Jewish World Review Jan. 13, 2004 / 19 Teves 5764

Paul Greenberg

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The secret of the South: Altitude is attitude | One of our many rural legislators here in Arkansas came by the office the other day to tell me how the cow ate the cabbage and who's in the catbird seat.

Technically, the subject was education. That's the big issue around here these days, since the state is under a court order to reform its public school system. And the gist of his message was that legislators out in the state aren't about to let the governor consolidate any of the 308 - count 'em, three hundred and eight - in this one small state.

Merge some of these small, inefficient and inadequate high schools scattered all around Arkansas? It ain't gonna happen, this ardent Democrat told me. And he assured me he was speaking for Republican legislators, too, even if the governor himself, Mike Huckabee, is a Republican.

A master of country speech, and something of a political scholar, my visitor was tellin' it with the bark off: Politics in Arkansas, he explained, isn't determined by party but by geography, history and ethnicity. Didn't I know that?

He might as well have asked if I realized the sky was blue.

Geography, history and ethnicity. Not to mention altitude. The simplest measure of Southernness itself is mean elevation above sea level. The lower the altitude, the more Southern. That is, the richer the soil, the more suitable for staple crops and slave labor, and therefore the more plantations and wannabe aristocrats. That's the historical recipe for producing an Old South.

Even now, the more black folks and black soil, the more Southern. Which explains why, in Arkansas, as in the rest of the South, that's where you'll find the Democrats - down low.

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The higher the altitude, the more freeholders and Scotch-Irish and individualism in general. Hence, the more Republicans. To quote the Roman maxim: In the mountains, freedom. (Isn't the state motto of West Virginia something like that?) Yep, it's all a matter of geography, history and ethnicity. Altitude is attitude.

Just about every morning I drive down Cantrell Hill here in Little Rock from my neighborhood in the North to my office in the South, from the Heights to the River. The air, the manners, the people, even the trees seem to change in those few miles - from pines on hillsides to hardwoods in the lowlands.

If you want to get really Southern, just keep on driving South until you cross The River and rest under the shade of the trees at Greenville, Mississippi.

My visitor understood. He himself was born on a watershed in the Ozarks between the hills and the riverbed. Why, he had three great-grandfathers all buried in the same Ozark cemetery, he told me proudly, all of them Confederate veterans, and when it comes to this school consolidation business, his people aren't about to . . . .

Wa-i-i-t a minute. I had to interrupt my visitor at that point. Three great-grandfathers? Don't all of us get four? What happened to the fourth?

For the first time my talkative visitor grew silent. Finally he fessed up: The fourth was born just across the Missouri line and had fought in, well, the Union Army. An embarrassed silence descended.

I understood. I hadn't meant to shame him. When I was courting my wife long ago, at a time a lot closer to The War, her family proudly told me about a great-grandfather who'd been a color sergeant in the Civil War.

Only after the wedding did I discover he'd been a color sergeant in the Union Army - a German immigrant in the 1850s out of gemutlich Cincinnati, where the beer and symphonic music are still pretty good.

My visitor and I had something in common after all - skeletons in the family closet. Clad in Union blue.

Happily, I'd come to work that morning in suspenders - excuse me, galluses - which allowed me to snap 'em from time to time at strategic moments in the conversation, just to let my visitor know I was folks.

Soon my new friend and I were swapping stories and even finding common ground, to wit:

We both agreed that this state's Department of Education was about as useful as teats on a boar hog.

But my new friend and I were still a country mile apart on the best way to assure that all the kids in those tiny school districts got every opportunity for a decent chance in life.

But at least we were talking the same language. It's called Suthuhn.

It occurs to me that if the governor and some of these country legislators would just sit down and chew the fat for a while at the nearest Dew Drop Inn, they could work something out.

It might help if the Guv would get hisself a pair of galluses . . . .

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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