By Joe Klein
September 26, 2014

Tuscaloosa, Alabama

“The first two questions people ask you when you move here,” said Angela Billings, “Where you from? And, you need a church?” Angela’s husband, Andy–the Ronald Reagan Professor of Communications at the University of Alabama–was the auteur of the town meeting and it was a spectacularly confusing group. Almost all were associated with the Communications Department, 3 professors and spouses, plus four students. There was also an accounting professor and a library sciences professor, a librarian, a doctor and two nurses. All of the grownups belonged to churches, except for one wiseguy who described himself as a lapsed unitarian.

Angela had been talking about what it was like to live in Alabama, a conversation that was inevitable when northerners dropped by. She and Andy were from rural Indiana and, she said, “I just love the southern culture. People–your neighbors–are really all over you. Your church is a big deal; it’s the center of your community.”

Jill Grogg, the librarian, said she wasn’t a very religious person, “but I joined because where else do you bring the casserole when you have a tornado?”

The students were more secular. Kalyn Lee, who is black, and Ben Ramos, who second generation Mexican American, were lapsing their childhood faiths. “I’m all churched out,” said Kalyn, who came from Birmingham, where the black church has a storied civil rights history. Alicia Cohen, a Latina who was adopted, has been exploring a Hispanic church. Brielle Appelbaum was proudly Jewish.

They were all very nice. Too nice, at first. We talked about race. The schools were thoroughly segregated, even the integrated ones. Stephanie and Peter Johnson were an interracial couple. They were Mormons and had three children. “It’s not easy for them,” Stephanie said. Ben Ramos affirmed that. “When I got to high school, it was the whites eating with whites and the blacks eating with blacks. There were three others who didn’t fit. Those were my friends.”

There was a passivity in the face of this restrictive atmosphere (which isn’t all that different in the north, in the few integrated schools we have). No one had any proposals to shake things up. So I turned to other issues. Not much action there, either. Two of the students, Kalyn and Brielle, began to talk about the need to have more politicians who looked like them. “It’s important that we see women holding important positions,” Kalyn said.

“Well, we have come a long way,” said Pete Johnson, Stephanie’s black husband, the accounting professor. “You can’t just dismiss the progress of the past 40 years. Not so long, only 10% of accounting students were women. Now it’s 51%”

“It’s not happening fast enough,” said Kalyn, who seemed to be getting upset with the older generation.

Brielle was frustrated, too. I asked if there were issues other than questions of “identity” that interested them. “Immigration? Foreign Policy?”

Brielle shrugged me off. “We’re not just talking about identity questions. There are issues, like abortion, that are totally related.Who gets to control my body is pretty important to me.”

And now, finally the group was engaged. Abortion was the subject. When did life begin? What about those amazing 3-d sonograms? How could you deny the life there? The conversation was mostly civil; the pro-life forces were not shouting murder! The points were nuanced…but the argument didn’t go anywhere. No minds were changed or even dented a little bit.

Finally, Jeremy Butler–the lapsed unitarian and a communications professor specializing in television said, “You know, people are just exhausted from all these crises. And all the things being said about them, and the way people talk about them. I grew up an activist, civil rights in high school, against the war in college and I’ve always kept at it. I used to love battling out the issues, but not anymore. I’m utterly exhausted by politics. Nothing comes of it. So I’ve just shut down.”

Each of the older folks began nodding their heads vehemently in agreement. “Who has time for it?” said Jill, the librarian. “I’m focused on my kids and my work. I’m trying to cook some dinners so we don’t wind up a Chick-fil-A six nights a week.”

“And nothing happens anyway,” said her husband, Jeff Weddle. “Nothing seems to get accomplished.”

This is an essential truth, ramifying and growing deeper across America. The economic and social revolutions that made it necessary and desirable for women to work, and made it hard for a male factory worker to support a family have blistered our democracy. The choices people make are, in the end, rational: sports with the kids, church on Sunday was a respite, a time to talk with friends–but it was much easier to talk about ‘Bama football, because at least you had an up or down result each week. (Almost always up, in ‘Bama’s case). It was a shame what was happening in the country politically. But what could anyone do about it? I don’t doubt that the vast majority of people feel like this; it was fairly surprisingly to find it in academia, that den of intellectual iniquity, though.

Today’s playlist:

The South was tugging hard at my iPod as I moved on from Alabama to Mississippi:

1. Master Sold my Baby –by Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears

2. I’m A Nothin’ Man–R.L. Burnside

3. Mahalia–Carolina Chocolate Drops

4. Southern Gurl–by Erykah Badu

5. Back to Tupelo–an Elvis song by Mark Knopfler

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