Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Fourth of July with Obama's White Nation

That's right. I spent the Fourth of July with Obama's White Nation. But it wasn't until the end of the Fifth that I knew my holiday had so much racial significance. That's when I noticed that a friend was fingering one of those Sigg water bottles that a lot of upper-middle class white people use to differentiate themselves from the masses and those polluting plastic water bottles.

As Christian Lander observes in his Salon interview, prosperous whites have made water bottles into a competitive field where they can rank each other's "whiteness."

It's all about ranking. It's essentially a contest. It used to be that bottled water was a status symbol. You drink Evian, or you drink Fiji, or what is the most expensive water. But advanced-level white people, the higher-ranking white people, realized that they were creating a lot of waste, and so they switched over to the Nalgene bottle. That also reminded them of going camping. So then they could take a stance of superiority over the people who were drinking bottled water. And then, that whole story came out about Nalgenes leaching I don't know what the exact toxin is [Bisphenol A]. So then super-advanced white people went even further and got those metal Sigg bottles, and now you have this really solid hierarchy and ranking of white people of commercial bottled water, Nalgene bottle and either the glass or metal, twist-top bottles.
That's the kind of people with whom I spent my Fourth of July and my Fifth of July, the people who are at the top of the rural Kentucky "whiteness" hierarchy of educated and prosperous professionals, business people, and teachers. All in all, the "super-advanced" white people here are nice people. They're socially aware, environmentally conscious, and sympathetic to most people around them. One guy founded a non-profit housing corporation. Another started a local coffee shop. As a group, they've been involved in food co-ops and recycling efforts. They're also up to their eyeballs in the arts and manage a storytelling festival and university folk art center as well as perform in barbershop quartets, Irish groups, jazz bands, and bluegrass groups.

There are also the markers of "advanced whiteness" that Lander talks about. The big sign of advanced whiteness in this area is little experiments in rural authenticity. "Highly advanced" white people get points for camping at the storytelling festival out at the lake. Some follow that up by traveling to other storytelling festivals and camping there as well. Others bake their own bread or learn how to play the fiddle or banjo. One guy I know brews his own beer. But the big points for rural authenticity are scored by building houses as far out in the country as possible and engaging in "toy farming" activities like keeping some chickens, taking care of "rescue dogs" from the local pound, or stabling a couple of horses. One guy started a winery. A couple people we know have combined buying houses out in the country, doing various "farm" activities, and home schooling their kids. That makes them the "whitest people of all."

These folks also get all their information from NPR. Terry Gross and Prairie Home Companion are big hits out here. The Capitol Steps too. When I point out that Prairie Home Companion is one long exercise in stereotyping rural people, my friends look like I just landed from another planet. People like to listen to classical music although they never talk about it. Several of them either no longer have television or use their tv's strictly for watching DVD's. They all have gay friends and several have black friends. As Christian Lander emphasizes, this is a way for "advanced" white people to experience their own superior tolerance and all-round ethics. With a black population of 1% however, there aren't enough black people for every advanced white person to have "one black friend."

This is what Obama's white nation, rural Kentucky style looks like. People in this group went for Obama early, held Obama get-togethers, and did some calling for Obama as well. I'm sure several kicked in some money to the Obama campaign and I saw several Obama stickers on cars and vans as we pulled into driveways and parking lots.

And we had a good time. On Friday the Fourth, Mrs. RSI and I went to a gathering at the house on Sugarloaf Mountain outside Morehead. The house was a large property that was owned by a doctor and was co-hosted by the physician, a professor at the university, and his wife. The signs of advanced whiteness were all there. The doctor is gay even though her partner wasn't there. Her property is a toy farm with a large house, a nice-looking guest house, chickens, and fifteen rescue dogs. She had a guinea fowl. The doctor herself is extremely friendly and so great with kids (she treated my daughter's broken arm once or twice) that Bill O'Reilly would probably accuse her of pedophilia. But then again, nobody like Bill O'Reilly was invited to the party.

The core of the party was the on-going music jamboree on the expansive front porch overlooking the pond. There were two or three terrific fiddlers and guitar players. A woman was on bass and they kept playing for nearly the whole time we were there. It was a highly proficient group. One of the fiddle players played a number of great solos and several people sang and sang well. But it was also an open group as a couple of less-skilled fiddle players joined in the rhythm section and the group developed a democratic feel that Barack Obama himself would have been proud of.

I think Obama would have been comfortable about the fact that nobody discussed politics. As a "post-partisan" politician, Obama believes that we all fundamentally share the same values as Americans. Certainly, the "advanced" white people at the Fourth of July gathering all shared the same values of inclusiveness, toleration, and a kind of rural authenticity. Another thing that I've noticed that is that white people in these kinds of groups are extremely averse to conflict or talking about anything "negative." Given that the war, politics, and the recession are all negatives, it feels almost rude to bring such things up in that particular company.

Not that I don't sometimes break that rule.

Besides the music, there was a tremendous amount of food--ribs, home-baked bread, salads, deserts. It was great. Mrs. RSI made her oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and there were strawberry and blueberry pies which literally looked like works of art. I get tears in my eyes just thinking about them because I'm so allergic to fruit and couldn't touch the stuff.

Mrs. RSI and I left the Fourth of July Party around 8:30 so she could study for a statistics test. But we weren't done with the holiday. Not at all. On Saturday, we went out to the country again for an event at a winery that was started by one of our friends. Mrs. RSI and I walked through the vinyard and had a moment of rural authenticity as we chased a little flock of turkeys away from the grapes. Many of the people who came to the wine store had also helped our friend pick grapes in the fall and work in the store gratis. They also purchase significant amounts of pretty good wine and we snatched up three bottles ourselves.

A local blues band started playing as the party got started. The band was way too loud for the old ears of most of the people there (including me) and almost everybody had to go outside to enjoy the covers of Elmore James and Allman Brothers songs. There weren't any complaints though. Most people there knew the parents of the guys in the band, were glad to see them thrashing away on their guitars and drums, and got nostalgic over hearing bands like that when they were kids. I know I was.

And finally it was over.

The Rowan County chapter of Obama's white nation was happy, well-fed, highly entertained, and ready for the rest of the summer.


CBL said...

It's interesting that you should bring up the Lander phenomenon. I've been following his website since January, and his concept of "whiteness" pretty much describes the entire region where I live now; in fact, I thought he was actually from here and was parodying his experiences.

My experience of this upper middle class whiteness hasn't been entirely positive. There is a level of self-righteousness among them that is very unappealing; they live their lives as a moral crusade for whatever cause they happen to support, and they generally come across as, for lack of a better word, humorless. In many ways, it's a mirror image of the way conservative activists go about their causes.

Once, in a graduate seminar at UK under Herb Reid, I let it "slip" that I was from Eastern KY and the rest of the class let out a gasp, as if such a thing wasn't possible; none of the other grad students in the class at the time were from Kentucky. From then on, they treated me like I was Tarzan, an oddity, despite the fact that I could talk like them. These whites, mostly from middle class backgrounds, could only handle so much regional authenticity, I guess.

Finally, I see environmentalism displacing other forms of social activism within the white Left. It's interesting how it has subsumed almost everything it comes into contact with; over the last couple of decades, degradation of nature has been tied to the subject of women, racism, and class warfare. This has happened to the detriment of those other causes, but the march to save the Earth continues. I believe that there's still plenty of work to be done in all of those areas, and little of it has anything to do with the environment, which remains an important cause in its own right. It only seems like its the environment that gets all of the press.

Just some thoughts.

Ric Caric said...

Some of the "super-advanced white people" around here are humorless in a different kind of way. They don't have a social cause like environmentalism. But they're getting up to grandparent age and they're relentlessly and humorously supportive, admiring, and bragging about their adult children among their other projects. But they're also tremendously humorless about it all--no wry observations about their children's quirks, no hope that they'll succeed despite everything, and no fond remembrances of teenage disasters. Being in a group of these folks can sometime be painful because they're so relentless in their commitment to stay on the surface. On the other hand, they are decent people who participate in a lot of good things and support a lot of other good things. So I decided that I like them even though I don't have anything in common with them.