“…because I couldn’t find a food that tasted good to me.”

“I’ve been a contrarian most of my life opposing stupidity, bigotry, racism, gender issues (under whatever banner), and oppression across the board never giving a shit who it was I was speaking against, but always specific and true to the people I sought to speak with not for, people who could not speak up for themselves and those who could.”

That is from a piece, Contrarian That I Am, by S.C. Hickman. I hadn’t given it much thought before, but reading that made me realize I’ve never thought of myself as a contrarian. Yet I have little doubt that there are those who would perceive me that way. I do have strongly voiced opinions motivated by a strong sense of morality. I’m not tolerant of bullshit. Still, I find no happiness in contradicting others or challenging the world, out of some sense of personal identity of opposition.

I understand what Hickman is expressing, though. He gets right to the point:

“Most of all was this deep knowing that I must go my own way, contrary to all that was dear to my people, and against the powers of church, state, and history. Something was driving to understand and know what it is that makes us so fucked up. Maybe that’s been my mission all along, to understand why humanity – this animal of planet earth is the only animal who could not accept its place in the order of things. We’ve always sought more, something else, to transcend our place in the natural order.”

Yes, to understand and know. But even that comes from a deeper sense. I don’t really know what motivates me. I often resonate with the concluding thoughts of the “Hunger Artist” by Fanz Kafka. In being asked why he fasts, the hunger artist states simply that it’s “because I couldn’t find a food that tasted good to me” — for the full context:

“Are you still fasting?” the supervisor asked. “When are you finally going to stop?” “Forgive me everything,” whispered the hunger artist. Only the supervisor, who was pressing his ear up against the cage, understood him. “Certainly,” said the supervisor, tapping his forehead with his finger in order to indicate to the staff the state the hunger artist was in, “we forgive you.” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “But we do admire it,” said the supervisor obligingly. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then, we don’t admire it,” said the supervisor, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I have to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist. “Just look at you,” said the supervisor, “why can’t you do anything else?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and, with his lips pursed as if for a kiss, speaking right into the supervisor’s ear so that he wouldn’t miss anything, “because I couldn’t find a food that tasted good to me. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.” Those were his last words, but in his failing eyes there was still the firm, if no longer proud, conviction that he was continuing to fast.

On Conflict and Stupidity

There was a sad conflict that I came across the other day. I read about it as told by one of those involved, Kayla Renee Parker (Beware of Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing).

It was between Parker who is a black college student and the white lady who was her professor. Both are avowed anti-racists and it apparently became a holier-than-thou fight between two social justice warriors. The student was probably being an immature antagonistic asshole. And the professor was acting less than professional and civility went out the window once she began venting on social media.

I’m not sure that in the end it actually had much to do with racism itself, as both sides had problematic understandings. No doubt the professor’s less than clear quiz question was to blame for the initial confrontation. And Parker in the original version of her article dismissed a black scholar because she thought he was white, as if the value of his scholarship was determined by the color of his skin. It maybe had more to do with two people with personality issues, although the professor in a position of authority had less excuse for her misbehavior.

My initial response was to side with the student, even with her immaturity. She is young and so it is expected that she would be immature. The professor did come off as arrogant, the kind of liberal class intellectual that irritates me. And her Facebook posts were the complete opposite of what a professor should be saying in public, although she probably didn’t understand privacy settings and so possibly didn’t realize that she wasn’t just privately venting. Anyway, it’s hard for me to feel too bad about her career being destroyed, even if the student shouldn’t take pride in having helped. That professor (now former professor, I assume) has serious issues and maybe should seek a different career or at least counseling.

On the other hand, after reading the comments section, I saw some of the criticisms of Parker’s account of the situation. It made me realize that I’d want to hear the professor’s side of the story before making any final judgment. But in the end, I don’t really care. People fight all the time, especially those looking for a fight. Both people involved seem to have wanted a fight and so I guess they both got what they wanted. It’s not my concern.

There was one thing that I noticed that was of interest to me, as it connected to other thoughts I’ve had recently. In a discussion about this heated altercation, some social media postings by the professor were shared in the comments section (I forget where I saw this). One was an old tweet maybe from last year where the professor quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “On Stupidity.” As I recall, it was in reference to Trump voters and so she was basically calling them stupid. This is standard partisan posturing. It’s how many in the liberal class always perceive those on the political right, and it is true that the average Republican IQ is lower than the average Democratic IQ, for whatever that is worth (I might argue that this makes the ignorant stupidity seen among too many Democrats to be even more inexcusable, as it can’t be blamed on mere lack of intellectual ability).

No matter who is involved, conflict can have a way of making people stupid. And we are a society riven by conflict. I was just discussing this in terms of inequality, stating that: “People, under extreme duress and unhealthy conditions, tend to think and act stupidly and that stupidity gets magnified on the collective level.” A central point I made is that this negatively affects everyone, including the middle-to-upper classes. In that post, I quoted from Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder:

“Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.”

This is directly related to Bonhoeffer’s “On Stupidity.” He was talking about Germans under the Nazis, but his writings are directed toward a greater understanding of our shared humanity. Bonhoeffer is a useful case to study, as he took seriously what it meant to be a good person in a not-so-good world. The United States is a divided society, even if not as violently and oppressively divided as Nazi Germany. The one way in which this country is more divided is in terms of inequality, as it is the greatest degree of inequality the world has ever before seen. Even though we don’t have concentration camps (yet), this kind of economic division and segregation has severe consequences.

This goes to a point that Bonhoeffer was making. It’s not just about stupidity on an individual level but about stupidity as an oppressive atmosphere. Accordingly, he wrote that stupidity “is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one… And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem.” He is basically referring to what some would call groupthink and tribal politics, the conditions under which people lose the capacity for independent thought. People get caught up in conflict without understanding what is really dividing them. Ignorance and fear is a bad combination.

This ‘stupidity’ might better be thought of in terms of psychological dissociation and cognitive dissonance. As is made clear, it isn’t mere intellectual inadequacy. More than anything, it is a failure of awareness and imagination. The mind is constrained and so, no matter how smart people are in terms of IQ tests, they end up expressing a kind of stupidity. Their full cognitive resources aren’t being used to a degree that would be most optimal. Their minds are shackled and their vision has blinders.

For some reason, this kind of ‘stupidity’ wasn’t as apparent to me when I was younger. Something seemed wrong with the world, of course. Still, I didn’t entirely appreciate how a particular culture and social order could shape how people think and even how they are able to perceive the world around them. It was only after spending more time on the internet in the early 2000s that the human mind was more obviously laid bare for my viewing pleasure. It was a shock to my system. Maybe I was naive, but I had a basic faith in humans back then. I assumed that most ignorance was passive, not willful. That the problem was a lack of access, not a lack of curiosity. It turns out that I was horribly wrong.

I remember one of the early incidents that was incomprehensible to me. The local newspaper, the Iowa City Press Citizen, created a comment section for their online articles. This was used mostly as a local forum. I was attracted to this because this is a highly educated town and I expected high quality discussion, but I ended up being disappointed.

There was one situation where I was trying to make a factual-based argument and so I linked to the source of the relevant piece of data. I was utterly shocked that these well educated people wouldn’t look at or acknowledge facts that didn’t support their preconceived opinions. That didn’t fit my apparently idealized view of what it meant to be well educated. It was a weird experience because it literally would have only taken a minute to look at the evidence. It never occurred to me that, besides a few dogmatic cranks, so many people would be disinterested in informed debate. I’ve come to realize, all these years later, that it is a rare person who is all that curious to learn anything new.

A woman that was involved in that online discussion seemed like a nice person and a good liberal. She was college educated and had worked as a social worker. Her views were in many ways progressive and she probably was a partisan Democrat. She was a more or less typical example of a liberal class professional. I had talked to her in many discussions and in private messages. I genuinely liked her, but she was completely stuck in her opinions. As someone who has changed views over my lifetime, I always assumed that changing one’s views was a normal human ability and not a rare, exceptional heroic act. When I see new info, I rethink my beliefs and conclusions, occasionally even coming to question my biases and assumptions. I appreciate new info that forces me into new views. It’s a pleasurable, not traumatic, experience. Why would anyone resist new info? I will never understand that.

I was intrigued to come across this woman’s name in a book about local race issues, A Transplanted Chicago by Robert E. Gutsche Jr. I don’t feel like stating her name, but I’ll give you her initials (M.H.C.) which would allow you to quickly figure out her name if you looked at the back section of the book, in the List of Names and Terms. Gutsche uses her as an example because she became one of the select members of the newspaper’s “Writers Group.” Using her experience and authority as having been a social worker, she wrote a racist/racialist article that was published (Kindle Locations 1820-1825):

“While this piece was not written by a newspaper staff writer, it was selected by an editor and commissioned by the opinion page editor; in fact, after this story appeared in 2010, I spoke with both the author and the editor about what I considered its incendiary language (i.e., “inner-city refugees”), broad characterizations (i.e., “perpetrators of urban decay”), and how this particular story contributed to overall coverage of the Southeast Side. Both the article’s author and the editor said that the language was provocative, but said that, in fact, that is what they wanted. Indeed, [M.H.C.] told me that her opinion page editor encouraged her to “stir up” the opinion page and blogs through her writing.”.

So, she was stirring up the pot of shit when racial tensions are already high in a city known for its institutional racism (the county has one of the highest racial disparities of drug arrests in the country). This was at a time when violent crime had been steadily declining for a couple of decades. As the percentage of minorities increased in town, the rate of violent crime had simultaneously gone down. Yet the local media obsessed over racializing issues and scapegoating the small number of blacks that moved here. Now consider the fact that this is a highly liberal college town, as Solid Blue as they come and filled with Hillary Clinton supporters — you might remember her as the first lady of a sitting president who called black youth super-predators that had to be brought to heel, in a speech she gave in support of the racialized crime bill her husband signed into law (and her husband, by the way, a few years earlier campaigned by standing in front of shackled black prisoners with the infamous Klan site of Stone Mountain in the background).

This is the kind of dark-hearted, cynical stupidity that America is so well known for. The reason it is stupid is because the very privileged liberals who attack right-wingers as bigots will shamelessly spin dog-whistle rhetoric or else support those who do so. They can’t even see it in themselves, as it isn’t part of their conscious identity and worldview. It’s the same basic psychology that allowed so many Germans to not know what was happening under the Nazis. People simply don’t want to know what makes them uncomfortable. This is made possible because of the social conditions when inequality takes hold — leading to divisiveness, isolation, partisanship, fear, and anxiety. The collective mind shuts down. This is a mass stupidity that spreads like a shadow upon populations, from local communities to entire nations. All the individual has to do is fall in line and not question, not think too deeply.

Bonhoeffer’s short piece on stupidity should be read in full. I offer it below. But I wanted to frame it. In Letters and Papers From Prison, “On Stupidity” is directly between two other pieces — before it is “On Success” and following it is “Contempt for Humanity?”. Looking at these other pieces gives a larger perspective of his thought. From “On Success,” he begins with these words:

“Even though it is indeed not true that success also justifies the evil deed and the reprehensible means, it is similarly out of the question to regard success as something that is ethically wholly neutral. It so happens that historical success creates the ground on which alone life can go on. The question remains as to whether it is ethically more responsible to go to war like Don Quixote against a new age or, conceding one’s defeat and freely consenting to it, finally to serve the new age. Success, after all, makes history, and the One who guides history always creates good from the bad over the head of the men who make history. It is a short circuit when the stickler for principle, thinking ahistorically and hence irresponsibly, simply ignores the ethical significance of success. It is good that for once we are forced to engage seriously the ethical problem of success. As long as the good is successful, we can afford the luxury of thinking of success as ethically irrelevant. But the problem arises once evil means bring about success.”

That is what I so often see as a moral justification, success. Partisan politics always is about how to win or how to maintain power. It isn’t about doing what is right or rather what is right is determined by those who control the narrative. Even the most popular of candidates holding majority positions like Bernie Sanders are dismissed out of a bizarre logic that the lesser evil, no matter how weak of a candidate, is the only practical option and only moral choice. This ends up being self-defeating, which is to say stupid, because Sanders had a better chance of defeating the greater evil of Trump than did the lesser evil option of Clinton. Not much of a lesser evil, it turns out.

It goes far beyond partisan politics, of course. The most obvious form it takes is the realpolitik of geopolitics, unsurprisingly supported by the likes of the Clinton New Democrats. The US government constantly acts in ways that worsens the problems that we are facing, such as supposedly fighting terrorism by harming vast numbers of innocent people and the inevitable result is to radicalize those populations into even greater support for terrorism against the US. It’s a stupidity that dominates our entire society. Yet it always presents itself as pragmatic and realistic, often fueled by an ignorant righteousness along with fear-mongering patriotism. Might makes right. No one can doubt that the US is successful in terms of material wealth and military power. But success to what end?

This brings us to the other piece, “Contempt for Humans?”. Human stupidity easily turns one’s own mind toward dark thoughts. But Bonhoeffer didn’t give into despair, seeing it as his moral duty and compassionate opportunity to hold the world in a vision of love. He was a Christian, after all, and more than willing to die for his faith. Here is the heart of his message:

“Whoever despises another human being will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing of what we despise in another is itself foreign to us. How often do we expect more of the other than what we ourselves are willing to accomplish. Why is it that we have hitherto thought with so little sobriety about the temptability and frailty of human beings? We must learn to regard human beings less in terms of what they do and neglect to do and more in terms of what they suffer. The only fruitful relation to human beings— particularly to the weak among them— is love, that is, the will to enter into and to keep community with them.”

That would be why he focuses on the social underpinning of stupidity. To his Christian worldview, relationship with God and through God to humanity is always an individual act. That is where he found himself, sitting in that prison cell and waiting for his fate to come calling. He was just a lone voice speaking out during troubled times. He did what he could, what he felt he must, but in the end there was nothing left for him to do other than speak the truth as he understood it. There was no time left for excuses and pity. He pointed out these human failings and yet did so with what kindness he had, not to strike out in hatred at those who had condemned him.

This post started with an incident of conflict. Two people, in their sense of hurt and defensiveness, felt compelled to attack each other. It’s an all too human thing to do. Yes, it’s stupid and pointless, but we’ve all been guilty of it at one time or another. It’s so easy to get pulled into such melodrama, as if winning or rather making the other lose will somehow bring us satisfaction. Even as I write these words, I find myself in a pointless online debate. Assuming that the other person is the stupid one and not oneself, it still doesn’t serve any purpose or rarely does so. The stupidity of this society that we are immersed in wasn’t created through rational argument and won’t be undone through victorious debate or intellectual persuasion.

The only answer is to look beyond the darkness that surrounds us, hoping to find some light to guide us. For Bonhoeffer, the light he sought was love itself, grounded in faith. That is certainly a better option than a hatred that slowly consumes you. It’s hard living in a society like this where trust seems rare and divisiveness is everywhere. We each have to find our own light in the darkness, whatever helps us to see more clearly, even if just enough light to stumble along. Or failing that, we will get lost along the way.

On a personal level, it makes feel tired. I don’t have Bonhoeffer’s faith. But I can appreciate his wisdom, whether or not I’m up to the task of following his example. I’ve had my fair share of stupid conflicts and I suspect that I haven’t seen the end of it. My mother used to play a song for me as a child and in it there was a line stating that, “God isn’t finished with me yet.” Ain’t that the truth! All of humanity is an ongoing project and we seem to have misplaced the plans.

* * *

“On Stupidity”
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed- in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

“If we want to know how to get the better of stupidity, we must seek to understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one. There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid. We discover this to our surprise in particular situations. The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect, but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or that they allow this to happen to them. We note further that people who have isolated themselves from others or who lives in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals or groups of people inclined or condemned to sociability. And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem. It is a particular form of the impact of historical circumstances on human beings, a psychological concomitant of certain external conditions. Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence, and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.

“Yet at this very point it becomes quite clear that only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity. Here we must come to terms with the fact that in must cases a genuine internal liberation becomes possible only when external liberation has preceded it. Until then we must abandon all attempts to convince the stupid person. This state of affairs explains why in such circumstances our attempts to know what ‘the people’ really think are in vain and why, under these circumstances, this question is so irrelevant for the person who is thinking and acting responsibly. The word of the Bible that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom declares that the internal liberation of human beings to live the responsible life before God is the only genuine way to overcome stupidity.

“But these thoughts about stupidity also offer consolation in that they utterly forbid us to consider the majority of people to be stupid in every circumstance. It really will depend on whether those in power expect more from peoples’ stupidity than from their inner independence and wisdom.”

Orderliness and Animals

There is another example that demonstrates the conservative mind. It comes from my parents, as did the last one I discussed. This one is also about the conservative relationship to animals.

My parents have a lovable fat cat, Sam. He is getting old and this requires more effort than it used to. This past year he was diagnosed with diabetes and he has to have an insulin shot twice a day, which makes traveling anywhere difficult.

There are always clear rules in my parents’ house, the way things are supposed to be done and what is not allowed. This was true when I was a kid. And it still is true for Sam who lives under their roof. One of those rules is that cats are only allowed on particular pieces of furniture, such as the furniture in the basement and footstools on the main floor. But Sam has a fondness for a couple of chairs he isn’t supposed to be on.

Just the other day he barfed on the chair. It’s a high quality chair that was expensive. My parents have had it for a long time and it matches the way they have their house decorated. The cat barf doesn’t seem to be cleaning up or else some of the dye came out of the fabric. This is unacceptable, as this chair is directly where they entertain guests.

I could see how upset my mother was. Sam then barfed in some other places as well. One of those places was a silk rug. My parents wouldn’t normally buy a rug that was made out of silk, but they didn’t realize that is what it was when they bought it. The barf came out fine with the rug, but it added to the stress.

This made me think of a couple of things.

My parents always threatened that any pet that caused too much trouble would be gotten rid of. They like Sam, as they’ve liked other pets we’ve had, but my parents aren’t bleeding-heart liberals. They wouldn’t feel the kind of sadness I’d feel by putting down an animal. They, in particular my mother, have a more practical view of pet ownership and death. Their attitude about such things is very much an expression of a thick boundary. It’s easier for them to cut off emotion, specifically as compared to my namby-pamby soft heart.

The other thing about the thick boundary type is the need for orderliness. My parents go to great effort to create and maintain an orderly house. Not just clean but but also well decorated, well organized, and generally well kept. Nothing broken or with a burned out light is likely to remain that way for very long. In the middle of a conversation, my mother will start wiping the counters that didn’t look dirty.

A pet, like a child, is a potential agent of disorder. My parents are fine with pets and children, as long as they are well-behaved. But a pet, in particular, is secondary to the home itself. A cat that adds to the good feeling of a home is allowed, but if the cat detracts it might quickly wear out its welcome.

My parents have an idea of what house and a home should be like. It’s a very specific vision built on a conservative worldview and conservative social norms. If you watch a Hallmark movie or an early black-and-white sitcom, you know the guiding vision of this conservative attitude, expressing a desire to fit in and be normal. Rules are put in place to ensure this is maintained.

None of this is a judgment of this conservative-mindedness. Nor is this the only way conservative-mindedness can be acted on. For some conservatives, a sense of loyalty to a pet such as a dog might override orderliness or else the kind of order considered the norm might be far different. My parents are filtering their conservative-mindedness through a particular middle class attitude, specifically as idealized in mainstream culture and as seen in mainstream media. A working class conservative, however, might conform to some other social norm, such as keeping religious paraphernalia in a particular way or having regularly cooked family meals. But however it is perceived and given form, one thing that conservative-mindedness strongly correlates with is orderliness.

What is clear is that, for conservatives, the social order is prioritized. This is true of both the larger sense of order in a society or as defined in ideological worldviews and the smaller sense of order in a personal living space or an office. Order is greater than the individual or, pushed to the extreme, that there is no individual outside the order. One way or another, individuals are expected to conform to the order rather than the structuring the order to conform to individuals. It’s the job of the individual to remain in the place allotted to them and to follow the role demanded of them; or else to work hard and compete for the opportunity to gain a new social position, which then would require new expectations and norms to be accepted.

On the other hand, a strongly liberal-minded person would have a less clear cut or more malleable sense of order. If the cat kept getting on furniture and barfing, the liberal-minded would tend toward arranging the house to accommodate the cat. Liberal-mindedness also correlates to a weaker sense of disgust and so occasional barf wouldn’t be as bothersome and distressing. Of course, it depends on how liberal-minded a person is. Many self-identified liberals aren’t strongly liberal-minded in all or even most ways, and so such liberals might take a more conservative-minded attitude about order and cleanliness.

This doesn’t seem all that important on a personal level. How someone wants to maintain their house is a personal issue, since it doesn’t generally effect others. Whether you have barfy animals in a cluttered house or the opposite, it is mostly irrelevant in the big picture. But these personal attitudes are inseparable from our social and political opinions.

This relates to an insight I had many years ago. The abortion issue isn’t about the overt issue itself. The whole debate is ultimately about the question of social order. Conservatives wouldn’t support liberal policies, even if it meant that the abortion rate would be lower than under conservative policies. The reason is that the social order about relationships, sexuality, and family values are more important than even the lives of fetuses.

Someone who gets pregnant, to the conservative mind, must suffer the consequences. It is irrelevant how actual people act in the real world, such that abortion bans lead not to fewer abortions but simply to an increased rate of illegal abortions. That is irrelevant, for those who are harmed by botched illegal abortions would be getting the punishment they deserve. If they were a good person, they wouldn’t be having sex when they don’t want kids. And if they were a good person who did have sex, they would take responsibility by allowing the pregnancy go to term and then raising the child. The conservative social order never fails, for it is individuals who fail the conservative social order, which in no ways disproves and invalidates it.

Order is at the heart of the conservative worldview. More than anything else, this is what motivates conservative-mindedness. Through the lens of a thick boundary, there is right and wrong that must be defended even at high costs. The greater the conservative-mindedness the greater the willingness to enforce those costs, even when it is personally harmful. Psychological research shows that a fair number of people, presumably the most conservative-minded, are willing to punish those who break social norms even when it doesn’t personally benefit the punisher. Maintaining the social order is worth it, within a certain worldview.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that few people are at either extreme of conservative-mindedness or liberal-mindedness. Most people want some social order, but most people also have clear limits to how far they will go in enforcing a social order. The average person can switch between these mindsets, to varying degrees and according to different situations.

That is true of my parents. As conservatives go, they are actually quite liberal-minded. Even though they strongly prefer order, they aren’t willing to enforce it at any costs. They have their breaking point where order would come to the forefront and be prioritized over all else, but they would have to be pushed fairly far before they got to that point. Sam would have to destroy some other pieces of furniture and cause other problems as well before they finally got around to getting rid of him, which at this age would mean putting him down. Plus, my parents have softened quite a bit with age and so have become more tolerant, one might say more liberal-minded. Still, this kind of thing bothers them in a way it would less likely bother someone much further up the scale on liberal-mindedness.

Plus, my parents know that I love Sam and would be heartbroken if they put him down. Family is important to conservatives. With that in mind, my parents realize keeping Sam around is a way to get me to visit more often. They are manipulating my soft liberal-mindedness, not that I mind.

Deep Roots in Dark Soil

In doing genealogy research, I’ve made many connections to American history, some of it quite dark and much of it not that far back in time. It is something that has been bothering me for a while. I had a longer series of posts I was writing about it, but I got bogged down with the topic. It’s overwhelming and hard to grapple with. So, let me keep this post simple and to the point.

Possibly the earliest line of my family that came to America was the Peebles. They were Scottish and, maybe for siding with the king, they arrived in the Virginia colony (1649 or 1650) during the English Civil War. David Peebles, the patriarch, came with some help (either indentured servants or slaves) and built a plantation. Later generations of the Peebles were definitely slave owners and they fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

The family across the generations drifted further South and West, ending up in Texas. That is where my paternal grandmother was born in 1912, well within living memory of slavery and the Civil War. The last Civil War veterans died in the 1950s, the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States died in the 1930s, the last American born into slavery died in the 1970s — the latter happening just a few years before I was born and about a decade before my grandmother died. None of this is ancient history. It’s possible that if my grandmother had bothered to ask that there were people in the family who still remembered owning slaves.

Also, the early twentieth century was a time of the last of the Indian Wars. There were major battles that happened in that part of the country when my grandmother was a child. The last significant altercation in the United States happened in 1924 when she was twelve years old and that is the age when kids begin to gain awareness of the larger world. But there were Indian holdouts who kept fighting in Mexico and weren’t defeated until nine years later in 1933. My grandmother was twenty-one years old at that point and so this was part of the world she was entering into.

David Peebles himself had been an Indian fighter, a captain in the Virginia militia. He was a well respected man. As reward, he had been given a Native American captive and I’m sure that person was treated as a slave. It’s assumed that David Peebles received an injury from fighting and he slowly disappeared from the records. Between those first Peebles in America and my grandmother, I’m sure there were numerous Indian fighters in my ancestry. After all, that part of my family was involved in the push Westward, as Native Americans retreated or were forcibly removed. And then they ended up in the region of the last battles with the last free natives.

All of this national history is intimately intertwined with my family history. And much of it was still living memory into my grandmothers childhood and even into her adulthood (in some cases, even into my parents’ adulthood). More importantly, it was an ongoing history. The struggles of blacks didn’t end with the Civil War any more than the struggles of Native Americans ended with the Indian Wars. I could understand how much of this history was hidden at the time, even as the suffering and oppression continued. Native Americans, after all, were forced onto reservations that made their plight practically invisible to the rest of the country. It was a problem that wasn’t seen and so didn’t need to be thought about. But the problems facing blacks would have been impossible to ignore for those living in the South and also in the North.

In the South my grandmother grew up in, Jim Crow was in full force and blacks had for decades faced re-enslavement through chain gang labor. My grandmother was a few years old when the Second Klan was founded. The Klan was a growing force during her childhood and was at its height in her teenage years: “At its peak in the mid-1920s, the organization claimed to include about 15% of the nation’s eligible population, approximately 4–5 million men” (Wikipedia). I have no doubt that many generations and many lines of my family were involved in the various incarnations of the Klan, along with other violently racist organizations and activities; but there is no family stories about any of this, as it’s one of those things that people don’t talk about.

When my grandmother was eight years old, a short distance from her childhood home the Tulsa race riots occurred where white mobs rioted and terrorized the black population. It was an actual battle with whites and blacks fighting in the streets (many of them WWI veterans, including black veterans who took their military weapons home with them), snipers were positioned in buildings shooting at people below, airplanes firebombed the wealthiest black community in America at the time (Black Wall Street), and belatedly troops were sent in to restore order. Hundreds of blacks were killed, hundreds more ended up in the hospital, 6,000 black residents were arrested and detained, and in the detention centers blacks were forced to do labor. In the aftermath, most of the black population became refugees who had lost everything and thousands of white residents in Tulsa joined the Klan.

It was one of the most violent and destructive events in American history. Yet it was erased from public awareness almost instantly, as if it had never happened. “The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private. Blacks and whites alike grew into middle age unaware of what had taken place” (A.G. Sulzberger, “As Survivors Dwindle, Tulsa Confronts Past“, NYT).

This was just one of many race riots and other acts of mass racial violence that occurred in the decades before and following what happened in Tulsa. Violence like this, including lynchings, would have been common events for the first two-thirds of her life. After her family left Oklahoma, they moved to a part of Mississippi that was a major center of the Second Klan. Then as an adult in 1940, she moved her own young family to Indiana, the headquarters and epicenter of the Second Klan, during a time when the last vestiges of the organization were still to be seen. It was in the 1950s and 1960s when a splintered KKK reasserted itself in fighting the Civil Rights Movement.

Indiana is close to the South and not just geographically. It’s been culturally and economically connected to Kentucky from early on. This area is sometimes referred to as Kentuckiana. Much of Indiana’s population originally came from Kentucky and that has made Indiana the most Southern state in the Midwest (my maternal ancestry includes Indian fighters who came to Kentucky shortly after the American Revolution). A generation after my mother’s family left the border region of Kentucky and Indiana, she grew up in a large industrial city in central Indiana and yet she maintained a Southern accent well into her twenties.

Indiana was a destination of many white Southerners looking for work. Yet Southern blacks knew to mostly avoid Indiana, except for Northern parts of the state closer to Chicago. This wasn’t just a vague notion that blacks had about Indiana. The local white population, Klan and otherwise, made it overtly clear they weren’t welcome in most parts of the state.

My father was born in small town Indiana and then moved to another nearby small town. They were both in an area of much racism, but the second town where he spent most of his early life was a sundown town. When my father and his family moved there, a sign warning blacks to stay away was still visible on a major road into town. My father would have been too young to understand, my Southern grandmother could not have missed something so obvious. They had to have known they moved into a sundown town. Did my father know about this? No. Did his mother, my grandmother, ever talk about it? No. It wasn’t talked about. As my grandfather was the town minister, he could have challenged this racism from the pulpit. Did he? No. The reason for this is that my grandfather My was a racist, although like many he softened his prejudiced views later in life. Still, that doesn’t change the moral failure.

My grandmother was always a religious and spiritual person, moreso than my grandfather despite his being a minister. She grew in that old time religion, Southern Baptist church. When she moved to the West Coast, she became quite liberal and joined extremely liberal churches, such as Unity Church and Science of Mind. It was because of my grandmother that I was raised in the same kind of liberal churches. This led me to become the liberal I am today. Even so, my grandmother never spoke of our family’s ancestral sin of racial oppression, even though she had spent so much of her life right in the middle of it.

My father went off to college at Purdue. The city, Lafayette, had been a sundown town at one point. The systemic racism was lessening there by the time my parents attended, but the black population remained low. While they were at college, the Civil Rights Movement was growing and violence was happening. Professors and college students from Purdue even joined in some of the major events of that time. The world was changing all around my parents, but they apparently were oblivious to it all. When I’ve asked them, they had only slight memory of what was happening at the time, other than some brief news stories that they paid little attention to. It didn’t seem all that important to them, as white conservatives in a white conservative state with a hopeful future before them.

Systemic and institutional racism continued in some parts of the country long after the death of MLK. Blacks were still fighting for basic rights and demanding that laws against racism be enforced, well into my own lifetime (in fact, the struggle for justice continues to this day). For my parents, living in Ohio after college, that was a happy time of their life. As their children were born, protests and riots were going on around the country (including nearby), but it all seemed distant and insignificant, maybe a bit incomprehensible. After that, during the 1980s, our family moved to Deerfield, Illinois — a Chicago suburb with a history of keeping blacks out, something my parents were also unaware of. Then we headed to Iowa, which at the time was a demographic bubble of whiteness.

In my own childhood, I don’t recall my parents or other adults talking about race and racism. I also was oblivious to it all, until we moved to South Carolina when I was thirteen years old. It was a shock to my system. I didn’t grow up with that world and so I saw it with fresh eyes in a way someone wouldn’t have if they had grown up with it. Even then, amidst obvious racism and an overt racial social order, few people talked about it. I saw blacks at school, but no blacks lived in my neighborhood or went to my church. Black kids didn’t come home with me nor did I go home with them.

I was facing generations of denial in my own family. No one gave me any tools to deal with any of it. If not for genealogy research, I might never have realized how close to home all of this comes. Even now, I live in a liberal college town where at an earlier point in time a racist mob chased out of town the radical abolitionist John Brown, shortly before his execution. And a muted form of that old racism lingers still.

How do we deal with the legacy of centuries of oppression when it’s almost impossible to even publicly acknowledge what has happened within living memory? How do we come to terms with the fact that the legacy continues with systemic and institutional racism? How do we open up dialogue? How do we move forward? If more people simply dug into their own family histories, what might they find? And if they put that into context of the larger national history, what understandings might they come to?

My eternal refrain: Then what?

I’ve gained this knowledge and it was no easy task, as I had to find it for myself through decades of obsessive research and intense study. Generations of my own family have avoided this knowledge, built on centuries of ignorance and denial, supported by a vast social order designed to maintain the status quo. So, here we are. Many others like me are looking at these hidden truths now brought to light. What are we supposed to do with it all? How does a society come to terms with collective guilt?

William Faulkner spent most of his life a few counties away from my great grandmother’s home in Mississippi, the last place my grandmother lived before adulthood and the area she returned to after college to work a teaching job for a couple of years, around 1935. That is where my father would visit as a child and where he saw his first “colored” water fountain. Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun was set in that part of Mississippi, as were other of his novels. The events in the story were fictionally placed in the years immediately following my grandmother’s departure. The world that Faulkner described was the world that shaped my grandmother, a world she couldn’t leave behind because she carried it with her.

One of Faulkner’s best known lines comes from that novel. He wrote:

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

My grandmother was an educated woman, a teacher in fact. I wonder. Did she ever read those words? And if so, what did she think of them? Did she ever look to the past, her own past and that of her family? Or was she trying to escape the past by getting as far away as possible, ending up in the Northwest? It’s ironic that she spent the last years of her life in Oregon, the only state in the Union that was once fully sundown, excluding blacks entirely.

From what I gather, my grandmother was a kindhearted woman, but that could be said of many people. Few white Americans are overtly mean-spirited. People simply try to live their lives, and yet their lives exist along a moral arc bending from the past into the future. How often do any of us consider our place in the larger scheme of things and wonder about what future generations will think of us?

On Rodents and Conservatives

My parents are always worrying about the bird feeders in the backyard. They think they’ll attract rodents that will get in the house.

First of all, in the years my parents have lived here, they’ve had the bird feeders and rodents have never gotten in the house. And, second, rodents are unlikely to ever get in because it is one of these modern sealed-up houses with no cracks in the foundation, no loose siding, no crawlspace to be easily accessed, and not even a drafty attic.

This is how the conservative mind leads to paranoia. Somehow something or someone who isn’t supposed to be here will get in, no matter how improbable according to a rational analysis. This is the same fear that is seen with immigrants, minorities, the poor, or anyone who is different. The way my parents talk you’d think that rodents are welfare queens trying to game the system, and admittedly rodents are sneaky critters who will take advantage of any situation. This is what would lead some extreme conservatives to sitting on their back stoop shooting at shadows in the dark — fortunately, my parents’ fearful attitude is a milder variety.

The fear isn’t rational, for fear is ultimately never rational, just an emotion that may or may not indicate something beyond itself. And so there is no way to counter fear with rationality. There is only one response that fear demands and that is taking action, which pushed to its end point means fight or flight. In my parents’ imaginations, it’s almost as if the rodents are already in the house scurrying about. There is very little distinction, in the conservative mind, between imagining something as real and it actually being real.

I love my parents dearly. But it can be a challenge sometimes. It’s not that the bird feeder issue is a big deal. It’s just one of those thousands of things that regularly come up. As my parents gave voice to their fear of a rodent plague destroying all that is good in the world, an uprising of nature against mankind and civilization, I could see the gears in their head clicking away. Looking out the window, they could see the rodents that weren’t there… not yet, but once night comes with naive liberals sleeping soundly in bed the rodent threat will swarm over the landscape.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit for effect. I’m just feeling amused.

It reminds me of a popular Buddhist story. Two Buddhist monks were walking along. They came to a stream where a woman was having difficulty in trying to cross. The older monk helped carry her to the other side. Then the monks continued on. Further down the path, the younger monk decided to chastise his companion because it was against their religious vows to touch a woman. In response, the older monk shared a bit of wisdom. He said, I put the woman down back at the stream, but you’re still carrying her.

As a liberal, that is how I see conservatives. They are constantly carrying in their minds all kinds of things, from rodents to immigrants, from welfare queens to terrorists, their minds overflowing with fears and anxieties. And they rarely if ever put them down. It’s hard for anyone to shake something once it gets in their mind, but it’s particularly hard for conservatives. Even when their thick boundaries allow them to temporarily cut off their worries and concerns in order to focus on some other matter, those worries and concerns never really leave their minds and will quickly return to their awareness with the slightest trigger.

It’s not as if my parents will bring up the imagined rodent problem all that often, but for as long as they live in this house it will remain at the back of their minds. Every time they see those bird feeders, the narrative of rodent invasion will play in their minds, though probably most often below the threshold of consciousness.

I should clarify a point. Conservatives aren’t always wrong about what they fear. Theoretically, rodents could get into my parents’ house. It’s just the probability is extremely low (from a liberal perspective, ridiculously low), not the kind of thing worth worrying about. If my parents lived in an old house with lots of cracks and crevices, their fear would be valid. That is the problem. Conservative fears aren’t dependent on context. To the extent that someone is conservative-minded, there is a state of fear constantly on the look out.

Still, motivated by rodent phobia, conservatives such as my parents might be less likely to have rodent problems or at least more likely to deal with them swiftly and harshly. War on rodents? Maybe Trump could look into that. With conservatives in the world, maybe we liberals benefit from being kept safe from the rodent plague, although it must be admitted that conservative European societies back in the day failed to prevent the rodent-inflicted Black Plague. So, I don’t know.

I just like watching the birds.

Mid-Atlantic Ancestral Homeland

New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Pennsylvania. Those are the states my family and I visited recently, more or less in that order. It was a return to one of my ancestral homelands, the Mid-Atlantic region. The trip actually only involved part of my family, only one brother and one parent. My father was finally feeling nostalgic in his old age. So, he was our tour guide for much of the trip.

The last stretch involved some brief driving through Vermont and a stop at the Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Vermont was beautiful, exactly as I imagined it would be. And the Gettysburg battlefield was fascinating, similar to a tour years ago of Little Big Horn where Custer had his infamous last stand. As a side note, Custer had been on the winning side at Gettysburg and played a significant role in stopping the Confederate advance, but almost everyone remembers him solely for his later defeat and death. The guy deserves some credit. Enjoyable as it was to see some beautiful countryside and explore an important part of American history, it was the personal side of our East Coast travels that interested me the most. This was first and foremost a tour of family history.

Our first destination was New Jersey. We headed to Morristown. It was in Morris County that my father’s paternal grandparents were born. That is part of the New York Metropolitan area. Morristown itself has been a place since the colonial era that attracted the wealthy (it is still a place of money), but my family wasn’t wealthy and so they lived out in what was the surrounding countryside. Morristown was also a major center for the American Revolution, a meeting place for important figures and a headquarters for George Washington.

My paternal great grandmother is Matilda Reinthaler. Her father, Charles, escaped the Austrian Army, when he was an officer sent to Italy (I guess it was the Crimean War). His men were forced to wear heavy uniforms and, though it was hot, they weren’t allowed to unbutton to cool off. He refused to follow orders and, facing court marshall, was forced to flee, ending up in New York and then New Jersey. Matilda’s mother, Caroline Lindenmeyer, left Bavaria for unknown reasons, but probably related to the 19th century wars and revolutionary fervor.

We found their home and the one room school house she would have attended, still standing down the road. Even with new houses having been built, there was a sense of the rural clinging to the former country road. She had a more stable childhood than experienced by her husband, my paternal great grandfather, Charles Salvester Steele. His grandfather came from Pennsylvania and his mother’s family had been in New Jersey continuously since the colonial era (one line of my own mother’s family, the Hawks, also came from colonial New Jersey, but we didn’t visit that part of the southern part of the state). Charles’ mother died when he was young and, since his father couldn’t afford to raise all the children, he was sent to live with the Shakers somewhere near Rochester.

That particular Shaker village has since become part of a prison. The only way to visit the buildings my great grandfather spent time in would be get arrested for a serious crime. Later on in the trip, we visited a different Shaker village that is still standing in Hancock, Massachusetts. It was part of a complex of villages along the border of New York and Massachusetts. The Shakers were a fascinating group, highly innovative and technologically advanced, business leaders in agriculture and industry. Even the design and quality of their buildings is impressive, such as the round barn we saw which is the most practical barn I’ve seen in my life. They knew how to run an operation and they had no desire to cling to the past, like the Amish. Growing up there would have been simple, but deprivation in any form would not have been an issue. The Shakers for much of their history were successful and wealthy.

My great grandfather’s childhood was a not unusual fate for many poor kids of the time. The Shakers on a regular basis legally adopted children given to them, a practice that continued until the federal government made it illegal for groups to adopt children and thus officially doomed the abstinent Shaker communities. Once reaching adulthood, the children raised were given a choice to stay or leave. My paternal great grandfather was living at the Shaker village at a time when they were already in decline. He decided to leave and that Shaker village closed not too long later.

It seems he returned to Morristown, probably because it was the only other place he knew. He remained in contact with his family, but one gets the sense that the contact was limited. His wife was also from that area and so one might presume that is how they met, although there is no family info about this. My paternal great grandfather would have learned a trade or maybe multiple trades when with the Shakers, as they put heavy focus on practical knowledge and skills. As an adult, he probably did some farming; certainly, the Shakers were famous for their agriculture. While living in this area, he took a large wagon into nearby New York City to sell produce and it likely was produce that he had grown himself.

As part of our family pilgrimage, we headed into New York City. It’s hard to imagine what it must have looked like back then. When my paternal grandfather was younger, he would travel there sometimes, since an uncle had a grocery store in Brooklyn. My family and I only had a day in the city and so we didn’t see much, besides the standard tourist sights, although not even having enough time to visit the 9/11 memorial. The most exciting part was taking the Staten Island Ferry where could be seen the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, famous landmarks for incoming immigrants, although both from an immigrant era that came after my own immigrant ancestry.

Later on following marriage, Charles Salvester Steele worked doing professional gardening and lawn maintenance in Connecticut. He also entered into flower shows, which is where the wealthy Benjamin DeWitt Riegel met him and hired him as the estate superintendent and head groundskeeper. That is how my grandfather ended up growing up on a Long Island Sound estate where, later on, my father in his own childhood would spend his summers.

That estate is apparently known as Xanadu, but my father recalls that to his family and the Riegel family it was simply known as “The Place”. It was still in Riegel ownership until recent years. About a decade ago, my father and uncle were able to get hold of Mr. Riegel’s daughter, Katherine Riegel Emory (she remembered it as “The Place”, when my father mentioned it). She was a childhood playmate of my grandfather, until teenagehood when the fates of the classes diverged. My father and uncle knew her as Mrs. Riegel when they visited in the summers of their youth. In those last years of her life, they were given permission to walk the grounds of the estate one last time, not that they realized it would soon fall under new ownership.

Years of talking about the place was a major reason for this trip. My father has for a long time wanted my brothers and I to see the place of his fond childhood memories. There was no longer a way to get on the estate by invitation with new ownership, but there is a public road that is along one side of it and two public beaches adjacent to it. At low tide, we were able to walk the rocky beach directly between the estate and Long Island Sound, making possible a clear view across the vast lawns my great grandfather once maintained. My dad pointed to all that he remembered from his childhood, along with stories his own father had shared with him, such as the time as a child when my grandfather built a contraption attached to a cable secured to the top story of the barn and stretched taut to the beach upon which the two of them rode it down barely missing a wall in the process. By the way, an article stated that my great grandfather (referred to by his work title, not his name) used to gather the eggs from the chicken coops near the old barn, but according to my father it was in fact my great grandmother who did this — just wanted to set the record straight.

The Xanadu estate is in Fairfield, Connecticut. It is another old area, inhabited long before Europeans settled there in the early colonial era. Before the Riegels bought the property, it was a gentlemen’s horse farm and at some point an onion farm. There was a village nearby that had been almost entirely burned down by the British during the American Revolution, the British having landed right around where the estate is located. As with many places on the Eastern seaboard, there is much history there.

It was nice to finally see this place I’d heard so much about all my life. The Place! I also saw the school my grandfather went to. One time walking to school, the Riegel’s chauffeur drove by on the road splashing muddy water onto my grandfather who thought it was done on purpose. My grandfather grew up with Riegel children and lived a protected life during the Great Depression, but he had an inferiority complex living on the periphery of great wealth. He spent the rest of his days being extremely class conscious and always wanting to enjoy the good life. It was even passed onto his children, including my father who likes nice things (i.e., classy cars, large houses, manicured lawns, expensive resorts, and such), not that my family is wealthy enough afford many nice things.

It would be strange growing up as the son of the help on an estate or even visiting such a place as a child. My dad recalls as a child telling a close friend back in Alexandria, Indiana (“Small Town, USA”) that he spent the summer at an estate and his friend called him a liar. Life on an estate is not an experience most of us ever have.

One thing stood out to me. There are, as I said, two public beaches on either side of the estate. They are fairly nice beaches for the area and when we first arrived many local people lounged around on the sand and played in the water as people do. However, directly on the waterfront of the estate, there is almost nothing other than rocks. This is because the Riegel family had built a seawall that caused erosion of the sand and disallowed the beach to naturally rebuild itself. This is a great example of the opposite of the tragedy of the commons. In trying to protect their private property, they destroyed the beach along their property, while on either side are two popular public beaches with lots of sand forming popular beaches.

After my grandfather graduated college, Mr. Riegel offered him a job as night superintendent at one of his mills in order to get trained. His job was to manage the factory during the night shift. It was the Trion factory in Georgia and my grandfather was one of the fair-haired boys that Mr. Riegel sent down from New York. It was at Trion that my grandfather met his first wife and my grandmother, Billie Jean Nye, who was working as a school teacher employed by the company in the company town. You can see pictures of the mill town at this article, including a picture of the hotel where lived the unmarried employees like my grandparents, the place where they first met, and a picture of the school where I assume my grandmother would have taught.

He had felt socially obligated to accept that job. Mr. Riegel, after all, was not only his father’s boss but also the owner of the house his father lived in. It would have been an offense to decline an offer of such a good job, at a time not long after the Great Depression when the economy was getting back on its feet. Still, my grandfather hated the job, as it was his responsibility to pick the workers for the week out of a crowd of men desperate for a job, deciding who would get work and who wouldn’t. During the Great Depression, my grandfather had lived a protected existence on the estate. Before working at Trion, he probably had never seen much extreme poverty and unemployment. Also, that company town would have still been recovering from recent conflict. In 1934, a year or two before my grandfather arrived, the town had been the site of labor conflict and violence:

“1934 marked the 3rd closing of the plant for any length of time. Throughout the South unions were making a strong push to organize factories and mills. “Flying Squadrons” of union activists were sent into mill communities to gain support. The large group of employees working in Trion was high on their list. Led by a group of people from the Rome Foundry, along with some local people, a mob literally tried to take over the mill. Trion’s Chief of Police, Mr. Hix, was killed attempting to protect the mill. Others that had come on to work that day were beaten or roughed up. Eventually the National Guard was called in. The mill remained closed for approximately six weeks.”

It was the kind of clash of the classes that happened in places like that. In controlling employment, the company had total power over people’s lives. It was the largest employer in the area and still there were more people looking for work than there were jobs available. As an interesting side note, this was all going on in the last years of Mr. Riegel’s life. He had contracted some disease, maybe polio, and was kept alive with an iron lung. In 1941, back on the estate, a storm had hit and the power went out. The iron lung was run on electricity and apparently they had no backup generator. My great grandfather was sent for and he tried to hook up the iron lung to the engine of a Model A truck, but it was too late. Mr. Riegel had suffocated to death. Along with the ending of his life, it was the ending of an era.

Anyway, in those remaining years of Mr. Riegel’s life, my grandfather didn’t last long at Trion. He realized there weren’t many respectable ways he could quit without offending Mr. Riegel. He could join the military or he could become a minister. He chose the latter and took his wife with him to Indiana. But Mr. Riegel was still immensely disappointed, having given this son of the help such a rare opportunity to move up in the world.

I could imagine the sense of expectation and conflict. While at Trion, my grandfather managed the mill during the evening shift. Some new advanced machinery had been installed and, along with another guy, my grandfather had to learn how to operate it and keep it running non-stop. The problem is no one had been sent to show how it all worked and something went wrong, destroying the equipment. My grandfather was horrified about the incident, but after an investigation no one was blamed. Mr. Riegel had put immense trust and responsibility onto my grandfather’s shoulders, and he obviously looked to him with great promise. After all of that, it must have seemed ungrateful for my grandfather to quit.

Even so, the training my grandfather received didn’t entirely go to waste. There was a tomato canning factory in Geneva, Indiana where the family (including my father as a young child) lived for a time. It operated seasonally after the tomato harvest and my grandfather, while not doing his ministerial duties, worked there as a temporary factory manager.

My father without realizing it followed in his footsteps when he later became a factory manager, a family tradition that began with with the Riegels. Then my father also fell into the same pattern when he refused career advancement in order to look for other work, initially having considered the ministerial option as well until he decided to become a professor in order to preach at students instead. Like his own father, he found stressful the cutthroat world of business and the harsh reality of controlling the fate of workers, in personally determining who would be hired and fired. My family apparently doesn’t have the right kind of personality traits to be part of the wealthy business elite.

Later on, my great grandmother died on the estate in 1954, when my father was twelve years old. A few years later, the Riegel family asked my great grandfather to leave the property. He was around eighty years old and had spent half of his life working and residing on the estate. It was his home and, from the way my father talks about it, I get the sense that he was heartbroken. Mr. Riegel had promised that he would always be taken care of, but Mr. Riegel died in 1941 and had never wrote anything down. His word-of-mouth promise apparently meant nothing to the heirs of Mr. Riegel or maybe it never came up. Whatever the case, my great grandfather wasn’t given any retirement package or even a place to live. He  was just told to immediately leave the home he had known and loved for so long.

As a comparison, on the other side of the road was the estate of Harold Gray, the comic strip artist of Little Orphan Annie. My great grandparents were good friends with some of long term help at that other estate, only a few minutes walk away. When Gray’s long term help retired, he bought them an expensive house. My great grandfather was probably expecting something similar, as the Riegels were surely even wealthier. Instead, he was forced to move in with his son and died shortly later.

That part of my family has always felt distant to me. This trip was the first time, since I was a baby, that I’ve visited this part of the country. There are still some of the extended family living around there, but we’ve had a hard time contacting them. My father hasn’t seen his extended family on that side since he was a kid. Yet that part of the country is so key, both to my family history and to American history.

As I mentioned, one line of my mother’s family (originating with Sampson Hawk) came from colonial New Jersey. Like my father’s family, they were likely of Germanic ancestry. The difference was that they early on headed for the frontier, whereas the New Jersey lines of my father’s family didn’t venture far. The German-American Riegel family were also from New Jersey, along with Pennsylvania where Mr. Riegel was born. My own surname has an early Pennsylvanian background, although I don’t know the ancestral source of it.

Like the Midwest, the mid-Atlantic region was ethnic American (i.e., non-WASP) territory. Specifically, it was one of the areas where German-Americans were the majority. But none of this comes up much in official histories and collective memory, as cultural amnesia is almost complete. My father has a vague memory of his grandparents having some kind of accent, whatever it was. They weren’t that far from the immigrant experience and they lived in a place where the immigrant experience should have been close to the surface. Even so, my father doesn’t recall anyone ever discussing such things. The oppressive world war era had stigmatized and erased so much of the former ethno-cultural diversity. That makes me sad, as it is a loss of part of the ancestral history that shaped my family.

Visiting New Jersey, in particular, gave me a glimpse of the world that once existed there. I have more of a sense of the place. But family history came to life even moreso in our visit to Connecticut. My father doesn’t get too excited about genealogy, maybe having to do with particular disconnections over the generations. Talking about the estate, though, allowed me to see another side of him. The estate was something personally real and important to my father’s life, one of the fondest connections he has to his family history. And for me, the stories I’ve heard for years suddenly had physical locations that I can now see in my mind’s eye.

To Give Voice

I wish to continue my thoughts from Outpost of Humanity. I didn’t explicitly state the inspiration of that post. It formed out of my response to a comment at another post, The Stories We Tell.

That comment was odd. The person who wrote it mixed praise with criticism, a backhanded slap. Looking at it again, I still don’t get the point of it. I already responded to it with several thorough comments. But I wanted to emphasize a central point that brings it back to where my mind is at the moment.

I’ve been in a process of rethinking my life, both in terms of how I spend my time and how I view the world. I wonder about what useful role I can play or simply what is of genuine value to me. I don’t mind criticisms, as I’m perfectly capable of criticizing myself. And I can promise you that my self-criticisms will be far more scathing than anything offered by anyone else.

The funny thing is that this particular critic was attacking me based on my previous admissions about depression, as if that disqualified my opinion as having any validity. I’m fairly open about my personal problems and some people see this as a weakness, a chink in the armor. They don’t understand that I’ve never thought of honesty as a weakness; if anything, a strength. I don’t hide who I am.

I find it telling that this particular critic was writing under a pseudonym. It’s easy to attack others hidden behind a computer screen and anonymity. I’ve had trolls threaten me, even my family, telling me that they knew where I lived. My response was to tell them to come right on over and I’ll invite them in to chat over beer or coffee. That tends to make trolls go away, the threat of meeting in person.

We live in a dysfunctional society. To live in such a society is to be part of that dysfunction. Depression and other mental conditions might not be common in some other societies, but it is common in this one, effecting even the successful and the supposedly well-adjusted. There are many things that make me abnormal. Depression, however, is not one of them. If you’re looking for a reason to dismiss me, look elsewhere and be more thoughtful about it.

In my response to this particular critic, I pointed out that many of the most influential people throughout history were seen as problematic by the defenders of the status quo. They were called malcontents, rabblerousers, troublemakers, blasphemers, and worse. The personal character, lifestyle, etc were often targeted. These people were deemed a threat to society and treated accordingly, victimized in numerous ways: ridiculed, fired, fined, ostracized, banished, imprisoned, tortured, attacked by mobs, and sometimes killed.

This is true for religious prophets such as Jesus to political revolutionaries such as Thomas Paine. I might note that both of these men, when they attracted the attention of the powerful, lacked worldly success or even employment. Each of them spent time wandering homeless and ended their lives as poor bachelors with few loyal friends remaining. They were hated and despised, and for that very reason they also inspired. Yet upon their deaths, they were forgotten by society until later generations resurrected their deeds and brought them back into public memory.

There is another aspect to this. Consider either of these figures. If Jesus had remained a carpenter or found some other kind of respectable work, if he had been successful in his career and was a good citizen, if he had married and raised a family, would that have been a better use of his life? If Paine had continued his father’s trade as corsetmaker, if his first wife and child hadn’t died and his second marriage hadn’t ended, if he hadn’t lost his civil servant job for the sake of a petition to the government, if he hadn’t become a privateer that paid for his educating himself (mainly buying books to read), if he hadn’t known poverty and desperation before meeting Benjamin Franklin, would he have been a better person and the world a better place?

Let me focus on Paine. He lived a rough life. By the standards of his society, his life kept ending up in failure. He found himself in middle age with no prospects or hope, his only merits having been his intelligence and self-education. He had no way of proving his worth to others. Like Jesus, he had given up the trade he was taught when younger. And now he had nothing. When Franklin first saw him, he was probably dirty and smelly, likely with rotten teeth. He was a poor nobody. That didn’t stop Franklin, also of a working class background, from seeing the potential in Paine. Following Franklin’s advice, he headed to America where he was carried ashore sick and close to death.

It was precisely Paine’s rough life that gave him insight and perspective. He saw the world for what it was. And with his own understanding, he sensed other possibilities. But why should anyone have listened to him? He came to the American colonies, upon Franklin’s invitation. He found employment at a printing press where he began his serious writing career. All he knew to do was write what was in him to write. He had no college degree or anything else to demonstrate his opinion was any more meaningful than anyone else’s. If anything, his uncouth ways, bad attitude and drinking habits led people to dismiss him. Yet most of those who dismissed him are now forgotten to history.

Paine was not well-adjusted to the society he found himself in. He knew that as well as anyone else. But why should he shut up simply because some others found him disagreeable? He had the audacity to suggest that maybe the problem was in society and not to be blamed on the victims of society. In a perfect world, his life would have turned out better. Becoming a pamphleteer and then revolutionary wasn’t his first choice of professions nor his second, third and forth choice.

No one knows for certain what their life will become. And no one knows how they will be remembered later on or even if they will be remembered at all. We each have potential within us and most of that potential will remain hidden. We don’t know what we’re capable of, until the conditions bring out what before we didn’t realize existed within us. Everyone is trying the best that they can, in the situation they find themselves. There are probably millions of people in the world right now with talents equal to or greater than that of Thomas Paine, but few of them will ever get the opportunity to develop their potential even slightly. Paine was lucky to find someone like Benjamin Franklin who helped him out of a tough spot for, otherwise, Paine would likely have died forgotten like so many others.

We are products of our environments, the results of luck, good or bad. Life is crap shoot. None of us chooses how and where we were born and under what circumstances. We are all forced to take life as it comes. Our place and time either amplifies or mutes our possibilities, opens or closes doors, clears or blocks our path. An individual of average intelligence and ability might do great things because of her situation, as her particular set of potentials happen to be what was precisely needed in that context to take advantage of it or solve a problem. But an individual of immense intelligence and ability might do nothing at all, no matter how hard they try, if she happened to be born in unfortunate conditions such as having been a peasant in a feudal society or a housewife in early 20th century America.

Sometimes it is the failures of society, the least well-adjusted who have the most understanding. They are those who have struggled the most and have seen the underbelly of society. This often gives probing insight and unique perspective. This is because those low in society tend to give more thought to those above than the other way around. Privilege and comfort can lead to thoughtlessness and complacency, none of which is conducive to depth of understanding. It was the lowly position of the likes of Jesus and Paine that allowed them to so powerfully criticize the social order. The clearest vantage point is from the bottom.

Even so, none of us can escape the limitations of where we find ourselves, no matter how clearly we see those limitations. Jesus was an axial age prophet. He was one of many teachers, philosophers, and leaders who arose over a period of centuries. It was a point of transition and transformation. That is what those axial age prophets gave voice to. Still, for all their insight and vision, none of them could foresee the long term consequences of the new social world that was coming into being. And none of them could know what part they might or might not play beyond their own lifetime.

Consider Jesus again. Assuming he actually existed, he was just some guy wandering about and preaching, no different than thousands of others doing the same in the area, thousands of others claiming to speak for God, to be divine saviors, or even to be godmen. Even his name, Jesus, and appellation, Christ, were common at the time—and so he quite likely wasn’t even the only Jesus Christ in the first century. There was nothing that made him stand out from the crowd, not his telling parables nor his miracles/magic-tricks. Then he was crucified, no more special than a common criminal.

Upon his death, his prophecies didn’t come true and people almost two thousand years later are still waiting. There is no evidence that Jesus ever intended to start a religious movement, much less found a new religion. It wasn’t Jesus but later generations of Christians who built up his reputation. In his lifetime, he was almost entirely unknown, the Romans apparently not noticing his existence as he was never recorded in any official records and not written about even by the most famous Jewish historian of the time. The stories about him weren’t put down on paper until generations after his supposed death.

So, why do so many people care about and feel inspired by a poor homeless guy in the ancient world who liked to tell stories while hanging out with the trash of Roman society such as prostitutes, unemployed fishermen, the sickly, etc? According to both Jewish and Roman social norms, Jesus was an utter failure and a clear example of how not to live one’s life. As such, what did he accomplish that makes him so important? He did one thing and did it well, and the other axial age prophets did the same thing. What he was able to do was simply express a new vision and, by doing this, helped people understand the significance of the changes in society and worldview. No matter how simple, it was powerful. The axial age prophets helped transform all of civilization.

Those changes followed after the collapse of the late bronze age civilizations. There was a thousand years of social chaos and reordering before stability began to fully set in again. The axial age prophets heralded in the new age. But at any given moment in that transition, during any particular generation, the larger view would have been impossible to see, as we can with the benefit of historical and archaeological hindsight. Even today, we still don’t know the full consequences of those changes. Those like Paine were struggling with the new order continually evolving. From the end of bicameralism to the rise of modernity, individuality has been taking hold and taking different forms.

It makes one wonder how far that individualism can be pushed before finally breaking. The bicameral societies, some argue, were the victims of their own success. They developed into such immense and complicated civilizations that bicameralism could no longer operate and maintain social order. What if we are now coming to the point where we too will become the victims of our own success? Who are the prophets of our age standing outside the system? Will many people alive right now listen to them or will they only be taken seriously later on by future generations, after the changes have already occurred? Will the prophets of the present be dismissed and ignored as were the prophets of the past?

I would point out that most prophets likely never think of themselves as prophets. They are simply people living their lives. Finding themselves amidst greater events, they try to make sense of it all. And in doing so, they give voice to what so many others are feeling. The prophets of our age are at this very moment unknown, to be found as homeless beggars, low-level workers, college dropouts, and in so many other places. One is unlikely to come across them among the successful and well-adjusted. Some, God forbid!, might be suffering from depression. Oh the horror!

The prophets of the present probably wouldn’t even recognize themselves as such. Only a crazy person or religious nut would think of themselves as a prophet these days (or even during the era of Paine’s lifetime). Having spent their lives being told they are worthless, their main struggle could be in taking themselves seriously and in sensing their own potential. Most people who have something worthy to say never get the chance to be heard, amidst all the noise. The fact of the matter is none of us can ultimately judge the value of our own understandings. History, as always, will be the judge. All that we can do is speak our truth as best we can.

Anyway, a prophet in this sense isn’t necessarily an individual who says something unique and original, but someone who simply speaks what others are afraid to say or don’t know how to articulate. Playing this role of giving voice might be more an act of moral courage than of visionary genius. Speaking truth to power shouldn’t be underestimated, even when the powerful pretend they don’t hear.

I make no grand claims of myself. Nor do I expect to be praised for my efforts. All I seek to do is give voice to what matters most, to give voice to the otherwise voiceless. I do this for no other reason than I feel compelled to do so. It is what is in me to do. If some others see me as an opinionated fool or a self-righteous malcontent, then so be it. I’d like to think that what I express has meaning and value, but I can’t be my own judge. Either my words stand on their own merit or they don’t.

The truths that need to be spoken are greater than any of us. But each of us has hold of some small part. I wish others well in seeking their own truth and giving voice to it. This is no easy task, but worth the effort. Truth-speaking shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Condescension and Mockery

As someone fully capable of harsh criticism with an edge of condescension or mockery, let me explain my personal view. There are rules of etiquette for such things. It’s best if you can somehow include yourself through self-deprecation and self-criticism or even, if you can pull it off with sincerity, a bit of humility. Admittedly, that can be a difficult thing to achieve, but a good balance to aspire toward.

This is why, for example, I like to criticize liberals and the liberal class. I am an unrepentant liberal, was raised in a pansy new agey liberal church, and have spent most of my life in a stereotypical small liberal college town. I’ve earned the right and maybe have an obligation to criticize liberals. I know the problems, failures, and weaknesses of liberalism through intimate personal experience and direct observation.

There is always a note of self-criticism in my criticism of my ideological tribe, liberals. And there is a familiarity and love in even my mockery. These are my people. My criticisms are barbed in a way only possible toward those one knows well, but the barb goes both ways and cuts me as well.

Another tactic is to broaden one’s scope. Be more general in your criticisms. So, if you’re an American, make a general criticism of Americans. Just make sure to clarify you’re making a generalization, something that should always be kept in mind since criticisms easily lead to generalizations. If you’re in a particular bad mood or feeling cynical, to be on the safe side you can include the entire human race in your criticisms—and that way it automatically pertains to you as well.

Sometimes there are harsh criticisms that need to be made, even though it is directed toward a group one doesn’t identify with. This is more tricky. It increases the likelihood of projection, scapegoating, and generally being an asshole spouting clueless opinions. Still, it can be done effectively, if taken with care.

Here is a good rule to go by. You should only make sweeping criticisms about categories people choose to belong to. People are free to identify with ideologies, religions, social movements, etc. What you should be more careful about is criticizing vast demographics of people based on traits they have little or no control over: gender, race, ethnicity, intelligence, place of birth, and other similar things.

This is what makes racism and misogyny so offensive. It is also what is so irritating about dismissing Sanders supporters as Bernie Bros or Trump supporters as white dudes (or worse still as white trash), The fact of the matter is that there is a large population of white men, especially those who are poor, who don’t vote at all—many who are demoralized by the system or even disenfranchised because of mass incarceration. It’s easy to forget that most of the poor, the homeless, welfare recipients, prisoners, and ex-cons are white.

Whites in general and white men in particular are not a homogeneous demographic. Among the white working class vote, the majority still supports Democrats and have done so for decades. The smugness of the liberal class might be changing that, though—not a promising direction for the Democratic Party. If as a Hillary Clinton supporter you are critical because so many lower income whites (I might add not just white men but also lower income minorities and women) have supported Sanders (or else Trump) instead of Clinton, where were your criticisms when that same demographic showed great support for Clinton the white woman over Obama the black man?

If you’re going to try to criticize others for perceived privilege, make sure you’re not doing so from a position of privilege. Besides being condescending, it is hypocritical and unhelpful and plain uncaring.

I have no problem with righteousness. Play that righteousness to the hilt and take it seriously on a moral level. Just make sure you’re being righteous for the right reasons. Be honest with yourself in being honest with others. We need more harsh criticism that is also honest criticism. If you feel genuinely condescending or whatever, express it fully. It’s only when we bring it to the light that we can see it for what it is. Express it and take responsibility for it—own it!

Even if it turns out you’re being an asshole, there is no shame in that. We are all assholes from time to time. In that case, just apologize and readjust your attitude.

Let me give some personal examples of what I’d consider inappropriate for being condescending and mocking in targeting particular groups.

As a white man, it would feel wrong to get haughty and self-righteous in relation to the experience of those I can’t begin to understand, specifically that of minorities and women. Or as an American, to think I know what it’s like to live in another society, no matter race or gender. Then again, I feel the same way about other groups I’m closer to in terms of social experience and identity.

My mother’s family came out of a poor white background, but I didn’t grow up around that social world. Even though I’m white and relatively poor, I don’t live in a poor white community and my immediate family is not of the poor white demographic. I can’t speak for or stand above in judgment toward poor whites in poor white communities. My ignorance and unfamiliarity is too great.

As another example, I did spend much of my younger life in the Deep South (the Carolinas, North and South). I was friends with and dated working class whites, including those who could be labeled as redneck or hillbilly. I still don’t think that gives me the full familiarity and understanding to put myself in a position of full judgment, much less condescension and mockery. I wouldn’t be comfortable with that, in the way I’m comfortable more directly and harshly criticizing my fellow liberals and Midwesterners.

There is a difference that matters. It is too easy and unfair to be demeaning and dismissive toward those you don’t really understand. We should always guard against that trap of closed-minded and prejudiced thinking. Condescension and mockery is often hidden in outward humor, but that can make it all the more hurtful. Our words need to be taken seriously. If we are to be critical in whatever form, we should choose our words carefully and consciously. In picking a worthy target, it’s best to err on the side of speaking truth to power, not kicking the weak while their down.

On the White Trash Heap

The below passage caught my attention. It’s written by Nancy Isenberg, from White Trash. The book is a nice read, if you have some curiosity about poor whites. They make for an intriguing historical study. There are centuries of opinions written about them, a favorite topic of discussion for the upper class folk ever perplexed by this alien world of whiteness, often not far away.

Ah, poor whites! Those crackers, dirt poor and the filth to prove it, toothless and ignorant, the lowest of low in the American social hierarchy. They have been looked upon as worse than blacks and Indians. They had the audacity to not fit into the racial order and their whiteness was often questioned.

Blacks always were supposed to be poor and Indians are meant to be in the backcountry. But these white trash have been impoverished by sheer laziness, because of their moral failures and lowly nature, a poverty passed on as their rightful inheritance. And they lived in crappy shacks in rural bumfuck nowhere (or else in ramshackle trailer parks at the edge of town) because that is what they liked, proof that they were barely above being animals.

These pathetic losers, refuse on the trash heap of civilization. Heck, are they even really Americans like the rest of us? It’s as though they live in their own world, purposely cutting themselves off from respectable society and glorying in their backwards ways. They are a step beyond the status of redneck, closer to the category of hillbilly, but really they are in a class of their own. White trash.

We know this because those are the descriptions offered by more well off whites of the past when they traveled among the lower sort. It’s been well documented by astute observers for longer than this land has been its own country.

And ya know what makes these poor whites the worst? They are my people. Ha! It’s probably why I have such a bad attitude.

My mother’s family didn’t come from a respectable background. They were of the Hoosier persuasion, back when to be called a Hoosier was an insult. They were poor whites from Kentuckiana (the limestone region of Kentucky and Indiana). My great grandfather was born a squatter, quite literally. He began his life in an abandoned building that was part of an old abandoned village, at the outskirts of a small border town in a rural county of southern Indiana. It was typical Hoosier territory.

My people were among those first on frontier. They killed and died fighting Indians, when they weren’t fighting each other. There probably was even a bit of mixing with the native folk, not to mention some hanky panky with those of a darker shade (hence the term “Hoosieroon”). Always rumors in poor white rural families that their blood might have more than one color running through it. There is a challenge in determining exact ancestry, many genealogical lines of descent seem to emerge out of the backwoods, as if they had always been there, their natural habitat.

By the time my mother was born, the extended family was finally escaping the fate of dirt poverty. But not all the family escaped. From hearing about some of the family I’ve never met, I suspect there are those who others might look upon as ‘white trash’. Even in her childhood, my mother spoke with that Hoosier dialect that told everyone around her that she was poor white, no matter the fact her father had a factory job. Her father was an alcoholic and on the abusive side, the towering patriarch of his own home. He was born poor and had little education, but to his mind at least he escaped poverty and maybe more importantly wasn’t black.

My mother had two brothers and plenty of cousins about her, the infamous clannishness that poor whites are known for. She still has pride in her voice in telling how she could hold her own in a fight or in a race with the boys. And, of course, she spent her childhood barefoot, as only the poor did back then.

Do you know who else was a poor white Hoosier? Abraham Lincoln.

Abe’s family were small farmers and manual laborers, as was mine. And, like my family, they drifted along as the frontier spread west, from Kentucky where he was born to Indiana where he spent his childhood. His father never understood his love of books and would sometimes burn them. In some of those books, he read about the American founders and it inspired that dirty little backwoods boy to dream of becoming president. But still he was Hoosier through and through. He could scrap with the best of them and he gained some notoriety for his fighting skills, with the strength to pick up a full grown man and toss him.

He also had the grim fatalism of his poor white heritage. He never expected life to end well for him. To rise up out of one’s class was asking for trouble. It isn’t what white trash is suppose do. But along with grim fatalism, he had grim determination to do what he had set his mind to do.

In 1817, when little Hoosier Abe was about eight years old, over in Virginia Thomas Jefferson brought one of his granddaughters to some nearby property he owned where they met a family of low class scrub dwellers. She was shocked by what she perceived as their shamelessness and lack of deference. She would have been even more shocked if someone told her that in her lifetime a dirty little heathen, just like one of those barely clothed children, would hold the same high office as her well-honored grandfather. A few decades later, Abraham Lincoln was elected president, although he was preceded in 1829 by another president of poor white origins, Andrew Jackson.

That is always the failure of white trash. They don’t know their place. They have their own values and their own sense of pride, no matter what anyone else thinks of them. It might seem the arrogance of brute ignorance, but it’s well earned. They think of themselves as plain Americans, as they identify themselves on census records. Their continued existence despite the odds being against them is their only needed justification.

George Washington, that great aristocratic leader, had a vision for America. He dreamed of a disinterested aristocracy ruling with paternalistic concern. When the poor whites rebelled, he did what any stern father would do and put them back in their place. The problem is they wouldn’t stay in their place, even all these centuries later. Still, they remain useful as scapegoats and so maybe we should keep them around, to occasionally trot them out on the public stage as a lesson for us all.

* * *

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
pp. 114-116

The distance between town and backwoods was measured in more than miles. It had an evolutionary character, forming what some at the time recognized as an impassable gulf between the classes. The educated routinely wrote in disbelief that such people shared their country. In 1817, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter Cornelia Randolph wrote to her younger sister about a trip with their grandfather to the Natural Bridge, a property that Jefferson owned ninety miles west of Monticello. Here, she said, she encountered members of that “half civiliz’d race who lived beyond the ridge.” The children she met were barely covered by their scanty shifts and shirts, while one man strutted around before them with his “hairy breast exposed.” In this large, unruly family, she noted with disapproval, there were no more than “two or three pairs of shoes.” She was especially surprised by the crude familiarity of their speech. Oblivious to social forms, they conversed with the ex-president as though he was some lost family member. As a proud member of the Virginia gentry, Cornelia was convinced that she towered above the unwashed squatters. To her further chagrin, she was astounded that the poor family exhibited not the least sense of shame over their pathetic condition.

Class made its most transparent appearance by way of such contrasts. We can read volumes into the scorn expressed by the educated onlooker as he or she sized up the uncouth figures who roamed the backcountry. The need to make them into a new breed focused on more than crude living conditions, however. The backwoodsman and cracker had a telltale gait that accompanied his distinctive physiognomy. While traveling in the trans-Appalachian West in 1830, a city adventurer drolly observed of his bed companion for the night, “lantern-jawed, double-jointed backwoodsman, measuring some seven feet one in his stocking feet.” A typical alligator hunter in southern Illinois bore a similar physique: “gaunt, long-limbed, lanthorn-jawed, Jonathan.” (“ Jonathan” simply meant “fellow” here, being a common appellation for a generic American.) The cracker women had the same protruding jaw and swarthy complexion, and were as often as not toothless.

Women and children were important symbols of civilization— or the absence of it. Officers stationed in Florida in the 1830s identified “ye cracker girls” as brutes, with manners no better than sailors, and often seen smoking pipes, chewing and spitting tobacco, and cursing. Seeing their slipshod dress, dirty feet, ropy hair, and unwashed faces, one lieutenant from the Northeast dismissed them all as no better than prostitutes. In his words, everyone of the cracker class was a “swearing, lazy, idle slut!”

The backwoods personality could be found as far north as Maine, as far south as Florida, and across the Northwest and Southwest Territories. They acquired localized names, such as Mississippi screamers, for their cracker-style Indian war whoop or love of squealing; Kentucky corn crackers, for their poor diet of cracked corn; and Indiana Hoosiers, for the poor in that state. “Hoosier” is a word no linguistic scholar can define with any precision. Even so, the class descriptor was the same. A Hoosier man ran off at the mouth, lied, boasted, and remained ready to harm anyone who insulted his ugly wife. They were as prone to a down-and-dirty fight as any southern cracker. Hoosier gals were no more refined than their Florida sisters. A Hoosier gal’s courtship ritual, it was said, involved a lot of kicking and hair pulling.

Sexual behavior was another crucial marker of class status. In a well-known poem of the era, “The Hoosier’s Nest” (1833), the author harkened back to the vocabulary of the Scottish naturalist Wilson. Here again, the cabins were wild nests, a half-human, half-animal retreat perfect for indiscriminate breeding. Using a racially charged slur, the poet identified the children as “Hoosieroons”— a class variation of the mixed-race quadroons. Under their leaky roofs were none of the hearty pioneer stock. Instead, poor Indiana squatters produced a degenerate dozen of dirty yellow urchins.

Filthy cabins, a lack of manners, and rampant breeding combined to make crackers and squatters a distinct class, as verified by their patterns of speech. Backwoods patois constituted a rural American version of the lower-class English cockney. In 1830, there was even a “Cracker Dictionary,” preserving their vintage slang. One was “Jimber jawed,” whose mouth was constantly moving, who couldn’t stop talking. The cracker’s protruding lower jaw carried over into his style of talking. A “ring tailed roarer” was a violent type; the descriptive “chewed up” literally referred to having one’s ear, nose, or lip bitten off.

But one polysyllabic word may have best captured their identity. The verb “obsquatulate” was a cracker conjugation of “squat,” conveying the idea of moseying along or absconding. For a people who wouldn’t settle in one place, “obsquatulate” gave an activity of sorts to the American heirs of English vagrants. They might flee like an absconding servant or amble at a slow pace without a destination in mind, but in either case it was their dirty feet and slipshod ways that defined them.

Terror Management and Depressive Realism

I happened across terror management theory. Intuitively, I find it compelling. It’s a basic explanation of an important aspect of human nature and how it is expressed in society.

It “proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live, but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to human beings. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning.”

The originators of this theory wrote a couple of books together, the authors being Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski. One book is The Worm at the Core. The other is In the Wake of 9/11. The introduction to that last book has some quotes from Americans describing the recollection of their thoughts and experiences following the 9/11 terrorist attack.

It’s been so long ago. I don’t normally think back to that time. The reign of Bush, from stolen election to the great recession, wasn’t a happy time for this country. The attack itself was just one tiny part of an era of gloom, the decade of the aughts.

Reading the quotations brought back my own experience of that event. I’m reminded of how atypical I am. My immediate response, upon first hearing about 9/11, was a lack of surprise. It somehow seemed inevitable to me, something that was bound to happen one way or another. It fit the mood of the times. Maybe nothing good was ever going to come out of the aughts. But, before that fateful day, we Americans had no idea how bad it could get with 9/11 along with it’s aftermath of War On Terror, endless war, and the growing intelligence-police state.

On the eve of 9/11, I had fallen asleep with the radio playing. The next morning, with the radio still on, I slowly returned to consciousness with news reports of some great catastrophe that had befallen the nation. I suppose that is a surreal thing to wake up to. But, as I recall, I didn’t think of it as shocking, unexpected, and abnormal. It fit into the world I knew, which obviously wasn’t the world most other Americans knew.

Let me explain why that was the case. There were a number of contributing factors to my mindset.

The radio being on is the most central factor for multiple reasons. One study found that people who heard about 9/11 on the radio, as compared to seeing it on television, were later on less supportive of Bush’s War On Terror. It wasn’t ideology or partisan politics that drove the public attitude of revenge and aggression. Rather, it was how the initial experience was mediated. (Never doubt the power of media. Also, never doubt that those who own and control media fully understand that power.)

At that time, radio was my lifeline to the world. I didn’t have a television or internet. Nearly all info came to me via words—from radio, newspapers, magazines, and books. The first image I saw of the burning buildings probably was from a newspaper and so probably was black-and-white. The vividness of the event wasn’t immediately conveyed to me. I didn’t sit around watching video of the attack on endless loop, as so many did, repeated imagery that created a permanently traumatized state of mind. I’m more of a verbal person and words do communicate in a different way than images.

There is another important factor related to my radio listening. The most common reason I’d fall asleep with the radio on is because of a particular radio show I regularly listened to, Coast to Coast AM with Art Bell. It was old school alternative media before the internet had made popular the new forms of alternative media.

Art Bell’s show was an island of independent thought, sandwiched in between the status quo liberalism of public radio and the crazed ranting of right-wing radio talk shows. Back in those days, when Art Bell still ran the show, it had a bit of a radical and leftist bent to it. But the guests themselves were all across the political spectrum, not to mention all across the sanity-insanity spectrum. Art Bell would allow almost anyone to talk, as long as they were basically honest and respectful.

It was from that show and other alternative media that I was initially educated about the goings on in the larger world. Coast to Coast AM would quite often have serious guests, including scholars, political commentators, investigative reporters, etc. From such guests and other sources, I became aware of the meddling of the US government around the world and aware of growing conflicts, terrorism, and much else. Unlike most Americans, I understood that blowback was coming our way and, when it hit, it would be a doozy.

The other thing is that I had been experiencing years of severe depression at that point. My emotions had already hit low points on such a regular basis and for such lengthy periods of time that I had grown familiar with despair and agony. About five years before, I had attempted suicide and been temporarily institutionalized. As such, suicide ideation was ever lingering on my mind, a regular contemplation of suffering and death. This led me to an attitude of depressive realism, a stark appraisal of human nature and the human world.

Maybe this inoculated me against terror of death. If anything, I was prone to emotional numbness from long-term psychological stress and over-exertion. My normal emotional response is a bit broken and my psychic reserves are typically not far above zero. Entrenched depression brings on regular bouts of cynicism. I’m prone to expecting the worse and being unsurprised when the worst comes.

It’s hard for me to sympathize with those who are surprised. The world is a shitty place. That seems obvious to me. It doesn’t take a terrorist attack to get me to notice this sad state of affairs.