A Letter from Blue Ridge Bush Country
Take a letter up north for me
These folks is fixin' to hurt somebody
And it sure 'nuff might be me.
-- From "Bluebird," a traditional blues song
By Joe Bageant
How can the region of America that gave us lynching, Jim Crow, Harry Byrd, George Wallace, Taliban Christianity, David Duke, the KKK, Bible hair, Tammy Fay Bakker, congregational snake handling, the poll tax, inbreeding, and chitterlings possibly take another step back down the stairs of human evolution? Beats the hell out of me. But somehow here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia we have managed it.
Like most modern Southerners who've fled their native states for long periods of time, I have the standard love/hate relationship with my home town -- Winchester, Virginia. On one hand, it is a backward and mostly irrelevant place where the question of whether Stonewall Jackson had jock itch at the Battle of Chancellorsville still rages right alongside evolution and abortion. To be sure, it is the standard venal Southern place, where poverty and ugliness are thrust into one's face daily, with all the gothic family melodramas of greed and intrigue so often written about Southern novels. On the other hand, it is the place that made me who I am, a moralizing, preachy and essentially lazy bastard who likes to drink. I was raised a Pentecostal Baptist, steeped in the gloomy ultra-Protestant assumption that man is a worthless, evil thing from birth and only goes downhill from there. And I still managed to become a raving, socialist heathen. Which proves there's hope for everyone.
But something new and more ominous is afoot down here. Something that scares even a hardened tobacco-stained old toad like me -- a clammy, repressive chill. One that not only dampens all political conversation not Pro-Bush, but can even cost you your job in a small town like this one. I'm serious. When I invite like-minded people for cocktails, the atmosphere is distinctly that of a "safehouse," as the few local liberals all but whisper their opinions and eye one another, judging just how safe it is to speak one's mind. It's spooky, so spooky almost none of us is willing to admit it.
I can remember back in the 1960s when we still had a left, right and center in politics, even here in Virginia. Gawd I feel old. Remembering liberalism here is like being able to remember scrap paper drives and ration tickets during World War II. It feels so long ago. Anyway, contrary to neocon revisionist history, neither left, right or center was particularly seen as some sort of evil booger. The left may not have been popular, but it wasn't particularly demonized either. My kids do not believe me when I tell them that even during the Vietnam War protests America was not so dangerously polarized as now, because there was only one issue at hand -- the war. Now nearly everything is at issue. Whatever the case, today in the Shenandoah we have only a right and a far right, with some very limp moderates that pass for a left.
OK, so we do have a few liberals here -- mostly transplants and retirees from "up North," old ones whose fires have long since dimmed. They come here for the cheap historic homes and easy retirement in a low tax state where you can still get domestic "help" four times a month, four hours a crack, to clean your house for less than 180 bucks. Bear in mind, however, that we set a pretty low bar for liberalism around here. If you don't say nigger out loud, have ever voted for a Democrat, and can spell latte, you qualify as a gold plated liberal. Unfortunately, even the miniscule new generation of Southern "liberals" cannot imagine speaking up on anything, much less taking to the streets in 1960s fashion. Hell, Southern liberals didn't even do it back then. But these younger Virginia liberals see members of their generation who demonstrated at the WTO talks over in D.C. as dog strangling homo kooks. For the most part, their generation of Virginians has been reduced to being either brown shirts or light brown shirts. And when they see a green shirt, well ... you gotta be queer to like green at all.
Ask practically any Winchester native. They'll tell you like it is. And it's like this: "Everyone is America's enemy these days because we Americans have the guts to stand up for what is right." That is the neocon party line down here, and it is served up with lots of patriot sauce and fear. Even the Europeans are now our enemies. We must become super-militarized because we have the greatest life style in the world and everyone else is jealous of our personal weaponry, our lack of health insurance and our sheer obesity. Americans love to believe that their gut level but uninformed opinions are some sort of unvarnished foundational political truths. Nowhere is this more true than here in the Valley, where the "Screw a bunch of pointy headed multi-cultural "librul types" is scriptural, and there is a special place in hell for those operating on the reckless assumption that some people are wiser than others and that their opinion just might be worth listening to.
"Europeans are gutless. The U.N. is helpless," goeth the litany, "And it is up to us to run the world." If I've heard this once, I've heard it a dozen times. Five dozen times. The real question here is whether being down-in-the-dirt ignorant makes you a bad person. It's the never ending conundrum of the South. The jury has been out on that one for 200 years.
Longer than that in our town, which even George Washington called one of the most ignorant, mean spirited and predatory places in all the colonies. Later however, Washington rolled out the barrels of rum on main street and the same mean spirited lot who had been preying on his soldiers elected him to the Virginia House of Burgesses.
Since then, predation has been institutionalized. Down at city hall rich slumlords, which own 56% of Winchester, roam like grazing animals, picking up properties from the elderly widow or the bankrupt redneck who lost his job at the styrofoam peanut factory for mentioning the word union. We are an anti-union state, therefore we earn only three-quarters of the national average and can be fired tomorrow if we even fart wrong. Local companies maintain a pro-union blacklist. Our city and county governments consists mostly of car dealers who put their homely daughters in TV commercials, and millionaire real estate hotwires and landlords setting up fixes and business connections within the city government. All this while our girthsome, ill-educated polity hoots, cheers and guffaws at a Fox network made-for-the masses political movie called "America, the Baddest Dog on the Block," as the power elite pick every pocket in the audience through regressive taxes, stopping only to loot the local treasury on their way out the back door to that money insulated estate they bought for a song. They are safe from prosecution because their crimes were codified into law down here during and after the reconstruction era. It's the newest "New South" ladies and gentlemen, much like the old one, but with three more layers of lawyers and realtors. Free market capitalism, Dixie fried. Now from your vantage point up north or out west, you might well observe that we are getting exactly the government and society we deserve. But then, if we Southerners long ago got the government we deserve, the rest of America is now getting a dose of the same beefed up predatory Darwinism. Contrary to all logic, it is the blue collar NASCAR dads, the ones who get screwed at every turn on the track, who are the staunchest defenders of this feudal system. They are also the most rabid fans of our current national belligerence toward the rest of the world. Said belligerence is particularly manifest in the Virginian's love of personal firearms. Deeply insecure because it seems we can control nothing these days, kids, job security, health care, retirement, the goddam goat roasting Mexican neighbors. Personal weaponry makes us feel at least a little more potent and able to defend against who knows what. "Long as I got my gun ..."
Meanwhile, the very same polical/corporate syndicate that screws NASCAR daddy blue is also gouging him bloody for healthcare. Which is a big deal here because we are a very unhealthy people. (Ugly too, but that doesn't count.) Our huge new regional medical center is by far the largest cause of local bankruptcies. So finally, when the local Styrofoam peanut factory -- the one that makes our cancer risk over 100 times the national average -- says the hell with it and cuts workers, NASCAR loses his house and the slumlord is right there at the sale. At least he managed to save the Dale Earnhardt Number 3 commemorative beer cooler and a couple of other family heirlooms.
When a local plant moves kit and kaboodle to Asia, its marginal white male employee, like a tireless but not very smart gun dog, freezes on point and barks "Asians! The sumnabitches stole our jobs!" But lest even a slow dog catch on to a bad point, the Republican politicos wave him toward Iraq: "Over there! A swarthy bad guy called Saddam done hauled off and killed all them New Yorkers!" Git 'um boys!" HYYYYYEEEEEE! The rebel yell goes down at Bo's Belly Barn -- honest to god, it's a real place -- and the marginal white males again turn dogs of war. They didn't do all that paintball practice in the woods for nothing.
Down here, the military is second in reverence only to Christian fundamentalism; War is an honor bound duty. In fact, the military is hardwired in with the fundamentalist Christain madrasses up and down the Shenandoah Valley cranking out 18-year-old Rambos for Jesus on a production line. These are the ones presently rotating into Iraq, who will return to get their community college certificates in law enforcement (maybe). Those like my nephews, one of whom keeps his .357 Glock in the nightstand -- and the Bible on the nightstand with the personal weapons permit for the Glock inside the Bible. To him, I'm sure there is a fundamental Christian symmetry in this. Just as there is to my other nephew who just completed, along with his wife yet, study of criminology and the Bible at Bob Jones University. Like their parents, they know what has gone wrong in America, who is responsible and how to correct the situation. Just ask yourself: Who would Jesus kill? Muslims are always hollerin' to meet Allah, and they're more than happy to provide .45 caliber cab fare to heaven. Imagine their Christian faces when they get to heaven and find out the Muslim's next door got all the virgins. Conversely, there are plenty of radical Muslims more than happy to help them enjoy the Rapture. Fundamentalists on both sides are apocalyptic, both pack a lot of heat.
They've got the heat. They've got the meat, they've got the motion. And they are going to, as one radio preacher down here says, "Put god back into the constitution." All Virginia's neocons lack is a truly inspired and brilliant leader. Thankfully, they elected a gibbon to the White House, because there is nearly enough politically in place down here to create a scenario such as we have not seen since 1936 Germany. Like I tell the ole boys down at the Royal Lunch Tavern: "Try not to be too impressed by the purty brown shirts when they hand them out. You ain't seen the price tag yet."
OK then, how to survive all this? Well, it helps to have been born here. So does age. And at my age, having seen many elections and as many wars, I no longer bother to entertain opposing views. Screw Southern politeness, most of which is just avoidance anyway. I rant my commie screed. No problemo. I don't work in this town. Nor do I go to church, at least not frequently enough to be recognized. I have a full bar in my home, and my memory is still good. Good enough to summon up memories of old lovers and sun struck days of an LSD besotted hippie youth, when the very earth murmured its love for my sheer existence, for everyone's really. And I would have you know that the lone brain cell I have been operating on since 1965 is still working just fine, thank you. It's one helluva BIG cell. Doctors tell me it's a double-yolker, weighs about two pounds and responds primarily these days to red meat, gin and sex, even the internet kind. I couldn't be happier with the situation.
Nevertheless, I'm here to tell you this: You goddam Yankee liberals, gays and other malignant types had better get out and vote. Every last one of you. Otherwise, there's no telling what all this beer, guns and inbreeding might lead to.
I'm done ranting. You can go now. And while you are up, fetch me my gin.