Monday, November 27, 2006

Response to the Editor

Last week I wrote a response on this blog to Mr. Trejbal's editorial on his opinion that "Southwest Virginia is for haters." A few of our co-writers here asked me to re-write that and send it in as a letter to the Editor of The Roanoke Times. I have been debating whether I would for days, and finally have decided to do so. It should be said that I have always had a high respect for this publication and was quite surprised - not to find the opinions expressed - being a libertine when it comes to social politics I agreed with several of them, and being socially sensitive have wrestled with others at length. What disturbed me was the lack of tact exhibited by Mr. Trejbal, the kind of stereotyping he, I'm sure, intended to argue against. I am going to reprint my response below and ask that we all remember the first law of functioning democratic-republican politics - civility.

To Whom It May Concern:

I have long been a reader of your newspaper whenever the opportunity availed itself – since I have been in graduate school, I fear this has been more infrequently than would like. Imagine my surprise, then, when I logged into a blog I edit with several other gentlemen from Appalachia, to a large extent from Southwest Virginia, and found a link to your Editor Mr. Trejbal’s “Southwest Virginia is for haters,” editorial of November 12th.

There are a thousand ways to comment here, aren't there? I won't go into most of them, because frankly they fall so deep into the realm of stereotyping that it is maddening.

Mister Trejbal, the reason many Southwest Virginians planned on voting for a person who, frankly, I did not, was that this electoral race had what are called "issues". That's right. Issues. Everyone in America knows that if you don't reelect the incumbent senator, for instance, your state suffers in its committee placement and its funding. I know that most voting people in Appalachia know this because I have discussed it while standing in hundreds of grocery store lines, not to mention ubiquitous waiting rooms, classrooms, bars, and restaurants. Plus, like most of America, many Virginians vote on only issues that pertain to them. For people like, say, Burley tobacco farmers, that means Allen and, across the aisle, Boucher.

As for your anti-Civil War things, well, let me see. Do I support the public (read as public funding) flying of "Confederate" flag? Honestly, only in historical settings where it makes sense. Do I support everyone's right to express their private opinions publicly? Hell yes I do. It’s a free nation, and that means I have no right to not be offended by the non-vulgar expressions of my peers. And why are Americans in general, not just Southerners, obsessed with the Civil War? Because it mattered. It devastated the Southern economy and its infrastructure. More Americans (from both sides of the line) died in the Civil War than in all other American wars combined. It is the only large-scale total war fought almost completely in American borders. And, since apparently you don't remember your history, the South in general, especially the upper South, wasn't unanimously pro-rebellion. Southwest Virginia elicited pro-Union sentiments widely, much like the rest of Appalachia. Most of us who had family in the region that long ago probably had some folks wearing both colors (I know I did), and most of the folks just wanted it to end. That's called trauma, Mr. Trejbal. It is the same reason Hungarians still celebrate the fact that they didn't all die at the hands of the Mongol invasion, why Scottish still talk about secession, why the Chinese are still touchy on Taiwan, and so on. Trauma means we hand down the scars to the coming generation, because they matter.

Also, flying a flag or spending a few weeks a year re-enacting hardly counts as "fixation." On the other hand, constantly thinking about people flying a flag or re-enacting might constitute just such an obsession - you know, like the American mass media often does.

I won't discuss the flaws of gay marriage ban, because frankly, I don't believe that the government should be involved in marriage at all, except guaranteeing that it is entered into freely by consenting adults as a civil contract - otherwise it is none of my business. All I'll say is, sure, I disagree with a lot of folks on that, but I also disagree with most of the United States on it too, so quit insinuating it is "just our problem." The disagreements, and that’s what they are, so let’s quit using “hater” hyperbole, on this issue are found in every state in the Union, including, Mr. Trejbal, those states that agree with your political stance.

And guns? Well, we like guns. It is a fact. We hunt in Appalachia - not everyone, but many of us. And for some, but by no means all of us, it’s a matter of having a better life. Remember how there is a high level of poverty here? Hunting is an inexpensive way of radically improving someone’s diet very quickly and, frankly, in a way that is healthier than government sponsored food programs usually are. Also, we're neurotic. That's right. We're nearly as neurotic as folks like Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, all of whom knew that guns play an essential role in constraining government decision-making over very long periods of time. The way I explain it to my students, Mr. Trejbal, is that I support the ACLU because it takes the widest possible stance on the First Amendment - restricting freedoms, even by funding religious initiatives, is always problematic. Following the same argument, I argue for the widest possible interpretation of the Second Amendment - because once you start down the nitpicking road, it is awfully hard to stop. There are costs implicit in wide-interpretation of both, but there are costs to all things that are politically advantageous, aren't there?

Southwest Virginia is not for haters. Are there lots of folks who disagree with your politics, and frankly my own? Sure there are. And most of them will disagree with you or I in the most friendly method possible. But when you alienate good people by insinuating that they are conservative because they "hate" or because they are ignorant, well, you alienate and you isolate. Perhaps some subtlety is in order, rather than tactlessness that makes you sound pretentious and calls to mind, in us gun-toting, civil war-remembering hicks, carpetbaggers. Oh yeah, they had good ideas, and they had all the influence, but by being insultingly aloof and pretentious they aggravated social, political, and economic divisions, rather than allaying them. And this is from a man who believes that Kentucky-born, hillbilly Mr. Lincoln was the greatest president who ever served our Union.

Disagreement is not always hatred, Mr. Trejbal.

Eric Drummond Smith

Knoxville, Tennessee

Mr. Trejbal, when you're in a position of influence, you can use that in a way that actually convinces others (or at least presents valid points) or you can alienate through presumption and tactlessness. Please remember that, and the best of luck to you.

1 comment:

cechols said...

Good on you, Smith.

I hope you included a link to the site.