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Turning Red

Shenandoah Diarist

Provinciality cuts both ways. I know this because, twice a week, I commute from western Virginia, in the heart of red America, to Washington, D.C., one of the bluest spots on the map. The trip takes three hours in both directions, brief as far as interplanetary travel goes. But the drive home illuminates plenty of cultural terrain. It usually begins at The New Republic, where I regale my soft-handed colleagues with tales of pastoral life--the sumptuousness of chicken-fried steak; the hand-dug well that pumps the occasional tadpole into my sink; the subcontractors whom I routinely discover drinking beer in my bathtub. Their mirror image, most of us at TNR attended the same schools, respond to the same cultural cues, incline toward the same brand of liberal politics, eat the same ethnic foods. Most of us hail from Minsk, a few from Pinsk. If you wanted to paint TNR’s staff, the Benjamin Moore chart would recommend a cobalt blue.

Driving down 21st Street NW EN route to the highway reveals more evidence of blue-stateness--a George Washington University student protesting something or other; World Bank types mumbling into their cell phone headsets; a shiny BMW with doctor’s tags. After about 15 miles on Route 66, the Metro line by the side of the highway ends and things get more purple. Once you get past the exit to Middleburg--Jackie O horse country--faded JOHN KERRY bumper stickers become SUPPORT OUR TROOPS bumper stickers, and the landscape quickly turns red. About 70 miles out, I follow a two-lane road for five miles, and then a one-lane road through the woods for another 25. The forest gives way to cleared pasture land bordered by lush, blue-green mountains. Then come the billboards--GOD BLESS AMERICA, JESUS LOVES YOU, and a sign that I’d only read about in history books but long dreamt of: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT. I am home.

I have gone native, yet the country whose folkways and allure have seduced me is not Yemen or Nicaragua, but America-- or, for those who still quibble that we are all Americans, red America. No Tanglewood here, not even summer stock. Just pristine expanses, crystal streams, and deep Southern accents. Whereas a year ago the locals regarded me as an anthropological curiosity, today I’m part of the landscape. No one pinches my fiancée anymore; no one charges me $500 to change the oil in my car; cops no longer pull me over for fun. At the country diner, where convertible-driving visitors from blue America occasionally wander in, I even join in the chorus of “goddamn tourists,” when, invariably, the weekenders flee the cigarette smoke and iceberg lettuce.

The idealization of rural life, although no less pernicious than the Marxist indictment of the idiocy of rural life, is a well-chronicled malady. And the urban exiles that preceded my own exit to Eden make up a pretty sorry bunch. The German Romantics certainly made a hash of things. Closer to home, the legions of students who returned to the land in the 1960s made a hash of things, too--or, more exactly, rural life made a hash of them. As Eleanor Agnew recounts in her memoir, Back From the Land, holistic health care and poverty added up to a big bummer, dooming the bucolic counterculture. As for the latest demographic to make the pilgrimage, consisting mostly of retirees from the exurbs, they’re considerably saner than their predecessors. But no less invasive.

Being conservative to begin with, the “implants,” as locals call them, haven’t inflicted on western Virginia the sort of cultural depredations to which, say, New Yorkers bearing pottery wheels subjected Vermont. Nonetheless, their wealth has brought friction to this very poor town. Land is a farmer’s 401(k), and farmers in the area have been cashing in, selling their farms to developers who erect McMansions in their place. The trend frightens me, because I’m following in the footsteps of an uncle who left the city for a nineteenth-century farmhouse on a gorgeous piece of land. He and it now sit squarely in the middle of a commercial parking lot. Here, too, the planning commission has become embroiled in a fight over zoning ordinances, and my neighbors whisper about “outside interests” and men from the “city” influencing the town’s power brokers. It’s like living in Deadwood.

Why would nearly all of the residents of a town where the battle lines have been drawn around economic issues--in addition to the wealth gap between locals and implants, the county has endured several plant closings and a nearby Wal-Mart that shuttered much of Main Street--favor Republican politicians who represent these same outside forces? The paradox frustrates the organization Retro vs. Metro America, whose advertising campaign, funded by a billionaire who tried to clone his dog, bought up so much newspaper space during the run-up to last year’s presidential election. “In voting for George Bush,” the group revealed, “religious Americans were duped into voting against their best interests.” The complaint amounts to a coarse echo of Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter With Kansas? Nothing that isn’t the matter with Kalorama.

Is it really necessary to point out to residents of that and other wealthy, urban enclaves that casting a vote that transcends selfish interests is one of the hallmarks of a mature democracy? In voting so overwhelmingly Democratic, aren’t they doing the same? Not everything, after all, boils down to economics. In my hometown, a once-thriving capital of bluegrass, the same cultural pollution that hangs over even the smallest U.S. towns clogs airwaves, movie theaters, and magazine stands alike. The drug trade has become ubiquitous, much of it sponsored by the same Central American gangs that dumped the body of a young woman under a wooden covered bridge on the bank of the nearby Shenandoah River. Most of all, my neighbors cling to a conception of the public good that threatens not only their piggy banks but their very lives. Dozens of them are serving, willingly and proudly, in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the breadth of their civic attachments, it seems to me that they, more than most of their critics, most faithfully embody the American ideal. That, and the meadow outside my window, is enough to justify six hours on the highway--at least until the highway runs through my living room.