Saturday, March 21, 2009

In the Company of Radical Rednecks

Now that I've calmed down from waiting 48 hours at home before receiving my luggage from U S Airways, I want to use this blog opportunity to reflect a bit on my trip home this time.

Although it's only been a year since my last visit, this visit was the first one since 1997 where I've returned to an America under the leadership of a Democratic President. That felt good, I can tell you. And it was the first time since I was a small girl, that I was actually in a Virginia that was a firm hue of blue, instead of the garish red colouring it's worn since Lyndon Johnson was elected. (Virginia had the distinct notoriety of being the only Southern state not to have gone for Jimmy Carter in 1976.)

Returning to a Virginia which had not only backed Obama, but who boasted its Governor as being Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, as well as two high-profile, erudite and respected Democratic U S Senators, made me feel even better.

I've always been a Democrat. My father was one who was so far left of centre, his left-field position in a baseball game would have been outside the park. He was a union leader, the son of immigrants, with strong ties to and beliefs in socialism. Most of the men my mother and her sisters married were like that. And the girls had come from a fine old FFV (First Families of Virginia) who firmly believed in everyone in society knowing his or her rightful place and staying in it. Still, opposites do attract.

Whilst my family professed a religious belief, they weren't religious, nor were they intolerant. I went to school during the era of de-segregation, but my parents and their siblings always instilled in my cousins and me the necessity of judging another person by the sort of person he or she was, rather than the colour of their skin or by their religious affiliation; they preached judging the person on his character and achievements. So, another person's race, religion, colour or creed never cut any ice with me.

I was in high school during Viet Nam and the Summer of Love; I came of age during Watergate. I married during the early years of Ronald Reagan.

Living abroad gave me the opportunity to view my native state and country from afar, mainly with a jaundiced eye. The first difference in Americans, in general, and Europeans, is that Americans seem, on the surface, a lot more overtly religious than the Europeans. That doesn't mean religion isn't important in Europe. In many countries, it is. The Catholic Church still holds sway in Italy, Spain and in the southern part of Germany. The United Kingdom has an Established Church (we know it as the Episcopal Church), which means that that Church and all its employees are supported, financially and otherwise, by the State. And this is a country where Catholics, now that the Poles are daily immigrating in droves to the UK, outnumber the nominal Episcopalians.

It's just that in the US, belonging to a church or a denomination seemed so much more important, socially; but the Christianity took a pejorative bent. It was condemnatory and negative. It was intolerant. It was exclusive. In short, it was everything Jesus Christ was not.

During the Bush years as well, I witnessed a peculiar phenomenon in my Democratic family.

People began voting Republican. In 2000, the 'Stolen Election', quite a few of my relatives confessed to having voted for Bush. I remember being appalled at Bush's candidacy at the time. He reminded me so much of the rich, privileged, legacied fraternity boys, with whom I'd attended university, whose sole purpose in being there was to party at the 'Country Club of the South', take a minimal degree and go work for Daddy's business. But many of my relatives who decamped to the Dark Side, cited Bill Clinton's 'immorality' - never mind, the economy was sound. Even more of them marched in Bush's political army in the election of 2004, on the heels of 9/11 and out of the fear instilled into their souls by the neocon kings Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Cheney.

And visiting those post-9/11 years, I also noticed another thing: Everybody seemed to have money. Not just a bit of money, a lot of money. I was out shopping with a cousin one day, when she drove by the bank and blithely withdrew $1000 ... for the day. People used credit cards without thinking, bought big SUVs as mere status symbols and flaunted designer clothes and the latest electronic gadgets. People doing the most menial of jobs seemed to be proverbially loaded all the time.

Probably the one relative who bought into this lifestyle most of all was my most religious relative, a woman who'd married a Mormon and converted to that faith back in the Seventies. The Mormons tithe, and those who don't get the money taken from them forcibly by the Church. This cousin's husband was the treasurer of his local Church, so she knew to the dime the exact amount of everyone's salary in the Church. And she was a fervent Republican.

But, in reality, since 2003, I'd begun to notice some things about my family, as a whole, that I'd never once imagined, especially with the older generation. My best friend since high school is a lesbian. When I was visiting in 2003, I mentioned to my aunt that Robin would be up to spend the day.

'Just to let you know beforehand,' I warned. 'She bats for the other side.'

My elderly aunt was perplexed by that turn of phrase until her granddaughter clarified it for her. 'It means she's gay, Grandma,' she explained.

My aunt and uncle were charmed to the hilt by Robin. They adored her, and to this day, when she's in the area, she stops by. Toward the end of my visit there, my aunt was catching me up on some of the rest of the extended family, speaking of another cousin's children.

'And you know,' she informed me, sagely, 'Gene's daughter, Kelly, she bats for the other side.'

Old lessons hold true. These old people, born and bred in the Old South, didn't give a fig about a person's lifestyle. They looked at the person, himself.

Returning last year in the middle of Primary season, I remarked to my aunt that my Mormon cousin would most likely be behind Mitt Romney or some other Republican.

'Not at all!' exclaimed my aunt. 'They've gone back to the Democrats. They want nothing more to do with Bush or his Party.' (My idea is that they've lost money. I don't see as many cars parked outside their house as before).

And this year, the straw that broke the camel's back in Bubbaland. Religion.

During my stay there, a report was broadcast on the NBC Nightly News about an increasing number of Americans refusing to profess any kind of religious leaning, and an increase in the number of Americans actually turning away from religion as a whole and leaning toward secularism (after all we are a secular country.) When the report was aired, my uncle pontificated on how organised religion was the single biggest trouble-maker in the world's history, that people should leave that stuff to their own private concerns and not inflict it on anyone else, let alone the government. And this is a man who never went past the sixth grade!

Not only that, but a surprising number of people I've known all my life from my local community feel the same way as well, and many of them and people of their ilk, now confess to professing a religious denomination or actually attending a particular church because it was 'the done thing', only now - instead of 'doing the done thing' for form's sake - they're admitting their pragmatism and revelling in their secularism. And it wasn't just my family, most of whom haven't left the area or had more than a high school education; it concerned a plethora of friends and acquaintances who suddenly feel freed from the yoke of neo-conservative rule and the advent of a socially progressive and enlightened President, to confess that religion doesn't enter into their daily life at all, rather they live by common sense and ethics.

Hey, this is the New South. I can whistle that Dixie.

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