This July marks the twentieth anniversary of when I left Mississippi. Reading the odd news item emanating from this ‘southernmost place on earth’, seemingly little has changed during the interim. Indeed, what appears to be occurring is that the sentiments that animate the old world vices of this haunted landscape are spreading, popping up in places distant from their epicenter, behaviors behaving more like a cancer than a culture. Sentiments of race and gender division, sentiments of law and order at any price, sentiments that keep youth as children overlong and bring them to conformity through violence, and sentiments that speak not of a class society, an outcome of contemporary economics, but rather one of caste, a symptom of an ancient and archaic worldview.
And speaking of which, not just sentiments, but sentimentalities as well. The ‘last myth’ of the apocalypse and ensuing divine judgment provides a ready rationalization for all of the other blights that mark the social fabric and tear at the tapestry of both civility and civilization alike. For the person who shuns the future, his vice must be turned to virtue, and there is no more sure solvent to assuage any conscience of its doubt than a fervent, nay, fervid, loyalty to Barnumesque religiosity.
I witnessed, and I use the term advisedly, much of this fervor first hand, even intimately. It provided a rationalization for the worst excesses of human behavior. One young woman with whom I became intimate was the child of evangelical parents. She had been whipped regularly growing up, until she had turned eighteen. Any hint of resistance on her part would end yet more badly for her. She related a time when she had simply run and locked her bedroom door. Her father kicked the lock right through and assaulted her with renewed vigor and ‘righteous’ vehemence. Shockingly, upon visiting her parents house, that same door remained in place and in its shattered state, years after the woman had moved out. She even pressed into her parents bedroom and opened one of their dresser drawers. I recall her lips parting and her body quivering as she showed me the belt that yet rusticated in that drawer.
And this was common practice, and apparently remains so, throughout a wide swath of the United States. Nineteen states still allow physical punishment in the schools, and many school boards ignore the federal law that bans it for those eighteen and older given that many eighteen year olds are still high school students and thus subject to such assaults. All fifty states allow ‘discipline’, an evil euphemism which can placed along the same spectrum as ‘concentration camps’, in the home. Many American children are unsafe wherever they go. My friend’s brother received far worse, she told me, simply because he was a boy. If you were wondering why our cousins to the south live in such a violent society, look no further than how they raise their children.
And the other side of this costly coin I also witnessed. The beauty pageants and ‘talent shows’ for young girls; and when I say young, think of ‘child marriage’ young and yet younger. My friend, who had also been entered throughout her childhood and teen years in these spectacles, and I sat through performance after performance of highly sexualized dance and burlesque routines accomplished by girls four years old and up. The combination of such lurid displays ensconced within the iron rods of ‘discipline’ and an otherwise Victorian prudery created an explosive tension between men and women who, even in marriage, lived separate lives.
This four-square social division, black and white, male and female, is threatened by the LGBTQ2 and BLM movements, so it can come as no surprise that these progressive showings are resisted with great force by all whose loyalty is to a past, partly real – slavery, sexual violence against children and youth – and partly fake – this is ‘true Christianity’, Leave it to Beaver is the familial ideal – that neo-conservatism in general hangs its Bolers and Stetsons upon. And it is this ‘past’ that is spreading, given phoenix wings by the anti-abortion politics, the misogyny of Great Awakening sectarians, school curriculum restrictions, book banning parents, the list goes on.
And Americans are aware of this conflict, though they seem hamstrung by it, transfixed by their own inability to counter it. When I travelled across New England in a job search in 2002 my Mississippi license plates gave the locals an excuse to abuse me wherever I went. Seldom did I get a moment to explain that in fact I was Canadian and that I simply had gone south for a job. When I did, the Yankees responded with ‘well, shame on you then’. I lost count of the number of times I was flipped off, and blacks in the Northeast looked at me with a mixture of fear and loathing. In Mississippi itself, they threw rocks at my car while I was driving past, spat at me from across the street. But as soon as they came to know where I was from, all of that changed in an instant. Black people, students and others both, were fascinated, astonished that someone like me should appear in their world. All were aware of its vices, its evils, and all were ashamed of them, and shamed by them.
I was never so relieved to leave it behind. And so I had thought, for two decades. But what I see all around me today is a regression, a recidivism that desires to compel all of us to heed a real-time Gilead of epic proportion and yet narrow vision. ‘Even’ in Canada, you ask? In turn, my three years in Mississippi tells me to tell you to resist, at all costs, this regression and all like them; Putin, the Taliban, anti-abortion, child ‘discipline’, fake religions. If not, we may well find ourselves wishing to turn back the clock to a time when such resistance was still relevant.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades. He is currently writing a memoir of his time in the deep south, entitled, ‘A Canadian Yankee in King Kudzu’s Court: three years in Mississippi’.