Sometimes, the picture that you draw from reading an author’s book is just as compelling as the book itself. In this case, both Chuck Thompson and his book come off as the sort of boy that we all knew at school, but hope like hell that we never were: unpleasant, bellicose, crass, foul-mouthed, grantedly intelligent, but because he knew he was intelligent, this came at a terrible cost. Thompson seems like the know-all boy who was clever but lazy. His book is clever but lazy too. Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Seccession, tries to walk the line between bitterly humorous and smartly analytical, but fails, rather grandly.
The reason for this failure is not so much the argument, although like many modern writers, he has gotten the research process the wrong way round: rather than collecting data and then attempting to build it into a coherent hypothesis or even a theory, he has decided his result before he ever put pen to paper to begin research. This inversion of the scientific method means that even Thompson’s grudging admiration for some of his subjects as individuals cannot sustain his overall premise, which he sticks to assiduously. But in each case, whether talking about religiosity, education, economics, or even – may the gods help us – football, Thompson tends to find only the answers which fit his broad-brush portrayal of the nebulous entity of “Southern culture”.
Of course, Thompson’s research makes some good points, and sometimes he even appears to go out of his way to be fair-minded. Unfortunately, this is often counter-balanced by either needlessly crass ad hominem attacks on southerners or southern institutions, or the sneering voice of the allegedly-superior and enlightened Northerner. Thompson correctly points out the hypocrisy of those who claim their need for “independence from government” while still accepting more Federal Government aid than they contribute in taxes, paid for by the balance of payments to northern states which is reduced. The shaming of of the “Creation Museum” is right and proper, and Thompson’s assessment of educational inequality is also interesting, if limited to only a few specific locations, which we are clearly expected to believe therefore apply to the South as a whole. I don’t know whether they do or not: and nor would anyone else, from reading this book.
In fact, overall, this is not a geographically thorough book, and doesn’t even fulfill the remit promised by the title, in that it doesn’t appear to address the whole of the South. Citations of conditions in each state or major city, for each of the author’s premises, would lend the argument as a whole more weight and credibility. Instead of this, readers are given a series of isolated incidences, and, again, expected to extrapolate. Yes, there are some ideas which have stuck with me: that the poisonous industry of plastic carrier bags, for example, is a product of the industries placed in the South by manufacturers who care more for profit than for worker rights and safety, and are encouraged to locate factories in states that don’t historically support workers, for one. However, an interesting notion like this is countered by the fact that Thompson spends a whole chapter on one of the South’s other religions, the modern-day gladiatorial contest that is college football. Unfortunately for him, I don’t give a monkey’s about football, and I mostly skimmed this chapter, which didn’t seem to help his arguments in the slightest.
The book itself also fails by not carrying through any sort of argument to its logical conclusion. The notion of the value of southern secession, a point made seemingly for its deliberately inflamatory tone, is never really objectively measured. Numbers are tossed around showing the cost of secession in terms of population and GDP, but alternatives to the US losing a third of its population, like driving for the reform which Southerners always claim is just around the corner, or methods for improving the South’s standards of education, tolerance, health, or intellectual honesty are never really considered. This again is part of the danger of deciding your thesis and then going out in search of supporting data, and casting aside anything which doesn’t fit like so much chaff in the wind. Ultimately, this is a fatally flawed endeavor, as the professors and prominent figures who Thompson sought to interview, who in turn refused him, finally demonstrated. Anecdote isn’t evidence. It can point you at trends, but by itself it never yields the whole truth.
Originally reviewed 9 November 2013.
Find your copy of Better of Without ‘Em, available from booksellers around the world, at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).