How Others See Us: S.C. Must Start Expecting More of Itself

Phil Noble

Phil Noble

By Phil Noble

Scottish poet Robert Burns once wrote, “To see ourselves as others see us! It would from many a blunder free us.”

Dear Mr. Noble:

I read your article in The Lancaster News, about S.C. needing to expect more of itself, with great interest.  I am from Massachusetts, and I married a woman from Greenville.  Her father’s family is deeply rooted in Kershaw.  I visit the family’s pine tree farm in rural Lancaster County once or twice a year.  In the ten years I’ve been going down there, I’ve struggled to understand the residents and the culture of South Carolina.  People are unbelievably polite, yet you can’t get a straight answer out of anyone.  From a New Englander’s perspective, I find everybody has a wall up, so you can never know what a person is really thinking.  Polite, but fairly suspicious.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the people of this land, including learning about the local history, but can’t seem to get a fix on Southerners.  I read a fascinating book about the white settlement of the Waxhaws area, called “World of Toil and Strife: Community Transformation in Backcountry South Carolina, 1750-1805” by Peter Moore, and in that book I think I finally got some understanding.

The settlers and residents of the Waxhaws have had a history of wars that I think shows its effect on them to this day.  The Scotch Irish settlers were deliberately settled near Indian towns, to be a buffer between the Native Americans and the plantations.  During the American Revolution, one side or another would blow through and burn down the farmhouses of loyalists or rebel supporters.  I can’t quite imagine what the Civil War experience was like from a Southern perspective.  As a northerner, we think nothing much of either side, just that a lot of people died in a war about slavery.  We never learned much about Sherman’s March.

So, along with this idea that South Carolinians are polite but suspicious and guarded, perhaps from their own historical experiences, I came to another theory recently, that South Carolinians must think all government agencies are useless and corrupt, because they don’t have much experience with good government.  I often hear it said in the South that government is useless and corrupt and wasteful, etc.  I have never understood the anger and complete lack of faith behind these words.  Such disrespect, summed up by Joe Wilson’s “you lie” comment (or substitute any in the long list of embarrassing remarks by South Carolina Republicans).  When South Carolina’s government was found to have stored SSN’s and addresses of nearly every resident in an unencrypted form on a website that was hacked, Nikki Haley, instead of taking responsibility, blamed the Feds, because they required this information from the state.

I began to think that this state of mind may exist because, in South Carolina, the government really is poor.  The roads are in horrible shape.  I’ve been reading the reports on deficient bridges.  When I see road work being done on rural roads, the same antique methods are used, similar to what I’ve seen done on rural roads in Ireland.  Nobody really thinks government can solve problems, or innovate, so government never rises to the occasion.  Government really is broken, and corrupt, so therefore, people must think this is the case everywhere with all governments.

I live in Somerville, Mass.  We have an amazing mayor, Joe Curtatone.  He does astounding things, and has taken a poor city, with low tax base and a dull government (and some corruption), and turned it into a success story, a model of efficient and responsive city government.  But that experience seems less uncommon here in New England.  We have corruption like everybody else – a familiar fault in our species – but I think we generally have a belief that our government can help us and the society we live in.  Even if the last three Massachusetts Speakers of the House (Democrats) were each convicted of felony crimes.

You are absolutely correct that the citizens need to expect more, and demand more, from their politicians, but this requires that they have faith in the institution of government, despite ineffectual leadership and outright corruption.  How do you get there?  One way would be to circulate your column far and wide!  South Carolina is more than just a state that lost a Civil War, as you point out.  Instead of proudly wearing T-shirts from the Dixie Republic in Traveler’s Rest, its citizens need to think of themselves and their state’s future – their future.  Let’s hope!

Well, thanks again for such a great article.  If I’ve offended you by getting something wrong, please let me know.

Name withheld by request
Somerville, Massachusetts


Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and writes a weekly column for the S.C. Press Association.

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