A few weeks ago, I wrote about the changing, dying rural communities I observed on a trip through western South Carolina. You’re not supposed to say as much, but I don’t like that the culture and the world I grew up in are changing. I’m not sure when it became taboo to say, “This is my home and these are my kin,” but apparently that’s no longer acceptable if you’re a conservative Christian in the American South, especially if you’re a white man.
Around the time I wrote that post, I stumbled upon two excellent posts from the Abbeville Institute that express that sentiment beautifully. One, “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Leslie Alexander, is a poetic, heartbreaking glimpse at a personal sense of alienation: the writer, a Louisiana native with deep roots, finds herself adrift in Dallas, a land that lacks not only has “no regional culture here—one of common language, mores and manners–there is not even an American one.”
The other, from Nicole Williams, is a more technical and historical dive into the emergence of the “New South,” the story of how an economically devastated postbellum region, in a search for economic opportunity, ultimately sold its culture and identity for a mess of pottage. The title says it all: “What Price Prosperity?”
I’ve increasingly come to believe that we’ve been sold a bill of goods, not just in the South but nationwide. For years the fixation was on economic—that is, material—prosperity, to the detriment of anything else. That made sense following the privations of the Great Depression and the Second World War. And during the Great Recession of 2008-2009 (and the long “recovery” that followed), encouraging job creation was clearly a worthy priority.
Material prosperity is a wonderful thing—I like being able to get pizza at 2 AM (not that I’m up that late anymore), and keeping a high-powered Star Trek communicator in my pocket that can access the storehouses of human knowledge at a swipe—and I am thankful for good food and a warm house. Indeed, I think it’s a moral good for people to have gainful employment and the means to put food on the table.
But stuff can’t fill the void in our lives that require meaning and belonging. Ms. Alexander’s piece movingly and dramatically tells of the pitfalls of living in a cosmopolitan city (is it wrong of me to lament it even more because it’s in Texas—the South—and not in some indifferent Northern burg?).
Here is a lengthy excerpt—it’s worth quoting:
Stores, restaurants, and other establishments ring loudly with the sound of Spanish. New to the city, I ask questions, and rarely chance upon a fluent English speaker. Even in the upper-income neighborhood in which I’m staying, it is rare to see an American flag. Get lost and venture to outlying neighborhoods and whole blocks of stores have signage only in Spanish….
There is a distinct feeling that almost everyone has come from somewhere else, and not a similar place. An untattooed, unpierced body is infrequent. Pink is the most common hair color. Amorphous masses of bodies abound–male, female, or something in between. Cordial relations between the sexes–between ladies and gentlemen–is non-existent. Instead, there’s a strange ambiguity that feels desolate. The atypical Normals look at each other with recognition. And a kind of wistfulness.
Courtesy is rare. A Louisiana girl, I am accustomed to pleasant greetings and warmth, a shared desire to connect. Here, greetings are often met with silence or suspicion. Even a drive-through smoothie shop is an empty experience; I recently attempted small talk at the window, trying mightily to connect. I left feeling unseen, and sad.
I have to applaud Ms. Alexander for having the courage to put these thoughts into writing. They are increasingly verboten. We’re supposed to chant, uncritically and dogmatically, that “diversity is our strength,” yet we find ourselves adrift in the cultural equivalent of cafeteria mystery meat—not the melting pot we celebrate, but some hideous loaf or fruitcake of unassimilated parts.
Ms. Williams’s piece is more data-driven, so for those of you that like numbers over anecdotal musings, here is a startling excerpt from her analysis (emphasis mine):
Data from CityLab show population growth in nearly all urban areas in the South over the past 10 years, while rural areas continue to demonstrate population decline correlated with job losses and business closures. Simply put, people are moving to where economic opportunity is available. This is not simply a regional migration as the Northeast and Rust Belt states have lost population and migration continues unabated to Sun Belt cities. The politics of the South have continued to shift along with this migration, as cities once considered to lean conservative or at least moderate have shifted, not only within the cities but also in the suburbs, to an affinity for left-leaning political candidates. Tax revenues, unsurprisingly, have also continued to climb in these areas as migration and commercial and housing construction starts have skyrocketed. Migration has also lead to the election of an increasing number of municipal and state leaders who have no native links to the areas in which they represent. In short, this has resulted in the replacement of the native population (and culture) within these areas of economic growth.
Cultural replacement in these areas has taken the focus off of heritage celebrations, monuments, vernacular architecture, historic preservation efforts, and in fact, turned the tables back on the native culture and history of the area. Atlanta has placed a number of “contextual” signage on Confederate monuments, the Museum of the Confederacy has shut in Richmond, a war monument was removed in Winston-Salem (led no less by municipal leadership where the vast majority are not from North Carolina), and gun rights are restricted in areas where high levels of migration from the North and Midwest have overwhelmed the native population. Left-leaning candidates have won office in Virginia, North Carolina and nearly won the governorship in the state of Georgia in 2018. All of this without regard for the people who created and gave life to these cities, towns, and regions.
I rail about foreign immigration swamping our nation, but internal immigration is swamping our fair Dixie. We Southerners—especially in my hometown of Aiken, where the Savannah River Site has been bringing Yankees down here since the 1950s—understand the phenomenon of “transplants” well. Uppity Yankees flee their frosty, crime-riddled, over-taxed Blue States for our beautiful weather, beautiful women, good food, and low taxes, then proceed to tell us how we’re running our paradise all wrong.
What started out as a few annoying snowbirds coming down South to sun themselves in their twilight years has morphed into a full-scale invasion (as if once wasn’t enough—thanks a lot, Sherman). They’ve wasted no time in wrecking the place.
I’ve heard the same thing is happening to Idaho, but with Californians.
Look, I’m all for some spice in the broth. I love that my little adopted hometown has a legit Chinese family running an amazing Chinese restaurant down the street. I’m actually intrigued to know how a family of Han Chinese ended up in rural South Carolina. They’re great people, as far as I can tell.
But if suddenly 10,000 Han Chinese showed up in Lamar—without any knowledge of English and only a cursory understanding of our customs and culture—I would be extremely uncomfortable. My town would no longer be my town—it would be something else entirely.
I don’t understand why this concept is so difficult for so many people. I can already anticipate the objections. “Well, what about the [insert pitiful immigrant group from the romantic era of immigration here]? They’re fully assimilated now.” Yes—because we clamped down on immigration in 1924 with the Natural Origins Act, then endured the Depression and a global war. That stuff creates a people. All those Italian, Irish, Polish, and other immigrants had nearly forty years to get “baked in” to American society—they had time to melt.
This argument isn’t xenophobic on my part. If we put all of Connecticut into Dillon, South Carolina, Dillon would no longer be what it was—it would be a bunch of godless gentry liberals commuting into “The City” everyday.
Our mobility might have made us stronger economically, but it’s ruining our family ties—the bedrock of culture. I’m fortunate to live only two hours from my family, and that’s about as far away as I care to be. That was Tucker Carlson’s objection to Ben Shapiro’s vision of America as “the adventure of a lifetime,” in which we’re all shiftless, rootless economic units pursuing the highest bidder for what talents and skills we can muster. As Carlson put it (to paraphrase): try saying “move to North Dakota and work in the oil fields” to the guy who is leaving behind the land where his grandparents are buried.
I know we have to do what we have to do to make ends meet. I just don’t have to like it.