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Opinion
Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

On My Mind: A Virus Debate Travels South

Tommy Tomlinson

When I checked into Twitter on Thursday, the top trending item was simply "The South."

It’s rarely good when you see something you love trending on Twitter.

It turns out the New York Times had a story about people who are still out on the roads, despite scientists’ pleas to stay home and slow the spread of the virus. The story had a map that used cellphone data to show that Southerners are traveling more every day than people in other parts of the country.

What turned it into a trending topic was a tweet by Michael Barbaro, host of the Times’ podcast called The Daily. The Daily is often brilliant, but the tweet was not one of Barbaro’s more brilliant moments. He tweeted a picture of the map and said simply, “The South.”

I’m not sure he meant it this way, but it sure did come off the same as if he’d said, “THOSE people.”

Barbaro caught a lot of flak on Twitter, from reasoned rebuttals to people who told him in various ways to go to hell. He later deleted the tweet.

I’ve lived in the South for 55 of my 56 years. I do a podcast about the South. I’ve heard people trash the South my whole life, and I’ve seen us Southerners stiffen our necks in defense.

And in this case, as in most cases, the truth is that everybody’s right and everybody’s wrong.

As many people pointed out online, Michael Barbaro didn’t consider that many Southerners live in rural areas where the nearest necessities – a grocery store or a hospital – might be five or 10 or 20 miles away. A lot of those areas are also food deserts, where fresh food isn’t handy. You can’t just walk to the corner bodega.

But it’s also undoubtedly true that many Southern governors have been resistant to stay-at-home orders that would get people off the roads for nonessential travel.

In my home state of Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp, bless his heart, says he didn’t know until this week that people can transmit the virus even if they aren’t showing symptoms. Medical professionals have known this for at least a couple of months. Kemp seems to have covered his ears with some kind of special fact-canceling headphones.

All over the world, not just in the South, people have not voluntarily stayed home until their governments told them to. We have just been more stubborn than everyone else.

That has been our nature over the centuries, to fight the facts, to push back against good advice, and it has cost us -- and probably will this time, too.

We are a beautiful, troublesome, special, infuriating place, more than anyone can wrap up in a hundred volumes, much less a tweet. But for those of us who call it home, it’s not enough to defend ourselves. We also have to be honest about our flaws.

And in the South, that’s often been the hardest road to take.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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