Consider the source

In Sunday’s Los Angeles Times Peter Wallsten writes a pretty interesting article concerning the difficulties Barack Obama’s campaign is having in the coal-mining Appalachian regions of Virginia, normally a Democratic stronghold due to the heavy union presence. And yeah, it’s pretty much because he’s black and has a funny name. What’s causing a firestorm of outrage in the blogging world (and possibly spawned the article) is a column written by Bobby May, the Republican party treasurer for Buchanan County, Virginia and the county’s “representative on McCain’s Virginia leadership team” per the article. The column was, at least it appears to me, intended as a spoof but the attempted humor was way too heavy-handed. That isn’t stopping the blogosphere from flailing all over themselves screeching that May is a racist and needs to be sued for libel.

One thing that has almost always annoyed me about political blogs-including the big guns like the Huffington Post and Pandagon-is that pretty much all of the writers complain that the other side is “out of touch” with the American public … while totally ignoring the fact that they are as well. They pander to their own audiences, almost uniformly made up of white middle class people who are usually college graduates, people who have never had to worry about where the next meal is coming from, people with white-collar office jobs. These people have never been to a place like Buchanan County, Virginia, a county where 23% of the population, which is about 27,000, is below the poverty line and where the median income for a household is about $22,000. The term “limosuine liberal” is never more apparent than in the blogosphere. If they do come from the flyover zones, as Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon does, they scurry to distance themselves from their yokel pasts with hipper-than-thou statements about how dumb the locals are.

I have seen both ends of the economic spectrum. I grew up a middle-class kid in a farm town in New Jersey that turned into a upper-class suburb by the time I was in junior high. I went to school with kids who acted like summer vacations in Europe were like going down the shore and bitched if their parents got them a new Camaro instead of the Trans Am they wanted for their seventeenth birthday (that’s the minimum driving age in NJ) and got nose jobs over the winter break. When my fortunes took a severe downturn in the 1990s I found myself in Kentucky. Where I lived was fairly “civilized”-about twenty-five miles south of Lexington-but if you went farther south or east it was an eye-opener. There were generations who had never left their counties, for whom a trip to the new Wal-Mart Supercenter was like walking into Disneyland, their eyes wide with wonder. The local high school football team was dissected and discussed like the New England Patriots, and businesses and schools would shut down if the University of Kentucky basketball team did well. The local newspaper printed Bible verses, and not tucked away either. I learned quickly that the best time to shop was between nine and eleven on a Sunday morning or between seven and nine on a Wednesday night because everyone was at church. I also learned that when you do not go to church it’s quickly noticed, since churches also act as social groups. They are suspicious of strangers, to the point that there were people who’d lived there twenty years but were still referred to as being from wherever they’d come from. And it is almost uniformly lily-white, save for the Mexicans who help bring in the tobacco harvest in the fall. Barack Obama, with his exotic name and looks, is not “one of them.” He’s excellent at speaking at the level of his audience without condescending, but his skin color makes a difference. Perhaps if his name was Joe Smith he’d stand a better chance, but with the added bonus of his middle name-one that instantly screams TERRORIST to those who have never even met a Catholic-he has a long hill to climb.

I have no doubt that one of the reasons John McCain chose Sarah Palin is her folksy twangy “you betcha” way of speaking. I also have no doubt that Sarah Palin would be completely embraced by those in Buchanan County and places like it. She could sit on the porch a spell, shelling peas or snapping beans and talking about the candidates for homecoming queen or if the team can make it to the county championship. She ACTS like one of them, so they feel comfortable with her.

The tiny local papers let their columnists get away with stuff that the New York Times would have diversity meetings about with the writer. I was reminded of a local columnist who spoke of a gentleman who was trying to get some financial courses set up at the local high school and wrote in all seriousness “he is a caring and giving gentleman for all that he’s a Jew.” It was meant as a compliment, but the guy in question (a newcomer like me) was understandably not flattered. He was also asked if he had his hook nose fixed-again, in the asker’s mind a completely legitimate question. He didn’t stay around long. But it’s rare that such is meant maliciously. Such people are almost childlike in their curiosity. I myself was once asked if I were a lesbian since I was unmarried, in my late twenties, and had no kids. The questioner, a middle-aged woman who I found out later became a grandmother before she was thirty, was genuinely curious. In her world, women were routinely married in their teens.

I’m not trying to portray rural people as backwoods yokels. Very few that I dealt with were assholes. Once I caught a pretty nasty case of flu and was stuck at home, but I had a constant parade of people checking up on me, offering to do my laundry and feed the cat, bringing me enough food so I didn’t have to shop for a month (and all good yummy southern stuff too). I also found myself doing the same for others. I never preached or talked down to them but simply lived my life and answered questions, and to flatter myself I like to think that maybe some I met think a bit differently now because I didn’t go OMFG REDNECK when asked if I knew Jerry Seinfeld because New Jersey was so close to New York.