Category Archives: Immigration

Is Virginia Now the “Mother of Dictators?”

Dictator_charlie3315 By Peter Galuszka

One of the serious problems in this state that has been called the “Mother of Presidents” is that its electoral process is in many ways anything but a democracy.

In far too many districts, especially rural and suburban ones, gerrymandering and autocratic party diktat mean that the races are utterly non-competitive and devoid of much debate on issues essential for the state’s well-being.

In 2013, for instance, only 12 or 14 of the 100 races for the House of Delegates were actually competitive, according to the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. That’s an odd fact to ponder.

And that is why you get unneeded legislative sessions such as the one starting today to try and sort out Medicaid expansion and a $96 billion, two year budget. My view is that both the expansion and the budget are being held hostage by hard-line social and fiscal conservatives who are unwilling to consider the needs of moderates or even their own constituents, many of whom are receiving Medicaid or who benefit by its expansion. Indeed, polls show that more Virginians are in favor of expanding Medicaid. A broad coalition of activists, Democrats, business executives and moderate Republicans favors it.

For more, check this opinion piece I wrote this Sunday in The Washington Post.

The bottom line is that Virginia is changing but how fast is held in check by engineered voting districts. More people from other states or countries are moving here and that is certain to shake up the old ways of doing business. More millennials are leaving rural areas for cities where there are more jobs and progressive ideas. Eventually, their voices will be heard but not until there’s a level playing field.

According to Leigh Middleditch, a Charlottesville lawyer and Sorenson founder, a crucial task for the Old Dominion is to address redistricting issues. He’s part of the bipartisan Virginia Redistricting Reform Coalition, to bring elections back into balance. As he notes, they’re getting the money and haven’t given themselves six years to complete the job.

I wish them well. If that happens you won’t have a tiny, hard-right cadre representing maybe three percent of the eligible electorate dictating who the candidate is because they only have to worry about a primary in a rigged district.

It’s become “the Virginia Way.”

Journalism’s Death Is Greatly Exaggerated

rachel_maddowBy Peter Galuszka

“Investigative reporting, R.I.P. In-depth reporting is dead. If not dead, it’s comatose. Reeling from declining revenue and eroding profit margins, print media enterprises continue to lay off staff and shrink column inches.”

Err, maybe not. James A. Bacon Jr., meet Rachel Maddow.

The quote comes from advertised “sponsorships” in which an outside entity can help fund reporting and writing on this blog. It’s a morphed form of traditional journalism and there’s nothing wrong with it, provided the funding source is made clear.

But what might be jumping the gun is the sweeping characterization that in-depth reporting is dead. That is precisely the point of Maddow’s monthly column in The Washington Post.

She notes that it was local traffic reporters and others who broke the story about Chris Christie’s finagling with toll booths to punish a political opponent. She shows evidence of other aggressive reporting in Connecticut and in South Carolina, where an intrepid reporter got up early one morning, drive 200 miles to the Atlanta airport and caught then disappeared Gov. Mark Sanford disembarking from an overseas flight to see his Latin American mistress when he had claimed he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Closer to home, it was the Post, which has seen more than 400 newsrooms layoffs over the past years, that broke GiftGate, the worst political scandal in Virginia in recent memory. The rest of the state press popped good stories, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch that has been somewhat reinvigorated despite nearly 10 years of corporate cheerleading and limp coverage under publisher Tom Silvestri. The departure of the disastrous former editor Glenn Proctor, Silvestri’s brainchild, helped a lot as did the sale of the paper by dysfunctional Media General to Warren Buffett.

To be sure, there are sad departures. The Hook, a Charlottesville alternative, did a great job reporting the forced and temporary ouster of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, but it has folded.

Funding, indeed, remains a huge problem, even at Bacon’s Rebellion where we all write pretty much for free. One solution, Maddow notes, happened in a tiny Arkansas town that found it was located over a decaying ExxonMobil fuel pipeline. The community raised funds to help hire more reporters to break through the news.

She suggests: “Whatever your partisan affiliation, or lack thereof, subscribe to your local paper today. It’s an act of civic virtue.”

Hear! Hear!

Where the Poor Are

ram wise countyBy Peter Galuszka

With expanding Medicaid about to become a major issue with the incoming Terry McAuliffe administration, it is curious to see exactly where the poor people in Virginia live. An intriguing New York Times interactive graph provides clues and allows one to draw some rather disturbing conclusions.

The single worst pocket of poverty of 76.7% appears to be in an inner city part of Hampton. Trailing not far behind are inner city parts of Norfolk (67.8%) and Portsmouth (64.9%).

Much-touted RVA is a hotbed for low-income people as defined by individuals making less than $11,945 a year or a family of four making $23,283 a year. Despite all the hoopla you read about Richmond becoming an artsy draw for white, educated millennials, the capital, at least its downtown and east end, is as poor as church mice.

An east end section near Fairfield Avenue is 67.% poor. Manchester south of downtown has rates of 35% and farther south it is 50.7%.

Zip over the mostly white Short Pump area where the fancy stores are in Henrico and poverty is about 2 percent. I tried to look up where Jim Bacon lives but the chart said it was a “low population area” and rates weren’t available. My area in southwestern Chesterfield is about 3 percent.

A cursory scan around the state did not show any poverty rates anywhere close to those of the inner cities of Tidewater or Richmond –certainly not in Northern Virginia although Winchester seemed a little sketchy.

In more rural areas, Halifax County in the dying tobacco and textile belt was high but the surrounding area was low. An area near Lynchburg showed 50 percent levels.

Another curiosity was that once you get to the Southwest, you can see the black hand of coal. The Virginia coalfields are generally just west of U.S. 19. Giles County to the east of it has poverty rates of about 13 %. But cross to the western counties and watch it double (Buchanan 23%; Dickenson, 21.3% and Wise, 25.6%).

What do these counties have in common? A dying coal industry and even dying is a misnomer. One would think that these areas would be swimming in money thanks to black diamonds. Anything but. They’ve been stripped and raped with the wealth flowing elsewhere. This is something to keep in mind when you hear about “The War on Coal.” Turns out the “War on People Living Near Coal Mines” has been going on since the late 19th century.

The Times chart is a wonderful reality check. It should have huge applications as expanding Medicaid is considered. The lesson seems to be that extreme poverty is concentrated in neglected inner city neighborhoods and abused rural areas.

If (God forbid!) poor people start flocking to emergency rooms once they get Medicaid, those emergency rooms are likely to be in large, downtown teaching hospitals like the Virginia Commonwealth University Health Systems and Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. They won’t be in rich, white suburban areas for the simple reason that public transit is lacking. In rural areas, the poor may well have to find rides to take them dozens of miles to find care.

(Hat tip to Scott Elmquist) 

Thank God It’s Over: Seven Election Takeaways

cooch and macBy Peter Galuszka

The awful Virginia gubernatorial contest is over. Utter disaster has been averted with the defeat of strident rightwinger Kenneth Cuccinelli. Here are seven takeaways from Election Day:

1. Winner Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, now gets to deal with a contentious General Assembly where the GOP maintains firm control on the House of Delegates. The state may be stubbornly gridlock prone come January.

2. Amid all the confusion over implementing the Affordable Car Act, McAuliffe must do something for the 400,000 or so needy Virginians who can’t get federal health insurance subsidies. One reason is that Virginia’s conservatives have rejected expanding Medicaid. Good luck to McAuliffe on his coming effort to reverse this.

3. It should be crystal clear from Tuesday’s voting patterns that the Old Dominion has moved beyond the Tea Party craze and their various machinations. Moderate Republicans need to find some backbone and clean out the Tea Party types who manipulated the party convention that got rid of a winnable Bill Bolling and replaced him with losers like Cuccinelli and E.W. Jackson, who got creamed in the lieutenant governor’s race.

4. Once again, suburban and urban Virginians have shown that they hold the keys to power. The Walton family types from the rural hills may be perennially “red,” but they are fading into history much like that television show’s reruns.

5. Soon, we should learn whether Gov. Robert F. McDonnell will be indicted on corruption charges. Richmond’s focus needs to turn to ethics reform and the work of creating real institutions for dealing with these kinds of issues, such as a State Ethics Commission, although I realize this is unlikely.

6. Virginia has a ton of real problems such as the need to create sustainable jobs to wean the state away from an increasingly unreliable federal government sector. Roads remain a huge issue, as does maintaining and improving education, and pushing smarter growth planning policies.

That’s enough for the moment, but there is some good news I need to throw in:

7. Now that Cuccinelli is out of the way, the state won’t have to be sidetracked by the infuriating fringe issues that come along with him, such his climate change denial, assaults on women’s rights, bashing gays and immigrants and tendency to blame the government for everything wrong with the state.

The jury’s still out on a flawed McAuliffe, but let the healing and rebuilding begin.

Sunday Morning Coming Down


With apologies to Kris Kristofferson, this Sunday morning presents a grab bag of interesting morning newspaper stories and positions. To wit:

GiftGate Update, Getting the Stories Straight: According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, Star Scientific boss Jonnie R. Williams Sr. told federal prosecutors he insisted on meeting personally with his then-buddy Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to make sure that McDonnell understood that Williams was lending Maureen McDonnell, the First Lady, $50,000 in 2011.

At the time the McDonnells were having serious debt issues because of some bad investments in vacation property. McDonnell paid back the loan, among to hers, but has consistently claimed he didn’t know about the loan to Maureen. His staff backs the claim in today’s TD story.

The Times-Dispatch also suggests that we’ll learn sometime after the election and before Thanksgiving if there will be federal indictments. Star Scientific has posted news releases saying it is in the clear. The Washington Post has reported that McDonnell’s defense has taken a blow because a judge is allowing prosecutors access to certain emails.

And, with today’s story, you have Williams and McDonnell directly contradicting each other. According to federal law, one doesn’t need a clear-cut, signed sealed and delivered “quo” for an indictment, just an attempt at doing something in exchange for something else. Some people on this blog keep saying “there’s no smoking gun,” which is a hackneyed and confusing phrase. What is the test for a “smoking gun?” It seems as if the feds are moving closer and closer to indictments.

 RTD Won’t Endorse Either Cuccinelli or McAuliffe: That’s even bigger news, showing how the staid old grey lady is changing for the better with Warren Buffett. Had J. Stewart Bryan still been publisher, you can bet they’d be for the Cooch, but maybe too much gay bashing got to the editorial board. It writes: “We find it impossible to endorse any of the 2013 candidates with even a minimal zeal.” The TD even went on a chose Democrat Ralph Northam over whack-job E.W. Jackson, another outrageous social conservative. They did go with Republican Mark Obenshain for attorney general, however.

Pouring Cold Water on the School Reform Craze: When one reads Bacons Rebellion, he or she is confronted with certain premises, Fox News style, that America’s public schools are in absolute shambles that only some weird combination of funding cuts, free market capitalism, terrorizing and shaming teachers and making a MOOC-age of our classrooms can correct.

Spin over to The Washington Post for a book review. The book, “Reign of Error” by Diane Ravitch, an education historian and adviser to both Bush I and Bill Clinton, pushes the idea today’s view that the problems of public schools are greatly exaggerated and solutions are being pushed by self-serving free-market types who want to make a profit somehow by “correcting” the schools.

There are problems, to be sure, but she writes: “The transfer of public funds to private management and the creation of thousands of deregulated, unsupervised, and unaccountable schools have opened the public coffers to profiteering fraud and exploitation by large and small entrepreneurs.”

Important stuff when you consider that some 90 percent of American’s children are in public schools. Only four percent are in charter schools. Come to think of it, Virginia has only five charter schools, which is rather incredible when you consider how much buzz they get in the right-wing echo chamber like this blog.

What “Boomergeddon?” Another common theme among conservatives that shows everything is coming apart is the general downgrade of the U.S. and not just its credit. True we had a hell of a mess this week, but it is wrong to assume that the U.S. is in some kind of death spiral, write Ely Ratner and Thomas Wright in the Post.

As the U.S. continues to recover from a terrific economic disaster, it is still making significant and steady progress. That is, compared to other companies. Anyone remember Jim Bacon’s book? It outlined the emergence of BIC (Brazil, India and China) to show just what chumps we Americans are. Turns out that Brazil’s growth is going from 7 to 1 percent, India’s economy has greatly slowed and China faces slowing growth and big inflation.

Now, that could be the real “War on Coal.” Now I’m not talking about EPA carbon dioxide regs; I’m talking about metallurgical coal exports from southwest Virginia to BIC steel mills. If their economies aren’t booming any more, maybe they aren’t using as much steel and don’t need as much met coal.

Let’s tell Jim Bacon. Anyone got his number?

The Ironies of Tom Clancy

Tomclancy2By Peter Galuszka

The timing is extremely odd, but the death of techno-thriller author Tom Clancy came this week just when federal workers were being furloughed by the hundreds of thousands through Capitol Hill gridlock.

Clancy, who died in Baltimore at 66, did much in the 1980s to makes heroes of the men and women who served the government as military personnel, contractors or intelligence agency operatives and analysts. Technology helped make them great.

It was a substantial cultural transformation. The government had taken some very bad hits during the Vietnam War for wanton killing of civilians and lying to the American people. Nixon ruined trust with Watergate. Jimmy Carter (although an Annapolis graduate) epitomized Washington incompetence.

Then a B-list actor and advertising pitchman named Ronald Reagan made the military and fancy gizmos romantic and desirable again as he pushed one of the largest peacetime defense buildups ever. It was Reagan who helped make Clancy a literary star by praising his first novel, “The Hunt for Red October,” which was loosely based on a Soviet destroyer captain who tried to defect in the Baltic Sea with his ship.

While Clancy’s characters were always simple, shallow and predictable, they were extremely likeable. Thus, he boosted the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region that is heavily dependent upon federal jobs. If you had grown up with the military and lived anywhere around the area, you could easily recognize the scenes: Hampton Boulevard running up to the Naval Base in Norfolk, Pautuxent Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland, the Marine Base and FBI training center at Quantico and, of course, the bucolic setting of the CIA at Langley.

Clancy’s characters were typically stand-up men and women who preferred serving their country to more selfish endeavors like making money, although super hero Jack Ryan apparently made millions on Wall Street before giving it up to become a CIA analyst and global trouble shooter. His sexy and smart wife was a highly-successful eye surgeon.

Many of the characters were Irish Catholics from Baltimore and rooted for the Colts or the Ravens and sometimes the Redskins. You had your occasional token African-American or Japanese-American, in one case an ugly F-15 jet fighter pilot who was a woman.

The bad guys were carbon copies of fascists, commies and cruel-hearted dictators. At the time when his first novels were coming out, I was posted in the Soviet Union as a news correspondent. They made for great and light reading on the long plane rides over.

But once I got to know more about Moscow and other Evil Empire spots, I realized just how goofy Clancy really was. Real Russians didn’t talk the way he set up his dialogue. The timing was also way off. “The Cardinal of the Kremlin”of the 1980s  was based on 1960s master spy Oleg Penkovsky who was executed around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. One hotshot, female CIA operative who got the eye for cheering her son on at a Moscow hockey game was actually based on a real CIA officer who got caught in a much more mundane way by  sloppily leaving secrets near a major rail bridge over the Moscow River.

One problem was that Clancy was stealing examples from years before as the Soviet Union was changing extremely quickly and then crumbling. I always made that connection when I tucked my over-heated Clancy novel away in my bag when I landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and faced the passport and customs control officials of what was really a Third World country (albeit one with rockets).

For that matter, Clancy’s “SOSUS” network  of underwater microphones spanning the Atlantic in the 1980s to listen for Russian submarines had actually been set up in the 1950s.

Even so, technology was the real hero in Clancy’s novels. It was just in time for the 1980s. After stagflation and economic misery, Reagan’s government spending was creating a real Keynesian and defense-based economic boom (leaving a lot of debt, no matter what conservatives say today). Personal computers were starting to overtake mainframes and the Internet was in its infancy. A lot of the gear actually did come from the military and Clancy exploited this like the master reporter he was.

Naturally, the technology was nearly Godlike in its infallibility. It ALWAYS worked regardless whether it was a space-based laser, an underwater sonobuoy or an ultra-fast microburst radio transmitter. American grunts were always brave. Pilots never mistakenly bombed civilians. Clancy’s later work was a lot weaker, involving barely disguised advertising tomes for various parts of the defense machine.

Personally, Clancy did not seem like a nice man. A chubby, near-sighted insurance salesman who lived for years in Maryland’s rural Calvert County, he always seemed to have an inferiority complex that he made up for by shooting off pistols with the FBI or creating admirable military and spy officials that he never could be.

He was perhaps the biggest and best marketer for Virginia and his home state of Maryland. So, it is indeed ironic that the conservatives who adored Clancy and his comic book world likewise hate the very same federal workers and the government that employs them. They are now being punished for Congress’s lack of political skill.

The Cooch and the Pope

popeBy Peter Galuszka

“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” says Pope Francis, leader of the globe’s Roman Catholics, regarding abortion, gays and contraception.

One wonders if Ken Cuccinelli gets the message. Or maybe even Bob McDonnell. The attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate and the sitting governor have worn their stridently conservative Catholic views on their sleeves for years.

Abusing his office, Cuccinelli has taken strong positions to punish homosexuals and make legal abortion much less available. McDonnell likewise has been shutting down women’s health clinics and became a national laughingstock in 2012 for the trans-vaginal fiasco.

Now you have the Church’s new pope signalling a major shift away from these wedge issues that have alienated millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Conservative Catholics have long embraced sexually related issues as a way to hold what they consider an eroding ethical line. But in doing so, they are ignoring equally important issues such as social justice and keeping the church’s thinking medieval.

Francis is a breath of fresh air after his reactionary predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, a strict doctrinaire who forced a policy of exclusivity in the Church that was very harmful. Ditto the rock star Polish Pope.

It is ironic that Francis has ascended not long after Bishop Walter Sullivan, the former head of the Diocese of Richmond, died. From the 1970s until 2002, Sullivan, a Washington native, pushed his liberal views regardless of who was offended in this highly right wing state. He was as against abortion as any Catholic clergyman but he extended the thinking on the sanctity of life to include prisoners on death row, according to recent biography, “The Good Bishop” by veteran author and essayist Phyliss Theroux who lives in Ashland.

I recently reviewed her book for Style Weekly.

Sullivan, who died Dec. 11 at age 84, was incensed that former Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr. took to executions with relish after the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1976. Since then, Virginia has put to death 110 convicts, giving it a rank of No. 2 in the country after Texas. Sullivan drew attention to the issue by attending every execution he could.

In the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was running up the defense budget to best “The Evil Empire,” Sullivan actually told a well-to-do parish heavy with military contractors in Virginia Beach that it was wrong to be associated with the making of nuclear weapons. It sparked outrage and also landed Sullivan on the cover of Rolling Stone.

The current Bishop of Richmond who replaced Sullivan is a traditionalist who has rolled back many of Sullivan’s outreach initiatives to gays, women, convicts and the poor. One wonders how he will respond to the Pope’s vision. The New York Times says the Old Guard will likely pretend Pope Francis did not say what he did.

There may also be an impact on Virginia politics since the key top players tend to be Catholic. Besides Cuccinelli and McDonnell, Terry McAuliffe and Tim Kaine are, although they espouse a much more inclusive version of the faith.

The most strident is Cuccinelli who attended Gonzaga High School, a Jesuit school in D.C. (Full disclosure, I graduated from another Jesuit high school in the D.C. area and hardly share Cuccinelli’s views.)

To some extent, Cuccinelli has toned down the anti-gay rhetoric, but one only has to review his record as attorney general and in the state Senate to see where he stands.

Who knows, maybe he could form a new Catholic church just as some arch-conservative Episcopalians did. In any event, it looks like the Church is at the start of some badly needed changes.

The Cooch’s Freak Show Dream Team

cooch dream teamBy Peter Galuszka

Ken Cuccinelli just can’t keep away from the bizarre, but perhaps that’s what makes him what he is.

He stages a convention instead of a primary to neuter Bill Bolling. And since a convention is smaller, it draws more GOP hard-righters than  June bugs on a humid night and they succeed in getting Bishop E.W. Jackson and Mark Obenshain selected. They underline the social conservatism that turns millions off and makes Virginia the butt of jokes on late night talk shows.

The Bishop is an even bigger gay basher than Cuccinelli and says that Planned Parenthood is responsible for more fatalities among African-Americans than the Ku Klux Klan. This may be new to a Harvard Law graduate, but women of any color have a legal right to an abortion within limits. The U.S. Supreme Court said so. Look under Roe vs. Wade.

Then there is the attorney general candidate Mark Obenshain of the legacy Republican family. He proposed and withdrew legislation to require any woman in Virginia who miscarries a pregnancy to report it to the police. The idea is so repulsive it is beyond words. A woman may have miscarried to her great sorrow due to medical reasons and then would have to go through the added horror of having to report to the police? Yes, this comes from a cabal that otherwise wants to keep the government out of your lives. Even Josef Stalin wouldn’t think of this.

What does the dream team have to say on the many policy issues facing a troubled state? We have a bunch of lame and poorly thought out tax cuts and Cooch playing hardware store populist. Cuccinelli was against McDonnnell’s mammoth road building tax plan and has since backed away from his opposition.

Is this good news for Terry McAuliffe, who has plenty of issues of his own? Yes, I would think. Cuccinelli doesn’t need the fringe hard right voters. He’s already got them in his pocket. He needs the center and Mark and the Bishop aren’t going to be much help there.

It boggles the mind how Virginia is so schizo. It is attracting hundreds of thousands of newcomers who are running the state’s economy and are dragging it into the 21st century world. Yet the Republicans put up people like this who aren’t dragging us to Virginia’s recent dark past but to medieval times.

Global investors might think twice or three times before investing in this freak show.

McAuliffe: Can a Schmoozer Transform?

By Peter Galuszka

On Easter Sunday, I was driving in a cold rain to Charlottesville for a family event. My cell phone started beeping with messages from Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Terry McAuliffe.

He said he was on his way to his own family brunch but wanted to tap me for $5. I got similar messages from two other staffers.

Why bother me at Easter? Political analyst Larry Sabato wondered the same thing. In a tweet that day he complained about finding “11 obnoxious messages for $$$. Now I know the answer to the age old Q; Is nothing sacred?”

And that may be McAuliffe’s biggest problem as he faces arch-conservative Ken Cuccinelli in the off-year governor’s race. In my profile of him in Style Weekly, I note that McAuliffe is trying to rein in an expansive personality that has made him a top political schmoozer and fundraiser for Democrats from Jimmy Carter to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

A decades’ long political operative who has never been in elected office, he can be bombastic and smooth, as his recent dealings with GreenTech Automotive shows. He flirted with Virginia for a hybrid  car plant before going to Mississippi. He has been accused of somehow using the car plant to win special visas for foreign workers and maybe misleading the Virginia Economic Development Partnership about his intentions in the Old Dominion.

Meanwhile, he must overcome some of his misunderstandings of traditional Virginia thinking. However, it’s probably a good thing that he’s going to skip the Shad Planking in Wakefield tonight with its Confederate flags where Cuccinelli will be keynote speaker.

While polls are about 50-50 in the race, McAuliffe’s fundraising prowess has shown brightly. In the first quarter, he raised more than $5 million — more than double the take of Cuccinelli, who has hamstrung by not being allowed raise money during the General Assembly session because of his position as Attorney General. Read on…

(Also, here as a Q&A with McAuliffe)

The “New” Mind of the South

By Peter Galuszka

What is “the South” all about?

It’s a great question about what could fairly be described the most unique, tortured and remote region of the United States. Being “Southern” requires not only a special state of mind, but a special spirit that is, by turns, as alluring as it is odious. It produces lots of consternation among rational thinkers since the Southern cocktail is such a powerful blend of contrasts.

One of the first penetrating examinations of this phenomenon came in 1940 from a Charlotte newspaperman named W.J. Cash. His “Mind of the South” stunned me as I read it in college since I was undergoing my own personal identity crisis about whether I was a Southerner or not (probably not since my parents are from up north). If you want a clear-headed and tough look about white elites playing the race and class card for profits, look no further.

Now comes another book “The New Mind of the South,” (Simon & Schuster) that gives us an update on some of the same ideas. Author Tracy Thompson, a former reporter for the Atlanta Constitution and The Washington Post gives us a nice, likeable read exploring how the Southern conundrum remains despite some profound changes including waves of immigrants and Yankees, suburbanization, the fall of employment in farming and manufacturing and the entire idea that the very adjective of “Southern” is being diluted.

First off, Thompson’s book is not as important as Cash’s work, which was written during Jim Crow, anti-union strife and a year after the gushy romanticism of Hollywood’s “Gone With the Wind.” This doesn’t mean Thompson’s work shouldn’t be read.

Thompson comes from a Georgia and Alabama family and grew up in Atlanta although she spent much of her recent adult life in the D.C. suburbs. That in no way detracts from her acute observations about the region delivered in the gracious charm that Southern women have, save for that sharp stiletto of wit that she can whip out when the mood suits. (When I was a young newspaper reporter in North Carolina and out on the town dating local belles, I was cut many times).

Thompson’s modern South wavers between change and history, all adding up to a memory that won’t go away and perhaps never should. The South never can escape slavery, its violence, its hypocrisy and the War. “The Civil War,” she writes, “is like a mountain range that guards against all roads into the South: you can’t go there without encountering it.”

The epicenter of preserving the memory, naturally, is in Virginia, where the memory organizations are based, such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, nestled in Richmond. The UDC spent the latter half of the 19th Century and the early part of the 20th erecting marble monuments to Confederate soldiers in just about every town south of the Mason-Dixon line. The organization was the way the “South’s ruling white elite,” could “revere the memory of those heroes in grey.”

By extension, this orgy of honor resulted in plenty of nasty stuff, such as a 1913 purge of textbooks in Texas that were considered to be written from too much of a “New England” point of view when it came to the war. There was far worse, stuff, of course, namely lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan, and Thompson presses how such events that occurred near her Georgia childhood home were somehow never mentioned. (As a grade school pupil in West Virginia, I never heard about labor wars against coal barons, either)

Such mythology remains strong today through such groups as the Sons of Confederate veterans, the UDC and even in fourth grade books printed in Connecticut recently that taught children that thousands of slaves fought for the South. Virginia got rid of the books after the error was revealed.

Thompson has some colorful reporting on a UDC event she attended in 2008 in Fredericksburg. Called “Children of the Confederacy,” the program brought together moms and their kids dressed up like Scarlett O’Hara and Ashley Wilkes. She writes:

“On the other side sat a little blond boy of about two, sucking on a sippy cup and wearing a tiny pair of neatly creased Confederate gray flannel trousers, suspenders and a Rebel kepi hat. Before I could ask her where on earth a person went to find a Confederate Army private’s uniform in size 2T, the program started: an invocation, followed by a salute to the Christian flag, a hymn, the Pledge of Allegiance “The Star Spangled Banner,” Of, of course, “Dixie.”’

As part of her youth quest, Thompson also takes us to Asheboro, N.C., a small town in the faltering textile belt. At a strip mall, she meets with about two dozen high school students of Hispanic descent. She asks how many were born in North Carolina. About two third said they were. “How many of you consider yourselves Southerners?” she asked. The group looked confused.

Indeed, North Carolina has the fastest growing immigrant population in the country as foreign-born workers flock to its farm fields and poultry plants among other jobs. This is not a new thing.  My parents lived for years in a small Eastern N.C. town where my dad had a medical practice. They had been there since the 1960s and although outsiders, they were very much a part of the community. Being North Carolina (unlike snooty Richmond), it wasn’t hard being accepted. Starting in the 1980s, so many Hispanic newcomers started coming that the Catholic Church added a Spanish Mass. When Dad died in 2004, his funeral service was said by a priest from Colombia.

North Carolina may be more welcoming but other Southern states are reeling from immigrants calling them “freeloaders, gangbangers and anchor babies,” Thompson writes. Virginia, notably Prince William County and Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli, has dabbled with anti-Hispanic laws requiring citizen checks whenever they are stopped. This was the case in Alabama, which ended up badly embarrassed by the rousting of foreign-looking people. It turned out that the very first person pulled over after the Alabama law went into effect was “a German-born Mercedes-Benz executive,” Thompson writes. The German carmaker, which had been recruited vigorously by Alabama officials, builds Mercedes SUVs at the town of Vance.

The tension between older residents and newer ones isn’t the only question. Thompson takes us to dying towns in the Mississippi Delta that are still thriving in an agricultural sense thanks to massive, two-story-high tractors. People, however, are fleeing, despite attempts to play the tourism card and erect museums to blues musicians.

She gives us a good chapter on her hometown of Atlanta, which had started to boom after World War II when it beat out Birmingham for a huge new airport.  Atlanta has its problems – an overweening inferiority complex, an over-eagerness to please, far too many cars and bad planning and chronic water shortages. But the city is an economic dynamo and does outclass other Southern cities such as Richmond, which could have been more like Atlanta under different, more enlightened leadership.

The author even gives us her thoughts on New Urbanism:

“. . .You could make a case that New Urbanism is not a radical idea at all, but a return to an older and more conservative past. If you think about it, the only significant design difference between a twenty-first century New Urbanist town and the 1930s-era Alabama town of “To Kill A Mockingbird” is the presence of a fiber-optic cable: both are founded on the ideas of neighborhoods where houses have front porches and sit close to the street, where ‘downtown’ is within walking distance and where there is enough commercial variety that only a few demands ever require a car.”

Despite the many changes, Thompson concludes that the “Southern” identity will never slip down the memory hole. She’s written a good book — not as good as the original and she doesn’t mention Cash nearly enough – but very worthwhile.