This week, the leadership of the S.C. General Assembly basically told the S.C. Supreme Court to go to hell.
The specific incident that prompted this reaction is important, but what’s even more important is how this attitude exhibited by the legislature is symptomatic of a larger problem we have in South Carolina. We have an attitude problem.
First the incident this week. Twenty-two years ago, a case was filed in court on behalf of the state’s poorest school districts asking the S.C. Supreme Court to require the legislature to do something to fix their schools. It is known as the Abbeville case.
For 21 years — yes, 21 years — the case worked its way through the courts, and last year the high court ruled in a 3-2 decision on behalf of the school districts. The court said that the legislature had to fix the schools, but justices did not specify how the schools were to be fixed or how quickly the legislature had to act.
So recently, the court ordered that the legislature needed to act and present its plan by January of next year, or 14 months after the court ordered them to act… which elicited the go-to-hell response from the legislature, i.e. House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President Pro-tem Hugh Leatherman. Their response was that they would get around to it in their own sweet time.
When, what and how this specific case will get sorted out, God only knows, but it’s not likely to be any time soon. But the larger problem is this attitude problem of the legislature that is really just a reflection of this same attitude in the state as a whole.
It seems that whenever there is a disagreement about most anything in our state – public or private, politics or sports, a big statewide issue or a minor disagreement in a bar, our default response is the same: Go to hell. (Actually, the more frequent response involves the use of a well-known bit of Anglo-Saxon invective involving sexual activity that doesn’t bear repeating in a family newspaper.)
It seems as if the whole state is on a hair trigger, ready to explode about most anything most any time. This is not just my subjective observation — there is hard data to support it.
For example, we have one of the highest rates of violence of any state; we kill each other more often than most states; we kill our women more often than any state; we beat our children more often than others, etc. And these are not some random acts of violence; statistics show that most often we know the people we attack, beat and kill.
But, beyond the personal, our truculent attitude is also in part historic. It may be only natural to somehow think that this attitude is a product of our recent history — i.e. the trauma of losing the Civil War. This may be part of it, as we in the South are the only people in the country to lose a war (until Vietnam came along). And we didn’t just lose, we were then occupied by the dreaded Yankees.
To many, this occupation by the Yankees, aka the federal government, has continued to this day. We’re sore losers.
But beyond the historic, it’s also cultural. Very large portions of the people of our state have Scotch-Irish roots. We are descendants of that hardy breed who originated in Scotland, moved to the northern part of Ireland (or Ulster) in the 17th and 18th century and then immigrated to America, especially the South, in the 18th and 19th centuries.
One historian described these folks as “quick tempered, restless… probably the most anti-authoritarian culture in America.” Another author entitled his book on these people “Born Fighting.” (Full disclosure, I’m purebred Scotch-Irish and I couldn’t agree more with this characterization.)
But beyond cultural, it’s also familial. While the Upcountry was settled by Scotch-Irish in the late 1700s, the Lowcountry was settled the previous century largely by English. Many were the “second sons” of the British aristocracy.
The oldest son inherited the family title, manor house, land and social position. Many of the second sons who didn’t get much of anything packed up and moved to the Lowcountry, where thanks to the plantation system, the labor of slaves and a good bit of luck, they became very wealthy. Often in only one generation they became famously wealthy — often many times more wealthy that the first sons who stayed in England.
And, what was their attitude toward their first-born brothers? “Go to hell” is a pretty good characterization. And when their older siblings, i.e. the British aristocracy and crown, tried to impose their taxes and government on the colonies, the reaction was the same – Go to hell.
In a sense, we today come by this defiant attitude naturally — it’s a part of our DNA, our history, our culture and our personality.
But, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good. Other regions of the county and ethnic cultures have different values and attitudes that seem to enable them to work together in civility and community to develop a consensus about what is best for all.
Maybe, occasionally, we in South Carolina should try to begin a discussion where we disagree with something a little more flexibly than “Go to hell.”
We should try it. Maybe things would turn out a little better for all of us.
Phil Noble is a businessman in in Charleston and president of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley. Email him at email@example.com.