fate has meted out to this region beginning with its initial settlement, why should we expect anything to have turned out differently – really?
Writer Jim Goad has argued – convincingly, I would contend – that Southerner and other poor Back Country whites provide elite American whites with a basis for conveniently passing off their collective guilt and insecurities.
I’ve grown weary of this – and, quite frankly, it explains why I insist on flying only an Alabama flag on my property. It’s hard to think of myself as an American when this region of the country is treated as the national hind teat and relegated to sitting on a stool of everlasting repentance.
Yes, Professor Flynt, you have every right to bemoan the legacy of his native state – that’s your First Amendment right – but I and tens of thousands of Alabamians are tired of it.