Better Off Without 'Em

A Northern Manifesto
for Southern Secession

By Chuck Thompson

Simon & Schuster. 336 pp. $25

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Reviewed by Paul Jablow


Before they closed, I lived within walking distance of two bookstores - Borders and a Barnes & Noble - and one of the small joys there was to leaf through a book and decide whether you wanted to know it better.

You might decide to buy it. You might put it down within seconds. Or you might linger enough to know that in just that few minutes you had gotten about all out of it you were going to get.

Better Off Without 'Em falls into the third category. Thompson, a travel writer, is awesomely talented and wickedly funny. And this book would have made a great magazine humor piece. But it's tough to keep your tongue in your cheek for 336 pages.

The "thesis" of the book is that the South is such a fetid stew of poverty, ignorance, violence, and superstition that the rest of the country should give it the independence it sought and fought for 150-some years ago.

An exaggeration? Not really. For example:

"There are religious kooks everywhere, but the South is to radical Christianity what Afghanistan and Pakistan are to radical Islam."

"What . . . happened to that confederation of Mason-Dixon mouth breathers that got them so intimidated by science and facts and book larnin' that they can't even walk past a library or look through a microscope without quoting Habakkuk and Deuteronomy to each other until the threat of intellectual enlightenment goes away?"

At an evangelical prayer meeting outside Atlanta, the author winds up dancing next to a "sixty-year-old lady . . . who smells of bacon grease and methane."

In Mobile, Ala., "I fall into a classic southern conversation with a balding, middle-aged, fact-spewing birther named Marvin, who for thirty minutes stands next to a wife he doesn't bother to acknowledge or introduce. When I tell him what I'm up to, Marvin rearranges his glasses and starts vomiting out the Fox 'News' approved righty line - Barack Obama is a liar, a socialist, a hater of Israel, an enemy of freedom. . . ."

You get the picture. Especially if you're an Oregon liberal like Thompson.

"In light of the South's long-standing cantankerousness about being part of the United States," he writes, "it could be and often has been argued that North and South essentially proceeded out of the gate as separate countries, political and social entities at fundamental odds with one another."

True or not, Thompson readily concedes that the Confederacy will not rise again. But having raised this question and dedicated a full-length book to it, he is forced to deal with it semi-seriously. He even goes so far as to suggest a possible structure for the new "country." Texas is too economically valuable to give up, he says, but the South can keep Florida despite its large pockets of Yankee refugees who will never choose grits over gefilte fish.

There is ample cherry-picking of facts here, perhaps because the crop is certainly plentiful. The South, he notes, is home to nine of the nation's 10 poorest states. Except for Florida, no Southern state contributes more money in federal tax revenues than it receives back in government assistance and entitlement programs. No Southern state spends above the national average per student per year in public education funds for elementary and secondary schooling.

But after a while - and not that long a while - the whole act starts to wear thin. It gave me the same uneasy feeling as the Bill Maher movie Religulous, in which Maher trots out the most extreme manifestations of worship to buttress his own atheism.

This may be because I spent six years as a newspaper reporter in the South and found it a much more complex, nuanced place than Thompson did. Or, more likely, than he lets on. In North Carolina, my tour stops ranged from Chapel Hill to Ku Klux Klan rallies (you wear a suit and they leave you alone because they think you're a fed).

There was also an Army boot camp apprenticeship with an Alabama redneck platoon sergeant who was perhaps the shrewdest motivator I have ever worked for. And shortly after I returned to the North, I was fascinated by the spectacle of North Carolina's Sam Ervin, chairman of the Senate Watergate committee, skewering the Nixon White House all-stars with his unique blend of raised eyebrows, folk wisdom, Shakespeare, and the Bible. No one with a New York accent could have pulled it off quite that way.

The dust-jacket blurb writers advertise this as "a deliberately provocative book whose insight, humor, fierce and fearless politics and sheer nerve will spark a national debate that is perhaps long overdue."

I don't think so.

Paul Jablow, a former Inquirer reporter and editor and former capital bureau chief of the Charlotte Observer, freelances from Bryn Mawr.