Playing to the local yokels

We’ve posted about various kinds of condescension to Southerners and Oklahomans (not exactly the same).  Here is another kind, one seemingly more friendly and yet just as ignorant and ridiculous.  Whenever politicians of both parties visit a Southern state to which they are not native to campaign, they try to affect a Southern accent and pretend to Southern folkways!  Thus, when when Mitt Romney visited Southern states for Super Tuesday, he was all “ya’ll” and “grits” (which he called “cheesy grits” instead of “cheese grits”–the funny part is that when they try to sound like they are just like their audience they nearly always get it wrong).  But, again, all politicians do this, as do many regular visitors to these states, as Melinda Henneberger observes:

His hat-tip to “cheesy grits” didn’t win over the locals, some of whom thought he was making fun of them. . . .

And if some of the coverage seemed skewed towards Southerners from central casting, well, as my late friend the New York Times reporter Allen Myerson once wryly observed, “You can never go wrong pandering to the prejudices of your editors.”

With Louisiana yet to vote, on March 24th, and thus more wonder at the diverse region’s quaint and colorful folk ways yet to be expressed, I’m here to tell you how the hog eats the cabbage: The idea that Southerners have any wish to hear politicians from other parts of the country talk like them is silly.

Still, lots of pols who go South do try to go native, with varying degrees of success. Barack Obama, who as everyone knows was born in southern Hawaii, can drop his g’s without any fear of embarrassing himself.

Whereas Hillary Clinton, after all those years as a Yankee in Bubba’s Little Rock, wisely made no further forays into her husband’s patois after that disastrous day in Selma in March of ’07 when she sounded like Scarlett’s Mammy quoting Rev. James Cleveland’s hymm, “I don’t feel noways tired.”

There may be something in the sweet tea, because Rick Santorum’s accent during his victory speech on Tuesday night was a little more deep fried than usual.

And Obama, if you recall, talked about his love of biscuits and grits on the stump in ’08 – oh, but that was in Evansville, Indiana, where they’re not on the menu, so that wasn’t so much pandering as just confused.

In any case, I move that we give all office seekers a pass in this regard, because many of us who aren’t running for anything do the same thing.

via Why Romney’s grits are fried – She the People: – The Washington Post.

Well, I don’t think anyone should give them a pass.  This sort of thing is brazenly fake, condescending, and the flip side of mockery.  It testifies to authenticity and the lack thereof.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.quietedwaters.com Josh

    I agree. I find it distasteful when candidates condescend to affect a local lifestyle for their trip. There is a difference between showing respect for a culture and attempting to mimic those who live in the culture.

  • http://www.quietedwaters.com Josh

    I agree. I find it distasteful when candidates condescend to affect a local lifestyle for their trip. There is a difference between showing respect for a culture and attempting to mimic those who live in the culture.

  • Joe

    I agree too, but I will say it is really easy for me to slip into a southern accent if I spend more than a couple days south of the Mason-Dixon line.

  • Joe

    I agree too, but I will say it is really easy for me to slip into a southern accent if I spend more than a couple days south of the Mason-Dixon line.

  • MRS

    Romney is pandering, too, but cheese grits are eaten all over the south. It’s not like he invented the dish.

  • MRS

    Romney is pandering, too, but cheese grits are eaten all over the south. It’s not like he invented the dish.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    I invite the politicians to come here to New Mexico and try to mimic the distinctive accent of the local native Hispanics (whose ancestors came to New Mexico many generations ago as Spaniards), as well as the code-switching so often heard amongst them.

    Popcorn will be provided.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    I invite the politicians to come here to New Mexico and try to mimic the distinctive accent of the local native Hispanics (whose ancestors came to New Mexico many generations ago as Spaniards), as well as the code-switching so often heard amongst them.

    Popcorn will be provided.

  • formerly just steve

    I’ll echo the sentiment that it’s easy, sometimes, to slip into some accents if I spend any amount of time there. This, however, is not the case with most presidential candidates. As I understand it, they spend very little time in a single location and most of the talking they do is giving speeches or talking to aids. The ease with which some people can slip into and out of these local accents is not only disingenuous and condescending, it’s a little creepy. Then again, it’s a kind of damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation for people like Romney who is already being accused of being out-of-touch. My recommendation, if I were on his team, would be that people are going to use his background, his wealth, his accent against him no matter what he does. He just needs to be consistent. Consistent? Romney? Well, it’s never too late to start.

  • formerly just steve

    I’ll echo the sentiment that it’s easy, sometimes, to slip into some accents if I spend any amount of time there. This, however, is not the case with most presidential candidates. As I understand it, they spend very little time in a single location and most of the talking they do is giving speeches or talking to aids. The ease with which some people can slip into and out of these local accents is not only disingenuous and condescending, it’s a little creepy. Then again, it’s a kind of damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation for people like Romney who is already being accused of being out-of-touch. My recommendation, if I were on his team, would be that people are going to use his background, his wealth, his accent against him no matter what he does. He just needs to be consistent. Consistent? Romney? Well, it’s never too late to start.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    So let me get this right. We’re mocking Romney for saying “cheesy grits” instead of “cheese grits”? Even as Dr. Veith misspells the canonical entry in the Southern Patois Dictionary? Tsk tsk.

    That’s right, folks, it’s “y’all”, not “ya’ll”. “Ya’ll” is a contraction of “ya will”, which sounds more like Northeast jargon, while “y’all” is short for “you all”. Clearly our esteemed host has been living too close to the Mason-Dixon line.

    So should Dr. Veith get a pass, even as he insists Romney shouldn’t? Myself, I’m inclined to file this in my rather voluminous file marked “Oversensitive People in the US”.

    After all, the article did go on to note:

    Or must Americans in Paris leave merci to the locals, for fear of a phoniness faux pas? And when in Rome, should we be sure and have the burger and fries?

    You know what? When I travel abroad, I also attempt to learn as much of the language (or, in the case of English-speaking countries, the lingo) as possible, in addition to trying to eat as much of the local cuisine as I can. Am I a fake too, or does the fact that I’m not a campaigning politician render me exempt from such criticism?

    My mom’s from northeast Arkansas, and whenever she goes home, she sounds a bit more like she’s from there than she usually does back home. Heck, I grew up in Texas (though with about as neutral an accent as one can imagine; no one in Portland can tell I’m from there), and I’ve even found myself picking up a few pronunciation quirks in my travels to Arkansas. Or, for that matter, to the UK.

    Some people are a bit more chameleon-like than others. And I would certainly expect politicians to be the most able to (or at least most wanting to) blend in with a crowd, especially when votes are on the line.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    So let me get this right. We’re mocking Romney for saying “cheesy grits” instead of “cheese grits”? Even as Dr. Veith misspells the canonical entry in the Southern Patois Dictionary? Tsk tsk.

    That’s right, folks, it’s “y’all”, not “ya’ll”. “Ya’ll” is a contraction of “ya will”, which sounds more like Northeast jargon, while “y’all” is short for “you all”. Clearly our esteemed host has been living too close to the Mason-Dixon line.

    So should Dr. Veith get a pass, even as he insists Romney shouldn’t? Myself, I’m inclined to file this in my rather voluminous file marked “Oversensitive People in the US”.

    After all, the article did go on to note:

    Or must Americans in Paris leave merci to the locals, for fear of a phoniness faux pas? And when in Rome, should we be sure and have the burger and fries?

    You know what? When I travel abroad, I also attempt to learn as much of the language (or, in the case of English-speaking countries, the lingo) as possible, in addition to trying to eat as much of the local cuisine as I can. Am I a fake too, or does the fact that I’m not a campaigning politician render me exempt from such criticism?

    My mom’s from northeast Arkansas, and whenever she goes home, she sounds a bit more like she’s from there than she usually does back home. Heck, I grew up in Texas (though with about as neutral an accent as one can imagine; no one in Portland can tell I’m from there), and I’ve even found myself picking up a few pronunciation quirks in my travels to Arkansas. Or, for that matter, to the UK.

    Some people are a bit more chameleon-like than others. And I would certainly expect politicians to be the most able to (or at least most wanting to) blend in with a crowd, especially when votes are on the line.

  • Jon

    I endorse Todd’s post.
    But why is it only the South where politicians feel they have to try to fit in? When they go to New England, do they adopt a Boston accent? Clam Chowdah, anyone? Or do they sound like Michelle Bachmann when they campaign in Minnesota? I haven’t seen it.

    What is is about Dixie that makes these guys speak lovingly about grits and start saying “y’all”?

  • Jon

    I endorse Todd’s post.
    But why is it only the South where politicians feel they have to try to fit in? When they go to New England, do they adopt a Boston accent? Clam Chowdah, anyone? Or do they sound like Michelle Bachmann when they campaign in Minnesota? I haven’t seen it.

    What is is about Dixie that makes these guys speak lovingly about grits and start saying “y’all”?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Jon (@7), you clearly don’t remember the defining moment of John Kerry’s 2004 candidacy, when he ordered a cheesesteak in Philadelphia … with (gasp!) Swiss cheese!

    Clearly, his handlers forgot to tell him to order it “Whiz wit’”. Which is why he lost. You have to know these things when you’re a king, you know.

    Anyhow, it’s not just Southerners who play the parochial game, no.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Jon (@7), you clearly don’t remember the defining moment of John Kerry’s 2004 candidacy, when he ordered a cheesesteak in Philadelphia … with (gasp!) Swiss cheese!

    Clearly, his handlers forgot to tell him to order it “Whiz wit’”. Which is why he lost. You have to know these things when you’re a king, you know.

    Anyhow, it’s not just Southerners who play the parochial game, no.

  • Jon

    @8 True, friend.
    And don’t forget G Ford trying to eat a tamale without first removing the corn husk. But those lapses didn’t involve the language arts, which I meant to make my chief point. Isn’t it only in the South where politicians try to TALK like the local yokels?

  • Jon

    @8 True, friend.
    And don’t forget G Ford trying to eat a tamale without first removing the corn husk. But those lapses didn’t involve the language arts, which I meant to make my chief point. Isn’t it only in the South where politicians try to TALK like the local yokels?

  • Joe

    For many of us in Wisconsin, the defining moment of Kerry’s campaign was when he called Lambeau Field Lambert Field.

  • Joe

    For many of us in Wisconsin, the defining moment of Kerry’s campaign was when he called Lambeau Field Lambert Field.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Jon asked (@9):

    Isn’t it only in the South where politicians try to TALK like the local yokels?

    I don’t know. I’m far from convinced that Romney even tried to do that in this particular case, though I haven’t really looked into the matter too deeply (because it is trivial).

    I mean, what, are we talking about his saying “y’all”? I’m pretty certain that, if any mainland politician considered visiting Hawaii worth his time (they usually don’t), he’d sprinkle words like “aloha” and maybe even “mahalo” into his speech. Because those are real words used by real people there (even though most of them don’t know a whole lot more Hawaiian than that, I’d guess). For all I know, politicians alter their speech in some way or another when visiting any place — whether its with a few choice terms, or altered pronunciation.

    But I also suspect that Southerners are more likely to play up these sorts of things. Well, Southerners and those from the Midwest. Anyone who feels marginalized, legitimately or not. So probably the Rust Belt, as well (maybe that explains Kerry’s cheesesteak brouhaha).

    Or maybe what the South is really trumpeting is its insularity. “Ha ha! He didn’t say the secret code correctly!” Whereas there really isn’t much of a secret code in areas that have lots of people flowing to them — big cities, the West Coast, etc. — since any would-be code is always changing with the population.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Jon asked (@9):

    Isn’t it only in the South where politicians try to TALK like the local yokels?

    I don’t know. I’m far from convinced that Romney even tried to do that in this particular case, though I haven’t really looked into the matter too deeply (because it is trivial).

    I mean, what, are we talking about his saying “y’all”? I’m pretty certain that, if any mainland politician considered visiting Hawaii worth his time (they usually don’t), he’d sprinkle words like “aloha” and maybe even “mahalo” into his speech. Because those are real words used by real people there (even though most of them don’t know a whole lot more Hawaiian than that, I’d guess). For all I know, politicians alter their speech in some way or another when visiting any place — whether its with a few choice terms, or altered pronunciation.

    But I also suspect that Southerners are more likely to play up these sorts of things. Well, Southerners and those from the Midwest. Anyone who feels marginalized, legitimately or not. So probably the Rust Belt, as well (maybe that explains Kerry’s cheesesteak brouhaha).

    Or maybe what the South is really trumpeting is its insularity. “Ha ha! He didn’t say the secret code correctly!” Whereas there really isn’t much of a secret code in areas that have lots of people flowing to them — big cities, the West Coast, etc. — since any would-be code is always changing with the population.

  • Steve Billingsley

    I don’t know. I kind of like the pandering. It provides some needed comic relief in the midst of all the apocalyptic – “most important election of our lifetimes” punditry.

    I prefer that our aspiring political leaders feel the need to pander because it is a reminder that we the people (I know, cue the patriotic music in the background) still hold some of the power in our hands. They can’t just ignore us and pretend we don’t matter (even if sometimes they might like to).

    Of all of the things about politics that make my head want to explode, this is one that isn’t a big deal to me.

  • Steve Billingsley

    I don’t know. I kind of like the pandering. It provides some needed comic relief in the midst of all the apocalyptic – “most important election of our lifetimes” punditry.

    I prefer that our aspiring political leaders feel the need to pander because it is a reminder that we the people (I know, cue the patriotic music in the background) still hold some of the power in our hands. They can’t just ignore us and pretend we don’t matter (even if sometimes they might like to).

    Of all of the things about politics that make my head want to explode, this is one that isn’t a big deal to me.

  • Jon

    @11 Very well put.
    It is, at bottom, a trivial point, yet you’ve aptly summed up my views as well as your own.

  • Jon

    @11 Very well put.
    It is, at bottom, a trivial point, yet you’ve aptly summed up my views as well as your own.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    And I’ll go one further. The reason Romney is getting called out for this is not because the concept of localized pandering is unique to him.

    No, it’s because Romney has been preconceived of as artificial, fake, a robot, etc. In short, he’s getting the Al Gore treatment — from the media, and from the public that consumes it.

    John Kerry got it, too. The media doesn’t have a lot of archetypes to work with, and The Wooden, Stiff, Out-of-Touch Politician is definitely one of their favorites.

    Now, I don’t have a lot of love for Romney the candidate, but I still think it’s true. If Gingrich slipped in a few “youse guys” when traveling up north, or totally botched the pronunciation of “huarache” when campaigning in southern Texas, I doubt he’d get as much attention as Romney’s gaffe has here. It just doesn’t fit the narrative that’s already been written.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    And I’ll go one further. The reason Romney is getting called out for this is not because the concept of localized pandering is unique to him.

    No, it’s because Romney has been preconceived of as artificial, fake, a robot, etc. In short, he’s getting the Al Gore treatment — from the media, and from the public that consumes it.

    John Kerry got it, too. The media doesn’t have a lot of archetypes to work with, and The Wooden, Stiff, Out-of-Touch Politician is definitely one of their favorites.

    Now, I don’t have a lot of love for Romney the candidate, but I still think it’s true. If Gingrich slipped in a few “youse guys” when traveling up north, or totally botched the pronunciation of “huarache” when campaigning in southern Texas, I doubt he’d get as much attention as Romney’s gaffe has here. It just doesn’t fit the narrative that’s already been written.

  • Tom Hering

    I understand the sensitivity of Southerners. They know others hear their speech as proof they’re … unintelligent. As one wag put it, if Einstein had been a Southerner, Roosevelt would never have given the go-ahead for the Manhattan Project. “Y’all just got to have this atom bomb. Hear?” :-D

  • Tom Hering

    I understand the sensitivity of Southerners. They know others hear their speech as proof they’re … unintelligent. As one wag put it, if Einstein had been a Southerner, Roosevelt would never have given the go-ahead for the Manhattan Project. “Y’all just got to have this atom bomb. Hear?” :-D

  • Joe

    I never thought I would quote this movie, but:

    “Honey, just ’cause I talk slow don’t mean I’m stupid.”

    – Jake Perry, Sweet Home Alabama.

  • Joe

    I never thought I would quote this movie, but:

    “Honey, just ’cause I talk slow don’t mean I’m stupid.”

    – Jake Perry, Sweet Home Alabama.

  • Tom Hering

    “We have this strange idea that being Southern makes you authentic and real, down-home, the kind of politician regular folks can relate to.”

    http://prospect.org/article/pawlenty-admits-adopting-phony-southern-accent-says-he-does-it-all-time

  • Tom Hering

    “We have this strange idea that being Southern makes you authentic and real, down-home, the kind of politician regular folks can relate to.”

    http://prospect.org/article/pawlenty-admits-adopting-phony-southern-accent-says-he-does-it-all-time

  • Cincinnatus

    Tom@15: True dat, which is why as a teenager I purposed to stifle my Appalachian accent. I was successful, and I now deeply regret it. I would have to affect my own accent now.

    Anyway, tODD’s observations are well-taken. But I wonder: isn’t there a qualitative distinction between a tourist attempting to master the local idiosyncrasies, trying the local cuisine, mimicking the local lingo (we could include Romney eating grits in this category) and a demagogic mass politician dissimulating to win the affection of a provincial population by literally pretending to be an “authentic” participant in another local culture? There seems to be some intellectual bad faith going on in the second category: I think you Southerners are gullible, so affecting a y’all here and there will be enough to convince you to vote for me.

    And maybe they are that gullible. But that’s not the point; the point is that this isn’t the same thing as tourism, as the neutral attempt to experience another culture. It’s an attempt to bamboozle another culture.

  • Cincinnatus

    Tom@15: True dat, which is why as a teenager I purposed to stifle my Appalachian accent. I was successful, and I now deeply regret it. I would have to affect my own accent now.

    Anyway, tODD’s observations are well-taken. But I wonder: isn’t there a qualitative distinction between a tourist attempting to master the local idiosyncrasies, trying the local cuisine, mimicking the local lingo (we could include Romney eating grits in this category) and a demagogic mass politician dissimulating to win the affection of a provincial population by literally pretending to be an “authentic” participant in another local culture? There seems to be some intellectual bad faith going on in the second category: I think you Southerners are gullible, so affecting a y’all here and there will be enough to convince you to vote for me.

    And maybe they are that gullible. But that’s not the point; the point is that this isn’t the same thing as tourism, as the neutral attempt to experience another culture. It’s an attempt to bamboozle another culture.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Cincinnatus (@18), it all comes down to a question of intent, doesn’t it? Which, of course, we can’t actually know — though I understand it is not exactly en vogue to assume the most benevolent intent when it comes to politicians, much less campaigning ones.

    Still, the question is: Is such a politician “dissimulating”, “bamboozling”, and “pretending”, as you put it? Is he truly trying to fool the people into thinking he’s like them? Or is he merely trying to win them over by speaking their language — in this case, perhaps literally?

    It doesn’t seem all that different to me from the typical banter one hears from a certain kind of rock star in the middle of a concert. (Or, at least, used to hear; parents of toddlers don’t go to as many concerts as they used to.) Even if you’ve never been to such a concert yourself, you’ve likely experienced the the trope, regardless — I think it’s in Spinal Tap, for instance. You know the stuff, “Hello, [name of town]! I love this city! [Pause for cheers] Before the soundcheck, we went over to [local landmark] [pause for cheers]. And then we ate at [locally famous eatery featured on some Food Network show]. Man, they make a mighty fine [celebrated entree]! [Pause for more cheers]“, etc.

    Now, I never mistook this inane chatter as an attempt to fool me into thinking they lived in my town or were otherwise “one of us”. But people nonetheless cheer because they like those places, and it’s cool that the rock star you like also likes them (or claims to), and/or has at least bothered to learn their names. I always took it as an expression of “Your town has a good thing going here”, though how sincere it seems likely depends on how it’s said and what one thinks of one’s own town. It’s pretty easy to convince Portlanders that non-Portlanders think their town is great.

    Anyhow, one could equally put the “bad faith” spin on my brand of tourism, with the French person thinking something like “Who does zees Americain think I am? An idiot? He eez not French! Heez accent is terrible! And zees is not ‘ow you eat French food! Je suis l’insulted!”

    Or one could see it as my simply trying to fit in, making a good-faith effort to learn a little something about the people I’m visiting and, in the process, abasing myself a wee bit — which is, of course, the opposite of thinking a culture is full of gullible morons.

    The upshot being: it seems to come down to what you think of politicians and their motives, in general. While I do tend to be cynical (though not as much as you), I also feel compelled — at least in this instance — to put that aside in favor of the best construction.

    Or maybe it’s just that I don’t want anyone judging me the next time I eat Cheddar grits with Tabasco in the South. Because I legitimately believe them’s good eats.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Cincinnatus (@18), it all comes down to a question of intent, doesn’t it? Which, of course, we can’t actually know — though I understand it is not exactly en vogue to assume the most benevolent intent when it comes to politicians, much less campaigning ones.

    Still, the question is: Is such a politician “dissimulating”, “bamboozling”, and “pretending”, as you put it? Is he truly trying to fool the people into thinking he’s like them? Or is he merely trying to win them over by speaking their language — in this case, perhaps literally?

    It doesn’t seem all that different to me from the typical banter one hears from a certain kind of rock star in the middle of a concert. (Or, at least, used to hear; parents of toddlers don’t go to as many concerts as they used to.) Even if you’ve never been to such a concert yourself, you’ve likely experienced the the trope, regardless — I think it’s in Spinal Tap, for instance. You know the stuff, “Hello, [name of town]! I love this city! [Pause for cheers] Before the soundcheck, we went over to [local landmark] [pause for cheers]. And then we ate at [locally famous eatery featured on some Food Network show]. Man, they make a mighty fine [celebrated entree]! [Pause for more cheers]“, etc.

    Now, I never mistook this inane chatter as an attempt to fool me into thinking they lived in my town or were otherwise “one of us”. But people nonetheless cheer because they like those places, and it’s cool that the rock star you like also likes them (or claims to), and/or has at least bothered to learn their names. I always took it as an expression of “Your town has a good thing going here”, though how sincere it seems likely depends on how it’s said and what one thinks of one’s own town. It’s pretty easy to convince Portlanders that non-Portlanders think their town is great.

    Anyhow, one could equally put the “bad faith” spin on my brand of tourism, with the French person thinking something like “Who does zees Americain think I am? An idiot? He eez not French! Heez accent is terrible! And zees is not ‘ow you eat French food! Je suis l’insulted!”

    Or one could see it as my simply trying to fit in, making a good-faith effort to learn a little something about the people I’m visiting and, in the process, abasing myself a wee bit — which is, of course, the opposite of thinking a culture is full of gullible morons.

    The upshot being: it seems to come down to what you think of politicians and their motives, in general. While I do tend to be cynical (though not as much as you), I also feel compelled — at least in this instance — to put that aside in favor of the best construction.

    Or maybe it’s just that I don’t want anyone judging me the next time I eat Cheddar grits with Tabasco in the South. Because I legitimately believe them’s good eats.


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