The seemingly hateful values that many working class people display when it comes to sexuality and race are not rooted in any inherent malevolence. The Vietnam veteran who once loved to play folk guitar on the porch at night did not mutate into the iron heart he is today of his own volition. Nam did part of it: the increasing brutality of the American workplace and being pitted against every other working American did most of the rest. He was strong enough to beat heroin but no match against the increasing meanness at the heart of our republic, for which his youth was vaporized in the face of war. The tide of our national meanness rises incrementally, one brutalizing experience at a time, inside one person at a time in a chain of working-class Americans stretching back for decades. Back to the terror-filled 19-year-old girl from Weirton, West Virginia, who patrols the sweat-smelling halls of one of the empire’s far-flung prisons at midnight. Back to my neighbor’s 80-year-old father, who remembers getting paid $2 apiece for literally cracking open the heads of union organizers at our textile and sewing mills during the days of Virginia’s Byrd political machine. (It was the Depression and the old man needed the money to support his family.) The brutal way in which America’s hardest-working folks historically were forced to internalize the values of a gangster capitalist class continues to elude the left, which, with few exceptions, understands not a thing about how this political and economic system has hammered the humanity out of ordinary working people.
Much of the ongoing battle for America’s soul is about healing the souls of these Americans and rousing them from the stupefying glut of commodity and spectacle. It is about making sure that they – and we – refuse to accept torture as the act of “heroes” and babies deformed by depleted uranium as the “price of freedom.” Caught up in the great self-referential hologram of imperial America, force-fed goods and hubris like fattened steers, working people like World Championship Wrestling and Confederate flags and flat-screen televisions and the idea of an American empire. (“American Empire! I like the sound of that!” they think to themselves, without even the slightest idea what it means historically.) “The people” doing our hardest work and fighting our wars are not altruistic and probably never were. They don’t give a rat’s bunghole about the world’s poor or the planet or animals or anything else. Not really. “The people” like cheap gas. They like chasing post-Thanksgiving Day Christmas sales. And if fascism comes, they will like that too if the cost of gas isn’t too high and Comcast comes through with a twenty-four-hour NFL channel.
That is the American hologram. That is the peculiar illusion we live within, the illusion that holds us together, makes us alike, yet tells each of us we are unique. And it will remain in force until the whole shiteree comes down around our heads. Working people do not deny reality. They create it from the depths of their perverse ignorance, even as the so-called left speaks in non sequiturs and wonders why it cannot gain any political traction. Meanwhile, for the people, it is football and NASCAR and a republic free from married queers and trigger locks on guns. That’s what they voted for – an armed and moral republic. And that’s what we get when we stand by and watch the humanity get hammered out of our fellow citizens, letting them be worked cheap and farmed like a human crop for profit.
Genuine moral values have jack to do with politics. But in an obsessively religious nation, values remain the most effective smoke screen for larceny by the rich and hatred and fear by the rest. What Christians and so many quiet, ordinary Americans were voting for in the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 was fear of human beings culturally unlike themselves, particularly gays and lesbians and Muslims and other non-Christians. That’s why in eleven states Republicans got constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage on the ballot. In nine of them the bill passed easily. It was always about fearing and, in the worst cases, hating “the other.”
Being a southerner, I have hated in my lifetime. I can remember schoolyard discussions of supposed “nigger knifing” of white boys at night and such. And like most people over fifty, it shows in my face, because by that age we have the faces we deserve. Likewise I have seen hate in others and know it when I see it. And I am seeing more of it now than ever before in my lifetime, which is saying something considering that I grew up down here during the Jim Crow era. Fanned and nurtured by neoconservative elements, the hate is every bit equal to the kind I saw in my people during those violent years. Irrational. Deeply rooted. Based on inchoate fears.
The fear is particularly prevalent in the middle and upper-middle classes here, the very ones most openly vehement about being against using the words nigger and fuck. They are what passes for educated people in a place like Winchester [Virginia]. You can smell their fear. Fear of losing their advantages and money. Fear there won’t be enough time to grab and stash enough geet to keep themselves and their offspring in Chardonnay and farting through silk for the next fifty years. So they keep the lie machinery and the smoke generators cranking full blast as long as possible, hoping to elect another one of their own kind to the White House – Democratic or Republican, it doesn’t matter so long as they keep the scam going.
Cartoon by Tom Tomorrow (1991)