Thursday, January 24, 2013
The silence in Mississippi
At first, I attributed this to the fact that I was a Yankee outsider. I wasn't from the South. I couldn't possibly understand what was going on. I had no right to offer any criticism. Or perhaps my involvement in the media made people skittish and fearful. Perhaps they were afraid to tell me what they really thought for fear they might find themselves quoted in the newspaper.
Whatever the reason, there was a profound, noticeable silence.
This type of silence is not unknown to members of a dysfunctional family. Anyone who talks to outsiders about the truth on the ground in such a family is automatically a traitor. I've had a fair bit of experience with that, too. And, as I began to live in Mississippi and meet folks, I was often reminded of that feeling because, let's face it, Mississippi is a dysfunctional state. It's the poorest, fattest, least educated, with the highest number of teen pregnancies, a lot of shameful historical baggage -- everyone knows the deal. Reminding Mississippians of these facts of life is quick way to become highly unpopular.
So, the silence.
In the media. In the newspapers. On the local television news.
During the height of a presidential election, with fierce debates among Democrats and Republicans on all kinds of issues, during the Trayvon Martin shooting, during any number of crises and controversies, there was barely a peep from any Mississippian of my acquaintance about anything at all.
In Mississippi, it's assumed that everyone is firmly on board with the God, Guns and Gays thing. It's a solidly Red state. One doesn't dare talk about gay rights, or abortion rights, or restricting access to machine guns. One doesn't walk around thinking that Obamacare might be good for Mississippi. Our political leaders have set the tone; our job is apparently to follow and not question.
When you browse the local media, you will find mostly conservative, religious voices. You'll find editorial pages padded with press releases from Republican congressmen. You'll even find sermons from preachers in some of the back pages. What you won't find are many dissenting voices or alternative points of view, at least not in the northern part of the state where I live. You won't find Sunya Walls on the WTVA evening news talking about abortion rights. You won't find editorials or columns in the Daily Journal calling for gay rights. What you do find is lots of talk about the weather -- literally -- with healthy doses of crime and high school sports and any possible bit of business news that makes the state of Mississippi look good.
With regard to politics and the issues of the day, there seem to be only one set of "answers" in Mississippi, one set of "truths," and there is little coloring outside the lines, and very few voices willing to speak up and go against the grain. In many ways, it's a Fascist state whose citizens have been frightened into silence, who fear the reprisals that might come of being different or expressing opinions that stray from the party line. I've heard stories about business people with liberal leanings who keep their mouths shut lest they lose their customers or their jobs.
Mississippi is paying the price for this silence. It routinely sends officials down to Jackson and over to Washington who don't seem to have the best interests of the people of the state in mind. There's a reason why Mississippi is the poorest and least educated and whatnot -- and that reason has a lot to do with the elected officials who make decisions that consistently lead to poverty and backwardness.
Case in point: Governor Phil Bryant has made it a priority to shut down the state's one remaining abortion clinic. One of his stated goals is to make abortion a thing of the past in the state of Mississippi. How that will help poor women here escapes most intelligent people.
Bryant has also been publicly musing about not following any new regulations on weapons that might come down from Washington and Congress. How the governor arrived at the conclusion that he is free to disobey federal law also escapes most intelligent people.
Bryant presides over a state that only last year began to require sex education among students. Chew on that for a while, if you will. The state with the highest number of teen pregnancies has just now gotten around to thinking about sex-ed classes for its kids. And because of the conservative, religious voices in the state, the sex-ed that is now provided is either Abstinence Only or Abstinence Plus. These two programs have shown themselves to be all but useless when it comes to driving down the number of teen pregnancies, but there you are.
The Mississippi legislature is currently drafting a "sovereignty law" (House Bill 490) to ensure that the federal government does not infringe on the rights of Mississippians. The last such law was enacted in the 1950s to stop the tide of civil rights. It ended very badly for Mississippi. This new attempt has virtually no hope of succeeding, but there you are.
The state is also determined to block expansion of Medicaid, which is part of the Affordable Care Act, and which would bring in billions of federal dollars to help insure all Mississippians. We are told again and again by the governor on down that Mississippi can't afford it. One suspects the real reason behind this foolishness is the desire by politicians in this state to thumb their noses at Obamacare, the consequences to the people of Mississippi be damned. The governor even told a reporter that "no American" lacks health care insurance.
But there's not much talk in the media here about such things. Occasionally a newspaper will get bold and print a fiery letter to the editor. That's about it.
It's not that all Mississippians are Republican or even religious. Far from it. About 40 percent of the state voted for President Obama in this past election. And 58 percent of voters here rejected the personhood amendment to the state constitution, a stunning defeat for what was considered a done deal.
I have been finding an increasing number of pockets of resistance. The Jackson Free Press does good work. MPB (Mississippi Public Broadcasting) offers much thoughtful commentary, as does the Clarion-Ledger. One can find "left leaning" pages on Facebook where like-minded souls can hang out. I have met many progressive Mississippians on such pages, many activists, many thoughtful commentators.
What's needed, it seems to me, is for the average Mississippian to find his or her voice - and start speaking up. Democracy depends on a healthy exchange of ideas. Issues ought to be debated. Decisions that affect all our lives shouldn't be left to politicians who have their own agendas and who are far too busy thumping their chests and their bibles to much care about what happens on the ground.
Mississippi needs to shrug off the plantation mentality and get with the spirit of the times. We don't need to sit around waiting for word from the Big House about what we can believe and what we can do and how we ought to vote.
In the past, Mississippi politicians valued "strong backs and weak minds," which kept voters right where the politicians wanted them. If Mississippi wants to move ahead, that dynamic has to change.
Yet, in a state where those holding liberal views can be -- and indeed are -- punished if they express those views too loudly, the silence here is not surprising. I've heard of elected officials who lost re-election because they had an extra-marital affair. I heard of a woman serving as alderman for a small town who was voted out after it became known that she was gay. I've heard of businessmen who have lost customers and/or their business because of their support for abortion rights.
In this deeply religious state, with a large church on every corner, one does not question religious belief too openly. One does not campaign for gay rights, or abortion rights. One does not discuss gun control. One does not even, as I discovered for myself, talk too openly about supporting President Obama. You either get with the Gods, Guns and Gays thing, or you keep your trap shut.
That's how Mississippi rolls, apparently. Conformity -- or else. To which I would say: It didn't work in the past, and it won't work now. Not forever. What with Facebook and blogs and instant communication, trying to silence differing points of view is ultimately futile.
Until Mississippi learns that lesson, its talented sons and daughters, including Elvis, Oprah, Jimmy Buffet, Morgan Freeman and so many others, will continue to chase their dreams elsewhere.