Even from way out in Brooklyn, where I’ve lived for a decade, I’ve become obsessed with the controversy embroiling Alabama, a place I used to call home. I had been planning on writing a story about GOPers who committed to voting for Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate for Senate in their special election on December 12. The fact that I can write that sentence is already a doozy. Even so, the story kept getting ahead of me.
Republican nominee Roy Moore has been a well-known crazy person for years, infamous for getting booted out as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court -- not once but twice. He was much reviled by the hunkered-down liberals in the state, sure, but even traditional conservatives like my dad thought he was an embarrassment. The hardcore church-goers loved him because he was trying to bring God “back” to the law of the land; the United States Supreme Court did not for basically the same reason.
I’m an ex-pat who has to try and explain this place to the rest of the country. I needed to talk to someone else who’s watching this shitshow from far afield.
Still, there seemed to be enough Republicans willing to pull the opposing lever to make it worth a piece. Then Leigh Corfman came forward with the story of her 1979 sexual assault, allegedly perpetrated by a then-thirty-two year old Moore, when she was fourteen. Eight women total have come out with their own allegations against the man, most claiming their encounters having happened when they too were teens. All of a sudden, the question “Why won’t you vote for Moore?” seemed a little specious.
Moore is the untrammeled (white) Alabama id, the personification of everything the rest of the country believes us to be.
But you know what? This alleged child molester still has almost fifty percent of the state’s population behind him, and currently leads Jones. With the full endorsement of President Trump, those numbers are looking to climb higher. Say what you will about Al Franken, but at least he has a keen sense of irony, and bowed out with some integrity and respect for the privilege of holding elected office.
Moore is the untrammeled (white) Alabama id, the personification of everything the rest of the country believes us to be. And he might be elected to the United States Senate. I felt sick. I needed existential diagnosis. So I called Patterson Hood.
For over twenty years, Hood has been diagnosing the contradictions of the South, and of his home state in particular, as the frontman of southern rock band Drive-By Truckers. If anybody could tell me what was going on…well, someone who still lives there would have been a smarter call. Hood lives in Portland, now. But I didn’t need someone who lives there. I’m an ex-pat who has to try and explain this place to the rest of the country. I needed to talk to someone else who’s watching this shitshow from far afield.
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The good people of Alabama do not deserve Roy Moore. Unless they elect him, in which case, they kind of do.
“So you’re from VICE? And you want to talk about that goat-fucker, Roy Moore?” Hood said when he picked up the phone. I was, and I did. Already, I felt that contacting Hood had been a good call
VICE Impact: I just want to talk about the country’s perception of Alabama, as it relates to Moore, and also the way that the people of Alabama have kind of internalized that perception and dug their heels in.
There’s so many good people in Alabama, it’s sad that they’re outnumbered in the polls by those who vote for the worst people on Earth. So most everyone outside the state, they only think of the worst aspects…all of which are true. There’s no denying. But the people who vote for Roy Moore, for whatever reason, are good-intentioned people who think they’re doing the right thing. I can’t fathom the disconnect there. There are people who I love dearly who have in the past voted for candidates who I absolutely find despicable.
Growing up in Alabama, the joke used to be, Thank God for Mississippi. I’m not sure that even applies anymore. “At least we’re not electing Roy Moore as our Senator.”
Do you think that the coastal liberal perception of Alabama is that they’re just uneducated, and does that contribute to this kind of reactionary mindset that we have down there?
It’s like the Randy Newman song, “Rednecks,” which actually nails it because he’s such an astute writer. In coastal towns they have their perceptions of what Alabamians are like. I’m sure I’ve encountered it both up front and as an undercurrent. I know when I open my mouth, there’s an immediate, “Oh. You might be one of those.” I might be, but I’m not.
I’ve had to defend my liberal point of view from grade school onwards against people who were willing to whip my ass over it. I can put mine up against yours, because I’ve fought for it for many years. That’s the thing about the people who don’t vote for the Roy Moores and George Wallaces down there. They are intensely aware of people’s perception of us, and work really hard to try and counteract that.
Do you think that the country’s--and the media’s--obsession with the Roy Moore story has something to do with a prior perception of Alabama?
It’s sure not helping, but I can’t blame the media. Sure, they point their camera at the shiny thing, and he is a shiny thing. That’s their job. He is constantly saying stupid shit that can blow up on your screen, and the fact that people will vote for him anyway…it doesn’t look good for us. It’s shameful. The whole story about the robot call from Barney whatever…
I mean it’s an embarrassment.
Say you’re talking to another American, from Portland or outside the South, and you ask them the first five things that “Alabama” brings to mind, what do you think those five things would be and how many would be positive associations?
I would consider it a really good day if one of them had to do with music or literature or art, or even just Hank Williams. Because more often it’s going to have something to do with race, something to do with George Wallace, and now something to do with Roy Moore. Probably football. Now I like football as much as I like the rest of it, but at least we’re good at that.
I feel like we’re tired of being mocked by the rest of the country, but instead of changing anything about ourselves, folks say, “Screw you,” and decide to become more of the stereotype, which leads obviously to Roy Moore.
The extremity of his views is thankfully not embraced by as many Alabamians, but because of how entrenched AL has become with the Republican party, he’s gonna get away with it. He will probably win. I wish more attention would be given to the opposing candidate. Because with Doug Jones, it’s not like you’re even having to hold your nose. Pretty impressive guy. He successfully prosecuted the people who blew up the Birmingham church. That’s a wonderful thing! And it’s not like he’s some super liberal. He wouldn’t be winning elections up here in Portland. He’s done impressive things and he’s well-spoken, and he’d be a real asset to our state, representing us.
Do you think that the support Roy Moore is getting in Alabama is different than the support Alabama gave to Donald Trump? And do you think that the religious right’s embrace of Trump is more surprising than their embrace of Moore, post-allegations, or less?
To me it’s all the same. They’re both sex offenders. Everyone who thinks they’re being good Christians when they vote for these people, I can’t fathom it. But nothing surprises me anymore. The last surprise I had was I didn’t think that he’d win the presidency. I knew he was going to take Alabama, I knew he was going to take the South.
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Were you shocked by the cultish reception Trump gets in Alabama? I know we were buying what he was selling, but he was just a shady real estate mogul from Queens. If you had told me ten years ago that the definition of a rude New Yorker would sweep the South, I’d have laughed in your face.
He speaks the language. “They don’t tell me what to do!” So they drink the Kool Aid of “They don’t tell me what to do!”
Final question: do you think that Alabama could actually vote in a Democratic Senator in the current political climate?
Pretty skeptical about it. I think that it’s close, but even the fact that it’s close is…
It means it’s probably not going to happen. To me it being close is mind-blowing. If he was a Democrat, I’d be voting Republican and hating it. I could not vote for this guy.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.