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Published: Saturday, 8/22/2009

Bless your heart, senator, it's just dialect and history colliding

BY JOHN DEEM

LATE last month, Sen. George Voinovich suggested that Southerners were to blame for the Republican Party's problems. As a Southern transplant from Ohio, I felt compelled to drop the senator a note. So, here's what I told him.

Dear Senator Voinovich: Congratulations on your impending retirement, and on your long service to the people of Ohio! I'm guessing you might not be using your home in Florida. I know Florida is the South in geography only, but I figure you have to drive through Dixie to get there. You've seen "Deliverance," right? I bet Arizona is looking good for snow-birding now!

Actually, folks here in the South refer to Ohioans and other Northerners in one of two ways. "Yankees" are visitors from up your way who come down on vacation or to watch NASCAR races or visit battlegrounds from the War of Northern Aggression. "Damn Yankees" never go home.

I fall into the latter category, although I think I'm close to becoming a naturalized Southerner. I lived the first 23 years of my life in Ohio, and the past 23 years in North and South Carolina. As a Carohioan, I speak with some authority. I can deconstruct your diatribe with two words: dialect and history.

Senator, I love the way my neighbors speak. Where else will someone tell you to go "over yonder, mash the button, and cut on the light?" But I'm guessing that if one of your Southern colleagues stuck his head out of the Senate chambers and said, "C'mon y'all. We're fixin' to vote," more than a few Yankees would think, "Who let the lobbyist from Hee-Haw in here?"

One thing I've learned, though, is that there ain't no grammar-meter that's gonna predict intelligence and acumen for no Southerner. And dadgummit, adding syllables to words is an endearing quality. Ah just a-doe-wa shray-imp and grey-its. That's "I just adore shrimp and grits," Senator. And I do.

But here's the thing. Sometimes, dialect and history collide. When non-Southerners see a present-day Southern politician's lips move, sometimes they hear voices from the past. Remember Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms? Both were unrepentant segregationists whose tenures spanned generations. Unfortunately, so did their legacies. These days, any white Republican male with a drawl can conjure up images of the pair.

And when Sen. Jim DeMint (the South Carolina target of your lament) responded to you with a resounding defense of federalism, he sounded a lot like my neighbors who just as resoundingly declare, "The Civil War was not about slavery, it was about states' rights!" Now, I'm pretty sure if you were to stand up and give an impassioned defense of federalism, folks would call you principled. Let a Southern Republican say the same thing and he sounds like a Civil War re-enactor playing Jefferson Davis. Pretty ironic for the party of Lincoln, huh?

One phrase your Southern colleagues are bound to use is, "Bless his [or her] heart." This is a polite way of saying, "Poor thing. He [or she] can't help it." I don't know if you've ever heard any of your Southern friends say it, but Senator Voinovich, bless your heart.

And, hey, a buckeye is a nut, right?

John Deem is a native of Toledo and graduate of the University of Toledo. He lives in Huntersville, N.C., with his wife, Susan, and daughters, Leslie and Mary.



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