Mid-20th Century American Peasant Communities

Industrial capitalism is radically new. Late stage capitalism came rather late. That is true for the United States. Until about a century ago, most Americans still lived in rural communities, worked manual labor on small family farms, survived on subsistence in growing most of their own food, and bought what little else they needed through store tabs and barter. Many Americans were still living this way within living memory. A few such communities persist in places across the United States.

Segmented Worlds and Self
by Yi-Fu Tuan
pp. 17-21

Most peasants are villagers, members of cohesive communities. What is the nature of this cohesion and how is it maintained? A large and varied literature on peasants exists—historical studies of villages in medieval Europe and ethnographic surveys of peasant economy and livelihood in the poorer parts of the world at the turn of the century. Though differing from each other in significant details, peasant worlds nonetheless share certain broad traits that distinguish them from urban and modern societies. First, peasants establish intimate bonds with the land: that one must labor hard to survive is an accepted truth that is transformed into a propitiary and pious sentiment toward Mother Earth. Deities of the soil and ancestral spirits become fused. Peasants see themselves as belonging to the land, “children of the earth,” a link between past and future, ancestors and progeny. Biological realities and metaphors, so common in the peasant’s world, tend to suppress the idea of the self as a unique end or as a person capable of breaking loose from the repetitive and cyclical processes of nature to initiate something radically new. Although peasants may own the land they work on, they work more often in teams than individually. Many agricultural activities require cooperation; for example, when the fields need to be irrigated and drained, or when a heavy and expensive piece of equipment (such as the mill, winepress, or oven belonging to the landlord) is to be used. Scope for individual initative is limited except in small garden plots next to the house, and even there customary practices prevail. Individualism and individual success are suspect in peasant communities. Prosperity is so rare that it immediately suggest witchcraft.

In the peasant’s world the fundamental socioeconomic unit is the extended family, members of which—all except the youngest children—are engaged in some type of productive work. They may not, however, see much of each other during the day. Dinnertime may provide the only opportunity for family togetherness, when the webs of affection and lines of authority become evident to all. More distant relatives are drawn into the family net on special occasions, such as weddings and funerals. Besides kinsfolk, villagers can count on the assistance of neighbors when minor needs arise, whether for extra hands during harvest, for tools, or even for money. In southeast China, a neighborhood is clearly defined as five residences to each side of one’s own. Belonging to a neighborhood gives one a sense of security that kinsfolk alone cannot provide. Villagers are able to maintain good neighborly relations with each other because they have the time to socialized. In Europe the men may go to a tavern, where after a few  beers they feel relaxed enough to sing together— that most comradely of human activities. In China the men, and sometimes the women as well, may go to a teahouse in a market town, where they can exchange gossip among themselves and with visitors from other villages. More informally, neighbors meet to chat and relax in the village square in the cool of the evening. Peasants desire contentment rather than success, and contentment means essentially the absence of want. When a man achieves a certain level of comfort he is satisfied. He feels no compulsion to use his resource and energy for higher economic rewards. He has the time and sense of leisure to hobnob with his fellows and bathe in their undemanding good will. Besides these casual associations, peasants come together for planned festivals that might involve the entire village. the New Year and the period after harvest are such occasions in many parts of the world. the number of festivals and the days on which they occur vary from place to place, but without exception festivals come to pass when people are relatively free, that is, during the lax phases of the calendar year.

Festivals, of course, strengthen the idea of group self. Tehse are the times when the people as a whole express their joy in the success of a harvest, or the growing strength of the sun. Simultaneously, they reaffirm their piety toward the protective deities of the earth and sky, their sense of onennss with nature. Group cohesiveness s a product of need, a fact that is manifest n the traditional world of villagers at different scales, ranging from that of family and kinsfolk, through those of neighbors and work team, to the entire community as it celebrates the end of a period of toil or the passing of a crisis of natue, or as it is girded in self-defense against natural calamity or human predators. Necessity is not a condition that human beings can contemplate for long without transforming it into an ideal. Thus, the cooperation necessary to survival becomes a good in itself, a desirable way of life. Units of mutual help achieve strong identities that can persist long after the urgencies that called them into existence have passed. In such groups, forged initially out of need but sustained thereafter by a sense of collective superiority, wayward and questioning individuals have no place.

A common image of America is that it is a land of individualists. Even in the colonial period, when towns were small and isolated, intimately knit communal groups like those of Europe did not exist. The people who lived in them, particularly in the Middle Colonies, shared too few common traditions and habits. Moreover, they were continually moving in and out. In New England, where settlers made periodic attempts to establish communities artificially by means of consciously constructed models, the results were mixed in relation to satisfaction and permanence. In the countryside, the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer seems to have held sway. Nevertheless, not only individualists but families and clusters of families migrated to the frontier, and in the course of time some of them became deeply rooted agglutinate communities, in which such characteristic American ideals as upward social mobility, individual intiative, and success were alien.

Traditional farming communities, relics from the past, persist in rural America at mid-twentieth century. Consider the sixty-odd families whose roots in the hollows of Tennessee, a few miles south of Nashville, go back to 1756. Over a course of two hundred years, inter-marriage has produced the closest bonds. Natural warmth between kinsfolk and neighbors is reinforced by a deep suspicion of outsiders. The community is strongly egalitarian. Work roles differ by age and sex, but social stratification as it exists in most parts of the country is unknown. “In work terms,” writes John Mogey, “no one is clearly leader: collective responsibility for work assignment is the rule to an extent that to speak of individual or family farming enterprises would be to violate the facts.” In her study of this community, Elmora Matthews notes how warm feelings between farmers can emerge from a combination of blood ties, laboring at common tasks, and informal socializing. One woman described the relation between her four brothers, who have adjoining farms: “They work all day long together, eat their meals together, and then always sit around and visit with each other before they go home. ” Ambition and even efficiency, when it is obtrusive, are bad. On the other hand, “no one ever condemns a husband who evades his work. If anything, a man who sits around home a lot blesses a family group.” One of the most respectable activities for man is to loaf and loiter with other men. The greatest satisfaction lies in the warm exchange of feeling among relatives and close friends at home, church, or store.

People in this Tennessee community almost never organize formally for special ends. There are no communal projects. The community is not a provisional state that might be altered and improved upon, or used for some larger, ulterior purpose. It is the supreme value and sole reality: whatever threatens to disrupt it is bad. Critical self-awareness seems minimal. Thus, although this Tennessee people fervently believe in freedom, anyone who exercises it to develop his talent and becomes a success is harshly judged. Thorough conformists in thinking and behavior, they nevertheless resent the government for its tendency to impose rules and regulations, and they regard communism as unimaginably horrible.

Close-knit communities of this kind can be found in the more isolated countrysides of Western Europe and North America even in the middle of the twentieth century.

Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir
by Joe Bageant
pp. 15-20

When Virginia Iris Gano and Harry Preston Bageant crested that ridge in their buggy and began their life together, they stood an excellent chance of making it. For starters, in that world the maths of life was easier, even if the work was harder. If you could show the bank or the seller of the land that you were healthy and sober, and knew how to farm, you pretty much had the loan (at least when it came to the non-arid eastern American uplands; the American West was a different matter). At 5 percent simple interest, Pap bought a 108-acre farm — house, barn, and all — for $400. (It was a cash-poor county, and still is. As recently as 1950 you could buy a 200-acre farm there for about $1,000.) On those terms, a subsistence farmer could pay off the farm in twenty years, even one with such poor soils as in these Southern uplands. But a subsistence farmer did not farm to sell crops, though he did that, too, when possible. Instead, he balanced an entire life with land and human productivity, family needs, money needs, along with his own and his family’s skills in a labor economy, not a wealth economy. The idea was to require as little cash as possible, because there wasn’t any to be had.

Nor was much needed. The farm was not a business. It was a farm. Pap and millions of farmers like him were never in the “agribusiness”. They never participated in the modern “economy of scale” which comes down to exhausting as many resources as possible to make as much money as possible in the shortest time possible. If you’d talked to him about “producing commodities under contract to strict specifications”, he wouldn’t have recognized that as farming. “Goddamned jibber-jabber” is what he would have called it. And if a realtor had pressed him about the “speculative value” of his farmland as “agronomic leverage”, I suspect the old 12-gauge shotgun might have come down off the rack. Land value was based upon what it could produce, plain and simple. These farms were not large, credit-based “operations” requiring annual loans for machinery, chemicals, and seed.

Sure, farmers along Shanghai Road and the Unger Store community bought things at the junction store on credit, to be paid for in the autumn. Not much, though. The store’s present owners, descendants of the store’s founders, say that an annual bill at the store would run to about ten dollars. One of them, Richard Merica, told me, “People bought things like salt and pepper. Only what they couldn’t make for themselves, like shotgun shells or files.” Once I commented to an old Unger Store native still living there that, “I suspect there wasn’t more than $1,000 in the Unger Store community in the pre-war days.”

“You’re guessing way too high,” he said. “Try maybe $400 or $500. But most of it stayed here, and went round and round.”

So if Pap and the other subsistence farmers there spent eight bucks a year at the local crossroads store, it was eight bucks in a reciprocal exchange that made both their subsistence farming and the Unger Store possible as a business and as a community.

Moneyless as it was, Maw and Pap’s lives were far more stable than one might think today. In fact, the lives of most small farmers outside the nasty cotton sharecropping system of deep-southern America were stable. Dramatic as the roller-coaster economics of the cities and the ups and downs caused by crop commodity speculators in Chicago were, American farm life remained straightforward for the majority. Most were not big Midwestern broad-acre farmers who could be destroyed by a two-cent change in the price of wheat. Wheat in Maw and Pap’s time hovered at around fifty to fifty-five cents a bushel; corn, at forty-five; and oats at about fifty-six. Multiply the acreage by average bushels per acre for your piece of land, and you had a start at figuring out a realistic basis for your family’s future. It was realistic enough that, after making allowances for bad years, plus an assessment of the man seeking the loan, the banks lent Pap the price of a farm. That assessment was not shallow.

Pap was expected to bring to the equation several dozen already-honed skills, such as the repair, sharpening, and use of tools (if you think that is simple, try laying down wheat with a scythe sometime); the ability to husband several types of animal stock; and experience and instinct about soils and terrain, likely weather, and broadcasting seed by hand. Eastern mountain subsistence farms needed little or no planting equipment because plots were too small and steep. What harvesting equipment such as reapers and threshers might be needed was usually owned by one man who made part of his living reaping and threshing for the rest of the community. Other skills included planting in cultivated ridges, managing a woodlot, and estimating hours of available sunlight for both plant growth and working. The subsistence farm wife’s life required as much experience and skill on a different front of family provision.

That said, Pap wasn’t a particularly good farmer. He wasn’t a bad farmer, either. He was just an average farmer among millions of average farmers. The year my grandparents married, about 35 million Americans were successfully engaged in farming, mostly at a subsistence level. It’s doubtful that they were all especially gifted, or dedicated or resourceful. Nevertheless, their kind of human-scale family farming proved successful for twelve generations because it was something more — a collective consciousness rooted in the land that pervaded four-fifths of North American history.

They farmed with the aid of some 14 million draft horses and God only knows how many mules. Pap wasn’t much for mules; all the farming he had to do could easily be done with one horse. Without going into a treatise on horse farming, let me say that, around 1955 at the age of ten, I saw the last of Pap’s work horses in use, a coal-black draft animal named “Nig” (short for nigger, of course). By then, Nig, who was Nig number three, if I remember correctly, was over twenty years old, and put out to pasture — a loose use of the term, given that he spent his time in the shade of the backyard grape arbor waiting to be hand-fed treats. But Nig still pulled a single tree-plow in a four-acre truck garden down in the bottom land — mostly melons, tomatoes, and sweet corn — while I sometimes rode atop barefoot holding onto the wooden hames at the collar. Pap walked behind, guiding the plow. “Gee Nig! Haw Nig! Step right … Turn and baaack. Cluck-cluck.” The rabbit dogs, Nellie and Buck, trotted alongside in the spring sun.

Though Pap owned a tractor by then — a beaten-up old Farmall with huge, cleated steel wheels, a man-killer prone to flipping over backward and grinding the driver bloodily under the cleats — he could still do all his cultivation walking behind Nig in the spring. In summer he’d scratch out the weeds with a horseless garden plow, or “push plow”, and pick off bugs by hand, dropping them into a Maxwell House coffee can half-filled with kerosene. Pap hand-harvested most things, even large cornfields, using a corn cutter fashioned from an old Confederate sword. But it is that old horse and that old man with the long leather lines thrown up over his shoulders, the plow in his iron grip, and cutting such straight lines in the red clay and shale, that I remember most fondly. He made it look easy. Fifty years in the furrows will do that.

pp. 41-53

THE CULTURAL VALUES MAY REMAIN, HANGING over everything political and many things that are not, but there are few if any remaining practitioners of the traditional family or community culture by which Pap and Maw lived — the one with the woman in the home, and the man in the fields, although Maw certainly worked in the fields when push came to shove. This is not to advocate such as the natural order of things. I am neither Amish nor Taliban. But knee-jerk, middle-class, mostly urban feminists might do well to question how it all started and what the result has been — maybe by getting out and seeing how few of their sisters gutting chickens on the Tyson’s production line or telemarketing credit cards on the electronic plantation relish those dehumanizing jobs that they can never quit.

It would do them well to wonder why postwar economists and social planners, from their perches high in the executive and management class, deemed it best for the nation that more mothers become permanent fixtures of America’s work force. This transformation doubled the available labor supply, increased consumer spending, and kept wages lower than they would have otherwise been. National production and increased household income supposedly raised everyone’s quality of life to stratospheric heights, if Formica countertops and “happy motoring” can be called that. I’m sure it did so for the managing and owning classes, and urban people with good union jobs. In fact, it was the pre-war trade unions at full strength, particularly the United Auto Workers, that created the true American middle class, in terms of increased affluence for working people and affordable higher education for their children.

What Maw and Pap and millions of others got out of it, primarily, were a few durable goods, a washing machine, a television, and an indoor toilet where the pantry, with its cured meats, 100-pound sacks of brown sugar, flour, and cases of eggs had been. Non-durable commodities were vastly appreciated, too. One was toilet paper, which ended generations of deep-seated application of the pages of the Sears Roebuck mail-order catalog to the anus (the unspoken limit seemed to be one page to a person at a sitting). The other was canned milk, which had been around a long time, but had been unaffordable. Milk cows are a wonderful thing, but not so good when two wars and town work have drained off your family labor-supply of milkers. […]

The urging of women into the workplace, first propagandized by a war-making state, was much romanticized in the iconic poster image of Rosie the Riveter, with her blue-denim sleeves rolled up and a scarf tied over her hair. You see the image on the refrigerator magnets of fuzzy-minded feminists-lite everywhere. This liberal identity-statement is sold by the millions at Wal-Mart, and given away as a promotional premium by National Public Radio and television.

Being allowed to manufacture the planes that bombed so many terrified European families is now rewritten as a feminist milestone by women who were not born at the time. But I’ve never once heard working-class women of that period rave about how wonderful it was to work long days welding bomb-bay doors onto B-29s.

The machinery of state saw things differently, and so the new reality of women building war machinery was dubbed a social advance for American womankind, both married and single. In Russia, it was ballyhooed as Soviet socialist-worker equality. And one might even believe that equality was the prime motive, when viewed sixty years later by, for instance, a university-educated specimen of the gender writing her doctoral dissertation. But for the children and grandchildren of Rosie the Riveter, those women not writing a dissertation or thesis, there is less enthusiasm. Especially among working mothers. The Pew Research Center reports that only 13 percent of working mothers think that working benefits their children. But nearly 100 percent feel they have no choice. Half of working mothers think their employment is pointless for society. Forty-two percent of Americans, half of them women, say that working mothers have been bad for society on the whole. Nearly all working mothers say they feel guilty as they rush off to work.

Corporations couldn’t have been happier with the situation. Family labor was siphoned off into the industrial labor pool, creating a surplus of workers, which in turn created a cheaper work force. There were still the teeming second-generation immigrant populations available for labor, but there were misgivings about them — those second-generation Russian Jews, Italians, Irish, Polish, and Hungarians, and their like. From the very beginning, they were prone to commie notions such as trade unions and eight-hour workdays. They had a nasty history of tenacity, too.

On the other hand, out there in the country was an endless supply of placid mules, who said, “Yes, Ma’m” and “No, Ma’m”, and accepted whatever you paid them. Best of all, except for churches and the most intimate community groups, these family- and clan-oriented hillbillies were not joiners, especially at some outsiders’ urging. Thus, given the nature of union organizing — urging and convincing folks to join up — local anti-union businessmen and large companies alike had little to fear when it came to pulling in workers from the farms.

Ever since the Depression, some of the placid country mules had been drifting toward the nearest cities anyway. By the 1950s, the flow was again rapidly increasing. Generation after generation couldn’t keep piling up on subsistence farms, lest America come to be one vast Mennonite community, which it wasn’t about to become, attractive as that idea might seem now. Even given America’s historical agrarian resistance to “wage slavery” (and farmers were still calling it that when I was a kid), the promise of a regular paycheck seemed the only choice. We now needed far more money to survive, because we could no longer independently provide for ourselves.

Two back-to-back wars had effectively drained off available manpower to the point where our family farm offered only a fraction of its former sustenance. Even if we tried to raise our own food and make our own clothing out of the patterned multi-colored feed sacks as we had always done, it took more money than ever. […]

By the mid and late 1950s, the escalating monetized economy had rural folks on the ropes. No matter how frugal one was, there was no fighting it. In a county where cash had been scarce from the beginning — though not to disastrous effect — we children would overhear much talk about how this or that aunt or uncle “needs money real bad”. […]

WHEN IT COMES TO MONEY, I AM TOLD THAT BEFORE the war some Unger Store subsistence farmers got by on less than one hundred dollars a year. I cannot imagine that my grandfather ever brought in more than one thousand dollars in any year. Even before the postwar era’s forced commodification of every aspect of American life, at least some money was needed. So some in my family, like many of their neighbors, picked apples seasonally or worked as “hired-on help” for a few weeks in late summer at the many small family-owned apple- and tomato-canning sheds that dotted Morgan County. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, between farming and sporadic work at the local flour, corn, and feed-grinding outfits, and especially the small canning operations, a family could make it. Pap could grow a few acres of tomatoes for the canneries, and Maw or their kids could work a couple of weeks in them for cash.

This was local and human-scale industry and farming, with the tomatoes being grown on local plots ranging from five to ten acres. Canners depended on nearby farm families for crops and labor, and the farm families depended upon them in turn for cash or its equivalent. […]

Farm-transport vehicles were much scarcer then, especially anything bigger than a quarter-ton pickup truck. So the sight of Jackson Luttrell’s one-ton Chevy truck with its high wooden sideboards was exciting in itself. In those days, farmers did not buy new $45,000 trucks to impress other farmers, or run to the nearest farm supply in one of them to pick up a couple of connector bolts. Every farmer had a farm wagon, whether pulled by horse or tractor, but almost nobody owned a truck. Common sense and thrift prevented them from spending big money on something that would only be used during one month each year at harvest time. Beyond that, farmers would not even think of growing those small acreages of tomatoes that the canneries depended upon if they had to buy a truck to transport them there — any profit made on the tomatoes would be lost on the truck. So, for folks such as Jackson Luttrell, who had one, ownership made more economic sense. He profited through its maximized use in getting everyone else’s crops to the mill or processing plant. One truck served the farm community, at minimum expenditure to the entire group. They didn’t even have to pay Jackson Luttrell any cash for the hauling.

That was because Cotton Unger, who owned the canning operation, was expected to get the tomatoes to his factory himself. As a businessman and entrepreneur, it was Unger’s job to deal with the problems that came with his enterprise. Unger’s job was to run a business; a farmer’s job was to farm. These were two separate things in the days before the rigged game of agri-business put all the cost on the farmers through loading them with debt, and all the profits went to business corporations. Nor did Unger’s duties as a capitalist end with getting the hauling done at his own expense. It was also his job to turn the local crops such as wheat, corn, and tomatoes into money, through milling or canning them for sale to bulk contractors elsewhere.

Cotton owned more than just the family store, which he’d inherited from his father, Peery Unger, and for which the community was named sometime after the Civil War. The store at the junction had gasoline pumps, a grinding mill, and a feed and seed farm-supply adjunct. It was also the official post office for that end of the county; and, just to be safe, Cotton Unger also farmed. The Unger family’s store was a modest, localized example of a vertically integrated, agriculturally based business, mostly out of necessity.

Cotton never saw much cash, and never got rich by any means. Not on the ten-cent and fifteen-cent purchases that farmers made there for over one hundred years. Yet he could pay Jackson Luttrell for the tomato hauling — in credit at the store. That enabled Jackson to buy seed, feed, hardware, fertilizer, tools, and gasoline, and farm until harvest time with very little cash, leaving him with enough to invest in a truck. Unger could run his tomato cannery and transform local produce into cash, because he could barter credit for farm products and services. This was a community economic ecology that blended labor, money, and goods to sustain a modest but satisfactory life for all.

At the same time, like most American businessmen then and today, Cotton Unger was a Republican. He was a man of the Grand Old Party: the party of a liberator named Abraham, who freed millions of black men from the bondage of slavery; and the party of two presidents named George, the second of whom subsequently ushered Americans of all colors back into slavery through national indebtedness. Being of a Republican stripe made Cotton Unger a rare bird in the strongly Democratic Morgan County.

Today he would be even rarer, because he was a Republican with the common wisdom to understand something that no Republican has ever grasped since: he realized that any wealth he might acquire in life was due not only to his own efforts, but also to the efforts of all other men combined — men who built the roads that hauled his merchandise; men who laid rail track, grew crops, drilled wells, and undertook all the other earthly labors that make society possible. Whether they were Democrats or not, he needed the other citizens around him as friends, neighbors, and builders of the community. To that end, he provided transportation to the polls at election time for farmers without cars — and they were many, Pap and Maw among them — full knowing that nearly every last one of them was going to vote against his candidate. In his ancestors’ time they had voted for Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, James Polk, James Buchanan, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman — all Democrats.

The old-timers say that Cotton always looked kinda weary around election time. And well he must have been. On election day, Cotton chauffeured around Democratic voters, people who would vote against his interests, vote in favor of higher business taxes or to increase teachers’ pay to the point where the school-marm could almost make a living. But Cotton also understood that his personal interests resided more with his community and neighbors than with his political affiliation. Republican politicians in faraway Charleston took the back seat to his face-to-face daily life with his neighbors. Cotton, like his father Peery, and his grandfather, C.J. Unger, before him, knew that when you depend directly on neighbors for your daily bread, you’d damned-well better have their respect and goodwill. And you’d best maintain it over generations, too, if you plan to pass the family store down to your sons and your sons’ sons. We may never see that level of operative community democracy again.

pp. 61-69

Not that money was unimportant. Money has been important since the first Sumerian decided it was easier to carry a pocket full of barley shekels than hump a four-foot urn of barley down to the marketplace on his back. And it was certainly important 5,000 years later to the West Virginia hill country’s subsistence farmers. But in the big picture, money was secondary to co-operation and the willingness to work hard. A considered ecology of family labor, frugality, and their interrelationship with community was the economy. And the economy was synonymous with their way of life, even though that would have been a pretentious term to Pap and his contemporaries. He always said, “You just do the next thing that needs doing. You keep doing that, and everything gets done that needs to be done.” When I’d ask him what to do next, he’d say, “Just look to see what needs doing, dammit!”

Understanding what needed doing was the glue of subsistence farming’s family-work ecology, which was also ecological in the environmental sense. Knowledge was passed along about which fields best grew what produce, the best practices to maintain fertility, and what the farm could sustainably produce year in and year out. It was a family act.

Those farm families strung out along Shanghai Road could never have imagined our existential problems or the environmental damage we now face. But, after having suffered such things as erosion from their own damaging early-American practices, they came to understand that nature and man do not stand separately. The mindfulness involved in human-scale farming demands such. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, we should understand our environmental problem as a kind of damage that has also been done to humans. In all likelihood, there is no solution for environmental destruction that does not first require a healing of the damage done to the human community. And most of that damage to the human world has been done through work, our jobs, and the world of money. Acknowledging such things about our destructive system requires honesty about what is all around us, and an intellectual conscience. And asking ourselves, “Who are we as a people?”

Meanwhile, as settlers migrated down the Great Valley of Virginia, as they called the Shenandoah Valley toward the fertile southlands, the poorer among them kept seeping westward into the uncleared Blue Ridge, where land was cheapest and work was hardest. When they settled on Fairfax’s land, they may have become human assets to his holdings. But they were not slaves and they were not employees. The overwhelming portion of the fruits of their labor were directly their own. They could not be fired. They could not incur oppressive financial debt. And if their farms were isolated specks in the blue Appalachian fog with their split-pine log floors, they were nevertheless specks located in a great, shared commons called nature.

In contrast to Fairfax and the planter society’s money-based economy of wealth, these settlers lived by a family-based economy of labor. Not that they had a choice. Any kind of coinage or currency was rare throughout the colonies. Their economy depended on the bartering of labor and sometimes goods between themselves. Dr Warren Hofstra, an eminent historian of the area, tells me this system was so complex that they kept sharply detailed ledger books of goods and services bartered, even of small favors done for one another. In essence, this was an economy whose currency was the human calorie. Be it a basket of apples or a week’s labor hauling stone for a house, everything produced (which was everything in their subsistence world, there being no money), was accomplished by an expenditure of human energy. Calories burned could only be replaced by an expenditure of calories to plant, grow, and preserve future calories for sustained sustenance. This was a chain of caloric expenditures or barter going all the way back to the forging of the iron hoe or plow that made subsistence possible at all. Keenly aware that both time and their own human energy were finite, they measured, balanced, and assigned value to nearly every effort, large or small. Wasting these resources could spell hunger or failure to subsist.

This attitude lives on today among the descendants of the settlers. When outsiders move into this area, they often comment on what they perceive as the miserliness of the natives. Or the fact that they will not let you do them even a small favor, lest they be obligated in return.

A lady new to the area, a physician who hails from Delaware, told me: “I went shopping with Anna at the mall last week. We went in my car. She tried to give me three dollars for ‘gas money’. I told her that was very kind, but we’d only driven two miles at best and that it wasn’t necessary. She kept pushing the money at me, saying ‘Here, take this,’ getting more and more insistent each time. I kept declining until I noticed that she was becoming honestly and truly angry with me. It was so damned strange, I’ve never seen anything like it. So I took the three dollars.”

I explained that many natives are like that, and told her about the early settlers’ rigid barter-and-favor economy, and how these attitudes have unconsciously come down through our cultural history, remaining as deeply instilled social practices and conventions. It can work the other way around, too. Some people will unexpectedly do something very nice for you, or give you something — maybe an antique or whatever.

“Don’t let the Southern charm fool you, though,” I said. “In the back of their mind they have marked it down as a favor or a social debt owed. And they’ll expect you to recognize when to pay it back. Maybe volunteer to feed their dog or water their lawn when they are away. At the same time, you should feel somewhat honored. It’s a down payment on developing further friendship. If they hadn’t judged you to be a worthy, reliable, and reciprocating person, dependable in a friendship, they wouldn’t even bother to know you at all. In fact, that’s why so many outsiders perceive some natives as snotty and cold.”

“Amazing,” she said. “I’d never guess their behavior had such deep cultural roots.”

“Neither would they,” I replied.

As the hill-country population grew, their isolation lessened. Farmers grew more connected in a community network of seasonal mutual efforts, such as threshing, hunting, hog slaughtering, haymaking, clannish marriages, and birth, burial, and worship. These conventions were still being observed into the 1950s as I was growing up there.

Family and community life in that early, non-wealth-based economy is impossible for us to comprehend. No man can fully grasp a life he has not lived, or for that matter completely grasp the one he is living. But we Blue Ridge folk most surely live subject to the continuing effects of that dead culture which is never really dead.

For example, the old agrarian culture of reserve, frugality, and thought-out productivity translate as political conservatism today, even though few of its practitioners could identify a baling hook if their lives depended on it. At its core stood — and still stand, for the most part — “family values”, which meant (duh!) valuing family. Valuing family above all else, except perhaps God’s word. Grasping the true meaning of this is to understand much of the conservative American character, both its good and its bad qualities. I dare say it also holds some solutions to the dissolution of human community, the destabilizing of world resources, and the loss of the great commons, human and natural, all sacrificed to the monstrous fetish of commodities, their acquisition and their production through an insane scale of work and round-the-clock commerce and busyness.

Language and Knowledge, Parable and Gesture

“Man exists in language like a fly trapped in a bottle: that which it cannot see is precisely that through which it sees the world.”
~ Ludwig Wittgenstein

“As William Edwards Deming famously demonstrated, no system can understand itself, and why it does what it does, including the American social system. Not knowing shit about why your society does what it [does] makes for a pretty nasty case of existential unease. So we create institutions whose function is to pretend to know, which makes everyone feel better.”
~ Joe Bageant, America: Y Ur Peeps B So Dum?

“One important characteristic of language, according to Agamben, is that it is based on the presupposition of a subject to which it refers. Aristotle argued that language, ‘saying something about something’, necessarily brings about a distinction between a first ‘something’ (a subject) and a second ‘something’ (a predicate). And this is meaningful only if the first ‘something’ is presupposed . This subject, the immediate, the non-linguistic, is a presupposition of language. At the same time, language seems to precede the subject it presupposes; the world can only be known through language. That there is language that gives meaning and facilitates the transmission of this meaning is a presupposition that precedes every communication because communication always begins with language. 2

“Agamben compares our relationship with language with Wittgenstein’s image of a fly in a bottle: ‘Man exists in language like a fly trapped in a bottle: that which it cannot see is precisely that through which it sees the world.’ 3 According to Agamben, contemporary thought has recognized that we are imprisoned within the limits of the presuppositional structure of language, within this glass. But contemporary thought has not seen that it is possible to leave the glass (PO, 46).

Our age does indeed stand in front of language just as the man from the country in the parable stands in front of the door of the Law. What threatens thinking here is the possibility that thinking might find itself condemned to infinite negotiations with the doorkeeper or, even worse, that it might end by itself assuming the role of the doorkeeper who, without really blocking the entry, shelters the Nothing onto which the door opens. (HS, 54)

[ . . . ]

“What is compared in the parable , as for example in the messianic parables in the gospel of Matthew, is not only the kingdom of God with the terms used in the parables (a field in which wheat and weeds are mixed), but the discourse about the kingdom and the kingdom itself. In that sense, the messianic parables in Matthew are parables about language, for what is meant is language itself. And this, according to Agamben, is also the meaning of Kafka’s parable ‘On Parables’. Kafka is looking for a way beyond language that is only possible by becoming language itself; beyond the distinction between sign and what is signified:

If you’d follow the parables, you’d become parables yourselves and with that, free of the everyday struggle.(TR, 43) 17

“What Kafka indicates here, according to Agamben, is an indistinguishability between being and language. What does this process of becoming language look like? Agamben sees a hint of this in one of Kafka’s journal entries. On 18 October 1921, Kafka wrote in his journal:

Life calls again. It is entirely conceivable that life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come. This is the essence of magic, which does not create but summons. 18

“According to Agamben, this refers to an old tradition followed by the Kabbalists in which magic is, in essence , a science of secret names. Everything has its apparent name and a hidden name and those who know this hidden name have power over life and death and the death of those to whom this name belongs. But, Agamben proposes , there is also another tradition that holds that this secret name is not so much the key by which the magician can gain power over a subject as it is a monogram by which things can be liberated from language. The secret name is the name the being received in Eden. If it is spoken aloud, all its apparent names fall away; the whole Babel of names disappears. ‘To have a name is to be guilty. And justice, like magic, is nameless’ (P, 22). The secret name is the gesture that restores the creature to the unexpressed. Thus, Agamben argues, magic is not the secret knowledge of names and their transcendent meaning, but a breaking free from the name. ‘Happy and without a name, the creature knocks at the gates of the land of the magi, who speaks in gestures alone’ (P, 22).”
~ Anke Snoek, Agamben’s Joyful Kafka (pp. 110118, Kindle Locations 2704-2883)

Beyond the Stereotype of the Liberal Elite

I was rereading a few articles by Joe Bageant. He wrote about many topics, but one stood out to me this time: liberalism. He sometimes uses liberals as the contrast to the stories he tells about his fellow Appalachians from his hometown. I realized he was using liberal in a specific sense, not uncommon in the US, at least in the mainstream.

I was reminded of how many different liberalisms there are, most of them having to do with the dictionary definition of the word as liberal-minded. In my previously reading another author, Domenico Losurdo, it took quite a bit of struggle to grasp his European perspective of liberalism, which I came to realize included and emphasized what in the US would be called conservatism. Maybe Losurdo is onto something, as I discovered looking at Pew results showing a significant number of Americans self-identify as conservative even as they hold stereotypically liberal views across the board, socially and economically.

Bageant was certainly not using a European perspective or thinking about complicating survey results. He never clearly defines what he means by liberal, but it became clear through his usage. He seemed to be using the category, in the American context, as representing people with all or most of the following:

1) White, ancestrally and/or culturally WASP, identified with the dominant culture and social order.
2) Native-born American, with unconscious or unadmitted tendencies toward nativism and ethno-nationalism, their loyalty ultimately being to the status quo of white America, multiculturalist rhetoric aside.
3) Mainstream, born into privilege along with relatively more power and influence, a part of the system and invested in the system.
4) Gatekeepers of the mainstream, defenders of the status quo, middle-to-upper class economic elite, well-educated intellectual elite, salaried professional employees in academia, media, and other respectable fields.
5) Secularists and atheists, critics of the lower classes and low culture.
6) Democrats, partisan voters, politically involved as activists, leaders, politicians, pundits, and talking heads.

It is the stereotype of the liberal elite. As a liberal, I don’t fit much of that. I question this stereotype, popular both on the far right and the far left. I’m not arguing that only I, as a liberal, get to define liberalism. My point is just that there is more to liberalism than a stereotype.

One of the problems is that many people who get labeled by others as liberal don’t self-identify as liberal nor necessarily hold strong liberal views, maybe even holding some rather illiberal views. I like to use Obama as a case in point. He doesn’t claim to be liberal. Liberal rhetoric aside, he doesn’t act overly liberal. If liberal rhetoric is all it takes to be liberal, then most people in this post-Enlightenment world are liberal. That doesn’t seem helpful in understanding liberalism.

There are many Americans, like myself, who identify as liberal or who otherwise consistently hold strong liberal views. Most of these people probably don’t fit the stereotype of liberalism. There are working class liberals. There are even poor liberals, some of whom are homeless or unemployed. There are liberals in prison and in ghettoes. There are liberals in rural farming states. There are disenfranhised liberals and radical liberals. All kinds of liberals in all walks of life.

I might go so far as to argue this is the silent majority of liberals. They aren’t the liberal elite and so they aren’t heard. The average liberal gets less attention than the average conservative, because the mainstream narrative portrays the average American as conservative. But polls don’t support this assumption, this stereotype of a liberal elite versus the conservative masses. In many ways, the masses are more liberal than the elite.

It was unfortunate that an otherwise insightful thinker like Bageant fell into that trap of political rhetoric. He was asking about how do we get the poor and working class to become better educated and informed. A good question, if framed correctly.

What Bageant didn’t note was that there are and always have been many liberals like me. I’m well read and put a lot of effort into undersanding the world, but I’m not an elite of any kind, especially not an intellectual elite. My mostly working class family arose out of poverty in recent generations and, working class myself, I’ve lived below the poverty line before and don’t live far above it now.

There is a whole new generation that has been hitting adulthood during this new century. They are more well educated and have more access to info (including alternative sources) than any generation in history. They also have high rates of unemployment and poverty. It is becoming ever more common to find people with college degrees working minimum wage. Relevant to the discussion here, this young generation is also more liberal than previous generations, whatever they may label themselves.

I’m not sure what Bageant thought about these people. Most young whites in many Southern states are also quite liberal, according to the data. Many of the bought Obama’s hype, but they are hardly a partisan stronghold of Democratic loyalty. In writing about his hometown, what Bageant doesn’t talk about are the younger generation, many of whom have left behind that world but have not forgotten it.

Bageant’s Scots-Irish kinfolk aren’t represntative of most poor and working class Americans. They are a sub-population under great stress, a population with a specific history and culture. Generalizations shouldn’t be based upon them. They aren’t the heartland. They are just one of the many dark corners, places growing ever darker as the following generations merge on the socially liberal big cities and metropolises.

In speaking of liberalism and conservatism, we need to look beyond the stereotypes of the past, whether or not those stereotypes ever corresponded to reality.

Sin of the North, Sin of the South

As with culture, the sin of the American North is different than the sin of the American South. I would go so far as to say the culture and the sin are aspects of the same thing. 

To criticize the sin of one culture isn’t to excuse the sin of the other culture. It’s just to say they aren’t identical. It’s not helpful to make a criticism that doesn’t apply. Teasing out the specific differences is important.

I see a problem in trying to unite separate cultures into a single culture. This is what has been attempted in America for centuries. I don’t think it has been entirely successful and it isn’t clear that it ever will be successful. Cultures don’t change easily, even when politics is used to try to force basic conformity.  The underlying separate cultures remain along with their respective sins, but only a patina of commonality is created, an unhappy compromise at that.

This is an argument, related to my thoughts on secession, that I want to follow. I don’t know how much I support this argument or rather how much the evidence supports it. Let me make the case, anyhow.

Between the North and South, I see several areas that demonstrate the distinctness of each region. The most basic of these is the raw data on social problems (poverty, economic inequality, violent crime, obesity, high school dropouts, teen pregnancy, etc) and on more neutral social conditions (union membership, gun ownership, religiosity, etc). The more complicated aspect more directly or obviously involves culture (ethnic immigration patterns, political traditions, economic patterns, etc). All of these factors overlap in various ways or can be interpreted as being interconnected, the question being do the correlations indicate a causal relationship.

I’ve already discussed much of this in my other writings and so I’ll keep it brief by using key examples. Let me begin by pointing out two common misconceptions — the divide between North and South is (1) a divide between urban and rural and/or (2) a divide between areas with and without a large white majority.

One example that truly hits home this regional difference is that of violent crime. The South overall has higher rates of violent crime than the North overall. Is it because the South is more rural? No. The rural North doesn’t have equivalent high rates of violent crime. Is it because the South is more racially diverse? No. The white majority rural South has higher rates of violent crime than is even found in the multiracial urban North. Heck, the majority white rural South even has more violent crime than the urban South, and so for certain blacks can’t be blamed. Even more specifically, most of the violent crime in the rural South is white on white crime.

The only thing that makes the rural South distinct is it’s heavy concentration of Scots-Irish population. I’d point out that the Scots-Irish have a very distinct culture that has become a point of pride for many white Southerners, especially in Appalachia. The fighting tradition of the Scots-Irish also has become identified with the Lost Cause worldview, and along with a fierce independent streak this has made the Scots-Irish culture symbolic of the entire Southern identity.

Another example is religiosity. This stood out to me when I was reading Chuck Thompson’s Better Off Without ‘Em, stated with dramatic flair (Kindle Location 322):

“It’s not just the overwhelming percentage of believers in the South, it’s the attitudes they bring to—or from—their religiosity. In 2009, a Pew Forum “Importance of Religion” study measured a number of variables (frequency of prayer, absolute belief in God, and so forth) to determine the degree of religious fervor in all fifty states.

“Led by Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, nine of the top ten most religious states were southern. Oklahoma ruined Dixie’s perfect record by sneaking in at number seven. Of all southern states, only D.C.-infected Virginia and Semitic Florida finished just outside the top fifteen, edged out by such powerful fanatics as the Mormons of Utah and the pious enigmas of Kansas. The bottom half of the list presented a representative cross section of the rest of the country: Michigan, New Mexico, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Montana, New York, California, Maine, and, cordially sharing most hellbound honors, New Hampshire and Vermont.

“Not only is the South the place where 50 percent of American evangelicals live, it’s also the region from which the national movement draws its ideas and through which most of its fame and profit are harvested. Rabid believers are disproportionately southern—with around a third of the national population (counting Texas), the South accounts for 55 percent of the “electronic church” audience.

“Nearly every important evangelical figure of the past century has come from the South (Californian Rick Warren being an exception). A recent Trinity Broadcast Network program touting the national influence of southern Christianity proclaimed that Virginia was the most important state for “birthing national leaders on the religious front.””

This passage caught my attention because Iowa was listed as one of the least religious states, according to Pew. Iowa is below the national average for stated importance of religion, belief in God and frequency of prayer, although 1% above the national average of stated church attendance. On all the measures, Iowa is 20-30% below the most religious states.

That says a lot. Iowa is similar to the Southern states in many ways. Iowa has many working class people, especially farmers and those in the agricultural business. Iowa is mostly rural, and like the rural South mostly white. Along with these, another factor correlated to higher religiosity rates is an older population and Iowa has one of the most aging populations in the country.

The only clear difference between people in the rural North and the rural South is ethnicity.

The North had more settlers from Northern Europe. One of the differences with Northern Europeans such as Germans was that they were very skilled farmers who were used to high quality soil. They knew what high quality soil looked like which is why they chose to settle in the American North and, once settled, they knew how to cultivate the soil to maintain its viability.

The South had two agricultural traditions. They had the slave-based plantation model that came from Barbados and they had the yeoman subsistence model that came from the Scots-Irish. Both the plantation tobacco farming and the subsistence slash-and-burn ended up depleting the soil which wasn’t as rich to begin with.

This relates to an economic difference. Plantation farming and subsistence farming helped create an economy in the South that was less like modern capitalism. The plantation owners were so vastly wealthy that they didn’t build their own local industry, choosing instead to buy products shipped in from elsewhere. As an aside, the wealth of plantation owners wasn’t capitalist wealth (i.e., wasn’t fungible capital) because plantation owners tended to be heavily in debt as their wealth was invested in their land and their slaves. The subsistence farmers never harvested enough crops to make much in the way of profit, fungible or otherwise; and, as Joe Bageant points out, many of the small Southern farming communities were mostly cashless societies where people bartered and kept store tabs.

Modern industrialized capitalism was only strongly established in the South with Reconstruction following the Civil War. In being introduced, capitalism built upon the framework of the economic system already established in the South. This meant that capitalism incorporated the plantation mentality and the class-based rigidity. There were high rates of poverty and economic inequality in the Antebellum South and there are still high rates of poverty and economic inequality in the South today.

In one sense, you can blame the North for forcing modern industrialized capitalism onto the South. It’s possible that, if the South had successfully seceded, Southerners might have transitioned into a better kind of economic system… then again, maybe not. It’s not like capitalism wasn’t already beginning to gain footholds in the South prior to Reconstruction. It would be surprising if a Confederate South could have avoided capitalism’s ascent. Anyway, it wasn’t the North that forced onto the South a poverty-based, union-busting form of capitalism.

However, the South has always had its own native tradition of liberalism/leftism, not to mention reform-minded populism. It seems to me that, because of the effects of the Civil War, the Southern Left has been stunted and never given a chance to grow to its full potential. Many Southerns have come to think of liberalism/leftism as an ideology imported from the North and forced upon them by the federal government. Maybe the sin of the South has grown worse, or at least not lessened, because what Southerners perceived as non-Southern solutions being forced on them.

Whatever is the case, these are differences that make a difference. More than a century of political change following the Civil War hasn’t fundamentally changed this social reality.

The sin of the South was a caste-based society, later becoming a class-based society, that was built on slavery and the working poor. The sin of the North, on the other hand, was capitalism that was (and still is) brutal in its own way. There weren’t as many slaves in the North, but places like New York used a capitalist economy to profit off the slave trade. Northern capitalism has endless problems and I’m no fan of capitalism in general. Nonetheless, the sin of the North isn’t the same as the sin of the South.

This distinction seems important to my understanding, however one may wish to interpret it.

We are a united country, and that is what Abraham Lincoln was centrally concerned about. Even slavery for Lincoln was mixed up with maintaining the Union for he thought slavery would continue to undermine the country. Lincoln worried that, if secession were to happen, America would become balkanized like Europe. Instead of one big war, there would be endless small wars. I can see Lincoln’s perspective, but I think he put too much faith in the utopian ideal of unity.

The federal government could end slavery through force. What the rest of the country can’t do for the South is to solve it’s problems. We can send federal funds to deal with the worst issues of poverty and such, but the problem is structurally a part of the entire Southern society. Poverty doesn’t exist in such rates in the South because of a lack of wealth. The South’s economy is booming and yet the poverty persists. This is a problem of Southern culture and there may be little that Northern culture can do, besides exacerbating the problem by enabling those who are contributing to it.

By the way, the guilty parties would include some Northern corporations that go to the South to take advantage of weak regulatory enforcement and oppressive anti-union laws, the same reason corporations build factories in Mexico and China. This is corporatism, not free market capitalism. We shouldn’t allow American corporations to participate in social and economic oppression at home any more than we should allow it abroad.

Indeed, Northern culture has its own problems and contributes to the problems of others. Northerners have even sought solutions for those Northern problems. For example, a Northern city was the only place in the entire country that ever had a socialist government (i.e., the Milwaukee Sewer Socialists). Maybe the reason socialism couldn’t take hold in the North was partly because the South was so rabidly anti-socialist. Also, it is the anti-union South that has helped undermine the Northern unions by using unfair practices to lure corporations to build in the South.

The collusion of Northern capitalism and Southern aristocracy is a toxic mix.

I’m beginning to wonder if the North and the South have been getting in each other’s way and each bringing out the worse in the other. The culture of each region has its respective sin, but it also has the seed of potential for solving its own problems. Before public debate can ensue, there first has to be public awareness of the facts, conditions and cultures involved. Let’s be clear about the situation as it is, and then we can work from there.

After finishing this post, I realized I had forgotten one of my central points. I’ll just add it here at the end as an additional note.

Building up to the Civil War, both Northerners and Southerners were lobbing criticisms at one another.

In the North, slavery had been losing support for a long time prior to the Civil War. New immigrants were mostly coming to the North during this time and many went Westward to the frontier territories. These new immigrants didn’t want slavery to be expanded because they saw it as unfair competiion for Yeoman farmers.

White Southerners, however, had their own ideas about personal freedom. They saw the growing industrialization of the North as a menace to the Southern way of life, and it wasn’t only the aristocracy that felt this way. Many lower class whites countered the criticisms of slavery with their own allegations of Northern wage slavery where whites would simply be brought down to the level of menial labor.

Both sides made accurate criticisms. The average person wasn’t being offered a tremendous amount of freedom by either system. I’m sure Marx’s support of the Northern cause was mixed with much concern about the wage slavery of industrialized capitalism.

Whites Understanding Whites

I’ve been struggling with negativity lately. It’s partly just the campaign season that had forced it to the surface. There is negativity in the media and I see it in other people in my life. I’m good at noticing negativity because I have a strong streak of it myself.

I have the dual problem of not being able to deal well with negativity and not being able to resist being drawn into negativity. I see so many problems in the world. I find myself judging people for being judgmental, criticzing people for being critical, etc. I’m overly sensitive and too often hypocritical.

My oversensitivity isn’t all bad. It’s also what helps me feel empathy and compassion. It is what helps me gain insight and understanding. Even my hypocrisy usually leads me back to self-awareness, eventually.

I was contemplating the failings of humanity mostly for reasons of my personal life. But at the same time other things were tumbling around in my skull.

I came across data about pollution causing a large percentage of deaths worldwide, a good example of unnecessary suffering. I was reminded of James Gilligan’s book about a particular cause of particular social problems, a good example of the type of understanding we need more of. Yesterday, I heard a public radio show about John Howard Griffin who sounded like an interesting guy, a good example of how compassion and lack thereof plays out in the real world.

I’ve already discussed the first two in recent posts. The third one I haven’t written about before and so I’ll explain a bit of why it interested me.

John Howard Griffin was a journalist and author. An accident in the army left him blind for 11 years before regaining his eyesight. During that time, he came to the realization that he couldn’t tell the color of someone’s skin just by listening to their voice as people from the same place have the same accent, no matter their race. Around this time, he wrote for a publication with a black readership and in talking to blacks he was told the only way to understand the black experience was to be black. So, he decided to do just that. After having a doctor darken his skin and shaving his head, he hitch-hiked across the Deep South and journalled about it which became the book Black Like Me.

He had some interesting observations and insights. He was surprised that people assumed he was black simply because his skin was dark, ignoring his ‘white’ features. He noticed that black people had a diversity of racial features as most American blacks are of mixed race. He also had the typical observations about prejudice. For example, it didn’t matter that he was well educated and had many practical skills. No one wanted to give him a job, besides the most menial of labor.

What stood out to me more than anything was his experiences of hitch-hiking. Mostly lone white males would pick him up and they would ask him about his sex life for they assumed all blacks were sexually uninhibited like animals. He was so offended by this kind of racism that he would confront these white guys. They usually made him get out of the car, but he at times felt threatened. One particular incident brought home an insight about racism. He looked into the eyes of one threatening white guy and he knew that it would be impossible to elicit empathy from such a person. What frightened him wasn’t that his life was in danger. Rather, he was frightened by how low human nature could fall. Racism didn’t just dehumanize blacks. It dehumanized the racist as well for their humanity was lost.

Anyway, I appreciated how Griffin felt compassion for both the victim and victimizer of racism. He didn’t just want to judge the racist and portray the ugliness of racism. He wanted to understand. That is the type of compassion I strive for.

The other aspect of Griffin’s experiment is that it wasn’t done as an outsider. He wasn’t a Northerner travelling down to the foreign land of the Deep South. He was born and raised a Southerner and was a white man. So, in this basic sense, he was trying to understand his own people.

This reminds me of two other authors. Joe Bageant wrote Deer Hunting with Jesus in which he explores the culture and history of his own people, Appalachian Scotch-Irish Evangelicals. I read that book a while ago and started another book by him, Rainbow Pie. The second author is Joan Walsh. In What’s the Matter with White People?, she explores her own people, New York Irish Catholics. I’m in the middle of reading her book right now and am appreciating the insights.

Along with Griffin, what is offered is three different inside views of white people. Each of these authors is sympathetic in  a very personal sense, although I’m less sure about Griffin as I haven’t read his book. The other two are definitely in the same category. Certainly, all three authors present the leftist trying to understand the conservatives around them (Bageant a Marxist, Walsh a liberal, and Griffin a lifelong Democrat).

As a Midwestern mixed ethnicity white (on the left side of the political spectrum), I appreciate getting a glimpse of how America looks from the perspective of other groups of white people, and the differences are large. In my blog, I have been presenting my own version of this type of book. I want to understand what makes my own family tick, my Republican parents and my Hoosier extended family on my mom’s side. I also want to understand the world I find myself in general. 

It’s easy to judge. The challenge is always in the seeking for genuine understanding.

Democracy & Literacy

Here is a particularly insightful passage from an insightful book. It’s about the sad relationship between illiteracy and a dysfunctional democracy.

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War
by Joe Bageant
Chapter 8, American Hologram: The Apocalypse will be Televized
pp. 249-251

“[ . . . ] of the 89 million to 94 million American adults—nearly half of the U.S. adult population—who are functionally illiterate. According to the National Institute for Literacy, they “lack a sufficient foundation of basic [literacy] skills to function successfully in our society.” Of these, 17 percent to 20 percent can read just a little. That means that they cannot fill out job applications, understand food labels, or read simple stories to their children. Another 25 percent can read, but not well enough to follow five consecutive paragraphs of text or dense documents such as sales contracts.

[ . . . ]

“Of course there is more to literacy than reading words. In our culture it helps to be able to contextualize an infomercial, not to mention Tom DeLay’s crimes. Almost none of the Royal Lunch crowd, however, even knows who Tom Delay is. They do not watch the national news unless the United States attacks somebody or there is a flood in New Orleans. Even if they took the trouble to read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, none of them would see it as anything other than a story about animals.

“In our culture there is also the need to interpret legions of symbols and acronyms (IBM, CBS, GM, FBI, CIA, OBM, MCI, FEMA, HUD…) that turn up every day in advertising, product packaging, corporate brochures, government pamphlets, and news stories. Functional illiterates, however, cannot separate industry from government, or the news from an advertisement or an infomercial. Hence the inability of Carolyn (the old flame I bumped into in the Food Lion parking lot) to tell a nonprofit charity from a quick-buck manufacturer of magnetic yellow ribbons. From inside the American hologram an eagle is an eagle and a yellow ribbon is a yellow ribbon. Uneducated and trapped within the hologram, people like Carolyn and Bobby will never be capable of participating in a free society, much less making the kinds of choices that preserve and protect one, unless the importance of full literacy can somehow be made clear to them.”

Joe Bageant: On the White Underclass

I highly recommend reading Joe Bageant. I’m reading my second book by him, Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir, and I’m impressed by his insight.

He grew up in a poor white family living in rural Appalachia. His family and neighbors made their livings through subsistence farming. In the early to mid 20th century, most of these people moved to the cities where they became the poverty-stricken working class, that is when they could find work.

This is the white underclass that are rarely discussed by either liberals or conservatives, although the latter loves to rile up this demographic for political gain. This white underclass has little money, education, or opportunity. The only way they can experience the larger world is by enlisting in the military.

 
—-

This interests me personally because this is where my mom’s family is from. Bageant’s description of his own family more or less describes my family on that side. The main difference is that my mom’s family moved to the cities a generation before Bageant’s family. Also, my mom’s family moved into more Northern Indiana and so was able to escape the much worse poverty of Appalachia.

 
The first book I read by Joe Bageant was Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War. I happened upon it by accident. From what I understand, Bageant may be more popular abroad than in his home country. Certainly, he is speaking a truth that the American MSM has little interest in.
 
The book Deer Hunting With Jesus woke my mind up like few books ever do. The topic wasn’t dissimilar to what Thomas Frank Tackled in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, but there is a big difference between the two books. Bageant isn’t looking in as an outsider, isn’t studying the Appalachian people as a journalist or academic or economist. Bageant was able to portray these people, his people, as genuine human beings. They weren’t strange characters or mysteries to be dissected. They are just people struggling to get by, people trapped in their circumstances.
 
In reading that book, I immediately recognized my own family. I never before quite grasped who were my mom’s family or where they came from. I regularly visited Indiana as a kid, but I never lived there. Plus, my maternal grandparents were already a generation removed from the rural Hoosier communities of Southern Indiana and several generations removed from the Appalachia of Kentucky. Still, the Appalachian culture and dialect clung to them, even though it had lost its regional context.
 
I only knew them as working class whites, and the bias of my middle class Midwestern upbringing disconnected me from the Appalachian culture. But as Bageant makes clear, there is a lot more going on with working class whites than would first be apparent. Like most things in life, there is a long and complex history behind it.
 
—-

I recommend Bageant’s writings to others because he offers a unique glimpse into the dark heart of America as well as offering a remembrance of what came before. In my endless readings, I’ve never come across any other author who quite as fully sheds light on this particular issue.

I would add that this isn’t just about America for this country is representative of the larger shifts that have happened all over the world. All countries have similar underclasses. And most of these countries have a history of subsistence farming that was common just a few generations ago.

Joe Bageant isn’t just a voice for an often unheard sector of society. He speaks as one who personally knows about this world hidden out in the open. He speaks as a member of this culture for this underclass has had a hard enough time understanding themselves much less explaining how they came to be that way.