Dorein Vanderzahm poked her umbrella into the red clay Georgia field and announced, definitively, "Fire ants." If you stooped down and examined the dirt, there they were, swarming over the crabgrass acre where Martha Burk will hold her protest against Augusta National, ready to blister ankles. "I think they may come as an additional surprise to her," Vanderzahm said.
Burk is liable to be surprised by many things here, given her reliance on old southern caricatures, the redneck sheriff with the star-shaped badge, the mush-mouthed Bubba, and the southern magnolia who swings her umbrella soft as a hanging fern. That's why Burk's campaign against Augusta National's all-male membership has been greeted with fire-ant hostility by many here, and why even the women of Augusta find it ultimately weak, and wrong: because it's based on stereotype and mischaracterization.
If you're a white male of a certain age and luckless enough to speak with a twang, then apparently you must be a tobacco-spitting good old boy, no matter what your actual record. For months now, Burk has done her best to make Hootie Johnson, the honey-voiced president of Augusta National, out to be a sexist hick or worse. What's more, some of the media has shamelessly perpetuated the image, most notably the New York Times, which has relentlessly excoriated him while until recently giving Johnson's notable career as a civil rights activist and women's advocate short shrift.
The truth about Johnson, a banker from South Carolina, is that he's a longtime progressive who has fought long and hard to integrate South Carolina's schools, banks, businesses and politics, and launched the careers of scores of women and minorities. He has also fought to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse. He is nobody's chauvinist, or bigot, or good old boy. And yet when a Ku Klux Klan crank applied for a permit to protest at Augusta, Burk actually said, and got away with it, "Augusta National should not be shocked by the KKK's endorsement. They have behaved in a manner that attracts this type of support."
This smearing of southern white men has eroded any inclination to listen to Burk around here, and it's a kind of discourse that would be considered universally despicable if it was turned on women or minorities. People have been taking roundhouse swings at privileged white men for a long time; that's nothing new. But Burk is not just fire-breathing; she is inaccurate. Burk seems not to have done any homework on who Hootie is, what he has done or what The Masters is -- she actually suggested they move the tournament to a different course. She is so wrong about so many things it's tough to take her seriously on anything about which she might be right.
The fact is that Johnson defies category, and for that matter so does Dorein Vanderzahm. Vanderzahm doesn't agree with Burk -- "not a bit," she said.
Vanderzahm was born and raised in Augusta -- she knows about the fire ants because she used to cut through the field -- and it would be convenient for Burk if Vanderzahm was a downtrodden southern housewife or a mindless belle, but she's not. She's a physician, who disagrees with Burk on principle, and because she finds the whole campaign silly. "I think she has an overblown sense of importance," Vanderzahm says.
Burk also has portrayed local law enforcement as heavies, a bunch of Bull Connors doing the bidding of rich men, because they won't allow her to protest in front of the main entrance to the club. They cite safety and traffic reasons -- reasons perfectly legitimate to anyone who has ever tried to negotiate the choked intersection. Deputy sheriff Johnny Whittle sat in his black-and-white squad car, parked under an old tree in the field of crabgrass where Burk will protest. He will be in charge of keeping the peace at Burk's protest. A heavy badge was pinned on his uniform pocket, and his shirt collar was buttoned tight, above which loomed a face that was more John Wayne than John Wayne's.
"Oh, we're used to it," he said. "We've been stereotyped our whole lives. Everybody says watch out for the Georgia police, but we try to get out of locking people up."
Whittle expects nine groups of protestors to show up Saturday, including the Burk flotilla, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the New Black Panther Party, a hilarious anti-Burkist faction called People Against Stupid Protests, and the lone self-described KKK member, whom Whittle simply refers to as "that person, for lack of a better word." Whittle adds, "None of us agree with him, but we have to protect him." Not that Whittle agrees with Burk, either.
"They don't let me in that club," Whittle said. "Are they discriminating against me, too? To be honest, I don't want to go in there and set down where they smoke those stinking cigars. It just seems like there's a lot of better things to be done in the cause for women."
Burk filed suit complaining that by being relegated to the field, she will miss her audience. She lost the suit. Actually, the field is centrally located across the street from the course; anyone going to the tournament, or for that matter making a run to Eckerd, can't miss it. Thursday, even before she arrived and on a day when play was cancelled, people rolled down car windows as they passed the field, and shouted, "Say no to Martha!" Kiosks sold "I Support Hootie" buttons, as well as golf balls that said, "Drive Burk Out" and T-shirts that said "The Burk Stops Here."
What Burk should worry about is not whether the audience will miss her, but whether she has lost her audience altogether.