Do Deplorables Really Deserve It?

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.

 

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Haven Pell

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Without hesitation, Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

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  • Good story and thanks for returning to write again. I guess I’ll put Arkansas on my list of must visit.

  • Haven,
    Thoroughly enjoyed this piece and thrilled it’s not about Washington politics!
    Never did say what was served for dinner 🥘…

  • “And often if I even cared” seems to be the heart of all politics of late.
    The “same old” faces and ideas wear our interest down
    Many folk champion term limits. But I believe all areas should vote for whom they wish.
    But maybe constricting the money flows would self-limit some – No pensions, no perks/subsidies, refused K St membership.
    Return to temporary citizen legislators that pay their own freight, then go home to a real job.
    Maybe an extended sojourn (year+) in Flyover country would be good attitude adjustment for you!
    We’re a year in South Carolina and of so different a societal outlook among natives and even Yankee ex-pats

  • Haven, I enjoyed reading this, so many prongs of thought here. Thanks for sharing. I thought you were going to discuss the deliciousness of raccoon thighs or something of the like, and, with an interesting sauce.
    I’m glad it did not get into that kind of detail on the culinary side.

    • Raccoon is a tradition in Gillett more than a culinary delight. It is definitely available as a choice but, fortunately, there are others like ribs and chicken. The Coon Supper does not seek Michelin star ratings and that is definitely good expectation management.

      I tried raccoon and probably would not do so again. Even the bone structure seemed unusual.

      Good for my new Gillett friends for keeping the tradition alive.

  • Good one Haven Keep it up. You can for sure be sure that name calling and misjudging others, looking down your nose and disrespecting others who are different and may have better values and more humanity is low level stuff and one of the reasons the election went the way it did. Let’s hope it continues and those who sneer get whipped again. Disrespect and unkindness never wins.
    If one thinks about it, whose behavior was deplorable? You know the adage – “If you spot it, you got it!!”

    Your buddy CARTER on a quick trip to Birmingham and New Orleans

  • Great to have you back in business Haven. This is a good piece- thanks for your efforts in getting it to all of us. Hope you are well !

  • Good article . Well written. I am in greater Harrisburg, Pa. about every third week. In 2016 I visited a 396 unit garden apartment complex in Enola, Pa, directly across the Susquehanna on the west shore . I counted about four dozen Trump sign stuck in the lawn in front of apartments but there were no Clinton signs. As I was about to leave I asked Greg the maintenance manager how could it be that not one person in the complex supported Clinton . His answer , verbatim:
    “ She looks down her nose at people in Cumberland County ,Pa. “ Enola ,Pa. is only a three hour drive from Times Square .

  • Good to be reading you again Haven.

    And I appreciate your change in direction. From the other side of the pond we hear so much depressing tribal guff, so it is good to read about other aspects of your great country.

  • Great column Haven!
    As one who joined you on the Coon Supper adventure, I think you captured the uniqueness of the event and the genuine support the community pours into its local schools. Even though the high school has been merged with one nearby, you can bet the children in the lower grades are receiving the benefit of a community dialed into the value of a good education.
    I look forward to another sojourn into the area to further my own education. There is much to learn on the Delta!

    • There are many more worthy expeditions in our future. The salient thing I left out of the story is that we really did eat raccoon.

  • Very Anthony Bourdain of you, Haven! In order to understand people, you have to eat their food. Glad you point out we don’t need to be force fed by either side.

  • Haven, great to have you back! Thoroughly enjoyed your article. What does racoon taste like (or was it so spiced you couldn’t tell)?
    I had not heard of kudzu (not a down-under species!). I looked it up – I wonder whether it would grow in Washington?

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Henry. I suppose raccoon tastes tough and stringy though neither of these are technically tastes. It is neither memorable nor likely to be repeated. Judging from the alternatives available I suspect it is more symbolic and it does keep the tradition alive.

      Washington has another form of kudzu known as gridlock. It is similar in that it overcomes everything in its path.

  • Good insights, Haven, as an East Coast elitist commentator it is admirable that you have come to thoughtful defense of your less well “book-learned” fellow citizens. “Deplorables” was a self-inflicted mortal wound, one that exposed a well cultivated contempt. And you have turned it into a teachable moment. Well done. As for racoon: racoon, squirrel and groundhog aren’t that bad. Not a first choice, but many in the country don’t have as many choices as you and I.