The conservatism of the modern Deep South might be the most absurd travesty in American history. As a region, the Deep South lags behind the rest of the country in many aspects of quality of life – and in some extreme cases, like Alabama’s Black Belt, conditions are compared to third-world countries – as this region rich in natural and human resources either undervalues or squanders one or both too often. If any people has ever had good reasons to be progressive, not conservative, the people of the Deep South are them.
The Deep South’s warm weather, plentiful rivers, rich soil and vibrant people make it the ideal location for a becoming a model of progressive sustainability, a place where fresh and healthy eating choices can be at our fingertips all the time, a place where abundant sunshine and mild climate could allow for significant improvements to energy production and consumption, and place where innovative and creative people could apply their brilliance to foster cultural and economic growth that benefits everyone. Locally grown produce, meat, dairy, and fish are abundant in most parts of the South; people in the Deep South don’t need to purchase and consume as much processed foods as they do, especially fast food, when fresh, nutritious food is grown all around us. The people of the Deep South could use the hot sun to create the solar power to run our air-conditioners, for instance; also, replacing our cultural insistence on gas-guzzling cars, trucks and SUVs as status symbols with a more progressive recognition of the benefits of fuel-efficient automobiles for non-heavy-labor commuters would decrease gasoline usage immensely. Considering the cultural and artistic contributions of the Deep South, the region’s political backwardness and stagnation and its acceptance of pitifully low standards of living stand in marked contrast to the beautifully innovative and wildly creative spirit of the people here. This vivacious creativity and a defiant refusal to be dulled or defeated by obvious cyclical inequality and poverty are seen in Southern music, art, and literature and could be applied to Southern politics and economics, which could be changed resoundingly by this elan vital that is a hallmark of the people in the Deep South. When the solutions to so many of our problems can come from within our region, why are we ignoring the possibilities by refusing unleash our potential in the areas of politics, economics, health and energy?
During each election cycle in Alabama, where I live, I hear political ads run by a plethora of candidates who call their opponents “too liberal for Alabama.” The phrase is meant as an insult, as a “scarlet letter,” implying that a stubborn refusal to admit the backwardness of outdated ideals is what we ought to be looking for in a political candidate. The phrase implies that we will be better off by refusing to evolve and grow, by refusing to assimilate into modern culture and by refusing to participate in progress. Steadfast conservatism and xenophobic resolve have never served the Deep South well. The uselessness and counterproductive consequences of conservative ideals are obvious to anyone who opens his or her eyes to the reality.
Statistics, studies, government data, narratives, news reports, all point to the social, political, and economic inequality that exists in the Deep South and all point to the ways that stubbornness, conservatism and lack of education have held us back. However, if a progressive, forward-looking ideal that demands real change and improvement were supplanted in a South that is slam full of natural resources and hard-working people, if those hard-working people were educated on how to make better decisions, then the South could use its natural and human resources to improve the lives of all Southerners, instead of continuing down the path that has led to historic inequality, widespread poverty, and modern divisiveness.
*Read the continuation, “A Progressive Deep South, Part Two”