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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tony Horwitz has spent the last two years in the South, embracing what he calls “bar-stool democracy.”
It’s the premise of his new book, Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide, which catalogs his journey as he retraces the footsteps of journalist-turned-landscape-architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
Olmsted toured the region in the 1850s as an undercover reporter for The New York Times. At that point, The Times had just begun and its mission was concrete: “to be temperate and measured” in its reporting.
Horwitz set out to do the same. Here’s what he wrote about his odyssey in The New York Times:
Wandering into red-state Southern bars with a reporter’s notebook, to quiz drinkers about race or guns or immigration, isn’t always a walk in an Olmsted-designed park. I’ve been assailed as a “libtard” and an agent of the “lying media,” and once had to flee a biker bar in Tennessee when a leather-clad giant ate my notes and credibly threatened to beat me to a pulp.
But I can count such hostile receptions on one hand. In almost every other instance, I’ve been met affably, by drinkers open about their views and curious to know mine, as a visiting writer from “Taxachusetts.” Often I hear opinions I don’t expect, like self-described right-wingers dissenting from Trumpian orthodoxy on health care or a border wall. More often, we disagree across the board, vigorously. In two years of travel on Olmsted’s trail, I doubt I changed anyone’s mind, nor did they sway me from my political stance.
But I like to think we did our modest bit toward “the mutual acquaintance” of opposed Americans and lowered the temperature on the overheated national debate over our differences. This doesn’t mean accommodating or papering over hateful policies and speech. Like Olmsted, I sometimes felt we’ve reached an impasse that can’t be civilly bridged and despaired over what he called “the drift of things” in America. But shouting through bullhorns from our respective bunkers isn’t an answer. It only deepens hostility and hardens allegiance to modern-day “fire-eaters” who spout lies and divisive rhetoric.
We talk with Horwitz about the value of bridging divides, and what the mid-19th century can illuminate about today’s political and cultural landscape.
Show produced by Bianca Martin. Text by Kathryn Fink.
- Tony Horwitz Pulitzer Prize winning journalist; author, "Spying on the South: an Odyssey across the American Divide"; @TonyHorwitz
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