Long before he became Disney’s go-to guy for movie music, including Toy Story‘s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” Randy Newman was famous, or infamous, for writing scathingly satirical songs like “Sail Away,” whose majestic opening piano chords sound like a patriotic hymn until you get to song’s subject matter: he’s singing from the point of view of a slave trader, beckoning Africans to slavery in America:
In America you’ll get food to eat
Won’t have to run through the jungle
And scuff up your feet
You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It’s great to be an American
Ouch. At his best, Newman’s music is sometimes a punch in the gut. His narrators often assume the unblinking, first-person perspective of deeply unsympathetic characters, as was the case with his biggest hit, “Short People.” That song’s refrain tells us that “short people got no reason to live.” “Short People,” however, wasn’t the best example of Newman’s gift for daring to empathize with these otherwise unsympathetic characters.
The best example of this gift may be “Rednecks,” from 1974’s Good Old Boys album. Wikipedia tells me that the song reached #36 on the Billboard charts, which makes me wish I could hear the always-congenial Casey Kasem introduce this particular song on American Top 40. It begins:
Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
With some smart-ass New York Jew.
And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox,
And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox, too.
Well, he may be a fool, but he’s our fool.
If they think they’re better than him, they’re wrong.
So I went to the park and took some paper along,
And that’s where I wrote this song…”
(The song’s writer, please note, is a Jew from L.A.)
Lester Maddox, in case you don’t know, was a segregationist governor from my home state, Georgia, from 1967 to 1971. Newman says the occasion that inspired the song was watching The Dick Cavett Show in 1970, on which Maddox appeared. Cavett is about as WASPy as they come, of course, but it makes sense that the bigoted narrator would mistake him for “some smart-ass New York Jew.”
Newman said in an interview that watching the host and the audience openly mock the Georgia governor on national TV made Newman indignant on behalf of Georgians: “They had just elected him governor, in a state of 6 million or whatever, and if I were a Georgian, I would have been offended, irrespective of the fact that he was a bigot and a fool.”
To which I say, Good for Newman. Lester Maddox may have been a fool, but he was our fool—my fool. These are my people, people like Lester Maddox—even though I was still an infant when Maddox left office. You think I didn’t grow up in a family and culture that was deeply bigoted, in which the N-word, racist jokes, and racist commentary were part of the air that we breathed? Good heavens! If Lester Maddox weren’t “my people,” too, then I’d have to disown my family of origin, which I’m unwilling to do.
When I was a child of 6 or 7, I consciously tried to root out my southern accent. In the Atlanta suburbs in which I grew up, few of my friends (or friends’ parents) talked the way my family did. I was ashamed. And I’m now ashamed of being ashamed of the way they talked.
I’m hardly a redneck or good old boy, but I’m still a southerner. And sometimes I feel conscious of being a southerner. Like many years ago when I worked for a large corporation, which was headquartered in New Jersey. Once, the president of our business unit, who was from up north, came to speak to us. She said to our audience, “I hope I’m not talking too fast for you to understand me.” We’ll try to keep up somehow, I thought. Grrr. It wasn’t exactly a case study in “how to win friends and influence people.”
And I felt very southern this week, as Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy and his company deal with fallout associated with his recent comments regarding his support for traditional marriage. If you have a Facebook account, you’ve heard about the controversy, from one direction or another. Here’s a paragraph from a Time article about the Boston mayor’s attempt to prevent the restaurant chain from opening stores there.
“Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston,” Menino told the Boston Herald on Thursday. “You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against the population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion. That’s the Freedom Trail. That’s where it all started right here. And we’re not going to have a company, Chick-fil-A or whatever the hell the name is, on our Freedom Trail.”
(Don’t you love the way the mayor pretends not to know the name of the fast-food chain. I suspect, as capitalism always triumphs over principle, he and the rest of Massachusetts will know it soon enough!)
Let’s first take a deep breath. No one’s accusing Chick-fil-A of discriminating against anyone. In fact, based on my experience, I’d be willing to bet that gay people who go to Chick-fil-A—like all people who go to Chick-fil-A—will be treated with far more respect, in general, than they will at their friendly neighborhood McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, et al. I’ll bet it’s not even close.
No, Chick-fil-A doesn’t discriminate against gays. Rather, Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy has voiced his support for marriage as it has been traditionally defined, between a man and woman. It turns out that he and his family also give money to non-profit organizations that share his point of view—for example, Exodus International, the gay Christian support group that I blogged about last week.
But you know what non-profit organization remains unmentioned in critics’ discussion of the “anti-gay” or “homophobic” organizations that the Cathy family supports? The Southern Baptist Convention. You see, I’ll bet that a very large portion of his charitable giving—if not the largest—goes to support the Cathys’ church, which defines marriage as between a man and woman and believes that sex outside of such a marriage is sin.
Does that make Southern Baptists homophobic, i.e., irrationally afraid of homosexuals? If so, it also makes members of my United Methodist Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and most evangelical churches and denominations—in other words, the vast majority of Christians in the universal Church—homophobic as well.
Come to think of it, since Boston and Chicago—where Alderman Joe Moreno is also threatening to use his political power to stop Chick-fil-A’s expansion there—are overwhelmingly Catholic, should we expect these crusading politicians to take on the Catholic Church for their stance on marriage and homosexuality? Will they express indignation that Cardinals O’Malley and George are similarly “ignorant,” “bigoted,” and “prejudiced” to support such views? If not, why not? What’s the difference?
I think I know. Dan Cathy is from the South. After all, Cathy couldn’t support the traditional definition of marriage on religious principle. He must be acting out of ignorance, bigotry, and prejudice, right? He must hate gay people. Because, you know… he’s a southerner, and that’s just the way we are.
As for my fellow Methodists who have joined in the chorus of condemnation directed toward Cathy and Chick-fil-A, I would remind them that by their own standards, John and Charles Wesley were homophobes. I know what they would say: “They were victims of their time and place. We know better than them now, don’t we?”
Well, I don’t. I haven’t improved upon the Wesley brothers, thank you very much. I wish I could!
So today, I say proudly, alongside Chick-fil-A and the Cathy family, “Ich bin ein Southern Baptist!”
And I’m also a southerner. Because don’t misunderstand: I’m not mostly bothered by the criticism of Chick-fil-A as a Christian. I’m mostly bothered as a southerner.
Here’s the great Randy Newman: