Thursday, May 12, 2011

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) (Overview: The South and “Liberal Elites”)

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story was a fascinating documentary and quite different from what I was anticipating. I thought the film would be a straight-forward description of Mr. Atwater’s embrace of dirty tricks to win campaigns and his deathbed terror at the prospect of having to account in the afterlife for such misdeeds. That was certainly part of the documentary, but the film actually told a much more complex story.

A number of folks from varied backgrounds were interviewed in the film to tell Mr. Atwater’s story—admirers and detractors, Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites. The film interviewed politicians, political operatives, journalists, as well as non-political, unsophisticated average Joes who knew Mr. Atwater in his home state of South Carolina. The famous people interviewed included Robert Novak, Ed Rollins, Mary Matalin, Tucker Eskew, Mike & Kitty Dukakis, Eric Alterman, and Sam Donaldson, among many others.

There were a number of points in the film that I found fascinating. I’ll explore those points in several different blog posts. The first I’ll address is Mr. Atwater’s intimate understanding of Southerners and his exploitation of that knowledge for political purposes.

Many of the interviewees early in the film focused on the significance of Mr. Atwater’s Southern roots. The interviewees made insightful comments about the role of the South in modern politics. They noted that the South was the only part of the United States that had ever been defeated and humiliated in war, and that experience fostered a backlash and resentment against so called “liberal elites.”

The interviewees mentioned the long-held perception that liberal elites think they are very smart and are generally better than Southerners (who are viewed by the liberal elites as being stupid). One white Southern interviewee asserted that liberal elites are biased against white Southerners in the same way that liberal elites accuse white Southerners of being biased against blacks. The film suggested this lingering resentment against liberal elites was well-understood by Mr. Atwater; he exploited it to his candidates’ advantage.

I think this is an important point of which “liberal elites” should take note. I never supported any of Mr. Atwater’s candidates, but this point about “liberal elites” even rang true with me. Throughout my life, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with folks from the Northeast, and have experienced such attitudes first and second hand. Though the title character in Forrest Gump had an intellectual disability, it has often been my impression that many people raised and/or educated in the Northeast believe the character Tom Hanks created is typical of all white Southerners. A while back I read an interview with Stephen Colbert (another native South Carolinian) who pointed out that when he was growing up popular culture always portrayed Southerners as dummies. This prompted Mr. Colbert at an early age to consciously neutralize his own speech to avoid being lumped in with such stereotypes due to his accent. Of course, it is hard for even the most enlightened of human beings to not find such stereotypical portrayals (and the underlying attitudes they betray) to be offensive and downright annoying.

What is even more irksome to many of us, however, is the more subtle attitude that white Southerners are all racists. I am very much aware of the extreme levels of violence that have been directed against African Americans in the South for several centuries. And despite the formal dismantling of Jim Crow several decades ago, I would never assert that racism is ancient history and no longer a problem in the South. I know there has been huge progress, but deep problems certainly still exist. Nonetheless, in my experience, there is currently as much racism in other parts of the country. This is true though folks in other parts of the country often get self-righteous--acting like the South is uniquely racist but places like Newark, Boston and Philadelphia are harmonious examples of racial tolerance.

I try to be open to and tolerant of all of God’s children, but I must confess one demographic that is particularly difficult for me to stomach is white, politically liberal Yankees with an educational pedigree. I struggle against prejudging people in that demographic; at times it is a real challenge. We may vote the same in most general elections, but such people typically have little else in common with me.
And to the extent that such people dominate or appear to dominate the Democratic Party and major media outlets, such an attitude is a real problem. If such institutions are at times even alienating Southern folks like me, they need to recognize that as a very serious problem and address it.

Proverbs 16:18

Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.

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