Alabama Getaway: The Political Imaginary in The Heart of Dixie
by Allen Tullos
The University of Georgia Press
Rating – 6/10
Summary – Allen Tullos offers a solid overview of the problems facing the State of Alabama. However, I am less convinced of his proposed solutions and his snide tone was a turnoff.
Review – Way back in the early-1970s, Neil Young released the songs “Southern Man” (1970) and “Alabama” (1972) deriding the South – and Alabama, in particular – for backward politics. If Young had offered a companion book to go along with his songs, it would have had the tone of Allen Tullos’ Alabama Getaway: The Political Imaginary in the Heart of Dixie. To Tullos – an Alabama native – there’s not much to like about Alabama and he spends almost 300 pages recounting his dislikes in minute detail.
Tullos is particularly scornful of Alabama’s prison system, its politicians, and its treatment of its black citizens. Alabama Getaway recounts the many chances that the state has had to invest in its citizens and raise its standard of living. I think that Tullos has a good grip on what ails Alabama; for years, we have missed opportunities to improve ourselves and join the “New South” states.
While Alabama Getaway offers food for thought, it is a difficult book for me to like for several reasons. Tullos never acknowledges limits to his arguments – or even any uncertainty. For example, Tullos insists that Alabama should tax itself to prosperity. I don’t know that Tullos is wrong, but his argument is debatable. Alabama – after all – has benefitted from its ability to attract industry from higher-tax states. At the very least, Tullos should have included some examples of poor states that have become more competitive by raising taxes for social welfare while increasing the cost of doing business. (For the other side of the tax-your-way-to prosperity argument, see conservative commentator Michael Barone’s comparison of Texas and Michigan from 1970-2010: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903392904576509992605316426.html
Alabama Getaway generally held my interest, even when I disagreed with Tullos or was unconvinced by his arguments. However, the book has some dead spots. The second chapter covers prison reform and is far too long at forty-plus pages. Chapter Seven focuses on Alabama native Condoleeza Rice. The chapter should have been deleted as Rice – who left Alabama before finishing high school – has nothing to do with Alabama’s struggles. But including Rice allows Tullos to slam George W. Bush and company. The chapter is Tullos at his mean-spirited worst. For instance, Tullos says that the Rice family is the sort that “…distanced and distinguished [itself]… from identification with the black majority, as some plantation house servants might distance themselves from field hands… .” This is nasty stuff that damages Tullos’ credibility.
Equally snide is Tullos’ treatment of white, working class Alabamians. When Tullos attends a NASCAR race at Talladega he describes the crowd:
But it seems unlikely that Talladega will cease anytime soon being a place to smoke like a fiend, grill slabs of meat, drink like a fish, get sick as a dog. What would the campground be without rebel yelling, grab-assing, and ogling short-shorts? … A Heart of Dixie the size of a tri-oval, packed with fans of all sizes, plenty of widebodies, overhanging, restless hands digging at nachos and cheese, steak burgers, hot dogs, “American fries,” cans of Bud, tits (p. 276).
For the most part, Tullos ignores these people, which is an opportunity missed. The Democratic Party used to have a monopoly on the white, Southern working class. If only a few of these voters would return to the Democratic fold, Alabama could have all of the programs that Tullos champions. (The abandonment of the Democrats by the white, working class is not limited to Dixie; the day that I started reading Alabama Getaway, The New York Times mentioned that the Democratic Party a) lost the white working class vote 63-33 percent in the 2010 midterm and b) has written these voters off for the 2012 elections – http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/the-future-of-the-obama-coalition/
Politics junkies with an interest in Alabama and the Deep South will enjoy Alabama Getaway. Potential readers should know going in that they are getting one man’s unvarnished opinions about life in The Heart of Dixie.