Troy D. Smith
Author's note: I have not posted anything on this blog in over a year... because last year was unbelievably busy for me, and when I write one of these blogs I put a lot into it. Which is my way of saying: this is a long read. You might want to digest it in manageable chunks rather than in one sitting.
Okay. That said...
This essay is about Southern culture, and will occasionally stray specifically into Southern Appalachian culture.
Those very terms can be a bone of contention among historians, some of whom (including some of my friends) would say there is no such thing, or that if it exists it is an exaggeration. Appalachia, after all, is a mountain chain that runs from New England to the American South, and even the southern part of it contains many types of people: different racial and ethnic groups, different social classes, urban-rural-and-suburban types, and so on. Even here in my native Tennessee, if you travel a few counties over a lot of things are different.
Other prominent Southern historians –such as Bertram Wyatt-Brown (see his work Southern Honor) and one of my own mentors Vernon Burton (see his book The Age of Lincoln) –have argued that there is a historic, distinctive Southern identity. I open up with these statements as a way of acknowledging the breadth of opinion on the subject, and of inviting people who ascribe to one or the other view to elaborate in the comments section. Do try to read the whole thing first, though, or skip down to the last subheading to see how I wrap things up.
That said -many of us instinctively know there are differences between the culture of the South and the rest of the country. I wrote a pretty exhaustive piece on Southern Appalachian English HERE, for instance. Here are some of my own personal experiences.
Some of my own personal experiences
I was born and raised in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee. In my late teens/early twenties I lived in Brooklyn and in Palm Beach County, Florida (as you may or may not know, South Florida is a mix of culturally Northern and Caribbean, whereas North Florida is in many ways culturally Southern). I moved back to Tennessee when I was 22, then left again at age 37 to attend graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While there I married my wife, who is from Minnesota, and upon defending my PhD got a job at my alma mater Tennessee Tech and I brought my northern bride home to the hills.
People in Urbana-Champaign (or Champaign-Urbana, depending on which end you were on, or just Chambana) are very nice, friendly people. However, to me, they often seemed incredibly rude (which would surprise them to know). Practically every Southern expatriate I met there said the same thing. For example, when I first moved there I noticed that when you were walking down the street and someone was coming from the other direction and you smiled, nodded, waved at them, or said hello, they seemed surprised and suspicious. In my experience, although things may have changed in recent years, even in larger Southern cities it was considered polite to somehow acknowledge people when you passed them. Sometimes the passer in Chambana was someone I knew- in that case, I felt socially obligated to stop for at least a minute or two and exchange small talk or pleasantries with them. If I did not do that in my hometown, I would be regarded as incredibly rude. I noticed right off the bat, though, that when I did this the other person seemed fidgety and annoyed, because I was holding them up.
It made me remember Midwesterners who had moved to my hometown when I was a teenager. We had been canvassing the area together, knocking on doors (I was a Jehovah’s Witness at the time), and the Illinois transplant had expressed frustration that no one would talk to them. “That’s because you’re going about it all wrong,” teenaged me said. “You’re coming right to the point and telling them what you’re there for. Being abrupt. That’s rude. They expect you to introduce yourself, give them a chance to figure out if they know your mama’s people, talk about the weather a little bit, THEN tell them why you are there.”
I remember that same Illinois guy constantly making people angry at him by, immediately upon meeting someone, teasing them sarcastically, which is not something strangers are allowed to do (“When you call me that, smile,” saith the Virginian. I hope someone out there gets that reference). When my wife Robin and I were first married, we had some arguments (which all couples have) escalate when she –gasp –called me names. She was amazed at how deadly serious I suddenly got when she did that. I was also offended when young people at businesses, who did not know me, called me by my first name instead of “mister” or “sir”, and was confused when older people expressed discomfort at being called “sir” or “ma’am” because it made them feel old. A high school teacher told my child to stop calling her ma’am “because it was weird” –“I –I can’t,” they replied. Another thing that secretly rankled me: when I would go to church dinners in the Midwest it was the custom to let all the children go through the line first, instead of (as I expected) the old people. I thought it was disrespectful to the older folks; they said it was showing how much they loved and valued their children.
Once, when we were living in Illinois, my wife called me when she got off work and it was raining very hard. I always took the bus to campus, as parking was virtually nonexistent. She was worried about me having to walk to a bus stop in the pouring rain.
“I just got off work,” she said. “I’m going out for a drink with the girls, but if you’d like I can come pick you up and take you home first so you’re not out in the rain.”
“Oh, I don’t want to be a bother, I’ll be okay,” I said.
“All right, then,” she replied and click! hung up the phone.
I was astounded! I called her back. “What the heck??? I’m out here in the rain!”
“But you said you didn’t want a ride.”
“No, no… you’re supposed to offer and I’m supposed to decline, and you offer again, and we do that three times before I finally give in and reluctantly accept your offer.”
“That is insane. This is why you people lost the war.”
No doubt some of you are reading this and thinking the same thing. Or you are thinking: what an arrogant jerk this guy is, with all these judgmental social expectations.
But when I share these anecdotes in class at Tennessee Tech, when we discuss Southern culture, most of the students are smiling and nodding their heads in recognition. For some it is because they see themselves or their family reacting as I did –for others, who have moved here from other regions or countries, it is because they have seen the locals acting in just such crazy ways as me.
Insults and Aggression
I’m going to tell one more personal story before I get to the academic stuff- one that ties in remarkably well with the academic stuff, as it turns out.
When I was in my first year of grad school there were well over a hundred other grads in the program, at various stages (24 alone just in my year’s cohort). There was this one guy… I’m not going to identify him other than to say he was a white non-Southern guy, who was not a member of my incoming cohort but had been there longer.
So this guy. Man, this guy ticked me off.
Here’s what he would do. He never looked at me, spoke to me, or acknowledged me in any way. It’s like I was invisible. And I never saw him treating anybody else this way. In fact, he made a habit of stepping in between me and whomever I was talking with, his back to me, and just starting a conversation with them.
Okay, I’ll give one more identifying marker. Like a good number of us, he was there studying the history of race and ethnicity, and he was very sensitive to any perceived slurs to his own identified ethnic group (which was white but a group historically mistreated). Here’s why I mention that- the only explanation I could think of for the way he treated me was my accent. Whether that was the case or not, I believed he made the assumption that because I was a white Southerner I was a bigoted redneck. And I’m very sensitive about those kinds of stereotypes.
So anyway. One day I was alone on the elevator and he stepped in with me. I decided to give this guy the benefit of the doubt, and give him one more chance. “Hi,” I said, but he didn’t respond. He had his earbuds in, shaking his head along to the music on his iPod. I figured he didn’t hear me, so I tried to make eye contact with him… but he kept staring straight ahead, ignoring me. I slowly waved my hand in front of his face. Nothing… though I could tell from his eyes he saw me.
And here is the thought that ran, totally unbidden, through my mind.
Why, this little asshole. He has absolutely no idea how lucky he is that he is in this elevator with me, and not with one of my cousins, who would take him outside and kick his ass. Which is what I would like to do.
That’s the end of his part in my story, but not quite the end of the story. When I got home for winter break, I told this anecdote to my best friend from high school –who was now an accountant, and the gentlest, mildest person I knew. When I got to the end of my tale about the elevator, my friend said, “Why, I –I’d have just slapped him.” And he nodded his head sharply for emphasis.
Let me recap. The gentlest, mildest Southern male I knew immediately wanted to slap this joker when I described the situation.
This is where the academic stuff comes in.
I was in a class on the Civil War and Reconstruction taught by the aforementioned Vernon Burton (a native of South Carolina). Wyatt-Brown’s Southern Honor was one of the (many!!) books we read and discussed. While describing the concept of Southern Honor for us, Prof. Burton told us about a study that had been conducted in 1996 at the University of Michigan.
The researchers got a bunch of volunteers –some white Southern males, some white non-Southern males –and conducted three experiments. In one, the most interesting, the volunteers were told they were supposed to fill out a questionnaire and then walk down a long hallway to turn it in. Two other “volunteers” (really researchers) were in the hallway doing the same thing. When the volunteer started down the hallway, a third researcher-in-disguise came from the opposite direction… and bumped the volunteer’s shoulder, hard, called him an asshole, and kept going. The volunteer was then swabbed for physiological analysis, while the observers recorded their facial expressions and body language at the moment they were bumped.
Turns out that most of the Northerners reacted with amusement, whereas 75% of Southerners reacted in anger. Further, while both Northerners and Southerners experienced a spike in testosterone from the experience…. Southerners’ testosterone spike was double that of Northerners.
The researchers’ conclusion: Southern males are much more likely than any other white group to respond to public insults with aggression and potential violence. Learning this made me immediately think of my reaction, and that of my accountant friend, to the guy in the elevator.
You can read the whole study HERE. I have pasted a few excerpts below.
There is a good discussion and explanation of the term "cultures of honor" HERE at this cultural psychology site. I am posting a couple of excerpts of that below:
As the article mentions, there are very close connections between a herding economy, a lack of centralized authority, and cultures of honor. At least... in the formation of cultures of honor. Once formed, elements of those cultures can continue even when circumstances change.
The authors mention several such cultures beyond that of the American South, such as in Mediterranean countries and parts of the Middle East. They also talk about "inner city" "gang culture", both of which are extremely loaded terms. I would say, rather, parts of African American culture, which contains elements of West Africa and the American South. To "diss" someone is to disrespect them (in case you never made that connection), and must not be allowed.
When I first studied this in grad school, though, I was immediately reminded of the cultures of East Asia, which I was also studying at the time. It started to dawn on me just how similar East Asia and the American South can be.
Imagine a culture where everyone is remarkably polite. When you encounter someone, you are never abrupt, nor do you often come right out and say what you mean... there is a ritual of language you must participate in, what some would call "small talk." Imagine, though, that said culture had a long history in which there had been a very strict social hierarchy in which people were supposed to "know their place" (or as my grandma used to say, "don't get above your raising"). Also suppose that historically, people had been so extra polite because any perceived insult could end in somebody's death. At the same time, though, in this society there is a historical deference to and respect of elders, and a tradition of close-knit extended families. That respect, however, does not necessarily extend to your "social inferiors."
The first time I read The Analects of Confucius I was struck by how Southern much of it sounded.
(By the way, because of both migration patterns and circumstance -herding and lawlessness -much of Western American culture has strong elements of Southern culture. Maybe this is why samurai and kung fu movies and American westerns have so many similarities, something I discussed HERE.)
Also by the way, if you're a fan of Larry McMurtry, you will recall that in all four novels of the Lonesome Dove cycle, Texas Ranger Woodrow Call at some point goes into a blind rage and beats someone almost to death, saying "I hate rude behavior in a man. I won't tolerate it." You might also recall his Tennessee-born partner, Gus McRae, pistol-whipping and threatening to shoot a bartender over a rude comment.
The article linked to earlier pointed out that, at that time, the South had both the highest overall murder rate and the highest rate of unpremeditated murders that arose from arguments. That has changed little, if at all. Part of that is probably due to the gun culture -one is more likely to commit murder when a gun is handy when they get mad -but the things we have been discussing play a large role as well.
(By the way, you can read my musings on the weird ways English and Japanese culture and history have mirrored each other,especially where race is concerned, HERE.)
Cultures of Honor
Vernon Burton taught us that the North has a culture of dignity, whereas the South has a culture of honor. What does that mean?
As I recall, a culture of dignity -like that of the Puritans and Pilgrims who established the first Northern colonies -primarily looks inward. While those Puritan towns could be very judgmental of straying members, and very controlling, their primary concern was still each one's individual relationship with God, without intercessors... with their "Inner Light" as their descendants called it a century later during the Great Awakening. The great drama in life was each person's effort to stay true to God and to themselves. This is demonstrated in the many captivity narratives originating in New England, such as Mary Rowlandson's The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, wherein the authors believed that their own sinful nature and God's desire to punish them for it was the root cause of wars and catastrophes.
A culture of honor, on the other hand, primarily looks outward. It requires an audience. The whole thing (like many of the sayings of Confucius) is focused on the hierarchy, where you fit into it, how you are supposed to behave within it, and -most importantly -other people's perception of you within that framework. You have a duty to maintain the status quo, and you will receive social chastisement (dishonor) from the community if you fail to do so, especially by failing to fulfill your role within it.
When someone does or says something that calls into question your role in the hierarchy -implying you are lower on it than you believe you are -it is an insult and must be addressed, or else you will be permanently lowered in the eyes of the community.
Notice that even in biblical language (Israelites were tribal herdsmen, remember) "honoring" somebody is equated with "lifting them up." Lifting them up, so everyone can see them and everyone will know they are being lauded in some way. You can only honor someone if you do it in front of people.
Also notice that, to this day, New Englanders are known for valuing frankness -for being direct and saying what they mean in an unvarnished fashion. And Southerners are known for getting really pissed off when people do this.
How Southerners Became Southern
Jamestown was established in 1607, Plymouth in 1620. They were both established by English colonists, who had a lot of things in common -but who were also very different in both their approaches to life and their reasons for being there.
Puritans wanted to "purify" the Church of England, which they believed still had too many hints of Catholicism in it. Pilgrims went a step further, believing such purification was impossible and preferring to leave the Church entirely and start their own thing. They were heavily persecuted. Their reason for establishing a colony, then, was centered on worshiping the way they wanted. Note I did not say "religious freedom": they were by no means keen on other people worshiping or living the way they wanted. See Anne Hutchinson, Mary Dyer, and Thomas Morton.
Jamestown, and Virginia colony, on the other hand, was about one thing: business. We are all familiar with the stories about the "gentlemen" who came over with their manservants and refused to do any work themselves, even under threat of starvation, until they were forced. Most of you are probably also familiar with the fact that the majority of the first colonists were indentured servants, and that in 1619 the first African slaves were bought in the colony. But did you know that the investors in that colony regarded the poor whites they imported there for labor as manure to fertilize their economic empire?
Here is a quote from Nancy Isenberg's White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Bear in mind that in this paragraph she is telling us the perspective of the wealthy investors, not actually describing the poor whites as lazy, immoral, and undisciplined. That would be the book Hillbilly Elegy, which is not a book to be tossed aside lightly, but which should rather be hurled with great force (more on that book at the end of this essay).
I recommend this book (not Hillbilly Elegy), although it has one major flaw in that it fails to adequately take into account race and slavery and their role in forming the colonial (and hence American) identity. The hierarchy that developed in Virginia, and spread to the rest of the South (and to some extent the other colonies as well), was both socio-economic and racial.
You can go HERE to read my more detailed explanation of the relationship between indentured servants, slavery, and colonial identity; HERE for an explanation of why indentured servants and slaves are not the same thing (despite all those Facebook memes), and HERE for a detailed discussion of how all that shaped American society.
Most relevant to our discussion here, settlers in the Virginia colony brought with them the rigid class system of England in a way that the Puritans, whose initial measure of prestige was religious, did not. This was reinforced with the introduction of slavery and the harsh laws eventually put in place to keep poor whites and slaves/free blacks separate, and to win the poor whites' loyalty by emphasizing that their place on the hierarchy, even if it was at the bottom of the white part, was higher than the black part.
End result: a community in which everyone is supposed to know their place and stay in it, with harsh punishment meted to those who do not. And if someone questions your place, or does something to endanger your standing in the community, you are expected to respond immediately and forcefully- unless it is someone "above" you, in which case you are expected to take it. Due to the small carrots and big sticks proffered by slave-owners, a hierarchy also developed within slave communities.
This whole process was brought home to me when I first returned to Tennessee after living six years in Illinois. My wife Robin had visited the South with me many times, but she had never lived with me in the South before. She almost immediately brought something to my attention that I had never noticed, and probably never would have.
When I talked to the landowners from whom we were initially renting, an elderly couple with high standing in the community, I was extremely deferential -even to the point of not pressing them on anything. Yet while we lived in Illinois I had never treated landlords this way, and could be outspoken with them when it was necessary. As someone who had grown up quite poor in my hometown, as soon as I was back in that environment I reverted to my former default... knowing my place and keeping it.
Panic on the Senate Floor
Now I'm going to share a historical event to demonstrate how all this has played out in the past.
In 1856 Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, an ardent abolitionist, delivered a speech on the Senate floor about the recent Sack of Lawrence in "Bleeding Kansas." He laid the blame on the two senators who had authored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina, lambasting them for supporting the spread of slavery.
First, let's take a moment to acknowledge that Sumner was absolutely, 100% right.
There were lots of anti-slavery speeches being delivered at the time, though. The significance of this one was the New Englander's delivery. He called Butler an imbecile, made fun of his slurred speech from a recent stroke, and compared his support of slavery to a lascivious slave-owner who wants to ravish his slave-mistress, in terms considered shocking in polite company at the time. At one point Stephen Douglas was heard to mutter words to the effect of "this damn fool is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool." Butler himself was not present during the speech, being in declining health (in fact he died one year later).
Butler's cousin, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks, was outraged at what he interpreted as a slur on his ailing, older relative and on his family honor. Intending to challenge Sumner to a duel, Brooks consulted fellow South Carolina Congressman Laurence Keitt, an expert on dueling etiquette.
Keitt explained to him that such an action was totally inappropriate. No, dueling is what you do when someone who is your social equal insults you. When someone who is your social inferior insults you, you do not dignify them with a duel. You just beat them, like a servant.
So on May 22, 1856, two days after Sumner's speech, Brooks approached him at his desk in the Senate Chamber. Brooks was carrying a cane made out of gutta-percha, with a gold head. He was accompanied by Keitt and another friend; Keitt was brandishing a pistol to prevent anyone from interfering. Preston Brooks then beat the living crap out of Sumner with his cane. Gutta-percha is similar to rubber, so imagine how much whacking power it would have with a heavy gold head on the end. Brooks beat Sumner until the cane broke, then beat him some more with what was left; the New Englander was injured so severely he was not able to return to work for three years.
People in the North were outraged, as this was further proof to them that Southerners were violent savages. Southerners were delighted, as this was further proof that Northerners were rude assholes who needed a beating. Brooks, meanwhile, was deluged by new canes sent to him in the mail by admiring Southerners. And the tension in America over the spread of slavery mounted.
The Honor of Lincoln
Vernon Burton, in his book The Age of Lincoln, presented a side of Abraham Lincoln that most historians have overlooked.
Driving back and forth from my home of Sparta, TN to see my descendants in Champaign, IL, I cross the border of both Kentucky and Illinois. The latter has a sign (okay, like a million signs) saying "Home of Abraham Lincoln." The former has a sign saying "Birthplace of Abraham Lincoln." We associate Lincoln so much with Illinois, and the North during the Civil War, we forget he had a Southern origin.
Honest Abe was born in Kentucky. When he was 7, his family moved to Indiana. While at first glance that sounds like a move from South to North, in reality it was a short hop; they moved to what is now Spencer County, IN, right on the Kentucky border. The culture changed little in such a short move, although there was no slavery in Indiana and that no doubt had an impact. Abe's parents (and later step-mother), however, had to that point been lifelong Kentuckians. The family then moved west to Illinois... when Abe was 21 years old.
So while Lincoln spent almost his entire adult life in Illinois, he spent his formative years in the slave state of Kentucky, then the rest of his childhood in southern Indiana being raised by Southerners. And remember, his eventual wife Mary Todd -also a Kentuckian -came from a slave-owning family who supported the Confederacy during the war.
Lincoln, Burton tells us, was culturally a Southerner, and his behavior demonstrated it. He was well known for being a scrapper and a "rassler", and he was once willing to fight a duel over a matter of honor (the other guy challenged him over something he had said in the newspaper; he no doubt had second thoughts when he saw how long Abe's reach was).
And here's why that is important. For the decade prior to Lincoln's election as President, the South had been dealing with presidents who were referred to as "doughfaces" by anti-slavery folks... that is, they were easily malleable. Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan were Northern Democrats who tended to support Southern interests. When disputes over slavery grew louder in the 1850s, Southern politicians and newspapers rattled their rhetorical sabers, making threats, and those presidents let them have their way. This probably seemed to reinforce the (untrue) stereotype among Southerners that Northerners were weaklings who could be easily overcome by "real men." As Lincoln was perceived as a Northerner, no doubt many Southerners thought he would behave the same way.
They discovered, of course, that Northerners could fight. And Lincoln had been raised in a culture of honor. His inaugural address called for peace and reiterated that he did not have any intention of ending slavery in the South. His call for calmer heads to prevail were framed in famously poetic language:
"Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
However, most people remember those words and forget what came before them. To paraphrase, he said "I don't want to fight. There doesn't need to be a fight. The only way there will be a fight is if you start one by seizing federal property that I have sworn an oath to protect. And if you start the fight, I'll finish it." (You can read the whole speech HERE).
When pushed, Abraham Lincoln did not back away- he felt honor-bound to strike back.
Side-note: Not too far from those Kentucky signs identifying the state as the birthplace of Abe Lincoln, you will find historical markers identifying it as the birthplace of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. The two were born only a few counties apart. At roughly the same age, one's family moved to Indiana then Illinois, while the other moved from Louisiana to Mississippi.
Now we will turn our attention to another topic which historians disagree on: Southern fatalism. One might assume this should be a blog all its own, but I plan to demonstrate just how closely related to Southern honor it is.
First, a basic dictionary definition of fatalism. "1. The belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable. 2. A submissive outlook, resulting from a fatalistic outlook."
In 2008, South Carolina Will Moredock was feeling pessimistic about race and politics in the South, and wrote this article about Southern fatalism. I include some excerpts below.
He concludes, "We are all prisoners here, be we inmates or guards." His reference to Faulkner is a propos. Another book Vernon Burton assigned in that class was the Faulkner novel Absalom, Absalom!, which he said (and I agree) must be read if you want to get an understanding of the South.
Abraham Lincoln, in fact, has been described as having a very fatalistic worldview, such as in this 2014 article:
So... that's one view. Some would call it a stereotype, and a social construction. There was a 1972 academic article that asserted that the fact there were more tornado deaths in the South than in the Midwest might be because Southerners believed "when it's your time to go, you'll go" no matter what you do, resulting in fewer safety measures; this appears to have been disproved by a 1998 Journal of Applied Psychology article. It can also be argued that this view makes Southerners appear irrational and therefore ignorant and is yet another way of "othering" them.
One could argue it might not be so much a Southern thing as a poverty thing (and a hopelessness associated with poverty). A 2011 article in Medical Anthropology Quarterly makes that argument, calling into question the cultural fatalism of the South:
(By the way, you can read a comparison of the use of violent stereotypes to "other" groups and take their resources in both Indian Territory and Southern Appalachia, at around the same time, and a bit on the creation of the Hillbilly Stereotype, HERE.)
But then again.
It is my own personal experience and observation, and that of many others, that there really is a fatalistic streak in the South. Yes, poor people are fatalistic, but I maintain that poor people in the South are more so than their socio-economic peers in other parts of the country. My wife has remarked on it often since she moved South.
I have often seen this attitude among members of my own family: "There's no point trying, no point resisting, no point struggling, because the deck is stacked and the big shots will always win no matter what." Everyone in my extended family does not think this way, but many of them do. And I would argue that it is those in the poorer branches of my family, not the side who, though they struggled at times, owned their own farms. You might as well spend your money on beer and cigarettes, or drugs, because what does it matter? You might as well get what simple pleasures you can right now, because it is all you are likely to get. If you come into money -spend it as quickly as possible, because "they" will find a way to take it away from you.
(If you think this is starting to sound a lot like that Hillbilly Elegy book I was insulting earlier, stick with me.)
Some folks, as we have already seen, ascribe such fatalism to Southern religion. And you do hear a lot of "It was the Lord's will that Joe got blown away in that tornado. It was his time." If everything is preordained by God, after all, what is the point of resisting? Bear in mind, there are folks who say the same thing about fatalism in Buddhist cultures, and I don't really buy either one.
In the article cited earlier, Will Moredock mentioned Calvinism as a cause. And yet Puritans/Pilgrims were "Calvinists on steroids"... why isn't New England the region known for its fatalism? The fact is, because they believed in predestination, those folks believed that God already knows your destiny... and if you are being physically blessed, it is evidence of God's favor and a possible indicator you are one of the elect going to heaven. So people doubled their efforts to be successful, so their neighbors wouldn't look at them and suspect they were headed for Hell. This was the beginning of "the Puritan work ethic."
So I don't think religion explains it.
Let me point out at this point that the South has been a notoriously difficult place to build successful unions. Some people will blame this on Southern fatalism: Southern workers don't have the will to resist, or to stand up for themselves, or rock the boat. But the fact it, there was (and continues to be) a very strong labor movement in the South... but it has often been met with intense violence from the powers-that-be. Just like the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, really... and yet some workers persevere, while others don't. I don't think that is due to cowardice, apathy, or vacillation.
Hillbilly Elegy claims that the poverty and drug problems of Appalachia are due to a failing in Appalachian culture. That culture, while being praised in some ways by the author, is implied to be backward, clannish, lazy, and ignorant and needs to be discarded so the occupants of the region can enter into the enlightened present. This is why I, and so many other Southern historians, hate this book. It repeats all the same stereotypes that were used to first create the hillbilly stereotype in the late 1800s... used by Northern investors and their influential Southern partners who wanted to take the coal and other resources from the region. When the region's inhabitants resisted that, they were painted as ignorant people holding up progress... who needed wiser, more responsible people to come in and make their decisions for them. Who, in fact, brought all their problems on themselves and therefore deserved them. There was both an economic and a political impetus in this (and really, is there a difference between the two?), and there still is today.
But wait, you may be saying. Aren't you doing the exact same thing? Aren't you saying the South has a unique culture of violence, racism, and fatalism that contribute to and in many ways explain current social ills?
Well, it's not the same thing. Hillbilly Elegy dude says it is all an inherent failing of the people themselves- which is a handy excuse to blame them and forget about them, or introduce ideological political policies which will hurt them even more.
Many cultural psychologists and sociologists say that cultures of honor arise specifically when there is no centralized authority to enforce laws and herdsmen need to protect their livestock and other property.
I say that the particular honor-culture introduced in the American South was bolstered by racism as a means to protect slavery, and that the whole thing was used to control workers (black and white) and make sure they stayed compliant and productive.
A culture of honor is hierarchical. Everyone has to know their place and keep it. The entire community is invested in protecting that status quo, and will enforce it through shame or potential violence. This means that everybody knows your place, and everybody works to enforce your keeping of it. In that environment, advancing your position is extremely unlikely, and attempting to do so is very risky... and that leads to a fatalistic attitude about change, and about life in general.
In fact, I would argue, it is supposed to result in fatalism -that's a big part of what makes it work. And it has worked, and it continues to work.
I want to urge you once again to take the time to read my essay which I alluded to earlier about how and why all this got started. I am posting an excerpt here:
So what we don't need is to blame poor-and-working class Southerners (black and white) for their issues, as Hillbilly Elegy does. What we do need to do is break the system that is designed to make them suffer, all for the benefit of the status quo and the people whose profits it protects.
The Age of Lincoln by Vernon Burton
Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South by Bertram Wyatt-Brown
What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte
Reconsidering Southern Labor History edited by Matthew Hild and Kerri Leigh Merritt
In the Shadow of Boone and Crockett: Race, Culture, and Politics of Representation by Ian Hartman
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg