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Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 1999 /14 Tishrei, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The South and the 'Net -- MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Mike Huckabee, Arkansas' governor, issued the invite some time ago: Would I say a few words to the Southern Governors Conference here about all the wondrous changes the Internet was going to make in the Southern way of life?

Why, sure, Governor. I'd be honored. Especially now that, through the Miracle of Modern Communications, I could make my remarks over a modem, maybe complete with a visual image, direct from little ol'

We-e-ll, no, said the governor. I needed to be here at the Peabody Hotel, with the ducks and all, so we could, you know, visit.

From that moment, I knew that there were some things about the South that the Internet was not going to change. If the mind of the South keeps changing, our manners don't. And I hope they never will. We still want to look folks in the eye, to lay eyes on 'em.

The great challenge with revolutionary changes is to keep them from being too revolutionary.

Where the 'Net is concerned, we want to connect the South like one great big front porch, not replace it with a virtual South.

In my lifetime, the two most transforming innovations of the South have probably been air conditioning and racial integration. Both released untapped energies that we had barely been conscious of before.

And both innovations meant the end of The South as we had known it, and about time. Would anybody want to go back to the bad old days -- the hot bad old days?

The South not only survived, to borrow a line from Faulkner, she prevailed. (Despite the rage for gender-neutral language, in our heart of hearts, every Southe0n%r knows that the proper, very personal pronoun for the South is She.)

I don't believe any two Southerners would define the essence of the South in precisely the same way. And yet I don't believe there's a soul in the South who would deny that there is a Southern essence, whatever that is. It's a fairly metaphysical concept. We may not be able to define it, but we know there is one. We can hear it. We can feel it.

We're talking about at least a couple of different Souths here:

The South is the Natchez Trace, the scenic highway that meanders through forests that may be only a little wider at some points than the Right of Way.

Inns and watering holes and faithful retainers are posted every few miles along the Trace to assure us that the unchanged South is exactly as she seems. Call this the Potemkin South.

The South is also the old highway that parallels the Trace through Mississippi, featuring breakneck curves, honky-tonks alongside Baptist churches, and hand-lettered signs with personal, individualized spellings. Call it Flannery O'Connor's South. This is the South of abandoned drive-in movie theaters, with grass growing through old concrete, uprooting our dreams. And sometimes the new dreams fade before the old ones do.

There are many Souths, not only geographically, but of the mind. Southern hospitality is legend, and sometimes all the Southerner asks is to live by the side of the road and board up the windows to outsiders.

Surely one thing that unites all Southerners is a profound, and somehow sustaining, sense of loss. Nobody captured that sense better in his too brief time than Willie Morris, whose still fresh loss we mourn. A whole generation of expatriate Southerners must have sighed over his classic, "North Toward Home.''

The Internet is just the latest North -- something new and shiny and quite useful, and that we think is going to liberate us. But as soon as we get on it, we yearn for home. For a Southerner is never more conscious of being one than when he's out of the South. And almost the first thing Southerners do, when we get onto the Internet, is to start setting up Web pages like good ol' to visit about politics. (It's not online yet, but it's got the perfect name.)

The Internet may yet prove the wildest interstate in the galaxy, or the sorriest dead-end, two-lane road with a yellow stripe down the middle you've ever seen. My confident prediction: It will prove both, like the Natchez Trace and old U.S. 61 next to it.

Without a doubt, the 'Net appeals to the deeply Southern sense of individualism and eccentricity. At last we can associate only with a few other disembodied identities of our own choosing, instead of having to learn to live with our neighbors.

Or the 'Net could put folks in the smallest towns and the narrowest spots in the road in touch, reinvigorating our equally strong Southern sense of family, friends, community, storytelling, and eternal verbalizing.

Think of it: At last, with the vast capacity of the Internet, we may have discovered a medium finally capable of encompassing the sweep of a single sentence by William Faulkner.

For all its connections, the Internet is fairly simple, compared to the Southern psyche. In the end, whatever the South makes of the Internet, the Internet will never be able to make out the South.

For that kind of analysis, we'll have to depend on people like John Shelton Reed, the De Tocqueville of Dixie over at Chapel Hill, where he presides over the Center for the Study of the American South. And on our writers and musicians and artists and plain people.

Unlike the South, the Internet has no essence, no soul. It's an It, not a She. The death of the computer in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey'' may have been so moving because HAL, we realized, had never lived, but only thought.

In the Internet's case, the medium may be the message, but it's not the sender. Or it better not be. As expansive as this brave new computerized world is, what would it profit the South to gain a world and lose her soul?

It was a pleasure to answer the governors' every question about the influence and effect of the Internet on Southern culture, mores, airs and idiosyncrasies in general. Just as Governor Huckabee had asked me to. Or as Mark Twain said in "Life on the Mississippi,'' "I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn't know."

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©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate