Winning the Culture War in Post-Bush America

In The Age Of Obama, Can Northern Urbanites Learn To Love The Rural South?


Published: April 9, 2009

We New Yorkers pride ourselves on not being afraid of anything. The nonchalance with which we can gaze down from a balcony on the 37th floor of a high-rise, the assumptions we make about the kindness of Manhattan drivers as we bound out onto every crosswalk even after the orange hand stops blinking, the superhuman strength we can muster up to keep subway doors from closing on us… We are New Yorkers! Hear our perpetual adrenaline pumping!

But of course, we are animals, and if you take us out of the environments we best know, we can get nervous. So whether we’ll admit it or not, there is one thing that New Yorkers wouldn’t touch with a 250-mile pole—the South. What kind of people can live there, we ask in horror. No subway! No gay bars! Less than seven Whole Foods per city! And worst of all, they voted that awful hick from Texas into the White House… twice.

It seems that, since George W. Bush took office in 2001, the South and its politics have been inseparable in the eyes of liberal Northerners. Though this ideological dichotomy is hardly new, Bush’s presidency heightened the divide as we blamed the South for almost everything the government did wrong. It’s been a long eight years. We’ve called them Bible thumpers; they’ve called us godless. We’ve called them ignorant; they’ve called us elitist. The bickering seemed endless. But this January, Barack Obama entered the Oval Office after a long campaign of rhetoric about uniting the nation. The question is, now that the worst of the South isn’t running the country—now that the Bible Belt can’t be the scapegoat for the government’s shortcomings—can we all just get along?

The simple answer is yes. The more complicated, and perhaps more frightening, answer is that we can’t expect Obama to do the uniting for us. Both sides must learn from each other. Wait—us learn from them? It may seem baffling at first. But the fact is that, as petrified as we are of the South, we can be pretty scary ourselves—and not because we’re superpeople, but because maybe the South is a little bit right about us. The fact is that we can come off as heartless and unapproachable at times. But by taking cues from the sub-Mason-Dixon way of life, there are two simple ways to change that.

First of all, we need to slow down. The South is often criticized for being “behind the times,” but maybe all that really means is that they take their time, a concept that has become completely alien to many New Yorkers. Case in point: the Southern drawl. Maybe they taawk lyek thayut because it allows them time to think about what’s coming out of their mouths, a luxury we don’t always get when we’re screaming hurried conversations into cell phones on the Metro North.

Once we’ve allowed ourselves a minute to breathe, we need to calm down. We city-dwellers tend to take our jobs, our accomplishments, our opinions and ourselves far too seriously. As a result, we come off as not just intimidating, but often frivolous. The Southern counterpart to this attitude can perhaps best be summarized in one phrase that makes any Yankee grimace: “Git-r-done.” These infamous three words epitomize the Southern mindset toward any given task: figure out what needs to be done and then do it. “Git-r-done” leaves no room for argument, no room for existential reflection or rhetorical debate. Tell a Southerner to “git-r-done,” and whatever it is will be done in an hour. Tell a Northerner the same thing, and you’ll be forced to engage in a two-hour debate over why it’s “git-r-done” instead of “git-’im-done,” what the answer means for the role of women in rural America and why no one has brought this issue to the forefront of gender politics—only then will the Northerner begin thinking about whom to call about “gitting” started on r/’im/it.

Are we passionate? Yes. Are we efficient? Not necessarily. While we may be well-intentioned in our constant political correctness, in the process, we sometimes create more confusion and frustration than is helpful or necessary—both for those we’re trying to enlighten and for ourselves.

Of course, all of this is not to say that we should all drop out of college, move to Kentucky and start taking jaw harp lessons from Uncle BillyJoeBob. The truth is that there may always be some irreconcilable ideological differences between the urban North and the rural South. But with the emphasis on unity that Obama brought with him into the White House on Jan. 20, there may never be a better opportunity than today to make an effort to start bridging the cultural crevasse. And who knows—if the two sides weren’t so afraid of each other, maybe they could find compromises for some of their political polarities. It’s a tough reconciliation to make; that’s to be sure, but with just a little bit of an effort to see that there’s more to the red states than rednecks, we might just be able to git-r-done.