‘Rednecks’ And The Two Randys
This is an anecdote, nothing more. But I think it says something about where we are in this culture.
This morning, our air conditioner repairman came over to fix our clunky system. We’ve used Jackie (as I’ll call him) before for various heating and cooling issues. Really nice guy — works hard and well. I have mad respect for a man who will climb up into a Louisiana attic in summer. Jackie does it all day, every day, all over this city.
After he finished, we stood on the front steps talking. I told him that I had just gotten back from Poland, and had learned a lot about what Poland had been through in the Second World War. I showed him my Auschwitz photos, and talked about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Jackie said that he had been reading a lot about the war lately, and watching documentaries. We think we have things so hard today, he said, but we have no idea about how much people suffer.
We briefly spoke about contemporary American politics. Jackie said something — how to put this? — strongly uncomplimentary about the Squad (AOC and her three cohorts). A word you wouldn’t hear in church might have been used. Then he went on to tell me about a Vietnam veteran he knows who is the hardest worker he’s ever seen. Old man is 70 years old, and can outwork anybody, said the repairman. Jackie told a story about how the guy is a total badass, and how he (the repairman) saw the old guy a few years back sawing limbs off a tree, hanging from a harness high up in the crown. The old guy had a chainsaw in one arm, and was clearing limbs with the other. An amazing thing, said the repairman.
“I wouldn’t go at him unless I had a 12-gauge,” Jackie laughed.
Then we shook hands, and he went off to do his next job. A few minutes later, I got into my car and drove off to pick up one of my kids. As I pulled out of my driveway, the public radio interview show Fresh Airwas finishing up on the car radio. It’s earnestly liberal to an almost comic degree. Host Terry Gross invited listeners to tune in tomorrow, and hear guest Randy Rainbow (yes, that’s his name), a gay comedian who has made a name for himself doing political satire making fun of President Trump, and who incorporates show tunes into his act.
I found myself suddenly as mad as hell. Randy Rainbow — seriously? There is no way in five thousand lifetimes that Terry Gross would have Jackie the Repairman on her show, or anybody sympathetic to his worldview (other than that time she interviewed J.D. Vance in 2016). OK, so this is not a fair comparison. Some conservative talk radio host might have a Jackie on, but never in a million years host a Randy Rainbow figure. I get that. My point, though, is that our mainstream media pretty much only cares about Jackie the Repairman and the things he cares about in order to deplore them.
As I drove, the Boston-based NPR show Here And Now was next up. The host touted the stories coming up in the next half hour. One of them was a look at a gay male columnist who is calling on gay men to come out as feminists. Turns out the piece lasted nine minutes — a long time in radio. Look, I get this too: the public radio audience is more likely to be interested in gay male feminists than in the lives and concerns of middle-aged air-conditioner repairmen.
What ticks me off, though, is the lie that the mainstream media, and other leading cultural institutions, tell themselves about how interested they are in “diversity.” This is an old complaint of mine, and I won’t bore you with the details again. I’ll tell you why it stood out to me today, though — and it’s not just because of the Trump tweet saga, which I’ve already tuned out, for Tommy Kidd reasons:
Or, to put it in terms lasering in on my concerns, “We are living through the collapse of Christianity, akin to the fourth-century collapse of Roman paganism, and I can’t bring myself to sustain outrage over what President Archie Bunker tweets about four loony left Congresswomen.”
Still, I would love for the major media reporters to spend even half as much time trying to understand why people like Jackie the Repairman find the rhetoric of AOC, Ilhan Omar, and the like so infuriating, as they spend setting their hair on fire about what a racist Trump is. I just checked to see if Terry Gross had invited Chris Arnade, an actual leftist, on her program to discuss his amazing new book Dignity, which is a travelogue about his journeys among the down and out in America — including whites, blacks, and Latinos, and yes, including Trump supporters, for whom he has human sympathy, if not political sympathy.
She has not. But she’s got Randy Rainbow.
Anyway, the Jackie conversation, followed by the NPR stuff, was a bone in my throat because early this morning, I listened to this amazing new episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s great Revisionist History podcast. The entire episode is about the singer-songwriter Randy Newman, and his terrific, unsettling 1974 song “Rednecks,” the lead track from his masterpiece Good Old Boys, one of the greatest albums ever. The song is sung in the character of an Alabama steelworker. Here’s a link to the performance — I warn you, though, it’s not safe for work, because it uses the n-word. The song starts like this:
Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
With some smart ass New York Jew
And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox
And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too
Well he may be a fool but he’s our fool
If they think they’re better than him they’re wrong
So I went to the park and I took some paper along
And that’s where I made this song
Lester Maddox was the segregationist firebrand Georgia governor from 1967-1971. He was a populist Democrat who never finished high school. I’ve loved Randy Newman, and that song, for decades, but I had not realized until listening to Gladwell’s podcast that the Maddox incident cited in the song had really happened, on the Dick Cavett Show. (Cavett is not Jewish; remember, Newman, who is Jewish, was writing this song from the point of view of a working-class white man from Alabama, who might have naturally assumed that a liberal New York talk show host was Jewish).
Here’s what happened: eight minutes of Lester Maddox sharing the screen with football great Jim Brown, and eventually stalking off the stage because he believed Cavett insulted his honor.
It’s riveting TV. Maddox is an indignant redneck boob who makes a fool of himself — though his Trumpian performance controlled the screen. Guess who was watching the show that night? Randy Newman. And being a superlative ironist, Newman imagined what Maddox’s humiliation on national TV might have looked like to a white Alabama steelworker.
In the song, Newman’s character repeatedly admits that Southern whites are “keeping the n–gers down.” Then he concedes:
Down here we too ignorant to realize/That the North has set the n–ger free
Yes, he’s free to be put in a cage
In Harlem in New York City
And he’s free to be put in a cage on the South-Side of Chicago
And the West Side
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland
And he’s free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston
They’re gatherin’ ’em up from miles around
Keepin’ the n–ers down
See what Newman is doing? He’s turning on the hypocrisy of Northerners, who live in cities segregated not by law, but by fact, and in effect asking them if they are scapegoating Southerners like the narrator while hiding from their own guilt.
Newman tells Gladwell that he stopped performing that song in the South when he realized that white Southern audiences were not taking it in the right spirit — that is, they were saying, “Hell yeah we’re rednecks, and proud of it!” Gladwell also observes that a song like that could not be written today. Too dangerous. Gladwell also spends some time on Newman’s even greater song about race in America, “Sail Away,” which is written in the voice of a slave trader who is trying to convince a black child in West Africa to climb aboard his ship, and sail away to paradise on the other side of the ocean. Watch an old clip of Newman performing it here. Listen closely to the lyrics. You have to listen to the Gladwell podcast to hear the story about what Bobby Darin did with this song — it’s a jaw-dropper, and very, very American.
As a thought experiment, I know well that had I, as the 52 year old man I am today, been watching Lester Maddox on TV that night, I would have laughed at what an ignoramus and a fool he was, and probably felt bad that he embarrassed the South so much. But it took a sly, 27 year old secular Jew from Los Angeles to see more deeply into that encounter on television between the bigoted Southern populist and the iconic New York liberal. To be clear, I don’t think Newman’s narrator was dinging Dick Cavett personally, but rather hitting out at the superiority of the kind of people who identify with Cavett.
That’s how I felt listening to Terry Gross and the other NPR show after listening to Jackie talk briefly about the Squad. Our media elites will fall all over themselves to defend and celebrate people like Ilhan Omar and Randy Rainbow, but guys like the middle-aged man who came down from my attic today dripping sweat, and who can’t bear people like Ilhan Omar — in the eyes of our liberal elites, they’re what’s wrong with this country.
I imagine Jackie identifies with Tucker Carlson’s monologue last week about Omar. Excerpts:
No country can survive being ruled by people who hate it. We deserve better. For all of our country’s flaws, this is still the best place in the world. Most immigrants know that and that is why they come here. It’s also why we’ve always been glad to have them here.
But now, there are signs that some people who move here from abroad don’t like this country at all. As we told you last night, one of those people now serves in our Congress.
Think about that for a minute. Our country rescued Ilhan Omar from the single poorest place on Earth. We didn’t do it for the money, we did it because we are kind people. How did she respond to the remarkable gift we gave her?
She scolded us, called us names, showered us with contempt.
He’s not wrong. Read this Washington Post profile of her. More Carlson:
It’s infuriating. More than that, it is also ominous. The United States admits more immigrants more than any other country on Earth, more than a million every year. The Democratic Party demand we increase that by and admit far more. OK, Americans like immigrants, but immigrants have got to like us back.
That’s the key, it’s essential. Otherwise, the country falls apart.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali would, by the standard of identity politics, seem to have everything in common with Ilhan Omar. She was born in Somalia, moved to Kenya and eventually came to this country. Unlike Omar, she loves and cares about the United States. She believes this country is superior to the country she came from.
For saying that, the left despises her. Two Somali immigrants, one among the most impressive people in America. The other, among the least.
It’s not about race. But, of course, Omar and her friends already know that. Nothing they say on the subject of race is sincere. It’s all the hustle designed to get them what they want. Omar has made a career of denouncing anyone and anything in her way as racist. That would include virtually all of her political and personal opponents. It includes even inanimate objects like the border wall, that’s racist. So was the Congress, so is the entire state of North Dakota, she once tweeted.
Omar may be from another country but she learned young that crying racism pays. The bigger question is, who taught her that? She didn’t arrive from a Kenyan refugee camp announcing people as bigots for a political campaign. She wasn’t always a professional victim. That is learned behavior.
Importantly, she learned it here. In some ways, the real villain in the Ilhan Omar story isn’t Omar, it is a group of our fellow Americans. Our cultural gatekeepers who stoke the resentment of new arrivals and turn them into grievance mongers like Ilhan Omar. The left did that to her, and to us.
Blame them first.
Gov. Lester Maddox really was a racist. If Donald Trump is, then he’s not a racist in remotely the same way that the segregationist Maddox was. I say that so you don’t think I’m making a one-to-one comparison between Maddox and Trump. And again, I think Trump’s “go back to where you came from” rhetoric directed at all four of the minority Congresswomen was wrong, and probably racist, and certainly politically stupid. (Had he kept it to Omar alone, it would have been much more understandable.)
Having said all that, I wonder what 27-year-old Randy Newman would make of this. (I know what Randy Rainbow would.) People like Jackie the air conditioner repairman know the kind of contempt people like Omar, Rainbow, Woke Capitalists, and the liberal media, have for them, and everything they stand for, including a certain idea of America. Donald Trump may be a fool, but he’s their fool. This point has been made about a million times since 2016, but it’s still salient.
I don’t like or respect Trump one bit, but I like and respect Jackie, and I’d rather stand with him than with Ilhan Omar, Terry Gross, and their lot, who don’t even see men and women like Jackie as anything other than bigoted rednecks — if they see them at all.
When your air conditioner is broken in the middle of July, don’t call Randy Rainbow to come fix it. Same with your country.