• Allan Dyen-Shapiro

Navin Johnson Redux II


In Dan Baum’s book, Gun Guys, he distinguishes the various zones experienced when armed with a loaded weapon. The most interesting to me was the yellow zone, in which carriers—concealed or open—spend most of their lives. Baum described a culture in which the armed individual is a sheepdog, always watching, who by dint of the weaponized status, must take on the role of defending those around him or her. To Baum, culture, creativity, art, openness, love, and social relations belong to the white zone, but for one who owns a gun, the white zone exists only in a fortress—gun locked in a gun safe, front door locked, burglar alarm on, family safely in for the night. If you wish to live your life in the white zone, Baum says, you shouldn’t own a weapon.

In my first post in this mini-series, I characterized Southern, white, male culture as the culture of private property, of the home, and the homophilic communities that it nucleates, and I pointed out some cultural legacies from the era when Black people and women were considered property. The next major point (third, as one and two were in the previous post) I’ll make with the goal of understanding this culture well enough to project into the near-future and write science fiction is as follows:

3. TO THE WHITE SOUTHERNER, GUNS ARE FUNDAMENTAL TO CULTURE. If the achievement of a man’s life is his property and the family who lives on it, threats to this property are existential in nature. Defending one’s property becomes an obligation of the most serious nature. And in a world with guns, how else can one muster a defense than with a firearm of one’s own? If not many firearms.

But wait, if these front-porch-based communities are so idyllic, why would anyone’s home need defending? Well, in the (largely imagined) status quo ante, that might have been true, but now there are those unlike us. Those not of the community might be a threat. Best to be careful.

And why is “The Other” a threat? Well, for much of the South’s history, Black men were slaves. Few white folks were under the illusion that many liked being slaves; white folks lived in fear of slave revolts. Later, it was the threat to take what “belongs” to the white civilization that drove fear.

But there are also criminals. All men are naturally evil, and those who haven’t managed to live in God’s Grace will do evil. So guns also defend against those who aren’t the right type of Christian.

And since women just recently in history emerged from being property, the stronger sex often assumes they must still defend the women and their honor. Those evil men might try to rape your women.

And that’s the way guns have often been argued to me, here in the South. “If someone breaks into your house and threatens to rape your wife or daughter, wouldn’t you want a gun to defend them? If not, you’re not man enough.”

Since the 1980s, the Southerner has been able to intellectualize this need for a weapon as a Second Amendment right. Bearing arms had been subordinated to the “A well-regulated militia, being necessary” part of that Amendment until more and more conservative US Supreme Court judges decided bearing arms was an individual, rather than a militia-limited right. The purpose of militias in Southern states prior to the Civil War was to hunt down fugitive slaves—protecting property. Post-Reconstruction, it became terrorizing Black men, protecting the whiteness of property and community via segregation. Today, it’s bad men or outsiders or criminals or whatever you want to call them, but still, it’s the folks who aren’t us and aren’t like us who are the threat.

If property is the ultimate good, and guns are good, and guns protect property, patriarchy and homophily, then

4. MILITARY SERVICE IS TO BE VENERATED. Since the end of the draft in 1976, the ranks of the military have been drawn disproportionately from Southerners. Part of the reason is that poverty is more widespread in the South and college education is less widespread. Urbanization has only approached Northern levels in recent times, and the urban centers of the South are tightly clustered. Nothing like the Boston-to-Washington megalopolis exists. Poor, uneducated, and isolated in rural areas, life paths can seem restricted. If you don’t have many options in life, the military will give you three square meals a day and a salary.

The schools foster this trend. Before I moved to Florida, I had never heard of JROTC. My high school didn’t have it. No high school of which I was aware had it. In the Fort Myers area, every high school has it. Indeed, it’s considered the alternative to Phys Ed (although many students take both—best to avoid those egghead things filling up kids’ schedules). Sometimes as much as one-third of the high school class is subjected to this military recruitment (although the instructors will claim it is general leadership skills being taught). Why? Because they make it cool. Kids whose parents are either absent or working several jobs to make ends meet get to go away on camping weekends. They get to dress up and go to military balls. They get competition (Raider teams, for examples) where they get to earn medals. They get to march around and be part of a group, dressed the same: the cool kids.

And for those who come back from military service alive, sane, and in one piece, (50% of those in combat come back mentally ill, 10% have permanent brain damage from blasts, 94% of women are sexually harassed and 42% are raped), for the rest of their lives, society will honor them. When I go to a hockey game in the arena walking distance from my home, at some point during the game, the entire crowd will clap for the veterans who stand, thanking them for their service. Local businesses often offer (minimal) military discounts. Veterans Day is a holiday for honoring them, as is Memorial Day (which few know started as Armistice Day—a day for the hope that there would be no more soldiers).

Why? Why not honor plumbers instead? Hey, life would be pretty unpleasant with chronically backed up sewage lines. Aren’t they heroes? Okay, soldiers at the lowest level are underpaid, but so are social workers, home healthcare aides, and others who no-doubt serve society. But their jobs are dangerous! Less so than garbagemen, the single most dangerous occupation, and we don’t have GarbageMan’s Day.

But soldiers fought for our freedoms. Really? They beat back those Canadian Mounties who otherwise would have crossed the border and forced us to drink Molson Canadians? Hell, Molson isn’t even Montreal-based since they merged with Coors. There has not been an attack on the continental US since the Spanish-American War. And the most useless branch of the military, as far as defending freedom goes? The purpose of the Marines is to make amphibious landings. The US military has not made a single amphibious landing anywhere in the world since 1953.

So, invading Iraq fought for my freedom? No, it created ISIS. Our war in Afghanistan largely served to vest 80% of the world’s heroin trade in the hands of the brother of the stooge the US installed at the head of the Afghan government. Going back a little further, smashing up stuff in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama (as well as installing a President of Mexico in the 1980s wiling to let the CIA run drugs into our country) led to narco-terrorism, gang violence, and, guess what, lots of people crossing the border into our country.

Civil rights workers fought for freedom. Courageous legislators passing Civil Rights bills fought for freedom. Those educating students so they can participate in democracy fight for freedom. But soldiers—bah.

But if you live in the South, all those arguments are heresy, because the military is macho. They fight for freedom, goddamit! Property is holy; and because guns defend our property, guns are holy; and because lots of guns defend our entire country, the military is holy. Anyone who questions this is a Yankee pinko.

By the way, speaking of the borders our boys are defending,

5. IMMIGRATION IS A THREAT. At the height of the carnage in Syria, Germany took in more than a million refugees. Florida refused to accept the twenty-five Obama asked our governor to accept. Because, well, the state with the flight school that didn’t find it odd that some nice young men from Saudi Arabia wanted to learn to fly a plane but didn’t care to learn taking off or landing would be in grave danger if we took those people.

Texas is under siege. Women sneak across the border to have a baby in our hospitals and then wait for a lib-er-al to come to power so they can demand green cards for themselves. They use our services and make the state dangerous. Well, in reality, there has been net migration out of Texas into Mexico for numerous years, immigrants generally contribute to the economy and the tax base much more than they take out, and the major reason for the high level of undocumented workers is a bureaucracy that crashed at the time of the Patriot Act due to gross underfunding.

But none of that could possibly be true, because, well you see brown-skinned people speaking Spanish, and working-class white people are faring poorly. If there’s a correlation, then we have two groups that will hate each other and not question who’s really making off with the spoils. It’s called divide and conquer. The Roman Empire understood it, the British Empire understood it—racism is pretty damn useful for protecting plutocrats.

The most ridiculous aspect of the current hullabaloo is that the numbers are a drop in the bucket. It has been estimated that in the next twenty to thirty years, one billion people will be made refugees by climate change. As the US contributed most of the carbon in the atmosphere, guess who is responsible? Guess where many of them will want to go?

If Florida can’t absorb 25 refugees in a year, how are they going to do when the number is 25 million?

Anti-immigrant feeling is strongest in the South because of the culture: if property is central, and property is the locus for family, and family leads to homophilic association that gives towns of people like us, and living in those country music vignettes is what’s well and good and Godly, then immigrants are a threat because they don’t look like us.

So what else is a threat to Southern culture?

6. INTELLECTUALS ARE A THREAT. Yankees, or worse, foreigners, trying to disrupt the system—evil incarnate!Who needs more than high school? And the only purpose of high school is to have a place to host football games. Homecoming weekend is the social event of the year for the whole community. Up North, when I went to high school, I didn’t know any football players and never went to the games, and nobody I knew did. They might have thought they were cool, but their opinion wasn’t shared universally. Especially by us guitar players—my principal claim to non-nerd status in that phase of my life.

7. TAXES ARE AN ASSAULT ON LIBERTY. If property is the central value of your culture, anyone who wants to take your property is a threat. And the government wants to take your property through taxes. Sure, the government needs some money—how else would we support that big military that brings us such pride? But they better be as low as possible. No wasting on frivolous stuff like education or public health.

Indeed, taxes are such a danger that

8. LIMITED GOVERNMENT IS THE LINCHPIN OF FREEDOM. Let me do what I want. I have a right to shoot semi-automatic rifles off wherever I want and to carry them whenever I want. I want to drive my truck (without any of those pollution controls) as fast as I want. I want porn and fireworks (even in a drought) and doctors who’ll prescribe me all sorts of powerful drugs (the country’s pill mills that led to the opiate addiction crisis were all in Florida until the federal government went after them) and houses built wherever I want regardless of what some scientist says about the en-vi-ron-ment. Unless of course the law helps me to protect my property. Like cops. I love cops. Blue lives matter. And no abortion, because, hell, if women are my property, I’m going to control their childbearing, and if they don’t like it, they can go perform in the gentleman’s clubs because it’s my right to go to those.

That’s a lot of things Southerners don’t like, and thus far, I’ve only mentioned guns and the military as things they do. But there’s also a culture down here. Mint juleps, pine trees, a drawl in how we talk, Confederate uniforms, an idyllic past before all the urbanization: our heritage.

Unfortunately:

9. SOUTHERN HERITAGE IS A MYTH CREATED BY MEDIA. The classic examples are Birth of a Nation, the 1915 film in which the KKK are the heroes and the Black people are the enemy, and Gone with the Wind, which singlehandedly created the genteel myth of the antebellum gentleman. So much better to think of your ancestors as Rhett Butler than to remember the whipping, lynching, and raping of slaves on real plantations.

But that’s way before the time of most of today’s Southerners. Instead, we have Mayberry, where Andy Griffith is the likeable, small town sheriff and wonderful Dad (and everyone is white). Or the variety shows of the late 60s and early 70s starring country musicians like The Glenn Campbell Goodtime Hour or The Johnny Cash Show or Hee Haw (which ran until 1989). White people singing music about white people. Or the Dukes of Hazard. They might be good-old-boys who raise a little hell, others might be God-fearing Christians, but they sure as hell are homogenous.

With this as background, Steve Martin’s parody in The Jerk derives its comedy from the mere idea that his character, Navin Johnson, might cross the color lines.

This generation’s show of the South is The Walking Dead. Sure, once the lib-er-als criticized it for lack of diversity, the showrunners changed it, but it started off with only three minor, underdeveloped, throw-away Black characters. In its original incarnation, the zombies had moved in, but it still hadn’t threatened society’s white, Southern, Christian character.

With these as mental models, Southern teenagers ride pick-up trucks flying the rebel flag (really popularized by the KKK well after the Civil War) and proclaim pride in their heritage. One wonders about recent pictures of such pick-ups in Pennsylvania, but hey, it would have required paying attention in school to realize which states were actually part of the Confederacy. You have Civil War battle re-enactors, you have fights over statues of Confederate generals, you have Southern Rock, but most of all you have whiteness. It’s all very white.

And green. The pine and palm trees are cool. Indeed, celebration of the environment is the most valid extrapolation from the media culture—it truly is pretty down here, and the weather is nice enough to enjoy it most of the year.

Well, once again, I’ve gone quite long. And I haven’t even gotten to religion, which is clearly central to Southern, white culture. So, next post, I’ll delve into that, and then I’ll pull it all together with a positive spin and hint at what changes could lead to a non-dystopic, near-future, Southern culture.

So I can write it as science fiction. Like Navin, I too have a special purpose.


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