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Patricia Cohen's very confusing story in today's Arts section, "Interpreting Some Overlooked Stories From the South," mistakes the more complete stories that young historians such as Jonathan Sokol (author of There Goes My Everything) are beginning to tell for a new and different story. There is no new and different story. There is simply the new testimony of moderate whites who, in Mr Sokol's telling, felt that the enfranchisement of blacks would be their jobs, and in the due course of time. These whites were shocked when blacks "acted up." No, that is not a new story at all.

A more interesting thesis posited in the article is this "The idea that the South is exceptional, a region apart from the rest of the country, is no longer true." I recoiled when I read this - but then I remembered how the sweet-natured carpenter who rebuilt our country house, a New Englander with a clear Down East accent, never listened to anything but country music on his portable radio. Nothing if not the Manhattan elitist, I found this regrettable, and although I never said a word, I'm sure that my distaste was communicated.

To me, country music is not music. It is political statement. It's hymning that I have to listen to. Its ethos is very definitely not my ethos.

So I understand the fervor of secularist Turks who have rioted in Istanbul largely because the wife of the proposed presidential candidate, Abdullah Gul, covers her head. What's the problem, you ask. The problem is that the covered head bristles with a significance that, as with me and country music, is passionately rejected by people who refuse to wear their faith on their sleeve, or anywhere else. Your religion is not my business, and let's keep it that way.

Even though I lived in Houston to seven years, I can't really say whether "the South is exceptional." To me, it always seemed to be. But exceptional to what? The child of an affluent suburb almost as close to New York City as it is possible to be without getting to vote for the mayor, I'm inclined to believe that I'm the exception.



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Perhaps it is the difference between being the exception and being exceptional.

While a born and bred New Yorker (one of the few of more than three generations) and truly regarding myself as an exception to the normative regarding the culture of the United States (if their is such a thing, unattached to the media), I think the South and its strong and compelling regional culture is exceptional still, despite the erosion due to the onslaught of mass media. I do not condone all of what the South stands, or once stood for, but you must admit that it is one of the last truly indentifiable cultural ethos in the USA.

The Northeast is fractioned, and the West lives on as a myth that probably never really existed. The South, however can still see itself through the prism of her writers and the monumental legacy they left her. Even the overly romanticized "Gone With The Wind" has enough kernels of truth to make its strong emotional pull almost permanent in the Southern soul. The more egregious stains on the South's reputation, such as Jim Crow, only served to enhance this sense of difference; alienation from the rest of society being a powerful force on a people to turn inward.

More happliy, perhaps it is romance itself that is the essence of the South; the sleepy dream that kept her alive through the trials of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Depression. Now that the memories of these hard times are more distant, the South can celebrate what is charming about her culture while she deals with the legacy of the less salubrious aspects of her past.

All my life, my connection to Southerners has shown me that they BELIEVE that their culture is distinctly different from the rest of the USA. In many ways, it really is, if only because they believe it to be so. The scar they (rightly or wrongly) proudly wear, inflicted by the Civil War and its aftermath, will never truly fade, it seems; it colors their outlook on life, consciously or unconciously. Their stronger adherence to traditionalism in architecture, design, native foods, music borne of loss and longing and family connections are just some aspects of a deeper sense of what it means to be "from the South". Southerners carry this with them wherever they go; decades in other locales does not erase their culture from their psyche, to say nothing of their speech patterns. Whatever one might feel about this attitude, I would hate to see it go; we would all be the poorer for the loss.

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