Opinion

Memo to candidates and my liberal pals: Southerners aren't stupid

Head's up, y'all: The South is filled with intelligent people. Treat them accordingly.

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Moving to Baton Rouge from Washington terrified me. After all, it's the South, and not a charming part of the South, either. People drive pickup trucks outfitted with gun racks, strip malls are ubiquitous, and giant crosses dot the interstate.

An Eastern liberal's nightmare.

But, to anyone who has spent any real time south of the Mason-Dixon line, it's glaringly obvious that, in general, the liberal politicos and pundits who tend to set the terms of debate don't "get" the South. Actually most non-Southerners, no matter their profession or background, don't get the South.

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As a regular visitor to what folks around here call "the Frozen Nawth," I hear the stereotypes often:

"You live where? Is it, you know, OK?"

Sometimes people are more to the point: "Isn't everyone there incredibly racist?"

Or: "Have you been able to find friends?"

The common thread, of course, is that the South is a vast breeding ground for imbeciles, and therefore, anyone of my superior educational and intellectual background must be bored silly.

Head's up, y'all: The South is a huge and vast swath of the United States, extremely varied in its landscape, attitudes, accents, and architectural styles and – here's a real shocker – it's filled with intelligent, well-read, thoughtful people.

It's also filled with less intelligent, less well-read people. Funny thing, but neither group enjoys being condescended to by, for example, presidential candidates.

Which is why Senator Obama's now-ancient-history remarks about the "bitter" white working class got as much traction as it did: Republicans seem to understand that great quantities of the American populace – such as the entire nonblack South – are fed up with being looked down upon, and generally snubbed, except, sometimes, in election years.

After 13 years as a transplanted raging liberal Yankee in the deepest corner of the Deep South, I think I can safely say that folks down this way are not even a little bit more stupid than people on, for example, the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

But try telling that to almost anyone who lives in one of the coastal power centers – especially someone in my own liberal tribe. Not that the Republicans don't condescend like crazy, but they're much better at covering it up.

This is an interesting election year for all kinds of reasons. But the one that people don't seem to be focusing on is that, unlike in the past seven or eight election cycles, there isn't a Southerner among the leading candidates. Though Senator Clinton is nominally a Southerner – she spent many years in Little Rock – she neither talks the talk nor walks the walk.

If there's ever a time to mind the South, it's this November.

Think about it: When folksy George W. Bush took on uptight Easterner John Kerry, who won?

When folksy George W. Bush ran against uptight Al Gore – a man who, while hailing from Tennessee, basically comes across as an Eastern know-it-all, Bush ended up in the White House. (And yes, I am aware that Gore won the popular vote and Florida was "rigged.")

Before that, we had eight years of folksy Southerner Bill Clinton, who got the Southern vote based on his Southernisms and the Northern, liberal, and West-coast votes based on his liberal bona fides.

Black folks, famously, went for him also – and there too, most African-Americans have roots, if not real estate, in the South.

Before Clinton it was Daddy Bush, who came across as the Eastern-bred Yalie that he was but at least had the advantage of running against an even more uptight Easterner – Massachusetts Governor Dukakis. But then Poppy crumbled before the Clinton Southern charm machine.

Reagan – another good talker, who, though not a Southerner, had played them in the movies – was also good at stifling any whiff of moral or intellectual superiority.

Before Reagan, we had Jimmy Carter, another bona-fide Southerner, who, if nothing else, didn't condescend to folks who talk slow. Even Richard Nixon, with his hunched shoulders and precise speech, had Alabama's George Wallace siphoning off votes. Lyndon Johnson was, of course, famously Texan – and hugely popular.

This time around, without a single Southerner in the race, all three candidates have to work hard to convince the South that they don't think we're stupid.

Because, frankly, it's downright insulting to be written off as so blind that you don't notice that Iraq is in shambles, or that one of our loveliest American cities is still entirely at the mercy of Mother Nature, and all but forgotten by the people we elected to lead us.

Jennifer Moses, author of "Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou," has lived in Baton Rouge for the past 13 years.

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