Paul Prather

The myths we believe about the South can propel us in ways wise and unfortunate

Columnist Paul Prather writes, “ ... other southern cultural ideas retain great power, some of them to good effect, some of them not so much.” This 2015 photo shows Confederate flags carried during a rally in support of keeping the statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis in the Capitol in Frankfort in 2015. The Kentucky chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans organized the rally.
Columnist Paul Prather writes, “ ... other southern cultural ideas retain great power, some of them to good effect, some of them not so much.” This 2015 photo shows Confederate flags carried during a rally in support of keeping the statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis in the Capitol in Frankfort in 2015. The Kentucky chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans organized the rally. Herald-Leader

Time magazine devoted a recent issue to exploring the complexities of the modern American South.

The issue included an essay by Kentucky’s Silas House that mentions the Wrigley Taproom & Eatery, a progressive, multicultural bar in Corbin, where 82 percent of the population voted for Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

But with all respect to House, a fine writer, what especially caught my eye was a piece by the National Review’s David French, “What Democrats Don’t Get About the South.”

French, a Southerner himself, argues that politics below the Mason-Dixon line isn’t only, or even mainly, about bread-and-butter issues — taxes or improved roads or patronage, say — but about the South’s vision of itself.

The South is as much a set of ideas as a geographical place, he says.

That’s why Southern politicians often run ads showing themselves driving pickups and hunting and going to church.

“The majority of the people don’t hunt or fish or farm, but they feel connected to people who do,” French writes. “A Tennessee lawyer may never leave a paved road, but he’ll drive a truck that can haul hay. Even people who don’t own guns value the South’s gun culture. They may not have a firearm, but they will not tolerate a government that restricts their ability to defend themselves.”

He explains truck-driving, gun-toting, Bible-quoting politicians thusly:

“It’s over who can be the most … proudly traditional and the least politically correct. … The truly Southern man won’t be impressed by establishment politics. He’s going to be skeptical of elites. And he’ll never be ashamed of his faith. This culture signaling declares to the voter that he’s not just representing them; he’s representing a way of life.”

A way of life. Yes, that’s it.

I’m the product of two overlapping cultures — the South generally and southern Appalachia specifically — that see themselves as the guardians of certain myths.

We’re all supposed to be, if you’re a glass-half-full person, generous and friendly and grounded and spiritual and family oriented. We’re addicted to sweet tea, cornbread, square dancing and college sports.

If you’re a glass-half-empty person, we’re uneducated and violent and racist and superstitious and clannish. We’re addicted to welfare, heroin, guns and fundamentalism.

The thing about myths is, they usually bear more than a grain of truth. But they’re never the whole truth. The whole truth tends to be highly, infuriatingly complicated.

After living nearly 60 of my years in the sticks, I do know an awful lot of devoted fundamentalists here, for instance.

I know nearly as many waffling agnostics and militant atheists, though.

Sometimes the fundamentalists, agnostics and atheists are the very same people, depending on which month it happens to be.

Even among more-or-less consistent — and moderate — churchgoers, it gets complicated.

The rural church where I’m pastor has got farmers and deer hunters and tongues talkers and Republicans. We indeed have a great many pickup trucks, one or two of which sport metal bull testicles dangling from them, parked in our lot on Sunday mornings.

We’ve also got West Coast transplants and aging hippies and Bernie Sanders voters and college professors and amateur Buddhists and, parked among the pickups, sedans with “Build Bridges, Not Walls” bumper stickers.

It’s all the real-life South. It’s all Appalachia, too. It’s all just one little church in one little county.

Likely as not, it’s always been this unruly.

The myths we believe can propel us in ways both wise and unfortunate.

Forty-some years ago, when I was an adolescent, I remember owning a large beach towel that was a replica of a Confederate battle flag. Some of my friends displayed other, similarly themed accouterments.

This may be hard to fathom in the 21st century, but I don’t think it ever occurred to me that my towel might be perceived as racist, or that it might hurt anyone else. To me, and I assume to my buddies, these items weren’t about race or the Civil War or states’ rights.

We weren’t consciously racists. Heck, much of the time we weren’t even conscious.

To us, our southern paraphernalia was about seeing ourselves as rebels, from a long line of rebels. About our eagerness to tweak the nose of authority. About refusing to be told what to do or think or say by anybody, especially our parents or principals.

Our southern symbols were an idea more than an ideology. And they were a feeling more than an idea.

None of it was logical.

The rebel flag was something I quickly grew out of. Today, thankfully, it’s fallen out of fashion almost everywhere.

That said, other southern cultural ideas retain great power, some of them to good effect, some of them not so much.

Always, however, real life is messier than our myths. Nonetheless, those myths push us on, in ways large and small, helpful and hurtful.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

  Comments