The Voice Of West Virginia
A reader, bless him, sent in this excellent essay from West Virginia native Jedediah Purdy, analyzing the primary election results from his home state, which voted for Trump and Sanders. Excerpts:
Many people I knew in childhood were openly racist, but in a desperate and ignorant way – not just in the sense that all such racism is ignorant, but because of the overwhelming whiteness of the place. In the majority of my years in public high school, not one student in my country-wide school identified as black. Race was more myth than experience. I still wonder just what the slurs that people used against absent others meant to them.
What mattered concretely there was class. The gradations were small, but so much turned on them. The middle class, such as it was, encompassed teachers and a handful of professionals and county bureaucrats. There was a respectable working class, with regular jobs as gas-well tenders, welders, loggers, secretaries, and school-bus drivers. Many of these men “worked away” building pipelines. And there were single mothers on welfare, dads on disability, drunks and addicts. I never saw or heard of the parents of the small brood of lookalike children who would emerge, unwashed, from a trailer near the back of one hollows to ride my bus to school.
There was a democratic spirit among kids until adolescence, at least at the poor and entirely rural elementary school where I sometimes attended classes, dances, and fairs, and where some of my friends and Little League teammates went. After that, though, it might as well have been a caste system. Even bright kids from poor families were put in their place, with slights from teachers as well as classmates. One of the few truly dedicated teachers I met there once looked at one of the smarter students in the class, child of a single mother who lived in a shack down a hollow, and remarked quietly to me, “He is very dirty.” A year later, that student was one of the untouchables who lurked on the periphery of the school during breaks and banded together so as not to be harassed. It was as if his caste status had risen up to consume his promise. When people talk about identity being socially constructed, I think of him: the construction is often through the infliction of wounds, until the hurt person cannot forget who he is supposed to be. People know their place because they have been put in it until it feels natural. Class is not just something impersonal, which you are born into; it is something that is done to you until it takes hold.
I voted for Bernie Sanders in North Carolina, but I can’t pretend that his fifteen-point victory in my home state is an embrace of his Scandinavian-style democratic socialism. Plenty of ancestral Democrats and alienated Independents who will likely support Trump in the fall voted for Sanders because he isn’t Hillary Clinton. But it isn’t as simple as that, either. Obama carried my little home district, nearly all white and very poor, in the general elections of 2008 and 2012. In my home county tonight, Sanders won 693 votes – 431 more than Clinton, but also 213 more than Trump.
West Virginia is neither a secret socialist stronghold nor a racist fever-dream. It is one of several bleeding edges of a sharply unequal country, where people who never had much are feeling as pressed as they can remember ever being. Some are bigots. Many are not. Some, no doubt, find that Trump’s cocktail of arrogance and disgust, grievance and triumphalism, reassuringly resembles their own psychic survival strategies, blown up into world-historical dimensions. Others are voting for the socialist for the same reason they voted for the Chicago community organizer: a desire for a more equal society, born out of the lived experience of inequality. Maybe future organizing and leadership, like the decades-long fight that first built the unions and the Democratic party in the coalfields, will show that they are not alone in that.
Finishing it reminded me of this tweet today from Freddie deBoer, who is an actual old-fashioned socialist:
This is open contempt of the majority of poor people by someone who thinks of himself as on the left. https://t.co/buHAB1ZK79
— Freddie deBoer (@freddiedeboer) May 11, 2016
To steal and update a line for Wendell Berry: if you are an American liberal, you can say anything you want about poor white people, as long as you support the right of a lady with a penis to use the women’s bathroom.
When I was looking for a photo with which to illustrate this post, all the stock photos from Shutterstock, under the search term “West Virginia,” were bland landscapes. I added “poverty” to the search, but came up with nothing. To test something, I typed in the word “hillbilly,” which I understand is taken as a slur in Appalachia; I wanted to see if the service had anything tagged under that term. There were lots of images like the one you see above. Type in “ghetto thug” in a Shutterstock search, and you get a lot of images of African-Americans looking very tough and street, but nothing that makes fun of them. Not remotely like this.
A small thing, but it tells us something, I think, about the class contempt the mainstream has for poor white people.
UPDATE: Great comment from reader VikingLS:
I got some criticism for saying this before, but I stand by it. I lived in West Virginia for 3 years and Russia for 5 and there are some real similarities.
Both have some people who are astronomically wealthy, a lot of people who are grindingly poor, and a middle class that is pretty comfortable but isn’t sure what the future holds for their kids. Both also have a culture of corruption that is taken for granted.
Let’s start with Russia. Dimitri is middle management in a bank and lives in Moscow. He’s got a Russian made Ford (yes Russian made) lives 5 metro stops from the center and has a country house outside the city where he goes on the weekends to relax and tend to his garden. He’s got two kids in their teens that he’s got in a good school and has them taking English lessons after school three times a week. He’s got a good life, but he’s also not sure how to pass that life on to his kids.
Now let’s look at Mitch. Mitch is a bank branch manager in St. Alban’s WV. He also has two kids, they’re in public school because there isn’t really an alternative. (He went to Saint Alban’s High too, but he’s a little worried about the safety of the school now, not because of social progressives, but because of drugs) Mitch has a nice house just outside of town, 15 partially wooded acres, two horses he got for his daughter (she never rides them anymore but she cries every time he suggests selling them, so he pays the feed and vet bills) and a nice pond he had built that is teeming with bluegill. He has a good life. He also has no idea how his kids are going to have that kind of life.
Now Mitch and Dimitri have a similar problem. They don’t need to get up and go, odds are any move would make their material situation worse. They also know their kids might be better off elsewhere materially, but would also be both so far away they would rarely see them and would be in a place where they’d face prejudice simply because of where they were born and their accents.
They also, oddly enough, have to worry about Washington killing the economy their comfortable life depends on in the name of some higher good.
Neither Dimitri nor Mitch is going to be very interesting to a journalist and probably would have the opportunity to meet one. (The reporter is talking to people they stop on the sidewalk or government officials. Mitch and Dimitri both drive and are in the private sector. )
Thus they are left out of the story and nobody understands why a Putin or a Bush get votes from these places where everybody seems to be poor other than an ignorant, racist, electorate.