I was listening to Fresh Air the other day and, as often happens, I was captivated by what I heard.
Terry Gross was conducting an interview with Bruce Levine, who’s just published a new book, The Fall of the House of Dixie. This was the kind of interview that I’ll sit in my car in my garage to listen to, and by the time it was over, I was rabid to read this book.
I’ve always been fascinated by certain time periods in history; specifically, the Civil War, the Holocaust, and the Civil Rights Era (I’ve always been curious about the American Revolutionary period and feudal Japan, too, but to a lesser degree). I’m not sure what it is about these eras that enthralls me – perhaps there’s some sort of spiritual or energetic connection to them – but whatever the reason, I often find my attention completely monopolized by anything having to do with these times. I can spend days at museums (in fact, one of the things on my wish list is to spend an entire week at the Smithsonian museums in DC, soaking in all the artifacts and documents), I’ll watch every movie and documentary I can get in front of my eyes, and I love learning new things and getting different perspectives about things that I thought I already understood pretty well.
Nonfiction really isn’t my favorite genre. I’ve read plenty of it, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve usually read it under obligation – for a class or a workshop. I picked up House of Dixie fully expecting to leave it at some point early in the narrative – in fact, I borrowed the book from the library because of that expectation; why buy the book when it was likely I wouldn’t even finish it.
I devoured it.
It is exceedingly well written, engaging, meticulously researched, and surprisingly satisfying. I was delighted by the references to ideas and events with which I was already familiar, and even more thrilled by insights and details I didn’t know. I have every intention of buying this book now; it’s something that I can imagine myself re-reading, and it would make a very useful resource for anyone looking to do some research into the time period in general and the question of slavery in particular.
One thing that I did find a bit unsettling about the whole experience, though, was the similarities – often baldly frightening similarities – between the rhetoric of the white, wealthy slaveholder in the mid 1800s and the rhetoric coming from the GOP in general – and the right wing in particular – from right now. Take this line, for example:
Emancipated southern blacks would stream northward to steal the jobs, the women, and the dignity of white men.
Replace “emancipated southern blacks” with “illegal immigrants,” and you get something straight out of this evening’s news.
Much of the thinking I did with this book was about the politics of identity, privilege, and fear. I wonder – I honestly and truly wonder – how much of the GOP’s rhetoric about women and immigrants and GLBTQ people and everything else finds its foundation in the idea that some people (a lot of people, very likely) need to have someone to look down on. If everyone has the same rights and privileges and opportunities that I do, then what’s going to make me special? What’s going to preserve my place (however tenuous that place might be) if we let just anyone in?
Watch this all the way to the end; I think this is what we’re really dealing with here:
“If you ain’t any better’n a nigger, son, who are you better than?” Perhaps this is the essential problem.