Thursday, February 9, 2012

Country Trash

Charles Murray has written another book, and it's made Progressives mad. I pretty much give Murray short shrift, as I do any Rightwing Libertarian of the Birch variety, but I've mananged to catch enough noise around the Internets to know that he's hit a nerve about a demographic that seems pretty irksome to a lot of people these days - the white working class.

Joan "I-Resent-Black-People" Walsh wrote an early review of Murray's book, Coming Apart, a couple of weeks ago. You can read what she had to say here. I'm not going to waste time on its contents, especially any so-called piece of professional journalism which begins with the exclamation, "Hey, White People! They're talking about you again!"

Not only is that just a wee bit of subtle dog-whistling, it's blatantly condescending; but then, I'd expect that of Walsh, for all her proclamations of proud working-class roots and an "extended family" still entrenched in the white working class - "extended family," mind you, never nearest and dearest. Walsh is a wannabe Everywoman - everything to every race, religion, colour and creed, part and parcel of the universe and oozing an inate desire to be relevant.

I've been longing for someone in the Democratic party to take a stand for the white working class - someone besides the President, that is, because he's really the only one to have done so, thus far. If you don't think that's true, just listen to what Lilly Ledbetter has to say. She grew up poor in one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the country. The President resonated with this woman from Alabama. He speaks for her ilk, but Lilly's demographic has been abandoned on one side by the party who was their natural political haven, the Democrats, some forty years ago, whilst being systematically manipulated against their own interests by the Republican party, who really doesn't give a rat's ass about their welfare; they only want their vote.

To watch the likes of Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin claim the populist mantle from the white working class, when all the Santorums, the Palins, and even the Romneys and the Gingriches want is a peasant class of under- or uneducated peoplr willing to work slave wages in box stores whilst being fed a steady diet of religious Rightwing rhetoric and Rush Limbaugh in an effort to keep them scare, dumb and voting Republican.

I come from the rural South. I know the white working class well. I went to school with them. This was in the early Sixties, a time of relative prosperity and a growing middle class. I remember children who'd come to school barefoot in the warm days of Indian summer in September and in the spring at the end of term. The shoes they wore in between were mail order equivalents of Doc Martens high-laced boots - and those were in the days before they became fashionable. Their parents were illiterate, and they boarded the school buses which would make meandering trips down pony lanes into the bowels of the Blue Ridge to pick these children up from small dwellings that were little more than glorified log cabins and clapboard, with a woodpile by the front porch and a rusty pick-up parked close by.

They rarely made it past the sixth grade, and many were in their mid-teens by that time.

Most of these people in my part of the world, the Shenandoah Valley - I guess I'm a different sort of Valley Girl from Joan Walsh - and the rest of the South are the remnants of what's known as the Scots-Irish emigration. On this side of the Pond, they're known as Ulstermen; and whilst Joan might bewail how they looked down upon "her people," the Catholic Irish, they often inhabited the lowest rung of white society's ladder in the South and rarely rose above it.

The late great Progressive Southern writer, Joe Bageant, who - like Rick Santorum and me - was born in Winchester, Virginia, wrote evocatively about the poor white working class in his masterpiece, Deer-Hunting with Jesus. I'd suggest Joan read this. She might also want to check out Senator James Webb's book about how the Scots-Irish shaped the face of the South in his 2004 book, Born Fighting.

But both those books will only make Joan mad. Because both authors make a claim I've always asserted: that the West Coast and Northeastern elite Progressives who took over the Democratic party forty years ago immediately deemed the white, rural working class in the South and the Midwest a den of virulent racists. They were the albatross around the neck of the Democratic party, something which they had to suffer but hoped to ignore. The stuff of Roosevelt Democrats, the new people in power in the party never imagined this lot would defect to the Republicans; but a lot of them did.

Racist? A lot were and still are. The truth is, as Bageant points out, that in the wake of Reconstruction in the South, the real poor - freed slave and poor white alike - to realise that there were two types of people about - the "haves" and the "have nots". And they were the "have nots." The "haves" needed the paid servitude of the "have nots," and at as cheap a price as possible; so the "haves," manipulated the white "have nots" into believing that, whilst they might have no more in possessions than the black "have not," who lived around the corner, they did have one thing that his black brother didn't - white skin.

Racism, in the South, is one trickledown success. And, hand-in-hand with that, comes a fear of the unknown - the unknown being anything the local fundamentalist Christian church preached against.

But, Bageant argues, once these black and white "have nots" wake up and realise that the problem in the South isn't race, it's inequality of wealth, then there's some trouble to be had; and when people like Lilly Ledbetter or the Georgia farmer helped by Shirley Sherrod realise that, then there's hope for the Democratic party to regain the trust of those who comprised its old base.

Nicholas Kristof writes a more balanced assessment of Murray's book in The New York Times. Kristof thinks it's right of Murray to highlight particular problems which affect low-skilled white workers in rural areas, and as he's a country boy too - but from the Pacific Northeast - he's cognizant of the biggest sorts of problems which affect people with whom he grew up, and he knows that the same sort of problems beset this same demographic throughout rural sections of the United States.

One scourge has been drug abuse. In rural America, it’s not heroin but methamphetamine; it has shattered lives in Yamhill and left many with criminal records that make it harder to find good jobs. With parents in jail, kids are raised on the fly.

Then there’s the eclipse of traditional family patterns. Among white American women with only a high school education, 44 percent of births are out of wedlock, up from 6 percent in 1970, according to Murray.

Liberals sometimes feel that it is narrow-minded to favor traditional marriage. Over time, my reporting on poverty has led me to disagree: Solid marriages have a huge beneficial impact on the lives of the poor (more so than in the lives of the middle class, who have more cushion when things go wrong).

One study of low-income delinquent young men in Boston found that one of the factors that had the greatest impact in turning them away from crime was marrying women they cared about. As Steven Pinker notes in his recent book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”: “The idea that young men are civilized by women and marriage may seem as corny as Kansas in August, but it has become a commonplace of modern criminology.”

Jobs are also critical as a pathway out of poverty, and Murray is correct in noting that it is troubling that growing numbers of working-class men drop out of the labor force. The proportion of men of prime working age with only a high school education who say they are “out of the labor force” has quadrupled since 1968, to 12 percent.

In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan released a famous report warning of a crisis in African-American family structures, and many liberals at the time accused him of something close to racism. In retrospect, Moynihan was right to sound the alarms.

Today, I fear we’re facing a crisis in which a chunk of working-class America risks being calcified into an underclass, marked by drugs, despair, family decline, high incarceration rates and a diminishing role of jobs and education as escalators of upward mobility. We need a national conversation about these dimensions of poverty, and maybe Murray can help trigger it. I fear that liberals are too quick to think of inequality as basically about taxes. Yes, our tax system is a disgrace, but poverty is so much deeper and more complex than that.

Where Murray is profoundly wrong, I think, is to blame liberal social policies for the pathologies he examines. Yes, I’ve seen disability programs encourage some people to drop out of the labor force. But there were far greater forces at work, such as the decline in good union jobs.

Eighty percent of the people in my high school cohort dropped out or didn’t pursue college because it used to be possible to earn a solid living at the steel mill, the glove factory or sawmill. That’s what their parents had done. But the glove factory closed, working-class jobs collapsed and unskilled laborers found themselves competing with immigrants.

There aren’t ideal solutions, but some evidence suggests that we need more social policy, not less. Early childhood education can support kids being raised by struggling single parents. Treating drug offenders is far cheaper than incarcerating them.

Meth labs came to my neck of the woods some years ago. Meth, as Joe Bageant points out is the redneck's heroin. But instead of confronting the problems these people face, when good-paying jobs in the form of stable industry and financial aid for further education is cut, many on the Progressive Left either ignore these people or make them the butt of late-night comedians' jokes. (Yes, I'm talking about you, Bill Maher.)

The pejorative image of the Deliveranceland stereotypical redneck with the pick-up, complete with gun rack and Confederate flag, is a thing to be studiously avoided by many amongst the highest echelon of the Democratic Party, and those who seek to speak to and with these people, like Howard Dean in 2004, are considered to be embarking on a hopeless quest. Some Democratic strategists even favour giving up the South entirely.

It might do for the elites of the Democratic party to remember that, with the exception of Roosevelt and Kennedy, every Democratic President of the 20th Century was a Southerner, and all came from this scrappy, poor white working class bunch of Scots-Irish rejects, sons of these hell-raisers who scrubbed themselves up and pulled themselves up by their rural bootstraps to gain elected entrance to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. When push comes to shove, Democrats elect the sons of the rural poor to the highest office in the land - and that goes for the current occupant, whose Kansan roots started out amongst the Scots-Irish settlers in the Shenandoah and Ohio Valleys, who moved West. It's obvious, too, from his tenacious grit and his quiet determination that he's inherited some of that selfsame born fighting spirit too.

If the Democratic Party believes otherwise, Barack Obama certainly asserts that we are not a nation of Red states and Blue states, but we are the United States, and he speaks for and works for the working class, both black, white and Latino, in urban and rural areas.

As Johnny Cash so forcefully says, "We're all equal under the grass, but somewhere there's a heaven for country trash" - the same country trash who were once part and parcel of the Democratic Party.

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