Updated: Nov 2
"Dixie, Derry, Dildo, and other names that make us cringe"
(Paranoid Planet Podcast: Season 2, Episode 6.2, Chapter 2: "Don't Be an Ass, Man!")
In 1995, late-night talk show host David Letterman brought worldwide attention and fame to Richard Arthur Assman [pronounced: “Ossmun”], a mild-mannered gas station manager from Saskatchewan, Canada, whose friends called him Dick, whose last name was spelled “Ass Man”, and whose father’s first name was Adolf…
Dick Assman was a gas man. And he lived in the city of Regina. (that’s Regina. With an R. Get your head out of the gutter, people). Not only did Dick Assman become a recurring punchline on Letterman’s top-rated nightly talk show, he was flown to New York, Calgary, and Toronto to take part in TV spots, radio interviews, rodeos, and bikini contests that celebrated—or should I say, made fun of—his hilariously indecent name, which, let’s face it, was the only way asinine TV hosts could say “Dick” and “Ass” on the air without getting censored. It was the beginning of Dickassmania.
Dick Assman could have been grossly insulted by his fifteen minutes of unsought fame—as was CBC reporter Wendy Mesley, who went to New York to ask Mr. Letterman if he had any regrets about making fun of a helpless aging gas station attendant. Letterman answered Mesley by asking hher how Assman had suffered negatively from his brush with celebrity, and then told her to stop beating a dead horse. It was hard for Mesley and those who felt as she did to make a strong counterpoint, as Mr. Assman was the only one who could say whether or not this whole thing was offensive to him, and he seemed to take it all as good fun. So did most of his family and friends.
Fast forward to 2019, when late-night show host Jimmy Kimmel discovered a Canadian town called Dildo, Newfoundland, a small fishing village less than a day’s drive from equally suggestive place names like Tickle Bay, Conception Harbour, and Cuckolds Cove. (Man, those Newfoundlanders really do like to party!). Just like Assmania, the Hollywood Dildomania created a buzz of silly toilet humour and double-entendres, with Kimmel extolling the wonders of the Dildo boathouse, the Dildo museum, the Dildo brewing company (etc.), while journalists and locals giddily invited Kimmel to “come and discover Dildo”. As far as I know Kimmel never did get some Dildo, but that didn’t stop him from getting elected as its honorary mayor—a job that didn’t require any work on his part except a promise to visit someday, kiss a codfish, and get loaded on Screech (a kind of local moonshine, not the guy who was in Saved By the Bell). Again, the people of Dildo took it in stride and had a good time being the butt of American jokes about them.
Other place names are equally cringy, but not quite as funny to say. That’s because the mere mention of them is readily taken by locals and cranky activists as a deliberate attack on their identity. Take for example the city of Londonderry in Northern Ireland. Wait, I meant to say Derry. No... Derry/Londonderry. Or maybe we should just call it Stroke City—which of course can be insulting for old Irish ladies on prescription blood thinners. (Get it? Stroke?) That’s because Lon.... Derr… uh, I mean... that particular city in Northern Ireland has long been divided between a largely Catholic working class majority, and a small and more well-to-do Protestant elite who historically controlled the police, the local city council, and many of the City’s major businesses. And when I say Catholic and Protestant, I actually don’t really mean Catholic and Protestant, but rather Nationalist and Unionist… or should I say Republican and Loyalist? <sigh>
Do you know what a shibboleth is? Well, Northern Ireland is full of them. In fact, there’s no way for me to get through this discussion without insulting a few hundred people in Ulster—Er, I mean, the Six Counties! No, wait, I mean… Ech! Maybe I should stop here before this essay sets off another Bloody Sunday massacre. (You know, the one the rock band U2 got famous singing about.)
So let me just say that history is complicated. And the history of toponymy is even more complicated, with place names that were chosen at a particular time, by a particular people with a particular identity and worldview, to celebrate some event, person, or belief they held dear when they founded that place, a name which may over time become irrelevant, irreverent, the butt of a joke, or a political insult, or more disturbingly, the trigger of a violent civil war.
Which takes me to why I brought all this up in the first place: the so-called land of “Dixie” that we are visiting throughout this episode. Is Dixie an inherently racist word? Ask Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young, for instance, and you will get two very different responses, most likely influenced by their fundamental political beliefs. Dixie is a name that has long been used as a synonym for the Deep South, the area of the Eastern United States that lies to the south of the Mason-Dixon line (a horizontal boundary drawn in 1768 that extends the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland). And since this line served as a divide between the pro-slavery Confederate states and the free states of the Union during the Civil War, it is easy to conclude that Dixie is just a veiled racist term that celebrates white supremacy, with symbols like the Confederate flag and white secessionists like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. But of course, that is not the only way that the term has been used, and it is hard (if not foolish) to determine what long-existing historical terms meant to everyone who used them in the past, and if and how everyone ought to use it in the present or future. Increasingly, the term Dixie has made many people uncomfortable, evoking stories of slavery, segregation, and racial violence. That is the reason it has been removed from highways, businesses, and even the names of country-rock bands like the Dixie Chicks—who now call themselves simply The Chicks (which sounds kind of sexist if you ask me, but then, the chicks in question don’t seem to think so). Still, the term Dixie still appears just about everywhere in the South—including on some fine greasy fried chicken joints—and it’s hard to argue that all instances of the word is intentionally, or even accidentally racist. It may be that in some contexts the name rightly refers to some instance of hatred and injustice, while in others it simply refers to a type of music, a type of cuisine, a type of landscape or weather, or a stereotype of a toothless old man in overalls brewing some moonshine in the back shed.
In the end, I really have no clue whether to treat these two syllables as an all-encompassing derogatory term, or to brush it off as a dog whistle trick by sensitive people who could grow a thicker skin. I don’t come from the South, I’m not one of the people who see the term as either an heirloom or a weapon, and I have no pony in this race. But I can say, as a relatively unbiased outside observer, that the term Dixie is just one of those words that we shouldn't bandy around in defiance, but that is probably not about to disappear under the carpet of political correctness either. Like Derry and Dildo (and Assman), it may be best to always consider the context, the intention of the speaker, the vulnerabilities of the audience, and to recognize that life is made up of these gray areas where we should laugh about it whenever we can, and politely disagree when we must.
In the meantime, I’ll see if I can’t book a trip to Condom in France, or Wank, Germany, or Shitterton, England, Honkimaan, Finland, Bastardo, Italy, or Chinaman Gulch in Colorado, not because I want to insult anybody, but because like the great Dick Assman, I enjoy a little giggle every now and again, even when it’s directed at me.
This essay was inspired by Screech.
Michel Gagné, 2022.
My Road Trip Musings, Part 2:
"Twerking in Memphis / Desperately Seeking Daisy"
“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’” (Gospel of John, 1:45-46)
The South of the United States often gets the same treatment in contemporary American political commentary that the Roman province of Galilee received during the first century A.D.: both have been assumed to be a backwoods hill country full of hicks, winos, and kissing cousins by the wealthier, more cosmopolitan city folk of Jerusalem and, say, New York or San Francisco. There’s no doubt that much of this perception is due to the history of slavery, racism, and segregation, which has left a black eye on the South, and which render it now socially acceptable to depict it in films, music, TV, and popular culture as a retrograde, reactionary, and insular bubble that refuses to ‘get with the times’. As with most stereotypes there is some truth to this image, but there is also a whole other world going on in the South, which I was privy to glimpse first-hand if only for a few days, and which should call us to rethink our beliefs about the South in accordance with what it is today, not what it was decades or centuries ago.
The South may be perceived as quaint and primitive by those liberal urban Northerners who shape the narrative of the national media, but it also has deep cultural roots, with distinct musical, sport, comedy, and culinary traditions that are worth celebrating, even by people like me who never learned to enjoy country music, muscle cars, Chris Rock, Larry the Cable Guy, Duck Dynasty, cornbread, or biscuits and gravy. In general, Southerners are more spiritual and devout than the rest of the country. This makes them more likely to ground their identity in local institutions like churches, clubs, and town hall meetings, and in traditional gender roles and occupations, than do other Americans. The South also moves at a slower pace, due partly to the heat and humidity that forces everybody to mellow out to avoid dying of exhaustion. This is particularly important in an economy that is highly concentrated on agrarian and blue-collar industries. The South is also, somewhat strangely, both deeply communitarian and virulently libertarian. This may seem weird to outsiders, but it does lead Southerners to be friendly and sociable, while at the same time take pride in individual initiative and an ethic of hard work. There is a higher focus placed on extended family and self-help compared to the urban North and West Coast of the country (what are sometimes call the ”blue states”) where a higher number of fragmented families must rely on government help to get by. Finally, it is interesting to note that in terms of racial segregation, the cities of the Northern United States remain far more segregated today than those of the South according to a 2018 Brookings Institution study. (William H. Frey: “Black-white segregation edges downward since 2000, census shows,” Brookings Institution, Dec. 17, 2018).
Perhaps there is something about me—a husky, bald, and sometimes scruffy middle-aged white man from Canada—that appears more safe and approachable than any local (which I doubt very much), but I must admit that I found the people of the South to be especially warm and friendly, even in large city centres, and willing to engage in informal banter with a total stranger on street corners, in parks, or in restaurants. This included blacks and whites, males and females, young and old. Travelling through the South challenged some of the stereotypes that I was fed over the years, and it made me see the nuances, both good and bad, of Southern culture more readily.
Ironically, like in the biblical story quoted above, a "messiah" or two have also come out of the South. But these include the likes of Alabama Governor George Wallace, the stalwart racist, who claimed that segregation ("now, tomorrow, and forever") would never end in the South (thankfully, it did), and the narcissistic and deluded New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison who, in 1967, launched a legal vendetta against the CIA, the FBI, the Justice Department, the Warren Commission, the “military industrial complex”, and a smattering of local homosexuals (all of which he concentrated on New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw) to try to prove—with a pile of faulty evidence, fallacious logic, and outrageous lies—that President Kennedy was killed by a massive fascist government conspiracy. Fortunately, the South has also produced the likes of Martin Luther King. Jr, who never claimed to be a messiah but rather claimed to follow the original one, both in word and deed, to the very end of his life.
I left Washington, D.C. in the early morning of Thursday June 9, 2022—early enough to enjoy the sunrise over the Washington Mall and to avoid the heavy rush-hour morning traffic. Much of the rest of that day is a blur of scrolling suburban malls, forested hills, and small Virginia and Tennessee gas station towns, with the obligatory fast-food stops along the way. After 11 hours on the road—my longest single day’s drive in my three week road trip—I arrived in Nashville exhausted, but happy to be able to crash on a clean hotel bed rather than a small pop tent or dorm room cot, to watch some mindless TV reruns while Scott toured downtown Nashville, chatted with strangers over Hattie B’s hot chicken, and got the keys to the city from some chatty uber drivers.
It was great to be able to shift gears for a few days and have a co-pilot, which gave me some chance to sit and read in the car, talk to someone else than myself, and sleep in places I wouldn’t have afforded if I had been footing the whole bill. Some of the highlights of Nashville were seeing the Bridgestone Arena (home of the Nashville Predators), being heckled by skinny white girls on party buses, and taking in the sleepy morning Country Music Awards outdoor festivities on Broadway (including some free samples of Crown Royal coolers). Business names like Whisky Row, Nudie’s Honky Tonk, the Boot Barn, Bootleggers Inn, and Redneck Riviera, confirmed my assumption that I was standing in gringo ground zero.
Free drinks on Broadway? Hmmm…. It's gotta be noon somewhere.
A simple man among giants.
You go, girl!
I got a bit more time to enjoy Memphis than Nashville, which included a copious meal at Rendez-Vous, the authoritative southern barbecue eatery and the best food you can find in a dark alley, before taking in a minor league (Memphis Redbirds) baseball game.
Rendez-Vous? Ooo, là, là!
The contrast between Nashville and Memphis is stunning. It would be an oversimplification to say that one is “white, western, and middle class” and the other “black, bluesy, and working class”, but these stereotypes do carry a big nugget of truth, especially for people who are just passing through. The music is not the only distinction between the two; the food, the nightlife, the general attitude of people in the street, and the party buses (yikes!) also place these two Tennessee metropolises (metropoli?) at different ends of the Southern culture spectrum. And I can’t avoid highlighting the greatest stereotype of all: a Canadian restaurant in downtown Memphis called Cooky Canuck that looks like a log cabin decorated with stuffed dear heads and geese, which serves "Kraft Dinner Poutine", "Prairie Pierogies", "Montreal Pool Room Steamies", maple bread pudding with whiskey sauce, a hamburger the size of a UFO mothership, and a cocktail called the "Flying Moose". (For the sake of your windshield, pray that never happens). And yet, no smoked meat sandwiches or Buffalo burgers... Something's wrong here. I guess I should have been insulted by all this slanderous cultural appropriation, but I just had a hearty giggle.
Beale Street, Memphis
Goodness gracious me!
(NOTE TO WIVES: We did not take this picture!)
Having already stuffed our faces with barbecued ribs, brisket, and a half-dozen sides, we skipped the maple syrup burgers and Memphis nightlife and headed back to our hotel to rest up for our visit to the Civil Rights Museum the next morning. I found the museum quite impressive. Not only was it built out of the former Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, it also gives us a first-person view of the assassin’s lair (assuming James Earl Ray did in fact murder MLK and it wasn't some FBI or mob-sponsored snipers posted at other locations). Most importantly, though, the point was driven hard to me that the civil rights movement led by King, and the black power movement that followed his death, had little in common with each other in terms of their goals, nature, worldview and ethics. Reflecting on their respective ten-point programs made it brutally obvious (see below).
The former Jim’s Grill (second building on right), upstairs from which James Earl Ray shot King.
The Sniper’s window.
(King stood where the white wreath is now located)
We skipped Graceland due to the lack of time and the absolutely prohibitive cost of viewing Elvis Presley’s gaudy knickknacks firsthand (let’s face it, all I really wanted to do there was to use the latrine so I could brag I once sat on the King’s throne). We arrived in Birmingham late in the afternoon to enjoy a fine dinner in a crowded South-Asian restaurant with our Canadian friend Nathan Loewen while a very loud Pride Parade (but a remarkably tame one by Montreal and Toronto standards) rolled past outside. The next day we split up so I could take in all the civil rights landmarks I had read about in Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama while Scott went church-hopping on a rented Segway. This is when I was approached by George Fraser, who lent himself out to be my tour guide through Kelly Ingram Park (without me ever asking). The audio wasn’t very good and our conversation was too long to include it all in the episode, but I was surprised to hear his nuanced opinions on racism and George Floyd, which certainly did not echo the typical opinions of Black Lives Matter activists showcased in the mainstream news outlets. George was remarkably even-handed in calling out all types of discrimination, including black on white, and pointing out that not everything that the news calls systemic racism is in fact caused by racist intentions. Sometimes, he argued, bad cops are just bad cops, irrespective of their own or their victim’s skin colour, and sometimes well-intentioned politicians end up provoking more racism by using loaded language and fear-mongering tactics. But that’s not the story that many journalists want to tell, and that’s not the story much of the public wants to hear either.
The 16th Street Baptist Church with a memorial to the September 15, 1963, bombing victims.
One of several civil rights monuments in Kelly Ingram Park.
The Birmingham Jail where MLK composed his famous letter.
Never come between a hungry mama bear and her Raising Cane's chicken fingers
As attractive as its early summer rolling hills were, Mississippi was a bit of a road-side blur. We did drive around the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg for a half-hour, looking for an open fried chicken joint that looked open and appetizing, and found it at Raising Cane’s. I’m not usually a big fan of chicken nuggets, tenders, or fingers (do chickens even have fingers?), but the good people at Cane’s confirmed the old teaching of the philosopher Plato who held that to make the world better and just, everyone ought to devote themselves to doing only one thing and to do it to perfection. Plato would have certainly made these chicken fingers a part of Kallipolis (the "Beautiful City") that he described in The Republic. Speaking of beautiful cities, the university down the street is indeed beautiful, but unsettlingly also looks much like an old cotton plantation. Like many other places in the South, it’s hard not to let the past colour the present. I got the rest of the lowdown on Mississippi from my spunky waitress Sabrina at the Daisy Dukes diner in New Orleans.
We then sped southward to reach New Orleans by sundown, which, alas, we failed to do. But we did manage to be there soon enough after sundown to witness the desolate aquatic landscape from atop the New Orleans Causeway that crosses Lake Pontchartrain for miles without end—you know, that place where Schwarzenegger saved Jamie Lee Curtis from certain death whilst dangling out of a helicopter. (Ah, Arnold. Is there anything you can’t do?)
New Orleans is a bubble of culture inside another culture bubble. The strange mixture of Southern hospitality, Cajun music, Creole food, and French architecture makes it a truly original city. It looked like Montreal, New York, and San Francisco got mashed together and dumped into a swamp. The city was hot and incredibly humid. Partygoers on Bourbon Street were dressed in colourful and sometimes indecent outfits, carried large and strange drinks, and engaged in what some might graciously call street dancing. One thing is certain, the whole stretch of the road smells much worse than any photograph could ever convey, though I do recommend the blackened gator tail bites and the fried catfish at Mambo’s Cajun & Creole (preferably up on the roof or some distance away from the street). But I’m happy to say that the French quarter is much more than just Bourbon Street, and unless your plan is to get drunk blind and wake up with a rash, you’ll likely enjoy the bookstores, galleries, jazz bars, shops, and Asian massage parlors (no, not the kinky type) where I got my spine and brain tickled and rattled for a “dixie” (10$).
St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter
Having read so much about the wild and wacky 1967-69 inquest into the Kennedy assassination by New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison (who was magically turned into a white knight of justice in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK), I was keen to engage in a comprehensive walking and driving tour of all the major spots that—rightly or wrongly—conspiracists roll into their speculative narrative of Lee Harvey Oswald’s time in New Orleans during the summer of 1963. These included Oswald’s former workplace (the Reiley Coffee Company), the infamous 544 Camp Street address that conspiracists use (and misuse) to link the “fake Marxist” Lee Oswald to the CIA-connected anti-Castro Cuban community, the former New Orleans Trade Mart where Oswald took part in a “staged” altercation with anti-Castro activist Carlos Bringuier, a plaque in the French quarter that commemorates the philanthropic contributions of businessman Clay Shaw (the hapless target of Garrison’s anti-gay/anti-CIA crusade), the municipal courthouse where Garrison prosecuted Shaw (and lost), and the 1963 Magazine Street residence of Lee Harvey Oswald and his wife Marina, which has since been completely refurbished as a law firm. As I mentioned in my own book on JFK assassination theories, “Garrison’s failure to convict anyone frustrated his followers, but it also left them an entire new subplot to dig through, one with multiple intrigues and colorful characters”. (p.83).
Lafayette Square Park
Oswald distributing Fair Play For Cuba Committee flyers in front of the N.O. Trade Mart.
(contra Oliver Stone, the 544 Camp St. address did not appear on these leaflets)
New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison (c.1967)
Clay Shaw Tribute Plaque in the French Quarter
It was great to take part in this leg of the road trip with Scott, who is always faithful to laugh at my off-colour jokes and commiserate with angry rants. It was also great to rekindle with Nathan and I thank him for taking the time to be interviewed for the podcast. I also hope the good Cajun people of Louisiana will take our episode sponsor ad ("The Swampwitch Bayou Boucherie Café") as a friendly slap on the back, not a kick in the parties intimes. I’ve been singing “L’arbre est dans ses feuilles“ since kindergarten, thanks to Cajun singer-songwriter Zachary Richard, the most famous Cajun in the province of Quebec. Yee-hou!
Michel Gagné, 2022.
Documents related to this episode:*
The Dukes of Hazzard (TV program), 1979-1985. Created by Gy Waldron. Title song composed and performed by Waylon Jennings.
James Poniewozik: "What Did The Dukes of Hazzard Really Say About the South?" Time, July 2, 2015.
Steve Rose: "From Dukes of Hazzard to Kanye West: the curse of the Confederate flag," The Guardian, July 27,2020.
Thomas Milan Konda: Conspiracies of Conspiracies: How Delusions Have Overrun America. University of Chicago Press, 2019.
Dolores Aldebaran et. al.: Creating Conspiracy Beliefs: How Our Thoughts Are Shaped. Cambridge University Press, 2021.
"Explore Nashville," Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.
Sesame Street (TV program), 1969-Present. Created by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett. Featuring Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
King Creole (film), 1958. Dir. by Michael Curtiz. Featuring Elvis Presley.
Charles Vergo's Rendez-Vous, Memphis Barbecue & Charcoal Grill.
Memphis Redbirds (official website), MiLB Triple-A affiliate of the St-Louis Cardinals.
National Civil Rights Museum At the Lorraine Motel, Memphis TN.
Star Trek (TV program), 1966-69. Created by Gene Roddenberry. Theme music by Alexander Courage.
The March in Washington (documentary), National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), 1963. Featuring Joan Baez, The Freedom Singers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Martin Luther King Jr. Death Announcement," CBS News, April 4, 1968. Featuring Walter Cronkite. (Reel America: American History TV, C-SPAN3).
Senator Robert F. Kennedy: "Statement on the Death of Martin Luther King, Jr.," April 4, 1968. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Amistad (film), 1997. Directed by Stephen Spielberg.
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Holly McKenzie-Sutter: "Jimmy Kimmel named honourary mayor of Dildo, N.L., promises to visit community," Canadian Press / Global News, August 16, 2019.
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Alaa Elassar: "How the term 'Dixie' came to define the South," June 27, 2020, CNN.
Ben Zimmer: "What Dixie Really Means," The Atlantic, June 26, 2020.
Scooby Doo, Where Are You? (TV program), 1969-70. What's New, Scooby-Doo? (TV Program), 2002-06: (S1,E4: "Big Scare in the Big Easy"). Created by Joe Ruby and Ken Spears. Hannah-Barbera productions/Warner Brothers productions.
"Fall In Love With New Orleans," New Orleans & Company (New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau).
JFK (film), 1991. Directed by Oliver Stone.
Jim Garrison: On The Trail of the Assassins: My investigation and prosecution of the murder of President Kennedy. Sheridan Square Press, 1988.
Fred Litwin: On The Trail of Delusion: Jim Garrison, The Great Accuser. Northern Blues Books, 2020.
Patricia Lambert: False Witness: The Real Story of Jim Garrison's Investigation and Oliver Stone's Film JFK. M. Evans and Company, 2000.
1976 Interview of Jim Garrison (original production credits unfound).
Mambo's Cajun and Creole, Bourbon Street, New Orleans.
Daisy Duke's, Chartres Street, New Orleans.
* All copyrighted video and audio clips are used for educational purposes only under "fair use" regulations.