I was recently approaching a bridge over one of our local waterways when I realized it had just been closed. The line of cars came dutifully to a stop, facing the firetruck that blocked the lane.
Turns out there was a wreck that had to be cleared, and it was going to take a long time. Motorists got out of their cars, trucks, and SUVs and started mingling on the roadside, as if at a cocktail party. I heard small talk, speculation, and stories about other wrecks and bridge closings and the worsening traffic in the Lowcountry.
A middle-aged lady in a T-shirt with an invitation to attend her church started talking to me about a recent road closing she had encountered. Seems a limb had fallen from one of our majestic live oaks and obstructed some suburban road. The authorities quickly took control of the scene, she said, and wouldn't let anyone approach the fallen limb. Only the designated city work crew could do the job. When they finally arrived, it took them too long to saw the limb into small pieces — much too small, according to the church lady — and finally open the road for passage.
She concluded her little parable with this: "Anybody could have brought their saw and removed that limb, but the city had to do it. That's what happens whenever the government gets involved. They just make a mess of everything."
It was the kind of homegrown homily you might hear at most barbershops or bars in this part of the country. Distrust of government — any government — runs deep in the local DNA. The church lady had performed a little social ritual that Southerners, especially white Southerners, like to share with each other.
It's a gesture people use to check each other out. And, in fact, some of the Bubbas in our roadside circle nodded and grunted their approval. I walked away.
A half-century ago these rituals had a decidedly more pathological cast. Two or more white men could hardly gather to discuss anything without one of them making some offhanded joke or menacing statement about black people. Anyone who did not show proper appreciation might find himself being watched and whispered about. This is what political correctness used to look like.
Today much of that overt hostility has been transferred from blacks to the "gubmint." Of course, this is at least in part because it was federal government — in the form of court decisions and civil rights legislation — that came to the defense of black people in the South. This was an invasion of states' rights that many white people have never forgiven. But some of this hostility toward government comes from a deep streak of Southern libertarianism.
This libertarianism expresses itself in a number of ways. One is an antipathy to environmental regulation, which often plays out as hostility toward the environment. You can see this in the stunning number of conservatives who dismiss the threats of global climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence. And then there was the North Carolina man a few years ago who cut down the trees on his property rather than have them protected by a new ordinance. Another manifestation of libertarianism is a strong anti-union sentiment. Many Southerners would rather be screwed over by their employers in a "free market" than join a union or be protected by federal labor laws. They forget, of course, that it was unions and the federal government that gave them the 40-hour week, minimum wage, time-and-a-half pay, and myriad other protections and benefits. Old mental habits die hard.
The general hostility that many conservatives — especially white Southerners — feel toward the federal government is expressed by Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry when he says, "I want to make the federal government as inconsequential as possible in your life." But how consequential is government in our lives compared to the power of that other great American entity: the corporation?
Our lives are affected much more by corporations than by government. Ever been screwed by a credit card company, an insurance company, or a bank? Don't complain to the Better Business Bureau. Only the government — state or federal — has the power and the interest to step in for you. It's the government that protects our food from contamination, protects our children from online predators, protects the air we breathe and the water we drink from those who would foul them for profit.
Yet, with the short-sightedness of a K-Mart Republican, many people insist corporations are their friends and government is the enemy. Whether this is an expression of libertarianism or ignorance, the effect is the same — a society friendly to corporations and hostile to people and the environment.