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Obama and the South

January 21, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

It has been oft observed that the special vitriol reserved for Obama by the Republican right over the four years of his first term is at least in part due to race. Some, politicians among them, seem unable to accept his legitimacy as president, despite his winning two elections. I hesitate to press this theory too strongly, since there’s two decades of evidence that some of these politicians don’t accept the legitimacy of any Democratic president. (See Clinton, William under impeachment, just for example.) Still, to take just one example, what does one make of South Carolina representative Joe Wilson shouting “You lie” at Obama during his healthcare speech in September 2009? Wilson later apologized, but what moved him to breach etiquette?

I can’t answer that, but I can recommend Gary Wills’ short post at the New York Review of Books website today. In it, he reflects on the South: its writers, his visits to family there in his youth, its political state today. I don’t want to quote too much from it. You should read it in full. Here’s one passage.

Once, when [my grandmother] took me to Mass, she walked out of the church when a black priest came out to celebrate. I wondered why, since she would sit and eat with a black woman who helped her with housework. “It is the dignity—I would not let him take the Lord in his hands.”

Tradition dies hard, hardest among those who cannot admit to the toll it has taken on them. That is why the worst aspects of the South are resurfacing under Obama’s presidency. It is the dignity. That a black should have not merely rights but prominence, authority, and even awe—that is what many Southerners cannot stomach. They would let him ride on the bus, or get into Ivy League schools. But he must be kept from the altar; he cannot perform the secular equivalent of taking the Lord in his hands. It is the dignity.

Maybe that’s what got to Joe Wilson.

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