Take me home, country roads

  • Jon Kelly
  • 10 Oct 08, 05:04 AM GMT

CHARLESTON, WV: I picked the right time to come to West Virginia. With autumn well underway, the leafy hillsides were exploding with reds, browns and yellows. It reminded me so much of Scotland - my parents' native Perthshire in particular - that I felt a sudden, oddly reassuring, lurch of homesickness.

The Mountain State might have looked beautiful, but I'd heard what a tough place it could be in which to live. Poverty here has long been well above the national average, and median incomes well below. The scarred landscape bore testament to the legacy of coal mining which has provided hard and dangerous employment to generations.

You'd think blue-collar terrain like this would be happy hunting ground for a Democratic candidate in November, but you'd be wrong. West Virginia voted for George W Bush at the last two presidential elections, and Barack Obama was utterly crushed by Hillary Clinton in the primary here.

westvirginia203.jpgBut this state was once reliably blue. Some commentators have even suggested that Senator Obama has an Appalachian problem on his hands - a worrying inability to connect with white, working-class, rural voters.

These were exactly the people with whom I wanted to spend some time. So I hooked up with Bob and Debbie Schultz - a couple who seemed to encapsulate the political dilemmas faced by West Virginians.

On the one hand, both were on the left when it came to the pocketbook issues. Bob, 55, had been a miner and loyal member of the United Mine Workers of America until he retired with black lung disease earlier this year.

Debbie, 52, spoke proudly of West Virginia's mine wars, when workers battled with employers and the authorities for the right to organise. Like her husband, she was deeply unhappy with the Bush administration's handling of the economy.

But on the other hand, they were firmly conservative when it came to social matters. Bob had served as a pastor until his retirement, while Debbie was an accomplished gospel singer who performed in churches across the country. Both described themselves as pro-life and patriotic.

Neither of the main parties quite represented them. Despite the similarity of their views, Bob was registered as a Democrat, Debbie as a Republican. They'd both voted for George Bush in 2004, but were unhappy with the choices before them this time.

bobdebbie203.jpgI asked Bob which way he intended to cast his ballot. For Obama, he replied, but reluctantly so. He was quite clear, though, that West Virginia's scepticism about the Illinois senator had nothing to do with racial prejudice, despite what some commentators had written.

"In a mine, we're all black after the first hour," he insisted. "People are preoccupied with colour. But it seems to be working for Obama, and not against him."

However, he had been deeply unsettled by the "God Damn America" speech by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former church minister.

"He went to that church all those years, but he says he didn't know the pastor was saying those things?" Bob shook his head.

Debbie was equally disillusioned with her party. She would have voted for Hillary Clinton in the primaries, she told me, had she not been a registered Republican; instead she went for Mike Huckabee.

She wasn't sure how she would vote in November. Distrustful of Obama for the same reason as her husband, Debbie identified with Sarah Palin. But she had also grown cynical about Republican rhetoric.

"At every election, they talk about abortion. But nothing ever changes," she complained. "It's just a way to win votes."

It looked to me as though the GOP were losing their grip on people like Bob and Debbie. Whether the Democrats will win back what was once the bedrock of their support was a lot less clear, however.


  • Comment number 1.

    I'm a proud West Virginian, but it is apparent that there are many areas of the state that have more in common with the third world than the rest of the US. It's a very isolated area culturally and geographically, and I for one am ashamed that our perception by others is worsened by our poor national representation both politically and in the media. It's difficult to be a relatively progressive young college student in a state where our most prominent citizen (senator Robert Byrd) was a former klansman and an enormous pork barrel spender (everything in the state is named after him). With West Virginia having recently become a "toss-up" state in this election, maybe a little more attention will be paid to our voice and our troubles, and maybe some long-held beliefs about us will be reexamined. I hope that you enjoy your stay and that you get a real feel for the area and the people, regardless of the embarrassing stereotypes.

    P.S. You may very well be in Charles Town, but if referring to the state capital it would be CharlesTON. A bit pedantic, yes, but worth mentioning I think.

  • Comment number 2.

    West Virginia is the most beautiful state I have ever seen. The fall is the perfect time to go. One of the great things about the U.S. is the abundance of open space still left. That kind of solitude and beauty is very hard to find in Europe. While the isolation can lead to ignorance, it can also lead to self-sufficiency and a sense of freedom and inner peace.

    The cultural stigma only tells part of the story. There are good and bad people everywhere, the ones here just tend to be on the poorer side, but with a much nicer view.

  • Comment number 3.

    I'm sorry if this blog lacks relevancy to your very good piece but I have to try and post my concerns and observations about the Republicans 'smear' tactics somewhere!!

    I am a serving police officer in London and for all that I've read,heard and seen over the last few days I have to ask what the h#ll my colleagues in America are playing at?

    McCain and Palin are verging on the offence of Incitement to commit violence/murder, there manipulation, pandering and scaremongering seems designed to encourage some 'yahoo' to stop the first Muslim, Terrorist, Black president of the United States. Seriously, how thrilled must the watch commander of the Secret Service detail for Obama be that at political rallies (some almost Nazi like in their grandeur and vitriol) the crowd are screaming the things they are screaming, with Palin and McCain silent and by that action implicit?

    Mr McCain and Mrs Palin should be investigated or at the very least held to account and spoken to by law enforcement to stop this truly heinous parody of political theatre!

    US law enforcement from a a colleague in London, sort your bl##dy act out!!

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi, Jon

    You put together another very good piece. And I appreciate very much the views of Bob and Debbie Schultz, as well as those of the first two commentators.

    At the same time, I think it is important to understand history and economics. Bob's concern about the economy is very real, but the decision to vote for Obama may be misguided. FDR, a Democrat, did not get us out of the Great Depression, WWII did, unfortunately.

    If you study Obama's knowledge (or lack of understanding) of economics, you will see he is the kind of person that would support the policy of "Beggar thy Neighbor" protectionism, which prolonged the Depression.

    Please rely on reason, not just emotion when you vote.

    Best wishes

  • Comment number 5.

    As I said awhile back in another forum on this website, even though Reverend Wright has dropped out of sight, people have not forgotten or forgiven him. He caused a lot of damage to the Obama campaign, and, if Obama loses because of it, a lot of damage to the country.

  • Comment number 6.

    If Obama loses this campaign, it won't be because of Rev. Wright, or Bill Ayers, or Tony Rezko, or any of the associations he has. It will be because the McCain campaign was successful in turning a United States Senator into a foreign agent. It will be due to the shameful and cynical appeal to xenophobic and borderline-racist sentiment they are obliging. Happyhammer has it completely correct.

    The Republicans managed to do this four years ago when they attacked John Kerry's war record in Vietnam while ignoring the fact that both candidates on their own ticket did everything in their power to stay as far from Vietnam as possible. The strategy is not new, but the consequences may be catastrophic if they keep this nonsense up. I used to respect McCain and even considered voting for him. Not anymore. Not after this latest descent into the gutter.

  • Comment number 7.

    zoffenberger, thanks for your kind welcome to the state - and for correcting my spelling. I've amended the copy accordingly. Apologies!

  • Comment number 8.

    It's important to remember that so many people in America don't get the news as we understand it it the UK. For most it's just a few soundbites on local stations between important stories (like the opening of the fishing season) and radio talk shows. So most of these people missed that their evangelical leaders were saying much the same things as Rev Wright, "That America deserved this punishment from God".

    It's also interesting in a country where most people are very honest by British standards, that when it comes to advertising and politics lying is acceptable.

  • Comment number 9.

    I don't know on what basis you make this claim about the people in the US, but we are well informed about our news and most of us also recognize its bias. Although fishing season can be an important piece of information, I am quite sure that you would be hard pressed to find anybody in the country who is of voting age who hasn't been following every bit of important election news since the primaries, and i can't see how the things that some extreme evangelical leaders say is at all important here. It is a shame that Rev Wright has spoken out the way he has, but there is nothing in Obamas political history that supports the accusations of him being a follower of Rev Wright's more extreme ideas.

    I do agree however that we allow far too much lying in our politics and media, which is why i seek other sources outside our country, such as the BBC

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm originally from that area of America the beginnings of Appalachia on the " Ohio side ". Beautiful country some of the most beautiful in the world .
    I , like many of the people from the region have left . It reminds me of the diaspora that had occurred in Ireland in the 19th century .
    Shame , I hold nothing but fond memories of my youth in Southeastern Ohio ,West Virginia area changes are I will never return .
    The american dream of the last century has passed that region and chances are will never return

  • Comment number 11.

    To # 3.

    The truth might be the USA judicial, penal and juries and police systems are the best that corrupted politicians, Neo-conservatives (and Christian, at that) and the very highly corrupted corporate crooks in the country can buy.

    The "blue code of silence" practiced by the USA Police forces only means they can get away with murder. I dare say half of the nation are more scared of them than they are of the felons they are chasing. The fact is, if honest policemen/women were allowed to tell the truth about criminal police activities without the reprisals from the judicial,penal and police systems in force now, I dare say half of the unsolved murders and other criminal activities would surface.

    Is it any wonder as to why the policemen in the US Army Reserves or in the National Guard end up guarding the hidden war prison compounds throughout the world?

  • Comment number 12.

    In response to the London policeman who is outraged at the current fascist tactics of the Republican Party...

    You are right. Much of what has been happening mirrors Nazi Germany. Not only political rhetoric, but aggression against smaller countries that have done nothing to us. It has become standard practice or America to destroy other countries not because we are at war with their governments, but because we are "rooting out insurgents" or "weapons of mass destruction". The fact that the insurgents are never caught and the weapons never found should be a red flag to people that they might not exist, that there might be another agenda at work... but people here are being controlled by a relentless campaign of fear, drummed into them night and day through the mass media. To counteract the fear, they're offered the same thing as were the German people: rabid nationalism. The idea that we are so much better than everyone else, and our way of life is so superior, that we have the right to go anywhere and do anything -- so long as we say it is for democracy, or freedom, or another of the catch words that we associate with the noble founding of our great nation.

    In fact, all of this patriotic rhetoric is nothing but a mask for a terrifying intolerance, even hatred, for anything that is not part of the Christian Right's agenda -- which, mistake it not, is to control the world. Not just terrorist countries. Some will be controlled by force, some by persuasion, and some will be sold out by their own leaders... but all will be controlled by The New World Order. That Order is not democratic. It has nothing to do with the common good and everything to do with a kind of corporate feudalism in which the common man becomes a serf whose existence is suffered only because his labours support the exotic lifestyles of a tiny elite.

    I do not believe the current bank problems are a mistake. I think it is a bid for this same small elite to control all the world's money. Just as they control nearly all the world's food supply, via two seed companies, which supply nearly all farming in the industrialized world. And as they control medicine... Ask yourself: what part of your life do you control directly?...

    I asked myself that question, and here's what I arrived at: as long as I have debts, I control nothing and I am not free, because my creditors control me. They decide how and when I will repay, and their lobbyists decide what will happen to me if I can't pay. Yet our system is designed so that you can never be debt free, no matter how hard you work. Because you can't live on the planet without paying taxes.

    What are they playing at?... It seems pretty obvious. The Republicans are just being less subtle about it, but they're playing the same game everyone else is playing. They're just hoping to be the elite, instead of serving the elite.

    Can this be stopped? Sure it can! If all the common people agree to stop it and take action together, and if we're willing to persevere through the hard times that will follow. If we want to stay comfy or if it's too scary to believe this could actually happen to us, then no. It won't change. That's the irony. For whole peoples to become enslaved requires them to be complicit in the process. We have the power to change everything, but only if we have the will to give up everything to reclaim and preserve our freedom. But as long as governments can keep us distracted and divided with rhetoric like you're hearing now, as long as they can keep us from thinking about what's really happening to us or asking any really probing questions, then they can control everything.

    This cycle has repeated many times in human history... and we never seem to learn from it. It happened in Rome, in Nazi Germany, and it's happening again now. It never leads anywhere nice or comfy, but we always hope that someone else will save us from the consequences of our own inaction. We wait until it's too late to fix things using the existing process of law. Then we wait until things get so painful that we're finally willing to risk everything just to stop the pain... Then we vow never to let it happen again -- and then we forget how it happened and go back to thinking "it can't happen to us"... And so the cycle repeats. How it will end this time, is really up to each of us.


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