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South versus West: Joan Didion Anticipates the Trump Election in 1970

Tuesday, February 28, 2017 2:32
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(Before It's News)

To many people the election of Donald Trump as president was a soul-rending shock.  What couldn’t possibly happen actually happened.  Much time and effort has been spent on trying to explain what occurred and why.  It is necessary to get the correct answers to those questions and not rush to prematurely drawn conclusions.  In that context, a potentially interesting insight arose from an unexpected source.  Nathaniel Rich wrote a review of Joan Didion’s book, South and West: From a Notebook, for the New York Review of Books under the title Joan Didion in the Deep South.  Didion is a highly-respected writer of novels, screenplays, essays and memoirs.  She was born and has spent much of her life living and working in California, and had an abiding interest in understanding and describing the character of the state and its residents.  Somewhat paradoxically, Didion decided that she might be able to understand California better if she learned more about the South because so many Californians had origins in the South.  Consequently, she spent a month in 1970 driving across the region and taking notes on what she observed and the people to whom she talked.  The study she had intended was never written and published, but her notes from the journey are now about to be released (March, 2017) in book form.  Nathaniel Rich provides this assessment of the product.
“Didion’s notes, which surpass in elegance and clarity the finished prose of most other writers, are a fascinating record of this time. But they are also something more unsettling. Readers today will recognize, with some dismay and even horror, how much is familiar in these long-lost American portraits. Didion saw her era more clearly than anyone else, which is another way of saying that she was able to see the future.”
It is this notion that the past has predicted the future that is of interest to us today.
One must begin by indicating the common preconceptions about the two regions because they are assumed to be polar opposites in terms of history and prospects for the future.  We are presented with this Didion quote about her home state.
“’The future always looks good in the golden land,’ Didion wrote in “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” ‘because no one remembers the past’.”
But a region without a past to act as ballast or anchor can be an unstable construct.  Politics can change quickly in California—at least in its major cities—where cultural upheaval is a way of life.
“….in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, which since Didion’s reporting has only accelerated in its embrace of an ethic in which the past is fluid, meaningless, neutered by technological advancement. In this view the past is relegated to the aesthetic realm, to what Didion describes in “California Notes” as ‘decorative touches’—tastefully aged cutlery and window curtains. In this view the past was safely dead and could not return to bloody the land.”
The South is a quite different place, one where change comes slowly—if at all.
“Even the glimpses of unlikely beauty—the wild carrots growing around the raised railroad tracks in Biloxi, the small girl sitting in the sawdust stringing pop tops from beer cans into a necklace—contribute to the general atmosphere of uneasiness, rot, and ‘somnolence so dense it seemed to inhibit breathing.’ There is a long tradition of northern visitors seeing in the Gulf South an atmosphere of perpetual decline, in which ‘everything seems to go to seed.’ Didion quotes Audubon’s line about ‘the dangerous nature of the ground, its oozing, spongy, and miry disposition,’ though you could go back to 1720, when a visiting French official described the territory as ‘flooded, unhealthy, impracticable’.”
However, Didion saw, or at least sensed, something more powerful and more permanent in her travels through the region.  Here is a quote from her notes presenting a startling hypothesis.
“….a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.”
How can a region viewed as being in an advanced state of decay be considered to be a representation of the future?
“Didion admits the idea seems oxymoronic, but she is onto something. Part of the answer, she suspects, lies in the bluntness with which Southerners confront race, class, and heritage—‘distinctions which the frontier ethic teaches western children to deny and to leave deliberately unmentioned.’ In the South such distinctions are visible, rigid, and the subject of frank conversation.”
“Everybody in the South knows where they stand. There is no shame in discussing it. It is suspicious, in fact, to avoid the subject.”
William Faulkner, a writer from the South once wrote “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.”  If true, then the past becomes the future as well.  Didion seems to be sensing this.  Will people be satisfied with a society that promises an exciting but unknowable future?  Or will they prefer the comfort and stability of a society in which “everybody knows where they stand?”
To many liberals, the ideal society would allow people of different races and genders to move fluidly wherever their interests and capabilities might lead them.  They cannot comprehend that others would insist on thinking differently.
“An unquestioned premise among those who live in American cities with international airports has been, for more than half a century now, that Enlightenment values would in time become conventional wisdom. Some fought for this future to come sooner. Others waited patiently. But nobody seemed to believe that it would never arrive.”
Nathaniel Rich accepts Didion’s hypothesis and points to Trump’s election as evidence.
“…..this southern frame of mind has annexed territory in the last four decades, expanding across the Mason-Dixon Line into the rest of rural America. It has taken root among people—or at least registered voters—nostalgic for a more orderly past in which the men concentrated on hunting and fishing and the women on ‘their cooking, their canning, their “prettifying”;’ when graft as a way of life was accepted, particularly in politics, and segregation was unquestioned….”
“Two decades into the new millennium, however, a plurality of the population has clung defiantly to the old way of life. They still believe in the viability of armed revolt. As Didion herself noted nearly fifty years ago, their solidarity is only reinforced by outside disapproval, particularly disapproval by the northern press. They have resisted with mockery, then rage, the collapse of the old identity categories. They have resisted the premise that white skin should not be given special consideration. They have resisted new technology and scientific evidence of global ecological collapse. The force of this resistance has been strong enough to elect a president.”
Is this a credible position to take?  Could southern ideas and attitudes have seduced citizens from other regions?  That is not a new idea. 
From the era of slavery to today, those in power in the South have fought to maintain it as a low-wage region.  In such a situation people are bred much faster than are living-wage jobs.  The South has a poor attitude toward immigrants, but it has been producing immigrants for other parts of the nation in large numbers throughout its history.  The southern culture was carried with them and likely had an effect on those with whom they cohabited.
Senator Jim Webb (Virginia) wrote a book claiming that these immigrants were mostly the Scots-Irish (his ancestors) and they produced a dramatic change in the areas in which they resettled: Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (2004).  He makes this claim.
“Domestically, Scots-Irish folkways had become deeply imbedded into the nation’s blue collar communities in every region except the Northeast.”
Kevin Phillips agreed with this notion of migration of southern culture and included a section dealing with “The Southernization of America” in his book American Theocracy The Peril & Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, & Borrowed Money in the 21st Century(2006).  The “Great Migration” of blacks from the South to the North and the West had a profound effect on the cities in which they settled.  Phillips reminds us that there was a parallel great migration of whites as well.  It likely had its own profound effect.
“In Dixie Rising, Peter Applebome profiled the huge migration out of the South between 1910 and 1960.  Besides 4.5 million blacks, mostly bound for the urban north, some 4.6 million whites also left the South, principally for the Midwest and the West.”
“So many Kentuckians, West Virginians, and Tennesseans went northward to the automobile and rubber plants of the Great Lakes states that most factory cities had their hillbilly hollows and Little West Virginias.”
Much of the history of the United States has played out as a conflict between competing views of the North and the South.  The North has maintained a slight lead in the hearts of the voting public by winning in high population urban areas.  The recent election seems to suggest that the South has won the hearts and minds of everyone else.  It controls the terrain and that is what is important in our electoral system.  Even in bluest of blue California, if one drives about 60 miles due east of  San Francisco one enters a region that has been described as being politically and culturally more like Oklahoma than the Bay Area.
Nathaniel Rich provides this conclusion.
“A writer from the Gulf South once wrote that the past is not even past. Didion goes further, suggesting that the past is also the future. Now that we live in that future, her observations read like a warning unheeded. They suggest that California’s dreamers of the golden dream were just that—dreamers—while the “dense obsessiveness” of the South, and all the vindictiveness that comes with it, was the true American condition, the condition to which we will always inevitably return. Joan Didion went to the South to understand something about California and she ended up understanding something about America.”
One fears that we will continue to be a fundamentally divided nation for the indefinite future.  It seems that only world wars and massive social upheavals can draw us together.  If there is any good thought to extract from this discussion, consider that Donald Trump seems capable of causing both.  Thus, perhaps, a reconciliation of some sort may become possible.  That is what passes for good news these days.
The interested reader might find the following article informative:

You can learn a little about a lot of things or you can learn a lot about a very few things. Guess which is the most fun.


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