Chuck Thompson in Better Off Without Em: Book is a Lazy and Cynical Story About the South


The first book I reviewed for PolicyMic was America, You Sexy Bitch (AYSB) by conservative Meghan McCain and liberal Michael Ian Black. Politically at odds with each other, the Senator’s daughter and the stand-up comedian take a road trip across the continental United States to learn about America. One of their stops was in Texas; on their way, McCain remarks on how she once met Texans who “felt like Texas should secede from the Union because the rest of America is such a mess.”

“When they drink,” writes McCain, “instead of ‘cheers,’ in some places they say ‘secede.’”

While she may find that “inherently, fabulously American,” I found it somewhat shocking. Next to her more humorous, charismatic, and introspective co-author, much of what McCain wrote wasn’t all that memorable, but of all the two wrote about Texas and the mostly conservative south, McCain’s anecdote about the seditionist toast was the most profound.

I tried to downplay its profundity, convincing myself that Southern secessionists only make up a minority (even though 49 out of 100 is technically a minority); facetious wisecracks aside, I tried to think little of it. Lo and behold, a couple months later, a moronic provocateur named Tom Head — a Texas county judge — goes on TV and radio and warns people of a “civil war”; that Obama’s re-election would spark “civil unrest” and “civil disobedience” and motivate people to “take up arms” to “get rid of the dictator” (who would then proceed to “call in the U.N. troops, personnel carriers, tanks and weapons” and “give the sovereignty of the United States away to the United Nations”). 

And before I know it, out comes Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession by writer Chuck Thompson. Secession talk seems relevant now. With Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis’s new super movie about Lincoln on the horizon (and angry amateur revisionists coming out of the woodwork to disparage the pivotal figure as a “tyrant piece of trash” and a “real racist pig”) and the most polarizing presidential campaign ever drawing to a close, the timing of Thompson’s book couldn’t have made more sense.

Thompson’s reckless, anti-conservative, and in many ways anti-American provocations are in good company.

This man hates the South. He starts off on the topic of religion, opining, “no shit, there are religious kooks everywhere, but the South is to radical Christianity what Afghanistan and Pakistan are to radical Islam.” His tone is uniform throughout. Whether on religiosity, legacy of racial discrimination and indifference, detrimental adherence to conservatism, or stubborn sense of pride despite its stunning imperfections, Thompson tears into the American South maliciously and relentlessly. And there’s no ambiguity as to what he wants:

“I can’t help empathizing a little bit with guys like Representative Paul Broun (R-Ga.), who, in the midst of a crucial national debate, seriously advanced the idea that, ‘if Obamacare passes, that free insurance card that’s in people’s pockets is going to be as worthless as a Confederate dollar after [the War Between the States]…the Great War of Yankee Aggression!’ Hysterical jackasses like Broun, and plenty like him I met on my travels through the South, really just want the same thing I do: a country liberated from the tyranny of morons and seditionists, and the freedom to say about the other side, in all honesty and with complete accuracy, that we just might be better off without ‘em.”

Northerners criticize Southerners all the time; it’s clichéd, commonplace, and usually uncivil — being an angry liberal, I know. In AYSB, on the topic of Texas, Black (who hails from Connecticut) admits that he’s “been known, on occasion, to refer to the entire state as a shithole.” Even Southerners criticize Southerners — and I’m not talking about the mildly self-deprecating, subtly-celebrating-the-South style of Jeff Foxworthy. When Southern Chef John Currence tweeted Paula Deen to stop embarrassing Southerners (to put it lightly), it sounded more vicious than amusing.

Dear Paula Deen- A big thank you for making us look dumber again. Please shut the f**k up. Love, This of us trying to make a difference.

— John Currence (@Bigbadchef) January 25, 2012

Reading Better Off, it’s impossible not to be reminded of how vicious liberals can be — not just towards conservatives, but also towards America period. While in Memphis, Black wrote that, while “most Americans like to think of themselves as open-minded, tolerant, and free of bigotry,” he on the other hand believes that “most Americans are full of shit.” Liberal comedian Bill Maher (admittedly my favorite comedian) is notorious for his unrestrained, acerbic honesty towards his fellow Americans; he’ll call America stupid, give sound examples as to why he feels that way, and enjoy doing it.

Before liberal PM Super Pundit Benjamin Feinblum beat me to it somewhat, I too had been preparing to pile onto the conservative states in an article of my own, scathingly lobbing a bunch of Thompsonesque charges about how the South socially and economically drags down the rest of us; I’d been building a spreadsheet with stat upon stat indicating how many of the most conservative and religious states are also the poorestunhealthiestleast educatedand… southernmost.

I was essentially “Orientalizing” them.

Before I could write it, I wrote a personally pivotal review (of Ascent of the A-Word, a book about assholes and “assholism”) that made me realize two things. For one, America takes it in the shins a lot — by the feet of its own people. Secondly, though we should never abandon open and frank debate, there’s really no point in engaging in any sort of argument — particularly if you wish to change someone — if you obstinately insist on veiling your nobler intentions with dominant, overarching themes that do more to humiliate than educate.

I’m as guilty as anyone in the history of verbal spatting of being profane and insulting someone bluntly; at least I do my best to make sure I squeeze in a valid point or two, however crassly. AscentAYSB, and now Better Off show how easy it is to descend into intellectual surrender: to settle with laziness, to give up on making points entirely — and crassly call someone a moron instead. It’s easy to be a lazy cynic.

In Defending Politics, one of the very best books I’ve ever reviewed, Professor Matthew Flinders says it perfectly: “Political cynicism, disengagement, democratic decadence […] is too often an excuse for physical and intellectual laziness.” Cheap comedic theater, like cheap journalistic or cheap political theater, is lazy and cynical. Disparaging America for the sake of disparaging America is lazy and cynical. Chuck Thompson’s overly harsh caricature of an irredeemable, unmanageable, and intolerable Deep South — a big piece of the American soul — is lazy and cynical.

And with that, I can’t in good conscience review this book positively.

It’s a shame; Thompson does point to many dire concerns about the South. It’s important to know, for instance, that “with the exception of Florida (and Texas, if you count it), no Southern state contributes more money in federal tax revenues than it receives back in government assistance and entitlement programs,” including Medicare, food stamps, and housing assistance. It’s also important to know how “unsettling” it is “that even as the Southern economy has blossomed, the contributions-to-welfare ratio divergence has been growing over time in favor of the South.”

Reading that, it’s difficult not to see the irony, “as obvious as it is aggravating,” that Thompson sees when considering all the Southern conservative “Dollar Store philosophers” who “preach the gospel of self-sufficiency, congratulating themselves on a set of country-boy-can-survive skills with a counterfeit pride that presumably prevents them from accepting charity or assistance of any kind.”

“The Southerner’s staunch belief,” writes my fellow angry liberal, “that if you want to screw something up all you have to do is get the federal government involved conveniently ignores the fact that the great American triumphs ‘conservatives’ often tout as ‘our’ accomplishments — victory in World War II, moon landing, Cold War defeat of the Soviet Union, toppling Saddam Hussein — were all 100% federal government projects accomplished with federal government tax money and federal government employees and contractors sucking off the great federal government udder.”

But clever points like this just can’t win me over — all because of his ridiculous solution. SECESSION for heaven’s sakes!

Michael Suede, one of PM’s most prominent and respected libertarian Super Pundits, recently stated (quite correctly) that “you can’t be a proper Austrian economist unless you are an anarcho-capitalist,” and that it’s “impossible for value to be determined by anything other than free market exchange.” Libertarian utopia, moreover, is only enabled in “the absence of political coercion” — i.e. government. Thus, for true libertarians like Suede or Super Pundit Seamus Light, there’s no middle ground in the face of prevailing societal imperfections: it’s either live under a state or live stateless. All or nothing, no in-between.

Chuck Thompson thinks the same way: seeing the world in one extreme — making a giant, deep-fried, bacon-wrapped straw man out of the American South — and then believing it can only be fixed by invoking another extreme: cutting off the American South entirely. Just as pure libertarians are too pessimistic to fix the government, Thompson, a bitter liberal, is too pessimistic to fix the South, to be a patriot and service the dysfunction between Americans.