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15 minutes are up: Rich and north of Richmond
A hillbilly song, an elegy, and an observation
Song has a unique place in life. A song isn’t meant to be a cerebral exercise, its a mostly emotional experience that occasionally expresses coherent ideological deliberation. Which is why the “Rich Men North of Richmond” song is not as dismissible as other stories and one elegy. The latter are often found in the little libraries that litter progressive enclaves, often originally purchased by people who have never lived 100 miles from I-95. A type of voyeurism into an American experience they will never have.
Educating oneself about the lives of others can illuminate a basic level of comprehension that hopefully can lead many to find empathy. In this current moment we find the opposite. Not only do we find many people, on both political wings, expressing what can only be described as condescension it borders on revulsion. Lucidly exploited in some cases by the very types of people this song expresses disdain for.
This song reverberated loudest among the conservative base. Its vocal pleading resonating with a lot of bearded men who found meaning in lyrics expressly concerning working long hours for menial wages. Contempt for decadent politicians and their trips to private islands. This wasn’t a part of your standard summer programming. And conservative politicos have a history.
The pandering obeisance of the modern conservative cannot be overstated. Sen. Ted Cruz is supplicant to a man who stated his wife was ugly, or that his father may have killed JFK, and lastly Trump dared to give him the most accurate nickname "Lyin’ Ted”. It’s a seemingly bottomless relationship that even the most submissive bottom would describe correctly as excessive.
So, there was little shock when the rich men North of Richmond bearing the conservative designation were playing this song at the GOP (Trumpless) debate, the shock if there was any came afterward when the song’s singer, Oliver Anthony, expressed his amusement at his song being there, as these people were precisely the titular characters in his song. It seems that Mr. Anthony’s and his music may not be what people were hurtling toward:
This will make pigeonholing him much more difficult.
And on the left? Well, there may have been a time where a song largely about labor beating themselves up for little reward would have gotten significant positive attention. But, the new left’s take on this has been utterly devoid of any nuance, I can only express surprise that it hasn’t been linked to white supremacy yet. But, perhaps that’s just the limits of my time and google dork knowledge?
The linkages between this song and JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy are unmistakable. Appalachia, blue collar work, welfare. Vance’s book and beliefs are even attacked primarily along the line of incoherence. “If you don’t want your money going to the guy eating fudge rounds, why do you later complain about people having nothing to eat?”
It’s a valid complaint, but, it assumes that we live in a coherent present. I assure you, that we do not. You can insist on coherence, argue for it, sure. But, that doesn’t necessarily negate the little coherence to be found in the current moment.
And I think the animating factor of identity is a significant part of the animus of this kind of thinking. “Rust belt” didn’t sound good 30 years ago and it certainly has not been good since. A lot of these communities have simply never recovered after the big business in the area shuttered or otherwise changed location.
My observation if you will is that when you start changing the identity of people, I don’t necessarily mean the immutable characteristics, I mean the chosen identities of people. When you ask a man who he is, he’ll usually go with “ My name is ____________________, I do/work/am _________________________________.” The identity is very Aristotelian in the "we are what we repeatedly do” sense. Well, when you start affecting that, particularly in communities that are tightknit. You invite hostility.
Think about that for a moment… a massive international conglomerate took the “mill” out of MILLERSBURG.
This was on the heels of TARP, bailouts for everyone who had the pull. The banks literally had America by the balls as “too-big-to-fail” entered the lexicon. This came from the Republican party, the free market party. An incoherent approach if there ever was one.
The crux of Thomas Frank’s What’s the matter with Kansas? rested on the idea that conservatives were voting against their own economic self-interest. It appears from the resonance of this song, JD Vance’s book, and the rural experience of the last 20 years that conservatives have taken Frank’s observation to heart. Though unlike Frank’s paean to the Democratic party, they have decided to remain thoroughly apart, they care not for coherent policy when coherent policy has left them bereft of their own identity.