Tag Archives: Hillary Clinton

“From heres” and “come heres” ~ Rockbridge County ctd.

 

Do I know you?

The way her eyes narrow says it all. She’s walking toward me as I drive across Myers Street and raise my hand in the customary (hereabouts) greeting-in-passing.

Her face bears the stamp of our mountain country: weathered skin, strong bones, creases at the corners of those pale blue eyes that traveled across the North Atlantic a couple of centuries ago, the creases proof of years of outdoor work.

Her gray hair is neat and nondescript and she is wearing a purple sweatsuit, a nice one.  She is clearly not someone who steps out for a trip to the post office or a walk around the block without some forethought.

What’s it to you,  I hear her thinking as I put my hand back on the wheel. Not for her this Johnny-come-lately habit of waving at strangers. Back in the day, you only greeted people you actually knew, from church or school or perhaps the grocery store, and that’s good enough for her. None of this raising a hand or doing the two-finger waggle now popular on our narrow county roads as two vehicles weave past each other.

I stand reproved. She is right. I’m not from here, even though I was born in this very town more than sixty years ago. I am not a “from-here.” My family were outlanders, “come heres,” and from the North to boot, which sometimes still matters here.

She is not. She is from here, and these mountains are truly her home, their shifting patterns of light and shadow ingrained in her being from so far before birth that she has to stop and count the generations. And count them she can. They are buried in a family cemetery somewhere in the county, or in old church cemeteries with names like Ebenezer or New Providence.

I want to protest. I grew  up here. I too know the light and the shadow, and I see – or rather hear, coming back from the flatlands where I spent most of my adulthood – how in the mountains, the sound only travels from one end of the hollow to the other. It does not travel miles, the way it does over flat land, so that you might hear the noise of a highway five miles distant if the wind is blowing your way.

Not here. Here, you will only hear what the mountains let you hear. You will not hear the dog or the child or the highway from the other side of the ridge line.

And I want to tell her that I too see how their colors change, these mountains, how right now they wait for fall’s flaming brilliance but will soon  lie brown and sleeping in the winter sun. How the spines of their leafless trees stand up like prickly fur. How they will turn pale green in spring, darker in summer, flame bright again in autumn. How we can walk their trails and listen to the birds call.

But we won’t have that conversation, she and I. There are many divisions besides ridgelines in these mountains. She is of the tribe J.D. Vance calls his “hill people,” and I know it is a term of hard-earned and well-deserved respect. But we won’t have that conversation either. Her purple sweatsuit recedes in my rearview mirror, and we go on into our respective days.

Photo caption:  Looking across Rockbridge County to the Blue Ridge from the top of the road where I live … this is her ancestral land. I’m just a “come here,” but it is my land too.

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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?