Collectivism, Big Cities, and the Southern Mind

With a Black Democrat in the White House we are experiencing an unusual upsurge in concern about “government takeovers, “creeping socialism,” and other claims that can only fairly be described “in quotation marks.”  The Republican Party has a very important role to play as the country adjusts to the demands of 21st century global capitalism, but so far we have our guns trained on ghosts.  This hysteria seems to be blooming densely in the South, where it is part of a wider suspicion of any sort of government intrusion into personal life, regardless of the legitimacy, purpose, or merit.

Perhaps a metaphor would be useful.  In the fall of 2004 I moved my family from Houston to the Chicago-area.  Never mind for a moment what this says about my sanity or morals.  It happened.  Let’s all learn from it.  One of my earliest introductions to Yankee life came in the form of a charming orange flier delivered to our door by the town council.  It was printed front and back in small type with a laundry list of laws governing the disposal of our leaves.

This is a topic I had never given much thought.  Growing up in Beaumont we just burned them in the backyard.  The greasy odor of oak and pine smoke clinging to the ground under the cool, humid air is what fall always smelled like.

Living in Houston we piled them into the garden where they seemed to break down into mulch before we could finish raking them up.  If there were any formal ordinances about what we could do with our leaves, or with just about anything else from discarded car batteries to old jugs of Roundup, I never knew what they were.  Viva Houston, viva Libertad

The town’s little orange flier seemed uptight and faintly oppressive.  Until the leaves came down.

I had a great time with the kids making piles under the big maple.  Then we raked them into the beds around the bushes.  Done.  Take that, rule-obsessed Yankees.  When the frost hit them they dried up like parchment.  They seemed to rise and hover in the crisp air like paper embers.  With few fences in any of the yards, we found ourselves a couple of days later apologizing to our new neighbor three doors down, Mrs. Chicago-alski, while we corralled our leaves from her yard and hauled them back.

The town really won’t pick them up in plastic bags.  They were actually serious about that.  Apparently hefty bags don’t mulch well.  They want you to buy these big paper bags which are relatively costly, don’t seem to hold much, are hard to stand up, but are environmentally friendly.  And it turns out that, like the flier warned, if you just dump the leaves in your garbage cans for pickup they are in fact likely to freeze into a wad at the bottom and remain with you after the taillights of the garbage truck have disappeared around the corner.

In my first Yankee year this was just one of a thousand little brushes with what my Southern mind saw as a police state, but now seem like the necessary compromises required to maintain civility in urban life.  My little town consists of 43,000 people crammed into a space considerably smaller than Bush Airport.  In this dense warren its not safe for me to burn my leaves in the backyard and the cloying smoke would not be appreciated by my neighbors with their windows open to capture the cool night air.

But without the rules, I might have done it anyway.

I was raised on the ethic of a Southern man virtually sovereign under God on his own patch of soil.  That model makes perfect sense in Thomas Jefferson’s rural vision of the republic.  It makes no sense under Alexander Hamilton’s vision of an urban, capitalist nation.  To live in an urban environment we have to learn to live together with some rules.

These days Republicans are throwing around words like “collectivist” and “communist” to describe our concerns with Obama, but they sound silly even on our own tongues.  Obama is not a communist and my little orange flier was not oppression.  Southerners are not struggling against socialism.  They are struggling to come to terms with the demands of modern, global capitalism.

Like a lost memory we are feeling the same impulse that animated our Confederate ancestors who mistakenly railed against “wage slavery” and “Yankee Industrialists.”  They feared that capitalism would destroy their values and undermine their rural way of life.  They failed to recognize the tremendous potential of capitalism to not only make us more prosperous, but to open our world to more personal liberty.  They were wrong then with gruesome consequences.  We are wrong now and marching in their footsteps.

There are bright days ahead when we as Republicans put down our pitchforks and give up the search for the village monster.  There are bright days ahead when we learn to adapt Republican ideas to traditionally Democratic domains, when we learn to apply conservative solutions to problems of environmental protection, urban schools, healthcare, and developing new sources of energy.

And by the way, I found a way to get rid of my leaves without breaking the rules and without buying all those ridiculous bags, but that’s another story.  Junior was right, a country boy can survive, even in the big city.

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