TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 8, 2022
Northern condescension today, Northern condescension forever: Long ago and far away, somewhere around the year 1990, we spent a week headlining, without especially good results, at the Columbia Punchline.
We refer, of course, to the Columbia, South Carolina, Punchline. During that week, we encountered one of the most memorable people we ever encountered in or around the big-time comedy world.
We refer to NAME WITHHELD, a waitress at the Punchline. By conventional norms, she was spectacularly good-looking, in a classic South Carolina way. She was also quite charismatic, due to the fury she brought to her discussions of "Northern condescension"—Northern condescension directed at Southern whites.
(This waitress claimed she could tell what county in South Carolina a person was from just from that person's accent. The other waitresses seemed to believe that she probably pretty much could.)
At any rate, it wasn't just WITHHELD who was aware of this condescension. American president Lyndon Baines Johnson had been well aware of it too.
Last week, we quoted remarks from the former president's 1971 memoir. The remarks had appeared as part of a guest essay in the New York Times:
JOHNSON (10/19/71): I did not believe, any more than I ever had, that the nation would unite indefinitely behind any Southerner [as president]...I was not thinking just of the derisive articles about my style, my clothes, my manner, my accent, and my family—although I admit I received enough of that kind of treatment in my first few months as President to last a lifetime. I was also thinking of a more deep‐seated and far‐reaching attitude—a disdain for the South that seems to be woven into the fabric of Northern experience. This is a subject that deserves a more profound exploration than I can give it here—a subject that has never been sufficiently examined.
So said Lyndon Johnson, the president who found a way to ram through the Civil Rights Act. He was discussing widespread disdain and condescension, clueless Yankee style.
We were well aware of the phenomenon of Northern condescension long before we ever went to the Punchline. Listening to WITHHELD emote, we were struck by the fact that someone who had probably been Miss Whatever Town She Was In ever since she was three years old could bring so much passion to this tragic, age-old topic.
We wondered where that feeling had come from. Occasionally, we still do.
We've recalled this memorable young woman as we've continued to encounter the loathsome, stupid tribal reactions to the decision by one school board in Tennessee to replace Art Spiegelman's widely-praised graphic novel, Maus, as part of its eighth-grade Holocaust curriculum. To wit:
This morning, we journeyed to the home site of the Amanpour & Company TV show. Upon arrival, we were stunned by what we found—a giant display which featured this extremely unfortunate headline:
“Maus” Author: TN School Board Wants a “Gentler Holocaust”
Sad! As it turns out, Spiegelman had appeared on the show last Friday night—and if there's anyone who admires Art Spiegelman and Art Spiegelman's work, that person would have to be Art Spiegelman himself!
As it turned out, that quote by Spigelman didn't mean what it may have seemed to mean.
He hadn't said that the McMinn County school board wants a second Holocaust—though that ugly assessment was widely found among the loathsome comments the creepy crawlers of our own blue team appended to Kevin Drum's recent unfortunate post about the values and attitudes of the lesser beings who live in "East Bumfuck County."
People like that remarkable Punchline waitress burn with fury at such condescension—and they're right to do so. We would advise them to regard such manifestations as stupidity more than as macro-aggression, but people rarely like being insulted, and wars have begun over less.
Those commenters had been deeply stupid, ugly, vile. As it turns out, Spiegelman is a person with a gentle demeanor whose comments can be quite barbed.
If there's anyone who's unaware of Art Spiegelman's recognizable brand of bigotry, it would have to be Spiegelman himself. For instance, consider the exchange which started with this question from Walter Isaacson:
ISAACSON (2/4/22): After the controversy erupted over the removal of your book from the curricula, the school board in Tennessee issued a statement. And I would like to read it to you and get your reaction to it.
"We do not diminish the value of Maus as an impactful and meaningful piece of literature, nor do we dispute the importance of teaching our children the historical and moral lessons and realities of the Holocaust. To the contrary, we've asked our administrators to find other works to accomplish the same educational goals in a more age-appropriate fashion."
Tell me your reaction to that.
The board had issued a statement asserting the value of Spiegelman's book. They simply said they didn't consider the book to be age-appropriate for their county's eighth-graders.
No one is required to agree with that assessment. The question is whether a person is able to tolerate even minor cultural differences resulting in different assessments.
Rubes like us are not. The board had issued a complimentary statement. Spiegelman responded with this:
SPIEGELMAN (continuing directly): Well, I've now come to realize that "age-appropriate" is a broad range that includes probably 40-year-old people on that school board as well as 14-year-old students in their classes.
The board had spoken well of Spiegelman's widely-praised book. Spiegelman had responded with a familiar old insult.
He went on to offer other such acts of supreme condescension. Our self-impressed tribe is strongly inclined to behave this way. It's something we're almost completely unable to see about ourselves.
That comment is an example of ugly, venal behavior. It's ugly condescension, but it's very typical of a mindset which is quite widespread within our self-impressed tribe.
Our deeply stupid, self-impressed tribe loves the time-honored "book banning" narrative. (Though no, the school board in McMinn County didn't "ban" any book.) As a favored part of this narrative, we especially love to mock those within the white South.
Scopes monkey trial, here we come!
We simply love to tell this story—the story about "banning books." It makes us feel that we're the good and very smart people, when we plainly are not.
This story gives us the gift of a group of people we can be much better than—just the way the old-world white Southern cracker was trained to look down on blacks.
We truly are the people we hate. People like that memorable waitress can see us when we do this.