Guest post: Revanchism, racism, and religion

Originally a comment by Seth on The almost pathological suspicion.

I was born and raised in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, from a family of toilet cleaners and garbage workers and petty, unsuccessful business. Like Vance, I was cursed with insight into the hopelessness of my circumstance, and blessed with both the appetite and the extreme good fortune to claw my way out of the deep well of poverty and ignorance into which I’d been born. I’ve not read Vance’s book, but I’ve read reviews of it, and it seems he’s missed the three Rs of Southern poverty, without which nothing peculiar to Southern behaviour can be adequately explained. These are, in my order of estimation, revanchism, racism, and religion. I’ll do my best to briefly summarise them now.

The three are intertwined throughout the South, particularly the Deep and Old South. The Appalachias are the backbone of the latter from northern Georgia to Maryland. The pine gullies and hollers were peopled by Scottish and Irish and Welsh and Cornish peasants, people who suffered under the lash of indenture to English-blooded masters, and whose only relative station came from the fact that they were Christian and free, at least once the indenture that usually came as the price of their often-unconsensual transportation had expired. The same could not be said of the Africans who were transported and enslaved, which gave the settlers some fig leaf of pride to drape across the obscenity of the poverty in which they lived. That is the proximate cause of the racism that still haunts the South to this day; I present it first because it was the most deeply-rooted, though these days I believe revanchism weighs just a bit more heavily on the Southern psyche.

It is notable that the poorest areas of the South were those that resisted the Confederacy the longest, with the most remarkable (and successful) pocket of resistance being that of West Virginia, which did not exist until 1861. West Virginians counter-seceded from Virginia when the plantation owners and plutocrats in Richmond followed South Carolina’s lunacy, and West Virginia was admitted into the Union under the opening shots of the Civil War. Eastern Tennessee and northeastern Georgia attempted similar moves of loyalty to the United States; they were unsuccessful, but only because Jefferson Davis held them by force of arms under martial law. Appalachians acted thus because they knew—poor and ignorant as they indisputably were—that the Civil War wasn’t over “States’ Rights”…it was over the rights of wealthy Englishmen to keep profiting on the backs of labour they’d stolen. Make no mistake, West Virginians and eastern Tennesseans had no solidarity with slaves, racial or otherwise, but they were on the whole unwilling to send their sons off to die so that Englishmen could keep those slaves.

After Sherman and Grant and their confreres burnt the South to the ground from New Orleans to Richmond, the plantation fields lay fallow and the Englishmen of the plains faced the prospect of being every bit as poor as their Appalachian inferiors. The Union attempted a plan, the Reconstruction, that would have seen the economy of the South forever changed, and might well have lifted the Appalachias out of poverty…or at least kept them level with the plains. If Grant had had the courage and the forebearance to follow up on Lincoln’s design, the Confederacy might well and truly have died at Appomattox in 1865. Instead, the Englishmen of the plains insinuated themselves into the putative new order; they turned slavery into sharecropping and tenant farming, with the result that they could extract just as much labour out of their workforce without having to take any responsibility for their food, clothing, or shelter. Instead of breaking slavery, Union and Confederate money men did their level best to nullify the result of the war which over half a million of their fellow countrymen (and women) had died for, not counting the millions who suffered for decades afterward. For over a century, the social order of the South continued more-or-less unchanged, except with even more poverty for those unlucky enough to be born in a plantation house.

Revanchism is a curse brought on by a broken promise. In the South’s case, it was two promises that were broken: the promise of victory (by Davis and Lee) and, then, the promise of a just and fair Reconstruction by Lincoln. Over the century and a half since those promises were both broken, they’ve been largely elided in the poorest parts of the South, and the betrayal of the Reconstruction has been subsumed into an amnesiac support for the war that the Appalachians’ ancestors wanted no truck with when it actually happened. The Union, and hence the government in general, became the chief source of corruption and despair for far too many Appalachians, betrayed as they’d been both by Richmond and then Washington over the course of decades.

Religion means something a little bit different to the poorest Southerners, particularly Appalachians. There are plenty of churches, sure, most of them small community centres in or around towns. But the pews are usually filled with what passes for the middle class, people most concerned with appearances and social stature. Most of the people I knew growing up didn’t bother with going to church, and not just because nobody could afford a suit; religion is something that these people live, a story they tell themselves and one another, because they have so few better stories to tell. They pray not because they don’t know better, but because they know all too well that they’ll never feel the hand of human justice or prosperity, and the best they can do is hope for divine intervention in this world or, failing that, a place in paradise in the next one. Most of them have never read a word of the Bible, but they’ll swear up and down it’s the only way to live your life. In fact, plenty of them don’t even consider themselves “religious” at all—they have Jesus in their hearts, and that’s more than good enough, because their lives aren’t going to get any better otherwise.

I’m not an expert on the history of the South, but I know enough (and have lived enough) to claim with some confidence that anyone who tries to frame a discussion of Southern culture without extensive treatments of at least these three points is not worth wasting your time on. Read To Kill a Mockingbird instead; it’ll be much more entertaining, at least.

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