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Way Down Left In Dixie 

Southern dissenters take risks

CL's Group Senior Editor John Sugg recently wrote about attending an event at the Carter Center in Atlanta celebrating the publishing of a new book of essays, Where We Stand: Voices of Southern Dissent. The following is an excerpt from his article.

Even the title is pretty risky. After all, dissent is endangered in this nation. The authors adapted the name of their book from a 70-year-old epistle by a dozen Southerners called the "Agrarians" who had contributed to a volume titled I'll Take My Stand. That earlier group had aimed to redeem American society, which they felt had been debased and spiritually bankrupted by industrialism.

The Bushite moral impoverishment of the United States prompted the current tome. In the forward, Former President Jimmy Carter declares: "Despite our superpower status, we should not expect to impose our values on others by force of arms. ... We should be known, without equivocation, as the leading champion of freedom, democracy and human rights. ... Extreme inequality is a moral issue. ... Democracy, peace and human rights suffer under such conditions."

I was struck by the down-to-earthness of the book's contributors. Although most were academics of one stripe or another, all wrote with vivid memories of personal experiences. Some occupied posts of trust -- such as UNC Law School Dean Gene Nichol. Others were jes' folks. Connie Curry of Atlanta has fought for justice and rights for half a century and is now focused on the relationship of the South's failing and resegregating schools and the burgeoning prison population -- the "fast track from crib to cell," she told me.

"We are unapologetic, unafraid democrats -- that's with a little "d,'" Paul Gaston, a retired University of Virginia history professor, told the Carter Center audience. "What are we dissenting from? From war. From corporatism. From the widening gap of rich and poor. From the loss of security for the American people."

The writer who touched me the most was Janisse Ray, a native of the pine flatwoods of South Georgia, whose essay has the incendiary title "Beyond Capitalism." In often lyrical prose, she recounts that: "I used to think that if we saved enough wild places, and we change public policy, that we could stop environmental degradation." Realizing that she -- and all common people -- individually are no match for the corporate machine, Ray and her husband moved back to the land and now live "as simply as we can" as farmers.

Ray points out in her essay one of the great deceits of America's power elite: Capitalism is an economic system, "not our political system, which is democracy. ... Global capitalist industrialization is an inherently violent system, since it destroys everything on which it depends. ... Nor does our economic system mean ever- increasing prosperity for all, but for the few."

"The South has more poor people and more political leaders untroubled by it," commented the acerbic Nichol of UNC.

Ah, Dixie. All of the authors brought their message -- whether in the book or in talking -- home to the South. Gaston told the Carter Center audience that the "South is the birthplace to so much that is evil, but also home to so many dreams."

And, Nichol said: "The rest of the country thinks of the South as monolithic, but in my life, I've seen very power- ful strains of a commitment to democracy and equality. Our best selves may be in the minority now, but they won't always be."

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