Category Archives: Look for America

And about West Virginia …

OK, I promise this is the last time you’ll hear from me about the severe disconnect in this country, at least until after Nov. 8.

I voted for President Obama twice and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I hope he goes down in history as the smart, courageous, compassionate human being he is, and for all he has accomplished.

It turns out, in the latest New Yorker, that a big chunk of West Virginia voted for him too. That was a surprise, to me at least.

But this time they’re voting for Trump. And “Trump Country” explains why. An excerpt:

Trump seemed … to treat West Virginia like family, and he had noticed that many West Virginians in return treated Trump like family, brushing off the things he said that sounded nuts or that they didn’t agree with. “In Iraq, I listened to David Petraeus speak every day about how we had to rebuild Iraq’s oil infrastructure and protect it,” Richard Ojeda says. “But, if we’re going to go to trillions of dollars in debt over Iraq, why can’t we go billions of dollars in debt and make every single coal-producing plant clean in West Virginia? Don’t we deserve a hand? We built this country with the steel that came out of our coal, and we protected this country with our soldiers, and nobody cares. We’re more willing to give millions of dollars to people in other countries who’d just as soon put a bullet in the back of our heads. That’s why West Virginia is going to vote for Trump.”

The thing is, it really doesn’t matter whether we agree with, like, or admire each other at this point. If we don’t resolve our differences in some way, we’re pretty much doomed. Of course that includes differences with people we may have been taught to disregard, disrespect, even despise. My sister says the core Trump constituency is made up of people who know they’ve pretty much been written off, personally and economically. I think she’s right.

I’m seeking to start with understanding, hoping for discourse.

The link:


Fifteen years … so much has happened that we couldn’t have foretold, in these fifteen years. But today I am not thinking about all we might wish to have changed, or what we now know about ourselves and the world that we didn’t know that we knew, on that day.

Today I heard from a friend who was working for FEMA that day. And I’m thinking of another who was living in New York.

Susan, then working for FEMA, sends this:

I was supposed to fly to Europe that evening .  Instead, FEMA deployed me …  I was assigned to Arlington to do what we could for Virginians affected by the attack on the Pentagon.  My daily morning task was listening to the general brief families. Day after day we were told about non-viewable remains recovered from the rubble of the Pentagon.  I accompanied the families on the last site visit before it was closed. As difficult as being in Washington was, I was grateful not to be called to New York, which held so many more personal connections.  I still struggle with retirement and have been going through  years of files.

My young friend Emily was living in the Apple, bartending at an East Side sports bar.  New York was her dream. She lived on Liberty Street, right under the towers. She called them her mountains – they were central to her love of New York and her life in the city, a landmark that could take her safely home to her little shared apartment in  southern Manhattan no matter what the time of day or night.

That morning, she woke to thunder in the sky and an earthquake below. Her building was vibrating. She threw on her new Nikes and ran to the roof. There she saw it all – the flames, the wavering buildings, the people leaping from their windows. She was maybe 22. “We have to run, they’re going to fall,” she told her roommate. They fled their tiny building and ran – ran in their pajamas amid falling debris and burning shreds of paper – across Manhattan to the Brooklyn Bridge. Across the Brooklyn Bridge to safety at a friend’s apartment.

They all survived that day, those young people, and they are living and working and thriving as I write this. But I know that a part of their core being, in their minds and their hearts, remains forever rooted in that day.

And so it is for those of us who stood farther from the hideous signal of a world we did not completely, perhaps at all, understand. We are still struggling to get to sanity. Let it be.



Looking for America — again …

“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.

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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.


Jim Webb, Joe Bageant, Harper Lee, and the rest of us

Yeah, I really wish Jim Webb hadn’t dropped out of the race so fast.

I am living next door to the heart of Appalachia, 12 miles from where Jim Webb’s grandparents are buried.

So when Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War (Joe Bageant, Three Rivers Press, 2007) showed up in our local bookstore, I bought a copy.

You should too. It will explain a lot about why Donald Trump is shattering the GOP; why we have unfettered mass shootings nationwide; why our schools are failing, race is still an issue, and people are living in deteriorating double-wides.

Jim Webb understands all of that. So does Joe Bageant. It’s about class warfare and Calvinism. And so – oh, yeah – it also explains Ted Cruz and a bunch of other stuff. Read the book. Please.

Webb and Bageant both grew up on the edge of America. The poor white edge. Both transcended the world they were born to. Both understand that even that world, with its fingernail grip on the phantom of the American Dream, no longer exists.

And in a nutshell, folks, that’s our problem. That’s why our fellow citizens are flocking to Trump.

America is broken. And until we fix it, we are all screwed, as surely as the disenfranchised lower LOWER middle class men and women who used to work the night shift at Rubbermaid in Winchester, VA, like Joe Bageant’s family.

I don’t have a solution, and neither does Bageant – but at least he can give you a complete understanding of the problem. And if Jim Webb could have gained any traction, I thought he might have been able to help us solve it.

Here’s the thing: Up through the civil rights struggles of the ‘60s, the poorest whites in America were kept in check by the belief that they were better than African Americans, and that if they just sucked it up long enough, they – the poor white class – would be allowed to rise into the middle class. And sometimes that happened. They knew that the implicit, complicit, immoral but handy race divide insured that THEY would never be at the bottom of the heap. So they had hope.

This is something that Harper Lee understood very well. In the wake of her death, her bifurcated take on Atticus Finch has been in the news again. His daughter Scout’s Uncle Jack, in Go Tell a Watchman, sums it up this way: “Up popped Tobacco Road … For years and years, all that man thought he had that made him any better than his black brothers was the color of his skin … he sits nursing his hangover of hatred … Look at the rest of the country. It’s long since gone by the South in its thinking. America’s a brave new Atomic world and the South’s just beginning the Industrial Revolution.”

That’s Ms. Lee’s take on the South of the 1960s. But what Bageant explains – and Jim Webb very well understands – is how in the wake of globalization, even that hope is gone. As it should be, all things considered – because it was ALWAYS a class war. It was always a class war. It was just disguised as a race war.

The real kicker, as Bageant explains, is that the poorest white class who were concentrated in one place and had been here the longest – in the American South and every place it has now reached to — are of Calvinist descent. THAT means that they believe – again, in a nutshell – that if they are not succeeding, it is because they have sinned.

Conversely, if they see someone succeeding – someone like Jerry Falwell or Donald Trump – they KNOW that he is living in God’s grace.

The irony, of course, is that it brings them to follow, vote for, and believe in the very class that is exploiting them. They believe what they hear from those who’ve succeeded at their expense. The class war that might have led them to unionize, or at least protest – and to get to know people of other races who are fighting the same injustices – that war has virtually been lost.

By now it is all probably completely unconscious and subliminal. But it is THERE. And it explains a lot: Fox News. Donald Trump. Even mass shootings. The despair and anger that have no viable outlet.

Bageant explains how, in his hometown, the local people of means manipulate exhausted Rubbermaid workers by their superior knowledge of who and what you should be voting for – and also by covert intimidation. Those few exhausted workers who still DO have jobs are getting less pay and fewer benefits than of old. And their jobs could go abroad most any time.

The rest of the populace is working two or three jobs without any benefits or job security, and they are way too exhausted to think through what their “betters” are telling them.

It doesn’t fool Bageant. Or Webb. And it will continue to haunt us until someone actually figures out a viable, practical way to make America whole again. Clinton? Sanders? It’s a tall order.

Where is that FDR guy when you need him?

Selma and Beyond; Honoring John Lewis

Fifty years since Selma, since the Edmund Pettus Bridge, thoughts of all that we all have been through are news. They’re also in our hearts and minds as we see the film SELMA, as we read the newspapers, perhaps as we catch a sound bite of President Obama speaking on that bridge.

So it was with great anticipation that we took our seats on Wednesday in Virginia Military Institute’s Cameron Hall to witness an award being given to Congressman John Lewis.

Congressman, and so much more. A man who in his own words has walked with the wind. Son of sharecroppers. Civil rights leader on that fateful Bloody Sunday on the bridge, and for all the years since. We expected eloquence. He gave us that and a whole lot more – humor, inspiration, and a challenge not to forget who we are and what this country’s promise has always been.

He said:

  • When he was a child, and he’d see the signs of segregation everywhere – “White” – “Colored” on the signage and in the faces and the body language of everyone around him – he’d ask his parents, “WHY?” They’d tell him, Don’t make waves. Don’t ask questions. Be a good boy and stay out of trouble.
  • But sometimes you have to make trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble. Martin Luther King, he said, made good trouble. Necessary trouble. So did young Jonathan Myrick Daniels, VMI graduate, seminary student, civil rights activist. Daniels was the reason John Lewis was with us that day. More on that shortly. But John Lewis also said,
  • “I thought I would die on that bridge that day” as the billy club came down and the horses surged forward. “I thought I saw death that day. I thought I saw death.”
  • What we did – what he and King and Daniels and so many others did in those tumultuous, too often fatal years, yet years of hope and progress, what THEY did “saved the soul of America.”

John Lewis was there to receive the Jonathan M. Daniels ’61 Humanitarian Award from VMI. It is only the fourth time it has been given in almost 20 years. Earlier recipients were Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young, and international humanitarian Dr. Paul Hebert.

Jonathan Daniels was working in civil rights in Alabama, outside of Selma, when he gave his life to take the gunshot intended for a 17-year-old African American, one of his fellow protesters. Ruby Sales went on to attend theological seminary, work as a social activist, and found SpiritHouse in Washington, DC.

John Lewis also reminded us that we must not say we haven’t made progress. Those signs, those “White” and “Colored” signs, he said, will not be seen again except in museums. Books. Films. And the young men and women of VMI who sat listening, he said, must carry it on.

If anyone can say this now, in spite of Ferguson, in spite of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, in spite of all we see around us, it is John Lewis.

We hear you, Congressman Lewis. This country was founded on great promise with a subtext fabric of some lies. Can we now unveil them, confront them, lay them to rest? And do we start making the necessary trouble?

Main Street and MLK

20150119_MLK Main Street[1]

Let me take you for a walk down Main Street.

There are four churches here on Main Street – the first is Manly Memorial Baptist, you see that one on the right, right up front. Manly is a local family name hereabouts and the Manly Mem. website will tell you this church community goes back to 1841 and is supporting work in the Ebola crisis today.

Right across the street from Manly Memorial is Buck’s Barber Shop in that little blue and white house. Main Street is a definite mix of architecture. You can’t see Manly’s dome in this photo, but it is impressive. The dome, I mean.

A ways down the street on the left is the United Methodist Church, where we had Girl Scout meetings in fifth grade and earned our Sewing badge. Across from there is the county administrative building – used to be a department store that when I was a little girl had separate bathrooms for “white” and “colored.” Next to that is the library, and just down the street on the right is Lexington Presbyterian Church, where T.J. “Stonewall” Jackson was an elder, even though he was still quite young, before the Civil War.

But the church whose steeple you can barely see, down near the foot of the Main Street hill, is the one I’m most interested in. It is the only church on Main Street founded by a black congregation, and it’s where we met on the night of Jan. 17 to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.

And that birthday is the reason I took this picture from the viewpoint I did. I wanted you to see the flags. Maybe you can see that there are American flags and Virginia flags. There are no replicas of Confederate battle flags, and this was the subject of very heated debate a couple of years ago, when the Sons of Confederate Veterans went before City Council to request permission to hang replica flags on the city flag posts for Lee-Jackson Day, a Virginia state holiday that coincidentally falls on the Friday before MLK Day each year. It’s true that Lee-Jackson Day came first, but the Council said no. You can march carrying Confederate flags and wear Confederate grey. You can fly whatever flag you choose on your own property. But not on the city streets.

So the presence of the American and Virginia flags, which occupy every pole from the south end of town to the north and on across Veterans Bridge, are seen as a conscious statement of the city’s choice.

But the debate continues. Virginia Flaggers, as they are now known, picket periodically at the foot of the hill below Lee Chapel, where Robert E. Lee is buried. This year’s Lee-Jackson Day parade began as usual at Jackson’s grave in Stonewall Jackson Cemetery at the south end of town and processed down Main Street to Lexington Presbyterian, where a memorial service was held. Civil War history lectures were advertised by the SCV on banners across Main Street , as were Martin Luther King celebrations, by Washington & Lee University, which had earlier removed Confederate flag replicas from the Lee Chapel, closed the chapel for renovations, and scheduled 10 days of events honoring King.

I went to the opening evening of the MLK celebration, a simple service that is held annually at First Baptist Church, that one at the foot of Main Street. A rock quintet known as the MLK Combo opened the evening with a stunning soul rendition of “This Land is Your Land.” The service consists of the reading, in sections, of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, interwoven with music by W&L’s three a cappella groups. It is moving beyond words. But the evening begins with the whole congregation/audience on its feet singing “We Shall Overcome.”

As we began to sing, an African-American woman across the aisle from me stepped into the aisle and held out her hand. I stepped into the aisle and took her hand in mine, then reached to my right and took my friend’s hand. Everyone around us and behind us joined hands, and we sang, “Deep in my heart, I do believe …”

And we sat down and listened as Dr. King’s words rolled out like a mighty river.

His dream still holds unfulfilled promise, and until his message is as present in the media and in our minds as are the scandals on college campuses or the gridlock in Congress, his work — and ours — is not done.

Meanwhile, I thank my neighbor for holding out her hand.

Oh Annie, Where Art Thou?

Have you seen the promos for the new ANNIE movie? They are hellzapoppin’ in the best sense, from what I’ve seen … I think I will even go see it, though it is contending with THE IMITATION GAME (on cracking the Enigma code) and a bunch of other top-drawer stuff ~ Oscar contenders all ~ this holiday season. Meanwhile …

Orphan Annie Comic Strip via
Courtesy of

The advent of yet another ANNIE incarnation took me back. Waaaaay back. Around 1975, I profiled Shelley Bruce, who replaced Andrea McArdle on Broadway. She was the cover story for our Entertainment section in Shelley’s hometown paper, the Passaic Herald-News, where I was working … But my thoughts of Annie go way farther back, back to Sunday mornings after church, sprawling on the living room floor over the two sections of the Washington Post funnies, divided with my sister. Would you get the section with “Terry and the Pirates” first, or the one with “Little Orphan Annie”? Either way, the message was clear, as it was also with “Steve Canyon” and “The Phantom”: There was evil afoot, and it was totally MYSTERIOUS evil, but the good guys — our guys — would triumph in the end.

For an eight-year-old, this was probably at least as reassuring as whatever we’d learned in Sunday school that day. But now it comes back to haunt me: Who WERE those masked men? Who the heck, more pertinently now, WAS Daddy Warbucks, why were Punjab and the Asp his trusted sidekicks, and why was it so important to protect Little Annie and (Arf!) Sandy?

A search for their creator Harold Gray doesn’t yield much. He himself was orphaned early, and the comics pages of newspapers became his adopted family. He’s said to have started as a populist but grew deeply conservative after the New Deal ~ once a champion of the working poor, ending up deeply hostile to whoever might be undermining America by “taking handouts.”

What caught my fancy, however, was the name Warbucks. “Daddy” in the strip was a self-made man (can you say “war bucks”? This strip rose to its heights between the two World Wars, during the Depression era … ).So what we have here is a guy richer than Croesus OR the Koch brothers … with a heart big enough to take in an orphan and her mangy mutt  … and a guy in a turban, that’s Punjab, and one of the Men in Black, that’s the Asp. And they all have … wait for it … BLANK EYES. Even the dog.  As the Cold War came on, Gray was known to be interested in espionage, but cast of characters and their blank eyes long predate the CIA. They’re from the era when the Great Powers were carving up the Middle East.

So what exactly DO these three guys do when they’re not saving Annie and the world from the forces of evil? Beats me, but it all seems oddly pertinent. Maybe even prescient. And you won’t find it on the big screen this December. For any prophetic metaphor about the world we are living in right now — as depicted in a guy named Warbucks and his two shady sidekicks saving a damsel in distress — for that, well, we’ll just have to read between the lines.