“Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike/ They’ve all come to look for America … America …”
~ Paul Simon
But the place where I’m looking for America these days is not the New Jersey Turnpike. Life here in Rockbridge County, VA is never dull. On the one hand, you have breathtaking views and a county seat of some 8,000 inhabitants of whom perhaps 25 are published authors.
There are two nationally known colleges –Washington & Lee University and Virginia Military Institute – both of which annually rank high in the ubiquitious US News & World Report liberal arts colleges ratings.
As Labor Day signals the start of a new school year, tomorrow’s opening convocation speakers will be Charles R Johnson at W&L, award-winning philosopher and scholar, whose novel Middle Passage is being staged as a theater production in Chicago this fall; and at VMI, renowned foreign-policy observer and best-selling author Robert D. Kaplan.
But scratch our polished surface and you’ll find a county where Trump-Pence lawn signs abound; where typically the town votes blue and the county votes red; and where both colors surface together pretty frequently in the form of the Confederate battle flag on T-shirts, trucks and alas, even flagpoles.
And that’s why I’m currently reading Hillbillly Elegy by J.D. Vance, recently interviewed on NPR’s” Fresh Air.” I’ve said before how much of what’s happening in our country right now can be explained by the long-suppressed rage of Angry White Men (another book touted on NPR). I cited Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War as the best explanation yet of why we’re in this mess: Why Donald Trump can incite riots at rallies; why we can’t rein in police departments run amok; why – fifty years after we thought we’d declared human rights as our nation’s civil rights — we are still struggling to leave a deeply stained past behind.
Yesterday in neighboring Buena Vista — once the thriving industrial hub of our rural county, now the crossroads of Appalachia and post-industrial America – the Labor Day parade featured a near-life-sized figure of Donald Trump astride a rearing acrylic white stallion on a truck-drawn float. The parade’s slashes of red and blue just served to underline in bold strokes the deep divides in this deceptively pastoral county: We have “from heres” and “come heres” ; multigenerational farm families who raise bees and know how to fix a tractor, and double-degree academicians; mainstream Christians and fundamentalist evangelicals; people who support gay marriage and people who attend Tea Party gatherings. You name it, we have it: atheists, Muslims, Sikhs and Jews; descendant of settlers from the 1700s and newly arrived Congolese refugees struggling with English … we are, in short, in this tiny community, a perfect microcosm of our strife-torn, battle-weary nation.
Pretty much the only thing we haven’t done here so far is start shooting each other – credit all of us for maintaining the frayed surface of civility, but it’s wearing thin. And that’s why I am reading Hillbilly Elegy. Because J.D. Vance explains how and why his “hill people” aren’t doing so well. How they left the destitution of eastern Kentucky to fan out across Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, to Chicago and Detroit and beyond—to give their children a shot at the American Dream, and how that Dream turned its back on them. Why they are angry, and sick, and weary beyond telling.
Like Bageant, Vance acknowledges that the woes of impoverished post-Appalachian whites are often self-inflicted. They cling to family even in dysfunction; they are too proud to ask for help; they often blame everyone else for their failure; and – thanks to the post-World War II industrial boom — they are now spread all the way across this country. Their religion, what’s left of it, is and always was an angry, punitive Calvinist doctrine. They lack the community faith that has sustained black Americans through the worst adversity and the hope that propels arriving immigrants.
And that brings me to my plea: Don’t judge, don’t excuse, but please read the background of what has brought us to this national divide, cynically manipulated by powerful interests. We know that the angry white minority is just the lever those interests have long employed to keep the races, and more recently the entire nation, divided.
The crisis in this country IS a class war, and it has been in progress for a long time. It won’t be over unless and until everyone is included – whether we think they deserve it or not. And that means a national conversation that includes the out-of-work, down-and-out, gun-totin’ people of eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia.
Read Hillbilly Elegy or Deer Hunting With Jesus. Please.
8 thoughts on “Looking for America — again …”
Excellent piece! “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” But now it seems we have many “truths” in this diverse nation of ours–conflicting stories of our past and our futures.
How can one possibly disagree with the charitable observation of Lisa Tracy? Finding a balanced view of what ails us requires some mastery of ideas and language. Brava! Seems to me a gross misreading of Angry White Men to simplistically put them in the penalty box; and it does require serious attention to seek a more nuanced view of “something is going on” that the Fear-monger-in-Chief promulgates. America loves its P.T. Barnum-type showmen and the mythic “Teddy Roosevelt” bully-narrative that supports every prejudice, every point of view. A very wise person who curates the Local History collection at National Archives in Washington, D.C., recently opened my eyes with this statement: “The study of history is not at all about the past; it is always about the future.” So, in seeking the future for the America that we want to be great “again,” we are searching for something that really never was, and will never-ever be. Yet, something IS “going on” in the guts of America. Enough Angry White Men can foment one helluva Revolution: just look at those Confederate Flags, and remember where that came from and where it led us: Moonlight & Magnolias? Or Methamphetamine, Saturday Night Specials, and McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch & dinner? Oh, Great!
If you watch the tv show Adam Ruins Everything. He does an episode called Adam Ruins Voting. Please take a half hour out of your life and dvr or get it on demand.
A great portrait of what’s up in that beautiful land of yours. I just finished the book “Listen Liberal” by Thomas Frank which also gives a real good historical look at why so many people feel left behind, powerless and plenty pissed off. And, not just white men of Appalachia! Important to understand. Thanks Lisa.
Loved your piece! Shared it with my walking group! Much discussion ensuing…everyone appreciating your teeing up this particular ball…thanks for that!
Dear Lisa, I feel your concern. As you know I never completely left Dewey, Oklahoma. I live somewhere between that world and the fringes of New York academia and elitism, which I observed for 27 years. I don’t think anybody in those little towns feels strongly enough about the elites to hate them, but there is a lot of resentment about the ACLU types that hit their culture with lawsuits that change their lives and disappear back east. My nephew Mike Bates writes a blog out of Tulsa, where he designs flight simulators, probably has a younger handle. I would also be interested in Owen’s opinion. He has feet in both worlds, and could add something significant. Always good to hear your word. Warm regards, Mike
It will take some deliberate effort to move beyond retreating to groups that support our own biases. As Lisa pointed out, all the divisions that exist in our nation, exist here locally. The civility we enjoy is achieved by avoiding discussions with groups that do not support our own narrative. I have found that the best way to start a conversation with communities that I have the biggest differences with(Tea Party Meeting, Southern Baptist Church) was to enter their environment where they are comfortable and supported to ask probing questions that highlight my concerns and implied differences. No, I have not achieved many conversions to my way of thinking. I commit to a respectful consideration of their answers. Out of that grows a respectful consideration of the contrary points of view. I do not assume that they won’t convince me of their point of view and I do not assume they will reject my concerns. I always find it a pleasant surprise to have a negative bias of my own be proven wrong. We have found common ground that builds on the possibility of moving forward in peace. Openness is what we are probing for to develop a common peaceful vision of our future.
Just read your post from Sept. 6. Your insightful comments about the community I’ve been calling home for the past eight years made me realize it’s time I learn about “the other side,” those people who are so different than me but who are my neighbors. And as I’ve been thinking over and over to myself, in the past several months, “love your neighbors–all of them, love your neighbors–all of them,” it’s time I do what I say. I’ll be reading the book very soon, learning about my neighbors, and hopefully learning to love them all.