Last September, I wrote a story called “A Pivot or Maybe a Few.” I described a sabbatical and a change in focus. At the time, I had no idea the sabbatical would last for almost a year or that the proposed change to video and podcasting would present far more technical challenges than I could overcome. Writing and perhaps even speaking it will continue to be. Good decision happily made. Took too long though.
I also put my LibertyPell pencil down because I simply could not stand writing about the back and forth of Washington politics. I actually began to wonder if I really “knew” anything. And often if I even cared.
Several dozen daily anti-Trump diatribes in The Washington Post and The New York Times did not give me confidence that the stories were reflective of reality. The full-throated defenses of the President on Fox News felt comparably distorted. It all seemed more like click bait. Each writer or commentator had to deliver the daily dollop of partisanship that kept his readership numbers up and his audience happy.
Another motivator for the sabbatical was my low opinion of politicians, though I do love the gaffes – the more disastrous the better. In the Intergalactic Gaffe Olympics, few rank higher than the Hillary Clinton “deplorables” comment. That moment inspired the crazy idea du jour: I wanted to learn more about those whom coastal elites seem to disdain.
My question was simple: Do the supposed “deplorables” really deserve it?
My experience suggested that the answer was a definitive “no.” In 1974, I left a lifetime on the East Coast to practice law in Omaha, Nebraska. It was a great place to live and, more importantly, a wonderful start to a marriage.
One of the takeaways from that five-year period, however, was the observation that Midwesterners were far more curious about residents of the coasts than vice versa. For several years I had a contest with a friend, who had moved from Boston to Houston, to see which person in our East Coast hometown would say the stupidest thing when we returned to our roots for Christmas.
He won, when a Boston Brahmin said, “Oh, I thought you were out of the Marine Corps” upon being told he lived in Houston. I have no recollection whatever of any similar comment being made about the coasts by heartlanders.
“Deplorables” seemed a continuation of that theme. Hence, I decided on some field research to figure out why disdain for whole regions and mockery of a significant percentage of the population was now acceptable.
Turns out I was not alone. The trouble with good ideas is that others tend to have them too.
James and Deborah Fallows have just published “Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America.” He is a noted journalist and she is a linguist. They chose an airplane for their trip – something called a Cirrus. An airplane is the preferred travel choice when discovering the heartland because, as you might have noticed, we have a hell of a lot of heartland.
Mr. and Mrs. Fallows attach much importance to the “second question,” the one you ask after “nice to meet you, what is your name?” Mr. Fallows is a much better journalist than I and Mrs. Fallows is a linguist so their observation is logical, but I can always pinch the idea, can’t I?
In each town they visited, they sought the “what makes this town go” person. Not every town has such a leader and apparently that is the litmus test for the success or failure of a community.
Since I did not have a Cirrus airplane, I was damn sure not going to drive 100,000 miles to match the Fallows effort. Hence, I chose a visit to Arkansas, seemingly a likely source of potential deplorables and a state well known to Hillary Clinton.
The southeastern part of Arkansas is called the Delta, though I am not sure why. What I would call a delta is almost 400 miles south where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico.
I have a friend who lives in Helena. He is a friend in the way guys can have friends whom they have not seen for more than five decades. We went to boarding school together in the early 1960s. Going there was logical for me, but perhaps less so for him. He only found his way to St. Paul’s School because his father was an Episcopal minister and his mother knew the Rector. He was my host and guide.
Helena is in the Delta, and so is a small town called Gillett. I had never been to either one but, somewhere along the way, I learned that Gillett hosted an annual political soirée called the “Coon Supper.” I doubt the Gillett Farmers and Businessmen’s Club, which sponsors the event, refers to the evening as a soirée. Whatever they prefer to call it, they have been doing it for 75 years.
For me, the prospect of eating raccoon was a draw not a deterrent. I confess raccoon consumption might have been a “checklisty” kind of a thing; an experience that would have eluded most of the people I know.
But, the real draw of the trip was to find out what erudite East Coast residents are missing when they point fingers at the supposed deplorables who live in places like the Arkansas Delta.
The population of Gillett is about 686 but there were at least 1200 people sitting at long tables in the gymnasium of Gillett High School, home of the Wolves. All over the gym were orange banners celebrating athletic success, especially in football and softball. Some years ago, according to the dates on the banners, the success ended, but not because the children of Gillett lost their athletic Mojo. Rather, their school had closed.
A closed school is not symbolic of a prospering community, but what caused that?
Thanks to the meanderings of the Mississippi River, the area is extraordinarily fertile. We are talking serious farm country.
An important trend in agriculture is that it takes fewer and fewer people to grow food. When crops were planted, tended and harvested by hand, the farms were smaller and there were more people to gather in nearby towns. As automation and sophisticated equipment have replaced manual labor, there were fewer people to support the towns.
The Arkansas Delta is in economic decline and, as a result, the population is shrinking. Or maybe it is the other way around?
Shrinking population means fewer children and fewer children means fewer schools. Not surprisingly, fewer schools also means fewer teachers. Yet, the Gillett Coon Supper celebrates the achievements of teachers. The governor and one senator were there to be seen but not heard – a notably rare occurrence for politicians. The focus of the Gillett Coon Supper was on those who helped the town’s children to achieve their potential.
Along the way I have received lots of excellent advice from teachers, but what advice would I give if I were teaching the children of Gillett?
It might well be in the child’s best interest to move someplace else in search of greater opportunity, but mass outward migration would simply contribute to the decline of their community. The owner of the bed-and-breakfast at which I stayed told me that his most significant source of business was children and grandchildren returning to visit their parents. That might be better news for the innkeeper than for his community.
If I, as the fictitious teacher, told my students to stay and contribute to the rebirth of the area, what would I tell them to do? Is the Arkansas Delta to put in a bid for the second headquarters of Amazon? If so, what advantages would be offered?
In theory, the residents of the Arkansas Delta might benefit significantly from the strategy used by Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. He grabbed every possible federal facility for his state. But, the people I met did not seem to be the sort who liked receiving outside assistance. Judging from the dinner itself and the listing of local supporters, self-sufficiency is the solution of choice for any problem in Gillett.
Declining population leaves depressing results. Houses and businesses are abandoned, whereupon they fall down. Kudzu makes it worse. Entire buildings can be overcome. I did not know that kudzu turns black in the winter.
I don’t have an answer to the economic redevelopment of the Arkansas Delta but I came away with a sense of strength and determination among the people who live there. It would be easy to blame the challenges of their existence on business competition resulting from free trade and employment competition resulting from immigration. Many do, likely with some justification, but nonetheless they carry on.
A separate excursion took me to a Confederate Cemetery on top of a hill near Helena. The road was icy in the way only the South can do icy — a thin glaze over the entire surface that defies all known forms of traction. It is the same thing that causes trees to down power lines all over the South when the weather is wrong.
Two good old boys drove their pickup truck to the top of the hill and, of course, they got stuck. The owner was clearly ashamed that his vehicle was only two-wheel drive. There followed about 45 minutes of guy behavior seeking traction for the truck. Advice from bystanders like me was not going to contribute, but the conversation was interesting.
Why were they there?
They were coming to clean the gravestones and plant little flags to honor the Civil War soldiers. They had driven from Mississippi and this was but one of a series of graveyards they tended each year.
I wanted to learn why those who live near me are closed minded and wrong when they are tempted to think there is something deficient about those who do not think like us.
Hillary Clinton was the first lady of Arkansas and she should have known better.
Deplorables they are not.