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I confess that Dixie has not been much on my mind these last two weeks.  The games of the 30th Olympiad have taken what little attention I have to spare.

I geek out over the Olympics.  Being from the South, I’m a sucker for elaborate productions of grand sentiment and triumphant nationalism; when said productions also involve physical dominance, how can a good ol’ boy resist?

I am tugged by my own personal history with the Olympics, too: I remember watching the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid at the same time that I watched a rare snow fall on my North Carolina home.  I ran back and forth from the TV to the window, giddy with the growing realization that not only were we going to beat those Godless Commie Russkies, but we weren’t going to school the next day, either.

Then the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics came about a week after my family had moved from my hometown to a new one on the other side of the state, where I almost got into a fight my first day in town.  Staying inside and watching every minute of the overproduced, red-white-and-blue broadcast seemed the safer option, at least in the short term.  I was young enough to be only vaguely aware that Carl Lewis was a massive tool; it made me much more vulnerable to the hype machine, but it also let me appreciate the magnificence of what he accomplished in the L.A. Coliseum, without being distracted by the full knowledge that he was, you know, a massive tool.

Centennial Park in Atlanta

In retrospect, I should have figured out a way to make it to Atlanta for Dixie’s only Olympic Games, even though in 1996 I had neither money nor a reliable car.  I should have bummed a ride, hitchhiked, crawled, since, given how it turned out, I doubt the Olympics will ever be so close again.  The media covering the games complained about the heat and humidity (apparently surprised that the American South swelters in late summer), as well as the shortcomings of MARTA (though Charles Pierce wrote recently on Grantland that he went to the Atlanta Olympics “as a fan and had a great time,” adding, “Most of the people who covered those Games consider them one of the great train wrecks in the history of the Olympics. There is a greater distance between reporters and spectators than I thought there was.”).

And then one of our homegrown whack jobs decided that blowing up the Olympics would be a good way to . . . what, exactly, I don’t remember.  He wasn’t crazy about women’s reproductive rights, damn furriners, the modern world?  I remember that he had bombed some Birmingham women’s health clinics before the Games, and I can’t forget that he hid for years in the southwest corner of my state, in the deep Appalachians where the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee meet.  I remember that the media wrongly identified a security guard named Richard Jewell as some kind of lead suspect, which he wasn’t, but they hounded him into reclusion and lawsuitsanyway.  He was a big ol’ round-bellied hoss, more than a bit of a Bubba, and it was almost as if he was offered up as a sacrifice, a man who looked like the worst and most convenient stereotypes of Southern manhood, because such a man makes an unprovocative scapegoat.  It was almost as if Richard Jewell was dragged into service as a global exculpation of the South’s old sins, in order to hide the new, darker version of those sins, as represented by the actual bomber, whose militancy was far worse than the Bubbas’ old lazy ignorance and casual hate.  A man like Richard Jewell is easier to confront, condemn, and punish than the far more disturbing Eric Rudolph.

——-

I geek out over the Olympics every four years.  I geek out over London every four months or so, so imagine my geek singularity now that the two have converged.  London is the only place outside the South I’ve ever lived or ever would live.  London bursts with the spoils of a thousand years as a city, a capital, a seat of great empire; it manages to be sprawling and dense at the same time.  Within a week of my first arrival I went to Westminster Abbey.  They charge a small fee to tour beyond a certain point; when I stopped to pay, and looked down at my wallet, I noticed that I was standing on the gravestone of Charles Darwin.  I jumped a little, not used to trampling on the resting place of a man who changed the world.  The kindly old man waiting to take my money looked at me with that paradoxical patient exasperation that Londoners so often feel for Americans tourists, as if to say, “Yes, Charles Darwin.  Isaac Newton’s rotting over there.  Now, then, that’d be two pounds, please.”

Londoners tend to be polite, blissfully reticent, sarcastic, cranky, pessimistic but indomitable, and orderly.  No wonder I could live there.  And, four hundred years ago, Londoners led the founding of what would be the United States of America in what would be the American South.  Many English had tried to gain a foothold in North America; the Virginia Company of London succeeded at Jamestown, if barely, and at great cost.  The English who invested in the Virginia colony – either with their money or their person – were called adventurers, and the name fits.  They were hierarchical, more medieval than modern in most of the salient ways, but even their aristocrats were bumptious with the aggressive energy and vulgar vitality of a restless and growing nation, just starting to assert itself in the wider world.  They were vigorous and ambitious, grasping and brutal; their heroes were Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, whom other nations called pirates.  As much as America wants to see itself as a “city on a hill,” imbued with divine purpose, the nation irrevocably began at Jamestown, a purely commercial enterprise founded and backed by a corporation.

Jamestown, VA

These pushing English, transplanted to the Virginia tidewater, set the template that the country – and especially the South – would adapt, revise, remake, but always refer to, down through the centuries.  The timeline of the South can be traced, though faint and twisting, back to London.

So even if I haven’t watched the Braves these last two weeks, or pondered on the ruins of tobacco sheds, or speculated on the Democrats’ convening in Charlotte and all that it could mean, or even worried much about the coming college football season, Dixie may have been on my mind more than I thought.

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Lord, how my rational, progressive mind wants to hate the Masters.

But my hidebound, history-laden heart does love it so.

The players who made the cut are out on the course, the sun is shining over Augusta National, and soon Jim Nantz once again will manage to gush while whispering, rhapsodizing pine trees and azaleas and “a tradition unlike any other” into a right vision of heaven.1

Nantz has been doing his thing over at CBS for so long that we now have a parallel Masters-week tradition of pre-emptive anti-Nantz narrative, pinpricking the pompous reverence Augusta National demands of those who would broadcast their one public event.

Augusta National and the Masters are easy to prick, impossible (so far) to puncture: a bunch of (extremely) rich, (mostly) old, (almost entirely) white guys in ugly blazers hanging out in their own gated He-Man Woman-Haters Club (as far as we know) whose clubhouse was once an antebellum “big house” on a Georgia rice plantation.  They couldn’t make themselves an easier target, short of burning a cross on Magnolia Drive.

The volume’s been turned up a notch this year, thanks to Ginni Rometti’s ascension at IBM, a long-time tournament sponsor whose CEO traditionally becomes an honorary member, as well as the general fat-cats-bad unrest in the nation.

Not surprisingly, Grantland offers a couple of creative takes to the annual pile-on.  Wright Thompson leaves Augusta National in search of James Brown’s Augusta, exploring “the Terry,” the rough neighborhood where Brown grew up (in his aunt’s brothel).

At a greater remove, Brian Phillips compares the Masters to Mad Men, both selling “poisonous nostalgia” for a gone America we’re better off without.

Phillips’s critique of the Masters mystique is interesting: “the Masters is essentially Mad Men, season 51,” he writes, and he imagines an octogenarian Don Draper musing, “The golf course made sense.  The careful plan of the fairways, the pimento cheese sandwiches2, the creek.  This was order, civilization, tradition.  A place where a man commanded respect.  The kids would never understand this.”

The crux of Phillips’s argument is a question he asks about the tournament, but that applies equally to the TV show: “Why is something so clearly redolent of a past no one seriously wants to go back to capable of inspiring so much goofy affection?”

Let’s admit, first of all, that there are among us troglodytes who do, in fact, “seriously” want to go back to that past, part and parcel, and have long since been seduced by Augusta National’s vision of a world where the gals and the blacks are kept firmly in their places.3

Leaving those asshats out of the discussion, let’s now admit that the Masters inspires “so much goofy affection” in many of us because, apart from the regular occurrence of breathtakingly great golf, Augusta National thinks to wrap their sandwiches in green paper.

I’m serious.  Quit looking at me like that.

Please understand that in order to pass through the gates of Augusta National, you first have to pass along Washington Road, passing the pay-day check cashers, the Hooters, the TGI Friday’s.  Washington Road is the vomit of late 20th-century sprawl, all fast food and quickie marts.  If Augusta National is the last bastion of the “clubby, genteel” postwar America4 that otherwise died off in the early 1970s, then Washington Road is the apotheosis of what most of the rest of America has become: cheaply built and mass produced; baldly, anonymously commercial; disposable and impermanent and tacky.  It’s a four-lane insult to the American citizen, a congested, spluttering scoff at any notion of democratic taste or intelligence.

On the other side of those gates, though, someone thought to wrap those concession sandwiches in green paper, so that if a wrapper doesn’t make it to the proper receptacle, it won’t wander glaringly white or silver across the fairways in front of the TV cameras.  On the other side of the gates, the visitors who’ve paid (or finagled) their way in to see the tournament are patrons, not fans; they hold badges, not tickets; they abide by the strictest code of conduct this side of a Richmond cotillion.

You can call this as stuffy as Roger Sterling’s three-piece suits, as fussy as Pete Campbell’s tie clips, but there’s a reason why official Mad Men collections and clearly Mad Men-inspired designs are showing up in shopping malls across the country.  You can regret how Augusta National’s concern for aesthetic veers hard right into the unfortunate (all caddies, each of whom is a highly paid professional, must wear matching white jumpsuits and green Masters caps during the tournament), while appreciating the appeal of its effect.

The particular draw of the Masters and Augusta National isn’t always aspirational or exclusionary in nature and essence.  The draw is not some idea of an older, more hierarchical civilization, but an old civility, in which attention is paid to the little things, to appearances, and through which all – not just old, rich, white men – inherently are shown respect.  For some of us, the four days of the Masters isn’t a trip back to the “good old days” of discrimination and patriarchy; it’s a respite from the hollow, soul-leeching, offensive postmodernity of Washington Road.

1 In all fairness to Nantz, have you seen the course at Augusta National?  I mean, damn, y’all.
2 Which really are delicious, by the way.
3 What’s especially funny about these morons is that they never quite grasp that in that past they long for, they and theirs were kept firmly in their place, as well.  Idiots.
4 I don’t know that “postwar” America is what Augusta National’s going for.  If it is, it’s for a version of postwar America that was itself going for an imagined version of pre-Depression, post-Reconstruction America that saw the rise of the first and second of the four New Souths, in which textile and tobacco barons, bankers, and professional men were riding the crest of a new prosperity (Augusta National opened in 1933).  That era was, in many of its ways, going for the look and feel and codes of an imagined antebellum culture of moonlight and magnolias and mint juleps, which was itself – insofar as it ever existed at all – going for what it knew of the earlier plantation culture of the Low Country and the Virginia Tidewater, which was in turn trying to replicate a late-medieval European society that never really was, in the first place.  Thank you for entering the Dixie Babble Hall of Mirrors; we hope you enjoyed your trip.

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On the eve of a Final Four with no NC team playing (long sigh), it’s good to know that fans in a border state can act every bit as dumb and rednecky as those of us further south.

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Chipper Jones announced yesterday that this season will be his last in Major League Baseball.

It’s more than a little sad for me – not because I’m such a big fan of Larry Jones, Jr. (I’m still not entirely sure about a grown man going by the name “Chipper” because he was a “chip off the old block”), but because he and I are the same age, and I distinctly remember the hype that accompanied his rookie season, and even though we’ve known for a couple of years that the time for him to hang ’em up was fast approaching, if now is in fact the time for him to hang ’em up, then that makes a statement as uncomfortable as my own aching knees and graying hair.

Did Chipper never get his just due because he played in Atlanta?  Would he be talked about more as one of the great players of his generation if Ted Turner, the Mouth of the South, still owned the Braves?  Was it because he only has that one World Series ring, from way back in his rookie season, that most baseball fans aren’t aware of how spectacular his numbers have been?

Going into the 2012 season, Jones has a lifetime .304 average, with 454 home runs, 526 doubles, 1,455 walks, a .402 on-base percentage and a .533 slugging percentage.  The only other players with those kinds of career numbers?  Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, and Ted Williams.  Note that two of those guys have had movies made about them.  (And Teddy Ballgame should, if they could ever find someone awesome enough to play him.)

Since the mid-1990s, Chipper has been the South’s iconic baseball player, and he played the role about as well as he played the game.

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The sports editor of my college newspaper used to say that Furman Bisher had the best job in sports.  As sportswriter and then columnist for what’s now the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bisher’s local beat included ACC basketball, SEC football, the Masters, and NASCAR – in other words, the best the sports world has to offer, at least to unreconstructed Southerners.  That’s not to mention Major League Baseball, the NFL, and the NBA.

Bisher died Sunday at the age of 93.  He retired in 2009, after 59 years covering sports in Atlanta, though he’d planned to go to Augusta in a few weeks for the Masters.

He was a North Carolina native who first made his name in 1949, when he managed to get the first (and, it turned out, last) interview with ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson since the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  He was an eyewitness to the birth of NASCAR, and respected it as a sport when most sportswriters thought it was just bootleggers turning left (most sportswriters still do, they just don’t admit it now).  He helped bring the Braves to Atlanta, and co-wrote Hank Aaron’s first autobiography.

Half of those living just west of the Georgia line, though, did not care for Bisher, at least after he went after the Bear in a 1962 essay for the Saturday Evening Post, accusing Bryant of bringing a “new hell-for-leather, helmet-bursting, gang-tackling game” to the SEC.  Bisher wrote, “College football appears to have gone absolutely silly on ‘hitting,’ even at the expense of clever execution.  A new term, ‘hard-nosed,’ is about as common in the conversation of football savants as punting, passing, and praying.”  He did not mean that, I should add, as a compliment.

Bisher was implicated in the later Saturday Evening Post story accusing Bryant and University of Georgia athletic director Wally Butts of conspiring to fix a game, implications that Bisher always denied.  The subsequent libel lawsuits by Bryant and Butts helped lead to the Post‘s demise.

Lay aside the question of whether Bisher’s indictment of “brutal” football was prescient, given football’s current crisis over concussions; or disingenuous, given how brutal a game tackle football has always been; consider, instead, how much of the South’s late-20th century history is on the sidelines of Bisher’s Post column.  When he wrote it, Georgia Tech was an SEC football powerhouse that had a fierce rivalry with Alabama, a reflection of the rivalry between Atlanta and Birmingham to be the “capital city of the South.”  By the end of the decade, Tech had left the SEC, and Bryant had won two national championships (to go with the one he’d already claimed in 1961, and the three more he’d win before retiring) – but Atlanta had the Braves, and the boom, and its “city too busy to hate” image, while Birmingham had the bitter aftertaste of Bull Connor and “Bombingham.”

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine Alabama fans getting worked up over Georgia Tech like they do over LSU or Tennessee, much less Auburn.  It’s even harder to imagine another city in the South rivaling Atlanta as a center of population or influence.  The roads that led us here forked back in the 60s, though, and Bisher – even if he “only” wrote about sports – was one of those who chronicled the divergence.

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