Today's nomination for America's most far-reaching, longest-lasting paradox: how is it our least evolved, least enlightened, low-achieving Southern states set national agendas, even dominate the show. After all, where do emerging stars of the rightwing party reside, namely Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry and Marco Rubio? Plus Mitch McConnell and his loyal confederates eager to gridlock the Senate. It's bad enough when any self-interested minority dictates national terms but worse still when that region, by empirical measurements, represents America's third-world. As one Forbes pundit overstated , "the common media view of the South is as a regressive region, full of overweight, prejudiced, exploited, and undereducated numbskulls." You mean someone else got here first?
Southern forces haven't decided America's destiny, but they've been a traumatic brake on advancement. Backwater mindsets fired with religious fervor are remarkably consistent in finding the wrong side of history -- opposing civil, women's, gay, and minority rights, aside from abortion, science education and climate change. A self-cornered minority becomes addicted to intransigence, thus delaying what is then widely celebrated as human progress. Do not the 37% minority population of Southern States -- roughly from Maryland to Oklahoma and state-ward towards the Gulf -- command disproportionate control, making up in cohesion what they lack in heft?
A mind experiment: if the Old South had been allowed to secede, would the remaining USA be as conflicted over abortion or immigration paralysis, nor refuse even to debate a national energy plan to confront climate change? Would anyone take seriously the rejection of evolution for the voodoo of Creationism and "intelligent design"? Who doubts the U.S. would, like the civilized world abroad, not already have enacted rigorous gun control to reduce the murder of schoolchildren? In retrospect, the Civil War offers the classic example of the winner taking the final battle but not dominating critical political wars 150 years later.
While rightwing rabidity spreads beyond Dixie, how long would the GOP Anti-Governance League endure without true-blue, if redneck believers below the Mason-Dixon line? Of course, southern Democrats often stand complicit with the radical right, as when condoning the triumphant "drill, baby, drill" mantra (deep-water drilling, fracking and the XL Pipeline), maligning Obamacare, tolerating racism, or ignoring global warming.
Evidence Outrages Wishful Thinking
What triggers my focus today is a compelling summary entitled "These 9 Maps Should Absolutely Outrage Southerners." For once, Huffington Post understates: these maps should outrage America. What the graphics dramatize is the startling consistency of southern backwardness, thus qualifying as America's third-world. And if Creationist buffoonery thrives, our most stunted region will further "secede" intellectually from the modern world, banishing technology skill-sets that assure jobs, higher pay, and economic mobility. That folly occurs whenever you distort education into the process of closing, rather than expanding young minds -- akin to shooting yourself in the foot, then wondering why walking is such a trial.
Oddly enough, this vaunted land of ease and plenty is anything but. Not only is Dixie our most impoverished region, with minimum minimum wages and thus the least economic mobility, it has less affordable medical coverage, the most obesity, the highest teen births, and the highest cigarette usage. Per Wikipedia, the South has lower percentages of high school and college graduates, lower housing values, and lower household incomes. Because southern life expectancy is lower and death rates higher elsewhere for all racial groups, one appreciates the century of black migration north. The South, however, boasts lower taxes, less union support, and incredibly lax drilling, mining, clean air and pollution regulations.
A final zinger for all those who "want to go back to Dixie:" it's our "least" happy region. That conclusion follows Gallup's "State of American Well-Being," assessing emotional health, physical health, healthy behaviors, "life evaluation," work environment and access to basics, like food, water and shelter. Less unexpected but equally disturbing is this telling measure of regional justice: southern incarceration numbers. High national incarceration rates (led by Louisiana's jaw-dropping 1600 inmates per 100K residents) plague southern states (with 9 of the top 10 spots). In contrast, "crime-ridden" New Jersey jails fewer than 300 inmates per 100K. Packed prisons may well answer to hard-hearted southern cops and unforgiving prosecutors, or perhaps Southern comfort simply grows more "criminal types." But since racial minorities fill up southern prisons, the convicted not only lack work and life opportunities but wherewithal to hire top legal beagles.
Circling the Bible-belt
And more, for nothing bespeaks Southern defiance of modernity like its geographic overlap with the fundamentalist Bible-belt. Instead of many minds, cultures, and books, Bible-thumpers glorify one man-made, heavy-edited scripture not simply as the absolute guide to morality but absolute dictates of an invisible deity. Oy vey. Curiously, ancestors of the African cargo forced into bondage have transcended their gruesome legacy with far more grace. Outgrowing their abuse, slave ancestors demonstrate more tolerance and compassion for the downtrodden compared to those who search out Biblical justifications for tribal myopia and bigotry.
Listen to Rick Perry's rumbles of justified insurgencies by victimized whites, or Rand Paul's defiance of majority rule, or Ted Cruz' rebellious disruption. Or the Kentucky Baptist minister, Matt Singleton, with his peculiar take on education: "Outsiders are telling public school families that we must follow the rich man's elitist religion of evolution, that we no longer have what the Kentucky Constitution says is the right to worship almighty God. Instead, this fascist method teaches that our children are the property of the state ."
Ah, the painful irony of reversal: were not all black children for centuries the unequivocal property of the rich, nasty elite that scorned non-white human rights? Now that's systemic fascism. Thus salaried "leaders" insult our intelligence by hallucinating their children are "property" of a "fascist" state that simply values enlightenment. Do pious dimwits get the spirit and letter of their own exalted holy book?
Let's end with revealing research that offers glimmering hope for the South while correcting propaganda exposed for linking prosperity with the Protestant Ethnic. Check out "Atheism Linked to Economic Innovation," with the startling subtitle: "Two economists find an association between the percentage of non-believers in a state and the most productive sort of entrepreneurial activity." Time to replace the Protestant with the prosperous "Skeptics' Ethic:"
Trumping the Old-School Mime
In fact, the percentage of a state's residents self-described as Christians is "robustly correlated" with a lower score in productive entrepreneurship. "Interestingly," say economists, "the percent of the population that is atheist/agnostic is positively" related to a state's "productive entrepreneurship score." Apparently, religion imposes opportunity costs on time and resources otherwise "devoted toward productive entrepreneurship," thus creating "psychic costs to pursuing worldly gains."