“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.