I'm always a sucker for books that purport to explain how the world--or at least how America--works. Whether it's Alvin Toffler's Third Wave trilogy, Tom Wolfe's wry studies of how status rules our lives, or David Brooks' recent classic, Bobos in Paradise, I'm sure to read it.
So when National Review Online, at the height of the Trent Lott imbroglio, interviewed Michael Graham, the author of Redneck Nation, I had to read a copy. Here was a guy with a hypothesis that was at once so outrageous, and yet so...logical.
As you may have guessed by its title, in Redneck Nation, Graham essentially believes that somewhere in the past 25 years or so, the South quietly, and through no fault of its own, won the Civil War. That doesn't mean there will be a Confederate flag flying over the state capitals in Albany or Sacramento, (although Redneck Nation has a line that's a real catchphrase, " the only difference between Brooklyn, New York and Birmingham, Alabama is that you can't get a gun rack in a Trans-Am.") but it does mean that many of the ideas of the old South, though thoroughly discredited by the 1960 civil rights movement, have slowly crept into-or back into-the minds of many Americans.
How Did It Happen?
How did we become redneck nation? In an interview with Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review (for whom Graham has written for from time to time) Graham said:
when I talk about redneckery in Redneck Nation, I'm not talking about the Jeff Foxworthy stereotypes. I'm writing about the ideology: What did a typical white southern "redneck" believe at the beginning of the civil-rights movement 50 years ago?
He believed that race mattered, that race was determinant. He believed that free speech was dangerous, spread by "outside agitators" who never learned the southern speech code: "If you can't say something nice...drink." He believed that all women were either delicate creatures in need of special social protections, or they were roadhouse trailer trash who would spank you and call you "Daddy." He believed that the more irrational and ridiculous your religion, the more fervently you believed in God. He believed the most entertaining way to spend a Saturday night was to watch something get "blowed up real good."
"Having fled these attitudes among my rural southern neighbors", Graham says, "I now live in a modern, liberal America where Ivy League colleges are building segregating housing because "race matters." I actually heard one modern defender of segregated public schools (blacks-only academies) say 'black people learn differently from white people.' Gee, I haven't heard that since I was 12 - from a klan member!" Graham adds:
Thanks to the efforts of northern liberals, we now live in an America where:
Conservative newspapers are regularly burned on the Berkeley campus and Harvard is developing speech codes to keep students from saying anything that might upset their neighbors. Where feminist professors are having works of art like Goya's The Naked Maja removed from classrooms because they create a hostile work environment; and where the model of modern womanhood is the Sex In The City, a.k.a. "White Trash On The Hudson." Where evangelical Christians are mocked by West Coast liberal elites who wear healing crystals, have conversations with trees and watch John Edwards - TV psychic. And where the number one spectator sport from Maine to Malibu is - -NASCAR!
Mencken Meets Foxworthy
This is also a very, very funny book. Graham has spent time as a stand-up comedian, and is an active talk show host, and the book reflects both of those skills. Imagine Dave Barry or Bill Maher (who contributed a blurb to the book's dust jacket) crossed with David Horowitz or William F. Buckley (or H.L. Mencken, whose quotes preface several chapters), and you get an idea of Graham's tone:
After a set at a hotel in Washington State, I was dragged into a long, drawn-out discussion with a graying, balding New Ager who just couldn't get over my evangelical background. "You seem so smart," he kept saying. "How could you buy into that stuff?"
Here's a guy wearing a crystal around his neck to open up his chakra, who thinks that the spirit of a warrior from the lost city of Atlantis is channeled through the body of a hairdresser from Palm Springs, and who stuffs magnets in his pants to enhance his aura, and he finds evangelicalism an insult to his intelligence. I ask you: Who's the redneck?