Friday, April 22, 2011


Restraint is not descriptive of the Southerner (as in "Because the Southerner showed restraint, the Soviet Union of America was founded in 1861"). Southerner and restraint are also not synonymous (as in "Show some restraint. He was only asking you a question. Now you got blood all over his shirt"). Additionally, the Southerner does not typically use the word restraint in everyday language (as in "Restraint yourself, or I'll do it for you").

Southern animosity towards "restraint" laws is perfectly normal. Hearing about it and seeing it, however, result in two completely different perspectives. Years ago, a young boy lost his arm to a shark on a beach in a Southern state. The uncle jumped into the surf, wrestled the shark onto the beach, carved it open with a sizable knife that he happened to have with him, and retrieved his nephew's arm. A friend of mine from California was talking to me over the phone about it, nervously asking if the story was true. I told him "Down here they take care of personal matters like that themselves and then call 911 afterwards. Just to log it in. If they remember."

If you take the Southern position on the War of Northern Aggression into consideration, what makes you think your average Southern gentleman will be fine with the enforcement of seatbelt restraint laws? In my thirteen years of having lived in Tennessee, I have had thousands of conversations with Southern gentlemen about their views on self-restraint vs. governmental restraint. It is literally a daily occurrence, naturally weaving itself into conversation like common use of the word "the." Just two days ago I met with a Southern gentleman at Starbucks and the subject of oppression came up even before our formal greeting was complete. Afterwards I met with another Southern gentleman at a pub, and our meal was guided by the subject of oppression and the means of dealing with it. No matter the differences in conversational nuance, I find many of these topics to naturally sprout from the same seed of a fierce independence unique to the Southern.

Take the seatbelt law, for example. Many of my Southern gentleman friends will tell me they are quite adept (and 99.9% successful) at putting on their own belts to hold up their pants. However, they do it out of self-respect and respect for their neighbor. Seriously. I know this sounds a moralistic way to view the simple topic of a belt, but there is not much you can talk about with a Southern gentleman if it is not bracketed by a framework of manners. I've seen this aspect of the Southern gentlemen replicated so badly by Hollywood that I have interrupted many a movie to protest "That's not what a Georgian looks like" or "That's not the way an Alabamian sounds" or "Are they talking about the South or southern Uzbekistan?" If you denigrate manners or are dismissive of it, chances are you have not met nor will you ever make friends with a true Southern gentleman. 

A Southern gentleman finds it hard and almost absurd to think antithetically about wearing his belt. That is to say, it is foreign to a Southern gentleman to wear his belt because he has been ordered to wear his belt first. If the demand comes first, it undermines the entire concept of self-respect and respect for others. That would be an illusion, a dead letter if ordered under threat of compulsion. I have known many a Southern gentleman to not wear belts or socks on certain days or to show up late to work on certain others or to skip church once every few weeks for no other reason than that they can. This behavior can hardly be called inconsistent. It is the Southern gentleman flexing volition.

I have learned much about Southern culture through many fine Southern gentlemen, three of whom I would like you to meet:

Will Matheny has been my good friend for thirteen years. Hailing from Virginia, Will is fiercely independent (with an emphasis upon "is"). Will is a college graduate of Oxford. Will has worked contractual law in the music industry. Will owned his own newspaper company. Will has run his own eatery. Will owns his own restaurant. Will makes his own recipes (with desserts that have caught the attention of foodies up in NYC). 

Will was also constable of Williamson County (the richest county per capita in the U.S.). Will also sits on his porch and smokes. Will also will down deer from his front porch while he is smoking, processing the deer meat himself and cooking it up in his kitchen. Many a time I have dropped in on Will to find him processing dove sausage, panfrying hamburgers, or simmering venison dip for stew. Many times I have left his kitchen with bloody packages of meat. Gifts.

Will was also one of the first fathers to sign his younger boy up for my school in 2000, keeping him with me for two years. Will also was with me the day my wife and I buried our miscarried child, Francis, out in Maury County (He helped dig the grave). Will also brought countless dinners over to my house when business was slow. My children call him "Uncle Will", and he has paid out of his own pocket for five of my children to have free lunches at their school for four years (He won't hear about us paying for it). 

I have awakened Will as late as midnight and as early as 5:30 A.M. to speak with him about concerns ("Dammit, Robbie, go to sleep."), and yet he still answers the phone, groggily encouraging or chastising me. One time at my school, Will came to pick his boy up and saw two men at the edge of the woods which bordered my school. Will approached them with his hand on the pistol in the back waistband of his pants. The men were nervous as Will approached. They ended up being government surveyors, but Will would have none of it until they proved it. When they did, Will became conversational, took his hand off his gun, and the men relaxed, visibly relieved.

Randy Curtis has been my good friend for about twelve years. He has lived all over the South from Texas to Arizona to, I believe, Kentucky. Randy and I actually met at the weekly lectures of Michael Card (another fine, Southern gentleman) on Main Street in Franklin, Tennessee back in 1997. Randy, an ardent Southerner, would incessantly talk with me about intricate theological issues involving civil government and church structure. We have spent many hours on the phone, at a pub, around town (Haha, one time he ran into my wife and me in downtown Nashville on 21st Avenue, holding up traffic to find out how we were doing and to investigate some theological issue). Every so often, Randy will skip his Baptist church service to come find me at my Presbyterian church. 

Randy was the one who taught me how to prepare a garden for planting potatoes. He hoed the first two rows for me, instructing me the entire time. Then he had me do it while he observed from a lawn chair while drinking beer out of a coffee can, correcting me if I veered from his instructions at all (And he questioned me about my theological views, picking "this" and "that" apart until I needed a beer). Randy has come to my school during lunch to speak with me about his ever-growing concern for our nation. Randy even came to a school campout one night, dominating the conversation around the fire about interesting theological topics. I also remember that in that 28 degree weather (with a windchill), Randy slept away from the fire near the woods without a tent (I think he made a lean-to) where the coyotes were yipping.

Randy has also been concerned about racial reconciliation, being part of a group that met on Wednesdays to discuss such topics. He would occasionally call me up afterwards to talk to me about the topics that came up (He particularly got concerned when the topic of reparations came up). He would always appeal to our model of friendship which was the fact that our families knew each other, he loved my kids like his own, and while we do not share the exact same emphasis upon religious beliefs, he would do anything he could to take care of my family. (Just recently, Randy wore me out with his concern over Rob Bell and his new book. We spoke about it for three hours on a Saturday. Over the phone. In four phone conversations. I finally had to go because I needed to take a soak in the tub and felt inappropriate talking about theology with my clothes off).

Derrick Clifton is a native of Tennessee and one of the most sophisticated, young, Southern gentlemen I know. Derrick has accomplished a ridiculous number of things in his short life from teaching school, to running a boys home, to opening his own restaurant, to working construction, to working security, to opening his own art gallery, to drawing portraits, to many many more jobs then I can recall (I think they professionally number over 35). And he has never been fired from one. 

What has amazed me about Derrick is that for being close to home and close to the heart of the Southern gentleman ideal, he has had many more experiences than people who travel the world and live from hotel room to hotel room. Derrick's catalog of interactions with well-known people are a mile long from his making Rosa Parks laugh until she almost cried (Haha, Rosa wanted to know how an all-black group of men on a hurricane relief trip were treating Derrick, and he told her fine except that they made him sit in the back of the bus) to his bouncing the Bobby Brown for jumping a man in the bathroom at a local concert (Hahaha, when Bobby Brown protested, telling Derrick he couldn't do that, Derrick casually replied "It's my prerogative"). 

Derrick and I have spent dozens of hours talking about the situation of the family and youth. His resume of experience in child psychology trumps most university profs I have met who read textbooks yet have little actual experience. And you know what? Derrick has not been wrong in any of the evaluations he has disclosed to me. Derrick has that uncanny, Southern ability to see things in terms of organic analogies or the "rule of the farm." I have been dismissive a time or two at its simplicity only to recant when a prediction had come startlingly true. Derrick also packs a gun and likes his beer and cigarettes. And he can cook. Extremely hospitable, Derrick has given me, no lie (and I calculate), at least two hundred hours of conversation in just under two years.

My use of the word "Southern gentlemen" is very specific. I am not speaking about a bigot or a stereotypical hillbilly or even someone who is merely oppositional to governmental regulation (though being a Southern gentleman does not preclude you from having a strain of any or all of these). A Southern gentleman is unique in that he finds it absolutely appropriate to pay for his "crime" as a fair exchange for the freedom to exercise his will. That was underscored for me when a well-known, country musician in my area wanted to cut down a few trees to extend his lakehouse. He was forbidden by the government to cut down the trees. He asked the government what the fine was. They told him $10,000 a tree, so he cut down the trees anyway and he also cut a check to the government for the full amount of his violation. 

If you physically harm a Southern gentleman's family, he will shoot you in the face and happily go to jail for it. If you cross the threshold of his property without revealing yourself, he will shoot you (That's what TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED means). Manners is the conduit of diplomacy for the Southern gentleman. If you do not observe manners (and if you do not reciprocate manners), you will surely pay for it. This Southern, Calvinistic custom contains more dread in it than any tactic a terrorist could come up with, for what is more terrible than a volitional breach that carries with it the knowledge that judgment will eventually come? That is pants-wetting, psychological terror with the added burden that you deserve it.

Perhaps, the best way I could put it is that a Southern gentleman reserves the right not only to not wear his seat belt, but he also reserves the right to pay (and even to die) for not wearing his seatbelt. Despite his concern over the "illegal", unjust tax increases, big businesses that squeeze the lifeblood out of generation-long, small businesses, none of my Southern gentlemen friends would have a problem with the following seat belt commercial or the sentiment it conveys.

To Southern gentlemen everywhere. And to seat belts. To life.


  1. Robbie,

    That is quite an accurate analysis of southern culture. I am amazed how you can mix and mingle with so many different kinds of people. I knew I was not crazy when I told some one from up north that there is a code of honor among southerners. Maybe, not a very gracious one and sometimes a short fused one, but it is a distinctive culture.

  2. @Run of the Mill in Pensacola True, my friend!

    @brettmelody Thanks, bro. You know two of these peeps.

  3. I found your Easter tribute to Southern Gentlement and seat belts most educational. I know these men you have introduced via blog but I obviously don't know them as well as you do - and I am appreciative of the additional data that you have shared on each. WIll graduated from Oxford MS. Randy is a gardner. Derrick made Rosa Parks laugh outloud. I realize that your great strength Robbie is not your intellect (which is significant) or your curriculms (innovative) or even your courage (remarkable) to start and steady a school but it is your observations of people and the ability to see the value in them that others might miss.
    I know you grew up in Germany and I in California - so the fascination with all things Southern is not surprising to me. I think your conclusions are correct. There is much to be admired in The South and in the Southern Gentlemen.


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