Voices on the Rise

Southern Liberals Speak Up in New Collection of Essays

Posted July 9, 2004 at 3:46pm

A different kind of voice is rising from the South.

In “Where We Stand: Voices of Southern Dissent,” a coterie of prominent Southern liberals — including former President Jimmy Carter — have banded together to decry the policies of the current administration and espouse progressive ideals in a region dominated by a conservative body politic.

The liberal white activists who have composed this book are a rare breed in the South, says University of South Carolina professor Dan Carter, a contributor to the collection.

“This is a place where it would take some sort of economic cataclysm to keep people from voting Bush-Cheney,” says Carter, who has not been able to see Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” in his hometown of Columbia, S.C., because a conservative boycott led area theaters to drop the film.

“This region is very right wing,” says Paul Gaston, a University of Virginia professor, liberal activist and contributor to the book, in an interview. “The South is the engine driving the Republican Party today.”

But Gaston, Carter and their colleagues want to show that this loud conservative voice is by no means the only one coming out of the South.

To that end, they have produced a book covering a wide array of topics — including the environment, economic disparity and opposition to the war in Iraq — from an equally varied group of authors, activists, lawyers and academics, ranging in age from 42 to 82.

In his essay “My Yellow Ribbon Town,” Gaston mourns the transformation of his boyhood town of Fairhope, Ala., from a small Democratic community founded on an ideal of “cooperative individualism” to a vacation spot populated by wealthy Southern conservatives.

In “Confronting the War Machine,” Carter takes on the Bush administration for its military spending. “This Administration already has earned a special place in historical infamy for its willingness to engage in what Nobel Laureate George Akerlof has called ‘a form of looting’ as it mortgages our future with shortsighted economic policies and militaristic adventurism,” he writes.

Like many essay collections, “Where We Stand” is uneven, at one point jumping from a personal lamentation about the wastefulness of global capitalism on the environment to a denunciation of the Patriot Act written in dry legal terminology.

But the book’s scattershot account of Southern liberalism is unified by the common theme of “patriotism as dissent” on multiple fronts, says Gaston. Such a theme is perhaps best articulated in the e-mail the book’s creator, D.C. activist Leslie Dunbar, sent to colleagues upon first conceiving the idea for the collection more than a year ago.

“In the face of the latest gathering storm, I’m wondering if it isn’t time for us in the South to take our stand,” Dunbar wrote in 2003.

“Our book should be anti-Republican without unequivocally accepting Democratic arguments,” he continued. “And its authors must be unapologetic in confronting our militaristic society and social injustices, and protecting the environment.”

The impetus for this ambitious project is rooted in both the past and the present.

“Where We Stand,” Gaston says, is the Southern liberal’s belated answer to “I’ll Take My Stand,” a collection of essays written more than 70 years ago by a group of Southern intellectuals, the Agrarians. Poet John Crowe Ransom was among their ranks. Staunch traditionalists, the Agrarians called for a return to the antebellum life in the South and rejected the nascent industrialism creeping into the region from the North in the 1920s.

“These authors were very conservative and reactionary, and yet they wrote with such elegance,” Gaston says. “They still hold great appeal even today, because they were talking about a society that was harmonious and in sync with itself, while hiding the fact that it was also a society of privilege and oppression.”

With “Where We Stand,” Gaston and Carter hoped to capture the Agrarians’ literary “elegance” and infuse it with what they see as a more progressive and realistic message.

This message is a direct response to an increasingly conservative political climate in America today, according to Gaston.

“Where We Stand,” he says, is the South’s “humble” contribution to the growing slew of anti-Bush commentaries — many of them bestsellers and blockbusters — intended to influence Americans in the run-up to the November election.

“You can’t be a citizen in the U.S. today and not have profoundly strong feelings about what has happened over the last four years,” Carter says. “We all feel strongly that this election will be one of the two or three most important watershed elections in America for the last 70 years, and we want to help change the country when it happens.”

Also like most partisan commentaries today, “Where We Stand” is likely to elicit one of two responses: emphatic approval from those who agree with it and a sharp dismissal from those who do not. Carter is realistic about this, and knows the difficulty he and his colleagues face in attempting to influence a highly polarized electorate.

But this hasn’t stopped him from trying. The contributors of “Where We Stand” have embarked on a national book-signing and speaking tour. Gaston and Carter hope this publicity will have a ripple effect that reaches beyond partisan divides.

“We do speaking events, where people will often invite their conservative friend or neighbor,” says Carter. “And even if that person still doesn’t agree with us by the end of our talk, at least they were open minded enough to listen to what we had to say. That’s what I think we need more of.”

Carter, Gaston, Dunbar and his son, editor Anthony Dunbar, and other contributors will conduct a panel discussion and book signing at 7 p.m. tonight at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Northwest Washington.

When asked why Washingtonians should be interested in reading the book or attending the panel discussion tonight, Gaston offered some Southern hospitality. “Because we’d love to have them,” he said, adding that Southerners are famous for being good storytellers, and “if nothing else, folks will definitely get to hear some great stories, if they come.”