Southern Fatalism 

Some of us learn the hopelessness of resisting it

Occasionally, I am taken to task by friends for what they call my negativity. I try to explain to them — and I will now explain to you, good readers — that I am not being negative in my assessment of southern politics and culture. I am being fatalistic. A lifetime in the South has that effect on people.

The most recent example of this turn of mind occurred last month when I wrote a column about Ben Frasier, the perennial congressional candidate who seems to be living in Maryland even as he runs for Congress from the First District of South Carolina. And the Charleston County Board of Elections is unable or unwilling to stop him.

I concluded my little exposé with this: "We have some of the worst laws in the nation. We are unable to protect our environment, unable to protect our children, unable to protect our democratic process. In this state, somebody will always find a way to game the system."

Why did I have to end so negatively? Why does the glass always have to be half empty?

Indeed, this attitude seems to fly in the face of good opinion writing and good manners. Traditional newspaper people and those reared on Emily Post were taught that if you must find fault with something, at least propose a solution to the problem.

I'm sorry. Sometimes I just can't bring myself to do that. I know that there are some problems without solutions. I'm a southerner, after all. I'm fatalistic.

Fatalism is that innate sense of a dark inevitability, that inescapable dread of an inescapable destiny. Fatalism is Quentin Compson telling his grandson that time is "the mausoleum of all hope and desire," in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Fatalism is an angry Calvinist god consigning blacks and women and laborers to their wretched lot in life and visiting the sins of the fathers upon the fourth and fifth generations.

No, I am not a Calvinist — not anymore. I don't even have much use for god except as symbolism and expletive. But for 58 years, my eyes have seen the tragedy of the South, trapped in its past, divided against itself along lines of race and class, like crabs in a basket, hopelessly trying to pull themselves out by pulling their fellows down. What progress it has made toward peace, justice, and prosperity has been imposed upon it by outside forces — federal armies, federal judges, federal laws, and the cold, indifferent exigencies of global commerce.

Eternally wounded and angry, eternally at a loss to understand why their plans fail and their hearts break, southerners look to heaven, where they see an angry god who must be supplicated with violence and self-flagellation. As historian Robert L. Johnson writes, southern fatalism is "resignation before the forces of fate and death, rather than a struggle with guilt and social responsibility ... A deep and continuing conflict abides in the soul of the South between Stoic resignation to fate and death and Christian reconciliation to sin and guilt."

In antebellum America, while northern states saw a flourishing of democracy, transcendentalism, and Unitarianism, the South turned itself into a police state with a feudal economy and traumatized itself with images of slave rebellion. After the Civil War, it replaced the orthodoxy of worldly fear with the orthodoxy of Calvinist religiosity. Calvinism, with its emphasis on punishment and predestination, reinforced class and racial distinctions. Nowhere was poverty more endemic and economic disparity wider than in the South.

Unlike traditional southerners, I have chosen to rage against the night of fear and prejudice, but I can no longer delude myself into thinking the night will someday end. I am not the idealist I was 30 years ago. Then I thought that southerners might come to terms with our past, heal ourselves, and learn how to practice democracy and the Golden Rule.

Now I know the truth — that the stain of fear and hatred are too deep ever to be expunged. There will always be politicians and demagogues eager to point to some mythic past, ready to remind us of the old wounds and humiliations. There will always be a Republican Party, keeping white people walking in lock step toward the past.

I will continue to write and speak against the darkest elements of the South — the ignorance, the fear, the injustice, the inequality. But I am no longer a happy warrior. I am fighting a battle that can never be won. I know what the outcome will be, because I understand the past. We are all prisoners here, be we inmates or guards.

In a land where irony is neither appreciated nor understood, this is the greatest irony of all: that I would learn my own fatalism by speaking against the fatalism of others.


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