Category Archives: Look for America

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.

Remembering Dec. 7

VMI on Nov 11 2014 (2)

I’ve been talking for the past six months with men who were cadets at Virginia Military Institute during World War II and the years surrounding it. Their lives were forever changed on this day, 73 years ago. One of them remembers he was returning to barracks when he heard the news. For him, as for many nationwide, the first question actually was, “Where’s Pearl Harbor”? They, and their country, would soon know all too well.

The day that would live in infamy would call these men, soon to be young officers, to the shores of North Africa, Normandy and the Rhine; to radar stations in England; to bombing missions over Germany and Japan; and even to the prison camps of war. Some knew only the disruption of seemingly endless training, and are chagrined not to have seen the field of battle. Others never returned from it.

On this day, I pause to honor them all. The Institute was indeed heard from, following that day.


We remember: 1963

May 1963: Kilbourne and Kennedy at the White House.
May 1963: Kilbourne and Kennedy at the White House.

Charles Kilbourne meets John Kennedy in May 1963, as oldest living Medal of Honor recipient. Six months later, they died within a week of each other. Both are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Rest in peace. Live on in spirit. May we carry on what they began.