Going South for the Winter

Novelist and World Traveler Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux has had an immense influence on my life. When I first read The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas in 1981, I knew that I wanted to travel as he did. But I couldn’t: I was stuck in a demanding job, and many of the places I wanted to visit, such as Guatemala, Peru, and Argentina, were undergoing hard times; and travel there was not recommended by our State Department.

But the years have passed, and travel to Latin America is not so problematic any more. (Though, now, parts of Mexico are dangerous—including many cities, such as Veracruz, which I have visited.)

After writing books about traveling by rail through Asia and China, about traveling around the coasts of Britain and the Mediterranean, and about island-hopping in the South Pacific, Theroux spent four winters traveling through the Deep South, concentrating on poor small towns in Georgia, the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. His book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, opened my eyes to why Trump won in 2016. Theroux’s South was a place where people were more civil to strangers than in other parts of the country. Yet there is a great deal of poverty, and many of its people feel they have been shunted aside by history, large corporations, and general neglect.

Theroux, the world traveler, spent those four winters dealing with people who, for the most part, never traveled abroad. He spent more time with Black Americans than with Whites. Both racists are as far apart as ever, yet there are glimmers of hope. And the hope is not from Washington and New York, where all the money is concentrated, but from local people who bring about incremental improvements rather than global change.

He is older and wiser after his forty-odd years of travel. “The greatest advantage to being an older traveler is being invisible, unregarded, ignored. This allows one to eavesdrop and to see much more of a place or a people. There is a detachment, too, in being older: You’re not looking for a new life, not easily tempted. So you see a place clearly. Perfect for writing.”

The travels that went into the making of this book took place before the electoral debacle of 2016, but one could see the widespread willingness to try something new, to talk to somehow who promised to “Make America Great Again.” Not that this administration will anything to help them. A trade war with China would hurt voters in Trump country far more than voters in the Northeast and West.

 

Fighting for Their Rats

Are We Still Fighting the Civil War?

Are We Still Fighting the Civil War?

I cannot help but think that, in a way, the surrender of Lee to Grant at Appomattox Court House never really happened. The South has decided, instead of surrendering, to fight to the death for a set of beliefs that are irreconcilable to those of most Americans. And they are becoming increasingly more irreconcilable. Now, although “irreconcilable differences” is frequently used as grounds for divorce, in this case I think something else will happen in this course of time.

The biggest enemy that Republican Conservatives from the South will face in the decades to come is demographic change. The Bible-thumping old white people will gradually die out, to be replaced by some fewer young people with the same values, but still more African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. This is a trend that is happening in most parts of the country, but I expect that its results will be most strongly felt in the South.

I think Faux News pundit Bill O’Reilly had it right when he said: “Obama wins because it’s not a traditional America anymore. The white establishment is the minority.” He concluded by adding that “people want things.” Of course they do. We all do. And what Tea Party Southerners (“the white establishment”) want is very different from what the new emerging demographic majorities want.

There is something pathetic about these old Confederates still acting as if they were the only game in town, when in fact they are not. And they will grow even fewer, but not before fighting to the last man for their principles.

In Ted Turner’s film Gettysburg, there is a scene in which a Union officer interrogates three Southern prisoners captured during the early fighting skirmishes. The Yankee asks the prisoners why they are fighting. The answer comes back, “for their rights.” Except, the young officer mishears them because of their drawl and thinks they said, “for their rats.” Even when this misunderstanding is cleared up, it is clear that that was not the answer their captors expected. The North thought that the South was fighting for slavery, whereas the South was fighting for the right to do what they believed in, irrespective of what those beliefs were. If those beliefs included slavery, then so be it!

It is somewhat unnerving to think that issues we thought had been decided back in 1865 are still affecting the American political scene. They are, and will continue to do so until a whole lot more water has flown under the bridge.