Although, I am an agoraphobic, reluctant traveler, I decided to go on a reconnaissance mission to another planet -- Kentucky. If you recall the U.S. map on election night, the garland of blue across the top and northern flanks, then the heartland, expanded, overworked, massively enlarged. After the results of that night, those of us living in the biosphere of New England have been forced to open a window and look out:
What the heck is going on out there?
Did somebody mess with Texas?
Are you mad because we call you the fly-over people?
Kentucky is my home state. The rich food and rich culture fuel the most intimate mechanisms of my psyche. I go home as often as I can to replenish, gathering in experiences. I savor them through the New England winter like the honey bell oranges my father and I used to buy from a truck in the Kroger parking lot on Christmas Eve. The oranges had been picked ripe that morning and trucked up from Florida, their sunny flesh bursting with juice.
Southern language is as rich as its culture, full of euphemism, intricate manners and code; its accents, timing, phrasing and shades of meaning almost infinitely complex. If I’m out of practice, I lose my knack. One miscue in my tone of voice and I can come off insulting or insincere. Like any living language, Southern speech changes and evolves. If I’ve been gone too long, I have to listen hard to catch up. There are 120 counties in Kentucky; a listener with good ear can tell you which county you’re from.
In the stunned days after the election, pundits flooded national media theorizing about all that red. One hypothesis blamed abortion and gay marriage. Turns out, that false inference was based on a multiple choice question which included moral values. The theory was discredited when individuals began to articulate exactly what those values were. Obviously, every voter in the country chose based on moral values.
Speculation spewed forth.
--Southerners like Bush because he’s a redneck cowboy like them…
--Southerners think Kerry is part of the effete elite…
--Southerners are Hawks…
So, unlike John Kerry, I went there. I packed my lagoon-blue Jetta and, accompanied by my Himilayan cat, Savannah May, drove the 1,000 miles to my old Kentucky home.
I asked people who they voted for and why. So, anecdotally, non-scientifically, non-double blindedly, here is what I found:
The reason folks voted as they did are as multiple and various as the culture.
There are 120 counties in my state, thousands of people in those counties. These people are divided within social classes, within their families, even within themselves.
I have an aunt who went to the polls to vote for one candidate and voted for the other. She took the election very seriously, but when I asked her why she switched at the last minute, she replied with consternation,
“I don’t know.”
I interviewed a former exotic dancer, now turned evangelical Christian. Kerry supporter. Her church welcomes open homosexuals into their congregation.
I spoke to several Sierra Club members, an openly gay minister, an enclave of left-thinking writers, who actively canvassed for the Democrats based on their desire to protect the environment, civil liberties, the arts.
One farmer said he voted for Bush because of the estate taxes, while another, who voted for Bush in the last election, said he voted for Kerry this time around because he is “not completely uninformed.”
When I playfully accused one farmer of voting Republican, he replied in low-key Clint Eastwood whisper,
“Now, you may not have done all your homework.”
I talked at length with a lesbian couple who had recently celebrated their 17th Anniversary. They had spent the months leading up to the election canvassing door-to-door to defeat the marriage amendment. With their friends, they helped raise the NO BAN vote dramatically in their county.
At the annual Christmas dinner, thirty or so members of my mother’s extended family participated in a candle-lighting ceremony. Among those gathered -- my Uncle, a member of George Bush’s inauguration committee/ his daughter, a Washington attorney who flew to Arizona to work for the Kerry campaign/ my cousin, a corporate businessman with dollar signs in his eyes who was very pleased by the election results/ an unemployed uncle/ a cousin who cares about nothing except UK basketball/ an aunt who is a visual artist furious about the rampant government spending while cutting funding for the arts. Our host closed the prayer with a blessing for the troops fighting for “freedom.”
The mood was jovial that night, but by New Year’s Eve, our manners had flagged. I ended up in a fight with two of my uncles, one of whom called me a fool and stormed out, slamming the door of my grandmother’s house where I’d spent most of my childhood. I opened the door and yelled, “We’ll never understand each if we don’t listen.” I then added, and this was uncalled for, “Why don’t you turn off the sports channel and read a decent newspaper?” When I closed the door, my other uncle lit into me, attacking me personally for nearly an hour while his wife silently looked on. We had veered from a political discussion, to a disturbing repetition of the pathology in my familyæ strong women who marry weak men whose egos they protect. I had broken a code, questioned the men. I was alone.
At another gathering, I found myself in a stand-up argument with my best friend from high school. “Do you really believe what you’re saying?” she asked me incredulous. When I asked her the same question, I saw the realization spread over her face. “Well, yes I do,” she said. If she believed, then I must, too.
I learned that the liberals I talked to in Kentucky are far more left than any liberals I know in New England.
My own mother reminds me of Shirley Chisholm, unbought and unbossed. Yet, I find her list of favorites, which include Dennis Kucinich, Jerry Falwell, the Ayatollah Khomeni completely mind-boggling.
I found a total of one person who said they actually liked Bush.
I found no one who just loved Kerry.
Within my tiny sample, I found only one person who didn’t vote.
“It don’t make no difference,” he explained. “If I had of voted, it would have been for the other guy.”
Despite the complexity and inner conflict, these folks did their best with the two choices they had. Kentucky is a state which recently lost its price support for raising tobacco. Many who do not live there applaud this ruling, with a shallow understanding of the history behind it and how many farmers will lose their land because of it.
From my travels, I observe that the people of Kentucky are engaged in a bloodless (so far) civil war.
I have no firsthand info on what’s going on in Georgia or Arizona. If you live in California or Connecticut, you can’t see all the way to Arkansas. You can’t see what a factory worker, a farmer, a day laborer faces in her daily life. You can’t hear the music in their voices, you can’t smell the barbecue. If you want to know first hand, I encourage you to go on your own scouting mission. I recommend you ask. I recommend you listen.
We can read our newspaper and ricochet around cyberspace, but let’s trust your own eyes too, these sources may not be independent, and they may not have done their homework.