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Redneck Nation: How the South Really Won the War
by Michael Graham

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Warner Books Hardcover, 2002 224 pages

THERE CAME a point, somewhere around the middle of Michael Graham's Redneck Nation: How the South Really Won the War, when it suddenly hit me that this might be an opportunity to grant gainful employment to all those mal mots that one's conscience says are best left somewhere dark, damp, and inaccessible to others. Stuff like, "If you read every book published this year, don't read this one." But incivility is something that the author, Michael Graham, does so well, I won't insult you by trying to outdo him.

I came to Redneck Nation with fairly high expectations. The cover is liberally sprinkled with testimonials to its high hilarity and singular insights. The inner dustcover flap reveals that Michael Graham is a former standup comedian with whom I share a geographicum vitae. That is to say, we were both Southerners by birth and Northerners by the grace of the automobile--expatriates in our own country. So, like ex-Americans exchanging warm greetings in a dingy Morocco saloon, I anticipated some sharp, witty conversation.

No luck.

What becomes apparent by the third chapter of Redneck Nation is that Michael Graham is a) too ideological for his own good, or that of the reader, and b) not really all that funny. Oh, there are a few chucklers early on, like this: "The only difference between Brooklyn, NY, and Birmingham, AL, is that you can't get a gun rack in a Trans Am." Unfortunately, chuckles are as good as it gets. And by the 30-page mark, it is obvious that Graham is actually completely serious in remarks like these, and that his idea of humor is really little more than mean-spirited personal attacks on those he disagrees with politically.

Some will probably accuse me of panning Graham simply because I disagree with him. But the fact is, I often do not disagree. If he has one saving grace, it is that his ideology, though strongly conservative, is not simply a reiteration of the GOP platform. Indeed, one of the most prominent themes of the book is that there are a lot of stupid people in the United States, regardless of political affiliation.

Unfortunately, while poking fun at the obviously short-witted might be a good bit for the likes of George Carlin, Mr. Graham's formula is to conflate the spectacular sputterings and miscues of various fringe groups with one entire side (most often, but not always, the left side) of each political issue he covers, thus effectively painting half of all Americans as goombahs--or rednecks, as he prefers.

A typical example is his assertions on the subject of racism. Graham is one of a growing chorus of right-wingers calling for a colorblind society, which in theory makes it sound like Lincoln has returned from the dead, but really means simply the dismantling of Affirmative Action policies. Now, say what you will about Affirmative Action--I have no intention of weighing the merit of that particular program here--but it is entirely unrealistic to assume that the creation of a colorblind government will automatically produce a colorblind populace. And until we figure out a way to create the latter, some form of government policy is necessary.

To Graham, however, Affirmative Action is identical to Jim Crow--that is to say, he believes that mere recognition of racial difference is essentially racism, and that motives never enter the picture. This enables him to accuse the NAACP of using the same tactics as pre-Civil Rights white racists--an absurd conclusion, given that we have yet to see the NAACP lynching white people or burning crosses on their front lawns, but this means nothing to Grahm. The NAACP is to him simply a part of the larger, redneck nation--a nation that produces "a theory about black culture which states that young African-American men do not have the ability to understand or obey the law. And because of this cultural heritage, black people should be treated differently in court than white people."

This passage is offered, like almost everything in Redneck Nation, without any attribution whatsoever. It's a ludicrous theory--a straw man, really--which only the most ideologically extremist would attempt to defend, and yet it is casually tossed to the reader, sans source, as though it were a commonly known rallying point for the Congressional Black Caucus.

This lack of documentation seriously erodes Graham's credibility, not least when he turns out to be dead wrong (or lying--one can never know which). In a chapter on education, Graham lambastes the teaching of "ethnomathematics,"--according to Graham, a sort of cultural relativism applied to the teaching of math in public schools. Well, a cursory look at the Web reveals a college-level anthropologically based subject with that name, but no mention of any public school offerings. I phoned my sister, a grade school teacher in the ultra-liberal state of California, to ask her what she thought of ethnomathematics. "What the hell is that?" she asked.

The fact is, the only clearly attributed ideas in Graham's book are the brief quotes from H. L. Mencken that introduce each chapter. Graham uses Mencken to bolster the theme that is encapsulated in the book's title: Stupid ideas are inherently Southern, and smart ideas are inherently Northern, and furthermore, the immense stupidity on display in modern America is proof positive that the South ultimately won the Civil War. Despite the fact that Graham revisits this idea at the beginning and end of every chapter, it feels tacked on, so he brings Mencken in as a sort of pedigree.

This is a prime example of intellectual midgets standing on the shoulders of giants, and one senses that Mencken--whose disparaging remarks about the South predate the Civil Rights movement by a good bit--might have had a few things to say about Graham's style of argument. Frankly, though, I would encourage Graham to retain the Mencken passages and ditch everything else. They are the only parts of Redneck Nation really worth reading.

- Fletcher Moore


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